The metagame constantly cycles and decks rise and fall. Last year, Grixis Death's Shadow was the deck-to-beat in Modern; today, it's Humans. Sometimes, this fluctuation occurs because of players reacting to new decks or trends; sometimes, it's because of new printings. With the release of Guilds of Ravnica, Modern seems poised for a major shift thanks to one card, Assassin's Trophy. But I think there is also a minor shift in the wings thanks to some other newcomers.
Assassin's Trophy has seen the widest Modern discussion of the new Guilds cards, and rightly so. However, GW also received new and potentially game changing cards. While I have serious doubts that Trostani Discordant or any of the convoke creatures will see play, there are several cards that have made me wonder if they're enough to not just see play, but bring an old archetype back to life. It's certainly possible given the current metagame.
Knight of Autumn
The most-discussed addition is Knight of Autumn, and with good reason: three modes on a three-mana creature is an insane rate. It's even more insane because the modes are all Modern-playable abilities. Kitchen Finks and Reclamation Sage see extensive play, and the fail state is still an impressive beater. Knight replaces those cards in decks that can afford her, which frees up card slots.
Despite this, I actually expect Knight to see limited play. Its problem are the creature type and the cost. Dryads and Knights don't have any real tribal synergies at all, while Sage does; Elves doesn't have a reason to switch. Costing white and green means Autumn is far less splashable than Finks; Kitchen Finks can be played in mono-white or green, while Autumn must go in a two-color deck.
This disqualifies Autumn from a lot of decks. Humans won't switch to Autumn because she will be uncastable frequently. While Humans is a five-color deck, it relies on Cavern of Souls and Unclaimed Territory, which won't produce mana for Autumn in most circumstances. Casting Autumn takes two of Noble Hierarch, Ancient Ziggurat, Seachrome Coast, Plains, and/or uncycled Horizion Canopy which is a big ask for Humans. Assuming that Humans only wants the Naturalize ability out of the sideboard, there's no reason to adopt Autumn over Sage.
Humans probably wouldn't be a deck without Champion of the Parish. One-drops that become serious threats during a game are rare and powerful (see: Deathrite Shaman), and Pelt Collector looks to join that club. Collector is simultaneously more and less limited than Champion, since the Elf Warrior can't grow infinitely but also isn't limited to a single tribe. Gaining trample once it hits 4/4 is a very nice touch. Of course, that's also likely as large as Collector will be growing on its own, since green creature decks rarely contain anything larger than a 4/4. Still, a one drop that scales as the curve rises has a lot of potential.
I haven't seen much discussion of Pelt Collector for Modern yet. What there have been are combo decks using Vexing Devil and Death's Shadow as part of all-in aggro strategies. My experience with such decks says it's a cute idea, but not really competitive; they can win out of nowhere, but even a small hiccup shatters the axel, and the whole thing crashes to a halt. A more fair and resilient deck is still gong to grow Collector just by playing out its curve. It might even be a better home since there will be more must-kill threats.
Emmara, Soul of the Accord
Modern asks a lot of two-mana 2/2s. Its removal and speed mean that they need to be disruptive like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, immediately impact the board like Thalia's Lieutenant, or provide a long-term advantage like Dark Confidant. Given that Emmara, Soul of the Accord is only notable because she makes a token, she doesn't immediately appear playable. But I think she may have legs.
Against UW Control, Emmara is an army unto herself, and a priority removal target. UW Control doesn't play that many hard answers, instead relying on drawing enough Terminuses to withstand creature decks until Cryptic Command and planeswalkers can seal the game. A single threat that can go wide unassisted throws a significant wrench in UW's gameplan. Jeskai doesn't have this problem thanks to all its burn, but with straight UW apparently being the control deck of choice, I'm interested.
Back in Return to Ravnica Standard, I remember that Precinct Captain served a similar role early in the format. Captain never made it in Modern because of Lightning Bolt, but right now, that's not true. First strike is a very good ability, but I think that Emmara is actually better because Captain only makes tokens if he deals combat damage to players. Emmara just needs to tap, be that by attacking, convoking, or getting hit with Cryptic Command. I don't see Emmara beating out Voice of Resurgence for maindeck play, but she's definitely sideboard material.
Tax or Hate
The wealth of new GW cards made me wonder if it's time to reexamine GW Hatebears. Longtime readers know that I've always preferred mono-white Death & Taxes, but for a time years ago Little Kid Abzan and GW Hatebears were better choices because of their superior matchup against Jund. Thanks to the rise of Grixis Death's Shadow and GP Las Vegas 2017, mono-white finally emerged as the preferred deck last year, and GW virtually disappeared. However, I'm starting to think the winds have shifted enough for GW to be worthwhile.
The difference between Hatebears and Taxes isn't just about color. Taxes decks rely on Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Leonin Arbiter coupled with Ghost Quarter and Field of Ruin to attack an opponent's mana, grind down their engines, and win via many small, disruptive creatures. These decks use Aether Vial coupled with Flickerwisp and Restoration Angel to play around removal and gain card and mana advantage. However, Humans uses Thalia more effectively than Death & Taxes because it kills faster. Its other disruptive creatures are also relevant more often than Arbiter, meaning it's gotten hard to justify Taxes over Humans.
