From the Ashes of the Astrolabe: Rediscovering Urza

From the Ashes of the Astrolabe: Rediscovering Urza

by Zach “ManaCymbal” Ryl   

Episode I: The Hogaak Menace

The year was 2019, mid June. War of the Spark was not yet known to be as devastatingly powerful as we now know it to be. Modern players didn’t know what to expect from Modern Horizons, a set which would add cards from Legacy as well as brand new printings. Later, we would wonder how we could have been so naive. 

The devastation to Modern that would follow led to the ban of Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis, Bridge from Below (we shan’t miss you), and Faithless Looting. I’ll make no comment at this time about the banning of Looting, nor about my joy at the unbanning of Stoneforge Mystic. No, I’m here to tell the tale of Urza. 

You see, during the tyranny of Hogaak (the speed and power of which was so brutal that even a dedicated sideboard slot of rest in peace was, on the draw, no guarantee of safety a majority of the time) Urza was quietly holding a high win rate, though played by a small minority of players. 

“Classic” Whurza by kanister. View decklist on MTGGoldfish.

Once Hogaak left Modern, Whurza soared free. Players became focused on the addition of Stoneforge and, free from the abuses at the hands of Faithless Looting, Whurza steadily rose to join the top tier of the metagame.

Episode II: Attack of the Thrones

Upon the release of Throne of Eldraine, Oko, Thief of Crowns, Mystic Sanctuary, and Gilded Goose entered Modern. All the pieces were now in place for Urza’s spectacular rise which led to its eventual fall from grace. 

Several varieties of Urza came and went. Classic Whurza was still the most popular… until. Eventually the Urza decks realized being able to spin Urza at instant speed proved awkward for casting Thopter Foundry or Sword of the Meek. Not so, however, for casting Cryptic Command or Archmage’s Charm. A new breed of Urza deck was born that eschewed the Thopter/Sword entirely in favor of powerful countermagic, card draw, and a late game strategy revolving around my favorite card of all time, Cryptic Command.

Temur Urza-Oko by Jarvis Yu. View decklist on MTGGoldfish.

Mox Opal, Gilded Goose, Engineered Explosives, and Mishra’s Bauble, formed the base of this deck, along with a strong midrange from Urza, Lord High Artificer and Oko, Thief of Crowns. The deck was able to vomit value and splash into either red, black, or both to benefit from the nuclear dynamo that was created. (No comments were angled at this time at Arcum’s Astrolabe, as Mox Opal was already able to tap for any colour.)

Episode III: Revenge of the B&R List

The reign of Urza Oko was too good to last. Eventually, Oko was identified as the source of the problem. But the demise of Oko, in January 2020,  brought collateral damage, turning the Thief of Crowns into a thief of Opals. Mox Opal was “finally” banned. Perplexingly to many, Mycosynth Lattice was also removed with this set of bans (truly, I don’t mourn thee). Surely, without the speed of Opal and the power of Oko, the menace of Urza was vanquished. And yet…

Eli Kasis, pro player and Urza aficionado, wasted no time in posting an article on the potential of three paths for the development of Urza. First was Grixis Whurza, the classic full tilt combo deck. Second was a more disruptive Dimir Thopter/Sword/Urza combo, more able to clear the way for the Thopter/Sword/Urza Combo with the help of discard spells. Finally, there was a fledgling Temur build, which Kassis  proposed as “the most fun.” Temur ended up being the best of the three for a good long while, but as Modern is want to do, it was occasionally buffeted from its rung by Whurza. 

Episode IV: A New Hope

Theros: Beyond Death was an… exciting set for many formats, and some of those cards still linger. Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath still frustrates many in the Modern format. (not yours truly.) Uro was by far the most relevant card for any Urza deck, giving the deck a powerful fallback plan, accelerant, life buffer against the aggressive decks of the format. I remember the first time I cast then escaped an Uro against a red deck… such pure bliss. 

But Urza decks were not the only ones to take advantage of Uro and more importantly Astrolabe. Astrolabe became ubiquitous, and Modern control decks took on a Legacy-like attitude of splashing into an extra colour for sideboard haymakers. 

Temur Uroza by haubidtran. View decklist on MTGGoldfish.

Upon the release of Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, the companions were unleashed on Modern, and they fed ravenously on the unprepared populace. Numerous staple Modern archetypes made major changes with Liliana of the Veil becoming as rare as a salad bar at a GP. Others made minor changes eschewing classic cards in order to gain the free card provided by such low effort companions as Jegantha or Kaheera. Lutri, of course, harmed no one and provided hours of entertainment to many, proving that Wizards does know, at least from an aesthetic point of view, how to design some great cards. Cute lil’ ottery boy.

