Situation Contained: Core 2021 Early Spoilers

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In these uncertain times, it is only natural to seek stability and comfort in the familiar and predictable. Which is a convoluted way of saying that the world may be burning, but spoiler season has returned on schedule. It's not much relative to everything else, but even small comforts are important. In the past, Core sets hadn't been particularly exciting; Core 2020 turned that on its head with standouts like Veil of Summer, Elvish Reclaimer, and Lotus Field. Core 2021 is looking to continue that legacy.

The first thing of note is a non-functional but important change: putting the top card(s) of a library into a graveyard, which everyone has referred to as milling since Millstone, has been keyworded. It's now called "mill." I know. Apparently, Wizards has been trying for years to come up with a more evocative and flavorful version. They've finally just given up and done the thing that we were already doing, and probably would have kept doing even if Wizards had found a word they liked. Nothing is actually changing, but it's nice to have it made official.

Containment Priest

With that, onto the spoiled cards, and I'm starting with the headliner. At time of writing, there is no card more obviously Modern-playable than Containment Priest. I was quietly hoping that it would be in Modern Horizons, but that didn't happen. Priest is a card that is both appropriate power-wise and contextually. I'm glad that Priest is showing up at last, even though I'm also left wondering why it's happening now. Much the same way Tomik, Distinguished Advokist heralded the printing of Lotus Field, I'm suspicious of what's coming that Wizards feels Standard needs Priest for.

Priest will see play in Modern because it has already seen play in Legacy and Vintage. In both formats, Priest is a huge beating against Dredge and nothing else, leaving decks free to exploit their own graveyards while hosing the most linear of zone abusers. Modern has historically been more graveyard-centric than either Eternal format, and Dredge is still around. However, I think it will be Priest's other impacts which will be most relevant.

A note before going on: Had Priest been printed in Horizons, little would have changed. Priest is very potent against Arclight Phoenix, but it's easy to forget that Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis gets cast, dodging Priest. The combo version would have been unaffected. The second wave would have been hit, but remember that it was too fast for Rest in Peace. Priest wouldn't have prevented Hogaak Summer, and subsequently wouldn't have saved Faithless Looting. I've seen this thread before, so just want to nip it in the bud!

Oh, the Humanity

The obvious home for Priest is Humans. The creature type was probably a giveaway, but could be a surprise given that Priest shuts down Aether Vial. However, the effect on Humans is the same as Collector Ouphe's, and that card's moving toward staple territory. I'll be siding out two Vials for Priests in relevant matchups.

Beyond belonging for its cost and creature-type, Priest is also a substantial upgrade for Humans's current options. Rest in Peace is the best graveyard hate option, but it can't fit everywhere. In Humans' case, Surgical Extraction has never been good, as general hate and Ravenous Trap is only useful against Dredge. Grafdigger's Cage has thus become the default, and Priest has sufficient advantages over Cage that I'd call it an upgrade. Cage and Priest both stop Bloodghast, Collected Company, and Chord of Calling. Cage hits noncreature spells; Priest stops cheating in creatures. Cage costs one, Priest two, but the latter can also attack. They're pretty even.

However, Cage provides virtual card advantage where Priest provides actual. Cage prevents the creatures from entering from the graveyard or library. No player is going to cast Collected Company into Cage, as it's a waste of a card. Cage has to be played proactively, so opponents know not to Company. Therefore, it just sits in their hand until Reclamation Sage is naturally drawn and everything gets unlocked. Priest can be proactive, but is better reactively: casting Priest in response to Company or Chord effectively counters that spell. Priest in response to Prized Amalgam triggers exiles the threat permanently. No risk of a big turn if Priest is removed; it already got something.

Oh, Also Yorion

However, those are just the obvious uses. Priest is far more versatile because it doesn't specify zones. Any creature entering the battlefield without being cast will be exiled by Priest. This includes any cheating from hand into play (namely Through the Breach), but also flicker effects. Thus Priest does what Cage cannot and answer Bant Ephemerate and Yorion decks. From experience, Humans struggles against those decks because unending value is hard to beat. It's rather niche since Ephemerate has largely vanished and Yorion decks were trending away from creatures when the change came down, but utility is utility.

Uh, the Eldrazi?

By the same token, Priest can be used to proactively exile opposing creatures. Flickerwisping a creature then flashing in Priest will permanently exile the creature. Where once there was temporary disruption, now there's actual removal. Thus, the natural and logical extension is combining Priest with Eldrazi Displacer to snipe every opposing creature. Just never, ever, try to flicker your own creatures (except for Priest).

However, before everyone runs out to buy Eldrazi and Taxes, the combo isn't quite as good as it seems. I play both Humans and Death and Taxes in Legacy and have been on the receiving end of that combo numerous times. And it's just okay. The problem is that I've never been in a situation where the combo cost me the game. Legacy Eldazi decks are already advantaged because of bigger creatures and Chalice of the Void. If I can't win quickly, I'm going to lose a long game anyway. The combo just speeds that up. Also worth noting is that Legacy has Ancient Tomb and City of Traitors in addition to Eldrazi Temple to make the combo more efficient. Trying to go all in on that combo is likely to cause disappointment.

Teferi, Master of Time

The next contender is yet another Teferi with a static ability. Because everyone just loves A-Teferi, Time Raveler. In fairness, this new one is not at all as obviously onerous as "T3feri," and was made before Wizards realized their mistake.

The new Teferi's static lets you use his abilities as instants. Meaning, unless I'm way off on the rules, "Te4ri" can be used twice a turn cycle. This is a huge first for planeswalkers and could easily get out of control. Fortunately, between his mana cost and abilities, that seems unlikely. Like a good planeswalker, his ultimate should win the game. If it doesn't, you never had a chance. The +1 has potential and is the big draw here. Looting in Modern is very good. The -3 is phasing. Which requires me to explain phasing.

