The thirty-ninth card of Magic 2019 is a little, White 2-drop by the name of Suncleanser. While small, Suncleanser is potentially quite mighty . . . It gets on the possible playables list based on its low, low cost of , but is surprisingly layered. Its angles of attack can be oblique . . . But I think you'll love it more for its defense first.
The Four Dimensions of Suncleanser:
Suncleanser is a 1/4 Human Cleric creature for two mana. Four toughness at just two mana already puts Suncleanser into rarified company. If nothing else, chances are it could qualify as an outstanding defensive creature, even if we didn't love-love the rest of its text box.
A couple of years ago I won a Regional Pro Tour Qualifier with four copies of Omenspeaker in my sideboard. While Omenspeaker had a useful special ability, I chose it primarily for defensive speed. A 1/3 creature for , Omenspeaker could slow down many fast attackers in the Red Deck. More importantly, it could kill a Firedrinker Satyr and still live to block the next turn. With a whopping four toughness, Suncleanser is an even better blocker than Omenspeaker! Plus, the abilit(ies) Suncleanser triggers when entering the battlefield are arguably stronger. We'll get to all that in a moment.
Compare Suncleanser to the iconic cross-format defensive standout, Wall of Omens. A 0/4 defender, Wall of Omens is much worse on the body than Suncleanser. For one thing, Wall of Omens can't attack. By contrast, Suncleanser can not only attack, but actually deal damage with that one power.
Suncleanser's body lines up nicely with much of the format. A 1/4 for two mana is already bigger for its cost than multiple creatures we'd be willing to consider. It can out-class Red Deck threats like Bomat Courier or Earthshaker Khenra. While it doesn't kill them outright, it can still hold off Ahn-Crop Crasher or Goblin Chainwhirler without dying. Think cards like Liliana, Untouched by Death might have an impact on Standard? Where Liliana is good, Zombies are good. And where Zombies are good, Dread Wanderer goes straight in. Suncleanser is both the right size and the right speed to laugh off that particular Zombie.
That fourth toughness has even more cute applications. Last summer my Top Level Podcast co-host Patrick Chapin tried a Sunbird's Invocation deck. One card Patrick sideboarded was Tocatli Honor Guard. That card was arguably less effective against Energy decks than Suncleanser would have been. While still pretty good, Tocatli Honor Guard nevertheless only had 3 toughness. Had he been able to hose Energy with this instead, Patrick could have gotten even more mileage out of Sweltering Suns. Damage-based sweepers like Sweltering Suns are perfect to pair with a card like this one. You get to slow down the opponent's beatdown creatures, forcing him to commit two or more to the battlefield. When you cast Sweltering Suns, you kill the opponent’s creatures but keep your 1/4! Not only did you generate a two-for-one, your opponent again has to commit two or more creatures to the battlefield to get any damage through at all.
As cute as a 1/4 body for might be, we wouldn't be talking about Suncleanser if not for its multiple special abilities. Defensive standouts Omenspeaker and Wall of Omens both boasted great triggers. Scrying to hit your next land drop — or certainly drawing a card — are great! Suncleanser does something when it enters the battlefield, too. How might we rate its abilities, relative to other defensive 2-drops?
Before going into details about either of Suncleanser's two abilities, it's worth mentioning that there are two to choose from.
It may not look it at first glance, but Suncleanser has the same special ability as Attune with Aether, Preordain, or Marsh Flats. There is a whole class of cards that offer the superpower of choice at a low mana reqirement. These cards, like Ponder or Sensei's Divining Top, sometimes find themselves on the banned list. In other cases, cards like Brainstorm are lauded as among the best spells in a set or format.
Suncleanser doesn't let you touch your library like the aforementioned Omenspeaker or Wall of Omens . . . But it does give you the chance to pick something. In Magic, whenever you make a decision, you have the opportunity to either get closer to winning, or further away. Almost any playable card that lets you choose something gives good players an outsized chance of playing even better. This may not seem like much, but given its miniscule cost, this aspect of choice may be what pushes the card over the line.
