Modern has kept me busy lately. Fatal Push generated a metric ton of buzz, Dredge and Infect terrorized Modern and were subsequently nerfed, and most recently, I've had my heart set on building entire decks around the improvise mechanic or Smuggler's Copter. All these developments have prevented me from writing about how Aether Revolt's less obvious cards have worked their way into my brews.
Today, we right that wrong by looking at three brews I've been sleeving up that use some newer cards to great effect.
Esper Vehicles with Heart of Kiran
Perhaps the splashiest mythic in the set, Heart of Kiran caught the eye of many looking for the most pushed vehicle during Aether spoilers. It was overshadowed in Standard by Smuggler's Copter until Copter's recent removal from the format, but Heart has one major upside in Modern: its whopping four points of toughness. I still believe Copter to by and large be a better two-cost vehicle, so my solution for building a deck with Heart was to simply play both.
Crewing the Heart
I think Heart of Kiran's regular crew condition is too pricey. Modern is a fast format, meaning we'd usually rather just attack with our three-power guy if we can. There are also more reliable beefy creatures at two mana if we're in a deck that has aggressively costed three-power guys at all, namely Tarmogoyf, Grim Flayer, and Tasigur.
Heart's vigilance dimension grooms it for a shell wanting to clock while playing defense, which made me consider aggro-control decks on the midrange end of the spectrum. Planeswalkers slot nicely into this kind of deck. The most efficient/playable ones available are Liliana of the Veil, a contender for the most impactful fair card in Modern, and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound, who synergizes nicely with other elements we want to play. Lingering Souls loves being looted, and Copter plus Jace gives us plenty of ways to throw it away. Jace's legend status also makes him a prime target for dumping. The flip-walker can re-cast spells we've discarded to Copter or to his own effect, and it enters the battlefield with a ton of loyalty, making it simple to support Heart of Kiran.
Esper Vehicles exerts a weird tension on opponents when it comes to spot removal. On the one hand, Jace and Copter are prime targets for Lightning Bolt and Fatal Push. On the other, hitting one and seeing it chased with another can prove extremely frustrating. We never really want Jace or Copter in multiples, and if they stay on the table, we get to generate a snowball of advantage while looting away our extra copies. If they die, we can simply play out one of those extra copies. Creeping Tar Pit also punishes opponents for throwing away too much spot removal early.
Lingering Souls gives the deck an angle of attack that practically invalidates spot removal. Running the full set alongside card selection tools like Jace, Copter, and Visions allows us to amass a fleet of Spirits at a moment's notice in the mid-game, a plan that buys us time and diverts enemy removal spells from our superior targets while applying pressure that will have to be dealt with eventually.
Combined with Liliana of the Veil, this removal suite makes it difficult to lose against BGx, Grixis, and other fair decks that go lower to the ground to stand a chance against big mana strategies. (To compensate for our own natural weakness to big mana, I've dedicated plenty of sideboard space to beating it.)
Sultai Rogues with Fourth Bridge Prowler
Given my love for tribal spells and cantrips, Rogues has been a pet deck of mine for some time. After all, they get what can sometimes be the best cantrip in Modern—and it grows Goyf, to boot! I've built many decks featuring Tarmogoyf and Thieves' Fortune, and all across the color spectrum (although especially in Temur). But Sultai only became genuinely intriguing recently, with the release of Fatal Push. Rogues' most limiting factor has always been its slim roster of potential threats. Push aside, it's Aether Revolt's Fourth Bridge Prowler that pushed me to pay the wedge another visit.
What's Not New
Goyf and Serum Visions are constants in all my Rogue decks; Goyf is the reason I build them, and Serum helps me achieve what I want to achieve each game. I've also preserved the Traverse the Ulvenwald package from my last foray into brewing with Rogues. The whole point of the deck is to enable a card that simplifies hitting delirium, so I don't see turning back anytime soon in regards to this decision.
Traditionally, my brand of Rogues was basically shoehorned into Temur colors for Lightning Bolt. This kind of micro-synergy-based tempo deck needs a way to cheaply remove creatures in the early game. Fatal Push gives us another option, and its release coincides nicely with that of Fourth Bridge Prowler.
