As we bid farewell to Time Spiral Block, we must look to the future with optimism. The last few months of Standard have been dominated by decks composed primarily of Lorwyn and Shadowmoor Block cards with a few Tenth Edition cards and a small hint of Coldsnap (and by that I mean Rune Snag). That said, it isn't all that surprising to find that there are only a tiny handful of cards leaving with this rotation that truly will be missed (or were even relevant). Obviously, Time Spiral had plenty of cards that were included in lots of decks (Magus of the Moon, Skred, Tarmogoyf, Ancestral Vision, Damnation, Body Double, etc), but it would appear that there are far fewer this time around than there has been in the past.
We are on the brink of a new Standard that could, realistically, go on virtually unchanged, aside from a couple minor alterations to decklists. This idea, quite frankly, is scary. Lorwyn/Shadowmoor Block Constructed showcased decks like Kithkin, five-color versions of decks like Merfolk, Quick n' Toast variants, Grave Games (UB Kelpie control), and the monstrosity that is Faeries. All these decks (aside from maybe Grave Games) will continue to be heavily-played in the new meta game regardless of what Shards of Alara has to offer. Faeries is an unrelenting machine that just refuses to give up, which it proved very well by almost single-handedly dominating Block. I highly doubt that that dominance will stop anytime soon.
That said, now we have a new set rotating in. And, interestingly enough, this set doesn't have to make a huge splash in order to assimilate into the meta. But what if it can? Wizards decided to make Shards of Alara a gold-themed block because they apparently wanted to throw the playerbase off by mixing up the "cycle" they have in place for set themes. And really, why should we complain? Invasion and Ravnica are considered to be two of the best blocks ever designed. Shards of Alara seeks to continue that trend with its 3-color gold cards and new "mythic" rarity. Today I'm going to delve deep into the set and separate the gems from the junk.
Shards of Alara is separated, flavorfully, into five distinct shards, each lacking two colors of the mana wheel. Each shard has its own mechanic or theme, tailor-fitted to represent the cards contained within. Bant's () mechanic, exalted, is pretty odd. I suppose my issue with this mechanic is that, by nature, it doesn't really fit the cards it's printed on. Cards like Akrasan Squire or Sigiled Paladin are obviously made for aggro decks, but yet carry a keyword that is counter-productive to the aggro strategy. Exalted is only really powerful if you have, say, three or more creatures in play with the keyword (not too hard to imagine in an aggro deck, right?). However, at that point, why would you only attack with one of them? I understand that there will be times when attacking with only one creature is optimal (if you have a flier and they have the ground blocked off, for example); but in a traditional sense, the exalted mechanic seems like it works backwards, at least in functionality. It's clearly flavorful, but it just has no place on aggro cards. I'd say the mechanic is better suited for control, but that brings up the same issue about how the mechanic only functions well in numbers - which you obviously would not have in a control deck.
Grixis () has the unearth mechanic, which is actually pretty strong. If the game's past has taught us anything, it's that being able to replay cards from the graveyard is a VERY powerful ability. Granted, unearth is certainly no flashback (or even retrace), but it does offer a somewhat higher level of power in an otherwise weak shard. The cards printed with the mechanic aren't really all that exciting, but that might be because the Standard format has no real use or abuse for the mechanic like Extended does (in the form of dredge). Viscera Dragger is a good card to show as an example of the design space that unearth provides, albeit a little uninteresting.
Jund () has the devour mechanic, which really doesn't feel all that new (not that unearth did, though). The best part about this mechanic is that it uses the word "devoured" in its reminder text, which is clearly just awesome. Still, I can't really get behind devour because it goes against a lot of rules about what constitutes a good card: it gives you card disadvantage (with a few exceptions, of course). The good news is, devour doesn't require that you sacrifice any creatures until after the creature with devour resolves, so that's a plus. This prevents things like counterspells from ruining your day, but it doesn't really save you from the potential 2-or-more-for-1s that devour sets you up for. If you cast a Mycoloth and then it devours, say, three of your creatures, and then it eats a Terror...well, you're not going to be very happy about that. These sorts of mechanics rub me the wrong way, and I don't necessarily think that that is unwarranted.
Esper () has no mechanic, but it does follow a theme: each permanent in the shard is an artifact. Sarcomite Myr finally has some friends to play with! It's a great idea, really, but I can't help but feel like Esper is just a repeat of Mirrodin in terms of both art direction and flavor. Most of the shard's cards deal directly with artifacts, so it all flows really well together regardless of how rehashed it feels.
Lastly is Naya (), whose mechanic is quite possibly the worst and most unplayable of all. The "power 5 or greater" theme of Naya is incredibly boring and even more disheartening for a competitive player. While it's true that even Spikes play with creatures that fit the bill, it is very rare (or even unheard of) to pack them in bulk. That said, 99% of Naya's fatties that it seems to be infested with aren't Constructed-worthy, sadly.
