It's time once again for another Magic: the Gathering set to release with Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths! While we'll have to wait awhile longer to get the cards in paper, they're coming to Magic Online and MTG Arena within just a few days' time. With this release comes a whole host of excellent new commons entering the Pauper format for the first time and there's a lot to talk about in the powerhouse set that is Ikoria. Let's go ahead and dive right on in, shall we?
A note on mutate cards:
Before we really get going on looking at the individual commons in the set, I wanted to briefly mention the five mutate cards from the set collectively:
Mutate is the one of the newest mechanics in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths and it's been met with quite a bit of scrutiny as to how it functions. You see, there's a lot of subtle nuances to them that are easy to miss. For example, I know it says it right on the cards themselves, but a lot of players (myself included, I might add) forget that these cards require a non-human target. This means you have to be very aware of creature types - some of which may not be intuitive without Oracle text on hand.
There's other unusual circumstances, like if you kill the target you're trying to mutate, the creature on the stacks enters the battlefield as normal with no mutation triggers. Just as well, flickering a mutated creature brings back each creature separately and no longer mutated. It will take a while for us to really understand these in-depth and this makes them hard to evaluate right now, especially since we're only getting five and they aren't necessarily the most spectacular. I'll still cover each one individually below, but I wanted to give a small overview on these before I go into the greater review as a whole.
Also just so I don't need to repeat it five different times: all of them are reasonable potential includes in Bogles, as they work with every hexproof creature, give them a bigger base body, and provide some kind of effect for mutating.
I'm a huge fan of the meme value of Brushwagg and you'll always see me laughing when the original card from Mirage shows up. I mean, have you seen it? It's adorable with a hilarious derpy face. The card isn't particularly great, but that's part of the fun of it all. It's just a weird oddball card that's been a unique sort of oddity in the annals of Magic.
It's now been over 23 years since we saw one of these creatures (not counting the Mystery Booster test card Interplanar Brushwagg) and this certainly didn't disappoint. It's a quirky card and funnily enough a strictly better version of another meme card: Charging Badger. What's more, this card has made its way into the all-common format of Pauper! As it turns out, though, the card really isn't all that notable, with cards like Oran-Rief Invoker and Wildheart Invoker just all around being better for the most part.
Still, I'd be surprised if the community didn't try to find a meme the hell out of this card. After all, they do love them some meme decks, as seen with the old favorite of Colossal Dreadmaw Stompy. As such I'd expect this to show up in some silly decks not made to dominate the format or anything, and that's it.
Premium removal is often tough to come by in Pauper. Many of the format's best removal spells usually have some kind of limiting factor, like Doom Blade and Snuff Out's non-Black clause or Edicts letting opponents choose what goes away. As you go higher in cost, though, their value becomes lessened. Take Murder, for example. It's only one mana more than Doom Blade, Victim of Night, and other stellar removal spells - and it even hits everything rather than just a decent amount of the field.
The reason is a lack of efficiency with the mana and getting the most value for the lowest cost. That makes Blood Curdle's cost of not look that great at first glance. Despite this, I believe there can be a solid amount of value in the menace counter the card creates. Making something like, say, a Gurmag Angler, Dinrova Horror, or Ulamog's Crusher unable to be easily chump blocked seems like a solid deal to me. It's not like we haven't seen higher cost cards make appearances before. Rend Flesh in particular comes to mind from back in the days when Angler was literally all over the format, so I do think this might show up from time to time in the format, if only on a somewhat infrequent basis.
Okay, so this might be cheating a little bit, as this card is actually from Commander 2020, which is releasing alongside Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths. However, it didn't really make sense to cover that set separately as this is actually the only new Pauper legal card from the set, so why not just lump it in here?
From the standpoint of playability in the format, it's in an interesting spot. The most obvious home for this could be Tron, a deck that could make the higher casting and activation costs feel like nothing. This either provides Tron with a way to fix its mana or draw additional cards if they still have a bunch of open mana during an opponent's end step. I don't know just how much the archetype wants a Jayemdae Tome, but there's enough flexibility that it could make for a niche inclusion. Just be wary of activating this when an opponent also has one on their side of the field, as they'll draw cards with it as well.
