Magical Hack – Alara Reborn Prerelease Primer

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Friday, April 24th – Whenever Prerelease time rolls around, I like spend my column on the before taking a look at the ins and outs of that upcoming format, taking advantage of the fact that my weekly deadline is usually a day or two after the complete spoiler is compiled by mtgsalvation.com. As of the time of this writing it is Wednesday afternoon and we have 145 out of 145 cards spoiled, and while there is no guarantee that each and every card has the exact correct text it is still more than enough to work with in order to figure out how Shards of Alara-Alara Reborn Limited is going to feel.

Whenever Prerelease time rolls around, I like spend my column on the before taking a look at the ins and outs of that upcoming format, taking advantage of the fact that my weekly deadline is usually a day or two after the complete spoiler is compiled by mtgsalvation.com. As of the time of this writing it is Wednesday afternoon and we have 145 out of 145 cards spoiled, and while there is no guarantee that each and every card has the exact correct text it is still more than enough to work with in order to figure out how Shards of Alara-Alara Reborn Limited is going to feel. Gone for the moment are Conflux’s domain cards, and so too its mono-colored cards… all of the Alara Reborn cards you are going to have at your disposal are going to be polychromatic cards, and it’s interesting to figure out what the ramifications of this are going to be on Limited. Alara Reborn has an unique mix of hyrbid, allied-color gold cards, enemy-color gold cards and tri-color gold cards, with one wacky five-color gold card thrown in just for fun. It also has a pretty advanced take on cycling, with dual-landcycling creatures in each allied color pair, hybrid-mana cyclers, and a fresh look at cycling-as-cantrip-spells last seen in Onslaught Block… and it has a new mechanic all its own, Cascade, whose value can be a bit difficult to wrap your head around but which allows for card advantage in a set that is otherwise somewhat lacking in it: every Cascade spell lets you spin up a free spell to cast alongside it.

The set follows a pretty distinct structure, with the allied-color pairs effectively replacing the individual colors one would find in a regular set. Thus one sees Azorius, Selesnya, Gruul, Rakdos, and Dimir instead of White, Green, Red, Black and Blue, and the bulk of the cards in the set will fit into one of these five boxes. It also uses very heavily upon one of Mark Rosewater favorite tools, cycles, to bring form and structure to the set across various commonalities… meaning some of the cards look at least somewhat alike, because many of them have four friends with similar themes in different color schemes. We’re going to step through the rarities, rather than the colors, to figure out what this structure is and what it means to you playing at the Prerelease tomorrow, then come back and look at the tricks and removal spells by color combination and commonality to help figure out what your opponent might be representing with their untapped mana. For the end, we’ll top off by having a look at how you’ll probably want to build your prerelease card-pool, and figure out what items are critical to see if you want to have success.


The five allied-color pairs have between seven and nine commons each, with the following cycles:

1. Borderposts – An artifact that comes into play tapped and taps for the mana of a particular allied-color pair. Costs either 1CD (so, 1RG for the Gruul-flavored Borderpost) or the alternate cost of 1, Return a basic land you control to your hand… allowing it to be played as a bad Obelisk for mana acceleration, or as a variant on the Invasion Block tap-duals. Effectively a really good dual land available at common that happens to have the occasionally-annoying alternate casting cost of 1CD, as you’ll occasionally find when you play a Cascade card and all you get is one of these. However, they count as colored permanents, which is crucial to another cycle at common.

2. Dual Landcyclers – An overcosted creature costing 4CD (so, 4RG for the Gruul-flavored one) that is a mediocre but presumably playable creature for that cost, but one with two landcycling abilities that each cost two colorless mana. Alongside the Borderposts, these creatures are the bulk of your mana-fixing in the set, assisting you in playing spells of two or more different colors. Some of the mediocre creatures aren’t bad at all, just a tad expensive… for example, Pale Recluse hit the spoilers two weeks ago, and is a 4/5 with Reach for 4GW, making it excellent as a mana-fixer early or excellent as a relevant creature late.

