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Hour of Leaks: Nicol Bolas, Samut, and Bontu's Last Reckoning


Hour of Devastation spoilers weren't supposed to start for several more weeks, but on Thursday, we got a bit of a surprise when Wizards (apparently accidentally) spoiled some of the most anticipated cards in the set on its French-language website in a video promoting the upcoming Standard showdown. While Wizards quickly removed the video, it was too late—the planeswalkers were out of the bag, so to speak, and it didn't take long for the Magic Internet to be abuzz with discussion of the new cards. So today, let's take some time to break down the two new planeswalkers and three-mana wrath!

It's too early to start building real deck lists, both because we have two upcoming banned-and-restricted announcements (and there's perhaps a 50 / 50 chance that Aetherworks Marvel ends up being banned, even though it seems very unlikely that Wizards is excited about banning yet another card in Standard) and because there are a ton of Hour of Devastation cards yet to be revealed. Instead, we'll be taking a more meta approach to the new cards and also to the leaks themselves. This will also give us a chance to talk about some specific ideas and answer some questions that have come up about the leaked Hour of Devastation cards. Anyway, enough of my ramblings—let's get to it!

Leaks

Let's get this out of the way first: leaks aren't good. While they do generate excitement over the short term, in the long run, they tend to take away from the hype for the new set. If things had gone according to plan, we would have two or three more weeks of waiting for and debating the new Nicol Bolas, but now that window is closed. The leaks we got this week were especially impactful because they seem to be some of the Hour of Devastation cards that Wizards pegged as the most exciting and hype-worthy.

On the other hand, it's really hard to feel bad for Wizards at this point. It's sad but understandable when some random warehouse employee or translator leaks a bunch of cards; however, in this case, it seems that Wizards did this to itself. Could this leak have been some sort of viral marketing? Maybe, but it seems pretty unlikely, since Wizards has made it clear in the past that official spoilers will all be posted on its website, and instead of posting these cards a few hours after the "leak," Wizards instead tried to scrub its website from any mention of the cards.

While this might not be completely fair, at some point, when you combine constant Standard bannings, Wizards accidentally leaking its own chase mythics, Felidar Guardian making it out the door, and all the other weirdness of the past few months, it's hard not to wonder what is going on at Wizards. While everyone makes mistakes, there's also a point where, after you make the same mistake over and over and over again, these mistakes start to define you and become characteristic of how others view you. While I don't think we are there quite yet yet with Wizards, it really needs to clean some things up around the edges or risk being viewed as the Loafing Giant of the gaming industry. 

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One last thing before we talk about the cards. The Hour of Devastation leaks weren't the only leaks of the past week. Only a few days before, several of the chase cards from what will likely be the chase deck of Commander 2017 were spoiled on Instagram. While this is bad no matter when it happens, it's particularly bad when you are trying to get people to pay $600 for a VIP Magic experience at Hascon, mostly for the experience of playing in a blind prerelease. At this point, I'd be floored if we don't know some and maybe even most of the important cards in Iconic Masters beforehand, which makes the price tag for the Magic experience at Hascon look even more ridiculous. Basically, if there were ever a time that Wizards would want to create the assurance that it can keep leaks under wraps, it's this summer leading into its inaugural convention. But so far, the exact opposite is happening, which has the potential to further reduce the hype for the Iconic Masters prerelease and Hascon in general.

Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh

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Clearly the most anticipated card leaked this week was the new Nicol Bolas: Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh. As expected, the planeswalker is extremely powerful but also extremely expensive. Probably the easiest comparison here is Karn Liberated or even the original Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker. Both, like Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh, are likely to win the game if they resolve, but the challenge is living long enough to get them on the battlefield. 

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I almost titled this article, "Why I Hate the New Nicol Bolas," but then I realized this title wouldn't really be fair. In general, the card is pretty sweet, and while it is going to be super hard to beat once it hits the battlefield, since it comes down with nine loyalty if you immediately use the +2 (which is Karn / Ugin territory), I really dislike the randomness of the +2 ability. While I understand that getting a seven-mana planeswalker on the battlefield is deserving of a big payoff, recent Standards have been plagued by really swingy random effects like Aetherworks Marvel and, to a lesser extent, Collected Company, and having another powerful mythic with an effect that will occasionally just win the game for no reason (by hitting an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, for example) doesn't seem especially healthy for Standard. While I'm sure this will lead to some tense moments that are good for coverage, a literal coin flip to win the finals of a Pro Tour would be a pretty tense moment as well, but that doesn't mean it's a good thing. All in all, while I don't think the +2 ability is bad in a vacuum, when combined with the other high-variance, super-swingy effects Wizards has printed in recent sets, it feels like another sign that Wizards is trying to subtly push Magic in the direction of Hearthstone, with less skill and more variance. 

