So, about that headline…
It hasn’t even been two weeks since Modern Horizons 2 released on Magic Online and Urza’s Saga may have done even more than that, and the card isn’t even technically released in paper yet. It hasn’t won every single event, but it’s a prominent card in several high-performing archetypes, constantly putting up finishes, and its presence can be felt by looking at any sideboard you can find.
In case you missed the massive dump of decklists using Urza’s Saga, or are waiting for your copies to come in the mail and wondering what to do with them, or are looking at the Magic Online price for the card going all over the place and wondering what you really need to do about the card, here’s everything you need to know about battling with and against Urza’s Saga.
What Did I Get Right and Wrong?
My initial analysis of Urza’s Saga was broadly correct, which is a big win, but some details were a bit off.
The most correct part: the two main categories of decks playing Urza’s Saga are the two I called out. There are dedicated artifact decks like Affinity and Hardened Scales, where Urza’s Saga is a hard-hitting threat that overpowers individual answers and dodges hate like Stony Silence. Then there are decks where Urza’s Saga is just a freerolled way to apply heavy pressure if your main plan gets stopped, like Amulet Titan or Golgari Food.
The thing I missed on was seeing something like Azorius Control as a valid home for the card to be a heavy-pressure backup plan. It turns out Urza’s Saga is extremely comparable to Stoneforge Mystic during its peak. Back in 2011, Batterskull just outclassed any efficient threat, yet also was a powerful end-game option. The cost of playing the best efficient standalone threat was a few slots in your decklist and almost nothing else. Over a decade, the power of other cheap threats has crept up to outsize a 4/4 with lifelink, but Urza’s Saga offers a level of scaling on top of that.
How many games with Urza’s Saga is a Construct token not the biggest thing around? What’s the cost of playing Urza’s Saga in your deck, beyond your copies of the card and maybe a thing or two you want to find with Chapter III?
I’ll circle back around to this when talking about how to beat Urza’s Saga later, but one other edge the control decks have on the Saga-combo hybrid decks is they avoid the question of what happens when the hate lines up with both halves of your deck. There are cards that beat Urza’s Saga and Cranial Plating, or Urza’s Saga and Feasting Troll King, or Urza’s Saga and Primeval Titan, because those cards are linear along some similar axis. Can you beat Urza’s Saga and Counterspell with the same card? That’s less clear-cut.
The big thing I got wrong was focusing on the micro of Urza’s Saga, because it really doesn’t matter that much. The card is that good. All the stuff about aiming for metalcraft before it starts going to two-shot your opponent isn’t that relevant, because the math is they die or they don’t. I would make an “it happens or it doesn’t” joke, but usually it just happens. You might think in Urza’s Saga mirrors sizing would matter a ton, but in practice those are more about the other broken thing your deck decided to do.
Similarly, Expedition Map as a Chapter III target is often overkill. How often is your opponent beating the first two Constructs in a way that makes even more Constructs meaningful? I keep watching Jund players face down Urza’s Saga and just get buried by the first copy and whatever else the opposing deck is doing. Maybe you want a single Expedition Map if the rest of your deck isn’t applying relevant pressure when faced by basic disruption, like Amulet Titan, but it certainly isn’t required in many decks and multiples are beyond overkill.
The one card I have heard consistently good things about as a micro-level play is Shadowspear. It makes a ton of sense, since it immediately changes the context of your Construct token the first turn it can attack. A big/big creature is one thing. A big/big with trample and lifelink is a completely different game and one-shots the color red without help.
The other micro thing worth mentioning about Urza’s Saga is that you not should play it on Turn 1. You will do this exactly once before getting nothing out of the card and sacrificing it, or zero times if you listen to me.
That is, unless you lead on Urza’s Saga into Springleaf Drum with a zero-drop artifact creature like Ornithopter. From here, you will have three mana on Turn 2 to activate Urza’s Saga, make a Construct, and do the same thing on your next turn before Chapter III resolves. You don’t even need to cast your zero-drop on Turn 1 and lose it to a removal spell. You can cast it Turn 2, immediately use the mana for a Construct, and have two bodies they need to clear to cut you off three mana for next turn.
The Urza’s Saga Options
I would absolutely stay away from any deck combining Urza’s Tower and Urza’s Saga. It’s the worst of all the worlds. There’s hate overlap on Blood Moon, you aren’t supporting Construct tokens with any of the normal Tron stuff, and it’s not like any Urza’s Tower deck has a history of problems with interactive decks anyway. That’s not to say I wouldn’t play Urza’s Saga if I were playing Urza’s Tower; I just don’t think it adds reasons to play the deck. Play Mono-Green Tron if you think Mono-Green Tron is good, but not because of anything new from Modern Horizons 2.
