We’re all aware how ridiculous Kozilek’s Return is, right? That card on its own might be enough to cause something from G/R Tron to get banned in Modern, and in Standard we might see G/R Eldrazi have a better matchup with the aggro decks that have been keeping it out of the top tier. We all know this, so I don’t need to wax lyrical about how good it is.
“Best card in the set” has rarely been correctly predicted in the first week of previews, so even with the Return being the frontrunner, it behooves us to look at other possibilities in Oath of the Gatewatch. As of the time of writing (Wednesday), I have a pick for Standard and one for Modern that are really making my creative juices flow.
Hello, Is Flame There? It’s Chandra Calling
Anthony Lowry is a fine man. A fine, fine man with wonderful tastes. He’s already told us that new Chandra isn’t your daddy’s Chandra, and I couldn’t agree more. Much like the most playable version of our favourite flame-haired female, she is at her best in a midrange strategy. This time though, she is the curve-topping game winner instead of a card-drawing engine of doom. Well, she’s also that. Yes folks, she slices. She dices. Chandra, Flamecaller is a floor wax, a dessert topping, and a maker of julienne fries.
I try to avoid the buzz around spoiler season in the larger internet community because every card previewed is Schrodinger’s Preview: both the best and the worst card ever created, with no middle ground. Once we take the lid off the box of the new format, we find which cards are which and things settle down somewhat. The chatter I have seen around Chandra is that she’s not good, and I don’t get it. No, she isn’t going in an aggro deck. Yes, she lacks a “true ultimate” and on the turn she comes down she’s a six-mana worse version of Languish if you’re behind. I hear you, and I acknowledge that she has some challenges, but this card reminds me of the last six-mana planeswalker we saw, and she did some serious work.
Lest ye think that I am calling Chandra, Flamecaller “as good as Elspeth, Sun’s Champion,” let me cut you off right there. Chandra is notably worse than Elspeth. However, there is a lot of room for a card to be worse than Elspeth and still be very good, and in some situations she can do things that Elspeth never could. I want to look at the card line by line and show you why I honestly think Chandra is going to be a card we’re all tired of seeing in a year’s time.
4RR, 4 loyalty to start. For a six-mana planeswalker to see play, it has to do a lot. I think she does, but we’ll get to what she actually does in a moment. What we’re looking at here is where she fits. Six mana puts Chandra snugly on the curve behind all the good sweepers in the format, be they black or white. If we don’t play her on curve we can even slide a discard spell in there to take away the follow-up play. Any good planeswalker is going to be a challenge to beat on an empty board, and I don’t see Chandra as being any different there. The four loyalty isn’t as sturdy as we might like, but ticking her up on the turn she drops is likely to keep her safe against anything but the fastest and/or most imposing of opposing boards.
+1: Put two 3/1 red Elemental creature tokens with haste onto the battlefield. Exile them at the beginning of the next end step. This is of course the way we will actually win the game. Six damage a turn for a deck that is trying to keep the board empty is a very fast clock, and that’s assuming we have nothing else going on. The lack of trample is a bit frustrating but hardly the end of the world, as we’re often going to want to be going up into an empty board.
The best part of the +1 ability is that we are sending Chandra out of range of some of the best creatures in the format: Siege Rhino, Tasigur and even Thunderbreak Regent will leave Chandra alive to make more Elementals or draw you a whole bunch of cards. If the 3/1s don’t get in, they are leaving a decent mark on the blocking creatures, which a Radiant Flames or Languish can finish off as needed.
In the classic sense of “does Chandra protect herself” the correct answer is “only against small creatures.” However, this ability does help with the protection on two fronts: one, she’s a Fog for a turn at worst which allows you an extra turn to draw an answer. Two, six power a turn is a lot and requires some serious thought from the opponent as to whether they can race that and the cards in your hand. Unless your deck has totally messed the bed, the opponent probably can’t present much in the way of return damage without investing mana and cards. Your six damage a turn is free.
There are fringe synergies to be had with Omnath, Locus of Rage (block and take six, don’t block and take six…), Vampiric Rites, and even Wingmate Roc. Those little things are good and all, but there’s also Gideon and Sorin as planeswalker buddies for Chandra that make her little flame balls even more dangerous.
0: Discard all the cards in your hand, then draw that many cards plus one. Are you kidding me? Straight-up card advantage in red? And none of this “exile, you may cast until the end of turn” nonsense either. Just go right on ahead and put that delicious card right in your hand. We might not technically win the game with this ability, but…we’re winning the game with this ability.
Sure, it comes at a cost…or does it? Yes we have to discard our hand, but there are plenty of ways that can work in our favour:
– too many lands in hand
– what hand?
– redundant copies of Chandra
– delve spells
As long as Treasure Cruise and Murderous Cut are in the format, this ability will be able to fill your hand back up with straight gasoline. Lest we forget, the next set is taking us back to Innistrad, home of plenty of dead things and (presumably) graveyard shenanigans. Even if Flashback isn’t a thing, we could get threshold or reanimation stuff or even Lhurgoyf-flavoured things.
