Modern Top 5: Best of 2019

With the new year fast approaching, I figured I’d follow in Spotify’s footsteps and call out the biggest cards of 2019. We’ve got many possible entrants between Throne of Eldraine and Modern Horizons. Read on for hot takes on the year’s greatest and how they might fare in 2020!

You Are Now Rocking With the Best

The Modern Top 5 series aims to establish a set of three metrics and apply them to individual cards, yielding a ranking with selections and placements somewhat less arbitrary than your average Buzzfeed collection. Subjectivity nonetheless plays a role—the chosen metrics, as well as the ascribing of values to each metric, are based on my personal impression. That’s where the article format comes into play: I have space to defend my decisions, and readers have the comments to dispute them!

Each metric will be rated out of 5, giving cards a total rating out of 15. The three metrics are as follows:

Meta Relevance

In my eyes, a card’s power is closely tied to how “best” it is. Meta relevance refers to its standing in the metagame: copies logged, tournaments won, etc. Since such data often proves elusive, these numbers may not perfectly mirror the objective reality.

Iconicity

When players thought “Modern” in August, they thought “Hogaak.” “Modern” back in March? “Phoenix.” Whether or not those cards were the format’s most-played at that time, they’re certainly the ones that stuck in players’ minds, and the ones that dictated Modern’s identity. Thus, we’ll consider how iconic each card is.

Staying Power

It wouldn’t be an end-of-the-year list without some looking into the future. Staying power gives my take on how well the card will fare in 2020, based on recent results and trends. If you’re sick of seeing one card or another on this list, hope for a low score in this category!

#5: Ranger-Captain of Eos

Overall: 8/15

Meta Relevance: 3

Ranger-Captain of Eos, a value-loaded three-drop from Modern Horizons, found its way into multiple Modern decks this year, including different builds of Zoo and wacky brews like Esper Shadow. But Mardu Shadow was its true forever home, and it brought that strategy to the forefront of the Shadow movement for a time.

Having enough key threats has always been a problem for Shadow decks, and one they’ve tried to remedy with the likes of cantrips, Traverse the Ulvenwald, and lesser beaters such as Tarmogoyf. Ranger-Captain is among the archetype’s most graceful options, yanking a namesake Avatar directly from the deck and providing an impressive body to boot. Best of all is Ranger’s synergy with Unearth, turning the black sorcery into an incredible one-mana play.

Iconicity: 1

Of course, Unearth got all the credit. After Horizons dropped, plenty of giddy players tried their hands at breaking the sorcery, and not all builds featured Ranger-Captain: many preferred flashy Elemental creatures or members of the Pyromancer family. Which leaves us with a 3/3 whose name I had to double-check before typing it.

Staying Power: 4

Unearth, by now, has all but gone the way of the Dodo. Mardu Shadow still plays it, but without the splashable Faithless Looting engine, almost nobody else can make it work. On the other hand, Ranger-Captain seems exceptionally promising for the new year, as it tutors for any one-drop. That list includes ranges from lowly mana dorks to protection like Giver of Runes to closers such as Serra Ascendent. I think plenty of strategies can make use of Ranger-Captain and we’ll see its shares rise in 2020.

#4: Wrenn and Six

Overall: 11/15

Meta Relevance: 3

While Wrenn and Six warped Legacy enough to merit a ban in the high-powered format, its reception was mostly lukewarm in Modern. Sure, it put Jund back on the map, but nobody else really played it. With that said, heavily leaning on 1/1s became a lot scarier this year.

Iconicity: 3

Wrenn seemed to turn heads among Modernites mostly for how expensive it is, or for how many Jund players were suddenly flooding their LGS. Once the hype had died down, I barely heard the walker’s name mentioned; there were simply flashier cards to discuss.

Staying Power: 5

Here’s where Wrenn catches up. I think the card is utterly crazy, and building with it (and the London mulligan) has totally changed the way I approach deck design. In a fetch-heavy deck, it’s perfectly reasonable to keep a one- or two-land hand that can nonetheless generate Wrenn as fast as possible, letting land counts in non-blue decks run as low as 16. I think more players will catch on to this in 2020, and we’ll start to see Wrenn pop up in a variety of archetypes.

#3: Once Upon a Time

Overall: 12/15

Meta Relevance: 4

Once Upon a Time has had a larger effect on Modern than Wrenn so far. The card has been everywhere: Infect; Devoted Combo; Simic Eldrazi; Neobrand; Death’s Shadow; Amulet Titan. In many of those decks, it plugs crucial holes; in others still, it simply props up an already competent gameplan.

