Delve is one of the more broken mechanics in Magic. It cheats mana costs, dodges cost-specific removal like Abrupt Decay, and rewards you for doing nothing else beyond playing a game of Magic. Mark Rosewater may have given delve a mere five on his "Storm Scale" back in 2014, but I am sure the mechanic will be going up after R&D's experience with Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time. Following the January 2015 bannings, Modern players can still use delve with the almighty Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler, but many players might be looking for new delve tech. Enter Soulflayer. If you've ever wanted to swing with a turn three flying, lifelinking, double-striking, and hasted 4/4, the Soulflayer is your guy.
Following last week's Deck of the Week premier, we'll be looking at a unique take on the Dredgevine and Dredge/Smallpox Loam strategies. "Soulflayer Aggro" combines some dredge mainstays like Stinkweed Imp and Grisly Salvage with the deck's namesake creature to hit hard and hit fast. If you're looking for a new delve strategy or a cool new aggro deck, Soulflayer Aggro is your five-armed Demon of choice.
The List and Strategy
I've never seen a competitive Soulflayer list in Modern. Travis Woo released a brew with the card back in January, and we've seen a few attempts on forums to make the creature work. To my knowledge, none of these lists ever enjoyed recorded competitive success, even if some of the Soulflayer brewers reported some scattered LGS victories. This changed last weekend at a PPTQ in Padova, where Andrea Ferrarese piloted his Soulflayer Aggro list to a 5th place finish at the 43-player event. His lean and mean take on Soulflayer Aggro is below:
Some of Ferrarese's tech is clearly in the Dredgevine lineage, as showcased in Legion273's winning Dredgevine list from the Modern Festival Finals. If you are trying to abuse the graveyard and the dredge mechanic in Modern, you should probably consider some combination of Grisly Salvage, Faithless Looting, and Vengevine. Ferrarese adopts these cards but also pushes them a step further. Soulflayer Aggro packs in enough synergies that you can win with or without the deck's namesake delve creature. This is exactly the kind of redundancy you want in Modern aggro decks, and here are some of the key strengths in that regard.
- Consistency tools
Aerial Responder and Preordain are banned in Modern for providing combo decks too much card selection, efficiency, and consistency. This underscores the power of cantrips and card-selection spells, and shows how powerful these cards can be in decks. Looting and Salvage are the Aerial Responder and Preordain of graveyard-based decks. They serve a dual function in Soulflayer Aggro style strategies, digging for the cards you need and filling the graveyard to fuel your delves, stock your Vengevines, and get your Stinkweed Imps online. Looting may be card disadvantage in most decks, but Soulflayer Aggro is happy to lose that one card for added Flayer food and a larger graveyard. Salvage is even better, despite its two-mana pricetag: think of it like a cantripping Cabal Ritual for your Soulflayer. In case you needed any more reasons to run the Looting/Salvage pair, these cards also allow Ferrarese to skimp on lands and pack in more action for his gameplan.
- Alternate win conditions
One of the biggest problems with most Soulflayer lists I see is an over-reliance on Soulflayer itself. Flayer may be Bolt and Decay-proof, but the widely-played Exterminate! doesn't care how many keywords the Demon has (unless that keyword is "hexproof"). Mana Leak and Cryptic Command also handle the Flayer before it hits play, and Goremand is just as strong against this new delve creature as against his buddies Tasigur and Angler. Ferrarese doesn't fall into the all-in Soulflayer trap, diversifying his win conditions with Vengevine, Falkenrath Aristocrat, and even the criminally underappreciated Lotleth Troll. This gives Soulflayer Aggro 15 win conditions instead of just four, which vastly improves its chances of punching through the spot removal walls of Jund and Grixis Control. Bonus points for the synergy between these win conditions, especially with Soulflayer itself who gets keywords from all of them.