But why focus on how good it is to discard when we get to draw all those cards? We’re not priced into using the ability, either; if your hand is good, do something else. One of the problems with red’s “card draw” has always been the fact that it costs mana, which left you less able to play the cards you “drew.” Here we not only get to keep them, but (like with Outpost Siege and Chandra, Pyromaster) we get to do so without tapping a single land in the process. With Kolaghan’s Command and Den Protector around for a while yet, we can even find ways to retrieve cards that we had to discard. Between Chandra, Outpost Siege, Abbot of Keral Keep, Avaricious Dragon, and Ire Shaman we can go real deep into our deck in red alone. When we add black and blue, for example, we can probably see most of our deck each game on the way to killing everything that moves.
This is where I think Chandra is slightly better than Elspeth. If we equate the two creature-making abilities and the two board-sweeping ones, we’re left with “draw a bunch of cards” against “win the game right now.” Where Elspeth’s ultimate was no doubt powerful, it very often just accelerated the inevitable end. Chandra’s creatures already hit for three each, albeit without evasion, but where Elspeth could never refill your hand, Chandra can do it every turn. Overall Elspeth is better, but this ability matches up very well with Elspeth in general.
–X: Chandra, Flamecaller deals X damage to each creature. Okay, so it’s not a “real” ultimate, but I do think people are misjudging how good this ability is. Somehow people have constructed scenarios where Chandra is bad because she is simultaneously being hit by hordes of weenies and eating huge chunks from midrange beaters like running Siege Rhinos. The simple fact is that Chandra will come down and clear out a board of weenies almost every time she needs to. Most decks are losing to running Rhinos. Most decks are losing games where they do nothing before turn 6. What this ability lets you do is recover from a stumble or two when needed, or let you maintain the advantage once you land Chandra. It’s a contingency more than a sweeper, one that works very well with non-creature threats like Gideon and Sarkhan (either one, really).
Don’t overlook the ability to chain her –X with something else, either. You can clear pretty much anything with a -4 the turn after you cast her, followed by a Languish. You might even be able to use it as a finish with some Zulaport Cutthroats and a bunch of token generators. Jund Aristocrats is already something of a deck, perhaps this pushes it over the top?
Give Me a Moment to Reflect
I’ve spoken before about the signpost uncommons designed to guide drafting and how often they have come close to being playable in Constructed. In Reflector Mage, we may have one that is not only playable in Constructed but playable in Modern at that.
Before Brad Nelson and the Roanoke crew took the #SCGPC by storm with Death and Taxes in Legacy, I had been extolling its virtues. My judge friend, Alex, is similarly fond of the deck, taking it even a step further and playing it in Modern as well. The difference in the formats is that while the Legacy version is almost always mono-white, the Modern version has seen several different splashes. Craig Wescoe at #GPPITT with green in his deck. Black sends us down a Deadguy Ale-style path with Tidehollow Sculler, Lingering Souls, and discard effects as well as Dark Confidant. Even red has seen some play, with Blood Moon and Magus of the Moon making spells even harder to cast, but it’s definitely behind green and black.
Blue has been tried, but like red, it has lacked the denial punch that black and green give us. We get Meddling Mage, the ability to activate Spellskite without paying life, and a great offensive weapon in Geist of Saint Traft. We also get to play with countermagic if we need it. Now though, we have this lovely tempo machine who is actually better in Modern than in Standard.
Let’s start with the baseline case: 1UW for a 2/3 that bounces a creature and leaves it there for a turn. That’s a decent stat line with a powerful and unique ability that is best against fair decks. The archetype has had trouble beating fair decks in the past, so a weapon that is potent against them is a powerful addition to our arsenal. As a Human, we can also make use of Cavern of Souls to ensure the Mage gets through.
The question then becomes “how often will we cast this at all?” These Death and Taxes/Hate Bears decks run four copies of Aether Vial, as well as some number of Restoration Angels and Flickerwisps. Vialing a Mage in to bounce a Deceiver Exarch or Griselbrand is good for sure, and being able to blink it and repeat the process can only be better.
It’s worth noting as well that you can target any opposing creature with the ability, including animated planeswalkers. Doing so will still lock your opponent out of recasting that card until your next turn. This is more relevant in Standard where both Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar are big threats, but sadly there’s no good way to flash him in there.
Oh wait. A three-mana creature with a bounce effect was something I figured wouldn’t see print until Collected Company rotated. I’m glad to see I was wrong. Without Vial and blink effects, we still don’t have the flexibility that Modern offers the card, but it may find a place if a tempo deck becomes a thing.
The Modern applications don’t end at Hate Bears. Conveniently costed at three mana, Sun Titan is only too happy to bring Reflector Mage back for some bouncy shenanigans. I can definitely see Emeria Control finding room for a couple of these. He also can be brought back with Reveillark and fits nicely in a deck with Venser, Shaper Savant and similar tempo cards.
It’s even possible that Reflector Mage could sneak into Legacy. Some old Miracles builds have played Riptide Laboratory in the past, and they still play Cavern of Souls. It’s a bit of a stretch to get that far, but I won’t rule it out yet.
If nothing else, the foils will be stunning.
Don’t Spoil the Excitement
I rarely get caught up in preview hype. Judging the playability of new cards and mechanics without knowing the whole set is often futile; however, both these new cards though have me salivating at the prospects of the new formats. As the new cards keep rolling in, the old brew brain keeps ticking, but I keep running back to the fiery embrace of Chandra and the lens-obsessed bounciness of the Reflector Mage. What has you brewing?
As always, thanks for stopping by. Until next time my friends…Brew On!