Innovations – Format-Changing Effects in M11

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Monday, June 28th – M11 is fast approaching, and many of the format’s nuts and bolts are slowly being revealed. Today, Patrick Chapin takes a look at some of the more exciting spoiled cards, cards that will certainly impact Constructed Magic upon their introduction. (Warning: Spoilers!)

It’s that time of the season, once again. M11 Spoilers are in full effect (Thanks MTGSalvation!), and now we are no longer just going on leaked product information from the half decks. With official spoilers hitting the scene, it is no surprise that WotC has unveiled some of the heavy hitters, some of the powerful new cards that are going to change both Standard and the new Extended. It is weeks like this that really demonstrate why anyone that is seriously preparing for upcoming tournament seasons would do well to keep on top of spoilers. The first card we review today is so drastic in implication that any testing done without consideration of this card is somewhat flawed. Imagine not looking at spoilers and spending weeks practicing the format to come, not even realizing that things were going to be “different.”

What card am I talking about that will cause such shock waves?

Let’s start with the big one…

Mana Leak
Counter target spell unless its caster pays 3.

That’s right. This simple, unassuming reprint is quite possibly the most important card to be printed in M11. Not only is this the “Wall of Omens: Sure Thing 100% Winner For Sure Which Is Totally Obvious to Everyone” award goes to Mana Leak. Why is Mana Leak’s reprinting going to cause such shockwaves? Not only is this the best Counterspell to be printed since Cryptic Command, it is the fabled two-mana reliable Counterspell that you can actually play maindeck. For so long, Blue has had to endure a weakness when it comes to Counterspells. Want to counter on two? Well, Essence Scatter, Negate, and Flashfreeze are all much less reliable early. It’s not that Mana Leak is busted, because like Wall of Omens, it isn’t “broken.” It is just that it will be an obvious automatic four-of in so many decks. Blue is already the best color in Standard by some player’s estimations (the mere existence of Jace, the Mind Sculptor alone makes a claim for this). Now… now Blue finally has a good Counterspell again.

This is going to have a lot more implications that just Blue Mages having access to Counterspells more often. This means that players will be more heavily incentivised to slow play their hand and build up the mana “To Pay.” This means that heavy powerful cards like Baneslayer Angel, Gideon Jura, Cruel Ultimatum, various Sphinxes, Siege-Gang Commander, Sarkhan the Mad, and so on will be hurt by how dangerous it will be to always “Tap Out.” This card is going to have a huge impact, one with ripples that will take months to play out. It’s not just having Mana Leak. It’s not just the cards that are better or worse directly with it. It is all of the third-hand effects, like less heavy cards making midrange 3-4 drops better. It is a slight decrease in the value of Oblivion Ring. It is an increased desire in Blue Mages to play with card filtering or draw to make up for late game Mana Leaks stuck in their hand. No, let’s not even do the tired old “It’s Good With Jace!” argument. Everything is better with Jace…

It is not just Standard that is going to change, however. The new Extended is a wild and crazy format that is far from being understood. One aspect that had deck builders scratching their heads was what to do about cheap countermagic. Sure, Cryptic Command is legal, but what’s next? Broken Ambitions? It’s not “bad,” but it is not exciting either. Suffice it to say, Mana Leak being legal means… Faeries and Blue Control look better? Okay, I can’t even keep a straight face with this one…

Yeah, now it is probably safe to say Blue is too good!

I gotta get it together. (Still actually laughing, trying to keep my composure). Seriously? No, Blue isn’t “Too Good.” Skullclamp? That was too good. Blue now? It might be the best, but something’s got to be the best, and I don’t actually think it is as clear as people make it seem. Mana Leak is a powerful weapon, truly astonishing, but Lightning Bolt is too. It takes all kinds. Let’s wait and see the rest of the set. Historically, those that have bet on the end of the world have done poorly.

Up next, the Great Sable Stag against Jund, the card whispered about that was supposed to save both Blue and Non-Blue Mages alike. The card built to hose The Enemy:

Obstinate Baloth
Creature — Beast
When ~ enters the battlefield, gain 4 life.
If a spell or ability controlled by an opponent causes you to discard ~, put it onto the battlefield.

