Sullivan Library – Zendikar, Extended, Standard, and Red

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Thursday, September 10th – With Baneslayer Angel ruling the Standard roost, it seems like it’s a bad time to be a dedicated Red mage. However, Adrian Sullivan is not ready to put down those Mountains yet. He takes a look at a collection of the Red cards coming in Zendikar, as well as examining the new Extended.

There won’t be many more days like this…

I’m sitting outside in the shade, overlooking Lake Mendota. It’s overcast, but that doesn’t stop it from being pleasant. Life on the University of Wisconsin campus has always been a strange combination of languorous and wild. Today must be one of those languorous days. Either that, or the confirmed cases of swine flu that have been ravaging the sororities (seriously, not a joke) have put a damper on the more raucous parts of the UW community. Whatever the case may be, I’ve found a secluded area to sit and drink hot tea while I watch the boats lazily move about on the lake and the students go about studying.

It’s a fine way to sit contemplating the changes that are going to be happening when Zendikar shows up. Warning: Spoilers Ahead.

I’m incredibly excited about what Zendikar is going to bring. The “loss” of Lorwyn Block isn’t something you’ll see me shedding much of a tear for. As much as I love to cast Cryptic Command, I am so tired of having it cast against me. Dismiss was always one of those cards that I generally thought was a mistake to include in decks about 99% of the time back when it was legal. Cryptic Command, on the other hand, is like Blue’s own personal Nevinyrral’s Disk; Wizards famously got rid of Disk because they felt that Blue shouldn’t be able to handle anything, but now with Command, they can.

Also annoying has been Kitchen Finks. Kitchen Finks, the card that can single-handedly blunt an aggressive deck so hard that the only way to actually deal with it is to dodge it (typically by going into the air) or run cards that aren’t particularly exciting, but that deal with it explicitly (witness the Magma Sprays running around in Red decks). Oh, there are the lesser cast of villains too — I won’t miss Windbrisk Heights nor Bitterblossom — but for every card like Ashling the Extinguisher and Figure of Destiny that I’m going to miss, I’m all the more excited for the many misfits out there to take a hike.

And so we’re soon to heave ho to the lot of them. Extended is going to be hit quite similarly, with a rotation that will strip several sets out of the running.

There is always the question of addition by subtraction. Analysis of Magic metagames occupy a deeply ecological space for study. If we get rid of all of the wolves in an area, what animals will come to replace them? If there is anything I regret during my undergraduate years, it would have to be not taking a class on ecology that would go more into the way that this works; I’m deeply confident that it would be helpful…

And so, what do we lose?

For quite some time people have been talking up the loss of perhaps the most important of card types from Extended: the sac-lands. Bloodstained Mire and friends were going to be gone. Where would the decks like Zoo (particularly Five-Color Zoo) be without their friend Wooded Foothills? In theory, they would be deeply hurt, forced, suddenly, to have to make an honest manabase. Well, we can toss that one out the window, because Wizards has decided to make enemy-colored sac-lands. Misty Rainforest, the Blue-Green version, reads thusly:

Misty Rainforest
T, Pay 1 life, Sacrifice Misty Rainforest: Search your library for a Forest or Island card and put it onto the battlefield. Then shuffle your library.

Big. Frowns.

I love Blue-Green. I do. Some people have called me the “grand-daddy of Blue-Green” because of my work with the deck, both with the original Baron Harkonnen deck back in 1997 and because of Con-Troll (with Brian Kowal in 1999). But I can’t help it. I hate the new sac-land. It isn’t because it is bad. It is because it makes it so easy for people to just remake decks that I’d like to see dead. Previous Level Blue is potentially better than before. Take out those Flooded Strands and Polluted Delta and replace with Misty Rainforest and Unstable Geyser. And for a kick, Choke and Boil are no longer going to be in print! Score! Or, rather, “damn,” as I actually see it…

I’ll suck it up, I know. I still can’t help but be disappointed. I love it when formats rotate, and people are suddenly without the instant benefit of the Magic Hive-Mind there with all of the solutions prepackaged for them.

