Rotation Grief: War of the Spark, Part 2
- 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 at the multicolored and colorless cards Standard is going to lose when War of the Spark rotates out.
War of the Spark Azorius Losses
Dovin's Veto: Going into a second color made it possible to bring a better Negate into Standard. Dovin's Veto instantly became the counterspell of choice in Esper and Azorius builds. Then sadly Teferi, Time Raveler took off, giving all permission builds pause. Regardless, the Veto remained a widely played spell even just coming out of the sideboard for game two, for example in hopes of stopping Teferi himself. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Elite Guardmage: A well-rounded four-drop suitable to a variety of decks, this self-replacing, lifegaining flier was a common sight in "multicolored matters" Hero of Precinct One or Niv-Mizzet Reborn builds, as well as in control strategies trying to buy themselves time, the occasional Prime Speaker Vannifar brew looking for a good intermediate target, and flicker decks. Though it had largely fallen out of fashion by the time Yorion lists started to emerge. Grief Factor: 7/10.
Teferi, Time Raveler: There it is. The card that warped Standard beyond recognition. The most played planeswalker of this era. Arguably the most hated card of the decade, to the point of becoming problematic, since the hatred soon transferred to the character as a whole. (His previous incarnation also being oppressively ubiquitous didn't help.) Why all the fuss? Well, for one thing, the static ability on "3feri", as he was quickly nicknamed, made all instants less appealing, and the reactive ones like counterspells completely useless. It also shut down cards that weren't instants, like Finale of Promise. A battlefield with two opposing Teferi would basically devolve into … Hearthstone. And let me tell you, that's not a good look for Magic: The Gathering, a game that thrives on complex interaction. On top of all, the bounce-granting minus created an insane tempo advantage for a player on the play. It's no coincidence Reflector Mage had already earned a ban years earlier. The Time Raveler was a design mistake, arguably even more than Oko — which at the end of the day was a good design suffering from a flawed implementation. Wizards' amends came way too late too. Grief Factor: 0/10, good riddance.
Time Wipe: Before Shatter the Sky brought the nonblack sweepers back into the four-mana slot, Time Wipe was a favorite solution to the eternal riddle of how to reset a board that went too aggro. It interacted nicely with creatures like Hydroid Krasis or Deputy of Detention, thus fitting even builds that weren't entirely control-oriented. So it had merit beyond its primary use that the more straightforward Wrath of God variants are missing. Grief Factor: 8/10.
War of the Spark Dimir Losses
Ashiok, Dream Render: The Ashiok didn't have too many strategic applications, other than being a functional graveyard hater, if not the fastest to get online. A deck centering on this Ashiok should theoretically focus on incremental milling as a win condition. Each copy of the Dream Render packs a twenty-card mill capability, after all. But we know that's rarely a winning approach, so it was attempted only on the casual side. The static ability was at times punishing, and the card as a whole appreciable, but not irreplaceable. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Enter the God-Eternals: The spell that encapsulated Bolas's God-Eternal super-team through an array of effects. Oketra gained you life, Kefnet provided some milling action (possibly self-directed), Bontu drained a creature, and Rhonas procured a sizeable body. All done in base four, because there were four of them. It was a good way for control decks to stabilize a game or assert dominance, so a few copies would be common in Esper. It disappeared when the Azorius and Jeskai builds took over. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Soul Diviner: For a little while, this guy would show up as a card-drawing engine within a subset of decks running both blue and black and featuring a few planeswalkers that wouldn't mind being drained for the greater good, like poor Domri in the art. Even just some amount of amass would do the trick. Ultimately, it was too slow and unreliable to survive the shifts in the meta, and Standard lacked juicier interactions with the Diviner, like persist, monstrosity or −1/−1 counters. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Tezzeret, Master of the Bridge: The Buy-a-Box promo for the set was a cool build-around planeswalker that did something nothing else was doing in Standard, that is, caring for artifacts. There were some deliciously janky combos with Tezzeret, the most popular of which involved fetching Guardians of Koilos off the sideboard via Karn, the Great Creator, then bouncing Karn to fetch another of the Guardians, with enough artifacts on the board for the whole process to be free, ultimately casting out all four copies of the Guardians plus, say, one Meteor Golem, and winning with Tezzeret's minus. The mega-laser animation on Arena was a fan favorite. The card itself might not have been designed aggressively enough to be highly competitive to begin with, but in an environment richer in artifacts, Tezzeret's evaluation could have been different. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Tyrant's Scorn: Very versatile two-mana conditional removal or bounce spell. Once again, the double color allowed for a more powerful package than we would have gotten on a monocolored card. It fell out of favor when blue and black went their separate ways. Grief Factor: 7/10.
