As I write this, Shards is spoiled. As with all spoilers, it is liable to have some small mistakes. And, as usual, there are likely to be cards that stick with us more in our memory from the bad moments of spoilerdom than from other bits — I’m sure I’ll be thinking “lipstick” every time I read the flavor text of a certain 5/4. Regardless of the accuracy of this spoiler, it is a reminder that we are once again on the cusp of new formats. In a very short while, Extended and Standard will shift and we’ll be looking at a whole new ball of wax.
Now, Shards of Alara may be a 249 card set, but 23 of those cards already exist in 10th Edition or Lorwyn block (twenty basic land, Naturalize, Cancel, and Oblivion Ring). Contrast that with the 887 cards that are leaving without leaving behind some remnant of themselves. We’re down 660 cards, including my beloved Gaea’s Blessing.
There are many ways to approach building decks for newly shifted formats. One of the best ways that I’ve found, though, is to start with the most recent Block. We know what cards are good from this most recent block. We know what decks are good. We’ve seen them.
By most measures, the best decks from the end of the Block season were Five-Color Control, Faeries, Kithkin, Merfolk (with many variants), Elementals, Doran, and Demigod Red. Obviously, there are many other decks that might exist (like Kelpie-Control) that might be able to breath new life in a new format, but this does cover most of what people viewed as the best decks.
I might have my particular issues with these lists, but it still remains that from GP: Rimini, there were three Merfolk decks (all essentially like this one), that this was the winning Kithkin list, and the highest placing Faeries list. While I’m not a pure advocate for “what wins is the best”-style thinking, I absolutely am an advocate for “what wins is at least good (though maybe not great).”
Since we have Block fresh on our minds, and since Shards is not 100% digested yet, the next place we have to turn to is the remains of the old cards. Those 363 cards unique to 10th Edition are tools that can be inserted into the Block decks. We have to remember that with the exception of Faeries, most of the old decks were gutted on fundamental levels. Michael Jacob list is certainly reparable, but it did lose sixteen spells from the main, and all of the land. While my Elf list piloted by Sam Black only lost nine cards from the main, four of them were Tarmogoyf, and three were Slaughter Pact, a pretty serious component to the deck!
Simply recreating Standard decks of old with the new can make us forget that we often ought to be building up rather than trying to recreate the new. Replacing four Tarmogoyf with some other bear can accomplish something, but it isn’t going to be the same deck. Conversely, taking Block decks and upgrading them often allows for much better decks. There are many ways to go about approaching new formats like this, and I advocate a ton of them, but for this article, I’m going to focus on looking back as a means to look to the future. We’ve had a lot of people who have hurrahed on the new stuff, and I’ll be sure to chime in once I know the cards are real. The best bet, I’ve found, when going after newly rotated formats, is to approach the format from many angles.
While there are a host of cards to go through, here are some of the highlights, though this is by no means exhaustive.
Condemn — When you think about the kind of effort that is expended in some of the more controlling decks to deal with creatures, it is always important to remember our Modern Era Swords to Plowshares. Condemn is no Swords, that is true, but it is incredibly cheap. This is the kind of card that can be used to shore up a Five-Color Control list that is struggling against aggro. If need be, it can be boarded there instead, or in Kithkin, as a cheap alternate to Unmake against opponents that are liable to be attacking. Demigod of Revenge is a great card, but it begins to look a little silly when you’re looking at a Condemn.
Glorious Anthem — With the release of Shards, there are a host of great White Weenie cards. Kithkin isn’t the only way that one can build White Weenie, and even if you do go towards that kind of build, it is always worth remembering that you can pump up the whole team with an Anthem. Anthem has the strength of being largely unkillable, as compared to your various Lieges, but of course the weakness of being unable to attack. What are the real incentives of Kithkin? Wizened Cenn and Stalwart. Anthem reminds us that this isn’t necessarily the way we need to go (or maybe even not necessarily the way we want to go).
