By the time you read this article the entire set will have been spoiled and right now there’s about 80 cards missing from the list I’m looking at. Enough of the set has been spoiled so far that I feel comfortable picking out some of the best or at least interesting cards to discuss without knowing the remaining contents. This article will focus on seven of them: Snapcaster Mage, Garruk Relentless, Liliana of the Veil, Mentor of the Meek, Reckless Waif, Invisible Stalker and Geist of Saint Traft.
Before I begin I want to take a moment and reflect on my list of important cards from my last article. Two cards were missing which upon reflection should have at least been mentioned in some capacity even if I don’t consider them the most important in the post-rotation landscape. Both [card]Dismember[/card] and [card]Ratchet Bomb[/card] are going to be big players in the upcoming environment, assuming some combination of Steel, Pod and midrange decks are viable. [card]Dismember[/card] largely due to sheer versatility and the fact that any deck can play it and [card]Ratchet Bomb[/card] because early sweepers that aren’t [card]Black Sun’s Zenith[/card] and [card]Day of Judgment[/card] get a big boost. The fact that the Bomb also slides easily into Tezzeret decks gives it another nudge toward the spotlight.
Alright so let’s begin with what I believe is the best card in the set and one of the most hyped.
If you were to conduct a quick poll of spike players of what cards they were most excited to play, Tiago Chan’s Invitational card would top the lists of many. I previously talked about the lack of easy card advantage in the upcoming format and nothing I’ve seen so far has done anything to change that opinion. Snapcaster is one of the few cards that can effectively replicate a draw spell and in fact gets better than random draw spells like [card]Think Twice[/card] and [card]Divination[/card] as the game goes on. You no longer are looking to merely cash in your draw spells ASAP for unknown cards, instead you can judge how useful Snapcaster will be with full information available.
With that said people need to scale back the excitement for the actual creature part of Snapcaster Mage. A 2/1’s usefulness in Standard is looking to be regulated to carrying [card]Sword of Feast and Famine[/card], trying to block someone’s Geist of Saint Traft or chump blocking. This card is not [card]Vendilion Clique[/card] and while Chapin compared it to [card]Silvergill Adept[/card], but this guy will be doing a lot less attacking then the Adept does. Mage does get pretty snippy with a Sword in tow, but so does every creature that brings a powerful equipment to the fight. Point is that you are playing Snapcaster for the actual ability and that the body is a throw-in deal that you may be able to get some value from.
Additionally building with Swords forces you to build your deck in a certain way and since Snapcaster already demands concessions to play a certain type of deck, that’s a lot of space you’ll be sacrificing. This is another aspect people tend to gloss over because the first thought they have is typically sticking it in WU or UB Control. However if you want to go beyond those applications you need to really ponder what Snapcaster can do for you. I suspect I will see a number of brews with Snapcaster and only eight or ten targets for it and wonder why they even bother playing the card.
Some people commented that Snapcaster seemed perfect for an Illusions or [card]Grand Architect[/card] style blue deck, but how true is that? In Illusions you probably can pack ten instant or sorcery spells at a minimum and sixteen at maximum. Depending on what those are it may not even be worth the trouble to pack the Mage when you won’t get a ton of value out of the body. Sure buying back [card]Dismember[/card] or [card]Mana Leak[/card] can be valuable, but what about the times where you don’t see a spell or your best target is just a rebuy on Ponder without a shuffle effect? It doesn’t help that Snapcaster Mage often gets worse in multiples because the first takes away potential ammunition and they often can’t be deployed early for full value.
Snapcaster has a lot of advantages, but a number of subtle costs attached that people don’t consider. Think of Mage in many decks as you would add [card]Spellstutter Sprite[/card] to a deck with the minimum of Fae in it. It can work and may even be the best option for a given slot, but you wouldn’t play it without carefully considering what the card will do for you. That’s my comparison for what it’s worth, Snapcaster Mage has been closest to [card]Spellstutter Sprite[/card] for any existing card.
Occasionally you “get” someone with the flash block and the rest of the time your opponent has to respect what you can do with open mana if you meet a certain known requirement (Tribal for one and spells in graveyard for the other). Snapcaster Mage may be a bit overhyped at first as people adopt him into decks, but eventually they’ll get the formula down and just like [card]Birthing Pod[/card] he will only get better as more cards are released.
