It's been an odd year for Magic. Modern struggled through a series of bans while Standard was doing well. Once things started looking up for Modern, Standard began its collapse under the weight of Throne of Eldraine. Some of those effects are now leaking into Modern, with uncertain implications.
Urza may be the talk of the town in this format, but Oko, Thief of Crowns is the talk of Magic. He's been ruling Standard since Eldraine was sanctioned, and dominated the last Mythic Championship to such an extent he'll almost certainly be banned next week. Thus far, his impact on Modern has been negligible, but that may not continue. A number of decks are attempting to make Oko work either as a primary plan or a backup. The results so far are intriguing, but it's not clear that any will actually work out. Today, I'll be examining Oko and the decks trying to wield him in closer detail.
The Thief in Detail
Cheap planeswalkers are always worth considering for Modern, but Oko doesn't look like much on face. Food really doesn't do anything Modern-worthy, 3/3's aren't so impressive here, and stealing creatures isn't a thing in Modern. There are plenty of options that have seen play like Threads of Disloyalty and Vedalken Shackles, but they've been too inefficient or easily answered to see more than fringe play. However, Oko is far more than the sum of his parts, and in the right context he's an incredibly powerful planeswalker. The only catch: this sort of power isn't very common in Magic, and definitely not in Modern. Oko's abilities take on unique properties depending on whether players are playing as the beatdown or the control in a given game.
Oko on Offense
While Oko has high loyalty and a +2 ability, they're not what makes him playable. In Standard the main way to kill planeswalkers is to attack them, but Modern has Abrupt Decay and similar removal. Making food is okay against Burn, but a bit slow. This ability should be regarded as the backup plan for when there aren't targets for the +1.
The primary purpose of Oko is to make 3/3 Elks. We've seen many ways to make noncreature artifacts into creatures, with Tezzert the Seeker, Karn, the Great Creator, and March of the Machines being the most prominent. However, they're either much slower or only make the creatures as strong as their CMC. That's not great for a deck built around 0-1-cost artifacts. Since Oko comes out fast, permanently alters the target, and can just keep going, he is an army in a can. The fact that the ability is a +1 is key here: there's no limit to Oko's Elk-making, which is means there's never a trade-off or a risk of running out of activations.
I've only seen Oko's -5 used to steal mana dorks, and even then only twice. Modern just doesn't have many cheap, weak creatures that a deck would want to steal. Those that do often have ways to pump them. In a pinch, this ability could certainly be used to clear a path for attackers, but that is niche at best. The times I've observed it in action, the Oko deck was mana starved and slightly desperate, so I consider it a minor bonus rather than a primary consideration.
Thief in Retreat
However, I'll argue that Oko's real power is turning opposing creatures and artifacts into Elk. There have been many ways to shrink creatures and/or make them lose their abilities, with Humility being the most famous and Lignify being Modern accessible. However, these methods tend to be temporary, and I couldn't find an instance of artifacts being affected. Again, Oko's transformation persists if he's removed, which is unprecedented. This means that Oko is a near-universal answer to an opposing board, a fact Wizards apparently didn't notice.
Turning Wurmcoil Engine or Death's Shadow into 3/3 vanilla Elk is incredibly powerful. So is "Elking" Drokskol Captain or Devoted Druid. Decks with creatures bigger than 3/3 don't tend to have many of them, so transforming them ends up being quite similar to outright removing them. Meanwhile, those with smaller creatures play ones with tribal synergies or abilities where removing their creature types and/or abilities is worth the stat upgrade.
However, the real power is hitting opposing artifacts. Specifically, Oko wrecks prison cards by stripping away their abilities. Ensnaring Bridge can't stop creatures when its an Elk; Mind Stone won't make mana; Amulet of Vigor doesn't untap lands. Thus, Oko becomes not only disruptive to opposing plans, but a counter to opposing answers.
With a strong offensive plan and the option to switch seamlessly to defense and back, Oko has the same entire-deck-in-one-card power as Urza, Lord High Artificer. But Oko isn't on the same power level as Urza, since he's not a combo piece. Instead, Oko is a disruptive planeswalker that can actually win the game as well. Liliana of the Veil is far more obviously disruptive and can shut out opponents, but she can't actually turn the corner. Oko sniping critical creatures or artifacts and then re-growing a board can be tremendously potent.
A Primary Plan
The problem with adopting Oko as a primary plan is that there's really only one way to go, and it's been done. In Standard he's everywhere because Standard's gameplay is about snowballing advantage until it overwhelms the opponent. Oko naturally fits in by generating several types of advantage for its controller and taking some away from opponents. That style of gameplay hasn't worked so well in Modern, as the answers and threats are better; take Tron, for instance. There isn't the time or space for decks to quietly build up and crash down like a tsunami. However, there does exist one deck that was already blitzing out raw material, featured acceleration, and really needed something else to do with it all.
Oko Urza is not the only version of this deck that could exist. However, I can't imagine that any deck with Oko as a primary plan would do much differently. Urza already floods the board with do-nothing artifacts, hoping to turn them into a win with Urza. It's also very likely to have prison cards played against it, which gives Oko's defensive utility a chance to shine. The walker also dodges graveyard and artifact hate. Oko is slower, but nonetheless synergizes with the main plan perfectly, all while not being dead to otherwise relevant hate.
