Kaldheim Spotlight: Pyre of Heroes
- Gianluca Aicardi
When Birthing Pod was banned five years ago, Modern lost its most powerful search engine. Throughout the years, several cards have tried to revive the thrill of those glorious activations, but none of them got closer to that promise than Kaldheim's Pyre of Heroes—tribal angle be damned.
First things first. In order to evaluate the chances Pyre of Heroes will have in the competitive world come February 5 (or one week earlier on the digital platforms) a comparison with its Birthing Pod blueprint feels all but inevitable. Both are noncreature artifacts, so they're affected by the same type of removal. The Pod has converted mana cost 4 (so it also gets exiled by Despark, for that matter), but it can drop for three generic mana thanks to its Phyrexian green symbol. Even when discounted, it still remains a colored permanent, which might at times be relevant one way or the other. The Pyre is colorless and only asks for two mana to be cast. Both have to tap to activate their sorcery-speed ability, which also requires two mana—as printed; but, again, the Pod can opt to call on its Phyrexian heritage, spend 2 life, and scale down to just one mana per activation.
The Pod's life payments are bound to add up after a while, but the bottom line is that the Pod gets its first use by turn four, earlier if we accelerated our mana production. As for the Pyre, well, it's equally ready to perform a drop and activation as soon as four mana are available. Even better, its two-mana cost means it's easy to have it on the battlefield on turn two and operative the following turn. Just sacrifice your turn-one play or the one-drop you cast with the remaining mana on turn three.
In a slight downside for the Pyre, its subsequent activations keep costing two mana, while the Pod can always exchange one of them for 2 life. The pros include effectively getting online one turn earlier and not depending on any color—though green is still likely to play a role in Pyre decks.
So far so good, but we've reached the point where we need to address the Elephant (and all other creature types) in the room: Pyre of Heroes works like Birthing Pod in all regards, except where it demands for the fetched creature to belong to the same tribe as the sacrificed creature. This is a big ask, without a doubt. But also one that feels exciting to explore—as Mark Rosewater would say, restrictions breed creativity. So let's get creative, as well as tribalistic.
Holding Out for a Hero
A way to proceed exploring the potential applications of Pyre of Heroes in Modern—the largest format where Birthing Pod is not legal—is by looking at the tribes with the most targets, and then selecting those that suit a possible strategy best. But there's also the matter of determining the overall approach to the build. Modern Pod decks were combo decks. They were trying to assemble an endgame through the interaction of several creatures, most famously Melira, Sylvok Outcast, Viscera Seer, and Murderous Redcap (or Kitchen Finks). Now, those three are, respectively, a Human Scout, a Vampire Wizard, and a Goblin Assassin (or an Ouphe), therefore scattered very wide across the tribes, far from where the Pyre would like them to be.
Granted, we could use secondary methods to fetch off-tribe combo pieces. After all, current creature toolbox lists that are doing quite well on Modern don't seem to miss Birthing Pod too much, relying entirely on one-shot tutors like Chord of Calling, Eldritch Evolution, and Eladamri's Call, or even unpredictable diggers such as Collected Company. But if those decks don't really need the Pod, they have even fewer reasons to care for the Pyre. Their creature base is indeed all over the place, with the most popular endgames involving the team-up between an Angel and a a Goblin Shaman, or between an Elf Druid, a Human Cleric, and a Construct, or between the latter and a God.
Those decks would certainly welcome Birthing Pod back into the fold, but what could Pyre of Heroes possibly do for them? Sure, it could sacrifice Noble Hierarch to get the Vizier, or a surplus Vizier to get Ranger-Captain of Eos and, through it, Viscera Seer, but that's about the full extent of it.
It already feels like Pyre decks should try and fashion themselves after the other, less celebrated type of Pod deck, the one that aimed for sheer value, leveraging card selection and silver bullets galore to win a midrange game. It's possible that sooner or later one or more creature types will reveal a viable self-contained combo that the Pyre will be able to exploit. Meanwhile, a more basic research has to make do with what the biggest tribes offer in terms of dynamic leaps between converted mana costs. And since no tribe is bigger than Human, we might as well start by looking within its ranks.