Moving on from a tricky blue card with some finesse attached to one of the weakest and most straightforward cards I’ve seen considered for Constructed play in a while. On its own merits, Invisible Stalker is an awful card and would struggle to see play in most Draft formats, let alone Standard. Considering the power creep creatures have had over the past couple of years this guy is below the mark in every category and has only one purpose – Ping the opponent for one every turn. Until you attach a Sword onto him that is.
Here’s my problem with people snap-adding Invisible Stalker to WU aggro decks or decks claiming to be Neo-Caw or whatever. [card]Squadron Hawk[/card] was a cheap evasive creature that provided a lot of card advantage, could eventually become a reasonable clock with time and mana, could play defense and carried a Sword well. Notice how carrying a Sword is one notable accomplishment alongside many other notable things [card]Squadron Hawk[/card] could accomplish. Invisible Stalker can only do one thing well and that one thing isn’t remarkable unless it combines with another card in your deck. Nice two-card combo for an advantage that isn’t necessarily relevant against some decks.
Another problem is that most decks won’t run enough Swords to even make this a viable plan to begin with. You know the one deck I could envision that could want a creature whose only use is carrying a Sword well? Puresteel. Otherwise the average aggressive WU deck carries 2-3 Swords which is nowhere near enough to see one consistently without [card]Preordain[/card] or other draw mechanisms. Even just packing a set is nowhere near enough to justify running a full set of Invisible Stalker in the half of games where you see a Sword. Worse still if Steel and Pod decks are legitimate contenders, the amount of maindeck artifact destruction is likely to go up and heighten the chances of your Swords being killed and effectively negating Stalker’s presence.
I’ll also take this opportunity to try to dispel one of the common misconceptions about Caw in post-banning form. Being able to use Swords helped make Caw better in certain match-ups and in the rest they were either occasionally useful or practically dead cards. Hitting someone with a Sword is a powerful play, but with the current crop of cards it isn’t on the same level as dropping a [card]Gideon Jura[/card] or [card]Grave Titan[/card]. Plus, what does [card]Sword of Feast and Famine[/card] even do against a Steel deck? Or a Pod deck with four maindeck ways to kill Swords and tutors? Swords allowed you to leverage mana and card advantage against midrange and ramp decks in large part, however even against those SOFAF could be marginalized post-board by sufficient amounts of artifact removal.
Assume for a moment that Invisible Stalker and Swords are really such a strong combo that the metagame is forced to adapt or at least acknowledge it in some manner. People will aim cards at Swords and cripple the game plan, making Stalkers the worst cards in your deck. Stalker could be a role-player if the format calls for it or if it fills a gap in the Puresteel decks plan B, otherwise please lay off the [card]Squadron Hawk[/card] comparisons.
This is the first Transform card I’ve seen that really perks my interest for Standard and one I could clearly see a future for in some red decks. Whether those decks will be good enough to see play is another matter entirely, so for now let’s focus on Waif. She is really powerful against decks with a lack of one-drops and if you’re on the play she resembles [card]Goblin Guide[/card] in the amount of punishment she can deliver early. On the other hand she is absolutely miserable against creature decks and has no practical value after the first few turns of the game unless you both are in topdeck mode with a clear board.
Honestly the problem with a card like Reckless Waif is that she’s going to be very metagame dependent and that there’s so much inherent variance in her. [card]Steppe Lynx[/card] and [card]Goblin Guide[/card] had some amount of variance to them, but this raises the bar even higher in terms of expected returns. You either could be absolutely crushing your opponent for six or nine damage before they can deal with her or she might stay a 1/1 or just trade-off with a Snapcaster Mage or [card]Glint Hawk[/card].
In the format I envision red decks probably won’t be able to get a ton of use out of her and people will opt for more consistent cards against creature decks. However the power level is strong enough to make a note of what she can do and the format could shift in a direction where a very aggressive red deck is poised to come back.
Liliana of the Veil
Liliana is the second three-mana planeswalker in Magic and that’s reason enough to sit up and take notice. What is quite interesting is that she isn’t inherently favored in control decks ala [card]Jace Beleren[/card] and instead her best usage will likely be against control strategies. Liliana’s abilities are strong enough to make her a centerpiece in UB, but outside of the control mirror where you have a lot of time it could change what you need to be doing in every other match. Instead threat heavy decks that can deploy a sizable offense or resource denial strategies may end up making the best use of her.
