I am a little late for this set review. That might actually be for the better – more data has been gathered by now so evaluations can be more precise. As before I’ll be focusing more about large cubes. Overall AER has less cubeable cards compared to its size than Kaladesh and they are less potent. It is still a good set for the format however and offers at least one staple that will see play in even the smallest of cubes.
The expertise cycle
The most innovative new component in Aether Revolt that is worthy of consideration for cube. This mechanic is close to the Dark Ritual rider on Dark Petition. The immediate thing to note is that it will never create card advantage, only tempo. That added tempo has to be worth the increased cost of the base effect of the card.
The way we gain tempo is conditional. Not always will we have a fitting spell in hand. It has to be of a certain converted mana cost or lower. The more expensive the card we chain the better, but we will not want to change the whole curve of the deck just to fit an expertise trigger. Furthermore, as the whole expertise cycle is sorcery, many instant cards will be ruled off for free casting purposes. The biggest group of cards that fit that description is counters, but so are removal cards with limited range such as Disenchant that likely will not have a target at every stage of the game. You mostly want to do something proactive for the tempo to be worth it. Therefore they are better for midrange decks than control. Making a planeswalker is of the best uses of the trigger and mana rocks are not bad either so they are not useless for control decks, just weaker.
As a minor side note, Ancestral Vision’s stock will go up if a few cards of this cycle will find a permanent home in cubes.
Yahenni’s Expertise – staple
This is the only piece of the cycle which I am sure will see play in large cubes for a long time. Never before did we have a -3/-3 mass removal for four mana. It is a significant upgrade over Infest cards as many three drops are now 2/3s, and some cards like Garruk Wildspeaker create multiple 3 toughness tokens. Toxic Deluge and Damnation are better, as they less limited by what they can remove for the same cost or less. But between Expertise and Languish there is an open competition. Languish kills more critters, but the jump from 3 toughness to 4 is not too significant.
So what about that trigger? There is usually little point in casting a spot removal after YE. However, following up with a Liliana, Oblivion Ring on their equipment or just a 3 drop of your own is a huge swing. Ever went turn 4, kill their board, discard their hand with Hymn to Tourach? Now you can do that. It has great synergy with black reanimation spells like Necromancy that target each graveyard. This expertise will not have a useful trigger as often as the other cards on this cycle but it doesn’t need to, as it is close to cost effective on its own. Even if Languish turns out to be superior, it is comfortably the 4th best black mass removal and an easy inclusion at 720. Smaller cubes will have to choose between it and Languish and I think in this case, the more interesting card is also the more powerful one.
Kari Zev’s Expertise – playable, will see heavy play as it is the best in its category
So far it overperforms. Threaten effects have never been big in cubes as they are situational cards by their nature. When it is dead in hand it is hard not to wish it was some form of burn or threat. While red had more expensive Threatens with a bonus, like Zealous Conscripts or Eldrazi Obligator, most red decks cannot really afford to pay 5 mana for something that doesn’t end the game now in high likelihood. KZE is the best threaten effect for the majority of red decks – aggro. It will be able to chain over half your deck. Just the tempo of playing it turn three, removing a blocker for that attack step and adding a few more points of power to your side, as well as dumping a two drop to the board, is well worth it. It goes well with spells matters cards such as Young Pyromancer. Just having access to that unexpected effect for the red mage will improve games. Now just leaving that untapped Baneslayer Angel might not be enough.
Despite that, Threaten effect are only good or even useful at all against certain parts of the field. You do not want to grab a looter, token, or wall with it. It is also never a replacement for true burn and threats. It is a dead card if they are mana screwed, it doesn’t deal with anything for good, and it doesn’t hit planeswalkers directly like burn. As such it is more of a luxury card for decks that can afford it or a sideboard card. I am happy to have it but it is far from necessary.
Sram’s Expertise –playable token support card.
