In this article, I'll talk a bit about the mechanics of the set, the speed of the format, the removal, the colors, and some cards I believe will be overrated or underrated. Remember that the focus is the prerelease, so my analysis will be made with Sealed in mind, not Draft.
The mechanics in this set are mostly bonuses, rather than build-arounds. You'll see embalm, cycling, and exert in every deck, but there won't be many embalm decks or exert decks (there will be some cycling decks). There's some tribal synergy and some -1/-1 counters synergy, but for the most part you're going to play cards because they are individually powerful and not because you have other cards that go well with it.
Embalm is sort of a "flashback for creatures"—if the creature ever dies, you can bring it back by paying the embalm cost. You probably would not play a horrible creature just because of the ability to play it twice, but most embalm creatures in the set are reasonably costed, so the ability is a big plus that you aren't paying a lot for.
At first glance, there are almost no embalm creatures that aren't worth playing. You often overpay a bit for the second copy, but that doesn't matter because the first copy is already a playable card. You should value cards with embalm highly.
Embalm's presence in the format has a few effects. The first is that it creates natural mana sinks in the late game—you'll often have something to do with your mana, even if that something is replaying your 3-drop. For this reason, you can afford to play a couple of extra lands, at least compared to Kaladesh and Aether Revolt.
The second thing is that bounce effects are generally better than they would be in a normal format, because almost every deck is going to have something that disappears when bounced. A card like Vizier of Deferment, for example, would be good in a normal format, but it's extra good in this format because you can just kill a Mummy and it's never coming back.
The third is that you should be careful with the timing of your trades. If you have a creature with embalm 5 and nothing to do with your mana on turn 5, then you're more incentivized to trade it. If your opponent has a creature with embalm 5 and you suspect they're not going to have use for those 5 lands, then you're less incentivized to kill it.
Much like embalm, you aren't paying much for exert—a lot of the creatures have reasonable bodies already, such as 3/2 haste for 3 or 3/1 for 2, and the exert is just a bonus. The key to exerting is knowing when to use the ability.
As a general rule, I'd say that you should not use the ability unless you have a compelling reason to do so. If your 2/2 is going to get blocked by a 2/3, then yeah, exert it to get it through, but if the alternative is swinging for 2, then you probably should not exert. There are exceptions to this rule once you get to know the format better (for example, you might anticipate not being able to attack the following turn regardless), but for the prerelease, I'd assume the default will always be "don't exert unless you have a reason to."
You should also keep in mind that exert means you can't attack the following turn, but you also can't block. You should keep this in mind as you are planning a race.
Exert makes every card with an untap ability better. Cards like Djeru's Resolve, Vizier of Tumbling Sands, Initiate's Companion, and Spidery Grasp are better than they would be normally because they often let your creatures with exert attack an extra time.
Cycling is in contention for my favorite mechanic ever, and I'm glad it's finally back.
As a general rule, the bar to play a cycling card is low, as you can always find a use for it for 1 and 2 mana. You're ideally looking for cycling in situational cards—either something that will sometimes have no targets, like Forsake the Worldly, or something that is very expensive, like Lay Claim. I set the bar a little above Dissenter's Deliverance—that card is too situational in this format and I would not maindeck it.
Most cycling cards in your colors will end up making your deck, but having too many cards that you're likely to cycle means you have to play fewer lands than normal, since you're naturally going to see more of your deck. Normally, you have 17 lands out of 40 cards, which is 42%, but if you assume you're going to cycle 5 cards, then you end up with 17/35 which is 48%—a much bigger ratio.
If your deck is heavy on cyclers and they aren't cards you're just going to cast the great majority of the time, then you can consider playing one fewer land than you normally would (though that does go against the direction embalm pushes you). If you play a deck with 18 lands and, say, 2 or 3 cards that you're likely to cycle (Dissenter's Deliverance, Compelling Argument) then you're likely to flood out.
Maybe it goes without saying, but I believe you should always play your cycling duals if you have at least 1 color, and I'd strongly consider playing them even if they were completely off-color.
When to include cyclers in your deck is easy (almost always), but when to cycle them versus cast them is much harder. Cards like Cast Out, Curator of Mysteries, and Archfiend of Ifnir will almost never be cycled, whereas cards like Forsake the Worldly will almost always be cycled if you have 2 spare mana in the early game, but how about a card like Wasteland Scorpion or Shimmerscale Drake? Those are much harder to evaluate.
