short time ago, I found out what card I was going to get to preview for Modern Masters. And she was a pretty good card; a Planeswalker of no ambiguous past performance.
In an unofficial poll to my many Twitter followers, I asked a question that I thought I might already know the answer to:
Although a fair number of folks showed some soft spots in their three-slots for currently Standard-legal cross-format All-Star Liliana of the Veil, there were quite a few fans of today's preview card (and one noted deck designer even compared her favorably with Jace, the Mind Sculptor). My thoughts on the second-greatest Planeswalker of all time, this true Modern Master?
Elspeth, Knight-Errant Protects Herself
Elspeth levels up by putting a 1/1 Soldier token into play. Ergo, Elspeth can progress in value while containing a threat card attacking on the ground. At the very least, the opponent will have to commit extra resources to get through Elspeth's +1 first line of defense, potentially playing into a Wrath of God/Day of Judgment/Supreme Verdict two-for-one... at the end of which Elspeth is still sitting there, leveling up, by putting blockers into play.
Compare Elspeth to other top Planeswalkers... Jace, the Mind Sculptor might be the nigh-unanimous best Planeswalker ever, but his self-defense "Unsummon" ability costs loyalty and isn't a permanent solution.
Liliana of the Veil similarly levels down and can't aim.
Meanwhile, Elspeth not only puts 1/1 blockers into play while increasing in loyalty, but if you can get to the point of her -8, every one of those blockers—and every future one—is going to be able to block forever.
Elspeth, Knight-Errant is a Source of Card Advantage
Forget about "just" defending Elspeth (or yourself)... against an open board, Elspeth, Knight-Errant can start spitting out wave after wave of offensive threats.
When Planeswalkers are Good... Elspeth, Knight-Errant is Great!
Not only can Elspeth protect herself and pump out 1/1 Soldier threats, Elspeth and her little protégés can go over the top of opposing defenses to beat the tar out of other people's Planeswalkers. Elspeth's other +1 ability can—Angelic Blessing-like—send creatures "to the air," where they can avoid blockers while hitting like a ton of bricks.
Elspeth's Advantages Build on Each Other and Additional Synergies
Many Planeswalkers can end the game in a single stroke. They blow up half the opponent's permanents, empty the opponent's library, or deal massive damage while killing only one player's creatures. Elspeth's ultimate, by contrast, actually lengthens the game, but with her controller firmly in the driver's seat and at a massive advantage. Decks with normally symmetrical mass removal can now sweep the opponent's permanents while leaving their own on the battlefield. Decks designed for creature combat will win (or at least "won't lose") seemingly every fight. The game keeps going, the wheel keeps turning, and Elspeth's controller, already at an advantage, keeps building greater and greater advantages.
More than anything else...
Elspeth, Knight-Errant | Art by Volkan Baga
Elspeth has Been Proven in Tournament Battle, Again and Again.
Elspeth, Knight-Errant was a Grand Prix winner in the hands of past Player of the Year Brad Nelson:
Brad Nelson's WU Control
Standard – Top 8, Grand Prix Washington DC 2010
In Brad's WU Control deck, Elspeth was not only a great threat in her own right, a drag on the opponent's clock, and a murderer—two Soldiers at a time—of Bloodbraid Elf; but a great way to win the Jace war when the other guy hit Jace, the Mind Sculptor first. To the air!
Elspeth, Knight-Errant was a National Champion in the hands of current Player of the Year, Josh Utter-Leyton:
Josh Utter-Leyton's Bant
Standard – Top 8, 2010 US National Championships
Utter-Leyton fielded probably the strongest deck in the field on the way to his 2010 US Nationals win. His deck was famous for playing only the best cards, generally as four-ofs, with very little give. In Brad's deck, Elspeth was a game-winner in a low-creature context. Elspeth was the creature (or at least where the creatures came from).
In Utter-Leyton's deck, Elspeth was the beneficiary of a heavy creature schema. Elspeth could power out on turn three via Birds of Paradise, Noble Hierarch, or Lotus Cobra. And with a good creature already on the battlefield? Elspeth could go straight "to the air," not necessarily worrying about making a 1/1 Soldier first. Whatever was sent to the air could be dangerous immediately; in concert with Sovereigns of Lost Alara, Elspeth could create a gigantic, unblocked way to win, or give this mana-creature-heavy strategy another way to make its accelerators actually dangerous in battle!
Elspeth, Knight-Errant was a Pro Tour winner in the hands of Hall of Famer Brian Kibler:
Brian Kibler's Naya Zoo
Extended – Winner, Pro Tour Austin 2009
Kibler loves Elspeth so much he will play her almost whenever possible!
