Insider: Shadows Over Innistrad Modern Sleepers

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The full Shadows over Innistrad set list has been revealed. Rejoice! Still no Innocent Blood. Riot! I guess there's always Eldritch Moon, which should also give us more answers to the Team Emrakul vs. Team Marit Lage vs. Team Whatever-The-Heck-You-Think-Nahiri-Is-Summoning question. Maybe we'll get some clues (not just the tokens) over the prerelease weekend?

As we and Nahiri bide our time until Moon, there are plenty of Modern playables in Shadows to include in existing decks, brew around, and argue over as we approach summer's Modern season. I've already written about both Thing in the Ice and Archangel Avacyn before, so today I want to tackle some of the less obvious Modern playables.

Archangel and Thing

"Less obvious" is always relative, and if you're a Modern aficionado like me, you've probably encountered these cards at least once in a forum, on Reddit, in an article comment section, or any of the other repositories of Modern knowledge.

For you veterans, take this article as confirmation that the card has potential. If you haven't stumbled on these gems before, get excited, because I think these sleepers have a lot of potential for both playability and profit.

Dredging for Gold

It's no secret that Wizards hates the dredge mechanic. It's an 8-9 on Mark Rosewater's "Storm Scale," was responsible for two bans on Modern's inaugural Pro Tour Philadelphia banlist, and Sam Stoddard went on record saying dredge "failed as a mechanic." I don't know what those guys are talking about: I love dredge, and many combo players (and Vengevine aggro buffs) feel the same way.

Thankfully for us, and unfortunately for those fun police at Wizards, Shadows offers a number of new cards which power up Modern dredge strategies. This includes traditional Dredgevine lists, like that played by Michael Wooline at a Star City Games IQ in January, Rafael Levy's Smallpox Loam, or Jason Chung's Grand Prix Melbourne Dredge strategy. Dredge variants have lingered in sub-Tier 3 waters for years, but Shadows might finally give them the push they needed to claw their way into Tier 2.

As any Dredge player knows, breaking the mechanic starts with enablers. That means Zombie Infestation, Faithless Looting, and now this new Hapless Researcher-gone-evil from Shadows.

Insolent Neonate

Reverse Hapless Researcher is a huge boon to dredge strategies. At common, he's one of the quietest breakouts of the set (get those foils!). Discard/draw order matters when dredging, and Neonate lets you bin a Golgari Grave-Troll and immediately dredge for six. That's a huge upgrade from a Researcher effect, and even slightly better than Looting in some circumstances, because it gives you a turn one dredge to set up a turn two dredge off the binned cards from the discarded Troll.

Don't get tricked into playing a deck with twenty City of Brass variants, even if Modern's card-pool allows it. Modern is a fast format where you can't take that much incidental damage from lands. Blood Moon is also very real, even to Dredge pilots. This means Neonate is only good in the red Dredge versions, those also packing Faithless Looting.

That's sad news for the Sultai and blue-black mages who are just as excited for Dredge playables outside of the red one-drop. Thankfully, they have just as much, if not more, to get pumped about.

Prized Amalgam

As I wrote in a forum thread after seeing this card, "Hellooooo Modern." If Stitcher Geralf were kind enough to give Amalgam some vocal chords, it'd just be screaming "Dredge Me!" Maybe Wizards doesn't hate dredge as much as I thought? I know Wizards doesn't really test for non-rotating formats, but this is an excellent inadvertent or intentional addition to the Modern Dredge arsenal.

At 3/3, Amalgam hits hard enough to fit the go-wide Dredge gameplan, not trading with Tarmogoyf but slugging for enough damage per turn to end a game fast. Getting Amalgam into play should be trivial for a Dredge pilot. Gravecrawler does it. Bloodghast does it. Vengevine does it. Dredged Narcomoebas do it. Even other Amalgams satisfy the trigger!

There's a one-turn delay between when the Amalgams return and when you can start pummeling face with their three arms (maybe that's why it's 3/3?), but this should set you up nicely for a turn three attack or a huge turn four alpha strike in the right engine. That's on par with other aggro strategies, which makes me feel good about Dredge's competitive chances post-Shadows.

If you want to double-down on the Zombie angle, or if you want to add some evasion to your ghoulish squad, Geralf has at least one other toy for you to play with.

Stitchwing Skaab

Delver of Secrets, meet Dredge. Dredge, meet (zombified) Delver of Secrets.

Delver proved to us that a three-power flier can go the distance, and although the one toughness is a definite downgrade (Lingering Souls remains the bane of wide, airborne attacks), the Stitchwing is a nice addition to the aggressive Dredge charge. Skaab's activation cost is a bit prohibitive, as is the two-card discard, but even just a single Skaab can easily swing for 6+ over two turns.

Of course, dredging is as much about combo shenanigans as aggro brute strength. See the storied tradition of Dread Return. Shadows also delivers in the combo department, with a real "monster" of an engine.


All hail the toad!

