Brewed Up: Orzhov Soul Walkers

A few weeks have passed since the release of Modern Horizons, and the full impact of the set upon Modern is yet to be determined. Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis wasted no time rocketing an entire archetype to the upper echelons of the format, and in doing so may have obscured the potential impact of the rest of the cards in the set. Today, I present to you one of the cards that jumped out to me upon being spoiled: Yawgmoth, Thran Physician.

Decklist
Lands (24)

2 Concealed Courtyard
3 Field of Ruin
3 Godless Shrine
4 Marsh Flats
3 Plains
2 Shambling Vent
3 Silent Clearing
3 Swamp
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Creatures (11)
1 Blood Baron of Vizkopa
1 Cabal Therapist
1 Deadeye Tracker
4 Giver of Runes
2 Ranger-Captain of Eos
2 Yawgmoth, Thran Physician
Spells (25)
2 Collective Brutality
2 Fatal Push
1 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
3 Inquisition of Kozilek
2 Kaya’s Guile
1 Kaya, Orzhov Usurper
1 Liliana of the Veil
1 Liliana, the Last Hope
4 Lingering Souls
3 Path to Exile
1 Serra the Benevolent
1 Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
3 Thoughtseize
Sideboard (15)
1 Anguished Unmaking
2 Ashiok, Dream Render
1 Crucible of Worlds
2 Damnation
4 Extirpate
2 Fulminator Mage
2 Plague Engineer
1 Stony Silence
75 Cards Total

The Build
The manabase is quite standard for two colors in Modern, with fetches, shocks, Field of Ruin (a necessity for fair decks), and a couple of manlands. The notable inclusion here is three Silent Clearing. Horizon Canopy has long been a staple in Modern decks in those colors, because an untapped land that produces multiple colors of mana and also helps mitigate flooding in the lategame is extremely powerful, and Silent Clearing offers much the same utility to this list. In general in Magic, once relevant spells have been cast and hands have been emptied, lands do not contribute much to advancing one’s gameplan. Therefore, any land that offers utility beyond mana production is to be prized highly, to mitigate the drawback of a large portion of the deck being dead draws in the mid-lategame.

The printing of Yawgmoth, Thran Physician was particularly exciting to long-time players of the game because Yawgmoth himself, despite his vast influence on the Multiverse, its people and its history, has never actually had a card represent him within the game itself. Other cards have referenced him – usually with some mechanic relating to the graveyard – but he himself had not heretofore been depicted. This first look does not disappoint. Flavorwise, this card is phenomenally well designed; from the classic black trade of one life for one card to Yawgmoth slowly weakening other creatures and spreading his darkness, the card does a phenomenal job of encapsulating most of Yawgmoth’s machinations.

The card, however, has more than just the lore going for it. If Yawgmoth is given plentiful sacrifice fodder, he will by himself take over any game against creature-based decks. Killing opposing threats over and over again while drawing cards to keep the process going provides too much overwhelming tempo, board presence and card advantage. Even in matchups where the creature killing is not as relevant – think UWx control, for instance – Yawgmoth being able to sacrifice your entire board to draw a fresh set of cards and effectively negate any advantage the opponent might have gained from wiping the board can be absolutely backbreaking. Entire strategies will scoop to an enabled Yawgmoth. Furthermore, proliferate works wonders with planeswalkers. Being able to activate planeswalker ultimates ahead of schedule is extremely powerful and feels quite unfair when it does happen. When activating this ability, if the cost of discarding can be mitigated or exploited, Yawgmoth feels like an engine piece from an older format that somehow slipped through into Modern.

All that said, Yawgmoth does have his vulnerabilities. He does need creatures to sacrifice, he does require you to pay life, and he can be removed by something like a Path to Exile. A good shell for him, then, must be able to provide recurring creatures to sacrifice (token makers, for instance), ways to recoup the lost life, and safeguards with which to protect him. I believed that gaining access to all of Yawgmoth’s potential shenanigans was worth jumping through these hoops. Given that this list is trying to utilize Yawgmoth’s massive mid-lategame power, the early spells must enable us to interact with the opponent and survive to that later point. A detailed discussion of the spells thus chosen is shortly to follow.