This expertise has the highest chances of getting a good pair with a cheaper card. That is due to white having so few instants. White has the most competitive three drop list among the colors and all are good follow ups for SE. Oblivion Ring and the like complement it well. The downsides are numerous though. It is yet another four drop, in a color notorious for having insane four drops. You can count it as a creature as the competition is far weaker there, but still there is a limit to how many cards costing that much a deck can have. Your Gideon, Armageddon and Hero are a league ahead. And it is not good enough alone. You want heavy synergies for it to be good. It is not a credible threat by itself that can end games, it is small defensive value. Playing it into a three drop is a massive tempo boost but still leaves you open to mass removals, the biggest weakness of white aggro decks as is. With Skullclamp SE is great, but still very slow. In a token deck with anthems, Mirror Entity and the like it should be solid. If it will not prove so, it will simply be cut. It has the potential to be good in stacks decks or artifact decks, but the double white and the contested mana cost prevented it from doing anything in them so far.
Baral’s Expertise – high variance card, silly ceiling and low floor
Expertise is yet another five mana blue sorcery of potentially stupid power level that is disproportionately good against midrange. Bouncing three guys is close to a blue mass removal, ending games on the offense and stalling on the defense. This is one of the better and most used options of Mystic Confluence. Expertise is much weaker of course, but can enable some sick plays. You can immediately replay a creature you control with CMC 4 or less, untapping it and getting an ETB effect again. A loop with Eternal Witness. It can also bounce artifacts, which makes this spell a bit less narrow and conditional and it can also untap your own mana rock. The dream follow up is still a planeswalker, the four mana Jaces are prime examples. Where it falls short is when you have nothing to cast off the trigger. Paying five mana and losing a card just to stall is harsh. When you can bounce a creature, a sword, kill a token, play a Jace and now the way is clear to kill their planeswalker, this is off the charts. In your old reactive blue decks, this is likely not worth playing. Simic will love this, Izzet will have little interest. This cards needs more testing than the rest of the cycle to see its full potential as it is so variant in power level.
Rishkar’s Expertise – unplayable
When you have a sizable creature out this is good. But that is too conditional. You want your six drops to help when you are behind, to go well with your green ramp when played early or at least to be tutorable by Green Sun’s Zenith or pitchable to Survival of the Fittest. RE can be good as your second midrange card cast, if the first was not hit by removal before. In other words – too conditional and narrow.
Revolt is not nearly as consistent in cube as in other formats such as modern. Fetchland density in large cubes is low, but even in small cubes it is woefully inconsistent. There are few cards that can be played in one turn and sacrificed/bounced for free in another, making all revolt spells effectively cost more than their CMC for full effect. The difference in consistency means that while many cards with the mechanic are very strong in other formats, they mostly miss for cube.
Greenwheel Liberator – unplayable
When you get a 1G 4/3 on turn 2 with a fetch, it is great. In the much more common case, it costs 1GG or more (but you get the effect of the second card). Bodies without abilities lose relevance quickly however. A 4/3 is not nearly as exciting on turn 3 or 4 as on turn 2. Never something I want to topdeck either. To burrow from Nicholas West, this closer to Talara’s Battalion than Tarmogoyf.
Renegade Rallier – fringe playable
The advantage this card has over others with revolt is that you do not necessarily want to play it over turn 3. When you can get the revolt trigger, you do not only get a card, but you the mana cost or get another free land drop. Very good with Black Lotus. Being is a 3/2 with no abilities in gold for three mana is terrible though. Selesnya is a stacked guild which does not help this card.
Fatal Push – fringe playable
In constructed formats it is a tremendous card, in cube it is nothing special. Black has a deep suit of two mana removal spells that are also instant and not capped by the size of creature they can hit. You will be sad holding this when facing a titan, Myr Battlesphere or just a three drop. There is still merit for including it, as there is a shortage of one mana removal options, and costing one mana over two is a large difference against aggro or when answering cards like Pack Rat. Dismember and Snuff Out are clearly better, which leaves Tragic Slip and Disfigure as comparisons.
Disfigure can kill a few things easily that Push cannot, such as Mulldrifter. Equally as important, it answers some high priority 4+ mana targets without revolt conditioning, such as Oracle of Mul Daya and Sower of Temptation. Thing is, about half of the expensive targets provide value outside of their body and spending a removal spell on them is not attractive. Using Disfigure as a combat trick was rare in practice and usually just delayed your death by a turn. Disfigure is dead against some decks. Push will be dead less often as it can hit manlands and tokens of all sizes. Tragic Slip has a higher best case scenario but a much worse base mode. Fatal Push is a serviceable card but far from the top rate answers. I have ignored the revolt part of the card, because it is unreliable, especially early, making it hard to count on as far as answers go. Terror variants will always be superior if it is 3 drops you are after.
