Magic Origins has arrived! Origins is the last of the Core sets (6th Edition, 10th Edition, M15, etc.), which marks the end of an era for how sets are released. It's fitting that a set like this will have some high-impact Modern playables, but the bar was already set high in Khans block. Maybe a bit too high in some cases... We had a lot of hits in our last set review during Dragons of Tarkir, and I'm excited to see what Origins has to offer our format. I won't touch on every card in the set, but we'll take a look at all the cards that have had a lot of buzz and some cards that remain underappreciated. Instead of using a 0.0 - 5.0 rating scale like so many other articles, I'm just going to put the cards into general playability categories to give a broader sense of what is good and what is not.
Cards in this category fit directly into tier 1 or tier 2 strategies (Atarka's Command in Burn), are so powerful as to create new archetypes altogether (Collected Company and its many homes), or shape the format around all the decks and playstyles they enable (Kolaghan's Command in Grixis). Expect to see these cards in Top 8s across the format.
When it comes to Day's Undoing, Modern players generally fall into two camps. One group is convinced this is the second coming of Treasure Cruise and will lead to format instability, dominance by a few decks, and an eventual banning. Others believe this is just as overrated as Time Reversal, and will be forgotten just as quickly. There are some in the middle, although even there they are often leaning towards one end of the spectrum or the other. Our very own Jordan Boisvert wrote two articles on Day's Undoing over the past few weeks, and he's leaning much more towards the "broken" side of things. That's also where I am right now, although I think the card is much more policeable than many acknowledge.
Let's not mince words here: Day's Undoing is a fantastic card. It is not, as many naysayers are claiming, Time Reversal 2.0. But it's also not quite Treasure Cruise 2.0. Like Cruise, Undoing gives certain linear decks a way to refuel and rearm after either a slow start or after expending early resources. That's huge for decks like Burn or Affinity, especially Affinity which can easily dump their hand on turn 1-2 and then cast Undoing to get more threats next turn. This makes the card scary in such decks. But unlike Cruise, Undoing doesn't punish opponents for wasting resources on disruption early. One of the most insane parts of Cruise was that it totally invalidated BGx strategies, punishing those one-for-one discard exchanges with a free reload on turn 3-4. Undoing, by contrast, reloads the opponent as well. Although some players will argue the effect isn't truly symmetrical (few "symmetrical" effects ever are: see Second Sunrise or even just Damnation), there are tons of decks that can definitely capitalize on those seven cards before the Undoing player can. Most problematically, you can't use this in a linear mirror: an opponent is almost guaranteed to get more mileage out of the Timetwister than you are.
For me, the scariest thing about the card isn't just the draw seven. It's also the graveyard shuffle clause, which screws with the premier fair decks of the format. Both Jund and Grixis rely on the graveyard for Goyfs, delves, and Snapcasters, which makes the card much more asymmetrical here than it is in the linear matchups. This in turn threatens to decrease the fair-deck metagame share, warping the format. But I also think the solution to this lies in the tempo decks (get 'em Delver!) that can both prevent Undoing from resolving and capitalize from it with their own cards. So although I don't see this card breaking the format, I do see it changing the format landscape.
Harbinger of the Tides
A few weeks ago at GP Copenhagen, Przemek Knocinski reminded all of us that True-Name Nemesis isn't the only competitive Merfolk in top-level Magic. Knocinski's army of lords and Cursecatchers swam to victory against a field filled with shiny new Grixis and Grishoalbrand decks, along with Modern staples like Jund and Twin. Maindecked Tidebinder Mage was integral to his success, and the new Harbinger of the Tides looks to replace the Tidebinder in many future Merfolk strategies. Harbinger is the best thing to happen to Merfolk since Master of the Pearl Trident, even surpassing Master of Waves and Tidebinder as one of the best creatures in the deck. As I discussed in my GP Copenhagen retrospective article, Merfolk owes its success to some outstanding catchall disruption like Cursecatcher, Spreading Seas, and Vapor Snag. This is what allows a giant pile of dumb aggro creatures to succeed in a format where most other decks are doing something unfair. Harbinger fits perfectly into this strategy, giving Merfolk a huge edge against a number of key Modern strategies.
