A week is a long time in Magic. Last Friday, players preparing for the Regional Championships in Canada and Japan were having familiar debates. Which of Rakdos Midrange and Rakdos Sacrifice will be more popular? How does Mono-Green Devotion stack up against these new and improved lists of Izzet Phoenix?
Now, there’s only one question on everyone’s mind: is the sky falling?! Specifically, which of the two new discover-based combo decks that Pro Tour champions took to the finals of this month’s Pioneer Showcase on Magic Online (MTGO) is the right choice?
- 4 Glasspool Mimic
- 1 Doomskar Titan
- 1 Ghalta, Stampede Tyrant
- 4 Geological Appraiser
- 4 Trumpeting Carnosaur
These decks take different routes to the same destination.
Geological Appraiser’s “if you cast it” clause shuts off any schemes involving blink or reanimation effects, but the classic Clones still work. With no other spells at mana value 3 or less in the deck, Appraiser is sure to hit a Glasspool Mimic or similar card like Mirror Image, which enters as an Appraiser, which repeats this process until you have a lethal army of Appraisers.
What next? Waiting to attack is unacceptable in a format full of sweepers and other combo decks. You can work an Imodane’s Recruiter or similar card into the chain, but that stops the chain right there. What if you find it too early?
We can go deeper. Instead of copying Appraiser endlessly, we can hit Eldritch Evolution and jump up to Trumpeting Carnosaur, which starts a similar chain at a higher mana value. Once we have enough copies, the final Eldritch Evolution can find a Doomskar Titan – expensive enough that it doesn’t get in the way – for a massive attack. You can even jump up another rung by having Carnosaur evolve into Ghalta, Stampede Tyrant to sneak out a drawn Doomskar Titan or any other discover creatures!
Yuuki Ichikawa’s victorious Quintorius deck works the same way. The first Quintorius Kand discovers a Spark Double or Clever Impersonator, which becomes another Quintorius (Spark Double enters as a nonlegendary copy, so you won’t lose the original), which goes again. Each discovery triggers the static ability of each Quintorius, burning out the opponent directly. Carnosaur repeats its role here; you can keep copying Carnosaur until you hit Quintorius, starting the typical chain.
Carnosaur shines not just as a redundant combo piece but as interaction. Between split cards, Adventures, the channel cards from Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, and assorted oddballs like Leyline Binding, these decks can threaten relevant plays in the early turns despite the demands of discover. These don’t hold a candle to Force of Negation and Fury, but they don’t need to in this much more forgiving format.
Both decks go out of their way to access ramp. The Appraiser lists use Magma Opus and Creative Outburst to threaten a Turn 3 kill (and, in some lists, a Torrential Gearhulk backup plan many turns later), while the Quintorius decks prefer slower but more permanent ramp like Beanstalk Giant or Greater Tanuki.
Quintorius won the first skirmish in the finals this weekend, but deciding between these decks is tricky, especially now that they are firmly in the spotlight.
The Appraiser build is faster, giving it an edge against other linear decks that are light on interaction (though this may not mean the mirror anymore, as updated Discover lists move their relevant interaction to the maindeck with the mirror in mind).
Appraiser is also more fragile, folding to a much wider range of removal. The Bonecrusher Giants in every Rakdos Midrange list can take down either Appraiser or Quintorius at the right moment, but there’s a long list of removal that hits Appraiser but not Quintorius. Appraiser struggles against the Fiery Impulses and Lightning Axes in every Izzet Phoenix list, but neither of those can tag Quintorius. Less common options that hit both, like Torch the Tower, have seen their stocks rise rapidly in the past few days.
One big draw to Quintorius is that, when you can’t combo, you don’t have to – the namesake planeswalker is just fine as a fair card! Instead of casting a 3/2 and hoping for the best, you can churn out a free 3/2 every turn and punish opponents who are sitting back on their Stomp. You can also delay the combo in the face of hate like Damping Sphere until you have untapped mana to pay for several discovered cards.
Countermoves and Their Consequences
The backlash against these discoveries will have accidental consequences for more established Pioneer decks. Damping Sphere is a universally accessible form of counterplay that is likely to show up in a lot of sideboards this weekend – bad news for anyone hoping to hide under the radar in their Lotus Field.
There’s no shortage of flashy new decks that burst onto the scene and flame out just as quickly. Neoform into Atraxa, Grand Unifier wasn’t broken after all, just another intriguing but harmless option. Hysterical comparisons of Boros Convoke to Modern Hogaak aged poorly, though Convoke has been energized by recent printings like Imodane’s Recruiter and Warden of the Inner Sky. I don’t expect sustained dominance from the Discover decks now that they are under attack – but I don’t want to waste months finding out, especially with the Pioneer Pro Tour on the horizon.
Why Does This Keep Happening?
Cascade was a notorious design mistake that quickly made its mark everywhere. Bloodbraid Elf dominated Standard in 2009, and Violent Outburst still defines Modern nearly fifteen years later. ‘Fixed Cascade’ is an ambitious and risky pitch for a mechanic, and discover may have failed its first test in a truly farcical way.
Is this even a sensible goal? To borrow a quote about a more fictional disaster: “Your designers were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
It’s not as if this is an inherently disastrous idea that ruins everything it touches. Cascade was a compelling and integral part of Limited with Alara Reborn, and the average cascade card was inoffensive there. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about The Lost Caverns of Ixalan Draft lately but none of them have blamed the common discover cards for forcing some game-warping variance on helpless opponents. The mission statement of cascade and discover holds up in a format where – by definition – you can’t construct your deck around the primary goal of rigging that lottery.
