Whir of Invention: A Guide to Modern Urza
With Hogaak gone, more and more players have begun to turn their attention to that other pushed Modern Horizons powerhouse, Urza, Lord High Artificer. While players like Eli Kassis and Harlan Firer have helped to spotlight the deck, there is still a bit of a dearth of content on how to play it.
Like KCI before it, Urza will likely be underrepresented for how good it is for two reasons. First, it is a Mox Opal deck, which means it has a low overlap of cards with other major Modern archetypes. Urza, Opal, Thopter/Sword, and Tezzeret don’t really see play in any other major decks, which means that Urza is not a budget-friendly deck for players to switch to, as they’ll likely be forced to build it from scratch. Second, it is an artifact-based combo deck, which means that there is a perception that the deck is much more difficult to play than it actually is. That’s not to say it’s an easy deck to play; to play it well does require practice, an understanding of how you’ve built the deck, and an understanding of the rest of the decks in modern. But I’ve heard players dismiss it out-of-hand, like KCI before it, because it’s “too hard.” I promise it’s not.
If you decide to make the switch to Urza, the first thing you’ll notice is that there is no stock list. There are UW lists, Grixis lists, WUBR lists, UBRG lists, and five-color lists. There are lists with Stoneforge and Batterskull and lists with Thoughtseize and Serum Visions. The number of options and amount of disagreement surrounding the deck’s construction provides a further disincentive to switching over to playing it.
In order to figure out what colors to play, you need to figure out what the deck is trying to do. Though artifact-based, Urza plays much closer to Splinter Twin did than to Whir Prison. Yet even that comparison doesn’t do the deck justice. The deck’s strongest element is the fact that it is versatile and consistent while attacking from a number of different angles. While many players assume the goal of the deck is to assemble the combo of Urza + Thopter Foundry + Sword of the Meek, there will be many, many games (possibly even a majority) where that does not happen. That is because Thopter/Sword by itself is often sufficient to win matchups without Urza, and Urza by itself is often sufficient to win matchups without Thopter/Sword. As you have no way to dig for Urza, it is important to have lots of flexibility to dig for Thopter/Sword and maintain flexibility in gameplan. This is why Goblin Engineer is vital to the deck’s gameplan.
Nobody questions whether the deck should be playing Whir of Invention, and yet I’ve been surprised by how many players are eager to cut Goblin Engineer. Engineer does it all. When you need a fast combo, it puts Sword in the graveyard (which is where you want it). As a starting point, it is essentially a Sword of the Meek without the downside of being Sword of the Meek. If Goblin Engineer ever untaps, it is very difficult to lose the game (stay tuned for tips on using Goblin Engineer). Engineer can generate card advantage, protect combo pieces, and act as a tutor.
Stoneforge Mystic, on the other hand, fetches a 4/4. The major argument for Stoneforge has been that it’s a great plan B, particularly against graveyard hate, yet graveyard hate has become scarce post-Looting ban, and, frankly, it’s not a great plan B. Batterskull is horrible and clunky to draw, bad to get stuck with in the hand, and the only matchup where you really want one on-board is against Burn. Additional copies are largely redundant, as the non-Meek Swords also play poorly in the deck. Once you start dumping mana into Batterskulls and Swords, you can no longer progress the deck’s primary gameplan, and if they answer the Equipment, it’s too late to revert back and catch up with the first plan. Goblin Engineer on the other hand, will generate value and slow the opponent down without sacrificing the focus of the deck’s plan or introducing clunky cards that are bad by themselves into a deck that desperately wants to flood the board with artifacts as quickly as possible.
Thus, I am confident that UW is inferior to the Red builds.
Playing with Goblin Engineer
- The value plan with Goblin Engineer is to put an Ichor Wellspring into the graveyard and then sacrifice an Arcum’s Astrolabe to return Wellspring to the battlefield, drawing a card. The next turn, you sac Wellspring and return Astrolabe, drawing two Repeat to drown the opponent in card advantage.