3. Hybrid Cyclers – One card in each of the five allied-color pairs has one Hybrid mana as its cycling cost, cycling from your hand for either C or D, again being either Red or Green for the Gruul-flavored one. What these cards do or even what card-type they are varies from color combination to color combination, but there is always one and exactly one card that has this low and easily-afforded cycling cost. It’s currently listed on the spoilers as a broken cycle, with the R/G one an Uncommon, but this should revised before you see the cards, it was spoiled as a common just like the other four originally.

The enemy-color pairs have one common each, each combining some talents of the two enemy colors in interesting fashion, and for the most part being rather the more potent because of it. Especially worth noting are the B/G and R/W ones of this ‘cycle’ (which is actually not a cycle, since it has differing casting costs and only four of the five are creatures) since they are very aggressive two-drops, and due to the overall higher power level of a gold-themed set it’s worth noticing aggressive standouts such as Putrid Leech, which can attack at either 2/2 or 4/4 size with zero mana invested for the right to double in size.

The tri-color shards each have one common represented, and they are a much firmer cycle: each is a creature named ‘[Shard] Sojourner’ costing between three and five mana, costing XCDE (so WUB for the three-mana Esper Sojourner, and 2RGW for the five-mana Naya Sojourner)… and each has the ability to cycle from your hand for 2D, where D is the central color of the appropriate shard. These creatures each have a leaves-play trigger that also triggers when you cycle the card, providing some small but presumably meaningful benefit when it leaves play or is cycled, ranging from very good (Jund Sojourners is after all an uncounterable Zap) to rather poor (Grixis Sojourners is an uncounterable Cremate that just happens to cost three instead of one). Still, you’re guaranteed to get something for free, which is always a good deal… it’s just that some feel decidedly spell-like, and others will be guaranteed to have their effect as a leaves-play trigger unless something unusual happens.

And then there was hybrid! Each tri-color combination has a few hybrid cards that cost one colored mana of the central color to that shard and either of its associated colors as the other color in the card’s cost, meaning the Jund cards can be cast effectively for either Gruul or Rakdos mana. There are two commons in each of the five shards: one cycle and one non-cycle. The cycle looks like this: a 2/1 for two mana, to be paid as described above, which gains +1/+1 and some additional ability if you control another multicolored permanent. Blue gets flying, Black gets Deathtouch, Red gets Haste, Green gets Shroud and White gets First Strike. Unsurprisingly, Blue wins: a 3/2 flier for two mana is an awesome aggressive creature, and while none of the rest are slouches, even a 3/2 hasty dude attacking on turn two won’t have as big an overall impact on the board as a fast evasive attacker ultimately will. Blockers come down quickly… flying blockers, less so.

But when trying to parse all these things together, well, no matter what the girls say, size matters. Figuring out just how relevant all those 2/2 bears are is important, after all, and 2/2s aren’t so hot in a world ruled by the 4/4 man. Azorius averages out to about a 2/4, Dimir to 3/3, Grixis to 3/2, Gruul to 4/3, and Selesnya to 3/4. This means that your aggressive two-drops will start to get irrelevant very quickly unless they have something else going on… the hybrid common cycle that is secretly 3/2s with abilities, great; hard-to-cast Rip-Clan Crashers that gain Vigilance for the trouble, not so much. The cheap drops are great for Constructed, I’m sure, but will quickly find 2/3s and bigger standing in their way.


The Uncommons are easy to analyze; each allied color pair gets between three and five Uncommons, one of which has Cascade and one of which is an equipment card. The enemy color pairs each get two uncommons, each Shard gets one three-color spell, and each color gets one Hybrid card using the color rules from the commons. Equipment is pretty solid in this format… ranging from Make-a-Shadowmage-Infiltrator to repeated-use Armadillo Cloaks. G/W gives Armadillo Cloak to a guy, which has to be at least as good as Loxodon Warhammer if not better, trading a point of power for two points of toughness. W/U is the ‘wimp,’ just passing out a +0/+2, vigilance, and the ability to lock down whatever creature you block… solid utility, but not attack power. U/B gives Fear and the Ophidian ability, to build your own Shadowmage Infiltrator. B/R grants colorless Firebreathing and is all-around cheap to play and pass around, while R/G ‘merely’ gives a triggered ability to punch an opponent for the creature’s power when it attacks.

