Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus) is the best deck in Modern.
Err…. Orzhov Hammer (Lurrus) is the best deck in Modern.
Err… is that Selesnya Hammer (Lurrus) Top 8ing a bunch of events?
Wait, what Mono-White Hammer list was I talking about again?
Which Hammer list should you be playing and when does that change?
When All You Have Is a Hammer….
All of the current Hammer lists are trying to solve two problems with the Hammer core.
Problem one: what happens when your opponent casts a removal spell? Back in the early Magic 2020 days of Hammer, the big issue brought up was comparing them to Simic Infect. Where is your Vines of Vastwood? Why are you playing a deck with a more specific combo without baked-in protection against removal? It turns out not having all your stuff die to Wrenn and Six and having a more compact combo when mulliganing were both big deals, but you still have to expect your opponent to interact and stop what you’re doing, and you have to have some plan to keep playing from that point.
Problem two: how do you minimize mulligans?
The biggest issue with Hammer as a deck is the mulligan rate. Let’s ignore all the marginal inconsistencies and focus on the big picture: the stock Hammer list has to mulligan the vast majority of hands that don’t contain Urza’s Saga, Sigarda’s Aid, or Puresteel Paladin. That’s a 20% mulligan rate baked right into your deck, on top of all the marginal inconsistencies of lower land counts, heavy colorless land manabases, many of your cards being near-blank in multiples, and more. And that’s even counting the equipper-only, no Hammer hands as good enough because you have twelve outs to draw to instead of eight with the Hammer-only hands.
I would cautiously guess I mulligan about a third of my hands with traditional Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus), and a typical Magic Online (MTGO) League involves playing a few games off five or even four cards. You do win a decent amount of those games because bonking people for ten or more gets the job done, but reducing your mulligan rate leads to pretty stark improvement in win rates. If the issue is constraints on cardboard after your second mulligan, and drop in mulligan rate is multiplied in reducing the odds of getting to that low hand size.
Each of the different Hammer lists addresses these issues a bit differently, so let’s dive on in.
Solution 1: There’s a Problem?
There’s a strong argument that the math just works out and none of this stuff is actually an issue. Hammer keeps winning; if the odds were that bad, it would start losing. I don’t personally agree with that, but you can watch the counterargument at twitch.tv/cedricaphillips from 4 PM to 7 PM PT weekdays when he isn’t Cube drafting.
Giver of Runes is a mild concession to the removal issue that costs relatively little as a one-drop body. It was really good in the deck for a long time, but fell out of favor during the rise of Azorius Control (Kaheera). The most obnoxious issue is the interaction where if they Solitude your creature in response to a Sigarda’s Aid trigger, you can’t give it protection from white without fizzling the Hammer equip from your white enchantment.
But Giver also falls into the one-mana value wrap of Engineered Explosives and Chalice of the Void, and is fairly marginal in mirror matches due to a similar protection from colorless removing your Hammer against a chump blocking Ornithopter issue. The current metagame is high on Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, and Four-Color Blink (Yorion) is the popular Teferi, Time Raveler deck with less effective Solitudes and more other removal to fade, so Giver looks pretty good in the short term.
While we are talking about the defaults, you will see a one-of Cranial Plating in all of these lists. I used to be extremely against the card, but with control as a format mainstay, the card plays a critical role in answering the removal question. If you can afford to play slowly with it, your opponent is forced to answer your garbage Memnites. It isn’t an unstoppable answer, but it can carry a good portion of a game by itself and is worth the single card slot to hedge against an otherwise tougher matchup. Don’t be afraid to sideboard it out against decks where that play pattern won’t be relevant.
Solution 2: More Equipping
- 4 Ornithopter
- 2 Kor Outfitter
- 4 Stoneforge Mystic
- 4 Memnite
- 4 Puresteel Paladin
- 1 Gingerbrute
- 4 Esper Sentinel
If the big constraining factor on mulligans is one of your eight equip effects, and a solution to removal is just equipping your Colossus Hammer again, playing more equip effects is a pretty obvious solution to your problems. Of course, if the solution was that obvious, the problem woudn’t need to be solved in the first place.
