Which creatures see play in a format are often defined by the removal present in the format. Is there a cheap way to exile a creature, like Path to Exile? Does red have an efficient 3-damage spell like Lightning Bolt or Searing Spear that can hit both players and reasonably sized creatures, or is its burn suite limited to Shock? And do black removal spells run closer to Doom Blade and Fatal Push, or Murder and Vraska's Contempt? These all have consequences for the format, and typically the less conditional the removal is, the harder it is for creatures without immediate value to see play.
While at the time of writing this not all the cards in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths have been spoiled, several impactful removal spells have already been previewed, and some old ones seem particularly well suited to the new set.
The first is a strong contender for one of the most commonly played cards in Standard going forward: Heartless Act.
This card has fewer restrictions than Doom Blade or Go for the Throat ever did, and feels closer to a two-mana Murder than anything else. In Eldraine and Theros Standard, the best single removal spell black had was the Swift End half of Murderous Rider, a card that is a bit suspect against a pile of red creatures and Embercleave. The downside is supposed to be negated by the creature half, but it was always the wrong size to block what actually saw play in the format, meaning Murderous Rider ended up chump blocking. It was never terrible, but it did just a bit too little to justify its place the past few months.
Otherwise, black has only had access to a lot of situational cards: Legion's End or Disfigure for (mostly) small creatures, Epic Downfall for larger ones, and Noxious Grasp against green and white decks. Dipping into other colors it found even more situational cards like Despark, Tyrant's Scorn, Angrath's Rampage or Assassin's Trophy. Each of these has seen play in some capacity, but it was largely a game of figuring out which spell for which situation, and even then they had their limits. None of these spells is a great option against Mono-Red Aggro, Jeskai Fires or a Nissa, Who Shakes the World deck.
Heartless Act, on the other hand, is the perfect maindeck removal spell against everything from the previous few months of Standard. The card answers Scorch Spitter and Torbran, Thane of Red Fell in Red, a Sphinx of Foresight or Cavalier of Flame from Jeskai Fires, and can kill Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath or a Nissa, Who Shakes the World land. Perhaps the only decks that can dodge it right now are Azorius Control decks that play only Dream Trawler. Even then, those decks largely failed to stick to just six-drops and typically played copies of Archon of Sun's Grace. When even Azorius Control has live targets for Heartless Act, the card is in a very good spot.
Where this leaves us is a Standard where there is a need for most creatures to justify their inclusion in the face of Heartless Act. In many cases, this will require creatures to affect the battlefield immediately. Creatures with haste or enters-the-battlefield abilities that can gain value before they die to Heartless Act prevent the opponent from cleanly gaining a mana advantage with removal. Questing Beast attacking once into a tapped out opponent, for example, will still be worth playing, though perhaps a bit less so than before. Anax, Hardened in the Forge will be as important as ever. The Adventure creatures also have a built-in advantage over Heartless Act, though at the cost of a fair amount of mana inefficiency for most all of them.
The other option is to try and fit in the margins where Heartless Act misses: creatures that use counters, but not in a way that the second mode (removing three counters) causes problems.
Surprisingly, there are a few examples of these:
Of these, a few stand out to me. Dreadhorde Butcher already saw maindeck play, and meets multiple criteria against Heartless Act. Unless they have two mana open the turn it enters play, they will never have the option to remove it from the battlefield with Heartless Act. On the play, this seems absolutely backbreaking.
Knight of the Ebon Legion also feels like a strong contender. There aren't many one-drops in Standard that see play, but making their removal spell cost more than the creature it's destroying can also work. Knight necessitates that they answer the card, because if it ever gains that first counter, they'll need to find another way.
The two most noteworthy riot creatures, Zhur-Taa Goblin and Gruul Spellbreaker, attack Heartless Act decks on both angles as well. Pelt Collector and Barkhide Troll make me think that if the metagame heads toward a lot of Heartless Act and away from Aether Gust, there will be an angle to exploit with a green-heavy Gruul Aggro deck. Unfortunately for the wider Gruul world, in a world of wedges I don't think that the mana is about to get better for an allied color guild. Still, Gruul Spellbreaker works so well with mutate cards that I imagine we'll see it somewhere at some point.
Finally, Woe Strider and Phoenix of Ash, and any other escape cards that add +1/+1 counters that are reasonable for constructed Magic, all evade Heartless Act nicely. The front half might be susceptible, but the escaped versions are untouched by the removal spell, invalidating it later in the game. Escape in general is potent against Doom Blade, but these in particular hit a sweet spot where the Heartless Act decks will need a way to exile instead.
How powerful is this card?
Take everything I said about Heartless Act and add in that in some Orzhov decks, this will be a Heartless Act with no downside that exiles instead. The cost? The deck needs to play enough Humans that some of its copies won't damage it.
