Insider: Nahiri, the Harbinger’s Rise in Modern

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As we head into mid-May, all eyes are on Modern and the format-shaping events. Last weekend saw Star City Games' Indianapolis Open, along with TCGPlayer's States circuit and a number of broadcasted Modern events including Europe's Magic Card Market Series, Face to Face Games, and others. Next week will bring a pair of Grand Prix, which are sure to shape Modern for months to come.

We've already digested our April metagame update, and it's packed with familiar format standbys: Jund at the top, Burn, Affinity, and Infect trailing, and R/G Tron bringing up the rear. But as we've also seen, blue-based decks are creeping up the metagame standings. This is most noticeable with Jeskai Control, an old-school Modern standby which may be poised to claim Tier 1 status by the end of May.

If Jeskai Control can get there and give blue mages the control deck they've yearned for since Splinter Twin's demise, then Nahiri, the Harbinger is likely to be their leading lady.

A number of Jeskai aficionados have already highlighted Nahiri's Modern potential as a card-filtering engine, a removal option, and, most famously, an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn clock. I don't know how the Eldritch Moon storyline will resolve, but I'm feeling the Nahiri and Eldrazi flavor already.

Jeff Hoogland has been testing Nahiri in various control shells for weeks; Brian Braun-Duin took her for a spin last week on MTGO. More notably, Pete Ingram just won the SCG Indianapolis Open with his tight Nahiri Jeskai Control list, defeating a host of familiar Modern faces on the way to his commanding victory.

Of course, Nahiri's price has followed her fame into the stratosphere---she's already jumped from the $8-$10 range to over $30 on most major online retailers. Expect her to rise even more now that Ingram has won Indianapolis, to say nothing of her later potential at a Grand Prix.

Today, I'll be breaking down Nahiri's success in Modern and assessing her prospects going forward. Is her price tag all hype, or might it be undervalued given her trajectory? Where is she likely to fall in the metagame? Read on to see if you should invest your money or stay away (hint: sometimes you really do have a card whose bite matches its bark...).

Nahiri in Modern Context

To figure out Nahiri's long-term financial outcomes, we first need to assess her specific relevance to control decks, and her general standing in the metagame. Think of it like a one-two punch of theoretical relevance into practical application: how do we think she will perform in control and then how does she actually play out in practice?

Quick note before we get started: most of this article is going to focus on Nahiri Jeskai Control, but it's not the only place we're seeing the Shadows over Innistrad planeswalker. Kiki Chord, Mardu Control, and Big Naya Zoo/Midrange decks have also made space for the lithomancer, even if these decks haven't enjoyed as much success. We'll touch on those options at the end, but we're keeping Jeskai Control at the forefront of our discussion.

Let's get started with theory and synergy first before moving to metagame standings and results.

Utility, Synergy & Haymaker

Back when Shadows got released and I was testing new staples, I did extensive testing with Nahiri in a (very bad) Shape Anew and Blightsteel Colossus deck. My goal was to abuse the new investigate mechanic, take advantage of Nahiri's powerful abilities, and to find the Splinter Twin successor: a Plan A control deck with a Plan B quick finish.

Testing and failing with Nahiri

My Shape Anew shenanigans never panned out, but I did get some valuable experience about where and why Nahiri was good and where and why she was failing. Her failures were all in my underpowered Blightsteel shell itself. Her successes were all with the standard Jeskai staples which have been proven in Modern for years.

Here are four domains where Nahiri really shined, and why those areas are relevant in Modern.

1) Card-filtering: Reusable filtering is incredibly valuable in Modern. Desolate Lighthouse was a huge force in breaking the Twin grindfest, and Nahiri is even more potent in not having an activation cost.

Jeskai decks are heavy on lands and Nahiri lets you cycle through those to find action. You can also pitch outclassed burn and countermagic spells to draw bigger threats, and/or to reuse them with Snapcaster Mage later. Decks like Jeskai can easily hold the early game before running out of steam later. Nahiri fixes this.

2) High loyalty: As anyone who has played Nahiri can attest, the planeswalker has a secret fourth mode: adding two loyalty without discarding a card. Even Modern all-star Liliana of the Veil does not have a mode like this, which can force the BGx player into awkward positions where they are binning good cards to get Lily out of Lightning Bolt range.