Various Storm decks took a huge hit. Without Tendrils of Agony, Brain Freeze, and Mind’s Desire, these decks are completely gone. Merchant Scroll, the combo enabler of many a year now, is also gone. Of course, other combo decks will inevitably show up, whether they are Cascade-Hypergenesis combo decks or Hive Mind-Pact decks, or something else entirely. The thing about these decks, though, is that they don’t have the inherently anti-control elements that a Storm deck provides. We’ll see how good they are, but, I’m not so worried about these decks, in general, and it makes the loss of Pyrostatic Pillar less sad.

Control decks of a few sorts take some hits. Stifle is gone (and will be dearly missed, I think), as is a plethora of super-slow control cards. Exalted Angel, Eternal Dragon, Decree of Justice, and Akroma’s Vengeance are all gone. These were fairly marginal cards, in general, but they did provide a powerful set of options for decks that wanted to go about being a controlling deck from a different axis than the common options. Starstorm departs as well. The slower Red-Green lists lose Contested Cliffs, and Green decks of all sorts lose Ravenous Baloth (though Baloth is still somewhat hamstrung by the M10 rues). One deck that I always hated is going to be gone: Astral Slide. Personally, I’m very happy with this, as it means that it won’t be around to distract my friends into playing it and losing with it. It does, however, mean that the deck I’ve been playing in Extended is now dead.

For the last many months I’ve been playing my update of Brian Kowal’s completely brilliant Spellweaver Helix-lock deck. He made the deck for our friend Andrew “Box” Klein during the last Extended season. I watched the deck play out and I was mesmerized by it. It looked like it was a normal Rock deck, and then, out of nowhere it would just close down the game. Like all of our best collaborations, Kowal and my work on the deck happened separately, but with us bringing things back together, nudging the deck based on the experiences that the other person had.

Here is that deck:

One person I know scoffed at the deck without ever playing against it. “Mind’s Desire should tear that deck to shreds,” he claimed. He gave a plethora of reasons, but none of them actually seemed to apply to this deck. This deck plays out ridiculously differently than the common Rock-style decks that are in today’s soon-to-be-expired Extended. Many of those decks actually seem to give a damn about killing the opponent. This deck doesn’t really mess around with that. Instead, what it does is try to keep the opponent from losing before completely locking the game out. Where other Rock decks often have finishers, this deck puts those kinds of cards in almost as an afterthought. For a Mind’s Desire deck in the current Extended, for example, they can absolutely smoke you in game one, but you have the potential to get Crime/Loam going as well. After board, adding in Thoughtseize, Grip and Extraction to the mix, that matchup becomes a complete routing.

Against aggressive decks, you get to play the traditional Rock/Control route, Damning and Smothering and just keeping things locked down. Primal Command does great work here, giving you a 7 life boost while typically finding something frustrating from the deck to help keep you alive. Meanwhile, Loam keeps doing its work, filling you up.

At some point, you are going to have a situation where a Spellweaver Helix is going to be ridiculous. Typically with a Raven’s Crime in the yard, but sometimes with a Life from the Loam, you’ll just keep recasting Primal Command again and again, through the Helix, completely locking your opponent out of options.

I’ve been playing this deck a lot, and I absolutely love it. I wish I had room for a 16th sideboard card (probably a third Krosan Grip), but otherwise, it just seems so good. Unless something shows up to replace the lost cycling lands, though, this deck just seems dead in a few weeks. Get some hits in with it while you can! Affinity is easily your roughest matchup, and you’re a big dog there, but, with practice, you are at least even or better against everything I’ve tried it against, and some matchups (Zoo or Burn) are complete blowouts.

