Core Set 2021 is upon us and, like always, Week 1 of the format has been a humbling reminder of just how difficult it is to judge the quality of a non-broken card before playing with it. There are no companions in this set to immediately latch onto and focus all deckbuilding around. No mana doubling. No free cantrips. No truly absurd planeswalkers…though Teferi, Master of Time is toeing the line.
No complaints here. The capability Magic cards have to surprise is one of the huge reasons I love this game so much. If predictions were easy, they wouldn’t be fun. After release, there’s nothing to do but sit down at the table, cut yourself off a nice slice of humble pie, and get to work updating and rethinking your previous assumptions. With that goal in mind, it’s time for us to identify the cards in Core Set 2021 that have overperformed and underperformed thus far.
Basri Ket is the planeswalker that finally taught me my lesson. No matter how good the dream scenario is on a planeswalker, if it only plays in one direction and requires a wide battlefield to accomplish anything, it won’t get the job done in Constructed. Honestly, I should have gotten to this conclusion already. Huatli, Radiant Champion and Ajani Steadfast were other wide-battlefield-centric planeswalkers that looked promising and fell to the same weakness. The three-mana cost of Basri Ket had visions of Ajani, Caller of the Pride dancing in my head, but that Ajani succeeded for its ability to create powerful two-card combos. Basri Ket needs you to be winning the game before it can help you win the game. I’m off such setups, now and forever.
Meanwhile, Seasoned Hallowblade has impressed me because of its strategic versatility. It’s easy to just focus on the protection from removal or sweepers that indestructibility provides, but cards like Seasoned Hallowblade are at their best when you are using them to facilitate resource exchanges with your opponents where you get to dictate the terms. For example, when you attack your Seasoned Hallowblade into your opponent’s Runeclaw Bear, you have access to information your opponent does not. If you can trade a redundant land in your hand for their ostensibly useful cardboard, you get to come out ahead in the interaction.
Play patterns like this bolster Seasoned Hallowblade’s case for inclusion in traditional midrange strategies. Winning on resource exchanges was the key to Standard for years and if Seasoned Hallowblade can force these types of exchanges on both offense and defense, it only needs a little bit of graveyard value to become an important part of the format.
Despite all of this, it’s tough for Core Set 2021 Standard to be about Seasoned Hallowblade right now. The card obviously doesn’t stand up well to Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, and it’s got the same Teferi problems as every other creature without immediate impact on the battlefield. I’ve appreciated the card abstractly though, and will be sure to keep it close at hand as the metagame changes over time.
Look, I know we all miss Spell Pierce. But playing Miscast is not going to bring it back. What exactly are people even attempting to counter with this card? The instants and sorceries I do have interest in countering are mostly blue, and I’m happy to have a card with the flexibility of Mystical Dispute tackling that job. Miscast is just an inferior card.
Meanwhile, Lofty Denial has shown up for me, and it’s playing far more like Mana Leak than I ever expected. I’ve continued to work on Mono-Blue Flash and have garnered good results with the following:
- 4 Faerie Miscreant
- 4 Spectral Sailor
- 4 Brineborn Cutthroat
- 4 Brazen Borrower
- 4 Sea-Dasher Octopus
- 3 Barrin, Tolarian Archmage
I’m very willing to hear arguments that Faerie Miscreant is supposed to be Pteramander and perhaps making that switch allows you to skip Brineborn Cutthroat and play even more countermagic. Regardless of where the deck specifically ends up, Lofty Denial has done a tremendous job acting as an answer for early Teferi, Time Ravelers and still scaling appropriately into the late-game due to the swarm of flyers available here. I’ve also been impressed with the Mazemind Tomes out of the sideboard as a real way to switch up the gameplan against opposing control decks.
Mono-Blue isn’t the only way to get appropriate support for Lofty Denial into your decks. I’ve seen Simic Flash lists picking up a few copies of Gilded Goose. Lofty Denial feels like the two-mana counterspell tempo decks have been sorely missing. It’s worth the effort to make it work.
My complaint about Stormwing Entity is less about its quality and more about questioning whether it inspires anything new. To me, Stormwing Entity decks are headed towards the same problems that plagued Arclight Phoenix decks throughout their time in Standard. You’re forced through a bunch of extra steps to produce a threat that just doesn’t stand up to the type of Magic being played. You’re also playing at sorcery speed, meaning you lose the key reason to play blue and are left highly exploitable by Ramp and Wilderness Reclamation strategies alike. The Stormwing Entity decks I’ve seen are another example of a great idea and a powerful deck in the abstract that probably has to wait for significant change before it cracks the upper tiers.
Shipwreck Dowser, on the other hand, does something unique. While my first passes to maximize the card have not been good enough, the capacity to bring about a new unbeatable Standard end-game shouldn’t be ignored.
Something about both of these decks doesn’t quite work, but Shipwreck Dowser is a unique recursive effect and those of you who routinely read my work know that I can’t help but get excited about that. The main combo here is that a Sublime Epiphany copying a Shipwreck Dowser immediately gets back that Sublime Epiphany and you get the other 10,000 bonus effects of the Sublime Epiphany as well.
