Why Everything Old In Modern Is New Again

Why are pre-Modern Horizons 2 decks making a comeback in Modern? Ari Lax explores how a cyclical metagame has led to the return of the classics.

Urza’s Tower, illustrated by Brian Snoddy

Old Modern has started making a name for itself again. In August, Urza’s Tower has put three people in the finals of Modern Challenges, and in one event even made up three of the Top 8 with another player in ninth place.

Psulli is right, and Burn does “absolutely slap” now. And if it didn’t slap, I assure you he would be the first to let you know before playing another ten matches with the deck and going 6-4.

Even Dredge has a result to talk about.

Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer Unholy Heat Solitude

I thought this was new 2021 Modern. Where did all this old Modern come from?

Why Linear Decks Are Winning

Three specific cards from Modern Horizons 2 contributed to the drop-off in classic Modern linear decks, and all three cards have had their own significant drop-offs in the past three weeks.

Urza's Saga Dragon's Rage Channeler Counterspell

Maybe this isn’t the most identifiable way to talk about these cards. Let’s try a different layout.

Primeval Titan Murktide Regent Puresteel Paladin

These three creatures headline the strategies that drove out classic linear decks, but really the previous cards behind them are the cause. And the reaction to them is what opened the hole in the metagame for these classic linear decks to shine.

Primeval Titan Urza's Saga Unholy Heat

For a deck that isn’t seeing much competitive success right now, Amulet Titan with Urza’s Saga is absolutely ridiculous. Not that Burn or Dredge or even Mono-Green Tron is historically great against Amulet Titan to begin with, but adding in all the Urza’s Saga Turn 3 kills made it pretty clearly a cut above the old linear decks in the head-to-head while Saga also represented resiliency against interaction. People start loading up on Unholy Heat to beat Amulet Titan, and while Unholy Heat still plays against Karn Liberated or Goblin Guide, it isn’t the game-ending lineup you are looking for.

The Underworld Cookbook Trail of Crumbs

To echo a comment Patrick had made, the initial wave of Asmor Urza’s Saga decks also wasn’t optimal for these decks. Turn 1 Urza’s Saga representing Turn 3 graveyard hate isn’t great for Dredge, and I don’t think Burn is a functional strategy against Food token tribal.

Murktide Regent Counterspell Solitude

Izzet Midrange, no matter what the StarCityGames.com moniker may imply, is also not a kind deck for these linears to face off against. I’m not saying Dredge is horrible against Murktide Regent, but anyone who has played Legacy over the last decade knows the punchline to this joke. The Izzet Midrange deck is just consistently fast and powerful without having significant holes in its strategy. It doesn’t have bad mana or take a bunch of damage, it has fairly universal answers, it can play good sideboard hate and dig to it with cantrips – it’s just good. When you aren’t getting your edge against the fair deck of choice, what is your unfair deck trying to beat?

The big answer is that you are trying to beat the reaction to these decks. Dom and I have liked to describe Bring to Light decks as the dinosaurs of the format, and they and their other Wrenn and Six counterparts are exactly what you used to crush with Urza’s Tower or Goblin Guide. Don’t be fooled by the lifegain on Omnath, Locus of Creation; how often did Burn lose to Thragtusk? Omnath certainly hits a bit harder, but it’s operating on the same slow timescale. And let’s not even start with something like Grixis Midrange (Lurrus) trying to fight these decks. At least the Wrenn and Six decks pretend to have some combo elements to fight with.

Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer

Now that we get to Izzet and its ilk, we can discuss the other best card in Modern Horizons 2. It’s worth noting that Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer is pretty mediocre against these classic Modern decks. Anyone who played around with Modern Horizons when it was released may remember the 48 hours people got excited about Fallen Shinobi and then promptly got unexcited the first time they flipped two cards and realized the kind of trash people play in their Modern decks.

Honestly, I think a lot of the initial skepticism towards Ragavan was people remembering those moments and realizing you can’t even highroll an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger off their deck for free. It does generate Treasures on each hit, but that just means Ragavan is only as good as the cards you are casting with that mana. To bash on Grixis in this context some more, casting the same cards that don’t interact with Ugin, the Spirit Dragon a bit faster won’t cut it.

Puresteel Paladin Urza's Saga

Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus) covers both of these causes and effects as a fast deck that undercut prior unfair decks while promoting the rise of Four-Color Pile. But the rise of Puresteel Paladin played another role in the rise of Urza’s Tower and Lava Spike: sideboard space. Every Wear // Tear in a sideboard isn’t a Soul-Guide Lantern. Alpine Moon and Blood Moon exist, but they can be answered and aren’t the Cleansing Wildfires that actually drove out Mono-Green Tron late last year. And I don’t know if there has been a Timely Reinforcements in a relevant decklist this month.

How Linear Decks Have Changed

Despite me constantly referring to these decks as old Modern, the linear decks winning now are slightly different from the versions we saw in the past.

Warping Wail All Is Dust Karn, the Great Creator

Almost accidentally, the big swaps in Mono-Green Tron are all going from artifacts to colorless spells.

Warping Wail is uniquely great in current Modern. It exiles Ragavan and sometimes Dragon’s Rage Channeler and the loosely related Ruin Crab. It exiles many things a Colossus Hammer could get slapped on, and it exiles Risen Reef. Further, it counters Living End and Crashing Footfalls and Bring to Light, and just cashing out as a ramp spell if you get Alpine Moon’ed isn’t even that horrible.

