When a new set comes out, one of the first things that I look for are the cycles. A common trend I have seen amongst cycles in recent sets is that they all tend to produce Standard-playable cards. Usually not all the cards in the cycle are a hit, but there's usually one or two that end up having a pretty big impact on the Standard format.
Core Set 2019 has given us quite a few cycles, and I suspect that all of them will have some impact on Constructed formats. Jim Davis gave his breakdown of one of the more exciting cycles: the Elder Dragons. I'm here to talk about a cycle that may have been overlooked by some, but one which I suspect will have just as big of an impact on Standard moving forward.
Part of me feels a little bad for Shield Mare. How come all the other Mares got sweet additional creature types, like Nightmare, or Elemental, or Fish? Shield Mare was relegated to just being a plain old Horse. That's not fair.
Luckily for Shield Mare, what it's missing in creature type, it definitely makes up for in power level, especially in the Standard format that we're living in right now. Mono-Red Aggro and R/B Aggro have proven to be dominant forces in Standard, and we should always be on the lookout for new tools that can help other archetypes compete against these decks.
On its own, Shield Mare enters the battlefield and gives you three life and a 2/3 body. If your opponent wants to remove the Shield Mare with say an Abrade or a Lightning Strike, you get to gain another three life. So, you're pretty much guaranteed to net at least six life and a card out of your Shield Mare if you're playing against Mono-Red Aggro. That can be very instrumental in stabilizing against these hyper aggressive decks.
Anyone planning on playing white in the upcoming Standard format should seriously consider some Shield Mares in their sideboard. The red menace is still out in force, and we're going to need all the help we can get to fight it.
Surge Mare has a lot of things going for it. So much so that I believe that if it had a single point of power on its own, it would fringe on being busted.
The body is an excellent cheap blocker, and in the world of Mono-Red Aggro that we live in, that is a great effect to have access to. It also has the ability to hit for a sizable chunk of damage if you have the mana to put into it, and it survives most damage-based removal spells at a whopping five toughness. It reminds me a lot of a similar card, back when Mono-Blue Devotion was a dominant deck.
Unfortunately, there were a few things that Frostburn Weird had that Surge Mare does not. One of the strengths of Frostburn Weird was that all you needed to get through blockers was the threat of activating its ability. After your opponent declared no blocks, you could simply be happy to deal a damage and use your mana elsewhere.
With Surge Mare, I expect things to play out a bit differently. Your opponent is actually more incentivized to block because of the threat of you activating its ability and getting to loot. Additionally, Surge Mare is less flexible and demands a higher mana cost to activate its ability, which could make all the difference.
Because of this, I expect Surge Mare to hold back to block most of the time, and then later in the game when you have turned the corner and have excess mana, put on a reasonable clock and give you additional card filtering.
Hmm… this card looks familiar.
Oh right. The card that has been running rampant over Standard for the past few months. Looks like the set designers were really scared of Llanowar Elves after all.
Plague Mare is in an interesting spot where it would be very powerful in any other Standard format, but all the cards that would be hit by Plague Mare have already been hated out by its predecessor, Goblin Chainwhirler. People are already going out of their way to avoid playing one-toughness creatures, so I expect the utility of Plague Mare is going to be much less than it could have been.
It might be easy to think that because Goblin Chainwhirler is so successful in this Standard format, that Plague Mare will also be as successful. Unfortunately, I don't believe that to be the case. Goblin Chainwhirler has a lot of things going for it that Plague Mare misses on. The easiest to spot is the size of the body. A 3/3 first strike creature is going to be able to brawl much better with the average creature in Standard than a vanilla 2/2. Additionally, Goblin Chainwhirler gains a lot from simply being red. It fits into what was already one of the strongest archetypes in Mono-Red Aggro.
I think that if Goblin Chainwhirler was banned, Plague Mare would fit pretty well into Standard as either a good sideboard option or even a maindeck card in decks that were looking for its effect. But until then, Goblin Chainwhirler has scared away all of the Plague Mare's prey.
In a vacuum, Lighting Mare looks very strong. It's a three-power creature for two mana, which is a pretty good rate for red decks these days. On top of that, it has a firebreathing effect, which means that it's going to threaten a lot of damage if it goes unchecked.
The "can't be countered" clause even has some decent utility against control decks in Standard. Most of the time this text won't matter too much, but if you sequence your plays correctly, you can sometimes utilize it on particular turns to make things difficult for the control player.
Unfortunately for Lightning Mare, it has one glaring weakness in the bottom right hand corner of the card. That's right, it has one toughness.
Oh boy, it's this guy again. When are we gonna shake this one? Goblin Chainwhirler rears its ugly head once again and likely pushes an otherwise powerful option into virtual unplayability. I just don't think it's wise to play Lightning Mare in a format full of the annoying 3/3, as Goblin Chainwhirler has Lightning Mare beat on every front; it kills the Mare for free when it enters the battlefield and even beats the Mare in combat every time.
Vine Mare is relatively unassuming at first glance, but I think that it actually has a very reasonable niche in Standard moving forward. Remember this card?
Bristling Hydra proved to be a house against any control strategy. Vine Mare is similar but doesn't have to jump through hoops to gain hexproof. It even has a very solid body attached. Five power is quite a lot of pressure when playing against control, and typically these hexproof threats that we get access to don't present quite as much of a clock, but this Horse is going to force your opponent to use a sweeper effect pretty quickly if they have it. That can put them in a tough spot if the green player is managing their resources appropriately.
Mono-Green Aggro has struggled with its matchup against control recently in Standard, and Vine Mare might be an excellent sideboard option for that matchup moving forward.
It's interesting to note that in my analysis of this cycle of new creatures, I ended up talking about Goblin Chainwhirler quite a bit. This wasn't intentional when writing this article, but was definitely worth considering in particular spots and came up organically.
This goes to show just how format-warping Goblin Chainwhirler has proven to be. The fact that we must evaluate all of these cards in the face of a single card says a lot about that card, and in my mind brings up a lot of questions about how healthy that card is for the format. There are entire archetypes that have become unplayable at a competitive level because of Goblin Chainwhirler, and now we must keep a close eye on any new cards that we could potentially want to play based on how they interact with Goblin Chainwhirler.
One of the greatest things about Magic is the wealth of options that we have when choosing what we play. If you're a control player, you can play a control deck. If you're an aggro player, you can play an aggro deck. You get to play whatever best suits your playstyle. I think that the Modern format is easily the most popular format because of how many different decks there are that are competitively viable. You have so many options.
When a card as oppressive as Goblin Chainwhirler exists in a format as limited as Standard, it feels like the options that we generally have access to become even more restricted. Anyone wanting to play a tokens strategy right now is at a serious disadvantage, and I don't think that's healthy for a format.
Because of this, I sincerely hope that Goblin Chainwhirler gets banned, and soon.