You aren't kidding…
We're talking some serious Choose Your Own Adventure-type of time...
The first thing you gotta realize is that Sarkhan has now traveled 1280 years into the past, thanks to Ugin's Nexus--the tomb of one of the most powerful planeswalkers. Now he's got a chance to do things differently! This time he can set things right!
This time, Nicol Bolas is going down!
The other thing to keep in mind is that Fate Reforged spoiler season is in full swing. This time around, WotC is running with a relatively short spoiler season, and they are letting the crazy cards fly left and right. Today, I want to focus on one of the craziest and most exciting cards in the set and the plethora of support offered to the Jeskai Way in Fate Reforged.
This is a card that will single-handedly shift the types of cards people play in Standard, setting off a chain reaction. A two-drop with such an incredible impact on the board, people will have to adjust their mix of removal to adapt.
How good is Soulfire Grand Master? Well, a 2/2 lifelink for 1W isn't quite good enough, but a 2/2 first strike, lifelink for WW was a staple. Seeker of the Way is mostly worse than a 3/3 lifelink for 1W, yet is one of the better cards in the format.
This means we have to get some mileage out of these abilities, but how much? After all, if Soulfire Grand Master had prowess instead of the second or third abilities, it would be strictly better than Seeker of the Way!
Let's start with your spells gaining lifelink. That's obviously a good time, and it's certainly going to win you a lot of games, but it's not exactly power where you need it. After all, your 2/2 already has lifelink, and if you just had prowess instead, you'd gain a lot of that life you would have gained from your Lightning Strikes and Stokes being Helices.
Now, this isn't to say there isn't power here. Obviously, this is a powerful tactical tool against aggressive strategies, but there is even potential to abuse the card pretty hardcore. Just combine it with a sweeper to gain a ridiculous amount of life. If you cast Anger of the Gods, you might easily gain more than twenty life!
It'll be interesting to see if WotC prints any mega-damage spells, like Harvest Pyre or Shivan Meteor, in the near future. The craziest one I can think of for Modern is Blasphemous Act. Not every Modern game is about creatures or damage, but if you are in a matchup that is, it isn't hard to gain somewhere in the ballpark of 100 life!
Heaven forbid you pull this off in a Commander game…
However, setting aside the mondo combos, Soulfire Grand Master is still a great way to get extra time against aggression, as well as fuel life-payment cards like Read the Bones. WotC has even decided not to put lifelink on sorceries or instants naturally (at least not yet), which means you can combine Soulfire Grand Master with cards like Lightning Helix or the newly-spoiled Harsh Sustenance.
Yeah, yeah, doubling up the lifegain of a spell is not exactly "what you need, when you need it," but it is value. Besides, a lot of people seem to forget that Soulfire Grand Master isn't a three-color card. Hybrid mana in the cost means Soulfire Grand Master is basically a gold card that is either W/R or W/U. Some hybrid cards are easier to cast or use if you are all of the colors, but Soulfire Grand Master's costs are so easy that it's not really an issue.
If Soulfire Grand Master didn't have its final ability, it would still see some play; however, it would definitely compare poorly to Seeker of the Way, in my opinion. That is admittedly a high bar to try to live up to, but as we know, that isn't where the story ends.
Azure Mage was a fine tournament card, somewhere between fringe and role-player. It was also only a 2/1, didn't have lifelink, didn't give your spells lifelink, and it just drew a card.
Soulfire Grand Master's final ability isn't just four mana to draw a card, it's selection. Once you have enough mana to do this, you would generally prefer to draw a sorcery or an instant than a random card. The drawback, of course, is that you have to have all of the mana available in one turn, while Azure Mage gave you the ability to spend your turn 4 efficiently.
Everyone seems to think Soulfire Grand Master is a Boros card because of how much the second ability calls out to red burn spells. When I look at it, the first card that comes to mind is:
Soulfire Grand Master is obviously valuable against aggressive strategies, but the hybrid ability makes it a devastating weapon against defensive decks as well. It can take as little as five mana to cast a draw three, then buy it back. Spend next turn unleashing those spells, and now, even if your opponent finds an answer to the Grand Master, you've got another draw-three in reserve!
It can be easy to imagine that this is a win-more type of situation, but it's actually far from it. Actually, it is a "Win More, A Lot More" situation. Standard is miles from being a format where someone drawing three extra cards has the game sewn up.
