Approach with Caution: Kaladesh in Modern

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Here I am again talking spoilers before we actually have the full set. I realize there could be something lurking among the unspoiled cards that drastically changes the context of currently unplayable cards. However, we have a number of cards already that stand on their own, and there's a trend in Kaladesh that should be examined.


To be honest I was hoping to do this article once the full set is out. The problem is that the article I intended to run on whether it was safe to unban Stoneforge Mystic isn't done. The work required to generate the data for the kind of statistical study that Sheridan did is immense, and unfortunately my ambition to test multiple decks has outstripped my time to do so. To make matters worse, I found an interesting trend while running the stats that warranted additional testing and added another week onto the project. The short version is that Mystic would not help slow Modern down. For the long version, stay tuned. I hope to be ready on the release week.

Which leaves me to talk this week about Kaladesh. This set looks amazing. Literally. The art style is incredible. It is striking, memorable, and beautiful. Bravo Wizards. I will be thoroughly disappointed when you destroy the place because that's the only way you know how to tell a story. The cards follow suit, and this worries me.


The Trouble Is...

Kaladesh has been really pushed power-wise. Leafing through the set so far is nearly a case study in power creep. An admittedly incomplete review indicates we have Khans of Tarkir level power. It's everywhere from creature stats and abilities to combat tricks and artifacts. The fact that we've seen pushed pump spells and Aether Tradewinds is in the set are especially surprising. The former is surprising because combat tricks and especially pump spells have been powered down recently (Become Immense notwithstanding). The latter because Wizards doesn't like land destruction and Tradewinds targets permanents. And with Clues has no real drawback. This sets off alarm bells for me.

Where I'm Coming From

This all seems ill-conceived. I say this because Kaladesh is a Magic artifacts block. Some of you are nodding knowingly, some are really confused. Let me explain.

tolarian-academyMagic has never had an artifact block that didn't have some mechanic that wasn't broken. There have been other sets with broken cards and mechanics, but it happens every time there's an artifact themed block. I do mean block because while Antiquities had some pretty broken cards (*cough*Mishra's Workshop, Urzatron*cough*) it was also one of the first sets ever made. I'll cut them some slack.

For the Urza's Saga block nightmare they have no excuse. Yes, I know that Mark Rosewater insists that it was an enchantment block, but everybody I know who played at the time says it was about artifacts. The most broken card cared about artifacts. And it nearly killed the game. The "free untap" mechanic was a serious problem in its own right, eventually meriting bans across multiple formats, but Academy just broke Magic straight in half.

Then there was Mirrodin block and Affinity. And a bunch of other cards that broke Extended and Type 1. Anyone else remember the misery? Or the fact that it took Wizards forever to admit the problem? This was right when I was starting to play seriously and my faith in the system was seriously shaken.

Gitaxian ProbeNext we have Scars block. Infect can definitely lead to some degeneracy and in Pauper it ended in the banning of Invigorate. Phyrexian mana was an utter debacle, breaking Legacy with Mental Misstep and leading to all sorts of color pie violations and free spells in every format. And then you have Cawblade. The deck was already bordering on Tier 0 when the printing of Batterskull pushed it entirely over the top, leading to one of the most boring and oppressive formats ever. It actually drove me to quit the game.

Some of this is just coincidence, surely. Many of the broken cards during the Saga era heralded from the previous Tempest block. The untap mechanic itself, along with Yawgmoth's Bargain, Gaea's Cradle, Show and Tell, and others, didn't have anything to do with artifacts specifically. And the Cawblade bannings, Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic, both hailed from Zendikar block even if Batterskull was the final nail in the coffin.

So call me cynical or hyperbolic all you like, but I don't trust Wizards not to make a mistake this time too. They're three for three so far in breaking something during artifact-centric blocks. There's always some cost reduction mechanic that gets them into trouble. This is a trend, and at this point it just makes sense to assume that the trend will continue. As far as artifact blocks are concerned, to me Wizards is just another game developer like EA or Square Enix. As I do with video game releases and to appropriate a Zero Punctuation quote, I'm taking the Guantanamo Bay approach to Kaladesh and assuming it's broken until it's proven not broken.

Which Means...

When I'm looking through the spoiler and seeing mechanics like energy and cards like Voltaic Brawler I don't see interesting new cards or decks. I'm wondering how this is going to go wrong. It looks really close to free mana. Just look at the card.

voltaic-brawlerA 3/2 for two is a very good rate by itself, definitely above the norm. Add in the abilities and this card is unquestionably pushed, possibly dangerously. Regardless of other energy cards, Brawler will attack for two turns as a 4/3 with trample. That is very good. If you have other cards which produce energy, he can fight indefinitely. Pretty good deal.

