Modern Impact of WAR: Karn, the Great Creator

I think I am speaking for everyone when I say War of the Spark preview season left Modern players with a lot of great expectations for our favorite format.  Its always fun to dream of Modern deck upgrades as previews are released, but its rare that Standard-legal sets truly deliver on those promises, as testing these cards in Modern decks may yield very different results than merely speculating on what they could do in practice.

In the first month after the release of WAR, I think it’s safe to say that this set has had a HUGE impact on Modern already.  Today, I’ll begin a series of articles that looks at the biggest impacts on Modern from War of the Spark, what differences they make for the archetype they belong to, and the ripple effects on their opposition.

In order to include a new card in an established deck, something must go.  With that, we often sacrifice one benefit for another, and improvements to certain match-ups may be balanced by vulnerability in other situations.  This ripple effect will cause changes to lists throughout the format (especially sideboard inclusions) that may not include any WAR cards at all.  With the high frequency of WAR inclusions, I’d say there is a lot of that happening already and more that I would expect as this new meta settles.  Let’s get started…

Karn, the Great Creator

It is no surprise that the biggest Modern impact of War of the Spark is Karn, the Great Creator.  This card has, undoubtedly, shown up in the greatest frequency among Modern results since WAR’s release.

Lattice Lock

The combination of Karn’s ability to find an artifact from the sideboard and its static ability of “Artifact abilities of artifacts your opponents control can’t be activate” allows for the seemingly ubiquitous combination of Karn and a single Mycosynth Lattice in the sideboard.  This pairing prevents an opponent from being able to tap any lands for mana (which become artifacts via Lattice) or use any activated abilities of any of their permanents.  If you’ve played any Modern in the last three weeks, I’m sure you’re quite familiar with this plan.

What this cannot do is prevent your opponent from attacking.  Having just three to four power worth of unopposed attackers on the board when Mycosynth Lattice and Karn are united is generally enough to prevent this lock from being assembled.  If you present no board presence, this could end the game immediately as Karn can turn Lattice into a 6/6 and attack you to death in the coming turns.

Other routes include floating mana in response to Lattice and using it to Disenchant (or similar) the Lattice once it is resolved.  Control players should have no trouble countering either piece of the puzzle.  Since there is often only one copy of Lattice, the graveyard is the safest place for it to be.  Remember that if Lattice is ever exiled, it can be found again with Karn.  Karn players can do this with their own Relic of Progenitus activations.

Though this combination can seem oppressive and consistent, an informed opponent shouldn’t have a terribly challenging time of getting underneath it.  The biggest challenge is the fact that Karn allows a player to include up to fourteen other hateful artifacts in their sideboard that can be used to hinder their gameplan, present a clock, gain life, or set up for the Lattice combo by pacifying potential Karn attackers with Ensnaring Bridge.

Impact of the Wishboard

What’s most impactful to me is the fact that including a Karn package often consumes two to four maindeck slots and even more space in the sideboard.  This has sprung SIGNIFICANT changes for Green Tron, Eldrazi Tron, Mono Red Prison, and some Mono Blue Tron lists, and has effectively reduced the number of non-artifacts that can comfortably be included in a sideboard in order to maximize the utility of a Karn “Wishboard”.

Let’s take Green Tron for example; currently, the most played deck in the Modern format.  Because Green Tron has posted so many results since the release of WAR, it is rather difficult to sift through visible results to find a “pre-Karn” list to compare to.  Fortunately, on May 11th, Arsenek posted a 5-2 finish with a list that included 0 Karn, the Great Creator and this sideboard:



Compare that to CarlSwaggin’s (great name!) 5-0 League list posted on May 14th including 4 Karn, the Great Creator and this sideboard:



I would consider those 11 artifacts to represent a relatively stock wishboard.  This leaves just four slots for anything else.  Here are the most significant changes to the sideboards that include Karn:

