The week of the prerelease is that special time where camaraderie is more important than winning, and having fun with the new cards is the number one goal. You can just throw caution to the wind with your deck and try cards that look powerful but you have no actual idea how good they are. Everyone has different opinions of how good the new cards are and share their experiences. What’s not to love? Today I’m going to get that conversation started by going through each of Hour’s mechanics. Then, I’m sure you’ll tell me how wrong I am in the comments. Sounds goods to me—let’s go!
These are the best cycling payoffs from the set. There are a couple others, but they aren’t powerful enough to justify building around. This means a true cycling deck will come together less often than it did in triple-AKH. But there is still an abundance of actual cyclers in the set, and the cycling payoffs you do get, plus your one pack of AKH, means they will perform well.
The other big dagger to cycling decks is one pack of Seeker of Insight. That card almost single-handedly fueled U/B Cycling, because it helped turn your lands into triggers through other spells. This ensured you didn’t flood while also creating enough sizable threats to actually win a game.
Perhaps the most exciting new cyclers are the new Deserts:
These push in a different direction than the other cyclers we’ve had access to. Normally, you can cycle a spell early to help find action or hit land drops. Here, you wouldn’t cycle these to find a land—instead, just play them. What they allow you to do is flood less frequently, and let you play more land in higher curve decks. In decks with a higher than average number of 6+ drops you normally have to play 17 lands anyways and wait to cast your spells. Sometimes you can bump that number up to 18, but you can’t realistically play more than that. The danger of flood is just too high even though you want to hit your expensive spells on curve as often as possible.
Now if you have 3 of these you can play 18 lands and if you have enough mana you can cycle as many of these as you draw, giving you the same amount of gas as a 15-land deck. But it’s not a 15-land deck, and when you need the mana you get the benefit of a more consistent 18-land deck. This consistency makes these commons more powerful than they’d appear at first glance, and you’ll want to draft them over replacement-level cards that were going to be options for your final cut anyways.
It is possible to overdo it, though. If you take too many lands too highly you won’t have enough good spells. Second, these come into play tapped and cost 2 to cycle. Draw enough of those and you’ll end up with a super clunky deck. Too much of a good thing can be bad. If you ever drafted 6+ Ravnica bouncelands, you know that’s true. I’d want 3 of these under optimal circumstances and then I’d play 1 more land than I’d normally play in my deck otherwise.
I like these 3 cards because they show a gradation of how important it is to activate them. In Sidewinder Naga’s case, it really doesn’t matter a ton. A 3/2 for 3 in green is slightly below rate and a 4/2 trample is slightly above rate. All in all the card is better with Deserts but not by so much that you need to go crazy to enable it. The card works really well with the cycling Desert, though. 4th power at instant speed, woot woot!
Wall of Forgotten Pharaohs speaks to more of a game plan even if the card itself isn’t fantastic. If you want to build around Deserts, this is an actual game plan. Whether or not that game plan is reasonable, we’ll have to find out. If you do have a deck built around this card, it’s important to get your Desert online though, because otherwise your 0/4 just sits there. The more of these types of cards you have the more you want a Desert. This means drafting Desert-based cards encourages picking Deserts more highly, which encourages picking more Desert-based cards which… well, you get the picture. That loop means that the earlier you start collecting these, the more likely it is you’ll be one of the Desert drafters at the table.
Sand Strangler is the most extreme example. It’s totally bonkers with a Desert, and a Hill Giant without one. But the upside is so high that you’ll take this card early regardless and figure out the Desert problem later.
The mechanic is actually similar to colorless mana from Oath of the Gatewatch, except that the fail rate is less punishing because you actually get to cast your cards. None of the Desert cards are Endbringer/Reality Smasher level though, so your payoffs are also appropriately weaker. Ramunap Hydra is the closest you get to those bombs.
If this mechanic was printed in Dragons of Tarkir, it would be called mega-embalm, but thankfully that didn’t happen. More importantly, the cards I listed are the only cards with eternalize at common or uncommon! There’s a cycle at rare, but that’ll show up far less frequently. I thought that 4/4s battling each other in an eternal struggle for board dominance was going to be more of a thing when I saw this mechanic previewed, but R&D probably identified that such a play pattern would be pretty boring after just a few games.
I do like this supersized version of embalm though. The presence of these in U/W also points to a continuation of embalm/eternalize as the direction of the archetype. Of these 4 cards, only Sinuous Striker trades readily, which means it will be hard to get a true 2-for-1 off your eternalize creatures. But they can chump-block well and double-block freely. The main problem with that plan is that your opponent will just decline to kill the eternalize creature in the block.
I think eternalize will be important in the set, but its existence at such low numbers means that cards like Wall of Forgotten Pharaohs will be more playable. In addition, there are a multitude of ways to exile cards in graveyards. So many in fact that I think Emrakul, the Promised End is actually card #200/199, but we’ll have to wait to crack packs first to actually make sure.
Exert has evolved from an attack-only mechanic to better abilities like the one on Fervent Paincaster. I think that provides more interesting choices and will lead to good game play. In the case of Fervent Paincaster, do you block with your 1/1 on your opponent’s 2/2, planning to kill it? What if they play a 3/1 post-combat? Given enough time you could just kill both of these, but exerting means you’ll take much more damage in these types of spots than you would with a normal pinger.
Additionally, there are fewer overall exert creatures with good attack triggers. Oketra’s Avenger is among them, but gone are the days of Gust Walker into Hooded Brawler into Tah-Crop Elite. Blocking is a bit better than it was before, simply because it’s now an option that you just didn’t have, though there are still good, evasive ways to prevent blocking like Aerial Guide.
Exert in smaller numbers also means that the untap tricks we’ve gotten accustomed to drop in power level. You were paying for the untap on Spidery Grasp and probably wouldn’t have played the card without that clause. Sure, you could still play the card even if it didn’t have exert to combo with, but ambushing creatures was never a reliable plan, and when it was first printed in Innistrad it wasn’t particularly good. Clearly, I can’t make a direct comparison across two totally disparate formats, but you can start to see that exert is an important component here.
I hope this gives you a starting point for your conversations at the prerelease. I like the mix of mechanics in this set and think overall we’ll see a slightly slower Draft environment than we had before. The various synergies don’t seem too pushed though, so I’m hoping there are some hidden gems or even hidden Draft archetypes that keep us discovering new things throughout the format.
For now, enjoy the prerelease and join me next week when I do part 1 of the archetype breakdowns!