PAX unveiled loads of Kaladesh previews, and the new set looks to bring about a sparkly inventive world full of intriguing cards. I was most impressed by Vehicles, and I think they are a simple twist that should play very well. We have seen similar cards before with cards like Silumgar Monument, but these usually required mana to activate rather than tapping creatures in play. Additionally, these artifacts had activations to use as mana sinks when you otherwise might not be doing much. Vehicles are designed so that you should be trying to activate them instead of using your other creatures. This means that while we have some ideas about Vehicle play patterns, we won’t know for sure until we have the actual cards. Today I want to break down my understanding of the mechanic and go through some of its implications on Standard.
All the Vehicles we’ve seen have higher power and toughness at their mana costs than we’re used to. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense because you need to pay the additional cost of tapping a creature or two each turn to activate them. You can actually compare that cost to emerge creatures in Standard, which have very high mana costs, but are also just 4- or 5-drops a good portion of the time. I don’t think you’ll get quite the payoff for building your deck around Vehicles like you would emerge creatures, but the fail case is also less extreme. You simply won’t have 8-drop creatures stuck in your hand when your plan isn’t coming together, though there will be times when you have Vehicles on the battlefield that you can’t activate. But in these scenarios, drawing a creature can turn on a giant monster so I think it will be easier to get back in the game than when an emerge strategy isn’t able to execute its game plan.
Let’s look at one of the more exciting Vehicles previewed that also will help outline many of my points.
Skysovereign, Consul Flagship
If I had to describe this card to someone, I’d tell them it’s Inferno Titan meets Keranos, God of Storms. It takes a bit more work than either since you do need to make sure you’re getting the benefit of attacking each turn. Importantly, the Skysovereign is colorless, so the range of decks that can play the card is wider. Overall, the power level looks as high to me as these other cards so I expect to see this become one of the staple mythics from Kaladesh.
This looks like a great finisher, but it can’t be played in a typical control shell. Magic has become a more creature-focused game, and this pushes in that direction. Without another creature in play that can crew the Skysovereign, this card is effectively useless. You’ll get to figure out what shells are best for the various Vehicles but that’s not really my focus today. Just know you’ll need to include a good number of creatures before you want any Vehicles at all (I’ll let Frank run the numbers). Instead, I’ll go through the ways Vehicles will play out in your average game of Standard.
Attacking and Blocking with Vehicles
I mentioned that Vehicles are typically large, but the tap requirement means that at times you’ll actually be attacking for less damage than you would with a bunch of normal creatures. What that fails to mention is overcoming opposing virtual card advantage on stalled boards. If you have a bunch of smaller creatures versus a bunch of other creatures, tapping 1 or 2 to turn on a giant threat makes a ton of headway on a board that you couldn’t otherwise attack into. In addition, if you’re defending, then you get access to a much bigger blocker at the cost of being down a blocker. At times this will be worth it. If you have a Skysovereign and a 3/3 in play and your opponent has a pair of 4/4s, they can’t exactly attack into your board. The big bulky battlecruiser nature of Vehicles makes it harder to attack and block, but makes those combats more favorable in the late game.
Vehicles will be better at attacking or blocking depending on their sets of abilities. For example, the Skysovereign doesn’t actually put you down a full attacker since you get the attack damage trigger. Sometimes that will even be better than whatever other attacker you were tapping! In this way you’re actually upgrading on creature sizing, similar to the way that an emerge creature benefits you while getting rid of a weaker threat.
The upgrading on Vehicles, however, is temporary and you can activate smaller Vehicles early and move to a bigger one with larger crew numbers as the game goes on. This will help scale virtual card advantage by threatening bigger attacks and keeping your opponent’s creatures at home. You have to be careful though, since a bunch of Vehicles by themselves won’t do anything, and that you need at least a 1-to-1 ratio between creatures to crew and the Vehicles themselves. Tapping a bunch of creatures to attack or block seems too taxing and I imagine there won’t be actual “Vehicle decks” in Standard, but rather various creature decks that use Vehicles to fit a given curve and in-game goal.
Interacting with Removal
Part of the reason Keranos was so powerful in the sideboard of Splinter Twin decks was that it was so difficult to interact with. While Skysovereign isn’t going to accrue any advantages by just sitting in play, it does avoid sorcery-speed removal and makes a creature plan stronger against Wrath effects. Now if your opponent has a Wrath you’ll still have a big creature waiting in the wings that gets to attack the next turn. Ruinous Path will look even more embarrassing in a Vehicle-filled world unless it nabs the last non-Vehicle creature, thus effectively killing all opposing Vehicles as well. Even then, a topdecked creature gets you rolling again. One of the best things to come from all this is that Reflector Mage gets a bit worse. If you tap out for a Skysovereign you know it can’t be bounced, and even if your opponent plays one to bounce your only creature, you can still play a different threat, activate you Skysovereign, and kill the Reflector Mage while dealing tons of damage.