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Speaking of Aetherworks Marvel, one of the big questions about Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh is if it would be powerful enough to force Wizards to ban the artifact, and I think the answer is no, at least for the immediate future. While hitting Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh with Aetherworks Marvel on Turn 4 is obviously good, I'm not sure it's better than hitting an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger or even Chandra, Flamecaller, especially considering that Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh would force the deck into a fourth color, which isn't a huge deal but will make the deck a bit less consistent. Basically, if Wizards doesn't think hitting an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger on Turn 4 make Aetherworks Marvel worthy of a banning, Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh isn't likely to put Marvel over the top. On the other hand, it could have a more long-term effect. Wizards' best hope for not having to ban Aetherworks Marvel is that it can survive the next few months until rotation and hope that some combination of answers and the loss of Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger makes the archetype less good. If Marvel is still making up 35% of the format this fall by hitting Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh instead of Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger after Ixalan releases in September, this might force Wizards' hand, since surviving not just the next three months but the entire next year with Marvel as the best deck in the format doesn't seem possible. 

Oddly enough, outside of being used in Marvel decks, it's the popularity of Marvel decks that forms the biggest barrier to Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh being played in Standard, at least right away. While the new planeswalker is amazingly powerful, it doesn't come down until Turn 7, which means it doesn't do anything when your opponent Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hungers away two of your lands on Turn 4. It's also fairly slow against Vehicles decks and even Zombies. While it's possible that Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh could push a deck like UR Control into splashing black and going Grixis to use it as a finisher, it's just so risky to tap out for a seven-mana play when it means your opponent can use this window to Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger away your Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh and likely win the game. 

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One last thing about Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh, this time in Modern. One popular question is, "why not play a Tron deck with Oath of Nissa so we can cast Nicol Bolas (and other planeswalkers that require colored mana)?" Here, there are a couple of problems. For one thing, you can only play four copies of Oath of Nissa, which means your odds of having one by Turn 3 are only 52%, so in half of your games, you'll be stuck with Nicol Bolas in your hand. Even if you manage to crack some Chromatic Spheres or Chromatic Stars over the first two turns to draw extra cards, the odds only go up to 60%. While having a 60% chance of playing a Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh on Turn 3 might sound good in a vacuum, this is in comparison to having a 100% chance of having the proper mana to cast a Karn Liberated on Turn 3 (assuming you assemble Tron). While we can debate whether Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh is better or worse than Karn Liberated, even if it is better, it's not so much better that its worth reducing the consistency of your deck by such a huge margin. Basically, playing Five-Color Tron Walkers could be an awesome episode of Against the Odds or a fun kitchen table deck, but I can't come up with any justification for going this direction if your goal is to win tournaments. 

Samut, the Tested

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The biggest question I can see with Samut, the Tested is if she's the worst planeswalker ever printed, and while she is probably saved by Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded, it's actually pretty close. The problem with Samut, the Tested is that her only truly good ability is her ultimate, and it usually isn't a good idea to evaluate planeswalkers by their ultimate because it happens so infrequently. 

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While giving a creature double strike can be powerful and works well with with tramplers like Voltaic Brawler and Verdurous Gearhulk, the fact that it happens at sorcery speed is a pretty big drawback. While there's a chance Samut, the Tested could show up in some sort of GR Energy or GR Monsters deck built around Rhonas the Indomitable, the bigger problem is that, until rotation this fall, she will be competing with Arlinn Kord in the four-mana planeswalker slot, and Arlinn Kord seems way more powerful in most situations. 

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However, by far the biggest issue with Samut, the Tested is that her 2 is amazingly bad. One of the most important aspects of planeswalkers is their ability to protect themselves in some way or another, and going down to just two loyalty to Forked Bolt simply isn't much protection. This makes Samut, the Tested one of the most win-more planeswalkers ever printed. When you have a board full of creatures to defend her, she's probably fine and maybe even good if you have some trampling creatures, but on an empty board, she is one of the most lackluster planeswalkers imaginable. As such, it's hard to imagine Samut, the Tested showing up in Standard over Arlinn Kord before rotation this fall, and even after rotation, she is fighting Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Hazoret the Fervent, Bristling Hydra, and Vizier of the Menagerie in the four-drop slot, and that doesn't seem like a battle that Samut, the Tested can win. 

Standard aside, Samut, the Tested is actually amazing in Doubling Season decks in either Commander or Modern because her ultimate is absurdly powerful and should just win the game on the spot. One of the awkward things about the Double Moon Walkers deck in Modern is that it is highly reliant on Jace, Architect of Thought, which makes the base-green deck with Blood Moon try to cast a double-blue spell. The printing of Samut, the Tested might allow the deck to move away from blue entirely and just plan on using either Nahiri, the Harbinger or Samut, the Tested to win the game with Doubling Season, which would make the mana more consistent. Of course, the downside is that Samut, the Tested is significantly worse than Jace, Architect of Thought when we don't have a Doubling Season on the battlefield (because Jace, Architect of Thought helps us stay alive until we find a copy, while Samut pretty much just dies), but the potential of a new, more consistent build of the super-fun and unique deck is exciting, at the very least. 

Bontu's Last Reckoning

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Bontu's Last Reckoning is a hard card to evaluate. While it has an extremely powerful effect—similar to Toxic Deluge, which is likely too powerful for Modern—it also has a very significant drawback, in many cases costing you at least six total mana (when you consider that your lands don't untap) and most of your next turn. 

