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We Have Normality: A Core Set 2021 Review

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We are still here. We will endure.

The design philosophy introduced in Throne of Eldraine is killing the game of Magic: The Gathering. It is not sustainable to have this many cards aim to hit older formats. It is not sustainable to power creep this rapidly and aggressively. It is not sustainable to continuously introduce cards that dominate games and either outright kill or bury opponents in card advantage on a shoestring budget.

Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths took this to the next level. My set review, calling the companion mechanic bonkers, has been entirely vindicated. After completely conquering every format from Standard to Vintage, the mechanic has been given an additional mana cost to contain the problem. I still hate the mechanic with a passion, because it is a betrayal of how Magic works, but it is no longer breaking every Magic format in two simultaneously.

We also banned two cards in Standard, Fires of Invention and Agent of Treachery.

It is stunning to me that Wilderness Reclamation's day of death has not yet been announced. I am not worried that it will be much longer. But banning it, with or without Teferi, Time Raveler or Witch's Oven, won't fix things.

The problem is, with this design philosophy ascendant for several sets, nerfing companion and banning the worst other offenders still wasn't enough. It's the next card up. The next card up, as many people predicted, is Wilderness Reclamation. One could argue the real problem is Growth Spiral and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath. It scarcely matters what the next card up is. The point is there's always a next card. Teferi is waiting, as is Witch's Oven. If you get rid of Teferi and Witch's Oven, and didn't ban Growth Spiral, say hello to Bant or Simic Flash. And so on.

There is no quick fix. There is no set of bans that works. All we can do is shake things up with bans periodically, as things degenerate too much, until we have to do it again.

The only fix is to reset the power level. To reset the philosophy of card design. And then we wait, rotate the cards that got us into this mess, and start again.

We need the second Mercadian Masques.

That is a huge ask in today's world of corporate pressure on short term outcomes. That transitional year is not going to be a good time. And yet, it must be done.

That's why I want to say, up front, that I am very thankful for the nothing-burger, the completely harmless assortment of trinkets, that is Core Set 2021.

Sometimes you have to lock things down for a while.

As a reminder, here are the review guidelines.

Cards get star ratings from zero to four stars, based on their application in Standard. We do talk about Modern, Legacy, and Vintage when appropriate, and occasionally nod even to Commander, but those don't impact the star ratings.

The key is as follows:

  • No Stars: Card is not relevant to Standard, and will be ignored entirely.
  • One Star: Card is probably not relevant to Standard, but it can't be ruled out. Worth brief discussion.
  • Two Stars: Card likely has some Standard use, or might be really strong. Worth at least brief discussion.
  • Three Stars: Card is solid and will matter in Standard. Worth discussion.
  • Four Stars: Card is top 10 in the set, grouping identical cycles together. Worth discussion.
  • Five Stars: Card is bonkers and everyone who allowed it to see print needs to apologize. I do not use this rating in Core Set 2021.

Cards that are reprints are in [brackets]. Reprints can't get four stars.

I experimented last time with going by rarity and then by color, rather than by color. I think it was better that way, so I'm going to keep doing that.

Commons

White: 20 Cards, 5 Stars (2 from a reprint)

Zero Stars: Adherent of Hope, Anointed Chorister, Basri's Acolyte, Celestial Enforcer, [Concordia Pegasus], [Dub], [Feat of Resistance], Gale Swooper, [Legion's Judgment], [Makeshift Battalion], Rambunctious Mutt, [Revitalize], Secure the Scene, Staunch Shieldmate, Swift Response, Valorous Steed, Warded Battlements

One Star: Alpine Watchdog

Two Stars: Daybreak Charger, [Defiant Strike]

Alpine Watchdog is mentioned on another card. Might be free.

[Defiant Strike] is good in decks that reward you for targeting your creatures with spells.

Daybreak Charger is 3 power for 2 mana, plus an extra two damage on the spot. I can definitely see this becoming part of a very low to the ground Mono-White aggro deck in the future.

Blue: 20 Cards, 6 Stars (4 from reprints)

Zero stars: [Cancel], [Capture Sphere], Frantic Inventory, [Frost Breath], Keen Glidemaster, Library Larcenist, Mistral Singer, Mystic Skyfish, Read the Tides, Roaming Ghostlight, Rookie Mistake, Spined Megalodon, Teferi's Protege, Tome Anima, [Wall of Runes], [Wishcoin Crab]

One star: Lofty Denial, Rousing Read, [Vodalian Arcanist]

Three stars: [Opt]

Vodalian Arcanist is still fast mana of a sort, which I almost never entirely dismiss.

Lofty Denial is a strong counter in a deck that always has a flyer. The flying deck hasn't been close to good enough for a while, but perhaps enough cards were banned to change that, or it could get some help.

Rousing Read is a weird one. Even at one star it feels like a reach, but I have a sense that in exactly the right situation, maybe? If one had a deck with creatures that benefited a lot from flying, that was excited to refill its hand and happy to discard a land or a now-useless 1-drop, perhaps this could do something? Probably not, but I like to reach in places like this every so often.

[Opt] is good old Opt. It's presumably in Standard semi-permanently now, which I can get behind. Would get four stars if it was brand new.

Black: 20 Cards, 12 Stars (6 from reprints)

Zero stars: Alchemist's Gift, Blood Glutton, Caged Zombie, Crypt Lurker, [Deathbloom Thallid], [Fetid Imp], Finishing Blow, Gloom Sower, [Infernal Scarring], Masked Blackguard, [Mind Rot], Rise Again, Sanguine Indulgence, [Skeleton Archer], Spirit of Malevolence, [Walking Corpse]

Two stars: Liliana's Steward

Three stars: [Grasp of Darkness], [Duress]

Four stars: Village Rites

Liliana's Steward represents an admirable dedication to ensuring that Lurrus of the Dream-Den is a playable card. It's clear they were worried it might not be good enough.

[Grasp of Darkness] is a solid removal spell.

[Duress] is Duress. Here to stay.

Village Rites is an unprecedented rate for this effect. In the past this would have cost 2 mana, and been marginal at best. This is different. Getting to draw two cards for 1 mana is a great deal. We already have many decks that are happy to sacrifice creatures. Claim the Firstborn. Kroxa and Uro. Amass. Cauldron Familiar and Witch's Oven. And so on. Older formats will love this card too. This is gonna hit hard enough it has me a little worried.