An interesting case is Eldrazi decks running maindeck Oko. Sure, Reality Smasher is much better than a 3/3 Elk. However, Smasher isn't better than Ensnaring Bridge or Wurmcoil. From what I can tell, Oko makes up most of the interaction and disruption present in these decks, while the rest of the deck commits to beatdown. Anything that can potentially stop the Eldrazi attack gets shrunken out of the way (it's not like a 3/3 can stand up to Eldrazi creatures). Oko can also turn mana dorks and Scion tokens into Wild Nacatls.
This Oko plan performed admirably in its debut, but whether that was due to the deck or the pilots is up in the air. I haven't seen it do especially well online or in paper since then, but most of Magic's focus has been on Standard recently. Oko's viability as a primary strategy is therefore unlikely to be decided until next year.
The Fallback Plan
I'm skeptical that Oko will prove to be a true keystone of Modern like Primeval Titan or Liliana of the Veil. The sacrifices needed to make him a deck's lynchpin seem steep, and the decks that would make them are of the type that attract bans. There's also the issue of the non-Oko and Urza components not doing anything. Mishra's Bauble and Moxen are great and creating a critical mass of artifacts, but they don't do anything to actually win the game. Without Urza or Oko to give them meaning, all the artifacts in the deck are just air.
Instead, I think that Oko will endure as a backup plan. The most common non-Urza home appears to be Bant creature decks. These decks, from Ephemerate-based builds to Counters Company, are filled with extremely anemic creatures and mana dorks. If the primary value/combo plan is disrupted, the creatures do nothing. Oko offers an alternative, turning those useless dorks or defunct combo pieces into more useful Elks.
Some decks employing this strategy have Oko maindeck, and others sided. The former are acknowledging their inherent weakness and assuming something will go wrong, while the latter plan to only use Oko against control and Jund. I favor maindecking Oko if going this route. The flaws in these decks are well-known, and it's not like Value-Creatures.dec is tearing up Modern. So why not plan to get the enters-the-battlefield value and then make those spell-carriers into reasonable threats? As a particular bonus for Bant Ephemerate, there's no need to keep the Elk. Coiling Oracle is a pathetic creature in combat. So, turn it into an elk for an attack step. Afterward, flicker it with Soulherder and get value again.
The most intriguing application of Oko as a secondary plan has been in tribal decks. I've seen Merfolk running Oko maindeck, and while I don't agree, I understand. I've played a lot of tribal decks and I know as well as anyone how weak the creatures are individually or in the face of removal. Thus, the idea is to use Oko to turn the remaining 2/2 dorks into superior 3/3 dorks and keep up the pressure.
The route isn't a bad idea against removal-heavy decks when lords are unlikely to survive. The problem I have is that Oko is counterproductive to the main point of the deck once he gets going. Yes, a 3/3 is better than a 2/2. However, taking away the tribe from the 2/2 means that when you those synergy cards are drawn, the new creatures are also just 2/2's. This creates a downward spiral of the deck not working as intended. Making food into elk is again a fine backup plan, but if all that's missing is token generation, there are lots of ways to do that on-theme like Deeproot Waters for Merfolk or Moorland Haunt for Spirits.
Oko's a useful way to answer Plague Engineer, but I don't think he'll catch on in tribal decks; he's just too medium as an offensive option.
Changing the Battlefield
The other option is to use Oko to shift gears altogether. I've mostly seen this happen out of the sideboard for decks that have strong Game 1s, but are very vulnerable to sideboard cards. Oko provides a completely different angle of attack for these decks and negates the opponent's plan. Consider Infect: there are few things more terrifying than Glistener Elf on the play. However, it's still a 1/1 that dies to everything, especially once all the removal is brought in game two. Instead of fighting this, Infect is leaning in, letting opponents board for the Infect fight and then playing the go-wide game with Oko.
If All Else Fails, Audible to Standard
Amulet Titan appears to be increasingly embracing this use, and going somewhat beyond. Titan has always had a very solid Game 1, but could struggle post-sideboard as opponents shifted to fight big creatures. A common answer was to sideboard out of the pure combo version into more creatures and go wide. Increasingly, decks are adopting Oko as part of that strategy. The change adds a value engine and option to turn dead artifacts and Sakura-Tribe Scouts, as well as food into an army, trumping the anti-Primeval Titan hate.
However, that's a surface-level change. I'm increasingly seeing Amulet decks go deep with Oko. In a sense, they're starting to change formats: Field of the Dead alongside Oko dominated Mythic Championship 5, and Titan decks are starting to resemble those Standard decks. Plenty of Modern players are well-prepared to fight a Titan. They're not necessarily ready for an endless stream of Zombie tokens, and especially for them to be 3/3s. It's a brilliant example of repositioning.
The Fae's Place
There's a lot of utility and power attached to Oko. The question is whether Modern can wield it effectively. I'm certain that Oko has a place as a sideboard card and as a way to circumvent hate. Time will tell whether he can carry an archetype or maintain his current momentum.