Yeah, yeah, I know there are barely any cards revealed from Amonkhet thus far, but I just can't wait to start talking about the future already! I mean, let's be honest: Constructed Magic's not in the best shape right now. Standard's become about as stale as the mustard pretzels my girlfriend's mom got me for Christmas. Modern's not much better, even though it hosts 54 unique sets. The real problem with Modern, though, is it's begun playing a sick joke on me. Instead of banning my sweet baby Death's Shadow, they let it become the poster child of the format. Now, instead of being cool for playing the card, I'm one of those pesky netdeckers. The card's literally outgrown me, just like the art indicates.
I could spend today discussing the values between repetitive routines, the balance between deviating from Tier 1 metagame choices, and knowing when to play them. I could even discuss the merits of whether it's correct to build sideboards with tactical or strategic goals in mind. Those topics are great, and most likely would have been my top picks if it weren't for a few Amonkhet cards that got previewed this week. I honestly didn't think much would get me excited this early in the game, but I have to tip my hat to Wizards for doing the unimaginable. Amonkhet looks beautiful, flavorful, and even impactful. Well, so far only one card looks like it will have a major impact on Standard, but only fifteen or so cards have been revealed thus far! I've got a taste of the Egyptian plague, and I'm not turning back!
For those wondering, of course this isn't the already “hyped” card for Standard play. If that's all you want, then I suggest you scroll down. No, Trueheart Duelist is in fact our first taste of the world of Limited mechanics from Amonkhet. Embalm is not only extremely flavorful for an Egyptian theme, it seems like a great Limited mechanic. Creatures with flashback? What are they going to think of next?
“Hey now, we had the plague before it was cool!”
So Embalm isn't actually the first iteration of “flashback for creatures” the game has seen, but it does function like it is. Unearth was WotC's first attempt at this, but made sure it had more of a “spell” feel to it. The creature didn't stick around and usually came with some sort of ability while it lived its short life on the battlefield to feel more like a spell than a creature. Embalm is much different in that the ability leaves a creature token around for as long as it obeys the rules of the game. This is quite interesting when evaluating these creatures, since they are actually the first of their kind.
I first compared Trueheart Duelist to this Odyssey rare, but I quickly realized they aren't similar either. Call of the Herd could build a battlefield position by utilizing both halves of the card at the same time. The Embalm mechanic doesn't have a similar feel to it. The first half needs to be completely used up before its second life has a chance to impact the battlefield. This limitation raises some interesting questions on how this mechanic will impact the Limited format.
Much like how Ulamog's Crusher taught us that Eldrazi were better on the offensive, Trueheart Duelist's ability to block multiple creatures is a hint toward understanding how these cards will best play out in games. Now, they can attack just like any other creature, but being defensive feels to be the best use of the mechanic. Normally double blocking a bigger creature is the best way to find yourself getting blown out by a pump spell, but Embalm breaks the mold in these normally bad interactions. Instead of getting two-for-oned, an Embalm creature can come back and replace itself on the battlefield to once against get in the way. The card disadvantage that normally comes with double blocking is somewhat negated by this ability.
So how do you use that to your advantage? Well, my prediction is these creatures will play a smaller role in a much larger gameplan. These creatures will be the bridge necessary to make time for more powerful spells later in the game, not just by having two separate lives, but also giving you more to do with your mana in the late-game. They also promote a shift in how we will approach Limited. Cheaper creatures normally used as fodder lose some efficiency when they end up staying put in the graveyard when others find themselves back on the battlefield. Trading “Bears” isn't as clean as it once was.
It's been a while since we've seen a mechanic promote longer gameplay, which is why it excites me so much. Maybe with actual mana sinks we might not need to play fifteen lands in Limited anymore like we have been doing in Kaladesh!
So now that we have a plan for excess mana, we need to figure out what to do when we get stuck on a low base of lands.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, Wizards of the Coast proudly brings to you the greatest ability ever printed! Renewed Faith, Krosan Tusker, Street Wraith, Decree of Justice. Introducing the new Archfiend of Ifnir!”
“And if you ain't down with that, I got two words for ya...you hopeless!”
Cycling is back! Seriously, if you haven't played Magic with Cycling, you have no idea how big this is. This mechanic is like the “gentlemen's agreement” of abilities. A fine duel between upstanding citizens can be conducted with abilities like this, as opposed to the childish flailing we've become so accustomed to in recent memory. Cycling allows both parties to play Magic when someone could get stuck on mana. Maybe you don't want to replace your Archfiend of Ifnir with a random card, but having the option will turn more mulligans into keeps. More non-games become games. More Magic!
Cycling and Embalm combine to perpetuate more gameplay in Limited. They are actually the opposite of Vehicles, energy attackers, and improvise. Instead of dumping resources into one another, we instead let individual cards gain or replace value on their own over time. These two mechanics combined should help slow down the Limited environment and let us worry less about having the best starts possible. It should be a good break from being on the mean streets of Kaladesh.
