Crowning Ice-Fang Urza: 1st Place in the Modern MOCS Playoff

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With twelve days remaining until the Modern MOCS Playoff on Magic Online, I’d hardly touched Modern in over two months and was hoping the ban announcement shortly before the event would reset everyone’s progress.

Until recently, it wouldn’t have been much of an issue that nothing changed. Modern has long been a format defined by long term deck mastery, and I had more than ample time if all the preparation I needed to do was pick between my comfort picks of Grixis Shadow and Amulet Titan. But the Modern of 2019 has been anything but stable, each new release of cards redefining the format in waves as more truths emerge about how best to use them, rapidly invalidating anything that came before. This pattern continued into the Playoff. This Simic Primeval Titan deck that didn’t even exist a week before the tournament rapidly spread and churned through iterations under the watchful eye of the hive mind, before putting three copies into the Top 16 (and one into the finals).

I squandered some of my precious time stubbornly resisting this new world, but by Friday night I’d lost enough matches with outdated decks to make the way forward clear. If I wanted to win, and I really wanted to win, I had a week to learn how to play and build Urza:


My journey began in the Modern Challenge the week before with a list I net-decked from Autumn Burchett’s stream a couple days prior. I went 5-2, with my losses largely attributable to my mistakes and when I won, I still made those mistakes but it didn’t matter in the face of how good my deck was. I was immediately convinced of the deck’s strength and set to work trying to iron out the last few slots.

Why Only One Emry?

I liked moving away from Emry, Lurker of the Loch in this shell, but the first copy was too messed up not to have access to, and I was looking to shave Archmage’s Charm anyway. Having extra counterspells is great but you can only play so many cancels and keep up in Modern when you don’t have an Urza in play. Similarly, Veil of Summer was great, but when you board in three copies you’re asking to die with two of them in hand as your opponent ignores you and jams proactive threats. I was also fairly unimpressed with Ashiok, Dream Render as graveyard hate, as well as with the Valakut decks that Ashiok was meant to beat. While Urza and Oko are perfectly capable of outclassing an average Crabvine or Dredge draw without any help, their more explosive openings just killed you on turn three through the token resistance. An extra Tormod’s Crypt to supplement the Grafdigger’s Cage did some work warding off those early kills, especially with Emry around to loop it.

The biggest disparity between Autumn’s initial list and the other typical builds of midrange Urza was the inclusion of a full set of Ice-Fang Coatl and subsequent removal of Emry, Lurker of the Loch. After playing with Coatl, I was fairly impressed for a few reasons. The first is that the addition of a bunch of extra counterspells to the deck made it generally worse against creature decks that could go under you, and having a flash blocker helped you ward off early aggression and catch back up without giving up anything against decks that didn’t care about the combat step. This is especially true against a couple of the decks people were attempting to target urza with — Death’s Shadow and Infect. In these two matchups the ability to kill their creature while bypassing Stubborn Denial and Blossoming Defense can win games single handedly by stranding the rest of their deck while you take over. It also makes your Oko’s much stronger, as a removal spell that you can deploy proactively allows you to play an Oko on curve and elk your opponent’s problem permanent immediately without losing it to combat damage shortly afterwards.

That still leaves the question of what to do with Emry though. As I mentioned earlier, there is sound reasoning for wanting fewer copies, essentially that the card is very low impact in some matchups and can be inconsistent. Engineered Explosives has gotten progressively worse in Modern as decks like Humans or Affinity that are weak to it have disappeared, replaced by a variety of big mana decks, and the addition of a full set of Gilded Goose makes it far more difficult to profitably blow up all the one-drops. I believe it to be a necessary evil and the worst card in the deck as things stand, and cut one for an Aether Spellbomb, tech I got from Oliver Tomaijko.

As a result, Emry has far more narrow usage in this deck than in previous iterations of Urza, typically only being useful to draw an extra card each turn off Mishra’s Bauble, and occasionally failing to have a target at all. Of course, drawing two cards a turn off a cheap play can still be quite powerful, but only in a select few matchups. Against the range of linear decks that fill Modern, especially the wave of big mana against which drawing cards often comes secondary to ending the game, Emry could often be too slow to impact the game.

