Early Access: MH2 Speculation, Pt. 1

Welcome to December! At long last, the year known as 2020 is coming to a close. Huzzah! I had planned to kick this off with the traditional metagame update, but that’s not to be: Wizards hasn’t posted the last few events at time of writing, so the data’s incomplete. Even if that wasn’t the case, I don’t have enough time to do my usual analysis. So that will have to wait until next week. In the meantime, here’s some lighter fare.

In case you missed it, Modern Horizons 2 will be out next year. At this point, the only thing I know for sure is that the enemy fetchlands are included. I can safely assume that structurally, MH2 will be like the original, with a mix of new cards and reprints. Hopefully, Wizards learned from their mistakes and we won’t have to endure another Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis, but there’s no way of knowing. What I can do is wantonly speculate about what potential reprints could make it in. And while speculating on existing staples that desperately need a reprint (Aether Vial‘s ticking up again), I’m not a finance guy, and that’s what such a piece is most useful for. Instead, I’m going to speculate on potential Modern newcomers that are currently legal in Legacy.

Ground Rules

To keep things interesting, and not totally baseless, I’m imposing some rules on myself. Obviously, I’m not going to mention cards that can’t be printed thanks to the Reserved List, but this also goes for anything too strong for Modern. Defining a format and giving it an identity separate from other formats is critical for its success (which is something Pioneer has suffered from). Thus, I don’t want anything that’s going to make Modern feel too much like Legacy. This is going to preclude a lot of cards from Commander and similar sets, as they make perfect sense in Legacy’s context, but not Modern. Looking at you, Leovold, Emissary of Trest.

Secondly, this can’t be a list of just hate cards. Players complain about Blood Moon, but that’s because they’ve never seen some of the color and nonbasic land hate lurking in Magic’s history. The cards I pick need to be interesting and preferably build-around cards to encourage different gameplay or deck design. I’m looking for cards to make Modern better for brewing and diversity, not to reinforce or completely destroy existing decks. Plus, that’d be too easy.

Finally, no low-hanging fruit. There are plenty of Modern-playable and correctly powered cards in Legacy. But I’m requiring myself to stretch as much as possible. Because the obvious stuff has been done to death. For example, Counterspell was considered for Standard in Dominaria. Thus, Wizards must also think that it’s fine for Modern. There’s nothing to see there, and nothing new to say. Similarly, Innocent Blood is probably fine, but it’s just another removal spell. Ho-hum.

With these restrictions in mind, I came up with an interesting and feasible card for each color. Of course, covering all of them in more than cursory fashion would explode my word count, so today I’ll only get to the white and blue cards.

Land Tax

This was actually the card that got me thinking about potential reprints. I don’t remember the exact context, but sometime last month it was mentioned as a really weird card, and that got my gears turning. Land Tax has the unusual distinction of having been banned in every relevant format for most of its life, but today doesn’t really see play outside Commander. Tax was first banned in Legacy (then Type 1.5) in 1996, and stayed that way until 2012; I could only find one deck in the past year that played any.

The reason for Tax’s ban was that it was an absurd card advantage engine alongside Scroll Rack and Brainstorm. Every Tax trigger was three lands to exchange for real cards. Better yet, those new cards were far less likely to just be more lands. However, as Legacy evolved and sped up, the utility of this multi-piece engine degraded to the point of unviability. As Modern lacks cheap or repeatable library manipulation, the main use of Tax would be its intended one: helping decks catch back up on land drops.

Potential Utility

The biggest plus to Land Tax in my book is that it encourages different styles of gameplay. I cannot think of any card that rewards going second as much as Land Tax. Even with help from Fieldmist Borderpost et al, Tax can be triggered turn three at the earliest in Modern when on the play. Without fast mana, there’s no way to miss a land drop and have turn one Tax. And even then, the deck that could do that is effectively Belcher, so why bother? On the draw, given normal development, a turn one Tax triggers on turn two. This opens the door to decks that actually want to play from behind. The only constructed deck I can think of that has ever wanted that is Manaless Dredge.

Another is the brewing space. Land Tax fixes mana because it searches for any basic land. This makes it plausible for non-green decks to play in that 4-Color space and compete with Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath. But after the first activation, that job’s done; every trigger after the first is just deck thinning. And it won’t be infinite thinning. The opponent will start missing land drops either deliberately or because they’re not drawing lands every turn. So what does one do with all the lands from a few Tax activations? That opens up a lot of potential for decks trying to use lands for value, and that’s not something Modern really has (much to the disappointment of Assault Loam stalwarts).

The Risk

Mana fixing has been under fire this past year, between Uro and Arcum’s Astrolabe. Players are becoming frustrated with goodstuff pile decks, and adding another option to make them possible is not attractive. There is also the general risk of cards that generate a lot of card advantage for no additional input. Does Modern really need more card advantage engines?

