What’s the Time? HOU and XLN: First Impressions

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GP Las Vegas has come and gone, but excitement surrounding Modern still pulses through the community. Vegas saw some very interesting decks make the Top 8, and not only are Hour of Devastation spoilers providing plenty to discuss, but Ixalan's contraversial rare sheet leak has given format aficionados an unprecedented amount of new information to digest. Today, we'll look at the most exciting cards from Hour so far, paying extra attention to one from that set and to one from Ixalan (spoiler warning!).

Claim // Fame

I've clamored for an An Unearthly Child reprint since I bought my Goyfs in 2012, and Claim // Fame is as good as it's gonna get. Unlike An Unearthly Child, the card is sometimes dead, and therefore worse overall. But it's definitely better in some matchups, where it provides value in the form of immediate damage. Having Fame in the graveyard forces opponents low on life to respect the threat of a creature coming down and closing the game right away, which can provide sizable tempo gains over many turns, à la Splinter Twin. And many of Modern's best creatures fulfill the requirements for Claim, which reanimates Tarmogoyf/Snapcaster Mage/Death's Shadow, Devoted Druid/Vizier of Remedies/Duskwatch Recruiter // Krallenhorde Howler, and others.

In Death's Shadow

Claim // Fame certainly seems tailor-made for Shadow, and appears to be significantly better than Kolaghan's Command as a recursive option. This upgrade comes in the form of efficiency---using Claim to return a Goyf saves four mana over using Kolaghan's to return and then cast that same Goyf, costing pilots one instead of five. I think that easily compensates for the perhaps more powerful (but still situational) second mode on KC, which will never be worth four mana... and remember, Fame gives Claim a second mode, too!

That said, the card only bests Kolaghan's if it reliably has targets. Out of Grixis, Claim reanimates just Snapcaster and Shadow. That's why I personally like the card in a shell with Goyfs, and think its addition to Modern might finally open the door for some Sultai-slanted builds to pop up. My first take:

I think preserving the best elements of Jund and Grixis Shadow is the ideal starting path here---Goyf, the Traverse package, Temur Battle Rage, and Ancient Grudge from Jund, and Snapcaster Mage and Stubborn Denial from Grixis. Since we're keeping more from Jund and need Goyf for Claim // Fame to shine brightest, I've gone with a Jund-ier core.

Although creating a deck full of one-drops of four different colors doesn't really work, a gentle fourth-color splash is standard fare for the Jund Shadow decks. They usually splash white for Ranger of Eos and Lingering Souls after siding, but have increasingly been known to incorporate Denial on occasion. Luckily for Claim // Fame, red is already an ideal splash for Sultai colors; Battle Rage, and red sideboard options like Kozilek's Return and Ancient Grudge, give the deck some juice against the strategies now cropping up to beat Grixis Shadow, such as slamming Chalice of the Void or running a bunch of Mirran Crusaders.

As a bonus, returning to Tarmogoyf makes the Shadow deck more robust in the face of Liliana's Defeat, a card we're sure to see more of to combat the strategy (more on Defeat below). Shadow decks boast an exceptionally powerful and flexible core. The more the deck enjoys the spotlight, the larger the target on its head looms. With people rightly attacking Shadow in highly specialized ways as a result, innovative builds become more attractive. I'd be surprised if Claim // Fame didn't earn an inclusion in some of them.

Sorcerous Spyglass

Up next is the new card I'm most excited about, which is a shame since we won't get it for a few months. Sorcerous Spyglass is a two-mana Pithing Needle that allows casters to see an opponent's hand before naming a card. It doesn't even target, allowing it to get around Leyline of Sanctity.

While mana efficiency matters enormously in Magic and in Modern, I expect Spyglass to become a sideboard staple for a couple of reasons, and all but invalidate Pithing Needle.

Decks with multiple targets: The other day, I paired against Abzan Company and led off my game two with Pithing Needle on Devoted Druid. As it turned out, my opponent had opened Birds of Paradise, Kitchen FinksViscera Seer, and Vizier of Remedies, and curved into the combo perfectly. I was able to break it up with Dismember on the Vizier plus an active Ratchet Bomb on one, but I lost my misguided Needle in the process.

