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What Goes Up – Return to Ravnica

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Cranial Extraction
Ravnica: City of Guilds was the first set for which I purchased an entire box. I had split a Darksteel box with my best friend when we were college freshmen, and I would split a box of Shadowmoor with him when I moved back to his area, but from the time I started playing to somewhere in Zendikar block, Ravnica was my only full box. I only was able to do that because, buried in a binder, I had forgotten I owned a foil Cranial Extraction back when you could get $40 for one. I scrounged up enough other stuff to trade in for the most hyped set in my relatively young Magic life.

Part of that hype was as much for what it followed as anything else. Kamigawa block met with a tepid reaction—I liked it, but I didn’t have the money to buy much of it—and my memory of Ravnica hype is that it felt like a return to strong Magic flavor after a year’s detour, like when bands say their next album is “going back to their roots” or something like that. (Depeche Mode fans before Playing the Angel? U2 fans before All That You Can’t Leave Behind? Underworld fans hoping the next album isn’t like the 2010 one? R.E.M. fans seemingly forever?)

So I have a special attachment to where Magic’s returning to in next week’s prerelease. But with seven years comes change, and part of that is new guild mechanics. Rather than tell you what was good in the original block, I want to highlight cards that were mediocre or decent at best in 2005 but are better with the return—cards that were underplayed in their time but could come back much stronger now.

Azorius

What’s New – Detain, the stun gun of Magic. Detain is on so many creatures’ enters-the-battlefield abilities that playing it appears to be a frenzy for tempo and aggro-control strategies. That will favor the guild in Two-Headed Giant, but not in general multiplayer.

What’s Old – Forecast, an under-designed disappointment. The mechanic’s on few cards and doesn’t play well with the guild’s best common, Overrule. Proclamation of Rebirth turned out to be pretty good, but the others haven’t done much in any setting.

What Overlaps – Very little, for which I blame forecast. Plumes of Peace might be synergistic, but that’s stretching it.

What Wins

Azorius Herald
Azorius Herald The Herald does everything the new Azorius wants. It’s cheap, evasive, and life-gaining. For casual builders, it’s also a Spirit, giving it great play with enablers such as Drogskol Captain and Angel of Flight Alabaster. I’ve never been able to give it a good deck home, but it plays much better with recent cards than when it came out.

Aethermage's Touch The ability leans toward pricey, but it is definitely worth it in the right deck. This wasn’t surrounded by the proper creatures back then. Now there’s Angel of Serenity, Azorius Justiciar, Lyev Skyknight, and even Isperia, Supreme Judge before attackers are declared as a Keep Watch (or a reason to attack somebody else at least). Any one of these can ruin an opponent’s combat, and Aethermage's Touch enables both a creature’s surprise use and its subsequent casting from hand.

Loxodon Gatekeeper Detain is a fantastic tempo mechanic, but it can’t hit everything and won’t show up all the time. Worse, if you can’t detain a permanent for a turn, it could end up like missing a spell against a horde of Werewolves, going from a strong position to playing catch-up almost instantly. The Gatekeeper’s global effect eases the burden on finding detainers while providing an okay body, buying just enough time to make a difference. The original guild was too slow for the effect to matter, but now it could be significant.

Izzet

What’s New – Overload: a sort of kicker that turns targeted spells global. It seems that it will be straightforward to figure out which overload spells are good, but it might be harder to figure out in-game spell management.

What’s Old – Replicate: a sort of multikicker that turns minor spells major. Like with a lot of Equipment, the best replicate spells have cheap replicate costs; the difference between 1 mana and 2 mana is a big deal, as only Gigadrowse and Shattering Spree are remembered fondly.

What Overlaps – Apart from just wanting to cast instants or sorceries, neither replicate nor overload meshes with its surroundings; each is just good value for the card. Nivmagus Elemental loves replicate but is indifferent to overload, giving it an anachronistic feel. Djinn Illuminatus is the opposite, loving the low converted mana cost of overload spells but having few things it wanted to replicate in the original Izzet (since a lot of them had replicate already); I gladly would pay 3rrr and 1r to overload and replicate Mizzium Mortars. There’s more crossover between Izzets than between Azoriuses (Azorii?), but that’s not saying much.

What Wins

Tunnel Vision
RepealRepeal’s had some Constructed spotlight, but it’s never fully caught on in casual. It’s usually too pricey to bother with against something like Repulse or Regress, but two new cards, Goblin Electromancer and Firemind's Foresight, might say otherwise. With the former, reducing Repeal by 1 makes the bounce cost the same as the casting, which is a start. With the latter, Repeal is much better, since it’s an instant with converted mana cost 1 that can matter in the late game. Should I be playing Commander with either Niv-Mizzet as commander and I cast Firemind's Foresight, I’d first be interested in finding the overload spells—Street Spasm and Cyclonic Rift are great ideas—but after that, Repeal’s one of the best available options.

