Welcome back to Modern Top 5! In this series, we cut to the meat of contemporary format trends by viewing things through a certain lens. Previously, Modern Top 5 has covered the likes of Hosers, Enablers, and Utility Cards. Today, we'll discuss bullets.
Number One, With a Bullet
What exactly is the difference between a bullet and a hoser, or a piece of utility, or a straight-up staple? As we'll define them today, bullets are flexible interactive cards that are run in small quantities as part of a sideboard plan or mainboard tutoring package.
Today's article owes its existence to the fact that, for the second-ever time I can remember outside of a Tier 0 Modern, MTGGoldfish lists Lightning Bolt as displaced from the number one spot for most-played card in the format... and by a bullet card, no less! This development illustrates just how inextricable bullets have become from our contemporary Modern landscape.
Allow me a bit of self-plagiarism as I lay out the foundations of the method used herein.
Unlike many best-of lists, Modern Top 5 seeks to establish parameters that explain its ranking. Grades are given out of 15, with three different metrics being counted out of 5; cards with more points are ranked higher. This system is not without its faults: some metrics are perhaps more important than others when it comes to a card's playability, but the metrics are not weighted; similarly, while doling out numbers removes a degree of subjectivity from the process, the numbers assigned and metrics chosen remain eminently debatable. The system's purpose, then, is less to create a definitive list than to pave the road for a structured debate surrounding the cards' playability in relation to one another.Modern Top 5: Enablers
- Power: The degree of impact the card tends to have for its cost.
- Flexibility: The card's usefulness across diverse situations and game states.
- Splashability: The ease with which Modern decks can accommodate the card.
Power and flexibility will be rated by considering both a card's floor (the least it will do) and its ceiling (its best-case scenario). For example, Lightning Bolt's power floor is higher than Fatal Push's, as Push is dead when opponents have no creatures while Bolt can go to the face.
Splashability will be rated by considering how many existing Modern decks can accommodate the card and whether they'll want it. For example, despite its lack of a color identity, Ghost Quarter doesn't fit into BGx midrange decks. These decks can easily run Fulminator Mage as mana disruption instead, and prefer not to miss a land drop if they don't have to.Modern Top 5: Utility Cards
Now that the method's been established, it's time to lock 'n load!
#5: Sanctifier en-Vec
The only card here to earn a 5 in this category, Rest in Peace is great at virtually all stages of the game. Speed bump effects like Nihil Spellbomb and Relic of Progenitus let opponents rebuild after nuking the graveyard; similar hosers like Leyline of the Void are often too slow to have any real impact if cast later. Rest in Peace is really two cards in one, nuking the graveyard when it resolves and then preventing further abuse until dealt with. For its two-mana cost, this double-spell effect is a steal.Modern Top 5: Hosers
Sanctifier en-Vec is quite similar, but boasts a 2/2 body to boot. That means it can apply pressure, and without even dying to Lightning Bolt thanks to protection from red! Since we're not rating on stickiness this time around, we'll ignore the pros and cons of being a creature in favor of the actual impact of its effect. While Sanctifier often does a great Rest in Peace impression, it's not quite as unequivocal, as it only affects red and black cards. This power nerf could prove beneficial in the right deck (say, one that's looking to continue looping lands with Wrenn and Six while not outright losing to Dredge).
Here's where being a creature really plays to Sanctifier's points count. Rest in Peace is dead in multiples barring opponents having an answer, and even then, the second copy is often less impactful than the first (which had a gang of graveyard cards to exile). But another 2/2 to smack opponents around with while they scramble to get their disrupted gameplan in order? Can't complain.
Natch, Sanctifier can't be played in shells that want to abuse black and red graveyard effects. Its most damning trait, though, is the double-white cost. Very few Modern decks can swing that, and the ones that can may prefer something stickier to deal with graveyards (such as Rest in Peace in UW Control). All that boils down to an excellent role-player for a small subset of decks, most notable among them 2021 metagame champion Hammer Time, which packs the full four copies.