The complication is that one of those select few matchups where Emry can shine is the mirror. As a result, I experimented with the full range of Emry counts, at one point even trying four of them with two Once Upon a Time on top of that to find it even more often. (As an aside, Once Upon a Time proved too inconsistent to really be desirable. With only 14 creatures to find, it’s not that strong at finding action and we already cantrip plenty towards Urza in the early game without it. Also, only playing 20 lands makes it difficult to rely on hitting one to make our opening hand work.) In the end, Emry felt too poor against my linear opponents or in multiples to justify playing more than one, even if it meant losing a little equity in the mirror.

I suppose at this point I ought to explain the Emry in the sideboard. As it became clear that more Emrys in the main was untenable, I was looking to use a sideboard slot to help my mirror matchup. Veil of Summer and Mystical Dispute are both excellent, but the diminishing returns on additional Mana Leaks and purely defensive counters is too high to benefit much from additional copies, and there frankly just aren’t many other cards that are any good, so Emry is just the best option. Emry is also much better in post-board games in a few matchups. Against decks like Tron or Dredge it’s often a poor draw in game one, but once Grafdigger’s Cage or Damping Sphere has entered the deck the ability to find and recur hate permanents makes it excellent, so having an additional copy helps those matchups but only in games two and three anyway.

Filling the Last Few Slots 

Another question to answer was whether to splash for removal in the sideboard, whether it’s white for Path to Exile or black for Fatal Push and Drown in the Loch. Coatl has limitations in what creatures it actually gets to trade-off profitably with, and a card like Devoted Druid that can kill you without ever entering combat presents a potential problem. Dismember can help against those threats to some extent, but not against the early creatures from Burn decks, which backed up by Lava Dart or Searing Blaze to kill Coatl pose a real threat to our life total.

The issue is that since we’re obligated to play as close to all Islands as possible to support Mystic Sanctuary, we’re often obligated to fetch up Hallowed Fountain or Watery Grave in order to cast these. Not only does this undo some of the value of killing a Goblin Guide, it also makes our Coatls much worse, and sometimes even proves problematic for casting Astrolabes. It also can cause issues when we already need to search up a green source, since Temple Garden or Overgrown Tomb are off the table, forcing us to choose between Goose and Push in the early game. The margins are close here, and if there were enough fast creature combo I would be willing to employ a splash, but as things stand I’d rather just keep my mana clean.

The final piece of the puzzle for the maindeck was rounding out the counterspell suite. Cryptic Command was the clunkiest of them by a fair margin, but the flexibility it offered and the synergy with Mystic Sanctuary made me reluctant to cut below the initial three. By the end of the week, the new wave of Field of the Dead decks had cemented themselves as contenders in the prelims and I was considering adding the fourth copy, as tapping down their team to punch lethal through the zombie horde is a crucial tool to winning the matchup, though ultimately I felt that with the ability to pick it back up via sanctuary three would be plenty.

Metallic Rebuke is crucial for keeping pace through the early turns, and is generally insane on turns two through five or so, but falls off quickly after that, stacks poorly with sideboard Mystical Disputes and doesn’t play well into the mid-game once Urza gives you plenty of mana for you hard counters.

Archmage’s Charm has somewhat of the opposite issue where it clogs up your hand until you get an Urza in play and is too expensive to help you force one through, but then the modality it offers becomes quite strong, although unlike Cryptic merely casting it as a counterspell doesn’t help you pull ahead in the game. Neither of these options could be cast the same turn as Urza off of only two untapped artifacts, which was a repeated sticking point, often forcing me to delay my gameplan a full turn cycle to avoid letting some haymaker resolve freely.

