Three Up, Three Down

Ross Merriam provides three cards that have been unbelievable in testing, and three cards that have not pulled the weight they promised! Find out what they are before #SCGBALT next week!

Shadows over Innistrad Prerelease April 2-3!

With the full card list for Shadows over Innistrad released, we are finally in the stage where ideas for decks are fully formed, hastily built, and then thrown in the trash. It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Like many of you I have spent a lot of time trying out new cards and new decks, and while I am far from having a firm grasp on exactly what the format is going to look like for the next few months, I have a much better idea of which cards from Shadows will be hits and which will be misses. It seems like every set now has a huge number of cards that look powerful enough for competitive play, but there are always some of them that merely offer the illusion of power and as such fail to deliver on the early hype.

Today I’ll offer my early feedback on some of the cards from SoI that have proven to be very powerful for Standard, and some others that have underwhelmed.

Cards that Have Impressed

When Archangel Avacyn was spoiled, I was underwhelmed. We are long past the point where Serra Angel is playable outside of Limited, and while Flash is a powerful mechanic, the fact that Avacyn seems to undo the value gained from her enters-the-battlefield trigger when she transforms worried me. I prefer when cards have internal synergy so that you do not have to put in as much effort to get the maximum value from them, and Archangel Avacyn seemed to be the opposite.

I was wrong.

By a lot.

More than that.

Just on the front side, the additional abilities Archangel Avacyn has on top of Serra Angel are excellent. Once you reach five mana, combat becomes very difficult for your opponent to the point where they are left to do nothing until they have a removal spell for Archangel Avacyn at the very least. If you are able to cast anything at instant speed in order to use the five mana you leave up (Stasis Snare, sacrificing Clues, etc.) you can easily pull ahead by capitalizing on your opponent’s fear, even if you don’t have the Avacyn in hand. The blowout potential in combat is simply too great to risk. Often your opponent will make a probing attack with a single creature to attempt to bait the Archangel Avacyn for a minimal loss, at which point you have played a ShriekmawSerra Angel hybrid with upside. And that is among the worst-case scenarios.

I also overrated the downside of transforming Avacyn. While you may lose a creature or two in the process, if your opponent used a removal spell on something other than Avacyn, it is likely living and the 6/5 body on the other side combined with a free Lightning Bolt is a very fast clock. Your opponent attempting to flip Avacyn is also a very risky proposition because you can transform her, put the trigger on the stack, and cast a second copy and save your entire team, including both Angels, since they avoid invoking the legend rule by having distinct names.

Archangel Avacyn has been the best card for keeping Chandra, Flamecaller in check and finding cards and strategies that match up well against what appears to be the flagship card from SOI will be very important in the early weeks of this Standard format. This means instant-speed removal like Grasp of Darkness, Lightning Axe, and Stasis Snare becomes more valuable, while cards like Silkwrap, Roast, and Ruinous Path become less valuable. This does not mean that the latter cards are unplayable, but that the limit on how many you can play has tightened.

You also need to sequence spells and land with a turn 5 Avacyn in mind and be more judicious in using your instant removal so you can attack in the face of five open mana without fear. If you haven’t started building your decks with Avacyn or the threat of Avacyn in mind, start now or be caught unprepared.

I know I just spend the last section arguing for more instant-speed removal to deal with Archangel Avacyn, but this card is the exception. It may seem strange to give your opponent card advantage so freely, but it is justified to have access to a removal spell that is so cheap but so widely applicable. For only two mana, this card deals with anything from Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger to a large Secure the Wastes. It exiles Hangarback Walker so there is no threat of Thopter tokens, and unlike previous iterations of this effect such as Maelstrom Pulse or Detention Sphere, there is never any danger of exiling your own cards.

Often the tempo gained from having such a flexible, cheap removal spell is enough to offset any card advantage you give up, especially if you are able to Declaration multiple copies of a card or your deck is aggressive. Even in a controlling deck, unless you are playing straight attrition, giving your aggro opponent an extra card is unlikely to help them end the game if their early offense is stymied. Declaration simply represents too efficient a package to not become a staple of the format. Play carefully against it by holding back extra copies of your creatures when appropriate and avoid forming a gameplan around one single threat without the necessary protection.

With the rotation of fetchlands and the subsequent move away from three- and four-color decks, we should see a drastic increase in the number of utility lands that see play in Standard. Foundry of the Consuls looks to be quite good, but the most powerful of the lot is this double-faced land from Shadows.

The format is full of token-makers. Thopters are made by Hangarback Walker, Thopter Engineer, Pia and Kiran Nalaar, and Whirler Rogue. Eldrazi Scions come along with Eldrazi Skyspawner, Blisterpod, Scion Summoner, and Spawning Bed. Being able to turn these tokens into a giant flying threat is excellent for any battlefield-presence deck going long. The Abbey even feeds itself by making Human tokens if your battlefield is not large enough to begin with.

All these token-makers mean that battlefields on both sides fill up quickly and games often bog down as neither player has a large enough relative advantage to attack profitably. In these long attrition battles, you need to have ways to go over the top and end the game quickly rather than gain slightly more incremental advantage, and Westvale Abbey does that when it transforms into Ormendahl, Profane Prince.

