Eldritch Evolution Is Broken

The initial hype around Eldritch Moon has been centered around Standard, but don’t forget that the set has some very dangerous cards for Modern! Pro Tour Champion Ari Lax weighs in on the incoming storm of toolbox decks that will exploit the format’s newest tutor at #SCGNY!

SCG Regionals August 6!

My first thought on Eldritch Evolution was, “This will be good in toolbox combo decks.”

Each conversation I’ve had about the card since then has made me feel this is an understatement.

No Allosaurus Riders needed. Eldritch Evolution is one of the most powerful single cards we have seen in a long time for Modern.

Why Should We Be Afraid?

We already know green toolbox-combo decks are some of the most powerful decks in Modern. Birthing Pod’s ban only lead to a rework once Collected Company was printed a set later.

Any card that looks like it could improve these strategies should throw up red flags. Eldritch Evolution has obviously turned heads, but now the question is what it has to add to the archetype.

Eldritch Evolution’s initial selling point is that it works in the right timeframe for the format. Modern is full of linear decks that have a fundamental turn between three and four. Accounting for being on the draw, that means you have to interact by turn 3 and Eldritch Evolution does that. You can evolve a Noble Hierarch on turn 2 into a Kataki, War’s Wage or Orzhov Pontiff early enough to stop even the fastest hands out of combo decks.

So what about the games you don’t have a Birds of Paradise? Eldritch Evolution still performs on turn 3. You can sacrifice your Wall of Omens the same way and fetch…

Oh, that’s what. Four-cost creatures.

Chord of Calling does a fine job in this same slot of finding a hate bear, but finding a four-cost creature on turn 3 is unreasonable with it. You would need Birds of Paradise, Wall of Roots, another creature, and all three lands for that, which is the very best-case scenario.

Eldritch Evolution’s normal case is going to be finding a four-drop on turn 3. A whole cast of answers that disappeared when Birthing Pod was banned are back and more reliable than before.

Eldritch Evolution isn’t about combo. It is about starting more and more games with the perfect answer on the battlefield as quickly as possible when the list of options in the format is massive.

What Can We Expect?

I would not count on the Abzan Company combo as the end-game of Eldritch Evolution decks. The old deck might still exist and play Eldritch Evolution, but the Evolution’s power is muted in the shell. The low-cost trio paired very well with Chord of Calling and Collected Company, but much like Birthing Pod, Eldritch Evolution pushes in a different direction. Right before it was banned, Erik Peters won Grand Prix Omaha with a Birthing Pod list that didn’t even contain a combo, and that was when he had access to a card that would let him churn up multiple targets. Why would Eldritch Evolution as a single non-recurrable tutor have to assemble a combo?

If you end up with Eldritch Evolution in your Abzan Company deck, consider if Saffi Eriksdotter is a good alternative to Spellskite. At that point, you can Eldritch Evolution Saffi into a Crypt Champion and assemble the original Chord of Calling creature combo from Ravnica Standard. Crypt Champion enters the battlefield and returns Saffi Eriksdotter to the battlefield. Then Saffi sacrifices to save the Crypt Champion in response to the Champion’s “if this wasn’t paid for” trigger. When Crypt Champion returns, you return Saffi and are back at the top of the loop. While you need a third piece to abuse all the entering and leaving the battlefield, Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit and Viscera Seer from the main combo go arbitrarily large on power and scry, respectively. A sample list below is based off a list Case Johnson finished in 2nd place with at an Invitational Qualifier in late May.

I crunched the numbers and I’m fairly sure you can’t play Eldritch Evolution, Chord of Calling, and Collected Company very easily. You have 23 lands and however many spells you play as Company blanks, plus your one or two four-drops. You are quickly at the 26 minimum count for Collected Company hits, and lot of those hits are virtual misses like Birds of Paradise. Maybe the traditional list ends up with three Chord of Calling and two Eldritch Evolution, as multiple Chords are clunky, but it’s more likely you just choose two angles and build for them.

Note that attacking your opponent’s mana is one of the more messed up things you can do with Eldritch Evolution. Reliable turn 2 Magus of the Moon is not fun or fair the same way turn 2 Blood Moon isn’t. This alone is a reason for Abzan to just die in favor of all the other fair decks that can play Lightning Bolt. It’s possible this means I should just be maindecking a copy of Magus of the Moon to spike people out of Game 1. Yeah, you deserve it for playing lands that cast your spells!

