For the first time since some time in the middle of Battle for Zendikar Standard when Rally the Ancestors became playable, we have a Standard format that actually revolves around threat-answer balances.
There aren't auto-win combos at the top of the metagame. There especially aren't ones that are 50 normal Magic cards and some broken stuff.
There aren't unanswerable threats, or at least the ones that exist are conditional in execution and don't automatically provide value.
That means new cards need a ton of context. Unless they break one of the above rules, they won't ever be the undisputed king of the format. Something beats everything.
If any card so far comes close to just being a "jam and always come out ahead" threat, it's Regisaur Alpha. The Siege Rhino versus Polukranos, World Eater discussion comes to mind with this card and Glorybringer. Admittedly Glorybringer is also an immediate-value, immediate-damage threat, so there isn't an obvious winner, but Regisaur Alpha brings a lot to the table. Like, literally seven power on the table right now.
There are a few possible universes we live in once Ixalan becomes Standard-legal. I don't really feel like going through all of them is valuable, as they diverge a lot based on all of the other cards in the format, but it's worth noting that even if Regisaur Alpha is just better than Glorybringer, you can opt to not play green in your deck and still Dragon people over Dinosauring. The big split depends on where a 3/3 Dinosaur token might just be blank, where flying is super-relevant, and where killing their creature is more important than making two bodies to combat with.
I do want to point out that the "haste to other Dinosaurs" clause on Regisaur Alpha isn't irrelevant, but in this equation I think it is fairly minor, just like the second exert on Glorybringer is fairly minor. Any game where you untap with your five-drop alive is going to be a good one.
I regret not preordering Ripjaw Raptor early on. Gerry Thompson spent a bunch of time laying out decks for this card last week , and yes, it's fine on raw numbers, but I don't think he quite hit in why it is going to be so successful. Many 4/5 creatures for four have good-looking abilities and fail because power and toughness alone isn't enough, but Ripjaw Raptor will not be one of them.
My first impression was framed really poorly.
Where is the intersection of "Number of cards is worth it", "Not just Treasure Trove", and "They didn't just die to Ballista to the face"?— Ari Lax (@armlx) August 28, 2017
Walking Ballista plus Ripjaw Raptor is a pretty marginal interaction, despite looking really cool. There are going to be times where you can extend a small Walking Ballista, overextend with a Ripjaw Raptor, and use the ping-card-draw mode as sweeper insurance. Beyond that, the majority of the time with both of those cards on the battlefield, you are better off shoving on Walking Ballista to eventually ping them to death rather than building a Treasure Trove.
I completely missed the most important interaction: cycling your own conditional removal. In spots where you draw a Magma Spray or Abrade and don't want it, you can fire it on your Ripjaw Raptor to draw a card. The ability to freely dump a Cut // Ribbons against control might be the more exciting payoff, as I'm pretty sure Cut // Ribbons is going to be one of the biggest winners of the rotation.
This means that Ripjaw Raptor is going to be doubly good whenever damage-based removal is good. Not only does it mean your opponents are more likely to have cards that are horrific against your threat, but it is harder to punish your copies of those cards.
In the context of the B/R Ruin Raider shells I discussed last week , this is a real reason to play the artifact subtheme, as you get Unlicensed Disintegration. Killing Ripjaw Raptor is doable, but killing it profitably is hard in aggressive decks. I will refrain from making a decklist until I actually see a Pirate one-drop, but I guess the point there is that I want to do anything I can to avoid playing Bomat Courier in these lists. Ruin Raider is enough card advantage; I don't want to play Raging Goblin.
If unconditional removal is going to be key and mainly targeting four- and five-drops, Ixalan's Binding is going to really impact deckbuilding. One of the divergent Regisaur Alpha-versus-Glorybringer worlds is that people play Ixalan's Binding, which isn't a huge stretch. If that's the case, the right answer is to just split them so the odds of an extra copy getting bound in hand are minimized. It might even be a good idea to do that across the board if Ixalan's Binding is as annoying as I think it will be. Maelstrom Pulse had the split-your-threats effect in some formats, and Ixalan's Binding is even worse as it stretches onward.