Now, let's take a closer look at the cards themselves. I'll touch on cards that I think most people will be talking about (whether I like them or not), and also the ones that I think will see the most play in the new format. So, without further adieu:
Esper is home to three colored artifacts of similar design: Courier's Capsule, Executioner's Capsule, and Dispeller's Capsule. Courier's Capsule is probably the best for Standard, considering that it fills a card-drawing niche that has been left almost entirely to Mulldrifter with Careful Consideration and Ancestral Vision leaving the format. I'm concerned about why it costs two to play this one as opposed to the others, but the effect certainly is more powerful. I think that this one will definitely see play in the format one way or another, whether it be in a Esper-themed control deck or in an established archetype like Faeries (doubtful, though, as they'll likely opt for Ponder as they did in Block or Jace Beleren). The other two are pretty powerful in their own right, as they're functionally very similar to Seal of Primordium/Seal of Cleansing and Seal of Doom. The "rattlesnake" effect was never a bad idea in the first place, and making these two cost only a single mana pushes them over the edge as far as playability is concerned.
Flooded Strand this ain't...
Flooded Strand this ain't...
These are the poor man's fetches. Terramorphic Expanse may not tap for colorless, but neither type of card lets you make a turn one play, so you might as well use Expanse. The Panoramas are better topdecks late game, but it's kind of a moot point.
These taplands are obviously better than the old Invasion taplands, but the issue I have with these lands is that they are typically outclassed by the Vivid lands. Now in a three-color deck, you should play the respective shardland. But in a 5-color deck, the Vivids are just better.
The Obelisks are, once again, plain better than Invasion's Cameos, but they're still rather slow. I doubt they'll see much if any competitive play. There are better options.
The Herald Cycle
Now, it's pretty common knowledge that the mythic rare cycle of big monsters is pretty neat, but what about the Dark Supplicants that tutor them out for you? Are they any good? Definitely not. Let's look at it this way: you sacrifice your three creatures (that all need to be of specific colors, mind you) only to have the beast you tutored into play die to a removal spell. So you spent the mana to play the Herald, waited an entire turn, sacrificed three of your creatures, and THEN had it all be for naught. Congratulations - you were 4-for-1'd (although the fourth one is virtual). Sorry, these things are in no way playable.
This card desperately tries to be something akin to Exalted Angel, but it just isn't. On one hand, it is basically a 5/5 flier with lifelink for five mana, but how much better is that then the other options available? I would wager that any deck that wanted to a play a 4/4 flier for five mana would rather play Archon of Justice instead, and I think that that card alone will put this girl out of a job (and even then I don't expect to see many Archons running around anymore). I suppose I can see her popping up in small numbers in maindecks if the meta becomes really aggressive, but for now I'll have to just say no to this one.
This planeswalker is unique in that it is the first to feature two abilities that add loyalty, while only having one that takes it away. Her second ability, Angelic Blessing, is pretty solid in weenie decks - I really can't argue that. Her first ability, half of a sorcery-speed Raise the Alarm, leaves a lot to be desired. Had she produced two 1/1s, I'd be singing praises rather than criticisms. Sadly, however, it is not so. As it stands, we're looking at a four-mana Angelic Blessing (since her last ability is so over-the-top, ridiculous, and overall useless)...and that just sucks. I don't think she's bad, but I also don't think she's that playable in Standard at all. Any deck that would want to run her would be better off with even something like Ajani Goldmane.
In Extended, this is the Gaddock Teeg for Affinity decks. And although there is no storm-based combo to race in Standard nor any affinity deck, there will likely be an artifact-based archetype that can take advantage of this card. We're looking at a respectable Grizzly Bears that can almost totally shut down any opposing deck outside of the mirror, and that just seems really powerful. If this artifact-themed deck doesn't emerge in the current Standard for one reason or another, after the next rotation it almost certainly will - and then this card will see heavy play. That said, it's a tough call on whether or not to give this a hit or a miss, but I'm going to have to go with the former.
Knight of the White Orchid
What can I say? This is easily one of the set's best cards. White weenie has always taken advantage of cards like Tithe and Land Tax, and now we get a Tithe than also beats for two AND has first strike. As a 2/2 for two mana, it in no way disrupts the curve of a weenie deck and will almost always fetch you a land if you're on the draw (as long as you play it on the third turn). Why play this card if you're not going to play it until turn three? Well, if you're playing weenie you should have other cards to play in the two-cost slot anyway, so that shouldn't be an issue. Besides, you can also drop this late-game to turn up a profit or use it early in the game if your hand didn't have enough lands. No matter how you slice it, this card is a house and will see play in some form of white-based aggro. If you're thinking of playing Kithkin post-rotation (probably not a bad decision), it would be in your best interest to grab four of these as quickly as you can before the price gets too high.