War of the Spark Rakdos Losses
Angrath's Rampage: Another case of a planeswalker signature spell being much more successful than the planeswalker. Angrath, Captain of Chaos was an okay uncommon at best, but his Rampage gave Rakdos a valuable weapon against artifacts and planeswalkers — permanent types more easily caught alone. It doubled as an edict — useful in matchups where the opponent's board was scarcely populated, for instance when facing a single Dream Trawler. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Dreadhorde Butcher: A Slith Firewalker with a twist, capable of quickly growing to a size that didn't give the opponent an easy choice whether to block it or let it connect once more. Great both in Rakdos Aggro and in Rakdos Sacrifice, where it could even act as a secondary finisher. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Mayhem Devil: The turbo injector of Rakdos and Jund Sacrifice decks. Before Mayhem Devil, sacrificing two creatures to Priest of Forgotten Gods generated value as written. Afterward, it could become the very beginning of a chain reaction leading to the opponent's death. Judith from Ravnica Allegiance auditioned for a similar role, but Mayhem Devil dethroned her by triggering off of any kind of sacrifice, including Fabled Passage and Food tokens, and punishing the opponent's own sacrifices as well. Only the transformation of sacrifice decks into cost-restrictive Lurrus builds forced Mayhem Devil into temporary retirement. But then the nerfing of the companion rule immediately brought it back. Grief Factor: 9/10.
War of the Spark Gruul Losses
Domri, Anarch of Bolas: Leaner and faster, three-mana Domri had his contemporary four-mana counterpart thoroughly beaten. He couldn't find more gas, but Gruul Aggro greatly enjoyed the static boost, the acceleration pushing production up to five mana on turn four, and the fight. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Domri's Ambush: The removal of choice for Gruul decks, a "boost and bite" spell that could hit planeswalkers as well. Now we're gonna need a version with a different name, in order to give the effect some chance of a reprint. Grief Factor: 7/10.
Living Twister: At first intermittently played, then completely displaced by superior alternatives, this Elemental had a sturdy body and a clear late-game plan. It was briefly considered a competitive option in Elemental Tribal. Grief Factor: 3/10.
War of the Spark Selesnya Losses
Ajani, the Greathearted: Most well-known planeswalkers in War of the Spark got the "top of the form" treatment, but not Ajani. The Greathearted is … not living up to the first part of his moniker, though he still makes for a playable card. Universal vigilance is nice, "everyone gets a counter" is nice, even the lifegain can be useful, but the sum of these parts didn't add up to an indispensable card, even within the odd +1/+1 counters synergy build. A couple of months later, decks with a heavy green component could opt for the superior Vivien, Arkbow Ranger instead — herself to some extent a better take on Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants. Poor old cat can't catch a break. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Huatli, the Sun's Heart: Designed as a specialized card for "toughness matters" decks, this uncommon Huatli ended up seeing a bit more play than both her mythic incarnations from Ixalan block. The build with Yoked Ox and friends wasn't exactly a powerhouse, but it was cute enough to earn itself some supporters. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Huatli's Raptor: Initially seen as a smashing two-drop, stars didn't align for this little Dinosaur to outlive the first flurry of aggro builds that would try and take advantage of its free proliferate. Pelt Collector was a fan, but this didn't prevent Raptor to fade into the background quicker than anyone could have predicted. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves: A dependable multi-purpose card, Tolsimir's mana cost somewhat hindered its overall play ratio, but the combination of removal, lifegain, and board presence was enough to pique the interest of some serious-minded lists, even just as a sideboard card against burn and aggro. Tolsimir's entertainment factor would reach its zenith with fringe quasi-tribal builds featuring Nightpack Ambusher, Wicked Wolf, and even Garruk, Cursed Huntsman for maximum Wolf carnage. Awooo! Grief Factor: 7/10.
