I have a secret to tell about the Aether Revolt prerelease a few weekends ago: I didn't play. Sure, the format was Limited, and I didn’t know the cards, and the days are getting longer—we can sit here and make excuses all day. What I was actually doing was playing Star Wars: Destiny, which, as a brief aside, is excellent and a game you should definitely check out. But, underneath all that, I’ve become more and more disconnected from set releases as time has gone on. This prerelease wasn’t a break from the mold for me; the last prerelease event I attended was for Khans of Tarkir.
Every once in a while we get a particularly exciting set for Modern. But most sets contribute just one or two cards, and they tend to be narrow roleplayers rather than cross-archetype staples that change the format fundamentally. The Tasigur, the Golden Fangs are much less common than the Blossoming Defenses or Cathartic Reunions. This is obviously a necessary attribute of a format as deep and old as Modern, but the fact remains: new set releases don't herald all that much excitement for the Moderner.
Aether Revolt is definitely in this vein, too. Besides Fatal Push, what can we really get excited about? I’m still unsure (as everyone is until they actually get their hands on the cards—don’t let anyone fool you into believing otherwise) but I’m not ready to throw the towel in on Aether Revolt by any means. Rather than be disappointed by a lack of exciting new cards for Modern, some tempering of expectations is probably in order. We just had a banning (if you didn’t know)—that in and of itself is going to shake the format up more than any possible new cards, as we saw with the Treasure Cruise bans. No, I’ll be happy if Aether Revolt brings one new staple or roleplayer to the table, along with a few cards that could see play as sideboard gems or nifty didgeridoo’s.
Thus there are a few "cards of interest" I have my eye on for potential impact in Modern. Without further ado, here are the cards I think show promise.
We’ll get this out of the way right now: this card is a game changer. One black mana kills a Tarmogoyf; along with the cracking of a fetch, you can take down most threats in the format. This card is significant enough that it has me asking why anyone would choose not to play black in a control deck moving forward. Looking right at you, Jeskai Control. Nahiri, the Harbinger and Stony Silence are great reasons to be in white, but when you’re giving up Terminate (and now Fatal Push) to play Path to Exile, are you really improving? Sure, the answer to this question is complicated and will definitely change depending on which archetypes rise to the top post-bannings, but black is really starting to pull away from the other control colors, at least in terms of strength of removal.
It’s not just the control decks that benefit from Fatal Push, either. Jund is happy to Thoughtseize turn one, and then Lightning Bolt and Fatal Push an aggro board on turn two to come back to tempo parity. Before, they were forced to strand those discard spells in hand, or else face down a potential board of three creatures with access to only two mana. In those situations, barring a double-Bolt hand, they were forced to choose between deploying a Tarmogoyf or killing one of the threats. If you tried to one-for-one them while they kept beating down with the remaining creatures, you played right into their game plan. Casting Goyf, on the other hand, would basically result in instant death if they had a kill spell to get rid of it.
That situation seems narrow, but it comes up all the time, and really just highlights the strength of Fatal Push across the format: Terminate-level removal for a single-mana price. Path to Exile without the drawback. Sound like an over-reaction? What creatures over three mana are seeing play in Modern right now? Gone are the days of Deceiver Exarch. We weren’t killing Etched Champion anyways. If our opponent is casting Wurmcoil Engines we’re probably losing regardless. Outside of Eldrazi, Fatal Push is great to excellent, and this is all putting aside the revolt clause, which is beyond easy to activate in this format.
Does this make Goblin Dark-Dwellers better? It certainly doesn’t hurt, but it’s a little too early to start thinking about resulting cascades. Once the lists start coming in, and we start to see the effect Fatal Push has on the format, we’ll have a better picture of whether some archetypes or choices get better/worse because of it. Just prepare, and recognize one thing: it is coming.
Baral, Chief of Compliance
Baral, Chief of Compliance seems fine as another Goblin Electromancer for Storm, but more Electromancers really wasn’t Storm’s need going into the off season. I’m no expert, but that thing almost always dies as soon as it hits the table. Granted, every time I play against it I’m usually packing Lightning Bolt, but what deck isn’t packing Lightning Bolt at this point in the format? Don’t answer that. The point is, almost nobody is left with their mouth open against a creature on the opposite side of the table, unless you count Living End or Ad Nauseam, which is one of the reasons why Living End and Ad Nauseam aren’t really that good.
Storm's difficulties run a little deeper than any issue Baral can promise to ameliorate. Over the years the archetype has been hit by a whopping five bans: Ponder, Preordain, Rite of Flame, Seething Song, and now Probe. In this defanged version, there are lots of decks (or cards, like Rest in Peace) that can prey on it, and its future success is probably dependent on metagame conditions changing. Kind of like how the Bills will never win the division until the Patriots end up having to forfeit 16 games or something.
