I had high hopes for Guilds of Ravnica before the full card list was revealed. Multicolor sets tend to have high power commons that hinge on the various themes. Faction sets—like the ones that take place on Ravnica—also tend to see multiple iterations of faction mechanics and touchstones at lower rarities. Couple this with the fact that Wizards has said that they are paying attention to Pauper these days, and my expectations were at an apex.
I won’t lie—on my first review I was underwhelmed. Nothing really jumped out at me for my format of choice. But in the following days I gained a new appreciation for the commons of Guilds of Ravnica. It isn’t that these cards are extremely powerful, but rather the vast majority of them appear to be workhorses. That is, they may not spawn a new archetype or have a major impact on their own, but they can help strengthen existing strategies. There are two cards that stand out from the pack for their unique abilities, as well as existing support structures.
Devious Cover-Up is a bad counterspell. In a format with actual Counterspell, as well as Mana Leak and Condescend, it lags behind. Spending 4 mana to stop a threat when the vast majority of cards that get played are effectively cheaper than 4 is a losing proposition. But the ability to shuffle four cards back into your library is huge. Mystical Teachings decks have long dwelled just outside the top tier of the format due in no small part to the lack of a strong win condition. Some pilots add Gurmag Angler while others rely on Evincar’s Justice in concert with multiple copies of Pristine Talisman. Curse of the Bloody Tome sees play and some have advocated going up to nearly 80 cards as a way to naturally deck the opponent. With two copies of Devious Cover-Up, the Teachings player can enter a game state where they hold an answer for whatever gets thrown their way, all while providing inevitability. Devious Cover-Up is a win condition that fits the strategy while also being a legitimate target for Mystical Teachings. It may not prove good enough to push the deck to the next level but it does give it the potential for a boost.
Portcullis Vine might be the best common in the set for Pauper. Repeatable card draw is hard to find outside of the monarch mechanic. The Vine comes with a cost, but gives Pauper a new tool and one it sorely needs. Green has access to a number of Walls that generate mana. Overgrown Battlement and Wall of Roots might be the best of these, with Axebane Guardian not far behind. The Guardian is key to an arbitrarily large mana engine with Freed from the Real. Regardless, green’s Walls can ramp.
The problem is that in the late game, they don’t do much of anything. Portcullis Vine can turn these dead draws into fresh cards. While this does not completely mitigate the opportunity cost of packing a deck full of creatures that can’t attack, the Vine does reduce it. Now green decks can set up early with Jaddi Offshoot and Portcullis Vine, follow it up with Overgrown Battlement, and be set up to generate 5 or more mana on turn 3. Gatecreeper Vine means every color is accessible early—Gateway Plaza might be the best Rupture Spire ever—and it is not out of the realm of possibility for this hypothetical deck to easily cast both Mulldrifter and Kaervek’s Torch. Ulamog’s Crusher is easily attainable as well. If nothing else, Portcullis Vine means that using Tron as a mana engine is no longer a forgone conclusion.
These two are the big hits from Guilds of Ravnica for me. While they are not going to spawn new archetypes, they are going to provide existing shells some fuel for their fire. But there is much more out there, as the latest set is filled with tools that may just be good enough to see play.
Healer’s Hawk is not Vault Skirge. Part of the allure of the Phyrexian mana flyer is that it can be cast off of Burning-Tree Emissary in Stompy without using up green mana. Stompy is also adept at pumping up small creatures with Hunger of the Howlpack and Rancor. White decks are not as strong in this area and while Bonesplitter is good, white decks are better at pushing up the power of multiple creatures with Rally the Peasants style effects rather than going tall on one threat.
Hunted Witness is not as good as Doomed Traveler but is probably better than Martyr of Dusk. A 1-drop than leaves behind a body helps to enable Carrion Feeder strategies. Sacred Cat sees play at the moment in heroic as a way to blank Diabolic Edict and friends, but embalm comes with a mana cost. Hunted Witness is not likely to replace the Cat—embalm gives you the opportunity to commit threats on an optimal turn, but the Witness could give a boost to various Aristocrat decks lurking in the corners of the format.
Ledev Guardian and Sworn Companions
Rounding out white, we have Ledev Guardian and Sworn Companions. The Guardian will be great if it can consistently come down for 2 mana early, but given the current state of the metagame, that seems unlikely. Sworn Companions is the latest take on Raise the Alarm. Lifelink is a factor, but as a 3-mana sorcery it still lags behind the original from Mirrodin.
Surveil will likely outperform scry in Pauper (outside of Preordain). Dimir Informant may end up being better than Sea Gate Oracle in the right deck. While Oracle puts the card directly into your hand, sometimes you want more cards in the bin. Forbidden Alchemy decks used to run Sea Gate Oracle before Augur of Bolas entered the format but I could see Informant supplanting Augur. Although it is a full turn slower, it does not force the Alchemy player to bypass key lands or creatures and provides immediate Gurmag Angler fuel.
To that end, I can also envision a world where these decks mix Forbidden Alchemy with Notion Rain. Read the Bones is already a great card and Notion Rain replaces scry with surveil. While it is harder to cast, many blue-black decks actively want to put cards in the graveyard. Forbidden Alchemy is an instant and adds a maximum of four to your delve count, but it only replaces itself on the frontside. Notion Rain adds between one and three cards to the delve count but can put you up a card. I do not believe that surveil synergies—a la Darkblade Agent—will be good enough to make a deck based around the mechanic. Still, the fact that these options exist give blue-black control decks increased options in a format where they already hold a lion’s share.
