At some point I really will discover that I am, as Detective Riggs was so fond of saying, too old for this stuff.
Another Prerelease weekend is behind us, and yet again I took the bullet for you, dear readers – I played them all. I find that no amount of reading and theorizing gets me mentally ready for a new set and the brewing that goes with it quite like actually sleeving up the cards. When playing the events, I am normally considering the cards in a Standard and Modern context, thinking about which cards from other sets and formats I would have liked to have in my pool with the new stuff. And that's how brews are born, kids!
I write one of these articles each Prerelease, and although I am playing Sealed, the card evaluations are slanted to Constructed. Coming in to the weekend I was excited to see how Explore would play, whether Vampires and Merfolk were viable archetypes, whether any of the double-faced cards were as good they looked, and maybe how one of the planeswalkers played.
Dinosaurs was the tribe I was least excited to try. Although they have powerful commons and uncommons going up the curve, they aren't particularly difficult to build around and the Constructed staples looked to be relatively obvious. Pirates looked to have a few different play styles and presented a couple of "is this good" conundrums – Hostage Taker, Fathom Fleet Captain, and Ruin Raider, to name three.
Finally, I was a little concerned that tempo decks might just be too good. There are a lot of bounce and tap effects in this set, and blue has some aggressively slanted creatures to pair with those. It's an archetype that people are talking about for Constructed and most of the powerful pieces for it are in this set.
Friday – B/W Vampires
After playing a 130-card five-color monstrosity in our "Jank Week" FNM (when everyone plays fun decks with the cards that are rotating) made up of all the cards I didn't get to play before they left Standard, I was definitely ready to play a deck that I could shuffle easily. That deck was fun as heck, by the way. I highly recommend just throwing cards together and building a manabase to suit next time you just want to have some fun.
The first thing that stood out with Friday's deck was that the 1/1 lifelink tokens made by so many Vampires are surprisingly potent at extending the game. I didn't have any Constructed-playable ways to make the tokens, but if something like Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle can find a home, that triggered ability will quickly take over. This was also the deck with Ruin Raider, and in tandem with basically disposable 1/1 tokens (that also replenished my life total), I was consistently drawing two cards a turn.
The drawback on all the previous pseudo-Dark Confidants has been that they were fragile and/or needed to attack to get you a card. Ruin Raider might not be the most resilient card ever, but it will often get you a card on the turn you cast it, which is more than you can say for the other versions.
The grindy potential of Vampire tokens also gives me hope for a Mardu or Abzan planeswalker-based midrange deck that aims to stay alive with a swarm of tokens and free card advantage. Staying alive is a concern I had with both Temur Energy and Ramunap Red promising to stay very powerful, but Settle the Wreckage (which did some serious work in other matchups) and Inspiring Cleric look well-positioned to strengthen that matchup...unless Rampaging Ferocidon does anything.
That card...wow. I was wondering how good it could be in red aggressive decks and it appears the answer is "extremely good." When blocking is already challenging, your choices are gaining life and sweeping the battlefield. Not only does the Ferocidon stop one of those options entirely, it stops the go-wide strategy (to try to beat the Falter effects) from being as effective by just pinging the opponent into submission. I'm not sure it will be prevalent in maindecks, but it is a potent weapon against Vampires and demands a removal spell. Given how many creatures in Ramunap Red currently meet that description, I am very scared of this card.
Dinosaurs were as-advertised, but the surprising thing was the strength of some of the commons and uncommons. Steadfast Armasaur really impressed me, and although Ranging Raptors was as good as expected, I did not think Raptor Hatchling would basically be unblockable.
The concerns I had about Dinosaurs in Constructed being too reliant on a few great cards have been allayed, but I also think the Avatars are largely unplayable outside of Burning Sun's Avatar. The cost is just prohibitive relative to the effects.
My son played his first Prerelease solo, playing U/B Pirate Tempo. He had some miserable draws but was impressed with Hostage Taker and Entrancing Melody. While nobody would be surprised that a Control Magic effect would be good in Limited, there are reasonable Constructed applications over Confiscation Coup in decks that don't want to accumulate energy.
Saturday – Dinosaurs, More Different Dinosaurs, Pirates
Having played against a lot of Dino decks on Friday night, I was pretty happy to see I had a viable deck of my own, in R/G. Not only did I have Rampaging Ferocidon to try and a solid low curve with Otepec Huntmaster and Raptor Hatchling, I had a pretty interesting pair of double-faced cards to try – Dowsing Dagger and Conqueror's Galleon.
The Ferocidon was excellent, helping me get ahead early and stay there, and if you ever manage to use a combat trick to save Raptor Hatchling from the first damage dealt...oh boy. The Hatchling probably isn't Constructed material, though, so we'll leave it there.
What is Constructed-viable is Conqueror's Galleon. As you might expect from something with ten toughness, this is not a card you would want in an aggressive deck. The transformed land makes it even more obvious, with three pricy abilities that all help you grind out the late-game. In particular, that last ability just says "target card," which gives an incredible amount of flexibility. Crew 4 is a little steep, but the payoff is immense. Now, I'll grant that my opinion may have been colored by having Blossom Dryad to untap the land and use it twice per turn, but still...it has to be good enough in a grindy Abzan or Mardu midrange build.
