From time to time, iconic cards from the past are brought back into
Standard. These cards are typically aggressive or midrange because the
control cards of old are stigmatized as too powerful for this day and age.
I firmly believe that control staples had to be toned down a tad to give
way for a healthier future for the game. Control was too good, aggro was
too bad, and the game wasn’t where it needed to be to attract more than a
small percentage of gamers for years. That world was a dream for me, as I
emerged as a control enthusiast in 2004. I learned to navigate the broad
spectrum of formats with Island in hand, defeating foes quite easily with
the power of broken blue spells. In this world, the counterspells and card
draw options were dynamite and separated the hunters from the hunted.
Even though there were many busted options to choose from, you all know I
dipped outside of the box even then. Absorb was a card that instantly drew
me in when I crafted the Azorius masterpieces in the old Extended format.
There was Counterspell already, but I had to attach a Healing Salve for my
additional counterspells in the three-slot section. There were superior
alternatives to Absorb, but that didn’t dissuade me from suiting up a spell
that would hurt the feelings of Mountain dwellers everywhere. I missed
competitive Magic where Absorb was a staple in Standard as I started
playing in 1999, but I was still in the Rancor phase of my player
evolution. I missed so many great years of powerful competitive play in
Standard that I felt the urge to revive some of these cards in older
Absorb may have been a pet card for me in old Extended, but it still made
its mark in my journey to professional gaming. I won an early PTQ with
Azorius Control that showcased the counter with lifegain. This caught the
eye of some early content creators that had already enjoyed a few of my
more eccentric creations, helping me lay the ground work for the brand that
I hold near and dear to my heart today. I’m a control mage, through and
through, and I’ve pushed that gospel for my SCG pals here since 2006. I may
be a little older, but my passion for the game hasn’t diminished. When a
preview like Absorb is released, I must break it down to the core for you
all. In the end, I’ll end up playing it, but I’ll make sure you all have an
objectively written guide to determine whether it will work for you.
Many control mages switched to Ionize over Sinister Sabotage due to the
mana cost in Standard. I was guilty of the same pivot, but then realized
how worthless the two damage is from Ionize in most scenarios. There are
elements in Jeskai Control that make chipping away at the enemy’s life
total seem worth it, but the final damage points come through in giant
bursts each time. When the normal Jeskai Control decks ran four
Expansion//Explosion, Ionize had a slight impact in some of those games.
For the rest of the world, surveil 1 is too good to toss away for a slight
break on the mana.
Absorb is a touch more difficult to cast than Sinister Sabotage. The added
white over colorless makes a turn 3 Absorb require very specific mana,
which could scare some deckbuilders in the early going of the upcoming
Standard. But let me set everyone’s mind at ease – the release of the
remaining shocklands will squash mana issues for all three-color decks. The
new control decks of Standard will have 10-11 shocklands, 10-12 check
lands, and round it out with 4-5 basics. This mana estimate is without most
of Ravnica Allegiance revealed, so it may change depending on the
mana requirements from some broken cards we haven’t seen yet. Although we
don’t have fetchlands like the last Ravnica visit, the mana will be
borderline the same. The biggest differences are the inability to freely
toss a fourth color into your shard, as well as life total management.
When playing this many shocklands, life totals will have to be more
carefully monitored from the control side. Aggressive and midrange players
gleefully toss shocklands untapped onto the battlefield, where we examine
the ramifications that a two-point loss will have on the outcome of the
game. Since the manabases will shift toward this higher shockland count
anyway, the ability to cast Absorb will be comparable to Sinister Sabotage
by default. Jeskai and Esper Control players will aspire to have double of
each of their colors early on, maintaining the demand for double white
sweepers, double blue counters, and double the third color for removal
and/or win conditions. I do not see Jeskai Control moving away from
Niv-Mizzet, Parun, but they will have to play more answers to Carnage
Tyrant that require double white. Esper Control will lean heavily on
Vraska’s Contempt, but still require the saving grace of white for hexproof
and a cluttered battlefield.