A few words about Regicide – if you mostly draft your cube, Regicide is hard to beat. It will have 0-1 decks from a table of 8 against which it does nothing. Regicide will quite consistently hit 40% or more of their targets with no conditioning. It is a good removal for a mana elf as well as a Kalonian Hydra.
Solemn Recruit – fringe playable
This will eventually be large with little effort. Chump attacks will grow him. This is a slow method, the double white cost is hard and at the end of the day it will just be a big guy. Nothing is inherently wrong with that but white three drops are extremely competitive. A large dude without evasion that dies to all removal spells is just not worth the amount of time you wait. Double strike scales really well with white in general, with anthem effects, Elspeth, Knight Errant and even equipment. But we have Mirran Crusader just for that. Crusader usually has partial evasion and partial protection. It is in many cases a better blocker too. Crusader has all these qualities without further requirements.
Aethergeode Miner – fringe playable
A 3/1 body for 1W is a good base, but the ability is not doing enough to upgrade the card. Yes, it can attack into everything and survive. But still even a token blocks it indefinitely and prevents you from accumulating energy. When you do face an empty board and able to save some energy for later, Aethergeode Miner will not be killed by spot removals. It will still be killed by mass removals and be neutralized by any creature your opponent will have.
Baral, Chief of Compliance – solid inclusion
Baral is a solid card but currently overrated. The reason we want him is that the body is valuable for the cost. It is not worthy of play in your deck if you are not interested in the body. In decks heavy with mass removals or ramp, play a mana rock instead. Many decks have low amounts of non-permanents. The exceptions, burn decks and spell matters, play many cards that cost one mana anyway and do not enjoy the reduction. Permission decks play one counterspell a turn. Getting two discounts in one turn off of Baral should be a very rare occurrence. As such, the mana saving it generates is similar to a mana rock, but narrower. Giving a discount to 5+ cards in your deck should be rare. It also dies to far more spells than the artifacts.
It is still a solid card, as the 1/3 body is great in certain matchups, mostly against aggro. Blue has very few cheap defensive cards. Cards that so that and advance your game plan are golden. This is a good counter for Savannah Lions and Young Pyromancers. I am continuously surprised how well Omenspeaker is holding its place. At the very least they are sideboard cards, in many deck lists it is hard keeping them out of the main deck. With Baral, if you managed to have two useful cost reductions (as with other cost reduction cards many will be essentially irrelevant, resulting in a single untapped land here and there that never gets used) the 1/3 body was essentially free. The looting option seems like it would happen rarely, but in reality is quite good. While you will get only 1-2 such triggers per game at most, they can be critical. I’m a happy a bone was finally thrown to blue permission decks, they were getting continually worse for the last few years.
As for who is better, Omenspeaker or Baral, I’m not sure. Upon release I’d say Baral is better. From testing though he did not shine as much. If I am passing the turn up with counter mana up, the cost reduction is not often relevant, especially as many counter cost double blue mana. Being able to play a mass removal on turn three is not that attractive as there are fewer things to kill and Baral will die too. Playing a mass removal off of three lands sometimes is game changing. Omenspeaker can just help you find that fourth land, which is far better for your future. It also digs for the mass removal. The Greek oracle is miles better late game and more keepable with a two land hand. For all these reasons I predict Omenspeaker will be the better card.
Disallow – fringe playable
Vastly overrated. I was saying since it was spoiled the card is worse than Dissolve, people said I was crazy. Now the consensus shifted considerably as testing results started to pile up. Cancel is bad. There are few instances where a Stifle is worth a card and 3 mana. Countering a fetch land trigger is too little too late. Countering an equip trigger is not really worth your card except in extreme cases, and if you play 3 mana counters it is not tempo you are after. The high profile scenarios where a stifle is good are Planeswalker ultimates and eldrazi titans. With planeswalkers, ultimates are so rare that it is hardly worth thinking about and you would rather prevent them in other ways as repeated unopposed plus abilities will likely mean the game is unrecoverable for you either way. Against Eldrazi Titans, most of the time you would opt to counter the body still and not the trigger. Again, Dissolve digs for your land drops early, and specific answers, finishers and just more counters late. As Cancel variants are bad, and Forbid is also better, it is hard justifying Disallow. A deck with two or more Cancels is in a bad shape. It is the most playable Stifle yet is part of a sufficiently unattractive package that it does not make playable often.