- Once you have an active Engineer, their artifact destruction does nothing. You can play through Shenanigans and Force of Vigor by sacrificing a Thopter, Opal, Bauble, or anything else that is lying around to return whatever card they just destroyed.
- If you have multiple Engineers, you can play mind games with your opponent by having the first one get something that you don’t really need, but might goad your opponent into acting. The second Engineer can fetch what you actually want, and then you can return it with the first, now-active Engineer.
- Remember that Goblin Engineer can get artifact creatures. This means if you’re playing Scrap Trawler or Spellskite, you can put them into the yard.
- Remember that, while Thopter Foundry specifies non-token, Engineer does not, which means you can sacrifice Thopters from the Foundry to return actual cards from the graveyard.
- If you’re playing Scrap Trawler (which we’ll talk about in a moment), it’s a good idea to put a Mox Opal into your graveyard for later Scrap Trawler loops. You could also go for a Bauble if you have Thopter/Sword assembled and a Trawler in-hand.
- Because you’re playing four Foundries (at least, you should be), it’s typically better to fetch Sword in the dark.
Leave out Green or White?
If we’re not playing UW, then how do we decide between not-Green, not-White, and five-color? Frankly, the only reason that White is in the discussion is because of Teferi, Time Raveler. Teferi answers troublesome permanents that could show up in Game 1 like Meddling Mage or Plague Engineer for a turn to combo off, makes it impossible for your opponent to interact with you as you’re going off, and can bounce your own Wellspring or Astrolabe for additional card draw. Frankly, Teferi is win-more. The only matchup it excels in is UW, and UW is already one of your best matchups. You are not an all-in combo deck, and you have lots of ability to tutor artifacts and return them from the yard, so you typically don’t really mind if an opponent stops you from comboing on your turn. It’s irritating, but by no means the end of the world; if you anticipate that your opponent’s deck is hostile to your combo, then just don’t play the combo game. Instead, play the grindy game and grind them out of cards; winning will be an afterthought. Finally, Teferi doesn’t do anything that your other cards don’t; if you’re not playing White, then you’re probably playing Galvanic Blast main, which answers most annoying Game 1 cards, and post-board, you have Assassin’s Trophy, the ultimate answer to permanent-based hate (the only kind of hate that matters against this deck).
As such, I am confident that the current best build of the deck is UBRG, Grixis with Green in the sideboard for Assassin’s Trophy. In fact, that’s the only version I’ve registered for tournaments since the deck’s inception, and I’ve been quite happy without Teferi.
Once you’ve settled on your colors (hopefully UBRG), there are the flex slots. This is where knowledge of the metagame is useful. If Tron is big, run Damping Sphere main. If Burn is big, run Spellskite main. If you can find a one- or two-mana artifact that isn’t completely terrible in most matchups that helps you against the tough matchups, then fit it in. But the great secret that nobody is saying is this: it honestly doesn’t matter very much. The deck’s core is so good that no matter which one-of artifacts you play, you can’t actually go too wrong. You might lose a couple of points here and there, but the deck plays post-board very well, and you can always just Turn 3 them.
In general, you want a graveyard hate card (Nihil Spellbomb is best because it cycles), Pithing Needle (answer to annoying walkers and lands), Pyrite Spellbomb (Whirrable removal spell), Ichor Wellspring (for Engineer value), and Ensnaring Bridge (for any creature matchups). That brings us to roughly (some prefer 2x Whir):
4x Mox Opal
4x Mishra’s Bauble
4x Arcum’s Astrolabe
I would add to this list 2x Galvanic Blast because it’s a way to deal with Karn, the Great Creator in addition to any troublesome creature in Game 1. This leaves five additional flex spots (assuming twenty lands) to fill with cards that you think are well-positioned in the metagame. Just be sure to keep your curve relatively low; your most busted draws involve Mox Opal, and it’s difficult to empty your hand if you have a bunch of two’s and three’s. A Chromatic Star is a nice include as a bad fifth Arcum’s Astrolabe that either replaces itself when sacrificed to Thopter Foundry or cycles for free after the initial investment of one mana. Speaking of Astrolabe…
- Fetch basic Snow-Covered Island if you can afford to while you have an Astrolabe (you almost always can afford to). You want all blue lands for Whir of Invention, and in Game 1, you only have single pips of other colors, so Astrolabe fixes for any of your spells.
