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War of the Spark in Modern


War of the Spark has gotten off to a bit of a slow start in Standard, at least in terms of tournament play. While we have seen some cards show up here and there, at least so far, we haven't seen too many "War of the Spark" decks performing in big paper tournaments. Instead, as we saw last weekend at the SCG Open, the top decks are still Mono-Red Aggro, Simic Nexus, and Esper Control / Midrange. While all of these decks incorporate some number of new cards (with Mono-Red Aggro playing some Tibalt, Rakish Instigators, Simic Nexus leaning on Tamiyo, Collector of Tales and Teferi, Time Raveler, and some utility spells finding a spot in Esper), they are generally the same old decks from Ravnica Allegiance Standard with some updates.

While this will likely change over the coming weeks as people continue to test and find homes for the new War of the Spark cards, this doesn't mean that War of the Spark is lacking in immediate impact. Actually, if we look at formats outside of Standard like Modern, Legacy, and Vintage, there's an argument that War of the Spark might be among the most impactful (non-supplemental) sets of all time. Take Modern, for example. The number of War of the Spark cards showing up in winning Modern decks is pretty staggering, especially considering the set was only officially released last week. Even more impressive, in Modern, rather than just being one-ofs here and there, many of these cards are showing up at four-ofs or even propping up entire archetypes or creating new(ish) archetypes altogether.

As such, our plan for today is pretty simple: we're going to review the frantic first few weeks of War of the Spark in the context of Modern by talking about the cards and lists that War of the Spark has enabled in the format. We've got a lot of ground to cover today—by my count, more than 20 War of the Spark cards have posted some sort of finish in Modern since the set was released on Magic Online three weeks ago, and we're going to try to cover pretty much all of them today. This means that we won't be delving super deeply into any individual list. But if you want a more in-depth breakdown of some of my favorite Modern War of the Spark decks, we'll be featuring them in Instant Deck Techs on the YouTube channel this week!

Rares and Mythics

While not widely adopted (at least, not yet), Ilharg, the Raze-Boar is making its presence felt in some builds of Goryo's Vengeance Reanimator in Modern. If you're not familiar with the deck, the plan is to reanimate a big legendary creature like Griselbrand or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn with Goryo's Vengeance. Ilharg, the Raze-Boar gives this deck an extra line of attack—the deck can reanimate the Boar God and use its Through the Breach-like ability to put something like Griselbrand or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn into play from hand, to either kill the opponent in just one attack (as early as Turn 1 or 2), since an attack from Ilharg, the Raze-Boar plus Emrakul, the Aeons Torn amounts to more than 20 damage, or to draw enough cards to combo off again on the next turn with Griselbrand.

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Gideon Blackblade might seem like a strange choice for Modern, but Gideon of the Trials sees play and is a very similar card in terms of a beatdown threat that is hard to deal with and attacks for four each turn. While Gideon of the Trials offers some interesting protection against combo thanks to its emblem, Gideon Blackblade is even better as a beater thanks to its ability to buff other creatures. So far, we've seen Gideon Blackblade show up in two decks. One is a straightforward Naya Zoo build that uses Gideon Blackblade as an additional beater alongside some of the most efficient threats in the format. Another is a spicy planeswalker-centric build that uses not just Gideon Blackblade but also Dovin, Hand of Control and Karn, the Great Creator as well.

