Testing Ixalan: Exploring Traps

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With a new set comes new speculation, new brews, and new bold declarations. Archetypes are revived, archetypes are doomed, new decks exist, the new decks are terrible—we've heard it all before. I try not to speculate and only talk about cards once I've actually played with them. This means I'm pretty late to the party in terms of new releases, but I like to think that my data makes up for that. It is considered polite to let me keep that illusion, thank you very much.

Last week I shared my intention to bring you the data on Preordain this week. Unfortunately, intent does not translate into reality. Magic takes quite a bit of time to play, and control takes even more. As a result I didn't finish testing UW Control until it was too late to make this week's article. That's just how it goes when you're coordinating a massive volunteer project. You only work when you can sync schedules. Instead, this week will be about my exploration of Ixalan. I've been testing some new cards while waiting to complete Preordain and it has not been encouraging. Better than I thought, but much worse than you may hope.

I should also preemptively mention that I'm not talking about any Merfolk this week. That deserves its own article which I'll be writing after the Preordain results. There's a lot more to discuss there, and I want more time to actually try out my ideas. The preliminary results are...complicated. I need more data to really address that topic.

The Mechanics

While Ixalan has a lot of interesting cards and creative world-building, it's fairly boring mechanically. We've seen Treasures before as Gold tokens from Theros block, though the only notable card that made them was Gild. I know that Wizards insists that the tokens are different, but changing the name does not a different effect make, Rosewater! The main difference is that the Treasure mechanic gets supported in the set. Enrage is fine, but not very interesting. You get a cookie when your creature gets hurt. So what? Also it came directly from Hearthstone. Not innovative, and not really worth testing. If you'd play it without enrage, it's a playable card. If you'd only play it because of enrage triggers, don't bother. Explore is the most interesting. Cantrips are good, and explore is very similar. Maybe it's good enough?

Lost in the Jungle

As I'm going to detail more when I do the Merfolk article, explore is really hard to evaluate. Not because of what it does, mind you. It's a weird blend of scrying and drawing a card with creature buffing thrown in. It's almost always worse than just drawing a random card, but it's better than scry 1. The problem is making that work in Constructed. Cantrip creatures are good. Creatures that provide +1/+1 counters are occasionally good. Self-mill is very good in the right deck. Explore has parts of all of these. When you see a land, you draw a card. When you don't, you get a small buff and the option to bin the card. On its face, having parts of mechanics is not good. It will never be as good at buffing as an actual buff card, cantripping as a cantrip, or milling as Thought Scour or dredge.

However, flexibility adds a lot to a card's playability. I didn't think that Collected Brutality was good enough for Modern because none of its modes is Modern-worthy. I was completely wrong, Brutality is fantastic, even when you're not taking advantage of the discarded cards. As a result, maybe explore is good enough. I'll have a better answer soon.

Keep Track of Your Valuables

Just so everyone is perfectly clear, Lotus Petal is a fairly busted Magic card. Not Mox-level busted, but pretty up there. The Treasures are Lotus Petals. One would think they would also be busted. I did, and I tried to make them work. They're not. Yet, anyway. Treasure generation is tied to some fairly unimpressive Constructed cards. They tend to be just barely Standard-playable and I can't imagine any of them making the jump into Modern. However, this is Wizards of the Coast, and messing up free mana is their thing. Energy may not have made it into Modern, but it was very busted in Standard, as I predicted it would be. This makes me wary of treasures.

There's nothing that really strikes me right now as dangerous about Treasure. The best idea I've had for making them involves Revel in Riches, Night of Souls' Betrayal, and Forbidden Orchard to generate extra mana. And that's much, too slow for any Constructed format. Maybe you can make the alternate win work, but that seems unlikely. Any other Treasure-generating loop I've come up with makes mana on its own, so they're superfluous. It's not broken. But again, this is Wizards. There could be some monstrosity lurking in Rivals of Ixalan that makes these Lotus Petals good. So watch for that.

Looking for a Home

This section is for the other tested cards that I can't find a home for. One of them is a very powerful card that is useful almost anywhere but I don't know if any deck actually wants it. The other is just a worse alternative that plenty of players will gravitate towards, but end up disappointed in. They're fine cards on the spoiler sheet, and they play out just fine. The problem is actually dedicating deck space to them. One is an interesting problem to continue working on but the other is a dead end. You've been warned. I'll also cover Opt, which is a good card that you need to be careful with.

