Paying Tuition: Strixhaven Spoilers Part 2

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And now, back to the spoilers. The full spoiler is now out and Strixhaven launches online this Thursday. In turn, this means that brewing and experimentation is already underway. Which means that the fruits of discovery will begin to make themselves known for next month's metagame update. Having just typed that sentence, I'm worried that my writing is becoming recursive.

In any case, today I'll be wrapping up my quarterly speculative look at which, if any, of the new cards might make it in Modern. And Strixhaven is intriguing. There are a lot of cards with potential that are just slightly off for being Modern staples. With a few metagame shifts and/or the right support, they could be major players. Additionally, as has become (annoyingly) traditional, there are a few cards that are potentially very dangerous. Fortunately, they're manageable. Though it also wouldn't surprise me if MTGO lost its mind over these cards. It just does that sometimes.

End of Lessons

The first thing to discuss is that, unfortunately, learn and lessons didn't pan out for Modern. I'm not sure they're really for anything but draft, honestly. Unless I missed one, all the lessons are sorceries, which hurts their playability as I discussed with Academic Probation. The effects are also muted relative to non-lessons, particularly at their mana cost. Thus, there are only two lessons that even approach being worth a sideboard slot, Probation and Containment Breach. And there are far better maindeckable answers to artifacts and enchantments, so I don't think Breach is needed. I don't think lesson-boards are going to be a thing.

However, good enablers can make up for mediocre payoffs, and a good enough learn card could make lessons work. The benefit of an otherwise playable card finding a the right spell for the job remains very attractive. Unfortunately, therein lies the problem. Professor of Symbology remains the most playable teacher, and that's only because it's in white. It could happen, but given the quality of white's sideboard cards, I don't really want to sacrifice them for a mediocre effect just because I can tutor for them.

That said, Academic Dispute might make it because it's a one-mana Dredge enabler at instant speed. It's theoretically very strong to play Dispute endstep, discard Stinkweed Imp, and immediately dredge it. Of course, Dredge can already do that with Insolent Neonate, which sees no play. Neonate also doesn't require help from the opponent to be active on turn 1. So I'm pretty skeptical. It seems extremely unlikely that learn has Modern implications.

Proof of My Prowess

Strixhaven's theme is instants and sorceries. This makes it rather ironic that nearly all the Modern contenders are creatures. True, the majority of those creatures key off of instants and sorceries, and it's not entirely unexpected given Wizards' design trajectory. However, I would have thought that Prowess would get a few new trigger cards. Or at least cards in its typical colors.

Instead, it got a creature that (if you believe reddit) is utterly busted. Clever Lumimancer is a card with a huge ceiling, and thus is the focus of most Modern speculation. This is because it takes five triggers and an Assault Strobe to kill on turn 2, which is possible thanks to a number of cheats available in Modern. The shortest distance between Lumimancer and victory is two Mutagenic Growth and Strobe. That's far from the only permutation, however. Magecraft counts copies, so Ground Rift, a free spell and Strobe also works. Even just chaining a bunch of spells together lets Lumimancer swing for enormous damage. Naturally, players are already claiming that this potential is utterly broken and there will be a ban.

Which when I point out that we've been down this road before. The proposed play pattern (dumping your hand into a single massive swing) is less like current Prowess decks and more like the Suicide Zoo and Kiln Fiend decks from 2015-2016. Those decks were also looking to generate a massive creature by throwing their hand at it and subsequently seal the deal with Temur Battle Rage, just like the proposed Lumimancer deck.  And the old decks were...mediocre. At best. And haven't had any Modern impact since Gitaxian Probe was banned.

Prowess focuses on chaining cantrips so it's less all-in. It also relies on creatures with haste, value, and/or grow huge and stay that way. This pushes them toward Izzet or Rakdos. Boros Prowess has only really been a thing when the other combinations were high because it could sideboard effective white hate spells (Kor Firewalker mostly). There's another white magecraft card in Leonin Lightscribe, and while the effect is pretty powerful it doesn't solve any problems in Prowess. I think if Lumimancer sees play, it will take a new deck rather than Boros Prowess.

Going All-In

And that seems sketchy. The loss of Probe is huge. Generating the needed triggers will be slightly harder than in 2016, but more importantly it's more risky. Without Probe, Lumimancer decks can't check whether the coast is clear for free. This makes choosing when to just go for it much harder, and using Thoughtseize for that purpose pushes this deck towards just being Scourge Shadow. Also, there's more cheap removal, specifically Fatal Push, than before. Additionally, Lava Dart and Wrenn and Six pose unique problems for a 0/1. There is a reason that Kiln Fiend hasn't done much in the intervening years, and another fragile creature isn't fixing that.

This is balanced by Lumimancer being cheaper than Fiend and triggering off copies as well. It should be easier to kill early with Lumimancer than Fiend. As a result, I can guarantee that the next week of MTGO results will be packed with Lumimancer/Fiend decks. It's a new card, there's hype around it, and there's the huge blowout win potential that never fails to draw stream views. The question is what happens the following week? I suspect that Lumimancer is too fragile and the deck too all-in to survive much scrutiny. It isn't impossible that something entirely new will evolve from there, such as using Lightscribe to power up Young Pyromancer tokens. However, I wouldn't worry too much.

