“Come on, you never judge a planeswalker by its ultimate.”
“Take off the hype blinders, this is not a good card.”
“Ajani Vengeant is just better.”
Talk about a 180. Imagine you had to go back to the beginning of April, tasked with trying to convince as many Modern players as possible that Ancestral Vision is underwhelming at best, and the real card that puts Control back on the map is Nahiri, the Harbinger, of all cards. It's safe to say most (myself included) would look at you like you had two heads.
If it's any consolation, you could at least something like triple your money buying up every copy of the card you could find. Here we are, nearing the end of May, and if recent results have anything to say, it's that Nahiri, the Harbinger is the most impactful card to come out of Shadows Over Innistrad for Modern. What are the factors that nearly everyone overlooked?
There are other planeswalkers that start off at a very high loyalty like Gideon Jura or Narset Transcendent, and there are planeswalker that can even ultimate faster than Nahiri like Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas or Garruk Wildspeaker. What makes Nahiri so different? She totes a host of desirable planeswalker traits all in one package.
High Starting Loyalty
The first noteworthy characteristic of Nahiri is her rather innocuous base loyalty. In conjunction with her +2 ability, Nahiri can start off as high as six loyalty. This means it takes a combination of multiple creatures or burn spells to take her out. This dramatically warps the way the game plays out, creating what's often called a sub game:
Deal with Nahiri, kill me quickly, or you're dead
Nahiri's minus exiles a creature that just attacked or a problem enchantment like Blood Moon or Worship. Tapped artifacts are rare in Modern, but perhaps you snag a random Vedalken Shackles once or twice. And to the guy thinking how good the -2 is with Exarch in a shell with Kiki-Jiki, let's be realistic.
The plus ability gives you the option to rummage away dead cards like extra lands or late game Mana Leaks for a fresh draw. However, a big secret is that even the plus defends herself. It's so difficult to remove a six loyalty planeswalker that it's often correct to be aggressive by just slamming Nahiri on turn four and uptick even when the opponent controls a creature or two.
2WR, Suspend 2, Win the Game
Another boon to Emrakul as an ultimate target is the shuffle clause. Anyone who's played Elves in Legacy knows how bad it is to draw your Natural Order target, especially if the deck actually just can't cast it. You can throw away Emrakul with Nahiri's +2 ability to later search up with her ultimate. Shuffling the graveyard back in can also just be the difference between winning and losing the game in a grindy Control mirror, or against an Abzan Company player at infinite life.
A large part of why Nahiri is so powerful is due to the fact that Emrakul is floating around Modern. Standard doesn't contain a fatty that can both be thrown back in the deck if drawn and reliably kill the opponent when pseudo Through the Breached into play. This may explain why she's seen fringe play in Standard, while putting two copies of RWx Control in the top 8 of the most recent Modern SCG Open.
Most of the decks utilizing Nahiri are also in dire need of a way to win quickly. All too often a Control deck will stabilize and lose because it drew a couple lands when the opponent drew a couple threats. More importantly though, there are some decks in Modern you just have to race. Burn and Tron demand you close the door quickly, an extremely slow deck like Jeskai Control gets a huge boost with the looming threat of a Nahiri ultimate.
Red and White are home to the best removal spells in the entire format: Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile, and Lightning Helix. It's tough to say if Nahiri would even be playable if she cost were Blue-Green, the ability to protect her with the best spot removal around is largely the reason for her success. When the name of the game with Nahiri in play is protect the queen, the ability to do so with efficient removal is vital.
In short, it's safe to say Nahiri is here to stay. Jeskai Control, Red-White Prison and Kiki Chord have had success running the card, and it should be apparent why. The combination of a high loyalty planeswalker that can protect itself, which threatens to just win the game on the spot from no board in as little as two turns is ludicrous for only four mana. Consider some Grafdigger's Cages in your sideboard moving forward. Thanks for the read.