Modern Horizons: Preliminary Metagame Impacts

It’s been an interesting week for Modern players. Not only has an entire supplemental product targeted at us been revealed, but there was also a Modern Grand Prix, with SCG Regionals and a three-GP  month coming up. It’s a good time to be invested in and covering Magic‘s best format. Today, we’ll see how the spoiled cards fit into existing Modern decks and ponder about Horizons after some quick thoughts on GP Los Angeles.

GP Analysis

In terms of results, GP LA proved mostly uneventful. The fact that Dredge was the most successful deck on Day 1 isn’t particularly surprising. Like clockwork, every time players stop remembering to pack their hate, Dredge resurges. Considering that it hasn’t been very visible for several weeks, it makes perfect sense for Dredge to do well again.

That Day 2 data also means the Top 8 isn’t particularly surprising. Given their starting populations, it makes sense for Dredge and Izzet Phoenix to take multiple slots: the more to start, the more chances to hit. Hardened Scales also taking two slots is interesting, since there were only five decks Day 2. The deck is definitely powerful and explosive, but it’s also pretty inconsistent; still, Scales does line up well against the fair decks that adequately disrupt Phoenix, such as Grixis Shadow. Other than that, the decks that made it are the decks I’d expect given the field, so instead of rehashing old ground, let’s jump straight into Modern Horizons.

Serra the Benevolent

First up is the Lady Serra. It’s interesting that Horizons is bringing back characters from Magic‘s deep past. Pure speculation suggests that there will be plenty of other throwbacks for the lore-junkies and dinosaurs. While I certainly appreciate references and throwback designs, I hope this isn’t another Time Spiral in that only lore-junkies and dinosaurs appreciate the effort.

As for the card, Serra looks promising. Four-mana planeswalkers are frequently good enough for Modern, though the competition from Jace the Mind Sculptor and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is fierce. I can’t imagine that the deck that makes use of Jace will want Serra, but she and Gideon probably fight over the same deck slot in most strategies. And I think Gideon wins. While Serra never needs to expose herself to Path to Exile to build loyalty, she can also only make a token every few turns and can’t just win the game by herself.

Gideon also pumps all creatures, though only through an emblem, whereas Serra can only pump fliers. This effect technically synergizes with the angel token, but in truth looks so narrow as to nearly be worthless. Since just fliers are affected, Serra only works in a deck that’s primarily fliers. Which is just an elaborate way of saying Spirits. In the context of Spirits, Serra is incredibly powerful. I’ve never even considered Gideon in Spirits, but I am seriously considering Serra. Integrated properly, she might be a game-changer.

Into the Spirits of Things

I don’t think Bant Spirits needs Serra. The four-mana slot there is already filled by Collected Company, and Serra can’t compete with the primary reason to splash green in the first place. However, I’ve done some testing with her in UW Spirits, and have noted her potential. Lacking Company or any other curve-topper can hurt when games go long against attrition decks. An on-theme planeswalker with several potent upsides could alleviate this issue.

UW Serra Spirits, Test Deck

Creatures (29)
Mausoleum Wanderer
Supreme Phantom
Selfless Spirit
Rattlechains
Phantasmal Image
Spell Queller
Drogskol Captain
Deputy of Detention

Planeswalkers (2)
Serra the Benevolent

Artifacts (4)
Aether Vial

Instants (4)
Path to Exile

Lands (21)
Hallowed Fountain
Flooded Strand
Cavern of Souls
Ghost Quarter
Plains
Island
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One of Serra’s jobs in this deck is to be a lord during the attack. This is no small feature, and often acts as a white Overrun for lethal damage. Being able to make an angel to either break through a stalemate or rebuild following a bloody combat step or critical sweeper is fine, though frankly it’s more like icing on the cake of Serra’s other abilities.

