An Adventure to Remember: AFR Spoilers

I’m in an unusual position this spoiler season. Two weeks ago, barely anything had been spoiled; today, the whole set is not only spoiled, but available online. Such are the breaks when spoiler season happens over the first week of a new month. As such, this will be a different kind of spoiler article. I won’t just be baselessly speculating on cards after consulting my crystal ball and past experience. No, I can add in the miniscule amounts of data now available! So much more accurate.

Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms is a strange set. It has a unique mechanical feel and is the first set to use flavor from an entirely different IP. Though considering how many elements of D&D have permeated everything fantasy, it’s almost surprising Wizards hasn’t been more blatant sooner. They do own both games, and create D&D modules for Magic sets. All that is probably why the set has an uncanny valley feel to me: at once very familiar and deeply strange.

However, it’s also a weird set power-wise. There are some potentially very strong cards and interactions, but nothing on Throne of Eldraine’s level. Which also makes sense; Wizards did get burned badly on that one, and has been consciously nerfing sets since then. Also, AFR was initially designed as a D&D flavored Core Set, and those aren’t so great. UsuallyAFR is also following on MH2’s heels, so even if it had been on the higher end for a Standard set, it would look weak by comparison. Not that I’m complaining. It’s nice to see Wizards demonstrating some discipline after years of just going for broke every set.

Downgrading the Dungeons

When I first looked at AFR two weeks ago, it was pure speculation on whether the Dungeons could be Modern playable. With the set now fully spoiled, I can confidently say that they aren’t. There simply are no Modern-caliber cards that venture into the dungeon. I’d go so far to say that Dungeons may not see Standard play. It turns out that Ellywick Tumblestrum is the only easily repeatable venturer in the set. Meanwhile, Nadaar, Selfless Paladin was indicative of how venturing creatures would work, meaning they’re tied to combat and meant to trigger once a turn. That’s… okay-ish for Standard if multiple creatures attack in a turn, but won’t fly in Modern. It looks like Wizards was afraid of Dungeons and intends for them to be a limited-only mechanic.

What Could Have Been

Before getting to the actual Modern-playable cards, I’d be remiss not to mention the card that is good enough for Modern, but will never see play. Portable Hole was one of the first AFR cards spoiled in the announcement of this whole extended summer spoiler-a-thon. And it is totally Modern-worthy. In fact, all three non-Tiamat cards in that announcement are potentially playable. Hole fills a huge, um, hole in white’s removal options, and dealing with 1-drop creatures has never been more important. It also deals with Wrenn and Six, which has become critical for all the 4-color piles hanging around. Power Word Kill hits every commonly-played Modern creature for a decent price and Prosperous Innkeeper is a Soul Sister that accelerates. All at cheap enough costs to be Modern staples.

However, they were spoiled before MH2 was. And that set killed their playability. There is no reason for 99% of decks to run Hole over Prismatic Ending. Ending is forever, but a hole is escapable. It’s just a cheap Banishing Light in a format where Assassin’s Trophy and Abrade saw considerable play and now Ending is everywhere. Ending also scales to hit more things than Hole. Hole will see play in artifact synergy decks, but nowhere else. Urza has a way of making artifacts playable. Similarly, Power Word was superseded by Damn. The latter is more flexible and more importantly a wrath too. Innkeeper wasn’t actual made obsolete before it was released, but I can’t see why a deck would actually run it, especially right now. What might have been….

Speaking of Artifacts

The biggest potential winner form AFR are artifact decks. I’m sure exactly which artifact decks, but the highest concentration of playable cards are all artifact synergies. I’ve already mentioned Portable Hole, but the card that I think will see more adoption is Treasure Vault. Between the ETB tapped artifact lands in MH2 and now the untapped Vault, I’m suspicious of Wizards testing the waters ahead of unbanning the original artifact lands. I’ve never been clear why they needed to stay banned once Krark-Clan Ironworks was banned, but we’ll see. Vault is an upgrade on the MH2 artifact duals only because it enters play untapped. Power Depot is seeing play in the new Hardened Scales  Affinity decks as another modular card to feed Arcbound Ravager. Vault doesn’t provide fixing or extra value, but being untapped allows for more explosive turns. That should be worth at least a slot or two.

Outside of Affinity, I’m not certain of Vault’s fate. The Urza decks need colored mana, already play Urza’s Saga, and can’t really make use of a random artifact land. However, they often have lots of extra mana and like having lots of artifacts to fuel their engines/synergies. This suggests using Vault for its treasure generation rather than as an actual land. Which begs the further question: how is that better than Thopter Foundry? And I’m not sure. The only reason to turn a lot of mana into half as many treasures is to save it for later and… why not use it to win on the spot? Treasure Vault has a lot of potential, but I’m struggling to see why any deck would bother except that it wants an untapped artifact land.

Artifice for Value

However, Wizards didn’t just print artifacts. They also printed some new artifact-finding white creatures which are potentially playable if the right deck emerges. The first, Ingenious Smith, is not really a new effect. Glint-Nest Crane has seen scattered play for years, and a 1/3 with flying is better than a 1/1 without flying. However, Crane being blue is actually a strike against it since Urza, Lord High Artificer is also blue and competing for space. Also, Smith grows. It only grows by +1/+1 per turn, but artifact decks tend to be on the patient side and might be willing to dig for an artifact then sit back and build massive creatures. Wizards actually included the “triggers only once per turn” on a lot of AFR cards, so it looks like they’ve finally started taking the potential for abuse seriously.

