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Exalted Week 5x5: The Past and Future

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The letter M!agic 2013 brings back the exciting mechanic exalted. It might seem a bit at odds—especially with exalted triggers stacking all over each other—to commit lots of dudes to the battlefield, only to attack with one at a time. Yet, for so young a mechanic, exalted actually has a pretty long and storied history of super success at the highest levels and in the hands of some of the best players in recent years... National and World Champions, legendary deck designers (even "the best of the best"), and the rising stars of Magic Online.

In this article, we will briefly examine five historical exemplars of high-impact exalted cards and some of the decks where they were interesting difference-makers... and then move on to the eleven exalted cards from Magic 2013. Which ones stand to crack tables in Standard now, through Return to Ravnica, and the next year.

Exalted Exemplars

 

Ardent Plea was a sneak peek Easter egg of a card. Released as a teaser—albeit with no text—prior to the rest of Alara Reborn, this card was the catalyst of much speculation. You see, Ardent Plea is card #1 in Alara Reborn... and a gold card. Since gold cards tend to be numbered toward the ends of sets, clever observers realized—ultimately correctly—that Alara Reborn was to be an entirely multicolored set.

Ardent Plea makes the historical list in this article on account of being an exalted card, but it is the spell's other ability that made it a staple in Standard decks in its era: cascade.

Ardent Plea helped make for some super consistent anti-Jund decks. Jund decks of this era had a lot of powerful two-for-one cards like Bloodbraid Elf or Blightning, but were largely comprised of gold cards and highly dependent on their Savage Lands... A well-placed Spreading Seas and they might not be able to play anything. Here is a "Spread 'Em" deck that showcased the effectiveness of Ardent Plea and some other cascade spells:

Gerry Thompson's Spread 'Em
Shards of Alara-Zendikar Standard


As you can see, GerryT played many cascade spells in his deck; not just Ardent Plea. Every Captured Sunlight, every borrowed Bloodbraid Elf, would have no choice but to cascade down to Ardent Plea or one of the two kinds of two-mana enchantments (Spreading Seas and Convincing Mirage [aka the lesser Spreading Seas]). So you could give the opponent an Island instead of a Savage Lands on turn two naturally, Ardent Plea into another on turn three, then Bloodbraid Elf-into-Ardent Plea-into yet another enchanted Island on turn four. Meanwhile, thanks to double exalted, your Bloodbraid Elf would be swinging for 5 damage.

Ardent Plea came inches from winning a Pro Tour, again as part of a redundant cascade package in Austin, Texas:

Evangelos Papatsarouchas's Extended Hypergenesis
Extended – Top 8, Pro Tour Austin 2009


In the Extended Hypergenesis deck, the only card cheaper than the three-mana cascade spells Ardent Plea, Demonic Dread, and Violent Outburst was Hypergenesis itself. When Papatsarouchas played a card like Ardent Plea, he would inevitably hit the trademark Hypergenesis, allowing him to put one or more gigantic, backbreaking creatures in play.

Despite not making the grade based on its exalted ability, Ardent Plea is a great way to start an article like this out. A contributor to a variety of exciting strategies—in a variety of different formats—it was more, much more, than a card #1 Easter egg.

 

Today we know Reid Duke as one of the deadliest mages on Magic Online—where he is about as decorated as can be—or paper Magic (where he is a Grand Prix winner). But before his MOCS performances or big tournament excellence had become obvious to the world, Reid was a PTQ winner as reiderrabbit, and his unique angle of attack involved Finest Hour.


I remember when this deck first came out, I ran through Magic Online to make sure I had it going on right. It seemed perverse to me what it was capable of... but yeah, it is capable of pulling off a simultaneous exalted and battle cry in the same attack.

