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Shadows over Innistrad: Early Spoilers and Relentless Dead in Modern

The long wait is over! Shadows over Innistrad spoilers have begun. After an anti-climatic countdown (where the "spoiled" card had already been leaked), Wizards has previewed some really powerful and exciting cards, even though the official spoiler season isn't until March 7th. Today we are going to break down a handful of the most interesting cards previewed so far. I'll do a finance review of the set  after the entire set is spoiled, so for now we are going to focus more on the playability and constructed applications of the cards (although I'm sure a little bit of financial advice will slip in as well). Let's start with one of the most pushed-for-constructed mythics released in the past year: Relentless Dead!

Relentless Dead

Easily the most exciting card from the early Shadows over Innistrad spoilers, Relentless Dead might be the most absurd Zombie ever printed. Based on power level alone, I have no doubt that this card is constructed playable in Standard, Modern and possibly even Legacy; it's just that good. When I first read the card I made the mistake of thinking that Relentless Dead would need other powerful Zombies to be good, but now I'm not sure this is true, at least in Standard. 

Imagine that Relentless Dead has no creature type and no text referencing Zombies. Imagine that it was a 2/2 for two that said "when this dies, you may pay one black mana to return it to your hand." That card is good on its own. You can block your opponent's best creature every turn for three-mana, potentially abuse sacrifice effects like Nantuko Husk and Fleshbag Marauder (both Zombies, by the way), and have an endless attacker. 

Now, picture that the last line of text about paying X to return a Zombie with converted mana cost of X to the battlefield only referred to other copies of Relentless Dead. This means that, over the long game, it is almost impossible to keep Relentless Dead off the battlefield without some sort of exile effect. Even if your opponent can get rid of one (for example, by killing it while you don't have the mana to return it to your hand), sooner of later you'll draw a second copy, which you can use to get back the first. Eventually you'll just have an endless horde of almost unkillable 2/2 Zombies, either to beat an opponent down or block for infinity. 

And remember, this is all completely disregarding other Zombie synergies. [Relentless Dead]] does not need other Zombies to be good; in fact, it could be the only Zombie legal in Standard and it would be an extremely playable and potentially busted card. I have little doubt it will be among the chase non-planeswalker mythics of the set. 

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Now, when you can reanimate other Zombies, Relentless Dead gets even more absurd. Unfortunately we don't really have many good Zombies in Standard at the moment (Nantuko Husk, Fleshbag Marauder and Shambling Goblin are probably the best of the lot), so unless Shadows over Innistrad bring some more goodies, a real tribal deck might be off the table. On the other hand, there are some pretty sweet Modern Zombies with enter the battlefield triggers. 

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I've tried to build Mono-Black Zombies / Devotion in Modern a few times, and the biggest problem I've always run into is the lack of a good two-drop. To really take advantage of devotion synergies, we need a two-drop that gives us two black mana symbols, and the options in Modern were all pretty horrible (at one point I was considering Highborn Ghoul). With the addition of Relentless Dead to the format, the deck suddenly looks quite playable, and possibly very good. 

While there is a good chance that the Eldrazi menace will have been banned by the time we get to start playing with Relentless Dead, for the time being I really like the potential of a Smallpox build of Mono-Black Devotion for Modern. The combination of Gravecrawler, Bloodghast, and Relentless Dead gives us a ton of sacrifice fodder to break the symmetry of Smallpox, and playing it on turn two to get an Eldrazi Mimic and Eldrazi Temple seems like big game. As I was searching for a big "x" spell to use with Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, I remembered Death Cloud and figured why not go all the way? If we can generate enough mana, we can cause our opponent to sacrifice their entire board and discard their entire hand, but we get to rebuild in the same turn with the help of Relentless Dead, Gravecrawler and Geralf's Messenger. Of course, a more straightforward Zombie deck could work as well:

One of the things holding Zombies back from being competitive in Modern is that all the lords cost three-mana. However, if you compare Zombies to Merfolk, the black deck is better at pretty much every non-lord slot. Not only does it have the ability to go long with Gravecrawler and now Relentless Dead, but it has a ton of reach for a deck that isn't playing red, with Geralf's Messenger representing four damage and Gray Merchant of Asphodel being able to end a lot of games out of nowhere thanks to the ample black mana symbols in the deck. While I think this Zombie build would perform worse than the Death Cloud Devotion build against Eldrazi, if Eye of Ugin and/or Eldrazi Temple gets banned in April, this build might be better against the field at large. 

The moral of the story is that Relentless Dead is a great card and it will be one of the chase mythics from Shadows over Innistrad. While it might take a while to find the right build, I have little doubt it will see heavy play in Standard in both Zombie tribal (assuming we get more Zombie support in Shadows over Innistrad block) and in other black decks as well. With a bit of luck, it might even break into Modern and give Zombies a much needed push towards playability.