I wanted one more counterspell, but wasn’t interested in playing more than two of either of those. Stoic Rebuttal fills that slot excellently on the other hand. It’s cheap enough to win counter wars early with or allow you to deploy a threat without going shields down, and while it lacks some of the additional utility of the more expensive counterspells it still gets the job done later on in the game when all you want is for your opponent’s next play not to resolve. I registered one without getting any reps with it beforehand and it was excellent all day, winning me multiple matches where either Charm, Rebuke, or both would have fallen short. If you take nothing else away from this article, put a Stoic Rebuttal in your Urza deck

The Last Sideboard Slots

This brings us to Friday, where the final stage of preparation kicked in — tuning the final sideboard slots for the expected meta. I studied the Challenge the week prior and the Prelims through the week and reached the following conclusions which are mostly true about all of Modern right now:

Big mana would be the most popular, primarily divided between Eldrazi Tron and Simic Field. Accordingly I shaved on Damping Sphere and more targeted graveyard hate to make room for the second copy of the best cards for those matchups: Ceremonious Rejection and Ashiok, Dream Render respectively. Normal Tron and Amulet Titan were both around but rare enough that I was comfortable with only two Sphere and some splash damage from the rest of my sideboard.

  • The mirror would be a decent portion of the field, but not everywhere. I would likely play it about three times in the tournament if I made it through all eleven rounds, and there just aren’t any sideboard cards high enough impact to justify extra space for the matchup beyond the Disputes, Veils and Emry.
  • The graveyard decks (namely Crabvine and Dredge) would be present but rare, and while they’re perfectly beatable without dedicated hate, they can also just hit a good draw and kill you quite easily. A slot or two buys a ton of equity if we do hit the matchup, especially with the two Emrys.
  • Similarly, I thought Prowess was a reasonable choice but it seemed to be very underrepresented and I believed the matchup to be close, perhaps even favorable to begin with, so additional hate seemed unwarranted. If I decided to respect the burn shells more I would’ve registered one copy of Weather the Storm.
  • Disruptive Aggro (mostly Shadow, but a bit of Infect and Humans were possible too) would show up but not in major numbers, and the cards I had already set me up excellently here.
  • “The Field”, once the biggest player in most Modern tournaments, would be almost non-existent, especially on Magic Online, especially in this field of entirely dedicated grinders and professionals. The decks that didn’t get major upgrades from the past few months simply can’t compete with the ones that did, and at this point very few people would even be trying to fight that uphill battle.

This was the final result was this MOCS Playoff Winning list:


In hindsight, the Yawgmoth deck failed to make an appearance as far as I could tell and the scraps of prowess outperformed the scraps of graveyard decks, so I likely would’ve been better off with a Weather the Storm over the second Grafdigger’s Cage. Other than that, I wouldn’t change a card, at least for the MTGO meta. Results may vary in paper where the field deck may take some time to catch on and there’s some more unpredictability and less Eldrazi Tron, so I would consider tweaking the sideboard accordingly.

For the past three years, I’ve been trying to make my way to the Pro Tour and the MOCS. In the midst of sweeping changes to Organized Play, some of the finer points of this goal have been lost in translation. I missed on the last wave of Pro Tours and Mythic Championships, but made it in under the wire on the MOCS (this is the last one in its current form), a 24 player person tournament in Seattle with a $250,000 prize pool. Still, the essence of that goal remains — to play against the best players in the world and find out if I have what it takes. There may be a few rungs missing now between the top of the ladder and the bottom, but I’m just thrilled to be taking my first real steps into the world of competitive Magic.

Sideboard Guide

And now for the part you’ve all been waiting for:

VS Eldrazi Tron:

+2 Ceremonious Rejection
+2 Dismember
-1 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
-2 Engineered Explosives
-1 Ice-Fang Coatl

Oko and Urza’s Construct friend generally outclass their creatures pretty badly, so the main priority in the matchup is not letting Karn resolve. Emry gets bricked by Karn and also sometimes Chalice of the Void, and just generally isn’t what the matchup is about.

They’re poor enough at assembling Tron and good enough at playing without it that Damping Sphere isn’t particularly appealing, though if they’re playing the build with Once Upon a Time that may move the needle enough to make it worth playing one (likely over the Aether Spellbomb).

