5.0: Multiformat all-star. (Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Tarmogoyf. Snapcaster Mage.)
4.0: Format staple. (Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. Siege Rhino. Remand.)
3.5: Good in multiple archetypes and formats, but not a staple. (Jace Beleren. Seeker of the Way. Hordeling Outburst.)
3.0: Archetype staple. (Jace, Architect of Thought. Deathmist Raptor. Dromoka’s Command.)
2.5: Role-player in some decks, but not quite a staple. (Jace, Memory Adept. Tragic Arrogance. Dragon Fodder.)
2.0: Niche card. Sideboard or currently unknown archetype. (Jace, the Living Guildpact. Naturalize. Duress.) Bear in mind that many cards fall into this category, although an explanation is obviously important.
1.0: It has seen play once. (One with Nothing). (I believe it was tech vs. Owling Mine, although fairly suspicious tech at that.)
If you build a sacrifice deck, you get to reap the rewards. I’d hope the rewards are a little greater than “two cards,” but as a cheap payoff, you can do worse. This didn’t see much play last time it was printed, though it’s close enough on power level that I could see it becoming a fringe playable.
Like Altar’s Reap, Bone Splinters is going to need some help before it sees play. Basically, and this is true for both cards, if you can make the sacrifice part no cost or an advantage (by sacrificing something with a good death trigger), then you have yourself a card. That’s a tall order, but if you meet it, these cards could do work.
This may be much better than Blisterpod in Limited, but in Constructed paying 1 mana for a 1/1 is much better than 2 mana for a 2/1, especially when it’s not the stats you are after. Carrier Thrall could be a back-up Blisterpod if you need more than 4, or perhaps if your sacrifice deck decides to eschew green completely.
I almost disregarded this card, but Owen’s arguments in its favor did make sense. Killing Hangarback Walker and Deathmist Raptor and leaving nothing behind is a real draw, especially at instant speed. As a side note, I think Reave Soul may be a playable now, as something has to fill devoid left by Bile Blight and Hero’s Downfall’s rotation.
Drana, Liberator of Malakir
Drana is a beating. She is aggressively-costed by herself, makes any number of other creatures into gigantic threats, and even works very well with Hangarback Walker. Part of what makes her so sick is that first strike means she grows all your other creatures before normal damage, so it’s rare that attacking with Drana plus your team is going to go poorly for you. Your Siege Rhinos beat theirs, Hangarback gets bigger before trading (hopefully), and you get to deal a bunch of extra damage. Abzan Aggro was already looking like one of the best post-rotation decks, and Drana fits very well into that shell.
By itself, Kalastria Healer looks fairly innocuous. Even in conjunction with Allies, it’s still not ringing any alarm bells. Where things start to heat up is when you combine it with March from the Tomb or Rally the Ancestors, at which point it represents a 6-10 point life swing without much difficulty. That potential is hard to ignore, and this could be an important piece of a combo machine. Cards like that end up seeing zero play if that machine isn’t good, but it’s critical to have them floating around to make combos possible to begin with.
Ob Nixilis Reignited
Ob Nixilis makes a powerful planeswalker, and he may now see the glory he failed to find the first time we visited Zendikar. I wrote at length about Ob Nixilis when he was first revealed, but to summarize: he protects himself with his -3 and draws a card each turn with his +1, which means he fulfills the two most important roles of a planeswalker. Add that to the high starting loyalty and you have a card capable of making black control very happy, though Abzan was already good enough that I wouldn’t call it reignited. Ob Nixilis is one of the better ways to spend 5 mana in Standard, and no small part of that is how he trumps other plays at similar mana costs.
This is going to be fighting with Read the Bones for as long as they both are in Standard, and it’s a battle where we are the winners. No matter what, black-based midrange/control decks get a powerful card-drawing spell, and all they have to decide is which one. Scry 2 + draw 2 + lose 2 has proven itself to be good, so the real question is whether draw 3 + lose 3 is preferable. Clearly, draw 2 + lose 2 is worse than Read the Bones, though funnily enough, draw 1 + lose 1 is a nice option to have, even if it’s one that won’t be utilized all that frequently.
