During preview season, we tend to focus our analysis on rate and power. How big of an effect will a card have on the game? How cheaply does the card accomplish its goal? Winning on either of these prongs is a surefire way to produce a noteworthy Magic card.
It is possible for a card to succeed in other ways though. The third prong of analysis, and the one that is slept on far too often, is uniqueness.
Barrin, Tolarian Archmage seems like a simple take on a Man-o’-War type effect but it’s doing several things that are unique or rare in the context of current Magic. Three main features of this card strike me as worthy of discussion.
Ability to Bounce Planeswalkers
There have been a small number of creatures capable of achieving a similar planeswalker bounce effect upon entering the battlefield (Riftwing Cloudskate; Venser, Shaper Savant; Aethersnipe), but Barrin is the first time we’ve seen language specifically targeting planeswalkers for this effect, and it’s doing so at the fairly low cost of three mana. This may represent an important evolution of blue creatures and their future capabilities. Anyone who has attempted to play flash-style decks in the age of Teferi, Time Raveler knows that a resolved planeswalker could often represent a nightmare scenario, forcing you to extend into whatever sweeper wanted to ruin your day. A proactive way to reset a planeswalker and create another window for countermagic could represent real hope for tempo-based archetypes.
While planeswalker ultimates are not the present focal point of Standard, it was not all that long ago that the ultimates of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria or Vivien Reid were deciding a large percentage of Standard matches. Powerful ultimates from Basri Ket; Ugin, the Spirit Dragon; Teferi, Master of Time; and Liliana, Waker of the Dead are set to enter the format, and all seem like end-games worth building towards. It wouldn’t surprise me if proactive planeswalker ultimate management became important once more.
There are presently 21 planeswalkers in Standard that are incapable of generating loyalty on their own. Several of these seem ripe for a team-up with Barrin. Of course, the most powerful of these planeswalkers is Narset, Parter of Veils. Narset doesn’t really need the help to be an incredible Magic card, but its low converted mana cost has me optimistic that we’ll see turns where a Narset gets activated, Barrin picks it up, it gets redeployed and activated again, and then Barrin closes the turn by drawing another card from its triggered abilities. If the battlefield is looking dangerous, maybe the Narset just waits in hand, looking for another opportunity for redeployment. The play pattern seems fun and powerful, and it opens a potential window for creative play — the best kind of Magic.
Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage hasn’t done much with its time in Standard and it’s not hard to understand why. Running an opponent out of resources has been an exercise in futility since Hydroid Krasis floated its way onto the stage in Ravnica Allegiance and the problem has only gotten worse. A single Davriel costing your opponent five cards is an almost unfathomable swing though. There has to be some threshold where this starts mattering again, right? Probably not, but a wizard can dream.
I’d say similar things about Ashiok, Dream Render except the burden is even higher on a three-mana card that does actual nothing. Maybe Barrin could be a key that unlocks mill decks, but it does seem unlikely given the present elevated power level, to say nothing of the 80-card decks running around.
Self-Contained Card Advantage
Barrin combines with some very reasonable Magic cards to form compact card advantage engines that can serve as perfectly respectable B-plans in moments when your primary strategy is not advancing. I’m not including Teferi in my Barrin deck or vice versa because I believe a six-mana draw-two represents a particularly good value. If each card is individually meaningful towards my big-picture strategy, then I get to just pick up this combination by accident.
Think of these setups like inverse (and admittedly worse) Witch’s Oven / Cauldron Familiar analogues. Cat Oven only really changes the game when it works in concert with Mayhem Devil, Trail of Crumbs, or Korvold, Fae-Cursed King. At moments of parity though, the player with reliable access to small interactions will routinely pull ahead. Barrin can put a lot of these small interactions into your decks.
Another card capable of creating such a small engine with Barrin is Niambi, Esteemed Speaker. This engine even has some of the same combat-invalidating nature of the Cat Oven combo due to Niambi’s flash. I think people are sleeping on this card right now. Niambi has a lot of its power allocated in the same vein as Barrin, and that brings us to our final point.
Ability to Target Your Own Creatures
For a while now, creatures with enters-the-battlefield bounces have been forced to target opposing permanents.
Barrin not only bucks this trend, it goes as far as encouraging players to bounce their own permanents. And, yeah, I’ve spent half this article absolutely burying the lede.
