This week I want to look at Karn, the Great Creator, and how The Brothers' War will affect its play in Modern. Before I begin, has everyone read Adam's article from last week? If not, please do so now. His article focused more on Karn and BRO in Pioneer but I will build on what he said with Modern in mind. Sorry, no song references.
I'll lead by agreeing with Adam's analysis. Mono-Green Devotion is arguably a problem in Pioneer as is. With BRO making the combo kill easier, as well as adding a lot of additional utility to Karn, there's a case that it needs to go, and quickly. This begs the question of how Karn will do in Modern, the other format in which he sees a lot of play. The answer is: It's complicated.
Where Karn Stands
Unlike Pioneer, Karn, the Great Creator isn't a keystone card in a top-tier deck. The only tiered deck which consistently plays Karn is Mono-Green Tron where it's a utility card rather than a keystone. Compared to other Tron payoffs, the Great Creator is weak. However, repeatable wishes are absurd and a good way to play more payoffs. The decks where Karn is more integral like Coffers and Prison Tron are fringe at best.
There isn't a direct analog to Mono-Green Devotion in Modern, so the concerns aren't equivalent. Devotion is too disruptable, slow, and noninteractive to work in Modern. Coffers is closest, but Cabal Coffers isn't Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. Coffers ramps up much more slowly than Nykthos and being non-legendary doesn't help. The power of Nykthos as a combo piece is the scaling as it taps multiple times. Coffers being limited to swamp count means it can't get out of control on a combo turn, and so (to the best of my knowledge, anyway) the Coffers deck doesn't try for a Devotion-style combo win.
The Immediate Future
With the Pioneer threat a non-issue, it might seem like Karn is in the clear in Modern. That might be the case. It also might not, at least in the near future. It will depend on how things play out.
BRO has reinvigorated interest in Karn as more than just a utility card in Tron. However, most of the chatter I've heard so far has been about reviving Prison Tron. Karn combined with The Stasis Coffin and The Stone Brain appear to make it easier to successfully hide behind Ensnaring Bridge. The former protects against anything getting around the Bridge and the latter removes potential answers and will eventually mill the opponent out. For at least the first weekend, this will be played. I am certain of this because a number of players have outright told me they'll be running it at Friday Night Magic (FNM).
I am skeptical of this being sufficient to make Prison Tron a good deck. It provides a new way to lock the opponent but will only be effective if they're already trapped by Bridge. I don't think the new pieces will change any matchups sufficiently to matter, so it's unlikely that BRO will change Prison Tron's viability. However, I could be wrong, in which case there'd be a problem. Winning via frustration is not something Wizards typically encourages.
While I haven't heard or seen much discussion, players are actively brewing with the BRO artifacts and Karn. The most common plan I've seen is accelerating out Portal to Phyrexia with Shape Anew or Trash for Treasure. The lists I've seen typically have three Portals maindeck and the fourth in the sideboard to be wished for by Karn. At the moment these decks are worse than Indomitable Creativity, but Portal is powerful enough that it might be worthwhile to keep refining the idea.
It's actually got me thinking that Coffers might go for Portal too. That deck is already a master of destroying creatures and normally plays vanishingly few win conditions, so Portal seems like a shoo-in. In turn, this has me idly speculating that more decks might go for a Karnboard with Portal either as an alternative win condition or as a primary plan. It hasn't been a thing in Modern before, but maybe that had less to do with power and more to do with missing incentives.
The Unfortunate Implication
This brings me back to the original point. Is BRO going to turn Karn into a problem in Modern as will likely happen with Pioneer? Not in the short run, no. The new decks I've seen in the immediate pipeline are too gimmicky and cute to make an actual mark in Modern. Also, they're competing with Creativity and nothing I've seen so far indicates that's a competition they'll win. For existing decks, there's nothing indicating that they'll dramatically alter any matchup enough to change the deck's metagame positioning. Either situation could easily change, but it will take a while.
The long run is another matter, and I'm not talking about the current brews. As Adam noted, Karn bears a lot of the hallmarks of Birthing Pod. The Pod wasn't banned because it was too good, although there was certainly an argument for it being so. Instead, Pod was banned because the danger was that it was just going to keep getting better and better until it pushed out any other creature deck. Given how much creature power has crept over the last seven years, I'm inclined to think Wizards was right.
Karn is in a similar situation. As Wizards continues to print powerful artifacts, Karn's power will only continue to grow. Now, Karn will never match Pod's power. Karn can't wish every turn (without help), creatures are more useful than artifacts generally, and combos involving Karn are even more convoluted than Pod's. This is somewhat fixed by Karn finding exiled cards too and acting as a one-sided Null Rod against the opponent, but it's hard to disagree that Karn is a weaker engine. However, Karn is legal and the next year will see a string of sets that are likely to further boost it.
Unless I'm badly misreading the decks, there's nothing in BRO that will boost Karn enough to be dangerous. However, Wizards is finishing off this Phyrexian storyline next year, and two more (almost certainly) artifact-centric sets are more than enough opportunities for Wizards to print something really broken. They don't have a great history with artifact sets, after all.
I'm looking specifically to the set after BRO, Phyrexia: All Will be One. Magic is going back to New Phyrexia, and while I have no clue what Wizards has in mind, all the sets on that world have been artifact heavy, which means that Karn is very likely to get more toys. After that is March of the Machine which will likely be similar to War of the Spark thematically, and we all remember how powerful that set was.
Even if Karn makes it through both sets without getting something disgusting to enable, how much longer will that hold? Wizards aren't going to just stop printing powerful artifacts and if they haven't banned the Tron lands by now, they're not going to. I have no doubt that at some point Karn's utility will get high enough that he becomes universal and needs to go for format homogeneity reasons. 2023 is a decent candidate for that tipping point, but we have to wait and see.
A Murky Future
While I don't think that Karn, the Great Creator is at all threatening to Modern in the near future, I don't foresee a long-term future for the golem. While the chances of it being outright broken are reasonably low, the simple fact is that over time Karn will just keep getting better. Players are fine brewing with him for the rest of 2022, but I'd be looking to move Karn as 2023 draws closer.