Nahiri can immediately get to six loyalty where she is safe from average 4/5 Tarmogoyfs, Snapcaster into Bolt, a lone Galvanic Blast, and much more.

Cards too weak to hurt Nahiri

3) Filling in Jeskai removal gaps: Unlike Grixis decks, with their Terminates, Slaughter Pacts, and discard spells to nuke big-toughness critters before they hit play, Jeskai strategies can really struggle with anything out of Bolt range. Roast and Flame Slash really don't cut it at sorcery speed.

Nahiri augments your existing Path to Exiles with another hard removal option to eliminate major threats. This lets you spread your removal out more efficiently and deal with some of Jeskai's traditional trumps.

Traditional Jeskai blindspots

4) Twin 2.0: the one-hit kill: One of control's biggest deficits after the Twin ban was its inability to quickly close out games on a stable board state. Nahiri largely fixes this, filtering you into better answers while ticking up to her ultimate.

Once you hit 8 loyalty (or 10, if you want to play it safer), you can summon big mama Emrakul to finish on the spot, perhaps with a little help from one of Jeskai's many burn spells. Although Nahiri isn't quite as surprising as the instant-speed Deceiver Exarch/Twin combo, her two-turn clock fills the role nicely while not occupying too many slots.

In addition to these big four themes, Nahiri also offers a competitive mana-cost (three is light to Inquisition of Kozilek and Abrupt Decay, five is too expensive), random upside against artifacts and enchantments, and requiring very few slots to be effective. Ajani Vengeant offers more value in certain matchups, but Nahiri both beats him out in certain areas (higher loyalty, better removal reach), and with a much more decisive ultimate.

It's always smart to start with this kind of theoretical analysis to see if it's even worth deploying Nahiri into the Modern gauntlet. My Shape Anew experiment may have failed, but I gained an appreciation for Nahiri back in those early Shadows days, one that was clearly shared by other Modern players with a better sense for her proper home.

Nahiri's Performance So Far

Going into May, Jeskai Control was already a big performer. My Modern Nexus metagame tracking pinned it at the top of Tier 2 with a 3.8% share. Temur/Bring to Light Scapeshift and Grixis Control/Midrange were scrabbling behind at 3.5% and 2.8% respectively.

Jeskai Control leading the control charge

Moving into the third week, Jeskai Control is up to 4.3%. About 20% of those decks are running Nahiri, the Harbinger in some capacity, although this has increased to about 35%-40% in the last two weeks. Players have been catching on to her power, and the Jeskai shares are reflecting that.

Nahiri's big story is obviously Peter Ingram's list from SCG Indianapolis. His inclusion of a Nahiri playset and a lone Emrakul on top of a standard Jeskai makes this one of the cleanest Nahiri executions we've seen since Shadows' release. Notably, he doesn't use Ancestral Vision at all, preferring Serum Visions to the unbanned gem. Otherwise, this is as generic a Jeskai list as you can get.

For me, the fact that Ingram is playing such a stock Jeskai + Nahiri list is the biggest testament to her strengths. She took a strategy that hasn't been Tier 1 since 2014 and, with just a playset and +1 Emrakul, took it all the way to the top.

Of course, Ingram wasn't the first to push Nahiri to the top. One of her best performances beforehand was at a major Grand Prix Tokyo Modern side event. Here, Kuota Korseki snagged 4th, pairing 3 Nahiri's with 3 Ancestral Vision and a creature-heavy core of Restoration Angel. This is a less conventional Jeskai list than Ingram's, but it still proved its mettle in a tournament setting.

We also saw Eldrazi-advocate Gerry Thompson bring Nahiri and her big eldritch buddy to the MTGO Championships just last weekend. His Jeskai Control build only took him to a modest 2-2 Modern finish, but it showcased more ways to build the strategy. Thompson leveraged a full playset of both Vision and Visions in his 60, along with maindeck Anger of the Gods and Timely Reinforcements for an expected aggressive field.

Between Jeskai's share, Nahiri's increasing presence, the highlighted lists, and all of Nahiri's theoretical positives, it's increasingly difficult to deny her Modern impact. I'm particularly struck by how Jeskai has roared onto the scene in just a month after years of obscurity.