Child of Night has seen a nonzero amount of play in Pauper before and this is largely a strictly better version. That's not exactly saying a whole ton, but having some degree of flexibility with making it something more aggressive or a removal spell, depending on your preference, at least makes me want to keep this card in mind.
This feels like quite a step-up from the likes of Spark Reaper, which I was looking at quite joyfully back when War of the Spark was coming out. Spark Reaper has the appeal of being used multiple times in a single turn, assuming of course you have the mana to make it work. This costs only 1 mana but you can only use it one time - a small price to pay for an effect that's better. Being able to gain, say, ten life off of a juiced up Carrion Feeder in an emergency situation instead of just one seems very good, and I imagine decks like Golgari Sacrifice will give this one a whirl on release.
My first impression is that this little guy isn't doing all that much. After all, four mana for discarding a card is a pretty tall ask. By the time you're able to mutate this onto a creature, often times your opponent has already emptied their hand, so what's the use? Well, as it happens, nearly every creature in both Mono-Black Control and Rakdos Discard/Monarch are non-human, barring the likes of Cuombajj Witches and Thorn of the Black Rose.
This might not seem like much by turning cards like Phyrexian Rager or Chittering Rats from 2/2s to 4/4 menace creatures as well as making an opponent discard a card. What about if we did it with a Liliana's Specter though, where we make an opponent discard two cards over two turns and get a 4/4 creature with menace and flying? Perhaps something like Crypt Rats where you can activate its ability numerous times and then swing in for heavy damage.
This is only talking about the cards we have in known archetypes already. It doesn't include, say, throwing this onto a Mulldrifter or something like that. Is it good enough? I'm ultimately not sure. As mentioned at the start of the article, mutate is difficult to evaluate right now. I do think that we'll see it show up at some point, if only later on as opposed to right away.
Turning something into a 5/4 reach creature that also gives you a one-time rummage effect at the low cost of is kind of a steal. It's the kind of effect that could end games, even. Truth be told, I wasn't very high on this card when I first saw it, as it didn't feel very flashy or exciting. The more I think about it, though, the more I like it. Imagine throwing this on top of something like a Kor Skyfisher or Glint Hawk where it's not just a 5/4 with reach, but actually has flying as well. And if your opponent removes them in response, you still get the 5/4 too. This card is another great example of why I think mutate may end up proving to be a bit better than it looks at first glance.
This one is barely worth mentioning when anthem effects like Rally the Peasants, Guardians' Pledge, and Ramosian Rally are so prevalent at much more reasonable costs. I'm only giving this a mention because cycling gives it a little extra flexibility. I really don't think that flexibility is worth five mana to cast this in your aggressive decks, but you never know.
Drannith Healer, Drannith Stinger
Drannith Healer seems pretty neat at first glance but isn't really exciting the more you think about it. Even with the number of cycling cards we've had in the format, we've never really had anything truly resembling a proper cycling deck before. So with that having been said, think of the number of times where you actually cycle.in games of Pauper. Maybe one or two times a game, and usually only with cards like Forgotten Cave, Secluded Steppe, Barren Moor, and maybe sometimes Remote Isle or Unearth. That's....not a lot, and as such you won't gain a ton of life out of it.
That having been said, there are a lot of dirt cheap cycling effects going around and the Healer has a cycling cost of just one generic mana. Even if you don't cast it as a creature, that just seems to go super nicely right alongside Drannith Stinger. This is like Pauper's Lightning Rift in a way, and might just be what we need to make a cycling deck of some kind actually viable. I could certainly see a Songs of the Damned style combo deck with this and a ton of cycle cards to kill your opponent in a sort of Storm-esque finish. Will this be the birth of a new, if lower tier, archetype? Time will tell on this one!
