Fact Or Fiction: SCG Columbus And The Saheeli Rai Factor

Is Saheeli Rai overhyped? Will some long-forgotten Battle for Zendikar card emerge from Reflector Mage’s retreating shadow? Todd Anderson and Patrick Sullivan give their thoughts in a Fact or Fiction showdown ahead of SCG Columbus!

[Welcome to another edition of Fact or Fiction! Today, Todd Anderson and Patrick Sullivan give their takes on five pressing questions heading into SCG Columbus. Don’t forget to vote for the winner at the end!]

1. A few weeks into this new Standard format, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar will have more influence on the metagame than Saheeli Rai.

Todd Anderson: Fact. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is a proven powerhouse in Standard and even has cross-format potential in Modern and Legacy. We’ve been proven wrong time and time again, thinking that these new batches of cards was going to limit the impact Gideon, Ally of Zendikar had on the format, and each time we ended up being wrong.

What we need to understand is that the Saheeli Rai combo is vulnerable to a lot of stuff. The individual power level of each card is not very high, so having a way to disrupt either half of the combo on a consistent basis is going to leave the controller of said combo casting a less-than-ideal subset of spells. Gideon, on the other hand, is going to be a one-card combo more often than not, taking over a game and eventually closing it out without much effort.

The upside of the Saheeli Rai combo is that you can cast both halves of the combo in the same turn and win on the spot, given that your opponent doesn’t have a way to interact with it or has deemed it necessary to tap out. While I do think the Saheeli Rai combo is good, I don’t think it will be better than Gideon, Ally of Zendikar at any point in the current Standard format.

Patrick Sullivan: Fiction. This is not to say Saheeli Rai will be more powerful or ubiquitous, and if I had to guess, I would expect to see more copies of Gideon in the average Top 8 than Saheeli Rai. Gideon is just a card, however, while Saheeli Rai is a deck, and decks have a habit of informing removal suites and sideboard slots more than cards do. This prediction may look foolish if Saheeli Rai / Felidar Guardian ends up being much ado about nothing, but that is not my instinct right now.

2. The number of combo-oriented cards in Aether Revolt is a good thing for Standard.

Todd Anderson: Fiction. I like having some number of small interactions that can gain a big advantage. However, I don’t like two-card combos that leave the opponent wondering why or how they lost the game. Saheeli Rai is the prime example of this, because you can have a huge battlefield advantage and just die out of nowhere.

Having a combo deck in Standard is fine, but having a bunch of different ways to “go infinite” is not. Personally, I feel like too many combo-oriented decks are bad for a format. That’s why I think Modern needs some help in moving away from that direction, and why I was very happy with the banning of both Gitaxian Probe and Golgari Grave-Troll.

Aether Revolt features two mechanics that have ultimately led to some disastrous formats in the past: cost reduction (Improvise) and free spells (see: Sram’s Expertise). While neither seems too busted in our testing so far, greater minds have broken mechanics like these in the past. It is only a matter of time, and I believe it will push people away from Standard once the shock and awe have worn off (see: Emrakul, the Promised End).

Patrick Sullivan: Fiction. For heavily invested players, Magic’s non-rotating formats provide plenty of opportunity to play Magic outside of the combat step. Standard is Magic’s flagship format, its way of introducing new players to Constructed in general, and the sole Constructed format with the backing of the Pro Tour. It is important for the decks and play of Standard to have a baseline of intuitiveness and grok-ability, and early kills that are tough to interact with on a basic level pose a significant risk towards that goal.

Not only that, fast kills and decks not focused on attacking and blocking shrink down the viable card pool dramatically; your expensive creatures with lots of combat keywords, sorcery-speed removal spells, and methods of slowly accruing card advantage look silly in the face of Aetherworks Marvel, Saheeli Rai, and potentially others like Inspiring Statuary or Paradox Engine.

3. A largely forgotten card from Battle for Zendikar will show up in a Top 8 deck at SCG Columbus.

Todd Anderson: Fact. When a card is banned, it forces people to reevaluate everything they know about the format. We had three cards banned. Smuggler’s Copter alone should give people a reason to look back over every single sorcery in Standard to see which, if any, deserve a second chance. Reflector Mage getting banned does the same thing for creatures without enters-the-battlefield effects. And Emrakul, the Promised End getting the hammer should open up late-game win conditions to a much larger extent than people currently realize.

