We're one week into Eldritch Moon previews, and we're already seeing a number of Modern potentials. Emrakul, the Promised End may become an R/G Tron bullet for grindier metagames. Lone Rider // It That Rides as One looks to up the Soul Sisters game. Gnarlwood Dryad assists various green-based tempo strategies, and there's gotta be something fun to do with Modern's Donate reprint in Harmless Offering.
It's cards like this that make me convinced Wizards deliberately throws Modern players a bone every set. Cheating creatures into play ahead of the curve has historically been excellent in Modern. See Pod and Green Sun's Zenith. Even the "fairer" effects of Chord of Calling and Collected Company are format-defining staples in multiple top-tier strategies.
With Eldritch Evolution, Modern gains a one-shot Natural Order effect that has high potential to make major format impact. The card has already caused at least one absurd spike (more on that soon), and brewers are hard at work giving the sorcery a Modern home. These cards are preselling in the $11-$13 range online, and our goal today is to see if the Eldritch hype is worth it, both for the card itself and for the cards it synergizes with.
To figure out if Evolution is the real deal, or if it's another Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror presale flop, we'll unpack a few strategies and cards that pair with the Moon rare. This will not only help you invest in Evolutions themselves, but also to see if you want to buy or sell into other spikes around the card.
Eldritch Evolution Core Strategy
I'm a major proponent of the "test first, invest later" approach to previews. Although this sometimes produces busts (I was optimistic about Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror even with some initial testing), it also gives us some clarity around how cards actually perform in real metagames. In preparation for this article, I did some casual Eldritch Evolution testing in a number of shells.
Early results are very promising, and it all starts with the mana dork core which has been the backbone of so many other powerful Modern strategies such as Abzan Company, Kiki Chord, Abzan Liege and others.
You can add Llanowar Elves (not that newfangled Elvish Mystic) and Lightning Bolt-proof Utopia Sprawl to the roster as well. In my four different attempts at making Evolution meet the Modern cut, this acceleration package was the most successful framework. This makes historical sense---the best Chord and Company decks use a similar setup, and there's no reason to fix what isn't broken.
This is the first sign that Evolution is on the right track: it slots nicely into an existing Tier 1 and Tier 2 configuration. It might not go directly into Abzan Company or Kiki Chord themselves, but the concept behind those decks is so established that I'm comfortable supporting a new deck if it's grounded in such an old foundation. That's good news if you're investing in the card now or plan on doing so later.
Once we settle on the dork core, we need to figure out where we're going from there. If Kiki Chord and Abzan Company are any indication, we'll want a combination of toolbox, combo, and even straight-up midrange value (following from the Birthing Pod and Siege Rhino examples of Winter 2014). That means the versatile Finks has a new home.
Even if we don't draw Evolution, turn two Finks is still a powerful play off Hierarch or Birds. It gets much better when we morph the Finks up the chain for value, especially into Rhino in our best Value Pod imitation.
Of course, because we're running Evolution and probably running Chord alongside it for additional tutor capabilities, we have the entire Modern toolbox at our fingertips. Spellskite, Magus of the Moon, Voice of Resurgence, Fulminator Mage, and a range of other powerful creatures are all waiting to be plucked from the library with Evolution. Voice is especially nasty, as you can evolve it into the turn three Rhino even if your dork gets Bolted on turn one.
All of these cards form a solid groundwork for your Evolution exploits. Again, because these synergies have already passed Tier 1 and Tier 2 muster, I'm confident Evolution will be able to ride them into top-tier success itself. This means the pre-release price in the $11-$13 range isn't half bad (especially if Collected Company is any indication), although I wouldn't be surprised if high volume sinks it to the $8-$10 range.
When building and playing Evolution strategies, beware countermagic. Remand in particular is the exact kind of cantripping two-for-one which ruins your entire game. Thankfully, because you aren't playing Company to restrict your library creature count, you can easily maindeck some number of Thoughtseizes and/or Inquisition of Kozileks to shore up your countermagic game and pick up percentage points in matchups where grindy Finks lines don't hold water.
Indeed, because Evolution's deckbuilding parameters are much leaner than Company's, you can return to the old Melira Pod interaction package which was so feared in late 2014.
