Risen Reef Is The Best Tribal Payoff In Modern

How did Elementals go from a line in Ari Lax’s joke book to his weapon of choice in Modern? He shares his current list, key cards, and tips and tricks.

Risen Reef, illustrated by Johan Grenier

I was literally making jokes a couple of weeks ago about people thinking Elementals was a playable Modern deck. And now I’m pretty sure I agree with them: Elementals is currently a good deck in Modern.

Thunderkin Awakener Lightning Skelemental Vesperlark

This isn’t the first time people have tried to make an Elemental pile work in Modern. I ran out of polite ways to say, “If you’re going to lose to Plague Engineer, you idiots should play Humans!” when I was writing Modern primers a year ago. What changed from that clunkfest?

Solitude Fury Grief

The same thing changed as with every other good Modern deck right now. You get to play multiple one-or-less-cost spells from Modern Horizons 2. In this case those are free spells, not even one-drops, which is just another level of “What the heck is going on with the cards in this format?” Now that the metagame has evolved a bit, Solitude also plays a crucial role of being a removal spell you can burn on a Turn 1 red creature or save to kill a later Murktide Regent, something I’m not sure any other card in the format does well.

There are two caps on playing a billion Elemental Incarnations that apply to normal people: the fact they cost two cards to cast for free, and the fact they require cards of a specific color to cast for free.

Risen Reef Ephemerate

The traditional way around the two-card issue has been using Ephemerate to keep the body around and get another card off the retriggers. That works here, but you also get to abuse Risen Reef to Coiling Oracle off each of your Elemental Incarnation casts. Or maybe you get to abuse free spells to double-trigger Risen Reef the turn you play it, which typically puts you into “Modern is Commander now” mode the next turn.


You also can just get two-for-one value because Fury is an egregious Magic card. If you haven’t had the joy or misery of participating in games with this card where the non-Fury player tries to cast creatures, take some time to do so.

Omnath, Locus of Creation Omnath, Locus of the Roil Horde of Notions

As for that other half of color requirements, Elementals aren’t super into that whole “restricted color identity” issue.

Lightning Skelemental Unsettled Mariner Kaheera, the Orphanguard

Even beyond the true garbage-pile mana costs, decisions are made up the curve to maximize the number of cards you can pitch to whatever free spells you cast. If there’s a random terrible-looking multicolor card in an Elementals list, that’s because 60% of its job is being cardboard with good pips. You even get to freeroll Kaheera, the Orphanguard as your companion for free cardboard-with-colors equity. And yes, three mana to draw a spell with colors is still significantly better than any non-Elemental creature you could play that would break up the companion requirement.

Teferi, Time Raveler Dovin's Veto

Non-Elementals decks should probably learn this lesson as well, at least in color pairs with playable multicolor cards. Looking at you for that one, Orzhov.

Glimpse of Tomorrow Wavesifter Shardless Agent

I’ll briefly mention the Glimpse of Tomorrow deck that is more Elementals-focused here, but really only to say that I think the nonsense Eldrazi pile Glimpse deck is a significantly better version of that deck. Worrying about chain probabilities and resources is worse than making an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and calling it a game.

All or Just Most of ‘Em?

There’s a bit of a split in the Elementals decklists these days between playing the full Five-Color Pile or taking a “conservative” approach and sticking to the Omnath, Locus of Creation colors.

Grief Lightning Skelemental Horde of Notions

The relevant debate on the last color is whether you play Grief or not. None of the other black cards the Horde of Notions build plays do anything significant besides being pitch fodder for Grief starts. They’re acceptable to cast if you need cardboard to throw around and that’s about it, with Lightning Skelemental often resulting in some weird mana constrictions with Ephemerate and drawing Breeding Pool.

Unsettled Mariner Voice of Resurgence

Plus, you aren’t cutting relevant cards for black cards. Is Runeclaw Bear with a good color identity really worth it?

Primal Beyond Reflecting Pool

The rainbow manabase is also just better than the more traditional one, even if you don’t have black cards. There’s too much merging of weird color requirements that can bite you when you naturally draw your fetchable lands, Primal Beyond doesn’t cost you life, and it’s not like any of your configurations beat Blood Moon anyway.

Before you ask, yes, this is enough black spells for Grief. One of the lessons of my Grief and Solitude explorations this last month has been that the required pitch count for the Incarnations is way lower than the Legacy Force of Will “minimum” of eighteen blue cards. Part of it is the London Mulligan and the Elemental Incarnation decks being ones that are less worried about card count. Part of it is that just casting Grief is a fine play. And part of it is that in Legacy, the blue cards you’re pitching to Force of Will are good things you want to cast, while in Modern, often the things you’re pitching to Incarnations suck and rot in your hand until pitched anyway.