Harbinger is a maindecked answer to Twin's Deceiver Exarch and Pestermite (also killing the enchantment itself). It stops Primeval Titan from swinging for lethal. It bounces Affinity's Inkmoth Nexus and removes Ravager counters from it, and blows out Infect swings with Agent/Elf backed by spells like Become Immense. Worldspine Wurm gets shipped back to the opponent's hand, as does Death's Shadow in the Suicide Zoo lists. And of course, that's on top of all the random Goyfs, Tasigurs, Anglers, and other more generic creatures Harbinger ships out of play. Plus you can cheat this in off Aether Vial around countermagic? Or just hardcast it with no Vial in play at all? Tidebinder was maindeckable in a GP-winning list and it only did a fraction of this. Harbinger promises to make Merfolk a much more competitive deck, addressing bad matchups and giving the Merfolk player a lot more range and versatility in a format that rewards flexible answers. Note that Tidebinder won't disappear entirely: just expect to see more maindecked Harbinger than Tidebinder in most metagames.
Pia and Kiran Nalaar
I talked about mama and papa Chandra in my Origins article last week and my opinions haven't changed at all. Pia and Kiran are Huntmaster of the Fells // Ravager of the Fells when you want something more aggressive in that Huntmaster slot. Huntmaster is a great card but it isn't very fast. It's great to stall an aggressive opponent and good when you are trying to go wide over a few turns, but it's not as strong when you just want to punch through an opponent's defenses and life total. Huntmaster is also really underwhelming when Huntmaster himself gets killed, leaving you up just two life and with a ridiculous little 2/2 Wolf. This is where Pia and Kiran shine. Even if the legend is killed, the two 1/1 Thopters are just as potent here as they are off the almighty Lingering Souls. They either stall Goyfs, Tasigurs, and Anglers for two turns (as opposed to the Wolf's single turn stalling), or they swing for two damage every turn (as opposed to the Wolf who probably can't survive a single combat phase). So in the event your Huntmaster/Pia and Kiran are killed, the red legend is the better of the two.
Assuming neither card immediately dies, Mr. and Mrs. Nalaar become much more aggressive right after you untap. They are an easy four damage to the dome on the next turn, a possible six damage if you have lots of mana, and even eight damage if you have a clear board ahead of you. This makes them a much more aggressive topdeck in the mid or lategame than Huntmaster, which plays into Jund's aggressive pacing. The Nalaars are also much more interactive, directly threatening problematic creatures like Melira/Anafenza in Company decks, as well as dangerous creatures in Infect, Affinity, and Elves. There will definitely be metagames where Huntmaster gets the nod over Pia and Kiran, but there will also be metagames where the Nalaars is what you want to do with your four-mana investment. I expect to see this card in Jund sideboards and maindecks for a while, although the exact Huntmaster-Pia and Kiran ratio will vary with the format.
Sideboard and Fringe Playables
These cards are likely to see Modern play, but only as sideboard bullets in certain decks and matchups (Rending Volley in many sideboards), upgrades for niche cards (Roast replacing Flame Slash), and new threats for tier 3, or even tier 2, strategies (Avatar of the Resolute in Stompy). We'll see these cards pop up in events, but they won't be redefining Modern as we know it.
Elves wants to make lots of Elves, and just as Mogg War Marshal is a go-wide staple of Goblins, so too will the Elite become a regular in Elves lists. One reason this card is so good is that it's relevant at all points in the game and in all boardstates. Early on, it walls enemy beatsticks and builds your board presence for larger Elvish Archdruid activations. Later, it give you more power for Ezuri, Renegade Leader to power through for a win. And at all points, it's a single-card investment that enables your Heritage Druid activations on its own. Elite is a great game one card for Elves when your main objective is to put bodies on the board and win as quickly as possible, and as Elves players fit their deck into the post-Origins world, Elite is sure to find a foothold there.
Whenever a burn spell gets printed in a Modern-legal set, we always want to evaluate it for inclusion in Burn itself. Because Burn is already so efficient, it's rare for a card to meet that bar, but we are already seeing 1-2 copies of cards like Flame Javelin pop up in Burn decks across the format. We are also seeing a lot of players, notably Grixis mages, rely on cards like Dispel, Negate, and Flashfreeze to beat Burn instead of the much more Revelry-vulnerable Dragon's Claw. Firecraft gets around this gameplan, giving Burn some added punch to close out a match. I expect to see 1-2 of these in Burn maindecks in different metagames, with the possibility of 1-2 in sideboards for those control-heavy matchups.
Praise Wizards. Modern players have been dreaming of Goblins and a Piledriver reprint since September 2011. It took Wizards four years but they finally delivered. Later in the month, I'm going to write an entire article on Goblin Piledriver in Modern and the different ways we can build Goblins around it. So for now, this is just going to be a top-level view of Piledriver and its effect on Modern. The good news is, as expected, Piledriver makes Goblins better. The bad news is, as shouldn't surprise anyone, Goblins was never very good to begin with, and Piledriver doesn't really shore up those weaknesses. Modern Goblins has problems with refueling after the early game and differentiating itself from other faster aggro decks (Affinity and Burn) or more consistent aggro decks with alternate gameplans (Merfolk and Elves). Piledriver makes Goblins a little faster, but doesn't do anything to solve the problem of recovering after a boardwipe or distinguishing the deck from better options. You can't even go the Legacy Goblins route because we lack elements like Goblin Lackey and Rishadan Port.
