Oh, thank God for preview season.
As I write this, I have just come back from another miserable Standard FNM, where once again I was able to beat the decks that weren't Mardu and lose to the people who were on Mardu. Brewing is fun, but considerably less so when the best deck is this good. I played this U/G Clues list with a few changes, and although I was able to win with Mechanized Production twice, I just could not stand up to the balanced attack of Mardu. This Standard cannot go away quickly enough.
I say again, thank God for previews.
We may only be a few days and cards in, but there are already a few things that have caught my eye...along with just about everyone else's. While it is far too early to be crafting decklists, and any assessments made are being done without the context of the entire set, there's already plenty to get hyped about. There are also some things that are perhaps getting too much attention, but might get better as more is revealed. We'll hit on them too. But let's start with something that legitimately has me excited.
Well, there are certainly some exciting lines of text on this little gem. We could start by talking about the fact that cycling is back! One of the most loved and flexible mechanics in the game makes its long-awaited return to Standard, and I know my friend and Living End fan Andy is waiting on the edge of his (undoubtedly pink) seat to see if his deck gets any treats from the set.
Yes, this card has cycling. No, I do not expect we will often activate that ability in Standard. Even against creature-light decks, this is a 5/4 flyer for five mana. Not the best rate, but still a legitimate threat that will end the game quickly if unanswered. In the event that it is already outclassed, we can just cycle it and find (hopefully) something we do need.
There are a lot of things that the triggered ability does not say. It's not one target creature that gets the counter. It's not “until end of turn” either. And it doesn't only trigger from cycling. All together it reminds me of one of my pet cards from Scars of Mirrodin, Carnifex Demon. Despite having a very powerful ability and existing in a format where reloading it with -1/-1 counters was remarkably easy, Carnifex Demon never really broke through to see the level of play it might have earned elsewhere. Six mana was Titan Town and anything short of that wasn't going to cut it. Plus, Mana Leak was a real problem.
Archfiend of Ifnir offers us a suite of upgrades. It starts out with one additional power for one less mana, and the difference between five and six is often more than just one turn. Although arguably the ability is harder to get going, it doesn't come with a cap on uses and, perhaps most important, it only affects the opponent's creatures. Two Carnifex Demons (something I used to love doing with Phyrexian Metamorph) made a disgusting combination, and double Archfiend of Ifnir won't be much different.
So where does our new friend shine? Well, Winding Constrictor really dislikes the Archfiend. Sign me up. It's also powerful against any deck that wants to crew Vehicles, as reducing their power across the board will make that more difficult. Finally, it can shut off the Saheeli Rai combo, assuming you have a way to discard at instant speed.
Really, the power of Archfiend of Ifnir is going to be entirely determined by the quality of that instant-speed discard. Fortunately we recently had a block where madness was a major mechanic, which brought with it a plethora of options to trigger the Archfiend. Although we probably don't want one of my favorites in Call the Bloodline (that once-per-turn clause is really unfortunate), we have the likes of Noose Constrictor, Olivia's Dragoon, and Ravenous Bloodseeker as free, repeatable discard at instant speed. Given that only one of those is really playable, we need to look at repeatable discard that is cheap, Elusive Tormentor and Peace of Mind being the most playable options.
It's entirely possible we won't ever need to discard more than one or two cards at a time, though, which of course opens up a world of possibilities. Cathartic Reunion, Tormenting Voice, Lightning Axe, Collective Brutality, Collective Defiance, and Chandra, Flamecaller are all cards we might want to play anyway, and they all offer solid value with the Archfiend. If we want to slide it into an existing archetype, Advanced Stitchwing and Haunted Dead both allow us to discard cards at will.
What deck wants this? The aforementioned Fevered Zombies decks that run Advanced Stitchwing and Haunted Dead might seem like a great place, but they often have empty hands and thus might not be best-positioned to actually trigger the ability. With no ability to self-recur and no real reanimation effects in the format (yet...), discarding the Archfiend will feel bad quite often. I think I really want to play it in a Jund Midrange shell that strikes a balance between discard enablers, removal spells, and some hard-to-remove threats. You know, like most Jund decks.
I dismissed this as gimmicky at first glance. I was very wrong. Although the first ability is unimpressive on the surface, it does give red's “impulsive draw” ability to any color that wants it. Four mana is a heavy investment to effectively do nothing, but once you untap with it, you basically have Future Sight on the battlefield. Of course, after the third activation, things get very silly indeed and you are an inhabitant of Value Town. No, that's not near Flavor Town. Guy Fieri is awful.
A couple of important things to note. First, unlike Chandra, Torch of Defiance, which specifies that you can cast the exiled card, Oracle's Vault actually says that you can play the exiled card. That means you get to put a land on to the battlefield if you find one and have not yet played your land for the turn. Also, the second ability does not actually have a mana cost, which could be important if you are playing with any escalate spells (for example) or if you hit something like Reverse Engineer to draw you a bunch of cards.
