The Magic community needs to have a serious conversation about banning Monastery Swiftspear. We've let it get away with way too much for far too long. From the very beginning everyone knew it was broken—it was one of the most hyped cards in Khans of Tarkir for Eternal formats—but instead Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time died for its sins. It's prowess, not delve, that's the true offender, and it's time for it to go.
After all, Monastery Swiftspear was the single most played creature in Top 8 decklists across major events last weekend, specifically MagicFest Minneapolis along with its two Modern Mythic Championship Qualifiers, and even the Modern Challenge on Magic Online. Monastery Swiftspear could be found in multiple Top 8 lists in each of these events, claiming two of the Top 8 spots at the MagicFest, four in the Friday MCQ, three in the Sunday MCQ, and four in the Modern Challenge. Monastery Swiftspear is taking up to half of the Top 8 spots in some events!Admittedly Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis did dominate the MagicFest with five decks in the Top 8, but there was only one copy in each MCQ Top 8 and none in the online Top 8. Monastery Swiftspear is warping the format to its will and it's only going to get worse from here if we let this continue. Hopefully an emergency ban will restore some order to the format and let Hogaak players get back to twiddling their graveyards in peace…
I've changed my mind, Monastery Swiftspear might actually be the savior Modern needs. By punishing the Hogaak deck's poor ability to block (because it relies on so many Zombies that can't) Monastery Swiftspear is allowing red decks to push through large amounts of damage. Burn decks are always at their best when they can connect with creatures for extra damage and play on easy mode. With the metagame generally shifting away from creature removal like Fatal Push because Hogaak decks are so resistant to it, the metagame has been ripe for Monastery Swiftspear. It's the axis around which the best red decks in Modern are currently built, played in both traditional Burn and Arclight Phoenix decks which truly push the prowess to its limits.
I never thought I'd believe it, but it's clear that at least for now Mono-Red Phoenix is ahead of U/R Phoenix, which was simply absent from Top 8s last weekend. Mono-Red, on the other hand, seems to have become one of the very best decks in the format, using not blue cantrips but instead the London mulligan to help assemble its strategy—which is essentially Burn in other clothing. Arclight Phoenix is a tertiary part of the strategy, and it's truly the prowess creatures like Monastery Swiftspear that define the deck. So much so in fact, that a third variety of the deck has appeared—arguably the most successful of any based on the scoreboard—taking Ryan Overturf to the Top 4 of the MagicFest.
This version of the deck puts the prowess creatures front and center, and uses them almost like a Bogles deck would use its hexproof creatures or an Infect deck its infect creatures. That's to say it relies on them to do much of anything, but with them will be able to deal massive amounts of damage when combined with a deck that is full of spells to make the most of them.
For this deck, that includes a set of Crash Through, which helps keep the deck firing while pushing through the prowess creatures as a sort of combo-kill, like a Temur Battle Rage without all the undesirable parts. The deck also takes full advantage of Lava Dart, a card lauded for working so well with Arclight Phoenix but doing great work here with prowess creatures. Along with Lightning Bolt it allows the deck to disrupt creature decks and take on a more midrange role, which is supported by the card advantage of Bedlam Reveler. The deck doesn't mess around, and jams four into the deck as a card advantage spell but also a legitimate threat the deck leans on to maintain a high density of prowess creatures.
Giving up Arclight Phoenix does remove one strong aspect of the deck, but the advantages are obvious—ignoring the graveyard makes a lot of sense in a world where everyone is loaded up with hosers for it, even in the maindeck, to fight Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis. Cutting Arclight Phoenix is an elegant way to sidestep this hate and leave yourself with one less way for things to go wrong. The best part of it is that the average opponent will have no clue there are no Arclight Phoenix in the deck and is likely to sideboard in hosers anyways, a true win-win scenario.
Giving up Arclight Phoenix also makes sense given the metagame shift away from interactive decks and grindier matchups where they are at their best. Modern has moved toward a more all-in style metagame of decks racing against each other, where Burn tends to excel.
Burn itself looks much like it has for years, but Sunbaked Canyon has been a huge quality-of-life upgrade. The addition of a way to draw cards is incredibly useful for Burn, a deck that often lives and dies on its ability to topdeck a lethal burn spell in the late stages in the game. Sunbaked Canyon digs a card deeper, which can mean a whole turn and the difference between a win or loss. Burn decks just aren't going to run out of action quite so soon, so the classic cross your fingers and pray method won't work out as often as it used to.