What focuses my attention is the first ability. Two energy counters. The only card before that we can compare him to is Burning-Tree Emissary, a frankly ridiculous card (and the same cost too) both in Standard and Modern. Obviously energy counters aren't the same as mana, but as that one neighbor who never shuts up about their solar panels says, free energy is always good. We have seen a number of decent payoff cards already, aetherworks-marvelthe best of which is Aetherworks Marvel. Free cards every turn is good, and I would not be surprised if this turned out to be consistent enough to be a problem. Hitting bombs is obviously incredible, but even if you don't and the rate on enablers is Voltaic Brawler, it could be a problem.

Will it? I don't know yet. However, this is an artifacts block and energy is a Rosewater mechanic, just like affinity and infect. I'd like to think that after twelve years in R&D it's balanced and safe. I don't, but I'd like to. Anyway, enough doomsaying. Let's talk about some specific cards.

Ceremonious Rejection

ceremonious-rejectionThis is the best Modern card that may never see play. I'm serious. Ceremonious Rejection fills a huge hole in Modern blue by providing an effective and extremely cheap answer against a lot of troublesome decks. This counters every relevant card in Tron, Eldrazi, Affinity, and Lantern Control for one blue. That is insane, and insanely valuable.

But, and this is a completely honest question, when is this going to see play? If this were February the answer would be everywhere, all of the time, thank you Wizards, my faith is restored! But now? Are Tron and Eldrazi really big enough to warrant this card, which is completely dead against nearly every other deck?

The problem is that context is important. Most of the colorless decks are extremely fast, and if you can't use Rejection within the first three turns it's almost certainly useless. Karn LiberatedIf you plan to use it against Affinity then you need it in your opening hand. This means that you need to play three at minimum, probably a full set. Unless something goes wrong again you'll never maindeck it, so can you afford the sideboard slots?

Jeskai and Grixis control might be able to, if they can adjust their maindecks so they don't need as many sideboard slots (I'm thinking pre-boarding against creature decks). Neither deck is good against Tron, and it will absolutely shine at preventing Tron from ever doing anything relevant thanks to Snapcaster Mage. That may be worth it, but Tron will need to get a lot more popular. I'm glad this card exists, I just don't know if it will ever be as powerful in reality as it is on paper.

Chandra, Torch of Defiance

chandra-torch-of-defianceEveryone is losing their mind over this Chandra. A four-mana planeswalker with four abilities reminds everyone of Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Chandra, Torch of Defiance is not Jace. Where Jace is oppressive, Chandra will either be mediocre or broken.

You see, Jace took over games by himself. A single Brainstorm is good. Untapping and getting another is great. If you do it again then you have to work to lose that game. Jace was the first to show how valuable controlling you opponent's draw is, setting the stage for Lantern. Jace is extremely overpowered. How does Chandra measure up?

The minus ability and the ultimate are very good, but that's not what we're here for. A planeswalker ultimate should win the game, so that's good. Killing Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is nice, but you wouldn't play a sorcery-speed Warleader's Helix that only hit creatures in Modern. If Chandra is good, it will be the plus abilities that determine her power.

The first one is deceptive. I know everyone is thinking of Chandra, Pyromaster, but the abilities are different. Pyromaster can find land drops, which was significant. You can also wait to cast your card, which was often important since opponents would play around the exiled card during combat, often netting free damage. Torch requires you to choose during the resolution of the ability and you can't get land drops. The choice to turn lands and uncastable cards into damage is good compensation, but nothing on par with repeated fatesealing or Brainstorm.

ChandraIt's the second ability that will decide Chandra's place in Magic history. She effectively costs two generic mana to cast. Free mana is the most consistently broken mechanic in Modern, so I firmly believe that Chandra has the potential to be degenerate. It's just a question of how.

Storm is the obvious home, but she'd only be good if they went for a longer game to play around hate, and I don't think that's the answer to Storm's decline. Dragonstorm is possible, since it can afford to play more fair cards to protect Chandra and generally plays more slowly. However, I think some as-yet-unknown fair combo à la Scapeshift or a ramp deck is more likely. Simply powering out big threats or facilitating a big turn is extremely good, and such decks would have Lightning Bolt to protect Chandra. Even when Chandra's not accelerating them, potentially drawing through useless accelerants to find payoff cards is great.

