Imprisoned in the Moon | Ryan Alexander Lee
Out of all the new cards and mechanics we're going to see in Eldritch Moon, emerge is the most interesting but also the hardest to evaluate. Emerge creatures have a high casting cost, but that cost can be reduced by sacrificing a creature. The flavor seems to be that our creature is being mutated into a powerful eldrazi monster. But how good are they going to be? I’ll try to break down how the mechanics will work in an actual game of limited. You can never tell exactly how good card will be until you actually play some games, but this article should give you a baseline to start with for the prerelease or your first few drafts.
When evaluating new mechanics, I try to picture a normal game of limited and imagine how the mechanic would impact it. Emerge changes the game by giving you alternative ways to cast your creatures. So that seems like the logical place to start. What are the different ways we're going to be casting emerge creatures, and how viable are those ways?
Methods of Casting
We can just do what the card says and sacrifice a regular old creature that was sitting around; if we do this, we're getting something big and powerful out on an early turn. There's a lot of risk with this play though. We just spent two cards and two turns of mana to cast one creature. This sort of reminds me of how auras work, sort of going all-in on one big creature. Typically auras are not very good, but the emerge creatures have some nice effects to make up for the risk of going all-in, which I'll get to later.
To help us cast these big eldrazis, WotC was nice enough to give us a handful of creatures that are pretty much designed to be sacrificed. Cards like Exultant Cultist give us some value when they die. Other cards like Enlightened Maniac bring a token with them so you still have something left over if they're sacrificed. If you use these creatures to cast something with emerge, you should be pretty happy with the results.
There's also the more straightforward method of paying the normal mana cost. It's a nice option to have, but most draft formats are too fast for 7 or 8 mana creatures. Angel of Deliverance from Shadows over Innistrad is an extremely powerful card, but costing 8 mana made it unplayable. It's nice to have this option for when the game goes long, but it shouldn't be your plan A or even your plan B.
You can also sacrifice a token (tokens normally have a CMC of 0), which won't reduce the emerge cost at all, but you still get a discount since the full emerge cost is still one less than the actual casting cost. This probably won't be done often but the option is there if you need it.
Typical Play Patterns
Although you'll try to cast emerge creatures with something that's good to sacrifice, I don't like assuming you'll always be able to. There aren’t that many, and in draft you'll be fighting over them with the other drafters. I think it's important when evaluating cards to imagine how they'll play out in a non-ideal situation. For my evaluation of each emerge creature, I'll start out by assuming that we're casting a vanilla 2/2 or 3/3 on turn 3, and sacrificing that creature on turn 4 to enable emerge.
Risk and Reward
There's a lot of risk involved with using the emerge mechanic. You're essentially spending two cards to make one big card. If your opponent has a way to deal with that one big card, then you're in a very bad spot. There's also some tempo loss. You're not just spending two cards to cast the emerge creatures, you're spending two turns. If your opponent spent their two turns casting two creatures, and you spent your two turns casting only one, losing that creature means you're not just behind on cards, but you're going to take a ton of damage as well.
So how do we get that card and turn worth of mana back? Most of the eldrazi creatures trigger an effect when cast. A big part of how you should evaluate the emerge creatures is to look at their effects and ask yourself if they pay you back enough for everything you've spent. If your opponent does have a way to kill your emerge creature, how badly do you get punished? If they don't have an answer, how well do you get rewarded? I'll go over each Eldrazi card one by one:
Wretched Gryff draws you a card when you cast it. That's a pretty straightforward way of replacing the card you spent. If you managed to sacrifice a synergy creature, then you're coming out ahead a card while putting a big creature onto the battlefield. If you're sacrificing a regular old creature though, you're not still that far behind. You could cast a Fogwalker, block with it for a few turns, then on your turn 4, upgrade it into a 3/4 flyer without having to spend a card. Not too shabby.
