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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Sep 01 2016 12:00pm
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Welcome back to the Modern Flashback Series! This week we have a nice meaty article on Rise of the Eldrazi, which makes a nice contrast to next week when I have almost nothing for Magic 2011. However, my plan is to start my coverage of the Fall “however we're printing Conspiracy: Take the Crown and Commander 2016 on MTGO” set/prize pack next week. In the best case whatever MTGO is doing gets announced in the Announcement Day article on the Mothership (which should be up as you're reading this), and I can start my design in earnest (or maybe start the contest that was speculated on in the comments a couple articles back), but I plan on writing something regardless. As a preview, I've gone through all the modern-border cards missing on MTGO and categorized them into a spreadsheet—let me know if I missed something, or messed up the categorization of some cards (in particular the Conspiracy cards). Anyway, on to Rise of the Eldrazi.
Rise of the Eldrazi is the third set in the Zendikar block, but it completely breaks away from the themes in Zendikar and Worldwake, even more than Shadowmoor broke away from Lorwyn block. The Eldrazi are big, colorless (non-artifact) creatures (and spells, as Tribal was unretired for one final experiment), and the limited format is designed so that seven and eight mana spells are regularly castable. This takes many forms, including small creatures getting better over time, good creatures with Defender, and many sources of ramp. All of this adds up to a limited format considered one of the best of all time.
While the format is very good, it has many problems in the larger sense of design. First of all, New World Order is mostly ignored, as cards like the Invokers and Levelers are very complex, and there are a lot of unique mechanics and concepts in the set. Second, the focus on big spells throws most of the traditional rules of limited out the window. As an example, Glory Seeker and Gloomhunter are cards that would be average or better in a normal set (heck, both were in Magic 2010 and were fine), but are solely here to be traps for new players. Finally, as a consequence of that, this is the first set where you need to be drafting a specific archetype (with a theme, not just a color pair) to have a chance. This isn't even like a Masters set where there's enough fixing and generically good cards to salvage a “good stuff” deck out of a failed draft; there are enough unplayable cards and cards that are awful outside of their specific archetype to leave you without enough playables, just like in the old days. This can be daunting, but if you're willing to learn the format (and I'm willing to help), it is very rewarding. Now, onto the mechanics:
Nest Invader Spawning Breath Corpsehatch
Eldrazi Spawn:
If you've played Battle for Zendikar, you're familiar with this concept: small creatures that can be sacrificed for colorless mana. However, the difference here is that Eldrazi Spawn are 0/1's, meaning they can't deal damage without help. This has many unique implications for the format, mostly stemming from the fact that Spawn cost less mana than Scions did (compare Nest Invader and Kozilek's Predator to Scion Summoner and Eyeless Watcher). Many more Spawn are around, and they're more disposable to ramp, sacrifice to Annihilator triggers, or even just block with. It also means there are a lot of ways to make Spawn useful (like Ogre's Cleaver and Raid Bombardment, which can create its own archetype.
Ulamog's Crusher Artisan of Kozilek Pathrazer of Ulamog
As you would expect, Annihilator is a strong ability (especially Annihilator 2 or greater) and encourages people to attack with their big creatures to break stalemates (though Ulamog's Crusher needed to be given the “must attack” clause for testers to realize that). However, the question isn't “are big creatures with good abilities are good when they resolve?”, but instead “how many big Eldrazi can I support?” In general, any deck can support a single Ulamog's Crusher at 8 (especially since you want to be able to hit eight mana for Invokers anyway), and getting to 9 for Artisan of Kozilek only requires a little more work (a couple of Spawn producers, or an overall slow deck). Casting Pathrazer of Ulamog at 11 requires a full ramp deck, and even then you won't cast it in a lot of games (which means It that Betrays at 12 is even harder). Unfortunately, even in this format, casting Emrakul, the Aeons Torn at 15 isn't practical unless you're having fun—just keep the ten dollar bill in your sideboard.
Knight of Cliffhaven Venerated Teacher Time of Heroes
Level Up:
Level Up is a mechanic that looks awful—why would I want to cast Knight of Cliffhaven and pay fourteen mana for a Serra Angel, especially when I have to commit my mana at sorcery speed? However, the fact that you have a mana sink whenever you have free mana means you get to use mana you wouldn't otherwise use, and you eventually get a Serra Angel from your two-drop you played just to fill your curve. Level Up is much better than it looks, and even the marginal cards like Ikiral Outrider are playable. However, the real strength for Level Up is all the support it gets: Venerated Teacher can easily generate ten to twenty mana just for casting it, and Time of Heroes is an amazing anthem effect, especially when most good levelers have evasion.
