The full set is just spoiled, so it’s about time we synthesize some of the new information given to us into, well, something more useful than random opinions about cards. I have a few preliminary decklists to unload on you, my beloved readers, but first, let’s talk Standard.
You’d be forgiven for not paying much attention to the metagame as of late. Standard often becomes quite stale in the weeks before the release of a new set, after all. Players have figured out all the best decks, and major tournaments just aren’t scheduled during these times. Luckily, Arena has brought a lot of life, but mostly persistence, into the stagnant world of boring old Standard, and there’s a defined and healthy metagame going into the release of War of the Spark.
There’s some debate to be had here, as all of these decks are reasonable and capable of winning a tournament on any given day, but I think it’s fair to say that the most popular, and probably the best deck, is Esper Control, as Teferi and friends simply take over games very effectively. Rounding out the top tier of competitive decks are Gruul Warriors, red aggro variants, white aggro variants, mono-blue, Sultai Midrange and Wilderness Reclamation decks, be they Temur or Simic. Astute scholars of Magic: the Gathering strategy will have noticed something unique about this metagame: only one of these strategies can be considered to be midrange. Most of what’s going on is either linear aggro or combo (or the ill-defined tempo, in the case of Mono-Blue), with concessions to beating the other linear decks made along the way, despite the fact that well-established Standard formats usually have a significant midrange bent to them. I’d argue that this has a lot to do with the high power of the threats that exist in the current Standard, compared to the temperamental-at-best answers available to a midrange strategy.
Well, that’s all about to change. War of the Spark is chock-full of answers and powerful midrange cards, with nary an overpowered one-drop to be found. This makes sense from a design perspective, as the planeswalker card type shines most in a slower, grindier format, and filling the set with cheap, powerful creatures that could beat them down easily wouldn’t make much sense, now, would it? There are just so many efficient removal spells like Angrath’s Rampage, so many powerful planeswalkers like Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God, so many powerful catch-up cards like Enter the God-Eternals… Wait, these cards are all Grixis, a pre-existing shell desperately in need of a boost in power level.
Grixis Bad Mana – Daniel Fournier
This deck really takes advantage of a lot of what War of the Spark has to offer, by playing its most powerful cards alongside a supporting cast that really ups its power level. Enter the God-Eternals and Angrath’s Rampage are powerful removal spells that perform poorly against a developed board, and Cry of the Carnarium takes care of the format’s go-wide strategies quite handily. Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God is an immensely powerful source of advantage whose plus ability takes advantage of an opponent who is low on resources, while Thought Erasure and Nicol Bolas, the Ravager shred your opponent’s resources.
The most controversial inclusion in this deck is the poor man’s Bitterblossom, Dreadhorde Invasion. I have mixed feelings about this card, but I’m certain that if there is truly a deck where this card can shine, that it’s this one. It can easily be replaced by something like Treasure Map or even Search for Azcanta as a means to generate card advantage in the two-drop slot, but I have this gut feeling that Dreadhorde Invasion’s utility against creature decks isn’t to be overlooked.
Grixis, and midrange in general these days, is likely to struggle a lot against Esper in game ones, and as such, the sideboard is filled to the brim with cards for that matchup.
Let’s move on to something much less innovative, but much more fun:
Temur Twin – Daniel Fournier
But Daniel, you comment — upset for no reason, this is just Temur Reclamation — but worse, and with a stupid name! Alas, you poor summer child. This is no mere Temur Reclamation deck. This is, in fact, a Temur Reclamation deck with a bunch of combos added in at random. Ral, Storm Conduit is actually very powerful in this shell, and fundamentally changes the deck’s gameplan. Previously, you’d often be jamming a Niv-Mizzet and hoping that the value generated off of it would carry you through the game, often dying to a developed board that your deck struggled to answer. But no more. Now, we have a bunch of combo kills.
One of the biggest flaws in the Ral, Storm Conduit and double Expansion // Explosion combo, which I am legally required to call Splinter Twin, is that its significant mana requirement will typically expose Ral to a turn of damage on board. You can avoid that with Wilderness Reclamation, so long as the cheap spell that you’re copying with your first Expansion is an instant. Ral also interacts very favourably with the deck’s existing Reclamation into Explosion plan, as he can copy a nice fat end step Explosion to either clear the board or simply one-shot your opponent.
Beyond all the shenanigans with Ral, the deck also just operates perfectly acceptably as a Temur Reclamation deck, minus the maindeck Niv-Mizzets, which can honestly be just as much of a liability as a blessing in certain matchups. This deck obviously needs to be tested in the fires of the new competitive metagame before the big switch from Niv to Ral takes place, but I think it’s very promising — and very fun!
I’ll leave you today with some “hot takes” on the last bunch of spoiled cards, so as to not leave any loose ends on my little Reality Check mini-series. Good luck on the battlefield!
Given that most Oblivion Ring effects in Standard were targeting creatures or planeswalkers anyways, this seems like a very reasonable card, with a scry tacked on for value. Unfortunately, I don’t see this replacing Ixalan’s Binding in more midrange decks until that card rotates, due to its inferior interaction with Teferi, Hero of Dominaria.
I do love me some efficient answers, but this card runs into a unique problem. In competitive Magic, a common heuristic for determining whether or not a permanent that costs more than three is playable is whether or not that card has an impact when subject to a removal spell. As such, Despark will more often than not be playing catch-up to planeswalkers that have already used an ability or creatures whose triggers have already resolved.
This certainly is a large fellow with a very powerful ability, and its recursive ability cheats the aforementioned valuable-permanent-heuristic somewhat. I could see this being a strong five-drop in a Llanowar Elves deck, though it’s unlikely to have a home in the more aggressive white decks thanks to its hefty mana cost.
Ugin, the Ineffable
In a Standard format where we’re unlikely to be able to take advantage of the powerful static ability, this is simply not a superior planeswalker to the myriad of other options available to us. That static is very cool, though.
Command the Dreadhorde
While the effect on this is certainly very powerful, I don’t see it being a midrange trump on the level of Liliana, Dreadhorde General or countless other absurd cards in this set. Definitely a sweet Commander card.
Finale of Devastation
While I love the utility on this, specifically the ability to search up creature-based answers like Deputy of Detention, comparing it to Green Sun’s Zenith, or even Chord of Calling, is a bit of a stretch. Green Sun’s Zenith was so powerful because the flexibility of the card was absolutely worth a single green mana, but doubling that additional cost is a huge swing. It would cost three mana to turn Finale of Devastation into a Llanowar Elves, which is just not a reasonable rate. The efficiency isn’t there on this one.
Alas, if only Heart of Kiran was still around. Gideon Blackblade is a pretty cool card and is reasonably powerful, but I doubt it will see any play so long as the three-drop slot in white aggressive decks is filled by the superior History of Benalia and Benalish Marshal. I could see a more midrange deck opting for a History/Gideon split, but that simply is not how white creature decks are built in this Standard.
Finale of Glory
This is a very strong tap-out control card, reminiscent in power level of cards like Secure the Wastes or White Sun’s Zenith, both of which have seen plenty of play in the past. I anticipate this will show up somewhere, but that it doesn’t as of yet have a home in the current Standard metagame.
Sarkhan the Masterless
This fellow is deceptively strong. At worst, its an Air Elemental, while more often than not, it will be two Air Elementals. Sometimes, it can be three, four, or even more Air Elementals! That’s a pretty solid rate on a five-drop.
Please just give me Remand, not this situational nonsense.
Narset, Parter of Veils
This is a cool card with a historically powerful static ability, but one that’s probably only important in Legacy, and maybe Vintage. I could be wrong, however, as her ability to immediately replace herself with a new spell is pretty nice.
Finale of Eternity
How much mana are you willing to spend on a Plague Wind? This card is great. It can do a great job of cleaning up small creatures early, while creating huge advantage both on-board and in terms of resources in the late game.
Oath of Kaya
I’ve always been a fan of good old Lightning Helix, so it’s nice to have access to that card, albeit a much clunkier version, in Esper Control. I doubt the second ability will be all that relevant, though additional life gain upon having a Teferi in play is definitely a nice upside.