See UB typically just wants to grind until it takes over the game with six-drops. With Liliana that’s no longer possible because you’ll be donating resources to her at some point, so you either need to sacrifice defense or cards (likely extra land). Without powerful draw options until you hit [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card] this can be a real problem and slow down how quickly you can deploy your late-drops. This could also be a case of where less is more and Liliana using her -2 and then only using her +1 sparingly is good enough to justify her in the maindeck.
I won’t spend a lot of words explaining why her abilities are powerful, the key point I want to get out there is that Liliana is going to require real thought before we she her full potential. You can throw her into decks and get some decent mileage out of her, as with many planeswalkers, but people will need to work at getting the proper shell around her to maximize the value. Same goes for actually playing with her as outside of obvious -2 situations, it feels like it can be very difficult to know when to +1 or just leave Liliana alone. Imagine that a planeswalker where the best play may actually be not using her every so often so you position yourself to take full advantage the following turn.
Oh and once again let me harp on the fact that the metagame is likely going to be a lot more focused on creatures. Liliana is not at her best against creature heavy strategies and the idea of using her against Steel is pretty laughable so it could be her early months are spent in sideboards. R&D may have pushed Liliana to a point where she’s quite clearly tournament worthy, but she isn’t [card]Jace Beleren[/card] where she just becomes the engine for a host of decks.
Do you really want a glorified bear maker in your deck? That’s what it comes down to when evaluating Garruk 3.0, how good is making 2/2 creatures and occasionally getting access to his other set of abilities? If that’s all you want in a planeswalker, then congratulations this iteration of Garruk will be perfect in your midrange grind deck. Now you just have to ask yourself if the [card garruk, primal hunter]Primal Hunter[/card] is a better model of Garruk before slotting him in. One of the biggest hurdles the Relentless has is that his older brother just tends to trump anything you would normally be doing with Relentless.
The tokens are bigger and the ability that nets you a billion cards can be used immediately instead of trying to flip Garruk for his best abilities. The other problem with leaning on the Relentless to grind a game out is that it gets killed off by a slight breeze from Tempered Steel and some strategies simply don’t care about 2/2 wolves. You can’t exactly stop any of WU’s best drops with Relentless ping ability or by creating a token and that doesn’t include scenarios where it has a Sword in hand. Pod decks will likely not care and draw-go has better things to worry about as far as four drops are concerned.
Garruk Relentless isn’t a bad card however it has a very small niche to fill with its given set of abilities. If the format really wants to shift toward grind out long games where making small tokens is relevant, then Garruk can dominate in that department. However in most types of balanced metagames or one slanted toward more powerful aggro strategies then the Relentless is going to suffer from competing with other four-drops and even the potential five-drops since green will once again be the only color that can ramp up quickly.
Sorry for the splash of cold water, I could be wrong as it’s pretty tough to judge the impact of most planeswalkers early (especially in a brand new format), but 3.0 feels worse than 2.0 even with the mana discrepancy taken into account. In the end four-drops are so good in this day and age, that many of them have effects that are stronger than Garruk being in play for two turns if they have the opportunity to attack.
Mentor of the Meek
Right away there are two homes that come to mind for the Mentor, the first is Puresteel as a secondary engine to the deck’s namesake and the second deck is G/W Pod. Both decks have copious amounts of small creatures which can take advantage of Mentor and could really use a plan B outside of drawing the right creatures at the right time. I doubt you want to be relying on a 2/2 for your drawing needs (sorry [card]Puresteel Paladin[/card]), however once you hit a critical threshold than opponents have issues stopping every angle. A deck like Steel or Goblins may not care about this creature, but all the other midrange, control and ramp decks need to deal with this guy quickly or you things can quickly get out of hand.
In the Puresteel deck, Mentor effectively acts like half a Puresteel, drawing cards with about twenty cards in your deck and hopefully getting you closer to Swords or Puresteel. With the loss of Preordain and format shift back toward creatures; relying on just Puresteel Paladin becomes an even worse plan of action and Mentor can help the resilience of the deck. Mentor is still on the slow-end of the spectrum and just as vulnerable as the Paladin though so don’t overextend!