Vendetta has been a playable card before, and Dire Tactics adding the ability to exile is incredibly relevant in a Standard where people regularly play cards like Cavalier of Thorns, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and Anax, Hardened in the Forge. Exiling Anax with life loss might feel bad in the moment, but the card represents so much damage and resilience to removal that it's likely still a net gain in life, and his toughness is capped at three anyway. Against green decks, the life loss is almost trivial, since they are rarely in a position to attack before they're already in a commanding position anyway. Removing the blocker that's acting as a brick wall is more than enough in most cases.
What will these decks look like? It feels that there's supposed to be a Human Orzhov deck built around Sanctuary Lockdown and General Kudro of Drannith, since multiple versions of Glorious Anthem or Benalish Marshal tend to lead to situations where going wide is incredible.
Unfortunately, we're likely going to need a little bit more power in the one-drop slot before it can happen. The best options for one-drop white creatures are Giant Killer, Hunted Witness and Venerable Knight, none of which are inspiring aggressive options.
At two there are some solid options, but Raise the Alarm would actually be perfect in the deck if it actually made Human creatures. Unfortunately, they're just generic Soldiers. Instead the deck would be left with a mix of Fencing Ace, Tomik, Distinguished Advokist, Tithe Taker and Blacklance Paragon. If there are more token payoffs, Priest of Forgotten Gods also happens to be a Human, though that feels like it takes the deck in a different direction.
Branching into Mardu, the deck picks up a few noteworthy red and gold cards: Fervent Champion, Stormfist Crusader and Swiftblade Vindicator. At three it also adds Tajic, Legion's Edge and Judith, the Scourge Diva, both of which work well with General's Enforcer. With so many gold cards, Hero of Precinct One actually looks fairly reasonable, though the idea of it being an aggressive deck gets harder to maintain. Perhaps there's a way to make this a Mardu Knights deck to also take advantage of Tournament Grounds, but it feels like a delicate line to walk (and just in case, there are no new lands as I write this!).
That said, Dire Tactics doesn't need a dedicated Humans deck to be playable. As long as it isn't taking damage to the face for every copy of Dire Tactics, it's a reasonable card to play. There are enough cards that happen to be Humans that I expect Abzan and Mardu decks to run some number of these as they're able.
Quick, name a card in Standard that answers Robber of the Rich, Fires of Invention and Kenrith, the Returned King.
If you said Assassin's Trophy… you came to the same conclusion I did the last few months when building sideboards against Jeskai Fires.
There's been a pretty exploitable gap in Standard for Jeskai Fires where the cards that beat its top end can be dodged by lower cost spells. For most decks, the most reasonable way to beat early creatures like Robber of the Rich and Legion Warboss was Aether Gust, since it also hit Fires of Invention and Cavalier of Flames, though it missed on multiple important creatures in the deck.
Mythos of Nethroi answers every piece of the puzzle. Robber? Teferi? Fires? Kenrith? All gone. That alone is a big pull to Abzan for me. Plus, it's the rare sort of card that answers everything out of Mono-Red with no life loss (including Embercleave!) while still destroying planeswalkers and enchantments from the slower, grindier decks, even post-board as a catch-all for whichever creature they inevitably bring in from the sideboard.
This is the sort of card that provides so much coverage that an Abzan archetype should spring up around it solely to take advantage of it. The rest of the list might take some time to come together, but it will exist soon after release once it's figured out.
And finally (sigh), this card.
Aether Gust was already abundantly useful before, and that isn't about to change. Ikoria is in most respects a gold set built around wedges instead of color pairs. The downside is that only one three-color combination avoids touching both red and green (Esper), and that isn't even in the set. Every Ultimatum, each of the build-around enchantments such as Song of Creation or Death's Oasis, and each of the mutating Apex creatures are susceptible to Aether Gust.
Aether Gust against mutate especially seems brutal. It puts multiple cards back into the library if the caster can wait to target it after the mutate spell has resolved, or puts just the mutate spell away if they can't.
The silver lining is that there is some counterplay to this (and the other color hosers, Devout Decree and Noxious Grasp) with mutate. The trick is to mutate something like Snapdax, Apex of the Hunt underneath a white, blue or black creature so that Aether Gust can no longer target it once it resolves, as the color of the new, mutated creature is whichever is on top. Even if it's smaller than a Snapdax, it can easily be worth it to dodge their removal spell.
Until the format catches up, or the card is pushed out of the metagame, though, Aether Gust is going to be the fun police on a large number of new build-around cards. If I'm playing blue in the first week of Ikoria tournaments, there are certain to be multiple in my maindeck to answer what everyone else is doing.
Speaking of which, by the time my next article is out, Ikoria will be fully spoiled and I'll be scrambling to figure out what decks to play on ladder and in the MagicFest Online events once the set drops on Arena. If there's any cards specifically you think I should try, hit me up on Twitter. Otherwise, I'll be back next week with my initial picks for week one of the format.