Skyship Plunderer – unplayable
Blue is not and cannot be an aggro color. It has no one drops. It can play tempo decks, if paired with other colors. Said other colors should supply better two drops. A 2/1 flier for 2 in blue is, unlike white, too narrow to see play. The hardly relevant trigger does not add much to the card.
Trophy Mage – unplayable
As other effects like it, it is significantly more consistent in smaller cubes. Unplayable there too due to low powerlevel, so we have an all around loser. There are strong artifacts costing 3 mana, no doubt. Trinket Mage is great in powered cubes. Why one is a commonly found card and the other doesn’t cut it?
- Trophy will rarely have immediate impact. A mox and Lotus will be played right away, a Trinket Mage + Mana Vault will both be playable on turn four. To play Trophy and its target you need six mana, and for the five swords, a significant portion of its targets, even more.
- Lower individual power level. Skullclamp and Sol Ring are so powerful it is worth building around them and worth playing a subpar body just to get a second copy. Trophy just has lesser targets.
- Amount of targets. With Trinket Mage it is far easier to have multiple targets in the same deck. Vedalken Shackles and Grafted Wargear are great cards but unlikely to see play together. In general, equipment has diminishing returns and playing two swords + Treasure Mage is an overkill and too slow for practical purposes. The 3 mana cards lend themselves to different archetypes. The cheap artifacts are playable everywhere.
- Relating to the previous two points, Trinket is playable even with one target many times do to sufficient power level. Trophy almost never is.
Yahenni, Undying Partisan – niche, multiplayer
As a standalone card, the body of a Golbin Guide is not cutting it at three times the price. There are some deck archetypes that want sacrifice outlets, and this could be among the better ones available. It is mono colored, splashable, a creature so it is easily tutorable and reanimatable and removal resilient. In a multiplayer setting this card could very well be playable at face value.
Glint-Sleeve Siphoner – solid playable
Despite many improvements in recent years, black’s two drops are still lacking. That just shows how bad they were before! A splashable two drop with two power and evasion is a very fine best case scenario, drawing a card every other is a serious upside as well. Of course the card draw is slow, unreliable and should average to less than one card per game even if Siphoner is landed on turn two. You do not play it because it is a Dark Confidant, you play it because you are an aggressive deck and it fits your curve. It is a fine card and the competition is so lacking it should see play for the following few years quite comfortably in large cubes.
Gifted Aetherborn – playable
This is a desirable effect for black decks. A 2/3 body with lifelink on turn two is great against aggro, deathtouch gives it game against midrange. Black has many self-hurting cards so the demand for life gain exists. The thing holding this grounded Vampire Nighthawk back is the dreaded double black cost. Black is already a mana intense color, with Hymn to Tourach, Bloodghast, Sinkhole and other options. As such there are strong justifications not to run yet another BB card.
Kari Zev, Skyship Raider – staple
The only staple of this set for small cubes. She is hands down the best attacking red two drop. As red is an aggressive color that makes her the best two drop overall. She is very hard to block completely, requiring three bodies. While Ravagan might be brickwalled sometimes, the sky pirate will infiltrate through defenses reliably. Unlike other menace cards, she is very hard to kill with 1/1 blockers, requiring four of them. She is a great holder of equipment too. She has positive synergies with Hero of Oxid Ridge and Purphoros, as well as any instant speed sacrifice outlet and every anthem effect. She triggers Revolt. She is even a good blocker for her mana cost. Easily good enough in a color that still packs Borderland Marauders.
Release the Gremlins – undecided
The average case scenario should be Manic Vandal. Unplayable if no target is out, but can sometimes kill more than one artifact. Which of the two is more common? I have a feeling that the former, but this will be tested. Also notable are the losses of creature synergies (Alesha/Recruiter in particular).
Aether Chaser – low playable
Actually a fine card I have underestimated. It is contained by the new wave of 2/3s and is less potent against planeswalkers. However turns out first strike is very valuable. It kills most one and two drops outright, doesn’t die to token blocks. First strike scales very well with burn and equipment. Having two bodies from one card playing into the token and going wide themes in red very well. Chaser is good against many cards red decks have trouble with, such as Kitchen Finks and most left-over utility bodies.
