August 2, 2018

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An Update to Modern Soulflayer

Back in March, Cody McCowell wrote an article on a Modern Soulflayer deck that had a 7-0 start at GP Lyon. Although the deck ended the event with a less impressive 9-6 record, Cody correctly noted that it was early days for the deck with plenty of room to brew, tinker, and optimize around Soulflayer. In fact, a few of his suggestions like Chromanticore, Bomat Courier, and Hazoret the Fervent have found their way into some recent online 5-0 lists like this one:

The backbone of Andreas Schulte’s GP Lyon list remains. We’re casting Faithless Looting and Grisly Salvage to put keyword monsters like Zetalpa, Primal Dawn and Drogskol Reaver into the graveyard to feed the delve on our Soulflayer. Mostly we’re looking for a two mana 4/4 Double Strike Haste Flyer with either Indestructible or Hexproof. If we pick up Trample, Lifelink, or Vigilance along the way, great! But the priority is to get in once immediately for eight damage and give the opponent a couple of turns to find an out to a hard-to-kill, hard-to-block threat or just die. It’s not quite turn three Marit Lage, but it’s pretty close for Modern.

The most important change to the deck is the addition of Traverse the Ulvenwald, which virtually acts as four more copies of Soulflayer. From my experience, games where you do not have a Soulflayer by turn four usually end badly. So being able to Traverse and cast the deck’s namesake card on turn three is a huge boost to consistency. The creature suite gets some minor adjustments to help get Delirium online, with Chromanticore being an enchantment and Bomat Courier being an artifact. The deck drops the Lingering Souls and Bloodghast value plan to make space for these changes.

The other interesting change is a playset of Samut, Voice of Dissent. Samut does not give evasion or protection, but he does give three keyword abilities for Soulflayer in Haste, Vigilance, and Double Strike. More importantly, Samut is realistically castable in the deck and can backup Lotleth Troll as the plan B when Soulflayer gets disrupted. The mix of Haste and Flash make it fairly easy to sneak in six damage, but Samut's 3/4 power-toughness lines up really poorly against a bunch of common Modern threats like Thought-Knot Seer, Tarmogoyf, and Hollow One. Samut really could have used one more point of toughness for Modern.

I have put in a few dozen matches online with this build and while it certainly has its moments it is strategically in an awkward place. There is almost no interaction in the maindeck - just a miser’s Collective Brutality and Lightning Axe, which reads like a glass cannon combo deck. Yet most of the time a good hand will put a Haste, Double Strike Soulflayer out on turn three, killing the opponent on turn five unless they deal four points to themselves.

A glass cannon deck (little to no interaction) should consistently kill on turn four with possible turn three kills. The fact most combo decks will win before Soulflayer’s “ideal hand” can end the game is a glaring problem, not to mention that Soulflayer will fail to get an ideal turn three setup more often than not (either no Soulflayer, or missing a hexproof, haste, or indestructible keyword in the graveyard). We won’t beat other combo decks unless they falter and we don’t, and against fair decks we’re usually at least one turn slower than other non-interactive combo decks while being similarly vulnerable to targeted discard and counterspells.

Which I think brings us to the classic brew question - are you just playing a strictly worse version of something else? In this case I am pretty sure the answer is yes. Soulflayer is just a worse version of the Griselbrand/Goryo’s Vengeance combo. Soulflayer’s ceiling is a turn four kill where Goryo’s is a turn two kill. Soulflayer needs multiple turns to deal lethal where Goryo’s can deal it all in a single blow. Goryo's needs two cards to go off where Soulflayer needs at least three. Goryos can win at instant speed, Soulflayer cannot. The only obvious upside to Soulflayer is being less vulnerable to tax effects (Damping Sphere, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben) and targeted graveyard hate (Surgical Extraction, Scavenging Ooze).

That doesn’t mean the deck isn’t decent, just that without some new card(s) there’s a pretty severe limit on how competitive it can be. If you have the manabase for either deck, Soulflayer is much cheaper to build, so there is a budget consideration there for some players. But the most likely reason to play Soulflayer is to embrace the jank; playsets of Chromanticore and Samut, Voice of Dissent in a reasonably powerful Modern deck? Building a two mana unkillable keyword monstrosity? Maybe even hardcasting a Drogskol Reaver? If any of that sounds more fun to you than Through the Breach-ing an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, Modern Soulflayer may just be the deck for you.

Until next time, here’s to the jank-lover's dream of bestowing a Chromanticore on an end-of-turn flashed in Samut, Voice of Dissent!