This is a bit sudden: Modern Horizons has only been out for two weeks, but here we are starting Core 2020 spoilers. The summer release schedule has ensured that Modern is utterly saturated with new cards, and it is struggling to absorb them all. There hasn’t been much time to determine the effects that War of the Spark and Horizons have already had. I have no major events besides MTGO providing data, and so cannot accurately determine the metagame. Therefore, I’m going to be focusing on the new cards in a vacuum. Rather than speculating on their impact on the indeterminate metagame, I’ll be analyzing them on their own merits and potential homes.
Modern Horizons had minor tribal themes with decent numbers of slivers and changelings. Core 2020 is continuing this path, with tribal synergies for goblins, elementals, and flying, somewhat incongruously. At time of writing, with just over half the set spoiled, the two former tribes have received cards that may finally push them into Modern viability. The latter has some interesting possibilities for Spirits. I will be focusing on the tribal decks today.
Up in the Air
The first tribe isn’t actually one, but it does only apply to one. There is a significant flying tribal theme in 2020, which while mostly targeted at Angels affects Spirits too. So far I haven’t seen anything skyshaking; it’s really hard to compete with Mausoleum Wanderer and Spell Queller. However, there are some interesting cards already that could find a home in Spirits. It will take the right circumstances, but it is possible.
To preemptively respond to something I’ve been asked in person multiple times, Sephara, Sky’s Blade is not going into Spirits. There’s no constructed-worthy way to give spirits vigilance, so in playing Sephara for her alternate cost, the only reason to play her at all, pilots forego the opportunity to attack with four spirits, which almost certainly extends the clock by a turn. You’re giving your creatures indestructible, which Selfless Spirit could already do, in exchange for giving the opponent another untap step. That’s a bad deal. The only possible application I can think of is in mirror matches where the board’s stalled out, and even then, why jump through hoops just for indestructible? She doesn’t even benefit from tribal synergies. Leave Sephara for the BW Tokens dreamers.
While the Sailor has an awesome type-line, I don’t think it’ll make it in Spirits. The ghost pirate has the appearance of constructed viability, as flash and flying are Spirits’ keywords and the reason to play the tribe. However, he’s only a 1/1. If Sailor included some disruption or even a stat boost like Wanderer, it’d be in business. However, most of the time, all Sailor will be is a beater.
The other ability is very interesting, but it’s not good enough to push Sailor into viability. Azure Mage has seen constructed play before (as a Standard sideboard card, admittedly), so a cheaper front-side isn’t outside the realm of playable. UW Spirits also lacks card advantage except for blanking opposing spells. In a very grindy Modern, Sailor could be a critical card against control and midrange, and less disruptable than Moorland Haunt (graveyard hate is everywhere, and often good in those matchups). However, such a Modern has never really existed, and I don’t see it happening anytime soon. I’ll be keeping Sailor in my back pocket, but I’m not holding my breath.
And now there’s another spirit lord, kinda (sorry, Unsettled Mariner). Eagle has better stats though a worse ability than Drogskol Captain for the same cost, so it is definitely playable. The question is whether that’s good enough. CMC 3 is a crowded curve slot for Spirits between Captain, Spell Queller, Geist of Saint Traft, and toolbox creatures like Deputy of Detention or Eidolon of Rhetoric. Captain and Queller are the reasons to play the deck, so Eagle is competing for flex slot space.
Where Eagle shines is matchups where racing matters. Boosting power/toughness is only critical when you have to kill first. Costing three means that Eagle should be seen as the final push over the top. Right now I don’t think racing is very important while disruption is, so Eagle isn’t an automatic inclusion for me. I’m currently trying it as a 2-of and have been quite happy. Depending on how things shake out, I could see cutting Eagle. However, the fact that Eagle exists suggests there are more spirits to come, and that may mean a radical redesign is in order.
The next tribe is more speculative. Ever since Lorwyn block, elementals have been the most commonly-supported multi-color tribe. The problem has been a lack of reason to actually invest in the tribe. Most of the time, the only elementals on a constructed board are Young Pyromancer tokens. There are countless interesting elementals, from Horde of Notions to Nivmagus Elemental, but only Voice of Resurgence, Flickerwisp, and Fulminator Mage ever see Modern play. Many of the other Modern-worthy elementals don’t have tribal synergies, like Nivmagus and Kiln Fiend. 2020 is aiming to change things with more tribal synergies. While I don’t think such a deck is there yet, it is becoming more plausible.
If any tribal deck is going to be viable, it needs cheap creatures that do something, usually hit hard. Those are pretty limited and niche in elementals, but Creeping Trailblazer is a good start. Pumping Flamekin Bladewhirl or Voice’s power is fairly blah, but I suspect that an elemental deck will be based on token making, though again there’s not a lot of viable options. In such a deck, power boosts will be essential since 1/1 tokens aren’t that threatening and there’s not many other options for elementals. Trailblazer is also a reasonable threat on its own; a 2/2 for two almost-lord isn’t a bad rate, and on a crowded board threatens a kill if left unblocked. This is a decent start, but there needs to be more to make the deck attractive.
