Ixalan set review part 1 – white, blue and black

Ixalan gives us a few new horizons to explore. Besides the transforming lands, there are no innovative new mechanics. Enrage is underrepresented with only nine cards with it in the set. Damaging your own creatures is not easy in cube. You can do that with split damage burn spells (Arc Lightning) or an Earthquake variant, but that’s about it. Abusing triggers requires red, and either requires wasting precious burn damage points or some careful engineering of a mass removal that can only be done if the board state allows it. I guess you can sacrifice a Garruk Relentless for it, Enranging indeed! It still gives high incentives not to block the creature and not to chump attack into it. Still, no decks will be crafted around synergies with that mechanic.

 

White

Adanto Vanguard – solid playable

Vanguard is the latest in the lineage of 3/1 bodies for 1W with extra abilities. The closest in function was Aethergeode Miner, and they both solve one of the prominent problems that comes with these stats – every contact with an enemy one drop or token result in untimely death. Adanto has a few advantages in that regard as it actually gets rid of the roadblock. If Miner gets blocked and is flickered, that blocker will also be there next turn (no touching). Adanto also partially solves one of white weenie’s greatest weaknesses – building up after a mass removal. Considering it will beat for 3 immediately the following turn, paying 4 life seems like a no brainer in that case.

But not all is bright for the white bloodsucker. The cost of 4 life is real, as we can learn from other cards such as Anguished Unmaking. As you are the aggro deck however, you can reasonably expect it not to matter at least a third of the time as you are against a significantly slower deck. On the other hand, against the other 1-2 other aggro decks in the table, it will be unviable to activate the indestructibility. Even in the best case, you will only be able to punch through 3 blockers or so at maximum in realistic scenarios, which is quite a bit but you need to be aware of the limits (or, as the old vampiric saying goes – the fangs only go so deep). It is also pathetic on the defense (should’ve been van-attack), unlike other 3/1s which are actually quite efficient trading up that way. That said, blocking is more of a corner case than being blocked or mass removals, so Vanguard is clearly better than Miner. It is also quite good by comparison to most white two drops. Not quite an Accorder Paladin level of critter but around Adorned Pouncer’s level.

 

Kinjalli’s Sunwing – solid playable

I have been testing this since it was leaked and it did not disappoint anyone here yet. The effect is known and beloved. We can see it on Thalia and Imposing Sovereign. The body is the same as Bygone Bishop, or Trygon Predator. Cube is a format that lacks medium sized creatures in the skies, which means the dinosaur can be reliably the largest thing there until dragons and angels enter the fray. Sunwing hoses haste creatures, helps in the always challenging midrange matchup of white weenie, and is general a high value, splashable card that attracts a lot of removals (the jurassic-pleo diet had roast chicken too, sort of). It applies pressure to planeswalkers and carries equipment well. It is also a natural hoser to Sneak Attack. Sunwing fits most decks with ease. It is currently underrated in cube due to the relative redundancy of the effect, and the competition at white’s three drops. In my opinion it is better than Sovereign by quite a bit and stands tall amongst other white three drops in a large cube. A card I am happy to have at the cube.

 

Settle the Wreckage – trap

It looks like a one sided mass removal. It even costs like Day of Judgment and is an instant! That said, it has fatal drawbacks. Only removing attacking creatures makes this thing more of a Wing Shards than a mass removal. Need to deal with Dark Confidant, Eldrazi Displacer or that Jace before it flips? Too bad. It also scales worse where other mass removals are their best – when facing a mass of creatures. Getting 3-5 lands is not negligible, even in aggro decks that will likely not be able to utilize all the mana for the long term. At the very least they will have significantly better draws for the rest of the game. Much worse if they have some mana sinks, such as manlands and equipment. Also, if your opponents suspects you have this card in hand, he can play around it with relative ease, forcing you to either keep up four mana open constantly or to blow it off of subpar attacks. Consider this Wreckage settled.

 

Tocatli Honor Guard – niche

This is a sideboard card at best. It hoses only specific things, and even them not completely. Can be good in certain cube configurations, but even in best cases in traditional cubes it might affect 10 cards in a given deck. As an otherwise 1/3 for two mana that does not advance your game plan in any way, has no synergies in a typical cube and even limits your deckbuilding choices, it shouldn’t see much play.

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Blue

Chart a Course – staple

Even as a 1U draw two cards, discard a card this is not bad. It is a sorcery speed Anticipate that doesn’t dig as deep, but allows you to keep two new cards. In case of a mana screw, you’d likely choose to keep the two lands you draw, for example. It is also a discard outlet, and fuels delve, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy etc. It is splashable and such an easy inclusion for reanimator decks. Of course, in decks that can even occasionally get raid, it becomes a whole lot better. The mono blue Night’s Whisper without life loss. It is of the best sources of card advantage for blue tempo decks. As the card is cheap and plays a role in multiple archetypes, I think it will find a course to many cube lists and be a staple for years to come.

 

Jace, Cunning Castaway – low playable

Jace is at worst a 2/2 incorporeal creature plus a small planeswalker behind. That is not a low floor. The 2/2 tokens only die when they become a target of a spell, not the target of an ability. Nearly always the spell that would have targeted them would have killed them anyway, especially as they are tokens and therefore would have died either way to bounce. It is even a little advantage, a when you sacrifice your illusion (and yes, you should. Liliana is not into you, Jace) that token will become an illegal target before the spell resolves, which can cause Cryptic Command to fizzle. In reality, it will just limit the usage of that spell and Mystic Confluence a little.

The first ability is somewhat of a win more. If you have creatures connecting, while also keeping your planeswalker alive, you are in a good shape. It is sometimes a better form of inevitability than adding another illusion if you fear a mass removal, might as well build more nonlegendary totally-normie Jaces instead. Also useful when a 2/2 has lost all relevance, say a giant ground stall where a flier of yours can get through, or a Moat. Loots are always nice. The ability is bad overall and basically worse than the loyalty you gain off of it.

The ultimate can be quite quick to achieve. If you can get one, it means you can very quickly get two more. That is very cool but one heck of a win more. Overall this Jace is weaker than Jace Beleren, and in general loses out to competition in the blue three drop slot. The double blue in his cost is not doing him any favors, as in the blue aggressive decks, his best match, that color is usually the support and not the main color.

 

Spell Swindle – ?

