Spoiler season is under way, so there’s not a moment to waste. Some of the cards in Oath of the Gatewatch are going to be difficult to evaluate until we have a little more context; but Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim makes a perfect starting point, as it is powerful and works so well with so many existing cards.
There’s a lot packed onto this card, considering it’s a two-drop. She has no less than three distinct abilities, each with multiple applications. She’s also a legend with multiple potentially relevant creature types and a slightly unusual body.
Since a 2/3 for WB isn’t worth considering (though not embarrassing), let’s start by looking at how much of an impact deathtouch has. Vampire Nighthawk was a beloved staple, being a 2/3 deathtouch, that for a mana more, gained flying and lifelink. Even though they are sort of close on paper, conceptually, they are completely different cards, so we’ll need to do better.
In general, I think a 2/3 deathtouch could be good enough on its own if it were just a creature-type we cared about. It could be an uncommon and be a quality card.
● Outperforms the baseline of creatures like Warden of the First Tree, Snapping Gnarlid, Monastery Swiftspear, Seeker of the Way. When they actually grow, the deathtouch ensures you never end up the worse of it.
Ayli is a lot more than just a 2/3 deathtouch creature, however. Let’s start with her one-cost ability.
1, Sacrifice another creature: You gain life equal to the sacrificed creature’s toughness.
It’s easy to underestimate this ability since she can’t sacrifice herself. As a result, we can easily concoct a scenario where they kill her when she matters. However, that is hard to do for two or less mana, so we’re often gaining value. Additionally, if someone uses their Silkwrap on her instead of Anafenza, or whatever, we’re already happy.
If they try to just power through, though, she can provide some serious lifegain windfalls. For instance, it’s easy to imagine someone wanting to Abzan Charm our Siege Rhino. As long as we have a mana open, that’s an extra five life we have to work with. She also provides a measure of insurance against direct damage and sudden big damage chunks, such as Become Immense or Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury. If times get tough, sacrifice a creature and bail yourself out!
She also has a number of combos made possible by having “free” access to a sacrifice outlet (not having to use a card explicitly for its sacrifice ability). One very loud example is Hangarback Walker, which she can easily convert into flying Thopters when needed. Another possibility is to form a mondo-combo with Act of Treason, killing whatever you stole, after you are done with it.
Continuing to her other activated ability:
This one is a little more niche and requires some work, but the payoff is substantial. Having Utter Ends (at a discount) at will is a big game. It’s not easy to reliably be at 30 or more, but Ayli has enough going on, it can just be a nice bonus, some of the time. That said, it’s much more likely that we’d want extra copies if we were playing a deck with a lot of lifegain, such as Siege Rhino or Ojutai’s Command.
Speaking of Ojutai’s Command, Ayli’s just the right size to combine with the versatile “gain 4.” Early on, she can trade for whatever, and then later, come back and start exerting pressure on an opponent that isn’t going to want to just sit by and let you hit 30.
Could we just slide Ayli into Jeskai Black?
4 Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
1 Kolaghan’s Command
4 Ojutai’s Command
The problem with just sliding her in, as is, is the lack of creatures to sacrifice. If we only had Hordeling Outburst or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, that’d really be something. As it is, though, we’re pretty reliant on Monastery Mentor in order to have anything to sacrifice for the repeated Utter Ends.
As for getting up to 30 in the first place, we’re basically slave to Soulfire Grand Master (which is a mondo-combo with Roast), though it is kind of sweet that the extra prowess triggers translate into extra lifegain. Of course, sometimes, Shambling Vent damage can just add up in a big way.
Hordeling Outburst isn’t an ideal fit, since Ayli costs both black and white. This greatly limits our options for curving out on mana since we need to play a B/R or R/W dual on turn 1, then a Plains or Swamp turn 2, then a Mountain on turn 3. Besides, red is always the hardest color to make anyway, since we want to play Flooded Strands, Prairie Streams, Sunken Hollows, and Shambling Vents.
Gideon and Sorin are also fine options. Gideon’s a great source of fuel, once your life total gets up there, and Sorin is a great way to make that possible. Of course, it’s not even clear how big of a focus it needs to be, getting up to 30. Maybe the lifegain provided by Ayli is even more of an argument to play more Painful Truths.
Of course, most of this stuff we’re talking about could just go in Esper…
4 Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
4 Ojutai’s Command
How many Aylis to use is a good question, since she has diminishing returns; however, there are no shortage of combos with her. For instance, she works beautifully with Dragonlord Silumgar.
Normally, the risk with a card like Dragonlord Silumgar is the possibility of an opponent killing your Dragon and getting their card back. With Ayli, you can sacrifice the stolen permanent, rather than giving back, and then sacrifice Silumgar himself. It’s very possible that takes you up to 30 all by itself!
Another possible home for Ayli is in Abzan, where there is no shortage of creatures to sacrifice, big and small.
2 Dromoka’s Command
4 B/G Creature-land
This list is 61, but that is because we don’t yet know what the B/G creature-land will be. If it’s strong, we should trim a spell and play 27. Otherwise, we can trim one of them and play 26 with seven creature-lands.
Dromoka’s Command works very nicely with Ayli. Deathtouch ensures she always at least trades, and usually doesn’t need the second mode from Dromoka’s Command in order to get value. That said, she is just the right size for sniping Mantis Rider or Warden of the First Tree.
Of course, if we wanted, we could even move further towards Ayli as a build-around.
