About Bernhard Zander
Zander is a PTQ level Magic player from Sweden who has been playing Magic since
2006. In addition to playing,
he also blogs about Magic on his blog "The Exploration". When he is
not playing Magic, Bernhard is a master student in computer science and mathematics at
the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.
- 12 Lifetime
Swedish Nationals 2010
- 71th GP
With Avacyn Restored released, the first priority for me hasn't been trying to get the most out of Cavern of Souls in Standard or trying to break Block Constructed like many of my friends in Barcelona. My focus has pretty much solely been on looking at Avacyn Restored for the 40 card format, as my next big tournament will be GP Malmo, which will take place later this week. Therefore, having this month's issue of Daily Grind be about what I have learned and experienced about the format so far, seemed like a no-brainer to me!
Before going into each color and giving you my two cents about the individual cards, I'd like to mention a couple of things about the format overall that I think are important to keep in mind:
This Ain't No Country for Splashing!
An interesting detail about Avacyn Restored is the low supply of manafixing, which is unusual for a set of the modern era. Basically every set from Ravnica: City of Guilds and onward has had a healthy chunk of manafixing available for players, regardless of which color you were playing.
But that's certainly not the case with this set. There is in fact none, zero, naught, null colorless manafixing available at the common rarity! If we peek into the uncommons, we can find Vessel of Endless Rest but that's it really. Other than that we have to peer into the green if we want manafixing, which offers us Borderland Ranger and Abundant Growth.
I might sound a little hysterical about the matter, but I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing for a single set to have a "questionable" number manafixing sources. You just need to know that you need to pay attention to this fact.
In a way it is like a cool little throwback to how sets looked like for Limited before the last time we visited Ravnica. For someone who started to play the game in the second half of the previous decade, it's hard to comprehend that cards like Mana Cylix and Chromatic Sphere were uncommons "back in the day". On top of that, they were both in a multicolor block for goodness' sake!
My point is that you can't add too many colors to your deck. Even if you are playing green, 3 color decks are in general a no-no, and even trying to play 2 colors with a splash shouldn't be done without some thought behind it.
The Velocity of the Format
Knowing the "pulse" of the format is important so you can draw conclusions about whenever it's correct to play or draw in games and getting a feel for how important having a good curve is and so on. So, what's Avacyn Restored's heart rate?
Well, velocities of formats are of course a very relative thing. We can't exactly use a speedometer and get a number which will give us a perfect answer. What we can do is compare it to older sets and from the comparison get a fairly accurate reading. With the Innistrad Limited format fresh in everybody's memory that seems like a good reference point to use while measuring up the Avacyn Restored Limited format.
Unlike my previous articles about Limited environments, where I discussed the velocity of the format and you just had to take my word for it, this time I actually crunched some numbers to support my opinion. Take a look at the graph below:
The workforce of a Limited format are its commons and the velocity is greatly dependent on how the creatures at the common slot are priced, thus looking at how the common creatures are divided over various converted mana costs gives us a good idea about the speed. In this graph I have plotted how the common creatures from Innistrad and Avacyn Restored are scattered across the curve. Since the two sets don't have the same amount of common creatures in them (52 for Innistrad while 50 in Avacyn Restored), looking at the relative percentage is a better comparison tool than looking at the raw amount.
In the graph we can see that the majority of the commons in Innistrad cost 2 or 3 while they are more evenly divided along the curve in Avacyn Restored. If we add it up, we'll notice that roughly 67%, or 2/3s if you will, of the common creatures in Innistrad cost 3 or less. If we make the same addition for Avacyn Restored we will get a much lower number, 58%. That's closer to half than the 2/3s that Innistrad shows off with.
Before drawing any conclusions here, I'd like to remind you that looking at the creatures at the common rarity doesn't necessary tell us the whole truth regarding this aspect, but it gives us a good idea of what to expect. Looking at the numbers I presented above in combination with the experience I have playing the format, I can say that the format is a bit slower than our previous Limited environment. It's not glacially slow like Rise of the Eldrazi was, as it's not like we need to hit 8 mana on a regular basis, but unlike Innistrad where 5s and 6s where really the top of the curve you can expect to be casting a lot more of those in Avacyn Restored.
