Thursday, September 8, 2011

Hindsight Is Always 20/20... And Has Flying, Trample and First Strike

One of the problems with doing set reviews is that you want to do them as soon as possible so that people actually care about what you’re saying. They want to know which cards they should buy or trade for. But doing set reviews before you’ve had time to play with the cards requires you to rely on speculation, assumptions, and theoretical information. Some folks call this “theorycraft”, a rather clever way of putting it, actually.

And, the thing with theorycraft is that sometimes you get it wrong. One of the best recent examples of this was the early hype around Time Reversal. The card initially debuted in the per-order market at like $40. Now you can buy a 4x playset for $2.00. Sometimes a card just looks great on paper, but turns out not to be so hot.

Well, so that folks can’t accuse me of not admitting when I’m wrong, I’m here to say: I was wrong. Not as wrong, mind you, as some folks were about Time Reversal. But I did misjudge Birthing Pod. This card was my #1 pick for EDH from New Phyrexia. While I recognized and acknowledged even then that this card was at best a “fixed” Survival of the Fittest, and was ready to grant the Pod “goes in every deck ever” status, it has turned out to be rather disappointing in many of the decks I’ve put it in. That’s not to say it’s bad at all – it’s terrific when it is in the right deck. It’s just that “the right deck” turns out not to be “every deck that runs Green”.

It seems to be best in decks with access to black. For example, in my heavily gaveyard-themed Damia deck, it’s great. I can tutor it up with Dimir House Guard, recur what I sac to it with Geth or Coffin Queen, and pairing it up with Mimic Vat or Grave Pact is usually game-winning. But in, say, my Rafiq deck where I only have one or two ways to recur creatures, it tends to be a disappointing draw, more often than not.

Again, it’s a good card, and it has it’s uses, but it just isn’t the universally-playable bomb I expected. So, for the record, I was wrong about this one.


It’s hard to be wrong in hind-sight, though. Looking back at the last block, Mirrodin 2: Electric Boogaloo, it’s pretty easy to see which cards have panned out as well as expected (or better).

Scars of Mirrodin

Top Pick – Mimic Vat
                When looking for the most universally-playble card, looking at colorless cards is always a good place to start – after all they have no “Color Identity” to restrict their playability in EDH (save the few odd-balls like Bosh, Memnarch or Proteus Staff). However, the fact that most Artifacts can be played in virtually any deck means WotC usually reigns in the power of Artifacts so as not to completely screw up the color pie. Remember things like Cursed Scroll, that got played in every single tournament deck ever, regardless of color or strategy? Yeah, that’s the sort of thing WotC tries to avoid with Artifacts. They don’t always succeed, though. While Mimic Vat is no Cursed Scroll or Aether Vial in regular old 60-card Magic, it’s arguably better than either of those two in EDH. Creatures die in EDH – this is simply reality. Mimic Vat allows you to profit from the doom of your creatures or anyone else’s. It’s a card advantage machine and a possible game-ending threat all in one cheap, colorless package. If any card in Scars deserves “Every Deck Status”, it’d be this one.

Runner Up – Geth, Lord of the Vault
                I will happily put this guy in any deck with Swamps and innumerable games worth of experience with this card have only solidified my opinion further. Repeatable, Instant-speed Beacon of Unrests, with a built-in mill effect as a nice bonus, attached to a 5/5 Intimidate body… holy cow.

Sleeper Hit – Nim Deathmantle
                 I’m pretty much the sole hold-out on this card. The rest of the format seems to have gone head over heels for the card, but I keep trying it out, keep giving it chances, but darn it all, it just keeps underperforming, by my standards. I think I’ve gotten to activate it’s death trigger exactly once and it was just on evoked Mulldrifter so I could draw four cards instead of two. The Intimidate part actually was relevant more often than the other ability. Oh well. But, one dissenting voice in the crowd doesn’t change the fact that this piece of equipment is extremely popular with the EDH fanbase.