Staggershock Distortion Strike Virulent Swipe
Rebound is a simple spell mechanic, and it's much better here than in Dragons of Tarkir, as it is in all five colors. While Prowess doesn't exist yet, there is a instants and sorceries theme headlined by Kiln Fiend we'll get to in a bit.
Snake Umbra Hyena Umbra Eel Umbra
Totem Armor/Auras:
Of all the mechanics in the set, it feels like Totem Armor is the most out-of-place. It's a new way of trying to avoid the inherent card disadvantage in Auras (though you still can be two-for-one'd when casting the Aura), and it's certainly powerful (as shown by multiple Totem Armor Auras showing up in the Modern Hexproof deck). I guess it's supposed to allow your small creatures to stand up to the Eldrazi, but it doesn't really do that unless you have multiple Auras. However, the real reason for Totem Armor to exist is to provide an Auras-matter theme, headlined by Aura Gnarlid.
Since this format is so archetype-focused, I'm going to try something different, and go into the archetypes in detail, rather than going through the colors (especially since the new hovers on PureMTGO lessen the need for a list of cards to reference). I'm sure I'll need to cover some cards I missed, but let's start with the archetypes:
Knight of Cliffhaven Venerated Teacher Skywatcher Adept Nirkana Cutthroat
Levelers: (WU, UB)
As I mentioned above, while levelers are good on their own, the speed introduced by Venerated Teacher and Time of Heroes makes this one of the few aggressive decks in the format. Even just going T1 Skywatcher Adept, T2 Knight of Cliffhaven, T3 Venerated Teacher generates twelve mana and allows you to attack with four power in the air on turn 3. The classic levelers deck is blue/white to take advantage of cards like Knight of Cliffhaven and Time of Heroes, but I feel like black's levelers were always underrated, especially when accelerating them with Venerated Teacher. In particular, Nirkana Cutthroat is very efficient on its own, and Null Champion can compete with Eldrazi with only a minor boost.
Ulamog's Crusher Growth Spasm Emrakul's Hatcher Wildheart Invoker
Eldrazi Ramp: (GR, Gx)
This is the deck everyone wants when they start the format: casting Ulamog's Crusher on turn five sounds so exciting (at least until it happens to you). Make no mistake, the tools are there, and beyond the obviously good Spawn producers, Growth Spasm and Overgrown Battlement are important tools, Joraga Treespeaker is one of the best mana elves ever, and Dreamstone Hedron lets you go over the top to Pathrazer of Ulamog or just cash in your Spawn for a permanent mana source. You also can't be focused on the Eldrazi: activating a Wildheart Invoker is almost as powerful and actually lets you do things before you get your ramp in place. However, the biggest problem is that the creatures that come with Spawn (like Nest Invader and Emrakul's Hatcher are wanted by everyone in those colors (aka everyone other than UW Levelers), and thus are hard to get. Still, if you don't go all the way up to Pathrazer of Ulamog, you don't need that many ramp sources to get there.
Raid Bombardment Ogre's Cleaver Dread Drone Broodwarden
Raid Bombardment/Cheap Aggro: (RB, RG)
Raid Bombardment is a strange card: it's a build-around enchantment that can easily win the game by itself, but it's common. This means you can be sure to get multiples (unlike, say, Burning Vengeance in Innistrad or Eternal Masters) and it becomes a reliable deck choice. You also don't have to just use Spawn; all your Cadaver Imps, Lavafume Invokers, and Valakut Fireboars trigger Raid Bombardment as well. You don't need Raid Bombardment all the time either: cards like Ogre's Cleaver, Battle-Rattle Shaman, and Virulent Swipe let you throw away Spawn to either get damage in or trade with real cards. In general, this deck is best in RB, as black's spawn producers are less in demand (and cards like Pawn of Ulamog and Essence Feed are perfect fits for this deck), but if you get the green Spawn producers early, Broodwarden and Bramblesnap are good enablers as well. Another subtheme of this archetype is abusing Goblin Tunneler with these small creatures, especially with Bloodthrone Vampire in the format.
Vent Sentinel Ogre Sentry Lust for War Repel the Darkness
Vent Sentinel Defenders: (RW, Rx)
This is a weird archetype, because Vent Sentinel is an extremely good win condition, most of the other defenders aren't that great (Ogre Sentry is fine, but most of the others don't have any power). However, building a slow defensive deck with a reliable win condition allows you to take advantage of many of the other tools in the Boros color combination. In particular, Guard Duty is great if you aren't planning on attacking (and technically you can use it to boost your Vent Sentinels), while Lust for War benefits from your defenders having low power. Repel the Darkness also works well once the big threats start to come out.
