Recurring Nightmares – Removal of the Gods

We’re well into the preview season for Born of the Gods, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the released info up to date. I’m conscious of the middle-child syndrome that can occur in Magic blocks, where the first set introduces the mechanics, the second reinforces, and the third turns them on their head—which leaves the second set feeling less interesting and more like filler than exciting in its own right. With Born of the Gods, Wizards has (thus far) put a conscious effort into creating a set that both works within the constructs of Theros, and offers its own dynamic experience. When a format revolves around high impact, mono-colored spells combining in a very linear way, it’s hard to imagine that a set of just over 100 cards will have a significant influence on Standard. However, all signs point to significant change once the newest crop of cards becomes legal.

At the first glance, I was worried that Born of the Gods wasn’t going to be capable of offering any new goodies to Mono-Black. From the first time I picked the deck up, I’ve been grumbling about how inconvenient it is that [ccProd]Mutilate[/ccProd] rotated out exactly when I’d want to use it most. And, as a personal response to exactly those complaints, Wizards of the Coast decided to grant me a boon I didn’t even think to hope for.

drowninsorrow

The last time [ccProd]Infest[/ccProd] was printed was in 2008 (Shards of Alara). Interestingly, that format also featured [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd], though the best deck that utilized both cards at that time was Faeries. Coincidentally, PVDDR’s Worlds-winning Faeries deck ran a pair of Infest in the sideboard, regardless of the fact that a mere 4 of his threats actually survived the spell. It was that important to play against the aggressive decks that tried to slide underneath the Fae, and capitalize on the high percentage of self-inflicted damage the deck tended to do. Much like the present day Mono-B decks, a fast start from a hyper aggressive deck was one of the weaknesses of the Faeries deck.

[deck]Main Deck
4 Mistbind Clique
4 Scion of Oona
3 Sower of Temptation
4 Spellstutter Sprite
2 Agony Warp
4 Bitterblossom
4 Broken Ambitions
4 Cryptic Command
1 Remove Soul
2 Terror
2 Thoughtseize
1 Faerie Conclave
6 Island
4 Mutavault
4 Secluded Glen
4 Sunken Ruins
3 Swamp
4 Underground River
Sideboard
1 Agony Warp
2 Flashfreeze
2 Infest
3 Jace Beleren
1 Sower of Temptation
4 Stillmoon Cavalier
2 Thoughtseize[/deck]

[deck]Main Deck
4 Desecration Demon
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
4 Nightveil Specter
4 Pack Rat
4 Underworld Connections
4 Devour Flesh
4 Hero’s Downfall
2 Pharika’s Cure
4 Thoughtseize
18 Swamp
4 Mutavault
4 Temple of Deceit
Sideboard
3 Lifebane Zombie
3 Dark Betrayal
2 Pharika’s Cure
3 Erebos, God of the Dead
4 Duress[/deck]

The parallels between Mono-B today and Faeries of 2008 are many, and have been discussed before. [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd] is the [ccProd]Bitterblossom[/ccProd] of its day. The deck tends to take some time to get its engine online, but has an endgame that is incredibly difficult to overcome. It has answers to nearly any problem in the form of [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd]—which also gives the pilot the appropriate information to craft the perfect game plan to match their opponent’s hand. With the introduction of [ccProd]Drown in Sorrow[/ccProd] to the Mono-B arsenal, one of the larger gaps in the armor is now closed.

In the most recent PTQ tournament report I shared with you, I piloted Mono-B to a middling finish, in part due to a pair of games where I lost on turn 4 in each. A start of [ccProd]Rakdos Cackler[/ccProd] into [ccProd]Ash Zealot[/ccProd], into [ccProd]Chandra’s Phoenix[/ccProd], into [ccProd]Fanatic of Mogis[/ccProd] is enough to end the game every time. Even when you’re on the play with a [ccProd]Hero’s Downfall[/ccProd] in play, you’re left at low life and staring down a trio of creatures with little hope for getting back into the game. With Drown in Sorrow, on the other hand, you’re now in double-digit life total, and you’ve cleared the board of all attackers—a much more reasonable position to be in on your third turn against one of the fastest starts the aggressive deck can muster. You’re still not out of the woods by any means, but a case where the opponent gets the nuts and you have no interaction until turn three doesn’t get much better than that.

