ITS TIME!

Finally, finally, finally we're done with most of 2019 Magic. Between War of the Spark and Core Set 2020 leaving naturally, and most of the unacceptably powerful Throne of Eldraine cards already gone from Standard via the banlist, there's very few problems that plagued us for the last year remaining. Instead we have a chance to explore new cards, both from Zendikar Rising and the past couple sets where synergies like Mutate never really got a chance to shine. Yes, there might still be a couple offenders out there (looking at you Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath), but the format has a chance to adjust to one or two overpowered cards instead of twenty.

While I do stream now after a year of watching these events, I'd rather watch several matches playing out at once, looking for new cards and how they're playing out. I enjoy my vantage point better, with more screens open than The Architect in the second Matrix movie. Getting this bird's eye view of the format feels like exactly how I want to spend a day before diving in fully on Thursday.

With that out of the way, here are the cards that over and under performed on this first day of Zendikar Rising Standard.

The Good

Lotus Cobra

Lotus Cobra is going to be a format-defining card in this metagame early. If it's ever unchecked, the Lotus Cobra player snowballs out of control very quickly as it discounts every card that plays it so heavily. Winota, Joiner of Forces becomes a three-drop, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath becomes a two or three-drop, Migration Path becomes a two-drop. While it's easy to say, "It's just a Paradise Druid," it's one that can trigger multiple times a turn and effectively has haste. Playing a Lotus Cobra on turn four, then playing a Fabled Passage means it was able to generate two mana in value with only a small window to interact with it. In multiples, it creates absurd amounts of mana.

Where this card will fall off is when people are playing reasonable amounts of spot removal. As long as it doesn't generate several mana early on, the impact it has on the game drops considerably. Bloodchief's Thirst does the trick, but instant speed removal like Stomp or Shock is better, so a Fabled Passage can't represent three mana (just kill it in response to the fetch).

Kargan Intimidator

The little 3/1 that could is an early frontrunner for one of my favorite cards in the set. It's powerful in its own right, and in multiples has a way to pile on the pressure early—even working perfectly on curve by playing a turn two Intimidator, activating on turn three to get through a blocker, and then playing a second Intimidator. It has a relevant creature type and a ton of utility for an aggressive creature, and that alone was good enough to start.

That said, among the more clutch parts of this card is in the strange utility the ability, "Target creature becomes a Coward," has. While I'm sure it was obvious to some judges, the ability overwrites any other creature types. This is relevant in breaking up tribal synergies. A Human in play with General Kudro of Drannith will no longer get +1/+1 from the lord.

Especially spicy is a Kargan Intimidator can turn itself or another Human into a Coward. This might not seem smart, or even useful, until you have a Winota, Joiner of Forces in play, where it buys an extra trigger from Winota, Joiner of Forces for a single mana.

This was an early frontrunner for one of my favorite two-drops in Standard already, but its ability has even more utility than I thought.

Soaring Thought-Thief

When I put this card as impressive, I mean "Rogues" as an archetype. Rogues gets going relatively quickly, and plays the role of disruptive aggro deck very well. The Dimir deck has access to many of the cheap interactive spells I want to play currently: Essence Scatter, Bloodchief's Thirst, Lofty Denial, Drown in the Loch, Duress, etc. Their creatures are cheap and reasonable, even something like Merfolk Windrobber is acceptable as part of a larger plan—it's at least functional when hitting eight cards in the opponent's graveyard is so crucial. Thieves' Guild Enforcer, Soaring Thought-Thief and Nighthawk Scavenger will all end the game quickly.

What I am a bit suspicious of is the deck's success today takes advantage of a pattern we see fairly frequently during Early Access events where decks are untuned, more midrange, and don't play enough cheap interaction. Destroying Rogues creatures early before they get going will mean many of their cards don't work, and they don't have many catch-up mechanisms outside of hoping a Zareth San, the Trickster connects.

