Something feels very wrong here. The leaves are starting to sprout, cherry blossoms are everywhere (you should have seen them in Washington, D.C. this past weekend) and…we're getting ready for rotation? What? Shouldn't we all be complaining about the impending cold and shortening days while holding our collective breath in anticipation of the announcement that pumpkin spice lattes are back? The new Standard paradigm is finally upon us and with the release of Shadows over Innistrad comes the rotation of both Khans of Tarkir and Fate Reforged out of Standard.
Every set brings with it inspiration in the form of cards around which I want to brew or even just play in a normal deck. We all have pet cards, and I'd venture we also have cards that we overvalued when they came out, expecting them to see play in competitive decks instead of seeing the inside of a binder. Before I am seized with Preview Season Madness (that is totally a legit condition), I wanted to say goodbye to some of those cards that I always wanted to play. I am but one man, and as such I can only brew and play so many decks before another set comes out. The list is a lot longer than I expected it to be when I started writing this, but that just means you get more of my wonderful puns and obscure references. To the list!
The first of two Ascendancies on the list is the one that has the most combo potential. It has seen some play in Modern and in the sideboard of Standard Rally decks, but I always wanted to do more with it. Could we abuse the enters-the-battlefield trigger? Could we somehow make all the Spirits? Before rotation, I really want to try this in a Starfield of Nyx shell, mainly because putting counters on a bunch of enchantments seems like a load of fun. My interest in the card keeps going up, and even after rotation it could see Modern play, so I might be cheating somewhat here.
Who hasn't dreamed of casting this on a creature with deathtouch, lifelink, or (gasp) both? The real dream has to be casting it on Soulfire Grand Master after activating the pseudo-buyback ability. Also acceptable is casting it in response to a Dromoka's Command. I have seen this card end games (along with Deflecting Palm, which you will see later), and I'm sad I was never the one holding it above the table while watching my opponent's face.
I might have played the Butcher in one deck. Given the power level of the card, that's pretty ludicrous. Equally ludicrous is the fact that a beefy 5/4 flier for four with an activated ability that doubles as a free sacrifice outlet did not slaughter the format. That's a testament to the power of Siege Rhino and Mantis Rider for the latter point, and the many cool ideas begging to be built for the former.
I loved this card at first sight, and I still do. It's been in several of my sideboards, but I only managed to draw and cast it once or twice. On those few occasions, though, it really left a good impression. When control decks were all jamming Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and ticking him down, casting this and killing their Ugin would seem to be a great option. Somehow it never caught on.
Five-mana dragons have traditionally seen play. This one is hard to kill, buffs your team, and kills very quickly. I really wanted this to become a permanent fixture in maybe a Bant or Four-Color Dragons deck, as multiple instances of bolster just seemed really strong. Dragons of Tarkir brought along a more powerful version of Dromoka, which guaranteed this one never saw any play, but before that? We even could have played her at the top of the Hardened Scales curve!
This card worried me when it was previewed. Four mana for a potential wagonload of Zombies is far from the pits, and with the instant-speed possibility, I saw this as a potentially back-breaking finisher for a black-based control deck. That deck never really materialized, and the prevalence of Dig Through Time, Murderous Cut, and Treasure Cruise kept graveyards relatively small. Perhaps there is a black Nykthos deck in Modern that can make this work.
Ignore that unwieldy equip cost; in the right deck, you're never going to pay it. I got as far as building a deck with this card that played Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest and Narset, Enlightened Master, among other legends. I tried it with the flip planeswalkers too. It was just a little short of being good enough to play, even just for one day.
Possibly the most surprising entry on the list. GGX for an X/X is not a great rate, but when it actively dissuades non-exiling removal, it gains a few points. The real kicker is that morph ability, one which would have been even better had we manifested it with Mastery of the Unseen or Whisperwood Elemental. I'm not trying to hail the Hydra as the best green answer to removal, but in combination with Whisperwood, the power level was certainly there.
All those unmade Goblin tokens make me sad. At some point I will build a Modern deck that plays turn 1 Birds of Paradise, turn 2 Doran, the Siege Tower, turn 3 Ascendancy and attack, sacrificing the Ascendancy for lethal damage. In Standard, I think the two biggest things keeping this card out of competitive decks was the lack of a Mardu Tokens build and the fact that Radiant Flames was never really ubiquitous as the sweeper of choice. Such a shame.
I had this pegged as a way for black aggro decks to fight against control, continuously adding threats to the board while dodging sorcery-speed removal. What happened? Well, there wasn't a black aggro deck for one thing, despite the large number of one-mana-two-power options in the format. Decks like Abzan Aggro preferred the hard-hitting Pitiless Horde over the Strike Leader, and, as I've mentioned, there wasn't really a deck to take advantage of the token aspect. Too many strikes against the Leader here.
