Tuesday 12 September 2017

Ixalan Preliminary Review Part IX

Bishop of the Bloodstained 2

While this might seem weak it will enable combo kills with Patriarch's Bidding which is a reasonable deal. That was one of the best things about zombies! This seemingly junk uncommon could be the card that elevates vampires to the best black tribe. Not that being number one in black is all that much of an accolade. Zombies has historically under performed in cube given how much depth it has compared to most other tribes. You only play this in vampire tribal decks containing mass recursion but in them it adds a good chunk of game to the deck.

Merfolk Branchwalker 6

Finally, a good efficient card using the explore mechanic. This is comfortably powerful enough to compete well against the various comparable cube cards. Either a 2/1 for 1G that draws a land or a 3/2 for that cost plus a scry are great deals. While this is obviously powerful it is somewhat reduced in value by being unreliable. If you need a land then other cards are better. If you need a fatty then again, you can do better. This is rarely a split card either, you only get to chose or even know what this card will do when you have appropriate support for it like a Sylvan Library. You get a good deal regardless of the outcome for your mana but you don't always get the effect you wanted and that could be a problem. Satyr Wayfinder is perhaps the most comparable card to this, certainly as a support card. Wayfinder is very low powered, you only ever get a 1/1. You do however almost always get a land, sometimes an option on lands and you always put a decent chunk of things in the bin. If you just want a dork that will help up your land count and graveyard size then Wayfinder is clearly a better fit in your deck. I think on that basis Branchwalker will be primarily used as an aggressive creature, more like Abbot of Keral Keep than the Wayfinder. You will play it in decks that actively want 3/2 dorks for two as you will be about as happy with either result on most occasions. At least if you need land and miss with this a scry does still help to get you to lands. I think in ramp and even some midrange decks that a 3/2 and a scry is not enough what they want from their two drops that this will see less play than its power level might suggest. Branchwalker is a strong card that is like the inverse of a Charm. Rather than give options at power cost this gains power as a result of having chaotic outcomes. While it looks like the sort of card that should be widely playable I think the inconsistency will be a turn off in a lot of its potential homes. Perhaps the card it is most comparable to is Borderlands Explorer. A card I thought would be top quality filler in lots of different decks but actually only gets used when desperate for playables or when discard outlets are needed. Branchwalker feels much the same but instead of discard outlet read cheap tempo threats.

Vraska, Relic Seeker 7

So, I have spent much time considering this for several reasons. Firstly because it looks so good but also because it is in the six slot as a gold card which is like the void when it comes to cube prospects. Not only are expensive gold cards hard to justify (unless you are cheating them in) but the six slot has the stiffest competition from mono coloured cards as well. Basically for a 4+ CMC gold card to be a consideration for the cube it has to be sufficiently playable to be seen in a good number of decks. To do this it has to be sufficiently better than comparable mono coloured cards at the same cost bracket (or a uniquely well suited card to some archetypes). In the six slot in cube we have the Titan Cycle, Wurmcoil Engine and Elspeth, Sun's Champion. These cards are pretty extreme. Grave Titan for example is one of the best cards to Sneak Attack or Shallow Grave even when competing with cards near twice its cost. There is not much room for 6 mana cards in the cube, the bar for entry is insanely high and a good number of those six drop slots are basically already locked out. For Vraska to make a cube career she has a lot to prove, as a gold card she needs needs to be more powerful than a Titan to stand much chance. Fortunately it seems like that could be a real possibility.

Sorin, Grim Nemesis is the only other gold six mana walker I have tried out in the cube. While the card was good it was clearly a no hoper in cube. It saw far too little play, mostly because not loads of BW decks that wanted 6 drops got made and he wasn't the clear best choice when they did come up. Sorin was super powerful but a little inconsistent, you couldn't rely on him. Critically he was not better than Elspeth or Grave Titan enough of the time. Vraska is much better positioned than Sorin simply due to colours. Golgari is more common than Orzhov pairings and has far more room for six drops in general. A GB version of Sorin with exactly the same abilities would have seen more action although probably still not enough to cut it.

Another potential comparison is Garruk, Apex Predator who was one of the more successful expensive gold walkers. While he was pretty good being a seven drop is a world of difference from a six drop, even in green. This is also at a time when multiple Garruk's conflicted and you would typically rather play cheaper Garruks in the kinds of deck that would want the big one. Karn being a far more playable seven mana planeswalker also hurt the chances of Apex. At six mana now Apex Predator would be very potent indeed and so Vraska only has to seem comparable to Garruk to have a reasonable shot.

The real challenge is the comparison against Elsepth, Wurmcoil and Grave Titan, these are the cards it really has to seem better than. While it is easier to compare Vraska to a card like Garruk it is much more pertinent to compare the card to the kind of thing it needs to be better than and the kinds of thing it will compete for deck slots with. Also, more relevantly these are all top rate cube cards, if Vraska passes the comparison with these I don't need to worry about the other cards. That however is not so easy and is why I have had to be a bit more wide reaching in my considerations. Comparing a creature threat like Grave Titan to a planeswalker card is tough, they do quite different thing and will shine in very different circumstances. You cannot compare directly but only over loads and loads of games. You have to be able to imagine the average case or better still, thousands of individual cases where you might cast either to be able to work out which is better out of two dissimilar kinds of card. Elspeth is a more similar card but in the context of a different colour the comparison loses its directness. Wurmcoil and Titan being creatures pose an issue but also the playability due to colour requirements factors in and that is tricky to account for. I have just somewhat fudged that aspect by saying Vraska has to be better.