Ranger of Eos
Antoine Ruel's Invitational card is slightly less powerful than, say, Dark Confidant, but it nevertheless has the same feel as most cards created that way do. At four mana, it's pretty unimpressive as only a 3/2, but it makes up for it with its ability to tutor up creatures when it comes into play. There are obviously lots of possibilities here, but so far I see plays like grabbing two Figure of Destiny in the late game becoming pretty common (after all, Figure of Destiny is one of the few one-mana creatures in Magic that doesn't have to stay weak the entire game). The important thing to remember here is that this card basically draws you two cards when you play it (and you KNOW they won't just be lands), and no aggro deck is going to complain about that. Alternatively, this card could be used in some currently-unforeseen combo deck to tutor up pieces or something. If nothing else, I just see lots of potential in this card.
Aside from having an awesome name, this card is really interesting. Obviously no Nevinyrral's Disk, it does at least seem familiar. The thing that one has to understand about this card is that in a general sense, it's very bad - but in a focused, specific sense, it can be very good. Given the right style of deck, Scourglass can really become a powerful, one-sided Wrath of God effect. Take the build to the right, for example. Obviously, this is just something I came up with off the top of my head, but it's pretty plain to see that a card like Scourglass has its place. I'm just not sure if it'll ever be needed.
Sigiled Paladin & Akrasan Squire
I've already expressed my concerns about the exalted mechanic, but there's no denying that a turn one Akrasan Squire into a second-turn Sigiled Paladin is pretty sweet. Swinging for three on turn two isn't something one gets to do in Standard all that often, so it's worth exploring these cards a bit more to see if any sort of non-Kithkin white weenie deck can emerge. The fact is, regardless of whether such decks do indeed take off, neither of these two cards is bad in any way, and both are perfectly playable. I'm not really thrilled about either, of course, but I also can't really come up with a sound argument against them. My biggest issue with these cards is that a Goldmeadow Stalwart into a Wizened Cenn to deal three damage on turn two seems a hell of a lot stronger to me.
In Extended, this card is pretty useless. In Standard, however, it's a Banneret for artifacts, and that's powerful no matter what kind of deck there is to play it in. Given the sheer number of artifacts in just Shards of Alara alone, there are tons of great uses for this guy already. I could also see this as a combo-enabler if a one-mana artifact manages to create a loop or something. Overall, a solid card.
Master of Etherium
This is the card that I'm really excited about (though that's likely the Extended player in me also). In a set with so many artifacts and a format that already plays a couple (and has access to a good few more), Master of Etherium could really make some waves. Not only is he a lord for your team (theoretically, obviously), but he's also a hulking beast himself if played in the right deck. Often times, he'll be quite a bit larger than his manacost, and that's a good ratio by my watch. It's hard to say whether or not he'll really impact the format, but I can't really find a reason to rate him poorly.
In the Standard format, search effects are few and far between. Tezzeret the Seeker and the new Panoramas are one of the few things that come to mind in that regard now that Mystical Teachings is gone, and so I don't really think that this card has many practical uses in Standard. It's an intriguing concept, surely, but without "good" fetchlands to shut down or something similar, it just seems boring. It's just not worth it to neuter only Primal Command. I mean, I suppose you could combine it with Maralen of the Mornsong, but that's a pretty janky combo.
Tezzeret the Seeker
Untaps mana artifacts like Mind Stone and blockers like Master of Etherium? Check. Tutors up whatever artifact (or, in an artifact deck, literally just about any card) you need? Check. Turns every permanent you control into a 5/5? Hell yes. Obviously he'll need to be built around, but this card has the potential to be AMAZING. I rate this one highly, given that he has my creative spark ignited.
What we have here is a very powerful card-drawing engine that literally can net you ten or more cards in a single casting. The issue? You have to almost kill yourself to do it. The card already costs five mana, so it really isn't that playable in aggro, which is too bad. In control, the highly-costed cards will leave you in shambles. It's really kind of depressing, as it's a really cool card, but I just don't think it has any real applications in this format. Control can't pay the bill, and aggro can't pay the mana cost. This card is clearly nuts in other formats, but not this one.
It's really too bad this guy wasn't in Lorwyn, because he would've put most of the tribal lords to shame. Boosting your whole team and giving them all a strong ability like deathtouch is actually pretty flooring. Combine this with Lord of the Undead (and Nameless Inversion for endless shenanigans), Festering Goblin, Nantuko Husk, Chameleon Colossus, and the unearth troupe and you have the makings of an interesting (if not pretty good) tribal deck. If nothing else, it's worth looking into for testing. I'm actually going to just go ahead and recommend this one, as I think it has some real potential...despite the fact that I have almost no faith in the deck on a true competitive scale.
