We're pretty deep into War of the Spark preview season and decks revolving around new cards are starting to take shape along with old cards getting a bit of a boost and turning into real powerhouse engines. We have a ton of uniquely designed planeswalkers that function differently from any we've seen before. And we even have a few unlikely combos that some more degenerate deckbuilders might like to take a look at. It seems like War of the Spark really has it all, and we're not even close to seeing all the cards yet!
Last week, I wrote about two cards I thought could potentially have lasting implications on the Standard format. Both Bolas's Citadel and Vivien's Arkbow are powerful relics from some of Magic's biggest names, and their cards are unique in build and execution. Bolas's Citadel seems insanely difficult to evaluate, while Vivien's Arkbow should very easily slot into creature-based midrange decks with a lot of enters-the-battlefield effects. And while neither card seems very good against aggressive decks, as one costs life and the other costs a lot of mana to get started, they both seem busted against midrange and control opponents should they go uncontested.
But this week, I wanted to talk about two cards that I think are going to be great and especially so in the types of decks I like to play. Let's take a look.
There's a lot to take in here. In essence, this is a damage engine, pinging away at your opponent whenever you cast an instant or sorcery. The plus is mediocre at best, but going up two loyalty at a time ensures for more activations of the minus, as well as keeping his loyalty out of burn or attack range. The minus acting as a "fork" is pretty awesome, though, giving you an additional copy of some big card draw or removal spell. And it also deals an extra point of damage.
Now, one of the more convoluted aspects of Ral, Storm Conduit is that it's actually at the center of a weird infinite combo. Ral, Storm Conduit deals an extra damage whenever you copy a spell, which goes infinite with two copies of Expansion.
With Ral, Storm Conduit on the battlefield, cast Opt. Now, while maintaining priority, cast Expansion targeting your own Opt. Before that Expansion resolves, and is still Expansion, you need to cast a second copy of Expansion targeting the first Expansion. Once the second Expansion resolves, it becomes a "new" iteration of Expansion, and you must choose a new target. That new Expansion (#3 effectively) targets Expansion #1 again, and so on and so on.
Normally, this wouldn't really be an issue because an Expansion copying an Expansion ad infinitum without progressing the game is creating a loop that has no end and generates no value. It's like using a Seeker of Skybreak to untap itself. Sure, you can do it, but what are you achieving? But when you add Ral, Storm Conduit into the mix, you generate one point of damage each time you make a new Expansion.
This combo isn't easy to assemble. That's why it's important to put all the cards in a shell where every individual card can still be good on its own. Ral, Storm Conduit is probably the hardest of these cards to put to good use, if only because we have very little experience with it just yet. Planeswalkers are usually pretty good, so it shouldn't be too difficult, though this one does suffer from an inability to protect itself (a common theme of the set).
What's important to note is that while Ral, Storm Conduit can't protect itself, it does start with a ton of loyalty. If you're able to ramp into it via Growth Spiral, dealing six damage to it on the third turn is no easy feat. But does Ral, Storm Conduit fit into a Temur shell? Should it go right into Temur Reclamation, or would it be better served as an alternate win condition in a control deck?
One card that does fit right into Temur Reclamation is Ral's Outburst, a slightly cheaper version of my favorite instant ever printed:
At four mana, Ral's Outburst pairs perfectly with Wilderness Reclamation. When building decks around Wilderness Reclamation, I often found myself digging for powerful four-mana instants. Some drew cards, while others killed creatures. But no card in Standard could do both of those things…until Ral's Outburst.
As of writing this article, I have cast Ral's Outburst twice, and virtually every other second I was playing with Temur Reclamation, I was hoping to draw Ral's Outburst. Killing an opposing creature while digging for combo pieces, more removal, or more card draw is a huge deal. And while the rate of three damage for four mana isn't exactly ideal, any point of interaction that keeps the engine running is important.
Will this replace Chemister's Insight? Probably not. I think there can be room enough for both. Though the more four-mana spells you play, the harder it becomes to survive up until that point, and the more difficult it becomes to get full value out of your cards. And while previous iterations of Temur Reclamation had trouble dealing with larger creatures, playing more burn-based removal that can't deal four damage only exacerbates the problem, so we must compensate.
On Tuesday's edition of VS Live! I played the following decklist, testing out both Ral, Storm Conduit and Ral's Outburst.
