M21 spoilers have wrapped up, and as David predicted, most of the Modern goodies were revealed early on. But there is one particular card that caught my eye from the outset, and that I've been working on implementing into Delver shells ever since.
Stormwing Entity, at best, is a flying Tarmogoyf that resists Fatal Push. (At worst, it just sits in your hand.) So can it work in Delver, or are its hoops too small? Today, we'll size up Entity against comparable beaters and take a look at potential implementation in Temur Delver.
What's in a Bird?
In "Tough as Nails: Combat, Removal, and Stats," we sorted Modern's combat creatures into four stages depending on which point in a game they were meant to be deployed. Stage 1 creatures were to be cast on turn one, their role being "to put opponents on the back foot, either slowing down their development as they deal with the threat or contributing to a blossoming board advantage that will end the game quickly." By contrast, Stage 2 creatures emerge on turns two-three, aiming "to establish a clock after opponents have been lightly disrupted, to clean up the mess once opponents deal with a Stage 1 creature, or to contribute to a game-winning board state."
Clearly, Stormwing Entity is Stage 2, joining the ranks of Death’s Shadow, Tarmogoyf, Young Pyromancer, Mantis Rider, Vengevine, Hollow One, Hooting Mandrills, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Gurmag Angler, and others. So how does Entity stack up against its competition?
Unlike Stage 1 creatures, which are happy to trade at parity with removal, Stage 2 threats ask too much investment to incentivize such an exchange. As such, all of Modern's played Stage 2 beaters have built-in ways to sidestep Modern's most centralizing removal spell, if not card: Lightning Bolt.
The toughest among them simply outsize it: Shadow, Goyf, Hollow One, and the Delve creatures all fall under this umbrella. Others provide a burst of value: Young Pyromancer leaves behind some tokens; Mantis Rider offers 3 damage for your trouble, and Vengevine crawls right back out of the grave.
Stormwing Entity combines a little bit of both. "Scry 2" is locked in, but is certainly among the weaker tacked-on effects among Stage 2 combat creatures; unlike producing tokens or dealing 3 damage, it's not even worth a card, as evinced by Serum Visions and Mystic Speculation. Entity compensates for this shortcoming by also being immune to Bolt... sometimes! Should players feel like keeping a land untapped, they can threaten to "counter" the instant by simply casting a cantrip, hurling opponents into a mind game: do they risk losing their Bolt for a shot at killing Entity before its controller draws more instants? Or hold out for a tap-down moment? And as for those, "free" spells like Gut Shot can buff Entity even without mana available.
Most Stage 2 creatures completely dodge Fatal Push, too, with only Tarmogoyf and Death's Shadow crumbling to the black instant. Those threats make up for this shortcoming by out-growing everything else on the list, something Entity too can achieve in the right circumstances.
Early- to Late-Game Relevance
Even ignoring removal, 3/3 is not great stats for a Stage 2 creature. And while Entity can play defense in a pinch, needing to throw spells around every enemy combat step to have more than a Wild Nacatl to work with isn't exactly reliable. Rather, Entity shines on offense, where it clocks better than most Stage 2 creatures.
Reaching 4 power is much more manageable on one's own turn, since prowess counts not just sorceries, but artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers. The mechanic also lends itself to combo-esque turns where Entity swings for crazy amounts of damage. When the spells aren't churning, Entity is perfectly reasonable as a hard-to-kill Delver-plus. But it doesn't take much to turn the Elemental into a flying Goyf or better should the land drops start coming, the cantrips start chaining, or opponents happen to be at low enough life that holding up interaction mana isn't necessary anymore.
Also contributing to Entity's offensive standing is its evergreen keyword. Currently, Monastery Swiftspear, Soul-Scar Mage, and Bedlam Reveler are the prowess creatures played in Modern, and none of them have flying. But flying makes a world of difference! Those creatures are all played despite the fact that a chump block throws into question the string of spells cast before combat, requiring players to dip into Crash Through to make prowess worthwhile. That's not a great plan simply because it's not very reliable, but indeed, prowess and evasion are superb together. In essence, Entity comes pre-packaged with a Crash Through for every turn, as few blockers fly, and those that do are easily shot down with burn or other removal. When was the last time you saw a Lingering Souls?
And now, mid-lockdown, I'm happy to recreate for you readers the feeling we all miss most: that of finishing a delectable dinner only to turn our attention to the bill. No meal is free, and like every Stage 2 creature, Stormwing Entity requires certain conditions be met if it's to provide its services.
For starters, there's ensuring Entity consistently comes out on the right side of the exchange when it faces off against Lightning Bolt, which is often—opponents have a big stake in getting this thing off the table. Its best friends on this front are instant-speed cantrips, the most obvious being Opt and Thought Scour. Opt is a very-slightly-worse Sleight of Hand, which is perfectly defensible to max out on in a Stormwing deck. Scour helps fill the graveyard, which Stormwing itself doesn't care about, but isn't hard to find uses for in Modern. And finally, there's Lightning Bolt, which isn't a cantrip but still does it all. Throwing Bolt at an opponent when they Bolt our Entity is like casting a one-mana Undermine, and zapping their creature instead is even better.
