This is a very busy week. War of the Spark is now completely revealed, and so I have a few final cards to discuss. There have been a number of interesting cards for Modern, but we haven’t seen any obvious all-stars. Of course, that may be a lot to ask for, and more role-players are always welcome. The other thing is that Mythic Championship London is this weekend. That tournament’s results are critical for the future of Izzet Phoenix in Modern. However, an even more important factor will be the impact of the proposed change to the mulligan rule. While the proof is in the proverbial pudding, I’ve done some testing on my own, and have concerns about London.
Before all that, let’s take stock one last time of the metagame before the Mythic Championship. Unfortunately, there is currently no Day 2 data for GP Yokohama. I’m not sure why there wasn’t one this week, though the lack of a Day 2 for GP Niagara also may indicate a policy change. Therefore, there’s no way to tell if the real concern about Izzet Phoenix’s Day 2 presence remains valid. There were five copies in the Top 32 and one more in the Top 8. I have noticed that non-US GPs have had fewer Phoenix lists Top 8 than the American ones, so this might not mean anything.
The Top 8 was won by Hardened Scales, which is fascinating, since it had to dodge three Dredge decks. Most Dredge decks run Ancient Grudge and Nature’s Claim, so I can’t imagine Grafdigger’s Cage or any artifact creature surviving long. Fortunately for Scales, it did dodge Dredge and thus skated to victory. Dredge hasn’t done that well in previous GPs, so I’m curious why it was so successful this weekend. The sideboard hate in the listed decks isn’t really lacking, so maybe it just ran well.
In any case, the overall metagame in Yokohama appears to be consistent with what we’ve seen previously. This in turn means I expect to see the same decks in the same frequency this weekend in London. I do predict that if the observed trends continue through London, Wizards will be obligated to intervene.
Card Discussion: Narset’s Reversal
Last week, I said that Dovin’s Veto would revolutionize control decks. First, it forces changes in the mirror, because landing and riding a planeswalker to victory is far harder. Second, it stands to change combo matchups, since Pact of Negation no longer wins counter wars. The control vs. combo dynamic will have to change again, because in the intervening week, Narset’s Reversal was spoiled. While its applications are very narrow, I expect Reversal to have a huge impact for combo decks.
Reversal copies an instant or sorcery, then returns the original copy to its owner’s hand. As Jordan mentioned, this gives you the option to turn opposing spells on their owners. I’m a bit skeptical of this usage. The original spell will be cast again, so it’s like kicking the can down the road with upside. Copying Path to Exile or Fatal Push with Reversal is like making the opponent pay an extra mana and sacrifice a creature to kill your creature. It’s not bad, but not exactly a game changer. I think the real value lies in redefining counter wars.
Just like Misdirection, this can be used to counter counterspells. Reversal remains on the stack while it’s resolving, and when the copy is made, Reversal is a momentarily-legal target. Upon resolution, Reversal leaves the stack, and the copy will fizzle for lack of a target. Since this doesn’t actually counter the counter, it should only be used to force a game-winning spell through. A more straightforward use is to simply to use it on the instant or sorcery being countered, à la Remand. While this does only work for instants and sorceries, it will also result in fewer judge calls.
A Place for Everything
While I could definitely see control using Reversal to answer opposing Vetoes, I think that combo will be its real home. A deck like Ad Nauseam needs to resolve the namesake card no matter what. Reversal provides a way out of a counter war and can potentially defend against Thoughtseize. Pact of Negation will be better most of the time, but in a world where Veto is present, Reversal stands to be prime sideboard material.
A more intriguing use for Reversal is in Storm. In addition to the previously mentioned utility of getting around counterspells, Storm could integrate Reversal into its combo. Copies aren’t cast, and therefore storm won’t trigger, meaning you can’t Reversal an opposing Grapeshot and win on the spot. However, targeting your own Grapeshot means it can be recast with additional Storm. This opens the possibility of forgoing Past in Flames entirely, an attractive option in a world full of graveyard hate. It does lose the synergy with Gifts Ungiven, but there may be other options. Watch Caleb Scherer closely; if this is a viable strategy, he’ll know.