I want to like Radical Idea. I really do. It’s 4-mana to build a Catalog over two turns. For 5 mana you get the full price of Think Twice. Still, Radical Idea can cast Circular Logic and other madness spells. It is likely to be a fringe player in Pauper but has the capability to be a lynchpin in an emergent strategy. Similarly, Unexplained Disappearance is the latest take on Unsummon. Vapor Snag remains an important tempo play and while I can envision some decks that want that effect with self-mill, 2 mana is so much more than 1.
Shrivel and Nausea see a ton of play. They are cheap sweepers that get around hexproof and can wipe out tokens. Mephitic Vapors adds a mana to the cost but also provides some card selection in surveil 2. That is a pretty big bonus, especially on a card that probably does not want to be cast on the second turn. But one of the advantages of Shrivel is that it is easy to cast it and something else in the same turn. So where does that leave Mephitic Vapors? It wants to be played in a heavy removal deck that can contain the board until it can also act as a mini-board wipe. In a deck that wants a quick safety valve against tokens and Slippery Bogle, you are likely better served with Shrivel.
Barrier of Bones
Barrier of Bones is an interesting card. As a 0/3 Wall, it can come down and absorb a few blows before going to the graveyard. Surveil 1 means that this is a turn-1 play that can help to set up future turns. This is new to black. In a format where library manipulation is scarce, I would not ignore this potential turn-1 play. It’s nowhere close to Preordain, but what is?
Considering my love for Elusive Spellfist I should also be enamored with Fire Urchin. The cards are remarkably similar with the blue one being better, but it isn’t just that Elusive Spellfist is better than Fire Urchin—it’s that the surrounding spells are as well. Spellfist works at times because you can chain together cantrips for bursts of damage. Red does not have as many 1-mana spells that can help churn through a library. The result is a card that will never hold a candle to Kiln Fiend.
Thraben Inspector changed Pauper. Giving white a cheap value creature helped push Boros decks over the top and has given rise to a large number of Kor Skyfisher centered strategies. The genius of the Inspector is that you can pay 3 mana over 2 turns to replace the 1-drop. Phyrexian Rager is a 2/2 that also replaces itself for 3 mana and sees quite a bit of play. Sure, you have to pay it all upfront, but it is usually joined by Unearth, so the second time the Rager comes around it’s at a significant discount. I say all of this to say that Generous Stray is pretty bad. Replacing itself is fine, but at 3 mana for a 1/2 it just does not do enough on the board. Perhaps one day when there are enough Cat synergies to matter, but until then it is going to remain an outdoor cat.
Kraul Foragers and Vigorspore Wurm
Green, like red, is underwhelming. Kraul Foragers is interesting in Tortured Existence decks as a body that can gain quite a bit of life. Still, those decks are more likely to use Gnaw to the Bone as a way to buff their health. Vigorspore Wurm represents a nice finisher in the same deck. It can end the game in one shot with its undergrowth ability and if that fails to work it leaves behind a hard to block creature. Whether or not it finds a home in Tortured Existence decks remains to be seen as 6 mana is a high barrier to entry.
Erstwhile Trooper is no Putrid Leech. Leech is a fantastic card that struggles for two reasons: the first is that the mana in Pauper has a hard time supporting 2-color 2-drops. While Leech is fine in the midgame, it can shine early and guaranteeing you have black/green on turn 2 means contorting your mana base in a way that might not work for the rest of your deck. At the same point, the activated ability on Leech comes with a steep cost. Considering how aggressive the Pauper landscape is at the moment, including a creature that is so strong because of the ability means putting yourself at a disadvantage. The Trooper, thankfully, only asks that you’re holding a creature. A +2/+2 bonus is still big game and trample is important. Still, many decks that want this effect are likely to turn to Vampire Hounds first due to the unbound nature of the good dogs.
Hypothesizzle is expensive. I can see it getting played as a 1-of in Mystical Teachings Tron decks as a way to draw extra cards late while also picking off a threat. 4 damage is a lot and the ability to pick off a Dinrova Horror with Ghostly Flicker on the stack should not be completely ignored.
Rhizome Lurcher looks like it should be a finisher in Tortured Existence decks. I don’t think it is. Those decks already have access to Gurmag Angler, Krosan Tusker, and Horror of the Broken Lands if they just want a body. 4 mana is a lot to pay for a body that does nothing else. Sure, I said Vigorspore Wurm might see play and that costs 6, but it also has an ability that threatens to win the game when it enters the battlefield. The Lurcher? It kind of sits there.
The Lockets are interesting. Mind Stone seems some play as a way to ramp and then replace itself later but does so for colorless mana. The Lockets are worse at accelerating than the Signets. Most of the ramp decks in the format use Tron, which makes the activated ability of these a pipe dream. If the initial 3 mana investment can be overcome I can see these all getting played in some capacity but the cards would have to fall just right.
So there you have it. Guilds of Ravnica is not likely to turn Pauper upside down, but it does provide plenty of interesting options and explores new space that could push some decks to another level. The coming weeks will see me glued to the deck lists, waiting to see if any of these cards make a splash.