Adventures in the Forgotten Realms may be the least-heralded Magic set in the game’s history. Most of that is due to unfortunate timing, with its release coming on the heels of one of the most anticipated sets in recent memory in Modern Horizons 2, so many players have had their focus on the Modern format, where new Standard-legal sets tend not to have much of an impact.
Compounding this is the fact that Standard continues to be dominated by Throne of Eldraine, with most players so sick of the overpowered cards in that set, despite several of the most egregious already being banned, that they’d rather wait out the summer and jump back into Standard once it rotates in the fall.
But these unfortunate circumstances are still masking the set’s low power level. It’s clear that recent sets have been powered down, and while breaking the trend of high-powered sets is a welcome change, it does create a stagnant metagame dominated by the older sets. I suspect we’ll see some impact on Standard before rotation, but considerably less than we would for an average set, and that’s a bummer.
So instead I’m focusing on Modern, where Adventures in the Forgotten Realms’s impact was small, but significant. A handful of cards made their way into successful lists last weekend, affecting some of the more popular decks in the metagame. With so many powerful decks, Modern has always had a tenuous balance of power, so even a small shift can create major ripple effects. But you have to be careful when evaluating Week 1 results, since players are eager to try out new cards, and after more testing they often turn out to be weaker than the previous options.
With that in mind, I’ll be looking at three cards: Tasha’s Hideous Laughter, Ingenious Smith, and Portable Hole, that made their way into the Top 8 of a Modern Challenge on MTGO last weekend, and offer my thoughts as to whether I would buy or sell on the card making a lasting impact in its archetype. And without further ado, let’s get to the cards.
Buy: Tasha’s Hideous Laughter
Oddly enough, I first recognized the power of Tasha’s Hideous Laughter in Standard during an episode of VS Live! that was very early on in preview season. There weren’t many cards and I decided to build a Dimir Mill deck that I didn’t expect to perform well. But when I won the first game on Turn 5 while having some disruption, I knew Tasha’s Hideous Laughter had some legs. Enough that I was curious as to its potential in Modern.
Dimir Mill had been elevated from fringe archetype to solidly Tier 2 even before Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, operating in a similar space to Dredge where it would pop up for a week or two and then recede when the sideboard hate turned up. But any time you’re forcing opponents to put Gaea’s Blessing or Kozilek, Butcher of Truth in their sideboards, you know you’re doing something right.
With the addition of Tasha’s Hideous Laughter, Dimir Mill may have taken the next leap from gutsy metagame call to consistent viability. All three Dimir Mill decks that were in the Top 32s of last weekend’s Challenges played the full four copies, a strong initial endorsement, and it’s easy to see why if you take a minute and crunch the numbers.
The total mana value of the cards in the maindeck of an average Izzet deck is just over 60, so on average Tasha’s Hideous Laughter should exile about a third of their deck. For Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus)❄, that number is about 40, so you’re exiling around half their deck. Even Amulet Titan, a big mana deck that is partially named for a six-mana card, has a total mana value around 60. Curves in Modern are very low, especially since the introduction of powerful cheap threats Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and Dragon’s Rage Channeler.
The best deck against Laughter is Dimir Food, with a total mana value around 100, and even then you’re exiling around twelve cards on average, which is still comparable with another recent addition to these decks — Fractured Sanity. With the Food decks declining in metagame share recently, you should outperform Sanity much more often than not. Simply put, Tasha’s Hideous Laughter is one of the most efficient mill spells ever printed.
But the fact that it exiles your opponent’s cards rather than just milling them makes it even better. It means that those common sideboard hate cards will be significantly less effective. They’ll either be exiled by Tasha’s Hideous Laughter or will shuffle significantly fewer cards into your opponent’s library since a significant portion was already exiled.
Combating hate cards is one of the most important steps linear decks need to take in order to become consistent competitors in the metagame, and while Dimir Mill already had access to Surgical Extraction, it wasn’t enough. Having multiple maindeck cards that answer hate so you don’t have to devote any sideboard space to narrow answers is an ideal situation. It makes me confident that you’ll have to devise a more thorough plan to beat this deck on a weekly basis.
Sell: Ingenious Smith
Mono-White Hammer❄ was the breakout deck of the weekend, moving from consistent fringe archetype to now among the most successful in the metagame. The deck’s rise came as no surprise to me, as I wrote some weeks ago about how it was the perfect home for Urza’s Saga, and now with the decline in Food decks and Amulet Titan, it’s the most successful.