Continuing the bizarre tradition of massive creatures with deathtouch (someone ask Rosewater about that one), the Frog Horror looks like big, dumb Commander fodder at first glance. Then you hit that last line of text. Someone on the Shadows design or development team must be part of the cult of dredge, because "graveyard from anywhere" is begging to get broken alongside Magic's most broken graveyard mechanic.

Modern brewers have been hard at work breaking the Gitrog Monster's draw ability, with some of the best work getting done in MTG Salvation's "Gitrog Dredge" thread.

There, Modern's mad scientists paired the Frog with Goryo's Vengeance/Footsteps of the Gory/Unburial Rites to cheat a dredged Gitrog into play. After that, Edge of Autumn starts the land discard-draw chain as you dredge into lands, draw cards, and keep dredging through your entire deck.

Gitrog Monster Combo Breaker

After that, it's just a matter of finding your win condition. The Monster even lets you play a second land in case you need a little more mana. Heartless Summoning combines with Narcomoebas and Bridge from Below, killing the Narcos instantly and creating 1/1 zombies each time. Add Emrakul, the Aeons Torn for some questionable-legality Four Horsemen-style reshuffling. Or kill them with Lightning Storm/Conflagrate like Ad Nauseam.

Between all these synergies and many more I haven't listed (Phantasmagorian to keep the discard going, Dakmor Salvage discards during the cleanup steps, etc.), Gitrog Dredge is just getting started. It's unclear if this is just a worse version of the existing Griselbrand/Nourishing Shoal reanimator deck, but it's certainly got brewers excited.

In terms of investing in older cards, any of the following are fair game:

Dredge Staples Waiting on the Bench

Add Thought Scour and Darkblast, Squee, Goblin Nabob and Life from the Loam, and many more! All of these cards are relatively underpriced for potential Tier 2 Modern hits, so any of them could be good pickups.

Just be careful of over-investing in Dredge variants. It's unlikely that all the Dredge flavors will make their way into Tier 2 (or, more realistically, into solid Tier 3 status). You don't want to buy every feasible Dredge card only to have less than 33% of them work out.

Then again, many of these cards are so underpriced that it might be worth the risk. If you can't decide, it's hard to go wrong with foil uncommons and rares!

Three More Hidden Gems

Dredge is obviously a huge winner after Shadows, but that's not the extent of the set's sleeper picks. A number of other Modern archetypes benefit from Shadows, and I want to break down three of the standouts which may slip through your card evaluation radar.

Crawling Sensation

Bitterblossom is a cornerstone of the Tier 3 B/W Tokens and an occasional Jund and Abzan bullet. It also has a commanding history in competitive Magic and was initially banned before its release in 2014. Crawling Sensation isn't quite an unconditional, two-mana army, but it has potential to exceed those benchmarks in the right deck.

Crawling Sensation

In the right deck, Sensation becomes a landlocked, double Bitterblossom without the life loss. In the right deck, that's a lot of width that many opponents will struggle to match. It's relatively easy for decks that use the graveyard as a resource to benefit from Sensation, especially grindier decks using Life from the Loam. Molten Vortex and/or Seismic Assault, anyone?

Sensation isn't quite the next coming of Bitterblossom, but I'm still optimistic about its chances as a key roleplayer in the right deck. Don't be surprised to see this improve some of those Assault decks that have always enjoyed fringe playability.

Invasive Surgery

Legacy players have been using Envelop in the sideboard to beat Sneak Attack and other powerful sorceries. Modern never had Envelop, but now gets a strict upgrade in Invasive Surgery. Like in Legacy, the card takes out a haymaker sorcery at one mana. Unlike in Legacy, there are far fewer ways to counter spells at this rate in Modern, which makes the card very relevant going forward.

Invasive Surgery

Tempo decks, especially Temur ones, are going to love the new Envelop variant in Modern. It's not quite maindeckable, but it's so strong at the sideboard slot that I expect to see some decks use at least two, depending on the metagame.

You'll probably need Temur colors to maximize Surgery: blue for cantrips like Thought Scour, and green so you can work double-duty off your card types for Tarmogoyf and delirium. Oath of Nissa looks stronger by the day.

Surgery hits a range of major targets in Modern. This includes BGx Midrange's discard suite, Lingering Souls (a huge blowout here), Scapeshift, Living End, Serum Visions, Ancient Stirrings, and all of the red-based sweepers that historically give Temur Tempo-style decks fits.

Lobotomizing Modern

This isn't the flashiest card in the block, but it's a quiet hit which is likely to power up the strategies that really wanted the additional protection. Added bonus: when this does hit a big card, such as Scapeshift or Souls, it's a real game-maker.

Asylum Visitor

Madness is missing one thing to make it truly powerful in Modern: a strong enabler. The closest thing is Zombie Infestation, but the deck really needs a one-drop like the old-school Putrid Imp or Tireless Tribe (wrong colors, right effect). If the Madness deck ever emerges, it will be from a strong enabler. And if that strong enabler ever comes around, Aslyum Visitor is a major powerhouse just waiting for a partner.

Asylum Visitor

The rate on a two-mana 3/1 isn't the worst for an aggressive madness strategy. It gets better when you discard it to achieve that rate. It gets way better when you're using it as Dark Confidant every turn with significantly less life loss on average. And it gets downright broken when you trigger Visitor every single turn.