Chandra isn't cheap enough nor does she protect herself well enough to work consistently as a fair card. I put her as worse than Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in fair decks. In less than fair decks however she could be ridiculous. Combo players, get to work.

Filigree Familiar

filigree-familiarThis is the best card so far in Kaladesh. Seriously. How? It's a Kitchen Finks for every deck. Grixis will love this card. They finally have a maindeckable way to gain life that isn't dead against Jund. Combine with Kolaghan's Command for ridiculous value. Or simply sacrifice it to Eldritch Evolution to get Reveillark and more.

Familiar is the perfect value card. Two effects that you wouldn't pay a card for put together to make something greater. Solemn Simulacrum is too expensive to see play but Familiar is perfect for Modern. Familiar will never be an all-star or power card, but like a well-greased cog in a machine it is critical to the operation of your deck. It makes everything else you're doing better or makes it easier to do those things. You can't ask for more.

The Puzzleknots

fireforgers-puzzleknotEggs has some new toys. Of the cycle the Jeskai-affiliated are the most interesting for Modern. Fireforger's is a decent way for Eggs to kill their opponent as they're going off, rather than waiting to draw the Demonfire or fizzle. At minimum it kills mana dorks. Not the flashiest card, but it does a solid job.

Does Eggs actually need the card? Hard to say. Pyrite Spellbomb is cheaper, but does nothing until activated. Spellbomb does cycle, which isn't nothing. I think Puzzleknot is worth a try, but I wouldn't be surprised if it isn't good enough.

The really interesting cards are Glassblower's and Woodweaver's Puzzleknots. Both have incidental effects (scry 2 and gain 3 life respectively) but that's not what we're here for---they're energy enablers. Very good ones too. If they provided mana instead both would be insanely broken. If energy is good it will be because of enablers, and these two are stellar.

Woodweaver is the best one because it provides the most energy. Three upfront, and three more if you need it. If energy is even remotely close to mana that is very good. woodweavers-puzzleknotOne knot is enough to activate the Aetherworks. You play a combo deck for the payoff spells, but the deck works because of good enablers. If these are the enablers we can expect, a justifiable payoff will be found to break energy. And my bias will remain intact.

Enemy Fastlands

Most of what needs to be said already has, frankly, but I want to chime in before it's completely done to death. Trevor thinks they will be good but not stellar. Todd Anderson thinks Spirebluff Canal will be the best card in Modern. I think they're in between.

These new fastlands are very good, but how many can be played will depend on how decks are built going forward. Todd is correct that allowing Jeskai and Abzan to more closely emulate Jund on turn one is very good, but Trevor is also correct that trading fetch/shock manabases for fastlands is a real cost, and the tools to mitigate the problems Todd identified already exist.

spirebluff-canalI am certain that these lands will be played in large numbers once Kaladesh releases. They're new and exciting so everyone will want to try them. Their actual place in Modern will be determined the month after the release. Players will have the data to gauge how successful their manabase is and whether the restriction is worth the life gained.

I think what it will come down to is what gets cut to make room for fastlands. I doubt that basics or utility lands will be serious considerations since Blood Moon is a card and your utilities are already important enough to play over normal lands. That leaves fetches and shocks. You cut too many of one and the other gets worse. Losing the shuffle of fetches and the deck thinning is also a consideration.

I suspect that despite what Anderson thinks Canal will not be universal, but existing decks will play the card. Junk will play its new fastlands and just mirror Jund's manabase, but Jeskai isn't going to cut its fixing for fastlands. Grixis might add it in if they were already playing Blackcleave Cliffs, but it will be Delver decks that really want Canal. I'm certain there will be a temporary spike in the deck; it might become permanent.

The Sky is Not Falling

I could be wildly off about Wizards this time. We really don't have enough information to tell. Even if nothing ends up being broken, this looks like an excellent set for Modern. There are a lot of powerful and interesting cards that will have impacts both great and small, or just generate a lot of discussion which is fine too. I just hope that whatever shakes out isn't another Eldrazi Winter.

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David Ernenwein

David has been playing Magic since Odyssey block. A dedicated Spike, he's been grinding tournaments for over a decade, including a Pro Tour appearance. A Modern specialist who dabbles in Legacy, his writing is focused on metagame analysis and deck evolution.

