And a warm welcome to dozens of new cards featuring an innovative look at multicolored mana.
But which are the best cards? That remains to be seen over the next two years (and who knows how long after that in Extended and other formats), but we can make some good guesses based on comparisons with tournament staples past. So get ready for some snap judgments!
For this one, I decided to break down the new set by mana cost and fire off what I think the best new card at each cost is going to be (ostensibly for Standard)... Never one for impulse control, I've peppered the lists with some runners-up and honorable mentions.
Runner-up: Relic of Progenitus
Why it's interesting: Relic of Progenitus is just better than some cards I've managed to win PTQs with... main deck! I once won two out of three Extended tournaments, including a Grand Prix Trial and a PTQ at a Grand Prix, with two Phyrexian Furnaces in my main deck; Patrick Sullivan and the old TOGIT guys have always joked that I "ruin playtesting" with my "random" main deck Scrabbling Claws in green aggro decks. Relic of Progenitus has the boring half of Phyrexian Furnace / Scrabbling Claws down, and offers a steep upgrade from the cantrip half... all the way up to Tormod's Crypt range. Now of course this card is not going to be something that a graveyard deck will typically side in itself (as opposed to Leyline of the Void or Tormod's Crypt, especially in Extended), but for a regular deck, this card seems like a justifiable main-deck inclusion due to the cantrip possibility, making it fast enough to be just perfect against Mannequin or Kelpie decks; then again, you can hold an Oona's Grace for post-Progenitus hijinks... &c. I think Kelpie strategies will be some of the strongest for the initial Standard, so Relic of Progenitus should walk into the format with customers lined up. Who knows how successful that deck would have been in Block if it had been adopted earlier?
Runner-up: Akrasan Squire
Why it's interesting: Akrasan Squire is a nice first-turn play, set up for a strike for 2 on the second. The beauty of this card is that because exalted is cumulative, with the right two-drop, you can actually be attacking for 3 with this creature. Moreover, late in the game, you can top-deck Akrasan Squire and, provided you are setting up to attack only with one exalted creature per turn while locking down the Red Zone, your freshly drawn one-drop will actually matter. Amazing!
And the winner is... Executioner's Capsule
This card is just profoundly good. It is like a much better Seal of Doom (same cumulative mana cost, but in exchange for a that you are basically guaranteed to have based on the initial mana cost, you get the option for a down payment, which is quite compelling and aids you if you haven't hit your third), and Seal of Doom was a key card in the black-green deck of its day.
Executioner's Capsule has nice synergy with a number of commonly played cards in Extended, including format staples Trinket Mage and Academy Ruins... It's basically infinite creature defense there. All-in-all, one of the best cards in the set. You can't beat the price!
Honorable Mention... Wild Nacatl
If this were a base-Extended review, I would probably have picked Wild Nacatl for best overall, but it's not, and the "Kird Kitty" is close to unplayable in Standard. In Extended you can expect Wild Nacatl to be 2/2 on the first turn and 3/3 attacking on the second with the typical opening hand. Long story short, your Zoo deck is going to have even more offense than ever. The problem in Standard is that even though you don't actually have colored mana problems, your sources are not typically Mountains and Plains but members of the Graven Cairns filter cycle, which are awesome... but they don't boost this creature.
Runner-up: Courier's Capsule
Why it's worth talking about: Courier's Capsule is probably just much better than Inspiration. Inspiration is a card that has never been a runaway hit at four mana the way Deep Analysis and Fact or Fiction were, but it was always a key role-player and even a first-string card drawer when it was legal. Courier's Capsule is about the same—two cards for four mana, even if those two cards can't be aimed—but like Executioner's Capsule, Courier's Capsule gives you the option of the down payment. That means that if you are mana-screwed on two you can still draw two (and hopefully draw out of screw), whereas with Inspiration you would actually need access to all four mana. Even though Courier's Capsule is an artifact (meaning that you have to play it at sorcery speed), you can still leave mana open to "fire" it at the end of the opponent's turn, so you can pass turn three with Broken Ambitions mana open. As an artifact, it is eligible for the usual recursion routes, many new options for which will be discussed in this here article!
