Feature Article – Alara Reborn and its Impact on Limited

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Wednesday, May 6th – In the first of two articles on Limited, forty-card fanatic Quentin Martin examines the effect of Alara Reborn on the format. He examines a few of the unsung cards from the new set, and re-evaluates some of the cards we came to love in Shards/Shards/Conflux…

I don’t know about you, but I’m enjoying the new set a great deal. It might be true that Alara Reborn is full of ridiculously powerful cards and that your deck can often just ‘get there’ in the last pack; it’s also true that Cascade would probably still have good if it read ‘put the revealed card into your hand’ instead of cast it; and finally, it’s also true that there are a lot of card re-evaluations needed with this expansion’s impact.

Everyone’s talking about its impact on Constructed formats, and we’ll find out soon enough as Regionals begin, and with GP Seattle just around the corner. Personally, I believe that Qasali Pridemaster, Bloodbraid Elf, and Lord of Extinction will probably have the biggest impact, and I’m tinkering with a Lorescale Coatl/Lord of Extinction deck as we speak… but I don’t have much hope.

One of the first things we’ve been challenged to do as Limited players is assess what we think of the new themes and keywords the new set has brought. Being completely gold has put a premium on the quality fixers in Shards of Alara, as well as on the land cyclers of Conflux. The cycle of 2/1 hybrids ‘Blades’ that become 3/2 with an ability give all the gold creatures in the first two sets a slightly increased value. The Borderposts are fantastic cards, to be picked around the same level as Panoramas (above an average card and below a first pick). They can accelerate you (not often), but more importantly they fix your mana; however, another huge effect is the ability to increase your artifact count (Esper) at no cost, and to trigger the Blade cycle immediately, the most powerful of which I think is the Jund Hackblade.

Before we look at Cascade, it is important to note how powerful Reborn is. The card quality is so much higher than the other two sets, and there are so many more playables that it is unusual to end up with less than eleven or so cards that will make your deck from Reborn. This means that decks will often just ‘get there,’ meaning that you can afford to pick fixers even higher in the first packs to ensure that you will be able to play the premium cards the third pack has on offer.

Cascade is a really interesting mechanic. The cards with Cascade fall into two categories: those where the Cascade card itself is simply an additional effect on a some what random card in your deck, and those that are good enough that the card you Cascade into is simply card and tempo advantage.

Captured Sunlight and Kathari Remnant are good examples of the first category, where you get the next three casting cost spell or less your deck coughs up plus a little defensive power to make up for it being one mana more expensive and random. Both of these cards fit admirably into the Five-Color archetype. Ardent Plea is a phenomenal card whose strength is almost completely deck dependant. In a Bant deck it’s an almost unkillable Exalted effect that will often Cascade into a second Exalted creature. In Five-Color, the only targets it can hit will often be removal spells, meaning that although you have little need for the Exalted effect, it will tutor your Agony Warp or Sangrite Backlash, effectively giving you an additional first pick removal spell.

Bloodbraid Elf, Bituminous Blast, and Enlisted Wurm are examples of the other category. If none of them had Cascade they would still all be mediocre Limited cards. However, the fact that they do means that they are now all incredibly good two-for-ones. In fact, the latter two are so good that I suspect they contend with Behemoth Sledge (a card that I still cringe for not being printed as a Rare) for the title of best uncommon. My initial feeling is that the Blast is just better than the Sledge, and both are better than the Wurm, but it is unlikely to really matter as there are only two decks that are going to be able to run both if presented with the option, and Naya/Jund will probably want the equipment while Five-Color will want the removal. As to what rares are better, I will leave that for time to decide.

Now I’m going to take a quick look at cards that have jumped out at me that have demanded a reassessment from my initial reading of them. A lot of these are simply going to be along the lines of ‘much better/worse than it looks.’ I’ll also be taking a look at cards that are still struggling to be put into any category at all… Those that very much still have a ‘?’ in their assessment box.

I think the most underrated common is Ethersworn Shieldmage. Obviously an Esper card, it is phenomenally powerful, either completely fizzling a removal spell, at the very least Fogging an attack for the turn and, more often than not, generating free card advantage by killing at least one creature in combat. I think it’s the strongest Esper common in Reborn; yes, making it even better than the obviously great Glassdust Hulk.

I think the most underrated uncommon, but almost certainly not for long, is Vengeful Rebirth. This might be because Regrowth effects tend to be overcosted or because the spoiler didn’t note that this could deal damage to players. This card is either an immediate game winner for nugging the opponent for what can often be an obscene number, or a flat-out great two-for-one netting you the best card in your ‘yard and killing off a guy.

Leonin Armorguard is obviously very good — almost all Hill Giants with abilities are, but because most combat phases see a 4/4 holding of a 3/3 and so on, the tempo effect he generates is simply absurd. The presence of him and the Blades give a lot of life back to the aggressive archetypes, as does Qasali Pridemage. The Pridemage offers a phenomenal package, one that should often be squeezed even into Five-Color decks. He does everything right and almost nothing wrong, and there is almost always a target in play for him to destroy (often thanks to Borderposts), meaning he will two-for-one far more often than you would think.

Jund nets a couple of great cards. The two cards that I see not being given the credit they deserve are Putrid Leech and Jund Sojourners. The Leech is crazy value for money, as Rootwalla effects have always been strong with the downside normally being that having to use them often resulted in a loss of tempo, especially if you were forced to leave the mana open to pump for your opponent’s turn. The Leech suffers from neither of these drawbacks. On the flipside of things, the Sojourners are a card that gets looked at the wrong way. The correct way of assessing them is not as a Jund 3/2, but rather as an uncounterable Zap with a bit of spice.