Faeries: "lolz thanks WotC!"
Faeries: "lolz thanks WotC!"
Well, Damnation is gone, and Faeries needed it. Wizards, being the suckers they are for making Faeries the best, decided to give it back to them. Mind you, it isn't nearly as good, but we all know how powerful this card is. Granted, it only hits x/2s and smaller, but that will be enough combined with Fae's removal suite. I don't really think many other decks will adopt Infest, but it's a pretty sure thing it'll be a sideboard card in Faeries. If nothing else, it gives them a huge advantage against decks like Torrent, and that's certainly something they won't think twice about.
There has been a lot of talk concerning this card, and each time I hear it, it frustrates me more and more. This card is bad, I'm sorry. As a 6/4 for six mana, it's already crap. The "good" part of the card is apparently supposed to be that you can play it for "free" by sacrificing three artifacts. So...I have to 3-for-1 myself JUST to get a 6/4 with no evasion? A 6/4 that even dies to Naturalize? Awesome. The good news is, you can bring it back by removing the artifacts you dumped to play it, but then you'd have to pay the six mana to replay this pile of crap.
Alright, so we all know how awesome Firespout has been, so let me ask you this: if you could Firespout the board and get a huge creature into play with one fell swoop, would you? Caldera Hellion seems like it would be really good in an aggro deck's sideboard that wanted a little extra tech for the mirror match. Play this guy, sac all your men that would die to it anyway, and then you're left with a huge creature and your opponent has no blockers. It's not that fantastic (he IS five mana, after all), but I can't help but like the card. Combine it with Makeshift Mannequin and things get interesting.
Why this couldn't be Raise the Alarm I'll never know, but I will say that this card isn't bad. It's a pretty suitable replacement for Mogg War Marshal in the token deck, and I think that alone makes it playable.
I'm going to be frank about this: this card is pretty good, friends. Remember New York-style RG? Yeah, the deck with Deus of Calamity and company? It played Shivan Dragon in the sideboard to give it a flying beater. This is a GREAT flying beater, and much better than the former. Granted, the meta has changed an awful lot, but I think there certainly is a home for this guy in midrange red decks (you know, the ones that used to play Bogardan Hellkite?). I really like this card, and you should too. It clears blockers all on its own and can even Blaze the opponent whenever it attacks. This card can kill your opponent before it even stacks its combat damage. Saucy.
Seriously? Even the art is bad.
Seriously? Even the art is bad.
This isn't even CLOSE to being a FRACTION as good as Bitterblossom. In fact, in comparison, it's a piece of crap. It's a totally aggressive card that costs three mana (that's pretty significant) and forces your tokens to attack each turn (which means you can't play it in any form of control deck) while also NOT creating tokens that fly. I mean, hell, not even the majority of the token decks want to play this thing. It's a very underwhelming card in Standard.
For thee mana, it hits for four in the air. Can't really complain about that, can we? Sure, it dies, but you can unearth it and keep the heat on. The problem? It has to compete with Boggart Ram-gang and Ashenmoor Gouger in the three-drop slot, and I'm not entirely sure this thing delivers. I like it, I really do, but Bitterblossom kind of makes it bad. If Faeries is a strong presence in the meta, this won't see any sort of play. If Faeries becomes less popular, though, I can see this card in sideboards or even maindecks in certain metas. But even then, Torrent plays Bitterblossom as well (and even Spectral Procession, just like Kithkin does), so I can't really recommend this card.
"Ridge Rannet! RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIDGE RANNET!"
Gah, couldn't help myself. My apologies.
Gift of the Gargantuan
With Harmonize rotating, green will be hard-pressed to find good card-drawing spells. This isn't really that strong in comparison, but it's a solid spell that will usually have the effect of an evoked Mulldrifter. I hear that's pretty good, and especially in Green. Aggro decks digging for gas and even slower, more midrange builds can probably take advantage of this, but not being able to pick up spells with it is kind of disappointing. That said, I can't recommend this too highly, despite it being a decent card.
People seem to be really thrilled with this card, but I don't really understand why. I mean, it doesn't have any sort of evasion, nor does it come at a cheap cost. It's only really good if you have dudes to sacrifice, and even then it doesn't really give you card advantage. I guess a deck like Elf-Ball could utilize it, but since when did that deck even affect the format? A tier 2 deck (at best) being able to play a card doesn't make it that good. I don't care for it, personally.
I really, really wish this was playable in Standard. In Extended, it's an absolute godsend and easily the set's best card. But for this format? For this format it'll often be just a 2/2, which isn't all that impressive. I wish I could rate it higher, but it just doesn't make the grade in Type 2.
This card is pretty much a harder-to-cast, easier-to-abuse Last Gasp. If you're play UB, there's basically no reason that this card isn't at least considered for your deck. It gives a single creature -3/-3 or it can cause some combat tricks that can enable a 2-for-1. I can't really argue with results like that, so I have to give this one the nod. This card is an automatic four-of in Faeries, where it can just slaughter opponents. Amazing card.
