Modern has finally started settling after the asteroid impact that was Modern Horizons 2, and the resulting format is tougher than ever for new decks to break into.
Some of it is that the cards seeing play right now are crazy powerful, but Modern has always found a way to outmaneuver the raw best cards. This time though the cards and strategies seeing play aren’t just crazy powerful; they are powerful in convoluted ways.
The problem right now is a paradox, or rather three paradoxes, that are weirdly warping the format.
Paradox #1: You need removal immediately and removal is bad.
In previous Modern formats things were a bit simpler. Sure, removal could be bad, but when removal was bad it was because your opponent didn’t have things you wanted to kill. And if they had things to kill, removal was generally good.
By this point, we all know the headline additions to Modern from Modern Horizons 2 were red one-drops: Dragon’s Rage Channeler and Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer. It’s wild to think red one-drops were already among the best cards in Modern before this set, and now those old Monastery Swiftspears are completely outclassed. There’s only a short window to answer either of these cards without them generating a significant amount of value and not answering them really isn’t an option.
And those removal spells that can answer the one-drops in time are really exploitable by the other cards showing up alongside the Monkey Pirate and Human Shaman.
The same exact issue applies against the premier creature-based combo deck of the format. You need a way to kill an Inkmoth Nexus with a Colossus Hammer or you die on the spot, but just chilling on removal doesn’t cut it against Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus) anymore. Urza’s Saga is just too good, and additionally too good against removal.
There have been decks that intersect creatures, combo, and resiliency to removal before, but not at this speed. Infect was all one-for-one effects and you could beat a bunch of Vines of Vastwood if you fought them at rate and didn’t lose mana trading Terminates for one-drop spells. Birthing Pod and Collected Company decks easily won through a pile of removal, but you had a window to get set up and ride a Tarmogoyf you cast before all that removal.
That window is gone, everything is hyper-efficient, and everything has a way to punish you on raw cards.
If you want a single reason Death’s Shadow and Monastery Swiftspear are falling out of the limelight, they’re just too slow. You can afford to get hit a couple of times by Monastery Swiftspear unless your opponent is all Lava Spikes, and Death’s Shadow isn’t a Turn 1 threat. How are they supposed to stand up to Ragavan or Dragon’s Rage Channeler with that performance?
Unraveling Paradox #1: Your removal needs to do something.
The answer to this paradox is simple: don’t play removal that just kills the things you need to kill on the spot. Play removal that does a second job.
Fatal Push kills Ragavan on the spot, but it doesn’t do a job.
Path to Exile doesn’t really kill Ragavan on Turn 1, so it doesn’t even come close. If you want to play Path to Exile in this format, you should really consider if Winds of Abandon is actually the card you want to play. Both don’t kill a thing on Turn 1, but at least Winds does the job of being a late-game sweeper.
Lightning Bolt goes upstairs. Being Lava Spike is a job.
Prismatic Ending is coverage against a ton of random things you would otherwise have to reach to your sideboard for. That’s more of a side hustle than a full second job, but it’s good enough.
Solitude is a broken free card that also represents a pseudo-sweeper with Ephemerate or even more with Risen Reef. That’s a lot of jobs, and Fury is in a similar boat where it’s also just one of the better high-end finishers in the format.
- 2 Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger
- 4 Dragon's Rage Channeler
- 4 Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer
- 4 Dauthi Voidwalker
If you look a bit further down the line, things are a bit blurrier. Terminate is doing exactly the job of killing Murktide Regent, but is it even doing the job of killing Ragavan? Are you playing Terminate because you’re all-in on Unholy Heat past Lightning Bolt to kill Ragavan, and from there you can’t kill a Murktide Regent?
I think these Rakdos decks need to do a bit more thinking about their removal suite these days as Primeval Titan loses metagame share. The original point of Unholy Heat was it killed a Monkey or a Giant, but if it’s not really killing a Dragon, why bother? Bloodchief’s Thirst might be the merger Monkey or Dragon kill spell you’re looking for.