I think that, in general, people cycle a little bit too much. There's just something about the unknown that is very appealing—"the mystery box could be anything—it could even be a boat" kind of thing. In practice, once you get to the mid-late game, most spells are better than a random card.
I like to think of it as a scenario in which you're using scry 1 and seeing that card—would you keep it on top? If you would, don't cycle it. If you wouldn't, then cycle it.
There are some cards that reward you for cycling, but I wouldn't warp my deck for them—with the exception of Drake Haven, which is a bomb in the right deck, or perhaps a large quantity of Ruthless Snipers. They're mostly bonuses and should not make you play a cycling card you otherwise wouldn't play.
Aftermath is just like flashback, except with different cards. I wouldn't play most of the gold ones if I couldn't cast both halves (Prepare and Cut are the two exceptions), but other than that you should treat them as "better kicker," since you can cast the second half immediately or later.
The Speed of the Format
One of the most important things to understand about a Limited format is how fast it is. A 2/2 for 2 could be instrumental for your game plan or absolutely unplayable. A 7/7 for 6 could be the finisher of choice or a card you would never touch. Kaladesh and Aether Revolt, for example, were very fast formats.
I think Amonkhet is a slow format. There's some durdling early on with cycling, and then you have mechanics such as embalm, aftermath, and the Trials/Cartouche synergy, which let you do things with your mana later in the game. There could be a lot of trading, so you need a plan if the game goes very long. Creatures are also big and there aren't that many ways to get through, so your 2- and 3-drops can easily get brickwalled by their 4- or 5-drops.
You must be careful, however, to not confuse "slow" with "defensive." I believe Amonkhet is a slow format in the sense that games will take a long time, but I also believe you have a lot of room to be aggressive. Take, for example, this card:
This card isn't fast, but it also isn't defensive—it's a slow, aggressive card. This is how I perceive Amonkhet. Exert is not a fast mechanic—you effectively attack once every two turns—but it's certainly an aggressive mechanic. Auras, in general, are aggressive. There's a lot of menace and a lot of flying. There's ramping into bigger creatures. This is not Kaladesh, and no one is going to kill you turn 6 with a Renegade Freighter, but I believe it's still an aggressive format and you will do better if your goal is to kill your opponent, rather than simply surviving to play a mega bomb.
There isn't a whole lot of removal in Amonkhet. At common, white has Compulsory Rest (plus Impeccable Timing, which I don't like), blue has bounce, black has Final Reward and Splendid Agony, red has Electrify and Magma Spray, and green has Cartouche of Strength and Stinging Shot—that's it. It's surprisingly hard to kill a utility creature. If you're looking to kill a Fan Bearer, for example, you either have a Magma Spray or you're going to pay at least 3 mana for it. If you're U/W, you have actual zero ways of killing it at common.
This means you should be frugal with your removal, because there isn't a lot of it. Most creatures are going to have to be killed in combat through good old blocking and double-blocking. Save your removal for bombs, utility creatures, and enchanted creatures. There are 5 Cartouches in the set, two of which give pretty good abilities (flying and lifelink), and you don't want to be on the opposing end of those without a removal spell.
Incidentally, this also means that most utility creatures get better, as there are fewer ways to kill them at a mana profit.
Colors and Splashing
Amonkhet is low on mana fixing. There are two lands—Evolving Wilds and Painted Bluffs—but no artifacts. And Painted Bluffs is pretty bad. In green, there are two common fixers—Gift of Paradise and Oashra Cultivator—as well as the Naga Vitalist plus Painted Bluffs combo you can assemble.
There is an argument to be made that cycling making splashing easier. When you splash a card with cycling, you can just cycle it away if you don't draw that color of mana, and when you don't draw one of your main colors, you can cycle some cards to try to find it—there's more digging in Amonkhet than in most other sets. Most of Amonkhet's good cycling cards, however, don't lend themselves to splashing. Cards like Cast Out require colored mana anyway, and cards like Lay Claim and Archfiend of Ifnir are double-costed, and therefore non-splashable. There are very few single-colored-mana cyclers with a colorless cycling cost, and none are particularly good.
My inclination is that if you're a green ramp deck that wants to play the ramp fixers anyway, then the splash is pretty free for you and you should play a card like Cast Out or Final Reward. If you're any other color combination, or a green deck that wouldn't want to play a 3-mana ramp spell, then you don't want to splash. The great majority of non-green decks should just be two colors.