[ccProd]Infest[/ccProd] (or Drown in Sorrow) is a rare card for a deck like Mono-B, that either grinds the opponent down with [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd], or tries to use 1-for-1 trades until arriving at a state where they can get ahead through [ccProd]Underworld Connections[/ccProd] and Specter card advantage. It’s a card that allows you to catch up from behind—a transition that this Standard format is not known for allowing. With the exception of UWx control strategies, most decks are much better at getting slightly ahead and snowballing that small advantage into a resounding one than they are at coming back from behind. Drown in Sorrow gives a deck that was already incredibly strong on a level playing field or with a slight advantage a way to pull itself out of a slight disadvantage—and that’s a very big deal.

A second consideration in the comparison between Faeries and Mono-B: with the exception of a single or pair of Pack Rats (or Lifebanes if they are sided in), there are no creatures in the deck that die to a Drown in Sorrow. That means you can actually go from behind to ahead in one spell, rather than hoping to achieve parity. It also means you can feel more free to play out your traditional lines of play, and don’t have to be as concerned that you’ll be playing into your own sweepers.

But that’s not all.

bileblight

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been staring down a [ccProd]Boros Reckoner[/ccProd] and drawn a [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd] off the top of my library, looked at the battlefield, and slumped. Cure is played as a supplemental removal spell because you need a two-mana spell that can kill a [ccProd]Soldier of the Pantheon[/ccProd], a [ccProd]Rakdos Cackler[/ccProd], a [ccProd]Voice of Resurgence[/ccProd], a [ccProd]Precinct Captain[/ccProd], and a [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd] on the draw. With the addition of Bile Blight to the pool of available removal options, you have a flexible, effective spell that kills not only all of the aforementioned creatures at the same speed as Cure, but also offs a [ccProd]Boros Reckoner[/ccProd] for no damage, any opposing [ccProd]Nightveil Specter[/ccProd]s, all non-monstrous [ccProd]Fleecemane Lion[/ccProd]s, and all Zombie, Centaur, Beast, and Spirit tokens in one fell swoop. In the mirror, it can even kill off three [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd]s at once!

Please, please, please—recognize that while I said, “opposing [ccProd]Nightveil Specter[/ccProd]s,” if you try to target a Specter on the opposing side of the board with your own Specter in play, you’re going to off them both.

Last [ccProd]Maelstrom Pulse[/ccProd] Gasp has a lot of upside compared directly to [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd], but there is one distinct disadvantage, as well—you don’t gain 2 life, which directly translates to time and/or cards depending on the matchup (though, in all reality, time is the same thing as more cards). The question becomes, is the sacrifice in the bolster to your life total worth the increased flexibility of the removal spell? In my most humble opinion, yes—not close. Especially when combining the added flexibility of the newer removal spell with the newfound presence of our previously discussed Infest variant; Drown in Sorrow both mitigates the bleeding damage from other small creatures not offed by Blight, as well as kills any creatures that would have died to Cure.

Of course, despite the excitement I happen to have for the new toys in my chosen PTQ weapon, there are plenty of spells that will impact the other decks in Standard, as well. One of the new cards most interesting to me is one I don’t imagine myself playing outside the confines of Limited, but that has great potential, is Unravel the Aether.

unraveltheaether

Green decks don’t have a lack of solutions to artifacts and enchantments, obviously. Even the indestructible Gods are handle-able by green, through [ccProd]Fade into Antiquity[/ccProd]. Still, Unravel is an answer that can handle a [ccProd]Thassa, God of the Sea[/ccProd], an [ccProd]Underworld Connections[/ccProd], a [ccProd]Detention Sphere[/ccProd], a [ccProd]Bident of Thassa[/ccProd], and a [ccProd]Whip of Erebos[/ccProd] for the price of [ccProd]Naturalize[/ccProd]. It happens at instant speed, meaning you can surprise an opponent during combat or force them to commit resources on their own turn. It has the potential to disrupt scry (both shuffling away cards left on top, and putting the bottomed cards back into the mix).

