Overperformers and Underperformers modern 2021

Overperformers and Underperformers: Modern in 2021

Michael Rapp Modern

As the end of the year approaches, it’s a good time to reflect on the past year and what we learned from it. This applies to Magic as well: we’ve seen big changes in every Magic format this year, including my favorite format, Modern. I firmly believe that Modern is close to, if not the healthiest it’s been in years, and that’s thanks in part to some of the massive metagame shakeup we saw in 2021. 

Before I go too deep on the metagame (look out for my State of Modern article next week!), I want to take a look at some of the trends we saw in card choices this year. Many cards exceeded expectations this year, while others just didn’t quite live up to their billing. This isn’t a list of the best and worst cards in Modern by any stretch, but the cards that I think have the largest delta between expectation and reality. Here are my picks for the biggest underperformers and overperformers of the year!

Top 5 Underperforming Cards

While some cards reached new heights during 2021, others went from dominant positions to the brink of obscurity. Nearly all of these cards are victims to the ever changing Modern metagame – they may have been replaced by more efficient cards, or the decks they preyed on are simply no longer popular. 

#5 Cryptic Command

Cryptic Command has had an up and down history in Modern. At times, it was among the best cards you could put in a blue deck, and at other times, it was among the worst. More often than not, any slower blue deck in the format would have three or four copies of Cryptic Command. However, that stopped being the case when Counterspell was printed in Modern Horizons 2

Before Modern Horizons 2, most of the playable counters in Modern were either conditional or clunky. Cryptic Command was clunky, but it was always going to get its money. But when you can pay two mana for Counterspell, it’s hard to justify paying four for Cryptic Command. What’s more, Archmage’s Charm can fill in the role of flexible counterspell, and it only costs three mana. You’ll still find Cryptic Command in small numbers in some lists, but isn’t nearly as ubiquitous as it once was.

#4 Aether Vial

Aether Vial has carried a number of strategies to victory in its lifetime, including Humans, Merfolk, and Death and Taxes. But as small value creatures have proliferated in the format, early interaction has become more important than ever. Decks simply can’t afford to play 25 creatures and 4 Aether Vials anymore – and those that do will easily fall prey to cheap interaction themselves. 

#3 Soul-Scar Mage

Soul-Scar Mage was once part of the dynamic duo of one-mana prowess threats alongside Monastery Swiftspear. But since the release of Modern Horizons 2, Ragavan and Dragon’s Rage Channeler have become the one-drops of choice for red decks. Monastery Swiftspear still sees play in Burn, but Soul-Scar Mage just hasn’t been able to find a new home. Modern isn’t just about trying to kill your opponent anymore – the aggressive red creatures also generate card advantage now!

#2 Heliod, Sun-Crowned

Through much of 2020, Heliod Company was the clear best deck in Modern, and there were frequent discussions about whether or not Heliod, Sun-Crowned needed to be banned. The argument was that Heliod Company was a resilient combo deck that could fight through removal spells with relative ease. The fact that Heliod itself was an indestructible enchantment made it nearly impossible to remove from the battlefield. Players were so desperate to find an effective answer to Heliod that many (myself included) turned to narrow, subpar cards like Deicide.

But, of course, Modern Horizons 2 had something to say about Heliod. Prismatic Ending and Counterspell are good, main-deckable answers to Heliod, not to mention many of Modern’s other threats. Suddenly, Heliod all but vanished from the competitive Modern metagame. I’ve seen it peek out of its hole from time to time, but it simply doesn’t have the same staying power. That isn’t to say that we won’t see Heliod again, but I wouldn’t expect it as long as Counterspell and Prismatic Ending are popular.

#1 Urza, Lord High Artificer

Urza, Lord High Artificer was a powerhouse in Modern from its debut in Modern Horizons until the banning of Uro and Mystic Sanctuary in February 2021. Just like Heliod, Urza was always on the chopping block whenever community conversation turned to bans. But instead of banning Urza himself, Wizards chose to ban five other key ingredients in Urza decks: Mox Opal, Oko, Uro, Mystic Sanctuary, and Arcum’s Astrolabe. Talk about dodging a bullet! 

