It’s time to move away from the reprint sets and get back to Standard, and not only do we have a new set today we have a new block as well. Amonkhet is a plane themed around ancient Egyptian themes and features the return of Nicol Bolas to the story (though not in the set—they need to save something for Hour of Devastation), but mechanically it serves as a graveyard set with multiple graveyard-centric mechanics. Speaking of mechanics, let’s get to them!
Embalm is a clear variant of Flashback, except that instead of getting a second chance at a spell you get a token copy of the creature—apparently someone at WotC really liked Back from the Brink
. It’s interesting that we just saw Unearth in Modern Masters 2017, as while that mechanic was very aggro-based (most of the Unearth costs were cheaper than the mana costs), this is based on value. Most of the Embalm cards have good front-ends, so the back-end is just a benefit. The parts beyond the pure creature also matter though—white and black have Zombie tribal aspects, and blue/white has parts that benefit tokens to go along with the majority of the Embalm cards.
Aftermath is a clear variant of Flashback, except the second spell is different than the first—wait a second. Yes, Amonkhet needed two Flashback variants for some reason, and all of them needed multiple pieces of art. These technically are split cards (though most of the weird edge-cases were smoothed over in a rules update), but unlike the other split cards you can cast the parts at different times. These don’t show up at common, and come in three cycles (an uncommon enemy-color cycle, a rare allied-color cycle, and a rare mono-color cycle), so they won’t show up in limited that much, even though that’s where most of their power comes from.
Exert is the simplest mechanic, as it just codifies “doesn’t untap during your next untap step” into something that can be done on demand. It shows up in Naya colors (RGW), and makes untap effects much more interesting. Barring tricky things like that, when to exert becomes more interesting, and I’m not sure when it should be used. The obvious cases are when the boost wins you the game, or if it breaks a board stall, but what about outside those cases? Most of the common exert cards are just power/toughness boosts (occasionally plus a keyword), while the abilities that generate spell effects are at higher rarities. My initial impression is that you’ll want to exert in most cases (as creatures are likely to get outclassed as the game goes on), but knowing when not to exert will be key in limited.
Cycling is the classic smoothing mechanic, and unlike its last appearance in Alara block, Amonkhet uses only classic “draw a card” Cycling but has other direct synergies like Onslaught block (though all of these cards say “cycle or discard” to be less linear and interact with Shadows over Innistrad block). Cycling shows up in all the colors (and even a cycle of rare dual lands), but most of the direct synergies are in blue and black. If you’re just using it for smoothing, it’s important to note the difference between colored and generic Cycling costs. Ignoring the cycle with “when you cycle CARDNAME” effects, every colored Cycling cost is just a single mana, meaning these cards help with mana screw, as well as letting you use all your mana. Conversely, the generic cycling costs are more expensive (two or three mana), but help with color screw, as well as if you want to splash something (though I don’t think most of those cards are worth splashing). Cycling is going to be the most important ability for separating players by skill, especially since the majority of Cycling cards will be played (if you ever want the main spell, Cycling for M or 2 is easily playable, unless the format is much faster than you would expect seeing a format of Flashback variants)—don’t be afraid to cycle good cards or cast bad ones.
Blocks that use -1/-1 counters are relatively rare (the last one was Scars of Mirrodin almost seven years ago), so one that uses them is a massive paradigm shift. Importantly, this means that permanent buffs are hard to find, and that instead you make opposing creatures smaller permanently. However, a big theme in this set (especially in black and green) are creatures with enters-the-battlefield triggers that put -1/-1 counters on creatures you control. You can always put the counters on the creature itself (and many have abilities that remove those counters over time), but the best cases come when you’re putting them on other creatures: creatures that are obsolete in the current board state, a creature with a better counter removal ability, something with high toughness and low power, or something that wants to die.
This is a strange pair of cycles. The Cartouches are nothing special on their own: they’re just creature Auras with enters-the-battlefield abilities (and most seem reasonably-costed, even with the inherent risk of Auras). However, what they’re meant to do is return the Trials to your hand, a cycle of uncommon enchantments that function more like sorceries that stick around. Again, all the Trials appear to be reasonably costed on their own (though ones like Trial of Solidarity
are hurt by being sorcery-speed), but combining the two seems like it could be good—more on that in a bit.
