It’s one of my favorite times of the year: new cards, potential for new decks, and my creativity gone wild. I’ve learned my lesson from trying to do the card-by-card reviews. I don’t have the patience. I’m prone to burnout. So this time this review focuses on the only cards you need to worry about. That’s 40 cards in total, and I concentrate on Standard with the occasional foray into other constructed formats. I’ll start with lands and artifacts, because they are the fundamental building blocks of decks, no matter what colors you’re dealing with. From there, we’ll move to the colors that most people associate with control: White, Blue, and Black.
All of these are new and improved versions of the now classic Invasion tap lands. The only real difference is that they’re better, since you can use them to power the various Snow cards in this set, and you can search them out with Into the North. While pound-for-pound they pale in comparison to the Ravnica duals, Snow may prove to be a very good reason to include these in your deck, thanks to a certain Snow land that you’ll see shortly…
It may be slow as molasses and indestructible should not be confused with invincible (beware of bounce spells and remove from the game effects), but this is still an uncounterable win condition. The concept of a win clock isn’t even necessary. This is 20 damage right out of the gates. Plus you can flip it into your hand with Scrying Sheets or tutor it up with Into the North.
Since Quicksand became legal, it has seen very little action. Perhaps, a different twist on land-based creature removal that can destroy bigger creatures, even ones that fly, will be more popular. One of the biggest deckbuilding challenges is how to build a mana base with tons of mana (consistency) that doesn’t leave you mana flooded. A great approach – exemplified by Zvi’s Chevy Fires – is playing extra lands that aren’t really lands.
The Goonie Land – anyone remember Mouth in the movie Goonies? – can’t kill anything early on, due to the steep activation cost, but normally you don’t want to be Wastelanding yourself in the early game anyway, because the tempo loss is too painful. A surprisingly huge advantage of Mouth is that it is a Snow permanent. Thus, the Coldsnap version of Rampant Growth can search it out, effectively turning a mana accelerator into creature removal. Of course throwing Life from the Loam into the mix makes things even more interesting, providing you with a removal engine.
Some people compare this to Mikokoro, but I think it’s more similar to Library of Alexandria. Consider a deck with 20 Snow lands. Every activation of Scrying Sheets gives you a 1/3 probability of having a one-sided Howling Mine, so on the average you’re investing nine mana for an extra card. That’s not exactly a bargain, but don’t forget that this card drawing engine is uncounterable and doesn’t occupy any real space in your deck.
Things only get better. Throw in a few more Snow lands and some non-land Snow permanents to push your reveal probability up to 50%. Now add Sensei’s Divining Top. Congratulations. You now have a card drawing and card quality engine online – no need to worry anymore about being stuck with a spinning Top and only lands on the horizon.
Sheets works in both control and aggressive strategies. Control likes the focus on card drawing and stands to benefit most easily because of its relatively high land count, while aggro can more easily add Snow win conditions for synergy. Scrying Sheets is not just an engine for drawing lands, it’s also an engine for getting extra threats.
I’ve heard one critic who builds excellent decks complain that Sheets does not play nicely with multicolored decks, and multicolor is what Standard is all about. There’s some truth to this. Not only do you face the colorless land obstacle, but there’s also the problem of pain lands, shock duals, and Karoos not being cool enough. My response is this: Multicolor decks that don’t get too greedy are still quite viable with Sheets, and Sheets is powerful enough on its own to justify that taking a step or two away from the incandescent world of Ravnica.
Gradually, R&D has been pushing the envelope further and further with two-mana artifact mana accelerators. First we had the Mirage Diamonds that came into play tapped and provided only one color of mana. Planeshift’s Star Compass comes into play tapped, too, but has the bonus of usually providing multiple colors of mana. Then we have Mirrodin’s Talismans that give you two colors at the cost of being pinged. Next are Ravnica’s Signets, deliver provide two colors at no cost of life. With Coldsnap, we finally get a Diamond that will produce the color of your choice. Not bad. The fact that it’s Snow is also convenient.
Urza’s Bauble returns in a slightly mutated form. I can’t say that I ever expected an artifact like this to ever be printed again. Like the original Bauble, this one lets you break the rules of the game, allowing you to construct a deck with fewer than 60 cards. Alright, technically your deck still contains 60 cards, but since four of them are free to play and transform into other cards in your deck, that means you’re basically playing with 56 cards. Fewer cards means greater consistency. More consistency leads to winning against less consistent decks. “Beating less consistent decks” is code for smashing little kids. Smashing little kids leads to the dark side.
What about a deck that can turn take this Bauble to the next level? Imagine if the Bauble also acted as a Mox. That’s silly, right? Fortunately, an archetype that can use the Bauble just this way continues to slink in the shadows of Extended. Even after losing Disciple of the Vault and Skullclamp, Affinity remains powerful and dangerous. The Bauble will only push Affinity in the direction its pre-ban glory days.
