Modern Horizons brought a lot of exciting and immediately impactful cards to Modern, none of them splashier than Urza, Lord High Artificer.
There’s a lot of text on Urza, and every line of it is awesome.
At worst, this is a 1/1 with lots of room to grow. At best, it bricks an aggressive deck’s entire offense and buys you time to combo. If your combo is being squeezed by Stony Silence, Pithing Needle, or similar, the Construct can just start bashing. On average, a Turn 3 Construct will be about a 3/3 and it shouldn’t be hard to have a 5/5 on the following turn when it’s ready to attack.
This past weekend, a friend of mine was playing Grixis Urza in an event and was able to beat a battlefield of Stony Silence, Rest in Peace, Ghostly Prison, and Suppression Field by attacking with a single 7/7 Construct three times. The beef on this monster is not to be underestimated.
If Urza has a premier ability, it’s this one. Tolarian Academy is one of the most broken lands ever printed – it’s restricted in Vintage and banned in Legacy – and this ability is better than Tolarian Academy. Academy taps once per turn and you get mana equal to your number of artifacts at that moment. Urza lets you piece out that total mana, only tapping for as much as you need at any given time. You also get mana right away out of any new artifact that enters the battlefield, making one-cost artifacts “free” and turning zero-cost cards into Mox Sapphire. It’s a common line to tap artifacts to play more artifacts then pass the turn with Whir of Invention at the ready.
Notably, the way this ability is worded ignores Stony Silence; Karn, the Great Creator; and Collector Ouphe. Urza is tapping the artifacts himself, not granting the artifacts the ability to tap.
This ability is the core of the combo with Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek. You can tap Sword to sacrifice it to Foundry and make a 1/1 Thopter. Then Sword returns to the battlefield attached to that Thopter. This can be repeated as many times as you want, each time gaining you a life and putting another Thopter onto the battlefield. In case infinite life and infinite creatures isn’t enough, the new Thopters can be tapped for blue as well, so you also have infinite blue mana. Which takes us to…
In a grindy game, it’s not unusual to activate this ability twice each turn. If your opponent doesn’t break it up quickly, they will get buried.
Once you have infinite mana, you can cast as much of your deck as you want. From there, it’s trivial to figure out how to win the game. Popular options include Ghirapur Aether Grid (remember we have infinite artifacts), using Scrap Trawler to loop Pyrite Spellbomb, or just destroying all your opponent’s permanents with Spine of Ish Sah.
It’s important to note that the timing restrictions of cards revealed from this ability still apply. You do need to activate it on your turn to cast non-instants that are revealed, you can’t add mana to a revealed Whir of Invention (it has to get a zero-cost artifact), and you only get to play one land per turn, no matter where that land comes from. The cards get cast from exile, not directly out of the library, so you’re not affected by Grafdigger’s Cage.
So now that we know Urza is powerful and wins the game on the spot with Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek, what’s the best way to get these cards onto the battlefield together?
This is the Grixis Urza list I used to get second place at SCG Pittsburgh two weeks ago. I had heard that Urza decks were creeping around in the wild, but I’ve been burned by Thopter/Sword decks in the past, so I mostly ignored it.
Then I started seeing endorsements from people I trust come rolling in. Kellen Pastore was tweeting lists with Magic Online League results, Rich Shay was crushing with it on his stream, Ray Perez was on Twitter trying to get a last-minute team together just for an excuse to play this deck, and Harlan Firer featured it in his “What We’d Play” article that week as well as giving it a standalone primer. I was fortunate enough to be hosting Harlan at my home in Pittsburgh for the weekend, we had some good talks Friday night, and I got the real-time technology developments right from the source up to the moment we submitted our lists.
The biggest difference between our list and those that surfaced at GP Dallas the same weekend was Serum Visions. The inclusion of Serum Visions may seem small, but it represents a fundamental philosophy shift.
Urza is the best card in this deck and a lot of crazy things happen when he arrives on time. Serum Visions is the best cantrip available in Modern to find what you need early and often. Making room for Serum Visions is a commitment to sticking that Turn 3 or 4 Urza as reliably as possible.
