Stern Scolding, from the upcoming expansion The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-Earth, is primed to become Modern's next Fatal Push. No, it won't outright replace one-mana removal spells, but it may have a lasting effect on which creatures are favored by deckbuilders. That's what Push did, for the reason that when it was printed, the card lined up so well against most of the format's top threats (then hitting 86% of the format's top 50 creatures according to MTGGoldfish, compared with the gold standard Lightning Bolt's 78%).
Scolding boasts a similarly impressive "matchup" against the current top 50, a list that has by now long since warped around Push. Going forward, either the top 50 list will adjust around Scolding as players prioritize creatures that skirt its condition, or Scolding will immediately become and then remain a very solid pick in the format for the decks that want it.
We're likely to see a combination of these outcomes, but things will definitely lean in the latter direction. Modern is just too efficient for players to swear off "creature spells with power or toughness 2 or less," just as it couldn't up and start favoring five-drops when Push was announced.
Today, we'll consider the removal-counterspell conundrum, weigh the question of tempo, and assess the top 50 to measure just how good Stern Scolding looks to be in Modern.
Wherever, Whenever: The Joy of Removal
We can't really compare Push and Scolding without first unpacking the differences between removal and counterspells. While the two can fill similar roles in Limited decks, they tend to perform distinct functions in Constructed, where players can pick the best cards for each task. That's why Push isn't at risk of being replaced by Scolding.
Removal's chief benefit is that it enjoys a wide casting window. You can tap out for a threat, and opponents can tap out for theirs, and you can untap and Push whatever they've cast. Or you can topdeck Push for that nefarious, growing Ledger Shredder and claw your way right back into a game. That's many situations, and turns, where removal can be cast to deal with a given threat. By contrast, any blue mage can tell you how useless Counterspell feels while behind on the board; it does nothing to a resolved permanent.
But the most devastating use for this wide window is disrupting on-board combinations of game pieces. Pushing at the right time yields a two-for-one, as opponents lose both their creature and the pump spell that targets it. It can also blow out double blocks. The prevalence of removal in competitive Magic is the reason "auras are bad."
No Means No: Don't Count Out Counters
While black was imagined as the color that "kills" creatures, blue prefers to stop them from materializing altogether. Indeed, while red can damage creatures to death, green fights them, and white also gets destroy in addition to exile effects, only blue consistently "counters" threats. Doing so has its pros and cons.
Compared with removal, counterspells suffer from a narrow casting window. Players must cast their counterspell while the target spell is being cast. Once it's left the stack, the window has closed. This strike against permission is the main reason removal will always have a place in Magic.
It's mostly upside from there. Preventing a creature from resolving means the entire spell is undone. The creature in question doesn't get a chance to activate its abilities before priority is passed, nor does it trigger any enters-the-battlefield abilities.
Black wasn't doomed from the get-go to toil and moan in the face of enters-the-battlefield triggers. Targeted discard like Thoughtseize lets the color snipe threats before they resolve and "cast their spells." But discard has its own problem: it comes with a baked-in tempo loss.
You spend one mana to trade your Thoughtseize for their Stoneforge Mystic. A totally reasonable trade, and one you're likely happy about. But the exchange still cost you something, and your opponent nothing. Or you could Counterspell the Mystic instead. Now it's a tempo wash; your two mana for theirs.
Believe it or not, there used to be a popular way to come out ahead on tempo in this sort of exchange:
All my old heads remember the great feeling of Snaring the Mystic, or an Arcbound Ravager (once upon a time), or of course Tarmogoyf. Now imagine Snaring the Grief, or a Risen Reef, or Yawgmoth, Thran Physician. Imagine Super-Snare. I've long fantasized about a "Spell Pierce for creatures" to experience just that.
Snare fell out of favor pretty much the moment Push was printed. The black spell offers the same tempo-positive trade without the strict window or stringent requirement. We'll see now that Scolding is much more flexible, interacting with a huge swath of Modern's top creatures. Like Snare, it does so in a decisive way removal spells cannot hope to. But the tempo gains possible often trump Snare's +1, leaning more in the direction of Pierce's +2-3.