White/Blue: Embalm Control/Value
White and blue have almost all of the Embalm cards, but other than tentpole uncommon Aven Wind Guide
, all the explicit token-helpers are rare. Instead, I feel like the white/blue decks want to go into a control direction, with an endless number of threats. Cycling helps a lot with this, as while you probably aren’t going to be cycling Cast Out
, the more-conditional answers like Forsake the Worldly
, and Lay Claim
benefit a lot from being able to be traded in. One thing I’m worried about is that a lot of the Embalm creatures feel like they don’t fit in a control shell—UW Control probably doesn’t particularly want a 3/2 Vigilance for 3 (Unwavering Initiate
) or a 2/3 Illusion for 2 (Labyrinth Guardian
). As such, the good fliers should be prioritized, as Aven Initiate
seems very powerful for a common and (Oketra’s Attendant) is very versatile.
Blue/Black: Cycling Combo
Even before you get to the synergies, blue and black having a higher than average number of Cycling cards makes it a very versatile color pair—the faster you can get through your deck the more likely you are to get to your good cards. However, then the synergies put the color combination over the top. While to-be Constructed all-star Drake Haven
might have been too good to appear in Limited constantly, its clear pair Faith of the Devoted
seems reasonable enough (remember, you still get a card whenever you cycle). The creatures that get buffed also seem good, mostly due to threat of activation making your opponent afraid to block: Hekma Sentinels
and Horror of the Broken Lands
have decent bodies, Pitiless Vizier
seems much better than your average Giant Cockroach
(though Indestructible isn’t nearly as good in a world of -1/-1 counters), and Shadowstorm Vizier
looks very powerful (mostly because the 1/3 flier for 2 is always better than it looks). The most interesting synergy card is Ruthless Sniper
, as it’s the card that needs a Cycling deck to be successful (while the others can be put in a deck with some Cycling, this isn’t worth a card unless you can activate it a couple times). The one thing I’m worried about is how much Cycling you need to make this deck great, as Cycling cards are going to be a high pick for everyone.
Black/Red: “Hellbent” Aggro
Hazoret the Fervent
was apparently inspired by the Rakdos guild, and while the other gods don’t exert much influence on the set, Hazoret apparently has a lot more followers. However, there are two parts of this theme: the discard theme and the “Hellbent” theme (keeping few cards in hand). The discard theme isn’t that harmful, as the Cycling synergy cards are joined by cards like Bloodrage Brawler
and Miasmic Mummy
. However, some cards want you to be near-Hellbent, and while Thresher Lizard
is fine if you want a Goblin Roughrider
, Grim Strider
seems awful. In fact, the payoffs for being Hellbent seem not worth the risk in general (a 4/3 for 2, a 4/4 for 3, a 6/6 for 4). Even tentpole uncommon Merciless Javelineer
doesn’t seem great—don’t get me wrong, the ability is powerful, but the stats don’t seem great, and you need the cards to discard to activate it (unlike Bloodrage Brawler
). There isn’t even great synergy with the other graveyard themes, as Embalm isn’t in these colors (other than rare Heart-Piercer Manticore
) and Aftermath is at high rarities (and not great if you don’t get both sides). The biggest problem is that this seems like a very slow format, and as such I’m pretty sure the reckless RB aggro deck is not where you want to be. Maybe I’m wrong, but this looks like one of the most-clearly bad archetypes I’ve seen in a Standard set in quite a while. Of course, I’m sure you can just pick removal spells and win that way, but even that doesn’t seem great in a format of Embalm (though at least RB has plenty of exile spells).
What is this color combination doing? Khenra Charioteer
is the definition of “generic efficient creature” unless the theme is to play efficient creatures that don’t already have trample like Greater Sandwurm
and Emberhorn Minotaur
. There are some minor Exert synergies here as well, but nothing stands out. If the format is synergy-driven, this won’t be good enough, but nothing here is explicitly bad.
Green/White: Exert Synergies
Green and white may not seem like the main colors for Exert based on spoiler season (the flashy Exert cards like Glorybringer
and Combat Celebrant
are all red), but the important part is that these two colors both have untapping (and Vigilance) in their color pie. As such, cards like (Djeru’s Resolve), Synchronized Strike
, and tentpole uncommon Ahn-Crop Champion
allow you to use your Exert abilities more often, or without leaving your guard down. The problem is that most of the Exert cards in GW don’t seem that exciting, and are mostly just balls of power/toughness. If you want the exciting Exert cards (even at lower rarities) you need to go into red, and the “Exert tribal” cards (Trueheart Twins
and Battlefield Scavenger
) are in red as well. Does that mean this deck wants to be Naya? I’m worried it means you don’t want to be GW, though the card quality seems good enough (especially since it has decent removal).
