Here be Monsters: Ikoria Spoilers Week 1

Alright Magic world, it’s time to screech to even more of a halt: it’s spoiler time again. That means you, Timmy and Tammy! Particularly you, since this set is tailor made to your preferences, they being giant monsters and the making thereof. The pickings are a bit thinner for Spike this time around, but that’s fine he’s still a bit bloated from everything 2019 gave him. So get over here and dig in!

I’m being totally facetious with this opening. I mean, the set is named Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths. Underlined for emphasis. This set more clearly and obviously aimed at fans of big monsters than even Rise of the Eldrazi. Given that Modern already has Titans of both the Primeval and the Eldrazi persuasions, I have serious doubts that any of the monsters we’re getting will be Modern-worthy on their own. And that’s fine. It’s good to have a set for the fans of big boom-booms once in a while, and frankly, given how overpowered the past few sets have been, I’m fine with fewer Modern-plausible cards. Not that it’s going to be a problem. As of when I’m writing this Sunday night, there is one solidly playable cards alongside some context sensitive contenders.

Strange Mutations

The first thing to discuss is Ikoria’s headline mechanic. To be honest, I think that mutate is a desperate attempt to make auras more appealing. I’m not sure it worked, as mutate is a wordy mechanic. A creature with mutate can be cast for its mutate cost targeting a non-Human creature. Because this is Godzilla World, not X-Men. If the targeted creature dies before resolution, then the mutate creature isn’t countered because it was always a creature, not an aura, and can still resolve to the best of its ability. If the mutation successfully resolves, the card is placed over or beneath the target. The overall creature is the top card plus all the abilities of the bottom cards as well as any counters or actual auras it had before it mutated. It’s the same creature, just with new abilities. If it dies, everything attached also dies.

All this sounds like a more elaborate and confusing, though less risky version of auras. And I’m pretty sure that’s the point. Thus, it also seems like a good way to make Bogles less of a glass cannon. Rather than mulliganing aggressively for one of the ~12 creatures in the deck, Bogles could just play out its modifier cards instead. Such a deck would have the Bogles primarily as a way to gain hexproof, then focus on making an ability-laden fatty. And if the Bogles don’t come, just play the fatties instead.

The Catch

However, there’s a very big flaw with this plan. As of this moment, there are no Modern-worthy mutate creatures. Don’t get me wrong, there are a number with very attractive mutation ability triggers. However, they all cost three or more to mutate, and at least that to cast normally. A Bogles-style deck really isn’t possible. A lot of the multicolored mutators are close to Modern-playable cost-wise. However, to really be worthwhile, they need to successfully mutate, and that could be a tall order. I think that the mana cost to power ratios of the known cards, coupled with the risks of mutation, will keep all but the most aggressive cards out of Modern.

Vadrok, Apex of Thunder could see some play, but if so, it would be because a deck wants a 3/3 flying first strike creature for three. Playing spells from the graveyard for free is powerful, but doing so means paying more and giving up a threat to make an already-resolved one somewhat better. Thus, I would anticipate mutate being an incidental ability played for value sometimes rather than the main selling point. For example, normally extra legendary creatures like Vadrok just sit in hand uselessly. Mutating Vadrok with another Vadrok isn’t exactly efficient or ideal, but it’s better than doing nothing.

Izzet Good Enough?

However, Vadrok may also find a home alongside the first definitively Modern playable cards in Ikoria. And it’s not a typcial kind of monster. Sprite Dragon doesn’t start out as much. Sprite is a more fragile Stormchaser Mage, a card that has been fringe playable when Izzet Prowess has been a deck. What separates Sprite is that the prowess buffs are permanent. Thus, it becomes a grow card in addition to the more common prowess creatures we’ve become accustomed to.

The natural home for Sprite is an Izzet Phoenix style deck. However, Izzet Phoenix itself has basically disappeared since Faithless Looting was banned. Lacking the ability to dump two Arclight Phoenix into the graveyard turn one has been effectively fatal. Still, mono-red Prowess had been doing very well until recently. The problem has been a shift toward midrange, or removal-heavy decks. It’s easier to blitz past Amulet Titan than Jund. Adding blue provides the option for more cantrips to help velocity past Jund while growing a big threat, similar to how Legacy Izzet Delver operates.

Alternatively, why not just reinvigorate Izzet Phoenix? Delver of Secrets is not and has never been Tier 1 in Modern because it can’t flip reliably. When Izzet colored decks have been good they’ve been focused on pure card velocity rather than deck manipulation. Pure velocity doesn’t help Delver, and it’s a poor payoff compared to Thing in the Ice, Young Pyromancer, or Aria of Flame. Sprite fits right into that strategy as its Delver-style threat. Phoenix isn’t reliable anymore, but Sprite will always work so long as the cards keep flowing. Spite naturally fits into a decent shell already so I will be very surprised if it doesn’t see play.

Combo Potential

While on the subject of Izzet cards, Rielle, the Everwise strikes me as a card with combo potential. The intended fair usage of a high-power threat that makes up for Wizards’s insistence that blue can only filter cards, not draw them, is not good enough at three mana. However, for a more combo-oriented deck, she looks like a strong boost of card advantage. It will only work once per turn, so it would need to be a big one to be worthwhile. Resolving Wheel of Fate and drawing 14 cards sounds absurd. However, I have no idea what such a deck would look like, and I’m not sure that any Izzet combo would want a three-mana do-nothing-on-its-own card like Rielle. I am certain, however, that someone will try to make it work. The upside is too high.

