"Listen to them, the children of the night. What sweet music they make."
—Gary Oldman as Dracula in
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
After weeks of speculation, teasers, and slow reveals, Innistrad is finally upon us, with Prereleases taking place the world wide all weekend, many of them fittingly kicking off at midnight Friday. With the cracking of those packs, before the crack of dawn, players will start humming to the sweet music of the new cards while fantasizing about the fiendish creations they are going to build to terrorize their local Friday Night Magic.
I am going to be spending next weekend—the very first days that Innistrad is legal in Standard—in Philadelphia sitting in the GGsLive booth at the $10,000 MtgGrudgeMatch, and I have been doing my homework about what this new Standard format might look like. I have been pouring over the set since it went live this past Monday and looking for the cards, combinations, and linear strategies that might make their dramatic debut on camera next Saturday...
...and, of course, looking for potential Commander cards for the ongoing fiendish design of my Momir Vig, Simic Visionary deck.
One of the first card combinations that jumped out to me was Angelic Overseer and Divine Reckoning. Divine Reckoning is an interesting card—vaguely comparable to past cards like Cataclysm—but if you can break the symmetry, it becomes much more than interesting. With an Angelic Overseer making another creature indestructible you can keep two creatures to your opponent's single creature since Divine Reckoning "destroys" all the other creatures. I am not sure this is going to set Standard on fire, but it is certainly something we could see happening in Block Constructed, and I would not be unhappy to see it come up in a game of Commander.
I think that if we see any white decks emerge from the new Standard it will most likely be a ragtag band of villagers—pitchforks optional. Honor of the Pure is sitting around waiting to be used in a Standard deck, and there are plenty of Humans willing to take the purity test to get into the deck. Elite Vanguard leads the way, followed by Champion of the Parish, Cloistered Youth, Elite Inquisitor, and Fiend Hunter. Even Selfless Cathar is good here with the ability to inspire the rest of the team for a lethal swarm with its self sacrifice.
The deck can come out of the gate super fast. A turn-one Champion of the Parish that can attack for 3 on turn two—and we know that is a winning formula thanks to Wild Nacatl—with a couple of one-drop humans. You can also cast Elite Vanguard followed by Cloistered Youth, transform the Youth into Unholy Fiend and drop an Honor of the Pure on turn three, and attack for 6. With a Fiend Hunter to clear the way a turn later or a Mentor of the Meek to refuel your hand, the game can get out of reach pretty quickly. And that is just sticking to white. What happens when you add red to the mix and can burn out blockers and opponents along the way?
There is also a red beatdown deck that is not as tribal as the white one, with Stromkirk Noble, Bloodcrazed Neonate, and Stormblood Berserker all amassing +1/+1 counters early and often. Throw in the proliferating goodness of Volt Charge and Tezzeret's Gambit and you can see this deck being even faster than the classic White Weenie listed above.
This could also be the start of a blue-red beatdown deck. Blue-red has traditionally been the colors of combo decks—or even occasionally control decks. What happens when you add a little Mana Leak and/or Mental Misstep into the mix? While we are there I see no reason to not start flashing stuff back with Snapcaster Mage. By the way... the Berserker is Human and works well with Champion of the Parish for a more traditional red-white beatdown deck that can still exploit Volt Charge and even Tezzeret's Gambit.
Mentor of the Meek has got to be feeling a tad nervous with so many mad scientists eager to get him into their labs. I know it is a card I can't wait to play with in Limited, and it is very high on my wish list to open this weekend when I head out to my local Prerelease. It seems especially exciting with all the cards that make Spirit tokens.
Will Mentor of the Meek find a home in Constructed? It seems inevitable. One of the more outlandish combinations I have concocted involves tinkering up Mentor of the Meek with Birthing Pod off of Reassembling Skeletons. From there you can pay four mana to turn your Reassembling Skeletons into a Skaab Ruinator each turn and draw a card.
All right... you probably don't need the Mentor of the Meek there. If you tinker up two Skaab Ruinators, the game is probably going to be over very quickly, and you won't need to spend any time drawing extra cards with the Mentor. Birthing Pod has been a popular card in Standard for a while now but has not emerged as a dominating force yet. With Zendikar block and Magic 2011 rotating, it gets a clean slate to work with and a chance to become a tier one deck. It also gets an exciting new mechanic that is tailor-made to be paired with it: morbid.
You can go up the chain, starting with a Skinrender taking down an opposing creature and tinkering that into Morkrut Banshee with guaranteed morbidity thanks to the sacrificed Skinrender. You can parlay the Banshee into Reaper from the Abyss if need be—again, it is going to fulfill its morbid condition—or you can just Sun Titan getting back Phantasmal Image to copy Sun Titan to return a Skaab Ruinator for 17 points of power. I am expecting to see plenty of grudges settled next weekend with Birthing Pod front and center.
Essence of the Wild is a card that I want to cheat out with a swarm of other creatures or play in a deck that spawns a lot of token creatures. Awakening Zone would be a perfect fit to help pay for Essence of the Wild and to make a fresh 6/6 for the rest of the game's upkeeps. Keep in mind that you are under no obligation to tap out and give your opponent an opportunity to just kill your Essence of the Wild before it starts making their lives difficult. You can always wait until you get to seven mana with an Elf or Bird in hand. Assuming the coast is clear, you can cast the Essence and then cast the one-drop. You now have two copies of the card on the battlefield, and your opponent has to deal with both of them before you untap and do something ugly like Genesis Wave up a batch of 6/6 one-drops. (Note that the Genesis Wave trick only works if you've already got an Essence of the Wild out—if you're relying on the Wave to find Essence of the Wild, the other creatures in the same Wave will miss out.)
