Adventures in the Forgotten Realms will live up to its name for Constructed — a brief distraction over the summer, quickly consigned to the scrapheap as we gear up for yet another trip to Innistrad (and, for Standard, a long-overdue rotation). Any set would look weak in the shadow of Modern Horizons 2 but this one looks to be another Strixhaven.
Is that as bad as it sounds? Strixhaven gave us a few gems in Expressive Iteration and Prismari Command but its other contenders have flopped. After Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor had his fifteen minutes of fun it was rare to see a Kaldheim card in Modern. Before the 2019-2020 wave of every set shaking up every format with the same cards, most sets had one or two stars and some marginal role-players. We shouldn’t hold a set to an impossible standard but a set should have some standards for itself.
The first card we saw from this set is also the best:
Portable Hole was previewed months before the rest of the set but had to share the limelight with our first taste of Modern Horizons 2 in Urza’s Saga. After we all clarified that no, you can’t fetch Portable Hole with Urza’s Saga, any remaining interest quickly dried up.
Later previews revealed cheap threats and engine cards that demand immediate removal:
Base-white decks had struggled to remove cheap creatures without giving the opponent a useful resource via Path to Exile and Portable Hole promised to close that gap while offering welcome coverage against the flora and fauna of Modern. After being upstaged during its own preview by one Modern Horizons 2 card, Portable Hole was quickly obsoleted by another:
Prismatic Ending has become an immediate Modern staple, filling the same niche while hitting the more expensive threats that don’t fall in the Hole. It also answers Hole itself, making it even more appealing to just play Prismatic Ending instead if your mana supports it.
If you have the choice, why would you play Portable Hole? You can imagine a metagame heavily warped around two-drops — some from the above list or others like Stoneforge Mystic — with Lurrus of the Dream-Den chasing away anything bigger where Portable Hole has about the same versatility but a more crucial efficiency. Even here, Hole’s weakness to Prismatic Ending or opposing Holes is a deal-breaker.
The more compelling reason is the type line. Without Mox Opal there are no specific artifact counts to aim for (though Portable Hole contributing to metalcraft for Puresteel Paladin is enough to make the switch there) but Hole is a unique tool for anything that finds artifacts. Azorius Whirza is a deck that I think is almost there in Modern and gains more than anything else from Adventures in the Forgotten Realms:
The latest I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Birthing-Pod card to join Modern, Oswald Fiddlebender is as ambitious as you are. If you want a redundant tutor effect for your Whirza deck ala Goblin Engineer, Oswald can be that:
This list highlights the most practical use of Oswald and its main edge over analogous effects that find creatures: the narrow cards that invalidate whole strategies by themselves are a lot cheaper as artifacts than as creatures. Upgrading Razortide Bridge into Pithing Needle or Soul-Guide Lantern with your two-drop is trivial.
Instead of more consistent access to the bottom of your curve, you can also chase the dream at the top of your curve:
- 1 Myr Enforcer
- 4 Frogmite
- 4 Ornithopter
- 4 Memnite
- 2 Craterhoof Behemoth
- 1 Gingerbrute
- 4 Thought Monitor
- 4 Sojourner's Companion
This exciting take on Affinity uses Neoform with Thought Monitor and Sojourner’s Companion to jump to Craterhoof Behemoth for a sudden kill. Oswald Fiddelbender can cheat out eight-drop artifacts instead and seems more broadly useful in an artifact-centric strategy.
The problem is that there just aren’t any good hits at that specific mana value. Sphinx of the Steel Wind is embarrassed by Murktide Regent in the matchup where it’s meant to be good. Sundering Titan is devastating for some opponents and a giant vanilla creature against others. Possessed Portal locks up some games but mostly loses them very, very slowly. Meanwhile, Frogmite lacks a Neoform target in the original list and it’s clear why once you start to look at the options in Modern; the outlook is just as grim for Oswald there.
You can try to stitch together a chain of untap effects to work towards some big finish but it’s unclear what that is meant to be. There’s no infinite combo in the vein of Felidar Guardian + Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker if you’re restricted to just artifacts. Every untap effect is another dead draw that clunks up your deck. Deceiver Exarch at least pretends to apply pressure or block for a turn to buy time; these just do what they say on the tin(e).
There are deeper structural issues with using Oswald like this. Any sequence of Oswald activations is gated by access to white mana but most artifact-heavy decks either want to enjoy the privilege of leaning into colorless utility lands or have to spread themselves thin between several colors. Birthing Pod decks relied heavily on their namesake being an artifact that was tough to remove through conventional means — Oswald is a fragile Grizzly Bear that is dead on arrival. You can build around a Puresteel Paladin or Devoted Druid if you can protect it or function without it but it’s hard for an Oswald deck to do either.
There’s one more card that’s worth puzzling out from this set:
Ari is excited about Demilich in Modern and I should be too. I’m not sure if I can be, though.