On the flip side, Land Tax is limited to finding basic lands, which prevents both runaway card advantage and another land-toolbox deck from emerging. The utility of lands (particularly basics) in hand is low, and Modern doesn’t have particularly strong ways of turning them into real cards. Tax’s restricted trigger potential also limits its utility and the type of deck that could use it. Uro can go anywhere and do its thing, but a deck actually has to work to benefit from the enchantment. So it’s very much a build-around card and likely to see more limited play, mitigating the main drawback and pushing Tax in a much fairer direction than Uro.

Likelihood

Despite this, I’d bet the actual odds of seeing Land Tax in MH2 is very low. The lowest chance on my list, in fact. Rosewater is on record saying that white searching for any land is a color pie break. Searching for Plains like Knight of the White Orchid does is fine, but any basic land is supposed to be green’s domain. So a straight reprint is extremely unlikely.

However, Rosewater has also repeatedly said on his blog that white needs more card advantage to keep up with the other colors, and that the Land Tax effect feels very white. Wizards could easily print a variation that changes “land cards” to “Plains”. This hypothetical card would be far weaker than Land Tax since it couldn’t fix colors. However, it would still invite interesting brewing options in white decks and reward going second, and so could still be Modern playable.

Standstill

Blue bears the burden of being a Legacy color of counters and cantrips. Modern can’t have too many blue cantrips (especially not Legacy-level ones), and we don’t need Force of Will or Daze. In an older time, I’d have argued for Fact or Fiction, but that point is now moot. So instead, I’m going with one of my favorite spells from my first experiences learning Magic, Standstill.

Standstill is a card that encourages both players to do nothing. Otherwise, their opponent gets cards. However, for that very reason, it is a huge gamble to play Standstill. Playing it when behind on board is self-destructive, and I’ve watched a Legacy Landstill player die to a single unflipped Delver of Secrets chipping away at their lifetotal because they wouldn’t crack their own enchantment. It can also be a risk to play it at parity, since Standstill really says that you want the status quo to endure. I’ve been surprised by how often the belief that the status quo is either even or truly favors one player turns out to be wrong. And when the Standstill player is wrong, they are maximally punished. Thus, I find it a fascinating card, and I like the mental subgame it entails.

Potential Utility

The first benefit is versatility. Standstill is useful in a wide range of decks, and it’s hard to truly break the card. I watched as many players in Odyssey Block start with Nimble Mongoose or Basking Rootwalla into Standstill against Psychatog as I saw ‘Tog players use it as a mirror breaker. On the aggro side, it was a way to keep up with the control decks (Compost saw a lot of play for the same reason) and to buy time for the clock to work. Control players loved it in the mirror to ensure they would win a counter war over opposing cards. The longer the game went unchanged, the more it tended to favor the Standstill player.

Except sometimes it didn’t. You’d be amazed how often the extra cards don’t matter because of the tempo hole Standstill digs. Standstill is a two-mana do-nothing card. Opposing players are free to play through, but it strongly disincentivizes its controller from action. You look really silly breaking your own Standstill, no matter how correct it is. Losing is often psychologically better than looking foolish. So sometimes, players just sit behind Standstill and watch the game slip by. Standstill is then a skill testing card, with better players resolving better Standstills than worse players. Knowing when to break the stalemate is an invaluable skill that Standstill rewards.

Also, to really use Standstill requires a lot of building around the card. In Legacy, Landstill is a UW control deck that utilizes creature-lands and now Shark Typhoon to win without cracking their Standstill. As a tool against control or for more reactive decks to regain some equity in the face of proactive value decks like 4C Omnath, there’s considerable potential for Standstill.

The Risk

Standstill encourages the kind of game that Field of the Dead wants to play, and players are already sick of Field. Plus, there are a considerable amount of feels-bad moments associated with Standstill. It’s not necessarily great fun to sit around and just stare at the opponent, nor is it to let them draw cards as result of your actions.

I think the first problem is minimal. Getting to seven unique card names is a lot harder without help from accelerators, and playing cards doesn’t mesh with hiding behind Standstill. The decks that currently abuse Field will struggle to use Standstill well as a result. As for the second, that becomes less of a problem with experience. Versed competitive players learn that the right play is the right play, regardless of anything else, and will get over it. There’s also less standing around than it seems, as it is usually correct to break the Standstill right after it’s played. Breaking Standstill early is positive tempo, and often the controller can’t use the extra cards. Standstill plays a lot better in practice than it does in theory.

Likelihood

The main problem with Standstill is a gameplay one. Wizards doesn’t like cards that encourage doing nothing, though as mentioned this is somewhat illusory. Of course, that applies primarily to Standard. If the goal is to slow Modern down and encourage new types of gameplay, doing nothing is not something any top tier deck has wanted to do for some time. Thus, Standstill is reasonably plausible.

And Now, We Wait

So, that’s the first two cards out of the way. Next week, I’ll have the metagame update ready, and then I’ll be spending the rest of December getting through my list. I’ve got one card for each color, as well as gold, artifacts, and lands. What’s your list, and what do you think of my choices for white and blue? Drop a line in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Early Access: MH2 Speculation, Pt. 1

  1. I’m really hoping they go through the list of cards that either used to be super cool in legacy, or were cool in extended, but aren’t modern-legal already and aren’t good enough anymore to see play in legacy (or are relegated to fringe play) and print a bunch of them in MH2.

