Standard is awfully dull right now. We have the bleeding of the color pie to blame for that; whose idea was it to print, in a single set, three of the bestcreaturesever, and to put them all in Blue? All three offenders have the drawback of only fitting in a certain deck - a deck that plays a bunch of cheap, efficientspells and cantrips, operating on tempo and card quality - and, of course, this happens to be the same deck for all of them.
Metagame stagnation has set in. As Cedric Phillips advocates, I could play Wolf Run Ramp to trump Delver - but then I'd be playing Wolf Run Ramp. It's a sad state of affairs. I'm going to make the bold claim that things are worse than they were a year ago, at the zenith of Caw-Blade - another UW aggro-control deck that did basically the same thing (tempo, card quality, a dash of removal, a pinch of counters) as Delver or Spirits or whatever you want to call it. At least Caw-Blade used Blue for what it's always been used for; at least it was a skill-intensive, interactive deck; at least the bad pilots were, with the right brew, easily beatable. I'm not sure how many of these hold true for Delver. I would have thought Wizards had learned, but obviously not.
So, what happens next? We have a handful of boring PTQs coming up, then Avacyn Restored will be released. Ideally, this will shake up everything. In reality, I'm not sure it will - but, should it, I'd like to be one of the guys to affect the sea change.
Innistrad block has been good to lovers of planeswalkers. Liliana of the Veil is the second-strongest 'walker ever printed, at her best in Modern, but at home in any format. I have a feeling that Garruk Relentless has plenty of untapped potential across formats as well. It's not a coincidence that Sorin, who has a more restrictive casting cost, sees less play than either of the two aforementioned badasses. Liliana's defining strength is that she does something on turn three and every turn thereafter; as a 'walker, she is very difficult for certain decks (Modern combo, primarily) to deal with, as her controller incrementally accrues a winning advantage. Did I mention how awesome I think cheap 'walkers are?
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More than enough ink - some of it from the Bloodletter Quill of Mike Flores - has been expended in regards to Tamiyo, the Moon Sage. Consensus is that she's exciting; her price hovers from $27 to $40. Tibalt's price is not so high, and the bulk of the hype comes from Zac Hill's article, which is to be expected: the dude designed him, after all. (Good show, Zac.)
Jumping off the Mothership and into the community, our commentators have been, for the most part, dismissive or reticent. On ChannelFireball, Carrie Oliver said, “Yeah...I am not excited about Tibalt at all.” On StarCity Games, Jesse Smith didn't even mention Tibalt in an article about a deck containing Desolate Lighthouse, which I thought was odd. Also on StarCity, Cedric Phillips said, “I don't expect Tibalt to have much of an impact.” And on this site, Adam Yurchick contended that Tibalt's “...power level is just far too low”; then he condemned it with that most damning of epithets: “EDH staple.”
It's worth noting that some recent reviewers have been more bullish, but these are exceptions, not a trend. PV offered some tepid praise: “I wouldn't rule him out.” Jonathan Sukenik was the most optimistic pundit, but he didn't exactly Gush; the best he gave Tibalt was, “It's not one to be underestimated and personally, I think I want to invest in these as soon as possible.”
For a summation of criticism, I defer to one of Magic's finest authors, Steve Guillerm. He wrote, "Entire articles have been written about [Tibalt]," but they really haven't been - until now. Guillerm then lamented the difficulty of “doing the card justice”; I hope I can manage that here.
Devilish Good Looks
With all respect to Carrie, Jesse, Adam, and Cedric - all better players than me - I think they're wrong about Tibalt. I don't expect him to be the second coming of Jace - or even Liliana! - but dismissing the card as Wizards' tentative first step towards making a balanced two-mana 'walker, neutered for fear of its becoming too powerful, also misses the mark.
Tibalt has been fingered as “narrow,”, largely on the basis of his weak-looking first ability. I'd argue instead that there are a number of decks, across several formats, that play Red, lack draw, want more reach, and use the graveyard; and that most of these decks want Tibalt. For the next part of this article, I'm going to present a handful of decklists - speculative and untested - that could benefit from the printing of Tibalt. I'll start with Standard.
Everyone knows RDW is at its best in new formats - the less tested, the better - and it looks like Wizards is trying to push it pretty hard in this set, possibly as an alternative and counterweight to Delver. Conley Woods said that, though RDW was the best answer to the insectile menace, it couldn't beat anything else in the format; upon the release of AVR, I'm going to guess this will no longer be true.
I tried to pack this deck as full of synergy as possible (to such an extent that it has 61 cards)! Let me start with the one-drops. Vexing Devil looks to me like the best red spell since Goblin Guide, so I tossed in four. Grim Lavamancer - everyone's favorite weenie-fryer in Modern and Legacy - is now a card in Standard; he can be fueled by Tibalt, or even a sacrificed Vexing Devil. Goblin Fireslinger is the best enabler for Stormblood Berserker, and provides the deck with a little extra reach.
