Top 8 Cards That Won't be Missed Post Rotation
Two years of power level problems in Standard, begun by War of the Spark but personified by Throne of Eldraine, is finally going to rotate. At least, what's left of it will be rotating, since there are still eight cards on the banned list. Today, I look at eight cards that I will be thrilled to say goodbye to.
In a format with multiple, pushed sacrifice outlets including Witch's Oven and Woe Strider, Claim the Firstborn is a one-mana Sorcery-speed Eliminate with a free Lightning Bolt tacked on. For Standard's purposes, this usually places it above Fatal Push in power level. Giving one deck access to a better Fatal Push while all the other decks have to make due with two-mana removal is problematic because it generates snowballs in gameplay, particularly when the Claim player is on the play.
Claim allows one specific deck in the format to trade up on mana, up on tempo, deal some damage, and accrue some incremental benefit through a Food token, a Scry, or a ping off Mayhem Devil. The amount of power packed into this single, one-mana card is high. It is a sorcery-speed cross between Eliminate and Unlicensed Disintegration, both of which were Standard staples.
While often protected by more egregious offenders (Cauldron Familiar), Claim the Firstborn is itself at the top of Standard power level. It heavily incentivizes creature decks to become Sacrifice decks because of the asymmetry in power level between creature decks with and without Claim the Firstborn. I think some sort of Threaten effect is nice for Sacrifice decks to have access to, but I believe Claim was too good.
7. The Cycling Package
In previous articles, I've criticized that one of the most problematic elements of this Standard format was the tendency for late games to devolve into each player taking one game action over and over again and seeing which player can do it more. We saw this in Witch's Oven/Cauldron Familiar, Lukka/Agent of Treachery, and, earlier, Nexus of Fate. Games which take this route tend to be uninteresting, disappointing climaxes, and leave players feeling like they don't have agency.
The incarnation of the Cycling deck in this Standard format is one of the worst offenders of this ever. While other decks tried to repeat their particular [game action] over and over in the late game, Cycling seeks to begin doing this on Turn 2 or Turn 3. It makes playing against Cycling relatively uninteresting, as you either need a faster clock, or you need to have exactly the correct answer at the correct time to not auto-lose. On average, it tends to leave players playing against the deck with a lower number of meaningful decisions.
But this isn't the only problem. The cycling deck also violates the mana system by generating resources for free. With any of the cycling payoffs on board, cycling a card will generate a free 1/1 body or +1/+1 counter. The fact that these payoffs are one or two mana means that there's less tension between whether to cycle cards early to find them or hold them until you do. It also demands that opponents have the answer immediately or be drowned in card advantage.
Contrast this with the cycling deck from Amonkhet, UW Drake Haven. Because Drake Haven was three mana, required an additional payment of 1 to generate advantage, and was the only cheap(ish) Cycling payoff that generated advantage, the Cycling player couldn't simply play Drake Haven with 30 other cards that cycled. It served as a win condition, but had more play to it from both sides. Opponents had more time to find an answer to the enchantment or to the graveyard, since the cycling player often relied on Abandoned Sarcophagus as well.
The other cycling deck at the time was New Perspectives, which, while more similar in that it was packed with cards that existed to be cycled, relied on a six-mana enchantment followed by a seven-mana sorcery to win the game. While this deck was about as linear as the current incarnation of Cycling, opponents had much more when interacting with it.
Finally, this Cycling deck minimizes variance more dramatically than any other deck in Standard's recent history. Every game of Cycling plays out in largely the same way, making games feel repetitive.
Cycling is one of my favorite mechanics, but Wizards got it wrong this time. In my previous articles, I've claimed that the three substantial mistakes Wizards has made with recent standard formats is cheating on mana, stopping players from interacting with each other, and minimizing variance to an unhealthy degree. This deck checks all three boxes, and will hopefully be a mistake that Wizards learns from.