You won't want to dive too deeply into these cards, lest you have fewer slots for the toolbox and fewer creatures to consistently fire off Evolutions (and Chords, if you're running them), but it's important to consider them as part of the Eldritch package.
With the core established and Eldritch Evolution meeting plenty of preliminary Modern benchmarks, let's look at three different ways to build the deck. Following from the Melira and Rhino Pod history, we'll examine a more fragile and explosive version first, before turning to the toolbox and value-midrange configurations in the closing section.
The Dinosaur in the Room
Perhaps more than any other format, Modern is known for creating buyouts. That can be hype from a new Grand Prix finisher, buzz around a previewed card, or even the absence of a certain card in a set. Eldritch Moon brought that category two new-card-buzz in a big way on Friday morning, when Evolution got previewed and an obscure Coldsnap rare rocketed from dollar-bin dregs to top-dollar gem.
I'm not sure if this combo is the real deal, but Allosaurus Rider's jump from $.50 to $8.00 certainly is.
If you're not sure what all the fuss is about, here's the general play-line that saw Rider explode last week:
- Turn 1: Land, Noble Hierarch.
- Turn 2: Land, Allosaurus Rider pitching two green cards.
Eldritch Evolution, sacrificing Rider and fetching Iona, Shield of Emeria/Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite/any < 9 CMC fatty of your choice.
This is about as theoretical and "Christmasland" as an opening line can get, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't interesting. I've played my fair share of high-risk, high-reward Modern strategies (notably Grishoalbrand and Titan Shift), and there's considerable merit to these kinds of glass-cannon openers. Indeed, Modern is (in)famous for rewarding these kinds of plays, with only Thoughtseize to reliably police them and no Force of Wills in sight.
In evaluating the Eldritch Rider combo, we need to think in terms of consistency and impact. Impact is a no-brainer; the turn two super-fatty is incredibly decisive in Modern. Iona, Elesh Norn, Griselbrand, or even just something unkillable in certain matchups like Sigarda, Host of Herons---all of these cards are game-ending haymakers many decks cannot answer.
Impact? Check. What about consistency? This is clearly where the Evolution/Rider combo is weakest, but it's not quite as fragile as it seems.
Assuming 8 Hierarchs/Birds, 4 Riders, 4 Evolutions, and the requisite package of green exile-bait and lands, you have about an 8% chance of opening with the combo on turn one, inching up to roughly 11% by turn two if you're on the play (or 15% if on the draw). Going up to 12 dorks instead of 8 bumps the percentages to 10% for turn one, 14% for turn two, or 18% for turn two on the draw. You're firing the combo in about 25% of games no matter what by turn three.
Of course, opposing interaction can dramatically alter these percentages. Lightning Bolt sets you back by a turn, or longer if you can't draw a replacement to sacrifice for Evolution. Discard magic can rip the Evolution out of your hand, leaving you with a relatively useless Rider who can't even tangle with Tarmogoyf until at least turn five.
Countermagic is significantly worse. A Remanded Evolution is already a two-for-one. A Remanded Evolution with a Rider under it is a literal four-for one, or a four-for-zero given that your opponent spends no cards on the cantripped counterspell.
Remand and the other countermagic effects are certainly scary, but they aren't in and of themselves reasons to not play the combo. Modern strategies sometimes fold to certain other interactions and that's okay. In all the other matchups where you aren't seeing Remand, a resolved Rider Evolution should seal the game. I'm willing to gamble on those odds, so long as the combo isn't the deck's primary gameplan.
If we subscribe to the Rider option as just one synergy of many in the deck, then I'm much more on-board with the strategy. If we're dedicating the deck to Rider, then count me out. I assume most Modern players will fall on similar lines, which puts a definite ceiling on Rider's price. $8 seems very high for this kind of niche roleplayer, even with a limited print run. Expect this to stabilize even lower in the sub $5 range. I'd sell these now while they are still high; you can always buy in again after the eventual fall and probably still turn a profit.
Toolbox and Midrange Evolution
Rider may be more bark than bomb, but that doesn't mean the rest of the Evolution package is going to follow his example. In fact, even if Rider eventually finds a home here, the deck's power won't be based on the combo. Like the old Rhino Pod example from 2014, an Evolution deck would likely use the combo threat as a Plan B (or even Plan C) to the value-midrange and Township swarm strategy which was a Birthing Pod hallmark.
