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By: Psychobabble, PB
Apr 24 2014 12:00pm
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If you've been reading this column for a while, you'll know the how I review sets by now. Rather than going over every card in the set, I skip all the limited-fodder and focus on the cards which I think have a chance of making a splash in block constructed - or those which look like they were made to do so, but which I think won't make it. Along the way I'll try to make some big picture comments on how the set might impact the format as a whole or what new archetypes might be spawned, but that's fiendishly difficult to do so, so you'll forgive me if I miss this set's Satyr Wayfinder. Without further ado, lets Journey into Nyx.

Lands

 

Before we get looking at the cards that are in the set, let's take a quick look at something that isn't here. Mark Rosewater's first spoiler article of the new set got me genuinely excited for a moment:

    What have players wanted to do from the moment we introduced an enchantment theme, including the first ever (well, ignoring one future shifted card) enchantment creatures? They have wanted to make an all-enchantment deck. The existence of enchantment creatures makes this viable for the first time in the history of Magic. ... So why haven't they? Because they needed something that we held back on. You see, there was something that the block wanted but didn't need, something useful but not crucial.

The first thing which sprung to my mind on reading this passage got my imagination racing:

ancient den seat of the Synod vault of whispers great furnace tree of tales darksteel citadel

Surely, they wouldn't... would they? That would be awesome... but totally broken! Hmmm, but enchantment lands it would probably be balanced by the fact that they'd turn Naturalize into a 2-mana Stone Rain, and there's enough other enchantments floating around in the block that Naturalize would be main-deckable. Of course, Rosewater went on to dash my hopes in the article by revealing a silly overcosted Enchantress variant, but I haven't shaken the feeling that this was a huge missed opportunity. WoTC will never again have such a strong justification for making a cycle of enchantment lands, and I really feel that doing it would have made a huge and interesting impression on the block and also potentially have a long-lasting impact on the game in eternal formats. I feel that with this decision - and I'm pretty sure this would have been something they considered at some point - WoTC was being far too cautious, perhaps out of an unjustified fear of repeating the mistakes of Mirrodin block. I'll point out elsewhere in the review other instances where I think WoTC is showing a similar degree of over-caution, I hope it doesn't hamper the potential impact of this set too much.

Anyway, at least WoTC felt content to push the envelope on one of the lands in the set:

While City of Brass (which this is a functional reprint of) was once core-set material, it hasn't been printed in an expansion since 8th Edition, all the way back in 2003. It's an extremely powerful land, and one which was added to the set explicitly to enable 2-colour aggro decks in THS block constructed (see Sam Stoddard's extremely informative article here). I'm pretty sure it'll be successful. One of the things which has held various flavours of 2-colour heroic decks from being viable is the mana, and this helps in the best possible way - an unconditional, come into play untapped, dual-colour land. The life cost will only really hurt those types of decks in the mirror, and can be mitigated by things like Hopeful Eidolon in any event. Midrange and control decks probably want to stick to as many scrylands as they can jam, but multi-coloured aggro decks will almost certainly want to pack a playset of Mana Confluence.

Temple of Malady will make the GBx dredge deck marginally better, not that it needed the help. I can't see it spawning any new decks, though, as the dredge deck basically covers the GBx midrange field. It's possible that it could help make a Jund version more viable, though. Temple of Epiphany, along with a few other new cards, could possibly allow UWR control to be viable. It's always been a deck that hovers at the edge of viability, held back by the fact that black is such a strong control colour in the block. Having a complete set of temples, though, could allow UWR control to have a shot, particularly if aggro is popular as UWR is inherently better against aggro than Esper (in this block at least).

 

Removal

I'm sure WoTC had their reasons, but I'm pretty sure they messed up badly with the removal in the first set of the block, the scarce and conditional nature of the removal meant that GRx goodstuff.deck was able to run rampant throughout its life, ultimately to the point of absurdity. Thankfully this was rectified last set, with an abundance of new removal options which had their expected effect. The trend seems to be continuing this time, with a long list of potentially playable removal coming in JOU.

The new, re-templated Oblivion ring Banishing Light gives the format a much needed additional non-combat answer to planeswalkers. Right now, three mana is generally quick enough for removal, so I expect it to become a format staple. Deicide goes to a point I was making earlier about my impression that WoTC has been a little too over-cautious with this set. In the article linked earlier, Sam Stoddard stated (in relation to Banishing Light), that:

    We also had a goal for the early sets in the Theros block to have the Gods be hard to deal with. We wanted to give the cards their time to shine, and having too many easy answers for them would have undercut the awesomeness of the cards themselves.