Decks like Abzan Company have multiple targets for Pithing Needle, which is why Needle is so good against them---in this matchup, for example, it can hit Seer, Druid, Recruiter, Ooze, or Township, which are all fine choices depending on the scenario. But since Needle can only hit one, it's often best to wait to cast Needle until opponents have already resolved their permanent (and, in many cases, used it). Consider also Grixis Shadow---both Lilianas might give you trouble, but the last thing you want is to name the Last Hope only to hopelessly watch your opponent tap down for of the Veil. Or consider Eldrazi Tron, where Map, Quarter, Ballista, Collar, Endbringer, and Karn are all permanents players might want answers for. Or consider Affinity, where the payoff spell can range from Ravager to Overseer to Plating. Spyglass solves this issue by providing hand information first, allowing us to choose the most desirable card we see.

Fetchlands: I think the biggest draw to this card, and somehow the least talked about, is its interaction with fetchlands. We've all heard the amazing stories of naming a fetchland with Pithing Needle and essentially blowing up an opposing land or two for one mana in the process. Pulling that off requires opponents to have the correct fetchland in hand at the time of Needle's resolution, making it a wildly inconsistent line. Spyglass changes all this by revealing the hand first. Oh, you have a Scalding Tarn? I'll name that. Boom! Two-mana Stone Rain.

Most Modern decks play heaps of fetches, so consistently having this kind of upside on the card makes it much, much better than Pithing Needle ever could be. There was always the chance with Needle that opponents would never draw the card we brought it in for, or any card we wanted to hit with it. An early Spyglass is nearly guaranteed to Blackmail an opponent's land at worst. The reveal clause gives Spyglass a very high floor, and one that easily pays for its pricier mana cost.

Even when opponents have juicy targets in their hands, it might be correct to name a revealed fetch. Spyglass can "get" land-light opponents in the same way that Spreading Seas or Blood Moon can, but since it gives us information before we make a decision, we get to choose whether to follow through with a mana denial plan or just name the best activated ability card in an opponent's hand or deck. That's exactly the kind of flexibility I look for in a Modern card.

In Colorless Eldrazi Stompy

Spyglass does something extra for Colorless Eldrazi Stompy. Pithing Needle has always been great in this deck's sideboard, but it creates some tension with Chalice of the Void. There are some matchups for which we want both (such as Grixis Shadow) but must make tough decisions about which to prioritize casting. Since Spyglass costs two, it doesn't overlap with a Chalice on one, further reducing strain on our openers and early lines.

Besides, since the deck is so aggressive (and employs a particularly aggressive Plan A against most linear decks in Modern), I think Spyglass's fetchland-shorting dimension becomes especially potent. Being tight on mana is one thing, but being tight on mana while getting smacked around by 3/3s is another---just ask your local Legacy player.

This list is just what I plan on bringing to the SCG Invitational next weekend, but with a slightly modified sideboard (-2 Needle, -1 Gut Shot, +3 Spyglass). The mainboard Relic occupies my sole flex spot, and is a hedge against Shadow, Dredge, Living End, and the Rest in Peace-featuring UW decks popping up to beat all three.

Hour-nable Mentions

Before I go, here's a brief review of the other standout cards from Hour of Devastation so far. I'll avoid discussing the Ixalan cards here in case some readers, like me, prefer Wizards's scheduled, hi-res spoilers to a heap of barely-readable dinosaurs we won't get until September (that said, I obviously did take a gander; temptation is a crueler mistress than of the Veil herself). But if you're interested in the Ixalan rares, a quick google search should point you towards the archeological site.

Liliana's Defeat: [Sorcery. Destroy target black creature or black planeswalker. If it was a Liliana planeswalker, its controller loses 3 life.] I mentioned this one above, and man, is it a doozy. Here's a card that kills any of Grixis Shadow's high-impact cards, no questions asked, for one mana. It can even be Snapped back! Expect Defeat to be a staple in black sideboards as a one- or two-of while Grixis Shadow remains Modern's premier rock deck.

Solemnity: Three mana is a whole lot for a permanent that doesn't immediately impact the board, but folks will try to break Solemnity anyway. It helps that the card has a disruptive effect against some decks---Affinity and Infect might struggle to close out games under the enchantment. Solemnity's real potential isn't its disruptive capability, though, but the way it combos with our own cards. With the enchantment on the table, Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror flips after just one instant/sorcery is cast, Kitchen Finks persists forever, Jötun Grunt gives white a Goyf, and Phyrexian Unlife becomes a super-Aerie Worshippers. But if that's not enough to get your gears spinning, keep right on reading.