Not all colors or all equipment is created equal; U/W’s is pretty much weak sauce, while G/W’s repeating Armadillo Cloak is not something I would want to have to try beating. For that matter, Green’s equipment seems to be good all around, as the R/G one should only take one or two equips to really decimate the opponent.

Cascade, which previously appeared on one Common card for each color combination, likewise gets one Uncommon as well, and the Uncommons are much better than the commons were. That said, some people are going to take it as an affront to their judgment to pay 2UB for a Will-o’-the-Wisps that used to cost them just one black mana… but literally none of the cascading Uncommons are bad, even if they aren’t all ideal. Green again gets the best ones — R/G you’ve met already as everyone and their brother tries to jam Bloodbraid Elf into a constructed deck, but the one that well and truly scares me is Enlisted Wurm, a 5/5 for 4GW that has Cascade as its only ability. I’d take a 5/5 and a free spell for six mana, you don’t have to ask me twice.

The enemy-color-pair uncommons are generally potent, if a bit narrow. Orzhov gets an instant that gives you both sides of an Orzhov Pontiff, shrinking their team by -1/-1 and pumping yours by +1/+1 for the low, low price of just WB and at instant speed. For two mana, then, B/W gets something that is surprisingly akin to Overrun in creature-on-creature battles, to give you an idea of what Uncommons from the off-colors can do. Some of them take time or work or put in risks to make them really impressive, but most if not all of them have the ability to do nutty things if they work right.

The shard-colored uncommons give you one each for each of the five shards, and frankly most of them stink… but the ones that don’t are amazing, so it’s swinging for the rafters either way and they either strike out or hit a home run. Case in point, two examples:

Dragon Appeasement – 3BRG
Skip your draw step. Whenever you sacrifice a creature, you may draw a card.

Strikeout. Someone will love this, but not in a 40-card deck.

Flurry of Wings – GWU
Put X 1/1 white Bird Soldier creature tokens with flying into play, where X is the number of attacking creatures.

Home run. This can either Fog for a turn, be used to make an awful lot of power worth of fliers for just three mana and one card, or meet somewhere in the middle between these two things. While its tri-color combination likes to attack with just one creature thanks to Exalted, it doesn’t have to always be that way, and thus this card can be quite nutty.

And for one last semi-cycle, at Uncommon we have another set of hybrid-gold cards one per color, and these hit a very high power level indeed… the most innocent of them is ‘just’ a 2/2 flier for four that cantrips, while the others are stuff like 4/4s for 4 with benefits (okay, 2/4 for 4 but with Double Strike, but you get my meaning) or a targeted mix of Threaten and Cruel Edict.

We’d look at Rares as well, but for the fact that Rares don’t happen to be a large portion of your Limited pool. Worth noting however is that nowhere near as many of the Rares are swingy, bomb-like monstrosities as we saw in Shards of Alara or Conflux, very few things hitting anywhere even near the level of Flameblast Dragon or Martial Coup… but the Mythic Rares are on the whole very powerful, often aggressively costed creatures (Jenara) or at least ones that can bust a game wide open within a turn or two (Thraximundar). With three packs of Shards of Alara and three packs of Alara Reborn, you’ll still notice that we have a bomb-laden format among the best decks… now let’s deconstruct the particular details to see how they interact.

Color clearly matters between these two sets, as you will flat-out require access to two colors of mana at the start of the game to even be playing, and are more likely to want to try and stretch in three if not four colors of mana. Three packs of Shards gives us three packs with tri-lands, Panoramas and Obelisks, and frankly these will do a significant portion of your heavy lifting for color-fixing. Three packs of Alara Reborn gives us three packs of Borderposts and dual-land cyclers, but also unfortunately three packs of all-gold effects with the few notable exceptions of a cycle of five cards you can actually play to some reasonable effect with just one color of mana (the common Sojourners cycle). Your colors are going to be heavily taxed, and thus again the best decks will be the ones not with the most Dragons and Planeswalkers (though, well, that helps) but the ones with the best mana to stretch all the cards they want in together. Borderposts and tri-lands are the best way to do this, followed by the Panoramas and dual landcyclers, and last but not least the Obelisks which provide three colors of fixing at the expense of being slow and unwieldy either in aggressive decks or when playing against them.