The problem is that Gods have NEVER had their time to shine in the block constructed format (which Sam was talking about). Outside of Erebos, not a single of the ten gods in the set so far have seen a consistent level of play, and even then the black god has mostly undertaken sideboard duty as a card-drawing enchantment. Purphoros has seen a small amount of play, also mostly from the sideboard and there's been a handful of appearances from Heliod, Nylea and Mogis. But the bottom line is that these cards have not proven to be staple constructed players, which is a failure from my perspective. In addition, BNG contained two strong two mana answers to the gods (Unravel the Aether and Revoke Existence), I'm extremely unconvinced we needed another in this set, particularly one so obviously directed at a card type which isn't even seeing very much play.

Finally in white, we have the conditional one-mana Pacifism. That seems like a pretty interesting card to me, it plays pretty well in aggro decks (Eidolon of Countless Battles combo!), the cheapness allowing for good tempo plays and potentially allowing you to develop your board to the point where your opponent can't afford to pay to block. It's also pretty good in control decks, where the desire to play scrylands in the early turn means that one-mana plays go up in value.

Blue gets what will generally be an inferior Voyage's End and a fairly decent removal spell for a possible mono blue devotion deck. Black gets the format's second wrath effect, but it's likely to be far too expensive and conditional to be usable - just think how bad it is against the current mono black aggro deck. It might be possible to build your creature base to break the symmetry in a creature deck, but relying too heavily on enchantment creatures opens you up to a lot of additional problems. Which brings us to one of the most interesting cards in the set from my perspective. In each of the past three blocks, design has made a statement with their black two mana instant speed removal spell:

Go for the Throat Victim of Night ultimate price

These cards made a strong statement, and the pattern has been established for long enough that I think its inversion with Feast of Dreams is notable. These cards, in effect, rewarded you for playing creatures that fit the blocks' central theme - artifacts, horror and gold respectively. Feast PUNISHES you for doing so, which is utterly inexplicable from my perspective. Enchantment creatures already suffer more than they gain from that additional subtype; I've killed many a Courser of Kruphix and Herald of Torment with Revoke Existence and Ray of Dissolution. Enchantment creatures do have the benefit of triggering constellation and being able to get picked up by things like Commune with the Gods, but on my reading, constellation doesn't look super likely to make waves in constructed and the benefit of being an enchantment seems likely to continue to be outweighed by the detriment for creatures. Quite frankly, Feast smells like fear to me. Development were too afraid of enchantments (particularly of the creature variety) being strong in this, the enchantment block, to really push them and having a specific and unnecessary bullet for them speaks to the same mindset.

Anyway, the new red and green removal is somewhat less interesting. Magma Spray doesn't do very much work in a format with effectively no resilient creatures, it does give UWR control a one mana play though which is somewhat relevant. Setessan Tactics is an interesting card, instant speed fight is far more powerful than sorcery speed, and I'm not sure whether anyone will ever strive it, but it could theoretically get kind of nuts. It's definitely a sideboard option to consider for green decks looking for some removal.

Mechanics

In my previous set reviews, I haven't discussed the mechanics in general as it's a little bit awkward to do so before or without discussing individual cards. At the end of the block, though, I think it's worth having a look back at how the previous mechanics have impacted the format to date and also give a brief comment on the two new mechanics.

