Previews for Modern Masters 2017 Edition

Modern Masters 2017 Edition
Somebody must like them:
MichaelJ and Patrick sure got some sweet preview cards from Modern Masters 2017 Edition!

Mike’s Modern Masters Spoiler:

Compulsive Research
Compulsive Research
Compulsive Research is near and dear to Mike’s heart. He has both filled his own graveyard with Firemane Angels and forced opposing Firemane Angel decks to draw a lethal number of cards. This is a card that allows you to access every part of the veritable buffalo.

What Patrick Wants to Find in a Modern Masters Pack

Cruel Ultimatum
Cruel Ultimatum
We all know what a soft spot Patrick has for Grixis. There is no more “Grixis” card than Cruel Ultimatum.

Top Level Podcast shares some war stories, and tells you why Compulsive Research and Cruel Ultimatum are some of the most exciting cards in Modern Masters 2017 Edition:

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Back to our regularly-scheduled podcast tomorrow.


Reimagining Death’s Shadow

Death's Shadow
Death’s Shadow produced a clean break — including both Grand Prix and team event wins — and is probably the best deck in Modern.

Weren’t Bannings Supposed to Nerf Death’s Shadow?

Just a few weeks ago there were bannings.

Golgari Grave-Troll was there for Dredge. Yes, Dredge would still be viable, but its biggest, burliest, enabler disappeared.

Gitaxian Probe is kinda sorta not a real Magic: The Gathering card. Why does Gitaxian Probe even exist? The banning of this card pushed a pin into the collective bubbles of decks like Infect, Storm, and… Death’s Shadow.

Gitaxian Probe had a special place in the old Death’s Shadow deck. Sure, the new version still has cards like Mishra’s Bauble, but Gitaxian Probe also cost the Death’s Shadow deck life (in most cases), (oddly) helping to grow the centerpiece threat.

A More Interactive Death’s Shadow Deck

The previous version was mostly an offensive deck. Wild Nacatl or Monastery Swiftspear got the ball rolling; the creatures were much more plentiful… but the interaction was deemphasized.

The current version is almost a Jund deck. This deck has only a few creatures (even if they are doozies)… It has a ton of midrange interaction instead. Fatal Push, a ton of direct hand destruction including the maximum numbers of both Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek, and even Tarfire have repositioned the archetype.


In addition to having the superpower of being one mana, Tarfire is a Tribal Instant. As such, it’s really useful for 1) buffing Tarmogoyf, and 2) getting Traverse the Ulvenwald online super quickly. Some versions even have Seal of Fire to make Tarmogoyf that much bigger!


Most of the offense in this strategy is accomplished by only two creatures: Death’s Shadow and Tarmogoyf. Unfortunately — and especially given the printing of Fatal Push — neither of those guys is hard to kill. The deck can weather opposing removal in a number of ways…

  • Liliana, the Last Hope – Played in some versions (over Liliana of the Veil), Liliana can put a creature from your graveyard back in your hand.
  • Renegade Rallier – Played in some versions (over Ghor-Clan Rampager), this creature can recycle cheap creatures
  • Kolaghan’s Command – Played in essentially every version, Kolaghan’s Command is a multi-pronged tool. It can lock opponents out, it can do the last two points, and of course it can raise the dead.

Thirteen creatures have never stretched so far.

Learn more about Death’s Shadow in this week’s podcast:

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Breaking Kari Zev’s Expertise

Kari Zev's Expertise
Kari Zev’s Expertise is already format-warping.
Years from now, when we look back on Aether Revolt, it will likely be the case that what we remember most about the set is how badly it helped players to cheat.

Cheat on costs, that is.

Kari Zev’s Expertise is at this point the most prominent example of how Aether Revolt can break — really break — the rules of Magic to gain a massive advantage. Dan Ward was the first person to innovate Kari Zev’s Expertise in Modern (though he lost in the finals of his Regional Chapionship, to Mike’s apprentice Roman Fusco playing the Inspiring Vantage Burn deck).

How Does the Kari Zev’s Expertise Combo Work?

Dan played Simian Spirit Guide, so he could pop off the Expertise against a second turn beatdown card (say a Grim Flayer). Threatens can be good cards in and of themselves, but this one also gives you the opportunity to play a two mana card for free.

