Like many of you, I spent last weekend playing with Dragon's Maze for the first time at my local Prerelease. While gamers across the world may have had their first taste of the new set in Limited already, it won't be until this coming weekend that its impact on Constructed formats will be felt. We don't know what that impact will be yet any more than we know what is at the end of the Dragon's Maze (except that it apparently isn't actually a dragon).
To know what Standard is going to look like with the inclusion of Dragon's Maze, we need to consider what Standard looks like right now. While it looked like G/B/W Reanimator may have had a stranglehold on the format for a while, the final weeks leading up to the new set showed that it certainly wasn't a one deck format. True, the final SCG Standard Open in Seattle was won by G/B/W Reanimator, but in Milwaukee the week before, there wasn't a single copy of Angel of Serenity or Unburial Rites anywhere in the Top 8.
It's a pretty remarkable testament to the quality of WotC's development these days that Standard has had such diversity and been so balanced for so long. There hasn't been a truly dominant deck for any extended period of time since Return to Ravnica was released. The biggest difference between that format and the one we live in now? Mana Leak. Mana Leak gave blue decks an efficient, universal answer to virtually everything their opponents could play. Until Cavern of Souls, there was really no counter play against it besides playing all cheap creatures that you could cast before your opponent had two mana—oh, and by the way, they had to be resilient to Gut Shot too.
In Standard right now, you have to make the choice between powerful and efficient but narrow reactive cards like Tragic Slip and universally effective but weaker cards like Murder. Because of that, the format has the potential to shift from week to week. If Falkenrath Aristocrat becomes popular, the stock of a card like Tragic Slip goes up. Need to deal with more resilient creatures like Olivia Voldaren or Thundermaw Hellkite? Well, you may want to turn to Murder.
The same applies in the reverse. If people are playing a lot of Tragic Slips, you don't want to be playing Falkenrath Aristocrats. You want to be one step ahead. If people are playing Murder, you want to punish them for their inefficiency. Murder is a fine answer to Olivia, but it's really awkward when you're facing down two Burning-Tree Emissarys and a Flinthoof Boar on the second turn.
What does all of this have to do with Dragon's Maze? Well, a lot of people look at a new set and want to know what the "good cards" are. The answer is that it depends. Look at Falkenrath Aristocrat and Thundermaw Hellkite. When their respective sets came out, how good were they? Not very. Neither one of them saw any significant play until long afterward. The world they existed in was very unfriendly to expensive creatures, with both Mana Leak and Vapor Snag oppressing just about everything that cost a significant amount of mana. But now they're absolute all-stars, seeing play (sometimes together) in decks whose success relies heavily on the effectiveness of these two once-overlooked flying monsters.
Today, I want to look at what I think are some of the most powerful cards in Dragon's Maze for Standard—maybe not now, but in the future when the time is right. Additionally, I want to talk about some of the cards that might not be incredibly powerful in their own right but might have a big impact on Standard thanks to ending up in the right set of circumstances.
Advent of the Wurm is a powerful card. A four mana 5/5 is about par for the course these days, so it's not the body itself that's the major draw. The two major factors that make Advent of the Wurm a more exciting card than something like Deadbridge Goliath are the fact that it can be cast at instant speed and that it makes a token creature. Instant speed makes this card an absolutely devastating combat trick. It was already dangerous to attack into four open mana thanks to Restoration Angel, but Advent of the Wurm makes it even more of a losing proposition.
Creating a creature token is even more interesting. Anyone who has been reading my column for a while knows that I was a huge proponent of Trostani, Selesnya's Voice from the moment the card was spoiled. I tried a lot of decks featuring her early on, but I wasn't quite able to get them to work. Trostani was powerful, but there weren't enough high quality token makers to really take advantage of her populate ability. Armada Wurm was too expensive against both aggressive decks and against control, and opposing midrange decks were going over the top of you with Angel of Serenity once you got to that point.
With Advent, however, you can start making Wurms with Trostani much faster. Advent also makes it much easier to justify playing a card like Rootborn Defenses, even in your maindeck. Previously, you only had cards like Call of the Conclave and Selesnya Charm to populate with Defenses early on, but with Advent you can get much more value out of it. Additionally, the instant speed of Advent makes you much more able to hold open mana to protect from a potential Supreme Verdict and still threaten to develop your board presence.
The problem with Advent is that it matches up poorly against some of the most popular cards in Standard right now. Thragtusk trades with a Wurm token and comes out ahead, while Angel of Serenity makes everyone forget the Wurm even existed. In a world of aggro and control decks, I can see Advent being a potent card, but it's a midrange card that gets largely trumped by the other midrange cards.