  • Heroic. Impact: Very High. Played cards: Agent of the Fates, Spiteful Returned, Favored Hoplite, Hero of Iroas, Fabled Hero, Akroan Crusader, Akroan Hoplite. Probably the most impactful of the keyword mechanics in the format to date, heroic has played an important side-role in the pre- and post-BNG versions of the mono black deck thanks to the power of Agent of the Fates. It also, of course, forms the basis of various flavours of heroic deck, something which I expect to increase with the release of JOU.
  • Scry. Impact: Very high. Played cards: Scrylands, Dissolve, Prognostic Sphinx, Read the Bones, Gods Willing, Magma Jet. Scrylands are critically important to the majority of decks in the format, and have proved to be extremely powerful. They greatly improve the consistency of midrange and control decks, particularly as they make it easier to keep opening hands. On most of the other cards (other than sphinx), scry is just a nice bonus, but it's one which adds up over the course of the game and this has proven to be an extremely effective mechanic for a very wide range of decks.
  • Bestow. Impact: High. Played cards: Eidolon of Countless Battles, Hopeful Eidolon, Herald of Torment, Nighthowler, Baleful Eidolon, Nyxborn Rollicker, Boon Satyr. Bestow is a mechanic which started off a bit on the expensive side to see constructed play, but greatly benefited from some cheaper casting cost options that came along with BNG (along with Hero of Iroas as an enabler). I'm not sure any of the JOU options will get there, but with heroic aggro getting a shot in the arm with Mana Confluence I expect bestow to remain an important part of the metagame.
  • Monstrous. Impact: Moderate. Played cards: Stormbreath Dragon, Polukranos, World Eater, Arbor Colossus, Polis Crusher, Keepsake Gorgon. Monstrous started off as easily the most impactful of the block's mechanics, as it defined the dominant pre-BNG deck and also played some part in other decks (mono black and UG midrange). However with the release of better removal in BNG, the relevance of the mechanic massively dropped off to the point where it's essentially unplayed. With even more new removal options, I can't see this changing going forward.
  • Devotion. Impact: Low. Played cards: Gray Merchant of Asphodel, Abhorrent Overlord, Erebos, God of the Dead, Mogis's Marauder, Fanatic of Mogis. Gary has always been a big player in the format, although he's now an optional finisher in the mono black deck rather than being (virtually) the primary win-con as it was pre-BNG. The gods in general have proved to be disappointments, and the mechanic only really sees fringe play outside of the few strong black options.
  • Inspired. Impact: Low. Played cards: Pain Seer, Satyr Nyx-Smith. Pain seer is the only inspired card that sees a heavy amount of play, a couple of the red options see fringe play in the mono red aggro deck. This has proved to be an extremely disappointing mechanic overall, with Springleaf Drum being virtually unplayed and other potentially interesting inspired creatures like Siren of the Silent Song remaining on the bench.
  • Tribute. Impact: Virtually none. Played cards: Flame-Wreathed Phoenix. I (and many others) predicted that this mechanic would go nowhere, and we weren't disappointed. Outside of a small amount of play in the less-popular mono red deck variant, tribute has failed to make any sort of impact on block constructed and I think the designers realised they had a dud too, as it wasn't returned for JOU.

There are two new "mechanics" in JOU - Constellation and Strive - although both are reminder text rather than keywords with rules meaning. I won't go over the details of what these are (see the official notes here) but, in short, constellation effects trigger when an enchantment enters the battlefield under your control and strive is (yet another) variant on multi-kicker, allowing you to choose multiple targets by paying an additional cost each time. Constellation seems like something which could be very powerful, but I'm worried that some combination of design and development were a bit too cautious with it, to the point of costing the signature "enchantress" variant at double that of Argothian Enchantress. Strive is fairly boring, and in general seems significantly overcosted (as most multi-kicker variants are), but some of the strive costs have clearly been pushed for constructed play and they may get there especially thanks to heroic.

White

Since the release of THS, Elspeth has been unquestionably one of the strongest cards in the format and multiple decktypes have splashed white for it as a finisher, including the current control deck (Esper). White overall has felt a bit one-dimensional, though, with only the heroic creatures/enablers and various sideboard cards seeing any real amount of play outside of Elspeth. There's one flashy mythic in this set which might change that, but still no solid midrange creatures or value cards which could really see the colour take on another dimension in this format.

Ajani's Presence

Quite a lot of the common cards in JOU are minor variants on existing cards, clearly with a mind to reducing the variance that would arise in the limited format if all three packs contained completely different cards. This is a riff on Gods Willing, and given the amount of play that instant sees, Ajani's Presence is worth considering. One of the nice things about protection instead of indestructible is that it also acts as a falter effect against mono-coloured blocking teams, which is a big point in favour of Gods Willing. Protecting against Gild and other exile effects like Revoke Existence is also relevant. This has a fair bit of upside though, +1/+1 is nothing to sneeze at for an aggressive deck and being able to act as a mini-Dauntless Onslaught at four mana is very attractive. I feel like this is most likely to replace Triton Tactics, which often acts as Gods Willing #5-6, but it's possible that it will also substitute directly for some or all copies of Gods Willing. If the strive cost was one less, it would be a slam dunk, as it is it's pretty finely balanced.

Dawnbringer Charioteers

Obviously Seraph of Dawn isn't a constructed card, but the heroic upside here gets you into Baneslayer Angel territory fairly quickly. I can't see anyone maindecking this, and it may be that if you're sideboarding in life-gain for the aggro mirror you just want to be casting Hopeful Eidolon for four mana, but this is worth considering.

Godsend

This is the flashy mythic I was referring to, and yet another card with a clause which makes an active god far less indestructible than it otherwise may appear. Other than Ray of Dissolution and Polis Crusher, all of the commonly played enchantment hate in the format (Annul, Revoke Existence, Unravel the Aether, Destructive Revelry) hits artifacts as well, so this is a card the format is pretty well equipped to deal with if it proves to be strong - Glare of Heresy is also a card to keep in mind, as it hits this coloured artifact. The question is, is it strong? Obviously the effect is massively powerful, and synergises really nicely with token producers like Brimaz, Elspeth and even Heliod. The problem is cost. You're paying at least six mana for an effect which is disrupted by both creature and artifact removal, and which really feels like it's only good if you're winning anyway. The beautiful thing about Bestow creatures like Herald of Torment and Eidolon of Countless Battles is that they present a threat even once the creature they're buffing is killed, not so with Godsend, and Godsend also requires an additional mana cost to become active again. I feel like this is going to be most suited to sideboard play for creature mirrors, perhaps time will prove me wrong.

