Rotation Grief: War of the Spark, Part 1
- Gianluca Aicardi
The Standard rotation is coming! Time to acknowledge the sudden disappearance from our decks of all the cards from the four rotating sets. We continue this journey of grief (or perhaps jubilation) by looking into the monocolored cards Standard is going to lose when War of the Spark rotates out.
War of the Spark White Losses
Ajani's Pridemate: Originally from Magic 2011, later reprinted in Magic 2015, this staple of lifegain strategies was last seen in Core Set 2019. It then spent another full cycle in Standard, for the first time through a set that wasn't a core set. It's clearly one of those cards that will keep showing up every now and then, but for now it looks like the 2020–2021 Standard will have to make do without this ever-growing Cat. Grief Factor: 7/10.
Defiant Strike: This aggressive cantrip was an important element in Feather decks, where it would turn into a very cheap card-drawing engine. Without the heroic Angel backing it up, its absence is not going to be too noticeable. Grief Factor: 2/10.
Finale of Glory: The Finales were one of the two monocolored mythic cycles in War of the Spark. All of them saw some degree of play, with Finale of Glory being at one point a consistent finisher in Bant Ramp lists. It's a kind of spell that had previously existed in analogous forms, but Finale of Glory was remarkably efficient when cast for high amounts of mana. For comparison, to create ten 4/4 fliers for twelve mana with Entreat the Angels, you'd need the miracle trigger, whereas Decree of Justice would require twice the mana investment. Though the latter shares Finale of Glory's versatility, as both can opt to create smaller Soldier tokens instead. Grief Factor: 7/10.
Gideon Blackblade: The last we'll see of Gideon (presumably) was one of his best incarnations. War of the Spark was all about the titular battle royale involving (almost) all the multiverse's planeswalkers and so made a distinct effort to portray each of the returning ones as if they were bringing their A game to the conflict. The three-drop Gideon Blackblade was a fixture of Monowhite Aggro, as he should be — boosting his brothers and sisters in arms, working toward a neat unconditional exile effect, and, for the first time, turning into his creature avatar for free. Ten years of Gideon's evolving design brought to completion. Good night, beefy prince. Grief Factor: 8/10.
God-Eternal Oketra: The second monocolored mythic cycle. The first Oketra didn't exactly leave a mark on Amonkhet Standard, but its eternalized version was better equipped, thanks to the ability to create an army of 4/4 Zombies just by being in a creature-heavy shell. The card was included in a variety of low-tier Selesnya and Bant lists, back when midrange decks were still an active part of the competitive metagame. But a proper, high-profile home for it was never built. Which is a bummer, because the potential was higher than with most of the God-Eternal colleagues. Grief Factor: 7/10.
Parhelion II: A meme card if there ever was one, many a casual player will miss running Battleship Angel in their jank decks. Grief Factor: 1/10.
Prison Realm: Until Banishing Light returned in Theros Beyond Death, this card was the Oblivion Ring variant in use for all the decks that couldn't exploit the cost reduction of Conclave Tribunal. The scope was narrower, but the scry was welcome. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Rally of Wings: Strictly the prerogative of the Azorius Fliers archetype, it was a cool trick in that deck, ending more than one game. Grief Factor: 3/10.
The Wanderer: One of the new planeswalkers of the set. Not extremely popular as an underpowered uncommon only activatable while supplies last, the card was still more useful than, say, Teyo, the Shieldmage. The character's aura of mystery (she's so inscrutable her planeswalker card is the first without a subtype) triggered the imagination of various commenters across the Magic community, who at first thought she might have been a disguised, returning Elspeth. She's actually her own persona, with the unique, dramatic trait of planeswalking randomly and spontaneously when she doesn't concentrate — hence the nickname. This means we're bound to see her turn up everywhere from now on, if only in passing. She already had the first of such cameos in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths. Grief Factor: 4/10.
Tomik, Distinguished Advokist: The Orzhov lawyer, well-known to Ravnica fans for being Teysa Karlov's apprentice and Ral Zarek's romantic partner, was finally given a simple but effective card, a two-drop flier with a decent body and a bonus ability that was relevant against Nissa, Who Shakes the World. White Weenie gladly employed the card's services for a while, if in limited numbers due to the legendary status. Finding a replacement is not going to prove too difficult. Grief Factor: 4/10.