Maybe an Upgrade?

While I don't really agree, I've also heard that Expressive Iteration will see play in Izzet Prowess. The argument is that sorcery speed doesn't hurt since Prowess only plays spells on its own turn anyway, and unlike Telling Time, Iteration is (potentially) card advantage. And I see the point. Prowess already plays Light Up the Stage, and it's easier to cast Iteration when spectacle hasn't been triggered. However, when Prowess is chaining spells, Iteration is a huge choke point since it always costs UR. Every other non-creature is one mana or Manamorphose. If Prowess needed some late game grind I could see it, but as-is, it seems like too big an ask.

Storm seems a more likely home, though even there it's questionable. Again, it always costs UR and that's a bit of a choke point. However, all the rituals make it easier to include a more expensive card and Storm's need to find certain specific cards makes digging three deep a more attractive option. However, again I think that the mana cost is too much in a faster Modern. Should the format move more midrange, I could absolutely see Storm adopting Iteration.

The Hatebears Cometh

In another odd twist, the decks that gain most from Strixhaven are Humans and Death and Taxes. You know, the decks that hate on spells the most. While there's nothing on Thalia, Guardian of Thraben's level, they're solid enough to make it and might give both decks a shot in the arm. Or at minimum require some sideboard retooling.

The headliner is Elite Spellbinder. I'll admit, when I first saw Paulo's Championship card, I was confused. The ability is like nothing we've had before. And the lack of flash seemed to really hurt playability. However, as I've thought about it, I think that Spellbinder will be a very solid card. Humans could always use another way to look at opposing hands for Meddling Mage, and another 3-power flier can't hurt. The disruption is harder to assess. The card that Spellbinder takes (and it's any nonland, for once) is still technically in the opponent's hand (assuming they don't forget about it) unless they cast it and pay the tax. This is pretty mediocre against cheap spells and pretty devastating against expensive ones. This screams sideboard card for DnT against control, combo, and Primeval Titan.

Of particular note is that the card isn't returned when Spellbinder dies, unlike Kitesail Freebooter. This is particularly relevant since Paulo only has 1 toughness and Lava Dart exists. The only way to get the card back is to cast it for extra from exile. This does open up combo potential with Drannith Magistrate, but more importantly it means that if Paulo dies, the spell is still exiled. And without Spellbinder around to remind them, it's entirely possible the opponent forgets about the exiled card. Even online, it's easy to lump all the exiled card together and forget about them. Which means that Paulo may be far more powerful than anyone expects.

Quiet, You!

Speaking of Meddling Mage, Strixhaven brings a new one. Kinda. Silverquill Silencer doesn't actually stop opponents from casting the named card. It just punishes them severely. And for a fast aggro deck like Humans, that might be enough. Three life and a card to cast a spell is no small price in a vacuum, and worse when on a short clock. This is balanced by the named card still being castable, so unlike Mage, Silencer doesn't actually stop sweepers nor prevent a combo turn. It just ups the price. As a result, Silencer will never replace Mage, which is probably why it gets an extra point of power. I also have doubts that it would see play in decks that wouldn't play Mage in the first place. However, it makes sense as extra Mages. Which makes me wonder how to fit the new cards into Humans, which in turn suggest that the deck needs a rebuild.

Questionably Hateful

Finally, there's Stern Proctor. I don't think there's ever been an effect like Proctor's before. Plenty of cards stop creature ETB triggers, but Proctor hits every permanent. It therefore has very wide ranging potential, including as an enabler. Proctor is symmetrical, which is normally a drawback and makes playing it in DnT or Humans awkward. In the right shell, however, you can choose to just not pay Proctor's tax on your own negative triggers. However, the only card that I can think of which wants this is Lotus Field, and a deck with Field wouldn't play Proctor.

On that note, the main decks that I can see Proctor being good against are land decks. I'm specifically excited at the thought of Vialing in Proctor in response to Scapeshift and taxing all the triggers. Killing Proctor with the first trigger accomplishes nothing, too, since its taxes all go onto the stack first. However, I'm conflicted about using it against Amulet Titan. On the one hand, it hits Primeval Titan and Amulet of Vigor, seriously hampering the deck's ramping and gameplan. On the other, it also hits the Karoo bounce trigger, which can be a positive or negative depending on the intended sequencing. I want it to be good there, but I'm not sure it will happen.

I'm not as high on Proctor as some. There aren't a ton of other triggers that Proctor uniquely hits compared to Torpor Orb. Still, taxing noncreature triggers is unique, and potentially quite powerful and disruptive.  Proctor is kind of a mixed bag. I would expect it to be played against DnT and Humans more than by them, and it's not bad in that role. The benefit of doing so is using it as splash damage in a few other matchups.

Next Semester

In addition to the cards I'm specifically calling out, there are a number of interesting role-player cards that might see play if existing decks need a specific niche filled. but these are primarily sideboard cards and so there are more question marks than normal. All in all, Strixhaven is an interesting but not overly powerful Modern set. So long as Lumimancer doesn't turn out like Valki, God of Lies, anyway.

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