Worth noting is also that, while you will be playing a bit more expensive spells than you used to do in Innistrad Limited, it doesn't necessarily make the format grindy. On the contrary, the format seems to be from time to time quite tempo-oriented, although it's often not about the 1-, 2- and 3-drops that you might expect, but rather about the 3-, 4- 5- and even 6-drops. The fact that the removal suite (we will get to that later) isn't super impressive and the swingy nature of the Soulbond-mechanic also contributes to the argument regarding the relevance of tempo in the format.
As far as play or draw goes, ultimately it comes down to the deck you have in hand, but I currently believe that you should choose to be drawing more often than not in sealed. It very rarely happens that the opponent comes crashing out of the gates in this format and will punish you for drawing.
Draft is naturally a bit faster than sealed and thus favors playing instead of drawing, but I have found myself on numerous occasions wanting to be drawing even in draft. Currently my rule of thumb in draft is to choose to play if I'm in the dark about what I'm playing against but if I notice that tempo really isn't an issue in the matchup during that game, I will happily choose to draw in the subsequent games. If the risk of falling way behind on the board is slim to none, I'd rather start the game with an extra card in my hand.
As a natural follow up to the last segment, let's talk about how many lands you should be playing in this format. The standard number in 40 card formats is 17. It's a number that was hammered into our feeble minds when we were just starting out the game and acts as constant reference point.
While it's is hard to go horribly wrong by playing 17 lands in any Limited format really, there are certainly times when you should be questioning that number. And I believe that is the case with Avacyn Restored.
I mentioned that you will be casting a lot more 4, 5, 6, 7 and occasionally even 8s in this format than you did in Innistrad and thus you will need more mana to cast those spells. So far, the indications I have picked up tell me that this is a format where you will (or at least should) be playing 18 lands fairly often.
For example, I opened a sealed pool the other day in a GPT where it was pretty clear to me that building a white-black deck was the way to go. When I laid out the playables for white and black, it became clear to me that I would be playing at least 2 5s (possibly 3), 4 6s and a 7 drop in my deck...and that didn't feel like out of the ordinary from what I experienced from the format so far.
With so many pivotal cards in my deck that cost so much mana, there was no way I could afford missing land drops. I needed to hit those 6 to 7 lands in timely fashion and without any card drawing that's not just going to happen with merely 17 lands in my deck. In those spots you need to suck it up and play 18.
In conclusion, I do not want to say that playing 18 lands is always correct. Instead I think what you want to be doing is to tick up that reference number from 17 to 18 and when you are crafting your deck, you should be asking yourself, "can I get away with 17 lands here?" instead of "do I need to play 18 lands here?". It's a very subtle difference but an approach like that will save you from being greedy and lose games because you had 6s and 7s stuck in your hand and couldn't cast them.
Mind Your Playables
I mentioned earlier that Avacyn Restored reminds me a little bit of Limited Magic of old times regarding the low count of available mana fixing in the format. Another trait of Avacyn Restored is the relatively low number of playables in the set, which also was a trademark of how Limited played out back in the day.
Now, it's not that bad, but the number of playables is considerably lower compared to most recent sets we have enjoyed playing in the 40 card format. You will regularly get together 22-23 playables in a draft, but unlike Innistrad don't reckon that you will have much more than that.
In a Innistrad draft for example, you could very well switch into another color in the middle of pack 2 and still have cards to cut from your final product more often than not. That isn't a luxury we have in this format.
What I want you to take away from this is to be really careful about jumping around in colors while drafting this set. The sea of playables isn't as vast as we are used to. You shouldn't be deadly scared about switching into a different color if the packs tell you to do so, but you can't be as speculative and careless as you previously could. Mind the number of playables you have in your pool or there is a risk that you might be forced to run something like 19 lands in your deck.
Like in my previous pieces where I dissected Limited formats, the emphasis is going to be on the commons when I talk about the colors, since they are the workhorses of Limited.