I know it's common, but with the pandemic, a giant stack of these in your garage wouldn't be the worst investment.

Red: 20 Cards, 12 Stars (all but one from reprints)

Zero Stars: Bone Pit Brute, [Burn Bright], Chandra's Magmutt, [Destructive Tampering], Goblin Wizardry, Hobblefiend, [Onakke Ogre], [Pitchburn Devils], [Spellgorger Weird], Storm Caller, [Sure Strike], [Turn to Slag], [Turret Ogre]

One Star: [Crash Through], [Furor of the Bitten], [Goblin Arsonist], Igneous Cur

Two Stars: [Thrill of Possibility]

Three Stars: [Scorching Dragonfire], [Shock]

Igneous Cur is the only new Red common worth a star, which is only because it is a free action off of Alpine Houndmaster.

[Crash Through] has corner case use in decks that are desperate to technically cast a spell.

[Goblin Arsonist] is not a good enough 1-drop, but it's not completely impossible it sneaks in somewhere some time.

[Furor of the Bitten] has a strong rate so it's another card I don't want to quite entirely rule out even though it was a dud the first time.

[Thrill of Possibility] is efficient at doing its job, if you want its job done.

[Scorching Dragonfire] and [Shock] are established as best in class. I expected Fire Prophecy to win out over Scorching Dragonfire, but I didn't appreciate how much exile and hitting planeswalkers mattered, and Fire Prophecy remains a fringe card and one of my bigger review misses.

Green: 20 Cards, 8 Stars (4 from reprints)

Zero stars: [Colossal Dreadmaw], Drowsing Tyrannodon, Garruk's Gorehorn, Gnarled Sage, Hunter's Edge, Ornery Dilophosaur, [Portcullis Vine], Pridemalkin, [Ranger's Guile], Sabertooth Mauler, [Setessan Training], [Snarespinner], Track Down, Trufflesnout, Wildwood Patrol

One star: [Life Goes On], [Titanic Growth]

Two stars: Llanowar Visionary, [Return to Nature], Run Afoul

[Life Goes On] is a very efficient way to gain life. Gaining life is a sucker's play almost all the time, but not always. Don't forget this exists.

[Titanic Growth] was in the deck I played at the last Player's Tour and I'm still only giving it one star. Sometimes one star cards make it. Gotta be fair.

Llanowar Visionary plays strongly into the one into three into five strategy, while setting you up for a world of awkwardness if you don't have a 1-drop. I do love getting this as a cantrip on the road to a third turn Nissa, Who Shakes the World or something similar. That's still probably in large part my old memories of times when this kind of value actually mattered, as opposed to getting right down to business. When this card is good, that will be an excellent sign.

[Return to Nature] is part of the generic toolbox, waiting for its next moment, hoping it won't get upgraded in the future.

Run Afoul is neat. For 1 mana you get to kill a flyer. There is the obvious weakness that they choose which flyer, but 1 mana is a lot less than two, and not having to target is a nice bonus. This is going to be very punishing when it works, so it could be a fine sideboard card in the right spots.

Colorless: 5 Cards, No Stars

Zero Stars: Forgotten Sentinel, [Prismite], [Short Sword], [Silent Dart], [Skyscanner]

Lands: 10 Cards, All 3 Stars: [The Gainlands]

Uncommon

White: 14 Cards, 11 Stars

Zero stars: Aven Gagglemaster, [Faith's Fetters], Falconer Adept, Siege Striker, Sigiled Contender, Tempered Veteran, [Vryn Wingmare]

One star: Angelic Ascension, Basri's Solidarity, Griffin Aerie, Selfless Savior

Two stars: Light of Promise, Seasoned Hallowblade

Three stars: Sanctum of Tranquil Light

You love to see it. Lots of cards that have potential, but none that are easy to unlock. This is what we need right now.

Angelic Ascension is trying to be a two-way card. You can upgrade a creature to a 4/4 flyer for 2 mana, including in response to a removal spell. That's not too bad. You can also use this to kill things that simply have to die, then clean up the token with Teferi, Time Raveler (well, maybe not by the time this set is legal, we'll see) or Brazen Borrower. Both being useful is what makes this interesting.

Basri's Solidarity is a bad rate if all you're getting is the size boost. If you're getting the counters in a meaningful way, that's a bigger deal. You can now proliferate. You can trigger Growth-Chamber Guardian. You can ensure your cards have a counter on them, for various abilities or for stopping Heartless Act. Presumably it is still not enough, but you never know.

Griffin Aerie is a decent payoff given repeated life gain that can trigger it, but not a big enough one that you can be going out of your way to trigger it. It has to usually get triggered incidentally, or it's not good enough in today's game. That seems like a stretch, but perhaps not one that can't be overcome.

Sanctum of Tranquil Light on its own is obviously unplayably terrible. We need a minimum of three other shrines before this is reasonable. Four other shrines make this very good. Five makes it great if we have lots of White mana. That's asking a lot. What is asking a lot but also offering a lot is playing all of the shrines together. That's the way this card gets interesting.

Seasoned Hallowblade is indestructible whenever it matters most, provided there are cards to spare. Adanto Vanguard showed how valuable this can be at this size and cost. I would rather pay four life than a card, but I'd also rather always have the 3 power. This is obviously not as good as Vanguard was, but it's still helping try to make the White aggro deck work, so I can appreciate that. It also might be able to do good graveyard work with reanimation or Lurrus. If we actively want a discard outlet, then this seems great.

Light of Promise has a mana cost that is suspiciously high. Perhaps it had to. Playing this second turn on a Healer's Hawk would be pretty crazy - most decks either kill the Hawk or are already lost. At 3 mana we're asking a lot more of this card. It still has the potential to take over the whole game easily on a lifelink creature, that is now at least doubling its size each turn while keeping you alive. Given how often life gain doesn't matter, this is not as much of a 'win more' card as it looks like it is, and there are some reasonable ways to protect the creature you put this on. It's probably too fragile, but All That Glitters had its moment, so why not this?