VS Urza Midrange Mirror:

+2 Mystical Dispute
+2 Veil of Summer
+1 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
+2 Dismember
-2 Engineered Explosives
-4 Ice-Fang Coatl
-1 Mox Opal

The games go long and the top-end spells get countered a bunch so drawing redundant Mox Opals is pretty poor, though it’s possible you’re supposed to leave all four in on the draw anyway. The key to this matchup is being ahead one active messed up permanent (Urza, Oko, Emry) at any given time. Oko can neutralize a threat, but it comes with the risk of bolstering their combat force and getting him killed, at which point their Oko can get left unchecked, so make sure your board is stable enough to protect him before upgrading the combat prowess of their Emry.

Urza on the other hand is too stupid in play and often forces the activation at him, so jamming your Urza into their Oko is often correct because it will allow you to get ahead on board, kill their Oko, and stick one of your own that can then elk their Urzas, leaving you at parity but up an Oko.

Post-board when both players get four additional one mana counterspells, the fight on the stack gets more complex. If you have a Veil, just force a threat through with it as soon as possible before they reach the capacity to present multiple counterspells.

Similarly, anytime you can force through an Urza just do that, ideally in such a way that you can either present a second threat or counterspell backup for their followup. Playing draw-go to delay the game until you have enough resources in play to pull this off is ideal. Mostly just try to play quickly — the matches are long and convoluted, and both players will likely make at least minor mistakes, but you at least need to give yourself a chance to finish the match.

VS Bant Control:

+2 Mystical Dispute
+2 Veil of Summer
+1 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
-2 Engineered Explosives
-1 Mox Opal
-2 Ice-Fang Coatl

This is kind of like a mirror except they forgot to put all the good cards in their deck.

Same rules apply about winning Oko wars winning games except they don’t have any threats worth elking so you get free reign. These decks generally don’t have anything that punishes you very hard for playing draw-go or taking the game super long, so as long as you can keep planeswalkers off the battlefield, which you’re more than capable of doing, you’re advantaged in the long game. Verdict is a card, so be careful about shoving more stuff into play than is necessary, and they can’t really remove an Oko from play so prioritize him over Urza when choosing which threats to fight over.

VS Grixis Shadow

+2 Veil of Summer
+2 Mystical Dispute
-1 Stoic Rebuttal
-2 Cryptic Command
-1 Mox Opal

VS Sultai Shadow

+2 Veil of Summer
+2 Dismember
+2 Mystical Dispute
-2 Cryptic Command
-1 Stoic Rebuttal
-1 Mox Opal
-1 Engineered Explosives
-1 Emry, Lurker of the Loch

Slight difference in sideboarding here as Tarmogoyf dies to Engineered Explosives but often not Dismember and Gurmag Angler is the opposite. Urza always resolves in game one which is a nightmare for them, but keep Mystical Dispute in mind post-board.

Keep functional seven card hands somewhat aggressively the same as any Thoughtseize matchup. If possible, turning off Stubborn Denial with Oko or Ice-Fang Coatl can prevent them from fighting over your counterspells, at which point things quickly spiral out of control for them.

They’re generally quite threat-light, so don’t feel too many qualms about sweeping up a Goose when using Explosives to clear Shadows as long as you aren’t giving them a free opening to resolve an Oko. Their capacity to reload is limited and their top-decks just get worse as the game goes on.

VS Simic Field:

+2 Mystical Dispute
+2 Ashiok, Dream Render
+1 Veil of Summer
+1 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
-2 Engineered Explosives
-4 Ice-Fang Coatl

The games here essentially play out in two stages. First, you play your typical anti-big mana game, using countermagic to keep their haymakers from resolving. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work. Lists are too new to have consolidated, but they generally have several Cavern of Souls main and their own Veils and Disputes in the side to try force a Titan through. Once they get a Field of the Dead online, either via Primeval Titan or just naturally hitting land-drops, you lose the ability to grind them out of the game.

