Quite a few of the interesting cards in Magic 2013 have been spoiled so far, so with any strategy talk hampered by potential bans in both Standard and Legacy, I’ll be doing my only M13 spoiler review article until the full set is revealed. Let’s jump right in with perhaps the most notable new card in the set.
Ajani, Caller of the Pride: Here we have another three-mana Planeswalker and this one starts off at effectively five loyalty if you need him too. Now five is a lot of loyalty to battle through, even with no other protection—so while it can’t protect itself I expect Ajani to live quite often in the early game. Even if you can throw enough damage at Ajani to kill him off, I suspect that frequently it’ll be the wrong decision to do so. Once a planeswalker pulls enough focus onto itself, and off the actual game, the owner of said planeswalker is probably going to win whether that card lived or died.
Additionally, Ajani is going to infuriate many with the focus of Standard still largely being around creature-based brawling. A +1/+1 buff hasn’t been a big deal in most cases, but making [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] beat most creatures in combat, and letting [card]Restoration Angel[/card] and [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card] win mirrors can get out of hand quickly. The key factor in these situations is the sequencing involved in your draws and plays, with a few making Ajani look ridiculous.
T1: Birds / Pilgrim
T3: Ajani, pump or double strike depending on board
T4: Really you don’t need anything here, but Restoration Angel makes the above line safe to a degree. Sublime Angel snap-kills the opponent in one shot, and even just sitting back can put an opponent in a precarious spot.
Of course that’s Magical Christmas Land, let’s look at something a little more likely:
T1: Birds / Pilgrim
T2: Ajani, pump
T3: ??? – Profit!
If the Ajani player plays a land, pumps, and passes how many decks can actually attack? Very few decks can safely swing into an open four mana vs. [card]Restoration Angel[/card] or [card]Wolfir Avenger[/card] on turn three to attack Ajani, and even just having an x/3 could be enough to dissuade an attack. Even if you have the [card]Dismember[/card] or [card]Vapor Snag[/card] at the ready to take out whatever hits play, you aren’t even killing Ajani this turn!
It isn’t that Ajani’s abilities are so incredibly powerful that they demand an immediate answer, at least they dont seem that way at a glance, but you can’t ignore Ajani for a long period of time. The abilities he has fit nicely into what R&D had in mind for him. What gets me is just how freely a player can use Ajani thanks to the boatload of loyalty he can wrack up by the time dealing with a PW via damage becomes feasible.
Regardless of whether a banning takes place or not, Ajani should be able to immediately slide into a couple of decks—though I doubt any current decks would slam four of these into a deck, a-la [card]Jace Beleren[/card]. I wouldn’t be shocked to see a few tried out in Delver decks, though good luck with the WW cost without reworking the mana-base. I’m sure Human decks of all kinds would enjoy a quick surge in popularity, and that people would once again try out Bant, since double strike is a rather large game.
Sublime Archangel: I feel like there should be a subline here, her name just feels to be missing something. Long story short if the Bant (aka: infuriating hexproof) deck ends up existing, this card will be one of the main points. Just having her in play can easily give an attacking creature an immediate +3/+3, and makes any evasive creature into an immediate clock. Her stats are also quite reasonable by themselves, and even on an empty board, she trades with [card]Restoration Angel[/card] on defense and can safely attack into almost any common board state in Standard.
With that said, she makes [card]Vapor Snag[/card] all the more appealing as a [card]Time Walk[/card], and she’s easy to kill off with the bulk of spot removal spells. She’s going to make instant-speed removal that much better, and could slide right into a Pod or Bant deck. Still a fine four-drop and perhaps when someone says Angel they won’t just be referring to the Restoration variety.
Jace’s Phantasm: It’s the new Delver!
On turn seven.
Unless you want to play a lot of bad cards (Barring multiple [card]Thought Scour[/card] variants being printed) to try and power up your one-drops, this card isn’t going to see play. There’s too much work involved to make your creatures good. Delver rewards you for playing good cards to begin with and the only effort you make is stacking [card]Ponder[/card] slightly differently. Plus, [card]Ponder[/card] will probably be banned by the time this article goes up.
Liliana of the Dark Realms: Liliana is a good example of how hard it can be to properly evaluate a new planeswalker: “Liliana is bad because she’s narrow and fits into a bad color.” “Liliana is good because she essentially draws cards and can take over a long-game.” “I wish Liliana’s second ability was -2, instead of -3, because as of now she’s garbage.” “I wish my card advantage ability was [card]Phyrexian Arena[/card].” And so on.
Yes, the second ability isn’t aggressively costed at -2, and R&D clearly wanted Lili to be unable to protect herself unless you paid a real cost. Either that meant powering her up for a turn, or sacrificing her to trade one for one with whatever you want gone. I don’t see this as the huge failing some people do, in the majority of decks you would consider Lili 3.0 if you already have a deck that’s good at wiping the board and keeping creatures in check.
The second ability is likely costed in such a fashion because her ability is actually split between -/- and +/+. Most commentary I’ve seen on her dismisses the pump ability portion out of hand, since in many black decks you don’t gain a huge advantage from it. You may think that the pump isn’t going to be used very often, and that could very well be the case. With that said, I can see her in a number of late-games where her pump ability is a +5/+5 or better. In fact when I first really analyzed her I noted that [card]Might of Oaks[/card] on a planeswalker isn’t exactly an ability that’s been done before.