Blue: 14 Cards, 19 Stars (five from reprints)

Zero stars: Historian of Zhalfir, [Jeskai Elder], Rain of Revelation, [Riddleform], Tide Skimmer, Tolarian Kraken

One star: Enthralling Hold, Shipwreck Dowser

Two stars: Teferi's Tutelage, [Unsubstantiate]

Three stars: [Rewind], Waker of Waves, Sanctum of Calm Waters

Four stars: Miscast

Enthralling Hold doesn't work. The creature you want is not tapped. It's not that it would never work, it's that in practice, for you, it won't. It's still a Control Magic, so even though it is overpriced and also doesn't work, I still hold out hope that it might.

Sanctum of Calm Waters on its own is ludicrously overpriced. Even with extra shrines, this seems like a lot of investment, plus you had to invest in the other shrines. Skepticism seems warranted if one isn't going for Sanctum of All. If one is going for Sanctum of All, this will be good at finding Sanctum of All, and combine well with the Red shrine as well.

Shipwreck Dowser is an attempt to take this type of card and make it big enough to matter on the board. I do not expect it to be a successful one, but if you're looking to do silly recursion tricks, every little bit helps.

[Rewind] is back. This could be its moment. We already have the four-mana Nightpack Ambusher/Frilled Mystic fork, where you don't know which they hold. Combining them with Rewind makes the bind that much harder to get out of, and risks facing down both the counter and the game winning creature on turn three. The pressure to come out of the gate super quickly becomes that much more intense. I'm not saying ban Growth Spiral, but if we had that discussion two months from now, this is a lot of why I wouldn't be surprised.

Waker of Waves is quite the reanimation target. A 7/7 that shrinks the opposing team isn't the best you can do, but it's very plausibly good enough much of the time, and will sometimes be about perfect. It comes with its own way to get itself into the graveyard, and perhaps get something else there too, while replacing itself with some card selection, at instant speed. That's pretty great. If the tools become available, watch out.

Unsubstantiate is your pick of a bad Unsummon or a bad Remand. Remand would be busted right now, and Unsummon's biggest weakness is there are places where it is dead. The combination seems attractive.

Miscast isn't quite to Negate as Mana Leak is to Cancel, since it only hits instants and sorceries. But it's close enough to look very promising. Mana Leak is clearly too good while Cancel is slightly too weak. We should expect Miscast to be very, very good, including in older formats. I would be unsurprised if printing this card was an error.

Black: 14 Cards, 18 Stars (4 from two reprints)

Zero stars: Bad Deal, Carrion Grub, Goremand, Liliana's Scrounger, Malefic Scythe

One star: Pestilent Haze, Witch's Cauldron, [Tavern Swindler]

Two stars: Archfiend's Vessel, Liliana's Devotee, Sanctum of Stone Fangs, Silversmote Ghoul

Three stars: [Kitesail Freebooter]

Four stars: Eliminate

Pestilent Haze attempts to offer an alternate mode so we can play an Infest in best of one. I don't see it working.

[Tavern Swindler] looks terrible, but there are a bunch of ways to trigger off of gaining an average of three life. Don't count her fully out.

Archfiend's Vessel was printed in the set after Lurrus of the Dream-Den. I repeat. Archfiend's Vessel was printed in the set after Lurrus of the Dream-Den. Which already enabled a deck full of sacrifice effects. It could not be more clear that they had exactly zero idea what the companion mechanic was going to do when it landed. The question now is, can we make this happen while having to find and cast Lurrus normally, or maybe while paying for it twice? Maybe. I've already seen one draft on Twitter, I believe from Frank Karsten. If you like lifegain triggers, the cost of including this in such a deck is quite low, and the payoff is pretty neat, and you can chain them with a Fiend Artisan and a Lurrus of the Dream-Den for a highly efficient army.

Silversmote Ghoul is an interesting proposal. There are two modes to this card. The first mode involves us casting it the first time, and is not that interesting. The second mode involves us getting this into the graveyard by milling ourselves or discarding it. That seems far more interesting. Could this have a place in an Arclight Phoenix / Creeping Chill self-mill deck? Alternatively, White already has one reasonable way to discard this, or we could gain the three life off of Uro triggers in a Sultai deck, which is great for letting us grind out opponents, but probably isn't the best use of deck space.

[Kitesail Freebooter] has proven its worth in human decks. The card is still somewhat overrated when it isn't getting any bigger, but it's still a reasonable sideboard card in those spots.

Eliminate is a great card and a great idea and I want it to be ever so slightly better somehow so it can kill Teferi on the turn he comes down. It's a shame, but that doesn't make this not awesome. It's a great removal spell. We'll be seeing it for a while.

Red: 14 cards, 10 Stars

Negative-one stars: Hellkite Punisher (it's being fined for not being Shivan Dragon and I demand a public apology), Traitorous Greed, Unleash Fury, [Volcanic Geyser]

Zero stars: [Battle-Rattle Shaman], [Furious Rise], Havoc Jester, Heartfire Immolator, Keral Keep Disciples

One star: Bolt Hound, Soul Sear

Two stars: Chandra's Pyreling

Three stars: Kinetic Augur, Sanctum of Shattered Heights

Bolt Hound can add up to a lot of fast damage. Good dog. We need more good dogs if we want there to be a deck involved, but it's a start to the supporting part of the pack.

Sanctum of Shattered Heights does almost nothing on its own, like the other shrines. I like that this and the Blue shrine both provide an outlet for all the extra shrines, since if you go in on this strategy you're forced to play four copies of multiples of all of them. Like the others, doesn't seem like enough if your deck contains eight or even twelve shrines. If it contains twenty-four, that's different.

Soul Sear is a 3 mana removal spell that hits planeswalkers for enough to actually kill them, and gets around indestructible. That's nowhere near as good as exiling, but Red's options in this area are not great, so it might eventually get to fringe level.

Chandra's Pyreling is one dangerous lizard. One extra damage source gets you to four damage off a 2-drop, then two more for each additional trigger. You can also boost its power in other ways, although the need to find double strike elsewhere makes that tricky. Cavalcade of Calamity is the obvious way to get this going, since it triggers off its own attack. There's lots of good competition, so no idea if this makes it until it gets shuffled into decks and tried.

Kinetic Augur is the latest Crackling Drake variation. This one is only Red. Discarding two in order to draw two is worse than a cantrip, but plays very well with what such a deck is trying to do. It also plays very well as a follow-up to Rielle, the Everwise, or as a way to discard Arclight Phoenix. That seems like a deck worth building, presumably with Pteramander, Crackling Drake and then a lot of spells. The big clash is between wanting cycling spells that aren't meant to be cast, versus wanting cantrips for Arclight Phoenix. Not sure how to reconcile that yet. It's possible that Arclight Phoenix is a distraction, despite the free discard outlet this offers.

Green: 14 Cards, 10 Stars (5 from reprints)

Zero Stars: Burlfist Oak, Canopy Stalker, Garruk's Uprising, Fungal Rebirth, Predatory Wurm, [Quirion Dryad] (!), Skyway Sniper, Warden of the Woods, Wildwood Scourge

One Star: [Fierce Empath]

Two Stars: [Cultivate], Invigorating Surge, [Thrashing Brontodon]

Three Stars: Sanctum of Fruitful Harvest

[Fierce Empath] is an expensive way to always draw your big payoff creature. I don't think there's anything remotely tempting at this time, but that could change.

Sanctum of Fruitful Harvest gives you the color to play your other shrines. In theory, we could say that when you do have other shrines, we now can both cast those shrines and can benefit from them, whereas when we don't draw other shrines this card was going to be terrible regardless. There's something to that argument, but as a contained strategy I am not buying it. The price is too damn high. But if we're serious, and we're going for the full Sanctum of All, that's another story. See the discussion there.

[Cultivate] seems so unexciting in a world of Migration Path, but has proven itself in the past.

Invigorating Surge by default is a permanent +2/+2, with some strong creatures that make it much bigger. Pelt Collector, Stonecoil Serpent, Hydroid Krasis, Voracious Hydra, Polukranos, Unchained, Growth-Chamber Guardian, and Incubation Druid are all good creatures and all plausibly have multiple counters already on them. It should be possible to run eight or even twelve copies of these in the deck. Also see Conclave Mentor. There will still be enough situations where an arbitrarily large creature is not exciting, and cards like this tend to vastly underperform and be win-more cards, but watch out.

Gold: 10 Cards, 13 Stars

Zero stars: Dire Fleet Warmonger, Indulging Patrician, Experimental Overload, Twinblade Assassins, [Lorescale Coatl]

Two stars: Watcher of the Spheres, Leafkin Avenger

Three stars: Obsessive Stitcher, Alpine Houndmaster, Conclave Mentor

These are the flagship gold uncommons the core set uses to highlight draft themes in each guild. They are all strong draft cards, as usual, and as usual several of them are interesting Constructed cards as well.

Watcher of the Spheres does solid damage in the two slot of a flying deck, if the flying deck exists. If the discount is relevant, the rate here is pretty great. Does it matter? It knocks one off the cost of all the 3- and 4-drops, so it can let you curve into a four or let you double spell on turns three and four. It's also not legendary, so you can double this up on turn three with a Hanged Executioner. It also makes playing a 7-drop for mana a lot more reasonable, making the big 7/7 a two-way (or three-way if the third is Lukka) option. I keep hoping this can happen. It's probably not going to happen, but maybe. Certainly helps fill out the list to make running Yorion as a companion realistic.

Leafkin Avenger's abilities are both useful and combine well. I am always a little too fond of cards that accelerate all the way to the top, but having a built-in thing to do with all the mana definitely helps tempt me. We still need a good enough high end for after we hit six.

Conclave Mentor can get out of hand fast if you take it seriously. Consider first turn Pelt Collector, second turn Conclave Mentor attack for 3, third turn Invigorating Surge on the Pelt Collector, which is now 9/9 and tramples. A lot of other strong cards fit right into that shell and I'm excited to build it out.

Obsessive Stitcher does both halves of the reanimation job. It's a little too slow with no help at all, but even a little help gets you a fourth turn creature of your choice, and several creatures put themselves into the yard on turn two or otherwise let you discard to set this up.

Alpine Houndmaster puts two other 2-drops into your hand. Both of them are very bad cards once they're there. No denying that. It's still a 2 mana 2/2 that often attacks for more than that, and that puts two free cards into your hand. Does this excite us enough to put a few bad cards in your deck? You'd probably want two copies of each of the two fetch targets, so that's four bad cards to get four Alpine Houndmasters. Both of those targets are dogs, so you can also try to use Pack Leader, which isn't the worst thing when stranded on its own, to turn them into something reasonable. It still can't be a good thing that I'm thinking largely about how to profit from having two extra cards I can discard.

Colorless: 5 Cards, 2 Stars (from a reprint)

Zero stars: Chrome Replicator, [Epitaph Golem], [Meteorite], [Palladium Myr]

Two stars: [Tormod's Crypt].

I heard you liked [Tormod's Crypt], so here it is again. It's better than Soul-Guide Lantern in many spots, but definitely not all spots.

Rares and Mythics

White: 13 Cards, 16 Stars (7 from reprints)

Zero stars: Basri, Devoted Paladin, Basri's Aegis, Basri's Lieutenant, Idol of Endurance, Mangara, the Diplomat (this isn't Commander)

One star: Basri Ket, [Runed Halo]

Two stars: [Containment Priest], [Glorious Anthem], Nine Lives, Speaker of the Heavens

Three stars: [Baneslayer Angel], Pack Leader

Basri Ket is a threemana planeswalker, so it's tough to dismiss entirely, but this is no Gideon Blackblade. All the abilities are profoundly underwhelming.

Speaker of the Heavens is going to need help to get to 27 life. If you can make it, you get a 4/4 flying Angel every turn. That's a pretty great deal for something with this little investment cost. Do we have a reasonable path to get there often enough against players who don't pressure our life total? Seven is a lot. Life Goes On exists and can certainly get us there, if we're that serious, but even then we need something to die that isn't this. Of course, that could be an Uro, or we could be doing various things in Black. The other clear option is eating food. If we open with Speaker, then go Cat/Oven on turn two, and you can get the life off Speaker twice, that's enough to start this on turn three. Gilded Goose makes it easy to get there on turn four if given a window. So there are ways. I'm skeptical, but I'm interested in trying.

[Containment Priest] is very good when it is stopping important things. Escape casts things and tokens are unaffected. As far as I can tell, we are mainly talking about stopping Cauldron Familiar. That's not enough. We'll need more.

[Glorious Anthem] does not seem like it has enough impact to get played at 3 mana in the modern game, but if there is a way to generate enough tokens or benefit enough from enchantments, that might change. This interacts reasonably well with Archon of Sun's Grace and Omen of the Sun, but probably only in a win-more type of way.