Hybrid eases some of the strain by providing cards that can be played for either Gruul or Rakdos, for example, but Hybrid only stretches these envelopes so far, and thus with 42 cards of Alara Reborn to play with you’ll notice about one-fifth corresponds to any one color combination, so you’ll have between eight and nine cards of each two-color combination and who knows if your Shards of Alara packs will get you to a playable deck. So, pretty clearly then we can expect the standard deck to be two colors plus a splash, with those two colors being a very firm two colors thanks to the heavy gold requirements of Alara Reborn, and that splash is likely to be five or six cards rather than two or three, between Alara Reborn cards you want to play and three-colored spells like Wooly Thoctar from Shards. With plentiful mana-fixing, however, you’ll find four-color decks of two colors with two splashes is possible, and thus good mana-fixing has a strong impact on your ability to do well… greed is at least somewhat key to this format, and those who can be greedier without it catching them with losses to bad mana will overall do just that little extra bit better.

Worth noting is that creature sizes average somewhere around Hill Giant size, but have a solid spread of aggressive abilities on the low end of the curve so I expect Shards/Alara Reborn limited to play very similarly to how Shards of Alara sealed by itself did… decks will aim to be either ponderously slow and bomby, mid-range and overall fat with the ‘five power matters’ mechanic, or quick and aggressive to capitalize on the fact that you won’t always draw your mana perfectly. So by looking at your card-pool you can determine which of these three you are most likely to be able to successfully pull off: a stall deck that just wants to live long enough to bring multiple bombs online, a deck that wants to float past the early three or four turns without falling too far behind then start deploying 5-6 mana fatties to clog the board and tower over the opponent’s creatures, or a deck that starts attacking on turn two and never looks to play the late game. Both Red and Blue tend to default to this way of looking at things in this set, thanks to their aggressively-costed smaller creatures (and frankly Blues somewhat plentiful fliers). Black/Blue and Green/X aim to think in the more mid-game-ish sort of way, with Green/X just enjoying potent and aggressively-costed monsters, and Black/Blue falling into a mid-game controlling role thanks to the fact that the Dimir Guild seems to be back up to its old tricks in force, with a lot of incidental milling cards thrown in the mix and able to siphon off a fair chunk of the opponent’s library at a time.

For the last type, well, how many mana-fixers you open and what bombs you have will tell you if you can try it, but I would expect it to not be the norm. The full-on five colors should be an anomaly, a statistical oddity, rather than something that is anywhere close to commonplace; the cost of adding that fifth color will almost surely outweigh the opportunity to play one or two more very good cards, as the mana-fixing is somewhat thinner on the ground in Alara Reborn than it was in just Shards of Alara, and thus even the stretch from three colors to four should be a weighty one to debate and one that will frequently see three colors winning the argument just to have a stable mana-base.

Removal and tricks are the key to having a working beatdown deck, and removal is the key to surviving into the mid- and late-game, so one way or the other we have to know what the removal in the format is if we want to play well and build decks that can actually stand up to it. For example, knowing that Infest, Jund Charm and Volcanic Fallout are all uncommons that are floating around the format in Shards/Conflux Limited, one has to be extra careful before committing to a deck archetype that will lose to these cards, and properly not over-extending your board into such cards while playing. While a weenie Exalted strategy is very potent in Shards/Conflux Limited, and can just bowl over an opponent before they’ve even managed to mount a defense, one of these placed onto the stack can very easily decimate you, turning the rout pointed the other way… so figuring out what’s in the set that you’ll have to actually play around is time well spent.

Azorius has two commons of note:

Ethersworn Shieldmage — The artifact creature ‘faerie,’ Shieldmage is a 2/2 artifact Wizard with Flash who prevents all damage dealt to artifact creatures until end of turn when he comes into play. A modest 2/2 for 1UW… but one who can turn a profitable attack into an unprofitable one.

Offering to Asha — 2WU for a Mana Leak variant… counter a spell unless you pay four mana; either way they gain four life. A weak counterspell and a weak trick, but still one that will look playable enough to some to make the list.

Widening this to look at Esper, for just Blue mana you can cycle Esper Sojourners, to tap or untap a permanent for 2U and draw a card.