    Off-hand, I’d love to see Grindstone, maybe Imperial Recruiter/Recruiter of the Guard, possibly some of the Mirage-era tutors (I feel that Enlightened is the safest, probably followed by Worldly and then Mystical/Vamp), Doomsday, High Tide, Careful Study, and Goblin Lackey.

    I also really want them to go through supplemental products as well, because there are tons of cards in there that seem interesting in the context of modern. Dualcaster Mage being the first I think of, because it’s weird that an archetype exists on Magic Arena that you can’t even try to play in Modern.

    And finally, I have absolutely no idea if it would be a good or bad thing for Modern, but bringing the Monarch mechanic into Modern could be interesting.

    1. I actually considered a lot of those while making my list. I was thinking a lot like you were, looking for cool staples from old formats. I had to implement my rules to make the list coherent, and then actually pick which cards to argue for.

      The tutors didn’t make it because they’d make Modern feel too Legacy. Vamp is a really good, skill testing card, but reduced variance and tutoring is Legacy’s thing. Not that I wouldn’t be beyond thrilled to get more use from my Recruiters.

      Doomsday’s interesting since it’s never existed without Dark Ritual. Much like Necropotence, I think it could be merely ok in formats without Ritual. However, it didn’t make the cut for being too contextually similar to Ad Nauseam.

      Lackey has always been just barely acceptable in Legacy, even before Muxus. Mana acceleration being a bit of a problem in Modern, I wouldn’t take the risk. I wouldn’t go for High Tide for the same reason, despite the tools to break it being far weaker in Modern.

      Grindstone was on my initial list, but I cut it after considering the risks. It probably wouldn’t see play in a red Prison/Combo deck since there’s no Sol lands. Instead, it would likely be another tool in Urza’s arsenal, and Whir makes the combo easier to assemble. It’s close, but I just don’t like the idea of Urza messing with Painter’s Servant and Grindstone.

      I completely forgot about Dualcaster Mage. Mostly because Historic is a format I avoid because to me it’s the encapsulated argument of why WOTC shouldn’t try to dictate format composition. There’s some decent opportunity there.

      And I’m a firm no to Monarch. After some experience in Pauper, it just creates a lot of problems in two player games.

  2. Yea, the monarch mechanic might be a bit much, but I wouldn’t object to them trying it out with a few cards in MH2 at a lower rarity, because they could easily remove the mechanic from the format if it proved too problematic without too much of an uproar because all they banned were some common/uncommon reprinted cards.

    I don’t know about the tutor cycle though…modern already has Eladamri’s Call which is just Worldly Tutor where you get to pay one Mana to draw the card right away and it’s obviously not a busted card. I think Enlightened Tutor would actually be the most interesting out of the cycle though. For one mana and going down a card, it lets you more competitively and consistently have access to your engine card, but all the decks I can think of that would consider running E Tutor are fringe at best…honestly the “most” played deck I can think of where it would be a relative slam dunk would be Jeskai Ascendancy combo, but it’s not like that deck is exactly tearing up the place right now.

    Mystical Tutor is kind of interesting too, if only because I think the combination of getting to run 4x Mystic Sanctuary and 4x Mystical Tutor means that there might be a viable modern deck built around the interaction with those two cards and Counterbalance.

    Honestly, the only tutor I would absolutely not print into Modern is Vamp, mainly because I could see it making Shadow decks too dominant, as a Traverse the Ulvenwald-style effect that makes sure you can always find one of your (relatively) few threats and even makes you lose two life.

    In general, I think this time around I’d rather see them push the power level in the set more via reprinted cards than new ones, because while yes, you are picking this card up and dropping into a different format/metagame/etc., the cards are all *known* quantities which I believe makes them easier to try to test and contextualize into Modern, because we already know what decks using this card look like and how they tend to work. So for instance with a card like Doomsday, while Modern already has the decks win condition in Thassa’s Oracle legal, it doesn’t have the depth of one-mana cantrips and the free/fast mana (Lotus Petal, Dark Ritual, LED, what have you) that lets you both cast Doomsday and win in the same turn with a very small amount of resources actually in play. The best I can come up with for Modern off the top of my head needs 5 mana to start and a Street Wraith or Edge of Autumn already in your hand, which would let you build a pile of any combination of 0-mana cyclers and Manamorphoses ending with an Oracle, and that’s not really THAT far off from what Ad Naus is doing so, who knows…should be interesting though.

  3. Counterspell should be a shoo-in as you say, but with Wizards who knows. Stifle is another one I’d like to see. Tidal Warrior would be a fine addition to Merfolk, although honestly, I think we need something stronger. I’d love to see Chill, Red/Blue Elemental Blast, Ripetide Laboratory, and many more.

    More than anything else, I’d like to see Wizards print some ubiquitous support for tribal decks. Something to make up for the catastrophe of Plague Engineer. I totally get why they printed that card, but UGH!!, so much collateral damage.

Leave a Reply