Paladin en-Vec — There may not be a whole lot of Black to be protecting yourself against, but there are certainly likely to be a ton of little Black Faerie Rogues. In and of itself, that is a good start. Further, a ton of decks (I’m looking at you, Five-Color Control) try to protect themselves from the weenies with Firespout. Finally, there is still a Red deck out there. Paladin en-Vec reminds us that it can still be relevant. Combine with other potential playables like Pariah to lock out a lot of decks. To my mind, I’m happy for any card that means I’m not main-decking Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender.
Soul Warden — This is still a creature-packed world. Creatures really are everywhere. For a White Weenie mirror, a Soul Warden by itself can easily be a swing of ten or more life. Add in a second Soul Warden, and it can grow to a point of ridiculousness. Virtually all of the decks in Block were ultimately creature decks, with the exception of Five-Color Control. In a deck that is already good against Five-Color, but looking for some help elsewhere, this could be a boon.
Story Circle — Yes, it costs White mana to operate. That doesn’t change Story Circle from being an incredibly potent card against any opponent who isn’t planning on attacking with a colorless Artifact. Runed Halo is already a regular figure in Five-Color decks, but for many opponents, Story Circle functions as an improved Halo. Yes, Story Circle can’t stop Oona from wrecking you, but it can hold off an entire army and the spells in their hand too! Spending mana like this is potentially problematic, but for most matchups, it usually isn’t a big deal if you are prepared to follow up with…
Wrath of God — Some people will eschew Wrath for its cheaper cousin Firespout, but it is worth noting that the Five-Color Control decks often ran Austere Command, and that Damnation was a card that Mark Heberholz made space for in his Five-Color Standard deck. This card has always been good, and it is worth reminding people that it is an option, especially in a world in which Firespout is increasingly struggling to kill creatures.
Boomerang/Unsummon — If there is one thing that I find myself disliking about the Block Merfolk lists, it is their leaning towards a majillion colors. Now, I know that they were definitely putting up results, but at the same time, playing Crib Swap (especially) felt awkward and unwieldy, and stretching even the smallest bit to go into Firespout and Nameless Inversion started making the deck feel a lot more like a control deck rather than an aggro-control deck. There’s nothing wrong with a control deck, but I think there is something important about being positioned in the aggro-control space of a controlling metagame. With its base in aggro-control, each step towards control that the deck takes, makes me frown a little bit… Even though Merfolk is going to be losing a Lord, I still think it has something going for it. Boomerang and Unsummon can easily act as a near-counterspell, but more importantly, they can keep your curve low so that even if you do happen to be down a card for having used it, you can stay ahead of them on the tempo count.
Evacuation — Here is a card that never really managed to take off, but still strikes me as being a potential alternative to Wrath of God for the Five-Color Control decks out there, especially since Wrath is often a marginal card in the deck to begin with. As an instant, there are a lot of ways that it can be strategically superior; fighting against counters with Evacuation is certainly an easier thing to accomplish. Further, dealing with tokens or haste, there is added value to Evacuation. Finally, though, it can be of great value to aggressively cast Evacuation to reset Mulldrifters, or to dodge opposing board control. This card may continue to be non-existent, but I do think that it is possible for it to become a valuable card on the edge of the metagame.
Merfolk Looter — Looter isn’t just potentially a card for Merfolk, but also for any deck that is looking to cycle through its cards. Oona’s Grace is valuable precisely because of this ability. While Looter is fragile, it is always worth noting that it can be fit into any deck that is planning on using Blue.
Remove Soul — Even the control decks, these days, seem to run a lot of creatures. The Blue Terror, Remove Soul is a quick way to stop this from happening. The more there is a paucity of counters, the more valuable that Remove Soul becomes. At this point, the cheap counters are going to be Remove Soul, Broken Ambitions, Negate, and (maybe) Hindering Light. Don’t forget your options!
Cruel Edict — Even after Damnation is gone, Black will still have a way to kill Chameleon Colossus. Back in Block, as I struggled to figure out ways to answer that damned Goat Human Faerie Rhino, I kept on wishing that I had access to Cruel Edict. While Edict is weak against swarms, it is a fast response to an early creature, and a great response to otherwise unkillable men.