I do really like the control decks with Urza’s Saga. That said, I’m unsure what I’m supposed to want in a control deck. Not because I don’t think control is good, but because the metagame is still too wild-card for me to pinpoint the exact answers I want. Prismatic Ending and some type of counterspell are clearly in, but who knows from there.
As you ponder that, I’ll leave you with the following control deck from the Top 16 of Saturday’s Challenge that tries some unconventional answers to these questions.
On to more easily processable things.
- 4 Street Wraith
- 2 Bloodghast
- 4 Ovalchase Daredevil
- 4 Gilded Goose
- 3 Feasting Troll King
- 3 Cauldron Familiar
- 4 Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar
Golgari or Sultai Food is probably the deck that does the most broken things with Urza’s Saga. It’s a backup plan to a bunch of other game-breaking nonsense, in the line of past greats like Thopter Depths. I think Gerry knocked it out of the park with his discussion of the deck last week, and would play the stock Golgari list over any nonsense variant. Among the many other small efficiency upgrades Golgari gets, not playing Street Wraith to set up Asmor in other lists sounds crazy. I might quibble over small things like needing the second Bloodghast or fitting a Shadowspear somewhere, but if I weren’t playing 68 or more of these 75, I would be shocked.
- 1 Azusa, Lost but Seeking
- 3 Sakura-Tribe Scout
- 4 Primeval Titan
- 2 Arboreal Grazer
- 4 Dryad of the Ilysian Grove
- 3 Forest
- 1 Boros Garrison
- 3 Selesnya Sanctuary
- 1 Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion
- 1 Gruul Turf
- 1 Breeding Pool
- 4 Simic Growth Chamber
- 1 Vesuva
- 2 Tolaria West
- 1 Kabira Crossroads
- 1 Misty Rainforest
- 2 Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
- 1 Slayers' Stronghold
- 1 Cavern of Souls
- 1 Crumbling Vestige
- 1 Blast Zone
- 3 Castle Garenbrig
- 4 Urza's Saga
- 1 Yavimaya, Cradle of Growth
The other major hybrid combo deck with Urza’s Saga right now is Amulet Titan, and a lot of this list is clearly a result of the massive impact of Modern Horizons 2. Arboreal Grazer over Sakura-Tribe Scout is a decision from a Lava Dart era now past. The lists from this week are already moving back to full sets of Scout; just make sure you keep your land count high. Building your deck to keep anything with a Primeval Titan because you’re over a coin flip to draw lands is one of the biggest upgrades this deck has seen since the London Mulligan. The 33 lands here are about the minimum I would play, and I’ve seen lists with up to 35 lands that looked totally fine.
What about Orzhov Hammer (Lurrus)? It unfortunately occupies a dicey middle ground where Urza’s Saga isn’t living up to its full potential. It isn’t a good deck at chipping in damage to support closing with Constructs, and Urza’s Saga and Colossus Hammer very clearly line up in terms of hate that works against them. Force of Vigor is a really unfortunate overlap, but Engineered Explosives might be the worst. Even if I don’t love that style of answer to Urza’s Saga, it looks a lot better when it cleans up the Colussus Hammer and Sigarda’s Aid half of the deck and when it’s also a good response to Crashing Footfalls.
Hardened Scales has similar interaction vulnerability issues but is really good at backing up the Constructs in combat. This is probably the best Urza’s Saga deck to play if people move away from Force of Vigor towards non-artifact hate, but Dom got that Week 1 scoreboard and now everyone else has to wait a while for everything to cycle back around.
You would think Affinity would have similar interaction issues, but it oddly doesn’t. The cards that really smashed Affinity before were one-toughness creature hate and Stony Silence, neither of which does anything against Urza’s Saga, and Thought Monitor is another huge addition to the archetype to Mulldrifter your way through spot removal. The move away from Arcbound Ravager to Nettlecyst also makes it more likely you can expose a single threat at a time against Force of Vigor, where Ravager just made you want to dump all your material out into the free Rack and Ruin.
Just make a few updates from this list. Six enters-the-battlefield tapped lands are too many and six Myr Enforcer variants seem like nonsense as well. And you should be playing four Urza’s Saga. Alex Majlaton (whose list this is) just didn’t want to buy a fourth until he could use the League winnings from this 5-0 on it.
