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Welcome back to Modern Top 5: Modern Horizons 2 edition! Yesterday, we touched on the Incarnations (ranked from best to worst here) and dove deep on Sudden Edict, Urza's Saga, and Prismatic Ending. Now, it's time for the final chapter in our comprehensive Modern Horizons 2 spoiler overview: heaps of text on my picks for the best card in the set, and its runner-up.
Disclaimer first: "best" will always be subjective, which is part of the qualifier's appeal; if there was one right answer to this question, you wouldn't be here reading this, and I wouldn't be back here typing it up. And I doubt it's much of a coincidence that the cards ranked in this Modern Top 5 happen to be the ones I've spent the most time testing (there are many I've tried and given up on). Part of the fun of spoiler season and of a game as dense and complex as Magic is that every player is bound to have a unique opinion. So if you happen to disagree with my picks, however obvious or controversial, please bring it to the comments for some good ol' fashioned debating!
For more information on the grading metric used in this article, check out yesterday's piece, which kicked it off. Oh, you've already read it? Then all aboard, mateys!
#2: Abundant Harvest
As a general rule, when cantrips increase in power, they become notoriously more difficult to extract maximum value from. Opt is pretty easy: does this card have more value to me than the average card left in my deck, or no? Serum Visions, a little tougher: are either of these two cards better than the average card left in my deck, and will I want them next turn or the turn after, and has my situation changed now that I've drawn one more card? Ponder, hard mode: are any or multiple of these three cards better than the average card left in my deck, which order do I want to draw them in, do I have a way to shuffle away the less good ones and how should I sequence that option, and do I want to try to shuffle them all away right now for a chance at the best possible draw in my deck? As for the infamous Brainstorm, well, here's AJ Sacher quoting Josh Rayden in the most comprehensive look at the instant I've seen thus far: "You're just never supposed to cast it."
That's a far cry from Abundant Harvest. A fair bit of the card's power lies in just how easy it is to navigate, a factor that ensures most players will resolve it correctly without spending energy deliberating. Harvest always asks players the same (very easy) question: would you rather this card be a land or a spell? Having 100% control over getting one or the other is so strong that I'd situate this card's impact level somewhere between that of Preordain and Ponder.
Harvest can prove tough to evaluate at first glance because it doesn't provide an impact in the same way as these blue cantrips, whose strength lies in finding specific cards in the deck. Rather, its strength lies in smoothing out the current game, making sure a good balance of lands and spells is hit, and giving players the option of dramatically shaving their land counts... or ramping them up with the goal of making Harvest closer to Demonic Tutor (more of a corner case, to be sure, but nonetheless a part of the the card's utility I wouldn't put it past Modern brewers not to take advantage of eventually). In the coming weeks, I'll be publishing some of my own experiments that demonstrate just how far Harvest allows deckbuilding extremes to be pushed.
I'm sorry, did I break your concentration? I didn't mean to do that. Please, continue. You were saying something about... best intentions? What's the matter? Oh, you were finished! In that case, I'll ask again.
Would you rather this card be a land or a spell?
HELLO?!?!! This is so good!! You have 100% control over getting one or the other. Harvest is always the better of the two.
If Abundant Harvest is so good, why wouldn't every deck, or at least every green deck, play four? Truth be told, I don't even expect the majority of green decks to play this card. Part of that boils down to risk aversion in deckbuilding. Many players simply aren't comfortable going to the lengths Harvest demands to maximize the card. But certain will, yours truly included, and it will yield some impossible-looking (and great feeling) decks.
Another part of it comes down to format speed. Modern is blazing-fast, and decks put a high premium on curving out. Most decks have an ideal one-mana play, an ideal two-mana play, and an ideal three-mana play, even if that three-mana play is just playing another one-drop and another two-drop. To its demerit, Harvest does not slot into any high-impact curve. That means that depending on the deck, it's worse than a mana dork, or an attacker, or a removal spell, or a discard spell, or a planeswalker—the thing decks do on turn one. But decks that are content to cantrip on turn one, e.g. thresh, will eat this card up.
One archetype that doesn't have its early game curve tied up and is known to have tons of mana to throw around during the game is control. Currently, these decks are built with flooding in mind, and pack insurance like Celestial Colonnade. But I can envision a world where control decks want green, and in that world, Harvest presents an alluring alternative to running mana sinks. These control decks will seek to put the game away a bit faster than what we now see out of UW or Esper, bringing them closer to midrange, but I expect they will remain low-aggression enough to qualify. Combined with Teferi, Time Raveler's ability to grant sorceries flash, Harvest has the potential to be one scary package out of draw-go decks.
#1: Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer
Here's a #1 pick as obvious as I imagine Abundant Harvest in #2 will prove controversial. But I've got some controversy up my sleeve yet. Best Monkey spell? Best card in Modern Horizons 2? Best red one-drop? Forget all that.
Ragavan is the best creature ever printed.
Clickbait, you protest? Let's take a look at the competition.
- Tarmogoyf: Not what he used to be since Fatal Push provided an elegant, tempo-positive way to remove it.
- Lurrus of the Dream-Den: Pre-companion errata, sure. But that ain't no card and never should have been.