When the bannings were announced, I couldn’t help but think that this was going to change everything. Combined with the fact that a new set is being released and you’ve got yourself a recipe for something coming out of left field. It wouldn’t surprise me if some infinite combo from Battle for Zendikar combined with Aether Revolt reared its ugly head.

Patrick Sullivan: Fact. No specific predictions here, but new sets usually have a potent combo or enabler for a previous card, and the size of Standard’s card pool means only a little bit of juice or metagame adjustment is required for certain cards to rise to viability. It is worth noting that both Emrakul and Reflector Mage were oppressive towards expensive creatures without immediate value, and if the format isn’t too fast or combo-oriented, I would start by looking there.

4. The Top 8 of the Modern Classic will have at least one Dredge or Infect deck, despite the bannings.

Todd Anderson: Fact. I do think that Dredge was hit much harder than Infect, but I think one of those two decks is still powerful enough to make a good showing. Plus, people want to see if their deck was able to survive the banning. Gitaxian Probe, while good in Infect, was not the reason why it succeeded. It was the reason why Become Immense was good, but not why Infect was a great deck. Having that information was valuable, but now you just have to play normal Magic.

I think that there is a chance Infect evolves into something different. There is very little reason to play blue in the first place, so keep an eye out for G/B Infect in the near future. Fatal Push could allow G/B Infect to play a decent fair game of Magic, even relying on something like Rancor to take medium-sized chunks of damage out of the opponent. We may be finished with the old versions of Infect as we knew them, but the mechanic is still powerful enough to stick around.

Dredge is not as powerful as it once was, but that just means people will be playing less hate for it. And when people stop respecting Dredge, that’s when it becomes dangerous. I’d like to see a version that shies away from Golgari Thug, instead playing more of a control role with Darkblast, Life from the Loam plus Conflagrate, or even just Vengevine. Dredge, like Infect, is too powerful to be snuffed out with a single card getting banned. The deck just has to adapt.

Patrick Sullivan: Fact. Gitaxian Probe wasn’t a foundational piece of Infect; it was just a little bit of mostly free value, a couple of percentage points on the house. It probably means the deck needs to move away from so many copies of Become Immense, and the deck should be slower, but there are suitable replacements for both pump effects and cantrips to replace the lost slots. And I think Infect was so good prior to the banning of Gitaxian Probe that it is hard for me to believe the deck is suddenly unplayable, given the volume of quality cards the deck wasn’t even playing before.

Keep in mind that while Gitaxian Probe was great in Infect, it was also great against the deck; your life total didn’t matter, and information is at a premium against them for sequencing removal spells. The banning of Gitaxian Probe is a downside for Infect, but it isn’t strictly downside, especially in matchups where the Infect player’s life total was under duress.

I’m not as bullish on Dredge (before or after the banning announcement), but I think the deck is still viable, and I expect people to trim down on Ravenous Trap, Rest in Peace, and others with Golgari Grave-Troll no longer in Modern.

5. One or more cards will be banned from Standard on March 13th, 2017.

Todd Anderson: Fiction. I think banning those three was enough for a while. If anything, the consumer base doesn’t want to get their new deck banned right after acquiring all of the cards. Setting the new banning precedent is fine and all, but you have to be careful with how you utilize it. I like the idea, though, as it gives them the ability to fix a problem between sets if they make a mistake.

The card(s) in question will likely be Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian, assuming nothing big takes over Pro Tour Aether Revolt. Personally, I find the combo to be fine. Scary, but fine. But I might be biased in this regard. After all, I played Splinter Twin at nearly every opportunity when it was in Standard, and for years in Modern. If they don’t ban the combo, I would expect quite a few cheap removal spells in Amonkhet, and perhaps even a Pithing Needle reprint (seeing as it fits nicely in an Egyptian-themed set).

The next three weeks will be important in deciding whether or not something needs to get banned in the near future. While I don’t think that will happen, I prefer a heavy hand when it comes to one interaction dominating the format.

Patrick Sullivan: Fiction. Stretch this out six months or a year, and I’d say “Fact”, but I think the burden of proof for bannings in Standard is very high to begin with and should become even higher on the heels of recently banning three cards, two of which were among the most monetarily valuable cards. Even if Standard is in a rough spot in a few months, I expect Wizards to let it ride a little bit and hope that a new set can act as the driver for a shake-up in the metagame rather than leaning on bannings.