- Acceleration and Flayer food
An early mana-dork is one of the strongest plays in Magic, and Modern is no exception. Cards like Birds of Paradise get you a turn ahead of the action and one step closer to winning on Modern's critical fourth turn (or at least put you far enough ahead that victory is inevitable). Unfortunately, these cards lose utility in the late game (unless your name is Deathrite Shaman, may he rest in pieces). Abzan Company decks get around this with their Gavony Townships, and Abzan Liege and Midrange lists run Ignoble Hierarch to benefit from both the early-game boost and some late-game pumping. Soulflayer Aggro has a similar balance. In the early game, accelerators like Birds and Sylvan Caryatid put you a turn ahead. In the case of Caryatid, they also stonewall Goblin Guides and smaller Monastery Swiftspears. In the mid and late-games, these cards feed your Soulflayer delves, your Aristocrat sacrifices, and your Troll discards. You can also pitch them to Looting or keep them around for larger Kessig Wolf Run activations. If you use dorks in Modern, this is how you want to use them, and Soulflayer Aggro does a great job of maximizing their utility.
When I look over Ferrarese's list, the big concept that stands out to me is synergy. The deck is full of mini-combos, none of which are gamebreaking on their own but the collection of which is very strong. Unlike most Soulflayer decks, however, Ferrarese isn't trying to pull off any gamebreaking macro-synergies. This includes giant plays with Chromanticore or Sphinx of the Steel Wind. Instead, he's playing an aggressive Dredgevine-style list where his win conditions happen to fuel Soulflayer on top of winning the game on their own. Although the list has some serious holes we need to patch up (you can't play a turn four aggro deck in Modern with zero interaction), this is a great starting point for Soulflayer and offbeat aggro fans.
Soulflayer Aggro in Context
Soulflayer may see next to no Modern play, but the Demon has been a Standard presence since its arrival in Fate Reforged. It took about one minute of frantic Gatherer searches to figure out the synergy between Flayer and Chromanticore, a combination many Standard players took to the tournament tables. The deck never took off (sorry to you Chromanticore speculators responsible for the $2 price jump in late January) but a few players enjoyed success with the Demon/Manticore synergy. Hector Carceles Mendez made Day 2 at GP Seville with his take on the deck. Zwi Mowshowitz took a similar version to an 18 point finish at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, adding in the Standard mainstay synergy of Deathmist Raptor/Den Protector on top of his Soulflayer delve package. Ferrarese's list doesn't use the big Chromanticore synergy, but it does borrow other aspects from Mowshowitz's and Mendeze's lists including dig/fueling spells (Grisly Salvage over Commune with the Gods), mana creatures, and alternate win conditions if plan A doesn't work out (Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, Shaman of the Great Hunt, etc.). When considering our Soulflayer Aggro list today, you should be encouraged that it bears similarities to these more tested versions from Standard.
When trying to import a combo or deck from another format to Modern, it's always a good idea to see what's already present in our format. Existing decks give you an idea of what cards and synergies work, and what kinds of decks have competitive potential. One thing I really like about Ferrarese's list is its similarity to the Dredgevine core. Dredgevine may not be a tier 1 or 2 monstrosity (some Magic friends I know like to joke about it being "tier 5 Dredgevine"), but it has enough successes to be a decent starting point for Soulflayer Aggro. Knowing the similarities between the two decks, both in card choices and gameplan, we can also gauge Soulflayer Aggro's viability in a broader metagame. Like Dredgevine, Soulflayer Aggro is going to struggle in metagames with lots of graveyard hate. Also like Dredgevine, this deck isn't well-positioned to handle metagames packed with Burn and Affinity: these decks are almost always going to be faster. We don't have enough interaction to slow down the Burn or Affinity player, and we don't have enough speed to beat them in the race. This gives us a great starting point for improving the deck. We don't want to be a "worse" version of Dredgevine, so we need to keep the core strengths of our base deck while also adding new ones Dredgevine can't bring to the table.
