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Abusing Sagas


Thanks to the leak of most of the set, Dominaria spoiler season is going to be strange. While I was extremely hyped for the set before the leaks and even more hyped after seeing the cards in the leak, talking too much about the cards from the leak feels weird. So today, we're going to try to split the difference by talking about the one card type that has an official spoiler (in the format of Phyrexian Scriptures): Sagas. 

While there are a ton of different reasons to be excited for Dominaria, ranging from a ton of sweet legendary creatures to planeswalkers showing off iconic characters from Magic's past, some powerful reprints, and callbacks to classic cards, the Sagas might end up being the most interesting cards from the entire set. While they are technically enchantments, in some ways they play like a cross between suspend spells and the silver-bordered contraptions, which makes them really difficult to figure out without playing with them and really fun to discuss!

Fair warning before we get to the meat of the article: while the plan today is to talk about Sagas from a more meta perspective, by examining some synergies and ways they can be abused in Standard, Modern, and Commander, it's going to be impossible to discuss the card type without discussing some of the Sagas from the leak. Basically, while I'm going to do my best to minimize our reliance on the leaked cards, if you're looking to stay completely spoiler-free until official spoiler season kicks off Wednesday, you might want to bookmark this article and come back to it in a few days. Anyway, with this spoiler warning in mind, let's discuss Sagas!

Sagas: The Basics

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Sagas are enchantments but extremely unique enchantments, in that they trigger three times (when played fairly, over the course of three turns), and then they sacrifice themselves. This leaves us with enchantments that are somewhere between the suspend cards from Time Spiral, the fading mechanic (for example, Parallax Tide), and contraptions from Unstable. This weird mixture of abilities means it's pretty difficult to know how to think about Sagas. When Vehicles first came out in Kaladesh, people quickly realized that you could make sense of the new card type by thinking of Vehicles as a twist on equipment. Figuring out the right historical comparison for Sagas, on the other hand, is going to be tricky, since they are slightly reminiscent of a bunch of different mechanics but not all that close to anything we've seen in the past. 

As far as how Sagas work, the basics are actually pretty simple—much more simple than it seems when reading over the cards themselves. Let's say you cast Phyrexian Scriptures. As it enters the battlefield, you get to put a lore counter on it, which triggers the first ability and allows you to put a +1/+1 counter on a creature and turn it into an artifact. Then, on your next turn, at the beginning of your pre-combat main phase (worded on the card as at the end of your draw step, which is basically the same thing, like how F-sharp and G-flat are actually the same note), you add another lore counter and wrath all non-artifact creatures. Finally, on your next turn at the same time, you'll exile all the cards from your opponent's graveyard, and Phyrexian Scriptures sacrifices itself. 

The power of Sagas is pretty obvious—you spend the mana to get the enchantment once, get a bit of value right away when it enters the battlefield, and then get free value for the next two turns. This lets you do tricks like hold back your creatures until after Phyrexian Scriptures hits Damnation mode and then use your free mana to play a bunch of creatures after the board is clear.

On the other hand, the slowness of Sagas is one of the drawbacks—or at very least, challenges—of the cards. Phyrexian Scriptures isn't going to save you from an early rush of creatures on Turn 4. Plus, just like you can plan ahead, your opponent will know the wrath is coming and likely stop playing creatures as well. Plus, it's worth mentioning that Sagas are not may abilities, and while most of the abilities are positive, planning ahead two or three turns is going to be important if you're playing Sagas in your deck. Somehow ending up in a position where the wrath mode is blowing up a bunch of your own creatures sounds painful.

Lore Counters

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One of the trickier aspects of Sagas is that it's the lore counters being added that triggers the next ability, which has a bunch of different implications as far as gameplay is concerned. For example, when Sagas were first leaked, I was excited about trying to get them to a certain number of lore counters and then use Solemnity to keep more counters from being added to trigger the same mode over and over again, but this actually doesn't work. With a Solemnity on the battlefield, Sagas simply do nothing (no matter how my counters they may have from before Solemnity was played) because lore counters won't be added, and it's the lore counters that trigger the abilities. This means that rather than being a combo piece to play with Sagas, Solemnity is a hate card that will help make sure Sagas don't get too out of hand in Standard, at least before rotation in fall. 

