Modern Horizons is not just reshaping the Modern metagame, it's changing how the very format is being played. Beyond the immediate format-warping impact of Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis and other tools that have turned Bridgevine into a broken menace warranting a ban, cards like Force of Negation and the cycle of new Horizon Canopy-style lands rewrite the rules of the format from the ground up. These and other marquee cards like Urza, Lord High Artificer have rightly been at the center of attention in recent weeks, but as Modern Horizons continues to permeate the format, it's becoming clear that there's more to the set's impact than these surface changes.
Last weekend Magic Online featured two major Modern events, a quarterly Modern Playoffs and a Mythic Championship Qualifier. While Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis and Bridgevine's other new toys Altar of Dementia and Carrion Feeder were the most commonly played Modern Horizons cards between the two Top 8s, things take a surprising turn when one explores further. Force of Negation was unsurprisingly played in high numbers, with eight copies littered between five decks across both Top 8s, but it can't claim to be the next most popular new card because it happens to share these exact same numbers—eight copies between five decks—with another card: Unearth.
Unearth is a toned-down version of Reanimate, a Legacy staple, but even being limited to a three-mana creature means it's creating up to a two-mana advantage. That's proven to be quite powerful in Modern, which offers no shortage of strong targets. Unearth has made its way into established archetypes as a new staple, and it's spawned entirely new ones built around it.
Somewhere in between established and brand new is Esper Mentor, which, technically, has existed in Modern in some form as a fringe strategy that would occasionally pop up. Unearth has evidently brought it to the next level, and the deck's appearance in the Top 8 of both MTGO events last weekend shows it's a viable and competitive deck even in the face of Bridgevine.
Unearth plays a central role in this deck, where it offers great synergy with all of its creatures. The main plan is Monastery Mentor, which functions as a high-impact Unearth target. The deck can sneak it into play early with Unearth by targeting itself with discard, but Unearth is really more a form of backup for the creature with a huge target on its head, which will often be killed before the next untap step. Unearth plays very well in that scenario. Getting Monastery Mentor into play for one mana leaves mana to cast spells and generate tokens. Unearth is, of course, also a spell that will trigger any Monastery Mentor in play, adding even more value to the card.
To help push Monastery Mentor even further, Force of Negation can protect it like Force of Will does in Legacy. It's a line of play that is hard to beat, although the limitations of Force of Negation do allow for more counterplay. It's even more important as general countermagic for disrupting a wide variety of opposing cards, which Modern blue decks have wanted forever. It's a big upgrade to strategy from past iterations and one that plays its own part elevating Esper Mentor to the next level.
Maindeck Surgical Extraction (another free spell to trigger Monastery Mentor) plays well in this metagame as a way to fight back against Bridgevine, as well as the ever-increasing Unearth mirror match.
In the sideboard, Yixlid Jailer serves as a hoser against the full range of Bridgevine Shenanigans, as well as those from Dredge and Arclight Phoenix, but it leaves reanimation spells like the deck's own Unearth untouched and free to function as normal. It also happens to be a pretty good Unearth target itself, in case the opponent manages to deal with it the first time around.
Unearth also works well with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, which is both a discard outlet to set it up and a strong target for reanimation. When flipped, it can be used to flashback Unearth and extract even more value. Unearth has great synergy with Snapcaster Mage, which can be reanimated for an extra dose of value at a low cost. The ability of Snapcaster Mage to target Unearth and reanimate previously fallen Snapcaster Mages, potentially even chaining multiple copies together, is a strong value and tempo play that makes the deck difficult to grind out.
Everything combines to make Esper Mentor a nearly perfect home for Unearth. That proves the card is the real deal in Modern, but it's just one of many places where the card is excelling. A different version of Esper also Top 8'd last weekend, based on another one of Modern's overpowered cheap creatures—Death's Shadow.
With both Snapcaster Mage and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, this deck uses Unearth much like the other Esper deck, but it's supported by the package of Death's Shadow and Ranger-Captain of Eos, which is the best target of all and one that makes Unearth a real value play here.
A full four-of, Ranger-Captain of Eos is the real star of the deck, and it's proving to be the new way forward for Death's Shadow strategies that have seemed to struggle since the banning of Krark-Clan Ironworks. Hex Parasite earns a spot in the maindeck as the sole alternative tutor target, presumably because it's a great way to take down planeswalkers.
Last weekend Unearth was most frequently seen in Esper decks, but its biggest coup was an appearance in the MCQ-winning Jund deck—albeit as a one-of, but the fact that the card has earned a place in one of Modern's storied archetypes is telling.
