Psychobabble's picture
By: Psychobabble, PB
Jan 19 2015 1:00pm
0
Login or register to post comments
2232 views


It's been a while, I know. But it's a new year with new cards and a renewed degree of excitement so it seems like a good idea to dip my toes back into the water. Today I'll be going over some of my thoughts on where the KTK block set ended up - I did play it quite a bit even if I haven't written for a little while - as well as some big picture thoughts on the new set, and then I'll dip right into reviewing individual cards.

KTK block post-mortem

 

First of all, the good points. I'm sure WoTC intended the Khans to be the defining feature of the block and on that front they hit it out of the park. The top decks in the format - Abzan, Temur, Mardu and, in the early days, Jeskai - were all Khan-themed, even if they weren't necessarily tied to the core mechanic of that clan. That should really be counted as a success, one of my initial fears with the set was that the mana-consistency cost of going up to four from three colours would be small enough that 4- or 5-colour decks may dominate the format but that certainly hasn't been the case. As far as mechanics go, the predictions I made in my initial set review were mostly accurate, in that Morph, Outlast and Ferocious weren't big players, while Delve was strong and Raid appeared on some incidental cards but wasn't a real deck theme. My only miss, at first, was Prowess which initially appeared in the Jeskai temp deck but, as in standard, as more people jumped on board the Abzan gravy train, that deck slowly disappeared from the format to the point where it was nearly non-existent at the end. That pretty much sums up the big picture of the format too. At first, for whatever reason, people were slow to jump on the Abzan bandwagon, which I initially thought had the potential to be good to the point of oppressive. It took a while, but by the end of the format we're pretty much there with just a touch under half of reported decklists being Abzan now. In my opinion, it's clearly the best deck in the format, only losing to draws where it is out tempo-ed by Temur or Mardu. Overall, the format had a decent variety of decks and they were generally in line with the key themes of the blocks, which should be considered positives.

Then there's the bad. I guess an apology of sorts is in order to readers of this column. In my previous article (late November), I promised that my next article would be on the Mardu warriors deck. I really was going to write that article. I put the deck together, researched decklists and jammed a couple of dozen games in the tournament practice room and 2-player queues. To be perfectly honest, that's why I stopped writing articles on the format. As I was playing around with various iterations of a 3-colour aggro deck - a deck which was and is the second or third most successful in the format - I came to the realization that a huge proportion of games in the format are decided by mana/colour issues. There's good reason why this proportion might be higher than normal. Not only is this a multicolour set, the very best cards in the format are individually very powerful 3-coloured cards with very heavy coloured mana requirements. This means that if your opponent hits their three colours and you don't, you're facing down some very powerful cards and usually don't have access to your best cards (and in the case of Abzan, you also miss out on your best removal spell). Further exacerbating this is that most of the fixing in the format comes into play tapped so if you keep a hand with two colours and whiff on your first two turns you can fall badly behind even if you draw your third colour on your third turn because your source is tapped. Unlike the limited format, morphs are an essentially irrelevant feature of the set for constructed purposes so you don't have that colourless bridge to get you through mana/colour screw issues as you do there. This all wouldn't be such a problem if the cards in the set weren't so powerful, if cast on time. But if any of the decks in the format do curve out while you stumble, it's exceptionally difficult to catch up momentum. In fact, the only deck that's really able to do that is Abzan thanks to significant life-gain (Siege Rhino is huge, and a follow-up Sorin can turn most boards around if it's not removed) and, post-board, access to a number of wraths. All of this combines, in my mind, to create a format which is particularly susceptible to lopsided games of magic and while the variance cuts both ways, it did significantly detract from my enjoyment of the format in the end.

Anyway, that's looking back, now it's time to look forward. While Fate Reforged is a small set and so will make up a lesser proportion of the format than KTK, that doesn’t mean there aren't some cards which could shake the format up in a good way. As I've done previously in these articles, I'll first look at the mechanics then go over individual cards from white, blue and black which seem like they could be relevant in the format, and then finish off with red, green, multicoloured and colourless next week.