Note the play pattern for trying to avoid Ixalan's Binding is slightly different from the one trying to avoid Maelstrom Pulse or Detention Sphere. The plan with the old cards was to expose your duplicate first and then hold the extra copies until they were forced to spend their kill spell. With Ixalan's Binding, the goal is to force them to use the card on literally anything else and then start playing your duplicates... and hope they don't have a second copy.
It is worth noting that if you play Ixalan's Binding, you may want to slightly hedge against opposing Bindings and split with a copy of Cast Out or two.
If this is what things come down to, I'm throwing Duresses at people. I really, really don't like the world where this card is good. Clunky effect-baiting dances aren't my kind of Magic. Give me a good back-and-forth attrition battle or mana-positioning game.
Or I might just shove giant hexproof threats at people and call it a day. All I know is I won't be playing the same game everyone else is trying to play.
I really don't like Vraska, Relic Seeker as a straight-up planeswalker. While eight is approximately a million loyalty and it does kill stuff, she doesn't do enough. People are comparing her to Elspeth, Sun's Champion, but that's a joke. Three bodies instead of one is not even the same ballpark. By the time you stick Vraska, a single 2/2 shouldn't be game-changing, and it's likely to just have to chump block something incoming at your planeswalker. When Elspeth had to chump block stuff, it was hard for them to force all three tokens to chump. Your battlefield position just grew out of control, and if they overextended into her, the -3 crushed them. Vraska's Pirate just chump blocks, then you are back to empty. She never completely turns around a stable battlefield.
Vraska is more of a Sorin, Grim Nemesis power-level planeswalker. If the game is fairly stable, she is going to do decent work, but you need to make it so.
The one thing Vraska, Relic Seeker really has going for it is that the -3 clears up random noncreatures. In the Ixalan's Binding world I just finished describing, Vraska is going to carry a lot of weight. Not only will her -3 release whatever was locked away, it will potentially "draw cards" by opening up the copies stuck in your hand. The Ixalan's Binding format also implies a lot of midrange fights where four-mana removal isn't punished for costing four mana, where a Ob Nixilis Reignited-style planeswalker is already great.
On the subject of planeswalkers, Huatli, Warrior Poet is another perfectly situational planeswalker. I'm colder on Vraska's Contempt than most people, having played with Utter End enough to know that card's failures, but it's clear Ixalan's Binding isn't the only good four-mana removal spell. Rather than just try to jam big threats and big answers, people are just going to go under. All of the red cards are still legal, so why stop?
Huatli, Warrior Poet seems almost customized to crush aggressive strategies like this. Barring being completely dominated, one of "gain life, Arc Lightning, or make more blockers or attackers" is going to be good. I do also like how this scenario promotes Cast Out over Ixalan's Binding so you can answer Hazoret the Fervent before untapping into your matchup-swinging planeswalker. Huatli is also powerful in mirrors once people start skewing to beat Ramunap Red, as they will focus on bulkier, less evasive threats that are likely to result in a battlefield stall, which the Arc Lightning / Falter hybrid effect will end.
I do want to make one point as we discuss combating aggressive decks: We live in the year 2017. In what world do you think you can ever take three mana to go up a basic land? Journeyer's Kite was barely playable in a two-set Block Constructed format where aggro couldn't win a game. Thaumatic Compass has to play against real cards. Three mana is almost the point you expect to play a threat that gets you a free card... wait, it literally is, with Rogue Refiner and Ruin Raider. Yeah, a Maze of Ith is nice, but do you understand how many lands seven is? We have cycling lands. What are you even trying to do here besides spend mana to do nothing but lose?
Moving to talk about the actual aggressive decks, I want to discuss Rowdy Crew. Four-drops that draw a card and provide potential additional card filtering and potentially hit hard are great, but Rowdy Crew is a little more complex.
The obvious thing should be that Rowdy Crew is not going to be a card you play with Hazoret the Fervent. It's just two completely different games. Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Hazoret were already a nonbo and Chandra actually helped you empty your hand. That implies Rowdy Crew is not the card for your aggro red decks unless you are swapping the card for Hazoret the Fervent in a matchup or metagame where being indestructible doesn't matter.