To wit:

Let's say you open on a Noble Hierarch (to be featured below) into a Hero of Bladehold on the third turn, and tap for a Finest Hour on the fourth. That fourth-turn attack might look like this:

  1. Attack with Hero of Bladehold.
  2. Stack two exalted triggers, Finest Hour's other trigger, battle cry, and Hero of Bladehold's token trigger.
  3. Hero of Bladehold makes two little guys, which then get battle cry bonuses (2 and 2).
  4. Hero of Bladehold untaps thanks to Finest Hour, with an additional combat phase on deck.
  5. Hero of Bladehold gets two exalted bonuses.
  6. You are now attacking with Hero of Bladehold (5), and two Soldiers (4), for 9 damage.
  7. Unbelievably, you get another attack! Hero of Bladehold goes in again, this time starting at 5 power. (The two tokens are still tapped, and don't have haste anyway, so they stay back.)
  8. Stack two exalted triggers, battle cry, and Hero of Bladehold's token trigger.
  9. Hero of Bladehold makes two more little guys, who get battle cry bonuses (2 and 2).
  10. Hero of Bladehold goes from 5 to 7 power thanks to exalted. You are now attacking with Hero of Bladehold (7) and two Soldier tokens (4), for 11 total. With your initial 9, that's lethal!

Pretty ludicrous, right?

Finest Hour has some impressive up-side and was the only "spell" in Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz's influential 2010 Mythic Rare deck.

Zvi Mowshowitz's Mythic Rare
Standard – Pro Tour San Diego 2010


Mowshowitz was voted the #1 deck designer of all time by his peers last year; Mythic Rare was a comeback deck of sorts for him, and influential past the inclusion of Finest Hour. Another version of the deck—in the hands of Joshua Utter-Leyton and others—would showcase even more exalted triggers.

 

Probably the most popular of the exalted threats, Noble Hierarch is probably in contention for the title of best one-mana creature of all time. I don't know that it is likely to actually score that title, but it is in the conversation. And it bears consideration that the card is so often played over Birds of Paradise even when its Bant-making blue and white (in addition to green) might or might not be appropriate in-color.

Noble Hierarch, more than most of the other exalted cards from the "classic" set, gets a lot of its impact and playability based on having exalted. Because as a 0/1 creature without flying, Noble Hierarch is just much worse than Birds of Paradise... unless you are considering for offensive impact. When by its lonesome, Noble Hierarch is about on par with Llanowar Elves (but doesn't trade straight up with a 1/1 defender)... but when buffing another attacker, the extra impact is of course apparent.

Noble Hierarch has contributed to many successful decks in the past—several of them have already been listed in this very column—but for this writer, one Noble Hierarch deck will always have a place of, ahem, exalted position...

Andre Coimbra's Naya Lightsaber
Standard – 2009 World Championships


The week before the World Championships in 2009, I called up my old buddy Andre Coimbra and told him I was "100% sure" I had built the best deck for the then-Jund-dominated Standard format. Jund was a deck of power and two-for-ones; this Naya deck, by contrast, was a deck of pure threat muscle. It lacked Jund's Blightning, but had the edge everywhere else in terms of card quality (plus the best threat overall in "the best large creature of all time"—according to Brian Kibler—Baneslayer Angel, although the various Titans have probably since unseated her).

Jund and its opponent could often go haymakers-to-topdeck mode, but Naya had the better topdecks on account of having the bigger threats. Cards like Ranger of Eos could conditionally one-up Bloodbraid Elf at the 3/2-for-four, with Wild Nacatl eventually a ban-worthy card in wider fields and Scute Mob a monster at a certain point.

Jund's Sprouting Thrinax made white mass removal clunky at the time, so Naya didn't have to worry much about Day of Judgment. It was a nice intersection of power and opportunity (and bragging rights for years to come).

Noble Hierarch did good work in this deck. You could ramp into a second-turn Woolly Thoctar with a Mountain or Rootbound Crag, and it would be cracking for six. You could follow up with a big Bloodbraid Elf or Ajani Vengeant, and on your fourth turn (into fifth) an incomparable 6/6 Baneslayer Angel.

Although superficial analysts pointed at a potentially even more fragile Naya mana base in a time of Goblin Ruinblasters and Spreading Seas, the spells themselves were by and large just one color rather than all three, giving Naya substantially more resistance to interaction than its more popular cousin.

 

If Noble Hierarch is the most popular exalted threat of all time, it is probably a safe bet that Qasali Pridemage is the second most popular.

Making space in the vast majority of green-white creature decks in Legacy, Qasali Pridemage has been featured in Standard and Extended decks aplenty since its appearance three or four years ago; here is a Pro Tour-winning decklist piloted by a Hall of Famer:


In a deck like this, Qasali Pridemage proves itself perhaps Magic's greatest garbage man. You are covered on being able to deal with artifacts and enchantments but don't have to devote a slot (especially to the main). Worst case? You have a 3/3 attacker for just two mana!

