It's been less than a month since War of the Spark dropped, but since the extra product this year is Modern Horizons, we have more sets than normal to review. And then, about a month until Magic 2020 spoilers begin. 2019 is fast becoming Year of the Brewer. Today, I will be looking at some of the big themes from Horizons. There's a lot of potential in the expansion, but do its mechanics have the support they'll need in Modern?
A Sigh of Relief
First of all, I am relieved that my initial fears haven't been justified. While I was reasonably certain that Wizards had tested the set to death and had no intention of completely overhauling Modern, there was that nagging fear that something slipped through the cracks. Unleashing something like True-Name Nemesis onto Modern could be devastating, given how powerful that card is in Legacy. It's not outside Wizards' wheelhouse to drastically underestimate cards and misperceive formats.
However, that doesn't appear to have happened so far. As of writing, roughly half the set has been spoiled, and nothing strikes me as overpowered. Apparently, Modern Horizons started as Time Spiral 2. Thus, the inital design was with Standard in mind. Later, it became a standalone innovation set and Modern supplement. As a result, what we're getting is slightly-too-good Standard cards.
Horizons is a set full of interesting themes, role-players, and brewing tools. That's exactly what I was hoping for, and I'm looking forward to pulling the set apart to find the hidden gems amongst the hopefuls and wannabes.
'Snow Time Like the Present
The first theme spoiled was the return of snow. Specifically, full-art snow-covered basics were spoiled, followed by Ice-Fang Coatl. However, there hasn't been much else since then. Another new card, Glacial Revelation, hints that snow is a major theme and there are more cards to come, but at the moment it's just an awkward manland and some unplayable four-drops. Coatl is far and away the best snow card, and a very good card by itself. Two-mana cantrip creatures have proven playable in the past, and Coatl having flash and flying are huge upsides compared to Silvergill Adept and Elvish Visionary.
However, that's not the whole story; with three more snow permanents, the Snake gains deathtouch. This turns Coatl into an arguably better Baleful Strix, and Strix is an absurd card. In Legacy, Stix is arguably the best removal spell in the format; it cantrips, trades with everything, walls off Gurmag Angler and Eldrazi, and pitches to Force of Will. Every non-combo Dimir-friendly deck runs a set.
Players have asked me if Strix would be good in Modern, and I've always said it would, but that it wouldn't be healthy. Legacy is so high-power and spell-heavy that Strix's power isn't obvious, but in the more creature-focused Modern, it's absurd. Strix is always a cantrip, and then trades up. Against aggro decks, what the inquirers are always thinking of playing against, this is fine. There's plenty more where that came from.
However, against midrange, Strix would be warping. BGx relies on one-for-one trades and having bigger creatures. Strix completely breaks that gameplan since it isn't much of a threat but requires an answer to not lose value, eating removal for actual creatures. This would heavily disincentivize Jund as a deck and move the format toward being more blue. Coatl aspires to be Strix, but I don't think it will succeed.
To be a better Strix, Coatl needs a lot of snow, and by extension, playable snow permanents. But there aren't. Now, there is no opportunity cost for running snow basics over regular basics. They're necessary in a deck that cares about snow and identical to regular basics in a deck that doesn't. Therefore, a Coatl deck could just run a set of Coatls and tons of Snow-Covered Islands and Snow-Covered Forests and call it a day. However, this strategy would lose the mana fixing of shocklands. Since a normal Modern manabase only has ~6 basics, running Coatl puts a lot of pressure on the mana.
To alleviate the pressure, it makes sense to run nonland snow permanents. However, the supply of those is limited. There are probably more to come in Horizons, but at this moment the only snow permanents that are definitely Modern playable are Coatl and snow basics. Boreal Druid has seen Modern play in RG Eldrazi as a source of colorless mana, and Scrying Sheets gets trotted out alongside Skred. That's it. Ohran Viper is close, but probably not good enough anymore. Viper could fit the same deck as Coatl, but I doubt Druid would. Coatl is color-hungry, and its deck probably would be too, so Druid's colorless mana would be weak. I can't see it working out without more Horizons help. Therefore, right now I think deathtouch will be gravy rather than an actual reason to play Coatl, and its utility will be limited.
Edit: Shortly before this article went to press, two new snow permanents were spoiled. Both are potentially playable, however it won't be in the same deck as Coatl. Arcum's Astrolabe is a one-mana egg, and will only see play in a combo deck. What combo deck is unclear since Krark-Clan Ironworks is banned, but that's the only style of deck that wants something like Astrolabe. While a mana fixing egg may up your snow count, it's not the sort of card that midrange decks historically want to play.
The other is Icehide Golem. As a 1-mana 2/2 artifact Golem is potentially playable in a dedicated snow aggro deck, though stat-wise it's mediocre for Modern. However, this doesn't really change anything for Coatl since it's too small to see play in an aggro deck while Golem doesn't belong in the midrange decks that want Coatl. The problem persists.
