Brewing in Modern: Powerful Cards without Homes


Days of Serpents Past

Making magic decks is one of the fundamental aspects of playing the game we love. I remember gazing at my stack of Vodalian Serpents when I first started and the cogs in my head started turning. How do I harness the raw, 6 power of this ancient sea thing (which is strictly better than Sea Monster and Sea Serpent!)? After puzzling about how to overcome its island restriction, I ended up with the following deck.

My First Serpent Deck – Michael Pawliuk

In retrospect, I probably could have been doing scarier things with my Sol Rings, Gushes and Brainstorms. This was the wild west though, where “net deck” was a swear word, and nobody really knew how to build a deck. One of your friends would tell you about the 2-to-1 “rule” for lands-to-non-lands in your deck, (which conveniently lead to nice, even mana-weaving between games). We wanted to win games, but we just didn’t know how we were supposed to build decks, and using the Internet was streng verboten.

I’ve come a long way since then, and I’d like to share my passion for deckbuilding, and Magic in general.

What does “Powerful” mean?

I want to focus on powerful cards in Modern that, for whatever reason, don’t have an established home. My definition of a powerful card is a bit of a strange one, but, it’s “a card that can change the zones of many cards, possibly repeatedly and for a low mana cost”. I define power to be the ability to move cardboard. Some examples are in order!

Ancestral Recall. Three cards move from your library to your hand.
Damnation. All the creatures on the battlefield move to the graveyards.
Reanimate. One creature from a graveyard to the battlefield.
One with Nothing. All the cards from your hand to your graveyard.

You were probably with me until One with Nothing. I’m not saying this is a “good” card (whatever that means), or a card you want to play in your Burn deck, but it is, in the abstract, an exceedingly powerful card. It moves a lot of cards from one zone to another zone. In the course of a “normal” game this is an undesirable effect, but our goal is to find situations and decks that will unlock the raw power of these types of effects.

In the history of Magic, there are many decks that have turned drawbacks into advantages through cunning deckbuilding. Gush on its own lets you draw two cards for the “cost” of returning two islands to your hand. This cost gets turned into a heinous advantage with cards like Brainstorm and Psychatog. A Modern example is Amulet Bloom which takes shameless advantage of the “drawback” provided by lands like Simic Growth Chamber.

This perspective is unusual, and might lead us nowhere, but it might also open up novel decks.

Powerful Cards in Modern without a Home

This is a cheap, repeatable, albeit conditional, tutor that is usable as early as turn 2. In Modern it can get defensive cards like Ghost Quarter and Tectonic Edge. It can fix your mana with Temple Garden, or it can go on the offense by searching up a manland like Stirring Wildwood or the powerful Gavony Township. With fetchlands, such as Windswept Heath, you can do tricks like respond to your own fetchland activation with the wayfarer so that you temporarily lower your land count. The premier removal spell in Modern is Path to Exile which is the same colour as the wayfarer and happens to have nice synergy!

The major downside is that the ability is conditional. Alongside that, it requires that the Weathered Wayfarer survive until it can untap. There’s also tension between wanting to get repeated use of its ability, which would encourage games spanning many turns, and wanting to have fewer lands than the opponent. Decks that want to go late into the game are generally control decks, and traditionally these decks are extremely mana hungry.

Possible decks: My initial guess is that this could fit into a Naya land-focused control deck containing Knight of the Reliquary, which I’ll talk about more later. There’s some nice interaction with Thalia and Vryn Wingmare which forces the opponent to commit lands. A “soft” prison style deck might be possible, although I would guess that GW Hatebears is a better deck.

With the prevalence of fetchlands in Modern, Knight is almost always a 5/5, but can often balloon to a 10/10 or bigger. In Modern, Knight is most often seen as a 3 mana 5/5 in Zoo decks, or as a combo enabler with Retreat to Coralhelm. Her tutoring ability is woefully underused, and incidentally fuels her size. Knight is one of those rare self-fuelling cards, similar to Life from the Loam, that gets better the more times you use it in a game. It dodges some of the most common removal in Modern (Lightning Bolt, Pyroclasm, Dismember). However, it still crumbles to Terminate, Go for the Throat, Path to Exile and Karn Liberated.

The only real “problem” with Knight is that it is 3 mana across two colours. The predominant removal that deals with it requires only one or two mana, which is bad for our tempo. So far finding the perfect deck for Knight has been the major issue.

