Fall of the New World Order
This article is meant to act as a partial set review covering many of the commons in War of the Spark, Modern Horizons, and Core Set 2020. I’ve also included a few cards that were part of Kyle’s previous Ravnica and Modern Masters set reviews. I think the overlapping cards are worth reexamining alongside more recent additions as part of a greater trend. Blue has been the dominant color in late game pauper commander for a long time. It has been a consistent issue that many articles on this site have discussed and confronted, but recent sets have contained an incredible amount of high power non-blue cards that help to close this gap. I wanted to take a look at this issue and these new cards specifically in the context of how Wizards' R&D team has been designing commons for the past decade.
What is the New World Order?
For a little more than 10 years, the design of commons has been guided by a mindset simply referred to as the New World Order (or NWO for short). R&D found that the complexity of magic was driving beginners away from the game. The new, more welcoming world order that R&D began trying to create for beginners led to the simplification of many types of effects, especially at common. More complicated effects were reserved for higher rarities so that new players would be less likely to have to evaluate multiple complex abilities at once. Keywords became a bit more intuitive, with fewer mechanics like suspend and regenerate. Even some more frequently seen keywords like protection and shuffling became far less available at common because they were deemed more complicated. The amount of common creatures with repeatable activated abilities and number of cards with multiple triggered abilities was also reduced in an effort to make board state evaluation simpler. While it's hard to quantify what wasn't printed at common because of this, we can see more concrete proof in what cards saw rarity upshifts after the fact. For example, Oblivion Ring and Prodigal Pyromancer were shifted from common to uncommon after the NWO mentality was introduced.
However, over the last year, it seems that R&D's hard stance on complexity has softened quite a bit. We aren't going all the way back to the days of ridiculous complexity at common, but we are seeing a lot more variety in new commons. We even got an official tweet noting this new focus. Maybe the general idea behind NWO is still alive and well at Wizards, but that's a matter of speculation. What matters is that NWO's death grip on our format is definitely loosening. Because of this, the viability of many non-blue, late game focused decks will go up as we continue to see new and powerful common effects printed at an unprecedented rate.
How did NWO hurt PDH?
Technically, NWO only applies to sets that go into standard, and even standard sets have always been allowed a certain number of exceptions to NWO, so we still got occasional powerful or complicated cards. However, this design philosophy still led to a massive decrease in the rate at which we got new or complicated effects. This slow down hit singleton formats like PDH especially hard, since it often takes multiple cards with similar effects to impact these formats.
Magic has always had a problem with balancing blue against other colors. Card advantage is a big deal, and blue has always had more access to it at every rarity. This imbalance is especially pronounced in eternal formats, where cards never cycle. In these formats, old and powerful cards like Gush and Rhystic Study enable the use of very efficient removal, such as Counterspell. Back when these were originally printed, the overall power level of spells was higher and the power level of creatures was lower. The power of creatures relative to spells has gone up since then, but less so at common than at other rarities. Because of the NWO design mentality, the improvements to creatures at common have remained simple, often in the form of increased power and toughness or decreased cost. For example, cards like Rootbreaker Wurm and Moss Kami have been replaced with Colossal Dreadmaw. Counterspells and bounce spells don't care if our creatures have one more power or toughness, though. They only care if our creatures have haste, hexproof, can't be countered, or have triggered abilities when entering the battlefield. The problem is that reducing complexity of commons meant many of those anti-removal or additional value effects only appeared on weak creatures that were otherwise completely plain and unimpressive. In other words, the only ways to fight back against removal were to either have the card advantage required to counteract the removal on a card-by-card basis, or have the card advantage to just play more threats than your opponents have removal spells. Even green stomp decks were forced to play by blue's rules.
All of these difficulties are only compounded by the free-for-all structure of PDH. Non-blue decks might have the resources to take out one or two opponents, but would often end up top decking, making the last turn or two of the game feel very luck-of-the-draw based at best.
How do Other Colors Traditionally Counteract Blue Card Advantage?
While card draw is powerful, it's not the only game in town. Non-blue decks have several other ways of fighting back. One is card selection. Cathartic Reunion, Commune with the Gods, and cards with cycling all represent the philosophy of "I may not have as many cards, but I will have access to the right card when I need it." Another is single cards with very high value or impact. For example, large trampling creatures can have an extremely large effect on the direction of the game by trading for multiple of your opponents' cards. Green ramp strategies are an especially concentrated form of the high value plan, expending their whole hand to try to land two or three powerful cards that will hopefully win the game over all their opponents' slower or lower impact cards. A third way to counteract card advantage is with repeatable effects. For example, using a recursion engine like Disturbed Burial or repeatable removal like Valakut Invoker.
Unfortunately, single-use card selection effects don't do much in free-for-alls to help us have enough cards to deal with opponents 2 and 3, and our high impact and high value cards in PDH tend to be creatures, so they fall prey to the removal issue discussed above. Even repeatable effects have issues in PDH because there aren't very many of them and they tend to be so mana intensive that simple card draw strategies are usually faster.
How are Recent Sets Countering Blue Card Advantage?
Pretty much every one of the traditional strategies has seen power increases in recent sets. For card selection, red has fully embraced scrying and even has a repeatable source of scrying in Burning Prophet. Red also got a powerful new looter in Burning-Tree Vandal. There are only 5 other repeatable sources of rummaging in common red cards, and the Vandal is the only one that doesn’t require tapping as a cost of the ability. The new Shenanigans is also a form of card selection, since you can discard it, then just replace a draw with dredge when and if you need artifact destruction. Every color pair got a card selection boost from the guild locket cycle, as well (ex: Orzhov Locket). While they're not nearly as splashy or impactful as the other cards, they give a huge number of decks another way to refill their hand in the late game, so they aren't top decking while an opponent with a blue deck has half their hand left.