This Standard format gave life to a Flash-oriented Tempo deck in UB Rogues, something we haven't seen since UW Flash with Spell Queller and Reflector Mage. While some players absolutely hate playing against Rogues-style decks, others love playing them, and I think it's great that Wizards was able to provide that again.
However, one of the costs usually associated with a tempo deck is that your cards are much worse in the late game. With most of your spells very cheap, opponents will overpower you if you're unable to build enough of an advantage early on.
Into the Story changes that dynamic. I'm sure Rogues players everywhere will confirm that games without Into the Story play out much differently (are way harder) than games where you find one. Oftentimes, casting the first Into the Story means that you'll easily find the next three and can chain them together into an insurmountable flood of card advantage.
While I think it's totally reasonable to provide these decks with some card advantage, I believe Into the Story goes too far. A card like Of One Mind, which was often a one-mana “Draw 2” in Rogues was more appropriate. For the player playing against Rogues, the power level of Into the Story is too snowbally, often making it so that a deck's natural catch-up mechanisms are no longer sufficient to do so.
Mystical Dispute, like Into the Story, is simply too good. The design itself is fine; we've had cheap, narrow countermagic in Dispel, Censor, and Jace's Defeat in the past, and those have been fine. Mystical Dispute is too good because its worst-case scenario is serving as a three-mana Mana Leak, which is a totally fine card in Standard. In the early- to midgame, Mystical Dispute is an easier-to-cast Cancel at worst. The floor on this card is too high.
The rest of the cycle, Specter's Shriek and Redcap Melee, have substantial downsides that two-for-one you if you use them to hit something of a different color, whereas Mystical Dispute has an upside if you use it to hit the desired color. It's actually bizarre the degree to which Dispute actually deviates from the rest of the cycle. Even if we ignored the lack of card disadvantage, if it were to mimic the symmetry of the rest of the cycle, it should read:
[CARDNAME] costs 3 less to cast if it targets a Blue spell.
Counter target spell unless its controller pays 3.
This alone would put a substantial damper on the card's power while also bringing it in line with the rest of its cycle. As it's actually written, Dispute is maindeckable and too versatile, in that it's able to both counter opposing threats and protect your own for a single mana.
The Great Henge would more aptly be named The Great Snowball. If a player resolves this card, they typically snowball out of control unless the opponent follows up by killing them immediately, killing Henge immediately, or playing a Henge of their own. That this is true is not a sign of a card that leads to healthy gameplay.
Magic: the Gathering is not unique in that it has catch-up mechanisms. If you're falling too far behind, maybe you'll draw your super-powerful late-game bomb and get back into the game. Cards like The Great Henge are worse than “too powerful;” they fundamentally damage the fabric of the game. Henge blanks an opponent's catchup cards; if the Henge player pulls ahead (or is already ahead), then it's over, and there are (usually) no more meaningful decisions the opponent can make to get back into the game. If the Henge player gets even one turn of value out of it, then even answering the Henge will leave the opponent hopelessly behind. That this can regularly happen on Turn 4 in Standard is absurd; the format does not have the tools to deal with something like this.
As I wrote about a few weeks ago, I suspect that The Great Henge is spillover from Wizards trying to bring “Commander-style” gameplay to Standard. “Going off” with Henge is a splashy, over-the-top thing that is fun to do. The problem, of course, is that Standard is a two-player game without a social contract. Snowballing can be stopped or punished in Commander, but in Standard, there's very little that can be done about it.
Cards like this are actively detrimental to Standard, and Wizards should be more diligent in working to prevent them.
Formats like Modern have multiple axes of interaction. At times in its history, Modern has been a graveyard-centric format, a stack-centered format, a card advantage-centered format, and a creature-centric format. Modern is able to do this because the threats and answers are diverse, flexible, and powerful. Control, and even midrange decks in Modern cannot exist at times when the format is split among different axes of interaction. Only when Modern settles down can more interactive decks be competitive. This is true even today: for a Modern deck to be competitive, it needs to be able to deal with permanents (mostly creatures), and Cascade spells. Because there are only two major axes, decks like UW Chalice Control and Zoomer Jund are competitive.
