The Power Of Two

Find out which Return to Ravnica two-drops iconic Magic writer Mike Flores is most excited about thus far and how he thinks they might affect deck design in the coming months.

You may have heard this long-standing rumor (and if you haven’t, well, that’s probably my fault) that Magic: The Gathering is largely a game of outstanding two-mana spells. It is a game of iconic two-drop creatures, from Wild Mongrel to Arcbound Ravager. It is the game of Impulse lacing together early combo decks and teaching control decks how to play fewer lands. It is the game where Lightning Helix makes for a great beatdown deck…but is maybe even better against a great beatdown deck. The game is the battleground of Dark Confidant, Snapcaster Mage, and Tarmogoyf for besties at this best cost.

This Flores Friday is devoted to many of the now revealed two-mana spells from Return to Ravnica…and how they might affect deck design in upcoming months.

Prologue: The Princes Charming

Like many writers, pundits, misers, etc., I think that the Charms look fairly bonkers in the abstract; that is, they offer both abilities you might want to use and in some cases more than one. So, you know, bonkers. That said, I would like to open up this review by contextualizing their abilities for sanity’s sake.

Azorius Charm

  • Creatures you control gain lifelink until end of turn /
  • Draw a card /
  • Put target attacking or blocking creature on top of its owner’s library

I am not sure how to cost the first ability (though like Venser, the Sojourner’s "unblockable" one, I am sure it will come up), but market on the second ability is pretty cleanly U (and then would not be a particularly played card—compare to Think Twice); the last is pretty much a slam dunk a W (but often as a sideboard card).

Few serious players would consider a card that did the first ability only, even if it cost zero, and the other two abilities are potentially desirable but unlikely to be four-ofs in competitive Standard, certainly not costed at UW.

That said, the ability to play any of these not-all-star effects even at a 100% markup might make for a highly playable card; just know you are overpaying for that privilege of flexibility.

I can see Azorius Charm in the next iteration of U/W Delver (middle ability isn’t a horrible replacement for Ponder, especially as you can keep mana open and the third can help you race)… Being an instant is a big game here. It might be an even more appropriate inclusion in the U/W Midrange deck; both play Snapcaster Mage, and the latter is less mana committed on early turns.

Signal: U/W Delver Role-Player, U/W Midrange Role-Player

Izzet Charm

  • Counter target noncreature spell unless its controller pays 2 /
  • Deals 2 damage to target creature /
  • Draw two cards, then discard two cards

So we have a variant on Spell Pierce (U), a bad Shock (R), or an instant speed Careful Study (U) or Faithless Looting sans the flashback (R). Again we have three playable effects, but you overpay by exactly 100% on any of the three.

Izzet Charm is probably the best of the thus far revealed Charms because the Spell Pierce ability can go pretty Negate (functionally) and give you good trades without a loss of tempo. Both of the first two abilities are going to be breakeven or better in actual games, as one or the other is going to be good whether the opponent is beatdown or control, and the third ability is a fair "get out of jail [not] free" card, especially considering Snapcaster Mage and a host of natural card advantage possibilities (i.e., you are playing with Think Twice and / or Desperate Ravings).

Slam-dunk in Grixis Control; probably much better in U/R Delver than Azorius Charm is in U/W Delver.

Signal: U/R Delver Staple, Grixis Control Staple, Multicolor Control Role-Player

Selesnya Charm

  • Target creature gets +2/+2 and gains trample until end of turn /
  • Exile target creature with power 5 or greater /
  • Put a 2/2 white Knight creature token with vigilance onto the battlefield

The first ability here is worth G or less (see Mutagenic Growth); the middle one is in the range of W or W1. The last is very interesting… Probably in the range of W1 (personally I’ve made a lot of PTQ Top 8s with this ability sans vigilance and not at instant speed).

One thing I like about the third ability in particular is that not only do you get to mug your opponent sometimes (they send in a 1/1), but when you are playing against control, you can leave up two mana and still have forward action on turn 2. This card is good with Snapcaster Mage (no surprise) but can probably stand on just green and white if that kind of a deck exists. You’re way less likely to overpay than with the other two Charms.

