There is a hidden theme hiding under the obvious contents of Avacyn Restored, one that everyone knows exists, but no one really acknowledges as a theme unto itself: abilities that trigger upon creatures entering play. You have the obvious new soulbond mechanic. This ability triggers upon the soulbond creatures entering play themselves, as well as anytime a new creature hits play alongside an unpaired soulbond creature. You have cards like Misthollow Griffin, Borderland Ranger, and Midvast Protector which have clear, useful triggers upon entering the battlefield. You also have the cards that create benefits when other cards enter the battlefield, such as Goldnight Commander, Kruin Striker, and Soul of the Harvest.
With so many cards generating benefits from creatures entering the battlefield, it's no surprise that Mark Rosewater took a look at the set and decided that this was an excellent opportunity for one of his pet mechanics to return: flicker. Technically, this isn't exactly flicker. As he put it, "There are two different types of flicker: what we call 'flickering' and 'insta-flickering.' For flickering, the creature goes away and comes back at end of turn, and in insta-flickering it goes back and comes back right away. They each do different things. In general, when you flicker your opponent's stuff, you want it to come back at end of turn. When you flicker your stuff, you want it to come back right away. Here, we wanted insta-flickering because we wanted this to be all about your stuff and your interactions. We don't even let you target your opponent's stuff. Flickering at instant speed lets you, mid-combat, affect what's going on, which is very, very powerful. Just the fact that while attacking I could have a card that would let me completely change who is soulbonded to who is incredibly powerful."
It isn't just the interaction with soulbond that makes flickering powerful. Rosewater continued, "Flickering is powerful in any set, but it thrives in this set, so I convinced them to turn up the volume. It's just a great exploration mechanic for this set." One of the things that it really lets players explore is the best way to use their creatures as resources. Rosewater and I briefly discussed that the way that players view creatures and their life total as a resource has changed over the past few years.
As time has passed, players are much more willing to trade creatures away and gravitate towards a less cluttered board state. One thing that has helped this is the addition of more cards that have triggers upon entering the battlefield. Rosewater described these as "virtual vanilla" creatures, because they do something upon initially hitting the battlefield, but as soon as their ability resolves, they become vanilla or French vanilla creatures, with at most a basic, keyworded ability such as flying. Once these creatures have resolved their abilities, they are no better than any equivalent vanilla creature, so they are less likely to be protected, and often become fodder for trades or sacrifices.
Flickering gives these virtual vanilla creatures a bit more life, causing players to reevaluate whether or not they want to go ahead and throw them away in a trade or hold on to them and wait for a chance to reuse their abilities. Often, this decision comes down to how powerful the ability is, or how good the creature attached to it is. For example, I'd imagine that most players would be much more likely to trade off a Timberland Guide with a 2/1 than lose a Mist Raven or a Zealous Conscripts. It adds a layer of thought to the game that keeps the game from being too straightforward, but doesn't make things so complex that the game loses its fun. As Rosewater put it, "One thing that Magic used to have happen is the residual board state would become too complex. As the number of things you have to keep track of goes up, the game becomes less fun. The 'keep track of all the things you have to keep track of' game, as it turns out, isn't that fun. The most fun Magic play isn't remembering what's on the board, it's about figuring out how to use what's on the board." Flickering, and the push that R&D has made towards creating cards like these virtual vanilla cards, does just that. It makes it so that players will tend towards less complicated board states, but that they are still able to make creative and interesting decisions with those states.
To get the pro angle on flickering, I scoured the room for someone who had drafted a deck exemplifying what I was looking for. What I found was Brian Kibler and his deck. He had drafted a Blue-Green Soulbond deck with Wingcrafter, Wolfir Silverheart, Trusted Forcemage, Vanishment, a partridge, and a pear tree. We call this playing "big boy" Magic. To go along with all of these unfair cards, he also had a Ghostly Flicker and Deadeye Navigator to flicker his men. It turns out that, while he isn't quite as hung up on the power of flicker, he does acknowledge that it is very strong, though it depends on the deck and situation. "There are really two important cards that flicker in Limited: Cloudshift, because it's cheap and efficient, and Nephalia Smuggler, because it's reusable. I'm running Ghostly Flicker in my deck, but that's because my deck is particularly well suited to abuse it. It is a little expensive, though."
One of the big differences between the cards is the situations in which they are good, according to Kibler. "Cloudshift is always good. It's cheap, and it does what it does. The Nephalia Smuggler, on the other hand, requires a critical mass of cards to use with it. Honestly, I'd be fine running it with just two Mist Ravens, but you generally want more than that to really take advantage of him." One of the biggest problems with the flicker mechanic is that it requires you to make an investment of time and resources to not really add anything to your board. You aren't paying for a new creature, and it doesn't really improve your lot in life on its own. That's part of why Cloudshift is so good; it lets you continue to build your board while still generating a useful effect because it is so cheap.
For the other cards, you have to generate a big enough effect with them to make them worth the cost of admission. Getting a couple of good bounce effects or demolishing one combat is really all it takes, but getting to that point takes a good deal of setting up. This is the downfall of many of the big synergistic decks in most formats: they are incredibly powerful once they get online, but they are vulnerable while setting up, and are greatly hurt if you remove a piece from the puzzle. Fortunately, flickering helps with both problems, providing blockers that last, as well as protecting key pieces from harm.
While the payoff is not always the grand show you expect it to be, all it takes is one game where you get to pair up your Misthollow Griffin with a Deadeye Navigator, as Brian Kibler got to do in his deck, and you could be hooked.