So lets start with Elspeth as that is at least of similar theme. Elspeth makes three 1/1s for +1 starting at 4 loyalty. This means in defense mode she will have put 8 "toughness" into play. Three from the dorks and five from her loyalty. This assumes that they have to kill Elspeth but that is a pretty reasonable assumption in most cases. Vraska only makes a single dork. This obviously gives a lot less ability to block however the numbers work out quite firmly in Vraska's favour. She starts at six and has a +2 to make a 2/2. This means in defense mode she puts up 10 effective toughness all be it more in her loyalty. She is harder to take down in attacks in general even if she is slightly weaker to decks trying to go wide rather than big. The making dorks ability on both is the same total loyalty and toughness added. The +2 starting loyalty goes a long way to making Vraska a very safe thing to play into most boards. She can eat a lot more burn and absorb a lot more attacks than Elsepth even if she can't quite offer up the same total blocking potential. At this point I can call on being a green card to offset quantity of dorks. Generally green just has more things in play and so I expect on average Vraska will prove a significantly safer thing to play onto any given board than Elsepth when both are using their token producing ability to survive. It is also worth noting that menace is useful if not defensively. It further increases the all round value of the +2 on Vraska which already seems to look pretty good next to the mighty Elspeth.

Next up you have the -3 abilities on both. Certainly it is a nice perk on Elspeth but it is not commonly used and when it is it does not commonly take out more than one thing. In almost every way Vraska has a better -3. It has a much much wider range on targets, it leaves Vraska still on a decent loyalty count and of course it gives some bonus treasure! It doesn't even risk killing your own stuff! The -3 on Vraska affords a lot of control over the game, a good amount of extra defensive utility and a nice bit of value too. It is one of the best non-ultimate abilities on any planeswalker and while fairly expensive in loyalty that is rather well mitigated by a good solid plus two ability and a nice high starting count.

Lastly we have the ultimate. Elspeth's looks cheaper but it isn't in reality. You can lay Vraska and go plus plus -10 while you need a whole extra turn to rush Elspeth's emblem. Both are pretty darn good. Up to nine 3/3 fliers able to attack is pretty game winning but so is setting someones life total to 1 with a pair of 2/2 menace dorks in play. Vraska's ultimate enables easy wins with lots of other cards and can shut off loads of things your opponent might have wanted to use life for. Both are pretty game ending and have synergy with the plus ability but again I have to give this one to Vraska for the speed and consistency of it. So, it looks like Vraska is a better threat, a better win condition, a better answer and a better source of value than Elspeth. Elspeth has one small area in which she is better, specifically against lots of non-evasive dorks single handedly but it is not like Vraska is bad in such a situation, just not as good as Elspeth. So pound for pound I would say that Vraska is quite significantly better than the Sun's Champion which is a really impressive claim for her.

Now, can we say that she is better than a Grave Titan with the same level of certainty? No is the short answer. They are just too different. I can make the comparison than playing a Titan is also 10 toughness on the board as a Vraska with a +2 is when you translate loyalty to toughness. That is quite meaningless though. You can clear all the toughness of the Titan with a Wrath or 60% of it with a lot of spot removal. You can ignore most of the loyalty of Vraska if they are suitably low etc. A Titan churns out a pair of 2/2s each turn and smacks pretty hard. Vraska threatens by gaining loyalty two at a time which is immensely different to attacking for 6 and she can only output the single 2/2 each turn. A Titan unopposed will kill from 20 in 3 turns including the one you make it which is the same as Vraska although she can do it as quickly from infinite life. Titan will overcome a game more rapidly but is less versatile. Titan probably wins more games while Vraska probably prevents more losses. Titan is perhaps on the win more side of things. If you ramp it out it can all be a bit much. While it is hard to directly call Vraska better than Grave Titan she certainly appears to keep up with what Titan does as best a planeswalker could hope to. She is very threatening and offers a big board controlling presence like Titan. Vraska then offers this whole range of things that Titan doesn't offer that will solve problems. Titan is better against a lot of linear decks while Vraska seems better against most other things.

As you can see, with Vraska matching up so well against Grave Titan and Elspeth you can see why I think we might have an actual gold six drop contender. The thing I found most surprising when comparing and contrasting known cards to Vraska was how similar she is to Karn. They both have 6 loyalty, they can both remove most things for -3. They can both go ultimate off two plus activations and they both gain and effective buffer of 4 with their plus abilities all be it all loyalty in Karn and an even split with loyalty and dorks for Vraska. Now Karn is pretty great and he is seven mana. If a six mana card compares well to a very good and commonly played seven drop then surely we are onto a winner.

Being gold will hurt this cards playability some for sure. It might be better than Titan and Elspeth and even Karn but it will still see less play than these mono and colourless cards. Being green is a huge help, not just in that green ramps and fixes well but also in that green really only has one good six drop making this a much more appealing thing to splash for. I asked myself if I wanted a six drop and I was already playing a Deathrite Shaman would I find a way to include Vraska and I felt like the answer was generally yes. I think it is good enough and well positioned enough not to see that much less play than the other premium top end cards at least.

Lurking Chupacabra 0

I am not sure what this would need to trigger off to be good in cube. Prowess perhaps? Certainly something vastly more frequent than explore has any hope of being.

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