This one might seem like an odd inclusion. Frankly, I don’t think this card will be in any deck any time soon. However, the card gets me excited is that for two mana you can repeatedly return basic land cards from your graveyard to your hand. If you squint your eyes a bit you can imagine that the ability reads “1G: Draw a card.”, which is great. If we can ever get him into a deck where that is really his text then we will have a strong source of card advantage. This could happen with cards that have Retrace (like Raven’s Crime, Flame Jab), with looting effects (Faithless Looting, Magmatic Insight) or the powerful enchantments Seismic Assault and Molten Vortex.

The obvious card to compare this to is Life from the Loam, which seems to do more than Groundskeeper and is harder to interact with. The other big failing is that it is generally difficult to get your basic lands into your graveyard, which limits the explosiveness of Groundskeeper. It’s hard to imagine a deck that wants Groundskeeper over Life from the Loam. Perhaps we could use him as a 5th or 6th life from the loam.

Possible decks: This can break the symmetry of black spells like Smallpox, Raven’s Crime and Delirium Skeins, while fueling the powerful red cards I mentioned above.

Take a moment to think about how many cards change zones when this is cast. At most seven cards ,counting the Delirium Skeins itself, move from hands to graveyards, all for the price of three mana. This is a powerful effect that can drastically alter the pace of the game; all of a sudden the game is in topdeck mode.

As a thought experiment, think about Mind Rot. Is a Mind Rot for three cards good enough? That’s what Delirium Skeins is; a Mind Rot for three cards with downside. When thinking about including this in a deck we need to do more than just make it a slightly better Mind Rot, we need to turn the downside in to an effect that we want.

Possible decks: An aggressive deck that can commit its cards to the board quickly could take advantage of this. Forcing your opponent into topdeck mode while you have a fast clock is a recipe for success. Another alternative is some sort of reanimator nonsense involving Unburial Rites. Perhaps the new Sea Gate Wreckage could work here.

Hymn to Tourach’s, barely Modern legal cousin. One of the few cards that can make an opponent discard lands against their will. Obviously Hmyn can come out a turn earlier and has a better chance at eating their lands thereby locking them out. In comparison a turn 3 Stupor hitting their third land isn’t so impressive. That being said, random discard on a small hand has a strong effect that can often buy you a turn or more.

If we’re only concerned with card advantage, something like Wrench Mind or Night’s Whisper will do the job. A further reason Stupor is overshadowed is that it is competing with Liliana of the Veil as a 3 mana disruptive spell. The only reason to run this over Liliana would be to take advantage of it being something to recur with Snapcaster Mage or Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. Perhaps the double black is an issue or you desperately want card advantage and no life loss. A more practical concern might just be one of budget.

Possible decks: Perhaps the 8 rack deck could make use of this card. If we are building 8 rack on a budget this card could fill the 3-cmc spot left by Liliana of the Veil.

Repeatable land destruction for 1 mana is no joke. The most obvious enabler is Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, but consider that basic Swamp is the 10th most played land in Modern, showing up in 39% of decks. The shocklands Godless Shrine, Blood Crypt, and Overgrown Tomb are also swamps. This card feels slightly like a mini-Choke in that your opponent gets to use their mana one last time before it’s gone.

Possible decks: Imagine a deck that uses this to tax and slow the opponent. Combine this card with ones like Leonin Arbiter or Thalia to constrict their mana. Mana Tithe might even be viable in such a concoction.

“You win the game.” Who doesn’t like winning the game? This is arguably the most powerful thing you can do because it moves all cards from the “in play” zone to the deck boxes. Right?

The incredibly crippling obstacle to this is that you need to play at least 11 lands that come into play tapped. Moreover, you need to either play fair and push the game long enough so that you can get all 10 gates, or you need to find a way to cheat in the gates. The prevalence of Ghost Quarter and Fulminator Mage doesn’t make this a likely line to victory.

Possible decks: This looks like it would take a lot of ingenuity, and probably wouldn’t work. But we could consider playing it in some sort of crazy Scapeshift brew.

Modern is a format teeming with linear, single minded decks. Imagine having access to all of your silver bullets but they don’t clog up your deck in irrelevant matches. Affinity beating you down? Wish for Fracturing Gust. Combo or Tron up in your face? Gaddock Teeg would like a word. Need to slow Burn? Kitchen Finks. Degenerates abusing the graveyard? Wheel of Sun and Moon, get in there!

Its strength is also its weakness; filling your sideboard with wish targets means that you won’t be able to actually board in many cards.