It of the Horrid Swarm gives you two 1/1 tokens when you cast it. That's a little less exciting than drawing a card, and a 4/4 ground creature is also a little less exciting than a 3/4 flyer. You would still be very happy when sacrificing a synergy creature to cast this, but if you're spending a real creature to get this out, it seems like a bit of a waste. To cast this on turn four, you'll need to sacrifice a 3 mana creature. It's sort of like you're spending four mana on a 4/4 (a pretty good deal) but also turning a 3/2 or 3/3 into two 1/1 tokens in the process (usually a bad deal). If I don't have enough good creatures to sacrifice, I'm not even sure if I want this in my deck.
Moving on to uncommon we get a bit more power. Lashweed Lurker puts a nonland permanent (usually going to be a creature) on top of your opponent’s library. The ability essentially makes up for anything you sacrificed, since your opponent’s next draw step is replaced by a card your opponent already had. What makes this effect so powerful though is that it makes up for the tempo loss as well. You had to sacrifice a creature that you spent a turn to cast, but a creature your opponent spent a turn to cast is now gone as well. Like the Wretched Gryff, you're not unhappy losing a real creature to cast this, and you're extremely happy if you had a synergy creature to help out.
Mockery of Nature I'm not so sure about. Killing an enchantment or artifact would make up for a card we spent to cast it, but most limited decks have very few targets for this sort of removal. If I'm sacrificing a regular creature to cast this, and don't have a target for it's ability, I'm pretty upset. That doesn't seem like a good way to win a game of Magic. On top of that, a lot of the enchantments and artifacts in SoI are meant to go into the graveyard in order to achieve delirium. Your opponent might be happy that you did some of their work for them. Keep in mind that clue tokens count as artifacts for this to kill, but with only one pack of SoI you're going to see a lot less clues sitting around. Maybe this card just ends up in the sideboard to come in when you see some juicy targets. Dropping a 6/5 onto the field while killing my opponent's Ulvenwald Mysteries is a play that I would gladly sacrifice one of my own creatures to make.
Vexing Scuttler grabs an instant or sorcery out of our graveyard. That's a nice way to get our card back. However, it adds on an additional cost on top of sacrificing a creature: we need a spell in our graveyard. It's not as easy as it sounds. If we do my standard play of creature on turn 3, and then emerge on turn 4, the card doesn't really work. There's not a lot of spells we could cast for value on turns one and two, so casting this on turn four does not seem like a good idea. In order to get full value out of the this card, we have to spend a turn casting a creature and another turn casting a spell. We get paid off quite well if we can do this, but there's going to be occasional awkward hands and strange board states where we can't get a spell back with this, or we have a spell that we want to get back, but no way to cast the Scuttler.
Drownyard Behemoth is unique in that it doesn't trigger anything when you cast it. It does have flash through, which a clever player can use to get their card back. The most obvious method is to wait until your opponent attacks, then flash in the Behemoth to block. Getting hexproof is pure upside that makes it a little easier for the Behemoth to ambush an unsuspecting attacker, but I don't think it's very relevant. There's not much that can kill a 5/7 at instant speed anyways, and we can still lose the Behemoth to a combat trick if it makes our opponent's attack big enough. The not-so-obvious way is to wait until your opponent spends a card, and then use the Behemoth to make it so they just wasted their spell. For example, if your creature gets hit with a removal spell, you can respond by sacrificing the creature to cast Behemoth. Or if you're in the middle of combat, and your opponent uses a combat trick, instead of losing your creature to the trick, use it to cast the Behemoth. The only downside to these lines of play is that they don't work with the synergy creatures you want to be sacrificing. Your opponent isn't going to be trying to kill your Enlightened Maniac, they're going to kill the 3/2 token that it gave you. Another downside is having to hold up mana. If you want to cast this in response to something, you have to pass the turn with a bunch of mana and hope that your opponent walks into your trap. If they just cast a creature and don't attack you, you just wasted a lot of mana and got nothing out of it.
