I would like to start this article by setting things straight: Modern Horizons is the best draft format ever. Seriously, I do not say this lightly, but I have not had this much fun drafting in a while.
I have not liked most of the Masters set so I was on the fence with this one but Wizards really did do a great job here. Basically, the main reason I like it a lot is that all the cards have a role to play. Your fifteenth pick could be as important as your first because maybe you really needed that Goatnap that no one else liked and was left at the end. All cards have abilities, there are basically no vanilla creatures and very few spells that I would consider unplayable. The games are extremely complex and interesting and so are the drafts themselves.
We are months into the format and yet it still happens that someone sends me a picture of a deck with some synergy I had never put together before. Even a format such as Khans of Tarkir did not manage to stay fresh and original for so long.
I am glad that Wizards decided to include such a great format in the European Modern Series Finals. This article is to help anyone that is not really well versed in limited to get a grasp on the format in preparation for the event happening this weekend. This article goes through all the main archetypes plus a couple of bonus ones, examining the key cards that make up the archetypes and how to draft and play them. Often you can’t choose the deck you will end up with, and I always discourage forcing a specific deck in draft, so it is good to get to know many of the possibilities that the format offers.
The Green “Ramp and fat men” Decks
Green is, in my opinion, the strongest colour in Modern Horizons. That is not to say green decks are necessarily better than others, however it is the case that G/X decks are almost entirely defined by the green cards in the deck, rather than what you have in your second color. And that makes green the most sought after color in a draft. An exception is W/G, which is usually predominantly white and will be covered under that.
Green has a number of excellent cards at common which are wanted in basically any green deck. The fundamental green strategy is setting up and ramping in the early game to play fat creatures as early as possible. Rime Tender is one of the best and you don’t need to be specifically U/G snow to use it. Same for Winding Way, which isn’t just a card for graveyard strategies like B/G or R/G, but is just an excellent tool to refuel in any green deck. Krosan Tusker and Springbloom Druid aren’t just there to enable Snow and RG decks but are simply incredibly good cards to use in any Green deck.
So all the green decks should have as many copies as possible of the cards mentioned above. Then the other cards and colours will define your specific strategy.
Dedicated Snow decks rely on the base package of Rime Tender, Springbloom Druid and Krosan Tusker to access their snow lands and generally ramp into giant beaters like Conifer Wurm or Abominable Treefolk. These decks can typically splash cards quite easily thanks to Arcum Astrolabe and the rest of the green fixing; so you can expect to find just about any splashable card in it. Some versions have more blue cards like Fact or Fiction, Rain of Revelation, Winter’s Rest and end up more controlling, while others will feature Saddled Rimestag and Frostwallas for a more beatdown-oriented deck.
The strength of the deck comes from the fact that the strategy of attacking with massive tramplers is a pretty good one in the format. Conifer Wurm, Treefolk and Murasa Behemoth are massive and nothing can contend with them in combat. The creatures in the format are generally small sized and there are not many deathtouchers. Wurm especially can end the game in two attacks with sufficient snow permanents. For the same reason, Winter's Rest is actually a premium removal spell because it can shut down the opponent's fatties at a huge mana advantage.
Because of the need to prioritize snowlands, this deck can be tricky to draft. It is also quite popular and hence possibly overdrafted. You should always monitor the snow lands going around to figure out how many snow drafters there are and how close they are to your position. Remember also that Forests and Islands are at a premium while the others usually go a bit later and Plains is for sure the worst.
Variant: U/G Mill
I think a particular variant of U/G that is worth mentioning is the mill deck. This is based around having multiple Iceberg Cancrix, playing a defensive game while milling out the opponent. Premium cards in this deck are all the things that can trigger Cancrix twice or for free, like the Snow Basics, Astrolabe, Springbloom Druid, and Blizzard Strix. This can even be supported by dedicated mill cards like Stream of Thought or Altar of Dementia.
This deck can actually be quite powerful when it comes together but it still needs the good green cards and Snow lands so I would only move into it if I see very late Cancrixes and I have no other option. I also don’t like decks that depend massively on drawing specific cards at the right moment (Cancrix on turn 2 and possibly a second copy on turn 3), so I typically try to avoid this archetype and others suffering from the same problem, as we’ll see later.