Nine Lives comes from a long lineage of cards that never work out. They look like they should. This puts you at nine but reduces all damage to one. It excludes life loss, which means they can't get around this with Cauldron Familiar, which now has to work on its own clock. Given how big damage chunks can be these days, sounds like it should be promising. A hexproof enchantment isn't quite zero risk to get destroyed, but it's a small risk. In theory we can counter the triggered ability of losing the game, and use this to buy even more time, but in practice it's not worth it. I can definitely see this going into the sideboard of a deck that can get into real racing situations thanks to flying or other evasion, or perhaps someone trying to set up Bolas's Citadel.

[Baneslayer Angel] is a great creature. It has won me and others many matches at all levels. The question is, in today's game, does it still do anything worthwhile? My answer is a clear yes. The traditional role of a card one sideboards into ramp, control and combo decks when facing aggression certainly won't go away, despite all the power creep such creatures have benefited from over the years. What we can't do anymore is use this as our baseline plan, no matter how fast we can get it out. Too many other things carry swings that are too big, and there are too many easy answers out there. One has to wait until it is known the coast is clear.

Pack Leader is one of the best lords ever printed. It's 2 mana and provides one hell of a bonus ability that also applies to itself. The catch is it's the lord of the dogs. There are no other good dogs. I did comment that another card was a good dog, but that was grading on a curve. Everyone says theirs is a good dog, but we all know they're not being objective and the dog is mostly pretty dumb and not attacking anyone for much damage. There's sort of Rin and Seri, Inseparable, there's sort of Selfless Savior and Bolt Hound, and there's sort of Alpine Houndmaster. That's pretty much it. Doesn't add up. I have a hard time putting even a card this potentially good into the top ten when there's this little support.

[Runed Halo] occasionally does work but mostly disappoints. There are too many problems it either does not solve, or does not solve fully enough, to get the upside of blanking extra copies of threats.

Blue: 12 Cards, 18 Stars

Zero stars: Pursued Whale, Teferi's Wavecaster , Teferi, Timeless Voyager

One star: Ghostly Pilferer

Two stars: Discontinuity, Barrin, Tolarian Archmage, See the Truth, Shacklegeist, Stormwing Entity, Sublime Epiphany, Teferi, Master of Time

Three stars: Teferi's Ageless Insight

Ghostly Pilferer has a lot of abilities that don't seem like they will ever add up to an efficient package. 2 mana is a lot to pay for a card, especially with such awkward timing. Spells cast not from hand do happen, but they're reasonably rare unless you're up against Lurrus, in which case this gets a big target on its head. Its creature type of spirit could make this interesting in Modern, perhaps, but I don't have a story of where you would want it.

Discontinuity is an awesome design with several distinct modes. The default mode is they try to cast a spell on their turn, and you end their turn stranding the spell, or you let them turn all their creatures sideways and strand them that way. The slight tweak of that is you slam this on their upkeep before they can even draw a card. The extra mode is to do this on your own turn to counter a spell they try to cast on your end step, for the low, low price of only 2 mana. Even with the heavy upfront cost, there is a lot of flexible power here and stray copies could easily sneak into decks in places.

See the Truth is a sorcery speed Anticipate when cast from your hand. That's highly unimpressive. If you cast it from elsewhere, you draw three cards for 1u. That's pretty great. There are two problems. The first is, how are we turning this into a draw three. We still have to cast it, so copying it out. Mission Briefing and Underworld Breach seem like the good choices in Standard. Mission Briefing becomes Concentrate as one of its options, which is good but not great, so it comes down to Underworld Breach, which can then potentially let you draw six or nine. The investment level required here is not small, and the payoff doesn't impact the board. I don't see it. Same goes for Bolas's Citadel or Experimental Frenzy or other variations. If we do a bunch of work, drawing cards at a good rate can't be our payoff.

Barrin, Tolarian Archmage being a legend is frustrating, making it much harder to build around. The compensation is that if you bounce your own card, you get to draw, perhaps creating a loop with a Teferi. The real compensation is getting to bounce a planeswalker, which makes this a lot stronger than Exclusion Mage. You'd almost never aim an Exclusion Mage at your own stuff in any place you'd want the card, but you would often want to bounce a planeswalker. That matters. It mainly matters in Game 1, since most places you'd either be aiming at creatures or sideboarding this out as quickly as possible, but it's a start.

Shacklegeist is a great tool for a dedicated spirits deck. Standard is nowhere near having one. This is interesting for Pioneer and Modern spirit decks, but that's all until we get multiple lords.

Stormwing Entity can be played on turn three after an Adventurous Impulse, Opt, or Growth Spiral. There's also Unsummon, Shock, Claim the Firstborn, Venture Deeper, Open the Gates, or Specter's Shriek. I still remember Crash Through. It can be played on turn two if you're willing to go on a clumsy adventure first, which seems like quite the ask. How much are we getting in exchange for all that? A 3/3 with prowess would be an excellent pure 2-drop, with scry as a nice bonus, but this is functioning effectively as a 3- or 4-drop. I expect this to miss out even in the decks that could play it, but hold out hope that this is wrong.

Sublime Epiphany does it all except for having a reasonable casting cost. Is it powerful enough to make up for this? It does seem likely to dominate a game, plausibly getting three or four useful spells in one. You're unlikely to both counter a spell and stop an ability, but you'll almost always draw a card, you'll usually bounce a permanent, you'll frequently have something to copy and you presumably wait until you're countering something or your opponent gives up a turn to prevent that. So pretty sweet payoff, but is it game winning enough to cost six? My guess is that mostly it is not, and this card is a trap most of the time. On occasion, both the clone and the bounce effects will be big, and at that point this gets interesting.

Teferi, Master of Time has a relatively not scary ultimate. Its plus ability is kind of +2 to draw two and discard two. That's less exciting to me than drawing a card unless I'm interested in discarding for its own sake. The minus three doesn't actually deal with a permanent. It does create a lot of options, but the difference between this card and those that actually give extra cards and deal with permanents is hard to ignore. You'll be down a card when you play this, and you'll be down on tempo to the board as well. By default this card is not good. To play it you'll need to make it good. That means actively wanting to discard cards, perhaps to reanimate them, perhaps to trigger Rielle, the Everwise and fill the yard with spells. Mostly I don't buy it, and I think there are much better options. The danger is I'm comparing this to two broken Teferis at 3 and 5, and that's making this look worse than it is.

