Fighting for Space: War of the Spark Edition

With War of the Spark‘s spoiler season winding down, testing and brewing is accelerating. As per my usual, I’ve been working through interesting cards to find out how useful they’ll be in Modern. And as is usually the case, the result has been a swath of interesting results, though nothing especially groundbreaking. I expect there to be a number of decent roleplayers to emerge, if no format-warping Arclight Phoenix. Today we’ll examine several cards with potential, but that may struggle to find a home in Modern.

Metagame Checkup

As is now becoming tradition, I’m going to check in on the latest metagame data from Sao Paulo. Starting with the Day 2 data is encouraging: Izzet Phoenix only made up 12.8% of the field, just ahead of Grixis Death’s Shadow at 10.1%. Again, I don’t know the starting population, and without that, can’t tell if this is simply reflective of that population or the deck’s strength. However, the fact that the numbers are down form previous levels is promising. If Phoenix’s Day 2 shares have been a function of population, then this suggests that its popularity is waning and the metagame will successfully self-police. If it’s been thanks to strength, then the data suggests that the metagame is adapting. Hopefully this is the start of a trend and not a deviation, but we’ll need more data to be sure.

The Top 8 did have two Phoenix decks, but both lost in the quarterfinals. This doesn’t really mean anything, since the real story of Phoenix has been its Day 2 numbers, and not events won. Humans is also back with a vengeance. Spirits was a bad matchup and inhabits the same metagame niche, so with that gone and given Reflector Mage‘s power against Thing in the Ice, it makes sense for the old best aggro deck to be back in force.

Finale of Promise

The first card this week is Finale of Promise. This is the kind of big flashy card that really gets the juices flowing and is what makes spoiler season great. However, let’s get one thing clear: Finale is never getting cast for more than six mana. Decks rarely run anything over four mana to begin with, and most Modern decks won’t be able to cast it for more than that in the first place. Mono-Red Tron is not a thing, and while combo decks can make that kind of mana, why wouldn’t they use it to just win the game rather than getting tons of value replaying their cards?

Realistically, Finale will be cast for three to four, which is fine. There’s a lot of powerful one-mana instants and sorceries in Modern. I expect the target will be four most of the time, since that breaks even on mana, but even casting two one-mana spells for three isn’t bad. The problem is that there really isn’t a deck that wants that effect that doesn’t already have it in some form, and Finale is arguably worse than them.

The Burn Problem

The main home I’ve seen discussed is, naturally, Burn. However, I’m extremely skeptical Finale will work there. Much like Light Up the Stage, Finale proposes to solve a card advantage and reach problem that Burn doesn’t have; just like Light, I can’t see it working out. Why exactly should Burn run a card that is dead against graveyard hate just to play more burn from the graveyard? For three mana in the same situation, it could play an uncounterable Exquisite Firecraft. Burn’s card advantage is the opponent’s life total, and trying to stuff in card draw just doesn’t work.

The Snapcaster Problem

If not in Burn, then what about fair decks? In a deck like Grixis Death’s Shadow you can hit Thought Scour and Thoughtseize, but again you’re getting two mana of cards for three mana in a deck that relies on mana efficiency. It also requires you to have eligible instants and sorceries in the graveyard in a deck that frequently feeds it all to Gurmag Angler. More generally, just playing Snapcaster Mage generates significant card advantage, and you get a creature out to potentially win the game. It seems to me that Finale suffers from the same problem Misson Briefing does: it’s worse than Snap.

The Storm Problem

This strongly suggests that if Finale is ever to see play in Modern, it will be as a combo card. While I don’t know which combo wants or needs Finale, casting spells from the graveyard is already part of Storm’s game. A Finale for four provides four mana of cards (arguably more since Storm almost certainly chooses rituals and/or Manamorphose) and 3 storm count. That’s pretty good. But Past in Flames costs the same amount and retrieves everything. Finale may be a nice supplement to that plan, but Past is more efficient.

Dovin’s Veto

A card that I was initially very excited about but have since cooled on is Dovin’s Veto. At first glance, the card seems amazing. For a slightly trickier mana cost, it’s an uncounterable Negate. That’s a huge boost for control. No more worries about Dispel or Pact of Negation winning the counter war: when Dovin says no, he means it.

Logically, I assumed that this was the end-all card for control mirrors, and that drawing the most would determine the winner. Then I thought about it some more and realized that I was on the wrong track. It may be a control breaker initially, but that will not last once players adjust. There’s no way that control players will long allow the matchup to come down to a single, uncounterable counterspell.