Mirrodin Besieged

Top Pick – Consecrated Sphinx
                Weather you love it or hate it, you can’t deny this card’s impact on the format. It is ubiquitous and powerful, and easily competes with the most powerful creatures in the format, possibly even outstripping Primeval Titan as the best six-drop in the game. Some people have decried it as too powerful and call for it to be banned by the EDH Rules Committee, who have thus far declined to answer such pleas, but I am pretty sure they’re watching the card closely. The RC has claimed many times that Kokusho earned his spot on the banned list by being such a dominating force that he could warp individual games around him the minute he hit the board. If that doesn’t sound like an equally appropriate description for Consecrated Sphinx, I don’t know what does.
                A more appropriate comparison might be to Yawgmoth’s Bargain (nicknamed Yawgmoth’s Broken in some circles), another 6-mana card-drawing powerhouse. Bargain also happens to be banned in EDH due to the 40-starting-life rule making it twice as powerful in EDH as in 20-life formats. Consecrated Sphinx is, in my opinion, a Yawgmoth’s Bargain that doesn’t cost you any life and swings in the air for four damage.
                Not that I think he should be banned – I’m a huge fan of any potent card-drawing enabler, and honestly the Sphinx is probably second in that category only to the mighty Ancestral Recall.

Runner Up – Sword of Feast and Famine
                This easily could have been the top pick, but Consecrated Sphinx is just too overwhelmingly powerful. I was initially cool on this Sword due to the very mediocre discard half of the ability, but I really underestimated the untapping portion of the card. Having since been fortunate enough to play with SoFF in a couple of decks, I can see where the strengths of the card more than make up for the weakness. By simple virtue of being powerful and colorless, I think SoFF is easily more universally playable than the Sphinx, but the Spinx is just overwhelmingly powerful, and Blue is possibly the most-played color in EDH…
                Either way, Sword of Feast and Famine will be a widely-played staple of the format for a long time to come.

Sleeper Hit – Black Sun’s Zenith
                I’m not too sure of this one’s popularity in the format as a whole, but in my experience it has exceeded all expectations. I expected Green Sun’s Zenith to be the powerhouse of the cycle, and while it’s fantastic at being a second Primeval Titan, I just keep finding new situations where having to tutor for a Green creature led to my being forced to get the WRONG creature. I didn’t think the restriction would be that much of an issue, after all, how often would I actually want something other than Primeval Titan? It turns out the answer to that question is: Very often. So GSZ makes way for BSZ to rise to the top of the heap. I didn’t realize how badly Black needed another good board sweeper until I started slotting this one into decks to supplement Damnation and Decree of Pain. That Black Sun’s Zenith is scalable and hoses Indestructible and Persist creatures is not insignificant either.

New Phyrexia

Top Pick – Phyrexian Metamorph
                It’s hard not to love a card that can literally be just about anything you need it to be. It can be a threat, a utility creature, or removal for an opposing Legend. It can be any artifact, even an Equipment. It can be a Mirari’s Wake, even, if you have Liquimetal Coating tricks going on. I can’t put it more plainly than this: I will gladly play the Metamorph in every deck I legally can, and I will never be unhappy to do so. It’s fan-friggin-tastic.
Runner Up – Beast Within
                The only uncommon to make this list, but I think you all would agree, Beast Within is one of the most useful and versatile utility spells in the entire block. It’s an Instant-speed Vindicate with an almost laughable drawback of giving your opponent a 3/3 token. Folks, this is EDH, and if you’re doing it right EVERYTHING in your deck should be scarier than a vanilla 3/3. It kills Planeswalkers. It kills lands (think Gaea’s Cradle, Academy Ruins, or Volrath’s Stronghold – all WAY scarier than a 3/3!). It kills creatures – not a commonly found ability in Green! It kills artifacts and enchantments too, but okay, I’ll grant that Green does have way better options for THIS application. But yeah, people have been harping on card advantage for a long time, but in my experience versatility is just as important, and Beast Within is a Green player’s best Swiss Army Kife.

Sleeper Hit – Chancellor of the Spires???
                I really don’t know that this set has any true sleeper hits. New Phyrexia arguably had the highest density of very good EDH cards in the block, with the Praetor cycle, Karn, and several more cards that are somewhat niche cards, but very, very good in the right decks. Chancellor of the Spires is just one of many such cards – it’s hardly an auto-include in every Blue deck, but I’ve found room for it in most of my blue-containing decks, and have been pleasantly surprised by the results I’m getting. It’s most at home in my Wrexial deck where it’s frankly a perfect fit, but I was surprised to find it was quite useful in the Riku and Damia as well. I don’t really foresee him getting widespread love throughout the format, but he’s getting a lot of love in my playgroup.
                Karn is an X-Factor for this set, because no one in my group has acquired one, so I have zero real-world experience playing with or against him. I haven’t really seen him popping up in a lot of decklists on the EDH forums either, but his price has stayed quite high, so someone is playing with him, that much is clear.
                All of the Praetors are quite good (ok, they're all powerful, but "good" is a bit subjective), and while I’ve been advocating Urabrask as the pick of the litter, I have found Elesh Norn to be better than expected despite the higher mana cost. Sheoldred is pretty damn great, too, but I was expecting her to be, so it’s no surprise. I’d still rank Urabrask as the best of the Praetors, but I think Sheoldred and Elesh Norn are both very close behind him – closer than I’d expected.

