With Magic Origins finally in our hands, and the results of two Standard SCG events in the books, weeks of predictions and conjecture concerning our new gifts can finally be put to the test. While no large, high-level Modern events will occur for a few weeks, we still have MTGO Daily results, SCG IQ’s, and our own individual testing to determine what, if any, changes Origins will have on Modern.
As I write this, I’m on a plane bound for Vancouver, where the world’s best (and then myself) will battle with Magic Origins in Standard and Draft. My testing complete, I’ve narrowed my options down to two decks, and my mind is left to contemplate two things; Modern with Magic Origins, and how to politely ask the middle-aged woman next to me to remove her head from my shoulder. Let’s go!
Through the Lens of Standard: Initial Impressions
Every set release, new card evaluations usually follow a predictable trend. As spoilers flow in, cards are initially evaluated purely on rate ("Hero of Bladeholddoes so much for four mana!"). Once the full spoiler is available, more restrained minds join in, analyzing new cards both on rate and context, to determine how they fit into the current environment. Evaluation based on pure theory is rarely accurate, however, as every three months Wizards tries its best to bring something new to the table, and most new cards are hard to judge without putting them through their paces in actual games of Magic. For those following Standard results and discussion, Hangarback Walker is a great recent example.
Initially overlooked by most everyone in favor of splashy, powerful effects like Languish, Harbinger of the Tides and the flip-walkers, Hangarback is one Walker that flew in under the radar, only to make a powerful debut at SCG Chicago. A Chronomaton fused with a Doomed Traveler, Hangarback’s skill set fits well into the grindy, value-oriented midrange-fest that is current Standard. The ability to turn excess mana into tangible value, along with its usefulness at every stage of the game, Hangarback Walker’s bright future in Standard is relatively assured, as long as Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration and Vapor Snag don’t make a comeback.
In Modern, however, Hangarback Walker is practically unplayable, as the conditions that guarantee its success in Standard are entirely absent. Cheap exile and bounce effects are everywhere, and most strategies are defined by the fundamental principle of 'Mana as a Resource'. Sorry, Jeff Hoogland, I know you love your Modern U/W Control, but please leave Hangarback on the sidelines (or, you know, break it and prove me wrong). The fluctuating value of Hangarback Walker perfectly illustrates how important context matters as it pertains to card evaluations. Evaluating cards on rate first, and then on context makes things easier to understand (as rate is a measurable factor that we can use to compare new, unique cards to past versions) but with each passing set release, I’ve become more convinced that we should instead be evaluating cards on context first, as it seems to be most important (I’m looking directly at you, Agent of Erebos).
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy in Modern
Initially maligned by pretty much everyone as the worst flip-planeswalker of the cycle, Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound has stepped up in a big way, shutting down those nay-saying Mage-Ring Bullys and igniting his spark to greatness. In Standard, a Merfolk Looter is exactly what the doctor ordered, and plentiful graveyard synergies and strategies of every flavor have seen Jace supplement existing decks like Jeskai Tokens and Sultai Control, while enabling new strategies like Five-Color Rally. Capable of flipping as early as the third turn with the help of fetchlands and Satyr Wayfinder, Jace provides a cheap way to ensure card quality in hand, and card advantage through his Snapcaster Mage ability.
Unlike Hangarback Walker, the possible transition from Standard to Modern is much kinder to Jace. A plethora of cheap one and two mana spells ensure early Jace flips, and the card advantage gained by his Snapcaster ability is much easier to leverage towards a win in Modern, where most exchanges are equal and less haymakers exist. Jace is happier alongside a full graveyard, which suggests (but does not require) him to associate with other cards that care about the graveyard, such as Snapcaster Mage and Gurmag Angler. If only there were a Satyr Wayfinder type effect in Modern that could help enable Jace while smoothing draws and get the graveyard value train rolling….
Now that’s what I’m talking about! Thought Scour has to be Jace’s best buddy, so much so that I suggest we question Jace’s Mad Scientist roots. Alongside a single fetchland activation, Thought Scour can immediately set up a Jace loot/flip as early as the third turn. Even without Thought Scour, a normal play sequence of turn 1 spell, turn 2 Jace, turn 3 double spell can achieve a flip with the help of a fetch. Add in free spells such as Gitaxian Probe, and we’re looking at a planeswalker that is incredibly easy to turn on, even more so than the universally popular Nissa, Vastwood Seer // Nissa, Sage Animist and Liliana, Heretical Healer // Liliana, Defiant Necromancer. Personally, I always went for the quiet ones myself, which I guess explains my bro-love for Jace.
As we’ve talked about before, the most important thing to keep in mind when evaluating cards is context. We’ve established that Jace is powerful, and can be enabled without much difficulty, but does a deck exist that could use what he has to offer? And if not, does a new strategy that either employs or revolves around Jace bring something new to the table that is better than what currently exists in Modern? While it might take a few weeks to figure out the latter, today I’d like to start at level 1, finding a home for Jace among current decks. We’ll start with my personal favorite in Modern, Grixis Control.
