After I won World Championship XXVI, about the first thing I did was sit down with David Humpherys — the lead for Kaldheim — and talk about what my card was going to be. He told me that the set was at the end of its design period, so we wouldn’t have much time to tweak the card, but I had a couple of options to choose from.
At the time, nothing was known about Kaldheim. Humpherys told me it was going to be a Nordic set, explained some of the mechanics (the return of snow, for example) and then showed me my options. One of the cards I could have chosen, for example, was Dragonkin Berserker; I could also have the card that ended up being Skemfar Avenger, and a snow-lord that vaguely reminds me of Narfi, Betrayer King.
At the time, none of these cards seemed particularly interesting to me because they all violated my core principle — I wanted my card to be broad in application. These cards were all tied to set mechanics or themes, which meant that, if the theme or mechanic didn’t work out, the card would see no play. Were there going to be bolster decks? How about Berserker decks or snow decks? These cards were all unlikely to see play if the answer was no. On top of that, being tied to a mechanic made it unlikely that the card would see play in older formats and also unlikely it would be reprinted at some point. I wanted the most number of people to be able to play my card.
As we were talking about this, Humpherys floated the idea of waiting for the following set to have my card. This would mean a delay of three months or so, but it would give me the chance to customize the card more, as the set was still being developed. It was also, he told me, a “school of magic”-themed set, and he knew I really liked that.
He was right! I think “school of magic” is my favorite genre in the world; it’s not just about Harry Potter (which is my favorite book series) but I’ve also really enjoyed books like The Name of the Wind, The Black Magician, etc. (I even liked the recent Netflix show Fate: The Winx Saga). More than that, the school part of these books is my favorite part — the seventh Harry Potter book is, in my opinion, the worst one because it just doesn’t show their daily school lives nearly as much. On top of that all, if we were going to create a card for me, I’ve always felt more of a scholar/spellcaster than a Viking Berserker hack-and-slashing with an axe, so there would probably be more opportunities for a card I would identify with in Strixhaven.
The combination of both of those — the fact that the thematic was much more tied to me and the fact that I didn’t really like any of the cards he showed me — made the decision of delaying my card for a full set a no-brainer. Honestly, I think I sort of dodged a bullet here; if we look at Kaldheim, is there a single non-legendary humanoid card that sees play? If I go back and look at the set, there’s nothing compatible that I wish I had chosen (unless you turn me into a Dragon).
So, once that decision was made, we tabled the subject for later. Once I got home, I got in touch with Andrew Brown (the lead for Strixhaven) and he also presented me with a couple of options for me to choose from, but at that point the cards weren’t finalized (he said we could still customize them how I wanted).
I immediately liked the Strixhaven options more — they were all super-generic cards, not tied to any of the mechanics or themes of the set. One of the cards, for example, was a black creature with three different enters-the-battlefield abilities to choose from — a Charming Prince-type card, if you will. Another was a white creature that made flying tokens whenever it attacked or was targeted. Another was a red creature that had some sort of looting effect when it attacked. All of them seemed potentially interesting and potentially good, but the one that immediately caught my eye was the card that would end up becoming Elite Spellbinder.
I’m not sure what it is that attracted me to Elite Spellbinder — perhaps the uniqueness of the effect (in these colors at least), perhaps the resemblance to my favorite Magic card (Vendilion Clique), or perhaps the fact that it seemed like it could have broad applications in many different formats. Regardless of the reason, it caught my eye the most and I told Andrew it was my favorite. He said he’d go and test it more and let me know if it needed any changes.
It turns out it didn’t — the card you’re seeing now is the exact card I chose. I tried very hard to give it flash, but Andrew didn’t think casting this on the draw phase would be fun (I thought it’d be very fun!); when that didn’t work, I tried to give it double-strike, +1/+1, first strike, and finally vigilance. In the end, he said they thought it was strong enough already and didn’t need any boosts. Boo.
