"When did having a 4/4 with Double Strike on the first turn become fair?" -If it were possible to convey in a less salty manner the frustration of one of the players I faced in a Modern League playing Rakdos Evoke, these would be their words.
With over 25% of the Metagame and a rate of 52% against the format, Rakdos Evoke is the absolute best strategy in Modern today. Much is due to the interaction between elementals with instant reanimation effects such as Feign Death and Not Dead After All.
The fact that Rakdos Evoke is dominating the format is nothing new, and several content creators and Metagame analysts, such as Frank Karsten, have already produced articles referring to its predominance, and even tips on which decks are succeeding against it.
The problem in Modern, however, is on the bigger picture: Modern Horizons II had such a devastating impact on the format and on Magic as a whole that nothing - to date - compares to it on power level. If we look at the main strategies today, it is easy to see how the MH sets have taken over the competitive environment, leaving little or no room for other innovations.
At the heart of it are Modern Horizons II's Elementals, also known as Evokers.
Two years after they first came out, the Elementals continue to take over the Metagame and define how Modern should behave. Since then, strategies like Rakdos Evoke demonstrate how degenerate interactions with these permanents are, and Up the Beanstalk opened up yet another gate of absurd synergies with this cycle.
It's clear that nothing good will come of these elementals, and it's past time for Wizards to take some action about them in favor of Modern's overall diversity
The Presence of Elementals in the Modern Metagame
With data available on several Metagame websites, including Cards Realm itself, we found that all Elementals are among the ten most played creatures in Modern.
Fury is the most played creature in the format today, with an average of 42 to 48% representation in the Metagame. In addition to Rakdos Evoke, decks such as Four-Color Goodstuff, Temur Rhinos, and the recently created Cascade Beanstalk are some of the archetypes that run it, in addition to also appearing in Izzet Murktide, in certain variants of Living End, and in some number between maindeck and sideboard of other strategies.
Endurance is the second most played elemental, with a variance of 27 and 33% of the Metagame, and much of this is due to its wide usefulness in the Sideboard of various strategies, in addition to its occasional use in the maindeck of lists more focused on the Elementals, or who can take advantage of their Evoke.
With 25 to 30% presence, Grief is the pillar of Rakdos Evoke, as casting two Unmasks and still having a 4/3 with Menace on the battlefield is a good strategy for winning games. What it does, in theory, is what Jund was looking to do when it started games with a sequence of Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek followed by Tarmogoyf, except that all of this, now, occurs in a single turn instead of three.
Subtlety has around 16 and 20% representation today. Its main homes are Temur Rhinos, Living End, the Izzet Murktide's sideboard and several blue Control variants, but it has seen an increase in usage due to Beanstalk Cascade.
It's a little surprising, but Solitude is currently the Elemental with the lowest representation, between 15 and 20% of the Metagame. Its presence was much greater during periods when Goodstuff lists were at the top of the format, where it is still present today. It also appears in white variants of Hammer Time alongside Emeria's Call, in addition to being present in Cascade Beanstalk, Goryo's Vengeance and Control decks.
The Modern Then and Now: Proactive Free Spells are a mistake
Modern has a long history with free spells, which is generally not a very healthy relationship.
Among the banned cards, there are various free spells that are illegal for a dozen reasons: either because they make it too easy to access the opponent's information (Gitaxian Probe), or because they speed up certain strategies (Mox Opal), or just because the cards proved too strong for the Metagame (Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis, Once Upon a Time).
One thing in common that all of these cards have in the format is that they are proactive spells. They will be used to advance your plan or game state, rather than used to deal with certain situations - the only exception is Mental Misstep, banned because its presence would be too limiting.
What has changed since then?
Except for Subtlety and, to a certain extent, Endurance, all Elementals in Modern Horizons II fit this pattern. While they were mostly meant to be used in reactive stances, like evoking a Solitude to deal with Murktide Regent, or Fury to clear the board against small creatures, the way players will run them involves extracting as most value as possible from them.
While Wizards proposed the idea of using them for free in exchange for card disadvantage, just like Force of Will and a dozen other spells in the same mold, it is clear that the epicenter of strategies with them today involve cheating their conditions and rules: either with Not Dead After All to bring them back, or with Up the Beanstalk to benefit from Evoking them, or with Teferi, Time Raveler and the now-banned Yorion, Sky Nomad, almost nothing around them today involves following the rules proposed by their design.
Putting Unmask, Swords to Plowshares or Pyrotechnics coupled with very efficient bodies for free made the Elementals one of the biggest mistakes Modern has ever experienced. An error that, since it does not attack the Metagame in such an obvious and absurd way as Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis did and because of the strange benefits that its presence brings to the current environment, remains uncorrected.
Regardless of how much time passes, Elementals will continue to cause significant damage in Modern and nothing good will come of them. For every new set, a new potential for absurd interactions can emerge, and most releases will never be able to match the impact they have on the Metagame.