The most important two mana card you can play is Breaking // Entering:

Breaking // Entering
Note two things about these cards:

  1. Kari Zev’s Expertise specifically says the word “card” (as opposed to “spell”).
  2. The “Breaking” half of Breaking // Entering costs two. Bingo! You can play the card Breaking // Entering for free even though if you had flipped this over with a Dark Confidant, you’d be eating eight.

When you are casting Breaking // Entering this way, you never give the opponent a chance to use Relic of Progenitus or Extirpate. If you separately cast Breaking and then Entering, the opponent would have a chance to respond, but entwined this way, it is just one giant beating.

Ward’s deck still had Goryo’s Vengeance, Cathartic Reuinion, and other traditional enablers.

All That and Fatal Push!

Fatal Push is going to continue to be highly effective in Modern… A card (for once not Rare or worse) on the order of Path to Exile. One of the reasons that Ward’s deck seemed so reliable is that he lacked the small creatures that make Fatal Push such an effective defensive card.

Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx Champion Patrick Chapin and Resident Genius Michael J. Flores go over not just a number of ways to cheat costs in Modern, but run down ideas for other archetypes like Burn, Grixis Control, or Abzan Company. Check it all out in this week’s episode!

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Should We Ban Scrapheap Scrounger?

Scrapheap Scrounger
This is going to sound weird. Are we finally appreciating Scrapheap Scrounger?


We already invoked the b-word. Ban.

Is Scrapheap Scrounger the kind of card that should get banned?

Swiss Army Scrounger

It’s honestly not crazy. Scrapheap Scrounger has a lot going for it… Maybe too much. Scrapheap Scrounger is (obviously) resilient against removal, and gives its players long-term opportunities to generate card advantage. The problem, of course (well, one of the problems, anyway) is that it can go into so many different decks. At the end of the last format we saw some U/W decks bending towards black to buy it back. Today Scrapheap Scrounger is therefore not just a Staple card in colorless-heavy decks (like Mardu Vehicles) but is starting to see play in some versions of B/G, even. Delirium decks are cutting Grim Flayer for it!

Two Two Drops

Of all the great things that Scrapheap Scrounger offers, perhaps the most contextually important is that with three power (for only two mana!) it can crew a Heart of Kirin. Besides the return on three power for two mana being pretty good in and of itself, Pro Tour Aether Revolt showed us the lengths players will go to to play mostly (or all) creatures that can crew that legendary vehicle.

Reasonable players are cutting everything from Walking Ballista to Winding Constrictor to accommodate only threats that can consistently crew.

The Solution to Grinding

Standard right now has got a lot of grinding and trading. A single card that can trade, card-for-card / mana-for-mana but by itself offer additional card advantage is inherently valuable in this kind of a context. Mass removal like Fumigate can be great against Mardu Vehicles or one of the B/G decks… Scrapheap Scrounger can ensure that you always have crew for your mighty Heart of Kiran, or at least have a threat of some sort, even without the vehicle, even through Fumigate.

This week’s episode:

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One of These Decks Will Be the Most-Played at PT Dublin…

One of these two...

One of these decks will be the most played archetype at PT Dublin…

Will it be “Copy Cat”, that combination of Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian?

Will it be one of the many flavors of green-black (or should we say black-green) Delirium Energy? Grim Flayer or Glint-Sleeve Siphoner?

… One of these two will be the most played archetype at Pro Tour Dublin 🙂

Innovations in Copying Cats… Cut a Cat?

The once and (presumably) future king, Dylan Donnegan took down the most recent SCG Open with his take on Copy Cat Control… A true Jeskai Control deck, Donnegan went with multiple copies of Fumigate main deck, and cut one of his sacred cows (err… cats)!

How did he accomplish this?

Enter: Nahiri, the Harbinger

Nahiri, the Harbinger does something special in this deck. For one thing, it is synergistic with Donnegan’s strategy as a Control deck. Nahiri’s [+2] ability is reminiscent of the value offered by Oath of Jace to this strategy. As a Control deck, you can often have the “wrong” answer… Fumigate against an opposing defensive deck, say. You can also dump an instant for purposes of being flashed back by Torrential Gearhulk (whether you cast Torrentual Gearhulk or use Nahiri to find it).

Nahiri lets Jeskai Control-type decks to go Superfriends with Saheeli Rai. It removes certain problem permanents (e.g. Always Watching). And it completes the combo!