Teferi's Ageless Insight turns every cycling card into a draw two. You get the card back the first time you cycle Shark Typhoon or cast Growth Spiral, Opt, or Uro. It turns every actual card drawing spell into cards for days. Yet the game has progressed to a point where everyone assumes this is a trap. 4 mana plus additional effort to not run out of cards while being vulnerable to Elspeth Conquers Death and Mystical Dispute? Don't we all know better? I had the same initial reaction. Now I'm not so sure. This is one hell of an enchantment if your deck is set up properly for it, in places where there's enough time to use the cards. I can think of matchups where you can regularly play this, reclaim the card on the spot, and are in a dominant position if you get to untap with it, without changing anything otherwise. On reflection I'm cautiously optimistic this will get played.

Black: 13 Cards, 13 Stars (3 from reprints)

Zero stars: Demonic Embrace, Liliana, Death Mage, Liliana's Scorn, Liliana's Standard Bearer

One star: Hooded Blightfang, Kaervek, the Spiteful, Liliana, Waker of the Dead, [Massacre Wurm], Peer into the Abyss, Thieves' Guild Enforcer

Two stars: [Grim Tutor], Necromentia

Three stars: Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose

Hooded Blightfang is the long awaited deathtouch lord. A scan of potential friends yields a few that seem all right, but the resulting deck does not seem great. There are good cheap options but they're not aggressive aside from Knight of the Ebon Legion. There are decent expensive options, especially Questing Beast, but this doesn't make them appreciably stronger, so there isn't much point. I do appreciate the attempt.

[Grim Tutor] is back. If you're desperate to find a particular card, and Wizards has not decided to hand it to you every game automatically, this is one way to get that card. Wishclaw Talisman is underplayed, given its synergies with Planar Cleansing and Teferi, Time Raveler. Given that plus how afraid most opponents rightfully are to return it to you, it's probably a much better card than Grim Tutor. Grim Tutor forces you to pay all at once and charges you three life. It's still good enough to be useful for those who have outright game winning engines to find, even if no deck currently being played seems good enough to justify it.

Kaervek, the Spiteful will be good in a very specific situation, which likely involves cats, but the vulnerability level is super high even then.

Liliana, Waker of the Dead has Liliana at her lowest point in a long time. This feels like a three-mana planeswalker trapped on a four-mana card. This is strictly for those desperate to discard things. I keep writing similar words on cards that are better than this, so she shouldn't make the cut even in those situations.

[Massacre Wurm] is effective if you both want this effect and can wait this long. When it works it can be better than Massacre Girl, but the power level contrast there is stark. Let the girl do her work.

Necromentia is next in a long line of cards that give this core effect at this cost. The new twist is that cards taken from hand yield 2/2 creatures, whereas before they yielded cards. I love this design, because people are going to take someone's only win condition and then they're going to spend the rest of the game trying to win with a zombie, and it's going to be awesome. Sometimes the 2/2 will be better than the card, sometimes it will be worse, depending on whether tempo is a factor in the game. If either player cares about tempo, the 2/2 is going to be a big deal. You took your third turn off and gave them a creature. That's a good way to die or not get through for a kill. This therefore probably gets used out of sideboards in places where no one is trying to kill anyone, and there are incidental ways to clean up or ignore the 2/2 over time. I can certainly think of a few of those.

Peer into the Abyss is very slow. This is asking to get yourself killed. But if your opponent can't do that, and can't counter this, then suddenly you're very much in business. This can be compared to Bolas's Citadel or Command the Dreadhorde. It's two turns slower than either and doesn't have a mode other than going for it, but is even more effective if you pull it off. Half your deck should give you everything you need. The whole thing seems like way too much investment, risk and work, but at some point there will be a matchup where this card just wins the game, and it'll all be worth it. Alternatively, Omniscience could be involved, since that presumably ends the game on the spot every time.

Thieves' Guild Enforcer is an attempt to make a good Overeager Apprentice. Brazen Borrower is a plausible second rogue if you want one, as is Rankle, Master of Pranks, and that second trigger makes it much more likely you can go large without much extra help. Two copies of this gets you to six of the eight cards you need. I'll get right on all of that and add a second star as soon as they ban Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath. Until then, hard pass.

Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose is potentially serious business, and the set is offering a bunch of support. Life gain is often very cheap. A lot of cards have substantial life gain on them almost incidentally, which adds up fast. The food engine is also tempting. This plus Gilded Goose or Witch's Oven gets out of hand quickly. Even the threat of turning this on seems scary. The lifegain option means your entire team hits both life totals an extra time, so even though it's expensive the swing will sometimes be gigantic.

Red: 13 Cards, 18 Stars

Zero stars: Brash Taunter, Chandra, Flame's Catalyst, Chandra's Firemaw, Volcanic Salvo

One star: Chandra, Heart of Fire, Conspicuous Snoop, Double Vision, Transmogrify

Two stars: Chandra's Incinerator, Fiery Emancipation, Subira, Tulzidi Caravanner

Four stars: Gadrak, the Crown-Scourge, Terror of the Peaks

Chandra, Heart of Fire seems very expensive for what it does. Yes, you have two useful plus abilities, but five is so much mana. This is the realm of Nissa, Who Shakes the World and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, cards that take over the game. Chandra, Heart of Fire can kind of net you three cards a turn if you give up your current hand, so maybe this can be the high end finish of a Red burn deck? I don't see it. There are so many better ways to not run out of fuel for that fire.

Chandra's Incinerator can't quite come down on turn two in Standard. On turn three you can in theory get two of them if you seed in two points of damage off cards like Scorch Spitter and Cavalcade of Calamity, then use a Skewer the Critics, but without Skewer we're looking at turn four. On turn four this isn't that special, and it seems easy for this to fail or require a bunch of awkward plays. I do not think putting this into a classically designed Standard Red deck is a good idea. Is there another deck that deals enough non-combat damage to make this work? I can't think of one. Modern is another story, since one can play this on turn three reliably off a single land, and sometimes on turn two, so it might be good enough. It does mean you have to give up Lurrus of the Dream-Den, if that's still important to you.

