Magic 2011 introduced the world to the Titans, and they were revolutionary.
Before the Titans, no cycle of creatures had offered so much for so little. Magic's history is littered with creatures costing seven, eight or even more mana that come with very powerful effects, but their prohibitive costs have kept them from seeing serious play beyond decks trying to put them into play unfairly. The Titans offered an impact typically reserved for only the most expensive cards, but at a relatively bargain price. This efficiency led the Titans to define Standard during their tenure, and to eventually find their way to Eternal formats. Titans have seen competitive play as far back as Vintage, with Inferno Titan in Oath of Druid decks, and are still a significant presence in Modern with Primeval Titan as a fixture of multiple strategies.
To this day, no cycle of creatures has truly matched the Titans, but they have created a precedent for future cycles. Magic 2015's Soul creatures were underpowered duds, but Kaladesh's cycle of Gearhulks reminded me of the Titans, and indeed some of them (Torrential Gearhulk and Verdurous Gearhulk) did go on to define the format. It gives me confidence that Magic's newest homage to the Titans have the potential to be just as important.
Allow me to introduce the Cavaliers:
At five mana, Cavaliers are cheaper than the Titans—one mana leaner and sleeker for this new age, and that makes them all the more deadly. With large bodies and various keyword abilities, they offer the same strong board presence of the Titans, along with their own powerful enters-the-battlefield triggers. Admittedly, these triggers are a bit toned-down compared to the Titans, but they make up for it with a secondary ability that triggers when it dies, offering another dose of value. Everything adds up to a very competitive-looking card, and they're clearly slated for Standard play.
The question is how and where to best use them. History shows that not all cards in a cycle are created equal, so I also want to figure out which might be the best of the bunch and which if any could fall flat. Today I'll analyze each of the Cavaliers and see if they could fit into the puzzle that is Standard.
Cavalier of Dawn is an impressive introduction to the cycle, offering a powerful enters-the-battlefield trigger that destroys any nonland permanent. This includes planeswalkers, and that makes Cavalier of Dawn very attractive in a format defined by them. The ability to take down any creature is also very impressive—but adding an interesting wrinkle, however, is that this ability does give the permament's controller a 3/3 token. Cavalier of Dawn's vigilance ability means its 4 / 6 body is quite good at containing this token, but it's still a significant downside. On the other hand, it can be used constructively on one's own permanent, which can make Cavalier of Dawn closer to something like Grave Titan in that it produces another threat along with it. Combined with Cavalier of Dawn's death trigger that regrows artifacts or enchantment, it sets the stage for some potential synergy.
Oath of Kaya immediately comes to mind. It has an immediate effect and leaves behind an enchantment that is perfect for destroying and reusing. Even something like Guild Globe offers value. Another option is History of Benalia, which doesn't work perfectly because played on turn three it will sacrifice itself on turn five before Cavalier of Dawn enters play. But it does offer a good target to return, and later in the game it's a good candidate to destroy after it has made its second token. Another synergy to note is that Cavalier of Dawn is a Knight that can be pumped by History of Benalia's third chapter, which could certainly be relevant in some games. That could make it the perfect top-end for a Knight-centric deck, which might look like this:
Cavalier of Gales comes attached to a Brainstorm, which at face value is equivalent to drawing one card. That makes it something like a dumber but much bigger Mulldrifter, which isn't a bad place to be. To help close the card advantage gap, its death trigger of scry 2 helps dig into action. This value combined with a large, evasive threat combine to make Cavalier of Storms a very functional and solid card, if a bit vanilla. It lacks the utility and battlefield impact of something like Cavalier of Dawn, but that won't necessarily keep it from seeing play. I think it comes in as one of the least impressive in the cycle, but drawing cards and flying are both so strong that this might get there on rate alone.
Cavalier of Gales seems best in a midrange or control deck that can keep pace by using removal spells, and then turn the corner with the big board presence and card advantage. The closest deck to that right now is Grixis, where
Cavalier of Gales as a value play would be a strong complement to Nicol Bolas, the Ravager // Nicol Bolas, the Arisen.