Iconicity: 4

The buzz from Once still hasn’t entirely died down, in no small part due to its nature as a free spell. Being banned from Standard and Pioneer has also upped its pedigree. But mostly, interacting with mulligans is not an especially prevalent mechanic in Magic. A card that does so well, in this case better than the Leylines or even Serum Powder, is bound to attract attention.

Staying Power: 4

As I was building the above list of Once decks, I noticed plenty I’d never seen: Green Devotion; Affinity; GR Prowess; Sultai Delirium. If these new converts are any indication, Once has plenty of life in it yet, and we’ll continue to see it support and enable new decks down the road.

#2: Urza, Lord High Artificer

Overall: 13/15

Meta Relevance: 5

Different flavors of Urza decks gave Modern its first dominant-looking archetype since Hogaak’s demise. In the end, Urza wasn’t quite as broken as the 8/8, finding a natural foil in Grixis Shadow. The arrival on the scene of such a predator caused Urza to abandon its combo origins and cross over into midrange using Oko, Thief of Crowns.

Iconicity: 5

From the Hogaak ban to now, most of what I’ve heard regarding Modern has to do with Urza. Heck, David even penned a piece on how to beat the darn thing! If Modern had a face this winter, Urza was it.

Staying Power: 3

I’m with David in thinking the deck won’t necessarily last, at least not at its current representation levels. Sure, Urza will continue to exist in Modern. But without the combo element so present, its namesake card is just another value bomb. This value bomb happens to cost one more mana than Oko, Thief of Crowns, which is proving itself to be the true MVP of the Simic builds. It’s very possible that 2020 sees a form less invested in artifacts that abandons Urza, Lord High Artificer entirely.

#1: Oko, Thief of Crowns

Overall: 14/15

Meta Relevance: 5

Which brings us to Oko, Thief of Crowns himself. Oko scores a 5 here just as Urza did; while he’s been around for less time, he’s been in more decks, including Urza’s. I’d peg Oko as spearheading Modern’s recent shift towards cheap planeswalkers, and believe his power level trumps even that of Liliana of the Veil. While Liliana plays multiple roles, she only really fits into decks playing toward attrition; Oko has made his mark on aggro, combo, and control by offering many gameplans and synergies.

Iconicity: 5

It feels impossible to wander into just about any online Magic discussion group and not be inundated by Elk memes. However many of their posters are Standard or Pioneer players, the fact remains that the community at large has Oko on the brain. I’m for him (pro-ko?), but understand that many consider the gameplay of smashing 3/3s against each other less interesting. Which side of the fence do you fall on?

Staying Power: 4

Oko should maintain traction as a solid Plan B for decks all over the archetype spectrum. We may also have a new Oko-focused deck emerged to replace Simic Urza. But I doubt we’ll get more than one of those, meaning Oko’s status will mirror that of Tarmogoyf, Thing in the Ice, and the like as a fair Plan B.

Dropping the Ball

And that wraps up this year’s review of the top cards in Modern. Any I missed or mixed up? Let me know your thoughts below and we can hash it out over bubbly!

3 thoughts on “Modern Top 5: Best of 2019

  1. I still can’t believe they printed Oko as he is…he’s exactly the sort of card I don’t like…powerful, cheap, and asks nothing of you other than being able to cast him. I’m struggling to think of reasons why a deck that can produce both blue and green mana shouldn’t run him in some number in their 75. I mean, how many 3-mana walkers have we ever had that are legitimate threats to be able to win the game on their own? Liliana the Last Hope? Maybe Gideon of the Trials? But he just pressures so well. I mean, assuming you have an astrolabe or something on your side of the board, he can be a 3-mana walker that plusses to 5 to make a (permanent) 3/3 with what amounts to haste. I feel like we’re just going to see more and more of him everywhere in Modern, unfortunately.

    1. There is a reason he is on my watchlist.
      Apparently, Oko just got lost in the shuffle. Paul Cheon and Melissa De Torra said on the Wizards stream a few weeks ago that they spent so much time adjusting the Food decks that they lost sight of Oko and didn’t really test him in his final configuration. And never used him on opposing permanents at any point.

    2. I think you’re mostly right about Simic decks just never not running him. But the same can be said of Lightning Bolt for red decks, or Goyf for green decks (okay, maybe not this one anymore). While this type of color-defining card is nothing new for Modern, I can see it being annoying, especially since Oko comes down and does Oko things for awhile pretty much every game opponents see it. At least with Bolt, it’s a one-time deal!

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