Improving Aether Vial: MH2 Testing

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As the paper release date for Modern Horizons 2 approaches, brewing and testing new decks is kicking into high gear. Players are eager to display their creations and figure out what Modern actually looks like after a year with paper play and numerous new sets. The online metagame is as always suggestive, but provably inbred and likes to chase its own tail; that which is currently happening there doesn't necessarily mean anything for everyone else. In other words, I would expect there to be plenty of jank turning up at FNM very soon.

Meanwhile, I have a specialty: Aether Vial. It's what I like to do; it's what I'm best at. And so I build with and play it in every format possible. My focus since MH2 was fully spoiled has been working on Vial decks. So today I'm going to share my results for two of my bread-and-butter fish decks: Merfolk and Death and Taxes. I've also been working on Humans, but that deck requires more time in the oven. There are a ton of new options and opportunities for Humans to move in different directions, only a few of which I've tested. And even then, which one I'd recommend will depend on how the metagame develops. This is also true for Mefolk and DnT, but I've tested those options and can actually make recommendations. It's time to stop rambling and actually do that!

Exploring the Seas

Naturally, I started with Merfolk. It's my oldest deck and it was being boosted, so why wouldn't I? I also expected it to be relatively straightforward testing. I got started right after Rishadan Dockhand was spoiled, and given Wizards's recent history, I didn't think that I'd get any other cards to test. I can admit when I'm wrong. Shortly after my article went up, Tide Shaper and Svyelun of Sea and Sky were also spoiled, leading to doing a lot more testing than I expected.

Dockhand ended up being exactly as I had anticipated. The body, islandwalk, and cost are exactly what Merfolk has been looking for in a one-drop. However, Merfolk cannot afford to spend mana denying opposing mana turn after turn. The fish simply aren't that impressive except in numbers, and failing to deploy threats every turn is deadly in most matchups. And I was fine with just playing Dockhand as a 1/2 for 1.

An Unexpected Windfall

However, Tide Shaper means that I don't have to settle. Shaper is actually the answer to a problem Merfolk's long had, but I never expected would be answered. The problem is that Spreading Seas is necessary, but undesirable. It's very good mana disruption, and more importantly it turns on islandwalk, which is critical against any creature deck. However, Seas doesn't swing, and unless played late is just a huge tempo hole. I usually cut it against any aggro deck as a result. Shaper is just a 1/1 for one, and Merfolk of the Pearl Trident is not playable. However, the option to kick Shaper into a 2/2 Spreading Seas makes that humble creature extremely playable. As such, I've decided against running Dockhand in Merfolk and instead have fitted Shaper as the new one-drop.

Svyelun has proven to be difficult. Her stats are above average and A-Mischievous Catgeist // A-Catlike Curiosity is a powerful effect. However, giving other Merfolk ward and them in turn making Svyelun indestructible has proven inconsistent. It's hard to keep other creatures in play and she comes down late enough that several creatures would have died to removal by that point. If that doesn't happen, it's probably a matchup where removal and card advantage don't matter too much. In aggro matchups she's mostly a big body to block with, and can be a liability by clogging up your hand. In the more midrange matchups, she's the best Merfolk for a topdeck contest. So she's absolutely playable, but not in every situation or matchup.

For Swift Water

Which led me to testing a number of different configurations based on what kind of metagame might be coming. For a meta where Prowess continues to dominate, I prefer to go as low to the ground as possible and plan on fighting over tempo. Which led me to testing this list and being very satisfied.

In a fast metagame, Harbinger of the Tides and Merfolk Trickster are critical as tempo -positive threats, so I maxed out both. Being a cheap deck means that Lurrus is available as a companion, though most of the time I've used it more as a lifegain speedbump than an actual card advantage engine. Unsettled Mariner and the maindeck Chalice of the Void are both targeting Prowess but are quite solid against the control decks I tested.

My sideboard is entirely speculative and based on some of the early MTGO results. Hibernation is a devastating card against Ponza and Amulet Titan in some circumstances, but I was initially running it because I was expecting Elves to be big with the printing of Quirion Ranger. Which (TW: shameless gloat) I was right about. Hibernation has subsequently gotten me out of jams against the Crashing Footfalls decks running around. It turns out one-sided Wraths are very powerful against decks gunning to land a bunch of 4/4s.

Flood Them Out

However, if the meta moves more towards control or combo, the tempo cards start looking pretty mediocre. In that meta, size and card advantage are critical. I won a PTQ for PT Khans of Tarkir playing Merfolk in a Jund and Jeskai control dominated metagame in 2014. I did so by designing my Merfolk deck to grind as hard as possible; rebuying Silvergill Adepts and Spreading Seas with Echoing Truth while using Kira, Great Glass-Spinner to frustrate removal and frequently sneak through the last few points of damage in the air. I was also playing the maximum number of lords because they were almost guaranteed to die and require replacements. Modern has change a lot in the intervening years, but the premise would still work in a theoretical Esper Control-leaning meta.

Svylen and Merrow Reejerey replace the tempo creatures. The Chalices become Forces because I expect Esper to have a higher curve. Mariner is now Spreading Seas to maximize the cantrips I'm playing and because attacking Esper's mana is a very strong strategy. The sideboard is slanted against creatures and combo decks because the main is where I want it against control.

