Huntmaster of the Fells is a perfect Magic card.
The numbers have such symmetry and all of the effects are powerful. For four mana you get four power spread over two bodies while gaining two life. When it flips, it has four power and four toughness and deals two damage to a creature and two damage to a player for a total of four damage. When a player plays two spells in the same turn, it flips back. It feels fair because it can be easy to answer, yet powerful because it can warp the entire game around it if it isn’t.
I love it.
Even with its undeniable power, I know that the days where others shared that sentiment are behind me. Simply put, it’s been outclassed, sidelined, and unsleeved. I know that there are better options, and yet every time I tweak my list I find myself staring at Huntmaster trying to convince myself it’s worth it. Why is it so hard for me to keep Huntmaster in my binder?
Let’s take some time to address a tough topic for our community: properly judging new cards and, more importantly, the ability to let old ones go. There are a couple stereotypes in the G/B community you’ll often run into –
1.) They’re weirdly obsessed with how unattainable and unnecessarily expensive the deck is and
2.) They get very defensive when someone says that the cards they spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars on, are actually not very good right now.
The discussion comes up with every spoiler season about what cards might make the cut for our deck. Usually cards are brought up in jest, as they are typically hilariously bad (looking at you Yargle), but every now and again there’s a card that actually makes us do a double-take.
This can be exciting but also kind of terrifying. We get so nostalgic and emotionally attached to our pet cards that it can be a detriment to our insight and ability to make rational comparisons.
When Bloodbraid Elf was unbanned people thought we were going to relive the glory days of Jund. Olivia, Huntmaster, Kalitas, Pia and Kiran Nalaar, Chandra Torch of Defiance, and all other four drops were immediately cast aside to make way for Bloodbraid’s glorious return. Not me though. I was stubborn. I hate the RNG aspect of Bloodbraid and thought the card offered too little in light of the super aggressive format Modern had become.
People weren’t thinking straight and there was no way Jund was going to return to glory because of a four mana 3/2 with haste…..oh yeah, and Huntmaster of the Fells is my favorite card ever printed and YOU CAN’T MAKE ME UNSLEEVE THEM, I’LL NEVER DO IT!
While there may be merit to my stance on Bloodbraid, the card is great, but my love for my pet card kept me skeptical through the initial hype. It took me a long time to play the card when I should have tried it out immediately so I could make my judgments based on games played and not just initial bias.
I know I’m not alone in my biases regarding deckbuilding. This happens regularly throughout tougher seasons in Modern when it becomes so hostile we question whether Dark Confidant is too much of a liability or whether Lili’s abilities are efficient enough in the face of go-wide and graveyard strategies. If you ask these tough questions in a forum or Facebook post however, be prepared to be eaten alive by those who hold these cards close to their heart. Prepare for the onslaught of “Greatness at any cost” comments and people telling you that Lili is the heart of our strategy and should never be cut. Whether we like it or not though, the times are changing, and Modern Horizons has made us seriously consider every slot in our deck and its worth.
First, let’s look about Wrenn and Six. This is a card that has caused plenty of controversy and is forcing us to reevaluate the core of our lists. Wrenn and Six, or W6 as she’s being dubbed, is no doubt a very powerful two drop that can help us curve out, continuously make our land drops, and even act as removal against smaller creatures. The emblem is nothing to scoff at either when you consider that a Bolt or Assassin’s Trophy in the graveyard can mean ending the game very quickly or answering quite literally anything our opponent does. Discarding a land to Liliana, only to buy it back with W6, has been one of my favorite things to do in recent games. We know it’s going to make the cut, so what’s being left behind?
Most have been trimming on Dark Confidants to make room for the powerful two-drop. This is understandable when you consider the fact that with more W6 running around, having a 2/1 that gains you no immediate value is a liability. Some have been trimming on Bloodbraid, a copy of Scavenging Ooze, Kolaghan’s Command, and even Maelstrom Pulse. If reading the names of any of those cards being on the chopping block made you cringe, you may find yourself falling behind the innovation that will push our archetype in the direction it needs to go to stay competitive. It’s important to understand that when new cards enter the format, no card is safe. Every card has to prove itself with every new set and nothing gets a free pass because they “earned” their stay from previous iterations and victories.
