March 2, 2016

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The Khans of Tarkir Block’s Impact on Modern

We’re still over a month from the next standard rotation, and for most Modern players suffering through “Eldrazi Winter” that rotation, and its associated banned list update, cannot come soon enough. While all eyes will be on an almost certain Eye of Ugin or Eldrazi Temple ban and a high probability unban of Ancestral Vision, modern players should also be looking to pick up some of the excellent Modern cards from Khans of Tarkir block as they leave standard. While Dragons of Tarkir won’t actually rotate until the summer, this review covers the block as a whole to be consistent with my Return to Ravnica and Theros reviews. In rough order of impact here are the cards from Tarkir that shook up Modern, and that you should be looking to acquire when prices drop after rotation:

Ban Tier

 

As with Deathrite Shaman in Return to Ravnica, it’s tough to say any card had a higher impact than something banned from the format. Treasure Cruise warped the metagame as people quickly trivialized the eight converted mana cost into a consistent turn four Ancestral Recall. While Dig Through Time did not do anything clearly oppressive during its stay in the format, odds were high that it would simply replace Treasure Cruise as an oppressive force if not banned as well. As powerful as these are, they are not coming off the banned list anytime soon so there is no incentive to acquire copies for modern at rotation

Allied Fetchlands

   

Probably the most exciting spoilers I’ve seen for Modern, the reprint of the Onslaught fetchlands brought parity to fetch-shock manabases across the format. While it may not seem like much, playing off-colour fetchlands in a deck like Jund would not uncommonly cost the pilot 2-4 life points over the course of a game. That’s the difference between winning and losing versus many aggressive decks – especially burn. It also just felt wrong to be using Marsh Flats in a Green/Red/Black deck. By completing the fetchland cycle Wizards removed this awkward disadvantage for allied colour pairs from modern, and made a modern-worthy manabase more affordable at the same time.

   

In a format where every mana counts and interaction with combo decks is at a premium, being able to deploy a four or five power threat for a single mana is extremely powerful. These three creatures offered players a legitimate budget alternative – not to mention a colour alternative – to Tarmogoyf. Tasigur in particular pretty much single-handedly revived Grixis as a deck in modern, while Gurmag Angler went from a brew curiosity to a legitimate threat. Hooting Mandrills is on the outside looking in, but has shown up in UGx tempo decks where it compliments Tarmogoyf to enable early Stubborn Denials. The Delve mechanic will also shrink enemy goyfs, an additional slap to the face for the $200 format-defining fatty.

Burn decks just keep getting more fuel for the fire. First it was Boros Charm in Return to Ravnica, then Eidolon of the Great Revel and Destructive Revelry in Theros, and now Monastery Swiftspear in Tarkir. Swiftspear will usually do more damage than a Goblin Guide, while also not accidentally digging your opponent into their answers or helping them make land drops. It also sells for about 1/10th the price so another nod to new or budget Modern players. Do you remember when burn decks had to play Hellspark Elemental and Keldon Marauders? Those were the days.

One of the few examples of a card that had obvious modern implications from the moment it was spoiled. If we play Boros Charm almost exclusively as four damage to the dome for two mana, it stood to reason that Atarka’s Command, which always does three, almost always does four, and sometimes does even more would be played by aggressive decks. While it won’t let you take down Kor Firewalker the way that Skullcrack does, the fact it can prevent life or deal additional damage makes it more consistently powerful maindeck card. Expect to keep seeing this one in Burn and Zoo decks, with an outside shot of it enabling some kind of tier 2 RGx token deck.

In contrast to Atarka’s Command, most people did not see Kolaghan’s Command as particularly promising for Modern when it was spoiled. The effects can all be found on one mana cards – Shock, Raise Dead, Smelt, and some kind of no-retrace Raven’s Crime – none of which are remotely playable in the format. It did not seem likely that putting two on a single card for three mana, even at instant speed, would translate into a playable card let alone a tier 1 staple. The underestimation of this card stems from two things – first, a lack of appreciation for the versatility of picking two out of four decent options, and second forgetting that a Raise Dead is effectively “draw a useful card – probably a Snapcaster Mage or Tarmogoyf”. Taking these factors into account, K-Command looks a lot more like an Electrolyze than a “bad Blightning”. The Smelt mode also pretty much single-handedly pushed Batterskull out of the format, although it has not done much to curb the presence of Cranial Plating.

