This feels right.
It is good to be writing about Magic again. I had to step away from content creation for a little while, with Modern being pretty much solved (until the February 15, 2021 B&R Update) and Standard being... well, let's try and stay positive, shall we? But as soon as Modern Horizons II (MH2) was announced and its first cards revealed, I knew I would target its release dates to get back into writing. Spoiler season was very exciting, but a little worrisome as well with so many powerful cards making their way into the format. After having consumed about 70 hours of video content, I can definitely tell you that Modern is exciting again - only 4 days in, and the set even released in paper yet!
One of the particular traits of an MTGO Update like the patch for MH2 is that, when a set becomes legal online before packs are actually available in the store, all existing copies of any card that is reprinted becomes legal as well. Which meant that
Fire // Ice and
Counterspell (to name a few) could be played in Leagues about half a day before their new-to-modern MH2 counterparts. The first list to make waves was Evart "AspiringSpike" Moughon's Temur Shardless Rhinos, which pairs
Shardless Agent with
Crashing Footfalls to get all the trampling Rhinos you could dream of. He later updated the Main Deck to add 4 copies of
Subtlety and took his 75 to a decent 27th place finish in the Saturday Modern Challenge.
The brilliance of this list: having found a workaround to Cascading into cheap control spells (often only useful in the early turns) and maximizing the odds of casting
Crashing Footfalls with Agent every. single. time.
That workaround? Split cards and Adventure spells. One of the recent rules change stated that the
converted mana cost mana value of Split cards is now equal to the total cost of both sides of the split; therefore Agent will skip over
Fire // Ice as well as
Dead // Gone when brought from the Sideboard. As for Adventure spells, Cascade only "sees" the Creature portion of
Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft and
Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp, so no chance of being forced into those either. The only option left? Those lovely 4/4 trampling Rhinos.
Ah, right, "but what about
Ancestral Vision?", you may ask. Here, AspiringSpike deliberately chose to not run it in favor of a spell that will immediately impact the board since the format is decidedly shifting toward aggressive, creature-based strategies. All in all,
Shardless Agent results in 10 power split across three bodies when it is cast - which is a lot to deal with for any opponent.
The other card that had an early impact right after the MTGO Update was
Titania, Protector of Argoth, in a GW Reclaimer build courtesy of Devon "d00mwake" O'Donnell.
While it looks like your typical
Primeval Titan /
Elvish Reclaimer deck, this iteration benefits greatly from yet another new-to-modern reprint:
Zuran Orb. On its own, the Orb helps stalling against Burn and other aggressive decks, but pair it with Titania and
Ramunap Excavator and you get a very potent engine. A slightly updated list (HouseOfManaMTG running one copy of
Yavimaya, Cradle of Growth) went 3-1 in one for the first Modern Preliminary where MH2 was legal, an indication that this new take on one of Modern's fixtures definitely has legs.
AND WE ARE OFF! Well, not quite. Card availability remained a major issue for most if not all of Day 1, even for those using a card rental service - which, I learned, typically would only be fully stocked 2-3 days after online release, according to various streamers.
Those lucky enough to pull MH2 cards out of chests, or willing to fork the inflated tix prices, were able to test the new Modern goodies first. And to the surprise of very, very few people it was clear that
Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer is a powerful Magic card. Even in Legacy, Legacy_Council ran a UR Delver list featuring
Delver of Secrets, Ragavan,
Dragon's Rage Channeler and
Murktide Regent all powered by a draw suite of
Expressive Iteration. The Channeler's Surveil trigger pairs extremely well with cantrips to filter your draws, while also helping fuel Delve for Murktide Regent. For the record, Legacy_Council racked in 12 straight wins before getting his first loss. Legacy in June 2021, everyone!
In other "Obvious Card is Obvious" news, the feared combo of
Ephemerate made its debut online in a variety of Orzhov Taxes builds, but in MonoBlack versions too thanks to
Undying Evil. This gives one less Grief trigger, but leaves behind a slightly more obnoxious 4/3 Menace body.
