A Dim Light: Examining Boros Lumimancer

By the time you read this, Strixhaven: School of Mages will have been available on MTGO for six days. And some people even have it in paper. Consequently, results are beginning to trickle in which include the new cards. Which means that I can start seeing how well my psychic abilities are developing. And maybe get some insight into what’s going on in Modern now. That’d be a nice, but entirely secondary, objective.

With all eyes on presumptive Modern All-Star Clever Lumimancer, I certainly thought that this first week would be the Boros Prowess show. It’s just the way these things normally go: the new and hyped card is adopted by everyone online. It has good results thanks to the Law of Large Numbers and simple population density ensuring high results. However, it quickly fades as the other decks adapt and/or streamer interest wanes. At least, that’s what I was expecting as I pulled the data from Strixhaven’s first week. Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen. And I’m not sure why, which makes the examination all the more interesting.

Tale of the Tape

Instead, it looks like Lumimancer is starting slow, at least in comparison to the hype. It’s doing better than the MDFC’s after Zendikar Rising in a similar timeframe. If that sounds vaguely like I’m damning Lumimancer with faint praise it’s because I am. Lumimancer has the advantage of a readymade archetype while it took time for Oops, All Spells to get worked out. It’s an especially weak statement considering that Thrilling Discovery is hot on Lumimancer’s heels results-wise, and only fits into one deck. And most of Lumimancer’s results came from the same event. This isn’t like Hogaak levels of immediate saturation, and Lumimancer has the advantage of extra MTGO events during its release weekend.

Which is not to say that the results are poor by any stretch of the imagination. However, given the chatter surrounding the card, it is well below my expectations for a first weekend. And, unfortunately for Lumimancer, I haven’t seen anything to contradict the MTGO results. While it is still early, the results that streamers and YouTubers are putting out about Lumimancer doesn’t point to a busted card. It is logistically impossible for me to watch every piece of content currently out there, but a strategic audit indicates that for every 5-0, completely busted League run which matches the hype, there’s another 0-5 where the deck simply implodes. And the vast majority are 3-2 struggles. Which is… perfectly fine. It’s how an average card should do in Modern. But given the hype, it makes me wonder what makes Lumimancer only an average card?

Observations

Obviously, it’s still very early. Literally the first weekend. The decks being early drafts and the pilots being inexperienced is certainly a factor. It might already be turning around, but the lag in data reporting doesn’t show it. However, if a card is truly busted, then I’d expect that its raw power would make up for suboptimal play and deck building. And I’m not seeing that.

From what I’ve seen, the issue with Lumimancer decks is Lumimancer. With no help, it’s a 0/1 and dies to a weak breeze. At least Monastery Swiftspear is a 1/2 with haste. If the opponent provides any resistance, Lumimancer suddenly becomes a liability. Again, without magecraft triggers, Lumimancer is a 0/1. To save it from a Lightning Bolt requires expending two spells or a Mutagenic Growth. If the opponent is smart and Bolts on their turn, then those resources are expended for no value. And that’s not getting into what happens when you dump a bunch of spells into an attack and Lumimancer gets Fatal Pushed or Path to Exiled. Which gives me strong Infect vibes, and that deck doesn’t perform well, either.

However, sometimes the opponent offers no resistance. In those cases Lumimancer… is still a bit underwhelming. It seems to offer a single enormous hit followed up by not much. While +2/+2 per instant or sorcery is better than the prowess rate, Lumimancer still starts from 0, so it takes a lot of spells to produce a reasonable, Modern-level hit, but rarely a lethal one. After which, the typical Prowess list won’t have much follow-up. Lumimancer requires a surprising amount of help to be good.

The Logical Solution

Naturally, this makes me think that the correct solution is to go all-in on Lumimancer. I thought that this would lead players down the road to filling their decks with Apostle’s Blessing, Gods Willing, and/or Blossoming Defense to protect Lumimancer while trying to dump Mutagenic Growth and Gut Shot alongside Assault Strobe to kill on turn two. However, that isn’t happening. In the available data, only one deck’s seriously going for the early kill.

