Back when Modern Horizons Two was first released, it was clear there were some outrageously powerful cards being added to Modern. All of the Evoke Elementals like Solitude have been consistently putting up results, and individual powerhouses like Urza’s Saga and Murktide Regent upgraded major archetypes. In some cases, new archetypes arose almost solely as a result of these powerful cards. Still, arguably the best card out of the whole set was none other than Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer.
The card only cost one mana, but was capable of running away with the game by making tons of Treasure tokens if not answered immediately. It’s Dash ability kept the card super relevant in the late game, and it could even steal good cards from your opponents and give you additional value. It was deemed too strong for Legacy and was banned relatively quickly. While the card still puts up results in Modern, the LOTR set has absolutely changed the dynamic of games where Ragavan is cast. There is good reason to be less fearful of the card than ever before. There are certainly matchups where the card shines, but playing the card even comes with its own risks in the current metagame. Why is this the case? Has Modern truly changed that much?
The Bowmasters Delimna
The weakness of one-toughness Creatures in Modern is nothing new. In a format where Wrenn and Six ran rampant and even Lava Dart made its presence felt, you had to have good reason for putting one-toughness Creatures in your deck in the first place. Ragavan was different, however. The Dash ability made it relatively immune to Wrenn and Six and Sorcery speed removal such as Prismatic Ending. Playing Ragavan turn one on the play could still be great, but if Wrenn and Six was on your radar, the card could still be a threat via Dash on subsequent turns.
Bowmasters has completely shifted this dynamic. The only real window you have to generate immediate value is by playing Ragavan turn one on the play. Even turn one on the draw, the opponent can play Bowmasters, kill your Creature, and still have two bodies left over. These two bodies then completely blank future copies of Ragavan in combat. Thanks to Flash, Dashing Ragavan still runs the same risks if your opponent is holding up two mana.
Cards like Spell Pierce and Flusterstorm don’t help, and while Subtlety can potentially answer Bowmasters for good in conjunction with Ragavan (even if they put the card on top, Ragavan will then exile it), you probably had to pitch a card to Subtlety to answer one card from your opponent. With Rakdos Scam, Dimir Control, and Yawgmoth, Thran Physician combo all growing in popularity, the number of Bowmasters present in Modern is only growing, which makes it very difficult for Ragavan to play as well as it used to. It still has matchups where it shines, so it is certainly not dead, but the metagame must be a consideration when considering deckbuilding and deck registration.
Where Ragavan Still Shines
There are still a handful of matchups where Ragavan can go largely unopposed in the early turns of the game. The biggest of these matchups is definitely mono-green Tron. Tron got better thanks to The One Ring adding another excellent win condition to the deck. Tron also does a good job punishing some of the slower decks like Dimir Control. Against Primeval Titan decks, Ragavan can be an important tool to help ramp into multiple spells in a turn or land a quick Blood Moon. Even against a deck like Living End, Ragavan can chip away at their life total while giving you extra mana to interact with their combo.
In this sense, Ragavan still plays an important role for some decks like Izzet Murktide. The issue is that, with Bowmasters in the picture, the card ranges from excellent to extremely mediocre. So what is the best course of action? Is there a way to maximize Ragavan’s upside without getting exposed in matchups where the card is weak?
The Rakdos Solution
Rakdos Scam is an example of a deck that solves this delimna quite well. Ragavan can still provide the deck with a solid turn one play in a handful of matchups. The difference is that, in matchups where casting Ragavan can be a liability, the card still has uses. First, it can be pitched to Fury, which the deck makes great use of alongside cards like Feign Death.
Second, with Fable of the Mirror-Breaker or Seasoned Pyromancer, you can simply discard Ragavan and potentially draw something much more useful. This is part of what makes Rakdos Scam such a strong choice. Its cards work well together and the deck has multiple avenues it can attack the opponent from.
As good as Ragavan can be, it’s worth considering where it falls short. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not worth registering Ragavan altogether. However, the card used to be strong in almost every scenario, and this isn’t the case anymore. Consider you are playing a deck like Izzet Murktide. If Bowmasters is a big concern, sideboarding out Ragavan can be an important decision, especially on the draw. In the same vein, waiting to play Dragon’s Rage Channeler until you have Delirium to avoid getting blown out by an opposing Bowmasters can be a game-changing decision.
In some cases, it may even be worth looking in other directions. For example, some Grinding Station combo decks have made the swap from Ragavan to Delighted Halfling. Fair Underworld Breach decks utilizing Ragavan, Dragon’s Rage Channeler, and cantrips like Consdier have become less popular in the face of Bowmasters. Metagame shifts require adaptation, and as long as Bowmasters is a big part of the picture, it’s important to recognize the rewards as well as the risks associated with playing Ragavan.