No Jeskai Control deck basically sealed this card's fate, ensuring it saw only sparse play as a one-of in some sideboards. Clash of Wills did not help, as it could counter a spell on turn 2, but in the late game, this should have been able to break through if the deck existed. Even if the opponent pays, they still take the damage, Having this card in your deck will often leave the opponent unwilling to cast anything once you get to enough mana sources, for fear of a giant X spell swiping at their face.
She is my sole remaining Commander deck, although it has zero cards that take extra turns in it. I built it around Replenish and Opalescence, one of my favourite decks of all time, and it's a lot of fun. Not very powerful, but fun. In Standard I wanted to combine her with planeswalkers and cards that granted an extra turn, but it was hard to strike the right balance between “stay alive” and “cast expensive things with Narset,” so I scrapped it. The ability is no doubt powerful, but the lack of library manipulation pushed it out of my wheelhouse.
I blame Crackling Doom. A huge, resilient, evasive beater than can get under countermagic and especially Disdainful Stroke should have been really hard to beat for some decks, but the Doom (and, to a lesser extent, Foul-Tongue Invocation) made sure it was trivial to answer. I did bring this in against Abzan decks sometimes, and it did work every time they weren't Deathmist Raptor decks, but otherwise I ended up just cutting it a lot. It's just not good. It's fat and looks like it should be good, but it isn't.
I never even managed to get both of them in a draft, though I have had the double Secret Plans deck and the Trail of Mystery / Ghostfire Blade deck. In fact, these cards are the reason I loved triple Khans of Tarkir Draft more than any other format, including triple Innistrad. Sacrilege, you say? Perhaps. I wrote about my plans to build around this twosome and it went...poorly. The power level here is no secret, but unfortunately it just never managed to break the top tier, even with powerful cards like Den Protector, Deathmist Raptor, Mastery of the Unseen, and Whisperwood Elemental to draw upon.
Speaking of cards that read as powerful but don't play that way...dang. When Jeskai Aggro became a deck, I tested this guy. Too slow. I tested him with Hero's Blade. Still too slow. When the U/R Prowess deck became a thing, I tried Shu Yun...still not quite good enough. Two toughness and vulnerability to Silkwrap and Abzan Charm and Ultimate Price all teamed up to keep Shu Yun quiet, but on the rare occasion that you untapped with him, he could really do a number. In the time that remains before rotation, he is second only to Abzan Ascendancy in order of likelihood to be sleeved up. I'll miss him most.
This poor guy never stood a chance. Four mana, three different colors, and all we get is a 4/5 with a mini-Drain Life attached? Should at least have made the sideboard of some deck somewhere at some point, right?
I confess to saying that the Torrent Elemental would be a $20 mythic, and I think I would have been right had it not been for one card: Anafenza, the Foremost. The Sultai graveyard decks were incredibly powerful, but they just folded to an Anafenza on turn 3, which I seem to remember was a conscious decision on the part of R&D, as they were terrified of delve being too good. As it stands, we did see this card pop up as a one-of in several Sultai decks, but oh, what could have been. I hear giving your whole team evasion is pretty good?
The writing was on the wall for Wildcall when it failed to see play during the Courser of Kruphix days. If we couldn't get the card to work when we knew what we had to slide under countermagic or what we didn't want to draw, it was likely to never make it. Had this been an instant, it would probably have been a staple. Funny how one word can make a card that much better. The dream here was to hit a Hooded Hydra or Den Protector, of course, allowing them to turn face up for practically nothing and be huge at the same time. Then we could get it back with Den Protector, or flash it back with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy. Man, all that value left on the table.
I have lost to this card. More than once. It's the kind of card that preys on decks built to beat the metagame. It hits hard, is hard to kill, and comes down after you rip their hand to shreds. It's exactly the kind of card I enjoy, so why did I never sleeve him up? Well, as with other cards on this list, Abzan Charm and Crackling Doom made Zurgo a lot easier to deal with.
The Innovation Killers
There are common themes here, sadly. Crackling Doom, Abzan Charm, and Anafenza, the Foremost all did more than their fair share to keep a lot of interesting and fun cards out of Standard. Having cards in the format that single-handedly nerf your card normally would not be enough to stop that card seeing play, but this Standard was different. Consider that many of the top decks easily played two (and later, three) of these cards. Now realize that all three of them rotate at the exact same time, meaning they have all been around the whole time our fun cards have been legal. That's the real creativity-stifler right there.
That's not to say the soon-to-be-departed Standard format was unplayable. Sure, Abzan was a constant force and most people are sick of the sight of Siege Rhinos, but plenty of other powerful strategies achieved some degree of success. This wasn't a three-deck format like the Dark Days of Devotion. The problem, as far as I saw it, was that so many of the best cards were focused in Abzan colors. A little more spreading of the love might have helped some of these cards see a little more play.
So we move forward into the Shadows. Early signs point to a surfeit of flavor, as one would expect given the setting, but also some splashy and powerful cards. I'm already excited by the prospects.
As always, thanks for stopping by this week. Spare a moment to weep for all these wonderful cards that just fell short of being playable, and until next time...