The Implications of Core Sets on Standard Formats – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge by Graeme McIntyre

M15 Banner

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything” – George Bernard Shaw.

When I first started playing Core Sets were pretty dire affairs. They had white boarders, random unconnected art work, the cards were all uninspiring and they weren’t designed with limited play. At least they only came every couple of years, and they weren’t used for any relevant events.

Cards like Wrath of God, Birds of Paradise, Armageddon and the allied painlands were all in these sets, and retained a higher value in trade because these packs just didn’t get opened.

7th Edition started to change some important things about core sets, though. Armageddon wasn’t reprinted! This card was a fundamental aspect of the game, a balancer for aggro decks against Wrath of God. 8th Edition saw Counterspell out the door. Dark Ritual, Winter Orb, Vampiric Tutor and Brainstorm stand out as some of the other pretty insane cards which have been in Core Sets…

Takenuma Bleeder banner

The game was pretty different back then. Creatures were worse, and spells were better. At the time we were all very sceptical about control surviving with just Mana Leak against Affinity and Onslaught block goblins. I won a PTQ the following year with a deck that featured Takenuma Bleeder in a format dominated by Gifts Ungiven decks, and while I won the disparity in card quality was still shocking. Another “Death of Magic” false alarm.

Contemporary core sets are really pretty decent. You can draft them, which is a difference of night and day already, but they’re also full of useful cards. Printing new cards makes a massive difference – before core sets were exclusively reprints. They’re also freshened up every year. They present a great opportunity to add the odd card to modern like Scavenging Ooze or an important reprint like Mutavault or Shrapnel Blast, or a functional reprint with a different name which matters for Modern or Legacy – Elvish Mystic or Master of the Peral Trident.

But they also have these important implications for Standard…


mtg pain lands

Perhaps the most important function of core sets is that they police the mana availability in Standard. From M10 to M13 buddy lands (Glacial Fortress et al) were included, but because of the synergy with the shock lands (Hallowed Fountain et al) in Ravnica block, they were not included in M14.

The difference that made to the format was insane – last year’s Standard decks were so, so indulgent compared to this years which makes the format lose definition to an extent. To me, this is a bad thing because I feel like Magic is most interesting when opportunity cost is a big part of deck building; I really enjoy thinking about the value of playing one colour over another, in control decks especially, and if I can simply play land that will allow for three or four colours, this becomes much less relevant.

M15 has brought back pain lands, which I’m pretty happy with, especially for next year. Temples and pain lands are a long, long way off shocks and buddies in terms of power. That said, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the next block included some excellent allied colour lands to accompany the enemy pain lands…

Sideboard cards

Flash Feeze banner

Celestial Purge, Flash Feeze, Deathmark, Negate, Duress, Mana Barbs. These cards, printed frequently in core sets, are genuinely powerful. They don’t look like much, if I’m playing a control deck with 2 Purge, 2 Flash Freeze, 3 Negate I’m probably pretty comfortable against almost anything. Good, solid, generic sideboard cards like this cover a wide range of possibilities, and allow you to play the real backbreakers for your genuinely bad match ups.

M14 featured Lifebane Zombie and Tidebinder Mage both of which are seeing main deck play, and are not in M15. That’s a pretty significant change, and had they chosen to include Flash Freeze and Celestial Purge in M15, that would also have been a massive change.

Problem cards for U/W like Underworld Connections, or Burning Earth can be purged, Rakdos’ Return and Stormbreath Dragon can be Frozen. Domri Rade gets hit with both! I think if those cards were in, even if equivalents for other colours were also in, that I would be playing a U/W base in every standard tournament I could.

Powerful control finishers

MTG Titans Cycle

Baneslayer Angel, Sun Titan, Grave Titan, Jace, Memory Adept and Gideon Jura have all been printed in core sets, and have been exceptional.

Because Core Sets rely on more fundamental aspects of the game, they tend to be low on mechanics. This means you tend to get pretty decent stats, and generally applicable abilities on your high end effects, which is exactly what you want form a control finisher, not “returns enchantments from the graveyard when it attacks” because the set it’s in has a lot of enchantments, or “gives all your Squids +1/+1 and banding” because squid tribal is a thing in that set has squid tribal.