White has some great rares, as it usually does, but most of its commons and uncommons seem to be just solid bodies. White seems to be an aggressive color in this set—there are a couple of good 2-drops at common (Gust Walker is probably the best common 2-drop in the set), and embalm gives you some staying power.
Vizier of Deferments
This card is much better in a format where flickering something equals killing it a large portion of the time. On top of that, it can effectively reset your exert creatures, and it's just a tricky creature overall. Be careful with this card at the prerelease.
It's hard to get a dedicated aggressive deck in this Sealed format, but if you manage to get one, then I think this card is better than it looks. 2/2 for 2 is already not horrible (though not great, given the speed of the format), but attach to that the ability to get rid of blockers from time to time and you have yourself a solid playable. Remember that it works every time you embalm something.
Trial of Solidarity + In Oketra's Name
There seems to be a swarm subtheme, with 2 Inspired-Charge-esque cards and Tah-Crop Elite, but I don't really see the creatures to support the theme, so I don't think trying to play a strategy around those cards will get you very far (though the Elite is still quite good in a normal deck, I think).
This is basically a worse Captured by the Consulate unless you're specifically stopping a bomb. Since there's no way for you to know what they have in game 1, I would rather have this in my sideboard. It does stop embalm copies of the card, though, as well as multiples, but I would still rather not maindeck it.
Protection of the Hekma
I think this card is unplayable.
Blue spent the better part of a year being a horrible Limited color, but now it seems to be back in full force, as there are many good commons in blue. Its main themes seem to be cycling and spells, but there are a lot of cards that are quite good by themselves, and the bodies are bigger than we're used to seeing in blue. Blue also gets points for being the bounce color in a format where bounce is good. Angler Drake would be amazing in any format, but it's even better when it's a Nekrataal as opposed to a Man-o'-War.
Cartouche of Knowledge
Giving a creature some bonus and flying is the kind of effect that wins games, but also the kind of effect that loses you games when they 2-for-1 you. The card drawing (plus potential to return any Trials) offsets this 2-for-1 factor, making this card pretty good.
Naga Oracle has solid stats and ensures your next couple of draws are going to be good, which seems great to me, especially in a set where throwing cards in the graveyard is a big bonus.
Most of the time, creatures like this aren't very good, but that's because they can be picked off for free with activated abilities. Labyrinth Guardian is different, and only dies to spells. Once they're using a spell, then you probably don't mind trading your 2-drop for it, even if it's a pump spell. The body is good and the embalm cost is low.
I could see myself playing this in the most aggressive of decks, but blue doesn't seem particularly well suited for that anyway, and I suspect most people who do play it would be better off with it in their sideboard, especially in Sealed.
4 mana is a lot, so you have to have some pretty good cycling cards to return with this. I think most decks won't have enough cyclers to make sure they can even get two cards with this most of the time, let alone two good ones.
Unless you have a super dedicated mill deck or a lot of cycling payoff, do not play this card—it's the worst cycler in the set.
Black seems to be mostly an aggressive color in this set. There are Zombie synergies with white, and several creatures with flying or menace. It can always be paired with a control color for removal, but I suspect most heavy black decks are going to want to attack.
Black has a -1/-1 sub-theme and a Zombie sub-theme but again, neither is necessarily a build-around.
Horror of the Broken Lands + Pitiless Vizier
Most of the "gain something when you cycle" cards can be shrugged off, as they attack for small amounts of damage, but black has some heavy hitters that benefit a lot from your opponent being unable to block. Horror of the Broken Lands, in particular, strikes me as one of the best commons in the set, as it's a great body by itself and threatens to attack for 8 or sometimes even 10 if they don't block it.
Gravedigger is always a good card, so it's hard to call it underrated, but I just want to point out that it's even better in this format because of cycling. What sometimes happens in other formats is that your opponent refuses to trade early, and then you can't cast Gravedigger. With cycling, you know you'll at least get one card for your troubles if you need to add to the board on turn 4.
This card seems great to me. Cycling costs are cheap enough in this set that you can just shoot creatures left and right. With two of those in my deck, I'll start playing bad cyclers just to trigger them. Outside of red, there's just not a lot of cheap removal that deals with them.
There are enough mana sinks in this format that you don't have to play a card this bad to try to get card advantage. I would never maindeck this card.
This card can be good if you have synergies (such as multiple cards that demand you put -1/-1 counters on your own creatures), but if you have a deck without those synergies then I don't think you should play Doomed Dissenter just for value.
