Change We Can Believe In

BBD recommends trying Solar Flare at SCG Classic Series: Birmingham and the SCG Standard Open in Portland while you still can. He also goes over some cards he thinks will see Standard play from Return to Ravnica.

Fall is my favorite time of year. I love the fresh, crisp autumn air, the excitement of the return to football season, and this year, the excitement of the Return to Ravnica spoiler season. To me, fall has always signified change. When students go back to school, the structure of the system is always the same but the specific details have changed. There are new classmates, teachers, and subjects to learn. The trees outside haven’t been replaced, but their leaves have changed colors and have taken on a whole new look.

Magic is really the same way. It’s the same game, but everything is about to change. Standard loses about half of its card pool, and a new set with new keywords, mechanics, and ideas emerges to take its place. There might be a few old decks that hang on in some capacity, but for the most part we’re about to see a radical changing of the Standard landscape.

However, before we jump into some of the awesome new cards, I want to talk a little bit about the current Standard format. This Standard is still going to be relevant for a few more weeks, and it’s never too late to try out new things.

And by new things, I mean playing one of the oldest and most established archetypes in the format: Solar Flare. Somehow, this deck has managed to hang on throughout the entirety of its Standard legality without ever being dominant. This was the exciting new archetype last year at this time, but the excitement has long worn off by now.

Solar Flare at this point in time is basically just an Esper Control deck that runs the Sun Titan and Phantasmal Image end game. A lot of the things that gave it the Solar Flare name in the first place, like a focus on Unburial Rites, now just have a minor or even nonexistent role in the archetype. The name has lived on, though, and at this point any Esper deck with Sun Titan and Phantasmal Image is "Solar Flare" even if the name isn’t a perfect match.

My playtest video with Todd this week features Solar Flare versus G/W Aggro. The filming of that video is actually what hooked me back on Solar Flare. I had played it in the first PTQ of the season months ago and was pretty pleased with it, ultimately succumbing in the Top 8.

However, I had to give up on the deck when I struggled to consistently beat the Delver decks of the era. The combination of trying to deal with Angel, Geist, Delver, and Sword of War and Peace was simply too much for Flare to reliably handle. These days, though, Delver decks have changed a lot and are running new threats, and there is a widespread lack of Sword of War and Peace anywhere in the format. It’s the perfect time for Flare to make one last hurrah before it fades out of existence.

Here is the list I started with:

I got this list from David Thomas. If you don’t know Dave, he’s a mainstay in the Top 8 of SCG Opens and a man whose love for a fresh Baconator is dwarfed only by his love for the Solar Flare archetype. David has played Solar Flare for basically the entirety of its duration of Standard legality, and he’s a good bet to have a solid list.

As I played with the deck some, I picked up on some things. First of all, the deck was good, but it felt like it was missing something. I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly, but I felt like the deck could really benefit from a resilient creature that could gain life, control the board, and play well with Phantasmal Image. I wondered if such a thing even existed…

Secondly, there were some cards that weren’t performing too well in the current environment, like Lingering Souls. At one point, this was a reasonable way to win a game, but in current Standard, it basically makes a few glorified chump blockers that can sometimes give you the illusion of safety before they die to Bonfire. It’s worth playing a few copies because the card is still very powerful and great in some matchups, but I don’t think this is the kind of deck to run a full set in.

Finally, the mana base was too consistent, so I felt it was important to add a fourth color to destroy any semblance of smooth draws.

At the end of my article a few weeks ago, I noted that there was this really sweet card called Thragtusk that wasn’t seeing anywhere near the amount of play it deserved. The card is a complete beast in decks with a strong end game because it buys so much time and can even serve as a relatively solid win condition itself some games.

Some of the problems I felt that Solar Flare had were a lack of things to copy with Phantasmal Image other than Sun Titan and a lack of reliable ways to gain life to ensure you are able to survive long enough to get Sun Titan going. It’s typically very easy to win a game where Sun Titan is active for a few turns, but it’s not always easy getting there. Thragtusk really filled these holes quite admirably.

After a bit of testing, I managed to 4-0 a Magic Online Daily Event with this list:

The mana base could definitely be tuned more and the sideboard could still use some work, but the deck itself is playing out very well for me.

One thing I want to talk about is Augur of Bolas. While he sometimes bricks, he’s been very strong in the deck. He provides early defense, can help smooth out draws, and is a great option to return with Sun Titan. From what we’ve seen of Return to Ravnica, there are a lot of good cheap spell options in the set, so Augur of Bolas is definitely a card to keep an eye on.

