Every morning for the last week I have been very excited about waking up. I throw off the covers, jog down to the computer, and open up the spoiler for Rise of the Eldrazi. There’s something fun about seeing each new card and thinking about whether it will be playable, how it will be good, and what it will do to the formats it can be played in. Since I’d like to have packs to draft with this upcoming week between the pre-release and the real release, I’ve been trying to think through the sealed format in hopes of maximizing how much product I’ll get to go home with.
The first thing to do is inventory the mechanics of the new set. We have a cycle of very expensive Eldrazi, lots of token generators, Defenders, Level Up, Rebound, and cycles of Totem Armor enchantments. Let’s go through these cards and determine their implications.
Eldrazi: Creatures playable in any color, the least expensive we’ve seen so far being Ulamog’s Crusher at 8 and the most expensive being Emrakul, The Aeons Torn at 15. It’s important not to lump these guys too closely together as every mana in the casting cost probably means waiting a little over 2 additional turns to play the card. (Assuming your deck has 18 mana sources, you’re drawing a land less than every other turn.) In most sets cards of these casting costs are completely unplayable given that even the Crusher wouldn’t likely be able to come down until turn 11 or so. (Assume making your first 5 land drops and then a land every other turn for 6 more turns.) He has a fairly powerful effect on the board if he isn’t somehow neutralized, but since a lot of formats are over by turn 7 or 8 he would be a dead card in our hand most of the time. There appear to be about 3 Eldrazi at each rarity level in this format, so we should begin to suspect that Wizards of the Coast has a plan to make these guys usable when they usually wouldn’t be.
Eldrazi Tokens: Red, Green, and Black have been given a lot of ways to make Eldrazi Spawn. They won’t necessarily have a lot of effect on combat since they are lowly 0/1s, but they represent a lot of potential mana acceleration. If we take a look at something like Emrakul’s Hatcher which comes down on turn 5 almost every time we have it, we can see that on the following turn Ulamog’s Crusher would be a reasonable play even if we didn’t have our 6th land drop! Another way in which these guys are going to make higher casting cost spells reasonable is gumming up the board as chump blockers. Often the problem with a slow start can be a large creature on the other side beating through to your face, but Eldrazi Spawn could also represent additional turns to find an answer or to make land drops to deploy something even bigger on your end. The last really cool thing about these guys and the big Eldrazi is that if your opponent is starting to Annihilate you they are going to offer a small buffer of time sacrificing less important permanents before you need to lose really important ones. Green in particular looks sweet with its common rarity Nest Invader and Kozilek’s Predator, creatures that are good on curve but come with a sick bonus.
Defenders: Creatures that can’t attack have generally not been real popular with people who want to win. The last defender I really wanted to play in Limited was Guardians Of Akrasa, and that was because it usually stopped a guy while giving me some stronger attacks. In general it seems that the Defenders of Zendikar are going to have a lot of value in the same way that the wall from Alara did. Overgrown Battlements and Mnemonic Wall seem likely to be staples of the format where they both turn off a reasonable sized creature from the other side and give a lot of value. (I’m already dreaming of playing Consuming Vapors into a Mnemonic Wall.) Even Ogre Sentinel is going to get a lot of work done for decks with a plan that is up the mana scale by making every Grizzly Bear on the other side want to stay home. Since a lot of these walls have power and not just toughness they are going to make small aggressive plans look pretty bad and create the time needed to get more expensive creatures into play. Other cards like Vent Sentinel can even turn walls into a legitimate path to victory, and I would expect them to see quite a bit of limited play given how hard attacking may prove to be.
Level Up: Spending mana after casting a creature to increase it’s statistics seems like it will be a great test of mana management and reading whether your opponent is trying to get you to waste it before wasting your guy. This is also a mechanic that allows the set to have reasonable low casting cost spells that can also take advantage of lots of mana being available if a game goes long. This is another hint to us that the set is designed so that games will go longer than other formats, especially the recent lightning-fast ZZZ format. At common we get fairly satisfying bread and butter stuff like Knight of Cliffhaven, which starts as a Grizzly Bear but for 3 mana we can permanently give it flying and an extra toughness. I don’t know about you, but I love attacking with a Grizzly Bear, and love it even more when I can get more value out of my bear after bigger guys hit the field. At uncommon I think Joraga Treespeaker (AKA: The Lorax!) will see a ton of play and is one of the best accelerators green has gotten for a while. He curves out very nicely as essentially his first level up comes for free and being able to make a five-drop on turn 3 can be quite degenerate. Some of the rare and mythic guys seem like they will be the biggest sickos in the format. Transcendent Master reminds me a bit of Exalted Angel, only he is bigger and can be pumped again to be immune to a lot of removal. Cards like Lighthouse Chronologist or Kargan Dragonlord are some of the few reasons in this format to push your mana strongly toward one color. However, their power level seems generally worth it.
Rebound: We all like getting free cards, and this one is like a slightly toned down cascade in that you get a free card without paying any mana for it. The downside is that a number of the effects aren’t always what you want on your upkeep. For example, Prey’s Vengeance is a perfectly fine Giant Growth, probably pushing a small creature large enough to kill some wall in its way the first time around. On your next upkeep you get to pump just one guy, so it will help push that one through but not get the rest of the team. No doubt the effect is great, but it’s probably not quite two “full” cards. I’m particularly excited about Staggershock since it appears most creatures in their unleveled forms and pretty much every early drop is going to be a 2/2. I think if you time this well you are going to almost always get to 2-1 your opponent, and the worst case scenario is that you have a mediocre Searing Blaze. Where Punishing Vapors is likely to make a great leap into constructed, and will be very good in limited (I’d play it every time and probably splash for it) I think it will be less good than people expect given the large number of Eldrazi Spawn that could make it onto the board.
