Another new set, more new cards, and more chances for hope to spring eternal. As always, players are wildly speculating on their playability and trying to fit new cards into everything. I'm not immune, and especially now that the full spoiler is out I have been looking for and testing Modern playable cards. Two in particular have stood out, and today I will be sharing my results with Militia Bugler and Supreme Phantom.
The first card that I saw spoiled and got me testing new cards is Milita Bugler. I'm a Death & Taxes player at heart, and I've longed for Recruiter of the Guard or even Enlistment Officer in Modern. Recruiter was a sea change for Legacy Death & Taxes, becoming the card advantage engine the deck needed in addition to finding lockout creatures; Officer is the lynchpin of Soldier Stompy.
So far, it appears that Bugler is as good as it will get for Modern. I still have hope, considering Sylvan Messenger is legal, but given Bugler I won't hold my breath. Not that this is a dig at Bugler. It's a perfectly playable card, if far more narrow than its forbearers.
Where it Belongs
As soon as Bugler was spoiled, everyone's mind jumped to the same deck. Humans is the elephant in the Modern room right now, and Bugler is a Human. And it does fit in. Just look at Martin Juza's Grand Prix deck:
Most of the maindeck and sideboard are findable creatures with Bugler. Humans's greatest weakness is running out of cards, and Bugler digs for more creatures. Furthermore, Bugler requires a deck with a very high creature count, and no deck plays more than Humans. On paper it appears like the perfect fit, and according to a certain segment of the playerbase, a huge mistake on Wizards' part.
I'm not convinced that Humans actually wants Bugler. The maindeck is effectively set in stone, with only 1-2 flex slots depending on how many Thalia, Guardian of Thrabens are needed. Which cards fill those slots depends on the pilot. Martin has a Dark Confidant and Kessig Malcontents maindeck with another Confidant in his sideboard. I've seen anything from Restoration Angel and Shalai, Voice of Plenty to Whirler Rogue and Dire Fleet Daredevil in those slots. Bugler needs to distinguish itself above the other options.
Bugler is a value creature, so it is most directly competing with Dark Confidant. Bob dies to a stiff breeze, but otherwise runs away with the game. Bugler is more durable but more costly, which is important in a land-light and mana-hungry deck like Humans. It also only "draws" once. Bugler also cannot find Mantis Rider, arguably the best topdeck in Humans. Considering that value creatures are most important in attrition matchups and Rider typically shines there, this weakness is a significant strike against Bugler. I've been very underwhelmed with the card in Humans.
From that problem comes another one: if not in Humans, where does Bugler belong? I know that Chord of Calling decks and Death & Taxes have been thrown around as possibilities, but I doubt it will work out. The problem comes down to math. Statistically, Humans is an almost perfect home for Bugler. Humans runs 37 creatures, of which 32-33 are hits. Every other deck will have a far worse probability of hitting. Consider these examples, using simple statistics which assume the only creatures that aren't Bugler hits are Mantis Riders:
Worst-Case Scenario: Turn four on the draw, no mulligan. One land and one Aether Vial in play. Have drawn only 2 power creatures. 49 cards in library, 3 Vials, 18 lands, 4 Mantis Rider, and 24 hits remain for a simple hit probability of 49%. Odds are 24 : 25 to hit any legal creature.
Realistic* Best-Case Scenario: Turn three on the play, no mulligan. Three lands and two Aether Vials in play. Have drawn Vial and fourth land, opening hand had two Riders. 50 cards in library, 2 Vials, 14 lands, 2 Riders, and 32 hits remain for a simple hit probability of 64%. Odds are 16 : 9 to hit any legal creature.
*It's not the ideal scenario, but actually keeping a starting hand of only Bugler non-hits in Humans is implausible.
In this simplified scenario, Bugler is favored to hit in the best case and an even chance in the worst. The "real" probabilities will be different because this scenario is technically conditional probability, and more accurately a hypergeometric distribution, but I'm not Frank Karsten so I'm keeping it simple.
The starting density of hits means that Humans is the "best-case scenario" for Bugler. Mono-white Death & Taxes runs 22-24 lands, 4 Aether Vial, and 4 Path to Exile as non-creature cards. My decks run 4 Flickerwisp and 3 Restoration Angel, and many decks are now adopting Shalai, too. That's no less than half the starting deck not being eligible Bugler hits. Saheeli-Cord has 32-36 non-creature cards and some three-power creatures. The other toolbox decks have 28-30 non-creature cards and sometimes three-power creatures, but they also have Collected Company, which is just better than Bugler there. Because the deck that wants this kind of effect really can't reliably hit with Bugler, and everything else doesn't really need Bugler, I don't think the card will become a Modern staple. It needs a different deck to really excel, and that deck doesn't exist yet.
I have a long history of working with Spirits, and I've been hoping for a CMC-2-or-less addition to smooth out the curve and plug a hole I've found in the deck. I didn't expect to get almost everything I wanted from a Core Set.
