A Guide to the Flavors of Urza in Modern
Since the printing of Urza, Lord High Artificer, artifact decks have exploded back into Modern. Some players worried that perhaps Urza was too good, but Wizards doesn’t seem to think so. In Throne of Eldraine, Wizards gave artifact strategies a new toy in the form of Emry, Lurker of the Loch.
With a critical mass of absurdly powerful artifact-oriented cards, we’ve seen an increase not just in popularity of Urza decks, but also an increase in diversity. Largely, these decks can be separated into two mega-archetypes under the Urza umbrella: Thopter-Sword decks and Paradoxical Outcome (PO) decks. If you’re trying to decide which variant to play in Modern, look no further!
Thopter-Sword and PO tend to be thought of as similar because of their inclusion of Urza and large numbers of artifacts, but their gameplay couldn’t be more different.
Thopter-Sword existed in the fringes of Modern even before Urza was printed because there are so many decks in the format that have an incredibly difficult time dealing with the non-infinite version of the Thopter-Sword combo. That remains true today, and the Thopter-Sword builds of Urza are not reliant on assembling an infinite combo to win the game. Thopter-Sword plays like a midrange/control/prison deck; it fetches answers to its opponent’s deck by using Whir to consistently find Pithing Needle, Ensnaring Bridge, and other answers. Sometimes it just goes for a value engine, using Goblin Engineer to loop Arcum’s Astrolabe and an Ichor Wellspring. Depending on the matchup, the deck can lean more or less into any of its many elements. Against some decks, a Bridge is game over. Against others, Thopter-Sword is sufficient. Against still others, an enormous Urza Construct is good enough to beat your way to victory.
Post-board, Thopter-Sword plays even more like a midrange deck. With grindy threats like Tezzeret and Oko and efficient, flexible interaction like Thoughtseize and Assassin’s Trophy, the deck can abandon its combo plan altogether and play a fair, powerful game, rendering opponents’ sideboard answers ineffective. Collector Ouphe looks a lot worse against Tezzeret and Oko than it does against Thopter Foundry.
PO builds of Urza, on the other hand, are much closer to pure combo decks. While the deck can certainly get there off a large Urza Construct or stall long enough to ping away with a couple of Thopters, it more often than not wins via an insurmountable Thopter army spawned from multiple PO’s, an infinite number of turns off Nexus of Fate, or an infinitely large Emry, Lurker of the Loch. With or without Jeskai Ascendancy (we’ll get to the distinctions between the major builds in a little bit), the deck is looking to stick a Sai or a Saheeli and use Paradoxical Outcome to draw an absurd number of cards and generate an absurd on-board advantage. Some builds include ways to win the same turn (Nexus, Ascendancy), but many pilots have decided that there’s no need; their opponents are too far behind when they untap to do anything. While the Thopter-Sword shell is highly interactive, PO is almost entirely combo pieces, acceleration, and zero-mana artifacts. Like the old KCI decks, mainboard Engineered Explosives provide the only substantive mainboard interaction. Though usually cast as a zero-mana artifact for PO, pilots sometimes utilize the “hidden mode” of actually placing charge counters on it to blow something up.
Post-board, PO decks can become fairer, with Oko and Monastery Mentor being popular choices, but they are typically still heavily focused on comboing. They have more countermagic, and PO being an instant naturally allows them to play more flexibly around opposing interaction.
The Takeaway: if you want to play a hardcore combo deck, then PO is what you’re looking for. If you want to play something that’s closer to midrange, you’d enjoy Thopter-Sword more.
If you’re playing Thopter-Sword, a consensus has been built that Grixis with a Green splash for sideboard cards is probably the ideal. Some players, such as Eli Kassis, have found success with pure Sultai, and others are still clinging onto UW to play Teferi, Time Raveler, but the 4C build has been the most popular and put up the most results.
At this point, most of the mainboard 60 is locked. The flex slots are Damping Sphere and Welding Jar; Damping Sphere is a hate piece that interacts well with the current metagame (Tron, PO Urza), and Jar could be a mainboard win-con such as Scrap Trawler or Time Sieve. The Cavern of Souls is relatively recent technology that allows the casting of uncounterable artificer Goblin Engineers and Urza. It could also be a Spire of Industry, Prismatic Vista, or even a Snow-Covered Forest.
PO builds, on the other hand, have diverged into two separate archetypes: those with Jeskai Ascendancy, and those without.
The Jeskai Ascendancy builds trade a bit of consistency for speed. Ascendancy PO can kill Turn 2 relatively easily. With an Emry and a Jeskai Ascendancy on-board and either a Mishra’s Bauble in the yard or two Mox Ambers/Mox Opals in the yard/in play, Ascendancy PO can make an infinitely large Emry or just loot away its entire deck and win with Mirrodin Besieged on end step.
The non-Ascendancy PO deck does not have such easy access to a fast win, instead opting to replace Ascendancy with additional copies of smoothers like Serum Visions, opting for a grindier win condition in Grinding Station. While it won’t kill on Turn 2, it also won’t get awkward hands with multiple copies of Jeskai Ascendancy and no Emry.
It’s easy to assume that Jeskai Ascendancy is an unnecessary “win-more” card, but I can’t stress enough that this is not the case. While a three-mana enchantment that does nothing by itself upon entering the battlefield might seem clunky in Modern, it digs through your deck incredibly fast, as all your zero-mana artifacts are now loots as well. It can also pump armies of Thopters for “fair” wins out of nowhere. But most importantly, Modern is a format where Tron pseudo-kills on Turn 3, Amulet and Storm kill around the same time, and decks like Thopter-Sword can race you if you go too long by interacting and then comboing off. The ability of Ascendancy builds to win fast isn’t win-more, not when a vital component of succeeding in the Modern format has been understanding which turn a typical kill can take place on. Ascendancy is likely better positioned against fast decks like Burn and Amulet. Additionally, the clock can be a real threat, even for experienced PO pilots. Non-Ascendancy PO can have lengthy turns spanning 5+ minutes (the kind of thing that got Eggs banned) simply because the mechanical actions the pilot must take are so numerous. Ascendancy, on the other hand, gets the opponent dead real fast.