One of the biggest misconceptions I've seen about this card is that it's good with mana rocks, and while this is true to some extent, even if you use artifact mana to cast your Bontu's Last Reckoning, you're still mostly Time Walking yourself because you can't tap your lands for anything else that turn or else they don't untap the next turn. Plus, the mana-rock idea isn't especially reliable in Standard, since the only mana rocks played make colorless mana like Hedron Archive, or in Modern, where very few mana rocks see play at all, so while this line of play could be relevant to Commander (or in a format like Vintage, although it seems that most players would stick with Toxic Deluge, since it can get rid of indestructible threats like Blightsteel Colossus), it doesn't seem all that important in other formats. 

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So, how good is Bontu's Last Reckoning in Standard? I'm going to say that, right now, it's close to unplayable in our current Standard format, and the best-case scenario pre-rotation is that it finds its way into sideboards. This isn't because Bontu's Last Reckoning is a bad card or even because of the drawback but because our current Standard format is pretty hostile to wraths. The most played deck in the format is built around casting an indestructible Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger on Turn 4; the second most played deck is UR Control, with hardly any creatures at all; and the third most played deck is Mardu Vehicles, which is based around Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Heart of Kiran, neither of which care about wraths. Wraths in general just aren't very good at the moment. Of course, this isn't a knock against Bontu's Last ReckoningWizards could have put literal Damnation in Hour of Devastation, and the same thing would be true—so let's discount our current format for a moment and look at Bontu's Last Reckoning from a meta perspective.

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Let's assume for a moment that, rather than our current Standard format, we were in a format where Damnation, Wrath of God, or Supreme Verdict was a playable and good card. Wizards releases Bontu's Last Reckoning into this hypothetical format—would it be good? Generally speaking, I think the answer is no, at least not good enough to play over a "normal" four-mana wrath. Most of the time, the difference between wrathing on Turn 3 instead of Turn 4 isn't enough to make up for skipping your next turn.

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This scenario changes a bit if we compare Bontu's Last Reckoning to a five-mana wrath like Fumigate or Planar Outburst. While it might not seem like much, the difference between Turns 3 and 5 is actually huge. There have been plenty of times I've died in Standard with a five-mana wrath in hand where a four-mana wrath would have stabilized the game. The question is just how often these situations arise, and while the percentage isn't high, it's often enough to be an upside for Bontu's Last Reckoning and maybe even make the card playable in the right format. As such, generally speaking, I think that Bontu's Last Reckoning is a bad wrath, but there are a couple of situations where it could shine. 

  1. When Wrathing on Turn 3 Matters. This is probably more relevant to Modern than Standard, thanks to the speed of the format, but it is possible to envision situations where wrathing on Turn 4 simply isn't fast enough. If your choice is between dying or skipping your next turn to cast Bontu's Last Reckoning, skipping your turn will typically be the right choice. One example of this would be various Zoo decks that are looking to dump a hand full of Burning-Tree Emissary, Goblin Guides, and Wild Nacatls on the battlefield on the first two turns. In this situation, it's likely that Bontu's Last Reckoning will be fast enough to save you while Damnation might not be. However, even here there's a problem: cards like Anger of the Gods exist, and against decks like Zoo, Anger of the Gods is basically a Bontu's Last Reckoning that doesn't make you skip a turn. Even in black, we have Infest effects that deal with some fast go-wide decks like Goblins, so while I'm sure there are some situations where exactly Bontu's Last Reckoning is the card you need to stay alive, I'm also pretty sure these situations are few and far between. 
  2. In the Late Game. While it sounds weird, since the main reason to be hyped about Bontu's Last Reckoning is that it costs only three mana, if the card isn't saving you on Turn 3, it's at its most powerful in the late game when you can cast it and play another spell in the same turn or cast it and leave a bunch of your lands untapped to negate the downside of not untapping. On Turn 8, casting Bontu's Last Reckoning, sweeping away the board, and following up with something like Ob Nixilis Reignited is actually pretty powerful, and skipping a turn when both players are in top-deck mode is a bit less punishing, since the worse-case scenario is that the opponent draws and plays one card (while it's very possible your opponent can flood the board on Turn 4 and really punish you for skipping your turn). 
  3. As a Build-Around. Finally, being three mana has some super fringe implications thanks to its mana cost. For example, Bontu's Last Reckoning is a wrath you can flashback with Goblin Dark-Dwellers, while cascade cares specifically about mana costs. While I don't think these situations will come up often, it's possible there are very specific decks that will want Bontu's Last Reckoning over other options just because it costs three mana. 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What do you think about the new Hour of Devastation cards? How scary is Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh with Aetherworks Marvel? Are there any redeeming qualities of Samut, the Tested I'm missing, or does she deserve a place alongside Tibalt as the worst planeswalker ever printed? What about Bontu's Last Reckoning? Is the card good, bad, or somewhere in between? As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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