Monday, 11 March 2019

Modern Horizons Preliminary Reviews: Part I

Cabal Therapist 7/10

One of my all time favourite cards getting a big nod from this new offering. I find the timing trigger on this card rather odd. I am not sure why it doesn't use the upkeep and I don't like not understanding a design choice! If it were a card going into standard I might think it was to do with Arena and making things simpler. Certainly this is a little bit better than an upkeep trigger as you get the extra information from the card drawn. If it is a creature you can flash into play then you might even get that perk as well but that seems like a rarity. Perhaps that is just it, they wanted to push this card as much as possible and this timing was the best they could do without making the card dangerously good. If this was usable just at any time in the main phase or just at the start of combat or end step then it would be a lot better. The fact that you have to wait a turn in almost all cases to use this keeps it calmer. It gives the opponent a chance to react before it starts shredding their plan to bits. It means you have to realistically wait till turn three before you get to use it with something else or two two with itself. There are a lot of parallels between this and Pilfering Imp. Imp is Coercion (Thoughtsieze) rather than the Cabal Therapy effect which is certainly a lot better in singleton and still generally better as a first use discard spell regardless of format. You have to only care about one card or have the very best reads for a turn one Therapy to have higher expected value than a Thoughtsieze! Unless you combo your Therapist with a Peek effect you are going to have fairly poor odds on a hit first time round. Imp is also flying which is a more powerful keyword. While not directly better than menace flying will be better most of the time. The key word is minor, these cards are disruptive cards not threats, they simply have added utility, interactivity and vulnerability as a result of small evasive bodies. It is at this point in the comparison that Therapist starts being better than the Imp. It can sacrifice other cards and stay around in play threatening to take more cards away. A Therapist plus a stream of chumps can devastate a slower deck, or an engine deck, all by itself. Imp is only ever going one for one while Therapist can effectively go ballistic on this front and far exceed a two for one in real terms. This will not be common but the threat of it will force a response a lot of the time. Lastly the Therapist is a one mana card with no further direct costs. You can Therapy someone for one mana, all be it slowly! Imp needs three mana invested in it making it a pretty poor tempo play. You can continue to Therapy your opponent at no extra cost on whatever dorks you are tossing in the bin. Black can put up cheap chumps pretty easily, be it in two bodies in one cards which are plentiful at two mana and up in black, or in one drops you can easily get back from the bin, or in two drops with other value effects like the classic Ravenous Rats. Therapist certainly is at it's best in a black deck full of cheap crappy dorks. This could be black aggro, it could be an Aristocrats tokens deck or it could be most iterations of midrange black decks. Therapist seems to fit reasonably well into most of the things you find black doing in cube. It seems to provide a lot of options and a lot of synergies. It threatens ongoing disruption. It is a high power card at a point in the curve where black is a little lacking, both in disruptive effects and in nice playable all round cards. I think this is demonstrated well in Pilfering Imp. The Imp is clearly very low power but it is seeing lots of play because of how it covers many of blacks deficiencies. Therapist is clearly more potent than the Imp, while not directly better in all cases the average performance I expect will be impressively higher. Therapist may end up booting Imp out of my cube. I like it a lot and I can see why it is being used as one of the early showcase cards. It is a lovely design, it wins on flavour, on what is needed, on power level, on option density and I am sure many more categories for design triumphs. I am greatly looking forward to playing with this little gem. It isn't even all that good in the cube meta where power levels are extreme but variance is high, not forgetting the singleton of course. Therapist will scale with skill more than most. In the hands of a great player it will be a premium one drop even in cube. In the hands of a beginner this probably hurts them rather than helping. This probably makes it unwise to include in some cubes based on who plays with them. I will of course be adding it but then I am a glutton for punishment and apparently like to involve my friends in that. Mostly what I am getting at is that the card is hard to rate as it really depends on who is playing with it. If your play group is all hall of famers then this is easily an 8/10 card but if it has mostly newer players then it is going to be rather less! Just before we move on to the other super early spoiled card I want to paint a picture of a near ceiling opener with this and how scary it would be to face. So lets start with a Gravecrawler, could be a Doomed Traveler or a Thraben Inspector. Could even be the Therapist itself if we play something like a Bloodghast or an Orzhov Enforcer on turn two instead. Ideally we have mana up for a Duress or Inquisition turn two to get the required information. Gitaxian Probe or even Urza's Buable can help out if we don't have the mana spare. We are now very well setup to utterly ruin the day of our opponent from turn three onward with a decent soft lock on them. They will be not far off playing just from the top of their deck if they cannot answer the Therapist. We also get to have our whole turn three to further pull ahead while they are desperately scrambling to find an answer to this one mana 1/1 appropriately typed horror! When you can get that much control over the game that early you can even be trading one for one and be very happy with the situation.