At a glance I see a card that’s weak to the most common removal in the format, needs to attack to do anything useful, and is only realistically castable if my deck is already firing on all cylinders.
Let’s frame the problem differently: what am I hoping for from this card? It’s natural to look at existing shells and ask how Demilich fits in but the wide range of options there illustrates the futility of doing that. Modern right now has two top-tier Izzet decks that want to cast a lot of cheap spells but the familiar Prowess lists feel quite different from the slower, blue-heavy Murktide Regent decks. Izzet Phoenix vanished with the loss of Faithless Looting but is yet another example of a deck with similar infrastructure with its own unique play pattern. More broadly, Modern has more incentives to play Lightning Bolt and Manamorphose than you can possibly fit in the same deck and they each make their own demands of you. The question isn’t “is this card better than Murktide Regent in the current crop of Izzet decks?” (certainly not), it’s “what does a Demilich deck look like and is it worth the effort?” (I’m skeptical, but maybe).
The choice of additional threat in Thing in the Ice and the secondary spell suite match the incentives suggested by Demilich: you want to play as many spells as possible in this narrow window and you’d prefer your other threats to not rely on the graveyard.
Strike it Rich is a ‘free’ spell that can sometimes be a second spell and a Turn 1 Strike it Rich can set up a future flurry of spells if mana will be a limiting factor. Finale of Promise represents three spells towards Thing or Demilich by itself and is a big finish that can bury the opponent in card advantage in grindy games where your creatures are unlikely to survive.
The one piece I couldn’t quite place is Traverse the Ulvenwald, used by our own Ryan Overturf to win a Team Constructed Open in Baltimore in 2019 as a splash in Izzet Phoenix and hopefully reprising the same role here by finding Demilich at the end of the spell chain. Delirium is easier to justify building towards in a deck that already wants to reach that for Dragon’s Rage Channeler.
The best existing home I’ve found for Demilich is a wildcard:
Alexander Gordon-Brown is a name you’ll recognize as a constant source of innovation if you followed the SCG Tour Online last year so seeing that name on this decklist piqued my interest. Izzet Pyromancer Ascension is fine with its backup threat being a creature as the enchantments that make up its main plan tend to be vulnerable to different things (notably, most white decks in Modern can’t Prismatic Ending a Demilich easily or at all). Its other threats are also more mana-intensive, making a threat that can eventually become free more appealing. When you aren’t going off with Ascension this deck will have ‘short combo’ turns where you cycle through a bunch of spells or cast a big Finale of Promise but don’t affect the battlefield in a meaningful way; with Demilich, you can convert that card filtering into an immediate return (often with several copies thanks to Demilich being nonlegendary). Here, Demilich is acting as a Hollow One upgrade more than anything else.
Speaking of build-around combo enchantments…
Don’t try this one at home! Ari Lax mentioning the lovely phrase “Bard Class” was enough to send me on a fever dream that ended up in… whatever this is. Initially, this deck was focused on Bard Class as a combo piece that could tear through the deck with Mox Ambers and now-free Oath of Nissas triggering the Level 3 ability but getting there in the first place was tough and accomplishing something useful was even tougher. After a brief detour through Asmor synergies and Plargg, Dean of Chaos letting you build and rig your own Cascade in a mostly legendary deck, I arrived at Honor-Worn Shaku as a better mana engine that could fuel Karn, the Great Creator. This deck does a lot of things and does none of them especially well but it’s an intriguing concept.
Finally, we have some safer picks for marginal Modern play:
This cycle of creature-lands offers something new: an untapped source of the relevant colour on the most important turns. Treetop Village is still an excellent card but entering the battlefield tapped is too steep a cost in a format like Modern and an otherwise weaker land like Nest of the Hydra gets the nod instead. Specifically, Amulet Titan and the fringe Elvish Reclaimer decks both need green on Turn 1 for some combination of Arboreal Grazer/Sakura-Tribe Scout, Elvish Reclaimer, and Abundant Harvest. Nest of the Hydra lets you search for a scalable win condition with Primeval Titan or Elvish Reclaimer that can attack the following turn (unlike Constructs from Urza’s Saga) and take over the battlefield even if the creature that found it bites the dust.
Den of the Bugbears is a candidate for what we might euphemistically call the ‘flex slot’ in the manabase of the Mono-Red Aggro (Obosh) deck popularized by MHayashi. All manner of strange lands have worked their way in there over the years — Radiant Fountain, Blast Zone, Forgotten Cave, even Zoetic Cavern — and Den is the first one that actually casts cards like Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer on time. Compared to the other red aggro decks, this one wants to go up the curve for its companion, hardcast Fury, and various three-drops so entering the battlefield tapped later is still a serious problem.
Maybe good old basic Mountain is the answer and always has been (with a Shinka, the Bloodsoaked Keep if you’re feeling indulgent…)