Throw enough money at a problem, and it will go away. Spell Swindle is obviously good if you hit an expensive spell. The effect is much stronger than Mana Drain. Not only does the mana come colored, you can save it for whenever you need it. As an example, you can always have counter backup mana to whatever you wish to cast for the rest of the game. It also means you can hoard them for that emrakul, or that Tezzeret ultimate, or for when you will draw your splashed card. It is an attractive target for Torrential Gearhulk while in your graveyard. It is even not bad to target Carnage Tyrant with it, as you will still get 6 treasures. Even more niche-yet-mention-worthy cases include stax cards like Tangle Wire.

What I dislike about it is that like Bribery, Treachery or even Desertion, it is yet another blue expensive spells that punishes midrange decks. If you hit a spell that costs 4 or more, you are golden (well, treasured, it is a different kind of token). If you face an aggro deck, it will probably be so bad you will need to side it out game two. Blue is already a color that has a favorable matchup against midrange decks. As such, I think the card is not needed and that space in blue should probably be dedicated for cheaper cards in the color that will actually help against the aggressive matchups. That said the card is strong enough in his good matchups, it is just a matter of space. I’d likely test it in the place of a blue planeswalker at that mana cost.

 

Storm Fleet Aerialist – niche

If you push blue aggro really hard it is a soid card. It is terrible without the trigger, which means it is unplayable in anything but decks full of cheap creatures, yet the ceiling is not amazing. Welkin Tern is likely better for consistency, even though it is sadly not a pirate.

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Black

Dire Fleet Hoarder – niche

Generally worse than Carrier Thrall. You do not get fixing, but you do get the same ramp and it is attached to a creature. That is much better for mass removal recovery. As a sacrifice fodder, Thrall provides two creatures to sacrifice to your Abyss, or Flesh Carver. Being weaker than Carrier Thrall is not a place you generally want to be in.

 

Kitesail Freebooter – low playable

The modern Mesmeric Fiend. It has a narrower discard ability and a better body. The discard being narrower is not that much of an issue, as you are almost always taking away their removal if they have any. A large part of the value of the ability is from the knowledge you gain. Not being able to hit a creature is a downside, and not a negligible one, but not a fatal flaw.

However, being a 1/2 flier instead of a 1/1 is fantastic. A 1/2 flier can keep pinging opponents, apply pressure to planeswalkers and carry equipment. Even if all it does is keep a spell at bay for three turns, the fact that it can ping for 2 damage in the meanwhile makes that much more palatable. Fiend’s body has forever been the point that failed the card. You never want Fiend to die, so it cannot participate in combat, making it essentially a 1-for-1 against your opponent’s worst removal spell, if even that. With freebooter, you can have some cheap disruption coupled with some small pressure, making it a much better fit for decks that are interested in that effect. Bonus points for introducing a kite into the world of cube.

 

Ruin Raider – low playable

Raider is a 3/2 for 2B that will basically always replace himself that very turn in aggressive decks. That is not a bad floor. The potential of continuous free card advantage somewhat covers for the body’s ineptness in combat, with it dying to one drops. You can also just keep chipping with that one safe creature which is very large or has evasion and still get that precious booty of card avantage. Worth to note that unlike Dark Confidant, you can just stop attacking until you get lethal if you fear dying from the continuous life loss.

 

Vraska’s Contempt – unplayable

It is simply too expensive. One for one removal for four mana is not very playable. Yes it exiles, yes it gives 2 life, it is instant even, but you’d still rather have the Hero’s Downfall variants over this virtually always. Losing because you were a mana short to play that removal hurts. Utter End is almost exactly this card, and there is a reason it does not see play in cubes anymore. Black is a color with a ton of cheap removal spells and plenty of contempt and doesn’t need this.

 

Walk the Plank – unplayable

Black has too many cards that cost double black mana, with cards like Hymn to Tourach, Sinkhole, Bloodghast and several three drops that all cost double black mana. If you insist on playing a removal at that cost there is Victim of Night and Malicious Affliction.

 

Wanted Scoundrels – fringe playable

The body is excellent for what you pay. Bloodrage Brawler did not disappoint us yet. Unlike Minotaur, you get no drawback unless the Scoundrel actually dies. Bounce, exile and enchantment based removals do not incur penalties. However when it does die, the double treasure is big trouble. People will kill the scoundrel in otherwise inefficient ways just to get it. After all it is double ramp and double fixing as early as next turn, and you do not want to help your opponent cast that Titan turn 4 unless have a dinosaur brain. It is also very, very bad against mass removals. Your opponent will even have counter mana up after that turn 4 Wrath of God! The risk likely outweighs the reward here.

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Ixalan Fliplands

The fliplands are a new concept in the game. The closest yet not great analogy we have for them are the flipwalkers. The flipwalkers are one of the best cycles that have ever been printed for cube so far. That said, none of that power is intrinsic to the transform mechanic. Jace was a clear mistake, and we can assume wizards have learned from that experience to better balance this cycle.

What was the best indicator to the flipwalker success in hindsight is the quality of the creature. In the case of Kytheon, the front side alone was worth playing, with Jace being very close to the line as well. The new cycle, besides one exception, does not come close. Then we have the difficulty of the flip trigger. This part is a fundamental difference between the two cycles – on enchantments you can count staying around, while creatures are more prone to be removed. As such, with equal triggers the enchantments should be easier to flip. With the flipwalkers, the best cards had triggers that are bound to be met eventually, and all are a natural thing to achieve to at least one established cube archetype. The easier the threshold is to meet, the better the card is, obviously.

Then we get to the land side of things. Just having a land means getting free ramp, kind of like a mana rock that is hard to destroy. That said, none of the enchantments are flippable in the early stages of the game, and the value of the ramp diminishes much more quickly than a planeswalker. Some archetypes just do not care at all about ramp. Finally, the lands also have activate abilities, ranging from the meek to the scary. In general, they are designed for repeated use in slower decks.

The major problem with this cycle is how little “on theme” the different parts are – few are the decks that both:

  • Want the front side
  • Can achieve the flip threshold with only reasonable effort
  • Can utilize the ramp
  • Desire the land’s activated abilities

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Legion’s Landing – unplayable

The front side is usually not worth a card. Even if you flip the land, it is hard to say you have gotten value here. If you can do that consistently for one mana, that might not be an issue, except that you cannot. As we know from Kytheon and Windbrisk Heights, attacking with three creatures is hard, yes, even if one of them is given to you as a 1/1 lifelinker for W. It is only somewhat conceivable in aggro and token decks, but said decks are not interested in the land. Yes, it gives you some buildup after a mass removal, and some late game. An infinite chain of sword holders will be relevant at some point. However, any other mana sink in your deck will still likely be better, not to mention every topdeck. Landing is not worth the petty front side over a more aggressive option like an Elite Vanguard. This land fits control more – keep your mana untapped for counters, and if nothing happens, get a dude. But control decks have no use for the token and no means to transform the enchantment. The union between the decks that satisfy the four conditions above in regards to this card is pathetically small.