Combined with Noble Hierarch? You might be tagging with a 7/7 Baneslayer Angel!

 

Noble Hierarch is basically everywhere. Ardent Plea found homes in places that have nothing to do with its exalted excitement. But in terms of pure "attack with one guy and get a massive benefit," not even Finest Hour can contend with Sovereigns of Lost Alara.

This card—combined with a creature enchantment from Rise of the Eldrazi—elevated Mowshowitz's Mythic Rare engine from a different deck to the best deck in a highly competitive Standard.

Here is Sovereigns of Lost Alara arguably at its best, in the incarnation that bought Joshua Utter-Leyton the US National Championship:

Joshua Utter-Leyton's Mythic Rare
Standard – Winner, 2010 US National Championships


There had been other Sovereigns of Lost Alara decks, but to my mind, this was the best deck of their archetype.

Emerging Exalted

 

This is quite an interesting card because not only does it give a buff to a single attacker, but it can also lock down a potential defender, which has a number of ramifications. For example, you can play Angelic Benediction pre-combat on a turn where the opponent left open only one chump blocker (ensuring you will get through), or at the very least you can cut down the vitriol of a gang block and increasing the chances your solo attacker will get in.

Unfortunately for Constructed, Angelic Benediction costs four mana.

To quote Zvi Mowshowitz from 10+ years ago, "As a general rule, in order to be seriously considered for Constructed, cards that cost four mana or more must be capable of essentially winning the game by themselves." (Before you ask, yes, Zvi would count the "functional" win of a Wrath of God due to its massive swing in battlefield position.) Compare Angelic Benediction to another enchantment we reviewed earlier in this article: Ardent Plea.

Ardent Plea costs one less and might or might not do more. No, Ardent Plea doesn't give you the turn-after-turn lockdown capability of an Angelic Benediction, but the extra card it gives you (and two cards with Spreading Seas) are probably worth more than the demi-card of a creature lockdown (which is nothing at all if the opponent has no untapped creature, or no creature at all); and even Ardent Plea got its spots in Constructed more due to its cascade than its exalted.

 

Aven Squire made no great waves the first time it was legal for Standard, so I am not too bullish on it this time, either.

There is nothing particularly wrong with it—a 2/2 flying creature for two mana has been more than good enough in the past; look at Leonin Skyhunter or even Mistral Charger—but Aven Squire isn't always a 2/2 on offense, and never naturally has 2 power on defense.

Even these are not critical strikes against, but for the fact that the two is the most competitive curve point in all the realms of White Weenies.

Accorder Paladin and Cloistered Youth have generally more offensive impact and are spotting inclusions at the two. This segment of the two can be fought over by everything from sometimes-in Loyal Cathar to bullet Leonin Relic-Warder. And Elite Inquisitor? Doesn't that guy have a hundred special abilities to go along with a more efficient natural body? None of these cards are auto-ins.

Armored Warhorse? What did Armored Warhorse ever do to get passed up? It actually has the same stats as a couple of green staples and has never to the best of my knowledge made the cut.

Auriok Edgewright and Auriok Sunchaser have bustier up-sides, and next to no one is doing the leg work to get them spots on the starting lineup.

Aven Squire is cheap and talented and unlucky enough to be costed at probably the hardest space and role in all of Magic.

 

Now we're talking!

I already did a whole article on Cathedral of War at preview time.

It is going to be a high role player for as long as it is legal in Standard, and has a shot at making the grade in bigger formats.

Cathedral of War is so good they were afraid to let it hit the battlefield untapped.

It is mostly excellent due to costing nothing (just a slot in your deck) but having a potentially awesome impact on the game. Think of it as paying one mana one time to make all your Glistener Elfs that much more lethal and your Snapcaster Mages that much more respectable in fights.

 

I've got my eye on this one.

Duskmantle Prowler is not obviously good but it does have a couple of things going for it. It is a Vampire, which is a potential plus (especially as we just said how Elite Inquisitor isn't getting sufficient respect) and come some predictable rotations, the default two-mana removal spell is going to be Victim of Night, which—wait for it—can't target Duskmantle Prowler.

There is no precedent for a 2/2 haste creature for four mana being high impact in Constructed, but there is precedent for a 3/3 (or 3/2) haste creature being bonkers (Talruum Minotaur was good, Bloodbraid Elf—which admittedly did much more than Duskmantle Prowler—was arguably the best card for a fair stretch).