Meanwhile aggressive Birthing Pod decks are great spots for Mentor because these decks already favor a creature heavy base and need not run the full four unless the match-up warrants it. Being able to use your first Pod activation to fetch out a Mentor and keep a card advantage engine in play in case Pod is taken out can be an incredible tool. If you do choose to run three or four in the maindeck though, the amount of acceleration and cheap fuel available to you can make it a worthwhile endeavor.
Here are a few sample lists:[deck]4 Inkmoth Nexus
2 Mox Opal
2 Etched Champion
4 Mirran Crusader
4 Mentor of the Meek
4 Puresteel Paladin
4 Flayer Husk
1 Swiftfoot Boots
1 Butcher’s Cleaver
1 Sword of Body and Mind
3 Sword of War and Peace
3 Sword of Feast and Famine[/deck] [deck]1 Island
2 Gavony Township
4 Razorverge Thicket
4 Sunpetal Grove
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Avacyn’s Pilgrim
2 Viridian Emissary
1 Leonin Relic-Warder
1 Phantasmal Image
4 Mentor of the Meek
4 Blade Splicer
1 Mirran Crusader
1 Fiend Hunter
1 Sylvok Replica
1 Phyrexian Metamorph
1 Solemn Simulacrum
2 Hero of Bladehold
2 Acidic Slime
1 Geist-Honored Monk
1 Archon of Justice
1 Sun Titan
4 Birthing Pod[/deck]
The key to using Mentor is to have a shell that isn’t reliant on the Mentor or can make use of the body when you don’t necessarily run a lot of fuel for him. Both of the above decks feature him as a secondary engine that can take over in the main slot if the match calls for it and both have alternative uses for him. Puresteel can slap equipment onto the Mentor and make him a legitimate threat on his own and Pod can always sacrifice him in a pinch for a four-drop. He’s right around the power level you would want an engine creature to be at.
Geist of Saint Traft
We end with one of the more polarizing cards in the set, [card]Hell’s Thunder[/card] in the Azorius guild! Some people think this is the card that will keep WU in control of the format for the next four months and others just see a solid aggressive creature. My initial reaction was one of disbelief that WU would get a card this good so soon after it mocked the Standard format. After a little bit of gaming and thought on Saint Traft I found some of my concerns were misplaced.
Yes, with a Sword attached this creature is the second coming. We all know, I already went over the “But Sword makes him SO GOOD!” clause earlier in the article. The key is that Geist is only good on the offensive, like many of the UW cards already in existence for the color package. Without [card]Squadron Hawk[/card] around the numbers of cards that pull double-duty in the WU Aggro decks has dropped significantly. Additionally this guy is really bad against opposing blockers to the point where he needs a lot of babysitting if you plan on using him longer than a turn or two.
In fact the kicker is much like Liliana the Geist actually works best against control decks rather than creature or midrange plans! Geist of Saint Traft feels like another iteration of [card]Mirran Crusader[/card], a very aggressively costed attacker that has some form of protection attached. He actually felt outright bad against Tempered Steel and was OK against the initial creature based strategies I threw together. For the most part in games you need to treat the Geist like a conditional six or ten point burn spell. Often you can remove a single blocker and get in, but after that it becomes difficult to sustain even with full sets of [card]Dismember[/card] and [card]Oblivion Ring[/card].
If your deck wants a creature in the same vein of the Crusader or [card]Hero of Bladehold[/card], a creature that excels at attacking and can force damage though Geist will fit your needs wonderfully. If you were looking for an all-star that you could ride to victory consistently… I’d try somewhere else. Maybe that will be the case against some slow control openers or bad Pod starts, but you need to recognize that Geist will often be a one-shot creature. At the end of the day WU is going to have the best selection of three drop creatures in the format and are actually among the best in a historical sense as well.
In the end a lot of these evaluations are based around my core assumption that Tempered Steel is one of the best decks in the format. If only because it has a refined core to work with already and has proven to be one of the most resilient and speedy aggro decks in quite some time. So decks that are largely based around attacking and some control elements can still exist but I feel like it’ll be an uphill battle for many of the designs people are throwing around. I think if Tempered Steel bothers to splash a color, Geist could fit right in and cause major headaches for people who just want to throw around a couple of sweepers and call it a day.
Phew. Well that’s all for now. Next week I’ll have access to the entire set and hopefully some sweet brewing can commence!
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom