Return to Ravnica spoiler season is in full swing. The combination of shocklands, the word "Ravnica" being in the name, the momentum from Innistrad block, and the first 73 preview cards hitting all the right notes has Return to Ravnica poised to take a stab at Innistrad's title for best-selling set of all-time.
It is particularly interesting that we have five guilds (Izzet, Azorius, Selesnya, Golgari, and Rakdos) in this set, with the rest coming early next year. This means there will be an imbalance in the color wheel that is a bit unlike anything we have seen before.
Lastweek, we talked a bit about Rakdos (or as much as one can without even knowing what Rakdos Charm does yet). This week, I'd like to take a look at Izzet, a color combination that changes in value quite a bit with the rotation of Doom Blade, Go for the Throat, and Black Sun's Zenith. This is not just about Izzet decks, of course, but rather some cards that could go in Izzet decks but will likely find a multitude of homes.
From the responses last week, it seems pretty clear people are interested in the new Jace. How good is Jace, Architect of Thought?
Let's just get one thing out of the way.
His name is Jace.
That means two things.
1) He is going to be good.
2) People are going to compare him to previous versions more than they should instead of other colors legal in the format.
All four Jaces are legal in Vintage and Legacy. Mind Sculptor is still the best and isn't looking likely to be surpassed anytime soon. Jace, Architect of Thought is part of the set of "All," so that's that.
Jace Beleren and Jace, Architect of Thought are both legal in Modern. Jace Beleren doesn't really see any play. Jace, AoT isn't super likely to take over the format, but I am a total degenerate and am obviously going to try.
This brings us to Standard, where Jace 3 and Jace 4 are both legal. Now we could have a nice little comparison, if we wanted. The thing is that they are quite different cards. Casting cost aside, Jace, Memory Adept is much more of a sideboard card. Costing five and having no defensive ability is a rough combination in a format as aggressive as Standard. It is quite effective against decks that are not populated by oodles of creatures, but its functionality is known. The real question is if you'd even want to sideboard this one when so many of the people you would want it against might have the newer, cheaper Jace. If you just want a generally good planeswalker to generate you advantage maindeck, Tamiyo is the better choice.
Jace, Architect of Thought, however, is a very different sort of animal. To begin with, costing four makes a world of difference, particularly given the competition with Tamiyo and the rotation out of Pristine Talisman. 4CC has traditionally been the sweet spot for planeswalkers.
When evaluating planeswalkers, I like to start by looking at their "best" ability. This is not to say their ultimate, but rather the ability that has me wanting to play them in the first place. Like Liliana of the Veil, Jace 4 is all about his -2 ability.
"Reveal the top three cards of your library. An opponent separates them into two piles. Put one pile into your hand and the other on the bottom of your library in any order."
How good is Fact or Fiction for three cards? Unlike Murmurs from Beyond, you can actually take the small pile if you like. Unlike Fact or Fiction, the cards you do not pick go on the bottom of your deck (a rare tap of breaks regarding all this flashback nonsense).
To start with, it is trivial to show that this ability is much better than drawing a card. After all, you can always get the best of three cards if you like. Sorcery speed Impulse for three is probably properly costed at 1U these days. On the other hand, you can also take the second and third best cards. How much is that worth? Murmurs was an instant but also slightly underpowered. In general, I think a sorcery that did it for 1U would be totally reasonable.
So how much is it worth when you get either option?
Well, if we could split the piles exactly, each pile would have 1.5 cards in it. This means as long as you pick the best pile, you are always getting at least 1.5 cards worth. The piles will rarely be balanced with three cards, however. Sometimes you will flip three land. Sometimes it will be three great cards. Sometimes it will be two of the same card and a land.
Just as the pile has to be worth at least 1.5 cards, it also probably isn't worth more than two cards. Yeah, they are allowed to three vs. zero you, but that will come up very rarely and actually decreases the value rather than increases it since it gives your opponent another option (not factoring player error). In general, though, we are talking about the second and third best card of your top three (with edge slanting your way every time the two best cards are of equal value).
We could use 1.75 as a starting point, but I suspect the value is actually higher. Even though Impulse for three isn't as good as draw two, having the option to do it lets you dig deeper and faster. I wouldn't be surprised if the mean value of his -2 ability is actually somewhere around 1.875 cards.
Wow, so we are talking about an ability that is at least as good as Jace, the Mind Sculptor's best ability? Well, to be fair, it is -2 loyalty instead of 0. That is a huge cost, but of course that isn't a fair standard to be held to.
Now we can start to look at Jace, AoT as a sorcery that draws three cards, where 1.875 of them are in your hand and the rest of the value is a planeswalker in play that is generally worth just slightly more than a card. Now we are starting to talk about a pretty good deal.
"Until your next turn, whenever a creature an opponent controls attacks, it gets -1/-0 until end of turn."
It is fortunate that Jace's second ability is so good since the others are much more modest in power. The +1 to give all of your opponent's attackers -1/-0 obviously calls out to hose tokens, but it is actually a little awkward when you think about it. That is a totally reasonable defensive ability, but it is hard to want to let a bunch of creatures attack you to get the payoff from it.
After all, even if your opponent has a single 2/2 (and most creatures are at least this big these days), you don't make any forward progress without some other support. That said, at least you are soaking up some damage. Combining this ability with Curse of Death's Hold is very exciting, but again, we are talking combos.
As for just spamming the ability to get loyalty, it isn't particularly efficient. Only getting one counter per turn means we can only draw our extra cards once every three turns. It will have its moments, to be sure, but overall this looks like a minor bonus that goes along with recharging your Fact or Fictions. The place where it is actually going to pay off the most is when both you and your opponent have a number of creatures. In spots like that, the power reduction can actually lead to profitable exchanges, yielding extra real value.
Finally, we come to Jace's ultimate. This ultimate is actually pretty good, but people will probably be a bit unfair towards it because Jace, TMS's was so unbeatable.
"For each player, search that player's library for a nonland card and exile it, then that player shuffles his or her library. You may cast those cards without paying their mana costs."
Remember, this is for each player, not just opponents. You actually get double Demonic Tutor where one is out of your opponent's deck (and both spells are free). This is actually pretty convenient because it helps ensure that you have enough victory conditions to win the game. Additionally, you were already in a good enough position to keep Jace in play for five turns. Now you get two cards of your choice for free? How are you losing? Even if Jace's +1 was the thing keeping you safe, you can just go get another Jace (and your opponent's best card). That said, a single Nicol Bolas, Griselbrand, or some other similarly powerful finisher will often be the choice.
The real problem with Jace, AoT's ultimate is that you have to give up so many extra cards over at least five turns in order to activate it. That said, if the cards you are Tutoring up will win the game for you, this is totally reasonable. It is just a little risky in today's world with so many new anti-planeswalker cards.
Of course, Jace has a hidden ultimate. It is called "use his -2 ability twice." See, Jace's second ability is so good that you can just use him as a pseudo Divination with flashback. So play him into an empty board, draw 1.8 cards (or whatever), then do it again next turn. That is a big game. Even if your opponent kills him, you are way up in material. If they can't kill him, you could always take a turn off and then -2 again so you actually keep the Jace.
So is Jace 4.0 good? Hell yes, he is. It's funny; Jace Memory Adept's price tag was buoyed up because of the name Jace. I actually think Jace, Architect of Thought is anchored down by it since at this point people aren't impressed, even when they have been given everything they were asking for. (Four-cost blue planeswalker that draws cards and can protect himself at a good rate? Seriously, just say all that out loud).
The format is looking fast and aggressive with plenty of answers to planeswalkers. There are plenty of great options at the four spot. Despite all this, Jace, Architect of Thought will be a good maindeck card (albeit not a ubiquitous four-of in every blue deck). The correct number might be two in a lot of decks. His popularity will ebb and flow from week to week. Some people will use four, but often he will be used in moderation, somewhat similar to Liliana of the Veil.
Prediction: Jace will initially be underestimated but will prove a solid option in blue decks, particularly control, and will gain in popularity. He may even turn out high tier 1 if the format is not too hostile for him. This card is going to be extremely fun to play with (much more so than Memory Adept) and will probably be a key player in making control work.
Let's take a look at some possible Jace decks!
Starting with straight Izzet, there are a number of interesting things going on here. To begin with, I really like the combination of Jace + Tamiyo. Outside of a good curve, they support each other quite well. Tamiyo takes care of the big stuff, and Jace handles the small stuff. Additionally, Jace makes opponents need to attack with more creatures than they normally would to make progress. This makes Tamiyo's draw ability more potent. Finally, you can also just drop Jace, draw multiple cards, and then when your opponent attacks Jace, you draw multiple cards off Tamiyo. This kind of card flow combined with soaking up damage would work particularly well with a lot of sweepers.
It is a little disappointing to not have Slagstorm anymore, but I am not as drawn to Rolling Temblor due to how many other ways we have to deal two damage. Pillar of Flame seems absolutely awesome in the new meta, with Delver, Zombies, Strangleroot Geist, and Huntmaster all likely to be popular out the gate.
