After the relative let-down of Shadows Over Innistrad, there has been a ton of excitement during Eldritch Moon spoiler season. So let’s dig in and see what the new set might hold for eternal players!
There are a number of spirits in this set that could lead to the development of a spirit tribal deck. We’ll spend this first section taking a look at the best ones, and what they might do in eternal formats either in a hypothetical tribal shell or in existing decks.
Although a full exploration of any possible spirit tribal deck will have to wait for later, I will briefly address a few basic strengths and weaknesses of the tribe. Spirits are in many ways a hybrid of a traditional tribal aggro deck — such as Goblins or Merfolk — crossed with a hatebears strategy. Merfolk have a few disruptive abilities, but mostly thrive on the back of their numerous redundant lords. It’s not uncommon for the fishy folk to play as many as 16 lords that pump the power/toughness of their gilled brethren. On top of that, they’ll be crashing the shore with islandwalk, one of the best forms of evasion in eternal Magic. Spirits, however, have only one lord, the 3-drop Drogskol Captain from Dark Ascension. It’s a good lord, granting hexproof in addition to the stat boost, but it’s not enough to generate a flood of 4-power guys on the board as Merfolk typically does. The tribe’s strength is in their disruptive ability. Spirit of the Labyrinth is excellent in both Legacy and Vintage, Kataki, War’s Wage is a powerhouse in Vintage where it acts as a mana denial strategy even against decks that aren’t dedicated to artifacts, and Eidolon of Rhetoric is a fantastic answer to nearly all of the broken and unfair strategies that would spoil an aggro player’s day.
Spirits were close to being a viable Vintage tribal deck even prior to these latest printings, as I discovered when I explored the tribe as part of my series of decks based around Cavern of Souls. I liked playing the deck so much that I revised it for a second iteration a couple of months later, and you can read both of those articles here and here.
With that in mind, let’s move on to examining the new cards added to the tribe by Eldritch Moon.
Mausoleum Wanderer is a great one-drop, and it would make Cursecatcher look like a joke by comparison if it had the same support staff that the 1-drop Merfolk gets. Absent the numerous power-pumping effects of the Merfolk tribe, Wanderer presents a bit of a tension. Ordinarily, it will be no better than a Spiketail Hatchling on the opponent’s turn. But supposing you had a Rattlechains in play, you would then be presented with the difficult question of whether to mainphase your spirit creatures to get in more damage with Wanderer, or to hold them until the opponent’s turn to power up the Wanderer’s ability from a Force Spike into a Miscalculation. It’s not truly an anti-synergy, as you wouldn’t even have the option of boosting power on the opposing turn without Rattlechains (or another flash spirit.)
I’m not entirely sure a Vintage version of spirit tribal would even want a 1-drop, but the fact is that Cursecatcher consistently made the cut in Vintage Merfolk the last time that deck had a successful run. With a heavy mana-denial strategy to support this, and possibly maindecking Stony Silence, you may not be playing offcolor Moxen and that makes your desire for a 1-drop quite a bit stronger.
Selfless Spirit fills a role similar to Loxodon Hierarch or Burrenton Forge-Tender, by acting to protect your team from board sweepers. Loxodon Hierarch popped up in the occasional Modern Birthing Pod deck before Pod’s banning, but at 4 mana is not a fit in the Collected Company era. Forge-Tender shows up in the sideboards of GW Hatebears in Modern, and has seen occasional Legacy play during periods where Firespout was common there. As a 2/1 flyer for 2, Selfless Spirit is reasonably costed and aggressive, and definitely will do more damage than a Forge-Tender.
So you would expect this card to have potential in the hatebears archetype, whether or not the tribal Spirit deck takes shape. In fact, the StarCityGames Modern Premier event on the set’s opening weekend saw the card appear in a mono-white modern hatebears list (Modern’s version of Death and Taxes, if you prefer.)
