It’s been quite the year for Modern. The arrival of Modern Horizons 2 has completely reshaped the format more than any other set in its history, so much so that the last six months have been spent almost entirely deciphering the impact of the set’s most powerful cards and we’re only just now slowing down in that process. From now on, we’ll speak of the format in two eras, that before Modern Horizons 2 and that after.
Unsurprisingly, in the process of breaking down Modern Horizons 2, many decks rose, and many decks fell out of favor. Some of them were old decks that have been supplanted by something new and more powerful; some were new decks developed post-Modern Horizons 2 that haven’t maintained their standing in the metagame for various reasons.
So, as a way of looking back on 2021 in Modern, I’m going to examine five decks that were once popular but have faded out of the metagame over the last year, explain what led to their decline, and offer my thoughts on what could bring them back into the spotlight. After all, no deck ever dies in Magic. It just lies dormant, waiting for the right time to rise like an Arclight Phoenix from the ashes and let me have my fun again like it’s 2019.
No, I’m not bitter at all about Faithless Looting being banned. Why do you ask?
1. Izzet Prowess
Izzet Prowess was the most successful deck in Modern before the arrival of Modern Horizons 2. Since then it’s essentially been unplayable. There were some people who kept playing it out of inertia, but eventually they all had to admit that it no longer has the tools to compete in the brand-new metagame.
We’ve recently seen a few Prowess decks around, but they’re the Obosh, the Preypiercer shell that’s slower and built to play more attrition games. Izzet Prowess could play a longer game, largely due to the power of Expressive Iteration, but with the addition of so many more cheap spells, the midrange decks now get to leverage Expressive Iteration just as easily as Prowess decks do. Unsurprisingly, the best midrange deck with Iteration, Grixis Death’s Shadow, has become one of the metagame’s top decks over the last couple of months.
The lower curve afforded to midrange decks by Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer; Dragon’s Rage Channeler; and Unholy Heat is also a problem in general, because Prowess decks live on getting underneath opponents. Doing so is much harder in the post-Modern Horizons 2 world than it was before. This is why it’s no surprise that the bigger Prowess decks are the variants having the most success. They’re the ones that acknowledge that they can’t rely on an early-game advantage, and instead set up to compete with the midrange decks on equal footing. They’re still not favored in those kinds of games, which is why you see Blood Moon as a trump card to steal games that they would otherwise lose.
The bigger gameplan is also better against creature combo decks like Orzhov Hammer (Lurrus), where you can assume a controlling role more easily and use your cheap creatures to apply the necessary pressure to close out the game quickly. So it’s not all bad news, unless you’re attached to the blue cards, which mostly don’t fit in this new reality.
Most notable among those cards is Stormwing Entity, which was one of the major advantages Izzet Prowess had. It’s completely immune to Fatal Push and easy to protect from Lightning Bolt. Path to Exile is a clean answer, but it’s also the worst answer to Monastery Swiftspear and Soul-Scar Mage among those three, which made it difficult to build an effective removal suite for the matchup. You could add more versatile removal spells, but that means raising your curve, thus playing into Izzet Prowess’s plan of gaining an early advantage.
We’ve since added Unholy Heat and Solitude to the available removal options in Modern, both of which are clean answers to Stormwing Entity. They can also answer the early Prowess creatures, and are paired with Lightning Bolt and Prismatic Ending respectively, which are also good answers to Swiftspear and Soul-Scar. So now the most common removal suites handle the threat base of Izzet Prowess with ease.
If you want a return of the more aggressive Prowess builds, you need a return of these two things. Either a higher density of cheap, powerful spells, which is tough to do because the only way Prowess gains is if other decks can’t utilize them, or a threat that the common removal in the format like Unholy Heat can’t answer effectively. It doesn’t necessarily have to be blue, since the deck can splash any color effectively, but it needs a trump threat like Phyrexian Crusader in Sultai Infect.
2. Rakdos Goblins
- 4 Goblin Matron
- 1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- 4 Goblin Ringleader
- 4 Mogg War Marshal
- 4 Boggart Harbinger
- 4 Munitions Expert
- 1 Sling-Gang Lieutenant
- 4 Conspicuous Snoop
This deck didn’t have the same pedigree as Izzet Prowess this year, largely because we had about six months to figure out the Conspicuous Snoop / Boggart Harbinger combo wasn’t going to dominate the format, even with largely the same core of Goblins that dominated Extended for a time in the 2000s.