White/Black: Zombie Tribal
One of the easily-ignored aspects of Embalm is that the token is a Zombie in addition to its other types, and that means the as-fan of Zombies in the set is actually pretty high: at common, there are four black zombies (plus Doomed Dissenter
), four white zombies, and four white creatures with Embalm. In addition, there is a lot of Zombie tribal a low rarities. Even common gets in on the act, as Binding Mummy
is a very efficient two-drop (that’s even being positioned for Constructed, with the ability to tap Vehicles) and In Oketra's Name
is a good Glorious Charge
. Of course, the main effects are at uncommon, as Wayward Servant
can generate a lot of triggers, Time to Reflect
is a very efficient removal spell, and Lord of the Accursed
is the rare uncommon lord (even if it seems pretty bad, but the last uncommon lords in Innistrad were overpowered and ruined the draft format). As for the rank-and-file Zombies, they seem okay, though the commons seem oddly centered at three mana (Those Who Serve
, Blighted Bat
, and Cursed Minotaur
are the best generic common ones). There are also all the Zombies centered on other themes (Sparring Mummy
, Festering Mummy
), but that’s to be expected.
Another UR spells archetype? It certainly feels like WotC might be getting in a bit of a rut with this color combination. However, if we examine tentpole uncommon Enigma Drake
closely, there’s a key difference: you don’t need to cast the spells! Yes, that means you will probably be cycling those instants and sorceries as much as casting them, and Compelling Argument
becomes an interesting tool (especially if you get some extra value with Aftermath spells and Embalm creatures) alongside Winds of Rebuke
. There isn’t much specific counting of spells in your graveyard, but cards like Warfire Javelineer
and Cryptic Serpent
certainly make it worth keeping track of. There are more interesting cards, like Seeker of Insight
(the first common looter in a while, and looting is another way to get spells in the graveyard without casting them) and Scribe of the Mindful
is an interesting Archaeomancer
variant. I feel like the key card for this archetype is Sacred Excavation
(even more so than for the UB Cycling archetype): you should be trying to find the good Cycling cards via self-mill, but cycling multiple Deem Worthy
is a great dream (and I’m sure other people just want to cast infinite Hieroglyphic Illumination
Black/Green: -1/-1 Counters
Lots of creatures have a cost of putting -1/-1 counters on a creature you control, but while most of the creatures are reasonably costed if you just put the -1/-1 counters on themselves, this color combination has a lot of ways to abuse that parity. The cards that specifically reference -1/-1 counters are the obvious way, and while something like Decimator Beetle
is very splashy, Exemplar of Strength
is just pure efficiency, and even the common Soulstinger
seems very good. Next, you can pile the counters on something you want to die, and other than Soulstinger
, Doomed Dissenter
and Festering Mummy
fit that role well (though I don’t know how often you’ll start the latter). Finally, you can just have stuff with high toughness to put multiple counters on—it’s not an accident Dune Beetle
showed up here, and Oashra Cultivator
fits that role as well (and you can even activate it in response to counters that would kill it). Nest of Scarabs
is also a great build-around uncommon for the archetype, as not only does it give you a lot of bodies, those bodies also make great places for your counters.
Red/White: Token/Wide Aggro
At first, this archetype seems weird and incoherent: Honored Crop-Captain
has a clear objective, but it doesn’t seem like much supports it. However, the key is that instead of being hyper-focused on one aspect, all the themes of the set help support the archetype: Embalm gives more bodies, red’s Exert cards are focused on pushing cards through, Cycling lets you play cards like Desert Cerodon
and Oketra's Attendant
without playing too many lands, even the pair of Cartouche of Solidarity
and Trial of Solidarity
works well in a swarm strategy. I still worry about aggro in this format, but unlike RB this feels like it has enough unconditional good cards so that it’ll be fine.
All the other colors get exciting build-around uncommons, and blue/green gets a hard to cast Palladium Myr
. Yes, Weaver of Currents
is still good, but it feels like the more exciting gold uncommon is Spring/Mind
, as a ramp deck really wants mana sinks and the other enemy Aftermath cards aren’t really tied to their color pair (they’re more generic, like Start/Finish
). There are also a lot of large threats (Greater Sandwurm
, Scaled Behemoth
, Lay Claim
) and many of them have Cycling to smooth your draws. Embalm also helps a lot—you can cast some cheap creatures like Labyrinth Guardian
early, then use them later for extra value.