After that came the art. He showed me their sketch and I instantly loved it; I’ve been in unofficial tokens and products before and I always felt like they were passable imitations of me, but this card I could immediately identify as myself. The one thing I didn’t quite get was the strand of white hair, which I felt made me look a bit older than I look in real life, but he explained that this was to show affiliation to my school, so I thought that was cool.
Then came the name. He gave me a couple of options and Elite Spellbinder seemed by far the best of them. I like the sort of wordplay that comes from Spellbinder, as it can mean one thing if you’re taking it in the Magic context (as in, someone who binds with spells) but is also just a “real” word whose meaning applies to the card as well.
So Elite Spellbinder was ready! I really like how it ended up and I felt very involved in every step of the process, starting with the set the card would be from and ending with how I wanted to have it previewed. I didn’t literally create the card like the players would in past Invitationals, but it very much feels like my card and I’m really grateful to the Wizards of the Coast (WotC) staff who made this possible and worked with me to make sure I was always accommodated.
So now that you have the story about how Elite Spellbinder came to be, hopefully we can find some decks for it! I will have you know that you might have to take my evaluation of this card with a grain of salt, since I very much want it to be good, but I chose this as my card in large part because I thought it was good. So even though I might be a little overenthusiastic here, I do believe everything I say.
On first analysis, Elite Spellbinder is an aggressive white card — not so different from Reidane, God of the Worthy. It does have some characteristics that set it apart from every white card before it, though:
- It can hit any card, including creatures, of any mana value. This is quite unusual for a white card, since their hate is usually targeted at noncreature spells.
- If it leaves the battlefield, the card remains exiled!
The second part of the card is more appealing to me, and makes it almost look like a black card in disguise. Taxing effects are nothing new in white — Thalia, Guardian of Thraben for example — but they always come attached to a permanent, and if the permanent goes away, so does the tax. With Elite Spellbinder, not so much — even if they kill it, their card is still taxed. If you bounce it back to your hand or blink it with Yorion, Sky Nomad, their card is also still taxed. Basically, once Elite Spellbinder enters the battlefield, there’s no way around it — the card will cost two more.
I think there are two major ways to use Elite Spellbinder. The first is making sure that, by the time they can cast their card, it’s no longer very relevant. You can do this by disrupting their curve — since you can exile anything, you can just get their three-drop (or their four-drop if you’re on the draw). They get to cast it a bit later in the game, but at that point they probably have better things to cast, and the card is not likely to have the same impact.
The second way is to try to end the game before they can cast their card at all. Shadows’ Verdict, for example, will be a very common target — a lot of the time, if you get that card to cost two more, the game will be over before they can cast it. The same can happen with a nine-mana Emergent Ultimatum or a seven-mana Goldspan Dragon or Yorion. Here, it’s important to note that two mana is not necessarily two turns — it’ll be more than that a lot of the time, especially with these expensive cards.
Past that, the fact that you actually exile the card from their hand has some other particularities as well. For example, if you Elite Spellbinder their Shark Typhoon, they can’t cycle it — they can only cast it and it’s going to cost eight mana. This is a radical difference to the other white cards that have done it in the past — both Reidane and Thalia do nothing versus a cycled Shark Typhoon. You also stop them from using the card in other ways. For example, if I Elite Spellbinder your Arclight Phoenix and you cast Faithless Looting, you can’t just discard the Phoenix; if I hit your Transmogrify target, you can’t just put it back in your library with Fire Prophecy; and so on. And, finally, you get to look at their hand and see what they have!
The first home I can think of for this card in Standard is Mono-White Aggro. As a 3/1 flyer, it’s definitely a passable aggressive creature and the deck really likes the disruptive effect. Obviously we don’t know what’s gonna be in Strixhaven yet, but here’s a sketch:
- 4 Giant Killer
- 4 Alseid of Life's Bounty
- 4 Seasoned Hallowblade
- 4 Selfless Savior
- 4 Skyclave Apparition
- 4 Luminarch Aspirant
- 2 Usher of the Fallen
- 2 Reidane, God of the Worthy
- 4 Elite Spellbinder
Another possible home is in a Winota, Joiner of Forces deck. Elite Spellbinder is a Human, and while it’s not the single best Human to hit with while you’re attacking, it can clear the way for Winota while also being a reasonable hit, as it helps ensure they don’t just sweep the battlefield the next turn. Plus, it’s a Cleric, so it makes it easier to hit party if you’re interested.
