A First Glance at Aether Revolt Modern

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The first major event after a new set is released is both very significant, and yet worthless for the analyst. On the one hand, this is the first glimpse the world gets at where the wider metagame is heading. On the other, it is a single data point in an entirely new experimental condition. In plain English, the early tournaments are not indicative of where the metagame actually is, but they do indicate where it is going to go. They're useful to judge how people have reacted to the expected new metagame and serve as the starting point for the new meta.

What I'm saying, as Modern Nexus has said many times before, is that when we look at the results from the SCG Classic in Columbus we should temper our expectations and be careful about our conclusions. Players were trying out new ideas in hopes that they would work, without significant testing or evidence to back them up. This was just the first iteration of the experiment; it will take a lot more to actually have something useful analytically. As a result, the data the event generates will be unusual compared to where we were prior to the set release and where we will be in a few months. This will be doubly true because of the recent bannings.

With that disclaimer out of the way, the results are very interesting in and of themselves. What they suggest is that the bans worked and many decks that were afraid of Dredge were able to return. The relative lack of Infect and complete absence of any other Gitaxian Probe deck add additional evidence. At the very least, it means players thought that the bans worked, and adapted to the perceived reality. Whether that will continue to be the case remains to be seen.


The SCG Columbus Top 16

Before we go any further, lets take a look at the data set in question.

DeckTotal NumberNumber in Top 8
Bant Eldrazi32
Abzan Company21
Ad Nauseam11
Grixis Delver11
Death and Taxes1-
Esper Control1-
Titan Breach1-

That is quite the collection of decks. I count 12 distinct archetypes. Star City has listed Jermol Jupiter's and Brian Demars's decks as separate but they're only superficially different from each other. In reality they're both Abzan Company. Bant Eldrazi was the only deck with two members in the Top 8, with another deck in the Top 16. Affinity and the aforementioned Abzan Company also had representatives on both sides of the cut. Whether these numbers are a function of their population at the tournament or actual strength is indeterminate, except for Bant Eldrazi, which at this point has a proven track record. It really is that powerful, despite its flaws. Always be vigilant.

What is most interesting is the number of graveyard decks in this Top 16. Abzan Company, Grishoalbrand, and Dredge are graveyard-based combo decks while Grixis Delver and Esper Control utilize their graveyards as secondary resources to fuel their gameplans. This suggests to me that some players were aware of the Dredge Cycle and took advantage. The banning of Golgari Grave-Troll was expected to reduce the prevalence of Dredge. Therefore players expected that they could cut graveyard hate. This in turn provided an opportunity to those decks that had suffered splash damage from the Dredge hate.

Abzan Company was hit particularly hard, losing about half its metagame share and dropping from solid Tier 1 status post-Eldrazi banning down to Tier 2. There is far less dedicated graveyard hate in the Top 16 than we saw in previous tournaments, which means less splash damage and thus a return to relevance for these archetypes. That helps explain the appearance of Abzan Company and Griselbrand Reanimator, but may similarly affect decks like Living End. Whether this trend will hold has yet to be seen.

It is also instructive that the winner was Ad Nauseam. A powerful combo deck in a vacuum, it struggled mightily against Infect, which just ignores Angel's Grace and Phyrexian Unlife. Last year we saw a number of decks that overloaded their sideboards against Infect and still lost. With Infect hit by a ban, it makes sense that Ad Naus would be boosted. This could signal a metagame shift toward Jund, a common foil, and Ad Naus. It's difficult for many decks to race Ad Naus and most don't interact with the combo. Jund is a notable exception thanks to its discard spells and Liliana of the Veil locking Ad Naus out of topdecking into their two-card combo. Again, too early to tell, but it stands to reason given the weakening of the predator. Keep your ears open.

I don't want to extrapolate beyond that due to the ambiguity caused by our lack of data, so instead let's look into the Top 16 and examine some interesting developments present.

Ad Nauseam Ascendant

The winning decklist has a very standard maindeck. Unsurprising considering that it's a well-established combo deck. In fact, I suspect that any deviation from this standard is actively wrong. What is more interesting is the sideboard.

Another facet of being an established, tight list is inflexibility in the sideboard. You know your bad matchups and what they'll use against you, and the best tools to fight back are well known, which is why Ad Naus plays Leyline of Sanctity against Jund. Infect has traditionally been fought with Darkness and additional spot removal, but Danny Spencer completely changed the game by playing Crovax, Ascendant Hero. All of Infect's creatures have one toughness, meaning that Crovax fairly neatly beats their entire deck. Infect normally only runs Spell Pierce and Dismember as answers, neither of which is effective when Crovax can bounce himself. An absolutely brilliant piece of tech. I told you the cardpool has plenty of surprises!

