Silvestri Says – Constructed Sketches with Alara Reborn

I know, I know, everyone else is doing one of these types of articles, but this time there’s a good reason for them. There are a lot of playable cards in Alara Reborn, so by the time the entire set is spoiled a third of them could be viable choices in the various constructed formats. That’s a huge number compared to the number Shards of Alara and Conflux brought us and this might be the strongest overall set since Future Sight or Lorwyn without all the tribal linear we got stuck with. So here we go into yet another preview article for the most exciting set in some time.

Bloodbraid Elf 

Everyone good has already talked about how amazing this card is, well I’m here to tell you the truth about this. This card is actually just as good as everyone is hyping it to be. Think of it like this, a 1RG 3/2 haste creature would see play in a good number of formats and Boggart Ram-Gang is only slightly more impressive than that and sees play as it is. Ok, now add one extra mana and the Cascade mechanic onto it, and suddenly the card’s power has gone way up. This is basically the type of card aggro has wanted to be able to play for years, something that can attack right away when it hits and gain some amount of card advantage in the process. As Luis mentioned earlier in the week, this card is effectively a much more aggressive Ranger of Eos. The payoff may not always be as good, but I expect this card to “get there’ way too often for control players tastes. Free spells are great and free spells attached to an already reasonable frame are even better.

Here’s an example of a deck that can get some value from Bloodbraid Elf even without being aggro at all.

Bloodbraid Control

You’ll look at Bloodbraid Elf and every single time you cast it you’ll get one of the following:

3/2 + Deal 2 damage to all creatures / players, this part can’t be countered

3/2 + Destroy target artifact or put target creature on the bottom of that player’s library

3/2 + Draw 2 cards, opponent discards 2 cards or you blow up an enchantment

3/2 + Jace Beleren

The weakest of these is still the equivalent of getting a better Flametongue Kavu. Against aggro you can board in Path to Exile as well and still feel perfectly fine about your super-FTK.

The –Blade cycle

The best two in this group seem to be Jund Hackblade and Naya Hushblade, since haste and shroud tend to make these the most obnoxious to deal with in the early game and give them the best chance of dealing more than three before dying. Don’t get me wrong though, from the looks of it all of them will be playable, with the weakest being Grixis Grimblade if only because Deathtouch really isn’t a constructed-level ability. Note that the flyer and first strike ones fit a heck of a lot better in Bant-esque controlling decks, so when I say Hackblade and Hushblade are the best I mean purely for straight aggro purposes.

Jund Hackblade being able to come in for three on turn two if you control a Tattermunge Maniac, Figure of Destiny or any Borderpost is pretty ridiculous. I’m reasonably sure the correct courses of action by half the format against a Maniac + Hackblade start on the play, is to curl into a ball and drop to 10 on turn three. Obviously this is the ideal scenario, but it requires no extra effort on your part to accomplish unlike most god scenarios. If you run enough multicolored one drops, you can reasonably run the Jund Hackblade out enhanced the 40-45% of the time it shows up in your opening grip. In addition it can’t be killed off by Terror, leaving Path to Exile as the only cheap commonly played spot removal spell that trades with the Hackblade.

Now these creatures aren’t particularly combat worthy, with the exception of the first striking Bant Sureblade, of course. All of them trade in combat to two tokens from a Spectral Procession or Bitterblossom, a random bear kills 3 of the 5, and Volcanic Fallout is obviously kryptonite to this cycle. Naya Hushblade in particular only trades with any random bear, but the key to remember is most decks don’t run many of those unless it happens to be Tidehollow Sculler or Figure of Destiny, so you usually get to crack for at least three or more before trading it off at profit. None of these guys are here to dominate the board like their three drop cousins normally would. Doran, the Siege Tower, Rhox War Monk, Woolly Thoctar – all of these creatures come with the implicit assumption that if you need them too, they can sit there and be nice big walls to discourage attacking. This cycle is the opposite, you want to play them on turn two every game and get to attacking as soon as possible, while making trading unprofitable resource-wise for the opponent.

Borderpost Cycle

Now this is a skill-tester cycle and not in the bad way. Rather, you have to ask yourself when and why you would want a Borderpost in your deck over a normal land. The obvious answer is for synergy with some of the guys from the Blade cycle mentioned above. If you don’t want to limit yourself to playing a couple of specific one-drops to drop a Blade into play enhanced from the get-go, then these are definitely a valid answer to your problem. In addition they allow you to play a higher amount of non-CIPT lands while hitting a decent combination of colors on turn 2. It also allows you to go turn 2 Knight of the White Orchid (on the draw) and fetch a land or do so on turn 3 even when on the play.