When should you pick a target creature?
When should you instead put your boot between the opposing player's shoulder blades?
Actually . . . Hold that thought a second.
It's no secret that the banning of Attune with Aether in Standard has slashed the popularity of the once ubiquitous Temur Energy deck. So you might not be pressed into a dilemma between the counters already on a Longtusk Cub and the acquisition of future ones any time soon. But surely you can appreciate that this is the kind of thing that could come up, even today.
A great pre-empt might be going first against Green.
Numerous Green decks including Shalai, Ramp (and some other versions) play Servant of the Conduit. While it’s no Llanowar Elves, Servant of the Conduit is a serviceable second stringer. Servant, of course, has some limitations. It costs twice as much mana as Llanowar Elves, and might only tap twice.
Or if you mess with it right, maybe it taps zero times!
. . . Which would make it essentially Balduvian Bears.
If you know the opponent plays Servant of the Conduit, you can cast your Suncleanser on the second turn and use its second ability. This will prevent the opponent from gaining the energy necessary to tap Servant for mana.
You don't actually have to commit. Because Servant of the Conduit lacks haste, you can even play Suncleanser second!. The opponent will lose any Energy they already have, reducing this, and all future copies of, Servant of the Conduit to Grizzly Bears status.
We are now in Wall of Omens territory.
From one dimension, Suncleanser is pairing off directly with Servant of the Conduit. A 1/4 creature, it can keep the remaining 2/2 attacking body at bay. Body-on-body you might accept that as an even trade . . . But how are we up a card?
The prohibition on opponent-counters doesn't just neutralize the ability of one Servant of the Conduit... It nerfs all the opponent's Servants! You don't get a 1/4 body for each and every 2/2 Elf Druid the opponent draws, but you do remove all their Energy-driven mana production. Is this worth more than a card? I guess it depends on how many copies of Servant of the Conduit they draw. I do know that no one is going to willingly play a vanilla 2/2 for in 2018 . . . And that's what every incremental Servant becomes.
There are many further implications on the Energy front that perhaps should be discussed in the next section. What I was going for here is that you can aim at a player and do most of your functional damage to their creatures.
The most exciting implementation to me is against Walking Ballista. Walking Ballista is currently the most skill-testing and flexible card in the Standard format, as well as one of the most powerful. Walking Ballista can be a problem for some White decks because it can kill you without attacking. It can resist tapping for Seal Away. It can tick up, like an inevitable time bomb, never contributing to the Settle the Wreckage crew. It can even remove itself from the battlefield in response to a Fumigate, robbing you of one life point . . . Even as it reduces your life by at least one.
If the Walking Ballista is 3/3 or smaller, Suncleanser will 187 it outright. Instant card advantage! You will probably take three damage . . . But you would have anyway. At 4/4 or larger, the Walking Ballista will have the option of killing the Suncleanser on the way out. That might not be too bad . . . After all, given enough time, the artifact creature might just have killed you.
There are as many other victims as there are creatures wearing counters. Walking Ballista is the most exciting victim because the Ballista itself is so good . . . But there is no shortage of relevant interactions.
Terrified of a 4/3 Jadelight Ranger? A 4/3 Jadelight Ranger didn't draw any cards. You're probably reasonably ahead if you use Suncleanser to turn it into a 2/1 creature. Your 1/4 eats that up . . . And at a 33% mana discount!
In larger formats, you might see Suncleanser pairing off against Hangarback Walker. Hangarback Walker's claim to fame was always that you could kill it . . . But it would leave a lot of bodies to beat you up with. However if Hangarback Walker is dying because you reduced it to zero toughness precisely by removing all its +1/+1 counters . . . There is nothing left to convert into 1/1 Thopter tokens! Such an exchange would be deliciously, almost doubly, card advantageous.
"Larger formats" huh?
"I can wrap my head around a 187 on Walking Ballista. That card is awesome and if you can kill it at a +1, maybe I'm down.
"Okay, okay. The Servant of the Conduit thing is cool. I guess if you're playing against in Standard there is a lot going on here. Enough that I'm willing to hear you out.
