Evolving Modern

Posted in Perilous Research on September 3, 2015

By Jacob Van Lunen

Jacob Van Lunen began playing Magic in 1995. He has participated in organized play at every level of competition and was a member of the winning team at Pro Tour San Diego in 2007, thanks to an innovative draft strategy. As a writer, Van Lunen has had more than three hundred Magic strategy pieces published

Welcome to Vorthos Week here at Perilous Research! This coming weekend, thousands of Magic players from around the world will be battling their way through Modern tournaments with hopes of qualifying for the World Magic Cup. Modern has seen itself undergo a lot of changes over the last few months. Today, I'd like to discuss a new and exciting Modern strategy that I've been having a lot of success with.

It may not seem like Magic Origins has much to offer the Modern cannon, but a few cards are gradually being picked up on.

Hangarback Walker is a great tool for Affinity when battling against controlling opponents like Grixis, Jeskai, or White-Blue. In a deck like Jund, Hangarback Walker provides both a two- and four-drop that deals no damage when revealed by Dark Confidant. Traditionally, Jund could rarely contend with Etched Champion out of Affinity opponents. Now, with Hangarback Walker, the matchup seems great.

Jace, Vryn's Prodgy has also been picking up some steam recently. The card provides a lot of power for a very small mana cost, and players are quickly adding it to the sideboards of creatureless control strategies as a long-term grinding plan against opponents who are trying to fight on the same axis as them.

The most exciting Modern addition from Magic Origins (at least to me) is Evolutionary Leap. Evolutionary Leap provides a huge amount of value when added to decks with creatures such as Voice of Resurgence, Strangleroot Geist, or Kitchen Finks. Additionally, Evolutionary Leap enables what is likely the most consistent second turn combo in the Modern format: Elves.

Elves has serious issues with Splinter Twin, the flagship combo strategy of Modern. In fact, it seems like the matchup is a lost cause regardless of how much sideboard space I devote. It's Vorthos Week, though, and I love playing Elf combos. Maybe I won't play against Splinter Twin in my Modern tournament. Maybe I'll have more fun if I'm playing an Elf combo deck that challenges my ability to create new combos on the fly.

I've been obsessed with Elf decks for the last five years. I even won a 250+ person PTQ playing a Cloudstone Curio Elf deck a few years ago. Glimpse of Nature is banned in Modern, but Evolutionary Leap might actually be better.

I've been playing Evolutionary Leap Elves for the last four or five weeks. Recently, I've seen a few columns about the deck and I figured I'd chime in and explain how it all works and the directions we should be moving in to reach an optimal build.

Let's start by taking a look at the Elves list I've been playing.

Jacob Van Lunen's Elvish Evolution

Download Arena Decklist
Planeswalker (3)
3 Garruk Relentless
Sorcery (2)
2 Weird Harvest
Instant (4)
4 Summoner's Pact
Artifact (3)
3 Cloudstone Curio
Enchantment (4)
4 Evolutionary Leap
Land (17)
16 Forest 1 Pendelhaven
60 Cards

Elvish Evolution aims to play a bunch of Elves out before using Evolutionary Leap to cycle through the entirety of the deck while producing tons of mana. Eventually, Evolutionary Leap finds us Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, and we'll usually have plenty of mana in the bank to cast the titan and essentially win the game. If one attack from Emrakul, the Aeons Torn isn't enough, then we can sacrifice it to Evolutionary Leap, cycle through our deck again and cast one of our other Emrakuls, taking another turn and getting another huge attack.

I've always been a huge fan of Cloudstone Curio as an engine for the Elves strategy. Let's talk about the combos that we can put together with Cloudstone Curio.

Curio Combo #1: Cloudstone Curio + Heritage Druid + Nettle Sentinel + Any one-mana Elf = Infinite Mana

We play the third Elf and tap the three for mana with the Cloudstone Curio trigger on the stack. Then we resolve the Cloudstone Curio trigger and return one of the non-Nettle Sentinel Elves to our hand. Then we replay the Elf we returned to our hand and return the other non-Nettle Sentinel Elf back to our hand. We replay that Elf and tap the three for mana with the Cloudstone Curio trigger on the stack. Each permutation of this nets us one mana. We can explain the combo to our opponent after showing them how it works, and announce that we have billions or trillions of green mana at our disposal.

Curio Combo #2: Cloudstone Curio + Heritage Druid + Essence Warden + Any one-mana Elf = Infinite Life

We play the third Elf and tap the three for mana with the Cloudstone Curio trigger on the stack. Then we cycle through returning and replaying the three Elves as many times as we want.

