Top 8 Cards We’ll Notice Are Gone Post-Rotation
With Throne of Eldraine previewing season beginning in about a week, it’s time to reflect on the titans of the outgoing Standard format. Good, bad, or Teferi, these are the cards that shaped the format during their time with us. When they’re gone, we will feel things. Some might feel sad, others might feel happy, and most of us will say, “Why is there still a Teferi in the format?”
A card that went from doing absolutely nothing in the format to suddenly being the cornerstone of the best deck for around two months at the end. With a complete lack of counterspells in the format thanks to everyone’s favorite planeswalker, Teferi, Time Raveler, Scapeshift decks in Standard could reliably generate 14+ zombies on Turn 4/5. In a format that has often devolved into who can go the most over the top of the other decks, Scapeshift reigned supreme. Field of the Dead has even crept its way into Modern Titanshift decks, so we aren't done with the obnoxious combination just yet.
Throughout its lifetime in Standard, Adanto Vanguard has annoyed all of us. It hits hard, it never dies, and, more recently, it even pumps up Knight of the Ebon Legion. When I played Esper Control, back when you were still allowed to play counterspells, Adanto Vanguard was such a difficult threat to answer that we were forced to run cards like Moment of Craving or Cry of the Carnarium in the main just to kill this pesky Vampire. On the other hand, no card (except maybe Llanowar Elves) brought more joy to murder with Goblin Chainwhirler than this, where whatever they chose, they were dead.
In our current world of millions of Scapeshift zombies battling against Vampires and Dinosaurs, we’ve blissfully forgotten the horror that was the centerpiece of Standard for so long: Carnage Tyrant. Back when people tried to interact with each other Carnage Tyrant was the ultimate trump. BG explore decks at one point were up to three or four copies in the main because it was the only card that really mattered in the mirror. The back half of Find // Finality + Carnage Tyrant ended a lot of games back then.
Carnage Tyrant is not a design that I am fond of. Fundamentally in Magic (at least in Standard), WotC pushes for interaction. Players should be playing a game with an opponent, not playing solitaire by themselves. As such, any card that limits the ability of the opponent to do thing leads to gameplay that is typically less than enjoyable (Carnage Tyrant; Narset, Parter of Veils; Teferi, Time Raveler, Ensnaring Bridge, Blood Moon). When Carnage Tyrant was popular, if you were on Esper Control, you needed to find a sweeper or you would lose. Carnage Tyrant rendered every decision up to that point in the game completely meaningless; regardless of what each player had done, either Carnage Tyrant would win the entire game, or it would die to a sweeper, and the normal game would resume.
Not a ton of fun, but a reasonable experience.
I understand the appeal of having difficult to interact with finishers or bombs, but there are far better ways to do this than stapling unconditional uncounterability and hexproof onto a trampling 7/6. Dragonlord Ojutai, Nezahal, Primal Tide, and Pearl Lake Ancient could all be difficult to interact with, but came with a real cost. There is no cost to playing Carnage Tyrant, no decisions, no interesting gameplay. Hopefully, with the rotation of the most oppressive dino, Wizards will give put these non-interactive designs to rest.
Curious Obsession was one of the driving forces behind the return of a tempo archetype to Standard. The Monoblue deck used a massive amount of protection spells and cheap counterspells to protect the one or two evasive threats it deployed, and once they stuck an Obsession (or three), it was over, as it ensured a steady flow of card advantage. Certainly a frustrating card to play against but also a fun card to play with, and bringing uncommon Standard archetypes like tempo back to the format for a bit is always great.
4. The Explore Package
Upon release, Jadelight Ranger hovered at $15 and was hyped as the next Green staple to follow in the footsteps of cards like Courser of Kruphix and Tireless Tracker. Instead, for the next year, it saw no play, too weak to compete against the powerhouse threats of Kaladesh in the era of RB Aggro and UB Midrange. But after rotation, the explore package became a shoo-in for every Green deck in the format, doing everything from fueling the graveyard and your life total for Command the Dreadhorde and stabilizing the board against Monored and Monowhite or give you a clock while racing Monoblue with 4/3’s.
The fact that the explore creatures themselves have higher power than toughness is intentional, and encourages gameplay around attacking, which manifested in the early turns of GB mirrors. Then, Find//Finality would buy back the explore creatures and do it all over again, all the while building a bigger and bigger Wildgrowth Walker. The expoore package is good design that led to fun and healthy gameplay, and it’s a set of cards that many will not realize they miss until they can no longer keep a two lander with a Merfolk Branchwalker.
I still remember how excited I was when this card was printed. It was the ideal control planeswalker; it drew cards, it dealt with any difficult permanent, it won the game, and, most importantly, you didn’t really have to tap out to cast it. Playing it on Turn 6 ensured that you could leave up a 3 mana counter on your opponent’s turn, and then the game was easy to run away with.
While Teferi’s time in Standard will be marred by its time in the UW Control deck with no win condition other than looping the powerful planeswalker and its time in pre-Wilderness Reclamation Bant Nexus, Teferi was the shot in the arm that control decks so desperately needed after the rotation of Torrential Gearhulk. I’m not sure this card was too pushed for the format, but certainly the UW Control shell was too pushed. When the engine of the deck was a planeswalker that untapped lands, it probably wasn’t the right call to have the premier control deck of the format be instant-based. Teferi will live on in Modern, where he’ll join his buddy Jace, the Mind Sculptor and the miniature, even more unfun version of himself in the ranks of some of the best planeswalkers ever printed.
