I cannot escape. As a Denver resident, I am used to unusually unseasonal weather usurping usual undertakings. Why, as a lad I suffered snow at summer camp more than once. Even in July. And an unrelated time, it snowed in August. While thinking of snow on the pines is pleasant and all, it has little to do with Modern. Except that’s not true, because snow is everywhere. Not just because it actually did snow here yesterday, but because, for some reason, Bant Snow is becoming omnipresent. Or appears to be, anyway. Those I encounter online further the complaint and decry their observation that they can never escape Snow, especially when Uro constantly does.
The question that must then be considered is why. Why is always the most important question. Is the Snow shell really impermeable? Is Modern due for an ice age? Or is it simply that Snow is visible and successful because it is popular? The definitive, absolutely incontestable answer is yes. Snow is a good deck and will be a strong contender in Modern for the foreseeable future, and indeed will remain so until Wizards prints something to make snow a drawback. However, that is a minor consideration compared to the inescapable fact that players just want to play in the snow. Popular adoption, regardless of actual power, ensures that a deck will perform in the metagame. Modern will have Snow for a long time thanks to power and popularity. Ultimately, the haters need to chill. Snow is good, but only because it’s getting help.
Snow Over Everything
That the Bant Snow shell (Acrum’s Astrolabe, Ice-Fang Coatl, Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath) is robust, adaptable, and adoptable shouldn’t be controversial at this point. Hang anything off that shell, and it’s pretty much guaranteed to function. This appears to be the crux of player dissatisfaction with the deck, though it should be noted many players are simply never happy.
In this specific case, I do sympathize. Snow carries a lower opportunity cost than anticipated. Astrolabe is a far better card simply because I didn’t realize how well it integrated snow into decks. Mana-fixing artifacts don’t generally see play outside of artifact combo decks because they’re tempo-negative and the Modern manabase makes playing many colors relatively easy. Prophetic Prism sees play in Pauper Tron, but that’s about it. What I failed to grasp was Ice-Fang Coatl‘s appeal is so great that any price is worthwhile. The only way to have enough snow permanents to make Coatl good is to run lots of basic lands, which runs counter to how midrange/control decks are built. Astrolabe being one mana and a cantrip greatly reduces burdens on the manabase, and makes everything else possible.
In fact, this point about opportunity cost is the real benefit and problem with snow. All the pieces are cantrips, and cantrips make every deck they’re in run better. While Ponder-style cantrips provide card selection and are obviously powerful (just ask Legacy), Coatl and Astrolabe simply increase velocity. This doesn’t mean much in a vacuum, but when a large portion of the deck boosts velocity, the deck is just runs smoother. The churning cards, especially when there’s additional benefit to playing them, simply push the deck along and, eventually, through the opposition. Just as a glacier gradually shapes the land, Snow’s cantrips-with-upside shape the deck.
Case in Point
Let us consider an example. Jund is a deck built to grind by maximizing the impact of each card. Jund doesn’t win via quantity, but quality, and so doesn’t have many cantrips. Bant Snow has many good cards, but many are only good in context. Stoneforge Mystic is only really worthwhile when the equipment is also great and vice versa. However, the matchup is far easier for the Bant player than the Jund ones. I wouldn’t say that it’s favorable, but that there’s more forgiveness for Bant. And that’s the critical factor.
S’no Reason to Panic
Consider this game that I observed a bit over a month ago. The Jund player, who I shall call Edward to prevent public humiliation (though not private; he knows what he did), was playing against Bant online, and despite having multiple opportunities to win the game, failed to do so. His opponent didn’t do much better on that front, and was in some ways worse about sealing the deal. It didn’t matter because Edward’s deck punished him, where the opponent’s was forgiving. The culprit: cantrips healing all wounds.
Going into turn three, the game was fairly even. Bant had out Astrolabe, with a fetchland, Teferi, Time Raveler, and Coatl in the graveyard, and was at 14 life from fetching and being hit by a 5/6 Tarmogoyf. Bant played their third land and Uro’d back to 17, dropped a tapped Breeding Pool, and passed. Edward had gone first, Inquistioned away the Teferi, then played Goyf, had Pushed the Coatl during the last attack, and then played Wrenn and Six. In other words, he held a solid lead.
On his turn four, he was faced with the choice of either playing a freshly-drawn Scavenging Ooze and eating Uro or playing Bloodbraid Elf. Ooze is less pressure and card advantage, but ensures that Uro is gone. Elf is more mana-efficient and provides a burst of card advantage. He chose Elf and cascaded into Liliana of the Veil. After upticking and attacking for 8, he passed, confidant of victory.
However, his opponent drew another fetchland and then had enough fodder to escape Uro, and was left with two untapped lands after the ability resolved. Edward downticked Liliana on his turn and finally played the Ooze, only to have it Spell Snared. Goyf got Pathed, and the opponent untapped into Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Over a turn cycle, he’d gone from well ahead to falling behind because where he was maximizing individual value, his opponent’s cantrips let him maximize long-run value. And all could have been avoided if he’d just eaten the Uro. Instead, his opponent Uronated until Edward couldn’t take anymore.