We’ve already established that Delve is a very strong mechanic for Modern, and while pump spells aren’t generally very good there are a few decks that effectively exploit them. The first and strongest is Infect – where the +6/+6 from Become Immense effectively means twelve damage for one mana. The Delve spell mostly replaced Groundswell, and while it may seem like an additional two points of damage is marginal in the race to ten poison, it’s actually common for Become Immense to shave an entire turn off of the Infect clock. The other deck using Become Immense is Suicide Zoo, which uses Temur Battle Rage to similarly turn Become Immense into a one mana twelve damage effect.

When Ugin was spoiled it had clear potential for Tron decks, but I – and many others dismissed – it as unnecessary. Tron already had access to Oblivion Stone and All is Dust for situations that Karn Liberated or Wurmcoil Engine couldn’t solve, and the difference between seven mana and eight was a gulf of an entire turn. It turns out that having your board wipe stick around as a win condition and future removal is actually really good. It also turns out that exiling rather than destroying other permanents is a big deal, and especially helpful at protecting your Ugin from persisting Kitchen Finks and Voice of Resurgence tokens. While his value has waned recently with the rise of colourless Eldrazi creatures and Affinity, Ugin will no doubt return to his place of prominence in modern soon.

Yet another card that went under the radar early on, as many dismissed it as high variance. More saavy brewmasters figured out that with 26 or more creatures in your deck most of the time you’ll get your four mana’s worth of instant-speed value. That doesn’t mean you won’t whiff occasionally, or virtually whiff by putting a pair of mana dorks on the board for four mana, but this isn’t much worse than the risk of simply drawing poorly or having to mulligan to 5 cards. Company sees play in various decks as a value spell, but has had the most success as a combo enabler for Abzan Company. With Kitchen Finks, Melira, Sylvok Outcast and Viscera Seer all possible to find with an end of turn Collected Company, and Chord of Calling finding the missing piece, “podless pod” has proven itself to be a competitive modern deck.

With its decent enters the battlefield trigger, Abrupt Decay proof casting cost and Lightning Bolt proof body, I thought this card had Modern potential when it was spoiled. Unfortunately, a few hours after calling the card Modern playable I recanted, deciding that there would be no reason to ever play this over a Restoration Angel. Oops. Not only did the Rhino see play, but turning a Kitchen Finks into a pair of Rhinos was the tipping point for the Birthing Pod ban. Today, the card is found in Abzan midrange decks where targeted discard and removal ensure turn four happens more often than not, giving the rhino time to do its work.

Roast was a popular one-of in Splinter Twin decks up until the deck was banned, and will probably continue to show up in successive blue/red decks like Blue Moon. Without access to hard removal like Path to Exile or Terminate, these decks usually needed a pair of burn spells to kill creatures like Tarmogoyf or Spellskite. In the time before Roast, some players would resort to a copy of Flame Slash, which was great at killing Spellskite but less great at consistently killing a Tarmogoyf. With the addition of more five toughness bodies to the format like Gurmag Angler and Siege Rhino, the extra mana on Roast is even more justifiable for that fifth point of damage. Roast has effectively become the red Doom Blade – something you never really want to sleeve up because there should be a better option, but sometimes it’s the card you need to cover a gap in your gameplan.

Between costing four mana and having a floor somewhere between Wind Drake and Ojutai’s Summons, I did not expect this card to ever see play in Modern. Then someone went out and curved a Tarmogoyf into a Lingering Souls into Sorin gaining nine life. That remains the Planeswalkers primary use – gaining copious amounts of life to trump Burn and Aggro decks, but it’s also proven a reasonable midrange Attrition card when it needs to be. Sorin’s natural home now is BW tokens, where it helps offset the life loss from Thoughtseize and Bitterblossom.