Runner-up: Elvish Visionary
Why it's worth talking about: How does this creature match up with Sakura-Tribe Elder? Drawing a random card off the top of your deck is less powerful than the Rampant Growth effect, but on balance, Elvish Visionary doesn't force you to sacrifice it to draw the card; therefore you never have the Tribe Elder dilemma against control. Go ahead and crash every turn; you already got your money.
Runner-up: Hindering Light
Why it's worth talking about: At first blush I thought that this card was just an insane Dismiss... After all, what are you ever countering other than stuff that brains you or one of your men? Then I remembered something that Jon Finkel told me before Pro Tour–Hollywood last year... Remove Soul was actually his favorite permission spell because everything he wanted to counter was a creature... Mulldrifters, Chameleon Colossuss, Mistbind Cliques, &c.
On top of that, Hindering Light fails a subtle but unmistakable test: it seems kind of weak against combo decks. Permission is supposed to be good against combo decks! Strike and strike again. Will this card still be awesome? The answer is "probably." It will likely be outstanding when positioned against decks that target a player a lot (say discard spells), but it is not nearly the main-deck Dismiss in Standard that I originally thought it would be (now watch me go ahead and miss the next Remand...).
Runner-up: Tidehollow Sculler
Why it's worth talking about: This creature is more or less twice as good as Mesmeric Fiend, plus it's an artifact. Tidehollow Sculler seems like an insane disruptive card in the right matchups, and a fine clock in the abstract.
Why it's worth talking about: When I first started playing Magic, Deflection was a chase rare. If you look up the old Magic books, there are long explanations by legends like George Baxter and Brian Weissman about how Deflection could generate this card advantage. In fact, the first Pro Tour–winning deck, a blue-white control build by Mike "Loco" Loconto, was permission-poor... but still managed to find room for Deflection.
Now today, Deflection might not make the cut; after all, it is pretty expensive! However also today we have a situation where a control deck has absolutely no need to conform to two colors like Loco did; the modern "white-blue control" deck has a red Wrath of God and a Hurricane Elemental as well as a Dismiss, numerous X ground control cards, as well as some black point removal and recursion. Something like a Swerve—essentially Deflection at half the cost—can be splashed easily.
And the winner is... Knight of the White Orchid
This one isn't even close.
I just got done talking about how a "white-blue control" deck doesn't need to play with color discipline... but Knight of the White Orchid is so good, certain control players might want to run a small stack of basic Plains. This card allows you to ramp two straight to five on turn four, a kind of super-duper Sakura-Tribe Elder straight into the ubiquitous Mulldrifter.
Honorable Mention: Etherium Sculptor
I am not sure if this card will make the cut in Extended Affinity, but it sure seems to have potential. Affinity is the kind of deck that never actually seems short of mana... but at the same time it doesn't actually have so many lands in play. Etherium Sculptor kind of gives affinity for artifacts to your cards that don't even have affinity for artifacts! What happens when all your Chromatic Stars and Terrarions no longer cost anything? Second-turn Salvage Titan, draw three cards?
Etherium Sculptor seems like a road stop restroom. Maybe you'll forget about it in five minutes. Then again, maybe you open the door... and there is something utterly disgusting on the other side.
Runner-up: Goblin Assault
How it is going to kill you: Remember Bitterblossom? You know, more or less the best Standard and Block card of the last six months? This card is just like that one, but instead of flying, your token gets haste. Is that better or worse? It's debatable. It might be a disadvantage that all your grubby little Goblins have to attack. What is not debatable is that because your guys are always in the Red Zone, you can't screw up and start blocking with your tokens like a scared little bunny. Oh, and no one can kill you with your own win condition, as you don't take a point a turn. So... yes, three is like two mana more than two, but on the other hand this card should still be a powerful and demoralizing way to win.
