Deconstructing Constructed – Shaping Up Shards Cycles

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Tuesday, September 23rd – Although we have some time before Shards becomes relevant for a Standard tournament bigger than an FNM, enough cards have been spoiled that we can take a look at it and get some initial impressions from some of the major abilities and cycles – and a few of the potential impact cards – heading our way.

Although we have some time before Shards becomes relevant for a Standard tournament bigger than an FNM, enough cards have been spoiled that we can take a look at it and get some initial impressions from some of the major abilities and cycles – and a few of the potential impact cards – heading our way. I’ll only be focusing on impact for Standard at the moment, so this means some cards are going to be skipped over despite impacts in other formats.

On the topic of Shards of Alara as a set, I find it far more interesting and exciting than Eventide. I have real hope that many of these cards will see play in all sorts of formats, falling into different niches. This is a welcome change compared to the last couple of sets, where I could count on my fingers how many useful cards saw play in other formats. The mechanics are rather “meh,” and not all that impressive, but the cards themselves look very well designed, including the Mythic Rares.

A note before we begin: I’ll only be including a few of the spoiler card texts in here to save some space. I’d suggest heading to MTGSalvation.com or Wizards visual spoiler for their handy spoiler at the moment if you are unfamiliar with anything I mention. In addition, some of these are unconfirmed spoilers, which means I reserve the right to say ‘neener neener’ in the case one of my descriptions is rendered invalid down the road.

Mechanic Cards

Exalted: (Whenever a creature you control attacks alone, that creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn.)

As I write this, four Exalted cards have been spoiled. These cards are Akrasan Squire, Battlegrace Angel, Sigiled Paladin, and Rafiq of the Many. As it stands, I really like two of these, and think up to three of them could see actual play in Constructed depending on how the metagame shakes out. Battlegrace Angel at first glance looks to be the best of the group, being a 4/4 flyer for five mana, which is reasonable, albeit boring. Then it gets spiced up by becoming a 5/5 lifelink flyer on the attack, which means you get to negate a Demigod or Doran attack while bashing the opponent for five. Considering the amount of removal most control decks run currently, just dropping Angel as the only creature and keeping her from being overwhelmed seems like a reasonable strategy.

Sigiled Paladin seems hard-pressed to compete with the other standout two-drop of the set, Knight of the White Orchid, and is arguably worse than Knight of Meadowgrain in many situations. The other problem is right now the accepted White aggro deck is all about attacking with a horde of creatures, and Exalted just doesn’t really fit in with that plan. Meanwhile the other early drop the White aggro deck has – Akrasan Squire – has the same issue, basically only attacking for more than one point of damage on turn 2.

Then we have the gold Exalted card, Rafiq of the Many. It has a decent 3/4 body to start with, but its Exalted ability is a real doozy — “Whenever a creature you control attacks alone, it gains double strike until end of turn.” Essentially that means the turn you untap and swing with Rafiq, you have a 4/5 double strike creature coming at the opponent. Needless to say, very few creatures can favorably battle against this card, and this assumes it happens to be the best creature on the table. Now of course, there are some issues with the three colors in the casting cost, and the fact that Bitterblossom and other token generators stop this guy dead. The upside of playing the mana necessary to cast this guy is you basically gain the ability to use the Charm cycle. The various Charms can go a long way toward clearing out many of the potential board issues holding this card down…. And so can Chameleon Colossus.

Perhaps there’s too much in the way of letting this card make an impact, but I tend to think that any creature that can survive a Firespout and threaten eight damage a turn on its own is worth a look.

Unearth: (Return this card from your graveyard to play. It gains haste. Remove it from the game at end of turn or if it would leave play. Unearth only as a sorcery.)

To start off the Unearth cycle for competitive play, I’ll begin with Hell’s Thunder, yet another bad Ball Lightning in an endless chain of the buggers. There are three big problems with Hell’s Thunder that make it a tough sell in any Red aggro deck.

1. No Trample
2. Only 4 damage
3. Doesn’t fit well into current aggro curves

The inability to get past Bitterblossom tokens and 1/1 Faerie chumpblockers disturbs me on a base level. Even if it didn’t, the fact that it usually takes your drop for the turn until you hit the 5th land drop means you need to give up playing better cards to slide it into play. Pretending for the moment it was treated as a ‘running out of gas’ kind of burn spell, you are spending eight mana for eight conditional damage. That sort of investment is awkward, especially when Red decks have a multitude of efficient three-drops and Demigod as a huge evasion finisher with a built-in “screw you” button against countermagic.

Sedraxis Specter is next up on the chopping block… yet another bad Hypnotic Specter in an endless chain of the buggers. You get a 3/2 flyer for three mana, which isn’t awful (assuming the color requirements are of no issue), and a discard ability built into the card. But the discard isn’t random, everyone and their dog can handle a X/2 flyer thanks to Faeries, and the Unearth ability only turns this into a two-mana ‘take three and discard a card unless you have a big guy who blocks flyers.’ card This card needed Haste from the onset, not just when it came back from the graveyard. That or I’d settle for a 3rd toughness and random discard; at least give the card a chance to make an impact on an opponent’s hand before being rendered useless.

There are a few other Unearth cards spoiled at this time, but outside of Kederekt Leviathan in Oath, I doubt there are any useful Standard applications for many of these cards.


Elspeth, Knight Errant – I don’t really like this guy. Making a single 1/1 a turn for a whole +1 to Loyalty… Really? Am I missing something here? Of course, this guy has the notable aspect of having two +1 Loyalty abilities. So the second ability must be the saving grace here, right? Short answer? No. What we get is a single creature pump spell.