Card Discussion: Finale of Devastation
The next card is Finale of Devastation. The first half of the card is a better Green Sun’s Zenith for an extra green. My testing indicated that Zenith’s power was much higher than expected, and now there’s a fixed version. I can’t imagine Wizards would allow the two cards to coexist, since the fear of too much tutoring is very real. I was skeptical of an unban before, now I’m writing it off entirely.
While Finale can still find Dryad Arbor to accelerate mana, it’s much slower, and jumping from two to three is less dramatic than one to two. It may be a thing anyway, but it won’t be as good. Therefore a lot of the appeal from Zenith is lost here. However, Finale compensates with some extra text. On the front end, Finale can find any creature, and it can also be used to reanimate creatures. The first part is very good, but I’m skeptical of the latter. Since you have to pump the creature’s mana cost into Finale to cast it, it’s not saving mana like Unburial Rites. Additionally, there’s very little difference between searching the library or graveyard for most creatures, so the reanimation clause is mostly a nice feature.
Deck that seems like it would be the best home for Finale is Elves. The deck already plays a lot of tutors and generates unreal amounts of mana with Elvish Archdruid and Heritage Druid. I noted in my Zenith test that Elves really liked the extra tutoring and while the explosive starts are great, the real power of the deck comes from tutoring a lot. I tried out Finale in the proxied Zenith test deck and while it was noticeably worse than Zenith, it’s not enough to be disqualifying. I didn’t use Zenith to accelerate with Arbor much anyway, so in practical terms, the only difference was a slightly more prohibitive cost. This tells me that Finale will see Modern play.
As compensation for the extra mana, Finale isn’t restricted to green creatures. Every creature is on the table, though take that with the whole salt shaker. Thanks to the extra green, Finale won’t be played outside heavy-green decks, and so will mostly find green creatures. I’m also having a hard time coming up with other colored creatures that I want to search for.
Searching for non-green creatures puts Finale in competition with Chord of Calling. Chord is an instant, but it also costs one more green. However, convoke means it doesn’t actually cost any more mana. Being an instant also opens the door for Restoration Angel tricks or Spellskite protection, which probably keeps Finale out of Kiki-Chord and similar decks.
Hatebears is another possibility, but finding small creatures is Collected Company‘s job. Tutoring for Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or Gaddock Teeg is very good, but Company provides so much value that it’s a tough fight. The versatility is great, but the competition is very stiff. I realize that the tutoring clause isn’t the only text on the card, but I’d argue it’s the only relevant text.
Cool but Impractical
I’ve skipped over Finale’s second clause so far because it is a mystery to me. I get what it’s going for, but I don’t see the point. I dump an incredible amount of mana into the spell, find Progenitus or something else huge and functionally unblockable, give it and whatever else is still untapped at least +10/+10, and then TIMMY SMASH! and I have a hugely satisfying win with a great story to tell my friends. If that was all Wizards wanted, I’m pleased to say they succeeded. But why should I bother?
There’s no strategically sound reason to go that big in Modern. The clause only triggers if X is 10 or more, so it takes a minimum of 12 mana to happen. If I’m dumping twelve mana into a spell to find a huge creature, it should win the game anyway. Besides, I wouldn’t cast Finale for 10GG or more in the first place. Tutoring for Ezuri, Renegade Leader or Craterhoof Behemoth accomplishes the same thing but cheaper and with trample.
For the other decks that could produce 12 mana in a normal game, it’s not a very necessary addition. Searching up Primeval Titan and then immediately swinging for 16 sounds great, and should win the game, but it’s not likely to happen. A Valakut deck with 12 mana available should have mostly won by that point anyway. Amulet struggles to get that much mana without first resolving a Titan, and already has ways to win immediately after casting the creature. Besides, Summoner’s Pact is a far more efficient and versatile, especially post-board. Tron could easily hit that much mana and find Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, but Ancient Stirrings does that already.