Additionally, there is recent precedent for a 2/2 for four that does something interesting (Talrand, Sky Summoner), and quite a bit of precedent for oddly costed off-Vampires-linear Vampire contractors (Vampire Nighthawk and Malakir Bloodwitch in Grixis Control sideboards).

None of these things point to "play Duskmantle Prowler," of course... but I am not 100% ready to shut the door on this one just yet (although wait for another four-mana exalted creature in Sublime Archangel at the end of this article).

 

I can mostly see Duty-Bound Dead in some kind of a black exalted-linear kitchen table deck. Yes, you would probably play Duskmantle Prowler.

One-drops are interesting in Magic, especially when you don't expect them. They sneak under counterspells. Can you imagine wanting to point removal at a Duty-Bound Dead? Me neither. At some point it becomes impossible to get through for certain decks.

It is really shockingly not-that-bad if you imagine widely enough.

It can poke for a few points early and then contribute to someone else's offense later.

Am I really pondering this?

 

Cute.

But eventually even Wall of Omens was getting cut at a lower CMC and the most coveted text of all in "Draw a Card."

I don't know that there are many Constructed decks that would both want this kind of an effect and would be able to take advantage of it with support creatures.

 

Now we're talking!

Compare to White Knight.

You lose 1 point of toughness (not nothing in the world of Gut Shot, but not too much in a world of Honor the Pure) and trade in first strike for exalted. Generally, I think exalted will be better because first strike only matters when someone is blocking, and blocking is not something you want to plan for-plan for when making your Constructed decks.

You keep protection from black and you get an easier casting cost (White ManaWhite Mana to 1 ManaWhite Mana). All-in-all a substantial net positive.

Definitely one of the Magic 2013 exalted cards to earmark for future beatdowns.

 

Everything I said about Knight of Glory... but in black.

Back in the White Knight-versus-Black Knight days, Black Knight typically took the hearts and minds of the people because, while Black Knight was immune to Swords to Plowshares and White Knight was immune to Terror... Black Knight was also immune to Terror on account of being black itself.

A subtle one-up, sure... but when you are talking about the two most efficient creatures in Magic's then-short history, you took what one-up you could take. With Doom Blade transitioning to Murder and Knight of Infamy offering no protection from Victim of Night, the edge probably actually goes to Knight of Glory these days. But again, we are talking about the heads up edge between very good and also very good.

And you know what?

All that stuff we said about Aven Squire doesn't apply to black two-drops.

The black two is not nearly as competitive!

Blood Artist is a specialist.

Treacherous Pit-Dweller is a super-specialist.

Plague Stinger is only played in dedicated infect decks.

The door is wide open for Knight of Infamy!

 

High chance this card is awesome as a finisher.

Probably won't compete with Grave Titan in the short term; oh well.

6/6 on offense, plus flying, makes it difficult to defend against... as does the clause that you might not have a defender after very long.

 

Nefarox's servant is not quite as nefarious.


 

We might as well end on a high note, and Sublime Archangel—when it comes to Magic 2013 exalted threats—flies about as high as you can imagine. 4/3 base stats are pretty good... Incinerate was not popular last year (generally bowed down to Galvanic Blast) and Searing Spear is no Incinerate; chances are Searing Spear will be even less popular as red mages opt for undying-fighting burn spells like Pillar of Flame. As such—and especially as four-mana 2/2 creatures like Talrand, Sky Summoner gain popularity—perhaps we can predict a decline in the Standard high-water mark, increasing the longevity of three-mana creatures.

Essentially... 4/3 might not be that fragile.

And you know what? 5/4 on offense... and that is if Sublime Archangel exalts alone.

And you know what? If there is one thing you probably took away from this review—and the sheer volume of decks where Noble Hierarch worked with Qasali Pridemage to win Pro Tours, or Noble Hierarch accelerated into Sovereigns of Lost Alara for a +12 on offense—what are the chances, really, that Sublime Archangel will be alone?

If she is worshipping at the Cathedral of War?

Is that "alone?"

That's what I thought, too.

Five Magic 2013 exalted threats to (try to) match Noble Hierarch, Qasali Pridemage, Ardent Plea, Finest Hour, and Sovereigns of Lost Alara:

"5x5."
—Faith Lehane


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