Abundant Maw is the last uncommon and the worst in my opinion. It's ability is just not worth a card. The cast trigger does the same thing as Alms of the Vein from Shadows, which was an awful card. If you have to sacrifice a normal creature for this, you're never getting that card back. On top of that, at only four toughness, it's not that hard to kill this thing. If you sacrifice a 3-drop to cast this on turn four, and your opponent casts Alchemist's Greeting to kill it, you just wasted two turns and two cards. That's not a situation I ever want to find myself it.
At rare we have Elder Deep-Fiend. It has flash and the additional ability of tapping a bunch of our opponent's stuff. This is a pretty nasty thing to do at instant speed. We can use it on offense to tap all of our opponent's blockers and swing for a ton of damage. If we have lethal on board, we can even flash this in during our opponent’s upkeep, ignore the blockers and tap down their lands instead just in case they have a spell that could save them. It can also be used defensively to tap opposing creatures before they can attack. Flash also gives us all the tricks that we had with Drownyard Behemoth. Imagine a close game where our opponent attacks with what they think is lethal damage. We flash this in, block one of their attackers and then tap anything that was left back to block. I like this card a lot. Unless you just don't have any creatures out of the field to help you cast this, it's hard to imagine a scenario where it doesn't have a massive impact on the game.
The other rare is Distended Mindbender. Most of the other Eldrazis have a way to get one card back, but this one has potential to get two. If we use the standard play of 3 drop creature into turn-4 emerge, it seems quite likely that our opponent has both a three-or-less and a four-or-less spell for us to take. There's also a sneaky upside to making your opponent discard two cards, it protects the Mindbender. You can take away any combat tricks or removal spells that could deal with a 5/5 body. If you cast this on turn 4, your opponent probably has a 2/2 and a 3/3 out, or something like that. The Mindbender will be the biggest thing on the table, and your opponent won't have good attacks for a while since you stripped their hand of answers. I mentioned before that one of the biggest risks of emerge cards is the tempo loss and potential to be blown out by bounce spells or removal. The Mindbender doesn't have this risk, it's big and it's going to stick around. Even with Murder or other instant speed removal, the discard ability is on cast so you can take them away before Mindbender is actually on the battlefield. This card gets a little weaker in the late game, your opponent might not have any cards left in their hand, but a turn four Mindbender is so brutal that I feel confident saying this card is a straight up bomb.
Finally we have the lone mythic, Decimator of the Provinces. It's the biggest of the emerge creatures but also the most expensive. With an emerge cost of nine, this is hard to cast even if we're sacrificing something. The on-cast ability pumps up your whole team and gives them trample, which doesn't seem like it plays well with the whole emerge thing. Sacrificing a creature means one less body getting pumped up. It seems like it wants to go in an aggressive deck, but aggressive decks don't like expensive creatures, and don't like the synergy creatures because they usually have low power/toughness to compensate for their abilities. Out of all of the emerge creatures, I am the most unsure about this one. On a stalled board it'll pretty much end the game immediately, but in any other situation it seems a little too expensive for what it does. I think it will be great in sealed, where the board stalls out more often, you'll probably have the time to cast it.
The Big Questions:
So after considering all the pros and cons, are the emerge creatures worth playing? The rewards make up for the risks and aside from a few weak ones, I think I'll always want 1 or 2 emerge creatures in my draft or sealed decks, even without a lot of enabler cards. If I do have a lot of enablers, then I could go up to 3 or 4.
For draft, there's also the question of when should you pick them? Elder Deep-Fiend and Distended Mindbender are easy first picks for me. They're powerful enough that I would never cut them from a deck. Abundant Maw, Decimator of the Provinces and Mockery of Nature I would not want to take until very late. If I have enough enabler cards to build an entire deck around emerge then I could see playing them, but otherwise I don't think they are good enough to make the main deck. The rest in the middle look like solid playables. Wretched Gryff in particular is going to be a staple in the limited format, it's a strong card and you're going to see a lot of them since it's a common.