War of the Spark Orzhov Losses
Cruel Celebrant: This kind of death trigger has historically produced powerful combo pieces, for example Blood Artist. Since the Celebrant only cares for creatures that die under your control, the perfect home was of course a sacrifice build — all the more so when some top-tier decks in the archetype relocated from Rakdos to Orzhov under Lurrus's watch. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Despark: One of the most prominent two-mana multicolored spot removal spells of this era, it was part of a group that also included Assassin's Trophy, Tyrant's Scorn, Angrath's Rampage, and Domri's Ambush — all of which were often included in Niv-Mizzet Reborn builds. Despark had the downside of not hitting anything in the early game, but the huge upside of dealing with every kind of expensive permanent later, sending them into the exile zone, a boon against Rekindling Phoenix (for the brief time they coexisted in Standard) and Arclight Phoenix. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Oath of Kaya: If her incarnation was an underwhelming, overcosted uncommon, Kaya was still able to leave her mark on this Standard age through a couple of cards bearing her name — chiefly the most played sweeper of its time, but also this lifedraining spell in form of an enchantment, signifying her induction in the dwindling ranks of the Gatewatch. Its permanent nature made Oath of Kaya into much more than a discounted Agonizing Syphon, even not counting the static ability that penalized the opponent for attacking our planeswalkers (surely an incentive to go black in Superfriends lists). Oath of Kaya had a number of ways to be abused, the first of which was the bounce on Teferi, Time Raveler, an interaction that would become one of the core elements in Esper Control decks, sometimes even a win condition. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord: The kind of four-mana planeswalker that plays a supporting role in creature decks, this Sorin had two impactful skills to contribute: team-wide lifelink and scalable recursion. The rarely seen but well-rounded Orzhov Midrange archetype would often employ his services, and so did any creature-heavy list with access to both of his colors, or even a "multicolored matters" build more oriented toward aggro than control. Grief Factor: 7/10.
War of the Spark Izzet Losses
Ral, Storm Conduit: More than his mythic Izzet Viceroy incarnation from Guilds of Ravnica, this rare card was the defining Ral of this Standard cycle. Instead of shooting for another generic design, Storm Conduit was conceived as a spicy combo enabler. And the combos he would make possible through his pretty unique static ability as well as the Fork offered by his minus were often amusing endgame acrobatics like expanding an Opt and then expanding the original Expansion into an infinite loop of electrical discharges fueled by a storm made of nothing. Grief Factor: 7/10.
Ral's Outburst: At the cost of four mana, this Ral-flavored instant would give you a Lightning Bolt and a Sleight of Hand (but with a graveyard twist, which could matter). The sum of this doesn't separately amount to four mana, but combined on one card? Yeah, the price was right, and Izzet players were sold on the versatility of the whole. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Saheeli, Sublime Artificer: Many Superfriends decks enjoyed the existence of this colorful Saheeli — still one of the best-dressed characters in the game — because casting other planeswalkers would trigger her token production, and those pretty Servos could help protect the team's loyalty totals. She wasn't as impactful as Broken Combo Saheeli, but she was very good at her job, cheap and undemanding. The activated ability that turned an artifact (likely one of the Servos) into any other creature or artifact under your control could also fuel some combos of its own, particularly in conjunction with Flux Channeler. Grief Factor: 7/10.
War of the Spark Golgari Losses
Casualties of War: The last truly successful midrange build in this cycle surfaced the moment it became clear that the decks at the top of the meta were running a mixture of different permanents, which meant the very flavorful Casualties of War could easily catch an opponent's battlefield hosting at least four of its five potential targets. This kind of blowout was hard to recover from, and the Sultai lists that employed it as a curve-topper prospered for quite a while. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Deathsprout: Almost exclusively a Brawl card, a format where having a ramp element attached to your removal spell could justify its increased cost. Grief Factor: 2/10.
Leyline Prowler: Also especially good in Brawl for being an accelerant bearing additional value, good at trading and fighting or biting. The incidental lifegain could also matter. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Storrev, Devkarin Lich: For a hot minute, it looked like Storrev could rise into a veritable centerpiece beater, the Spiritmonger of its generation. It turns out it was just the last hurrah for Golgari Midrange. Grief Factor: 4/10.