Supreme Phantom is notable not only as the first two-mana Spirit lord, but for its stats. Most spirits since the original Innistrad block, especially two-mana spirits, have had 1 toughness. Phantom is 1/3, making it far more durable than any other two-mana lord. This is exactly what Spirits needed, and I have been very satisfied with Phantom's performance in testing
A Spectral Procession
This is the Spirits deck that I finished last year's PPTQ season with:
This deck was built to defeat Grixis Death's Shadow, Jeskai Control, and Tron, all of which had become popular early in the season. Midway through, that is exactly what happened, but I never quite got there. The problem was that Spirits could not beat interactive creature decks that didn't care about Chalice of the Void and creature swarms. Valakut decks were also problematic, because Spirits didn't race well. The creatures are evasive and tricky, but they each beat for 2 at most and only had one lord. Trying to run Glorious Anthem effects never panned out in testing; they just made the deck threat light. Supreme Phantom closes that gap perfectly and synergizes with the rest of the deck as Metallic Mimic never could.
The greatest weakness in most matchups was the low toughness of Innistrad's spirits. Liliana, the Last Hope proved an absolute nightmare as a result, but Kozilek's Return was brutal as well. Metallic Mimic wasn't good enough because it wasn't a Spirit until after it resolved ,and so didn't work with Rattlechains or Cavern of Souls. Second, it didn't help anything played beforehand, so Mimic was a terrible topdeck. It also died to anything.
Phantom has three toughness, is always a Spirit, and buffs everything while in play. With Phantom in the picture, the only thing missing from my wishlist is Thalia, Guardian of Thraben's ability on a Spirit.
Remorseful Cleric looks like a natural fit Spirits. Most of the time, it and Selfless Spirit will be identical; why not run the Cleric too? There are two problems with this, the first being space. Cutting Phantasmal Image is undesirable, since it synergizes so well with everything else, particularly Vial and Drogskol Captain. Cutting Path or Reflector Mage opens the door to being overrun by creature decks or synergies.
The second problem feeds from the first: the ability is weak. There are times when removing the graveyard is devastating, notably in response to Past in Flames or multiple Prized Amalgam triggers. But most of the time, it's marginal at best. Countering a Snapcaster trigger or Kolaghan's Command returning something is fine, but not exciting. I certainly don't think either effect is worth a card. Managing graveyards with one-shot effects is difficult, so even against delve, Cleric is underwhelming.
There's not place in my sideboard for Cleric either. Sideboard space is too precious to spend on marginal effects. It's been a long time since Tormod's Crypt was a good card, and giving it legs doesn't change that. Nihil Spellbomb only sees play because it cantrips. Rest in Peace is devastating against the dedicated graveyard decks, and Relic of Progenitus suppresses delve and draws a card when necessary. The only reason I can see Cleric being a sideboard card is as a tutoring bullet. Perhaps the metagame will warp enough that maindeck graveyard hate is good, but for now I'm staying away.
What of Bant?
While I am talking exclusively about UW Spirits, there is an alternative. Bant Spirits put the tribe on the map, even though it never really caught on. It's a fine strategy, but Devoted Company and GW Valuetown have proven to be better Company decks, the former because it assembles a broken combo and the later because its creatures are bigger.
I've never outright dismissed Bant Spirits, but to me the real reason to run that deck was Gavony Township. Noble is good, but weaker than Vial against control, and Company is amazing, but requires a higher land count and can be clunky here. Size matters, and buffing Spirits is important, but now that Spirits has another lord, there's less reason to run Township. Does Phantom render Bant Spirits entirely passé? Maybe, but I wasn't going to play that version anyway.
Out of the Shadows?
Obviously, I can't take upgraded Spirits to tournaments yet, but testing has been promising. Having not only another lord but a two-drop dramatically improves the curve, speeding up the clock while maintaining the disruption that attracted me to the deck in the first place. This has improved the big mana and creature matchups noticeably. The question is whether that's good enough. As a disruptive tribal deck, it competes for space with Humans and Merfolk. Spirits is slower than both decks; Merfolk has more lords, Humans has a better curve.
On the other hand, Spirits sits between Humans and Merfolk in terms of quantity of disruption, with less than Humans and more than (non-atypical builds of) Merfolk. However, I argue that it plays more powerful disruption than Humans. Meddling Mage and Thalia are fairly easy to get around, and may not be relevant; Kitesail Freebooter is fragile.
Mausolem Wanderer and Spell Queller are counterspells for threatening cards while Rattlechains, Selfless Spirit, and Drogskol Captain complicate interacting with the board. As a straight aggo deck, Spirits is worse than both. As an aggro-control deck, I think it has great potential.
Into the Core
I am surprised by the volume of playable cards the new Core Set brought Modern. As Jordan noted, Wizards did give themselves the freedom to design cards with Modern in mind. Admittedly, the actually maindeckable cards are fairly few, but there are plenty of exciting sideboard candidates in M19 as well.