Many factors determine creature playability. When a format’s most popular removal spell is damage-based, toughness becomes one key yardstick. In Modern, x/3 creatures that don’t trade with Lightning Bolt at parity, or that can’t fulfill one of a few other roles like casting a spell, are said to fail the Bolt Test. As such, they possess limited use in Modern, a format overflowing with the beloved red instant. By now, everyone’s heard plenty about Modern’s shiny new removal spell, Fatal Push, which may soon introduce a new pressure on the format’s creatures.
For the uninitiated, Fatal Push costs a single black mana and destroys any creature with converted mana cost two or lower; with revolt turned on, it destroys creatures that cost up to four. We’re already familiar with the Bolt Test and how toughness relates to benchmark creature playability. Today, we’ll theorize about the effects Fatal Push could have on that benchmark and on Modern.
The Push Test
Back in June, Sheridan synthesized from other articles a terrific definition of the Bolt Test. In its unadulterated glory:
1. “Does the creature die to Lightning Bolt at parity? If not, what is the resource difference?”
2. “Does the creature have a game effect even if it immediately dies to Bolt? If so, how valuable and reliable is the effect?”
3. “Does the creature take over the game if it is not Bolted? If so, how quick, consistent, and decisive is that impact?”
4. “If yes to any of the above, the creature might be playable in Modern.”
In creating a Push Test, we can begin by replacing all instances of “Lightning Bolt” in this test with “Fatal Push.” Point number one is the most important for Push, since far fewer creatures die to it at parity than die to Lightning Bolt. Tarmogoyf and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet are examples of creatures that pass the Bolt test but still die to Push. In fact, only five of Modern’s current Top 50 creatures* (Kitchen Finks, Primeval Titan, World Breaker, Golgari Grave-Troll, Reality Smasher) cannot be killed by Fatal Push. That’s a ton of ground covered by one card—and by one mana!
A two-mana creature is just as dead to Fatal Push as a one-mana creature, but the player resolving Push gains a mana advantage in the exchange. We can therefore say that any two-mana creature without an immediate game effect fails the first two stages (#1 and #2 above) of the Push test. Of the two-drops in the above list, only Sakura-Tribe Elder passes this portion.
Push also has an extra dimension which complicates evaluation: the revolt mechanic. The card has a different effect if a permanent its caster controlled left the battlefield that turn. Fatal Push will always kill one- and two-mana creatures, but it only kills three- and four-mana creatures under revolt, which means it won’t unconditionally kill cards like Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. Ergo, it’s harder to categorically say three- and four-drops fail the Push test. We need to examine how often the revolt nuance matters to grasp the limits of Fatal Push.
Three’s the Magic Number
Of the three-mana creatures on our current Top 50 list, all of them but Kitchen Finks and Matter Reshaper die cleanly to Lightning Bolt. They also all cast a spell when they enter the battlefield, with the exception of Eldrazi Displacer. Displacer often costs a functional two mana anyway, and it does take over games when unchecked. These three-drops will continue to do exactly the same thing with Push legal in the format.
When it comes to four-drops, we begin to tread shakier ground. Four-drops are just as easy to kill with Fatal Push as three-drops are, so creatures need a great reason to cost one extra mana. Those that don’t immediately provide value as many three-drops do, including Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and some Restoration Angels, risk becoming obsolete with Push around. We can say that any four-mana creature that doesn’t provide immediate value, or an overwhelming late-game advantage, fails the Push test.
We can’t quite say the same thing about three-drops, since they cost less. Three is the fewest mana one can pay for a creature that dodges Push’s vanilla mode, putting them in a unique defensive position relative to Fatal Push. I don’t expect little-seen three-drops to suddenly become playable (i.e. Vampire Nighthawk), but I do think already-playable three-drops like Kitchen Finks become slightly better with Push in the format.
As Ryan Overturf noted in his analysis of the card, revolt isn’t always magically active because Polluted Delta is a legal Modern card. Modern decks are not built to sandbag fetchlands, and in topdeck wars, tension can emerge between holding up a fetch in case revolt becomes relevant and cracking it for some minor deck thinning and painless access to maximum mana.
Don’t Lose Your Head
Cost-checking removal is usually less conditional than damage-based removal when it comes to killing creatures, but pays for this increase in applicability by giving up some flexibility. Unlike with Bolt, you can’t Fatal Push your opponent to death.
Abrupt Decay is a notable cost-checking kill spell that sees lots of play, despite other options in black (barring the catch-all Terminate) being brushed aside. Part of the reason for that is Decay’s ability to remove any permanent; part of the reason is that black has historically lacked effective answers in Modern. The main reason, though, is that practically every playable creature in Modern costs three mana or less. A card that kills all of those creatures (and a few more) for one mana is obviously formidable.