The Counterflux Corollary

Therefore I don’t think Veto will end up seeing much play precisely because it’s so effective in control mirrors. I realize how weird that sounds, but consider Counterflux. Because it hits any spell and can be overloaded against Storm, Counterflux is arguably better than Veto despite costing more. However, it has never seen much play. Even during the height of the Twin era, Counterflux was never more than a 2-of in the sideboard. This seems counterintuitive considering how potent is was in the counterspell heavy mirror match.

However, it actually makes perfect since in context. Costing three certainly hurt, but Counterflux wasn’t heavily played because of how good it actually was. It was the Last Word in a counter war and that was that. Because there was no waiting around to overwhelm the opponent with superior numbers of counters, players didn’t bother trying. You should never fight battles you can’t win given a choice, and Twin players chose to make Counterflux just a card rather than a mirror-breaker.

The first way was to recognize that “can’t be countered” doesn’t mean uncounterable. Twin decks played Remand, and a frequent strategy was to bait out the Counterflux and then Remand your own spell. As I remember, the key to the matchup was baiting the opponent, not actually countering anything. The other key was overwhelming them. There’s only so much mana each turn, and forcing opponents to use theirs on their turn meant landing something important next turn.

Lesson from History

If Counterflux is any indication, Dovin’s Veto will see play, but it won’t be the end-all control mirror card that it appears. Instead, it will redefine the matchup. Right now the mirror is about card advantage. You win either with an early Search for Azcanta or by resolving and protecting a planeswalker. Since Veto makes the latter plan far harder, I predict it will be abandoned. Instead, savvy control players will pivot to creatures. Geist of Saint Traft and Vendilion Clique are far better in a Veto-heavy world. Then, Veto will lose value in favor of anti-creature cards, and the cycle will begin anew. Thus, Veto will see minimal actual play despite having a profound impact on Modern.

Angrath’s Rampage

Wizards appears to have had edicts on their mind when making War. I don’t know why, but the set is dense enough with edicts to make me wonder if there’s a hexproof-heavy set coming. Typically, there’s only one or two Diabolic Edict effects in Standard at a time, spread over multiple sets. Right now, between spoiled cards and planeswalker abilities, War has three. Of the currently known ones, Liliana’s Triumph is clearly the best, and in the running for best edict of all time. Non-targeting, instant-speed discard and creature removal together for two mana suggests somebody at Wizards has a grudge against Bogles, and I’m sure Liliana’s Triumph will see considerable play.

Angrath’s Rampage is also a very good card despite being overshadowed. Forcing opponents to sacrifice a non-enchantment, non-land permanent of your choice is a very unique ability, and potentially very powerful. But that versatility is a ruse. The reason that edicts don’t see much play in Modern is that creature and artifact decks tend to go wide, and there’s often something weak or expendable. An aggro opponent will choose their weakest creature, while artifact decks will have Mox Opal or Springleaf Drum to feed the Rampage.

The only way for the edict to be good is when there’s only one option, which will usually be the case when choosing planeswalker. Decks tend to only run a few, and frequently the same type, so Rampage will likely hit what pilots want. Except most decks don’t run planeswalkers. The only decks I can think of which consistently run planeswalkers are Tron, BGx, and UW. While these are popular decks, I don’t think they’re popular enough to warrant maindeck Rampage.

Great Niche Appeal

That being said, Rampage could become a remarkably effective sideboard card against UW Control. Rampage hits all the costly win conditions in UW at huge discount, and there’s no risk of chaff saving planeswalkers. Snapcaster Mage could save a Lyra Dawnbringer or Celestial Colonnade, but since UW rarely runs more than two Snapcasters, the risk is low. Even then, if UW is throwing a Snapcaster in just to save Lyra, that’s at least some value, and it could be overcome with a Lightning Bolt.

The question I can’t answer is if that’s good enough. Rampage doesn’t really change how games against UW play for its caster, but it does impact decision making across the table. UW has a very low quantity of win conditions but a lot of answers. It also has to use those answers to stay alive, and by the time it’s deploying win conditions, it will be light on ways to protect them. Losing one or two may not be a big deal, but the risk of four effective edicts is nothing to sneeze at.

Forcing control players to reevaluate their gameplan could be effective and worth the sideboarding. It may also necessitate the control players changing their decks to include more win conditions, which is also a decent outcome for the types of deck that might run Rampage. The BRx midrange decks that could use Rampage tend to be good at attrition, but struggle to come from behind against control. Forcing control to be less pure control could pull the matchup more into midrange’s favor.

