Okay, so good news/bad news. The good news? THIS is the the historical best time to buy Magic cards. Right now! Pretty much now-ish until the first week or two of January. Now it’s worth mentioning that Aether Revolt releases on January 20th, but I don’t think that will hurt us now. The bad news, of course, is that for a lot of people this is the absolute worst time to be spending lots of money on Magic cards for yourself. That’s why we are going to have to be smart and make sure we are putting a lot of thought into our targets. We’re going to parse what we can from the spoiled cards we’ve seen so far, and then use the rest of the data at our disposal to make informed decisions from there.
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Standard is the most popular format in competitive Magic, but it has never really been very popular. Maybe it’s better to say that it is the most ‘populous’ format. Either way, Standard has the de facto largest market share of Magic formats, and is the face of competitive Magic’s brand.
I have heard people complain about every Standard format for the last 12+ years- sometimes justified and other times not. As we take our first steps into the Masterpiece Era, it’s important to understand that Standard is going to be the primary factor for pricing on any new1 cards, as well as potentially creating a very distinct life cycle pattern. As we review Kaladesh from the perspective of a Standard player, we are going to simultaneously hit on a few key points in this new post-Masterpiece economy.
Cataclysmic Gearhulk: I want to go over the Gearhulks individually, because they are being broadcast early on as a pretty significant element in the set. This isn’t a flavor statement, since I’m not sure what their role is there, but as the latest cycle of “titans”, these fill a pretty big role as marquee single-color threats. Despite the longevity of Primeval Titan in other formats, which often overshadows his (?) siblings, its important to remember that all five of the M11 Titans saw action in Standard. The Gearhulks are not as pushed as the Titans as a whole, but they do represent an evolution of the cycle that is understated yet significant. The Titans were all 6/6s for 4CC, whereas the Gearhulks cost EITHER 3CC or 4CC (and each with unique P/Ts). Cataclysmic Gearhulk coming down on turn 5 is significant because it saves you an additional turn against opposing strategies that are trying to go wide with threats. Although this isn’t templated the same as Tragic Arrogance (your opponent can pick which of their cards stay), it’s still an extremely strong effect that comes with a very defensive 4/5 Vigilance. If Kaladesh Standard shakes out to rely heavily on board presence, it’s likely that this is one of the best of the cycle. I don’t think its coincidence that these are all five Masterpieces.
Torrential Gearhulk: Okay, so this is probably the worst of the cycle, at least early on. Because Torrential Gearhulk is unable to target sorceries, there are no enticing combinations currently in Standard (the only mythic Instant is Kozilek’s Return, a card that is actually WORSE OFF being cast off of Gearhulk rather than staying in the graveyard). As things currently stand, this is going to very often just re-buy a removal spell and serve as a clean, if underwhelming, tempo play. It’s possible that WotC is holding back on the big splashy options until Gearhulk is closer to rotation, or that it proved too risky and we see all of the game-changing spells as sorceries for the next year and a half. This is going to be objectively better in formats with more high-impact instants, but those formats simultaneously become less forgiving for six mana creatures.
Noxious Gearhulk: Like its white counterpart, Noxious Gearhulk is a card that I expect to be better in practice than on paper. In fact, the two represent the varying extremes of threat dimensions, Noxious serving as an answer to a single opposing creature, Cataclysmic excelling against several individually weak creatures. Given that one of the set’s main mechanics (Fabricate) allows players to decide in game how they want their board to develop, it’s possible that these two ultimately work fairly well together. Menace is huge, especially in environments where Noxious Gearhulk is already otherwise a playable card. This is the least impressive of the three so far (and probably of the whole set) outside of Standard, but I don’t know that any of these are going to get serious play anywhere else.
Combustible Gearhulk: Just like the blue one, this Gearhulk is better in a combo shell than a traditional midrange battlecruiser strategy. Fortunately, we have the cards to “enable” Combustible in Emrakul, Ulamog, and uh… Emrakul. It’s possible that you will cast this card and LITERALLY win the game. Once. I don’t know that this deck exists outside of the realm of theory, but unless we also get Congregate at Dawn, expect this deck to be… swingy, at best. A strategy that rewards you for playing a critical mass of expensive spells is going to naturally suffer in the early stages of the game, meaning the fast decks can go to town, let you draw 3, and then just attack around the Gearhulk and win, while the control strategies are given sufficient time to find an answer (or just counter your guy). The “best” Combustible Gearhulk deck will have to fundamentally restructure Magic deck-building and theory if it’s going to attain respectable ‘Tier 1’ status. I’ll buy in on this card when the Angels win the pennant.
