Preview season is always a great time, not just because we get to see new cards but also because it's an opportunity to reflect on the past season. When evaluating new cards, it's always exciting to think about what might be possible. However, it's also important to remember that these cards won't be played in a vacuum. The strength of any card in modern Magic is contextual, and part of the fun is figuring out where new cards will land.
The story of Dominaria Standard was the red cards were mostly just better than everything else. Red has some of the most powerful early aggression and cheap spot removal. It also has the most powerful and flexible midrange threats in Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Glorybringer. This combination makes red decks extremely difficult to attack. It would be one thing if, after sideboarding, you could just blunt a red deck's early offense and then reliably go over the top of them. However, part of what makes Mono-Red and R/B Aggro so tough to combat is their versatility. You never know for sure what your R/B Aggro opponent's curve is, or what your Mono-Red opponent's sideboard configuration will look like. Saturating your deck with cheap spot removal for game 2 is risky when it could just rot in your hand as you stare down a Chandra.
For the past few years I've been focusing primarily on playing precisely this type of aggressive midrange deck. From Bant Humans in Shadows Over Innistrad Standard to Mardu Vehicles to R/B Aggro today, I've mostly been interested in an aggressive shell with the ability to switch roles and play a grindy game. It's through this lens that I'm looking at Core Set 2019. Specifically, I want to see powerful threats that give my deck some flexibility and depth.
Chandra and Glorybringer will always have a special place in my heart. That said, I'm also hopeful to see alternative options for aggressive and midrange strategies, and a great place to look is white. Since Ixalan was released, white has been a bit lacking. We've seen some aggressive token strategies pop up, and History of Benalia put W/B Aggro in the spotlight for a weekend or two, but it was quickly displaced by the red cards and everyone's least favorite Goblin. For the most part, the white decks we've seen have either been control decks or have played the card God-Pharaoh's Gift. Will Core Set 2019 give white what it takes to reclaim its proper place on the color pie?
Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants caught my attention right away. The first thing I'm looking for in any new card is how it will line up against the existing threats, in this case Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Glorybringer. Four mana for four loyalty is a good start, as you can immediately use the +1 ability to get him out of range of a potential Glorybringer attack. Alternatively you can cast him, crew Heart of Kiran, and then activate him to give Heart of Kiran five toughness.
The natural place for me to start is in deck that plays Heart of Kiran. Vehicles play well with Ajani, since you'll want to already have creatures on the battlefield when you cast him. Since you don't have to crew them if you don't want to, your opponent will often have to keep mana open if they want to deny you value from his +1 ability.
Slotting Ajani directly into W/B Aggro makes sense since that deck already wants access to another planeswalker after sideboarding. He's also got a natural affinity for History of Benalia, as it gives you two creatures to boost. Karn, Scion of Urza can help keep the battlefield flooded with creatures, and Walking Ballista also happens to work nicely with Ajani's +1 ability.
While this seems like a decent place to start, we're mostly just ignoring his -2 ability. Most of his potential is going to come from the times when we can generate six mana worth of effect for only four mana. Part of what makes Chandra, Torch of Defiance so powerful is the option to cast her on turn 4 and then use her -3 ability to remove your opponent's only threat, since it still leaves you with a four mana permanent on the battlefield. Ajani can do something similarly powerful, giving you a blocker and the potential to bring something else back the following turn. It takes some work to set up, so ideally we'd like a creature that gives us some kind of advantage when it enters or leaves the battlefield so that we can get paid handsomely for our efforts.
- 4 Bomat Courier
- 2 Merchant's Dockhand
- 4 Metallic Mimic
- 4 Scrap Trawler
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 4 Glint-Nest Crane
This probably isn't as aggressive as I'd like to be, though there's some interesting stuff going on here. Our biggest strength is that we're great at finding Aethersphere Harvester. Glint-Nest Crane is just begging to chump block so that we can bring it back with Ajani, which should help us to stabilize and build a huge army of Constructs.
As long as we're getting grindy, here's a new twist on an old favorite.
- 3 Angel of Invention
- 1 Aviary Mechanic
- 4 Dark-Dweller Oracle
- 3 Dire Fleet Daredevil
- 2 Earthshaker Khenra
- 2 Siege-Gang Commander
- 3 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
- 3 Pia Nalaar
This is probably trying a little too hard to be grindy, but it serves to show what's possible. There are a lot of directions you can go here, potentially including Bomat Courier and Veteran Motorist, which would then point you back down the vehicles route. We're pretty good at cluttering up the battlefield, and the value we get from Ajani, Dark-Dweller Oracle, and Siege-Gang Commander should let us grind pretty well. Ultimately whether or not something like this is good is going to depend a lot on what the rest of the metagame looks like. I fully expect Goblin Chainwhirler to retain a hold on the format, but if that starts to slip you might be able to branch out a little, possibly including Fanatical Firebrand.