I also want to point out that I have analyzed and evaluated the commons below as objectively as I could, but it's impossible to get a good evaluation on cards that are very situational. For example, Farbog Explorer is an okay card, but it's of course really good if you are playing against an opponent with Swamps. So, keep in mind that cards can fluctuate like that in powerlevel and in a draft that once you have a certain amount of creatures for example, the value of any type of trick rises in your pick order and so on.
Excellent: Seraph of Dawn
Good: Angelic Wall, Cloudshift, Defang, Moonlight Geist
Playable: Farbog Explorer, Leap of Faith, Midvast Protector, Moorland Inquisitor, Righteous Blow, Spectral Gateguards, Thraben Valiant, Voice of the Provinces, Zealous Strike
Sideboard material: Call to Serve, Cursebreak, Cathedral Sanctifier
Borderline unplayable: Angel's Mercy, Midnight Duelist
White is like ever a very solid color in this Limited environment. White just has at it's disposal a healthy mixture of solid guys, evasion, removal and tricks. If there is something to complain about it's the almost lack of 2-for-1 effects, but I guess we can't be too picky.
Seraph of Dawn is just a complete house. She has evasion, which is great, but she also has lifelink, which makes her difficult to race. On top of that, she has a big butt, so if you need her on defense she is amazing in that role to. I don't say this often about any card really but Seraph of Dawn is really a card you can't have too many of and I would in any situation pick this over any other white common in the set, regardless of what cards I had already picked up.
Speaking about big butts, you've probably noticed that I have listed Angelic Wall under "good" which wasn't something I initially expected when I first reviewed the spoiler weeks ago. I mean, I can't really say that I have fond memories from the last time I could play with Angelic Wall in Limited (which was, for those who are interested, 10th Ed.). The thing is that there aren't a lot of cheap drops in the format that do have an immediate impact on the board and are still relevant later on. Angelic Wall stops pretty much any early play your opponent may have and there is no flier within the common rarity (except Searchlight Geist, sort of) that will get past it. That is actually quite impressive when you look at it this way.
This also explains my love for Spectral Gateguards. While it doesn't have flying like Angelic Wall, it does have an additional point of toughness which leaves very few creatures that can actually punch through it on the ground unaided. And the Vigilance granting Soulbond portion of the card isn't exactly irrelevant either. It's like the best Armored Cancrix ever!
The reason why I appreciate these wall-esque creatures is because of the following; say that you are playing a blue-white deck. The majority of games that you win are going to be on the back of fliers or other types of evasion creatures, right? In that case, hiding behind a wall to hold the fort while your fliers win the race is absolutely perfect. However it is to say that these guys aren't as good if you are intending to win by slogging through the board with fatties, like you would do in a green-white deck for example. So, utilize these guys with cleverness and they will reward you.
My affection for Cloudshift has risen quite a lot since the first time I held the card in my hand. At first I thought it was essentially like simply giving a guy hexproof, while occasionally getting some extra value out of creatures with ETB-effects, of which there aren't too many. However, I had failed to take into consideration all the dirty things you can do with Soulbond with this card. Being able to bond a previous unbonded guy at instant speed or switching bonds midcombat leads to some interesting situations, to say the least.
Defang is good, but it's important to be aware of it's limitations. It's not a Pacifism and shouldn't be picked as high. In reality, it's closer to Heart of Light although a bit stronger than that. It's really good and can be treated almost as a Pacifism if you intend to win with airborne guys. In that case, slapping it on your opponents Pathbreaker Wurm is brilliant. However, like with the walls I just spoke about, if you don't have access to a lot of evasion and are dependent on breaking through on the board, Defang won't do you too many favors. While I think I will never be cutting Defang from my sealed deck, it's worth to think about how you are planning to win games with your draft deck before putting it in your pile.
I have been less impressed with the other removal option in white, Righteous Blow, ranking it relatively low as "playable". I might have been a little too harsh here, but it just under performed for me.There aren't a lot of 2 toughness guys in the format that are really scary if you are white. I mean, something like Gryff Vanguard could be scary if you don't have a flier but come on, you are playing white. Of course you are going to have a decent amount of fliers. I mean, the card isn't horrible in anyway... but I'd rather have a Moonlight Geist more often than not.