Verdurous Gearhulk: Of the four ACTUAL Gearhulks, this one is likely the worst. That is not to say that this is a bad card. Verdurous Gearhulk has the most flexibility of any card in the cycle, ranging from a 3GG 8/8 Trampler (something that would have taken 1996 by storm), to a 3GG 4/4 that can change combat math in any manner of permutations. If there is a G/x strategy similar to the GW token decks of the recent past, it is very likely that some number of green Gearhulks find their way into the 75. This card is kept in the conversation by virtue of costing  and not .
GEARHULK BREAKDOWN: The white and black ones are good, and are probably worth snagging sometime soon if you plan on playing a lot of constructed Magic (despite the usual new set tax). The blue and red ones are not quite ready for prime time, and at $6 each have plenty of room to fall after underwhelming out of the gate. Verdurous Gearhulk is the most situational, but surprisingly the most expensive. I don’t see a clear Day 1 strategy that I like for Greenhulk, so I’ll pass until supply forces a price cut.
Fumigate: Remember when we talked about Languish and Planar Outburst a few weeks back? Essentially the sentiment was that Planar Outburst was set to be the best Wrath of God effect after the rotation of Languish short of a playable alternative in Kaladesh. Fumigate is most certainly playable. Although Fumigate is priced at , the life gain addition does a good job of partially recouping the life lost from waiting an additional turn. In token-heavy strategies (a phrase I have typed quite a bit so far), this is likely to get you “back” roughly a turn, especially as creature power trends closer to 1. I think this makes a very strong case for control decks to have access to white mana and becomes one of the marquee anti-aggro spells in the format. If threat density becomes an issue for UW/x, I could see some number of Planar Outbursts serving as extra copies of the effect, but I think there are enough ways to win otherwise. At $3, just buy them now if you plan to play them.
The Kaladesh Fast-Lands: Lumping these together because they are coming into an environment where I expect their play will be very uniform. We are losing the Apocalypse pain lands at a time where enemy-pair strategies are still very popular. I expect most decks just play 3-4 copies of these, most specifically WR (a pair that plays fewer lands on average, but needs lots of double colors) and BG (a slower pair traditionally, but the one with the two most mana-specific colors). Slower colors will max out on creature lands first, but I still think these will be fairly uniform 4x in Standard. The price fluctuations are likely just due to some being “better” in Modern than others.
Smuggler’s Copter: This is starting to get some love going into the Prerelease Weekend as possibly the “best” vehicle for constructed. Testing results are still anecdotal at best, and likely to skew towards linear aggro decks, which tend to overperform in the early stages of a format’s life cycle. I’m not as impressed as other people seem to be, but I also think I like Fleetwheel Cruiser more. Vehicles are definitely going to take a while to figure out, at least beyond the semi-obvious RW Vehicle aggro deck. The upside here is that if you can otherwise animate a vehicle (Ensoul Artifact is sometimes played in Modern Affinity), you still get the combat abilities. Cool, but possibly not good enough.
Scrapheap Scrounger: Possibly the best crew member for vehicles outside of RW. Unlike that reckless Wesley Crusher, who got his friends killed by attempting dangerous stunts. He should have been expelled from Starfleet Academy for his unbridled hubris.
Demon of Dark Schemes: Okay so this… hang on a sec… *CRANKS DIO* THIS CARD IS METAL AS HECK. ANY MASSACRE WURM VARIANT IS GOING TO DESERVE A SECOND LOOK, ESPECIALLY IF WE CAN PREDICT TO SEE SOME PERCENTAGE OF TOKEN-BASED OR WIDE THREAT STRATEGIES. THE FACT THAT THIS HAS A TOTALLY VIABLE REANIMATION ABILITY AND A FREE SOURCE OF CONTINUOUS ENERGY GENERATION IS JUST THE GRAVY ON TOP. REMEMBER ALL THOSE GB DECKS RUNNING TRAVERSE THE ULVENWALD BEFORE? MAX OUT ON THOSE AND THIS IS AN EASY INCLUSION. *AIR GUITARS ALONG TO ‘RAINBOW IN THE DARK’*
So I’m not going to say that the Pro Tour went as planned, because quite frankly I was a little too vague in my expectations (other than me saying that this wouldn’t be Pro Tour: Bant Company, which was both somewhat obvious and correct). The question that we should be asking right now is not necessarily “okay, so the Pro Tour happened, now what do I play?”, rather it’s “how will this information influence the existing environment?”. We’ve talked before about some of the things that make PT weekends aberrant to other weekend-long events, but that information is still going to color the format for the next three months. How do we make sense of it, and more importantly, how do we do so before everyone else?