Set mechanics

The set has six mechanics. Three are returning from KTK, one is a spin on morph and two are completely new. Here's some initial thoughts on them:

  • Bolster (Abzan): I felt like I was going out on a bit of a limb when I firmly declared that last set's Abzan mechanic (Outlast) was going to be irrelevant in constructed. There were so many cards in the set which seemed designed to push a +1/+1 counters theme, but I strongly believed that such a fragile linear strategy wouldn't get there. In the end, that assessment was correct and I feel fairly confident in saying the same about Bolster. It's possible that the five mana GW bolster-dragon (Dromoka, the Eternal) will see play, but outside of that I can't see the mechanic having any relevance in the format and it certainly won't push a dedicated +1/+1 counter synergy deck into playability.
  • Prowess (Jeskai): This is one of the returning mechanics. I underrated it somewhat last time, by making unfavourable comparisons of the mechanic to Heroic, but eventually the fundamental fragility of a deck which needs to play, and draw, a fairly even mix of creatures, spells and 3-colours of lands did see it fall off dramatically. This time there's a couple of new cards which could re-invigorate a dedicated prowess deck, including a couple of cheap cantrip-enablers and a monk who has to be in the mix for most powerful card in the set.
  • Delve (Sultai): Delve is a massively powerful and frankly dangerous mechanic, as it cheats one of the basic limitations of the game. WoTC really pushed the envelope in KTK, with Delve cards of such power level that they've shaken up or become solid role-players in even eternal formats. Delve has formed a moderate part of KTK block constructed to date, particularly the blue draw spells and Murderous Cut, but the new additions from Fate Reforged look much less envelope-pushing and I wouldn't expect them to play a big part of the format.
  • Dash (Mardu): The other truly new mechanic in the set, and it's an interesting one. Dash allows you to pay an alternate cost for your creature to give it haste, at the cost of bouncing it back to your hand at the end of your turn. Most of the dash cards look like pure filler, but there's a couple which could have a big impact so this is one to keep an eye on.
  • Ferocious (Temur): The inherent "win more" nature of this mechanic held it back from any real level of play in the first set, Icy Blast made an appearance at first but ultimately fell out of favour as it's not a good card if you aren't already doing well in the game. This time there's a pretty decent number of cards with Ferocious on them which seem powerful enough if you don't trigger them, or have enough upside that they are worth working for, that I expect it to be a much bigger part of the format with the new set.
  • Manifest (all): This is the most difficult mechanic to analyse. As predicted, few of the morph cards were strong enough to warrant constructed play but Manifest is a different beast entirely. Most of the Manifest cards give you some sort of card or mana advantage by turning the top card or cards of your library into a facedown 2/2 that can be flipped up for its casting cost if a creature. I'm pretty unsure how to evaluate this. Because Manifest is only going to be playable if you hit a creature a decent proportion of the time, there's going to be a tension in trying to use the mechanic given that most of the Manifest-enablers are non-creatures. Right now, I'm not sold on it at all, but it's possible that some of the more powerful Manifest cards may be playable.

     

White

White was probably the strongest colour in KTK draft, and so too in KTK block constructed. It had the best card in the set, Wingmate Roc, some good utility cards like Suspension Field and Mardu Hordechief and the format's strongest wrath, End Hostilities. It continues to be given strong mono-coloured cards in this set, with the two mythics in particular having an exceptionally high potential.

Citadel Siege

There's a whole cycle of these Sieges which use the new "modular" enter the battlefield mechanic. They all have a pretty high power level, but also might be slightly overcosted to see play. Global enchantments, or even non-removal enchantments in general, have a pretty high bar for seeing constructed play. I had reasonably high hopes for the Ascendancy cycle, none of which lived up to their potential in KTK block constructed, for example, and none really saw much play apart from a small number in the Temur deck. Citadel Siege cost a full mana extra which further limits its potential. The "Khans" option here feels pretty win-more to me, while it might be OK as a booster in a tokens deck, board stalls aren't really a feature of this format so far and you're probably better off with something like Trumpet Blast if you want to boost your weenies for a final push. The "Dragons" mode is somewhat similar to a card from RTR block, Martial Law, which seemed to have some potential as an overcosted Oblivion Ring with the upside of being able to upgrade the creature it was removing to something better on later turns. However, Martial Law was ultimately too slow to see play and I suspect the same is true here, but this is a much more flexible card given the Khans option, so there's some possibility, even as a sideboard card for the right matchup (eg. a creature mirror against a deck with little unconditional removal).

