Today we're going to discuss arguably the strongest card revealed so far from Ravnica Allegiance: Absorb. It will definitely see play in Standard and I believe there are also a few Modern decks that want it. There are some interesting play patterns associated with Absorb, whether playing with it or against it. I am going to discuss those so you not only know which decks to put Absorb in but also how to play optimally in formats where it will see play.
I would replace the second Spell Pierce and the three copies of Revitalize with four Absorb.
This deck plays Revitalize because gaining life is an important part of the strategy against aggressive decks. The Game Plan is to stay alive long enough to loop Nexus of Fate long enough to go ultimate with Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Absorb plays into this plan perfectly. You can pretty much afford to counter any spell with it and be fine since gaining the life and trading one-for-one with a card is exactly what this deck wants to do.
Other Teferi Control decks in Standard run Sinister Sabotage, often four copies of which. Depending on the metagame, Absorb will often be the superior call. What will usually be the case, however, is that decks will want to split the two in order to hedge against aggro on the one hand (Absorb) and midrange/control on the other ( Sinister Sabotage).
A lot of people are talking about Absorb as primarily a Standard card but I think there is also a place for it in Modern. Absorb has been reprinted a few times since Invasion, but none of the reprintings were in Modern-legal sets; they've all been in promotional products.
This is the first home I would try Absorb in. I would play one copy over the second Negate and I would consider a second copy over Timely Reinforcements. The life gain provided by Absorb will be very valuable against aggro decks and burn decks while the hard counter half of the card will make it good against combo, midrange, and control decks. And Snapcaster Mage having an extra target to gain life will often result in it gaining six life in the matchups where life gain is extremely important. The deck I really think it will shine brightest in, however, is Jeskai.
In this deck I think I would play two copies of Absorb over the third copy of Logic Knot and the third copy of Electrolyze. I would even consider a third copy over the fourth Cryptic Command.
Jeskai already plays three copies of Lightning Helix for life gain. Now between the three Lightning Helixes and the 2-3 Absorb, the four Snapcaster Mages will have an easy time functioning as an effective three-for-one in matchups where the three life points are worth a full card. And when you're able to start looping Snapcaster Mage by bouncing it with Cryptic Command, the game is over for any deck trying to defeat you with burn spells.
These are the decks I would try Absorb in right away. Now let's talk about how to play with and against Absorb. The card looks simple enough but there is some depth of strategy on both sides of the card. Even just the threat of Absorb should cause you to at least consider playing differently than you otherwise would.
In Riley Knight's article earlier this week he brought up an interesting scenario that I would like to use as a teaching point concerning how to play with and against Absorb:
"Consider this scenario. You have a 2/2, and your opponent is on three life with WUU available. You draw Lightning Strike. Do you cast it? If it resolves, you win the game on the spot. If you don't, you give them an extra draw step. If they have Absorb, they gain two extra draw steps against your 2/2 after going up to six."
The first thing to do in this scenario is to attack. If the opponent takes it and goes down to one life, then you know they very likely do not have a removal spell in hand. If they do have a removal spell, they will likely use it on your attacker, at which point you can Lightning Strike them. In this scenario of them killing your creature, it is pretty clear that Lightning Striking them before they get another draw step is correct (probably on their upkeep if they still have UUW open after killing our creature, just in case they tap out for a spell on our end step) since we have nothing else going for us whereas we did when we had a lethal attacker. The interesting scenario is when they take the damage down to one life, and that is the scenario Riley was setting up. So let's consider our options.
Scenario 1: They have Absorb in hand. In this scenario it is clearly better to wait because we have a lethal attacker on board and also a lethal spell in hand. We only have to fade one draw step, and since they've demonstrated that they do not have a removal spell in hand, we only need to dodge a removal spell and we win. Since they need to draw a removal spell, they may use a card draw spell or cycler to try and dig for the removal, which ties up mana of theirs and may leave them without enough mana to Absorb our Lightning Strike. Another possibility is that the opponent draws a spell they can cast but has to Absorb their own spell just to gain the three life to survive. In this scenario we can just Lightning Strike them to kill them since they no longer have the Absorb in hand. In any of these cases it is much better to not cast the Lightning Strike right away but instead to wait for the right moment.