The next build that caught my eye was Domain Zoo, which quickly converged to a stocklist that runs both
Territorial Kavu and
Scion of Draco along with Ikoria's Triomes.
The first two turns are usually spent going T1 Fetchland into Triome, T2 play/fetch the two missing land types to drop a 5/5 Kavu or an early Scion. A follow-up T3
General Ferrous Rokiric will then essentially turn all your other multicolor spells into two-for-one's and a massive board presence. This and the Cascading
Shardless Agent and
Bloodbraid Elf actually help making up for the lack of card draw. The Sideboard is more than experimental considering how early we are in the new metagame. One card I would be interested in testing here, for reasons described later in this article, is
Anafenza, the Foremost for graveyard hate; maindecking a copy or two does not seem that unreasonable either depending on how the next few weeks play out.
Enter this character.
This is one of two cards that have had the biggest "brewing" impact in Modern Leagues since the end of Day 1 and early Day 2. Quickly nicknamed Asmor after being spoiled, it has spurred one of the silliest, most fun sequence of deckbuilding iterations since the initial list started making the rounds. Once again, d00mwake is the one who brought the goods by reviving the HollowVine archetype of old, sprinkling in some MH2 spice.
The Underworld Cookbook and
Insolent Neonate, this build is capable of blazing fast starts where you end up with some combination of
Hollow One /
Blazing Rootwalla /
Asmor. Even in the face of graveyard hate, there is plenty of firepower with
Flameblade Adept, Rootwalla and
Hollow One as long as you have your discard engines available. Many times during the matches I have been watching, one of the keys to winning was Asmor's activated ability to sacrifice two Food tokens to have an opposing creature deal 6 damage to itself, which gets rid of pretty much anything your opponent could land that is not indestructible. The cost restriction on Asmor can definitely be seen as a hinderance at first until you realize that it synergizes so well with the Cookbook: since it is not legendary, you can play one T1, use it T2 to enable Asmor's alternate cost which will then let you get a second copy to start producing Food at a factory pace.
Shortly after d00mwake 5-0'ed a League with his list, the word got out and it started being played by many other streamers eager to try the deck. In the end, while capable of explosive turns, the fact that this archetype relies on discard effects that pick the cards at random hurts in terms of consistency. In addition, a
Chalice of the Void on 1 makes you sad really fast, which is the reason for so many artifact hate pieces in the Sideboard.
By now, there were many more MH2 cards in circulation, and I was hoping for more Modern content with the weekend having started overseas. And I was not disappointed, thanks to Joan "MrSeriMTG" Carrasco piloting his take on Hardened Scales featuring
On top of Saga,
Zabaz, the Glimmerwasp is another welcomed addition to the archetype and is not bad in multiple, as playing a second copy into the Legend Rule would trigger Zabaz's static ability. But the real attraction in this list is how
Urza's Saga and
Power Conduit play off of each other: with the trigger of Saga's third Chapter on the stack, you can use Conduit to remove a counter from Saga, fetch an Arcbound Worker or other utility artifact (especially post-board) and pump one of your creatures - and you get to do it all again next turn! Note that with
Urza's Saga sticking around for as long as
Power Conduit is there to remove a counter, you can choose to turn Saga into a Construct factory.
Throughout the day, as more Modern players took to Twitch to test out the new MH2 cards, I was able to take note of what was being tested in other Modern decks:
Brainstonein UW Miracles, because there is no reason Historic should have all the
Murktide Regentin UR Prowess, because there is no reason Historic should have all the
Thought Monitorin Modern Dice Factory, Legacy Affinity and Vintage Shops, because "Draw 2" on a 2/2 flier for U;
Karmic Guidein Protean Hulk Combo, because
Footsteps of the Goryowas just asking to be broken.