Reason to Worship

The real story is Serra’s ultimate. Requiring only a single turn to prepare is solid for any walker, but in context, Serra’s is especially powerful alongside Spirits. Worship is a card that I’ve played before and ultimately discarded because it just wasn’t good enough. In theory, Worship alongside hexproof creatures is a hard lock against any creature deck. In practice, it’s a great piece of surprise sideboard tech, but becomes a liability once the word is out. For example, when Burn remembers to pack the Destructive Revelry or Wear // Tear, they can just ignore the lock and win once an opening is found.

However, emblems can’t be removed, and thus the fabled hard lock is actually possible. Sweepers are still a problem, but they’re not prevalent in creature matchups. Sweeperless opponents must then either prevent the hexproof lock or remove Serra before she emblems. Coupled with the +2, I see Serra as a Spirits mirror-breaker. Currently, the matchup is fairly miserable, since whoever has the most lords and/or the lock wins the game. It frequently becomes a stalemate until one player amasses enough of a size advantage and more Selfless Spirits than the other can brute-force their way though. Serra provides an additional lord to break stalls, and/or forces the opponent to go active before they want to, seizing back the initiative and possibly the game.

Burn in Trouble

However, I expect that Burn will have the most trouble against Serra. It’s fully capable of answering a normal Worship, and has proven a tough matchup for Spirits, being faster, more efficient, and hard to effectively Spell Queller. Two Drogskol Captains or a Geist of Saint Traft and a Serra emblem spells actual game over. This threat forces Burn to devote more time and cards killing creatures and/or Serra, and not their opponent, to protect against the lock. The extra 6+ life points that buys should be enough for Spirits to recover.

Cabal Therapist

Next is Cabal Therapist. Between this and Prime Speaker Vannifar, Wizards appears to really be on a busted-card-with-legs kick. However, after some testing I can confirm what everyone else has already said: Therapist is simply too slow to do anything in Modern.

Cynicism vs. Doomsaying

I feel like I should be at least cautiously optimistic about the precedent to be set by Modern Horizons. Legacy and Vintage have received cards from supplemental sets for years; it makes sense to also give Modern toys that would never fly in Standard. But while the spoiled cards are interesting, they’re not exactly hype material. I’m so far unimpressed, but there’s an undercurrent of fear because when Wizards has dumped non-Standard legal cards into non-rotating formats before, it has overturned everything.

Playing It Safe

I think Wizards made Horizons safe enough that Modern isn’t going to change significantly. I can’t point to anything specific that suggests this, but my overall impression says to lower my expectations. The reveal stream was a little short on details, but I think Horizons will be a pretty average set. One tease was that an “awesome” blue card would be reprinted, but everyone just assumes it’s Counterspell.

Then there’s what Mark Rosewater has said so far, indicating that while this set may be designed for a more powerful format, it’s keeping to Standard norms. He flatly stated that Horizons was designed under the modern color pie, so there won’t be any wild and/or particularly interesting reprints like Sylvan Library. And he’s gone on to clarify that the set is primarily about making interesting cards that don’t fit into Standard designs. It was also heavily tested so that it both looked like a coherent set and didn’t suddenly invalidate existing decks.

All that information suggests that Horizons is a set that could have worked in Standard, but wouldn’t due to non-power level problems. Therefore, I expect a lot of niche cards, role-players, and almost-there’s rather than another Treasure Cruise. I’m sure there will be interesting cards and the draft format will be a blast, but I’m skeptical of Horizons being watershed for Modern.

Potential for Impact

We’ve only seen two cards and some basic product info. The real set could be drastically different. So far the set looks weak, but that might just be because Wizards’ perception is different than players’. It’s not uncommon for Wizards to misread cards which cards impact formats and how. Knowing this truth coupled with something else Rosewater said has activated my Irrational Concern subroutines and I can’t shut them off.

