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Prepare For Sanctum Prelate’s Arrival In Modern Or Else

Sanctum Prelate will transform the Modern metagame as part of Modern Horizons 2. Ari Lax breaks down why it matters, the losers, and the winners.

Sanctum Prelate, illustrated by Michael C. Hayes

In the original Modern Horizons, we got a sideways addition to Modern in the Buy-a-Box promo Flusterstorm. Up until Strixhaven the card didn’t do a lot, and even now you’re getting excited that the eternally sketchy Nivmagus Elemental has more cards in the formats that function as Nivmagus Elemental with your storm spell. Not great.

We had another Buy-a-Box promo previewed for Modern Horizons 2, and it’s a bit of a bigger deal. Quite a few bits, in fact.

Sanctum Prelate is going to change how people build decks in Modern.

Chalice of the Void + Meddling Mage = Great

Sanctum Prelate combines a lot of Meddling Mage with a lot of Chalice of the Void. On the Chalice side, it can shut down entire decks if they’re too clustered on efficient costs. On the Meddling Mage side, you can target single impactful cards regardless of their actual cost, where Chalice is realistically capped at two in any reasonable timeframe.

Those are two historically impactful cards. Sanctum Prelate sees play in Legacy largely as white Chalice of the Void because Wasteland and Daze force the mana costs of the format to condense, but in Modern it’ll get to play both roles. People playing noncreature spells will face lockouts in a lot of games.

I want to establish how important preparing for Sanctum Prelate is when you do face it. We can go right to the tape, and don’t worry, you won’t be here long.

Pre-match handshake at :10 on the game clock, and players pick up their opening hands. The game packs up around :40. Sanctum Prelate can do the same thing to someone as that Meddling Mage. It hits the “card you name” based on cost and then everything else.

So, if Sanctum Prelate has any reasonable metagame presence, the equity you get by preparing for it is massive compared to just losing on the spot.

Where Sanctum Prelate Shines

So, where does Sanctum Prelate find a home in the metagame? Let’s start with the obvious.

Sanctum Prelate is a Human. Cavern of Souls is likely to be at a premium with the introduction of Counterspell, which is a sizeable upgrade for the control decks even if it won’t really change how they’re constructed. The main issue with Humans is Lava Dart and other one-mana removal spells, and you can build the deck to keep a single doofus alive if needed.

Sanctum Prelate is also absurd with Phantasmal Image. While that card is usually a liability against interactive decks, Sanctum Prelate getting copied feels like the kind of thing that’s a hard lock for people. Even if it isn’t, how many ways do they have to hit the Image’s targeting drawback that weren’t locked out by a duo of Prelates?

But even if Sanctum Prelate helps with one issue Humans has these days, that deck has fallen out of Tier 1 and is really looking for ways back in. Where else will Sanctum Prelate show up if that fails to happen?

You can just build a Sanctum Prelate deck the way people do in Legacy: a pile of white cards. Sanctum Prelate here has a similar feel to Counterspell in the control decks. You could lock people out of spells with all the Thalia, Guardian of Thraben-style cards that already existed, but Sanctum Prelate is just a bit better at the job. Again, the second toughness comes in clutch. If you actually look at the Orzhov Taxes (Yorion) deck that won a Strixhaven Championship Qualifier at the start of the month, it’s playing four copies each of Wall of Omens and Charming Prince and zero copies of Thalia anywhere in the 95. You need a more sturdy anti-spell creature in these decks, and Sanctum Prelate stands ready to deliver on that.

This is also a good time to remind you that Sanctum Prelate says “as” and not “when” it enters the battlefield. You can’t respond to the choice of a number, just the Prelate itself on the stack. If your opponent activates Aether Vial with three counters on it, you need to decide now what you’re doing because once they show you the Prelate, it’s too late.

But let’s head even higher up the tiers.

Sanctum Prelate is a really nice three-drop to hit with Collected Company. It’s yet another thing to hit that’s naturally good in a Collected Company deck, but also another thing your opponent has to point removal at before they get to your Spike Feeder. And guess what all the troubles your infinite life combo deck had before look like? Yup, specific noncreature spells and stack interaction.

And remember what I said about Aether Vial and Sanctum Prelate? The same “better decide now” thing applies to Collected Company, only worse, since if they fire off removal first, you can just choose something else. It’s literally a perfect fit to improve what was already the best deck in the format.

That’s three powerful homes up the tier list for Sanctum Prelate to appear in. Not only is the card’s impact on a game super-polarizing if you don’t prepare for it, but you must play against it. One of these decks will be a key contender, and even if they’re being targeted, Sanctum Prelate is one of their better tools against the things people typically use to go after heavy creature decks. No matter what you’re playing, you want to be prepared to face the card.

The Losers of Sanctum Prelate

Duh, next.

