The Brothers' War is proving to be a very unexpected set. I've been playing and watching both paper and Magic Online (MTGO) events over the past few days and have seen a lot of BRO cards played. Many of which I never thought would ever be played. While everyone (I included) was focused on a few artifacts due to their interaction with Karn, the Great Creator, there are a shocking number of cards that are actually playable in Pioneer, Modern, and even Legacy. Which I never would have predicted in the BRO preview article I didn't write. Well, no time like the present, I'll be covering the surprises I've encountered in WUBRG order.
Formats: Pioneer, Modern
Players have been able to play BRO on MTGO for longer than in paper. I have been getting in Pioneer practice online ahead of more Pioneer RCQs. Consequently, I've seen plenty of players adding in the BRO artifacts, primarily in Mono-Green Devotion. The first truly unexpected card was Recommission, and it was in an unexpected deck too.
Honestly, it could have been a Pauper artifacts deck but for Sacred Foundry and Battlefield Forge. It certainly played like one. I saw a lot of Experimental Synthesizers, Shrapnel Blasts, and Reckless Fireweavers alongside a lot of chaff artifacts.
I was already perplexed at what I was seeing in Pioneer when my opponent tried to Recommission a discarded Foundry Inspector. I was on Spirits, so I countered, having had nothing better to counter that match. My opponent typed into the chat quote "There goes my combo attempt. GG", conceded and left before I could type back, "WAIT, COMBO?" I will note he had one card and two mana open at the time. If anyone knows what was going on, this article is as much a cry for clarity as it is informative content.
I might have blown that off as a weird brew, but at least one Modern Hardened Scales player has told me the card has legs there. A Recommissioned Hangerback Walker or Walking Ballista would have a +1/+1 counter, and the synergy with Scales is obvious. I haven't actually seen this happen yet, but I know said player is currently playing Recommission so maybe it will catch on?
While the potential of the card as a combo enabler is yet unproven, it was definitely an oversight on my part to never consider Recommission. However, I also know why I did. Recommission competes with An Unearthly Child for the same role, and I'm not sure it wins. Unearth is narrower, but cycling and costing one forgives many deficiencies. Recommission gives creatures +1/+1 and finds artifacts but is also in a color not known for getting cards into the graveyard to reanimate.
Of course, Unearth is also not legal in Pioneer, so that's not a concern. Can't Stay Away on the other hand, is another matter. While again, Recommission has upsides, I don't think they outweigh flashback. This leaves the card as either a gimmicky Scales card or a dedicated cheap artifact reanimator, which has never really existed before. The problem is that outside of Inspector, I have no idea what engine card is worth reanimating. Thus, this still seems like a card that is only seeing play because it's new. However, maybe there actually is a combo this enables? I guess we'll see.
I've never seen this card in person, but in several YouTube Modern stream uploads over the past week, I've seen this card played against the streamer. In one case it was played game one, in the others, it didn't show up until games two or three. The first was definitely main decking Defabricate, which was quite perplexing by itself, but the others having such a card in their sideboard is equally weird. I remember the modes being chosen equally, though the Stifle effect was always used against Urza's Saga.
As I didn't have direct contact with the games, I've no way of knowing exactly what the players were thinking in playing Defabricate in Modern. It doesn't actually answer anything Karn, the Great Creator wishes for as they're exiled and can be wished for again. Thus, I have to assume that they were primarily playing it for the Stifle effect and hoping for some additional value of countering artifacts occasionally. I can't think of enchantments that need countering maindeck.
Stifle and similar cards occupy a weird place in Magic. When they are good, they're backbreaking. However, mostly they're mediocre at best. Countering a trigger is card disadvantage and tempo advantage unless it's a fetch land being Stifled. It takes countering a saga or storm trigger to be good, and those are really niche situations. Consequently, they don't usually see play outside Legacy, and even then it's limited to Delver of Secrets // Delver of Secrets decks.
The exception has been Stifles with additional utility. Tale's End saw play when A-Omnath, Locus of Creation was at its height since it countered Omnath while Stifling fetch lands. However, I haven't seen End being played in months. In that light, if there are enough artifacts seeing play that need to be countered, Defabricate starts to make sense.
However, that's tempered by the fact that exile is actually a disadvantage thanks to Karn. Defabricate would benefit from putting artifacts in the graveyard instead of exile so long as Karn is legal. I'm therefore left thinking that the players running Defabricate are playing to the wrong metagame.
I have seen a number of recent Indomitable Creativity decks running two or three Bitter Reunions in Modern, both as I'm doing the metagame data and personally. Looting effects aren't uncommon in the archetype though it's mainly been Tainted Indulgence and Fable of the Mirror-Breaker // Reflection of Kiki-Jiki. Seeing another mono-red one, and a much weaker one at that, made me double-take. I thought it might be a budget option until I looked more carefully and saw Fable.
While I don't know what the MTGO players were thinking, I did ask the player I saw why Reunion. He was unequivocal: it's for the sacrifice ability. His games tended to go long so being able to immediately attack with multiple Archon of Crueltys was not merely an option but necessary. The looting was powerful, but they're dime-a-dozen. Being able to immediately win the game is quite rare for the deck, and so he'd picked Reunion over other options to supplement Fable.
