Today I'm going to be doing something a bit different. There's lots of reviews of M14 out there which rate the new card's impact on the existing standard metagame and how they interact with the decks and cards currently being played in standard. The focus has been on things like scavenging ooze's application to jund, (Xanthrid Necromancer)'s ability to slot into junk aristocrats, whether garruk, primal hunter is playable in a green/elf ramp deck and the potential for Lifebane zombie to breathe new life into the zombie tribal deck. None of that is going to be relevant in three months' time once ISD block and M13 rotates, the key tools for all of those decks are simply not there in the RTR block card pool. This article provides an overview of key cards in M14 from the perspective of the RTR block meta, to give some insight as to how these cards might play out in the post-rotation meta. Obviously the cards printed in Theros will have a big impact on the shape of post-rotation standard, but RTR block plus M14 will initially dominate the card pool by sheer weight of numbers, and it's difficult to imagine that the power level of Theros would be high enough to completely overshadow the rest of the cards. The review will start off with a few notes about general themes before taking a look at a selection of cards from each colour in M14. Before all that though, the weekly stats.
There was another problem with the official decklist reporting this week, unfortunately, with a full day's results missing, and it was a day that normally includes a premier event too which is disappointing.
The stats this week were very, very similar to last week. Mono red held steady while esper continued its slide. The big mover was naya midrange which poked above 5% for the first time since I started these, presumably because having better creatures is a winning strategy in an aggro dominated metagame. I've seen a number of those naya decks running firemane avenger which is an interesting development, and while they're running more expensive creatures than mono red, they're not looking to cast huge spells like (aurelia the warleader) like older naya lists, they're very much tuned to beat aggro which, apparently, they're doing. Besides that, the "other" category was bigger than it has been for some time, mainly because GB midrange, non-esper UW control and BWR all put in 4% showings which meant they were just below the individual reporting threshold. BWR seems to be another deck type that's benefiting from the sidelining of control from the meta, as it's able to safely prey on aggro decks without worrying about aetherlings and sphinx's revelation.
The rogue deck highlight this week is truly rogue, probably the most off the wall pile of cards I've spotlighted in this section. I knew I was in for something spicy when I saw the 4x (transguild promenades) in the mana base, and it didn't disappoint. I'm not entirely sure how this deck wants to win the game, but maindeck nightveil specter and sin collector threatens control in a pretty meaningful way, while a pile of spot removal presumably does the job against aggro. The pilot took it to 3-1 showings on back to back days, which definitely deserves a pat on the back, because I don't think I could do that with this deck!
There is a cycle of five monocoloured creatures which have an effect designed to punish their two enemy colours in some way. I'll mention all of these individually below, but it's worth mentioning that colour punishing effects are exceptionally powerful in the context of the RTR block card pool where nearly every powerful card is multicoloured. While the current standard does also tend towards multicoloured cards, the mono-coloured card pool is deep enough that quite a number of deck types get away with playing none or very few multicoloured cards (UW/UWR control, mono red aggro, mono green ramp strategies, even white weenie is fringe viable). As we've found with blood baron of vizkopa, though, these dual-coloured colour-hosers are extremely strong in block. The chance that your opponents has at least one colour that's relevant is extremely high, especially given that most decks play three colours. In general, you should expect these cards to be even more relevant in the context of the post-rotation card pool once existing staple mono-coloured spells such as restoration angel, thragtusk and hellrider rotate.
Wizards has given some explicit hints that some of the cards in M14 are precursors to themes which will be found in Theros. While I was writing this article, it was confirmed at a comic con that enchantments are one such theme that will be present in Theros. With that in mind, it's worth mentioning that a strong enchantment matters theme might make mana bloom viable, as it becomes a way of repeatedly turning on enchantment ETB triggers:
I admit that this seems like a stretch, but it's worth bearing in mind that M14 is one of only two core sets in history that doesn't have a 2-mana green ramp spell, such as rampant growth. In fact, given that the only other core set which didn't have one existed in a standard meta where explore was legal, if no rampant growth variant is printed in Theros it would represent the first standard format in history without a real green 2 mana non-creature ramp spell, which has some pretty bad implications for the viability of midrange creature strategies. Which is a long winded way of saying that it's possible WoTC might do enough with an enchantments theme in Theros to make mana bloom viable.... stranger things have happened. Possibly.