With the ability to destroy any creature, Cavalier of Night is reminiscent of Noxious Gearhulk. The catch is that it requires sacrificing a creature, quite a large cost, and something any deck using Cavalier of Night must be able to do consistently if it is to make good use of the card. On the plus side, it comes with a death trigger that can reanimate said sacrificed creature, or any other that costs three or less. Putting the creature directly into play is much better than to hand, and it serves as a great way to maintain a battlefield presence in the face of removal spells.
Along with its powerful lifelink keyword—which is probably the best of any in the cycle—Cavalier of Night has a lot of potential. It will be restricted to decks that have enough creatures to make use of its abilities, which keeps this out of control decks, but it will be a good tool for midrange decks. Black-Green, for example, has plenty of sacrificial fodder like Merfolk Branchwalker that could be a stronger enabler for Cavalier of Night. It could also be a great top-end threat for an Aristocrats-style sacrifice deck.
True to red's nature, Cavalier of Flame feels like a real wild card. Its enters-the-battlefield ability is a red looting effect taken to the extreme, allowing up to the entire hand to be pitched for new cards. Faithless Looting continues to make a case for being the best card in Modern, and Seasoned Pyromancer has broken out as one of the finest cards in Modern Horizons, so this card selection effect is clearly quite strong and has potential in Standard, especially if it can be used to enable any sort of graveyard synergies.
Cavalier of Flame comes with its very own graveyard synergy with its death trigger, that damages the opponent and their planeswalkers equal to the number of lands in the graveyard. This means Cavalier of Flame continues this lands-in-graveyard-matters theme laid out in Modern Horizons with cards like Ruination Rioter, which might be cool for Commander but doesn't mean anything for Standard.
On the other hand, there are cards like Living Twister that could offer good synergy, but I think the best bet will be to mostly ignore this ability and treat it as a byproduct, especially because Cavalier of Flame will tend to discard lands anyway.
Cavalier of Flame also comes with a powerful Firebreathing ability reminiscent of Inferno Titan, but instead offers this effect to the entire team. This makes it a perfect fit alongside tokens and small creatures, which red does well, and could make Cavalier of Flame the perfect card to sit on top of a curve of red creatures. At the very least, its 6/5 body offers a massive threat that comes in with more power than any other in the cycle, and that's ignoring its ability to grow even larger.
The secret to making the most of Cavalier of Flame may be in its creature type, Elemental, which it shares with the rest of the cycle. Elementals have received significant support in M20, and they have the potential to make it in Standard. The sequence of Risen Reef into Scampering Scorcher produces an effect better than Ancestral Recall, and serves as a perfect foundation for the tribe to build on. Using some of the Cavaliers as a top-end seems like a no-brainer, and the best option may very well be Cavalier of Flame, which is a perfect follow-up to Scampering Scorcher that will threaten to end the game the following turn with its Firebreathing ability.
Primeval Titan is inarguably the best card in its cycle, so any homage to it has some big shoes to fill. I think Cavalier of Thorns does a really fine job, despite being a clearly "fixed" version of its overpowered predecessor. It offers about half the value and ramping ability, except fixed from a true tutor to an Elvish Rejuvenator effect, which won't find any land but will reliably find a land. This effect seems quite good in any deck that wants to ramp into something bigger, or perhaps even enable the new Field of the Dead. Cavalier of Thorns does have some competition with Golos, Tireless Pilgrim and its ability to dig for any land, but the Cavalier's larger stats and non-legendary status should make it a better card in green decks, and that's without considering the Cavalier's death trigger, which is among the best in the cycle. Reclaiming any card in the graveyard to the top of the deck isn't true card advantage, but it's a very versatile effect that will definitely help to win games.
Cavalier of Thorns has a ton of potential, but one place to start is alongside Standard's premier seven-mana play, Nexus of Fate. Cavalier of Thorns conveniently ramps right into Nexus of Fate on curve, and its death trigger Reclaim effect will be a nice complement to Tamiyo, Collector of Tales. Here's a list courtesy of Bryan Gottlieb from the podcast Arena Decklists:
Magic R&D developed the Cavalier cycle to make an impact in Standard, we can be sure of that. Now we get to figure out how to unlock the incredible potential within Magic's best cycle of creatures since the Titans.