Archangel Avacyn

Without the flip-side, Archangel Avacyn would be an absurd card. With the flip side, it's still incredibly good, but comes with just a bit more risk — the idea that flipping a card might be a bad thing is one of the most exciting aspects of the card and really opens the design space of the flip mechanic. I did a gatherer search to try to find a good comparison, but came up with blanks. A 4/4 for five with flash, flying, and vigilance is a great combination of stats and abilities, and this isn't even considering the blowout potential of making your entire team indestructible after blocks are declared, or in response to a Planar Outburst. This last sentence makes it seem like Archangel Avacyn could be a good curve-topper for an aggressive white deck, but the flip-side makes this less true, since flipping Archangel Avacyn into Avacyn, the Purifier will wipe away your smaller creatures and the damage ability is not a "may" ability. However, it is possible that the front-side of Archangel Avacyn is just so good it won't really matter. 

On the other hand, Archangel Avacyn is nearly all upside in a more controlling deck. You can play it like a removal spell to kill an opposing creature during combat. It has vigilance so it can play offense/defense by attacking while still being untapped to block and help you maintain your life total. In a control deck, flipping into Avacyn, the Purifier will generally be a good thing, since it will likely kill a bunch of opposing creatures while leaving you (mostly) unharmed. 

All in all, I expect Archangel Avacyn to see play in a variety of Standard decks and it will be at least considered for pretty much every white deck built over the next six months. Breaking into Modern seems unlikely, although it's an interesting Chord of Calling target to foil a Oblivion Stone or other wrath, so maybe something like Jeff Hoogland's Kiki-Chord deck would want it as a one-of? Otherwise, in more controlling decks, Baneslayer Angel will still often be better at five-mana. 

Geralf's Masterpiece

In the words of George W. Bush, "fool me once..." If you were not around for the original Innistrad block, it contained a card called Skaab Ruinator which received a ton of hype during spoiler season. In fact, if my memory serves, it was nearly as expensive as Liliana of the Veil during the preorder period. Once people started playing with it, everyone realized that Skaab Ruinator was horrible and it ended up being a flop and spent most of its Standard life as a bulk mythic. 

In my opinion, Geralf's Masterpiece is the second coming of Skaab Ruinator

Let's break down why Geralf's Masterpiece is one of the ultimate trap cards. At first glance, what you see is a huge flier (7/7) for a relatively small amount of mana (five) that can come back from the graveyard. This makes the card seem quite good. However, once you delve into the specifics, it becomes clear that Geralf's Masterpiece is bad in a number of ways. Let's count them down:

  1. The "gets -1/-1 for each card in your hand" makes it really difficult to play in a control deck (which generally wants a hand full of answers), and a control deck is the most obvious home for the blue mythic flier. 
  2. If you have just two cards in your hand, it is very much worse than Dragonlord Ojutai and a bunch of other Dragons as well, so at least until fall when Dragons of Tarkir rotates, I'm not sure Geralf's Masterpiece will find a home in Standard. 
  3. The recursion ability has a very real cost. Discarding three cards is a ton. Yes, you can make a point of holding onto useless lands so you have some discard fodder in the late game, but then you are minimizing the effectiveness of any copies of Geralf's Masterpiece you may have on the battlefield thanks to the -1/-1 clause. 
  4. On top of discarding three cards, you also need to pay four-mana to reanimate Geralf's Masterpiece, which again is a meaningful cost. All in all, this means that you might be able to get Geralf's Masterpiece back from the graveyard once or twice per game, and that is assuming the game goes extremely long. 

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The big wildcard on the scenario is just how much Wizards pushed madness in Shadows over Innistrad. If you can activate Geralf's Masterpiece and dump three copies of Basking Rootwalla onto the battlefield, or pay an extra mana to kill something with Dark Withering, the equation changes significantly. My guess would be that madness is costed conservatively in Shadows over Innistrad, based not only on the fact it was ranked high on Maro's storm scale (meaning it was considered unlikely to return in the first place), and also because of how conservatively morph was handled in the Khans of Tarkir block (where, unlike in the old days, it was costed in a way to minimize blowouts). If this is the case, it is another vote against the playability of Geralf's Masterpiece. Having enough mana to both return Geralf's Masterpiece to the battlefield and cast something like Incorrigible Youths with madness is asking a lot.

Declaration in Stone

The good news is that Declaration in Stone is a really great answer to tokens; if you are looking for a sideboard card to answer Lingering Souls or Empty the Warrens in Modern (and whatever sweet new token generators show up in Shadows over Innistrad), the new white sorcery is an awesome option. The bad news is that Declaration in Stone isn't a great answer to most non-token creatures because you essentially two-for-one yourself in the process thanks to the clue token you give your opponent. Now there are some situations where Declaration in Stone will still be great. I mean, if you have to let your opponent draw a card to get rid of an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, it's probably fine. On the other hand, giving your opponent a free card to get rid of a Reflector Mage or Sylvan Advocate feels pretty bad. 

