2019 may well go down in the books as the Year of Enablers. Between the Faithless Looting-fueled Phoenix decks and the Stitcher's Supplier-abusing Hogaak menace, Modern was defined this year by pushed cards locating, buffing, and ultimately breaking engines and payoffs. Of course, both Phoenix and Hogaak have left us by now. Without Looting in the picture, players have turned to new strategies—and new enablers. Today we'll look at the three biggest players powering the format's new school of competitive decks.
This unassuming artifact is first on our list, and has already popped up in decks ranging from totally fair to completely crazy.
Taste the Rainbow
On paper, Astrolabe serves one main purpose: filtering mana. It replaces itself in terms of card economy, only charging pilots a single mana for game-long access to colors of their preference. And boy, does the extra filtering go a long way! We've already seen four- and five-colored control decks rear their heads, as well as this behemoth, which continues to put up results against all odds:
Niv-Mizzet Reborn proves that even full of clunky-looking spells, drawing that many cards is as good a combo turn as any. The spells in question actually play much smoother than first appears thanks to Astrolabe, which lets the deck curve Assassin's Trophy into Teferi, Time Raveler into Huntmaster of the Fells quite smoothly. Indeed, it feels as though Astrolabe's filtering capabilities are unmatched in Modern.
Filtering, though, is less of a story right now than Astrolabe's other function: super-charging artifact decks. The best-performing of these strategies is Whirza, an aggro-control-combo hybrid that attacks opponents from a myriad of angles and has proven quite difficult to disrupt for all but the most disruption-heavy decks (AKA Jund).
Jeskai Ascendency is a recent addition to these decks, and comes alongside the freshly-printed Emry, Lurker of the Loch. Between Mox Opal and Astrolabe, how to accommodate the enchantment's supposedly steep color requirement was never much of a concern.
Once Upon a Time
Next up is Throne of Eldraine wave-maker Once Upon a Time. The unique cantrip seems to be redefining the way green-based Modern decks are built. Its success in big-mana strategies like Tron, Valakut, Eldrazi, and Amulet is old news now. But Time continues to impress in less-likely archetypes.
Traverse Shadow employs Traverse the Ulvenwald as additional copies of its precious few threats, some of the best beaters in Modern. But the sorcery doesn't come online until delirium is set up, which can take up to a few turns. Enter Once Upon a Time, which locates Shadow or Goyf early on without fussing about graveyard requirements.
A topdecked Time won't find anything, naturally. But previously occupying this spot was the now-banned Faithless Looting, which helped turn on delirium fast enough for Traverse to dig up threats in a timely manner. Time fills a similar purpose, sculpting early plays while boasting an instant typeline; pre-Time, players would run enablers as lackluster as Manamorphose to ensure access to the card type.
In the same Top 8, Julian Hecker's Dredge deck also makes use of Once Upon a Time, if just at one copy. By now, plenty of math has been issued on how to best abuse the cantrip, and one copy apparently makes sense depending on a deckbuilder's goals. It will be interesting to see this card appear at varying numbers in a variety of lists over the coming years.
Giver of Runes
Our last feature is Giver of Runes, a card whose future seemed unsure when Modern Horizons was spoiled. Fortune has certainly smiled upon the Kor, who now co-stars in multiple creature decks. It turns out many are in the market for a one-mana Spellskite.
Mardu Shadow is my favorite of the Giver decks, using the creature as an all-purpose utility play. Here, Giver does it all: it draws removal away from Shadow, as do targeted discard spells; it pushes damage through blockers, as does Temur Battle Rage. And it helps block, as does Death's Shadow. That it's searchable by Ranger-Captain of Eos is the icing on the cake.
While I haven't tested the above build of GW Eldrazi personally, archetype aficionado Tanner Bromer stands by this build as a viable alternative to more conventional Knotblade decks we've been seeing. The big difference? Gone is Ancient Stirrings, once a cornerstone of the strategy, to make room for Giver of Runes. The core of Once Upon a Time, Giver, Eldrazi Temple, Hierarch, and the strongest colorless creatures does seem potent, and I'm excited to take this Stir-free build for a spin.
Custom Brews Enabled
We'll no doubt see a new league of enablers emerge as the defining bunch of 2020, but Astrolabe, Time, and Giver are already setting the bar pretty high. Which role-player do you think is next to blow up?