And the floodgates are open. With the release of the full spoiler for Avacyn Restored earlier this week we have all of the pieces of the puzzle to start figuring out what the set means for the future of Magic. With all of the hubbub on the Internet you'd think that the Mayans were right and 2012 truly is the end of days. The sky isn't falling however no matter how many times you may hear it on Twitter.
The most controversial card in the new set—and the one whose price has already skyrocketed to Snapcaster Mage levels right out of the gate—is Cavern of Souls. My initial assessment of Cavern of Souls was not a positive one. That isn't to say that I didn't think it was good.
Quite to the contrary I thought it was very clearly good and in fact I was fairly certainly that it would still be good without the "can't be countered" clause tacked on. My problem with the card was exactly that: the uncounterability felt completely extraneous to the card as if it had been added after the fact to a card that had already been designed.
Zac Hill's article on the mothership a week ago confirmed my suspicions. The card had in fact originally just been designed as a tribal mana fixer and the uncounterable clause was added in development as an attempt to fight back against the perceived overpoweredness of Snapcaster Mage (particularly in combination with Mana Leak).
The portions of Zac's article in which he discusses the rationale for the card and WotC's philosophy regarding countermagic ("We firmly believe that Magic tends to be more fun when you're confident for the most part that you can resolve your spells.") caused quite the stir.
I don't want to rehash all of the arguments on either side here because there has been quite enough discussion on the matter already. The player in me is actually kind of bothered by the existence of the card—not because I don't want to play against it but rather because it creates a world in which Titans are likely to be the most popular creatures rather than Insectile Aberrations.
I've been rather enjoying playing with Huntmaster and friends and I had high hopes to continue on that road come Avacyn Restored what with Restoration Angel giving Werewolves a powerful new ally. I'm not sure that's a path I want to go down when players are shying away from Delver and cozying up to Primeval Titan.
That said in the long run I'm not sure that Cavern of Souls is going to have the kind of impact so many are suggesting. I hear people talking about it as having "no drawbacks" which is pretty far from the mark. How many copies of Cavern of Souls can a deck like Wolf Run afford to play since that seems to be where everyone is so afraid of it turning up? The answer certainly isn't four. You have Inkmoth Nexus and Kessig Wolf Run for colorless lands already and you need to be able to actually cast your spells.
Cavern of Souls makes every colored non-creature spell in your deck worse along with your Rootbound Crags if you're cutting basic lands to play them. You're less likely to be able to play Galvanic Blast turn 1 or Rampant Growth turn two or Slagstorm turn three. Adding Cavern of Souls to your deck makes it very appreciably worse against every deck that isn't planning on countering your Titans and can even hurt you against those that are by increasing your colored mana failure rate there too.
Let's say you play with two copies which seems reasonable—how often are you going to draw one by the time you want to cast your first Titan? It's certainly not every game and in fact it's quite a bit less than half the games. Yes when you draw Cavern of Souls plus the appropriate colored mana plus ramp spells plus an actual Titan (because Green Sun's Zenith doesn't benefit from the uncounterable clause) Mana Leak can't do anything to stop you!
Anything that is except counter your ramp or removal or whatever else you might need to actually play the game that isn't exactly a creature of the type you named with Cavern.
And in other creature decks? Well the question is the same. How many Caverns can you really afford to play? Sure in a dedicated Zombie deck you can play a bunch of them and they can help you cast Diregraf Captain with some measure of consistency but I hope you weren't planning on also playing Obliterators. Geth's Verdict and Distress can become a lot harder to cast too.
And in a Naya deck like the one I've been playing? Naming "Human" certainly covers quite a few of the creatures but it could be hard to cast Strangleroot Geist and a hand with a turn 1 Birds of Paradise but only Cavern of Souls for mana could make things really awkward especially against a deck that can easily kill a mana creature.
I've actually already run into the issue of wishing creatures were the same type so I could play them in a deck with Cavern without worrying about mana problems. Wolfir Avenger and Werewolves are just begging to go in the same deck but nope Wolf and Werewolf are different (though I have a feeling I'd get a favorable ruling on that interaction in a flavor draft…).
Strangleroot Geist as I mentioned above is the centerpiece to virtually every green creature deck these days but Spirits aren't exactly common in green and I don't think anyone is really looking to power out uncounterable Kindercatches alongside it.
The competition is toughest at the low mana costs especially in double colored cards because a single Cavern can totally throw off your colored mana for casting anything but the type you've chosen with it. More expensive cards are less of an issue but one with significant colored mana demands—like Sigarda Host of Herons—can still prove to be problematic especially if you're also trying to support utility lands like Gavony Township.
The point is that Cavern does have costs. It doesn't come into play and cost life like Boseiju but it requires you to construct your deck in a specific way or risk having an effectively colorless land a high percentage of the time. They may not seem like it at first glance but those costs are very real.