Augur is basically a cheaper Sea Gate Oracle, a fine card that saw Standard play as an early defensive creature in U/B Control decks to pave the way for the bigger hitters of the time like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Grave Titan. Despite being less reliable than Sea Gate Oracle, I expect that Augur is going to be a mainstay of control decks in the year to come.

All in all, if you enjoy playing control decks or just want to try something new for the last few weeks, I recommend giving this deck a whirl. It’s fun, powerful, and has game versus anything.

Know what else looks fun and powerful? Many of the cards in Return to Ravnica!

Is there any reason to start with anything other than the biggest and baddest of the bunch? Two awesome new planeswalkers have already been spoiled.

Jace is now an Architect as well? Did he design the Matrix? Is there anything this guy doesn’t do? Are we going to see a new Jace every year with a different job title? At what point does Jace jump the shark and we start seeing stuff like "Jace, Disgruntled High School Swim Coach" get printed? It can’t be too far out.

At any rate, I like the new Jace. I think it’s humorous that his -2 ability is roughly the same value as Jace, the Mind Sculptor’s -0 ability, but we’ve come a long way since that kind of absurd power level on planeswalkers.

The best thing about this Jace is that he’s seriously underrated. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard discussion about Jace that basically boiled down to: "He sucks because his +1 is useless." The only thing useless about his +1 ability is your opponent’s Lingering Souls tokens. Yeah.

Nowadays everybody want to talk like they got something to say, but nothing comes out when they move their lips, just a bunch of gibberish. MTG players act like they forgot about Curse of Death’s Hold.

Remember how Curse of Death’s Hold would sometimes just destroy your opponent’s entire game? Granted, it also killed all one-toughness creatures and the reduction of toughness was relevant in combat, but even when it didn’t actually kill your opponent’s creatures it really, really stymied their offensive output hard. It made it easier to block all of their guys, crippled their damage output, and sometimes even negated it completely.

Jace’s +1 does the same thing. Why is this bad again?

The other awesome thing about Jace is that he and Tamiyo are like two peas in a blue planeswalker pod. Jace shuts down swarm strategies since his +1 ability negates lots of small creatures. Tamiyo’s +1, on the other hand, shuts down one big singular threat. When something is too big for Jace to deal with, Tamiyo can save the day. When tapping one of fourteen tokens is doing pretty much nothing, Jace is there to protect Tamiyo’s back. They also curve perfectly into each other, and both have -2 abilities to fuel your hand. I can’t wait to halt evil in its tracks and fight crime with this dynamic duo.

Jace’s ultimate is pretty weak in that it’s unlikely you will climb all the way up to eight with him that often. The effect is fairly powerful, but I think more often than not you’d rather just use his -2 ability multiple times instead. The -2 ability is very, very good. While the +1 can buy you time and protect Jace from attacking creatures, the -2 is how you pull ahead. If you can activate that twice, it is actually better than a real Fact or Fiction, which is pretty insane value.

I think Jace is significantly underrated right now, and I believe him to be the better of the two planeswalkers we’ve seen.

The other planeswalker, of course, is Vraska the Unseen.

I can say, without question, that this is my favorite planeswalker of all time from a flavor standpoint. Her abilities are all synergistic and oozing with awesome flavor. Most planeswalkers just have color related abilities that kind of work together, but Vraska’s actually tell a story.

You can tell just from just the abilities alone that Vraska is the shadowy assassin type. Her +1 dissuades people from attacking her. Occasionally, she has to come out to strike someone down with her -3, but in doing so she leaves herself vulnerable to a counterattack. Her ultimate reminds me of someone dying to poison unexpectedly. They seem safe, their life total is high, but one touch and they’re dead.

All in all, I really love this planeswalker, and I hope they continue to design cards in this fashion. Cards like this make Magic much more than just a strategy game. It’s a lot more fun to play cards when you can appreciate a good story behind them.

In terms of her Constructed playability, I think Vraska is solid but ultimately not that exciting. I feel like her ultimate is pretty weak because it’s really not that easy to connect with a 1/1 creature, even if you have three of them. Her +1 doesn’t do much against an aggressive deck since it can just ignore her when she +1s. Then, when she uses her -3 ability, it leaves her vulnerable to an attack the following turn. Most of the time, I think she will serve as a five-mana Vindicate that gains a bit of life. That’s not bad, but it’s not that game breaking from a five-mana card either.

