I Need A Miracle!

With the Avacyn Restored spoiler season finally upon us, Patrick Chapin discusses the implications of two new mechanics: miracle and soulbound. Learn about what’s coming in Avacyn Restored and beyond!

Warning: Spoilers!

How many articles in the weeks and months to come? How many WotC headlines?

Did this new mechanic get the perfect name or what? I hope we can work Miracle Mile, Miracle Max, Miracle on 34th Street, Miracle on Ice, Miracle of Science, Miracle of Love, Miracle Whip, Miracle Fruit, Miracle Ear, Minor Miracle, Miracle Diet, and the Miracle Mets into the few months of Avacyn Restored headlines.

I am super excited that Avacyn Restored spoiler season is finally upon us. In fact, I have an exclusive rare Avacyn Restored preview card appearing on StarCityGames.com Select tomorrow. As for today, the stories of the hour primarily revolve around PAX East.

P  (Posting in appropriate pictures of people.)
A  (lot of women have been winning lately.)
X  (X-amples of less than clear communication)

Know what’s crazy? The Penny Arcade Expos are (now) actually the biggest gaming conventions in America (now up to about 70,000 attendees, which is about double GenCon). Wizards of the Coast always has a booth, and this year was no different. Seizing this opportunity to set spoiler season off with a bang, WotC unveiled a few preview cards that showcase Avacyn Restored’s new mechanics and bombs.

Sigarda, Host of Herons? Sure, sure, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. Soulbound and the above-mentioned miracle mechanic are worth taking a moment to consider the implications of. Additionally, in a surprise to nobody, Wizards announced that this fall’s block features a return to Ravnica. What is a bit more surprising is that they’re actually just calling it "Return to Ravnica."

Is Jace going to be the first planeswalker to have four versions? Mise! Why am I so excited about Niv-Mizzet? Just tap it and you’ll understand.

Overrated? No way! He’s sweet, and I’m hoping any new Niv-Mizzet has flavor text worthy of the original! This is a big deal, but I suppose I understand if this isn’t everyone’s first question about the Return to Ravnica.

It’s just that I’m wondering how Wizards is going to split up the guilds? Is it going to be 4-3-3, like last time, but with a different mix each set? Is this even a gold set? It’d have to be, right? We aren’t in Ravnica for the mechanics (dredge, radiance, and forecast)!

Just what do you suppose the chances are that the ten shocklands are coming back? WotC is even trying to push Modern? Speaking of betting dollars to doughnuts…

A recent advertisement image seems to suggest that M13 might have Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker! Core sets have never had gold cards, but it’s possible that the recent promos with Nicol Bolas as the end boss for Duels 2013 has more meaning than meets the eye. With a return to Ravnica on the horizon, it does make sense that this would be the year they make that move. There is a different element of M13 I wonder about, however.

Mana. If the shocklands get reprinted in #mtgrtr (not to be confused with #mtgtrgr), that sure seems to suggest M10 dual lands making yet another comeback. I realize some people might be sick of them, but they are actually totally sweet and will be better than ever in a Standard format with Ravnica duals. I’m not so sure it’s a coincidence that Innistrad has the enemy color duals.

Less baseless speculation about future sets and more Avacyn Restored? Fine, fine, but with Return to Ravnica and a possibly gold M13 (as we come up on 20 years of Magic) and following on the heels of two of the best sets of all time (Innistrad and Dark Ascension), the question becomes: will Avacyn Restored be better than… better than…

…than what?

The bar is just impossible to make out anymore. When every set is the bestselling set of all time and the majority are hits in both Constructed and Limited, it become challenging to figure out a good metric for each new set. What I do know is that Angels and Demons as the focal point seems a bit White and Black-centric. Are we going to still see a relatively equal distribution of awesome? Also, Dragons have been sweet for a long time, but they’ve already had their own set (Scourge). What’s next?

Sphinx and Beasts: like you’ve never seen them before!

Not a lot of cards have been revealed from Avacyn Restored, so far, and already we’re not messing around. A chase mythic flying hexproof fatty that everyone is talking about? The ability to dodge Tribute to Hunger and Liliana is only the beginning I suspect, as we will surely find a few cards from Avacyn Restored that makes this ability extra relevant.

