Note: This article was supposed to go up yesterday. Our server troubles prevented that. I really liked the opening I wrote. Pretend it's still July 4th for me, please.
Happy Fireworks Day, America! As you celebrate America's birthday through the medium of smoldering craters as Ben Franklin intended, remember: safety first. The Founding Fathers spent their lives writing an award-winning musical to give you the freedom to set your idiot self on fire, but that does NOT mean you should. You cannot partake in the revelry from inside an emergency room. And the nurses are always hurtfully sanctimonious. Besides, explosions are more impressive when you can see the whole thing than when they're right in you face. Choose appropriately.
On an unrelated note, well done Jordan on your 7-1 Modern showing at the Invitational. And for being 29th overall in a tournament that perfectly showcased both the power and fragility of Grixis Shadow. Ergo, I will leave discussing that event to the guy who was actually there and instead talk about the upcoming Hour of Devastation, otherwise known as the Ernenwein Family Fourth of July Picnic! Yes, from the opening Oozing of the Potato Salad to the traditional Ignition of the Gazebo, few things are guaranteed to cause as much Destructive Revelry as my family gatherings. I'll begin this tale with the Year of the Unholy Brisket...hang on.
Ah. This Message Brick that was just hurled through my window is from Jason. It's a "gentle" reminder that this is a Magic site. Also, apparently, the next set release is also named Hour of Devastation. I'm supposed to talk about that one. Easy mistake to make, really. This is awkward. Let me just spend a few minutes looking over the spoiler and then break out my proxies and test for a few hours. I'll be back.
Not Quite Powerful Enough
I'm back and a little underwhelmed with Hour. There are plenty of interesting cards, but for the most part, they are very conditional. Not conditional like "Mana Leak is a conditional counter," but like "If certain conditions are met and/or the format moves X direction, this card will be playable." That doesn't give me much hope for their utility, but I am always ready to be wrong. I mentioned Claim /// Fame in Grixis Shadow last week, but after some test games, it isn't as good as Kolaghan's Command. When the stars align it is very good, but most of the time the lack of versatility hurts too much. So I'll be talking about other cards today.
So You Want to Beat Burn?
Oddly enough, Burn has gotten a lot of attention surrounding this release. There's nothing revolutionary or obviously good, mostly because Wizards is unlikely to release a functional reprint of Lightning Bolt. However, there are some interesting cards that could work, as well as a potentially huge hate card against the deck. The former are options that could take the deck in new directions without making it obviously stronger. The later is very much a high-risk, nearly-instant-win card.
Let's begin with the hate card, Oketra's Last Mercy. In case you were unaware, should this card successfully resolve, you should defeat Burn (it is always possible to punt a game away or draw poorly). I remind you yet again that the basis of Burn is the Philosophy of Fire, which if you're not up to that impenetrable wall of text says among other things that Shock is worth a card because it trades for two life. The fact that Burn trades a card for 3-4 life is why it is a good deck. If you Last Mercy for ~10 life (which is what you should be doing, as anything less is a bad Timely Reinforcements), you effectively five-for-one your opponent. That is backbreaking for burn. Burn is built to reliably deal 18 damage. Asking it to deal 28 is absurd. The only problem is that setting a life total is considered "gaining" (or in rare cases, losing) life, so Skullcrack more than counters Last Mercy since the no-untap clause still applies. If that happens, you almost certainly lose.
I don't think any decks that could play Last Mercy actually need it, since white control decks have Timely and Death and Taxes has Burrenton Forge-Tender. Maybe there's an undiscovered combo for which this is the missing piece (some kind of Necropotence-like engine?) That said, if you're feeling lucky and really want to stick it to Burn, you can't do better.
So You Want to Be Burn?
Onto the cards that Burn will actually play. I want to begin with Blur of Blades. This card will not see any play right now, but if this were last year I would be gushing about how Blur shines against Infect. Infect was tough for Burn because it was faster and Wild Defiance/Mutagenic Growth killed Burn's interaction. Blur ignores those cards thanks to the -1/-1 counter, ensuring that the infector will die once the pumps wear off (give it up for state-based actions!). Searing Blaze will always be better against every other deck, and for that reason, Blur is not a playable card. I've tired to find scenarios where that counter would be better and cannot without going gimmicky. Also, there's the mathematical problem of 3>2. However, if Infect ever returns, remember. Remember.
The next possibility is Wildfire Eternal. I want it on record that I wrote "Elemental" there three times. I find the names in this set dyslexic (more on this to follow). Anyway, this card is unlikely to see play because four mana for a 1/4 non-evasive creature is too much (Afflict is not evasion, even though it's unlikely anyone will block an Eternal). However, free spells are good. I know that the polite euphemisms are looking for ways to combo off with this and Enter the Infinite or what-have-you, but I think a more realistic approach is as free mana to overwhelm a control deck. The usual strategy is to save up burn to try and force a win over your untap step and Eternal gives you extra mana to work with. As a curve topper, I could see it getting some use. I also know some burn players that have been playing Thunderous Wrath and would appreciate a way to cheat it out in case it shows up in their opening hand. Almost certainly not good enough, but something interesting to try.
Finally, Ramunap Ruins. I hate this card because I always think and type it as "Runemap." Even when I warn myself. I had to correct that opening sentence a lot. I am not dyslexic normally, but I've come to believe this set causes dyslexia. Is it just me?
