Darksteel was a set of peerless vigor. It gave us Arcbound Ravager, the potent tin man with Skullclamp strapped to its side. Darksteel gave white its most annoying card to hide behind, ever, in Pulse of the Fields, a cowardly tool never played in the same deck as Savannah Lions. In Pulse of the Forge, the set provided a card that, on its face, was less powerful than Pulse of the Fields, but rewarded expertise in mathematical offense, a thinking man's burn spell stapled to a sort of expressly Red look at card advantage, perfect for someone interested in pushing the limits of his Magic brain.
To great degree, Coldsnap reminds me of Darksteel (one of Coldsnap's strongest cards even melds the names of the two sets). Both have unusual and unique methods to re-buy cards in hand (Recover versus conditional hammers), but, more importantly, they aggressively forward pervasive and synergistic mechanics that touch and utilize many cards to create a whole that far exceeds the individual strength of any individual creature, artifact, or land. For Darksteel, we saw a mighty interplay between Artifact Lands, Modular, and Affinity for Artifacts that produced the fearsome tag team of Disciple of the Vault and Arcbound Ravager. While we can only pray that Coldsnap ends up less overwhelmingly powerful in its theme, the long lost third set is stamped all over with Snow.
This is going to be a review of some key Snow mechanic cards from Coldsnap. Because this is Swimming With Sharks, rather than cover all the Snow cards, I am just going to discuss some of the cards that I think might have some legitimate impact in Constructed tournament Magic. Let's begin!
Scrying Sheets and the Snow Lands
Getting one-third to one-half Snow cards into your deck is quite easy because you don‘t have to spend a lot of spell slots on them. Along with Scrying Sheets, you have your pick of more than ten other Snow Lands. Between allied dual lands and Snow-Covered Basic Lands, filling out your mana base will not be difficult (just remember to re-align your thinking to pre-Ravnica Block mana base rules). Of the Basic Lands, Snow-Covered Island is the best, not because Blue is the best color (even if it may be), but because Blue finally has the opportunity to run Gifts Ungiven for Island, Snow-Covered Island, Oboro, and Minamo!
Next to Scrying Sheets, the most important and powerful Snow card is Into the North; as we've said, Scrying Sheets is very good, and playing Into the North allows you to essentially play twice as many copies of Scrying Sheets, and benefit from additional value. Look at how nicely it curves…
You can play Into the North on the second turn and you will immediately have three lands, including Scrying Sheets, on the third. If you have nothing else to do, you can just flip the Sheets and cross your fingers. If you haven't played another land - and let's face it, you are most likely to make this play when you don't have one - you probably have better than a one-in-three of hitting your land drop as a free card, which you can then play.
Now imagine you have Sensei's Divining Top… You play the Top on the first turn. You play Into the North on the second. On the third turn, because you are very greedy, you use the Top on upkeep to ensure your next land drop and your next free Snow draw. The beauty of it is that you can keep doing this the rest of the game if you want.
Beyond setting up what may well become the Standard format's defining card drawing engine, Into the North is just a powerful accelerator and color fixing device. Into the North compares reasonably with Farseek, a card that has repeatedly shown up in the elimination rounds, in the decks of Constructed Pro Tour standouts from Frank Karsten to Tomohiro Kaji. While Rampant Growth was great in its era, Farseek earned additional value in its ability to find cards like Temple Garden; Into the North does the same with Arctic Flats and its allied cycle. Into the North is a little behind in that it has no Snow-Covered Steam Vents to get, but that's not really the Sorcery's fault (and no one is holding it against Farseek that it can't go get basic Forest). Into the North will be spectacular in Snow.
On top of the lands that just tap for mana, Into the North can draw additional Snow Lands Mouth of Ronom and Dark Depths. Mouth of Ronom obviously has some utility, seeing as it can tap for colorless or shoot down Loxodon Hierarch, but it is a little pricey. I see it as a card that may or may not see heavy play. Dark Depths is just bad. Really. It's bad. And by “bad” I mean “terrible.” Like you would not want to play it. It's a bad card that costs you a land drop. It's terrible and will never be good. And you'll lose to it. You will definitely lose to this bad, terrible, land-leeching, thirty-mana play, likely more than once. That said, knowing that Dark Depths is bad will allow you to complain about how you just lost to such a terrible card with greater ire and sophistication.
