War Of The Spark Isn’t Just Shaking Up Standard: Preparing For SCG Louisville

War of the Spark and its powerful planeswalkers are about to take a Louisville Slugger to Modern! Abraham Stein swings for the fences as he highlights the potential stars at this weekend’s Open!

Over the weekend in Syracuse, we bore witness to War of the Spark in all its glory, spearheaded by my very own SuperFriend, Zan Syed, who proved bold enough to put eighteen planeswalkers in the same deck. Some might find this kind of development scary, as it illustrates a big shift in the way Magic looks, from emphasizing creatures to emphasizing planeswalkers. I wouldn’t worry too much, though; upon further research, my other SuperFriend, Oliver Tomajko, had nineteen planeswalkers and he still lost to Zan, so there’s hope for us yet.

If my feelings on Standard aren’t very apparent after that short breakdown, I’ll be glad to spell them out for you. I’m a little burnt out from it. Keeping track of static abilities, figuring out good counterplay measures, and finding my place in this brave new world has been exhausting.

Fortunately, this week we get to cap off the Opens of Season One 2019 here on the SCG Tour in Louisville with some good old-fashioned Modern. If you had told me a year ago that I’d be jumping for joy at the thought of a Modern Open, I might have called you crazy, but here we are, living through it.

If there’s something I know Modern is good for, it’s consistency. There are no new decks popping up on Friday afternoons, rarely ever some new technology that’s only good for a week, and definitely not decks with eighteen planeswalkers running around changing Magic.

Now that I think of it, Louisville will actually be the first big two-day event with War of the Spark legal in Modern, and that’s exciting stuff! I’ve been sitting here thinking we’d have to wait for Modern Horizons to release before we’d see any changes to the format, but maybe we don’t need more Horizon Canopies and Fact or Fiction to really shake things up. War of the Spark, as much as I may be complaining about it today, has no shortage of powerful cards with the potential to be mainstays of Modern.

Specifically, when I think of cards that could have an obvious impact on Modern, these three are the first to come to mind. Not for no reason, either, as the combination of Karn and Mycosynth Lattice is a one-card hard-lock, people have been calling Narset a Dig Through Time, and there hasn’t been an unplayable Teferi to come out of a booster pack yet.

Looking over the few weeks of Modern results we have to work with since the release of War of the Spark, it seems that, despite the lower raw power level, the blue planeswalkers have been coming out on top. Let’s start by taking a look at last week’s Classic-winning Azorius Control.

This list that Jeremy piloted all the way to the top of the standings was built by notable young control wizard Jonathan Hobbs, who has thrown caution to the wind and decided to play the full four Narsets. Personally, I thought this might be a little extreme, but after further considering things, I think it might be genius.

Azorius Control of old would have to rely on Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin to really pull them ahead and lock up the games they were playing, and while this strategy proved effective, it definitely had some flaws. The first flaw with Azcanta is that it costs a total of four mana to activate each turn. This may not seem like a lot, but it basically makes the engine unusable until you’re working with eight or nine mana.

The second flaw of Azcanta is that while it provides a steady stream of cards over a long game, it doesn’t really help you out much early on. Other than allowing you to sift through pockets of lands and spells you don’t need in the moment, an early Search for Azcanta is a pretty useless piece of cardboard for a while after you cast it.

Narset kills these two birds with one stone and it’s actually quite elegant. The turn you cast Narset, you can immediately use its ability and get a virtual Azcanta activation for only three mana. The next turn, leaving all your mana up, you can fire off another look for the answers you’re searching for and still have ample mana to develop or protect yourself.

On top of being a faster Azcanta, Narset’s static ability also has its relevance in some of Azorius Control’s previously close or unfavorable matchups. Tron, Izzet Phoenix, and Dredge all pride themselves on being able to draw through their deck at reasonable speed by way of Faithless Looting, Chromatic Star, or Cathartic Reunion, and Narset stops that cold in its tracks while she’s just doing her job.

Conversely, some of the new War of the Spark additions I’ve been seeing in these decks don’t quite seem like they’ll stand the test of time. Dovin’s Veto and Teferi, Time Raveler are Standard staples at this point, but a supercharged Negate and a planeswalker that mimics Repulse don’t really strike me as cards I want to put into the maindeck of my control deck in Modern. Perhaps in this case Hobbs was worried about skewing towards the mirror, but whenever I look to play control in Modern, my first priority is fighting the battlefield, not the stack.

As much as I believe the Azorius Control decks are the biggest winners so far from War of the Spark, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also take a second to walk you through what Tron looks like with Karn, the Great Creator these days.

