There is no better feeling than having the entirety of a new set virtually laid out in front of you and trying to get a feel for what cards will fit into what formats. I don't generally play Eternal formats and rarely Cube, but other than that I have spent the last week or so thinking about how these new cards will fit into my existing Draft strategies; what new strategies they will open up; and what Block, Standard, and Modern implications these cards will have in the coming months. Along with the forty- and sixty-card implications, I also think about what handful of cards I want to add to my Momir Vig, Simic Visionary Commander deck and what cards I have to be wary of around the table.
I am going to be headed to a local game store—New World Manga in Livingston, NJ—this weekend for my first chance to play with the cards. I played there for my first experience with Innistrad Sealed Deck and did very well with a super-aggressive red-white deck that curved from cheap creatures into efficient removal. We have seen that aggressive white approach win many byes over the past few months of Limited Grand Prix, but without six packs of Innistrad will there be enough creatures to fill out the roster?
Three creatures in the common slot immediately jump out at me as cards I want to find among my commons if I am looking to play white. Loyal Cathar is exactly the kind of beater you want to drop on turn two and he will give your opponents fits. Even if they don't block him they still have to deal with the Cathar when attacking since he has vigilance. Mike Turian made a Hall of Fame career out of attacking his 2/2 into the maw of bigger creatures. Sometimes he had the trick and sometimes he didn't, but he always forced his opponents to over-think combat and as a result play sub-optimally. Loyal Cathar gives you the chance to make your opponents play badly when they are attacking or blocking or—if they are wary of your untapped mana—choosing to do neither. What makes the Loyal Cathar so frustrating is that even if they manage to kill your creature in combat or with a removal spell, you get bonus combat phases with his shambling remains.
I could easily see Loyal Cathar being the first card I pick in a Dark Ascension booster draft next weekend. Since it is double-faced, it would send a signal to the table that I wanted to be white and ideally it would leave me in a good position to round up the other good white commons that would form the core of any good Limited deck. Midnight Guard is another card that really changes the dynamics of combat in the early turns of the game. Traditionally, players will settle into patterns in Limited, and being able to untap your Guard after playing a post-combat creature disrupts that pattern—the 3 toughness makes things tricky as well. This is just a really solid creature you should be happy to play in almost any white creature deck in Limited.
(As Jake Van Lunen pointed out in his column this week, Midnight Guard can be paired with Elemental Mastery for infinite hasty tokens in older Constructed formats, and if for some perverse reason you wanted to build a red-white Splinter Twin—I don't know, maybe you hate card drawing and counterspells—you now have two different creatures that can wear the eponymous aura of that deck in Midnight Guard and Village Bell-Ringers. I am in no way endorsing this as a strategy for anyone other than self-griefers.)
One of the reasons I built that first deck so aggressively way back at my Innistrad prerelease was because I had a pair of Crossway Vampire, which seemed like an ideal card—if not the ideal casting cost with —for a deck that was looking to push exactly 20 damage across the red zone as quickly as possible. Niblis of the Mist seems like an ideal upgrade that not only provides an efficient evasion creature but helps you push through damage on the turn you play it by tapping a key blocker. It is not common, but Niblis of the Urn gives you an aggressive tapper that will force your opponent to leave extra creatures back on defense if you are ahead in the race to 20.
While I was red-white at the start of the Innistrad format, my aggressive decks tended toward green-white and white-blue as the format progressed. Looking at the blue options has my mouth watering at the all the possibilities. Four untapped mana from a blue opponent is going to be a real dilemma in this format. Is your opponent sitting on Bone to Ash—Limited players who have been at it for a long time are no doubt familiar with the staring matches that could ensue with a player representing Exclude mana in Invasion block—or a Nephalia Seakite to flash out? Both are common and are both excellent reasons to sit back on four mana to your opponent's turn.