Excellent: Amass the Components, Gryff Vanguard, Mist Raven
Good: Crippling Chill, Geist Snatch, Peel from Reality, Scrapskin Drake
Playable: Alchemist's Apprentice, Dreadwaters*, Elgaud Shieldmate, Fleeting Distraction, Galvanic Alchemist, Ghostly Flicker, Havengul Skaab, Rotcrown Ghoul, Spectral Prison, Wingcrafter
Sideboard material: Ghostform
Borderline unplayable: Outwit
I have heard a lot of comments on how good blue is in this format. Some think the color is rather poor, while others praise it to the skies. I think I belong to the latter group of people. The format is fairly slow and the spells cost a bit more than what we are used to, which means drawing cards is probably a good thing to be doing in the format. And that is certainly something blue can do. Further on we have an excellent array of fliers and a lot of tricks, backed up by a couple of hardworking groundcloggers.
The cream of the crop of blue is just fantastic. There isn't much to say about them. Play them and enjoy them. If I have to pick a top common in blue, the honor has to go to Mist Raven. Man-o'-War like creatures are always superb in Limited and it's no different this time around.
So far I have been quite impressed by Geist Snatch in this format, particularly in sealed, as most creatures that you would like to counter cost 4 or more, which means unlike Bone to Ash in Innistrad, you will often be able to snag a creature that you really care about, making it closer to what you would consider a legit removal spell.
I also think Havengul Skaab is a lot better than what most people think. Like Angelic Wall and Spectral Gateguards I discussed in white, he sure knows how to hold the fort. Also, with tons of cards like Mist Raven, Gryff Vanguard or something with Soulbond, the "drawback" of the card might actually be something desirable when not on defense.
I haven't not been impressed by Ghostly Flicker, which I find somewhat surprising, considering I appreciate Cloudshift that much. The bump from 1 mana to 3 is a bigger deal than I thought and the fact that you can potentially do the flicker thing on two guys doesn't pay off as often that you would like it to. It's an okay card, but not as exciting as you might think.
You may have noted that I put a star after Dreadwaters while I listed it in the "playable" column. Now, I would not recommend you in any way to run Dreadwaters as a value card, but I put it there as I firmly believe that just running a mill plan off a couple of Dreadwaters is a legit strategy in this format. The games go a bit longer than what we are used to and I often find myself having 8-10 lands in play at the end of a games. Stalling out games that long hasn't turned out to be a problem most of the time and once you there, the opponent only have 20 something cards left in his library. Unfortunately I haven't been able to test this theory as much as I'd like to yet, but I would be surprised if such a strategy turned out to be not viable at all. I will get back to you on that one.
Before discussing black, I'd like to mention how incredibly powerful Stern Mentor is. I haven't yet played enough to safely say it's the best uncommon in the set but it's right up there for sure. Games can easily stall out due to the relatively limited pool of removal in the format, which means this guy on its own (technically you need a mate to bond it with but you know what I mean) can get the job done. All in all, a very powerful card that will let you win games despite a clogged up board.
Excellent: Bone Splinters, Death Wind
Good: Grave Exchange, Searchlight Geist
Playable: Bloodflow Connoisseur, Butcher Ghoul, Crypt Creeper, Driver of the Dead, Ghoulflesh, Necrobite, Polluted Dead, Renegade Demon, Soulcage Fiend, Undead Executioner
Sideboard material: Mental Agony, Predator's Gambit, Unhallowed Pact
Borderline unplayable: Essence Harvest, Hunted Ghoul
Black is somewhat of a weird color in Avacyn Restored. The cards aren't that powerful on their own. Instead, they are more synergistic and most of them circle around the "loner"-theme that black and to some extent blue have, which requires some extra thought while picking them up in a draft and/or finalizing your deck. I haven't had a ton of success with black decks so far and my experiences seemed to be echoed by the players at Pro Tour Avacyn Restored. On the other hand, this means that black is going to be generally undervalued in the near future, which in turn means that you might very well be receiving the few black goodies late in drafts if you are willing to commit.
