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By: Psychobabble, PB
Jan 29 2014 12:00pm
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It's that time again - the full spoiler for a new set is up, and no other constructed format is going to feel the impact as much as block constructed. Does the set contain something (anything!!) to break the oppressive dominance of the GRw deck? Will black be able to do anything other than try to setup a big Gary? Will you need to drop 100tix on a playset of the next chase mythic to be competitive? All this and more as we take a look at the relevant cards from the new set... 

Reviewing the Theros Review

First, though, I think it's worth taking a look back at my Theros set review (part 1, part 2) to see where I hit and where I missed, and maybe draw some lessons for block card evaluation going forward.

First the hits - I correctly identified that planeswalkers were going to be a strong card type in the format due to the paucity of non-combat answers to them (to be precise, one - Hero's Downfall), and that Elspeth, Sun's Champion in particular would be a powerhouse. I picked Prognostic Sphinx as clearly the best blue card and UW as the best candidate for a heroic aggro deck over the slightly more obvious RW version. I also didn't believe the hype on Purphoros, God of the Forge, which was huge at the time, and was slightly down on Polukranos which you would have called a miss for the vast majority of the format's life, but people have been cutting back on the card in GRw monsters recently so I'll call it a partial hit (I also hyped up 4-drop which has become the preferred option in that deck, Polis Crusher, so double win).

I did have some misses, though. The big one was Xenagos, the Reveler which I severely underestimated but which added an extremely important dimension to the GR deck by adding diversity to the range of threats which required answering in that deck. This was a particularly bad miss, because I correctly identified the inherent strength of the planeswalker card type in the format. Planeswalkers are definitely something to keep a very close eye on going forward. The other big one was Stormbreath Dragon. I made the unfavourable comparison between it and Hypersonic Dragon, which couldn't have been much further off the mark given how format-defining the card has been. The problem there was that I severely underestimated the power of pro-white, it turns out that being immune to Chained to the Rocks is a pretty big deal.

Overall, though, what we learned from the single set format is that, as I outlined in detail here, the format's removal was ultimately insufficient to deal with the variety of threats that were able to be played in the GRw "goodstuff/ramp" deck. The format was utterly broken by the end, and we can only hope that Born of the Gods brings along some tools to save it.

Lands and Mana Fixing

The block format has been heavily influenced to date by the available scry-land colour pairs. The only two 3-colour combinations which have seen heavy play (Naya and BWR) each have two sets of scry lands, and most of the 2-colour decks have been in one of the scry-land pairings (UW heroic being the one exception). Born of the Gods is only a small set, which I guess is the reason why we only get three scrylands, for Azorius, Rakdos and Selesnya:

This will obviously greatly expand the range of playable colour combinations, but what's interesting to me is what won't be well-supported, namely Golgari and Izzet. This will likely hurt the chances of Reaper of the Wilds and Steam Augury finding a solid home in the next set - each have only been fringe players to date, and that's at least in part due to a lack of supporting dual lands.

The other mana-producing card of interest is an odd little re-printed artifact:

This might not prove playable given that you really need to follow this up with a one or two drop to make it any good (preferably both), but the potential synergies with the inspire keyword and the fact that it gives non-green decks some acceleration potential is definitely worth thinking about. I'll highlight a couple of cards that it works particularly well with as I go along in the set review.

Removal

 

Last time when I looked at the playable spot removal, it was pretty slim pickings, with half of the available options only hitting creatures of three toughness or less (Magma Jet, Lightning Strike and Pharika's Cure). This, along with the fact that two key creatures were immune to (Chained to the Gods), meant that Hero's Downfall was forced to shoulder far more of the removal load than it was capable of doing, particularly given that it was frequently called on for planeswalker duty. Luckily, Born of the Gods brings a bunch more options.