Finally, it’s my turn to comment on the London Mulligan. This proposed change has been met with some cautious optimism, since in theory reducing the instance of non-games improves the experience and therefore the game. My worry has been that this will backfire. Arguably, Magic only works because of the risk of non-games from bad hands forces players to moderate their deck construction. I’ve heard that Arena players are exploiting the hand selection system to play aggressively low land counts. If the new mulligan reduces variance as it seems to be designed to, that opens a huge risk for exploitation. The string of articles mathematically proving that it benefits specific-cards decks like Tron increased my concern.
However, I didn’t want to say anything until I had some actual experience with the mulligan. My experience has been very neutral, and I can see what Wizards is going for. However, other players are finding that the London Mulligan is very useful for some very worrying decks. If their personal experiences accurately reflect the metagame reality, then this could be a very big mistake. They’re arguably already exploiting the new system until it breaks.
Tale from the Trenches
When the London Mulligan was announced, a Grishoalbrand player at my LGS, Black Gold, swore that if it were implemented he would grind leagues until he 5-0’d so many with turn 2 kills Wizards would have to admit their mistake. In preparation, he spent about a week trying to make a version that had a turn 1 kill work in paper, but it never came together. Then Wizards decided that one tournament wasn’t enough data and initiated a trial period on MTGO. I caught up with Ken last week to ask him if he’d followed through with his threat. The answer, surprisingly, was kinda.
Ken has been grinding competitive leagues and claims to be blitzing through them and racking up the 5-0’s. I can’t confirm it, but I also have no reason to doubt him. However, he hasn’t been using Grishoalbrand. Instead, he’s been playing Narset Cannon. His reasoning was partially that it’s really cool and weird and he enjoys it. The more important reason is that it abuses the London Mulligan better than Grishoalbrand thanks to its inclusion of Serum Powder. Specifically, he not only needs specific cards in hand to win but also certain ones in his library and going to London favors and rewards decks like that.
Narset Cannon wasn’t actually a deck beforehand, because it’s too brittle and inconsistent, but Ken says the London Mulligan changed that because now he can mulligan and sculpt until he finds a really busted hand and win on turn 2. And he has been winning on turn 2. He didn’t have statistics for me, but he claimed that his turn 2 win-rate is surprisingly high. He’d seen an uptick in turn 2’s while still on Grishoalbrand but not sufficient to actually stick with the deck. Admittedly, if he doesn’t win on turn 2 he frequently doesn’t win at all, but for him that’s a small price to pay. Testimonials aren’t data points, but it does support all the theory crafting’s conclusions which in turn suggests validity.
Some Positives and a Warning Sign
I have not been grinding leagues and don’t play that much MTGO in general. However, the experiences I have had and some testing I’ve done on the side raise troubling questions. As someone who primarily plays Aether Vial decks, the main change I’ve noticed is that I don’t have to mulligan as much. The actual gameplay didn’t dramatically improve for my decks, but over a two week stretch playing paper Magic with fair decks I had to mulligan past 6 in ~10% of games. During the same stretch on MTGO using the London Mulligan it happened ~5%. I also found the decision on which card to send easier than expected. I thought that there would be a lot of strategic decision making and potential to wreck myself, but in practice, it was obvious what the correct choice was every time.
However, in that same period, I also saw an uptick in glass-cannon decks. I’m used to hitting weirder-than-Grishoalbrand decks in about once every fifty matches. I’ve seen them roughly once every ten since the trial began. I don’t know if this is just players assuming that the mulligan benefits these decks and all the talk has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s just me, or if this is a real thing. If the latter is the case, that is very worrying, and will probably lead to the abandonment of the new mulligan.
I really hope that Ken’s experience with the London Mulligan is a fluke, and it doesn’t advantage Broken-Hand-Only decks as much as he claims. However, my experience can’t actually refute his claim either. I’ll be watching London closely next week. Hopefully, I’ll be able to report that my anxieties were only that and Wizards knows what they’re doing.
David began playing Magic during Odyssey block, quit playing Magic when Caw Blade ruled the world, and returned to Modern shortly before Deathrite was banned. He’s made an appearance at the Pro Tour, made money at GP Denver, and is constantly grinding and brewing in Modern.