Just looking at these Jeskai-centric finishes alone would put her in contention for Modern hallmark status. Add in the other Nahiri options, as we'll see in the next section, and it's impossible to doubt her any longer.

Other Homes

We're definitely living in a Jeskai Nahiri world, especially after Ingram's performance at SCG Indianapolis, but that isn't the only place we're going to see the Kor shine in the coming months.

Between Mardu Control, Kiki Chord, Big Naya Midrange/Zoo, and John Pellman's delightful R/W Lockdown prison strategy, Nahiri is going to have plenty of harbinging to do as the new Modern keeps unfolding. I expect many of these to make appearances in the approaching Grand Prix weekend.

New homes for Nahiri

If you're betting on a non-Jeskai Nahiri finish, Kiki Chord is probably where you want to be. Bobby Colegrove's 30th place Kiki Chord didn't even use Emrakul with Nahiri, and still found room for three of the plansewalkers. Here, Colegrove is using her for all the same reasons as Jeskai with Eternal Witness taking the place of Snapcaster Mage, and the Kiki/Angel package replacing Emrakul.

We might see more Nahiri in the future, but these are the places I'm expecting her most. Of course, with her viability spread out across so many different decks (many of which are high-performing), it's no wonder her price tag is where it is. And it will be no wonder when it stays high.

Worth Every Penny

Sometimes, we end a finance article with a hype warning. "Stay away!" "The hype does not match results!" These kinds of cautions are on-point more often than not, and are always a good default bet when a buyout or a spike happens.

Nahiri, the Harbinger is not the hype trap you are looking for. Nahiri is the real deal and a new standard in Modern.

Remember the last time we saw a breakout performance like this over a 1.5 month period leading up to a Grand Prix? That was a combination of Kolaghan's Command, Collected Company, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang last spring and we all know how that turned out. Nahiri is on a similar trajectory and we haven't even hit the Grand Prix weekend yet.

To be clear, Nahiri is not a staple on par with Tarmogoyf, Snapcaster Mage, Liliana of the Veil, and the other A-listers in Modern. She's more on the B+ roster with Cryptic Command and Siege Rhino---critical roleplayers in regular Tier 2 and occasional Tier 1 decks.

These limitations aside, Nahiri has more than enough accolades to her name to suggest she's on her way to the Modern top. You'll want to buy and sell accordingly.

Welcome to the hall of fame

Right now, Nahiri is not seeing much Standard play, although that might change as more people try and get her to work based on her Modern success, and/or she gets some viable ultimate targets out of Eldritch Moon (please, Wizards? More flavor?). If she does take off in Standard, then you're looking at a card with a $50 floor. Even if she doesn't, her current price tag of $30-$35 seems a stable base from which she can only rise.

Don't have Nahiri now but want to play her? There are two scenarios you face. Scenario one: you wait until the end of the Grand Prix weekend and hope she doesn't do as well as she did at Indianapolis. If she doesn't, she'll hold steady in the $30 range. But if she does succeed, then her price will jump even higher and won't crash for months to come. Given her trajectory going into the event, I wouldn't bet against this outcome.

Scenario two: you buy her right now and get in a little late but still before the post-Grand Prix spike. Either of these situations are possible, but the latter is more plausible given her results to this point. Congratulations if you got in early, but if scenario two comes to fruition, you can get in now and still make money.

Personally, I suggest buying now no matter what. The chances that she excels in a week are lower than the chances of her failing, and even a modest performance would lead to spikes. That said, don't get too sucked into the hype. After all, she is from a frequently-opened set and cards like Archangel Avacyn have already fell from their $50 peak to a more humble $35 level.

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The Harbinger Cometh!

Back in early May, I predicted a blue-based control deck would hit Tier 1 and Nahiri looks like she's the woman to fulfill that projection. Jeskai Control is the blue-based control deck Modern has been waiting for since Twin's banning, and if the deck keeps pushing ahead, Nahiri is going to be leading the charge.

Thanks for joining me today as we pored through Nahiri's finishes and the theories underlying her success. I'm excited to see how she plays out next weekend, and how the rest of Modern shapes up at the decisive Grand Prix events. These will be the defining events for most of 2016, so get ready to sit back and tune in to the Modern MAY-hem (I promised that pun would return, and I'm a man who likes to keep a promise). See you all soon!

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