Spoiler season is under way, and Born of the Gods is looming on the horizon. My Facebook news feed is flooded with the usual statements of "this card is busted" and "unplayable," but I always flock to the same opinion. I find it mostly foolish to start evaluating mid-level cards without the entire set spoiled.
Magic is a game of context, meaning that things are generally good or bad in regard to other things. While Wizards of the Coast has certainly printed its fair share of duds and mistakes, many cards are not so linear. Without a more clear definition of what a card pool will look like, it can often be fallacious to try to determine just how good or bad a card will be.
The most common form of evaluation I see is when people compare new cards to old ones. While that is perfect in a vacuum, context once again reveals its importance. Without complete information, it's difficult to determine how something new or something removed will affect the overall power of the card.
Let's take Pain Seer for example. When I first read the card, my mind immediately jumped to its similarities with Dark Confidant. On social media I saw people berating Wizards for reprinting the Modern powerhouse. Unfortunately Pain Seer has one big difference—it only gives you the ability if he untaps.
That seems similar to Dark Confidant in that you'll generally get the card at the beginning of your turn, but without a way to immediately tap him (like Springleaf Drum), you won't be getting a card until two turns after you play him. Generally if you are unable to attack with Pain Seer or you lack a reliable way to tap it, it won't be a consistent source of cards like Dark Confidant is.
This fact alone would make Pain Seer seem worse, but consider that in some scenarios that ability can be a benefit rather than a drawback. I've certainly died to a Dark Confidant before because I couldn't stop its ability after my life total dwindled to a low number. With Pain Seer, you can control the flow a bit more without having to use a removal spell to kill your own creature or hope you get a chance to block.
Pain Seer is almost certainly worse in a vacuum or even in a format like Modern where you have more options so you can better control the average casting cost of a spell in your deck without losing too much power. In Standard, though, Pain Seer may have its place, especially in a black-based aggressive deck. Once we see the rest of the cards in the set, we will know if that archetype has the support to be a potential competitor and evaluate from there.
Keeping that in mind, I think there are a couple things to remember when first approaching a new format. I'd like to discuss some general rules that I focus on when trying to prepare for a new format. The overarching theme is to keep an open mind when treading into unexplored territory.
1. Do Something Powerful
This one is more applicable for post-rotation formats, but I think it still applies here. Essentially when everyone is still unsure of what they are doing, the best thing to do is just be as powerful and as consistent as possible.
Oftentimes in a new format you'll see a deck like Mono-Red Aggro win the first large tournament. People are still trying to test the waters on how many colors they can play, how extravagant their deck can be, and what cards are good.
Mono-Red Aggro is a deck that usually knows what it wants, doesn't have consistency issues, and hits people hard. So while the Four-Color Control player is missing two of their colors, you can bash their face in with a tried-and-true Rakdos Cackler.
In essence I'm saying that you don't want to be greedy just so that you can get mileage out of the new cards. The most powerful thing you can do the first week is to make all of your land drops and ensure that all your cards do something. This transitions really well into my next rule.
2. Go With What You Know
Inverse to the previous tip, this one only really applies for the release of the second or third set in a block. If you don't know what you want to do with all the new cards, try just taking a currently successful deck from before the set release and finding a home for some new cards that might fill holes in the deck or act as upgrades.
If Mono-Black Devotion is your deck of choice right now, there is a wealth of benefits to just taking that deck and seeing if any of the new cards fit in. Maybe Bile Blight is an upgrade to the current removal spell or Drown in Sorrow is just the sideboard card you're looking for. You don't have to come up with something from scratch or reinvent the wheel, just tweak it.
Not only will this expedite the process of picking a deck, but it also allows you to play something that you have experience with if you played the deck previously. You no longer have to spend another 80 hours in testing just to learn the fundamentals of the deck. Even if it's something you haven't played before, you start out with a general idea of what cards the deck wants.
I've never played Mono-Blue Devotion before, but a bunch of other people put in the work to tune the list for me. Now when I go to add cards from Born of the Gods, I'm not starting from scratch. I have a good baseline to jump off of. I'm not saying that you always have to just update an existing archetype, but if you're struggling, it's certainly a viable option.
3. Look For Synergies
With a new set comes new interactions, whether it's between cards in that set or between a new card and an old card. Some are obvious, like Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin, while others might be a bit more concealed. Having powerful synergies can be the best way to work within the realms of rule #1 and still do some cool things.
Synergy does not always have to mean game-winning combos either. Sometimes two cards can just interact profitably, like Pain Seer and Springleaf Drum as I mentioned earlier. Interactions like that are a great way to pull ahead in games of Magic, especially if your opponent isn't entirely away of what you are doing, which is common in the first few weeks of a format.
With the release of Avacyn Restored, I found that it took a while before people consistently starting considering and playing around Restoration Angel. Little things like this can be easily exploited and can give you a significant advantage throughout the course of a tournament.
4. Find A Plan & Commit
This is my last rule of thumb, and it is similar to the second rule in that it will help you avoid inconsistencies. The goal here is to not let your deck get too out of hand. Whether you're starting from scratch or updating an old favorite, it's important to keep the common goal in mind.
Figure out what the deck wants to do and only add cards that further your efforts to reach that goal. I'll be one of the first to admit that Xenagos, God of Revels looks pretty awesome, but that doesn't mean it fits right into your R/G aggressive deck. If you're typically trying to kill them by turn 5, he might not be the card you're looking for.
When the card pool is flooded with a bunch of awesome new cards, it can be easy to get out of hand and start adding whatever looks cool. Be reasonable and logical about every card you add. That's not to say that you can't go deep sometimes. Maybe Runeclaw Bear is just what your deck wants, but make sure that's the case before you add it.
Don't be convinced to add or not add something based solely on its power level in a vacuum. Again, context is important when approaching every card. This is also a great opportunity to take advantage of spoilers before the complete set is spoiled. If you find a card that you think has potential to be built around, try it out and add new cards as they are spoiled.
The deck will almost certainly change significantly once the set is completely out in the open, but you can still get your ideas flowing early. Generally when you're building around something specific, the core of the deck is not reliant on what other people are playing. So let your brewer flag fly and get to work.
While this information is vaguer than I usually like to give, I think that these are all important things to think about. I myself am guilty of getting carried away when new cards are spoiled, but it generally leads to poor results. If you're in it to win it, discipline is key.
So far I think Born of the Gods is shaping up to be a pretty interesting set. The power level of the uncommons seems to be going up as a whole, and it looks like this set has some pretty awesome art. I particularly love the art and flavor text of Drown in Sorrow.
Next weekend I should be in Baltimore for the StarCityGames.Com Open Series, so feel free to drop by, say hi, and maybe even playtest some Modern. I haven't had the time or funding to attend a tournament in a while, as evidenced by the fact that I have zero Planeswalker Points so far this season, so I'm excited to get back on the grind!