I'm a rusted-on Azorius mage. While greatly dismayed the Azorius Senate seems to be aligning itself with the nasty boi Nicol Bolas, I'm nonetheless pretty hyped to get it done with my favorite guild once Ravnica Allegiance arrives.
Card previews have been pretty thin on the ground so far, but the ones we've seen so far across all Allegiance guilds have been pretty hot. Today, we're going to examine the white-blue cards that have been unveiled to date (after having talked about Lavinia last week), as well as discuss the wider implications of Addendum as a mechanic.
Absorb is a reprint from Invasion, and during its first tenure in Standard it did a lot of work. Primarily played in White-Blue Control as well as Counter Rebels, Absorb was a powerhouse card that did a lot of heavy lifting – Pro Tour Chicago in 2000 is a testament to the impact it had.
What about today, nearly 20 years later? Does Absorb have what it takes to see play in Standard? Last time in Return to Ravnica, Render Silent never made the cut, yielding instead to Dissipate and then Dissolve. Can Absorb go up against the likes of Sinister Sabotage and Ionize? Surely, you would think, surveil 1 is better than three life to the skilled control mage?
To players such as myself who never played with Absorb back in the day, it looks pretty underwhelming. However, after having discussed the card with people who slammed and jammed with it back then, I was sharply informed of the power of the card. My coverage colleague Raph Levy suggested it will impact the format merely by existing, as it's an incredibly difficult card to play around if you're an aggressive player.
Right now, many control decks play Revitalize to buffer their life totals (not to mention it's also excellent with an active Niv-Mizzet, Parun). The three life from Absorb, however, is "free" – you're already playing a three-mana Counterspell, so there's no need to invest two mana just to gain three life.
Gaining three life might not seem like an exciting prospect on turn three, but it adds up and might be the difference between dying a turn early or getting one more critical draw step against aggro decks. Remember that it's difficult for them to play around – you don't have to run a playset for it to have an impact, as merely the threat of an Absorb will give aggro mages headaches.
Why? 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.
I certainly misevaluated Absorb when I first saw it was coming to Standard, but after recognising the utility it offers and the awkward position in which it puts aggressive decks, I'm on board. Again – it doesn't have to replace Sinister Sabotage, and it's possible to play a mix of both. Expect Absorb to be a real player in the upcoming Standard format.
We seem to live in a world where drawing two cards at instant-speed costs four mana and offers minor upside. This very clear trend has been illustrated with Glimmer of Genius, Chemister's Insight, and now Sphinx's Insight. You would think that generally speaking a Sphinx would have greater insight than some nerd chemister, but it's not so – as unfortunate as it may be, Chemister's Insight is just the better card by quite a margin.
It might be a bit closer if Sphinx's Insight gained two life no matter what, but the idea of tapping out on turn four to draw two and gain two is not an appealing prospect – much of the power of cards like Chemister's Insight is the ability to leave up mana for a Counterspell and then just draw two if an opponent does nothing so as not to waste your mana. Sphinx's Insight is a very poor substitute in that regard, as it's nothing more than a harder-to-cast (and less flexible, I suppose) Inspiration if that's all you're doing with it.
All that is without even touching upon Jump-start – the fact that you can cycle a dead card in the late game into two freshies with Chemister's Insight is huge, offering greater Staying Power to a control deck as it seeks to wrap up a game. I just don't think there's a world in which you want to play Sphinx's Insight above Chemister's Insight; even if the two life were to be hugely relevant, as a sorcery this card is a real stinker (and there are better ways to buffer your life total).
A big, exciting, splashy mythic – this is better stuff! Emergency Powers has not just one but two historically broken mechanics. Timetwister-type effects feature heavily on banlists throughout Magic's different formats, but it doesn't stop there – this card also allows you to play other cards for free! Being able to circumvent the mana costs of cards is a staple of many insanely powerful strategies across multiple formats, from Hollow One and Gurmag Angler in Modern to Stoneforge Mystic and Show and Tell in Legacy.
When it comes to the "wheel" effect, however, there is a very important consideration. Of course, the power of cards such as Timetwister and Wheel of Fortune is their relatively low cost – three is a lost less than seven. Emergency Powers is not a cheap card to play; seven mana is a huge investment, not to mention a potentially unplayably expensive card against aggressive decks. Do you get enough bang for your buck?
Interestingly, Emergency Powers also runs against one of the traditional weaknesses of Timetwister and Wheel of Fortune, given that it's an instant. Why is that important? Because if you spend your turn allowing your opponent to draw a fresh grip – especially if they had fewer than seven cards in hand when you cast it – they get to be the first player to deploy their new cards. For that reason, players historically sought to cast a Timetwister or Wheel with extra mana available to reap the benefits of their new grip. Emergency Powers, however, is an instant – and drawing seven cards on your opponent's end step sounds like something I'm interested in doing, as I'll then get to untap and be the first to play with these new toys.
