Sullivan’s Satchel: Kaldheim In Standard, Burn VS Spirits, And Crossovers In Magic

Patrick Sullivan answers mailbag questions about Kaldheim’s impact on Standard, piloting Burn against Spirits, and Universes Beyond.

Grim Lavamancer, illustrated by Jim Nelson

Hello, and welcome to this week’s edition of Sullivan’s Satchel. I got the opportunity to catch some of the Kaldheim League Weekend this past weekend, and I know it’s a simple thing to say but I’m still blown away by how good people are at Magic. I’ve been playing competitively in various forms for about 25 years. I haven’t unpacked my entire resume against everyone who has ever played, but I’m guessing I clock in as a Top 750 player all time, maybe Top 500? In any event, the delta I perceive between myself and the players who competed last weekend is vast; it’s really special to get to watch a collection of players that good play for stakes about as high as one can watch in Magic.

That leads to another topic, the stress or burnout expressed by many of the game’s top players in the aftermath of the event.

In some ways I think this is unavoidable; many people are literally competing for their livelihood. There are many thousands of times more people who desire to play at that level than there are slots to go around, and competitive legitimacy emerges in part from the stakes being and feeling high. It isn’t intrinsically bad or actionable for competitors to feel those stakes. At the same time, no one is getting rich here, and something about dismissing these experiences as base privilege doesn’t sit right with me either. I’m not saying to change things or not, as I haven’t given the structure that much thought, but I hope the community at large can at least take the MPL and Rivals members at face value when they mention these experiences and the desire to explore structures that engender less of it.

With that, the questions. As always you can send yours to [email protected] or DM me on Twitter @BasicMountain. One “winner” (decided entirely by me, so not necessarily a merit thing, hence the quotes) will win the title of Question of the Week along with $25 in SCG credit.

With that, Damonation asks:

What do you think is the biggest change Kaldheim made in Standard?

I try to avoid answering these sorts of questions early in a set’s life since I’m armed with internal information and conversations that others aren’t, but I’m happier to answer them once there have been some events and articles and such. This question was submitted in early February, but that feels like jumping the gun to me. Let people figure some of this stuff out for themselves.

I think Faceless Haven, in conjunction with relatively modest snow dual lands, is the biggest structural change in Standard. Faceless Haven is a ton; the best creature-lands usually get over on efficiency (Mutavault, Mishra’s Factory, Treetop Village) and it is rare for them to get over on that plus total impact in a game. When Mutavault was in Standard a few years back, it was powerful but didn’t inform deck construction very much. The opportunity cost was low and the format had enough good duals that even three-color decks could play at least a few copies without much risk.

Faceless Haven is not Mutavault — you have to mean it to activate it regularly. Even cards as “free” as Castle Embereth have become much more complicated decisions in the face of an incentive that powerful and demanding. I expect “Faceless Haven or no?” to be the first question to be answered by many deckbuilders over the next year and change, and that, plus how impactful the card is on the battlefield, gets it my vote for biggest change to Standard with Kaldheim.

From Ken Kauffman:

I know I’ve submitted two different questions this week, so I don’t expect a reply to any number of them, but they’re questions where I find your perspective really interesting if it’s something you’d like to answer. I recently picked up Modern Burn and have found the Bant Spirits matchup to be interesting in a way that many Burn vs tribal creature deck matchups seem to be. As I’m going through the matches, I find myself having all sorts of questions regarding role analysis. Do you have any general advice for how to break down the important part of these matchups and how to assess your role at a given point? I also find cards like Eidolon and Path to Exile really tough to evaluate in these kinds of matchups.

Great question. I’m more familiar with the Pioneer version of this matchup recently but both decks share enough cards that it isn’t altogether that different. The biggest bit of advice I can give is that you can’t play by cheat sheet; each game is different and so you need to be on top of the specific details, even down to what lands your opponent plays in what order and what that might signal about their hand.

If you come out of the gates with creatures and removal, they rarely have that much recourse. Your stuff is more efficient than theirs under these conditions, and their ability to blow you out with flash tricks like Rattlechains or Spell Queller or outsize your creatures and removal with lords is usually limited. Your draw isn’t always that good and things get more complicated going second even with your quality hands.

It is absolutely imperative that you have a creature to work with; even hands that seem “fine” against creature decks (Lightning Helix, Searing Blaze) aren’t effective without some recurring pressure that forces them to engage a little on your terms. With enough time, they can make their land drops and play a flash game far more effectively than you do, or bury you with Collected Company if they’re playing green.