This approach in philosophy also led us to play four copies of Goblin Engineer, another hot new Modern Horizons offering. As a two-drop, it fits right into the curve and puts Sword of the Meek in the graveyard where it belongs. Since the deck’s Plan A is a three-card combo, having one of the pieces ready reliably on Turn 2 is a huge deal.
With four Goblin Engineers, we only needed one Sword of the Meek, which gave room for four copies of Thopter Foundry. This is a departure from the commonly-accepted three Foundry-two Sword split. The three-two split is a hedge in the direction of naturally drawing both halves of the combo if you’re not able to Whir or Engineer them. The problem with that approach is that Sword of the Meek is not a useful card unless you’re in the process of going off, as drawing one in the opening hand is pretty close to a mulligan.
Having a second Sword doesn’t help play around hate either. Surgical Extraction will get them all, Leyline of the Void or Rest in Peace will stop the combo entirely, and you don’t care if Sword gets destroyed. Scavenging Ooze is the only played card that could overtax one Sword without proactively bricking the other, and it’s tough to stop the combo with just an Ooze.
Thopter Foundry by contrast is a great card on its own in a deck with so many artifacts. A fair non-combo Foundry on the battlefield can buy a lot of time against an aggressive opponent or take over a grindy/stalled battlefield, so naturally drawing one is rarely a feel-bad.
Full playsets of Serum Visions, Goblin Engineer, and Thopter Foundry form a commitment to speed in Game 1. I believe this to be the best way to build the maindeck since Modern Game 1s tend to be all about speed. Then you can get clever out of the sideboard.
The Whir Package
In addition to the proactive plan of Whirring for your own combo, the deck has a small package of reactive Whir targets to slow down an opponent. Since Modern maindecks are built for speed, a lot of those decks struggle with hate in Game 1. Keep in mind that this isn’t a true prison deck, so playing to a lock isn’t always feasible, but you should be able to buy time to combo off.
At the time of this event, attacking the graveyard was essential for success because of Bridgevine. Having Tormod’s Crypt, Nihil Spellbomb, and Grafdigger’s Cage gave you multiple ways to Whir for disruption. And three is enough pieces to count on drawing at least one naturally.
Pithing Needle is an impressive one-of. Being able to get it efficiently and at instant speed can ruin someone’s whole plan.
Ichor Wellspring is the little engine that could. Sometimes you just have to Whir for a card. Sometimes you get another card from Thopter Foundry. Sometimes you draw two cards per turn with Goblin Engineer. This is your bullet for grindy matchups like Jund or Azorius Control.
Pyrite Spellbomb may not look flashy, but killing a clutch Thalia, Guardian of Thraben; Meddling Mage; or Scavenging Ooze can be game-changing. Having a spot removal spell in the maindeck goes a long way in a deck that otherwise is just trying to overpower opponents. And with Goblin Engineer, you can build your own Grim Lavamancer.
Ensnaring Bridge needs no introduction. Many Modern maindecks can’t reasonably beat this card.
Changes in the Format
The format for SCG Pittsburgh only existed for that week. It was after Modern Horizons, but just before Core Set 2020, the shift to the London Mulligan, and a Banned List update that everyone suspected would hit Bridgevine somehow.
I regret to inform everyone that these changes are not good for Urza.
The Bridge from Below ban is great for Modern but a net negative for Grixis Urza. Not only was Bridgevine a great matchup, it pushed a lot of fringe decks out of the format. Prison decks always do better in smaller metagames. The more you have to plan for, the more likely your prison package misses some relevant angle. Grixis Urza functioned on a tight little Whir package for the tight little metagame it existed in. It’ll take some adjustment to move forward.
Bridgevine dominating the format also demanded seven-plus sideboard cards out of other decks. That didn’t leave room for Stony Silence, Collector Ouphe, Shatterstorm, or other specific hate cards for a deck like Grixis Urza. For the brief window that format existed, Grixis Urza could crush the top dog while running rampant against the rest of the field who were busy targeting that same dog with their precious sideboard slots.
