Our favorite holiday is once again upon us!
New set season is the time Magic players live for. There are a multitude of new possibilities, imagination-capturing cards, and new decks to build. Brewers eagerly scribble decklists like letters to Santa, hoping that these new lists will be the breakout deck of the format, or at least a fun one to explore. They may soon be invalidated by the harsh realities of the metagame, but for now, there is only hope in what could be.
Currently I don't stream, so I don't get to play in the streamer event. That said, I enjoy my vantage point better, with more screens than the Halo 2 LAN parties I went to in high school. Getting this bird's eye view of the format feels like exactly how I want to spend a day before diving in for real on Friday.
Like with my thoughts on Theros and Throne of Eldraine, these are my initial thoughts on Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, and what's good, bad, and needs more time to tell.
Part Ninja of the Deep Hours, part Curious Obsession, part Flash Ophidian, Sea-Dasher Octopus performed very well throughout the day. Flash decks for the last few months have lacked a way to stay ahead of an opponent other than Nightpack Ambusher and Nissa, Who Shakes the World/Hydroid Krasis. In many ways it was a ramp deck that substituted most of the expensive mopey ramp payoffs for some countermagic.
Sea-Dasher Octopus changes the paradigm by letting the blue player return to the Curious Obsession playstyle: get ahead with an early creature, and stay ahead by drawing cards every turn.
Where Octopus excels is in its versatility. It can be committed after blockers, so that an unblocked creature gains the card draw ability, or it can be used to change the stats of a creature so it survives a 1 power blocker. And when it's drawn late, it's a Curious Obsession that draws its own attacker with it.
With more people playing tap lands and gigantic spells in a wedge-based set, mono-blue or blue with a small splash seems very realistic. All the pieces seem to be there and ready to ambush an unsuspecting metagame when people try to go too big.
Two-mana haste trample 8/8s are never fair. Two-mana, uncounterable, instant-speed ones are doubly so.
And on top of that, it draws a card!
No, the card will never enter play on turn two, but that doesn't matter. The decks that play it don't care about winning early, they want to turn the corner quickly with the largest threat in Standard once they've handled the opponents strategy for a turn or two. And it was surprisingly simple to cycle four times. Obviously drawing cards begets more copies, but that they shuffle in means that until it enters play, there are always four hits in the deck toward the next one.
It weaves in perfectly with many other cards that already see a lot of play: Scorching Dragonfire, the Stomp half of Bonecrusher Giant, Petty Theft on Brazen Borrower, Essence Scatter… all of these are situational effects that can leave two mana wasted. Cycling generally will fill this hole well at one, two and three mana, but Yidaro, Wandering Monster is the only one that's going to win the game. Well, almost the only one.
Godzilla looked incredibly impressive every single game I saw it in, no matter the shell. If a deck plays interaction, it should be looking to play Yidaro.
Ah right, Ikoria features two cards that cycle and make a win condition.
I saw this card cycled with X ranging from 0 to 5, and it always seemed silly. Guaranteed, uncounterable instant-speed creatures have a lot of built in utility:
Cycling a card and making a creature to trade with their attacker is an incredible amount of value, and makes attacking into open mana terrifying. The Sharknado also threatens to add unexpected damage to the face or a planeswalker, and frequently messed with racing math. And being uncounterable is just nice given the seeming return of blue tempo decks.
While 95% of the time the cycling mode of this card is the right choice, it does come with a way to go over the top as well. Getting to untap with this in play should always result in a kill the next turn, and I saw swarms of Sharks attacking from time to time throughout the day because of this card.
If there's one place I'm interested in trying this, it's in Wilderness Reclamation—specifically, when the opponent thinks they're safe hiding behind a Teferi, Time Raveler. Instead of mainphase bouncing it with a Petty Theft, now there's a way to use that untapped mana off of Wilderness Reclamation to draw a card, kill Teferi, and pressure their life total.