That rise was happening before Adventures in the Forgotten Realms’s release, but it appears that the deck has received another boost with the printing of Ingenious Smith, an obvious winner for any white-based, artifact-centric deck. However, despite the clear synergies that Smith pushes, I’m skeptical that it’s a positive addition to the deck.
There were twelve Colossus Hammer decks in the Top 32s of the two Challenges last weekend, and six of them played some number of Ingenious Smiths, so it’s a contentious issue already. The card that it’s most often replacing in lists that do play it is Giver of Runes, which is a little strange since they’re functionally quite different, but both are in the deck to provide resilience to removal; they just accomplish that goal in different ways. Giver is a reactive effect that stops your opponents’ removal from resolving, while Ingenious Smith lets you reload after the removal, essentially powering through it.
Typically I prefer the more proactive approach that Ingenious Smith takes, but in this case I don’t think the card is efficient enough to make a lasting impact in Modern. The decks are so powerful these days that you need to do more than play a glorified Elvish Visionary to give yourself resilience. I look at Ingenious Smith and see the latest version of Militia Bugler, which was a popular card among Humans players though I never liked it, and it was eventually pushed out of the deck for its inefficiency. Smith has similar problems and doesn’t have the synergy with Aether Vial and Phantasmal Image to prop it up.
Moreover, these decks have significant card advantage to provide resilience more efficiently. Stoneforge Mystic, Puresteel Paladin, Urza’s Saga, and Lurrus of the Dream-Den all fill this role quite well, and if you push too far in this direction, you lose the explosiveness that made the deck successful in the first place. I’d also rather protect these cards with Giver of Runes than trade them after gaining a bit of value and keep gaining marginal advantage with Ingenious Smith.
Lastly, Giver of Runes offers something that Ingenious Smith doesn’t and that’s evasion against blockers. This mode for Giver doesn’t come up that often, but when combined with the other factors and the fact that it keeps the deck lean, I’d rather play Giver than Ingenious Smith. The latter is a solid card, but no longer what the deck needs.
Buy: Portable Hole
The last card that showed up last weekend was Portable Hole in a more traditional Azorius Whirza shell than the Dimir Food deck it’s been showing up in recently.
These decks suffered with the ban of Mox Opal and Arcum’s Astrolabe because they were neither fast enough to accelerate out Urza nor dense enough with artifacts to consistently cast Urza and then generate the mana to double-spell or hold up a piece of interaction to protect your advantage.
Portable Hole helps immensely toward the second path by offering an efficient, flexible removal spell that’s also an artifact. When Portable Hole was previewed, I was bullish about its potential in Modern since it answers early threats without giving your opponent a land, but the printing of Prismatic Ending in Modern Horizons 2 limits the potential homes for Portable Hole to decks that are mostly white and thus struggle to cast Prismatic Ending for more than one, or decks that are trying to develop artifact synergies.
Urza decks are certainly the latter, and this list makes even better use of Portable Hole by adding the Whir of Invention package instead of playing a more interactive strategy. There are plenty of good artifacts to tutor for, many of which overlap with the Urza’s Saga package, but there hasn’t been a great removal spell to find off Whir of Invention. Aether Spellbomb is solid since it can also protect Urza from removal, but Pyrite Spellbomb has always been quite weak and Glass Casket isn’t efficient enough for Modern. Portable Hole makes Whir of Invention much better by expanding the range of cards it can find and contributing to improvise.
In a more traditional control deck, the fact that Portable Hole dies to the many artifact removal spells in Modern would be a major liability, but this deck is built to combo with Thopter Foundry and can often ignore the cheap creature under Portable Hole after Turn 4 or so.
I don’t think Portable Hole is going to make this a top-flight deck in the metagame, but it should be a staple of the archetype moving forward, and while before I thought decks like this were unplayable, now I’d consider it a solid fringe strategy for Urza aficionados who don’t care to deal with the Food engine.
And beyond its application in this deck, I expect Portable Hole to be a strong sideboard option for decks like Mono-White Hammer❄ that can’t utilize Prismatic Ending as effectively as the various tri-color midrange piles. It’s yet another solid removal spell for white decks that have had to rely on Path to Exile awkwardly ramping their opponents for far too long.
With so many eyes on Modern right now, I expect the format to continue evolving at a significant rate over this summer. I wouldn’t be surprised if more Adventures in the Forgotten Realms cards pop up in various decks. But this certainly won’t be a set that fundamentally reshapes the format.
And unlike with Standard, that’s welcome for both the present and the future.