If you were nervous that Standard was going to revert to a one- or two-deck format, well...it kind of did.
This past weekend's Pro Tour Aether Revolt proved that, with enough time, dedication, and honest deliberation, the closest thing to an objective best deck can be found. Six out of eight top slots going to very similar decks is pretty incredible. Variety is the spice of Constructed; too much of one deck and the format gets old, stale, and wearying. Mirror matches abound, and the general thrill of the new and the unexplored seems less viable.
Some people might see the results from Dublin as the harbinger of that status quo. “Oh, looks like the format's solved. That's why all the pros were playing this deck. Guess I might as well trade off my speculative holds.”
What I'm most excited about, honestly, is how little we saw of the previous decks to beat: B/G Aggro and Jeskai Saheeli decks. Early on, these decks were, I'd say, much more threatening, and the fact that they could be so easily mitigated is a testament to one thing: brewing. People took Heart of Kiran, a card that saw only a small amount of play, and smashed it wide open. Unlicensed Disintegration, a corner-case removal spell, became the foundational Murder of this new archetype.
Even Pia Nalaar, a smaller version of Pia and Kiran Nalaar, gets to finally see some action after months of idleness. This deck is not a rehash of the R/W Vehicles deck that was devastated by the Smuggler's Copter ban; it's a whole new deck. Many people might play that deck this week at FNM, but it's a challenging deck to crew well. It's nuanced, flexible, and tenacious, and it was a pleasure to see it played.
But that's all I want to say about the Pro Tour. Other people's decks are great, but we're here to make our own!
Aether Revolt had more than its fair share of sweet cards, both from casual and competitive standpoints. I'm firmly of the belief that deckbuilders will still be gleaning great, untapped spells from this set for the next year, granting them their chance in the spotlight. I think we can measure the power of most cards in this set in the abstract, but there's one that's delightfully undefined.
Dark Intimations is only one of two three-color spells in Standard, and as such, it's designed to make a splash. The other, Tamiyo, Field Researcher, was a welcome return of a long-awaited character. Mechanically, she was fine, but the format doesn't have much room for planeswalkers that aren't Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Saheeli Rai. Dark Intimations portends the return of one of Magic's greatest villains.
“There is always a greater power.” It's some of my favorite flavor text; combined with the art, the effect, and the largesse this card conjures, Cruel Ultimatum was an iconic card in its time, and Cruel Control was one of the more iconic decks of Standard's history. The sheer power of this card is writ large in our minds and in the game. Resolving a powerful sorcery like this used to all but win you the game, but Standard's different now. Sorceries, instants, and even planeswalkers are auxiliary to creatures in terms of game impact and ability to win.
Dark Intimations is a less powerful version of its predecessor, but there are a couple things to note. First, Dark Intimation costs five easy-to-cast mana compared to Cruel Ultimatum's seven. This Pro Tour has proven that even fast three-color decks are possible, so making three colors while time is on your side should be easy. Cruel Ultimatum cost all colored mana, and very few cards in Magic reduce those costs; you were hard-casting Cruel Ultimatum if it was in your deck. Dark Intimations happens to be legal while two redundant reducers exist.
Making Dark Intimations cost 1UBR or even UBR makes it considerably more attractive. A five-mana sorcery that doesn't clear the battlefield is going to be too slow nowadays, so keeping the cost down, the cards flowing, and the punishment coming is the best way to make an instants-matter deck work for you.
Building on this theme, I wanted to try to push one of my favorite shards, Grixis, into a format that hasn't seen that color combination successfully in a while.
Dark Intimations is a difficult card to build around. The color limitations railroad you considerably, but that's okay. I like a challenge.
Let's face it. Decks these days have either twenty creatures or more, or they have, like, two. Not many of those eight- to ten-creature decks running around. Here, though, our game of attrition is won with efficiency, planeswalker threats, and good old-fashioned X-for-ones. We gotta make ours count.
Baral, Chief of Compliance is a more combat-friendly, reliable Curious Homunculus. The legendary part of his text line is a nuisance, but Baral, Chief of Compliance is efficient and dependable. The looting portion of his ability may not come up this time, but the reduction and three toughness are good enough for me. Curious Homunculus is worse until it flips. To be honest, it's not a particularly juicy turn 2 play, unlike Baral. Curious Homunculus is at its best when you cast your third instant of the game and resolve it the same turn. Then, every one you draw after that is a two-mana 3/4 with prowess and permanent reduction. I like a one-of Pia Nalaar, and her artifact, ability, and cost will come into play later.
Instants and Sorceries
The deck has a focus on instants and sorceries, and the ones that I think line up best with these colors and cost reducers are the relevant Expertise cycle.
The cheaper you can make these Expertises, the faster you can cast more spells. A turn 3 Yahenni's Expertise gives you a solid sweeper and a three-drop, keeping you right on top. That's five or six mana you would have otherwise spent, pushing you way ahead. Most of the other spells in this deck were selected with this choice in mind.
Anticipate may be the dullest selective cantrip in Magic's long history, but it does smooth things out. Also, casting one for a single blue mana is pretty fun. Fatal Push continues to be an invaluable removal spell in this format, ready to stop your opponent cold for one mana. Unlicensed Disintegration is, in some ways, an easier-to-cast Murder. I'm happy to take on the extra trouble for three damage, and it's perfect for breaking apart the Saheeli Rai / Felidar Guardian combo.
