The new Titans are coming.
With Conspiracy the hot game mode at the moment, it can be easy to miss how quickly M15 is sneaking up on us. While M15 preview season hasn't really started yet (gotta give Conspiracy and Vintage Masters a chance to breathe…), a preview video of Duals 2015 effectively spoils a couple dozen cards.
While the majority of the reveals are not super relevant for constructed Magic, there are a couple noteworthy bits of information. First, Convoke is the returning mechanic (like Scry, Bloodthirst, Exalted before it). This, in and of itself, isn't particularly wild, crazy, or useful. Mildly interesting, but more interesting will be when we see the specific designs using it. It is worth noting that Convoke lends itself to token-based strategies and other gameplans that involve generating lots of little dudes. We might be able to anticipate some cards that will increase in popularity as a result.
The actual major reveal from the video, however, is definitely the Souls of the Planes cycle. The community has a lot fighting for its attention right now with Conspiracy, Vintage Masters, a block Pro Tour, and a Modern PTQ season. The Souls of the Planes have a lot of power tied up in their flashback abilities, which most people tend to underestimate the value of initially (all the way from Firebolt up to Lingering Souls, people often can tell the cards will be good, but do not fully appreciate how incredible they are).
Basically, people just under appreciate opportunity cost. An Ornithopter is worse than it looks to new players because of the opportunity cost of a card that could have been something else. Likewise, flashback is better than it looks to new players because you are getting the card "for free," even if it costs a lot of mana.
The Souls of Planes are Avatars for each of five Planes talked about in M15:
Each of the Avatars is a six cost 6/6 mythic rare creature for 4CC. They each have a keyword from that color and an activated ability that gives you something for 3CC. If that was where it stopped, they would be bombs in limited, and possible role-players in constructed depending on the direction the format went (and the power level of the activated abilities). The reason the Avatars are going to revolutionize Standard is because there's one more little feature…
They each can be exiled from your graveyard if you pay 3CC to effectively "flashback" the activated ability.
In many ways, it is like these cards "draw" you an extra card. If your opponent Doom Blades your Avatar, at least you have something to show for it. This is why the Avatars really are Titans (that and they are 6/6s for 6 that create spell-like abilities each turn and are at a completely absurd rate). When someone Doom Bladed your Inferno Titan, you still got your Arc Lightning out of it. When someone Doom Blades one of your Avatars, you still get to use the ability once.
This leads to one of the great misunderstandings of the Avatars. It is natural for people to compare them to Titans and say, "Well, the Titans gave me an ability without having to pay extra mana for it. Isn't this just worse than the Titans?" This overlooks a variety of important points:
1. It depends on what the outputs are, doesn't it? A stronger output could be worth paying for.
2. You can use the output when it is good, rather than having to use it right now.
Thoughtseize's reign over the format might be over…
But we'll get back to that. First, let's look at the two Avatars that were spoiled thus far.
Soul of Zendikar:
While I am not the biggest fan of Reichweite, it is pretty effective against Stormbreath Dragon. More exciting is the ability to bringe einen 3/3 grunen Bestie-Kreaturenspielstein ins Spiel for each 3GG you pay…
Ok, in English:
Soul of Zendikar
Creature - Avatar (m)
3GG: Put a 3/3 green Beast token onto the battlefield.
3GG, exile Soul of Zendikar from your graveyard: Put a 3/3 green Beast token onto the battlefield.
How strong is Soul of Zendikar?
Well, Arbor Colossus is a 6/6 reach for 2GGG (which is stronger than paying 4GG for one) that also has 3GGG: +3/+3 and kill a flier (if you want, and one-shot). The ability to pay 3GG to get a 3/3 token isn't quite as dramatic as that of the Arbor Colossus, however, you can do it every turn. While getting a 3/3 every turn is sweet, we are talking about a situation where frontloading the power is generally better (since how many turns do you usually just have a 6/6 in play, gaining you advantage each turn, without just winning?), but Soul of Zendikar has a massive advantage over Arbor Colossus.
Good day, sir.
When your opponent Doom Blades your Soul of Zendikar, you have another threat waiting. It's not just that you can buy a 3GG 3/3 without paying a card (which is already hot). It's also an uncounterable instant, which makes it harder for you opponents to interact with it by way of cards like Mizzium Mortars, Dreadbore, and the like. It is a little stronger with and against Supreme Verdict. It is a great threat against opponents that have to cast and use their planeswalkers as though you had a 3/3, but then you can just spend the mana on something else if you want and threaten them again later.
