Since the beginning of the year, the Early Access Streamer event has become a favorite day of mine. Like opening a gift a couple weeks before Christmas, the event is a chance to see firsthand just how the new cards play out. It's easy to theorycraft, but much harder to see how every moving piece will work together. This is the first practical test of which cards are good, bad, and how they all fit into the puzzle we call the metagame.
Although I don't stream, and thus don't have access to the event, I used the opportunity to watch several streams throughout the day, often at once. Additionally, I had a few of my decklists played, including the white-black list I wrote about last week (with a few changes based on revealed cards. Helllooooo Fabled Passage), and seeing how everyone's games went is invaluable this early in the format.
This week, I figured I'd share my thoughts on how everything played out from what I saw, and how it informs what I'll be playing on Arena shortly.
Going into the event these were some of the most talked-about cards, partly because they all scream "Build around me!" Each provides a very sizable reward for jumping through its particular hoop, and none of them disappointed
In particular, The Great Henge looked absolutely absurd. Green decks have an absolutely absurd number of creatures, and Once Upon a Time is already asking us to play as many creatures as possible to maximize its potential. There are many ways to power it out, from mana accelerants and a 5 power creature like Vantress Gargoyle or Lovestruck Beast // Heart's Desire, or just a massive 7 power creature like Rotting Regisaur.
Regardless of how players powered it out, the card was excellent right out of the gate. Whether you're aggressive or trying to slow the game down, The Great Henge provides so much life gain, mana and value that it's hard to fight it on any axis. An aggro deck will stall out, while a grindy deck will fail to answer every threat while keeping up with the volume of cards it gives. Especially because Adventure creatures give several extra spell-like effects with creatures attached, The Great Henge starts looking like Experimental Frenzy… without the drawback.
The Cauldron of Eternity similarly allows for quick and powerful starts, though in more raw bursts than sustained advantage. Cards like Emry, Lurker of the Loch, Vantress Gargoyle and even Wall of Lost Thoughts or Gorging Vulture enable the Cauldron without playing cards that are too embarrassing, and there are plenty of large creatures to reanimate.
On the other end of things, Embercleave and The Circle of Loyalty distinctly don't want to play a long game, and often end the game quickly after they enter the battlefield. The various Knight decks in particular are starving for payoffs to going wide with creatures like The Circle of Loyalty, and one that rebuilds an army if the deck loses its battlefield to a Kaya's Wrath or Time Wipe is a welcome addition. Embercleave mostly seems to be a kind of big combat trick for now akin to Temur Battle Rage, offering to add 4-6 damage out of nowhere and blow out an opponent just trying to stay alive.
The only card of this cycle that I didn't see at all was The Magic Mirror. Perhaps it's too slow, perhaps it comes down too late, perhaps the mana cost is too steep… or perhaps this one just isn't quite as obvious as the other four, and we have yet to see what it can do.
This should come as a surprise to nobody, but the card with more text than at least a couple of the essays I wrote in college turns out to be good. It can't be blocked profitably because of deathtouch, chump blocked because of its "can't be blocked by creatures with 2 or less power" clause, or even raced on the ground because it has vigilance. The card doesn't even have to take time off from killing an opponent to hit planeswalkers because of the strange final ability it has, where it mirrors damage to an opponent onto a planeswalker they control. Really the only option that players have against the card is to trade a big creature for it, which even makes drawing multiples of this legendary creature much less punishing! They will have to remove it or die, and then another one can be there to take its place.
Because it lacks any cool synergies and was previewed so early this card dropped off the radar a bit… but its raw power means that every green deck will be playing three to four of this card. Make sure to have removal or a plan to neutralize it for the next two years.
By far the most common modes of this card will be some combination of "Each player discards a card." and "Each player sacrifices a creature." Both of these abilities are "symmetrical" with extra emphasis on the quotation marks. Each player only has to discard a card until the opponent is hellbent, and then Rankle, Master of Pranks never has to choose that mode if they don't have a card in hand. Meanwhile, it isn't hard to build a deck full of fodder to make sure that the creature that Rankle sacrifices is nothing like the one their opponent has to sacrifice.
If there's a strike against Rankle, it's that it doesn't end the game quickly. If they weren't already under pressure, there is a lot of time for the opponent to draw an answer or something that generates a lot of advantage quickly and undo all of Rankle's pranks. With so many powerful cards running around between Eldraine and War of the Spark, it's hard to control the game forever.
There are really several black cards that have supercharged the color, but this is probably chief among them. The more important mode is the Adventure half, Swift End. Throne of Eldraine has a lot of "Baneslayer"-type cards that gain value from being in play, not from being cast. War of the Spark had many, many impactful planeswalkers. A clean answer to Questing Beast that can also remove Teferi, Time Raveler, Oko, Thief of Crowns or Vraska, Golgari Queen from play is just invaluable right now. There is plenty of life gain running around to keep the downside from being too impactful, and this life loss even comes with a friend who can help regain some life! Even if an aggressive deck makes the 2 damage risky, there is always the option to simply cast a 2/3 lifelink creature that, while maybe a little unimpressive, is just what the doctor ordered against aggro.
