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Early Standard Surprises From Core Set 2021


Core Set 2021 Standard is officially here, and with it our first empirical data on the format. During preview and set review season we postulate how good and bad certain cards are, trying to make accurate predictions to inform our early deck choices. However, without actually playing the games we invariably under and over value cards.

There have already been a number of surprises from the Core Set 2021 card list and today we're going to go over what cards looked innocent on paper but have been making serious waves.

Ugin, the Spirit Dragon

Okay, not every card was a surprise.

Ugin, the Spirit Dragon has quickly and expectedly become the top end of the format, aided by one of the most impressive arrays of mana ramp that Standard has ever seen.

Earlier this week I played a four round SCG Tour Online Challenge and 4-0ed, qualifying me for the weekend's big event. The Simic Ramp deck was already great, playing a wide variety of the most powerful cards in the format, and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon was the ultimate endgame that could answer basically anything, removing the need for another color.

However while Ugin wasn't much of a surprise, the real surprise was how well Cultivate slotted into the deck.


Cultivate is a Commander staple, but Commander is a format predicated on singletons and mana ramp. Before Cultivate there was Kodama's Reach, which saw a good amount of play back in its day, but when Cultivate was first printed in Core Set 2011 it didn't see much play at all. Nissa's Pilgrimage, a similar but slightly more limited effect, also saw fringe play, but the effect always felt a little slow at three mana.

Considering how good the ramp in Standard already is Cultivate didn't seem poised to make a huge impact, but in practice it has been instrumental in Simic and Sultai ramp decks. The card advantage it provides plays very well alongside all the "extra land drop" effects present in the ramp decks like Growth Spiral and Arboreal Grazer, ensuring that you can get your ramp on while also making your normal land drops putting you way ahead.

Also given how many powerful things there are to ramp into in the format in general, Cultivate is likely to be an important staple in Standard for the duration of its legality.

Jolrael, Mwonvuli Recluse

Jolrael, Mwonvuli Recluse is perhaps the sneakiest card in Core Set 2021.

It's such a bizarre card that it was very easy to overlook. The 1/2 body doesn't look impressive, the card is difficult to compute in Green, and the six mana activated ability feels like an afterthought on a commander card. It's easy to look at Jolrael, get confused because you're not sure what you want to do with it, and move on. However, we can now see the error of such thinking.

Jolrael has much more in common with Young Pyromancer than some random Commander legend. It's funny, if Jolrael had simply cost ug instead of 1g there may have been more hype around the card at the start because it would have simply been more clear what kind of company it wants to keep.

Jolrael is already seeing play both in maindecks and out of sideboards in Bant and Simic Ramp decks and this is only the beginning. Standard has a bunch of great incidental ways to draw cards like Growth Spiral, Opt, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, Teferi, Time Raveler, Hydroid Krasis, and more that are already awesome and Jolrael slots right in. That's to say nothing of how she fits into older formats with even better cantrips.

A decade from now, Jolrael, Mwonvuli Recluse may be the card that Core Set 2021 is remembered for.

Teferi, Master of Time

Speaking great ways to trigger Jolrael as well as easy to over look cards, Teferi, Master of Time is much better than it looked initially. This isn't totally surprising; planeswalkers are notoriously difficult to understand without playing with them and Teferi does something no planeswalker has ever done before in activating twice per turn cycling while also being reactionary to what your opponent is doing.

There's a reason that Lightning Strike is better than Volcanic Hammer and Hero's Downfall is better than Ruinous Path, and the flexibility of being able to operate at instant speed more than makes up for the relative weakness of Teferi's abilities.

Teferi, Master of Time isn't raw power like Teferi, Time Raveler or Teferi, Hero of Dominaira, but he is a very solid and powerful tool whose value goes up significantly if you have extra synergies with drawing cards or putting things in the graveyard. He is definitely the best planeswalker in Core Set 2021 and will likely see a good amount of play in Standard before all is said and done.

Seasoned Hallowblade

Speaking of abilities that are hard to evaluate, Seasoned Hallowblade is a house.