The primary token generator in this list is Lingering Souls. Lingering Souls has been a modern mainstay for a while now. Sometimes, it is very prevalent in the meta and at other times, it disappears into the fringes of the format, waiting for someone to remember how powerful the card is. Two 1/1 flying bodies for three mana is hardly the best, but the flashback: oh, the flashback. The capacity for one card to make four flying bodies, spreading out four power and toughness over three and two mana, makes this a fantastic card in a great number of fair midrange decks. The Souls can trade for early opposing creatures or stall for enough time to enable these decks to arrive at their powerhouse lategames. The Souls provide a significant clock against slower decks, and are excellent against decks packing spot removal and countermagic.

Abzan has used this card to good effect in the past, but perhaps the Souls found most of their success in Mardu Pyromancer lists, notably enabling Gerry Thompson to take down a Pro Tour. With Modern Horizons providing many a good reason to look once more at graveyard shenanigans – fair and unfair both – the Souls are looking to make a comeback.

Souls are certainly good with Yawgmoth as he can turn the souls into four cards and potentially multiple weakened/killed opposing creatures. But they are also a powerful offensive force if buffed in any way. Four power worth of flying is just respectable. 8 power, by contrast, is a very scary threat and will often end the game in two attacks, thanks to Modern’s shock and fetch manabases. Sorin, Lord of Innistrad; Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Serra Benevolent all provide an anthem for the Souls when they are not busy feeding Yawgmoth.

Serra, in particular, also offers powerful game-ending and board presence on her own, as multiple 4/4 vigilant flying bodies for four mana will end the game in short order. Many decks will also find it almost impossible to win through her ultimate.

Sorin, Lord of Innistrad also is an excellent token maker for Yawgmoth, and offers very powerful and versatile removal with his ultimate (an achievable goal, often, thanks to Yawgmoth). While Gideon and Serra also produce tokens, those tokens are generally best used to bolster one’s own board presence, given their bodies and relevant combat keywords. In a pinch, however, they can certainly be used to activate Yawgmoth in an attempt to find the answer the situation commands. Each of these planeswalkers is quite powerful in their own right and become almost unfairly strong when combined with the deck’s many synergies, and I would not fault anyone for upping their numbers.

The specific numbers of the planeswalkers accompanying Yawgmoth are mostly a matter of player preference. For a while, I tried Gideon Blackblade; in the list’s first iteration, it had two of each three mana Liliana. The current planeswalker bundle is more focused towards buffing Lingering Souls at the four drop slot, and offering versatile answers at the three drop slot.

Kaya, Orzhov Usurper offers lifegain and graveyard hate that can recurringly remove cheap opposing threats and offers a way to win the game that gets around Ensnaring Bridge. There are certainly arguments to be made for sideboarding Kaya instead; personally, I really like having access to versatile answers to opposing graveyards in the main, given just how many decks there are in the current meta that seek to use their graveyards as a resource. Furthermore, given that this deck uses life as a resource to draw a bunch of extra cards, every point of life gained is potential card advantage down the line.

Liliana, the Last Hope offers recurring removal and a way to recur our best creatures from the graveyard. Her ultimate is very difficult for most decks to grind through, and a combination of her plus and minus abilities will often set up the stage for an easy victory in creature based matchups. Even in a lot of cases where her +1 does not achieve much (control, big mana), the -2 recursion ensures she remains a very relevant threat in those matchups.

Liliana of the Veil is a powerful card needing no introduction; her dominance in the Modern format goes back quite a long while. She is three mana, meaning she can come down quite early. Her -2 in conjunction with any cheaper interaction makes it quite likely that she will appear on an empty board and be quite difficult to remove afterwards. Her +1 allows you to trade dead or redundant cards for relevant cards from the opponent, and her ultimate will whittle down the opponent to so few resources that the odds of them making a comeback are practically nonexistent.

Given this power, it may come as a surprise to see her only being played as a one of in this list. This is not for “as many one of planeswalkers as possible” gimmick reasons. The argument for so few of her is twofold. Firstly, this list has a fair number of four drops that actively want to be cast and not be placed into the graveyard.This does not synergize well with Liliana, who either wants you to empty out your own hand as quickly as you can so that her plus one turns into Raven’s Crime, or wants you to use the plus one to actively get cards of your own into the graveyard. While this deck does not mind discarding Lingering Souls, excess lands and lategame discard spells, none of these are cards that specifically grow in power or otherwise make use of being in the graveyard.

