Sometimes the first thing you notice about a card is the art. Others, it's the power/toughness. Or maybe it's the rules text.
But just once in a while, it's the mana cost that catches your eye at first glance.
"That mana cost seems eerily familiar..." I thought before clutching my pearls and gasping.
The Ultimatums are BACK!
It's been a whopping 11 years since the original cycle of Ultimatums was released in Shards of Alara. That format was when I really cut my teeth on competitive Magic on Magic Online and PTQs. I played a lot of Cruel Ultimatum decks over the year that it was a major player in Standard, from traditional Five-Color Control to its awkward cousin Five-Color Blood(Braid) that existed for a couple months after Alara Reborn. I cast and resolved quite a few seven-mana sorceries. The Ultimatums are a nostalgia-laden trip home for me.
Featuring extremely prohibitive mana costs, they're some of the flashiest spells that have ever seen print, usually offering much more than seven mana worth of an effect for jumping through the hoops to cast them. Cruel Ultimatum went on to define Standard for a full year, when the combination of Vivid lands and Reflecting Pool let decks actually cast these cards, but both Violent Ultimatum and Titanic Ultimatum saw play at various points. Commander still gives Brilliant Ultimatum a home as well!
(Sorry Clarion Ultimatum… not even Commander can redeem you.)
And to be clear, these cards need to justify that cost. Despite what Simic decks these days have conditioned us to experiencing, a seven-mana card must justify itself as so backbreaking or game-winning that it is worth warping the mana base, drawing early as a dead draw some amount of the time, and potentially being unable to cast it because you drew the wrong combination of lands to even play it. The bar is quite high for an Ultimatum.
So what does this one do? Say hello to Eerie Ultimatum:
(Thanks to Wizards of the Coast for this preview card, and credit to Jason Engle (@J_A_E1) for some GORGEOUS art!)
Just like the original cycle, this card offers a big reward for casting it.
The first thing to note is that it does not care about a specific card type, just that they're permanents. Typically mass-resurrection spells care about creatures, and recently planeswalkers like Command the Dreadhorde.
The second is that it doesn't specify nonland either, meaning that Eerie Ultimatum can return lands to play as well.
The last is that these cards return to play untapped. Creatures with haste can attack, artifacts and enchantments that must tap to activate are ready to go, and, most interestingly, lands that come into play untapped will do so. In case anyone has forgotten, cheating on mana, even if it's a rebate like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, is worth paying attention to.
The only restrictions are that it must return permanent cards, and it cannot return duplicates.
Where will this card see play? Let's start with the obvious one: the format where one of these is essentially a non-factor.
In Commander, Eerie Ultimatum reads:
"Return all permanents from your graveyard to the battlefield (except for extra copies of basic lands)."
Frankly, the only hoops are playing white, black and green, and making sure that there are permanents for it to return.
Thankfully, even from the mana base, most Abzan Commander decks are already on their way:
Fetch lands, cycling lands and canopy lands all find their way to the graveyard on their own, and cards like Field of Ruin and Wasteland frequently end up there in a normal game of Commander anyway. The lands of a typical EDH deck are abundantly prepared to not only cast Eerie Ultimatum, but actually discount it by returning multiple lands to play.
Multiple commanders are well set up to take advantage of the card already. My first thought for Commander was how well it works with Karador, Ghost Chieftain. Karador already wants to play primarily creatures and put them into the graveyard with artifacts or enchantments like Greater Good, Ashnod's Altar or Survival of the Fittest. Without even changing another card, Eerie Ultimatum lets Karador play a massive synergy piece for its main plan that also acts as an Open the Vaults for when things go wrong and the board is destroyed by The Fun Police's Austere Command.
It is, of course, possible to push harder in this direction and cut non-essential spells to give the deck even more cards to recur. Especially because this deck might already want to trim on basic lands, cards like Rampant Growth or Cultivate can go for similar options that better synergize with the deck anyway.
Then it dawned on me that I'd gone through this exercise before. A few weeks ago, I wrote about updating Doran, the Siege Tower:
I swear it was just coincidental, but I accidentally built a deck in mid-March that will undoubtedly include Eerie Ultimatum once I get a paper copy. With a whopping 80 cards to return, there's no reason not to play it.
Perhaps the best part about this card is that it returns green creatures to play. While nobody needed a reason to include Eternal Witness in a deck, the combination of Eternal Witness and Eerie Ultimatum sets up a soft-lock for opponents where no amount of Planar Cleansing-style effects will get them out: it all will just keep coming back.
Turning to the 60-card formats, I seriously doubt the card will be making any inroads in Modern or Legacy. While I have the same doubts in Pioneer, it's at least possible, if unlikely, but giant spells like Ugin, the Spirit Dragon have been and will continue to be cast there. Stranger things have happened!
Standard is the most likely place for Eerie Ultimatum to have a home in. It's no secret that the format has been about big mana and ramping for a while, where cards like Casualties of War and Agent of Treachery are reasonable to resolve. Those same cards also give us a pretty reasonable bar for what we expect from a seven-mana sorcery, both for Eerie Ultimatum and the rest of the cycle.