This card fundamentally changes how games are going to be played, and did not disappoint on Tuesday. A three-mana 4/3 with some upside is already playable (Gruul Spellbreaker is a mainstay of Gruul decks everywhere!), and this one includes the option to absolutely shatter an opponent on turn two. On the play, casting this on their two-drop creature and untapping and playing Bonecrusher Giant is such an early two-for-one effect that many decks will just be too far behind to recover.
Simply put, two-drops with 2 toughness are probably unplayable as long as Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp is seeing play. A Hero of Precinct One is always going to have to wait until it can have guaranteed value, making it a turn-four play. A card like Growth-Chamber Guardian isn't playable until turn five. And if it wasn't clear from earlier, we aren't exactly short on late-game plays in this Standard.
Meanwhile, cards like Lazotep Reaver, Wildborn Preserver or Paradise Druid jump way up in value. Nobody has ever wanted to Shock a Squire, and Stomping a 1/2 creature that came with a 1/1 token attached is especially mediocre. Wildborn Preserver has the incredibly relevant flash that keeps it from falling into the Giant's trap. Paradise Druid can't be traded for on the turn it enters play, guaranteeing at least one turn of extra mana before it gets Stomped. There are options out there to play around this card, and its existence is going to force everyone to play in a way that mitigates it… and even then, it will still see play because it has so much other utility.
At the very least, if they leave up the ability to Stomp, don't play into it.
I'm lumping these cards together because I think that they will typically fall into the same deck every time. Irencrag Pyromancer was dominating every time I saw it on Tuesday, simply because it is so unbelievably easy to trigger. Opt dealing 3 is not even remotely fair. Thrill of Possibility becoming a Lightning Strike that churns through two cards makes a decent card absurd. And on top of it all, the card blocks remarkably well. Many of the most important things to kill seem to have 4 toughness right now for some reason, but that doesn't mean that there aren't ways to kill them by stacking damage on them, and there will usually be other creatures or planeswalkers around to hit with incidental Pyromancer damage.
Faerie Vandal is a card I initially underrated for Constructed. The comparison in my mind was to Brineborn Cutthroat because of flash, when really it's closer to Enigma Drake or Crackling Drake. As long as the blue deck can find a way to draw one extra card, whether through Opt or Teferi, Time Raveler or Crackling Drake, it will grow consistently every turn until it is the largest creature in play. It might not be as explosive as Enigma Drake or Crackling Drake, but it makes up for this by being able to gain so much toughness that nothing can trade with it. Ever seen a 6/7 flier trade with one other creature in combat? Me neither. Then on top of all that, the fact that it has flash is especially relevant because it means it can play around Stomp on the draw. Overall the card was surprisingly good, and I'm excited to try it further.
This card is just so heckin' weird. It wants a steady stream of cards that can fuel it, otherwise the deck is prone to running out of things to do, but it also can't do more than two of them each turn. It wants to do powerful things, but it's gated by how many lands are in play. It wants to ramp, but it can't use creatures to do it, because a Paradise Druid does nothing to help play five- and six-drop cards for free. And in the meantime, the deck needs to be functional without it in play sometimes.
The two directions people seem to be going with it are Cavalier of Flame and Niv-Mizzet Reborn. The second seems like more of a meme than a real thing, especially because the goal of casting Niv-Mizzet Reborn with just lands is quite a big ask. And because so many of the spells have to be multicolor, it's not even clear the deck is going to be able to cast cards before Fires of Invention either.
The Cavalier lists are more straightforward, but then the problem becomes that when they don't draw Cavalier, the deck doesn't really do anything impressive. Going through all this trouble to play a medium-sized Red deck that hopes to win because it cast a couple 5/5 creatures like Sunder Shaman or Rampart Smasher or something like Questing Beast makes me wonder why we don't just do those things instead. And when it doesn't have Fires of Invention, the deck is a collection of cards nobody wanted to play with some Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp slotted in for value.
If all this gets solved, whoever breaks this card is going to have an excellent tournament. For now, the card seems potentially very powerful, but not at all straightforward in how to use it.
Oko was the hype coming in to this event. Turn one Gilded Goose, turn two Oko, Thief of Crowns has to be game over, right? Well, probably, except when they kill either half. Or when they don't play a three-power creature. Or when they kill the follow up to these two. Or when they just go way over the top of it.
I'm not saying Oko, Thief of Crowns is bad by any stretch. The card on its own does a lot of powerful things, and when it's powered out on turn two, it puts some opponents in an incredible bind where they're unable to cast creatures to pressure the Faerie planeswalker. But then other opponents Stomp the Goose, play a 4/3 Giant and ignore Oko, or attack the player with Questing Beast while also hitting Oko. Or they played a one-drop, so even if Oko comes down on turn two, it can't threaten to steal a threat on turn three because it took damage the turn before. Then there's the problem of what happens when Oko, Thief of Crowns doesn't come down turn two or three. The best thing it can do then is maybe shrink something?