Tribally speaking, it isn’t surprising that Elves and Goblins both take a hit with Onslaught Block disappearing. Gempalm Incinerator, Goblin Warchief, Goblin Piledriver, and Goblin Sharpshooter are all a big deal, even if Goblins has been largely disappearing. What we can expect to see with the new Goblin decks is going to largely be a return, I suspect to a more fair swarm-based strategy. Elves, on the other hand, loses Birchlore Rangers and Wirewood Symbiote. This essentially means that the previous Extended version of the deck is dead, and needs to be replaced by something much closer to the Standard build.

Someone asked me to comment on the status of Ponza in Extended after rotation. And I think I just have to say this: it’s dead. It’s not just that it loses Blistering Firecat, but also that it loses Dwarven Blastminer. The big reason to play the deck was the sheer power that you could get out of this opening play: Mountain, Chrome Mox (on Red), Dwarven Blastminer (gg). For many decks, that was just it. Affinity, for example, could almost never win a full match. Boarding in Trinisphere just utterly wrecked them, especially when a Blastminer was nibbling away.

Blistering Firecat’s loss is also a huge blow. I remember when Blistering Firecat was first printed, and people were bemoaning it as a weaker Ball Lightning. It didn’t take much time at all before I discovered that it was actually a stronger Ball Lightning. With a Blistering Firecat, you only needed 3 cards to kill an opponent. With Firecat plus a burn spell, you generally only needed 2 cats plus 2 burn. This is huge.

Well, we’ve been given a “new” Firecat:

Elemental Appeal
Kicker 5
Put a 7/1 red Elemental creature token with trample and haste onto the battlefield. Exile it at the beginning of the next end step. If Elemental Appeal was kicked, that creature gets +7/+0 until end of turn.

This is not nearly as good as Blistering Firecat. Firecat could dodge protection from red. Firecat could, all by itself, kill an opponent. Firecat could more easily be a part of a double-threat. Firecat could block (and sometimes block and kill something huge). Elemental Appeal can’t do any of that, but it is still quite good anyway. I don’t expect that Elemental Appeal will be kicked all that often, but the threat of it when it is… well it’s absolutely real.

Fourteen damage from 9 mana is (I think) unprecedented. It is a sorcery, and it is very Red heavy, so it isn’t exactly unencumbered. It makes a creature-token, so it isn’t resilient in the ways that a Firecat might be. But there will be times when your opponent doesn’t have an answer, and when that happens, good lord that is a hell of a lot of damage.

Immediately, this makes me think about Mono-Red. RRRR in the casting cost kind of encourages mono. That kind of casting cost even makes a card like Mutavault look potentially unappealing. This is actually kind of worrying, though. We’re about to move into an era where a mono-colored deck is dramatically underpowered.

In the beginning of the era of set-rotation, decks are generally going to be weaker. There are simply less cards to which we have access. Right now, though, we’re going to have this issue even more exacerbated than ever before. Standard is going to include the all-gold set, Alara Reborn, and so we’re not going to have the same amount of cards available for any mono-deck. Further, M10 is a smaller set than 10th edition. And, even assuming that the set contains no gold cards, we’re still left with a fairly small amount of cards that will fit into a mono-Red deck.

Let’s compare by the numbers, the Red spells:

Last year (10th Edition, Lorwyn-Shadowmoor Block, Shards of Alara)
10th — 62
LS-Block — 191
Shards — 30
Total = 283 Red cards

This year (M10, Shards Block, Zendikar)
M10 – 41
Shards Block — 50
Zendikar — 40 (estimated)
Total — 131 Red cards

WOW. That’s not so many.

Even so, I have a lot of hope for Red. What do we have of deep note from M10 for a main deck?

Ball Lightning
Bogardan Hellkite
Chandra Nalaar
Dragon Whelp
Gargoyle Castle
Goblin Artillery
Goblin Chieftain
Lightning Bolt
Magma Phoenix
Seismic Strike
Shivan Dragon
Siege-Gang Commander

And from Shards of Alara Block?