There will also be interesting counterplay if you suspect your opponent is holding up an instant-speed removal spell like Murder to kill your activated Vehicle. You can simply decline to activate it and attack with your normal creatures. Now your opponent needs to hold up their mana again next turn or fire off a removal spell on a much weaker threat to prevent a big tempo loss. This hearkens back to playing Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in a world filled with Crackling Doom, when it was often correct to just 0 or emblem when facing Mardu mana even when attacking for damage looked very tempting.
Vehicles Are Good Against Planeswalkers and Emrakul
My favorite thing about Vehicles is that they are a proactive threat against planeswalkers that don’t simply get killed by a planeswalker entering play. We’ve had stopgaps against planeswalkers before with targeted removal but in those cases you’d have to destroy the planeswalker by tapping a bunch of mana and casting your spell after the planeswalker already got an advantage. Vehicles present pressure and while they don’t stop the first use of a planeswalker, you don’t have to stop what you’re doing just to answer the first planeswalker only to get destroyed by subsequent ones. Simply activate your oversized creatures lurking on the sidelines and attack.
Imagine a common scenario against current W/B Control where your opponent killed your only creature with Oath of Liliana and has just cast a Sorin, Grim Nemesis as a way to get ahead. It destroys your only creature that you cast to try and get ahead of incoming planeswalkers. Your opponent now has a Zombie and a repeatable card advantage engine in play to your nothing. That’s pretty hard to stop. Now imagine the same scenario, but instead of Sorin killing your only creature you had cast Skysovereign, Consul Flagship. What’s Sorin going to do? Sure, your opponent can plus Sorin, but then you can just drop a creature and attack with Skysovereign to take out Sorin. That’s a heck of a lot better than a purely reactive answer like Ruinous Path. You’ve now gotten ahead on board when you’d otherwise be in an almost unwinnable position.
Along these lines, my dream Vehicle that I hope gets printed is the following:
Fragile Hyperdrifter 2
Artifact – Vehicle
Fragile Hyperdrifter can’t be blocked by tokens.
Crew 1 (Tap any number of creatures you control with total power 1 or more: This Vehicle becomes an artifact creature until end of turn.)
The reason I think this card will be great to have in Standard is that it helps beat up on both Liliana, the Last Hope and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Both cards have proven themselves in Standard to the point that they may be too good. Liliana ensures that 1 toughness creatures are nearly pushed out of the format, but this Vehicle would give aggressive decks a way to get ahead of the problem. Additionally, it would be balanced by the fact that you need to slow down your attacks to activate it, so even though this would be a 2-mana 4-power creature, it wouldn’t be in practice. At the very least, the Vehicle would require Gideon to plus or emblem right away, but that stops the oppressive repeated use of zero’ing and snowballing card advantage, which is what ultimately causes the biggest problems for aggressive decks.
Emrakul, the Promised End is another card that is entirely format-warping, though I think it has made Standard very fun and I’m happy she was printed. I’m not sure I’m ready for a Standard where Emrakul is too good though, and that could happen if R&D isn’t careful. Vehicles help provide a way where your entire board won’t be chump-attacked, because they’ll have to tap your creatures instead of attacking with them if they want to destroy your Vehicle. Skysovereign can’t target your own creatures, either. An example of a Vehicle that could be printed as a counter to Emrakul strategies would be the following:
Unwieldy Destroyer 5
Artifact – Vehicle
Creatures crewed with Unwieldy Destroyer don’t untap during their controller’s next untap step.
This would let you tap all your creatures (and then tap the Destroyer as well) in response to Emrakul such that all your creatures would stay tapped on the Emrakul’d turn. Of course any creatures you had attacked with the previous turn will still get eaten so Emrakul would still be very good, but this gives players new angles to play around one of Standard’s best cards.
I was discussing this idea of how development could weaken some of the most powerful cards in Standard with Ben and Tristan on our podcast and we weren’t sure what R&D could do to help weaken some of the current best cards, but I think we just didn’t have the technology of Vehicles available to us. They definitely open up new deck designs because they provide solutions to different types of problems, and that’s the perfect way to ensure a healthy, balanced metagame. If they end up being too good, I know there are metagame solutions that can help fight back, but I also doubt that will be an issue since I’ve discussed some of the weaknesses that come with including Vehicles in your deck. They have high deckbuilding and in-game costs, which means you’ll really need to think about when and where to include them rather than haphazardly throwing them in simply because they’re great.
I hope I’ve given you some things to think about concerning these new Vehicles. They tap into incredibly interesting design space and it will take us some time to know how best to build around and play with them. Most importantly I think they’re going to be a lot of fun and I can’t wait to see the rest of the set as it’s unveiled.