I promise you that happened. Seriously. They banned Aether Vial. The deck was even playable in Legacy… Please stop laughing.
But what was a solid, Tier 2 strategy that you would see pop up in small numbers has become completely dormant. And much like Izzet Prowess, the influx of efficient removal is certainly a part of it, since it makes answering the combo itself much easier.
However, Goblins has always been a deck that can play a long game, with plenty of card advantage provided by Goblin Ringleader and Goblin Matron, and plenty of options for removal to answer key threats from the opponent. So the combo being worse shouldn’t be a death knell, especially since both combo pieces can function serviceably in fair games.
The problems for Goblins are twofold. First, Goblin Ringleader just isn’t what it once was. That kind of one-shot card advantage doesn’t dominate games anymore, because decks have engines that provide cascading card advantage, whether it’s Wrenn and Six plus Urza’s Saga, Lurrus of the Dream-Den plus Mishra’s Bauble, or late-game Yorion, Sky Nomad loops. Conspicuous Snoop can help out here, but the deck’s curve isn’t low enough to leverage it properly. These kinds of Experimental Fenzy-esque effects need a low curve to allow for multi-spell turns that bury the opponent in card advantage and do it quickly. So the end result is that Goblins just can’t keep up in long games like it used to.
Second, that high curve is also a problem. Not just in general, but because it makes the deck overly reliant on Aether Vial. Goblins has always been the best Aether Vial deck because it gets the most mana out of the card, but that comes at the cost of having a particularly clunky deck in the games where you don’t have Vial on Turn 1. With Prismatic Ending around, those games are now much more common.
In a vacuum you’re about 40% to have one in your opening hand, so with mulligans and a potential eighth card on the draw, let’s say you have Vial on Turn 1 about half the time. If your opponent has Prismatic Ending at the same rate, you’re now about 25% to untap with it. That’s a huge difference across a significant number of matchups. Ignoble Hierarch can help this issue, but it’s not enough.
So in the next year, Goblin lovers should root for getting quality, cheap Goblins to lower the deck’s curve, and a source of card advantage that can help them compete with the Lurrus decks in attrition games.
3. Asmor-Based Food Decks
- 4 Street Wraith
- 3 Lotleth Troll
- 3 Ovalchase Daredevil
- 4 Stitcher's Supplier
- 4 Gilded Goose
- 4 Feasting Troll King
- 4 Cauldron Familiar
- 4 Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar
Asmorcalifragalisticexpialidocious, as it will forever be known to me, was everywhere in the opening weeks of Modern Horizons 2 Modern. New builds were popping up each weekend and calls for bans were relatively widespread. Now those calls look rather foolish, since the deck hasn’t been a player for some time now.
This is an interesting case because these decks were using some of the most powerful cards in the format. Urza’s Saga is central to all of them, and Ragavan and Urza, Lord High Artificer were in later lists. You can effectively play any color combination you want as long as you include red or black to cast Asmor, so there are plenty of options here to adapt to a changing metagame. And yet the archetype still fell off.
I think this is a classic case of a deck dominating an unrefined metagame and then falling off when the better decks are found. When Asmor was winning, there were lots of Primeval Titan decks around, which Asmor conveniently answers, as well as Prowess decks sticking around as relics of the before times, which had little interaction for the deck’s engine. Since then we’ve found better homes for Urza’s Saga and Ragavan that maximize those cards’ strengths and don’t force you to play with The Underworld Cookbook.
Except that’s essentially what Modern Horizons 2 was. It has had such a massive impact on the format, and not just because of a busted graveyard card like Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis, that the rules of engagement for Modern are completely different from what they used to be. We’ve had to completely reevaluate an established format on a scale that has never happened before. And when viewed under this lens, the rise and fall of Asmor makes a lot more sense. Asmor is just Modern’s Mono-Red Aggro.
There are two ways for the archetype to move forward. It can either become more fair, in which case it needs more interaction outside of Asmor, or it can become more linear, in which case it needs a more powerful payoff than Feasting Troll King. Personally I think the linear path is more viable, because the engine takes up so much space that you can’t play that much interaction, but you never know what could come in 2022.
