Top 5 Magic: The Gathering Modern Staples Everyone Needs In Their Collection, by Kerry Meyerhoff
Modern is Magic: the Gathering’s second most popular format, and it features cards from all Magic sets stretching back to Eighth Edition and original Mirrodin block. There are hundreds of different playable archetypes, both mainstream and fringe, constructed of thousands of set-legal cards, with only thirty-five currently on the banned list. In this series, I’m going to explore Modern in-depth, looking at the format in its current state, analysing what existed in the past, and giving you an idea of what sort of cards to play, or play around.
In this, the first of the series, I’m going to keep it simple, and talk about what are, in my opinion, the top 5 all-round “best” cards in Modern. They can go in most deck archetypes as long as you are running the right colours (or even sometimes if you aren’t!), they are great value for their effects and they are the staple cards that if you are a Modern player, you will probably own a playset of. They aren’t confined to being really good in just one deck or one situation, but are almost always a great play. Put simply, they’re the best of the best.
Before we begin, I would like to take a little time to talk about lands, though. This series is going to primarily focus on spells (there may be a Top 5 Lands in Modern somewhere down the line) because, let’s face it, if you go to MtgTop8 and look at the most played cards, 70% of them are fetch lands and shock lands. Yes, if you’re a Modern player, the fetches and shocks are without doubt the most important things to own. Yes, they go in (almost) every deck, and yes, they’re incredibly intrinsic to the format. However, there isn’t any point in making an article series about Modern all-star cards and having the top 20 be just lands, so I’m going to mention them here and move on. If you want to play Modern, get some! They are the reason that three- or even four-colour decks are possible in the format, they are the bedrock of almost any deck, and without them, Modern would look a lot different.
So, without further ado…
Top 5 MTG Modern Staples You Need In Your Collection
5. Accelerate mana with Noble Hierarch
This card is the queen of mana dorks. Since its printing in Conflux, representing the shard of Bant, it has seen play across a number of formats. Not only does it ramp your mana up early, and cost the same as an Elvish Mystic and tap for two more colours, but it has an extra ability as well, Exalted. The small and seemingly innocuous line of text can, in fact, have a huge impact on games. Exalted triggers when a creature you control attacks alone, and gives it +1/+1 until end of turn. With decks like Death’s Shadow Zoo or Infect, where the aim is to voltron everything you have onto one creature and kill in one or two turns, that extra +1/+1 can mean the difference between a win and a loss.
The extra mana early on is helpful to allow an Infect player to keep up Vines of Vastwood or Blossoming Defense as well as use pump. In addition, because it taps for blue mana, it can give those fast decks access to Spell Pierce early on to defend their threats, and in a dire situation, even though it’s a 0/1 by default, it can attack and trigger its own Exalted ability to get in for some points. It’s not unheard of for an Infect player to simply unload all their pump onto a Hierarch against an opponent who has carelessly fetched and shocked their life total away to kill all the infect threats. As a handy extra, the card can also get under Lantern Control’s Ensnaring Bridge, because when it attacks, it’s still a 0/1; the Exalted effect, and whatever pump you use, apply afterwards, and so you can even get around what should be a game-ending play against an aggro deck.
So, at its best, this card represents mana ramp, an Exalted effect, and colour fixing. At worst, it eats removal that would have otherwise killed one of your threats, acts as a chump blocker or lets you get in a desperate swing under an Ensnaring Bridge to try and get in those last few points. In most games I have seen it played in, though, Hierarch has done good work, and in a select few it has been the standout MVP.
4. Control and disrupt with a Thoughtseize
This card is an absolute standout for control decks the world over. Allowing you to see your opponent’s hand on turn one, sometimes before they can make a play, and take their best threat, mana ramp or combo piece is an absolutely invaluable tool. For one mana, this card (and its little brother Inquisition of Kozilek) are both fantastic value, providing you with both information and disruption. You can map out your opponent’s hand, consider their likely plays and do your best to play around it, and it puts them immediately at a disadvantage, especially considering you traded your one-mana spell for their best card. There are few plays better for a black control deck than turn-one Thoughtseize, particularly post sideboard when you can take their silver bullet and leave them with a mediocre hand.
This card also has some niche interactions. It is very good in the Jund and Abzan lists that like to run Tarmogoyf, because it fills up the graveyard early on, and contributes to the eventual goal of these decks which is to remove the opponent’s hand and have them playing off the top of their deck. If you are playing a combo list like Grishoalbrand, you can actually Thoughtseize yourself to put a creature in the graveyard to reanimate, if you have no other discard outlet available.
Of course, it does have its drawbacks. The two life that you have to pay can sometimes come back to bite you against fast decks, particularly if you play a painful mana base. This is where Inquisition is often favoured, particularly in Modern when most of the cards you will want to take are under three mana; however, against decks like Titan Breach or Tron, it can be really important to have less restriction on which card you can select, which is why generally Thoughtseize is considered to be a better overall card. The other drawback of this type of effect is drawing it in the late game, when your opponent doesn’t have a hand or when they don’t have anything worth playing anyway, and it feels very lacklustre. However, the strength of the card in the early game far outweighs the potential for late-game feel-bads, and it is certainly the most powerful hand attack card in the format.
3. Beatdowns with a Tarmogoyf
Continuing on the theme of “best-of Jund”, we have good old ‘goyf. This card is well known for being one of the most expensive cards in Modern, and for good reason. For two mana, you have the potential to make an 8/9 creature. That’s bonkers.
Of course, most goyfs don’t make it to that size. You might only get a 4/5 for your two mana. Damn, well now the card is… still nuts.
