We often end events with our picks for the five most influential cards of the weekend, a nod to the pieces of cardboard that gave us the most memorable moments of the event. For the first Pro Tour featuring the recently released Gatecrash, I'd like to begin things with a glimpse of what's to come. Over the next two days, there will be ten rounds of Gatecrash-fueled Standard played. This is a brand new Standard format, with some members of the old guard disappearing while others have evolved. With only two weeks of results to use for reference, it can be difficult to determine what to expect, but there are already some very clear patterns emerging. Based on those, here are the early picks for the Top 5 cards we're watching for Pro Tour Gatecrash.
At this point, it would be very difficult to convince me that the Reckoner is not going to become the new dominant creature in Standard. For a mere three mana, you get a very aggressivel 3/3 creature with one great ability and one backbreaking ability. Leading up to the release of Gatecrash, creature decks dominated Standard. Starting with Thragtusk as the baseline, Standard evolved with an eye on whatever the dominant creature was at the time, speeding up and slowing down accordingly as players tried to either go over or under it. It became important that you either be able to deal with it, or ignore it. Reckoner is going to be both very difficult to deal with, as it fights incredibly well with other creatures, and ignore, as it represents in incredibly fast clock and stalwart roadblock in one card.
The Reckoner is a pure tempo card, essential in the increasingly aggressive Standard. With a high power/toughness to cost ratio, it is already well ahead of the curve. First strike makes it difficult for opponents to gain the upper hand through combat, and the damage mirroring ability makes sure that opponents are at least going to take some damage from it. It often functions as a two-for-one, eating a removal spell or a creature and taking another along with it. It is exactly what you want in a creature, efficiently forcing your opponent to warp their game plan around it. It will be interesting to see exactly how players have chosen to deal with it. As it costs three hybrid mana, it is able to appear in many varieties of decks, from Mono Red to UWR and many green variants in between. As such, many players may simply be on the "if you can't beat them, join them" plan.
This unsuspecting 2/2 has made quite the unexpected splash in Gatecrash Standard. First cropping up in Human Reanimator decks looking to take advantage of Angel of Glory's Rise, Aristocrat supplied a conveniently on-color, human sacrifice outlet for an infinite combo that first saw play in Innistrad Block Constructed. The combo involves Angel of Glory's Rise, a sacrifice outlet, and Fiend Hunter. The basic loop involves having Fiend Hunter in the graveyard and either casting or reanimating Angel of Glory's Rise. The Angel brings back Fiend Hunter, which then exiles the Angel. By sacrificing the Fiend, you can bring back the Angel, which in turn brings back the Fiend to repeat again and again. The trick is to have another human – typically Huntmaster of the Fells – to gain something out of every loop. When the deck first appeared, the sacrifice outlet of choice was Falkenrath Aristocrats, but that meant playing Black, Red, Green and White all in the same deck.
Cartel Aristocrat, however, changes that equation. Not only is it easier to cast, as a Human, it comes back when Angel of Glory's Rise triggers as well, making it easier to combo off. Where it loses some raw power, it makes up for in consistency.
But the Aristocrat hasn't stopped there. Thanks to its humanity and its role as a sacrifice outlet, Cartel Aristocrat has also found its way into the mad genius factory that is Team SCG. By placing the Cartel Aristocrats in a Black-Red-White Humans deck, alongside Falkenrath Aristocrats nonetheless, Team SCG created a synergistic human sacrifice deck complete with Skirsdag High Priests and more synergy than you can shake an Orzhov coin purse at.
It was yet another unexpected use of an already unexpected card. The only question is, what will someone do with Cartel Aristocrat next?
One of the big pushes towards the middle to end of the last Standard season was for decks to get either faster or slower in response to the prevalence of big, hasty men. You either went under them, playing a number of one drops to ensure that you have a large chunk of damage in early, or over them, landing a threat larger than they could deal with soon thereafter. Interestingly, Burning-Tree Emissary provides a new way to go under those threats: simply vomit an incredible number of creatures in short order. The effectively-free Shaman enables players to slam multiple creatures into play all in the same turn, getting even more ridiculous in multiples.
Imagine the following play: on turn two, you tap a Mountain and a Rootbound Crag to play a Burning-Tree Shaman, use the mana it generates to play a second Shaman, and then use that mana to make a 3/3 Flinthoof Boar. That's an entirely reasonable start that puts seven power worth of creatures into play by the second turn. Absurd. This combination of cards has put Gruul Aggro onto the map, giving it the potential to simply swarm over players before they are able to clear the board. A 2/2 for two mana is good; a free 2/2 for two mana is good enough to change the format.
By now, it should be very apparent that the decks in the format rely heavily on creatures. It should also be fairly apparent that Gatecrash has added a plethora of great creatures for aggressive decks, especially the powerful Boros Reckoner. As such, players are really looking for cards that are able to both deal with the large number of aggressive creatures that seem to be floating around, as well as the resilient creatures such as the Reckoner. To achieve this goal, they often don't need to look further than the prototypical mass removal spell: Supreme Verdict.
Supreme Verdict gives decks the hard reset they need to climb back over the hill against aggressive decks. With very few exceptions, notably Falkenrath Aristocrat and Wolfir Avenger, a Supreme Verdict will clear the board of anything opponents have put in play. Following this up with cards like Thragtusk and Sphinx's Revelation allows players to take games that at one point looked out of hand and swing them completely in the other direction. For much of last season, Supreme Verdict was oscillating between sideboards and main decks, though not in any particularly large quantity. As things became more geared towards creatures rather than control, this began to change. With the introduction of more aggressive creatures, foreshadowing a continued rise in aggressive decks, expect to see Supreme Verdict showing up in force in weeks to come.
Speaking of mass removal, many players are opting away from Supreme Verdict for this little gem. Depending on what opponents present, Mizzium Mortars allows players to flexibly deal with large creatures early, and swarms of creatures late. Mizzium Mortars isn't the most efficient at any cost, but the flexibility and necessity of a four-damage removal spell have given the card a boost.
One other impressive advantage that Mortars has over Supreme Verdict is that it is red. This allows players sporting Stomping Grounds, like the many Naya and Jund Variants, to play a one-sided mass removal spell. In creature-based matchups, resolving an overloaded Mizzium Mortars is usually lethal. The card is so useful that many UWR players are beginning to add it to their toolbox, too, in some cases completely eschewing Supreme Verdict. The one-sided nature of Mortars allows the more aggressive UWR variants a board-clearing spell that leaves their creatures untouched. Now, with the addition of Stomping Grounds and Sacred Foundry to mana bases, the overload cost is no longer a pipe dream. So, while Gatecrash has certainly added more aggressive creatures to the field, it has also brought the cards necessary to help deal with them.