Tunnel VisionTunnel Vision has combined with tuck effects in Commander for severe milling; it’s never been as good in sixty-card formats. With new card Psychic Spiral, that could change. Cast Tunnel Vision for Psychic Spiral, cast Psychic Spiral to shuffle the Tunnel Vision back in, and mill someone for loads of cards. In non-singleton formats, Psychic Spirals can shuffle each other in during their resolutions, sort of like a dinky garden-water feature where the same water keeps going in and out of the fountain but everybody’s still fascinated with it anyway. If you like dinky garden-water features, you’ll love Tunnel Vision and Psychic Spiral . . . or something.

SchismotivateA prototype of Agony Warp, Schismotivate usually has been just shy of playable. The problem is not the mana cost as much as it’s the Izzet creatures you’d want to combine with the card. There are good reasons it’s difficult to name many Izzet creatures—they just don’t go in much.

This time around, there are several quality creatures for the early game, including Ash Zealot, Faerie Impostor, Goblin Electromancer, Guttersnipe, Nivix Guildmage, and Nivmagus Elemental. It’s not an aggressive group, but it’s playable, and that group might want a good combat trick. Schismotivate finally has a base of creatures to warrant play, and in multiplayer, the option to mess up two opponents’ combat is worthwhile. Give it a try, and see what you think.

Rakdos

What’s New – Unleash: one of the most aggressive mechanics ever printed while still maintaining a level of strategic consideration. It’s more reliable than bloodthirst and doesn’t have to be all-in, but trading defense for offense still implies fast and hard damage.

What’s Old – Hellbent: an ability word that makes everything better if your hand is empty. You can make that deck work—I love Anthem of Rakdos more than you do—but you can’t stick hellbent cards randomly into a deck, and the multiplayer version has a very narrow set of playables.

What Overlaps – A sleek curve of unleash creatures and cheap flyers like Daggerclaw Imp could segue nicely into hellbent or pseudo-hellbent creatures, especially with cheap spot removal such as Dreadbore. That should work in a small multiplayer or team game at least.

What Wins

Dread Slag
Crypt Champion Known primarily for its Standard loop with Saffi Eriksdotter, Crypt Champion’s symmetrical reanimation is easier to break than it looks, while a 2/2 double strike for 3b can deal solid damage. While the Champion had little to reanimate in the original Rakdos, as Avatar of Discord wasn’t a good option, there are some nice targets this time. Rix Maadi Guildmage is a reasonable early return, while Cryptborn Horror can be devastating in the late game. Being a Zombie gives Crypt Champion solid tribal interactions as well; it’s in my U/B/R Zombie deck with Cemetery Reaper, which pumps its damage while exiling bad options for opponents to reanimate. There are enough aggressive creatures this time that you should get good mileage out of the Champion.

Galvanic Arc It’s always been reasonable as removal you could possibly reuse while giving an okay effect to a creature; the passage of time has pushed it to the side a bit. But first strike’s always a welcome addition to an aggressive deck, and tacked to on-curve removal, the Arc looks strong. Even creatures as simple as Dead Reveler look really good when they have first strike and a clear path in front of them.

Dread Slag A junk rare in a guild full of them, Dread Slag is huge with a sympathetic deck. I’ve known it to deal 22 haste damage from a Torrent of Souls and an Anthem of Rakdos; that’s perfectly playable. But whereas hellbent was the primary method to effectuate a large Dread Slag, now it makes sense as the top of an aggressive curve. If you put in enough lands and aggressive creatures so that you can generally play one of each per turn, you can curve into a 9/9 trample on turn five. The card implies a few hoops to maximize its potential, but nothing’s dictated, and the Rakdos now have the right creatures to make Dread Slag great.

Golgari

What’s New – Scavenge, which feels at the moment like a bonus-use mechanic like flashback or unearth—only without the build-around potential.

What’s Old – Dredge: an explosive mechanic that needs no introduction.

What Overlaps – If you had a bunch of creatures that really wanted some +1/+1 counters, dredging to put scavengers in your graveyard would make an okay deck. But dredge is on creatures you want to reuse, and those aren’t the creatures you put counters on normally.

What Wins

Necroplasm
Necroplasm Buddy, the leader of my group back in Alabama, is the world’s most frequent user of this oozer. In addition to being an efficient, reusable token killer—a Ratchet Bomb with dredge—Buddy’s often employed the Shambling Shell jump trick, putting a +1/+1 counter on a Necroplasm that just got a third counter so that it never kills 3-mana creatures (i.e. itself), surviving to destroy bigger and better things. That sounds like a narrow trick, but Buddy manages it often.