Recently, Emma Handy and Jim Davis wrote articles and made videos that included Jund lists with no Dark Confidants in them. These players aren’t exactly known for their G/B prowess, so why would their opinions matter to us? For me, I always enjoy hearing an outsider’s take because of that previously mentioned bias that I know is constantly working against me. Sometimes seeing what others would do can give you a fresh perspective.
Players should soak up all the content they can for their archetype, whether that’s articles written by outsiders to the strategy or die-hard specialists like Reid Duke or Logan Nettles. Most importantly though, players should play the cards themselves and come to their own conclusions.
Mine have led me to the decision to cut down to two copies of Dark Confidant for now. I think there are still matches where your life total isn’t being pressured severely and drawing to relevant cards is really important, like against the Urza prison decks. Even so, I’ve had a ton of fun brewing with Jund lists that have no Dark Confidants at all and are looking to take advantage of that. No Dark Confidants in favor of W6 means we can take a second look at some cards that were otherwise bad flips like Tasigur, the Golden Fang. More consistent land drops from W6 might mean a second look at Tireless Tracker as the main card advantage engine. Some have already experimented with Seasoned Pyromancer, another new addition from Modern Horizons, and its ability to take lands redrawn by W6 and turn them into gas.
W6 and Seasoned Pyromancer aren’t the only cards making a splash in the G/B community. Hexdrinker, Unearth, Plague Engineer, Collector Ouphe, and a great cycle of new lands are all making their mark as well. I don’t think we’ve ever had such a large swath of cards from a single set affecting our archetype before.
Seasoned Pyromancer is an interesting one. The card has its fair share of awkward scenarios where we don’t want to lose the cards we have in hand and are forced to either not cast it or pitch relevant cards hoping to draw more. The rummaging effect can be nice in certain matches though where you’re digging for specific cards and pitching irrelevant ones. The card shines its brightest in the top-deck late-game where it becomes a 2/2-draw two. Its ability to exile itself from the graveyard gives it even more late-game relevance as well as making it an okay pitch to Liliana earlier in the game when you don’t want to rummage.
Hexdrinker is giving G/B decks a more aggressive slant and can be incredibly difficult to deal with as it levels up. My experience with the card has led me to believe it’s probably not worth it though. As a 2/1, it has the same fragility that Dark Confidant has against W6 and level up being a sorcery speed ability can facilitate a lot of lost turns where you tap out to level it up, only for it to frustratingly die right before it becomes a 4/4. I have to admit though, it’s a terrifying top-deck late in the game when mana is abundant and most answers have been spent.
Unearth is by no means a 3-4 of, but is a fine utility spell that is never a dead card. Even if you have no targets for it, it can still cycle at a minimum. There’s no real need to rely on enter the battlefield triggers (ETB) to make this card good but cards that do have an ETB like Seasoned Pyromancer, Kitchen Finks, or Plague Engineer make the card even better.
Whenever Jund gains popularity, I always take a look at Abzan to see how things line up. Historically, Lingering Souls has put Abzan above and beyond other midrange decks in the mirror match. Plague Engineer has made that a null and void point in my opinion. Engineer is excellent in a lot of situations where Jund and G/B would normally struggle. Now there’s a clean answer to go-wide strategies like Mardu Pyromancer and the new Urza Thopter Foundry decks, as well as neutering tribal decks like Humans. Having deathtouch means that at a minimum it can trade with anything in combat that it doesn’t already kill with its ability. This card really feels like a sideboard card but it’s too soon to tell whether the hedge is worth having in the mainboard while there’s a possibility that the ETB isn’t relevant.