It Gets Worse
In the subsequent game, Edward suffered further indignities as he ground as hard as possible with his opponent, but could never get ahead. When every card trades with every other card, but one side gets to draw an extra one, they’re going to come out on top. Lightning Bolt trades favorably on mana with Coatl, but in this context, only cards matter.
However, Edward had chances to put the game away with either a better Liliana ultimate than he did, or by not playing into a telegraphed Supreme Verdict. I even yelled that the Verdict was incoming, but he didn’t believe me. On the other side, the opponent threw away a lot of value by mistiming Veil of Summer and Archmage’s Charm, exposing Teferis (both kinds) to attack, and not swinging when the opportunity arose. It didn’t matter. The number of cards that the opponent churned through made up for all that hemorrhaged value. Thus, he left Edward Snowed-in, trapped in the Russian winter.
Skating Through Modern
I believe this forgiveness is the beauty, appeal, and rage-target concerning Bant Snow. It’s not that the deck is inherently easy to play thanks to all the cantrips. Rather, the type of cantrips in Bant help smooth everything over. Legacy is a format about cantrips, and it’s not an easy format. Card selection means players have more decisions to make. This gives them more opportunities to outplay the opponent. Or screw up. However, either doesn’t feel unfair. Losing because the opponent was just better or you messed up is something players can respect.
However, velocity cantrips aren’t card selection. There’s no decision to make beyond playing the card. Play Astrolabe, draw a card; simple. They therefore feel lower-skill. This impression is compounded by velocity cantrips being functionally deck grease. Brainstorm is like engineering new tracks, but Coatl simply greases the existing tracks, making the train more efficient. The deck becomes more forgiving of mistakes because its velocity translates into momentum, which can plow through hiccups that would derail a less-forgiving deck.
In my earlier example, Edward and his opponent were making roughly comparable mistakes. However, Edward only had the cards he drew each draw step to work with, whereas his opponent kept cantripping. This amplified each of Edward’s mistakes until he was max-punished by losing the match. Jund is unforgiving, and even masters can’t overcome this problem. By contrast, in the Bant shell, Astrolabe smooths out sub-optimal mana, Coatl forgives slow draws, and Uro forgives throwing away cards. This generosity engenders bitterness from players whose decks are not so benevolent.
Remember to Have Fun
And this brings up the real reason that snow appears to be everywhere: it’s fun. Playing a forgiving deck is a lot more fun than the alternative. Ravager Affinity was the most objectively powerful deck of its era, but it was also a very forgiving deck. Arcbound Ravager was known as the Fairy Godmother because it was make every dream come true, no matter how undeserving the godchild actually was. Keep a suboptimal hand or fail to get full value out of everything? Just draw and cast Ravager and everything is well again.
Jund is a deck that many players aspire to because it feels awesome to just Jund-out an opponent. But that is tempered by the heartache of learning the deck. Tarmogoyf is not as forgiving as Ravager used to be, and can’t solve all problems. Jund can be a temperamental prima donna, and requires consistently high-level play. If pilots don’t maximize value at all times, sequence correctly, or really believe, Jund’s not going to sing for them.
Meanwhile, the Bant Snow shell is more mellow. It fits in anywhere, lets players do what they want, and then helps them accomplish it even when they can’t really do it themselves. Add to that players generally liking gaining value, playing big spells, durdling, and winning via crushing the opponent. Of course Bant’s numbers are inflated.
Uro Doing It Wrong
The final problem is that players don’t seem to understand the deck. The general goal of decks running the Bant shell is to snow opponents under with value. Uro is a critical part of that plan, and for the most part is the primary win condition. At the more extreme end, it’s the only win condition. It’s getting to the point of Uroversality. Again, it combines a lot of things that players love in one place. It’s natural to gravitate towards the new and powerful thing that gives you everything you want, and a win. But there are ways to neuter the strategy.
As I keep harping, Uro is worthless against graveyard hate. A single Surgical Extraction can render Temur Snow Control decks unable to win. However, for reasons that I bitterly cannot understand, players won’t play graveyard hate in sufficient quantity, and allow Uro players to get away with this weakness. Uro is a house of a card, but the problem with a house of cards is fragility.
Perhaps they’re getting away with this weakness because opponents undervalue Uro. Failing to deal with Uro via hate is the most obvious example, but more generally, players just let Uro crush them. I have seen lots of players refuse to use removal, be it counterspells or creature removal, on Uro because of their fear of giving up “value” to escape. As a result, they just sit there and drown under a stream of damage, lifegain, and cards while Uro does its thing. It’s critical to choke the stream so the opponent’s deck bursts under its own weight. Yes, Uro can come back, but not for a turn or more, and it’s better for opponents to have Uro returning from the graveyard than attacking them. Just use the removal.
Despite the frustrating wailing of players, there’s little chance that the snow will thaw, or that Modern will flush Uro out of its system any time soon. There’s too much that players like about the snow shell and Uro specifically, and it’s not like there isn’t counterplay. Players need to get over the fear and deal with the problem before Modern becomes an inflamed Uronary tract.
David began playing Magic during Odyssey block, quit playing Magic when Caw Blade ruled the world, and returned to Modern shortly before Deathrite was banned. He’s made an appearance at the Pro Tour, made money at GP Denver, and is constantly grinding and brewing in Modern.