The past twelve months of Magic releases, back to Guilds of Ravnica last fall, have had a tremendous impact on non-rotating formats like Modern. There has been an unprecedented number of new cards moving beyond Limited and Standard play and into the deepest reaches of the game. A card has to jump an incredibly high bar to see play in a format like Vintage, and these days a ton of them are making it across. Plenty more are seeing play in Legacy, and things have been especially wild in Modern, where the bar is set lower and even more is possible.
Modern is where I want to focus my attention today, after the release of Throne of Eldraine on MTGO has given us an initial look at its own impact on non-rotating formats. With these past sets proving to be so important to Modern, there has been much anticipation and even expectation that Throne of Eldraine will follow-suit. Now that the cards are in the air and results are being published, we can start to get a real idea of how the new cards actually fit into the format.
During spoiler season Once Upon a Time was hyped on social media as a shoo-in for Modern. The power of such an effect is well documented in a card like Ancient Stirrings, and doing it for zero mana is even better. This kind of high quality card selection can be very hard to come by in Modern, with cards like Ponder and now Faithless Looting banned, so Once Upon a Time will prove very valuable for the decks that can get the most of it.
Such decks are those that can get full value from both of its abilities, that is finding a land or a creature. It explains why the biggest beneficiary so far is the Amulet Titan deck, which is essentially a convoluted combo deck with both land and creature components. That makes Once Upon a Time an almost perfect addition, as it can find a Primeval Titan, Azusa, Lost but Seeking or a bounce land.
Once Upon a Time can also be used to simply increase the consistency of a deck based around finding one specific creature, like the Neoform deck and its lynchpin Allosaurus Rider.
Once Upon a Time is also seeing play in a variety of creature-centric aggressive decks, including Infect and Bogles. These decks require a creature, ideally on turn one, to do anything at all, and Once Upon a Time helps make that happen without requiring mana that needs to be spent on a threat. These decks can cast Once Upon a Time later in the game if needed, but they're really just interested in using it turn one and hopefully ending the game before ever having to cast another.
Once Upon a Time looks really impressive in Infect, where it can find Inkmoth Nexus or even Pendelhaven in addition to any of the infect creatures. In this hexproof deck Once Upon a Time is more limited, offering just Horizon Canopy as a utility land, but even just the option to find a creature or the mana to cast it will be invaluable.
Throne of Eldraine also supports Bogles with All That Glitters, which essentially acts as copies of Ethereal Armor five through eight, and is a major upgrade to the power and consistency of the strategy.
Once Upon a Time has also appeared in a Death's Shadow deck. It's not somewhere I expected to see the card, but it makes sense from the lens of Death's Shadow as a combo piece with Temur Battle Rage.
A core strength of Death's Shadow decks has always been their ability to play with effectively less than 60 cards, a side-effect of free cantrips Street Wraith and Mishra's Bauble, which leads to great consistency by drawing other cards, like the namesake Death's Shadow, more often. Traverse the Ulvenwald has long served as a tutor to help add even more access to the key cards, and now Once Upon a Time adds another way to dig toward the action. It starts to look even better when you consider the other synergies it has in the deck. It's a free instant toward enabling the delirium of Traverse the Ulvenwald, and it comes with the added utility of being able to find Street Wraith, which could find itself as a better option than another threat in some situations. Whether or not this route is the new way forward for the archetype or a merely a novel approach to it remains to be seen, but it certainly has potential.
The Death's Shadow archetype in general looks to have benefited from Eldraine, with two of its new value-laden Adventure creatures, Murderous Rider // Swift End and Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp, making their way into a Jund Shadow deck that breached the Top 8 of the MTGO Modern Challenge last weekend.
The Adventure creatures have the very useful attribute of being creatures that can be cast as spells—or from another perspective, spells that count as creatures, which means they can be found by Traverse the Ulvenwald. That gives the deck access to a tutorable Hero's Downfall and Shock, both with a creature attached for later. I'm not sure the deck needs both or not, but for what's essentially a Jund deck driven by value, they seem like generally strong cards that would not feel terrible to draw in most matchups even when not ideal.
It's impossible to say just how much these cards contributed towards the success of the deck and how much it was just someone trying something new, but I can say the deck fought through some tough competition and put up a great result, so it's definitely something I'd pay attention to if I were playing with Traverse the Ulvenwald or any similar tutors that could be broken by the rules of Adventure cards.
In terms of highest overall finish in a premier event, the best-performing new card last weekend was Oko, Thief of Crowns, which appeared in a Bant Stoneblade deck reaching the Top 4 of the Modern Challenge.
Oko, Thief of Crowns offers a ton of utility in an efficient package, and that makes it appealing in a midrange deck that plays a variety of roles. It's primarily a removal spell in disguise, and is capable of turning even the most threatening of opposing creatures and artifacts into 3/3 Elk, which are easily contained by things like Batterskull, Ice-Fang Coatl and Giver of Runes. It's great to have access to this versatile removal option in a format with such diversity of threats. Oko is a threat of its own, and can upgrade its Food Tokens or any of the small creatures in the deck to 3/3s. These Food Tokens means it's also a hoser against Burn and a nice tool against aggressive decks in general. Even the ultimate is a very real consideration, given it can be activated the next turn, and Modern offers no shortage of great cheap creatures to steal. It all adds up to quite a nice card, and while Oko is not going to break the format as a build-around planeswalker, it does so much for so little that it will survive on this efficiency and utility alone.