Moving on. On paper, this card looks bad. Five mana (effectively) for two damage is bad. The thing is, Barbarian Ring sees play in Legacy Burn. It is also better in every way except that it isn't Modern legal. Until now, Burn's closest option was Keldon Megaliths, which enters tapped and only does one damage, making it bad. The fact that Ruins is untapped and also taps for painless colorless mana unlike the Ring gives it legs. The question is whether Burn actually needs it, having made do without for so long. I don't think Burn needs Ruins, but some players may want it. I tested Ruins as a way to "cheat" in a late game, and it did what I expected. However, I don't know why you'd play any other deserts to feed Ruins, limiting its utility. A very interesting card but not obviously good enough.
A lot has already been said about the next card in the dark. I've been testing (steady yourself, Ernenwein) Rune <DAMMIT!> Ramunap Excavator and I'm not impressed. It's not that Excavator is too vulnerable or Crucible of Worlds a bad effect, but it really doesn't have a home. Crucible is powerful; extremely powerful in the right deck. The problem is that such a deck has never really existed in Modern. There just aren't the lands to abuse and land destruction isn't prevalent enough to justify an answer. I've seen Crucible most commonly used as a fun-of value card for control decks. It just doesn't work.
Excavator promises to fix that by being a creature. Creatures can at least attack so they're somewhat useful goes the theory. They can also be played via Aether Vial and Collected Company which is why everyone went nuts about Excavator in WG Hatebears. Between the cheating methods and all the spell-like lands you would think it be excel. You, much like me, would be wrong. It was really, really, average. Once again, my Inner Craig Wescoe was very disappointed.
The problem is mana cost and stats. The three-drop slot is absolutely clogged in Hatebears. Loxodon Smiter, Flickerwisp, Mirran Crusader, Blade Splicer, and Brimaz, King of Oreskos are all fighting for space as is, how does Excavator compare? It's a 2/3 with a value generation ability that you cannot use turn three. That really doesn't stack up favorably to the rest of the group. Going long it absolutely has the power to generate insane amounts of value, but getting to that point means that you're almost certainly winning anyway. You can absolutely Strip Mine your opponent out of the game or draw two cards a turn with Excavator, but if you have the time to do so, why haven't you won yet? And Excavator won't help much on actually winning since a 2/3 is not an impressive attacker and will be outclassed by almost everything. As a maindeck strategy I don't see it working out.
However, there is so much value to be had that I can't just dismiss Excavator. As a sideboard card against Tron I can see this really putting you over with infinite Ghost Quarters, or outdrawing control decks with Horizon Canopy. The fact that it half-dodges Fatal Push is not insignificant. Whether that's as good as it sounds is up in the air, but Inner Craig Wescoe is very hopeful. And it's nice to throw him a bone every so often.
The next two cards that stood out are in fact powerful enough. The problem is that I don't know if their decks are good enough to compete. There's little chance they'll elevate their homes out of Tier 3, but they could potentially bring them the attention necessary to at least gain respect.
Always with the Snakes
The drawback on all of the <God>'s Last <Whatever> spells is significant. You get a very powerful effect at the cost of effectively Time Walking yourself. For this reason, I have doubts about their playability in a format as fast and efficient as Modern, centering on how many things have to break your way for your opponent not to wreck you with their "free" turn. And yes, it's not so bad in the late game etc., etc., etc., but if you've made it to the late game with a deck that wants these effects you've already won. Unless you're playing Rhonas's Last Stand. Then you've probably lost.
The token has been compared to Tarmogoyf, which isn't really accurate. I think Gurmag Angler is stronger parallel. They're both five-power creatures available on turn two that require setup. Tarmogoyf grows bigger and blocks better than the snake token. The snake technically comes with a drawback, but green creature decks also have mana dorks, which mitigates the problem. In aggressive decks that need big creatures and don't have much to do with their mana anyway, the Snake is an excellent beater. A 5/4 for two is a potent threat.
The problem is that Last Stand lacks a viable home. It's a sorcery so you can't hit with Collected Company, and it doesn't have any special abilities, so there's no Chord or Company deck that would play it. The only deck that wants big dumb beaters is Mono-Green Stompy, which is so one-dimensional that everyone sees it coming from miles away. Sometimes, though. Sometimes, they can't get out of the way. Stompy just gets there every so often. I could see an undercosted threat doing work there. It certainly worked for Grixis. Don't write Last Stand off just yet.
Part of a Good Breakfast
Lastly, lets talk about Cheeri0s. When Sram, Senior Edificer was printed there was hype for days about that wonky combo pile finally becoming a real deck. Even I got in on the action. And then it all died. The deck was still too fragile and inconsistent to really make it with the big decks. Which is a shame; the deck is different and fun, and I believe that unfair combo is a necessary part of a well-balanced metagame. It just wasn't to be.
Now, Cheeri0s may have gotten a new piece to the puzzle. Retract is the supercharger for the engine, and with Leave /// Chance it looks like they've got a whole extra engine. Leave acts as extra Retracts, making the full combo a little easier to pull off, but it's Chance that's really interesting. The great flaw in Cheeri0s is that without Sram or Puresteel Paladin in play the deck is filled with blanks. Chance lets you turn all those blanks into cards, either to get the combo started or to fine tune a draw. Lets face it, discarding a bunch of equipment is not that burdensome. I doubt this pushes Cheeri0s beyond low Tier 2, but that would still be a huge step up.
Face the Future
Hour of Devastation is nothing close to Khans of Tarkir. If it houses something truly format-shaking, I don't see it. But there are a lot of interesting cards that encourage tinkering and exploration which is far healthier. Did I miss something? I'm always open to being wrong, so let me know what you think in the comments.