More critically, players need to cast an instant or sorcery on their turn to cast Stormwing for 1U. On its face, that would make the creature cost a functional three mana, since Modern's cheapest instants and sorceries cost 1. But there are some free options to consider (RIP Gitaxian Probe). Best of all is Manamorphose, which replaces itself while happily popping out Stormwing on turn two. I think any deck running 3+ Stormwing will want a full set of these. Phyrexian mana spells can also work, but they're much more conditional; burning Gut Shot with no creature target is less-than-ideal, for instance, although shooting a mana dork and following up with Stormwing is the dream for sure.
To be worthwhile, then, Entity needs a shell that wants to be casting cheap instants and sorceries on its turn anyway. In other words, Serum Visions. But which Serum Visions decks are in the market for a Stage 2 beater?
Enter the Delver
Why, Delver, of course! Okay, so the strategy isn't exactly starved for Stage 2 beaters—Temur has Tarmogoyf, and the Grixis strains we saw rear their heads when Lurrus was free and broken employed Sprite Dragon. Then there's the delve threats, Hooting Mandrills and Gurmag Angler. And finally, Snapcaster Mage, which isn't a combat creature but nonetheless occupies that slot on the deck's strategic curve for builds that want to slant more midrange.
Nonetheless, Stormwing Entity has three big perks I think will help it see some amount of play in Delver decks:
- It doesn't rely on the graveyard (cf. Tarmogoyf, delve creatures)
- It doesn't die to Fatal Push (cf. Tarmogoyf, Sprite Dragon, Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration, Young Pyromancer)
- It's blue
Rest in Peace has long been a nightmare for Temur decks, which lean more graveyard-heavy than most aggro strategies thanks to a reliance on Tarmogoyf. And Goyf itself saw its value plummet after the printing of Fatal Push, a card that also terrorizes many other threats employed by Delver decks, including their namesake.
Since Entity is the same color as Delver, though, players don't need to splash for it. That means Entity can slot into Temur, Grixis, Izzet, or frankly whatever Delver deck happens to want additional points vs. grave hate or Push. Such versatility all but ensures Stormwing will be a player in Delver decks, whether they're explicitly built around it or not (the line I'll draw is whether they feature Manamorphose), as it might in other blue tempo shells.
Here's where my testing has led me:
Green 4 Life
I went with green over black as a third color for a few reasons. First, I think Mandrills is better than Angler or Tasigur in this type of deck. Second, Tarmogoyf is my favorite creature. Third, I have far more experience with Temur Delver than with Grixis. And fourth, I'll make any excuse to sleeve up Veil of Summer these days!
This deck actually started without Tarmogoyf, as I wanted to test Entity at 4 copies in that slot on the curve. Green was still splashed for Hooting Mandrills to make use of the cards milled by Thought Scour and some sideboard options. I was interested in seeing how the deck would fare with almost no valuable targets for enemy Fatal Pushes.
But there's something to be said for how no-questions-asked Tarmogoyf is, plopping down on turn two pretty much no matter what and starting to apply pressure. Besides, not all decks play Fatal Push! I started with one copy, moved up to two, and recently trimmed the fourth Entity for Goyf #3. I'd finally felt like enough reps had been achieved that I didn't need to keep Entity at 4 for the sole purpose of grinding numbers with it, and I think the deck runs smoother with fewer birds; otherwise, they can clog in the early game, unlike Tarmogoyf.
One thing I really like about Entity is how it triggers ferocious for Stubborn Denial, a feature that plays nice with Monkey Grow's other traditional threats. My earlier builds had more copies of Force of Negation, Modern's shiny new (-ish) Negate, but I found myself often wanting Denial instead, so the pendulum swung in its favor. Force is still pretty nice to have on-hand in certain matchups, and is flexible enough to earn slots in the mainboard rather than the side, but I do trim it a lot, even when Denial stays in. While the deck's early incarnations famously ran Disrupting Shoal, this deck is content to keep stack interaction mostly to noncreature spells. Between size and evasion, its threats do a great job of negating enemy board positions.
Being able to rely on scry 2 triggers from Entity, as well as the filtering offered by all those cantrips, makes the deck apt at running surgical bullets. In the main, I limited these to a Vapor Snag and a Snapcaster Mage, but the sideboard is full of one-ofs with varying degrees of relevance depending on the situation.
Speaking of the sideboard, Surgical Extraction and Gut Shot make appearances in uncharacteristically high numbers for their synergy with Stormwing Entity. Additional copies of Manamorphose would be excellent in this deck to help push out the bird, and in Games 2 and 3, Surgical and Gut can be cast at near-ideal times to similar effect; targeting a Life from the Loam in the graveyard, for instance, or a Noble Hierarch on the board.
The one Phyrexian spell that does make the mainboard is Mutagenic Growth. In a pinch, Growth can target an enemy creature (or our own Delver) to rush out Stormwing. But more often, the instant protects the Stormwing we tapped out for from Lightning Bolt. It does the same for a flipped Delver. In non-Bolt matchups, Bolt's not entirely dead, either; when growing a swinging Stormwing, it's Lava Spike, and can otherwise accelerate into Hooting Mandrills when we're trying to build a board against linear combo or help win combat against big creatures.
Eye of the Storm
Stormwing Entity probably won't radically redefine the Delver archetype, nor will it propel the strategy back into the spotlight it briefly enjoyed under Lurrus. But it does give Aberration aficionados yet another option to work with when building decks and considering metagames, which is more than I was expecting from M21. Did your pet decks get a boost?