That Death Wind is a premium card isn't hard to understand, but Bone Splinters maybe requires a little more explanation. On the surface, it seems sort of like a sketchy deal to use 2 cards in order to get rid of 1. Well, it is. There is no denying that.
However, since this is Limited it means we usually have a very constricted card pool to choose from to do the things we want to do. Thus, the fact that Bone Splinters is so flexible in the number of creatures it can kill (in fact, pretty much every single one) makes it so valuable. In addition to the incredible flexibility, there is the fact that sacrificing a creature of your own is actually a thing that you often don't mind doing. Take a look at the black commons. There are tons of guys that interact favorably with Bone Splinters; Undead Executioner, Butcher Ghoul, Driver of the Dead, Polluted Dead...you name it.
Moving on, Grave Exchange is a card I thought might be a little pricey for its effect, but I have learned otherwise. Even thought you are probably going to kill a bear of some sort with the edict effect, getting a Raise Dead in the process makes it well worth it. After all, how could you turn down a 2-for-1?
To finish talking about black, I can say that I have so far been very disappointed by Driver of the Dead. The card looks really good on paper, doesn't it? Just playing a 3/2 for 4 mana isn't unheard of, but the driver even has a built-in 2-for-1! The problem is that there aren't a lot of things going on during the early turns, and thus there aren't a ton of exciting guys to bring back. The in-color ones (Butcher Ghoul and Crypt Creeper) don't exactly make me jump for joy. The best common guy to bring back is probably Alchemist's Apprentice but even that's not super awesome. Looking back at Innistrad, I think I'm safe to say that this guy would have rather been a part of that set than Avacyn Restored.
Excellent: Heirs of Stromkirk
Good: Mad Prophet, Pillar of Flame, Thunderbolt, Fervent Cathar,
Playable: Guise of Fire, Hanweir Lancer, Kruin Striker, Riot Ringleader, Scalding Devil
Sideboard material: Demolish, Raging Poltergeist
Borderline unplayable: Banners Raised, Battle Hymn, Dangerous Wager*, Malicious Intent, Somberwald Vigilante*, Thatcher Revolt*, Uncanny Speed
Red is like in most recent Limited environments a very interesting color. The cream of the crop of red is very exciting, but the powerlevel of the cards drops radically soon thereafter, and the rest of the red card pool is made out of cards that are very niche. They aren't terribly exciting in a "regular" deck. To be properly utilized, you need to be playing a deck with a very special gameplan in mind. Also, while I have said that the format seems to be a bit slower overall than what we are used to, there is certainly room for aggression and red really seems to be the highlight of that due to cards like Kruin Striker and Fervent Cathar.
I might praise Heirs of Stromkirk a bit too much, but I think the card is closer to "excellent" than "good". A 2/2 guy with evasion for 4 is in general a good deal, especially in red. But it gets better. Having Intimidate is more powerful in this format than flying, partly because red doesn't seems to be a very popular color to be gaming with, but mostly because flying is a relatively common ability in this set of angels. There won't be a lot of blockers standing in this guy's way...and to add insult to injury it just gets bigger and bigger every time it connects, making it harder and harder to deal with.
The red removal is very good, and even if Thunderbolt can't kill guys without flying that isn't much of a drawback in this set where there are plenty of fliers.
I also really like Mad Prophet too, even though the way this "looter" is worded makes it a little less powerful. Because you have to discard the card first, it's really hard to motivate a "speculative loot", i.e. you have an okay card in hand but chances are there is an even better one on top of your deck. On the other hand, because Mad Prophet is worded in this way, it does help your from screwing up.
You see, particularly in Limited, there are times when it's just incorrect to activate your looter. A common scenario is that you have 1 card in hand that is your 6 mana moneymaker but you are stuck on 5 lands. Say you have a Merfolk Looter on the board, what will an activation of said card accomplish? No matter what the top card of the deck is, it's always going to be something inferior to the card you already have in hand, right? So, all an activation will do with Merfolk Looter in that position is milling the top card of your deck. Mad Prophet on the other hand will naturally stop you from making that error.
