With the new year just days away, every Modern player's got something on their mind: which new goodies will we get next? What's the deal with Pioneer? How are winning grinders tweaking their decks going into 2020? While we'll cover all that in the coming weeks, today I want to focus in on the format boogeyman, Simic Urza, drawing special attention to what I think is the deck's most promising build yet.
For starters, here's the list:
Today, we'll look at how the deck's latest iteration calls back to the Death's Shadow archetype's own storied history and at the potential for Simic Urza to similarly homogenize midrange.
The Death's-Shadow-fication of Urza
Back in November, David provided detailed coverage of the different Urza builds we'd seen so far. The final build in that grouping was the first iteration of Simic Urza, or Oko Urza, a 60 that splashed green for the infamous/ubiquitous three-mana planeswalker.
A month and some change later, that draft seems especially limited; it clung to the Whir of Invention package to keep Thopter-Sword, and was generally light on interaction. Rather, Emry, Lurker of the Loch featured prominently to give the deck three distinct angles of attack: Urza, Emry, and Oko, with all of them synergizing to various degrees. Regarded through this lens, Thopter-Sword feels excessive.
A Looming Shadow
The deck's major predator coming out of SCG Atlanta was Grixis Shadow. That strategy packs everything combo decks fear: high consistency, quick clocks, and ample, relevant disruption. Simic Urza had little hope of interacting with the likes of Gurmag Angler and Death's Shadow other than turning them into Elk, a plan Stubborn Denial, Inquisition of Kozilek, and Thoughtseize had more than covered. It was also especially soft to the tools Grixis Shadow wielded both in and out of the sideboard, relying on both individual playmakers (opening it up to discard) and graveyard loops (to Surgical Extraction).
If You Can't Beat 'Em...
I find it fitting, then, that Urza's response to such a gatekeeper was to take a similar path to Shadow's. Shadow decks were originally hyper-streamlined versions of Jund Rock; they kept only the strongest, most dedicated beaters and splashed every which color to benefit from the most impactful, efficient disruption.
Simic Urza, too, is trimming the fat; gone is the Emry package, and the Whir package. In their place? More disruption, notably full sets of Archmage's Charm and Ice-Fang Coatl. The former counters spells, draws cards, and even steals Death's Shadow; the latter blocks Shadow and everything else at a card-positive rate for the caster.
Since all eight of these disruption pieces also dig through the deck, I find this trajectory similar to Shadow's; after gutting their Jund Rock prototype, those decks had some space to fill, and they did so with cantrips ranging from Street Wraith and Mishra's Bauble (now longstanding staples there) to Traverse the Ulvenwald (still a necessity in green versions) to Manamorphose (more of a blip) to Once Upon a Time (which seems to have antiquated Manamorphose).
One major difference between the development of each deck is their motivation. Boiling Jund down to its bare strategic essentials with Death's Shadow increased deck consistency and proactivity, but at the cost of accepting some fragility; Jund Rock is much more robust than Shadow in the face of, say, Rest in Peace or Chalice of the Void. Urza seems to be vying for the opposite. It's now less explosive against combo, but significantly sturdier when met with enemy disruption, as it's suddenly loaded with two-for-one exchanges (including even Urza and Oko themselves).
One question the shift has raised for me is how similar Simic Urza ends up to other midrange decks. David has pointed to both Urza and Oko as some of the most decisive midrange plays in the format, and recognized that each is most at home in this sort of shell. With the shell itself transitioning even further away from its old combo focus, I wonder whether other midrange decks have much of a niche in Modern, especially when they're running some of the same components.
Consider this Bant Midrange list:
Or this Temur Midrange one:
Both decks were published in 5-0 dumps this month, and each strikes me as significantly worse than Simic Urza. They're both doing the midrange thing: interacting with opponents and then closing the game with bigger threats or added-up chip damage from value-stocked utility creatures like Snapcaster Mage. Oko is a worse payoff here than in Simic Urza, but it's still the best payoff available, as there's no Urza, Lord High Artificer.
Gone is the flexibility of Engineered Explosives, and with it, the critical artifact package; not only does that package enable Oko to shine (and Urza to be featured at all), but it turns on Mox Opal, allowing the threats to consistently drop a turn early. Perhaps the benefits of Jace, the Mind Sculptor over Urza, Lord High Artificer can be argued, but I'm not so willing to entertain a debate about whether or not it's good to run a Mox in a deck centered around three- and four-drops.
All these concessions add up to very large shoes non-Simic Urza decks must fill. And if recent innovation is any indication, the deck has plenty of forms. Lots of combo in the metagame? Back to Emry. Something of a mix? Nothing wrong with splits. Missing Thoughtseize and Fatal Push? With the Goose-Mox mana package, splashing is trivial.
Like Death's Shadow before it, the deck is bursting with possibilities, especially now that the "control version" has been discovered. Where players want to fall along the spectrum is up to them, bolstering the importance of metagame reads. Also like Death's Shadow, I expect Simic Urza to have a centralizing effect on midrange over the next few months before the Next Big Thing arrives and relegates it to mere format stalwart.
Galloping Into the '20s
That's why my money's on Simic Urza for the new year. Let me know where you're placing your bets, and we'll see you in 2020!