Return to Ravnica spoilers are upon us in full force. Every weeknight since they began I've kept a close eye on the clock and been sure to scope out the usual websites for new cards at midnight eastern time. Every writer across all of those sites is weighing in on what kind of impact these new toys are going to have—so I'm not going to do that. I'm going to talk about all the toys we're not going to have to play with anymore.
Tournament Magic is fundamentally about change and adaptation. It's easy to fall into habits when it comes to building decks and evaluating cards simply because that's what you've gotten used to. The release of the new block in the fall is the most important time to unlearn old habits and question old assumptions because the rotation of the old block and the previous year's core set has an enormous impact on how decks ought to be built and cards ought to be evaluated. So before we get ahead of ourselves and start talking about what new cards from Return to Ravnica might see play and what kinds of new decks might get built it's important to look back at the key cards from Scars block and M12 that will no longer be around and what that might mean moving forward.
Let's start with the bogeyman in the room: Mana Leak. Not all that long ago Zac Hill wrote an article discussing how R&D felt that the existence of Mana Leak in Standard alongside Snapcaster Mage was a major mistake one that led to the printing of Cavern of Souls as a hoser for countermagic. Mana Leak hasn't been nearly as big a player since the printing of Cavern with many Delver decks shaving numbers or cutting them entirely but its impact was still felt in the way players constructed decks. Virtually every successful deck during Mana Leak's time in Standard has been built with Mana Leak in mind featuring a suite of cheap plays to sneak under the two-cost counter or anti-counter measures like uncounterable or flash creatures.
The combination of Mana Leak with the one-two punch (or perhaps the zero-one punch) of Gut Shot and Vapor Snag further narrowed the band of creatures that saw play in Standard. Any creature that costed more than one mana needed to have some kind of resilience to one or both of these in order to see play in main decks as more than just a Birthing Pod target.
Look at Highborn Ghoul for instance. Highborn Ghoul seems like it ought to be a perfectly serviceable creature with two-power worth of evasion for two mana—with a relevant creature type no less. But Gut Shot made one toughness an enormous liability. Highborn Ghoul has sat on the sidelines for virtually its entire time in Standard with even the incredibly unglamorous Walking Corpse receiving the nod sometimes instead.
Anyone remember Mirran Crusader? There was a time when Mirran Crusader was an incredibly menacing creature threatening to end games in short order with some help from Angelic Destiny or some kind of Sword. The double striking double protection-bearing knight has all but disappeared from the Standard landscape due in no small part to the incredible prevalence of Vapor Snag. Decks with Mirran Crusader and Hero of Bladehold were major players in Standard for a while but as Delver decks became more refined both of them pretty much dropped off the map entirely.
Look at these creatures that actually see play in Standard these days:
What do these creatures all have in common? They're all resistant in some fashion to Gut Shot and/or Vapor Snag. They guarantee some kind of value even if they're removed or can't be effectively removed by them at all. It's extremely difficult to justify playing a creature that costs more than the spells your opponents will frequently have to remove them especially when they have such consistent and repeatable access to those spells thanks to Ponder and Snapcaster Mage. While Snapcaster Mage will still be around Gut Shot Vapor Snag and Mana Leak will not which will make midrange creatures without guaranteed value much more viable. Sure people can still play Unsummon but the life loss really was important for Vapor Snag to help narrowly win race situations so it's far less likely to see the same amount of play.
This won't help the plight of unfortunate creatures like Hero of Bladehold Mirran Crusader and Phyrexian Obliterator who will be leaving alongside the banes of their existence. I do wish we could have found out what kind of impact Phyrexian Obliterator in particular might have had in a world without Vapor Snag and Dismember (and kept trying to build decks with it even despite their existence) but it will open up space for other midrange creatures to shine.
Here are some creatures that I think might be worth revisiting after the rotation:
It's worth noting that it's not just the departure of reactive cards that are good against midrange creatures that improves their position in the format but also the departure of the creatures that outclass them—namely the Titans. It's been a long time since we've lived in a Titan-free world but once upon a time it was possible for a four- or five-casting cost creature to be the biggest thing on the block. Anyone remember Baneslayer Angel? Baneslayer went from being the premier trump threat in Standard to an also-ran once the Titans showed up and now that they will be gone there's a void to be filled for king of the mountain. Even Titan analogues like Wurmcoil Engine and Consecrated Sphinx will be gone along with Elesh Norn Grand Cenobite making it all that much more likely that we might find ourselves in a world where four- and five-cost creatures can matter again.
