The Hour of Devastation is approaching and this weekend the second sun rises, marking the dawn of a new limited format. That means it’s time for another set review, so today I’ll be starting my CELF-test of Hours of Devastation.
Set reviews usually evaluate cards on an individual basis. This is a useful starting point, but card values change greatly based on the rest of the format. I believe it’s more helpful to evaluate a new format from the top-down instead of the bottom-up.
The CELF-Test is my attempt at formalizing a top-down analysis of limited. Read my write-up of the process for more information.
We’ll only consider a set’s commons (C) and uncommons (U) since those form the foundation of any limited format.
Changes to Limited
Since I wrote my overview of the CELF-Test, a couple changes have been announced that affect the use of the method.
First, it was recently announced that all new sets will be released as large sets and drafted on their own. This is a boon for our CELF-Test process. Small set releases and mix-set draft formats had more nuances: larger combined card pools, the order of sets being drafted, adjusting existing card values based on the new set release. Evaluating each new set on its own as a large set is more straight-forward, and that’s what we can count on going forward.
Second, sets have started to be released sooner on Magic Online, starting with Amonkhet which was released the Monday after the paper pre-release weekend. This is an exciting change for players who can get hands on experience with new cards much earlier now. One of the motivations for CELF-Testing a format was that it can be done on paper using just the card file and doesn’t require playtest time with the set. It helped level the playing field for someone who doesn’t have access to a team full of drafters with product to do paper drafts. When waiting to draft online meant being 1-2 weeks behind the learning curve, CELF-Testing could help fill the gap. Now this is less of an issue, but it’s still a way to get ahead of everyone else between publication of the full set and the start of online drafts.
Hour of Devasation
Today’s review will be the last small set review. To start, I’ll be looking at Hour of Devastation on its own. Since drafts will start with two packs of Hour, the new release will set the tone for the format. Then we can adjust our impressions based on what we already know about Amonkhet.
Mechanics and Themes
Eternalize A slightly modified Embalm, the creatures come back as 4/4s. Depending on how these are statted and costed they are late-game sinks for aggressive decks or value creatures for midrange and control decks. There are only 5 cards at C/U in the set; all are in blue and white, with one common in each color.
Afflict This is a purely aggressive mechanic that punishes blocking with life loss. Life total needs to be managed so as not to be dead to Afflict creatures off the top of the deck. If you plan on blocking, it’ll be necessary to have creatures that not only block the board, but can trade with or eat Afflict threats. Afflict creatures are evenly distributed in Grixis with one common and one uncommon in all three colors. There’s also an uncommon equipment that buffs power and grants Afflict which threatens to give aggro decks a source of repeatable reach that’s hard to interact with.
Exert In Amonkhet we saw Exert heavily incentivize attacking with combat buffs that made blocking challenging. Exert returns in Hour of Devastation, but with a more diverse set of payoffs. Some still give bonuses in combat, but other Exert creatures create tokens, make mana or ping creatures. These more unique effects are at uncommon. There are 9 total Exert creatures, all in the Naya colors. All three colors get one common creature that wants to attack, plus green gets a second common that makes colored mana.
Deserts Deserts are a theme in the set, with both a common and an uncommon cycle of desert lands. The common deserts all cycle, while the uncommon deserts give all your deserts an activated ability. If desserts are important, then the uncommon lands will be at a premium not just for their ability but because they come into play untapped. On the flip side, if most people are playing ETB-tapped deserts it could slow the format down. There are 9 total desert-matters cards to pair with the lands; a common in each color, a common artifact and 3 uncommons (red, green, and white). The uncommons all look quite strong, but the green and red ones require a desert to be good while Desert’s Hold is just a good removal spell that all white decks will take early.
Cycling Cycling adds flexibility to a card and helps a deck function by making land drops but Amonkhet showed us that the cost can be steep if the format is too fast. There are 19 new cards with cycling, 14 of those at common, including common cycle lands. By WUBRG order the split is 2/3/2/5/2 overall and 1/2/3/1/1 at common. Cycling-matters is concentrated in black. Interestingly, every color except black has a 6-7 mana beefy creature with cycling 2 (actually, the blue one has cycling for U which is noteworthy since blue is the mostly likely pair with black for cycling-matters); these will be great if the draft format is slow and relegated to sealed decks if the draft format is fast again. The difference between cycling for 1 and 2 mana is huge. UB gets most of the 1-mana cyclers, but white aggressive decks will be able to play Djeru’s Renunciation since it cycles so cheaply.
Aftermath Aftermath is returning with 5 new cards, all at uncommon. These don’t have a large affect on draft strategy, but could go up in value if it’s easy to splash for the back half. Some of these look like gold cards, needing to cast both haves to get full value, and others have the value concentrated in the front half of the card, making them more flexible. They are in 5 color pairs: WU, UB, RG, RB, and GW. Of these, two stand out since they are effectively 1-color removal spells which makes them the most flexible: RG’s Struggle to Survive and WU’s Farm. I think GW’s Appeal to Authority may be the best sleeper and have the highest upside if there’s a supported go-wide strategy. It’s efficiently costed and vigilance can really swing a race.
