I used to hate the time leading up to the release of a new set. That awkward time when cards start getting previewed, but before you've seen enough to really have a good idea of what the new environment is going to look like. We're there right now, with Guilds of Ravnica right around the corner. Kaladesh is leaving us, Amonkhet is leaving us, and Standard is going to look completely different in a scant month's time. But, how?
That not knowing used to really bother me. I'd look at a card like Quasiduplicate and just refuse to process it, thinking that it was pointless without knowing the full array of value enters-the-battlefield effect creatures I would have access to. Or I'd take a gander at Firemind's Research and bemoan how little I knew about the speed of the format to come. Any effort I put in to understanding previews felt like it would quickly be invalidated by the rest of the set and ultimately wasted.
As you may have gathered, these feelings no longer plague me. It's not because the facts of the situation have changed, as preview season still works roughly as it always has. Nor is it because I've learned to occupy myself with other things during this part of the Magic calendar. No, I've well and truly learned to appreciate this time of the year for what it is: an opportunity to flex very different Magic muscles.
Context is everything in Magic, and reaching conclusions on new Magic cards without fully understanding the context of the cards around them is a foolhardy proposition. But if we're being honest with ourselves, reaching conclusions on the exact power level of new cards by staring at the set list is also not a realistic task. Without actually playing a lot of games and watching the format develop there's always a good deal of guesswork involved.
But what if conclusions weren't the goal? Sure, it's nice to be able to place new cards in neat little boxes. This card's good, that one's bad, that one's going to define the format. Doing this, however, is approximately as useful as figuring out that the matchup between deck X and deck Y is 57-43 in deck X's favor: not very.
Instead, the goal should be to develop mental frameworks around how the new cards play and what factors will make them better/worse. No, you don't have to spend time thinking about every unplayable vanilla 2/3 for three in some sort of misguided attempt to give every card its due, but you should give the time of day to every card with a unique effect. The odds are very good that at some point during the card's time in Standard, the effort you put in will pay off.
Bluffs and the Fair Game
Enough philosophy. Here's the target of today's analysis:
I have a penchant for cheap creatures and cards that foster interesting play patterns, and Emmara, Soul of the Accord is both. She's abstractly powerful too, according to lessons learned way back with Magic 2015.
Cards with the ability to produce a token creature every turn cycle have long been a Magic mainstay. For the most part though, they have either been quite expensive or have required additional payments of mana for every token. Goblin Rabblemaster was neither of these things, and the card terrorized Standard.
I'm sure many of you who are primarily familiar with Goblin Rabblemaster from Modern and Legacy are unsure about the comparison I'm making here. Rabblemaster has quietly snuck into the non-rotating formats, and its role in them is as the fastest possible clock in a single card. There's no world in which Emmara, Soul of the Accord will ever be filling that same role; her kill just isn't fast enough. But that wasn't Rabblemaster's primary role during its time in Standard, either.
Don't get me wrong: Goblin Rabblemaster was still exceptionally good at punishing opponents who stumbled. But Standard tends to be too creature-centric for an unopposed Rabblemaster to be the rule and not the exception, and that was certainly the case throughout Rabblemaster's time in the format. Instead, Rabblemaster often served as a glorified token maker. Much work was put into sequencing Rabblemaster in such a way to make the first token or two live, and the ability of Stoke the Flames to stop your tokens from attacking, and thus keep them around, was highly prized.
Emmara, Soul of the Accord is a new take on this passive kind of continual token making at a cheap cost, and she'll be in Standard side-by-side with Goblin Rabblemaster 2.0, Legion Warboss. Of course, Emmara makes tokens substantially differently than either Rabblemaster variant, and the difference in how Emmara and Legion Warboss end up performing ought to be quite instructive.
The key difference between Emmara and Goblin Rabblemaster / Legion Warboss is that Emma risks herself to make a token while the others risk only the token. She is the attacker, not the token, and that makes a world of difference.