That's not the end of it, however. Anyone that has faced Mono-Black Devotion with a green creature deck knows the pain of having your biggest threat Thoughtseized, while your other threats are killed by one black removal spell after another. Soul of Zendikar fights all that, being a potentially game-ending threat, a way to trade with Desecration Demon with value, and a way to fight back against the attrition-based game plan of black decks.
Of course, Lifebane Zombie is still legal for three more months.
Lifebane Zombie exiling the card means it beats the Soul of Zendikar in the exact way that it beats the rest of the black cards. While this certainly doesn't rule out Soul of Zendikar, it does mean that I will be a lot more excited for this one once M14 rotates out (and frankly, I have had more than my fill of Lifebane Zombie and am ready to move on).
The Avatar I am more excited about is Soul of Ravnica.
This card is the epitome of filth.
The card is so nuts, I am still not 100% sure I believe that it is as people say it is, which is:
Soul of Ravnica
Creature - Avatar (m)
3UU: Draw a card for each different color among permanents you control.
3UU, Exile Soul of Ravnica from your graveyard: Draw a card for each different color among permanents you control.
How can this be real?
Let me make sure I understand this correctly. This is a 6/6 flier for 4UU that if you untap with it, is a built-in Treasure Trove…
...Unless you have more than one color of permanent, in which case, you just go off?!?!
Yeah, yeah, I know Chromanticore...
Why ya'll want to turn me back to the old me?
So, this is a 6/6 flier for six that they have to kill ASAP or it just starts going nuts? This is to say nothing of the world where you actually have ten mana in play, or heaven forbid, a Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. That is already pretty hot, but if they do? Yeah, why not just get a big card draw spell for free?
Look, I know it's easy to imagine you're going to have all these different colors of permanents, but it isn't exactly Magical Christmas Land to imagine you'll draw a single Detention Sphere. Even in that world, two extra cards drawn at your leisure by the card they Thoughtseized it out of your hand? That's so good. That isn't a five-mana Inspiration, it's a five mana Jace's Ingenuity (since Inspiration is only +1 cards, while Jace's Ingenuity, like this ability, is +2 cards over what it costs you).
We haven't even touched on how easy it is to arrange to have a Sylvan Caryatid bring a third color to the table!
Want to know what card is going to gain a boatload of value after M15 drops?
That card is so underrated anyway. It completely dominated block, but people are still sleeping on it in Standard. Look, I get that the average casting cost of Standard creatures is lower, but you only need to strive this thing once to see it over-perform over whatever you were expecting of it. Regardless, once the Avatars come to play, Silence the Believers is going to gain a lot of utility as a way to kill them outright without getting hit by the flashback ability.
Anyway, Soul of Ravnica is very much a Titan in terms of needing to be dealt with, or you lose; and even if you deal with it, it is producing a big advantage. This card will change the way we build blue decks (as it is a very different direction than Aetherling and Sphinx's Revelation, even if it can work alongside them). It will change the way we build non-blue decks.
Seriously, this whole Avatar cycle gives me so much hope for the Standard landscape. Thoughtseize is a really tough card to trump, but the Avatar cycle does exactly that. It isn't just Thoughtseize, though. It is the whole one-for-one attrition style of play, along with Hero's Downfall, Doom Blade, Devour Flesh, and the like.
Obviously, this doesn't mean Thoughtseize will become unplayable. Far from it. Thoughtseize is one of the 100 strongest Magic cards ever printed. It does mean that the balance of power is going to shift dramatically.
Soul of Ravnica has special meaning during these next three months. Why? For three months, Soul of Ravnica will be legal at the same time as Return to Ravnica block. Why is this so important?
Hybrid cards let us cheat the system. Soul of Ravnica is obviously not the type of card you would just slide into a Blue Devotion deck without thinking, however, it is pretty incredible that you could find yourself drawing four extra cards off of your Soul of Ravnica, even though you're mono-blue. Hell, with a Judge's Familiar on one, a Frostburn Weird on two, and a Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx into Nightveil Specter on three, then we already have enough mana to cast Soul of Ravnica and get the party started!