Abzan Company: A Return to Form

Most players won't remember this, but Abzan players have been gaining infinite life since long before Melira, Sylvok Outcast was printed. It was just a more complicated process. Back in the day it was accomplished with Essence Warden, Saffi Eriksdotter and Crypt Champion in a Standard deck called Project X. The way it worked was Champion would die when it entered the battlefield. In response to the sacrifice trigger, you use Saffi on Champion. Champion will be sacrificed and then returned, and then both its abilities trigger, returning Saffi to play. Repeat until bored, in the presence of Warden, for infinite life.

When Melira came out the combo was greatly simplified, with fewer opportunities to misclick on MTGO, and Saffi hasn't seen play since. However, Renegade Rallier stands to change all that. Rallier is a very solid value creature for Abzan Company and can incidentally combo off with Saffi and a sacrifice outlet. The inclusion of this combo is the only major difference between Jupiter's and Demars' lists.

Rather than being used to gain infinite life, in this list Saffi, Seer, and Rallier combine with Anafenza to produce infinite bolster triggers. Note that you can stack all these triggers below the combo iterations proper, and then sacrifice any extra creatures to ensure the counters go on an attacker that isn't summoning sick. A bit complicated I'll admit, but effective. I doubt that the combo is good enough on its own, but as a backup plan it has merit. Surgical Extraction is the most popular graveyard hate outside of Dredge-fearing metagames, and it's not uncommon for the Abzan player to get their Finks extracted. The Saffi package provides an additional way to combo out. Rallier is also a respectable card in its own right, in this deck effectively an Eternal Witness that hits harder and saves mana.

The question is whether this additional combo build is actually the path for Company moving forward. Brian Demars didn't use Rallier and finished lower than Jupiter, but in its place he had more value engines like Tireless Tracker. This makes his deck more fair and less vulnerable to graveyard hate. Abzan was hated out because of Dredge, and Jupiter's deck is quite vulnerable to Rest in Peace. Most of his cards depend on the graveyard to be good and he doesn't really have a backup plan except the ubiquitous Gavony Township. Demars can more easily ignore the enchantment by playing a clue-based value and growth game. Which version becomes more common will likely depend on how prevalent general hate like RiP remains. If it remains common then Demars's list will be better. If not, I think that the additional combo has considerable value. More potential combos means more surprise wins from Company.

Control Is Back

Jeskai Control has really fallen off over the past year. Dredge was one factor but it had been in decline before the undead menace arose. I was never sure why—possibly Nahiri wasn't as good as expected? In any case, control appears to have returned in Columbus in very different form.

Now this is a deck to warm Shaheen Soorani's heart! The purest Modern control deck I've seen in quite a while. No planeswalkers, no targeted discard. Just reactive answers, card draw, land, and a win condition. We saw this archetype appear in the hands of Guillaume Wafo-Tapa some months ago, and this list is quite similar. I heartily approve of the Supreme Verdicts and I expect you'll be seeing more of these decks in the not-too-distant future. I knew control was viable if you tried hard enough! And Dredge took a hit so that you could ignore it!

Fatal Push is the main draw to Esper rather than Jeskai. Push kills most things Bolt does and some more besides. It doesn't go to the face, but in such a dedicated control deck I don't think you care. For this reason I expect that Esper will replace Jeskai in the short run. How this will fare in the long term is less certain. This is not a deck that cares about chiseling away at an opponent, it just shuts you down and wins (figuratively) with card advantage. Full sets of Push, Path to Exile, and Snapcaster Mage combine with Verdict to grind through creature decks, while Cryptic answers everything else. That said, the humbling of Dredge has greatly benefited this deck. I can't imagine that was a good matchup, and graveyard hate also really hurts as dedicated a Snapcaster deck as this one. I suspect the maindeck Negates had RiP and Grafdigger's Cage in mind.

Secure the Wastes is an interesting win condition. It makes sense with the high land count, and the fact that it can be deployed at instant speed is attractive, but I can't help feeling like there are better options. I wonder if, given a better instant-speed creature, Hovis would have used that instead. The deck is clearly designed to never tap out on its own turn, and Secure plays into that plan nicely. However, it's far easier to answer or race 1/1 Warriors than a dragon or angel. Still, this is an impressive list and will be inspiring many frustrated control mages for some time to come.

Quick Hits

I want to begin by disputing the name of the RG Valakut deck, listed by Star City as "RG Breach." Not because it isn't a Breach deck, but because it is definitely missing the adjective "Turbo" on the front! Why? Simian Spirit Guide. Logan Hoberty is using SSG to blitz out his Breaches. The least fair mana accelerant alongside the most broken Titan. That's just unfair. Oath of Nissa is exceptional in this deck, finding either business, lands, or your accelerant. Just absurd.

Finally, I want to draw your attention to Elliot Smith's Death and Taxes list. I've been working on my own list for some time now, so it takes a lot to get me excited about a new list. Smith succeeded, though you may be surprised why. While it's only a one-of in this list, Weathered Wayfarer is a brilliant find. Decks like this use their lands like spells, and Wayfarer tutors for any land. One special piece of value is to sacrifice Ghost Quarter or Tectonic Edge and before they resolve use Wayfarer, finding a replacement while your opponent has more lands than you do. In DnT that's almost Demonic Tutor. I had completely forgotten Wayfarer existed and am really looking forward to testing it to see if it's as good as I just claimed it was.