Sacrificing seem like it will be played up in this set. If I were to think of a Magic mechanic that fits top-down into the demon tribe, it’s hard to do better than sacrificing, which would be very backwards compatible with Innistrad and Dark Ascension. The first Demon previewed features undying and requires a sacrifice each time. What this theme means for Standard is far from clear, but Doomed Traveler, Loyal Cathar, Strangleroot Geist, Young Wolf, Geralf’s Messenger, and Gravecrawler provide more than a few top-notch sacrificial offers, not to mention our good buddy Lingering Souls (who will be blocking his fair share of Sigardas as the months unfold…)

Is this a bad time to point out that Sigarda is a legend? As if Phantasmal Image and Phyrexian Metamorph weren’t already absolutely absurd in the format, it’s looking like Cloning in Magic is going to be reaching all-time highs. Obviously, we should all look forward to another exciting round of "creative ways to solve a really hard problem." Everyone enjoyed this game so much last year when Thrun was printed; so I anticipate this year’s addition to be at least as popular.

"Sweet! The only thing I look forward to more than copying Sigarda, Host of Herons is the moment Phyrexian Metamorph and Phantasmal Image rotate out of Standard this fall (assuming Image does, which seems very possible as it is a bit over-powered) and we’re all screwed…"

… As I was saying, Avacyn Restored is here, and mechanically there’s a lot to take in. What about the miracle mechanic? For those not familiar, here’s the first card previewed with the mechanic:

Is this insane or what? So, just to be clear, if you don’t draw any extra cards (at least not on your turn), any Thunderous Wraths you draw outside of your opening hand are five damage for one mana! You have to remember to look at your card before putting it into your hand, but that’s such an incredible payoff it’s hard to not be willing to play ball.

A big part of what I love about this card is that it’s actually decent, but it looks so ruthlessly better than it really is. It’s not really that it costs one half the time and six half the time, since to get it for one you have to actually cast it immediately. What if you don’t have the optimal target in play? Hit a creature and it’s a glorified Dismember. Hit a player and you’re working for your Lava Axe. That said, despite it not being quite as busted as it looks on the surface, it’s still going to be a tournament card.

Discount five mana on any decent effect, and you’re opening up the possibility of some pretty dramatic swings. Are people going to complain that it is like cascade? Obviously; people love to pretend they hate variance. That said, the real test is going to be if the card file is better designed than the Cascade cards. How much of Cascade was really that big of a problem besides Bloodbraid Elf? Yes, obviously Violent Outburst and Ardent Plea have been problematic in powered formats…

… But so what?

It’s not like anyone was fooled for even a moment into thinking that Violent Outburst and Ardent Plea into cascade spells was real Magic. It didn’t happen in Standard, Extended and Modern had and have other powerful things going on, and when it actually broke things, it wasn’t a hard situation for tournament players and wasn’t a hard ban to see coming.

Hard problems for tournament players are like Cryptic Command, Bitterblossom, and Bloodbraid Elf, where they obviously aren’t going to ban the cards in Standard but they’re oppressive. Until we see the miracle card or cards that are actually oppressive, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Part of the problem with cascade was that it was a keyword built around the Mind’s Desiremechanic. Miracle is actually more of an inverted Leyline (that happens to reward people for only drawing one card a turn in much the same way cascade rewarded people for not playing counterspells).

To deal five damage for one mana is pretty sweet, but it’s still just a better rate Dismember or Lava Axe. It’s a very different type of card, but it’s amusing the parallels it has with Blazing Salvo (but that deals 5 to creatures and you get to choose, which obviously makes all the difference in the world). What I appreciate is that the border has that exciting "action frame" that reminds you when you look at the card that you should be thinking about how sweet of a top-deck you just had before shuffling it into your hand. I love that it screams at you:

"Cast your Thunderous Wrath!"

Has anyone else already pictured how many blunders and sweet bluffs are going to stem from this mechanic? On the blunder side, just think about how many people are going to be under pressure, playing for Top 8 of an SCG Open Series, to make Day 2 of a GP, or playing for Top 25 of the PT, and they draw their Miracle, then without thinking about it, put it into their hand.

No question, the other side of the coin is going to be very real. Drawing a Thunderous Wrath, then not casting it for one so that you can surprise your opponent with it on his end step is going to be exciting. More exciting still will be having the gumption to make this play when you don’t yet have six mana because you’re that sure that your opponent currently has a Flashfreeze or that you want your opponent to overextend. Thunderous Wrath very likely is not even the best for this type of semi-bluff. 

Look at the possibilities, like if miracle ends up on some kind of a flash creature. Maybe you don’t have enough mana yet but you suspect your opponent with just Day of Judgment, so you choose to save the miracle creature for later, still using your mana to play one more threat that is more expendable (such as Strangleroot Geist).

