Format Distortion and the Death of Big Mana

Mirrodin Block has seen more than its fair share of format distortion. What I mean by this is that there have been cards and mechanics that bend the format in such a manner that certain archetypes become staples and others become unplayable. It wasn’t bad until Darksteel came out, and with it the death of variety: two cards called Arcbound Ravager and Skullclamp changed Standard forever. The questions I want to examine today are: How will Champions distort Standard, and what impact will that have on the States metagame?

Mirrodin Block has seen more than its fair share of format distortion. What I mean by this is that there have been cards and mechanics that bend the format in such a manner that certain archetypes become staples and others become unplayable. It wasn’t bad until Darksteel came out, and with it the death of variety: two cards called Arcbound Ravager and Skullclamp changed Standard forever.

First off, Ravager kicked off the change from a slower, Broodstar/Sarnia-based Affinity to the more recent aggro versions. Turn 3 kills, yadda yadda yada, I don’t want to beat a dead horse here. Skullclamp went into every deck with more than ten critters in it. Furthermore, with the release of Fifth Dawn and Krark-Clan Ironworks, Skullclamp had to go.

These two cards distorted the format in different ways. Ravager created problems as an archetype by being the clear cut best deck. Any player going to a competitive tournament knows absolutely, without a doubt, that they will have to play against Ravager. To cope, there came a fundamental shift in maindecks geared towards hating it out; many decks dedicated 15+ slots to artifact destruction.

The results of this were that other artifact strategies weren’t viable because they couldn’t survive that level of hate; for example, Chrome Mox and Isochron Scepter never really crept close to obtaining slots in tier one decks. The format was warped away from artifact strategies that didn’t kill by the third turn.

Champions of Kamigawa has its share of format warping cards as well, although their impact isn’t going to be felt until well after States. The trick to doing well at a tournament like States, where the new set first becomes legal, is to make the correct format evaluations. Which decks that seem viable, or were previously, have the most to lose? Coming in ahead of the curve – not just for which new cards are good, but which archetypes stay strong – can help in a big way.

One new card that will be strong enough to distort Standard is Cranial Extraction. This card is simply amazing, and will be one of the chase rares of the set. While some cards in a similar position never live up to the hype, this card will definitely be something every deckbuilder has to consider for quite some time.

The reasons why Cranial Extraction is powerful are numerous. First off, it’s only got a single Black in the casting cost, making it very splashable. Second, it’s aggressively costed at only four mana, so it can easily be cast on turn 3 with acceleration. It’s a like pro-active counterspell, in that you can drop your threats and cover your tail with it by removing every copy of the card that could most devastate your board position; for example, you can name Wrath of God against control decks. If you stabilize against Ravager and will only lose to them comboing out, name Disciple of the Vault.

Another thing that makes Cranial Extraction great is that it has the possibility for card advantage. As well as removing four copies of a potent threat from your opponent’s deck, if they have any in their hand those go bye-bye as well. Good Affinity players have learned to hold Disciple until they are ready to deal the final points, so they don’t have to risk him getting killed; you can use this to your advantage by Extracting them out of their hand. Note that any responses to Cranial Extraction have to be cast before they name the card (i.e.Vialing out a Disciple or casting that Shrapnel Blast to the dome) because if you wait until they name the card, the spell is considered resolved, as you have passed priority. I made this mistake in the second game of the finals at States last year (although the card in question was Persecute for Red) and I won’t ever make it again!

Cranial Extraction has the biggest effect on decks with a small number of win conditions or a very important namesake spell. For example, a fourth turn CE against Tooth & Nail is very likely “GG”, as you will most likely take one out of their hand as well as making several of their creatures uncastable. Playing T&N without its namesake is like playing it without Cloudposts; neither is a viable option. Furthermore, if you can squeeze one in against U/G naming Rude Awakening or against U/W naming Pristine Angel, there’s a good chance you’re going to win. Any deck packing Condescend will be loathe to tap out for that Jens and if they do you can punish them immediately by removing their win condition. Cranial Extraction is also good against KCI decks and can come in from the sideboard in any deck with access to Black mana.

Finally, even if you miss with your card choice, you still get the chance to look through your opponent’s entire deck and take the appropriate notes. Finding that they sided out all of their artifact removal or finding what they sided in against you can be a big help as well.

But Cranial Extraction isn’t the only spell in Kamigawa that will warp the format – another is Stone Rain. It wasn’t present in Mirrodin Block, but when combined with Molten Rain, it gives Red players eight three-mana land destruction spells. The combination of these two cards is going to bring Ponza variants back to Standard in a big way – perhaps even bigger than when Ponza won both the French and Dutch National championships before the format rotated, and with Cranial Extraction in tow, the new format could be shaken up considerably. Here is a sample deck I’ve made to abuse the power of both of these cards:

B/R Control

4 Stone Rain

4 Molten Rain

4 Electrostatic Bolt

4 Barter in Blood

4 Cranial Extraction

2 Echoing Decay

2 Befoul

4 Solemn Simulacrum

4 Arc-Slogger (Kumano?)

4 Wayfarer’s Bauble

10 Mountain

10 Swamp

4 Blinkmoth Nexus

It’s obviously not tweaked or teched, but is a skeleton to work from.