These Modern Horizon upgrades, cards like Sunbaked Canyon and Lava Dart that elevate their respective decks, are going to have a lasting effect on the format long after Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis is gone. I've touched on the idea before, but now two months after Modern Horizons was released we still can't truly gauge what the set has done to Modern. Hogaak has warped the metagame so severely that there has been little room for the rest of the set to perform. Anything that has been able to survive in this hostile environment is likely to break out into a full sprint once Hogaak stops holding it back, and Monastery Swiftspear decks backed by cards including Sunbaked Canyon and Fiery Islet will be among them.
If recent results are any indication, Mono-Red Phoenix is likely to be one of the very best decks in the format after a Hogaak ban, and by leveraging Modern Horizons cards and the London mulligan it present opponents with a deck far more lethal than it was just a few months ago. In a post-Hogaak ban world with fewer graveyard hosers there seems to be less incentive to play a Phoenix-less Prowess version, but things could play out differently. Burn should also be quite effective, especially for preying on the inevitable rise of the deck that may have gained the most from the London mulligan: Urzatron, historically one of the best matchups for Burn, and a deck that is going to leap toward the top of the metagame once Hogaak is gone.
I'm also curious to see in what other directions Monastery Swiftspear could go. There's a Red-Green Arclight Phoenix deck, for example, that splashes for Wrenn and Six, the Modern Horizons card making the biggest impact in Legacy but which isn't a major factor in Modern—yet.
Wrenn and Six is the perfect example of a card that is held down by Hogaak and the graveyard hosers against it. It doesn't seem particularly useful in this metagame, but it could become a powerhouse if the conditions were right. Imagine it in a more balanced metagame, where it could be a creature removal engine against decks like Humans, and a source of card advantage for helping to grind out control opponents by recurring Fiery Islet or fueling Faithless Looting.
Another take on Monastery Swiftspear puts it alongside Dreadhorde Arcanist, which came in War of the Spark and had just over a month in Modern before Hogaak suppressed it too. Dreadhorde Arcanist became an instant staple in Legacy and even Vintage, but Dreadhorde Arcanist was hit especially hard by Hogaak because it uses the graveyard and suffers from hosers like Leyline of the Void, so it should really see an upsurge in Modern after a ban.
This deck essentially plays a similar strategy to Mono-Red Prowess, but with the flexibility of blue spells. The London mulligan argument against U/R Phoenix and favoring Mono-Red does apply here, but it doesn't mean these blue spells are bad by any means, and in this case they're important for enabling Dreadhorde Arcanist. I love this deck's use of Atarka's Command, which can pump Dreadhorde Arcanist and allow it to re-cast the command, which turns it into at least 8 damage.
As long as decks like Burn and Mono-Red Phoenix/Prowess are a part of the metagame, hosers like Kor Firewalker are very attractive. The card is troublesome for these decks to say the least, being very tough to fight through and nearly impossible to kill without something like the miser's Dismember in the Prowess sideboard. Kor Firewalker has already become popular tech on Magic Online, with copies showing up in the sideboards of Burn decks. Even if you're not on Burn, it's a very real sideboard card for any white deck that can cast it. Auriok Champion is also a strong option, one that's worse because of its smaller size not matching up as well against creatures like Goblin Guide, but having a bit of extra utility against black creatures and removal.
Another way to fight back against these burn-based strategy is Timely Reinforcements. These days it's commonly played as a one-of in the maindeck of White-Blue Control, but the finalist of the Modern Challenge might be ahead of the curve with two copies.
With Magic Online players using Kor Firewalker and other hosers, it turns out that Mono-Red players online are already fighting back with their own solutions. Take the pair of colorless Kozilek's Return in the sideboard of one Mono-Red Phoenix deck, which will see its prowess creatures conveniently grow and survive it while cleaning up Kor Firewalker or any tokens for Timely Reinforcements. Shrine of Burning Rage in sideboards can also do the job of killing Kor Firewalker.
Monastery Swiftspear is helping to keep Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis in check, but it alone isn't enough. A ban is inevitable, and it's pretty clear Hogaak is going to be on the chopping block during the next Banned and Restricted list update on Monday, August 26th. Wizards tends to be conservative with their bans, obviously, seeing as they didn't ban Hogaak last time, so I wouldn't expect anything else to go this time besides the bogeyman itself. Monastery Swiftspear, in all of its broken glory, will live on to fight the good fight. In all seriousness, where exactly the Modern metagame will head afterward isn't clear, but Monastery Swiftspear and burn-based decks are going to have a place in it.