For about eight years, across sites like TCGplayer and ChannelFireball, every time a new set was released, I would write an article with my Top 8 favorite cards from the set that I wanted to brew with. I knew these cards weren't the best cards in the set, and I would often preface my articles with a statement saying as much. There were cards that really stood out to me and seemed cool.
I've rarely done these sorts of articles since having been writing for CoolStuff, and I think the reason comes down to me playing less Constructed than I used to more than anything else. But I think there's a reason for that. Today I'd like to talk about that reason, along with some of the main problems with some of my favorite cards.
An Avacyn Restored Six is a Throne of Eldraine Nine
Back in the day I would write about a card like Flayer of the Hatebound, for example, then proceed to brew up a deck with it and cards like Unburial Rites to reanimate it alongside Griselbrand. While the deck was never meant to be Tier 1, it was definitely Tier Fun, and that was important. The fact that we could also usually win a few games along the way was also nice.
I think Standard has slowly been inching past this possibility for the past few years, while everything in the format quickly becomes homogenized and obvious. Cards like Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, Nissa, Who Shakes the World, and Oko, Thief of Crowns, all of these were not only obviously powerful, but far and away the best cards in their respective sets and formats.
Back in the day, if Flayer of the Hatebound used to be a three or a four in power level, the best Standard deck would contain cards that were a six or a seven; the disparity wasn't groundbreaking. But currently, the threes and fours of modern times simply don't compete with the cards I mentioned; cards that have been banned in multiple formats. I remember when some of the best creatures you could play were Thragtusk and Huntmaster of the Fells, and these were great cards, but significantly more manageable than the threats that cost the same amount today. But maybe I'm dating myself here.
I think having something like Archon of Sun's Grace representing the power-level of four-drops is a good starting point. It's decent on its own and it takes some work to be great, just like Huntmaster of the Fells did. The problem I'm mentioning becomes more apparent when you compare Huntmaster of the Fells to something like Questing Beast, and Thragtusk to something like Elder Gargaroth. It's funny, because even though the newer creatures don't do anything when they enter the battlefield, the hallmark of a "good" creature, they're so powerful that they command removal or else they'll take over the game. Even if you couldn't remove it, Thragtusk could sit on the board for 10 turns as long as you were still playing things like blockers. Elder Gargaroth... not so much.
The cards that are being printed today put a much higher urgency on a game's forward momentum. Aren't doing something that impacts the game? Well, you're likely dead!
There's Always a Greater Power
Another main problem is that the difference between the best cards and the worst cards is widening. Some cards I loved from Theros Beyond Death just weren't good enough. Allure of the Unknown was a super cool design, but it just doesn't compete with the already-legal (at the time anyway) Escape to the Wilds. Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths was a card I loved and felt like a Mulldrifter. You were often drawing two cards on a creature with evasion, or one card you needed more. Yet he never saw any play! Calix, Destiny's Hand seemed like a super cool build-around, but there simply weren't enough good enchantments in the format.
Don't get me wrong here: there will always be great cards and less great cards. That's simply the nature of things existing in the world. Some things will always be better than other things. It's like Bob Ross said, "Gotta have opposites, light and dark and dark and light, in painting. It's like in life. Gotta have a little sadness once in a while so you know when the good times come. I'm waiting on the good times now."
While that's one of the saddest quotes in human history, especially coming from Bob Ross, who brought nothing but joy into the world, it's still very accurate. Without Lightning Bolt, we wouldn't know how bad Lava Spike is. Or rather, how much worse it is, I should say. I understand that not everything can be a nine or a ten, but that also isn't what I'm asking.
The only problem I have with this is that a lot of the cards I want to play with aren't the best cards in the format. In fact, the main card that encouraged me to write about this was Koma, Cosmos Serpent. This was one of my favorite new cards in Kaldheim, and I couldn't wait to build some sort of ramp, control deck with it. It seemed like everyone else was excited about it as well, because even though I wanted to brew with it, it actually did have a very high power level. But nothing I put together really excited me, and even as I searched for decks containing Koma, I found very few. I wasn't sure why.
Then it hit me.
Once again, Blue and Green had found something better to do at seven mana, seemingly making Koma obsolete.
When Ikoria first came out, this was easily one of the worst Ultimatums, and you'd be hard pressed to find a deck playing it. Genesis Ultimatum quickly picked up steam, for obvious reasons, and both Eerie Ultimatum and Ruinous Ultimatum both saw slight play, but Inspired Ultimatum and Emergent Ultimatum were practically junk. Heck, Genesis Ultimatum was basically just a better Inspired Ultimatum, making it not so inspired, matter of fact. Instead of just drawing five cards, you could potentially play all of them!
As far as I can tell, the cards that pushed Emergent Ultimatum, which requires monocolored cards to work effectively, are things like Alrund's Epiphany, Valki, God of Lies (or rather the Tibalt, Cosmic Imposter half), and Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider. The deck is also using cards like Kiora Bests the Sea God (one of my favorites from Theros Beyond Death), Shark Typhoon, Sea Gate Restoration, and a good deal of removal to select from. I have to assume that before Kaldheim, there simply weren't enough mono-colored powerhouses to really justify playing Emergent Ultimatum. Now it has its own archetype and is a powerhouse in Standard. Unfortunately, because the Ultimatum costs seven mana, and Koma, Cosmos Serpent is multicolored, it's really difficult for the two to co-exist in the same deck. And it's also difficult to justify playing Koma as your seven-mana spell instead of Emergent Ultimatum, which just provides so much versatility and value.
In all honesty, Emergent Ultimatum is a card that's completely up my alley. It's seven mana and a legit build-around, and in the Sultai colors no less. I think I was wracking my brain trying to figure out why Koma, a card that everyone thought was powerful, wasn't seeing any play, and then I realized it was competing with another seven-mana card in the same colors, that wasn't even played until the set Koma was in was released, and you couldn't even play Koma in the same deck! Whew. What a mouthful.
I think what all this amounts to is that I wish sets had a more average power level, so instead of there being six good cards and 20 medium cards, just make the numbers more in line. I'm not saying make 26 medium cards. But at least give us more good cards? I don't know; I don't begrudge R&D here at all, because it's extremely hard to balance cards and designs like this, especially when they're combining with numerous sets and thousands of other cards. It's a hard job. I think mostly I wanted to explore and explain why some of my favorite cards don't see play, and are less likely to now than they may have been in a previous time.
Either way, I hope you enjoyed this analysis with me! I'd be curious to hear about what cards you guys have previously wanted to play with or find success with, which didn't pan out. Maybe you figured out why, or what opposing card or cards were causing you trouble. Let me know down below in the comments!
As always, thanks so much for reading, I love you all, stay safe, and I'll catch you next week!