Scenario 2: They do not have Absorb in hand. In this case it is clearly better to cast the Lightning Strike since it kills them outright without giving them a chance to draw out of the situation. But if they do not have removal and do not have Absorb, what can they draw that will make us lose the game for waiting on the Lightning Strike? If they draw a removal spell, then we cast the Lightning Strike and win anyway. If they draw Absorb, we just attack for lethal the following turn and if they try to Absorb their own spell to stay alive, we Lightning Strike them to death. Really the only scenario where we get punished here is if they draw a card-draw spell that digs them into a removal spell and a counter. If they play the card-draw spell, even if we know it is the card they drew for the turn, we're still committed to playing around Absorb, so we let it resolve and hope they don't find exactly the two cards they need to stay alive.
The odds of drawing a card-draw spell into exactly a counter and a removal spell are smaller than the chances of having Absorb in hand. Therefore, it is better to wait and not cast Lightning Strike into a potential Absorb when you have a creature posing a lethal attack the following turn. As a general rule of thumb in these type of scenarios, you'll want to wait until you have nothing else going for yourself to fire off the lethal burn spell into a potential Absorb.
When playing from the Absorb side, you'll want to play it differently depending on the matchup and what you are most concerned with. For instance, against an aggressive deck you'll usually want to cast Absorb early in order to give your life total the needed buffer whereas against a control deck you'll usually want to hold it because the life gain is less relevant than the hard counter half of the card. So as a general rule, if the life gain is important in the matchup, cast Absorb early whereas if not then hold it for later.
The reason for this rule of thumb is because you don't want to find yourself stranded against an aggro deck like in the above scenario. The nightmare is dying to an attacking creature while holding a hand of multiple copies of Absorb and no targets for them. If you have another spell you can cast, you can counter your own spell to gain life, but that is multiple cards and a lot of mana just to gain three life—certainly less than ideal.
Against control decks you generally want to use your conditional counters whenever possible and to leave your harder counters for later. For instance, if you have an opportunity to Essence Scatter an opposing Crackling Drake, you would much rather do that instead of Absorb it because Absorb has a lot more targets than Essence Scatter against control decks. In other words, you want to save the more versatile counter whenever possible.
There are some exceptions to these rules though. For instance, in Modern sometimes you'd rather hold the Negate or Spell Pierce against a control deck for the sake of mana efficiency. If you expect to have to fight over a particular spell on an upcoming turn, holding a one or two mana counter can sometimes be more important than the more versatile three mana Absorb. As the game progresses, however, the Absorb will become more useful. So even in this exceptional case, you'd have to be fairly certain of your play and go for it while the window is open.
An exception against aggro decks would be if they have some important later game card that you need to counter. For instance, let's say your opponent's aggro deck is mostly creatures but you know they also run a Planeswalker. Your life total is being threatened by their attackers and they cast a creature. You want the three life from Absorb, but it may still be correct to Essence Scatter the creature instead so that you can counter the Planeswalker if they play it the following turn. You'll have to do some math and make a calculated risk, but these are generally speaking the exceptions to the rule of thumb I described.
Absorb is a very powerful card that will not only find its way into decks across multiple formats but will also change the play patterns people use when playing against it. It's a simple card on the surface that can create some interesting complexities for game play on both sides of the card. I'm looking forward to playing with and against it. It helped qualify me for US Nationals; I made Top 8 of Regionals with my Counter-Rebel white weenie deck back when Invasion and Mercadian Masques blocks were in Standard. Maybe this time I will come up with another white weenie deck that utilizes the card to good effect.
If this anti-aggro card is powerful enough to get Craig Wescoe excited, you know it must be good!