Why is Nahiri, the Harbinger good in Modern? This is the question I’ve been pondering this week.
Obviously she is good if she can win a Star City Games Open like in Indy this past weekend. Not only that, but she was included in a completely different deck that made Top 8 as well! If you look to the Top 32 decklists for observations about the format, in addition to an extremely diverse field of decks, you will find her in a third archetype as well.
When a card slips into three distinct strategies in Modern, we know it's powerful. The question of why has been burning through my mind.
Let’s set out to explore this question. Today we will look at why Standard cards impact the Modern format and suggest a few pick-ups.
Three Traits of Modern Playables
Starting off with the why of the matter, I broke it down into three traits you can look for in a Modern playable. These will help us understand the case of Nahiri specifically, but can also be used to identify potential Modern-playable cards in future sets.
One of the most important aspects of a card is converted mana cost. We can’t generalize by saying only cheap cards will see play because huge spells have a place in Modern due to things like Tron and Scapeshift. Most of the time however, the cap for spells in Modern is four mana.
An exception to this rule are cards that let you cheat on mana cost. What we want to think about are cards that can be played in the first four turns of the game. Cards like Treasure Cruise or Eye of Ugin were banned because they enabled more expensive plays in early turns. Nahiri does fit the bill of cheap enough, but by itself I didn’t think that would be enough for her to impact an older format like Modern.
A good example of a legal card that lets you cheat on mana right now is Kozilek's Return. We know that Pyroclasm is an efficient way to deal with the small creature decks. Adding an additional mana to an already established card seems like sealing it out from playability. But once you factor in the free five-damage sweeper that triggers from doing things the deck wants to be doing anyway, it’s easy to see why this Standard card has broken into Modern.
All of the aggressive Eldrazi are another great example. We’ve seen how much damage Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher can do in Modern, but they’re not done yet. We still have Eldrazi Temple to help us cheat out our Eldrazi Mimic on turn one, and our Matter Reshaper, Wasteland Strangler or Eldrazi Displacer on turn two.
We’ve even seen a couple different versions of Eldrazi popping up since the ban. Most players have been working on B/W "Eldrazi and Taxes," but some have opted for a bigger strategy with Endless One and World Breaker. Then this past weekend, Bant Eldrazi made some waves in the meta. These are all made possible because their printed mana cost isn’t the amount paid most of the time.
Nahiri also has elements of this. If you ever do manage to ultimate her, she also lets you cheat on mana. In the Jeskai Control deck this translates to a four-mana Emrakul, the Aeons Torn!
Unique or Proven Effect
Cards obviously must have a high level of potency to impact an eternal format like Modern. Discerning which cards meet this criterion has a lot to do with identifying similarities with current staples.
If you want to know whether a one-mana creature is worthy of an older format, it will have a lot of competition with cards like Wild Nacatl, Goblin Guide and Death's Shadow. A four-mana planeswalker, on the other hand, has much less competition. Nahiri is really only competing with Ajani Vengeant, and maybe Elspeth, Knight-Errant, for a slot.
Most of the time you will be looking for one of two properties. A new Modern playable should either provide a unique effect or duplicate another powerful effect to create redundancy.
Identifying similar cards to replicate a desired effect is typically the easier of the two for determining playability. This concept can be seen with cards like Atarka's Command, Harbinger of the Tides, or even Pia and Kiran Nalaar.
These three cards are similar to others that already see steady play in the format. Burn decks love an upgrade to Skullcrack, Merfolk gets another bear with a relevant ability, and Lingering Souls is great so a creature version should be great as well. Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound mimics old standby Snapcaster Mage. You could even highlight Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit here as well because of her ability to simulate the effect of Melira, Sylvok Outcast.
The other trait we should be looking for is a unique effect. This is one of the key pieces to the Nahiri puzzle that I was missing. The Boros planeswalker provides a difficult-to-answer win condition for any deck because of the strength of the creatures it can get with the ultimate. While keeping your planeswalker in play for three turns can be a challenging proposition, in a control deck that goal can be feasibly reached the majority of the time.