Everyone’s favorite least-favorite-deck-in-Modern got dished up a heaping helping of even more unfun things to do thanks to Karn, and while the deck hasn’t had a huge success yet, I think these Karn decks rock the boat the most. The very threat of Karn out of decks means that every other deck has to have a plan for some extremely potent sideboard card to hit the table, even in Game 1.

Karn’s added dimension of being a card with relatively low deckbuilding cost compared to the depth it adds in a format like Modern means that more decks around it need to start respecting effective maindeck hate cards. Unlike Whir Prison, a single Shatterstorm simply won’t cut it when it comes to being prepared to beat a Karn.

Under the right conditions, Karn in any deck has the ceiling of being a hard lock with something like an Ensnaring Bridge or Mycosynth Lattice and the floor of grabbing a card that forces the opponent to also shift to a Plan B. Purely proactive decks will have to start considering their plans for this new texture of gameplay that has been popping up in decks from Tron to Amulet Titan to Mono-Red Prison, and as such I wouldn’t be surprised if a deck like Humans was pushed to maindeck things like Deputy of Detention or Knight of Autumn.

So, other than these new cards, what else is going on in Modern? It’s been more than a month since the SCG Tour has laid eyes on the format, so it’s definitely important to go over what we’ve missed. In honor of Finals Week for my fellow students out there, let’s give out some grades.

First up is Humans.

Grade before War of the Spark: A+

Grade after War of the Spark: A-

Not only did I Top 8 last week’s Modern Classic with Humans, I loaned my deck to a friend who won the Classic in Richmond with it, and by the way, it won the Mythic Championship too. Huh, must be something to it.

Flexes aside, Humans will always be a mainstay of the format so long as people are trying to do anything unfair. A quick clock and disruption is the worst nightmare of combo decks and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben has been lining up with the Modern format very well recently. For more on this deck, you should check out what Dylan Hand wrote on Monday, as most of what I know about Humans has come from him in one way or another.

The reason I give Humans a declining grade of an A- is that the improving positioning of Tron and Azorius Control is a little scary for the members of the township. Both are very tight matchups even when played extremely well by Humans, and the decline of Izzet Phoenix means there are fewer free wins floating around the Swiss.

The next member of the big three from before War of the Spark we’ll be gradingis Dredge.

Grade before War of the Spark: A

Grade after War of the Spark: A

By the grades, it may look like nothing is going on with Dredge, but actually its position is a little complicated. Karn has pushed Tron from a hard matchup to a miserable one with the ability to fetch potent graveyard hate like Grafdigger’s Cage at will. Conversely, one of Dredge’s best matchups, Azorius Control, is poised to gain some ground coming into the weekend, so it makes up for a bit of the loss.

Additionally, Dredge has picked up Blast Zone as a cool addition to their Life from the Loam package, pushing their ability to fight through soft-hate cards like Grafdigger’s Cage or Auriok Champion to a new level. Overall, most of Dredge’s grade is really just attached to the hate you can expect it to go up against. If you think it’s catching a break this week, adjust your own grading accordingly.

Finally, we have Izzet Phoenix.

Grade before War of the Spark: A-

Grade after War of the Spark: B

A former leader of the push to ban Faithless Looting in Modern, it looks to me like Izzet Phoenix is finally completing its fall from grace. While it was all over the Classic in Richmond, it feels to me like Izzet is suffering from the same fate as every other “best deck” not worthy of a ban. Much like Grixis Death’s Shadow, Humans, and Hollow One before it, the target on its back is too large. Like I said before, one of the big draws to playing Humans was its amazing Izzet Phoenix matchup, and the more people have found decks with good gameplans to beat Phoenix, the worse things have gotten.

I imagine that this won’t be the end of Arclight Phoenix in Modern, though. Ross Merriam seemed optimistic in his article on Tuesday that things would turn around, and I know Mono-Red Phoenix looks like it’s getting some new tools in Modern Horizons to work with.

Realistically, Modern Horizons looks like it’s going to take everything we know about Modern and turn it on its head. The cards we’ve seen so far are not only nostalgic, they’re powerful, warping reprints or amazing callbacks to some of the most powerful cards in the history of competitive Magic.

Thinking about how much I feel like the fabric of Modern is changing from five to ten cards from War of the Spark making their way into three or four decks has really put into perspective for me just how wild the format is about to be. For all I know, the decks I graded above as “the big three” might not even exist in the same capacity after the Invitational in a few weeks, and that is a jaw-dropping revelation to reach.

One that I hope I’ll be able to get into better by digging into some previews next week.