Besides, when you have a card as powerful as Soulfire Grand Master exerting an influence on the board, the exact thing you want is to diversify your position. Get some of your power in other areas of the game so that if that part of your game gets countered in some way, you've got other things going for you. Soulfire Grand Master is already a "Tome" of sorts, capable of drawing you an extra card every turn it lives. Copying a Treasure Cruise is the perfect way to ensure you've got a seriously great back-up plan in case it doesn't.
There are plenty of awesome cards to buyback with Soulfire Grand Master, but remember, you don't have to get too fancy. Obviously, copying Stoke the Flames every turn is great (particularly when you have a Soulfire Grand Master and three Goblin tokens you can tap to cast it); but the one I really like is Jeskai Charm.
Jeskai Charm is such a natural fit with cards one would want to put alongside Soulfire Grand Master. It has natural synergy with the four damage ability (letting you drain them for four). Most importantly, however, it can basically completely lock your opponent out quickly and efficiently if there is any kind of a board parity. If Soulfire Grand Master lives, you can Jeskai Charm a creature to the top of their deck every turn so that they never draw a new card!
What if they only had one creature though? Well, it's not only a Time Walk this turn, they can't replay it next turn, or you'll just bounce it again. They can't play it the turn after that either, even if they drew a second creature, as you can just bounce one, untap, bounce the other. Most of the time, it's not really going to come down to this, but you have this option looming over people. The threat of this lock will have an impact on the way people play.
Let's start with a pretty straightforward update to Jeskai Tokens, incorporating Soulfire Grand Master:
Three Soulfire Grand Masters? What is this madness?
It is definitely very possible that the notion of playing less than four is absurd when we look back a month from now. However, the card has very clear diminishing returns. The second copy doesn't do much at all. In fact, I could easily imagine a world in which people play one or two copies of Soulfire Grand Master in some decks. The card is good, but it's not clear how well-positioned it will end up.
One of the interesting factors to consider with Soulfire Grand Master is how many other two and three-cost alternatives Jeskai has just gained. Jeskai was already extremely glutted at the three-spot, but it really needs another two. That said, Soulfire Grand Master is hardly the only option.
Jeskai Sage is a legit threat on its own while giving you card advantage against someone relying on removal. Soulfire Grand Master has a devastating impact on the game, so more people are going to be playing more removal to try to hit it. If the metagame shifts too much that way, you can punish people by playing Jeskai Sage. Jeskai Sage even serves as a pretty awesome "removal" spell if people ever go back to playing 2/1s for one.
So, what trumps Jeskai Sage? It gets outclassed by any large creature or any creature with a sweet ability. What I love is the ability for savvy Jeskai players to modify their lists from week to week, depending on their read on the format.
Wandering Champion is a little underpowered compared to other options, but it does hit hard. If you ever just placed a premium on being a 3/1 instead of 2/2, the Champion starts getting more appealing. For instance, if Sylvan Caryatid, Warden of the First Tree, and Fleecemane Lion were all popular, you might feel 2/2s get outclassed too easily.
Besides, the Champion's ability is far from trivial. Goblin Rabblemaster, Hordeling Outburst, and Jeskai Ascendancy are all natural ways to trigger it on turn 3 while advancing our board in meaningful ways. Looting is great in Jeskai Tokens (as you can see if you just activate Jeskai Ascendancy a few times) partially because its cards have such variable power, but also because of the ability to turn Treasure Cruise on earlier.
Soul Summons is the weakest option of the three, but at least it triggers your prowess type stuff, including buyback with Soulfire Grand Master. It also effectively provides two cards for Treasure Cruise. You don't get a ton of value out of "unmorphing" your manifest cards, but there is some surprise value. Remember, scry means you will have a non-zero amount of control over the top of your deck.
As long as we only play small creatures, we're not going to get a lot of value besides making them have to make uninformed removal decisions, however, if we end up playing something like Brimaz, King of Oreskos, Stormbreath Dragon, or Soul of Theros, suddenly things get interesting.
Realistically, Soul Summons is surely just too weak for Jeskai Tokens unless there are some serious incentives that have not been revealed yet. Maybe it gets more appealing in some Wescoian white aggro deck that gets more out of the morph, but you gotta do a lot of work to make it better than the above options.
It isn't just two-drops that Jeskai is gaining a lot of. It was already three-drop rich, but now it has even more amazing options including one of the sweetest and most talked about cards in Fate Reforged:
One of the great challenges to building Jeskai decks is how absolutely incredible the three-drops are. Yes, adding Monastery Mentor might be an upgrade; but if you have to cut Goblin Rabblemaster, how much power have you actually gained? None of these lists even have Mantis Rider or Brimaz at the moment either!
