Top 8 Cards from Modern Horizons II

Ryan Normandin
June 04, 2021

Modern Horizons II may be one of the most challenging sets ever to write a “top 8 cards” article for. Taken together, the enormous amount of hate for current archetypes, toys for existing decks, and powerful tools for strategies that have long been lost to Modern's top tiers mean that Modern will likely look very different from today. Let's see if we can identify some of the major guideposts as Modern “rotates” this summer.

8. Ignoble Hierarch

This seems like one of the safer picks because we understand exactly what it does and how it's more Noble counterpart is used in the format. Noble Hierarch has been consistently played in Modern; mana dorks are good in the format, and are typically included in creature decks. Tacking Exalted onto one is pure upside, making its floor significantly higher than Llanowar Elves or Birds of Paradise.

The other point of relevance for Noble Hierarch is its typeline: Human. The ability to play early Mantis Rider or Reflector Mage coupled with the creature's ability to collect counters from Thalia's Lieutenant makes it an ideal T1 play in the absence of an Æther Vial.

Interestingly, Ignoble Hierarch is a Goblin rather than a Human. Goblins saw some success after it picked up Conspicuous Snoop from Core Set 2021 alongside a slew of Goblins from the original Modern Horizons. The question then becomes whether the traditionally RB Goblins shell is willing to play Green for Ignoble Hierarch. Green opens up the ability to play Grumgully, the Generous combo, though that may just be win-more. With the lack of any additional Goblin support in MH2, I'm skeptical that it will find a place in the tribal deck, more likely serving as a top-tier mana dork alongside Noble Hierarch.


7. Grist, the Hunger Tide

Grist is a three-mana planeswalker in a Modern-playable color pair that has the potential to be broken. It generates board presence, protects itself, kills stuff, and can be cheated into play. This planeswalker is incredibly versatile for a low price, and it's hard not to see the appeal.

In a fair midrange shell, this card feels like what Liliana, the Last Hope always wanted to be: a must answer threat with card advantage and removal stapled onto a cheap, easy-to-protect body. Lili's ability to protect herself has always been iffy in a world of Death's Shadows, Thought-Knot Seers, and Tarmogoyfs. Insects do a much better job of chumping beefy attackers while the defending player is able to put together a stronger board presence.

The headline, of course, is Grist's ability to be put into play without casting. It can be found from the library off Collected Company, Chord of Calling, or Eldritch Evolution. From the Graveyard, it can be Unearthed. On the stack, it can't be Dovin's Veto ed or, more importantly, countered with Force of Negation. Going even wonkier leads us down the road of building some combo deck with Arcane Adaptation to get the most out of Grist's +1, though that seems highly suspect; this isn't a card that you need to work to make good.

Grist simultaneously being a powerful midrange threat and a card that can be cheated into play means that it has lots of room to be incorporated into current or future Modern archetypes.


6. Shardless Agent


Like Grist, Shardless Agent can be fair or unfair, and that flexibility makes it a prime contender for a wide range of Modern decks.

On the unfair front, Shardless Agent can be slotted into Living End or splashed into an Electrodominance/As Foretold shell. It also conveniently Cascades into both Sword of the Meek and Thopter Foundry, the two combo pieces included alongside Urza, Lord High Artificer where being an Artifact Creature certainly doesn't hurt.

On the fair front, Shardless Agent leads to the interesting deckbuilding constraint of playing Blue, but not being able to play Counterspell. This doesn't seem like a huge problem, given the existence of cards like Force of Negation and Archmage's Charm. To gain further control over Cascade hits, players can play cards like Bonecrusher Giant or Brazen Borrower, which have spell sides that can be cast for 2, but can't actually be Cascaded into.

While I don't think Modern will become Shardless Agent – The Format by any means, the card does look positioned to be a role player in a couple different archetypes.


5. Esper Sentinel

Many of our previous cards had a set of characteristics which each appealed to a different Modern archetype, and Esper Sentinel is no exception. It's a one-mana artifact creature with a relevant ability, which is good for any deck that wants to dump lots of artifacts onto the board (Affinity, Urza). It's a highly efficient Human with an ability that furthers the Humans gameplan of restricting opponents' actions while exerting pressure. Finally, it has quite a good tax/card draw ability in White, which is something that a deck like Death and Taxes might be interested in. At one mana, it's a nice early choice to Vial in as well.

It's flexible, efficient, and isn't terrible against anything. It really shines in fairer matchups where forcing an opponent to either pay two mana for a Fatal Push/Lightning Bolt/Path to Exile or two-for-one themselves is a huge edge.


4. Counterspell

The answers are finally catching up with the threats. I was heartbroken when Wizards declined to give us Counterspell in MH1, but they've redeemed themselves here. One of the most famous Blue cards in existence, too strong for Standard, but (mostly) too weak for Legacy, has finally come home to Modern.

There's been a lot of discussion around the costs and benefits of having Counterspell in the format. The downside is that it homogenizes the counter suite of Blue decks. Previously, depending on the format, a Blue deck would play some mix of Logic Knot, Mana Leak, and… well, that's mostly it. Whereas the choice among Bolt/Path/Push is more interesting, as the spells really are quite different, with unique strengths and weaknesses, the choice between Knot and Leak always just felt kind of depressing. Logic Knot anti-synergized with Snapcaster Mage and Mana Leak was awful in the long game, which control decks wanted to get to.