Secondly, of late, Liliana of the Veil is growing increasingly worse in the meta. With decks like Hogaak and Dredge running rampant, Jund switching to cards like Seasoned Pyromancer, and Faithless Looting strategies in all shapes and sizes growing ever more popular, neither of Liliana’s non-ultimate abilities feel like they accomplish much in a wide range of scenarios. She can still be a powerhouse against midrange, and work wonders against slow or big-mana decks like Tron, Control, and combo, but given that she is not as ubiquitously strong as she used to be and that this deck does not actively want to get cards in the graveyard, I will stick to one LotV in this list. In other decks with cards like Bloodghast or with a significantly lower curve, I could certainly countenance more of her.

A cheap, powerful way to take advantage of all this token generation is Cabal Therapist. Made in the mold of the great Cabal Therapy from Legacy, Cabal Therapist trades Therapy’s speed for repeated uses of the ability and a body. This allows the Therapist to act as fodder for Yawgmoth once his therapeutical services are no longer required, and the menace allows him to get in for significant chip damage over the course of a game, especially with the boosts in power from the four drop planeswalkers. Being able to strip the opponent’s hand apart and work with perfect information, turn after turn, off the back of just the one card, is extremely powerful in any matchup where having the opponent discard cards is a relevant effect (basically everything other than graveyard decks or decks looking to empty their hand out quickly).

However, the Therapist is extremely fragile, and can be quite slow to set up – a Therapist naming a known card in the opposing hand is usually not possible until Turn 3 and even then will generally require sacrificing itself. I think of Therapist as Thoughtseize with Suspend in the early game, and a Telepathy in the late game with power and toughness.

Giver of Runes is another card made for Modern Horizons following the mold of a powerful card from an older format. Mother of Runes has been a Legacy mainstay for as long as the format has existed, and with good reason. She can ensure that opposing threats are blocked forever (block, give protection from a color of the blocked creature, repeat); she can push damage through by giving attackers protection from the color of the blockers; and, of course, she can fade removal spells (or at the least force out multiple removal spells for single creatures). While Giver of Runes cannot protect herself in the way that Mother can, she can protect others around her from colorless sources as well, making her extremely potent against Karn Liberated and the Eldrazi menace. Her requiring another creature to be useful is certainly a downgrade over Mother of Runes, but there are certainly situations in which the protection from colorless will really shine. Protecting Yawgmoth, Serra Angels, and Gideon offers resilient game-ending power; protecting weaker creatures allows the deck to defend indefinitely (and also makes small creature decks wake up in cold sweats in the middle of the night, with horrible visions of Lingering Souls tokens killing a threat and living to tell the tale swimming before their eyes).

Deadeye Tracker has recurring explore, which makes him a valuable play in grindy matchups where card advantage and selection decide games. Stapled atop incidental graveyard hate, the Tracker is a cheap body that offers multiple versatile effects, and can in time grow to be a reasonably sized threat. His being one mana is an important reason for his inclusion in this list; he can be tutored for by Ranger-Captain of Eos, meaning the one of is in truth a three of. Graveyard hate and card selection that can be tutored for when needed is a delectable opportunity indeed, and not one to be passed lightly.

Ranger-Captain of Eos is a callback to an older card that was already present in Modern, but saw only small amounts of play, namely Ranger of Eos. Unlike the Ranger, the Captain can only fetch one card, not two; however, he more than makes up for it by having a better combat body, being a full mana cheaper, and having the ability to Silence non-creature spell based opponents. The activated ability on the Ranger-Captain can force Storm to stop Storming halfway through; it can ensure spells resolve against counterspell decks; it can Time Walk opponents if used on upkeep. Ranger being able to fetch protection, discard, or card advantage/graveyard hate makes him an extremely versatile tool in this list, and one that adds a significant amount of consistency to the deck’s being able to find the answers it needs at any given time. If recurred with Liliana the Last Hope, Ranger can be absolutely backbreaking against decks where the Silence is useful. Otherwise, fetching multiple Giver or Therapist can do more than sufficient work.

