Strixhaven Set Review — Witherbloom and Black
(Beledros Witherbloom | Art by Raymond Swanland)
Greetings, prospective students! Welcome to Witherbloom orientation. If you ever felt that the biomancers of the Simic Combine from that blasted metropolis plane of Ravnica were lacking just a little more death, come to Witherbloom where we trade blue for black, and where life and death are not enemies, but dear friends.
Without further ado, open your Necronomicon to page 35 as we delve into a bit of our college's history and some of its major players you'll see around on campus!
Witherbloom Mythics & Rares
What better way to introduce you to the college of Witherbloom than start with its namesake, Beledros Witherbloom. A seven-mana 4/4 with flying seems lackluster, but it's all uphill from here. Beledros creates 1/1 black and green Pest tokens that net life on death, every upkeep. Don't overlook the black and green typing here, as your Creakwood Liege and other color-caring effects just scale so well with these Pests. Much like Tendershoot Dryad or the recent Koma, Cosmos Serpent, we've seen just how powerful these effects can be and how they can run away with the game on their own if unchecked.
Even more like Koma, Cosmos Serpent, we see a payoff for all the life gain we can generate from Pest-icide: an activated ability of 'Pay 10 life: Untap all lands you control.' The reason that this is restricted to once per turn is obvious — it's templated similarly to Patron of the Orochi to prevent a player from storming off all at once.
But it isn't as much as drawback as you think - you can still activate this each turn, including your opponents'. This essentially means that, for each 10 life you pay, you get a Wilderness Reclamation-style effect on each opponent's turn. You can even leave your lands completely tapped out and, in response to an opponent's action, pay 10 life, untap all of your lands, and respond with a juicy instant, like Heroic Intervention, to protect your board, or Beast Within to take out a key threat.
Any player playing against a Beledros Witherbloom with more than 10 life is going to have to think twice about their actions, as the Beledros player still has the potential to respond even with their lands tapped. I think the cost of 10 life is particularly fair, as, even in our format, 1/4 of your life is fairly steep, and Beledros players likely won't be able to activate his second ability more than a few times unless they have some massive life-gain engine online.
And yet, I'm scared to see Beledros decks jam-packed with mana-doublers, like Zendikar Resurgent and the like, to be able to really take full advantage of that second ability. Sure, they may be only to activate it a few times, but even a few times is enough.
Anthropologist Timothy Ingold1 eloquently stated, "Life does not begin here or end there, but is always going on," and that, "We are not human beings but human becomings." While he may not hold the title of biophilosopher, I can't help but think there's a lot of similarity with the awesome flavor text by Zhaer (found on the non-extended art version of the card), which ties so well into this card's mechanic.
A seeming mix between Morality Shift (698 decks) and Praetor's Counsel (6,720 decks), Harness Infinity seems to be doing what many a Golgari graveyard-centric deck wants: fill your graveyard, then get all those cards in your graveyard either back onto the battlefield or into your hand. Its pip-demanding cost makes me think it lands pretty squarely in Golgari decks, though it'll likely see play in other Abzan-style decks (or even Jodah, Archmage Eternal) that can afford the mana-fixing.
What sets this apart is that it's an instant. Being able to cast this in response to someone targeting you with a Bojuka Bog to save your 'yard is great, or maybe you cast this in response to an opponent's Reforge the Soul while you have Syr Konrad, the Grim on the board, to throw around massive quantities of damage.
Even better, maybe you cast this on the end step before your turn with The Gitrog Monster out so you can start pitching lands to the graveyard and start the 'land dance' all over again. While I see it as similar to Praetor's Counsel, I think the pip-intensive cost and lack of no maximum hand size are far outshone by the fact that this is useable at instant speed. Sure, it's a lot of mana to leave open, but there's green's tenacious potential for ramp, as well as Wilderness Reclamation, Seedborn Muse, and of course, Beledros Witherbloom. Plus, who ever needed a maximum hand size in Golgari? Your graveyard is your hand!
1See Ingold, T. (1995) “Building, Dwelling, Living: How Animals and People Make Themselves at Home in the World” pp. 57-80 in M. Strathern, Shifting Contexts:Transformations in Anthropological Knowledge, London: Routledge. Pg. 57. and Ingold, T and Palson G (eds.) (2013) Biosocial becomings : integrating social and biological anthropology, New York; Cambridge University Press.
Blex, Vexing Pest
While I'm still waiting for more Slugs (and Snails!) to make a debut, I can settle happy knowing Blex will provide a neat commander for all manner of creepy-crawler tribal aficionados! A minor anthem on a fairly efficient body with a death trigger is nothing to sniff at, especially in the colors of recursion and reanimation.
As for the back half, Search for Blex, I think it's a nice value piece, similar to Moonlight Bargain (2,133 decks) or Funeral Rites (1,231 decks). Sure, 15 life can be a bit steep to keep all five cards, but with some of the life-gain synergies of running Pests, you might be fine to pay such a price. Or, just pay 0 life and dump the top five cards of your library directly into your graveyard.
