Core Set 2020 Set Review – White
(Sephara, Sky's Blade | Art by Livia Prima)
Welcome to the Core Set 2020 set review: White Edition! We’ll be covering some of the most notable new additions to the format, cards or archetypes with which they synergize, and some possible homes for them. We've got a lot to talk about, so let’s get to it.
Ajani, Strength of the Pride
Ajani is back! This iteration of Ajani is different from his recent versions that care about creatures and planeswalkers. Now he's back on the lifegain train.
His +1 ability looks pretty underwhelming at first: gaining life isn't that good all on its own unless you have a deck and a board state built to abuse it. His -2 ability helps with that, of course, by creating an Ajani's Pridemate; however, that's a low-impact creature on its own. It's Ajani's "ultimate" ability that's the real game-changer: he's a one-sided exile-based Wrath effect as long as you have 55 or more life. That limitation may restrict him solely to lifegain-based decks, but it's certainly an interesting design that his first ability gets us closer to being able to use that board wipe.
Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves is a prime example of a token deck that can fully use Ajani, Strength of the Pride to its advantage. Thanks to the incidental lifegain that Tolsimir provides, we're able to quickly get Ajani's "ultimate" online. In this type of deck, or in Trostani, Selesnya's Voice, another token-based Selesnyan, Ajani's kit truly shines, allowing us to develop a board and deliver a haymaker of a finisher, setting up a huge alpha strike without risk of crackback.
In an Oloro, Ageless Ascetic control shell, Ajani can be used as a four-mana board wipe or even a soft win condition, with his -2 producing ever-growing beaters. Let's face it, the times where an Oloro can't meet Ajani's requirements are few and far between; with very little investment we can make sure that Ajani is online whenever we need him. Expect the new Ajani to appear in all manner of lifegain strategies - he's excellent.
Cavalier of Dawn
The Cavalier cycle is a new take on the Titan/Gearhulk cycle, and it's a welcome addition to EDH. Upon entrance, Cavalier of Dawn is an excellent removal, Generous Gifting a nonland permanent, and upon its departure, it's a great tool to recur artifacts and enchantments. This makes the Cavalier exceptionally good in decks built to abuse that graveyard recursion value, particularly in the Orzhov color combination.
Teysa Karlov, for example, is happy to find things to destroy with the Cavalier, and happier still to extract two death triggers from it. Brago, King Eternal is probably excited for another fun blink target, too. Kalemne, Disciple of Iroas can also always appreciate a big creature that has a relevant ETB effect and gives her an experience counter. Cavalier of Dawn won't fix her problems, but, hey, what did you expect?
Sephara, Sky's Blade
Sometimes a card's art is so cool that you feel the need to play it, other times it's just the name. Sephara, Sky's Blade is clearly both. Sorry Vilis, Broker of Blood: white got the coolest name of any of the mono-colored legends of the set.
Sephara, Sky's Blade is a flying, lifelinking 7/7 beater that can have her mana cost reduced to
by tapping four other flying creatures. There's so much to talk about this card, so let's divide the discussion into two parts: how she'll function in the command zone and how she'll function in the 99.
In the command zone, Sephara, Sky's Blade will probably helm a deck that goes heavy on flying tokens and weenies. It'll be a creature-based aggro deck, which could suffer a bit in the format, but she fills a niche that mono-white was lacking: a non-Equipment-based aggro commander. Her obvious competition is Avacyn, Angel of Hope, which is more versatile with her indestructibility, but Avacyn's mana cost is so restrictive and Sephara clearly requires a specific group of creatures; the decks will function quite differently.
That being said, it's clear that Sephara, Sky's Blade will shine more in the 99 than she ever will in the command zone. Having access to other colors and therefore a wider pool of cards helps her immensely since we'll get better flyers to use to cheat her into play. It's kind of a snake eating its own tail: she'll be better because she'll have better support and because she supports better cards.
Derevi, Empyrial Tactician's Flying Men deck is an underplayed archetype that plays like the standard Edric, Spymaster of Trest list, with the added option of having a stax package. Sephara, Sky's Blade can provide protection against blockers and board wipes (although she'll die in the process), which is great since we rely on having a critical mass of flyers to accelerate us. Derevi also grants some support to Sephara because she allows us to attack and untap our flyers so we can still cheat out Sephara, Sky's Blade.
Kaalia of the Vast will love Sephara almost in the same way as she loves Avacyn, Angel of Hope. In this case, Sephara, Sky's Blade will be a redundant option or budget replacement, which, taking into account the power level of Avacyn, makes it pretty good.
Bishop of Wings
There are currently 1,536 decks that fit EDHREC's definition of Angel tribal. If you own one of those, or if you have some interest in the tribe, you should really consider Bishop of Wings. It's a great support for the tribe, providing a cheap body that can block early, recovering some of your life in the mid-game, and if it all goes wrong in the late game, giving you some tokens that might help you live to cast another Angel.
