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First Impressions: Ravnica Allegiance Mechanics and Cards

For my final article of the year, I was originally planning to write a 2018 retrospective. I even already had an outline of 12 key developments and moments worth remembering:

JanuaryThe ideas behind MTG Arena’s economy, including Wildcards and The Vault, were revealed.
FebruaryMagic Online started posting all 5-0 league decks that are at least 20 cards different from another undefeated deck.
MarchThe Chinese Dominaria release notes, which contained about half of the cards in the set, got leaked.
AprilChallenger Decks, a fantastic product for new and returning players, were released.
MayWe found out that we would be spending three sets on the plane of Ravnica to gear up for the final showdown with Nicol Bolas.
JuneGrand Prix Las Vegas showcased a Rochester Draft with 24 packs of Beta to celebrate Magic’s 25th birthday.
JulyDeathrite Shaman and Gitaxian Probe were banned in Legacy, whereas Goblin Chainwhirler continued to dominate in Standard.
AugustOne million dollars were given out in prize money between Pro Tour 25th Anniversary and the controversial Silver Showcase.
SeptemberJavier Dominguez, after finishing 2nd last year, took the trophy this time around to become the 2018 World Champion.
OctoberArena entered its first full month of Open Beta, bringing in a lot of new players.
NovemberLuis Salvatto, after a month-long Grand Prix chase to tie with Seth Manfield, emerges victorious in the playoff for Player of the Year.
DecemberThe Esport announcement, despite being woefully low on concrete details, completely revamped professional play with a focus on Arena.

But then the Ravnica Allegiance previews dropped. Since I prefer looking forward over looking backward, I decided to write about those instead. Over the course of last week, the signature mechanic of all five guilds in the set were revealed in an article by R&D’s Matt Tabak. Each mechanic had an introductory video and was showcased by a Constructed rare and a Limited common.

Since the videos were awesome—Matt surely had a lot of fun producing them—I embedded them below for those of you who haven’t seen them yet. Furthermore, I’ll give my first impressions of each guild’s mechanic and Constructed rare.

The Cult of Rakdos and Spectacle

Spectacle, the new Rakdos keyword, gives spells an alternative cost. You can cast a spell for its spectacle cost if an opponent lost life during the turn. This mechanic seems tailor-made for aggro decks. With enough early creatures, preferably ones with some sort of evasion or an ability to ping the opponent, it shouldn’t be hard to turn on spectacle when it matters.

The spectacle cost represents a discount on some cards and a kicker cost on others. Rix Maadi Reveler is a good example of the latter. For 2 mana, it’s a bear that rummages, allowing you to smooth your draws in the early game by pitching lands when you need spells or vice versa. But for 4 mana, you get to revel, which represents a lot of fresh cards. I like 2-drops that scale well into the late game, especially when they give interesting choices along the way.

The wording of its discard-then-draw ability is unusual. In contrast to Keldon Raider, Rix Maadi Reveler’s trigger is not a “may” effect. So you must discard even if your hand is already perfect, which is a downside. But on the other hand, it doesn’t have the “if you do” wording. This means that if you play Rix Maadi Reveler as the last card in your hand, you straight-up draw a card. That’s something Keldon Raider could never do.

I expect Mono-Red Aggro to adopt this card along with four Blood Crypt and four Dragonskull Summit. We were already seeing a trend of shaving Wizard’s Lightning for Lava Coil, so we don’t need Wizards as much anymore, which means that Viashino Pyromancer can be replaced by Rix Maadi Reveler. I imagine it will toss Lava Coils against control decks, discard Risk Factor for value, help hit your land drops in the early game, turn excess lands into burn spells in the late game, and reduce the reliance on Experimental Frenzy. It could even make an Arclight Phoenix build of Mono-Red Aggro into a viable strategy.

The Orzhov Syndicate and Afterlife

Afterlife, the new Orzhov keyword, turns all of your creatures into Doomed Travelers. This gives them built-in resiliency to sweepers or spot removal spells. The Spirit tokens are now black as well, which is relevant for Knight of Grace. Some creatures with higher afterlife numbers create multiple 1/1 Spirit tokens. The number tells you how many 1/1 Spirits you get.

Back in 2013, Tom Martell won Pro Tour Gatecrash with a deck named “The Aristocrats.” It used Falkenrath Aristocrat and Cartel Aristocrat to sacrifice creatures at will, and when those creatures include Doomed Traveler, you’re generating a lot of value. Afterward, builds with Blood Artist appeared that took even more advantage of your own creatures dying.

In the current Standard, Aristocrats fans might be able to set up some Rube Goldberg machine with Midnight Reaper, Ruthless Knave, Pitiless Plunderer, Elenda, the Dusk Rose, and afterlife creatures. But this likely hinges on Ravnica Allegiance containing a proper sacrifice outlet like Bloodthrone Vampire. Without knowing the full contents of the new set, it’s hard to say how competitive such an archetype might be. In any case, I would love to drop Divine Visitation on turn 5 and then swing with a bunch of afterlife creatures. And if I have a critical mass of afterlife creatures, then I might consider splashing blue for Supreme Phantom.

