Aether Revolt Modern: The Next Level

The SCG Columbus Modern Classic gave a first look at the post-banning metagame, and Sam Black isn’t surprised by what did well! He offers his take on how to next-level the field at SCG Richmond’s Modern Classic as well as an updated look at Lantern Control!

The Modern Classic at #SCGCOL was the first Modern tournament we’ve seen with the new bans and Aether Revolt, and the results are kind of too perfect. It all just makes so much sense, so I want to walk through what I see going on here.

First, Ad Nauseam won the event.

I don’t know if this was a brilliant metagame call by Danny Spencer or if Danny’s just an Ad Nauseam player who won because Ad Nauseam happens to be the right deck for the moment, but either way, it’s not surprising in hindsight to see the deck win this weekend.

Ad Nauseam is a spell combo deck. Previously, the tradeoff that existed when playing spell combo was that you were slower than creature combo, so you’d be disadvantaged there, but you were harder to interact with, so you’d be better against most interactive/midrange decks that weren’t racing you.

Well, the creature combo decks took a double whammy in the printing of Fatal Push and the banning of Gitaxian Probe, which means we’d expect fewer to show up and for those that show up to likely not perform as well. The result is that the portion of the metagame that most kept Ad Nauseam in check disappeared. Ad Nauseam was truly horrible against Infect and very bad against Death’s Shadow, so with those out of the picture, of course it did well.

Recognizing that metagame shift, it makes sense to consider any deck that had a bad matchup against creature combo, which is basically every other non-interactive deck that’s just trying to do its own thing, like Tron and Scapeshift. I’m not an expert in those matchups, but it certainly makes sense to me that Ad Nauseam would be favored against the others, which would make it the best choice, at least out of the gates.

The second-place finisher was an awesome update of Abzan Company by Jermol Jupiter. First off, while it’s not the first thing that would occur to me, this actually occupies a similar metagame space to the other decks I’ve been talking about.

Temur Battle Rage and Blighted Agent allow creature combo to race past this kind of deck before it has time to build up its creature combos, and in the short-game those decks are playing, the card advantage accumulated by basically everything Abzan Company does just doesn’t matter.

This deck should ruin anyone who’s trying to use Fatal Push to play a fair game, and it can try to race its combos against other combos decently well. Jermol went so far as to literally not maindeck a single card that can interact with the opponent’s battlefield in any way.

Not a single one.

Not even a Ghost Quarter, Qasali Pridemage, or Murderous Redcap.

If you cast a permanent against this deck, it’s staying on the battlefield unless it gets into combat. That’s kind of insane in Modern, but I respect it. Any answer can line up wrongly in Game 1, and in Game 2, there are plenty of answers to choose from in the sideboard.

There’s no way you can build your deck this way if you expect fast combo to exist, and Jermol accurately read the direction the metagame would go (presumably).

The other big reason it’s not surprising to see this deck do well, aside from it being a previously successful Modern deck whose positioning improved, is that it added the fantastic Aether Revolt card Renegade Rallier.

This is like a bigger Eternal Witness that puts the card you got back directly onto the battlefield. The downside is that it can’t get back Chord of Calling or Collected Company, certainly two of Eternal Witness’s favorite targets, but the upside is that it’s a ramp spell and it can put your dead creatures straight onto the battlefield.

On top of that, it’s another combo piece: Saffi Eriksdotter plus Renegade Rallier gives you a loop that protects the two creatures. If you add Viscera Seer, you can Vampiric Tutor at will, and if you then add Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit, you can make all of your creatures arbitrarily large. This combo takes a lot of cards, but unless your opponent exiles Saffi, this deck is always drawing live to pull it all together at a moment’s notice due to the nature of the cards and the deck.

I’m less confident that this deck is well-positioned if Modern becomes a format all about spell combo and big mana, but while people are still playing midrange decks that tried to beat up on creature combo, this deck can easily grind people out. Basically, the more removal spells you expect your opponents to have in their deck on average, the better this deck will be, as long as none of those removal spells are Anger of the Gods.

The third-place finish, Michael Coyle with Goryo’s Vengeance, follows the same logic as Ad Nauseam, but this time, also hopes to take advantage of a presumed drop in graveyard hate thanks to Golgari Grave-Troll’s banning.

As the fastest remaining combo deck, I can definitely imagine this one having some legs, and, in general, I think the direction of this round of bannings is absolutely perfect to punish Wizards of the Coast for giving Simian Spirit Guide a pass this time around. I think we’ve all been waiting for the hammer to drop on that one for years, but it’s mysteriously dodged so far. Most recently, I’m guessing they felt it didn’t make sense because we were kind of at a low point in Simian Spirit Guide’s successful metagame share (because of the strength of creature combo against Simian Spirit Guide decks), but I think there’s a very good chance it’ll be the next card to go.