For high impact or value cards, many of the recent improvements are similar to existing cards, but with improvements or extra effects bolted on. For example, Vigorspore Wurm and Wrecking Beast are pretty traditionally sized bodies for green beaters, but have haste and ‘enters the battlefield’ abilities in addition, which allows them to get some value the turn they come down. This means that you can often get some use out of them even if your opponent is waiting, kill spell in hand, for you to play a threat. In a similar way, Ephemerate is a Cloudshift with a second, sorcery speed copy of itself tacked on for extra value, and Honor the God-Pharaoh is a Tormenting Voice that makes a 1/1 for one additional mana. We also have a new unique effect in Ill-Gotten Inheritance for life drain decks that is one of the few relevant every-upkeep effects in the format. Black has also been getting a slight boost to its discard effects in cards like Vicious Rumors, Burglar Rats, and Mind Rake. Old discard effects tended towards making one player discard, but we have been seeing a lot higher percentage of discard effects hit all opponents recently, which is far better for our format. As a side note, War of the Spark also produced Wardscale Crocodile, which is the largest green hexproof beater printed.
Repeatable effects continue to be few and far between, but recent cards like Recruit the Worthy and Groundskeeper are great because they put pretty low prices on their repeatable abilities. Groundskeeper is fragile, but can be used to create a lot of card advantage engines with Rummaging Goblin and other similar effects. Recruit the Worthy is in the same family as Lab Rats and Sprout Swarm, but Recruit the Worthy has the cheapest base cost of the three.
So that’s how the traditional approaches have been improved, but there is a bigger change happening, in that non-blue commons are being printed with their own flavor of card advantage, at a higher rate and power level than we have ever seen before. Wizards is finally fighting fire with fire.
One example of the increase in non-blue card advantage is in cards that replace themselves, such as Fists of Flame, First-Sphere Gargantua, and Silverback Shaman. While cards like this are not new, these are much more powerful than previous examples. Fists of Flame is arguably the most powerful red cantrip to date, being the only one that buffs or gives trample at instant speed. Gargantua is the latest in a long line of black creatures that let you pay life to draw upon entering the battlefield, but is the only common one to ever have a self-contained way to reuse itself. Likewise, green has plenty of cantripping creatures, such as Rhox Oracle, but Silverback Shaman trades delaying the draw for trample and the most powerful and mana efficient body on any cantripping common creature. All of these have huge potential for trading with opponents' creatures or spells and applying pressure without emptying your hand.
While all the above offer limited-use draw power, recent sets have also given us a lot of repeatable card advantage engines, including Tethmos High Priest, Vivien's Grizzly, Spark Reaper, Audacious Thief, Brightwood Tracker, and Destructive Digger. These are slower and don't have nearly as much immediate impact on the board, but provide a lot more potential card advantage over the course of a long game. The ones that require sacrifices still provide good opportunities for card advantage by being able to sacrifice tokens or permanents that have been targeted with removal.
Has Blue Card Advantage Also Increased?
There is some improvement on blue’s side of the meta, but I don’t think it is equal to the improvement of other colors. Most of the card advantage related cards in recent sets have been functional or full-on reprints. What I have seen more recently is that blue has been much more focused on board state. Some of this is just because of the proliferate theme from War of the Spark, but there is extra creature focus visible on cards like Kiora’s Dambreaker, Guildpact Informant, and Moonblade Shinobi. Dambreaker is one of the most mana efficient big beaters available to blue. All the others that have such a well-sized body for their cost have downsides like only being able to attack once certain conditions are met, but Damnbreaker has no downside and can even strengthen your board when it enters the battlefield. Meanwhile, blue has always been good at making creatures evasive, but Guildpact Informant and Moonblade Shinobi are two out of only four blue commons that can turn player damage into a better board presence. Every other effect blue has that triggers upon damage to a player has always led to things like milling and drawing, which don’t immediately help board state. Even blue’s removal has become slightly more board focused, with Kasmina’s Transmutation being the only non-temporary effect of its kind in the format.
There are several new blue card advantage spells, but I don’t see any of them shifting the meta, since blue already had significant card advantage. Winged Words is powerful for its price, but still mimics existing cards like Chart a Course. Cloudkin Seer is an excellent cantrip creature, but is only a slight improvement over existing cards like Dream Thief and Latchkey Faerie. The biggest improvement for blue card draw comes from Dimir Guildmage, which is one of the more compact and powerful card advantage engines in the format. However, if Quicksilver Dagger is any indication, the extra color on Dimir Guildmage will greatly limit the number of decks where he shows up.
Does this Actually Change the PDH Meta?
With Pauper becoming an official format, I don’t see Wizards reversing their new trend of releasing more complex and powerful commons. Even with the small crop of recent sets, though, I am already feeling the difference in my own deck construction. Red and white decks feel less forced into aggro, and green and black decks are feeling more consistent as they recover and develop new threats slightly quicker if their first threat or two are removed. Red is also becoming more consistent with the inclusion of more scry and rummagingeffects at common. Green stomp and black aristocrats are some of the specific archetypes that seem to have benefited the most from refilling their hands, but I'm sure we'll see others benefiting pretty soon. I also think this increase in card advantage is going to lead to a larger number of consistent non-blue combo decks, whereas almost all the current combo decks contain blue. I also hope the slight refocusing of blue will help the color develop more diverse strategies so that not every blue deck builder feels they must include combos in order to win.
Have you started incorporating some of the new cards in your decks? If so, can you feel the difference yet? What other cards do you think are powerful new additions?
- Paul (Scarecrow1779) @PDH_Homebase