Push vs. Scolding in Modern
Comparing Push to Bolt six years ago was straightforward enough, as both removed resolved creatures. We had only to assess which creatures were hit and which weren't, a contest that Push won handily. But thinking back to our removal-versus-counterspell discussion, how are we supposed to compare the value of a wide casting window with that of preventing creature resolution?
Well, since Fatal Push redefined Modern, the format's top creatures have warped to account for every part of the card: its restrictions, but also its limitations as a piece of removal. To wit, today's best creatures are expecting removal, but not permission.
We'll start the list by omitting a few special cases.
Weirdos (7): The six Living End creatures, which are not to be cast nor interacted with through conventional means, are Street Wraith, Foundation Breaker, Curator of Mysteries, Striped Riverwinder, Architects of Will, and Waker of Waves. And then there's Orvar, the All-Form, which is not meant to be cast or put onto the battlefield.
Immunity (9): Here are the nine exceptional creatures who completely sidestep both Push and Scolding: cost-reducers Akroma, Angel of Fury and Murktide Regent; Indomitable Creativity combo payoffs Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and Archon of Cruelty; Tron payoffs Sundering Titan, Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, and Kozilek, Butcher of Truths; five-drop fatties Jegantha, the Wellspring, a freebie companion, and Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines, which as far as I can tell is largely played because it's a floodgate immune to pretty much every played removal spell.
That's 16 creatures more or less disqualified from our exercise, leaving 34. Why so many out? My take is that in the wake of efficient removal spells like Push, Prismatic Ending, and Leyline Binding, the format has become more spell-centric in general. (Spell Pierce, a card barely playable back when Push was printed, is now the 5th-most popular card in the format, with the creature-inclusive Counterspell scraping by at number 50 on the days it even makes the list; big bro was notably absent when I checked yesterday).
Creatures, too, have become more like spells, a shift that allows them to beat all that great removal by leaving value behind when they're sniped. This transition makes Scolding uniquely positioned to exploit the Push-aware environment it's arriving in. Let's assess how today's top creatures line up against Fatal Push and other removal spells.
Clean trades (7/34): Of the remaining 34 creatures, only seven of them trade cleanly with Fatal Push (or any other removal spell).
They are Giver of Runes, Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, Dauthi Voidwalker, Soulless Jailer, Drannith Magistrate, Ornithopter, and Memnite. Giver, Ragavan, and Dauthi are must-answers for most interactive decks; the other two-drops are sideboard bullets, and not part of any specific strategy. The artifacts are throwaway bodies you'd hope to never Push, in part because they cost less than one mana and thus render the instant a parity loss. All seven can be Scolded.
Semi-clean trades (7/34): These more or less trade cleanly with Push, but extracting a bit of value from each before opponents get priority is possible. It's therefore better to counter them, but not necessarily by much.
- A-Dragon's Rage Channeler and Ledger Shredder (who can lock in surveils or loots before being targeted)
- Puresteel Paladin (whose momentary presence nonetheless enables a free Colossus Hammer equip)
- Monastery Swiftspear, Gingerbrute, and Sheoldred, the Apocalypse (who lock in damage unless opponents have Push up when they resolve)
- Wall of Roots (which can produce G after resolving)
Bad trades (18/34): Here's where things get interesting. Most remaining creatures will die to Fatal Push, but leave something behind in their wake. Often, the body is just a formality; most of the card's value lies in its "front half."
- Abnormal Endurance (revolt needed)
- Seasoned Pyromancer (revolt needed)
- Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft (revolt needed)
- Subtlety (revolt needed)
- Grief (revolt needed)
- A-Haywire Mite
- Shardless Agent (revolt needed)
- Walking Ballista
- Stoneforge Mystic
- Esper Sentinel
- Tourach, Dread Cantor
- Arboreal Grazer
- Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger
- A-Omnath, Locus of Creation (revolt needed)
- Magus of the Moon (revolt needed)
- Yawgmoth, Thran Physician (revolt needed)
- Young Wolf
- Strangleroot Geist
While coughing up Doom Blade money to murder Sentinel is worlds less painful than being Hymned by Tourach, a bad trade is just that all the same. Scolding shares bad trades with Push for two creatures, Borrower (which casts its front half through either interactive spell) and Agent (who gets the cascade regardless what happens to its 2/2 body). Any Modern dabbler will be quick to assert that the rest are best countered.
