There are a lot of ostensibly powerful cards that don’t see play in modern because they are just a shade too slow or too conditional. The ever-present threat of a turn 4 kill keeps spells clustered around 1 and 2 mana, and the need to interact with (or race) fast and unfair decks means even the modern brew will usually lean on cards like Thoughtseize to keep itself in the game long enough to do something cute. At the same time, the wide range of threats in modern also means versatility is valuable - a card like Abrupt Decay is good because it interacts with fast decks, fair decks, and combo decks. For a format that demands cheap, efficient, versatile cards the charms - 3, 2, or 1 mana instants with three possible effects - seem like prime candidates for modern play - yet only a few of the 26 modern-legal charms see anything resembling regular modern play.
The ten three-colour charms were split between Shards of Alara and Khans of Tarkir. Despite the lapse in time between the two printings, the power level of the cycle is fairly even between wedges and shards - which in this case means that virtually none of the see play and only a handful have modern potential. Ranked in order of modern playability, they are as follows:
The only three-colour charm to see reasonably competitive modern play, and that’s being generous as Jund Charm is a very occasional one-of in either Living End or Jund midrange sideboards. It has seen play mainly because three mana for an instant speed Pyroclasm is acceptable, and although a three mana Tormod’s Crypt is kind of embarrassing, the surprise factor paired with not taking up an additional slot in the board (if we’re counting charm primarily as a sweeper) is sometimes enough to earn the spot. The permanent +2+2 comes up occasionally and can lead to some memorable combat blowouts or countered lightning bolts, but it is by no means a reason to sleeve up the card. If you haven’t seen jund charm in modern in recent times, it is not that surprising. It is far more common to see both decks use Anger of the Gods as a dedicated sweeper and something else (Scavenging Ooze, Leyline of the Void, Faerie Macabre) as dedicated graveyard hate.
Bant charm saw a very brief period of play at the end of the Birthing Pod era as a maindeckable answer to pod, Kitchen Finks, Voice of Resurgence, Cranial Plating and Cryptic Command. The effects the card offers are fantastic in modern, starting with unconditional removal that bypasses any graveyard triggers for three mana, and then the option of having either Dispel or Smelt. While Unmake isn’t setting the format on fire as it is, having the option to destroy an artifact or counter a Collected Company / Kolaghan’s Command stitched on the back of a (practically) unmake is quite a bit of value. The reason we don’t see more bant charm is mostly because no competitive bant deck exists, and the closest thing to it would be some kind of company deck that has very limited room for non-creature spells. I believe if the modes of bant charm had been applied to the Jeskai wedge we’d see this card far more often as a versatile 1-of snapcaster mage target.
The impressive thing about esper charm is that two of its three modes simply do not exist on any comparably costed card in the format. Esper Charm is the only card that will unconditionally draw you 2 cards for 3 mana at instant speed - the next closest would be the sorcery speed Divination. Similarly, no other card will let you Mind Rot your opponent during their draw step or at the end of their turn for just three mana. So if the third mode shows up as an overcosted Demystify it can be forgiven - the charm should be played for the first two options, and if you happen to destroy a Splinter Twin, Blood Moon, Daybreak Coronet, or Eidolon of the Great Revel with it, well that’s just gravy. Currently the only deck in modern interested in these effects in these colours is esper draw-go control, so until that deck becomes a more serious threat don’t expect to see too many esper charms resolving in modern.
Sultai Charm suffers from a similar affliction - the card itself has legitimate modern potential, but the lack of a good sultai midrange or control deck in modern makes it tough for the card to realize it. Sultai Charm is comparable to Abrupt Decay and Maelstrom Pulse with its ability to hit different types of permanents, and while the first line of text reads like Ultimate Price, the fact the charm can destroy artifacts makes the monocolored restriction a lot less painful. In any sultai deck with Snapcaster Mage the pulse-like versatility paired with the ability to cycle at the end of the opponent’s turn makes a singleton sultai charm look like a good inclusion.
At a glance this charm looks really good. All three modes are fairly well costed, with the tuck mode in particular being a strictly better Excommunicate or Griptide. However, all three modes are fundamentally providing the same effect - racing to deal lethal damage. Tucking a creature is only valuable if you can leverage the turn to deal additional damage, otherwise you’re back to dealing with the creature again the following turn. Lifelink is only relevant if you’re racing, and the +1+1 buff is not likely going to put out more damage than the 4 point lava spike mode. The problem then is that if you’re in the business of racing in modern three mana spells that only promise four damage to your opponent is not the place to be. The cause is also not helped by Wild Nacatl providing more of what a boros aggro/burn deck is looking for than blue/jeskai charm could ever hope to.