So why does Piledriver make the playable list if Goblins can't cut it as a deck? For one, it signals Wizards' willingness to keep pushing this archetype, and I expect to see more Goblins in the future. Ringleader or Matron are looking much more likely with Piledriver in the mix. Two, between Collected Company, Kolaghan's Command, and Origins' very own Day's Undoing, I feel like Goblins has options to fill that much-needed refill spell, which means Piledriver can really shine as a finisher and damage-dealer. Goblins is one card away from tier 2 status, and Piledriver is the Warrior that puts it in this position. As a final note, Piledriver will renew interest in Goblins across Modern, so expect to see more people trying to tune the archetype and make it work.
Abzan has fallen behind Jund in almost every metric in the format. Languish isn't going to solve that problem, but it is going to narrow the gap: what Abzan lacks in sweepers like Anger of the Gods it can now make up with Languish. I discussed this card in an article last week, and the key points from then are still true today. Unlike Damnation, Languish doesn't it Goyf, Tasigur, or Rhino, but this is exactly why you want to be playing this sweeper in some matchups. Clearing away Abzan Company's, Elves', Merfolk's, Abzan Liege's, or Zoo's creatures without hurting your own is huge. It gets even better if you can drop the turn three Goyf/Tasigur and follow it up with Languish. Utopia Sprawl can accelerate into this if you need it earlier, which might help Languish find a home in the BG Rock and Death Cloud decks we occasionally see across the format.
Liliana, Heretical Healer / Liliana, Defiant Necromancer
Planeswalkers are already probably the hardest cards to evaluate for any new format. See Narset Transcendent to see that challenge in action. Flipwalkers take that to a whole new level by forcing us to evaluate the creature side, the planeswalker side, and the interaction between those two cards. Lily is our first entry on the planeswalker list and the only one that I view as Modern playable in any serious capacity. The biggest thing going for Lily is that she already has a home in Abzan Company. Whenever someone sees a new card, especially a planeswalker, and claims it will create a deck all unto itself, we should immediately be skeptical. It's hard enough for new decks to enter Modern even when packed with synergies, let alone when it's just based on one card. Lily is a great fit into Abzan Company lists, especially those focused on a more midrangey, value-oriented gameplan. She flips off Company, recurs all of your best creatures, plays a control role in a deck that can't always play that role, and has an easy flip condition that any of your sac outlets can fulfill. A 2/3 lifelink is also quite relevant when facing down cards like Swiftspear and Goblin Guide, and if your opponent threatens the burn spell, you can always Chord in a Viscera Seer in response to flip your Lily. She even "defends" herself after she flips, both with the 2/2 Zombie left behind and with a recurred creature!
Abzan Company may be Lily's most obvious home, but she might see play in other decks across the format. Death Cloud style deck have a strong synergy between Liliana and Sakura-Tribe Elder, even if that synergy isn't quite as strong as the synergy with Collected Company. Aristocrats decks, those packing sac outlets like Bloodthrone Vampire and company, might also want Lily to round out their gameplan, but those decks are so solidly untiered that she is unlikely to make a big difference there. Abzan Company really is the best home for Lily because of all the tricks already built into that deck and how well they synergize with the new walker. In addition to those mentioned above, you can also Chord in a Lily in response to another creature getting killed. This gets you the Lily, the Zombie token after she flips, and probably gets you the creature right back if you recur it next turn with her -X. Those kinds of playlines are exactly what we want to be doing with a new planeswalker, which suggests Lily is going to find an immediate 1-2 copy home in Abzan Company after Origins' legalization.
Not Quite There
Here we'll find cards that just aren't quite there, either because they are a little too weak (Sarkhan Unbroken), are worse than existing competitors (Thunderbreak Regent vs. Thundermaw Hellkite), or don't pass a lot of Modern tests for playability (Surrak, the Hunt Caller). People will try these cards and many sites will overvalue them, but in the end they just aren't going to cut it in Modern. Because these cards aren't quite as strong as those in the previous sections, I'll only give a few sentences on each.