Speaking of king of the mountain you know what's a feeling I've hated for the past year? When I resolve some kind of awesome creature and my opponent pays far less mana than I did and gets a copy of it. The existence of multiple quality Clone effects in Standard over the past year or so—first Phyrexian Metamorph and then Phantasmal Image—has been a huge source of frustration to me. I've gone so far as to say that Phantasmal Image is my least favorite card printed in recent memory. As someone who likes to play sweet creatures having all of my effort to get one of them into play feel like it's been for naught because my opponent got one too not only wasn't fun but was a significant deterrent from wanting to play with those creatures in the first place.
I always found it particularly depressing that Thrun was printed as a hoser for exactly the sort of decks that ended up being all over Standard for the duration of its lifespan in the format but it proved to be incredibly easy for those decks to remove because they could just play Phantasmal Image to kill him despite hexproof. Sigarda could never shine until now for exactly the same reason: because somehow a two-cost card that could double as the best creature in play or Hero's Demise for hexproof legends was deemed reasonable at some point. Yeah I hate that card…
The rotation also means the last hurrah for quite a few hoser cards. M13 saw the departure of the uncommon color hosers that have been in Standard for quite a while. I know Zombie fans will cheer now that Celestial Purge is gone but I think it's a bigger win for anyone trying to build midrange or controlling black decks. I was cursing its existence when I was trying to find a build for Mono-Black Control. People will find new ways to deal with Zombies and turn to cards like Pillar of Flame or Knight of Glory which are much less effective at dealing with the wide range of non-Zombie black cards people might play. Take a look at that list of creatures above—quite a few of them are black and it's a lot easier to take over a game with a midrange black creature or planeswalker (Liliana anyone?) when people don't have multiple efficient removal spells for them in their sideboard by default.
Speaking of sideboard cards causing obnoxious splash damage how happy am I that Nihil Spellbomb is gone? I may have something of an unhealthy obsession with trying to make Splinterfright decks work and the presence of Nihil Spellbomb in so many sideboards was a source of tremendous frustration for me. Sure people have access to Tormod's Crypt now if they really want it but Tormod's Crypt is a much harder card to just incidentally play in your sideboard than Nihil Spellbomb.
Spellbomb could get you value if it hit a single flashback spell or kept a single Snapcaster or undying trigger from resolving since you got to draw a card along with it. Tormod's Crypt will only end up in sideboards that really want the effect so I'm free to waste even more time and energy trying to make enormous graveyard-powered monsters. I know I said I wasn't going to talk about the RTR spoilers but Jarad and Lotleth Troll look like they'd fit pretty well into a Splinterfright deck. Just saying…
One of the most important cards that is leaving when it comes to sideboards—and well Standard in general—is Ponder. Ponder is perhaps the most important and yet most innocuous card in the Delver machine. Much like Preordain in Caw-Blade before it Ponder gives Delver decks far more consistency than the opposition. Thanks to Ponder and Snapcaster Mage alongside it Delver decks are capable of getting tremendous value out of a small number of deck slots which makes sideboard cards that much more valuable because you're more likely to be able to find the cards when you need them.
Even maindeck cards that you want access to but don't want to draw in multiples like Sword of War and Peace or Dismember are made dramatically better by the existence of Ponder since you can rely on finding them given time but don't have to play so many that your hand ends up glutted with them. You also get to play fewer land than other decks because you can rely on Ponder and Gitaxian Probe to hit them which means you have a higher spell density in matchups that can come down to attrition. Oh and you can set up your Delvers to flip all the time on top of all of that. Yeah I'm not going to miss it. There's a reason it's banned in Modern. You get to draw off the top of your deck like the rest of us!
So while Zombies may be the deck from current Standard that survives the rotation with the most cards intact I don't think it's going to be a dominant force come Return to Ravnica time. Why? Because the format is going to shift and the reasons it's a good deck are largely going away. Cards like Diregraf Ghoul and Gravecrawler are amazing in a world where people are both playing and building their decks to beat Gut Shot and Vapor Snag. But in the world where people can actually play creatures like Vampire Nighthawk or Wolfir Avenger without feeling silly? Well those 2/2s and 2/1s start to look a lot worse.
Maybe I'm wrong but I feel like the departure of so many cards that are good against midrange creatures may cause the format to shift in their direction. Look at Innistrad Block Constructed. By the end of the format the only deck was Jund which is about as midrange as they come. Granted that format was dominated by Wolfir Silverheart due to a lack of efficient removal but even Doom Blade is gone from M13. Are people really going to play Murder at three mana? The efficiency of removal that deals with the better midrange creatures is as bad as it's been in a long time. Sure we've seen Dreadbore from Return to Ravnica but that's far narrower than Doom Blade and certainly harder for most decks to cast than Dismember was.
Frankly I'm excited for the shift. Rotation time is always interesting but it's nice to see dominant paradigms shift dramatically which it looks like we might see with Standard here. I certainly hope so because I sure do like attacking with big creatures…
Until next time