Yeah, it’s more expensive than Juggernaut, but it’s also secretly part of the Shade clan. That means it can attack for nine damage the turn after it comes into play. In this case the attack every turn “limitation” actually has synergy with the pumping ability. Even as a very solid artifact creature, most decks will probably elect to play a flesh-and-blood fattie instead, at least as long as those Kamigawa Dragons are legal. Strangely, I can see the Snowcrusher as a finisher in a control deck that abuses Scrying Sheets.
While the Valkyrie – great name and throwback to Norse mythology – is currently eclipsed by Kamigawa’s Dragons, this Serra Angel may have potential in a post-Japanese Standard. It’s size, evasion, and vigilance make it a solid finisher for control decks. Best of all for control, you can flip this into your hand with Scrying Sheets. On the other hand, the Angel’s ability has obvious potential for abuse in creature-heavy decks. That said, this Angel may be a little too flexible, lacking the focus and power that aggressive decks seek and also missing the resilience (think Morphling and Eternal Dragon) that control decks prefer.
This is a fabulous update for Pacifism. It is half the price and also shuts down annoying abilities – kind of good against Nantuko Husk and Meloku. Attacking you say? White Weenie doesn’t care if an opponent is attacking. White has the most efficient creatures and most of them fly. Being able to turn a potential attacker into a defender is just gravy.
This is a fine threat against the various Orzhov decks running around, but another efficient 2/X two-drop isn’t going to suddenly make White Weenie a great deck. Nor will it make White an interesting and complex color.
Finding Standard applications for this card takes a little stretching. I suppose that this Soldier can quickly tame a Magnivore. It can also hang around for a long time in a deck that rapidly dredges tons of cards. More obvious applications can be found in Extended, where Ichorid, Life from the Loam, Grim Lavamancer, and Psychatog run rampant. Oh yeah, and paying two-mana for a 4/4 isn’t half bad either.
Force of Will is back, or is it? You can’t stop creatures, you need to pitch an extra card, and hard-casting it costs two more mana too. Pretty lousy Force.
Yeah, but Force is one of the top 5 most powerful colored spells ever printed. You’ll never see anything that good in a new set if R&D retains its sanity.
It takes some work, but I see two strategies to break this card, or at least maximize its potential. You need to be way ahead on cards (which should mean that you’re already winning), or you need to be able to capitalize on how this card actually takes control of spells. Let’s forget about winning more and focus on the latter. Here’s one scenario against Ghost Husk that should look familiar:
Castigate you (opponent -1 card)
Commandeer in response (-3 cards)
Castigate opponent (opponent -1 card)
Net change: you’re down 3 cards and your opponent is down 2
Look a little deeper, though. You threw away your two worst cards to Commandeer, and you took your opponent’s best card with Castigate, so you should have the advantage in card quality. Your opponent’s Castigate cost two mana, while your Commandeer cost zero. You earned a little tempo boost.
Here’s another scenario against R/G Heezy:
Volcanic Hammer you (opponent -1 card)
Commandeer in response (-3 cards)
Volcanic Hammer Kird Ape (opponent -1 card)
Net change: you’re down 3 cards and your opponent is down 2
Again, you’re down a card. Like the previous example, though, you’re gaining tempo. Paying zero mana to deprive your opponent of three mana worth of spells may very well be worth the card. Plus, this is a conservative example. Imagine a huge Demonfire that gets Commandeered and redirected against Rumbling Slum. Now that’s you’re the Flash of tempo.
Finally, we need to look at some counter wars:
Your opponent plays Jushi Apprentice (opponent -1 card)
You counter with Hinder (-1 card)
Your opponent Hinders your Hinder (-1 card)
You Commandeer Hinder, redirecting it at the Apprentice (-3 cards)
Yeah, you end up down 2 more cards than your opponent, but there is no way that the Jushi is resolving. Not only has Commandeer aiming another Hinder at the original threat, but it has also freed up your original Hinder, so now your opponent needs to respond with two counters on the Hinders to give the Wizard a fighting chance at resolving. In a prolonged counter war, Commandeer is the ultimate trump.
These are all very specialized situations, but at the same time they are pretty representative of the kind of situations that you encounter against the popular pre-Coldsnap archetypes. Commandeer can do some impressive things, but transcending that -3 card investment is very difficult. Added challenges include that Commandeer is particularly bad against decks that are packed with creatures, like White Weenie, and the fact that you need a very heavy Blue deck – the rule of thumb is at least 16 Blue cards to support Force – to support the pitch cost of Commandeer, and if you’re not planning on pitching it then it’s not worth playing it in the first place.
Hot damn. This looks like the second broken card we’ve come across (after Scrying Sheets). Even under the most ill-prepared situations, where you throw it down on turn two and hope for the best, you’re bound to counter something eventually. Spells focus on a limited range of casting costs in Standard, concentrated in the two to four mana range. The spectrum of spell costs only becomes narrower in Extended, and even more so in Legacy and Vintage.
Throw in Sensei’s Divining Top and Counterbalance suddenly goes from random and fair to ludicrous. We’re talking free counter magic, here, folks. Pardon me, that’s reusable free counter magic.
