With the new set fully spoiled, it's my turn to look at the spoilers. Normally, I'd have led off with a look at the new mechanics. It just wasn't applicable this time. Kicker and landfall have been around before, and party isn't really a mechanic. And the Spell lands aren't enough to carry a whole article. Which is actually very nice. Despite its heritage, Zendikar Rising is a low-power set by Modern standards. Nothing stands out as being obviously broken. When I searched for Uro-style sleepers and deceivers, I came up with nothing. Which frankly is a breath of fresh air after the past year.
A Note on the Spell/Lands
I fully agree with Jordan's assessment of the Modal Double Face Card (MDFC) lands. They're very flexible cards, let down by the fact that Modern doesn't need tap lands and the spells generally aren't too exciting. Emeria's Call // Emeria, Shattered Skyclave is the only one I can see players actually playing as both a land or spell on purpose. And even then, as a one-of at most.
However, this only applies to normal decks. Apparently, there exists a community of Goblin Charbelcher players in Modern. They've been working on that terrible deck for a long time and think that the MDFC's are their salvation. The logic is that the untapped MDFC's replace all the other lands, so there's never any risk of fizzling a Charbelcher activation. MDFC's are front-facing everywhere but on the stack or battlefield, so they're missed when Belching. It also means that these decks can function like normal Magic decks in a pinch.
This actually means that we may be in for a rush of Oops, All Spells-style decks in the near future. Except slightly more reasonable than the predecessor deck because, again, they will actually play lands. Just not ones that Balustrade Spy will recognize. Given that Neoform exists in similar space, has been a deck for some time now, and is bad, I wouldn't worry. But do be aware.
Scourge of the Skyclaves
Prior to 2017, Scourge of the Skyclaves might have received little attention. The kicker is too expensive for Modern, and a creature that requires players to be a certain lifetotal to hit the field is too big an ask. Then Death's Shadow became a thing, took over Modern, and faded away. Now, anything that even vaguely resembles Shadow must be considered a possible Modern card.
And Scourge does resemble Shadow. It's just got a lot more text and conditions attached. Where Shadow is always a 13/13 and has an ability that shrinks it, Scourge's power and toughness is 20 minus the highest life total. Scourge has no evasion, only heft, but it does have a kicker which halves everyone's lifetotal (playing nicely with its P/T condition). Of course, that kicker costs five, which means that Scourge would have to be played for seven. That's an enormous cost in Modern, and most likely means that it's not going to happen. Shadow decks run very low to the ground, so if the plan is to run Scourge as Shadows 5-8, that kicker is out of reach.
However, I don't think that a deck that intends to get the mana necessary to kick Scourge even wants to. Control decks are about preserving their lifetotal. It may be a resource to be traded for time or cards, but in the end, they need to stay alive. Kicking Scourge runs counter to that plan. More importantly, control frequently has the lower life total when it turns the corner and plays a win condition. Losing half of that is a huge risk in the Prowess era.
Out of Control
The catch is that, unlike Shadow, Scourge's controller doesn't totally control its size. The opponent gets a vote.
Scourge of the Skyclaves's power and toughness are each equal to 20 minus the highest life total among players.
Among players. All of them. The opponent's life total also determines Scourge's size. This is a huge problem and why I think it unlikely Scourge will just be Shadow's 5-8 anywhere. It's very easy to control your own life total, especially when the goal is to get it low fast. It's why Shadow was so successful. Doing that while simultaneously dropping the opponent's life is much harder. Prowess is a master of eliminating opposing life totals, but not its own. While it can play extra fetches and shocks with Thoughtseize and Street Wraith, why bother? The attack plan is so fast the opponent will be dead before Prowess's life is low enough.
Then there's the fact that the opponent will object to having their life lowered. Plans never survive contact with the enemy and all that. I read comments that it would work out since Modern's manabase is so painful, opponents will be on 16 or lower quickly. That may have been true once, but I don't think it can be relied on anymore. Tron never does damage to itself. Ponza, Amulet Titan, and Stoneblade don't have to fetch and shock. Humans, Prowess, and Ad Nauseam do very limited damage and only occasionally. Really, I think that players are thinking of Jund. And that's still not universal.
And then there's the Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath decks. They can do a lot of damage to themselves, but they get it back with Uro. And with Prowess running around, there a lot of lifegain, too. Auriok Champion is a greater enemy of Scourge than of Shadow. The amount of effort necessary to make Scourge work is far greater, and far more precarious, than Shadow. And that's not even mentioning that Scourge is double the cost. That's not how to break into a format.
The Big Draw
That being said, I would still expect Scourge to see play. There are always the optimists who see only the upside without the logistical problems and want the extra Shadows. However, this time, there is a decent payoff to that optimism. Scourge combos with Temur Battle Rage better than Shadow. Killing the opponent from high life requires Shadow players to be quite low themselves. To kill an opponent on 16 life, for example, Shadow must be at least an 8/8, meaning 5 or less life. That's not a small amount of danger in a world filled with Lava Dart and Lightning Bolt.
Scourge needs its controller to be at 10 life and the opponent on 15 to win. A Raged Scourge then deals five on the first strike, becomes a 10/10, and kills on the second. Both life requirements are far easier to attain than for Shadow's kill. Two-card combos are very attractive things (*cough* Twin *snort*) and I fully expect this combo being relatively easier will be enough to draw brewers. The question will not be the strength of the combo, but how well the deck overcomes all the conditionals needed to make Scourge work. And whether that effort just makes a worse Death's Shadow deck.