Angel of Jubilation is similar, but the fact that it can’t come out until turn 3 to shut down fetchlands makes it much less exciting unless you are also attacking their Phyrexian mana spells. I’m struggling to figure out when you would want Thalia, Heretic Cathar over Magus of the Moon, but this is just a reminder it exists.

Many people have also suggested the Spike Feeder / Archangel of Thune combo, but at most you are going to see one Spike Feeder and one Archangel of Thune in decks as a knockout when you have double tutors. Neither card is embarrassing to draw, but Spike Feeder is very low in power for the format and Archangel of Thune costs five. There is also an extra requirement of “casting a three- or four-cost creature to sacrifice” tied into finding your Archangel of Thune, and if you are all Spike Feeders at that slot and have to sacrifice one, you aren’t comboing easily.

The winning duo is likely Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Restoration Angel. This shouldn’t be shocking to anyone who has followed the SCG Tour® and seen Jeff Hoogland constantly reworking Kiki-Chord. Restoration Angel is just a good Magic card, and your one Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker is there when you need it to close the game out.

What’s even more absurd is that Eldritch Evolution solves the main issue Kiki-Chord had: clunkiness. It was easy to not have built for a specific linear matchup and have a hand of Courser of Kruphix, Wall of Omens, and other nonsense that doesn’t do anything. Chord of Calling didn’t help in these scenarios as you still had to get off the ground to cast it. Eldritch Evolution in these games just kinda happens right when you need something.

Fortunately for us, Jeff has already carved out a lot of the deckbuilding space here with his numerous iterations of Kiki-Chord. The only real ground to explore is four-drops that break decks to find off a Wall of Roots sacrifice and three-drops that are very specifically good on turn 2, which in this case are Glen Elendra Archmage and Magus of the Moon. Sadly, my Gatherer search and Kiki-Pod memories didn’t reveal any true Nekrataals beyond the vulnerable Fiend Hunter in these colors, but Restoration Angel plus Reflector Mage is close enough.

Note that Avalanche Riders is being included solely because of the interaction with Restoration Angel. Usually a single Stone Rain against Tron buys you a turn or two, which is enough time to loop Avalance Riders even with the echo cost. The second Stone Rain is pretty much insurmountable if you are doing anything reasonable.

The most interesting Eldritch Evolution addition is being able to get a Glen-Elendra Archmage on the battlefield on turn 3 with activation mana up. Kiki Pod could get a turn 3 Archmage but rarely had mana up to activate it. Eldritch Evolution off Wall of Roots does that, as does any two- or three-drop after a mana creature. This completely knocks out Living End, Ad Nauseum, and all sorts of combo decks in Game 1. Even Tron often loses to that. In a format where there is a huge “can you beat random nonsense” filter in the early rounds, having access to a play pattern like this for free wins is huge.

The other interesting line is just playing Eldritch Evolution as more of your best fair threats. Most of these aren’t worth the two-for-one, but Geist of Saint Traft on turn 2 is hard to answer and historically crushes people. A virtual eight copies with Eldritch Evolution is a big upgrade to Bant midrange decks.

I’m 100% sure this deck is too light on interaction, but which ones you need is definitely a testing activity and not a brewing one. It is also possible you just want one Geist of Saint Traft in your normal Kiki-Chord deck to just jam on people when you are on the play.

What Can Be Done?

Grafdigger’s Cage was absolutely brutal against Abzan Company but is less effective against Eldritch Evolution. Kitchen Finks is no longer as important to the deck, making Cage solely a hate card for their tutors.

Lists that move off Collected Company are also better at functioning without their library access. Collected Company pushes towards a deck light on noncreature spells and higher-cost creatures. The low-cost options you are left with aren’t game-enders and you have few ways to push them through besides Gavony Township.

When Cage shuts off your combo and would prevent you from flooding the battlefield with Collected Company, it’s very likely the Eldritch Evolution deck just has real threats to win with. We have seen this with Jeff Hoogland’s Kiki-Chord deck, which is fine just beating people to death with Restoration Angel. They will play better against Grafdigger’s Cage and can even sideboard harder to minimize Cage’s impact without losing their win conditions.

