Despite being at this for decades, Magic creators still cannot guess with 100% certainty which new cards will actually impact formats. It's easy to see how a card could be used, but whether it will be used is another matter entirely. There is so much that goes into card viability in a given format, especially Modern, that we can only guess at what will happen. The end result might be obvious in retrospect, but it often isn't, and there's a particular miss that I feel the need to reexamine.
The Nightmare That Wasn't
A few months ago, I made the bold claim that Venerated Rotpriest was the scariest card in Phyrexia: All Will Be One for Modern. The potential for a turn two kill was high enough that I bought (and subsequently sold for profit) sets of Melira, Sylvok Outcast, the only way to protect against getting comboed out by Rotpriest. As everyone should be aware, the threat never materialized.
There was certainly no lack for players trying to make Rotpriest work in Modern, and many even said they were impressed by the card and the results. However, all of that came to naught, while leaving the question of why unanswered.
There is almost certainly an element of metagame inertia at play here. Convincing players to give up established good decks in favor of an untested semi-combo deck is a huge ask. Especially since Rotpriest's gameplay isn't what most players enjoy. However, if Rotpriest was good enough, it would be adopted anyway. Thus, why was I wrong about the danger.
I have been playing Modern long enough to remember when Simic Infect was such a format boogeyman that there were articles about how to correctly use removal against Infect (in short, it was anytime after combat unless absolutely necessary). The Infect of that era was looking to kill in one big hit after playing a lot of pump spells. That deck was the perfect environment for Rotpriest.
However, I didn’t appreciate how much things have changed. These days, Simic isn't the only way to play Infect. Over the past month, I've seen quite a few Golgari Infect decks at local events and Modern 1Ks, but only one Simic, and Golgari did better in all cases. In my original article I noted how important Phyrexian Crusader’s protection from red and white are in the current Modern, but I didn't appreciate how differently Golgari actually plays.
In the old days, the ideal Infect curve yielded a turn-two kill. Cast Glistener Elf turn one and then immediately pile Might of Old Krosa and Mutagenic Growth onto it for lethal. These days, the ideal turn one is casting Hierarch to play an infect creature and a protection spell the following turn. From there, the goal is to hit with chip damage once or twice before playing a single pump spell for the win.
In neither case does Rotpriest fit in elegantly. However, it at least makes sense in the old style. That deck played a much higher quantity of pump spells than current builds, and thus would have the means to kill via Rotpriest triggers. The current versions of Infect play fewer pump spells than the old versions so they can also run Spell Pierce or Thoughtseize and Crusader. As such, Rotpriest's ceiling lowers considerably.
Replace Elf with Rotpriest turn one in the first scenario, and there’s the guarantee of at least two poison counters making it through (from the kill spell used against it and Growth). If the kill spell was Lightning Bolt, then it wouldn’t even work, and Rotpriest would get to attack next turn. It wouldn’t be an outright lethal attack, but it would be well on the road to victory.
Replace a Hierarch with Rotpriest in the second scenario, and things are much clunkier. First, while Bolt and A-Unholy Heat are the most-played removal in Modern, Akroma, Angel of Fury and City of Solitude are still around, and neither triggers Rotpriest. So no guaranteed poison, and Infect will immediately start to flounder. Worse, playing Rotpriest means no Crusader, and makes the deck more vulnerable to Counterspell.
It Gets Worse
A bigger problem is that Rotpriest doesn't ultimately solve any of Infect's problems. The biggest problem the deck has these days is sticking a threat. Infect has been in decline ever since Fatal Push was printed. All the protection spells and Crusader help, but it's not enough to overcome Modern's waves of removal.
The sideboard is even worse for Rotpriest. According to the Infect players I've spoken to, Infect is now a win Game 1, try to steal a sideboard game kind of deck. There’s nothing wrong with this plan; Affinity made it work for almost 9 years. However, it is much harder for Infect to do so now than when Affinity was at its peak because the Infect hate is maindeck.
Another issue is that Dress Down exists. UR Murktide always plays at least two copies either maindeck or sideboard. Dress completely defeats the point of infect creatures and makes Crusader vulnerable to red removal. That isn’t even getting into Engineered Explosives. Rotpriest plays into Explosives and does nothing against Dress, and therefore it just isn’t working for Infect.
The Combo Problem
Storm was another potential home for Rotpriest, and there were efforts to make it work in there. However, they haven’t gone any better than just playing traditional Infect, despite many Storm streamers praising the card. While I ultimately don’t think this is Rotpriest's fault, it does highlight the overall difficulty the card has gaining traction in Modern.