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While triggering based on the lore counters being added might be a downside for Solemnity, it does open up some tricks, especially in Modern, Legacy, and Commander, but in Standard as well. There are a handful of cards in Standard that allow you to manipulate the number of lore counters on a Saga. Skyship Plunderer and Maulfist Revolutionary both allow you to trigger a Saga twice in a turn by adding an extra lore counter, either by dealing combat damage with Skyship Plunderer or, for Maulfist Revolutionary, by entering the battlefield or dying. Meanwhile, Quarry Hauler has even more value, since it can both add and remove lore counters, and removing lore counters is especially powerful, since it not only allows you to keep your Sagas around for longer (remember: after they get the third counter, they sacrifice themselves) but also lets you trigger the same move of a Saga more than once (for example, wrathing the board with Phyrexian Scriptures two turns in a row). 

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When it comes to abusing lore counters in Standard, one card clearly stands out over the rest: Animation Module. While Animation Module might look like a more expensive or less powerful version of Skyship Plunderer or Maulfist Revolutionary, the fact that you can add a counter to a permanent at instant speed can do some really powerful things with Sagas, allowing you to turn a card like The First Eruption into a Kozilek's Return or make a huge creature on your opponent's end step with The Eldest Reborn or Chainer's Torment, so you can untap and attack with it right away. 

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While breaking into competitive Modern decks might be a long shot, there are some really sweet ways to abuse Sagas outside of Standard (which most likely means Commander or casual Modern decks). The proliferate mechanic is a great way of triggering Sagas at instant speed, and things can get really out of control if you combine proliferate with cards that can remove counters (like Chisei, Heart of Oceans, Power Conduit, Hex Parasite, and the like). While it's probably a stretch, Chisei, Heart of Oceans could form the foundation for a sweet Saga stompy deck. A 4/4 flier for four isn't a bad rate, and with just a single Saga on the battlefield, you not only keep Chisei, Heart of Oceans alive indefinitely but can keep using the best mode of your Saga every turn (for example, blowing up all lands with Fall of the Thran or making your opponent sac a creature every turn with The Eldest Reborn).

Reset

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Another way to get even more value from Sagas is simply to keep resetting them with blink or flicker effects. Unfortunately, the options are limited in Standard thanks to the banning of Felidar Guardian (which would be pretty absurd in a Saga deck), but Release to the Wind can get the job done in a pinch. While I'm not sure that just Release to the Wind is enough to make the strategy viable, it's possible we get some more blink / flicker support in Dominaria, which would go a long way toward making the plan legitimate in Standard. 

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In Modern, on the other hand, there are all kinds of possibilities for resetting Sagas. Venser, the Sojourner gives you a repeatable way to reset the Saga of your choice each turn, and this doesn't even include all the Flickerwisps and Felidar Guardians of the world. Because of the way that Sagas work (where you trigger the second ability on your next draw step), Venser, the Sojourner specifically is insane. With Phyrexian Scriptures, for example, you essentially lock creatures out of the game by casting a Damnation every single turn, while you can break the symmetry by playing some artifact creatures (or by turning your non-artifact creatures into artifacts with Phyrexian Scriptures). Similarly, Fall of the Thran essentially locks the opponent down to just a single mana by blowing up lands every turn (the opponent would get back two on your turn, but then Venser, the Sojourner would repeat the Armageddon on your end step, so they would need some sort of two-mana instant to break the land lock). 

Reanimate

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While sacrificing after the third lore counter is added might look like a downside of Sagas (and in Standard, it mostly is), it can be an upside as well, especially in Modern or Commander, where you have cards like Starfield of Nyx that can simply reanimate the Saga and start the process over from the beginning. Perhaps the most exciting part of using Starfield of Nyx with Sagas is that, since Starfield of Nyx reanimates on your upkeep, you actually get the first two modes of the Saga the turn you return it to play from the graveyard, with the first lore counter being added during your upkeep and the second being added at the start of your first main phase. This means that every two turns, you can use all three modes on the same cycle, so just two Sagas and Starfield of Nyx create a very strong loop.

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Take History of Benalia, for example. Let's say that we get the Saga in our graveyard with the help of Kruphix's Insight and Commune with the Gods (both of which also help us find our Starfield of Nyx). The turn after we cast our Starfield of Nyx, we reanimate History of Benalia for free and get two 2/2 Knights (one on our upkeep, one after our draw step). Then the next turn, those Knights become 4/3s until the end of our turn, allowing us to get in a big attack (the vigilance here is also important because it means we can chump block to stay alive if needed), and History of Benalia goes back to the graveyard. Then, on the following turn, we get two more 2/2 Knights; rinse and repeat. 