If you want to play fair against Eldritch Evolution, be sure to pack some serious high-end muscle to adjust for their increased fair capabilities. Olivia Voldaren was the previous fair deck trump and is great against their slower threats, but Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is better against the metagame at large (Burn, Zoo, Dredge, etc.) and is more fluid as it pays you off for casting your efficient spells.

Nahiri, the Harbinger is the heavy hitter for non-black decks, but just playing her isn’t trying hard enough. The bulkier threats make it harder for your Lightning Bolts and Electrolyzes to clear the way for her and make it difficult to use her -2 ability when she is attacked. If you want to summon Emrakul via lithomancy, take time to tailor your removal to support it.

The archetype that feels like it would shred Eldritch Evolution decks is a Remand combo deck with removal, like old Grixis Twin. Remand is one of the best answers against additional-cost spells like Evolution and does double the tempo damage, as the mana spent on the sacrificed creature is also gone. Nahiri, the Harbinger is the spiritual successor to Splinter Twin, but the part where you tap out and don’t immediately win is concerning. So is the part where they might just be able to Evolution up a Zealous Conscripts and punish you for leaving Nahiri at eight loyalty.

The default would be to play a fair tempo deck. Ryan Overturf’s fifth-place finish at #SCGINDY in May and Kevin Jones’s win at #SCGDFW in June point towards Grixis Delver as an already established answer. Note that Electrolyze is not going to perform as well as expected as Eldritch Evolution pushes towards more Wall of Omens and fewer Viscera Seers on the low end.

Flying will be important in establishing pressure through the various Walls, and flying plus tempo basically means Faeries. While Bitterblossom early is sometimes a liability against your opponent slamming an Eldritch Evolution, that’s why Wizards of the Coast printed Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek. Faeries has also had previous success against early threats of this kind, as its nut draws of discard plus Bitterblossom trump other nut draws and its average draws of interaction and tempo trump the average draws of these creature decks.

You can also just Splinter Twin as hard as you are still allowed with the Restoration Angel / Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker combo. A couple months ago, Jeskai lists featuring this combo were floating around, using Nahiri, the Harbinger as a way to filter to or away from it and also assemble the combo with the -8 ability. It’s worth noting that having your own Restoration Angel is one of the better answers to opposing Restoration Angel beatdowns, turning off a lot of the fair offensive potential of Eldritch Evolution.

You can also just jam on your Eldritch Evolution opponent with giant monsters, likely with a “more balanced” Grixis list of Goryo’s Vengeance as opposed to the all-out Grishoalbrand style. The toolbox decks have historically been bad against getting attacked by Emrakul, the Aeons Torn early on.

Izzet Charm likely does the job just as well as Remand if you kill your opponent before the bonus card matters. A smattering of interaction suddenly matters against Eldritch Evolution, whereas previously Abzan Company couldn’t interact early.

The Through the BreachEmrakul, the Aeons Torn pair is modular and can fit into a more aggressive and combo-tempo oriented Nahiri list. This will need some fine-tuning in order to get the portions right on interaction, combo pieces, and filtering, but all the tools are there. Anger of the Gods will play a large part in this deck’s success as it carries a lot of interaction weight in few deck slots.

What Happens From Here?

Eldritch Evolution is going to squeeze out a lot of decks. Anything that folds to a hate creature is going to be good for one week at best when everyone completely forgets it existed.

People will adapt. A lot of Grand Prix and SCG Tour® Day 2s are going to be seas of Steam Vents decks that try to out-tempo and disrupt creature combo. Unlike last time, Ancestral Vision; Nahiri, the Harbinger; and these decks just not being Splinter Twin decks make Jund a poor counter and people will move to something else.

The wheel of Modern will keep spinning. This isn’t Eldrazi where something completely unreasonable is happening every single game. There are some choke-points in the Eldritch Evolution decks, and while it has a lot of free wins, those will dry up quickly.

Even then, when the metagame isn’t at its absolute most spiteful, Eldritch Evolution will survive. The play patterns of the card are just too strong for it not to be a constant threat in the Modern format.

SCG Regionals August 6!