Starting with a bang, Whelming Wave looks like a pretty huge fillip to slower blue decks. Xenagos is going to be a problem, but being able to reset the board including all the pesky mana dorks is big game against GR, and even bigger against heroic aggro decks looking to stack up a bunch of auras and +1/+1 counters. It's not very good against bestow creatures, but bestow has so far been much more of a limited than a constructed mechanic, so that shouldn't prove too big of a drawback. Bile Blight and Drown in Sorrow are interesting cards. They would probably be as marginally playable as Anger of the Gods and Pharika's Cure are in the current format, but I can see a lot of tools in the set for aggro decks where these cards obviously shine. If GR remains the big dog then these will likely stay in the sideboard, but if the meta diversifies a bit more than they could be important players. Gild and Fated Conflagration are two of the cards I'm most excited about in the set. While Gild doesn't hit planeswalkers, it is a playable answer to Stormbreath Dragon and Polis Crusher in Bx that isn't named Hero's Downfall. That in turn frees up Hero's Downfall for planeswalker duty, perhaps lowering the power level of Elspeth and Xenagos somewhat. Fated Conflagration is also huge game, as I noted in my last article, because it hits virtually every card in the GR deck including both planeswalkers. Triple red is obviously massively restrictive, limiting it to two colour decks biased heavily towards red, but I can certainly see it being a big part of the metagame. It's just a shame there is no Izzet scryland in the set, I could see UR being a thing but as it is it's more likely to squeeze its way into some sort of Rakdos control/midrange shell in my opinion. Finally, Searing Blood is a card with a huge inherent power level that will only be playable if the format moves away from GR ramp, because it's a generally bad card against that deck, only really hitting Voyaging Satyr. The ability to ping a Xenagos token and kill Xenagos, though, does add an interesting dimension, although that is relatively easy to play around.  

 

White

 

White has been the backbone of all successful aggressive decks in the format to date, and virtually nothing else, and I doubt that's going to change in this set. Other than Elspeth and the unfortunately-overcosted Celestial Archon, there's still no really good midrange or late game cards for white in the format, something not helped by the fact that anything big and white can just be blanked by Stormbreath Dragon.

Brimaz, King of Oreskos

It seems very likely that Brimaz is going to find a home in block, it's just a question of where. This is easily the most pushed constructed card in the set (it could well be the set's Voice of Resurgence price-wise), it's cheap and it's got a restrictive mana cost which might actually function as an upside if you can combine it with Nykthos. Plus you have synergy with Spear of Heliod and Phalanx Leader. The issue for me is that this is a card that's amazing against aggro and awesome against control, but fairly meh against midrange, and block right now is all about midrange. White creatures in general also have a problem in this block of running into the brick wall that is Stormbreath Dragon. I'm not entirely sure how Brimaz will overcome some of the barriers that he appears to face, but I'm pretty sure he'll find a home given that the inherently strongest cards always rise to the top in a small format like block. I might like the idea of him as a curve topper in a sort of aggro/tempo BW or UW shell playing a bunch of cheap creatures and removal/bounce.

Eidolon of Countless Battles

Crusader of Odric doesn't immediately strike you as a constructed playable, but being able to bestow this guy for just four mana adds another dimension. This is like an inverted Nighthowler, being good in the early instead of the late game. And it really is quite good. One issue is that the three drop slot is getting extremely crowded for white decks, in between Brimaz, Fabled Hero, Dauntless Onslaught and likely something from the colour you're pairing with, but this is certainly in contention.

Fated Retribution

I want this to be good, I really do. The lack of a wrath in the format is one of its biggest weaknesses and this has some pretty huge upside over regular wrath. Except it costs seven. Seven isn't a real number I don't think. It's not even possible to ramp into it with Nykthos without playing a bunch of things that will be wiped away. I hope I'm proved wrong, but this seems unplayable to me in the end.

God-Favored General

There's a whole cycle of dude-making inspired creatures, most of which are clearly limited-fodder but some of them might have constructed aspirations. This one's probably right on the edge. The value of creating two tokens is certainly there, particularly if you can get Phalanx Leader or Spear of Heliod shenanigans going, but I think at the end of the day paying five mana for three 1/1s isn't going to get you there. Maybe you do something with Purphoros? Probably not. Getting this guy tapped without dying is also a pretty big issue, Springleaf Drum being the only likely candidate.

Hero of Iroas

Nice as it is to have another good, white, heroic 2-drop, I think we've got enough at this point and you aren't generally going to be playing auras that aren't already really cheap. I've seen a few speculative standard heroic lists with this in it, but I think that's getting distracted by the shiny gold rarity symbol more than anything at the end of the day. It might be worth a shot, and perhaps it opens you up to something completely different like Celestial Archon, but I can't see it in straight weenie aggro.

Loyal Pegasus

I'm a bit sad that one of the more interesting white aggressive creatures in recent times, War Falcon, never got a chance to shine in a block constructed environment given that it was printed in core set. So this 2/1 flyer for 1 immediately caught my eye, particularly given how nice flying is in this format due to the number of annoying Deathtouch or just massive ground creatures that are floating around. I think this probably falls a little short though, primarily due to the lack of haste creatures in the format. It is a pretty good turn 2 play in combination with a turn 1 Springleaf Drum + 2-drop, though, and there is one new red hasty 2-drop so maybe something will work out for this flying horse.