What does this have to do with Boros Reckoner and the other non-blue hybrids listed above? They also let you "cheat" the system, since you could play a two-color deck and still easily end up with four or five colors worth of permanents. Those particular creatures are not super optimal for a mana ramp strategy, but it is hard to say what Soul of Ravnica decks will look like, so we'd do best to keep an open mind.
Just to be clear, while these hybrid shenanigans are firmly into "mondo-combo" space (outside of, perhaps, blue devotion), I don't expect the normal use case to be anything strange. There is incentive to play permanents to be sure, but Soul of Ravnica is absolutely fantastic in a three-color deck. Drawing four cards each shot is better, but there are serious diminishing returns, because you are quickly getting into "win-more" territory.
Here's a first attempt:
Bant Tap-Out by Patrick Chapin
2 Soul of Ravnica
Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix are exactly the types of cards that work perfectly with Soul of Ravnica. They add a third color (beyond Detention Sphere), while helping fuel the expensive demands of this approach.
Prognostic Sphinx instead of Aetherling is not that surprising, given our surplus of creatures to win with (so we aren't counting on it as much as people often count on Aetherling), and our overabundance of six-drops (so we need to bring the curve down). Besides, discarding a Soul of Ravnica to Prognostic Sphinx is super sweet!
Syncopate maindeck is mostly a concession to needing some two-mana plays, but does gain value from the possibility of Syncopating people's Avatars.
Just sketching out this list highlights one of the fundamental challenges to this exploration, at least for the next three months. There is an embarrassment of riches at the top of the blue/x curve.
And that's just barely scratching the surface. No matter how you build it, a Soul of Ravnica deck is going to have to pass on a really strong card to make room for it. Which is fine, of course, but it is important to note that the opportunity cost is higher than it might appear on the surface.
One possible way to escape the pressure to trim Sphinx's Revelations is to try Soul of Ravnica in a non-Azorius deck. Let's pick a non-Azorius color combination completely at random and see where it takes us:
Grixis Tap-Out by Patrick Chapin
1 Keranos, God of the Storm
3 Soul of Ravnica
When first starting to sketch out this brew, a couple things became evident pretty fast.
First, you can't just play whatever cards you want with Soul of Ravnica. I started by writing four Soul of Ravnica and then listing the Grixis cards I wanted to play. Let's just say, there weren't exactly a lot of colored permanents looking like they were going to be sitting in play. Soul of Ravnica is totally awesome, but getting to draw one card is so much less than two. Besides, if you're flashing it back, you still need to find that first color from somewhere.
As a note, Soul of Ravnica can go wrong. If you're opponent flashes back their Soul of Ravnica, you can Doom Blade their Frostburn Weird in response so that they don't draw those two cards, if that was their only permanent. Beware the counterplay!
This Grixis deck doesn't exactly scream out to me that it's time, but there are some cute interactions going on here. For instance, Izzet Charm is a real delight with Soul of Ravnica. Short on land, long on fatties? Izzet Charm helps you draw into more land. Discard a Soul of Ravnica and you might have just built a draw-three for turn five!
I considered Underworld Connections, which might just be right, but we already have a lot of card draw options and not exactly a lot of life gain. Of course, Underworld Connections is the exact type of permanent that manages to survive in play, turn after turn, making it ideal for Soul of Ravnica.
One spell that is very well-suited for being paired with Soul of Ravnica is Thoughtseize itself, amusingly enough. By the time the game gets to a spot where you might be looking to cast Soul of Ravnica, you can Thoughtseize your opponent and take the one answer they add. As good as flashing back Soul of Ravnica is, getting to keep it is far better.
While most fatties in a control deck are at serious risk of getting Thoughtseized, such as Aetherling, Soul of Ravnica is the exact type of threat that is generally going to be allowed to stay in your hand, due to the flashback ability. This means there will actually be more games than you would otherwise expect, in which you can sculpt the sorts of games described above in controlish semi-mirrors.
What about Soul of Ravnica in BUG?
BUG Tap-Out by Patrick Chapin
2 Soul of Ravnica
2 Pack Rat
Now we're getting somewhere!
Unlike the Grixis list, this BUG deck is composed entirely of cards we want to be playing in our control decks. Unlike the Bant deck, it actually has a good curve.
