Thirst for Knowledge – Delving Deeper Into M11

Grand Prix GP Columbus July 30-August 1, 2010
Wednesday, July 7th – As of last week, I had the notion that M11 was shaping up to be a fine Core Set. A week later, I feel as it has surpassed M10 not only in power level but also in flavor and overall design. I don’t have a lot to say about some of those particular cards (Phylactery Lich, for example, is among the best designs I’ve seen from Wizards in years), but they should certainly not be ignored when evaluating the worth of the set. M11 is looking pretty incredible right now.

As of last week, I had the notion that M11 was shaping up to be a fine Core Set. A week later, I feel as it has surpassed M10 not only in power level but also in flavor and overall design. I don’t have a lot to say about some of those particular cards (Phylactery Lich, for example, is among the best designs I’ve seen from Wizards in years), but they should certainly not be ignored when evaluating the worth of the set. M11 is looking pretty incredible right now.

First and foremost, M11 is giving us a new cycle of Leylines. The Guildpact Leylines were fantastic designs, certainly, but most of them were pretty bad. Leyline of the Meek was an awful card, Leyline of Lightning just required too much mana, and Leyline of Singularity only had niche uses as a combo piece in those bad Hunted decks. Leyline of Lifeforce didn’t see much play but was still a reasonable card, and a good design for a Green Leyline. Leyline of the Void was the only one to see lasting play, and for good reason — to this day it is probably the best graveyard hoser in print.

In M11, we have a slew of new ones to play with. The good news? Most of them are a LOT better than their Guildpact counterparts. The bad news? They don’t all rock. The White one is supposedly an Ivory Mask, which is a fine idea for a white Leyline and is miles ahead of that piece of trash they printed in Ravnica block. It also has great duality with the Red Leyline:

Leyline of Punishment
Enchantment (R)
If Leyline of Punishment is in your opening hand, you may begin the game with it on the battlefield.
Players can’t gain life.
Damage can’t be prevented.

Yes, much better. This is exactly the type of card that Red needs in a Leyline, as my understanding of the cycle is that they are supposed to be effects that the color would like to have omnipresent. I mean, I can’t think of a Red deck in the history of the game that wouldn’t like this effect to just exist whenever it is shuffled up. Leylines are supposed to be like the Avatars on MTGO — just very good global effects that begin the game in play and bolster your deck’s effectiveness. Leyline of Punishment is a fantastic example of what Leylines should be, and I am certain that this one will make appearances in many Red sideboards, right alongside Combust.

The Blue Leyline, although not as good as the Red one, is still interesting:

Leyline of Anticipation
Enchantment (R)
If Leyline of Anticipation is in your opening hand, you may begin the game with it on the battlefield.
You may cast nonland cards as though they had flash.

Will this card see play? Honestly, I doubt it. The problem with Leylines is this: they require that you have them in your opening hand, and although you don’t need to spend mana on them you still need to “spend a card” for their effect. They suffer from the “Prismatic Omen effect,” or the “Amulet of Vigor syndrome,” which is that they have very desirable impacts on the game yet aren’t good enough because you have to waste deck slots to do things you could just build your deck to do anyway. I realize that it is hard to cast all your nonland cards as though they had flash without the use of this card, but how good is that? Is it worth starting the game with one less card in hand, and sometimes not having it in your opener? I agree that end-stepping a Jace, the Mind Sculptor would be insane, but how strong is that when you have to expend a card to do it?

I admit that maybe I am being too harsh here. If this card sees play, it will not be in maindecks. We aren’t going to see some Blue deck pretending to be Faeries in Standard. No, I feel that if this card makes the cut in Constructed that it will merely be as a tool for control decks to employ in the mirror. Being able to end-step Baneslayers could give a considerable edge, and of course so would dumping a Gideon into play. I’m still wary of whether or not that is actually worth a card (and remember, you have to pay four for one of these if you fail to draw it in your opener), but I will have to spend some time with it to see one way or the other. I could easily see myself saying the morning before a PTQ to one of my friends “yeah, it just blows out the mirror.” Those types of cards only see fringe play, but a role is a role.

The last Leyline, the Black one, is far less exciting than all the others. The reason? It’s just a reprint. Don’t get me wrong, Leyline of the Void is the still the best of them all, but that doesn’t mean that I’m super-pumped about it. Why is it the only one that isn’t new? First, I think this is because it was the only good one originally, and thus they wanted to give it a victory lap. Second, and probably the real reason, is that they either have a graveyard mechanic in Scars of Mirrodin, or they want the card legal to fight Living End decks in Amsterdam. Regardless, the card is fine and I’m okay with having it back. It drops the value of my playset from Guildpact, but I didn’t plan on getting rid of them anyway, so…

(Note: Yes, I’m aware that I didn’t mention the Green Leyline. It’s horrible. It would have brought me physical pain to have even spoke about it. My apologies.)

Next, I’d like to mention two Black rares that have caught my interest.

Dark Tutelage
Enchantment (R)
At the beginning of your upkeep, reveal the top card of your library and put that card into your hand. You lose life equal to its converted mana cost.