There’s just such a huge drop in quality from Sigarda’s Aid’s instant-speed clause and Puresteel Paladin’s entire text box and the next-best option of Kor Outfitter that playing more than a couple of bonus copies is a bad idea. But just the stock two copies of Kor Outfitter mean your opening hand is missing that key Urza’s Saga or equipper 14% of the time instead of the prior 19%. That might look small on paper, but that is basically cutting out a quarter of your hands where you mulliganned despite having lands and spells. Not all of your mulligans are due to that, but due to that chain probability thing, I would ballpark those Kor Outfitters prevent about a third of your mulligans to five, which is a huge improvement.
There have been a few lists floating around playing Magnetic Theft, and I think that idea is both better and worse than it looks.
The cost of a red card is just lower than it looks. I’ll get to Thoughtseize in a bit, but it’s a pretty marginal card in most contexts. The loss of it and Cranial Plating fast equips is a worthy sacrifice for a good second color, and Magnetic Theft is a lot of equity in raw-race Game 1 of the mirror match.
That said, the sideboarded games of the mirror are vastly different. Magnetic Theft still does things, but I’ve found the Lurrus of the Dream-Den plus Cathar Commando style of play to be the source of a lot of wins. Kor Outfitter has similar Lurrus upside against the Thoughtseize decks of the format, so the balance depends on the quantity of Death’s Shadow relative to Murktide Regent on a given weekend.
There’s also an issue with sideboarding against the field. The common sideboard trick for Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus), light any highly cross-dependent linear deck, is just trim the individually low-impact cards against interaction. That tends to point at a copy or two of Springleaf Drum, especially when Ornithopter or Memnite is another low-impact trim, and that makes Magnetic Theft less reliable to cast. If the point of your flex slot is reducing your mulligan rates but basic sideboarding starts clawing back all that math, are you really accomplishing your initial goal?
When the metagame swings heavily towards Hammer mirrors, I would definitely consider Magnetic Theft. But with Hammer just being another good deck, I think there are enough assorted downsides to the card that I wouldn’t fault anyone for sticking with Kor Outfitter.
Solution #3: Fight Back
If you pay attention to MTGO results, you have spent a few months seeing the user name Laplasjan at the top of event standings with Orzhov Hammer (Lurrus).
The general premise of their lists, and Orzhov Hammer (Lurrus) in general, is trying to answer the playing against removal question. Hammer is just good against interaction as a Lurrus plus Urza’s Saga deck, but if your opponent is representing removal and pressure, you can end up in some dicey spots. The Grixis Death’s Shadow (Lurrus) matchup is not great, and the Izzet Midrange and Rakdos Midrange (Lurrus) matchups are close as a result of this.
A bit of your own interaction goes a long way in ensuring your opponent can’t steal a game while you set up your second Hammering or a Lurrus pickup, or in the case of Thoughtseize making sure their critical anti-Hammer lineup doesn’t happen.
There’s a subpackage here that plays into this plan: Ingenious Smith and Mishra’s Bauble. Once you start interacting with opponents, you no longer need to raw power your way through every scenario. There are some good-enough threats that can win games or force your opponents into losing positions, or just make Lurrus into that good-enough threat.
You can play Thoughtseize or Portable Hole without these cards, but I don’t think you should play Ingenious Smith or significant numbers of Mishra’s Bauble unless you have the interaction to support them. They just don’t win games against any of the unopposed good gameplans in Modern.
Smith leans more on Bauble than the other way around, since Smith is only really good if you immediately get the first +1/+1 counter the turn you cast the card, but neither makes a keepable hand on its own. You need to draw Smith with another Smith or Bauble, or draw these cards paired with interaction to make a new type of keepable hand. Since multiple things need to go right to make those hands, it’s still just helping on the mulligan margins, but it’s more than you think because you’re looking at those things going right in hands that don’t also have any of the cards that would make you normally keep.
I do really like the Bauble and Ingenious Smith setup as a reaction to more Chalice of the Void and Engineered Explosives in the metagame. It’s so punishing to the decks leaning on those cards when you turn their sweeper or lock piece into a tempo-negative one-for-one. Even if Portable Hole plays right into those cards, the things that come with it don’t.
Solution #4: Ancient Stirrings Like It’s 2018
I’ll make this really quick. You can’t find Puresteel Paladin or Sigarda’s Aid with Ancient Stirrings. It weirdly doesn’t improve your mulligans a lot. The card is playing the role of Steelshaper’s Gift that finds Urza’s Saga 30% of the time, but Urza’s Saga is really good at beating interactive opponents.