The Souls seem to be in this role for M15. Soul of Theros looks ok for this sort of job, but is better if you have a lot of guys in play, which you generally won’t have in a control deck. Soul of Ravnica has flying and will likely result in some card advantage even if it does get killed, so it’s decent. Soul of Innistrad is more of a midrange card, and fits into Jund monsters reasonably well at least in the board, but not so well in control. Soul of Shandalar might actually be the best for control, in a shocking turn of events (normally the red card in a cycle is text heavy, impact light). Soul of Zendikar is decent too.

The black, blue and white souls all require a deck building constraint which doesn’t really favour control, while the red and green ones are both pretty decent, but typically in the wrong colours for control. This is likely intended to avoid them playing out exactly the same way that the Titans did, with them being the obvious go to win condition for control, because they were very, very powerful and could fit into decks pretty seamlessly (including the white one, which fetched back many a Scalding Tarn or Misty Rainforest.

Panic Buttons

Thragtusk banner

Sometimes a Core Set will feature a card designed to deal with a problem which has emerged in the format. Great Sable Stag to deal with Faeries, Obstinate Baloth to deal with Jund, and Thundermaw Hellkite to deal with Lingering Souls, as well as the much maligned Thragtusk to deal with Delver of Secrets decks are all examples of this.

This is a crude way to deal with problems it has to be said, but it is a reality that they do this, so core sets are more relevant as a result. Thragtusk became a problem in and of itself, which to me seems like a clear train wreck, and it was exacerbated by the quality of the land in the format allowing just about every deck to play them if they desired (the card should have cost double green at least…).

There doesn’t really seem to be a card like that in this format, but then again, this is probably the best balanced Standard format in a couple of years. Sure, Pack Rat is annoying and steals games, but can often be raced, can be killed by a removal spell, gets wrecked by sweepers, and isn’t very good later on in many cases. Getting Sphinx’s Revelation’ed out of the game is also disheartening, but then control decks playing loads of mana for a powerful effect is old news; no one liked getting Cruel Ultimatum’ed either.

Format Staples

wrath of god banner#

Cards like Mana Leak, Day of Judgement and Oblivion Ring are really pretty good for Standard, and by reprinting them in Core Sets, they don’t need to have them present in the expert set each year, thus avoiding the implications that would have for limited play.

No Wrath at 4 has major implications for aggressive decks, and really changes things when such a card isn’t present. Oblivion Ring wasn’t in Standard during Zendikar-Scars Standard, and while this wasn’t the only reason that format was horrible, it didn’t help at all. There are not that many non -creature ways to deal with a Planeswalker, and Oblivion ring is a pretty easy fix. But it is very high impact in limited, which makes placing it in core a good solution.

From time to time though, they take a card out of Standard. Day of Judgement hasn’t been in for a couple of years now, but because Supreme Verdict has been, it’s not been that big a deal. This has interesting implications for next year, and will likely influence deck building substantially, assuming the next set doesn’t just have a comparable effect.

Bonus deck list with new cards!  

I’ve been playing with this red deck a little.

Frenzied Goblin
Firedrinker Saytr
Rakdos Cackler
Ash Zealot
Burning Tree Emmissary
Chandra’s Phoenix
Lightning Strike
Magma Jet
Stoke The Flames
Chandra, Pyromancer
19 Mountain

I don’t know how good it is yet, but I think frenzied goblin and stoke the flames are both pretty impressive. I expect it’s always going to be rough against the mono blue deck though…

That’s it for this week. I’m about to start getting my hands dirty with standard this week, so I should have an article concerning that for next week.

All the best,

Graeme McIntyre

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Graeme McIntyre
I've been playing magic since the end of Rath Block, and I've been a tournament regular since Invasion Block. I'm in the proccess of writting a Sociology PhD application, with the intent of starting in January 2017. I was born In Scotland, but moved to Nottingham two years ago, seeking new oppertunities both academic and magical. I play regularly with David Inglis, Matt Light and Neil Rigby. I've been on 5 Pro Tours and European Championship, but what I really bring to the table is experience. I've played 136 Pro Tour Qualifiers, 18 Grand Prixs, 11 National Championships, 11 World Magic Cup Qualifers, 34 Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers and more little tournaments than I can remember. More than anything else, my articles are intended to convey the lessons of this lived experience. Likes - robust decks, be they control, midrange, beatdown or combo. Cryptic Commands, Kird Apes and Abzan Charms. Dislikes - decks that draw hot and cold. Urza's Tower, Life From the Loam and Taigam's Scheming.