We’re neck-deep into preview season for Amonkhet, but there are still a ton of cards to go before we get a better picture of what the new Standard format is going to look like. As of writing this, only about 1/3 of the set has been released, including basic lands and Invocations. On top of that, many of the cards released thus far need more cards to show us what they can really do. In a lot of ways, I’m thankful to return to a time where synergy-driven cards are being put in the spotlight. Mythic rares that single-handedly dominate games aren’t really my cup of tea. But that doesn’t mean the current set of revealed cards makes my job any easier.
What I Like
For starters, cycling and Embalm both feel like great mechanics for Limited. While cycling has been around forever, it is still one of the best feel-good mechanics in Magic for making sure people actually get to play games. Plus, the random permanents that give you benefits for cycling those cards make for a very cool experience. I’m always of the mindset that giving players an extra option while making the card slightly weaker is good for business.
While cards like Astral Slide and Lightning Rift might have been just a tad much back in the day, they helped create and define formats that I look back upon fondly. And while Drake Haven might not be as powerful as either of those old-school cycling all-stars, I do think there is a high probability that it will see play.
Embalm is going to be a lot trickier to decipher. How good is the card on the front side? After all, that’s what you’re going to be paying the Embalm cost later in the game. And is the Embalm card worth it for a token copy of the exact same creature? My gut tells me that plenty of Embalm creatures are going to see Constructed play. So many Standard decks are chock-full of spot removal that it only seems natural that cards with additional “lives” would make an impact. While none of the cards revealed thus far hold a candle to Scrapheap Scrounger, I think that’s a good thing. I don’t know if anyone really wants to see more copies of Scrapheap Scrounger running around at this point.
It wasn’t that long ago that Doomed Traveler saw a lot of play in Standard, and not just in the Aristocrat-themed sacrifice decks. While Sacred Cat doesn’t produce a flying creature when it dies and costs double the mana for the second body, I could see a world where this card was good. All it takes is an Honor of the Pure or something similar to turn this kitten up a notch. While I don’t foresee Sacred Cat being a Standard staple, I do like the idea of giving weaker cards the ability to make a bigger impact on a game. A 1/1 for W with lifelink is nothing to write home about in Limited or Constructed, but giving that same card an extra life is probably worth more than anyone is giving it credit for right now.
The Aftermath cards seem fairly weak in comparison to split cards we’ve seen in the past. A lot of that is likely due to the fact that you get to cast them “twice,” but your deck needs to be able to cast both halves effectively to put one in your deck. Again, these cards seem great for Limited, but I’m not really buying into the hype just yet. I’m sure there are plenty more waiting to be previewed, but the fact that Prepare//Fight is a rare does not give me high hopes that many of these will see play in Standard.
Ousting the Top Two
One problem with formats that don’t rotate quickly is that every set or block needs to be more powerful than the last to make an impression. When you have Kaladesh block full of so many game-changers, Amonkhet is going to need some all-stars to compete. Otherwise, those cards are going to be overshadowed by what we’ve already come to know (and hate) about Standard.
While Temur Dynavolt won one of the last few Standard Grand Prix, I don’t think anyone can argue that Mardu Vehicles and Four-Color Saheeli are the two best decks in the format. One is a hyperaggressive deck that utilizes the strength of Heart of Kiran and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar to do most of the heavy lifting.
- 2 Archangel Avacyn
- 4 Thraben Inspector
- 2 Thalia, Heretic Cathar
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 4 Toolcraft Exemplar
- 2 Veteran Motorist
- 2 Walking Ballista
- 1 Ishkanah, Grafwidow
- 1 Verdurous Gearhulk
- 3 Whirler Virtuoso
- 4 Servant of the Conduit
- 3 Rogue Refiner
- 2 Walking Ballista
- 4 Felidar Guardian
The other is a Splinter Twin-style combo deck that can also play a mean game of fair, grindy Magic. Both have stellar removal spells at their disposal to slow the game down or remove annoying creatures, and both feature some of the best planeswalkers seen recently. The task of getting people to move away from these decks is going to be difficult, assuming nothing gets banned in the near future.