Conspicuous Snoop seems great for a deck full of Goblins. What aren't great are the available Goblins. This should be a good card for older formats where there are better Goblins, but won't work in Standard without lots of help.

Double Vision can get out of hand quickly. You can trigger it on all players' turns. You can stack multiple copies. I wish you lots of luck with your Commander deck. At 5 mana to not yet do anything, this isn't getting it done. Contrast this with Shark Typhoon, which has a mode to provide a similar amount of upside that works on all noncreature spells for only one more mana, and which is so rarely cast instead of cycled that we all remember those games where the card hit play. This isn't going to happen unless there's something I'm totally missing.

Fiery Emancipation, like many cards in Core Set 2021, is not messing around. Also like many Core Set 2021 cards, it costs a lot of mana. Still, triple damage is a ton, and it works on any damage to any target. Play this, turn a bunch of creatures sideways, and it's going to be hard for opponents to make favorable blocks and/or not die. Playing this turn four off a Runaway Steam-Kin sounds super sweet, but that's at best tricky and if we don't get a Stea-Kin then we presumably never get to play it at all, which isn't going to work. We need a deck which can afford 6 mana, afford for half of it to be Red, and which generates enough distinct sources of damage reliably enough to burn its highest end slot on this.

Subira, Tulzidi Caravanner is super awkward and only provides 2 power and can't target herself, so I very much doubt she's any good. But the potential plan of getting your whole team through, potentially while refilling your hand, might be offered at a remarkably low opportunity cost in some places. This combines very well with Legion Warboss. Note that this is a human for Winota, and while it's not the biggest find it can turn the situation around in many spots.

Terror of the Peaks should be an amazing card. It's a 5/4 flyer for 3rr, which should be a respectable rate, it's hard to target, and it turns all your creatures into damage spells you can aim anywhere. There're few ways other than Teferi, Time Raveler and Aether Gust to answer this for less mana than it costs. It's not legendary, so you can chain them to good effect. This has to be an exciting thing to power out on the third turn the way we used to with Baneslayer Angel. I've seen the hot takes that it shows how far things have gone wrong that this card isn't even good. I think those takes are wrong. This card is good. It's not the bonkers it would have been in the past, but it's very good. If you accelerate this out, they don't have enough mana to remove it, and then you untap and mow down anything that matters. I do wish this taxed the 3 mana from Teferi, which is going to be this card's biggest weakness, but that happening is not some giant tragedy. I choose to be excited.

Gadrak, the Crown-Scourge probably can't attack. But maybe it can? Food tokens count. Witch's Oven counts. Without that much of an assist it's not that crazy to see this attacking on turn four. Combine this with an activation of Priest of Forgotten Gods and that's three deaths already. The treasure tokens are sacrificed when used to trigger Mayhem Devil, and they can get us to a quick Korvold, Fae-Cursed King or Bolas's Citadel. It's legendary and requires other things be happening, and the deck is already full, but I'd be willing to give this card a shot in these sacrifice decks and see what happens. At a minimum this seems like a great card when facing down aggression, generating value while blocking.

Transmogrify is a proper Red Polymorph. I think they've been careful enough with the creatures being printed that we don't have to worry about this. If not, live the dream, kids. Live the dream.

Green: 12 Cards, 19 Stars (5 from reprints)

Zero stars: Garruk, Savage Herald, Garruk's Warsteed

One star: Feline Sovereign, Garruk, Unleashed, Sporeweb Weaver, Primal Might

Two stars: [Azusa, Lost but Seeking], Garruk's Harbinger, Heroic Intervention

Three stars: Elder Gargaroth, [Scavenging Ooze], Jolrael, Mwonvuli Recluse

Sporeweb Weaver might, maybe, one day, have that matchup where this is exactly the right tool for the job and therefore not that terrible as a board card. Today is not that day, but indeed do many things come to pass.

Garruk, Unleashed is wildly inaccurately named. It will be slightly less inaccurately named when Vivien, Arkbow Ranger rotates out. I'm not complaining when I point out this new set of planeswalkers isn't good. Seriously, I'm happy about this. I like them at this new power level. Keep it up. Still have to report the facts.

[Azusa, Lost but Seeking] is asking a lot. You've already found 3 mana. How many more land drops do you need? She's an all-star when there's lots of crazy land shenanigans to do, but right now there are no such tricks. Keep in mind she's out there, but for now keep the powder dry.

Elder Gargaroth is quite the Baneslayer Angel. It's large, it wants to be in charge, it will take over the game if allowed to but probably it's going to be dealt with by a cheaper card and you're going to be sad. Can we do anything about that? Could this be good enough that hope is a strategy? We're not getting that rewarded for going out on this limb. For 6 mana we can get Feasting Troll King instead and even get there with Castle Garenbrig. For one less we get Questing Beast, for two less we still get a 5/5. It's all true. This is still a very, very good creature in a slugfest. Attacking into this is a nightmare and it tramples over food decks. I choose hope.

Feline Sovereign is the Cat lord my wife has always wanted, and can combine with the existing Kaheera. Two lords, one of which can be an (expensive) companion are starting to get somewhere, perhaps? We have Charmed Stray, Bronzehide Lion, Ajani's Pridemate, Cauldron Familiar, Frondland Felidar, Lurrus of the Dream-Den, Nethroi, Apex of Death, and Snapdax, Apex of the Hunt, and maybe Cubwarden. Are we adding up to anything? No. No, we're not. Deck is still multiple cards away.

Heroic Intervention is not the card we want, but it could end up being the card we need. It answers most removal, including sweepers, and not only those going after your creatures. It can even be combined with your own sweepers or used as a combat trick. It's painful to even think about playing a card like this, but it's also good to not forget it exists as an option.

Garruk's Harbinger is usually going to find you a creature when it gets through, including when it hits a planeswalker, but it has no evasion. Its protection isn't nothing, but it's not the color of protection you most want. If anything, a creature that's annoying for fair Black decks but can't get through Caldron Familiar feels like kicking a puppy, except you hit a cat and it lands on its feet like nothing happened and glares at you, and you lose another life point and sigh, or they cast Aether Gust or Scorching Dragonfire. We can check back on this one after a few rotations, and maybe it'll be better positioned.

[Scavenging Ooze] is back. Thank you. Don't mind if I do. We needed this, and now we have it.

