As Fate Reforged starts to creep further into focus with each new card previewed, so does our overall evaluation of the set. That's just how preview season works. The first few cards we see aren't enough to make any big assumptions off of. Plus, they are often rare or mythic rare—meaning, not of particular interest to us Limited players. I mean they do give us cards to dream about opening in a draft. But longtime readers of this column already know that it's the commons and uncommons that make a set tick for Limited.
Preview season is also a time when the Vanilla Test is fully dusted off and ready for action. The Vanilla Test serves two primary roles during preview season:
1. It allows newer players to get their sea legs with new cards by focusing on what is usually most important: Power and toughness compared to converted mana cost.
2. It empowers more experienced players to not fall for the trap of ignoring respectable power and toughness for the mana cost in lieu of unexciting rules text.
Entering the Battlefield
I've got three interesting preview cards this week, and all three highlight the second bullet point above.
Let's waste no time getting into the first one, which is my favorite of the three:
This card. It has so many cool interactive options!
But before we get to those, let's test some vanilla. Jeskai Barricade is totally okay as a 0/4 Wall for two mana. This is actually pretty much industry standard for a two-mana Wall these days (which is part of the reason why Archers' Parapet is good). As we shift our focus to the text box, we see that things get both a little complicated and also a little awesome.
First, this card has flash. Flash is a powerful and flexible ability to have on a creature. It lets you make decisions with more information than you normally get. It also grants you the element of surprise as you can cast the creature as a blocker or an unexpected attacker at the end of your opponent's turn. Flash on a creature with zero power and defender, however, is less exciting. It's not bad or anything—remember flash is just pure gravy here—but it limits how powerful the ability can be if the creature can't block and kill an attacker or do any attacking itself.
And then we get to the cool part of this Wall. There is a lot to cover here, but let's just get right into it.
The first thing to note here is that there is zero downside. The ability is a "may" ability—it's completely optional. If you just want to play your Jeskai Barricade as a 0/4 defender with flash, go right on ahead.
But what if you want to get tricky? We can do that too.
The most obvious application for this card is to wait until your opponent uses a removal spell on one of your creatures, and then flash in the Barricade to save it. This can be a powerful play, but it's not all sunshine and waffles. You have to recast the creature you saved, resulting in a fairly big tempo hit in the wrong direction. Still, that tempo hit is quite often going to be well worth it. You can also save your creatures from "Pacifism Effects." Pacifism effects are enchantments that lock down a creature or otherwise marginalize it.
This leads us into a similar use for this card; bouncing your creatures with valuable enters-the-battlefield abilities just so you can replay them.
While not particularly mana-efficient, this road does lead to value town. A few example cards to bounce from Khans of Tarkir: Warden of the Eye, Armament Corps, Mardu Hordechief, Mardu Heart-Piercer, and Sultai Soothsayer, just to name a few. And that doesn't even count any of the new options from Fate Reforged.
Along similar lines, you can also bounce a face-up morph that has a triggered ability associated with it being turned up. Cards like Icefeather Aven and Ruthless Ripper can be reused in this manner. Again, not a particularly mana-efficient way to go, but if you want big effects and have a lot of mana this card will get it done.
Jeskai Barricade | Art by Noah Bradley
Still along those same similar lines, you can use this card as a way to mess with combat. You can block some huge creature, then use the Barricade to bounce the creature you were blocking with. With this sequence, you can block and bounce, then block with the Barricade, and then finally block again with the original creature. That's a good amount of time to keep a Woolly Loxodon from hitting you. You could also combo off and do the block and bounce, but with a sweet enters-the-battlefield creature.
Yet another sweet use of Jeskai Barricade is to bounce a manifested spell to your hand. In Fate Reforged, you'll sometimes have 2/2 face-down cards on the battlefield via the manifest mechanic. And sometimes those cards will be powerful noncreature spells from your deck. If the 2/2 creature isn't super important, feel free to use your Barricade to bounce that spell right into your hand—effectively drawing you that card.
Oh and you can also just play it on turn two as a reasonable blocker. Did I forget that?
This card is super cool. It's powerful in an interactive way, but not as much in a standalone way. Look for ways to abuse the triggered ability on Jeskai Barricade, and you'll find them.
I'll be honest, our next card isn't nearly as cool as Jeskai Barricade, but I don't think it cares much.