Many Hatebears decks did run Thalia, but not as a primary strategy. Instead, Hatebears is about directly disrupting the opponent while outclassing opposing creatures and removal. Where Taxes induces inefficiencies, Hatebears shuts strategies down. Instead of Arbiter, it runs Aven Mindcensor; Gaddock Teeg over Thalia; Noble Hierarch rather than Aether Vial. Hatebears doesn't beat removal with tricks, it plays creatures that are less vulnerable, like Loxodon Smiter. In a Jund-heavy world, this stat-based approach worked well. Jund isn't the powerhouse it used to be, but I think a similar metagame opportunity is developing.
The metagame is becoming more polarized, with Humans and UWx Control emerging as the big players. Meanwhile, Affinity is changing forms from the classic explosive artifact deck to the less vulnerable Hardened Scales version. This shift presents an opportunity for Hatebears to rise again, as it has considerable advantages against this new metagame notwithstanding the new Guilds additions. I know that many are turning towards GW Taxes instead of Hatebears, and that's fair, but Knight of Autumn doesn't make up for the fundamental Taxes problem of small, fragile creatures. I've been testing a more classic take on the deck.
This deck accelerates into mid-game creatures while growing its threats. While Knight almost never triggers Collector without Wilt-Leaf Liege, Voice tokens frequently do. The Chords are there because Chording for Teeg in response to a miracle trigger or other play can be backbreaking for opponents, and potentially great against strategies besides UW. Further testing will tell for sure. In this section, we'll see how my proposed Hatebears list compares to Death & Taxes against Modern's top decks.
I was playing mono-White Death & Taxes when Humans first reared its head, and the match is very close. Humans usually dominates the early game, but if the game goes long, Blade Splicer and Flickerwisp take over. Wins were never easy, and I often stabilized at a precarious life total. The problem was that Taxes' one- and two-drop creatures are worse than Humans's, and without Vial, it proved easy to fall behind. D&T is also very weak to decks that can go wide and tall, which is a Humans specialty. Since then, Humans has adopted Izzet Staticaster, which wrecks the low-toughness creatures in Taxes. One available solution is to sideboard into a white control deck, but Humans is built to pick apart slower decks, so the matchup is just tough.
Hatebears' creatures are naturally tougher than D&T's, so it stands up in combat far better. Having Gavony Township and Wilt-Leaf also makes Thalia's Lieutenant less crushing. Being able to lock down the ground and eventually win with massive, trampling Pelt Collectors has been effective in testing. The main problem I still have is Humans filling the skies, because Hatebears lacks fliers. I'm uncertain at this point if this problem is worth trying to solve with mainboard cards.
Vs. UWx Control
The Taxes matchup against control decks is very hard. Jeskai has a plethora of relevant removal for every creature, while UW has Terminus to avoid paying taxes. Games come down to careful resource management, and if Taxes falls behind on cards, it is very hard to get back into the game. My post-board solution was to utilize planeswalkers, but that was still risky against countermagic. Once Terminus replaced Supreme Verdict as the go-to sweeper, I decided I just didn't need the stress in my life.
Hatebears has a number of advantages game 1 against both decks. UW only definitely has Terminus and Path to Exile as hard removal. Occasionally Detention Sphere joins the party, and Autumn answers it. Path is Path, and Snapcaster Mage plus Path is very nasty, but Scavenging Ooze makes Snapcaster worse. Also, Terminus tucks creatures back into the library, meaning they can be found with Chord or just shuffled back into circulation. Smiter's uncounterability is the final nail in the coffin for UW to have a tougher time against Hatebears even before we sideboard in more Teeg's, Thrun, the Last Troll, and Emmara.
Jeskai has a somewhat easier time since it has more removal, but Smiter and Voice have always been good because they shrug off Lightning Bolt. What tends to happen is Jeskai has to 2-for-1 itself to get Hatebears off the board and just runs out of steam. Chording for Shalai in response to removal is also a beating against Jeskai.
Normal Affinity was an easy match for Death and Taxes. Between the land destruction, Blade Splicer tokens, and fliers, D&T had all the bases covered game 1, and things got fantastic after sideboarding. Hardened Scales is a different animal. Walking Ballista and Hangerback Walker are nightmares for D&T's tiny creatures. Absent Phyrexian Revoker, a single large Ballista is often game over, making Taxes more reliant on Stony Silence than before.
Simply having bigger creatures is a huge plus for Hatebears. Instead of being a board wipe, Ballista is often just a removal spell. Knight and Pridemage also make the matchup manageable by removing the Scales. Shalai and Gavony Township mean Hatebears can match Affinity on size. It can still be terrifying when Scales starts to snowball, but Hatebears has more options to successfully fight back than Taxes.
Here's the factor that has me most excited about Hatebears. I've made no secret that I dislike Hollow One because Burning Inquiry can be so frustrating to play against. Hatebears turns Inquiry against its controller with Smiters and Lieges. There's also the statistically implausible chance that we discard all three Lieges, there's no opposing Hollow One, and we crash in for 24 damage on turn one!
Outside of that pleasant dream, once again, Hatebears's size matches Hollow One and Gurmag Angler and stonewalls Bloodghast. Scavenging Ooze is exceptional for stopping the recursion engine and stabilizing. The additional artifact removal from Knight is also highly relevant.
Give In to Your Hatred
It's not always obvious when a shift brings an older deck back to playability. Between combo revolving around Teeg targets, aggro becoming about size, and control narrowing its answer suite, I think that Hatebears is due for a resurgence. In any case, there's at least enough power in the deck for me to continue my testing.