3 vs 4 toughness
Right now in standard, four is the magic number for toughness. The default damage-based removal spell is searing spear, meaning that there is a very large difference between the survivability of a creature with three and four toughness. As I have discussed a number of times in this column, that is not the case in RTR block due to the fact that a plethora of two-damage burn spells along with Mizzium mortars are default damage-based removal spells. In block, there is functionally minimal difference between three and four toughness outside of combat. Unlike the previous three core sets, M14 does not contain a one or two CMC red burn spell that does three damage. There's no incinerate or even volcanic hammer, let alone lightning bolt. While flames of the firebrand is being reprinted, there's a huge difference between three and two CMC for burn spells; annihilating fire is barely played in block for a reason and while flames is much better than that, it's unlikely to be more than a sideboard card for situations where it can generate card advantage by pinging multiple small creatures.
What this might mean for M14 card evaluation, assuming Theros doesn't contain an incinerate variant, is that a number of 3-toughness creatures in M14 that might be difficult to play in the current standard due to not having an immediate impact on the board, and dying to searing spear at instant speed, could become more attractive post-rotation. This includes the two enchantment enablers mentioned above (ajani's chosen and blightcaster), Liliana's Reaver and Ogre Battledriver. While these guys do, of course, die to mizzium mortars, at least mortars doesn't hit at instant speed, and almost every other creature dies to mortars anyway (ie. it's enough harder to build around that you might be forced to just not bother) meaning that the fact that these guys have three instead of four toughness isn't such a big knock against them as it is in standard at the moment.
If slivers are going to be a thing, they will be a mass-creature synergy aggro strategy that is most likely going to be 3 or even 4 colours. This is close to the worst type of deck imaginable in the context of the existing RTR block meta. Anything more than two colours (even one with a light splash) is tough for an aggro deck, you might be surprised at how much cavern of souls contributes to the viability of 3-colour aggro decks in standard. Also, supreme verdict is very commonly played in block, even more so than standard - and there is no hibernation sliver or quick sliver to help mitigate the deck's fundamental weakness to wrath. Both of those facts mean that slivers is almost certain to be relegated to the casual constructed arena post-rotation, even if they do end up being standard viable in immediate future.
One thing I was on the lookout for in M14 was creatures that have spell-like effects. There's two inherently powerful gruul cards in RTR block that push you towards having a deck made up primarily of creatures - domri rade and ruric thar, the unbowed - which have seen pretty minimal play despite being inherently powerful against the control strategies which, up until the last two weeks at least, have been dominating the metagame. Banisher priest is one such card, as it gives creature heavy decks a solid removal option. The fact that this guy dies to izzet charm and the cheap half of turn/burn is a pretty significant knock against him, but this is a powerful utility creature effect that is likely to see play in both naya midrange and white-based aggro decks, the latter of which frequently resort to arrest to deal with boros reckoner at the moment.
Brave the Elements
The multi-coloured nature of RTR block's cards which makes the dual-colour-hosers so strong, as discussed above, also makes a colour-based pump like this very strong. The fact that many of your opponent's creatures will be multicoloured, too, increases the chance that gaining protection from a single colour will hit most if not all potential blockers. It's possible to build a pretty strong naya or even junk creature base and have almost all of your creatures gain protection from this card:
Keep an eye on this card, it may be relevant even if a pure white weenie strategy doesn't emerge.