Mulldrifter this is not, but turning small critters like Faerie Miscreants into 3/4s that also give you an extra card on mutation isn't the worst deal in the world. You can even turn an Augur of Bolas from a simple blocker into a hardened attacker. In a world of crazy value Blue cards, though, this card actually becomes one of the less exciting options with mutate entering the format. Still, there's enough play that it's probably worth keeping an eye on.
Essence Symbiote is not a great card that's gonna make a huge splash in Pauper anytime soon. However, if - and only if - new mutate cards end up entering the format, this is a card that's worth having in mind.
Three mana for a 3/3 trampler isn't really that bad of a rate at all. What's more, the self-mill that happens when the card enters the battlefield isn't really a huge downside. In fact, there's already a couple decks in the format that can make good use of this sort of effect. Think about it from the angle of Tortured Existence, a deck that wants creatures to find their way into the graveyard. Perhaps something like Golgari Delve decks trying to jam as many copies of Gurmag Angler, Hooting Mandrills, and Sultai Scavengers as possible? There's enough places this could fit that I think people should keep it in mind when doing any sort of deck-building.
This is another one that seems difficult to evaluate based on cards we already know that exist. Obviously this is no match for the likes of a good clean ol' Lightning Bolt, but we really haven't seen many removal spells in Red before that also draw you a card. That's what makes this so interesting, even if you can't throw it at an opponent's face. It does require you to ditch a card from your hand, but that's not a bad call if you've got a dead card or two in your hand. Because of just how good removal is in the format, I'm not fully sold on it seeing tons of play. Despite that, I also wouldn't be too surprised to see it being cast from the other side of the table as me.
It's been some time since we really saw either Krenko's Command or Dragon Fodder in the format, and this is in a lot of ways just better. Having one of the tokens get haste is nice, and the fact that this also makes Of One Mind cheaper in one go is nice. Still, though, the creatures this makes don't have the creature type Goblin, and that is important for a variety of decks out there. Krenko's Command and Dragon Fodder already barely show up as is, so I wouldn't expect to see this except once in a blue moon.
A three-mana Giant Growth - which already sees no play due to being super outclassed - isn't anything special, but giving something a permanent trample counter is. Spells like this are a package deal and makes them exciting. Imagine this in something like Bogles as a way to grant permanent trample even if an aura is removed. Three mana is a big ask in a deck who uses that slot for the likes of Ancestral Mask and Armadillo Cloak, but I also wouldn't be too surprised to see this as a one-of from time to time in the flex slots.
Go for Blood
Two mana to fight isn't terribly exciting on its own, but there's that one generic to cycle again, and that is exciting. This slots nicely right alongside Drannith Healer and can also act as some decent removal too - assuming you have a creature that can survive the fight.
Gust of Wind
Comparing this to cards like Boomerang, Into the Roil, and Blink of an Eye makes me drool a bit - at least at first blush. Mono-Blue Delver, like many other Blue decks in the format, has no shortage of fliers, making this a dirt cheap pseudo-removal spell. There's a couple drawbacks to this one though. The biggest is that it's sorcery speed, which makes it difficult to use as a tempo spell a lot of the time. The other issue is that compared to cards like Vapor Snag or Snap, you can't target your own cards so you can't use it to bounce back a Spellstutter Sprite or similar. Even if this card doesn't quite make it, it's close enough that it's worth mentioning.
We see spells like this all the time, where you pay 1 mana and give a creature a small buff and first strike. Cards like Precise Strike, Fervent Strike, and Storm Strike all come to mind. This is closest to Precise Strike, but unlike all of these options, the first strike here becomes permanent. That's a pretty steep upgrade when the cost is staying pretty much exactly the same. Again, cards like these are fighting for a ton of real estate, so I don't know that the permanence of the effect will make a card like this suddenly playable, but it is a very choice addition all the same.
Humble Naturalist is in a bit of a weird spot. At first glance, you might think, "We've had tons of bad two-mana mana dorks in the past, why is this one any better?" My answer to that is two words: any color. Most mana dorks at the common level only provide one color of mana. In fact, this sort of effect where the creature can generate any color mana has previously been very limited to cards in the rare slot. Think cards like Somberwald Sage or Beastcaller Savant for example. Those cards are certainly more powerful than this one, but I think being able to cast for any color has at least the potential to create more ramp decks that don't just ramp in a single color.
