Two months ago, I made the statement “I regret not registering Arboreal Grazer for the Season One Invitational.”
That was Standard.
Ten days ago, someone said to me, “I regret not registering Arboreal Grazer for Mythic Championship Hogaak.”
That was Modern.
Little did they know, I was already weeks ahead of them.
— Ari Lax (@armlx) August 1, 2019
Arboreal Grazer is actively good in Modern.
Wait, What the Heck?
As always, let me try to justify my wild statements. Even when I say things like “Segovian Angel is actively good in Draft,” I really do have logic behind it, and Arboreal Grazer is much less of a reach. Or more, because it literally has reach.
Arboreal Grazer costs one mana to cast. That’s a good sign. But what does it do uniquely well?
Arboreal Grazer costs one mana and ramps. That’s a really good sign, but it isn’t unique in doing that. Arboreal Grazer ramps in an indestructible way, unlike Llanowar Elves. But so does Utopia Sprawl. Arboreal Grazer ramps in a way that produces an actual tangible land, that doesn’t require a Forest.
And multiple good Modern decks care about physical lands on the battlefield.
Specifically, having a good one-mana ramp spell in these decks gives you great new patterns. Amulet Titan has more ways to hit Turn 2 Azusa, Lost but Seeking through a Lightning Bolt or Lava Dart that would take out Sakura-Tribe Scout. TitanShift…oh boy. Ever wanted to cast a Turn 3 Primeval Titan? You can do that if you get off the ground with a Turn 1 Arboreal Grazer.
But Arboreal Grazer is still not unique in doing this.
Elvish Pioneer has been Modern-legal for eight years, literally since the format existed. What is Arboreal Grazer doing that we couldn’t have done with that card a hundred times before?
Arboreal Grazer is to Lightning Bolt as Elvish Pioneer is to Lava Dart. Both are aiming to chump block and gain you three or four life, but Arboreal Grazer is way better at it.
Arboreal Grazer might chump block twice. Their Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, their Glistener Elf, their Monastery Swiftspear. These all need a boost to get through a stupid sloth, and that often means detracting from a future clock. Or even just soaking up three damage from Reality Smasher. I joke about reach, but it is also a relevant ability. Inkmoth Nexus, Arclight Phoenix, Celestial Colonnade on a really bad day.
Yeah, Arboreal Grazer puts you down a card, but so does Lightning Bolt and TitanShift has played that card forever. If you don’t need to actually kill the thing you targeted and can just block it into oblivion, Arboreal Grazer is just better because it accelerates the rest of your deck.
Prior to Mythic Championship IV, the deck I had tried Arboreal Grazer in was Amulet Titan.
- 4 Azusa, Lost but Seeking
- 1 Trinket Mage
- 4 Sakura-Tribe Scout
- 4 Primeval Titan
- 1 Walking Ballista
- 2 Arboreal Grazer
There’s a lot of flex in this list as it stands, so I’ll start with the inflexible decisions and move down from there.
In another case of “Wait, that card was reprinted into Modern?” I literally own Skyshroud Rangers from previously playing more ramp one-drops in Amulet Titan. Playing four Sakura-Tribe Scout plus some Arboreal Grazer when Skyshroud Ranger exists seems kinda counterintuitive, but this slot is somewhat caught in a trench of the reusable pieces allowing you to Turn 4 a Primeval Titan without other help but also being vulnerable to the huge increase in one-toughness kill spells from Modern Horizons.
Sakura-Tribe Scout’s instant activation allowing you to maneuver some weird kills and flexibly handle Field of Ruin is enough of an upgrade from Skyshroud Ranger that I think the Snake still deserves the full consideration, but with Jund’s newfound success thanks to Wrenn and Six, I’m closer to cutting Sakura-Tribe Scouts for more Arboreal Grazers than I am to putting a single Skyshroud Ranger in my deck.
Thing in the Ice, Arclight Phoenix, etc. You still really want a hard kill spell that doesn’t cost life and exiles stuff. The artifact lock decks aren’t super-dense on lock pieces either, so that argument for wanting Abrade to increase your interaction density doesn’t even matter.
