September 30, 2015

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Modern Allies and Battle for Zendikar

Battle for Zendikar brings a second generation of allies into the modern card pool. While allies has always been a cheap and decent modern deck, and recently put up some good results with Collected Company, it has always compared unfavourably with similar decks like Merfolk, Zoo, and even Slivers. The next block promises to double the available cards in the tribe, so now is the time to get familiar with the pros and cons of the existing deck and assess whether the newly spoiled allies can improve the deck’s fortunes.

Modern Allies Pre-BFZ

The first generation ally decks were split into two camps - combo mill decks that focused on playing and copying Halimar Excavator and using cards like Ghostway, Angel of Glory’s Rise, or Return to the Ranks, and more classic tribal aggro allies focusing on Hada Freeblade, Kazandu Blademaster, and Kabira Evangel. I’ve focused here on the aggro variant, but I would note there may be some kind of reanimator ally combo-mill hybrid that can attack from different angles and be even more effective than a no-nonsense aggro list.

At its core aggro allies is a white deck splashing green for Collected Company and Oran-Rief Survivalist, with most players adding another colour to shore up the limited number of allies available in modern. The common “second splashes” are red for Akoum Battlesinger, black for Bojuka Brigand and disruption, or blue for Jwari Shapeshifter and disruption. In my testing I focused on straight green/white, with the hope that BFZ would provide the 1-2 missing pieces in these colours to eliminate the need for a 3rd colour altogether. Two colours also allows allies to run Suppression Field, a card that at least on paper looks very good in modern. I took the below list to a 3-1 second place finish at a local 17 player event, losing in the final to monoblue tron:

The deck plays out more or less like merfolk, with less interaction but more resilience to removal. The basic game plan is to stick a couple early creatures that if left unchecked quickly turn into fifty-cent-Tarmogoyfs (aka: every new modern player’s dream). Kabira Evangel then plays the role of the merfolk lord + Spreading Seas, making said allies unblockable or nearly-unblockable. The deck has the ability to kill on turn 4, and boasts favourable aggro and burn matchups with its maindeck lifegain. Conversely, the deck is quite bad against unfair decks, as maindeck interaction is limited to 4 Path to Exile and 2 Dromoka’s Command.

My testing suggested it was better, at least in this build, to run Hardened Scales over Aether Vial. Both cards serve a similar purpose - to quickly increase the damage you present on the board. However, Aether Vial does this by increasing the resources you put on the board (i.e. overcommitting) whereas scales increases the value of each resource you play. Allies is especially vulnerable to sweepers because it wants to play its creatures before combat to maximize damage, so the card that reduces rather than increases its vulnerability to sweepers seems like the correct choice. Scales also has a lot more impact off the top of the deck since just casting it and then an ally will usually give 2-3 immediate counters, while a mid/late game vial topdeck does nothing for 3 turns and very little after that. Scales also plays better with Stony Silence and Suppression Field out of the sideboard, and while instant speed evangel triggers off of the vial sound amazing it just did not happen that often. Which is to say, all signs pointed to scales being the better card (rejoice budget players!).

I ran 4 Champion of the Parish in my list as the deck seriously needs more 1 drops to curve out and threaten the turn 4 kill. Since every ally in the deck is human, champion always triggers off your creatures and works very well with those hardened scales. Turn 1 champion into turn 2 scales and freeblade is basically the dream curve. While it’s definitely frustrating when champion doesn’t get the lifelink or protection buff from your ally triggers, he is still a better 1 drop than any other card besides Hada Freeblade for the deck.

Most ally decks run 1-2 Adaptive Automaton as their “ally lord”, but I opted for a few copies of Harabaz Druid and a Mirror Entity. Druid enables turn 3 company and some very explosive turn 4s, and mirror entity is a fantastic complement since it can either act as a mana sink for druid, or let you turn your druid into a decent beater. Entity can also convert the champion into an ally to extend the buffs of evangel and paladin - and changing base power and toughness is really good with creatures that grow via +1+1 counters (see: Biomass Mutation and evolve during gatecrash limited).

The sideboard was one of the unexpected strengths of this ally deck. The fetchless vial-less list allowed me to play suppression field with impunity (although it never did as much as I wanted it to in games - I still remain optimistic that it’s a strong modern card), the complete lack of any graveyard use meant Rest in Peace could also be played with no drawback, and perhaps most importantly this turned out to be the first deck I found that could effectively play Ghostly Prison. Between the allies growing larger than whatever the opponent had on board, and evangel triggers making the team virtually unblockable, the blockers left behind by prison were never a problem.

I kept the one-of Return to the Ranks in the sideboard based on other lists I saw, but I was seriously unimpressed by the card. If your allies have been wiped out you probably only have 4 mana to work with, and if they have not been wiped out you have a dead card sitting in your hand waiting for the game to go sour so that you can use it. I do not recommend running any of these sort of cards in future aggro lists. Wrath protection should almost definitely come from Ghostway to deal with tron’s removal (Ugin, Cyclonic Rift), or maybe Inspiring Call.

All told the deck was decent pre-BFZ and played out like a mix of merfolk and zoo (notably being a LOT cheaper to build). The biggest problem with GW allies was the lack of interaction against unfair decks. I put two Dromoka’s Command in the deck to help with things like Splinter Twin and maybe knock off a Phyrexian Unlife vs Ad Nauseam, and two Ghost Quarters to help with bloom titan and tron, but often I just didn’t draw the right card for the matchup and got to play the unenviable role of goldfish for my combo opponents. I never ran into it, but Torpor Orb would basically be the nail in this deck’s coffin so if it sees an uptick in use (perhaps because of abzan company) allies lists will need sideboard artifact destruction instead of just Stony Silence and Kataki, War’s Wage.

