My Top 10 Modern Cards of 2021

Tibalt, Cosmic Imposter

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This week, I’m feeling nostalgic for all the wonderful additions that Modern Horizons 2 2021 brought to the Modern format. I made a list of 20 or so of my favorites, then painstakingly narrowed it down to my top 10. You can look forward to the cards that didn’t quite make the cut in next week’s article, including new-to-Modern reprints which I’ve intentionally kept off this list, so stay tuned.

10. Esper Sentinel

Coming in 10th place is Esper Sentinel, a creature that players quickly identified as a Modern staple. Sentinel is a one-drop that threatens to snowball card advantage while boasting the human creature type. This made it an auto-include in Thalia, Guardian of Thraben-based white decks like Death and Taxes and Humans, both archetypes that have fallen off the radar in recent years.

While not enough to push these decks back into prominence, it remains a four-of in the Hammer Time combo deck. As a cheap creature that trades favorably with removal and holds equipment well, Sentinel’s artifact supertype provides synergy to the Urza's Saga and Puresteel Paladin deck adding to its critical mass of low-cost artifacts. While Esper Sentinel has quite a lot of positives going for it, it’s not necessarily a critical component to the decks that feature it, thus earning a lower spot on my list.

9. Murktide Regent

What a difference a color shift and 14 years of power creep can make! Murktide Regent is ostensibly a blue Tombstalker in that they are both flying delve creatures castable for two colored pips. However, unlike Tombstalker, Murktide pitches to Force of Negation and comes with a larger stat block. Its special combination of Delve, +1/+1 counters and sheer size allows it to dodge several common removal spells in the format. Cards like Fatal Push, Prismatic Ending, Heartless Act, Lightning Bolt, and A-Unholy Heat cannot kill this massive dragon.

At the time of Murktide’s printing, Heartless Act saw significant play as Modern’s least conditional black removal spell. However, the dragon pushed it entirely out of playability. In the early weeks of Modern Horizons 2 Modern, deck builders struggled to identify unilateral ways of dealing with large threats like Murktide, while also having low-cost answers to Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and A-Dragon's Rage Channeler. The combination of threats needing disparate removal meant the UR decks could steal games they had no business winning.

Eventually, deckbuilding converged on bounce spells like Dead // Gone, pre-emptive answers like Abnormal Endurance, and unconditional removal such as Exterminate!. Because of this, Murktide was downgraded from a near-unanswerable threat to simply a strong one. Even still, its effects on Modern are apparent and it’s a key component to blue-based tempo decks, placing it in a respectable ninth place.

8. Tasha's Hideous Laughter

The first non-Modern Horizons 2 card on my list, Tasha's Hideous Laughter, is a new staple in the Mill archetype. Laughter was underestimated at first as players didn't quite do the math on how many cards 20 mana actually translated into or how low the curve in Modern has become.

For example, decks featuring Lurrus of the Dream-Den as a companion account for 35% of the metagame and have a low curve by definition. Hammer Time in particular is wildly susceptible to the spell, with a total pip count of roughly 40 depending on the build. Tasha’s Hideous Laughter will exile a median of 35 cards out of Hammer Time. That's the mill equivalent of a three-mana burn spell dealing 13 damage! Similarly, Death’s Shadow decks feature roughly 50 pips which translates to a median of 23 cards. This is the burn equivalent of roughly eight damage from a single spell.

Laughter is also potent against the fan-favorite Amulet Titan. Amulet has 35 cards with a mana value of zero, and an additional nine cards have a mana value of one. This almost ensures Laughter exiles multiple key cards needed to assemble your win.

While potent against several popular archetypes, Laughter suffers against decks with high average mana values like Cascade, Tron, Belcher, and Yorion Pile. While not perfect in all matchups, Tasha’s Hideous Laughter has earned its spot and can be sideboarded out when needed.

7. Reanimator

Ok, I know this is cheating, but it’s my list and I make the rules. Coming in seventh place is the Modern Horizons 2 reanimator package. This includes Persist and Unmarked Grave, as well as the newly introduced creatures they cheat in, Archon of Cruelty and Serra's Emissary. Unmarked Grave and Persist are fixed versions of Disentomb and Reanimate and are unable to hit legendary creatures. This drawback naturally precludes traditional reanimator targets like Disciple of Griselbrand, Iona, Shield of Emeria, and Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. Archon of Cruelty and Serra’s Emissary are powerful, yet reasonable alternatives for these legendary powerhouses.

While powerful enough to close a game out in short order, these new threats still allow your opponents the chance to answer them and have a potential path to victory rather than the immediate lights-out nature of those pushed legends. At two mana value per spell, the combo can only be initiated by turn three at the earliest. This gives your opponents the time to find disruption and creates an engaging back and forth. This incentivizes novel combo-control builds over the type of all-in combo style typically found in Legacy Reanimator.

6. Expressive Iteration

Expressive Iteration is the standout addition from Strixhaven and one of the strongest card draw spells of the past several years. At two mana, Iteration compares favorably to Chart a Course and Night's Whisper, offering both card advantage and card selection. Iteration incentivizes playing with low curves, which makes it a perfect compliment to cards like A-Dragon's Rage Channeler. The combination of these cards sifts through your deck with unparalleled velocity, helping you to always find the right card at the right time.