Prowler has been awesome for me. It has all the potential upside of a well-timed Peppersmoke as well as offering plenty of adorable synergies. Instead of drawing a mystery card and growing Goyf, Prowler loosens the conditional requirements (it doesn't require a Faerie in play) and gives us an on-tribe body. Best-case scenario, Prowler comes down early to kill off Dark Confidant or Ignoble Hierarch before getting in some hits to turn on Thieves' Fortune. The creature has plenty of juicy late-game targets in Modern, too, ranging from Snapcaster Mage to Vendilion Clique to a lowly Spirit token. Don't judge; value is value!
The wealth of cheap 187 abilities we accrue between Prowler, Miscreant, Snapcaster, and Spellstutter incentivize us to run some amount of Faerie Imposter. Imposter's drawback of forcing us to re-cast a creature is greatly mitigated when that drawback nets us a card or a removal spell in the process. I started with just one Imposter as a Traverse target and ended up adding a second to increase the odds of drawing her naturally.
Running so many one-drop Rogues lets us max out on Thieves' Fortune, which becomes significantly more reliable. As a result, we can safely include one-of bullets like Abrupt Decay and Murderous Cut for tricky situations, as well as expect to see matchup-specific threats every game after siding.
For the first time, I've included Cloak and Dagger in my Rogues list. I've messed around with this card in the past, but it always did too little to make it to the main. With ten powerful one-drop rogues (over half of which fly), and added incentive to run the creature-bouncing Faerie Imposter, Cloak becomes much more appealing.
A 3/1 with hexproof is surprisingly tough for many interactive decks to deal with. If that 3/1 also has flying, it becomes a nightmare. Cloak also functions fine in the graveyard; losing the equipment to a discard spell or Abrupt Decay usually turns on delirium right away, a feature we can leverage favorably with Collective Brutality.
Counter-Cat with Renegade Rallier
Despite my blowout RPTQ performance last December, I maintain a lot of love for Counter-Cat. The deck is a blast to play and surprisingly resilient in metagames not brimming with Chalice of the Void and Conflagrate.
It's rare that my goodstuff decks benefit significantly from new expansions, since I tend to favor tempo strategies full of too-good commons over midrange ones packing obviously pushed mythics. The revolt mechanic excited me on this front when it was revealed. Aether Revolt didn't disappoint, bringing Counter-Cat an exciting tool to combat the midrange strategies it struggled to beat before: Renegade Rallier.
Tempo and Attrition
Generally, Modern cards that provide card advantage cost a lot of mana. Esper Charm, the format's most recent card advantage staple, costs three mana. So does Painful Truths, a card Jund and Grixis Delver have been known to sideboard for grindy mirrors. Mana can be loosely translated to tempo, since players get to play a single land each turn and must spend their limited resources wisely in a format as fast as Modern. Ancestral Vision, the apparent exception to the cards-cost-mana rule, still costs pilots plenty of tempo, as it refuses to resolves until the fourth turn after it's been suspended.
Similarly, tempo-positive spells in Modern usually come with card disadvantage. Simian Spirit Guide and Desperate Ritual are classic examples of spells that temporarily put players up a turn in mana development, but cost them a card, essentially putting them down a turn in card economy. Collective Brutality embodies this principle very clearly, doing way more than a spell should for just two mana, but requiring discards to escalate.
Enter Renegade Rallier, a creature that promises both card advantage and tempo. Three mana can seem like a lot in a deck that slings 3/3s for only one, but it's nothing compared with Snapcaster Mage, the most obvious analog to Rallier in Modern. Snapcaster is one of the few cards in Modern that provides card advantage and tempo, advancing the board with a 2/1 for a tack-on price of 1U while netting players a used spell for its mana cost. 1U, too, is too much to pay for a vanilla 2/1 in Modern. But with the added benefit of card advantage, it becomes acceptable.
Rallier ups the ante. 1GW for a 3/2 is arguably a worse rate than 1U for a 2/1, although marginally so. Kird Ape's laughable status as a clock compared with Nacatl and Delver attest to the difference between two and three power. Rallier's two toughness also happens to be in the sweet spot for Mutagenic Growth to save him from Lightning Bolt. Regardless, whatever mana is lost paying for his body, Rallier makes up for with his ability, which doesn't require us to pay mana for the dead creature we target.
