Finding cards that could fit into existing decks is fairly easy. You know what sees play and what effects these decks need, so you know what kind of card you’re looking to find. It’s much harder to find cards that inspire new decks. I suspect this is why the only truly new deck we’ve seen in Modern recently is Lantern Control. That doesn’t mean there aren’t new decks out there, just that they haven’t been found yet.
Yesterday, I discussed some cards from the former category. Today I’m working on the latter. Some are cards that were integral to decks in the past but have never broken through in Modern. Some are entirely speculative. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but Gatherer is a big place and I lack the ocular fortitude to investigate every single card in Modern. If you know of other viable build-around-me cards, please post about them in the comments or send Jason an article through our Contribute Articles page.
One ground rule: only decks that can currently exist should be considered. Otherwise this discussion would be about nothing but Life from the Loam, my yearly pick for Most Potentially Broken since Modern’s creation. Seriously, if cycling lands were ever printed Life could easily become the best engine card in the format. I believe it would be dominant and powerful to the point of meriting a ban. It was the best card in the best deck in Extended years ago, and while a hypothetical CAL reboot will not have Burning Wish or Solitary Confinement, its disruptive options have improved by quite a bit…
And that is why we should only stick to decks that can exist with the current cardpool. It’s really easy to get lost in speculation about theoretical decks and lose sight of reality. (Ahem.) Anyway, onto the cards!
I will be the first to admit that I am not a combo player. Doing math for fun and counting mana just doesn’t appeal to me. That said, as a brewer and deckbuilder I am fascinated by combo decks and have a long history of testing and even playing them. My first Extended deck was a borrowed Mind’s Desire list, so I’ve developed a reasonable sense of when cards have combo potential, and when that combo is good. Early Harvest is one such card, and it even has some pedigree behind it.
Harvest is one of those innocuous-looking cards that is worthless on its own but can be used to completely break open other cards. It has some limitations: three mana is a lot and only affecting basics is quite the burden in Modern. However, when you pair it with enchantments that produce extra mana then you suddenly have a mana engine that can quickly get out of hand. And whenever you generate a lot of mana, you will find a way to win the game.
Early Harvest’s greatest success was in the successor to the Sapphire Medallion version of Desire, Heartbeat combo. This deck utilized Heartbeat of Spring to generate absurd amounts of mana when coupled with Early Harvest and eventually built up to a massive Mind’s Desire-into-Brainfreeze kill. It lasted as long as Desire was Extended-legal and even for a while afterwards, since the engine at the heart of the deck, Heartbeat and Harvest, were still legal. Eventually the archetype petered out and it hasn’t been seen since.
So does the combo have a home in Modern? We don’t have storm cards on par with Brainfreeze or Mind’s Desire and it isn’t clear that Heartbeat combo is better than current Storm lists, which aren’t that prevalent anyway. However, I don’t think that you need to go the storm route. It’s possible that generating a lot of mana is good enough without having to storm off. A hellbent Demonfire is all you really need to win, and a deck that wields Early Harvest can power one out far more quickly than Eggs can. So how might that work?
I would begin by adding to the mana engine. Since a Heartbeat Harvest deck wouldn’t have storm to cheat on mana we need to actually generate it the old fashioned way. One potentially broken way is Lotus Cobra, another old engine card that sees no play. Yes, it’s very vulnerable to removal, but they won’t always have it at the right time and when they don’t then you can just go nuts. Consider the following progression:
Turn 1: Forest, go.
Turn 2: Forest, Lotus Cobra, go.
Turn 3: Misty Rainforest, trigger Cobra add G, crack Misty for Island, trigger Cobra add G.
Tap the new Island and use the floating mana to cast Heartbeat of Spring.
Is that a little unrealistic? Probably. But I’m sure better combo players can come up with something. If Jeskai Ascendancy, a deck with far more moving parts and chances to fizzle, can see play and win, then I’ll bet with some work and development Heartbeat can do so as well. Here’s one potential starting list:
Heartbeat Harvest, by David Ernenwein (Test Deck)
3 Lotus Cobra
3 Snapcaster Mage
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Heartbeat of Spring
4 Early Harvest
4 Peer Through Depths
4 Serum Visions
4 Rampant Growth
4 Misty Rainforest
4 Wooded Foothills
2 Scalding Tarn
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This list is really rough, because I’m not a natural combo player, but it goldfishes on turns 3-4 enough of the time for me to think there is potential here. It will take some refinement, but the mana engine is powerful enough that I think it’s a competitor with Storm and Ascendancy, and if the consistency issues get resolved then it could rival Scapeshift too. Something for the Johnnies of Modern to look into.
Go ahead and reread the card—I doubt anyone has thought about this card seriously in years. I will admit, this card doesn’t look like anything special and in fact looks quite bad. It saw limited play in Standard sideboards, but Modern? Not that I’ve found. Reanimation for CMC+1 isn’t that great, especially when it’s attached to a five-drop. For such effects to be good they need to be cheaper than the creatures you are reanimating, which is why most Modern-legal reanimation spells don’t see play. Unburial Rites only sees play these days because of its flashback cost. So how can I possibly think that there is a deck that wants this card? Because I’ve lost to it before. Twice.
There is a combo deck in Modern that uses this card. I cannot be more specific because I saw it twice many months ago and I forgot to write down the combo. What I do remember is that it utilized Heartless Summoning for acceleration, discard and Damnation for protection, and won the game either through reanimated fattie beatdown or a functionally infinite combo that used Lich (and the cards I forgot) to generate zombie tokens and direct damage. It may have had a dredge engine and Bridge from Below.