Precinct captain is ok against mono red, and is used fairly frequently by esper control decks at the moment to combat them, but that is one situation where the "dies to removal" argument has some real weight. Precinct captain out of a control deck awkwardly turns on all of your aggro opponent's otherwise dead spot removal. Fiendslayer paladin doesn't have that drawback, and for that reason looks like it would be a superb foil to the current block mono red deck. The deck does have answers to it - first strike from legion loyalist or ash zealot, boros reckoner and bloodrush - but dodging spot removal means that you are far less likely to be completely blown out the turn after you tap out and pass back to the mono red deck. At the very least you will gain two life and block something.
One of the reasons that mono red is able to do so well in RTR block is that control decks have few relevant early game plays. Well, for a deck like esper control which wants to hit 4 and 5 mana to stabilise with planeswalkers, wraths and far/away, this looks like a pretty relevant play to me. How bad does a turn 1 foundry street denizen look when you can't follow it up with burning-tree emissary and friends? Silence inherently leads to card disadvantage, as it basically does nothing other than stall, but sometimes stalling is all you need and I could see this getting some play. It's not completely irrelevant in control mirrors either, as it's a cheap "must be countered" threat when played on your turn in the late game, otherwise you threaten to run out an uncounterable aetherling. You'd still sideboard it out, but at least it isn't a mugging or something which does stone nothing in the control mirror.
6+ mana blue finishers
For the foreseeable future, the correct way to evaluate blue control finishers which cost 6 or more is to ask one simple question - is it aetherling? If the answer is no, then you can ignore it. That goes for these three, as well as some other cards like (niv-mizzit, dracogenius) that people still think have a chance of seeing play post-rotation. Aetherling is just so perfect as a control finisher that the only rational reason for playing something other than it is to provide resilience to slaughter games, but if you're doing that you're probably best off looking down the mana curve for an alternate win-con to avoid clogging your deck up with too many 6/7 drops.
I very badly want to cast this on a boros reckoner. Unfortunately a dynacharge in response means you're probably going to die the next turn if you tap out for this, but most decks playing reckoner will have to use two cards to get rid of it once stolen, meaning that play is basically a 3-for-1 if you can pull it off. This isn't the most mana-efficient removal spell in the world though, and there are a huge number of very relevant targets that it misses (smiters, worms), plus it gets blown out by selesnya charm, so it's probably not going to make the cut but it might be worth a copy or two in the right deck.
Just worth a quick mention as a source of card advantage for the grixis deck which has been making inroads in block in recent times. Sphinx's revelation is better for any deck running white because the life gain turns it into a card that's relevant against aggro as well as control, but this is generally better in control mirrors so probably deserves a look as a sideboard card for the non-white control decks.
This is another great turn 2 play for control decks against mono red. There are effectively no relevant creatures in block aggro decks that won't be tapped by this mermaid, so this coming down and tapping a creature (which might even keep firefist striker off blockade) and then trading off for a random two drop, or even just eating a removal spell, looks like a great way to help the deck stay alive until a wrath. What's nice about it over just a single spot removal spell is that it deals with the damage from two cards (at least for one turn), and that can frequently be the difference between surviving the early onslaught and not doing so, especially when you factor dynacharge into the equation.
These are the potentially playable tools that M14 adds to black's removal arsenal. Doom blade is doom blade, it's pretty obvious and will clearly be a default removal option. It's an awesome tool for esper against mono red, which currently only has devour flesh, azorius charm and precinct captain as turn 2 plays, none of which are all that great. The comments I've made previously about RTR block's multicoloured cards, though, do temper the utility of this. There are many threats that you care about that have black in their casting cost, from cheap threats such as rakdos cackler to more substantial players like blood baron of vizkopa and obzedat, ghost council. Which is only an argument for diversifying your removal, not removing this completely, of course. The other two are slightly more questionable inclusions. I only mention them because they are one of the very few possible relevant turn 1 plays against aggro for an esper deck. Wring flesh is a tragic slip that can never be morbid, which does mean that it loses relevance very quickly unfortunately. Still, it does hit a whole lot of threatening creatures such as experiment one, foundry street denizen, firefist striker and spike jester. Festering newt could well be better though, as it can trade for two toughness creatures like (ghor-house chainwalker) and rakdos cackler. Having said that, it may be that neither are playable, but are still worth keeping in mind if you're looking to shore up the aggro matchup as an esper player.