Two cards I’ve been impressed with that fit this metric of removal with another job are Smallpox and Damn. I won’t sugarcoat the fact they don’t quite line up right against Ragavan on the draw, but you can lean on other cards to do that.
The problem with these cards is there isn’t quite a home for them where the rest of the cards make sense. Traditional Smallpox decks are especially sensitive to one-for-ones being bad, since even if you get them real good with a Smallpox, what happens after that? It might be time to completely reimagine Smallpox as an early-game card for a Stax deck or even an enabler for Reanimator as opposed to your typical Pox deck. Damn is in a similar position, where reasons to play Orzhov cards are a bit slim now, but wow is Wrath of God or Terminate a good split card.
Orzhov Reanimator with Damn did just Top 8 this week’s Saturday Modern Challenge, so use this list as a framework for any explorations on these two cards.
Paradox #2: No one plays spell-based combo and no one plays spell-based combo hate.
One of the narratives I’ve liked to push about Modern Horizons, the first one, is that Force of Negation was a crushing blow to combo decks. Combo decks in Modern don’t get “free mana”, and that’s probably a good thing. But other decks get “free mana” ways to interact with them. What gives?
But the number of Force of Negations these days is really low, and the number of true combo decks is even lower. If Force of Negation isn’t stopping them, what is?
Before you point to the Simian Spirit Guide ban when talking about how combo is weak in Modern now, I’ll remind you that Simian Spirit Guide wasn’t actually a relevant part of any of the combo decks that had reliable success in Modern. The two times it Top 8’ed a Pro Tour were when it was casting Thought-Knot Seer, and as a singleton in Amulet Titan.
It also isn’t like all the degenerate combo things got banned either. So where is all the combo at?
Oh, you two again.
Part of the issue is all the midrange decks got more aggressive. Instead of their first threat being a Turn 2 Tarmogoyf, it’s a Turn 1 Dragon’s Rage Channeler that gets the beats on. Previously the midrange decks did beat combo as a Level 0 statement, but it all routed through Thoughtseize, which you could in turn negate with Leyline of Sanctity. With Simian Spirit Guide being banned and powerful one-drop threats, the margins have narrowed to the point where there isn’t a huge fundamental advantage to be gained by playing combo.
- 4 Desperate Ritual
- 3 Blood Moon
- 4 Goblin Charbelcher
- 1 Pact of Negation
- 4 Manamorphose
- 4 Pyretic Ritual
- 4 Indomitable Creativity
- 4 Irencrag Feat
- 4 Valakut Awakening
- 4 Bala Ged Recovery
- 4 Spikefield Hazard
- 4 Sea Gate Restoration
- 4 Shatterskull Smashing
- 4 Turntimber Symbiosis
- 4 Strike It Rich
- 4 You Find a Cursed Idol
I originally wanted to write about the reworked Goblin Charbelcher lists that have been popping up in the League results this week, featuring Indomitable Creativity and the new Treasure producers Strike it Rich and You Find a Cursed Idol. But playing that deck I quickly learned that the life payments related to the Zendikar Rising mythic DFCs were a massive liability against the new red baseline.
Before in the Tarmogoyf scenario, you had way more of a life buffer because each of their hits was for a larger amount. If you were going off on the last possible turn, that means you had five to eight life to work with. Now, each life payment is a tangible chunk they can count up to twenty with fairly easily.
The removal has also just gotten better since those old days of Modern. Since there’s a lack of true fast mana, these combo decks often have to route through a permanent. No matter how weird your setup permanent is, it probably dies to some commonly played removal spell. I’ve been beating Ad Nauseam for years by going hard after their artifact mana. Now you don’t even need to sideboard in Ancient Grudge to find a suitable Shatter.
The last big issue for combo is that the threats also have more built-in splash hate. Urza’s Saga is a big one here, but compare the old Scavenging Ooze to Dauthi Voidwalker as a hate card. They just aren’t even in the same ballpark in terms of impact against a graveyard deck.
