As starved as many are for distractions in this day and age, distractions also abound, and got the better of me this time. Like a silent, scaled predator, this set crept up on me. I had to double-check if Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths was even slated to be sanctioned in Modern. Wait a minute... Behemoths? These creatures aren't doing much sneaking. But to my credit, it's not the creatures themselves I'm excited about.
With any new set come new experiments, and Ikoria is no exception. Today, we'll look at a couple shells I've been tinkering with that feature Modern's next arrivals.
Izzet Really Happening?
The first card to get my gears whirring was Sprite Dragon. Dragon brings a number of existing designs to the limit, combining Quirion Dryad and Stormchaser Mage into one pushed beatstick. Dryad was never menacing the turn it resolved, which Sprite patches up with haste; Stormchaser required multiple mini-combo turns from its pilots to output damage consistently, a requirement relaxed by Sprite's using +1/+1 counters.
While the card doesn't necessarily powercreep either predecessor—it's a different color than Dryad, and unlike Mage, won't outgrow Lightning Bolt after just one activation or support Wizard's Lightning—I imagine it will see more play in Modern than both combined (granted, a low bar).
Of the Sprite Dragon decks I built, I spent the most time tuning a fast Izzet shell.
UR Sprite is far from novel, or fancy, in its approach. The idea is to land a cheap threat early and pick at opponents while disrupting them. With cards like Manamorphose and Vapor Snag backing up Monastery Swiftspear, it's decidedly more aggressive than the Delver decks I tend to favor, which aim more to set up a resilient threat and win over a series of attacks. Sprite Dragon encourages this faster plan, as making it Bolt-proof as quickly as possible inherently lends itself to the more combo-oriented nature of aggro decks like Mono-Red Prowess.
An important draw to Sprite is its color—being blue enables Force of Negation, which here serves as our premier interactive card. Force lets us tap out for Sprite or for big cantrip turns to fuel a strong attack, but still lock in another hit with our creatures. It also compliments the rest of our disruptive suite, which is more board-focused to get Monastery Swiftspear past troublesome roadblocks like Tarmogoyf.
Our best proactive card, though, is Manamorphose. The instant flips Delver, grows Swiftspear and Sprite, and helps us rush out Bedlam Reveler. While it's sometimes advantageous to sandbag Manamorphose until a benefitting threat comes along, I've found it useful in the early game to just chain them into each other. Reveler is so forgiving with its draw-3 that haemorrhaging resources along the way doesn't matter so much.
The sideboard is home to plenty of tech, too. Leading the charge is Grafdigger's Cage, a potent hoser in today's metagame that deals with Uro and Snapcaster out of fair decks and plenty more from combo opponents. While we tap the graveyard as a resource with Reveler, we are totally unaffected by Cage. It even triggers prowess and Sprite Dragon!
A couple of recent blue instants also make the cut. Aether Gust and Mystical Dispute have both proven invaluable in dealing with Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, which can otherwise get in the way of our grounded attackers while drawing and gaining life for opponents—not exactly a slope we want to end up sliding down. The former also deals with Tarmogoyf, Scavenging Ooze, and the like, as well as red removal spells; in this deck, Memory Lapse is often good enough. And Dispute has really impressed me its range, which I initially doubted.
I enjoyed Sprite Dragon's ability to put a flying, attacking Goyf on the field out of nowhere during the mid-game. But more often, the creature was pricey enough that I'd wait until later to cast it, and by then had little to grow it with. As far as following up a deceased one-drop, the plan only excelled when opponents lacked a second removal spell, making Sprite worse than Goyf in that role.
All in all, Sprite felt more tangential than anything, its slot on the strategic curve better fulfilled by Bedlam Reveler. Despite looking exciting on paper, I'm now doubtful the card will have much of an impact in Modern; too many conditions must be met for Sprite to earn its worth.
With all that said, I am interested in seeing how a Sprite-less version of this deck would perform. The question then becomes which problems, if any, Force of Negation solves for the already-successful Mono-Red Prowess.
Among the shells I tried with Sprite Dragon were some Tarmogoyf-featuring ones (duh) that ran Mishra's Bauble as a cog that buffed all our threats. It turned out that supporting Goyf while maintaining a high enough noncreature spell count for Sprite generated plenty of tension, not to mention the awkwardness of stretching into a third color and the fact that, again, Bedlam Reveler was just a better graveyard abuser in that kind of shell than Tarmogoyf. Still, I was curious about branching into green for Veil of Summer and also Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, which even starry-eyed me knew had no business alongside Sprite.