Kiln Fiend Distortion Strike Mnemonic Wall Surreal Memoir
Kiln Fiend Spells: (UR)
Another deck based around a single red common—this set has a lot of them for some reason. Kiln Fiend is a powerful effect, especially when you consider that there are multiple cheap instants and sorceries (many of them cantrips) and many of them have Rebound. In particular, Distortion Strike is an eight-damage combo with Kiln Fiend, and every Fleeting Distraction and See Beyond is a Lava Spike during those turns. There's also a lot of recursion, with Mnemonic Wall and Surreal Memoir letting you cast your Rebound spells, cantrips, and removal spells. However, if you haven't noticed, most of the archetypes want red as one of the main colors, and that leads to a lot of overlap. Yes, most decks won't want Kiln Fiend (just like they don't want Vent Sentinel or Raid Bombardment), but Distortion Strike is playable in other archetypes, and all the red decks want Flame Slash and Staggershock. In addition, Kiln Fiend is more fragile than the other key pieces, so I think this archetype is more-niche than the others—it certainly can work, but I wouldn't try it until I see Kiln Fiends and Distortion Strikes wheeling.
Aura Gnarlid Boar Umbra Totem-Guide Hartebeest Eland Umbra
Aura Gnarlid Auras: (GW, GU)
Aura Gnarlid is a crazy card that feels like it isn't NWO-compliant: it grows very big, counts all Auras (not just yours, or ones on your permanents), and quickly can't be blocked by many creatures (a single Boar Umbra attached to it takes it out of range of all but rares and Eldrazi). Again, you don't have as many enablers (just Totem-Guide Hartebeest, and Aura Finesse if you're in blue), and you can't really make a deck out of a bunch of Umbras without multiple Aura Gnarlids. Your cards are also more generally-useful (only Eland Umbra is a “bad” Totem Armor Aura), though at least you're not fighting for red.
Dawnglare Invoker Regress Domestication Oust
Other Relevant Cards:
While most of your good decks are going to fit into these categories, you aren't going to get 22-23 cards (most decks are 18 lands in this format) that perfectly fit the archetypes, either because you're fighting other people for the archetype, you aren't perfectly in the right colors (say, you're a green ramp deck that opened a Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief in pack two), or you just want some generically-powerful cards. As such, you need to understand some of the other cards in the format. Let's start with the Invokers, as they're all very powerful even if you aren't ramping, especially Dawnglare Invoker which just wins games on its own. You also shouldn't be afraid to play a couple Umbras; if you can get one down you can only be punished by Regress (which is a good card for this reason, as well as bouncing Eldrazi), and Totem Armor is a valuable ability. Speaking of Auras, Domestication isn't a great Mind Control variant, but it's still good enough—just watch out for pump effects, and it also can just get a big creature out of the way for an attack if necessary. There are also your typical batch of removal spells: red's burn is great at killing levelers (and Eldrazi Spawn if necessary—cards like Wrap in Flames and Forked Bolt are custom-made for this purpose), while Oust is one of the best ways to get rid of an Eldrazi temporarily, especially if it's been powered out by Eldrazi Spawn.
And that leaves us with black. As you may have noticed, black doesn't prominently feature in any archetypes, just existing as a support to some Raid Bombardment and Leveler decks (though it also isn't awful as a supplement to ramp decks). Unfortunately, that comes down to the removal of the format first and foremost. There are four main removal spells, and none is ideal: Last Kiss kills only Spawn and unleveled Levelers, Induce Despair wants expensive creatures (which none of the non-ramp decks have), Vendetta is good but has a clear downside in this “big” format, and Corpsehatch is mostly unconditional but expensive and uncommon. There are also a lot of dead cards, and in the “traditional” dead space too with cards like Demonic Appetite and Contaminated Ground. That's not to say you can't build a good black deck: I mentioned the black levelers are underrated, and cards like Arrogant Bloodlord and Bala Ged Scorpion have their place. It's just that there's nothing you can really build around, and that's a negative in an archetype-focused format.
That's Rise of the Eldrazi, and it's certainly a unique experience. Unfortunately (or fortunately for some groups), we'll probably never see something like this in a normal expansion set again (it didn't follow NWO, and things like Glory Seeker being unplayable were too punishing for the average player), so enjoy it while it's here. Next week we go to something more normal (and boring) with Magic 2011.

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