Happy New Year! I’ll be kicking off 2020 by leaping into spoiler season. Spoilers for Theros: Beyond Death began trickling in while everyone was on holiday break. Now, with our holiday hangovers but a painful memory, the flood has begun. There appears to be considerable potential for Modern cards, and given how 2019 went, I’m perhaps even underestimating their power.
As I was writing this article, I realized there was a thread running through the piece. Specifically, I was making the same point over and over again. I’ve therefore decided to lead off with that point so I don’t have to mention it ad infinitum:
Graveyard hate is very important in Modern.
Many cards in Theros: Beyond Death care about the graveyard (appropriately enough). Particularly, they need large quantities of graveyard cards to work. Players packing mass graveyard removal will have more success against the new cards than those relying on Surgical Extraction. In fact, Rest in Peace is so effective against most of these new cards that my analyses carry this asterisk: They don’t work against a Rest in Peace.
New Mechanic: Escape
First up is the only new mechanic, escape. Escape allows cards to be cast from the graveyard by paying a cost, then exiling some number of other graveyard cards. In effect, by trying to avoid just redoing flashback, Wizards has hybridized flashback with retrace. Modern has historically been a graveyard-centric format, so it makes sense that escape would have a home in Modern. At time of writing, there are two cards with potential, though both have problems beyond my above asterisk that make me wonder if they’ll actually make it.
The big story so far is Underworld Breach. Breach is a two-mana enchantment that only stays in play for one turn and gives everything escape; a broader Past in Flames, but for half the mana cost. Cheating on mana is everything for combo decks, framing Breach as a strict upgrade to Past.
In practice, it’s maybe not an improvement at all. Escape requires fodder, and current storm lists don’t make enough to go around. From personal experience, the typical Past-fueled kill flashes back a minimum of four cards to successfully Grapeshot for the win. If you need to find a win-condition, it’s much more. A minimum Storm-off would therefore need to exile 12+ cards from the graveyard to win. The typical Storm list doesn’t run fetchlands or Thought Scour to just fill up the graveyard, so the exiled cards would have to be already-played cantrips and rituals… which are what pilots want to be replaying in the first place. It is possible that looping Manamorphose with Goblin Electromancer in play makes exiling everything else acceptable, but that seems precarious. Perhaps a drastic Storm redesign is in order, but Breach looks to me like a proverbial “six-of-one, half-dozen of the other” situation.
To really make Breach shine requires building around it, and the obvious combo has already been found: Grinding Station activations provide the right number of cards to feed each escape. Combine with any 0-CMC artifact to mill the entire deck. With Mox Opal being the looped card, mana is generated every escape, which then builds until Grapeshot or Banefire is lethal. It’s a simple, straightforward combo (asterisk).
Storm has plenty of options to adapt against disruption and still combo off, while the early Grinding lists are very linear and vulnerable to attack. A Grinding Station combo deck will be vulnerable to all the Storm hate plus artifact hate. I think the combo will be worse Storm, but cheap artifacts often surprise.
Ox of Agonas
The other escape card is Ox of Agonas. Reason being, it has the same critical text as Bedlam Reveler, and drawing three cards is very good. It’s also beneficial to have Ox in hand when the first one is cast, thanks to escape. However, anyone planning to cast Ox is going to be disappointed. Reveler being a 3/4 prowess creature is better at the same rate, but more importantly, Reveler can be as cheap as two red. The only reason to play Ox is to always escape it for two red. As a bonus, the Ox will then be a better 5/3 creature.
This restriction naturally points towards Dredge, the deck that most wants creatures popping out of its graveyard. Skipping over the question of how to fit Ox into a list as tight as Dredge, the card looks like a fit. As Cathartic Reunion showed, Dredge really likes discarding its hand as a cost to draw cards and activate its namesake mechanic. Dredging is also the fastest way to get the necessary eight cards in the graveyard to actually escape Ox; normal dredging finds Ox and provides the fodder, then Ox creates more dredges and a big threat.
Everything I’ve said so far is indicative of a payoff card, not an enabler. Ox needs a full graveyard and to be in there itself to be worthwhile. This means that Dredge would have executed its gameplan before Ox does anything, which makes Ox seem superfluous. Also, eight cards is a lot to exile, and there’s not a lot that Dredge wants to exile from its own graveyard. Even the lands are important for setting up late-game Conflagrates.
Dredge doesn’t need more payoff cards; it needs something to replace Faithless Looting. Given that other decks that could set up Ox could also run Reveler without jumping through hoops, I don’t think Ox will make it.
