Magic Origins hit tournament floors this past weekend with mixed results across multiple formats. Although cards like Hangarback Walker, Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound, and Thopter Spy Network made a big impression in Standard events like SCG's Premier Qualifier in Chicago, Origins' Modern impact was much more modest. We'll need more time to see how Origins performs in our format (it's not even MTGO-legal yet), but this article identifies some of the early frontrunners and stragglers in Modern's newest set.
I already gave some early impressions of Magic Origins after the full set was spoiled, and it's important to check back in on those cards and see how they are doing in the format. The big datapoints in this article will be the Top 32 of the SCG Chicago Modern event, along with some smaller PPTQs in Italy and the Netherlands. These datapoints may be limited in scope, but they provide a great starting point to see how Modern players are using their new tools.
Tarkir block is a hard act to follow. With so many playables (some that were too playable...), the block will go down in history as one of Modern's most formative additions. Tasigur, the Golden Fang alone fundamentally changed the Modern balance. Add to that cards like Kolaghan's Command, Collected Company, Monastery Swiftspear, Become Immense, allied fetchlands, and a host of other cards, and Magic Origins has a high bar to reach. So far, Origins is not living up to that lofty precedent, even though the set has a few cards which are well-positioned to make some Modern impact. Looking at the SCG Chicago Top 32, only 19% of the Top 32 decks actually played Origins cards, with zero copies of any in the Top 8. That said, a few cards are emerging as Modern-playable frontrunners, and they deserve special recognition here.
Harbinger of the Tides
Harbinger is the real deal. Both the 9th and 10th place decks at SCG Chicago were Merfolk, and both lists ran three Harbinger of the Tides in the maindeck. The 18th place player, Jason Crumb, used four. This was by far my most confident prediction in the Modern Playables article I wrote a few weeks ago, and I'm not surprised to see Harbinger make such a splash in his core deck. The Merfolk Wizard is one of the most pushed tribal cards I have ever seen, representing a significant evolution over cards like Tidebinder Mage and even Master of Waves. It's aggressive, provides a badly-needed effect, and fits right into the Merfolk game plan. I wrote about the importance of catchall disruption, specifically related to Merfolk, in my GP Copenhagen retrospective: Harbinger fits perfectly into that context. So you can see Harbinger in his new home, here's Michael Fitza's 9th place list from SCG Chicago.
Merfolk already had a scary combination of aggression and interactivity, but Harbinger pushes that to a whole new level. Between Snag, Dismember, and Harbinger, creature-based strategies have a lot to worry about when facing Merfolk. Take Twin as an example; Harbinger shuts down both Dispel and Negate as Twin defensive options. With an active Aether Vial, not even Remand will save Twin from the virtual two-for-one Harbinger forces. Add to that Harbinger's utility against pumped Agents in Infect, counter-stacked Inkmoths in Affinity, or delve creatures in Grixis and BGx, and you have a truly dynamic addition to Merfolk's lineup. I fully expect Harbinger to help Merfolk become one of the most-played tier 2 decks in Modern and, potentially, swim up to tier 1 by the end of September.
Liliana, Heretical Healer
There's a pretty big gap between Harbinger's playability and Liliana's. Although Liliana, Heretical Healer // Liliana, Defiant Necromancer saw some success this weekend, it was much less convincing than Harbinger's. The only SCG deck to use the card was Sage Sanchez's 31st place Abzan Company list. In fact, the 8th place list by Cameron Gray didn't touch Lily and finished much higher. Thankfully for Liliana fans, Tobt Hazes took the Heretical Healer to a 2nd place finish at the (admittedly smaller) monthly Modern event in the Netherlands. This suggests new Lily still has potential to be a decent addition to Abzan Company, and I expect to see more of her in the weeks to come. Indeed, Abzan Company as a deck has struggled since its promising finishes at GP Charlotte: perhaps new Liliana will give it some added juice in the upcoming PPTQ season? Here's Hazes' list for reference:
I'm a big fan of the double maindecked Lily's alongside the four copies of Fulminator Mage in the sideboard. Combined with the deck's seven dorks, that sets the Abzan Company player up for an insane turn three play. Turn one Birds into turn two Mage can already be scary; follow it with a turn three Liliana and even the least fair decks in the format will struggle to recover. Sacrifice the Mage to blow up a land, flip Lily, and create a 2/2 Zombie. You can then either sacrifice Lily to recur the Mage and destroy a second land, or +2 her and recur the Mage next turn. That's in addition to all of the maindeck synergy with Viscera Seer and Kitchen Finks/Voice of Resurgence. I expect Lily to make Abzan Company more viable in the format, solidifying its status as a tier 2 deck and ensuring it takes down a few more events in the future. Also, huge bonus points to Hazes for those Evolutionary Leaps in the board. I'm not sure how much they add to a deck that is already hard to beat in a grindfest, but in a metagame full of control and midrange, Leap seems incredible. It even combos with Lily!