The first implication of this difference is that pump spells are immensely important with Emmara. When you declare an attack with Emmara, your opponent is hugely incentivized to block, assuming their creature has more than a single point of power. If your 2/2 for two makes a single 1/1 and trades with one of their creatures, that's a fine exchange. If your 2/2 for two gets to make two 1/1s before trading? That's starting to get scary. More than two tokens and your opponent is falling far behind.
As such, they want to block. They want to trade with Emmara if they have to, although they'd much rather put a 2/3 in front of your Emmara. If Guilds of Ravnica Standard ends up being similar to the old Sylvan Advocate days, I won't be expecting much out of Emmara. Highly playable 2/3s for two are exactly what Emmara does not want to see.
But let's assume for the moment that the common two- and three-drops of the format are sized to trade with Emmara, not eat her. Now we enter the realm of the pump spell. Your opponent almost has to block when you make that attack, which means your pump spells will get to work as removal spells far more often than they otherwise would. Emmara forces the issue, letting you use your pump spells on your own terms.
To be honest, the options aren't great. Adamant Will is, on its face, not a card I'm thrilled about putting in my Constructed deck. Ditto for Aggressive Urge, although I could imagine a format with common creature sizing and combat incentives such that the payoff could be worth the relatively low power level. Eating a creature with an Aggressive Urge is a great feeling. Gideon's Reproach isn't a pump spell, but serves the same role of enabling Emmara, since she doesn't actually need to deal combat damage for her effect to work. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on the pump spells to come out of Guilds of Ravnica.
For now, though, let's assume that we get a good pump spell or two to play alongside Emmara, Soul of the Accord. The flip side of our opponent being highly incentivized to block is that we are highly incentivized to attack. A 2/2 for two is not a good Magic card, and if that is what Emmara ends up being in a game, we're behind where we want to be. Often, we'll want to attack whether we have the pump spell in hand or not.
Worst case scenario on such an attack, we trade our 2/2 away and get a 1/1 in its place. That's a downgrade, but not a huge one. If we trade for an opponent's creature at the same time, we aren't exactly happy, but we're not unhappy. Best case scenario, they value their creature highly and know we could have a pump spell and decline to block. That's a good scenario.
The really nice thing about this is that the pump spells we put in our deck can come late without being awful. Since Emmara tends to leave tokens behind one way or another, even pump spells we draw too late to combo with Emmara herself can still be put to effective use. The tokens even have lifelink, magnifying the power of pump spells used on them.
The Unfair Side of Emmara
Spare me a comments section full of people insisting that no amount of synergy can transform a Selesnya creature into an unfair Magic card. I get it people, ultimately, we're just making 1/1s here, and not all that many of them in the grand scheme of things. But even within those confines, there's the fair way and the unfair way.
Combat is the fair way. We turn our Emmara sideways to attack and give our opponent the opportunity to block. We've talked about this already in detail, but the thing to keep in mind is the risk involved. An overwhelming majority of our potential opponents will have the ability to interact with Emmara just by playing Magic with creatures. That's fair.
But what if we didn't have to take on that degree of risk?
Now we're talking. Vehicles are excellent with Emmara. If you have a vehicle to crew with her on the battlefield, you just produce a 1/1 token every turn at no risk. That's powerful, and I have no doubt that Emmara into Aethersphere Harvester would have been the bane of every Mountain mage had Emmara been printed in Dominaria and not Guilds of Ravnica.
But of course, she wasn't. After rotation, all the good Kaladesh block vehicles will be leaving Standard. The vehicles we're left with are, to be frank, not particularly playable. Outside of finding a good Selesnya historic deck that makes use of Weatherlight, there's not a lot there to work with.
We might see more vehicles in Guilds of Ravnica, we might not. If not, I think it's very likely that we will see vehicles again in a set before Emmara rotates out of Standard. This is one of those interactions to keep in mind and recognize if the opportunity should arise.