Dictate of Heliod is a particularly exciting way to trigger your Monastery Mentor at instant speed. Not only is it an instant speed Overrun, it's a helluva insurance policy against sweepers (particularly Drown in Sorrow and the like). I expect an even more dedicated tokens deck to emerge as a result of Monastery Mentor, who effectively double pays you for all of your token-making spells.
To really get full value out of Monastery Mentor, we want to try to find ways to play even more spells than we usually would, and cheaper ones at that. The place where Monastery Mentor really excites me is out of the sideboard of a deck that doesn't feature small targets game 1.
Then again, not every color combination is as glutted at three as Jeskai...
If you can drop Monastery Mentor and trigger it in the same turn, you're not only ahead if they kill it, you're set up to have a much bigger next turn. Thoughtseize and Murderous Cut are obvious, but even just Bile Blight or Sign in Blood is easy to pull off. If you can play two spells next turn, you can have a dominating board position. Sorin combos fantastic with both Monastery Mentor and Brimaz.
However, let's get back to Soulfire Grand Master, a card that's easy to pigeonhole into Jeskai mentally but that actually has a wider range. The hybrid activation means the card can also be slotted into any three-color deck with white and at least one of red or blue. One very worthwhile place to try is in Mardu, a deck that is really in the market for a good two-drop, not to mention a little lifegain.
I generally prefer Wild Slash to Magma Jet (obviously) because of the cost. Being able to Wild Slash with the buyback on turn 5 is a big deal, and there are a lot of situations where Wild Slash will let you make two big plays in one turn. It's an absolutely fantastic answer to Goblin Rabblemaster, as well as opposing Seekers of the Way and Soulfire Grand Masters.
On the topic of Wild Slash, bonus Mono-Red list!
- 22 Mountain
Many people have gotten hung up on Soulfire Grand Master's lifelink to sorceries and instants ability, considering it something of a Boros card. I am not in love with this idea, but it's still worth a look.
Maybe a little tuning could go a long way, but the lifegain isn't really what Boros decks are looking for. Ajani's Pridemate is an attempt to care, but we sure are playing a whole lot of cards worse than Chained to the Rocks and Heliod's Pilgrim. Why not just incorporate that package? Maybe we should, but the further we go away from spells you can buyback and copy, the more we start to wonder why we're even playing Soulfire Grand Master.
- 4 Heliod's Pilgrim
- 4 Seeker of the Way
- 2 Soulfire Grand Master
- 4 Wingmate Roc
- 1 Eidolon of Countless Battles
I am skeptical though. Without powerful blue cards like Treasure Cruise and Jeskai Charm, how much are you even getting out of the buyback ability of the Grand Master? Obviously it's good if you get it going, but you just don't get that many dimensions here. You can make tokens and drain things. Remember, if they use a removal spell on their own guy, they can even fizzle your Grand Master. If the target disappears, the spell fizzles and actually goes to your graveyard instead of your hand.
Another possible way to go with the Grand Master is to abandon red all together.
The thought of locking people out with Soulfire Grand Master + Thoughtseize/Dissolve is cute, but Esper's problem has never been that it doesn't go "big enough." If such an approach is merited, it is almost surely because of Soulfire Grand Master being a passable blocker early.
One place I could actually see the Soulfire Grand Master + Dissolve "Lock" is in Jeskai Control. Jeskai Charm plays into this strategy perfectly, and the extra life from your burn helps justify the Grand Master.
This looks worse than Jeskai Tokens in its current form, but it's possible tuning could improve things. The world where a Jeskai Control deck makes sense to exist, rather than just playing tokens, involves basically three things:
1. Tokens are too exploitable of a strategy because of the cards people naturally play.
2. Control is inherently good (such as format supersaturated with removal and creatures).
3. Jeskai Control has a compelling reason to exist instead of U/W, U/B, or Esper. This one might be tricky, but if we want cheap removal, Jeskai is the best.
Soulfire Grand Master can potentially also show up in Bant or Naya, but I am just not sure what green offers in the way of spells at the moment. There are a lot of great green cards. They are just very creature based.
So, how good is Soulfire Grand Master?
Verdict: Good enough to be a staple and also so good that people will slant to beat it, so much that many weeks it might be right not to play it at all. It's exciting to build around, and while it is the type of cards that often disappoints people that were hoping for too much from it, it might have what it takes to be a Lotus Cobra. Initially, some backlash, but once it finds its groove...