The Evolution of Modern from Shadows to Rivals

Posted in Event Coverage on February 2, 2018

By Frank Karsten

The last Modern Pro Tour, held right after the release of Oath of the Gatewatch, was almost two years ago. In the meantime, eight new sets from four different blocks were released. All of them brought new cards to the format, and I decided to run the numbers.

For each of these eight sets, I determined the cards (excluding Modern reprints) with at least 24 copies among Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan decklists. That cutoff comes down to a playset in at least six decks. Let's go over this list and break down the most important additions to Modern over the last two years.

Shadows over Innistrad

  • Thalia's Lieutenant
  • Tireless Tracker
  • Pieces of the Puzzle
  • Prized Amalgam
  • Insolent Neonate
  • Traverse the Ulvenwald
  • Duskwatch Recruiter

Shadows over Innistrad was released on April 8, 2016. Along with the set's release, Eye of Ugin was banned, and Ancestral Vision and Sword of the Meek were unbanned. While the Sword of the Meek / Thopter Foundry combo failed to make an impact, Ancestral Vision found some adaptation in blue-based control decks. Meanwhile, Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher found a new home in Bant Eldrazi.

To further set the stage at the beginning of this historical breakdown, mainstays like Affinity, Burn, Infect, Tron, Titan Shift, Jund, Jeskai Control, and Abzan made up a large part of the Modern metagame in early 2016. These decks have stayed largely unaffected by all the new set releases.

The key Shadows over Innistrad additions were Thalia's Lieutenant, Tireless Tracker, Pieces of the Puzzle, Prized Amalgam, Insolent Neonate, Traverse the Ulvenwald, and Duskwatch Recruiter. That doesn't mean that they all had a huge immediate impact after the release of Shadows over Innistrad. Thalia's Lieutenant, for example, only became relevant when Ixalan completed the Human tribe later on. But given that at least 24 copies of each of these cards could be found among this weekend's Pro Tour decklists, you could call them the most important Shadows over Innistrad cards for Modern right now.

To briefly describe their roles: Tireless Tracker is a nice value creature for Collected Company decks, Pieces of the Puzzle found recent adaptation as a sideboard card for blue-red Gifts Storm decks, and Prized Amalgam and Insolent Neonate enabled the new incarnation of the Dredge deck. Duskwatch Recruiter found a use after the 2017 release of Vizier of Remedies as a way to win the game after generating infinite mana.

Traverse the Ulvenwald is a key piece of Traverse Shadow decks nowadays, providing consistency to a deck that can easily achieve delirium with Mishra's Bauble and Street Wraith. However, we'd have to wait until Grand Prix Vancouver 2017 to see that in action. For most of 2016, Death's Shadow was mostly played in Zoo versions featuring Wild Nacatl and the Become Immense + Temur Battle Rage combo, and Traverse the Ulvenwald was not seeing much play yet.

Eldritch Moon

  • Collective Brutality
  • Spell Queller
  • Liliana, the Last Hope
  • Bedlam Reveler
  • Grim Flayer

Eldritch Moon was released July 22, 2016, and once again brought several new cards to the Modern format, shown above. The cards are ordered in terms of number of copies at today's Pro Tour, which is the convention I'll stick to throughout this article. Collective Brutality was the most-played Eldritch Moon card this weekend (by a large margin, I might add) followed by Spell Queller, and so on.

Collective Brutality is nuts against decks such as Burn, providing multiple relevant effects for a low mana cost. Gaining life, taking a burn spell from their hand, and killing a creature is just backbreaking for two mana. It was an easy addition to midrange decks like Abzan, usually along with Liliana, the Last Hope and Grim Flayer.

Spell Queller and Selfless Spirit found some immediate adaptation in such decks as Bant Knightfall. Nowadays, Selfless Spirit can still be found in various Collected Company decks, while Spell Queller is regularly seen as a disruptive element of Jeskai Control.

Bedlam Reveler is a centerpiece of Mardu Pyromancer—the deck of choice for thirteen Pro Tour competitors this weekend. After filling up the graveyard with Faithless Looting and emptying your hand, casting a two-mana Bedlam Reveler feels pretty good.

Kaladesh

  • Ceremonious Rejection
  • Spirebluff Canal
  • Inspiring Vantage
  • Blooming Marsh

  • Cathartic Reunion
  • Botanical Sanctum
  • Kambal, Consul of Allocation
  • Madcap Experiment

Kaladesh was released September 30, 2016. It added Ceremonious Rejection as a strong sideboard card against both Cranial Plating and Karn Liberated, as well as the enemy-colored fast lands that improved the mana bases of Burn, Storm, Abzan, and various other decks.

Kaladesh also added two important red sorceries. Cathartic Reunion offered an explosive new tool for Dredge, while Madcap Experiment spawned completely new decks like Madcap Moon. The typical plan with Madcap Experiment is to reveal Platinum Emperion. Since the Experiment won't deal damage until the Emperion has already entered the battlefield, it's a reliable way of getting a four-mana Platinum Emperion. Some decks have a lot of trouble beating the 8/8.

Kambal, Consul of Allocation is a solid sideboard card in such decks as Mardu Pyromancer, as it preys on decks that plan to cast a lot of noncreature card draw spells.

Finally, an honorable mention goes out to Blossoming Defense, which found immediate adaption in Infect to protect its creatures from removal spells, but the reign of that deck was not for long.