With only three starting loyalty and a four-mana price tag, this guy has to have some seriously nice abilities. Keeping a permanent tapped for a turn can be useful, but I wouldn't really go out of my way to play Ajani just to do that. The real meat of this 'walker is his Lightning Helix ability, which sadly drops his loyalty by two. One-sided Armageddons are sweet also, but how often will that ability trigger when the only ability you really want to use lowers his loyalty? As much as I initially praised him, I'm gonna have to pass on this one. He has no home in Standard.
Uh, wow. So, with this single spell, I can blow up any artifact that Esper can throw at me, counter Flame Javelin, other Charms, and Cryptic Command, AND I can Condemn something? That's quite a few powerful options, right there. The most powerful of them all being the removal mode, as I'd argue that it's one of the most efficient removal spells in the format right now. It gets around any form of graveyard shenanigans (persist, Makeshift Mannequin, etc), takes care of Chameleon Colossus, and sends Demigod of Revenge to a place where he can do no harm. I can't stress enough how good this card is. Control decks will eat this up, specifically Quick n' Toast. Probably the set's best card.
First of all, let me get this out: I hate that this card doesn't hit creatures. Restricting this to only hitting players makes it almost totally unplayable, honestly, but there is one saving grace: combining discard and burn is really, really sweet. If RDW decides to dip into black, this will obviously be the card headlining the show.
This is the card Stangg always wanted to be. Let's get to the nitty-gritty concerning this card, though: it's an 8/8 for six mana that requires two blockers or requires two removal spells. This card generates card advantage all on its own, and is actually pretty damned playable. Standard is a format that now, more than ever, can really utilize creatures with higher manacosts. This thing can play offense and defense simultaneously, sets the opponent up for a 2-for-1, AND has mad synergy with Makeshift Mannequin. Definitely a great card for Jund Ramp decks and Quick n' Toast.
Is "cruel" a strong enough adjective?
Is "cruel" a strong enough adjective?
When I first saw this card in the spoiler, I was pretty convinced it was a joke. When I realized it wasn't, I began to get excited. For seven mana you get a 10-point life swing, seven cards-worth of in-hand card advantage (including whatever you Raise Dead), AND they have to sacrifice a creature. That's not only hugely epic, but also pretty damn playable. No need to bother with those terrible hideaway decks - just hardcast this thing. I mean, you can obviously play it off of a hideaway if you do so in a control deck or something, but none of those aggro decks that "have no way to cast it otherwise" crap. In a format with Reflecting Pool and the Vivid lands, getting the right colors of mana should be a breeze. I would certainly expect this to pop up in 5-color control lists this fall - and be sure to have a counterspell back.
Quick n' Toast often played Platinum Angel because it served as a way to stall aggro decks and also to help in the mirror. This card accomplishes a similar goal, although with a little more finesse: it has shroud. Having shroud helps it to be immune to a ton of removal in the format, and its massive toughness make sure it survives anything but a Wrath of God. It also is a four-turn clock all by itself, which is pretty impressive. Now, sure, your opponent can drop this thing in a turn if he points burn at your head and gets some attackers through, but that's eight less points to your dome. Combine with Makeshift Mannequin and Quick n' Toast starts to look really fun. Overall a powerful and efficient finisher, though it might be a bit too unnecessary. Quick n' Toast has better options, I think.
Faeries loses Ancestral Vision, and Quick n' Toast loses Careful Consideration. While there may be no helping hand offered to a traditional UB Faeries build, bother archetypes can potentially benefit from Esper Charm, the first "no strings attached" instant-speed draw spell in a long, long time. Quick n' Toast will almost certainly play this, as it not only accompanies Mulldrifter as a source of card advantage but it also adds a discard element to the maindeck. As if that weren't enough, it also serves as an answer to Bitterblossom and other troublesome enchantments like Kithkin's Glorious Anthem. Faeries, should it adopt the trends of Block, will also want to take advantage of this Charm for all the same reasons. For Faeries to have an actual, honest-to-goodness answer to a resolved Bitterblossom in the mirror could change everything. A very, very powerful card.
I have mixed feelings on this one. In a deck of the appropriate colors, this is a really good card - it's good removal, solid bounce, and it can turn a small army into lethal damage quickly. However, in a five-color deck (which we'll see lots of, I promise), Bant Charm is just better removal in just about every way and the other Charms have abilities that just outclass this one's. I in no way think that it's bad, I just feel like most decks will choose not to play with it in favor of the better Charms.