I remember when this charm was spoiled thinking that by all measures it looked like a playable modern card. A removal spell that can be converted into card advantage when you don’t need removal sounds fantastic, but in practice there are not many situations in modern where removal is the wrong answer. Furthermore, when removal is what you need an unconditional 1 mana removal (Path to Exile) is vastly superior to a 3 mana conditional removal spell. The fact the charm misses some important targets like Young Pyromancer and Voice of Resurgence doesn’t help, nor the fact that Abzan can run Abrupt Decay, Thoughtseize, and Maelstrom Pulse as versatile answers.
If Unmake isn’t modern playable, then a three-mana charm with a conditional removal mode needs some strong alternate modes to make the cut. While -4-4 is a far cry from unmake and not even a Murder, it does kill most creatures in modern. That being said, murder wouldn’t be a very good card anyways - and the addition of Trumpet Blast and a three-mana Boomerang as alternate modes does little to improve the playability of grixis charm. It’s too bad because as silly as the trumpet blast mode looks, if the other two modes were good enough it could occasionally provide a Young Pyromancer token driven blowout.
Not to be repetitive, but here again the common refrain - conditional 3-mana removal needs strong alternative modes to be good in modern. Not only does Naya Charm drop down to 3 damage for 3 mana for its removal mode, but the best alternative is pretty much strictly outclassed by Eternal Witness. We can basically dismiss the Blustersquall mode as well since it is not very common for modern to come down to blocking - most decks stabilize vs aggro by removing the threats or racing them. If we could even classify Naya charm as fringe playable (I wouldn’t) it would still be without a home since Naya decks are either burn variants or Collected Company decks for the most part.
The most conditional 3 mana removal of the bunch, asking you to have a creature equal in size to what you want to kill and then to also expose yourself to potential 2-for-1 with the fight mechanic. I wish the three-mana Mana Leak made up for how lacklustre the removal option is, but frankly the counterspell could have been a straight up Cancel and I still doubt this would be modern playable. I'm also not sure why the last option wasn't just "creatures you control are unblockable this turn" since that doesn't seem especially overpowered to me for 3 mana considering the various Blustersquall effects that do basically the same thing.
It’s hard to say which charm is more useless between temur charm and mardu charm, but I’m giving the edge to mardu. The four damage is far less conditional than temur charm’s fight mode, but the other two options on mardu charm are laughably bad for modern. Instant speed discard is powerful because you can cast it on the draw step or end step in the late game and be reasonably sure you’re getting some value - even if all they discard are sandbagged lands. An instant speed duress decreases the probability of hitting anything, especially when they can respond by dumping their Lightning Bolts or Terminates. The token mode is basically a three mana Raise the Alarm as the temporary first strike is not likely to ever blow someone out in modern the same way it blew out Alpine Grizzly in Khans limited. There is a modern deck that plays Raise the Alarm (BW tokens) - but the 3-drop slot is cluttered with Lingering Souls and Spectral Procession and its tough to imagine splashing red for this charm could possibly be correct anyways. The day should never come where Mardu Charm is a good card in the format.
Where the three-colour cycle was split over two blocks and many years, the two-color charms were released in back-to-back sets in the Return to Ravnica block. As modern is such an efficiency oriented format, just dropping the cost down from 3 mana to 2 mana significantly lowers the bar on what these cards need to do to see play - it is thus no surprise that far more of these charms are making the grade in the format than the 3 mana options. In order of playability:
The undisputed champion of charms, boros charm feels like a serious design mistake to me. Charms should be good because of the versatility they provide, but boros charm is pretty much exclusively played for its 4-damage mode. This is especially disgusting when you consider that instant speed double strike costs 2-mana on its own (Double Cleave, Temur Battle Rage) and that 2-mana “save everything” doesn’t even exist anywhere else - the closest would be Wrap in Vigor which only saves creatures, and I’m pretty sure one-shot regenerate is strictly worse than 1-shot indestructible (Damnation, Terminate). So you’ve got a charm with two modes that are as good or better than any single-card alternative - and neither of them get used much because the third mode is even more disgustingly good at what it does. The 4 damage should almost definitely have been 3 damage as a 2 mana instant speed Lava Spike would still provide reach, but you’d only run this over Lightning Helix if you had some realistic use for the other 2 modes.