Aether Revolt

  • Fatal Push
  • Walking Ballista
  • Spire of Industry
  • Baral, Chief of Compliance
  • Whir of Invention

Aether Revolt was released January 20, 2017. Along with the release, Golgari Grave-Troll and Gitaxian Probe were banned. This weakened Dredge and decks that relied on filling up their graveyard for Become Immense, such as Infect and Death's Shadow Zoo.

But the addition of new cards was perhaps just as important. Aether Revolt shook up Modern in a big way. First, Fatal Push was an improvement over Lightning Bolt for most black-based control or midrange decks. Although it can't go to the face, it's capable of killing most creatures in Modern for one mana, including creatures like Death's Shadow, Tarmogoyf, or Thought-Knot Seer that are usually outside Lightning Bolt range.

The next big addition to Modern was Walking Ballista—a flexible card for Tron decks that can kill an opposing Steel Overseer or Noble Hierarch on turn two while acting as a late-game mana sink once all three Urza lands are assembled. The change from Bant Eldrazi to Eldrazi Tron deck happened partly because of Walking Ballista.

Spire of Industry was a minor mana base upgrade for Affinity decks that no longer had to worry about risky opening hands with multiple Glimmervoids.

Baral, Chief of Compliance enabled the new incarnation of U/R Gifts Storm. Along with Goblin Electromancer, it yielded a critical mass of two-mana cost reducing creatures that can lead into a potential turn three Storm kill with a perfect draw and no disruption by the opponent. At the moment, this is the premier combo deck in Modern.

Finally, Whir of Invention provided Lantern Control decks with a new level of consistency. Indeed, many of the current top tier decks in Modern benefited from Aether Revolt cards.

The Modern developments don't stop there, though. Remember how I referred to the introduction of Traverse Shadow at Grand Prix Vancouver 2017 earlier? Well, that took place in the month after Aether Revolt's release. Josh Utter-Leyton, Gerry Thompson, and Sam Black completely dominated the tournament and led to a new era where Death's Shadow was the prime threat in Modern. Their performance showed that Death's Shadow could go beyond Zoo-style decks and that it could act as a suitable win condition for disruptive midrange decks. Several weeks later, Grixis Shadow appeared as another home for the 13/13.

Amonkhet

Amonkhet was released on April 28, 2017. The most important addition to Modern was Vizier of Remedies, which yields a two-card infinite-mana combo with Devoted Druid. A majority of Collected Company decks incorporated this combo.

Gideon of the Trials found a home in white-blue control as a way to win the game, buy time, and deal with problematic permanents.

Flameblade Adept didn't find immediate adaption, but it would work well in a deck that appeared soon after.

Hour of Devastation

Hour of Devastation was released on July 14, 2017. It added a Abrade as a flexible sideboard tool that could disrupt creature decks and destroy Ensnaring Bridge against Lantern Control. Hollow One, on the other hand, spawned a completely new deck.

Six players registered Hollow One at the Pro Tour, and it's one of the sweeter decks out there. The dream is to play Burning Inquiry followed by four Hollow Ones on turn one. The aforementioned Flameblade Adept naturally fits in this deck as well.

Ixalan

  • Opt
  • Kitesail Freebooter
  • Unclaimed Territory
  • Field of Ruin
  • Search for Azcanta
  • Settle the Wreckage

The Ixalan card that saw most play this weekend was Opt. The instant improves the consistency of such decks as Grixis Shadow and can be flashed back at the end of the opponent's turn via Snapcaster Mage.

But one could argue that Ixalan's most valuable additions to Modern were Kitesail Freebooter and Unclaimed Territory, as they enabled the new incarnation of Five-Color Humans. Pro Tour competitors liked the mix of disruptive creatures and consistent mana, and Five-Color Humans turned into the most-played deck on Day One.

Field of Ruin was an important addition to Black-Green Midrange or White-Blue Control. Whereas Jeskai Control or Abzan decks were prevalent beforehand, many of those players cut a color so that they could fit the colorless land into their mana base. Field of Ruin doesn't set you back a land—a big plus over Ghost Quarter—and provides disruption against Big Mana decks like Tron or Titan Shift.

Finally, Search for Azcanta and Settle the Wreckage were picked up by Jeskai Control players. Search for Azcanta, often a two-of in the maindeck, offered the full package of powerful card selection, eventual mana ramp, and a late-game card advantage engine. Settle the Wreckage allowed control players to diversify their sweeper suite and is particularly useful against haste creatures like Monastery Swiftspear, Mantis Rider, or Reality Smasher.

Rivals of Ixalan

And finally we arrive at the present. Judging by the deck submissions for the Pro Tour, Rivals of Ixalan did not bring a lot to Modern. Dire Fleet Daredevil is a Human, so it was included in the sideboards of several five-color Humans decks. It's a solid value creature against decks with many instants and/or sorceries.

But apart from Dire Fleet Daredevil and a few stray copies of Blood Sun, Wayward Swordtooth, and Ravenous Chupacabra, the new set did not have a large impact on the field. Disappointingly, no one was playing Merfolk Mistbinder.

It's possible that more time is needed before Modern enthusiasts figure out the best way to abuse the new toys. As we saw in this historical breakdown, it sometimes takes a while for a competitive build to be found, and sometimes a new set is needed before all pieces fall in place.

But one thing is for sure: Modern has been constantly evolving, and each set still brings new tools to the table. I'm looking forward to the next two years.

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