Two months ago, a foil rare sheet from Ixalan was illegitimately posted online. Most of us glanced over the fuzzy pictures and then returned to the hi-res Hour of Devastation spoilers. But then Hour came out, and the fuzzy pictures beckoned from the abyss.
Fortunately, Wizards didn't make the more patient among us wait too long to get a hold of that sweet information. A mothership article from this week gives some perspective on the leak and officially spoils the cards from the sheet. Today, we'll assess the hits and misses among those spoilers.
These are the cards I think will surely turn up in Modern, and stick around for a while in some quantity, even if certain metagame shifts cause them to fall out of favor.
Settle the Wreckage
Many are pegging this mass-Path to Exile as the breakout Modern card in Ixalan. I'm not nearly as optimistic. The card is fine and will see play, but not at all on the level some might have you believe.
Settle's "attacking creatures" clause makes it impossible for it to break up combos or synergies; opponents have to play into the instant for you to even cast it. Decks with counterspells or Thoughtseize (Delver, Shadow) can sit around and build a board while they're waiting to draw disruption for Settle. Decks with non-combat-step creature tricks (Company, Elves) can accrue value or simply go off rather than declare any attackers. Settle then looks like it will be best against purer aggro decks like Zoo or Eldrazi. Against Zoo, though, smaller sweepers like Anger of the Gods are generally favored due to their efficiency; for its part, Eldrazi will have no problem sitting on a couple attackers and swinging in with a lone Smasher (or, even worse, Eternal Scourge!).
That's a lot of trash talk for a card that makes my playables list. But playable it is, and I expect Settle to make many Jeskai Control-style lists at one copy. Additional copies incentivize opponents to play around it, while a single copy incentivizes them not to play around it, and therefore maximizes the odds of a blowout. Besides, many decks attacking with multiple creatures won't have enough basics to search up to get full "value" off Settle's drawback, especially since they're likely facing a deck with Path to Exile.
Here's another playable I think was overhyped at first, if mostly in the circles I frequent. When Ixalan was partially leaked, Entrancing Melody looked as though it could be an instant, and an instant-speed, flexible control magic is just what the doctor ordered in Temur Delver. Wizards' official spoiler dispelled that myth, but I nonetheless set out testing Melody as a two-of in the sideboard.
To say I was unimpressed would be an understatement. But Temur Delver is a deck with very specific requirements of its cards, so Melody's failure there doesn't necessarily speak to its viability in Modern generally. I can envision this card becoming a role-player in a number of archetypes, and especially in those without access to efficient removal---in other words, interactive color combinations lacking white and black may want Melody as a way to remove Death's Shadow and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet alike. That it can't be blanked by commonly-played removal such as Abrupt Decay gives Melody a leg-up over its obvious competition in Threads of Disloyalty, and compatibility with Snapcaster Mage is a plus for reactive strategies like Blue Moon.
I've made no secret of my infatuation with this card, even showcasing it in my Hour of Devastation spoiler review while leaving the other Ixalan cards alone. Well, I'm still excited! Here's a brief review of what the card does in Colorless Eldrazi Stompy, specifically:
- Comes out proactively against decks with multiple potential targets, turning on Sea Gate Wreckage and helping curve.
- Gets around Chalice of the Void on one, increasing relevance against bigger Serum Visions decks.
- Compliments our aggression by sometimes hitting spotted fetchlands and slowing opponents down.
Unlike with Melody, my preliminary tests with Sorcerous Spyglass have proven very fruitful. I wouldn't even be surprised if other decks started packing this card despite it costing more than Pithing Needle.
Kopala, Warden of Waves
There isn't much to say about this guy---he's just an on-tribe Kira, Great Glass-Spinner. Granted, Kira's ability is a bit better, but given Merfolk's level of aggression and tendency to run Cursecatcher, I don't see pilots missing it much. Kopala's "pay 2" clause can be compared to Diffusion Sliver's, and that card is a staple in its respective deck (whenever it shows up).
On-tribe is relevant for a couple of reasons. With UWx control decks now regular players in the metagame, things have become a little more difficult for Merfolk. Kira's something of a trump in that matchup, and Kopala will come in handy, too; notably, Kopala has a far better chance of becoming counter-proof with Cavern of Souls than Kira does. More immediately, Kopala's typing grants it islandwalk and pumps from Merfolk's lords, which for me make it a shoe-in over the clunky Spirit. I believe players may experiment with a 1-1 split before going full-Kopala.
Shaper's Sanctuary, for all intents and purposes, is a one-mana Wild Defiance. With Bolt being largely replaced by Push, it's actually better. I expect this card to fly under the radar without a home for a few months, and eventually be picked up by spell-based aggro-combo decks, which will probably remain Tier 3 but will still appreciate this addition to their arsenal.
Sanctuary punishes opponents for slinging removal spells. The absolute best way to interact with decks like Infect and Turbo Druid is to throw removal spells at their creatures and run them out of threats, so Sanctuary seems poised to make a killing in their sideboards.
I don't see it out of more focused decks like Affinity, though. For one, Sanctuary doesn't help Affinity get going, unlike protective artifacts such as Welding Jar or Spellskite. It's also fairly narrow in its application, unlike Spell Pierce and Thoughtseize. The final nail in the coffin for Sanctuary in Robots is that the best way to beat Affinity isn't with spot removal at all---it's with hosers.
