Welcome to December! At long last, the year known as 2020 is coming to a close. Huzzah! I had planned to kick this off with the traditional metagame update, but that’s not to be: Wizards hasn’t posted the last few events at time of writing, so the data’s incomplete. Even if that wasn’t the case, I don’t have enough time to do my usual analysis. So that will have to wait until next week. In the meantime, here’s some lighter fare.
In case you missed it, Modern Horizons 2 will be out next year. At this point, the only thing I know for sure is that the enemy fetchlands are included. I can safely assume that structurally, MH2 will be like the original, with a mix of new cards and reprints. Hopefully, Wizards learned from their mistakes and we won’t have to endure another Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis, but there’s no way of knowing. What I can do is wantonly speculate about what potential reprints could make it in. And while speculating on existing staples that desperately need a reprint (Aether Vial‘s ticking up again), I’m not a finance guy, and that’s what such a piece is most useful for. Instead, I’m going to speculate on potential Modern newcomers that are currently legal in Legacy.
To keep things interesting, and not totally baseless, I’m imposing some rules on myself. Obviously, I’m not going to mention cards that can’t be printed thanks to the Reserved List, but this also goes for anything too strong for Modern. Defining a format and giving it an identity separate from other formats is critical for its success (which is something Pioneer has suffered from). Thus, I don’t want anything that’s going to make Modern feel too much like Legacy. This is going to preclude a lot of cards from Commander and similar sets, as they make perfect sense in Legacy’s context, but not Modern. Looking at you, Leovold, Emissary of Trest.
Secondly, this can’t be a list of just hate cards. Players complain about Blood Moon, but that’s because they’ve never seen some of the color and nonbasic land hate lurking in Magic’s history. The cards I pick need to be interesting and preferably build-around cards to encourage different gameplay or deck design. I’m looking for cards to make Modern better for brewing and diversity, not to reinforce or completely destroy existing decks. Plus, that’d be too easy.
Finally, no low-hanging fruit. There are plenty of Modern-playable and correctly powered cards in Legacy. But I’m requiring myself to stretch as much as possible. Because the obvious stuff has been done to death. For example, Counterspell was considered for Standard in Dominaria. Thus, Wizards must also think that it’s fine for Modern. There’s nothing to see there, and nothing new to say. Similarly, Innocent Blood is probably fine, but it’s just another removal spell. Ho-hum.
With these restrictions in mind, I came up with an interesting and feasible card for each color. Of course, covering all of them in more than cursory fashion would explode my word count, so today I’ll only get to the white and blue cards.
This was actually the card that got me thinking about potential reprints. I don’t remember the exact context, but sometime last month it was mentioned as a really weird card, and that got my gears turning. Land Tax has the unusual distinction of having been banned in every relevant format for most of its life, but today doesn’t really see play outside Commander. Tax was first banned in Legacy (then Type 1.5) in 1996, and stayed that way until 2012; I could only find one deck in the past year that played any.
The reason for Tax’s ban was that it was an absurd card advantage engine alongside Scroll Rack and Brainstorm. Every Tax trigger was three lands to exchange for real cards. Better yet, those new cards were far less likely to just be more lands. However, as Legacy evolved and sped up, the utility of this multi-piece engine degraded to the point of unviability. As Modern lacks cheap or repeatable library manipulation, the main use of Tax would be its intended one: helping decks catch back up on land drops.
The biggest plus to Land Tax in my book is that it encourages different styles of gameplay. I cannot think of any card that rewards going second as much as Land Tax. Even with help from Fieldmist Borderpost et al, Tax can be triggered turn three at the earliest in Modern when on the play. Without fast mana, there’s no way to miss a land drop and have turn one Tax. And even then, the deck that could do that is effectively Belcher, so why bother? On the draw, given normal development, a turn one Tax triggers on turn two. This opens the door to decks that actually want to play from behind. The only constructed deck I can think of that has ever wanted that is Manaless Dredge.
Another is the brewing space. Land Tax fixes mana because it searches for any basic land. This makes it plausible for non-green decks to play in that 4-Color space and compete with Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath. But after the first activation, that job’s done; every trigger after the first is just deck thinning. And it won’t be infinite thinning. The opponent will start missing land drops either deliberately or because they’re not drawing lands every turn. So what does one do with all the lands from a few Tax activations? That opens up a lot of potential for decks trying to use lands for value, and that’s not something Modern really has (much to the disappointment of Assault Loam stalwarts).
Mana fixing has been under fire this past year, between Uro and Arcum’s Astrolabe. Players are becoming frustrated with goodstuff pile decks, and adding another option to make them possible is not attractive. There is also the general risk of cards that generate a lot of card advantage for no additional input. Does Modern really need more card advantage engines?