Despite my general comment about this cycle, this is quite possibly worse in RTR block than standard. Given that it hits after early drops have already been played, the best cards in standard to hit with this are 4 and 5 drops like restoration angel and thragtusk. Block doesn't quite have curve-topping powerhouses like that, advent of the wurm is the format's restoration angel which is a little awkward for this zombie. It does hit obzedat and blood baron though which is pretty good, and can hit boros reckoner on the play or the occasional deck packing deadbridge goliath. I'm not actually that impressed by this guy though, but its inherent power level is enough that he's obviously worth keeping in mind if some more good midrange white and green creatures are printed in Theros.
There is a huge dearth of playable flyers in block, and there's no lingering souls to chump block your huge flyer all day either, so this guy is a major threat with an ETB trigger that's massively powerful against anything other than creature-less control. I could see him as a potent curve topper in a junk deck that plays value early game creatures which you don't mind sacrificing, such as voice of resurgence, gatecreeper vine and sin collector or random mana elves. You just sacrifice off those early dorks until your graveyard is full enough, and it doesn't take too many turns of hitting with him before the game's over anyway. You could even live the dream and follow him up with deadbridge chant. If you're willing to get a bit more ambitious, he plays pretty well with domri rade as removal on a creature, possibly there's jund or 4-colour shell that could be built on there.
This card is a massive beating, and I don't see how it won't warp the standard metagame both pre-and post rotation. While many block decks play 3-4 basics, which is double or more than what many standard decks are playing at the moment, the fact that this can come down and destroy your opponent every time tap mana is an enormous beating. Counterspells are the only decent answer to this, and they generally get taken out of control decks against aggro decks post-board which is when these are going to be brought in. The only thing stopping this from being main-deckable is the prevalence of mono-coloured aggro in the meta, and I honestly think its presence might force control decks to revisit their mana base (becoming closer to base two colours, perhaps with a light splash) because this is a huge problem for the existing mana bases. There is a bant control deck out there that plays mostly basics, thanks to gatecreeper vine doing the necessary fixing, and straight UW control decks have been viable at various points in the RTR block so maybe this will encourage those strategies.
I've mentioned before how difficult it is to evaluate planeswalkers in a vacuum, especially those that do something as unique as this. My gut feeling is that domri rade does most of what you would want chandra to do, but better and for less mana (which is very relevant against counterspells in particular). Domri's fight clears blockers out in a more permanent way than chandra's +1, especially if you do something dirty like fight with your boros reckoner. And while chandra's middle ability is generally going to be a more reliable card advantage engine (though it still might hit useless reactive spells, unless you build for mostly creatures in which case domri is almost as likely to draw you cards), it's not building you up to an effect which is going to just win you the game 9 times out of 10, so it doesn't present the same level of threat to a control deck as domri does. Chandra doesn't really work in a hyper aggressive deck - gruul war chant does a better job of making blocking tough for your opponent if you're in the market for that kind of effect - and I'm not sure that she's better than the three-cost option in a midrange deck, so I'm pretty on the fence here. The tools don't really exist in block for a good "bigger creature" midrange deck with a bit of burn and removal, which seems like the natural home for Chandra, so that probably pushes me over to thinking she won't be that great post-rotation, but keep an eye out to see if the tools will exist for that kind of deck.
Chandra's Phoenix / Mindsparker
It seems debatable to me which of these is better for the red aggro deck against control, although I'm pretty sure that one of them should be making the cut. Chandra phoenix doing 2 damage the turn it comes down, except against instant speed burn (most of which won't trigger mindsparker), and the fact that detention sphere doesn't trigger mindsparker are points in its favour. Note that there's no restoration angel (or any other good flyers, really) post-rotation to roadblock this either. The fact that mindsparker is much better in combat, though, and that there's not all that much good red burn floating around favour the crazy looking elemental. Overall, I think that Chandra's Phoenix is probably the stronger of the two, especially if Chandra herself turns out to be playable - that does seem like it could be a synergy strong enough to push you to playing that pair of cards in your 75. This will depend somewhat on which type of control deck rises to prominence post-rotation though. Esper running doom blade and UWR running shock and turn/burn would push the pendulum in favour of chandra's phoenix, because you can always recur it after removal but mindsparker does nothing against those cards. If straight UW or bant is more popular, though, then mindsparker might be better.