A scenario that may come up is the inability to cast Absorb over Sinister
Sabotage because of colorless mana. Field of Ruin is out of favor currently
but can easily make a comeback. It’s a staple in Modern and for good
reason. Answering problematic lands, fixing mana, and not setting you back
on resources is an all-in-one package. There’s no way it can be played in
three-color control decks currently, but it could find a home in Ravnica Allegiance Standard. Detection Tower is another colorless
land that has saved my life on many occasions. Carnage Tyrant is a terribly
designed card that has a laughable defense from the creators behind the
scenes. They champion its creation as the safeguard against oppressive
control cards, giving a buffer for control design to have more freedom in
future sets. I could write an article refuting this logic at every angle,
but that may be a project for another day. For now, let’s just sit back and
watch the rampaging Dinosaur victimize non-control decks, as well as make
non-interactive gameplay for the viewers at home to enjoy.
Absorb > Sinister Sabotage?
The second piece of our Azorius reprint to examine is its power level. If
Absorb is worse than Sinister Sabotage, we can keep them on the bench until
that reality is altered. There’s a world where lifegain is purely
irrelevant in many cases and that’s not where we want to be. The health of
Standard depends on the viability of aggro, midrange, and control in a big,
cohesive metagame family. When one piece is missing, the format suffers.
Aggro has been on the decline in recent weeks due to the unacceptable
consistency of Golgari Midrange. Golgari Midrange can turn on the jets and
create a vicious battlefield presence early and then cap it off with a
powerful end game. Add their ability to destroy all creatures but their
giant Wildgrowth Walker with Finality game 1, Golgari Midrange makes
current Standard a tough show for the one-drop fans out there.
The good news for Absorb fans out there is that gaining three life will be
pretty good against the best midrange deck in the format. Golgari Midrange
loves to nickel and dime us early, then slam a haymaker that finishes the
job. Absorb gives us an additional turn to take some more damage and then
set up a nice turn with a spell backed up by a counterspell.
I have found myself having to tap out for a Deafening Clarion earlier, just
to keep my life total at a reasonable spot. This would leave me defenseless
against a variety of their powerful threats. When Absorb enters the Esper
Control family next month, it will provide relief from the shockland and
creature pressure that enemy midrange decks could take advantage of.
Since the three life will be relevant in Ravnica Allegiance
Standard, we can safely supplant it as the three-mana counterspell in the
early format testing. The real test is whether surveil 1 is better than a
Healing Salve. The cards will be equally castable, the three life will be
relevant, but the real test turns out to be much trickier than the first
two. Surveil is a fantastic mechanic for control and has been shoved to the
back of the tier ladder. Only having Dimir released made Esper Control a
bit weaker than its Jeskai Control sibling. Now with Orzhov and Azorius
added, the surveil family returns together in a more complete control
shell. Thought Erasure is an easy four-of, and Sinister Sabotage was
another easy add until now. The Esper Control start will lead off with
Thought Erasure and hopefully not need the turn 3 surveil from Sinister
Sabotage to hit land drops.
Surveil ensures that lands are drawn early and tossed in the graveyard
late. The value of an ability like this is impossible to measure against
some lifegain with this amount of information we have access to. I want to
believe that Absorb will be the clear victor in this exchange, but it’s
unfortunately too early in the preview season to make that determination. I
do know that it will have a space in Esper Control, giving us some buffer
to the life loss from shocklands and some insurance against aggressive
starts. This means that if Sinister Sabotage has a stronger foothold in the
control gameplan, Absorb will fly in as a one or two-of to round out the
counterspell package. Essence Scatter, Negate, and Syncopate will still be
great options, but I don’t plan on having any copies of Disdainful Stroke
in my control decks when I can add a better catch all with lifegain upside.
Essence Scatter, Negate, and Syncopate give us answers to threats that our
heavy hitters can’t reach on turn 2.
There will be many games that Absorb will steal that Sinister Sabotage
can’t. Think about the amount of games where you needed just one more turn
with Niv-Mizzet, Parun, but you were at five facing down a Carnage Tyrant.
Other games where a Banefire for exact cleaned your clock but a quick
Healing Salve would have robbed your opponent of toasting you in an
uncounterable blaze of glory. These scenarios are just a few that come up
for those of us that play competitive matches regularly. Absorb will have a
place in control decks in Ravnica Allegiance Standard, but the
quantity will be up for debate. A piece of me wants to see a Red
Renaissance, bringing back all the scariest threats that Absorb would love
to counter. The rest of me snaps back to sanity and is glad red decks are
on a historic dip. I’m so used to seeing red domination that its absence
gives me a small sliver of hope that we have seen the last of Goblin
Chainwhirler in its twenty-Mountain home.
If it does come back, we will do everything in our power to Absorb them
back to order.