Tibalt's functions in here are manifold. His role is like a little Koth, something that puts the opponent in a tough spot by simultaneously threatening them, and necessitating a counterattack. The -4 is the most exciting of abilities, perfectly paced for the slower speed of Standard; the -6, perhaps reached after a timely Volt Charge, will just win games for you. Everybody acknowledges these abilities are strong, and often inexorable, so most criticism of Tibalt has focused on the ostensible weakness of his +1. But I agree with Sukenik that the +1 is “very good.” It will, on average, increase the quality of your hand (and graveyard) significantly over the course of several activations; perhaps you will get lucky and discard a Chandra's Phoenix; maybe you'll just enable a couple extra Lavamancer pings. Either way, it's all good.
The next list represents another archetype that Wizards wants to push, Burning Vengeance:
In this deck, Tibalt's function is to act as a “permanent Desperate Ravings,” unless they deal with him, in which case you've bought yourself a critical turn to get the engine online. Due to their strong interactions with Think Twice and Desperate Ravings, I also decided to include the miracle cards Reforge the Soul and Temporal Mastery. Sure, Mastery is overhyped and may never see mainstream play; whatever, it looks good here. Reforge the Soul is considerably more exciting, though, especially cast at the end of the opponent's turn. And then you hit them for seven with Tibalt's -4! How dirty.
A few more things about the new Wheel of Fortune, since it's also been strangely glossed over by the Magic secretariat. Drawing seven (Tibalt is, in a narrow sense, “card disadvantage”) and binning some flashback spells just prior to untapping should just win the game, even if you don't have the Devil. And with this deck, if you're forced to cast Reforge the Soul on your own turn, you should be able to use your extra resources far better than your opponent can; at that point, it will be difficult for them to unweave your robust tapestry of synergy.
There's not much to add here that hasn't already been covered: of course Tibalt's +1 is an excellent engine for a Reanimator deck, and his -6 should break the odd stalemate when they can't attack into Griselbrand. Ah, Griselbrand. He is, in my opinion, the best card in Avacyn Restored, and yet nobody has criticized him for being “narrow” - which he is - or said much about him at all! I'll devote a paragraph to the Demon of the gods at the end of the article, but first, let's look at Tibalt in Modern.
Bedeviling Other Formats
I really wanted to make a Modern deck called “Deviled Eggs,” featuring the fiend's strong interactions with the Second Sunrise combo, but then I determined this was a terrible idea (Eggs is not a deck) and scrapped it.
Just a few brief comments here. Tibalt's double-Red is supposed to be restrictive, but do you think a deck playing Seismic Assault cares at all? It's not a problem. With all the sweet graveyard themes in Loam, Tibalt approaches the power level of a two-mana Jace Beleren. With the suite of hand disruption and removal, he's pretty easy to protect, he's a good finisher in a deck that often wins by tossing lands at the opponent for 1 or 2, and he can Insurrection in a far-fetched emergency. I'd be surprised if Loam wasn't where people were most eager to jam him.
Tibalt isn't as great a fit here as he is in Loam, but as another problem permanent (besides Pyromancer Ascension), a Fog, a looter, and a dude who can force the opponent to attack into a gazillion Goblin tokens, I like him. Decks without immediate board presence are fairly common in Modern (Storm, some Twin builds, all flavors of Tron), and landing a Tibalt on turn two seems like one of the best things you can do against them.
In Legacy, I Foresee Tibalt seeing no play. Two mana for something sluggish that doesn't affect the board is simply not good enough. That's alright! Only three 'walkers out of 29 are Legacy-playable. And two of those are wacky fringe cases!
Take Me Home, Devil! Devil, Take Me Home!
Though my lists are highly speculative, that they're plausible supports the point I've been trying to make: any card that can fit into RDW, Burning Vengeance, Reanimator, Loam and Storm is not narrow; in fact, there was no card (not even Mountain!) that did so until now.
I won't recommend buying a ton of Tibalts - the pre-sale price is pretty high, even for a 'walker - but I do enthusiastically advocate brewing with him. This, not Tamiyo, is the Avacyn Restored planeswalker that most excites me. If he excites you too, great! If he doesn't, that's OK too. I'm happy at the prospect of Tibalt continuing to fly under the radar, even after release. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.
Bonus list: other AVR sleepers that excite me!
Restoration Angel - I want to target a Reveillark with this. I guess any number of Birthing-Pod creatures with 187 effects will suffice in Standard.
Wolfir Silverheart - Kinda vanilla, but 12 power for five mana is nothing to scoff at. While he's vulnerable to Day of Judgment, that card sucks right now, and he owns Slagstorm and Whipflare. Decks playing this card should have plenty of dork acceleration, so pairing ain't no thang.
Bruna, Light of Alabaster - Unlike the other two multicolor Angels thus far spoilt, this one is a triumph of flavor, and is somewhat cheap. Sigarda is stronger, but also more appropriately priced.
Cavern of Souls - This card is ridiculous. The only problem is finding it a home: going format-by-format, I'm not sure some Legacy tribes will want it (Goblins, Merfolk), but some will (Elves); Modern Faeries is already strong enough against counter-magic, and it's not an Island for Vedalken Shackles; and Humans may want it in Standard, but will it still be a deck? I hope it will.
Angel of Jubilation - If Humans is still a deck, this will be part of the reason why. Shutting off Phyrexian mana and Birthing Pod activations seems strong.
Griselbrand - How is this dude not just the best reanimation target of all time, especially in Legacy? Seven dollars seems like a ridiculously good deal, especially since he should see play, in the same vein as Elesh Norn in Standard and Modern.
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