Past that, do not get blown out. Sequences like “Rattlechains to stop your removal, untap and pass with all my mana up” or “Spell Queller your play, untap and cast a lord” are almost impossible to come back from, so as long as you’re running downhill it’s okay to not use all your mana or otherwise make non-intuitive plays to avoid these outcomes. Eventually they have to meet you in the middle, and that’s where your mana efficiency can give you the edge.

I’m not a big fan of Eidolon against straight Azorius (you have a lot of tools to play a late-game that Eidolon occasionally mucks up, and they have a lot of three-toughness creatures to block it) and I don’t like Path very much against Bant (giving them a mana can be a disaster; this is less often the case with Azorius builds.) Neither card is catastrophic to have in your deck after sideboard but you shouldn’t be married to them, either. Eidolon should get cut on the draw regardless of the details.

If you want to improve your odds, interaction that’s instant-speed and/or one mana is critical. Grim Lavamancer has been helpful for me recently. They aren’t especially long on two toughness but it gets the ball rolling and can engage outside of combat, two key characteristics for helping against Spirits. But more than anything it is important to grind out the games, it is one of the toughest matches to play in Modern or Pioneer and there’s no substitute for feeling it out for yourself.

From Jeremy Aaranson:

Throughout the years, Magic has been through ups and downs. What have you learned during the pandemic that you want to work on more when it is safe to gather again? What aspects of Magic should be improved at Magicfests, and what should we get rid of?

I don’t play much Magic anymore, and even at my most active I’m covering maybe three tournaments every two months or so. I have a busy professional life, as well as a home and a family. I have no end of stuff to commit my energy to even if I’m not traveling for tournaments, and there isn’t some longer game to the commentary, unlike competing for events with the hope of qualifying for bigger stuff down the road.

Even with that set of circumstances, which is very different from most people attending SCGs and GPs with regularity, I am sometimes blown away by how much I miss it all. There’s something about traveling to different places while having the actual experience be pretty similar that gives a sense of structure and continuity without being repetitive. For people more actively grinding, or judges and organizers who formed a community out of that work, having that ripped out from under them was and is traumatic. I can’t imagine what it would have done to me twenty years ago.

Combine that with the broader trauma of the last year, and my biggest hope is that I can muster more resources to be more sympathetic, understanding, patient. That isn’t a call to “Paradox of Intolerance” yourself into accepting or hand-waving bad actions, but the competitive scene has always been shelter for misfits. It was for me, and maybe I could turn down a dunk or furrowed brow every now and again to make the atmosphere a bit better.

As far as the logistical stuff, I’m not sure what health and safety protocols are going to look like, what’s going to “make sense,” and all that. It’s a tricky spot because once WotC and/or SCG green-lights some big, physical events I’m sure demand will be through the roof, but I’m guessing a more gradual easing will be in order. I’m sure the organizers will get out in front of it but the planning is going to be complicated.

Lastly, the Question of the Week, from Friend of the Satchel™, Kevin Bell:

Almost all of the players I’ve heard from have no interest in playing Magic with characters and objects from other creative universes. Given the financial success of Secret Lair: The Walking Dead, do you think the pollution of Magic’s intellectual property with other IPs poses an existential threat to MTG?

So, the question above has a paradox in it. Though your social circle reviles these products, at the minimum Walking Dead sold well. That suggest to me that what’s going on in our circles of extremely invested players isn’t representative of the whole. I’m sure some people bought the product because they buy all Magic stuff, and some people bought it because they think it’s a good investment, but there have to be some purchases made by fans of the show who otherwise would never purchase a Magic product. Maybe some of those consumers never buy anything again, but I’m sure some of them try the game out for the first time. That’s a massive win, and directly cuts against the notion that these are “existential threats.”

I think it matters that these are done well. That’s simple to say, but it’s easy for me to imagine executions that are sloppy and denigrate Magic’s rich history, and executions that allow popular IPs to have their characters, locations, and events projected on Magic’s unique tapestry, and to be woven into the greater whole. I think the quality in absolute terms, plus judiciously partnering with properties that interlock in a harmonious way, answers the question more accurately than staking a position out ahead of time.

To those of you who hate this stuff: I get it. It’s different, and in some ways it is different in a way that’s explicitly “not for you.” I’ve been around this game for over 25 years, and I’ve heard the exact same reaction to, in no particular order: the introduction of Standard (then Type II), rarity symbols on cards, foils, damage going on the stack, damage no longer going on the stack, mythic rares, and a whole host of smaller changes that maybe you like, maybe you don’t, but don’t seem to pose in insurmountable challenge for invested players to enjoy the game.

I think Magic is likely to outlive me and no game stands the test of time like that without changing, sometimes in dramatic ways.