Modern has plenty of decks with loyal followings, but perhaps no such group is so dedicated as Death & Taxes players. It’s one of the older decks in the format, and I don’t think it has ever been a clear Tier 1 strategy. It seemed like it might finally break through when Skyclave Apparition entered the format last fall, but once again it faded back to the fringes of the metagame.
But Death & Taxes players soldier on, fighting the good fight with their mediocre collection of annoying white creatures, sometimes splashing a color for some spice. It’s truly inspiring to see how devoted they are.
And after so many years of grinding out games with an underpowered deck, I have some good news: With the arrival of Modern Horizons 2, I believe that Death & Taxes decks will be a major player in the Modern format moving forward. The archetype got a ton of new tools and it has reached a critical mass that has put the deck on par with the most competitive decks in the metagame.
There’s Always a But...
But it’s not all good news. Part of pushing the deck’s power level up to a competitive level is getting rid of the underpowered cards that have been staples of the archetype since its inception. That means moving on from Leonin Arbiter.
No single card defines this archetype more than Leonin Arbiter. The synergy with Ghost Quarter, Field of Ruin, and Path to Exile has been the engine that made the deck run. This has been an aggressive deck with a strong mana denial plan that paired nicely with the mana advantage provided by Aether Vial. Destroying a land or two made Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and other tax effects that much more difficult to play through, allowing you to close the game even with an undersized assortment of creatures.
But if we’re being honest, Leonin Arbiter has also held the deck back. WIthout drawing Ghost Quarter you almost never got immediate value from the card, and even that was no guarantee if your opponent had mana open for a Lightning Bolt or Fatal Push. As the disruption in Modern has increased in power level, the value of two-mana creatures that don’t provide immediate value, like Dark Confidant for example, has decreased, and Leonin Arbiter is no exception.
Sometimes you can catch your opponent without an answer and several fetchlands in hand, but those times are few and far between, especially against a prepared opponent who knows to play their fetchlands early in the matchup.
Leonin Arbiter’s inconsistent impact wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the opportunity cost of playing it weren’t so high. Fetchlands are among the most powerful cards ever printed, and not being able to utilize them yourself is rarely better than stopping your opponent’s. With all the colorless lands required to fill out the land destruction package, it was a stretch for Death & Taxes players to even play a second color, resorting to playing weak dual lands to fill out their manabase. And playing more than two colors has been impossible. This made the archetype less adaptable since it wasn’t able to access as much of the Modern card pool as most other strategies.
The New Tools
From Modern Horizons to Modern Horizons 2, many new cards have been printed that help Death & Taxes decks compete in a more normalized game. Giver of Runes is the one-drop the deck always lacked. Stoneforge Mystic is a premier-level threat and Equipment like Sword of Fire and Ice helps your disruptive creatures attack and block profitably in the face of bigger creatures. Skyclave Apparition gave the deck much-needed removal for not only early creatures but also pesky cards like Wrenn and Six and Oblivion Stone. And now you have access to even more of those kinds of cards in Sanctum Prelate, Solitude, and Esper Sentinel.
Leonin Arbiter was a necessary evil when Death & Taxes players had few removal options past Path to Exile and little in the way of card advantage or a clock. Leaning into the mana denial plan was the best they could do. That’s no longer the case. So there’s little reason to keep sacrificing so much in deck construction to play Arbiter when you can just play better cards and still have a robust disruption package.