Aether Revolt and Modern Thopter Control
As someone who rallied for the Sword of the Meek unban, it has been disappointing seeing how little impact the card has had in Modern. I was confident the Thopter Foundry combo would not be oppressive, but I still expected it to see competitive play. Of course each new set, each banned list update, and each metagame shift opens the possibility that Thopter/Sword’s time has come. Recently I have been playtesting a Thopter Control deck to some surprisingly decent results, and with the promise of some new tools from Aether Revolt it could be that the deck's fortunes are finally going to improve.
UB Thopter Control
In a nutshell UB Thopter Control plays discard spells and Ensnaring Bridge to generate a board state where either the Thopter/Sword combo or Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas can win the game in a few turns. My current decklist looks like this:
UB Thopter Control
From what I have seen any list using Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas will look pretty similar. Most Thopter Control players prefer to add Mox Opal and Glimmervoid and splash for a catch-all like Abrupt Decay or Disenchant, but I prefer the consistency of a two-colour build - especially with so many colourless lands. My secret tech is Echoing Truth. Echoing Truth can bounce a Stony Silence or Leyline of Sanctity for the one turn needed to win, it can nuke Lingering Souls tokens, set back Prized Amalgams, save our Planeswalkers or Foundries, and even combine with discard effects to act like hard removal.
As with most brews the sideboard is a mess, but with a new set and banned list update coming this is not the time to be optimizing sideboards. I will say that in general the deck struggles against Valakut and Tron, although I’m not sure any number of Ghost Quarter or Surgical Extraction can fix that. A promising idea that I have yet to test is a playset of Thought-Knot Seers in the sideboard, which come in against any deck where Ensnaring Bridge is not needed. Thought-Knot Seer comes down on turn three with a talisman, disrupts these combo decks and races them while being immune to any artifact removal and punishing them for sideboarding out things like Path to Exile. Seer also gets points for dodging Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and Anger of the Gods in these tough matches.
The big weakness of Thopter Control however is not having any obvious advantage over Lantern Control. While you can sometimes steal a game with 5/5 Darksteel Citadels, it’s more common to just fail to find a Bridge in time (no Ancient Stirrings) or to have your bridge blown up by a topdecked answer (no Lantern of Insight). From a purely competitive standpoint, if you’re going to be a control deck vulnerable to artifact hate you should probably just play Lantern. From the perspective of wanting to put lots of Thopter tokens on the table in Modern though, this is the place to be.
Recent Additions to the Deck
Before jumping ahead to the new cards from Aether Revolt its worth taking a quick look at what cards the deck has acquired from recent sets:
As any Faeries player will attest, straight blue/black decks have problems against aggressive decks. The utter lack of lifegain, generally slow win conditions, and Thoughtseize make navigating these matchups brutal. Enter Collective Brutality, probably the single best card to draw versus Burn, a solid spell against any aggressive deck, and still passable in midrange and combo matchups. The card has extra punch in Thopter Sword decks as a way to immediately remove four cards from your hand to lower your Ensnaring Bridge, or to just discard Sword of the Meek for value.
Another card that helps us in the aggressive matches is Glint-Nest Crane, which can stop Inkmoth Nexus, Goblin Guide and frustrate Monastery Swiftspear while also preventing chip shots from cards like Snapcaster Mage and Lingering Souls. Of course the real power of Crane is that it digs for a Bridge or missing Thopter/Sword piece, and barring that can just help smooth your mana or draws with a Bauble, Citadel, or Talisman. In rare situations a Crane can even turn into a win condition, as its 1 power and flying lets it keep swinging under a Bridge if - for example - your Thopter Foundry has been Surgical Extraction'd.
Inventors’ Fair lets you tutor up the missing Thopter/Sword piece when you’ve hit five mana, or occasionally grab a Bridge or silver bullet like Pithing Needle. The lifegain will occasionally matter, but most of the time we are sacrificing this as soon as possible so it doesn't generally give more than two life. As a Legendary land we don’t want too many of them, but with the quick sacrifice and powerful effect two feels correct.
These three cards have become pretty standard inclusions in all Tezzeret lists and are the most important developments in the archetype. I would give honourable mention to both Thought-Knot Seer and Lost Legacy as recently printed sideboard pieces, although these are much more optional than Crane, Fair, and Brutality.
New Cards from Aether Revolt
With the return of Tezzeret and the focus on artifice and invention, I hoped we might see some powerful new tools for the deck in Aether Revolt. My optimism was of course tempered by my experience with Allies in Battle for Zendikar, but each morning I would scour over the spoilers for possible Thopter Control additions. With the full spoiler now public, these are the cards I will be looking to brew with in the coming weeks:
Like every other black deck in Modern, Thopter Control will be moving towards Fatal Push as its primary removal spell. I would note that at present I am not playing any pure creature removal in the maindeck, instead relying on Thopters and Bridges or versatile removal like Collective Brutality ,Liliana of the Veil, Echoing Truth, and Engineered Explosives. Versatility is always good, but I have lost enough games to Dark Confidant, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, and Young Pyromancer to still be in the market for a good cheap removal spell. I probably start with the "black bolt" as a 2/2 split between the maindeck and sideboard and see how the format shapes up from there.
I cannot decide whether this card is a slam dunk or a terrible fit, with my opinion changing every other day. At a minimum it requires some serious reworking of the mana base as double black for Liliana and triple blue for Whirl is a tall order for a build without Opals or Glimmervoids. Life would have been so much easier if Improvise was literally artifact Convoke (read carefully - you can't tap artifacts to pay the blue symbols). I also don't play many cheap artifacts to Improvise with - the citadels and talismans already tap for mana, and I'll usually sacrifice my baubles. All that said Inventors' Fair has shown that being able to tutor the missing piece of the combo, a sideboard bullet, or a Bridge on the opponent's end step is amazing, so it's definitely worth testing to see if some mix of Sunken Ruins and River of Tears can make Whirl a reliable tutor.
At a glance this looks like a great answer to the aforementioned Pyromancers and Thalias. We can even dig for it with Glint-Nest Crane and use it to shoot things for four mana from behind an active Bridge! If it weren't for Fatal Push I would be a lot more interested in seeing how the Ballista plays out, but Push is a cleaner answer to the problems I really care about, and once I'm behind a Bridge I'd rather work towards drawing a Tezzeret or combo piece than pay four mana for one damage. There's a small chance this earns a spot in the deck, but I'm fairly skeptical.
Just kidding! With Agent of Bolas as our benchmark, a four mana UB Tezzeret has to do some pretty crazy things to compete. The Schemer has everything going against it in this deck. The Lotus Petals do not ramp us into anything as our curve tops out at 4 and we are frequently Hellbent, our generally low artifact count makes the creature kill ability unreliable in the early game when it matters most, and finally the ultimate is a sheer non-bo with Ensnaring Bridge and brutally slow compared to Agent of Bolas’ Drain Life. The Schemer has high enough loyalty and interesting enough effects that there might be a Modern deck for it, but I am quite confident UB Thopter Control is not that deck.
And there you have it, while Kaladesh gave us two archetype-specific cards that made big improvements, Aether Revolt looks to give us one Modern-changing removal spell, a tough-to-cast but powerful instant speed tutor, and a "removal on a stick" artifact that probably won't be good enough.
Until next time, good luck brewing Thopter/Sword into the future of Modern!