So, if you’re going to print a new set with a few cool mechanics, you really need to push those mechanics as hard as possible. Think devotion. Think heroic. Hell, I’d even take another Khans of Tarkir-style block with overpowered three-color cards at this point. So far, there is only one card spoiled that gives me hope that Amonkhet could make a huge splash in the new Standard format.
I’ll tell you right now that this card might be better than Stormbreath Dragon. It is way better than Thundermaw Hellkite. It could be the best Dragon ever printed. Why am I so high up on this card? Oh, let me count the ways!
Haste is a good way to catch my eye. Most creatures with haste tend to be smaller critters that facilitate some sort of Mono-Red Aggro strategy, so any big monster with haste plus other abilities definitely deserves a good look.
With so many creatures able to stall the ground, having a big flying creature is a big deal.
3) Deal four damage to target non-Dragon creature.
When you combine all three of these abilities, you get a creature that seems designed to kill Gideon, Ally of Zendikar while cleaning up the mess it makes. While Glorybringer is a fine card to put into just about any red deck, I think we should take a look at a few shells where it could find a good home. After all, we can’t know how good Glorybringer is until we see it in action, and we can’t see it in action until we see a deck or two with it as the marquee threat.
First off, Glorybringer is competing at a very tough spot on the curve. If you play Glorybringer in a green deck, you will probably have to choose between it or Verdurous Gearhulk. Playing both in small numbers might be okay, but I don’t think it’ll take long for us to figure out which one is better. While Glorybringer seems like it should be nuts, there is a lot left for us to unpack.
Second, Glorybringer is just a creature. If your opponent holds up a removal spell for it or just doesn’t play creatures in general to target with the Exert ability, it doesn’t look all that impressive. But the way the current Standard format looks means you’re almost always going to get some amount of value out of Glorybringer. After all, your opponent will want to tap out for Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or some other big threat as the game progresses. You don’t always have to deploy your Glorybringer into open mana. Wait for a prime spot to kill a creature, or maybe a planeswalker and a creature.
Third, Glorybringer isn’t cheap. Using Servant of the Conduit or another mana accelerator to cast it sooner is desirable, but you need to find the right balance. Too many mana accelerators can leave you with weaker draws in the late-game, where too few can leave Glorybringer stranded in your hand while your opponent gets to untap with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. While I expect Glorybringer to do a lot of heavy lifting against the format-warping all-star that is Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, I don’t think you can put the world on its back.
Not just yet, anyway.
With all three of these things in mind, I think we have enough to work with to build a few different decks. While there is a chance that something gets banned with the release of Amonkhet, I’m going to assume that everything stays as-is for now. First up: Jund Energy!
- 3 Tireless Tracker
- 2 Verdurous Gearhulk
- 4 Servant of the Conduit
- 4 Winding Constrictor
- 3 Rishkar, Peema Renegade
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 3 Glorybringer
This is an odd split between old-school Jund Energy played by Ben Stark at Grand Prix New Jersey and a new version trying to force Glorybringer into the mix. We aren’t as aggressive as the older version, moving away from the energy sub-theme, but we are still able to apply early pressure if the opponent doesn’t have the ability to kill our threats. While splashing black just for Winding Constrictor might seem ambitious, I think it gives the deck enough early must-kill creatures to make sure Glorybringer sticks around for a turn or two.
Shock and Harnessed Lightning are concessions to being heavier on the red side of the coin but might be worse than just focusing more on black. Still, that’s a tall order for consistently playing a double-red card on the fourth or fifth turn. For now, I think I like the red removal package a bit better, but I could see just switching Shock for Fatal Push if it comes to blows.
Servant of the Conduit gives us a way to accelerate into bigger threats, but you need to keep the balance between early and late plays. Cards with mana sinks like Walking Ballista or Tireless Tracker are fantastic for this, as they give you something to do with all that mana if you don’t happen to draw one of your big late-game cards at the right time. On top of that, Servant of the Conduit allows you to cast Tireless Tracker and make a Clue on the third turn, which shouldn’t be overlooked.