Crew would be a nice mechanic to exploit with Emmara, but convoke is one I can guarantee will make for some powerful Emmara synergy. Impervious Greatwurm isn't exactly the convoke card I had in mind, but given that it's a core mechanic of the set, I'm sure we'll see other options. Oh wait, we already have:
Now that's more like it. Turn 2 Emmara, Turn 3 Conclave Tribunal your creature, make a 1/1. If things break a certain way, that could be a typical Standard opening in the months to come. I don't want to go too deep into Conclave Tribunal, but the fact that it hits nonland permanents and not just creatures is very impressive to me, and I expect this card to see reasonable amounts of play.
Getting back to Emmara, the most important thing convoke does is give Emmara power going into the lategame. The biggest issue with Emmara is the potential to draw her late in the game and not have a realistic shot of getting more than a single attack with her in. I would be very surprised to see Emmara played without any convoke cards alongside her. It's also worth noting that an early Emmara that gets going makes every convoke card you draw in the future very cheap due to all the tokens you'll have.
Finally, the last unfair thing to do with Emmara that we need to discuss is ways to make these tokens more imposing. Well, we kind of need to discuss them. The tokens having additional value just increases the potential value of an Emmara strategy without making it any easier to implement. I'm far more interested in figuring out how to make Emmara work than I am in figuring out if making her work is something worth doing, as the information needed to determine the latter is largely unavailable at present. Keep an eye out for good Glorious Anthems and move working with Emmara up your priority list if they end up being in the environment.
Note that having access to either convoke or crew cards alongside Emmara works to decrease your need to bluff attack. If you don't have the pump spell, you can decline to make an unfavorable attack and instead wait for one of your pieces of synergy. This in turn will make your opponents respect your attacks more and will make the bluffs you do make more likely to succeed. The depth of attacking with Emmara is something I truly hope becomes a key part of Guilds of Ravnica Standard.
Swerving In The Sideboard
I don't have a deep knowledge of Magic tournament history, but I do recall this being one of the most dominating Grand Prix decks I've ever seen:
This was Grand Prix Memphis, 2015. StarCityGames's own Brad Nelson piloted one of four copies of Abzan Control that made the Top 8. The key innovation all four copies shared was a sideboard playset of Fleecemane Lion.
The basic idea was that the maindeck of this build of Abzan Control was constructed in such a way that the removal spells that were good against Fleecemane Lion were all very bad. Bile Blight, in particular, was essentially the best spell in the format against Fleecemane Lion and awful against every creature in the maindeck of this Abzan Control deck. These cards tended to be sideboarded out, at which point Fleecemane Lion would come in and clean house.
Surprisingly, this is the use of Emmara, Soul of the Accord I'm the most excited about. Or maybe unsurprisingly, as my Magic preferences tend to veer pretty sharply away from synergy. The prospect of swerving into Emmara after sideboard after my opponent makes their deck worse against her is extremely exciting. What will it take for that to be a legitimate plan in Guilds of Ravnica Standard?
The big thing needed is for the format to have polarized removal spells. More or less, this is the format we just left, with Fatal Push being the small-ball removal spell and Vraska's Contempt handling the bigger stuff. As long as the exile clause on Contempt remains important, I think it's safe to say that the black removal is likely to remain polarized, as Contempt is on the absolute biggest end of playable Standard removal.
Against decks relying on black removal, sideboarding into Emmara will likely be effective if the rest of your deck is good against whatever the small-ball removal spell of choice ends up being and if they lack good early blockers for Emmara. Ending up after sideboard in a spot where your opponent's only way to deal with a Turn 2 Emmara is to Contempt it on Turn 4 is an enticing proposition.
A swerve like this will only ever be effective if Emmara is considerably smaller than the rest of your plans. This likely means that you won't be making use of any of the unfair Emmara plans, as the rest of your deck won't be able to support them. Nor would I expect such a deck to want to play any pump spells. A small price to pay for having an unprepared opponent, but something to remember that this strategy replaces synergy instead of supplementing it. To make this swerve work your deck needs to be on the big side of midrange, and there's not nearly enough information yet to know what that might look like. It's just, like everything else today, something to keep in mind.