Needing 3 colors of mana isn’t a huge cost in most decks that would play Read, though it does mean that one or two color decks just won’t consider Painful Truths at all. In a 3-color deck, I’d lean toward mixing up how many of each card you play if you want multiple, with Painful Truths serving as the better sideboard option. When you board a card like this in, the extra life cost is usually negligible, so I’d rather just draw an extra card. In the main deck, paying an extra life and losing scry 2 isn’t necessarily worth it to draw an extra card, though like I mentioned, a mix could help balance the life loss and give you more raw card draw for when you just want to draw a combination of lands and spells.
I think Read has a slight advantage overall, but Painful Truths is powerful enough that it will see some play, especially out of sideboards when the extra life isn’t an issue.
Costing 1 more than Drown in Sorrow and the same as Languish is not a good spot to be in, but there’s a possibility that this could help a deck full of 3/3s and 4/4s crush a deck full of 1/1s and 2/2s. That possibility rises as the format diversifies, so this is more a note for the future than a statement that this will see play now.
Retreat to Hagra
The main reason to put Retreat to Hagra into your deck is if you want to trigger the drain for 1 over and over. As a pure life swing, it doesn’t quite get there, even with fetchlands, but as a way to trigger life-gain-matters cards it’s very consistent and reliable. I haven’t seen a deck going hard enough on that theme to make Retreat a centerpiece, but having good enablers is worth keeping in mind.
This is the Hero’s Downfall Abzan deserves, though it may not be the one Esper needs right now. Ruinous Path is very powerful, as it provides a good effect for 3 mana and a great effect for 7. Any time you get a card you’d be willing to play at 3 that also has a powerful mode for 7 it’s likely a pretty good card, and this fits that description perfectly. By adding Ruinous Path to your deck, you cover your bases well while also giving yourself something to do with excess mana in the late game. That’s a deal black decks will be interested in, and I expect most to go down this path often.
Like Carrier Thrall, Smothering Abomination is a slightly more expensive version of a similar card, which in this case is Grim Haruspex. The biggest advantage the Abomination has is that it works with Eldrazi Scions, which Haruspex specifically does not do, and this could be a good engine card for a deck full of Blisterpods, Catacomb Sifters, and Carrier Thralls. It’s also a cheap flier, and can actually brawl itself, making it one of the more interesting build-arounds in the set.
Transgress the Mind
I have to admit, I did expect an Inquisition of Kozilek-style card to show up, so this isn’t completely surprising. All I know is that 3-cost cards get the short end of the stick, though Transgress going up makes it a very different card. Decks tend to have enough fewer big cards than small ones that this looks like more of a sideboard card to me, at which point it butts up against Duress for slots. There are still opportunities for this to win, because not only does it exile, it also hits creatures. That makes it a solid option against Green-Devotion-type decks (and yes, I know that particular deck rotated), so if one of those is a major contender, I wouldn’t mind trying this. Plus, this hits Ojutai, which gives it an advantage over Duress even against a deck like Esper.
Vampiric Rites is cheap enough to get into play that it could be a back-up sacrifice outlet in a deck full of them. It sits out there, making all of your creatures into walking value machines, especially if you are generating a bunch of Scions and the like. It doesn’t do anything in multiples, so I envision this as a 1-of that supports a theme, rather than driving it by itself.
If you can reliably exile cards, Wasteland Strangler is a very powerful 3-mana play. A 3/2 that eats a creature is great, so the trick is to make sure this is active often enough to be worth it. Mist Intruder is a bit all-in for my tastes, so I’d rather start with cards like Complete Disregard and Transgress the Mind.
There are a lot of cards that support a sacrifice theme in this set, and Zulaport Cutthroat is one of the better ones. Blood Artist drew a lot of attention when it was in Standard, and Cutthroat is quite comparable. It’s a little less powerful, certainly, given that it only looks at half the board, but at least it’s a 1/1 and can trade for an opposing 1/1 if need be.
Top 3 Black Cards
Black got three very strong staples in this set. Drana is the most exciting, with Ob Nixilis not far behind, and Ruinous Path is going to be a solid addition to all sorts of decks. Black is lacking in some cheaper removal, as the 2-mana options have gone downhill, but figuring out what your 3-and-up cost cards are is going to be tricky, given how many good cards you have to choose from.