- 4 Ensnaring Bridge
- 4 Lantern of Insight
- 1 Pyrite Spellbomb
- 1 Welding Jar
- 2 Pithing Needle
- 2 Thoughtseize
- 1 Relic of Progenitus
- 4 Ancient Stirrings
- 3 Inquisition of Kozilek
- 1 Elixir of Immortality
- 1 Surgical Extraction
- 1 Grafdigger's Cage
- 4 Codex Shredder
- 2 Pyxis of Pandemonium
- 2 Collective Brutality
- 2 Assassin's Trophy
- 2 Talisman of Resilience
That all brings us full circle to Lantern Control. While everyone else was excited about Urza’s Saga bringing it back, I’m skeptical the core has aged well. People are aware Archmage’s Charm targets any permanent, right? Or that Prismatic End is the best new removal spell, or so many other small things. It feels like a deck the format left behind, unless you think just playing Ensnaring Bridge is good enough against a massive section of the metagame. Bridge certainly is good enough against some subset of the format, but I wouldn’t build a deck that was Bridge, Urza’s Saga, or bust. I would spend some time looking at Whir Prison or similar decks that play Chalice of the Void, but I don’t think you can just play a Prison deck in Modern on raw power in 2021.
Beating Urza’s Saga
Let’s say you want to take the other side of the matchup and be the player trying to beat Urza’s Saga. What is your plan?
The thing I think you don’t want to be doing is leaning on spot answers to Urza’s Saga, even if they trade well. It’s too easy for them to draw two Urza’s Saga to your one Spreading Seas and you die when the numbers don’t work out. Or worse, you beat exactly Urza’s Saga and not the rest of their otherwise functional deck and keep drawing Spreading Seas versus those cards. Great job, you cast Tide Shaper; can the rest of your entire Merfolk deck beat an Asmor chucking free Food tokens at all your creatures? Plus the whole basic premise of trading well for a land is suspect. You spent mana, they didn’t, and the rest of their deck is probably hyper-efficient with Urza’s Saga as a “top-end” threat. Is this ever really a good trade?
Aside: In case you missed the interaction, if Urza’s Saga as a land is overwritten to some other land and loses its abilities, like Blood Moon or Spreading Seas do, it becomes a Saga with no loyalty abilities and more than no chapter counters and instantly dies. All said, that’s a bit more punishing than normal, but not a ton. How many Mountains do you need under Blood Moon anyway?
Where I don’t mind these cards is if you would already play them and if they function as an Urza’s Saga mirror-breaker. The exact example I can think of is Archmage’s Charm in the Azorius Control deck posted above, where it turns Urza’s Saga parity into a significant three-to-one token disparity in your favor. Or like I mentioned with Force of Vigor against Orzhov Hammer (Lurrus), if the answer is still good or great when they don’t have Urza’s Saga it gets a passing grade.
The only thing that tempered my initial expectations of Urza’s Saga was that it took time. You aren’t threatening lethal with it until Turn 5 and Modern games aren’t assured to last that long. Or your opponent might just be set up to ignore two giant Constructs and kill you. The most successful deck at doing this has been Golgari Yawgmoth, with undying blockers being naturally great against individual giant attackers as you set up to combo, and last weekend’s Modern Challenge had a couple of Dimir Mill decks at the top of the standings under similar premises.
I think Infect is also poised for a comeback, since it seems like Lava Dart is on a huge downswing in favor of more expensive interaction that isn’t so punishing to one-toughness creatures. Add in the ability to play Ignoble Hierarch to add to your best one-drop count, and a lot of Urza’s Saga players will be dying swiftly. Infect is also significantly faster than the other decks trying to play in this space, and one of the best times to Infect people is when you’re aiming to race other combo decks that tried to be resilient.
The main thing to watch is the Asmor count in the metagame, since the self-damaging ability is not something you can just pump your way over the way you might be able to override a Lightning Bolt. Additional Hierarchs help a bit here as you have more mana to fight with Vines of Vastwood, but those are also creatures that die to Asmor. The other concern is the Chalice of the Void count due to Crashing Footfalls, but there’s merely some of that and not a ton like with Eldrazi Tron. It isn’t a clean-sweep win for Infect, but your lineups are largely good and the odds are in your favor.
If you want to adapt your existing, normal deck to beat Urza’s Saga, I would look towards higher-impact hate permanents. Like I keep saying, cards that catch both Urza’s Saga and potentially the rest of a deck in one hit are real winners here. While Amulet Titan has been performing well, I’m skeptical it’s the best Urza’s Saga deck since the whole thing falls apart to Blood Moon. Similarly, Ensnaring Bridge is tough for the Asmor decks to battle through and also represents an end-game against Affinity. Even if I’m against a dedicated Ensnaring Bridge deck, it works as a standalone strategy enough to be worth sideboard space or a Karn, the Great Creator search.
The good news is this last weekend implies beating Urza’s Saga is doable, but maybe just a bit difficult. A Jeskai tempo-control deck with literal Counterspell won a Modern Challenge in a format expected to be dominated by broken lands and cascade Crashing Footfalls nonsense. Maybe it dodged all those things in the Swiss like it did in the Top 8, but more likely there’s a bit of hope there. Even if Urza’s Saga is the best thing to be doing in Modern, it’s still a thing with some limitations. I would probably advise you to play the card over trying to beat it, but we aren’t at Hogaak levels…