I tried Slaughter Pact for a while, but it just didn’t do enough. On the Hive Mind combo side of things, even with a bonus two Arboreal Grazers to target it just wasn’t reliable enough against the combo and control decks you are trying to Pact out.
Lotus Field is a combo with Amulet of Vigor, and that combo is really good when trying to turbo Hive Mind people. But Amulet Titan’s biggest issue is that it struggles to properly align its cards when it only draws part of the big engine, and Lotus Field without Amulet of Vigor sucks. Amulet is notorious for having to mulligan “four land, but really all bounceland so I can’t play lands” hands. Do you want to add to that by seeing a hand of Kabira Crossroads, Simic Growth Chamber, Lotus Field, and spells, and realizing your third land requires you to sacrifice three mana of other lands to play?
If some Amulet math wizard sits down and tells me access to Lotus Field enables some specific deterministic combo line, I would reconsider. But I don’t want this card as a land I plan to naturally play from hand.
Force of Vigor is a huge pickup for this deck. You would often lose to Blood Moon or sometimes Damping Sphere despite having access to your Summoner’s Pact for Reclamation Sage.
I have no clue how to beat Azorius Control with Amulet Titan, and it has only gotten worse over time. I’ve tried all the normal person ways and there are just too many hoops to jump through. You have to hold Cavern of Souls to not lose it to Field of Ruin, but also hit land drops and blank their counterspells, but also not overextend with Primeval Titans, but also not just get Path to Exile chip-shotted down and keep up relevant pressure on planeswalkers, but also…yeah, it’s just bad.
So I just try to beat them with Hive Mind instead. That’s easy. Step 1: cast some spells and make them do stuff. Step 2: cast Hive Mind, hope it resolves. Step 3: They die.
Walking Ballista is kinda a third Hive Mind. I want that extra win condition, and I think the flexibility of Walking Ballista is important elsewhere. It can still “combo” out Azorius Control if you save your Cavern of Souls for a late Construct name.
I’m not playing any copies of Zacama, Primal Calamity. The giant Dinosaur is a really clean kill you can bridge to from a single Primeval Titan via Tolaria West to Summoner’s Pact, but I want to use my threat slots on things that actually kill Azorius Control these days. The same thing applies to Hornet Queen.
On this anti-Azorius note, I’m spending sideboard slots on more things I can just slam as lead up threats to pressure them and their planeswalkers. Tireless Tracker is just obviously overwhelming, but Ramunap Excavator is a card I’ve had really negative opinions on in the past. It just happens that your very specific utility lands matter against Azorius Control, so a way to keep those effects around against Field of Ruin makes things a lot easier. If that were all Excavator did I would still be skeptical, but Jund is also going hard on your mana via Wrenn and Six plus Ghost Quarter, and you want your own recursive Ghost Quarter against all the Urza’s Tower decks.
Overall, it feels like Arboreal Grazer is a small push for Amulet Titan and not a fundamental shift, but the future is promising for the deck. In the Mythic Championship II metagame with the London mulligan pre-War of the Spark, Amulet Titan was really bad because it wasn’t as reliably overpowering as Mono-Green Tron, Humans, or Dredge. With these last two sets turning the Modern format in on itself into a place where a lot of these super-low-to-the-ground decks are punished while more flexible decks like Eldrazi Tron are rewarded, Amulet Titan has room to sneak back in. It always has played as a deck with an insurmountable end-game, some broken draws, and a weak median, and that last point is just less of a liability.
You know, once Hogaak is gone and all that.
The player who regretted registering zero Arboreal Grazer was none other than Thien Nguyen, Mythic Championship II Top 8 competitor with TitanShift. This was the list he gave as a starting point.
The big-picture vision of this list is phenomenal.