Still Dead

Ikoria is a set with cycling. It is a set with creatures that cycle. Large ones. Thus, the Living End stalwarts have emerged from their rocks to proclaim their return to Tier 1 status. And I will admit, the thought of facing down multiples of Titanoth Rex is terrifying. Wizards has never made cycling creatures this massive before. The biggest cycler that sees play as regularly is Desert Cerodon at 6/4, so upgrading to an 11/11 trampler is a big deal. The last time the Enders were this noticeable was when Archfiend of Ifnir was printed.

However, much like Archfiend, the new beasties are not going to make Living End good again. All the currently spoiled monsters that are at least as good as current options are actually worse because their cycling cost is higher. To make the deck good, Living End must cycle multiple creatures a turn, explaining its preference for the one-mana cyclers from Alara block. It matters little how powerful the creatures actually are; the key to the deck is lots of above-averagely sized creatures and drawing through the deck to find the cascade cards. Thus, the cycling cost puts a damper on playability.

More to the point, lack of good threats is not Living End’s problem. The format has evolved so it isn’t as good a combo as it used to be. Graveyard hate is (and should be even more) widespread now, defeating the combo up front. Worse, with Bant rising, counterspells are everywhere. And then there’s Teferi, Time Raveler. Teferi completely defeats the combo and punts away the hard-cast creatures. Until something comes along to help with those problems, Living End will remain an outsider.

Alternative Application

That said, there is one cycling monster that could see play on its own merits. Yidaro, Wandering Monster could prove an Arclight Phoenix-style threat, albeit for a very different deck. I don’t think anyone would ever seriously plan to cast Yidaro. Instead, it’s a velocity cantrip with upside. Just like Green Sun’s Zenith, Yidaro replaces another card in the deck each time it is cycled, making it more likely to find another Yidaro. Once Yidaro has cycled four times, that velocity cantrip suddenly turns into an 8/8 trampling haste creature. And it will continue happening until every Yidaro is dead.

I don’t think that a true Izzet Phoenix-style deck would bother with Yidaro. It’s an expensive cantrip and doesn’t trigger Sprite Dragon. However, it may be a control card. Control decks need to burn through their deck to find answers and hate it when win conditions get stuck in hand. Yidaro alleviates that problem with a cantrip upside. Granted, it does actually have to be in the graveyard for the trigger to happen, which makes it vulnerable to all graveyard hate. However, that may be an acceptable risk for a huge win condition.

Oh, the Humanity

On the thematic flipside, there are Ikoria‘s humans. Wizards appears to be aware of the tribe’s risks, given Modern’s 5-Color Humans and has been limiting potential entries to the deck. The only recent contender has been Charming Prince. The spoiled humans are in a similar vein in that they’re not obviously better than any currently existing options and don’t really fit the disruptive creature aggro mold. That doesn’t mean they’re not Modern playable, just that they’re not in the Humans deck we’re acquainted with.

Instead, the Ikoria humans make an argument for an entirely new deck. With the printing of General Kudro of Drannith, I count Humans having two traditional lords, and a third including Thalia’s Lieutenant. Mayor of Avabruck has seen Modern play before, but he doesn’t fit into the 5-Color Humans attack plan. Kudro, Mayor, and Lieutenant make a compelling case for a more traditional Human tribal beatdown deck. Given Kudro’s Reprisal ability, it would make sense to play token makers in such a deck. This points to a midrange value-beatdown deck, which is appropriate given other cards like Dire Tactics.

Drannith in the Rough

There is one expection: Drannith Magistrate could easily find a home in 5-C Humans. Many lists have run Yixlid Jailer against graveyard combo and Dredge before. Magistrate isn’t as directly hateful as Jailer, but it has far more applications.

First of all, Magistrate isn’t symmetrical, so there’s potential he sees play outside of Humans as a graveyard mirror-breaker. Secondly, Magistrate isn’t just an anti-graveyard card. It synergizes with Spell Queller, stops Underworld Breach, ruins flashback, cascade, suspend, Uro, and Urza’s free spells. Magistrate doesn’t do much against Dredge except block Conflagrate, but the far more wide-ranging ability may make up for that weakness. It’s certainly something to watch.

It Finally Happened

My final contender is the closest Modern is likely to get to True-Name Nemesis. I was worried that such a card would exist when Modern Horizons was announced, though nothing came to pass. Instead we got Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis. Lucky us. Apparently that’s because Wizards was saving the contextually unsolvable creature for Ikoria in the form of Lavabrink Venturer. Protection from an entire swath of mana costs is potentially very strong, though it’s also limited enough that I don’t think Venturer is as dangerous as True-Name.

The obvious cost to name is “odd,” because all Modern’s best spot removal is odd. Lightning Bolt, Fatal Push, Path to Exile, Reflector Mage, Deputy of Detention, and Teferi, Time Raveler would all be negated. Death’s Shadow dreads this card. Also, Venturer could swing through Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, or block it eternally. This safety comes at the cost of never being able to carry a Sword of Fire and Ice.

Choosing “even” protects against Abrupt Decay and Assassin’s Trophy as well as Tarmogoyf and Ice-Fang Coatl—not-insignificant upsides in the right matchup. The correct choice is entirely matchup-contextual, which is good for balance and format health. I think the default decision is to name odd, but savvy players will be rewarded for making the actual correct choice.

But does Venturer have a home? Humans would never pick it over Mantis Rider, and the tension with equipment makes Stoneblade questionable. The Abzan Humans deck I theorized may work, but the three-drop slot may be overcrowded. The appeal of protection from opposing interaction is so attractive that I can’t image Adventurer doesn’t get tried, I just don’t know if it survives the brewing process.

Lurking Monsters

This spoiler season is just beginning, though we’ll have to wait longer than normal to actually play with the physical cards. Accursed virus. There are still plenty of cards to go, so we’ll just have to see what else fits into Modern.

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