If Scourge was a card where I know exactly what it does, but I don't know where it's for, then this next card is one that I know exactly what it's for, but not what it does. On the surface, Nahiri's Lithoforming looks like a variation of Scapeshift, sacrificing lands then replacing them. However, cost notwithstanding, Lithoforming is worse than Scapeshift because it doesn't search for lands. Instead, it draws cards, and its controller may play lands from hand to replaced the sacrificed ones. Assuming they've drawn enough to replace the lost lands. And the new lands enter tapped. Which means that Lithoforming is far less likely to combo kill than Scapeshift.
However, there is a deck that doesn't mind sacrificing lands, doesn't care about comboing with the right ones, and likes to draw cards. Its name is Assault Loam, and it's fringe but always waiting. Every time there's some new land effect or cycler, Assault Loam lurches from the depths as it tries to reclaim the CAL glory days. And then it slinks away when its weaknesses (graveyard hate, dredging away win conditions, being durdly) remain crippling. That being said, this looks promising enough that a frequent Loam hopeful I know figuratively (and I suspect literally) flipped when he saw Nahiri's Lithoforming.
Nahiri's Lithoforming combos with Life from the Loam so well even I saw it immediately. Loam always has lots of land and gets them all back, meaning it will have lots of fuel for Nahiri's Lithoforming and can get the sacrificed lands back. In said hopeful's estimation, this gives Nahiri's Lithoforming combo potential. With a Seismic Assault out, players can float mana for Loam, cast Lithforming, cast Loam, then use all the lands in hand to kill the opponent.
But, What Does It Do?
Then I asked the (I thought obvious) follow up question: "How is all that better than just repeatedly dredging Loam?" And I was meet with a very irritated silence. That has continued until I wrote this sentence. Genuinely, I cannot come up with a way that casting Nahiri's Lithoforming is better than just Loaming for a few turns. Whether in Dredge, Assault Loam, or any weird Scapeshift variant, I haven't come up with a use that is good enough to justify its inclusion. It's only good alongside Loam, but whatever I've gained by adding Nahiri's Lithoforming was win-more at best.
That said, the synergy is so promising and the combination of card draw, land drops, and graveyard filling is so powerful I have to imagine there is a use for Nahiri's Lithoforming. Just look at what Uro's done. Nahiri's Lithoforming just screams combo potential and value. The question is finding a way to make it do something that nothing else is doing and do it better than existing options. I'm not going to find it, but I'll be keeping my eyes open. Perhaps that niche doesn't exist yet and Nahiri's Lithoforming proves to be this set's sleeper.
The Tax Deck Cometh
And finally, Zendikar Rising was a great set for Death and Taxes players. We got two very strong creatures, one of which is good enough that I'm salivating at the prospect of playing it in Legacy. The only problem is that they're both three drops. That slot is already pretty crowded, and so they're not cards that I can just force into any list. Their abilities also fulfill very different niches and thus they want to be in different decks. How that's going to play out is unclear, but I at least will be trying to make them work.
Archon of Emeria
First up is Archon of Emeria. Which is everything I ever wished Thalia, Heretic Cathar could be. Big Thalia's anti-creature ability was never too relevant in my experience. DnT isn't fast enough to really take advantage most of the time, and after that initial hiccup almost everything outclassed Thalia. Having 2 toughness didn't help matters.
Archon flies, which is a huge upside. It will actually swing for damage consistently, unlike Big Thalia, while stalling opposing mana development. 3 toughness is also much better than 2, especially with Lava Dart and Lightning Burst running around.
Critically, Archon swaps the anti-creature ability for Rule of Law. Suddenly, Archon becomes a huge beating against Prowess decks. Unless they have Lightning Bolt the turn Archon comes out, Archon will buy absurd amounts of time to stabilize. Prowess will only get to play one spell, which means there will be no explosion, and few ways to take out the flier. Theoretically, that also means that Archon could profitably block Monastery Swiftspear, but that's only for the brave; blocking a 1/2 then getting the Archon Darted is a bad time. Archon's also devastating against traditional combo decks as a result.
As a result, Archon wants to be more of a hard lockdown-style card. This would put it into shells similar to Legacy DnT with Phyrexian Revoker and Aven Mindcensor. It's the sort of deck that really puts the screws to opponents and then flies over for the win. I haven't seen decks like that in MTGO data, but early testing is proving fruitful.
On the other hand, Skyclave Apparition looks to fit right into existing decks. Apparition exiles anything with CMC 4 or less. Thus, it is the most versatile removal in white's arsenal. The drawback is that when Apparition leaves play, the exiled card's owner gets an Illusion with P/T equal to said card's CMC. However, this is a very small drawback compared to the fact that the card never comes back. Turning a planeswalker, Uro, or Ensnaring Bridge into a vanilla creature is still amazing. And the drawback only manifests if Apparition leaves the battlefield.
Plus, the ability is formatted like Oblivion Ring, not Banishing Light. So it's exploitable. If Apparition leaves before the first trigger resolves, then the opponent gets no token. Which makes using Apparition alongside flicker and blink effects very exciting, and why I've already penciled it into my Legacy deck (gotta remove Oko somehow). Bant Ephemerate could use Apparition, but that's not what I'm about. Parrit on MTGO has been doing very well playing the flickering version of DnT, and Apparition is a very strong include.
Apparition is only a 2/2 with no abilities in combat, so I don't want too many or I'll never kill the opponent. However, permanently exiling Jace, the Mind Sculptor, flickering Apparition via Vial, then also exiling Sword of Fire and Ice is an epic beating. And they didn't even get a 4/4 token!
All in all, Zendikar Rising looks like a very normal set. Which is a weird thing to celebrate, but it's been a weird time for Magic. Now, with the spoilers done, time to get testing.