These decks eventually proved too much to bear for the Modern landscape, attaining the much vaunted but fatal win rate of over 55% in non mirror matches. 55% may not sound like much but remember, this is in the aggregate, and the 55% number includes both pros and mediocre players booting up the deck for the first time.Wizards had to act. 

Episode V: The Banhammer Strikes Back

July 13, 2020, a day that will live in infamy. “Arcum’s Astrolabe is banned.” These words still echo loudly in my ears. Meanwhile, Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, the card that seemed to be in contention for banning at this time, faded for a short time before slowly, bringing on a new age of slow rolling mid-late game powerhouse decks, along with Field of the Dead and Mystic Sanctuary.

July 13, 2020, a day that will live in infamy. “Arcum’s Astrolabe is banned.”

Zach Ryl

The day after this ban took place I streamed for 12 hours trying a bevy of Urza decks to see what the viability of them actually was. While the Grinding Breach deck I played didn’t really do it (Urza was always a bit player there anyhow), I did feel that there was something still workin’ here. I even got  a 4-1 with the UGr Uroza (Y) (KGTC), the only loss being due to time out while activating a lethal Walking Ballista. But, anecdotes and league results do not a great competitive deck make, and Urza vanished from challenges entirely.

As the weeks and months crept by in the post-Astrolabe world, a handful of 5-0’s were made, almost entirely with Whurza style decks. An infinite “I win the game” combo deck is never totally out of work in Modern, it would seem, but it was likely that Urza was not to be seen competitive again until a new potentially broken toy might grace the light of day. (Phyrexian Astrolabe anyone?) And it was extremely unlikely that the value-midrange version would ever recover. 

Episode VI: Return of the Soratami

And then, there came a legend. The name had not been heard in a truly great amount of time, and even EDH players dared not speak the name. “Erayo.” My podcast co-host, Arun “JiggyWiggy” Singh, pulled from his great well of brewing knowledge an idea of how to efficiently flip Erayo, Soratami Ascendant. 

Urza + Erayo: the Forbidden Love

While Arun’s Simic Kinnan Erayo deck never gained any particular tournament success after its initial 5-0, three weeks later the Esper Erayo Deck, which still pops up from time to time, made a stunning climb to third place in a weekend Modern challenge.

What does this have to do with Urza? Well, this scrappy shell is one of the current ways that Urza is being played to success with, as recently as two weeks ago, Abe Corrigan securing a 7th place finish playing UB Urza Erayo. (You can find this decklist at the challenge results here, and a video of me playing a recent version on YouTube.)

Urza Erayo by abethemage. View decklist on MTGGoldfish.

The Erayo “Package” consists of 0 mana artifacts, Erayo, and the important cog Repeal. Repeal + any 0 mana artifact allows for 3 spells in one turn, meaning that only the playing of the Erayo itself is required to flip it. Since these decks were already playing a number of 0 mana artifacts, this package slips in easily, and has great flexibility in its overall strategy with Emry, Lurker of the Loch, allowing you to get free spell casts in the middle of the turn to hit the magic number of “4.”

The question that faces the Erayo deck at this point is, What else to do? This shell adds the rock solid Thopter-Sword combo and Urza, Lord High Artificer, alongside Lurrus of the Dream-Den for some extra resiliency and card advantage. 

Episode VII: The Artificer Awakens

The analysis of this deck brings me to a quick recap of the potential directions and powers of Urza, Lord High Artificer and his entourage. 

-Urza likes to exist in a deck that has lots of cheap artifacts that can happily stay in play to provide their bodies to fuel the semi-Tolarian Academy like mana ability of Urza and swell the construct that Urza brings with him. 

-Urza can also exist in a deck that can independently produce a large amount of mana, although this angle has not yet been investigated outside of the UR Dice Factory list from Brian Madden, which I’ve played.

-Urza is a combo piece, and a self fulfilling one in a way. With Thopter foundry in play, and access to 2UU, or Sword of the Meek in play and access to 2UU(B/W) you can trigger the infinite combo. Without either of these artifacts in play, the mana cost doesn’t increase much since Urza gives you a U rebate from each artifact you cast, AND the Sword of the Meek can be in the graveyard. This means that while Urza loves the artifacts I mentioned earlier, if your goal is to combo quickly, it’s a rather lean number of things you actually need in play. 

-Urza in a vacuum is a reasonably powerful magic card. I’ve gone on record saying he’s not that good, and I believe that. But reasonable is good enough sometimes when the game is in a fail state, and a Lightning Bolt resistant creature that CAN spin you a “free” spell each turn for the low low cost of 5 is nothing to sneeze at.

