Return to Podland: Enigmatic Incarnation in Standard
We're back on Theros, and that means enchantments in Standard have started to matter even more. Devotion and constellation aside, one card stands out as an exciting engine that makes use of enchantments in a novel way, turning them into launch pads for a new Birthing Pod adventure.
Cheating creatures onto the battlefield from the library has been part of green's bag of tricks forever. Cards like Natural Order, Tooth and Nail, and Chord of Calling made Magic history as all-time popular ways to marry Timmy/Tammy sensibilities with the results-oriented approach of Spike. While those are all one-shot deals, others introduced mechanics that could be repeated every turn. The most successful of the latter type of spell, currently legal to play only in the older Eternal formats, has been a favorite of mine since its original appearance in New Phyrexia.
Birthing Pod was reprising and consolidating a green tradition that goes back to Survival of the Fittest, except combining the tutoring with the automatic deployment of the tutored card. There's a robust toolbox aspect to both Pod and Survival. But where the latter proves more suited to enable graveyard strategies, Pod became the king of progressive tempo advantage, with every sacrifice after the first reducing the cost of the next permanent down to very little resources — either 2 mana or 1 mana and 2 life. It's an extremely powerful exchange that similar cards have attempted to emulate before (Hibernation's End) and since (Yisan, the Wanderer Bard) with generally mixed outcomes. Recently, this kind of effect seems to have left monogreen and embraced Simic instead.
It's within this reworked milieu that Theros Beyond Death gave "podding" its latest spin, featuring an appropriate enchantment-related theme.
Enigmatic Incarnation immediately looks like a fun card, and if the comparisons with its illustrious ancestor are inevitable, the differences that set them apart appear structural. In particular, Incarnation reveals some advantages and shortcomings when assessed next to the older card.
The pros first: while strictly a green-blue 4-drop — whereas the Pod could be discounted down to 3 generic, thanks to the Phyrexian mana — the Incarnation trigger is completely free. It also happens the same turn it hits the battlefield, circumventing an issue that Prime Speaker Vannifar has been struggling with and is probably never going to overcome. As an enchantment, as opposed to a creature, the Incarnation is also theoretically more resilient than the Ooze queen, though probably not very much so in Theros Beyond Death Standard. The total mana cost for the first activation is therefore the same as with Pod, minus the life loss, and each subsequent activation puts Incarnation increasingly ahead.
However, the Incarnation trades enchantments for creatures instead of creatures for creatures, requiring a more specific build-around. Another department where the Incarnation loses to the Pod is the potential for abuse. There are many ways to untap the Pod and have it go again several times in a single turn, and the same is true for Vannifar as well — Hyrax Tower Scout has just been added to the untapping arsenal. But with Incarnation, short of finding a way to duplicate the trigger, you're stuck with one tutoring sacrifice per each of your end phases, and that's it. What we're dealing with here is as fair a card as can be. Though it keeps increasing your board position every turn for free.
This instantly changes the deckbuilding approach: Incarnation is not as much of a combo piece —albeit, it could be — as it is a value engine. It's the centerpiece of a deck that incorporates several ways to accrue card advantage while in the meantime the Incarnation works on its own to enhance the whole endeavor. Of course the toolbox elements are still prominent, and as such you can build a deck in any or all colors, even in Standard, with fixers like Dryad of the Ilysian Grove a naturally part of its setup.
I ended up choosing a Bant build by Belgian streamer and content creator LegenVD — you can see his deck in action here. The opportunity cost of a more reliable mana base is losing access to a few good cards in black. You'll when I go through what I used to call, when discussing Pod decks, the "stations" — that is, the converted mana cost steps you jump from and to by using the sacrifice/tutoring engine.
|Bant Incarnation by Luca Van Deun (LegenVD)|
The list skips this station entirely. After all, even with the Pod it's never been strictly necessary to engineer a chain that starts at converted mana cost 1, unless there was some juicy silver bullet or critical combo piece to search for at 2, which is not our case. Also, Birthing Pod was able to use mana dorks as fodder at this station, whereas Incarnation only moves from enchantment to creature — a fundamental limitation that doubles as deckbuilding challenge, though I'll air my grievances about this at the end.
There aren't many useful enchantments at 1, in any case, even with Theros's help. In Bant colors, Alseid of Life's Bounty is not something you want to sacrifice willy-nilly — it'd defeat the whole purpose of the card. Going with Eidolon of Philosophy would just mean running an unexciting placeholder waiting to be converted into something else without providing much value in the meantime — the latter being the key factor when evaluating potential inclusions.
Black, on the other hand, would give us Omen of the Dead as a good way to recycle sacrificed enchantments that are also creatures; it's not something you'd play on turn one, though, and it's still unlikely to have been put to good use by the time you get the Incarnation online.
This is where we start cooking. Omen of the Sea is easily the best card in its cycle, as it replaces itself, sculpts the next draw, and the opportunity cost of sacrificing it to the Incarnation rather than to itself is negligible. Similarly, Wolfwillow Haven is good, resilient ramp, enabling a turn-three Incarnation, and while the Wolf token can be useful in a pinch, giving it up is usually not a big loss.