Two Fatal Push and three Path to Exile in the one drop removal slot do excellent work against threats as early in the game as possible. Path to Exile is unconditional removal that gets around graveyard hate and has always been one of Modern’s best removal spells. However, its drawback is fairly significant in early turns; as such it is better to rely on cards like Fatal Push and Collective Brutality in the beginning to remove cheaper and smaller threats.

Collective Brutality performs several important functions, each of which is relevant in a range of matchups. It is hand disruption against control and combo, it is removal against small creature decks, it is lifegain against aggressive strategies. It can trade up in tempo by allowing you to effectively cast multiple spells for two mana. In this list specifically, Brutality offers perfect information for Cabal Therapist, protection for the planeswalkers and other threats, and a source of lifegain when necessary. However, there are cases when none of these modes are particularly powerful (Dredge and Tron come immediately to mind); furthermore, this deck does not, as mentioned earlier, have access to a lot of discard fodder. Given the card’s versatility, I feel not having it is an error, but given the drawbacks, I would also not recommend too many, unless Escalate can be used as an enabler.

The Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize help set up our Cabal Therapist and protect our planeswalkers, much like Brutality. At one mana, these spells will ensure that our opponent is delayed significantly in enacting their own game plan early on (except, of course, if they are relying on the graveyard, in which case, sideboard be my ally) and offer as little resistance as possible to us enacting our own. While these are fantastic in the early game, and we almost always want to start games by casting one of these, in the lategame when neither player has cards in hand, they can be quite bad. At those times, these can be used to activate Yawgmoth or traded away using LotV and Brutality.

The last nonland card in the maindeck that demands attention is Kaya’s Guile. Graveyard hate, lifegain, a 1/1 flying body, an edict, choose two – these are all individually useful effects, but not necessarily worth spending three mana and a card on. However, offer the option to choose the two most relevant ones from this set of four, and the card suddenly becomes extremely powerful. Maindeckable graveyard hate is at a premium at the moment in Modern, and this is one that can double time as a removal spell, an offensive/defensive body (tokens, as ever, are very valuable in this deck), and a life buffer against aggro. Kaya’s Guile can be used to kill Tarmogoyfs and threaten planeswalkers at instant speed; it can be used in response to Snapcaster Mage entering the battlefield to turn the powerful blue two drop into a worse Ambush Viper; and last but not least, it can, of course, allow us to win Game 1’s against decks like Hogaak that we could not have won otherwise. Flexibility and versatility have always been extremely powerful in Magic, and this is no different.

Blood Baron of Vizkopa is a big, powerful threat that is very difficult for a lot of decks to deal with. One of the issues I struggled with sometimes in early iterations of this list was closing out the game quickly after some Souls had been spent in combat. Looking around for a resilient threat that gained life, I was reminded of the Blood Baron. By no means is he a must include in the 75. But he has sufficiently diverse application across enough matchups that I am comfortable dedicating a sideboard slot to him. UWx cannot remove him except with boardwipes; variants of fair Bx midrange/control decks are unable to target him with any of their removal; aggressive strategies usually find him a massive stabilizing stone wall they cannot break through. The second ability, for the record, is almost never going to be relevant, but ever so rarely will help a game end very quickly.

The Sideboard
The sideboard is, as sideboards tend to be, flexible. It currently contains a significant amount of graveyard hate, in the form of Ashiok, Dream Render and Extirpate. Ashiok, Dream Render is an extremely powerful sideboard card in a lot of matchups, turning off effects like Scapeshift, Expedition Map, Chord of Calling, Whir of Invention, and fetchlands; and then he also nukes graveyards, and offers an alternate win condition in mill. He cannot be included maindeck because he does not interact with the board in any meaningful way, meaning in many matchups he will often be a three mana do nothing; but given his capacity to almost singlehandedly win multiple matchups, I currently feel as though it is criminal to play less than two of him in any sideboard that can support his colors.