One of the reasons Donnegan was able to cut a Felidar Guardian is that Nahiri, the Harbinger can go and find the copy necessary to complete the combo, when Ultimate! Get there!

Observations on Black-Green

Winding Constrictor is “weirdly” good, and format-warping. If you have Winding Constrictor in play, there is a greater incentive to go wide with Verdurous Gearhulk, rather than go tall. Every creature you put a +1/+1 counter on gets two +1/+1 counters, remember.

This color combination has an overabundance of riches. You have have to choose between Grim Flayer and Gifted Aetherborn as possible two drops… In addition to Winding Constrictor, Walking Ballista, Servant of the Conduit, etc. etc.

Get ready for PT Dublin!

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Walking Ballista: The Best Card in Aether Revolt?

Walking Ballista
Walking Ballista combines flexibility, combo defense, and raw power.
Possibly the strongest card in Aether Revolt, Walking Ballista is the true inheritor to Hangarback Walker.

“There is such an incredible diversity of green-black decks, we have barely scratched the surface. The one thing they all have in common — at least the ones that win — they all have Walking Ballistas as far as the eye can see.”
-Patrick Chapin

Walking Ballista had a heck of a coming out party at the Columbus Open! Heavily featured in several different successful Golgari decks, this new Artifact Creature – Construct will have a massive impact on Standard for months or even years to come.

Walking Ballista can potentially find a home in green-white or other color combinations, but it may be at its best in green-black. This is because of the great synergy the card has with the many +1/+1 counter cards in that strategy.

  • Winding Constructor – The best buddy unique to green-black, Winding Constrictor on turn two allows you to drop Walking Ballista as a 2/2 on turn three (maybe even playing a land like Hissing Quagmire). After that, every four mana is actually worth two +1/+1 counters!
  • Rishkar, Peema Renegade – The combination of extra +1/+1 counters and ancillary mana ramp contribute both size and staying power to this great creature.
  • Nissa, Voice of Zendikar (or Verdurous Gearhulk) – These cards are great with any creatures, sometimes going wide, sometimes going tall… What about when they can give you an instant machine gun?

Walking Ballista is a value-laden creature. It is hard to trade with profitably, and is hell on little guys. Given time, it will take a game over all by itself. And of course, any and all synergies with green’s +1/+1 counter cards.

None of those things is the most important part of Walking Ballista, contextually.

Walking Ballista can break up (or at least slow down) the Saheeli Rai / Felidar Guardian combo by itself.

When Saheeli Rai first uses her [-2] ability to pair up with Felidar Guardian, she will momentarily drop to one loyalty. Even the smallest “Mogg Fanatic” Walking Ballista can execute her with ease. Will that stop an opponent unconditionally? Of course not. But it can buy you time… Time that you can use to just make bigger Walking Ballistas! At some point you can out-damage even a sandbagging Saheeli, or at 4/4 or greater, shoot down the Cat Beast instead.

This is just the beginning of this great card’s story in Standard:

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All the Ways to Play Saheeli Rai

Saheeli Rai
Saheeli Rai is suddenly the most popular Planeswalker from Kaladesh!
What are different ways we can play her?

We’ve touched before on the Saheeli Rai + Felidar Guardian combo…

There are many ways you can achieve nigh infinite damage. You can start on Saheeli Rai on turn three and follow up with Felidar Guardian on turn four; you can play Felidar Guardian on turn six, “blink” one of your lands, and then play Saheeli Rai. In either case the planeswalker will copy the Cat Beast, which will then blink the planeswalker. Rinse and repeat.

This combo is exceptionally powerful. It can do an amount of damage with almost no ceiling.

The combo is so compact (maybe eight slots in a deck) that it can be “fit” into not just decks that are dedicated to the combo itself, but hybridized in other strategies. Here are three places you might see Saheeli Rai in the upcoming Standard:

  1. A Control Deck – This version will be full of cards like Disallow and Torrential Gearhulk. This looks to be the intuitive way to build the combo in Standard; the problem is that — aside from Felidar Guardian blinking Torrential Gearhulk, neither card is particular good with the other fifty-two.
  2. A Ramp Deck – Not necessarily a green deck… Inspiring Statuary or other artifacts can work here.
  3. A 187 Deck – This deck would play cards like Pilgrim’s Eye or other value-rich creatures. The advantage here is that both Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian can be synergistic with the other creatures in a deck. Maverick Thopterist, for instance, can protect Saheeli Rai with multiple bodies, and also enjoy copy- and blinking-based 187 synergies.