After all, if Modern Horizons III inflates the format's power level in the same way its predecessor did, there will come a time when eternal formats are defined by far too many absurd things, and let's face it:
Modern Horizons was a success, but Modern Horizons II was a huge mistake
The idea of sets that can insert more powerful cards into eternal formats without going through Standard generated tons of repercussion on the first Modern Horizons, in 2019. In the end, the set greatly impacted the format and brought a dozen new proposals and ideas which improved as time passed, but the Metagame and known archetypes, while receiving significant additions, would still remain recognizable to most players after the turbulent "Hogaak Summer".
Little by little, the format adapted, while Magic also underwent major changes with other releases, such as War of the Spark, Throne of Eldraine and Theros: Beyond Death, which also led to the banning of Arcum's Astrolabe.
The crucial difference between MH1 and its successor is that its card insertion seemed more focused on seeking interesting design experiments while most of the additions were aimed at generating support for already existing strategies, with few cards that were so powerful on their own to the point of nullifying the viability of what already existed.
Outside the banned Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis and Arcum's Astrolabe, Wrenn and Six was the most powerful card of the set to the point of being banned in Legacy and still being popular today in Modern, for account of its interaction with Fetch Lands and ease of killing some troublesome creatures. It became an auto inclusion in several decks and, perhaps, is the card closest to the philosophy that seemed to inspire the next release.
Modern Horizons II seems to have bet on the opposite spectrum: while some of its cards seemed aimed at reinforcing certain archetypes (Zabaz, the Glimmerwasp in Hardened Scales, several artifacts for Affinity, Svyelun of Sea and Sky for the Merfolks) or even establish some new ones (Archon of Cruelty and Serra's Emissary were clearly made to be played with Unmarked Grave and Persist), it seems much more focused to insert more individually powerful cards.
The result is that it was the best-selling set in history, but it was also the first to generate such a high demand for so many cards that supply was unable to cover, as it caused such permanent damage to the game's competitive environment of which, in essence, rotated an entire format on its own. Many decks emerged, many others died, and the top of the Metagame since then has never been similar to what we had before its launch, and it never will be again.
Meanwhile, the Magic's wheel continues to turn: new releases occasionally impact Modern, some with more relevant additions, such as The One Ring, Orcish Bowmasters and Leyline Binding, while others bring just a few strong pieces that manage to overcome the barrier established by MH2 by collaborating with some already well-established strategy, such as Agatha's Soul Cauldron.
Rakdos Evoke was already unfair before, Bowmasters only made the problem worse
Rakdos Evoke is the archetype that amplified this debate about the overrepresentation of Elementals in the format. Since the release of Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth, the archetype has grown to become the best deck in the format, but it was always among the main competitors for months before reaching the top.
At that time, it was already the target of criticism due to its various "non-games" stages. There are many strategies that cannot survive a Grief and two discards in the first turn, just as there are decks that cannot handle a Fury with a clock of three attacks from the second turn.
Its stance towards the format was never friendly, but many tolerated it, firstly because there were broader methods of playing around it, and secondly because Four-Color Creativity was, for many, much more annoying to play against.
Three factors have driven its popularity, and they are interconnected by Orcish Bowmasters. The new black two-drop added a very efficient answer against strategies that seek to draw an abusive number of cards, or that use an arbitrary amount of cantrips - which leads us to a card and an archetype: The One Ring and Izzet Murktide.
Before LotR came out, Four-Color Creativity was the best deck in the format due to the way it mixed a Goodstuff pcore with a "combo-kill" as early as the fourth turn, where it used Indomitable Creativity to get Archon of Cruelty.
The One Ring changed this structure by offering, for several strategies, a clean, maindeck response against the Archon, which also served as an absurd source of card advantage - the result was the abysmal decline of Creativity strategies in Modern, and the rise of other Goodstuff Piles variants, and Orcish Bowmasters is a clean and efficient answer to the Ring's activations.
Then we have the third factor: Izzet Murktide was one of the most favored strategies against Rakdos Evoke. After all, in addition to the individual quality of its creatures and spells to dealing with Elementals, Murktide also had excellent top filtering quality between Consider, Mishra's Bauble and Dragon's Rage Channeler, which allowed it to have an edge on topdeck wars and prevented a double Grief from winning the game on its own.
Orcish Bowmasters is not only the ideal answer against Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and Dragon's Rage Channeler without delirium, it also punishes a dozen micro-interactions that Murktide had with Mishra's Bauble and Consider, to the point that not even unbanning Preordain has put it back among the top three in the Metagame, and now players are attempting to run Questing Druid to play around Orcish Bowmasters.
Before, for you to beat Rakdos Evoke, you needed redundancy, or generate much more value than your opponent could handle. Today, generating this value is much more difficult because Bowmasters are a powerful police against card advantage. Then, we are left with the redundant strategies: Hammer Time, Cascade, Hardened Scales, in addition to Mono Black Coffers, which today seems to occupy the space of Big Mana that takes over the Midranges.
