Good news, everyone! Shadows Over Innistrad spoiler season is in full swing. This means that you can get excited, and start speculating on cards! And, invariably, get it wrong! Except of course for That Guy. You know, That Guy. The one who always gets it right and makes out like a bandit. Why do we let That Guy hang around?
I am not That Guy and (un)fortunately that isn't what today's article will be about. Nor will it be about any of the obviously good cards like [tippy title="Declaration in Stone" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] or [tippy title="To the Slaughter" width="330" height="330"][/tippy]. Anyone can tell you about those. I'm interested in cards with less obvious potential. I'm interested in the Boros Reckoners and Pack Rats, those cards with great potential whose home is not immediately obvious, but could be extremely powerful.
What Hides in the Shadows?
As of my writing this, there are still 157 cards to go, but the set is starting to take shape and it looks like Modern will be getting a number of new playables. No format-defining or even archetype-(re)defining cards (yet), but we've seen a number of solid role-playing removal spells and a few interesting build-around-mes like [tippy title="Arlinn Kord" width="330" height="330"][/tippy].
But you know about those cards. Anyone with a brain and the ability to read the spoiler can find those cards and can at least make a guess as to their playability and where they belong (Arlinn is pretty okay in Zoo, surprisingly). I want a challenge. What I'm going to do today is take on a few cards that are interesting puzzles. Will any of these cards find a home and be worthwhile? No idea, but the potential is definitely there, and even if I can't find it, maybe one of you will have the inspiration I lack. In alphabetical order:
[tippy title="Bygone Bishop" width="330" height="330"][/tippy]
White rarely gets card advantage, and when it does, it's almost always attached to small creatures. This also means it is almost never good (anyone else remember Mentor of the Meek?). Puresteel Paladin has seen play in Cheerios, but... there's no getting around it is there? Sorry Sheridan, the deck just isn't good (Sheridan's note: Leave my Purseteels alone!). The problem is, while having continuous card advantage tied to creatures is good, see also Dark Confidant, jumping through hoops to get that card advantage is not.
[tippy title="Bygone Bishop" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] is definitely a spiritual successor to those... engines? ...but with a twist that you don't immediately get your card back. Which is generally considered bad, and the fact that you don't have to pay mana for it right away like Mentor of the Meek doesn't really make up for that. This means that, as a card advantage engine, Bishop just doesn't measure up and will probably never see play. If you're looking for a way to make your creatures cantrip, then Beck // Call is always going to be better, and it still isn't good. Unless you're LSV. Which you're not. Stop lying to yourself.
Except that's not really what's going on here. Bishop doesn't turn creature spells into cantrips. He makes artifact tokens that might cantrip later. Maybe that is good? I don't know if investigate is playable, but it might be. I think the key thing is that the Clue isn't really a cantrip: it's an investment and investment cards are hard to evaluate in Magic. Think of it like Dreadship Reef: most decks do not want that kind of effect and will suffer if you try to cram them in but those that do want them really want them. In Time Spiral Standard, Reef and its cohorts were useless in aggressive and most midrange decks but were arguably the best lands in Mystical Teachings mirrors.
Where does that leave Bishop? I see it as an investment engine, which means I don't think it has a fair use. For it to work in a fair deck, it needs to be in a deck that plays lots of cheap creatures that wants to play a 2/3 flier for three and then pay mana to draw cards later. The first part of that sentence suggests Zoo style decks, which don't want a 2/3 for three, and if Zoo gets into a situation where it has mana and time to cash in its Clues then it's almost certainly not winning the game. I'm not sure what deck wants the other two parts. It's possible a Brian Kibler style Big Zoo deck that wants to play a longer game might use it as a sideboard card for grindy matchups, but Collected Company is probably just better.
As for unfair applications I'm not sure the deck for it exists, but it could. The strategy that breaks this card wants a lot of artifacts in play and plays a lot of cheap to free creatures, which to me suggests some kind of Eggs/Cheeri0s hybrid, using Clues to fuel Krark-Clan Ironworks and Memnite and Ornithopter to trigger Bishop. A Myr Retriever loop possibly? I have no earthly idea what that looks like. It also sounds like a lot of work for something that might be better than Cheer0s but is probably not better than Eggs. I'm always open to being wrong, however.
