And speaking of my mind being blown! If you have been paying attention to the Magic scene these past couple of weeks, you will probably be aware that Alara Reborn, the latest small set and the last part of the Shards of Alara block, is now fully available both in the Visual Spoiler and in the fancy new Gatherer. I took a hesitant peek through it, as I was unsure of my Prerelease plans for last weekend (would I or would I not go?) Usually, when I know that I'm going to a set's Prerelease, I immediately stop looking through spoilers of all kinds and wait to be amazed. Even now, as someone who has the privilege to preview crazy and sanity-pushing cards (one more plug for Time Sieve! Hey, the card deserves it), I still try to keep myself in the dark for as long as possible. That way, when I can stroll through the spoiler at my leisure, I'm stunned with approximately 117% more excitement. Of course, Stun Sniper was a boon in this regard.
So onto the actual set. I may be wrong (probably) but I'd have to say this is one of the Johnniest sets to be released in a little while. The wither-happy Shadowmoor Block was extremely combo-heavy, but the first two sets of this current block (Shards of Alara and Conflux), while being awesome sets for their own reasons, weren't overly combo-focused. Not that I expect every set to be, but it sure is great when a set like Alara Reborn comes out and fills my mind with tons of legitimate ideas to bounce around.
I expect that in the weeks to come, my mind will have solidified most of the more complex blueprints from this combo cornucopia. Right now, though, I've got to come up with three nifty ideas that hopefully get you thinking. To ease my way into the set, I'm going to use ideas that may seem really obvious to you folks back home. Obvious though they may be, they are still worth taking for a spin, and most of them are pretty fun to set up. So here we go!
Cameramen, Move In!
So, here we are with Aven Mimeomancer, a card that reminds me of the warty Simic creature, Omnibian. Just as Omnibian has the power to temporarily turn other creatures into nigh-clones of itself, Aven Mimeomancer can also pseudo-clone itself onto other creatures. There are two key differences between the two, though. One is that Aven Mimeomancer doesn't tap, allowing it to be ready for combat (more on this later.) The other is that, unlike Omnibian's "until end of turn" duration, the Aven's mimeomancy is created through feather counters, which remain on its victim until that creature dies. Basically, Aven Mimeomancer's transfiguration is a bit more permanent than its froggy ancestor.
By not tapping, Aven Mimeomancer can be ready for attacking and blocking, especially the latter. Since it recreates the power and toughness of other creatures in its own image, at worst, you can trade with your opponent's biggest threat. Akroma's bazillion keyword abilities don't look as threatening when she has -3/-5, do they? (Shut up, Defiant Elf.)
At best, though, you can combine Aven Mimeomancer with other cards to slowly pick off your opponent's creature base. With something like Fledging Mawcor (or its Mawcor, or Tim, the Prodigal Sorcerer) you could straight up assassinate opposing creatures. Artifact sources could pull off something similar. Grapeshot Catapult seems tailor-made for this combo. Finally, cards like Esper Battlemage and Leech Bonder can negate feathered creatures to death. Note that while you can definitely shift around -1/-1 counters with Leech Bonder, you cannot gain much by shifting actual feather counters. Since Aven Mimeomancer's ability is what changes the creature's power and toughness, you cannot use Leech Bonder to instantly turn something into a 3/1 flyer. You can, however, use it to end Aven Mimeomancer's effect by removing a feather counter from a creature.
Something that's always been a worthy trick with cards that alter a creature's power and toughness is playing with creatures with +1/+1 counters on them. By changing a Vigean Hydropon's stats to 3/1, it becomes an 8/6. Sure, it still can't attack or block, but that's just an example. Plaxcaster Frogling becomes a near Craw Wurm with flying and activated shroud (awesome?) and Novijen Sages becomes a 7/5 that can safely deplete its own counters without killing itself. Best of all, Cytoplast Manipulator becomes a 5/3 that can gain control of any creature you want. Leech Bonder can help with the counter shifting, but take care when juggling three different types of counters.
Vigean Graftmage (who also becomes a flying Mass of Ghouls when Mimeomanced) can untap Prodigal Sorcerer for a steady yet finite stream of pings, assuming Tim is saddled with a +1/+1 counter. With the graft ability and Leech Bonder running around, that requirement shouldn't be hard. Here's another oldie but goodie: Phantom Nantuko, who really shines alongside the Graftmage. Protecting your Mimeomancer is a high priority, and to do that we've got the shroud from Plaxcaster Frogling and some Counterspells. Hey, this deck is bingeing on Simic anyway, so don't give Voidslime any dirty looks.
The resulting deck is a mash of counters (of both kinds) and untapping shenanigans. I find it funny that the deck wound up in Bant colors, and yet is completely removed from the general Bant deck strategy. I don't know, maybe Jenara, Asura of War could fit as a finisher?