The modality of the back half alone is pretty neat, on top of the modality of having this stapled to a creature and commander. The fact that Blex counts as a creature in your graveyard means you can get it back with things like Tortured Existence or Oversold Cemetery, but then continue to repeatedly cast the spell side to keep on refueling your hand and/or graveyard. You could also just repeatedly cast Search for Blex with infinite (colored) mana, digging through your library until you hit Tendrils of Agony and storm off for a combo win.
Overall, a neat and flavorful card with some open-ended potential.
An 11/10 for four mana seems pretty doggone good at first glance, even if you have to sacrifice a creature each times it tries to attack or block. That 'downside' is hardly a downside in these colors, especially with a slough of Pests at your disposal. Despite its potential to make a bigger splash in Limited environments, I do think it's similar to just an efficient creature, like Gigantosaurus, or maybe more like a Rotting Regisaur or Doomgape. I think it will likely find a home in your high-power/low-CMC decks (sorry, low 'mana value' ), like Varolz, the Scar-Striped, or even as Fling fodder for Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord or Kresh, the Bloodbraided. Plus, the art and flavor text are both fantastic.
Talk about efficient! For the low cost of Golgari Charm, you get two choices spanning a variety of utility options. My money is on the Grisly Salvage and Abrupt Decay-esque options every time, both of which see sizeable play (9,613 and 16,626 decks, respectively). Does the utility and modality of this card outweigh the fact the effects are kind of weaker versions of other cards, and that it's sorcery speed? Maybe not, but I'm sure we'll see it turn up in Sidisi, Brood Tyrant or other self-mill decks frequently enough.
Oh man, is this card neat. Once again, we have an efficiently-costed instant that, similar to Neoform, fetches a creature out of your library directly onto the battlefield. While you have to get a creature with a lower mana value than the one that died, the fact that 1) this card is an instant and 2) this card isn't restricted to targeting your own creatures, makes this thing so good. Holding up two mana isn't a big ask, and if you get to cast this as an opponent's creature dies in combat, or through a sacrifice effect or removal spell, that's just fantastic.
It's hard to compete with the canonical Pernicious Deed (9,320 decks), but this comes close, and in some cases, may well be better. Clearing mana rocks, dorks, and forcing people to use their Treasure tokens is great, and its ability to recoup those in terms of mana isn't something to be overlooked, as it does have the potential to offset its sorcery-speed restriction with another follow-up play. It's likely to pull even more weight in a more optimized table/meta, as mana acceleration tends to be leaner and card costs drift toward more efficiency (think Mana Crypt, etc.). In lower-powered games where the mana values for cards are higher, I think I'd value Pernicious Deed a little higher, which can be used as needed at instant speed and with a more flexible ceiling and can be recurred more easily. But overall, Culling Ritual is a sweet card that's sure to make some splashes!
Witherbloom Uncommons & Commons
Tend the Pests
As a big fan of Carrion (412 decks), this is just a strictly better version. Cheaper cost (mana value), cheaper cost (financially), 1/1s instead of 0/1s, with black and green typing, that also nets you life gain on death? While it may not be flashy, decks that seek to convert bigger creatures into smaller ones are sure to enjoy this, like Nadier, Agent of the Duskenel, Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis, or even sacrifice-centric decks like Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest. I'm just glad I'm not playing Standard to see this alongside Daemogoth Woe-Eater....
Dina, Soul Steeper
First, I just gotta say the art is fantastic here. The glow from the soul-steeped tea, her light smirk, the fungal backdrop, all solid.
Efficiently costed (man, is Witherbloom all about efficiency and low mana-values in this set?) with a simple triggered ability and an activated sacrifice outlet to boot! I can't help but see similarities with Epicure of Blood (2,263 decks) or the aptly named archetype of Soul Sisters (Soul Warden, 10,705 decks, Soul's Attendant, 7,100 decks), where incidental lifegain is used to either push your life total out of reach or trigger additional effects. In Dina's case, cards like Essence Warden and Lifegift become particularly good, as any creature or any land entering the battlefield will trigger Dina to drain your opponents.
Finally, her sacrifice outlet has a low cost and a nice bit of utility. I'd love to see if people take Dina in a more Voltron direction by sacrificing big creatures to boost her own power, almost like Greven, Predator Captain. Overall, Dina may not occupy a new strategy, but a commander to make niche cards, like Lifegift, to shine earns a thumbs up from me.
Sure, this doesn't exile, like the similarly costed Utter End (24,156 decks), but it has the potential to cost only two mana! While I think this requires a specific shell of a deck to properly shine, I can easily see this taking a removal spot since black-green decks tend to facilitate creature deaths, which often trigger life gain from aristocrats like Zulaport Cutthroat, Blood Artist, etc. Heck, I'm still happy to play it for four!
Black Mythics & Rares
While Liliana may have traded her usual garb for professorial robes, judging by the vibe and décor of her study, I'd be terrified to visit her in office hours. Frankly, since her escape from Ravnica after War of the Spark was just two years ago, I feel like she should be Adjunct Professor or at least Visiting Lecturer Onyx, as no one I know managed to land a full Professorship in that timeframe, but I digress.