For this reason, Eerie Ultimatum needs to be pretty impactful to compete with the heavy hitters already in Standard. Thankfully, the upper limit on Eerie Ultimatum is literally how many unique cards are in the graveyard, and Standard is grindy enough that it's reasonable to expect it to happen. Returning a few lands, a large creature and a couple small creatures should represent a board swing large enough to compete with what other decks in the format are doing.
First and foremost, a playset of Cavalier of Thorns does a large amount of the work for us. Self-mill is already a high priority since an Eerie Ultimatum deck should be built toward the goal of returning 80-90% of the cards in the graveyard anyway. Cavalier can dump cards in the graveyard, help fix the mana for the Ultimatum, and is a creature to be returned with Eerie Ultimatum. When it dies, it can also put an Eerie Ultimatum on top, creating a similar loop to a Commander deck where the first Eerie Ultimatum isn't even the last.
Along the same lines, any cards that mill ourselves are worth considering:
Unfortunately the best card for self-mill in Standard, Tamiyo, Collector of Tales, is in the wrong color combination. It's not impossible for a deck in Standard to play four colors, but we have some hefty color requirements as it is. Still, she's only a single blue pip away from playable, so it may be worth playing Tamiyo as well.
Glowspore Shaman and Skull Prophet could fill multiple roles in an Eerie Ultimatum deck as mana fixing, self-mill and early bodies to defend. They also are quite strong attackers, and in slower games eight 3/1 creatures could actually end a game quickly. Unfortunately Glowspore Shaman has been tried in a lot of decks to date, and it always seems disappointing. But maybe this time it will be different.
Finally Death's Oasis, a new and intriguing card, could provide a reasonable engine to put cards in the graveyard. Even if it's disrupted, an Eerie Ultimatum can return it to play to build up the graveyard again for the next Ultimatum.
The return of cycling means that Eerie Ultimatum can play a bit like a Living End in Modern, returning monstrous creatures to play to threaten a kill the following turn. As of writing this, Titanoth Rex seems like the most likely candidate to fill that role, as an 11/11 Trample is likely to dwarf anything on the battlefield. However, Indatha Crystal (and, if we want to splash colors, the rest of the cycle) could also be worth considering as a way to cycle, ramp, fix mana and, post-Ultimatum, still have mana up.
Several people are also predicting that cycling lands of some kind will be previewed at some point, and if they are, they're practically an auto-include with Eerie Ultimatum.
The last category of cards are, broadly, cards that already tend to end up in the graveyard anyway. Doom Foretold is the once and perhaps future king of this idea, where the cards played alongside it, like Golden Egg and Guild Globe, are meant to be sacrificed and later returned to play. Both cards also happen to fix mana. The biggest downside, though, is that there isn't an effective way to ramp with Doom Foretold in play unless the cards put lands onto the battlefield, but that's more Simic's domain currently with Growth Spiral and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath.
Cavalier of Night feels like the type of card that will fit perfectly in the shell as a piece of the puzzle, but it's not necessarily a supporting member. Cavalier gives the deck removal, a way to put a card into the graveyard to later return, and a large threat to put into play with Ultimatum, but doesn't do any of these exceptionally well.
Vraska, Golgari Queen and Woe Strider both will sacrifice other cards laying around just for value. Planeswalkers will naturally end up in the graveyard by the time an Eerie Ultimatum is cast. If one hasn't died since turn four, it's likely it will simply win the game instead anyway. Vraska in particular can sacrifice other pieces to later return as part of this strategy. Woe Strider on the other hand tends to trade off, sacrifice other creatures before they die, and can be escaped as an alternate way to use self-mill and extra copies of cards in the graveyard. Especially because there isn't a Titan to compete with it for escape, it or Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis seem like safe inclusions in the deck.
Finally… there's the sagas. If there's a card I'm certain will be played with Eerie Ultimatum, it's Elspeth Conquers Death. Anyone who's played Standard is already sick of the card, and multiple decks try to recur the card multiple times anyway. The other sagas from Theros Beyond Death work very well with Eerie Ultimatum also. Elspeth's Nightmare is both removal and disruption, The First Iroan Games represents a creature, card draw, and potentially mana fixing/ramp, and Tymaret Calls the Dead and The Binding of the Titans fill the graveyard while providing a little value. Sagas are at the top of my list for cards to try with Eerie Ultimatum.
With many cards left to be previewed still, and a major graveyard theme in the Abzan wedge, it's likely that there are going to be more cards in Ikoria to help support Eerie Ultimatum. More cards with cycling, that self-mill, or that sacrifice themselves or other cards are what I'm on the lookout for. It wouldn't take much to push an effect this strong into Constructed, and it's possible it's already worth playing with what we know.
One thing I know, though, it's that I'll be trying to build around it and the other Ultimatums as soon as the full set is previewed.