Thinking about it, Bishop has quite a bit of potential in "fair" decks, specifically Affinity. Clues fuel all of Affinity's payoff cards (Arcbound Ravager, Cranial Plating, and Master of Etherium), everything in the deck costs three or less, and the Clues stick around after maindeck sweepers. Additionally, thanks to Springleaf Drum and Mox Opal you can play Bishop on turn one, which isn't the most explosive play but it can provide a lot of value if you're dumping your hand and then playing Plating. Yes, Clues are vulnerable to all the Affinity hate, but Bishop isn't which might randomly be relevant. This is still probably far too cute for the robots, but the potential value is enough to definitely be worth investigating.
[tippy title="Engulf the Shore" width="330" height="330"][/tippy]
Wow. This is a card. Global bounce effects have been powerful before, but only when you could break the symmetry like Psychatog did with Upheaval. Engluf isn't necessarily symmetrical, however, since proper sequencing can ensure your creatures survive the wave (unless you want to rebuy a Snapcaster Mage or something). At sorcery speed, this would be unplayable, much like Whelming Wave, but instant speed makes it worth considering. Evacuation never sees play, but this has a build-around-me aspect that makes it more useful. I know Hibernation is an absolute beast of a sideboard card for Merfolk, and for one mana more this hits creatures of all colors. It's inclusive!
Except, I know Merfolk doesn't want the card, and I'm not sure what deck actually does. Merfolk uses Hibernation against Elves and sometimes Zoo to clear out boards of three or more toughness creatures, and if you can Engulf their board you will Engulf your own as well (if that isn't true you probably don't actually need to Engulf). I know I said I'd play Wash Out, but that was because of non-blue non-creature permanents and Engulf doesn't solve that problem.
This leaves me wondering what deck actually wants Engulf. It has to be a deck with a lot of Islands that wants to clean up an entire board of creatures, probably during the end step (because otherwise they'd just play Aetherize), and then attack unimpeded with a high-toughness creature. The only creatures that qualify and see play in blue are the delve creatures which means Engulf is probably a Grixis card. However, I don't think most Grixis decks will want it since the midrange and control versions usually just run Damnation. For Engulf to be better, you need to have out Tasigur or Gurmag Angler facing a creature deck and you're clearing the way to attack for the win. This suggests a tempo plan more in line with Chapin's original vision for the deck, which doesn't really see any play. Is this better than the current control versions? I'm not Trevor but I don't think so. Might this be incentive for a more tempo oriented version to reemerge? Perhaps. I wouldn't write it off.
[tippy title="Vessel of Volatility" width="330" height="330"][/tippy]
Anytime a ritual effect gets printed it is always worth considering. Storm is always on the cusp of utter degeneracy and anytime something is printed that might push it over you need to take notice. I like what I see here, but I might have nostalgia in my eyes. The first deck I ever played in Extended was a borrowed Storm deck that included Cloud of Faeries, Sapphire Medallion, and Mind's Desire and this card reminds me of those days. Vessel is a two drop that will provide extra mana on another turn, much like Medallion, and isn't as vulnerable as Medallion's actual replacement, Goblin Electromancer. It's also not so bad a draw during the kill turn since at worst it's a mana-neutral card, much like Cloud was. If you play it beforehand then it provides two extra mana, just like the banned Seething Song. All of these things are decent arguments in favor of the Vessel.
The problem [tippy title="Vessel of Volatility" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] has actually comes from how Modern Storm is built. If Storm is going to be investing two mana for a later payoff it really wants it to be Pyromancer Ascension or the Electromancer. Unlike the Mind's Desire deck from my youth, Storm needs a much higher storm count to go off and relies heavily on Past in Flames during that critical turn. Vessel doesn't interact with Past and, if played as a mana generator, isn't mana positive on the combo turn. This probably removes it from all consideration in your typical Storm deck. If Storm had a better card advantage or mana engine then this would be a consideration, but as-is, I think Storm has to pass.