As a card, however, I don't think Archfiend of Ifnir really has a place in Constructed Magic. It's always nice to see new cards with unique abilities, but this one doesn't jump out at me as something I want to be doing. It doesn't have an ability as it enters the battlefield, and setting up its triggered ability feels exhausting. Appeasing synergies is a part of the game, but normally they do more than Plague Wind the opponent. In theory that sounds sweet, but in reality it won't function as well as originally planned or have as big of an impact against the threats currently played. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is far more worried about Archfiend of Ifnir's size than its abilities, and cards like Heart of Kiran are willing to trade for such a high-cost card. It's nice to dream of Noose Constrictor creating the soft-lock battlefield position, but that just makes me cringe at thinking about playing Noose Constrictor in the first place. All-in-all, this card is a bust, but it's a great way to introduce Cycling coming back into the fold.
Now, even if you think this Demon is playable in Standard, there's at least one thing we can agree on. Dragons trump Demons.
Now, you and I don't hang out that much, but those who are constantly around me know my stance on hasty Dragons. I love them! I believe a five-mana Dragon with haste should be practically an evergreen mechanic. Even if I don't personally play them that often, I truly think they have a positive impact on the metagame each and every time they exist. Red has had a difficult time lately finding its own identity, and that's never the reality when the color has a Dragon to whack an opponent over the head with.
It's not like the creature type hasn't been printed since Stormbreath Dragon, but it's easy to understand that "four power and haste" is better than other abilities. Firebreathing is great for Limited play but too costly in Constructed play. Take Skyship Stalker, for example.
For five mana it can do its best Stormbreath Dragon impression by attacking the turn it entered the battlefield, but that three damage wouldn't be enough to take out Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Saheeli Rai. At six mana it could, but that's also at about the time that investment is too expensive, thus making it weaker than other strategic options. Five mana for four points of Dragon damage seems to just be the perfect number for "good, but fair."
Glorybringer doesn't just come with four damage the turn it enters the battlefield, though. This Dragon's sporting another unique ability from Amonkhet. Exert is a new keyword that describes getting more out of a card now at the cost of not using it at all on the very next turn. Clearly there are ways around the downside of Exert, which we may see come up in actual gameplay, but that's for another day. The intended flavor of this ability will allow cards with it to gain a small advantage now at the cost of any utilization on the next turn. These abilities could range from keeping opposing creatures tapped to bringing things back from the graveyard. The design space is pretty large for an ability like this, and I'm really excited to see what they do with it. I could even see a creature in the spirit of Electrostatic Pummeler showing up that doubles in size before taking a much-deserved nap. Sometimes the ability with be worth using, and other times it won't. That's what I like to call a good ability!
Keeping with what we actually know, at the cost of keeping Glorybringer tapped for a turn, the Dragon can gain the ability to rain fire and brimstone down upon any poor soul you target. It may be difficult to evaluate this card's theoretical potential, but over the years I've learned to stop undervaluing cards of this nature. The ability to put something on your battlefield while also removing something from theirs is often good, given a reasonable cost. We already know spending five mana for a 4/4 flier with haste is an acceptable rate for Constructed, so the addition of its ability is strictly upside. In actuality, the inclusion of this ability will most likely make Glorybringer a Standard staple for the foreseeable future.
It might be difficult to see past the cost of using Glorybringer's Exert ability the turn it enters the battlefield. Sure, your opponent will lose a permanent and take four damage, but their silver lining is they won't have to worry about the Dragon for a whole turn cycle. The damage is already done, so to speak. Now, you can look at it this way, but the reality is they will have to do something about it eventually, but also need to make up for the damage inflicted on their battlefield position itself. Just because they get a whole turn to deal with the Dragon doesn't mean it's not going to end up being a positive exchange for you.
You have to assume they will use their “second” turn dealing with the Dragon, prioritizing their battlefield position, but that can turn into a strategic upside for you by now presenting must-kill threats on the next turn. The fear of you deploying more than they can handle on a single turn might lead them to answering the Dragon in a more timely manner instead of being put between the eventual “rock and hard place” on the next turn. This makes me believe Glorybringer's upsides outweigh its costs by a substantial margin.
I've already purchased my set, and I suggest you do the same if you've ever enjoyed attacking your opponent with hasty Dragons. Now, there's a reality where we see Felidar Guardian banned, which opens the door for Ishkanah, Grafwidow to invalidate Glorybringer, but that would only last for the next six months or so. Once Shadows over Innistrad rotates, this Dragon should be able to fly fearlessly into the red zone.
That's about all Amonkhet has gifted us with thus far, but that's fine with me, given how exciting the new mechanics look. I don't know what the rest of the set has in store for us, but my gut says we are in for quite the treat if it looks anything like these cards and mechanics. Hopefully this set doesn't cause chaos and despair, leaving only Brendan Fraser to be our savior.
No one needs that for the fourth time. Get it, it's an Egyptian joke! Hey, I'm funny!
I'll just stick to analyzing the cards next time.