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is a good example of this. In addition to providing lifelink and value in a top-end finisher, Kalitas doubles as graveyard hate. His exile effect is highly relevant and hard to find, so any deck interested in it only has so many options to choose from.
Another card that shines some light on this point is the Birthing Pod replacement in Collected Company. Now we are all familiar with this card’s greatness, but that was not always the case. This green instant hasn’t proven itself as a card worthy of aggressive strategies because other cards achieve that goal more consistently, but as a semi-tutor for creature combo pieces, it stands above the rest.
Finally, one card that hasn’t received a lot of attention is Bring to Light. Although this tutor is five mana and requires many colors of mana, the effect it provides is unrivaled. It may cost five to cast, but casting the spell you’re searching for without an additional cost is absurdly powerful in a format with such a large card pool like Modern.
You may think that Kolaghan's Command should be spoken of for its unique effect, but I think it fits better in a discussion of versatility.
This multicolored instant provides so many options. It can be a removal spell, a Raise Dead, a Shatter or a discard spell. Any one of those would be great but with this spell we always get two. Against Affinity you get to destroy two permanents and against most other decks you get two cards to their one in a variety of other ways. We know this card is good because of the sheer amount of options it provides.
Nahiri can be cast in this role as well. Yes, she has the right mana cost and power level, while providing a unique effect as a win condition, but her flexibility is what pushes her to the next level. She's card selection, Disenchant, creature removal and win condition all in one.
Any of the cards discussed above are great long-term investments. No matter what type of player you are, holding these cards if you have them or searching them out before they’re out of print will always be a good strategy.
If you only play one archetype, determine which of these cards could be useful and track down your copies. If you’re like me though, you just want all the Modern playables you can hold onto. Whether you get copies so you have access to the cards you need for the right deck or you just want cards that will raise in value, this list is a great way to invest your money.
Here are all of the cards that were discussed in one organized space:
If Nahiri is going to become a format staple as it seems right now, then we should be thinking about how the format will adjust. Furthermore, if Nahiri really is that good, then it is likely we will eventually have more planeswalkers seeing Modern camera time.
We need answers to these permanents. Luckily, ways to deal with these card types outside of aggressively attacking already exist. We don’t give enough credit to the versatility offered to us by this group of cards. Take a look.
Terminate already sees a lot of play. Dreadbore is just a sorcery version of the same card except that it deals with Nahiri or Liliana of the Veil, as well as any other planeswalkers that pop up. Both of the three-mana cards could see play as well, but adding a mana is a pretty big deal in Modern.
I think Dreadbore is bound for the limelight and I put my money where my mouth is on this one. Bought and paid for. I’d get in now if I were you too.
Up next we have some cards that have seen fringe play but are still worth your attention.
The cards on this list seem like they have potential. Cards like Prized Amalgam and Thalia's Lieutenant have already seen modest amounts of play. What’s holding these cards back is proven success. A big finish for any of these potential candidates could bump the price right away.
Some of these cards, like Inverter of Truth, haven’t seen play yet but seem built for older formats. Others, like Startled Awake // Persistent Nightmare, I’ve already seen in play at the SCG Invitational. These inexpensive cards are ones I would be looking for in trades rather than purchasing outright because there is a bit more uncertainty than with the previous list.
Last up we have a handful of cards that I don’t think will make it in Modern. These cards seem good enough on the surface but don’t quite pan out.
Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror isn’t worth your time in my opinion because there are too many answers to punish your investment---foremost on the list Path to Exile. The same goes for Westvale Abbey // Ormendahl, Profane Prince.
Finally, when Shadows over Innistrad was released I tested a lot with the new dual lands. Theoretically, with all of the shocklands they should work well in the format, but the drawback of coming into play tapped sometimes isn’t worth the risk. Even if you lose less life, these lands aren’t worth the tempo loss to include them.
That's all the info I have for you today. Identifying potential Modern breakouts can make you a lot of money, and picking these up is usually relatively easy because players will trade their Standard cards more easily than Modern-only staples.
Nahiri is great and so are many other cards that can be ported from Standard to Modern. Use these skills in the future when analyzing new cards. You never know, maybe you will be the person who breaks a new card first.
Until next time,
Unleash the Force!
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