Her mechanics are no less terrifying. Static-ability planeswalkers seem to be the norm now, and hers is effectively a Tendrils of Agony-adjacent effect. (Hmm, what harm did Storm ever cause?) That static ability, much like her Jace, Wielder of Mysteries counterpart, can be game-ending in itself. There's a reason Chain of Smog saw a massive spike in price when she was revealed, and I venture to say its measly 492 decks (as of 4/3/2021) is about to see quite a spike after Strixhaven is released.
Assuming you're not using her to immediately win on the spot with Chain of Smog, her +1 is a nice piece of card advantage, letting you dig three deep and pitching the other two to Reanimate later. Her -3 is a good edict, that also gets around someone just sacrificing their measly 1/1 Thopter token. And finally, her 'ultimate' of -8 essentially casts a more restricted version of Torment of Hailfire — one of the canonical black finishers to date (23,873 decks) — for X = 7. For pitching only one card, they lose 18 life. For pitching two cards, 15 life, and so on. Outside of a Nezahal, Primal Tide-style commander, people are either going to get Hellbent or lose a lot of life, quick, if this ultimate ever resolves.
I'm sure we'll also see her crop up in black-inclusive spellslinger lists, like Toshiro Umezawa or Kess, Dissident Mage.
Boy, howdy, is this thing neat! A bipedal Entomb with the potential for repeated activations and has a slight spell synergy? Sign me up! While waiting a whole turn cycle is likely a risk, Oriq Loremage is a slow but steady value Entomber, but this effect on a creature can lead to some tremendous upsides. I'm particularly excited to see this in Chainer, Nightmare Adept decks, as it very likely it will have haste and can act as a toolbox piece or tutor for some bigger threat, or maybe even just to search up an Ignite the Future to the 'yard to flash back.
I can see this shining in other graveyard-centric decks that lean on tapping for activated abilities, like Araumi of the Dead Tide or Dralnu, Lich Lord, since they tend to have synergies with untapping their commanders (e.g. Thousand-Year Elixir, or the new Kelpie Guide!) to get even more value.
Overall, a sweet card that looks straight out of Destiny 2. Is that why it's a Warlock?!
As part of the cycle of spells from Strixhaven that offer alternate costs in the form of reduced mana value but offer boons to your opponents, I think this one is pretty up there. I'm happy to pay one generic and one black any day for instant-speed exile removal, even if an opponent gets one card out of it. Arcane Denial sees play in 45,001 decks, which is a lot. Sure, it draws you a card as well and thus replaces itself, but I think it's an apt comparison since, ultimately, you remove a threat and an opponent nets one more card than you. If you're willing to play Arcane Denial, are you not also willing to try this?
On rate power-toughness for cost? Check. Evasion? Check. A form of protection/deterrence? Check. Oh, wait, there's more?
Move on over Jeskai (sorry, Angelo Guerrera), looks like black is getting their own Young Pyromancer/Murmuring Mystic/Monastery Mentor variant! Creating bodies off of instants and sorceries in black feels great, especially when those very bodies give you life back! Black's suite of removal spells paired with its sacrifice spells means you can steadily keep churning out bodies. Never has it felt so good to cast Village Rites, draw two cards, gain one life, and replace the very body anew! I'm curious to see how this card slots into black-inclusive spellslinger and aristocrat decks alike.
Black Uncommons & Commons
Plumb the Forbidden
I remember raising an eyebrow when Village Rites was first spoiled, as it didn't take long to realize it crept Altar's Reap out, a card I thought was perfectly playable in its own right. Once again, I find my eyebrows reacting faster than my brain can process.
This card is sweet. As as instant, you can hold onto it for the opportune moment, and at two mana (one of which being generic!), it's not hard to leave that kind of mana open. The fact that you can sacrifice tokens is fantastic, as you can convert a board of creatures into card advantage for a low cost.
Even better is that the spell copies for each iteration, which is just so neat with all the Magecraft synergies we get in Strixhaven. With Professor Onyx, that turns to straight damage to your opponents, and not only offsets the life lost from Plumb the Forbidden, but gains you life. With Archmage Emeritus, you're drawing even more cards. With Storm-Kiln Artist you generate Treasure tokens like a Pitiless Plunderer, and with Extus, Oriq Overlord, you're getting to Midnight Recovery the whole damn cemetery. Heck, since sacrificing is part of the cost, you can have Extus return all the non-token, non-legendary creatures you just sacrificed right back to your hand!
Overall, I'm stoked for this card and the neat things people will do with it.
Plumb the Forbidden
Sacrifice outlet? Check. Card advantage? Check. Magecraft enabler? Check. Emergency refuel button in case of a board wipe? Check! Village Rites is already showing up in over 6,400 decks, and this is a new option with tons more flexibility.
That concludes our orientation! I know there are some more cards out there I didn't get space to mention, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on them! What are you most excited for? Most scared of? With all these new cards, does it also feel like a Cram Session for you to keep up? Sound off in the comments below!