Even if the snow theme issues can be dealt with, Coatl still has one problem: it doesn't have a home. Strix is primarily played in Grixis Delver decks in Legacy, and while Grixis Death's Shadow is similar, Coatl is green/blue instead of black/blue. This limits its home to Sultai or Temur, which are not decks in Modern. While researching this article, I found exactly one Temur list from an SCG Qualifier this year plus the odd Death's Shadow list splashing for Tarmogoyf. Traverse Shadow appears to have vanished. The best result for a true Sultai deck appears to have been in an SCG Open win in 2015.
Despite years of trying, Temur and Sultai decks don't work in Modern. It makes logical sense that pairing the most powerful creatures with the most powerful removal and card advantage would be a great deck, but that doesn't play out. Compared to Jund, Abzan, and the Rock, Sultai is incredibly clunky, while Temur is underpowered. On paper, this makes no sense, and I've known a lot of players that have tried and failed to fix this problem. A lack of internal cohesion when pairing blue and green which kills the deck. I proxied up a Sultai deck based on Jund's numbers to confirm if this was still true.
This deck grinded better than anything I've ever played. It had a great curve, was very consistent, was packed with interaction and card advantage... and didn't win against anything. It felt anemic and clunky, even for a test deck. Coatl is a great cog, but doesn't race or apply pressure. It's very all-in on Tarmogoyf to win, and there's not a great solution except to go more controlling and then compete with the superior UW decks. Unless someone can work out that closing problem, the decks that could run Coatl just won't exist.
The final problem is the mana base. As mentioned, Coatl is color-hungry, but also requires lands that discourage the fetch-shock base that's Modern's bread-and-butter. There's already a lot of tension between basics and shocks in midrange manabases; too few of the later and decks struggle to hit the right colors on curve, and too few of the former and they lose to Blood Moon. The snow lands add further tension. Fetching one of each basic ensures all colors, but makes it hard to cast Liliana of the Veil or flashback Assassin's Trophy.
This mana base tension means that any deck that could run Coatl will have to be built around the snow basics, because otherwise there's too much tension and too little space. The Temur list could because it's a Blood Moon deck and plays lots of basics anyway. However, Traverse Shadow only runs 17-19 lands, two of which are basics. We'll need more snow support to give Coatl the home it deserves.
Part of the Whole
The other big theme is tribal. There is specific support for a number of under-represented tribes in Horizons, the most exciting being fan-favorite Slivers. Slivers occasionally wins at big events, then quickly disappears again. It never has any staying power. The problem for Slivers is that it's multicolored Merfolk. The deck functions exactly the same way, but with more abilities than +1/+1 and islandwalk, and more mana trouble.
Less Than the Sum
The problem has been lack of interaction. The only Sliver that can directly interact with opponents is Harmonic Sliver. Necrotic Sliver turns Slivers into Vindicates, but at a steep price. The shards are all about buffing the entire team. This is great if you're looking for a linear attack deck, but Slivers has been worse than Merfolk historically despite this because it couldn't disrupt the opponent. Merfolk runs counterspells and Spreading Seas, where Slivers just has creatures. This put Slivers in the same lane as the faster Affinity, and now means it competes with Humans.
In the head-to-head, Slivers will probably come out on top, since they have more pump effects as well as multiple ways to evade Humans' blockers. Galerider Sliver sees play, but there's also options for menace and shadow. However, being a great evasive linear deck isn't enough in Modern's context. Humans is the better deck in the format because of its disruption package. Given that Affinity, Hardened Scales, and Merfolk aren't taking home trophies, how will Slivers compete?
So far, the new Slivers have all been buffers rather than disruptors. This probably means that Slivers will remain fringe. If that isn't the case, it will be because of Cloudshredder Sliver, though I'm skeptical. Haste and flying for two mana should decrease the kill turn, assuming Cloudshredder Sliver survives to attack. The ideal curve is probably turn one Aether Vial; turn 2 Vial in a one mana Sliver, cast Cloudshredder and attack for 2; turn three cast another one drop and Sinew Sliver, Vial in Predatory Sliver, and attack for 15. That could be lethal. However, any removal just kills that curve, and if that's not good, enough what is?
The tribal support doesn't end with Slivers. The card that I'm most excited about is Goblin Matron. I've tried a few times to make Goblins something other than 8-Whack and be good. It hasn't worked out. The problem is that the individual goblins need not only a critical mass, but also the right enablers to become a threat. This puts them in the same camp as Elves, but without all the tutors. With Matron, the battle begins to shift. Matron was arguably the most important piece of the old Standard decks and Legacy Goblins, so there may be hope for Modern too.
The clunkiness of Goblins will likely persist. Matron finds the best creatures in the deck, but costs three. This limits the rollout. Even going the combo route isn't enough. My issue with the Fecundity combos that I tried right after Skirk Prospector was spoiled was Fecundity itself. What Matron needs to make her brood great again is a Goblin Ringleader. I doubt that card will be reprinted, but even a nerfed version would go a long way towards making Goblins a real deck again.
Spoiler season is just getting started, and I'm feeling hopeful. There's a lot of cards still to reveal, so maybe these currently-lacking themes will be fleshed out soon.