From time to time, iconic cards from the past are brought back into Standard. These cards are typically aggressive or midrange because the control cards of old are stigmatized as too powerful for this day and age. I firmly believe that control staples had to be toned down a tad to give way for a healthier future for the game. Control was too good, aggro was too bad, and the game wasn't where it needed to be to attract more than a small percentage of gamers for years. That world was a dream for me, as I emerged as a control enthusiast in 2004. I learned to navigate the broad spectrum of formats with Island in hand, defeating foes quite easily with the power of broken blue spells. In this world, the counterspells and card draw options were dynamite and separated the hunters from the hunted.
Even though there were many busted options to choose from, you all know I dipped outside of the box even then. Absorb was a card that instantly drew me in when I crafted the Azorius masterpieces in the old Extended format. There was Counterspell already, but I had to attach a Healing Salve for my additional counterspells in the three-slot section. There were superior alternatives to Absorb, but that didn't dissuade me from suiting up a spell that would hurt the feelings of Mountain dwellers everywhere. I missed competitive Magic where Absorb was a staple in Standard as I started playing in 1999, but I was still in the Rancor phase of my player evolution. I missed so many great years of powerful competitive play in Standard that I felt the urge to revive some of these cards in older formats.
Absorb may have been a pet card for me in old Extended, but it still made its mark in my journey to professional gaming. I won an early PTQ with Azorius Control that showcased the counter with lifegain. This caught the eye of some early content creators that had already enjoyed a few of my more eccentric creations, helping me lay the ground work for the brand that I hold near and dear to my heart today. I'm a control mage, through and through, and I've pushed that gospel for my SCG pals here since 2006. I may be a little older, but my passion for the game hasn't diminished. When a preview like Absorb is released, I must break it down to the core for you all. In the end, I'll end up playing it, but I'll make sure you all have an objectively written guide to determine whether it will work for you.
Many control mages switched to Ionize over Sinister Sabotage due to the mana cost in Standard. I was guilty of the same pivot, but then realized how worthless the two damage is from Ionize in most scenarios. There are elements in Jeskai Control that make chipping away at the enemy's life total seem worth it, but the final damage points come through in giant bursts each time. When the normal Jeskai Control decks ran four Expansion//Explosion, Ionize had a slight impact in some of those games. For the rest of the world, surveil 1 is too good to toss away for a slight break on the mana.
Absorb is a touch more difficult to cast than Sinister Sabotage. The added white over colorless makes a turn 3 Absorb require very specific mana, which could scare some deckbuilders in the early going of the upcoming Standard. But let me set everyone's mind at ease - the release of the remaining shocklands will squash mana issues for all three-color decks. The new control decks of Standard will have 10-11 shocklands, 10-12 check lands, and round it out with 4-5 basics. This mana estimate is without most of Ravnica Allegiance revealed, so it may change depending on the mana requirements from some broken cards we haven't seen yet. Although we don't have fetchlands like the last Ravnica visit, the mana will be borderline the same. The biggest differences are the inability to freely toss a fourth color into your shard, as well as life total management.
When playing this many shocklands, life totals will have to be more carefully monitored from the control side. Aggressive and midrange players gleefully toss shocklands untapped onto the battlefield, where we examine the ramifications that a two-point loss will have on the outcome of the game. Since the manabases will shift toward this higher shockland count anyway, the ability to cast Absorb will be comparable to Sinister Sabotage by default. Jeskai and Esper Control players will aspire to have double of each of their colors early on, maintaining the demand for double white sweepers, double blue counters, and double the third color for removal and/or win conditions. I do not see Jeskai Control moving away from Niv-Mizzet, Parun, but they will have to play more answers to Carnage Tyrant that require double white. Esper Control will lean heavily on Vraska's Contempt, but still require the saving grace of white for hexproof and a cluttered battlefield.