Izzet Charm is usually a one-of in snapcaster decks in modern, and is an example of an excellently designed and balanced charm. Passing the turn with two mana up and an izzet charm in hand feels great - if they cast a small creature you can kill it, if they cast a non-creature spell you can counter it, if you miss on either count you can dig for the answers you need. Each of these effects would normally be one mana (Shock, Spell Pierce, Careful Study) - you pay a one mana premium for the versatility and pick up instant speed on the looting while losing the dome option on the shock.
Another very well balanced charm - but unlike the izzet charm where the modes are universally decent, rakdos charm has three effects that range from useless to game-breaking and rarely anything in between. Exiling a graveyard at instant speed is a blowout against graveyard decks, but pretty mediocre when just killing half of a Snapcaster Mage or Kitchen Finks. Destroying an artifact is usually unusable - except when you’re hitting a Spellskite, Ensnaring Bridge, or Cranial Plating - then it probably wins you the game. The 1 damage per creature mode looks like some kind of silly anti-token tech, but actually hates on the formats best combo deck in Splinter Twin. All told, rakdos charm is usually a sideboard option since there’s no guarantee any of the modes will do work in a given matchup, but it's a very effective piece of graveyard and twin hate and an acceptable card against artifact decks like affinity and lantern control.
An occasional 1-of in Jund or Azban sideboards, golgari charm’s primary use is as a sweeper against Lingering Souls, Young Pyromancer, and some affinity board-states. That it can also take down early problem cards like Glistener Elf, Slippery bogle, and Dark Confidant can be relevant when you’re looking to max out on answers to those kind of cards. The two-mana Demystify mode is relevant for the same reasons it is on esper charm, and the Wrap in Vigor mode is rarely used, but is conceptually useful as it can counter something like a Lightning Bolt and blowout something like a Supreme Verdict.
We now head out to the fringes of Tier 2 modern where simic charm has made some recent waves in Temur and Sultai delver decks. The card represents three one-mana spells stitched together for an extra mana: Unsummon, Giant Growth, and (effectively) Rebuff the Wicked. It’s especially interesting that the hexproof mode can be used to protect something like Retreat to Coralhelm against something like Abrupt Decay, but it remains to be seen if that’s of any significant value. To be competitive the charm really needed one of these modes to be worth more than one mana - for example perhaps the unsummon could have been a Disperse instead. As it stands the card is better than it looks at a glance, but generally suffers from “the simic problem” - blue and green together simply don’t provide the same value as most other colour pairs in modern do so there are few decks able to leverage a green/blue charm.
Orzhov Charm definitely wins the award for most bizarre combination of effects amongst the 26 modern charms. Two mana unconditional removal is excellent - except that the life loss means it either fails to stabilize you versus aggro/burn, or is more painful than a one mana Dismember versus a Tarmogoyf or Tasigur, the Golden Fang. The ability to reanimate a 1-drop at instant speed is solid, except there aren’t really any playable white or black one drops in modern. The Whitemane Lion mode is interesting, although the kicker of returning auras feels pretty irrelevant considering the only modern-playable aura outside of bogles is Rancor - which would return itself to your hand anyways. I’ve seen this charm used to decent effect in the old Death’s Shadow decks - but Temur Battle Rage and Become Immense seem to have put the nail in the coffin of that black/white shadow build in any case.
I have been tempted to run azorius charm in various UWx control builds based on its ability to either buy time with the tuck effect or cycle for another card. Each time I consider this I hold it next to a Shadow of Doubt and see two problems - first, shadow of doubt’s upside is way higher than the tuck effect. Second, I’ve played shadow of doubt enough to know that when a card is going to just be a two-mana cantrip 50%+ of the time it is not really good enough for modern. Azorius charm is so close to being good though - but that last lifelink mode is just horrendously bad considering the colours the charm appears in. Needing 7 power for it to be a Heroes' Reunion should give you a pretty good idea of how often this is going to be the correct call with this charm. So all told, just run Shadow of Doubt or Hallowed Moonlight over this - you’ll get an effect that is sometimes gamebreaking and a card, instead of a card or an effect that buys you 1 turn.
The effects of this charm are not unreasonably costed, and any of them would be a servicable “mode of last resort” on a modern-playable charm. The problem then is that none of them are good enough to justify running the charm in the first place. A 2/2 vigilance flash for 2 is not going to be better than Voice of Resurgence or Qasali Pridemage, the exile mode misses nearly every creature in the format besides Gurmag Angler, Primeval Titan, and Wurmcoil Engine (pumped affinity/infect creatures notwithstanding!), and the buff+trample is the kind of thing that’s occasionally cute but never something you actively want to put in a modern deck.