- If you want to play multiple Astrolabes on Turn 1, you can! Astrolabe is a Snow permanent, so it generates Snow mana. This means you can play an Astrolabe off a Snow Land, then play an Opal and a Bauble, then tap the Opal for a mana and filter it through Astrolabe to play a second Astrolabe.
- Post-board, you typically want to fetch non-basics more aggressively and be less reliant on Astrolabe to respect Stony Silence or Collector Ouphe.
- If you’re tapping out to play Urza and want to follow up with a Thopter Foundry, remember that you’re going to need Astrolabe and one other artifact to do so. That way Urza comes in, makes a Construct, and then you can tap the Construct and the non-Astrolabe artifact for blue, filter one through the Astrolabe for White or Black, and cast Foundry.
Whir of Invention Tips
- Whir appropriately. If your opponent has Mana Leak or Spell Pierce and you can improvise enough to afford to play around it, do so.
- If your opponent does not have a Leak effect, over-Whir. Whir is X or less, so Whirring for 3 or 4 will either give away no information to your opponent or mislead your opponent if they’re unfamiliar with Whir.
- Whir on your opponent’s turn if you suspect Force of Negation.
- If you reveal a Whir off Urza, you must Whir for X = 0. Fetching an Opal (particularly if you already have one and a Trawler) or a Bauble is great.
- Don’t be afraid to value-Whir; again, this is not an all-in combo deck. I have Whirred for every artifact in my deck before, including the zero’s. Sometimes you just need to cycle your Whir, and Bauble does that.
- Like with Engineer, remember that you can Whir for creatures such as Spellskite or Scrap Trawler.
Another topic of debate within the Urza community has been whether or not to play a card that allows you to win the turn you go off and, if so, which card that should be. The vast majority of the time, you will not need a win condition the turn you combo off with Urza + Thopter/Sword; infinite life and Thopters is typically good enough. Tron is often brought up as the fail case, where they can untap and Oblivion Stone or Ugin you out of the game. Of course, you also have the option to (in Game 1) run multiple Pithing Needles to try to avoid this and post-board, you should have plenty of Trophies and Thoughtseizes to prevent this. But if you do decide on a win condition, which is the best?
- Spine of Ish-Sah: Terrible. Seven mana is not where you want to be in this deck. Remember that you will sometimes actually draw your win condition, and this card is rarely castable. If you’re trying to empty your hand for Ensnaring Bridge, you’ll be extra sad.
- Ghirapur Aether Grid: It’s important to think about what this card gives you if you’re not comboing. While certainly better than Spine, you’re not Affinity; you may not have eight artifacts on the board. In fact, it’s not unusual to get only around two points of damage a turn off Grid, and it’s not even an artifact (so not Whirrable, Engineer fetchable, no Metalcraft help, etc).
- Time Sieve: Does almost nothing when you draw it and are not comboing. Sometimes you’ll “get” people, but most of the time it’s bad.
- Scrap Trawler: A tad clunky, but provides value in grindy matchups, is a blocker against Burn, and actually generates an additional way to combo off.
As you might have guessed, Scrap Trawler is my choice of win condition, and it has been since Day 1. First, many players, even good players, play poorly against Scrap Trawler. Scarred by KCI, I’ve seen people panic-kill it over an Engineer, an Urza, or making an aggressive play. There’s still an air of mystery around the card if you’re unfamiliar with its role, a fear that it will suddenly win. Let’s talk about what Scrap Trawler actually does.