- 2 Walking Ballista
- 2 Angel of Sanctions
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 4 Resilient Khenra
- 2 Wildgrowth Walker
- 2 Lyra Dawnbringer
- 3 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
- 4 Cast Out
Speaking of branching out, not only can we can get a little extra out of explore when we return a Merfolk Branchwalker or we can potentially dump something else into the graveyard. This is going to be weak against control, but against red if we can use Ajani's +1 ability to get Shalai's toughness above four, we should be in a great spot.
Moving down Core Set 2019, I see another possible hit. Is this card the new Hero of Bladehold? I guess so, but is that good enough? It can certainly generate a ton of advantage very quickly since the lifelink nets you an six-point life swing the first time it attacks; however, it gives you nothing when you cast it and it has to survive an entire turn cycle. Its glaring weakness right now is its four toughness. For four mana, we really want something that can survive both Chandra and Glorybringer. It's possible that we won't really see this card shine until rotation or we can try to get his toughness above four with Ajani.
When Resplendent Angel was previewed, the first thing I thought was, "Meh, dies to Abrade." There are plenty of three mana 3/3 creatures with decent abilities; Weldfast Engineer and Depala, Pilot Exemplar are perfectly fine cards that are just not quite good enough for Standard right now. There's just a ton of competition at the three mana spot on the curve, as no matter what color you are, you're always going up against Aethersphere Harvester. Additionally, none of these generate any type of advantage simply for entering the battlefield, which is a big reason why Pia Nalaar still sees play despite the Thopter token getting picked off by Goblin Chainwhirler.
That said, I think my first impression of Resplendent Angel gave short shrift. For one, it has flying, which can be super important against green decks of both the Ghalta, Primal Hunger and G/B Constrictor varieties, as well as against decks that play History of Benalia and Karn, Scion of Urza.
Second, its activated ability is real. Sure, many games will play out such that you won't realistically be able to spend six mana for fear of a removal spell. However, a ten point life swing and a bonus Serra Angel is a pretty powerful effect. There will be times where you and your opponent will both be in topdeck mode or your opponent won't have a removal spell, and the ability will give you outs to win a game you would have otherwise had no shot to win.
Where Resplendent Angel really shines though is when you can cast it and immediately generate a 4/4. Against most decks, three mana for seven power worth of flying is absolutely game-swinging. Gaining five life is a big ask, but if your deck is capable of doing it, then most of the time your opponent will be forced to do one of two things: use removal on your lifegain enablers, potentially clearing the way for your Resplendent Angel, or keep removal up to kill Resplendent Angel before the end step trigger. Either way, you come out ahead on the exchange.
The best way to use Resplendent Angel will be in an aggressive shell where we can force our opponent into these tough spots.
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 2 Glory-Bound Initiate
- 4 Resplendent Angel
- 4 Toolcraft Exemplar
- 2 Lyra Dawnbringer
- 2 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
We're not trying to do anything fancy here. Our goal is just to apply pressure and make the possibility of an end of turn Angel trigger scary for our opponents. We don't need to play bad enablers to try to max out on making 4/4s. The closest we come to doing that is Glory-Bound Initiate, which may not be good enough right now. That said, you never know what the metagame will look like after a new set.
These new cards are nice and all, but the big question still remains: Is there a reason to play white instead of red in an aggressive deck? As always, the answer is that it depends. In order to get to "Yes," we need to consider what we're giving up.
- We won't be able to cast Goblin Chainwhirler and punish our opponents for playing one-toughness creatures. Depending on what the format looks like, that might not actually matter. If enough people shy away from good cards like Llanowar Elves and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, that's a cost that they're already paying and we can just be a free rider.
- We lose Bomat Courier. I'm not too concerned. This potentially makes us worse against control, but overall it's not a big loss.
- We lose cheap spot removal--in particular, Abrade.
- We don't get to play with Glorybringer and Chandra, Torch of Defiance. This is the biggest issue, as both of these cards excel at generating both an immediate mana advantage as well as incremental value over several turns.
Those last two hurt the most, but in return for putting Plains in our deck we gain the following:
- We get to remove permanents of any type with Cast Out, Ixalan's Binding, and Angel of Sanctions.
- We get to exile problem cards like The Scarab God and Hazoret the Fervent, the latter of which is particularly troublesome for red decks.
- We get access to Fumigate.
- We get History of Benalia, which is excellent against small red creatures.
- We get to play with Ajani. Ultimately, I don't think he's a true replacement for Chandra, as it's harder to get value out of his abilities. His ultimate is also much less threatening. It still shines on empty battlefields, stalemates, or in topdeck wars, but it's way easier for a control deck to beat. But replacing Chandra is a big ask. Ajani's still a great card, and the ability to make large Knight tokens, Hearts of Kiran, and Shalais is potentially insane.
- We get Resplendent Angel. I'm the most excited about this one, since as an aggressive card that offers a mana sink, it does all of the things I want to do.
Is that enough for me to put down my Abrades and Unlicensed Disintegrations? For now, yes. The potential is definitely there, and I can't wait for the set release so I can try this stuff out.