R/G maintains the basic green strategy of ramping early to make giant creatures quickly. In addition to that it focuses on Igneous Elemental as it’s main beatdown creature, which also controls the opposing board. Two damage might not seem like a lot, but actually many bombs in the format have 2 toughness (Ayula, Queen Among Bears, Pashalik Mons, Good-Fortune Unicorn, Cloudshredder Sliver, Soulherder etc.), making this already an acceptable card at 6 mana but also a massive beating at 4. R/G decks can reliably cast this on turn 4, or even 3, thanks to cards like the cycle lands (which should be prioritized), Springbloom Druid, Winding Way or Hollowhead Sliver. Essentially the strategy is similar to other green decks but the early setup phase is focused more on putting lands in the graveyard than ramping. Try to draft keeping in mind the number of setup cards and payoffs to try and end up with a good balance. It’s hard to give numbers but I’d be happy with 4 or 5 ways to play the Elemental on turn 4, and really there is no limit to the number of the Elemental in the deck, provided you can cast it reliably on turn 4.
Ore-Scale Guardian is another massive payoff for this strategy, again the creature sizing in the format is relatively small and this hasty dragon is going to dominate in the air most of the time.
Finally, another advantage of the archetype is that it ends up naturally containing lots of cards to stop flooding. Many I have already named, Krosan Tusker is another one since you can just make a 6/5 when you don’t need a land. Tectonic Reformation is a premium rare for the deck but even without it you can end up with a deck that will simply stop at 6-7 mana drawing all gas from there on.
It should be mentioned that the R/G gold card, Ruination Rioter, is not very good since it is difficult to have it trigger at the right moment and sometimes it should stay in the sideboard in favour of cards like Rime Tender or Mother Bear.
This is my own favourite archetype in Modern Horizon since it combines ramp (Rime Tender, Springbloom Druid), excellent removal (Igneous Elemental, Magmatic Sinkhole), big creatures (Murasa Behemoth, Ore-Scale Guardian), and even card advantage (Winding Way).
There isn’t much to say about GB. Essentially it’s similar to the other green decks except with more removal. I would say if you are playing black it’s probably because you have some very strong black card at higher rarities, like Rotwidow Pack, Graveshifter, Crypt Rats, Endling, a splashed Fallen Shinobi, and so on. For this reason it is hard to put these decks into a category. Sometimes you simply managed to draft a good number or removal like Mob or Defile. Aside from that the deck will play out pretty much like the other green decks, based on ramp and fat creatures, with the extra controlling element from cards like Mob and more grind potential thanks to Graveshifter.
These decks can be quite powerful simply thanks to the green base, so while drafting you want to make sure you have all the relevant green cards before picking the black commons, which are less important.
The White “Go wide” decks
Similar to green, the white decks mostly revolve around the white cards regardless of the second color. The basic strategy is making a wide board and swinging for a massive attack fueled by Stirring Address, Volatile Claws, or Scale Up.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, since the white cards are not particularly powerful and in fact I believe white is the worst colour in the set. It features incredibly powerful bombs at rare or even uncommon, like Winds of Abandon and Battle Screech, but the commons, especially the creatures are not great at all. Cards like Martyr’s Soul, Segovian Angel, Knight of Old Benalia and various others are at the low end of playability but will take up precious white slots in the packs and sadly sometimes in your white deck.
Still, white offers great spells like Stirring Address, Shelter, and Settle Beyond Reality, plus very good gold uncommons that are actually a must have in decks of that color combination.
In terms of creature, the ones you should try to always get are Rhox Veteran, Irregular Cohort, Lancer Sliver and Enduring Sliver. I also like Answered Prayers a lot since it’s basically the only white flyer at common, and it usually dominates in the air while keeping you alive with the small lifegain.
G/W is quite unlike most green decks and plays out as a generic white weenie deck. For this deck you want to grab the white cards discussed above, a mass pump effect and green aggressive creatures like Saddled Rimestag, Mother Bear and Frostwalla. I don’t really like Treetop Ambusher even in this deck, unless you have multiple Answered Prayers. Trumpeting Herd would be a premium card here but it’s unlikely to go very far in a draft since all the green drafters should pick it relatively highly. Try to pass the green fatties in favour of 2 drops, the Rhox, and small white creatures in general.
