Innovations – Shard to the Core

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Monday, September 29th – The prerelease is over, and we’ve all had a chance to play with the new cards. Today’s Innovations sees Patrick Chapin take us through a selection cards he finds particularly interesting in a number of formats. The new set looks great for Constructed Magic… Patrick unveils the probable role-players in the emerging metagame.

Time: 1:37am, Saturday early morning 9/27/08
Location: The new neo-prerelease
Population: 16…?

This is awkward.

I enter the room to find 16 people sitting around, not playing Magic. I inquire as to what is going on.

“There is so little prize support, we are trying to get at least sixteen people to agree to play in an event. So far, we haven’t got enough to launch anything.”

Sixteen? This place gets 45-50 a night for FNM… Why would there only be 16 people for the prerelease?

“This is not a prerelease. This is a sick joke.”

I dunno… this seems like far more fun than being stuck with 400 gamers in a giant hall actually playing Magic. Why play in flight after flight, or an eight-man draft? This style of prerelease seems like a far better way to acquire new players. I am pretty sure the sixteen people who didn’t leave when they found out that the prize support was a joke, and that there would be no drafts, now have all the incentive they need to go out and acquire some new blood.

What’s that, you say? You say that prereleases draw new players and attract players who don’t normally attend Magic tournaments? Don’t you worry about that! The new model eliminates the risk of new players or new-to-tournaments players. Have no fear!

End Rant
[These are purely my own views, of course… Patrick.]

The good news is that Shards looks to be as cool as suspected. That has to count for something.

I was talking to Sullivan today (The Corrupter, not The Rainmaker). We were sharing stories about our respective prereleases, and I heard a sad story about a player that went to his prerelease and waited around for hours only to play in some random twenty-person tournament… hardly the awe-inspiring tale of a player falling in love with the game after spending a weekend with hundreds of other gamers filled with so much energy and enthusiasm.

In our discussions of Shards, I asked him to pick five cards about which he was interested in my perspective.

The first card he was curious about was Mindlock Orb. Obviously, this card would have been a totally different story at 4 as opposed to 3U, as it would be so much easier to Workshop out, but it is what it is.

As it is, I find it likely that there is just no way to consistently put it out on turn 1 when it could totally shut down fetchlands and tutors. As it is, turn 2 just feels too slow, as by then your opponent could do whatever it is that is so important to them. I just don’t see this card being disruptive enough to warrant its casting cost.

What about Maralen of the Mornsong? Bleh. Seriously, you put out this two-card combo that costs as much as Seismic Swans, and you get what? Players can’t draw cards anymore? Big deal… that doesn’t even ensure that you will win if you have an advantage on the board, as you still have to deal with the fact that you are losing three life per turn.

Put me down as suggesting that this card will not pan out.

Next up, he wanted to know my views on Master of Etherium. Okay, this one is interesting.

My first reaction was “WOW!!!!1!ONE!!, this guy is B-A-N-A-N-A-S!”

My second reaction was “Lame… just another Win More that gets blown out by all the same old Affinity hate. Better game 1s, worse games 2 and 3.”

However, now that I have played with it a lot, I see it as a solid role-player. Between this guy, Ravager, and Cranial Plating, you now never have a shortage of two-turn clocks. He combines well with Fatal Frenzy or Soul’s Fire. He is just a great threat that can especially help creature combat when games get bogged down.

How many should Affinity play? First of all, assuming you are playing a somewhat classic Affinity style, I would go with anywhere between 2 and 4, though I am starting to suspect 4 is the right number. However, it is possible that the better way to build Affinity is to focus on Salvage Titan, in which case the Master might be out of place.

Salvage Titan? Yeah, this guy is exciting. His intrinsic power level is very high for Extended, and he has some nice synergies, though he doesn’t really play that nice with Cranial Plating, Master of Etherium, and Myr Enforcer, which makes it possible that he just won’t turn out to be the best.

For reference, here is a possible Salvage Titan outline:

Where as with Master of Etherium, you might try something more like this:

Moving on, we have a card that I was honestly surprised to hear intrigued Adrian: Akrasan Squire. This guy is obviously costed competitively, serving as a 2/2 for W so to speak, with added value of being able to help in stand-off situations by forcing through one guy per turn. He is a one-drop that is strong turn 1, but is also a respectable draw turn 10.

The biggest drawback to the squire is obviously that he is a not a Kithkin. Still, at this point, what is the allure of the Kithkin tribe? You get Goldmeadow Stalwart and Wizened Cenn?

Will the Squire be worth moving away from the Kithkin tribe, whether it is a small step or a huge leap? I am not sure. The Squire looks great on paper, but he doesn’t mesh as well with your nut draws, as he can’t swarm very well at all. It is not inconsequential that he works so poorly with Spectral Procession, Windbrisk Heights, Cloudgoat Ranger, and so on.