Abilities like miracle are more complicated than meets the eye as they are so largely contextual. For instance, think about how much all of these cards change if Wizards prints a halfway playable Brainstorm variant? Even two-thirds of a Brainstorm is bonkers in the world where miracles are possible…

… And that brings us to Legacy! Isn’t this card (mechanic) just bananas in Legacy? Obviously it’s not inherently good with cantrips, but consider the following list:

R/u Burn by Patrick Chapin
4 Brainstorm
4 Lava Spike
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Chain Lightning
4 Rift Bolt
4 Price of Progress
4 Flame Rift
4 Searing Blaze
4 Fireblast
4 Thunderous Wrath
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Wooded Foothills
4 Arid Mesa
4 Volcanic Island
4 Mountain

That list is obviously purely derivative of Rainmaker-style R/u Burn, with Ponder swapped for Thunderous Blast, but if someone can find another Brainstorm analogue to use it would be far better to cut Rift Bolt and play another enabler to "turn on" the Blast when you draw it in your opening hand. Dream Cache is just a little too slow, but if you could find something even remotely close to: "1U, Instant, Draw 2 cards, then put a card from your hand on top of your deck," you would actually probably play it despite how mediocre it looks. Scroll Rack is probably too slow, as well, but that’s just for this card. It’s very possible that there will be a more appropriate fit in blue (or some other color) that turns out to be just bonkers when you can so reliably arrange for miracles. 

Isn’t Jace, the Mind Sculptor legal?

A very good point! Between Brainstorm and Jace, we’re starting to talk about an awful lot of top tier ways to reset your miracles should there be an effect that’s more to a blue deck’s liking. Enlightened Tutor, Worldly Tutor, and Noxious Revival are all interesting with miracle of course, but I keep coming back to the puzzle of what to do with the ones you actually draw in your opener. Whirlpool Riders and the like are a tough way to do it, and drawing tons of cards at one is not really where you want to be with a miracle deck. Personally, I wouldn’t mind just looting the darn things away. However, I also find myself drawn to the casting costs attached to the cards. After all, it’s conceivable that a miracle deck could have a much higher "converted mana cost" than a normal deck. This is sort of the opposite of the Dark Confidant situation (or what we want to be the Dark Confidant situation when we’re not maniacs playing Greater Gargadon).

Very high casting costs compared to how much mana is really spent on a card is potentially abusable. Take cards like Blazing Shoal for instance. If one were building a double-strike aggro deck with the intention of playing Blazing Shoal on Viashino Slaughtermaster and Warren Instigator ($40 mythic rare), Thunderous Wrath does some interesting things. If you draw it from the top of your deck, it’s hard to do better than five damage for one mana. If it’s in your opener, you can discard it to Blazing Shoal to deal an extra twelve damage. Obviously it would be even better if it cost nine (killing in one hit), but playing with cards like Progenitus in an aggro deck is usually pretty loose. I wonder if you could get away with playing Fireblast, Thunderous Wrath, and maybe even Pyrokinesis or Greater Gargadon?

High casting cost cards can be abused a variety of other ways, ranging from Erratic Explosion types to assorted "counts converted mana cost" cards like Pyromancy. Since high costs in Magic are generally significantly harsh drawbacks, WotC has made a number of ways to reward people for playing with them over the years. 

Bar none, the best way to abuse miracle is going to be Brainstorm types that let you both get rid of the "bad" copies in your hand and let you get them in the immediate future. Still, I’m betting that the most common way to use miracle cards will be to just play them because they’re good. There’s no way WotC printed this mechanic and isn’t taking some chances (which as we saw with Bloodbraid Elf can actually go south).

No question, miracle is going to be an exciting one to try to use (and break). I’m particularly interested in Mark Rosewater column today, which he Tweeted would contain the miracle card that R&D was most concerned about. In the meantime, let’s take a quick look at the other new keyword: soulbond.

Liliana and Garruk are in love, so soulbond is basically a way of acting out marriage in Magic card form…

Is this a joke?

Good call. Ok, let’s be serious for a minute. Here’s the first previewed soulbond card:

But wait! Aren’t these types of cards never that good? For instance, Knight Exemplar? Well, that’s sort of true, but it was also true that cards like Hero of Bladehold were never good until they printed Hero of Bladehold. I doubt this card is as good as Hero of Bladehold, but it is interesting in that it aspires to be good in a new way. On one level it’s a "Lord" of sorts, but from another perspective it’s kind of a weird inverted undying. Instead of two cards behind one front side, it’s one card that has two front sides.

It features an awful lot of power per mana, which immediately makes one sit up and take notice. After all, it obviously sucks against Shock and Doom Blade, but a lot of opponents don’t have that much removal. An opponent that can’t kill this is looking at a world of hurt. After all, even if you only give double strike to a two-power two-drop, we’re talking about six damage on one card. Now imagine you give double strike to something bigger…

Will you get blown out if you’re relying on him and your opponent can kill him or the other creature? Absolutely, but what if we didn’t count on him? What if he was a 187 creature that if he happened to live had a very impressive body? After all, it’s like his ability has "haste." You can drop him at a key moment and just double your attack in one turn. This is particularly relevant if there’s a white deck that wants to produce a five-power creature early, even if only for a turn. I don’t know what this mythical deck is or would be, but that’s a lot of extra damage against an unprepared opponent.