Jolrael, Mwonvuli Recluse is the latest friend of cycling. This seems like a better version of Improbable Alliance, providing a strong case for Green as a third color in the cycling deck. That also opens up Wilt, which is seeing play in non-cycling decks. You can main four copies of that and then sideboard them out where they're not needed. The catch with Jolrael is that she's legendary, and with all the cycling the risk of drawing multiples when running four copies is very high. That makes it tough to justify adding a color, and the same problem will come up in other places Jolrael would otherwise be good, but the value here seems strong. I wouldn't rule out playing this 'for value' with Opt, Growth Spiral, and Uro, especially if Chemister's Insight was already part of our plan.

Primal Might is a two-sided fight. I've been spoiled by one sided fights at instant speed, so a two sided fight at sorcery speed is going to be a tough sell. Domri's Ambush is also tough competition. The card is still trying, I suppose, but the comparison to Domri's Ambush is so bad. You need a ton of mana that isn't doing much before this looks good.

Gold: 4 Cards, 7 Stars

Zero stars: Niambi, Esteemed Speaker

One star: Radha, Heart of Keld, Rin and Seri, Inseparable

Four stars: Sanctum of All

Radha, Heart of Keld can activate and kill people, but the comparison to Courser of Kruphix is still pretty terrible in lots of other ways. I don't see it. The first strike on offense only clause is kind of bizarre and I wonder what's up with that.

Rin and Seri, Inseparable isn't right, and also isn't good. This is too expensive for this level of payoff and doesn't fit into any coherent strategies.

Sanctum of All is the real shrine strategy. Previously I analyzed the five regular shrines as if we weren't doing this, and they all seemed bad. This is the real proposal. Bring this out, then get the other five out, then we can do it all. Presumably left unchecked this wins the game easily. If you play third turn Sanctum of Fruitful Harvest into fourth turn Sanctum of All, you can get a lot to work with on turn five, lock their team out on turn six with the White shrine, and win the game shortly thereafter with the Blue, Black and/or Red shrines. If you can accelerate that further with additional shrines or mana acceleration, and get the key fourth shrine a turn earlier, now it seems like something that will win games on its own. Doing twenty damage on turn five certainly seems realistic, via the Blue shrine to draw four and then five activations of the Red one. If you have all six shrines, each activation of the Red one does twelve.

The obvious first build is all twenty-four shrines plus Paradise Druid, Gilded Goose and Incubation Druid and twenty-four lands, and you mulligan most hands without a Blue or golden shrine. Jegantha, the Wellspring is your companion since it's a free action at least in Game 1. We can improve from there by trimming some stuff to add good cards.

The alternative plan is to start at the other end. Play only one or two copies of the non-golden shrines and play a normal five-color ramp deck that sometimes wins the game outright on turn four or five via shrines. When time comes to activate the Red shrine we can throw lands away, fueled by the Blue one, so it should mostly be fine, and we can get cards like Uro and Growth Spiral to draw to our best cards, and have alternate powerful things to do.

A third option is to put the fourth Sanctum of All into the sideboard and play Fae of Wishes. Dance of the Manse is a very cool second wish target.

A fourth option is to play this together with another full theme.

This is the only scary thing in the set. There aren't that many truly distinct ways to play it, so good chance it is useless, and it seems easy to disrupt with discard or counters or removal. But it offers a way to dominate the game over the top of other ways to dominate the game, if it is allowed.

There are possible worlds in which we get sick and tired of this. I hope we don't live in any of them. My hope is that this is a cool niche thing that lives in the second tier and is fun for all.

Artifacts, Colorless, and Lands: 12 Cards, 27 Stars (18 from reprinted lands)

One star: Chromatic Orrery, [Solemn Simulacrum]

Two stars: Mazemind Tome, Sparkhunter Masticore

Three stars: [Fabled Passage], [Temple of Silence/ Temple of Epiphany/ Temple of Malady/ Temple of Triumph/ Temple of Mystery], [Ugin, the Spirit Dragon]

Chromatic Orrery is a great thing to get with a Tinker, but Tinker is not available at this time. We have to pay for this, and 7 mana is a lot, especially at sorcery speed, even when you get five of it back right away. There isn't a higher end than this to be aiming for, so all this does is ramp up your speed of card playing when it should have won you the game outright. It might have been fun to give this flash.

Solemn Simulacrum is coasting on its legacy. Back in the day, this kind of durdling was a reasonable and exciting thing to do. Today, it's not. Compare this to Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and weep. I gave it a star because people will still put it in decks, but they'll be making a mistake.

Mazemind Tome defaults to giving you four scry triggers then gaining four life. That doesn't seem like a terrible way to use 2 mana and a card when card selection is the important thing. If you have spare mana, you can pay to draw those cards instead. So, when you need more cards, it gives you more cards. When you need the right card now, this finds it faster than that. The modern game still wants to not need this sort of thing, but it's a reasonable package.

Sparkhunter Masticore has a particular set of skills. It will find you, and it will kill you. But only for very particular values of you. It's a very particular set of skills. It will almost never be the right set of skills. Occasionally, it will be exactly the right card.

Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is the best thing to do in Standard on eight mana, provided sweeping the board is in your interest. The problem is that eight is an awkward number. You can get to seven on turn four easily enough, but it's effectively an extra turn to get to eight. I still expect to see copies every so often due to the card's high power level. Players are acting like this kind of effect can't happen, so as long as that continues there will be strong incentive to occasionally make the effect happen.

The [Temples] and [Fabled Passage] are great and it's good to get more access to them.

Top Ten

Only six new cards got four stars, even after my standards were relaxed to adjust for the new power level. I debated what to do about this. I decided it would give a more accurate impression to leave it that way, while putting four three-star cards into the 7-10 slots in my top 10. There's still plenty of interesting cards.

  1. Village Rites
  2. Eliminate
  3. Sanctum of All
  4. Miscast
  5. Terror of the Peaks
  6. Gadrak, the Crown-Scourge
  7. Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose
  8. Alpine Houndmaster
  9. Kinetic Augur
  10. Jolrael, Mwonvuli Recluse

(A previous version of this list had Miscast at #1, but on reflection that was too aggressive.)

I welcome our new non-overlords to Standard. This is the set we need.

Now keep doing that for two years.

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