Wow. I mean, wow. Yeah, read that again. So, it’s a Ravenous Baloth, but you don’t have to sacrifice it to gain the life, you just get it immediately? On top of that, instead of a mild tribal ability, you get the Wilt-leaf Liege ability? Wow.

Okay, so this card is obviously designed to truly hose Jund. To start with, it’s a 4/4, making it big enough to rumble with anything in Jund, right off top. In addition, it is not vulnerable to Lightning Bolt, which is one of Jund’s best removal spells. The lifegain provided is just what the doctored ordered against Jund, as one of the most annoying aspects of Jund is the barrage of Bolts, Bloodbraids, and Blightnings. Additionally, the Wilt-Leaf clause is generally going to be absolutely devastating to anyone that tries to Blightning you (which is generally the most annoying part of Jund, short of Bloodbraid Elf).

Whereas before you might fear the Bloodbraid into Blightning, imagine now a world where you calmly discard a Obstinate Baloth and not only don’t go down cards, but actually gain life plus now have a zero-mana 4/4 to hold off the Bloodbraid. This is not even factoring in drawing two (or any) Vengevines. It is going to be REALLY risky to play Blightning against a Green deck. The best part is that this guy isn’t even like Dodecapod where you would only sideboard it. It isn’t like Vengevine where you need to build around it. It is just straight up maindeckable and awesome game 1 against most people. It bashes through Wall of Omens. It is easy to cast, making you less likely to get screwed by Goblin Ruinblaster when it should be saving you. It is just plain awesome.

Also… It isn’t Mythic.

This shouldn’t be that big a factor, but for those that cried out against Vengevine being Mythic, remember to give WotC their due when they round the other way, because this card could very well have been Mythic. Mythic cards are supposed to “wow” some portion of the audience. This card really wows me. That said, I am thankful that it is only rare, as it does something healthy that I would like to see more people have access to without as much difficultly. I’m trying to avoid another degeneration into complaining about Mythics, in which people in the forums tend to indulge, but suffice to say that this is not a Mythic, so let’s all be happy, sing songs, and dance around in celebration!

Pro Tip: You are probably going to want 4 of these. It is totally awesome in the new Standard, but the card is generally better than Loxodon Hierarch, a card that has done very well in more powerful formats. This card is going to be a staple for at least four years. Better than Loxodon Hierarch. Better.

From the Starkington Post:

Squadron Hawk
Creature — Bird
When ~ enters the battlefield, you may search your library for up to three cards named ~, reveal them to all players, and put them into your hand.

This card is one of my favorites. After reading Bill Stark preview a couple days ago, I was grinning ear to ear. I could just see Mike Turian cackling with glee.

“I know, let’s make a super strong tournament playable Welkin Hawk!”

For those that don’t know, Mike Turian loves Welkin Hawk more than anyone else in the entire world. Squadron Hawk is basically just a Welkin Hawk that gets all three instead of just one at a time. That is not much of a difference in Limited (though it is a little), but the real difference is with Constructed. Think about it for a minute, for two mana, you get FOUR CARDS. That is absurd. You spend two mana, and yes, one of the cards is a 1/1 flier, but so what? You now have three cards in your hand. Yes, they are all two-mana 1/1 fliers, but if you have anything like Sphinx of Lost Truths, Vengevine, Enclave Cryptologist, Blightning, or whatever, then a card is a card. Additionally, they work great with Equipment, and they are powered up by Honor of the Pure with the best of them. They even work ten different ways with Jace. Yeah, not only do you draw 3 and put back two Squadron Hawks, but you use the last one to get the other two, so you are just casting Ancestral. Obviously, you can keep it going by using Jace to bounce your Hawk too, if you like, though like Scroll-Tax, your opponent probably won’t last long under these conditions.

I think this is a card that will probably be initially overlooked by many, but I have a feeling his day will come.

Combustion cannot be countered by a spell or an ability. Deal 5 damage to target White or Blue creature. The damage cannot be prevented.