As the mana in Return to Ravnica looks to be so saucy, I can totally see a deck that plays lots and lots of Charms from different colors (presumably along with Snapcaster Mage). With a ton of card drawing, you are probably in a position to deal with anything one-for-one.

Signal: G/W Midrange Aggro Role-Player, Multicolor Control Role-Player

Assorted Animals

Fencing Ace

Ah, little Fencing Ace! I would guess that most of you just glossed over Fencing Ace on the way to more interesting two-mana cards (perhaps in the multicolor section). Me? I was going back over the list trying to figure out which two-drops I wanted to talk about and realized a couple of things about this ‘un.

Fencing Ace is not so far off of Boros Swiftblade. Obviously a 1/1 is not the same thing as a 1/2…but the second point of toughness on a creature like one of these is not a huge deal (especially with Gut Shot rotating in Standard). I probably don’t need to remind you that while Hall of Famer Raphael Levy was scoring back-to-back Extended Grand Prix wins and the whispers started that he might be the best in the game at the time.., Raph was doing so with four copies of Boros Swiftblade in his deck. Card is a real card.

So let me bring you back to more recent events for a moment…

It wasn’t so long ago that we saw Delver of Secrets decks playing four copies of Porcelain Legionnaire. Now obviously Porcelain Legionnaire has been largely optimized out of Delver decks, but we are about to (once again) hit a period of upheaval. Are you really telling me you are too cool to connect with this guy wearing a Runechanter’s Pike? In a world with no Gut Shot and Vapor Snag? I am certainly not above trying to apply a Rancor to this creature given the upcoming conditions.

Not a lock, but probably worth consideration in strategies that can take advantage of its cost versus double strike impact.

Signal: U/W Delver (Pike version) Role-Player, G/W Aggro (Rancor) Role-Player, Multicolor Aggro (Big Pump) Corner Role-Player

Gatecreeper Vine

I’m a little hot and cold on Gatecreeper Vine. Obviously as a longtime connoisseur of a Civic Wayfinder or a Borderland Ranger—even a Pilgrim’s Eye—I have been willing to run the three-mana version of Gatecreeper Vine. In fact, versions of Gatecreeper Vine that have been unable to find a Gate.

But at the same time, those cards had some offense to them while this doesn’t. I can’t tell you how many times I beat a Faeries player because they were too cool to Thoughtseize my Grey Ogre or block it with two Bitterblossom tokens.

The closest recently playable card I can muster would be a Wall of Omens. If Gatecreeper Vine were a 0/4, I’d be pretty enthusiastic, but this is a purely defensive Tutor that lacks the durability of Wall of Omens. It won’t be humiliating Goblin Guide turn after turn or anything. Moreover, Birthing Pod is rotating…Birthing Pod would have made for a pretty obvious home for this card.

All that said, Gatecreeper Vine seems like it should be playable in Standard. The issue for me right now is that I am not sure where. It doesn’t have the ramp of a Sakura-Tribe Elder or the back end of a Wall of Blossoms. Possibly it can make an impact in the kinds of decks that have housed those in the past, because hey: card advantage.

Signal: Midrange Role-Player, bullet in some larger format (probably a one-of)

Rakdos Shred-Freak

I think Rakdos Shred-Freak is at this point sadly in the same overlooked category as Fencing Ace. People just look past the guy.

I am pretty sure this is a serviceable Mono Red creature; red hybrid / red hybrid two-drops have a good record in early Ravnica Standard formats. The last time there was 1/3 of a Ravnica block in Standard, Patrick Sullivan immediately won a PTQ with a Standard Mono Red deck designed to beat my Tap-Out Blue deck (which he did quite well). His two-drop? The then- brand spanking Boros Guildmage.

There are two remarkable things about this:

  1. Rakdos Shred-Freak is more or less just better than Boros Guildmage in PSulli’s deck (despite the "Boros" label his deck was straight red).
  2. The PTQ he won was actually an LCQ. PSulli made Day 2 of an Extended Pro Tour…again with Boros Guildmage as a four-of two-drop in his deck!

Signal: Potential Staple in Mono Red

Lotleth Troll

This card is just awesome.