Rosewater said that the Storm Scale (the measure he uses for how likely a mechanic is to return to Standard) didn’t apply to Horizons. This means storm and dredge, two of the most broken mechanics ever, are on the table. I don’t think it’s very likely that they actually are because, again, Horizons was heavily tested by the Play Design team, but the fact that they could be is both exciting and terrifying. I call it the True-Name Conundrum.

When True-Name Nemesis was printed in the Commander set, there was speculation that it would completely destabilize Legacy. Being immune to almost everything opponents could do was rightfully seen as extremely powerful, especially alongside equipment. Arguably, this synergy was the only reason that Stoneblade was able to hang on during the Miracles years. The format has changed a lot since True-Name was printed, and yet it remains a defining creature in Legacy.

This is the crux of the Conundrum: What happens if there actually is something that redefines Modern? Is that something we actually want? True-Name is strong, but in a format like Legacy, it could never do too much damage. Even then, it took time for players to adopt the concurrently-printed Toxic Deluge as an answer. Wizards also had to print Council’s Judgement at least partially because of True-Name. Supplemental products are an opportunity for Wizards to cut loose, and there’s always the risk that something misunderstood slips through the cracks. I keep telling myself that it won’t happen, they know the risks. But the problem with irrationality is that facts don’t make it go away.

On the Horizon

Ultimately, I’m conflicted about the prospect of Horizons. There is little reason so far to think that this set will be overly impactful, and not just an interesting diversion that gives lower-tier decks some new tools. However, I can’t ignore Wizards’ history of redefining Legacy with cards from Commander sets. In the event that something equivalent to True-Name does get printed, Modern’s answers are worse, and the format is relatively combo-light compared to Legacy. Will Modern then continue to simply chug along? I’ll have to wait until May to be vindicated or relieved.

16 thoughts on “Modern Horizons: Preliminary Metagame Impacts

  1. >One tease was that an “awesome” blue card would be reprinted, but everyone just assumes it’s Counterspell.

    I think you’re conflating two separate teases. They said that the strongest and “spiciest” card in the set was blue, and they said that the set would have a box-topper which was a reprint. Unless I’m mistaken, nowhere did they say that those two were the same card, or that the “spicy” blue card was a reprint and not a new card.

    I’m quite a bit more sanguine about this set than you are, mainly because the new Play Design has been hitting it out of the park with Standard. Cards like Experimental Frenzy, Runaway Steam-Kin and Wilderness Reclamation are pushed in ways we haven’t seen in Standard-legal sets in many years, and all of them (especially Reclamation) have been called the next Aetherworks Marvel by hyperventilating pros on CFB and SCG. And the Standard with all these “obviously broken” cards is the healthiest the format has been since the end of three-set blocks, the complete opposite of the misery that was the Year of Nine Bans.

    1. Standard is great right now because they’ve realized they can print powerful cards and decks into standard as long as they have answers. Standard can be very powerful as long as all the powerful cards don’t all go into one deck (temur energy), and you end up with a bunch of very different, very good decks, which is healthy.

  2. > “every time players stop remembering to pack their hate” – wait are you serious? Surgical Extraction was the 4th most played card in the top 32. Every interactive deck, i.e. GBx midrange and UB control ran at least 3+ copies of graveyard hate. Where both GB rock decks where also playing 2 Kalitas main.

    1. I’ve covered this extensively before, but Surgical Extraction is not Dredge hate. Dredge has too many targets and too many ways around Surgical to be effective. It’s fine against Storm and Phoenix, but not Dredge. Grafdigger’s Cage also doesn’t count because Dredge sides in Nature’s Claim and/or Ancient Grudge. Since Cage doesn’t remove the graveyard, a single answer unlocks Dredge. You need to eliminate their yard.
      Similarly, Scavenging Ooze and a Kalitas or two aren’t sufficient. They’re too slow to fight a reasonably fast start from Dredge. They’re great midgame value, but that is frequently too late. Effective Dredge hate is persistent and/or fast, like Relic of Progenitus, Leyline of the Void, and Rest in Peace. There weren’t many of any of them in the data set.