  1. The wishboard list does not include any creature removal.  With Spatial Contortion and Warping Wail gone from the 15, wishboard lists rely on Ensnaring Bridge to stop attackers or Oblivion Stone to wipe the board.  Bridge can be a fantastic way to deal with aggression, but the lack of surgical creature removal from these lists may relieve some pressure for decks like Vizier Company or Elves who’s aim is to assemble creature combos.
  2. The wishboard list is much lighter on Thragtusk and lifegain in general.  I should think that this would be a boon to any aggressive deck like Burn, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the lowered curve for Karn, the Great Creator, may allow Tron to play anti-aggro technology like Witchbane Orb or Orbs of Warding sooner and bypass the need for such lifegain.
  3. The wishboard trades Surgical Extraction for artifact’s like Grafdigger’s Cage and Tormod’s Crypt.  This means that four Karn in the deck could represent four routes to graveyard hate as early as game one.  There is a reason, Surgical is the hate card of choice, however.  It is extremely fast and allows the pilot to tap out without leaving themselves vulnerable to graveyard combo or an onslaught of Arclight Phoenix.  Now that Tron players have shifted to casting a four-mana planeswalker as a first step to locating sideboard graveyard hate (notably, there are still a number of Relic of Progenitus in the main), the window of opportunity for Dredge, Phoenix, and Grishoalbrand decks widens.  The inclusion of Ensnaring Bridge may pose a different kind of challenge for those plans, however.
  4. The wishboard includes fewer creature threats.  In this case, Thought-Knot Seer is omitted to include the wishboard package.  At times, Tron can take advantage of an opponent focuses too heavily on stopping the assembly of Tron lands by bringing in creatures to simply pressure their opponent.  I’ve seen Tron players go as far as to run Tarmogoyf in their sideboard to finish off their opponent quickly while they durdled around to find Ghost Quarters and sunk their mana on Field of Ruin activations.  This was very effective.  Including the wishboard does not allow for this sort of plan, and though the Karn package can be utilized without Tron lands assembled, the payoff is all but an aggressive route to victory (with the exception of a good old-fashioned Walking Ballista beatdown).  One possibility to keep in mind, however, is the +1 function on Karn which could turn any of these prison-style artifacts into attackers.

Maindeck Differences

The differences in the maindeck between wishboard versions and “old” versions of Green Tron can be summed up in just a couple of ways:

  1. Wishboard versions include fewer cast trigger Eldrazi spells.  The difference between the two previously mentioned lists is 1 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, 1 World Breaker, and 1 Emrakul, the Promised End.  Since wishboard versions rely less heavily on seven or greater cmc spells, going after Urza’s Tower, Urza’s Mine, or Urza’s Power Plant with land hate will be much less effective.  The winners in this scenario are the Control decks who would much rather Logic Knot a Karn, the Great Creator than an Ulamog, the Ceasless Hunger.  In fact, Control decks are better off using permanent removal like Detention Sphere or Teferi, Hero of Dominaria‘s -3 ability on Karn, the Great Creator rather than the bigger payoff spells that have likely already impacted their board presence and potentially removed some of the lands needed to deal with the problem.
  2. Wishboard versions shift one Relic of Progenitus or one Oblivion Stone from the main to the sidebaord.  This doesn’t make a huge difference, but whichever one is chosen to be moved to the sideboard will mean that the game one match-up becomes a little bit less efficient for Tron against creature aggro or graveyard strategies.  Packing Karn means you have four more ways to access that piece, but again, it will require quite a bit more mana to do so.

Stony Silence in the Main

Karn’s static ability is an effect that mimics Stony Silence, a card that can single-handedly shut down the game vs. Affinity, Lantern, and similar decks that rely on cards like Darksteel Citadel, Mox Opal, Springleaf Drum to function.  Based on the frequency of Karn, the Great Creator, I wouldn’t expect to see these decks being particularly effective at this point.

In fact, Affinity, one of the most played decks in Modern’s history, has posted just six results in the first month of WAR’s release.  The hype surrounding Karn has, no doubt, caused more players to consider extra artifact hate in their sideboards, also useful against decks like Affinity.  Karn’s impact on the Affinity match-up will be much more apparent when Karn decks are on the play, as a turn four Stony Silence just might be too late to stave off an aggressive start from Affinity, especially if they empty their hand before the Karn deck has played its first land.

Whir of Invention decks, too, will lose some percentage points due to the fact that the aforementioned artifact mana sources are big pieces of their plan and the Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek is also turned off by Karn.  This challenge is mitigated by the fact that these decks can run their own copies of Karn in the main since this will allow them to tap into their already artifact-rich sideboards.

Conclusions

Karn is a great new tool for Modern but certainly not a strict upgrade to any of the lists in the format.  In fact, we are already seeing a trend of some Tron pilots reverting to earlier versions of the list.  The wishboard provides consistency and versatility to decks that chose to include it but may only be included at the expense of big mana payoffs, or sideboard flexibility beyond the artifact suite.  Experienced Modern players will identify the weaknesses to this version and chose lines that attack its pressure points.  As my co-content creator, Francesco Neo Amati (Spikes_Neo) always says, “we must assess, adapt, and overcome”.

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