There's been a trend every time Magic goes to Mirrodin/New Phyrexia. I'm not referring to anything in the set, but the circumstances of spoiler season. Specifically, the set being leaked. There were significant leaks surrounding the release of Scars of Mirrodin, or so I'm told. I wasn't as plugged into the Magic ecosystem in 2010 as I am now. I've been told that it happened with the original Mirrodin set too, but I don't remember that either. Phyrexia, All Will Be One is no exception, and there's been a substantial leak revealing a card that could potentially be dangerous in Modern. Today, I'll explain why.
The Leak's Story
QS Insiders will remember that in my Insiders-only metagame analysis article, I mentioned that we didn't know enough about One to make any financial decisions in the immediate future. Shortly after I finished writing that article, that statement was rendered false by a massive leak of One rares. I feel like the universe is conspiring to make me look silly, especially since I wrote in the metagame data article that the missing data hadn't been released and then it was released the same day... I will not win the Mega Millions drawing. Come on universe, come through one time! One time!
The story goes that there was some mistake at the printer and some boxes of Dominaria Remastered had their rares replaced by the ones from One. If true, that's a huge screw-up, but hopefully humiliating enough for Wizards to do something about the poor quality control of recent sets. It's also the perfect story for a leaker as if the story isn't true, there's no way to prove it. Take that, Wizards' lawyers! Also, Pioneer players rejoice; the allied fastlands are being reprinted.
I'm bringing this up because there is a chance the card I'm discussing isn't real. As there's been no comment from Wizards over the situation, this leak could still be an elaborate hoax. Admittedly, it is most likely genuine, as there are now multiple videos and posts showing the same cards, but in this day and age, I accept nothing even minimally dubious from the internet as absolute truth. I just want to cover myself, just in case.
There are a number of interesting and powerful looking rares in the One leak. However, one stands out as potentially too powerful. That card is Venerated Rotpriest, and fair warning, the only currently available image is potato quality.
For one green mana, Rotpriest is a 1/2 (according to the sources) with toxic 1. Wizards actually did learn from their last trip to Mirrodin, and went back to the original way poison worked (i.e. the Pit Scorpion way). So far, so mediocre. What drew my eye is that second ability. I hope it's misprinted, because there seems to be the phrase "target of a spell" where "target of a spell an opponent controls" really should be. See, the former is terrifyingly abuseable, where the latter is nice and balanced.
If the ability only triggered off opponent's spells, then it's just another form of ward, albeit a nice one that Infect decks may well enjoy. However, as written, there's the opportunity to use this to quickly kill the opponent. This has naturally led to wild speculation about how to best abuse Rotpriest. After some investigation on my own, I think that the best way to abuse Rotpriest is to not abuse it at all. That doesn't mean that it isn't insanely powerful, just that its power is a little deceptive.
The Combo Method
From the minute Rotpriest was leaked, the speculation has been focused on using it as a combo piece. The initial reactions were how to maximize the chances of killing on turn two via Ground Rift and/or Show of Confidence by quickly targeting it many times. I largely dismissed this particular line and feel vindicated doing so as chatter on the subject has rapidly dwindled over the weekend. There was also some proliferate talk, but there aren't Modern-playable proliferate cards, so I didn't bother.
I've been down this road before, but last time it was called Nivmagus Elemental. While there have been many attempts to make the potential turn two combo work, it has never made a mark in Modern. The problem is that Ground Rift is a bad card and the effort needed to make it work would be better spent on Grapeshot. Don't be a gimmick for the sake of being gimmicky. So, I cut to the chase and started by incorporating Rotpriest into a Storm shell.
As usually happens, Aspiringspike has been working on GR Storm, so I borrowed his shell. After some preliminary testing, I was reminded that Spike is quite aggressive with his mana bases and frequently leans on the best-case scenarios in his deck designs. I cut the Experimental Frenzy for a Forest and Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer for the Rotpriest. As powerful as Rags is, it's also the card least necessary for the combo, and this is a proof-of-concept deck anyway.
My idea with this list is that Rotpriest serves as a different kind of Underworld Breach in that it enables kills with fewer in-hand resources. It is possible to get chip poison by attacking, but the intention was that if generating enough storm count to outright win with [card]Grapeshot[card] was impossible, then Rotpriest would provide a way to kill with storm of 10 (or sometimes less). That's fully half of what's usually necessary.
In this role, Rotpriest wasn't terrible. Of course, that same faint praise could be applied to the whole deck. Playing the deck made me think that it's all very close, but either there have been some corners cut or it's missing something because it all felt oddly anemic. It's also possible that Storm in any form is just outdated.