As far as I'm concerned, the explanation tracks. The Creativity decks with Indulgence haven't set the metagame on fire, at least compared to all the other Creativity variants. Consequently, replacing it with something else is a perfectly valid option.
I do question whether the situation described is truly a reason to adopt Reunion. The player specifically said it was for when he had multiple Archons to just end the game, but most of the time two Archon triggers functionally end the game anyway. The only situation where attacking immediately is necessary is when Supreme Verdict is a threat, and that's quite rare. Reunion is still reasonable but seems slightly win-more to me.
I'm no Legacy expert, but I do like to dabble. Sunday I was playing Death and Taxes on MTGO when an opponent killed my Batterskull's germ token with Obliterating Bolt. I was shocked. I expected Bolt to see play in Pioneer as it answers a lot of cards in Mono-Green Devotion. Two-mana burn removal is generally playable there but usually only makes the older formats if it can also burn face. Seeing Bolt in Legacy was utterly shocking.
Fortunately, my opponent explained the inclusion, and their answer was as unequivocal as the previous story. He was playing Obliterating Bolt to answer Minsc & Boo, Timeless Heroes. This just begged more questions from me. I'm not that plugged into Legacy, but I do know that the D&D duo is quite strong. However, having to run an answer like Obliterating Bolt specifically for that card seemed questionable. My opponent said that it's actually not so surprising and Bolt is gaining traction on the 4-Color Control discord he was on.
I'd have thought that Legacy players concerned about Minsc & Boo would load up on Hydroblast and Blue Elemental Blast before resorting to a card like Obliterating Bolt. I guess there are concerns about Veil of Summer but still. Bolt is not the sort of card that one expects to see Legacy play. There is something to be said for attacking from an unexpected angle, but I really question Bolt's efficacy outside of killing Minsc on the turn it's played. This strikes me as an echo chamber feedback loop, but again, I'm not a Legacy expert. Maybe this is the right move, weird as it looks.
Titania, Voice of Gaea
I was playing Merfolk online against what appeared to be a standard-issue Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. It had the right lands, Dryad of the Ilysian Grove grove, and Primeval Titan. However, in game one my opponent played Argoth, Sanctum of Nature. It was weird and unexpected, but I didn't think much of it. Then came game two, when my opponent started using Life from the Loam and then Titania, Voice of Gaea. I was perplexed.
I did find out what my opponent was doing, but not why. A few turns later he successfully melded Titania and Argoth into Titania, Gaea Incarnate with Dryad out to win via Valakut triggers. I Dismembered the Dryad then killed Titania with Merfolk Trickster. My opponent was apparently so upset they disconnected. They were pretty ahead in that game and won game one, so I can't think of any other reason they'd just leave.
I've seen this in Modern before. It's called Splendid Reclamation, and it was tried for a while before being abandoned as too gimmicky. Trying to get there via meld as a primary plan is going to great lengths for no real gain. If Life is the plan, just run Seismic Assault.
Even as an incidental combo (which is not what my opponent intended, there were multiple milled Argoth's and another Titania), this is questionable. Titania has the same stats as Abnormal Endurance but lacks reach and has a more marginal ability. Argoth is clunkier than Urza's Saga, which already sees play in lands decks. Unless the meta swings heavily toward Burn I can't imagine this catching on. That said, players do love a gimmick.
Harbin, Vanguard Aviator
For the record, I wouldn't be surprised to see Harbin in Pioneer, or even in Modern, in his intended role. If there's a soldier tribal deck that can challenge human tribal, Harbin will be a key component. It's an evasive threat that can win a creature stall, what's not to love? No, the issue is that I saw Harbin being played game two in Pioneer UW Control, which I found perplexing.
I was playing Spirits, so Harbin was a cheap way to slow me specifically down. However, that's a really narrow use. My opponent didn't respond to my MTGO message inquiry, so I don't have their explanation. However, in the past I've used Geist of Saint Traft in Modern control decks as a way to juke out of the typical control mirror. I'd guess that was the intention with Harbin since the only answer to Harbin turn two is Aven Mindcensor or March of Otherworldly Light, which I'd expect to get boarded out.
While sideboarding in creatures is a legitimate repositioning strategy, doing so with Harbin is really weird to me. Cheap high-power creatures which dodge the usual post-board control answers are good, but they should normally be resilient too. Shark Typhoon is still a card, so I don't think anyone will be riding Harbin the way that used to be possible with Geist. If they'd been playing Raffine, Scheming Seer it would have made more sense.
However, it's still weird for Pioneer control players to be trying to get under each other in the mirror. There are so many ways to go over each other now, that they just stick to that. A-Hullbreaker Horror is the most common, but there are many similar creatures now. I really wonder what my opponent was doing playing control with Harbin.
Anything is Possible
That these cards have seen play may not make sense to me, but they certainly make sense to their players. Of all of these, Bitter Reunion is the only one that I could see making it long-term. Everything else seems like enthusiasm and optimism more than effectiveness, but I could be wrong. Anything is possible in Magic.