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Just How Good is Soulfire Grand Master?

The article I started writing for today was about origins; the family trees of cards (for example, Necropotence to Yagmoth's Bargin to Phyrexian Arena to Dark Confidant to Blood Scrivener and Pain Seer) that we use to help us make our initial evaluations of new cards as they are spoiled. Then, as I clicked refresh for the tenth time on the mothership's homepage and my clock flipped from 10:59 to 11:00, up popped Soulfire Grand Master, a card that defies historical comparisons with its unique abilities. My writing plans for the day did a complete 180.
Instead of writing about the origins of a bunch of the recently spoiled Fate Reforged cards (an article I still plan to finish before the end of the FRF spoiler season), I wanted to do an in-depth break down of what I expect to be one of, if not the single most important cards in Fate ReforgedSoulfire Grand Master. Let's start by talking about everyone favorite rarity: Mythic.

Mythic Creatures with Low-Converted Mana Cost

We have been living in the era of the mythic rarity for about six years now, which means more than 300 mythics have been printed in Standard-legal sets. Would you like to take a guess at how many are creatures with a converted mana cost of two?

That's right, Soulfire Grand Master is only the seventh mythic creature printed with such a low CMC (eighth if you count the only mythic one-drop, Dragonmaster Outcast. If you look over this list, a couple things jump off the page almost immediately. First, Wizards doesn't print two-CMC mythic creatures very often, and they've printed them even less since the end of Zendikar block. Before Voice of Resurgence made its appearance in Dragon's Maze, you would have to go back nearly three full blocks to Lighthouse Chronologish and Kargan Dragonlord in Rise of the Eldrazi to find one. Only the disappointing Sage of Hours has been printed post-Voice of Resurgence. Second, in the rare instance when a two-CMC mythic does see print, it's usually pushed for constructed playability. As a general rule, casual mythics are usually expensive, either being gigantic Timmy creatures like Liege of the Tangle or spells with huge effects like Praetor's Council. Competitive mythics on the other hand, are generally cheap and efficient, while still having a large impact on the game.

If you expand the CMC requirement out to three or less (to get a slightly larger sample), you'll end up with twenty cards. Check out the following chart which show just how playable these low CMC mythic creatures tend to be.

A full 75 percent of the mythic creatures with a CMC of three or less were played in their respective Standard formats either as staples like Geist of Saint Traft, Voice of Resurgence, and Thassa, God of the Sea, or as role-players like Dragonmaster Outcast, Glissa, the Traitor, or Kargan Dragonlord. Meanwhile, only five of these mythics can really be considered competitive busts: Mayael, the Anima, Sage of Hours, Skaab Ruinator, Prophetic Flamespeaker, and Omnath, Locus of Mana. However,  Mayael, the Anima and Omnath, Locus of Mana are quite popular in Commander.
So, considering just Soulfire Grand Master's mana cost and rarity, odds are he is going to see a decent amount of Standard play.

So What are Soulfire's Origins?

Earlier I said that Soulfire Grand Master defies historical comparisons, and I stand by this. His text box contains not one, but two very unique effects. Because of this, I admit my historical comparisons will not be perfect. This said, I think we can still learn a lot about Soulfire Grand Master's by at least trying to find some similar cards from the past.
As a 2/2 Lifelink for 1W, the first card that comes to mind is Seeker of the Way.
This comparison is especially relevant because it is likely that Soulfire Grand Master goes into the same slot as Seeker of the Way in decks like Jeskai and Mardu. While I do believe that Soulfire Grand Master is powerful enough to change (or even create new) archetypes to maximize his potential, these are his most likely landing spots in week one. Now obviously Soulfire Grand Master gives up Prowess, which is a pretty big deal when playing token generating spells like Hordeling Outburst and Raise the Alarm, but in exchange Soulfire Grand Master gives a ton of late-game power that Seeker of the Way is lacking. Whether Soulfire Grand Master is better in these type of decks remains to be seen, but the fact that a 2/2 lifelink for 1W (yes, I do realize that Seeker of the Way doesn't have true lifelink, but it's close enough) is already seeing play in Standard bodes well for the [[Soulfire Grand Master]]'s playability in the format.
Instant and Sorcery Spells You Control Have Lifelink
Soulfire Grand Master's first ability is where determining origins gets very interesting, as giving all your spells lifelink is not something we've seen before. While this may be a stretch, here's the first card that came to my mind when I read Soulfire Grand Master:
Sphinx's Revelation was initially written off as a harder-to-cast Blue Sun's Zenith. After all, as Spikes, we have it drilled into our heads that lifegain is a joke, and not worth the price of a card. While this is true, the dominance of Sphinx's Revelation taught a lot of players that although lifegain by itself is a joke, incidental lifegain, especially attached to an effect you already want, is not just good, but can be great. Control decks didn't play Sphinx's Revelation because they wanted to gain x life, they played it because they wanted to draw x cards. But it soon became apparent that the lifegain was often the final nail the coffin for an opponent, putting the game out of the reach of burn spells or an already-on-board planeswalker. Similarly, competitive players will not be jamming Soulfire Grand Master for the lifegain; they will be playing it because his body is fine on its own, and because his late-game ability is strong. But I would wager that the oft under-estimated incidental lifegain will be a dagger more times than not.
Think about the Jeskai mirror for a minute. If one player is gaining four life every time they cast a Stoke the Flames and two life every time they cast a Magma Jet, how do they lose? The answer is they don't, at least not very easily or often. In any deck with burn, Soulfire Grand Master is almost impossible to race and represents a must-kill threat. Admittedly, the one place this ability isn't great is against control, but thankfully for Soulfire Grand Master, control isn't a major part of the current metagame. Plus, as we are about to see, his second ability has some serious potential against slower decks.
The Next Time You Cast an Instant or Sorcery From Your Hand This Turn, Return it As it Resolves ...