For this reason alone, I'm very interested in Emergency Powers in Standard. We haven't seen a one-shot draw engine like this for a long time, and it comes at a very good rate, too. Of course, giving your opponent seven new cards is a real cost, but again – if you can be the first to unlock this new hand by end-stepping Emergency Powers, you break the symmetry of the effect to a certain degree.
Where does addendum fit in? With all this fine talk of casting Emergency Powers just before untapping, how good is it to cast as a sorcery? Clearly, the mechanic is seeking to tempt you into playing this during your main phase, but is this ever a good idea?
In short: yes, absolutely. The fact that you kind of "get back" up to seven mana after casting it is huge, and although the decks that will typically be interested in a card like Emergency Powers don't tend to play a lot of permanents, right now there happens to be an incredibly powerful white-blue permanent that is the perfect card to dump into play after a sorcery-speed Emergency Powers.
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria has also been the hero of control strategies from the moment he was printed, and it's highly unlikely anything will change that until he rotates out. The fact that you can play him for free after an Emergency Powers essentially lowers the cost of the seven-drop by two thanks to Teferi's untap ability, meaning that for an effective five mana you get a Teferi and eight new cards.
I think a line of play that will become very familiar in Standard is a turn-eight main-phase Emergency Powers, followed up with a free Teferi and a land. That allows defensive spells like Sinister Sabotage and Seal Away to be held up to contest the opponent's fresh seven. In doing this, we get the best of both worlds from our Emergency Powers!
Seven mana is a lot and giving your opponent up to seven new cards is also a lot. However, given the raw power of this card alongside its synergy with other Standard powerhouses such as Teferi, I wouldn't be surprised to see Emergency Powers make a real impact in the coming Standard format.
Personally, I don't like this mechanic at all. I like playing a highly reactive game, answering opposing threats as I fight through to the lategame, when I win with whatever is lying around (I've probably dealt more damage with Snapcaster Mage than any other creature). Addendum is a heavy disincentive to this style of play, which on a personal level rubs me the wrong way – but I don't think the mechanic is objectively a bad one.
Remember that the real thing on offer with Addendum is flexibility. Much like other similar "alternate cost" mechanics (such as kicker), the natural tendency is to evaluate the cards in their "best case" or "full value" scenario and ignore the fact that near-modal cards like these actually open up a vast array of powerful possibilities with their flexibility and usefulness.
For example, let's return to Emergency Powers for a second. It's important to remember that just because you're not getting "full value" from casting Emergency Powers as an instant, it doesn't mean you never should cast it as an instant. Historically, highly flexible cards see a lot of play as they allow good players to leverage a skill differential and are more likely to be relevant in a wide range of situations. For that reason, the flexibility of Emergency Powers is, undoubtedly, only a good thing even if it feels bad to give up the power on offer with addendum.
It's difficult to properly envisage the mechanic while we're lacking the overwhelming bulk of the Ravnica Allegiance cards, but as they emerge, evaluate them through a certain lens. Rather than look at a card as a whole and be disappointed on what you're "missing out on" by casting it as a sorcery, look at it in a different way. Try to evaluate them as split cards and figure out whether one (or both) halves are good enough on their own.
At this stage, we're all assuming the other five shock lands will be included in Ravnica Allegiance (it would be very odd if they weren't). Hallowed Fountain will, obviously, make white-blue mana bases even better than they are now, and in conjunction with Godless Shrine may enable Esper Control decks to go up against Jeskai. But there is one important implication to Hallowed Fountain joining the format.
Given the strict mana requirements of many control staples – Sinister Sabotage, Niv-Mizzet, Parun, Settle the Wreckage – mana bases have been stretched to Breaking Point and significant deckbuilding compromises have been necessary. Playing Settle the Wreckage alongside Sinister Sabotage was difficult, given that only Glacial Fortress enabled both cards. This led Jeskai decks to play Ionize instead, or just eschew Settle altogether.
With Hallowed Fountain joining us, very few compromises will have to be made for the sake of mana bases. Ten shock lands and 10 check lands will result in streamlined and smooth three-color mana bases, and so with Hallowed Fountain it will be possible to curve Sinister Sabotage (or Absorb!) into Settle the Wreckage while still being able to cast Niv-Mizzet later.
That's it for all the Azorius cards we have so far - I can't wait to see what else is in store for white-blue mages in Ravnica Allegiance. I'll be waiting with bated breath for Supreme Verdict, but I suppose I would settle for Sphinx's Revelation…