Elspeth, Knight-Errant isn't the sort of gal that can only fit well into one kind of slot. She performs in control, in Bant creature-combo, or straight Naya Zoo. In whatever kind of deck you want to put her into, she can perform, and she is capable of victory at a massive level.
In Modern (the format Modern Masters is most closely intended to serve) Elspeth, Knight-Errant has found an especial playmate in Geist of Saint Traft:
Ken Yukuhiro's Five-Color Zoo
Modern – Top 8, Grand Prix San Diego 2013
In Ken Yukuhiro's deck, a deck where basic Mountains master Patrick Sullivan declared Geist of Saint Traft "an honorary red card," we see a ferocious synergy. Turn-one Deathrite Shaman or Noble Hierarch producing a second-turn Geist of Saint Traft is bad enough... but when the very next turn the object of this article's affections can come down, and then send the Geist straight up?
Geist of Saint Traft will fly through the upper red zone as a 5/5, joined by an Angel. Given the context of this deck with its many Lightning Bolts, Lightning Helixes, and Tribal Flames, getting such a "combo" draw can give a five-color Zoo the ability to kill—and convincingly—on the fourth turn! Talk about your synergies! We said earlier that one of Elspeth's strengths is her ability to reinforce effective synergies; her "Angelic Blessing" +1 becomes increasingly effective when paired with increasingly effective offensive (and resilient) creatures.
What makes the great ones great?
What, in particular makes the great Planeswalkers great?
Is it just the ability to defend themselves?
I don't think that is the strict cutoff, as I rate Jace Beleren pretty high up there (although maybe that will change now that Jace Beleren can no longer trade with Jace, the Mind Sculptor); but most of the great Planeswalkers do in fact protect themselves quite well; and some, like Elspeth here or Ajani Vengeant, can do so while gaining loyalty.
Is it cost?
Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded hasn't set the world on fire quite yet, but the book hasn't closed on the world's first two-mana 'walker yet. The three-mana ones have been—or continue to be—Constructed staples. But cheapness in and of itself is not the signal for greatness. Elspeth shares what is largely considered the most decorated mana cost with what are largely considered the greatest Planeswalkers... Ajani Vengeant's World Championships win in 2009 in the hands of Andre Coimbra or Jace, the Mind Sculptor's World Championships win in 2010 in the hands of Guillaume Matignon (and role in the greatest sustained Standard deck of all time in Caw-Blade, of course). I would say that Elspeth's company at four is impressive, but she has done nearly as much as Jace and Ajani to decorate the casting cost.
At the end of the day, I think it is one-and-a-half things that makes the great ones truly great. Because this is Top Decks, there is only one most important principle... and that is winning. Elspeth is a winner and a favorite of winners. She has won at every level that matters, up to and including taking down a Pro Tour. But it's more than that. Koth is powerful. Heck, Fireblast is powerful, and so are Arcbound Ravager, Wild Mongrel, Mistbind Clique, and Lightning Rift. But most of those cards are only good in one or two strategies (even if they are important strategies).
In Magic, much of the promise of a card is in its flexibility. Elspeth not only wins but can win in a dizzying number of strategies (something that is particularly attractive for a reprint set like Modern Masters). Our most recent Pro Tour Champion Craig Wescoe first broke into a PT Top 8 with Elspeth, Knight-Errant as a four-of in his—you guessed it—White Weenie deck:
Craig Wescoe's White Weenie
Standard – Top 8, Pro Tour San Diego
So in a twenty-creature White Weenie deck, Elspeth, Knight-Errant can provide staying power and a body to put that Trusty Machete on, post-sweeper.
She is the beneficiary of green mana acceleration, first bursting onto the board thanks to Noble Hierarch, then sending a huge Knight of the Reliquary up, over, and through the red zone; she has done so in Josh Utter-Leyton's (Bant) Mythic Rare Conscription, Brian Kibler's Naya, Ken Yukuhiro's Five-Color Zoo, and innumerable other flexible, powerful, and cerebral offensive decks.
And in a deck like Brad Nelson's WU Control—a deck with precious few creatures proper—a deck where every Baneslayer Angel is going to draw fire... Elspeth, Knight-Errant is the way to win at all, and a key tool in killing opposing Planeswalkers.
She isn't just a winner...
She isn't just a good card...
Between that four mana in her upper-right and those three abilities down her left side, Elspeth, Knight-Errant might be...
Everything to everyone.
I don't know about you, but I can't wait to crack her in a pack of Modern Masters!
Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."