Seriously? I’ve gotta admit, there are a lot of cards in this set that crack me up. So instead of dealing 3 damage divided however (a card that never really had a need for it to exist), we have the ability to deal 5 to a single White or Blue creature. Sure, there are lots of White and Blue creatures to kill with this, but I think it is safe to say that this was a weapon designed to kill Baneslayer Angel (and no, this time, it is not Tribal – Demon…)

Red decks have had huge problems with Baneslayer since its adoption, and now they finally have a good sideboard. Another nice feature of this spell is that it is perfect for killing Celestial Colonnade, and the new Conundrum Sphinx that I will talk about later. Even when not killing Baneslayer, at least it can take down Wall of Omens, Sphinx of Lost Truth, or SOMETHING. Ironically, it does not kill Sphinx of Jwar Isle, despite dealing five, and it does not kill Kor Firewalker, despite being unpreventable damage. Still, to anyone that has lost to Baneslayer one too many times, there is a new weapon available to you that will change the battlefield entirely. Remember, it is uncounterable, so they can’t even run the Baneslayer plus Flashfreeze combo that has stopped many, many Red Mages dead in their tracks.

Up next, BDM’s Top8Magic.com preview:

Conundrum Sphinx
Creature — Sphinx
When ~ attacks, each player names a card. Then each player reveals the top card of their library. If the card a player revealed is the card they named, they put it into their hand. If not, they put it on the bottom of their library.

Seriously? Man, I would love it if this portion of the article was in podcast form so that you could hear me right now, and hear me punch in a Martin Juza audio clip of him saying, “Really?”

Let’s seriously analyze this for a minute. To begin with, it is a 4/4 flier for 2UU (despite the rumors that it did not fly). That alone has it as a serious consideration. I mean, 4/4 flying for 2UU? That is pretty freaking big. Next we consider that instead of a drawback, as you might expect from a 4/4 flier for 4, we have an incredible ability! All he has to do is attack (not even connect). Take it from a guy that plays Blue a lot, it is not that hard to know the top of your library. Halimar Depths, Oracle of Mul Daya, Preordain, Foresee, Sphinx of Jwar Isle, and yes, Jace, the Mind Sculptor are just the beginning. A 4/4 flying Ophidian? Doesn’t that just set off all kinds of alarms in your head? I have to admit, I was shocked to see this one at rare instead of Mythic, but I am not complaining. Where will the best home turn out to be for this guy? I really don’t know, but what I do know is that this card is just bonkers on inherent card quality.

What is the biggest thing holding it back? The card has the same casting cost as Jace, the Mind Sculptor. It wouldn’t be so bad if that was the extent of it, but Bloodbraid Elf, Elspeth, Vengevine, Obstinate Baloth, Oracle of Mul Daya, Ranger of Eos, and more have the standard for four-drops set unreasonably high. Yet I think Conundrum Sphinx is possibly in that league, though I have to admit it will be tough.

Scroll Thief
Creature – Merfolk Rogue
When ~ deals combat damage to a player, draw a card.

Speaking of Ophidians, how sick is it that Ophidian is now a Merfolk, gets to deal damage, and is still common? This card seems like so much fun for Limited. Will it be good enough for Constructed? You know I would love to Ophidian, I really would, but I just think it is a much more hostile time for a card like this. Back in the day, people had fewer random dudes laying around. Even Shadowmage Infiltrator didn’t get that much play and it had fear. A Shadowmage Infiltrator without Fear? I imagine it being stopped by Wall of Omens and so on. Ophidian was always a good blocker back in the day, but Scroll Thief is outclassed by modern creatures. My rating? Probable fringe, but unlikely to be a star.

That said, if you were playing a Merfolk deck…

Bloodcrazed Goblin
Creature — Goblin
~ can’t attack unless defending player has taken non-combat damage this turn.

The latest in a long, proud line of Kiln Fiends, it doesn’t matter what I say about this card. There is a percentage of people who play this type of thing. These kind of cards are generally pretty bad, but they have a very devoted following.

“I have to burn my opponent? I was going to do that anyway!”