Grixis Control with Jace
If we’re looking for a strategy that wouldn’t mind a little extra power, Grixis Control is definitely where I would start. The opportunity cost of adding Jace is basically free, as Grixis already employs fetchlands, cheap spells, and a full playset of Thought Scour to support multiple graveyard synergies like Gurmag Angler, Snapcaster Mage, and Kolaghan's Command. Grixis is definitely interested in both of Jace, Telepath Unbound Emblem’s abilities, as shrinking a Tarmogoyf to manageable levels lets us buy time to find Terminates, and Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration becomes a pretty anemic clock once his Lava Spikes become Hornet Stings. More than any other deck in Modern, Grixis has access to some of the most powerful instants and sorceries in the format, as anyone who’s chained multiple Kolaghan's Commands or Cryptic Commands can tell you.
In addition, Grixis is uniquely capable of utilizing Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound as just a Merfolk Looter, if the situation demands it, through the use of our delve creatures. Some polarizing matchups like Amulet Bloom or Living End see us digging frantically for counterspells and cursing every Terminate that enters our hand. Jace can help us power through our deck, digging us to exactly what we need. Openers with double delve creatures are often awkward and unkeepable, but Jace can help us loot away unneeded Gurmag Anglers, or work towards casting the second one. A relatively low land count of 22 lands means we aren’t flooding often, but random draws off Thought Scour can often be disastrous, and the deck rarely wants to see more than five lands until the very late-game. Jace, like Merfolk Looter before him, allows us to pull back from bad draws while supplementing our normal draws by keeping the good spells coming, and untapping with him gives a feeling akin to untapping with Jeskai Ascendancy in Standard; we feel like we’re operating on a more powerful axis than our opponent. While the poor peasants are bound to their draw step, we get to power through our deck, finding exactly what we need.
A lover not a fighter, Jace is disadvantaged in Modern by his puny body and un-hasty nature. Look man, I call it like I see it; he’s weak, and weird, and can’t put up much of a fight. It’s no wonder he got bullied in school. Protecting Jace can often be a problem, as he attracts Lightning Bolts and Abrupt Decays like no other. I mean it, literally no other creature in our deck cares about either of those spells. One of the strengths of Grixis Control is its avoidance of creatures under 3 CMC, not counting Snapcaster Mage (as he replaces himself, and is the single strongest card in Modern so we’d be crazy not to play him). The size and cost of our delve creatures allow us to play them for one mana while dodging both Decay and Bolt (yeah, tell me how that’s fair), giving us virtual card advantage as our opponent is stuck with dead removal in hand Game 1. Adding Jace to our deck negates that advantage, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (as we are gaining something in return) but it is something to keep in mind as we think about deck construction and gameflow.
Let that soak in.
U/R Delver with Jace
A solid tier 2 strategy, U/R Delver rose to prominence with the printing of Treasure Cruise, then experienced a sharp decline with its subsequent banning. U/R Delver is able to take advantage of smooth mana and a plethora of cheap tempo spells, but traditionally has trouble dealing with large creatures like Tarmogoyf and Gurmag Angler. Outside of Spell Snare, U/R has to rely on sub-par sideboard options like Roast if one of them lands, but it is able to take advantage of strong tempo plays like Vapor Snag and Remand to keep problematic creatures off the table. Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound would be a helpful aid for U/R, letting it transition through the midgame and find specific answers/tempo spells to seal the game. U/R has no shortage of cheap creatures between Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration, Snapcaster Mage, Young Pyromancer, and sometimes Grim Lavamancer, so opposing removal will already be stretched thin. If U/R Delver desires an extra form of Snapcaster-like card advantage, they can definitely find it in Jace.
Splinter Twin with Jace
Combo strategies like Splinter Twin, and to a lesser extent Scapeshift, are all about trying to stay alive while sculpting a powerful hand that accomplishes their objective. Merfolk Looter could possibly be welcome in strategies like these, as it helps them find the missing pieces to their puzzle. In addition, Jace can act as a pseudo-fog against an opposing Tarmogoyf/Gurmag Angler by looting and flipping after blocks. It’s possible that these lists are too tight to fit Jace (especially Scapeshift, as they need to devote almost all slots to ramp, counterspells, and card draw) but I could definitely see Jace in some number in Twin strategies as an alternate angle of attack that works to progress their gameplan, discarding extra combo pieces for critical protection or interaction. I plan on building and testing both Twin and Delver with Jace, so expect a follow-up article soon with more insight into these archetypes! If you have experience with either, let me know in the comments.
We’ve barely dipped our toes into the water with Magic Origins, and while it may not contain many exciting, splashy Modern plants like other sets have, I’m excited to see what tools it has to offer for Modern. Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound might end up being too slow and too weak to compete in a format defined by removal and resilient creatures, but I have a growing suspicion that Jace could grow up (get it!) to be a force to be reckoned with in the format.
If you have any ideas for how best to use Jace in Modern, let me know in the comments! If you want to see Jace in action, feel free to stop by my stream at twitch.tv/Architect_Gaming. I return from the Pro Tour on Tuesday (hopefully victorious) and I look forward to breaking Modern with Jace! See you there!