Plus, with that extra line of text I could definitely see it being a sticking point when balancing loyalty. In essence this gives Liliana four abilities. Hm. I wonder what other planeswalker had four abilities, could gain card advantage and protect itself. Obviously Liliana of the Dark Realms isn’t Jace GOAT version, but there are some upsides with her. Such as her +1 ability providing actual card advantage instead of the virtual kind, or an on-board iteration of it.
Now just because her ability gives you an engine with which to hit your land-drops for the rest of the game, that doesn’t make her good. After all [card]Endless Horizons[/card] was a card and a planeswalker like [card]Nissa Revane[/card] had a similar ability and she wasn’t exactly a heavy-hitter. However, you should sit up and take note when such an ability let’s you gain loyalty for drawing cards.
As for the heavy Swamp component, with the upcoming reprints of Shocklands all but officially shown at this point, this risk is somewhat mitigated by letting Liliana grab splash colors. Plus, you don’t need to run a super heavy black deck to get value out of her other abilities, it just happens to be a nice bonus that you get the full range of them. It would be nice to be able to snap kill a Titan on turn six; but if we’re being honest, outside of [card]Restoration Angel[/card] the majority of common threats in Standard all sit at that three toughness or less sweet spot. Two is enough to kill off the bulk of creatures in the format, but three Swamps would let you hit nearly everything at four mana or less.
In a UB Control deck where your goal is to control the board, play Lili and get some value via land-drops and killing a creature before slamming a major threat. Something like 7-9 Swamps and 4 [card]Watery Grave[/card] is going to be enough to still get plenty of use out of her, she just won’t be optimal. Considering the complete lack of potential value planeswalkers until five and up, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to at least try out.
Of course this doesn’t mean she’ll actually be worth playing—[card]Sorin, Lord of Innistrad[/card] and [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card] were both primed to be huge players and instead ended up as role-players in a handful of decks. It’s never been an easy task to correctly predict how played a planeswalker will be (Yes, even [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card]) and this has been especially true over the past two blocks. I don’t expect her to see major play barring a massive reworking of black in Ravnica, but I could easily see her as the center-piece of a heavy-black control deck.
Elvish Visionary: Matt Nass’s favorite card is back. Now we just need [card]Heritage Druid[/card] and we can once again have a great Standard format!
Rancor: This is quite the spicy reprint, coming from an era where it helped power Stompy strategies up when the best plans were largely based around [card]Tolarian Academy[/card], [card]Wildfire[/card], [card]Tinker[/card] and other busted quick mana or straight combo strategies. Just about anyone could see how this card goes with [card]Strangleroot Geist[/card], but in general there are a whole lot of creature trades happening in this Standard format. Just being able to [card]Rancor[/card] up a Wolf token or [card]Wolfir Avenger[/card] can make a big difference in how the defender can reasonably react.
Of course I fully expect people to go crazy and just shove four [card]Rancor[/card] into any green creature shell that has twenty or more creatures in it. Rancor was at it’s best in very aggressive strategies that stuck to a very low curve, and aimed to end the game before the opponent’s spells even mattered. The creatures at the time were fine, but honestly I prefer what we have access to right now, considering that [card]Gut Shot[/card] and [card]Vapor Snag[/card] exist. For example, [card]Dungrove Elder[/card] blows the doors off anything we had access too at the three slot and without [card]Gaea’s Cradle[/card], [card]Land Grant[/card], or [card]Treetop Village[/card] you can’t get away with the traditional land-base Stompy decks once had.
Here’s just a sample list of what we could do though:
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Birds of Paradise
1 Avacyn’s Pilgrim
2 Ulvenwald Tracker
4 Strangleroot Geist
4 Dungrove Elder
4 Wolfir Avenger
1 Thrun, the Last Troll
1 Wolfir Silverheart
2 Mutagenic Growth
4 Green Sun’s Zenith
I could go on about how [card]Rancor[/card] is awesome and how just like Sublime Angel it gives greater value to instant-speed removal. Or how it could be possible that the bulk of our sweepers are going away in just a few months, which opens the door to hyper-aggressive strategies and other creature-heavy strategies. Most of what [card]Rancor[/card] does is obvious though, and I’d rather just tip my hat to a sweet reprint.
Thragtusk: LSV covered this one well, and if anything, he undersold it. This card looks amazing and instantly goes into any deck that has a reasonable way of tutoring it up. It also gets better in multiples since it makes removal and racing very difficult, so being able to go up to three or four post-board—a virtual eight with [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card]—is going to punish people trying to plink you out of the game.
Of course it isn’t all lollipops and rainbows, and [card]Phantasmal Image[/card] is going to love this card just as much as green mages. This card isn’t going to rebound you back into a losing game without multiples copies, but it will help to give you a threat that can’t instantly be wiped out with no repercussions. I like this kind of five-drop a lot more than some of the ones we’ve gotten recently, though I’m sure some will complain that the only profitable trade is via counterspell (cough [card]Mana Leak[/card] cough).
Those are the cards that stand out to me at first glance, though I’m sure a couple more will pop up before spoiler season is over. It’ll be interesting to see if the first five Shocklands are revealed in M13 or if they’ll only be spread over the new Rav block. Well, I’ll be back once the bannings or non-bannings are revealed, so until then!