Totem Armor: Once again Wizards of the Coast is making an effort to make Auras good. I kind of wish they would stop and just make equipment since that seems to be the clearest solution to making cards that people want to play that don’t get completely blown out by different kinds of creature removal, but I don’t expect things to change anytime soon. This time around we get to sacrifice our enchantment when our creature would die, which makes these pretty resilient to destroy effects and lethal damage. The problem are spells like Regress, Narcolepsy, and Guard Duty acing our creature and effectively ignoring the aura. If our opponents aren’t playing blue or white these spells get a lot better since we’re unlikely to get set back in the same way. These spells are also better if we’re planning on ramping into some Eldrazi since the same spells that are good vs. enchanted creatures are going to be good vs. really enormous ones. We could possibly exhaust this kind of removal resource and then punish our opponent with something more dangerous as follow-up. My favorites so far are Drake Umbra since it makes a guy evasive and huge, and Eldrazi Conscription (not strictly part of the cycle) since you get an immediate 2-1 with the hasty Annihilator effect. One potential thing that can make these auras a lot better is using them on Eldrazi Spawn. 3 mana for a 3/4 using a Boar Umbra after casting a Nest Invader is probably a fine sequence of plays. I suspect I will play these cards out of my sideboard when I don’t think my opponent has good answers to them, but mostly leave them out of my decks unless they have a really high power level.
So, we have four mechanics that are slanted toward slower games and higher mana counts, one mechanic that seems like it has a high power level, and one ho-hum mechanic that seems mostly to have little interaction with the rest of the set.
Having looked over the mechanics, now we inspect the rest of the cards in the set, with a particular eye toward common creatures and removal spells. What emerges fairly quickly is that though there are a fair number of 2/2s and 2/1s for 2 or less mana that they will likely not be overrunning the enemy in the same way as they did in Zendikar since fewer of them have evasion, none of them cost just one mana, and there is lower density of them to make room for all the high casting cost colorless spells. There are also a lot of creatures with three or four toughness which are going to jam up the field. Red looks like it’s been packed with removal for small creatures, but has fewer cards that deal with 3 toughness and fewer still that deal with 5 or more. Black looks like it has a lot of goodies, of the kinds that deal with creatures large and small and even got a nice mass Smother in the form of Consume the Meek. White looks lighter on removal than usual, with Guard Duty and Puncturing Light being the only ones spoiled so far. Blue has very little with just Narcolepsy and Domesticate, while Green brings up the rear with nothing as usual. To me this means that the x/3s are mostly going to survive and the format should be considerably slower than any we have seen for a while. Zendikar offered blazing curves with good removal to back it up, while Alara offered very powerful undercosted creatures due to multicolored mana demands. Rise sealed is going to be a format that offers a lot of turns to players and thus the opportunity to cast some expensive spells. In short, I think this is going to be a set where the Timmy in all of us gets to enjoy himself.
In general, I think the best decks are going to have cards on the low end that ramp them up or put the breaks on an early rush, combined with a reasonable number of good Craw Wurms. Obviously, we have to have some restraint in how many expensive cards we play, but to the extent that we have the mana sources to play them I think we get to run our big guys in a way we haven’t before. I think green is going to be one of the premiere colors because it has so many methods for accelerating mana and creatures that are big enough to crash through walls, and black because of its breath of removal while also being able to make a fair amount of mana via Eldrazi Spawn tokens. There are a few effects I want to especially call out because I think they have pretty radical effects on the format.
All is Dust: Even though most people play White when they get a Wrath, often they just don’t have enough other cards in the color to make it good. All is Dust is completely different in that pretty much everyone who gets one of these is going to dump it into their deck. I would want to pay close attention to how many permanents my opponent is putting into play and how much they might be sandbagging given how much more frequently you might be playing against a colorless Wrath.
Dreamstone Hedron: Since most mana development naturally ends around 5 or 6 lands this card is usually the perfect springboard to jump up into the zone where you can cast an Eldrazi. It’s also not a bad top deck late in the game since if you already have enough mana its a draw 3, which is pretty good as far as a draw step goes. This card is an uncommon, so it’s pretty likely you’ll see one in your pool, and if you have anything expensive worth casting I’d definitely run this thing. (Barring a pool that looks absurdly aggressive.)
Wrap in Flames: Not quite Falter, but this card seems like it would be a key component in any aggressive strategy. In a format where I’m expecting walls and 2/3s to stall out most boards being able to turn off 3 blockers might just be enough to make the final damage push. I think unlike many Falter-style cards this one is less likely to be a sleeper since people are more likely to play it since it also works as removal. We’ll see how good killing 3 Eldrazi Spawn is, but I’m guessing that too will prove to be worthwhile when it slows down an Emrakul or something horrible from your opponent’s side.
Traitorous Instinct: There are a few flavors of Threaten in this format. I’m not sure I’d want to maindeck them given that I don’t think aggression is going to be very good (and even worse when a lot of the blockers left behind have defender and can’t turn around to bash our enemy) but I think I will want to sideboard them in against almost any deck with a few Annihilators. I’m guessing Traitorous Instinct is going to feel pretty good when your opponent has to sacrifice permanents and chump block before their pricey Eldrazi begins to punish you. I’d obviously rather get rid of the Eldrazi entirely, but a 3-1 is still a 3-1.
That’s all I’ve got for now. I think Rise of the Eldrazi is going to be a blast, and hope you all have a great time at the pre-release and release events the next couple weekends!