The most powerful cards that do not see play in Modern have been visited periodically on this site over the years (1,2). Magic is a complex game where new cards can completely shake up the format and introduce new archetypes—like Fatal Push did for Death’s Shadow. The game is constantly growing and new eyes are assembling old cards in powerful new ways like Lantern Control. Some cards that were featured in past iterations of this list only needed a favorable metagame or a talented pilot to show the world they belonged on the top tables of the format, like Young Pyromancer or Gift’s Ungiven.
The purpose of this article is to give the competitive brewers some recommended starting off points when new cards are released, start a theory-based discussion about what makes a deck powerful in Modern, and explain why some pillars of other formats have never arrived in Modern.
The “Forgotten” Cards
After Splinter Twin and Gitaxian Probe were banned, what I suspect was the most common sideboard card in the format completely disappeared. People seemed to forget that everyone’s favorite artifact horror was still a great sideboard card against Affinity and Bogles. If you’re playing a deck that cares about protecting your own permanents or wants to have a hoser for those two matchups, you would be hard pressed to find something that matches up as well.
What can I say about Infect that I haven’t already? Blighted Agent is the key threat in a deck that I think is truly underplayed. I expect the king of the Modern combo decks to make a resurgence soon as the metagame adjusts towards noninteractive decks again.
This combo deck of Modern past has not seen major play since Treasure Cruise’s brief visit to the format, but we are at the point where many players have never played against the deck and so you have an advantage there, not to mention that the number of counterspells might be at an all-time low in the format. Still, it is slower than Storm and is decidedly weak to Meddling Mage and Kitesail Freebooter, so be sure to account for that when deck building.
In the long list of delve spells that have demonstrated they are good enough for Modern, Murderous Cut is the most underrated. Pushed aside by newcomer Fatal Push, now that Grixis Control can replace the delve creatures with Jace, The Mind Sculptor to win the game, I would expect Murderous Cut to see increased play soon instead of Terminate as another cheap answer to Gurmag Angler and Hollow One. The title of black’s Swords to Plowshares has been taken over for now, but someday Murderous Cut will contend again.
Nahiri, the Harbinger
A brief flash of Modern success demonstrated the power that Nahiri can bring to Modern, often in the form of a 15/15 flying trample, and Nahiri could soon return to that place in the format. The plus ability helps the control deck find the right answers at the right time, which is crucial when you need your answers as soon as possible in a format as fast as Modern. The minus ability has relevance against common enchantments like Blood Moon, but also artifacts like Hollow One and Affinity. If your meta has a lot of those threatening permanents, look for Nahiri to bail you out.
The “Probably Too Slow” Cards
The reign of Faeries was before I started playing the game, but that has not stopped me from sleeving them up on occasion and checking every new spoiler for additions to the tribe. Unfortunately, since the unbanning of Bitterblossom, there has not been a viable one. Nevertheless, if you are able to leverage the disruption of Spellstutter Sprite then you feel like a genius, and there are a lot of 1-mana spells played in Modern. Whether it’s Faithless Looting, Path to Exile, Thoughtseize, or Expedition Map, there will be targets out there. The weakness of the Sprite is that you are trading tempo for disruption, and Modern is—and perhaps always will be—about speed.
Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek
Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek have remained surprisingly quiet since Sword of the Meek came off of the banned list. It matches up fantastically versus creature-based aggro decks that have a difficult time interacting with artifacts, which exactly describes Humans and Hollow One. The problems are the games when you take too long to assemble the combination and die before you do anything relevant. But if you are able to get a Thopter Foundry into play and a Sword of the Meek into your graveyard I am not sure how many of the popular Modern decks overcome it.
Tamiyo, Field Researcher
Despite being 4 mana, I will never understand why this did not see play when Bant Eldrazi was on top of the format. All of the modes are helpful in tempo decks and she provides solid card advantage to the various Bant flavors of Eldrazi, Company, Combo, or Spirits. If you are looking for options to help you in long games against control decks or to help you win a race in an aggro mirror, this is a great choice. Even though we are in an era now where all planeswalkers are compared to Jace, I think this former Standard staple will compete someday.
Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
Ever since Ashiok’s time in Standard, I have felt that the card was underplayed. Once the Theros-based planeswalker rotated out of Standard, I think Ashiok has been underplayed in Modern as well.