I have extolled the virtues of Extirpate before and I shall do so time and time again. Extirpate is graveyard hate that doubletimes as the ultimate combo killer in conjunction with hand disruption.Split second stops the opponent from doing things like fetching to return their targeted Bloodghast, sacrificing an artifact to Thopter Foundry to trigger their targeted Sword of the Meek, cracking Relic of Progenitus in response to nuke all graveyards, sacrificing Insolent Neonate or cycling a land to dredge the target of Extirpate, casting Whir of Invention or Chord of Calling to negate the Extirpate or find another copy of the targeted card, sacrificing a bunch of creatures to Altar of Dementia or Carrion Feeder in response and get max value out of their Bridge from Below anyway before the Bridges are exiled, or simply Flusterstorming our spell. There are more scenarios in which not allowing the opponent to respond in a situation such as this is by far the best policy, enough that the one extra mana over Surgical is paid for in spades.

The maindeck has two manlands, six fetchlands, three lands that can be sacrificed to destroy opposing lands and three lands that can be sacrificed to draw cards. This makes Crucible of Worlds an unexpectedly potent threat in this list, at its worst ensuring we never miss a land drop and helping us thin the deck to a significant degree by fetching turn after turn; at its best allowing us to Wasteland the opponent or drawing an extra card every turn. While this is certainly a flexible spot and Crucible is by no means an absolute necessity for this sideboard, its inclusion offers the deck another angle of consistency, power and recursion that I see no reason not to include.

Plague Engineer destroys small creature based decks. Elves, Infect, affinity, Goblins, Merfolk, Humans (and any tribal decks that will come forth in the future) all become significantly weakened by Engineer, sometimes being outright unable to beat the card. Deathtouch means he will often trade up in power and toughness, on top of being a Shrivel on a stick. The Engineer is quickly becoming a staple in black sideboards, and I sincerely doubt that will change anytime in the near future.

Fulminator Mage coupled with Field of Ruin and Crucible allows the deck to pursue a legitimate land destruction strategy against decks like Tron and Valakut looking to win by setting up specific lands. Fulminator Mage is also a potent threat against control, trading two-for-one if the control player attempts to use a removal spell on it (it can just kill a land in response), and being a proactive answer to cards like Search for Azcanta and Celestial Colonnade. Given that this deck is not looking to kill particularly quickly, it needs to be able to answer these opposing powerful lategame game plans, and consequently I believe Fulminator Mage to be an indispensable inclusion in the sideboard.

Similarly, given that this deck IS planning to go into the mid-lategame, I am not comfortable having no access to boardwipes, despite the deck itself having a significant number of creatures. Token generating planeswalkers help repopulate the board immediately afterwards, as does Lingering Souls flashback. Furthermore, if we have fallen behind on board significantly, with Yawgmoth, our own creatures already on the field can be cashed in for extra cards beforehand.

Stony Silence has always been and will always be absolutely backbreaking against the decks where it is good. It is perhaps the narrowest of the cards included in this sideboard, and I would rather combine this one with other more versatile options to beat artifact based strategies, rather than jam four in the side and pray I see one. The last card in the sideboard is Anguished Unmaking, an unconditional removal spell for problematic permanents that are difficult to otherwise remove, such as planeswalkers, artifacts and enchantments. While I am not certain of the necessity of this card in BW sideboards, I personally enjoy having a “no questions asked” answer to threats. That said, it is certainly possible the deck has enough other ways of attacking each of those issues that the Unmaking is not necessary.

The Verdict
The deck so far has felt very smooth to play in testing. It wants to go up to four lands, but can operate comfortably on two or three for a while. It has multiple ways to mitigate flooding, and has a lot of built in consistency and value. Across the main and side, there are enough versatile answers to help craft a gameplan with a competitive chance of success against anything the deck might face. For anyone looking to try their hand at midrange in Modern, this is definitely a new, fun, and competitive strategy I would highly recommend looking at.

Wrap-Up
Now with the rising tide of Hogaak hammered down, we can get back to testing the other Modern Horizons printings. Do you believe that the combination of tokens, Yawgmoth, and planeswalkers can carve a niche in the format? What are you working on for post-Hogaak, London mulligan Modern? Please share your thoughts with us in our discussion group. Or if you would like to take a swing at writing content for the site you can contact us directly here. We will be back tomorrow with another article for you to enjoy. Until then my friends.

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