Rotpriest didn't shine because the circumstances where I needed it to rarely came up. There weren't a lot of situations I couldn't just win with damage, but I could with Rotpriest. Either I had enough storm to kill outright, or I just couldn't get off the ground and was nowhere close to 10 storm to kill with Rotpriest.
However, there was an interesting trend. If the storm count was six or lower, it was always better to go for the face as low amounts of poison are irrelevant. However, at higher storm counts it was always better to target Rotpriest as subsequent Rotpriests were a huge threat to just kill with Bolt.
Consequently, I'm not sold on Rotpriest as a combo piece. It can do the work of one, certainly. However, the effort to make it uniquely good seems too high. In most cases, it's just easier to kill with damage than Rotpriest in a deck otherwise without poison. So, I decided to change track and move to Infect.
I remember a time when Infect was the boogeyman of Modern. Getting rid of Gitaxian Probe knocked it down, and Fatal Push buried it, but that hasn't stopped enthusiasts from keeping the deck alive. Thus, I looked to their wisdom for how to build an Infect deck in the modern Modern. The old Infect decks were all blue and green, but most today are green and black. Based on what I saw, I tested with this deck:
Again, the idea was that because Rotpriest triggers off any spell, it would reduce the number of pump effects needed to kill on turn two. That proved to be irrelevant. I was used to Infect playing cards like Groundswell and Mutagenic Growth, and having to play a lot of them to kill. That is no longer the case, and if Infect intends to kill with pump spells, it only needs two. Rotpriest didn't change the math of doing that turn two, and so failed in its intended task.
In fact, it proved to be a terrible early play. Infect as a mechanic was so much more powerful than toxic that Rotpriest would never be played on turns one or two if there was any other option in my testing, which wasn't a great sign.
However, as I shifted from goldfishing to some actual test games, my thinking shifted. Rotpriest still wasn't an optimal play in the early game. Instead, it was the best thing to play in the late game. Infect has always had the problem of struggling to sneak through damage once the opponent has the mana to play multiple removal spells, and that problem hasn't gone away. The shift to Phyrexian Crusader helps but doesn't remove, that weakness.
However, in those situations, Rotpriest shines because it doesn't have to attack. In the late game, I just had to sit on pump spells, wait for an opening, and then cast Rotpriest and dump all the spells I'd been holding onto it and kill via triggers. The best part was that there was no need to give the opponent a chance to respond. Announce that you're holding priority, cast a sorcery and as many instants as you want to the stack, and then allow them to make a move. At that point, even Sudden Shock or Sudden Spoiling couldn't stop the kill. Not that anyone was playing either card, but it is a relevant observation.
The Opposing Experience
What really sold me on Rotpriest was the feedback from my testing partners. While initially unconcerned, by the end of my fairly short testing period, they were terrified of the card because they were never safe. With the infect cards themselves, there was always the risk of early death and of something slipping through later, but after a while, the pressure isn't felt anymore. The control decks were in control and the likelihood of instant death was basically gone.
It was therefore ok to let a nonlethal early infect hit through in order to safeguard against the later actually lethal hit. It's not like there's incidental poison to worry about, unlike incidental life loss. Rotpriest flipped the script, and now every Infect attack had to be neutralized lest they lose to a small number of unavoidable triggers down the line. With Rotpriest, no deck is ever truly out of the woods against Infect, and barring Dress Down in response to it being cast (or counters, I guess) there's no answer. The only way to survive is to have out Leyline of Sanctity or Melira, Sylvok Outcast.
Does this mean that Rotpriest is dangerous? I don't know, but the early testing at least hints at it. The problem with poison is that it halves players' life totals, and because only one way to remove poison counters has ever been printed (Leeches 28 years ago), that loss is permanent. Mark Rosewater has previously said that is the defining characteristic of poison and he doesn't want to change it, despite player objections. Thus, there will soon be a situation in Modern and Legacy where poison suddenly has burn-like reach. That implication is alarming.
My testing decks were unrefined, proof-of-concept experiments, and they were still decent. While I'm skeptical of the pure-combo approach with Rotpriest, I will acknowledge that it wasn't central to my deck. Had I focused on killing just with Rotpriest I might have had different results. On the flip side, Rotpriest slotted into Infect effortlessly and proved to be quite strong. That leads me to believe that if I specifically built around Rotpriest the threat would be larger. That is also an alarming implication.
Prepare for Pandemic
I don't know if there's a long-term threat from Rotpriest. I am certain that for the first week or two following its release Modern and maybe Legacy too will be overrun with Infect decks looking to Rotpriest opponents out. I can't even speculate what will happen in Standard and Pioneer. Consequently, I've preemptively bought up Infect staples as well as a set of Melira. I expect there's going to be a surge of demand soon if it hasn't already started by the time this article comes out. Be prepared.