Maybe White Weenie is not the place for him. Maybe he belongs in more of a Zoo-ish deck, or at least a Jank deck. I am picturing some kind of a deck that plays efficient creatures and doesn’t need to overrun the opponent. I dunno… it is hard to be excited about working so hard for a +1/+1 effect. Maybe he’ll be a passable one-drop, I guess… but what about Figure of Destiny and Wild Nacatyl?

Before we get off the topic of White Weenie, I would like to bring some attention to Antoine Ruel Invitational card, Ranger of Eos. This guy seem fantastic to me. You drop this guy turn 4 and go get two Figure of Destiny. That seems sick in Standard, and who knows, there is an outside chance that a pair of Wild Nacatyls would be worth it in Extended, or maybe one Nacatyl and one Figure.

A three-power threat for four mana is not the worst deal, and you get two powerful threats as a bonus for playing it? This guy seems like an auto four-of in White Weenie in Standard, and it seems much better than Mirrorweave or Thistledown Liege, or pretty much anything.

Here’s a sample non-Kithkin White Weenie:

The next card on which Adrian wanted my opinion was Bant Charm. Bant Charm is a little tricky, since I have already spoken on in each of my past two articles, so I guess I will be brief and make some suggestions for its use.

The best way to look at Bant Charm is to compare it to Putrefy. It does everything Putrefy does, but better… plus it counters Instants, which is a very real effect that can provide a much needed interactive element.

The reason Bant Charm will see play in both Extended and Standard is that everyone is vulnerable to at least one of its modes. To begin with, removing a creature from the board entirely is typically a solid deal at three mana. This ability alone makes the card, as creatures like Dark Confidant demand answers, but if you fill your deck with narrow anti-creature cards you will suffer in other match-ups.

The ability to destroy artifacts is nice in a subtle way. Artifacts are not so prevalent that maindeck artifact kill is always useful, but it is very nice to be able to deal with powerful cards like Umezawa’s Jitte, Vedalken Shackles, Lotus Bloom, and Cranial Plating. Bant Charm gives you a nice way to fit in maindeck artifact hate.

Finally there’s Flash Counter, the ability to counter Instants. It is a useful permission spell that is at its best in a counter-war or when dealing with spells like Ad Nauseam, Thirst for Knowledge, and Seething Song. This type of permission spell is a little narrow for general use, but since it has two other great options, it is well worth it.

Bant Charm appears to have a very restrictive mana cost, but the truth is that mana requirements are a joke these days. Your Standard deck should have plenty of Vivids, Hybrids, and Pools, so it should be played off just about any three lands. In addition, Extended works fine for it, despite typically having no Vivids, as it is easily assembled by way of Fetches, Shocklands, and Hybrids, plus these colors just work very well together right now.

Here’s an example of how to use Bant Charm:

This is an update of my Cruel Ultimatum deck from last week. An interesting note on Cruel Ultimatum: now that it is confirmed, it does not require a creature in your graveyard for it to be played. It shouldn’t come up too often, but it is still important to know.

The main change has been the move away from Sprouting Thrinax. It is a very powerful card, but we are already asking so much of the mana in this deck, so why not take it down a notch and make the deck a little more consistent? Besides, the Broken Ambitions give us more play on turn 2.

I know there are those that doubt the power of this card, but I have already stated my case so rather than resort to rhetoric or hyperbole, I will simply suggest that you keep this card in mind as an important option in the new Standard. Not everyone plays counterspells, and not every counterspell player always has one. Besides, perhaps that is part of its impact, that everyone has to play with some way to disrupt it, whether it is countermagic or a timely Thoughtseize.

My position on Cruel Ultimatum can be summed up with two points:

1. If you can cast Cruel Ultimatum, you will probably win.
2. If you try, it is fairly easy to cast Cruel Ultimatum.

Adrian’s final choice, Sarkhan Vol, is a card that has excited a lot of tournament and casual players alike. While Tezzeret is drawing a lot of attention in Vintage when combined with Time Vault, Sarkhan Vol is the people’s favorite on account of his powerful combination of abilities, particularly his ultra sexy Ultimate.

It is not hard to see that, as a four-mana way to give your guys +1/+1 and haste each turn for two turns followed by the threat of 20 power in the air, he is a very real threat against any sort of a strategy that can’t attack him directly. The ability to Threaten in two consecutive turns is also a useful tactical weapon and is probably the most important tool at his disposal.

Still, this guy doesn’t scare me. Don’t get me wrong, he exerts a strong presence on the board, especially if you have a second copy in your hand to give the flight of dragons haste. The thing is, Sarkhan plays horrible defense. Neither of his initial abilities is even remotely defensive, where as Garruk and Elspeth can produce blockers, original Ajani gives your guys Vigilance, and new Ajani can deal with potential attacking creatures.

As a result, Sarkhan is particularly powerful when you can keep the opponent on the defensive with the rest of your deck, but not strong on his own. Despite a relatively high Loyalty, he is just defenseless to a counter attack. I am sure he will have a few different homes in aggressive strategies, but I see him eventually being more of a casual card unless his ability to double Threaten turns out to cement him a spot in your rotation.