Where I think Vraska can shine is if other planeswalkers make a huge dent in Standard. I posted on Twitter the other night that Vraska is like the Frost Titan of planeswalkers. Frost Titan was long considered to be the weakest Titan, but it ended up seeing a lot of play for a period of time when Primeval, Inferno, Sun, and Grave Titan were all seeing play. Frost Titan may have been less splashy overall, but it trumped all of those other Titans by virtue of keeping them tapped down.

Vraska, similarly, is great at killing other planeswalkers. This is the first walker with a relatively affordable cost that can immediately kill another planeswalker. That could be an extremely powerful effect in the right Standard environment. While I don’t think Vraska is going to be format dominating, I do expect her to see some play from time to time when the metagame is ripe for her effect.

The next big thing we’ve seen is the Charm cycle.

One neat thing about all three charms is that they are very well designed to be relevant in every matchup. They all have abilities that are relevant in combat, relevant on the stack, and relevant when there’s nothing going on. I like that you can count on these cards to rarely be dead, and this gives me high hopes for the other two Charms. I fully expect that they too will have three effects that are good at different times and that there will always be one option that is relevant to the specific game state, whatever it may be.

Azorius Charm seems like the perfect fit in a tempo strategy. Putting an attacking or blocking creature on top of library is an effect that typically costs three or four mana. This kind of effect can be very powerful, because not only does it fight for control of the board but it also sets your opponent back and keeps them from seeing fresh cards. This is relevant when you’re capable of putting the game away before they have the opportunity to draw out of it.

I think people generally underrate how awesome the one-shot lifelink can be. Out of all three Charms, this is the ability that has the highest potential upside. This ability could easily be the most powerful ability on any of the Charms. That’s not something to be taken lightly. It’s very situational in that it’s certainly possible that it won’t ever be relevant over the course of a game, but when it is relevant it’s going to be a game breaker.

Decks like the Drogskol Captain Spirit deck from Pro Tour Dark Ascension are easily capable of attacking with over ten power of evasive creatures. They are just often not quick enough to handle an early rush from an aggressive deck. Azorius Charm changes that math. Azorius Charm can easily turn any racing situation into a victory in the same way that Vault of the Archangel does now.

For Selesnya Charm, I think the weakest ability on the card is the ability to create a 2/2 at instant speed. Considering Ashcoat Bears is a perfectly reasonable card on its own merits speaks well for the power of this card. The reason I think that is the weakest effect is because a random 2/2 creature is typically not strong enough to have a real effect on the game in any kind of creature mirror. Regardless, this ability lets Selesnya Charm be useful even in a matchup where creature combat isn’t happening by creating a threat, and one that dodges sorcery speed removal at that.

Selesnya Charm would have been the perfect answer for a deck like Naya to combat Titan decks. It’s versatile, and it’s removal for a Titan that isn’t dead throughout the rest of the game. Now that Titans are finally rotating, that interaction won’t be relevant in Standard, but I do think the ability to remove a high power creature will hold value anyway. I expect decks like Golgari or Rakdos to make use of their keywords (scavenge and unleash) in order to build big aggressive monsters. Those creatures are just asking to get Selesnya Charmed.

Izzet Charm is the least flashy but also the most overall consistent Charm. Being able to cycle means that if the game is late and the Spell Pierce effect is irrelevant or if your opponent isn’t playing creatures for you to kill, you’re not only cycling this card but get to cycle one more as well. That’s huge. When the card is bad, it replaces itself and another card in your hand that might also be useless. You can’t ask for much more than that. I see Izzet Charm being a big player in control and tempo decks in the new Standard because it can play such a versatile role in any matchup.

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to talk about too many other cards this week, but I want to leave with one final observation. Dreadbore. Mizzium Mortars. Abrupt Decay. Augur Spree. Izzet Charm. Selesnya Charm. Vraska. We have seen a ton of cheap and powerful removal options. I see this as a shift from the philosophy of Innistrad block, which had lots of powerful creatures with weak and situational removal. I can’t wait to see how this really changes the landscape of Standard next season.

Will we move away from creature-only decks like Pod, Naya, Humans and the like being dominant forces? Will Standard be as rich and diverse as the original Ravnica Standard? Every night I can’t wait to see what new cards are spoiled to begin trying to piece together exactly what things are going to look like in a month’s time. It’s not possible, but it’s sure fun to try.

I may not know what’s in store for the future of Standard, but there’s one thing I do know. There are all these shiny, powerful, destructive new ways to kill a creature.

And exactly none of them kill William Howard Traft.

Thanks for reading,

Brian Braun-Duin

BBD on Magic Online

@BraunDuinIt in the wild and wonderful land of Twitter