The spoiler season of Amonkhet is in full swing and as always before the release of a big set, people are trying to figure out what the new additions to the Standard pool are going to mean for the format and which new strategies will turn out to be viable. I think that this time around, the situation is a bit different, though. Rather than brewing in a "vacuum", looking for the best stand-alone strategies, this time, the race has a different goal: to find the tools that can shake up Standard, to see if the set has something that could change the dominance of Mardu Vehicles and 4C Saheeli as the two best decks of Standard. This is also the viewpoint that I'm going to apply today: looking at the new cards in terms of how they could threaten the two established decks of Standard (or help them). Wizards didn't go for any bans in Standard the last time around, preferring to let the new set solve the problem by itself, so let's see if Amonkhet can actually deliver.
In general, what is it that we're looking for? A very broad definition would be "answers" and "proactive threats". I think that one of the biggest problems of the current format is that there are too powerful individual cards or combinations of cards and the answers don't cover nearly as much as they could. Blue control decks can run removal and countermagic, but when you need very different answers to threats like Toolcraft Exemplar, Heart of Kiran, Scrapheap Scrounger, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or the Copycat combo, you'll often find that, as soon as you draw one wrong answer for the threat they present, you can be dead in just a couple of turns. I know that a lot of people have the feeling that control is "unfun" - having your cards countered by an opponent who keeps saying "no" until they draw a finisher and wrap up the game, that's not exactly many player's idea of fun. But at the same time, control decks can play a very beneficial role in any given format. Without control elements, games become simply races of who can do their thing faster and in a more consistent way. Usually, decks that are not very interactive emerge and in addition, when it's clear which decks have the best engines, there's no need to play anything else. I know that this description is not one hundred percent precise, but I think it can work pretty well as a generalisation, especially as far as Standard is concerned. Legacy, to give another example, would be a much worse format without Force of Will, because it would become a race of who comes up with the fastest, most consistent engine. But with Force, people need to be a bit more creative than that. So that's why I would like to see some good reactive cards in Amonkhet. And why "proactive threats"? Well, if we're going to have a format without proper answers for some more time, at least I wish the best engines change, so that we can watch something other than Mardu Vehicles mirror matches all day.
I think that Miscalculation would be a great card for Standard, as it's universal and can serve as a simple answer to a lot of different threats. I was really excited when I saw the card spoiled and equally disappointed when I found out it was a fake. Instead of Miscalculation, Amonkhet offers Censor: a 1U Force Spike with a cycling cost of a single blue mana. How much of a downside is this? Well, playing around a Force Spike is incomparably easier than around "pay 2 more". Against the vast majority of decks, a Force Spike becomes obsolete pretty much after turn 4. That being said, having a counter for Heart of Kiran on turn 2 and Gideon on turn 4 seems crucial in this format and I think that Censor is still going to see some play. And even if it doesn't, at least it will make some opponents play their Scrapheap Scrounger instead of Heart of Kiran on turn two, out of fear of getting the Heart countered against untapped blue mana. Still, I'm not sure if we're going to see much of this card outside of a true control shell or a deck that cares a lot about cycling.
Pull from Tomorrow could be another piece of the control puzzle and I must say that I like it a lot. One big disadvantage is that because it is an X-spell, it doesn't work well with Torrential Gearhulk (if you target it, you draw 0 cards and then discard a card). Also, playing it for X lower than 3 seems quite miserable, unless you discard some beefy creature for Liliana, Death's Majesty to reanimate. But apart from that, it has a lot going for it. Being an instant is huge for reactive decks and as long as you don't care about energy, this card seems better than Glimmer of Genius. The choice of cards will probably have to look a bit different if you want to include Pull from Tomorrow, with a focus on mana ramp. Hedron Archive is still legal and could be great with the Pull. Pyramid of the Pantheon could also shine in a deck with the blue X-spell. What I like is that by itself, the ability cycling means you draw more lands per game on average, so decks that use a lot of situational cycling spells will probably be interested in some mana sinks. And Pull from Tomorrow is as good of a mana sink as it gets.
Archfiend of Ifnir seems to be the flagship for going deep on the cycling mechanic in Amonkhet and needles to say, in a dedicated deck, it will most likely be quite incredible if you manage to untap with it in play. Because the set has a lot of playable cards with cycling for just a single mana, It doesn't seem all that unimaginable to get into a spot where you can wrath the opponent's board again and again. The downside? Despite being a 5-drop, Archfiend of Ifnir is actually quite fragile, as it dies to several of the format's most played removal spells: 4C Saheeli decks shouldn't have any trouble killing it with Harnessed Lightning or Chandra's -3 ability, Mardu Vehicles can get rid of the Demon with Unlicensed Disintegration. Also, against 4C Saheeli, 5-drops can be dangerous, since tapping out and then dying to their combo is a real possibility. On the other hand, "it dies to removal" has likely been the worst argument against new cards in recorded history, since we can easily dismiss pretty much any creature if we take this argument too seriously. It's also true that Archfiend of Ifnir does dodge cards like Fatal Push or Oath of Chandra. So I guess that it all boils down to how good the cycling deck ends up being. Since its ability also counts discard, there are other outlets that we can use to get value right away: Noose Constrictor seems the best one, so perhaps there's some wild B/G discard / cycling archetype out there - I'm sure we'll see in just a couple of weeks. Oh, and as a side note, the card seems pretty sweet in Modern Living End.