Grave Pact — Grave Pact is one of those cards that shows up occasionally, fueled by a Nantuko Husk or some other creature, able to kill an opposing team at will. The first time I remember it being played was way back in the day by Jacob “Danger” Janoska and Brian Kowal in Living Death during Tempest Block Constructed. While there isn’t a clear space to include this in Block decks, it seems like it could have some real clear synergies with Evoke or with Faerie tokens. More likely, this card will be the basis for something we didn’t particularly see in Block, but existed on the margins in Standard, like the Torrent of Souls decks, though I suppose certain stranger builds of Kelpie decks might be able to make use of this.
Hypnotic Specter/Ravenous Rats — I imagine that these cards, heavily underplayed though they are in Standard right now, might have a lot of added value in the powering down of Standard. Kelpie decks, again, often enjoy discard as a means to overwhelm controlling decks. Add to this the occasional new card like Esper Charm, and you can maybe give them too much discard to keep up.
Rain of Tears — So many decks lean heavily on crazy manabases right now to support UUU/GGGG/BB/WW/R and the like. This is liable to become all the more the case for the new set, which actively encourages three-color decks. Marginal decks like Rogues can get a bit of a boost here, as can aggressive decks with access to Black, such as midrange beatdown decks like Doran or all-but-extinct decks like Goblins.
Beacon of Destruction — I’m on record as being a fan of Beacon of Destruction. Five damage packets that are available at an instant are pretty potent. Without Tarmogoyf around, there are very few creatures that a Beacon can’t kill. In the RRRRR-heavy Demigod decks, Beacon is certainly an option.
Incinerate/Mogg Fanatic/Shock — In the Block Demigod lists, each of these are easy includes. Remember, Michael Jacob list is a clear update of the Shuhei Nakamura list that did run Mogg Fanatic and Shock. If nothing else, you can always plug these cards back in to replace Skred and Magus of the Scroll, and still have something that is reasonable.
Siege-Gang Commander — It’s pretty amazing to me how often people forget about this guy. Again, he’s an awesome card for any updates to Goblins, but also, how incredible is it to Torrent of Souls this guy? Even Demigod Red can have a place for this guy, so long as you aren’t too top-heavy.
Birds of Paradise/Llanowar Elves/Civic Wayfinder — Whether as a color-fixer or mana-accelerator, depending on the card, these both give some extra tonnage to various Block decks. The two elves inserted into Block-based Elf decks can make them approach the kind of glory that they once held. Birds of Paradise can join Smokebraider as must-kill cards for Elementals. Decks with Birds and Elves tend to be much more comparable to their initial Standard friends; decks like Uri Peleg Worlds deck, for example, are nearly rebuildable.
Commune with Nature — A lot of the decks that don’t run Cryptic Command are incredibly creature heavy. They are loaded down with so many of them, in fact, that a card like Commune with Nature can do a lot of work. Having access to more Chameleon Colossus or Doran or Reveillark, for example, can be a big deal. Doing this without having to rely on the incredibly weak (in my opinion) Harbingers is worth paying attention to.
Quirion Dryad/Troll Ascetic — When I think about decks like Richard Feldman Counter-Elves, part of me finds myself wanting the deck to shift into a more Con-Troll space, which I think might improve the deck immensely.
Seedborn Muse — This might be approaching pipe-dream territory, but a huge part of me wants to see this Muse inspiring the Five-Color Control decks. No longer would you have to fear being tapped out at the end of turn by something that you needed to cast. No longer would you be completely open when you decide to go with a threat, finally. It may be that the Awakening-style effect is just too weak when attached to a body, but a part of me thinks that there has to be something here.
Pain-lands — There are ten of these, but ultimately I don’t expect that they are going to be too often imported into anything these days. There are just so many good options right now for lands, it is actually a stretch for most decks to dip into these more than the barest amount.