Armillary Sphere (to fuel the top end of a potentially heavy curve)
Caldera Hellion
Flameblast Dragon
Goblin Assault
Goblin Razerunners
Hell’s Thunder
Hellspark Elemental
Rakka Mar
Sigil of Distinction
Volcanic Fallout

If the cards are good enough, we only really need to have about 9 or so cards that we’d want to potentially play. Here are over 20 spells. It’s a good start. What do we add to this that we know about, aside from the potentially devastating Elemental Appeal?

Chandra Ablaze
Planeswalker — Chandra
[+1]: Discard a card. If a red card is discarded this way, Chandra Ablaze deals 4 damage to target creature or player.
[-2]: Each player discards his or her hand, then draws three cards.
[-7]: Cast any number of target red instant and/or sorcery cards from your graveyard without paying their mana cost.

I don’t know that this card is specifically better than Chandra Nalaar, and this matters since it is competing for the same space in play. I do know that the ultimate on this card seems absolutely rife for devastation. Even when you’re building it up, it seems like it can really protect itself, starting, essentially at 6 loyalty. When you’re drawing cards with it, you can actually use it to a potentially great advantage from a card advantage perspective. Imagine topdecking this card or holding onto it after a devastating Cruel Ultimatum has hit you. You cast it (going to zero cards), activate it (going to three) and your opponent drops from six or seven to a mere three. These swings are well within the realm of realistic.

Whenever a creature enters the battlefield under your control, you may pay 2R. If you do, that creature deals damage equal to its power to target creature or player.

Very expensive to get anything out of it. Too niche, I think, to really be considered in any Red deck that doesn’t find a way to utterly exploit it.

Goblin Guide
Creature — Goblin Scout
Whenever Goblin Guide attacks, defending player reveals the top card of his or her library. If it’s a land card, that player puts it into his or her hand.

This is a very, very interesting card. Clearly, it can cause a lot of damage, very, very quickly. The question is if you’re giving up too much to get it. I’m willing to bet that the answer is no, particularly in the early turns where an opponent might not be able to exploit that initial mana burst. If you’re on the play, and you give them a land, after they’ve drawn a card and gone to 9 cards in hand, if they don’t have a one-drop, they’ll just lose a card. Clearly this can actually start being a problem in the late game, but before then, this guy is just so fast, you might simply have your opponent dead by the time it matters.

Goblin Ruinblaster
Creature — Goblin Shaman
Haste, kicker R
When Goblin Ruinblaster enters the battlefield, if it was kicked, destroy target nonbasic land.

For my purposes, this might just simply be better than Avalanche Riders. Fulminator Mage never quite made the cut for most decks simply because you weren’t getting enough return on him unless you were able to use 6th Edition rules of combat plus sacrifice. The Ruinblaster not only has haste, but sticks around after causing the damage. This is going to be well worth thinking about, if this card is real (no picture of the card currently accompanies this card at the time of writing).

Kazuul Warlord
Creature — Minotaur Ally
Whenever Kazuul Warlord or another Ally enters the battlefield under your control, you may put a +1/+1 counter on each Ally creature you control.

This card is simply not good enough for Constructed. Cool that there are minotaurs, though.

Lavaball Trap
Instant — Trap
If an opponent had two or more lands enter the battlefield under his or her control this turn, you may pay 3RR rather than pay Lavaball Trap’s mana cost.
Destroy two target lands. Lavaball Trap deals 4 damage to each creature.

If this card is confirmed, I’m doing a little dance. I love cards like this. In many ways, it reminds me of Wildfire, a card that I’ve always loved. It’s here to punish the people playing sac-lands too aggressive, and to punish those that are playing any of the other cards that might be printed to make Landfall a more potent mechanic. I’m quite excited to use this, though I know that savvy players can often play around it if they fear it.