Serra the Benevolent 8/10

I suspect I am going to quickly tire of reviewing walkers with 36 or so of the buggers due in War of the Spark... Serra is an interesting one. I didn't like her at first and then I just kept spotting game states where she would be nuts. A couple of these were the classic turn four after a Lingering Souls or a Spectral Procession. Having a very dangerous 6 loyalty walker after battering someone in the sky is a great place to be. Assuming you did much of much with your first couple of turns that will be all she wrote for many a game. The +1/+1 to fliers retained impressive relevance into the late game for a significant number of white decks. Even pumping just one dork is a big deal if it means it is able to turn a trade into a chump or if it finishes off a planeswalker. White isn't overdone with haste or direct damage so a lot of players will make plays that let planeswalkers get low on the board. Buffs are one of the few punishes white has to offer. What I like about this +2 ability is that it is situational in some regards but still probably good even when you have no fliers due to how dangerous the other abilities are. You can likely make Serra on an empty board of your own, +2 her and force all attacks to come her way for as long as she lives simply to stave off the ultimate. I anticipate seeing Serra force a lot of bad attacks and absorbing a huge amount of damage. In the theme of bad attacks we also have the -3. At first I didn't like it much as I felt it left Serra overly vulnerable. The thing is that a Serra Angel is a reasonable thing to have at just four mana. You don't need much more on top of that for it to be great. If you force a burn spell out to finish off your Serra then you have a net result of a zero card cost two or three mana Serra Angel token. That is a big win. If you force them to attack into your Angel to kill Serra then again, you are a powerful token up so effectively a 2 for 1 as well as gaining mana and life back on the deal. These are all the likely outcomes for your Serra getting killed. If she isn't killed then she is going to churn out more Angels and pump existing ones and likely win the game all by herself. Serra is pretty much the only planeswalker that can die after just one activation and expect to still be ahead on tempo and value and as such I think she will be one of the best in cube. I think she will likely take any slots Gideon, Ally of Zendikar would be getting in modern. In cube Serra is more midrange and Gideon is more aggressive but both are good enough that I think you play them in some less on theme settings. I expect Serra to outclass Gideon in cube as well as modern. Her ultimate is dangerously potent. A lot of decks simply can't beat a Worship emblem. It doesn't win the game but it effectively does. What makes it especially good is that it can be threatened the turn after Serra hits play. This will devastate a stalemated board. It will catch people off guard while curving as well. To effectively play against a Serra if you can't beat a Worship emblem you always have to be in a position to threaten damage and that is hard to do, especially against white. I think it is safe to say this is a pushed card. It looks like it would be oppressive in basically any standard format ever. The potential for the +2 doing nothing initially put me off the card but that was a poor assumption. When you take all the cards abilities and loyalty into account a do nothing +2 is actually just fine because of what it threatens and thus forces. It reads a bit like some of the Gideon abilities that force you to attack him. Serra threatens in far more ways than most planeswalkers. She threatens the game ending Worship, she threatens by being a Favourable Winds, and she threatens by slowly churning out Serra Angel tokens. This wide array of dangers really help make her good but I think the main component of her quality is the really high chance on getting card and tempo advantage from her. It is un-intuitive because of how most other planeswalkers function. If I make an Elspeth or Gideon and toss out a soldier or knight token only to have my opponent Hero's Downfall my walker I feel like I got a fairly bum deal. I might have a token and it might do reasonable work for me but I am down a mana. I certainly don't feel like I got a two for one because of my remaining token. A small vanilla token is absolutely worth something but it is closer to the one mana difference in cost between Downfall and the planeswalker than it is to a card. This feeling of worth changes dramatically when the token is a 4/4 flying vigilance and not a crappy small vanilla dork. I am more than happy to consider the worth of that at least a card. Sure, a token Serra Angel is still worse than a real one but not loads. Silumgar's Command and of course the brutal Glorybringer are the only cards I can think of that clean up a Serra without losing card advantage. Even the Command is a mild tempo loss. So, we have established Serra has a good threat level. We have established that she has a good chance of being value and tempo positive and that she should cope well with varied board states and matchups. All in all I think we can fairly safely say that this is a pretty nifty planeswalker. It has comparable power to other good ones but she has much more immediacy about her and that is the hidden thing that really pushes her into the realms of premium walkers.

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