In "MH2 Overview, Pt. 2: Playing the Part," I wrote of Abnormal Endurance that "its effect is the narrowest of the [pitch cycle], but still quite impactful when it matters: putting the graveyard on the bottom of the library is somewhat better than exiling it, where players still retain some degree of access to the cards. And doing so for free at instant speed will blow out a bevy of Modern combos so long as players draw into Abnormal Endurance before that critical turn." By now, the Elemental has made a name for itself in Modern doing just that.
Offering a Ravenous Trap-type effect for 1GG or two cards in hand would never be worth a precious sideboard slot. After all, we have Ravenous Trap. But Abnormal Endurance shares with its Elemental cohorts the "mode" of coming down as a creature, and a bulky 3/4 at that. Best of all, it has reach and flash, letting [card]Endurance[/card[ come down for the full 1GG cost to take out pesky fliers like Channeler.
1GG isn't the easiest to splash, and the condition of having a spare green card is also tough for most decks to meet. Since Abnormal Endurance can be cast for either cost and is already in the color best suited to splashing, it gains a point over Sanctifier, but still leaves much to be desired on this front. Modern's better for it—imagine every deck packing 4 of these!
#3: Alpine Moon
Okay, so Alpine Moon has a pretty high ceiling: opponent plays Urza's Saga on turn two; cast Alpine as a one-mana Stone Rain that invalidates future copies of the enchantment land. But that ceiling is almost never reached. Players often wait to throw out their Sagas until they can pay to generate Construct tokens, whereas destroying a land is best in the early game, and that's only when the exact cards line up perfectly.
Most of the time, Alpine plays out like a Pithing Needle for lands with some extra upside. Which isn't much to write home about, but absolutely can turn the tide of a game.
The opportunity cost of running one Alpine Moon in the sideboard is outrageously low. That's because in addition to being insane against one of Modern's pillars, Alpine has a purpose in so many matchups. It can shut down critical manlands like Celestial Colonnade, take apart the mana engines of Tron and Eldrazi decks, or brutalize opponents depending on Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle.
Red is the most popular color in the format. It's got the hot new removal spell in A-Unholy Heat and the hot new creature in Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer. And best of all, even the menace of Blood Moon does nothing to stop one from casting Alpine Moon, something that gives red cards the edge in discussions surrounding splashability. At a single mana, Alpine couldn't offer much more.
#2: Dress Down
Dress Down has some very obvious applications in trading for "half a card," in the same way that Surgical Extraction often catches a bad rap for: Extract the Snapcaster Mage target and you're left to face the 2/1 body. Alternately, casting Dress also stops Snap's ETB, but for two mana instead of zero. Pilots get to draw a card, though, which puts them up by... well, half a card. Math! And Down can stop all sorts of ETBs, not just graveyard-reliant ones. Against something like A-Omnath, Locus of Creation, it turns off the 4/4 for the entire turn, negating not just the cantrip but any value to be gained from making land drops that turn.
Two mana for half a card of advantage? On that front, I'd call Dress vs. Surgical something of a wash. But Dress starts reeling in the power points when it comes to the incredible value it nets against many of Modern's most popular cards. You could plop this down in combat and kill a swinging Goyf with your blocking 1/1. Or at any time to kill an existing Territorial Kavu. Or a board of four existing Urza's Saga Construct tokens. For existing! Talk about extreme prejudice.
Stopping combo turns; sapping value; killing Constructs. Dress does a lot. And in some decks, it does even more. Grixis Shadow has taken to running a pair not just because of its defensive applications, but because making your Death's Shadow lose all abilities just turns it into a 13/13 for the turn. Roll over, Temur Battle Rage!
What if opponents have no creatures? In that case, Dress simply cycles for 1U. Granted, that's far from a competitive rate, but it ensures the card is never truly dead. At its very worst, Dress is the next card in your deck for two mana.
1U is as close to splashable as any non-red-colored card can be. Just ask Goyf. Any blue deck can and will run Dress Down.