But wait! There are more! Another card that will distort the environment is Hinder. Though this will be a more subtle effect, it will be there nonetheless; control decks of multiple varieties have had high tournament finishes and this counter is better than anything else on the table save Condescend. They have been hurting for a hard counter in the three cc slot and it has a good second ability; both Condescend and Mana Leak lose effectiveness later in the game so Hinder is a natural fit.

The last card that has caught my eye as far as changing the format goes is Uba Mask. Previewed by Pete Jahn in Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #111 last week, it is indeed a great piece of hatred for control decks. Since they can only play the card removed from the top of their library during their turn, it means they can no longer draw counters to use during yours. But much more interesting are the ramifications against Big Mana decks like Tooth and Nail. Most of the time, Tooth and Nail has a very linear game plan that rarely involves casting more than one spell a turn until they have gotten to vast quantities of mana. Playing Uba Mask on the third or fourth turn is going to strand tons of high-cost cards in the removed from game zone.

Think of all the things that have high casting costs in the deck: 4 Tooth, 1 Platinum Angel, 1 Sundering Titan, 1 Darksteel Colossus, as well as uncastables like Kiki-Jiki and Leonin Abunas. Uba Mask also faces the T&N player with many more difficult decisions, like whether to cast the removed card that’s not quite as good as another that’s already in their hand, or cast the one from hand and lose the other forever. Similarly, even if they manage to get up to entwine mana for T&N, the card they might desperately want to search for gets removed during their draw step by Uba Mask. The Mask has potential to provide ridiculous amounts of card advantage and virtually cripple the Tooth player. While I see Uba Mask hurting T&N more than any other archetype, any deck with a high percentage of expensive spells will be hit hard.

So now that you have a list of cards that will change the format, exactly how are they going to do it? Will they create a shift in the metagame? Like I said above, it will take another month after States for the format to shake down into something stable enough to create a definitive gauntlet. But for the sake of trying to get ahead of the curve, here are my predictions:

“Big Mana” decks as an archetype are dead! I think you knew I was going to say that. It is, after all, the title of this article.

With the addition of more cheap land destruction, better hard counters, and Cranial Extraction, I don’t see much wiggle room for decks that need to assemble nine mana by the fifth turn. Every matchup that big mana decks will face will have something match-wrenching, whether it’s not being able to keep a land on the table or getting your threats ripped out from a hole in your head. Other archetypes are amassing a horde of potent threats against big mana.

On the other hand, what does Tooth and Nail get? Dragon Legends? Please. While Boseiji, Who Shelters All is good against control decks and easily searchable, T&N seems ill-equipped to deal with the vast majority of cards coming into the new format, with nothing spectacular finding its way in.

Another effect of Cranial Extraction is that Blinkmoth Nexus and Stalking Stones will see increases in play as a threat that cannot be stripped from the library. This will increase land counts slightly, since people still need to hit that colored mana.

Once again, White Weenie will remain a terrible choice if you want to win.

So what is the field going to look like at States? There is guaranteed to be a showing of the decks that have already established themselves with some new tricks added in. Like I said, I believe Ponza will be the new best deck; though it will have to share this spot with Affinity until the proper build is discovered and refined. Control decks will be on the rise sporting their new toy Hinder, and there will be a much greater depth of variety than we’ve previously seen – I am working on builds for U/B control decks as well as the oft-maligned Mono-B (control and aggro both). And of course, Affinity will still be there. Hence, the new trinity of tier one decks will be Ponza, Affinity, and some form of Blue control.

What would I play if States was tomorrow? If you remember the last deck I played, I’m not sure you want to know. But here it is in rough form:

4 Stone Rain

4 Molten Rain

2 Demolish

4 Ghostly Prison

4 Electrostatic Bolt

4 Kumano, Master Yamabushi

4 Wayfarer’s Bauble

4 Solemn Simulacrum

3 Pyroclasm

2 Uba Mask

2 Sensei’s Divining Top

14 Mountain

5 Plains

4 Blinkmoth Nexus


2 Demolish

4 Slith Firewalker

4 Purge

3 Boil

2 Imi Statue

Or maybe Wrath of God? Who knows.

The idea is to blow up lots of lands and sit behind Ghostly Prison until you can start crushing stuff with Kumano. It also has a great interaction with the Divining Tops and shuffling effects, so that once you get the top active you should almost always be able to get a card you need. [The Top is positively stupid in draft, especially if you are playing Green. – Knut]

I haven’t finalized this sideboard as I haven’t had the chance to do much testing, but it will allow me use Imi Statue well and provides a lot of different ways to go. At the very least, it’s fun to play! The idea behind both of these decks is that they prey on the weaknesses of the current tier-one decks, mainly T&N, Ravager, and U/G Control, which should be out in droves at States.

John Matthew Upton

I like back, feed me!

jmumoo AT yahoo DOT com