How to Fight Saheeli Rai

Far and away the most common, and mana efficient, spoiler to this strategy is the simple Shock. Its inclusion in Aether Revolt may be almost prophetic; Shock has always been super cheap and reasonably flexible… It can add “combo killer” to its roles as quick creature defense and pillar of The Philosophy of Fire.

Saheeli Rai drops to Shock range when she moves to copy a Felidar Guardian, even if you spent the previous turn ticking her up.

The combo can be vulnerable to other interaction and removal (even a 1/1 Walking Ballista, if well placed); and Felidar Guardian is just a creature, if four toughness.

The Kitchen Sink

You may have seen Hall of Famer Raphael Levy Tweet about “Team Top Level” …

Cheer Patrick and the rest of Team Top Level on at PT Dublin and all year. The rest of these guys include multiple Pro Tour winners and the reigning World Champion. Go Team Top Level!

Patrick and Mike apparently had about an hour to talk NBA prior to recording this week’s episode. The NBA chats are immortal on the Patreon feed. The whole thing is patrons-only but we excerpted a little Insta video anyone and everyone can enjoy / check out / share:

Bring it, Saheeli Rai!

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Gifted Aetherborn and the “Fair” Side of Aether Revolt

Gifted Aetherborn
“Fair” card Gifted Aetherborn is a huge upgrade to a longtime favorite.

Aether Revolt is busted wide open… Right?

Much of the chatter around new set Aether Revolt is around its powerful combos and mana engines. Felidar Guardian is the most visible combo option at this point (one half of a Splinter Twin-like strategy in Standard), but it is not alone.

Crackdown Construct and Wandering Fumarole together create a single infinite/infinite attacker.

Inspiring Statuary threatens to headline an abusive new mana engine.

The widest of wides…

The tallest of talls…

However much mana you can tap…

This is the Aether Revolt we are all looking at, right?

It turns out that — in addition to the mana engines and sources of infinite damage — Aether Revolt is chock full of some of the tightest, most efficient, “nuts and bolts” cards in many sets. “Fair” Magic here we come!

Gifted Aetherborn is just one of many outstanding “fair” cards in a supposedly broken set.

Let’s talk about Gifted Aetherborn for a second… This is a creature that trades Vampire Nighthawk’s flying for a single mana. Wow, what a trade-off! Flying is nice, and it certainly mattered some of the time, but Vampire Nighthawk’s reputation was never made on the basis of flying.

Vampire Nighthawk was played — at least initially — due to its mix of enough toughness (3) to survive some fights, a “must kill” status as an anti-burn tool, and a continual source of value (or even card advantage) via its combat abilities. To wit: Vampire Nighthawk was a great 3-4-5 setup man Vampire into Huntmaster of the Fells and Thragtusk… The Nighthawk was itself a great stop sign against other Huntmasters.

But cutting a mana from three to two? Sure there is a mild decrease in functionality, but that’s like transforming Incinerate into Lightning Bolt! Consequently, Gifted Aetherborn is going to be an exciting “fair” card that will see a ton of play in a ton of different strategies.

But, like Felidar Guardian, Gifted Aetherborn is not alone…

  • Kari Zev’s Expertise – Mike is already partial to Threatens; this is the best Act of Treason ever printed. Think about playing Ancestral Vision for free in Modern!
  • Kari Zev, Skyship Raider – Somewhere between “a Watchwolf with upside” and “a red Brimaz” this card will be *ahem* bananas (Mike almost wants to play it in Modern)
  • Baral, Chief of Compliance – “It’s okay to play this card in decks with no Counterspells” – Patrick. “This card is better than Omenspeaker.” -Mike
  • Metallic Rebuke – Substantial upgrade to Spell Shrivel; turn two Metallic Rebuke is going to be really good friends with turn one Thraben Inspector.

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Out with the Old, in with Felidar Guardian

Felidar Guardian
Felidar Guardian is going to enable [at least] one new infinite combo in Standard.

Bonus episode!

New busted engines and combo decks in Standard!

A new world order from at least two different directions!