Keep Safe is another one of those cards that I find difficult to evaluate. Drawing a card in addition to countering a spell is enticing. That said, it's oftentimes not much better than Confound, as there aren't many non-creature targets you'd be looking to counter short of, say, an aura on a bogle. This feels like it joins the many cards in this set that will find more niche homes than anything and will see occasional play from time to time.
Hello Reanimator! A six-mana 5/5 haster isn't too bad if the games go long, as it can be backbreaking to deal with in a format like Pauper. The problem is, no one's got time for that. But thankfully, it's got a built in way to toss it into the graveyard with cycling. That makes this a very easy addition for decks like Rakdos Reanimator to toss it into the yard and bring it back with the likes of Exhume. This is largely why Striped Riverwinder was so good for a hot moment in Dimir Reanimator, and I'd expect this to show up in plenty of Reanimator lists in the future.
Light of Hope
Now THIS is a spell! I had to read this like four times before it really sunk in that this is a real card. It's just so damn versatile and fits into a ton of different decks. Heroic and Bogles could easily make great use of this out of the sideboard, and it wouldn't be a huge stretch to see decks like Boros rock it either. It basically says slow down aggro strategies, blow up a problematic enchantment, or neither are relevant but killing you with a creature is. It's a ton of value and flexibility all for a tremendously low cost, making this, in my opinion, one of the easiest slam dunk options this set brings to Pauper. Expect to see this one a ton.
When I first saw this card, I thought it was an expensive Duress. Then I looked closer and thought it was a slightly more costly, but more splashable Castigate. Then I read it again and saw that you don't have to necessarily take something out of the hand, but you can also choose to hit something out of a graveyard instead. And as a cherry on top, you can cycle it away for an absurdly low rate if need be. This is a card that feels like it will be relevant at nearly any point in the match and might even be maindeckable in the right list. It's incredibly good and I wouldn't be surprised to see this one make an appearance in the future.
I think of all the mutate creatures out there, this is one of the ones that looks the most enticing. Think about this in the context of something like Elves, where it can sometimes find a home in the slot usually reserved for Sylvan Ranger. Not only can it fetch you some basics, but you can also make your own creatures harder to kill or in some ways make them more aggressive. Putting Wellwishers out of bolt range seems honestly like it's not the worst thing in the world, to be completely honest with you.
And of course you can't talk about this card without mentioning the likes of Stompy. A lot of that deck's creature base is made up of non-humans, with the unfortunate exceptions of Burning-Tree Emissary and Skarrgan Pit-Skulk (seriously, you don't know how much the latter one disappointed me). Putting this onto a River Boa or a Vault Skirge and turning them into a large powerhouse can make this an absolute house, not to mention that it also ever so slightly thins out your deck in the process.
This one isn't really anything special, but it's worth bringing up as it's a strictly better version of Bone Splinters, which has made fringe appearances in the format before.
Of One Mind
Draw two cards for one mana? Don't mind if I do! This honestly doesn't seem too difficult to pull off with decks like Delver and Familiars, which both run a bunch of humans and non-humans together. Since a lot of people forget this, Delver of Secrets does in fact stay a human after transforming, so it still works nicely with this effect. I think it's also important to note that while casting straight Divination the card isn't the greatest on rate, do remember that we cast that frequently in the format in the form of Mulldrifter with evoke. As such, even if you have to cast this for the full three mana, it's not always going to be like the absolute worst thing ever. I'd expect this to show up a pretty solid amount, though more as a one-of or two-of.
A 3/2 for three mana isn't super exciting, but the fact that it also mass pumps other humans is exciting. Thraben Inspectors, Icatian Javelineers, Gather the Townsfolk tokens, and more all stand to get buffs from this card and as such it can slot in quite well to certain builds of White Weenies.