Collector Ouphe is a great addition to both Jund and G/B who now have access to an attacking Stony Silence. Being a creature means it will dodge cards like Nature’s Claim but die to Aether Grid. Jund’s normal go-to artifact hate is Ancient Grudge and G/B usually has to rely on having multiple spells like Trophy, Decay, and Pulse. Now there’s an option to attack artifact decks from another angle. Ouphe will probably fall in and out of favor depending on what you want it for. When KCI and Lantern was popular, Shatter effects weren’t enough and Stony Silence was at a premium. While traditional Affinity is on the downswing, I always liked shatter effects more than Stony. Against decks like Tron, we’re probably happy with a split between them. Either way, having options that don’t involve you completely switching decks or adding other colors is nice. It’s probably also worth mentioning Shenanigans while we’re talking about artifacts since I think it’s a neat piece of recurring artifact hate. It’s biggest downside of course is that it’s a sorcery.
Horizon Canopy has been the envy of every non-W/G deck since its printing. With the enemy cycle printed in Horizons, almost every deck in Modern now has access to a Canopy in their colors. While some have pushed W6 as hard as they can by testing Barren Moor and Ghost Quarter, the safest synergy and inclusion is Nurturing Peatland. As an untapped G/B land, it’s much more reliable as a mana source than Barren Moor and has a similar effect. I think the safe cut for these lands in Jund are copies of Raging Ravine. There’s no need to run 3-4 creature lands when W6 has the ability to buy them back and recur them if they die. In G/B and Abzan, lands like Twilight Mire and a fourth fastland can be cut to make room.
Jund and G/B have a ton of new cards to play with, and the biggest loser after Modern Horizons is poor Abzan. Not only did Abzan not get any new cards but Plague Engineer and Ouphe actually hurt it, since you no longer need white to have access to Stony Silence and have a clean answer to Lingering Souls. Abzan really needed something like Vindicate or Gerrard’s Verdict to pique interest. Sorry Kaya’s Guile, but you’re just not exciting enough in light of Jund’s upgrades.
This isn’t the end for Abzan though. More sets are going to continue to get printed and eventually Abzan will find favor again. The question is, will we recognize it when it comes? Let’s not forget that in July 2018, only a year ago, Leonardo Gucci got second place at Grand Prix Sao Paulo piloting Abzan Traverse, the go-to G/Bx strategy of the time. Since then, we’ve seen the printing of Assassin’s Trophy and a ton of new tools for Jund and G/B. It’s important to remember that it wasn’t that long ago when Abzan was considered the better choice. It’s hard to imagine how the tables could turn once again in as little as another year, but hundreds of cards pour into Modern every set, and change happens fast.
So how can we properly evaluate these new cards when they’re spoiled?
No, I’m not talking about those “will it Jund” jokes. I’m talking about cards that truly seem like they may lend our deck something it doesn’t have or provide a better version of something it already does.
The first question you have to ask yourself is
How does a new card compare in function and mana cost to the cards in our deck?
Then you’ll have to debate the less straightforward question of
Is it better?
Fatal Push was considered a no-brainer. The wide range of powerful creatures it killed for the very efficient cost of one black mana was way too good to ignore. This was especially true for Abzan and G/B who didn’t have access to a good turn one removal spell like Lightning Bolt. For these decks, the trade was easy. They shaved some Abrupt Decays and no longer needed to run cards like Disfigure, Dismember, or Smother. This was a pretty specific scenario where there was a large need and gap that Fatal Push filled, but finding space for new cards won’t always be so easy.
When Liliana, the Last Hope was spoiled critiques ranged from lukewarm to bad. This criticism was due to it being a Liliana planeswalker with an identical mana cost to Liliana of the Veil, causing people to compare the cards side by side. This was a failure in card assessment. Liliana of the Veil and Liliana, the Last Hope are two very different cards with different functions, even though their cost and planeswalker type are the same. The card more closely resembles something like Kolaghan’s Command since it can pick off small creatures and buy back threats. It trades out the Shatter and discard effect for repeatable activations of the other modes and a game-winning emblem.
Once people started playing with the card they came to this realization and found room for her where appropriate.
Unlike Fatal Push and Disfigure, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Liliana, the Last Hope is better than Kolaghan’s Command, or vice versa. This is because their modes become more or less relevant depending on the meta. This is why card evaluation and comparison is not always so straight forward and is often a muddled debate. The lesson here is to make sure that when you are comparing new cards, you’re doing it appropriately.