Lest they be accused of being left out, the red mages still have a little left in the tank, as well. While many players have been running [ccProd]Magma Jet[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Shock[/ccProd] as their early game removal of choice, they now have an additional option that allows them to trade one-for-one with small creatures, and not sacrifice their velocity to do so.

searingblood

A spell that’s justifiably reminiscent of [ccProd]Searing Blaze[/ccProd], the blood does much of what the Zendikar staple did without the landfall requirement. While the respective formats don’t lend themselves to the same comparisons as I made above with mono-B and Faeries, there’s always a red deck in the format, and a spell like Searing Blood will always be on the high-end of playability.

The major drawback in comparison between Blood and Blaze is the difference between 2 and 3 damage. As I outlined with the comparison of Bile Blight and [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd], there’s a giant gap in the flexibility of a 2- and 3-damage spell. As many mono-red and R/x decks are already running two-damage spells, there’s a bit more room to justify the change from a spell like Shock to Blood. However, it isn’t really a comparison between [ccProd]Searing Blaze[/ccProd] and Searing Blood that needs to be made—one is legal in Standard and one is not. The comparison we should be making is between potentially dealing 3 damage to the opponent, and guaranteed scry 2 that can always go to the face for 2 (Blood vs [ccProd]Magma Jet[/ccProd]). It’s been stated and supported as best as can be expected that scry 2 is approximately half a card, so what’s the equivalent amount of cards for dealing 3 sometimes? Consider these cases:

1) Opponent has a creature with 1-2 power in play
2) Opponent has a creature with 3-4 power in play
3) Opponent has no creatures

In case 1, either spell kills the creature, and the comparison is more directly between scry 2 and 3 damage to the opponent. In a game where the number of turns is severely limited, or one prone to creature stalls, the three damage may be more relevant than the scry. Given that each life point is of more value than the one lost before it, the deeper into the game you get the more the damage is worth, as well—though the risk of flooding out is high, too, and the scrying can help assure you draw gas off the top. It’s not a clear cut win for Blood until your opponent is at 3 life exactly—and if they’re at 2 life it may be a win for Jet (a removal spell in response doesn’t counter your lethal burn spell).

In case 2, neither of the spells is particularly effective, but having a pair of Bloods is dramatically better than having a pair of Jets. While the Jets can “dig” you anywhere from 2-4 cards deep into your library, 6 damage to the face of the opponent is over 25% of their total starting life, and represents a significant swing in the aggressive deck’s favor. While it may technically be a 2-for-1, I highly doubt any mono-red player will balk at the prospect of a removal spell + [ccProd]Ball Lightning[/ccProd] in 2 cards.

In the third case, Jet is far superior, as the Blood has no targets and will rot in your hand. This can be a very real concern when facing a deck like UW or Esper control, though the presence of [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Elspeth, Sun’s Champion[/ccProd] mean that it still may not be entirely dead.

In essence, if an R/x deck is willing to commit to playing spells that only interact with creatures ([ccProd]Mizzium Mortars[/ccProd], for example), they should be willing to commit to playing a spell like Searing Blood that has a slight potential to be a dead draw, but is more congruent with their strategy than a spell like [ccProd]Shock[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Magma Jet[/ccProd] that serves a similar purpose but lacks in power. There’s debate to be had on the relative merits of Jet vs Blood, but from my perspective, Blood has a slight edge.

With less than a third of the set spoiled at the time of me writing, there’s a long way to go before we understand the total scope of changes that Born of the Gods will bring. These removal spells all represent minor or major upgrades to existing decks, and will see guaranteed play over the course of the next few months of constructed. By no means do they represent the entirety of the changes I expect we’ll see in Standard, they’re merely the cards that have me personally excited at the moment, or have me thinking about the changes we can expect to see. These are just the tip of the iceberg, and I’m anxiously anticipating more cards on the spoiler every day—which is a sign of a good set in the making, this early on in spoiler season.

The Standard format that we have today is one of the more powerful ones we’ve seen in recent years, and while nothing is a sacred cow by any means, it’s going to take some powerful additions to really shake up the strategic hierarchy that’s established itself over the past three months. Still, there are almost 100 opportunities left to deliver a card that can turn the whole format on its head—let’s just hope it has less than four toughness.

Adam
@AdamNightmare

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