While you don’t have a lot of outlets to spend the energy gathered by Attune with Aether, Harnessed Lightning becoming a virtual Doom Blade is a welcome trade. Plus, I don’t love the idea of running out of energy with Aether Hub or Servant of the Conduit, as the mana might be a little shaky at times. While Traverse the Ulvenwald might be good enough for a deck like this, it would require an overhaul of the entire manabase, as well as changing a good chunk of the spells to enable delirium. For now, I’ll leave it like this, but I like the idea of trying different versions in the future.
Another deck that immediately crosses my mind when trying to utilize Glorybringer is Four-Color Saheeli. It doesn’t really need help, as it is already one of the best decks in the format, but Glorybringer seems solid against both Mardu Vehicles and the mirror match. Just the idea of copying or blinking Glorybringer gives me chills. Having haste and getting reset by Felidar Guardian is quite a beating.
The biggest question: what does it replace? The deck already has a tough time fitting in full sets of Tireless Tracker and Whirler Virtuoso as it is. The best course of action, for now, is likely just sticking one or two copies into the deck. Since it costs five mana, having too many could lead to some anemic draws. Plus it shouldn’t be too hard to find with Oath of Nissa or Saheeli Rai’s scry ability if you really need it. If you’re bold enough to play the version featuring Traverse the Ulvenwald, you probably only need one copy to find.
I’m not a huge fan of the Traverse the Ulvenwald version, but I think we can make it work in a more normalized version without too much trouble. Let’s take a look.
- 1 Tireless Tracker
- 3 Whirler Virtuoso
- 4 Servant of the Conduit
- 4 Rogue Refiner
- 4 Felidar Guardian
- 2 Glorybringer
Personally, I never loved the idea of Walking Ballista in this deck. It felt fine in pre-sideboard games against Mardu Vehicles, since they still had a lot of one-toughness creatures in their deck. But we all know by now that they’re likely sideboarding into a removal-heavy version with a lot of planeswalkers, and Walking Ballista is a bit too inefficient at impacting the battlefield in those games. As for Tireless Tracker, I do think the card is more than good enough for the maindeck, but I don’t know how many you want to play maindeck with zero copies of Evolving Wilds. Plus, we have to trim something to make room for Glorybringer.
The rest of the deck is basically the same, but the additional punch of Glorybringer shouldn’t be understated. Just two copies of a single card suffices to change how a deck like this operates in a given matchup. Since you have so many ways to dig through your deck, finding a copy of Glorybringer should be a piece of cake. Even if your opponent is able to kill it, they still have to worry about the Felidar Guardian combo afterwards. Much like the Saheeli combo itself, you don’t have to deploy your Glorybringer when it isn’t convenient. Your deck is full of so many spells that replace themselves or draw cards that you can just deploy another threat and force their hand instead of letting them use their removal spells on your combo pieces or Dragon.
The one card out of the sideboard from Amonkhet that seems insane to me is Combat Celebrant. I think a lot of people are looking at it all wrong. Yes, it will be good in Mono-Red Aggro-type decks, but just think how much damage you can do with it and Saheeli Rai in a single combat step with just one other creature. No, it won’t always kill them, and it is prone to dying to removal spells, but that’s not the matchup we want it for. For me, this is just another lightning rod of a creature that must be killed if the opponent doesn’t want to die to Saheeli Rai. If they can’t kill it, they might just die on the spot.
While Combat Celebrant might be better in theory than in practice, I think it deserves a spin. At the very least, it should be good against removal-light opponents.
More to Come
Will Glorybringer be the answer we needed in the new Standard format? Probably not. So many have tried and failed to oust the big two decks that I don’t know if I’ll ever believe it unless I see it with my own eyes. Plus, if Glorybringer is as good in Four-Color Saheeli as I think it will be, then it might be a double-edged sword.
The rest of Amonkhet is almost here, and we’re waiting with bated breath to see a savior. While Glorybringer might end up being that savior, it could just as easily come in the form of a banning. Regardless, I’m excited about the set. There is something comforting about seeing a slew of new cards revolving around new and old mechanics alike. There is too much to digest at first, but it won’t take long for us to figure out whether or not these synergy-driven cards will be good enough to take down the top dogs. And, if they’re not, we’ll survive. We always do.
October isn’t that far away…