Ramunap Excavator: Giving beloved noncreature permanents legs is nothing new for Wizards, but these kinds of reveals still manage to energize the community. Excavator represents Crucible of Worlds on a body. Talk about a card Todd Stevens wishes he had three months ago, when he actually played the clunky artifact in his GW Company deck! I expect Excavator to re-ignite interest in that deck, however fringe it may be, and pop up from time to time in value-based shells with important lands. Think Hatebears, another on-color deck with Companies, Quarters, and Canopies.

Oketra's Last Mercy: Whether or not this card breaks into the competitive circuit (double white is a pretty intensive color cost for the white decks that struggle against Burn, like Bant Eldrazi), you can bet your bottom you'll see it at FNM for years to come. Burn players, beware: someone's got it out for you. Fortunately for Lava Spikers, Mercy can still be countered with Skullcrack and Atarka's Command; the Comprehensive Rules dictate that "if an effect sets a player’s life total to a specific number, the player gains or loses the necessary amount of life to end up with the new total."

Nimble Obstructionist: Vendilion Clique is a powerful card, and one that's seen its fair share of tournament play. But it's always had a tough time in Modern, where it dies to Bolt and heavily taxes manabases. Of course, Bolt isn't great right now, so three-mana, 3/1 flying bodies may have more relevance than usual---Kelsey has even been liking a Clique in her Counter-Cat sideboard lately. Either way, though, Clique never offers more than virtual card advantage, something control decks aren't looking to get for such a hefty cost.

Enter Nimble Obstructionist. Obstructionist fits more easily into three- and four-color decks with its splashable 2U cost, but its chief upside in relation to Clique is the ability to two-for-one opponents. Stifle has never been legal in Modern (much to my dismay), and Trickbind charges too much for the effect. But paying one more mana for a cantrip seems fair to me, and positively awesome when coupled with a second mode of respectable, evasive, instant-speed clock. Notably, Obstructionist's Stifle ability can't be countered by a counterspell... but it can be countered by another Obstructionist!

Bontu's Last Reckoning: Not untapping your lands sucks, but it doesn't suck as much as dying. Modern is a very fast format. Reckoning gives black decks a fairly unconditional sweeper that I think will definitely see play in sideboards. Killing an Angler and a Shadow with one card isn't something currently available to Modern players for three mana, and that price point makes it easier to flash back with Snapcaster Mage than something like Choice of Damnations. Reckoning also provides a highly impactful effect to decks that don't often get to four mana, and one that practically loses its drawback in late-game topdeck-mode situations, despite still costing the same amount.

Scavenger Grounds: [T: Add C to your mana pool. 2, T, sacrifice a desert: Exile all cards from all graveyards.] I almost put Grounds into my above Colorless Eldrazi Stompy list over that flex-spot Relic, but I'll have to test with the card to see if it makes the cut there---after all, we only have room for 2 Mutavault, a card we'd like to run more of if able. Either way, Grounds is an obvious shoe-in for Eldrazi Tron, a deck that not only likes its disruptive effect but has a way to consistently access the card thanks to Expedition Map. Since Grounds can sacrifice any desert to activate its ability, it even plays nicely with our next card...

Hostile Desert: [T: Add C to your mana pool. 2, exile a land card from your graveyard: Hostile Desert becomes a 3/4 elemental creature until end of turn. It's still a land.] Yet another inclusion I'll have to test in Colorless Eldrazi Stompy, Hostile Desert costs more to activate than Mutavault, but also brings significantly more power to the table. 3/4 is freaking massive! For reference, that's the size of many young Goyfs, and of Stirring Wildwood---a land that costs a whopping three mana (including two of different colors) to activate, and still sees play. Hostile Desert is very pushed as far as colorless manlands go, and I'm interested to see if it breaks in to many non-colorless Modern decks as a result (as Mutavault historically has). Resisting Bolt is a major plus in this format.

Time to Get Ill

With each passing hour, we get closer to Hour itself---a brand new set of Magic! Which new cards have you excited? Let me know in the comments.

5 thoughts on “What’s the Time? HOU and XLN: First Impressions

    1. I explained it:

      “I’ll avoid discussing the Ixalan cards here in case some readers, like me, prefer Wizards’s scheduled, hi-res spoilers to a heap of barely-readable dinosaurs we won’t get until September (that said, I obviously did take a gander; temptation is a crueler mistress than of the Veil herself). But if you’re interested in the Ixalan rares, a quick google search should point you towards the archeological site.”

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