The Impact of Battle for Zendikar

Leading into BFZ allies was actually a pretty decent deck. It was based on a white/green core with an option to splash a third colour for more interaction and a higher ally count. For the deck to improve its competitiveness it really needed one or more of the following things:

If you’ve seen the spoilers for BFZ you already know that Wizards did not bestow anything seriously powerful upon the deck - there’s no ally spellstutter or bushwhacker, there’s not even a Harbinger of the Tides or Dwynen’s Elite caliber of card. The interesting rally triggers are on creatures too big for Collected Company, and in most cases the power/toughness of these creatures is an embarrassment for their mana cost. The smaller allies don’t snowball the way the first generation did, and their rally triggers are too low impact to make up for it. All told there are just 5 cards that look playable for modern allies, and none of them are really game changers for the deck’s competitiveness.

1. Ally Encampment
Easily the most powerful addition to modern allies, the encampment helps shore up our vulnerability to spot removal and sweepers. It has virtually 0 opportunity cost as a land that enters untapped, while also making it easier to add a third colour for more of those juicy first generation allies. The card will play exceptionally well with aether vial where a creature can be bounced and immediately replayed for triggers. Testing will tell but I would be surprised if it is ever correct to play less than 4 of these in a modern ally deck.

2. Lantern Scout
The closest thing we got to a straight upgrade over existing modern allies, the scout displaces both Ondu Cleric and Talus Paladin. Lantern Scout can be flipped off of company (improvement over paladin), has a very reasonable body for its cost (improvement over cleric), and even extends the lifelink buff to Champion of the Parish. If burn decks lived in fear of Sorin, Solemn Visitor’s +1 they are going to be just as disheartened by turn 1 freeblade, turn 2 survivalist, turn 3 scout swing gaining 6. And skullcrack me once, shame on you, skullcrack me twice and we can have a discussion about probability.

3. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
I suspect this was Wizards of the Coasts idea of a “pushed” ally card, but I also suspect wizards cares way more about standard than they do about modern. The stream of triggers from the knight tokens sounds amazing, and the ability to immediately hit for 5 if opponent taps out for a Supreme Verdict seems like the resilience to sweepers we need, but Gideon does not fundamentally fix the more critical weaknesses of the deck (speed or interaction) and 4 mana is a tall ask for any modern card. These limitations notwithstanding, Gideon is going to be amazing in midrange/attrition matchups and I think he’ll still see play as a 1 or 2 of in an average ally deck’s 75.

4. Expedition Envoy
Without testing I am really uncertain of whether the envoy is going to be the additional cheap ally that the deck sorely needed. Elite Vanguard is terrible, but Dryad Militant is quite reasonable (especially in Wilt-Leaf Liege decks). Which one will the envoy end up being closer to? My instinct is that the card is not going to be good enough since it does not grow over time, and will be stonewalled by just about everything in the format. Kabira Evangel triggers are great, but cards that need those triggers to not die to a stiff breeze are not.

5. Drana, Liberator of Malakir
Another cheap ally that I am skeptical of, as I don’t think Drana is doing anything the deck needs for this kind of mana investment. She has no immediate board impact (compare to evangel or lantern scout) and is thus painfully vulnerable to lightning bolt. I’m leaving room to be wrong, as it may turn out that just connecting with her once seals up the game - but there’s this other 3 mana creature that died to bolt but sealed up the game if you connected just once... perhaps you’ve seen him near the bulk mythic bin? I believe it was called Prophetic Flamespeaker. Drana really needed a 4th point of toughness and/or some immediate board impact to affect modern allies.

Modern Allies post-BFZ

The biggest change coming out of BFZ is that we can no longer wish upon a star for the interaction that the deck so sorely needs. I believe this means it’s time to call in the heavies and commit to Abzan:

The mana base will require some work, and we lose Suppression Field in favour of fetchlands, but Thoughtseize should do serious work in keeping unfair decks from wrecking us with Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, Splinter Twin, Ad Nauseam, or Supreme Verdict on turn 4 (note: you cannot use Inquisition of Kozilek instead as it does not hit the cards we fear the most). Allies commonly curves a two drop into turns two and three, so that leftover mana on the third turn can be used to secure future turns via Thoughtseize. While the increased damage will hurt the aggro/burn matchups - overall I think it’s a fair trade to improve the unfair matchups.

Which brings us to the sketch of a post-BFZ abzan allies deck. Certainly testing with the new cards will be needed to sort out exact numbers, and the sideboard must be tinkered once good/bad matchups become clearer, but I expect something like this will prove to be the most resilient and effective modern allies deck following the release of Battle for Zendikar:

I have intentionally avoided difficult mana costs on things like Abrupt Decay and Dromoka’s Command, and avoided cute synergies like Harabaz Druid and Mirror Entity to try and make the deck consistent and less prone to mana problems. 20 Lands may be too few in a deck with no vial and 4 Collected Company, but I’d start here and then shave the Gideon and scales for lands if needed.

There is also a real possibility that Ally Encampment makes playing AEther Vial far better than it was previously, but with Collected Company there are a very limited number of non-creature spots available in the deck. Adding vial means cutting Thoughtseize from the main deck and sideboarding out copies of either AEther Vial, Path to Exile or Collected Company.

So good luck racking up those +1+1 counters and thoughtseizing those Ugins, we’ll all keep an eye on Oath of the Gatewatch in a few months as the last potential hurrah for turning modern allies into the tier 1 (2?) powerhouse we all wish it would be!