When we got our first glimpse of Modern Horizons 2 and Adventures in the Forgotten Realms at the same time, we didn’t know what to expect from either. A few months later, we’re still processing the impact of the former and struggling to detect the latter. In breaking down the set with Ari Lax on Dominaria’s Judgment and coming up with a ranking for the First Impressions column, I struggled to find exciting cards to talk about.
The first card we saw was in fact the best one. I speculated about Azorius Whirza being the deck that gained the most from this set thanks to Portable Hole and decided to test that theory in a Modern Challenge on Magic Online (MTGO) last weekend:
This first pass felt fine but is likely to suffer splash damage as the competition sets its sights squarely on Colossus Hammer. Once the format shifts again, the next iteration of Whirza will be worth another look.
Before going over the cards that make the deck work, I need to address one that didn’t make the cut:
By far the most common question I’ve received and seen is about the lack of Emry, Lurker of the Loch. It’s an obvious consideration for an artifact-heavy deck, and Jeskai Whirza has both Portable Hole as a recurrable removal spell and Thopter Foundry as a threat that many games revolve around to make Emry a must-kill card.
Nevertheless, I’m confident that Emry doesn’t belong here. The Izzet or Rakdos decks based around Dragon’s Rage Channeler and Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer are full of removal like Lightning Bolt or Unholy Heat and the format at large has to play more interaction to fight Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus). Jeskai Whirza has no other targets for those cards — Urza, Lord High Artificer is a partial exception but makes an additional threat, often gives you an immediate return on the mana spent to cast it, and enables the infinite combo with Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek through any amount of removal. Emry is usually dead on arrival and gives up the advantage of being an effectively creatureless deck in current Modern. The same argument hurts another common suggestion in Stoneforge Mystic, which at least leaves you with another threat or combo piece in Sword of the Meek and may deserve consideration.
The other side of the format has mostly linear decks that are less likely to kill Emry but don’t need to unless it can cast a specific card (such as Chalice of the Void or Soul-Guide Lantern against Living End). When the opponent is trying to fight the game on their own, narrow termsm the average use case of gaining incremental value by rebuying Mishra’s Bauble every turn is irrelevant. If these terms involve keeping creatures or cheap permanents on the battlefield, Emry can threaten a lock with Aether Spellbomb or Engineered Explosives, but this is most effective when these cards are drawn naturally, and Jeskai Whirza finds space for this toolbox by running small numbers of these cards but enjoying consistent access to them via Whir of Invention and Urza’s Saga. This results in these locks being slow two-card combos in games where you need them quickly and reliably.
There are more than just contextual reasons. These decks can be roughly divided into enablers and payoffs that lean on each other — without a certain density of cheap artifacts there’s no reason to play Urza, Lord High Artificer or Whir of Invention, and without these you wouldn’t want to pack your deck with Chromatic Stars. Jeskai Whirza already had access to more payoffs than you can play at once and Urza’s Saga is a new heavyweight fighter in that class. Between Urza, Urza’s Saga, Whir of Invention, and both halves of the Thopter-Sword combo, it’s easy to have too many clunky cards that require some setup. Emry not only contributes to that problem but is worse when it occurs; it’s a bargain at one mana, a fine card at two, and unacceptably slow at three. Emry is unnecessary in your best draws and makes your bad draws worse.
The newest addition to that roster, Urza’s Saga is surprisingly average in this deck but that’s still enough to recommend it. Urza’s Saga adds redundancy to Whir of Invention’s ability to find cheap hate cards but a colorless land interferes with casting Whir, requiring fixing like Chromatic Star and Talisman of Progress. Pentad Prism is appealing to set up fast Urzas or Whirs but Jeskai Whirza was already a mana-hungry deck and Saga places more demands on your mana and eventually deprives you of a mana source, forcing a higher land count and tough sequencing decisions.
In return, Urza’s Saga shines when you have to fight through interaction or the Thopter-Sword combo being weak in the matchup leaves you with too few relevant threats. Few decks get to play Saga and reactive cards like Counterspell or Mystical Dispute together, but that combination proves its worth against combo and control post-sideboard.
This build of Jeskai Whirza is only as good in the format as the Thopter Foundry + Sword of the Meek combo is. The three-card infinite combo with Urza, Lord High Artificer is excellent across the board but tough to assemble quickly or through interaction so you need the original combo to be good too. Without Mox Opal, the combo is too slow to be reliable against aggro, so the shift from Izzet Prowess to the more stable but slower Izzet deck full of Modern Horizons 2 hits is good news there.
