Christmas comes four times a year when you're a Magic player, and the Early Access Streamer Event is like that first moment when I came downstairs and saw all the presents sparkling in the lights. Imaginations run wild with the limitless potential of what these new cards can bring. Even if, soon, many of them will be edged out, the beginning of a format gives everyone a chance to explore what is possible. It's also the first practical test of which cards are good, bad, or need some more time to be figured out.
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 as many tabs open as the Architect had TV screens in the second Matrix movie. Getting this bird's eye view of the format feels like exactly how I want to spend a day before diving in for real.
Like with Throne of Eldraine, these are my thoughts on what looked good, what looked bad, and what cards only time can evaluate.
From what I've seen today, Enigmatic Incarnation is messed up.
The most important part of the card is that it triggers on the end step. Prime Speaker Vannifar never quite got there, but never felt too far off in Standard, and a big part of that is not activating the first turn she's in play. Building an entire deck around a creature that has to wait a turn cycle to start chaining creatures and generating value is a recipe for disaster. Enigmatic Incarnation doesn't have this drawback, and can start upgrading cards right away, sacrificing enchantments like the Omen cycle into real creatures, or combining with Aphemia, the Cacophony to make Zombie tokens and keep a board presence while drawing virtual cards.
Having access to a half dozen options each turn is good on its own, but the return of Sagas, which I assumed would not be fantastic with Enigmatic Incarnation, is the other factor in how good Incarnation is. Because so many of them are designed to affect the board immediately upon entering play, they are effectively spells to be sacrificed for creatures at the end of turn to gain even more value. Cards like Elspeth's Nightmare can hold the ground early, and Elspeth Conquers Death is an absolute beating for the second turn Enigmatic Incarnation is in play, removing a creature and then becoming whatever top-end will soon win the game for the Enigma player.
The biggest question mark is just what this deck is supposed to look like. Is it Bant, Sultai, Temur, or should it be greedier with Urban Utopia and Dryad of the Ilysian Grove to make splashing other colors (or even the activated ability of Golos, Tireless Pilgrim) fairly effortless?
Speak of the dryad, Dryad of the Ilysian Grove is the glue that is going to hold a lot of decks together. I underestimated in Standard just how powerful the ability to both play multiple lands a turn and have each one fix every color can be. This card has already generated buzz in Modern, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it show up in Pioneer either.
In Standard, the trick to Dryad of the Ilysian Grove is figuring out how to abuse it. Unlike something like Courser of Kruphix or Oracle of Mul Daya, it doesn't have its own way to generate card advantage by playing lands off the top of the deck. Eventually, the Dryad player will run out of lands to play, and it needs to continue to carry its weight (or, be sacrificed to Enigmatic Incarnation).
Other than the Incarnation decks, the other shell that impressed me was a Gruul deck with Experimental Frenzy. Filtering lands off the top of the deck, which also lets you play more spells, led to some absolutely absurd turns. Once Nissa, Who Shakes the World was in play, it was basically guaranteed that they would cast five or more cards each turn. The deck probably isn't quite there yet, but the interaction is powerful enough that I want to try it more. There's likely to be some sort of Gruul Frenzy deck that abuses both of these, and I want to find it.
Unlike last time, I don't think anyone is sleeping on this Thassa. Thassa, Deep-Dwelling is likely to attack much less, but she provides an effect each turn that people are willing to play Soulherder for in Modern sometimes. Unlike Soulherder, Thassa is only Blue, letting decks play her very easily, even when she will never become a creature.
Risen Reef, Cavalier of Thorns and the rest of its cycle, Agent of Treachery, Golgari Findbroker, Deputy of Detention, Knight of Autumn… there are a lot of powerful effects to recur, and forcing an opponent to deal with each of these value creatures individually rather than attacking the source of the flicker effect (because she's indestructible) makes out-valuing a Thassa deck difficult.