This card was as good as advertised, both as a companion and in the maindeck. A 3/2 lifelink creature isn't actually that far from playable. Even a Warpath Ghoul can see play in the right situation, and sometimes a 6 point life swing is all a deck needs to win a race or deter attackers. But usually, it's a four or a five-drop returning a card like Witch's Oven, Priest of Forgotten Gods or Dreadhorde Butcher before the opponent has to kill it. Any time it survives a turn, that should be game over for the opponent.
The question just seems to be whether it's better as a companion or a three or four-of, since you can't have both.
Personally, I slant toward playing it maindeck. Without Lurrus of the Dream-Den, a deck of all one and two-drop permanents is not impressive, and many of the decks that play Lurrus are not heavy on spells to begin with. There are definitely ways to mitigate this, like Gruesome Menagerie, but I'm still not convinced that I want to be warping my deck so heavily in a world where one of the most commonly played spells is Bonecrusher Giant.
In the maindeck it lets a deck like Rakdos Sacrifice recover from having its engine answered. The deck has always scaled with how many Witch's Oven it has in play, and nothing combines with that artifact like Mayhem Devil. Sure, I won't start with eight cards in hand, but in a Standard where we've all frequently been losing with three or more cards in hand, I'm not convinced I'll miss it.
Don't get me wrong here, Song of Creation looked powerful. Every time it was in play, the player using it would draw several cards, accelerate out more lands than the opponent, and build an advantage that looked, frankly, insurmountable.
And then they discarded their hand.
Obviously there are ways around this particular drawback, most notably the Adventure creatures which will kindly wait in exile to be cast when their hand is discarded. But even then, the card mostly just let people use all their mana every turn by giving them extra land drops and spells for the turn, and then getting rid of any unused resources.
This also means that Song of Creation has the Fires of Invention problem: the ways it has to interact on the opponent's turn are pretty limited. Unlike Fires, the solution isn't as obvious. Song often doesn't have mana or cards in hand on their turn.
This isn't to say that I think the card is bad. It seems the decks around it are built incorrectly. Almost every list I saw was effectively just Temur Adventures in some capacity, and would look to kill with Fae of Wishes. The problem is that unless Fae is one of the first couple cards drawn, the deck has to cast a Fae of Wishes from exile, draw two cards, pick up Fae by discarding the cards, then cast Granted to go get whatever is going to try and kill the opponent. For those counting, that's eight mana just to go get… something. And the cards drawn aren't even really doing anything, making Song of Creation a four-mana Exploration.
At that point… is this even better than just doing the Temur Clover thing?
I assume there's a solution here, though. When a deck draws 12 cards in one turn by casting other spells, there's usually a way to combo off. This is one that feels like it's only a matter of time until it's broken in half.
I came in to this event figuring that I would pretty quickly be able to tell if Narset of the Ancient Way was worth it or not, and after seeing it in play repeatedly the answer is decidedly… maybe?
She does a lot of fairly disparate things. She's life gain, mana acceleration, card draw and potentially removal for four mana. She usually can't fulfill multiple of these roles at once. On turn four her +1 is pretty terrible, but on turn five or six when there are two or three-mana cards that can be cast, she comes with a rebate that lowers her to three mana.
Her -2 draws a card, which is pretty far below rate for a four-mana planeswalker, but it has the option to turn a spell into a free removal spell… which makes it a kind of reverse card filtering also? There aren't a lot of ways to use discarded spells in Jeskai colors, since there aren't escape cards in those colors worth playing (not that discarding Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger or Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath would be spectacular with the ability anyway).
She also ultimates quickly, and I saw it happen a couple times. It also didn't always matter, which isn't a great sign. Two damage per spell doesn't necessarily end the game fast enough.
That said, she only ever looked terrible with a completely empty board against opposing creatures, and very few planeswalkers look good in that situation.
For now, I think I have to just play the card myself to find out.