There’s also the chance Elite Spellbinder sees play in Historic, in particular because it works well with Collected Company. Right now, there are two Collected Company decks with white and both could use the card, in particular Selesnya Company, which is a more aggressive deck. Here’s a list inspired by Evan Kaplan’s from the Kaldheim Championship:
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 3 Scavenging Ooze
- 2 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
- 4 Lovestruck Beast
- 4 Skyclave Apparition
- 2 Yasharn, Implacable Earth
- 4 Luminarch Aspirant
- 4 Kazandu Mammoth
- 2 Reidane, God of the Worthy
- 4 Elite Spellbinder
The other option is Bant or Selesnya Angels. Even though I’m inarguably very Angelic, this card is not an Angel, but it is a Cleric, so it will trigger Righteous Valkyrie the same way (it only has one toughness, but sometimes all you need is one life to get past that threshold, and if you’re already at 27, you’ll gain three).
I don’t know if Elite Spellbinder is enough to make this deck palatable versus control, but my biggest problem with Reidane was its inability to attack into Shark Typhoon, and Elite Spellbinder does a much better job of that — first because it tells you if they have Typhoon or not, second because it can take the Typhoon, and third because if they block and kill it, the effect persists. It’s bad that it trades with a 1/1 Shark, but thankfully it’s not just eaten by a 3/3 Shark.
- 3 Soul Warden
- 4 Resplendent Angel
- 4 Bishop of Wings
- 2 Speaker of the Heavens
- 4 Linvala, Shield of Sea Gate
- 4 Skyclave Apparition
- 3 Glasspool Mimic
- 4 Youthful Valkyrie
- 4 Righteous Valkyrie
Elite Spellbinder is also a Human, and I think it can fit quite well in Human tribal decks. The Modern Humans deck, for example, plays Kitesail Freebooter, and while costing three is a lot more than costing two, Elite Spellbinder is much more aggressive and more “on-color” for the deck. On top of that, you get Aether Vial to be able to put this card onto the battlefield at the most awkward times for your opponent (including the draw step), so we get to see if Andrew was right and this would have been too obnoxious with flash.
I’m not really up to speed with what’s been happening with Modern these days, but I can imagine something like this being reasonable:
- 4 Meddling Mage
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Phantasmal Image
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
- 4 Mantis Rider
- 4 Reflector Mage
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 2 Kitesail Freebooter
- 2 Unsettled Mariner
- 3 Elite Spellbinder
Finally, I think this could see play in Legacy in Death & Taxes-style decks. These decks have already shown a willingness to play a 3/1 flying creature for three; they also play Aether Vial, they have ways to blink it, they have Recruiter of the Guard to search for it, and they are very interested in the disruptive element. When your deck is already playing Thalia, Wasteland, and Rishadan Port, making a card cost two more might as well be exiling that card forever. Here’s a sketch:
- 4 Mother of Runes
- 1 Flickerwisp
- 4 Stoneforge Mystic
- 1 Phyrexian Revoker
- 4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
- 1 Spirit of the Labyrinth
- 2 Recruiter of the Guard
- 1 Sanctum Prelate
- 1 Palace Jailer
- 1 Charming Prince
- 3 Skyclave Apparition
- 2 Elite Spellbinder
Overall, I really hope Elite Spellbinder sees play — it would be pretty depressing to have a card no one wants to play with — but I think it’s strong enough and has enough possible applications that at least someone will be interested. I know that I, at least, will be trying furiously to put it in every deck that can remotely support it. But even if it ends up seeing absolutely no competitive play, just the fact that there’s a card out there with my face on it and that I helped design to an extent already means the world to me and I’m very happy to have been given this opportunity.