If this is the direction you're turning, then Evolution has some real potential.
My own lists were far too unrefined to warrant publication, and I made small adjustments in between games to adjust ratios. This resulted in a somewhat unscientific testing approach, but one that still gave considerable data about how the deck might perform. If you want a general sense of the build, it was effectively Erik Peters' Pod strategy from Grand Prix Omaha 2015. Just swap out Pods for Evolutions, trim some ratios to squeeze in 3-4 Chords, and add a few bombs like Sigarda up the curve.
I piloted these Evolution variants against a few top-tier Modern standouts: Infect, Burn, Tron, and Jeskai Control. I only played three total matches against each strategy, less to calculate exact match-win percentages and more to identify overall gameplay themes. Instead of discussing toolbox and midrange cards individually, I'll use the matchups to highlight some all-stars:
- Infect: 2-1 (5-3 in games)
Melira Pod is a Modern legend. Kiki Chord and Abzan Company are current format big-shots. Despite these decks' strengths, none of them can do what Evolution can do in the Infect matchup: a reliable turn two Spellskite. Or Melira, Sylvok Outcast if you want to keep the combo or add an Evolution bullet in games 2-3. Spellskite might not be a total game-ender after sideboarding, but as long as you're still pumping out threats and playing Magic, Evolution has a nice edge in this contest.
- Burn: 3-0 (6-2)
This is a really nasty one for Burn. They're already facing an uphill battle against Finks, Spellskite, and the usual life-gain suspects like Kiki Chord's Lone Missionary. But the turn two Kor Firewalker is a real nightmare for even the most prepared Burn strategies. Again, Evolution picks up a noteworthy edge over the Company and Chord decks in its ability to get a major roleplayer out on turn two or three.
- R/G Tron: 1-2 (3-5)
Kiki Chord and Abzan Company can struggle with the over-the-top Tron strategies, particularly if you don't get Stony Silence active early to shut down Maps and Spheres/Stars. Evolution offers a huge variety of different ways to combat big-mana decks. Remember the turn two Evolution line? Or the consistent turn three tutor? Company and Chord can't do it, but Evolution can get that Mindcensor or Fulminator online more consistently and faster than any other deck. I didn't get to experiment with Naya versions of the deck too much, but I imagine a Magus has a similar knockout effect when backed up by pressure.
- Jeskai Control: 1-2 (4-6)
We didn't win this one, but we came darn close. Voice was a huge player here, with the Evolution deck already packing a playset just for value, and those Voices coming down frequently in the turn 2-4 range. Evolution is bad against countermagic, like we already discussed, but much better when you have an active Voice on the field and are Evolving a different creature. A countered Evolution gives you a big Elemental to finish the job, which is a small price to pay for a sacrificed dork.
All of this testing suggests Evolution does have a Modern home. As we noted before, this bodes well both for Evolution investors, and also for those buying into some of the staples and toolbox all-stars we identified above.
For instance, Voice of Resurgence is at a 2016 low in the $25-$30 range. Don't expect that to hold if Evolution is the real deal; turn two Voice into turn three Evolution would be a format hallmark if the sorcery pans out. Similarly, the $10-$12 Aven Mindcensor will be much better as a one-of bullet in a deck that can reliably land it by turn three, when it is at its most effective.
Evolving Modern Metagames
Taken as a whole, Eldritch Evolution has a great starting profile in Modern, and I am very encouraged by my early gameplay with the card. This really does seem like the real deal, and I encourage players to invest as-needed in Evolution and its synergistic creatures.
On top of the limited testing I conducted, there are plenty of other directions to take Evolution. All of these options point to the card's broader viability. Options include both delve creatures like Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Hooting Mandrills, Phyrexian mana artifacts such as Thundering Tanadon, and even suspend monsters like the underrated Nihilith or Greater Gargadon.
Let me know in the comments if you have any Evolution brews you're working on. It's a ready-made Modern gem, and I would be shocked if it didn't make it in the top-tier big leagues. See you all next week with more previews and, until then, keep on Evolving your decks with new Eldritch Moon previews!