Abbot of Keral Keep: Prowess is a pretty broken mechanic, but Abbot is a bit too safe to really get me excited. He lacks haste to hit hard and evasion to hit reliably, and for two mana we really want to get an effect like Young Pyromancer instead. You also can't really cast Abbot before turn four in most decks, unless you want to risk not casting the top card of your library for lack of mana. Delver decks can cast this as early as turn three, but even there, wouldn't you rather be casting Pyromancer? Jund and other red-based midrange decks can use Abbot too, but their higher curve makes Abbot much worse before turn four.
Kytheon, Hero of Akros / Gideon, Battle-Forged: Jace and Lily pass the flipwalker tests. Kytheon does not. He's deceptively hard to flip in Modern, either dying before turn three or forcing you to hold up mana on turn four to maybe keep him alive. That's a lot of mana and boardstate investment, and the payoff isn't even that great. Unlike big Gideon Jura, little Gideon can't kill creatures and can't even keep you alive for a turn. His clock isn't even that scary, getting stonewalled by Goyf, Tasigur, and Angler on every swing. Overall, his stats are just too underwhelming for this format.
Hallowed Moonlight: Shadow of Doubt is playable in Modern because basically every deck uses shuffle effects and a cantriping, instead-speed Sinkhole is pretty nuts. Moonlight is much narrower. It stalls Twin for a turn, but that's not even guaranteed if they waited until they got up countermagic backup. It screws with decks like Grishoalbrand, Living End, UW Tron, and other fringe strategies, but so do more versatile cards like Relic of Progenitus, or even just Negate. Making matters worse, this card isn't even in the right colors: Grixis is where control mages want to be, not UWR control or something similar.
Jace, Vryn's Prodigy / Jace, Telepath Unbound: Jace is probably the easiest planeswalker to flip, requiring just an untap step and you playing Magic cards in the previous turns. In that sense, he's very similar to the delve mechanic, which rewarded you for doing what you were doing anyway. Jace's biggest problem is not his creature side, his flippability, or even most of his planeswalker side. His problem is that +1 ability, which is way too underwhelming in far too many matchups. Jace, Architect of Thought got an edge for stopping Deceiver Exarch swings and stalling aggro decks. New Jace does not because his +1 just feels like overly-safe design. Jace is the likeliest walker to break out of the unplayable category and rise into a tiered control deck, but I feel like most control players would rather commit two mana to a Gurmag Angler these days anyway.
Magmatic Insight: Low land-count decks that want this, such as Delver, are going to struggle to support Insight and also cast spells. Higher land-count decks that want this don't really want to cast sorcery speed draw spells. This isn't really a mini-Treasure Cruise either because for Insight to work, you need to have a good enough boardstate where that extra land doesn't matter. That doesn't quite make Insight a "win-more" card, but it has enough trappings of one that I'm skeptical. The card does help Aggro Loam as a deck, but if I've learned anything from card evaluation over the years, it's to never bet on a card that only helps one fringe, tier three or lower deck.
Molten Vortex: Upgraded Seismic Assault? Or a repeat of the Barrage of Expendables failure? i'm leaning towards the latter because this doesn't really address the core problem of Aggro Loam, which is its lack of a reliable card advantage engine in the cycling lands. Vortex does land before countermagic can stop it, and Abrupt Decay on a Vortex is way less gamebreaking than Decaying an Assault. But I struggle to think of any cards that became more playable by making the card a little cheaper and then adding a manacost to its ability. Indeed, I struggle to think of a lot of Modern cards with activated abilities requiring mana investments that are playable. Modern is a format where you need to be efficient with your mana, and spending that to fire off a few Shocks means you can't spend it to recur Life from the Loam. That's not what Aggro Loam wants to be doing to get into the higher tiers.
Nissa, Vastwood Seer / Nissa, Sage Animist: Better than Kytheon but worse than Jace and Liliana. Both of Nissa's sides are actually pretty decent, although that 4/4 token is really not what you want to be putting into play in a field packed with Goyf, Tasigur, and Angler. As many authors have pointed out, Civic Wayfinder was playable in some formats, and Nissa's +1 is really just "Draw a card" in a way that Narset's +1 was not. But unlike Jace and Liliana, Nissa has a serious speed problem. The earliest you can realistically flip her is turn five, and that's in a dedicated ramp deck like Scapeshift. Even in decks like Scapeshift, which can definitely push the game past turn five, Nissa isn't exactly filling some unment need in Scapeshift the same way something like Dig Through Time was. We might see her as a bullet in Scapeshift, but she's unlikely to appear elsewhere.
Thopter Spy Network: Bitterblossom is an excellent card... but it still sees next to zero play in Modern. Spy Network doubles the price tag and only tacks on a limited Ophidian effect. And boy is it limited. It doesn't trigger for other creatures and doesn't even trigger for each Thopter. People will try to make this work in blue-based control, and they will either return to Bitterblossom or stay away from both.