Goblin Chainwhirler was far too good at what it did. Presumably printed as a way to keep Llanowar Elves under control, it instead far outshone the one-drop, pushing entire archetypes out of the format. Monowhite Aggro, Monoblue, and Green decks built around Elves were nigh unplayable, giving rise to the long summer of RB Aggro’s supremacy. It picked off Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, it prevented two-for-ones against Rekindling Phoenix, it crewed Heart of Kiran and it matched up favorably in combat against pretty much everything; when it didn’t, you could just Lightning Strike the blocker after first strike damage. Chainwhirler is one of the most unassuming, but absurdly powerful cards that have warped Standard in recent years. The format had all the right pieces for Chainwhirler to be oppressively powerful, and it was, as many called for it to be banned during its lifetime. Though it looks a lot more fair in today’s format of Turn 3 Nissas and Scapeshift, Chainwhirler has forever left a mark on the souls of many.
(Author’s Note: I confess that, while it was legal, I played A LOT of Nexus of Fate.)
Future generations of players (and members of R&D) will look back on Nexus of Fate and wonder just how Wizards got it so wrong. It’s actually similar to Hogaak in that it seems so stupid on so many axes, it’s shocking that Wizards actually allowed this card to see print. Most egregiously, why in the world does Nexus shuffle itself back into the library? Wizards has a long-established safety valve of exiling extra turn effects for exactly the reason that Nexus demonstrated; if you don’t exile it, people will try to take all the turns. But if you’re shuffling it back into the library, instead of at least putting it into the graveyard, you’re positively begging for players to take all the turns.
Next, they made it an instant. In a format where Teferi was a powerhouse, this allowed you to play Teferi on Turn 5 and then immediately follow up with Nexus. It allowed you activate Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin multiple times in the end step with Teferi and then still cast any Nexus that were found. Then, Wilderness Reclamation was printed, and Nexus could reliably go off on Turn Four. In Standard. A turn four deck where the win condition was so miserable and uninteractive should never have existed.
Finally, it was a buy-a-box promo and was foil, meaning that, thanks to Wizards’ oft-derided printing process, it curled. In decks where the primary goal was to find Nexus over and over again, having Nexus curl and be marked was a problem, which meant that Nexus players were stuck playing with proxies, something that does not look good on camera and is generally unpleasant.
Hopefully, Wizards learned from Nexus and a card this fundamentally broken in such miserable, unpleasant ways, never gets printed again.
When Llanowar Elves was first reprinted, there was a lot of fear and excitement surrounding it. Many newer players had never gotten to play with a one-mana mana dork in Standard, and the memories of many veteran players had faded, overridden by nostalgia for the iconic card.
For its first year in Standard, Llanowar Elves saw hardly any play, and players everywhere laughed at WotC’s reluctance to reprint it. Of course, that’s because Wizards had broken Standard with Goblin Chainwhirler and friends, probably the most hostile format to Elves possible. But post-rotation after the Red-Black decks were weakened, Llanowar Elves returned full-force. Joined by Risen Reef, Cavalier of Thorns, Nissa, and other powerful two-mana dorks, Elves did what it did best: widen the play-draw disparity that is already a problem in Magic.
When an opponent plays a Turn Three Nissa on the play, or a Turn Two Risen Reef on the play, you have fallen far, far behind, and winning that game is going to be very difficult. I would love to know the win rate of players who cast a Turn Three Nissa or Turn Two Risen Reef on the play, especially against an opponent who does not follow suit, because I suspect that it is incredibly high. Threats that gain traction or accumulate advantage turn over turn like Nissa and Reef can create unassailable leads in the opening turns of the game.
Players point to Risen Reef and Nissa as the problems, but is Nissa an unreasonable card on Turn Five, or even Turn Four? To draw a comparison to Modern, a Turn Four Thought-Knot Seer or a Turn Five Reality Smasher is positively anemic in the format, but speed that up to Turn Two or Three, and you have the most powerful Modern deck the format has ever seen. The problem, of course, was not the threats, but the fast mana.
Llanowar Elves is nowhere close to the level of broken that Eye of Ugin is, but it is the same class of problem. Mana cost in Magic exists so that as the game goes later, players can cast more powerful spells. Additionally, the game has built in catch-up mechanics (sweepers, planeswalkers, bombs, etc) that allow players who were losing to fight back from a losing position. Because a losing position is typically established after lots of gameplay, catch-up mechanics tend to be expensive. Thus, the problem with Llanowar Elves is that it accelerates out game-ending threats way ahead of curve. By the time the other player is able to build up enough mana to cast a spell that is supposed to catch them up, they’re either already dead, or they’re so far behind in resources, mana, and life that it simply fails to catch them up.
This is why we’ve seen an arms race in the last ~six months of Standard, where players try to go bigger and bigger, more over the top of each other. We’ve seen Hydroid Krasis become Gates become Mass Manipulation become Nexus of Fate become Leyline Ramp and cycle around continously. When the format evolves in this way, it pushes out most other possible archetypes; nobody can play control or aggro when the opponent has access to such fast mana and huge payoffs before the other player.
Ruining games since '94
I understand that many players like Llanowar Elves; it is iconic, leads to crazy over-the-top gameplay, and is a “forbidden fruit” of Magic. The fact that it was so overshadowed by other broken cards in the beginning, and that not many seem to be talking about it as the root of some of Standard’s problems, makes me think that Wizards may make the mistake of printing it again in the future. If they do, I hope they put a lot of time into making sure there are Goblin Chainwhirler-esque ways of answering it, particularly on the draw, and mitigating the enormous advantage it generates for the player who wins the dice roll. But that is far easier said than done; the snowball-y play pattern it encourages is a dangerous one to try to fight, as it’s easy to simply print other threats that are far too good for their mana cast, and the format falls apart anyways. I would gladly bid farewell to one-mana dorks and relegate them to more powerful formats like Modern where they belong.
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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