Orzhov has one uncommon of note… Zealous Persecution, which for BW at Instant speed gives your opponent’s creatures -1/-1 and your creatures +1/+1. A dangerous combat trick indeed, and also solid removal against one-toughness utility creatures that can wipe the board of small Exalted creatures as well.

Dimir likewise has two commons of note:

Deny Reality — A sorcery-speed Boomerang with Cascade for the low, low price of 3UB. While it’s not an instant, it’s still semi-removal, and worth considering as both a tempo-positive play they might have and a means to break up an aura.

Soul Manipulation — If Azorius’s counterspell counts, Dimir’s should too, as it is frankly more playable in Limited. For 1UB you get to choose between Remove Soul and Raise Dead, or get both. A very potent common for Limited play.

Widening this to look at Grixis, we see a potent Hybrid card that is either Dimir or Rakdos (your choice)… Slave of Bolas steals a creature for the turn, untaps it, gives it haste for you to abuse the opponent with it, and then sacrifices that creature at end of turn, all for five mana. This can be a game-changer for how it alters the damage race, in addition to being a potent Dark Banishing effect. At least it’s a sorcery, because it would have been the best Ray of Command ever, instead of merely the best Threaten ever.

Izzet only brings us Double Negative, the Izzet version of Absorb or Undermine. For UUR you can counter up to two target spells… for those hard-fought Limited games where a lot of spells go on the stack at the same time. (End sarcasm.)

Rakdos, however, is where the removal is at. At common you of course get Terminate, an old favorite back for a second romp, and at Uncommon you get Bituminous Blast, which like Slave of Bolas is somewhat nutty in that it is removal PLUS. For five mana at instant speed you deal four damage to a creature… and Cascade up another spell to play as well. And at Rare you have the mythic Defiler of Souls who puts the Abyss on monocolored creatures while also being a 5/5 flier for six, plus Deathbringer Thoctar, a 3/3 for 6 that gets a +1/+1 counter whenever another creature goes to the graveyard from play… and can spend those +1/+1 counters Goblin Sharpshooter-style to deal one damage to a creature or player for each counter he has.

Widening this to look at Jund, you get Jund Sojourners, who is either a 3/2 for three colored mana who has a leaves-play ability of dealing one damage to a creature or player if he is going to the graveyard, or can merely cycle using just Red mana to cast Zap if a small removal spell is all you need. At Rare however, Jund is exceptional at being unfair if you let it live too long, as Lavalanche is a scale-to-fit Flame Wave that can decimate a board position while it Fireballs your face. For hybrid cards you get two to think about, Giant Ambush Beetle and Sangrite Backlash

Giant Ambush Beetle — 3 {B/G} R
Creature — Insect
Haste. When Giant Ambush Beetle comes into play, you may have target creature block it this turn if able.

It is both a hasty attacker and a hasty Provoker, changing defense plans considerably as it can just munch freely on a creature you leave back to block… at least it’s an Uncommon, so people won’t have three of them. (And its name, well, we don’t need to go into the pain that it causes me, seeing Magic turn into Yu-Gi-Oh.)

Sangrite Backlash — {B/G} R
Enchantment — Aura
Enchant Creature.
Enchanted creature gets +3/-3.

Right up there with Terminate, this is awesome common removal that is both cheap and deadly, and this one can be cast for Gruul or Rakdos mana… you have to keep it in mind for both.

Golgari has only a few cards in this set, but one of them is Maelstrom Pulse, which is already well-known thanks to its convincing impression of Vindicate.

Gruul gives us its own tricks as well, showing us the first Giant Growth effect that wasn’t a cleverly-printed Overrun-style spell. Colossal Might gives a creature +4/+2 and Trample at instant speed for just one each of Red and Green, giving us a dangerous Predator’s Strike-level Giant Growth spell, great for upgrading in size on demand but also great for pushing through damage… and as a common it’s something to keep in the forefront of your mind if your opponent attacks with Red and Green untapped. Gruul also has a 3/4 for 3RG that deals three damage to a flier when it comes into play, Deadshot Minotaur, at common.

As weaker tricks, Gruul still has more to give. For you Esper-mages, you get to face down Vithian Renegades, a 3/2 for 1RG who is a Viridian Shaman, squatting on your favorite Esper dude when it comes into play… and for its Cascade spell it gets Violent Outburst, which gives all of the creatures you control +1/+0 for 1RG and has Cascade, which could be dangerous indeed with Colossal Might in your deck.