And look at the rest of the blue fliers there at common and uncommon! Stormbound Geist is a persistent pain for your opponents thanks to its undying ability. Tower Geist is a really exciting compromise between the evoke and actual casting cost of a Mulldrifter—and is another candidate for first card drafted from Dark Ascension for me. One of the cards I am really excited about is Saving Grasp. I can see myself tearing through my deck with Tower Geist and both ends of a Saving Grasp, but where I think the card really shines is with undying. The new mechanic is going to be at the center of many Limited Chess matches—and I am sure this is true in Constructed as well—as opponents attempt to parlay some combination of blocks and removal to deal with pesky undying creatures twice.
Imagine a situation where your opponent has to deal with your Stormbound Geist, which is threatening to fly over for lethal in the next couple of turns. Your opponent plays Spidery Grasp to block and kill it the first time and then when it comes back with its +1/+1 counter, it requires a Brimstone Volley to finish it off. Saving Grasp is just backbreaking there, since you forced a two-for-one, but you also get to have your Grasp sitting in your graveyard ready to be flashed back if your opponent can "deal" with your Stormbound Geist again. It is also a great, cheap answer to cards like Claustrophobia and Sensory Deprivation. It is a tricky card to justify in your starting forty but I am sure I will have dozens and dozens of them in my Magic Online collection by the time the format is displaced by Avacyn Restored.
My favorite draft deck in this format has been the green-blue mill yourself strategy that Steve Sadin wrote about here. I have long joked about wanting to play Mental Note in that archetype. As a long time threshold advocate, Mental Note is easily among my favorite Magic cards of all time, and Thought Scour is just a strictly better version of that card—since you can actually use it to mill-kill your opponent from time to time. I love the Spider Spawning deck so much that I have been playing it in Standard for the past month or so. I was pretty excited to find a home for Visions of Beyond in that deck, but little did I know that it was actually just keeping a seat warm for Thought Scour. Here is the updated version of the deck I like to call Spidey Senseless.
I have seen Block versions of this deck floating around with both Boneyard Wurm and Splinterfright and people porting that over to Standard. I chose to keep the Titan package because of the threat of Nihil Spellbomb, which plenty of decks have been sporting. While your graveyard strategy can get shut down by a Spellbomb, it does nothing to deal with the fatness of a Titan on the board. If you opt for the version that is playing with Wurm and the 'fright you not only lose your graveyard to the Spellbomb but you lose your creatures as well.
I know that I am 100% putting four copies of Thought Scour in the deck, but there are certainly some other worthy candidates for inclusion in Dark Ascension. Dawntreader Elk could be a reasonable replacement for Rampant Growth—although Snapcastering Rampant Growth has become one of my favorite things to do with this deck—and certainly can slot right into a block version. Ghoultree is a fine fatty to add to the deck and gives you some way to play off your graveyard if you haven't found an answer to a...
...I am not going to curse...
...I am not going to curse...
...melon-farming Grafdigger's Cage. This card is going to be the bane of my existence and force me to have access to artifact removal for all my favorite strategies. I usually have two or three copies of Ancient Grudge in the sideboard of my Spidey Senseless deck, but I suspect I need to go to four since I actually need to draw it against the Cage. I have been playing a Vengevine deck in Modern very similar to the deck David Ochoa used to make the Top 8 of Nationals in 2010. The deck is very fast and can often attack for 8 or even 12 on turn two, but not with a turn-one Cage in play.
Or just look at the deck that Mike Flores wrote about yesterday in Top Decks as played in the Magic Online PTQ by Ben Seck. It needs to be able to deal with the Cage or all of its cool toys will remain locked away for nobody to play with. The deck took advantage of Burning Vengeance and combined it with Raven's Crime and the Haakon, Stromgald Scourge/Nameless Inversion engine.
The deck is super powerful and I have been looking forward to playing something similar with the addition of Faithless Looting to the format. Upset that you can't play with the Grove of the Burnwillows/Punishing Fire combo in Modern? How about adding a Flame Jab into the deck along with the other goodies? Each land in your hand represents 3 damage that can be split up.