- With Goblin Engineer, if you sacrifice an Ichor Wellspring, for example, you can return both any artifact in your graveyard and a one- or zero-mana artifact to your hand from Trawler. Extra value.
- If you have assembled Thopter/Sword, you essentially have, “X: Create X Thopters and gain X life.” If you have a Scrap Trawler on-board an a Mishra’s Bauble in the graveyard, you instead have, “X: Create X Thopters, gain X life, and draw X cards on your opponent’s next upkeep.” Each time you sacrifice Sword, use Trawler to return Bauble to your hand, then play it and sacrifice it before sacrificing the Sword again. This allows you to loop Bauble for as long as you have mana.
- Trawler allows you to generate infinite thopters and life (but not mana!) without an Urza. If you have Thopter/Sword assembled along with a Trawler, and two Mox Opals, you can:
- Play Opal. Float a mana, sacrifice Sword.
- Play the second Opal, choosing to keep the untapped one. Float a mana and sacrifice Sword, using Trawler to return the sacrificed Opal to your hand.
- We’re now back where we started. You can continue to play Opal, sacrificing the other and returning it to your hand with each sacrifice of Sword.
You might think this is unlikely to happen, but you’d be surprised; players are often unaware of it, and it’s easy to use Goblin Engineer or Whir to set up this combo instead of Urza and catch them completely unaware.
- There has also been some confusion around how Trawler actually combo-kills. The loop is this:
- Once Urza + Thopter/Sword has been assembled, use Urza to draw your deck.
- Put Trawler, Pyrite Spellbomb, and Mox Opal (if you don’t already have one) into play. Get a Mox Opal into your graveyard as well.
- Use Mox Opal to make Red (only use Opals for Red to sac Spellbomb, nothing else!), sacrifice Spellbomb and shoot the opponent for two.
- When Spellbomb dies, return the Opal in your graveyard to your hand.
- Play the Opal, sacrificing the tapped one.
- Use a Thopter (not the Opal!) to sacrifice Sword, returning Spellbomb to your hand.
- Play Spellbomb (again, using a Thopter, not the Opal). Return to Step 3.
With all the additional value that Trawler provides to the deck, I like it as the win condition of choice, if you’re going to play one.
- If you are going to activate Urza multiple times and not un-randomize your deck in between, you do not need to shuffle every single time. You can simply continue to exile the top card, as the deck is already randomized. There is precedent for this when Mind’s Desire was played.
- Remember that the cards exiled off Urza can be played until end of turn; Teferi does not shut him off, and you do not have to cast them right away.
- Pithing Needle naming Urza does not shut off his mana ability; Phyrexian Revoker does shut off all of Urza’s abilities, including his mana ability.
- Stony Silence/Collector Ouphe does not shut off Urza’s mana ability; it’s not the artifacts being activated, it’s Urza.
- If you control no artifacts when you play Urza, you make a 1/1 Construct; remember that, if you have a Sword of the Meek in your graveyard, you get to return the Sword to play.
- Attacking with a large construct is a completely viable way to win the game. I have seen people continue to spin Urza looking for combo pieces when attacking would have closed out the game much more quickly.
- If you have Urza + Thopter Foundry, you can sacrifice as many non-token artifacts on-board as you want so long as you have a single mana. Each sacrifice generates an untapped Thopter, which can tap for Blue and sacrifice another artifact.
Mishra’s Bauble Tips
- Do not crack Bauble if you want the Metalcraft for Opal. But do not be afraid to crack Bauble if you want to see more cards; this deck cracks it much more aggressively than, say, Whir Prison.
- If you have a fetchland, a Goblin Engineer, or an Urza activation, you can Bauble yourself and decide whether to shuffle it away or not.