View More By David Ernenwein

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10 thoughts on “Approach with Caution: Kaladesh in Modern

  1. I’ve got to disagree on Voltaic Brawler; it’s harder to cast than the basically unplayable Garruk’s Companion, and in return you get a power level that vacillates between slightly worse and slightly better, depending on if you still have the energy to spare. Overall, I’d call him comparable to Garruk’s Companion. That only leaves the fact that he gives you energy you might want to use for some other payoff card, but if “card that produces energy” is what you want, there are way better cards for that role. Solid in Limited, possibly relevant in Standard, but I doubt he’ll see much use in Modern.

    Now, Filigree Familiar on the other hand… I think you’re spot on. I too made the connection to Finks when I saw it, and I’m going to try him out in an Eldrazi shell with Eldritch Evolution to turn him into a Reality Smasher. Even so, you completely glossed over one of Filigree Familiar’s strongest elements: that card is overwhelmingly, almost oppressively, ADORABLE. How could you say nothing of this in your commentary? Have you no soul?

    1. I was just using Brawler as an example of the power creep in this set. I don’t think he’ll see Modern play either, but if this is the kind of card we can expect energy is going to get broken.

      According to the many opponent’s I’ve Strip Mined and locked out playing hatebears, no. I don’t. Just a flinty pit of hate and malice. Hasn’t slowed me down any.

  2. Personally i think the BW land is one of the best. As a BW tokens player it will make the deck far more viable overall, nothing tier1, but definitely a big jump. Nothing hurts more than Fetch, Shock, Thoughtseize and u see hand with 1 drops / bolts.

  3. Filigree Familiar got spoiled and I immediately wanted a playset between main and sideboard for my current modern deck – Mono U Tron. I think people underestimate just how often a deck can go from fringe to contender with cogs over bombs. Dredge comes to mind right off the bat. That deck went berserk thanks to Insolent Neonate and Prized Amalgam. Cog cards generally either make a strategy more consistent or plug up a simple but major hole. I’m not saying U Tron will go tier 1, far from it because Infect is a virtual auto-loss. What I am saying is I’ve had enough close games against burn, gruul zoo, bogles, and other linear damage based decks to hold off on building an established contender as my next project.

  4. Well written, this article answers a lot of the questions I had about certain cards viability in modern. Eggs was the first deck I thought of when the puzzleknot cycle was spoiled, but what do you think about aetherworks marvel as a piece? Sacrificing permanents is pretty much the gameplan for eggs, and having glassblowers as an additional energy source would certainly help with that line of play. Since second sunrise was banned, eggs has been struggling to hit their second sunrises and open the vaults, and maybe marvel can help them find that.

    I did not think about filigree familiar as a grixis card, but it would really help against burn and aggro, certainly better than dragon’s claw. Some grixis decks are running the new Liliana, and she would really help as an additional way to recur the dude besides K-command.

    As for ceremonious rejection, you put it perfectly. I’m glad the card exists, even if I dont include it in my 75. If the meta shifts towards tron/affinity/lantern/eldrazi again control decks will be prepared.

    Any thoughts on Saheeli? She’s better in a combo deck than control imo, as there have been some brews already with the liquimetal coating + disciple of the vault/altar of the brood combo.

    1. If you want to make Aetherworks, um…work in Eggs I think you have to build around it, and I don’t know if that is actually worth it (I don’t play the deck). They have so many cantrips already I’m not sure they need a tutor. And then the question becomes what do you take out, and is raising your curve with Aetherworks good enough. We’ll have to wait and see.

      Saheeli is a little underpowered. Scrying and chip shots aren’t nothing, but she’s no Liliana of the Veil. The problem is that the deck that wants to use her other abilities doesn’t exist yet. You need creatures or artifacts you want to copy and then targets to go find. That seems like a Kuldotha Forgemaster deck, and those have never caught on.

      1. Saheeli (x2) plus Sun titan is a three card combo that goes infinite. Since cards such thirst for knowledge and gifts ungiven exist and you don’t need to cast her but you just need to have a couple of her in the graveyard, I think that it could be viable.

  5. I played eggs for a time, a janky version anyway (yes jankier than the original version.) I think that eggs is too slow without second sunrise and would need another 4 mana return spell to work well. That being said, cheerios is behaving well with paradoxical outcome, letting it bypass the glass cannon nature of puresteel combos. THe deck has proven quite fast, landing a t4 paradoxical outcomes is usually a game over, and it still has the faster but more delicate puresteel option. I also run riddlekeeper to help smooth out draws, dig for pieces and help combo off. I would like to see if Paradoxical Outcome gives cheerios the legs it needs.

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