Izzet Charm is an interesting puzzle to contemplate. On the one hand, it is extremely flexible, giving us a bunch of very different options that are exactly what we want. Having the ability to counter early planeswalkers is huge, as well as serving as added removal. Even when neither side is good, you have the card filtering ability, which will be surprisingly important.
While many are jumping to play four Izzet Charms in every deck, I suspect that might be more of a Modern play than Standard. This card will still be good in Standard, no question. It will be great. I just think it is totally reasonable to play less than four, particularly once the metagame adapts to how many Pillar of Flames and Izzet Charms people are going to want to play. Cheap creatures with a three toughness seem appealing and expensive creatures with a five toughness (to beat Mizzium Mortars).
Speaking of Mizzium Mortars, that card is another great new removal spell but is yet another piece of evidence that new control decks are going to want to be diverse in their reactive cards. So many of these reactive cards are all good but similar in power level. Drawing two of the same one doesn't give you nearly the flexibility that drawing two different ones does.
The new Niv-Mizzet is probably going to be dismissed as a Commander card by many. After all, it is a six-cost legend that has no comes into play ability, no defensive ability, and only five toughness. The thing is that being a legend is way less of a drawback than it used to be now that Phantasmal Image and Phyrexian Metamorph are gone. The five toughness thing is a relic from Dismember. Once again, we are seeing five is the new six.
As for no comes into play ability, well, we do have the option to hold him. If we know our opponent is playing a ton of removal, we can just wait until we can draw some cards from his activated ability the same turn we cast him. That is expensive but is a nice option when going long.
The thing is that if you ever untap with this beast, you are just dominating, right? Even if you keep him home to block, you are talking about drawing a lot of extra cards. Besides, this guy is just A+ when it comes to guys to find with Jace's ultimate.
Counterspells that target creatures like Essence Scatter, Dissipate, and Syncopate all seem nice but risky due to Cavern of Souls. It is not yet clear how popular that card will be, but I would want to keep the number of dedicated counters pretty low at the moment.
This list looks painfully weak to Sigarda, Host of Herons, a card that I expect to rise in popularity over the next month or two. It is hard for a control deck without black or white to deal with her, particularly if backed by Cavern of Souls.
This list is also pretty weak to Geist of Saint Traft, a drawback that is probably unforgivable early on. Rolling Temblor is an option, but I hate playing so many deal twos. Magmaquake is a fine card, but it might be too painful to damage our own Jaces and Tamiyos. The cold, harsh reality is that we are probably supposed to add white.
Of course, most of the U/R/W decks day one will likely have Delver roots; maybe something along these lines:
The thing is that Standard is really just going to be Innistrad Block Constructed plus M13 and Return to Ravnica. Between Izzet and Azorius being supported in Return and U/R/W Miracles being one of the best Block strategies, I imagine we are going to want to explore something like this:
Two Izzet Charms and a Bonfire isn't a ton of red, but we do get a lot of great sideboard options like Pillar of Flame and Rolling Temblor. It is also very possible that we will want to up the red rather than cut back on it. If we did want to cut the red, however, we could do something like this:
Azorius Charm is a passable miracle enabler, but it has a couple of very exciting options in a dedicated miracle deck. First of all, putting your opponent's creature back on top of their deck is a nice way to survive the early game. You can even combine this with Thought Scour if you don't want it returning. Additionally, choosing the lifelink mode after an Entreat can lock up a game and ensure no meaningful counterplay.
While I am most immediately drawn to white on account of its A+ sweepers, there are still lots of other possibilities worth exploring. For instance, how about a little Grixis?
Now Griselbrand and Nicol Bolas are some winners to Jace up, that's for sure. The loss of Black Sun's Zenith is very harsh, but Dreadbore, Liliana, Barter in Blood, and Curse of Death's Hold are not bad. I particularly like Curse + Jace to lock up games.
Here is a much more speculative direction, taking advantage of what is sure to be one of the more controversial creatures in RTR, Desecration Demon:
Desecration Demon is a tricky one to evaluate. After all, Abyssal Persecutor burned a lot of people last time a four-cost Jace was printed. That said, I think this Demon has better chances, particularly if you can pair him with some red sweepers. After all, you can just sweep the board then attack. No problem. Besides, even if they are sacrificing creatures to hold him back, you are still making progress. It is like that creature chumped him. I'd bet his first major home is a lot different than this, but I think Desecration Demon will do some work.
Finally, we come to RUG, the one three-color Izzet combination with only one guild in RTR. On balance, however, it does get Thragtusk, which is insane and looking to get even better after the rotation.
Ok, I am out for this week. Moral of the story? Jace is a likely to be pivotal in the return of control and will be incredibly fun.
What is your take on Jace 4.0? What card or guild should we tackle next week? See you then!