If you're not feeling angelic, Bishop of Wings is still worth consideration. Take Divine Visitation: Bishop of Wings doesn't care if the dying Angel is a token, so whenever it creates a Spirit token, Divine Visitation will create an Angel instead. With these in play, a free sacrifice outlet, and a way to generate a creature token, we make an infinite loop that gains us infinite life, not to mention infinite activations on the sacrifice outlet in question, which can be lethal in its own right. This too probably fits into an Orzhov shell, given black's access to sacrifice outlets and tutors. It's a combo that consists of three cards, of course, so it's not high on the list for dedicated combo decks, but it's still a cool interaction to be aware of on a card that folks might overlook.
Brought Back is powerful and will likely find a home in multitudes of white decks. That might seem like a hyperbolic overstatement, but when analyzing all the possibilities, it's clear that this card is the real deal. Are you playing an aggro deck and just got board wiped? No problem, take back your best two permanents. (Permanents! Not just creatures!) Are you playing a combo deck and someone just destroyed a combo piece? Too bad for your opponents, you can just take it back!
Unlike previous options, like Second Sunrise and Faith's Reward, holding up two mana to pay for Brought Back is much less of a sacrifice and thus much easier to adopt into both defensive and aggressive playstyles.
Whether you're getting back fetch lands, recovering from a board wipe, reclaiming your favorite enchantments, or all of the above, don't sleep on Brought Back. It's a small mana cost for a very helpful effect.
I don't know how often you'll actually gain life from this creature's ETB ability; even in a dedicated Doran, the Siege Tower or Arcades the Strategist, the total toughness might not get that high, and Arcades probably doesn't want to run a non-defender in his 99. Thank goodness the ETB trigger is optional.
And yeah, twelve total mana for this creature to do its thing... that's a lot. And it has to go unblocked, since it has no natural evasion.
With all this said, this ability is hilariously fun. Here's another awesome way to weaponize lifegain. Plus, unlike folks trying to make Evra, Halcyon Witness work, there's no need for us to put our entire life total at risk to power up our new Elephant friend. Try him out in lifegain decks before you try him out in toughness-matters strategies, though.
Starfield Mystic is a color-shifted Herald of the Pantheon with a twist. Not gaining the life is almost a non-factor in the type of decks that would want this kind of effect, but then again, so are the +1/+1 counters. Even if we consider that it grows to a respectable size, it's still a french vanilla beater. Don't get me wrong, having the cost reduction is still a desirable effect, especially outside of green for decks such as Daxos the Returned, but it's a little sad that we probably won't be able to take advantage of 100% of the card's effects. Still, Herald of the Pantheon shows up in 77% of Tuvasa, the Sunlit decks, so definitely consider this new option whenever building enchantress.
Apostle of Purifying Light
Color-hate cards are back! Folks don't often play these since there's a risk you won't run into decks that play the color you have protection from. This card has some usefulness even outside of the protection from black, though. The cost isn't small, but stopping someone's Spelltwine, Meren of Clan Nel Toth, Mizzix's Mastery, Goblin Welder or any other such graveyard interaction can really mess with someone's day. Rest in Peace and Relic of Progenitus are probably still better, but this is a good budget pick, and one that doesn't remove your own stuff in case you'd like to keep the graveyard synergies all to yourself.
Angel of Vitality
Angel of Vitality is a 4/4 flyer with upside for three mana? That doesn't seem right. Sure, in a world with Death's Shadow and Serra Ascendant, that doesn't seem to be all that impressive, but it's much easier to keep online. If you're trying to make Angel tribal work, this card is made for you. If you want an aggressive flyer to beat your opponents in the face, this card is also made for you. I'm still not convinced, however, that Angel of Vitality is made for lifegain decks. Sure, on paper it rewards us for staying above 25 life and it also helps us maintain that state, but since it rewards many individual instances of lifegain and doesn't help much with big increases, it earns a big 'yikes' from me.
As stated before, Angel of Vitality can be quite effective in an Angel tribal list. Lyra, Dawnbringer, while not the most competitive commander out there, can provide support for a more aggressive take on the Angel archetype. Angel of Vitality becomes a three-mana 5/5 flyer with lifelink that gains you even more life whenever your Angels hit someone. That's legit.
Here's a sentence some EDH Bingo players might have been waiting for: "This card is good in my Alesha deck." Why would an Alesha, Who Smiles at Death deck would want this? Surely there are a bunch of better effects that we could be resurrecting? Probably, but I think that it's good to take a look at slightly less-competitive versions of popular decks. Angel of Vitality is quite the evasive beater, and decks that want to play an aggressive but fair game and use Alesha as a way to keep the pressure on can find some success using it.
Finally, if you do want to try the new Angel in a lifegain shell, look for other commanders that prioritize numerous instances of lifegain rather than gaining it in large chunks. Karlov of the Ghost Council comes to mind, both to help with all the little lifegain effects, but also to help him out by removing other flying threats.
So many interesting new cards, don’t you think? Those were my impressions on the set, and now I want to hear yours! Did you agree with these assessments? Did I miss any cards or interactions? Please let me know in the comment section below.