Possible decks: This made an appearance in the short lived Jeskai Ascendancy combo deck, but could also find a home in a GWx control deck.

Like Knight of the Reliquary, this is a creature that we see in Modern, but it isn’t as popular as it should be. It was popular in the Treasure Cruise era of magic, but as a result of the cruise ban it fell out of favor. This card only requires that you play instants and sorceries, which is a pretty low bar. It fares well against Tarmogoyf, providing endless blockers. It is good buddies with Snapcaster Mage, another card which only asks that you play instants and sorceries.

The major difficulty with Young Pyromancer is that you need to cast your spells *after* you resolve Young Pyromancer but before it dies. This can be a very small window in Modern, with all the Lightning Bolts, Terminates and Path to Exiles running around. Compare this to the timing imposed by Snapcaster Mage who only asks that you cast him at some point after you cast your spell.

Possible decks: Young Pyromancer seems to fit in aggressive decks where you have more threats than they have pieces of removal, or in a control deck that wants to land this in the mid to late game. The hypothetical aggressive deck would be especially vulnerable to Pyroclasm, and will be pulled in two opposite directions: lots of creatures and lots of instants and sorceries. The theoretical control deck suffers from the Young Pyromancer not having as much impact in the mid to late game when it is low on cards. Perhaps the death of Delver when Treasure cruise left is the primary reason we do not see this card as much as we should given its power level.

Monastery is the big sister of Young Pyromancer (should we call her “Old Pyromancer”?) and the same type of analysis for the junior holds for the senior. The biggest difference is that Mentor is definitely not an aggro card; playing it on turn 3 is usually a recipe for a dead Mentor. Unlike Pyromancer, Mentor is only really suited to the mid to late game. In contrast to the Pyromancer, the Monk tokens are legitimate threats in the late game. “Mentor, end-of-turn Lightning bolt, untap, Serum Visions” is a fast 8 damage that leaves 4 power of creatures for the next turn. Mentor also has the rare ability to go wide (lots of creatures) and tall (a big creature).

The biggest restriction on Monastery Mentor is that it is a late game card that wants you to still have a counterspell and a cantrip when it resolves. It has a much squishier body than Geist of Saint Traft and fights with Geist for the 3-cmc spot.

Possible decks: As I said, Mentor naturally wants to be in a midrange deck. Blue is the obvious colour to pair with Mentor so that you have access to the blue cantrips Serums Visions, Sleight of Hand and Thought Scour. Red gives you access to removal and reach in the form of Lightning Bolt and Lightning Helix, while also picking up Young Pyromancer. Green lets you up the pressure with Tarmogoyf, while Black allows you to strip their removal from their hand before you play Mentor.

This is the most powerful card in Modern from the perspective of moving cards from one zone to another. It draws both players 14 total cards, it erases all the graveyards and gets rid of all the old cards the players were holding. Usually this is moving 30 cards around various zones. Harnessing this power requires some clever deckbuilding and good gameplay, but here are some types of plays you can make:

– Draw 7 new cards to dig for that last Lightning Bolt you need to finish them off.
– Combine with Notion Thief to draw 14 cards and erase your opponent’s hand. [Editor’s Note: Magical Christmas land awaits.]
– Erase the graveyards to reset any Tarmogoyfs and remove all Unburial Rites.
– Get rid of that Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger in your opponent’s hand.
– Quicken it on your turn to act as an indirect counterspell.

The completely obvious downside to this is that you give your opponent the first crack at using their 7 cards. This is the biggest challenge to using this card, and to be frank, Day’s Undoing is not for the faint of heart. I’ve had games where I need to cast Day’s Undoing to dig for burn, but in the process allow my Affinity opponent to draw 7.

Possible decks: Breaking the symmetry of Day’s Undoing seems to work best when your deck can commit to the board more effectively. I’ve had some amount of success playing a UWR (Jeskai) midrange deck that runs Young Pyromancer, Monastery Mentor and a load of Burn and cantrips. Oh yeah, I also splashed black for Notion Thief. This deck can dig for relevant spells, commit its creatures to the board, destroy all opposing creatures and then reload with more board presence using Day’s Undoing.

Contact me

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think; I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever cast a Day’s Undoing in Modern? Or fetched up a Stirring Wildwood with Weathered Wayfarer? What about locking someone out with Raven’s Crime and Groundskeeper?

Catch me at Face to Face Games Toronto for Legacy FNM, send me a message on Reddit /u/mpaw975, or send me an email at mpawliuk [at]

-Mike Pawliuk