That Ormendahl is indestructible means that it already dodges most of the removal in the format, and every deck will find it hard to race a nine-power lifelink flier. Foundry of the Consuls and Spawning Bed are great for providing some value, but neither can take over the game the way Ormendahl, can and it is that uniqueness that makes Westvale Abbey an important card in the new Standard format.

Beyond tokens, Westvale Abbey has found its way into many aggressive decks looking for a late-game push, most notably White Weenie variants that are in desperate need for some reach when a single Sylvan Advocate holds back your team of 2/2s and 3/3s. Abbey is yet another reason to favor instant-speed removal in your decks, especially exile effects like Stasis Snare. Notably, Declaration in Stone can remove Ormendahl or stop it from ever entering the battlefield by clearing out a large number of creature tokens at once. Between those removal spells and Avacyn, white is poised to be the best color in the format.

Cards that Have Underwhelmed

Relentless Dead has all the makings of a good aggressive creature. It doesn’t hit the hardest, but between evasion and its recursion abilities, it ensures that you will never stop hitting. But in practice this has not been the case.

For one, there is not a lot of support around it for a deck, so perhaps we will have to wait for Eldritch Moon for Relentless Dead to break through. Without being able to recur other Zombies directly to the battlefield, Relentless Dead ends up being rather anemic, as a 2/2 can reasonably be ignored for a while before being obsoleted by a superior battlefield presence or cleanly dealt with by a Silkwrap, Stasis Snare, or Declaration in Stone.

Even if your opponent lacks the appropriate removal, the fact that Relentless Dead wants to be placed in an aggressive deck means you will often be tapped out, leaving your opponent with ample opportunity to cleanly deal with Relentless Dead with a Fiery Temper or Dead Weight. Sure, you can slowplay your hand in order to leave up mana for Relentless Dead’s abilities, but that makes the rest of your aggressive cards worse.

Relentless Dead is a card that has come too late. The game of Magic is played much more on the battlefield than in the past, and in the absence of a great home, cards like Relentless Dead are far too awkward for your own sequencing to see much play. Unless Eldritch Moon brings plenty of good Zombies with it, I suspect this one will lead many players to disappointment.

I am using Asylum Visitor more as a proxy for the aggressive Vampire Madness deck that seemed to be pushed in Shadows. There seemed to be plenty of good enablers like Ravenous Bloodseeker and good madness payoffs like Asylum Visitor and Incorrigible Youths. I brought an untuned list to a VS. Video recently and the results were…less than encouraging. Further testing has not changed that initial prognosis much. Playing a pile of 2/1s and 3/1s is awful in a format filled with 1/1 tokens, and the small Vampires are unable to get out underneath of those tokens consistently.

The ability for decks to flood the battlefield so quickly has made life tough for a lot of aggressive strategies, much to my dismay. The one slight exception to this has been decks that focus on applying pressure in the air. Heir of Falkenrath and Olivia, Mobilized for War are must-deal-with threats, which helps to mitigate the fact that they fall victim to many of the removal spells in the format. The curve of Olivia into Thunderbreak Regent has been potent for applying pressure in the face of so many ground blockers, especially when backed up by the many burn spells red has to offer in Fiery Temper, Draconic Roar, Avacyn’s Judgment, and Exquisite Firecraft.

Whether there is enough support to build a deck akin to the previous format’s B/R Dragons remains unseen, but I do know that traditional swarming aggro decks will not be successful in the early weeks of this Standard format, and with the number of midrange decks I am seeing, I foresee the successful aggro decks focusing on hard-hitting flying creatures.

I will preface this section by saying that Arlinn is a fine card and I expect it will see some play over its lifetime in Standard. But as a card I was very excited about, it has failed to meet my lofty expectations.

I anticipated that the “make a Wolf, Bolt your creature, lather-rinse-repeat” sequence would be quite potent, but the impact of a 2/2 on turn 4 is minimal, which makes defending a planeswalker at three loyalty difficult. The effort you are forced to expend to defend Arlinn is often not worth the value gained from it, especially because it often forces you to sacrifice some battlefieldd position, making both +1 abilities less effective than they otherwise would be.

That being said I believe the +1 abilities on this card are being underrated. On the Kord side, the +1 allows you to more effectively apply pressure while defending Arlinn. On the Embraced side, the +1 lets you take advantage of the good Thopter cards available in red, Thopter Engineer and Pia and Kiran Nalaar, as well as the Plant tokens from Nissa, Voice of Zendikar. Red and Green are great at flooding the battlefield with creatures, so rather than using Arlinn as a source of tangible value, I would be looking to use it as a payoff card for your strategy that can serve as a lone threat when necessary.

This role is important and, as noted above, should ensure that Arlinn sees some play, but I do not foresee it being a format lynchpin that I had hoped it would be.

This is but a small taste of the entire set, much of which I have not adequately explored to have a confident opinion on. It was daunting to see how much of the set I have yet to explore given how much work I have put in to this point, but there is over a week until the SCG Tour® goes to Baltimore to unveil Shadows of Innistrad Standard to all of us, and it is rather exciting to see how many powerful, interesting cards there are in Shadows. By next week I will hopefully have a good idea of what I will be playing in Baltimore, as well as a rough conception of what the metagame will look like.

What is it that they say about the best-laid schemes of mice and men? They always work out perfectly, right?

Shadows over Innistrad Prerelease April 2-3!