A scenario that may come up is the inability to cast Absorb over Sinister Sabotage because of colorless mana. Field of Ruin is out of favor currently but can easily make a comeback. It's a staple in Modern and for good reason. Answering problematic lands, fixing mana, and not setting you back on resources is an all-in-one package. There's no way it can be played in three-color control decks currently, but it could find a home in Ravnica Allegiance Standard. Detection Tower is another colorless land that has saved my life on many occasions. Carnage Tyrant is a terribly designed card that has a laughable defense from the creators behind the scenes. They champion its creation as the safeguard against oppressive control cards, giving a buffer for control design to have more freedom in future sets. I could write an article refuting this logic at every angle, but that may be a project for another day. For now, let's just sit back and watch the rampaging Dinosaur victimize non-control decks, as well as make non-interactive gameplay for the viewers at home to enjoy.
The second piece of our Azorius reprint to examine is its power level. If Absorb is worse than Sinister Sabotage, we can keep them on the bench until that reality is altered. There's a world where lifegain is purely irrelevant in many cases and that's not where we want to be. The health of Standard depends on the viability of aggro, midrange, and control in a big, cohesive metagame family. When one piece is missing, the format suffers. Aggro has been on the decline in recent weeks due to the unacceptable consistency of Golgari Midrange. Golgari Midrange can turn on the jets and create a vicious battlefield presence early and then cap it off with a powerful end game. Add their ability to destroy all creatures but their giant Wildgrowth Walker with Finality game 1, Golgari Midrange makes current Standard a tough show for the one-drop fans out there.
The good news for Absorb fans out there is that gaining three life will be pretty good against the best midrange deck in the format. Golgari Midrange loves to nickel and dime us early, then slam a haymaker that finishes the job. Absorb gives us an additional turn to take some more damage and then set up a nice turn with a spell backed up by a counterspell.
I have found myself having to tap out for a Deafening Clarion earlier, just to keep my life total at a reasonable spot. This would leave me defenseless against a variety of their powerful threats. When Absorb enters the Esper Control family next month, it will provide relief from the shockland and creature pressure that enemy midrange decks could take advantage of.
Since the three life will be relevant in Ravnica Allegiance Standard, we can safely supplant it as the three-mana counterspell in the early format testing. The real test is whether surveil 1 is better than a Healing Salve. The cards will be equally castable, the three life will be relevant, but the real test turns out to be much trickier than the first two. Surveil is a fantastic mechanic for control and has been shoved to the back of the tier ladder. Only having Dimir released made Esper Control a bit weaker than its Jeskai Control sibling. Now with Orzhov and Azorius added, the surveil family returns together in a more complete control shell. Thought Erasure is an easy four-of, and Sinister Sabotage was another easy add until now. The Esper Control start will lead off with Thought Erasure and hopefully not need the turn 3 surveil from Sinister Sabotage to hit land drops.
Surveil ensures that lands are drawn early and tossed in the graveyard late. The value of an ability like this is impossible to measure against some lifegain with this amount of information we have access to. I want to believe that Absorb will be the clear victor in this exchange, but it's unfortunately too early in the preview season to make that determination. I do know that it will have a space in Esper Control, giving us some buffer to the life loss from shocklands and some insurance against aggressive starts. This means that if Sinister Sabotage has a stronger foothold in the control gameplan, Absorb will fly in as a one or two-of to round out the counterspell package. Essence Scatter, Negate, and Syncopate will still be great options, but I don't plan on having any copies of Disdainful Stroke in my control decks when I can add a better catch all with lifegain upside. Essence Scatter, Negate, and Syncopate give us answers to threats that our heavy hitters can't reach on turn 2.
There will be many games that Absorb will steal that Sinister Sabotage can't. Think about the amount of games where you needed just one more turn with Niv-Mizzet, Parun, but you were at five facing down a Carnage Tyrant. Other games where a Banefire for exact cleaned your clock but a quick Healing Salve would have robbed your opponent of toasting you in an uncounterable blaze of glory. These scenarios are just a few that come up for those of us that play competitive matches regularly. Absorb will have a place in control decks in Ravnica Allegiance Standard, but the quantity will be up for debate. A piece of me wants to see a Red Renaissance, bringing back all the scariest threats that Absorb would love to counter. The rest of me snaps back to sanity and is glad red decks are on a historic dip. I'm so used to seeing red domination that its absence gives me a small sliver of hope that we have seen the last of Goblin Chainwhirler in its twenty-Mountain home.
If it does come back, we will do everything in our power to Absorb them back to order.