Standard, on the other hand, has a tiny card pool by definition. With such a small number of cards, it is vital that there be only one major axis of interaction. If there is more than one, games of Magic cannot be interactive because both the threats and the answers are bad and inflexible. Because Standard is usually the first “official” Constructed format new players get into, the axis of interaction is typically the combat step. Aggro decks win with creatures in combat. Midrange decks interact with those creatures and then kill with their bigger creatures in combat. Control decks are able to exist at all because of the format's heavy dependence on creatures and attacking.
While an oversimplification, this is a decent model of the format. Consider some of the most recent problems we had in Standard with the existence of Lotus Cobra and Omnath, Locus of Creation ramping into Genesis Ultimatum and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. This deck entirely ignored the combat step, both as a means of victory and a means of interaction, and therefore had no good ways to be beaten, since answers in Standard are built around combat.
Embercleave is a bad card for Standard because, deceptively, it negates combat. This might be counterintuitive, given that the card is at its best when attacking with creatures, but that's misdirection. If a player attacks with a board of creatures with an Embercleave in hand, the combat step has ceased to have much meaning, particularly if they're already ahead. Regardless of how well the defending player blocks, they're going to get destroyed by Embercleave.
Embercleave says, “Oh, you thought you could interact with my creatures using your own creatures? No.” In this way, the Equipment is deceptive; it appears to encourage combat, but in actuality, it discourages attacking/blocking interactions. It also shares the “snowball problem” with The Great Henge and the next two cards on this list.
I've written extensively about the problems with Edgewall Inkeeper, but there are two fundamental ones.
First, the card is too cheap. Its one-mana cost means that it's easy to double-spell and get a free card, any answer is trading down on mana, and, if played Turn 1 on the play, it forces the opponent to have an immediate answer within one turn or go down on cards.
Second, the Adventure mechanic is intrinsically card advantage. It's actually better than card advantage, since Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp contains one card which says “Stomp, then when you feel like it, play Bonecrusher” and another which says “Play Bonecrusher.” So in fact, it's a modal spell in which one mode will net you a card. Because Adventures will naturally net cards, it does not make sense for Wizards to create a payoff for Adventures which draws more cards. This compounds the card advantage, leading to more snowbally games, particularly if the Adventure player is on the play.
I'm not sure how this card ever got printed. Aetherworks Marvel was banned not because it was too powerful, but because it was unfun. Players hated the play pattern of “Look at the top six cards; see if you win” on Turn 4.
And yet, here we are again, with a reskinned Aetherworks Marvel which is arguably more powerful. Instead of building up Energy with card disadvantage cards like Woodweaver's Puzzleknot, you are building up a board of non-Human creatures, which is a pretty reasonable thing to do in a game of Magic, regardless of whether you have Winota or not. Then, Winota gives you multiple spins the turn she comes down (for free, which was also a problem with Marvel), and, whoops, looks like you're dead.
Like Marvel and Embercleave, sometimes, players will just lose on Turn 4. Once Upon a Time, Wizards claimed that Modern was a Turn 4 format; Standard's answers are nowhere near the power level and versatility necessary to keep in check a Turn 4 win.
Cards with free, uninteractive effects that can kill without an opponent having the chance to play the game have no place in Standard.
With rotation in a few weeks, I truly hope that Wizards has learned a lot from the past few years, and we return to games of Standard which reward interaction, don’t cheat on mana, and don’t kill people out of nowhere on Turn 4.
Ryan Normandin is a grinder from Boston who has lost at the Pro Tour, in GP & SCG Top 8's, and to 7-year-olds at FNM. Despite being described as "not funny" by his best friend and "the worst Magic player ever" by Twitch chat, he cheerfully decided to blend his lack of talents together to write funny articles about Magic.
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