Vraska, Swarm's Eminence: Count Vraska among the planeswalkers that War of the Spark didn't grace with one of their best incarnations. (Then again, Vraska, Golgari Queen was still quite recent at the time.) The Swarm's Eminence wanted to be a key component in a "deathtouch matters" brew, but even with the printing of Hooded Blightfang — which, if anything, is even less effective than Vraska at being a "deathtouch lord" — that idea remained more of an oddity than a real deck. Grief Factor: 2/10.
War of the Spark Boros Losses
Feather, the Redeemed: This Angel was the focus of her own namesake archetype, a Boros, sometimes Naya build that would abuse Feather's ability to recur targeted beneficial spells — Defiant Strike for card-drawing, Gods Willing for protection, and the tailor-made Reckless Rage for removal, at least while Rivals of Ixalan was still legal. This kind of list could be very explosive, so it stayed relevant throughout the whole cycle, albeit it never reached the higher echelons of the meta again. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Solar Blaze: A lesser hard sweeper, efficient enough but not entirely reliable (not all creatures have power equal or greater than their toughness). It would appear in Jeskai Control before Shatter the Sky and Storm's Wrath outright replaced it. It returned to prominence, briefly, when the Reclamation battles favored a four-colored variant. Grief Factor: 4/10.
Tenth District Legionnaire: Feather's main partner, as another creature that likes to be targeted by its controller's spells. In the final iterations of the archetype, the Legionnaire being a Human in a deck helmed by a non-Human would also prove a perfect fit for Fight as One. Grief Factor: 7/10.
War of the Spark Simic Losses
Bioessence Hydra: This unusual Hydra didn't have many friends, but it was Kiora's favorite pet (despite not being marine fauna), since her seven points of loyalty were a godsend for this otherwise barely playable beater. Grief Factor: 1/10.
Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner: The best Kiora ever printed is, ironically, a mere uncommon with just one minus activation. It's not faint praise, though, because the Behemoth Beckoner really is a great little card with a lovely, stripped-down design. (And I'm not talking of her dress.) Untapping stuff like Lotus Field or Nyx Lotus or even just an Aura-enchanted land in order to accelerate into big dudes that draw you a card thanks to the passive ability — that was one pleasurable proposition in Standard. Kiora's skill set would have her pop up in unexpected places, due to the hybrid mana cost not binding her to any of her two colors in particular. And in Brawl, she was a force to be reckoned with. Grief Factor: 7/10.
Neoform: One-time Birthing Pod activation with the bonus gift of a +1/+1 counter, which doesn't hurt. Faster than Eldritch Evolution (though lacking the option to search backward along the curve), it would complement Prime Speaker Vannifar lists, while working even better than Vannie herself as a straightforward tutor in creature-based combo decks. Grief Factor: 9/10.
Roalesk, Apex Hybrid: I'd like to say that Roalesk was an underrated mythic, but the truth is, while looking perfectly fine on paper (as a reasonably-sized flier with several additional benefits), the card never really clicked in the meta. This super-mutant never felt enough, nor found a reason why the highly competitive Simic builds would choose to run it over the many better alternatives. Grief Factor: 2/10.
Tamiyo, Collector of Tales: The nerdiest of all planeswalkers faced the war equipped with what's perhaps her best incarnation to date, or at the very least the most widely played. The reason for her success is her being a collection of different ways to get in your hand the combo pieces you needed, either from the library or the graveyard. Her two best applications also leveraged the incidental self-milling, with both Command the Dreadhorde and Kethis, the Hidden Hand strategies craving a well-filled graveyard. The static ability didn't come up very often, but when it did, it usually was because the opponent forgot it was there. I'm sure very few people will miss having so many planeswalkers with this kind of passive hoser in the pool, something that won't probably reoccur too soon. Grief Factor: 9/10.
