It's time for that quarterly tradition of reviewing the latest spoilers! Which for the past few iterations has been oddly trepidatious. Prior to 2019, Modern never had to worry about a new set coming out. We maybe had one or two cards make lasting impressions, which kept the format stable. Then Wizards seemed to lose the plot. We've seen constant upheaval and disruption since Modern Horizons. And it had been getting tiresome. Which means that I entered this season wondering what fresh horror awaited.
However, the coast is clear. So far. It's always important to remember that Wizards works roughly two years ahead, so the lessons learned from the mistakes of 2019 are just now starting to apply. Though the full effect won't be felt until after 2022. As I'm writing this article, Kaldheim looks very benign. There are a few interesting role players and build-arounds, but no massive card advantage engines, inexplicable ramp, or endlessly recurring creatures. Good sign. As is tradition, I'll lead off by looking at the mechanics of Kaldheim and a card with brew potential.
A Light Flurry
Wizards has made it something of a habit over the past few years to have a number of returning mechanics as well as two new ones. This seems to be the standard for all these stand-alone sets; back when blocks were a thing, 3-4 were typical of a big set. Which means that I can just point back to what I've already said about most of the mechanics. However, this time around it's particularly bad, as there's only one new mechanic with any depth to discuss.
The first of the new mechanics, boast, probably won't see Modern play. Boast is a creature ability that lets said creature have a spell effect if the cost is paid. Which sounds like a normal activated ability, honestly, and I question making it a whole mechanic. The ability's hook (I guess) is that a creature can only boast if it attacked. And only once per turn. So, it's in every way worse than just an activated ability. However, those restrictions allow boast abilities to be more powerful than a normal activated ability. As we saw with the companions, sufficient power trumps any restrictions, so there is potential for boast.
However, it appears that Wizards was extremely cautious with boast. As of writing, the only boast creature that's vaguely Modern playable is Varragoth, Bloodsky Sire, and that's pretty questionable. A 2/3 deathtouch for three is not Modern playable, and given the current metagame won't meaningfully trade up very often. The ability is very attractive, as Vampiric Tutor is a good card. Losing instant speed and costing double is burdensome, but Modern is so tutoring deficient that it could be worthwhile. However, that doesn't change the fact that Varragoth will probably play as a three mana removal spell that lets you pay another two to Vamp, which doesn't seem playable. There may be something coming down the pipe with boast, but I'm skeptical.
I get the feeling that there's some internal dissension about getting rid of blocks, on the basis that Kaldheim and Strixhaven both have modal double-face cards just like Zendikar Rising. As they would if it was a block mechanic. Wizards has had a problem of Magic feeling disjoined and the sets being overcrowded since blocks went away, so maybe this is an attempt to fix the problem. Or subtly bring blocks design back, subverting the structure change. I'm keeping my eyes open.
In any case, what was a big deal in the last set is now small potatoes. Zendikar Rising's MDFC's allowed Goblin Charbelcher and Oops, All Spells to become things in Modern. Kaldheim's are a choice between a creature and a non-land permanent (plus finishing the dual land cycle). None of which appear to be good enough at this point. Except for the fact that cascading into the front side allows the back face to be played, which means that Jund could play Bloodbraid Elf, cascade into Valki, God of Lies // Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor and choose to play Tibalt, Cosmic Imposter instead. Which seems really gimmicky to me. But might be okay?
Sagas and Changeling
Sagas and changeling are also returning, but neither are especially worth discussing. Changeling isn't good on its own, and no deck ever plays a card just because it's a changeling. Tribal synergies aren't enough, the abilities have to matter, which is why Unsettled Mariner sees play. Realmwalker has some potential, but is quite slow. As a result, it doesn't outright beat a Militia Bugler for Humans and Elves or Elementals don't need another card advantage creature. As for sagas, the only one I've ever seen get played in Modern is The Antiquities War, and only pre-Urza, Lord High Artificer. They're so slow that one's going to have to be very niche or just busted to see play.