The Aftermath: Saturday/Sunday Challenges and Day 3/4 brewing
Saturday's Challenge marked the first Premier Event for which MH2 was legal, and the Top 16 saw an old favorite make a strong return:
Yep, that is FIVE copies of
Living End Combo in the Top 16 (three in the Top 8!), and ZERO copies of MonoRed Aggro or Burn (highest placing list went 19th) on the first weekend of competitive Modern play with a new set! As Paul Rudd would say, who would have thought? Not me.
In total, there were 36 copies of
Shardless Agent in the Top 16, and 12 more among the decks that finished 17-32. Out of the archertypes I had noticed early on, Temur Shardless (4th, 13th) and Domain Zoo (15th) were the only ones with a good showing, while
Esper Sentinel and
Dauthi Voidwalker make up the Top 3 of best placing new-to-modern MH2 cards out of the gate (maindecked, better than 1-of).
Also of note, there was a GW Enchantress build that placed 20th featuring the likes of
Sythis, Harvest's Hand,
Sanctum Weaver and
Solitary Confinement. It will be interesting to see if this archetype can maintain this level of performance over the next few events.
Of course, considering all the hype behind the Asmor Food deck after Day 1, I was pretty bummed to not see a single copy in the Top 32 of the Saturday Challenge. Clearly the list needed work if it were to perform at a level higher than League play. And it did not take long for the next iteration to reach its first Top 8.
After completely ditching Red and
Vengevine from the deck, Asmor Food (or Hell's Kitchen, as I have seen over on Reddit) was now flying under the Sultai Banner and placed 5th on the Sunday Challenge. While running Blue for
Emry, Lurker of the Loch and
Metallic Rebuke makes sense, stretching the manabase to three colors feels a little too "try hard". On the other hand, what started - literally - as a troll job might have been the best idea for pushing this archetype to new heights: with a full switch to Green and the inclusion of a single copy of
Feasting Troll King in some HollowVine lists after Day 1, people quickly realized that bringing back a 7/6 Vigilance, Trample creature was pretty much free considering the amount of Food tokens Asmor along with
The Underworld Cookbook are able to generate. The missing piece of technology at that point was realizing that
Ovalchase Daredevil was the best thing to pitch to the Cookbook since it comes back to your hand right away. There is still plenty of work being done to optimize the 75, and the latest attempts now incorporate Red again for the whole
Cauldron Familiar /
Witch's Oven /
Mayhem Devil package.
Looking at the top of the standings, we find a refined version of Hardened Scales winning it all. It now includes
Power Depot, an artifact land with Modular, which pairs well with
Zabaz, the Glimmerwasp and the suite of sacrifice outlets. Temur Shardless also placed very well, with another three copies of the deck in Sunday's Top 16 (finishing 2nd, 11th and 16th), contributing to the 32 total copies of
Shardless Agent across 8 decks from the Top 32 (1 Humans, 4 Living End, 3 Temur Shardless).
Coincidentally, there were also 32 copies of another MH2 card over the Top 32 decks of that event, this one a new-to-Modern print:
Urza's Saga. It speaks volume to how good that card is when one looks at how diverse are the archetypes that have featured it between both of the weekend's Challenges: Amulet Titan, Hammer Time, Hardened Scales, Hell's Kitchen (yeah I'm sticking with that name), Dice Factory, Lantern Control, and even UW Control! By all accounts,
Shardless Agent and
Urza's Saga are the clear winners out of MH2 after the first few days of competitive play.
The Road Ahead
This new Modern metagame is far from being set, and Hell's Kitchen and Hardened Scales are just two examples of how it takes a few iterations before finding the most efficient build for a given archetype. There is still a lot of testing being done, and cards like
Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and
Titania, Protector of Argoth cannot be M.I.A. from the top of the standings for much longer. And that is to say nothing of the cost-less cards like
Gaea's Will and
Resurgent Belief which only need a good combo home; I am looking at you two,
As Foretold and
As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to reach out on Twitter @poppu_mtg for comments/questions!