There have been a lot of times over the last year where you want the fifth or sixth one-mana removal spell in your Modern deck. Dimir Mill (Lurrus) might want a Bloodchief’s Thirst on top of Fatal Push, a ton of Prowess decks are playing Wild Slash on top of Lightning Bolt, and I’ve suggested Oust in addition to Path to Exile several times for various control decks. All of that is a bad idea now.

Three-color decks also run into a bit of this. A major part of why you played Jund or Jeskai in Modern was that you got two of the Big Three removal spells: Lightning Bolt, Fatal Push, and Path to Exile. When overloading on one-mana interaction starts having drawbacks, so do these three-color decks.

Most of these decks can adjust, but Jund Death’s Shadow (Lurrus) is a big loser. Or really any Death’s Shadow deck. The archetype is extremely focused on winning games via mana efficiency. Absorbing two-drops isn’t in its nature. Further, the archetype is traditionally weak to white creature decks. Not only are you losing ground to Sanctum Prelate, but every Skyclave Apparition or Reflector Mage that comes with it is more bad news.

If your combo deck is named after a specific noncreature spell, Sanctum Prelate will be a bad time….

But the same is true if your combo deck is about density of effects. The floor on Sanctum Prelate against Burn or Dimir Mill is usually trading for a card when your opponent is trying to use those cards to count to a large number. The ceiling is your opponent just can’t cast multiple cards and loses the game on the spot. And unlike Chalice of the Void, the number two isn’t a significant burden when casting Sanctum Prelate.

Dredge takes a roundabout hit, since on the play any Noble Hierarch plus Sanctum Prelate deck can just lock out their draw spells. Even worse, most of the catch-all answers you would sideboard in like Abrupt Decay also cost two. Sanctum Prelate doesn’t beat Dredge by itself, but everything that can steal a Game 1 in the matchup makes the Dredge player’s odds much worse.

The big colorless sweepers many decks leaned on to beat aggro are now easier to cut off. All Is Dust is a specific loser since seven mana is such a clean point to also cut off Karn Liberated. This effect would probably be bigger if Modern mirrored Standard and defaulted to open decklists, but the Magic Online client versus MTGMelee tournament split has preserved the old style for now.

I don’t want to call the Five-Color Color or Izzet Breach decks true losers against Sanctum Prelate. They’re already insulated against clean sweeps by playing a split combo-control game, and they can easily Lightning Bolt Prelate down to clear the path for a combo or just combo out if Prelate locks Lightning Bolt. But it’s a card that usually must be killed against them that will get added to decks, and that won’t be appreciated.

That’s a really long list of things Sanctum Prelate causes issues for. The card has a pedigree of being good, slots into many obvious good decks, and is an issue for a huge chunk of the metagame. Yeah, that adds up to a lot of future potential.

The Winners of Sanctum Prelate

The good Adventure creatures will pop up in more and more places. You get the buyout of the body if they lock out your two-mana spells, and if they don’t, you can just answer the Prelate. It might be a bit easier than you think for them to get Prelate out of Stomp range, but it does mean they need to do another thing to handle it.

I don’t really want to Blast Zone a Sanctum Prelate, but I do want Blast Zone to clean up the rest of the mess so Sanctum Prelate is protecting something I can beat as a Grey Ogre. Grim Lavamancer is in a similar boat of being a card Sanctum Prelate doesn’t hamper, but also being a great way to run Sanctum Prelate decks out of the metagame.

A lot of this section is just going to be alternatively costed sweepers, and Winds of Abandon might be one of my favorites. It’s actually a good fifth and sixth Path to Exile since the drawback on Path actually shrinks in multiples. Their second bonus land is probably their fifth or sixth overall land in the game, which for most creature decks is way more than they need, and that’s all if they even have the basics to find. And then after all of that, it’s also a sweeper than has a weirdo mana value.

That stupid Primeval Titan grin is what you will have on your face when your opponent confirms Sanctum Prelate says “noncreature” and dies to Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle.

I would say the tribal creature combo decks get better. Most Sanctum Prelate decks will have removal, but not sweepers or the raw density of removal needed to overcome Elves or Goblins. Except most of these Sanctum Prelate decks can just roll up some Plague Engineers and be giant jerks about the whole thing. My most hated card from Modern Horizons that’s still legal strikes again to take the fun away from everyone.

To riff on a Mitch Hedberg classic: Maybe it will be time for green, non-tribal creature combo to have its day in the sun. I mean, it was time for that before Modern Horizons 2, but Sanctum Prelate certainly means it will be time for that after.

If you sum up the winners and losers, that’s basically every deck in Modern. Very few things come out at par against Sanctum Prelate. The card’s presence in the metagame and on the battlefield is bound to be super-polarizing. If you don’t prepare for that, the one thing you can prepare for is being on the wrong side of that divide.