The London Mulligan also poses a threat to the position of all nonlinear Modern strategies. I have a lot of reps in with the London Mulligan from when it was tested on Magic Online earlier this year, and in my experience, the decks that rely on cantrips to sculpt their hands lose a lot of value in the London Mulligan world. This is because cantrip-heavy decks are based on the belief that if both players keep functional “lands and spells” kinds of hands, the player who sees lots of cards early on will have a better hand and a better plan as the game progresses. Sometimes the best hands in these decks don’t even have a plan other than “see more cards.”
Consider a hand of…
That’s a great hand! But nobody knows what it does yet!
Let’s line that great cantrip hand up against a Humans player who knows their matchup. They mulligan to five, seeing seven cards each time, and keep…
They’ll hit hard, fast, and double the cost of all your cantrips. Before the London Mulligan, you could reasonably rely on them having some misses like Reflector Mage or some extra lands they don’t need, or maybe they don’t have a one-drop. Now they’ll always have an explosive start and the decks that want to settle into sculpting a plan are immediately on the back foot.
Grixis Urza happens to be a cantrip deck. With four copies of Arcum’s Astrolabe, four of Mishra’s Bauble, four of Serum Visions, and an Ichor Wellspring, we are definitely trying to sculpt a gameplan early to execute on Turn 3 or 4.
This is not a death knell. Fair cantrip decks are still playable and probably even still good. They will just have to be ready to face increased pressure on average from the attacking decks and better disruption on average from the control decks. If the cantrip deck survives the initial blitz from the opponent’s perfect six-card hand, the card selection will take over the mid- and late-game, as the linear opponent has to rely on the top of their deck each turn.
Urza in the New World
Here are the adjustments I’ve made since SCG Pittsburgh:
I changed the Scrap Trawler to a Ghirapur Aether Grid to maximize card quality in the deck, since Trawler does very little on its own but Grid can take over a game. I briefly cut the Pyrite Spellbomb since I don’t have the Trawler combo anymore, but having a tutorable maindeck removal spell was too important, so I put it back in.
Shaving graveyard hate from the Whir package made room for Damping Sphere as a bullet against Mono-Green Tron, Amulet Titan, Izzet Phoenix, and Storm.
I’m down to three copies of Goblin Engineer and up to three of Whir of Invention as a proactive nod to sideboard hate. I sideboard out one to three Engineers in almost every matchup, so having an extra Whir as a card that’s always playable sacrifices a little Game 1 speed for some post-sideboard card quality.
Cutting Leyline of the Void opened up a lot of sideboard space. Thoughtseize is incredible against any combo or control deck. I love the two and might even go up to three.
There’s a wild one in the sideboard that might raise eyebrows, but I think Cyclonic Rift might be the hero we need. There will be a lot more Stony Silence effects in the metagame now that Bridgevimne is gone. Urza still generates a ton of mana with Stony Silence on the battlefield and Cyclonic Rift clears out an early hate piece for two mana or any number of prison effects for seven. Cyclonic Rift should immediately end any game where it resolves.
Grixis has been getting all the attention, but there are other ways to build this type of deck. Urza is blue and Thopter Foundry requires white or black, so you have to be base Dimir or Azorius. I consider Goblin Engineer uncuttable, which means we have to be Grixis, Jeskai, or Four-Color.
I believe Grixis to be the strongest in a vacuum, but Jeskai is better at playing against hate cards because you get access to Wear // Tear. Here’s a potential starting point for Jeskai.
An enterprising deckbuilder might be able to build a four-color version relying on Spire of Industry, though I doubt the extra sideboard options are worth the mana inconsistency.
I still think Urza decks are great. My local sponsor, Clubhouse Cards, ran Modern 1K flights last week with the new mulligan and Banned List in place. I won my pod and Urza took first and second in the other. I lent the deck to a friend the next day who is mostly retired from Magic and out of the Modern loop, and he comfortably Top 8’ed his event too. The results from SCG Worcester are in, of course, and two different, unrefined Grixis Urza lists took Top 16 slots.
It’s early in the format, but Urza will continue to be a player moving forward, and I’m confident enough to call it that I’ll be playing the deck at SCG Columbus in a few weeks.