Mastery of the Unseen

Making a bear every turn for four mana is a slow sort of card advantage, but an interesting one. The closest recent analogy is Heliod, God of the Sun which saw only fringe play, although the 2/1s he made didn't have the advantage of potentially flipping up as a real creature. The biggest issue here seems to be that the type of deck that would want to play a late game card-advantage enchantment like this is probably going to be a control deck with wraths and not so many creatures, meaning this might not work all that well with the gameplan. If you can envision some type of grindier creature-based deck then this could be worth considering though, the format being so tempo-based does make it fairly unlikely though.

Monastery Mentor

The white Young Pyromancer? It's more expensive, sure, but the tokens that it produces are astonishingly more powerful. In the right deck, a 1/1 with prowess is very much a real card, and it's not inconceivable for this to pump out more than one over time. The Mentor is the card I've been describing as potentially the most powerful in the set, and it's just because the ceiling on it is so high if you have enough good enablers to target it. From KTK you have Defiant Strike and Feat of Resistance, while with Fate Reforged you also get Pressure Point and Refocus as cheap, cantripping, enablers. If you can build a sufficiently good deck that has 8-12 strong enablers to target your monk in it, I think this will be a hugely powerful card, it remains to be seen whether the power level of this and some of the other Jeskai cards in the set is sufficient to make up for the deck's fundamental weaknesses.

Rally the Ancestors

It took me a couple of reads to work out what was going on here. It's kind of strange to see a resurrection spell that isn't a sorcery, and also strange to have a resurrection spell that only gives your creatures one attack step without also giving them haste. So obviously the idea here is that you use this on your opponent's end step for a surprise army and attack through for the win on the following turn. It's not irrelevant that it's effectively impossible to trigger raid on your resurrected creatures, but this is a pretty good way to finish your opponent off if you got them down to a low total early before they wrathed you which is definitely the Abzan game plan against Mardu and BW warriors. This looks like an interesting sideboard card to consider for those situations.

Soulfire Grand Master

I would be much higher on this card for block constructed if the direct damage instants and sorceries in the format weren't so bad. If we just had a Lightning Strike or Stoke equivalent, this could be really strong. We do get a strictly-better Shock in FRF (and a hilariously-worse Flame Slash) so there's some hope for the Grand Master. If this goes anywhere, it's in the slot currently taken up by Seeker of the Way, which are fairly big shoes to fill and I'm not quite sold on Grand Master's chances given the paucity of efficient burn floating around.

Blue

I often find the mono-blue cards difficult to evaluate in these set review, part of which is that blue nowadays rarely gets any obviously pushed cards that play to its core strengths of card draw and counterspells, except for last set of course where WoTC decided to go and re-print Ancestral Recall. This time around I've got at least a reasonable idea of where blue sits in the format even though there's clear question marks over the viability of the Jeskai prowess deck. If that deck is still a thing, there are some interesting additions to it, and outside of that there's a couple of other reasonably powerful cards which might see some play and possibly open up new strategies in the format.

Jeskai Sage

One of the things that can make the Jeskai tempo deck work is card velocity. You need to assemble the right combination of creatures, pumps, colours and removal/bounce/tapping and simply drawing more cards is a good way of doing that. That's why Jeskai Sage caught my eye. Initially, I was imagining scenarios where your opponent blocks the Sage, you cast a cantrip to force the trade and then draw another card after that. But in reality, your opponent is probably never blocking this with anything smaller than a 4/4 - the one damage just isn't threatening enough. Even if you trigger prowess for a bit of extra damage, unlike Heroic your creature shrinks back down to a 1/1 on the following turn. Overall, Jeskai Elder (which was marginal) is just better in this role with the possible exception that this could be a sideboard option against decks with mass removal.

Neutralizing Blast

This set's Disdainful Stroke creates an interesting tension with that card. The main cards this hits that Stroke doesn't are Rakshasa Deathdealer (an exceptionally annoying card for Jeskai control decks), Mantis Rider, Big Knucks, Anafenza, the Foremost and the charm/ascendancy cycles. That's not an insignificant list. Going up the curve you still hit Siege Rhino and Sorin, Solemn Visitor which are some of the biggest threats in the format. Unfortunately you miss THE biggest threat in the format - Wingmate Roc, and not hitting Ashcloud Phoenix and Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker makes the card significantly worse against Temur as well. In general, blue controlling decks if they exist will probably play a mix of these, Blast being generally better against Abzan and Stroke being generally better against Temur.