-Speaking of Vacuums, Thopter-Sword on its own was once a powerful enough engine that Sword of the Meek was banned from Modern. Luckily, Wizards eventually saw the light and allowed the finite production of sweet blue thopters! There are not many decks that will lose to 1-3 thopters per turn, but between the lifegain and the bodies you can surmount certain draws from certain aggro decks with it. Just pray you don’t get knocked out by Temur Battle Rage or a quick flurry of Lava Darts.

– Emry, Lurker of the Loch is an unbelievably flexible card and may be one of my new favorite cards of all time. While creating a powerful early game draw engine with Mishra’s Bauble, she proves a legend for Mox Amber, and sometimes can use redundant Moxes to actually produce mana. She can play combo pieces or hate peices again and again out of the graveyard, and she’s just generally a rock star. She is very vulnerable to most of the removal in Modern, so she has been eschewed from the extra controlling versions of Urza decks, but she’s just worth so much that the risk of her eating cheap removal seems to be worth it.

– While Whir of Invention is a fabulously flexible and important card for these decks, it’s very clunky, and drawing multiple over the course of a game with your precious draw steps can be disastrous. But it’s hard to dispute the power of spinning a Ensnaring Bridge, Nihil Spellbomb/Soul-Guide Lantern, or Damping Sphere out of your deck at instant speed.

Episode VIII: The Last Whir Prison

Next up, Kanister just last week ran a little deck by the name of UrzaBox.

UrzaBox by kanister. View decklist on MTGGoldfish.

The way this deck appears, Kanister has identified that drawing redundant Thopter Foundries and Sword of the Meeks is not where he wants to be. Instead of going for that quick combo, he’s added 4 copies of Narset, Parter of Veils, as well as 1 copy of Teferi’s Puzzlebox. For those not in the know, Narset plus Puzzlebox results in your opponent on their next draw phase dropping to 1 card in hand and they will not be able to draw extra cards on their turn. 

“Don’t play this deck, it’s not worth the playpoints.”

Piotr “Kanister” Glogowski

Additionally, there’s the interesting choice of Mana Leak over artifact pile staple Metallic Rebuke. In watching Kanister play this he commented that he finds it difficult to have even 1 early artifact available on turn 2 when you need it sometimes for the Rebuke, and thus he was interested in seeing the value of the Leak in its stead.

I can’t wait to try this list and by the time you read this article it’s fairly likely there will be a video on my YouTube of me playing it.

Episode IX: The Rise of Uroza

This brings me to the final contributor to this current Urza renaissance, a human I only know by their MTGO handle, ArchaeusDota.

In two separate preliminary tournaments last week, they went 4-0 with a Temur Black build of Uroza featuring a lean Thopter Sword package AND 3-1 with a straight Temur Uroza build. Looking at their tournament finishes on MTGGoldfish, it appears that they are a newcomer to the Urza space, yet that hasn’t stopped them from these finishes in quick succession. 

Temur Black Uroza by ArchaeusDota. View decklist on MTGGoldfish.

Perhaps fears of Blood Moon have been exaggerated, or the artifact mana within these builds can help you dodge death. Perhaps there have been shifts in the meta that has allowed for these value piles to be worth playing. Maybe the copies of Cryptic Command with Mystic Sanctuary and Uro have made this possible.

Urza’s Destiny

This brings me to a final point: to what do I attribute these finishes and the current interest in Urza, Uroza, and Whurza? 

Since my entry into the world of content creation in earnest about a year ago, and brewing with my boy “Jiggywiggy”, I’ve seen that passion, commitment, attention, and interest are important for the health and development of any deck. People need to believe that 5c Niv can be viable for the lists that are optimal to ever be discovered.

Over time many fringe decks that seemed impossible to ever raise to a level of competitive success have managed to do so with the application of innovative humans with a love for this game. And sometimes innocuous looking cards can be released that finally solve the puzzle that these decks are creating for themselves.

Passion, commitment, attention, and interest are important for the health and development of any deck. People need to believe that 5c Niv can be viable for the lists that are optimal to ever be discovered.

Zach Ryl

Perhaps enough time has passed that accomplished players are willing to overlook the problems of clicking through the thopter sword combo in favor of the novelty of playing Urza. As they bring their considerable talents to bear, the untalented mass (that I consider myself a member of) can benefit by watching, listening, and playing these builds alongside them. I would wish that Urza can have a play to stay in Modern for the foreseeable future at a reasonable power level, riding the highs and lows along with most of the rest of the meta decks. Time will tell, but I am sure of one thing: combo will always have a place at the Modern table.

Zach Ryl is a high energy, high output, endless creator. When he’s not literally cooking, mixing drinks, or studying them, he finds occasional time to stream or pen articles about magic. Follow him on Twitter @ManaCymbal, and hear about fresh brews he’s working on at the Serum Visions Podcast, available through most podcast providers.

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