Curio Combo #3: Cloudstone Curio + Heritage Druid + Nettle Sentinel + Elvish Visionary = Draw our deck.

See Curio Combo #1, but use extra mana in sequence to cast Elvish Visionary as many times as we want.

Curio Combo #4: Cloudstone Curio + Heritage Druid + Dwynen's Elite = Infinite Elf Tokens

We cast Dwynen's Elite with Cloudstone Curio and Heritage Druid already on the battlefield. We put our Cloudstone Curio trigger on the stack first and allow our Dwynen's Elite trigger to resolve. Then we tap the three for mana. Then we let the Cloudstone Curio trigger resolve and return the Heritage Druid to our hand. Then we replay the Heritage Druid and return the Dwynen's Elite back to our hand. Repeat as needed.

Cloudstone Curio | Art by Heather Hudson

Beyond truly infinite combos, Cloudstone Curio also allows us to grind ahead in a lot of situations by comboing with Elvish Visionary to draw a truly impressive number of cards.

Here's the thing, though. This deck doesn't need Cloudstone Curio to combo. Actually, it can win as early as the second turn with Evolutionary Leap. If we're lucky enough to find two copies of Nettle Sentinel (which happens very quickly with Evolutionary Leap in play, especially because we're playing Summoner's Pact and Weird Harvest) and a Heritage Druid, then we can cycle through our whole deck, eventually create enough mana to cast Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, and take extra turns and win the game. We can even sacrifice the Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, cycle through our deck again, and put extra turns on the stack.

Sometimes, we don't even need Evolutionary Leap or Cloudstone Curio. I've had more than one game where I cast a massive Weird Harvest and was able to untap and ritual up with Nettle Sentinels to the point of hardcasting Emrakul, the Aeons Torn without any combo at all.

That's what makes this deck so exciting. All of the cards contribute to the overall plan, and that plan is explosive and basically wins the game on the spot.

Other lists I've seen play white, black, or both colors as splashes. I do love Horizon Canopy in a deck like this, but the red matchup is already quite fragile. I've found that the aggressive matchups are great with the mono-green version of the deck, but very questionable when we're playing fetch lands, shock lands, and Horizon Canopy. Eidolon of the Great Revel is still very bad for us, but Garruk Relentless provides a nice out while also giving us a lot of game when we don't have our combo. Garruk Relentless solves the Dark Confidant issue, the Eidolon of the Great Revel Issue, and the board sweeper issue all at the same time.

Other lists don't have Garruk Relentless. This is a mistake. The card is absolutely necessary to the deck's performance in the current metagame.

The deck may be a combo deck that's capable of victories on turns two and three with remarkable consistency, but it's important to remember that this deck has another angle of attack. A lot of the time, we meet a few spot removal spells and find ourselves forced to attack with a horde of 1/1 creatures. We cannot be deterred, we need to pick our spots wisely and play the combat game.

If we have Evolutionary Leap on the board, we become close to invulnerable in a slugfest against decks that are trying to attack us on the ground. We can simply chump block indefinitely while sacrificing Elves to Evolutionary Leap. Not only do we find ourselves having a basically unlimited supply of blockers, but we also happen to put our combo together in the process.

Evolutionary Leap | Art by Chris Rahn

The deck is weakest against Splinter Twin decks, but other matchups still seem quite good for the strategy. Splinter Twin backs up good disruption with an instant kill that we cannot interact with in Game 1. Being mono-green actually makes people walk into Dismember more often in my experience, but postboard games can still be very difficult if the opponent plays wisely.

Against other combo decks, we're racing. Against control decks, we're forcing them to play the answer game while applying pressure. Against aggressive decks, we're just unstoppable. The deck is extremely dynamic and powerful in the current Modern format.

This deck also rewards us when we're able to play around board sweeping effects. It's important that we're frugal with playing our hand when facing off against opponents that have access to board sweepers, especially in postboard games. Holding all copies of Nettle Sentinel and Heritage Druid until threatening a win is often the most punishing strategy against sweepers, and we can often play our other creatures out aggressively on the third or fourth turn to force our opponent to tap out and give us a window to combo and win the game.

This weekend is sure to introduce an exciting new Modern metagame with the World Magic Cup Qualifier events happening around the globe. Elf combo decks add an exciting new element to the metagame that's both very fast and very resilient. Will Elf combo decks find success? Or will the format go in another direction? We'll just have to wait and see.

Knowledge is power!

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