One Mana Plays
Sometimes it is okay to play sub-optimal cards because they fit mechanically into a deck's theme. For example, you play Eye of Nowhere in Vore because it is a sorcery. Does it make sense? Boomerang is just a better card, doing essentially the same job as Eye of Nowhere, but at instant speed. Remember, though, that the Vore deck loves sorceries in particular, so that limitation is actually the reason we play Eye of Nowhere. Boreal Druid is a strictly weaker card in terms of functionality versus mana cost than Llanowar Elves or Block brother Fyndhorn Elves, but it will see play in Snow decks. Boreal Druid is a Snow permanent! You can find it with Scrying Sheets or tap it to pick up Stalking Yeti. While “worse” than Llanowar Elves in the generic [mana] sense, in a deck that relies heavily on the Snow theme, Boreal Druid can sometimes do more.
On the other end of the spectrum you have Skred. This Red removal spell has a lot in common with Boreal Druid. It costs one mana. It is Snow-stamped. Unlike Boreal Druid, which is slightly less efficient than other options, Skred is maybe the most efficient spot elimination spell since Swords to Plowshares! The catch is, Skred is only spectacular in a dedicated Snow deck. If you play it on the first turn using your Snow-Covered Mountain, Skred is a Lava Dart. On the next turn, it is a Shock or Firebolt. At three it's a Lightning Bolt (and Lightning Bolt costs half the mana as perfectly good alternative Volcanic Hammer). Past that point, Skred is off any recognizable power curve, costing you a paltry two mana only when you are aiming it at Grand Arbiter Augustin IV. In any other color, Skred would be an automatic four-of in the main deck. If it is not there in Red Snow decks, that is only because Red already has efficient general burn spells, and Skred is being held in reserve for sideboarded games when the Red player knows for certain he is up against creatures (it's not useful against Heartbeat of Spring, for example).
Beyond the Big Two (Scrying Sheets and Into the North), I predict the most played Snow card will be Coldsteel Heart. We are already living and playing in an era where even some aggressive Standard and Ravnica-themed decks are playing four or more Signets. Coldsteel Heart is worse than a Signet in Guild colors (it comes into play tapped after turn 2), but it is strictly better than at least five cards that saw tournament play (Sky Diamond & co). Though somewhat weaker in a G/W deck than, say, Selesnya Signet, Coldsteel Heart can go into a Snow deck to up the count for Scrying Sheets… Think of it as the Snow theme's answer to Vore's Eye of Nowhere.
Phyrexian Ironfoot holds the title for Matt Cavotta's favorite card [name] in the new set. A 3/4 for three mana with a significant mana drawback is not going to break any efficiency records in Standard, not with Burning-Tree Shaman potentially on the other side of the table, but we've certainly seen control decks work with worse. Andrew Cuneo's original Draw-Go deck played Steel Golem as its kill card, and while Phyrexian Ironfoot is both a slightly better early game defender and flat-out worse end game beater than Steel Golem was, you can't really take away the fact that it might be a free card (or that in the very late game, it can play a kind of dim-witted cousin to Serra Angel). I wouldn't expect this card to be played in the heavy Green Snow decks, but there is already talk of post-Kamigawa Block Blue Snow decks… This Phyrexian might just get his foot in the door in one of those.
I already talked about Ohran Viper, so I am just going to skip ahead to the big guys.
Half a Debtors' Knell, more significant than a Serra Angel, Adarkar Valkyrie is arguably the best of the Snow finishers. For one thing, she is only six mana rather than seven. For another, there is a greater incentive to G/W/x Snow than any other color combination at present (I think), just because of what dual lands you can play. Adarkar Valkyrie is just the best available lady for the job.