Widening this to look at Naya, you get Naya Sojourners, who cycles for 2G to cast an uncounterable, cantrip Battlegrowth… or is, you know, a 5/3 for 5 who gives that counter out when he dies, either side is very solid.

Boros is not to be underestimated either, as the Red cards in this set seem quite impressive, and Boros removal is solid as well. At Rare you get the wacky Fight to the Death, which destroys all blocking and blocked creatures for one each of Red and White, which can take an attack with your best creatures, chumpblock with some dudes and then turn that into a rout… it’s rather situational and it’s Rare so it won’t come up often, but I wouldn’t want to be the one who gets destroyed by it. Boros also gets Intimidation Bolt… three damage to a creature at instant speed for 1RW, which as a side effect makes it impossible for creatures to attack for the turn, killing a creature and stopping a counter-attack, making it both a removal spell and a Fog-type effect for winning the damage race. And it also gets the innocent-seeming Stun Sniper, a 1/1 for RW who taps to Tim and tap a creature, making him very effective against both large and small creatures, and my pick for #1 underrated uncommon going into the Prerelease weekend as I expect he’ll do much more damage than people currently expect to an opponent’s board position.

And then there was Selesnya. White and Green do not exactly team up to be the removal colors, and unfortunately this trend continues. Worse still, despite both colors having pump effects in general, Green and White does not a Giant Growth effect cast, that takes Green and Red mana… so if your opponent is representing Green but not Red, attackers are going to stay the size they appear to be when they turn sideways barring a cycled Naya Sojourner’s piddling +1/+1 counter.

Widening into Bant, however, shows us G/W is not entirely helpless. For one White and either Green or Blue, you get Crystallization, this set’s Pacifism variant… the enchanted creature cannot attack or block, and is removed from the game if it ever becomes the target of a spell or ability. And Bant Sojourner cycles to put a 1/1 Soldier into play for 2W… but creatures appearing mid-combat should fear all three colors of mana combined, which can cast Flurry of Wings.

Flurry of Wings — GWU
Put X 1/1 white Bird Soldier creature tokens with flying into play, where X is the number of attacking creatures.

Flurry of Wings is a power uncommon that can drastically change a damage race’s outcome either by adding a lot more power to your side of the board or by selectively Fogging an opponent’s attack, and can meet wherever necessary in the middle between these two modes to put the game firmly back in your favor. Beware of committing to large attacks if your opponent has GWU untapped on your turn, because that one or two extra attackers might be the difference between surviving the counter-attack or not.

Last but not least we get Simic, which only gets a very few cards but gets some downright sneaky ones well worth remembering. “Holy crap it’s a flying snake!” may be exclaimed repeatedly over the Prerelease weekend, as Winged Coatl (or as he is bound to be known, ‘Snakes on a Plane’) has that Faerie trickery combined with a lethal touch, with Flash, Flying and Deathtouch on a 1/1 for 1GU. Did I mention this guy’s common? As far as attacking is concerned, if your opponent has GU untapped, look at your attack twice and see how well it works for you with your best guy blocked and killed, then declare attackers.

You’ll notice most of the removal was at common and a good chunk was at Uncommon as well. Sweeper effects almost don’t exist, with only Lavalanche really taking down a sizable number of creatures at a time, unless you run into Zealous Persecution mid-combat and get your creatures Overrun by theirs. Every color combination can cast a removal spell, and some of them are even Hybrid so they fit in two different color combinations, as Slave of Bolas and Crystallization would like to remind us. Removal is not heavily favored in any one combination, though to be fair Rakdos gets more than its fair share of removal spells, as one expects when Black and Red team up to be ‘the removal colors’ together.

Combine these and the speed at which they work plus the overall aggressiveness of the creatures in this set and I think the ready conclusion is that for once this is a Play First sealed deck format. We don’t see them very often but they do come up when we see aggressive creatures and mechanics combining to create a tempo-reliant format, and based on the fact that the two-drop your opponent is playing is just statistically more likely to be Bant Sureblade, Naya Hushblade, Jund Hackblade, Grixis Grimblade or Esper Stormblade than any other two-drop you’ll find that aggressive creature drops stay relevant far later than you’d expect them to. While the gold creatures in Alara Reborn start to hit significant power and toughness very quickly, this also means you’d rather be the one to get to play the removal spell and attack with your men, or be the one who gets to declare attackers with mana untapped, than to be the other guy.