Violent Ink Panda
If the previous section wasn't obvious enough for you, here's a nifty rare that has a higher quantity of blatantly ridiculous interactions with other cards: Knotvine Paladin. According to various card databases, this delicious weenie is slightly similar to Copperhoof Vorrac, in that numerous untapped cards in play bolster its stats. The largest "Duh!" combo with Knotvine Paladin is playing it with exalted creatures and permanents. Knotvine Paladin is obviously better when attacking alone amidst other creatures, so exalted is a perfect fit. Rather than go the aggressive route and play exalted spells such as Sigiled Paladin or Aven Squire, which would make the Paladin cute more than anything else, I chose more defensive exalted spells. I'm particularly excited about Ardent Plea, as the only other cards with a converted mana cost less than 3 are Noble Hierarch and some singletons, so it's likely you'll cascade into Knotvine Paladin.
What excites me even more is combining the Paladin with Finest Hour, the latest Bant card to steal a prominent mechanic out of red's playbook. First it was Rafiq of the Many thieving double strike from my favorite color, and now Finest Hour is bringing extra combat phases to green, white, and blue. Of course, I'm not a total stranger to this idea, having written about an exalted deck with Seize the Day to amp up Battlegrace Angels. So it's with a smile that I pair Finest Hour with Knotvine Paladin. If you stack the triggered abilities so the enchantment's ability resolves first, it'll untap the Paladin. Then, even if you have no other creatures in play, at least ol' Knotty will count himself in the untapped count.
A mechanic that might be more obvious then exalted in tandem with Knotvine Paladin is vigilance. If you had Serra's Blessing in play, say, you could swing with all your creatures and watch the Paladin gain the bonus regardless. Oathsworn Giant is better than the Blessing here by being a creature, and by providing a Castle-esque effect as well. Gate Hound is a cheap variant, but needs an Aura to turn on. If only there was a strange bridge that connected exalted with Auras ... oh yeah, those weird clouds. Sovereigns of Lost Alara combines with Gate Hound for the vigilance as well as with Knotvine Paladin itself. Triclopean Sight seems great on the Paladin, and hell ... Epic Proportions just wins games sometimes. It's always annoying when Auras pile up in your hand, so I felt Sigil of the Nayan Gods would be fine to add. Making anything a Scion of the Wild is always great.
As with the previous deck, many different paths exist. I've tried to meet them at a crossroads, but keep on experimenting!
A Salami Year
Now, although Aven Mimeomancer and Knotvine Paladin may easily fit within certain strategies or thoughts, I don't think they wink as heavily as another Alara Reborn rare: Mayael's Aria. Forget the pinging and exalted / vigilance gimmicks, which at least required a bit of thinking deducing. Mayael's Aria, on the other hand, says right on its text box what cards it's friends with. It's almost like a book of instructions. Want to Battlegrowth your team? Smack a Woolly Thoctar into play. Want to activate Tower of Eons for free? Shoot for a 10-power creature like Progenitus. Want to cast That One Spell From Zendikar? That's a bit tougher, but you could do worse than Kevin's emailed suggestion of Mossbridge Troll. If you have 10 power worth of other creatures in play, in his words, "In response to the enchantment trigger, you pump your troll and blammo."
Not that this was a bad suggestion (in fact it ignited this section for me) but I reckoned that if I managed to create a 25/25 death-proof trampler, I'd do the more fun thing and swing for an entire life total. Mossbridge Troll definitely makes me smile, but I wanted to see what I could come up with.
Graft obviously helps the deck. Cytoplast Root-Kin is another team Battlegrowth, while Hunting Triad either creates the team or beefs up your chosen powerhouse. The goal is to get your guy to at least 10 power. It's tricky, but it's the hardest part, I swear.
Why? Surely going from 5 to 10 is exactly half as hard as going from 10 to 20, right? You'd think so, but by the time 10 life starts pouring in every upkeep, you'll hit 20 in either one shot or two. With what creature? Ageless Entity.
Once described as "Timmy's dream," the oft-forgotten Elemental will at the very least jump from a 4/4 to a 14/14. And if you've been loading it up with counters beforehand (recommended), the magic number 20 should be close within reach. Note that the Entity's triggered ability won't go off in the middle of Mayael's Aria resolving, so if the 10 life pumps it up above 20 power, you'll have to wait a turn to win.
One vital card I included seemed to solve the problem of, "Why not just smash with my giant guy?" The answer was Evolution Vat, which gave me a reason to not attack and instead tap my Entity for another counter. Doubling counters, incidentally, is incredibly insane and gives you another way to go from 10 to 20 in one go. Solarion is another example of this train of thought. An instant speed Fate Transfer, meanwhile, can straight up devastate your opponent's attempts at removal. Everything in the deck costs zillions of mana, so lots of acceleration was added, particularly the absurdity that is Bloom Tender + Trace of Abundance. Finally, Cliffrunner Behemoth has three great interactions: It's a 5/3 hasty lifelinker the turn after an Aria or Trace, it has 5 power for the Aria, and Ageless Entity likes the life gain. The latter reason drew my attention to Faith's Fetters as a catch-all defensive card.