So, three turns after we invest four mana and do nothing, we finally get paid back? Well, maybe. Perhaps we can do it faster, like the second turn? As it turns out, we have some ways in Standard to add counters to things...
I love the idea of finding a way to combine these cards to really take advantage of a card that effectively says “Tap: Play the top card of your library.” While we would have to eschew Walking Ballista, Painful Truths, and any other cards that are bad if played for free, we can build our deck to really make the most out of a free spell each turn. Wait, do we need to limit ourselves to one spell? Why not Paradox Engine? Sure, it might be too deep, but it also might end the game.
Exactly how we build the rest of the deck will be the challenge. If we include too many top-end spells, we will get them stuck in our hands, and if we try to hedge our bets with a bunch of middle-ground stuff we lose some potential impact. Unlike Aetherworks Marvel we don't get to choose the best of six options here, but the bar to respin next turn is as low as it gets. If we get anything in Amonkhet that sets up the top card of the library or puts a card from hand back into the library, it will definitely warrant a look for this sort of idea.
Outside of Standard, the options get even better. Just in Modern, we have all the cards that proliferate as ways to get additional counters on the Vault, and we get Serum Visions to set up our top card and See Beyond to get clunky big-mana finishers out of our hands. In all honesty, though, I think the way to go here is just the value plan: top out at some Gearhulks, play a lot of flexible spells and planeswalkers, and just accept that occasionally you will tap your Oracle's Vault to cast Fatal Push.
Stormbreath? Is that you? Have you returned from the fringes of Modern to save us from Gideon?
Look, this is a good card. Given the current metagame, it might even be great as a way to take care of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. But it is lacking so much that Stormbreath Dragon had that made it so good, and it's poorly positioned against both Grasp of Darkness and the majority of Harnessed Lightning castings. No protection from white, no ability to go big and deal some heavy damage late in the game, no white removal actually seeing play right now.
There's also this huge problem of a certain two-mana legendary artifact that can turn into a 4/4 flying vigilance creature with the mere removal of one of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar's loyalty counters. Heart of Kiran will at the least trade with Glorybringer, and because the attack trigger of the Dragon needs a target before Heart of Kiran needs to be animated, we can't clear it out of the way. Boo.
With that said, there are cards that we can play with Glorybringer that perhaps make it slightly more appealing. It is far from a bad card, to be sure. Always Watching not only helps it get through Heart of Kiran, it also lets us use the exert ability every turn if needed. Blessed Alliance can not only make the opponent sacrifice an attacker, it also untaps Glorybringer for surprise blocking duty. Could there be a W/R aggro deck with Glorybringer at the top of the curve? Maybe it's a Naya deck instead, giving us more creature options. I have to imagine there will be something powerful in green that a deck like this would want.
It's funny how you can want something for so long without even realising this. As soon as I saw these previewed, I was excited to get to play with them, even though I had never really considered their existence before. A couple of people on social media had mused about the potential return of cycling lands, but not many dared dream about this. Cycling lands on their own are a great way to mitigate that awful feeling of topdecking land number ten on turn 16 when you need literally anything else from your deck, but they do lend themselves to some unfair strategies too.
The obvious first place to look in Standard is to Splendid Reclamation, which could be an Explosive Vegetation with upside on turn 4 and much, much better than that later in the game. We are in a format where dumping cards in the graveyard is very easy, and Splendid Reclamation is just on the verge of being good. If we had another good landfall card like Tireless Tracker (which doesn't technically have landfall, but it does have landfall), it would already be a fringe strategy. Undergrowth Champion is just short of being good enough, and Omnath, Locus of Rage is probably too slow. There is a fringe deck with Walking Ballista, Retreat to Hagra, and Retreat to Kazandu that might get better, and we also get to play The Gitrog Monster for added card draw value. You probably want to add red to that mix to maximize the cycling lands to which you have access, which makes me sad that Molten Vortex has rotated.
Where I am most excited about this is in Modern. I've written before about my good friend Elliot and his Splendid Reclamation deck with Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and Molten Vortex, and these lands slide right in. Life from the Loam is very friendly with cycling lands, as we see in Legacy, and it is already played in Elliot's deck. I will definitely be sleeving that up again soon.
What the cycling duals do not allow is for the Lands deck to port to Modern from Legacy. Yes, we have access to Life from the Loam, but we don't have Glacial Chasm, Dark Depths, Maze of Ith, Punishing Fire, Rishadan Port, Wasteland...it's a long and painful list and it essentially neuters the deck. Now, there might be room for a Lands-style deck that makes great use of the cycling / Life from the Loam engine, but we won't be looking at Ghost Quarter locks any time soon.
That's all we have for this week, folks. As always, thanks for stopping by. As more and more of the set is revealed, we will be able to flesh out some decklists and really get down to the fun part: brewing! Until next time...Brew On!