Continuing down this line of thought, you’ll notice I said the mechanics of Alara Reborn are aggressive and make this a ‘tempo’ format rather than a ‘card advantage’ format. Some will see Bituminous Blast and think it is an amazing control card, and they are right. However it is also an amazing beatdown card, and frankly just an amazing card any way you use it, but the Cascade mechanic as we see it here tends to favor the aggressive mindset, since getting a free card and casting it for free is pretty downright aggressive… but the cards you are most likely to see the Cascade mechanic on are Ardent Plea, Bituminous Blast, Bloodbraid Elf and Violent Outburst, which are all very potent when used in an aggressive strategy. Bituminous Blast is a removal spell that doesn’t force you to miss your creature drop for the turn, or better yet doubles up and gives you a second removal spell… pretty aggressive. Bloodbraid Elf is clearly aggressive, as is Violent Outburst… and Ardent Plea, when you see it, will basically say 1UW, (1/1, 1/3 or 2/2), 2x Exalted. Double-exalted is quite potent for the beatdown deck and racks up a lot of damage very quickly, and thanks to the fact that Cascade gets you a free card and the free mana to cast it, you’ll find that it is the best and most common form of card advantage in the format. When the beatdown cards are the ones that give you the extra cards, getting an extra free one by drawing first doesn’t seem like the best of ideas.

To be fair, you’ll find there are decks that want to draw first… operating at medium speed, and wanting the extra card to help with their color fixing. Sometimes these decks will have to play first like it or not, because their slowest draw can never beat a normal draw from their opponent’s deck, as they spend too much time landcycling or using Panoramas and casting Obelisks to ever catch up when the first thing of relevance they do is on turn four. Compare:

Turn 1: basic land, Borderpost, go.

My turn 1: Land, go.

Turn 2: basic land, Jund Hackblade, attack for three.

My turn 2: Panorama, go. (Use at end of opponent’s turn.)

Turn 3: other basic land, play second Hackblade, attack for six.

My turn 3: Obelisk, go?

At least on the play the slow, ponderous deck gets to use their fourth turn to play something meaningful to get in the way and still have a chance of being in the game, instead of untapping while at five life. Shards of Alara has some ponderously slow cards it can try to put to bear… while Alara Reborn has some very fast cards to work you over with, some very powerful ones to boot. This to my mind makes three packs of Alara Reborn plus three packs of Shards of Alara a play-first format; Shards + Conflux + Alara Reborn may behave differently, but it’s not what you’re being asked to play tomorrow morning. The best card advantage there is goes into the hands of the beatdown player, so the fallacy of trying to start up another card ‘to win the long game’ just puts you intentionally at a disadvantage on tempo when there are already plentiful ways to regain card advantage sprinkled throughout the set with cyclers, some card draw, and Cascade… but no ways that I am aware of to let you do something meaningful with the cards that are in your hand when you die if you fall behind on tempo.

Playing first instead of drawing first means you can’t try and go quite as crazy with the color requirements you play; as either an aggressive deck or a mid-range one you’ll need to stick mostly to two colors and splash a third, likely allied color to complete a Shard… while stuff like Red/Black/White decks may exist, they won’t be as common as Red/Green/White decks, or Red/Black/Blue decks simply due to the fact that your mana-fixing work with allied colors. And while theoretically any color combination is perfectly playable, I would figure on expecting to face down Jund or Naya all day long due to the size of the green creatures and the plentiful removal that goes with them in these color combinations… with Bant in third place, Esper fourth, and Grixis the least-played of all as Grixis is just Jund with piddling Blue creatures instead of towering Green ones. Of course, you should be playing your best cards and your most consistent mana-base, not trying to shoehorn your sealed deck pool into this little box I’ve painted for it… but a lot of the time this box (Naya or Jund; aggressive beatdown or mid-range five-power fatties) is going to be your best cards and your most consistent mana-base both together.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com