Maybe the easiest way to describe the deck is planeswalkers and taxes. We've seen Mono-White Taxes lists do well in Modern in the past, and while this build maintains some of the tried-and-true tax pieces like Leonin Arbiter with Ghost Quarter plus Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Thalia, Heretic Cathar, it also leans heavily into new War of the Spark planeswalkers. Gideon Blackblade provides a powerful legendary threat that turns on Mox Amber and doesn't die to Urza's Ruinous Blast, while Dovin, Hand of Control offers an interesting tax piece, taking care of one big threat (like Death's Shadow or Tarmogoyf) with its 1 while also taxing decks like Storm, Whir Prison, Phoenix, and Lantern Control with its static ability. However, the centerpiece of the deck is Karn, the Great Creator. Apart from working as a Stony Silence against Hardened Scales, Affinity, and Whir Prison, Karn, the Great Creator offers a ton of flexibility by tutoring hateful silver-bullet artifacts from the sideboard. Mycosynth Lattice is the hard lock, shutting down all of the opponent's lands, but even outside of this combo, just tutoring up graveyard hate, Pithing Needle, Damping Sphere, or Chalice of the Void in the correct matchup can be a game-winning line.

Speaking of Karn, the Great Creator, it's also showing up in some Tron lists alongside Ugin, the Ineffable. While the new Ugin and Karn aren't quite as scary on Turn 3 or 4 as Karn Liberated or Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is, they are still powerful colorless planeswalkers, making them perfect fits in a Tron shell. Karn, the Great Creator mostly does the same trick we just talked about in the Taxes list: tutoring silver-bullet artifacts out of the sideboard. Meanwhile, Ugin, the Ineffable offers some sneaky upside: along with being a (mostly) unconditional removal spell, its static ability that reduces the cost of colorless spells by two offers Tron another avenue to play something like Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger as early as Turn 4, which is pretty close to unbeatable for most decks in the format.

While seeing Karn, the Great Creator show up in Modern is one thing and seeing Gideon Blackblade is another, Niv-Mizzet Reborn likely wasn't on top of many "best War of the Spark cards for Modern" lists, but it already has one 5-0 on Magic Online to its name. It's hard to really describe this deck (so much so that we're going to do a full deck tech on it next week), but it's basically five-color multicolor control. Apart from Birds of Paradise, a couple of Inquisition of Kozileks, and one Primal Command, every single card in the deck is dual colored, which mean it can be hit by Niv-Mizzet Reborn's enters-the-battlefield ability. Even more hilarious is that the deck actually managed to play a dual-colored card from each guild, which means you can try to live the dream of drawing 10 cards with Niv-Mizzet Reborn's enters-the-battlefield trigger.

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So far, we've seen a lot of spicy cards from War of the Spark that have one or two Modern finishes to their name. With Teferi, Time Raveler, the equation changes. While there aren't too many spicy lists featuring the planeswalker (although a version of Teferi with the Knowledge Pool lock just missed a Top 8 last weekend and a deck that looks a lot like a Collected Company deck but with planeswalkers instead of Collected Company is using it as well), three-mana Teferi has been fairly widely adopted in UW and Esper Control. It's a mirror breaker at its best, disallowing your opponent from using their counterspells while Teferi, Time Raveler is on the battlefield. Even at its worst, it's roughly equal to a Reflector Mage, which isn't a bad deal. Plus, casting Thoughtseize or Inquisition of Kozilek on your opponent's draw step is pretty sweet.

While Dreadhorde Arcanist has been getting a lot of hype for Standard, especially thanks to its interaction with Feather, the Redeemed, the two-drop might be good enough for Modern as well. In fact, some prowess-centric Arclight Phoenix builds are playing the full four copies, thanks to its ability to flashback cheap spells like Mutagenic Growth, Faithless Looting, and Assault Strobe for free every turn when it attacks. This allows for some incredibly explosive turns, where for just a single mana, you can cast Assault Strobe, trigger prowess on everything, give a creature double strike, and then do it again for free with Dreadhorde Arcanist to give something else double strike and trigger prowess a second time. Throw in some pump spells like Become Immense and Mutagenic Growth, and you have the recipe for a deck that can potentially 20 the opponent in just a single attack step!

