Broken or Bad: New Capenna Round-Up

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Now that spoilers are over and the prerelease is on the horizon, I can fully evaluate Streets of New Capenna for Modern. And it's... an interesting set. That's not damning by faint praise (no matter how it sounds), but a statement of fact. There are a lot of cards which fulfill interesting roles in the metagame and could potentially see Modern play. Not exactly format redefining, but very unique cards that could be useful.

And then there are the headliners. There are a surprising number of potentially busted combo pieces in SNC. They could also prove to be utterly worthless. But the potential is there. And they're not far from being good enough for Modern. The question is whether the decks built around said combos are actually good. The metagame is certainly favorable for combo decks (at the moment at least).

A Plethora of Role Players

As has been the norm for Modern recently, SNC is bringing Modern a slew of new role players. That's how it goes with Wizards pushing the power level. Outside of Modern Horizons sets, new cards aren't being specifically pushed for Modern. However, the new normal for Standard isn't so low as to preclude cards making the cut. They're just less likely to be full-on staples. Of course, there are always exceptions, and there's a theme in SNC Wizards may regret.

Good Cards, Wrong Modern

The first category of these role players are very solid cards in both stats and abilities. The problem is that either: a) there already exists a card that fulfills that specific task and at the same rate; b) it does something strong, but no deck needs the effect; or c) the metagame is wrong for the card.

For me, the poster child of this category is Extraction Specialist. While it primarily falls foul of problem a, b and c are factors as well. A 3/2 lifelink for 3 with card advantage is not a bad rate for Modern, and unlike the comparable Renegade Rallier there are no conditions to be met beyond having a cheap creature in the graveyard. This is balanced by Rallier getting back any permanent type, not just creatures. Specialist having better stats but being narrower likely means that it isn't just better than Rallier. A card that doesn't see much Modern play as is. And in a metagame filled with exile effects, there's less of a chance for Specialist to matter.

However, that chance isn't zero. There have been metagames where Humans ran Militia Bugler, and Specialist fulfills a similar niche. Of course, preventing the returned creature from attacking or blocking is a big negative, but maybe there's no need to care. Getting back Meddling Mage can win a game. In another shell, retrieving Devoted Druid is full value.

Strong Effect, Niche Effect

Then there are those cards with very powerful or unique effects that are extremely niche. Should that niche need filling, these cards are absolutely strong enough for Modern and will slide into many decks easily. The problem is that said niches are quite niche and there are a lot of structural obstacles to overcome.

Witness Protection is not the poster child so much as the ur-example. As Dress Down has shown, removing the abilities of creatures is quite a powerful ability. But Dress, like many cards before it, offers a temporary effect. The only permanent effects cost two mana or more. Protection, costing just one mana, suddenly looks quite playable in comparison.

The problem is that Dress is playable primarily thanks to its instant speed, letting it stop triggered abilities. Protection is a good old enchant creature. For instance, Dressing Primeval Titan Down is quite the powerful play; Titan will have done its damage by the time it can be placed in Witness Protection. The card's best use in Modern right now is answering Serra's Emissary, and that won't come up much. If Emissary or similar become more prevalent, then Protection could see much more play.

A Potential Problem

As for that dangerous theme, Wizards has fully embraced treasure tokens and wants to spread the wealth. It seems that Wizards is so concerned about the number of nongames due to mana screw that they want to add more mana to the game. A temporary burst to help screwed players play the game isn't a bad plan, but taken too far, it can prove dangerous.

Modern has learned this the hard way via Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer. If all Rags did was steal cards and dash, it would be no problem. It might not even be playable. The problem is that each successful attack yields a treasure. Successive attacks build an overwhelming mana advantage that translates into tempo which frequently translates into a win. And Wizards printed a lot of cards that incidentally make treasure in SNC.

However, the card I'm specifically watching is a dedicated treasure engine. Built on Modern's existing treasure engine, as it happens. Sticky Fingers gives any creature Rag's most potent ability as well as evasion. And then replaces itself when its host dies. For one red mana. This card is about as pushed as it gets for an aura, to the point I expect it to be banned in Pauper before the year's out.

As for Modern, Fingers is definitely playable. Make-your-own-functionally unblockable Ragavan seems solid. I don't know what deck actually wants to play this and can't just play Ragavan, but if Rags gets banned this might see a lot of play. Though the implications of enchanting Ragavan with Fingers are equally concerning.

Maybe Broken, Maybe Bad

Then there are the three new combo pieces. Each one is part of an instant-win combo (or functionally-instant-win) and is plausibly playable in Modern. However, the costs associated with these cards are enough that I'm not sure they will actually make it. Everything has an opportunity cost, after all, and the metagame is often more deterministic of deck fortune than objective power. The deciding factor will be how the decks around them are built.

Finishing Old Business

The first card is one that I mentioned last week, Luxior, Giada's Gift. I'd just gotten a look at the card last week, and in the intervening time, a lot of other writers have noticed the card... as well as its resounding combo potential. I knew about the Devoted Druid combo, but Luxior also combos with Saheeli Rai. The non-planeswalker can -2 and copy itself and the new copies can repeat the process, creating infinite ETB triggers. I'm not keen to retread ground already covered, so check out the above articles linked above for all the deckbuilding possibilities. I'll wait!