Tithe Taker is the best of the afterlife cards revealed thus far, although the applications of its tax effect are relatively limited in Standard. Sure, it makes it more costly to activate Adanto Vanguard or Dauntless Bodyguard, and it makes Settle the Wreckage or Sinister Sabotage more difficult to cast, but it’s not that much better than Martyr of Dusk. In fact, if you’re a Vampire deck, it’s probably even worse (and that tribe could use some help.) Nevertheless, if the metagame is very control-heavy, then perhaps Tithe Taker could find a slot in White Weenie.

The Simic Combine and Adapt

Adapt, the new Simic keyword, can put +1/+1 counters on creatures. These +1/+1 counters are apparently a fundamental part of the guild, as previous Simic mechanics evolve and graft also used them. So adapt doesn’t deserve a prize for originality as a Simic mechanic, especially when you consider how similar it is to the monstrous mechanic from Theros.

Yet monstrous was fine from a gameplay perspective, and adapt is deeper because a creature that lost its +1/+1 counters can adapt again. Simic will surely be able to consume +1/+1 counters as a resource, allowing a creature to adapt multiple times. This should lead to fun and interesting gameplay. By contrast, once Nessian Asp had gone monstrous, you could never successfully boost it again, even if it somehow lost its counters. This sometimes led to some memory issues with monstrous, which are elegantly solved by adapt’s wording.

Zegana, Utopian Speaker, the rare with adapt, is a 4-mana value creature that reminds me of Crackling Drake, Golgari Findbroker, Rowdy Crew, or Nicol Bolas, the Ravager. (Man, looking over that list, Crackling Drake was pushed.) Yet while those cards always replace themselves, you need the right support crew for Zegana. I would like to have at least 12 early creatures that gain +1/+1 counters. The more, the better.

Given that Zegana is a Merfolk, her natural home would be in a G/U Merfolk deck with Deeproot Elite, Merfolk Branchwalker, Jadelight Ranger, and Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca. Although the card draw won’t be guaranteed, you should be able to control a creature with a +1/+1 counter most of the time. I wouldn’t be inclined to run more than two or three copies of Zegana—she is legendary after all, and her ability to turn into an 8/8 trampler only has applications in the late game—but she could be worth a few slots if Breeding Pool can turn G/U Merfolk into a real deck.

The Gruul Clans and Riot

Riot, the new Gruul keyword, gives you a choice between a +1/+1 counter or haste. I like mechanics that lead to interesting decisions, and I think this will be a good one. Choosing between short-term damage and long-term board presence grants a bunch of strategic depth that rewards players for thinking ahead.

Gruul Spellbreaker is always a good rate: A 4/4 trample for 3 mana is above the curve, and a 3/3 haste for 3 mana is decent too. It reminds me of Fanatic of Xenagos, but the tribute ability on that card meant that your opponent would always pick the worst outcome for you. With riot, you get to make the choice yourself, which means that Gruul Spellbreaker is way better.

Gruul Spellbreaker seems like a nightmare for control players. If they were keeping mana up to Cast Down any creature you might play, then that’s not going to work since Gruul Spellbreaker has hexproof during your turn. More importantly, since Settle the Wreckage targets the attacking player, they can’t cast it either. Finally, at 4 toughness, it dodges Deafening Clarion.

Overall, I think Gruul Spellbreaker is really good, especially when I imagine it as a follow-up to Llanowar Elves. Out of the five cards I’m covering in this article, I would expect Gruul Spellbreaker to have the largest impact on Standard.

The Azorius Senate and Addendum

Addendum, the new Azorius ability word, gives additional or alternative effects if you cast the spell during your main phase. I hadn’t expected the mechanic on Careful Consideration or Might of Old Krosa to become an keyword, but here we are.

My first impression is that it’s more of a Limited mechanic than a Constructed one, as most control decks either follow a tap-out style or a draw-go style, and mixing and matching during deck construction is not ideal. But even then, it’s nice to get additional choices during the games. I just hope that the Azorius cards will be relatively underpowered, as I wouldn’t like to see Teferi, Hero of Dominaria completely warp the format.

Moving to Emergency Powers, we have the first instant-speed Timetwister variant. When you are ahead, you would often want to play it at the end of the opponent’s turn so that you are the first to untap safely with a full grip of cards. When you are behind, it may be better to spin the wheel on your own turn in hopes of drawing a powerful permanent to play for free, although that’s not particularly reliable: If we remove seven lands and an Emergency Powers from a 60-card deck containing four copies of some insane 6-drop, then you’re only 45% to draw one in the seven new cards.

I don’t see a lot of prospects for Emergency Powers in competitive Standard. 7 mana is a lot, and Overflowing Insight is seeing no play. Maybe there is some weird combo deck with Thousand-Year Storm and Primal Amulet? It should be fun for brewing, but I find it hard to imagine such a deck thriving in a format where Mono-Red Aggro and White Weenie can win by turn 4.

Conclusion

Ravnica Allegiance brings five new mechanics to the table. Most of them give choices to a player, which is an aspect I value highly. Yet all mechanics can lead to interesting gameplay and deck building decisions.

There is some potential for cross-synergy, too. Adapt and riot could both fuel cards that care about +1/+1 counters. And Spirit tokens can easily turn on spectacle. There’s a lot of potential, and I’m looking forward to more previews before the prerelease on January 19–20.

Discussion

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