After the release of Khans of Tarkir, Standard has been perhaps the healthiest format Magic has ever seen. Week in and week out, we saw new decks popping up and performing well. While a few clans outperformed the others in terms of how often they showed up in the winner's circle, each of them had its time to shine. This is especially impressive given how much scrutiny the format gets these days with Standard Opens every weekend and more Grand Prix than ever before. The Magic R&D team has done an incredible job creating an environment that's still fun and diverse many months in.
That's why it's with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I'm looking forward to this weekend's Fate Reforged Prerelease. While I always love the release of new cards, Standard is in such a great spot right now that I'm a little worried about the potential for the new set to upset the balance. That said, change is the lifeblood of collectible games, and even the best format can't stay fresh forever. I just hope WotC did as good a job with Fate Reforged as they did with Khans!
Today, I want to talk about a few of the cards from the new set that caught my eye, and discuss where they might fit in Standard. So let's get started, shall we?
When I first saw Yasova Dragonclaw, I thought she was awesome. I really wanted Temur to get a sweet legendary creature, and Yasova looked like she fit the bill. Surrak kind of fell flat as a leader of the Temur because he just didn't offer enough for how much he costs. Yasova, on the other hand, fits right into an aggressive shell, which is exactly how Temur wants to be built. As a 4/2 for three, she's not impressive based on her stats alone - no one was rushing to put Alpine Grizzly into decks. That said, Boon Satyr sees play with the same numbers, and in my experience, gets played more as a creature than as an enchantment. In both cases though, what is really exciting is what comes along with the body - or so I thought.
I had dreams of playing Yasova and using her ability to Threaten opposing Siege Rhinos to just run my opponents over - and then all of my dreams came crashing down when I re-read her ability. I had first thought the conditional to steal your opponent's creature for the turn was "less than or equal to" her power, but it turns out she can only take creatures smaller than her. While that may make more thematic sense, it makes the card far less exciting. It's the difference between being able to break through Siege Rhinos and just sit and stare at them - an important distinction in this world, especially for a 4/2 across the table from a 4/5.
It's possible that Yasova still has a place in Temur or G/R aggro decks, since her effect can definitely swing a game by pushing your creatures past a Courser of Kruphix, Fleecemane Lion, or Wingmate Roc (and gaining life to boot, in the latter case). She still enables ferocious for your Crater's Claws, Heir of the Wilds, and Stubborn Denials for just three mana. But she isn't the leader that we need to drive back the Rhinos from our lands, and that's a shame.
But hey - we have Phoenixes and Dragons for that.
Now this is an exciting card - even when I read it all the way through! Flamewake Phoenix doesn't hit as hard as its Ashcloud brother or Stormbreath Dragon, but it sure is hard for your opponents to get rid of. In a world full of big ground creatures and removal spells, fliers that are hard to kill are a great way to win games.
That said, I'm not sure this card is particularly well-suited to either the Temur or G/R shells that exist right now. With its double red casting cost, it isn't the easiest spell to play on curve, and it can't be accelerated out on turn 2 with Elvish Mystic without the help of Mana Confluence. It could potentially replace something like Fanatic of Xenagos or Goblin Rabblemaster, but Fanatic is important for enabling ferocious early in the game, and while Rabblemaster may not be the most consistent card, it certainly can lead to some free wins when you play it early and your opponent can't answer it right away.
Flamewake Phoenix seems like it may fit best in some kind of aggressive Mardu deck. It's pretty much Butcher of the Horde's best friend, since it provides the big demon with reusable fodder for its sacrifice ability. You can even sacrifice Phoenix to the Butcher pre-combat for one ability, then return Phoenix at the start of combat with its trigger, and then sacrifice it again to the same Butcher to give it two abilities - such as lifelink and haste - in the same turn.
This is a very interesting card. Rapid Hybridization was the go-to removal spell for Mono-Blue Devotion last season, and this is a very similar kind of effect. Rapid Hybridization did cost just a single mana, while Reality Shift costs two, which is a very big deal. Reality Shift exiles the creature rather than destroying it, which means that its target can't be regenerated or returned later with Whip of Erebos. It can also get rid of indestructible creatures, which would be more relevant if the most popular creature that's occasionally Indestructible - Fleecemane Lion - didn't also gain hexproof at the same time. It's also important to note that a manifested card has a chance of being a creature, in which case you may even upgrade your target in the long run, which can turn out to be more than a little awkward.
All that said, this can potentially be a very powerful tempo play. As many of you may recall, I spent much of the last season looking for tools to fight against Siege Rhino out of Temur, and this is a card that can potentially do just that. It's certainly not an effect that any controlling or midrange attrition deck is particularly interested in, but it can give non-black decks an efficient way to get big opposing creatures off the table for just two mana. While I don't expect it to become a format staple by any means, I would not be at all surprised to see Reality Shift showing up in small numbers, particularly as a sideboard card.