It is too bad he isn’t in Standard with Greater Gargadon, but maybe a deckbuilder more ambitious than myself with make this combination work in Extended, perhaps in some sort of a new Fires-esque strategy. All things considered, he does make for a very good Fires of Yavimaya, assuming he lives through your opponent’s counter attack.

Shards of Alara has one of the highest percentages of Constructed playables ever, and it is kind of exciting considering they don’t all point in one direction. By my count, there are 95 Constructed playable cards, outside of basic land. That makes 95 out of 229, or about 41%, which is very high, though I am typically pretty liberal about what constitutes a tournament playable card.

In my experience, many beginners believe many cards to be playable that are not. Eventually they become good enough players that they realize that these weak cards are not good. However, typically when they reach this point, they over-compensate and use the tools they have developed for identifying bad cards too much.

See, many cards can be labeled good or bad because of the type of effect they generate (Wraths, permission, card draw, mana acceleration, etc, as opposed to auras, fatties with no defensive abilities or immediate impact on the board, or reactive cards that cost more than the cards they are designed to answer).

Other cards are labeled good or bad because they cost one mana too little (Tarmogoyf, Bitterblossom, Counterspell, Dark Confidant) or one mana too much (Cylian Elf, Covenant of Minds, Volcanic Submersion, Sunseed Nurturer).

Many times, though, a card is good or bad contextually. If a card has just the right mix of abilities to work together or in a particular format, it can gain or lose value. For instance, Rafiq of the Many has a lot of raw power on abilities, but with three toughness, it is just too poorly positioned to impress savvy tournament players.

Meanwhile, you have cards like Tezzeret who are not that impressive on their own, but as a component to compliment Time Vault become much stronger in the specific.

One card that really excites me, though I am not sure where to put it, is Broodmate Dragon. This guy seem totally terrific to me. Am I the only one who sees this as an 8/8 flier that has inherent protection from spot removal? I don’t care who you are, that is worth sitting up and taking notice.

You know, another dragon that I think might be underrated is the Flameblast Dragon. Shivan Dragon has occasionally made his way into a variety of Constructed decks, and this guy is a huge upgrade. The biggest thing I see holding this guy back is the Broodmate, but there will surely prove to be a home for this guy. He is just a really solid piece to play with. He is not quite Oona, but man, he sure is good.

A card I think will prove to be exceptional is the Tidehollow Sculler. Mesmeric Fiend was a tournament staple at 1/1, and a 2/2 is a much stronger body to work with. This guy might be top 10 in the set and will be a standard inclusion in many decks across the board in most formats. He might be the two-drop of choice in Extended to compliment Goyf and Bob. His disruption provides a much needed way to interact with fast combo decks like TEPS and PlasmaSwan.

Behemoth’s Herald is an interesting thought for Extended Zoo. Between Isamaru, Wild Nacatyl, Savannah Lions, Kird Ape, and Mogg Fanatic, it is very easy to imagine this guy summoning a turn 3 Godsire. He can even do his trick in combat with damage on the stack. An 8/8 Vigilance guy that taps to put an 8/8 into play is very real. It is both a very quick clock and a way to totally take over a creature battle.

Dragon’s Herald is interesting for a similar reason. Wild Nacatyl, Birds of Paradise, Dark Confidant, Tarmogoyf, and Tidehollow Sculler help ensure a turn 4 Hellkite Overlord, though you could make it turn 3 if you tried hard enough. They don’t make too many clocks faster than that.

Magma Spray is a fairly simple card, but it is useful for what Red Mages in the new Standard will be trying to accomplish. It is perfectly crafted to combat Kitchen Finks and is surely good enough to make the maindeck.

A quiet card that may end up a useful role player is Vithian Stinger. A pinger for three mana is close to playable, and this guy’s unearth ability is really strong, as he basically pays you a free one-point shot even if they kill him. This is a subtle form of card advantage that the Red mage doesn’t always have access to.

This guy’s value will really come down to how many one-toughness creatures see play; Prodigal Sorcerer type cards alternate between unplayable, sideboard specials, and maindeck powerhouses, such as Suq’ata Firewalker in David Mills’s Extended deck in Chicago a few years back. This guy can’t promise you the moon, but he might be a good one to keep in mind.

Finally, for you Eternal Players, I leave you with a thought: Ad Nauseam will probably eventually be restricted in Vintage and banned in Legacy. This is me going on record as saying this is more of a Necropotence/Memory Jar type of thing than a Necrologia/Moonlite Bargain type of thing.

See you guys next week, when I return with more on Shards of Alara, new Extended, the Magic Cruise, and a weekend Magic boot camp in which four players will have the opportunity to spend a weekend perfecting their game and preparing for the PTQ season to come with myself and some top American players (not to mention having a ridiculous amount of fun…). See you then!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”