Thopter Foundry is obviously comparable to Necrogenesis, but the first thing to realise that at the very least it is a three mana 1/1 flying artefact that gains you a life. That doesn’t seem too hot, but then remember that you can turn all your redundant Obelisks and Borderposts into men, as well as sacrificing all your artifact guys with damage on the stack. The life gain is the most missed part in evaluating this card, as it turns out to often be a significant factor, making the Foundry incredibly difficult to raise. Every guy you have can chump block, gain you a life and then still attack back in the air for one. It should be a very, very high pick for a dedicated Esper deck.

Two creatures that already look good but turn out to be even better than that are Lorescale Coatl and Gloryscale Viashino. With all the new one mana cyclers, the Coatl can grow very quickly, and it’s not unusual to follow it up with a Courier’s Capsule or a Messenger Falcons, though the cyclers are more devastating as they can be used cheaply and effectively during combat. The Viashino also gets very big very quickly, threatening to deal a lot of damage if left unmolested. I’ve already had one game where I dealt twelve with him on turn 5, thanks to a Bituminous Blast into an Ardent Plea into a Sangrite Backlash.

A card that should be watched out for, and carefully remembered if you see it, is Zealous Persecution. It’s a blowout. Luckily, it is seldom at its best in either Esper or Five-Color; it is when it’s splashed in another archetype that it hits home the hardest, more often than not destroying the combat phase. There’s not much you can do about it once you know they have it, other than try your hardest to only offer up one blocker or attacker to get beaten by it rather than your whole team, as it tends to be pretty obvious if they have it in their hand as WB is quite difficult to leave up stealthily.

Before I look at three cards I feel are very difficult to evaluate, I want to spend a little bit of time appreciating big butts. Wall of Denial and Grizzled Leotau have plenty of junk in their trunk, and I’m not afraid to use it. Wall of Denial is good but not amazing, as it is surprisingly easy to deal it eight damage and it doesn’t stop any of the cards that are really going to beat you, so do not value it very highly. The Leotau can be played effectively in either a slow, five-power Naya deck or as the early defence Five-Color demands. It might also be enough to justify the return of Treefolk Harbinger to Doran decks to set up an even more ridiculous curve…

I’ve played several games with Maelstrom Nexus now, and I can safely say that it’s awful. Not only is it somewhat difficult to cast, but then it has no immediate effect on the board. You then need to cast another card and, this is the often overlooked part, then hit a good card off the Cascade. Even then, you need to have another card to get usage out of it to start with, and then the random card you hit has to be worth it too. The biggest problem is that Five-Color decks do not play too many cheap cards, so that your few two-drops will not only fail to Cascade into anything (and will simply show your opponent the entire contents of your deck), but once the few you play have been either already cast or have been Cascaded out by some of your many three drops, then your three drops will fail to hit anything either. You can also never tutor out you most expensive bombs with it! Utter drivel.

I’ve yet to play it, but I instinctively feel that I’ll be playing Drastic Revelation quite a bit. I can easily see it becoming one of my pet cards. It is at it’s best played in a cheap Grixis deck with plenty of Unearth guys, so that you can cast it as soon as possible as the last card in your hand and then hope to discard some guys to be brought back. Failing this, I think it can be played occasionally in Five-Color or your average Grixis deck. It reminds me a little bit of Breakthrough. It effectively says ‘set your hand size to four’ but, and the clue is in the name, a bit more drastically. The fact that it draws seven cards in total might be a bit of a pain as it could leave you open to decking, or be uncastable in the ultra-late game. I’m not saying you’ll play this often, more that you definitely shouldn’t automatically exclude it from your thoughts when you see it in a pack.

Kathari Bomber is a card that still makes me raise an eyebrow. I can’t quite figure it out. If there were more Devour guys around then it might be easier to rate as it would fulfil a kind of Dragon Fodder role, but the new set doesn’t being us any that are particularly exciting or those that even need to Devour, plus I dislike like those cards that need to Devour in general anyway. However, when you look at all of Kathari Bomber’s effects as a whole, they do look quite good. It can block and trade with a few flyers, though not many, and not any that you really care about. It will, after being Unearthed, have dealt four damage (hopefully) and have given you four tokens for eight mana, which isn’t too bad when spread over two instalments. But it’s really what you’re looking for in a card, and there’s often not too much you can do with the tokens. It’s not like you can really play the Bomber in a deck with Sigil Captains… All in all, it’s probably a fine 23rd card, I’m just not really sure if it manages to amount to much more unless you have a lot of Devour cards. The jury’s still out on this one, meaning WotC have, in my opinion, made a great card, one that spices around with a few new things and plays a little bit outside the color wheel.

I mentioned how the premium of fixers has gone up in the first two sets, in part because the last set is exclusively gold, in part because there aren’t too many fixers in the last set (although between Borderposts, land cyclers and Trace of Abundance there are enough, just not quite of the same quality or reach as Panoramas and tri-land), and in part because the last set is simply full of more and better cards. Reborn has altered the value of a couple of Conflux cards too. I’m talking about Celestial Purge and Ignite Disorder. These two cards were borderline playable to start with as there was a reasonably good chance they would have a target; the problem was that the targets weren’t always what you wanted. However, with the influx of all the new gold cards, I think these cards are now close to auto includes, if not first picks. I have first picked Celestial Purge in a draft already, though this was mainly due to lack of real quality in the pack.

In a similar way, I feel that pingers and Blister Beetle have lost a lot of their strength as they have few good targets in the new set, which breaks my heart to say as I have some what of a more-than-platonic relationship with the Beetle. There are probably quite a few other cards that need a massive re-evaluation with the introduction of Alara Reborn but for now, that’s all I have time for.

Until next time…