Magic Origins will soon be upon us and I believe that that this set will be making its presence felt in Standard. Both Fate Reforged and Dragons of Tarkir did an exceptional job of shaking up Standard and I believe Magic Origins looks to be continuing that trend. When looking at spoilers for a new set my focus is on finding the cards that will be at the center of the set's effects on Standard. The minor upgrades and niche roleplayers don't interest me during spoiler season - I want to figure out the big picture, find the cards that I will be playing with and against again and again in the upcoming months, and look at how these cards interact with the ones that already see play. In short, I'm looking for the potential game changers; the cards that could change important aspects of Standard as we know it.
Let's just get the big one out of the way right away. Languish is my vote for the most important of the currently spoiled cards, and I don't think it's particularly close. The difference in power level between a four mana and a five mana sweeper is just so huge - this card has the potential to be a major upgrade to Crux of Fate / End Hostilities. Not being able to sweep away a select few creatures in the format is a small price to pay for a one mana discount. That being said, Languish does have some slight awkwardness about it that makes it hard to gauge where its home will end up being.
My first step in figuring out how and where a card will see play is to look at what cards are winners and which are losers in a format where the new card sees widespread play. The winners, clearly, are cards with five or more toughness - ideally in black, so they can be played alongside Languish. Siege Rhino and Tasigur, the Golden Fang immediately spring to mind. Outside of black, the clear winner is Polukranos, World Eater and to a lesser degree Deathmist Raptor (resiliency becomes even more valuable in a world with highly prevalent sweepers).
The losers are basically everything else: mana creatures, Courser of Kruphix, Fleecemane Lion, Dragonlord Ojutai. Languish gets them all, no matter how monstrous the Fleecemane Lion might look. And therein lies the awkwardness - Courser of Kruphix, Fleecemane Lion, and Dragonlord Ojutai are all cornerstones of the current Standard decks that are the most natural fits for Languish: Abzan and Esper Dragons. Abzan Control has played sweepers alongside its own Coursers since the deck's creation, so this awkwardness probably isn't as big of a deal there. But Esper Dragons was designed around Dragonlord Ojutai and its Invulnerability to the deck's sweeper. Often, the most powerful thing Esper Dragons can be doing is slamming a turn five Ojutai, which is a play that gets a lot weaker when playing Languish alongside Dragonlord Ojutai.
So, as far as current decks go, I think Languish is an easy include in the 75 of Abzan Control. It might be strong enough to be worth the tension it creates within Esper Dragons, but it might not be as well, and this is a question that I am content to wait and see on. Languish could also spike a revival of the non-Dragon blue/black based control strategies that were largely pushed out of the metagame by the creation of Esper Dragons. Personally, I think that this revival is a fairly likely outcome of the printing of Languish.
The last question I have about Languish is what current decks will suffer the most from its existence. For me, the easy answer is green devotion strategies. Devotion has always been pretty soft to sweepers and that sweeper coming down a turn earlier only exacerbates the problem. True, a lot of devotion's threats don't die to Languish, but turn four is early enough that their mana being disrupted will stop those threats from even being deployed. And if one slips through the cracks, Languish decks are super likely to also be playing spot removal. If Devotion is to thrive in new Standard, it will probably need to return to its roots and primarily be an early Polukranos, World Eater and Whisperwood Elemental deck once again.
All of the fringe aggressive decks are also huge losers with the printing of Languish. Decks like Monoblack Warriors sought to capitalize on a format with no easy answer to an intense early swarm, and now the format has an answer. I expect all of these lower tier aggro decks to fall completely off the map post Magic Origins. I do not include Monored in this, as the deck's raw power level is very high and it already has lots of great anti-sweeper play in the dash mechanic and the ability to close out games without any board presence.
Nissa, Vastwood Seer
Languish may be my pick for most influential of the spoiled cards, but Nissa, Vastwood Seer is definitely my favorite of them. I have a soft spot for cards that are both powerful late and not dead early; new Nissa meets both of these criteria. Borderland Ranger might not be the most awe-inspiring card out there, but when all you need is a warm body to get in front of a Goblin Token on turn three you will be very happy the powerful planeswalker in your hand is Nissa, Vastwood Seer and not Elspeth, Sun's Champion. These dual-purpose cards also tend to be uniquely powerful due to their flexibility and are generally worth examining when they pop up in spoiler season.
The single interaction that makes me believe that Nissa, Vastwood Seer will see Standard play is her amazing synergy with Courser of Kruphix. Nissa and Courser are basically best friends. Nissa requires you build up to seven lands in play to transform and Courser of Kruphix makes getting to seven lands much easier. Courser gives you perfect information about the top of your deck and Nissa, Vastwood Seer comes stapled to a shuffle effect that lets you use that information to your advantage. Since the release of Khans of Tarkir, the power of the interaction between Courser and fetch lands has been well documented. Courser wants you to hold your fetch lands for deck manipulation later and if you are also playing Nissa saving your fetch activation has a new benefit: the ability to retrigger her transformation at instant speed in response to removal. This also works if you play her with seven lands on the battlefield and your opponent tries to Remove her with her search effect on the stack.
