(Editor’s Note: Nick Eisel is currently suspended from playing in sanctioned tournaments. He has not been compensated for this article. The details of his writing arrangement can be found here.)
Sets like Scourge are great for raising the bar on the amount of skill required to be successful in a Limited environment. In most expansions, the commons will quickly be analyzed and take an order of precedence in terms of when they are drafted, much like building a staircase. After a relatively small number of drafts, players are usually able to determine relative pick orders for each color of commons and very little information is left to be unearthed. Sometimes, everyone will misevaluate a card – but it doesn’t last for very long, as in the case of Timberwatch Elves.
When Legions was first released, everyone was fighting over Skinthinner vs. Skirk Marauder in terms of best common in the set. A month down the road, the arguments had ceased, and neither were even in the top two, as Timberwatch and Echo Tracer had shown their worth after enough drafts had been logged for players to catch on. This is basically a normal occurrence, and most sets are ironed out and overanalyzed about a month after they are released.
Scourge is a completely different ballgame because a number of the cards are on the same power level. Before I start in, I promise I won’t bore you with rants about how great Zombie Cutthroat is in every color like every other writer has already done. It’s a fine card, despite the fact that I’m still not extremely impressed by it at this point.
Anyway, as I was saying, a lot of the commons in Scourge are very close in power level, and therefore harder to evaluate on a relative scale. In fact, I’m not sure a primary pick order will actually ever emerge for white in Scourge. This gives the drafter yet another opportunity to glean an advantage from knowing which card to pick based on the overall needs of his deck.
I wanted to start a new series of dilemma articles since Scourge presents many situations where two cards are very close in power; however, it doesn’t look like that is going to work in this case, as almost all of the good white commons are extremely close.
I guess the most reasonable place to start would be with the one that breaks the chain and is far and away the best white common: Dragon Scales. I can’t say enough good about this card, as I have actually started drafting white again because of it. Before Scourge, I would only touch white for a bomb Onslaught rare, and now I draft it whenever I feel I have a good chance of getting some Scales in pack three.
So let’s see – where do I begin with the oh so many uses of Dragon Scales? As far as the enchantment itself, it feels as good, if not better than Improvised Armor when it is on one of the excellent targets for it. Deftblade Elite, Aven Redeemer, and Whipcorder are probably some of the most ridiculous targets as it creates a ridiculous creature very early in the game that is at the same time hard to kill and doesn’t tap to attack. The second aspect of returning it on a six-mana creature is also absurd, considering it is in the same set as the landcyclers. Returning a Dragon Scales onto a Shoreline Ranger or Noble Templar is certainly insane – but what about even better six-drops like Grassland Crusader, Crowd Favorites, or (heaven forbid) Swooping Talon. And these are just the good targets in white! I’m sure you can think of plenty in other colors, and I’m not going to waste your time. The important thing is, draft Scales, and draft it high.
And no, don’t take Zombie Cutthroat over it. Ever.
Now that the easy part is out of the way, we have the rest of the commons to take a look at. The next six on the list are not easily ranked on a relative basis, but depend more on the type of deck you are drafting. Frontline Strategist, Zombie Cutthroat, Aven Farseer, Noble Templar, Aven Liberator, and Zealous Inquisitor are all top quality cards, so how do we make sense out of such a menacing puzzle of choices?
The best way to attack the problem in my opinion is to cut the cards in half and look at them from two Tiers, as although they are close, I think it is evident that 3 of them give a little more bang for their buck in their specialized functions.
The first tier of cards would certainly be Frontline Strategist, Zombie Cutthroat, and Aven Farseer. These cards are all wonderful additions to any white deck and it hurts my head to even attempt to pound out clear definitions of why one is better than either of the other two.
The best reasoning I can come up with is that Zombie Cutthroat has got to be the worst of the three simply because white has so many creatures that survive morph-on-morph combat. So the tempo he usually generates is negated partly because your opponent is unlikely to block in the ideal Cutthroat situation (turn 3), and he may or may not be useful later on. The only way this changes is if you have something like a pair of Skirk Commandos to make your opponent throw whatever guy he’s got in front of your turn three play. This is a difficult situation to create, considering you have to first wreck your opponent in game one with Skirk Commando, and then you have to draw Cutthroat on turn 3 of game two in order to create the desired effect. Any other way around and your face-down Zombie is viewed as anything from a Daru Lancer to a Daru Sanctifier or Gravel Slinger, and rendered mostly ineffective. I think one of the real picks in question is Aven Liberator vs. Zombie Cutthroat, and that pick is entirely deck dependent; thinking about it, now I can see justifying both side equally.
The real question, however, comes down to Frontline Strategist and Aven Farseer. In general, I think the Strategist is the better card simply because it can do so many things that are all incredibly useful. It can help to race by giving you that necessary last turn for your fliers to swing in. It can act as a Serene Sunset for all of your opponent’s non-soldiers, while still allowing yours to do damage and all for only one white mana. Not to mention it’s a morph, it lives through morph-on-morph combat, and it’s very annoying to play around when you know your opponent has it or even has the potential to have it. Aven Farseer, on the other hand, is an aggressive two-drop, which has proven to be priceless in this format – and not only that, but he has flying and a great ability. So basically, if you have a ton of Soldiers, the Strategist is usually better, while if you’re lacking in the two-drop department or have a lot of morphs that unmorph for low amounts of mana you clearly want the Farseer.
So where do I stand on this debate? I really can’t decide, since my experience has shown that both cards are absolutely nutty in the right decks, but for now I think I have to go with the Strategist simply because of overall depth and flexibility.
Stepping down to tier two, we have Aven Liberator, Noble Templar, and Zealous Inquisitor. If we were talking about Constructed decks, tier two would be something that is fun to play, but not really competitive with all of the tier one decks. This however is not the case, as all of these cards are top picks.
Aven Liberator just misses out on tier one, and sometimes should be picked over the three cards that are there. The protection ability is great, and he is good face up as well. The protection is especially nice now with all of the good creature enchantments we are given in Scourge (Frozen Solid, Lingering Death, Alpha Status, etc). Overall, a solid body with added flexibility and a great card all around.
Noble Templar has to have one of the best creature types in the format, fitting right into either of the two dominant white archetypes: Soldiers and Clerics. 3/6 for six doesn’t tap to attack ain’t too shabby either, as I remember Border Patrol was mildly playable and for five mana it doesn’t do half the things this card does. Oh yeah, did I mention he Plainscycles too?
Finally, we have the bottom of the goods, the Zealous Inquisitor, who is far from being bottom of the barrel. Very difficult to block, and certainly a higher pick for Cleric decks, this guy is also great against any deck packing red burn.
Like I said, there aren’t any clear cut dividing lines between picks 2-7, so take this list as a reminder, but not an actual definition. Disregarding Dragon Scales, you should pick any of the other cards on the list in terms of what you need for your deck, not which is higher on the pick order. Each card serves a specific function and should be appraised based on that function’s necessity in your build above all else.