Rishkar, Peema Renegade – low playable to solid
Green is a color well suited for three drops, as it can usually play them on turn two. That said, green has few aggressive options in that mana cost. Rishkar is a fine attacking body alone, and will usually pump something else. The dream is turn 1 one drop, turn two 2 drop and turn three Rishkar, double pump, attack. Rishkar is still fine as an unreliable yet handy way to ramp, or even ramp twice. If you have some board, late game it can effectively cost one mana. It can even target your opponent’s Phantasmal Image, or create absurd amounts of mana with Nissa, Voice of Zendikar. Resetting a Kitchen Finks is always nice. A lot of options and passable worst case scenario make this card good, although the average case scenario is fair.
Tezzeret the Schemer – niche
This will not see a lot of play simply because Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas exists. Schemer can only protect itself reliably in certain decks. It can get to high loyalty immediately, but then it is also something that can be usually ignored. It is great against control, the ultimate is fast and unstoppable. The issue here is narrowness. It is not only a gold card, it requires specific decks to be playable and in them it is still the inferior version.
Ajani Unyielding – unplayable
This does too little for a six drop. It can draw cards, but that requires the board to be heavily in your favor – we want our six drops to affect the board. The removal option gets the job done, but leaves Ajani with funny two loyalty, and only deals with one threat that has to be a creature. It will not survive or help you survive too often to like the kitty. This is cube, we have Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and titans at that mana cost. Mandatory cliché Selesnya is very competitive comment.
Rogue Refiner – probably playable
We never had a cantrip body with power equal to its mana cost. Elvish Visionary is much worse stats wise and requires synergy to matter. Phyrexian Rager is closer. Refiner has an extra point of power and no life loss, will it be enough to make this gold card cubeable, considering that Rager hasn’t seen play in large cubes in years? I am hopeful, many decks will be interested in that kind of value. The energy will generally not matter but having some is all upside.
Aethersphere Harvester – probably fringe playable
Aggro doesn’t care about the lifelink and high toughness, control doesn’t have enough creatures. Where this is quite good is in green and token decks. Green is weak to fliers and has many one power elves. Sphere is a totally unnecessary aggro hoser for the color, but is kept in check by the fragility of said elves. In token decks it is evasion, life gain and more importantly, threat diversification. It survives mass removals. By threatening planeswalkers and being a huge pain for aggro, it is well rounded all said and done. The most Sci-fi art in cubes that play it.
Walking Ballista – staple
There is a second staple in the set, at least for medium cubes. Ballista is so flexible she can lick her elbow. At every single mana cost she is going to look bad, but there is immense value in having a single card filling all of them. For two mana it is just a Lava Dart, but that is what you want against that early Dark Confidant or BoP. It is colorless removal, a rare trait. Later in the game it is a mana sink. Some decks generate stupid amounts of mana and need ways to put it to use. Happens mostly with Tolarian Academy, Gaea’s Cradle, Channel, Mirari’s Wake and Regal Behemoth. There are others, such as Mana Vault/Grim Monolith + ways to untap them and Metalworker. Once you have Ballista on the table, you can pump it every turn and clear the board or prevent new creatures from being cast. It is also fetchable with Trinket Mage and has some minor +1/+1 counter synergies.
Metallic Mimic – niche
Not only pumping only a specific tribe, it has to be cast before your other cards. The body is bad and you do not want it to die in combat, making that a total liability. Best in token decks, but tokens have very differing creature types. It is of the most playable persist combo pieces however. Obviously a must in tribal cubes.
Heart of Kiran – ?
The crew route is difficult and doesn’t add much offensive value. As such I’d only look to play Heart in decks with at least 2 or more planeswalkers. In said decks it can protect them well, kill opposing planeswalkers and just do a Celestial Colonnade impression of a big, evasive, and hard to kill threat. A way to push damage through with your Accorder Paladin when the ground is clogged up, but you need quite a few cards like it before Heart is consistently playable. Super friends is popular here so it is getting a spin. It will have to be very good when it playable to earn a spot.
Untethered Express – probably unplayable
Very fat, evasive and somewhat hard to kill. The downfalls are its slowness and total predictability. You see it coming, can prepare your removal and then you get no value from the train. For a card that has little defensive value and does nothing alone, that is unimpressive. Difficult for some forms of control to deal with, but not more than any other vehicle.