It's Snowing Again
And finally, snow is getting back into Standard for the first time since Coldsnap. However, Modern's already been over the implications of snow (specifically, snow-covered lands) back in 2019. And it's worth remembering that since Arcum's Astrolabe was banned, the only non-land snow permanent that sees play is Ice-Fang Coatl. And that's been very limited lately. The bottom line is that there's no harm in playing snow-covered lands, but there's not any payoff either. At least now yet, only a small fraction of the set is spoiled and there could be a snow card (be it a permanent or an instant or sorcery) that justifies the snow theme.
The only exception is the new snow duals. Coldsnap had ETB tapped snow lands, and Kaldheim takes those and makes them dual lands, and thereby fetchable. Which puts them in the same boat as the Ikoria triomes. However, unless there's some snow synergy to exploit, I don't see how any of the snow lands beat out a triome. Two colors are less than three and cycling is a phenomenal mechanic. As fetch targets for a slow two-color deck they're fine, but there are so many better options that I need to see more reason to play snow to bother.
I'm Seeing Potential
That leaves the only one mechanic: foretell. And this one has a lot of promise, so it gets its own section. Foretell is what might happen if morph and suspend had an ugly, yet very smart, baby. Cards with foretell are foretold by paying two generic mana and then exiling the card face-down. On another turn, that exiled spell can be cast for its foretell cost. Which is a weird in terms of sequencing and restrictions (hence the ugly). However, it's also a very elegant mechanic past that point. Just like morph, it's not a net cost reduction mechanic. The foretell cards spoiled so far cost the same or a mana more to foretell as they do to just cast. But foretell being spread out over turns makes it more like an investment mechanic and creates some interesting gameplay potential.
As I see it there are two uses for foretell:
- Hiding cards from discard
- Saving mana on a critical turn
The first option is admittedly pretty marginal. Discard spells cost one, foretell costs two. Opponents will get more cards from you than can be hidden with foretell. The best use there is simply sandbagging a critical spell for a few turns, which isn't nothing, but it's also not good.
Win the Big Turn
The second one is the most interesting, especially given the currently known foretell cards. Foretold cards can only be interacted with via Riftsweeper and the Eldrazi processors like Wasteland Strangler. Also, remember that they're cheaper to cast via foretell than from hand on the turn they're cast. Which in turn means that foretell can be used in attrition matchups, particularly control mirrors, to overwhelm opposing mana. Casting a cheap(er) payoff and then having mana for more or to defend it seems like a good strategy.
There are two foretell cards that may make this a reality. Behold the Multiverse is Glimmer of Genius but without energy, and I've seen Glimmer played in Modern before, though it was in a ponderous UW deck. At two mana, it suddenly becomes more attractive, especially when sneaking it in on an opponent's end step with counter backup. Not a backbreaking play, but good incremental advantage in a control mirror. Kaldheim also has the foretell counterspell Saw It Coming, which isn't good enough on its own, but a two-mana hard counter down the line is nothing to sneeze at. I'm seeing the potential of using Behold and Coming to out gradually build what's effectively a hand in exile and then wait to spring a trap.
Outside of this very specific application, neither card is really Modern playable. Unless that plan is needed a lot or there are other playable foretell cards, it seems too niche to see play. However, I also know That One Control Player whose eyes rolled back in his head when I mentioned this potential. I'm certain he's working on the problem and I'll fill all you in on his findings when he inevitably (and unwelcomely) gushes my ears off.
Magda, Brazen Outlaw
I am not a combo player. I have played many combo decks before, but I don't have the
madness vision to conceive the like of Bubble Hulk or Neobrand. However, I've hung around enough of them to at least glimpse that world, and some parts have rubbed off. Which is why I've been fruitlessly pondering over Magda, Brazen Outlaw. When she was spoiled around Christmas as a teaser, I noted that she has a weird number of abilities, but little more. She's a 2/1 that buffs an uncompetitive tribe and can find a dragon. Clearly destined for commander and nothing else; time to move on.