But first, the bans…

We will certainly get to the powerhouse that is Felidar Guardian, but the reason Top Level Podcast recorded a new “emergency” episode this week is the bans. A ton of cards were banned in both Modern and Standard. We devote most of the podcast to the justifications, implications, and ramifications of the bans, but briefly:


  • Gitaxian Probe: This card probably had it coming for a long time; it’s hard to balance any card that costs exactly [only] one Phyrexian blue mana. It mostly just drew you into your Become Immense while reducing its mana cost for free. Infect will remain super viable (but will have lost a little juice, which is justifiable), but the jury is out on Death’s Shadow, Storm, etc. Mike predicts the big winner will be Affinity.
  • Golgari Grave-Troll: When this was recently un-banned, Cathartic Reunion had not yet been printed. Don’t look for Dredge to die completely in Modern. There are plenty of Dredge cards to replace this card, just at a downgrade. The graveyard will be “fine” … Just a little less powerful (which is fine).


  • Emrakul, the Promised End: “She is the problem.” -Patrick. If there were only one card to be banned, this would have definitely been the one.
  • Smuggler’s Copter: If you were only going to ban two cards, it should have been Emrakul and this one (so WotC got that right). Smuggler’s Copter, remember, is the first card in years to post thirty-two (32!!!) copies in a single Top 8.
  • Reflector Mage: Patrick’s argument around this ban is perfect and you really just have to listen to it. Reflector Mage isn’t the intuitive right choice for blunting U/W (heck, they don’t even always play it, as it has neither Flash nor Flying), but it is not only perfect but a contextually better choice than Spell Queller. Trust us… err… Patrick, rather.

The World According to Felidar Guardian

The spoiling of Felidar Guardian has caused unprecedented interest in Saheeli Rai. If for no other reason than that, banning this new card prior to Pro Tour Aether Revolt would be a disaster. So, they didn’t.

The simple combo is turn three Saheeli Rai, turn four Felidar Guardian. Saheeli Rai copies Felidar Guardian (with haste), the Felidar Guardian blinks and resets Saheeli Rai; rinse, repeat, attack for a ton.

The combo can also be accomplished cleanly on turn six by playing Felidar Guardian and blinking a land (so your two mana becomes three, or enough to cast Saheeli Rai). Infinite again.

Whether this combo wins Pro Tour Aether Revolt or not remains to be seen… But it will certainly be something Pros will be thinking about.

Your bonus episode, “Out with the Old, in with Felidar Guardian”:

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Back Thursday, per usual.

Winding Constrictor is Great with Energy

Winding Constrictor
Winding Constrictor will be a two drop of choice.

Silly Mike!

He saw the old…

“If you would get one or more counters, you get that many counters plus one instead[.]”

… line as a “bad” thing.

After all, it is pretty easy to not want Winding Constrictor on the battlefield if you imagine yourself playing against Infect. Every usually 1/1 Glistener Elf, Blighted Agent, or Inkmoth Nexus starts hitting with extra force, after all.

Mike didn’t think about other counters that “you” get. Sure, it’s bad when you might be acquiring poison counters… But what about energy counters? All of a sudden Winding Constrictor is great again! Winding Constrictor being great at energy, remember.

Winding Constrictor’s “rate”

As a 2/3 creature for two mana — abilities aside — this snake can be considered playable on the merits. It might not be Tarmogoyf, but it is unlikely to be completely outclassed on turn two. With a third toughness, the Constrictor can intimidate “industry standard” 2/1 or 2/2 creatures that you might see in the first two turns of the game; and even “bounce off” of a Sylvan Advocate that rumbles in with vigilance.

Abilities aside, the card provides a reasonably sized body for the cost. But there are two abilities to be discussed…

Winding Constrictor combos

Just think about the first ability in conjunction with Rishkar, Peema Renegade for a moment.

If you start with the Constrictor on turn two, then follow up with the Top Level Podcast preview Elf, you will quickly have a dominating board position. Winding Constrictor will go from 2/3 to 4/5 and Rishkar will be 4/4! Imagine something as simple as playing an Aether Hub as your third land. You would start by getting two energy counters (instead of one energy counter) and still go from there.

Any cards with a +1/+1 counter theme are game, not just Rishkar.

Imagine instead of Rishkar on turn three, you played Evolving Wilds into Greenwheel Liberator. The Greenwheel Liberator would not only trigger its Revolt mechanic, it would get an additional +1/+1 counter, making for a 5/4 creature for just two mana.

Winding Constrictor is just one of several cards that Pro Tour Champion Patrick Chapin and Resident Genius Michael J Flores discuss in this week’s podcast:

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