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The end result of this combo is basically a Bitterblossom, with the downside of making ground creatures rather than fliers but the upside of not costing any life and making 2/2s instead of 1/1s, along with an Inspired Charge thrown in for free every other turn. That's a pretty absurd amount of value for just casting a Starfield of Nyx, and the more I write about it, the more I'm talking myself into the idea that this could actually work in Modern, if not as a tier deck then at least as a super-fun budget brew, especially considering History of Benalia isn't the only Saga that is powerful when looped with Starfield of Nyx

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While in theory all of the Sagas provide great value with Starfield of Nyx, the other Saga that is especially powerful when looped is The Eldest Reborn. The first turn you reanimate The Eldest Reborn, you essentially get non-symmetrical versions of Liliana of the Veil's +1 and 2, with your opponent discarding a card and sacrificing a creature, which means The Eldest Reborn is good against most decks in the format (against creature decks, you eat away your opponent's board; against combo, you attack their hand). Then, on the second turn, you get to Zombify something for free (perhaps the creature that your opponent sacrificed or discarded or, if we want to go really deep, a Venser, the Sojourner you milled to Commune with the Gods, since The Eldest Reborn can reanimate planeswalkers as well). The next turn, you go back to attacking your opponent's hand and board, and then you reanimate again after that, which seems like a fairly unbeatable loop for most decks, assuming they can't kill your Starfield of Nyx. Here's a rough draft of Abzan Sagas for Modern:

The basic idea of the deck is simple: it's essentially an Abzan Enchantress deck, with a bunch of Sagas being our primary plan for winning the game with Starfield of Nyx. While we only have two of each Saga, in theory, we should be able to find them thanks to Commune with the Gods and Kruphix's Insight. We've got removal for creatures and Leyline of Sanctity and Runed Halo to help with spell decks, and then eventually we stick a Starfield of Nyx, lock our opponent out of lands with Fall of the Thran, attack their hand with The Eldest Reborn, and eventually close out the game with Knight tokens from History of Benalia (or by attacking with a bunch of enchantments, which our opponent should have a hard time disrupting, since they won't have much (or any) mana to work with thanks to Fall of the Thran

Obviously, this is an untested, hypothetical deck, so just how good it actually is remains to be seen, but it certainly looks like a lot of fun. Plus, it does a good job of showing off the potential power of the Sagas in Modern. 

Wrap-Up

So, what does all of this mean in terms of Sagas seeing play in various formats? While the future of the cycle is clouded by the fact that the enchantments are unique, which in turn makes them hard to analyze since we are lacking historical context, here's where I am right now in terms of Saga playability by format.

  • Standard: In Standard, some of the Sagas will likely see play, but there are relatively few ways to really abuse the enchantments, which means they are more likely to be played as fair cards and used for their effects, and then will spend the rest of the game in the graveyard. While using Skyship Plunderer or Maulfist Revolutionary to manipulate the lore counters could work, it probably won't be worth the work or deck-building restriction in the end, unless some game-breaking combo is found. We'll probably try an Animation Module Saga deck, and I expect it to be one of the more fun build-arounds in Standard, but I'd be surprised if it was winning Grands Prix or anything like that. Basically, in Standard, Phyrexian Scriptures will be a weird wrath with suspend 1, but a weird wrath with suspend 1 is probably playable in Standard.
  • Modern: Heading into this article, I expected to write about how Sagas couldn't make it in Modern, and while this is probably still true, after researching all of the possibilities, I'm legitimately excited about playing Sagas with Starfield of Nyx. Again, this probably won't break the format, but the synergy seems, at the very least, powerful enough to form the foundation a semi-competitive Against the Odds or Budget Magic deck, and this isn't even considering some of the other possibilities (like Venser, the Sojourner). In the end, Sagas probably won't be playable from a tournament perspective, but they have the potential to be the foundation of some really unique and fun decks. 
  • Commander: People will play Sagas in Commander; the question is whether there are enough good Sagas to really build around the card type. There's more than enough support with flicker, blink, and various counter-manipulation cards like Power Conduit and proliferate, but if you look over the Sagas we've seen so far, only a handful are generically good cards that you can play in any deck, while many of the others are powerful but need to be used in a specific archetype, like The Antiquities War in an artifact deck, The Flame of Keld in some sort of aggro or combo shell, and The Mirari Conjecture in spellslinger. Are there enough generically good Sagas to build Saga.dek, or will Sagas be limited to showing up as random good cards in other shells? Only time will tell, but I wouldn't be surprised to see people at least trying to build around the Sagas because the cards are unique, flavorful, and fun.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. I'm sure there are tons of other things that we can do with Sagas as well, so if you have some other ideas, make sure to let me know in the comments! Which Saga do you like best? How much potential do you think the Sagas have in Standard, Modern, and Commander? As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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