The Tax Man Cometh

Satisfied with my Merfolk musings, I next began working on Death and Taxes. Taxes received a surprising number of cards from MH2, starting with Sanctum Prelate. However, the most significant is Imperial Recruiter, which promises to turn Taxes into a toolbox-type deck akin to the Legacy version. Which I am absolutely here for and went there immediately.

Before we get to the lists, allow me to first state that I did test Esper Sentinel in all my Taxes lists. It did not make the cut in most of them. The problem is that, which the taxing effect is decent against a lot of decks, Taxes struggles to pump Sentinel, which means the tax remains minor as the rest of the board develops over it. More importantly, Sentinel is just a 1/1 and therefore doesn't provide enough of a clock in enough matches for the tax to be crippling. In Humans, on the other hand, Sentinel is very strong, and the difficulty of finding the best way to integrate it is one reason I'm not ready to talk about Humans today.

Classic Approach

The first thing I did once Recruiter was spoiled was take my Legacy DnT list, import it to Modern, and start adjusting numbers based on three factors: Modern's cardpool, how Modern Taxes works, and the composition swaps that come with adding red for Imperial Recruiter. This is the result.

I really liked the deck. Tutoring for Magus of the Moon was relevant a surprising amount of the time, far more than the other maindeck bullets. Prelate is quite good in certain matchups, but this being Modern, she lacks the hard-lock edge she frequently offers in the more one-drop-centric Legacy. The biggest downside is that I can't chain Flickerwisps by flickering Recruiter, a line that is frequently backbreaking for opponents in Legacy with Recruiter of the Guard. It made me want to go lower to the ground with Charming Prince, but Flickerwisp is better enough outside of chaining Recruiter (hits harder and has evasion, mainly) that I didn't go that route.

I had a lot of fun testing this deck and appreciate what it's doing. I wouldn't actually take it to a tournament, however. Partially, I don't know what to expect from the metagame, and thus can't design the toolbox very well. Mostly it's because Modern isn't Legacy and tooling around with Recruiter didn't work quite as well. Legacy is a durdly format, and so taking time to play with bullets is acceptable. This deck fell behind other creature decks and struggled mightily to catch back up, and so I can't actually recommend it.

The Stoneforge Question

Could that have changed if I'd been running Kaldra Compleat? Short answer: no. Kaldra is an amazing card if it hits play turn 2. It loses to nothing in combat, has haste, and kills in four turns. However, it has two problems. The main one is cost. Kaldra costs seven to cast or equip. That might as well be infinite for anything but Tron. Kaldra's playability is almost entirely tied to untapping with Stoneforge Mystic, and in my experience that doesn't happen often unless Mystic is Vialed in on the end step. This is less true in Stoneblade decks, but for Taxes, Kaldra kept getting stuck uselessly in hand.

The second is stabilizing. Kaldra is an amazing offensive threat, but is much worse than Batterskull against aggro, and that's what I struggled against. Vigilance and lifelink are far more relevant there than first strike and +1/+1. It was also worse than the evasion granted by Maul of the Skyclaves.

I also want to address the next two decks not playing the Mystic package at all. In both decks there wasn't room, and I found that Stoneforge neither helped nor hurt the matchups they were targeting, so Mystic was cut for space. If I were playing a Yorion, Sky Nomad pile, that wouldn't be a problem. However, Yorion dilutes a deck and makes it less consistent and when testing cards for impact, that's the last thing you want.

Really Using the Screws

After noticing the power of Magus of the Moon in the Legacy-lite deck, I decided to lean into that and play a more focused land destruction deck. This also gave me an excuse to run Cleansing Wildfire alongside Leonin Arbiter for maximum stompage of control and big mana. I ran this maindeck at FNM last week, and it did in fact utterly cripple Esper Control and Tron, so the theory works. The problem is that it can't reliably beat Prowess or Wrenn and Six.

Adding Prismatic Ending has improved things against Wrenn, but Prowess remains a huge problem since Magus and Wildfire are pretty weak in game 1. I also found that getting Magus was important enough when I really needed it that I'm planning on switching a Flickerwisp for a third Magus. In a slow metagame, the twelve land destruction spells are crippling. Just remember to use Field to hit the nonbasics and to follow up with Quarter or Wildfire on the basics. There's a lot of promise here once I fix the aggro matchup. Which might require moving the Wildfires to the sideboard and running Bolt main.

Enforcing Fairness

It's equally possible that Modern moves in a more unfair direction. All the new suspend spells alongside Shardless Agent have got players thinking of February's madness and 4-Color Cascade is seeing play again. Living End is also seeing play, and Profane Tutor promises to enable more combo decks. Should free spells start to take over, I'd instead go for UW Lavinia taxes.

Lavinia doesn't synergize with Thalia; here, the latter was cut so Lavinia could actually counter cascaded spells. Sentinel is still very good here because I'm targeting combo decks that like to cantrip and tap out. It's also good because it digs for counterspells. Dockhand is in a similar position, where it does an excellent job slowing down combo decks and makes it harder for them to pay Sentinel's tax. The current sideboard is meant to hit the cascade decks, but can easily be tuned.

All As Expected

All this is purely speculative, as the metagame is still forming. Everyone has to wait and see how the next month is going to shake out. I'll probably be running my slower Merfolk deck for the foreseeable future, not out of any particular metagame read, but because it's what I want to be doing with Merfolk. And I advise everyone else to take this approach as well. Until the next metagame update is ready, anyway.

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