Not Quite Linear – Cascade in Constructed
The most interesting new facet of that glittering diamond that we call Magic: The Gathering is cascade. Cascade is an ability that allows players to trade a small amount of card power for potentially a fair amount of mana, plus a bit of the old card advantage. Compare cascade spell Bituminous Blast with onetime tournament staple Prophetic Bolt.
In the abstract Prophetic Bolt is clearly the stronger card. They are both five-mana instants that deal 4 damage. However, Prophetic Bolt can deal its 4 damage to either creatures or players whereas Bituminous Blast can hit only creatures. Both cards give you access to another card. Prophetic Bolt's selection power here reminds us of one of the strongest search spells of all time: Impulse.
Now while Bituminous Blast in and of itself is a weaker, less flexible, card than Prophetic Bolt, its cascade potential is what makes it really interesting. Instead of just looking at the top four cards of your deck and allowing you to "replace" the spell you just cast, Bituminous Blast will actually play your next spell for you. Instead of putting one of the next four cards in your hand—a potential threat, say—Bituminous Blast will actually play out that extra spell. So if you flip a Chameleon Colossus you don't just "get" it, your cascade spell actually lays out the four mana down payment. That is an absolute "wow" ability!
An Alara Reborn Gatherer search for "cascade" yields twelve cards. Because it is actually pertinent to the cascade ability, I will briefly list their converted mana costs:
- Three mana: Three cards
- Four mana: Four cards
- Five mana: Three cards (but only two really count)
- Six mana: One card
- Seven mana: One card
Of these twelve cards, the most clearly playable in Constructed are the aforementioned Bituminous Blast and Bloodbraid Elf, with Enigma Sphinx a clear "maybe" depending on the viability of seven-mana threats (though you really can't argue with its resilience). Enlisted Wurm is a card that I desperately wish were good enough to play ... but I am just worried that instead of getting the next Keiga, the Tide Star, too often I am going to be investing in a six-mana Wood Elves or perhaps Ghitu Slinger (might get there). But who knows? If you start flipping Lord of Extinction, this Wurm might be worth enlisting.
Now like most of you, the only cascade spells I saw to begin with were the most clearly playable ones—Bituminous Blast, which reminds us of the quite playable Prophetic Bolt, and Bloodbraid Elf, which reminds me at least of the playable (if not eminently playable) Talruum Minotaur—so I thought to begin with that there was a potential linear deck to be had. Imagine Bituminous Blast into Bloodbraid Elf into some imaginary awesome three-, then two-mana cascade spells. However under the harsh light of day, the lower-mana cascade spells seem a bit soft for Constructed Magic, at least at first blush. However the very fundamental strictures of the new keyword may give us some new options for not just card advantage, but deck design.
Now consider any of the three three-mana cascade spells. One design decision you can make is to simply not play many two-mana spells. That is, play only particular two-mana spells (this is something my friend Brian David-Marshall taught me when discussing one of his Alara Reborn Prerelease decks). What happens when the only two-mana spell in your deck is Terminate? All of a sudden when you play Demonic Dread, not only can target creature not block this turn, but his buddy will always die!
Think about it! When you only have one kind of two-mana spell in your deck (in our example Terminate), you are almost always going to flip up that card when you play your three-mana cascade spell.
Now it should be obvious to most longtime readers at this point that this kind of biasing will probably not be a common design paradigm for 60-card decks. The reasons are twofold: 1) You probably can't afford to play cards that just make blocking difficult in Constructed, even when they ostensibly save you mana, and 2) it is difficult (thought not impossible) to build a competitive deck with only one class of two-mana spells. For the same reasons it will be difficult to really ever pull off the cascade dream in Constructed ... The fact is the amount of mana you save will be directly related to the average mana cost in your deck; most competitive decks that can use any of the progressive card advantage-generating cascade spells will typically have lots of two-mana spells. You are much more apt to flip one of these (because there are lots of them) than one of only four copies of Bloodbraid Elf (but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try, of course).
One way you can cheat, though, is to play with clash. Lash Out has always been good enough for main-deck inclusion ... and I think that most of the Standard decks that really want to get behind cascade would benefit from a Lash Out. In addition to offering a mana-efficient effect even when no one is cheating with cascade, Lash Out can help dig you to card advantage-generating cascade spells, or set up your next crowd-pleasing cascade sequence.
Similar to Simic – The Once and Future
Even though last week—when I was handed a gift-wrapped 3/3 for three mana—I made no mention of Gnarled Masses or similar Silt Crawlers, I think that at least most longtime readers know that green-blue is basically my favorite color combination of all time. Whether it is Kodama of the North Trees and Umezawa's Jittes they can't carry, or Keiga, the Tide Stars and more Keiga, the Tide Stars hoarding the opponent's board position, or even Mental Notes flipping over Roar of the Wurm, I personally can't wait to marry the two colors that most clearly break the rules: the one that lets you draw more than one card per turn (blue) and the one that lets you play more than one land per turn (green).
And very much in the flavor of a third set—a multicolored set at that—in Alara Reborn, it probably doesn't surprise you that Ravnica Block is one of my all-time favorite blocks. I loved Lightning Helix. I loved Ghost Council of Orzhova. I couldn't wait to see what Dissension had in store for my favorite opposite color combination.