Both builds, being newer, are still experimenting with numbers and cards. Numbers of Serum Visions, Witching Well, Everflowing Chalice, and Mox Amber are slightly different from list to list, so be sure to test, see what you like, and pay attention to what others are doing.
The Takeaway: If you play Thopter-Sword, you can pretty much copy-paste at least an agreed-upon 60. If you want to play PO, you have to decide whether you want access to the fast kill of Jeskai Ascendancy or the slower, but possibly more consistent, kill of non-Ascendancy PO.
How to Hate on Urza
Maybe you’re not remotely interested in playing what is probably the best archetype in Modern; maybe you just want to beat it! Once again, it’s important to determine which build you’re playing against, as the most effective cards vary dramatically.
Thopter-Sword is, as you might expect, an actual artifact deck. Cards like Stony Silence and Collector Ouphe are quite good against it. Plague Engineer is good for shutting off the Thopter-Sword Combo, and spot removal like Ancient Grudge or Abrade is fine as well. Things to keep in mind:
- Stony Silence is better than Collector Ouphe because it cannot be killed with Galvanic Blast or turned into an Elk by Oko. If you have access to either, Stony Silence on a body is certainly tempting, but Thopter-Sword often renders the body irrelevant by sticking an Urza, a planeswalker, or by sac’ing a bunch of artifacts to Foundry with Ouphe on the stack.
- Because the Thopter-Sword combo utilizes the graveyard, Rest in Peace seems to be a popular card to bring in against Thopter-Sword. But remember: Thopter-Sword is not a combo deck. If you have nothing else and you are bringing out cards that are essentially blank, then go right on ahead and bring in Rest in Peace. But Rest in Peace is the least effective hate card against the deck. For the most part, it allows the Thopter-Sword deck to just keep on playing the game, and remove it at its leisure. Compare this to Stony Silence, which actively inhibits the deck’s ability to activate many of its cards.
- Ancient Grudge/Abrade style cards are fine, but it’s so important to keep Thopter-Sword under pressure. Goblin Engineer can return anything that is destroyed and Whir can find redundant copies if the deck has time. The best Abrades are typically on either Urza Constructs, Thopter Foundry, or some hate piece so that pressure can continue to be applied against the Thopter-Sword deck.
- Just in general, remember that, if given enough time, Thopter-Sword is very likely to win. Disruption is not enough thanks to the deck’s access to flexible answers and non-artifact-based threats post-board. Pressure plus disruption has always been the key to success against this style of deck in Modern, but if you have to choose, pressure without disruption is always better than disruption without pressure.
PO decks, on the other hand, are essentially Storm decks. They require casting many, many spells to get tokens off Saheeli/Sai. As you’d expect, Rule of Law style cards, Damping Sphere, and Chalice of the Void are good. Engineered Explosives to attack their many zero-mana cards along with their tokens is acceptable, but is very easy to play around from the PO side. Things to remember:
- Rest in Peace is better against PO than Thopter-Sword (and better against Ascendancy than non-Ascendancy), but is still not the silver bullet that you’re looking for. You really want Damping Sphere.
- Ascendancy PO can go off through Chalice of the Void. In fact, Chalice makes it easier for Ascendancy to go off. With a Chalice in play, the PO player only needs Ascendancy + Emry + any zero-mana artifact. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play Chalice; it still heavily hinders their ability to set up. Just keep in mind that you can still very easily lose despite a Chalice in play.
- Spot removal is better against PO than against Thopter-Sword. Against Thopter-Sword, the token engine is not creature-based, which means you’re really only hitting Urza or a Construct. Against PO, the token engine is Sai (or Mentor post-board) and Saheeli, and they rely on Emry. You have plenty of juicy targets for spot removal, so don’t cut it.
- Lavinia is a card that’s seen fringe play, but does a reasonable Chalice of the Void impression against PO.
- Stony Silence/Collector Ouphe are worse against PO than against Urza, but still strong enough to be playing.
The Takeaway: Know which deck you’re playing against. The best hate against Thopter-Sword is Stony Silence. The best hate against PO is Storm hate. The best way to beat both is to ensure that you are pressuring them. They will win through disruption given the time.
There’s nothing Magic players like to talk about more than bannings. Nothing brings them delight like talking about how Mox Opal is sure to be banned next B&R. Here are some thoughts on bannings targeted at artifact decks.
- Mox Opal is a $100+ card. Wizards does not like to ban expensive cards.
- While it tends to show up in problematic decks, correlation does not imply causation. Mox Opal is not the reason KCI was broken, nor was it the reason Eggs was problematic. Similarly, an Opal ban would not banish from existence Urza decks.
- Thopter-Sword is a reasonable deck, and fairer than some other Modern decks. It does not necessitate a ban currently.
- PO may be problematic, but more time is needed to determine this. If it is determined to be problematic, the ban should likely be either Emry, Lurker of the Loch or Paradoxical Outcome.
Instead, let’s all look forward to the banning of Field of the Dead next week!
Ryan Normandin (@RyanNormandin) is a grinder from Boston who has lost at the Pro Tour, in GP & SCG Top 8's, and to 7-year-olds at FNM. Despite being described as "not funny" by his best friend and "the worst Magic player ever" by Twitch chat, he cheerfully decided to blend his lack of talents together to write funny articles about Magic.
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