Well okay, fair enough… but that means there has to be an awesome ultimate ability, right? Nope! What you get is a very slow-to-activate ultimate that doesn’t do a whole lot of anything unless you’re already in a winning position. It doesn’t even stop Cruel Ultimatum from wrecking you! This Planeswalker seems like possibly the weakest one to date, which is just too bad considering the potential of having two playable +1 abilities. Or even a relevant ultimate.

Tezzeret the Seeker – The Planeswalker who basically requires a deck to be built around him, all to abuse his ultimate ability and end the game in a turn If not for that reason, there’s really no reason to play this guy outside of other formats which have good zero- to two-mana artifacts to fetch out of libraries. Instead, this guy’s playability in Standard will largely be linked to how many good artifacts / artifact creatures are in Shards. If you can build an aggro-control deck around this guy and artifact creatures, then you can just use Tez in the same way Green decks used Garruk for a while.

Ajani Vengeant — This is the one card I had the most debate over; ultimately I think the only place it’ll see serious play is in sideboards against Five-Color Control decks. Ultimately even that may be a stretch, considering how little it can do to impede the control deck’s presence without the use of the ultimate. Landing the ultimate against most decks is obviously a one-hit KO. Against nearly any non-control deck, the starting loyalty of three is sickeningly low. The worst part is that you can’t even use the second ability more than once without boosting the loyalty up. If I could just Helix twice two turns running, I’d say the guy is probably the best in the set for Standard. Unfortunately he can’t, and this makes him a huge liability against aggro, paying four mana for a Lightning Helix only to watch him eat a Flame Jab or other ping effect.

That said, in testing the first ability has been more useful than first anticipated, so perhaps it’ll see more play than I give it credit for. At the moment, this Ajani strikes me as too narrow for widespread play, at least in maindecks.

Sarkhan Vol — “Flexible” is the word I’d use to describe Sarkhan. He has three abilities, all of which have varying amounts of merit. The fact of the matter is that, in your average R/B token deck, this guy can easily be splashed in and make a huge impact. Not only does he provide pumps and haste for token armies, but there’s also the threat of 20 flying damage via ultimate when falling behind on the damage or being cleaned out by a sweeper. Slower Green or Gruul-colored aggro decks can definitely benefit from both non-ultimate abilities depending on the situation, double Threaten being the most discussed usage.

Personally, I think either non ultimate ability is worthy of this guy seeing play in a deck, let alone having both available and an ultimate that can actually end the game. Seriously, this is the kind of thing the mono-White Planeswalker should’ve gotten after getting two sub-par abilities to build loyalty.


For the most part, the Ultimatum set just is the usual overpriced Timmy garbage. Nothing to see here, move along…

Hmm… what’s this?

Cruel Ultimatum
Target opponent sacrifices a creature, discards 3 cards, and loses 5 life. Return target creature in your graveyard to your hand, draw 3 cards, and gain 5 life.

Win the game when Cruel Ultimatum resolves? I believe it says that somewhere in between all those numbers and words.

This card just does so much when it resolves that it becomes really difficult to lose from most board positions. The high mana cost may scare some off, but consider what some people are casting for just one or two less mana. Oona, Queen of the Fae, Nucklavee, Cloudthresher, Profane Command, Primal Command, etc. For just kicking colored mana, wouldn’t you rather just crush your opponent under your heel? Obviously getting this card countered is a pretty big blow-out, but at the stage of the game you’ll typically be casting it in, that shouldn’t be a major concern. Either you’ve run the opponent out of resources or you were going to lose anyway.

The mana cost, you say? Too insane? Yeah, maybe, before we had five Vivid lands, Reflecting Pool, the five triple-colored Esper lands, and the bad fetchlands to fix anything and everything mana-wise. Ugh. But that’s a tangent for another day… the important thing is that there really is no major issue in casting the card with the proper manabase. And for such a strong effect that you don’t have to shape a significant portion of your deck around to abuse, I just can’t imagine people not making it work somewhere.


At the moment, I think every Charm is playable in Constructed, with the possible exception of Jund Charm. However, despite being slightly weaker than the other four, it still has enough versatility that it could very well see play. I want to focus on two in particular. Bant Charm is one of those cards I can see fitting perfectly in those wacky Doran / Cryptic Command / “I can play any spell I want” type of midrange agro decks. It provides an answer to Demigod of Revenge and Chameleon Colossus while at the same time also stopping opposing Cryptic Command in a pinch. Killing artifacts may also end up being relevant depending on how the metagame shapes up, and it’s nice to have a maindeck answer that isn’t too narrow.

Esper Charm is the other standout of the cycle, dealing with Bitterblossom at instant speed while also providing two unexciting but solid abilities. I’d expect Merfolk and Five-Color Control to be the main beneficiaries of the card, but even Faeries itself may want to run it since it can be devastating in the mirror. I’m surprised how good this card really is.

At this point I’d have to write a new article to cover the other cards in the set, so I’ll leave it there. Have fun at the prerelease this weekend, and we’ll see what strikes the fancy for the next couple of weeks.

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
E-mail me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom

Top 5:
1. Sheryl Norm starring May’n – Infinity
2. Social Distortion — Reach for the Sky
3. May’n / Megumi Nakajima / Yoko Kanno — Lion
4. M.I.A. — BirdFlu
5. Street Fighter 4 — Ken’s Stage (the game rocks, by the way)