On March 9th, Once Upon a Time was banned in Modern. As with any other banning, people had some questions. “What does this mean for my deck?” “What is Modern going to look like now?”
Truth be told, those are both excellent and warranted questions. I don’t think a ton of people spend their time pondering how things will look should a cornerstone of Modern (like Once Upon a Time) be removed. But I do spend a lot of time thinking about these things, and I’d like to share my thought process with you.
Let’s start with a quick overview of the decks that lost Once Upon a Time…
Amulet Titan is probably the most notable deck to lose the two-mana green instant. It was one of the few decks with enough extra mana floating around to cast Once Upon a Time when it wasn’t free, giving a large boost to an already powerful spell. Without Once Upon a Time, the Amulet Titan decks will likely return to playing Ancient Stirrings or Explore. Ancient Stirrings — once in ban conversation in its own right — is a sizable downgrade; sometimes, the deck needs to find Amulet of Vigor, but more often, you’re searching for a different piece. With decreased access to Dryad of the Ilysian Grove and increased access to Amulet, I imagine the builds will slant back toward Azusa and Amulet rather than Dryad and Valakut. That being said, Amulet Titan is still powerful enough to remain among the top decks in Modern.
Eldrazi Tron was recently pushed back to the forefront of Modern thanks to Once Upon a Time, a spell that the deck could rarely (if ever) cast. Increasing access to both Tron lands and Eldrazi Temple provided a needed speed boost for this pile of expensive creatures to be able to compete in Modern. Like Amulet Titan, Eldrazi Tron will take a big hit, but it was much too dependent on Once Upon a Time to rebound as easily. I’d suspect Eldrazi Tron will fall back toward the tier two area in power level.
Infect and other creature combo decks will sorely miss the consistency Once Upon a Time offered. Picking up all twelve of the infect creatures for free was a big deal, especially when you could consistently have a one-mana creature on turn one. Additional protection spells are likely on the menu again; we might see a bump in Spellskite, or even the return of ancillary infect creatures like Ichorclaw Myr. Infect always ebbs and flows with the metagame, and a format with less interaction and more big mana is a great place for Infect to be.
Devoted Druid decks, Heliod Combo, 4-Color Death’s Shadow, and Neobrand are among the other notable decks to lose Once Upon a Time. Now, we’ll have to figure out where Modern will go from here.
The Ground Floor
Initially, we’re likely to see all the decks that lost Once Upon a Time replacing it with similar but worse cards. But not every deck has access to suitable replacements: Eldrazi Tron, Neobrand, and 4-Color Shadow all come to mind.
Prediction #1: Stock in Eldrazi Tron falls, giving decks that are weak to Chalice of the Void some breathing room. Slower creature decks also appreciate the dip in Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher.
Prediction #2: Creature combo decks like Devoted Druid and Neobrand get worse. This means less pressure to interact on turns one and two, opening the door for slower interactive strategies like Azorius Control to prosper.
Prediction #3: 4-Color Death’s Shadow reverts back to Grixis Shadow, or something similar. Shadow decks swap Tarmogoyfs for Gurmag Anglers, increasing their closing speed. However, dropping the green cards means losing out on Veil of Summer and Nurturing Peatland, so the match-ups against other interactive decks get worse.
Based on these predictions, we can start to see a new metagame take shape. Amulet Titan remains on top; slower, interactive decks like Jund and Azorius Control get a boost; Grixis Death’s Shadow and Burn/Prowess are happy to see Eldrazi Tron leave.
Now, it’s our job to figure out what’s good against these decks.
The Next Level
How do you beat Amulet Titan?
Generally, the answer is twofold: combo them, or get under them with disruption. Traditionally, Amulet’s difficult matchups include Infect, Grixis Death’s Shadow, Storm, and Neobrand. The new Artifact Breach deck is primed to take Amulet down, too; this deck can win on turn three and prey on decks with low interaction.
How do you beat Burn and Prowess?
These decks tend to struggle against Amulet Titan and other decks that can maintain a high life total. Heliod Company should be strong here, and Eldrazi Tron could even bounce back if Burn becomes too big. Another looming threat is Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath: a big creature that provides card advantage and life gain is great at KO-ing Burn players.
How do you beat Death’s Shadow?
Grixis Death’s Shadow struggles against the bigger interactive decks: Jund, Azorius, and some builds of Urza. Liliana of the Veil, Teferi, Time Raveler, Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, and Ice-Fang Coatl all pose serious concerns. Eldrazi Tron has a strong match-up against Grixis Death’s Shadow as well.
How do you beat Jund?
I could certainly see the Artifact Breach match-up being close; Jund has enough disruption, but it’s the clock I’m unsure about. Burn remains a close to slightly favorable match-up against Jund. If Tron makes a comeback, Jund could end up in a tough spot. Spell-based combo also tends to give Jund problems; creature combo tends to be easier to deal with, but those decks lose the most from the Once Upon a Time ban.
How do you beat Blue-White Control?
Most of these decks have become Bant decks recently. Trimming on the airy cards while slotting in Ice-Fang Coatl and Uro gives the Bant decks a big boost in card quality. Arcum’s Astrolabe is no slouch, either, as it allows the deck to play a nearly painless three-color mana base that even gets to splash Blood Moon to gain points against Amulet Titan. Bant Control is likely to struggle the most with big mana decks like Tron and Amulet Titan, while succeeding against spell based combo, and other grindy decks, though Jund has some game here.
The Biggest Winners
Looking here, I think the clear winners are Bant Control, Amulet Titan, and Urza decks. Bant Control and Urza have a balanced enough game plan with high enough card quality to get by; in other words, these are the new “good stuff” decks. Amulet Titan still has some of the best potential draws in Modern, coupled with an ability to grind out of the sideboard.
The tier below these includes Jund, Grixis Death’s Shadow, Burn/Prowess, Artifact Breach, and Eldrazi Tron. These decks are all powerful and good, but have holes in their game plans or fail rates that are a little too high to be in the upper escalon of Modern decks.
I’d expect to see a lot of these decks going forward, and it will be interesting to me to see just how Modern adapts to losing Once Upon a Time, a card that was routinely registered in roughly 50% of successful decks on MTGO. Let me know what you think of this analysis on Twitter at @RappaciousOne. Catch you all next week!
Michael Rapp is a Modern specialist who favors Thoughtseize decks. Magic sates his desire for competition and constant improvement.