War of the Spark Other Multicolored and Colorless Losses
Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God: Enter the archenemy himself. War of the Spark Bolas was the cheapest therefore the most playable of the Bolases, at least among those that start already in planeswalker form. The power was still there, as the forced exile attached to the card-drawing plus would eventually add up, making it hard to survive an unchecked Dragon-God for too many turns. Copying the abilities of other planeswalkers was flavorful, though only occasionally useful. (The multi-Bolas combo with Jace, Cunning Castaway was one for the memes.) Given his extreme color requirement, Grixis-based control was the only viable home for Endgame Bolas, but it naturally welcomed its new draconian overlord, who for a time shared the list with his transformer self. In Brawl, he would rank among the top three commanders of the cycle. Grief Factor: 9/10.
Niv-Mizzet Reborn: New Living Guildpact Niv-Mizzet was arguably the best Brawl commander, but there were also regular Constructed builds centered around the card that proved functional, looking like singleton lists exclusively composed of dual-colored cards. A subset of Fires of Invention decks used this approach too, exploiting the crazy hand-refueling potential of a rainbow Niv-Mizzet being reborn right there on the battlefield. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Blast Zone: Every single color had access to a form of mass removal in this cycle, thanks to this very influential land. It wasn't quick, and it couldn't hit tokens, unless you found a way to get rid of the built-in counter, but any mana base that wouldn't mind colorless-producing sources was bound to ponder whether or not to run one or two copies of Blast Zone as insurance. Now, the effect is crucial enough and the flavor generic enough that there's a definite chance that we'll see this utility land again in the future. Grief Factor: 9/10.
God-Pharaoh's Statue: A few ramp decks used Bolas's ominous effigy to imprison the opponent to some extent. The tax had diminishing returns over time, and the included clock wasn't quite fast enough, but the budget-friendly Statue was a popular card nonetheless, often found in the sideboard of decks running Karn, the Great Creator. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Guild Globe: Mostly a combo piece in builds requiring a large amount of cheap permanents, chiefly as a way to feed the Flood of Tears combo. Artifact decks could also consider it, until Golden Egg became the better option for a cheap, self-replacing artifact. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Interplanar Beacon: Even if the Beacon were to stay in Standard, there probably wouldn't be much use for a planeswalker tribal land in a world where the Superfriends lists engendered by War of the Spark won't be around anymore. It's the kind of card that exists expressly to nourish a specific mechanical environment. Grief Factor: 2/10.
Karn, the Great Creator: Luckily, Standard didn't have Mycosynth Lattice to combo with this new four-mana Karn. (That would have been a proper bloodbath.) But the Great Creator was still a cherished presence during the cycle, widely played in lower-tier lists as a wishing machine for sideboard artifacts, and a critical component in the meme-worthy Tezzeret, Master of the Bridge builds. At its peak, Karn's wishboard typically included at least one of the following: Grafdigger's Cage, Sentinel Totem (later upgraded to Soul-Guide Lantern, then Tormod's Crypt), Damping Sphere, Sorcerous Spyglass, Transmogrifying Wand, The Immortal Sun, God-Pharaoh's Statue, and Meteor Golem. Sometimes even Helm of the Host for the lulz. Having all these different effects available at one's fingertips, multiple times, made Karn into the most reliable Swiss Army knife in Standard. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Karn's Bastion: The chance to include a proliferate source directly in the mana base wasn't utilized much competitively, but it was a nice tool to have available. Grief Factor: 4/10.
Mobilized District: The only creature land in this Standard cycle. Not the most efficient, but especially playable in Superfriends lists. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Ugin, the Ineffable: The six-mana planeswalker with the greatest impact of its era, alongside Liliana, Dreadhorde General. The two of them had a very similar role, both minusing to alleviate the dangers of a problematic board and plusing to create an army of 2/2s. Ugin would only draw you cards if his own Spirits died, but at least you could see what you were going to draw off of which of your little dorks. The overall package had enough power to warrant the inclusion as a curve-topper in competitive ramp and control decks of any color. (That's the beauty of an all-generic mana cost.) On the other hand, the discount to colorless spells was exploited primarily in more casual-oriented specialized builds, probably running Mystic Forge and Karn. Grief Factor: 9/10.
Ugin's Conjurant: This X-costed creature was not a good card by any stretch of the imagination (something the printing of Stonecoil Serpent would later make painfully clear), but some combo decks, like those running Song of Creation, appreciated having in the pool one extra spell castable for zero. Grief Factor: 3/10.
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