However, Scolding trades cleanly with all but five of the 32 creatures mentioned so far: Abnormal Endurance, Subtlety, Sheoldred, Kroxa, and Omnath. Its "2 or less" condition is thus not much more limiting than Push's "4 or less." Nor is it strictly worse in terms of coverage, as Scolding itself trades cleanly with a couple of staples who boast total immunity to Fatal Push (numbers 33 and 34): City of Solitude and Sanctifier en-Vec.
Again, though, coverage is but one of two questions, the other being effectiveness. The bulk of Modern's playable creatures owe that status to the value they provide through removal. The one-mana Scolding, being a counter and not removal, ignores this consideration and stops them in their tracks.
- Push (revolt) hits 64% of the top 50
- Scolding hits 56% of the top 50
- Takeaway: Scolding's range among the top 50 is 88% that of Push's (56/64)
- Push (revolt) trades cleanly with 14% of the top 50 (14/64 = 22% of its range)
- Scolding trades cleanly with 52% of the top 50 (52/56 = 93% of its range)
- Takeaway: Scolding is fully effective over four times as often as Push (trading cleanly with 93% vs. 22%)
Naturally, both spells have their pros and cons. But establishing effectiveness within the range of a removal spell, or how completely it answers what it hits, is key to understanding Scolding's power relative to that of existing interactive options. To reiterate each above takeaway, Push interacts in some capacity with 12% more of the top 50, while Scolding provides a fully effective answer over four times as often.
Bonus: Unholy Heat
I chose Push for this comparison for two reasons. First, I'd call Push's arrival to Modern the biggest-ever upheaval in terms of benchmark creature playability, and feel the card represents the format's shift towards normalized efficient kill spells and creatures that somewhat withstand them. It's exactly this shift that positions Scolding so well against today's top creatures.
Second, I felt Push was the least conditional one-mana removal spell in the format; it can be cast as of the first turn, and revolt remains easily accessible throughout the game thanks to fetch lands. In this way, it's similar to Scolding, which asks nothing of the caster and costs just one mana. The same cannot be said of other one-mana options like Binding, which requires domain, and A-Unholy Heat, which needs delirium; both conditions demand additional setup.
I'll still grant that Heat would also be a fine contender for the comparison. It too asks one mana to conditionally interact with many Modern creatures, all while promising tempo swings under the right circumstances. The difference? Assuming delirium, Heat removes four more creatures than Push at the "bad trade" rate: Akroma, Angel of Fury, Jegantha, the Wellspring, Archon of Cruelty, and City of Solitude. Do keep in mind that its higher hit rate is tied to delirium, which is a good deal harder to achieve than revolt.
- Heat (delirium) hits 72% of the top 50
- Heat (delirium) trades cleanly with 14% of the top 50 (14/72 = 19% of its range)
These minor differences don't diffuse the reality that Modern's creatures possess a built-in resilience to removal that Scolding happily ignores.
Return of the King
We've lived with that understanding of premier creatures for long enough that it's become second nature; we are used to an opponent's kicked Tourach, Dread Cantor having a huge effect we can't stop for one mana, and taking a minor L in Pushing its 4/3 frame after it rips our cards. This isn't Legacy, where reigning king blue has access to tempo-positive powerhouses like Daze. Until now, breaking even on cards and going up on tempo against creatures like Tourach has always been a lot less achievable in Modern.
As such, while I expect Scolding to make a splash results-wise, I bet it will also wow players anecdotally. We take the card for granted now, but Fatal Push wowed us, too: I still remember that sinking feeling I got the first time my 3/4 was executed for a single black mana. Back then, Goyf was public enemy #1. Which filthy hobbitses are you most excited to Scold?