This is a card that has been the cause of a lot of excitement, but I'm not really feeling it yet. People are calling this the new Figure of Destiny thanks to its pseudo-leveling progression, but I don't think it's likely to be nearly the powerhouse that Figure proved to be.
For starters, Figure cost only one mana to "level up" the first time, which meant that you could curve smoothly from a first turn Figure into powering up and playing another one drop on your second turn. Figure also used the same mana to cast as to level up, which means that you were more likely to be able to play it in a deck whose lands generally enter the battlefield untapped - not the case for Warden of the First Tree. Even most two-color decks in Standard right now play at least four lands that enter the battlefield tapped, and most three-color decks have quite a few more than that. How likely are you to be able to play Warden on the first turn and smoothly activate his ability on curve?
Next, Figure continued to grow at every "level up" interval - for three mana, it became a 4/4, while Warden remains 3/3 and only gains trample and lifelink when you sink four more mana into it. That means that by the time you level Warden up twice, you've spent seven mana and you only have a 3/3 to show for it - and this in a world where Bile Blight, Murderous Cut, Abzan Charm, Hero's Downfall, and Lightning Strike are all popular cards.
Sure, it's exciting that you can activate its six-mana ability multiple times to keep piling counters and on and making your creature absolutely enormous, but how likely is it that any competitive game actually gets to that point?
Now this is a sweet card. While a 4/2 body for four mana isn't exciting anyone, Shaman of the Great Hunt has a pile of abilities that add up to one exciting package, even if they feel like they're somewhat at odds with one another. The +1/+1 counter ability for each creature you control that damages an opponent feels like it ought to go in some kind of token swarm deck, while the activated ability clearly wants to be played with larger creatures. It's worth noting that because Shaman is a four-power creature himself, at minimum you draw one card with every activation of his ability, assuming he isn't killed in response. That can offer some serious lategame power to an aggressive deck that might otherwise run out of steam.
Shaman feels like it could fit right into the existing G/R shell that I played at GP Denver a few weeks ago. While he can't attack through Siege Rhino right off the bat, if you manage to sneak him past your opponent's defenses just once, the Shaman becomes a 5/3 that can potentially trade the next time you send him in. The Shaman's activated ability also makes stalemate situations suddenly favor you instead of the Abzan deck, so your opponent can't just sit back and wait to draw more Rhinos.
There's a part of me that is really excited to pair Shaman of the Great Hunt with Goblin Rabblemaster, since every time a token connects with your opponent's face, it gets bigger, which seems like it can get out of hand pretty quickly. Then again, things always get out of hand quickly when Rabblemaster and friends are attacking unopposed, so they probably don't need much help from the Shaman. The synergy with Heir of the Wilds is probably more significant, since that's a creature that your opponent really doesn't want to block, and yet every time it connects it becomes more and more of a threat.
I'm not sure what the best cards are to pair with Shaman of the Great Hunt just yet, but you can rest assured I'll be looking to find out.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of this card. A 4/4 for five mana certainly isn't very exciting, but Whisperwood Elemental has a pair of abilities that seem hard to ignore. The first one - manifesting the top card of your deck at the beginning of each of your end steps - promises to bury your opponent under endless value if it stays in play very long, especially in a creature-heavy deck where you can reasonably expect to hit creatures a lot of the time. The second ability feels like one that would have been very powerful in an older format where mass removal featured heavily - but perhaps that is exactly the format we're entering with the impending legality of Crux of Fate.
On the surface, it seems like getting a free manifest during your end step is better than the same effect as an enters-the-battlefield trigger, because you can potentially get more than one use out of the effect. Unfortunately, it also means that if your Whisperwood Elemental dies before your end step the turn you play it, you won't get to manifest any cards at all. This is particularly relevant since this feels like the sort of card you'd want to play in a deck that's looking to play longer games, so it's more likely that your opponent might have open mana and cards in hand when you do get a chance to play it.
Regardless, Whisperwood Elemental feels like it's a bit too slow to be a major player in the current Standard, but certainly seems like it has potential. I'm not jumping to put it into a deck, but I'm certainly keeping my eye on it.
Any permanent that can produce more than one mana is one that should not be overlooked. For most decks, Whisperer of the Wilds is going to be a worse Sylvan Caryatid, since it only produces a single color of mana and lacks hexproof, so it's vulnerable to removal. But for decks that can easily activate its ferocious ability and can find use for the extra mana it generates, this is a card that could be extremely powerful.
The existing Standard deck that would make the best use of Whisperer of the Wilds is likely some build of Green Devotion. Both Polukranos and Arbor Colossus can turn on ferocious, and then the extra mana can power out early Hornet Queens and huge Genesis Hydras. Given that the deck plays Nykthos, it probably still wants to keep Voyaging Satyr, so the card that makes the most sense to replace is Sylvan Caryatid - although Caryatid also helps play the black splash that many Green Devotion decks use for cards like Doomwake Giant.