It's actually an overwhelming investigation, as there are a whopping 1,628 creatures with the subtype Human in Modern alone. However, there is also an established tribal archetype in the meta, so why not first ask ourselves, "Is Pyre of Heroes going to improve on the existing Human lists?" The answer is: yes and no. But mostly no.
|Humans by Som40, 1st place at FR27, December 31, 2020|
Let's imagine taking the list above and moving some numbers around to accommodate two to four copies of Pyre of Heroes. What would the pseudo-Pod do for our Humans?
This is where we must invoke Pod Theory. You see, in order to obtain the greatest benefit from these Pod-like "jumps," we need apposite starting points and destinations. What the Pod and the Pyre want us to sacrifice is a creature that already generated value on the board. And we do see a few instances of this kind of fodder in that Human deck, with cards like Reflector Mage and Militia Bugler. First problem is, in our build there's nothing for the Pyre to find by sacrificing a three-drop. Unlike Eldritch Evolution, Pod and Pyre can't go back to lower "stations." We could get rid of a Noble Hierarch, once the ramp stops being relevant, and fetch Meddling Mage, Kitesail Freebooter, or Thalia (but not Phantasmal Image, unfortunately). And we could throw an excess copy of Thalia into the Pyre to get Mantis Rider or another three-drop.
But this kind of board manipulation doesn't really feel crucial the way it would in a proper "Value Pod" build, as this is an aggro deck (with some Hatebear nuances) and not a midrange deck. Plus, we have to assess what exactly we take out to include the Pyres to begin with. Reducing creature density in such a list seems foolish to say the least, so the main competitor for slots here has to be Aether Vial. Now, it's true that the Vial doesn't get into the library to pull out our more valuable resources, but it's an incredible tempo advantage for a mere one-mana investment. Not for nothing is it often the only main-decked noncreature nonland card in tribal builds. Human players are definitely not looking forward to replacing it with a do-nothing two-drop with limited synergy that works by hijacking mana resources to improve board presence in dubious ways.
Is finding a home for Pyre of Heroes a desperate endeavor, then? Is this alleged new Birthing Pod ultimately nothing but jank? I, for one, am confident it'll be just a matter of reinventing the Pod wheel and building the right shells. Possible tribal combos (either hidden in the present or lurking in the future) notwithstanding, Pyre decks will need to have a solid midrange structure, with plenty of ways to exploit the enhanced access to the library and the transformative power of the process that sits at their core.
For one thing, they want a stretched curve, not a compact one. Consider the Human pool again. The heart of Value Pod lies between converted mana cost 3 and 4. Humans have many great starting points at three, with tribesmembers we don't mind sacrificing like Blade Splicer, Barrin, Tolarian Archmage, Plaguecrafter, Seasoned Pyromancer, Renegade Rallier, and Orzhov Pontiff. They even have a specific tutor for Pyre of Heroes in Tribute Mage!
And then you move to the next station and find more go-between cards such as Basri's Lieutenant, Ranger of Eos, Nekrataal, Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths, Elite Guardmage, and Acolyte of Affliction, or already juicy destinations expressing a variety of different flavors, like Urza, Lord High Artificer, Yawgmoth, Thran Physician, Hero of Oxid Ridge, Master of the Wild Hunt, and Huntmaster of the Fells / Ravager of the Fells.
Most tribes with a meaningful history could have the means to successfully arrange themselves around the Pyre. You essentially need early sacrificial lambs and something worthy to jump toward. For instance, Vampires have Bloodghast and Dusk Legion Zealot at two, Spirits have Skyclave Apparition and Hanged Executioner at three. And since we are on the topic of Halloween tribes, what about Zombies?
It looks like the shambling dead almost get to combo on their own in a Pyre deck. Gravecrawler and Relentless Dead recur on their way to the undying Geralf's Messenger, which in turn leads to some intermediary removal (either Skinrender or Polukranos, which also comes back) while fueling a potentially deadly Gray Merchant of Asphodel. And if we ever get to Mikaeus, we can sacrifice Gary via Carrion Feeder and Nantuko Husk and trigger its enter-the-battlefield effect again. There are even silver bullets sprinkled throughout, like Withered Wretch and Fleshbag Marauder, while Sidisi gives us whatever we need. All of this cooking didn't even take into account the changelings, of which we're about to get a new delectable serving in Kaldheim.
All in all, Pyre of Heroes feels like the most exciting card from the initial slew of Kaldheim previews and a whole new territory yet to be claimed.
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