Hello! Return to Ravnica Prereleases have already taken place and only a few days separate us from new exciting Constructed formats. A significant part of every new set is played in Standard but only a few cards meet the requirements of deeper formats competitive or not. I remember the hype surrounding Slash Panther during New Phyrexia reviews because it was considered playable in Vintage. In this article I'm going to explore Return to Ravnica from the Modern point of view. Is there something surprising this time? Yes!
The most important Return to Ravnica cards for Modern are already legal reprints. Shocklands will not change the format but the reprinting of them is extremely important for the format's future. Many people don't want to invest into the format because it requires significant money and is only seasonal. As many people will have some shocklands for Standard the chance that they try Modern dramatically increases. Tarmogoyf remains as another access and cost problem but it isn't mandatory even though it's played in two very popular decks (Jund and RUG Delver). Easy access to a good mana base will definitely help Modern grow and hopefully become a full-time format.
Aside from shocklands Return to Ravnica gives us some completely new cards that look to be playable in Modern. The first and most obvious of them is Abrupt Decay which is a great addition to the current best deck of the format Jund. This card helps against blue tempo decks destroying problematic cards like Vedalken Shackles (this will significantly change the Jund versus RUG Delver matchup) Prismatic Omen (Abrupt Decay plus Thoughtseize is the most promising way to fight Valakut decks) and Isochron Scepter. Other victims include Cranial Plating Blood Moon Tarmogoyf Liliana of the Veil and many more cards so Abrupt Decay will definitely see play in Jund and other hypothetical G/B/x aggressive and midrange decks.
However Abrupt Decay is utterly useless against important threats like Birthing Pod Restoration Angel and Kiki-Jiki Mirror Breaker. Add Bloodbraid Elf and Karn Liberated to the mix and it becomes clear that Abrupt Decay won't oust Terminate or Maelstrom Pulse from Jund's maindeck. I think we will see various mixes of all three cards in five to seven slots of removal in Jund's maindeck and maybe one to two sideboard removal cards.
The whole "can't be countered" rare cards cycle has some potential in Modern though I believe that only two cards will see maindeck play. Two others have some sideboard applications and only one seems not good enough for this format. But everything in its own time; the bad cards will be covered at the end of the article while I'm going to speak about the good ones right now.
One of the principal weaknesses of Modern as a format is the lack of a proper control deck. I've seen numerous attempts mostly based around Gifts Ungiven or Mystical Teachings. However their fate is grim like both U/W and U/R Control Tron decks which immediately ceased to exist when R/G Combo Tron came to the format. The main problem of classic control decks is their inability to fight against Delver tempo decks which just play some cheap powerful threats and then protect them from countermagic.
The overall speed of the format is so high that a failed attempt to clean the battlefield could easily mean that you have no time for a second one. Happily Supreme Verdict is a card that allows control decks to finally become playable. Supreme Verdict perfectly solves the problem of Mana Leaked sweeper granting U/W or Esper Control enough time to stabilize and get the game under control.
Finally it's kitty time! The best part about White Sun's Zenith's is that it can be found by Mystical Teachings over and over making more kitties. Supreme Verdict ensures that opposing Delver decks will not kill you before you stabilize. The rest of the deck is simple and powerful: Mystical Teachings the best removal to keep aggressive decks in check and the best discard to fight combo decks. Oh and that Esper Charm is great against Prismatic Omen! Give me four please.
One more new card for this deck is Sphinx's Revelation. The card is just insane if you can resolve it in the long game against nearly any opponent. Unfortunately the whole Azorius guild was unsuccessful in providing more cards for control mages and obviously Rakdos and Golgari didn't add anything to black. So we'll see if Supreme Verdict is enough to push Esper Control to the top and wait for Dimir cards. However there are always other possibilities. Notable new cards for control are Jace Architect of Thought and some Izzet cards which means that it's time to try U/W/R Control or some sort of four-colored Cruel Ultimatum deck. Honestly both RTR planeswalkers are questionable even in Standard so I expect that neither Jace nor Vraska the Unseen will see play in Modern.
As for the Izzet spells I had some hopes that the guild mechanic overload would be featured on some truly bonkers spells but in the end overload just failed to deliver. Boo! The only good removal with overload (Mizzium Mortars) is far away from Modern quality standards; Cyclonic Rift is more promising though competition with Cryptic Command and Into the Roil is very tough and probably unfavorable for the newcomer. So the only overloaded card with potential is Counterflux. Neither Last Word nor Double Negative are good in Modern but Counterflux has some anti-Storm applications which may push it to the level of a legitimate Mystical Teachings target sideboard card. Unfortunately the only real advantage of Counterflux is that it can't be countered by Izzet Charm.