War of the Spark Blue Losses
Augur of Bolas: Reprinted from Magic 2013, the classic card selector completed a second run in Standard. Overall, its play rate wasn't off the charts this time around, but it was occasionally encountered in games, as its ability is always helpful in spellslinging decks and control builds. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Commence the Endgame: A strong late play in and against permission decks, it achieved some popularity in the first few weeks after its release, but then Teferi, Time Raveler put an end to the age of countermagic and the dominion of Esper Control. More recently, it was part of Temur Reclamation's plan for the mirror. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Fblthp, the Lost: This little guy has a long history of being Magic's resident Easter egg. Since the character's first appearance on Gatecrash's Totally Lost, the absent-minded Homunculus has popped up regularly, hidden in the art of several unrelated cards, as the game's resident Waldo. War of the Spark at last made the fan favorite the sole focus of a card, a simple self-replacing two-drop that was well-received not just for the flavor but for being a functional Mox Amber enabler. For a while, we had found Fblthp and now Fblthp's going to be lost again. Oh, Fblthp. Grief Factor: 7/10.
Finale of Revelation: The card-drawing Finale was, unexpectedly, one of the less played, possibly because the "supercharge" clause didn't lead to one single, over-the-top effect, but instead to a number of minor ones. Be that as it may, the disappearance of Finale of Revelation leaves Standard with only Gadwick as a scalable way to draw cards. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Flux Channeler: The prime engine of proliferate combo decks, of the kind that would also use cards like Contentious Plan. They were an oddity in the meta and never actually competitive but had a few hardcore enthusiasts. Grief Factor: 1/10.
God-Eternal Kefnet: The stern condition required for the awakening hindered Amonkhet's Kefnet the Mindful. Its God-Eternal form has been a vast improvement, with a flying body immediately online and an ability that just begs for it to be the finisher of choice in control decks with a high density of instants and sorceries. The fact that it would interact poorly with counterspells and other situational cards didn't prove as much of an issue as the sheer lack of a viable home after ramp and combo builds replaced pure control. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Jace, Wielder of Mysteries: War of the Spark's Jace has been used almost entirely as an alternate win condition for specific combo decks, along the lines of Laboratory Maniac. It wasn't the most ubiquitous of jobs, but he executes it well. Grief Factor: 7/10.
Kasmina, Enigmatic Mentor: Another planeswalker introduced in War of the Spark for the first time, because apparently there weren't enough distinct types to fill the set to the brim. Kasmina was enjoyable as a source of looting and tokens, even if she had an expiration date and only a mildly beneficial passive. She was mostly seen in Superfriends lists. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Narset, Parter of Veils: The return of Narset in a single color marks one of the most disputed applications of the novel concept of planeswalkers having static abilities, also known as "the effects you always forget about and get punished for." In this case, the ability in question would shut down the opponent's drawing of any card beyond the first on every turn, that is, the opponent's only chance of matching Narset's player's card advantage. If that wasn't enough, she also provided two separate digging actions. All this made her at one point the most played planeswalker in Standard, an auto-include in essentially all control decks, as well as many creature-light ramp decks. To say nothing of certain nasty interactions like the Emergency Powers combo. She was dearly loved as much as she was fiercely hated, and her rotation will be met by some amount of relief, to the same tune as her frequent partner in crime, Teferi, Time Raveler. Grief Factor: 10/10.
Spark Double: What made this strictly better Clone one of the most prominent members of its family of cards is the ability to copy planeswalkers and legendary creatures circumventing the legendary rule. The soft lock created with Shalai, Voice of Plenty was notorious, but the combos involving Spark Double were many. Even just the ability to create a second active copy of a top-end planeswalker for just four mana was nothing to sneeze at — and probably not something we'll see the equal again. Grief Factor: 8/10.
War of the Spark Black Losses
Bolas's Citadel: One of the gimmick cards in the set that still landed firmly on the competitive side. It could act as the titular piece of dedicated Citadel decks, frequently seen back when the "explore package" was still around —due to the lifegain from Wildgrowth Walker being key to a fruitful Citadel turn. Or it could just be a card advantage engine in decks with a long curve that were seeking an explosive late game. Either way, it was a one-of-a-kind effect in black, more demanding than Experimental Frenzy, but also somehow more rewarding. Grief Factor: 9/10.
Command the Dreadhorde: The other six-mana big play in black, sort of a sister card to Bolas's Citadel, but from a graveyard angle rather than a library angle. If timed well, and if the investment of life was not recklessly overshot, it could easily spell the end of the game, and as such was for a while a top-tier finisher. Grief Factor: 10/10.
Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage: This debuting monoblack walker was an okay guy for disruption decks, though rarely very impactful. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Finale of Eternity: Arguably the least played of the Finale cycle, it was still a pretty valuable quasi-mass removal spell. It was at its best when it could hit all three of its designated targets, and due to the mana expenditure this would typically entail, Brawl might have been the place where it shined the most. Grief Factor: 6/10.
God-Eternal Bontu: The new and improved crocodile lady found a place as a curve-topper in sacrifice decks. Piotr Głogowski even brought the card to the World Championship. It was in general one of the best God-Eternals, with a threatening body and a built-in refueling system. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Kaya's Ghostform: Initially dismissed as a Limited trick, this Aura made its way into competitive builds with a sacrificial theme, where it would recur some fodder for value, or protect a key player like Lurrus of the Dream-Den. It's an effect we could easily see reprinted, even with the same name. Grief Factor: 4/10.
Lazotep Reaver: A simple two-for-one, efficiently populating those boards that looked forward to enact sacrifices aplenty. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Liliana, Dreadhorde General: Following the rotation of Vraska, Relic Seeker, Liliana became the top-tier six-mana planeswalker in the meta. Her Zombie factory was reliable, her ultimate mightily scary, and her double edict effect, albeit symmetrical, often backbreaking. But her primary appeal came from the static card-draw effect, which asked for neither mana nor life. Only Ugin, the Ineffable could play a similar role for the same cost, but everybody knows Liliana is more charismatic than a pasty ghost dragon with a penchant for pontificating. Grief Factor: 9/10.
Massacre Girl: A unique way to sweep the board leaving a sizeable body behind. The whole massacre deal could require some setting up, but in the right deck it was consistent enough. So it became common for black-based decks to include one copy of this legendary Assassin in the main deck, and perhaps another in the sideboard, as a fail-safe measure. Incidentally, the character is a weird one with a silly name that was quoted in flavor texts since Return to Ravnica block. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Ob Nixilis's Cruelty: Although Ob Nixilis himself didn't make the cut in our remembrance list, his namesake removal had some merit, being able to get rid of indestructibles and preventing recursions. Later options like Murderous Rider would monopolize the three-mana removal slot, leaving no room for the narrower Cruelty. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Spark Harvest: Specialized removal spell for sacrifice decks, its alternate cost and being able to hit planeswalkers made it strictly better than its Bone Splinters blueprint — which was also in the meta via Core Set 2020. Grief Factor: 1/10.
The Elderspell: Will there ever be another environment where killing a bunch of planeswalkers at once is relevant? Probably not, and once Standard moved onto the 2020 sets and away from Superfriends lists, Elderspell already lost more and more importance. Still, it was a powerful spell — it's Bolas's masterwork, after all. It could even sustain itself in the absence of targets on the other side of the board, by consuming one's own planeswalkers to boost the loyalty of one with a game-winning ultimate — like Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God. Grief Factor: 5/10.
War of the Spark Red Losses
Burning Prophet: A solid workhorse in budget spellslinging decks, it accrued some presence as a reasonable fill-in, particularly in builds that desired to increase the creature count. Grief Factor: 1/10.
Chandra, Fire Artisan: A secondary advantage engine in monored right after Experimental Frenzy, Chandra fought the War of the Spark with single-minded determination — impulsive drawing turn after turn on her way toward the inevitability of her ultimate. There might be more versatile takes on Chandra (Core Set 2020 gave us quite a few), but this one was pretty dependable. Grief Factor: 7/10.
Dreadhorde Arcanist: This dead Wizard's trick was somewhat impressive, as flashing back stuff for free is something that immediately demands attention. A number of different builds have been attempted around the Arcanist, some successful. It got to cast pump spells like Giant Growth and Samut's Sprint or cantrips like Crash Through and Warlord's Fury. Its favorite partner was Feather, the Redeemed, since the Angel's lists had plenty of targets to get back, and Feather's own recursion ability would even offset the Arcanist's exile of the replayed spells, creating an endless stream of gas. Factor: 6/10.
Finale of Promise: Essentially only one deck ever employed the red Finale, the one built around Arclight Phoenix. A single Finale of Promise with both a cheap instant and a cheap sorcery in the graveyard, say, Shock and Chart a Course, would fulfill the entire three-spell quota required for the Phoenix's return. Unfortunately, the advent of Teferi, Time Raveler buzzkilled this Izzet party, as Finale of Promise does exactly nothing with the Zhalfirin mage on the board. Besides, the latest Phoenix trend radically changed approach, dipping into Gruul for Seasonal Ritual and other adventures shenanigans. Fun fact: like its black counterpart, Finale of Promise was practically never cast for X equals ten. Rakdos leaves that kind of nonsense to the Simic. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Grim Initiate: One-drops that replace themselves are valuable in sacrifice builds, and so was Grim Initiate, which also took part in monored strategies, in particular those involving Cavalcade of Calamity. Grief Factor: 4/10.
