Last weekend was the not-so-eagerly awaited Modern debut of Battle for Zendikar. Man-oh-man did it meet its lack of expectations. Although the SCG Standard Open in Indianapolis saw some exciting performances by Bring to Light and five-color manabases, Modern was much less hospitable for our newest set. Only two of the Top 16 decks played any cards from BFZ at all. Even going down to the Top 32, the handful of BFZ appearances, often just single copies, doesn’t inspire a lot of hope in the new set. That is, unless you’re playing Allies.
Battle for Zendikar might not have had the most exciting welcome party in Modern, but the set is already making a big impact on Allies players and tribal aggro brewers. Matthew Farney piloted an innovative Jeskai Allies list to a 10th place finish at the event, combining the old Zendikar Ally staples with the newcomers from Battle. Sky is off this Tuesday so I’ll be taking a quick look at Farney’s list, highlighting the differences and overlaps between his build and previous Allies lists we have seen in the past. Both BBD and Brad Nelson might doubt Allies’ potential in Modern, but Farney and his stalwart soldiers were there on Sunday to try and prove them wrong.
Longtime readers know I’m a big fan of Allies, a sentiment I share with Ari Lax. We’ve seen a few Allies lists in past articles, including a Collected Company themed list from the Italian PPTQ scene, and Naya Allies from GP Charlotte. Farney’s Jeskai Allies is a new color combination for the valiant tribe, but it’s packed with the same tricks and synergies we have come to love in different Allies versions.
Jeskai Allies, Michael Farney (10th place, SCG Premier IQ Indianapolis 10/2015)
3 Jwari Shapeshifter
3 Phyrexian Metamorph
4 Akoum Battlesinger
4 Expedition Envoy
4 Hada Freeblade
4 Kabira Evangel
4 Kazandu Blademaster
2 Kor Bladewhirl
1 Lantern Scout
4 Aether Vial
4 Path to Exile
4 Ally Encampment
4 Arid Mesa
4 Cavern of Souls
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Scalding Tarn
1 Steam Vents
3 Dragon’s Claw
1 Lantern Scout
2 Tuktuk Scrapper
3 Pay No Heed
3 Rending Volley
3 Wear // Tear
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Some SCG Indy decks threw in a handful of BFZ cards as if to prove the set could see play in competitive decks. Jeskai Allies takes this to a whole new level: 11 cards in the maindeck are new arrivals from BFZ. This is on top of old Allies staples (the almighty Kabira Evangel and his blitzing buddy Akoum Battlesinger) and some neat tech we don’t often see in competitive Allies builds (versatile spells like Cloudshift and Phyrexian Metamorph).
Before comparing Farney’s Allies take to the more traditional Naya/Company-based lists we are accustomed to, let’s look at all the new cards and see how Battle for Zendikar benefited the deck. I’ll also give some quick notes on the pre-BFZ, but still nifty, technology Farney included in his build.
- Expedition Envoy: She’s often no Hada Freeblade, but Envoy still functions as a virtual Freeblade 5-8 in a deck that really wants to make its curve. In the first few turns, Envoy gets across for early damage, ensures you have something to do with Aether Vial at one, and benefits from fast Battlesinger openings. It’s true that, unlike Freeblade or Champion of the Parish, Envoy can never grow into a Wild Nacatl or Tarmogoyf over those initial turns. That’s made up for by Envoy’s midgame presence, where she still triggers your other Allies but can also swing for two without requiring a pair of creatures entering play after her.
- Kor Bladewhirl: While Allies like Lantern Scout got all the attention (more on him momentarily!), many players forgot about this creature matchup trump. Not Sky Mason, who praised Bladewhirl as one of the best Allies to come out of Battle, including two in his own take on the tribe. As Sky discussed, Bladewhirl massacres any deck trying to play a fair blocking game. SCG Indy had a mix of Bladewhirl prey in GW Hatebears, Affinity, Company decks, and even Jund, along with decks that completely ignored the Kor. If you can rely on about 50% of your matchups being creature-heavy slugfests, Kor Bladewhirl is your girl, especially if Abzan and its Lingering Souls takes off. Like Sky talked about the other week, two copies is exactly where you want to be.
- Lantern Scout: I already gave my thoughts on Scout in my review article from two weeks ago, and all of that is just as true in Farney’s list as it was in theory. Farney is down to a single Scout in the maindeck and one in the board, which I believe reflects a local metagame that seems largely devoid of Burn: there was only a single Burn list in the Top 32, which suggests Farney knew the deck was absent at the local level, he knew the players weren’t good, and/or he just got lucky. Either way, 2-3 Scouts are right where you want to be between the maindeck and the sideboard, but don’t skimp on your Ondu Clerics (or Dragon’s Claws in Farney’s case).
