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A Tactic for Dire Situations — Exclusive Ikoria / Commander 2020 Preview


One of the biggest requests from Standard players is more and better answers. Well, in Ikoria, Wizards might be answering the call, at least for certain decks. Take a peek at a new removal spell that will be featured in both Ikoria proper and Commander 2020: Dire Tactics!

Dire Tactics

Dire Tactics is an interesting removal spell. At two mana, it's cheap, which is a good starting point for playability. More importantly, not only can it target anything, but assuming it resolves, it exiles the creature it targets, which is a meaningful upside in a format featuring indestructible Gods; recursive threats like Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger, and Cauldron Familiar; and creatures with death triggers like Nightmare Shepherd or various Cavaliers! So does this mean Dire Tactics is the new best removal spell in Standard? Unfortunately, it's a bit more complicated than that. 

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The drawback of Dire Tactics is losing life equal to the toughness of the creature it exiles unless you control a Human, which makes Dire Tactics more like Orzhov Charm or an upgraded Vendetta than Doom Blade in most decks. Orzhov Charm, perhaps the most direct comparison for Dire Tactics, did see a bit of play back when it was in Standard, although this was mostly in decks that could also take advantage of its reanimation mode, like Aristocrats or White Weenie. Meanwhile, Vendetta saw a tiny bit of play back when it was reprinted in Rise of the Eldrazi, mostly as a one-of in a fringe-ish Vampire deck. While Dire Tactics is almost certainly better than Vendetta and probably better than Orzhov Charm as well, if you don't have a Human on the battlefield, the loss of life is a big deal in most matchups. Against aggro, exiling something like Runaway Steam-Kin or Anax, Hardened in the Forge is nice, but losing two or three life is like giving your opponent a free Lightning Strike to your face. Meanwhile, against some of the best creatures to exile (Heliod, Sun-Crowned, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger), you're losing almost a third of your starting life total, which is extremely painful. 

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All of this is to say that if you don't have any Humans in your deck, you probably don't want to play Dire Tactics in large numbers, and you might not want to play it at all, even though exiling any creature for two mana is powerful. The life cost is just too high, and later in the game, there's a big risk that you won't even be able to cast it without killing yourself, potentially making it a dead draw when you are in dire need of a castable removal spell.

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On the other hand, if there's a reasonable chance you'll have a Human on the battlefield, Dire Tactics is the least conditional and most powerful two-mana removal spell we have in our current Standard format. While it looks like we'll be getting a bunch more Humans in Ikoria itself, even if we just focus on cards from older sets, the list of playable Humans is fairly long. Robber of the Rich, Fervent Champion, and Lovestruck Beast (which makes a Human token) are among the 10 most-played creatures in the format, while Edgewall Innkeeper, Priest of Forgotten Gods, Kenrith, the Returned King, Massacre Girl, and Agent of Treachery all also show up on the 50 most played list. 

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Plus, until now, there hasn't really been a reason to focus on putting a bunch of Humans in your deck. Dire Tactics, possible with help from other Ikoria cards, is a push in that direction. Cards like Tithe Taker, Hero of Precinct One, Orzhov Enforcer, Stormfist Crusader, Acclaimed Contender, Judith, the Scourge Diva, Kaalia, Zenith Seeker, and more have proven themselves powerful enough to see play in competitive Standard decks—there just hasn't been a reason to care about the tribe in Standard. But now there is, which suggests that just reading off a list of Humans that currently see play probably underrates Dire Tactics. Dire Tactics is a good reason to put more Humans in your deck.

While Dire Tactics will certainly be a staple removal spell in Human tribal if such a list develops in Standard, you don't really need to be a full-on tribal deck to take advantage of the card's power. You probably want eight or 12 at a minimum before you consider playing more than a copy or two, but this means that decks like Rakdos Sac, Mardu Knights, three-color Adventure builds, and more can all potentially play Dire Tactics without warping their deck much at all. And if you actually focus on upping your Human count, you can probably make Dire Tactics work in other strategies as well. 

As far as Standard is concerned, Dire Tactics is a powerful removal spell, but it will mostly see play in decks that have enough Humans to minimize the amount of life you lose casting it. While there might be some very aggressive non-Human decks that play a copy, in general, Dire Tactics is a Humans card. But it should be very good in decks with several Humans, and it should be great in full-on Human tribal. 

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As far as other formats, Dire Tactics will almost certainly see play in Human tribal Commander decks, and it might even be worth considering in less Human-centric builds. In Commander, exiling creatures is even more important than it is in Standard since most decks play some sort of graveyard recursion, and since you start with 40 life, having to spend five or six to exile a decently sized creature isn't as big of a deal as it is in 20-life formats. I assume basically all Human tribal decks will play a copy, and other Orzhov decks might considering running it as well, although there is a lot of competition since Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile, Anguished Unmaking, Utter End, and Council's Judgment (among other exile-based removal spells) all see play in the format. It might be that outside of decks with Humans, Dire Tactics is good but just not quite as good as other options in the format that either cost less (in mana and life) or are more flexible (exiling non-creature permanents along with creatures). 

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The other possible existing home for Dire Tactics would be Modern Humans, and while I'm not an expert on the deck, it seems unlikely that the deck will actually want it, just because it's surprisingly hard to cast. While Modern Humans is really good at casting Humans of any color thanks to Cavern of Souls, Unclaimed Territory, and Ancient Ziggurat, it's surprisingly bad at casting colored spells. As a result, the go-to removal spell for Modern Humans is typically Dismember, just because they can actually cast it most of the time. While I think that Dire Tactics would be great in the deck (possibly even better than Path to Exile since giving the opponent a land is probably worse than having to spend one additional mana), it will take a new build of Humans to emerge (one with fewer colors and more real mana) for Dire Tactics to see play in Modern and / or Pioneer.

In summary, Dire Tactics is a solid removal spell for Standard. While most two-mana Standard removal spells are narrow in terms of what targets they can hit (like Glass Casket or Epic Downfall), Dire Tactics exiles anything. On the other hand, Dire Tactics is narrow in another way—the number of decks that can actually run it—thanks to the painfulness of losing a big chunk of life if you don't have a Human. It's undoubtedly powerful, but the power comes with a cost. I'm very certain that there will be Standard decks where Dire Tactics is one of the better cards in the deck, but plenty of other decks will wish they could take advantage of the efficient removal spell but just can't thanks to their lack of Humans.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. Thanks again to Wizards for the preview card! How good is Dire Tactics? Can it see play outside of Human tribal decks? Let us know what you think in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions and suggestions and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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