This deck is exactly what it’s always been. It doesn’t have any new tricks or cards, just a much less hostile metagame. It’s doing exactly what Ad Nauseam’s doing in terms of positioning, but it’s faster and easier to hate, so which ends up being the bigger player as the format moves forward really just depends on how much people can afford to prepare for Goryo’s Vengeance.

In fourth place, we have Curtis Joseph with Affinity, a staple of Modern that hasn’t had a lot of recent success, relatively speaking, and I think that’s because it’s a less effective creature combo deck than the other creature combo decks. With the banning of Gitaxian Probe, I can easily believe that this will become the default creature combo deck, filling that same space in the metagame of punishing decks like Tron and Scapeshift.

Given the resurgence of those decks because they lost their top tier of predators, it makes complete sense that Affinity would do well, since it preys on the decks that gain the most metagame share at the top. Couple that with its natural tendency to do well when it hasn’t done well for a while due to decreased sideboard hate, and you have a recipe for Affinity to spike in the near future.

So what does all of this mean going forward?

On Level 1, we have the exact results we see here: cut a portion of the metagame, watch the portion that was kept down by that overperform. However, super-fast creature decks as a concept weren’t banned; Death’s Shadow in particular likely might as well have been, but aside from that, they were just weakened or discouraged. Some of that is just hype around Fatal Push, but the point is that Infect, Affinity, and Burn still exist and the metagame can’t shift very far before it just becomes too soft to those strategies and things balance out again.

In the short term, though, I wouldn’t want to show up with a deck that’s overloading on creature removal, as that’s bad against all of these decks except possibly Affinity. This isn’t to say that you can’t play G/B/X, but if you do, I’d hedge as much as possible toward discard, land destruction, and graveyard hate over removal. It’s also likely that counterspells are the right way to try to interact, as we see in Corey Burkhart’s MOCS win with Grixis Control:

I’m inclined to give more credit to Corey than to the deck to the extent that they can be separated, given his repeated success with the deck that no one else has been able to replicate, but this is roughly how I’d expect successful interactive decks to look in the near future.

The real conclusion to me is that at this moment, if I were trying to level the metagame that exists right now, I’d consider something like Faeries or Delver that has a strong matchup against spell combo. The problem is that, while both are likely relatively well-positioned, I worry that they’re simply not strong or robust enough Modern decks.

This, of course, brings us back to Lantern Control, where you should know I’m going to go at some point when talking about Modern by now. I believe that Lantern Control is the second-best deck against Ad Nauseam after Infect, and I’d certainly be comfortable playing it against all the top decks from this weekend. It’s probably not great against Grixis Control, but until someone other than Corey wins with that, I’m not going to worry about running into it too often.

The biggest risk is that you run into Tron, which is a bad matchup at this point, but it seems to me that the decks Tron is generally used to beat are so clearly poorly positioned right now that I’d be hesitant to pick up Tron specifically because I’d expect to get raced by decks like Ad Nauseam and Affinity.

The other thing about Lantern Control is that I want to introduce a very different way to build the deck:

The idea here is that Thoughtcast, Reverse Engineer, and Battle at the Bridge are all extremely powerful cards if you can reliably quickly get a lot of artifacts onto the battlefield, and the Lantern package is the best way to do that in a control deck. With so much card draw, you can’t rely on Ensnaring Bridge, but you can simply answer all of your opponent’s threats while establishing a lock that prevents them from drawing more, all the while digging to your own card draw and removal.

I’ve minimized discard because I need a critical mass of lands and artifacts to reliably cast my card draw, and I want to spend my early turns developing there instead of trading with my opponent and potentially making the game small enough that I can’t cast my card draw. The result is potentially increased vulnerability to combo decks, but Negate out of the sideboard could pick up a lot of slack there. On balance, however, I would expect this version of Lantern to perform worse against combo decks, but the idea is that, in exchange, this version could actually be a solid favorite against G/B/X decks, previously Lantern’s biggest weakness.

This deck is worse at assembling and protecting its specific locks, because it loses both discard and Ancient Stirrings, but much better at just assembling cards in bulk, which is why it should gain so much ground against decks that are trying to overload removal.

This list is untested and untuned, and on the surface worse against the exact metagame I’d expect at the moment, but when you have to opportunity to be the only player in a room with Treasure Cruise, it’s worth looking into.

It’s funny how Magic works. Fatal Push made me excited for Modern again, but in the end, none of the most successful decks played the card. Just the threat of it appears to have shaken things up; however, since it’s just a threat, maybe the format’s ripe for someone to simply call the bluff of its existence. Either way, I expect Modern to be volatile and interesting for the next few months, and I’m looking forward to getting a chance to cast Reverse Engineer.