Man-lands — To greater or lesser degrees, these cards have a lot of potential utility. The reason that Standard Demigod Red didn’t run Ghitu Encampment in Standard before is that largely more important was the returns one could get from Keldon Megaliths. It is likely that Block Demigod Red might also not feel too improved by man-lands, but it is important to recognize that the option is there. It remains unlikely that Forbidding Watchtower will make the cut to Kithkin, but it is a small possibility. On the other hand, Treetop Village and Faerie Conclave seem like intriguing things to add to Five-Color Control and Counter-Elves. Faerie Conclave is clearly worth adding to Faeries, but it doesn’t necessarily make sense in any deck playing blue.
Icy Manipulator — A strangely fluctuating card, Icy Manipulator was incredibly good in the early stages of the game. For years, it was complete garbage. It returned to a short lifespan of goodness during the end of the age of Jitte in Eminent Domain, before falling again into disuse.
Loxodon Warhammer — This card has the strange capability to make literally any creature into a potent threat and answer. Trample pushes over little critters, lifegain can swing races in a crazy way, and every wimp becomes something real. While not particularly potent in Doran decks, Warhammer can be a force in decks with tokens (as Grgur Maretic showed us with his virtual Top 8 in PT: Hollywood), and can be a way for more midrange decks to quickly shift from defender to aggressor in a moment. Even a single copy can make a big difference to a deck.
Platinum Angel — Is this the top-end creature that might see some play in Five-Color Control? It saw a tiny bit in older Standard, and it is all the more dangerous without Pact of Negation, but it is still potentially damning for many an opponent. In a weaker Standard, Five-Color Control of Block might find a space to add this in, if only because it can take lost games and give a chance to have them have fresh life.
Clearly, there are far more relevant cards that might be able to be ported into our Block decks to improve them just from 10th Edition. These supply a kind of food-for-thought, though, in approaching this past-forward approach. When we’re picturing what can be possible, if we fail to take on the task from many angles, we can easily miss something that might seem glaringly obvious after the fact, but we’ll often be playing catch up.
There are, of course, some cards that actually seem like maybe they could be tossed directly into our completely pre-existing Block decks, though less than one might think. Worse, for many of these cards, there are not (yet) verifications of their existence. As such, I’m going to give very limited remarks.
Flameblast Dragon seems remarkably portable into either Demigod Red or Five-Color Control, able to easily finish games while helping to establish control. It might be too expensive to make the cut. Predator Dragon seems remarkably similar, though much less flexible, and thus less likely to be able to make it in that deck (though it may make useful a new deck).
Bant Charm and Esper Charm both seem like they could get plugged right into Five-Color Control, serving as a very versatile set of cards to answer nearly anything. Esper Charm, further, could be an excellent include in Three-Color Merfolk decks, getting rid of one of the only cards that matters from an opponent — Bitterblossom — or merely being used to get more card advantage. Bant Charm might have the chance to fit into decks that don’t normally look for a weak counter, but now have a touch of access to it.
Relic of Progenitus and Sigil of Distinction have the potential value in more controlling decks or more aggressive decks, respectively. Relic is both better than and worse than Phyrexian Furnace, and while it may not have a place in some decks, if you can afford the deck space, it can be a valuable way to deal with all manner of graveyard-based powers. Sigil, on the other hand, seems like a very potent weapon for decks that plan on attacking.
The land is especially interesting. Both the multiple-tap lands, forever banishing the old Shivan Oasis and friends into uselessness. Those lands, though, even back in the day, were rarely played. At the same time, Vivid lands are seeing a lot of play. For decks that need less mana options, perhaps these new tri-tap lands will replace some of the Vivids. The Panoramas might find themselves seeing a lot of play as a means to not only filter land out of decks, as well as fix mana. Time will tell.
This weekend, we’ll be seeing the final versions of all of these cards, and we can begin building decks for the new format in earnest. I, for one, am excited. With the rejuvenation of States, there should be a lot of interesting ideas being shown to the world. Maybe I’ll be able to bring out another big winner. Wish me luck!