Also be mindful of how you fill in your spell slots. Ideally you should have 1 or 2 mass pump (but I wouldn’t play double scale up), and as many Savage Swipes as possible since basically all your creatures will have 2 power. I would pass on Elvish Fury since it isn’t great and also avoid Reprobation and hope to get one Settle Beyond Reality for something that really needs removing.
In general, this deck can be good but i would only move into it based on extremely high value picks like Battle Screech or Good-Fortune Unicorn. Otherwise there is a good chance that your deck will end up being a medium “creature and tricks” style deck which will most likely not do well in a format as powerful as Modern Horizons.
As the name implies, R/W tries to exploit the Sliver synergies to build a large army and then close the game with the mass pump, which in this case could be Volatile Claw or an entwined Goblin War Party. I’ll say immediately that the quality of this deck largely depends on having access to a specific card and unfortunately it’s a rare. I’m talking about Cloudshredder Sliver. This creature in the right deck can run away with most games where it stays unanswered and the difference between having it or not is just immense. Again, the format doesn’t have many fliers and it’s unlikely he will be contested in the air. Even if it is, you can just hold it until you have built up a good board made of Cleaving Slivers then make a surprise attack in the air.
In drafting this deck you should be prioritizing the white common slivers and Cleaving Sliver in red. Irregular Cohort is excellent to create two bodies having all the current Sliver bonuses. The same can be achieved with Volatile Claws which can be a real blowout in combat when you control the likes of Cleaving Sliver and Lancer Slivers. King of the Pride can be also an interesting way to close the game when paired with the Claws.
The gold card of the archetype, Lavabelly Sliver is a bit strange because it’s not combat oriented, and I wouldn't necessarily pick it highly but it should be noted that it becomes very good in multiples.
I’ll say right off the bat that I believe this is the worst archetype of Modern Horizons. In theory, it’s based on building up a large changeling board pumping them using permanent effects from Etching of the Chosen, King of the Pride or exploiting the abilities of tribal cards like Enduring Sliver or Sling-Gang Lieutenant. Additionally, this deck usually features a number of Changeling Outcast, that can turn into real threat thanks to cards like First Sliver's Chosen or King of the Pride. Ideally this is topped off with the good suite of black removal like Mob and Defile.
The problem with this archetype is that many of the cards it wants will be highly contested by the other drafters. The generic common changelings are not great and the good ones like Irregular Cohort or Graveshifter will be picked highly in the draft. The same goes for good tribal cards like First Sliver's Chosen, Sling-Gang Lieutenant and Enduring Sliver. Mob can even be a first pick so it’s unlikely you’ll find many and you might end up with playing Reprobation or Settle Beyond Reality with no good targets on your side.
There are however some cards that are low priority for other drafters and you should definitely pick up. These are Return from Extinction and Dredgescape Sliver which can give the deck some much needed resilience to the removal of key pieces. Undead Augur is another great engine card that is often underdrafted since there are many good 2 drops in the format and it will shine in a deck full of changelings.
The Blue “combo” decks
The remaining blue color combinations are pretty much in a category of their own and each features a rather unique playstyle.
U/R decks are quite unique as they are unlike the usual “spell matters” archetypes that U/R is in almost all sets. It is based around a specific set of creatures that become better as you draw multiple cards in a turn. These are Eyekite, Spinehorn Minotaur, Oneirophage and Thundering Djinn. The uncommons are particularly good and excellent first picks but even the commons are decent and Minotaur especially is often a beating when combined with Fists of Flame.
Besides these creatures, the deck should contain cards that have incidental draws in addition to other effects, examples of which are Pondering Mage, Cycling lands/creatures, Phantasmal Form and Fists of Flame (the latter two both excellent with Minotaur). In addition to that, good draw spells like Rain of Revelation and Fact or Fiction (not really a combo with the above, but still one of the best blue cards) are required to keep a constant flow of cards going. Hollowhead Sliver is an excellent card for this deck as it provides the possibility of always drawing at least 2 cards each turn.
This archetype can be quite strong but it can be hard to draft the right balance of creatures and spells and it requires of some key cards like the Minotaur and the Fists. Some versions can be quite all-in on this strategy, which I actually dislike since it becomes too vulnerable to removal on your key creatures, which would leave you with cards like Fists or Form stranded in your hand. Typically when I manage to draft an Oneirophage or Thundering Djinn and see that these colors are open, I prefer to draft a more “soft” version that looks more like a classic U/R control, focusing more on the powerful red removal and blue card draw, using the Oneirophage as a finisher.