        1. I do. I expect players to remember that Dredge exists and to pack the correct hate for the next few weeks. Come Calgary the hate will die down and Dredge will resurface.

      1. So as a Merfolk player heading to regionals this weekend, should I alter my planned GY hate suite from 3 Relics and a Grafdiggers to 4 Relics? Or should I consider some Mistcallers? Echoing Truth has also proven itself and is in the board, and it’s not a bad option against Dredge. I feel pretty confident about the match up.

        1. I don’t know about the Mistcallers and Grafdigger’s in general since I don’t know if Collected Company is any consideration where you live. As a former Merfolk player, I wouldn’t worry about Dredge in general since you can Spread a land, grow bigger than the threats and swing for lethal, and I always play Echoing Truth maindeck so I have outs to Ensnaring Bridge. The main worry is having an answer to Conflagrate.
          The real consideration about graveyard hate is other matchups. If there’s another matchup where Mistcaller or Grafdigger’s are good then by all means run them. However, if the only reason you’re thinking about them is Dredge, stick to Relic since it’s more useful against control and midrange decks.

      2. Blue-Black Control by Yuta Takahashi ran 3x Nihil Spellbomb, 1x Relic, 2x Surgical. I don’t think he forgot about dredge. Similarly all the BGx decks also ran multiple copies of Nihil Spellbomb, next to their already incidental graveyard hate as I have mentioned before. It’s stupid that you specifically needs Leyline in order to beat dredge, even then they can Assassin’s Trophy or Nature’s Claim it, after you mulled to your Leyline. It’s a joke. The London mulligan rule will probably push Dredge over the edge and get Looting banned.

      3. David, there is a SCG fact of fiction article that talks about whether or not Faithless Looting should have been banned. This is not really the point I want to touch upon, but more whatever Ryan Overturf mentions in his judgement in regards to Looting: “Dredge and Izzet Phoenix are pretty clearly the two best decks in Modern at this time, and these graveyard decks have pushed the format to the point where we are seeing quite a lot of maindeck Nihil Spellbombs and Surgical Extractions. These adaptations caused Dredge and Izzet Phoenix to be only… half of the Top 8 and the winning deck at Grand Prix Los Angeles…”. What he is basically is saying is that; Dredge and Phoenix only made such an appearance because of the hefty amount of hate. Which is the direct opposite of what you advocate. Can you elaborate on that?

        You can read it, here: http://www.starcitygames.com/articles/38407_Should-Faithless-Looting-Have-Been-Banned-In-Modern.html

        1. First of all, I don’t see the widespread adoption of those cards that Ryan mentions anywhere. There’s the odd Spellbomb in Jund but that’s not uncommon if you look through the last few years. Also, I didn’t see much of what I’d consider Dredge hate at GP LA, so maybe we just disagree. Surgical Extraction isn’t effective Dredge hate, and maindecking it isn’t a great idea since its only good in specific circumstances against one deck and effectively dead the rest of the time.
          I think what Ryan actually meant is that the hate there was limited Dredge and Phoenix to only half the Top 8. Given the actual starting population, I find it extremely unlikely that those two decks could have closed out the Top 8. They’re good deck and players weren’t prepared enough for them, but they’re hardly format dominating decks.

          1. I’m in agreement with David. Phoenix is a really good deck because it attacks from multiple angles and it is consistent and redundant. However, surgical and fatal push hurt Phoenix hard. These are decks that any kind of Rock or Jund or Death shadow deck should be able to side in with 0 interruption to its main plan.

            And dredge goes down hard to leyline of the void or ravenous trap. If players sideboard correctly for the meta, Phoenix and dredge shouldnt end up any better than death shadow, burn, or tron.

    1. I agree. I’m just wondering how would a fair archetype get a boost against the velocity of unfair modern decks without a card that could be broken by said combo decks?

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