Unearth does good work reanimating Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf, which have targets on their heads much like Monastery Mentor, but I imagine it's best of all with Seasoned Pyromancer, a card on its way to becoming a staple of midrange decks like Jund. For example, this Unearth and Seasoned Pyromancer package takes a much more central role in the new version of Mardu Pyromancer, which has adopted Seasoned Pyromancer to its token-generating tribe while backing it up with three Unearth.
Instead of relying on Bedlam Reveler, the deck is now free to sculpt its hand at its leisure with Seasoned Pyromancer, which it can access repeatedly with Unearth. Kolaghan's Command was often best used in the deck as a Raise Dead with value, and Unearth does the same more efficiently, with the utility of being able to cycle when dead.
The inclusion of Yawgmoth, Thran Physician as a way to get more value from tokens gives the deck a new angle and potent engine for taking over the game, and it serves as another example of how Modern Horizons is changing the format. As a four-of, Smiting Helix might be even more important. It's obvious why a Lightning Helix with flashback is a theoretically strong card, but the synergy with Seasoned Pyromancer and Faithless Looting make it a true all-star in this strategy. Pitching Smiting Helix gets around its relatively high mana cost and turns it into a true Lightning Helix, all with the bonus of being free value from the graveyard. With similar value card Lingering Souls already a proven part of the strategy, Smiting Helix is right at home here.
Unearth had an impressive weekend, putting up major results in premier events and showing the world it's the real deal in the format, but that's only the beginning. A deeper look into league results shows players getting even more creative with Unearth, perhaps offering a preview of what's to come. A great example is this deck that combines Unearth with Seasoned Pyromancer along with the blue cards Snapcaster Mage and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, giving it the best of both worlds.
To push its full four Unearth even farther, the deck includes Dreadhorde Arcanist, which, like the blue creatures, is a great target for Unearth and a great target for its ability. The deck goes further to include some particularly juicy Unearth targets, specifically creatures that will kill themselves and can be reanimated multiple times. The possibilities with Fulminator Mage are obvious and intriguing, giving the deck a way to lock opponents like Urzatron out of the game. Lightning Skelemental is still a new entrant to Modern, but its overall effect is incredibly powerful, especially if it costs just one mana.
On the other end of the spectrum is a very simple no-frills approach to Unearth, as in this Black-Green Rock deck.
Jund winning the MCQ with a copy of Unearth was a strong sign of its playability, but this deck argues that Unearth is even more of a staple, one that doesn't require Seasoned Pyromancer. This deck instead offers Tireless Tracker as a high-value creature to Reanimate, in addition to the usual Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf.
A spicier take is this Sultai version, which, in addition to adding Snapcaster Mage, embraces snow for Ice-Fang Coatl as another valuable Unearth target.
Hexdrinker has a target on its head, and it gives this type of deck a new, aggressive tool and yet another good creature to combine with Unearth. This deck also includes Plague Engineer, which, with deathtouch, might find itself blocking and in the graveyard ready to be reanimated.
This decklist also reveals the best graveyard hoser against Bridgevine you aren't playing: Scarab Feast, which, like Dissenter's Deliverance before it, provides a way to maindeck a hoser in a very warped metagame. It's not for every deck, but this sort of effect is very useful in any sort of midrange or control strategy that can't just ignore what the opponent is doing.
For a final Unearth deck, here's one that I couldn't help but smile about—a Goblin deck using Unearth to get more value from cards like Goblin Matron, Mogg War Marshal and Munitions Expert.
I'm not sure how seriously to take a deck with Impact Tremors, but maybe it's a sign that there's something to Unearth in such a strategy or perhaps in other synergy-based strategies like Elves. Alternatively, Unearth could be used in creature combo decks like those built around Devoted Druid and Vizier of Remedies as a more permanent alternative to Postmortem Lunge.
The reprints of Altar of Dementia and Carrion Feeder have both proven to be incredibly important to Modern, and they'll be relevant in some way again even after Bridgevine suffers a banning, but the best reprint of all may prove to be one that not many expected. Unearth doesn't really see any serious play in Legacy, and it barely performs better in Pauper, but Modern looks to provide the perfect place for it to thrive: a format with an overall power level lower than Legacy but with much more threatening creatures to Reanimate than Pauper. Unearth will only get better from here. Whether that's because other cards are banned or new reanimation targets get printed, Unearth will be a staple of the format for years to come.