5-Color Green: Trials/Cartouches
Yes, this isn’t really a thing—or is it? While the Trials and Cartouches are good cards on their own, the dream is clearly to return multiple Trials with each Cartouche. More importantly, green has a lot of good fixing in this set, like Gift of Paradise
, Shefet Monitor
(that can fetch Painted Bluffs
, and Oashra Cultivator
, and Evolving Wilds
shows up again as well. The problem is that you don’t really want to stuff your deck full of Cartouches, since they need to go on creatures (and they can’t even enchant your opponent’s creatures—blame Cartouche of Strength
). What’s more likely is that you have some on-color Cartouches, and you want to splash the Trials—maybe this is a sub-strategy of green/blue?
Other Important Cards:
Every format is defined by its removal, and Amonkhet is no exception. Other than the insane Cast Out
at uncommon, white has an interesting “bad Pacifism
” in Compulsory Rest
, which provides an interesting choice between trying to draw a Naturalize
or bounce effect and just taking the two life—I have a feeling you’ll rarely sacrifice the creature unless you have specific synergies (it has Embalm, you have Gravedigger
effects). Blue only has the expensive Illusory Wrappings
, but Essence Scatter
is basically removal (and one of the few great counterspells in Limited), and all the good bounce in the set (Angler Drake
, and Winds of Rebuke
) is interesting with Embalm and the -1/-1 counter creatures. Black’s simple clunky removal is the unconditional Final Reward
, but Splendid Agony
seems better in this format (even before the -1/-1 counter synergies), and Trial of Ambition
seems like a trap (lots of meaningless creatures in this format). Red’s burn is mostly instant-speed (except for Trial of Zeal
), and the variety of Magma Spray
(here as anti-Embalm tech alongside hosing Scrapheap Scrounger
, Blazing Volley
, and both sides of Deem Worthy
gives red a lot of tools. Green gets the efficient Cartouche of Strength
(basically Hunt the Weak
for one less mana), and Stinging Shot
is maindeckable Flying hate. Finally, colorless actually gets some good options, as Edifice of Authority
is a great Icy Manipulator
variant and Grasping Dunes
has almost no deck-building cost.
Other Important Cards:
Seraph of the Suns
is strange to see below rare, but it makes some sense here with an above-average amount of exile and -1/-1 counter removal (though it still seems strong if you can afford a seven-drop). Vizier of Remedies
is interesting (outside of its Modern shenanigans with Shadowmoor block), though it feels like you want to abuse it with the creatures that put counters on your own creatures (in particular, the one counter cards like Consuming Fervor
and Crocodile of the Crossing
). Vizier of Tumbling Sands
feels like the only one of the “Cycling trigger” cycle that you’ll regularly cast, as it functions as both a mana creature, a combo with Exert, and a way to give virtual Vigilance to any creature. Wander in Death
is surprisingly efficient, even before you consider the Cycling in a deck that wants it (as you’ll often be getting back Cycling creatures). Limits of Solidarity
doesn’t have many sacrifice effects to pair with it, but giving a very conditional card like an Act of Treason
effect Cycling makes it much more maindeckable (though I’d still want to be aggressive). Honed Khopesh
is strange as the only Equipment—I guess they want people to play more Cartouches? Finally, the cycle of Monuments seems very strange (even before you consider they’re Legendary uncommons, something we haven’t seen since Kamigawa outside of Masters sets). On their face they don’t do much, and the cost-reduction of certain creatures doesn’t seem great, but some of the effects seem decent. In particular, Rhonas's Monument
helps break through stalls (and green creatures are more likely to benefit from the cost-reduction), while Hazoret's Monument
doesn’t seem awful in the Cycling/discard decks.
Overall, Amonkhet seems very interesting, and very hard to evaluate without playing the set. Cycling is such a skill-testing mechanic, and it along with the multiple Flashback variants gives you lots of ways to use your mana. In addition, Exert should lead to interesting combat decisions (especially on cards that aren’t just buffs). As for me, I don’t know when the next time you’ll see me is, as the special event schedule hasn’t been updated yet. I’m also waiting for Announcement Day, as we should have the next Masters set announced by then (though some has already trickled out—why the heck is Commander 2017 still being delayed three months even after we have the Treasure Chest model already solidified?). Regardless until then, enjoy Amonkhet!
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