The question of what to use the Food on is also not fully answered, at least for fair decks. Maybe the trick is to self-mill for Feasting Troll-King, but otherwise the options seem to be Gilded Goose and… Wicked Wolf maybe? And while both are solid options with a steady stream of Food, they're underwhelming without them.
Finally, it feels like the format is moving away from the sorts of decks Oko would otherwise punish. Sure, I probably don't want to play creatures like Hero of Precinct One or Worthy Knight into Oko, but I already don't want to play those things in the format because they're getting Stomped so often, or they're fodder for Irencrag Pyromancer, or they aren't relevant against Questing Beast, or…
Don't get me wrong. This card seems like it does a lot of good things. It enables certain strategies, the ability to turn The Great Henge or The Circle of Loyalty into a 3/3 is very, very welcome right now, and there are ways to get aggressive with Oko that can be tough to handle early on. I'm not going to write the card off completely, but if I thought the card was probably a 9 or 10 before, I'm down to a 5 or 6.
This with Teferi, Time Raveler is really stupid.
I don't have more to say about it than Demonic Tutor is really good. Honestly if this interaction isn't a big part of this format, it's because the mana is too bad to support it. Here's to hoping it isn't.
I'm not going to spend too much time here. The set is new, the format is young, and I haven't even had a chance to play with the cards yet, so there's still plenty of time to try cards, even if they don't work out. That said, there were a few cards that were constantly popping up as I watched and were quite lackluster.
Yes, the combination with Oko, Thief of Crowns means that it's a Birds of Paradise, and that is a powerful Magic card. The question is what the deck is doing from there, and unfortunately this Birds of Paradise needed two cards to get going instead of the normal one. Time and time again Tuesday I saw the dream curve: turn one Gilded Goose, turn two Oko, Thief of Crowns, and then three turns later all the resources were traded and the Goose player just ran out of steam to do anything. Opponents are rarely goldfish, and they're probably going to come prepared with answers to things like Questing Beast or a 7/6 creature. Did I mention that Murderous Rider // Swift End was an incredibly good card?
And then sometimes Gilded Goose comes down without Oko and I have never been more skeptical of why so many people are playing a card than while watching a Gilded Goose with no Food supply. Nobody has ever looked at Lotus Petal and thought, "I want that to cost one mana, have summoning sickness and be able to be Shocked."
Though honestly, the best thing going for Gilded Goose is that it can be Shocked when Oko isn't showing up next. Having to respect the possibility of the dream curve means that it will often trade for a card even when it was never going to do anything relevant.
You could maybe sell me on this card in something like Izzet Spells or Phoenix, because it has some synergies with a lot of different cards: Pteramander, Faerie Vandal, Irencrag Pyromancer, Crackling Drake, etc. But even then, three mana to start looting is a lot of mana. It does nothing to impact the board, and these decks are often full of uninteractive pieces already. This one doesn't even get discounted by Goblin Electromancer!
There's also a card that already embarrassed these archetypes: Narset, Parter of Veils. Narset doesn't just shut The Royal Scions down, she beats them up, takes their lunch money and gives them a swirlie. The "+1: Draw a card, discard a card" ability is not optional, so when Narset is in play, it reads "+1: Discard a card." Ouch. And the second +1 ability can't even be activated if there are no creatures in play! Then, even if they get to 8 loyalty, Narset disallows the card draw there too.
Unless Narset drops off the face of the planet, I would need a really, really good reason to put this in my deck.
I want these to be good, because I've won quite a lot of matches the last year on the back of efficient white aggressive strategies. Maybe the code just hasn't been cracked yet, but when looking at all the various constraints on this format, it gets hard for Knights really fast. A deck full of efficiently sized, cheap creatures plays into the hands of so many different cards right now. Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp will Shock the Worthy Knight or Inspiring Veteran and then be larger than all of the cards Knights decks play. A Knights player will always have to keep an opposing Oko under 5 loyalty, or it'll steal the best creature Knights has. Irencrag Pyromancer will start bolting all of their creatures, and Questing Beast is both effectively unblockable and plays excellent defense. Knights also lacks tools to disrupt the various legendary artifacts running around, which means that The Great Henge or The Cauldron of Eternity isn't going anywhere once they're in play.
I hope somebody proves me wrong here. Hell, maybe it'll be me once I can jam games and figure out the best build. But for the moment, I'm not seeing it.
Hopefully this article was helpful. It's a big wild world to discover, and keeping track of everything that's going on is going to be difficult for the next few days. There are also a lot of brews out there, and I wasn't able to watch every stream. If there's anything you think I missed or am completely off base on, let me know on Twitter so we can discuss it before we start playing games later this week.