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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Nov 16 2016 12:00pm
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Welcome back to the Modern Flashback Series! The Treasure Chest article will be up as you read this. Right now all I know is that it’s time for Avacyn Restored.
Avacyn Restored had all the pieces to be the next Rise of the Eldrazi: it was a stand-alone large set, Brian Tinsman was the lead designer, and it was focusing on bigger creatures than normal as the “Angels and Demons” set. However, while this set was a casual player’s dream, the limited format just didn’t work. I’m sure we’ll get to the reasons as I go through the set, but one of the biggest reasons is that all the cards just seemed bad—it’s easily comparable to both Prophecy and Legions in that aspect. Let’s start this with the mechanics.
The majority of complexity in the set is tied up in this very clunky mechanic. There are a lot of cards here: 19 total cards with Soulbond spread across all the non-black colors, along with a couple of green support cards. It’s not like the mechanic is bad either, as most of the creatures are reasonably efficient (and the ones that aren’t like Diregraf Escort exist to ensure things like Flowering Lumberknot have enough support), and the vertical cycle of green pump creatures are all extremely powerful (consider that a Trusted Forcemage is a virtual 4/4 for 3, for example). The biggest problem is that this warps the set, as a mechanic that wants multiple creatures at all times means that the removal in the set (and instant-speed removal in particular) is awful.
Another non-black mechanic, Miracle tries to create excitement by making certain top-decks much cheaper. However, this has a lot of costs as well: it makes you draw your cards differently in paper (as you can’t Miracle a card once it touches your hand), and on MTGO you either let your opponent know whenever you draw a Miracle (as you need to reveal it immediately after you draw it, and the interface needs to let you do that) or you can set an option to allow you to “bluff” Miracles by adding an extra dialog on your first draw every turn (as you can Miracle on the opponent’s turn, making Fleeting Distraction, Alchemist’s Apprentice, and other instant-speed draws more interesting). Importantly for limited, Miracle does not appear at common, each (non-black) color has only one uncommon, and these are mostly efficient removal spells (Blessings of Nature being the exception), so it isn’t as big of a problem as it would end up being in Constructed.
One of the few things people complained about with Rise of the Eldrazi is that there was absolutely no continuity between it and the rest of Zendikar block, so Avacyn Restored brought over Undying from Dark Ascension—apparently the complainers should have been more specific in requesting an interesting mechanic be brought over. Granted, part of the problem is that Undying was a monster mechanic in a set in a set where the monsters lost: it only shows up on six cards and half of those are rares. Sure, Treacherous Pit-Dweller and Demonlord of Ashmouth are interesting designs, but at rare they don’t do much for the limited environment.
Many sets included a single card that flickers (exiles and returns) a creatures, but Avacyn Restored has six total flicker cards (not including other self-bounce cards like Emancipation Angel), including both Cloudshift and Ghostly Flicker at common. The flicker effect was also standardized, making it an instant-return that only targets your own creatures (as opposed to the delayed return that targets anything on Glimmerpoint Stag), but also making the creature return to your control rather than its owner’s (which is important for Act of Treason effects, though Avacyn Restored only has the rare Zealous Conscripts). Flickering mostly exists to dodge removal and abuse “enters-the-battlefield” effects, and while generic ETB effects like Borderland Ranger and Mist Raven exist, the main reason flicker is here is to manipulate Soulbond, making that mechanic even more complicated.
The monsters are losing so the main mechanic for black (and a bit of blue) is a mechanic rewarding you for having only one creature (to contrast with Soulbond), whether it’s a scaling benefit like Fettergeist or an “exactly one” benefit like Homicidal Seclusion. This is another reason why removal is bad in this set: if you’re going all in on the Homicidal Seclusion plan (one of the few loner cards worth building around), a Murder effect can be devastating. Again, there aren’t many loner cards either (almost no commons and only a couple uncommons), which is another problem.
With the monsters gone, Humans finally get a lot of good aggressive tribal synergies, mostly in red. There are also minor Angel tribal synergies, and Scroll of Griselbrand is even a Demon tribal card (even if it’s mostly unplayable). The monster tribes are still here, and while they keep the same characteristics (notably Vampires still have the Slith ability), there aren’t any tribal aspects other than a couple of Humans having protection from them.
The Angel set starts with two common Angels, and while Voice of the Provinces isn’t anything special, Seraph of Dawn is dumb—Makindi Griffin is already good in a normal set, so let’s give it Lifelink for just an extra white mana symbol. Unfortunately the common Humans are mostly just serviceable bodies, though that doesn’t make a Moorland Inquisitor or Midvast Protector bad, just boring. We also see the start of the bad removal, with Defang (bad even before you consider the flicker theme makes removal auras worse than average, as we’re seeing now in Kaladesh) and Righteous Blow being your options. There are more interesting cards at uncommon, as Goldnight Redeemer allows you to stabilize a board surprisingly well for an uncommon, and Goldnight Commander works well with all the token production in the set. We also see some old cards return, as Archangel is shifted down to uncommon and Builder's Blessing is a functional reprint of Castle.
The fliers are surprising decent for the set, as Gryff Vanguard is efficient (and a Human), Mist Raven is insane (another 2MM 2-power flier that’s great), and even Scrapskin Drake is just Cloud Elemental. Fleeting Distraction and Crippling Chill are both interesting instant cantrips, and Amass the Components is a better draw spell than you normally get at common these days. At uncommon, Fettergeist is fine in a normal deck, Stern Mentor is a win condition by itself, and Tandem Lookout is interesting even before you consider the draw effect triggers off any damage (and yes, Scalding Devil is a card). Finally, don’t overlook Dreadwaters if you can get a lot of them, as the mill is large in the late game, and games go a while in this format (both because Soulbond and/or the awful removal encourages board stalls, and because all the cards are under-powered).