Blue

I could be wrong, but I feel like WoTC is having trouble designing for blue in this block. On the one hand, they've been scared off playing to blue's traditional card draw and deck manipulation strengths by the recent dominance of Sphinx's Revelation and Ponder in the last couple of standard formats. In general, blue's affinity with instants doesn't work particularly well in a block that's heavily permanent-based either. There has also been a pretty strong player backlash against their attempt to make blue the colour of hexproof with cards like Geist of Saint Traft and Invisible Stalker. I'm not quite sure why they seem so reluctant to support a blue evasive/tempo deck in this format, perhaps it doesn't work well thematically somehow or perhaps WoTC are scared of making another Delver of Secrets, but none of the sub-3 mana blue creatures in this set have better stats than a Goblin Piker and evasive 1/1s seem unlikely to get you there. So what that leaves us with is a bunch of overcosted beefy creatures, one decent counterspell and a bunch of highly conditional or fiddly do nothings. Ugh.

Arbiter of the Ideal

Let me count the ways that this is worse than last set's sphinx. More expensive? Check. Dies to spot removal? Check. Dies to Elspeth? Check. Those are some pretty big hurdles, especially when it has to stick around on the board for two full turns AND attack to get you value. This seems probably worse than Medomai the Ageless, which hasn't found a home either for similar reasons.

Divination

Woot, blue finally gets its own worse-than Read the Bones. I know blue's deck manipulation and card drawing has been undercosted and broken in the past, but it feels a little sad that black's doing better than blue on both those fronts in this block right now. Still, this may well be played in non-black blue decks even if you won't be excited about it.

Mindreaver

The comparison between this and Voidmage Prodigy is slightly depressing - surely given how hard this is to trigger, you could get away with not having to sacrifice your guy as a tradeoff? I'd be fairly surprised if this ever counters a single spell. But this is the first UU permanent under 4-mana in the set so is worth looking at for that reason alone. It makes Thassa, God of the Sea and Master of Waves significantly more playable. Perhaps it doesn't quite get them there, but they are very powerful cards and people have tried porting the standard mono U deck into block already, this gives them a two drop that's likely better than Omenspeaker.

Nullify

Dissolve was among the best blue cards last set, Nullify is the same here. The upside over Essence Scatter is marginal, particularly given the restrictive mana cost, but we don't have Essence Scatter so this is big game and if this finds a home, we could well see the format start to move away from 5+ mana creatures like Stormbreath Dragon and Abhorrent Overlord.

Perplexing Chimera

A 5-mana hill giant is truly perplexing, but this could cause some real issues for your opponent. It seems perfectly reasonable to just play it against a ramp deck, especially if you can do so a turn earlier with some sort of acceleration. This will seriously limit their options and force them to make difficult play decisions - they have to work out which of their threats they are most able to deal with, but if they play one that you in turn are able to easily deal with, then you just won't trigger the Chimera. This gets even more interesting with (Prophet of Krufix), becoming a sort of cheaper Spelljack-with-downside, and Spelljack is a stupid-powerful card. It does die to Lightning Strike, which is bad news (and a card that's already good against the afore-mentioned Prophet), and this will probably be relegated to sideboard duty, but it seems like a great way to punish people that want to play big 4+ mana spells.

Siren of the Fanged Coast

I only mention this, because I wanted to discuss the correct way to evaluate the tribute mechanic. Giving your opponent a choice as to how a card resolves is always a bad thing. PVR recently illustrated this in a nice way by pointing out that a card which says "Your opponent chooses one: you deal 2 damage to target creature or player, or you draw five cards" is strictly worse than Shock. In general, you should only consider playing a tribute card if its worst case is a card you'd still be happy to play. The worst case scenario for Siren is almost always going to be a 4/4 flyer for 5 mana. That's not playable in this format, Celestial Archon is a 4/4 flyer for five with a fair bit of upside that has seen no play, and the same will be true here - the possibility of this being, instead, a Mind Control plus a 1/1 flyer is actually a downside compared to a straight 4/4 flyer for 4.

Thassa's Rebuff

Yeah, this is probably mini-Mana Leak, with bonus down-side, but it's worth mentioning along with Mindreaver as a potential enabler for a mono blue devotion deck. Unfortunately I think that deck, and this card, probably doesn't really get off the ground without a 1-drop that's more powerful than Triton Shorethief (even a 1/1 unblockable might get there imo), but this is another one to keep an eye on going forward.

Conclusion

There's some exciting cards coming down the pipeline here - a wealth of new removal options, some strong aggressive white creatures and a cheap counterspell - and a few boring but important cards like the mana fixers. Join me again next week when I take a look at the new black, red, green and multi-coloured cards.