Can't See it from Here

The first one is the card that has generated the most buzz for the longest time: Sorcerous Spyglass. I love this card. Combining Pithing Needle and Peek just sounds fantastic. Blind-naming with Needle can be incredibly frustrating. If your opponent has something to hit, you always know with Spyglass. You even get information on their hand. Consensus puts that at not quite worth a card, but as a bonus to another effect it's fine. Needle is a fine sideboard card and has been on the edge of maindeck-playable for some time now. Since Spyglass proves a bonus, it stands to reason that it is a maindeck card.

The problem is that I cannot determine which deck wants to maindeck Spyglass. The fundamental problem with Needle has always been that it doesn't do much on its own. Only when you combine it with lots of pressure or other lock pieces is it anything more than annoying. Needle shuts down one card-name's non-mana activated abilities. It does nothing else. That leaves the remaining 56 cards to kill you. Needle has always been at its best shutting down planeswalkers and non-mana combo engines. If it can't do that, it's worthless. It's also a soft answer, in that it can be removed and the target turns back on. This is why it's relegated to the sideboard.

Some players don't realize this, but Needle, and now Spyglass, can hit lands. They can't stop them from making mana, but they can name them. The fact that Phyrexian Revoker does stop mana abilities is why it can't name lands. For the most part this is just used to shut down utility lands. But you can also name fetchlands and turn Needle into, effectively, land destruction. Against some decks this is huge—think Death's Shadow's mana base. The problem has always been that unless you know exactly which lands are in your opponent's hand, they could sequence around the Needle, limiting it's effectiveness. Spyglass solves this problem for an additional mana. It was this use for the card that I decided to test.

Since I was planning to try the card as a land destruction spell with upside, it made the most sense to try it in Death and Taxes. I just took my PPTQ list and changed the Selfless Spirits and Revoker to Spyglass and tried it out. It was...okay. The kind of card that did what you wanted, but you're not thrilled about. You're fine playing it but left asking if there's something better. It overlapped with Leonin Arbiter, but I was often okay with that thanks to the greater flexibility. The real problem was that it didn't add to the clock, which is already a problem for DnT.

The other problem is that I don't know if any other deck wants this maindeck. There are plenty of prison decks that already use Needle, but the Peek is largely superfluous. Sun and Moon, the deck I tried, didn't care about the opponent's hand because they either invalidated it already or couldn't do anything with the information. Turns are fairly scripted with that deck, I found. It will also never replace Needle in sideboards. Needle is cheaper and if you want to side in this effect, you already know what you're naming. The card is good, I just haven't found its home yet.

Naught But Ruins

There have been flurries of conversation swirling around Field of Ruin. It's clearly a "fixed" Ghost Quarter that won't set you back on mana. Theoretically, anyway. You still spent most of a turn of mana to kill your opponent's land. Ultimately, this is the problem with Field. It seems good, but it's too inefficient.

Outside of combining with Leonin Arbiter to become Strip Mine, the big draw of Ghost Quarter is that it has no cost. You just fling it at a Tron piece and are done. They get a basic land, but that's much better for you than letting them have that Tron piece. This leaves you free to use the rest of your mana to do something else. This efficiency is invaluable. Land destruction is a tempo tool. It creates a temporary hiccup in your opponent's plan that you then exploit. If you fail to do so quickly, they'll recover and probably crush you. They're playing real cards; you have land destruction. It's only when you hard-lock them with recurring LD, like looping Quarter with Crucible of Worlds, that it actually wins the game on its own.

Therefore, despite appearances, Field of Ruin will not make it in Death and Taxes. I know some writers on big sites talked about how good it was alongside Arbiter, but I think they just forgot that his effect is symmetrical. Paying four mana to destroy their land is really bad. It has been suggested that control might play it against Tron. I tested this usage and found it very poor. UW Control already has Spreading Seas, whose net effect is pretty similar and hits a turn earlier. Having Field as a backup was okay but not great. On turn three against Tron you really need to have a clock out or you'll just lose to all the bombs. Spending that turn turning lands into basics wasn't of much use. After turn three, Tectonic Edge is just better. There's no reason to play this card.

Don't Opt in Automatically

Finally, don't just jam Opt because it's instant speed. It's not appropriate for every deck that want cantrips. It is a fine card, but the effect isn't quite big enough for it to actually replace Serum Visions. See, Opt only shows you one card. That's not what you want from a cantrip, especially in a control deck. When you need to dig, you need to dig, and one card doesn't qualify.