I could also possibly see Whisperer making its way into some kind of G/R Monsters deck that wants extra mana accelerants. While it certainly doesn't belong in the aggressive version that I've been playing recently, there are versions that include much more high-end cards that could definitely use the extra mana. Even without going all the way up to Hornet Queen or Genesis Hydra, you can always find ways to sink mana intoo a deck with Polukranos, Stormbreath Dragon, and Crater's Claws.
Remember Hellrider? I remember Hellrider. Hellrider was a good friend of mine. Brutal Hordechief is kind of like a Hellrider that trades haste for a lifegain trigger on top of the damage. That alone certainly isn't enough to excite me, since a deck that wants Hellrider cares much more about killing opponents than it does about gaining life. They'd much rather close out a game quickly than drag it out later. But Brutal Hordechief throws in the ability to choose your opponent's blocks for the turn for five mana, which is a hell of a way to win a long game.
Brutal Hordechief is the Mardu counterpart to Shaman of the Great Hunt, and feels like it serves a similar role in a token deck as Shaman does in a ferocious deck. Both play great with Goblin Rabblemaster, though Brutal Hordechief does one better by getting extra value out of every token whether it connects with your opponent or not.
While most token decks in Standard right now are Jeskai, I think Brutal Hordechief may go a long way toward changing that. Just imagine following up Raise the Alarm into Hordeling Outburst with Hoardchief - that's a ton of extra damage, and a nice life cushion for a race. Oh, and the next turn, you can activate Brutal Hordechief's ability, force all of your opponent's creatures to block one of your tokens, and quite possibly kill them.
Let's look at the math:
Turn 2: Play Raise the Alarm
Turn 3: Attack with two tokens, play Hordeling Outburst (Opponent - 18 life)
Turn 4: Play Brutal Hordechief, attack with five Tokens - five triggers, five damage (Opponent 8 life)
Turn 5: Activate Hordechief, force opponents creatures to all block a token, six triggers and seven damage (Opponent - Super duper dead)
Granted, that assumes your opponent doesn't put anything in the way of your creatures for the first few turns, and that your Hordechief lives - but those aren't totally outlandish assumptions , and besides - this way overkills them anyway. A Sylvan Caryatid blocking isn't going to change the math up much.
One important thing to keep in mind about Brutal Hordechief's activated ability is that it is not a "lure" effect, and it isn't contingent on Hordechief being in play. Your opponent can't respond to it and blow you out. Once you pay for it, you get to choose their blocks, and there's no way out of that for them. Sure, they may be able to use removal to keep themselves alive, but they can't kill one crucial creature and then block as they please like with some effects like this. Hordechief creates a modifier that forces all of their creatures to block and allows you to choose how - whether it's alive at the time of combat or not.
Delve coming back in Khans was pretty cool, but I hated how it was implemented from a development perspective. There is not one but two great blue card drawing effects with delve, which just seems like an outright mistake. Not only are both of them super strong, but the existence of the common Treasure Cruise takes a lot of excitement away from the rare Dig Through Time. The fact that the next best delve spell is Murderous Cut and there weren't any good delve creatures also seems kind of insane. Spell-heavy decks facilitate delve naturally, while creatures don't, and yet all of the delve cards that were pushed in Khans were just card drawing and removal.
Thankfully, Tasigur looks like he might mix things up a bit. With a base cost of six mana, he's actually within range of casting reasonably early, and his ability is both powerful and doesn't compete with his own casting cost - a fatal flaw of Necropolis Fiend. Tasigur offers both a big, fast body for decks that can fill their graveyard, as well as a source of card advantage and additional delve fuel as the game goes on. He's pretty much the total package for any deck with the right enablers. A single Satyr Wayfinder makes him playable on the third turn. If you have a single fetchland in the mix, you can leave a juicy spell in your graveyard and start using Tasigur's activated ability as early as the fourth turn to start digging for spells and generating card advantage.
Tasigur is perhaps even more powerful late in the game, since you can potentially play and use him immediately, or even multiple times in a single turn. He creates an interesting dynamic in long games in which you suddenly want to pay very close attention to which cards you choose to remove from your graveyard in order to pay delve costs. It's even possible that over the course of the game that the cards you want to start removing will change based on how things have progressed. It's always interesting to see cards that add these tiny extra layers of decision making that players can use to their advantage to get an edge.
I expect Tasigur to show up right away in Standard graveyard decks, and would not be surprised to see him even find his way into Modern. A cheap creature that can't be killed by either Lightning Bolt or Abrupt Decay is pretty appealing just on its own, but even moreso if it can offer card advantage and utility in the meantime.
There are certainly other good cards in Fate Reforged, but those are the ones that caught my eye and have me the most excited. I'm looking forward to the chance to get my hands on them for the first time this weekend at the Prerelease!
What do you think? What cards in Fate Reforged are at the top of your list for building new decks?