Be warned, this is exactly the type of dream that often folds to the format being too hostile for it, but like Hero of Bladehold and Baneslayer, it’s useful to keep an open mind to determine if this is the right place and time. Either way, it’s an exciting new puzzle to solve. It’s going to take time and experience to know for sure. In the meantime, I wanted to touch on another topic that seems to come up over and over despite countless articles on the subject (none of which are ever popular since the fundamentals aren’t sexy).

Blocked sideboard plans pre-written out and scripted are a dangerous thing. Obviously there’s a lot that can be discussed regarding how to sideboard against various strategies, but there’s very little requested quite as much as a "sideboard guide." After all, whoever made the sideboard (probably) had a plan against each of the most popular strategies. Why not just list that plan? Why not a "Column A: What to board out" and a "Column B: What to board in?" Everyone promises to adapt on the fly, but this will provide a structure, a default, a guideline that is well thought out, tuned, and…

…countered by any opponent that read the same stuff you did last week or was even remotely prepared, to say nothing of someone that actually has new technology. Context is crucial. When they have one card different or you have five minutes left to finish the match or they’re choosing to draw against you for an unknown reason, suddenly a sideboard plan can lead you down the wrong path. If you use a piece of paper that tells you what to sideboard, you won’t use your muscles. This isn’t the same thing as building a deck from scratch. The "default" plan shouldn’t be a piece of paper that tells you some story that you take as gospel. The default plan is to just shuffle in all fifteen and then pull out the fifteen cards you want least. If there are more than fifteen cards you’d want to take out, then cut them in order of how dead they are. Kor Firewalker against a U/W deck is better than Timely Reinforcements which is better than Sphere of Law.

Cloned sideboard plans are easily exploited by opponents who realize you are the type that boards out all of his Mana Leaks (because that is the "book play," meaning the normal play that people generally do) or boards in eight creatures or takes out his Doom Blades. Additionally, even seemingly minor differences can be very important and very obvious in how they affect your sideboarding as long as you’re actually consciously thinking. When you’re copying a piece of paper, you’re not even using the same part of your brain.

And besides, 95% of sideboard card applications can be summed up by reading the darn card. Some people want explanations for when to board in Negate and when to board in Tormod’s Crypt. There’s a very fine line between providing strategy and just repeating what the card does. The last thing we need is articles that say things like: "Lightning Bolt is good because it deals three damage. Taiga is good because it produces red and green mana. Wild Nacatl is good because it is a 3/3 for one when you have the right lands."

Outraced? Which cards will help you win the race next time? Against aggro, slow cards are dead. Too many dead cards? Against control, removal can be bad. Before you enter the tournament, try to understand what each card in your sideboard does. Do that and that will solve 95% of the question of when to bring them in. In the words of Gerry Thompson:

"Removal is good against aggro, expensive counterspells are for decks trying to cast big spells, graveyard hate is for decks that use their graveyard, Ghost Quarter is for decks that have lands you want to kill, Nephalia Drownyard is when you want an extra land or it will be best your best win condition, Blue Sun’s Zenith is for matchups where you have time to cast an expensive spell, Clones are for decks who have creatures you want to copy, etc." Gerry Thompson

Isn’t it better to understand each card? Yes, there are certainly going to be lots of times where having specific tips on how to sideboard is going to be helpful, but in general asking, "How do you sideboard with this deck?" is not actually that far off from, "How do you play with this deck?"

Everything is going to change this month! Avacyn Restored is finally starting to unfold and given how the last few sets have gone, the smart money is on Avacyn Restored having been engineered to take the format in several new directions. Dark Ascension giving enough boosts to R/G Aggro, B/u Zombies, W/b Tokens, Pod, and graveyard decks shows how in touch with the current format WotC really is. 

In Delver of Secrets’ case, yes, they missed it being as good as it is, but they certainly haven’t missed ways to make a variety of cool and different decks strong. Still, pushing cards for R/G, Zombies, Tokens, Pod, and graveyard decks while dodging control, Wolf Run Ramp, Tempered Steel has me suspecting they will be aiming to push several new decks in Avacyn Restored as well as provide some needed boosts to fringe strategies. What about Mono Red?

Magic is at an all-time high, and this block has been absolutely epic. Can the third set of this block actually live up to the first two? I can’t wait to see how the story ends!

Patrick Chapin
"The Innovator"