The Rivals of Ixalan preview season has officially begun, and we have gone from the dozen cards revealed last year to over a third of the set being spoiled this week. It's tempting to start brewing decks, like I did with Storm the Vault when it was previewed in November, but I think a better use of time is to focus on evaluating the new cards now so we are prepared to effectively build with them once we know the entirety of what the set will bring. Today I'm going to run down the spoiled cards that have any potential use in Constructed, meaning I'll ignore the cards clearly designed for Limited play only and judge their potential to see serious competitive play in Standard or even eternal formats. Rather than grading the cards on a scale from one to five or whatever other sliding metric is usually done in set reviews, I'm going to simply evaluate each card with a binary pass or fail system, and explain why it has, or doesn't have, what it takes.
The current Standard environment dominated by powerful Energy decks and blisteringly aggressive mono-red decks is a harsh world to be born into, so I expect that the majority of the new cards are going to miss the mark. I also expect the set to follow in the footsteps of Ixalan, where a great deal of cards may look exciting on paper but are really designed for Commander or more casual play. Still, it's clear that the tribes of Ixalan are being further pushed, and I expect we will finally see some Dinosaurs, Pirates, Vampires, and Merfolk make the jump into Standard. There's also the future to look forward to, and this fall when Kaladesh and Energy decks leave Standard, Ixalan block will assume a much more commanding position in the metagame, and more of these cards will have the opportunity to succeed.
Bishop of Binding removing a creature from the game is a strong effect that has seen play in the past on three-mana creatures, but Warden of the Fairgrounds is currently in Standard and has only seen minor play in Oketra's Monument decks. Adding a mana is a big cost, and the bonus effect of pumping a Vampire when it attacks just isn't enough of a bonus to make it worthwhile, especially because it has to expose itself in combat to trigger the ability.
A two-mana 3/3 creature is not a bad deal, but it's simply not powerful enough to justify building a deck around life gain that can adequately mitigate its significant drawback.
Building a deck around losing life doesn't sound like a very attractive proposition in a Standard metagame with red aggro. Paladin of Atonement would be pretty cool in Modern with fetch lands or lands like City of Brass and Mana Confluence, but Vinelasher Kudzu and Kavu Predator are even more powerful cards with similar land combos that don't see any play.
There's a history of anthem effects like Glorious Anthem succeeding in Standard, and while Radiant Destiny is more narrow, it has the chance to work again, likely either in Vampires or a token strategy. The ascend ability of giving the creature vigilance is minor, so I'd evaluate the card solely on its main effect.
Skymarcher Aspirant offers Vampires an aggressive one-drop that is better than its current options, and the ascend ability of gaining flying gives it some extra power, even if it's unlikely to matter often.
Temple Altisaur gives Dinosaurs a nice way to stop burn spells from killing them, which works great against Red and even stops Harnessed Lightning, but the fact that the ability doesn't work on itself means it will simply eat a burn spell or a Chandra, Torch of Defiance trigger before the opponent hits other creatures, and five mana for a 3/4 just isn't up to par.
Zetalpa, Primal Dawn sure is powerful, but brutally efficient answers like Essence Scatter, Vraska's Contempt, Cast Out, and even Confiscation Coup make it unappealing. There's some potential in a reanimator deck based around Journey to Eternity, but I am not holding my breath.
Three mana counters are par the course these days, and the raid ability of casting for only one mana just isn't very relevant. Counters are important for stopping the opponent's most important plays, not countering spells cast on your own turn, and now that it is a known quantity, players will be easily able to play around Admiral's Order by casting removal or other instants before attackers are declared. It's a great answer to Settle the Wreckage to be sure, but so are Negate and Lookout's Dispersal.
Card draw spells are played because they generate card advantage, but Induced Amnesia automatically puts you down a card. It will be useful for cycling away dead cards like lands in hand, but it lacks the ability to sculpt a hand like Chart the Course, Tormenting Voice and other card filtering effects, and targeting the opponent is a crapshoot with little practical utility.
Symmetrical card drawing engines like Howling Mine have only been successful in obscure decks like Turbo-Fog and Owling Mine that are able to mitigate the advantage the opponent gains, and those tools aren't really available in Standard. The ascend ability will turn off the opponent's advantage, but that comes too late in the game for this to be played in any sort of conventional deck.
Seafloor Oracle offers a pretty powerful effect, and it's not out of the question that the card sees play if Merfolk becomes a top deck in Standard, but the reality is that it's awfully expensive for a deck that relies on flooding the battlefield with cheap creatures, and it just falls flat compared to Master of Waves in older formats.