Is this better than Akroma? That depends on the situation and the format. In a format like Vintage, I'd say this is. In Standard, likely Akroma. But she's gone, and this is here. The best part? His clock is a turn shorter (or less). Do you need to reanimate him to play him? No, but ramping to eight mana could be tough. Of course, Quick n' Toast could just play him, but they're already choosing from a pile of finishers.
Stronger than Grixis Charm but weaker than the blue Charms, Jund Charm has one powerful ability that makes it playable: instant-speed Pyroclasm. Against decks like Faeries and Torrent, this is pretty crucial. I also like the Reinforce 2 in the Quick n' Toast mirror as it can take down a Mannequin'd creature. Graveyard hate isn't really as needed anymore, but having the option in addition to the other two is never a bad thing (since it also helps against Makeshift Mannequin).
Regrowth at instant-speed? Nice. Lash Out? Nicer. A Falter/Cryptic Command-esque effect? Wow. I don't think this is the best of the charms (it's likely the fourth best), but I don't think it's bad. If a Zoo-style deck becomes popular, this will certainly take part in it. The tap down ability is just really strong in aggro.
This card is really interesting and potentially very good. If any graveyard strategies emerge, this will be one of the hate cards leading the charge. A revamped version of Night Soil, this card has the potential to be really, really solid in decks like Elves. I hope it sees some play, because I wouldn't be able to help feeling bad if this card went unused. Recycling your dead critters seems pretty good to me.
This card has to compete with Cryptic Command, and that's just unfair. It's like making a fat kid race Usain Bolt - it just isn't going to happen. The life swing is nice, but how big of a deal will that make? I can't imagine that this will put anything out of a job, since paying four mana for Absorb seems bad (because the Undermine effect is basically negligible, after all).
I don't particularly care for this card, but it'll likely see some play in decks like GW aggro (which might make sort of a comeback, I believe). Having basics in play in this nonbasic-rich meta seems unheard of, but this guy isn't a bad reason to make the effort. He gives you pretty nice tempo (though defensively), and that's nothing to shake a stick at. Still, it remains to be seen if he's viable or even usable, based on the requirements to play him for free.
Rafiq of the Many
Gah, so close. When this was spoiled, it was a 3/4. As a 3/3, it dies to an awful lot more removal and ultimately becomes a seriously weaker card. I'm not convinced that it's unplayable by any means, but I doubt that any of the decks that would really be able to play it would actually want to. It seems to me that the common theme that runs through the Bant shard is better suited to single-color decks (that is, white decks) rather than the full three colors. The plethora of 3+ color control decks that will explode into the new meta will be able to take advantage of this, perhaps, but isn't Rhox War Monk just better at that point? I might be wrong on this one, but I'll have to pass this guy.
Rhox War Monk
Speak of the devil, right? If the average aggro deck's creaturebase remains composed of x/3s, this guy will likely be better than Kitchen Finks in control decks (think Phyrexian Ironfoot in Mannequin last fall). If they play more x/4s, I'm inclined to stick with our Ouphes. Regardless, we're looking at a 3/4 for only three mana that also gains you life. That's pretty damn good no matter how you slice it. I'm sure a midrange Bant deck with this and Stoic Angel will appear (at the very least) at States, so get testing!
RG aggro needed a solid two-drop, and this is it. I mean, this is actually relatively new design, and I'm liking it. I suppose it isn't overwhelmingly exciting, but it's a 2/2 hasted guy you can get in with on turn two. I can't really deny that those are pretty good numbers in today's Standard. If there is any form of a Zoo deck, this will be a part of it.
Say what you want, this guy is nuts.
Say what you want, this guy is nuts.
The more I test this, the further it falls from the ungodly-high pedestal it was placed on, but that doesn't detract from it's sheer power. Fires of Yavimaya is a good card. Threaten is a good card. Decree of Justice is a good card. Wrap them all together in a four-mana 'walker with high loyalty and you get a satisfying package. Will he be too slow to enable a Fires-esque deck in Standard? Yeah, probably, but mostly because Fires of Yavimaya was a turn two play that led into a turn three Blastoderm. We can't really match that these days, though Rip-Clan Crasher opens up the "T1 Elf, T2 Crasher, T3 Vol, T4 Deus" plan, which is frighteningly similar. His real purpose, I sense, is in Torrent variants (whether it be RGB, RGBW, or whatever) since he can haste any tokens you make, pump the team, and combine with Torrent of Souls to unleash a hasted Decree of Justice. Combine him with Garruk Wildspeaker for 4/4 hasted beasts each turn at no cost to you. Just a damn good card.
Sharuum the Hegemon
In the Esper deck I posted earlier, this card can clean house. 5/5 fliers for six mana aren't really bad in the first place, but here's one that can also reanimate an artifact when you play it. Would you play a 5/5 flier for six that could bring back a dead critter to play? If yes (and it should be yes), then this is essentially the same thing in an Esper deck. Of course, the inherent problem with this and the rest of its shard is merely that it dies to creature removal as well as things like Naturalize. It's hard to tell how big of a hindrance that will really end up being. It also combos with itself to make an infinite loop, but the combo seems weak and kind of forced. We'll...see? Either way, the abilities on this card make it more than worthy of a competitive player's consideration.