Dowsing Dagger was very interesting. The Plant tokens are a minor nuisance, especially if you can find an evasive threat to wield the Dagger. Having it transformed gives you such a huge leg up in the early-game that you have to draw abysmally to lose. It also combos really well with Blossom Dryad, by the way. Could that card actually be playable?
Sadly, I had to run back the prehistoric pugilism in the Two-Headed Giant event in the afternoon, playing W/G this time. Our team opened all three of the single-color Avatars, and we played the green and white ones.
Not only is the payoff for Verdant Sun's Avatar not worth the mana investment, the body is pretty uninspiring for the cost. Wakening Sun's Avatar at least has a real threat for a body, but some portion of the time it will do nothing. In a world where the best creature deck is playing both Negate and Spell Pierce, there is some benefit to having a creature-based sweeper, but surviving until you can cast it is by no means guaranteed.
Saturday evening saw me finally able to play something different as I took Pirates for a spin in an R/B build splashing for Hostage Taker. I think this is the less interesting way to build the deck, but it was aggressive enough to impress me. Hostage Taker is insane, plain and simple. The Fiend Hunter effect would be good enough, but the ability to cast whatever you steal just pushes over the top. This card also taught me that Emperor's Vanguard is very strong, essentially improving your draws every turn once it gets big enough.
Captain Lannery Storm was less impressive for me here. When she comes down and can attack right away, she's grea,t as she gets you so far ahead. Where she's less impressive is against any three-toughness blocker...and there are a lot of those. A lot of aggro decks have mentioned this card as a potential addition, but without some way to keep her alive, I don't know that she's worth it.
Sunday – Merfolk (finally) and the Grab Bag
Opening Deeproot Champion, River's Rebuke, and a pair of Jade Guardians finally allowed me to test out the tempo-based goodness of Merfolk. My pool was far from optimal to play this deck, but how else am I going to find out what the little fishies can do?
Let me start with River's Rebuke. It reminds me so much of how inexperienced players evaluate Upheaval – they don't know how good it is until it beats them. While this lacks the potential of Upheaval, especially in a format without any good mana rocks, it is almost always going to win you the game unless you are incredibly far behind.
And yes, it really does say "target player" and not "each player."
I can imagine Temur decks wanting this to break the mirror, but it's also possible that we can just use it in a U/G creature-based deck with Growing Rites of Itlimoc that wants to go wide. It might even be possible to target ourselves with it in such a deck, but Paradoxical Outcome is still just better in that strategy.
One other thing that really stood out was how high-variance the Explore mechanic is. I had a few cards in this deck with it, and most were unimpressive. Sure, they are good when they draw you a needed land or get the counter that makes them a decent value for the investment. The problem, of course, is that you can't choose, and without a really good way in Standard to set up the top of the library, we are going to be frustrated fairly often. Merfolk Branchwalker and Emperor's Vanguard so far seem to be the exceptions.
The weekend ended with a really interesting pool that had a powerful Dinosaur deck (as usual) and pieces of three other decks. Perfect! This would let me try out a bunch of different stuff by building the three decks and playing one per round.
Vampires was up first, and Ixalan's Binding was a big deal. That Meddling Mage clause really makes it a contender for the Cast Out spot, especially against cards like Hazoret the Fervent that are very likely to be present as four-ofs in opposing decks. Getting it cast on your Legion Conquistador is no fun, though.
I was impressed with how easily this Vampire deck was able to go wide. Although Paladin of the Bloodstained is highly unlikely to see competitive play, Call to the Feast and even Queen's Commission are worth considering. The real power of this strategy, now that we can't just drop a Nissa and put counters on everything, is in Sanctum Seeker. The body is already good enough, but if you can maintain your battlefield position for even one turn, that life swing is immense.
The Pirate deck was next, and it had both Fell Flagship and Deadeye Plunderers. The Flagship was very good, and I expect to see it in at least the sideboard of any aggressive deck with a sensible number of Pirates to benefit from the buff. That triggered ability is the...rigging on the sail? Gold inlay on the decking? Something like that.
Especially against decks looking to hold on removal, consistently being able to attack their hand will help keep you alive. Deadeye Plunderers was also really good, growing out of control very quickly and eventually winning us the game. I am actually quite high on this for Constructed, especially since the card doesn't care what the artifacts are. Oh, hey, Tezzeret the Schemer makes artifacts! That's handy.
Sadly, the Merfolk/Explore deck was just not having a good night. Wildgrowth Wanderer is a good card when you can build around it, but I couldn't. I sadly never drew Tishana, Voice of Thunder and Andrew (that's my son, and it was a real treat playing with him as a teammate) never drew Gishath, Sun's Avatar, which didn't do our win rate any favors. Although I do think the U/G Merfolk deck has Constructed legs, it will require some good draws. That said, putting One With the Wind on a Jade Guardian will win you some nonzero number of games in a hurry.
The only other standout here was Storm Sculptor, which looked pretty mediocre to me at first blush. Given the similarity to one of my old-school favorites in Stampeding Wildebeests, I am surprised I overlooked the power of bouncing your own stuff. There are quite a few creatures with powerful enters-the-battlefield effects in the set that synergize well with Storm Sculptor, so the potential is there.
That's all we have for today, folks. I hope you enjoyed this look at the cards that impressed me from the Prerelease as a little bonus before the impending Brew Blitz. It's coming very soon, I promise. As always, thanks for stopping by, and until next time...Brew On!