 

Search for Azcanta – playable

Blue again got the best card of the cycle. The default mode is quite good – repeatable card selection at no cost, and cheap enough to get you out of mana screws. This is 80% of what Thassa did for less mana, but sending to the graveyard instead of to the bottom of your library is better in almost every deck – it fuels your delve cards, shaves mana off of Deep Analysis and obviously works well in reanimator decks.

The trigger is very easy to achieve. With this card alone it would take 7 turns, but is hard for your opponent to prevent. With other cards, it can be flipped in 2-3 turns. It is worth noting you do not have to flip this if you do not want to. There will definitely be times where digging for the right answers will be more important than the land half.

Regarding the land, blue decks love mana ramp. They also like mana sinks that can be activated at instant speed. The activated ability is not great, but the whole package here is very on theme and attractive. What is great with this card is that retains power throughout the game. The front half wants to be played early, to accumulate value, and alone would be a poor topdeck. With the flip side being immediately available late game, it becomes an acceptable topdeck (as in, better than an island, especially considering you have the choice whether to transform or not).

 

Arguel’s Blood Fast – terrible

This fails all the criteria. The front side is an expensive way to draw cards, both in life and in mana. In control mirrors it would be good, but still not a great card. Compared to Night’s Whisper, it costs three times as much mana in total and twice as much life for the same results.

Now, one can argue that against aggressive decks getting the trigger is easy. You might not be able to activate the ability, but you are all but guaranteed to get the land, which is amazing in that matchup. I think that is wrong, as it is not too hard for decks to engineer an alpha strike or lethal burn. Also, the land is only threatening if you have several creatures with high toughness in your deck, and they should not be too central to your gameplan as you will be required to sacrifice them. It certainly requires too much luck and/or effort to count it as a sacrifice outlet. I see it as a trap mostly – people will self-harm themselves just so that it flips, which is not worth the payoff.

 

Vance’s Blasting Cannons – fringe playable

The front half of the card is bad. It costs 4 mana and does nothing immediately. Worse off, if you hit a land, you will not get anything next turn too. This is similar to Outpost Siege, except worse on the relevant mode of the card. It is much worse than Chandra, Pyromaster. Red is not a color geared towards continuous accumulation of card advantage so the splashable cost is good. Not great though, as that form of card advantage plays poorly with reactive cards (counterspells, removal spells that might not have a target). The flip threshold is hard to meet. The card’s main function helps somewhat, but you still need a considerable amount of cheap spells in your deck. The most consistent way to flip will be with cantrips, but that also requires a good mana base. Sandbagging cards in your hand for the eventual flip is also a losing proposition almost always, if at all possible.

The flipside is mighty. It is not only inevitability, it is a decent clock. It is also a repeatable answer – creatures and manlands with 3 or less toughness can be shot on sight and planeswalkers are an easy prey. The problem is, if your deck is full with cheap cards, you are likely not aiming for the late game. I fail to see which deck could both flip it and desire the transformed face.

 

Growing Rites of Itlimoc – fringe playable

Ignoring the back side, this is not worth the cost. It is never card disadvantage, which is a huge plus, but also never something you want to play on your third turn as it does not affect the board. Never being card disadvantage is only true if we assume high creature density though. How easy is getting four creatures out depends on the deck. It is never trivial, but it can be your gameplan. In general it is overextending without heavy use of tokens, yet the token producers are rarely creatures themselves and fail to work with the front side. The land is great, and something very much worth three mana in the decks that want it. Having enough creature cards, likely some creature token makers, and enough mana sinks is not easy, but there actually are homes for this card. Decks that play Gaea’s Cradle and Craterhoof Behemoth would love this, and green has some support for that archetype with Hornet Queen, Avenger of Zendikar and Deranged Hermit. I think this is definitely playable there, but still too narrow. Cradle itself is better even with 2-3 creatures out, and will always be a higher pick than this sidekick.

Amonkhet Set Review – Exert, Embalm and Aftermath

Amonkhet shapes up to be a great set for the cube format, likely the best set in my history of cubing – 9 years! As such it is unavoidable to dissect the set review to smaller parts. The set is high in innovation and the most natural way to discuss the new contenders is to see the new mechanics separately first. I’ve written about the gods and cycling before, now I’ll cover the three new mechanics in this set – Exert, Embalm and Aftermath.

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Exert

Exert is an ability that reads better than it truly plays. You are committing to not attack next turn, which is obvious, but you are also giving up the option to block for two consecutive turns. An opponent can play a creature AND attack with it the following turn, without you being able to change your game plan accordingly. Similarly, the creature will not be able to attack a fresh planeswalker, or use a topdecked equipment. As such the effect you should get from the exert creature should be a significant one. Exert is a highly offensive ability as a result. Even in aggressive decks, exert should hurt in the mirror. In reverse, if you fear removals it should be correct to use the exert abilities as soon as possible, so as to squeeze more value from your card. Your opponent would still have to deal with the exerted creature, as it is still a threat.

Exert is not an ability you build around. It is an ability to be examined on a card-by-card basis. It can combo with a few effects that untap or give vigilance. There are not too many of them in cube, but such random synergies would still be a huge pain to face – we have Restoration Angel, Flickerwisp, Ral Zarek, Maze of Ith and Ajani Goldmane as some commonly used enablers.

Glory Bound Initiate – solid playable

Could even be a staple as far as large cubes as concerned. There have been several 3/1 creatures for 1W and only the top few of those had seen cube success. A 3/1 body was always good on an empty board, but on the too common scenario where there are blockers, it will die to the worst one your opponent has. GII can grow to impressive 4 toughness and avoid that fate. It will not be able to attack every turn in that mode, but it will do above and beyond any two drops in stall situations as a 4/4. It kicks through Courser of Kruphix and breaks down Wall of Omens. Lifelink tremendously helps not being able to block for a turn and will be a key ability against opposing aggro decks. The 3/1 body is still fragile against red, but if it attacks once you have already got an effect that’s worth a card, with a potential 8 point life swing. You cannot get the life and the blocker simultaneously which is sad, but that’s two drops for you.