Against creature-based decks, Ashiok provides card advantage and a win condition with the -X ability. Against control decks the +2 can be a win condition as well since most players don’t expect a threat they need to counter on turn 3. With the number of cheap creatures that see play in Modern, this makes Ashiok even better.
Unfortunately for Ashiok, with the unbanning of Jace, The Mind Sculptor and the printing of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, it is unlikely that blue control mages are poised to give Ashiok some testing, but if you are looking for a strong threat that will catch your opponent off-guard while also being cheaper—both in terms of mana and your wallet—then this is the card to try.
I have a number of failed attempts at making a competitive mono-white enchantments deck, but perhaps I just was not able to assemble the pieces in the right way. The decks I built were too slow, and hitting a 7-mana sorcery was just an unrealistic goal, but if you can hide behind Ghostly Prison or Porphyry Nodes long enough to land an Enduring Ideal, it is trivial to assemble a kill from there through Form of the Dragon, Assemble the Legion, Luminarch Ascension, Phyrexian Unlife/Solemnity or whatever you choose. If Modern ever slows down or the acceleration in white ever speeds up, this could be epic.
Other Format All-Stars
Rally the Ancestors/Return to the Ranks
The bane of Battle for Zendikar Standard has not broken out in Modern yet, but the power is definitely there. You can follow Sam Pardee’s suggestions to make a value themed Return to the Ranks build or go with Rally the Ancestors for a combo-oriented finish, but either way I think the deck will someday break out. The brews I have attempted had difficulty interacting in combo matchups like Storm, but perhaps a few Tidehollow Scullers would help. I never tested the matchup, but Meddling Mage could also be a headache so you would have to find a way around that. But if it continues to be common for your opponent to force you to put cards into your graveyard with Burning Inquiry, this could be a great option to gain an advantage.
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
Once headlining the same deck as Rally the Ancestors above, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy is a card that I am very surprised has not seen more play. If you are attempting to play Jeskai Control in a format full of midrange Jund or Death’s Shadow decks, this could be a great option in the sideboard once your opponent sideboards out their Lightning Bolts. Jace has already seen sporadic play in Goryo’s Vengence decks because of the favorable interaction with that card, but I still think that it could be a staple of the format someday soon.
Delver of Secrets
A Legacy stalwart since its printing, the card has not broken out in Modern other than that short time when the format itself was broken. The problem with Delver in Modern is that without the powerful cantrips available in Legacy, you are forced to play too many lands and other threats for redundancy and these do not flip the Delver. If Ponder or Preordain ever escape from their shackles or if there is another cantrip or aggressive blue creature for redundancy, this is where I would explore.
We have seen what this card can do in Vintage where it has since been restricted, and it even exploded onto the Legacy scene in Miracles builds. With the recent success of Young Pyromancer in Modern, there is hope for Monastery Mentor one day. Whether it is an alternate win condition in Sram, Senior Edificer/Puresteel Paladin combo decks or spell-based combo decks like KCI or Lantern Control to dodge artifact hate, or even a key piece of potential red-white attrition style decks like the Mardu Pyromancer decks have become, keep your eye on Monastery Mentor.
Although I think its premiere in Legacy is premature due to the constant prevalence of a certain 1/2 blocker, Modern may actually be an appropriate place for the Construct. Modern Burn often relies on creatures to get in early damage and then places hope in the top of the deck later in the game, so it seems natural to try Bomat Courier in this shell. It’s also an option for Affinity that can take advantage of an early artifact. Once the little fellow rotates out of Standard, I will be holding on to my copies.
Another candidate from Standard ban lists of seasons past, I believe that if Ancient Ziggurat could cast Smuggler’s Copter, this card would already be seeing a lot of play in Humans. That said, there were some builds during Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan that relied on Collected Company to have late-game success, but I would be looking to Smuggler’s Copter before I went there. Even though it is not a Human for cards like Thalia’s Lieutenant, it provides card selection, evasion, and additional protection against board sweepers.
The reason I find Modern so fascinating is the seemingly endless potential that the format provides. There is so much power lurking just below the surface of the premier decks that at any time one of these hidden contenders can rise to the challenge.
What cards did I miss? Which card do you think is closest to rising up to the top tables in Modern? Let’s discuss in the comments!