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Just how much of a cost is giving an opponent a clue token – an artifact that can be sacrificed for two-mana to draw a card? I believe that, at least in Standard, it is fairly high. In the world of white exile spells, Swords to Plowshares is the greatest of all time because gaining life really isn't much of a cost, so there is no comparison there. On the other hand, a clue token is likely less powerful than the land an opponent gets from Path to Exile, especially since the opponent has to pay two-mana to actually get the card from the clue token. 

Speaking of Path to Exile, I've heard some people throw this out as a comparison for Declaration in Stone since it's a white exile spell that gives an opponent some sort of card advantage. While this comparison makes sense to some extent, overall Declaration in Stone is nowhere near as powerful as Path to Exile. Apart from costing an additional mana, the real killer is that Declaration in Stone is sorcery speed which means it can't effectively deal with Reality Smasher or Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury. Perhaps a better comparison is a situationally better Journey to Nowhere, with a little bit of Detention Sphere thrown in for good measure.

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So where does Declaration in Stone fit in constructed? I expect it will see a lot of play in Standard just because truly unconditional removal is hard to come by. Despite its flaws, it will likely be one of the best of the limited options available. If tokens are a thing, the value goes up significantly, but even if they are not, it's still a fine and playable card. On the other hand, this probably isn't good enough to break into Modern where there are many more removal spell options. Financially, it will be doing extremely well if it can hold in the $5 range, which is pretty much the top of the line for targeted removal spells (see: Hero's Downfall, which is a far more powerful card) with a Ruinous Path-like plunge into the $1-$2 range being the most likely outcome. 

Brain in a Jar

Someone was talking about suspending Greater Gargadon, using it to sacrifice a Brain in the Jar in response to tapping it with zero counters, which in turn would allow for the casting of Restore Balance. Now, you know me: I spend my days winning commander games with Biovisionary and building decks around Psychogenic Probe — even I think this sounds like a lot of work to fire off a Restore Balance. Plus, if you play Brain in a Jar, then you can't really use cascade cards to find Restore Balance, since casting an Ardent Plea and hitting a Brain in the Jar is a pretty good way to lose a game on the spot. 

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Overall, I like the flavor of Brain in a Jar and expect to play it on Against the Odds, but this is not a tournament playable card. While people are quick to pull out the comparison to Aether Vial, much of the power of Aether Vial is in the fact you have a lot of control over the number of counters you put on it; a deck like Merfolk can let it sit on two and put a lord on the battlefield every turn for free. Brain in a Jar is more like Birthing Pod in some ways, where it keeps going up the chain whether you like it or not. If we could just set it on three and cast counter magic and card draw over and over again at instant speed, there might be some potential for constructed, but as it stands, I'm having a really hard time imagining this will be consistent enough for constructed. 

The Rest

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  • Bygone Bishop is fairly similar to Mentor of the Meek, which never really caught on in constructed. While having an evasive body and an extra toughness is nice, having to pay two (instead of one) to draw a card and not triggering on tokens is a big downside. The one thing I really like about Bygone Bishop is that you don't need to pay the mana when you cast the creature. Imagine playing this on turn three and playing one-drop, one-drop, two-drop on turn four to get three clue tokens. While it might not be obvious, this is actually a really good form of wrath protection. If your opponent taps out for a Planar Outburst, you can cash in your clue tokens to refill your hand. My gut it this will fall by the wayside like Mentor of the Meek, but it has enough upside that I can imagine a Standard deck wanting it. 
  • Tamiyo's Journal will be really, really good in Commander, especially if you are playing a color combination that doesn't have access to a lot of good card draw. Not only does it allow you to draw a card every turn for two-mana, it can also turn into a really slow but free Ring of Three Wishes, allowing you to tutor every three turns for zero-mana. I'd be surprised to see it make waves in constructed, just because it's five-mana and doesn't impact the battlefield, but this card is going to see a ton of play on kitchen tables and could end up being expensive eventually from casual demand alone like Dictate of Erebos and Venser's Journal
  • Pick the Brain is a lot worse than I initially thought. For some reason I initially thought it worked like Cranial Extraction if you had delirium, but this is definitely not the case since you can only choose a card that is in an opponent's hand, making it more Shimian Specter than Memoricide. While I think there will be some good delirium cards for Modern, Pick the Brain is not one of them. 
  • Incorrigible Youths looks a lot like Arrogant Wurm (which was a pretty good card back in the day), trading trample and a point of toughness for haste, which might end up being a fair trade. I can imagine a Standard deck that plays Jace, Vryn's Prodigy on turn two, loots, casts Incorrigible Youths with madness and smashes for four damage on turn three. Seems good. 


Anyway, that's all for today. What do you think of the early spoilers? How good are Relentless Dead and Archangel Avacyn. Am I missing any applications for Brain in a Jar? Is Bygone Bishop playable in constructed? Am I underrating Geralf's Masterpiece? As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter (or MTGO) @SaffronOlive.

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