Hello Planeswalkers from all around the globe! It’s that time again: new set, new abilities, new cards, and a brand new Standard environment to explore. M21 is just around the corner, and I cannot be more excited to try some of the tools this expansion will provide. It doesn’t matter if you are an aggro player at heart, a midrange expert, or a control master; I’m pretty sure you will find amazing options to experiment and deck-build with in the coming weeks.
This new Core Set appears to be more explosive than those we are used to seeing, with a huge amount of powerful and useful reprints confirmed that have the potential to influence the metagame right away. Combine all that stuff with an exciting Planeswalker line-up (Garruk is FINALLY returning; this time not as a villain from a Dreamworks movie), an old returning mechanic, and a CatDog lord directly out of Nickelodeon, and we should have no doubt that it is going to be a wild three months of brewing for all of us deckbuilding enthusiasts.
Today I want to highlight the first group of some of the M21 cards that I am especially excited to start playing with, along with some thoughts on how I think we should approach them, how they could fit into some of the already existing Standard archetypes, and which types of new strategies they might inspire.
Let’s get right into it!
Ugin, The Spirit Dragon
The mighty colorless dragon has returned. Originally printed in “Fate Reforged”, this is one of those format-defining cards that force you to form a plan around them when you know they’re in the meta, because ignoring their existence will result in major blowouts. The fact that it’s expensive doesn’t make its minus ability any worse: for some decks, this means literally a one sided “Planar Cleansing” that even exiles the permanents. Of course, any deck that is willing to play the colorless powerhouse needs to be able to hit eight mana during games, either by ramping or playing a long control strategy, but the impact it has on gameplay is unlike any other planeswalker.
Now, even though its power is undeniable, one could argue that it is not going to have as big of an impact as it originally had when it first came out. Why? Well, back then, most midrange decks were putting tons of expensive permanents into play and ramping with creatures. Nowadays, most mana acceleration is made in the form of extra land drops thanks to “Growth Spiral”, “Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath” or even “Beanstalk Giant”, which decreases the chances of Ugin ruining all of your work. It’s also worth noting that “Nissa, Who Shakes the World” is still legal in Standard and has a great synergy with the dragon: while helping to cast it by doubling the mana your forests produce, it also generates colorless creatures that survive Ugin’s board wipe ability. Just keep in mind that your opponent’s creature lands will also be unaffected!
Our minds are already used to seeing these kinds of flashy big artifacts that do crazy stuff, and automatically thinking about Commander or some weird combo that is not going to be relevant down the road. I think this seven drop mana producer could change that perspective, as it appears to be one of the more competitive we’ve seen in recent years, ramping from seven all the way up to twelve, and having a potentially big card draw ability added to it.
However, the ability that probably most people reading it miss the importance of (and that is crucial to its playability) is the fact that it lets you spend mana as though it were of any color. That means that those extra five colorless that it gives you back the turn it comes into play, can be used to cast literally anything! This mitigates the drawback of having to “waste” our turn just to ramp, by letting us affect the board instantly. If you want to start brewing with “Chromatic Orrery”, I would try to make sure that I include three things: impactful things that cost five mana to make full use of the turn you play the artifact like “Time Wipe”, huge big mana payoffs that provide a good reason to be ramping that high in the mana curve, and probably a way to combo with it and abuse its mana production, like “Kiora Behemoth Beckoner”!
Making its first appearance in Commander 2014, the flashy two mana Cleric makes its debut in Standard, and I cannot say I am not happy to have this tool around, being cheap and flexible enough to see play in many sideboards. The number of Standard cards that could get a headache facing this human bear is considerably large: it makes “Winota, Joiner of Forces” triggers useless, ruins Lukka’s minus ability, counters cards like Command the Dreadhorde or Blood for Bones, prevents “Elspeth Conquers Death” bringing back creatures, and so on.
It is important to keep in mind that, besides the fact that it could mean trouble for such a huge amount of different strategies, it is easy to cast and enters the battlefield at instant speed, which gives it a big advantage over other sideboard options that have a similar effect, like “Grafdigger’s Cage”. It is one thing when your opponent knows about your sideboard cards and plays accordingly, and something completely different when they have to be guessing if you will flash it in response and waste their turn!
Gadrak, the Crown-Scourge
We could make a comparison here with creatures like “Vantress Gargoyle”; cheap creatures that do not have their full potential unlocked as soon as they come into play tend to be much less effective that they initially look, but this 5/4 flier for three mana might be a different story. The fact that it might not be able to attack right away does not weaken its second ability, which every end step creates an artifact token, that you can sacrifice for mana of any color, for each nontoken creature which died that turn.
This means that this dragon could be useful in already existing “sacrifice” strategies, such as Rakdos or the more consistent Jund version. The Cat + Oven combination will provide a Treasure every turn, and those mana producing tokens synergise well with cards like “Mayhem Devil” or “Korvold, Fae-Cursed King”. You might even pull off a crazy opener, like sacrificing two creatures with “Priest of Forgotten Gods” on turn 3, deploying Gadrak with the extra mana plus a red source, getting 2 Treasures right away, setting up an attack for 5 in the air next turn, and setting up a turn 4 with a huge amount of mana!
Originally from the “Starter 1999” set, this is a huge reprint, since it’s a card that you couldn’t get your hands on easily in the Magic IRL world, since its supply was so drastically low. At this point we know how powerful tutor effects can be, and this spell does not only search for a card, but for ANY card, which means you can grab anything from that board wipe you desperately need to that game-winning planeswalker, or that extra land drop you are missing for the turn. Being able to get whatever you want also has the benefit of not needing to reveal the card so they won’t be able to play around it as easily!
But not everything about this sorcery is happy; of course it would need to have some kind of a drawback: “you lose 3 life”. Without context, this may not seem to be that much of a deal, since you start the game with 20, right? You can tutor as many times as you want… Well, in any matchup where your life total is not being pressured, you will probably be able to do so, but in those games where the opponent is trying to end things quickly, three life (and essentially skipping turn 3 since you are not affecting the board at all) will often mean losing the game. My assumption is that, for this card to be really good in your deck, not only do you need to have specific tools you want to search for, but you must be able to protect yourself early on and make that life loss not so painful.
Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose
Vampires are coming back, and that means that “Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord” will have a chance to shine again in Standard, right? Well, we might need to wait a bit longer, partially because the power level of this tribe in Ixalan was really pushed, which helped the black planeswalker a lot, and that might not be the case this time. Fortunately for the new legendary M21 rare, its abilities far exceed the relevance of its creature type.
As a 1/3 for 3 mana, it is not going to help that much in combat, but making your opponent lose life any time we gain is a strong effect, and one we can abuse in many ways. A good approach would be including it in a Mardu Sacrifice style deck, where it essentially doubles the damage of “Cruel Celebrant”, “Serrated Scorpion” and Cat + Oven (imagine if you are willing to gain the full four life from the food!). But what I would like to try is going all the way up with a Command the Dreadhorde combo build: imagine bringing this Vampire back alongside “Charming Prince” and “Elite Guardmage”. If we want to take him to the extreme, we could add “Loxodon Lifechanter” to the mix and make the world explode!
Which cards have you most excited to start brewing? Do you think this Core Set will fundamentally alter the Standard metagame, or just improve some of the already existing archetypes?