Izzet Charm is the best card for Modern in this set and a good representation of an ideal spell for this format: cheap multipurpose and fitting directly into many strategies. The key is a combination of effective countermagic and cheap removal especially against troublesome creatures like Dark Confidant Thalia Guardian of Thraben Delver of Secrets and Gaddock Teeg. Add the ability to dig through the deck and you see the best utility card for any combo deck. I've already used the Looting mode multiple times in my RUG Scapeshift deck during testing and I see Izzet Charm easily fitting into Storm U/R Splinter Twin combo and even RUG Delver. The card is just unfair and Modern is the best place for it.
So my top four Return to Ravnica cards for Modern are shocklands and (in no particular order) Izzet Charm Supreme Verdict and Abrupt Decay. These cards will surely be important for the format while others will have a tough time proving they can fit onto the format. It's hard to predict how good they will actually be. However I have some ideas and cards to look at.
The first potentially interesting card is a 2/1 creature for two mana. Looks pretty unimpressive yes? Lotleth Troll is actually a powerful and diverse card which could help different rogue archetypes and even become the core of a new deck. Lotleth Troll is a cheap discard outlet with free instant speed activation. It could be useful in Goryo's Vengeance / Through the Breach Reanimator a hypothetical Dredge deck etc. However a proper Lotleth Troll deck implies the use of its attacking potential so it should be aggressive.
The Modern card pool contains four creatures which could easily come to the battlefield from the graveyard: Gravecrawler Vengevine Bloodghast and Haakon Stromgald Scourge. Moreover Gravecrawler and Haakon share a creature type with Lotleth Troll and can be cast from the graveyard to return the mythic vegetable. Okay Haakon may be too dreamy to actually fit in the deck but Gravecrawler and any cheap creature could be good Vengevine activators. Relying on Lotleth Troll as single discard outlet is too presumptuous so we should have an additional discard engine. The two best options are Fauna Shaman for a midrangey deck and self-milling for a faster "combo" version. Let's look at both options.
The Fauna Shaman deck's core is G/B while a third color is questionable and depends on the metagame. White gives us a bunch of hate bears (and effectively makes the deck very similar to Melira but with a versatile and slower win condition) while red is a home for Anathemancer (to keep Valakut and potential control decks in check). Fauna Shaman isn't fast so the deck requires careful fine-tuning to keep up with the overall speed of the format. I expect to see many one- and two-ofs in the final list so I'll just post a rough core here.
- 4 Bloodghast
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 4 Fauna Shaman
- 3 Gravecrawler
- 4 Lotleth Troll
- 1 Scryb Ranger
- 1 Shriekmaw
- 1 Stinkweed Imp
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Vengevine
This version features Deathrite Shaman. The card may look underpowered and unstable but I've been rather impressed with his performance so far in testing. Compare the Shaman with Grim Lavamancer (who is useless without cards in your graveyard) and you'll get a sense of Deathrite Shaman's potential. He doesn't directly interact with the battlefield but he has multiple applications against different decks. Deathrite Shaman is good against Kitchen Finks Snapcaster Mage red decks and against stalled boards in creature mirrors.
There is even a good spot to play both Deathrite Shaman and Tarmogoyf in your deck—exiling one card from the opponent's graveyard is far less troublesome than exiling two cards from your own. The main problem is that there has to be enough lands in graveyards but very few decks are not playing fetchlands these days. Deathrite Shaman is my choice of sleeper for this set and I have some hopes about him (for example that he will help Melira to return from exile).
Returning to the decklist above the deck is simple Junk-like beatdown with good disruption support. The mana base contains a pair of Cavern of Souls which is supposed to name Elves but I can imagine the list with Cavern for Zombies full four Gravecrawlers and Diregraf Ghouls instead of mana dorks (also do you clearly remember the creature types of Putrid Leech?). Even a few copies of Geralf's Messenger could make the cut.
Self-milling is another way to fill your graveyard with vegetables and is much faster than Fauna Shaman. I've made some attempts to create a Crypt of Agadeem deck in the past but they all were too slow and clunky to be competitive. The best available mill engines were Hedron Crab and Glimpse the Unthinkable and I was never satisfied because cards I needed in hand always were in the graveyard and returning them was too slow to work. Standard Frites experienced the same problems during the last year; hitting three noncreature cards and Elesh Norn Grand Cenobite with Tracker's Instincts was common sad story.
Return to Ravnica solves this problem in a very elegant form. Seriously Grisly Salvage is just a brilliant design. It is effectively a two-mana Tutor for what you need more: a cheap creature to activate Vengevine or an additional land to cast a creature from your hand and activate Vengevine anyway. Grisly Salvage doesn't hit as many cards as Glimpse the Unthinkable but it's only a deckbuilding question while instant speed and proper colors are huge advantages (we probably need red for Faithless Looting so a fourth color would be tough).
The idea is somewhat similar to Sam Black's Legacy Zombies deck but there is no Goblin Bombardment in Modern and we don't need Lingering Souls (even if the white splash could somehow be afforded). The goal becomes playing very fast aggression to be able to fill the graveyard and take advantage of it and I believe that having a ton of cheap creatures will help the deck to fight through graveyard hate especially if the opponent makes a mistake and keeps slow hand with graveyard hate. And before posting the decklist I have to say: "Dear WotC Please reprint either Basking Rootwalla or Cabal Therapy!"