#1: Engineered Explosives
At last, we've made it to Modern's current most-played card and latest in a modest lineage of Bolt usurpers. Engineered Explosives is no stranger to this column, either, having clocked in at #4 in "Modern Top 5: Utility Cards." Let's take a look at what was written there to see what's changed, and why Explosives performs better in this nearly unrecognizable iteration of Modern.
Casting and cracking Engineered Explosives is almost always a tempo-negative play—when it can't remove a swarm of tokens, or multiple cards with the same converted mana cost, pilots are all but guaranteed to lose some mana on the exchange. It's also quite rare to encounter Modern decks that reliably produce four distinct colors of mana and play Engineered Explosives.
With all that being said, Explosives is one of the format's few true catch-alls, and it occasionally enables blowouts. Pulse might kill two Goyfs, but it won't kill a Goyf and a Scavenging Ooze. And EE's effect doesn't target, which lets it handle boards full of beefy Bogles.Modern Top 5: Hosers
"Occasionally enables blowouts," huh? Today, EE does all it used to and much more: a big draw to the card are the frequent blowouts it engineers. Specifically, Explosives is great against gameplans decks base their entire identity around.
Take Urza's Saga, by no coincidence a recurring motif in this article. Saga is so good because it offers a ton of value in one card: two big-to-huge constructs and an artifact from the deck. Maximizing all that value costs pilots a functional six mana as they pay 2 and tap the Saga twice over a couple turns.
Then there's Explosives, which comes down for zero mana and pops for two to kill both Constructs in one fell swoop. If players found themselves pressuring the Saga player beforehand, cleaning up the artifacts in this manner basically puts away the game, as the tempo loss of activating Saga twice for no gain is too great to deny.
Another of Modern's heavy hitters is Cascade, a deck full of three-mana cascade spells that turn into two 4/4s thanks to Crashing Footfalls. Again, EE deals with both Rhinos for just the price of popping itself.
It's fair to say that Explosives tends to be underwhelming on rate against nontoken permanents, where it charges two mana more than whatever the target cost. But there are still instances where it can take out two or three permanents that skew the math.
Explosives isn't only great against decks pumping out huge tokens. Look at UR Murktide, whose early leads from Ragavans and Channelers put away plenty of games. Explosives is just good ol' Explosives in that matchup: a card that doesn't necessarily perform much better than it did in 2017, but that most players will be happy to have at the party regardless.
Speaking of Ragavan, EE on zero wipes out every Treasure token on the battlefield, giving EE additional stock against decks that run both the Monkey and the colorless land, like Jund or Temur Saga. On that note, very few cheap removal spells also boast the ability to take out huge boards of threats. And has anyone else noticed the rise of Chalice of the Void to combat Cascade and Murktide? EE handily dispatches of any Chalices on one.
To wit, the card was already quite flexible, and that dimension only improves with the increased blowout potential of today's Modern.
Once upon a time, Explosives got only 3 points on this metric:
Color-light decks like Tron and Skred, as well as mana-light decks like Burn and Death's Shadow, can't splash Engineered Explosives. The artifact limits itself mostly to three-color midrange decks (although some two-color decks can also play it profitably). In those, it's a staple. It even gives certain wedges and shards the ability to destroy permanents they would normally squirm against, like Tarmogoyf against Temur or Rest in Peace against Grixis. Thanks to the card's high flexibility, even decks with in-color removal for everything, like Abzan, are liable to run a copy or two.Modern Top 5: Utility Cards
How things have changed! "Color-light decks like Tron and Skred" find themselves in short supply these days, and the upside of hitting Saga tokens and the like make Explosives an attractive option even for those that do exist. Everybody and their mama sleeves up EE these days—by which I mean a cool 40% of the format.
Bullet for My (Belated) Valentine
Bolt will bounce back, and soon. But EE's little upset nonetheless tells us a lot about how favored it is to interact using bullets in Modern. Thus concludes our deep dive on Modern bullets. Have some favorites I've missed? Hit me up in the comments. Until then, may you leave your opponent's strategy full of smoking holes!