On top of that, Thassa has an activated ability that's very relevant in any deck that can use a mana sink or is preparing to go for the win. The two biggest decks that will want to take advantage of this effect are Simic Ramp, which regularly needs a way to get through on the ground to win more quickly, and Fires of Invention, which isn't using its lands anyway.
Honestly, I thought this was just a silly limited bomb when I first read it.
And then I saw it in play in Standard.
Essentially, Kiora Bests the Sea God is an 8/8 hexproof that on the second turn it's in play casts a souped-up version of Sleep for free, and on the third is a delayed Agent of Treachery. They might not even be alive for that third ability anyway, though, because they either conceded to the second ability or realized there was no way out when their permanents were stilled tapped the next turn and they're being attacked again by an 8/8 Hexproof Octopus.
Just to be clear, this card says none of their nonland permanents untap. Food tokens and Witch's Oven are all off-limits, so no getting out of this with some Cauldron Familiar/Witch's Oven nonsense to chump block the giant Octopus.
Realistically, Simic Ramp is probably the only deck that will play this, because it's the only one that's going to be able to put enough lands into play to cast it. Previously, though, the deck had to build up for multiple turns to get ahead enough to start attacking, and often had to slog through a battle on the ground in order to win. The only other option was playing a situational finisher like End-Raze Forerunners. Kiora Bests the Sea God generates a nearly impossible-to-remove blocker that threatens to alpha strike them the very next turn, ending any ground stall instantly.
Have I mentioned how powerful giant hexproof creatures are yet?
The thing that didn't dawn on me with this card is that it can be played with other creatures, and turn them into a card draw engine that grows Setessan Champion without making Champion so vulnerable to removal. Putting Auras on Pious Wayfarer or Transcendent Envoy means that the more immediate threats are the cheaper creatures, while the long-term threat can sometimes slide under the radar when the opponent's removal is taxed.
These "Standard Bogles" decks are incredibly fast too, and punish anyone who can't interact early by building board states that can't be broken without a sweeper. Even Massacre Girl quickly looks embarrassing when every threat in the opponent's aggro deck has several points of toughness.
Weirdly I didn't see any Sentinel's Eyes today in those decks, though. My question is: why? When I have Enchantress in my deck, all I want is the ability to cast enchantments for cheap, and this one plays into the All That Glitters game plan and can be returned by escaping. How does an Aura escape? No idea, but one top-decked Setessan Champion in the late game and suddenly they're back in the game very quickly.
Even just as a fair option in decks looking to play Calix, Destiny's Hand or Enigmatic Incarnation, Setessan Champion provides additional card draw to these slower strategies. The problem is that the card is fragile for three mana, and these decks tend to play more expensive enchantments that will take longer to grow it out of range of removal. On the whole, I think if I'm playing this card, I'd rather be attacking.
There's a theme to the cards that really impressed me: they have ways to abuse enters-the-battlefield effects. It just so happens that there are a lot of those in the new set, and I'm ready to put them all in one deck, shake it up and see what happens.
Nightmare Shepherd, when built with its ability in mind, makes everything a, well… nightmare… for the opponent. Anything that dies returns as a 1/1, so any enters-the-battlefield effect is recurred without losing much board presence. Sometimes this means that Enigmatic Incarnation is sacrificing an enchantment creature without losing the actual creature, so that there is another enchantment to sacrifice next turn, since the token retains its mana cost.
Sometimes this means combining with sacrifice outlets to recur them quickly, and right away. One of the most disgusting plays I saw was on Huey's stream, where he drew Plaguecrafter with Nightmare Shepherd in play. Plaguecrafter sacrificed itself to use its own ability again, and then sacrificed an Agent of Treachery to steal an opponent's creature.
Personally, I think this is how I would want to build Mono-Black going forward. Ayara, First of Locthwain and Priest of Forgotten Gods both sacrifice creatures, and there are plenty of enters-the-battlefield effects in mono-black right now between Lazotep Reaver, Plaguecrafter, Yarok's Fenlurker and everyone's favorite reprint: Gray Merchant of Asphodel.