Saheeli, Sublime Artisan

Last week, I was quite critical of the War planeswalkers because their reliance on the static abilities to be relevant made them bad enchantments. At the time, I had seen plenty with good abilities, but not good enough to warrant their weakness to attacking creatures. Since writing that, Saheeli, Sublime Artisan was spoiled, and I think she has a lot of promise. The primary job of any planeswalker is to generate a steady stream of card advantage, and making an overwhelming amount of tokens certainly counts. Whir Prison already runs Sai, Master Thopterist and sometimes the Thopter Foundry combo for that purpose. Which is a problem for Saheeli.

Obvious Comparison

Foundry combo is its own thing, and in a world full of graveyard hate it’s not very good. Sai has his niche, and since it’s the same one Saheeli might inhabit, let’s directly compare the two:

  • Saheeli requires two hybrid-colored mana; Sai needs one blue mana
  • Saheeli is a planeswalker; Sai is a creature
  • Saheeli’s activated ability has limited activations; Sai’s is limited by fodder
  • Saheeli can be attacked; Sai can attack and block
  • Saheeli’s ability has limited utility; Sai draws cards
  • Servos walk; Thopters fly
  • Saheeli triggers on any noncreature spell; Sai, only on artifacts

On balance, it appears that Saheeli is weaker than Sai. Where she gains in flexibility she loses on power. However, that’s not the full story.

Odd Child

Almost all of Sai’s positives and Saheeli’s negatives only matter against creature decks. Sai’s stats are only really relevant because he can block. Combo and control don’t have many if any creatures to fly over (and control’s fly anyway), so servos are functionally identical to thopters. Given that control has a much harder time removing planeswalkers than creatures, I’d argue that Saheeli is better than Sai in context.

Sai’s activated ability is far better than Saheeli’s in a vacuum. However, I don’t know if it’s actually relevant. I’ve never seen a deck with Sai struggle to keep their hand full when they want or need to. Generally, killing the opponent is better than just drawing cards. Sacrificing Thopters for profit rather than losing them to Terminus is potent, but I’d never expect sweepers post-board against Whir Prison or similar in the first place, so I doubt it will come up. Even then, you’d lose Sai too where Saheeli would live. I also wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some combo utility for Saheeli’s ability. This is a case where Saheeli isn’t as good as her competition on paper, but in the right context she may excel.

Modern Carries On

In the end, I expect Modern to absorb War of the Spark without much distrubance. I also expect this was a deliberate decision by Wizards, since Modern Horizons is coming soon. Why shake up everything now when they’ve built a set to do exactly that in just over a month? War appears to have a lot of decent roleplayers looking for decks, but nothing more substantial. However, I may well have overlooked something.

4 thoughts on “Fighting for Space: War of the Spark Edition

  1. 1) I have a home for Finale of Promise in my B/R pheonix/shadow shell. That deck has been missing a card to make it consistently aggressive while not worrying about holding enough cards in hand to recurring pheonix. Now I can be aggressive with my bolts and discards spells knowing that on turn three, finale can cast them again and recur pheonix.

    2) the spoiler season for War of the Spark has shown a lot of surprisingly powerful spells for 2-3 mana. I have seen 6 that could see considerable play I modern even if just sideboard material. Was there another recent set that held so much promise for cards being adopted by modern?

    1. Well good, I hope it works out for your deck. My point was about currently known decks.
      Guilds of Ravnica gave us archetype-defining cards Creeping Chill and Arclight Phoenix, staples like Assassin’s Trophy, Knight of Autumn, and Crackling Drake, and potential cards like Mission Briefing and Experimental Frenzy. Every recent set has had plenty of potentially powerful spells. The measure is whether or not they have a home where they’re better than the alternatives. I’m seeing plenty of potential cards, but none that really jump out as obvious Modern cards like Supreme Phantom or Damping Sphere did. The War cards need more help.

        1. It’s possible, though I’m skeptical. Since Chord is an instant and technically doesn’t cost any mana it’s as good or better than Devastation for the power cards. Devastation is better for finding Heritage Druid, but so is Collected Company.
          As for Shadow three is a lot for that deck, and Traverse is vital to hit land drops. I don’t recall the deck having that hard a time keeping a threat on the board so I don’t know if they need it. It’s probably more plausible than anywhere else, but again, is it actually better than Traverse?

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