That doesn't mean players aren't trying their hardest to break Oko however they can, and the most convincing approach is alongside Modern's most broken creature, Urza, Lord High Artificer. Oko has appeared in the sideboard of typical four-color lists, which already splash green for Assassin's Trophy, but one player has moved them maindeck alongside Ice-Fang Coatl in this snowy build.
Oko's ability to turn artifacts into 3/3 creatures or trade them for opposing creatures seems quite threatening in a deck with zero-mana cards like Mishra's Bauble and Mox Opal, while the ability to churn out artifact Food Tokens has great synergy with the mana ability on Urza, Lord High Artificer.
Oko, Thief of Crowns helps artifact decks play a fair game, but the truly broken addition to Modern's artifact decks is Emry, Lurker of the Loch. It has already emerged as a four-of addition to the deck that was already emerging as the most broken in Modern: the Paradoxical Outcome version of the Urza, Lord High Artificer deck.
Emry, Lurker of the Loch is consistently a one-mana play in the deck, where it serves to dig into action and then threaten to generate value each turn it stays in play. It's excellent alongside Mishra's Bauble and the other new addition of Witching Well, which can be sacrificed and replayed.
This new version of the deck looks to be a step forward, but more adventurous players have taken things even further by combining Emry with Jeskai Ascendancy, which untaps Emry every time it casts an artifact from the graveyard. This creates a true combo and endless loop with the addition of Mishra's Bauble, and even infinite mana when two Mox Opal are involved.
Multiple versions of the deck have 5-0 League finishes posted, and I've now seen the deck making some waves on social media, so we could be seeing the first of Modern's next broken deck.
Another potentially broken took for Modern's artifact decks is Wishclaw Talisman. Giving the opponent the ability to tutor is a pretty bad downside and would make such a card pretty unattractive, but simply sacrificing or otherwise removing the card with its ability on the stack means they'll never get the chance. Feeding Wishclaw Talisman into something like Thopter Foundry turns the downside into a free piece of fodder, and with the ability to tutor up Sword of the Meek and complete the combo, is a big step toward winning the game.
This list puts a set of Wishclaw Talisman in the typical Thopter Foundry shell, but also adds Emry, Lurker of the Loch, which is strong here for digging into Sword of the Meek. With the new graveyard enabler and now so many legendary creatures, this list includes a pair of Lazav, the Multifarious to help enable a full set of Mox Amber.
Mystic Sanctuary is too good to ignore in a format like Modern where it can be found by all the blue fetch lands, and where there are so many powerful spells to reclaim. It has been showing up in control decks, specifically Izzet, where it's something like Snapcaster Mage on a fetch land.
Mystic Sanctuary is pushed toward the broken end up things in a deck like Taking Turns, where Reclaiming a Time Walk will often be lights out for the opponent.
A card I never expected to see serious Modern play is Drown in the Loch, but on closer inspection it does have a lot of upside. Drown in the Loch is something like a removal spell and countermagic rolled into one, and at just two mana that's quite a powerful effect.
Assuming it could kill or counter anything it would be one of the very best cards in all of Modern, even all of Magic, and the only thing holding it back is the opponent having a stocked graveyard. That's a serious downside, but any deck that can reliably fill the opponent's graveyard has an amazing tool at their disposal. In theory, as long as one can keep pace with the opponent with other disruption, then Drown in the Loch should be good as the game develops, countering cheap stuff early and progressing to bigger spells later, which explains why it has appeared as a four-of in multiple Grixis lists.
The next list puts Drown in the Loch alongside Into the Story, which eventually becomes an overpowered card drawing spell to fuel the late game. Paired with Snapcaster Mage it will bury the opponent.
These Grixis decks have to work at making Drown in the Loch effective, but in a true mill strategy with cards like Archive Trap it's as good as Counterspell and Terminate, and that feels like a huge upgrade for one of Modern's most persistent rogue strategies.
Mill has always felt like the pinnacle of gimmicky Modern decks, but it's so uniquely powerful in what it does that it has never been swept away like so many other Modern strategies. It has also been able to slowly evolve and take advantage of new tools when they become available, and history shows that it only takes one new card to push a deck over the top. Drown in the Loch could be that card, a truly powerful piece that any deck would love to have access to, but which no other can use nearly as effectively. Combined with the new Vantress Gargoyle as a mill engine that doubles as a threat to support Jace's Phantasm, Fatal Push as removal, and Visions of Beyond as Ancestral Recall, the deck can now play a complete midrange game, and it's all made possible by the versatility of Drown in the Loch filling in the gaps.
There are a few more cards like Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft, The Royal Scions and even Questing Beast seeing a bit of play online. There are also surely other cards, like the potentially broken Fires of Invention, that may not have appeared yet, but that surely will as time goes on. Throne of Eldraine is definitely shaping up to be an important set for Eternal formats, and I'll be paying close attention to what happens this weekend to see how these new cards perform and what other new cards break out.
Adam Yurchick is a competitive Magic player and writer. He writes about Modern and Eternal formats and keeps a weather eye on shifts in the metagame.