Except, I didn't move on. There was an itch in the back of my mind, and every time I tried to scratch it, Magda came up. But I didn't know why. There was nothing obviously Modern playable about her. Dwarfs don't see play and there are no good treasure makers to use her tutoring ability. But the thought that Magda was important wouldn't go away. Around New Years, I finally started wondering if she was actually an engine. Which made me reread the card and realize that she triggers on any dwarf being tapped, including her. In turn, I wondered if there was a way to untap her and go infinite. Which led to way too much time with Scryfall before discovering the legendarily bad card Second Wind would do the job. And I finally figured out what my subconscious was trying to tell me: Magda solves the Four Horseman problem.
The Soft-Ban Work Around
Four Horsemen is an unremarkable Legacy combo deck built around Basalt Monolith, which can tap and untap itself indefinitely, and Mesmeric Orb to mill the entire deck. The actual kill was to feed Narcomoeba into Blasting Station (which was previously Sharuum the Hegemon-ed into play after the latter had been Dread Returned) over and over while milling Emrakul, the Aeons Torn to reset the combo. It's complicated and easily disrupted, and so never saw much success.
However, Four Horsemen is a legendary deck because it is one of two decks to be soft-banned. The decks are legal to play, except technically they're not, because they violate the Tournament Rules. Specifically, Four Horsemen violates the slow play rules. The loop is infinitely repeatable, but not deterministic, as there's no way to know when Sharuum will be in the graveyard at the same time as Dread Return with three Nacromoebas in play. And loops that don't advance the board state are slow play, meaning that executing the combo is likely to accrue warnings and penalties, enough to get a player disqualified. For those wondering, the other deck is Battle of Wits. You can't shuffle that monster of a deck in compliance with the randomization rules. And even if you can, your opponent can't, and the judge won't. Nor should they have to.
Magda allows the same loop, but since she generates a treasure each time, she is technically in compliance with the slow play rules. Adding a treasure is advancing the board, albeit lamely. Which means that Four Horsemen can be played in Modern. And it's also easier, since Magda can just tutor up the Station without Sharuum.
Winning with Bad Cards
Except don't do that. Before I had finished writing up that decklist, I asked myself, why? Why bother with that whole rigmarole when Magda could just make infinite mana and tutor up a win? So I did that instead. Except, after another lengthy search, I found that the number of artifacts and dragons that win the game from the battlefield in one shot is very low. Walking Ballista doesn't work; it enters the battlefield as a 0/0. A shortlist consisted of Skarrgan Hellkite, Shivan Hellkite, Welder Automaton, and Goblin Cannon. All amazingly bad cards.
But that's okay, as the rest of the combo is pretty bad, too. None of you remembered that Second Wind existed until I mentioned it five paragraphs ago. The first ability does nothing, actual nothing. And Magda dies to every removal spell. And the win condition is Goblin Cannon. But then, it's a combo deck, and those routinely play terrible cards because the whole is greater than the sum of their parts. And since this combo happens turn three, that might be good enough. It's similar to Splinter Twin, but faster, after all.
But no, it's worse than Twin. I actually started working with it in a Kiki-Twin shell, using Cannon as the kill. And it was so much worse as a result. Magda plays a little better since at least she can attack and make a treasure, but she really throws that deck off. And unlike Twin, Wind does actual nothing without Magda. Don't follow my lead—this combo is terrible!
Urza by Another Name?
But I can't give it up. After failing so abysmally with a dedicated shell, I remembered that treasures are artifacts. And so is Cannon. And that Springleaf Drum could make Magda useful outside of combat. So why not try it in an artifact deck instead?
To be clear, the deck is still bad. But not so much worse than normal Grixis Whirza as to be immediately rejected. Magda and Drum is just okay, but it's an option to accelerate out Urza and then keep benefitting from the treasures. The Magda combo can facilitate the thopter combo, and Urza can produce the mana for Cannon. However, it still feels wrong, like I have the parts don't fit quite right. I may be onto something here, but I don't know what nor how to fix it, so I'm asking for help. Are there any real combo players out there that can figure out how to make this good?
The Norsemen Come
Kaldheim spoilers have been trickling out for over a month, but the spoiler season has only just begun in earnest. Hopefully there will be a real reason to play snow in the set, but even if not, it's nice to not have an obviously disruptive new addition to worry about.