Although I know this is likely a horrible comparison, the first card I thought of when reading Soulfire Grand Master's second ability was Tamiyo, the Moon Sage. Specifically, her soul-crushing ultimate.

It's this second ability that gives Soulfire Grand Master his late-game power that might make him worthy of the Seeker of the Way slot in Jeskai. The curve of Soulfire Grand Master into Hordeling Outburst into activate Soulfile Grand Master, Stoke the Flame (gain four) every turn seems insane. Once you get to six mana you've got the option to Negate and return the counterspell to your hand for next turn. If your opponent is Hellbent, six or seven mana with Soulfire Grand Master and a counterspell is basically a hard-lock. If you manage to get to eight mana, you can take down any one of the M15 Souls cycle with a Lightning Strike while gaining six life in the process.
Even without locking your opponent out of the game, once you get to a reasonable amount of mana, his second ability is pretty close to "Pay 2UU (or 2RR or 2UR): Draw a non-land card." The ability to generate card advantage keeps Soulfire Grand Master relevant throughout the game (where many other low-CMC creatures fail), and make him a reasonable option against control as well as aggro.
Soulfire Grand Master - In Sum
What made Voice of Resurgence great was its ability to be all things against all decks. It was great against aggro because barring an untimely Pillar of Flame, it was at least two chump blockers. It was great against control because it made counterspells (or playing anything at instant speed) a losing proposition and left an ever-growing token behind after a Supreme Verdict.
While Soulfire Grand Master goes about his business in a different way, he has the potential to be something similar. He's great against aggro because, barring an untimely removal, he wins the life-race all by himself and rewards the decks for doing what they already want to do (cast Jeskai Charm, Lightning Strike, and Stoke the Flames). He is also good against control as a two-mana threat that remains relevant in the late-game by generating card advantage. Similar to Voice of Resurgence, Soulfire Grand Master has potential to be all things to all decks.
What About His Price?
Small set competitive mythics are generally in a good place financially, although two things make Fate Reforged cards a slightly worse investment than cards from other small sets. First, instead of being drafted for three months (and potentially overshadowed by summer releases), Fate Reforged will be drafted for six months (with both Khans of Tarkir and then with Dragons of Tarkir.) Second, the announcement of fetches in the basic land slot should mean that Fate Reforged is sold and opened more than a typical small set. While the actually number of fetches in a Fate Reforged box will be negligible, the typical Magic player doesn't do the math or calculate the expected value of cracking a pack. They just think, "hey, opening a fetch land would be cool," and go for it.
What this means it that regardless of how good Soulfire Grand Master might be, reaching a Voice of Resurgence price tag isn't going to happen. There will simply be too many copies in circulation. The absolute best case for the Soulfire Grandmaster is likely peaking at a Sphinx's Revelation-esque $30, although this would require two things. First, Soulfire Grand Master needs to win the two-drop slot in Jeskai (and maybe even Mardu as well) away from Seeker of the Way. While I think this is possible, I'm not 100 percent convinced it will happen. It could also spawn a whole new deck, but this will take some time. Second, Jeskai would need to maintain its tier-1 status, which is certainly possible, if not likely given the popularity, flexibility, and strength of the deck.
If Jeskai and Mardu players ignore Soulfire Grand Master, the card will likely initially drop from its current pre-order price of $20, and this might actually be the best thing that could happen for our us financial types. Soulfire Grand Master is too powerful and efficient to not see play in Standard and if it doesn't see play immediately, it's a good bet to spike at the end of next summer leading towards rotation. If Soulfire Grandmaster doesn't see heavy play this winter and falls into the $10-or-under range while everyone is going ga-ga for Modern Masters 2015 this summer, it seems like a slam-dunk pickup given the track record of low-CMC mythics in Standard and the obvious power of the card.
That's all for today, I'll be back soon with more spoiler coverage. You can keep up with my ramblings in the meantime on my blog, if you're so inclined. As always, leave your thoughts in the comments, or give me a shout on Twitter @SaffronOlive.

Until next time, may all your mythics cost two.

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