Faithless Looting also plays well with the dredge component of the deck. You can dredge to "draw" Life from the Loam or a Dakmor Salvage. It seems utterly filthy in this deck. Even better, it lets you dig to find your artifact removal in the second or third games against people running Cage.
Morbid has added an interesting wrinkle to combat in Limited, from the increased damage output of Brimstone Volley to turning on a Morkrut Banshee. I know that once this new set is released I am going to be much more reluctant to trade a creature on turn four if my opponent has the potential to play Gruesome Discovery that turn. Discarding two cards of your choice is bad enough, but having your opponent dissect your hand is just backbreaking—especially since you'll then probably lose lands, specific lands that produce a color you need, or your best cards. I expect that this card will loom over many decisions about whether or not to trade a creature in combat. I have to wonder if it could see play in Constructed as well. Agonizing Memories certainly saw play at the same casting cost and this can just be brutal if you have some way to turn on morbid at will.
Increasing Ambition is a card I know I will see a lot of in Commander. Mono-black decks have the ability to generate scads of mana with Cabal Coffers, Gauntlet of Power, and other cards that accelerate your mana output. It is not hard to imagine a scenario where a player could play this, flash it back, and tutor up a three-card combo very easily in Commander decks. I know I always threaten to build another Commander deck, but the ability to double tutor with this thanks to the flashback is very appealing. Fortunately, there are a handful of cards for me to slip into the green-blue veteran I have been playing for as long as I have been engaged in the format.
Grim Flowering is certainly a tempting little number for the format that can nicely restock your hand in the mid-to-late game, but I'm not sure it will replace Praetor's Counsel, which currently excels in that role right now. Tracker's Instinct, on the other hand, is going straight into the deck over something similar—I have not decided what yet—since I can use both sides of the card very nicely. I also expect that this card will go into all my green-blue self-mill decks as well. There is nothing more frustrating than having a perfectly suited card for that deck like a Splinterfright or Kessig Cagebreakers only to Mulch it away. Tracker's Instinct is going to shine in any deck but a self-mill deck that can use both sides of the spell, and includes strong finishers, is going to be the ideal home for it.
Strangleroot Geist is a card people are very excited about and for good reason. I am looking forward to playing with undying in Constructed and seeing what ways there are to really exploit the mechanic. Virulent Wound is a card that has seen Constructed play as a cheap answer to cards like Delver of Secrets and Stromkirk Noble, but it gains additional value in the undying world. Just imagine a scenario where your opponent is going to kill your Strangleroot Geist that has already come back from beyond with a +1/+1 counter. Your opponent just decided to finish it off with a Brimstone Volley. In response, you can cast Virulent Wound on your own creature—the +1/+1 counter and the –1/–1 counter will negate each other and when the Brimstone Volley resolves your creature will come back just as strong as it was before.
Another nice synergy is Contagion Clasp, which can not only reset your undying creatures back to a counterless state, but once they come back you can just keep making them bigger by proliferating +1/+1 counters on them. Undying also plays nicely with Birthing Pod—something Jake pointed out earlier this week. I expect that deck to make something of a comeback since you will want to be upgrading your Vorapede into a bigger Vorapede and a Massacre Wurm considering all the token decks that are sure to be running around.
Just look at all the tools for that deck. Phyrexian mana—be it from Spellskite or Hex Parasite—can let you turn on fateful hour to make five tokens with Gather the Townsfolk. Don't worry about losing all that life, though, since you get to make it up pretty quickly with the help of an offensive boost from Sorin, Lord of Innistrad and the lifelink provided by Vault of the Archangel.
It's going to be fun getting to fully comprehend the dark mysteries of this new set at the Prereleases this week, Launch parties next week, and then under the tutelage of the best players in the world, who are all descending on Honolulu for Pro Tour Dark Ascension.