We all know lifegain is unplayable, yet here we are with a one-shot life gain effect finding its way into modern sideboards. Heroes’ Reunion was a running gag as sideboard tech for Living End decks against Burn, but a joke was about as far as you could go even at seven life for two mana. Ease up on the casting cost and make it a conditional ten life and now we have a Modern card! Any deck running Tarmogoyf with a bad burn match-up will consider this two mana three-for-one, and resolving one with a ‘Goyf out will often just put the game out of reach for the burn opponent.

It’s almost like Wizards can’t decide if they’re buffing Burn decks or stripping them down. Deflecting Palm changes an attack with a four power creature like Tasigur into an eight point life swing the other way, it can hit pumped Infect creatures and can’t be countered with Vines of Vastwood or Apostle’s Blessing, and it similarly gets past Hexproof in Bogles. It even does work against lifegain cards like Wurmcoil Engineor Baneslayer Angel, both preventing the damage and lifegain and then throwing it back at your opponent. A must-have sideboard card for the discerning Modern burn player.

One mana removal spells are at a premium in Modern, unfortunately for Murderous Cut and its one-mana-potential that’s both because of mana efficiency and the need to interact in the early game. Cut gets the job done later on in terms of efficiency, but isn’t reliably killing any turn one Goblin Guides or turn two Dark Confidants which takes it down a few notches below Path to Exile and Lightning Bolt.  Murderous Cut is still a reasonable one-of for a lot of decks, and will commonly be played in Dimir or Sultai decks that cannot easily recover from the life loss of a Dismember, especially in builds running Thought Scour and Snapcaster Mage.

The Green/White command is so close to being an amazing Modern card, but falls short and ends up just on the good side of playable. The default mode on Dromoka’s Command is to put a counter on one of your creatures and fight something – which is often a Terminate but can also be a trip to two-for-one town when they kill your creature in response. The other two modes have remarkably strong Modern applications but in many match-ups will just not be relevant. For every time you counter a critical Anger of the Gods or get an opponent to sacrifice a Blood Moon or Keranos, God of Storms there will be many others where the card’s only purpose is to start a fight, and rots awkwardly in your hand as you constantly sweat getting two-for-oned if you go for it.

Top 10 Honorable Mentions

Khans of Tarkir block is truly a gold mine for Modern players, and while I don’t want to go too deep on describing the fringe brew cards, there are a lot of other cards that have actually shown up occasionally in competitive level play. In brief, here are ten more honorable mentions of Tarkir cards that are definitely Modern playable:

Stubborn Denial – Tarmogoyf and delve creatures to get Ferocious early.
Dragonlord Ojutai – UW control finisher with Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit – An alternative to Melira, Sylvok Outcast for Abzan Company.
Avatar of the Resolute – Upgrade over Kalonian Tusker for mono-green stompy.
Rending Volley – Improved Combust, less valuable since Splinter Twin ban.
Rally the Ancestors – Various aristocrat decks with Blood Artist and sac outlets.
Soulflayer – Brew tier combo deck capable of turn three kill.
Jeskai Ascendancy – Storm-esque combos with Fatestitcher or Sylvan Caryatid.
Commune with Lava  – Saw brief play in Scapeshift.
Dragonlord Dromoka – Saw brief play as a sideboard card in Amulet Bloom.

Conclusion

Khans block could have stopped at the Delve spells and the fetchlands and been a hit for Modern, but it goes so much deeper than that with its Modern impact card to say nothing of Modern brew-worthy cards. I’ve effectively listed the top 25 based on what I’ve seen played, but there’s a whole other tier of brew potential with cards like Mardu Ascendancy, Bloodsoaked Champion, Butcher of the Horde, and Anticipate. If anything, Khans has shown me that you can have too much of a good thing. I don’t know that I want every block to contain a dozen game-changing cards for Modern, as part of the appeal of the format is its stability and not needing to invest in new tech on a regular basis. But as long as you’re brewing, Tarkir has to register as one of the best blocks in the format.