Flames of the Firebrand
If we don't get a pyroclasm or slagstorm equivalent in Theros, then this is probably going to be the best red spell against mono red aggro. It's a serious beating against that deck, invariably hitting two and quite possibly three creatures. Right now there's barely any cards that can get a 2 for 1 against mono red for less than 4 mana, this is a very reliable way of doing so and will certainly see at least some sideboard and possibly maindeck play.
This guy is likely to give Exava, Rakdos blood witch a serious run for her money as 4-drop of choice in red aggro decks down the line. It's a classic tradeoff between "good on the turn you cast it" versus "good if you get to untap with it". Given the number of wraths currently in the format, and given that the battledriver works best in combination with multiple token generators or repeatable planeswalker token generators (of which there are zero in block/M14, it's worth pointing out), I think Exava might have the edge for now but obviously requires you to want to splash black which isn't a certain thing.
Scourge of Valkas
I'm willing to accept that my 3 and even 4 drops are probably going to die to mizzium mortars. I'm much less willing to accept that if I just spent five mana on something. I can make an exception for blood baron, because he completely ends the game against certain decks, but this is a threat not an answer, and as a threat is way too easy to remove for my liking. Plus, the first time you activate his firebreathing you put him into selesnya charm range. Ugh. Maybe there's some value to be had here, and that ETB trigger starts to get pretty silly in multiples (or if some cheap playable dragons get printed in Theros), but it's no thundermaw hellkite, that's for sure.
This strikes me as the sort of card which gets exponentially better the larger the available card pool is in the format that it's being played in. You need a good mass of cheap, and otherwise good, instants and sorceries for this to be threatening and the current block card pool just doesn't have enough cheap cards like that to build a deck around in my opinion. It has some potentially interesting interactions with cipher, but cipher has never been a viable constructed strategy so unless that changes I wouldn't expect this to have much of an impact in post-rotation standard.
Garruk, Caller of Beasts
As you'd expect from a 6-mana planeswalker, the power level here is pretty absurd. The biggest knock on him is that you do need to have a fair bit going right to get any value out of him at all. First you need to stay alive until 6 mana. Your best bet for doing so is going to be to ramp into him, which means that you have probably emptied your hand, or nearly so. And given his low starting loyalty that can only be bumped up by +1, he doesn't do a great job of protecting himself if you have an empty hand. So you need to get to 6 mana and have both him AND a fatty in hand to get value. You do get pretty special value out of him in that scenario, having put either something completely ridiculous like worldspine wurm or borborygmos enraged or even just a mundane but more castable fatty like (armada worm) or ruric Thar, the Unbowed into play. And if he's in a situation where he doesn't need to protect himself from creatures, you can tick him up to get some major card advantage. In my opinion, the strength is there for him to see play, but given the appalling state of non-creature ramp in block, you're realistically going to have to be running things like mana dorks and gyre sage to cast him, and those strategies have a nasty habit of dying to wrath. My suspicion is that unless the non-creature ramp options get better, he's going to be too hard to cast to be playable, especially as he encourages you to play with even more 6+ drops in your deck, but I could be wrong.
Remember what I said above about not liking 5-drops that die to Mizzium Mortars? I have a strange feeling that people forking out $150+ for their playsets at the moment will get a rude awakening if that two mana spell continues to be as popular post-rotation as it is in block at the moment. My feeling is that this fact could well mean that the hydra is better in standard at the moment than it will be post-rotation. The only circumstance in which I would be comfortable playing this card is if I could give it haste, either though exava or ogre battledriver. I'm not sure Exava and Ogre battledriver lists necessarily want or need to be playing 5 mana finishers, but if there is room for that sort of "slightly bigger" aggro deck then this guy could fill the thundermaw hellkite role in those decks. They don't really exist in block at the moment though, and the hydra needs more going right for it to be good than thundermaw does, so I'm cautiously pessimistic on this multi-headed beast's future.