Geistblast's unique design gives it a specific role in this deck. Yahenni's Expertise can cast Geistblast, finishing off a larger creature. Then, when you're casting another spell, Geistblast is in the graveyard ready to copy it. Gone are the days where you had to pay full price to Shock something; this gives you a legitimate, impactful way to put it in your graveyard, ready to copy anything you cast. Maybe even Dark Intimations.
As cool as Dark Intimations is, it doesn't win you the game; it's an attrition engine. Thus, we need something to keep the game going and close it when it's time. Planeswalkers might well do the trick.
Chandra, Torch of Defiance may not be a combo machine like her fellow Kaladesh native, but she brings the heat, and she brings it quickly. Between a high loyalty, a variety of abilities, and cards like Baral's Expertise to support (and cast) her, she'll be able to tick up with plenty of time to protect herself.
Renegade Map is a great boon to three-color decks; a ready Renegade Map allows your Foreboding Ruin and Choked Estuary enter the battlefield untapped, making them better choices for the late-game, and the Revolt trigger means Fatal Push kills anything in the Mardu Vehicles deck (except Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, I guess.) Brain in a Jar is both an artifact for Unlicensed Disintegration and an auto-try for an instant and sorcery deck. One is enough; the format is too fast to be fiddling around with multiples.
Lands and Sideboard
While I generally haven't liked my experience with Shadow lands, they are made better by Renegade Map. I've found that three-color brews this day either go the Aether Hub / Spire of Industry / Renegade Map way of making mana, or they go the “traditional” Battle lands and Shadow lands.
The sideboard features a card originally in the maindeck: Stormchaser Mage. With enough spells, this card is a serious threat. Flying and haste means the Mage is great at taking down planeswalkers, and the prowess means it's unpredictable and tougher to kill. I love the synergy with Yahenni's Expertise, of which there are extra copies in the sideboard: the prowess trigger saves Stormchaser Mage from dying!
Ruinous Path is a growing concern with cards like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Saheeli Rai coming to the fore. It remains the most consistent way to foil that card. It's still not great, but I'll take what I can.
In practice, this deck had two left feet. This deck was tough on its manabase, and while I'm pretty sure it's close to right, the two-colored-mana Expertise proved taxing. Several cards were unimpactful, including, and I'm sorry to say it, Dark Intimations. It was very often the last card I wanted to cast, even if the position seemed perfect. You're dealing with too many unknowns. They're sacrificing a creature and discarding a card that you can't choose, and you're drawing a card you don't know and recovering a creature or planeswalker that may not be terribly impactful. All in all, Dark Intimations did not impress.
While I brewed up a planeswalker-centered version of the deck that reverted to Dark Intimations as a value engine, it still needs a lot of work. So, instead, let's look at the card again.
Obviously, the thing that has most people excited about this card is the last line of text.
“When you cast a Bolas planeswalker spell…”
Astute Standard aficionados will be quick to inform you that there is no Bolas planeswalker in Standard. Common sense, and, well, the teaser artwork spoiled from Wizards of the Coast, points clearly to the presence of Nicol Bolas in Amonkhet, the next expansion to be released in April (I know, I can't wait, either). Given this inevitability, it's clear that Dark Intimations may not have any purpose at all in today's Standard, but rather the Standard format this summer. Who knows what the new Nicol Bolas planeswalker will look like? What will he do? How busted will it be?
I guess we'll have to wait and see.
No, we won't.
We already have a Nicol Bolas planeswalker. Sure, it's not Standard-legal, but that's okay. I can play Modern, too!
(Disclaimer: I can't.)
Dark Intimations lets Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker enter the battlefield with extra loyalty counters when you cast him at no additional cost. You don't even have to cast Dark Intimations; it just has to be in your graveyard. If Modern has taught me one thing, it's that it can fill a graveyard.
Intriguing. Dredge is still solid despite the loss of Golgari Grave-Troll in our last banning. Casting Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker is still pretty much out of the question in Modern. We do have to cast him to get the Dark Intimation triggers.
I've got an idea.
The hideaway lands from Lorwyn hold enormous potential. At its height, Windbrisk Heights was an exceptional card for aggressive white decks. While there was a choice in each color, few have seen the light of day outside of Commander decks and the 2007 World Championship. Shelldock Isle is the only one that doesn't care about the opponent doing poorly. Howltooth Hollow requires your opponent to be out of cards. Spinerock Knoll requires your opponent to have taken seven damage. Shelldock Isle only requires that either that you or your opponent have twenty or fewer cards in library. With dredge, discard, rapid draw, and everything else this deck does, we can get there quickly. We'll cast Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker; exile all the Dark Intimations we can; and then threaten a Cruel Ultimatum on the following turn.
Sounds like a hot mess yet?
No sideboard, because if you're playing this in a tournament, then something's up with your mind.
I tried four colors first, but found my inexperience with Modern manabases problematic. Besides, Sultai can do the job. Who cares if I literally can't produce mana to cast my win condition?
I'm sure this is just a cute aside, but I'd love to see what a real Modern pro could do with this concept, tweaking the numbers, adding role players, and making this a functional, albeit non-competitive Modern deck to play with friends. No matter how you slice it, Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker is a fun spell to cast.
Can you help with this bad card in Modern casting a very expensive spell? What do you think the new Nicol Bolas will be like, and do you think that Dark Intimations will see some play after it appears?