Underacheivers Represent!

Some cards didn’t quite pan out. For whatever reason, they didn’t live up to the hype. That’s not to say they’re all stinkers – many are still quite playable, but perhaps less powerful or more narrow than initially thought. Here’s my list of the cards that didn’t quite measure up, based on early evaluations.

1.   Birthing Pod – seeing as I spent the first part of this post talking at length about how I was wrong about this card, it’s only fitting that it tops this list. I must reiterate my point that in no way is Birthing Pod a bad card. It’s just that it’s not as universally playable or as game-breakingly powerful as I initially expected. The comparison to Survival was fair to  make, but it just didn’t ring true in the end.

2.   Phyrexian Rebirth – I think I actually picked this over Consecrated Sphinx for the best EDH card in MBS. Wow, looking back, that seems utterly stupid. For the record I still think Rebirth is one of the best Wrath variants out there, and it’s been played quite a bit in my group. It’s great in Jor Kadeen, in that it always leaves you with a man to equip shit to after the fact, and it’s great in Rafiq for similar reasons. It’s good in Ghave because it’s very easy for the token to be 12/12 or bigger. I rank it as better than Day of Judgement but worse than Wrath of God, whatever that’s worth to you. But I can’t deny that the card just hasn’t taken off in EDH the way I hoped and expected.

3.   Triumph of the Hordes – This makes the list simply because I feared it would be the straw that broke the RC’s back and made them adjust the poison rules to 15 or 20. It obviously has not had that effect yet, but it still seems to me like a very egregious “win out of nowhere” card, and can just really be unfun for a lot of people. I like to think most players have avoided this card for just that reason, and are “self policing” the most offensive of the Infect cards…

4.   Blightsteel Colossus – Of course the one card in the block that had threads calling for a pre-emptive ban would HAVE to win a spot on this list. Obviously Blightsteel Colussus has not been banned yet, and I think most players got tired of it and quit playing it before New Phyrexia was even released. The few hangers-on that still think it’s clever to win with such a card a few enough that the card isn’t worth banning.

5.   Caged Sun – I have to clarify that I think this card is still worth running in pretty much EVERY mono-colored deck ever. It’s just that I never EVER play mono-color decks, so I tried to make this work in two-color decks by pairing it with Sculpting Steel. That just didn’t pan out as I’d hoped. It was fantastic if I actually got both out, but stetting it up was more work than it was worth, because I’d usually be scrambling to catch up once I got my dual Suns online. I’m still a huge fan, and still suggest giving it a try in all your mono-color decks.

6.   Green Sun’s Zenith – Another one I mentioned above. I really had this pegged as a huge bomb, but the restriction that you have to get a Green creature with it just proved to be more of a detriment than I anticipated. In a mono-Green deck, of course it’s phenomenal, but I usually play three colors, and GSZ just was a dud far too often. Still a great card, but far less so than I thought.

7.   Praetor’s Council – Extremely good when it actually goes off, but I see this getting cut from decks more often that I see it being cast!

Well, that concludes our backwards look at the Scars of Mirrodin block. I misjudged a few cards and so did the community at large, but all in all, I feel like most of my theoretical snap-judgements about the cards in this block were pretty close to the mark. Few cards had more impact than expected, but quite a few made less of a mark that we hoped (or feared in some cases). If I were to grade this block as a whole, for EDH purposes, I’d probably give it a B+. Some of the cards that were clearly designed with the EDH crowd in mind either over-shot their mark and wound up a bit too good (Consecrated Sphinx) and some were just too mean and unfun to be widely appealing (Jin Gitaxis). But at the end of it all, the block provided us with a good mixture of big splashy bombs and solid utility spells, and more than a few Artifacts capable of being slotted into almost any deck imaginable.

Worries about Infect, or power creep, or Torpor Orb, or broken artifacts “ruining” the format all proved to be quite unfounded, as the format seems to be healthy – or at least not any worse off than before Scars of Mirrodin. All in all,  a largely successful and fun block.

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