And Mana Leak? Mana Leak will still be good! Maybe you won't be able to hold up two mana and feel safe that you can stop your opponent from resolving anything short of a Thrun throughout most of the important turns of every game anymore but you'll still be able to counter any non-Thrun creature cast without a Cavern on its creature type in play as well as ramp spells Unburial Rites Birthing Pods and planeswalkers aplenty.
Personally I'm fine with decks reliant on countermagic suffering a bit. They've had it good for a quite a while. Last year the Standard format was dominated by Caw-Blade a creature light U/W aggro-control deck with Mana Leak and equipment and this year Standard is defined by Delver a creature light U/W aggro-control deck with Mana Leak and equipment. It's this sort of deck—decks that leverage the time window provided by Mana Leak to generate advantage—that really make Mana Leak "too good" and I think they've had enough time to shine lately.
Frankly I just wish we had some more options to fight against the Titans. When Zendikar rotated I actually said that the card I'd miss the most was Tectonic Edge because it provided a way for decks of any color to fight against six-drops. I was hoping that Avacyn Restored would have some kind of mana denial effect on par with Tec Edge or Goblin Ruinblaster but unfortunately it looks like we're going to have to rely entirely on Acidic Slime if that's the direction we're going to take.
Zac's article suggests using Despise or Appetite for Brains as a way to keep the big guns off the table but I've never been a fan of using discard to break up my opponent's threats; if they just have a second copy or something similarly powerful to do with their mana you're still coming out way behind in the exchange. And that's to say nothing of Memoricide which is downright embarrassing in decks without mana acceleration since a non-trivial percentage of the time you won't even be able to cast it before they can cast a Titan.
So we can't reliably stop Titans from hitting play. Fine I suppose I can find a way to deal with that. The best of those ways that jumps out at me is an Avacyn Restored card that's just starting to get the attention I feel like it deserves: Zealous Conscripts. I was actually thinking of trying to do another bulk order when I saw their average cost online was under fifty cents before the weekend but by the time I came back from Vegas they'd jumped quite a bit in price.
Zealous Conscripts is awesome for a few reasons. One is that it's a maindeckable threaten effect because it's actually tied to a creature. In a pinch you can actually just play your Conscripts as a 3/3 haste creature and bash. But you almost certainly won't have to do that very often because unlike every threaten effect before it Conscripts can take control of target permanent. Yes not creature: permanent.
This has a wide range of implications. Not only can you steal Primeval Titan and attack for a boatload of damage and pick up a few free lands but you can also steal a Liliana and force your opponent to sacrifice a creature a Garruk and use it to fight one of their creatures or even a Gideon who was holding off your entire team and animate him to attack and kill your opponent.
Elesh Norn got you down? Well take control of it and attack them for a bunch of damage. Zealous Conscripts gives creature decks not only a powerful response to an opposing resolved Titan but also the ability to break out of board states that were previously very troublesome.
Zealous Conscripts clearly has synergy with sacrifice effects as well like Birthing Pod or Falkenrath Aristocrats. You can steal your opponent's creature hit them with it and then sacrifice it for a permanent bonus. That's pretty sweet of course but we can do one better. You can also use an effect like Restoration Angel to gain control of it permanently!
Yes that's right. All of the "flicker" effects in Avacyn Restored are templated as "return it to play under your control" rather than "under its owner's control" as such effects were typically written in the past. While Zealous Conscripts plus Restoration Angel is a boatload of mana it's not nearly so bad if you're using Birthing Pod to search for one of them or if you use something like say Cloudshift.
Interestingly both Restoration Angel and Cloudshift have synergies with just the enters the battlefield trigger of Zealous Conscripts giving you a second chance to steal a creature if you weren't able to set up to take it permanently in the first place.
I'm not sure if the prospect of stealing a creature forever is worth the inclusion by itself but I'm sure we could put together a deck with enough enters the battlefield effects to make it worthwhile. I'm totally spitballing here but what about something like this?
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Blade Splicer
- 3 Borderland Ranger
- 3 Fiend Hunter
- 4 Huntmaster of the Fells
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 3 Zealous Conscripts
Fiend Hunter plus Cloudshift means one creature gone forever and another gone for the time being while Blade Splicer Borderland Ranger Huntmaster and Zealous Conscripts all get double value from the blink effects. Perhaps the deck is too cute but these are certainly ideas there that are worth pursuing. At the very least Zealous Conscripts is a card you should keep your eye on. I know I will be.
That's it for this week. For those of you in the SoCal area I'm going to be gunslinging at San Diego Games and Comics in Mira Mesa so if you want a chance to come battle me be sure to stop by. I'll be there on Saturday from mid-morning until mid-evening and I'll have both Constructed decks and Sealed decks to battle with. Hope to see you there!
Until next time