Perhaps the easiest card to evaluate on the spoiler, Silvergill Adept is a proven staple in Merfolk decks, and will be the first four cards added to any Standard Merfolk deck, which has received enough tools that it's likely to be competitive at some point this year.
Any card that requires the City's Blessing to function just isn't serious Standard material.
Dead Man's Chest requires a lot of setup to unlock what is essentially just a glorified card drawing spell. There's some potential power here, as combining it with cheap removal Walk the Plank or Harnessed Lightning and hitting a large creature offers a lot of value, but the consistency and versatility just isn't there.
The new Nekrataal offers a worse body than its predecessor, Flametongue Kavu, and even Sand Stangler, but the unconditional nature of its ability makes it a very strong removal spell with upside. The value of the body plus potential to abuse its creature status with effects like God-Pharaoh's Gift or The Scarab God makes it better than the typical removal spell. It's still a bit expensive, and can't properly deal with cards like Hazoret, the Fervent or The Scarab God when compared to Vraska's Contempt, and there's no clear top-tier home for it that exists right now, but I'd be surprised if it doesn't see some competitive Standard play during its tenure in the format.
Tetzimoc, Primal Death really caught my attention when it was revealed last year. Creatures that come combined with a sweeper are historically very powerful, but also generally too expensive to be used competitively. Six mana is a Bargain compared to the eight of Wakening Sun's Avatar or Myojin of Cleansing Fire, and while the extra cost of sinking mana into it to unlock the ability does bring it in line with those creatures, the fact that the cost can be split up and paid earlier means it can still come down and sweep the battlefield on turn six. The real appeal is the fact that it can be used to target the opponent's creatures while ignoring one's own, making it something like a one-sided Wrath of God. I could see it working well in a control deck as a sweeper and finisher, but there's potential in any black deck.
Three mana for a Diabolic Edict misses the mark when Trial of Ambition is in Standard, and the ascend ability is too lackluster to really make a difference in its playability. Being able to be used by Torrential Gearhulk is a nice touch, and it does provide a nice answer to Bristling Hydra, but sideboarding this in against an opponent playing Whirler Virtuoso isn't rational.
Anyone with access to seven mana just doesn't need more.
Two-powered creatures for one mana are always good enough to make the cut in aggressive decks in Standard, and Daring Buccaneer is exactly the sort of card that red Pirate decks needed to be competitive. It remains to be seen if the tribe will gain enough tools to actually get there, but this card will certainly be part of it if the red version does.
Expensive creatures need to have a big and immediate impact to be playable, lest they get easily answered by removal. Burning Sun's Avatar passes that test but still doesn't see any play, and Etali, Primal Storm has the drawbacks of being a legend and offering random cards that could potentially do nothing.
Form of the Dinosaur will be best used as a sort of life gain spell that is cast when below 15 life, and it's a nice engine for taking down the opponent's creatures, but the lack of an immediate battlefield impact and a high cost means this will be better suited for the casual realm.
This overpriced Tormenting Voice makes up for the extra cost by providing Treasure tokens. It's an effective way to ramp mana into a big spell, but that doesn't scream competitive when there aren't great cards to ramp into, and any viable options will be easily answered by far cheaper disruption.
Tilonni's Summoner is an example of an ascend card that could make it in Standard. One, it works even without the City's Blessing, and two, it can trigger ascend with its own ability. Mana sinks that convert to damage are dangerous tools in the arsenal of aggressive decks, so I can see a world where this sees play, even if it's just in the sideboard of Ramunap Red decks as a creature control decks must immediately answer.
A copy of Explore for just one mana is appealing, but the requirement of targeting a creature you control saps the playability of Enter the Unknown, especially when considering that decks with enough cheap creatures to consistently enable the card have the least to gain from mana ramping. There's some potential in a deck with Winding Constrictor and Walking Ballista that benefit from the +1/+1 counters and that could ramp into something like Verdurous Gearhulk, but this is far from a staple for the average green deck.
Ghatla, Primal Hunger is absolutely huge, and trample means it will get through any blockers, and anything that offers this much power in one card could be playable. On paper, it's prohibitively expensive at 12 mana, but its cost will be quickly reduced in a Dinosaur deck with high-powered creatures like Regisaur Alpha, which will give it haste and enable an immediate attack, as will Otepec Huntmaster.
One of my favorite cards to play with in old Standard formats was Civic Wayfinder, and while times have changed, the power level of Jadelight Ranger has been accordingly increased, making it one of the most impressive cards spoiled thus far. Two explore triggers has the potential to yield two lands, which is massive card advantage, or two +1/+1 counters, which offers a strong rate on a creature, or a combination of a counter and a land. Exploring also has the value of controlling the top card of the deck, so ditching a card you don't want and getting a counter will often be the best of both worlds. Jadelight Ranger could work in all sorts of strategies, but being a Merfolk means it will be especially important for helping Merfolk tribal be competitive in Standard.