I would not rule out the card in Vintage either, where Pyroclasm is still a reasonable sideboard card. Sadly, it won’t do anything to save your team from Balance or Toxic Deluge. In Legacy, Deluge and Golgari Charm are both popular sweepers against small creature decks, and most unfortunately it does nothing to stop Terminus either. Whether Selfless Spirit finds a home in this style of deck will depend largely on the types of sweepers popular in the format. So long as damage-based sweepers or wrath effects see play in Modern, it should continue do some good work there.
Spell Queller has had far and away the most hype of all the new spirits for Standard play. It does for the stack what Tidehollow Sculler did for the hand, albeit with the new word template for this kind of card preventing any cute flickering shenanigans. Compared to Standard, eternal formats are filled with cheap instant-speed removal options that can take out a 3 toughness creature, so you’ll have to play carefully to avoid being blown out if you exiled something really spicy.
In Vintage, a 3 mana counterspell is generally too expensive. But on the positive side, we already have a UW deck in Vintage that plays disruptive flying flash creatures: Blue Angels. With the unexpected resurgence of Moat to fight off Eldrazi, this archetype could have a lot going for it in the new environment. But is it a fit there? The Blue Angels deck is typically very light on an actual creature count, somewhere in the range of 5-8 creatures comprised of Vendilion Cliques and Resto Agnels. While Spell Queller technically works with Restoration Angel, it will often be an awkward play in a very streamlined format. Nevertheless, the existence of an obvious home from the outset gives this card a chance, even in the non-tribal context.
In Legacy, any spirit tribal deck would have to carefully watch its curve, as mana comes at a stiff premium there. If it were combined with mana dorks or Deathrite Shamans, that could be eased somewhat, but it still seems a bit clunky for that format.
That 2/3 body looks like a Lightning Bolt-rod in Modern, but I actually think the power level is pretty solid for that format. If the tribal deck used Drogskol Captains, that would provide a very nice hexproof shield for the Spell Queller, but we could still be clogging the curve too much. Outside that context, I think it has non-tribal potential. It would be a good role-player in midrange Bant decks, and might even help out the popular Jeskai decks.
The limitation of only exiling spells with converted mana cost 4 or less is a bigger concern in Modern, where the card would look anemic against Tron. That is definitely a concern to me, as any aggro-control strategy should typically have a solid gameplan against decks like Tron, and you’d want to back this up with plenty of countermagic that can handle an All is Dust or Karn Liberated.
In summation, I think Mausoleum Wanderer is likely only to see play if spirit tribal catches on, as it’s otherwise just a mono-blue Judge’s Familiar. The other two have potential in various hatebears and aggro-control decks, and are both eternal playable even without the emergence of a tribal deck.
Moving on from spirits, here are some of the other cards that caught my eye in this set, starting with creatures…
This 1-drop acts as a discard outlet that makes Zombie tokens, then later as a draw engine once you have a board full of zombies. Bridge from Below looks like an ideal way to spit out a bunch of zombies, which leads me to think of Dredge. Clearly this doesn’t stack up to the draw engines in Vintage or Legacy, but might have promise in Modern. You can’t have too many cute cards in Modern Dredge, as you risk diluting the critical mass of dredgers and creatures that return from the graveyard. However, you do want cheap creatures to trigger Vengevine (if you’re playing it), and as a discard outlet it fits the gameplan. Bridge is far less powerful in Modern, a format missing Dread Return and Cabal Therapy, but the self-sacrificing Insolent Neonate has started showing up in Modern competitive leagues online.
Curious Homonculus takes a bit more work than Goblin Electromancer, but still has Modern Storm players excited. As a prowess creature, it lets you poke in for some early damage off your cantrips prior to your combo turn, and is beefy enough to tangle with a Tarmogoyf in many cases. It’s a solid backup plan for those decks, and could take a lot of the pressure off by earning the win off a smaller Grapeshot plus the creature’s combat damage.