Murasa Pyromancer
Creature — Human Shaman Ally
Whenever Murasa Pyromancer or another ally you control enters the battlefield under your control, you may have Murasa Pyromancer deal damage to target creature equal to the number of allies you control.

Probably not nearly good enough for this much mana for our purposes.

Plated Geopede
Creature — Insect
First strike
Landfall – Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, Plated Geopede get +2/+2 until end of turn.

I can easily see this being good enough for some of the more aggressive decks, as building it into a 3/3 first striker for a mere two mana will be very common, and sac-lands can add even more. Still, it might not be quite good enough.

Warren Instigator
Creature — Goblin Berserker
Double Strike
Whenever Warren Instigator deals damage to an opponent, you may put a Goblin creature card from your hand onto the battlefield.

Um. Okay.

When Evan Erwin previewed this card a while ago, with only a hint of what it might be, I don’t think he even came close to imagining just how good this card was going to end up being. I, for one, can’t imagine just how crazily things can go to hell if this guy manages to get through on turn 3. It’s not unreasonable to imagining it dropping a Siege-Gang Commander and another friend (Goblin Chieftain?) into the mix, saving a whopping 8 mana of costs. I’m inclined to imagine that this will end up being looked at as a mistake, but I suppose we’ll see.

Teetering Peaks
Teetering Peaks enters the battlefield tapped. When Teetering Peaks enters the battlefield, target creature gets +2/+0 until end of turn.
T: Add R to you mana pool.

Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle enters the battlefield tapped. Whenever a Mountain enters the battlefield under your control, if you control at least five other Mountains, you may have Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle deal 3 damage to target creature or player.
T: Add R to your mana pool.

Both of these cards could have their use, but Valakut, in a deck that can get to a high number of lands, looks incredible. It is also interestingly self-limiting; play too many of them and you’re liable to find yourself not activating the ones you’ve drawn nearly as often as you’d like.

Here is a sample first draft of a deck that might run Elemental Appeal

4 Lightning Bolt
4 Ball Lightning
4 Hellspark Elemental
4 Elemental Appeal
4 Goblin Guide
4 Goblin Ruinblaster
4 Banefire
1 Rakka Mar
2 Magma Phoenix
4 Armillary Sphere
3 Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
22 Mountain

I’m not going to claim that his deck will be the bee’s knees. It’s just a brainstorm from looking at the new cards, and imagining what could be possible. There is an inherent contradiction in a card like Elemental Appeal which likes to imagine that you’ll be ending the game quickly, and yet it rewards you so greatly for getting to a late game. It could be that the best way to use this card is the way that most decks use the card Figure of Destiny: pretending that they’ll never use its ultimate ability.

As it stands, I know that I’m going to be keeping my eyes open for Red cards. There are a lot of things going on that I find deeply exciting, and I’m hoping that the rest of the cards that are printed are going to be sufficiently powerful that Baneslayer Angel won’t simply make Red completely a fool’s deck. I think there are a lot of reasons to hope that this might be the case, but we’ll see, soon enough…

Until next week…

Adrian Sullivan

Special Bonus Section!

So, I’ve begun a Ph.D. program in Media and Cultural Studies and I’m more than a little bit intimidated by the whole process. This Labor Day weekend was perhaps the last chance I was going to have to really relax before the weight of it all hits. It was a good weekend, overall. I made some Coney dogs (albeit adding actual factual cheese to them, probably horrifying Detroit people all over), drank some drink, and generally enjoyed myself.

Oh, and I was crafty with a table.

That was my first stage of work. Here’s how it finished up:

I’m pretty excited about it. Right now, I keep adding layers of polyurethane to it every night, and I look at it lovingly before I go off to school in the morning. It’s jam-packed with a ton of cards that have some kind of story behind them, or simply cards that look cool. Thanks to the lovely Kat for all of her help in making this table a reality.

Can you find the elephant? It’s hiding!

Hope you enjoy…