4. Selesnya Company
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Spike Feeder
- 4 Auriok Champion
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 2 Walking Ballista
- 4 Ranger-Captain of Eos
- 1 Gilded Goose
- 4 Heliod, Sun-Crowned
- 3 Conclave Mentor
- 3 Skyclave Apparition
At the beginning of 2021, Selesnya Company had a strong case for the best deck in Modern. Auriok Champion gave it a leg up against Prowess, and it had enough redundancy and resiliency to consistently execute its combo across a wide array of matchups.
But it didn’t take too long for players to figure out the deck’s tricks, and by the time Modern Horizons 2 arrived, it was already trending downward. Since Modern Horizons 2 that trend has become a freefall, and now you don’t even see the deck in League data.
The combo isn’t robust enough to carry games against prepared opponents, which has generally been true of every creature combo deck, since opening yourself up to creature removal makes it much easier for opponents to interact. But as a trade-off, you get to assemble motley crews of creatures when your combo isn’t feasible and apply some mediocre beatdowns as a backup plan. Since Mediocre Beatdowns is the working title of my autobiography, I’m a big fan when decks can execute this effectively, the major benefit being that it leaves your opponent with the tough decision of whether to use their removal aggressively to blunt the aggro plan, or save it to stop the combo.
Collected Company, Ranger-Captain of Eos, and Skyclave Apparition are a good start here, but it’s not enough for how powerful Modern is these days. The Conclave Mentors and Auriok Champions meant to bolster the combo need to become more powerful standalone threats, and unfortunately I don’t think any exist right now. What would also help is a Spike Feeder replacement that’s tutorable with Ranger-Captain, which would open up more space for standalone threats, but that’s asking a bit too much methinks.
Additionally, Heliod, Sun-Crowned has suffered the same fate as Aether Vial in falling victim to Prismatic Ending. In its heyday, Heliod would sit safely on the battlefield once resolved, but that’s no longer the case. Since there’s nothing to help this issue beyond the highly unlikely Prismatic Ending ban, it only makes the need for a strong aggro plan more pressing.
5. Living End
- 4 Street Wraith
- 4 Shardless Agent
- 4 Curator of Mysteries
- 4 Striped Riverwinder
- 4 Windcaller Aven
- 3 Brazen Borrower
- 2 Waker of Waves
- 2 Subtlety
In one sense, Living End doesn’t really belong on this list. It’s far and away the most successful of the five, and certainly has the highest hopes for a return to prominence. But a few months ago it was in the conversation for best deck in the format, and now it’s been a month since the deck’s last Challenge Top 8.
Much like Selesnya Company, the deck has been a victim of its own linearity. And this time, it’s linearity twice over because you can fight the deck on the cascade axis with cards like Void Mirror, Chalice of the Void, and Flusterstorm or you can fight it on the graveyard axis. Grief and Force of Negation can only do so much to protect you, and hard-casting Curator of Mysteries isn’t winning many games in 2022 (just like it didn’t in 2021).
Unfortunately for Living End, there isn’t any real ability to incorporate a true backup plan. The Living End engine takes up a huge amount of space between cascade cards, cycling creatures, and the card itself. Maybe you could morph into a Crashing Footfalls deck against heavy graveyard hate, but it’d also have to be a matchup where you’re confident two 4/4s can carry the day.
So the only remedy here is to wait for a metagame where hate isn’t as prevalent. Graveyard hate is always going to be present in some numbers, but it still ebbs and flows to some degree. But Void Mirror and Chalice of the Void should decline with how few Shardless Agents we’ve seen recently.
So while I don’t see Living End returning to its past glory, it should settle into a nice role as a metagame spoiler that can steal a big tournament if the perfect storm of metagame conditions align. That puts it solidly into Tier 2 status as far as I’m concerned, which is above the previous four decks. But I felt its recent fall from grace merited explanation, even if it wasn’t quite as far a drop.
It’s safe to say that Modern won’t see anywhere near the same shake-up that it saw in 2021, so we should return to a format that resembles what we’ve known for the last decade in terms of how it shifts from week to week. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s still a nugget or two from Modern Horizons 2 yet to be discovered, and if that’s the case, the next year could be nearly as wild as the last one. For now I’m happy to celebrate the fact that we didn’t have to spend the last six months figuring out how many maindeck Leyline of the Voids we should be playing.