A Brief History of Catastrophes
Balance is one of the first noticeable cards in Magic to attempt to create parity on multiple levels. The notion of a card that lets you catch up to an opponent who's gotten far ahead of you in resources, putting you on even ground...what could go wrong, right?
The problem with Balance is that it affects the crucial resources of the game—cards in hand and lands—and it's so cheap to find ways to break that parity with whatever it doesn't touch—artifacts, enchantments, planeswalkers—that balance ends up in practice being, well, not balanced. Balance could easily turn into hand destruction, sweeper, and land destruction...all for the low, low price of two mana.
So, umm...take two?
Cataclysm is a powerful effect, and you can see where it evolves the concept of parity approached long ago by Balance. Cataclysm hits artifacts, creatures, enchantments, and lands. All players pick one of each they control and send everything else to the graveyard.
Cataclysm can be used as an almost-sweeper, and almost-land destruction...but it's better to think of Cataclysm and its descendants as very versatile anti-mass cards. If you want complete destruction of creatures, you want Wrath of God or Damnation. If you want to destroy all enchantments, you use Back to Nature. But for four mana, having the versatility to reduce on multiple levels at once is really good.
What if we added one mana to the cost, then attached a similar effect to a creature?
So the card I skipped past here is Tragic Arrogance. Tragic Arrogance has seen a lot of play in Standard, regulating the excesses of creatures brought by cards like Collected Company. It's going to be rotating when Kaladesh comes in, but it looks like it's not really going for long.
The tradeoff between Cataclysmic Gearhulk and Tragic Arrogance is that of control versus board presence. If your board is empty, Tragic Arrogance will simply slow down your opponent's offense. Gearhulk offers you a 4/5 body with vigilance, making it good on both offense and defense.
But Tragic Arrogance's ability to let you choose what an opponent keeps and sacrifices provides crucial control in a matchup.
We won't have to choose between them, but it's still good form in our analysis to note the key differences on two otherwise very comparable cards.
The Art of the Crash Test
Given what we know about Kaladesh so far, how does Cataclysmic Gearhulk fit in? Where is it likely going to be strong, and where might it be a little weak?
Cataclysmic Gearhulk acts as a great "regulator" for Vehicles and the fabricate ability. Against Vehicles, the Gearhulk can crash into a crew, making it all but vanish. It's also keeps fabricate from going too wide for fear of being punished for it.
Gearhulk even gives you some room to make the effect asymmetrical with its multiple types. Naming another creature and naming the Construct as your artifact (or the other way around) lets you double up.
Any deck trying to over-utilize any permanent type has to watch out for impending catastrophes with this in the environment. That it's just a slightly over-costed creature without the effect being useful means that it can certainly get a small role in the main deck, and almost certainly a spot in the sideboard if you have the right colors.
But what if you want a little bit of everything? Delirium can potentially be hurt and helped by the destructive Construct. Delirium decks may lose some permanents, but that same destruction will make hitting delirium even easier. And since we're talking about stacked graveyards...I am pretty sure Emrakul, the Promised End thinks of the Construct as one giant toothpick, used to clean her maw after a meal.
There's no shame in getting devoured by one of the nastiest big bad guys (er...girls) we've ever seen in Magic, but it does highlight that going big works well with the Gearhulk. While we're losing Explosive Vegetation, I can't help but wonder if Splendid Reclamation will combine with Grapple with the Past to offer a new way to go over the constraints the Construct imposes.
Either way, it seems that, as we saw with Tragic Arrogance, there will be many decks that want to harness the artifact's power.
So the Gearhulk isn't priced to move in Modern, Legacy, or Vintage, but those environments have more unrestrained versions of this effect anyway.
I think in Commander, the Construct's value will be heavily influenced by your group's tolerance for sweepers. More board control can't be that bad, right?
As you may have guessed, I think this card was ready-made for Standard. Cataclysmic Gearhulk can occupy many roles in the format, and so can fit into any number of decks. Anywhere you saw Tragic Arrogance could be a home for Cataclysmic Gearhulk. But also there are some new potential homes for it as well.
White-Black Control is losing Languish, but keeps Planar Outburst, spot removal, and big threats. The Gearhulk supplements that strategy with removal to catch you up while serving as a threat and blocker.
White-blue tempo and midrange decks almost certainly want Cataclysmic Gearhulk. The chance to perform a selective wipe and keep your Spell Queller and your Cataclysmic Gearhulk isn't broken by any means, but it's easy value that synergizes with your independently powerful decks.
It's likely that Cataclysmic Gearhulk will wait in the sideboard as the Standard metagame starts to evolve, but since there are so many cards in the environment now—and previewed in Kaladesh so far—that encourage going "all in" on a permanent type, it's only a matter of time before the Construct's gears begin to wind up, moving it into the fray.
Will you be able to avoid the disaster it is sure to bring? Or will you claim it's cataclysmic engines for your own schemes? Be sure to find a store near you to test out this powerful Construct in a Kaladesh Prerelease on September 24–25!
Today's preview was accidentally revealed last week due to an internal error. That's on us. We still ran this article, because it's great and because we need to preview the card officially. But, to make up for it, and to reward you for reading all the way down to the bottom, here's a bonus preview card with all kinds of odd possibilities.