Where I did see it fail was against other aggressive decks. Rogues' early creatures are pretty pitiful, and unlikely to trade with much at all. Nighthawk Scavenger can pull them back into the game, but a removal spell on it specifically means that Rogues is left with a lot of undersized creatures that might be getting +1/+0 from Soaring Thought-Thief. As long as the aggro decks learn not to play one toughness creatures that can be ambushed by the Dimir Flash 1/3, I'm confident they can win.

Omnath, Locus of Creation

There's an old joke in Magic that every card is good if you just add, "Draw a card," to it. Omnath, Locus of Creation is no exception, and adding that ability means if it resolves, they're up a card even when you kill it. This means the only way to trade evenly on cards is with countermagic and discard spells. It alone makes me really want to play Essence Scatter, as the decks that play Omnath, Locus of Creation always play Lotus Cobra, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and Omnath, Locus of Creation, meaning they have plenty of high priority creatures to counter.

By necessity, Omnath, Locus of Creation is both a card and an archetype. It would be impossible to play a four-color deck without black and not play Omnath, Locus of Creation. And the only other color combination that wants it would be a five-color deck. Hopefully that will limit how much we actually see it, because it'll get old fast.

Kazandu Mammoth

I was genuinely impressed with this card all day. The power/toughness box had me fooled, and I was thinking about this as a 3/3. In actuality, this is Lovestruck Beast that's worse at blocking, but attacks more regularly. When you need to keep attacking, extra copies can be played as lands to keep the pressure on in the final turns, making them pretty much always relevant.

Gruul was where I saw this most frequently, but I assume that we'll want this in most any green deck that plans to win on attacking, from Gruul to Mono-Green to Selesnya. Aggressive Skyclave Pick-Axe versions will appreciate the split card land/creature, and bigger green decks will curve this into Questing Beast, into Greater Gargadon, and put so much pressure on the opponent they're toast quite quickly.

Inscription of Abundance

Speaking of green decks, Inscription of Abundance was strong every time it was cast. In the early game it's effective removal, letting a reasonable size green creature fight down a Thieves' Guild Enforcer or Lotus Cobra. Late game it fills a similar role to Primal Might, trading some potential power for a permanent power/toughness boost and lifegain.

That this card is instant speed brings back fond memories of Dromoka's Command, a card with quite the pedigree when it was in Standard. Responding to removal spells with counters to grow it out of range or using a creature that was going to die anyway to kill a key threat of the opponent's is a lot of versatility for a two-mana/five-mana split card. I'm expecting to register this a lot the first few weeks of the format.

Time Will Tell

Sea Gate Stormcaller

VTCLA's Dimir Village Rites deck was a pretty common site during the Early Access event today, and the only thing I can say confidently about Sea Gate Stormcaller is I still have no idea if it's good or not. At times it felt like drawing several cards or doubling up on removal spells was worth it, but the 2/1 body was typically so irrelevant it felt like a heavily limited Twincast more than a powerful spell.

Still, a bad Twincast that comes with a body sounds pretty decent in theory, and Village Rites draws a whole lot of cards early on. Everything about this card screams great to me, and yet it kept being awkward.

Perhaps we just haven't unlocked it yet, or the right instants and sorceries aren't in Standard yet. Or maybe it's not quite strong enough. We'll see.

Tajuru Paragon

Tajuru Paragon, specifically in Winota decks running green, was very impressive. An early play, an enabler for any incidental party synergies, a warrior for those tribal synergies, a way to trigger Winota, Joiner of Forces, and a late game way to find more action (including Winota, Joiner of Forces) all add up to a card that provides a lot to Naya versions of the deck. People are already playing Silundi Vision in their deck, and this one comes attached to a card you might want to play for a variety of reasons.

The question with Tajuru Paragon isn't if the Naya Winota versions will want it, but:

  1. Will it see play outside of this archetype?
  2. Is Naya the best way to build Winota?

Frankly, I think Naya could be. Lotus Cobra is a hell of a draw to playing green, and plays well with Winota, Joiner of Forces. But whether or not green decks will want to play it is another matter entirely. It may end up being a roleplayer in a single archetype, or it could be more versatile.