For a starting point, I'd probably try something like this. Keep in mind that this is completely off the top of my head and untested—I'm just offering it as a basis from which to begin.
As you can see from the decklist above, I think Voice of Resurgence is a card that can certainly find a home in Standard. In my mind, it's very similar to Advent of the Wurm in how it's positioned. In a world full of aggressive decks with creatures it can block or control decks that are trying to counter your spells and kill everything you play, it's potentially very powerful. In a world full of giant monsters that can just ignore a 2/2 creature on the ground, however, it's not likely to make a big impact.
Voice of Resurgence is an extremely powerful card and may singlehandedly bring Pillar of Flame back as a premier removal spell in Standard. So much of the strength of control decks in Standard revolves around their ability to play at instant speed, and Voice is an incredibly effective way to punish them for doing exactly that. If your opponent leaves mana up for Azorius Charm, you can play your Voice pre-combat to ensure that your creature connects. And even if your opponent has the Supreme Verdict to wipe the board, Voice leaves you with an Elemental token that can allow you to rebuild.
If midrange decks like G/B/W Reanimator and Jund are on top, I don't expect Voice of Resurgence to be a major player, but if aggro and control decks make up most of the metagame, this antlered fellow is going to be a superstar.
Remember what I said about the importance of context for both threats and answers? Putrefy has changed the context of Standard significantly. Previously, you could only get unconditional removal at instant speed from Murder, which meant you had to have a heavy commitment to black mana. The introduction of Putrefy means that decks splashing black can now play a catchall kill spell that doubles as artifact removal as well.
What are the implications of this? Well, for starters, Lotleth Troll just got a lot worse. Putrefy's "can't be regenerated" clause makes feeding a Troll a much less attractive proposition than it once was. Previously, making a big Troll was a totally reasonable plan against the various flavors of Jund in Standard, but now that they're likely to be packing some number of Putrefys, it's a much riskier basket to put your eggs in. I was briefly excited about Putrefy as a removal option for my G/B Ooze deck, but then I realized it was probably a bigger upgrade for my opponents against me than it was for me against them. Between that and the prevalence of Tragic Slip thanks to Falkenrath Aristocrat, I don't think it's time to bust out the Predator Oozes again anytime soon.
Additionally, both Witchbane Orb and Staff of Nin are now much less attractive sideboard options. Both were used against Jund to counteract their hand destruction via Rakdos's Return, but with Putrefy floating around they're far more fragile and less reliable than they once were. I'd expect both to drop dramatically in popularity, if not vanish from sideboards altogether.
I talked a bit about this fellow when he was first spoiled. I have a feeling this guy might be quite good. He's a great tool against both aggressive and midrange strategies for a midrange deck. Against beatdown decks he's a totally reasonable blocker that you can trade with a cheap creature early on without losing value, and against midrange decks he's a way to help your smaller creatures attack into a wall of larger creatures and be able to break through. Ghor-Clan Rampager is one of my favorite cards in the G/R aggro deck I've been playing, and having access to more copies of a similar (if not quite as powerful) effect makes it very difficult for your opponent to ever block effectively.
Here's what I envision a G/R deck with Pyrewild Shaman looking like:
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 1 Borderland Ranger
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 4 Flinthoof Boar
- 4 Ghor-Clan Rampager
- 4 Gyre Sage
- 3 Pyrewild Shaman
- 4 Strangleroot Geist
- 4 Thundermaw Hellkite
Again, I sort of tipped my hand with my opinion of this one by including it in the decklist above. Ruric Thar is a very powerful creature. If you resolve it against many control decks, they are very likely to be dead. One of the things that I discovered about the G/R Aggro deck while I was playing it is that with so many individually powerful threats you can frequently go toe to toe with control in longer games. That's just not the case with most aggressive or even midrange decks, but when you have cards like Thundermaw Hellkite that can win the game on their own quite readily, you can fight your way through Sphinx's Revelation more often than you'd think.
Ruric Thar is one of the best ways to fight those kinds of games. Not only does it put your opponent on an incredibly fast clock once it hits play, but it keeps them from being able to use many of their most powerful cards without just dying. It also keeps your opponent from being able to effectively race you with something like Aurelia, the Warleader or Restoration Angels in the air because it has both reach and vigilance. It's like it was tailor made to beat the U/W/R Flash decks of the world, and if they're popular I have a feeling that Mr. Thar and I are going to be good friends.