It turns out Urza could only live on borrowed time for so long. While the card was never banned, Modern Horizons 2 rendered it obsolete. In 2019 and 2020, Urza was cheap and powerful enough to dominate all but the fastest decks. Now, he can’t compete with threats like Ragavan, Dragon’s Rage Channeler, Murktide Regent, and the pitch Elementals. Not only was the bottom of the curve much more powerful, but Omnath and friends took over as the premier midrange threats. And if that weren’t enough, Unholy Heat made Urza much easier to deal with. 2021 was rough for the Lord High Artificer, and by the look of things, it’s not getting better unless Modern changes in a big way. 

Top 5 Overperforming Cards

These cards showed up in a big way over the course of 2021. Some benefitted from new cards entering Modern, while others finally found the right home after many years. Either way, these are the five cards that had the biggest glow up in the last 12 months. 

#5 Chalice of the Void

For years, Chalice of the Void showed up in Eldrazi Tron and other fringe-playable decks, but it never had a large role in Modern until the release of Modern Horizons 2. When Shardless Agent pushed Cascade decks over the top, Chalice of the Void was there to counter its zero-mana targets. At several points in the last year, both Living End and Crashing Footfalls were among the best decks in Modern, so a flexible zero-mana answer was incredibly potent. 

Chalice of the Void isn’t just powerful against zero-mana spells. Ragavan and Dragon’s Rage Channeler revived efficient cost tempo threats in Modern. Lurrus of the Dream-Den decks can feature upwards of 20 one-mana spells, making Chalice one of the best ways to counter entire strategies.

#4 Tasha’s Hideous Laughter

Modern Mill often hung around tier three, but Tasha’s Hideous Laughter has single-handedly pushed it into the competitive scrum. Gone are the days of Mind Funeral and Glimpse the UnthinkableTasha’s Hideous Laughter will routinely exile 20 or more cards against Lurrus decks. Hammer Time is especially weak to this card, given that it has the lowest average converted mana cost among competitive decks. As long as Modern is as efficient as it is, Tasha’s Hideous Laughter will overperform. 

#3 Dress Down

Truthfully, I don’t know that anyone expected much from Dress Down, but it turned out to be one of the best cards in Modern Horizons 2. Dress Down took a little while to catch on before becoming a breakout success in Grixis Death’s Shadow. Dress Down’s synergy with Death’s Shadow and Kroxa was enough to earn it a near-permanent slot in the deck. 

Izzet Murktide and Azorius Control have also picked up the powerful enchantment as a way to answer Urza’s Saga tokens cleanly, as well as blanking Elementals and Four-Color Blink decks. Removing protection from Sanctifier en-Vec is also crucial for any deck that needs to remove it. The more that I play Dress Down, the more uses I find for it, which bodes well for its future in Modern. 

#2 Ephemerate

Ephemerate went from stone cold meme status after its release in Modern Horizons to a central piece in a number of competitive decks including Elementals and Four-Color Blink. Thanks to the pitch Elementals – especially Solitude, Fury, and GriefEphemerate’s value has skyrocketed. Getting to blink Omnath, Locus of Creation or Eternal Witness will net you an incredible amount of value for just one mana. 

#1 Colossus Hammer

Colossus Hammer may have been even more of a meme than Ephemerate. Players would occasionally show up with Colossus Hammer decks hoping that they didn’t get paired against removal spells. At the time, Hammer Time didn’t possess the tools to grind with the removal-heavy decks, so one or two well-timed pieces of interaction would be their undoing. 

Enter Urza’s Saga and Esper Sentinel, and suddenly Hammer Time went from being a glass cannon to the de facto best deck in Modern. There are many cards I could have recognized from Hammer Time in this #1 slot, but I believe that it’s only fitting that Colossus Hammer gets the overperformer title.

I had a ton of fun putting together this piece, and I hope it’s given you some things to think about! Next week, I’ll be back with a more comprehensive retrospective on this past year in Modern. If there’s anything you’d like me to cover, be sure to let me know on Twitter at @RappaciousOne. I hope you have a happy and safe holiday season!