After fifteen or so years of preview seasons, they tend to blend together, but I can't recall one that aligned exactly with the new year. Nothing could be more appropriate since new sets in Magic represent change. A new step forward for every format, especially Standard, and right now the format really could use it.
Kaladesh has retained its icy grip on the format, even tightening it since the release of Ixalan, but now it's time to see the tribal themes of the current block come together in full force and topple the evil Rogue Refiner regime.
We're currently working with a minority of the set still, but there are some clear directions that the revealed cards point us toward and some interesting build-arounds so let's take a look, shall we?
A clear callback to Form of the Dragon, this card does a few interesting things. I first noticed that you don't get to immediately fight a creature, which is a significant downside. Expensive effects need to have immediate impact to justify their high cost, but all is not lost here. The first ability can easily gain you five or more life, which while not as strong an effect, is an important one for ensuring the game goes longer, which is exactly what you want to do with this card.
The second key to unlocking your potential as a Dinosaur is protecting your life total. Each turn you fight a creature you're going to take some damage, and unlike Form of the Dragon you don't get a reset of your life total on your end step. That means you'll want to pair this one with some life gain and planeswalkers that will force your opponents' creatures to fight on two fronts.
Here's the shell that jumps out at me:
You may remember a red and white Approach deck featuring Sunbird's Invocation and having played that deck in a Daily Digest video, I wasn't impressed by the combo element of the deck, and I was more interested in playing good removal, planeswalkers, and a win condition that can go over the top of anything. Such a deck is a perfect home for Form of the Dinosaur, since it has plenty of life gain to protect yourself and enough removal to stabilize the battlefield to set up your Animorph transformation.
It's counterintuitive to sweep the battlefield before playing a repeatable removal effect, but that's exactly what you want to do with the new Form. If you're under too much pressure, they'll just race you before it can stabilize the battlefield; but if they only have one or two creatures following a Fumigate or Settle the Wreckage, then it won't be enough to defeat your megazord mode.
The repeated removal helps you survive to set up Approach of the Second Sun, even more life gain to keep fighting, and I've included both Veteran Motorist and Treasure Map as early plays that help dig through your deck when you need to race toward that second copy of Approach.
Motorist serves double-duty, bolstering the transformational sideboard into a more aggressive deck, a necessary evil against creature-light control decks where your plethora of removal is a liability.
While it's not a splashy rare or mythic, this is the most interesting card revealed so far because it's quite different than anything we've seen before and the various elements of the card make difficult to evaluate in a vacuum.
Is this a card meant for an aggressive creature deck or a ramp deck? Does it provide enough value to slot into both?
The potential of a +1/+1 counter on a creature is the least exciting part of the card to me, so my instinct is to ramp. That means you'll want to pair this one with mana creatures so you can generate early targets while still being on-strategy.
Unfortunately, we're at one of the worst times to play a lot of mana creatures in your Standard deck. Fatal Push and all the good red removal can easily punish decks looking to accelerate early. Servant of the Conduit gets a pass because it leaves behind some energy in the exchange.
I'm not willing to write this one off without playing with it, especially if there are enough good Dinosaurs in this set to make a deck around the tribe, but right now I don't think this card slots well into Standard as it currently plays.
I must have an inner Timmy because every time I see a comically large green creature I chuckle. Most of them end up being unplayable, but this one is intriguing since it's not too difficult to get it into castable range.
Turn 2: Servant of the Conduit
Turn 3: Bristling Hydra
Turn 4: Rogue Refiner, put a counter on Hydra, cast Ghalta, Primal Hunger for GG.
In this scenario, even if your Servant dies, you can curve Refiner into Hydra and then cast the 12/12 on turn 5. Unlike most other five-drops, this one isn't dying to Harnessed Lightning anytime soon and it can't be contained by Whirler Virtuoso. I'd be worried playing it against the four-color variants that have Vraska, Relic Seeker, but that's not many outs to a card that ends the game very quickly.
The one card that's commonly played in Temur mirrors that it's weak to is Vizier of Many Faces, but that's true of essentially every creature. There's potential, especially in Hydra-heavy lists, for the giant Dinosaur to flip the script in the mirror and take an aggressive stance. It could also bolster the energy decks that play Carnage Tyrant and Onward because that's A LOT of damage.