Synergy vs. Raw Power
Of the mechanics and themes we’ve looked at, only UB Cycling stands out to me as a synergy-based archetype. In general I think Hour of Devastation will be a raw power format, with UB being the most common synergy deck.
Deserts may also fit into this category and we’ll have to consider if the deserts are build-arounds or just provide incidental value. Looking at the desert-matters cards, most seem to get incidental bonuses when you control a desert, but you really want the bonus to take the creature from slightly below normal stats to slightly above normal stats. A few uncommons stand out as potential build-arounds if the support exists. Ipnu Rivulet can be used in a blue desert control deck with a mill-theme. Ifnir Deadlands stands out as the best of the uncommon lands and makes it worth picking up on-color deserts to turn your lands into potential removal spells. Dune Diviner also seems like an interesting engine card for a durdly green deck to buffer its life total after stabilizing. Wall of Forgotten Pharaohs looks like a bad engine card – too slow of a win condition and doesn’t block profitably if Afflict creatures are a threat.
I see enough fixing at common to think that splashing and multi-color strategies are viable. The amulet is a cheap enabler for splashing in any deck while Manalith is a great mana fixer and ramp spell for decks looking to go bigger. Green adds two more enablers at common which makes me think we have a critical mass of fixing for multi-color green decks. The question will be whether the format is friendly to decks looking to spend the early turns setting up their manabase.
The set is lacking a cycle of dual lands though and Survivor’s Encampment looks underwhelming. Taking a creature off block-duty for a turn seems like a steep cost for a strategy that’s likely looking to play defense and make the game go long. The grixis land will make splashing in those colors much easier, and I’ll be scooping these up even for decks that can only make use of it as a dual land. Remember that having a Crypt of the Eternals will make splashing red in your GB deck easier, even if you have no need for blue. Having a backdoor source of extra colors is surprisingly useful at times for activating abilities or casting the back half of Aftermath spells.
U: Unquenchable Thirst, Unsummon
B: Lethal Sting, Torment of Venom
R: Open Fire, Puncturing Blow, Blur of Blades
W: Desert’s Hold, Farm
U: Imaginary Threats, Consign
B: Banewhip Punisher, Doomfall, Ifnir Deadlands
R: Abrade, Fervent Paincaster, Sand Strangler, Struggle
Cycle of hate cards: Gideon’s Defeat, Chandra’s Defeat, Liliana’s Defeat
All common removal costs 3+ mana (unless you count Unsummon). Each color except blue gets a 3-mana removal spell at common. White’s is the easiest to play around, but red’s has the lowest ceiling. Black gets two good removal spells at common. There aren’t many bounce effects (and none attached to creatures), so auras are reliable removal spells, but be aware of Unsummon. [Edit: I initially had Puncturing Blow listed at uncommon. At common, that gives red and black two common removal spells each, which seems like a good way to back up the RB Afflict aggro plan. There’s tension with the mana though as the 4-mana removal spells are RR and BB.]
At uncommon, only Abrade is more efficient. Most removal still costs 3 or 4 mana. Without cheap removal, if an aggro deck exists other decks will have to prioritize developing a board in the early turns. If aggro isn’t a major player then the format may become about playing taplands and cycling to sculpt your hand in the early turns.
Combat tricks are more efficiently costed than the removal spells which means they can be used with less fear of a blowout. Despite the cost, most removal is damage or -1/-1 counter based so those can be countered with pump spells or bounce spells respectively. As the only way to interact for 1 mana, I think Unsummon will prove to be a very important option. The only efficient removal is the cycle of hate cards which will be very high value sideboard cards.
The obvious exception is Lethal Sting at common, but at least that’s a sorcery so it will be hard to get blown out by it. That looks like the premium removal spell if there’s a way to mitigate the drawback – it doesn’t appear to play well in aggressive decks since they are more likely to have x/1s that can’t hold the counter and even if you have other creatures you don’t want to shrink your offense by adding a -1/-1 counter.
This look at Hour of Devastation sets the stage for our card valuation of the set.
- RB looks like the pace setter for aggressive decks with the Afflict mechanic and incidental damage from its removal spells.
- Deserts are hard to evaluate but probably go in most decks for their ability to cycle which will make them high picks.
- Splashes and 3-color ramp strategies look they have support in all colors, but especially in green.
- Removal is conditional and inefficient. Unsummon may be a key card if cheap interaction is needed. The magic numbers for surviving damage-based removal are 4 at 4-mana and 6 at 5+ mana.
In the second part of my Hour of Devastation review I’ll start looking at specific cards. I’ll start with an attempt to judge the speed of the format and then make a list of the best commons and uncommons for each color. See you then!