First look at Magic Origins: New Planeswalkers and top ten cards
By Neil T Stacey
Goblin Piledriver followed by Rabblemaster isn’t quite Splinter Twin combo but it’s closer than it should be. With no one-drop and no follow-up on turn four, you still get to attack for 4 on turn three and then 14 on turn four. 18 damage by turn four from just two cards seems too filthy to be in Standard.
I should hope it’s clear that Goblin Piledriver is my personal favourite card from Origins, just as Rabblemaster was my favourite card in M15. There is, however, a lot more going on in this set.
There are a number of talking points to the set, and several cards bound to make an impact on Standard. There are a handful of cards that look set to show up in Modern and even a couple of long shots for Legacy play.
The first talking point is the new flippy planeswalkers. Anything new generates a lot of chatter among Magic players and these are certainly interesting from a design standpoint. Unfortunately I am of the opinion that the way these cards are designed, they are bound to create feel-bad moments, particularly for new players who focus on the planeswalker side of these cards.
On pre-release weekend, thousands of players worldwide will get amped about the awesome planeswalker they cracked only to discover that they rarely get to see the planeswalker side of the card. The reality is that each of these cards is a creature first, and that’s the only part of the card you are ever guaranteed to see in play.
It’s generally disappointing when a card turns out to be less powerful than it appears on first inspection, so it’s better to think of these cards as creatures with upside as opposed to planeswalkers in waiting. Let’s take a look at them individually and see how they stack up.
Up to now, there has only been one playable iteration of Chandra. I don’t think this is the second. Three mana for a 2/2 that can ping players is not something I’m interested in. If you do manage to flip her, the payoff is unspectacular. If I look at Chandra, Roaring Flame and try figure out how much mana I would pay for a normal planeswalker with those abilities, I come up with three mana as the fairest answer. She’d be underwhelming at four mana and not overpowered at three.
So, a planeswalker that would be good at three mana and all I have to do to get it is pay three mana, jump through hoops and hope my opponent doesn’t have removal.
Pass. I expect this card to be consigned to casual play along with so many of Chandra’s previous iterations.
This is almost certainly the best Savannah Lions ever printed. One mana for a 2/1 has always been reasonable and there is a great deal of upside here. The activated ability is useful in and of itself and in a pinch it’s a good way to keep him alive through an attack that flips him. Once he has flipped you get a dialled back version of a playable five-mana planeswalker, an incredibly bargain for an initial investment of one mana.
Playing Kytheon on turn one will put your opponent under tremendous pressure to deal with it right away. If there is ever deck in Standard that is interested in a one-mana 2/1 in white, then Kytheon will be a big part of that deck.
However, there are a handful of one mana 2/1s with upside already in the format. Right now they see little to no play, indicating that there just isn’t a viable shell that Kytheon fits into right now. This card is unlikely to have much immediate impact on Standard, but keep an eye on it for the future.
As for older formats, I’m interested in testing Kytheon out in Affinity, the one deck with a reasonable chance of flipping him on turn two. I don’t expect that there is enough incentive here to warp the mana base to reliably make white mana on turn 1 and I don’t see the appeal of a non-artifact one-drop in the versions of the deck that already run a lot of white mana for Tempered Steel. Still, worth trying out.
Merfolk Looter with upside. Yawn.
The planeswalker side is quite interesting, however. It can keep one small opposing threat under control while you build up loyalty, or it can just be cashed in for some value. Not embarrassing for an initial investment of two mana.
I don’t feel that this card is terrible on its merits but I’m not sure there’s a good deck where it will excel right now. Perhaps Jeskai tokens can find a slot for this. That deck has fallen off the radar somewhat lately, however, and I don’t see any reason for it to see a resurgence. Jace will quite likely be stuck on the fringes of Standard for the foreseeable future.
The creature side of Nissa is perfectly reasonable; I played a lot with Borderland Ranger when it was legal and this isn’t that much worse. Being restricted to forests rather than any basic is problematic not just because it stops Nissa from fixing your mana but also because three-colour decks already put pressure on their supply of basic lands with fetch lands.