Dimir charm is an example of a charm with good versatility, but just not the right kind for modern. The removal mode hits a lot of relevant creatures, notably including Deceiver Exarch and Pestermite but whiffing on Tarmogoyf and Wild Nacatl - but the other two modes leave a lot to be desired. There are few sorceries played in modern, as instant-speed effects are just far more versatile in the format - so while you might occasionally hit a Scapeshift or Maelstrom Pulse, most of the time you’re not going to see a single sorcery played the entire game unless it's named Gitaxian Probe or Serum Visions. For the mill/scry/fateseal mode I get that a single two-mana charm mode can’t do anything better than “Draw a Card” but if this had actually just been Draw a Card I’m pretty sure this card would be modern playable. As it is I just can't get behind the card disadvantage of this mode. If it had been able to cycle, then hitting Dark Confidant and Goblin Guide early on while cycling later in the game and occasionally nailing a sorcery would have been excellent. As it is, Smother is going to be strictly better 90% of the time.
And here is the bottom of the barrel. Similar to dimir charm the Gruul version has two virtually useless modes and one mediocre removal option that just pales in comparison to non-charm two-mana removal spells. We established in the three-mana charm section that Falter effects are not good in modern, and the ability to take back your permanents from your opponents is relevant to exactly two cards that sees modern play (Threads of Disloyalty, Sower of Temptation). The removal mode kills small flyers - which is quite good against Affinity and Lingering Souls, but nowhere near enough value to justify sleeving up the card - especially given how rotten the other two options are. Don’t worry though, Gruul players got their overpowered two-mana modal instant recently with Atarka’s Command.
Probably less known than the three and two colour cycles are the 5 Planar Chaos charms and the one Timeshifted Time Spiral charm. Without having a second or third colour to justify having abilities as good as or better than existing cards, these charms are significantly less powerful than the others. In order of modern playability:
The only one of the bunch that I’ve ever seen cast in modern, funeral charm is most notable for being able to lock an opponent out of the game when imprinted on an Isochron Scepter. It’s second claim to fame is being able to pick off 1 toughness creatures while still being part of a coherent 8-rack type discard strategy. It’s third claim to fame is comboing with Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth to provide unblockable. And fourth and definitely least, is its ability to pump a Phyrexian Crusader in monoblack control/infect (did you know that was a deck?). While none of those effects is staggering, we’re talking about a one mana instant so that is actually a surprisingly high amount of value all things told, just not usually enough to warrant a spot in anything but a dedicated discard deck. Worth noting that this is the awkward 6th charm in the cycle, as it was timeshifted and not actually part of the Planar Chaos cycle.
This is my pick for the charm that has the most potential in modern but has yet to probably see a single game in the format. The counterspell mode does serious work against burn trading with one of their two-mana spells, will stop a Kolaghan’s Command or Gifts Ungiven cold, and can even prevent a Thoughtseize from getting through if that is ever worth 2 mana and a card. The Fog mode can cancel out any alpha strike including infinite twin tokens and a massively pumped infect creature, and much like golgari charm the regenerate mode is bound to counter a Lightning Bolt or Murderous Cut at some point.
The colour-shifted Funeral Charm - if the black version is playable surely the blue one is too right? Well Venarian Glimmer notwithstanding blue discard isn’t really a thing so there’s no dedicated discard deck interested in this. Blue is more likely to be part of a scepter deck, and it does play pretty nicely with Snapcaster Mage so perhaps when Simic gets its missing piece this steps up as the simic Disfigure variant.
And here we are in the maybe-limited-playable section of the list. We’re not paying 2 mana to put a basic land in our hand in a format full of fetchlands. We’re not paying 2 mana for Jump. And we’ve established that Eternal Witness sets the standard for Regrowth effects so we’re not going to pay two mana for instant speed creature-only regrowth.
Strictly better than Shatter. Still, Nope.
Funeral Charm sets the standard for 1 mana instant to kill 1 toughness creature while doing other things - but with funeral charm the other thing is instant speed discard that should almost always provide a 1-for-1 exchange. Midnight charm’s two remaining modes do nothing worth a card and a mana, although it is a bit of a curiousity how Wizards decided the black charm would give a creature first strike - did they forget about the standard established by Lance?
And there you have it! All told I’ve got half of the charms as showing modern potential - five competitive level charms (jund, boros, izzet, rakdos, golgari) and eight brew-level charms (bant, esper, sultai, simic, orzhov, funeral, dawn, piracy) . The other 13 range from atrocious to just not realistically good enough, and while you can technically cycle an Azorius Charm (how bad can that be?) I am okay with calling these unplayable in the format based on current practical use in the modern metagame and known brew potential.
Until next time, "choose one..."