I won't go into much detail here, but look at it this way: this is a slightly over-costed Giant Growth that also happens to pump the rest of your team. I don't know, but I hear aggro is cool with that. If not in a Zoo deck, I'm sure GW aggro won't be looking the other way on this one.
So, he's just a 3/3 for three mana, right? But if you kill him, he splits into three guys. Yeah, that sounds good to me. It sounds even better if you sacrifice him to, say, Nantuko Husk or something in a Torrent deck. This guy and Sarkhan Vol will be the primary reasons to add green into the RB Torrent deck, and I think it's a great inclusion. It's not particularly bad on its own, either, though it obviously has less synergy with decks that just play it as a "persistent" threat. Still, in a deck like Quick n' Toast, it can fill the three-slot as an amazing aggro-stopper. If your manabase can support it, this thing is just better than Kitchen Finks. Definitely one of my favorite cards in this set.
Steward of Valeron
This guy allows, say, a Zoo deck to drop a threat, get in there for some damage, AND accelerate into a Wooly Thoctar. That's pretty relevant, and I think both Zoo decks and GW aggro decks can utilize this guy as a powerful way to apply pressure whilst also building up threats. I wish he had a more relevant creature type, but I suppose beggars can't be choosers.
This card, combined with Rhox War Monk, Steward of Valeron, and Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers could make an impressive aggro-control deck when coupled with a removal suite lead by Bant Charm. If there's a place for a card like Rafiq of the Many, it would be in this deck. Stoic Angel could also see play in Quick n' Toast, but I like the idea of her in a deck built to better suit her ability. The deck to the right is such an example: it's kind of like a meld of GW aggro with some blue control elements. Decks like these will certainly exist, I think, and in pretty great numbers - especially at States. Add more blue to the deck and play Cryptic Command over Gaddock Teeg so you can tap the opponent's team down so they have to start from scratch, thanks to Stoic Angel.
It's really nice to have this effect at two mana. I'm not sure it will have many applications, but it's note-worthy. I'm going to give it a "maybe" for now, and see how many Flame Javelins creep up in the coming months.
Mesmeric Fiend is back! When I first saw this, I wasn't that impressed. After playtesting, I have to say that this is a freaking BOMB, people. Thoughtseize on a stick is unprecedentedly powerful in this format. Arguably the best 2-drop creature currently available to Standard decks, this guy will be popping up in anything from Doran Rock decks to control decks. While it's true that this guy isn't a permanent Thoughtseize, he yanks a threat long enough to give you the advantage. In an aggro deck, he holds off a sweeper. In a midrange deck, he rips whatever it is that tips the scales in your opponent's favor. Be prepared to tangle with this card, as it's easily one of the best cards in Shards of Alara.
While not as powerful as Cruel Ultimatum, this one DOES offer some sweet card advantage. Would you pay a measly seven mana for a super-Vindicate? Yeah, you probably would. I like the idea of this in control decks, but I'm not entirely sure there's enough incentive to play this over its big brother (although it does have a greater effect on the board). Still, highly playable and a hell of a lot better than the remaining three Ultimatums.
I was reading the forums just before writing this article, and there was a debate going on about Cylian Elf and how bad it was. They said that vanilla creatures, by nature, can't be exciting. Wooly Thoctar begs to differ. He's as vanilla as they come, but he has a lot to say. First of all, this thing is in much more aggressive colors than Doran and has more support as an attacker than his counterpart. Granted, he dies to a Flame Javelin while the tree does not (explain that to me, please), but I think the pros outweigh the cons here. Alongside cards like Figure of Destiny, Rip-Clan Crasher, Steward of Valeron, and Sarkhan Vol, the makings of a decent Neo-Zoo deck becomes clear. Here's to hoping.
Humor me here, and compare this to Loxodon Warhammer. Both cost three to play and three to equip. Now, in the typical game, by the time you equip a creature with Loxodon Warhammer and swing, your opponent is already down to 15 or less, yeah? At that point, swinging for, say, six with this equipped creature would bring them to nine, and you up six life. See, you nearly cut their life total in half anyway AND you gained six life off of it. And that's ignoring the fact that you also get trample from the hammer! It's clear why this card will see no serious play.
Relic of Progenitus
Meet the newest member of the Phyrexian Furnace/Scrabbling Claws family. Is it the best of them all? Arguably, yeah. If this format picks up any form of graveyard strategy, I think I'd prefer the versatility of this over that of Faerie Macabre. It's no Tormod's Crypt, but it does cantrip. This is a powerful common.
