Preview season can be as confusing as the MPL structure these days. If you see a new card, it might have five different frames or foiling styles. You have to check if it’s in the set itself or the Commander product that accompanies that set. If it is in the set, it might be part of a promotional subset of reprints that aren’t legal in any additional formats because of this — unless it’s the Mystical Archive, which is legal in Historic but not Eternal formats like Pioneer and Modern that are larger than Historic except for Abundant Harvest, which is a pre-preview of a Modern Horizons 2 card that is currently legal in Legacy but not Modern even though those formats only exist on the same platforms…
There’s one card from Adventures in the Forgotten Realms that will be a big deal in Modern but is likely to fly under the radar because it was lumped in with Modern Horizons 2 previews, which will dominate our attention for the next month:
At a glance Portable Hole is another riff on the Glass Casket or Skyclave Apparition class of designs, giving you conditional coverage against a range of permanents that expands if you’re willing to pay more. In the wider context of Modern, it’s a timely addition to the tapestry of removal in the format.
The first five years of Modern were defined by an accidental imbalance of the colour pie: black, ostensibly the best colour for creature removal, had nothing that could compare with one-mana removal like Lightning Bolt or Path to Exile which each came with steep costs or conditions. Answering a one-drop on the same turn was easier said than done and the cards that did so scaled poorly into the mid-game. Decks like Infect or the first generation of Death’s Shadow exploited this curious gap in the format but the tools didn’t yet exist for creature combo or hyper-efficient aggro decks to punish this too severely.
The printing of Fatal Push was an absolute game-changer, offering an interactive spell that could pick off Noble Hierarch or Goblin Guide at the most important time while letting you trade up on mana against most of the expensive threats you could justify casting in Modern. The success of Jund Death’s Shadow and then Grixis Death’s Shadow in 2017 was in large part due to Push shoring up that shell’s weakness against other aggressive decks and letting the rest of the format moderate them more easily. Fatal Push joined a roster of removal spells that set the terms of engagement for Modern.
This arrangement has been tested more and more as the weaknesses of the other removal spells become more apparent. You have to deal with a Turn 1 Monastery Swiftspear or Soul-Scar Mage if you want there to be a Turn 4 but Lightning Bolt can’t always do this cleanly and Path to Exile gives them a crucial resource that makes it much easier for them to reload. This next generation of Jund Death’s Shadow lists present threats that laugh off Lightning Bolt and have more than enough disruption to punch through a single removal spell. You can’t be as selective about your removal and you need more of it in a shorter window to stay in the game.
White has credible second-tier options that can add redundancy here but these all come with their own weaknesses — finding a snow basic on Turn 1 for On Thin Ice is non-trivial depending on the demands of your manabase and Oust often just delays the inevitable (while still being a generally underplayed card).
Loading up on narrow removal has an obvious weakness in a format wide enough to give me and Ari many choices for our podcast’s Nonsense of the Week segment. The February bans removed some outliers from Field of the Dead to spell-based combo as a whole but a pile of Paths is still easily exploited by mainstream strategies in Modern.
Portable Hole is a crucial addition to this roster, answering the cheap creatures that act as gatekeepers in Modern while still doing something against most opponents. Once you start looking, you see useful targets everywhere.
Wrenn and Six is one of the best cards in Modern against midrange or control and manabases are often designed with the assumption that Wrenn can tie the room together (with Five-Colour Niv-Mizzet as the most extreme example). Sniping a Turn 2 Wrenn can steal games by itself and is necessary to stay in that game otherwise.
Turn 1 Aether Vial is the scariest start for any deck it appears in and Vial is a lot harder to remove than your average one-drop. Portable Hole flips that script in your favour.
Urza’s Tower relies on Expedition Map to find its friends consistently and Mono-Green Tron in particular is priced into keeping hands that rely on Map (or other eligible hits like Chromatic Star/Sphere) to function properly. Eldrazi Tron is less reliant on Map and can sometimes afford to delay Map until it’s immune from Portable Hole, but this highlights the card’s subtle power — the mere threat of it forces opponents to make tough, speculative sequencing decisions that can hurt them if they stagger their development and you don’t have a Hole.