Returning Characters: Gods
The other big category are the new Gods. The only God to have a noticeable impact on Modern from our first trip to Theros was Keranos, God of Storms. I ran him as a finisher in Jeskai Control decks, but a more common role was in UR Twin as a mirror card. Twin mirrors tended to become counterspell wars, and the combo was often completely dropped. Therefore, Dispel and Negate were paramount cards. Keranos being a creature everywhere but in play let it slip through Negate walls and then grind to victory. I haven’t seen Keranos or any other Theros god see serious play since. However, there are three new ones with potential, primarily of the combo variety.
Heliod is notable only because he is an infinite combo piece. His fair usage is the same as that of Ajani’s Pridemate, which lets him nicely slot into Soul Sisters, but not much else. Heliod would be a Thalia’s Lieutenant -type effect in that deck, but if team-pumps were what Sisters was missing before now, they’ve already had access to everything from Honor of the Pure to Force of Virtue. The deck’s anemic creatures and lack of disruption remain its primary problems.
The simplest combo with Heliod is infinite life with Spike Feeder. It’s almost as if Heliod was designed with this combo in mind. Even better, this combo is findable off Collected Company. While this is a simple and effective combo, I don’t think Company decks will bother. Infinite life via Kitchen Finks, Melira, Sylvok Outcast, and Viscera Seer used to be their main combo, but infinite mana with Devoted Druid and Vizier of Remedies has replaced it, as Tron could beat infinite life by restarting the game with Karn Liberated.
Winning outright with Heliod is more clunky. This combo needs a Walking Ballista with at least two counters and two mana to give Ballista lifelink; then, Ballista goes infinite. I don’t think that any deck will plan around this combo. It requires Heliod to be in play and then six mana to kill in a single turn. It is possible to cheapen the mana cost with Hardened Scales, but that trades off with the additional setup work necessary. I could see this combo being an incidental one in a deck that already runs Heliod and Ballista, but I don’t think any deck would do so. This fact likely limits Heliod only to Company decks, which may mean this combo never occurs in Modern.
Klothys, God of Destiny
Next is an entirely new god. I seen some chatter about Klothys being an anti-control card similar to Keranos, but much cheaper, and incidentally hateful against Snapcaster Mage. As a three-mana creature, Klothys is a bit too slow to manage graveyard decks like Dredge or Grixis Death’s Shadow. The former should have plenty of dredgers in the ‘yard; the latter will have fed their ‘yard to Gurmag Angler by then. However, if all that’s needed is to prevent small numbers of specific cards from being reused later on, Klothys is more resilient than Scavenging Ooze.
But if all that’s required is an inexorable clock against a control deck or Jund, she’s not unreasonable. There will be plenty of non-land cards in a typical attrition match to guarantee two damage a turn for the whole game. I actually think that Klothys is better against Jund than against blue-based control, as the only way for Jund to kill Klothys is to discard her. UWx has counters and Detention Sphere and can always bounce Klothys with either Teferi.
Still, I can’t think of a deck that actually wants to use her. Zoo is better off with Domri Rade, and GR Ramp doesn’t need help against Jund or UW control. While Jund can’t remove a resolved Klothys, I don’t think they’d need to in a mirror match; she’s not racing a Tarmogoyf or Tireless Tracker. Being a sticky, cheap value engine is fine, but I think Klothys is too slow and limited in its applications right now.
For the same cost as Through the Breach, the new Purphoros is a more inefficient and restrictive Sneak Attack. Which is fair; Sneak is a Legacy staple for a reason, and is why these effects are quite rare. Considering that Breach has had its moments in Modern and Sneak is pretty busted, Purphoros has a high bar to clear.
Purphoros won’t be cheating in Griselbrand or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, but there are plenty of red or artifact creatures available which are serviceable. Blightsteel Colossus is the best for winning immediately, while Combustible Gearhulk looks like the best option for card advantage; Darigaaz Reincarnated has meme value. Sundering Titan is also an interesting option for decks more interested in disruption, though I don’t know how it beats immediately winning.
The question is if this is something Modern wants to do. The Legacy version is all about cantrips and Sol lands. Modern’s cantrips are comparatively weak, and Eldrazi Temple is as close as we get to Ancient Tomb. The closest analogue to Show and Tell is Through the Breach, which sees considerable play but hasn’t had much of a metagame impact for over a year. Given that Breach and Purphoros are five-mana cards, I can’t see a deck for them that doesn’t have acceleration, which most likely means green. And when going for green and ramping, why not just play Primeval Titan and be a Valakut deck?
Theros: Beyond Death features many interesting build-around cards. I’m skeptical that they will make it in Modern given their limitations. However, like Underworld Breach, these cards will force reexamination of a stagnant archetypes and matchups. This is arguably as valuable as actually making the final deck; without new challenges, there’s no growth, and the format becomes stagnant. I’m all for novel cards getting the juices flowing, even if they prove underwhelming in the end.
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.