I thought it was janky and bad the first time I lost, since I’d drawn very poorly that game, but the second time I was impressed enough to remember it existed. I just wish that I’d planned well enough to remember the combo. Do any of you know the combo I’m talking about?
Even if I never find the combo deck again, Lich is a reasonable card when it doesn’t just die to Terminate. The reason is that Lich targets cards in any graveyard. A control deck running this card can turn the opponent’s creatures against them, which I remember happening to me when I played against the deck (it really made me hate my own Harbinger of the Tides and Master of Waves). As a value creature it is pretty slow and clunky, but if your deck is also slow then this might be a reasonable inclusion. And if you can figure out what the combo is, then you might really have something.
The best removal spell for one mana in Modern is Path to Exile. Lightning Bolt sees far more play but Path hits more creatures. Bolt is the most powerful red spell because of its versatility, but if all you want is creature kill then it isn’t the best red removal spell because Skred exists. Yes, it starts out at parity or worse than Bolt, but as the game progresses there become fewer and fewer creatures that Skred doesn’t kill. However, it sees no almost play.
Skred sees no play because snow sees no play. You cannot play one without the other. For those who do not remember, some permanents from Coldsnap have snow as a supertype. Other than letting Boreal Druid produce snow mana (which is a quality that mana from a snow permanent has, not another type of mana), it only matters when certain cards say that it matters. Skred was the most played card that cared about snow, but the most powerful card was Scrying Sheets. Skred has traditionally been the reason to play snow, but Scrying Sheets is an exceptional enabler and may be the real reason to play snow these days.
When Skred and Scrying Sheets see play these days it is usually as a quasi-combo with Boros Reckoner. While I see the appeal, shooting your own Reckoner has always seemed overly cute to me. What Frank Lepore showed in the linked videos is the power of Skred as a traditional, very powerful, removal spell. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t get to go long with Sheets. You see, what Sheets did for the 2007-2008 decks was serve as a consistency engine. They didn’t play any snow permanents other than lands and didn’t play many actual ramp spells besides Into the North, which usually tutored for Sheets. Scrying Sheets let them pull lands from the top of their deck 30-40% of the time depending on build, which meant that they almost never missed land drops. A few played additional snow permanents, usually Coldsteel Heart, so that Sheets drew them an extra card 50% of the time.
I realize a card draw engine that works around 50% of the time and requires considerable deckbuilding constraints doesn’t seem very good. However, consider this: Sheets is a land. For the same mana investment per turn you could use Jushi Apprentice and leave your draw engine vulnerable to Bolt. Sheets provides colorless mana and is only vulnerable to Ghost Quarter or Tectonic Edge, and it is less likely that your opponent will Quarter a Scrying Sheets than a Desolate Lighthouse. Couple that with Serum Visions and you are looking at a reasonable way to hit the right mix of land drops and spells in a long game.
If we want to make Sheets read “Draw a card” then we’ll need to do a lot of work that I’m not convinced is worthwhile. The number of constructed-playable snow permanents was low back in Standard, really only including the lands, Coldsteel Heart, Mouth of Ronom, and Ohran Viper. Attempts were made to make Adarkar Valkyrie, Gelid Shackles, and Boreal Druid work, but I couldn’t find record of the first two panning out or Druid played as more than an extra Llanowar Elves. I remember seeing Stalking Yeti in some lists, but I think that was due more to nostalgia over Flametongue Kavu than the strength of the card proper. Of the playables, Mouth is really slow but might be a bullet if we really need colorless removal, Heart seems like decent fixing, and I don’t think Viper is good enough anymore.
What this means is that if we want to play with snow, we need a mana-hungry deck that is rather ponderous and slow. The Blue Moon style of control deck seems like a good candidate, since those decks already play lots of lands and removal and don’t mind going long. The fact that our manabase would need to be all basics makes us far less vulnerable to our own Blood Moons, even if it does shut down Sheets.
On the other hand, we could also take a page out of the old playbook and use Sheets in a midrange ramp strategy to ensure that we hit our land drops. I suspect that Jund or Tron are going to be better, but it could work. Here’s a rough idea:
RG Midrange, by David Ernenwein (Test Deck)
4 Courser of Kruphix
3 Huntmaster of the Fells
3 Coldsteel Heart
4 Lightning Bolt
3 Garruk Wildspeaker
3 Chandra, Flamecaller
2 Koth of the Hammer
2 Nissa, Worldwaker
3 Anger of the Gods
4 Highland Weald
2 Scrying Sheets
2 Mouth of Ronom
9 Snow-Covered Mountain
8 Snow-Covered Forest
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I suspect that this deck will be very good at grinding against midrange and creature decks but will struggle against combo and control. It might be good enough to see play. At the very least it’s something to consider, and serves as a reminder that there are plenty of decks out there.
The Tech is Out There
My point in all this is that just because the format staples are so powerful that’s no reason to dismiss the rest of the Modern cardpool. There are forgotten treasures lurking around in there if you’re willing to look for them. Also, don’t be afraid of building a new deck in the same space as established decks. You don’t want to be a bad version of an established deck, but sometimes you’re going to find a way to attack the format that the established deck cannot—and you might even overturn the old standard. The only way to know for certain is to get out and test.
David began playing Magic during Odyssey block, quit playing Magic when Caw Blade ruled the world, and returned to Modern shortly before Deathrite was banned. He’s made an appearance at the Pro Tour, made money at GP Denver, and is constantly grinding and brewing in Modern.