White is a color that needs many two drops and frankly only few of them are truly great. Initiate is comparable to Seeker of the Way yet looks better. Probably also better than Relic Seeker as it does not need to connect to get value. Other potential cuts include Cloistered Youth and Soltari Trooper, which both have their advantages, but beat for equal or lesser amounts on a clear board yet are much worse in a race.

Gust Walker – unplayable

This seems comparable to Mistral Charger, but it is far worse. Plays worse with equipment as it doesn’t have static evasion. It is also a slower clock while flying and when you factor all the aforementioned drawbacks is just not worth it.

Ahn-Crop Crasher – solid playable

There are two ways to look at this – a better version of Geier Reach Bandit or a worse version of Goblin Heelcutter. As Heelcutter is such a great red card, and Bandit totally acceptable, both comparisons are to his advantage. One of the better topdecks you can have in red aggro. It is great on turn 3, great after a mass removal, a good planeswalker killer and good in board stalls. Basically always useful, with the floor of a haste 3/2 for 2R being perfectly good. Heelcutter still has the advantage of being able to disable a blocker every turn if you need, and can evade mass removals. But Crasher can also replace Brazen Scourge, Sin Prodder and likely quite a few other cards as red’s three drops are shallow compared to other colors. It is not a bomb, as 2 toughness is fragile, but a card with high ceiling and a still almost playable on its own low end performance for a three drop is bound to be great.

Battlefield Scavenger – unplayable

A very bad attacker and a very bad looter. Being able to do both once every two turns does not come close to redeem this.

Combat Celebrant – niche to low playable

Celebrant is almost good enough by itself, but I do not think it passes. A 4/1 body will die to everything. For three mana it hurts, especially if it trades with a token. If you have a few attackers lying around it will be a fine deal not matter what. Assuming you have 2 dorks with 2 power (one drop and a two drop), Celebrant will add 8 damage to your board, or an Imperial Edict + 4 damage. But in the very likely case of having less unblocked attackers, it does too little. What redeems him is being an on color combo piece with Kiki-Jiki. Unless the opponent has a first strike or protection from red blocker, you will kill all his blocker and eventually him, in an infinite loop of hasted attacking 4/1s and extra combat steps.

Glorybringer – solid playable

Exert is at its best with haste. This is a limited bomb. In cube it reminds me of Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker. It has the obvious advantage of dealing 4 damage to a creature and a player in the same turn, creating a ton of immediate value that is unstoppable with sorcery speed answers. Sarkhan on the defense will too often kill a creature then die to everything. Glorybringer will be able in the best of days to take down a creature and a planeswalker the turn you cast him. It also kills the second creature in two turns. Sarkhan will only do so in three turns and will die in the process.

The drawback compared to Sarkhan is that it is a much more fragile win condition on average. Creature removals that are sorcery speed or don’t exile all deal with Glorybringer and not Sarkhan. As a red five drop, I find that being better on defense trumps being a better win condition against control decks here.

Glorybringer seems better than Stormbreath Dragon by quite a lot. It still below the mighty Thundermaw Hellkite as it is just a far less focused tool for his job. Between the high redundancy of similar effects, I’d cut one of the lesser dragons for Glorybringer instead of one of the other solidly performing red five drops that you might play.

Magic The Gathering: Amonkhet CR: Wizards of the Coast

Embalm

Embalm is card advantage. It is a synergistic ability with discard. Given it is printed in blue and white, the major way to gain extra value from embalm cards is to loot them. A second way is to just let the creature die in combat. Another useful attribute is that you just don’t care as much when a creature with embalm dies to your mass removal. Plus, embalm cannot be countered, which is a rare but game winning upside. Embalm could be great on an aggressive creature, especially a one drop, but it was rather calm this set. The only ability in this set which I can say was played safe and not pushed. The mummy tokens are also a flavor win.

Angel of Sanctions – playable

So much value. I’ve found in testing that it is usually possible or even easy to answer it the first time (at the cost of a turn’s worth of mana or near), but when embalmed the turn after, it usually stays for good. As a sturdy flier out of bolt range, this has great immediate defensive value. It is a slow clock but punishes planeswalkers and will rescue you from most situations. Oblivion Ring effects are good in this format. You are going to face many threats of many types, almost all are game winning and you need to have solutions. There are more white five drops available than is sensible to play in a cube, and AoS is no Avacyn or Baneslayer. In large cubes, it will be a low 2nd-high 3rd tier and can replace Cloudgoat Ranger. The slower and more midrange your cube is, the better this will be. Not long ago Wingmate Roc was a playable cube card and this seems a few levels above that card.

Trueheart Duelist – fringe playable to playable

Who doesn’t like card advantage on a two drop? This card serves a few specific purposes really well yet has enough broader uses to be playable. We never had cubeable cards with the double-block clause. This card can just be a defensive nightmare for your opponent. It is very close to a double fog + killing an attacking creature every attack if played on turn two. Just having a Moment’s Peace is good for keeping planeswalkers alive, especially those that come down turn 3. If it means your opponent is just holding back and overextending, just play Duelist again after your unrecoverable mass removal.

Seems dangerously closer to a weenie hoser but for the fact it is a decent 22nd-23rd card in a white weenie deck itself. It offers value after a mass removal. It is splashable. It will just be a hard to remove body to hold your equipments sometimes. All are fine functions if not great. When things go awry in aggro mirror, a Moment’s Peace can be all that you need. Duelist also plays well with the Stacks theme in black, especially Liliana of the Veil and Braids.

Glyph Keeper – playable to solid playable

A great finisher, but lacking on defense. It seems (and definitely felt so far) nearly impossible to kill. There are some limited ways to target this without spending a card, such as Maze of Ith or the new Gideon. Even if you manage that though, it still demands two removal spells for it to be gone for good. Combined with an ability that ensures it cannot be countered and you get a very reliable way to close games. While it can die to big fliers, you still get the card advantage and as a control deck yourself, you have ways of removing opposing threats. Another huge trait is that early game, when you do not need finishers, it can be cycled with a looter. The second useful way to play it is as a blocker turn 5 and a finisher later. As a 5/3 flier it will block and kill nearly everything in combat and it is not a blocker you can remove in any way.

All in all, rather great and comparable to Sphinx of Jwar Isle. Sphinx dies to mass removals and edict effects while Keeper does not. Sphinx does not die to burn, but given how difficult it is to answer Glyph with it that might not be a relevant point! As a result, I’d play Seeker over anything weaker than Jwar Isle, which I consider a solid card, including the likes of Frost Titan and Meloku.