The deck is much faster than conventional Jund and can compete with U/W/R Delver and Affinity for the slot of the best fast deck. Opportunities for fine-tuning include adding the fourth Grisly Salvage (the card is just insane here) a fifth discard spell Haakon Stromgald Scourge (might be too slow) Stinkweed Imp or Golgari Thug (depends on their effectiveness on the battlefield) some creatures with unearth (Dregscape Zombie Rotting Rats and Scourge Devil all look fitting to a certain degree and therefore are worthy to be at least considered) and so on. The power of Golgari: vegetables from the graveyard for the win!
A new Golgari card which will surely not see play (either in this deck or in another one) is Jarad's Orders. Grisly Salvage does essentially the same for a cheaper cost and at instant speed in consistent decks and Gifts Ungiven is just better if silver bullets are needed. Existence of better older analogues is the bane of many interesting new cards especially powerful spells and potential combo activators. However there are other problems for graveyard-based combos and you may have noticed one of them in the sideboard above.
Each set gives us graveyard hate in various forms and these cards are often more relevant for deeper formats than for Standard. Grave haters gonna grave hate and RTR didn't disappoint by granting them with three new troublesome cards to prevent Lotleth Troll Unburial Rites and Past in Flames from seeing play. Rest in Peace will have an edge in Legacy (with Energy Field) but white has better tools in Modern like Dryad Militant who is an interesting target for Chord of Calling against Storm (I actually used Heap Doll in Melira for this purpose) and may be the first drop of choice for a hate bears deck.
If Valakut's presence and Supreme Verdict drives the metagame towards combo and control G/W featuring Gaddock Teeg Thalia Guardian of Thraben Dryad Militant and Judge's Familiar could be a fine choice for some tournaments. Anyway white Cursecatcher definitely has some potential even though it is the wrong tribe (this Owl should be a Cat!).
- 2 Aven Mindcensor
- 4 Dryad Militant
- 4 Judge's Familiar
- 2 Kitchen Finks
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Qasali Pridemage
- 3 Gaddock Teeg
- 4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
The deck is simple fair and obviously underpowered but it could be perfect metagame choice for some weeks when the format is stable and predictable. Other options include a blue splash for better countermagic (Dispel and Spell Pierce) and Azorius Charm or black for Tidehollow Sculler and Thoughtseize.
The cards that could be but are not in this deck are Tarmogoyf and Loxodon Smiter. Tarmogoyf is just worse than Watchwolf here; we're planning to exile the opponent's spells and don't even have our own sorceries! Loxodon Smiter is hyped in Standard due to its ability to keep Liliana of the Veil in check but Smiter is simply worse than Obstinate Baloth in Modern; four life is very useful for any green deck. Loxodon Smiter is cheaper and survives Lightning Bolt but he can't help you do so which is more important than synergy with an opposing Liliana of the Veil. Let's stop talking about cards that are not worth slots even in the sideboard and cover some useful ones the last thing for today.
These two cards are both Rakdos colored. One of them even has Rakdos in its name! Slaughter Games is very questionable card but it could easily find its place in Jund. It's a loss of tempo but it would easily mean significant improvement of an otherwise tough matchup against Valakut and take care of random combo decks (like French Eggs dedicated Pyromancer Ascension etc). Rakdos Charm in contrast is very versatile card which saves many sideboard slots for more important cards. The very basic rule of Affinity says "Wait for the week when no one has artifact hate and go crush them."
Modern is affected by prominent metagame shifts wave after wave and it's often important to have answers to wide variety of decks. The first cards cut are usually artifact hate and graveyard hate as those decks rarely fill large portion of metagame. From Affinity's point of view four Shatters are much easier to overcome than four Shattering Sprees or Ancient Grudges but it's still much harder than playing against an opponent whose answers to Cranial Plating are only two or three Abrupt Decays. Rakdos Charm is in strong competition with Jund Charm but it will be an instant pick for non-green decks like B/R Burn and U/B Delver.
That's probably all the Return to Ravnica cards that are worth serious consideration in Modern but don't forget that any card pool update usually allows older cards to come back into the limelight to unexpectedly soulbond with newcomers. If you have some fresh ideas but seem to miss a necessary part to make your dream deck tick just open StarCityGames.com's advanced card search and specify your requirements; there is a good chance that such a card was printed some years ago and you'll be able to buy it for a tenth of its normal price after the deck's discovery.
Good luck and never stop exploring!
P.S. Special thanks to my discussion and playtesting partners whose help was priceless.
I am Izzet. When I saw the guilds for the first time I was 146% sure that I was Izzet. My job is a research engineer so it's predicable that I associate myself with the Guild of Engineers. The Izzet in me is Curiosity. Everything I do is because of Curiosity. I just want to know everything – for my own pleasure not for my own purpose. Whenever Dracogenius needs an investigator he can count on me.