A Madness deck would certainly achieve a once-per-turn activation, which makes this Dark Confidant with a madness and power upside. If you can rip apart an opponent's hand, or play this in an aggressive matchup which can't remove the Visitor, she's Confidant on steroids in a hurry.

Again, I don't think Modern has the enablers needed to make a proper Madness deck. But we're very close and if that happens, Asylum is the powerhouse you've been waiting for.

Shadows and Bans in Modern

Sleepers may get me more excited than the obvious staples, but that doesn't make those staples any less powerful. Archangel Avacyn remains a huge threat in reactive decks, and Thing in the Ice is sure to find a blue-based home. I'm optimistic about Traverse the Ulvenwald in a Temur shell (Thought Scour, Tarmogoyf, and Mishra's Bauble love the toolbox tutor), and I really want to play some U/W Spirits.

Of course, Shadows isn't the only big change coming to Modern. April 4 will also see the long-awaited banlist update, and the inevitable death of at least one card in Eldrazi.

April 4 Ban Candidates in Eldrazi

Of these cards, and of the other suggestions I've heard, the lands are the likeliest ban targets and it isn't even close. Aaron Forsythe went on record during the disastrously Eldrazified Grand Prix Detroit to say he personally didn't want to nuke the deck, but he also acknowledge that internal testing would be the final arbiter of that decision.

I'll be talking about ban scenarios later this week on Modern Nexus, but here's a quick breakdown:

Scenario 1 - Eye of Ugin is Banned

If Forsythe gets his wish and only one card gets axed, Eye of Ugin is definitely the card to cut. It leads to high-variance fast starts, and gives the deck a crushing inevitability that control players can't compete with.

Eldrazi Temple is probably more central to the deck's long-term survival, but Eye is what guarantees the deck is Tier 0 broken and not just Tier 1 or Tier 2. Temple, even with Vesuva and the Urzatron, gives Eldrazi a much slower gameplan which is much more in line with the rest of Modern.

Scenario 2 - Both Eye and Temple are Banned

Kill it with fire. In this scenario, Forsythe's wish goes unfulfilled and Wizards determines the deck is fundamentally too broken for Modern. If Forsythe hadn't made his comment at Detroit, I would argue this was the likeliest scenario.

Both Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time got banned in FAR less offensive decks (Delver never exceeded 20%-25% of the format; Eldrazi hit 47% at Detroit and 35% overall). This scorched-earth ban policy follows not only the delve bans, but also the bans of 2011 Caw Blade and 2005 Affinity.

Modern After Eldrazi

In both ban scenarios, Modern will be in much better shape than it has been since February. Scenario 2 would be the best of the two, effectively erasing the Eldrazi dominance and returning Modern to its post-Splinter Twin state. Scenario 1 would be fine, as a depowered Eldrazi would likely be okay in Modern, even if I personally wouldn't want to risk it.

As for unbans, it seems incredibly unlikely that Wizards will unban anything. They only had two weeks of post-Twin Modern before the Eldrazi screwed everything up, and I'm sure they'll want to collect data through the summer to see if anything is worth unbanning.

At that point in July, I imagine Ancestral Vision will be the candidate---blue-based control should still be lagging in the linear, post-Eldrazi and post-Twin world.

Between bans and Shadows, I'm excited for April Modern and you should be too! Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about cards, the metagame, or just want to talk about some hot new Shadows tech. See you all after the format-redeeming April bans!

5 thoughts on “Insider: Shadows Over Innistrad Modern Sleepers

    1. The development cycle is really far ahead of the ban cycle. Or behind, depending on how you look at it. Pod got banned in January 2015, at least 6 months after DTK development was finalized (which itself was probably 2-3 months BEFORE Rhino broke Pod). So although I’m annoyed Shadows didn’t give Modern as many control tools as it deserves, I don’t think this is a Wizards failure. It’s just not realistic to expect otherwise, unless we are claiming they knew they were banning Pod about 8 months ago.

    1. There are a few issues with Shedder. The first is setup. You can’t just drop Shedder on T1 and then go to town on subsequent turns with countermagic and removal backup. You can’t even CAST Shedder on the play on T1 (sans Spirit Guide). Even once you get Shedder up, you still have to kill the opposing creature, which depends on drawing that removal and resolving it.

      A much bigger issue is Shedder’s uselessness in creatureless matchups. Tron, Ad Nauseam, and different Grixis Control and Jeskai Control lists aren’t going to have early targets for this card. This means Shedder isn’t coming online until much later, if at all, in about 10%-15% of matches. Other decks, such as Jund and Abzan, won’t always play early creatures, so now your landlocked Delver isn’t even getting online until after a Goyf, Rhino, or Lily is down.

      All of this points to Shedder maaaaybe being sideboard material, but probably not maindeckable.

      1. You don’t necessarily need a removal spell if you have a creature that would eat it, since it has to attack each turn. Rest of your points are solid though and probably relegates it to SB material for aggro mirrors.

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