When a normal deck can just spend its maindeck spells to interact with and race combo, while combo is stuck with a bunch of combo filler in hand unable to fire right back, why would you even need piles of real hate cards in your sideboard?
It really doesn’t help that two less spell-centric combo decks are both generally faster than the spell-combo decks and get to play a broken fair card.
Unraveling Paradox #2: Combo as an exploit.
You ready for an incredibly stupid answer?
Don’t play your combo deck if people are playing the cards that interact with it. Duh.
The cascade decks are weird to call combo here because they do so many fair-ish interactive things, but they help show this. After the first week of Modern Horizons 2, everyone had Chalice of the Void. You saw fewer Cascade decks. We now see less Chalice of the Void. There’s still a decent amount, but let’s get to why Temur Crashcade is successful in a minute.
There’s another layer of exploit you can run here. Like I said earlier, the reason classic spot removal is so bad is because you can’t play a removal game against long-game cards. If you aren’t playing a long game, who cares?
Or better yet you can lean in real hard, play basically all interaction, and have a super-compact combo to overpower the other interactive decks.
I hated playing the Four-Color Indomitable Creativity deck when I played it a couple of weeks ago, but it has a few really great pieces of interaction. View it as the best Teferi, Time Raveler and Prismari Command deck and not a functionally good combo deck, and that’s a better idea of when to play Time Warps and Velomachus Lorehold.
Paradox #3 – Tapout threats win games, but tapout threat decks lose.
My experience casting Blood Moon in current Modern has been nothing short of great. I mentioned the Goblin Charbelcher deck before, and it was a better Turn 2 Blood Moon deck than it was a Charbelcher deck. Same thing when playing Mono-Red Midrange (Obosh). Blood Moon just won games. It’s obnoxiously hard to cast a lot of normal things through a Blood Moon: Shardless Agent, Dauthi Voidwalker, Counterspell, and people just sorta forget this every few months.
So where did all the Gruul go?
What about all the other awesome tapout threats that are super-threatening? It’s not like they haven’t been scary when my opponents have resolved them. People just aren’t playing them.
A lot of the blame falls on Lurrus of the Dream-Den. There’s too much equity tied up in not putting anything that conflicts with Lurrus in your deck. Even if I’m singing the praises of these cards, they’re ineffective in some subset of matchups, and instead of that happening you can play Lurrus and never draw a bad slower card.
I think the rest of the blame falls on the rest of the cards that people tend to play with tapout threats not matching up well against the best cards in the format right now. You want to know where Gruul went? The colors red and green can’t beat a Murktide Regent. Liliana of the Veil sees minimal play because Jund or Golgari can’t beat an Urza’s Saga.
Unraveling Paradox #3 – Build better decks with tapout threats.
People are building bad decks around these cards because that worked in 2018. It definitely doesn’t work today. Build a deck that does work that plays these cards, and then win matches with a good deck.
The Liliana decks are all bad attrition, and not just using Liliana in a way that utilizes the Diabolic Edict versus a single creature auto-win scenario. People are building Blood Moon decks that play a bunch of bad cards, or that are configured in a way that can’t actually answer the most relevant threats of the format.
If this reminds you of my previous comments about Smallpox earlier, it should. The cards that were game-ending before are largely still game-ending now; you just get away with less medium nonsense on the side.
Build Blood Moon decks that have better answers or are solid combo decks that also Blood Moon people. Don’t build yet another Ponza deck.
While the Modern Horizons and Modern Horizons 2 cards in Modern are the easiest good things to win with, I’m coming around to the format being far from solved. I’ve felt impressed by too many things playing down the line of random decks for them all to be weirdly unsupported.
With the metagame condensing around things that are a little less inherently stifling than the initial Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar and Amulet Titan phase, I have hope something unique and a bit more classic can break through. Everyone just has to take a step back and figure out the new rules of the format, and why some things are a tighter bind than they were in the Modern everyone remembers playing.