Obviously, this takes some mana, so I’ve built my decks to be heavily focused on ramping, but maybe the key to Shipwreck Dowser is actually getting lower to the ground and looking to combine it with Azorius Blink lists featuring Thassa, Deep-Dwelling. Looping Root Snares might be up my alley, but this format is not really about the kind of combat that Root Snare punishes. While these lists may not have borne top-tier fruit, they had powerful moments. If we can figure out how to regularly achieve those moments, Shipwreck Dowser could be a player.
I’ve personally got plenty of egg on my face from this call. After months of cards that benefitted from building around their best-case scenarios, I tricked myself into overestimating the impact and importance of an early 5/5 flyer in Rakdos-based sacrifice strategies. Truth is, the core of this deck is so good that we were supposed to simply add consistency to the established engine.
Village Rites is an almost unprecedented level of efficiency in card drawing when most of your creatures are disposable. Add in synergies with Claim the Firstborn and it’s clear to see why the limited space available in Rakdos and Jund Sacrifice went to Village Rites. I still believe there is hope for Archfiend’s Vessel in more combo-oriented sacrifice decks like Orzhov, but it certainly wasn’t the game-changer I thought it would be.
We received a couple of new inductees to the “Hall of Splinter Twin” with the release of Core Set 2021. Like the majority of the miscategorized Splinter Twins, these two-card combos have some distance to cover before they reach viability, but one of these setups deserves far more attention than the other. If your combo is going to be flawed or inefficient, then you really must insist that the individual pieces do something on their own. In the case of Peer into the Abyss and Underworld Dreams, it seems extremely unlikely that you are ever happy to draw one of these cards without the other.
In the case of Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose and Revival // Revenge, I think you can build to make both of these cards reasonable, and redundant Revivals can even be used to buy back Vito. The main difficulty I’m having is figuring out how much of my plan is supposed to be aggressive, and how much should be playing towards a longer game. It’s pretty easy to slot this package into existing Yorion Orzhov Control shells, but I’m not sure that’s actually any good. Here’s a more aggressive slant featuring Constructed all-stars like *checks notes* Blood Burglar.
- 3 Cruel Celebrant
- 4 Vampire of the Dire Moon
- 4 Knight of the Ebon Legion
- 4 Blood Burglar
- 3 Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose
- 2 Silversmote Ghoul
To say the two-drop Vampires in this format are lacking is about as big of an understatement as you can make. Maybe you’re just supposed to bite the bullet and play Tavern Swindler instead? It’s hard to imagine this deck ever succeeding without Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord though. Yeah, he’s still legal and he plays beautifully with Vito. Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis plus Vito has some promise in an aggressive shell, and the combo with Oath of Kaya is big damage. This deck isn’t there yet, but I’ll keep tweaking and see if Vito can make the cut.
Mono-Red decks did not need another high variance two-drop that is awful in topdeck situations and lacks immediate impact. If Runaway Steam-Kin can’t see any play, you’re not going to convince me that Chandra’s Pyreling is what the deck has been missing the entire time.
Mono-Red leading up to Core Set 2021 was too vulnerable to sweepers and had an Uro problem. It’s odd to me that a card with a reasonable response to both these issues has gone completely under the radar. I don’t think that Subira, Tulzidi Caravanner has the raw stats to be what Mono-Red is built around, but as a sideboard card that can come in against decks with large defensive blockers and the capacity to exhaust Mono-Red of resources (read: Bant Control), the card really shines.
It’s yet another example of the proper way to utilize cards from this set. They mostly exist below the power level of the most recent wave of prints, so you are best served finding unique strategies they enable or specific problems they answer. Expect cards to be upgrades along the curve and you’ll mostly leave disappointed.
Meet the new face of midrange. While classic midrange was about the singular threat that played well on offense and defense, current midrange is focused more on mana efficiency and immediate impact. You can find completely reasonable applications for Elder Gargaroth. However, a five-mana card with no enters-the-battlefield ability is just not a realistic thing in this format. Even the mighty Baneslayer Angel has crumbled under the same weight.
Instead, turn your attention to the cheap creatures with capacity for scaling or engine creation. While a deck purely focused on maximizing Jolrael, Mvonvuli Recluse hasn’t come to fruition yet, I’ve appreciated the card as a change of pace out of several sideboards. Temur Reclamation, Bant Control, and Simic Flash have all put these plans to good use.
I wonder if Jolrael is actually capable of running the same gameplan in Eternal formats? With Brainstorm in the mix, it’s pretty trivial to enable Jolrael on both turn cycles, and it plays extremely well with all the Ice-Fang Coatls being cast right now. I can’t be the only one who has found Tarmogoyf lacking for a while. Did we stumble upon an upgrade?
I have to say, I’m enjoying my time with Core Set 2021. It hasn’t turned the Standard format on its ear, but it has provided a lot of food for thought, and a bevy of quasi-competitive lists. Again, this set isn’t going to be about strict upgrades. It’s about finding specific tools for specific problems. However, we’re only a few months from rotation. If the power level of the next set stays under control, there’s a bunch of stuff here that I can’t wait to circle back around on.