- Deathrite Shaman: This one is actually close, putting aside the fact that it's banned in Modern and Legacy. It's a mana dork that's also reach that's also life gain that's also graveyard removal. In fact, my scores for Shaman and Ragavan would be the same (among Modern Top 5s, a record-breaking 14/15). But I'd nonetheless argue that between dash and its 2/1 stats, Ragavan gives players a lot more leeway re: how to use it. Deathrite won't reliably trade for a creature in aggro mirrors, for example. And it's certainly not a gameplan on its own; more an extremely powerful form of support for whatever actual gameplan. Ragavan is an entire gameplan, in the same way that Dark Confidant was once enough of a gameplan to have entire Vintage decks built around it, or Goyf in Extended with Next Level Blue. Don't believe me? Watch your opponents not kill it and see what happens.
True, Ragavan doesn't draw a card every turn. Even in the mirror, it will sometimes flip a land. But it draws a card sometimes, and by drawing once, it has already paid for itself in terms of card economy. I'll also argue that in many instances, it has already paid for itself just by generating a treasure. That extra mana means it also ramps into the opponent's payoffs; I've played one game where I was able to cast, from my opponent's library, turn two Teferi, Time Raveler (which met Force of Negation) and then turn four Jace, the Mind Sculptor (which resolved and won me the game).
These are plays so tempo-positive that not even the deck built around those planeswalkers has access to them; most colors lack ramping, so Ragavan basically breaks the color pie by providing a unique mana-collection aspect previously foreign to a lot of red strategies. Let's not forget that Simian Spirit Guide was banned just a few months ago, and that Ragavan locks in one of these bad boys every hit.
Finally, we come to the legend clause. You can't have out two Ragavans. That's fine. You run four, and if they kill your Ragavan, you cast another. And if they don't kill your Ragavan, you win.
So Ragavan is the best creature ever printed. Will it be banned in Modern? Obviously, it's far too early to tell. It's not like we lack answers to a 2/1. Hexdrinker, too, is a massively pushed aggressive one-drop that was received with all the bells and whistles but ended up being perfectly fine once the dust settled. Personally, though, I'm much higher on Ragavan than I was on the Snake: when a card rewards players for casting it this much, I can't imagine it won't find its way into way too many decks, and that's been it for Modern cards in the past.
Aggressive Stage 1 combat creature? Check; only Wild Nacatl is bigger. Mana dork? Check; and in red, to boot, and with color fixing, that's two big ol' Pirate boots! Card advantage engine? Check, please. Ragavan is everything you could ever want in a one-drop.
Something that might have hit this card down to 4 is its limitation as an early-game attacker. But Wizards has us covered with dash. If we so desire, Ragavan has haste, letting it revenge-kill minused planeswalkers or swiftly turn the tide of a close race. Let's not forget that haste is Time Walk. Would you pay one mana for Time Walk?. Dash also grants "it's returned from the battlefield to its owner's hand at the beginning of the next end step," letting it dodge sorcery-speed removal like Prismatic Ending. Some writers who fully grasp the strength of Ragavan might be content to (jokingly, I get it, he was joking) write off dash as "Uhh…it’s good? And flavorful?" But there's no denying the high utility this mechanic adds to the card.
Decks will splash for this card. They will splash for this card like crazy. By which I mean they will be rebuilt to accommodate Ragavan alongside the best red spells that play to its bottom line (AKA Lightning Bolt). Imagine it out of control sideboards when all your Pushes are in the board. Scaaa-ry! But not every deck, or even every red deck, will want Ragavan.
- Burn: This deck favors raw damage output over any kind of utility Ragavan provides, including the tempo boost of having free mana to throw around. It's already a sleek machine designed to exhaust its resources at exactly the same time opponents will be brought to 0. Some builds will experiment with Ragavan, but for many, Burn's core should rightfully remain unchanged. Taking this prediction a step further, the day all Burn decks start packing 4 Ragavan is the day Wizards resolves to ban it in the next announcement.
- UR Prowess: Prepare for the splitting of camps. Some builds will run Ragavan, and others won't, and not just for cost reasons. This deck is similar to Burn in that it's fast enough that MTGGoldfish calls it "Blitz." Ragavan does not necessarily provide enough aggression to fit in with that strategy. What it does provide is a ton of value and and alternate gameplan, meaning Prowess-style decks may emerge that are more interactive along the spectrum, i.e. Delver.
- Jund Rock: Hexdrinker was good enough for BGx players to splinter off into BG Rock, but most Jund players decided against running the 2/1, reasoning being they'd rather play to their primary midrange gameplan of disrupt-then-commit than try to out-aggress their diverse opponents. Again, we'll come to a crossroads here, with some Jund Rock players embracing Ragavan as a one-mana Dark Confidant (I'll grant that it's not too far off) while others shrug their shoulders and keep on Jundin'.
"A Whole New World"
You know, your favorite Monkey's favorite Disney song? Real talk: Jund Rock isn't going anywhere, and neither is Tron, and neither is Prowess. Modern is still Modern. But with cards this enticing entering the fold, the little things will add up fast, as they did with Wrenn and Six and Force of Negation. Playing Modern will feel very different as of June 18th. And catch me next week for a sweet deck featuring four of each of these cards!