That’s hardly a death knell for the card but it is something to be aware of. Still, getting a reasonable body and some value is good enough for three mana so Nissa is respectable even if she never flips. Another big plus is that flipping her doesn’t demand that you jump through any hoops or build your deck around doing it. Instead, if you just play a long game you get there eventually. When you do flip her, the payoff is impressive. Planeswalker Nissa generates ongoing card advantage and eventually wins by herself and has the ability to defend herself and create lasting board presence. Nissa is also able to flip the turn you cast her and if you have an unused fetchland in play, you can use it to flip her in response to removal, guaranteeing that you get at least one activation with her planeswalker side.
This card will be a big player in Standard, particularly after rotation when the three-drop slot opens up a bit with the departure of Courser of Kruphix. No good in other formats, however.
Three mana for a 2/3 with lifelink is actually not a terrible proposition in Standard right now. Red decks will find this awkward to deal with if they find themselves without Lightning Strike on hand.
The planeswalker side certainly has the ability to take over a game under the right circumstances and putting out a zombie token when it flips gives it some defence. The fact that she can flip the same turn she is cast is a big plus, particularly since you can set things up so that she can flip at instant speed.
I don’t see a home for Liliana in Standard right now, however. She’s weak in decks without cheap creatures firstly to flip her and then to reanimate with her planeswalker side. Unfortunately, the decks interested in a defensive three-drop that grinds out late-game value just don’t run a bunch of cheap creatures.
In Modern, however, Liliana is a real prospect for Abzan Company decks, where flipping her is trivially easy and her planeswalker side is perfectly suited to buying back combo pieces.
My top 10 cards from Magic Origins
This set doesn’t break down easily into separate categories of cards that are good for Eternal formats and cards that are good for Standard. Instead of doing separate lists for each format, I’ll do a single top ten list and discuss each card in terms of what formats I like it in. As with most card evaluations this list is skewed toward Standard, the game’s marquee format and the one where new cards are most likely to find a home. This is a challenging set to evaluate, with some interesting designs that take a bit of figuring out. As a result, this list is also heavily weighted by my own personal preferences; rather than being in strict order of usefulness in Constructed play.
Magic’s most over-achieving Savannah Lions earns a spot on this list by adding a whole new dimension to the kind of deck that wants one-mana 2/1s. It’s a low spot because I don’t think there is an immediate home for this card in Standard; the best aggressive decks are playing red and I don’t think that’s likely to change.
I can’t see him making a splash in Eternal formats, where one-mana 2/1s are a long way behind the curve. This card has secret flavour text saying ‘take another look after rotation’.
Two mana to get one card in hand and four in the graveyard is a good rate, last seen on Grisly Salvage, which did have the two advantages of being an instant and being able to get a land. Still, the effect certainly has a place in a Standard format that is very interested in stocking graveyards.
Gather the Pack can also occasionally get you two creature cards and that is amazing value. I wouldn’t bet on getting full value from this all that often; you need a high density of creatures for a good probability of hitting two in your top 5 cards. Decks with a high density of creatures won’t be the best at ensuring Spell Mastery is online, particularly if those decks are interested in using the contents of their graveyard.
I would take this card at face value, then. For two mana you get a creature card and four cards in the graveyard. Every so often, you’ll get an extra creature card as a bonus and that’s just fine. Expect this to be a role-player in Standard.
A solid blocker with a light Propaganda effect built in will be endlessly frustrating for aggro red decks. As a flier with five toughness it is particularly obnoxious because it doesn’t die to Stoke the Flames or Roast. Archangel of Tithes is also capable of playing a more aggressive role. Its second ability puts pressure on your opponent’s ability to develop their board and also make good blocks, perfect for midrange decks aiming to turn the corner quickly once they’re in front.
It also survives Languish, which I suspect will be the new yardstick for measuring four-drops. That’s particularly important for more aggressive decks that want to commit early threats to the board without being blown out by a sweeper on turn four.
An interesting development of this set is that it rounds out a nice set of devotion enablers in white. Knight of the White Orchid and Archangel of Tithes are the new additions to an already solid array headlined by solid cards like Brimaz, King of Oreskos.
Unfortunately, White as a colour just doesn’t get much payoff for devotion. I just don’t see White devotion being a thing, despite how well Archangel of Tithes goes with Heliod. However, this is a strong enough card on its own merits to be worth watching.