Then in red follow a couple of decent to great men depending on how aggressive you intend to be, but then we a bunch of cards that I have listed in the "borderline unplayable"-column and several of them I have flagged with a star. Those are the niche cards I talked about earlier. While Thatcher Revolt and Somberwald Vigilante wouldn't make it into my regular deck, once you have a critical mass of cards like Riot Ringleader, suddenly these cards might do just the thing your deck is striving after.
Finally we have Dangerous Wager. If Avacyn Restored was a format where you ended your curve on 4-5 and there were plenty of graveyard shenanigans (sounds like a familiar set, doesn't it?), this card would have been awesome. However, Avacyn Restored is not such a format. The games go longer and you are typically planning on casting more expensive cards than usual, which means that Dangerous Wager is just going to be stuck in your hand for too long and look really awkward in your opening hands. That said, if you manage to compile an aggressive enough deck, this card might be a fine inclusion for giving you some extra gas in the late game.
Good: Borderland Ranger, Trusted Forcemage
Playable: Abundant Growth, Flowering Lumberknot*, Geist Trappers, Joint Assault, Lair Delve, Nettle Swine, Nightshade Peddler, Pathbreaker Wurm, Sheltering Word, Snare the Skies, Terrifying Presence, Timberland Guide, Wandering Wolf, Wildwood Geist
Sideboard material: Natural End
Borderline unplayable: Diregraf Escort, Grounded
It's funny. I haven't actually listed any of the green commons under "excellent", yet I find the color to be quite good. Nothing really stands out, but the color is just overall solid. In drafts, if I'm going into green it's usually because there is a powerful uncommon or rare (like Druid's Familiar). In a weaker pack I could see myself picking up either Borderland Ranger or Trusted Forcemage, which are my two favorite green commons.
Green is the color in which the Soulbond-mechanic is the most prominent and that is highlighted by Flowering Lumberknot. On its own it doesn't do anything, which is the reason why I have flagged it above. However, once you have a critical mass of guys with Soulbond, this guy turns into a freaking house. The card reminds me very much of Blind-Spot Giant if you remember that guy. In the beginning, most people labeled that card as completely unplayable but he turned out to be quite the powerhouse with some thoughtful drafting and deck construction. I reckon Mr. Flowering Lumberknot will play a similar role in this format.
Rounding out green, there is a quartet of tricks that I could see myself playing with. My current individual ranking is Joint Assault > Terrifying Presence > Snare the Skies > Sheltering Word.
Playable: Bladed Bracers, Narstad Scrapper, Scroll of Avacyn, Seraph Sanctuary
Borderline unplayable: Scroll of Griselbrand, Vanguard's Shield
To finish up we have a couple of artifacts and lands to evaluate. Bladed Bracers, Narstad Scrapper and Scroll of Avacyn are all fine and they make out serviceable 22nd or 23rd cards in your deck if you are scrapping for playables.
Usually, I wouldn't bother with playing Seraph Sanctuary but I could see myself playing with it if I have a couple of angels in my deck and the deck doesn't have a very demanding suite of spells in terms of colors of mana. Being able to net 2-3 life over the course of a game isn't normally very impacting, but if your mana is solid it seems stupid to pass those couple of lives up.
That is pretty much where I'm at in Avacyn Restored Limited at this point. From a Limited standpoint, the set looked a little dim and shallow in terms of synergies and strategies when I first went through the spoiler, but a couple of sealed decks and drafts have showed me otherwise. Soulbond in particular is a way deeper mechanic than what it looks like at first. Not only do you have to think about whether you want to bond your guys immediately or wait for a better mate, interesting scenarios occur when you add in tricks like Cloudshift and Ghostly Flicker that allow you to change bonds at instant speed, which can alter combat steps in a big way.
All in all I have been pleasantly surprised by the set so far and look forward to playing with it some more. As I've mentioned, this weekend I will be in Malmo, representing the home nation and the Blackborder crew. If you are attending, I wish you the best of luck and feel free to stop by and say hi!
Until next time, happy grinding.
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