Last week, for Budget Magic, we played a Standard Vivien's Arkbow deck looking to use the legendary artifact to generate a ton of value at instant speed by digging through the deck for value creatures. Apparently, this plan has some possibilities in Modern as well, based on the success of Abzan Toolbox (which is really Abzan Arkbow). While the deck does include the tried-and-true infinite-mana combo of Vizier of Remedies with Devoted Druid, the shell is a lot different from most Vizier Druid decks. Rather than being focused on the combo itself, it's really a value deck with a bunch of utility creatures for Vivien's Arkbow to dig up at instant speed, to disrupt the opponent and stay alive. And then Vivien's Arkbow can eventually snag the infinite-mana combo as well. Even better, if you have infinite mana, Vivien's Arkbow is a guaranteed way to hit whatever finisher you need in your deck since you can activate the legendary artifact with X equal to the number of cards in your library and grab whatever creature happens to tickle your fancy.

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Another oddball include in Modern from War of the Spark is Spark Double. While Clone hasn't been playable for 20 years, a Clone that can copy your planeswalkers and legendary creatures is apparently good enough. The home? A mostly normal-looking build of Sultai Midrange that also has a playset of Spark Double to copy Tarmogoyfs and Dark Confidants, or—if you want to have some real fun—end up with multiple copies of Liliana of the Veil, Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, or Garruk Relentless on the battlefield at the same time.

While not revolutionary by any means, it's also worth mentioning Karn's Bastion, which is showing up as a one-of in some builds of Hardened Scales as a late-game plan to proliferate counters onto its plethora of +1 /+1 counter creatures like Arcbound Ravager, Hangarback Walker, and Walking Ballista.

Meanwhile, some creature-heavy combo decks like Vizier Druid Combo and Vannifar Pod are messing around with Vivien, Champion of the Wilds. These decks, which are often overflowing with one-drop mana dorks like Noble Hierarch and Birds of Paradise, can get Vivien on the battlefield on Turn 2 with some consistency. Then, apart from generating card advantage, the ability to flash in combo pieces like Devoted Druid or Prime Speaker Vannifar at the end of the opponent's turn offers an avenue to play around sorcery-speed removal and other disruption from the opponent, theoretically making it easier to combo off and win the game.

Uncommons

Traditionally, rares and mythics are the most powerful cards in a set, but thanks to the 20 uncommon planeswalkers in War of the Spark (many of which have abilities that are especially good in Modern), quite a few lower-rarity cards from the set are showing up in Modern as well. We already talked about Dovin, Hand of Control in the Planeswalkers and Taxes list, but here's some more uncommon Modern goodness from War of the Spark.

While perhaps not a staple (at least, yet), Ashiok, Dream Render is a natural fit for Dimir Mill. In theory, if you can keep Ashiok, Dream Render (and also yourself) alive long enough you can mill a total of 20 cards for three mana, making Ashiok, Dream Render one of the most efficient mill spells in the format. More importantly, Ashiok, Dream Render is a powerful mill card that also helps to solve one of Mill's biggest problems: graveyard decks. Even discounting cards like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn that hose mill by shuffling the entire graveyard back into the library, in a format where people are dredging, casting Snapcaster Mages and delve threats like Gurmag Angler, storming off with Past in Flames, and reanimating Griselbrands and Arclight Phoenixs, intentionally putting cards into the opponent's graveyard can be a risky strategy in some matchups. Ashiok, Dream Render gives a Mill player up to five copies of Tormod's Crypt on a single card, which is a great way to help ensure that you don't accidentally help your opponent while emptying their library.

Along with Dimir Mill, Ashiok, Dream Render is joined by Narset, Parter of Veils in a new planeswalker-heavy build of Blue-White Control. Narset, Parter of Veils is a great hoser in some matchups. Decks like Izzet Phoenix thrive on drawing extra cards, and Faithless Looting is currently the fourth most played card in the Modern format. Narset, Parter of Veils shuts down these plans almost singlehandedly while also digging through the deck to find counterspells, removal, and more powerful finishing planeswalkers like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria or Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