There is one question on everyone’s minds about this card. Is this guy single-handedly bringing back Mono-Black Devotion?
I don’t think so, unfortunately. This is an excellent card on its own merits and those three black mana pips in the cost certainly have the potential to power out some angry Gary’s. However, there just isn’t a viable shell for an out and out black devotion deck. There is just a shortage of two and three drops that work with that sort of game-plan. I’ve tested a few black devotion builds with this in as a proxy, trying out a few different early drops and various different splash colours. In all of them, Gray Merchant just hasn’t turned out to be the best five-drop. Sidisi, Undead Vizier is often better, depending on the build. In other cases, I’m more interested in Whisperwood Elemental or Stormbreath Dragon.
If we are building a deck around devotion and our main payoff card for devotion turns out to be just okay, then maybe we shouldn’t be so focused on devotion. Yes, Gary is excellent as a follow-up to Erebos’s Titan. However, you won’t always draw Titan or keep it in play, and there just isn’t a deck that consistently has enough devotion to make it worthwhile.
So if Mono-Black Devotion isn’t making a comeback, why is this card in at number seven?
Simple, really. Four mana 5/5s are pretty good right now and there’s a lot of upside on this guy. The indestructibility clause will come up fairly often, since black is well-equipped to keep opposing creatures off the board. It also has utility against control decks who will find him tiresome to deal with permanently.
His second ability will also be quite relevant in the current Standard. I don’t think it’s worth going out of your way to actively exile creatures from opposing graveyards to trigger it, but there are a lot of incidental triggers for it that are quite widely played. An opponent delving away a creature triggers it. An activation of Haven of the Spirit Dragon triggers it. A Deathmist Raptor graveyard trigger does it. Den Protector picking up a creature triggers it.
Of course, your opponent can choose not to do these things, but that’s a cost to him or her, while Titan just has to sit in the graveyard to act as a deterrent.
Titan outclasses most similarly-costed threats in the format and he’s difficult to deal with. Even if black devotion doesn’t pan out, this is a card to watch.
Nissa looks particularly good in decks that have Den Protector to buy her back in the late-game, after she trades or chump blocks early. Her biggest obstacle is competition in the three-drop slot; she’s competing with Courser of Kruphix as well as Den Protector (if morphed) along with its partner in crime, Deathmist Raptor. Hero’s Downfall and Abzan also sit in the same spot on the mana curve, so it’s tricky to fit Nissa in. I don’t think she’s better than Courser in most decks so it’s the other 3-drops I’ll be cutting down on to make room. To start with, I’ll be testing Nissa as a two-of in Abzan Control. There are a few other decks that might want this card, particularly builds with Collected Company.
I rank Liliana a little higher than Nissa. Both of them are likely to be role-players in Standard at some point. While Nissa looks to be the better card in Standard, she has no prospects in older formats whereas Liliana looks like a possible inclusion in Collected Company decks in Modern.
Four damage for three mana is a reasonable rate, even at sorcery speed. It kills a lot of important creatures and goes to the face for a big chunk of life. This card is guaranteed to see some play, even if it isn’t a match for Stoke the Flames right now. Being uncounterable some of the time is a nice bonus too.
This doesn’t quite fit into any existing decks in Standard and there aren’t any existing decks that are totally blown out by it, so I think Hallowed Moonlight will be making a slow entrance into Standard. Given time, however, I can see this developing into a staple.
The first thing to say about this is that it is an instant speed cantrip, which means that it’s never terrible. Sure, paying two mana to cycle isn’t where you want to be, but Azorius Charm showed that it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. So when Hallowed Moonlight is at its most useless, it’s mediocre and hey, at least it triggers prowess and fuels delve. When it’s good, however, it’s an absolute beating.
Counter your Hordeling Outburst for two mana and draw a card in the deal? Sure, sign me up. How about countering a Chord of Calling or a Collected Company, drawing a card and maybe in a perfect world making a token off of Monastery Mentor?