Equal parts Dark Confidant and Phyrexian Arena, this card has come as quite a surprise. This effect hasn’t been in print for a long while, and although we don’t have that many ways to manipulate the top of our library (Crystal Ball is no Sensei’s Divining Top, and Jace is only a single card), I still find it hard to imagine a world where this card isn’t used. Drawing two cards a turn is good, and many people seem to forget that all too often. With Corrupt and Tendrils of Corruption in Standard together, I don’t see why this card isn’t workable in a mono-colored aggressive deck, or even a control deck. Moreover, any aggressive strategy involving Black could play this card without too much problem since it is so easily splashable, and the lower curve could work around the card’s inherent penalty. Jund doesn’t want or need this card, which is somewhat sickening when you really think about it, but I don’t doubt that the fall rotation will be VERY good to this particular card.

And now…

Nantuko Shade
Creature – Insect Shade (R)
B: Nantuko Shade gets +1/+1 until end of turn.

Umm, yeah. I won’t pretend for an instant that seeing this card on the spoiler doesn’t excite me. Nantuko Shade is, to this day, one of Black’s most powerful creatures, and seeing it in print again is awesome. This guy had a huge price tag back when cards didn’t really have high prices, so you knew he was good. He was simply miles ahead of every other “shade” ever printed, and ironically he was also miles ahead of every other Black creature at the time. These days he’s a lot worse due to how much better creatures have gotten, sure, but he is still a force to be reckoned with and I expect to see him across the table from me in Standard sometime soon. The aforementioned Black-based aggro deck? I bet it has room for a creature like this. I mean, might just be a hunch, and I probably am just spouting nonsense, but you never know…

Next, let’s talk about Green for a second:

Fauna Shaman
Creature – Elf Shaman (R)
G, T: Discard a creature card: Search your library for a creature card, reveal it, and put it into your hand. Then shuffle your library.

Survival of the Fittest is, even now, possible the best Green enchantment in the game (Oath of Druids is the only one better, really). In a world filled with Sylvan Libraries and Rancors, that’s saying something. Fauna Shaman is infinitely worse than Survival, but it’s hard to ignore how good the effect is regardless of that. I mean, the best way to look at Fauna Shaman is to ask yourself just how good one activation of Survival really is. Because I would wager that, in most cases, that is all you’ll get out of this card, if any at all.

The problem with Fauna Shaman is obvious — it is a creature. It dies. I’m not making the “it dies to removal” argument here, mind you. I am merely stating that, unlike Survival, you cannot just keep digging for threats from your library and have your opponents deal with them. No, with Fauna Shaman, it is often enough to simply Bolt the Shaman itself and preemptively “solve” all those other creatures that you would have fetched. Granted, your opponents don’t always have the removal, and so it is important to continue our analyzation beyond that factor.

Okay, so your Shaman makes it until your next turn. Now what? Besides being a creature and dying to removal, you also need to wait a turn to use it. How good is that? Does that make it unplayable? Surely, if the creature had haste we could avoid this issue altogether. I mean, if you untap with it, do you win? No, you really don’t. You can only use it once, since it must tap to use its ability, but does that hinder it too much? As you can see, there is actually a lot going on with this card.

My take? Well, in order to see my take we must look at the card in a best-case scenario as well as the “it gets Bolted on sight” outlook. So you cast this guy, and then the next turn you activate it, pitch a Vengevine, and tutor Bloodbraid Elf or Ranger of Eos. See? Profit! And what about if you played it with Vengevine and Extractor Demon? What about if you played it with Hell’s Thunders and Hellspark Elementals? You need to get value out of your discards, as we have no Angers we can discard to give our team haste. Vengevine and unearth creatures obviously fill this role better than any other cards in Standard, so if this card sees play that will undoubtedly be how. Beyond that, too, Fauna Shaman allows you to run toolbox creatures that don’t need to cost one mana (and by that I mean Ranger of Eos creatures), such as silver-bullets like Qasali Pridemage or something similar. And what if you used it to exchange the Birds of Paradise in your hand for a Sovereigns of Lost Alara? What, is your opponent going to kill your Shaman at that point? You just tutored for a Sovereign!

Ah, see… therein lies the power of this card. If it is not killed on sight, it forces your opponents to decide whether they should spend their single removal spell on that Sovereign/Baneslayer/Primeval Titan you just tutored for or your Shaman, since if they save it for the fattie they must face the truth of the matter: you’ll just go get another with the Shaman anyway. It’s a very interesting interaction, and I think it’s good enough to give Fauna Shaman a shot in Standard. My decision? More than good enough. Truly a fantastic Grizzly Bears.

Before I head out for this week, a comment or two about M11’s artifacts: Brittle Effigy is good enough for Legacy in any deck running Trinket Mage (Explosives doesn’t always get there), and Voltaic Key is only as broken as the artifacts printed alongside it. That is, Key is perfectly tame right now. I highly doubt Wizards would printed something absurd in Scars that would break Voltaic Key… again. They make their mistakes, sure, but come on: they won’t make the same one again, and again, and again…

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
Shinjutsei on MTGO