Guilds of Ravnica preview season is in motion with this weekend's PAX previews. To the surprise of no one, shocklands are back. It appears that Guilds of Ravnica is adopting the "five guilds at a time" approach, used in Return to Ravnica, rather than the 4-3-3 approach of the original Ravnica block (which makes more sense, now that Magic doesn't do the three-set blocks anymore).
The first five?
Unlike Return to Ravnica--which featured Hallowed Fountain and Blood Crypt, instead of Watery Grave and Sacred Foundry-- Guilds of Ravnica makes the interesting choice to return to the original Ravnica color pairings, with the addition of Steam Vents to complete a wheel.
Leading the way for the Izzet, we've got the return of Ral Zarek, and this time, we've finally got a five-cost planeswalker with a plus ability that draws a card, a minus ability that removes a problematic permanent, and an ultimate that brings with it a powerful emblem.
Err, well, you've gotta admit that the formula has produced some pretty reasonable results, and there's variation between these, if only because of the color requirements.
Okay, admittedly, this one is particularly tricky for Ral, Izzet Viceroy, as their formulas are so similar and they share a color, but Teferi is just at such an otherworldly power level.
Of course, maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's break Ral down a little, and bear in mind, there's a lot of room for cards less powerful than Teferi to be quite powerful.
Okay, that's a great start! While Ral Zarek doesn't untap two lands, giving you reliable protection at the same time you're drawing cards, you could do a lot worse than getting the best of your top two cards while also fueling graveyard synergies. That +1 ability is substantially better than scry 1 and draw a card (like Jace, Unraveler of Secrets) since you get to look at both of the top two cards at the same time when making your decision, rather than just one. And again, while it's not strict upside, the graveyard synergies are not trivial, such as any of the new cards with jump-start.
While Teferi sets an extremely unrealistic bar, this is an extremely attractive +1 ability, and Ral, Izzet Viceroy even starts with one more loyalty. What about his minus ability?
This is a pretty fancy way of saying "kill a creature," assuming you're playing a spell-based deck. It does limit what kinds of decks Ral can go into, however. If you're tapping out for a creature on turn 3 and on turn 4, Ral isn't likely to be able to do that much damage on the way in on turn 5, at least not reliably.
Now, maybe there's a very different style of Grixis we can make that sort of resembles U/B Control with a red splash, since the mana is easy now, but even if we consistently get a Terminate out of Ral's minus ability, Teferi's ability is so much more robust.
Okay, this is obviously a pretty hardcore ultimate. It's hard to beat Teferi's relatively high assurance of victory, but this one is pretty high up there, too, assuming you have just a little bit of time.
All-in-all, Ral looks a little less reliable than Teferi, and able to be played in less strategies; however, I think the total package looks like a pretty good deal. The real question is, where can we actually put him to use where we wouldn't just want Teferi, instead?
The first place I turned to was straight U/R. After all, you can't play Teferi if you're straight U/R. This doesn't mean we want to play straight U/R, since Teferi is a pretty compelling card to splash, but with the addition of shocklands and the removal of both Kaladesh block and Amonkhet block, the landscape we're dealing with might be extremely different.
With Torrential Gearhulk's reign finally at an end, Ral has an immediate application for helping close out games for U/R Control.
Of course, we've also got to contend with the lack of Hieroglyphic Illumination, Glimmer of Genius, and Pull from Tomorrow. It's not a perfect fit, but my first thought is to try Karn, Scion of Urza as an additional source of card advantage.
With eight Planeswalkers, I'm interested in trying a Jaya's Immolating Inferno as a victory condition we get to dig to. Of course, either Karn or Ral could be the victory condition, anyway, so this might actually be a bad Banefire (or just redundant, period).
Sinister Sabotage is not just a matter of convenience now that Disallow has rotated out. It's not a strict upgrade to Dissolve, but as we mentioned with Ral's ability, putting the card you don't want into your graveyard is generally going to be upside more often than downside.
With Abrade and Harnessed Lightning out of the picture, there's a good question as to what the best burn to play for removal is. Both Shivan Fire and Fight with Fire have a lot of appeal for a deck that doesn't value the face damage of cards like Shock and Lightning Strike, but are we opening ourselves up to a blindspot against Planeswalkers?
I could seriously imagine reinventing the manabase to support Goblin Chainwhirler. The catch is, to really get enough bang for our buck, we're likely going to need more creatures; the more creatures we play, the less good our Ral is.
The asymmetry of mana-fixing really changes the rules of the format, so we'd do best to begin to build our understanding of the format on a foundation of what kind of manabases are possible.