Being pretty unconvinced by the downsides of Counterspell, the upsides are obvious. The threats in Modern are highly diverse. While a Control deck in Standard might be able to build itself to beat a particular metagame, that's usually not a realistic proposition for Modern, especially in long tournaments where you're guaranteed to play against random stuff. For Control to be viable, it needs to be able to deal with diverse threats, which is why Esper has recently found success leaning on an absurd number of modal spells. Kaya's Guile was such a vital addition because it did things that Control previously couldn't really do, broadening the set of threats the deck could answer. Counterspell is similar. It's a strong, appropriate answer to a format that revolves around a wide variety of cheap threats.


3. Merfolk


It might be cheating a little bit to include three cards, but I do so because I think any one of them individually would probably not be enough to really push Merfolk's power level. Taken together, it looks like fish are back on the menu in Modern.

Merfolk utilizes lords, pressure, and disruption to win games. Its disruption, however, is not as good as Humans. While Merfolk leans on Spreading Seas and Modern's subpar countermagic, Humans has cards like Meddling Mage and Kitesail Freebooter. Tide Shaper looks to change that, acting as a Spreading Seas with a body much the same as Freebooter and Mage are pseudo- Thoughtseize s on a body. This will allow the deck to disrupt without giving up the ability to apply pressure. Rishadan Dockhand does something similar, but of the one-mana creatures, Tide Shaper is the real prize.

The Merfolk god just does… everything. It does a weak impression of Kira, it can't really be killed, it draws cards while applying pressure, and its base stats are quite pushed for a Merfolk which will reliably be getting pumped by lords. This card is a bomb in a deck that doesn't have any, and that's a huge addition.

Though already discussed, Counterspell is the final powerful addition to the Merfolk deck. I would be willing to wager that Counterspell will actually be more annoying to play against out of Merfolk than it will be out of Control. Be ready for an uptick in one of Magic's oldest tribes!


2. Imperial Recruiter


Once again, we have a card that is good in both fair and unfair strategies. Humans, which has often played Militia Bugler in the “grindy three-drop” slot, will likely prefer Recruiter to tutor up Thalia's Lieutenant for pressure or one of its two-mana disruptive threats. It can also be fairly applied in toolbox decks, though those have mostly been folded into combo decks in the format.

The combo decks are where this card becomes quite interesting. Recruiter is able to tutor up Yawgmoth, Thran Physician; in fact, it can tutor every single card in the Yawgmoth deck except for Geralf's Messenger. However, this is a deck that already has a large degree of redundancy, and intense mana costs mean that splashing Red could be a real downside (though Ignoble Hierarch is happy to help with that!)

The combo deck that is happiest to have this is Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. Imperial Recruiter can grab a Felidar Guardian, which can then blink Recruiter to get Kiki-Jiki. Alternatively, you could grab Kiki first, then clone the Recruiter to grab Deceiver Exarch or Felidar Guardian after. Kiki Combo may well be the reason that Wizards decided to print Recruiter into Modern; see the Kiki-Jiki hiding in the background of Recruiter's borderless art!


1. Thought Monitor/Power Depot


The banning of Mox Opal killed Affinity in Modern, but even before that, Affinity never really played cards with the ability “Affinity for Artifacts.” That may all change when Modern Horizons II hits the presses. A high density of pushed cards that have Affinity for Artifacts in combination with nerfed Artifact Lands – including the rainbow Power Depot – may bring Affinity back from the dead.

For cards with Affinity, each Artifact Land serves as a miniature Eye of Ugin, generating the mana it can tap for, but also generating one generic mana per spell. While coming in tapped is a downside, keep in mind that, even tapped, they will still be generating mana. New Affinity may play cards like Memnite, Ornithopter, Frogmite, and Signal Pest, then refuel with Thought Monitor. The lack of Mox Opal makes the deck less explosive, but Artifact Lands help to mitigate that, and Thought Monitor allows the deck to grind better than it did in the past.

Honorable Mentions:

Archon of Cruelty/Persist/Unmarked Grave


Will be interesting to see whether a nonlegendary reanimator deck will be able to take hold in Modern, but with the amount of graveyard hate in the format and being added to the format, I'm not holding my breath.

Dauthi Voidwalker/Sanctifier en-Vec


See “graveyard hate being added to the format.”

Fractured Sanity

Could give Mill a boost in conjunction with Sanity Grinding, which now has the ability to mill opponents for more than, like, four cards.

Flame Rift

A nice tool for Monored Burn, a fifth Boros Charm if regular Burn wants it, and most of all, a wonderful tool for Scourge of the Skyclaves.

Flame Blitz

Really powerful sideboard card against planeswalker heavy decks like Esper. While there are probably better options (Veil of Summer), I just think the power level of this card is hilarious.

Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar/The Underworld Cookbook


This pair in conjunction with some of the other Madness cards have real potential. I'm hesitant given the degree to which Madness has failed in the past (too many necessary pieces to work together, too many bad cards), but it's starting to look promising.


Sweet with Lurrus.

Dress Down

Sweet with Lurrus.

Soul Snare

Sweet with Lurrus.

Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer

Hella pushed.

Urza's Saga

Enchantment land with massive upside. Very possibly busted, but I need Matt Nass to tell me what to do with it.

Tron Hate


Mostly overrated, Void Mirror isn't really better than Damping Sphere. Break the Ice is quite narrow and not clearly better than Cleansing Wildfire. Obsidian Charmaw is the best hate printed because it is a cheap threat that disrupts Tron while also applying pressure. Tron might see a downtick, but it's not super popular right now anyways. Eldrazi Tron is less susceptible to land-based hate because it's not as all-in on cheating with lands, though they may need to up the number of Caverns of Souls they play.