Selesnya Company and Gruul Midrange opt for Utopia Sprawl alongside Arbor Elf as their ramp package not just because of the excellent draws they produce together but because Utopia Sprawl is much more reliable than the usual Birds of Paradise or Noble Hierarch in a format ruled by Lava Dart. Portable Hole tagging either half of this package ensures you can keep up with these decks, especially on the draw.
Urza’s Saga is a bizarre but incredibly powerful card that Ari unpacked in his article this week. Portable Hole doesn’t hit Saga itself but can hit a gigantic Construct token or whatever trinket the final chapter finds — from Lantern of Insight and its partners in crime to something mundane like Pithing Needle. The wording of Urza’s Saga prevents it from finding Portable Hole, but I expect them to do good work together anyway.
The first card I want to pair with Urza’s Saga is one that didn’t make Ari’s list — an old favourite in Amulet of Vigor. Amulet Titan is a perfect example of a deck that’s much scarier when it has its namesake card and its increased vulnerability thanks to stuff like Skyclave Apparition (and now this) is a major nuisance.
Chalice of the Void usually aims at one-drops, protecting itself from Portable Hole, but the artifact-heavy decks that might want Urza’s Saga are likely to have a lot of zeroes like Mishra’s Bauble that Chalice may want to shut off instead.
Dimir Mill (Lurrus) has become a serious threat in Modern and it relies on cheap permanents to count to 60 quickly. Portable Hole removes Hedron Crab or Ruin Crab before they can generate multiple turns of triggers but is a rare answer to Mesmeric Orb, which severely constricts your ability to participate in the game before locking you out altogether.
Portable Hole is also just a good hedge against the delightful randomness of the Modern metagame — the fractions of a percent which aren’t worth caring about individually but add up to something meaningful. Skyclave Apparition already checks most of this stuff in theory but is somewhat inefficient when all you care about is speed; it’s hard to beat Portable Hole there.
Sometimes the best target for Portable Hole is an opposing Portable Hole. I’m not sure how this works from a lore or physics perspective, but that’s above my pay grade. As with Skyclave Apparition, whoever has the last copy wins the war, but the payoff is higher as you unlock a crucial permanent rather than a vanilla creature. In a Portable Hole ‘mirror,’ this sequencing is decisive — you should strongly consider using a different, otherwise less suitable removal spell rather than giving up control over that rally.
What cards or strategies benefit most from Portable Hole, beyond the hopelessly broad category of ‘things that like cheap interaction’?
Portable Hole has a curious relationship with Lurrus of the Dream-Den. Not hitting Lurrus itself is a severe limitation, but exiling the cards Lurrus intends to recur helps to contain the threat. Portable Hole is more comfortable working with Lurrus as a versatile answer you can buy back in the absence of other tools like Skyclave Apparition that compete with the companion restriction.
Urza, Lord High Artificer was the undisputed ruler of Modern for months (helped for much of that by Emry, Lurker of the Loch). The loss of Mox Opal and Arcum’s Astrolabe slowed these decks but also made it much harder to achieve the required density of cheap artifacts to make these cards work. The text on Portable Hole helps the first problem and the type line helps the second.
Portable Hole adds a vital modality to Whir of Invention, a powerful tutor but a clunky one, held back by its inability to answer permanents. Whir now doubles as a removal spell that can be used proactively instead if the opponent tries to play around it by leading on a less appealing target.
Specifically, Whir was often helpless in the face of hard artifact hate like Stony Silence — it couldn’t find an answer and there was no convincing artifact threat cheap enough for it to fetch as a backup plan. Portable Hole fixes that problem, leaving only the largest Stony SIlence of all:
Karn, the Great Creator has been a fixture of Modern since War of the Spark but often doesn’t get to realize its potential in the face of any pressure. Portable Hole lets Karn defend itself — or you! — cheaply for the first time. More expensive options like Aether Spellbomb or Engineered Explosives have always been available, but Hole’s efficiency is all the more important given Karn’s hefty sticker price.
Portable Hole isn’t a flashy card, but it’s the kind of safety valve that justifies printing the pushed, exciting cards we’re sure to see in Modern Horizons 2 and beyond without worrying too much about the consequences.