Today I'm going to talk about what has to be one of the best cards across all formats from Amonkhet – Harsh Mentor. It punishes fetch lands in Legacy and Modern in addition to so many other incidental abilities. While in Standard there are no fetch lands (except Evolving Wilds), there are enough activated abilities to make the human cleric a powerful staple. Instead of focusing on lots of possible homes for the card in each format, I'm going to focus on what I take to be the best way to utilize Harsh Mentor in each format: Modern Boros Hatebears and Standard Boros Humans.
Red doesn't offer a ton when it comes to Death and Taxes strategies (aka Hatebears). Some people have tried Magus of the Moon and/or Simian Spirit Guide. I have found both to be somewhat lackluster and not worth the slot. Blood Moon is a bit anti-synergistic with the Leonin Arbiter + Ghost Quarter plan since our strategy already taxes the opponent's mana. Blood Moon will often help them by making their fetches into Mountains when they would otherwise be landlocked by Leonin Arbiter. So I prefer Blood Moon as a sideboard card in this strategy. Overall, red has not really been worth it.
…Then Harsh Mentor came into existence and everything changed.
It's been a while since a Grizzly Bear with stats this powerful for Modern has seen print. I almost want to go even deeper and play Eidolon of the Great Revel too since the tax comes in the form of damage for both of these hateful bears. That would require stretching the mana base a bit more and I'm not even sure it's correct. At that point you may be better off just playing a straight up Burn strategy. I prefer to maintain the core of the Death and Taxes strategy and just move the dial a little more aggressive in order to capitalize on the damage that the Harsh Mentor will deal.
In this build I went with Slayers' Stronghold over Tectonic Edge because of its synergy with Aether Vial. If you have Aether Vial on the first turn, then on turn three you can play a two-cost creature off Aether Vial and give it +2/+0 haste with the land. Then for each subsequent turn you can do the same with your three-cost creature (Blade Splicer or Flickerwisp) and then with your Restoration Angel of Pia and Kiran Nalaar. It generally speeds up our clock by entire turn, sometimes more, and since our newest addition to the deck punishes the opponent by dealing them damage, I decided it was worth it to add the Stronghold.
While a lot of the cards in the deck are similar to other versions of Death and Taxes or Hatebears, they don't all serve the same functions. I included the full eight copies of Flickerwisp and Restoration Angel despite only having four value targets to blink because the flying is especially important at getting in damage when our plan is to burn out the opponent faster than usual. We still have Blade Splicer as the primary blink target for value, and I also included one copy of Pia and Kiran Nalaar, but instead of running a card like Thraben Inspector for additional blink value for pulling ahead in the long game, we run Lightning Bolt to try to close the door faster. This means that instead of the primary purpose of the Flickerwisp and Restoration Angel being their blink abilities, their primary purpose in this build is flying.
While Lightning Bolt will ideally be aimed at the opponent to deal the final points of lethal damage, it can also be used as disruption. Noble Hierarch and Birds of Paradise are often ways for opponent's to get out from underneath Leonin Arbiter and we usually don't have much recourse to stop them. Lightning Bolt conveniently takes away that avenue for the opponent. Similarly, an opposing Goblin Guide or Monetary Swiftspear can sometimes get us into burn range if the opponent uses burn spells to clear out our blockers while attacking us for damage each turn, keeping us from establishing enough of a board presence to kill them before they burn us out. Lightning Bolt solves that problem and keeps our life total high. It also has utility against Merfolk, Affinity and any other deck with three-toughness creatures. It can also keep a Death's Shadow opponent from being able to teeter on the brink of death to inflict lethal damage on us.
While Harsh Mentor forces us to be a little more aggressive and to make more deck building decisions with damage in mind, the thing I like most is that it works so well in conjunction with the other two-drops against fetch lands. For instance, consider the following opening:
Turn 1: Aether Vial
Turn 2: Add a counter to Aether Vial, play Thalia, Guardian of Thraben.
Turn 3: Add a second counter to Aether Vial, play Harsh Mentor.
If the opponent has a remove spell, say a Lightning Bolt or Fatal Push, they'll use it on one of our two creatures. If they have another removal spell in hand, they'll likely target the Thalia first. Then they'll untap and use the second one on the Harsh Mentor so that they can crack their fetch land without taking two damage – but wait! This means they tapped mana on their turn and then played and cracked a fetch, which means they don't have two mana untapped to pay the tax on Leonin Arbiter, so we can flash it onto the battlefield in response off Aether Vial to keep them from searching. If they want to play around this line, they'll have to either take two damage from the Harsh Mentor when they crack their fetch land or they'll have to pay the additional mana from Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and let us keep her on the board. Either way this feels like a win-win scenario for us. And it also likely means they won't have the removal spell for our Flickerwisp when it comes down the following turn to start dealing three points of flying damage per turn (or five with Slayers' Stronghold).