I want to clarify at the top that I don’t think Bant Company is a bad deck. In fact, it is probably still one of the absolute best decks in the format. In fact, what we’ve seen from PT:EMN (and a little bit at SCG Baltimore, if you knew where to look) suggests that even when Bant Company isn’t performing well, it is having a profound effect on the metagame. What we are seeing in response to Spell Queller is a prioritizing of cards that cost  or , the latter for its natural “immunity”, and the former for the gained versatility of casting multiple spells a turn. One of the best “answers” at  seems to be Tragic Arrogance, a card that may be able to have a final bump in price (it’s less than a dollar currently), although I’m not sure that it would be sustainable. If you have these in your binder, try to leverage them into something equally low in price but with a slightly higher upside (my personal favorite targets are Planar Outburst and Epiphany! at the Drownyard1).
The environment going into the Pro Tour was probably not a stable one, just because weird things like card availability have more of an impact one or two weeks in versus as many months. At the same time, I don’t think that the Pro Tour really solved anything, just because so many people were already aiming to take out Bant Company just as everyone else was noticing it. I genuinely expect Bant to have several more strong showings, just because the deck is proactive rather than reactive, and in tournaments with wide skill levels (Opens, GPs), being the player with a clearly defined plan of attack is going to be an instant source of percentage points. At the same time, the format only had to bend to accommodate it, not warp entirely (as was the case in Affinity-era Standard, where you essentially maindecked as much artifact removal as you could). Looking ahead, I expect Bant to be the deck that always has a presence in a tournament, but doesn’t ever really sweep an event. Most of the Bant decks in a Top 32 will be in that 9-16 range, just because they are always going to have to jockey against one another, and there doesn’t seem to be a true mirror-breaker sideboard strategy.
One of the cards that I like coming out of this weekend is Distended Mindbender. DMB (although his fans just say ‘Dave’) works at a really interesting axis, and he has been on my modern workbench for a week or so now. In Standard the opposing clock is slower and there is more diversity in casting costs, so he is theoretically better. It’s also worth mentioning that even though we don’t have things like Eldrazi Temple or Noble Hierarch (which serve as pure accelerants), all of the best three drops in the Eldrazi decks are also in Standard (with  being the casting cost where you are able to Emerge on curve as a virtual ). My testing so far has indicated that Elder Deep-Fiend may end up being the better option, at least in the more aggressive Eldrazi builds, but I definitely think DMB has the talent to crash… into top tier standard decks. At under $3, these seem like a solid buy. It’s also possible that Emerge is still being “solved”, and that the mechanic gets more popular.
In terms of price movement following the PT, we’ve seen Liliana, the Last Hope begin to level off and begin her descent back to reality, while Emrakul, the Promised End (a card that is precisely as rare as Lili!) sits at under 2/3rds as much. While Liliana almost demands to be played in heavy multiples (partially because she’s so easy to kill off), Emrakul is pretty well spread-out as a 1-2x. Perhaps the best card to pair Emrakul with, Traverse the Ulvenwald2, also saw a considerable bounce, while Den Protector (maybe the best single card to pair with Liliana) is just coasting on her way out of Standard. I still haven’t personally played with Lili yet (and I recommend avoiding buying in still), but all of the people I’ve talked to have had mediocre reviews or worse. Staying in GB, Grim Flayer has had a slight uptick, which ended up preventing what looked to be a slide heading into the PT. I’ve heard mixed results here also, and it sounds like Sylvan Advocate is probably the preferred play at  in green. Gisela, the Broken Blade is down about $10 since release, and I think that once she slides to around $8 I’ll buy in. I don’t expect Gisela to see any meaningful play until Collected Company (and the inherent reward for playing creatures that cost three or less) cycles out.
Some off-hand stuff to close: Selfless Spirit seems like it is probably strong enough to stay above average for a rare, but I don’t know how long that translates to “above $6”. Eldritch Evolution seems appealing at around $5, just because it feels like the kind of card that is very close to breakable. Mausoleum Wanderer really seems like a card that’s almost as good as Selfless Spirit, especially if Spirits end up really making it in Modern. If that deck does have legs, Eldritch Moon as a set is going to hold value in 5+ years. In the mean time, standard sets seem to just be cratering in value once they get a few months out, so be very picky in anything you are buying now that isn’t to play with right away. And lastly, Prized Amalgam had a healthy increase off the success of the UB Zombie deck, which I can confirm is very fun to play. We don’t have any serious graveyard hate (a la Tormod’s Crypt) right now, so enjoy filling up your ‘yard while you can.
2The beauty here is that the card serves as virtual copies while not requiring you to actually OWN multiple Emrakuls, while also fudging some of your other numbers. It also reduces the likelihood of actually drawing Emrakul, which is not great.
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