U/B Ninjas is an even more all-in deck, with an extremely low costed creature base, aimed at having a bunch of early evasive creatures like Changeling Outcast and Faerie Seer and Eyekite, to start swapping them with Ninjas as early as turn 2. Going one drop into Ingenieus Infiltrator is basically the best start in the format, but even the common Ninjas like Moonblade Shinobi or Azra Smokeshaper are quite good when paired with a lot of small evasive creatures. After deploying the initial set of threats the deck takes the form of a tempo deck employing cards like Man-o-War, Phantasmal Form, and Smoke Shroud to keep the Ninjas connecting while delaying the opponent plan.
This deck is widely regarded as one of the best, but this is an opinion I disagree with. To begin with, the deck is very dependant on its signature gold uncommon, Ingenious Infiltrator, and the ability of the deck to have him connect as soon as possible. All the ninjas are actually quite overcosted, with the infiltrator itself costing 4 if played normally. This means that the deck is extremely vulnerable to disruption of its game plan, that can happen due to cheap removal like Pyrophobia, Defile, String of Disappearances, Firebolt or even Lava Dart. When the enabling creature gets killed, the loss of tempo is immense and if that was the only enabler now you have to start casting you ninjas normally.
Variants: UB/UR/Grixis Control
A different way to play blue is to have a more classic control deck, thanks to all the excellent card advantage spells available to blue, paired with the solid removal in red or black (or both). Both colour combinations end up playing in a similar way. This strategy will usually feature a blue base composed of cards like Man-o'-War, Rain of Revelation, Winter’s Rest, Pondering Mage plus Exclude and Fact or Fiction at uncommon. Then a few big finisher like Oneirophage, Thundering Djinn or Endling and efficient removal like Magmatic Sinkhole, Mob, Defile, Twisted Reflection. Igneous Elemental can be a possibility in red with enough enablers like cycle lands or Hollowhead Sliver. In black, a must have is Crypt Rats, perhaps paired with Unearth, since it will single handedly deal with any creature based decks, especially the White ones.
Blue white blink is more of a classic blue value deck, centered around the power of Soulherder to blink value creatures which are mostly in blue, namely Watcher for Tomorrow, Man-o'-War and Pondering Mage. White mostly provides additional utility spells like Ephemerate, Settle Beyond Reality and it only has Irregular Cohort that is really worthwhile to blink.
In theory this deck plays as a control deck, where the card advantage is gained by blinking the creatures. In practice, it is sort of a combo deck which I believe does not play very well and it is quite hard to put together. First, the White removal spells are quite bad and even if you get ahead on cards the card quality will be quite low because the white cards are in general not a good fit for this kind of strategy. Secondly, the deck requires having Soulherder, you have to draw it in addition to one of the value creatures and then it has to survive, which isn’t so easy since it starts as a 1/1. Again, the archetype is not quite supported by the white creatures, and getting a Cohort is not so easy in a draft as it is a key piece in all the white decks. The blue cards that are supposed to go in this archetype are great, and so is the Soulherder, but I would rather splash that in other blue decks like U/G or U/R. Blinking an Igneous Elemental or Springbloom Druid makes for quite a good combo too.
Last but not least, as a deck that also plays out in its own style we have B/R. It usually ends up as a mixture of a goblin tribal deck, and a sacrifice deck, featuring mainly Bogardan Dragonheart, Putrid Goblin, Goblin War Party and Silumgar Scavenger as key commons. The Dragonheart is really unstoppable in a deck that can provide it enough fodder, and thanks to it this archetype can really shine when built well. Putrid Goblin is the best two drop at common, not only does it obviously synergize with goblins like Sling-Gang Lieutenant or Pashalik Mons (one of the best rares in the set), it is also a zombie which can go along Undead Augur for an excellent draw engine. Having two relevant creature type also helps to play Return from Extinction for extra grinding power. Keep in mind that Silumgar Scavenger is also a Zombie so Augur and Return are excellent cards to pick for this deck.
