Inner Workings: Saheeli Evolution
In each installment of the Inner Workings series, we'll examine a different Modern archetype to find out what makes it tick. This time, it's the turn of a different kind of toolbox deck, featuring the relocation to Modern of the infinite creatures combo that broke Standard last year.
One of the variants of the Creatures Toolbox family of decks, Saheeli Evolution references in its name both elements that makes it stand apart from the usual Collective Company/Chord of Calling builds. It's a switch that at once speeds up the combo plan and increases the deck's reliance on it, leaving little room for an aggro-oriented secondary route. It'll be easier to analyze the differences while having a sample list in front of us.
|2Gaddock Teeg||2Surgical Extraction||2Worship|
|1Angel of Sanctions||1Cataclysmic Gearhulk||1Domri Rade|
|1Izzet Staticaster||1Keranos, God of Storms||1Linvala, Keeper of Silence|
|1Reclamation Sage||1Thrun, the Last Troll||1Wear // Tear|
|Saheeli Evolution by Jordan Dale, PPTQ, September 2018|
The deck's main and pretty much only way of winning is by activating Saheeli Rai's second ability targeting a Felidar Guardian, i.e. the very same trick that got banned in Standard during the 2017 season. It works in a similar fashion as Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker with Restoration Angel in that the first piece of the combo creates a copy of the second, which in turn flickers the former, allowing the process to be repeated ad infinitum. The token copies are untapped and have haste, so the whole thing results in a lethal combat phase.
The immediate advantage of this pair compared to Kiki-Angel is that the curve of the two pieces is lower, clocking at three and four CMC rather than four and five. The major disadvantage is that Saheeli is a planeswalker, so she can't be fetched by Chord of Calling. And Collected Company, mostly used in conjunction with another popular endgame combo, Devoted Druid and Vizier of Remedies, is also not very useful here, since Felidar Guardian is out of its reach.
Luckily, an entirely different and unique engine comes to the rescue.
Since its printing in its namesake Eldritch Moon, Eldritch Evolution has felt like a very cool, potentially powerful card in sore need of a home. Creatures Toolbox lists occasionally brought it along, exploiting its being, fundamentally, one single round of Birthing Pod activation. The Evolution exiles itself, which prevents truly degenerate plays, but it has a crucial difference with the Pod: It jumps ahead two spots on the curve rather than one, settling into its own specific sacrificial rhythm. It also costs one less mana (and four life less) than a Pod activation, meaning that on the heels of a turn-one accelerator, it's already online by turn two, trading that accelerator for a three-mana creature, most likely Renegade Rallier. This in turn will bring the sacked accelerator back or perhaps a fetch land to set up a large board advantage. (In keeping with old Pod traditions, Kitchen Finks is another good creature to end up with at this point.)
The planned end point of our Evolution is, of course, Felidar Guardian, a move which is achieved by using Voice of Resurgence as a starting platform, thus gaining value from the sacrifice. Such excellent interaction is the reason why Evolution and Voice are found in full playsets in most Saheeli lists.
Eldritch Evolution is able to fetch Saheeli herself as well, exploiting Ixalan's rule revision that retroactively assigned the Legendary supertype to all planeswalkers. This way, when "evolving" a three-mana creature into the very underplayed Thalia's Lancers, you'll coincidentally end up with the Kaladeshi genius inventor in hand.
Speaking of cards that don't see enough play, Oath of Nissa is our primary way to dig for Saheeli, while also digging for other crucial pieces or a missing land drop. More so, the Oath will help pay for your Izzet planeswalker, allowing a more relaxed and Selesnya-centric mana base where blue and red are essentially both splashed.
The deck is characterized by high velocity and can potentially win by turn three if undisrupted. It naturally tends to step on the accelerator factor by including a significant number of copies of Birds of Paradise and Noble Hierarch, which also ensures to find each of the four colors the deck traffics with. Same goes for Lotus Cobra, taking advantage of the many fetch lands to both fix the mana and up its production. And once its boost is no longer needed, it doubles as another good Evolution fodder to summon the Guardian for the win.
The Silver Bullets
While the fetching elements are fewer here than in a regular Creatures Toolbox build and the game plan is tighter, there's still room to include some silver bullets to be fetched through a surplus Eldritch Evolution, perhaps when the endgame pieces are already firmly in hand. The blue splash allows for tempo master Reflector Mage, while at that same point on the curve. There's Eidolon of Rhetoric against Storm and Magus of the Moon to disrupt Tron and other greedy mana bases. It's worth nothing that our deck itself has a greedy mana base, but one that's calibrated to function even under a Blood Moon regime, due to all those mana dorks generating multiple colors and Oath of Nissa removing Saheeli Rai's off-color requirements.
At CMC 4, thus fetchable via Voice of Resurgence, Shalai, Voice of Plenty is a solid way to protect the combo while providing a lone attempt at plan B through her Gavony Township ability. Her presence (and that of Angel of Sanctions on the side) makes Lyra Dawnbringer a better option to fight Burn than just Baneslayer Angel.
Spellskite and Qasali Pridemage are less easily fetchable with Eldritch Evolution (you'd need a Voice of Resurgence token), but still important protection pieces against removal in the first case, and against hate cards like Torpor Orb, Ghostly Prison, and Ensnaring Bridge in the second – though the low power of the Guardian already makes the Bridge less effective against us than against Restoration Angel.
The Mana Base
The high count of fetch lands is meant for thinning the deck, in order to not only easily find the combo pieces, but also to fuel Renegade Rallier's revolt and Lotus Cobra's landfall. Black is the only color not featured in maindeck cards (Surgical Extraction from the side can be paid with life or mana dorks), so all the shock lands featuring white and green in combination with each other or with Saheeli colors are included, mostly in singleton copies.
And of course, in Selesnya-heavy decks, it's always a good idea to include Horizon Canopy for incidental draw.
Toolbox decks can typically go wild with the sideboard options and you'll rarely find two identical lists in this regard. While Surgical Extraction is generally a crucial card in the meta, Worship and Domri Rade are choices that stem from the large number of creatures in the deck.
Similarly, Gaddock Teeg is a natural fit, since all noncreature spells we're running will be allowed by the stern Kithkin, unlike in Collected Chord builds.
The list of options is made wider by the splash-friendly nature of the deck. So, you can be proactive with Angel of Sanctions, Reclamation Sage, or even Keranos, God of Storms. You can use Avalanche Riders to fight Tron, Obstinate Baloth and/or Thragtusk against Burn, Scavenging Ooze against graveyard strategies, and even Sun Titan or Inferno Titan as a plan B.
An interesting card that shows up in these sideboards is Cataclysmic Gearhulk, mostly because it's not played much. Here, it takes advantage of the several different types the deck comprises (including itself as an artifact) to try and sculpt a profitable board state.
This past July, Saheeli Evolution (whose name, by the way, is somehow reminiscent of Pia's Revolution and Chandra's Revolution) has scored Top-8 placements in two major tournaments: Face to Face Modern Open: Toronto and StarCityGames Modern Classic: Indianapolis. It's still Creature Toolbox's quirky little sister, but it's up-and-coming, making Eldritch Evolution one of those green cards that gravitate around the meta for a while before finding their bearings.
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