Just imagine: turn five, Gray Merchant of Asphodel, drain them for 7 (8, with Ayara), sacrifice Gray Merchant to Ayara, make a token of it, drain them for another 7 (8, with Ayara…)
Woe Strider was… fine? Warpath Ghoul has never really been that impressive, and entering play with a Goat to chump block leads me to think that we're playing a bit of a slower game. It stops things from being exiled, which sometimes is relevant with Nightmare Shepherd in play, or against Banishing Light or similar exile effects. I think I saw it escape once. I guess if there's nothing else going on, this at least will create a large body, a scry, and effectively gain some life with the Goat. But I can't imagine wanting to do this unless I'm in dire straits to begin with.
The downsides are real, though. It doesn't impact the board that much, 2 toughness leaves it vulnerable to Stomp, there aren't many ways to utilize sacrificing small creatures, and it doesn't have many pips to count toward devotion to black. Perhaps it still has enough utility in the mono-black deck with Nightmare Shepherd and Bolas's Citadel (by scrying lands to the bottom), but I'm putting this down in the "let other people impress me with it" category for now.
Ashiok, Nightmare Muse wins midrange battles very handily. As the new Teferi, Hero of Dominaria stand-in for Esper Hero, it actually looked incredibly effective, because the threat of a planeswalker ultimate when an opponent is light on resources is an element the deck has been missing the past few months. Because the tokens trigger on blocking (not just attacking) this is a realistic proposition even if they've had to chump block to protect Ashiok.
Ashiok's -3 also provides a lot of utility. Interacting with any permanent, including planeswalkers, means blue-black has an all-purpose answer to most every type of threat an opponent could play, when normally they're fairly weak to enchantments and artifacts. The -3 punishes token creatures so hard that it's basically impossible for them to come back. Killing a creature and stripping them of a resource in hand is absolutely devastating.
The problem is that when the opponent has plenty of resources—which in 2020 is most opponents—Ashiok doesn't generate enough value quickly. Bouncing many creatures can actually be a liability by letting them reuse an enters-the-battlefield ability, and engine cards like Trail of Crumbs, Fires of Invention or Enigmatic Incarnation generate card or mana advantage more effectively.
This speaks more to the power of other color combinations than to Ashiok's quality, though. In another Standard, Ashiok would be defining the format. Instead it's probably closer to a role-player in certain kinds of decks.
Dream Trawler might not be the best version of Baneslayer Angel that we've ever seen, but it is a very welcome effect in Standard right now. Previously the only real large lifelink creature was Cavalier of Night, which was just not the same in a number of ways. Dream Trawler costs one extra mana, and gets shut off pretty hard by Narset, Parter of Veils (for a while), but provides an effect that slower decks are often begging for: a way to consistently regain life while closing out the game.
On the other hand, who made this a rare? This card is going to ruin so many games of Limited because there is just no way to ever beat this card in Draft or Sealed other than opening the one Wrath of God effect in the set. This isn't fair whatsoever and will result in many salty opponents. Heck, I'm salty right now because I know someone at GP Reno will beat me senseless with this!
The Titans just did not live up to their hype. They are overpriced as spells, hard to escape, and difficult to exploit.
Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger perfectly encapsulates this in every way. Nobody has ever looked at Raven's Crime and thought, "what if it was two mana and a gold card instead?" Sure, it might Lava Spike them for some upside, but no deck wants to one-for-one their opponent's hand and burn them. The strength of aggressive decks is that winning the game is effectively "target opponent discards all their cards," so there's no need to attack resources so methodically.