Once you start down the Arboreal Grazer road, you want to really maximize what a one-mana land ramp does for you. The dream scenario from there is betting to use your three mana on Turn 2 to double ramp, giving you six mana on Turn 3 for Primeval Titan. That requires a ramp spell that costs an effective one mana and Explore gives you that.
The subpar nut draw involves either Arboreal Grazer or Search for Tomorrow Turn 1 and a single ramp spell Turn 2. That gives you five mana on Turn 3, and that’s where Hour of Promise comes in.
There’s some interesting planning stuff going on with Hour of Promise, since Field of the Dead and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle require slightly different setups for five Mountains or five differently named lands. The quick version: If you have to control a basic Forest or are following up Hour of Promise with Scapeshift or nothing, Field of Ruin is best. If you’re following up Hour of Promise with another Hour of Promise or Primeval Titan, aim for Mountains plus Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, as you can easily set up eighteen damage on Turn 4.
Pushing your ramp gameplan to the max means you don’t have room for maindeck interaction. You are trying to set up these nut draws that operate on way earlier turns and require more specific cards. Not only is every time you draw Lightning Bolt you not drawing a land as you count up to six or seven pieces of cardboard with that card type, but your hands are becoming more window-specific. You need your lands and ramp early, and even if your top ten cards have everything you need to draw all the lands and spells up front. That Lightning Bolt in your opening hand might buy you a fractional or full turn of time, but the replacement linear ramp or land card would do exactly the same in this list.
Your mana is also much more constrained with this list. I’m talking about draws that use all your mana on Turn 1, Turn 2, and Turn 3 to turbo ramp as opposed to having this mostly dead Turn 1 and a gap on Turn 3 where your boosted mana can be used to interact. Not only are these cards crippling your ramp plan, but you don’t even want to have the mana to cast them.
The interaction that does show up is Anger of the Gods, which is less interaction and more of a “one-card knockout” against Humans that you have some room for because your entire deck is supposed to be building to one-card knockouts and this is just a narrow one.
That all said, I’m not super into the small details here.
These random alternate threat planeswalkers make no sense to me. They aren’t better than your real threats to ramp to and they don’t really help you get to those threats. I guess Wrenn and Six does some decent interaction stuff while hitting land drops, but I’m almost at the point where I would rather count on other Wrenn and Six decks to suppress the things that card kills. Your Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle deck is here to beat the things preying on those decks.
I would rather just play Summoner’s Pact since that can amplify sideboard cards. Blood Moon without a tutorable answer kinda sucks to deal with.
The premise of Cultivate with your “extra land in hand required” ramp makes sense, but in practice it’s just a clunky ramp spell you only want in small numbers. Field of the Dead also makes something like Farseek that can fetch your two-type lands instead of basics more exciting. There are only so many Snow-Covered whatevers to go around when you have to ramp out all basics.
Relic of Progenitus as a three-of from the sideboard is just a joke. It’s 2019, graveyard decks are better than this, try again. I don’t care if Anger of the Gods says “exile.” This is a sad excuse for trying to beat Dredge, let alone Hogaak.
I’m not really sure what Veil of Summer is doing in this deck that Guttural Response wasn’t doing before. I don’t want this card against Jund, as they’re already trying to win the game by catching you with a bad mix of pieces at the wrong time. Blue plus Death’s Shadow isn’t really a thing. Am I just using this to fight over stuff with Azorius Control? At best, that’s worth a mise slot.
Here’s the updated list I’m interested in trying.
The Bigger Implications of Arboreal Grazer
While the rest of the format lives in Hogaak’s world, I now kinda want to do a Gatherer search of every one-mana card legal in Modern. If Arboreal Grazer is good, what else has potential? What if Elvish Pioneer was actually good for almost a decade and no one noticed?
This is the really great part of current Modern (minus Hogaak). There’s a bunch of really powerful payoffs, nothing super-clearly above the rest, and it’s up to you to find the right tools to utilize each of them.
And always remember:
It’s not about the damage, it’s about sending a message. pic.twitter.com/ol2tPj5sDk
— Ari Lax (@armlx) August 3, 2019