Rallier in Practice
Consider giving a one-mana spell flashback with Snapcaster Mage. 1UR for a 2/1 and a Lightning Bolt is a great rate, in part because Bolt itself has such an aggressive rate. Incidentally, Counter-Cat's creatures also possess such rates. In many matchups, I think 1GW for a 3/2 and a 3/3 is significantly better than the same amount of mana for just one body. If we're recurring Tarmogoyf and not Wild Nacatl, the tempo we gain becomes even more significant—in that scenario, we're basically casting Goyf (1G) and Nacatl (W) and going up a card for free. In late-game situations where mana abounds, Rallier can even recur Snapcaster Mage and put us up more cards—one spell for two bodies and a Path to Exile might as well be Painful Truths without the life loss.
In terms of reliability, I have found Rallier to function well at two copies. Counter-Cat runs 12 fetchlands, which account for two-thirds of the skimpy manabase. Rallier performs best in the late-game, by which time some of those fetches can become dead as we fetch out our lands. The creature does a fine job turning them back on to some degree.
As mentioned, Rallier's primary function in the Counter-Cat sideboard is to shore up attrition matchups. The deck can struggle against Grixis openers featuring Bolt, Push, and Exterminate!; sometimes, those draws just kill all our threats and make it hard to bounce back before opponents manage to stabilize. No more! Opponents answering us one-for-one are bound to start doubting their ways when Rallier comes down and invalidates their most recent play, all while adding to the board himself.
The creature also has a "hidden mode" (man, do I love scare-quoting that phrase) of ramping us by one, which can prove relevant against linear decks or in mana-light situations. Sometimes, putting some pressure on the board without going down a card is exactly what the doctor ordered. Cracking a fetch on turn three, resolving Rallier, and recurring that fetch is the Selesyna warrior's version of Probe-Snap-Probe, and it's great with Huntmaster of the Fells // Ravager of the Fells, Isochron Scepter, Snapcaster Mage, or a bunch of two-mana spells in hand.
Diversifying Angles of Attack
Another aspect I like about Rallier is how it gives Counter-Cat even more options. Gaining access to another midrange hoser under four mana lets us cut Isochron Scepter down to one copy, which makes the artifact more of a gotcha! card and less of a fragile package. Opponents must also sequence their removal differently to play around Rallier, so as not to trigger revolt on our turn. Forcing opponents to sequence disruption in awkward ways is exactly what Counter-Cat wants to do, since it allows us to dictate the pace of the game and maximize blowouts with our conditional coutermagic.
A Note on Sleight
Rather than rebuild Counter-Cat from the ground up like I did with Temur Delver after the Probe ban, I stuck with the heavy core and looked for replacements. Unfortunately, Counter-Cat really wants six one-(or less)-mana sorceries to help remove Tarmogoyf from Bolt range. I tried a few cards in the deck over Gitaxian Probe, including the revolt-enabling Mishra's Bauble. Traverse was too unreliable with the focus on Hooting Mandrills; Thought Scour didn't bin the right card types often enough; Bauble was too awkward with Delver in a deck already dangerously low on instants and sorceries.
I settled on Sleight of Hand, the strongest generic blue cantrip in Modern after Serum Visions. So far, I haven't been too unimpressed. Sleight is better than Probe in situations where we have mana to spare, but worse when we're light on lands. The cantrip is especially bad when we draw multiple nonblue lands naturally (i.e. Temple Garden and Forest) and have to ration out the mana from a lone Steam Vents on Bolts, Visions, Sleights, and permission spells.
One benefit of Sleight is it allows us to keep a wider range of hands, since its selection effect gets us two cards deeper to a second land drop. One-landers with Probe and no Visions were almost always mulligans. The jury's still out, but I'm sticking with the Sleights for now.
New Modern, New Decks
One of Wizards' primary goals for Modern is that Standard cards and decks can transition into the format after set rotations. So far, they've done an admirable job—despite cards like Urza's Tower, Tarmogoyf, and Blood Moon running around, it seems Modern gets some new toys with every expansion.
The format's deep card pool rewards players for pairing new arrivals with old sleepers. For some, that means dusting off old launch promos of Breaking // Entering; for me, it means tracking down a set of Cloak and Dagger. If Aether Revolt has inspired any brews of your own, share them in the comments. And if not, I'd wager it's only a matter of time until Wizards prints something that stirs your inner Johnny.