Party

If we were judging party just on the ability to achieve full party, it resoundingly failed today. Getting four creature types with unique creature types in play at once is a tall order, and not worth working towards. Archpriest of Iona and Linvala, Shield of Sea Gate will effectively never trigger their full party abilities during Zendikar Rising Standard, and we need to accept that now.

That said, the other, smaller payoffs are fairly incidental. Getting a Rogue or Wizard you're playing incidentally alongside Archpriest of Iona and Seasoned Hallowblade makes Archpriest of Iona excellent on its own for a one-drop. So if you're just deciding between two otherwise equal choices, you might as well default to the one with a little upside somewhere else. Ardent Electromancer getting a rebate on the mana is still a decent upside, and if it's ever free it's an excellent rate. But don't go out of your way to try and build in every party type with bad cards.

Tazri, Beacon of Unity and Zagras, Thief of Heartbeats both fall into sweet spots where playing either with just two of the four creature types in play will result in pretty reasonable creatures. A three-mana 4/6 is efficient on raw stats, and acts as a giant mana sink of things getting to that point. Zagras, Thief of Heartbeats as a four-drop hits hard with haste, and makes it and your other creatures insta-kill planeswalkers. These are the sort of "payoffs" worth playing party for, which is to say they require very little payoff to get their discounts.

Bad

Swarm Shambler

This card literally reads, "Has a +1/+1 counter," and this is the extent of what it does. You do not want to pay one mana and tap it to add a counter. Yes, we did it when Hangarback Walker was in Standard, but Hangarback Walker burst into 1/1 Flying Thopter tokens. This card might give you a creature token you didn't want when they kill one of your other tokens. It's, at best, spot removal protection, and not even very good at that. It does nothing when they wrath your +1/+1 counter deck, it's not a very good turn one play, and realistically if you built your deck planning to play a tapland turn one, you'd probably be better off.

Yet, all day, people played this card. Save your wild cards, you'll thank me.

Jwari Disruption

Here is the hill I will die on: this is the worst card in Zendikar Rising people are going to trick themselves into playing. The only way I'd register this card is if I knew it was open decklists and I literally had nothing else I could ever possibly want in the 60th card slot of my deck (which realistically will never happen). And yet, I saw this card rotting in peoples hands all frickin day.

Every time you think, "I should play Jwari Disruption," do me a favor: put a basic Island in your deck with a different art from the others. Basic Island is strictly better than the land half of this card unless you expect to be playing against Boil or Choke, so you're only upgrading at least one mode of this card. Then, tell me how often you:

  1. Have this card in hand
  2. Don't need to play this card
  3. Actually have it in play when a two-mana Force Spike would actually be a good or successful play

I'm guessing it will come up… basically never. Even if it does, it has to be a land so often that a basic land would be better simply by virtue of coming into play untapped. When a card is worse than just registering a basic land, it's a rough spot.

To some degree, this comparison is a little disingenuous, for one big reason: there are other spell lands you can play. Any time you would want this, you're not just comparing this to a hypothetical basic land, but to every other spell land you could play in your color combination. Compare it to Silundi Vision, which is a land early (when you typically want to hit your land drops most) and card selection late (when you don't want lands).

Force Spike isn't actually a great card. It's an acceptable card. It's a "leads to fun stories" card in cubes. If Force Spike itself was printed in Standard, it wouldn't see much play, and rightfully so. When the last overcosted version of this saw play, Censor, it was a cheap card to cycle after the fourth or fifth turn when the odds it would ever hit anything were approximately zero. When Jwari Disruption is unlikely to counter anything, you get… a tapland that makes only blue. I don't want that, you shouldn't want that, nobody should want that. So do us both a favor and don't play this card so I don't have to write this rant again.

Hopefully this early look is helpful to everyone trying to find what's working for day one of the format. We're entering a whole new world, and it's going to take time to evaluate what cards from Zendikar Rising will have an impact, as well as what gems from the last year were covered up by the oppressively powerful cards of the prior year. The mechanic may not pan out, but I'm still ready to party on Zendikar.