Okay, now that everyone is up to speed, my contribution is this: how are any of these decks better than existing combo options? I appreciate that the tutors for Luxior (specifically, Stoneforge Mystic and Urza's Saga) are more powerful than cards that tutor for Vizier of Remedies or Felidar Guardian, and that means that the decks around them can be better. I hold that it's not enough to make either Saheeli combo or Druid combo good.

The fundamental weakness of Counters Company and Copycat were always the combos themselves. Each one requires multiple pieces and is dependent on creatures. Replacing Vizier with Luxior removes the weakness of one half to creature removal, but Druid is still a creature. The same is true for Saheeli, who then becomes a creature. The combos are still as disruptable as they were previously, and considering that neither deck is a player in the metagame, I'm skeptical that Luxior is enough. It will take significant improvements to the surrounding shells to make that happen. Which isn't impossible.

Pod's New Hope?

Every time a new card looks vaguely like Birthing Pod, there's a huge surge of hope. Pod was a popular deck and there's a lot of nostalgia for it. Even if it's still pretty busted. Anyone remember Prime Speaker Vannifar? They never work, as nothing is going to match an artifact's resilience. But hope certainly springs eternal.

The latest model is Vivien on the Hunt. Her +2 is Pod's ability. However, 6 mana is too much for that in Modern. That's twice as much mana as it costs to cast Pod! Rather, players are proposing to cheat her out with Planebound Accomplice. All that's required to combo off is a free red mana and Vivien in hand. The sequence goes:

  1. +2 Vivien sacrificing Accomplice, get Felidar Guardian, blink Vivien
  2. +2 Vivien sacrificing Guardian, get Karmic Guide
  3. Return Guardian, blink Vivien, +2 Vivien sacrificing Guardian, get Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
  4. Copy Guide, return Guardian, blink Kiki-Jiki, copy Guardian infinitely

As far as Pod combo goes, that's fewer searches and significantly less mana than the Pod line. Which is no small improvement.

Still, this scenario does require the convergence of Vivien in hand, Accomplice in play, and mana available. When that doesn't come together, Vivien is a six-mana brick while Accomplice is Gray Ogre. And if the combo is interrupted by, say, a meddling Solitude coming down in response to Accomplice's activation, there goes the whole game. I'm not saying it can't work, but its working also means playing Planebound Accomplice in Modern.

Vintage? In My Modern?

I haven't seen much discussion of the final card here, but I think it's the most powerful one. Maybe we owe the relative quiet to the fact that on its surface, Bootlegger's Stash doesn't do much. For six mana, all it does is bank mana up for later use. A Commander card and nothing more?

No! Add in Time Sieve and there's a combo. Five lands, Sieve, and Stash in play equals infinite turns. Every turn, just make five treasures and sacrifice them to Sieve. Yes, it takes a lot of mana each turn to pull off, but who cares? Eventually you'll draw enough lands to do something to win the game and the opponent can't stop the kill (unless you can't win through an Ensnaring Bridge). This is the closest Magic has come to Time Vault and Voltaic Key since... well, Vault-Key.

I've tested this combo in a generic UW Urza shell and it was... serviceable. Playing both Stash and Sieve as 1-ofs had no detectable effect on the overall deck's gameplan except to add a way to just win. But I didn't feel like I was getting the most out of the combo. Sieve was less of a gameplan than an incidental win, à la Mycosynth Lattice and Karn, the Great Creator. A more dedicated shell with more ways to find both halves should improve results.

Kicking Things Into Gear

So, I switched to a different, more combo-oriented shell with Emry, Lurker of the Loch. And I was right, it did feel better. And seemed to combo off more reliably. To the point that I think that a really dedicated deck built around this combo could be a real contender.

Between Emry and Whir of Invention plus all the artifact card draw to find the pieces, general artifact mana and Mox Amber, and Urza, Lord High Artificer, there are a lot of ways to power out this combo and get absurd really quickly. Six mana in a deck like that is no burden. Which is probably why Sieve's price went through the roof. It has always threatened to break, and now it actually might.

Minor Issue

That said, there is a minor issue with the combo. Unless you have 5 lands in play at the first activation, it isn't necessarily deterministic. During testing, I once powered it all out on turn 3 with three lands in play and a lot of artifacts on board. Then I took 5 straight turns without drawing land, and ran out of artifacts to keep comboing, leaving me with a pathetic board. Had it been a real game, I would have lost, unlike with Vault and Key. Maybe that was a misplay or just poor deck design, but it does feel like a problem that can be solved. And if it is, I'd be very scared of this deck.

Is There a Storm Brewing?

There's been an unusually high number of combo pieces seeing print recently. This is not a bad thing. I do wonder if Wizards was even aware of the Sieve combo, because it is a lot more reliable than I was expecting. And while the rest of SNC seems just fine in Modern, Stash might be unexpectedly good. We'll have to see.

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