Heartfire: The number of times sacrifice strategies are mentioned when it comes to black and red cards in this list might seem preposterous, but it was truly a large component of the pool for those two colors, in War of the Spark above all — war begets sacrifices, after all. Compared to Spark Harvest, Heartfire didn't just provide spot removal, but also a source of damage that could be used to go face and close the game. The option of sacrificing a consumable planeswalker, Tibalt for instance, added further flexibility. Grief Factor: 4/10.
Ilharg, the Raze-Boar: Since everyone's favorite divine jackal-girl Hazoret survived the events of Hour of Devastation, the monocolored God cycle required a different red member. It found one in this local Ravnican boar-god, worshiped by the Gruul Clans, and intent on bringing about its own unrelated apocalyptic scenario while all the Bolas drama was going down. It sounds fun, and Ilharg was indeed a fun card, if almost entirely a casual one, and partially spoiled by its poor interaction with creatures with attack triggers, Drakuseth in the first place. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Jaya, Venerated Firemage: Chandra's mentor only got an uncommon incarnation, later made utterly outdated by the printing of Torbran, Thane of Red Fell in Throne of Eldraine. As noted, War of the Spark tried to represent each of its returning walkers at the top of their form, but with such a massive cast of characters to handle, it was inevitable that a few of even the most beloved ones would get the short shrift. Grief Factor: 1/10.
Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin: This card wasn't as effective as Krenko's old self (which is currently taking the Historic format by storm). But it was still capable of generating a substantial army of tokens, and this earned the occasional spot in monored and Gruul decks, and sometimes even dedicated builds as a receptacle of pump and haste spells. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Sarkhan the Masterless: At his best in the kind of Jeskai Superfriends list that came into fashion in the weeks following the release of War of the Spark, Sarkhan had never been so sociable before. The other planeswalkers must remember fondly all those Sarkhan parties that would culminate in everyone doing the dragon. When the Superfriends craze inevitably faded (Esper lists maindecking The Elderspell had a hand in that), our bombastic dragon whisperer was seen much less frequently on the battlefield, even if he makes for a functional card on his own. Grief Factor: 7/10.
Tibalt, Rakish Instigator: Guess what kind of deck was in the market for two expendable creatures out of a single card, with a damage-dealing death trigger to boot? (Sacrifice. Sacrifice is that deck.) Also, red always loves to incidentally prevent the opponent from gaining life. Grief Factor: 5/10.
War of the Spark Green Losses
Arboreal Grazer: This unassuming, zero-powered sloth-like beastie did a lot of work in this Standard cycle. It was no substitute for Llanowar Elves, but as ramp lists increasingly abandoned creature-based strategies and embraced the safer land development approach heralded by Growth Spiral, the Grazer positioned itself as a profitable turn-one play, able to supply a free land drop while also protecting life and loyalty totals, from both ground and air threats. It was an innovative design that we may or may not see reprinted or repeated. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Awakening of Vitu-Ghazi: For a hot minute, flash strategies existed in green, and they went as far as using very serious mana engine Wilderness Reclamation to churn out big dumb monsters, like the Selesnya world-tree itself. During the five months in which War of the Spark and Ixalan block coexisted in Standard, a one-shot kill combo also emerged, involving a transformed Hadana's Climb sending Vitu-Ghazi flying at the opponent's dome for lethal. The Awakening later disappeared even from casual brews, despite the fact that mutate decks sure love giant creatures completely made of +1/+1 counters. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Bond of Flourishing: Before Once Upon a Time took possession of its role by whispering "zero mana!" into everyone's ear, Bond of Flourishing was considered a pretty good way to dig for stuff, with the additional value of fending off burn and other forms of early aggression. It could even find artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers. It never came back into favor, though, even after Once Upon a Time got itself banned, but it's definitely the kind of card that, unlike the broken Throne of Eldraine instant, we might see reprinted at some point. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Evolution Sage: This undeclared landfall card was popular with the casual crowd, if unfortunately too slow for the competitive world. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Finale of Devastation: Possibly the most influential of the Finales, it was less early tutor than larger-than-life endgame, usually in combination with End-Raze Forerunners for maximum pwnage. Of course you'd need a major amount of ramp for that X to hit double digits, but guess what, this Standard cycle had ramp in spades. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Giant Growth: It's always nice to see cards from Limited Edition Alpha still being part of Standard 27 years later. Absent since Magic 2014, the grandfather of all pump spells wasn't much of a protagonist this time around, but its old-school power was employed at times, most notably during the resurgence of Stompy decks in the late period, as a way to amplify Syr Faren's boost trigger. See you in another seven years, Giant Growth. Grief Factor: 2/10.