Runner-up: Resounding Thunder
How it is going to kill you: I think that this is a dangerous card. You can kind of sit until you have eight mana and kill a sit-there control deck and there is nothing they can do about it.... This is an essentially uncounterable cantrip nuke for 6. You can kill someone just with these. Plus, of course, you can defend yourself cheaply assuming you have something in your other 56 cards that would help you count to 20. Just an awesome card for short and long-term play.
If you think of this another way.... You know those games where control takes over and ekes out the win from low life after accumulating an iron hand after weathering the early beatdown? Now the red deck can sit until it has enough mana and go for, say, the last 12. The "safe" line has moved.
Runner-up: Hell's Thunder
How it is going to kill you: Ka-blooey. That's how. This card is just perfect for many kinds of red decks, but in Standard I think the prize goes to the Tsuyoshi-style Shamans deck. We have all become used to the Demigod deck as the default red deck due to Tomoharu Saito, Michael Jacob, and many others taking all kinds of names with their Ashenmoor Gougers, but Resident Genius and Hall of Famer Tsuyoshi Fujita invented a very different red deck with Intimidators and Smokebraiders into Rage Forgers (played to some nice finishes by Tsuyoshi Ikeda). Hell's Thunder can supplement Thunderblust as a hasty Elemental threat that strikes for a ton.
Runner-up: Mayael the Anima
How it is going to kill you: Put it this way... If you don't kill it, it's probably going to kill you. The ability is infinite, essentially uncounterable, whatever other kinds of positive adjectives you want to apply to it, free mana plus free cards. Mayael is like a one-card Rebel chain that actually gets awesome creatures instead of just creatures you play because they happen to fit into a Rebel chain.
And the winner is... Bant Charm
Three is the deepest mana cost in Shards of Alara. Look at how many cards weren't the best, and think of how many other playable Charms there are in the set (and I didn't mention any of the other four). Of all the three mana spells, Bant Charm is the best.
Patrick Chapin explained it to me like this... For a slightly more difficult mana cost (and not even that much more difficult due to the availability of mana fixing lands), you have a card that is time and a half better than Putrefy... which itself was a tournament staple in both Standard and Extended. Bant Charm doesn't destroy artifacts quite as well as Putrefy... but regenerating an artifact is rare outside of Welding Jar. But for the more common application of creature elimination, Bant Charm is infinitely better. You can't really Putrefy a Darksteel Colossus despite the fact that it doesn't regenerate, yet is both an artifact and a creature... but Bant Charm can shrug the big 11/11 off like it was an... I don't know... whatever awesome creature you spent all your mana on that inevitably died (you know the one).
Honorable Mention: Master of Etherium
This is basically a Broodstar that tournament Spikes will be willing to play. Just another brutal must-kill threat for the Affinity deck to present. Like Wild Nacatl, I don't see a bright future in Standard, but this should be near-staple in Extended if not an automatic four-of, blanking former Myr Enforcer slots.
Runner-up: Rafiq of the Many
Why it's worth mentioning: If you don't immediately kill Rafiq, get ready to take something like 10 on the next attack, maybe more depending on how much exalted the other guy has.
On the other hand: At only 3/3, Rafiq is small for a modern four drop, especially in green-white. This isn't a gigantic "crime" in and of itself, but he is in Firespout, Lash Out, and Incinerate range.
Runner-up: Stoic Angel
Why it's worth mentioning: The last time an Angel on this model was released into Standard, it immediately took off as one of the best cards at States and for the rest of the year (Lightning Angel). Stoic Angel doesn't have exalted itself, but you can really see where the team was going on this one... The exalted is almost implied. Try racing this thing! (At least without exalted of your own.) You will either be outgunned two-to-one because the Stoic Angel player can attack with two guys per turn (with Stoic Angel not tapping to attack), or it can stack exalted and attack with the best exalted guy running multiple triggers, or some maddening, uncrackable, min/max hodgepodge.