Five color pairs are at an advantage on account of each having an extra extremely good dual land:
Likewise, five three-color combinations are also favored, thanks to the incredible fixing made possible by two sets of shocklands that help untap your other twelve dual lands:
We really don't get a lot out of black, but it does offer one extremely attractive option, and that's Vraska's Contempt.
There's a good chance the early days of the format are going to have a strong Planeswalker influence, particularly from Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Besides, Vraska's Contempt was already the best removal spell and an awful lot of competition has fallen by the wayside.
One really interesting change in the format is the relative value of artifacts. Without incidental Abrades all over the place, there's less risk to running a random artifact here or there. Treasure Map, Azor's Gateway, Thaumatic Compass, Crucible of Worlds, Arcane Encyclopedia, Icy Manipulator, and The Immortal Sun are all worth taking a second look at in this new context.
Are we supposed to be using Icy Manipulator in the U/R deck above, as a potential answer to creatures too big to burn easily? Icy is so good against legends, I can't help but daydream of its triumphant return.
The real first major fork in the road we encounter with Grixis, however, is whether to play creatures at all, or not.
Nicol Bolas is obviously an incredible reward for playing creatures, and if we do go the Goblin Chainwhirler route, that's another good one. Rekindling Phoenix is also a very attractive creature we could run if we're on a good stuff plan.
Alternatively, we could just focus on Dragons, giving us the ability to really get paid off by Sarkhan, Fireblood.
Once we start down this path, however, we're really talking about a very different strategy than the Grixis list above.
If we did want to pursue this path, we could go even further and use Unclaimed Territory to enable us splashing the other Elder Dragons.
Unclaimed Territory would really test our ability to reliably cast Vraska's Contempt, however. It might actually just be that we need to let that one go. Would clear up a little room for other fours anyhow.
As for Ral, Izzet Viceroy, we ought now turn to Jeskai, Teferi overlap be damned. After all, if the mana's good and we don't have Torrential Gearhulk anymore, maybe we could use "Teferi" number five and six?
I mean, what's the alternative? Cleansing Nova?
We could go this route, as it's not a non-starter with Seal Away and Ixalan's Binding; however, it's not the most efficient card in this capacity, and running both Teferi and Ral means we're already super glutted at five.
Maybe there will be a sweet new red "Earthquake" in Guilds of Ravnica to help fill the void left by Sweltering Suns and Hour of Devastation leaving the format. Some kind of Pyroclasm or Radiant Flames might be just what the doctor ordered.
If we were to find enough room, experimenting with Karn, Scion of Urza and Karn's Temporal Sundering is pretty interesting. Not having Baral, Chief of Compliance is a big loss, but that's a lot of good Planewalkers, plus we might be able to make great use of Nexus of Fate.
It should be interesting when the next Pro Tour has a Nexus of Fate deck in the top 8...
U/W might not be one of the supported color combinations, but with a card as messed up as Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, there's probably a good case to be made for forcing it. I mean, maybe it ends up just being too free to splash red or green into your U/W deck, but to know what we're comparing it to, let's try our hand at a straight U/W deck, leaving Ral on the sidelines.
While our mana is certainly less powerful than the manabases above, this is not an embarrassing manabase. It's not clear we can really rely on this mix of removal. Memorial to Genius does get even more appealing without Hieroglyphic Illumination to freeroll.
I sort of wonder what the best long game victory condition is, as I think we're probably going to want at least one besides Teferi. Outside of any Karn-like approaches, there's the obvious Nezahal, Primal Tide approach.
I think I'd rather sideboard it, though (along with Lyra Dawnbringer). I could kind of imagine a lot of room for creativity on the victory condition front. For instance, what if we used four Evolving Wilds and a Swamp?
Maybe we use a few black duals, maybe we don't, but it's not like we actually have to break the bank to make it happen.
Depending on whether the format gets filled with more cheap creatures or cheap removal, History of Benalia could be well-poised to make a comeback. It's especially nice for helping enable Conclave Tribunal.
We'd have to be playing more creatures than just this, of course, but it's not like the blue and white spells are all that, or anything. If we actually fill out the deck with a fair number of solid drops, Conclave Tribunal could be a better option than Ixalan's Binding (at least in some decks).
Is Resplendent Angel crazy? I mean, maybe everyone will just have Lightning Strikes and it won't be good. However, if people are packing more Shocks and Shivan Furys, she already doesn't have to contend with Abrade anymore.
I'm not even joking.