Phasing In

Unless you're a much older old-timer than I, you've never seen phasing in a Modern legal set. Unless you know That-One-Guy (*accompanying fist shake*) in Commander and/or have seen/played Teferi's Protection in Legacy (guilty), you've never seen phasing at all. And that's because way back in Mirage it was mainly a drawback, and one that's been through some rules wierdness. The new wording makes a lot of old cards make no sense, but the ability makes more sense. It's still tricky to explain, but very easy to gif:

See the source image

A permanent that phases out never leaves the battlefield. It disappears. Everything attached to it stays on and disappears too. As far as the card's concerned, nothing has changed. It has everything it had before, and tokens still exist while phased out. However, from the perspective of everything else, it's in another world. It doesn't affect anything still in play, and can't be affected by either player. It's just gone. Any "until end of turn" effects still end.

At the start of its controller's untap step, when normally nothing happens and no player has priority, it phases in, unless otherwise specified. It's not entering the battlefield because it never left, so no triggers happen. It simply "exists" again. Wizards is explicitly experimenting with phasing for the first time in years because they've realized that they've made ETB effects too good, and now bounce effects are significantly worse. If players can deal with phasing, then we may see it become a permanent feature to work around cards like Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and Primeval Titan.

On Te4ri, I don't know how good the ability is. He's cast, then loots, then on the opponent's turn can phase out a creature or loot again. The best use of the phasing ability is against Primeval Titan to prevent an attack. However, that's a temporary answer, and doesn't require any more mana investment for the opponent. I think it's very interesting to consider, but I don't know if its actually good.

Not a Miracle

This is complicated by Te4ri's potential niche. When he was spoiled, the discussion started with Miracles. Te4ri draws a card on the opponent's turn for no mana. Thus, players were having visions of looting away Terminus on their turn, putting on top with Mystic Sanctuary, then wiping the board on the opponent's attack step. And that can happen, but I skeptically ask how that's in any way better than just playing Jace, the Mind Sculptor?

Jace and Te4ri compete for the same mana slot and I don't think a deck can run both. And Te4ri is neither as powerful nor as efficient as Jace. Brainstorm is better (normally) than Careful Study, -1 is more manageable than -3 and can be used more often. In order to miracle an already drawn Terminus, Jace just needs to Brainstorm it to the top of the library, ready to flip on turn five. Te4ri needs Sanctuary's help, which can only happen by turn five with mana acceleration. Then there's the issue that after triggering miracle, you still need to discard a card for Te4ri. I can't see a way a control deck wants this card at all, much less over Jace.

Looting's Pretty Good...

However, outside of control decks, there is real potential. Getting to Careful Study over the course of a turn cycle is still very strong. And doing so gives Te4ri five loyalty to boot. I could easily see a velocity- or tempo-centric deck using Te4ri as a top end engine to help power them through the mid-game. It's nowhere near as good as Faithless Looting and so I don't think that Izzet Phoenix will suddenly return. However, something in a similar vein using Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror and Crackling Drake is more plausible.

...And Has a Friend

This is bolstered by another spoiled card. See the Truth is a sorcery-speed Anticipate. Anticipate doesn't see much if any Modern play as-is, so a worse card version should have no chance. However, See has a second mode. When cast from anywhere other than hand (read: exile, library, or graveyard), it draws three. Ancestral Recall is still a bargain at two mana. The trick is making it happen.

The obvious way is Snapcaster Mage. Flashback has plenty of utility already, and Snapcaster decks generally like drawing cards. The problem is that sorcery speed. Control decks like playing Snapcaster and drawing cards, they don't like spending an entire turn of mana on their own turn doing it. I don't think the payoff is high enough to justify a control deck first playing a mediocre version of a mediocre-at-best cantrip and then spending lots of mana to draw three cards. That's definitely an option, but why do that? Why not expend the same effort and mana on a planeswalker? There's less up-front advantage, but also less cost.

But Where?

However, what about decks that already want to spend lots of mana on their own turn? Storm doesn't really need See, though it could run it. Cast See to help find Past in Flames, then draw a bunch of fuel. The catch is that flashing back Storm's cantrips are usually enough fuel as is, so I don't think See adds much. It doesn't hurt much either. I'd have to test, but intuitively I think See is too win-more to make an impact on Storm.

However, Prowess is a more intriguing option. Light Up the Stage already sees play, and activates See's true potential. Prowess likes playing spells on its own turn, and especially cantrips. Therefore, I could see an Izzet Prowess deck with Snapcaster for some long game being a thing. It wouldn't be as explosive as current mono-red versions, but it also wouldn't be so vulnerable to hate. It could also incorporate T4feri over Bedlam Reveler or similar cards.

Next Time

Spoiler season has just begun, but recent sets have tended to tip their hand early. Modern playables are almost always in the first wave of cards, and there's just potential role-players afterward. Join me next week as we begin measuring the impact of the companion change.

One thought on “Situation Contained: Core 2021 Early Spoilers

  1. So far this set has been a breath of fresh air. I’m looking forward to seeing modern settle down a bit, reestablish some measure of consistency, and provide some breathing room for innovation to take place. One aspect of the format that I think goes under appreciated is the ability of the community as a whole to discover new and interesting ways to combat a particular deck. If the format is constantly in flux, however, players don’t seem to have the drive or the chance to experiment and look for unique interactions because there’s just no incentive to play anything apart from the established “competitive” version of any given deck.

    Honestly, if this were the power level Wizards was shooting for in their overall development rather than Eldraine, that’d be absolutely fine by me.

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