Red is, as always, an aggressive color. In this set in particular it seems to have a lot of ways to push through damage via menace, unblockability, and exert triggers that make combat a nightmare for your opponent. It also has two good removal spells at common: Magma Spray and Electrify.
Trial of Zeal
This is by far the best Trial as it's a powerful card in its own right. If you ever manage to return this to your hand, it's like drawing an extra copy of one of the best cards in your deck. If you have multiple Cartouches, then that's enough to win most late games.
4/3 for 4 is decent enough already, but turning into a 5/4 menace for 4 once they play a blocker is fantastic.
A 1/2 is still a 1/2, and the fact that this has menace and can sometimes become a 2/3 doesn't change that. It's playable in the most aggressive decks, but a normal deck should not want this creature.
I don't think this card is necessarily bad (I've played my share of Pale Rider of Trostad) but I want to take the opportunity to talk about a misconception that I believe people have about this set, one where discarding a card is OK because cards can be played from graveyard. You're still giving up the card.
Imagine a scenario in which you discard an embalm creature, say Unwavering Initiate. You can then embalm it and it's like you never discarded anything, right? Wrong! If you hadn't discarded it, you would have just played it and, when it died, you'd embalm it. You're only "gaining" a card if the creature wouldn't have died.
This is not to say that you can't play cards like Bloodrage Brawler or Tormenting Voice, but just don't go nuts on them on the assumption that the discard is free because this is a graveyard set. There's still a cost.
Strictly a sideboard card that should probably never be sideboarded in. I'm not quite sure what it's doing in this set to be honest.
Green usually has big, mean monsters, and this time around they seem even bigger and meaner—at least until you notice that they all kind of have to shrink themselves when they enter the battlefield. Even with the -1/-1 counters going around, green's creatures are still quite a bit larger than other creatures. It also has 3 good common 2-drops, so it can be aggressive if needed.
Green also has a lot of acceleration—three cards at common. Ramping into big green creatures seems to be a viable strategy, and it's even better than normal because some of those big creatures have cycling, so you can at least do something if they kill your Elves or if you don't draw them.
Cartouche of Strength
This is a Hunt the Weak that costs 1 less mana, gives your creature trample, and returns all your Trials to your hand. Treat it as a spell, not an Aura, and you'll see that it's an excellent card.
4/3 for 4 is, again, a decently-sized creature already, but Quarry Hauler often provides a 5/4 worth of stats since it can make one of your creatures with a -1/-1 counter bigger. By itself this wouldn't be so great, but you can also shrink and potentially kill opposing creatures with -1/-1 counters, and that part is great!
What the hell Wizards—how is anyone supposed to beat this? This card isn't super flashy or instantly powerful, but it's a great finisher. It's big enough that if you can make it survive the first double- or triple-block, your opponent is very unlikely to be able to double- or triple-block it again.
Manglehorn is great in Constructed, but it's not good in Limited. This is not an artifact set and a 2/2 body is too small—leave it at home.
It seems appealing to cast this and get 4 extra lands into play, but in practice you'll be thrilled if this turns into an Explosive Vegetation. The nightmare scenario of having this but no tapped creatures (either because you have no creatures or because they can't attack) is very real. I wish this were an instant at least so you'd be able to chump-attack with all your creatures to get a bunch of lands.
The Gold Cards
The gold cards are mostly pretty good, as gold cards tend to be. You shouldn't be married to a color combination because you have a gold card, but they will push you in this direction.
The monuments are hard for me to evaluate because they're so different than what we've had so far, and so deck dependent. My inclination is that if you cannot use them as mana sources, then they aren't good, so off-color Monuments shouldn't be played. If you can use them as mana sources, then they might be good. The green one is probably best, since the ability is relevant and you actively want the mana to play bigger creatures. In the end, though, I could just be completely wrong and they could all be insane. Or all unplayable. I really don't know. Sorry!
- The mechanics are all bonuses. You don't have to play around them, or bend your choices too much because of them.
- Bounce and flicker effects are better than normal because of embalm.
- Cycling in general makes you want to play fewer lands.
- As a default, don't exert creatures unless you have a reason.
- There isn't a lot of removal, and there aren't many ways to kill utility creatures. You should be conservative with the removal you have.
- Splashing is hard outside of green decks that are interested in ramping. Most nongreen decks should be two colors.
- The format is slower than Kaladesh, but it still has rewards for being aggressive. Games can go long, but there's also a lot of evasion.
I hope you enjoy your prerelease, and see you next week!