Ever since the PAX party, which was the debut of double-faced cards and Mayor of Avabruck, I have been looking forward to flipping a Werewolf and copying the nighttime version with either Phantasmal Image, Phyrexian Metamorph, or—more recently—Cackling Counterpart. While the original will get transformed should a single player cast two spells in a turn, the copied version has no other side to transform into, and will remain in its more formidable state indefinitely.
One card that has been quietly whispering to me whenever I am thinking about Birthing Pod is Parallel Lives. It is not hard for me to imagine a Parallel Pod deck that uses the Splicers, Geist-Honored Monk, Wurmcoil Engine, and the cherry on top: Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. Doubling Season has always been a card that people want to build around, but at five mana it was perhaps just a tad overpriced to cast in Constructed. Will four be the Magic number for the new Standard? There is no shortage of cards that make tokens to pair with it—Elspeth Tirel, Fresh Meat, Grave Titan, Hero of Bladehold, Jade Mage, Kuldotha Rebirth, Mimic Vat, Myr Battlesphere, Pentavus, Phyrexian Rebirth, Prototype Portal, Shrine of Loyal Legions, Timely Reinforcements, White Sun's Zenith, and Zombie Infestation all get a boost from the new card. Cards coming in with Parallel Lives that are exciting to pair it with include Garruk Relentless and Cackling Counterpart.
The most compelling pairing with the green enchantment is Geist of Saint Traft, which does some filthy work—especially if you lead off with Birds of Paradise. A turn-two Geist gets to attack for 10 on turn three with a parallel 4/4 token entering the battlefield also tapped and attacking. Toss Angelic Destiny on your legendary Geist and the game could be over as soon as turn five.
I have been looking for a card to replace Consecrated Sphinx in my Commander deck. It is fair enough—and by "fair" I mean "merely back-breaking"—in one-on-one Commander but in multiplayer games it is utterly warping. It is not fun to play with, and it is definitely not fun to have everyone at the table come gunning for you and then die with a dozen cards in your hand. The card I most excited to replace it with is Back from the Brink, a.k.a. the blue Yawgmoth's Will for creatures. Almost all of the creatures in my deck do something when they enter the battlefield, and I am looking forward to the landslide of card advantage this card is going to generate as I summon token versions of Coiling Oracle, Wood Elves, Jungle Barrier, and Primeval Titan from my graveyard.
Spitting Image has been a mainstay card in my deck for some time now, and I expect that Cackling Counterpart will find a way to sneak into the deck as well. I can already be seen cackling as I copy my Tidespout Tyrant returning an opponent's permanent and then retracing Spitting Image to return two more. From there three permanents bounced per spell, combined with attacking for 15, should be able to close out games pretty in pretty short order.
Rooftop Storm is one of the most flavorful cards in the entire set. Who doesn't look at this card and think about an inert Frankenstein's monster getting hoisted up into the sky on a dark and stormy night? Commander players, that's who! They start thinking about building a Lord of Tresserhorn deck that can do some filthy things. Cards like Bladewing the Risen become freebies. Pretty nice when you get to tutor for it with a Corpse Harvester that you also cast for free. I know I always threaten to build a non-Momir Commander deck and it could be this card that does it for me.
Grimoire of the Dead seems like a real game-changer for Commander, as a few discrete pieces of artifact removal are not going to cut it anymore—not if you hope to be able to deal with this card. I can usually tutor up an Acidic Slime if I need to—thank you, Momir Vig!—but with this musk-kill artifact I am going to need to add more tools to my workshed. This is a ticking time bomb in the late game when everyone is playing off the top of their decks and one that is going to seriously change the way I build all my 99-card decks for the foreseeable future given that almost any deck can play it. Hmmmmm... any deck? I do draw a lot of extra cards that I could discard...
I wrote last week about Liliana of the Veil and Unburial Rites, and I fully expect to see multiple iterations of that deck at the MTGGrudgeMatch next weekend based on talking to a handful of people who have been working on their takes on the deck. Mike Flores wrote about an updated version of Solar Flare in his most recent Top Decks, and that is as good a place as any to start if you are looking for—although I would like to see an Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite in there somewhere.
Blue-black control is also a fine place to start in the new Standard. We have seen the deck win the World Championships and most recently take down the US National Championship. The deck obviously loses a number of tools, but it also gains the ability to flashback some key spells with Tiago Chan's Invitational design, Snapcaster Mage—a card that is going to shoot up the ranks of Invitational cards and challenge the likes of Ranger of Eos, Dark Confidant, and Meddling Mage for the title of best player-created card in the game. Tribute to Hunger is going to not only kill creatures but keep the blue-black player in the game with a little life gain. Being able to cast it at the end of the turn and then flash it back for five mana on your next turn—with the help of Tiago—is going to break the back of any midrange strategy that might emerge. Or how about being able to "cycle" an early Twisted Image and then flash it back to kill a pesky Spellskite that is messing with your plans?
If the format turns out to pretty aggressive, I could see Mental Misstep making its presence known in the new Standard. I would happily pay 2 life to keep a Stromkirk Noble at bay on turn one, and being able to flash it back for 2 life and two mana with Snapcaster Mage is going to be a comfort.
It is going to be an exciting couple of weekends as Innistrad's horror unfolds across the Prerelease, early Standard events, and then the World Championships in less than two months. Don't forget to head to your local game store this weekend to listen to the first chords of that haunting sweet music.