Instead your goal becomes to convert lethal damage by using the tap mode of Cryptic Command to force through a big attack, typically involving an Urza Construct or two. This sounds like a desperate gambit, but the field deck doesn’t really have many tools to stop it and Mystic Sanctuary makes it a lot easier to get as many taps off as are necessary to close the deal. Generally mulligan any hand that doesn’t present Ashiok or a counterspell before their turn three.

VS Amulet Titan:

+2 Mystical Dispute
+2 Damping Sphere
+2 Ashiok, Dream Render
+1 Dismember
-1 Aether Spellbomb
-2 Engineered Explosives
-4 Ice-Fang Coatl

Same mulligan paradigm (except with Damping Sphere as an additional reason to keep) and general play patterns as the Simic Field deck, just with a lot more moving parts on their end.

Generally fire off counterspells to hamper their development in the early turns rather than saving them for Primeval Titan, partially because of the potential for a Cavern of Souls and partially just because you can often buy yourself multiple additional turns with which to set up some offense of your own. Keeping Amulet itself offline un-hastes the titans which can allow Oko to neutralize them, although at that point they’ll just get Field of the Dead and we enter the force lethal with Cryptic stage of the game.

VS CrabVine:

+2 Mystical Dispute
+2 Ashiok, Dream Render
+2 Grafdigger’s Cage
+1 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
-2 Engineered Explosives
-2 Archmage’s Charm
-2 Ice-Fang Coatl
-1 Oko, Thief of Crowns

VS Dredge:

+2 Ashiok, Dream Render
+2 Grafdigger’s Cage
+1 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
-2 Engineered Explosives
-2 Ice-Fang Coatl
-1 Oko, Thief of Crowns

Graveyard hate is an ideal keep in these matchups but any hand that produces a fast Urza is also quite good. A Metallic Rebuke for their turn two play and some acceleration is also reasonable enough.

VS Burn/Mono Red Prowess:

No changes.

All your life gain is already built into the main deck here, and there is quite a bit of it. Engineered Explosives is the card you most want in your opening hand, but largely the goal is just to stabilize as quickly as possible with Urza or Oko bricking their attacks and then outlast them with food and counterspells.

VS G/X Tron:

+2 Damping Sphere
+1 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
+2 Ceremonious Rejection
-2 Engineered Explosives
-2 Ice-Fang Coatl

Generally mulligan any hand that isn’t very likely to either produce either Damping Sphere or Urza with counterspell backup before things get out of hand on their side of the battlefield.

This is one of the few matchups where you don’t have inevitability over the course of a game so try to push towards killing them whenever possible, and don’t be afraid to snap off tempo plays like bouncing Blast Zone to buy an extra turn before your Damping Sphere gets killed.

VS Humans:

+2 Dismember
+1 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
-2 Metallic Rebuke
-1 Stoic Rebuttal

They have a lot of obnoxious permanents, including Collector Ouphe and Mirran Crusader as potential ways to cheese you on top of whatever’s in their main deck, but generally nothing in their deck keeps up with just casting an Urza.

If your answer to Collector Ouphe is Dismember, plan to set Engineered Explosives on one or three to clear the other stuff. If your answer is Oko, plan to set it on two, as that’s typically the ideal number anyway and you want the Elk gone.

VS Infect:

+2 Dismember
+2 Mystical Dispute
+1 Emy, Lurker of the Loch
-2 Cryptic Command
-1 Archmage’s Charm
-1 Stoic Rebuttal
-1 Gilded Goose

Mystical Dispute is somewhat narrow, but Glistener Elf and Inkmoth Nexus are so easily kept in check that you mostly only lose to Blighted Agent, Distortion Strike or Oko anyway, and it can still be useful for protecting your threats against their sideboarded counterspells.

Coatl is your best tool for the matchup since there’s so little they can do to prevent trading off, but you have lots of ways to produce extra mana and fight on your own turns so just try to take advantage of that.

I’ll leave you with one final piece of advice. Beating this deck is really difficult, if not impossible, and likely comes at the expense of many of your other matchups. Most of the people who think they beat you? They don’t. The ones who know they’re beat but think it’s close? It isn’t. Don’t get cute. Don’t make your life harder than it has to be. Just play it until they take it away.