Vizier of Many Faces – fringe playable

This would see more cube play than it should just because it is a clone effect. It is card advantage, but like all copy cards is only good when you have something useful to copy, and that likely does not come from your side of the table. Blue just doesn’t have many great creatures. That is why the double blue mana in Clone effects is a big limitation, and why all the playable versions so far have been splashable.

Temmet, Vizier of Naktamun – unplayable

Temmet does not do much alone so requires building around. Token decks in cube go wide. For this to shine you need a deck with a few large tokens, which is an archetype that doesn’t exist yet, plus play both white and blue. A narrow card is an understatement here, and even then the power level is questionable. In the rich guild of Azorius. No chance.

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Aftermath

A mechanic pretty close to flashback. It shares a lot with embalm actually – plays well with looters, is an inherent card advantage. As aftermath is spread across more colors it has more synergies, mostly with discard effects in red and black. It has synergy with the prowess and spells matters archetype. They also count as two card types while in the graveyard for Emrakul and Tarmogoyf.

Dusk to Dawn – unplayable

A major feature of mass removals is killing hordes of tokens or just stopping aggro decks on turn 4. Dusk doesn’t do any of that. As a value card off of the Dawn side, this is rather limited and slow. Plus it is a white four drop.

Commit to Memory – playable

Commit is almost a good card by itself. Most comparable to Venser, Shaper Savant or Into the Roil. Venser offers a creature for your trouble, while commit just puts them down a card. Comparable from the card advantage outlook and Commit can even appear to be better. That is not so. Venser offers immediate tempo and often played for bounce + trade with an attacker for stabilization. The body can be reanimated with Reveillark, bounced with Karakas or it can just carry a sword or surprise attack a planeswalker (plus killing the token it just created). Into the Roil is played often at the two mana mode here (a rough estimation would say 40%), so it is far from a direct replacement. Commit is less color intensive than these two though.

But that is ignoring Memory. While obviously paying six for a Timetwister is a lot, it doesn’t have to be used often to make the card great as the base mode is almost powerful enough by itself. It will be played when your opponent has a large hand advantage over you. It will be played to prevent yourself dying from milling. It can just be good value in certain decks, especially prowess triggers decks.

Another way to look at it is a form of blue removal. I love Imprisoned in the Moon, but this can be an even better card. Blue likes instant speed answers and this doubles as a counter. Blue’s four drops are stacked, and I’m not sure what I’d cut for this, but I will find the space for this solid piece of cardboard.

Failure to Comply – unplayable

While Unsubstantiate is fine, it is not good enough I’d want a second one in 720. This is worse than Unsubstantiate a fair amount, as it cannot target a creature. Having a half that is bad by its own and requires another color is not enough. Plus, Azorius is competitive.

Never to Return – staple

Being better than an already commonly cubed card is a sure recipe for success. This is a Hero’s Downfall and Ruinous Path variant. I’d rank it in the middle between the two. Hero’s Downfall is the best, as instant is a significant advantage and you get it for no additional cost. Ruinous Path has an alternative mode that requires 7+ mana. Thing is, I’ve seen the 7+ mana mode used less than 5 times in the few years it has been in the cube.  A 4/4 vanilla, with a drawback (being a land is bad), is not impressive at that stage of the game. Enough so that even when you have that kind of mana, it was often used to cast Path in cheap mode so you can used the other 4 mana in other ways.

Return in not a great mode at all. But it is free value. We are paying 4R to flash back Firebolt after all. Return is playable at any point in the game after you cast Never, so it already wins Path. Maindeckable graveyard hate is nice to have. The synergy with LotV and Heir to Falkenrath should not be ignored either. It is a zombie for all your filthy desires with Gravecrawler, Cryptbreaker, Kalitas and more.

The question becomes whether you want three versions of this effect or is Path just cut altogether from cubes. On one hand, planeswalkers are becoming cheaper and more dangerous with time and we need answers. On the other hand, those three spells are expensive for creature kill, which is what they’ll end up doing most of the time, and the unsplashable cost hurts more in multiples. In 720 I am going to test playing all three, but I’m skeptical. At 810 or 900 the highest, I’d want to have access to all three for a long while.

Insult to Injury – very niche

Free value is tempting and the card is plashable. But both halves are not worth their price. Insult requires damage on board or it does completely nothing. Lunge sees no cube play. Not many creatures that cost 3+ mana die to Shock. Other times it will be uncastable just because you have no creature to target. You can also get both in a single turn, which is great in an aggressive decks that will not get to six mana, or very unexciting in a slow deck that will.

Mouth to Feed – unplayable

Worse than Call of the Herd, which is fringe cube playable at best. Feed needs a 3/3 or better to be on board to be equal or better to Harmonize, a bad card by itself in cube. After a mass removal it doesn’t even do that. The ability to generate 6 power and 6 toughness worth of stats from one card is probably better and much more consistent in a deck that wants that three drop.

Cycling in Amonkhet

Amonkhet shapes up to be a great set for the cube format, likely the best set in my history of cubing – 9 years! As such it is unavoidable to dissect the set review to smaller parts. The set is high in innovation and the most natural way to discuss the new contenders is to see the new mechanics separately first. I’ve written about the gods before, now it is time for a returning mechanic central to this set – cycling.

Cycling is a returning mechanic. It should be a known quantity. It was more pushed in Amonkhet than at any other point in history. Cycling just by itself accounts for a large part of this set’s share of cube worthy cards. Cycling is a nice thing to have from a cube builder’s viewpoint, it allows narrow and/or expensive spells to be played where they otherwise wouldn’t. Before I delve into the new cards, let’s have a look the previous cycling cards we had in magic, what that mechanic brought the cube format and what can we learn and expect from it.

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History comes in cycles

Cycling was printed in Urza’s block, Onslaught, Time Spiral and Alara. It was used much more than most mechanics in Magic. Despite this there are very few cube playables today with cycling. In my cube I counted Miscalculation and Edge of Autumn, with edge only good in large cubes. There are a few caveats to my claim. Typecycling cards such as Ash Barrens and Eternal Dragon do not count here. Neither does Blast from the Past, as few people play with gold borders.

If we look back to cards that saw play before, we have the classic Akroma’s Vengeance, Wild Dogs, the Barren Moor cycle, Starstorm, Unearth and Undead Gladiator. Some cards that have cycling triggers saw play. They were playing essentially more like spells or split cards, they did not have the pure ability so they are hard to compare to. Such cards include Complicate, Decree of Justice, Krosan Tusker, Decree of Pain and Gempalm Incinerator in tribal cubes. None of them seem like they have any chance to return, they are not even close.