In my initial review of Hallowed Moonlight, I identified two problems with the pushed Modern instant. First, it's a bit narrow. Shadow of Doubt hits a huge subsection of decks because almost everyone (except Affinity) is playing fetchlands. Not so much with Moonlight. It stalls Twin for just a turn, only shuts down Huntmaster of the Fells // Ravager of the Fells tokens in Jund, and stops RG Tron's Wurmcoil Engine tokens. It doesn't do anything against Affinity, Burn, or Grixis Control. Sure, it hits some tier 2 decks like Grishoalbrand, Elves, and Abzan Company, but for every deck it hits there's another it misses (Grixis Delver, Infect, Scapeshift, Amulet Bloom, etc.). Even when it does hit, opponents can often choose to find or do nothing (e.g. flipping nothing off Company, not dropping a creature off Vial or Breach, etc.). All of this counts against Moonlight. As for the second strike against the card, white isn't exactly the strongest color in Modern. The only tier 1 deck playing white is Burn, which suggests bigger problems with the color than Moonlight can solve on its own.
However, Joey Wittebol apparently missed the Moonlight memo this weekend, using one in the main and one in the board of his UWR Control list. Wittebol took the deck to a 4th place finish at the same event where Hazes' Abzan Company enjoyed success. Moonlight also appeared in the sideboard of Ryan Uttke's GW Death and Taxes list, accompanying a lone Vryn Wingmare to a 14th place finish. Wittebol's list is below:
I'm not sure how much we can extrapolate from this finish: the event itself was small (only 16 players, although many of them were very experienced), this UWR Control list is a bit weird (Jeskai Charm?), and it's only our first example of Moonlight in action. Indeed, I still think that the fundamental problem with Moonlight holds true: white just isn't the best color in Modern right now. If you do lean towards white, Wittebol's list is a great way to use Moonlight.
One place where Moonlight really shines is in a metagame that shifts back to Abzan. Lingering Souls is probably the biggest reason to play Abzan (yes, even bigger than Siege Rhino), and Moonlight is insane against Souls. Add in more creature-cheating decks like Grishoalbrand, Living End, Company, etc., and the card starts to look even better. I don't expect the metagame to shift this dramatically for a while, and I don't think UWR Control is the optimal home for Moonlight (4C Control seems better here), but I am happy to admit I may have been wrong about Moonlight. Maybe we will see more of this card in the coming months?
The history of card evaluation consists of far more misses than hits. One need only look at Narset, Transcendent to see this in action. Origins will be no exception to this, both for my own predictions and for predictions across the internet. As longtime Modern or Legacy players know, it takes a lot for a card to make an impact on nonrotating formats. If we are naturally optimistic with card evaluation (i.e. we don't want to be that one nitwit who misses a bomb), then we are going to overestimate card power more than we get it right. Here are three instances where we might have missed the mark on card power, at least judging from the results this weekend.
I'm still holding out hope that Languish is going to make an impact on Modern, but this weekend was not promising for that prediction. Two Abzan lists placed in the Top 32 at SCG Chicago, one in 15th and another in 25th, and neither ran Languish out of the sideboard. Remember that the rationale for running Languish is to have an Anger of the Gods-style sweeper for aggressive decks, one that hits the enemy creatures but misses your Goyfs, Rhinos, and Tasigurs. These two lists placed decently without the card, so maybe it's not needed: Engineered Explosives, Curse of Death's Hold, and ample spot removal might be enough? It's totally possible we need to be in the right metagame for Languish to matter. If you are just playing against aggro decks like Affinity and Burn, Abzan is already well-equipped with cards such as Stony Silence, Feed the Clan, Kitchen Finks, and Duress. It's only against an aggro metagame with Merfolk, Zoo, Abzan Liege, and other "bigger" decks where Languish will be strong. Who knows, with Harbinger making waves, perhaps that's coming around the corner?
Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Mama and papa Chandra have a similar issue to Languish. Two Jund mages made Top 32 at SCG Chicago, but neither the 12th place nor the 24th place list wanted anything to do with Pia and Kiran Nalaar. Both decks, however, were very happy to run Olivia Voldaren and Huntmaster of the Fells // Ravager of the Fells respectively in their four-drop creature slots. This forces us to consider the possibility that the Nalaars don't fit into Jund in place of either Huntmaster or Olivia. Or, it's equally possible, that the Nalaars are just not very good in Modern?
