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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Apr 15 2021 12:00pm
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Strixhaven is in such a strange position on the Magic calendar, sandwiched between two exciting Eternal sets (Time Spiral Remastered and Modern Horizons 2) and clearly a power downgrade that’s destined to be overshadowed by Throne of Eldraine in Standard for another six months. There also isn’t much that stands out, as while an enemy-color set focused on instants/sorceries is new, a set with only two named mechanics (three if you count MDFC’s) seems bland at first glance, especially since there are still paragraphs of text on the average card. Of course, an instant/sorcery set is interesting in Limited, so let’s look at that, starting with the mechanics. 

Mechanics:

Magecraft/Instants & Sorceries Matter:

For a mechanic that is such a focal point of the set, Magecraft seems very slight. There are only six commons with Magecraft, and other than Quandrix Pledgemage and Lorehold Pledgemage they don’t seem that good. Keep in mind you aren’t going to be able to put that many instants and sorceries in the average deck (which is why I assumed the MDFC’s would be a bigger part of the set, but that’s neither here nor there), and while you’ll probably play a Witherbloom Pledgemage just for the body with minor upside, it’s not a reason to shove ten or more instants or sorceries into your deck (though note Lessons mean you’ll have more spells naturally). The exception is Prismari, as blue and red naturally have more synergies like Tome Shredder and Serpentine Curve at low rarities.

 

Learn/Lesson:

From a relatively minor mechanic to one of the craziest we’ve seen in a long time. The Learn cards are extremely high picks, especially since even though the “rummage” ability seems like a fail case, it’s a great smoothing mechanic, especially since by the late game when you run out of Lessons you’ll have spare lands to discard. The permanents are great (even the tiny ones like Hunt for Specimens—compare it to Elvish Visionary), along with ones that are fine on rate by themselves (the most obvious being Igneous Inspiration and Rise of Extus, but Field Trip is good too), but I’m betting all are playable (even Cram Session doesn’t seem awful if you have life gain synergies). The Lessons are a more interesting case. The token producers seem extremely good, especially since most of them aren’t an awful rate (the worst is Spirit Summoning by a mile, but even that is worth playing). The colorless Lessons are also interesting, as Environmental Sciences is one of the best Lessons (and will probably be a regular first pick just for its flexibility) while the others are either conditional or filler. The mono-color Lessons are also interesting, as they feel like a step down from the others, but are still decent picks just for the flexibility of the narrow effects.

 

Mystical Archive:

While not really a mechanic, this slot of interesting reprints is just as defining to the set as Learn/Lesson. The uncommons are all basic effects (currently legal in Standard), but the rares are worth mentioning because evaluations aren’t trivial—Constructed standouts like Channel, Inquisition of Kozilek, and Dark Ritual are essentially unplayable in Limited, while Commander-focused cards like Increasing Vengeance and Harmonize are extremely strong. And then there’s Storm. No, you aren’t going to be playing eight spells in a turn and killing someone with Tendrils of Agony on turn four, but between Learn and Lesson and Magecraft they’re stronger than you think. Conversely, the tutors aren’t as good in Limited as Constructed, though upgrading the typical Diabolic Tutor variants to Demonic Tutor does make it playable at least.

 

Ward:

It’s not everyday we get a new evergreen mechanic, so even though Ward isn’t Strixhaven-exclusive it’s worth covering at least once. Ward is a protection mechanic and by far the weakest yet, but it appears Wizards is still valuing it heavily. Of the two commons, Waterfall Aerialist seems weak, but Owlin Shieldmage might be decent if a 3/3 flier is good in the format.

 

Archetypes:

White/Black: +1/+1 Counter Aggro

The trend you’ll find in Strixhaven is that most of the schools are actively playing against their guild’s type, and often co-opting another guild in the process. As such, Silverquill is our aggro archetype, and while some of the cards like Spiteful Squad are straight out of Simic, there’s a bigger focus on augmenting the creatures through external means. That does mean you get efficient pump spells like Guiding Voice and Essence Infusion (and this is obviously the best deck for Expanded Anatomy, most are at sorcery-speed. I’m not sure how good the build-arounds are though, as Dueling Coach and Tenured Inkcaster both seem very overcosted for the new normal (even counting the counter), and while Killian, Ink Duelist is a much better rate, the ability seems limited—at least until you realize it doesn’t say your creatures. That ties perfectly into the actual main strength of Silverquill: you have a ton of good removal. Closing Statement fits perfectly into the archetype (but the non-discounted mode seems more important), and Mage Hunter's Onslaught seems good as well. Rise of Extus also works well, especially if you pair it with a Lesson that’s also discounted (comboing it with Introduction to Annihilation for a late-game alpha strike is particularly juicy).