All that said, I'd love me some Sanctuary in the newer BUG Infect lists running around (employing none other than Disrupting Shoal!), or even in the Vengevine decks filling in for aggro-combo's now-missing links. It's certainly excellent against Death's Shadow, the archetype's chief predator.
These cards are either outclassed by other options or overly niche. All of them are traps. I won't cover any of the obviously bad cards in the set, but rather focus on ones people have pegged as potential Modern candidates.
Ashes of the Abhorrent: Combines Grafdigger's Cage's ability with a bizarre lifegain clause, and while each are respectable tools for a sideboard, they don't work on one card. At the end of the day, Modern players will always prefer the card that does its job better than one that provides two watered-down effects useful in different matchups. In this case, that card is either Rest in Peace or Grafdigger's Cage, depending on the deck.
Deadeye Tracker: This gripe is more personal than the others. With the resurgence of Pirates, the Rogue type I love so much has all but been abandoned. And for what? A marginal flavor gain? Pirates are practically rogues, after all. But they don't enable Thieve's Fortune, and therefore are of little use to me; part of the appeal of new sets is perusing the Rogues, and now I have none to peruse!
Deadeye is the Rogue I mourn the most. So much juicy text! (Explore is one of the wordiest, most confusing, and overall worst-designed mechanics I have seen in ages, mind you.) Ixalan admittedly looks great so far, but I'm definitely excited to return to a plane with Rogues. Hopefully, the coming Dominaria block doesn't convert too many of them to swashbucklers in the interest of backwards compatibility with Standard.
Kumena's Omenspeaker: Omenspeaker gets +1/+1 if controllers also control an Island or other Merfolk. I've seem some suggest Omenspeaker as a possible beater in Merfolk, where it might take the place of Cursecatcher. I just don't think the power/toughness increase is worth the latter's utility, or a splash. That said, we've seen Merfolk splash green before, for Collected Company; We're probably just one pushed Simic Merfolk away from the deck going in that direction again. Omenspeaker is not that Merfolk, and I doubt Merfolk runs it if it does end up splashing.
Old-Growth Dryads: Wild Nacatl is certainly powerful, but ramping opponents by one on the first turn is a cost far too steep to justify playing it in non-Naya decks. Whether it's a cost too steep to justify playing it eight times remains to be seen. If Dryads sees any Modern play, it'll be in a hyper-aggressive Zoo list; I especially like how it improves Hidden Herbalists, which notably can't cast red spells, and sometimes yields awkward draws with Kird Ape (the obvious cut). There's no way Dryads makes it into better-rounded decks like Naya Company or Counter-Cat.
Tocatli Honor Guard: This one will see play if Torpor Orb becomes a playable card again. I just don't see that happening in the near future. Guard is still a welcome addition to Modern's ever-growing toolbox of white hatebears, and lovers of Death and Taxes-style decks should pick up their playset when the card inevitably settles at bulk prices post-prerelease.
Deeproot Waters: Waters is an enchantment that creates a 1/1 hexproof Merfolk token whenever you cast a Merfolk spell. Okay, so spending three mana on something other than a creature is not something Merfolk normally wants to do. Sure. But Waters still has me intrigued, as it gives the deck a unique angle of attack.
Against removal-heavy attrition decks, having a pair of sideboarded Waters in the deck allows Merfolk to play very conservatively and build a gameplan around resolving the enchantment. Once it sticks, those hexproof 1/1s are sure to make short work of an opponent stockpiling Snapcasters and Paths. Waters is similar to Affinity's Ghirapur Aether Grid in this way, and in line with the way I like to build my sideboards, even if I'm totally off-base about Merfolk ever wanting this card.
Jace, Cunning Castaway: The last card on our list strikes me as pretty miserable. Jace's plus is exceedingly narrow, not even hitting enemy creatures like Tamiyo, Field Researcher; his minus is similarly underwhelming, creating a fragile bear by resetting to a single loyalty. And his ultimate is... making copies of himself? Because if one terrible planeswalker is good, three is surely better!
Jace still costs three mana, a magic number for Modern planeswalkers. Liliana, the Last Hope has become a staple, as has Gideon of the Trials, and Liliana of the Veil makes a strong case for being the best card in the format, period. Even Nissa, Voice of Zendikar has enjoyed fringe play in GW Tokens.
Since Jace costs 1UU, though, we'd do best to compare him to other planeswalkers in that price range. Jace Beleren is all we've got, and that walker sees play exclusively in Taking Turns, a deck that makes great use of his plus and minus abilities. Outlook not-so-good for the Castaway, although a deck may eventually emerge that can use him.
A Note on Planeswalkers
As David mentioned earlier this week, planeswalkers undergo a rules change with Ixalan that allows differently-named walkers of the same type to be on the battlefield at once. Liliana and Gideon are the two characters that stand to benefit from this change, the former in BGx rock decks and the latter in control and prison strategies.
I doubt the change propels any of these archetypes to new heights on its own, but it will definitely be interesting to see how deep midrange decks go into employing planeswalkers over creatures. Should the multi-Lili decks prove a force to be reckoned with, we'll have Sorcerous Spyglass with which to battle them, not to mention Liliana's Defeat!
Planking in Strange Places
Ixalan seems like a great world so far, and I'm loving the colors and design. Hopefully we'll get some Modern-playable dinosaurs so I don't feel like a total chump building around Gishath, Sun's Avatar. As is the case with a foreign land, though, you never know.