Provided you can muster the B, Lotleth Troll is very similar to River Boa. River Boa is not only probably my favorite two-drop of all time, there was once a Pro Tour Top 8 where three Hall of Famers and a triple-crown champion played eleven River Boas between them (two of those Hall of Famers were playing a U/W deck in last week’s Players Championship). I know that last time there was a River Boa clone (Mire Boa) it made minimal impact, though it inspired me to write this at the time:

“My two-year-old daughter has a crazy hat. It is a knit cap woven out of multicolored orange, red, and yellow yarn. She gets this glint in her eye and will pull it on and suddenly go berserk. She will run in a five-foot circle until she falls down, or failing that, up and down the hallway arms in the air. She screams and tumbles and does I don’t know what else. I’d try to describe it further, but she is still bound by the physical laws that affect two-year-old girls and I wouldn’t be able to convey the manic energy that comes over her, Bruce Banner-like, when she puts on the hat anyway. Just this morning I surprised her and pulled it down over her ears when she came up to me in the kitchen, just to see what would happen. I wish I’d had my video camera. My wife says she’s like a pinball but, you know, less metallic and shiny…which is ironic, because pulling on the crazy hat is like Bella’s Autobot Matrix of Leadership, transforming her into something pumped full of energon and impossible to injure.

Mire Boa is my crazy hat. When I look at it I just want to punch the screen to pieces and then drown my enemies in the blood running down my slashed knuckles. I want to hurl my arms into the air and cry to the moon…but I remember that I’m not physically very imposing and that I wouldn’t be scaring anyone. This card is just so exciting to me and you know why. It’s a bare half-degree off of my favorite two-drop ever. I played its predecessor over Wild Mongrel in U/G in Extended and won $250. Sol Malka used to play the River-style slitherer in The Rock, or The Rock’s great grandfather, whatever. I can’t wait to drop a Mire Boa on turn 2. I love a crazy hat. I hate Crovax even more than I want to play him.”

So forget about the missing Islandwalk you might miss on a River Boa. Islandwalk only matters if someone intends to block, and in Constructed, it is well known that no one blocks ever under any circumstances.

Instead you are left with a different kind of "evasion" (trample)…and a heck of an upside. In Standard, the Golgari have their newfangled not-dredge; you can potentially get a ton of value out of +1/+1s, scavenge or otherwise. Last Ravnica gave us Firemane Angel, and it is quite possible we will once again see some kind of a creature that has some benefit being in the bin. In any case, the "natural" +1/+1 ability on Lotleth Troll is going to add up. It has trample, after all, and is hard to kill to begin with. It bears a strong natural resistance to Dreadbore and Abrupt Decay. It will punish the unprepared brutally and rides synergies well but is perfectly perfect on its own.

Probably my favorite Return to Ravnica creature at this point.

Signal: Jund Role-Player, Junk Role-Player, Golgari Aggro Staple, Graveyard-Synergistic Aggro Staple

Not a Great Time to Be a Creature

Mizzium Mortars

Most of you probably don’t remember this, but Patrick Chapin breakout decklist back circa 2007, the one that landed him his regular column here on StarCityGames.com Premium, was a Grixis colored Korlash, Heir to Blackblade deck that featured many a Watery Grave and Blood Crypt. Patrick went on to win his Regional Championships with this exciting deck.

He had a weak spot, though, on straight Gruul beatdown. I had a suggestion… The relatively low-powered Volcanic Hammer! Volcanic Hammer wasn’t as flashy as a Tendrils of Corruption or and big as a Damnation, but if what was hurting you was a fast Scab-Clan Mauler or Tarmogoyf, three damage on turn 2 was the hero you needed if not the hero you dreamed of.

So let’s talk Mizzium Mortars

For the purpose of killing a creature quickly, Mizzium Mortars is substantially superior to Volcanic Hammer. Forget about just hitting a 3/3 for two mana. The odd 3/4, 4/4, or 6/4 are all fair game. Given sufficient mana? They’re all fair game… All at the same time!