On the Goblin side there are many powerhouses at uncommon rarity. The aforementioned Sling-Gang Lieutenant is an insane card that can easily end the game without requiring many attack steps. Munition Expert is basically a hard removal plus a body to sacrifice. On top of that Goblin Matron can fetch both of these plus can be sacrificed herself. Finally because these are tribal cards they can go very late in the draft if there is not another drafter of this specific archetype (although Lieutenant can go in any black deck).
On the spell side both colours excel for their removal, so pick a good mix of cheap and expensive ones. With a good number of Bogardan Dragonheart you can also consider running Goatnap which will be turned into a removal that can deal lots of damage as well. If you steal a goblin (or a goat), it can also be sacrificed to Lieutenant or Pashalik Mons.
Tops and Flops
Finally I like to end my limited articles by going through some of the cards that are, in my opinion, often evaluated wrongly, or cards that are much better or much worse than they look.
Orchish Hellraiser: A 3/2 for 2? And deals damage when it dies? Seems great, but it is not. Many times I thought I had drafted a deck that is aggressive enough to not care about the echo cost but really this card always manages to hugely disrupt my curve. Not being able to play your 3 drop is a huge cost, and it’s even worse when you draw it later on. The 3/2 body is also not that great since this trades with basically all the other two drops. Imagine you play this guy and your opponent plays a Putrid Goblin, you might as well not pay the echo in that case. Unless my deck has literally only two drops I would stay away from this. I am never happy to include it as there are many, many options for 2 drops which are way better.
Ravenous Giant: Another Red creature which I really dislike. This set has a fairly high power level, and while a 5/5 for 4 is nothing trivial, not having trample is a big problem that makes this guy way worse than more expensive options like Murasa Behemoth. The life loss is also not to be disregarded and Winter’s Rest can make it so you’ll just slowly bleed to death while the giant is sleeping.
Nantuko Cultivator: Initially I thought this card would be quite good, but the base 2/2 body is too small to make it big enough when played. Also Green really just wants to ramp to play the big creatures on 5 and 6 mana so when playing this at 4 you really don’t want to discard 2 lands to it, assuming you even have them.
Answered Prayers: This card was difficult to evaluate, but it turned out to be one of the best white commons and one of the key pieces in white aggressive decks. I spoke of it before, but basically it turns out to always be uncontested in the air and the life helps with racing. Can even block when paired with Recruit the Worthy which is in general an ok card in conjunction with the Prayers.
Putrid Goblin: Again mentioned him while speaking of B/R sacrifice, but really this little guy will overperform in any black deck. Even without specific combos it trades with the aggressive 2 drops (like the awful Orcish Hellraiser) and then comes back to chump again. It’s the perfect 2 drop whether your deck is control or aggro or you want to sneak in a Ninja, and I would play as many as I can get.
Winding Way: Perhaps this is a bit more obvious, but if you already thought this card was good then let me tell you this is even better! Winding Way is the main engine of any green deck. It does everything you’d want. Mana Screwed? Get some lands. Need gas in the late game? Get some creatures. In G/R it fuels the graveyard with lands for the Elemental and the Dragon. In G/B it can mill additional fuel for a Rotwidow Pack or mill a First-Sphere Gargantua.
I would like to say that this is all but actually I have only scratched the surface of this amazing format. For anyone that has some additional questions or wants to discuss the content of the article, I am always available on Facebook or Twitter (@Sniesk) so feel free to ask. Or if you want to speak in person I will be at Stansted this weekend to battle in the European Modern Series Final, where Axion Now is also holding a team constructed tournament on Saturday and a Modern MCQ on Sunday for those that are not qualified. Hope to see many people there!
Finally, special thanks to Nick Li and Raoul Zimmermann, true masters of this format, for providing insightful discussion and some of the deck pictures.
About Francesco Giorgio:
Since he started playing Magic in 2012, Francesco has fully immersed himself in the competitive aspects of Magic. After moving to England in 2014 he became a Silver Level pro and has been a constant presence on the Pro Tour ever since. Francesco joined Team Axion in 2016, with the aim of contributing to the development of a major mainstay team at future Pro Tours. Francesco is at his best with a 40 card deck, but also enjoys the Standard format. His achievements include 2 Limited GP Top8s and a 3rd place in the 2014 World Magic Cup. Francesco is the current captain of the English National Team and aims to bring the team to another important finish at this year World Magic Cup. His main objective for this season is to Top 8 the WMC and maintain his status as captain for next year.