Now we’re talking. On its own, Risen Reef is an expensive Coiling Oracle, and since Oracle is barely playable I probably seem insane. However, Reef also triggers off other elementals hitting play. Turning creatures into cantrips isn’t bad, though a bit expensive, but I’m seeing combo possibilities.
Alongside a token maker like Chandra, Acolyte of Flame, Reef generates absurd amounts of card advantage and/or ramp every turn. Goblins has shown before that it’s ok to play unimpressive creatures as long as you can play a lot of them. An active Reef will simply overwhelm other decks once it gets going, as every turn more and more elementals can be found then cast. This is definitely a build-around, protect-the-queen sort of card, but if it can be made to work, there’s absurd amounts of power to be had.
Omnath, Locus of the Roil
However, every engine needs a payoff. 2020‘s answer is another Omnath, and a potentially playable one at that. Omnath, Locus of the Roil synergizes incredibly well with Reef, which is a great reason to look in the first place. Elementals tend to just be big boom-booms, so giving them a chance to bust through creature decks is essential. However, there’s also a chance that Omnath simply combo kills the opponent. With Amulet of Vigor in play and a deck full of cheap elementals, Reef and Omnath become a kill. Resolving elementals finds more elementals or lands, which are then untapped to cast more elementals. Each elemental then domes the opponent until they’re dead.
When Goblin Matron was spoiled in Horizons, I noted that old-school Goblins was inching toward viability. The combo enabler and key consistency card being legal made the tribe far more plausible than before. It doesn’t matter the context; any deck improves with tutors. That the tutor also enables tribal synergies and attacks is incredibly good. However, the deck was still missing the midgame oomph that could actually make it viable. The combo versions weren’t consistent enough, and the go wide-decks couldn’t hit hard enough. Seeing the best card isn’t enough without a bridge between the early setup and the payoffs. That card has traditionally been Goblin Ringleader, and without that, Goblins still floundered.
Well, isn’t this convenient. I really didn’t expect Ringleader would be reprinted, ever. All that’s missing from the (commonly played) Legacy version are the disruption lands, Goblin Lackey, and Gempalm Incinerator.
Despite its mediocre stats, Goblin Ringleader is arguably the best goblin ever printed. There are more individually powerful goblins, but Ringleader is the critical card. Most goblins are 2/2’s at most. The tribe’s goal is to flood the board in a hurry and swamp opponents with haste. Ringleader adds to the board and attacks immediately, but more importantly he finds more fuel. Militia Bugler is a very good card for Humans in attrition matchups, and Bugler is a poser compared to Ringleader. Goblins may finally be a real tribe in Modern.
Finding a Niche
The question now is what niche to fill. In Legacy, Goblins is really a mana-prison deck in the same vein as Death and Taxes. The deck relies on Wasteland and Rishadan Port slowing down the opponent until the board is either flooded by goblins, or the Ringleader engine has pulled them too far ahead on cards to overcome. Goblins also has a very high curve featuring numerous four-drops and Siege-Gang Commander. While it is possible to really stifle decks with Ghost Quarter, Field of Ruin, and Tectonic Edge in Modern, it’s nowhere near as effective. Goblins will need to evolve to find a home in Modern.
Going faster pushes Goblins toward being 8-Whack, and given that deck’s lack of success to this point, I wouldn’t go that route. Taking a cue from Legacy, I’d take Modern Goblins in a midrange/beatdown route, which isn’t a typical style of deck in the format; creature decks are generally fast, and midrange decks are full of non-creature spells. This would require Goblins to go the Stompy route.
Stompy could work by going for a prison build. This would involve using Quarter and Field alongside Blood Moon to restrict opposing mana, Chalice of the Void to lock opponents out, and then Goblin-dropping until the opponent dies. For added zest, Ensnaring Bridge coupled with Krenko, Mob Boss could be an option for swamping aggressive decks. The question is if this is better than the Skred prison decks that have occasional success in Modern, but never last.
The alternative is to go the combo route. I’d previously tried to make a Modern version of Dirty Kitty work, and couldn’t because I couldn’t make the engine fire consistently. With Ringleader in the picture, things are different. Horizons gave Goblins an analogue for Gempalm Incinerator in Munitions Expert, and the closest we’re likely to get to Goblin Sharpshooter in Sling-Gang Lieutenaunt. Such a deck would use token generators and Expert to survive early pressure, then Ringleader into Lieutenaunt to kill the opponent. The only problem is fueling the Sling-Gang. The Onslaught block version of this deck used Patriarch’s Bidding to rebuy all the goblins spent early, and if there’s an equivalent in Modern I’m unaware of it. Still, the alure of chaining Ringleaders, using Skirk Prospector to keep the Goblins churning, and then turning all that into a kill in one turn is very alluring, and I’m going to keep working on the theory.
There’s still just over half the set yet to see. so there’s every chance the real tribal payoffs are still waiting. In the meantime, there’s plenty of intriguing cards to puzzle over and get to brewing. This is continuing to be a most engaging summer.
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.