The cascade casino game is the perfect activity for a more casual setting where deck construction rules require and encourage variety (though my only Commander deck is built around Codie, Vociferous Codex and cheating its restriction with 98 ‘permanents’ to ensure I hit Glimpse of Tomorrow to warp the world as hard as possible – judge for yourself if I understood that assignment!). Even in a Cube setting that more closely resembles normal Constructed or Limited Magic, recent cascade cards from supplemental sets, like Noise Marine, have had good receptions.
That said, the Discover chain is all over Historic too, where Pantlaza, Sun-Favored has gatecrashed the Arena client and gives those decks redundancy on their Geological Appraiser effect. Perhaps a better example is in order…
These mechanics are perfect for regular Limited and for Constructed formats that embrace variety by design. The problems arise in competitive Constructed formats where the card pool and deckbuilding rules let you drain the mechanic of the variance that makes it interesting and turn it into a game where the house always wins.
Even the most egregious mechanics show up mostly on harmless and forgettable cards. A mechanic’s name becomes an easy shorthand for the excesses of its worst offenders, but for every Treasure Cruise or Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis, there are many more Shambling Attendants. Cards that show off a broken mechanic in a balanced way often become iconic. Tasigur, the Golden Fang stands out as an all-time great design for a mechanic that failed so badly and so often.
Some broken mechanics are easy to forget because their representatives are so safe. My lonely vigil for more gravestorm cards continues…
Concept and Execution
It’s important here to distinguish between failed execution and a concept that’s doomed to fail. Umezawa’s Jitte and Skullclamp were too pushed but nobody cites them as an example of why Equipment is a mistake (even though this was an easy argument to make at the time – would they have missed the mark so badly with a card type that wasn’t so new and unrefined?), as the positive potential of Equipment is clear. The ends don’t necessarily justify the means, but they do excuse some misses in that exploratory phase.
Some mechanics aren’t impossible to nail but prove so difficult to balance in practice that it isn’t worth the risk or effort. Obosh, the Preypiercer is pretty neat – but is it worth multiple iterations of Lurrus of the Dream-Den and Yorion, Sky Nomad wreaking havoc in every format? Playing it safe comes with its own problems – few care about Jegantha, the Wellspring or Kaheera, the Orphanguard (and nobody caring is the worst fate a mechanic can suffer).
The story of Shardless Agent in Modern Horizons 2 brings this problem to life. Many hoped it would reprise its role from Shardless Sultai in an ancient era of Legacy or carry the torch from Bloodbraid Elf in Modern Jund as a fair card bearing a mystery gift. Choosing your other threats and interaction to optimize the cascade output for a given matchup was a fun deckbuilding puzzle, and you had to embrace the swings that came from hitting the jackpot with Ancestral Vision or whiffing on a dead Abrupt Decay. Agent also showed some promise at first in familiar shells like Domain Zoo or alongside new stars like General Ferrous Rokiric.
You know how this story ends, though. Agent became the glue for decks that knew exactly what would happen when they started flipping cards and reaching for their Rhino tokens or their entire graveyard. It was as easy to predict that it would enhance those decks as it was to predict what they would cascade into.
That’s natural for Ardent Plea and Violent Outburst, which only show up when they let you do the same thing every time at a bargain – nobody has ever put those cards in their deck with good or murky intentions. Shardless Agent lets you hope for more – before dashing those hopes just as swiftly.
Cascade has a lot to answer for but there are some larger issues at work too.
The rules stop being consistent or intuitive as soon as you leave the model of a card having a single mana value, type line, or other properties. What do you think will or should happen if you cast Bloodbraid Elf and flip over Boom / Bust? For a long time, Boom would be flagged as a ‘hit’ and the cascade would stop, but, with that condition satisfied, you could cast the card however you liked – including casting the Bust half for free instead!
The Amonkhet rules update changed how cascade and similar effects behave with split cards to preemptively stamp out any shenanigans with the aftermath cards – a wise change on the whole, but one that was sure to create its own strange corner cases eventually. Now, the official mana value of a split card, unless it’s on the stack, is the total mana value of both halves – so Bloodbraid Elf misses Fire // Ice, since its total mana value is 4, even though both Fire and Ice individually would be hits.
A Faulty Fix
This new strain of Pioneer ‘cascade’ decks are just as reliant on these strange accounting rules – without split cards filling the gaps in the early turns, these decks would be too one-dimensional.
Meddling with the basic properties of a Magic card and ordering other cards to pretend that nothing is amiss there is a recipe for mistakes and mischief.
The most infamous and recent example came with the modal DFCs introduced in Zendikar Rising and pushed to their breaking point in Kaldheim and Strixhaven. For a beautiful, horrifying fortnight, Modern was blindsided by a new strain of Cascade deck telling the same old joke – Violent Outburst would stop at the two-drop Valki, God of Lies, yet still let you cast the Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor lurking on the other side at an amazing discount.
This prompted a specific change to the wording of cascade that still allowed these accounting tricks elsewhere – try explaining to your RCQ opponent why a Bring to Light cast with two colours can cast a seven-drop without sounding shady!
The first batch of spell-or-land modal DFCs let the Goblin Charbelcher and Undercity Informer decks that previously worked under an impossibly tough restriction play a relatively ‘normal’ manabase. The alternative isn’t necessarily cleaner – who knows what nonsense is possible if you have lands on the front and spells on the back instead? – but that just shows how messy the concept is.
More to Discover
The fate of Undercity Informer and Balustrade Spy in Pioneer may be a sign of things to come – Oops All Spells wasn’t oppressive on win rate alone, but was so repetitive and uninteractive that those bans were welcomed as a quality of life improvement. It’s much easier to stop Geological Appraiser or Quintorius chains with the kind of cheap removal that’s everywhere in Pioneer, but that doesn’t make the overall experience much more palatable.