While Lightning Bolt and Pia and Kiran Nalaar are welcome additions into the deck, Harsh Mentor is really the selling point for adding red to the main deck. The key card in the sideboard is actually not Blood Moon but Wear // Tear. One of the problems against Affinity is that they know our game plan is to bring in Stony Silence, so their plan is to Anticipate this by bringing in Ghirapur Aether Grid. In the mono-white version of Death and Taxes I played two copies of Oblivion Ring and two copies of Leonin Relic-Warder as ways of dealing with the Ghirapur Aether Grid while also being able to kill a Cranial Plating or whatever other artifact needs to die. Wear // Tear is a pretty big upgrade to either of these, at least in the Affinity matchup, because in addition to be able to choose one or the other, you can fuse both halves together to kill the Ghirapur Aether Grid and the Cranial Plating together!
Rest in Peace is a no-brainer inclusion in Modern right now, given the prevalence of decks relying heavily on the graveyard, especially given that we don't rely on it at all. It stops Dredge in their tracks but also stops Tarmogoyf, Traverse the Ulvenwald, Snapcaster Mage, anything with delve, and Past in Flames. And since it doesn't hurt us at all, we can also bring in it just as a value card against decks running Eternal Witness, Kitchen Finks, and whatever other cards that get worse without the graveyard.
Blood Moon is mostly for decks that get wrecked by it – decks with sketchy three-color mana bases, decks reliant on assembling Tron, and decks that can't win without Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. It doesn't fit especially well into a Leonin Arbiter strategy, but it's too good against certain decks not to have access to in our 75. It might even be the type of card we don't bring in if we see the opponent fetching basic lands in order to play around it. At that point it already did its job.
Now that we've talked about how I plan to use Harsh Mentor in Modern, let's talk about Standard. Boros Humans gains a few new cards in Amonkhet, most notably a two-power two drop with a killer ability. Literally, Harsh Mentor's ability is that it makes your abilities kill you.
Harsh Mentor doesn't look quite as good in Standard as it does in eternal formats, given the lack of fetch lands in Standard, but contextually it might be as good or even better! Walking Ballista becomes Orcish Artillery, backfiring harder than it hits since the opponent will take two damage every time a counter is removed to deal one damage. That means they take four damage just to shoot down the Harsh Mentor! Crewing vehicles also causes an electric shock. It doesn't trigger for planeswalkers, so it doesn't stop the Saheeli combo, but what more can you ask for from an Ironclaw Orcs with upside instead of downside? It really only has to trigger once per game to be worth it. Clues look a lot worse when the Mentor is around too, causing Tireless Tracker to reconsider slowing his roll with all that investigating.
Cast Out is a premier removal spell that I expect to see a lot of play in Standard. It cycles early when you need lands and/or have too many higher cost cards in hand, and then later it's an excellent and versatile removal spell. I see control decks, cycling decks and even aggro decks wanting it. You have to give up some tempo to cycle it early, but if you think of it as a Stasis Snare that costs one extra mana but can be emergency cycled in dire situations, the loss of tempo never actually comes up because you're only cycling it when you would otherwise be missing your land drop.
Gideon of the Trials is another cards Boros Humans I'm excited about. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar never felt right to me in Boros Humans except against control decks because it would sit in hand doing nothing for too long. Three mana is much more manageable. It basically trades spots on the curve with Stasis Snare while Cast Out trades spots with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. And the payoff is that our four-mana spell now cycles, which is pretty huge.
Soul-Scar Mage is not at its greatest in this archetype. It's more effective in a spell-heavy deck like Izzet, but a 1/2 Human with prowess is still the best one-drop for the job in a world built around Walking Ballista.
Thraben Inspector is an auto-include as it is easily the best one-drop human in the format. Thalia's Lieutenant works great with Hanweir Garrison as it pumps the tokens and the tokens pump it. I'm not sure if Chandra is the best card for this deck or if a cheaper removal spell is better. I guess it depends on the metagame, but Declaration in Stone or a cheap burn spell would likely be the top contender for the spot if you want extra help against aggro instead of control.
This version of Boros Humans tries to be as good as we can be against Walking Ballista by minimizing the amount of one-toughness creatures we play. If you want to be a little less resilient to the Construct, you can play cards like Glory-Bound Initiate and Metallic Mimic to bolster the Human theme. If you go this route, I would recommend also playing Always Watching since it will help mitigate that weakness to Walking Ballista while also synergizing nicely with the exert ability of Glory-Bound Initiate since vigilance essentially makes that cost free. Anthems are also generally good cards in a creature deck like this one, but you can't really afford to trim any of the removal, so you'll likely have to trim creatures to make room for the Anthems. The most likely candidate to cut is Hanweir Garrison since it's a three-drop and the tokens it produces aren't pumped by Always Watching. I can't say for certain which version is better but my inclination is this one since the cards are better on their own.
I'm excited to try Harsh Mentor in both Standard and Modern and I'm also looking forward to casting Cast Out and the new Gideon. Speaking of which, have you read his ultimate?
That feeling when you're such a powerful planeswalker that your ultimate is just reminder text. pic.twitter.com/QIscrdx12z— Craig Wescoe (@Brimaz4Life) April 13, 2017