Sigil of Distinction
While this card isn't bad, I can think of a number of things I'd love to do with my mana in just about any deck that would want to play this. This is like the equipment version of Unstable Mutation, except somewhere along the line it lost the only thing that even made that card remotely good - the one-mana casting cost.
Shards of Alara set out to bring an admittedly cool flavor idea to life, and I feel like it might have succeeded. The idea of three-color shards is interesting to say the least, and in hindsight I'd say that Wizards printed a vast number of playable cards in this set. The existence of Reflecting Pool and the Vivid lands in Standard negate any argument one could truly make against the playability of these tri-color cards, and I must say that the things that are possible with the options we have are quite staggering. Shards of Alara appeals to me mostly because I am a deckbuilder at heart, and this set compliments the previous two blocks nicely in equipping people like us with the tools we need to create new and unique ideas. Literally any kind of deck is possible, and we're able to build with any number of colors that we want with ease. I understand that this might upset some people (especially those building on a budget), but for the players out there who play competitively regardless of cost, this set is a boon. Now, even with all this being said, I'm not too optimistic about what will happen when Lorwyn and Shadowmoor block rotate, and I think that is one way in which I think the shard concept might have failed. Still, if WotC manages to give Shards of Alara some support in the next block, they might save themselves.
So, we know that deckbuilders have been given literally no limitations on what is possible, so what kind of decks will we see in the coming months? Obviously, the bulk of the early metagame will likely consist of rehashes of Block decks. UB Faeries will play Jace Beleren and probably Broken Ambitions (though Remove Soul is an option, also), while 3+ color Faeries will just run cards like Firespout and its ilk in order to keep the advantage. Elves will still be around (it only really loses Tarmogoyf), and I'm sure the Red deck will rear its ugly head as well by just bringing in some replacements (Fulminator Mage, Stigma Lasher, Lash Out, Mogg Fanatic). 5-Color Fish will likely pop up here and there, and I'm sure some Reveillark deck will emerge (likely in the form of an updated Block Elementals deck, though there are murmurs of success with UW tempo builds as well). Doran Rock actually is lent a hand in this set, so we may see that deck creep up again with a new manabase and Tidehollow Sculler. Kithkin will stay shockingly the same, looking something akin to what you see in the first deck the left here. Quick n' Toast will, undoubtedly, not be alone as the only 5-color control deck in Standard. We'll see tons of variations on the archetype, without question - arguably more than in Block (where every deck could go 5-color!) A sample Quick n' Toast control build is also included below.
But what about new decks? I think the Torrent deck will evolve into a real powerhouse (I don't have any sort of list made yet, however), and I also have high hopes for an Esper-style control deck (artifacts - like I mentioned earlier). A Zoo deck could be built with the tools we have, and I think at the very least a RG aggro deck (or even a midrange deck like New York-style) will be played quite a bit at States. Once again, you can also expect a zillion different types of five-color control decks as well as a slew of older decks updated to included additional colors. The challenge presented by removing almost all limitations in deckbuilding is that when you can do anything, how will you know if you've made the best deck? True mastery of the future meta will be based on whether or not one can find what it is that makes "the best deck" and if one can figure out how to fight back with, essentially, the same tools as everyone else. I expect many mirror matches in the future, and I'd wager that, for the first time in possibly the history of the game, the tiniest variations in a decklist will suddenly become format-defining breakthroughs. When everyone is playing decks with the same capabilities, the one who utilizes the most creativity has the advantage. Testing has never been more important.
Here are my picks for the Top 10 Defining Cards of the new set:
The best card in the set.
The best card in the set.
10. Naya Charm
9. Jund Charm
8. Wooly Thoctar
7. Sarkhan Vol
6. Broodmate Dragon
5. Cruel Ultimatum
4. Sprouting Thrinax
3. Esper Charm
2. Tidehollow Sculler
1. Bant Charm
For all that it does wrong, Shards of Alara does a lot of things right. It's more powerful card-for-card than the previous two sets, and it makes some real changes happen in the Standard format. I know there are a lot of people out there who have been complaining about the set's design and weak power level, but I urge you to take a step back and reconsider. I came into this review feeling the same way, but when I look at the set as a collective rather than each piece individually, I see a much more powerful machine. This set is incredibly dense in terms of playables, and that's something that we haven't been able to say about a set since, at the very least, Lorwyn. Is this set worth your money? Absolutely. You might not find a Tarmogoyf or a Mutavault here, but there are lots of useful tools and format-defining cards just waiting to be abused. If you're a deckbuilder, you're going to love this set. It really speaks to creative minds, I feel, and I believe therein lies its elegance. Shards of Alara is the dawn of a new era in Magic - one that rewards creativity and punishes linearity. For someone like me, this is a dream come true.
Welcome to the new Standard.