 

Blue/Red: Giant Spells

As Izzet was already heavily spell-based, Prismari instead focuses on big spells with spectacular effects. However, the problem is that it’s difficult to cast these spells, and the non-rare spells like Elemental Masterpiece and Creative Outburst don’t seem worth their costs (even with the Treasure buyout). Spectacle Mage, Maelstrom Muse, and Kelpie Guide seem vital to this deck, as does picking as many Elemental Summoning as you can see, as the Prismari Learn cards seem good (in particular, both First Day of Class and especially Academic Dispute are better than they look). The real question is how good Teach by Example and Rootha, Mercurial Artist end up being, as while copying spells is great in this set, it seems anti-synergistic with the giant spells—maybe just copying a Pop Quiz or a Heated Debate is good enough? Prismari could be good, but I wouldn’t start here if given the choice, as it seems very tricky to build.

 

Black/Green: Lifegain/Sacrifice Value

Witherbloom is another school that is similar to its Ravnica cousin, but while Golgari is focused on the graveyard Witherbloom is focused on death. The Pests are the most important part of the archetype, mostly because there are a lot more of them, from Pest Summoning giving you two, to good commons like Hunt for Specimens and Professor of Zoomancy. They’re just so good in all of Witherbloom’s themes, from providing cheap things to sac to Bayou Groff to pumping your Blood Researcher and everything in-between. There’s a ton of value and decent stats here, and the synergies seem easy to accomplish, so this seems like one of the best places to start in the format.

 

Red/White: Recursive Value

Conversely Lorehold is as far away from Boros as you can get, focusing on getting value from recurring cards and/or exiling them from your graveyard. There’s also a more explicit Spirit tribal theme, with more token creation than other schools and the build-around Quintorius, Field Historian pumping them (though not very well). The problem is that even though you’re getting a lot of value from cards like Illustrious Historian, Pillardrop Rescuer, and Biblioplex Assistant, they’re not very efficient on either face. This makes me feel like this archetype is a bit too slow, even for a format that appears to be slow on its face. I think it’ll be fine and might be better before people figure out the good aggro decks.

 

Green/Blue: Giant Ramp

If Lorehold was hurt by its cards not being efficient despite a strong theme, Quandrix is helped by raw efficiency even if its theme is relatively loose. This is most typified by Frost Trickster (one of the only commons in the set that’s clearly overpushed like half the cards in Kaldheim), but cards like Field Trip, Biomathematician, and Quandrix Pledgemage also play well in the themes without being embarrassing on their face. There’s also a lot of card draw in the set to use all that mana (not only obvious things like the amazing Mentor's Guidance and Zimone, Quandrix Prodigy, but Learn in general). The main concern is the lack of efficient big drops at lower rarities (Leyline Invocation is the main common and ideally I wouldn’t run it), but a lot of that is helped by stuffing Fractal Summoning in your sideboard for inevitability. I think this is the best big deck at the start of the format, especially if players start out undervaluing Learn/Lesson.

 

3-Color + Decks:

One major difference between this format and Ravnica is that I don’t think there will be a lot of decks that go beyond two colors. While the synergies exist (most prominently in Temur Spell Ramp and Abzan Go-Wide Aggro), the fixing isn’t. Yes, Environmental Sciences is great, Letter of Acceptance is a great Manalith, and the common dual lands are the best ever, but it falls off quickly after that. In particular, the only green ramp spell that helps fix is the uncommon Emergent Sequence, and the other five-color fixers are the bad Campus Guide and Archway Commons. I think there will be too much competition for the good fixers, and the rares aren’t that much better than the good uncommons (and they’re hard to splash to boot), so it won’t be worth it except in rare instances.

 

Other Important Cards:

The most important point is that Strixhaven has a lot of ways to use excess mana, whether it’s stallbreakers like Stonerise Spirit and Specter of the Fens, value like Unwilling Ingredient or Pillardrop Warden, or just Learn and Lessons in general. The removal also takes a step back from Kaldheim, being fine but unremarkable. White is the exception as it got a noticeable downgrade, as while Expel is good, Defend the Campus is conditional and Detention Vortex is essentially unplayable in all but the most aggro decks. I’d also be weary of artifacts and enchantments more than usual, Containment Breach, Start From Scratch (and Introduction to Annihilation and Reduce to Memory to a lesser extent) mean there are more maindeckable answers in general.

 

Conclusion:

Overall Strixhaven is a very interesting set that does what Standard needed. However, Historic is a much more interesting question, with the massive power level of the Mystical Archive cards (even ignoring the pre-banned ones). Surprisingly it doesn’t actually give that much to Pioneer (just Crux of Fate, Doom Blade, and Sign in Blood, minor players at best). The more interesting part is that it adds new mechanics to Arena, and while Storm and Phyrexian Mana aren’t in Pioneer, Overload (via Mizzix's Mastery) is, and I thought it would be one of the harder ones to bring over. I don’t know if that means it’s more likely to be in Pioneer Masters, but it’s an interesting wrinkle. The other relevant reprint news is the new Treasure Chest update, and while we’re getting C21 in this batch, we’re only getting 26 of the 81 cards at least to start, which is disappointing but somewhat understandable. As for me, I guess what’s next will be the Limited Review for Modern Horizons 2. Until then.

 

Vincent

@VincentSIFTD on Twitter