Seems like we can conclude the mechanic is bad. As with all mechanics that do not work in cube we need to ask whether a mechanic is intrinsically weak/narrow or it just was not pushed enough. Ripple is an obvious example of the former while provoke is an example of the latter. Of course any card can be pushed enough to be playable in cube, but with the bad mechanics the card would also be playable without them. Tormented Hero is playable and Heroic, but I’ve never seen it matter. Cycling is not like that – every card in the above list was cycled, most rather frequently. The mechanic has potential. In Amonkhet it is pushed enough that there are high hopes for it, and so far it played well in the short testing I’ve done. Let us see what we can learn from experience with previous cycling cards in the format:

  • No card is worth it for the cycling alone. Not even the extremely easy cycling cost of Monstrous Carabid. The top end of the card has to be worth it some of the time and should be desirable not just at corner cases.
  • Cycling 2 is much more than cycling for one colored mana. Barren Moor sees some fringe cube play while Polluted Mire never does. In Amonkhet most cycling costs lowly one mana. By extension, cycling Akroma’s Vengeance was always hard and beyond awkward. It happened, of course, but when absolutely no other line of play was feasible.
  • Cycling is a tempo hit. Like how aggro decks do not bother with even Demonic Tutor, they do not like to cycle. You want maximal use of resources every turn, where every card does roughly the same thing. A more recent close analogy is cracking clues. If an aggressive two drop is hit by Declaration in Stone, the clue usually lingers until turn 6+. Historically cycling is easy in two decks. The first is blue counter based decks, where you anyway keep mana up most of the time, so using it for cycling if you did not use your counterspell is super convenient. The second home is ramp, which eventually has access to tons of mana yet is prone to running out of gas.
  • Cycling has diminishing returns in multiples. Even playing two cycling lands in the same deck, barring synergies (Life from the Loam or such) is rarely done. The tempo hits accumulate. You also have less information if you have 2+ cards in hand that you intend to cycle.
  • The card at face value can be weaker than usual. It can be seen with Miscalculation. Having that flexibility can and should make the second mode weaker. That is not a big deal and not ruling cards out of playability.

This time cycling is designed right. It is cheap, it is on spells pretty close to playability without it. This time the cycling cost is significantly cheaper than the spell itself, no more trashy two drops with cycling that costs two mana. Cycling is a great enabler to narrow cards that would be prone to sideboards without it. A final note in this already thorough background is that today we have better synergies for cycling cards, with delve, delirium, Snapcaster Mage, JVP, tarmogoyf, Torrential Gearhulk and more. Unfortunately, we did not get any fatties with cycling relevant for reanimator.

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White

Cast Out – solid playable

It feels weird cycling this, as it is one of the least dead cards ever. However it is expensive enough you should be doing so if you have a spare mana early and not regret it. Preferably you are a control deck with more answers in your maindeck so losing one is not a big deal. An Oblivion Ring is likely better still, just because it can answer everything a turn earlier. However instant speed is unique in white and quite great. It fills an empty hole among white’s versatile removals. Cast Out is seldom a card you are unable to make good use of. It seems like an upgarde Faith’s Fetters. Fetters can be better against aggressive decks, but only there and the tempo you can gain from Cast Out can outweigh it. Cast Out is obviously what you’d rather have in hand when you do not draw that 4th land, or conversely have too many removal spells in hand. This is a filler most decks will want. Might be good even in medium cubes. I don’t want to call this staple just because there are many options for white removals and they can be tailored for a specific mategame, but I really think every large cube should be playing this for the foreseeable future.

 

Forsake the Worldly – fringe playable to staple (in unpowered)

There are plenty of answers in white at three to artifacts, enchantments and nearly everything (Oblivion Ring, Council’s Judgment). As all of white’s removals at that cost exile, it not that exciting. Cycling 2 is heavy on the curve as well. You want much cheaper disenchants in a powered cube against fast mana. Exile will usually be unnecessary in that environment as you will have targets around consistently. The exile is still useful against Wurmcoil Engine, Daretti, Hangarback Walker and Purphoros. This is better than Revoke Existence and Seal of Cleansing, but I prefer the original Disenchant and Fragmentize in my list. I just cannot see it being a correct maindeck over a Banishing Light variant. In unpowered it is likely better than all Disenchant variants because it is harder to justify maindecking artifact hate. I’d still pick Cast Out over it, and Oblivion Ring itself so only play it in addition. In a large cube you’ve likely maxed out on the premium pieces and want more, so this should fine a comfortable home there for a long while.

 

Blue

Curator of Mysteries – playable

4/4 fliers for four have historically never succeeded in cube. This is the best such card by far. A middle-sized flier is problematic in blue. There are only few scenarios where you want a 4/4 flier in a control deck. Yet when you do, you glad you have that sphinx ready and the cost is minimal. Sometimes you just need a fat blocker in the sky. Sometimes a pesky planeswalker needs addressing. Other times, you are already in control and looking for a way to seal the deal. Usually blue decks cannot afford to pack generic beaters as the middle of the curve is too congested. But blue is the color that likes cheap cycling the most, especially if you pack some permission. Curator should really be cycled most of the time, yet it is still a great card. In a tempo deck it is by far better than for control too. It is very convenient with the new Liliana and has medium synergy with other reanimation effects. The scry triggers is not flavor text completely, it works well with looters. Blue has very competitive top end to its four drops, but it dwindles quickly. I significantly prefer it to Dungeon Geists or any other 4/3 or 4/4 flier for blue at four mana, and so far Curator was moderately impressive in testing.

 

Censor – low playable

This might not look pushed but it is, consider Spell Snip. Censor is probably close to the weakest conditional two mana counter you will play. Force Spike did not work here. It drops in value very quickly in the game. People really played around it, but it still meant you cannot be selective in what you counter. Add cycling and suddenly you get a very good card. The time window where this effect is great is small, but it will result in a 1U hard counter. You need it for the first few critical turns of the game. Perhaps the correct line of play with this card is to wait for a spell to counter, and if by the end of the turn you did not, auto-cycle it. Censor is a relatively painless way to cover one of your deck’s greatest weaknesses. It could even be better than Miscalculation due the cheaper cycling cost. We rarely get counters this strong. Of course you really do want some harder counters in your deck before this is a consideration, so it is never a priority pick or a bomb, but a great way to smooth decks and let other cards shine.

 

Hieroglyphic Illumination – fringe playable?

