Strixhaven Spotlight: Elite Spellbinder
- Filip Skórnicki
Strixhaven's Elite Spellbinder not only bears the features of Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, one of the greatest mages of all time; it's also a pretty great mage (or Cleric) itself. Let's see how powerful it is and what potential applications lie in store for it across all kinds of Constructed formats.
Putting a renowned Magic player onto a card has a long tradition. Originally, it was done with tournaments called Invitationals, where the winner would get their face immortalized in a card's artwork. The most notable Invitational cards are Dark Confidant, Snapcaster Mage, Meddling Mage, Shadowmage Infiltrator, and Solemn Simulacrum. This series was discontinued after the 2007 Invitational, and the cards have been reprinted since with different art, which, in my personal opinion, should not happen; the original face and legacy should stay with it forever. But I'm digressing. Stepping in to fill the void were some independent tournament organizers who issued unofficial tokens depicting their series' star players. It's arguably even better as tokens always see play in one form or another, and most players have them in their collection. If you put yourself on a Soldier or Beast token, you're guaranteed to be popular. Throne of Eldraine, finally, included the likeness of a player on a proper card for the first time since 2007: Javier Dominguez on Fervent Champion, an extra honor for winning the World Championship in 2018.
In February 2020, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa won the 2019 World Championship in Honolulu, thus becoming the next soon-to-be card. After a year, we've finally been shown the card that he is depicted on—Elite Spellbinder. You can read all about the design process here. Let's break down the card.
First of all, it's a 3/1 flier for three mana. Historically, such creatures have proven quite playable across a variety of formats, all the way to Legacy. Flickerwisp and Paulo's favorite card Vendilion Clique come to mind. The most interesting part is its triggered ability though.
- When Elite Spellbinder enters the battlefield, look at target opponent's hand. You may exile a nonland card from it. For as long as that card remains exiled, its owner may play it. A spell cast this way costs two more to cast.
That's a supremely interesting effect in white, which rarely lets you look at your opponent's hand. However, here it's an interesting take on the taxing genre. It is worthy to note too that the effect does not rely upon the Spellbinder staying in play. Usually, such cards come with an "until X leaves the battlefield" clause, but not here. It means that there is no way to avoid the effect and even if the opponent kills the creature, the previously exiled card stays exiled and they still have to pay two more.
To sum up, what you get for three mana is:
- a 3/1 creature
- with evasion
- You see your opponent's hand.
- You permanently place a two-mana tax on any nonland card in their hand.
Is it enough to see competitive play? Absolutely. I think the card is quite good. You can play it turn three, exile your opponent's mass removal spell like Extinction Event, and probably kill them before they manage to accumulate six mana. Do bear in mind that paying two more is not the same as waiting two turns. With each turn that's passing it's exponentially more difficult to hit your subsequent land drop. Therefore, in game time, turning a one-mana spell into a three-mana play and turning a four into a six are completely different things with different implications. If in Standard you make Emergent Ultimatum cost nine, they may just never cast it at all.
On top of all of that—Paulo works well with blink and bounce effects. If you Ephemerate it, you will get more triggers, exile more cards, and make a larger part of their hand unavailable whether that's disrupting their curve or making an endgame threat uncastable due to increased cost. The fact that it has 3 power and evasion is convenient too as it promotes aggressive gameplay in which the opponent might not have time to wait to hit two more lands.
|Usher to Safety Dance|
This would be an example of a shell that could incorporate Paulo in Standard. It's an aggressive white deck that finally has a critical mass of targets for Shepherd of the Flock // Usher to Safety's bounce effect. In addition to saving your own creatures from removal, you can return Showdown of the Skalds, Skyclave Apparition with its trigger on the stack, or Elite Spellbinder—giving the deck a ton of angles of attack and elements of trickery. Adding two mana to a Shadows' Verdict, Emergent Ultimatum, or a Goldspan Dragon will easily be the difference between winning and losing.
There is one more card in Standard that works particularly well with the Spellbinder. For this interaction it is specifically relevant that the Spellbinder puts the card into exile. Ladies and gentlemen, here I present to you the now maindeckable Drannith Magistrate. It forbids any card exiled with the Spellbinder from being cast at all, ever—at least as long as the Magistrate lives. It has some additional value outside of the interaction. It also stomps a very popular subset of cards: Adventures, Lurrus of the Dream-Den, Showdown of the Skalds, Emergent Ultimatum … With all of that in mind:
Can Elite Spellbinder make it in Modern? I'm convinced it can. One way to do it would be to build a blink deck with Ephemerate and keep blinking and recasting the Spellbinder. However, I think we need a shell that can pressure our opponent effectively. So it naturally slots into Monowhite Taxes, a disruptive creature deck that disrupts the opponent's plan and kills them relatively fast.
I moved Archon of Emeria from the main deck to the sideboard to make room for Elite Spellbinder. I think the new card is wider in its use, it's more aggressive, and works super nicely with Flickerwisp. Also, using Aether Vial to cheat it into play at instant speed, for example during your opponent's draw step, sounds like everything I want to be doing. At this point, it's basically white Vendilion Clique! Archon still has some strong points in its favor and relevant usage—that's why it's not cut completely but rather relegated to the sideboard.
One of the most powerful formats in existence. Could Paulo's card see play there? Fortunately, there is one shell I am thinking about that would gladly welcome the Spellbinder's presence: Esper Vial. We've already covered how well it works with Aether Vial . That's not all.
It's a Yorion blink creature deck, so Paulo already fits in that regard. But there's more. Clearly, one can see that the deck is rife in one-ofs. There is a good reason—a full playset of Recruiter of the Guard, which conveniently lets us tutor for the Spellbinder meaning we have effectively access to five copies even though we play one. In addition, Charming Prince can reset it and cards like Soulherder can provide constant blink and, therefore, a continuous stream of exile tax effects. It seems like the card was designed with such Vial shells in mind, and I bet a lot of people will be excited to have the best Magic player of our time on their side.
As always, thanks for spending your time with me. Hold my hand, let's pass the turn together, and see you next time. Cheers!
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