There really isn't too much to say about what's essentially a glorified french vanilla critter, but it's very much worth noting how big this gets with cycling cards. If a cycling deck shows up, I would imagine this becomes one of the ways you can work toward a win - especially with something like Temur Battle Rage in the mix.
This is pretty much in all ways just a strictly better Pyre Hound. That card already didn't see much, if any, play, but the fact that this gets buffs from all noncreature spells is sweet. That means cheap artifacts and auras beef it up nice and strong, which might pave the way for something like a Cheerios deck of sorts.
This fights for some major space with the likes of Temur Battle Rage. That said, if you find yourself not really relying on the trample that that card provides, then maybe this can be more your speed. Having multiples of this effect is often redundant and at that point it might be worth cycling it away.
Spell trample in black border! This can provide some sweet new tricks for decks like Elves and Bogles to really push through some hardcore damage with ease. There is one catch, however. It's not totally intuitive at first glance, but the rulings of this card indicate that if either target becomes invalid, no damage is dealt, so no excess damage goes through. That can be a bummer if you try to use this against the likes of Tron since they can simply flicker their creature away in response and leave you unable to push through. If you can get the damage in, this can act as both a removal spell and a win-con, so it's definitely worth keeping in your arsenal. Be mindful of Prismatic Strands with this one, though.
Serrated Scorpion reads deliciously, and seems like great fodder for an aristocrats style list, or even a Black or Rakdos Burn list. Players have tried with that archetype thanks to cards like Bump in the Night and Tyrant's Choice, but have never been quite able to get there. This feels like a step in the right direction and will likely be a very versatile tool for a whole slew of different Black decks out there.
Reckless Air Strike never really saw any play after it was released in Core Set 2020, but there's a bunch more flexibility with this card, largely thanks to the cycling ability. If Reckless Air Strike didn't see play, though, I'm not sure this one will realistically make the cut at all, but the multi-use aspects to it certainly make it worth considering.
Sleeper Dart follows a long line of Pauper favorite two-mana artifacts that cantrip on entering the battlefield. This one, however, doesn't actually tap the creature when you use its ability, meaning this is probably significantly worse than Alchemist's Vial.
A 2/3 for three mana isn't all that great, but being able to repeatedly tap opponents' creatures is. If a dedicated cycling deck comes about, this can be a huge boon to push extra damage through, but the cost is very real on this one.
Solid Footing is so close to being Pauper playable. Like absurdly close. When I first looked at this card, my initial thought was that it makes Inside Out Combo potentially playable again, but I missed the fact that the creature has to have vigilance for the ability to work. Now that's not to say you can't give your Tireless Tribe a Sentinel's Eyes, but at that point it feels like we're putting in a lot of effort to make this work. It's so close, though, that it's a card that we should keep our eyes on for some time.
Ghitu Lavarunner sees a ton of play for being able to be played as a one-mana 2/2 with haste. This is quite a bit different and has to survive to get the payoff you want, but it's really not hard at all to get this coming down on turn three as a 3/2 double striker. We sure have come a long way from Rockshard Elemental being previewed for Legions, haven't we?
Now this is a great rate. Pump a creature and it gets flying forever? This feels like a pretty reasonable inclusion for decks like Heroic and Bogles and it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine it in other decks as well.
My initial gut reaction to this was that it was a worse Scalding Cauldron, but this hits any target and can be flashed in. Still, this is a big investment for very little payoff. Unless you're trying to spam artifacts cheaply for a combo, I can't see it being that great. And no, that doesn't include Affinity. Don't play this in Affinity.
I was pretty high on this until someone pointed out to me that this is pretty similar to Wings of Velis Vale but swap the flying and changeling for cycling. Wings already sees a whole zero play so I wouldn't expect this to show up much, but keep it in mind as another in the group of cards that cost only one mana to cycle away.
Giving a creature permanent reach is great, and untapping critters is excellent as well. This seems a bit like a reverse Arbor Armament in a way. That doesn't see any play, and I doubt this will see much play in any of the format's current Green lists. Still, it's clearly a good rate for a great effect, so it's another fantastic addition to the toolbox.