All joking aside, this has to be one of the best creatures to ever see print. Interestingly, when it was first released, nobody took any notice of it – Planeswalker still wasn’t a card type, and it was sort of left by the wayside as one of those janky $1 rares that have a fun or interesting effect. It wasn’t until later when the true power of this card and what it can do came to light, and now it sees widespread play. It does what green does – makes a big, vanilla stompy creature – but for an incredibly efficient mana cost in an easy build-around strategy. As mentioned above, turn-one Thoughtseize into turn-two Tarmogoyf is one of the best possible plays for a control or midrange deck in Modern, and results in a pretty fast clock against an opponent who is already behind.
The best part about a Tarmogoyf, though, is how difficult it is to kill. Most times it comes out, it’s already a 3/4, and that extra point of toughness can be really irritating to most low-to-the-ground decks. Little Zoo is literally halted in its path by a 3/4 Tarmogoyf (it matches up pretty well against Goblin Guide and Wild Nacatl). Burn struggles to deal with it unless they can go straight to the face. Even the Bant Eldrazi decks can have a tough time going over the top of a Tarmogoyf on occasion. It’s just simply an incredible creature which can hold off aggro, present a fast clock and matches up well against most other creatures in the format, requiring the opponent to make a suicidal attack or a poor block and then use another card to kill it on most occasions.
This card is also used as the classic level 1 judge question, which actually comes up surprisingly often in real play. If you have a 2/3 Tarmogoyf without an Instant in the yard, and your opponent Bolts it? No, it does not die. Bolt resolves, goes to the graveyard and then Tarmogoyf is a 3/4 with three damage marked on it. Just another reason why this card is effectively unkillable. If you’re running green, sell your Playstation/car/firstborn, buy some and put them in your deck. Now.
2. Does it die to Lightning Bolt?
This is probably one of, if not the most classic card in MTG. The unmistakable, beautiful Christopher Rush art first printed in Alpha, up to the more modern version last printed in Modern Masters 2015, has remained one of the most simple, and purely good cards that we have ever seen. It deals 3 damage to target creature or player. There have been many variations of the theme across the years, from the strictly worse Shock, to Lava Spike to Chain Lightning – but nothing has quite stood the test of time as well as the original and best.
In Modern, Lightning Bolt has become the benchmark by which burn spells and removal spells, and sometimes even creatures, can be measured. Anything with three toughness or less has to be worth its mana cost and more, because it can “die to Bolt”, a universally acknowledged concept for measuring a creature’s worth. For example, many people think that if Thought-Knot Seer was a 4/3, it would be much less playable in Modern, because it would put it below the “dies to Bolt” threshold.
This card is simply run in a massive range of decks. Whether you are on Burn, Grixis, Zoo, Goblins, Jund, Jeskai or, back in the old days, Twin, you are going to be running four-of Bolt. It deals with fast decks incredibly well, being able to pick off small, cheap creatures efficiently. It allows you to burn down planeswalkers before they can do too much damage, or finish off a large creature in combat after blocking. If all else fails, a topdecked Bolt to the face can sometimes be all you’re hoping for to win the game once you’ve run out of gas and your control opponent has the board locked down. There is no doubt that this card is the very definition of the word “staple”, and will be for a long, long time.
1. It’ll definitely die to a Path to Exile!
So, now we come to the top card, the most classic Modern staple, so much so that it surpasses even Lightning Bolt:
White is often hailed as one of the best colours in Modern, due to its incredible versatility. Cards like Rest in Peace, Stony Silence, and Runed Halo can provide catch-all answers that can just win games on their own, and if anything goes horribly wrong, there are reset buttons like Wrath of God. These types of cards give white decks the edge over other colours, and certainly in the sideboard, people are encouraged to splash the colour to have access to better hate.
Path to Exile is the epitome of everything that is good about white cards in Modern.
It’s low costed, unconditional and has very little drawback. It’s an instant reset button for the biggest problem on the board, buying you turns before you die, or at best, removing their only threat and putting you in a position from which you can win the game. Almost the only time that you will have this spell in hand and NOT want to use it is when your opponent is heavily mana screwed or lacking a colour, and if that’s the case, you will normally be ahead anyway.
It answers almost every creature in the format besides a select few, and completely hoses some strategies such as Infect and Death’s Shadow Zoo. If you have this card in hand, they are forced to wait until they can answer it with a protection spell or counterspell, and that means you have time to find a way to shut them down, or win the game yourself. It can break up the combo elements of Abzan Company or Elves. It can remove a Lord of Atlantis mid-combat to make a very effective block. Creature decks have to have this card in mind all the time and play around it effectively, because the potential blowouts are massive – and the cost even just to bluff it is only one mana. This can save you a certain loss against an Infect player who’s scared to go all-in, particularly now Gitaxian Probe is banned and they probably won’t know your hand. And let’s not forget, it exiles, so any deck like Dredge which utilises the graveyard can forget about recursion; and your Tarmogoyf won’t be getting any bigger today, either, friend.
So, there you have it. The best Modern staple currently in the format, in my opinion, the prime removal spell: Path to Exile. With the meta in a fast and furious state, this spell is a good part of what keeps slower decks going.
What are your top 5 Modern staples?
I hope you have enjoyed my article. Bear in mind, I have more coming, so the card you want to see featured may be in a different category. This will be a weekly series, so look out for the next!
Did you disagree with any of my assessments? Or do you, like me, think that Path to Exile is top dog? Please let us know in the comments section below :)
Thanks for reading,