Reality Shift

This is a very interesting removal spell for blue. It's not too dissimilar to Curse of the Swine from the previous block format, which saw a minor amount of play and was frequently used to neutralise one big threat such as Stormbreath Dragon rather than create a whole board of pigs. The fact that the bear you give your opponent might flip into a scary monster is a genuine downside here though, and this is appalling against aggro decks rendering it strictly sideboard material.

Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest

Yet more proof that the designers in this block were riffing pretty hard off the Heroic deck in the previous block when they built prowess cards. This is basically the set's Fabled Hero. 3-cost, keyword, doublestrike. This requires WAY more effort to get scary than Fabled Hero though, and even that card was only marginally playable by the time the deck was fully built up. Unless you are casting Defiant Strike, you can only realistically activate Shu Yun's ability if you have four mana available, which is a steep price to pay. The payoff might be worth it though. Because the ability is targeted, your opponent can't just throw something in front of Shu and be safe from massive damage, you can give the ability to whichever of your creatures went un-blocked. And un-blocked double strikers end games very fast, particularly after you've triggered prowess on them. It's unlikely to be a 4-of, but I wouldn't be surprised if this made an appearance in some number.

Temporal Trespass

This is one of the cards I was talking about when I said that WoTC has been a lot more cautious with Delve cards this time around. I'm pretty sure that one of the early designs of Temporal Tresspas would have had it with only UU as the coloured mana requirements, meaning that the best case for it would be to mirror Time Walk, just as Treasure Cruise can mirror Ancestral Recall. WoTC loves printing "fixed" versions of the power 9 (see: various suspend cards, eg. Lotus Bloom and Ancestral Vision, Mox Diamond/Chrome Mox, Temporal Mastery etc.), and this would have fit right into that theme. Anyway, that's not the card we got, what we got is an eleven mana monstrosity which, best case, can be cast for UUU, a surprisingly annoying mana cost even in the late game in this three-colour set. Somehow I don't think this is the next Treasure Cruise. Delve is good, but delving 8 takes some serious work and the payoff is uncertain. At best, taking an extra term wins you the game on the spot, but that's under the assumption that you're in a pretty good on-board situation. At worst - and this isn't at all infrequent - the effect is effectively Explore which is nice but hardly game-breaking. I've played a fair bit of Vintage (online), and I speak from personal experience when I say that even in the most high-powered format around, straight Time Walk is often just a 2-mana cantrip, putting this much work into getting it is unlikely to be worth it, particularly in block constructed. Also, the fundamental rule of delve spells is that they all compete with each other by cannibalising the same resource so if you're faced with the choice of putting 4x Treasure Cruise/Dig Through Time in your deck or any number of these, I'm pretty sure I know which one you'll be choosing.

Torrent Elemental

Block may be a slow format, but that doesn't mean it's Commander where any number of expensive/powerful/durdly things can be playable. 5-mana just falls under the line I draw in looking over the spoilers for "creatures which don't have any immediate effect", so this is worth considering. Without the activated ability, this is pretty bad. While you can construct scenarios where the falter wins you the game on the spot, usually it's going to just let you get in for 3 with this guy no questions asked, assuming you're not dead on the backswing. It also matches up very unfavourable with other creatures in the format on defence, failing to threaten everything from Anafenza to Butcher of the Horde, which isn't great out of a 5-drop. The activated ability is intriguing though. Given that you can build your deck to exile cards in your graveyard fairly easily with enough delve cards, it gives a deck that puts a bit more effort than normal into Delve a really nice late game source of inevitability. So far there hasn't been any such deck, but Delve is powerful enough that going deep to take advantage of it isn't completely out of the question and this gives you an interesting late game payoff.

Black

The mono-black cards from KTK strongly tended towards the aggressive end of the spectrum, and that's certainly the case here again. While there's some interesting cards in this file, I expect that only the aggressive ones have any real chance of seeing significant play.