Flamekin Harbinger Thunderkin Awakener

Having done my research on both sides of the equation, I’m pretty sure Flamekin Harbinger is the real deal. The interaction with Risen Reef where you can stack the triggers so you search to top and then immediately put that card in your hand is extremely powerful with the Elemental Incarnations. Meanwhile, Thunderkin Awakener just sucks. The still-to-be-determined tuning is whether you want the full four Harbingers, or if having Harbingers means you want to trim on Smokebraider or a different Elemental.

Yasharn, Implacable Earth Vadrok, Apex of Thunder Omnath, Locus of the Roil

From Flamekin Harbinger naturally comes the discussion of fun-of one-of Elementals to play. A few options amount to cards with no text and good colors. I don’t mind an Omnath, Locus of the Roil since casting Ephemerate on it ends most games your engine is running in, but once you’re at the point where that matters, wouldn’t you just win the game with anything else? Cast Grief, Ephemerate it in their draw step, take legal game actions. Just use Flamekin Harbinger to maindeck an Endurance and call it a day.


Shriekmaw is also not a card you want any amount of. Paying mana to kill things is so 2018.

Fulminator Mage Chalice of the Void Endurance

One option Kanister explored was moving Grief to the sideboard to exclusively use with Fulminator Mage. This certainly frees up maindeck space, but in a weird way that isn’t the concern here. The limit on choices in Elementals is actually your sideboard space. You have weirdly good matchups against a bunch of linear decks because your sideboard and free interaction in general are so potent, and your only really bad matchups are the ones where you don’t have a free interaction spell to cover their nonsense. That and Torpor Orb, for the real jerks out there.

But those cards need to actually show up in your list in relevant quantities. You’re already down to fourteen real sideboard cards for the very worth it Kaheera, which really means your sideboard has to extend into your maindeck.

If Grief ends up in your sideboard, you should be doing it with the intent of using it and the Lightning Skelemental slots on Endurance or Chalice of the Void. Or on the flip side, you should just be using the Lightning Skelemental slots on Fulminator Mage to extend your sideboard.

Here’s a sample list I would start on, with the intent that you can take the Grief and Fulminator Mage slots and exchange them for basically any of your sideboard cards depending on what you expect to face. This might be short one basic Forest somewhere, but messing with the mana or a sideboard slot are both dicey prospects.

Tips and Tricks

Risen Reef Fury Solitude

Many games with this deck will look really bad, until the point they don’t. You storm off once you start casting free spells that put you up a Reef trigger.

Two things to always consider to maximize this: can I afford to wait on free spells to get Reef triggers off them, and what do I do if my Risen Reef dies to removal? Usually you can mix these two thoughts together to try to ensure your Risen Reef is at least a Divination when it hits, and from there pull ahead with whatever you draw, but your mindset should be at least half combo-centric where the combo is literally just triggering Risen Reef.

Ephemerate Plains Kaheera, the Orphanguard

Pay close attention to your non-Elemental-locked color sources. The second white for a second Ephemerate or the sources to cast Kaheera will trip you up as much as fetchable colors.

Risen Reef Windswept Heath

Along similar lines, Risen Reef putting the land on the battlefield is an option. If you aren’t going to otherwise play a land for the turn, you can put a Reef’ed land into your hand and play it. This came up occasionally in Core Set 2020 Standard, but in Modern where min-maxing mana or Omnath landfalls is common, it comes up in most games.

Ephemerate Grief

There’s a lot of trigger-stacking with this deck, like the “Flamekin Harbinger plus Risen Reef to tutor to hand” one I mentioned earlier, but the most important is to always remember to stack your evoke trigger first, and then whatever Incarnation trigger on top of that so it resolves first.

The other trigger stacking that often comes up is Omnath, Locus of Creation wanting to draw you a card before you flip with Risen Reef. It’s really minor, but Risen Reef is technically a choice and drawing the card with Omnath first gives you the maximum info for that decision.

Omnath, Locus of Creation

On that Omnath note, if you haven’t played the card in a fetchland format, you’re in for a real treat. Just be aware that with so many ways to pace your landfall triggers, you’re often presented with the ability to gain four life on your turn and their turn with Omnath. Keep that in mind any time you play a fetchland, since you might Risen Reef to a blank fourth trigger or just need need the second or third modes in a turn.


Sideboarding with this deck is fairly simple. Your have a bunch of slots that are clearly interactive, and you move the ones that interact well into your deck and move the ones that don’t out. The main exception is trimming Smokebraider if it will be a liability against removal, and making sure you don’t need to cast Fury in a matchup but cut all your other red cards to do it or something similar.

I specifically call out Fury here since it does have the most easily missable sideboard decisions: you can Fury planeswalkers, and sometimes 3/3 double strike is what you want to give someone the business.

Solitude Grief Fury

It’s weird to say it, but Elementals is the deck that most abuses the new cards from Modern Horizons 2. It takes powerful effects and does something truly transformative to them. If you want to get the most out of the most powerful set in Modern, Elementals is the deck you should be playing right now.