Underworld Connections + Courser of Kruphix is pretty out of control, and now that we have Temple of Malady to make the mana work, we are going to be seeing more and more Standard decks taking advantage of this synergy. The lifegain from Courser is exactly what you want when you have Connections, plus the ability to draw a card when you feel like it means you have far better control over the top of your library. If your top card is a land, play it. If it's not, draw an extra card and now you have another shot at a land. While Courser usually draws around 42% of a card a turn (if you have 25 land), Connections ups this to over 66%!
Scavenging Ooze is a nice additional way to offset the Connections' life loss, but has added utility in a world of Avatars. Thoughtseize the Avatar and the Ooze will ensure you come out ahead. Just remember not to eat your own Avatar, unless you are really sure it's what you want to be doing.
Kiora, the Crashing Wave has been on a lot of people's minds due to the block Pro Tour, but she is still behind Jace, Architect of Thought, on raw power. Let's just say she's more of a support than a carry.
Vraska, on the other hand, is exactly where I want to be. I wouldn't mind a second Vraska maindeck, and honestly, going up to three after board is pretty attractive. I am experimenting with one Reaper of the Wild instead of the third Vraska, but that's far from a done deal. Reaper is kind of sweet at providing the extra colors for Soul of Ravnica, but it's also just a nice reliable kill card that offers us a more affordable package than boarding an Aetherling.
I've always been a big fan of sideboarding a diverse mix of proactive threats in control decks, and this one is no exception. Pack Rat is cheap, efficient, and adds an excellent dimension to the deck that is very different from its A-game, while synergizing with it perfectly. It's very possible that Pack Rat should just be maindeck (which would make me want four Pack Rats and four Mutavaults). It actually has tremendous synergy with Soul of Ravnica. Outside of providing a cheap source of another color, you can discard the Soul of Ravnica to the Pack Rat and then get added value later. Even better, that added value later can mean several more Pack Rats, rather than the normal one a turn, if our mana is long.
There are a lot of possible directions to go with BUG, but I have a feeling this is going to be one of the most important styles of control deck, not only in the next three months, but over the course of the next year. Block formats are always an important tool for looking at the format to come, and once Sphinx's Revelation, Supreme Verdict, and Detention Sphere rotate, we will be giving up even less for not playing white in our control decks.
There will probably be a good white sweeper to come, but I kind of wonder if WotC might wait until the second set of the next block. You know, let Supreme Verdict rotate out, then give the world three months of no good four-cost sweeper, then shake things up by bring one back into the format.
Who knows, though? Obviously, the most likely scenario is that Day of Judgment or some such is in M15. Even if it's not, however, it doesn't really matter until this fall, when we find out if there is a good sweeper in Wedges of Tarkir.
Ok, ok, ok, I hear you. Chromanticore, Chromanticore, Chromanticore. Is that all you people ever think about? Fine, here is a Chromanticore + Soul of Ravnica deck, only to keep it interesting, instead of using ramp and removal, we'll make it another Constellation deck:
5 Color Chromanticore by Patrick Chapin
3 Soul of Ravnica
It's tough, because on the one hand, we are already so long on card draw, but Courser of Kruphix and Nyx-Fleece Ram are both so good with Underworld Connections, it makes me want to find the room. Besides, Underworld Connections + Eidolon of Blossoms lets you draw an extra card!
I'll tell you what, though. Kruphix's Insight discarding a Soul of Ravnica is no joke. Makes me want to build some kind of a more dedicated self-mill strategy, but BUG instead of B/G or Junk. Self-Mill is a strategy that always has plenty of random permanents in play just chilling, and the prospect of Sylvan Wayfinder flipping over Soul of Ravnica really shivers my timbers...
There are three more Avatars coming. Keep a close eye on these guys. You can't just print a cycle of Titans without serious consequences. The shells discussed today are surely pretty far from where we'll end up. It's just that Titans change the world so much, it is very difficult to predict what decks will even look like a couple months from now. Remember how much the original Titans changed deckbuilding? For instance, I have been really conservative with how many copies of Soul of Ravnica are in each of these lists. When the Titans were originally revealed, people often assumed you might use two or three, when real life quickly took us to a place where four to eight was more common.
I'd love to see the format turned on its head, but there is definitely a part of me that hopes these Titans are a little more modest than the originals. If Soul of Ravnica is any indication of what's to come, we really can't be sure. Our prayers for change are being answered, I'm just not sure what we've unleashed on ourselves. I have a feeling the world is going to have much stronger opinions on these guys in a couple months...