In my metagame and others cards that just draw for 4+ mana are decreasing in power. Even Fact or Fiction is not the bomb it once was. They can be as strong as you like, but paying that amount of mana and getting no board presence is harsh. Nobody has time for them anymore. HI is a way to add late game power yet feel without a heavy spell in your deck. It should be cycled like 80%+ of the time. In permission decks where you keep mana open anyway you can afford to pay the full price sometimes and earn some card advantage without risking having a dead card against certain matchups. This is still so much worse than what you should get for the full price however that this is a card I am unsure about. So far it disappointed me in testing.

 

Lay Claim – unplayable

The mana cost of the main mode is offensively bad. Cycling fixes the inherent narrowness of steal effects somewhat, but this has an expensive cycling cost and no real use or need.

 

Vizier of Tumbling Sands – niche

The cycling effect is potentially very strong. Untapping Tolarian Academy or Gilded Lotus will be a free way to generate mana, and even the body itself is useful there. The true use of the card though is with Time Vault. Do not play this if you have no clear needs for the card, you will be disappointed.

 

Black

Archfiend of Ifnir – niche

A self-discarding fattie is always interesting in black because it plays so well with reanimation. Still, this body will not win games alone. The ability is strong but very narrow compared to even Bloodgift Demon.

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Red

Sweltering Suns – niche

Red has many better mass removals. Earthquake and Rolling Earthquake are splashable and scalable. Pyroclasm is cheaper and splashable. Fiery Confluence and Chandra, Flamecaller do so much more. Many people also play Wildfires. Sweltering suns has cycling, but it is expensive enough to be a liability. Might be better than Anger of the Gods or Slagstorm, depending on the deck and matchup. Not a card I’d advise playing as red is generally the lighter color in control decks so the double red is tough.

 

Green

Dissenter’s Deliverance – playable to solid playable in powered cubes

Most of what Naturalize destroys is artifacts. It is hard to maindeck that card sometimes though. Green has plenty of more expensive ways to deal with those permanents. It leaves green weak to fast mana and other cheap broken cards before sideboard. Now we get a maindeckable solution. The question is mostly – will it be cycled ASAP by default unless there is a target on the table? If so it will not fill its role very well. Perhaps one of the most difficult cards to use properly as a result. There is usually little though behind Naturalize effects. DD gives choices. What are the chances to see a problematic artifact? Do you have other solution in your deck? What is the value of drawing another card right now? Green ramp decks have a single mana floating around plenty of times (Wall of Roots, turn two Three Visits) so this will be very easy to cycle. In general having more maindeckable artifact hate is a great boost to the health of the format. Even if I see a Jitte and no other artifact I might not want to side in a Deglamer, with DD I’ll simply always be prepared. It is a noteworthy green instant for Tarmogoyf and Emrakul.

 

Lands

The cyclands/BiCycles

This cycle gathered enormous attention from the cube community, although no nickname has been finalized yet. The lands are clearly pushed, they are novel and have plenty of synergy. Despite this and how much I love the idea behind them, they have disappointed me in testing and is a cycle I’d not necessarily include in its entirety.

First, we will look at them in isolation. Being able to cycle a land when you are flooded and need to dig for an answer is great, even if the cycling is not cheap. They protect you against floods. Because of this they are fine 18th lands, and then they protect you also against screws. As they also fix colors they are great boosts to deck consistency.

But entering the battlefield tapped is a serious drawback. Those lands do not play well in multiples as a result, or with the manlands cycle. Aggro decks seriously dislike lands entering the battlefield tapped and cycling 2 is of little appeal to them. I’ve tested a deck that had Canyon Slough, Lavaclaw Reaches and Smoldering Marsh. The drawbacks were accumulating. This can seem like an extreme example, but consider how likely such a mana base would be if it was a two colors + a splash deck. It is definitely NOT on the powerlevel of Horizon Canopy, a card I have played in aggressive white decks with no use for green before. It is important to realize that if that was all the lands could do they would not be exciting for cube but rather on the powerlevel of the temples.

But they have the basic land types. They can be search for by fetchlands. By that reason alone you would include them in many decklists. Some cards interact with basic land types. In non-green colors they are sparse – you have things like Vedalken Shackles, Koth of the Hammer, Snuff Out, Fireblast and Daze (double combo!). In green they are more numerous. You have the trio of Farseek, Nature’s Lore and Three Visits. Some cubes play Wood Elves. You also have strong cards that care about them – Nissa, Worldwaker and Rofellos. In short, the green lands of the cycle gain more by having basic land types.

If we look at what we can achieve with other cards, we start to see numerous synergies. None of them are great by themselves, but their sheer quantity does add up. There are the usual perks of cycling, which are hard to get from lands, such as delve, Tarmogoyf, Den Protector, delirium etc. Sun Titan can bring the lands back and so does Crucible of Worlds. They have great synergy with Life From the Loam (although it is quite expensive as far as draw engines go and is probably clunky in practice). Effect that bounce your lands gain value, such as Kor Skyfisher and Meloku.

So these lands are good. How do they stand up to competition? The easiest comparison is the tango lands. The tango lands do not enter that often untapped, especially not early and not in three or more colored decks. As such they were just fetchable duals. Cyclands fills that purpose equally well, plus giving options. Playing both cycles is also a possibility, but then, assuming you have shocks and duals, we start reaching a point of having too many fetchable cards compared to fetchers.

These lands are noticeably worse than shocks, fetches and duals. Some manlands are also untouchable, likely all of them are to be honest. They compete with the painlands mostly. Painlands are much better for aggressive decks, or playing that turn one mana elf. They also support colorless cards. As such, which of the two cycles is best depends on the guild it is in. In Rakdos the pain land is far superior. Not a major point at all really, large cubes should probably include all pains and cycling lands anyway. You should consider how many ETBT lands you can support though, and not go overboard with them.

Also, why allied colors again? Now every allied color pair has 4 fetchable dual lands compared to just 2 for the enemy ones.

Amonkhet gods

Amonkhet shapes up to be a great set for the cube format, likely the best set in my history of cubing – 9 years! As such it is unavoidable to dissect the set review to smaller parts. The set is high in innovation and the most natural way to discuss the new contenders is to see the new mechanics separately first. This post will talk about the gods.

Theros was the set that introduced Gods for the first time. They were mostly not cube playable when the set came out and only one out of 15 cards stood the test of time in cubes and that is Purphoros. This time, the mono red version again seems to be the only possible contender. This is pretty much where similarities between the two divine iterations end though. The new gods are always creatures, so they are easier to interact with. They can be killed by Terminus or Diabolic Edict, they die to Toxic Deluge. Man-O-War can bounce them, Control Magic will steal them. That amount of interaction is still minimal though and you can count on the deities to stay on the battlefield.