Vryn Wingmare: It's a strictly better Glowrider in a format where even Thalia, Guardian of Thraben only sees play in a handful of tier 3 decks. As an upside over Thalia, you can have multiple Wingmares in play to really rack up the spell-tax effects. As a big downside, it's three mana instead of two in a format where you really need Thalia to get to work right away. Maybe some Death and Taxes/Hatebears decks want Thalias 5-6, but I don't think that's the effect which pushes this deck into higher tiers.
The most dangerous cards in the set, especially for investors and brewers. These cards might look good on paper but rarely pan out in practice. They are often accompanied by high price tags and lots of theory-driven hype, but have some huge issues that many card evaluators have missed. See Narset Transcendent, Ojutai's Command, and Soulfire Grand Master. Steer clear of these cards.
Archangel of Tithes: The moment you realize this doesn't stop the Exarch/Mite combo is the moment you see this is unplayable in Modern. Linvala, Keeper of Silence is a much higher-impact four-drop, and that card barely sees play as it is. Bolt-proof status doesn't save this glorified Windborn Muse from junk status.
Artificer's Epiphany: Just play Thirst for Knowledge. Even with the artifact lands legal in this format, this card would still be worse than Thirst. It's much easier to keep artifacts in your hand and bin them as a cost than it is to keep one in play. This is especially true in the age of Kolaghan's Command.
Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh / Chandra, Roaring Flame: Chandra's problem is more one of context than innate power. All the Modern decks that can use her definitely don't want her. Why are you tapping out for turn three Chandra when you can be tapping out for turn three Day's Undoing? How are you flipping Chandra but not already winning anyway? This is the classic win-more card who appears to give reach but actually only works when you are already far ahead.
Pyromancer's Goggles: I'm consistently surprised that this makes the cut in some Modern reviews I've been seeing. If this copied non-red spells, then we might, maybe be talking about a niche card. But going turn five Goggles into a doubled Lightning Bolt is about as underwhelming as it gets. Copying a Kolaghan's Command is much better, but why not just spend that five mana to Snapcaster the Command instead?
Shaman of the Pack: BG Elves isn't necessarily worse than Mono Green Elves. Both decks support Company and black gives you some added interaction with cards like Thoughtseize and Abrupt Decay. But even the hypothetical BG Elves doesn't want a glorified Fanatic of Mogis, especially when Elves tends to win in big swoops and not small chisels at a life total. Maybe some BG Stompy Elves wants this with Sylvan Messenger, but that's a huge stretch when Company Combo Elves just won a GP.
Brewing Bonus Section!
I'll end with the cards that probably belong in the "Not Quite There" or "Traps" category, but also the cards I like so much that I don't want to write off completely. These cards want to be built around, and they should inspire brewers and deckbuilders across the format.
Evolutionary Leap: I desperately want this card to be better than it probably is. The "fixed" Survival of the Fittest/Birthing Pod is not nearly as broken as its predecessors, but that won't stop us from brewing up a storm with the card. I really want to try this with cards like Young Wolf or Doomed Traveler, or take a more combo-oriented approach with Tangleroot or Burning-Tree Emissary.
Starfield of Nyx: Enchantment-based Prison decks have always been a thing in Modern, and Starfield gives them a dual win condition and resiliency mechanism. I talked more about Starfield in my Origins article last week, and I'm liking this card in testing as much as in theory. I also like the card in the RW Lockdown style decks, especially in tandem with Faithless Looting. Find some early brewing inspiration in cards like Cover of Winter, Omniscience, Font of Fortunes, and the Leylines.
Tainted Remedy: Okay, so I actually just want to cast Beacon of Immortality on my opponent with a Remedy up. That doesn't make this a good combo or deck, but it should excite even the most jaded brewer, especially those who prefer combo finishes. Rest for the Weary wants to play too. Now if only they'd give us Life Burst...
Modern after Magic Origins
I have mixed feelings about Magic Origins as a Modern set. On the one hand, we get some sweet reprints like Piledriver, some pushed effects like Day's, and some clear nods to our format like Moonlight and Firecraft. But we also have a lot of missed opportunities, both in the form of cards that needed a bit more to be good in our format (why can't Herald have some form of protection, even if just four toughness?), and cards that should have been reprinted but weren't (where are you, Goblin Ringleader or Goblin Matron?). Overall, this is a slightly above-average Modern set, with the potential to be really strong off a few key staples. From a design perspective, Modern players should be very happy with the set because it suggests Wizards is paying closer attention to our format and trying to make an impact. We can hope this continues into the fall with the eagerly anticipated Battle For Zendikar.