Scavenge and its friend Corpsejack Menace make working with Necroplasm so much easier. Slitherhead’s probably the easiest ally for how cheaply it’s scavenged, but the real fun will be with larger scavengers such as Deadbridge Goliath. When Necroplasm can go from killing all the 1-mana creatures to all the 6-mana creatures in one play (while also being a 7/7), opponents can’t play around it. And while many opponents will be gunning for your Titan-killing Necroplasm, other opponents might want to protect it to ensure that the other threats die and that Necroplasm moves up in counters beyond what they want to cast. Necroplasm was always good, if limited; scavenge can make it terrifying.

Silhana Ledgewalker I’ve never used this in a Golgari deck; it’s been a bloodthirst enabler and Equipment wearer. But the original Invisible Stalker would love to scavenge. Hex-Blade has been an occasional Standard deck, and the mana hasn’t always supported it. With Golgari Guildgate and Golgari Keyrune, Silhana Ledgewalker fits easily into a scavenge deck. And since it hasn’t been printed in a regular set for a while, it’s less hated than Invisible Stalker.

Woodwraith Corrupter Okay, this one’s a bit of a stretch. But its ability and its power and toughness are unique among the Golgari, and both sides play well into the new Korozda Guildmage. It’s much more inviting to turn one of your Forests into a 4/4 creature if you can make it a 5/5 intimidate, and if that doesn’t look like it’s going to work out, you can at least sacrifice the Corrupter to make six Saprolings. I don’t know if that makes the card good enough, but it certainly has a better chance with a new creature to aid both halves.

Selesnya

What’s New – Populate: a mechanic making tokens for free provided you already have some. The hardest part for now is knowing how dedicated your deck has to be to tokens before populate makes sense for it.

What’s Old – Convoke: a way to turn small creatures into big mana. Convoke is well designed in its fundamental tension of whether to use the creatures for combat or mana; I’ve used it in very different decks over the years.

What Overlaps – Obviously, populating helps convoking, but there’s little else that goes together, primarily because the original Selesnya has little worth populating. You can make a synergistic deck that populates some and convokes some, but it would be more Selesnya good stuff than a thorough mechanical integration.

What Wins

Devouring Light
Chant of Vitu-Ghazi This is one of the few old Selesnya cards that becomes better specifically because you made bigger tokens. Initially reading this card makes you think of Blessed Reversal or Blunt the Assault, but it’s far, far better than that, as it intends for you to block with your team and then cast it. The card basically reads, “Gain life equal to the total power of creatures involved in combat,” and that’s something where you’d rather have a 3/3 Centaur from Call of the Conclave than a random Saproling. I’ve gotten good mileage out of playing this the turn before a counterattack—aided by cards such as Ivory Giant—and that style of play prefers the bigger tokens of Return to Ravnica to the traditional convoke creatures. Populate gives Chant of Vitu-Ghazi a broader range of applicability than before, and for a card of such swingy goodness, that should be a lot of fun.

Devouring Light This is still the only card with its exact effect. And while 1ww has never been the best price, even with convoke, it becomes much better now. Why? Consider the 2/2 vigilance Knight made by Selesnya Charm and Security Blockade. I have a pretty good Glare of Subdual/Masako the Humorless deck, and vigilance plus a use for tapping creatures gives you more miles per creature than it might appear on paper. Devouring Light is in with Schismotivate—it’s a tad expensive for my tastes, but with new toys, it could make a serious leap in value.

Utopia Sprawl I couldn’t pick a Signet for this exercise, so I’m going with the other card in that area. The new Selesnya craves green and white mana for its activated abilities; only the Izzet comes close to needing as much. Trostani, Selesnya's Voice and Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage promise loads of creatures if you can just give them the mana, making both ramp and color fixing priorities. You know in Super Punch-Out!! where you can get some energy back basically by mashing all the buttons when the opponent’s knocked down? (Yes, I’m referencing 1994 like it was yesterday.) Repeatable populate asks players to mash all the mana buttons, and to do that requires loads of green and white mana. Utopia Sprawl is humble but reliable for the task.

Conclusion

It’s fun to put good cards together across eras, and it’s even more fun to take okay cards and make them good when new stuff comes out. Some of the block interactions are obvious, but the ones that didn’t find a home the first time were buried amidst all the goodies. For the fifteen cards above, it’s time to unbury them. Am I rites? (Unburial . . . you see what I did there.)