The results of the match weren't exactly ideal, but in those few spots I got to see the new cards in action, I started to get a feel for them. Here's what I learned.
- Protecting Ral, Storm Conduit is a must.
Without a way to kill a creature on its own and a static ability that needs time to get going, Ral, Storm Conduit must be protected at all costs. As you cast your instants or sorceries, Ral will deal chip damage. At no point do you need to actually go for a kill so long as you just keep casting removal and drawing cards. Eventually, Ral should kill your opponent (or deck you).
- Removal is not enough to ensure his survival.
Augur of Bolas should be good enough to fit into most Ral shells. Not only does it provide some valuable protection for your life in the early turns, it can also block on the crucial turn you cast your game-changing planeswalker. And in a deck featuring a bunch of instants and sorceries, something like Augur of Bolas should fit naturally.
- Relying on the combo is foolish, though will occasionally steal a game or two.
I'm under the impression that this "combo" is just some splash damage that is a happy accident when it does come together. Untapping with a Ral, Storm Conduit should usually mean winning the game anyway, as copying an instant or sorcery is a pretty powerful effect. Of course, that isn't always the case, and having the backdoor to just deal infinite damage to your opponent is pretty nice. Just make sure you're able to get full usage out of Expansion // Explosion and other cheap instants and sorceries.
- It's likely Ral, Storm Conduit should just be in an aggressive shell to utilize the damage output.
Dealing damage to your opponent isn't exactly useful in a control shell. After all, the only point of damage that actually matters is the last one, no matter what side of the coin you're on. With that said, Ral's abilities are both quite good in a control shell, but there's a chance he would be better-suited for an aggressively slanted deck. Copying burn spells and dealing extra damage to your opponent or their planeswalkers is a big deal in an aggro deck, but it would just need to find the right home.
The likely answer here is that Izzet Drakes or Izzet Phoenix just adopts a planeswalker that fits right into the strategy. But instead of relying on protection like Spell Pierce or Dive Down, we just grind through all that and try to burn our opponent out.
The addition of Augur of Bolas allows us to turn on Chart a Course in the early turns, all while playing defense and chugging through our deck in search for more instants and sorceries to cast. Unlike Goblin Electromancer, Augur of Bolas blocks nicely and also (occasionally) provides us with a free card along the way. And with most of our instants and sorceries being cheap, chances are high that we'll be able to cast that card before we die. Like the Jeskai Flash decks from Return to Ravnica-era Standard, Augur of Bolas is much better in a shell full of cheap spells to find off it. All the card draw in the world is irrelevant unless we survive long enough to cast those cards.
We're not a traditional aggro deck, but Ral, Storm Conduit does not do well in a traditional aggro shell. We need a focus on instants and sorceries, which means we need threats that become formidable when we reach a critical mass. Enigma Drake and Crackling Drake are perfect for doing just that. And while something like Arclight Phoenix and Goblin Electromancer might put in similar work, initial builds around a specific new card should focus on finding ways to put them to their best use. While both of those creatures work well in a deck based around instants and sorceries (with an aggressive slant), neither are particularly well built for defense.
I'm excited to build around Thud. Obviously, Thud isn't new, but the printing of Invade the City gave me the inkling to try it, since we now have twelve creatures that function like Enigma Drake. But the downside is that your Invade the City token never grows bigger, whereas you can cast Engima Drake or Crackling Drake and then grow it over time. This allows for some chip damage, where Invade the City creates a creature with static power and toughness.
What I did learn is that Thud is actually pretty sweet and can act a lot like a combo kill when combined with Ral, Storm Conduit. The copy Ral creates does not require you to sacrifice another creature, and having such a powerful one-mana spell that combines so well with Ral is a big draw for this type of deck.
Obviously, we're not playing Ral, Storm Conduit with the cheeky combo, but I think that's okay. Just because a card combos well with another card in Standard doesn't mean both cards are required to be in the same deck. In fact, cards like Expansion // Explosion are much better with Wilderness Reclamation, where Ral might not shine. The deck needs to operate almost entirely at instant speed to put Wilderness Reclamation to good use, and Ral seems like just another Primal Amulet, which I've already found to be overkill.
It's pretty clear that Ral can fit into a few different archetypes, but finding the right mix of removal, card draw, and protection will be the true test. At four mana, Ral represents a potential infinite combo, a lot of damage to the opponent or their allies, and the potential to Fork removal or card draw to generate a massive advantage. But it's fragile. Fragile to the point where building around it can be dangerous, and it's probably better utilized as a one-shot weapon rather than a reliable engine.