The deck that wants Vessel is trying to set up a single big turn and doesn't require a very high Storm count. This really limits the possibilities. You could play it in Stompy, since it is unlikely to get countered and sets up dropping a big threat later, but this seems to slow to me (Jordan might have a different opinion). The other, I think far more plausible, home is Dragonstorm. That deck needs a ton of mana to go off but only needs a storm count of four to win (four Bogardan Hellkites are lethal). That deck hasn't been close to playable in Modern due to competition from normal Storm and the Seething Song banning, but maybe now that isn't the case. The lower storm count means that you can afford to play defensive cards like Lightning Bolt and Remand, which in turn means that you can spend some turns really setting up with Vessel and Lotus Bloom. What I'm envisioning is a deck that plans to suspend Bloom, play a Vessel or two, stay alive until Bloom resolves and then cantrip into a low storm win. Is this better than Storm? I don't know, but it is likely more resilient and might even be a reasonable midrange deck if you actually can dedicate more slots to for a Snapcaster package. The format will be completely new once Vessel becomes legal so it might be worth it to take advantage of the volatility and try out Dragonstorm. Besides, who doesn't love winning with Dragons?
[tippy title="Welcome to the Fold" width="330" height="330"][/tippy]
It's the latest Control Magic! Is it the greatest? Maybe. Probably not. The fact that it's a sorcery instead of an enchantment is good, meaning it can't be undone by Qasali Pridemage or Maelstrom Pulse. When played with madness, it is effectively a free card and since it checks toughness not mana-cost, there is potential for some huge thefts here. You can steal Thragtusk for X=3 and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker at X=2, and at instant-speed no less! The potential for massive blowouts is very real here.
The question with [tippy title="Welcome to the Fold" width="330" height="330"][/tippy], and with all the madness cards, aren't the cards themselves but the enablers. That's where Welcome's greatest challenge will lie. UG Madness was powerful because of Wild Mongrel and Aquamoeba, not Basking Rootwalla. The simple fact is that, at time of writing, we don't have anything like Mongrel, with the best new card being a fixed version of Aquamoeba, and that card is certainly not Modern playable.
Looking through Gatherer really doesn't give me a lot of options either. The cards that do allow free discarding are limited to specific card types (usually lands or artifacts) or are unplayably bad. Zombie Infestation is probably the best and that card is pretty questionable. Most of the other options require mana for each discard and are one shot deals, which doesn't work well with madness and doesn't enable playing them at instant speed. Yes, Liliana of the Veil and Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded are repeatable and free but I don't think that the deck that wants Welcome also wants Liliana. As for Tibalt, Modern's worst planeswalker will never be a reliable madness outlet.
Realistically, the best ways to enable madness are looters, of which there is no shortage in Modern. The most played, and certainly best, is Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound. The problem there is that the looters are all very vulnerable and can only be used once a turn, again limiting their usefulness for madness. Jace has an additional problem that, by the time you'd want to madness Welcome, he's probably already been flipped or is dead. I don't think you sit on Jace just to enable Welcome or any madness card. It's still early, but I think that Wizards is too scared of Wild Mongrel to really unleash madness again, so we may have to accept that it won't be very useful.
If we instead look at it as a sorcery with upside the picture gets murky. Two toughness creatures are pretty rare in Modern and I can't think of any that I want to steal at sorcery speed for four mana. Threads of Disloyalty is much more versatile and it sees no play, though that's mostly because of Abrupt Decay. It may be possible to make it work. I'm just not yet sure the effect is worth the lengths you have to go for it. There are just better cards out there for the cost, so unless there's a good enabler out there I've missed, we have to hope Shadows gives us the missing outlet.
Follow the Shadows, Solve the Riddle
We're nearing the halfway point in our Shadows Over Innistrad spoilers and I'm liking what I see. There are plenty of Modern playables in the set (even if the power level overall feels inconsistent) and plenty of intriguing cards to brew with and explore. Hopefully the missing madness enabler is just waiting to be revealed and wasn't left out in the woods. Time will tell. I'll just be happy if I can figure the Clues out. If you have theories or homes for any of these cards, I'm open to suggestions in the comments.