I tested Opt in UW Control and it was very poor. UW is more of a tap-out control deck these days than classic permission control. As such, you really don't care about Serum Visions being a sorcery. What you do care about is it seeing three cards, even if you don't have control over which one you draw. Later in the game you usually don't use all your mana during your opponent's turn anyway, so there's no real cost. I've also found that optimal play is somewhat inflexible in the deck (your actual answers at a given time are limited) so the flexibility of instant speed is kind of wasted.

Where Opt belongs is in decks that play primarily at instant speed, like the Jeskai Midrange list that won SCG Louisville. That deck already plays primarily at instant speed so it could use the additional flexibility. Whether Opt is actually good enough there I haven't tested yet, but it will be better than in the slow control decks. Before, if you wanted to Serum Visions turn one you had to give up on Lightning Bolting a turn one play. Now you can do either. That seems pretty good.

Seek the Unknown

Ixalan may not have much that is unequivocally Modern, but there are plenty of almost-there's that something is bound to shake out. At minimum, Siren Stormtamer will have a home in that mono-blue Favorable Winds deck. It's just a question of determining whether there's anything for the actually good decks. Next week, definitely time to evaluate Preordain.

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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.

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13 thoughts on “Testing Ixalan: Exploring Traps

  1. I’m not really interested in replacing Serum Visions with Opt in Jeskai control decks, I’m much more interested in playing the full 8 cantrips. Mind you, this is in a more control oriented shell, not the Geist shell, but I intend to cut 2 lands (going down to 23), and two 1-of card advantage spells I was playing (Sphinx’s Rev + Electrolyze) to try a more Legacy like approach to my control deck, where I get to look at tons of cards and find the answers I need. Obviously my 8 cantrips aren’t on the same level as Brainstorm and Ponder, but Modern being a less powerful format than Legacy, I think the approach is still valid and could really help with consistency, and finding the right answers on time.

    1. You may well be right about that, I haven’t tested it. Worth noting that in Legacy almost everyone is cantripping around while Modern has always been about board presence and faster kills. It will be interesting to see how/if Opt affects this.

      1. While it’s true that Legacy (aside from broken combo) can be a bit more durdly, I’m cutting lands and late(ish) game spells and adding velocity, so I really don’t think this slows the deck down at all, especially since Opt is an instant. Now I can represent (and hold) Cryptic, and if my opponent doesn’t play into it, EOT Snapcaster-Opt, or even better, Opt-Snap-Opt. It warrants testing for sure but I really think having 8 good cantrips will help Jeksai builds find the answers they need in time for them to matter, which is where the deck sometimes struggles as is.

  2. Field of ruin I do like as ghost quarter number 5 myself.

    I’d never ever replace ghost quarter itself with it though. The thing is I do play aven mindcensor which is not symmetrical making the field better than it would otherwise be

    My taxes build likes the fifth copy approach. 5 arbiters (because one mindcensor)
    5 flicker guys
    5 ghost quarters
    5 thalia’s (one wingmare)

    The deck can be pretty inconsistent so that extra touch I’ve found useful.

    That being said tec edge has some upsides

  3. I feel like Spyglass’s best use will be as a sideboard card that can come in against a variety of deck but focus on hitting Affinity in non-white decks. One of the more painful aspects of trying to use Pithing Needle on Affinity has always been what card do you name if you are trying to name one blind. It can be amazing if you properly name the Cranial Plating they have that made them keep that hand, but if they actually have a Steel Overseer, you end up feeling foolish. Knowing what to name out of the 5 good hits can help a lot.

    1. I see where you’re going with this, but I’m a little skeptical. Hitting the right piece is critical, as you say, but this is also Affinity. They may get their stuff into play and get value before Spyglass can hit, and two mana on a narrow card against Affinity seems weak. I’m thinking that Lantern or some other artifact deck would be a better target.

      1. This may be a “play/draw” dependant situation. If you are on the play against Affinity, you can get Spyglass down turn 2, before their 2 drop comes down. In my experience playing Affinity, turn 1 2 drops are not anywhere close to as common as multiple 1 drops turn 1 or a 3 drop turn 2. So catching a powerful 2 drop before it comes down is pretty good.

        On the draw, this situation gets much worse as Spyglass is likely to come down after the 2 drop you wanted to catch, in which case it is an over costed Pithing Needle that may not even shut down the problem card (such as if Cranial Plating got equipped already).

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