But let’s be very clear: Fatal Push will not warp Modern. The format is fast enough that the most efficient creatures available are already the only ones that see play, and even if Push slows the format down, the card’s conditions (which threaten tempo blowouts when players run creatures that cost more than one mana) are bound to keep things that way. Versatile two-drops like Tarmogoyf will remain format staples, despite being easier to answer in certain midrange mirrors.
So what is Push going to do to Modern? Let’s find out!
Diversify Interactive Strategies
The arrival of a hyper-efficient removal spell in black signals a new era for interactive strategies in Modern. No longer must control, tempo, and midrange decks side with red or white to combat the format’s aggro-combo strategies. Fatal Push stands to make Sultai and Esper, as well as the color pairs UB, BG, and BW, selectable as color combinations for interactive strategies.
Grixis Control in particular has much to gain from Fatal Push’s arrival. Not only can the deck wield Push masterfully with its answer-recycling package of Thought Scour, Snapcaster Mage, and Kolaghan’s Command, it largely ignores the card itself. Push does kill Snapcaster, but not before the Wizard has a chance to cast his spell. And it’s helpless in the face of Tasigur, the Golden Fang.
Slow Down Linear Strategies
With more decks packing cheap, relevant removal spells, aggro-combo decks like Infect, UR Prowess, and Death’s Shadow Zoo have some compromises to make. The adoption of cards like Spell Pierce and Dispel might help fight incoming Pushes, but at the cost of making aggro-combo decks slower and more interactive. The best cards to fight Push happen to be terrible against Tron and Dredge, meaning aggro-combo must slightly weaken its favorable matchups to improve its shakier ones.
While some pundits have claimed that Fatal Push slots right into Jund and Abzan, I think these decks will suffer more than any from the card’s introduction to Modern. The primary reason to play BGx is Tarmogoyf, a threat that plays excellent defense against aggro decks and puts a respectable clock on linear combo. Notably, Tarmogoyf is the only two-drop combat creature to pass the Bolt test with flying colors (followed closely by conditional cronies Scavenging Ooze and Grim Flayer, also BGx staples). The removal spells in Modern that kill Tarmogoyf either give the midrange player a free land (Path to Exile) or answer it at parity or worse.
Until now, Tarmogoyf has never failed a removal test. But it fails the Push test. So do Flayer and Scooze, the latter of which at least fails it in style (you know, after Jund players sink a bunch of mana into it). Raging Ravine, specifically a big draw to Jund over Abzan, also dies to Fatal Push. The BGx archetype’s iconic creatures have never been so vulnerable.
I also predict Abzan will poach some shares from Jund in the weeks following Push’s sanctioning. In a slower, fairer metagame, Lingering Souls becomes vastly preferable to pretty much anything out of Jund colors. Plus, a swarm of 1/1 Spirits lines up pretty well against a one-mana removal spell.
For the record, I don’t consider hurting BGx a move in the wrong direction. Jund and Abzan combine to make up a whopping 13% of the format, while interactive blue decks claim merely 5%. Fatal Push should redistribute midrange’s rightful shares more evenly across a variety of shards, wedges, and variations, both by giving less-played combinations the tools they need to succeed in Modern and by naturally foiling Tarmogoyf, the chief draw to BGx.
Tron decks could also get a boost from Fatal Push. Joe Lossett wowed at the SCG Players’ Championship with a BG Tron deck touting Collective Brutality. I think a build with Fatal Push is a reasonable response to share increases in decks with Thing in the Ice, Death’s Shadow, or Inkmoth Nexus. Brutality, for all its utility against Burn and Infect, has trouble answering these creatures.
I doubt Push will cement BG Tron as the go-to variant—after all, white has Path to Exile and Rest in Peace. Even so, Push is a worthy addition to Tron’s ever-expanding suite of tools, and it’s happily in the same color as Brutality for builds that want both.
It’s Like a Jungle Sometimes
Fatal Push represents Wizards’ willingness to print clearly powerful, format-defining cards for Modern via Standard, and may indicate a deliberate attempt to quell certain identified problems with the format. Indeed, Push seems to plug a few holes that have plagued Modern since the Great Banlist Purge of 2011, like black’s lack of decent creature removal, the red-zone dominance of aggro-combo pump decks, and Tarmogoyf‘s stranglehold on spell-based midrange.
But we’re not out of the jungle just yet. Modern is likely to remain highly polarized while Dredge roams free. At least with Push spoiled, the groundless calls for a Gitaxian Probe ban have subsided, which may allow the Modern community to unite its voices in decrying The Ultimate Nightmare of Wizards of the Coast® Customer Service. And we have something productive to do while we wait for January 16th—dust off our Spellstutter Sprites!