Lupine Prototype is probably not good enough when used as intended, in some sort of Modern 12 rack deck or as a finisher for a red-black aggro deck going hellbent. But it is a very cheap way to get 5 power on the field to enable cards that care about power but don’t care about attacking or blocking. For example, it enables all of the Naya shard abilities from Shards of Alara that care about 5 power creatures, but after reviewing them I don’t think any of those are strong enough for Modern. I’m not sure where, if ever, this card would fit in, but the combo potential is worth keeping it in mind.
Eternal Scourge is a colorless version of Misthollow Griffin for the Food Chain deck. The idea is to exile the creature with Food Chain, then use the mana to recast it from exile, netting 1 additional mana each time, and providing an infinite amount of mana of any color that can be spent only on creatures. To my recollection, that deck put up a decent finish in a large tournament exactly once, caused the price of Food Chain to spike, and then was basically forgotten over the past two or three years.
Generally I would have preferred to have the card be blue to pitch to Force of Will so this might even be a downgrade from Griffin. I could imagine an Eldrazi deck in Legacy that wanted to splash green instead of white, and it could certainly try the combo out. As currently configured, those decks play very few of the high end Eldrazi, but it might be an interesting second angle of attack for the deck to hardcast an original Emrakul or an Endless One with one billion power. At least these are cards that it isn’t crazy to be playing anyhow, making the combo less intrusive on the game plan and more of an interesting Plan B.
Thalia, Heretic Cathar is Kismet on a stick. Well, almost. It doesn’t hit artifacts or basic lands. I could see the developers not wanting it to hit basics for purposes of Standard power-level, but hitting artifacts is basically irrelevant there but would have added a lot of functionality to this card in Modern and Vintage. That said, hitting nonbasics is still very solid in eternal formats, where most decks will be filled with utility lands, fetches and duals, but only a few basics. Original Thalia does a much better job of constraining their mana, and that’s just far more important than having creatures enter tapped. That ability will occasionally matter, but probably not enough to spend 3 mana on this. But any human with a potentially game-slowing ability on it is worth considering these days thanks to Cavern of Souls, so I’d keep an eye on it.
Courageous Outrider probably would need to cost 1 less mana to see play in Modern, but this Human version of Goblin Ringleader has a lot going for it. At 3/4, the body is reasonably-sized. Humans are the largest tribe and the most diverse. It’s power level is below that of Ranger of Eos, but in a deck filled with strong 2-drop humans it could have more of an impact. This ability is of a type which is historically strong, and wouldn’t seem out of place in Modern, but in a pinch I doubt I’d want to spend 4 mana on this instead of an Elspeth, Knight-Errant in most situations, unless I was significantly behind on board and had enough mana to cast both this and the other threat I drew off of it.
Mindslaver is a card with a long history of play in Vintage, so getting that effect plus a 13/13 with protection from most removal spells is quite interesting. Allowing your opponent to get a makeup turn after you’ve tried to wreck their hand reduces the power of this somewhat, and makes the value unpredictable. They won’t be able to spend any instants on Emmy herself, but if they have open mana they can certainly point any Bolts or Plows they’re holding at other creatures to prevent you from doing too much damage. (Remember that you can always purposely fail to find a land with fetchlands, so be sure to use those up before they gain control!)
Unfortunately, the Mindslaver effect is unlikely to be as good in most cases as annihilator 6, so any deck based on sneaking Emmy into play and attacking with haste (such as Sneak Attack, Nahiri, the Harbinger, or Oath decks with Dragon Breath) will still prefer the old incarnation. The possibility of actually hardcasting this for 8 mana or so makes it attractive, perhaps that’s a reasonable play if you are on Tron or 12-Post and already playing All is Dust as a tribal sorcery and some Expedition Maps to hit the bin.
This set was filled with cards I wanted to discuss, so I’m going to have to break this article up into two for the first time ever. I’ll be back next time to look at the non-creature spells from the set!