I still think Pia and Kiran give Jund a bit of aggression and range that neither Huntmaster nor Olivia gives, but I also acknowledge that Jund doesn't need that added aggression as much as it needs Huntmaster and Olivia. Even if Pia and Kiran helped out in, say, 15% of matchups, my guess is that Huntmaster and Olivia will almost always help out in more (20%-25%+ in both cases). This puts the Nalaars in an awkward position. It's possible some enterprising Jund mages will turn to the Artificers in the upcoming months, but with Reid Duke already leaning towards Avaricious Dragon, it's possible the four-drop slot is too clogged for Chandra's folks.
Say it ain't so! Goblin Piledriver was by far the coolest reprint in recent Modern history, let alone in Origins, and our community was very excited to see its entrance to the format. Unfortunately, Piledriver was not joined by Goblin Ringleader (even though those silly tree huggers got Sylvan Messenger), which means Modern Goblins still has the same problems today as it did in the past. Without the interactive gameplan of Legacy Goblins (or Modern Merfolk, for that matter), and without the refueling tools such as Ringleader or even Patriarch's Bidding, Goblins becomes a worse aggro deck than Burn, Affinity, and Merfolk for many different reasons.
Goblins may have won a 37 player PPTQ in Udine, Italy this past weekend, but the list in question only used two Piledrivers in the main and one in the board. This suggests the list is not much different than the other random Goblins lists we have seen in Modern over the years: sometimes it can win a small event, but it's not a competitive force. Hopefully we will see a reprint of cards like Matron or Ringleader change this in the future (or, my personal preference, Gempalm Incinerator).
The Question Marks
Before we close for today, I want to look at two cards that have big question marks surrounding them. Although they didn't see a lot of play during the 7/18-7/19 weekend, these cards might have the potential to succeed in Modern. Don't bet against them and keep up the brewing because we haven't seen the end of these cards yet.
This was a card I missed in my initial Magic Origins review, much to the dismay of both Affinity players and brewers who wanted to see the Walker in action. On paper, Hangarback Walker doesn't seem like it has what it takes to be Modern playable. At two mana, you get a 1/1 that replaces itself with a flyer, which is also to say you get a colorless and more expensive Doomed Traveler. Walker can grow with each turn, but that doesn't necessarily seem like an ability Affinity wants to sink mana into. At four mana, Walker becomes more potent, but are you really spending four mana on a 2/2 in Affinity? Harrison Fang evidently thought Walker was worth the Affinity slot, running a singleton in his 60 en route to a 19th place finish at SCG Chicago. Although I haven't discussed it with Fang (badass name, by the way), the online consensus is that Walker fills a few important roles in Affinity. It insulates you from sweepers like that nasty Shatterstorm, lets you outgrind opponents if the game gets bogged down, and gives you the ability to go wide without too much card investment. It's unclear if Affinity needs these tools when it already has so much direct firepower, but it makes Hangarback a strong consideration in certain metagames. I think we haven't seen the last of Walker, and it is likely to creep into Affinity lists as a one or two-of throughout the PPTQ season. If nothing else, its synergy with Arcbound Ravager and Steel Overseer should encourage players to give it a try.
By far the biggest question mark from the weekend is around Day's Undoing. Zero decks in the SCG Top 32 used the card, including two Affinity lists and a Top 8 Burn strategy. For a card that many viewed as the second coming of Treasure Cruise, or a near contender for that throne, this was a big disappointment. For those who were worried about Jordan Boisvert's predictions of a Modern metagame homogenized with linear decks, this was probably a huge relief. Maybe Undoing really was just the second coming of Time Reversal?
As is often the case, I'm somewhere in the middle on this card. On one hand, I never thought Undoing was quite as broken as many players made it out to be, especially because the symmetry really is symmetrical in the linear matchups (as opposed to Cruise which was as asymmetric as it gets). This makes the card less maindeckable and more risky than many first gave credit. On the other hand, I love the synergy between Undoing and Disrupting Shoal in tempo decks, and have experienced some promising results with Undoing in Burn over the past few weeks. Don't bet against Undoing just yet; there is a good chance players are still trying to figure out the best way to use it, both in terms of their own deck and the overall metagame context. I don't expect to see this card breaking Modern in quite the same way as Dig or Cruise, but I fully expect it to show up in big events over the next few months once someone figures out the best home for it.
Magic Origins' Future in Modern
The true testing ground for Magic Origins will be MTGO, and we are all eagerly awaiting its legalization date towards the end of the month. Risk-averse players are unlikely to "waste" their paper tournament entry on some Origins-powered brew, but it's a much lower investment to play in random MTGO Daily, so I expect we will get a better test of Origins' power in the coming weeks. As a personal prediction, I expect to see a lot of Merfolk: that deck has been swimming right under the surface for a while and Harbinger gives it a big boost.
What other Origins cards do you have on your radar? Where else do you expect the cards to succeed? Let me know in the comments and I look forward to brainstorming with you there!