Lagonna-Band Trailblazer

0/1s for 1 don't immediately jump out as aggro all-stars, but any one-casting cost creature that gets a permanent heroic bonus deserves consideration in a format where Ordeals are potentially playable. This is just as good a target for ordeals than Favored Hoplite, if not better thanks to it being naturally out of range of all relevant red burn spells and the conditional black removal. I could potentially see this replacing Battlewise Hoplite in the UW heroic deck, even if it is obviously miserable if you can't enchant it.

Launch the Fleet

With the cheapest possible strive cost, this seems like it was deliberately pushed towards constructed play and it may just get there. The RW heroic deck already has a bit of a "go wide" strategy with Akroan Crusader and Akroan Hoplite which this plays into very nicely. And if you combine this with cards like Phalanx Leader, Purphoros, God of the Forge or Spear of Heliod, things could get out of hand pretty quickly.

Blue

One of the most surprising incorrect predictions I made in my BNG set review was my contention that Read the Bones was better than Divination. As it turns out, the life loss on the black draw spell pushed the equation in favour of Divination, which meant that in between Divination, Dissolve and Prognostic Sphinx, blue was able to form the strong core of the set's control deck. However, outside of a relatively minor contribution to UW heroic (primarily for Ordeal of Thassa), we've yet to see any base-blue tempo deck be viable for a sustained period of time (the UG deck dropped off the map pretty quickly after some initial success pre-BNG), and Kiora hasn't managed to have an impact either. I'm not sure JOU will change that, but there are a few cards worth keeping an eye on.

Battlemage Thaumaturge

Apparently Thaumaturge is a real thing, despite how silly it sounds. As a sort of Hero of Iroas for instants and sorceries, this might be able to get there. At the risk of making the same mistake of underestimating the power of en-cheapening things as I did with the hero though, I'm doubtful on the battlemage. Its base stats aren't exciting (and don't easily get larger unlike Hero), and you generally don't want to be playing expensive pump spells so the mana cost saving is unlikely to be material. If there's a few strive cards which are playable outside of the Battlemage's cost reduction, then that could be a really nice bonus, but outside of a deck playing 6-8 such cards I wouldn't expect this to be in serious consideration.

Font of Fortunes

Is Inspiration better than Divination? I'm pretty sure the answer to that question is yes, and this is very close in power level to inspiration. You do have the downside of potentially opening up your draw spell being countered by enchantment removal, which is awkward, but the upside of being able to cast it on turn two and then cash it in at your leisure is pretty huge and makes it much easier to keep up Dissolve on the key turns of the game. I would replace all copies of Divination with this as a starting point, which would make it a 4-of in the Esper control deck, although if that plan gets punished by enchantment removal too often then it would obviously need reconsidering.

Interpret the Signs

Sphinx's Revelation this is not (/yoda voice). Paying six to draw three is acceptable, and to draw four is good, and thanks to the scry 3 you're probably going to be able to get in that range, on average, with your control deck. The problem is that this is happening at sorcery speed. Make this an instant and you've sold me, as it is I think it's too clunky to be usable.

Sage of Hours

This seems superficially exciting, but pretty unrealistic. A single ordeal gets you a maximum of three counters, and even double ordeal only gets you four unless you cast the second after the first has fallen off. So, to get a single time walk, you're going to need to put a lot of effort into targeting this, and then when you do get your extra turn, it's quite possible that your biggest attacker has just been given -5/-5 which reduces your chances of finishing the game off on that turn. I'd love to try this, but it doesn't strike me as a winning strategy.

Triton Shorestalker

Flitterstep Eidolon obviously wasn't going to get a blue evasion/tempo deck off the ground, can an unblockable one drop do so? I'd like to think yet, but with no hexproof and terrible base stats, I'm not hopeful. In between Aqueous Form, Stratus Walk, Thassa, God of the Sea and various bounce spells, getting your creatures past blockers isn't the biggest issue for blue tempo decks in this format and Delver of Secrets this is not (there goes the Yoda voice again).

 

Conclusion

That wraps up the first half(ish) of the JOU set review, join me next(ish) week for part two!

1 Comments

Thanks for the comments guys, by Psychobabble at Mon, 04/28/2014 - 20:20
Psychobabble's picture

Thanks for the comments guys, and good point on Thaumaturge Richard, seems like it could be good in UR.