Escaping Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger isn't trivial either, since cards don't naturally go to the graveyard that quickly. Playing this on turn six or later as a way to go long might be okay, but I'm not sure what red-black deck wants to play a long game to begin with. Even with a Merfolk Secretkeeper, which is the most efficient self-mill we have currently, we're still one card short of actually escaping Kroxa. Kroxa doesn't count as one of the cards in the graveyard to fuel their own escape, which means that this deck has to play a three-drop spell of some kind to put more cards in the graveyard as well. The reward is pretty good, as a 6/6 for four mana is very strong, but it isn't like we haven't had this effect before (Nullhide Ferox). On top of all of that, this requires the deck to be three colors without any of these cards providing mana fixing, and RRBB means that it can only touch on blue.
I could maybe see Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger showing up in small numbers in Rakdos Sacrifice, where Witch's Oven or Priest of Forgotten Gods can make use of the two-mana body in response to the sacrifice trigger. Pass.
Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is maybe a little bit closer, but it suffers from providing almost nothing unique to Simic. Growth Spiral is already a Standard-legal card, and the difference between costing two and three mana is pretty big. Drawing a card each attack is powerful, but nowhere near as good as Hydroid Krasis, Cavalier of Thorns or Agent of Treachery. There's some incidental synergy with Cavalier of Thorns fueling its escape, but that points to it being a one-of in the deck in case of flooding. I guess that's not the worst place to be, but I wouldn't spend any more time trying to build around it than that. Instead of messing around with Uro, why not win the game with Kiora Bests the Sea God instead?
Other than Thassa, the only other God to impress me was Heliod, Sun-Crowned. Heliod and Linden, the Steadfast Queen is actually really silly, and with an Ajani's Pridemate probably wins the game instantly, but this is the sort of strategy that won't be good after the first few days when people adjust to the new aggro deck and its weaknesses.
The others? A big ol' "meh" from me. Someone is going to have to show me the deck that breaks them because currently, I don't see it.
Nylea, Keen-Eyed maybe turns mana into cards for Mono-Green Devotion, which plays out like Stompy does in every format ever, but she has no evasion and provides nothing on her own. She's almost always going to be at the top of the curve, not the bottom, which means that her cost reduction ability is mostly irrelevant. The deck probably can't beat a board wipe or two removal spells, and I don't think the ability to pay three mana to surveil for creatures is going to change that.
Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded might have a home in some kind of Fires of Invention deck where he lets it cheat on mana, but I didn't see any of them come together so far. With enchantment and exile effects at an all-time high, I don't know that I want to be playing an expensive version of those effects. And unlike the Cavaliers or Kenrith, the Returned King, Purphoros doesn't let the Fires deck play a longer game if its opponents can interact with the "combo" of playing 10 mana worth of creatures in one turn—it just makes the nut draws nuttier. Jeskai Fires's best draws were already way more than sufficient. I'm willing to be proven wrong here, but again, I'm letting other people show me rather than spending any time on it.
Erebos, Bleak-Hearted is very cute with the Cauldron Familiar/Witch's Oven combo, making each player lose 1 life instead of the Erebos player losing 2, but honestly, what doesn't draw cards in some capacity with that combo these days? His sacrifice ability is mana-intensive and affects very few creatures in Standard right now, and no evasion means that he's weak to getting chumped forever by the Cauldron Familiar combo he's supposed to be enabling. When anything else dies, I think I would prefer to have Nightmare Shepherd in play so that I get to "draw" free copies of the creature.
Klothys, God of Destiny is… strange. She's a pretty large red-green creature, but not substantially larger than other options Gruul already had. Gruul Spellbreaker is a 4/4, Lovestruck Beast is a 5/5, and neither of them need Devotion to actually be creatures. Draining an opponent for 2 a turn is a unique effect, and the life gain can often be appreciated, but devotion of seven is a lot. In that time, we could just Embercleave them out instead. She's another candidate for "maybe as a one-of" where she provides some extra reach in a longer game, but I don't think she'll be more than a role-player in Gruul.
Hopefully this has all been helpful. By the time this gets published, we'll already have access to Theros Beyond Death on MTG Arena and Magic Online. I've got a lot of prep work to do for SCG Richmond, and I'm excited to explore this new Standard!