Most ‘fair’ decks still struggle to beat Thopter-Sword and it can stabilize the battlefield against both Crashing Footfalls and Living End (though beware incidental hate from cards like Dauthi Voidwalker and Waker of Waves). It’s less reliable than I’d like against Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus) as their best draws can go under it and Giver of Runes or Shadowspear can let a giant attacker plow through it. Thankfully, decks like Amulet Titan or spell-based combo that can ignore the combo entirely have fallen out of favour.
The other reason to pick up Jeskai Whirza is that you expect decks that can be shut down by a single artifact, allowing Whir of Invention to become your main plan in its own right. Ensnaring Bridge still does that against some creature decks and Chalice of the Void fills that role now against the various cascade combo decks (where Whir with X = 0 finds Chalice on its ‘default setting’ of X = 0). Whir for Tormod’s Crypt or Soul-Guide Lantern would be as good as ever against graveyard decks if they still existed.
Portable Hole isn’t a contrarian replacement for Prismatic Ending here — it turns Whir of Invention into a removal spell, giving it a much-needed flexibility when nothing else will do the job, and has the same advantage of any artifact in powering up Construct tokens or becoming a Mox Sapphire with Urza, Lord High Artificer.
Whir of Invention can also pick up new threats when the Thopter-Sword combo is off the table. Both The Blackstaff of Waterdeep and Nettlecyst (my final, uncertain cut before the tournament) are strong candidates for a flex slot.
The one-drops are important tools and are conveniently in range of both Whir of Invention and Urza’s Saga. Shadowspear may look out of place but constantly overperforms as a way to get Construct tokens through a clogged battlefield. Aether Spellbomb checks Colossus Hammer and Murktide Regent among others and is a ‘free’ shield for Urza (as it can tap itself to pay for its activation).
Razortide Bridge is a rare Whir target but has a low opportunity cost as a land. Engineered Explosives is a fine card to draw and a useful tool to Whir for against Crashing Footfalls. Ensnaring Bridge isn’t the automatic four-of and one-hit knockout punch it was in the early Whir Prison decks, and I’m not certain it even deserves a spot given how difficult it is to empty your hand and Whir for it early enough.
Just being in Jeskai has its perks in current Modern. Teferi, Time Raveler is a highly flexible card that wins the game against cascade decks on the play .Supreme Verdict is the best sweeper in the format if you have the luxury of casting it. These are a big part of your fair plan in post-sideboard games where artifact synergies are more vulnerable.
Portable Hole puts you in white but a more obscure card from Adventures from the Forgotten Realms caught my eye. The rate on Deadly Dispute is phenomenal if you have something cheap that’s worth sacrificing and the Chromatic Stars and Terrarions that made Krark-Clan Ironworks tick are natural fits. This is more speculative than the Jeskai shell but I’m keen to explore it soon:
Here’s where I’d take the more mainstream Jeskai list:
My experience in the Challenge reaffirmed just how mana-hungry this deck is and the 25th land is easier to justify when Urza’s Saga is functionally a spell. Ensnaring Bridge became the third Sword of the Meek as drawing the Thopter-Sword combo is meaningfully easier than having to Whir for a missing piece.
VS Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus)
This matchup is an important litmus test for a new deck in Modern right now and that’s a mark against Jeskai Whirza — you have good tools but a decent hand from Hammer, especially on the play, will pounce on any inefficiency in your draw and your lack of cheap, instant-speed removal lets them move in on a Hammer without fear.
VS Izzet Midrange
This is the matchup where I’m least confident about my sideboard plan and think flexibility is most important. If they have a lot of Blood Moons and are bringing them in, Talisman becomes stronger and the third Teferi, Time Raveler is more appealing on the play. I shave a copy of Urza (and perhaps should shave more) because it’s an expensive finisher that walks into Mystical Dispute and doesn’t stabilize the battlefield against flying threats. I’m happy with this matchup depending on the incidental damage from their anti-Hammer sideboard measures.
VS Rakdos Aggro (Lurrus)
Decks like this have traditionally been easy prey for Whirza, but Dauthi Voidwalker and an uptick in Kolaghan’s Command make the matchup much closer.
VS Living End
VS Temur Crashcade
These are both fine matchups with simple sideboarding.
Whirza has struggled in Modern since the ban of Mox Opal, but new printings and metagame developments have given it a seat at the table again. Urza, Lord High Artificer is no longer as dominant as its name would suggest, but I’m glad to see the old man still has what it takes.