Battle Brawler

This is what I'm talking about. Assuming you can reliably trigger the ability in your Mardu deck, this is literally the most aggressive 2-drop in the format. Even if you don't trigger it, the rate on this isn't appalling and there's huge upside particularly once you realise that this is also a warrior. It's even pretty good on defence in the mirror, blanking most of their team if you satisfy the condition. Needless to say, I really like this card and definitely think it has a home. By being such a strong turn 2 play, it allows the deck to become even more aggressive and not feel the need to run midrange cards like Butcher of the Horde or Wingmate Roc as many do now due to a lack of good redundant aggressive options.

Brutal Hordechief

This isn't Hellrider as it doesn't have haste, but it's still going to feel like it a lot of the time to the defending player. This is another card which looks set to replace the midrange cards in the existing Mardu deck, this is exactly what you want to be doing on Turn 4. And then if you hit five mana with any sort of board? It shouldn't be hard to turn that into a win in most scenarios.

Crux of Fate

This reminds me somewhat of Extinguish All Hope, but it's a mana cheaper and significantly more difficult to turn into an asymmetric wrath. The playability of this card depends on how many dragons in the format are playable. If the answer is zero, then this is very playable as an alternative to End Hostilities in decks that can't hit double white. I suspect that it's more than zero though. While the common mono-coloured dragon cycle is essentially irrelevant, there's at least a couple of the multi-coloured dragons that seem good enough to be played - specifically Dromoka (GW) and Kolaghan (RB), which are the two that cost five mana. The RB dragon is much better as a finisher for an aggro than a control deck, so I think its possible presence in the format is downside not upside for Crux of Fate. the GW dragon is a somewhat impressive finisher on its own (attacking as a 7/7+ on an empty board), so there's an interesting possibility of using Crux of Fate as a cheaper Duneblast option in Abzan deck - Duneblast does see some sideboard play, so if Dromoka is playable then you should consider running Crux of Fate in the board alongside it.

Mardu Strike Leader

Moar warrior aggro! I generally don't like the dash cards for constructed, but if you're looking for a way to play around wraths (if they are a problem), then this is an ok one. Against a creature-less control deck, this is pretty nuts as it can be dashed-in unopposed and leave behind a threat that needs to be dealt with. Unfortunately the deck in this format that plays wraths is basically Abzan which can blank both your 3/2 and 2/1 fairly easily by the time you would be wanting to use it. It's not terrible just as a value creature, and compares interestingly against (Mardu Hordehief), so it could see play regardless.

Palace Siege

Perhaps there's a grindy Sultai deck out there, and perhaps this can be (another) way to give it inevitability in a long game. Alternatively, it's a way for an Abzan deck to gain advantage in the wrath-heavy mirror - those games can get really grindy, especially post-board, and either option can be appealing in that situation. This is a five mana do-nothing enchantment, but in the right deck or the right matchup it's not too different from something like Staff of Nin or Keranos, God of Storms so it's pretty likely to be played in at least some sideboards.

Soulflayer

This is even more payoff for a dedicated self-mill/Sultai deck, if such a thing can be found. Hooting Mandrills wasn't too far off constructed play and this only costs one extra colourless, with the upside of potentially having some sweet keywords. Exiling a Torrent Elemental or Necropolis Fiend doesn't seem unreasonable in the kind of deck that would think about playing this, and getting yourself a 4/4 flying for maybe three or four mana is pretty sweet. Deathtouch is a little bit less relevant on a 4/4, but is also not unreasonable to get from Heir of the Wilds. Anything more than that and you're going to have to go a little deep. Soulfire Grand Master probably doesn't belong in the same deck as Soulflayer, and other than that the only possibly playable card with (natural) lifelink is Abzan Guide which is probably not a good idea. Maybe you go super deep and play (Gurmang Swiftwing) to get flying, first strike and haste, but that seems unlikely to be a winning strategy. Still, this is some pretty decent payoff for a Delve deck that puts a bit of work into self-milling, and especially if some better natural-keyword cards get printed in the next set it's one to watch out for.

Conclusion

That wraps up this week's review, things look quite exciting. So far there's a nice mix of "slots nicely into existing archetypes" along with a possibility of some completely new deck types. Come back next week for my take on the red, green, multicoloured and colourless cards in the set.