God-Eternal Rhonas: The zombified Rhonas was splashier than before, aiming to be the catalyst of a decisive alpha strike. To that end, it did almost everything right, except for one crucial thing: the effect didn't grant trample to the team. It might seem like a minor aspect when your power is doubled, but green critters really need trample to connect, or you'll risk having some 16-powered behemoth stopped cold on its tracks by that darn cat. Like all the God-Eternals — and Ilharg! — Rhonas came with a pre-built chance at a second shot, returning to the library post-mortem to try and do the face smash again. But this whole routine was too unreliable and ultimately never amounted to much, barring some record-setting YouTube video where a Rhonas loop ended up generating 847 million damage. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Nissa, Who Shakes the World: This Standard cycle saw an unprecedented proliferation of planeswalkers, with the four rotating sets grand-totaling a whooping 60 new cards for the type, 39 of which came from War of the Spark alone. It's hard to say which one of them was the absolute best, but it's at least easy to establish which ones were the most impactful, and Nissa was up there in the top five, possibly even the top three, especially if we dismiss the one that only stayed in the format for six weeks. She brought ramp to the next level while also acting as a finisher on her own, with her hasty, vigilant elemental lands capable of swinging for up to 18 damage within two turns of her hitting the battlefield. A Simic darling by design, almost all decks running green would eventually seek Nissa's help, while some builds went into green expressly to get access to the powerful animist, who contributed to the casting of most of the top-end plays of this era, from Hydroid Krasis to Mass Manipulation. She definitely made good on the promise contained in her epithet. We now know Zendikar Rising will have another Nissa, returned home after the war. Odds are she won't be this potent. Grief Factor: 10/10.
Nissa's Triumph: Nissa's celebratory spell had all the makings of a very broken card, because it can find any land when cast in her presence. And not just one, but three of them, for a mere two mana, like a veritable Sylvan Scrying on steroids. It could fetch a whole Urza triplet! Luckily, in Standard the targets that could still make a difference in the late game weren't many. Grief Factor: 1/10.
Paradise Druid: Two-drop mana dorks are a dime a dozen. (Including the specialized ones, there are eleven of those currently in Standard.) They are not widely run as a rule, because the turn-one accelerant is where it's at. Paradise Druid was one happy exception, likely the most played mana-producing creature of this era, due to the fact that the conditional hexproof all but guaranteed its first mana. Plus it fixed any color and could turn into a beater in a pinch, leveraging the two points of power. Certain Aura builds even weaponized the hexproof by giving it vigilance, making it into a prettier Slippery Bogle. It was one multi-talented Druid, and won't be replaced by your regular Woodland Mystic. Grief Factor: 9/10.
Planewide Celebration: This entertaining super-spell with an unusual feel-good flavor didn't have the same impact on Standard players that it had on Ravnica's war-torn inhabitants, but still enjoyed a modicum of play. Its main issue was being a supporting card while also being a big mana play. One of the most intriguing applications saw it searched by Emergent Ultimatum alongside Liliana, Dreadhorde General. If those were the two chosen cards, Planewide Celebration could immediately ultimate Liliana, causing much weeping and gnashing of teeth for the incautious opponent. So there was definitely a whole other side to the cheerful merriment this card evokes. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Vivien, Champion of the Wilds: The mighty ranger Vivien Reid debuted in Core Set 2019 with a terrific planeswalker card. Her second incarnation was less imposing but still interesting, a new take on green flash, reminiscent of Yeva, Nature's Herald. If Yeva never made waves in any significant way, Vivien had a second ability to factor in, and while she didn't rise to the top, her exit from Standard is more regretful than in the case of many of her peers. Grief Factor: 7/10.
Vivien's Arkbow: I personally contend this was one of the most underrated cards in this Standard cycle. Fringe lists centered on it would show up on occasion, but for the most part, the Arkbow was callously dismissed. Yet it was a way to drop creatures at instant speed, bypassing countermagic, and through an excellent mechanism of selection. Plus there wasn't any casting involved, a crucial element for its favorite target, Nightpack Ambusher. If nobody will remember this outstanding artifact, I will. Grief Factor: 3/10.
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