Destiny Spinner is a solid early blocker, its static ability is situationally relevant, and the activation can come up to deal some damage in the late game. It's both creature and enchantment, something the deck treasures because it means the card can be both a starting point and a destination point of the Incarnation trigger. Though in this build, with nothing at 1, we won't be able to make use of that.
Alternatives: Eidolon of Obstruction can play a similar role as the Spinner, but it's more fragile; still a possible sideboard option against planeswalker-heavy decks. Warbriar Blessing is functional creature-based removal that is also Incarnation-friendly. But it's not a card you can expect to play on turn two. In non-Bant colors, red would give us Omen of the Forge, black has Aphemia, the Cacophony.
Much of the early value is concentrated at this converted mana cost, mostly due to Setessan Champion, also known as: "Verduran Enchantress on steroids." The deck runs 22 enchantments, so it's stealthily a constellation build. The Champion is indeed the champion of that strategy, supplying an endless stream of fresh cards while turning into more and more of a threat on the battlefield.
Omen of the Hunt is another form of card advantage and further ramping — as well as fixing, especially for those interested in going to four or five colors. Dryad of the Ilysian Grove is a crucial role player that can be fetched by the sacrifice of an expendable 2-drop. Then, being an enchantment itself, it ferries us toward the next station, perhaps after having dropped one additional land or two and/or fixed for a missing color. On top of that, the card's excellent at playing defense versus aggro.
Deputy of Detention and Knight of Autumn are the silver bullets of choice, the latter newly repositioned as a prime answer in the developing metagame. Being able to "incarnate" from 2 to 3 is of outmost importance to the deck, which is why many slots are devoted to performing this leap while gaining incidental value at the same time.
Among the enchantments that Bant misses at 3, the most conspicuous has to be Treacherous Blessing. It seems expressly made to be immolated by Enigmatic Incarnation, drawing three cards and then going away so its drawback won't harm us. Honorable mention: Oath of Kaya.
Beside the Incarnation — which, it's worth noting, can sacrifice another copy of itself to its trigger — this station features three different singleton targets. Arasta of the Endless Web is a transitional slot; a sturdy blocker that can generate a token on occasion, and is ready to be sacrificed the turn after, en route to the higher tiers of the totem pole. In contrast, Archon of Sun's Grace is a final destination, our secondary constellation payoff that can win games if left unchecked.
Thassa, Deep-Dwelling can be both passageway and ultimate goal, since the card's an enchantment itself. But the quantity of flickerable goodies in the deck will make parting with it quite hard. Thassa's interaction with cards like Knight of Autumn and especially Agent of Treachery is another way to defeat the opponent, to the point that it wouldn't feel wrong to add a second Thassa, or at least to have another copy in the sideboard to bring in against decks that are capable of exiling our stuff.
Cavalier of Dawn is all-purpose removal that rises on the ashes of Arasta, and has the added bonus of retrieving our variously sacrificed enchantments from the graveyard. Golos, Tireless Pilgrim is yet another way to ramp and fix, but also forms a minor combo with Dryad of the Ilysian Grove enabling its rainbow activation.
Alas, Elspeth Conquers Death can't be searched with Incarnation, but it's great fuel to reach the top station after having handled a problematic permanent. From time to time, getting to the third chapter can regrow one of our finishers, while the Saga itself is one of the best enchantments to return to hand with the death trigger from Cavalier of Dawn.
Cavalier of Night is the most alluring option among the other Cavaliers, but the mana requirement feels steep for a splash, and there aren't too many cheap creatures to sacrifice that aren't already intended to feed the Incarnation. On the other hand, Trostani Discordant is in the right colors. It could be a valid sideboard option against various forms of permanent theft — provided we concurrently side out our own, to which we'll get in a second.
The marvelous Dream Trawler lives here, and it's the foremost finisher in the deck, to which we can get by sacrificing the Elspeth Saga. Basically Baneslayer Angel, except it also draws cards and can get hexproof, it's a veritable nightmare to get rid of. I've got the impression we're gonna see a lot of this slender Sphinx in the next months.
Finally, we have a couple of Agent of Treachery as curve-toppers, to pair up with Thassa and drive the opponent truly mad with perpetual pilfering of their precious permanents. The combo is so strong it's not even linked to anything else in the list, Enigmatic Incarnation in primis, since we don't have an enchantment to sacrifice at 6. And the reason we don't have one is because there aren't any that are worth considering, unfortunately.
The only ones in-color are the tragically vanilla Nyxborn Colossus and the silly starter-level doofus Serpent of Yawning Depths. Extending the search to the entire mana wheel, the most viable option seems to be Ethereal Absolution, which is definitely a powerful card, but not one you'd ever want to sacrifice, and not a target Incarnation can find anyway. Besides, the ramp contained in the deck is more than enough to hardcast Agent, and the card drawing from Setessan Champion and Omen of the Sea lets us peer through the library, so no issues there.
In conclusion, Enigmatic Incarnation unsurprisingly makes for a very entertaining deck, one that's hugely customizable and, while not likely to become dominant anytime soon, can catch the opponent by surprise with unusual or unexpected tech. The only thing is, sometimes you'll wish it could find enchantments instead of just eating them to regurgitate creatures. I, for one, could think of some targets I'd love to incarnate and make a splash with …
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