Barrin plus Yorion, Sky Nomad nets you a recastable Yorion every turn. Make Yorion’s trigger worth enough and winning becomes trivial. Maybe this would be a shaky eventuality to plan around if we were forced to rely only on Barrin, but Niambi brings redundancy to the plan and protects key creatures. This foundation immediately set me to brewing and, despite all the oppressive factors present in the current Standard format, I’ve got a list I’m legitimately excited to work on tuning upon the release of Core Set 2021.
- 2 Solemn Simulacrum
- 4 Brazen Borrower
- 3 Yorion, Sky Nomad
- 4 Niambi, Esteemed Speaker
- 4 Barrin, Tolarian Archmage
Present Azorius decks fail on all points of the spectrum. They fail to establish any meaningful pressure early, they occasionally succumb to strong aggressive draws, and their late-game can be outscaled by a large percentage of the format. This rebuild aims to address all three points of weakness simultaneously.
Barrin and Niambi are not the most frightening threats in the early-game, but they are bodies that can potentially pressure a life total in combination with Brazen Borrower. Three maindeck copies of Yorion acknowledge the reality of the companion nerfs, yet also open up actual beatdown draws. No one is mistaking you for an aggro deck, but you can certainly win games on Turn 6 or 7 in the best circumstances.
Borrower is yet another card that plays beautifully with the bouncing creatures. When the engine is running it should be challenging for your opponent to even keep meaningful permanents on the battlefield, and Petty Theft is a fine defensive tool for reaching that point.
Speaking of defensive tools, Niambi’s lifegain really shines in this shell. If Yorion loops are gaining you five life a pass, an opponent must put together an incredible force to push through lethal damage. It sure seems possible that the activated ability might even matter here. It’s not what we came for, but it’s sure nice to have the option and potentially load our graveyard for future Elspeth Conquers Deaths.
Barrin is another key bridge to the late-game. It’s not here to just be Man-o’-War, but there do exist decks that legitimately struggle against that kind of card. It usually just scales so poorly that only the most tempo-oriented decks could consider such an effect. Not so with Barrin and its many micro-engines.
And when you do survive to the late-game…well, what can’t this deck do? If your opponent can’t break up a Yorion loop, can they realistically win without three-mana-plus permanents? With you gaining seven life per turn? Ramping the whole time? Drawing cards?
Even if they have the spot removal or disruption required, what if you have a defensive Niambi in response? How about just an Elspeth Conquers Death to reclaim the key pieces better than before? The deck’s late-game just seems huge even in an era where most decks are routinely breaking the barriers of what we thought possible.
If I’m right and this deck is a thing, I apologize in advance for those of you who will suffer through the mirror. It’s not going to be pretty.
It’s not often I build sideboards for my decks this early in the format, but I had a couple of key points I really wanted to illustrate. First, this deck will have an Ugin, the Spirit Dragon problem. The Dovin’s Veto as the maindeck counterspell of choice is a concession to this fact. If Ugin does become a large focal point of the format, I really like the idea of using Sorcerous Spyglass as our default answer. It allows us to control a different permanent in the early-game, and transition to Ugin duty once we deploy our first (of many) Yorions. The fact that it’s also a solid option against Witch’s Oven doesn’t hurt either.
Runed Halo is included on the same basis. The increased flexibility we are getting from these cards ups their power level significantly. Maybe the Runed Halo numbers climb even higher and it becomes our best anti-aggro option.
Archon of Sun’s Grace leans into the beatdown setup of this deck even further. Alongside Niambi, you can play an almost “protect the queen” game, and Yorion will eventually push your Pegasus production into overdrive.
I haven’t loved playing Yorion decks during its time in Standard, but something about this particular build has me raring to go. It feels like a return to Restoration Angel-based Jeskai Flash decks. While you have the tools to go as long as the format demands, you also can just get on the battlefield and create pressure. Similarly, you can play at instant speed, but your deck is loaded with payoffs that will reward you for choosing the right moments to tap out. Meanwhile, every card in your deck feels like it opens the door for galaxy-brain plays.
Expect more on this deck from me once Core Set 2021 hits Arena. Just please, give me a few days of peace before I have to slog through a mirror.