Oh boy—back before everyone hated green in Battle for Zendikar, black in Avacyn Restored was the original unplayable color. Shut out of most of the mechanics in the set, there isn’t much room for black to get interesting cards. Of the common creatures, I actively want Undead Executioner and Searchlight Geist is fine, but there’s nothing else that makes me want to be black. To make things worse, even the “average” creatures like Soulcage Fiend are double-black, making your mana difficult too. At least black gets the “best” removal, as good as you can call cards like Death Wind, Bone Splinters and Grave Exchange. At least the uncommon removal Human Frailty and Barter in Blood is better, and a creature like Maalfeld Twins isn’t embarrassing, but there still isn’t much here. Overall, you only have two options with black if you want a good deck: splashing a couple of great cards in a green deck (mostly Homicidal Seclusion, though a couple of Death Winds or a Human Frailty isn’t awful—heck, most of the rares are even BB) or going (mostly) mono-black and hoping enough of the great cards are opened. That’s it; it’s not even worth including the black color pairs in the archetype section.
The awfulness of black is countered by how good red is, and it goes beyond having one of the only good common removal spells in Pillar of Flame. Lots of creatures are good, from the aggressive Fervent Cathar, to the efficient Hanweir Lancer, to the first rummager Mad Prophet. There are also a lot of Human synergies, from the surprisingly efficient Riot Ringleader (note it buffs itself) to the aggressive Kessig Malcontents, to the build-around enchantment Vigilante Justice. However, the card that pulls red together is one you wouldn’t expect: Thatcher Revolt. This looks like a less-aggressive Lava Axe variant, but it ties everything together: triggering your Kruin Striker multiple times, getting buffed by Riot Ringleader (and even Banners Raised if you’re going that deep), and even making sure your Soulbond creatures have something to pair with for a turn. Heck, they even trigger your Havengul Vampire when they die! Speaking of Vampires, they aren’t awful here, especially Falkenrath Exterminator, which needs help to get through but can dominate a game with just one counter.
Green is a very polarized color at common. On one hand the Soulbond synergies are great, and the combination of Borderland Ranger and Abundant Growth give you a surprising amount of color fixing. On the other, there are more blanks than usual, from the normal lifegain and fog, to conditional pump spells and Naturalizes, to cards that look awful like Grounded and Lair Delve. The uncommons are more normalized, with stars like Wolfir Avenger and Druid’s Familiar buoyed by average cards like Howlgeist and Gloomwidow.
There are some interesting cards here. Angelic Armaments is very slow, but turning your average creatures into Angels might be good enough, though Tormentor's Trident does a lot of the same role against all the high-toughness creatures. Scroll of Avacyn is also better than it looks, as two mana to cycle is fine, the life is very relevant, and Miracles give it extra utility. Finally, Angel’s Tomb is reasonable, but I don’t know how reliable it is.
Limited Archetypes:
More fliers, and this is where the flicker synergies show up the most. The problem is that this is where Seraph of Dawn’s dominance shows most—no common flier has a good match-up with it.
Here is where the biggest creatures lie, and the red spells are useful in getting them through. This is a pretty simple archetype, and while it doesn’t have the most synergy, sometimes a Pathbreaker Wurm is good enough in a format with no removal.
Hooray, cards? I don’t really see a plan here, but at least the card quality isn’t that bad, which is more than I can say for the black combinations (which again, aren’t even worth mentioning).
Again, the cards are really good here (at least for Avacyn Restored), but there isn’t much coherence. Maybe there’s something with Mist Raven and Fervent Cathar both being good ways to get rid of blockers, but there are so many ways to get around them (add Wingcrafter and Hanweir Lancer to the pile) you might run out of good threats to get through.
This is your Humans aggro deck, as all the Humans-matter cards, the token-benefiters like Kruin Striker, and token makers like Thatcher Revolt and Voice of the Provinces combine to create a snowball that works perfectly against the threats of Avacyn Restored.
While any (non-black) color can pair with green to take enough Soulbond to make Flowering Lumberknot work, green/blue has the most-overall Soulbond cards. Even the fact that the blue Soulbond cards are somewhat underwhelming (Wingcrafter is easily the best common) helps, as it ensures you have enough Soulbond creatures overall (you’ll mostly be free to take your Elgaud Shieldmates in blue as opposed to, say, red, where everyone wants Hanweir Lancer).
You’re seeing the problem, right? The best decks by far are red/white, green/blue, and mono-black, and everything else doesn’t really have a plan. Granted, some of these decks are deeper than others (RW and GU might get three players a piece and be playable, while mono-black must be the only player at the table and/or open decently to compete), but you’re still going to be scrounging for playables in a way we haven’t seen since the start of the mythic era. On one hand if you’re reading this article you probably know more than the average Flashback player, but the people playing Avacyn Restored are probably the ones who know all this stuff and want to grind Play Points off that audience (or they’re one of the ten people who actually liked the format). I don’t know what to say—sets get a reputation for a reason.
One more set done, and we managed to survive it. Next time we’ll be back in Shandalar with Magic 2013, but even an average new-age core set has to be better than this.

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