Mardu Lumimancer, benchsummer (Modern League 5-0)

Creatures (12)
Kiln Fiend
Clever Lumimancer
Monastery Swiftspear

Sorceries (9)
Assault Strobe
Crash Through
Ground Rift

Instants (21)
Emerge Unscathed
Gut Shot
Lightning Bolt
Mutagenic Growth
Tainted Strike
Manamorphose
Sideboard (15)
Lurrus of the Dream-Den
Path to Exile
Postmortem Lunge
Shattering Spree
Cleansing Wildfire
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This deck not only goes for that quick kill with Assault Strobe, Manamorphose, and Ground Rift, it has Tainted Strike to as redundancy for Strobe. However, it’s missing the protection elements that I expected. Yes, there’s Emerge Unscathed, but that’s a two-of when I was expecting multiple fours. I’m guessing that’s because there just isn’t room and it’s insane to not run Bolt. Alternatively and surprisingly (because I didn’t even consider it) Flusterstorm not only protects a big turn, but serves to make that turn more absurd.

Jeskai Lumimancer, unagieel (27th Place, Modern Challenge)

Creatures (16)
Clever Lumimancer
Monastery Swiftspear
Nivmagus Elemental
Leonin Lightscribe

Sorceries (5)
Ground Rift
Light Up the Stage

Instants (21)
Lava Dart
Lightning Bolt
Flusterstorm
Gut Shot
Mutagenic Growth
Manamorphose

Lands (18)
Arid Mesa
Bloodstained Mire
Wooded Foothills
Mountain
Sacred Foundry
Steam Vents
Sunbaked Canyon
Sideboard (15)
Path to Exile
Shattering Spree
Surgical Extraction
Kor Firewalker
Bedlam Reveler
Lurrus of the Dream-Den
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I like this version more than the previous Mardu version. The former has so few creatures that it will have to mulligan a lot, and there’s no plan for when things go wrong. The Jeskai version’s higher creature count means more (potentially) keepable hands. It can also come back from a failed kill shot thanks to Light Up the Stage‘s card advantage. I imagine that it also has a huge advantage over other Lumimancer decks thanks to Lava Dart. I anticipate that this is the direction to go with dedicated Lumimancer decks.

The Catch

However, these decks are the exception. Of the seven results for Lumimancer (as of Monday 4/19) these two decks were the only ones even trying to be dedicated All-In Lumimancer decks. The rest were Boros Prowess variants. This is also the direction that the vast majority of content creators have gone. I suspect that, despite claims to the contrary, it’s so hard to actually pull off that early kill that it just isn’t worthwhile to try. This is something that Prowess players figured out some time ago and have been adapting, but the lesson frequently needs reiteration apparently.

I’m not surprised that players came to this conclusion. It’s why, despite favorable metagame positioning, Infect hasn’t thrived in years. Any deck can beat one that doesn’t provide resistance. However, if the only way to survive even slight pressure is to throw non-recoverable resources at it, resources you need to win the game, then the strategy is doomed to grind down. This being something known, I did anticipate players to move away from All-In Lumimancer, but not for at least another week. I thought that streamers particularly would want to have their fun and roll the dice. That doesn’t appear to have happened.

In Comparison

However, it is possible that things will pick up if another lesson from the past gets learned. All-In decks hit their heyday at the end of 2016, which led to Gitaxian Probe being banned. It’s been commonly claimed that the lack of Probe is what did the archetype in, but I think that’s only part of the equation. Probe was critical for figuring out when to go for the kill, not for getting to the kill. Those decks, particularly the Kiln Fiend decks that are Lumimancer’s direct ancestor, had to navigate the game very carefully because they couldn’t really protect their threats. At least Infect could spend spells and still win thanks to Become Immense. And I think the way that UR Fiend solved the problem back then should guide Lumimancer players today.