The thing that interests me about the green splash is actually the sideboard. Ancient Stirrings really extends your access to sideboard artifacts. There’s a weird counterbalance to this where the default plan of Hammer beats a lot of things that those artifacts are meant to beat, but if those decks turn their sideboard focus toward Hammer, you need to fight back and the green splash gives you the best density of interaction. And Veil of Summer needs no explanation; it’s just good.
I don’t buy the Gaea’s Blessing though. The issue with the Dimir Mill (Lurrus) matchup is them one-shotting you with Tasha’s Hideous Laughter and Blessing does nothing to stop that. You could just play an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn in any normal sideboard for a better result.
I am shocked to not see Ancient Stirrings paired with Mishra’s Bauble. Not necessarily Ingenious Smith because you aren’t slowing your opponents down and not even a ton of Baubles, but Bauble turns your failed Ancient Stirrings into a cantrip buyout more often and you get to have the good Lurrus line happen more than the number of Baubles you play would suggest.
Ancient Stirrings is pretty much unplayable against Chalice of the Void. A one-drop that plays a slower game against Chalice is just a non-starter.
Solution #5: You Did What?
You cut the best card in Modern from your deck to play Sword of Fire and Ice?
Yes, but it’s not that simple. In practice, the question is less whether having a companion is better than not having one. The question is whether having Lurrus every game is better than having Nettlecyst every game, and after playing with CrusherBotBG’s list, I’m not sure I know the answer to that question.
Of all these lists, the full Equipment, no Lurrus list is by far the best at the opening hand question. Any hand with Stoneforge Mystic or Steelshaper’s Gift has a Nettlecyst, and that card does most of the work of an Urza’s Saga. It doesn’t take a lot past that to convince me the hand is a keeper. Even if Lurrus is worth an extra card every game, this list gets a decent amount of that back by how much less it mulligans.
Nettlecyst is also just a plan against interaction. Every Memnite you draw is now a giant threat. Nettlecyst can get Prismatic Ending’ed, but that’s why you play Sword of Fire and Ice as a backup of the same thing and have the Cranial Plating too. You can even play a second Nettlecyst if that starts becoming a real issue.
You even get to play the interactive subgame really well. On Thin Ice out of the sideboard is the best of the interactive options, and Nettlecyst is the perfect threat to leverage against a bogged-down opponent. The rest of the sideboard is also weirdly awesome. Silence is a game-breaker against any combo opponent when you’re also a combo deck, and Defense Grid overperforms against the fair half of the metagame.
- 4 Ornithopter
- 3 Burrenton Forge-Tender
- 4 Stoneforge Mystic
- 4 Puresteel Paladin
- 4 Esper Sentinel
- 2 Sanctifier en-Vec
You can even take this great sideboard aspect to weird extremes like the winner of one of this week’s Modern Challenges did. Overloading on protection from red stuff is in the same vein as producing a bunch of two-for-ones like Ingenious Smith against the Ragavan decks, and Mana Leak is basically Thoughtseize… right?
This all sounds great, but it starts to unravel when you play the Hammer mirror. You can still steal Game 1 in a punch-out, but like I already said, Lurrus plays a massive role in the sideboarded games. The first Disenchant is good, but being the player Disenchanting every turn for the rest of the game ends things. The non-Lurrus list just can’t match that. Even if you have nonsense like Thieving Skydiver in the sideboard, you’re playing to win a subset of non-sideboarded games and not playing to win the ones you will actually see Game 2 or 3.
I love the CrusherBotBG list for formats where Hammer was having a rough time but secretly is a great choice with a bit more resilience. But if mirrors are a regular thing you expect to face, I think you need to also get down on their level and play Lurrus.
It’s super-interesting just how much flex there is in the Hammer archetype with how much of the deck is locked in place. These lists are all almost 50 cards identical to each other, and the additions aren’t anything core to the combo, but they all have distinct roles to play. Right now I really like the Kor Outfitter lists of Orzhov Hammer (Lurrus), but that could easily change by next week.
All this means is Hammer is going to remain a Tier 1 deck in Modern for a while. Get your reps in now. If you thought building the deck got complicated, just wait until you try to play a game with it that isn’t a free win.