Heart of Kiran
Heart of Kiran has to be interesting, but only because it’s a clearly pushed mythic that’s just begging to be exploited. Does a control deck want a 4/4 that takes advantage of plentiful planeswalker loyalty that wasn’t being used otherwise? Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound might say so. A 4/4 doesn’t line up quite well against a 4/5 Tarmogoyf, but swinging for 4 and then blocking for 4 thanks to vigilance and two loyalty could be a great alternate angle of attack. If we have a planeswalker with loyalty to spare, we’re probably doing okay to begin with, but in a way the two can go hand in hand. Heart of Kiran definitely shores up some of the problems reactive decks tend to have against creatures, primary among them being how to answer a bunch of tiny dorks pecking you to death. I probably wouldn’t play this without access to Lingering Souls, but it’s definitely got my interest for now.
Languish sees basically zero play in Modern, completely overshadowed as it is by Damnation. Yahenni's Expertise is yet another step down in a format where 4/5 is the magic number. It doesn’t even kill Wall of Omens or Spellskite! Still, a free spell is a free spell, and I can’t think of a better way to cash in on an Ancestral Vision, you know, for value. Goblin Dark-Dwellers is Exhibit A for the danger of playing bad cards to make good cards better, but it’s hard to imagine not feeling on top of the world after pulling this one off.
My intuition is that Yahenni's Expertise will be a classic case of the rich getting richer, as reactive decks have no shortage of ways to beat up on creature lists. Still, killing most of the board and then casting Liliana of the Veil to put the nail in the coffin? Not a bad turn four at all.
The new Ensoul Artifact is a potential Affinity card. In addition to providing a giant monster to smack the opponent around with, it provides protection of sorts for an important permanent. Is there anything we want to be protecting in this fun, albeit unconventional way? Cranial Plating might say so, but Spell Pierce is almost definitely better. It’s also asking a lot to have two colored sources (between Glimmervoid, Mox Opal, and Springleaf Drum) to get this thing out. Not impossible, but not free either.
Ensoul Artifact sees play in some lists, and this gets you your lightning rod back for just one more mana. It isn’t horrible. That said, it's competing for space with some pretty insane high-end cards in Affinity lists—and there already isn't enough room for sets of Master of Etherium, Steel Overseer, and Etched Champion as it is.
Infect certainly isn’t dead in the wake of the Gitaxian Probe ban, but it doesn’t want Skyship Plunderer either. This card is almost a strict downgrade from Thrummingbird, which obviously sees no play whatsoever. The pseudo-proliferate is sweet and all, but I think this one should really stick to the kitchen-table infect lists where it belongs.
Hope of Ghirapur
Hope of Ghirapur is the little gnat flying around your ear, that's mildly annoying at first until it flies right in there and “holy #*#& aaaaahhhhh!” As a piece of disruption, it has some applications against a few strategies. It turns off Living End pretty well, for example, as you can sacrifice in response to the cascade trigger. These uses are pretty narrow, however. Ultimately, Hope of Ghirapur will probably be used like its precursors Silence and Xantid Swarm are in other eternal formats, to protect your own combo rather than mess with an opponent's plan.
So where could this kind of protection be useful? Living End can't run it, lest they cascade embarrassingly into their "protection piece" whilst going off unhindered. We need a combo deck that doesn't otherwise use the combat step, so we can combo off after the little Thopter has done his duty. The best candidate is probably the same archetype that makes use of Silence and Swarm in Legacy: Ad Nauseam. Game one the control decks will be flooded with removal, so I don’t think we’re playing this maindeck, but I’m really interested in seeing what an Ad Nauseam list that brings this in after board looks like. Took us a while, but we might have found a home.
Finally, a note on Renegade Rallier, which has already made waves at SCG Columbus in Jermol Jupiter's Abzan Company deck from the Modern Classic. I initially missed this card as a Modern playable, but it appears to be a relevant addition to Abzan Company. In case you didn't know, the combo is with Saffi Eriksdotter and Viscera Seer. Looping Saffi and Rallier will generate infinite death triggers and scrys, which then can be combined with Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit for arbitrarily large attackers. It's unclear whether this new combo will prove more than the "flavor of the week," but at minimum it's another tool in the Chord and Company decks' arsenal.
The Legacy of AER
Fatal Push is going to be great, and beyond that I don't see much else. That’s fine, though, as Aether Revolt at least has some asterisks next to a few cards, which is all I’m looking for at this point. Some want their staples handed to them on a silver platter. I used to be one of them. Now I’m fine with getting my hands dirty in the hopes of finding gold. So dig in, and let me know if you find anything I've missed.
Thanks for reading,