The weird thing is that Rotpriest did exactly what it was supposed to do in Storm. Go watch the above linked videos. Any time that Rotpriest was relevant it was because it allowed Storm to shortcut its way to victory by targeting it instead of the opponent. 20 life is harder to chop down than 10 poison counters. Having multiple Rotpriests out was practically cheating a way to victory.
I did say "any time that Rotpriest was relevant." Rotpriest was, in fact, frequently irrelevant, even in the versions that ran Ground Rift specifically to kill via Rotpriest. The issue is that outside of the Storm kill, Rotpriest didn't actually contribute to the deck. Rotpriest adds storm count and a way to cheat the kill, but nothing more.
When the Rotpriest Storm decks lost, it was because the combo didn't come together. Sometimes they were raced; often they were disrupted. Storm needs a very specific combination of spells to come together and that's hard in the current metagame. Again, I said this above, but Rotpriest added another angle of attack without fixing a deck's fundamental problem.
Rotpriest works in Storm but didn't suddenly make the deck a metagame force. The logical question is whether that means that Rotpriest just can't hack it in Modern. Given my conversations with actual Infect players and trying Storm myself, I think the answer is "We're not trying hard enough." I'm as guilty as anyone, but I think we all thought that fitting Rotpriest into Modern would be easier than it's turning out.
What really stands out to me is one of the Golgari Infect players' assessment of Rotpriest. I asked him about his deck during a deck check at a 1K, and he said that he didn't play Rotpriest and "loved slash hated" the card. His reasoning was that the potential of Rotpriest was significantly higher than the actual results. He acknowledged that it had won some otherwise unwinnable games, but mostly it was useless.
I naturally followed up asking what it would take for Rotpriest to reach its potential. This got him really animated, and the crux of the rant was that Infect would need to be more like Pioneer Heroic, which doesn't work in Modern. Asking if he'd tried that resulted in scoffing and an even more animated rant that was fortunately interrupted by the return of the judges.
Fixing the Problem
I agree with the central crux of the rant. Rotpriest has a great deal of potential, not just in Modern but in Pioneer and maybe even Legacy. Unlocking that potential is proving very difficult. The bottom line is that the decks Rotpriest fits into aren't good in their respective metagames. However, to the best of my Googling ability, efforts to really brew decks around Rotpriest and innovate have been lacking.
Crafting a Better Storm
In the case of Storm, everyone (me included) took existing Gruul Storm lists and just shoved Rotpriest into them. We didn't think beyond that action, and I suspect that it was the wrong call. I don't know if anyone tried it, but in retrospect I wonder if adding blue for cantrips to improve consistency might help. That would solve the central issue of Gruul Storm. Abundant Harvest alone just isn't cutting it.
I'd also ask if the current Gruul Storm builds are correct. They mostly seem to be built on the assumption of a win via Underworld Breach. Breach had a great month right around when Rotpriest came out, but has been declining since then. Maybe it's time to stop dreaming the Yawgmoth's Will dream and focus on winning from the hand instead.
Making Rotpriest work in Infect may be a pipe dream. Decks like Heroic do not and have never worked in Modern. There's too much removal. Bogles isn't even regularly played anymore. The format has evolved, while Infect has not received (and likely never will) any upgraded creatures. Thus, it's probable that the fundamental problem of Infect will keep the deck down.
A more radical redesign might fix Infect, though I don't think the cards exist for that yet. Infect is tied to creatures and has always been dealt through combat. Has anyone ever tried bite effects? Flesh // Blood and Soul's Fire exist and allow Infect to strike directly at players. It would also trigger Rotpriest. The existing options are a little weak, but Wizards is always pushing the envelope.
Also, what about Pioneer? Has anyone tried to fit Rotpriest into a Heroic shell? I know that Heroic isn't in a great place, but Rotpriest would at least fix the deck's lack of reach. There are plenty of green pump spells if white or red must be cut, and Pioneer is more open to splashing than many give it credit for.
Don't Leave It to Rot
Just because Rotpriest hasn't done much outside of Standard doesn't mean that it won't ever have its day. The ceiling on the card is extremely high, but players haven't been able to reach it. While it might always be the case that the cards to make it happen don't exist yet, I suspect in this case that players need to put more work into Rotpriest to make it work. I know I'll be revisiting the card soon.