The less obvious thing is that Rowdy Crew itself is also bad with other high drops. This was a lesson with Fateful Showdown in Draft: if you have high drops in hand when you are trying to filter your hand in an uncontrolled way, you feel dumb. Playing Rowdy Crew after curving out with your hand being a burn spell and Glorybringer sucks. You want to fully empty your hand of other cards and then Rowdy Crew, or at least empty most of the quality ones from your hand so you can hopefully turn your random discards into potential upgrades. It might even be better to view Rowdy Crew as a five-drop that you can cast a bit earlier if needed, or with fewer lands.
The more I talk about it, the less sure I am Rowdy Crew is going to see play outside of God-Pharaoh's Gift and other graveyard decks. It is going to be really stellar there, allowing you to filter through dead combo pieces just like an extra four Champion of Wits. I can't fault Tom Ross for giving it a try , but as an aggressive card, Rowdy Crew makes me feel the combination of wanting to cast all your other good cards first and not play Hazoret is a big issue. Maybe I'm underestimating how much the fact that the random discard having a chance of leaving you with your previously held good cards changes things, but I have too many bad memories of casting Fateful Showdown on turn 4 to be really excited about that use.
The last card I want to cover is Rampaging Ferocidon. Similar to Rowdy Crew, it's a card that people will default to slotting into Ramunap Red that likely has other homes to try across the format. In this case, it might actually be best in the Ramunap Red deck.
When you first look at Rampaging Ferocidon, it feels like a card that half hoses control, half hoses aggro. "Players can't gain life" is typically associated with Skullcracking their Sphinx's Revelation or Sulfuric Vortex locking Batterskull out in Legacy. The ping on creatures feels like a way to punish go-wide strategies that often tend aggressive.
In practice, Rampaging Ferocidon is going to be a really powerful midrange hoser. The current state of control does not involve lots of lifegain. Blame Torrential Gearhulk for being that good. I had to struggle along with Multiform Wonder in Shaheen's Scarab God Control deck. Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is rotating, and both Vraska's Contempt and Fumigate remove Rampaging Ferocidon before the lifegain portion of their resolution. Lifegain trying to occur with a Rampaging Ferocidon is likely to be cards like Huatli, Warrior Poet or Crested Sunmare nonsense out of a midrange deck.
Similarly, most of the aggressive decks are coming out of the gates well under a three-drop. The go-wide decks are slower and based on Oketra's Monument or Anointer Priest, which Rampaging Ferocidon is going to smash. What the ping does is prevent midrange decks from stabilizing with two-body threats like Regisaur Alpha that would blank Ahn-Crop Crasher. The menace even points in the same direction, giving Rampaging Ferocidon and friends an extra turn or two of good attacks and forcing your opponents to run even more creatures into the ping wall to safely turn the corner.
Note that I reserve the right to alter my opinion on the lifegain ability mattering after another ten or so Vampire cards get previewed. I don't know what I'm looking for with Walk the Plank and Vraska's Contempt in the removal slots a better Essence Extraction would sit in, but there's always a chance.
What am I still waiting for? What cards could drastically change the lens through which I'm viewing the format?
A change in how control decks approach card flow would be a big shift. I really struggle to think of something that outclasses Glimmer of Genius and Torrential Gearhulk, but Duress and Spell Pierce make that plan scary. A black card draw spell worth playing would really shake thing up.
The right Vampire card to tie together some kind of Yahenni, Undying Partisan engine deck together would also be game-changing. Anointer Priest and Anointed Procession don't quite give me my fix for having so many things going on that I win regardless of what happens. You need something to fill the roles of Zulaport Cutthroat in converting sacrifices into wins and Duskwatch Recruiter plus Cryptolith Rites in giving you enough fuel to matter, but it might come together. A free sacrifice outlet is still a free sacrifice outlet, no matter how you slice it.
I'm not holding out hope for the Merfolk.
Sorry, Hunter Nance.
I don't really know what the cards are trying to accomplish, and I'm not sure anyone really does. They are sized like old Lorwyn-era Merfolk, yet are trying to play some weird modern era G/U game. I'll stick to the way cooler, way more powerful other options.
For sure. Also, a tribal set naturally has a lot more impactful low-rarity cards.— samstod (@samstod) September 9, 2017
I will say that there is still a lot more to wait for. In a set with heavy tribal themes, a lot of random creatures can make more linear archetypes playable just by having a type line that lines up. When the full set drops on Friday, you can bet I'll be waiting to scan for anything and everything that could possibly make an impact.