While some debate the representativeness of the archetype, Rakdos Evoke's problem still appears to be the same as it was in early 2023: it's not fun to play against, and it often wins because its theme bypasses the primary rules of its victory conditions and strips the opponent from any possibility of interaction.
Starting the game without your two best cards is not healthy, much less starting with a 4/4 with Double Strike on the other side that just killed your one-drop. And even if you survive this explosive first turn, there's an entire Midrange ready to punish you for spending too many resources trying to get back into the game. Many cards have already been banned from the competitive scene for much less.
The core of Rakdos Evoke's problems are directly connected to MH2's elementals, and even if it somehow ceases to exist, there will be a dozen other strategies willing to make the most of this cycle. So, the solution needs to come from addressing them.
Bans x Errata: Which is the best route?
In the last two weeks, a trend on social media began to give visibility to people proposing a rule change in the Evoke mechanic, similar to what happened with Cascade due to the absurd interaction that Valki, God of Lies had with it.
The idea is to change Evoke's rules text so that the ability can no longer go to the stack and, therefore, no longer have a response window for using spells like Undying Evil or Ephemerate to bring the evoked creature back to the battlefield as a new object. Another proposal is that Evoke always enters the stack before the first ability resolves, this way, the opponent would have more opportunities to destroy the creature.
There are also players and content creators who propose a change to Modern Horizons II's Elementals, rather than to the mechanics as a whole. One that adds the "if you cast it" clause to their ETB effect. So, even if the opponent can cast one of them to reanimate and/or blink afterward, its effect will only happen once, which makes it fairer against the format.
These are all viable options and, to some extent, more likely to happen than an outright ban. Elementals are one of the main pillars of Modern and the Metagame exists around them, including strategies put in check because of them: permanently removing them from the format, especially those that interact with the battlefield, is giving a free pass to go-wide and combo strategies, which can play unimpeded or force your opponents to be even less proactive - decks like Golgari Yawgmoth are much more dangerous when we can't threaten a free and unwanted interaction against them, something we can establish with Subtlety, Solitude or Endurance.
On the other hand, the Elementals are design mistakes. Their stay in the format will always bring risks and benefits, and they will continue to dictate the Metagame and have an absurd representation in the competitive environment because nothing compares to them - and if they compare, it's because Modern is about to go through another catastrophe, where archetypes will be swept into oblivion for others to replace them, and this action could take more of players' confidence in the format if it happens too soon, like in Modern Horizons III next year.
Fury should be banned
If they truly want to end Rakdos Evoke's dominance, banning Grief would be the most viable option, as it removes most of the archetype's anti-game postures. But in the format's panorama, Fury is the true villain among them.
In addition to being a four-turn clock on its own, Fury is also a free mini-sweeper, which deals with one to four creatures at once. Its presence in the Metagame limits several aggressive strategies. Decks like Merfolks, Humans and Heliod Company are unviable because Fury is a very unfavorable tradeoff in this equation - and all of these archetypes have one thing in common: speed and redundancy.
To deal with a double Grief, the best solution in the current Metagame is redundancy. If everything on your list does one specific thing, isn't impactful enough, or when everything is absurd, discards lose their value. Thoughtseize was much worse when Yorion Piles was at the top because it made no sense to propose these trades with them, nor with the various strategies that sought to play under - if we increase the number of strategies that play under, or amplify the amount of archetypes that can play over discards, Grief is a much worse threat.
And these aggressive strategies put in check by Fury are part of this equation. For both Rakdos Evoke and Goodstuff stacks, these archetypes already face too many challenges even without the elemental, as Orcish Bowmasters is a possible 3-for-1 trade, and Wrenn and Six is a machine gun against dorks on its own, not to mention the protection from The One Ring.
Believing that banning the red elemental would make Aggro rise back to the top is almost naive: most of them need more support to keep up with the power level today. But Fury is a massive limiter, which also doubles as a threat and interacts with a dozen cards to the point of having 50% representation - second only to Chalice of the Void and Engineered Explosives, two Sideboard staples, and their absence would make the interaction space that these archetypes need to have to play against Aggro and creature-based combos a little more difficult.
In open speculation, I believe that, without Fury, Rakdos Evoke would lose a significant portion of its representation, while decks like Temur Footfalls would grow more because they have some clean answers against Aggro and Aggro-Combo, like Hammer Time, Scales and Yawgmoth. Four-Color Goodstuff could be a bit of a problem if they find a build that capitalizes on The One Ring, but the absence of a free sweeper would certainly cause havoc when it comes to holding creature archetypes.
The other strategies at the top would probably remain in the same place, or have changes based on other archetypes made possible by the absence of the red elemental.
Modern is in one of the worst states I've ever seen in the years I've been following the format. It doesn't get to the point of being oppressive like it was in the Eldrazi or Hogaak periods, but it isn't healthy, diverse or fun to play - and a lot of that is due to the presence of the Elementals and their role in the current format.
A solution needs to be presented by Wizards, and we can only hope that it is quick and efficient instead of letting the format rot for a year until the next major banned and restricted update, in 2024.
Thanks for reading!