Spoiler season is now well and truly underway. As the set comes more into focus, the brewing can begin in earnest. I would caution players to never get too attached to a card or idea during spoiler season. The barrier to entry in Modern is high, and just because something seems like it should be good doesn’t mean it will be.
If asked what the most powerful abilities in Magic are, I’d answer free mana followed by consistency. Free mana means more ability to do things, while increased consistency means doing the best thing more often. Wizards also seems aware of this and has made a conscious effort to nerf both over the years, to varying degrees of success. Which makes it interesting that Ravnica Allegiance is bringing us tools to do both, though with considerable deckbuilding restrictions and opportunity costs. I’ll be examining the most interesting consistency card I’ve ever seen today. Afterwards, there’s an old round-about mana cheat to discuss.
Sphinx of Foresight
Shortly after last week’s article came out, a far more interesting card was spoiled. I have been wrestling with Sphinx of Foresight all week, but I haven’t really gotten anywhere. On the one hand, this card looks insane. An opening seven with Sphinx needs to be radioactive hot garbage to not be keepable, because the reward for keeping is starting the game scrying three cards deep. That’s deep enough that whatever that opening hand was missing will almost certainly be found, or at least make finding it plausible in a draw step or two. Good hands suddenly move towards ideal. In formats where opening turns matter as much as Modern, Sphinx could be broken.
However, this is balanced by a number of factors. Sphinx isn’t great unless it’s in an opening hand, and there are real opportunity costs to running that type of effect. I am struggling with Sphinx because it looks clunky for Modern despite the obvious power of its effect.
Sphinx is fairly unique among start-the-game-with-me cards because the ability stacks: revealing one Sphinx scrys 3, but revealing multiple copies allows players to scry again after bottoming some cards. This is technically a unique effect because the only similar cards don’t see Modern play. The only Leylines that have additional effects in multiples are the mediocre and unplayed Leyline of Vitality and Leyline of the Meek. Additionally, none of the New Phyrexia Chancellors see play. This makes directly evaluating Sphinx difficult.
Even in Legacy and Vintage, similar effects are rare. The only regular use I know of is Chancellor of the Annex as Force of Will protection in BR Reanimator, and having multiple Force Spikes in that context isn’t much different from having just one; the Annexes all affect the same spell, so the typical procedure is to throw away a weak card to unlock Force.
Sphinx is another story. Starting the game with scry 3 is very good and sets up the critical opening turns. Multiple Sphinxes greatly increase the odds of finding a particular card early, as anything else can be bottomed.
This benefit is balanced by how poorly it synergizes with fetchland manabases. If it hurts to mess up or moot the mulligan scry with a turn 1 fetchland crack, then it may prove actively bad to do so with Sphinx in a deck. This potentially incentivizes players to move away from fetchlands entirely, which has interesting implications for Modern. Even if that doesn’t happen, adding additional decisions and some strategic tension should make for more interesting Magic.
Every deck can benefit from increased consistency and smoothing their curve. There’s been talk that Sphinx can let decks shave on lands and become an okay midrange threat as a bonus. However, combo decks will always benefit more from this type of effect. Aggro can use Sphinx to hit their curve; fair decks will Sphinx to hit land drops and find missing threats/answers. A combo deck will use Sphinx to dig for their fast kills, and can keep more questionable hands because they’ve found redundancy or the missing pieces already.
Combo decks are also the sort to be willing to use a niche but powerful effect. Grey Ogres aren’t playable in construted, but many combo decks still play and even cast Simian Spirit Guide. Nobody runs the mana monkey for the body, but that additional utility occasionally proves relevant. Combo decks also tend to dig through their decks more than fair ones, so they can afford to play some clunkier cards: they see so many cards that having a contextual brick isn’t as big a deal. I could see Sphinx seeing play to set up combo decks then serve as a backup plan if they fizzle or get disrupted.
What happens when Sphinx isn’t in the opening hand? The hypergeometric probability of at least one of a given four-of appearing in an opening hand is roughly 40%. Sphinx needs to be useful the remaining 60% of the time to justify seeing play. If it’s only useful in one very specific circumstance, there needs to be some compensating guarantee of achieving that circumstance or the card is a complete brick most of the time. This is the reason Leylines often get sidelined.
Failing to open with Sphinx means that it can only be a 4/4 for four with flying. That’s not a Modern-acceptable rate. Obstinate Baloth sees play because of its abilities rather than stats, and frankly there aren’t a lot of four mana cards being cast anywhere right now. In Legacy there’s some additional utility of Sphinx being a blue card and therefore a pitch to Force of Will, but Modern only has Disrupting Shoal or Snapback for that, and those are so niche as to be non-existent. Discarding Sphinx to a looting effect is possible, but a lot of decks want to loot away specific cards so they can use them from the graveyard and not just unclog their hand. This makes running Sphinx at all a very high opportunity cost.
Once Sphinx is in play, it does have another ability. Having a scry before each draw step isn’t nothing, and would help midrange decks win an attrition fight. However, if that’s an effect they want, there are plenty of arguably better options available that don’t see play. Thassa, God of the Sea is cheaper, usually unkillable, and pushes through creatures on a stalled board. Monastery Siege is contextually better in that role than Thassa or Sphinx since it’s a loot rather than a scry. Search for Azcanta gives players a similar (arguably better) effect for far less and does see play. Given that Sphinx’s primary upside isn’t guaranteed, why should decks risk getting it stuck in hand?