As for Ral's Outburst, I think the home for it is pretty clear. And since working on the Temur Reclamation archetype earlier in the week, I've come to a few conclusions about it:
- Ral's Outburst isn't reliable card draw or removal.
Ral's Outburst is what I like to call "vanity removal," in that you can't rely on it to get the job done. It's there to do a few different things, but neither all that efficiently. At four mana, you get two medium-sized effects, but you wouldn't pay four mana for either of them. Together, you get something pretty great, though obviously a bit watered down. Digging two cards deep isn't Impulse. Dealing three damage doesn't kill some of the more important cards in the format.
- While expensive, it provides a good outlet for Wilderness Reclamation.
Wilderness Reclamation decks often provide the pilot with an excess of mana without a whole lot to do. If you don't draw Chemister's Insight or Explosion, you deck doesn't really do anything. The trick is having cards that are decent on rate to begin with but become absurd when you start to generate a bunch of extra mana. Blink of an Eye is a great example here, but it scales. Once you have Wilderness Reclamation active, you need most of your cards to be a straight dime.
- It could be better than Chemister's Insight.
While I'm not positive, I think there's a good chance that Ral's Outburst will usurp Chemister's Insight as the "best thing to do on the turn you cast Wilderness Reclamation." All you want to do when you cast Wilderness Reclamation is kill creatures or draw cards. Sometimes, casting Chemister's Insight just isn't enough. You dig a little deeper into your deck, but you're too far behind to get full value out of your mana-generating enchantment. Ral's Outburst helps alleviate that pressure, though it's obviously a lot worse against control. Chances are that you want a healthy mix of both, but I'm going to start by maxing out on both.
- It might be better than Prophetic Bolt, but times have changed.
Most people who were playing Magic when Prophetic Bolt was printed understood that killing creatures and drawing a card was pretty nuts. But times are changing. Creatures have two lives pretty regularly. Now our Prophetic Bolt costs a little less mana but is slightly worse on both halves. My gut says that Ral's Outburst is busted, but there's a good chance that it's just blinding me to the truth: that decks like this are outdated and unplayable, and the only reason they have any success is because of the combo-kill aspect of Wilderness Reclamation and Explosion.
A relic of a bygone era, Prophetic Bolt (and I) will live on in the hearts and minds of Izzet mages long after we're both put into the ground. I just hope someone remembers me as fondly as I remember Prophetic Bolt.
Here we see a hyper-interactive Temur Reclamation deck featuring the full four copies of Ral's Outburst. The more we play with Ral's Outburst against a host of opponents, the better of an idea we're going to have on whether we want to jam the full four or just use it like a utility removal spell that complements Chemister's Insight.
This version shies away from Sinister Sabotage, simply because I don't think counterspells are very good in the maindeck. In fact, I only really want Sinister Sabotage against control and the mirror, as it's too slow against all the aggro decks we're likely to face off against. Instead, I'm putting an emphasis on interaction and trying to hit it all the way up the curve.
In the grand scheme of things, testing out new cards like Ral, Storm Conduit and Ral's Outburst is difficult, because we're not entirely sure what the rest of the metagame is going to look like. In testing on VS Live! I'm often pairing my brews up against other brews, as we just want to showcase the new cards and figure out how good or bad they are in what is mostly a vacuum. We're all trying new things, and by the time a tournament comes along we need to be able to accurately interpret our results...with a grain of salt.
Initial impressions are important, and brewing and playing with these new cards is paramount to understanding their functionality. If we don't push their limits, we won't ever understand them fully. If we don't pit them against existing powerhouses, we might misunderstand their strength, or potentially overlook a weakness.
So, my honest assessment?
Ral, Storm Conduit is fine. The card probably isn't busted because the infinite combo just doesn't really fit in the deck. Yes, playing a bunch of instants and sorceries is cool, but the damage output generated by Ral is best paired with an aggressive slant. And while I'm sad to say it, Expansion doesn't fit well in a deck with an aggressive slant.
Ral's Outburst is solid, but not broken. No one will be calling for a ban anytime soon, but I do think it already has a place it could potentially shine. And I'm definitely looking forward to trying it out in Wilderness Reclamation decks in the next few weeks.