UR Kiln Fiend, NJ4U1 (1st, Modern Competitive League 1/12/2017)

Creatures (13)
Monastery Swiftspear
Kiln Fiend
Thing in the Ice
Bedlam Reveler

Sorceries (12)
Gitaxian Probe
Sleight of Hand
Faithless Looting
Serum Visions

Instants (18)
Mutagenic Growth
Lightning Bolt
Apostle’s Blessing
Temur Battle Rage
Manamorphose

Land (17)
Polluted Delta
Spirebluff Canal
Steam Vents
Island
Mountain
Blood Crypt
Sideboard (15)
Bedlam Reveler
Apostle’s Blessing
Spell Pierce
Ceremonious Rejection
Death’s Shadow
Tormod’s Crypt
Stubborn Denial
Young Pyromancer
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Right before the ban, UR Fiend had moved away from a single-shot deck towards a midrange deck. Earlier versions had little recourse but to slam down their threat and hope it survived to serve as a cannon to funnel their hand into damage. And that it would be lethal. These later versions could sit back and let Thing in the Ice do the work for them. This was before Fatal Push, meaning that a 0/4 was fairly hard to kill and a 7/9 was vulnerable only to Path to Exile. As the game went longer, Bedlam Reveler would refuel the deck and be a very dangerous threat. All while the threat of sudden death by Kiln Fiend was maintained.

It’s possible that Lumimancer might make a similar adjustment. Thing in the Ice probably isn’t on the menu anymore, but the similar plan of threaten the swift kill and actually win via creature card advantage has expanded since 2017. The question is whether the metagame is favorable to a deck deliberately slowing down. And if such a decision is better than the alternative.

Boros Prowess

That is especially important given that the default choice has been to just splash white for Lumimancer in mono-red Prowess. I’ve seen some attempts to make it fully integrated Boros Prowess, but they seem to be doing worse than just adjusting some of the Prowess trigger cards and adding Lumimancer. Frankly, I’m a little mystified, as many of the card choices look more like 2019 Prowess, but here we are.

Boros Prowess, _Tia93_ (22nd Place, Modern Challenge)

Creatures (14)
Soul-Scar Mage
Clever Lumimancer
Monastery Swiftspear
Abbot of Keral Keep

Artifacts (4)
Mishra’s Bauble

Sorceries (8)
Crash Through
Light Up the Stage

Instants (18)
Lava Dart
Lightning Bolt
Mutagenic Growth
Gut Shot
Manamorphose

Lands (18)
Inspiring Vantage
Arid Mesa
Bloodstained Mire
Sacred Foundry
Mountain
Sunbaked Canyon
Wooded Foothills
Sideboard (15)
Lurrus of the Dream-Den
Tormod’s Crypt
Chained to the Rocks
Path to Exile
Kor Firewalker
Revoke Existence
Rip Apart
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What is typically happening is players start with a typical Mono-Red Prowess deck, remove Blood Moon and Bonecrusher Giant, and replace them with Lumimancer and Crash Through, followed by some tweaks to card numbers and the mana. This version I shared went a bit further, lowering the curve and switching out Seasoned Pyromancer for Abbot of Keral Keep to use Lurrus as a companion. And it seems to be working, so I can’t really begrudge this choice.

However, if it wasn’t obvious from my tone, this does come off as rather lazy. It’s clearly working much better than the dedicated shells, but it’s not doing better than any other Prowess deck. Which might mean that Boros Prowess will simply slide into the constellation of Prowess builds. However, it feels like with some actual work, this could be a real contender. Boros Charm is a little expensive by Prowess standards, but it does a lot of damage and can make Lumimancer lethal with double strike. Which makes it far more confusing that those decks that have tried it do worse than these lower-work versions.

What Does it Mean?

It is still very early in Strixhaven’s Modern life, and it’s possible that I’m being premature. However, going off the hype, I would have expected far more from Clever Lumimancer right out of the gate. More results, more convincing wins, more innovation, and more work being done on the actual decks. That isn’t happening. It might be that these decks might need more time in the oven to reach their potential. It may also be that Lumimancer’s high ceiling doesn’t justify its appallingly low floor.

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