But there is no reason to be greedy! A control deck just splashing red can be happy to run this one in the sideboard, just like Patrick had his Volcanic Hammers in his. Because the only thing better than mad card advantage on a nigh uncastable six is living to turn 6.

As far as the currently revealed two-mana Return to Ravnica spells are concerned, Mizzium Mortars is my favorite one so far…and given the competition from Dreadbore, Abrupt Decay, and some of the Charms, that’s really saying something.

It might not be a great time to be a creature if you know what I mean.

Signal: Sideboard All-Star (Cross Archetype Staple)


Terminate is great.

This is exactly Terminate at sorcery speed, except that it can just stone kill Vraska the Unseen without blinking.

All other things held equal instants are better than sorceries, but as I’ve said in the past, based on my evaluation algorithm I don’t see any great necessity to cost instants so much more. I have been happy to play both Volcanic Hammer (as above) and Lightning Bolt at different times (looking your opponent in the eye and pointing a Volcanic Hammer at a Daru Spiritualist is about the height of Magic: The Gathering).

I see Dreadbore as a signal to Grixis more than Jund (though some of the Golgari tools are obviously pretty impressive). Super cheap instants and sorceries, Snapcaster Mage, more super cheap instants and sorceries that punish the opponent for investing a lot of mana in epic threats? You get the gist.

That multicolor "all the Charms" idea from above would welcome Dreadbore as a three-of (at least), methinks.

Signal: Jund Staple, Grixis Control Staple (possibly sideboard), Multicolor Control Staple

Abrupt Decay

Likely the most flexible removal spell in the set, destined to be cross format adopted, spoiled official-like here.

Many of the applications are obvious.

It was pointed out to me by Aaron Forsythe (and others) on Twitter that Abrupt Decay is also a fine smasher of the card Counterbalance. I am now of the opinion that its greatest impact may be BUG Control in Legacy, not even anything in Standard (despite what will likely be a fine Standard career).

Like the man said, it might not be a great time to be a creature.

Signal: Jund Staple, Junk Staple, Various "The Rock"-esque Midrange Staple, Multicolor Control Staple

Kitchen Sink (On Two)

Grisly Salvage

The real question here is whether you are willing to pay B as an add-on to put four assorted cards in your graveyard; we’ve had the other half at G (half the cost) with minimal adoption in the past.

Signal: Graveyard Enabler?

Rakdos’s Return

A few years back I made it my especial occupation to figure out how to outmaneuver Cruel Control decks with my Civic Wayfarer Jund Ramp deck. We both had Broodmate Dragon (I probably had more); we both had some steep card advantage… But they had Cryptic Command, and I didn’t have Bloodbraid Elf. If memory serves, Blightning was then legal, but I didn’t have that either. Hmmm.

What I did have was a very focused strategy in terms of how I could beat them and their Cryptic Commands and Mulldrifters. I had to default beat them before turn 7, because if I let them get there I probably wasn’t going to like their seven-drop.

Eventually I figured out that Mind Shatter is faster than Cruel Ultimatum, and when you have Rampant Growth (and they don’t) you can get the double-jump on them and force through your big spell. At the time I had Gutteral Response, but we have other setup help now.

At the end of the day, this not-really-two-mana spell gives us a kind of Blightning / kind of Mind Shatter. Midrange control decks are going to take a beating from this card if they don’t have permission. Back the last time there was Ravnica block, if two green ramp decks fought and one had Wit’s End… That was the end for the other guy. This time the Wit’s End is going to carry with it a ton of damage as well.

I don’t think Rakdos’s Return is the "best" card of this bunch, but it is high up in my favorites right now. I think that it will have substantial applications (probably as a sideboard card). Its existence is going to force players to think closely about how they make and choose their decks and how they approach the general tools available in sideboarding. Along with Dreadbore and to a lesser extent Abrupt Decay, this card makes planeswalkers much less robust.

And whether you have cards in hand left or not? In "Blaze" mode, it is probably pretty unreal at making players less robust.

Signal: Ramp (Finisher) Role-Player, Sideboard All-Star (Cross Archetype Role-Player)

Pretty good rake at two so far, doncha think?

Now imagine we had a three-drop to consider!