Making every creature explore sure offers a lot of value, but the cost of investing a card and four mana is steep. My instinct is that the card will be great in casual but fall short in Standard, but there's a possibility the card makes the cut, perhaps in conjunction with token generators like Legion's Landing that can generate extra value from the ability.
Giving hexproof to a creature is useful, but the 3/3 body for three mana isn't impressive, and because Merfolk doesn't really play at instant speed, the value of a flash creature isn't too significant. There's just too much competition at three mana for the card to make the cut in Standard.
Free tokens each and every turn, even the opponent's, makes this Verdant Force reincarnate a very solid card, but a 2/2 body for five mana is just too slow and vulnerable to succeed in a world of Shock and Glorybringer.
Efficient creatures with the ability to destroy artifacts and enchantments, like Qasali Pridemage and Reclamation Sage, tend to make the cut in Standard whenever there are relevant cards to destroy, so Thrashing Brontondon is going to see play in any metagame where there are any permanents in need of being Naturalized.
World Shaper can put some free lands into play, but that's just not something a Merfolk deck is interested in, and needing to get attacks in and then die means it's too much work for something like a ramp deck to really want.
The common thread running between all the best planeswalkers in history is the ability to protect themselves against creatures. Angrath, the Flame Chained can destroy creatures with converted mana cost three or less, but that is restrictive and comes at a large loyalty cost. With a relatively low starting loyalty and a plus ability that provides a modest one loyalty, it's just too weak.
Elendra, the Dusk Rose would be strong in an Aristocrats-style deck with sacrifice outlets and something like Blood Artist, but those tools aren't currently in Standard. It also fails as a commander, because going to the command zone when it dies won't actually trigger its ability, so if you chose to let it truly die and trigger ability you won't be able to recast it.
I have seen a lot of hype about Huatli, Radian Champion, but it just doesn't do enough to be a serious Standard contender. The +1 ability technically does nothing, and the -1 ability can convert to damage, but it doesn't impact the battlefield. There's also no obvious home for the card, but anything that can use it will be doing so for its strong ultimate ability.
Journey to Eternity presents a big hoop to jump through to flip, but the power of Atzal, Cave of Eternity is absolutely crazy, whether it is reanimating a massive creature or just creating a chain of value and grinding out removal. The enchantment's ability of returning the dying creature to play will be great on anything with an enter-the-battlefield effect, and these same creatures will be great to return with the land, so I can see a coherent deck forming with something like Yahenni, Undying Partisan as a sacrifice outlet, or even Ravenous Chupacabra destroying one's own creature on turn four after casting Journey to Eternity on turn three.
Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca isn't quite a Merfolk lord, but it comes close, and the ability to draw cards by tapping Merfolk is incredible, especially since it can draw a card immediately on turn three if it follows a curve of Merfolk cast on one and two. It's a legend, so it won't likely be a four-of, but it will be part of any competitive Standard Merfolk deck, and could theoretically make the cut in Eternal formats.
Legion Lieutenant is exactly what a Standard Vampire deck needed, a lord that pumps all its aggressive creatures and especially tokens, and it's going to be a four-of centerpiece of the tribe. If any single card makes the Vampire deck competitive in Standard, it's this one.
Another two-mana lord for a tribe that sorely need it, Merfolk Mistbinder may singlehandedly make Merfolk competitive in Standard. It might even elevate Blue-Green Merfolk to the best Merfolk deck in Eternal formats.
I wrote an entire article about Storm the Vault, but the reality is that is has almost no immediate impact and needs specific cards to make Vault of Cataclan worthwhile, so the odds are it doesn't do enough in Standard.
Awakened Amalgam is a really cool design, but at best it's just a large creature with no special abilities, and that's not good enough in a Standard format with fantastic creatures at four mana.
Pirate's Hook gives a nice bonus to whatever it is attached to, and the downside isn't significant, but equipment without fantastic abilities don't tend to make it in Constructed, and this might just be worse than Pirate's Cutlass in a Pirate deck.
The Immortal Sun sure has a lot of great abilities, but it comes at a steep cost. In Standard many games have been decided by turn six, and taking a turn off to play a card with little immediate impact isn't a recipe for victory. Over time the advantage it generates will be significant, so the card certainly has potential, but it will be tough to really build a deck around it, especially with Abrade floating around to keep it in check. It seems best in control decks, which can extend the game long enough to take advantage of its card advantage value, and where it's a great answer to troublesome planeswalkers.
What are your favorite cards spoiled so far? Do you disagree with any of my analysis? Share your thoughts in the comments!