It took the spoiling of Footfall Crater for me to turn my attention fully to Tarmogoyf. For years, I've been awaiting an easy-to-bin enchantment to help in my unending quest to grow Goyf as large as possible. Could this be the one? Goyf itself is the perfect candidate to receive haste and trample, especially when it's 8/9, and Uro ain't a bad target either.
I started with some Temur shells but found myself lacking creatures that benefitted greatly from Crater. Eventually, I spread into black, giving up my precious Lightning Bolts for a more all-in delirium plan.
Flayer and Goyf are great with haste and trample. Goyf is bigger, but Flayer's ability to hit and then set up our second-main-phase cantrip draw, thin the deck of lands with Wrenn out, or pseudo-tutor by finding and dumping Uro makes the deck's sleeper MVP.
Thought Scour greases the wheels, rewarding us immensely for hitting the Titan and making our searchable one-of Snapcaster more like Demonic Tutor on a body than anything else. Bauble provides a great amount of selection between Wrenn, fetchlands, and our many cantrips. Joining it in quickly activating delirium for Flayer are Tarfire and Footfall Crater, which is notably able to enchant fetchlands in the late-game.
Naturally, this deck is much more reliant on the graveyard than UR Sprite. A resolved Rest in Peace neuters all of our threats and all but guarantees a loss. Fortunately, nobody is really playing Rest in Peace right now. The linear combo decks that run hosers out of the sideboard all rely on their graveyards, and the white midrange and control decks enjoying the most success are too invested in Uro to want the enchantment themselves.
We end up being okay against most other graveyard hate. While Grafdigger's Cage and Surgical Extraction deal with Uro, they do nothing in the face of Flayer or Goyf; similarly, Nihil Spellbomb and Tormod's Crypt can shrink our beaters, but a single Thought Scour is enough to get us back on track.
Our "Manamorphose" is Thought Scour. The blue cantrip does it all, growing Flayer and Goyf at instant speed; fixing Bauble looks or getting us the seen card right away; dumping Uro for backbreaking value. Scour's high chance of binning a copy of Astrolabe during a medium-length game made me think about abandoning Bauble, but I decided the card was too important for Flayer.
There are only two copies of Traverse the Ulvenwald here, mostly because Uro does something similar, but much better, and even works if hit by Scour. Still, Traverse can find Uro in a pinch, or Goyf or Flayer with a Crater in play. Most often, it finds Snapcaster Mage, setting up a Stubborn Denial or Fatal Push when needed. The manabase was built so that one-landers with Traverse and Wrenn can be kept; otherwise, I wouldn't include Stomping Ground.
Grafdigger's Cage isn't really an option for us since we're also an Uro deck. So I defaulted to Surgical Extraction as my grave hate of choice. Surgical is awesome at winning Uro wars, especially since those decks tend to invest heavily in Snapcaster as well. It's also good with Traverse-Snap.
As with Sprite Dragon, the new card ended up feeling a tad underwhelming. And for the same reason: it was too niche. In the early- and even mid-game, keeping up velocity and finding the components needed is more important than setting up a hasty trampler, so we're likely to cycle Footfall Crater. Later in the game, we're in top-deck mode, so it also gets cycled. Crater is pretty much only good when we're at a game stage in which we have Uro in the graveyard and are ready to start recurring it every turn. But in those cases, how bad do things really look without Crater in the picture?
Compared to Arcum's Astrolabe and Veil of Summer, Crater is a lot worse for the reason that it forces us to choose between getting an effect and cantripping. The former two tack a cantrip onto an already good effect, but still at one mana. In other words, Crater is a bit underpowered when measured against Modern's new cantrips.
Nonetheless, I think this shell is okay. I think pretty much any Uro-Astrolabe shell is okay. It's probably wiser to complete the core with Ice-Fang Coatl than to extend into silly diversions such as Goyf, Flayer, and Wrenn, but a man's gotta play what a man likes to play.
The Wait Is (Still) On
As everyone who can patiently waits out the pandemic at home, us Modern players continue to wait on stimulating spoilers with a chance of shaking things up for the better. But then, maybe I'm just projecting my own disappointment onto everyone else. Surely not all our readers love Tarmogoyf as much as I do. So, which Ikoria newcomers have you buzzing?