- Ally Encampment: I’ll admit it: I was skeptical of Encampment when I first saw the card. Although Encampment was clearly a decent and relevant Allies card, it both seemed somewhat weak for a tribe known for explosiveness, and didn’t appear to fix the main issues Allies have in Modern (namely, they are too fair but are often locked out of the best interaction). Farney appears to have proven me wrong, and after testing this list a few times I can see why. For one, Encampment’s painless mana-fixing is invaluable in a metagame that punishes even the smallest life total ding. It also insulates you against removal, particularly sweepers that so often plague tribal strategies. Encampment is at its best, however, when pushing aggressive turns. With enough mana, you can easily play, bounce, and re-play an Akoum Battlesinger for some serious damage (especially if it’s triggering +1/+1 counters on other creatures). Encampment also improves your Metamorphs and Shapeshifters, allowing you to cast and re-cast them throughout the game without committing to any single copy. I expect we’ll see more of Encampment in Allies decks to come.
- Phyrexian Metamorph and Jwari Shapeshifter: I’ve always loved Metamorph and I’m happy to see the card show up in Farney’s list. Whether copying your own Battlesinger or Blademaster or taking on an enemy’s Tasigur or Goyf, Metamorph is an extremely versatile card that adapts to any given situation or matchup. I’d almost rather Phantasmal Image here just to abuse Vial more, but I understand why Image’s illusion-drawback can be an issue for a deck that wants to maximize Encampment activations. As for Shapeshifter, she really shines with Encampment and Vial, enabling a number of surprise synergies that opponents will have a tough time planning around.
- Cloudshift: The overlooked white instant does it all in Allies. It retriggers rally, helps you punch through enemy defenses, Dispels targeted removal, and makes combat and casting decisions a nightmare for an interactive opponent. On the other hand, it’s not Lightning Bolt, and it troubles me that we’re playing Jeskai and not playing Modern’s best removal spell. Jeskai Allies isn’t as aggressive as Naya Allies, so I understand trading some reach for some anti-midrange trickery. Then again, this is Modern and I’d rather take a small hit to an already favorable matchup than go against Infect, Affinity, and Burn without Bolt. Playing aggressive red decks without Bolt makes me feel naked, and I’m curious to hear your take on why this card is absent.
In addition to the cards listed above, we notice many staples from past Allies lists: Path, Vial, Evangel, Blademaster, etc. The sideboard is one of the more targeted boarding strategies I’ve seen in a while. Every card is aimed to beat Burn, Lantern, Affinity, or Twin, with a little splash damage for Amulet Bloom and Delver decks. This ensures that Farney was completely ready for the decks he targeted instead of being slightly prepared for a wide number of decks like most singleton-full sideboards. Singletons may help you hit as many decks as possible, but also make it less likely to actually see any one card in those matchups. Given the deck’s grindiness and its ability to break through stalemates and smash groundwars, I think this decision is a good one. Based on Farney’s 10th place finish, it also seems to have worked well in practice.
Jeskai or Naya?
This leaves us with the big question all Allies players are asking: Jeskai or Naya? That’s another way of asking about Collected Company or not, which Charm/Command to use, and which sideboard cards you want available. We’re going to need more Allies finishes to know this for sure, but for now, I think the scales are tipped in Naya’s favor.
When I’m playing Allies, I don’t want to be playing a bad Merfolk or a bad Abzan/Elves/Naya Company. What makes Naya Allies so strong is its ability to win out of nowhere with a good Company flip. It can even do this after a board wipe or a bad removal turn, let alone in a more even game-state. It can also do this with only two creatures, whereas a deck like Merfolk might need 3+ to recover from a sweep. Jeskai Allies trades that strength for consistent anti-creature wallop, but that’s not a trade I necessarily want to make in Modern. For every deck that wants to interact with you via Souls, Tarmogoyf, Tasigur, etc., there’s another deck out there just waiting for you to slip on a turn. I don’t want to durdle around with a turn three Cloudshift to give first strike to my squad if my opponent is about to swing with an 11/11 Blighted Agent. Naya Company can play both the grind game and the explosive one, and that’s something I miss in this Jeskai list.
Ultimately, it will come down to more players like Farney to decide the Allies issue. I’m confident we haven’t seen the last of the tribe, and I expect to see these cards crop up more and more as the year draws to a close. Don’t be surprised to see more GP Day 2 Allies if the trend holds: Battle for Zendikar block has only just started and already the tribe is getting better.
What other aspects of Jeskai Allies do you like or dislike? Any experience with the deck or any improvements you would make? What about other performances from last weekend’s tournament? Take it to the comments and I’m looking forward to seeing you all tomorrow for our 9/1-9/30 metagame update!