When Ben Bleiweiss's financial review of this guy went up, I probably cost myself a lot of money by commenting that he was crazy for labeling this guy a bulk rare. What I should have done is buy up every copy SCG was selling for a dollar and THEN tell him he was crazy. Mind Twist is a very powerful effect, especially when it comes attached to a body that finishes your opponent off while they're empty handed.
Sire is at its best against the U/W/R Flash styles of control decks since they have very few options to remove him at instant speed. They could potentially have something like Harvest Pyre or maybe Turn/Burn, but unless you have something like a Hellraiser Goblin, they're never going to be able to hit him with Azorius Charm. Supreme Verdict or Detention Sphere also fall short. Esper has access to Devour Flesh at least, but if you have even a single creature along for the ride, they're probably in a lot of trouble as well.
Like Ruric Thar, Sire of Insanity seems best as a sideboard card. It's certainly not something you want to be playing against beatdown decks, and if you cast it against G/B/W Reanimator, you may very well just turn on their Unburial Rites for them. But as a sideboard card, especially in concert with Cavern of Souls, it's likely to be a major player in Standard moving forward.
Now here's a card that I feel like is going to have a hard time living up to the hype. Planeswalkers are always highly anticipated cards, and Ral is no exception. He seems to have the key features of a powerful planeswalker—immediate game impact and the ability to defend himself—but I feel that he's likely to fall short. His abilities just don't seem high impact enough for the current Standard environment. Dealing three damage for four mana is hardly going to put a dent in most offensive creature starts, and his +1 ability does nothing to keep himself alive. It has some cute synergy with Izzet Staticaster and can give you a bit of mana acceleration, but unless you're tapping down a blocker to get damage in yourself, the tap ability seems like it's mostly going to go to waste.
The best planeswalkers are those that legitimately pressure your opponent each turn they're in play and force them to deal with it or lose. Domri Rade threatens to overwhelm your opponent with card advantage, and if he's allowed free reign his ultimate means any creature can easily end the game. Liliana of the Veil rips your opponent's hand apart and threatens to wipe out half of their board. Even Jace, Architect of Thought helps defend himself with his +1 ability, and even if his ultimate isn't devastating, his -2 provides consistent value no matter what your opponent is playing.
Ral Zarek just doesn't stand up to these. Three damage is only exciting in matchups where you want to kill something with three toughness. His ultimate is only truly threatening in combination with a board presence, and his +1 ability seems like it's only good if you're actually forcing damage through with it. It's possible that Ral is an awesome way to top out the curve of some kind of aggressive Izzet deck or as a splash in red aggro, but I certainly don't think he's going to be the removal/ramp split card planeswalker that it seems people want him to be.
Some more cards I want to tough on a bit more briefly:
Don't laugh. It works.
Awesome removal spell, and I like how it's conditional in different ways than most of what we've seen. While a card like Victim of Night is conditional based on what your opponent is doing, Warped Physique's effectiveness shifts dramatically based on what you're doing and how the game has progressed. I expect this to be a major player and another strike against Falkenrath Aristocrat.
Certainly hard to deal with, but very expensive. It's hard for me to imagine this being the go-to finisher rather than Nephalia Drownyard for decks looking to go long since it means you need to tap a ton of mana during your main phase. Once Nephalia Drownyard goes away, however, I expect the stock of this to rise.
My pick for best of the split cards. Particularly effective if people are playing with cards like Advent of the Wurm and it can actually be a full on two-for-one.
In a different world, this card seems like an awesome way to cheat the cost of big things that normally can't be cheated in Standard, like Omniscience and Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker. If midrange decks are all the rage, this could be big since it can trump them all.
Lots of people seem excited about this guy, but Duress doesn't really see that much play. If you have Human synergies or Restoration Angel, maybe this guy is sweet, but the cost and flexibility of Duress seems like it's going to be better much of the time.
My archnemesis! Begone! Seriously, though, this is the kind of card that I could get behind if I turned to the dark side. It's an effective defensive measure against a ton of creatures in the format that can double as an evasive win condition. Definitely a potentially potent sideboard card.
Anyway, that's it for this week. What do you think the first Standard tournaments with Dragon's Maze will look like? Do you see a home for Ral Zarek? Let me know in the comments!
Until next time,
We are Selesnya.
Whatever we need to do can be done with creatures. Knight of the Reliquary; Qasali Pridemage; Thalia, Guardian of Thraben; and friends don't flinch in the face of any opposition. Together we will conquer.