No type of Magic card has more influence on the shape of a format than removal. When the removal is powerful in an environment, efficiency is the driving principle behind deck construction. When the removal is weak, that principle is instead raw power. Today, we here at TCGplayer.com get to share with you a Shadows Over Innistrad preview card that clues us in to the fact that in the upcoming Standard format, the removal is going to be anything but weak.
For longtime Magic players, the natural card to compare Anguished Unmaking to is Vindicate. They are both highly flexible removal spells that share the exact same mana cost. However, in attempting to parse how this new card will play out in Shadows Over Innistrad Standard, this comparison is not very useful. For starters, Anguished Unmaking can't take out a land. But that's just part and parcel of being Magic a card in 2016. No, the big difference is that Anguished Unmaking has the ability to exile Planeswalkers.
So instead, let's look for a comparison with a more modern Magic card. Utter End is a card we've come to know in its year and a half in Standard and is similar to Anguished Unmaking. We trade a mana for the loss of three life and keep the same effect.
How close are these cards? Well, not very. The difference between three mana and four mana is huge. Direct removal spells like these are designed to trade evenly in cards, so to gain an advantage with them we need to trade up in mana. It's a lot easier to trade up in mana when your spell costs three than when it costs four. And that's not to mention all the gameplay advantages that come with the fact that cheaper spells are much easier to leave mana up for.
Okay, enough poor comparisons. Hero's Downfall is the recent card that Anguished Unmaking most reminds me of. They are both three mana, instant speed, highly flexible removal spells. Hero's Downfall can't hit enchantments or artifacts, but in most Standard formats, creatures and Planeswalkers are something like 95% of what you want to be removing anyway. Hero's Downfall was a pillar of Standard for the entire time it was legal, and I fully expect Anguished Unmaking to play a similar role while it's legal.
The power of Hero's Downfall was in its flexibility. It was that rare breed of removal that is both reasonably efficient and not at all situational. Not only did Hero's Downfall deal with absolutely any creature, it also couldn't be juked by the opponent casting a Planeswalker instead of a creature on the turn you left Downfall up. Leaving up three mana to cast Downfall and knowing you were covered whether your opponent's next play was Polukranos, World Eater or Xenagos, the Reveler was a great feeling. We haven't had that flexible of a removal spell since Hero's Downfall left Standard.
The lack of a Hero's Downfall-esque removal spell has been really noticeable in current Standard. Leaving up Crackling Doom mana to ensure you don't lose on the spot to a Siege Rhino only to have them cast a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is a miserable experience. The format incentivized us to tap out instead, to do something proactive since our reactive plays were not at all guaranteed to work out. Hence, the immense popularity of Painful Truths as a proactive turn-three play. But nothing highlights the lack of flexibility in the Standard removal pool like the Jace, Vryn's Prodigy problem. Dealing with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy was of extreme importance, but nothing dealt effectively with both sides of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy. The consensus solution ended up being playing lots of cards that could handle the creature side and just kinda shrugging when you drew those cards after Jace had already flipped. You win some, you lose some. With Anguished Unmaking, we don't lose this battle.
And Anguished Unmaking does so much more than that. How often have you really wished you could deal with your ramp opponent's Hedron Archive? Ever been on the wrong side of a Retreat to Emeria or an Outpost Siege? Like I said, creatures and Planeswalkers are 95% of what you want to get rid of. But when the other 5% matters, it matters big. Situations like these are too niche to make deckbuilding concessions to with the hope of raising your winrate, so it sure is nice that with Anguished Unmaking we can have answers without making any concession at all. Sorry Quarantine Field, I don't think Shadows Over Innistrad is going to help you out very much.
And now to discuss the Elephant in the room: how much does losing three life affect the power of Anguished Unmaking? Clearly, if our opponent leads on Zurgo, Bellstriker we are going to be unhappy to be staring down at multiple copies of Anguished Unmaking in our hand. But if their first play is Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, we are unlikely to give a second thought to casting every Anguished Unmaking we see. But even in grindy midrange battles, life totals can become relevant. After all, their plan is to kill you, and it's difficult for them to do that without reducing your life total. At some point you will draw an Anguished Unmaking with less than three life, and I imagine that will be one of the more miserable feelings in Magic.
Magic has a rich history of not caring very much about life loss costs on cards. The current Standard format has many decks that lose an average of four or five life per game to their fetchland manabase, some of which even cast three-point Painful Truths on top of that. Life is a resource like any other in Magic, and the cards that require it all compete with each other for slots in our deck. With the rotation of fetchlands it's possible that there will be less competition for these slots in Shadows Over Innistrad Standard, but until we have the full spoiler it's impossible to say.
For me, the question of how much the three life cost matters is another way of asking how many copies of Anguished Unmaking we get to play. I don't believe there's any chance we live in a world where the first copy of Anguished Unmaking is untenable, but I can visualize a meta where drawing a second copy is painful enough that we only get to start two or three copies. This question won't be answered until Shadows over Innistrad Standard gets underway, but that's not to say we can't predict anything. The ideal Anguished Unmaking deck will mitigate the cost of the life loss by killing the opponent in a reasonable time frame. I'm visualizing a midrange deck leaning more aggressive than controlling, minimizing the chances of drawing multiple copies of Anguished Unmaking by keeping the total turn count low.
Anguished Unmaking in control decks is an interesting conundrum. A control deck prizes the flexibility of the card more than any other deck. On the other hand, the life loss is a bigger cost in the control archetype than anywhere else, simply because a control deck is trying to survive above all else. A control deck will also see more of its cards on average than any other deck type, maximizing its chances of drawing multiple copies of Anguished Unmaking. The flexibility likely means Anguished Unmaking is too good to pass on for a control deck, but the life loss will call for restraint and less than the full four copies.
The danger in running four Anguished Unmaking isn't really in drawing multiple copies though, it's in casting multiple copies. Often in Magic this difference isn't worth mentioning, as drawing a card you can't cast is pretty debilitating. But in Shadows Over Innistrad, the madness mechanic is coming back. This means it's quite likely that this Standard format will have more looting cards that see play than normal. Discarding excess copies of Anguished Unmaking is pretty appealing if we don't have to go out of our way to play the discard outlets. I'm very likely to always want to see one copy of Anguished Unmaking and somewhat unlikely to want to cast the second or third. As a result, any looting effects alongside Anguished Unmaking get added value.
Wow, all that and I didn't get a chance to talk about the relevance of Anguished Unmaking exiling, the potential of mitigating the lifeloss drawback with lifegain effects or the sheer Vorthosian joy I get upon reading the flavor text. Only four weeks to go until Shadows Over Innistrad. I can't wait.
Thanks for reading,