- If your opponent is playing hand disruption, crack Bauble on their turn (on their upkeep if you want to see their draw) so that you’ll draw the card on your turn and it will be safe from their Thoughtseizes and Inquisitions.
This is NOT a sideboard guide (sorry), just things to keep in mind.
- Do NOT cut too many artifacts or weaken the deck’s central gameplan. Oversideboarding is a real danger with this deck. Just be conscious of how many artifacts are coming in and how many are going out.
- Assassin’s Trophy is one of your two best SB cards (Tezzeret is the other), but remember that it changes your fetching behavior. You need to fetch Green and Black early if you fear Stony or Ouphe, as Trophy is non-trivial to cast. There is a strong consideration to running a Snow-Covered Forest in the main for this reason (either in addition to, or even instead of Snow-Covered Mountain).
- Cut Engineers if you suspect Graveyard hate.
- Cut Whir if you’re cutting lots of other artifacts.
- If you have Nature’s Claim, remember to bring it in against Burn and Prowess; you want to gain the life yourself.
- Don’t worry too much if your opponent does bring in graveyard hate; it minimally interferes with your gameplan until you actually want to go off (if you ever do), and you can answer it then. Stony effects, however, do need to be dealt with as they make it difficult to operate.
- Know what to Needle. Against Jund, for example, it’s often correct to name Liliana of the Veil instead of Wrenn and Six. If you have a Bauble to crack, do it before Needling in case you see something on top that you can snipe.
Thoughts on more Speculative Cards
I’m skeptical that Mystic Forge is worth it. It serves a similar role as Scrap Trawler, becomes substantially worse when you’ve cut artifacts post-board, and is four mana, which is both expensive for the deck and can’t be returned with Goblin Engineer.
Tezzeret is great, but a budget alternative is Rampage of the Clans for a way to definitely surprise an opponent. It’s an instant, so you just flood the board and, on their end step, you blow everything up and kill them on the swing. It also blows up Stony and can surprise their attackers.
Merchant’s Dockhand is a card that I haven’t heard mentioned, but I believe merits testing. One mana is a good spot to be as an artifact in this deck, and it digs for Urza, one of the most important pieces in the deck, and one of the hardest to actually find.
Pentad Prism is great on Turn 2 when you have Urza, but I’m unconvinced that Urza one turn earlier merits playing a card that is horrendous as a late-game top-deck. I’m low on Prism.
Sai/Saheeli/Monastery Mentor mainboard is something else I’m skeptical of. They’re so antithetical to what you’re trying to do (dump your hand fast). Sai is the only one worth thinking about main for the late game synergy with Urza, but it still seems unnecessary; Urza is plenty busted without a lackluster non-artifact creature. I honestly don’t like them much in the board either. Saheeli is the best of the bunch, as it’s the most difficult for most decks to interact with and you tend to be playing fewer artifacts post-board to trigger Sai, but Tezzeret is typically just a better plan B.
Collective Brutality and Ceremonious Rejection are incredibly narrow, but incredibly powerful. Trophy, Tezzeret, and Damping Sphere are synergistic or versatile enough to merit playing very frequently, but only play these narrow, non-artifact spells if you *really* want to hedge against Burn/Tron.
Burn and Tron are the toughest matchups. Against Burn, block as much as you can to buy time to make Thopter/Foundry; once you have that, you will usually win. Against Tron, you’re looking for a fast combo in Game 1, and you’re going heavy on disruption post-board. Tezzeret, Trophy, Sphere, Rejections, Needles, whatever you have, they all come in. You’re looking to keep them off Tron; if they’re forced to play a normal game, you can typically combo faster. Don’t be afraid to cut your win-condition against them either; post-board, you’ll have Trophies and Thoughtseizes and Needles once you draw your deck to ensure they can’t answer your infinite Thopters.
Hopefully this is helpful; Urza is powerful, flexible, unique and well-positioned deck. Be sure to practice before playing so you can enjoy all the fun things the deck is capable of doing.
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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