The first time I saw Slitherwisp cast, the opponent played it on end step into two open mana. The streamer cast Bonecrusher Giant, and it was gone. I was immediately off it. A 3/2 for more mana than Bonecrusher's adventure half needs to do something absolutely busted, like cast one spell each turn from their graveyard, to get me to consider playing it. A card that sometimes draws an extra card later just isn't that much.
Even worse, unlike a card like Brineborn Cutthroat, its ability specifies that the card has to have flash. The instants the deck wants to hold up like Quench or Sinister Sabotage don't trigger the ability.
And… oof the mana cost. Two-color mana is decidedly not good in Standard right now. The Rakdos Sacrifice decks learned that the best way to overcome this was to really skew toward one color so they're mana was consistent and untapped early. While black is very powerful, its repertoire of flash spells is exceedingly mediocre. Blacklance Paragon, maybe Dirge Bat and then… a Cunning Nightbonder?
Someone out there is going to really have to convince me. For now I'd rather stay on the Bonecrusher Giant side of this equation.
The cycle of mythics looked very unimpressive. Some of this might be learning, as mutate is a very complex and difficult mechanic to understand all the implications of. Part low-risk Aura, part Bogle, part spell, there's a lot to account for.
Unfortunately, it doesn't feel like the equation is coming out ahead currently for the mythic mutate creatures so far. Investing so much mana into creating a single large creature is a tough ask, and a strong spell's worth of value isn't always enough to make up for it. Vadrok seems like it has the highest chance of succeeding, but buying a Warleader's Helix for five mana when the newly mutated Snapdax dies is a big loss.
Part of this is a function of how much better the removal is now, since both Heartless Act and Dire Tactics are incredible, but the other is that when they survive, it's not good game. The largest of these creatures is effectively 6 power, or the same size as an Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, and often smaller than a Hydroid Krasis. When mutating these is essentially adding a very large Aura to a creature, they better win the game very fast—instead they're merely on par with what a large amount of the format is doing in the midgame. And this is to say nothing about all the other haymakers, like Casualties of War or Elspeth Conquers Death, that simply trump them.
I want some of these to be great, because the cycle is cool. If I end up wrong on this one, I'll be happy.
All day I watched a smattering of Triomes and Temples enter play tapped every single turn of a game. A sure fire way to win a game of Magic is to start off playing third by playing one mana behind curve when land can't be used for mana right away.
A big part of this is the Triomes. While they're better late, the Temples are better at shaping draws to produce cards that a deck actually needs early. When Jeskai Fires can't play Fires of Invention on turn four, it's effectively game over in many cases. Same goes for a card like Song of Creation, or Wilderness Reclamation, or many of the companion decks that saw play. Temples let decks find both the right colors of land and untapped versions of land so that they can actually start playing on curve.
Triomes are better late, but do nothing in the early game when development is important. Every deck needs to make a decision as to which its playing and how many, but playing ten simply isn't an option: we aren't living in the days of Cruel Control, where a single card can do such a powerful job at catching you up that you can play a dozen tap lands to justify making the mana work. When they do reprint Cryptic Command, then maybe I'll listen.
Six to eight is probably reasonable. If you're in the appropriate wedge, a few Triomes is okay. Cutting Fabled Passage for Triomes is not.
* * *
Hopefully these thoughts have all been helpful. The spring set has a much higher bar for what is playable, as it's entering a format that has substantially more cards than the fall or winter standard sets had. This will be especially true of Ikoria, which is following up a pair of game-warping sets. There doesn't seem to be an obvious Fires of Invention or Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath for Standard. That said, many, many people (myself included) missed just how powerful Oko, Thief of Crowns was, so it's possible that some of these cards are currently flying under the radar. With a lot of week one tournaments scheduled between Lotus Box and ChannelFireball in the next week, we're certain to have a massive amount of data by next week. If you're also competing in these: good luck, and hope to see you at the top tables!