And the winner is... Punish Ignorance
Four mana permission spells are sadly playable. Rewind and even Discombobulate were tournament role players, and we know from Cryptic Command that the modern best-of-breed is a four. But what about Punish Ignorance? How good can it be on four?
Well for a single additional mana, we have both Absorband Undermine on a single card. If you've played with Undermine, you know how the game can get to a position where you are just itching to counter because the damage has become relevant. From the opposite perspective, white-blue control decks are always trying to fit some way to gain life without actually investing a card. This seems as good an option as any... Look for it as a four-of in Block and something like a two-of (at least to start) in Standard.
Runner-up: Covenant of Minds
How does it compare? Tidings was a tournament staple about two or three years ago... This card just seems much better, although I don't know how much it matters that there is only a single blue mana in the cost.
How does it compare? I already went over this one last week... It should be a very playable five.
Runner-up: Tezzeret the Seeker
How does it compare? Tezzeret's +1 ability is very reminiscent of Garruk Wildspeaker (imagine untapping two artifact lands, two Signets, &c.)... Now imagine untapping two Grim Monoliths! One of these things is not like the others.
That isn't even the "good" ability. Unlike other planeswalkers, Tezzeret can immediately morph into something with out-of-the-gate board presence. For instance, instead of tapping out and ending up defenseless, you can go get a 4/4 flier. But what about this? You can pop Lotus Bloom directly into play for no cost, and no waiting around! Did I mention "one of these things is not like the others"?
Oh and if you have four artifacts you can just kill them on the next turn or whatever. All's fair. Tezzeret didn't even win!
And the winner is... Caldera Hellion
One more mana than Flametongue Kavu (that is, the best card of its set), but you kill everyone instead of just one creature. Devour something and you get a 4/4 (or larger) threat that sticks around post-"Wrath of God." I don't even know what to say, it is so obvious this card is amazing. Look for it in a five-color control with re-vamped mana.
Runner-up: Salvage Titan
Why it almost won: This guy is really hard to stop long-term. I see a lot of possibilities with this card, especially with Capsules, Spheres, Stars, and so on... Just haven't got there yet. This card is obviously very strong and should inspire quire a bit of deck design the next few months.
And the winner is... Broodmate Dragon
Eight power for six, both flying... Sounds like a deal. Now what deck does this go in?
Runner-up: Brilliant Ultimatum
Why it makes the list: So the question is, do you always win when you play this or always lose (or is it purely "win more")? It seems like you should have a good chance of winning... The only problem is that it is hard to test, because what kind of a deck wants to play this?
Runner-up: Violent Ultimatum
Why it makes the list:My friend Josh Ravitz likes this more than the other Ultimatums. "It's basically a Wildfire" ... This one seems like a good card and reminds me of Ken Ho's homebrew from the Team Standard PTQs a few years back.
Just a thought...
Runner-up: Sharuum the Hegemon
Why it makes the list: As far as I'm concerned, this card sets the bar for mythic rares. In order to compete with a card like Oona, Queen of the Fae as the control finisher, Sharuum had to do something special... She has Oona's body, flies over the defensive lines and draws two cards when she comes into play (or Terrors something, or sets up a Wrath of God for all nonland / nonartifact permanents)... In short, Sharuum may be the Nucklavee that sticks.
And the winner is... Cruel Ultimatum
Speaking of Nucklavee, can you think of a better incentive to get that guy back into deck lists than Cruel Ultimatum as an incremental Red sorcery? What can you say about this card? If you tacked all the abilities together it should cost something like ... So I guess this is where we should say thanks for the eleven mana.
When you cast this, under normal circumstances, if it sticks... You should win. The life gain is an additional buffer that I'm sure will be relevant in many games where you stick it out to seven mana. This is currently my pick for best Ultimatum.
So there you have my initial snap judgments on this exciting new set. It looks to be a great set of possibilities for States; I'm looking forward to building with these sundered shards, and I'm sure you are, too.