The only deck I can think of that would run a 4/4 blue flier is Favorable Winds from 2017. That deck was severely underpowered and won by being a faster (if worse) version of Spirits. Getting an early consistency boost into a big body is definitely useful for that deck. However, Spirits does basically the same thing, but with better disruption and hexproof. Given my previous experience against the deck, I don’t think lack of midgame fat or consistency were the reason it never caught on. Therefore, I don’t think Sphinx has a natural home.
Every other deck can play Sphinx, but it isn’t clear if they should. Even during those 40% of game that open with Sphinx’s scry, they’ll have that four mana 4/4 sitting in hand. If they can’t/don’t want to use the body, is having that brick acceptable? If there were some use for Sphinx other than casting it, then I might lean toward yes (say a combo deck emerges that needs to discard or exile blue creatures from the hand). However, most combo lists are extremely tight, and playing a card that doesn’t protect or contribute directly to the combo is dangerous. The risk/reward is unclear at best.
A lot of Sphinx discussion has focused on Grixis Death’s Shadow. Grixis thrives on powerful opening sequences, which Sphinx facilitates, and the creature also synergizes with Street Wraith and Stubborn Denial. Grixis also runs midrange-style creatures. However, the deck usually succeeds by playing out every spell in its hand. In fact, arguably the reason it was good in the first place was how easily it out-spelled opponents because (nearly) everything cost one mana. Sphinx is always four, which is more lands than GDS really wants in play otherwise, and thus doesn’t gel with the actual strategy. It feels tacked on.
Too Much Potential
That said, I do believe that Sphinx has a place in Modern. Its ability to set the top of the deck at the start of the game is quite alluring from a power perspective, and close to unprecedented. I am certain that for the next few months, at least through the next set release, every brewer and their hamster will have Sphinx in their deck. So far, it’s The Exciting Card, and that’s what always happens. The real test will come over the summer. Either a deck where Sphinx actually feels like a necessary and natural inclusion will be found, or it will be relegated to niche play as a combo ad-in. I’m not going to lose my mind over Sphinx, but I wouldn’t sit on it either.
The other interesting revelation is that Wizards appears to want Aristocrats to come back. For those who weren’t playing last time we visited Ravnica, Artistocrats was a Mardu deck that used token makers as resources to feed sacrifice outlets, primarily Cartel Aristocrat and Falkenrath Aristocrat. That deck gave its name to the strategy of sacrificing creatures for value and since then various decks have followed suit. At the time most were hard to counter aggro decks like the Pro Tour winning list, but since then most verisons combo out, most recently with Rally the Ancestors.
Lost in Transition
Despite numerous attempts, these types of decks have never gained ground in Modern. Not for lack of trying or desire, but there’s just never been room. Aristocrats has the misfortune of doing things that other decks do in Modern, but they’re better. There’s a lot of competition in the small creature combo market and Abzan then Counters Company have always been better than the combo versions. On the aggro side, Affinity is very similar but more explosive and powerful.
In essence, Aristocrats cheats on mana by having cheap creatures and tokens serve as fodder for bigger effects. What is lost in individual power is made up with volume, with each card effectively acting like several. However, the effects haven’t been big enough to actually make it, and in Modern, the combo cards are more easily answered by discard and permission than in Standard.
The other issue has been hate. Modern has always been full of graveyard hate, and Aristocrats deck actually need their creatures to enter the graveyard and stay there to be good. In a format full of Rest in Peace, Scavenging Ooze, and Relic of Progenitus, that just wasn’t going to happen. The little-creature aggro plan was always open, but again, the Abzan and Counters Company decks also did that faster and with better creatures. Players like that type of deck, but it’s never been viable.
New Grease and Payoffs
It would appear that Wizards also likes Aristocrats, because Allegiance is full of cards that appear perfect for the deck. The Orzhov mechanic afterlife creates 1/1 Spirit tokens when creatures die, which is what fueled the original Aristocrat decks. We’ve also (as of this writing) seen Aristocrats-specific payoff cards, namely Judith, the Scourge Diva and Teysa Karlov. Judith provides an additional benefit to sacrificing cards (though not tokens) and then boosts said tokens’ power. Teysa makes additional tokens each sacrifice, and makes those tokens more useful. Given that we’re just starting spoiler season, it feels like there may be a real chance that Aristocrats will finally be able to stand out.
Questions linger, however. The payoff cards aren’t the most Modern-worthy stats wise, and are only good when actually synergizing with the engine. The old vulnerability to Rest in Peace is still there. There’s also the problem that so far, the afterlife cards are still not very good. I know Tithe Taker has been looked at, but even if its ability were more relevant, trading the card for one token isn’t a great deal.
Then there’s the problem of color. Traditionally, Aristocrats deck have been Mardu, which is a color wedge that always seems like it should be great in Modern, but ever fails to maintain a presence. Mardu Pyromancer was great last spring but then just faded away. There’s always been something inexplicably wrong with Mardu that keeps it from playability.
However, this may be fixable. Judith is the most exciting Aristocrats card so far, and the real reason to look at her is the second ability. Zulaport Cutthroat and Blood Artist have seen play in the deck, and while Judith is more expensive, she is also useful when not comboing. Perhaps BR Artistocrats could fuse combo and aggro dimensions if we receive some juicy black afterlife cards.
Change is Brewing
There are plenty of cards to go before spoiler season ends. By the time this goes up, I expect there to be another wave of cards to discuss for next week. Keep exploring the possibilities, but as always, proceed with caution!
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.