As a standalone, I don't think this card is very good. The fact that you have to wait until the next turn to get value from it is too much to overcome for a six-mana effect. However, as a Dinosaur, there are several ways to grant it haste, namely Otepec Huntmaster and Regisaur Alpha, and if either of those creatures dies, you're more likely to untap with the six-drop so either way you're more likely to start triggering it.
There's some inherent variance to the trigger since you can hit lands or otherwise useless cards, but it won't take long for an extra two cards a turn to snowball out of control, especially when you're casting them for free. I'd estimate two or three triggers is enough to win the vast majority of games, so this card needs to be answered very quickly, which is something I value highly.
I'm still not sold on the heavy-acceleration-into-big-creatures plan of Dinosaurs, since mana creatures are a liability with so much good cheap removal around in Standard, but if there are a couple more solid midrange Dinosaurs printed to supplement Deathgorge Scavenger, then this could round out the high end.
The obvious comparison here is Rogue Refiner. I think it will be pretty easy to have this card be a 3/2 for three mana that drew you a card and provided some slight extra value, this time scrying an additional card rather than getting two energy. Although often the best mode will be to hit two lands and trade your 2/1 for a Rogue Refiner so you can leave the exchange up a card.
The primary benefit here should be that it's a Merfolk and thus, can slot nicely into a tribal deck, which in this case is nice because one of the primary questions you have to ask yourself when playing Merfolk is why you have Botanical Sanctum in your deck without the best Simic card ever printed.
However, given how the Merfolk deck is shaping up to have a swarm strategy behind Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca and Merfolk Mistbinder, I don't think you want many copies, if any, of a midrange value creature. Jadelight Ranger is still good enough for Constructed on rate alone, but finding its best home is going to be critical. Is there a deck that plays both it and Rogue Refiner and overloads on value at the three slot?
That seems to me to run into the law of diminishing returns, but I think letting other color combinations have access to a similar effect as Rogue Refiner, the second most important card in Energy decks after Attune with Aether, is going to be huge toward letting other midrange strategies compete with Temur. This isn't a tribal card, but it's an important one.
I'm grouping these cards together because they both suffer from the same problem. The land sides of each look like great cards, and individually they'd both be absurdly good, but you have to weigh that power against the effort that goes into actually transforming it.
How good is Tolarian Academy when you can't activate it before turn 5 at best? How good is a six-mana Zombify that you have to put work into when we have The Scarab God and Liliana, Death's Majesty in Standard?
On top of that, the front half of each card is not good. They're low impact and require a lot of things to go right in order to work. The best cards in this cycle thus far, Search for Azcanta and Legion's Landing, are cheap with a solid initial effect and are the easiest to transform. These two additions are neither and as such I'll be avoiding them.
I read this card and got excited by all it does, especially in Temur mirrors. The card advantage is obviously great, as is shutting down opposing planeswalkers, which are very important in the matchup, especially for four-color lists. The anthem effect will be underrated, but that advantage in combat is huge, especially in combination with Whirler Virtuoso. The cost reduction is the least exciting effect since you'll have plenty of mana anyway, but it will help you deploy the extra cards you draw.
In combination, these effects make for a gamebreaking card if it stays on the battlefield for more than a turn or two. Then I remembered that Abrade exists.
Is there any worse feeling during preview season than spending twenty minutes daydreaming about how awesome a card is, building the hype and getting excited only to have your hopes and dreams quashed by a detail you missed at the beginning?
The last time it happened to me was when I thought Sram's Expertise could cast a Reckless Bushwhacker with surge for an immediate eight point attack, only to read the exact wording on surge and realize the rules didn't work in my favor.
The Immortal Sun is still a powerful card, but losing a six-mana spell to your opponent's two mana spell and getting nothing out of it is a devastating blow, and given how popular Abrade is due to God-Pharaoh's Gift I don't see it running amok.
However, this is the exact card you'll want to always keep in the back of your mind so when Abrade dips in popularity you can be the first person to take advantage. That kind of metagame advantage is always most prominent the first time it happens since once the adjustment becomes common knowledge you'll never catch as many people as unprepared in the future. As such, identifying powerful metagame calls is an important part of preview season, even if it's not as exciting as brewing around sweet new cards.
This is going to be a condensed preview season, with the full set scheduled to be revealed by the end of this week, so next week I'll be able to fully immerse myself in Rivals of Ixalan and figure out exactly how these tribes will finally conquer Temur Energy. Much like everyone else, I'm sick of casting Attune with Aether. It's a new year and I'm ready for a fresh start.