There are also uses such as pumping Glaze Fiend, Master of Etherium and other effects along those lines, but I think we’ve covered the main ones. Point is, the Borderpost cycle is definitely not constructed unplayable and I think the only major weakness to them happens to be their lousy interaction with Cascade. As in, the entire point of Cascade is not to hit a mana source and playing Borderposts sort of defeats the point, but that’s just a minor drawback for an otherwise very interesting set of playable cards.

From what I’ve talked about with the various cards, you could put together a deck along these lines as a test start.

Hackblade Cascade

I’m probably stretching the mana too far by including Knight of the White Orchid, especially since the mana hasn’t been tuned nearly enough yet. Still I wanted something to throw around something that could be very aggressive and deal enough damage where a burn spell or another haste guy could turn the tables and finish the game. What I got was a bit of a mess mana-wise, but one of the fastest decks I’ve played in Standard in a long time. Stuff like this:

Turn 1: Karplusan Forest, Noble Hierarch – 5 cards
Turn 2: Plains, Firewild Borderpost, cast Jund Hackblade (Beat for 4) – 4 cards
Turn 3: Replay Plains, Bloodbraid Elf cascading into a Naya Hushblade (Beat for 6) – 3 cards

My 5cc opponent was at 10 life on turn 3 and I had three 3/2 creatures in play with 3 cards remaining. I know this was a great start, but it was really amazing to see the deck fly out of the gates. Even if I get hit with Volcanic Fallout on my turn 4, my opponent is at 8 life and I’m free to play anything I want unmolested.

Blitz Hellion

This guy can single-handedly give your average red aggro deck a whole lot of reach. Big enough to run over Wall of Reverence, let alone anything else and essentially demands a spot removal spell or Cryptic Command from decks like 5cc or Swans or risk dying immediately. Against token decks that can jam up the board with a bunch of 2/2 flyers, this guy laughs and gleefully tramples on over. He’s definitely not an every-deck type of creature, but if you’re building around super quick starts and need a guy to finish the opponent, he acts as a stronger Demigod of Revenge or Ball Lightning. Adrian Sullivan compared this to Beacon of Destruction, a high-end burn spell, and that’s what this guy is, so act accordingly.

Dauntless Escort

Escort at first glance is just a 3/3 for three mana, hardly anything special to it and outclassed by all of its triple colored neighbors. However, the ability it has is very interesting, if not here, then in Block Constructed. In a stalemated creature board or one where the opponent only has a slight advantage and is poking at you via a pumped Spectral Procession token, Dauntless Escort can turn the game. It makes that trade everything alpha strike into a one-sided curbstomping for the opponent. It completely invalidates Wrath of God as an answer to a swarm of creatures. To top it off, a 3/3 is still a reasonable beast to own against Faeries, Tokens, 5cc and Kithkin.

It may not be the most effective beater in the world, but it lets you laugh at the idea of over-extending and gives a huge edge in creature fights. In a Naya deck, he can drop on turn two from Noble Hierarch and go straight to bashing for 4 from then on. Even better is if he’s played post-Woolly Thoctar and simply makes sure Wrath of God from a 5cc player doesn’t come down and bust up the joint while putting them on a three turn clock.

As Flores would say, clearly a Role Player, but I’ve played decks with Trained Armodon before and this is a lot better than he ever was.

Putrid Leech

I’m not quite sure what to make of this guy. To me, Leech is a situational 4/4, but such a small investment means he’ll almost always be the size you want. Not being able to do it more than once a turn leads it to be way more vulnerable than I’d like to spot removal and Volcanic Fallout, but a 4 power creature for two mana with no other strings attached will make me sit up and take notice. Against Faeries, what is their answer exactly? Terror doesn’t hit him and Peppersmoke is no good, meaning you’ll need an Agony Warp to get the job done here which is a 2-of in only some builds. Creature-wise none of the other men in the deck stack up favorably, the Leech being able to take down even Mistbind Clique or Plumeveil unassisted. You can essentially take free swings every single turn unless they invest a large amount of resources or have the Warp. Against other aggro decks, he trades with a 4/4 Figure and basically any man under four mana that isn’t Doran.