(Note: Kiln Fiend is a decent Kiln Fiend. This guy is a bad Jackal Familiar, and Jackal Familiar is not exactly a very high bar…)

Time Reversal
Each player shuffles their hand, graveyard, and library together then draws 7 cards. Exile Time Reversal.

Evan Erwin exclusive spoiler from last week is basically just same text as Time Twister, except it also removes itself from the game. How good is Time Twister? Is it worth five? Without fast mana, it feels like it is not going to be that mainstream an effect. I would not be surprised if it ends up getting played about as much as Time Warp, which is to say that it will be awesome in its niche, but it isn’t a card you just jam into every random U/W Control deck.

When is it at its best? With cards like Noble Hierarch, Birds of Paradise, Explore, Aether Adept, and other bounce. The key is to break the symmetry. You are paying five mana, so you need to get an awful lot. For reference, I still think that a 3UU sorcery is worth about four cards (like Tidings). To get four cards of value, you need to either consistently have far fewer cards in your hand than your opponent (fast mana and bounce) or have a combo kill that will end the game before your opponent gets a chance to use all of these cards (like Underworld Dreams or something).

My snap rating? Overrated.

The card is good for the game, it is a fun one to exist, and a lot of non-tournament players will be particularly pleased, but I don’t see it bringing back Combo Winter. The card will have applications, but I think that it is more of a Mindbreak Trap/Time Warp than a Jace, the Mind Sculptor/Cryptic Command. Could it be good? Sure. It is certainly a powerful effect, but I am not particularly impressed. It is amusing to me that Time Reversal, Time Warp, and Jace’s Ingenuity mean that there is a Time Twister, a Time Walk, and an Ancestral Recall all legal in Standard, all costing 3UU.

Steel Overseer
Artifact Creature — Construct
T: Put a +1/+1 counter on each artifact creature you control.

This guy is a rather low-key spoiler that has not received much fanfare. A 1/1 for 2? Please, how lame is that? What kind of a deck would use a 1/1 for 2 that only works in an artifact heavy deck? Oh wait…

Yes, Steel Overseer is the latest in a line of “Cards That Will Get Way Better With Scars of Mirrodin.” For the time being, about the only home I can imagine involves Lodestone Golem, Master of Etherium, Esper Stormblade, Ethersworn Canonist, and so on. If you think about it, in that context, he looks pretty good. A 1/1 that taps to put a +1/+1 counter on your team including himself? That guy can totally take over a game if the opponent is shy of removal, and Esper (or U/W now…) artifact creature beatdown decks are generally going to be able to produce a lot of threats that need to be dealt with. Keep your eye on this one. He’s no Ravager, but there are a lot of worlds where this guy is a threat.

Imperious Perfect
Creature – Elf Warrior
G, T: Put a 1/1 Elf Warrior token onto the battlefield.
Other Elves you control get +1/+1.

This reprint is good, clean, honest fun. This is the type of tribal lord I can really get behind. The Perfect is solid, but not oppressively good (especially without Wren’s Run Vanquisher to do the heavy lifting). This card is super popular, requires plenty of decisions, and helps suggest a deck to be built around. I am super happy to see this reprinted and it will probably see plenty of play in a variety of decks, some very Elf-centric, some not as much. I know I am smiling now, but I am surely going to lose a number of Limited games to this card single-handedly, so definitely be aware of the Limited power-level of this one. I think it may be a little weaker in Constructed than it was last time around (More Bolts, less Vanquishers and Profane Command), but it is still a reasonable option, especially if you like Vampire decks but are thinking of branching out. It will probably be very economical to build a very competitive G/R Elf deck with Bloodbraids, Bolts, Nissa’s Chosen, Elvish Archdruid, Nissa Revane, Llanowar Elf, Arbor Elf, Joraga Warcaller, Raging Ravine more burn, etc.

For another M11 spoiler discussion, check out my free-side exclusive preview of Hoarding Dragon, here. Props to everyone that had me sign a copy of Next Level Magic at the StarCityGames.com Open in St Louis this past weekend. I appreciate the positive energy! See you next week!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”