Probably the most dominating Snow finisher once it is actually in play, Rimescale Dragon is a powerhouse in need of a deck. There is no question this card would fill in as a slightly less efficient Kamigawa Dragon in dedicated G/R Snow… The question is why you would want to play G/R Snow. Again speaking from the Swimming With Sharks Constructed Tournament perspective, the incentives to G/R are elsewhere, namely Kird Ape and Giant Solifuge. Standard G/R decks beat control on brutal offense and by quickly reaching the fundamental turn, and beat creatures via the relative efficiency of their drops, often combined with the relentless offense of Moldervine Cloak… G/R Snow would have completely different incentives and necessarily eschew what makes Green and Red [together] good in Standard, while in all likelihood simultaneously forgetting any dream world of besting the Top Tier Blue decks. I can see such a deck having competitive incentives, especially with Stalking Yeti as yet another option for Scrying Sheets, and even if that Yeti is nothing more than a slow Cackling Flames… I just don't see it happening today, or as long as there is a Sensei's Divining Top to exploit in Standard.
All that said, Rimescale Dragon is quite impressive should it resolve. The mana counts imply that this Dragon will be able to contain most any boards, two permanents at a time, short of Simic Sky Swallower… but therein lies the rub. In a seven-on-seven fight, Rimescale Dragon is no Simic Sky Swallower. I am certainly not saying it will see no play as long as Simic Sky Swallower is in Standard, just pointing out that there are existing incentives to other creatures at its huge mana cost.
Rimefeather Owl is yet another victim of Simic Sky Swallower. Despite the fact that the Owl will generally be bigger than the ubiquitous Ravnica Block chase finisher, this thematic Bird nevertheless has a couple of things going against it: 1) Because Snow decks will necessarily have to play Coldsnap lands, players will have no Breeding Pool and Simic Growth Chamber to set up in a base-Green Snow deck consistently; you've got to assume that it will be frustrating to hit seven but lack the necessary to make your key play (that said, with Coldsteel Heart and Into the North, maybe will be a mortal lock by turn 7 - we don't have enough data yet). 2) Rimefeather Owl might be big, but it dies “to everything” and doesn't trample. Of course if it is left unchecked it will win the game quickly, but all tournament sevens can make the same claim. Even more closely because of its color, this is another case of a Snow seven possibly being passed over due to competition with Simic Sky Swallower, Leviathan of a thousand incentives.
Don't get me wrong. I really like Rimefeather Owl and am currently investigating ways to break it along with Scrying Sheets (perhaps the aforementioned post-rotations Blue Snow deck will give it a home?), but I would be surprised if it took any of the immediate summer Championship events. That said, I would be quite pleasantly surprised.
Blizzard Specter is just better than Abyssal Specter in B/U. Therefore this is a card that is really hurt by the lack of a Block format. I won my first Pro Tour invitation at an Ice Age / Alliances PTQ in 1996 playing Abyssal Specter, but no one has really played that card in Standard since even though it has been legal almost continuously since Fifth Edition. If Coldsnap were a part of a small set format like an organized Block, my guess is that it would be played either in some sort of Scrying Sheets splash where everyone is slow, or as a relatively solid creature on its own merits.
In case you missed it, I really like Snow and have thought a lot about Snow decks. The only thing I don't get is Green's glaring paucity in the Snow-Covered Fatty Boom Boom department. This is a color and a theme that have been married since the inception of expansions: Green should have some in-theme giant. That giant might not be very good (Jugan, the Rising Star, Myojin of Life's Web), but Green should have it.
My guess is that R&D wanted to limit how good the already great Scrying Sheets could be in the most obvious deck, because Green also has no serviceable medium creature. To wit, Ohran Yeti (which is not good enough for Constructed, but that is neither here nor there) and Stalking Yeti (which might be good enough) are both Snow creatures… but Karplusan Strider, also a Yeti, is not. This seems to me deliberate.
That's it for my first impressions of the Snow mechanic, something I think we'll see in top decks for the next two years. Just remember that even if the weather outside is frightful… well, that's no reason that the decks should be.