Improvements and Updates
There are lots of ways to build Soulflayer in Modern, including the Chromanticore combo, a Sphinx of the Steel Wind and Unburial Rites package, a hyper-aggressive Become Immense or Tainted Strike version, and a number of other takes. Because Ferrarese's Soulflayer Aggro has the best tournament result (however limited it is), and because his list makes sense in the broader Standard/Modern context, I don't want to deviate too heavily from his approach. That's not to say our current list is perfect. In fact, over the course of the article, we've identified a number of key action steps for improvements before taking this list to the next level:
- Add interaction
On the one hand, I appreciate Ferrarese's Abrupt Decay playset in the sideboard. He's acknowledging the importance of removal in certain matchups and trying to keep his maindeck as streamlined as possible. On the other hand, this deck is about a turn too fair and slow to completely cut interaction from the maindeck. You can get away with this approach if you're on Infect, Grishoalbrand, Amulet Bloom, etc., but remember that we are living in the Dredgevine lineage. It's no coincidence that the most successful Dredgevine lists are running a healthy assortment of removal spells: Darkblast, Lightning Axe, Murderous Cut, and the previously-mentioned Decay. We need cards like this to succeed in Modern. I'm a big fan of Axe especially because it kills almost every creature in top-tier Modern (except Bloom's Primeval Titan) and sets up better turn 2-3 Soulflayers with minimal work.
- Add scarier Soulflayer synergies
I don't want to play a worse Dredgevine. That's like playing a worse Soul Sisters or Esper Gifts. This means we need to emphasize the unique advantages of Soulflayer and push those as much as possible. Dredgevine can struggle against hyper-aggressive decks (some lists have taken to running Death's Shadow to address this), and Soulflayer Aggro is well-positioned to address that. In that spirit, say goodbye to low-impact Viashino Slaughtermaster and hello to big daddy Drogskol Reaver. This change is in the Chromanticore tradition, an approach that was missing from our initial list. Turn one Looting into turn two Soulflayer gets real scary real fast when Reaver is in the mix. You might not win flat-out in two hits, but you will definitely pull the game well out of reach of most aggressive decks. This includes Merfolk, Zoo, Burn, Affinity (careful of Inkmoth), and others. If they don't kill that early Soulflayer, the Demon is going to double strike and lifelink its way to victory. Reaver also lets us cut the Skirges and put in some better delve creatures to take advantage of our full graveyards. I'm using Hooting Mandrills here instead of the more traditional Angler to give Flayer more ways to get trample, and because Mandrills is easier to cast to enable our Vengevine plan Bs.
In addition to these top-level takeaways, we also need to clean up the manabase (basic Goblin Mountaineer plus BB Flayer, BG Troll, and BG Salvage is a recipe for disaster and rage) and streamline the sideboard (four Blood Moon is only excusable if your local metagame is 50% Amulet Bloom). Based on these points, here's a new take on "Soulreaver" Aggro.
One criticism I heard last week from my previous Vial Humans list was that it was basically a worse version of an existing deck. This naturally begs the question: is Soulflayer/Soulreaver Aggro just a worse Dredgevine? As mentioned earlier, Drogskol Reaver is having none of that. Modern has been known as a linear format with high-risk, high-reward strategies, and Soulreaver Aggro fits nicely into that mix. Dredgevine is capable of some speedy starts but nothing as explosive as a turn two Reaver-charged Soulflayer. Aggro players are never recovering from that, especially if you got hexproof in the mix from your Caryatid, or haste from Aristocrat/Vengevine. Although I don't know if the deck would be "better" than Dredgevine in a testing gauntlet, it is certainly "different" enough to have unique strengths and weaknesses. If you want middle-variance, Dredgevine is the deck for you. If you want something a little more explosive and bursty, Soulreaver Aggro is where you want to be.
How else would you build Soulflayer decks in Modern? What synergies are you interested in exploring with the Demon? Any thoughts and takeaways on "Deck of the Week" and how we can improve? Let me know in the comments and join me next week as we look at another cool Modern list from around the competitive scene!