On the flip side, Land Tax is limited to finding basic lands, which prevents both runaway card advantage and another land-toolbox deck from emerging. The utility of lands (particularly basics) in hand is low, and Modern doesn’t have particularly strong ways of turning them into real cards. Tax’s restricted trigger potential also limits its utility and the type of deck that could use it. Uro can go anywhere and do its thing, but a deck actually has to work to benefit from the enchantment. So it’s very much a build-around card and likely to see more limited play, mitigating the main drawback and pushing Tax in a much fairer direction than Uro.
Despite this, I’d bet the actual odds of seeing Land Tax in MH2 is very low. The lowest chance on my list, in fact. Rosewater is on record saying that white searching for any land is a color pie break. Searching for Plains like Knight of the White Orchid does is fine, but any basic land is supposed to be green’s domain. So a straight reprint is extremely unlikely.
However, Rosewater has also repeatedly said on his blog that white needs more card advantage to keep up with the other colors, and that the Land Tax effect feels very white. Wizards could easily print a variation that changes “land cards” to “Plains”. This hypothetical card would be far weaker than Land Tax since it couldn’t fix colors. However, it would still invite interesting brewing options in white decks and reward going second, and so could still be Modern playable.
Blue bears the burden of being a Legacy color of counters and cantrips. Modern can’t have too many blue cantrips (especially not Legacy-level ones), and we don’t need Force of Will or Daze. In an older time, I’d have argued for Fact or Fiction, but that point is now moot. So instead, I’m going with one of my favorite spells from my first experiences learning Magic, Standstill.
Standstill is a card that encourages both players to do nothing. Otherwise, their opponent gets cards. However, for that very reason, it is a huge gamble to play Standstill. Playing it when behind on board is self-destructive, and I’ve watched a Legacy Landstill player die to a single unflipped Delver of Secrets chipping away at their lifetotal because they wouldn’t crack their own enchantment. It can also be a risk to play it at parity, since Standstill really says that you want the status quo to endure. I’ve been surprised by how often the belief that the status quo is either even or truly favors one player turns out to be wrong. And when the Standstill player is wrong, they are maximally punished. Thus, I find it a fascinating card, and I like the mental subgame it entails.
The first benefit is versatility. Standstill is useful in a wide range of decks, and it’s hard to truly break the card. I watched as many players in Odyssey Block start with Nimble Mongoose or Basking Rootwalla into Standstill against Psychatog as I saw ‘Tog players use it as a mirror breaker. On the aggro side, it was a way to keep up with the control decks (Compost saw a lot of play for the same reason) and to buy time for the clock to work. Control players loved it in the mirror to ensure they would win a counter war over opposing cards. The longer the game went unchanged, the more it tended to favor the Standstill player.
Except sometimes it didn’t. You’d be amazed how often the extra cards don’t matter because of the tempo hole Standstill digs. Standstill is a two-mana do-nothing card. Opposing players are free to play through, but it strongly disincentivizes its controller from action. You look really silly breaking your own Standstill, no matter how correct it is. Losing is often psychologically better than looking foolish. So sometimes, players just sit behind Standstill and watch the game slip by. Standstill is then a skill testing card, with better players resolving better Standstills than worse players. Knowing when to break the stalemate is an invaluable skill that Standstill rewards.
Also, to really use Standstill requires a lot of building around the card. In Legacy, Landstill is a UW control deck that utilizes creature-lands and now Shark Typhoon to win without cracking their Standstill. As a tool against control or for more reactive decks to regain some equity in the face of proactive value decks like 4C Omnath, there’s considerable potential for Standstill.
Standstill encourages the kind of game that Field of the Dead wants to play, and players are already sick of Field. Plus, there are a considerable amount of feels-bad moments associated with Standstill. It’s not necessarily great fun to sit around and just stare at the opponent, nor is it to let them draw cards as result of your actions.
I think the first problem is minimal. Getting to seven unique card names is a lot harder without help from accelerators, and playing cards doesn’t mesh with hiding behind Standstill. The decks that currently abuse Field will struggle to use Standstill well as a result. As for the second, that becomes less of a problem with experience. Versed competitive players learn that the right play is the right play, regardless of anything else, and will get over it. There’s also less standing around than it seems, as it is usually correct to break the Standstill right after it’s played. Breaking Standstill early is positive tempo, and often the controller can’t use the extra cards. Standstill plays a lot better in practice than it does in theory.
The main problem with Standstill is a gameplay one. Wizards doesn’t like cards that encourage doing nothing, though as mentioned this is somewhat illusory. Of course, that applies primarily to Standard. If the goal is to slow Modern down and encourage new types of gameplay, doing nothing is not something any top tier deck has wanted to do for some time. Thus, Standstill is reasonably plausible.
And Now, We Wait
So, that’s the first two cards out of the way. Next week, I’ll have the metagame update ready, and then I’ll be spending the rest of December getting through my list. I’ve got one card for each color, as well as gold, artifacts, and lands. What’s your list, and what do you think of my choices for white and blue? Drop a line in the comments.
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.