I can get behind that. I have a hunch that in the foreseeable future we’ll be playing a Standard format where people expect to cheat Eldrazi into play using See the Unwritten. If that comes to pass, then countering it with a two-mana cantrip is something I’m interested in. My suspicion is that this interaction is actually the reason Wizards put this card in the set; to pre-emptively deal with something problematic that came up in their play-testing. In the meantime,
Hallowed Moonlight is worth a look in Modern too. It gives you the ability to shut down Abzan Company decks, countering Chord of Calling or Collected Company with card advantage thrown in. It also stops Persist creatures from getting back into play, so it can stop a combo that was cast straight from the hand.
It bricks Goryo’s Vengeance and Living End and even delays Splinter Twin for a turn while digging for an answer. From time to time you’ll even get a chance to chuckle to yourself as you force a Batterskull to come into play without its Germ token.
It’s important to note, however, that Hallowed Moonlight doesn’t do as much as you might think against things like Restoration Angel or Aether Vial, for instance. Restoration Angel’s exile clause is a ‘may’ effect, so its controller only chooses whether or not to exile the creature when the ability is resolving. So if your opponent casts a Resto Angel and targets his creature, responding with Hallowed Moonlight will result in your opponent choosing not to exile. Likewise, your opponent can just choose to put nothing into play after activating Aether Vial.
You do still get some value in that you interfere with what your opponent was trying to do. Please don’t be a douche and try trick your opponent into exiling creatures that they don’t have to. It’s something that can be done within the rules and there’s a high likelihood that it will work on some percentage of players unfamiliar with these specific interactions. Don’t be that guy.
Even without any trickery, Hallowed Moonlight does a lot of legwork for a card that happens to replace itself. In Modern, the main drawback is that it does nothing at all against Burn and even actively sucks against Eidolon of the Great Revel. With Burn as popular as it is, that counts against it. Nevertheless, it’s sideboard material at worst and maybe worth a look in the mainboards of one or two decks. Off the top of my head, Esper Mentor seems to be the best home for it in Modern.
Hallowed Moonlight could potentially pop up from time to time in Legacy to embarrass Sneak and Show decks. However, I suspect that Containment Priest is the better option for getting this effect.
Aggressive red decks are a big part of the Standard format already, both with and without a green splash for Atarka’s Command. They also happen to run plenty of Goblins along with ways to generate goblin tokens. They are lacking a truly impactful two-drop, however.
If you already have a swarm of Goblins and you’re in the market for a hard-hitting two-drop, Piledriver is about as good as it gets. I don’t think you need an all-in goblin tribal theme to support Goblin Piledriver; I think he just slots into one of the format’s best decks and makes that deck a fair bit better.
In Modern, I have to grudgingly admit that there probably isn’t a tier one deck to support Goblin Piledriver. However, a while back I tested a build of Goblins splashing green for Collected Company and it was a reasonably solid deck, producing very consistent turn four kills even through light disruption. Certainly a reasonable deck, but with no real incentive to play it over Affinity or Burn if you’re looking to be aggressive. I don’t think that Goblin Piledriver will change that assessment, so Goblins will most likely slot in as a fringe deck in the Modern format.
Sweeper effects are defined by what they can and cannot kill, and for Languish the latter is the shorter list. There are very few decks in the format that aren’t running creatures that die to this, and it happens to mop up otherwise problematic threats such as Dragonlord Ojutai and monstrous Fleecemane Lions.
The list of things that Languish doesn’t kill is an interesting one. Siege Rhino springs to mind, as does Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Dragonlord Silumgar also survives Languish, while his younger counterpart not only lives through the effect but even promises to augment it with his own triggered ability.
In general, the creatures that don’t die to Languish are the same ones you’d like to be running in decks with Languish, often making it an effective one-sided sweeper that most want to run it. This card has the potential to reshape Standard around itself.
In all, Origins is a solid set and a reasonable send-off for core sets. In Limited it looks like it will play a bit faster than has been typical of core sets recently; there are some quality two-drops at low rarities to apply early pressure. There’s also a shortage of cheap removal, so players are encouraged to play a fairly low curve to keep up. Core set Sealed in the past has been very forgiving of slow decks that start on turn 3 but I don’t think that’s the case with Origins. Renown in particular is a mechanic that can punish you for falling behind in the early turns.
In terms of Constructed, Origins has more than its fair share of viable cards across multiple formats. There are plenty of interesting cards besides the ones listed in this article, so next week I’ll find some space to take a look at some of the cards that didn’t make this list.