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Neoform might be even more impactful in Modern than the planeswalkers so far. Along with being the key card in the new Turn 1 combo deck Neobrand for sacrificing a free Allosaurus Rider to find a Griselbrand, it's also showing up in some less expected places, like a new, more flexible version of the Pelt Collector Pongify deck, where Neoform not only allows the deck to tutor up some interesting one-ofs like Evolution Sage and Deputy of Detention but also facilitates the plan of killing undying creatures like Young Wolf and Strangleroot Geist to get more counters on evolve, threats including Cloudfin Raptor, Experiment One, and Pelt Collector

Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage is basically The Rack on a planeswalker, which probably means it's not a huge surprise that people are trying it in 8 Rack. While a lot more expensive than the one-mana payoffs The Rack and Shrieking Affliction, Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage does have the upside of being a discard spell along with a Rack, which makes it somewhat similar to Ashiok, Dream Render in Dimir Mill. While a three-mana Rack isn't exciting by itself, the fact that Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage has additional utility puts it in the conversation. Plus, The Rack is relatively good at protecting planeswalkers thanks to its tendency to quickly empty the opponent's hand as well as Ensnaring Bridge to protect against creatures, which means Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage—which has a drawback of starting with just three loyalty and immediately ticking down to two—is much more likely to stick around on the battlefield in 8 Rack than it would be in most other decks.

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Finally, we have some random utility spells, which aren't quite as exciting as planeswalkers or the other archetype-defining cards we've been discussing but still have an important place in Modern. [Dovin's Veto]] has more or less replaced Negate in Blue–White Control decks. Liliana's Triumph occasionally shows up as a removal spell, especially in decks playing some number of Liliana of the Veils or Liliana, the Last Hopes, while Arboreal Grazer is being tested as a ramp spell in Amulet Titan decks, where it not only ramps but blocks early-game threats like Goblin Guide.

Wrap-Up

So, what does all this mean? Well, first and foremost, War of the Spark looks to be one of the most impactful sets for non-Standard formats in years (at least since New Phyrexia), which is especially impressive considering that the set isn't leaning on dual lands to make waves in older formats. That said, it is important to point out that these results are early and people are trying out new cards. Over the coming weeks, months, and years, it's likely that some of these cards will prove to be great and develop into Modern staples while others will end up as flash-in-the-pan fringe cards that lack long-term impact. Still others that are missing from our list today will find a home, combo, or synergy and sneak up out of nowhere to take a place in the Modern metagame. And remember, this is only covering Modern. Vintage—the most powerful format in all of Magic—has devolved into Karn, the Great Creator vs. Narset, Parter of Veils battles, while some of the new cards have found a home in Legacy as well. 

When you consider that we're about to jump into Modern Horizons preview season, with the release of the new Modern-focused set about a month away, it's a pretty exciting time for Modern. While the metagame has been fairly broken and unfair lately, it seems like a big shakeup has begun and will likely continue for the next couple of months. The end result is anyone's guess, but the fact that War of the Spark and (presumably) Modern Horizons are going to shake up the Modern meta does explain why we haven't seen any bannings or unbannings recently, even though few people would shed a tear if Tron, Dredge, Faithless Looting, or free spells like Manamorphose left the format. While more bannings may yet happen, at this point, it seems like Wizards is in a holding pattern, waiting to see what Modern looks like after the influx of War of the Spark and Modern Horizons cards. 

All in all, this leaves us with a Modern that, while still degenerate, seems strangely hopeful. If you're a Modern player, there are plenty of new cards and decks to try thanks to War of the Spark, and it wouldn't be surprising to see a bunch more in a month when Modern Horizons is released. In some ways, the release of War of the Spark and its impact on Modern are a good reminder of why people love Modern so much: you can play just about anything—from Niv-Mizzet Reborn to Spark Double—and, with some practice, tight play, and matchup luck, end up with a winning deck.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today! Which of these new Modern decks are you most excited to try in the format? Which other War of the Spark cards do you think have a chance to shake up Modern in the future? Let me know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.

 


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