5. Prismatic Ending/Unholy Heat

Revolutionizing the Modern removal suite are Prismatic Ending and A-Unholy Heat. Ending acts as a mainboardable Engineered Explosives, providing an on-curve answer to early threats and killing hard-to-remove permanent types like artifacts and enchantments. It pushed Aether Vial decks out of the format altogether, and offers decks a rebuttal to permanent-based hate pieces like Chalice of the Void. Ending was further bolstered by the Triome lands, which bring Converge up to three or four at almost no deckbuilding cost.

Unholy Heat on the other hand requires minimal setup to be a near-unconditional one-mana removal spell. Red previously struggled to answer threats that beat the “bolt test”, killing creatures with more than three toughness. Primeval Titan and Eldrazi decks could exploit red-based matchups with overstatted creatures as Magmatic Sinkhole and Flame Slash were the primary non-Lightning Bolt alternatives. With Unholy Heat, these other cards are no longer necessary and big creatures lose their inherent advantage against red.

4. Modern Horizons 2 Elementals

Another group entry, but this time out of necessity. Nearly all of the Modern Horizons 2 elementals would be deserving of a spot on this list individually. Abnormal Endurance, Akroma, Angel of Fury, and City of Solitude are the fourth, fifth, and sixth most played creature spells in Modern and it’s clear to see why.

Fury and Solitude are free removal spells that can also become Flametongue Kavus. Endurance is a well-statted threat that lines up nicely against some of the most played cards of the format. It has the added benefit of an “in case of emergency, break glass” option against graveyard decks. Grief is a free, unconditional discard spell that punishes mulligans and can force resource-light games. Even the weakest of the cycle, Subtlety, sees some sideboard play in blue-based Living End and Murktide sideboards.

Perhaps most notable with this cycle is how well these cards synergize with blink effects like Ephemerate. By casting the creatures for free, you can resolve their powerful enters-the-battlefield triggers twice, then keep the body for free. You then have the potential to get a third use of the card on your next upkeep. This can influence your opponent's plays as well knowing another discard or removal spell is coming up next turn. These free disruptive spells push you into the late game, allowing future copies to be “hard cast” and open up opportunities to play midrange powerhouses like A-Omnath, Locus of Creation. Incidentally, Omnath is also a wild card to pitch to the non-Grief elementals.

3. Urza's Saga

One of the most unique additions to Modern is Urza's Saga, the enchantment land that does it all. On its own, Saga creates two uncounterable 3/3s, and tutors almost anything you need. Saga can find hate pieces likePithing Needle or removal like Pyrite Spellbomb. You can grab combo pieces like Amulet of Vigor or acceleration via Springleaf Drum. Saga even offers lifegain from Mardu Shadowspear, and additional Urza's Sagas via Expedition Map. It’s a Swiss Army knife that can do nearly anything you need for relatively little deckbuilding cost. As if that were not enough, its power scales up the more you lean into its other synergies.

2. Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer/Dragon's Rage Channeler

Edging out Saga is everyone’s favorite money monkey, Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and its partner in crime, A-Dragon's Rage Channeler. These aggressive red creatures have redefined the Modern threat suite. At one mana, they will always trade equally or favorably with removal and if left alone, will quickly snowball. Ragavan has the potential to accelerate your mana and draw cards. Meanwhile, Channeler provides unparalleled card selection while also being an evasive threat. At one mana, these tempo threats can be paired with discard, removal, or countermagic ensuring efficient use of mana each turn.

1. Valki God of Lies

Taking the top spot is the handsome devil himself, Tibalt. For those unfamiliar, Valki, God of Lies // Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor is a modal double-faced card. On the front side is a two-mana creature and on the back, a powerful seven-mana planeswalker. The cascade spells Violent Outburst and Ardent Plea exile cards from the top of your deck until you find one that costs less than (in this case) three mana, then casts that spell. Thanks to a handful of split cards and Adventure creatures rounding out your deck, that leaves just Valki as the only cascadable hit, which can then be cast for free on either side.

This three-mana, one-card combo let players cast their game-winning planeswalker by turn three, and potentially as early as turn one. The interaction was so powerful that Wizards of the Coast had to change the 11-year-old cascade mechanic to stop the nonsense. The updated rules text meant players could cast the backside of modal double-faced cards only if the mana value was less than that of the cascade spell. This was an elegant fix that would have otherwise necessitated a ban.

As the errata only affected cascade, Valki continues to see Modern play in Bring to Light decks which still offers a discounted Tibalt, albeit at five mana rather than three. The fact that a card was so format-warping that it required Wizards to change a mechanic solely to stop it earns Valki, God of Lies my number one spot.

End Step

What are your thoughts on my top 10, and how does it stack up to yours? If you think I missed anything, feel free to leave a comment or tweet at me at @AdamECohen. Be on the lookout for my honorable mentions next week. Your favorites just might be there.

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