Cut from the same cloth as Wild Mongrel, it is easy to look at Seasoned Hallowblade and think to yourself "I don't want to discard cards just to save my 3/1 creature." However, the reality is that you will rarely have to actually activate the ability unless your opponent plays Shatter the Sky/another sweeper effect or blocks it with a token. The mere threat of activating will usually dissuade removal spells and blocks, meaning you get the effect often without ever needing to discard a card.

When it comes to aggressive creatures in Standard, Seasoned Hallowblade does a great job picking up the mantle vacated by Adanto Vanguard. It's cheap, hits hard, and is very annoying to remove. Most important is how it lessens the impact of mass removal. Add that onto possible graveyard synergies as a discard outlet and you've got a really nice Magic card.

Frantic Inventory

Much like there's a huge difference between Lightning Strike and Volcanic Hammer, there's a huge difference between Take Inventory and Frantic Inventory. Accumulated Knowledge was a major player when it was legal in Standard and Extended, even seeing some Legacy play, while Take Inventory saw basically no play. With Take Inventory being the more recent card, it's easy to see Frantic Inventory as just another Take Inventory, but it is destined for much more.

Aside from just being a good draw engine for control or instant speed decks, Frantic Inventory is a very nice synergy piece in many ways. The simplest thing to do is to just get the first copy in the graveyard in some natural way, so you can start with your first copy drawing two cards which is a phenomenal rate. We've seen this in Magic's history when players would Intuition for three copies of Accumulated Knowledge, but this can be easily done in Standard with cards like Teferi, Master of Time or Thrill of Possibility. Being an instant also makes it much better for triggering things like prowess or extra draw triggers.

We can see a lot of this on display in VTCLA's Standard Izzet Prowess deck they took to a 5-0 finish in a recent Standard Challenge.

Frantic Inventory is going to see a good amount of Standard play, and has a chance to influence Pioneer and Modern as well.

Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose

I first took interest in Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose because of the combo it executed with Revenge // Revival. I played an early version of this combo in my video article earlier this week, as well as an Esper hero-based version of the deck on stream recently. I still think the combo is very viable and could be an important part of Standard, but I also learned something else when playing all these decks.

Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose is just a pretty good Magic card.

Vito obviously requires you to play a good density of lifegain effects in your deck, but rewards you quite handily. Oath of Kaya becomes Searing Blaze Helix; Faith's Fetters is good for a fifth of their life total; and effects like Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord go from a nice life buffer to game ending really fast. Incidental lifegain has been one of the most powerful effects in Magic for a while now and if you've got enough of it Vito becomes a nice payoff.

While it's legal I would definitely want to include the Revenge combo in any Vito deck in Standard, but the card is more than just a combo enabler.

Alpine Houndmaster

Alpine Houndmaster is one of the most intriguing cards in Core Set 2021. A two-mana three for one on a well sized creature? We used to pay five mana for Mulldrifter and like it! But of course, the catch is you've gotta put some draft commons into your Standard deck. It's not like we haven't seen this before with Squadron Hawk and already a deck has popped up playing Alpine Houndmaster with a name that directly invokes the "caw."

Paw Blade is an awesome Standard deck, combining an aggressive base with the combo elements of Winota, Joiner of Forces and Embercleave as well as the card advantage that Alpine Houndmaster (and to a lesser extent Bonecrusher Giant) provide. While the deck is fairly linear, at least pre-sideboard, it also is capable of presenting a wide range of threats that can either quickly overcome or go long when needed. Alpine Watchdog is a huge part of that, providing the early threat alongside the bodies needed to help fuel Winota and Embercleave. We also see Seasoned Hallowblade here operating at peak efficiency, as you never feel back discarding a Igneous Cur to save it.

Alpine Houndmaster had too much raw power to not see play in Standard, but I didn't expect to see it find success so early. It's also great to see White aggressive decks able to draw cards!

The First Big Dance

While we've been playing Core Set 2021 in Standard for a week now, information-wise there have only really been a few small events as well as the ladder and streamers playing various decks. This all changes tomorrow, as the SCG Tour Online hosts what will be the first major event of the format.

Big events are the time for the hard choices to be made and we will see what kind of effect Core Set 2021 has when players start playing for real stakes.

I can't wait!

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