My biggest worry when it comes to Nissa, Vastwood Seer is just that I believe the most natural home for her is in Abzan, and it seems potentially difficult to warp the Abzan manabase to have enough Forests to reliably have targets for both her and Windswept Heath. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that four Forests would be the target number to play two Nissa, Vastwood Seer alongside four Windswept Heath. That's two more Forests than most Abzan lists currently play, and warping the manabase to accommodate Nissa will certainly do some amount of damage to the consistency. How much remains to be seen. It is, of course, possible to skimp on Forests and give up on always having a target for Nissa - the danger is that in some late game scenarios you could topdeck Nissa, have a billion lands, but not be able to play one to trigger her transformation. It's certainly possible that this risk could be mitigated by holding excess lands after you run out of Forests, but it will take games and not just thinking to figure out to what degree this alleviates the risk.
It is possible that this Forest problem means that Nissa is better suited to a two-color deck. My initial thought would be green/white. She might actually fit in very well in a GW Collected Company deck that takes a less aggressive tack in order to not fold to Languish. A creature with an ETB effect that you can hit off of Collected Company and that will transform into a planeswalker seems exceedingly good. This deck already runs Mastery of the Unseen sometimes, and Mastery is one of Standard's best mana sinks for the excess lands Nissa, Vastwood Seer will find.
So far I have just talked about Nissa's creature half. I am just kind of assuming that the planeswalker half of the card is a good and powerful thing to do. I think this is a reasonable assumption, with most of that power coming from the inherent card advantage of the plus one effect. It is awkward that the minus two is creating a 4/4 token, especially as Languish's printing pushes the 4 / 5 bodies of the format towards being even better than they were before, but making a large creature is still a powerful thing to do even if it doesn't line up super well with the format. Planeswalkers have been hard to evaluate since they initially came out and these new flip walkers make it even harder, but I have Nissa, Vastwood Seer pegged as one of the more important cards in Magic Origins and a potential game changer.
The New Face of Red
The last game changer I have my eye on in the current Origins spoilers is actually two cards: Goblin Piledriver and Exquisite Firecraft. These two cards are both exceptionally powerful, but to me seem to push the red deck in two different directions. Goblin Piledriver wants to be in a red deck that is very creature oriented, that curves Foundry Street Denizen into Goblin Piledriver into a dashed Goblin Heelcutter and has attacked for 12 before its opponent has played a third land. Exquisite Firecraft, on the other hand, gives Red another four point burn spell to expand its reach package that also happens to be uncounterable: a huge boon vs. control. At some point a red pilot has to choose - do they want to play more burn, or more creatures?
It is possible that both options are good and two red decks develop: a goblin aggro deck and a heavier burn deck. They will likely share the same core of cards, but will still need to be fought in significantly different ways. The dream goblin draw needs to be slowed down with an early spot removal spell and then backed up with a sweeper; a sweeper alone is just not good enough. The heavier burn deck might need some way to blank some of their reach, with Counterspells, life gain and Dromoka's Command all being good options. If I had to guess, I would be on the side of the goblin deck being an overall stronger strategy, but it is almost certainly close enough that both will be right at some point in the upcoming Standard metagame.
The goblin aggro deck fascinates me in that its method of being good against sweepers is to play more creatures, not less. By playing enough creatures to consistently open with a blisteringly fast start, this version of the deck plays well against sweepers by getting such a large amount of damage in before sweepers even come online that the sweeper pilot is fighting an uphill battle for the rest of the (likely short) game. It doesn't hurt that the Khans of Tarkir block dash mechanic is exceptionally good at letting a creature oriented aggressive deck have large amounts of play v. sweepers. Unintuitively, I think the best class of cards against this deck will be cheap spot removal spells. Goblin Piledriver is a card with very high risk and high reward - absolutely insane when surrounded by friends and pretty miserable if all of his buddies get shot down as soon as they poke their heads onto the battlefield. Squire is not exactly a card Red wants to play, even a Squire with protection from blue.
The important thing is that the addition of more quality cards to the already deep pool of monored enablers in Standard nigh guarantees that some version of the red deck will continue to be a player until rotation. That the red deck could Splinter into two distinct decks just makes fighting them harder. The game changer here is that red is alive and well and will have the tools to continually adapt to the metagame. The strength of red puts a hard limit on how late game oriented the metagame can get before red just dominates everything.
As spoilers continue to roll out, I will be watching for more potential game changers. But it's after Origins is released that we enter my favorite time to be a Magic player: the time where we get to see how all this theory ends up playing out in the real world. Sometimes we hit, sometimes we miss, but it's always a blast to watch and learn from.
Thanks for reading.