Back to the Vanilla Test we go. Let's go one level more advanced and make that the French Vanilla Test for this card. (The French Vanilla Test factors in evergreen mechanics like flying, trample, reach, etc. into the discussion.) So here we have a 5/5 with trample for six mana. You know, that isn't bad at all. In most sets, Ambush Krotiq would hold its own reasonably well, without being a high pick.
We have a pretty reasonable starting point for a big green finisher. Although, before we carry on, I do have to put this into context. The Limited environment in which the Krotiq inhabits is one where morph is prevalent. (Remember: we'll still be drafting two booster packs of Khans of Tarkir with our Fate Reforged pack.) And whenever there are morphs around, the prospect of hard-casting six-drops is a lot less appealing than it normally would be.
It's important to remember that while the Vanilla Test is a good tool for getting a reasonable starting point in evaluating a card, every card is relative to its surroundings at the end of the day.
Back to the Big Bug. So we aren't super thrilled with a 5/5 trampler for six mana in this environment. I'm looking to the rules text box hoping to get some upside to push this card over the top.
At first blush, this reminds us of the Barricade we just talked about. But upon closer inspection we note that one little three-letter word is missing: "may." This is where things can get a bit sticky. You must return another creature you control when Big Bug enters the battlefield. This is more drawback than bonus. Sometimes you really need the other creatures to stay on the battlefield to block or to be able to attack the next turn for lethal damage.
One interesting consideration is that there isn't a penalty for not bouncing a creature. The rules say that you have to, but that of course is only if you actually control another creature. The Krotiq can't bounce itself. So if this is your only creature, you don't have to do anything in the way of bouncing.
Beyond that, many of the strategies noted above work here as well. The lack of flash means that some of them are not possible, but you can still bounce a value creature to your heart's content.
Overall, it's hard to say how good this card is. If you are constantly getting value from the ability, it's great. But if you find yourself behind and in need of a board presence, it can be troublesome to have your big drop be an Ambush Krotiq.
One more card, and it's interesting too:
Here's where the Vanilla Test really shines. Ugin's Construct has phenomenal stats for a colorless four-mana creature. It's as big as a Bellowing Saddlebrute, and at the same converted mana cost, but it requires no colored mana whatsoever! Experienced Vanilla Testers will know that we should expect a pretty heavy drawback in the text box for stats like this.
And Ugin's Construct has one:
The first thing you'll notice is that we are no longer in the fun value land of bouncing our creatures back to our hand. No, this Construct means business; we are now sacrificing permanents. And when I say "permanent" I do so intentionally to remind you that Ugin's Construct cares about colored permanents, which may include some noncreature cards.
This is a drawback. Sacrificing our own permanents is a big deal. I was worried about bouncing creatures with my Krotiq. How about just putting them right into the graveyard? It's a tall order to be sure, even if it is a bit more flexible given that it's not only creatures we sacrifice.
Noteworthy again is the fact that there isn't any punishment for not sacrificing a colored permanent. You still get to keep your Construct in the case that you don't have a colored permanent to sacrifice at the time of it entering the battlefield. So now your gears should start turning about how to work around this drawback. A 4/5 on turn four in this format is fantastic. It's worth exploring ways to minimize or even mitigate this downside.
I've come up with the most obvious line: Turn one tapped land, turn two tapped land, turn three morph, turn four Ugin's Construct. This is my new dream curve for this format.
How good is this card, really? I like the idea of the curve I outlined above, and it's entirely possible to make that happen. You can also get around the sacrifice effect by not casting any colored permanents before casting this. What you'll find is that you'll craft your game plan in the early stages of the game around this card if it's in your hand. If it's not, you won't, and sometimes you'll draw it and be slightly unhappy. Until you read it again and probably just decide to play it on turn four anyway. It's huge!
Ugin's Construct | Art by Peter Mohrbacher
If you do find yourself playing a two- or three-drop ahead of your construct, be especially willing to trade it off for basically anything you can. You are going to sacrifice that card anyway, may as well get some value out of it first.
I like this card, and I like that it's huge and colorless, and has a workable downside, even if it is a harsh one.
I hope you enjoyed our three preview cards; they certainly had my head spinning as I prepped for this article. I'm sure we'll find a bunch of new ways to make these cards tick once we get the set in our hands as well.
I'm looking forward to that.
Until next week!