Because of the power creep that creatures have gone through in recent years, while spells have mostly gone down, it's much easier to get excited about spells than about creatures these days. Great creatures seem to randomly pop up in the spoilers and then most of them end up being bulk, simply because of how high the bar is. But despite these circumstances, I think that Glorybringer should definitely draw more attention than it's been getting so far. Not only because of its stats, being basically a 4/4 flying, haste Flametongue Kavu for five, but also because of its spot among the cards that see the most play these days. Glorybringer is the perfect anti-Gideon card - and that includes both the BfZ Gideon and the new one (more on him later) - in a world where good answers to Gideon are desperately needed. The only downside is that Glorybringer isn't great at getting around Heart of Kiran, since they can activate it to block after you deal damage with the Exert ability, but other than that, the dragon seems well positioned. It's hard to predict if there will be any deck that can accommodate him, but perhaps even 4C Saheeli could be interested, since you can slam him on turn four thanks to Servant of the Conduit and then even clone him with Saheeli to deal four more damage.
I've already mentioned Gideon of the Trials, currently being sold as the most expensive chase rare of the set, so let's have a look at this card in more detail - is this Gideon the real deal? The answer is clearly "yes, he is" and I wouldn't even be surprised to see him being played in Modern. Three mana planeswalkers are something we don't get very often. As far as Standard is concerned, I think that the most important thing is that Gideon can defend himself against Heart of Kiran with his +1 ability. There's nothing worse than having the possibility of a turn 3 planeswalker on the play only to have the opponent cast Heart of Kiran on turn 2, which I'm sure is something that Liliana, the Last Hope would have something to say about. Well, Gideon passes the Heart of Kiran test. But there's more. He's also incredible alongside Heart of Kiran, is right now likely one of the most aggressive turn 3 plays you can make and even has a sweet "0" ability that works with any Gideon you play ever after this one. Simply because of the sheer power level, I think that Gideon of the Trials is going to see a lot of play in Standard and even more once the old Gideon rotates out. I think that right now, the only question is how many of each of them you want to play.
But somehow, Gideon is not even the white card that I'm the most excited about. This award has to go to Cast Out - the four mana flash Oblivion Ring with cycling for a single white mana. I think that many people underestimate the power of cycling for one mana - in many situations, it will essentially mean "cycling for free", since finding a spare mana to pay for it won't often be all that hard. I guess that I like the cycling keyword even more on cards that are situational, such as Dissenter's Deliverance - as long as Heart of Kiran remains popular in Standard, I have no problem maindecking the Deliverance and randomly hitting Hearts, Dynavolt Towers and perhaps even Aetherworks Marvels. Cast Out is a lot more universal, which might paradoxically be its biggest drawback - the only time you want to cycle it is if you're digging for lands, in which case you won't even have too many spare lands to cycle with. But still, the card is incredible and I'm sure I'll play it a lot in the coming months - perhaps even in decks that care about delirium, of which Cast Out is probably one of the best enablers we've seen so far (if it ever matters in white).
Two cards that I can imagine working together very well are Channeler Initiate and Nissa, Steward of Elements. Channeler is likely the best 2-mana ramp spell that we've had in Standard for quite some time, as long as we're not interested in energy (where Servant of the Conduit is obviously better). Having a mana elf that later turns into a 3/4 is a pretty good play, provided there are good enough cards to ramp into. So how about turn 2 Initiate, turn 3 Nissa, Steward of Elements, scrying 2 and threatening to randomly start plopping 4-drops on the board for free? Or how about turn 2 Initiate, turn 3 Hedron Archive, turn 4 Nissa with X=5? Honestly, I like Nissa at every point of the curve and the best part is that at eight mana and more, she starts to threaten tons of damage right away, so just having her in your deck means that you should have a lot of trump cards in the lategame. And what is the perfect home for her? Ramp decks haven't really been tremendously popular recently, but maybe they will have enough tools now. Or maybe she will even be played in 4C Saheeli decks as another way how to dig for the combo. Both possibilities are very realistic, I think.
These were just some of the cards with a lot of potential in Amonkhet. This time, I really hope that the set can shake things up and that we won't need bans as an emergency measure after the Pro Tour. But with the material that has been spoiled so far, I wouldn't be surprised if at least some of the new cards do shake things up considerably.
That's all from me for today, thanks for reading and see you next time!
About Adam Koska
Adam is an experienced player from the Czech Republic who has a number of high-profile finishes under his belt:
- 14th at Pro Tour Portland 2014
- 9th at Worlds 2009
- 9th at Pro Tour Kyoto 2009
- 64 Lifetime Pro Points
- Three times Czech Nationals Top 8