2 Dromoka’s Command
4 B/G Creature-land
Deathmist Raptor can lead to some pretty solid lifegain from Ayli’s ability, since you are often going to be able to get the Raptor back “for free,” when you flip a Den Protector or another Raptor. More Deathmist Raptor is also more deathtouch for Dromoka’s Command, and maybe another card will get printed to pay us for all this deathtouch. Besides, Ayli is a great insurance policy, keeping Deathmist Raptor or Hangarback Walker from getting exiled.
I’m not sure how Ayli fits into Mardu yet, but there are some interesting synergies to consider. We already spoke on Act of Treason, but the existence of Butcher of the Horde means we can easily play a lot of tier 1 sacrifice outlets. Are we supposed to play more creatures like Sultai Emissary? It certainly makes Liliana, Heretical Healer look pretty appealing!
Liliana is so perfect for Ayli, as she is not only a reliable way to flip Liliana, she’s also a natural fit in the sort of attrition battle that Liliana steers the game towards. Liliana even brings a Zombie to the table to help fuel the engine!
Another possibility in Mardu is to take a page out of the Deathmist Raptor playbook and sacrifice Flamewake Phoenix, turn after turn. As long as you’ve got a Butcher of the Horde, a Thunderbreak Regent, an Ashcloud Phoenix, or whatever, you can quickly start climbing towards 30, at which point, the Flamewake Phoenix ensures you have a steady source of fuel to feed Ayli’s ambitions. Ashcloud even has the potential to get a little feisty alongside Ayli, assuming we just have mana for days.
Of course, if we want to get really freaky…
4 Ojutai’s Command
1 B/G Creature-land
Mastery of the Unseen is a pretty good way to get up to 30 life (not to mention fuel Ayli). It’s also a good way to set up Felidar’s Sovereign, alongside Jaddi Offshoot, Arashin Cleric, Siege Rhino, Ojutai’s Command, and Warden of the First-Tree’s lifegain.
How often are we winning because of the Sovereign’s ability? I’m not sure, but I bet it’s not trivial. It might be that we’re even supposed to go even more all-in on lifegain or less. If we wanted more, Feed the Clan can get us most of the way towards Ayli’s target all by itself. If we’ve got a Rhino or Sovereign or whatever, it’s sort of implied that we can jump to 30 if needed.
If we wanted to pull back a little, we could move away from dedicated lifegain, like the Offshoot or Cleric, and just play normal cards, like removal or solid creatures.
There are plenty of other possible Ayli synergies, depending on what kinds of cards show up over the next month. If there is a good Ball Lightning variant or a creature that makes Ball Lightnings every turn, she can be a good way to put that temporary token to good use. The same would be true with a temporary defender, such as Tidal Wave, which would normally just be a blocker until end of turn.
Another possibility is some kind of playable equipment (or aura) that can turn her into a pinger. Deathtouch means tapping to deal one damage makes her effectively a Visara.
Another possibility is the printing of a Kor tribal reward (which would make a lot of sense). She might not have that many insane combos there, but just being the right tribal type can make all the difference.
I’m excited to get brewing with Ayli, and love that she encourages you to go an unusual path but is still good, even if you only “make it” a quarter of the time. As for the other legend previewed that I can’t wait to build around, Kozilek, the Great Distortion, that’s one that is going to take more to get a meaningful grasp of.
Kozilek’s cost is basically just ten, like Ulamog, as the vast majority of scenarios where we’re reliably hitting ten, it involves some explicitly colorless options. Remember, even Llanowar Wastes can tap for colorless!
So far, though, I would definitely play at least one in Modern G/R Tron, alongside Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn (assuming there isn’t a crazy new Emrakul, which there very well could be).
4 Urza’s Tower
4 Urza’s Power Plant
4 Urza’s Mine
This is a deck that could really stand to upgrade its Pyroclasm, as neither Pyroclasm, nor Firespout are perfect fits. Anything that might be an upgrade to Pyroclasm should be strongly considered, particularly if it synergizes with any of our other cards (such as being a land to find with Expedition Map, a devoid card to work with Ancient Stirrings, require an Eldrazi in hand or in play, or just be able to put a boat load of colorless mana to work).
I’m not sure I’d play the new Kozilek in Legacy Reanimator, but it is an option, as the counterspell ability is great at protecting it, and it’s hard to stop from killing someone in two hits.
The place I’m more excited about trying Kozilek is in some kind of a Cloudpost deck, with Vesuvas and what not. It’s not hard to imagine getting up to ten mana this way, making excellent use of Kozilek as an uncounterable Braingeyser.
To this effect, I think Kozilek is going to be great in Standard. It’s very possible for an Eldrazi player to get up to ten, cast Ulamog, and still lose eventually. If they can Kozilek, they are going to draw so many cards, they aren’t likely to ever run out of gas (not to mention having most potential costs covered). My first guess would be 3 Kozileks and 2 Ulamogs, but that’s really going to depend on the texture of the format (and if there’s an Emrakul, lying in wait…).
While I would generally recommend playing some colors, this set may end up supporting colorless enough to be a real thing. We aren’t there yet, but here’s a sketch, so far:
2 Ugin’s Construct
2 Conduin of Ruin
4 Titan’s Presence
2 Rogue’s Passage
This list is terribly slow, and it’s hard to imagine gaining enough to not want green acceleration or red burn. It is sweet, getting to play all action lands, though. This means we wouldn’t really play Wastes (unless they print a good reason to), but surely there will be a number of sweet colorless lands in this set, so let’s not start with the Foundry of the Consuls just yet.
Okay, I’m out for now, but I encourage you to check out the #SCGPC this weekend. It’s the last major tournament of the year, and what might prove to be the defining note remembered of this format, as we move full-on into spoiler-mode in the weeks to come.