This is way better than Cower in Fear and Mephitic Vapors. Neither of those see much play over Nausea or Shrivel, but I know how often I've seen those cards get stuck in hands because the opponent played a Spidersilk Armor or Lumithread Field. Giving this a way to try turning it into something more relevant with cycling seems like a sweet option, but this costing 3 mana instead of two is a real cost to be mindful of.
Green hasn't really had much by way of returning creatures from your graveyard to your hand, so this is a very interesting card to have enter the format. The problem I see is that the decks which could run this aren't very interested, as they're very aggressive (Elves, Stompy, Slivers) or else use Black as well and get creatures back that way. The potential here is real, though, and makes it worth considering as you build your decks.
This card requiring you to have a creature with menace certainly hurts it, as there aren't many of those that are actively played in the format. Still, when you present me with a Threaten effect that can cost only one mana, you get my attention, and this is very much a card worth making work. This is especially true as more cards get printed and we inevitably get even more creatures with menace.
Thwart the Enemy
This is another one-sided Fog effect, which have proven to be quite strong thanks to cards like Prismatic Strands. Not only do you stop your opponent from dealing damage, but you also wipe out their entire board in the process. That's quite worth the low cost of three mana, but the problem largely becomes where do you run it? Elves might want to try this in the sideboard, but probably not as it often feels kinda win-more. Stompy and Slivers both don't want this. Maybe Tron but why would they want this when they already dominate against the field with various Fog-style effects? This is good, but is very much without a home and I don't see that changing anytime soon.
Vampiric Link may cost an extra mana more but that's one hell of an effect. Throwing this on cards like Gurmag Angler, Thorn of the Black Rose, Delver of Secrets, or even Crypt Rats to be extra diabolical just seems great to me. This fights for some space with cards like Cartouche of Ambition, which is also removal at the same time, but this is still an undeniably good effect.
At first I thought about this with Heroic. Then I realized most of the creatures in the deck, aside from, say, Sacred Cat and Lagonna-Band Trailblazer, are all humans. As such, this won't do a lot in the decks you might hope it would and its only real play in the format is likely in Bogles - a deck that doesn't really care all that much about the flying.
One-mana 1/1s are rarely exciting, but much like Squadron Hawk, this lets you pull more copies out of your deck. That's great for deck thinning and can probably work excellently in decks that would love to sacrifice the critters.
On the surface, Wilt just looks like another in a long line of strictly better copies of Naturalize. I look at this card, though, as someone who has played a lot of Green Pauper decks in my time and I think this is actually a pretty great option worth testing. Basically the only real options for a long time have been either Natural State or Gleeful Sabotage, depending on your archetype and meta. Yes, some run Naturalize or Return to Nature, but those are often more budget options. There are a lot of times where Natural State can't hit what you want or where Gleeful Sabotage hits one target, one target of consequence and something meh like Rancor, or just sit as a dead card in your hand. Wilt takes care of this by allowing you to hit any relevant target or be able to sift it away and draw a card if it's just a dead card. I'll probably give this one a shot and recommend it to my fellow Green mages.
Reprints with new art: Adventurous Impulse, Anticipate, Blazing Volley, Bloodfell Caves, Blossoming Sands, Cathartic Reunion, Dead Weight, Dismal Backwater, Essence Scatter, Evolving Wilds, Greater Sandwurm, Jungle Hollow, Lead the Stampede, Rugged Highlands, Scoured Barrens, Swiftwater Cliffs, Thornwood Falls, Tranquil Cove, Wind-Scarred Crag
And there you have it! What cards are you excited to play with the most in Pauper and which ones do you think will end up having the biggest impact in the format? I know I'll be playing a ton of Pauper in the coming weeks, especially now that I've begun to stream on a full time basis, and I can't wait to see what kind of fresh nonsense players bring to the table. I hope to see you there on Magic Online soon!
YouTube: Kendra Smith