The biggest problem with Counterbalance is hitting a clump of lands, but there are easy solutions to that, such as the various land-thinning mana accelerators. There’s also Scrying Sheets, and we already know how hot that card is.
While the reveal part of Counterbalance’s mechanic may be bothersome, with the right synergy it’s actually a boon. Having a heads up on when to cast Aethermage’s Touch is nice. There are all sorts of other possibilities, too. It’s good to know when sacking Sakura-Tribe Elder is a bad idea because you’re going to mise some gas. Perhaps your Nivix, Aerie of the Firemind could finally be put to good use.
In general, cumulative upkeep is euphemism for cumulative tempo loss, which an exponential curve charting your ability to lose the game over time. Despite this brutal reality, Whispers should be worth the effort. Threads of Disloyalty has seen significant play, even though the targeting restrictions are trÃ¨s limited. For one more mana, those restrictions disappear. With a stolen creature under your control, cumulative upkeep is not a big deal, since you’ll be blocking and attacking with said creature, winning the game in short order or sending the monster to an early demise before massive upkeep becomes problematic.
This is the biggest debate of the entire set. Does this hold a candle to Mana Leak? Could it be better?
In the first several turns, whether you Leak an opponent’s spell for 2 or 3 is usually irrelevant. The second Snag is just as good as Mana Leak, and all the Snags after that are a little better. Snag seems to have the edge here, if our analysis stops here.
On the other hand, there are times where you need to cast a bunch of counters in one turn. If you run into a situation where your first and second Snag are on the stack trying to stop something in the mid- to late-game, you’re going to really miss Mana Leak.
This is a really tough call. I could see an entire column devoted to these two spells slugging it out. I’m going to fall back to the saying that I’ve always tried to unsuccessfully apply to my backhand in tennis: less is more. The first two Mana Leaks are always better than the first two Rune Snags. In the late game, Rune Snag might be slightly better, but by then opponents can afford the extra mana or two that the Snag demands. Mana Leak still has what it takes.
This is a brutally efficient sideboard card. ‘Nuff said.
There’s quite a bit going on here. Compared to Nekrataal, it comes out a turn earlier and hits just as hard. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stick around after killing things, though it is willing to come back to your hand in exchange for a bunch of life points. On the plus side, the Assassin doesn’t have to sit in hand while you wait for your opponent to commit a victim to the board.
What’s most interesting here is that this is the only Recover card that doesn’t cost any mana. Ignoring life points for the moment, the Recover cost is free, and free is one of those special words in Magic. Unless you’re playing against a Red deck, the cost in life is shouldn’t be that big a deal, especially when you have Consume Spirit and Faith’s Fetters to back you up.
Now imagine this guy against aggro. You can block an attack, put damage on the stack, and then sacrifice the Assassin to destroy another creature. Then when another one of your blockers perishes when damage resolves, you can even Recover the Assassin. If you’re dealing lethal to the creature you’re blocking then that’s +1 card advantage before you even get into the recover mechanic.
Rarely does a one-of make lists like this, but I think that this one deserves mention because it could so easily be overlooked. Raise Dead in any form has never been playable in Constructed. This singleton could change that. Usually, you’re playing against control or aggro. Control wins by, well controlling (eliminating) your monsters. Grim Harvest means that for one of your creatures will always be coming back for more. With such a pace, counter magic rapidly runs out.
Against aggro, you usually end up in some sort of a slugfest, or in a situation where you’re both desperately looking for the win off the top of your library. Grim Harvest gives you an edge in both of these competitions. To put it in Zvi-speak, you gain inevitability.
The Recover triggered ability is not optional. When one of your creatures visits the graveyard, the trigger goes on the stack, and you want to pay for it rather than lose it. Plus, playing and recovering Grim Harvest isn’t exactly cheap. These are all good reasons why you want only one in most decks.
It has the same mana cost as the Skull and produces cards during the same part of your turn, so I’ve got to comment on Necropotence Jr. We know Necropotence is far better, so rather than bore you with that explanation, I’ll concentrate on how Etchings stacks up against its contemporaries. Both Dark Confidant and Phyrexian Arena give you extra cards faster. Neither has any additional mana costs, but they do ping away at your life total.
You do need to worry a little bit about losing Etchings to removal, but there’s another new spell that helps you deal with the loss of life points and conveniently enough it can also be cast during the end of your turn…
What a perfect companion to Phyrexian Etchings. It’s free and you can cast after drawing tons of cards from Etchings. Of course, it also combines very well with Phyrexian Arena. This is an auto-include in any Black deck that focuses on card drawing engines. It’s a bit more of a stretch, but this can also fit well in a deck that has a very low mana curve, since your threat concentration is higher, making the pitch cost more reasonable.
Don’t let the similarity to its White counterpart fool you. This is much better than White Shield Crusader. Not only does this Knight have a better name – Stromgald is so much tougher than White Shield – but getting an undercosted weenie for Black is special.
That’s all for now. Join me next time for Green, Red, and Multicolor spells. If I’ve had enough conflicts with reality, there may even be some outtakes.
Take it easy,