So let’s come full circle and test ourselves with a difficult question.
Dark Confidant or W6?
First, is this a fair comparison? Are we comparing W6 to the right card in our attempt make room for her?
If we look at mana cost and functionality comparisons, I think there’s no doubt that Dark Confidant is her closest cousin. If we compare it to everything else in the two drop slot, from Assassin’s Trophy to Tarmogoyf, it’s not even close. While on the face of things these cards are very different, their similarity is their card advantage. W6’s card advantage comes in the form of buying back lands, which doubles as a way to make sure we continue to curve out. Confidant draws fresh cards every turn, which could be more impactful than lands, but at the cost of life loss. So even their one crossover quality is vastly different and better or worse depending on the scenario, making the comparison even harder. It sort of feels like a toss up if we stop here, but now we have to look at their differences.
Their biggest differences are their versatility and durability. Versatility can often be meta dependent, like the case between K-Command and Liliana the Last Hope, but durability is usually pretty straight forward. When we get to this point of the comparisons it becomes pretty easy to find yourself in W6’s camp. Planeswalkers are much more difficult to deal with than 2/1 creatures and the versatility in her abilities also out paces Dark Confidant. While Confidant can attack and block, it’s usually outmatched on the battlefield whereas W6’s multiple abilities and immediate value make her the better draw in most scenarios. All of this also gets thrown on top of the fact that Dark Confidant’s life loss can be a pretty big liability.
Still, while it seems like this debate goes in W6’s favor, I find myself conjuring scenarios where Confidant is infinitely better and is still a card we lean on to get ahead in certain matches.
Is this my bias and love for Confidant speaking, or a rational argument?
I think the only way to answer this question is by playing without it. Once you do, you can reflect.
How much am I missing/in need of it?
Am I winning more games without it?
It’s truly the only way to know. The cards are comparable, but not close enough to confidently say one can directly replace the other in the same way Fatal Push replaced other less efficient removal.
When W6 was spoiled, I didn’t see anyone say “Hey, this card should replace Dark Confidant in our lists.” In fact, I think the only reason we’re talking about this comparison is because people have already begun doing just that and had moderate success.
While it seems that W6 is the future and Confidant is the past, I’m going to continue to split my time between lists with Dark Confidants and ones without Dark Confidants to make sure I’m putting both to the test. I suggest others do the same and see if they come to the same conclusions. This way we’re making decisions based on results and statistics, not just our love for Confidant. The same should be applied to all future candidates as well.
Change is hard. Especially when it comes to unsleeving old friends that we’ve won so many games with.
Trust me, I know.
I still register multiple maindeck Huntmasters every now and again and nothing makes me more happy than resolving them and having multiple on the battlefield at the same time. Is it as good as other Jund lists? No, and that’s okay. I know this and have no delusions about it either. But for casual tournaments, sometimes I just want to play the cards I love and have some fun. In competitive tournaments though, I want to play the deck I love while also playing the cards that are going to give me the best chance of winning. This usually means Huntmaster is just a one-of in my sideboard or nowhere to be seen at all.
Whatever you decide to do with W6, Dark Confidant, or any other card, don’t write anything off unless you’ve tried it yourself. You can use a plethora of resources, to include this article, to help you evaluate your own list, but nothing is going to help you form your own opinion like your own experiences. The more personal experience with cards you can share with others, the more our community can tweak and perfect our strategy in light of new additions.
Don’t be afraid to abandon what’s familiar or what’s been good in the past to experiment. Don’t let your love for favorites be the cause for poor competitive records, but also don’t forget to play the cards you love and have some fun when the stakes are low. Don’t allow your love for pet cards to overshadow the power of new ones that may take their place. Don’t get defensive about the cards you love while harshly criticizing new cards you haven’t tried.
Magic is an ever-evolving game, and new cards are constantly changing the landscape. We can adapt and grow with it, or fall victim to our reluctance.