"But beyond Energy counters, what are you really targeting, player-wise?
"What other kinds of counters are you . . . "
You might have been running through this kind of a monologue, yourself, just now. "Larger formats" indeed!
How about Poison counters?
Unfortunately, you can't target yourself with Suncleanser . . . Which would neutralize the entire Infect mechanic. Nor, sadly, will the enterprising Burn mage find a ten (twenty?) damage shortcut around Phyrexian Unlife here. Actually, I can think of few things worse in that situation than siding in Suncleanser.
So . . . You were probably right in your "larger formats" assessment, at least practically. But what about the "Player" clause, just in Standard, then?
Energy would have been the biggest culprit. While we don't see the same volume of Attune with Aether-driven Sultai decks we once did, it is still common for Black players to sideboard Glint-Sleeve Siphoner. These mages span everything from Mono-Black creature decks to The Scarab God decks. Mono-Black usually wants to avoid exposing itself to Goblin Chainwhirler; it’ll run the vastly inferior Kitesail Freebooter, just for the second toughness. Control decks with The Scarab God usually don’t play many other creatures. So they anticipate opponents siding out much of their removal . . . A 2/1 card advantage engine on turn two can become a powerful contextual tool in the sideboard plan.
If you're going to consider Suncleanser as a sideboard card, these opponents give you a good opportunity to pull your trigger. If Servant of the Conduit was bad without Energy going for it, what about a two-one 2-drop? The Menace actually becomes something once you start thinking about adding creatures. So while I would not equate the two 2-drops — proactive is much, much stronger than reactive in this heads up — cutting the card draw off removes most of the Siphoner's value. “Third string with upside” is still probably better than some of your main deck.
One final “Player” archetype that might be worth talking about is Control. We've seen Dynavolt Tower decks Top 8 Pro Tours and win the odd Grand Prix . . . with and without Attune With Aether. These decks haven't been popular in Standard for a year or more, but there is no strict reason you can't play them, other, perhaps, than the presence of Abrade in the format’s most popular strategies.
Gabriel Nassif played a variant at the last Pro Tour, though he splashed White for a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria.
Gabriel Nassif — Dominaria Standard | Gabriel Nassif, Pro Tour Dominaria
- Planeswalkers (4)
- 4 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
- Instants (23)
- 1 Commit // Memory
- 1 Forsake the Worldly
- 1 Negate
- 1 Syncopate
- 2 Abrade
- 2 Essence Scatter
- 3 Magma Spray
- 4 Disallow
- 4 Glimmer of Genius
- 4 Harnessed Lightning
- Sorceries (2)
- 2 Sweltering Suns
- Enchantments (2)
- 2 Search for Azcanta
- Lands (27)
- 2 Island
- 3 Mountain
- 1 Clifftop Retreat
- 1 Memorial to Genius
- 2 Field of Ruin
- 2 Glacial Fortress
- 4 Aether Hub
- 4 Irrigated Farmland
- 4 Spirebluff Canal
- 4 Sulfur Falls
I mention variants — and the recency of Yellow Hat's choosing one — because there is a lot of incidental drag on Energy that you get with Suncleanser. For instance, many control decks ignore the two Energy from Glimmer of Genius . . . But Red ones want that Energy to power up Harnessed Lightning. It is notable that Yellow Hat played relatively few ways to destroy a Suncleanser cleanly . . . Besides Harnessed Lightning. As we said before, Sweltering Suns will often be friends with Suncleanser; it lives though Abrade or Magma Spray. Harnessed Lightning can easily jump to four damage . . . Just not in this direct case.
Interesting here that Suncleanser doesn't just defend itself, but how.
A final note: Just because you kill a Suncleanser doesn't mean the story is done. You don't suddenly get all the Energy you earned from earlier in the game. Your Harnessed Lightnings don't suddenly get bigger than three. Your Servants don't suddenly make mana. Given a little time, your cards might come online . . . But even when you kill the seemingly inoffensive 1/4, many of them start off kind of stinking. Even though it's already mid-game.