Definitely a niche card as his use against decks like 5cc and Tokens is questionable in racing situations or against decks with a lot of removal that doesn’t care about damage. On the other hand, the Leech holds up well against aggro decks and goes to war with Faeries with no problems. Maybe Doran has found a friend to team up with to take the place of Wren’s Run Vanquisher.

Wall of Denial

Glacial Wall, meet your upgrade. This card completely shuts down Exalted aggro decks (Bye Dark Bant)(ooh, eat it Doran! – LSV) with a quickness and almost nothing is going to beat it in combat. Now it is competing with two very good walls in Plumeveil and Wall of Reverence and it worse than both against token decks (Not killing any of them is a frown), so I don’t expect people to immediately jump on this bandwagon, but I would expect it to get more popular at least as a board card in direct correlation to how popular non-token aggro gets. Past that. Nice Wall.

Finally I want to finish up with a few quick hits:

Lorescale Coatl

Look kids, it’s a Quirion Dryad that doesn’t need help to get any bigger! This is the kind of card that I’d write off initially, but keep in the back of my head just in case I found a shell to make it work. The problem with guys like Quirion Dryad in Standard was that you had to cast spells to make it into a real threat, which conveniently left it open to getting killed by a stiff breeze. If you held your mana and spells back to protect it, then it wouldn’t become big enough to deal any real damage. This muddles that line by letting it grow normally at 0 mana cost (if you need to fully protect it) or increase the speed it gets bigger by developing your hand. Jace Beleren is the obvious companion that comes to mind for this card, effectively having Serpent grow +2/+2 a turn at no mana cost.

Is it strong enough for Standard? I doubt it, but you never know between all the cheap counters. It sure does seem nice in a format with Brainstorm though.

Maelstrom Nexus

Wow. That effect is truly impressive, turning all of your spells into 2 for 1’s and basically being able to drown your opponent in card advantage. The problem is where to fit such a card. 5cc could take care of the mana cost, but I doubt tapping out to main-phase (and likely drain any Vivid lands in play) this spell is really in their best interest. Even if it resolves, you’ve just given the opponent the opportunity to do whatever he wants to you. Sure you can hold off on playing it for a while, but then you have to figure out why doing so would be better than playing Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker or Cruel Ultimatum.

No, if this is going to see any real play, I’d expect it in a pseudo-Enchantress shell or something else that can take advantage of seeing Nexus early and keeping itself alive. Fertile Ground and Passed Prosperity both can help power the Nexus out early while cards like Oblivion Ring, Story Circle and Crystallization can keep you from dying. Idyllic Tutor can fetch the Nexus out of your deck to begin with and also find a kill condition like Sigil of the Empty Throne (Or Helix Pinnacle!) eventually to end the game. Too bad we don’t still have something like Enchantress’s Presence around though.

Aven Mimeomancer

Probably just a trap, but I want to single this bird out for being a 3/1 flyer that makes all of your token hordes a lot bigger and more aggressive than usual. Volcanic Fallout still wrecks this sort of plan pretty hard, but against normal decks, I can’t imagine them living long if they let your small crappy guys get upgraded into flyers that can turn into a legitimate clock.

And now we’ll finish up with the new Ophidian:

Augury Adept

Wow. I guess after the failures of guys like Augury Adept and Cold-Eyed Selkie they decided to go for broke and just make him two mana. This guy has the potential to be a wrecking machine if he comes down on turn two. Assuming his best place isn’t just in a draw-go deck which can keep him covered with cheap counters while clearing the way (although Jace Beleren is probably just easier), there’s definitely a Bant deck to be explored around him. Not only does he get the full benefits of Exalted and excellent spot removal in Path to Exile and Bant Charm, but he has Meddling Mage backing him up as well. If a non-tribal aggro-control deck is going to take center stage, this might be one of the cards to help put it there.

Well that’s it for now, enjoy your pre-release and get ready for Standard to finally be shaken up a bit! For all you Block players, I’m not sure if Alara Reborn is a savior or the doombringer. As it stands, Naya is the best deck and there’s a number of cards in here that make the deck even better. Then again, the same goes for Bant who may get an even bigger boost and the 5cc decks that were trying to hold on in the format.

Josh Silvestri

Email me at joshsilvestriATchannelfireballDOTcom

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