Moreover, it was largely during Ravnica block that Finkel Draft was born, so I have many fond memories of the format. In fact, I remember my first three-set draft, when I picked up five Coiled Oracles, two Experiment Kraj, and two Simic Sky Swallowers (I managed a 2-1, losing to Finkel's Rakdos deck in three) ... but like many sunbathers along the Yavimaya Coast I was waiting for the second coming of Werebear* ... and graft didn't quite excite me the same way that Life from the Loam or Giant Solifuge did in the first two sets.
But over time, and especially when combined with Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves from the Core Set, and Ohran Viper from that summer's Coldsnap, green-blue cards from Trygon Predator to Plaxmanta proved themselves to be functional, if not flashy.
Though I eventually switched at the last minute to Serra Avengers, Lightning Angels, and Firemane Angels for that year's New York State Championships, green-blue "Control Killer" was one of our favorite decks going into Champs. Eventual Magic Scholarship Series winner Greg Poverelli finished second with that superb green-blue deck:
One of the most impressive things about this deck was its second turn. It opened on Birds of Paradise or Llanowar Elves, then followed up with Ohran Viper. If the green-blue deck was able to live through any Rift Bolts, Smallpoxes, and Volcanic Hammers and actually untap with the Viper on the board, it typically ruled the rest of the game with the fast Ohran Viper—the green half of the deck—fueling the Mana Leaks, Remands, and Trickbinds—the blue portion—for the rest of the game ... which would typically be a grueling if one-sided affair.
The remarkable part of Alara Reborn is that we almost get a two-card combo in an easy two-mana spell:
The juicy part of Greg's green-blue deck was the speed that the green side could leverage to get the Ophidian-like Ohran Viper online. A third-turn Ohran Viper was good, of course, but what really made the green-blue deck the Control Killer was the ability to slide a game-winning threat onto the table right under the opponent's Counterspell wall. Vedalken Heretic is very much the same kind of card: the power of an Ohran Viper borrowing the speed of a Birds of Paradise.
One of the best decks in Standard is of course Gabriel Nassif's Five-Color Control deck, which tops up on the seven-mana Cruel Ultimatum. An active Vedalken Heretic can be absolute hell on a deck like this, hitting before Plumeveil can come down, striking over and over, sometimes in games where the opponent is kicking himself for siding out the Volcanic Fallouts that would have saved him.
Now while offensively Vedalken Heretic is even better than an Ophidian, it still has the body as well as the mana cost of a Coiling Oracle. This changes its in-game capabilities quite a bit, especially when challenging other decks.
A few years ago Patrick Chapin used to say that the red spells in Vintage were so bad that Ophidian "might as well have been Morphling" because it wasn't going anywhere either way. A hand full of Force of Will and Misdirection made sure that the Ophidian would usually make it to that first untap. On balance Vedalken Heretic—on the board—is only worth about half a Mogg Fanatic.
The card still looks like it is going to be great ... just not inexorable.
Another green-blue card from Alara Reborn—a creature that is somehow reminiscent of the boosting capabilities of Moldervine Cloak—is Lorescale Coatl. If all you are doing is drawing one card per turn like some sort of green-blue caveman, Lorescale Coatl will be crashing for 3 on turn three, 4 on turn four, and so on. Throw in one spell on the level of a Thirst for Knowledge, an Ancestral Visions, or one of those cards that can help you draw extra every turn (such as Vedalken Heretic), and the offensive potential will be even greater ... but still on a green timetable.
If there is one thing green is good at it is the size of it monsters, and Nulltread Gargantuan has all the size and more you would expect from a threat of its cost. Now typically this kind of a drawback is tantamount to playing a Balduvian Horde, but Nulltread Gargantuan, at least in the right build, can turn what is usually a frown ... upside-down!
As you can see, the horizons for a color combination that can get out quick mana and draw lots of extra cards are ... endless.
* We just had to wait for the next blocks' third set.
Reality Check – The Fae's First Four Turns
Now despite all the excitement we can potentially see from some of the new cards (or even the "just plain cool"-ness of flash "Wall" and life gain Wall in play next to each other), there is really only one deck that can do this:
... You know, the deck that has been spoiling all the fun for more than a year.
The problem with this deck is that its opening four turns are so notorious basically no deck can get out of them. Sure, decks with Flame Javelin can mitigate that fourth turn, as can decks with some kind of pertinent permission spell, but even when you can answer the Mistbind Clique you are spending the better portion of your mana on your own upkeep; very annoying. You start thinking about how great a Vedalken Heretic is going to be against Counterspell decks, and the "other" Counterspell deck in Standard just starts chuckling about how it is going to block with a Bitterblossom token.
That said, in recent months the fun-spoiling Fae have been put on their heels due to Volcanic Fallout, particularly in Five-Color Control ... but here is a little something that Alara Reborn just might be able to offer to patch up the holes in the metagame:
- There isn't much more annoying than a whole bunch of Mistbind Cliques (and even a Soul Manipulation into a Spellstutter Sprite is more permission than some decks can handle).
- They haven't made a Counterspell yet that was too expensive to play.
I think that it will be interesting to see just where Soul Manipulation finds its home. Will it be the card that Five-Color Control uses to recycle its Cloudthreshers? Will it instead be the card that Fae uses to recover its air force, grounded by Cloudthreshers and Volcanic Fallouts?