Karn, the Great Creator and All Is Dust are a bit more of a package deal. There’s actually a lot of value in the Oblivion Stone sweep, between actually clearing Colossus Hammer and Construct tokens and covering Violent Outburst-generating creatures, but Oblivion Stone kills your own planeswalkers. Given the rising power of opposing threats your Karns and Ugins are less sure to win the game on their own, but by the same token losing your planeswalker also leaves you exposed to their follow-up threat taking over before you have anything. All Is Dust being unilateral is a big deal there. As long as your opponents aren’t playing Thought-Knot Seer like it’s last decade, you want the sorcery sweeper.

This issue of needing to work a bit to keep your threats scoped ahead of theirs is also why you are playing Karn, the Great Creator over Wurmcoil Engine. Wurmcoil just isn’t what it used to be when the one-drop red creature flies over it, the one-drop red removal kills it, and no one is trying to Maelstrom Pulse your threats. Karn might be tough to protect, but it at least can outright win games against the metagame at large by finding something like Ensnaring Bridge or Tormod’s Crypt. It’s even a marginal hate card against the Puresteel Paladin half of Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus), though that’s quite marginal because it’s slow and non-functional against the Sigarda’s Aid draws.

Yup, those are Burn cards. Maybe some things don’t change.

I guess we can talk about this fun-of nonsense. I’m with Patrick on not being a fan of Roiling Vortex, which is just slow to convert to real damage, and along the same lines of wondering where the lifegain is I’m fine ignoring Skullcrack for now. But I’m always in for a Deflecting Palm. Burn is probably the linear deck best-suited to contest Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus), and Deflecting Palm is a sick way to do that that.

Burning Inquiry

So, it’s back to this nonsense.

Burning Inquiry over Thrilling Discovery is making a couple of key statements.

The big one has to do with the London Mulligan. The basic premise here is that your opponents won’t have many pieces of graveyard interaction, but they will mulligan towards them aggressively. Firing off a Burning Inquiry isn’t quite a Thoughtseize, but it does randomize the contents of their hand in a way that comes oddly close for a functional enabler. When that hate card is specifically Endurance, they don’t just have to fade the 30% chance or whatever that it disappears but also a similar chance their other green card does. This same logic also kind of applies to the Colossus Hammer matchup, though firing off a blind Burning Inquiry is just so dicey. There’s also a flip side for your own London Mulligans, where you can produce actual explosive starts off one-land hands if your Shriekhorn connects or you draw a Darkblast.

The less big but still relevant one is that your absolute nut draw is even nuttier. Cathartic Reunion into Burning Inquiry plus Ox of Agonas is probably your entire deck dredged away. When you are racing some of these other decks in the format this does matter, but I don’t love the odds on it coming together.

The last bit has to do with the white mana on Thrilling Discovery, and that one doesn’t quite convince me. I don’t think the cost to play a couple more Mana Confluences or a Sacred Foundry is that big when you are playing Dredge under the “nothing goes wrong” premise to begin with, because who even cares about your life total.

It shouldn’t be shocking, but none of these developments are really the result of new cards entering these decks.

The Next Steps

These decks basically didn’t exist for the last couple of months for a reason. Where does the format go from here?

Colossus Hammer

If you want the shortest conclusion, I would just play Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus). It’s good at both Level 0 and Level 1 as the rest of the format adjusts.

Karn Liberated Lava Spike

Level 0 is people just beating up on Urza’s Tower with things that tend to beat up on Urza’s Tower, and some of that will end with these decks cannibalizing each other. I don’t think Mono-Green Tron is especially insane against Dredge, and it certainly isn’t great against Boros Burn (Lurrus). If you are worried about finding room for more land hate in your sideboard, I would just wait a few days. Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus) also succeeds here as the default good deck that does this.

Abrade Soul-Guide Lantern Dragon's Claw

But where Mono-White Hammer really shines is the next level. As people’s sideboards stretch to beat various classic linear decks creeping back into the format, they must cut somewhere. My guess is that comes at the cost of Engineered Explosives, Abrade, and other chip-shot interaction. They won’t completely ignore one of the contenders for the best deck in the format, but we are talking about margins here. A trimmed removal spell is a big deal when you are capable of putting up multiple lethal waves of threats a game and they need to answer multiples to stay in it.

Crashing Footfalls Shardless Agent

The other place I would look is Temur Crashcade, though this might be a bit of a Level 2 option due to Void Mirror overlap with Mono-Green Tron. Chalice of the Void is another at risk hate piece as people trim for other matchups, especially if they think they are insulated from Living End with more graveyard hate.

I know this sounds a lot like “play the good decks,” but it really is that simple. The whole reason we are seeing Urza’s Tower again is people drifted away from the good decks to next-level them with answers and things that are just less inherently good. Even without Mox Opal or Faithless Looting, the bar to match classic Modern decks on power is pretty high and it took every bit of juice that Modern Horizons 2 brought to the table to do that.

I certainly made my concerns about Modern’s utter reshaping clear in last week’s Modern Horizons 2 Exit Interview, but these results have made me a lot more optimistic. While it is jarring to see a bunch of new cards instead of Tarmogoyf and Dark Confidant and for that change to happen so swiftly, those were always the most interchangeable cards of the format. Maybe the upgrades there fast-forwarded the format a little less than expected, and not everything from the past twenty  years is getting abruptly pulled forward into a much different format.

You have it on record now. This might be the first time someone who doesn’t have Mono-Green Tron already sleeved up is happy about a Top 8 full of the deck.