There’s also Oswald Fiddlebender. Birthing Pod on legs is nothing new and has proved to be too vulnerable for Modern, as Prime Speaker Vannifar can attest to. However, we’ve never had one for artifacts before, and Oswald costs half as much as Vannifar. I have no idea how, but cheap engines are abusable and with the affinity mechanic being played again, there’s huge potential for Oswald getting absurd in a hurry. Turn three Myr Enforcer into Sundering Titan into Inkwell Leviathan or The Great Henge the next turn seems pretty nuts. Whether this is a combo play or simply for value, it sounds like a Modern-worthy strategy.

The Stumbling Block

The only question is why to bother with these white value creatures when Urza’s still legal. He does everything artifact decks could ever want and more. And honestly, I don’t think there is any reason. The Whirza decks rarely bother with non-Urza creatures anymore, and I don’t see that changing. However, I also don’t see Urza sticking around forever. Should something new be printed that benefits Oswald and Smith but not Urza (which is very unlikely), then they’d both headline a new deck. Alternatively, if Urza gets banned (which it looks like Wizards wants to avoid, based on their nerfing of artifacts recently) I’d expect Oswald to headline a new Whirza variant. However, until this happens, their use will be pretty niche.

Demilich

This card actually worries me. On face, a four mana 4/3 that has to attack to mimic Snapcaster Mage is not Modern-playable. However, the same could be said of a 3/2 flyer with haste for four, and Arclight Phoenix was the It card of 2019 until Faithless Looting was banned. The main draw in both cases is that they jump back from the graveyard for free. Well, not exactly free: Arclight needed specific conditions to be met to trigger its return. Demilich has escape (functionally) and needs four instants and sorceries in the graveyard to exile. And while that is more flexible, it’s also not free.

It’s the first clause of text that makes Demilich Modern playable. In a typical Prowess or Storm turn, Demilich is actually free to cast, even from the hand. Casting Arclight always costs 3R. And free is always dangerous. The question is whether this danger is theoretical or real. Best-case scenario: a turn 2 ‘lich off two Manamorphoses. That’s harder and less aggressive than casting Stormwing Entity, which tells me that Demilich isn’t a Prowess card. Storm is a possibility, but attacking really isn’t Storm’s thing except in emergencies. Which suggests that Demilich could be a sideboard card for when the combo fails.

However, I ultimately think that Demilich needs to be in an Arclight Phoenix deck. Those haven’t existed since Looting was banned because it’s too hard to get multiple early Phoenixes into the graveyard. That’s still the case, but instead of being all-in on dumping Arclight off Chart a Course or similar, Phoenix decks could drop free Demilichs. Thus, they’d present reasonable threats earlier and more often, increasing their viability.

Positive Evidence

I’m not the only one thinking this, and it’s already starting to happen. Aspiring Spike has been working on the list and has inspired others to take up the mantel. It is far too early to tell, but in a meta filled with grindy UR decks, the one with recurring threats seems well positioned. I doubt that Phoenix will reclaim its old glory, but it may be viable once again. Keep a close eye on this one.

Tasha’s Hideous Laughter

On the subject of AFR cards already seeing play, Tasha’s Hideous Laughter has replaced Mesmeric Orb in Mill. It makes sense as exiling defeats the main counter to mill strategies (namely Eldrazi Titans and Gaea’s Blessing) and with MH2 pushing down mana costs, the potential to mill a lot of cards is real. With the average mana cost of Tier 1 decks being around 1.5, a single Laughter will exile 13 cards plus or minus a few to reflect variance. That’s on par with existing staples Archieve Trap and Fractured Sanity. The only worry is that it’s another three-mana spell. Mill’s biggest problem has always been clunky hands, and Laughter doesn’t help. Plus, if counters become more common, it will prove harder to slip a three mana spell past counters than a two mana spell. I suspect this is a metagame call, but we’ll see.

Wish

The last card is also the most speculative. There’s never been a wish this broad before. Appropriate really, since Wish is as definitively and broadly named as possible. Which again makes sense since it’s from D&D and predates the Magic wishes. While normally this would open a wide range of possibilities for almost every deck to exploit, Wizards seems to have considered that and Wish works differently from other wishes. All the other options place the wished-for card into the hand to be used whenever. With Wish, the card must be cast in the same turn. No sandbagging, no stockpiling value; just get a sideboard card and cast it the same turn. This is balanced somewhat by Wish never specifying the card that must be played, so the caster can revaluate their choice if something happens after Wish resolves.

However, the requirement of casting the card in the same turn puts a lot of strain on the manabase for most decks. Especially since Wish costs three. That’s a huge burden for aggressive decks and is no small problem for control. Combo, particularly Storm, is the only strategy that may want to Wish and will have the mana left over to cast the card and likely follow up to win. Wish also has an advantage since it costs less than current staple Gifts Ungiven. Still, I’m not a combo player, so we’ll have to wait and see how this plays out.

Wandering Near to Home

After the banquet that was MH2Adventures in the Forgotten Realms is positively a famine. However, that’s no bad thing. Modern is already going to be settling for some time and dumping more cards into the mix will only increase the churn. All that’s left is to wait and see how MTGO shifts before AFR is available in paper.

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