Theros gods used devotion. They required a high amount of permanents from a single color to be present on the battlefield. They were easy to stop from animating, and indeed seeing a Purphoros attacking in cube is nearly unheard of. The value of the old gods is almost entirely on their abilities. The new pantheon has varying criteria for being able to attack, but they are comparatively easy to do so. As such their bodies are a much bigger part of their evaluation.

 

Oketra the True  – unplayable

This card is a Heliod twin. In dedicated decks, this will be at least twice as easy to attack with. A single Spectral Procession will do it, so will Sram’s Expertise or Angel of Invention. Still, most decks will need to play some creatures the fair way. It is perhaps the easiest god to deactivate by your opponent too, usually killing that 1/1 token would do it.

Then there is the impact issue. If you play a token deck, it is hard to block your board effectively and you are weak to mass removals. Oketra is easy to block, and is just as vulnerable to a mass removal. Would you not prefer an anthem effect or a planeswalker for threat diversification, or just more token producing cards or higher impact creatures?

Finally there is the mana cost issue. No way to include this among the stacked white four drops, between your Armageddon, Elspeth, Gideon, Day of Judgment etc. Even in a token deck you have multiple better four drops, so this just has no chance to see play in any normal cube, even in very large sizes. What a missed opportunity to get a cat god into the cube…

 

Kefnet the Mindful – bad and/or extremely niche

The god with the hardest condition. It is very hard in cube to keep a full hand. You do it with Library of Alexandria sometimes, but usually only for a few turns during the early game, sometimes not at all against aggro. More importantly, Library is still a perfectly playable land if the conditions are not there for it, while Kefnet is a do nothing enchantment that costs 3. The ability is likewise overly expensive and should be played only in the late game. If you can keep a full hand for that many turns in most places you should be winning. It will be powerful in control mirrors, but that’s about it. Cute with draw sevens as well, but not for large cubes. Discard will wreck you if you rely on it. Will be used somewhere with Howling Mines, not in cube.

 

Bontu the Glorified – bad and/or niche

An indestructible sacrifice outlet is useful sometimes, but Bontu is just too expensive for cube. As the benefit of 1 life leech and scry 1 is so low for the mana you want it in a deck that actively wants to sacrifice. The body is good, but requires a lot of resources to keep alive. Very narrow and not powerful enough to build around.

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Hazoret – hard to evaluate, likely a comfortable inclusion

Hazoret appears to be the best Egyptian god. She appears to be potent as an aggro curve topper. First of all, she is splashable, a rare feat for red four drops. She provides infinite reach, so your opponent is never fully stabilized when you have her out. In testing she was used in asymmetrical Sulfuric Vortex mode against a Moat with success. She can go directly for opposing planeswalkers as well. Even without her ability, having one or less cards in hand is natural for aggro decks. It is much easier to maintain than full hellbent. Hellbent tended to fail when you were flooded or screwed, and keeping no burn in hand is far riskier than keeping a single piece. As such she is a good fit, and a 5/4 indestructible haste attacker will close games.

True, the haste will not matter if you play her on turn four. She will not be active by then. But she is a great topdeck, and she can be played as the second last card in your hand to great success. Aggro decks are not those that consistently play four drops on turn four anyway, as they have low land counts and they mulligan aggressively for gas. Then Hazoret will survive all mass removals. She is hard to deactivate.

Unlike something like Hero of Oxid Ridge, she has some applications outside of aggro. Mostly in R/G ramp decks that empty their hands and with black symmetric discard like Liliana of the Veil. She likely loses still to Hellrider which is far more direct, not to mention Fiery Confluence and other aggro four drops such as Armageddon. But the space below Hellrider exists after a certain cube size, and in 720 I think she can be squeezed comfortably. Aggro only four drops are very narrow cards, and she helps a bit by being broader than usual.

 

Rhonas – hard to evaluate, likely playable at 810+

Rhonas does nothing without a creature around. The 5/5 deathtouch body is like a vehicle – does not attack the turn you play Rhonas, but can attack later right after a mass removal if you topdeck a creature (with sufficient power, harder than it seems). The deathtouch does matter a little, as the cobra can take down titans and Inkwell Leviathans. The activated ability is like an equipment, in that it only affect other creatures. Rhonas seems easy to activate, but is even easier to deactivate. If you plan on pumping your 2/2s early for the snake god, be prepared to get blown out by removals and bounce. Yes, the god is intimidating and cannot be ignored, but the repeated cost of 2G is hefty. I foresee decks just bouncing/burning your smaller bodies for a few turns, completely ignoring him and winning. On the other hand, I fear that in many cases winning with Rhonas will result in a gross overkill and vast amounts of overspill damage. In short, it is somewhat of a winmore.

He is not an aggro card, despite being almost purely offensive. The tempo loss of playing him early is too big. In midrange or light ramp decks however, it would be much more fitting. You’ll have creatures with natural 4 power. You could use him as a topdeck to immediately pump something and give it trample. It is a mana sink for your Gaea’s Cradle. And it gives you all the inevitability.

The card makes you more vulnerable to some of your inherent weaknesses. It is unavoidably narrow as it requires a large creature count (of sizable creatures if possible) and large mana count. It competes for the same space as vehicles and equipment in decklists. As such I do not think it stands a chance in cube in the long run. It will always feel like a sort of luxury to have it. I am however willing to test it if I find a cut for the high ceiling it provides and because his uniqueness makes him hard to evaluate properly.

Aether Revolt Set Review

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.

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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.

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Revolt

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.

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The Rest

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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

Kaladesh Rankings + small announcement

(In previous parts of this review I’ve talked about vehicles, energy, greahulks and everything else)

Kaladesh speculated ranking

20) Aether Hub

19) Aether Theorist

18) Dovin Baan

17) Nissa, Vital Force

16) Torrential Gearhulk

15) Noxious Gearhulk

14) Filigree Familiar

13) Skysovereign, Consul Flagship

12) Verdurous Gearhulk

11) Thriving Grubs

10) Speedway Fanatic

9) Saheeli Rai

8) Fragmentize

7) Fumigate

6) Smuggler’s Copter

5) Scrapheap Scrounger

4) Angel of Invention

3) Fleetwheel Cruiser

2) Enemy Fastlands

1) Chandra, Torch of Defiance

 

Announcement

I am flying to Nepal for a month, so the blog will not be updated during that time. After that I’ll be back with BFZ Year in Review.