This guy though? He doesn't ask for much to go right to be good. Yes, we can already make 3/3s for two in block. But you know what's better than having four cards in your deck that makes 3/3 for two? Having eight cards that do. Compare this to the previously reviewed card. By the start of turn 6 (the first time your hydra from kalonia can attack, if not granted haste), your tusker from kalonia has hit a goldfish for 9 points of damage. That's more than the hydra hits for on its first turn. And then you factor in land drop probabilities. Putting aside starting hand range (which is relevant, but hard to math), a 24 land deck will hit its second land drop on turn two 91% of the time but only hits its 5th drop on turn five about 45% of the time. In a vacuum, and in many real-world games, Kalonian Tusker is the far more threatening of the two beasts from Kalonia and the existing block GW deck would love to have access to more 3/3s for two, as it lets it keep its curve really low without having to stretch and play marginal cards in an aggro deck like gyre sage, judge's familiar and vitu-ghazi guildmage.
Before you get excited about this card, just remember that deadbridge chant exists. If you don't have an additional source of card draw, Primeval Bounty will essentially trigger once per turn every turn after it hits the field. For it to be better than deadbridge chant, the average trigger you get from primeval bounty has to be better than the average card in your deck (which is, roughly, what deadbridge chant gets you). Now, 1/3 of your deck is lands and any of these triggers are certainly better than a land, but in the sort of deck that is trying to cast primeval bounty my guess is that most of your creatures are better than a vanilla 3/3, and most of your spells have a bigger effect than "gain 3 life" or +3/+3 something. Plus, deadbridge chant gives you something even if it's immediately removed (some potential scavenge targets in your graveyard), while bounty usually won't. There are certainly decks that will want this, but if you can afford the black splash and are thinking about this then you might be better off with deadbridge chant.
I'm surprised this card isn't getting talked about more than it is. This card is the absolute nuts for bant control in the control mirror. Control mirrors in block are almost purely about resolving aetherling, and this lets you do so uncounterably at instant speed. I've heard some comparisons to autumn's veil which wasn't a good card, but that completely misses the point as to why this is a playable sideboard card. Not only is the effect itself uncounterable, but by granting flash to your creature it lets you keep up counterspell mana to stop your opponent dropping their win-con. It does turn your win-con into a two-card combo, but you'll rarely resolve an aetherling without some form of help anyway, so assembling this combo is too much more difficult than keeping up a dispel or protective counterspell anyway, and it doesn't come with the risk of getting blown out and losing the game if you lose a counterspell war. Between this and gatecreeper vine giving you a way to defeat burning earth, bant control might be looking fairly well positioned for the post-rotation meta.
I mainly mention this because a lot of what will make ooze very good in standard pre-rotation (unburial rites, snapcaster mage, flashback in general), obviously won't exist post-rotation. RTR block has very little graveyard interaction. Scavenge is the only mechanic that cards about the graveyard at the moment, and that's a fringe player at best. I think the ooze will still be pretty good, but it will only be good in a deck that's looking to actively put their opponent's creatures in the graveyard with removal (of the non-wrath variety, preferably!), because there will be far fewer opponents filling their yard up for you.
There's nothing off the wall incredible in M14, which isn't necessarily a bad thing - thragtusk was that, and few people will be mourning his passing in a few months. There are certainly some interesting interactions between M14 cards and RTR block cards which will be very relevant following rotation, and I hope the block-centric perspective in this review provides some food for thought down the line and gives you some pointers as to things to watch out for in Theros. Join me next week when I look at some history on the transition from the block to standard meta, and make some rough financial predictions to help you get value in the transition from block to standard.