Just the Start

I really appreciate the innovation that was on display in this Top 16. The question is whether this will be sustained as the format begins to mature. The format is still getting sorted from the recent upheaval, and we only have this one data point to draw any conclusions. My advice is to limit yourself to looking at this tournament in a vacuum and refrain from drawing any major conclusions. Once the results from Regionals begin to roll in, then we can talk about more in-depth analysis.

12 thoughts on “A First Glance at Aether Revolt Modern

  1. Esper Control…Torrential Gearhulk over Secure the Wastes as the finisher? As a source of value yeah it doesn’t make sense over Snapcaster unless you are using Cryptic Command or snuck in Ancestral Vision, but as an instant-speed wincon that can clear out a blocker by bringing back push?

    1. While editing, I thought about including a note on Gearhulk. At the time that Wafo-Tapa was first developing this archetype, Torrential Gearhulk hadn’t been printed yet. Interesting to see if it will supplant Secure.

      1. Gearhulk seems pretty good here. Basically the only creature it doesn’t beat in combat is a huge Goyf, which shouldn’t be a problem with 4 Pushes and 2 Paths. Alternatively I’ve seen some Esper players use White Sun’s Zenith in the finisher slot.

        As to some of the article’s other comments, I’ve been playing Jeskai and Grixis a bit lately and I’m always surprised by how strong main deck Negate is in Modern. Most decks have very relevant targets. I’m a bit surprised to see Negate over Countersquall; this deck doesn’t look like it’d have a hard time getting UB quickly but i guess the 2 life just isn’t relevant in a deck this slow.

        The big stand out to me with this deck is the red splash for Crumble. I wonder if it effects the big mana matchup enough to be worth the inclusion. Runed Halo usually shuts down Valakut decks fairly well on it’s own and I can’t imagine the Crumbles improve the Tron matchup significantly.

        1. I could see one advantage of Secure, which is that other control decks (and Jund/Abzan) will struggle to one-for-one it, so it’s a pretty resilient finisher. That said, Gearhulk sure sounds way sweeter.

    2. The biggest issue with this is it allows your opponent to use previously dead spells in hand. These decks don’t need thoughtseize, because by virtue of being “creatureless,” you invalidate every targeted removal spell in the opponent’s deck. Gaining virtual card advantage by cutting off the value of terminate is critical to this deck’s success, in my opinion.

      1. Path hits Celestial Colonnade, though. So my thought is, Gearhulk dodges fatal push, lightning bolt, and abrupt decay, three very popular removal spells. The only one that is still live with Gearhulk is still live with your creatureland anyways. If it was sorcery speed, I’d say forget it, but the deck just feels like 1-2 in the main along with 1-2 Secure the Wastes appears viable. Only one way to find out, to the batcave!

  2. Quick correction: Spell Pierce can’t target Crovax. Infect’s only option is to Dismember to force a Crovax bounce then kill with Inkmoth. That or use Pithing Needle + Dismember to kill Crovax.

    I’m never happy to see Ad Nauseam winning; it means everyone will be better prepared for me at the next event I play.

  3. Esper plays secure the wastes because you can fire it off early to relieve pressure or squeeze in some damage and snapcaster it back later. White suns zenith is more power at five plus mana but wont help you if your opponent goes nacatl bte bushwhacker where secure will save a lot of blood and get you up to verdict or cryptic. That might be less important with fatal push now, but thats why the card is played.

    Gearhulk is wicked but makes otherwise dead terminates and path to exiles come to life in the opponents hand. It may still be worth it, but thats a nonzero drawback – it also clutters your hand until you hit six whereas snapcaster and secure can be used early when needed.

  4. Love it. Bants an obnoxiously strong deck of course but unstable enough and vulnerable to certain archetypes (spell based combo for example) so whatever
    Plus it’s very… fair overall.
    If the top deck is a wonky fair deck I’m happy.

    I find it interesting that death and taxes made it up there. I’m thinking that fatal push is just so awkward against eldrazi that itsnpopularity helped push them to the top

    Definitely in my sultai deck I’ve had to make a lot of changes due to push and it’s ramifications.
    For example 3 of my inquisitions became Thought seize in order to help combat higher mana threats (and because it’s easier to fight low cost threats with push and decay)

    I’ve been playing a sultai midrange deck for a while now. Fatal push breathed new life into the deck. It’s now a legitimate choice as opposed to jund and abzan. Been doing quite well at fnm and xmage testing.
    I sent you guys an article that’s pretty in depth about it but no response so far.

  5. Switching to a creature win-con in the Esper deck is a mistake. Secure the Wastes is strong against one for one removal (path/push/bolt) meaning the deck basically blanks a lot of cards in many decks game one. There is though an argument for side-boarding into that sort of strategy so any boarded in sweeper/token-hate is nullified.

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