M19 had a few hidden gems. Not only has Remorseful Cleric proven its worth across Standard, Modern, and Legacy, we’ve also seen Militia Bugler snag a PT Top 4 within weeks of release—and in Modern, no less. There’s another card from M19, however, that isn’t slowing down, seeing top-level play in both Standard and Modern (and perhaps even Brawl!)—it’s Sai, Master Thopterist.
This card was clearly pushed for Constructed play, and it shows. A great blocker with a terrific defensive triggered ability means that Sai is able to effortlessly gum up the board, and then his activated ability means that any drawn-out game is likely to see you pull further and further ahead. He slices, he dices—he does it all!
Sai in Standard
Standard’s only real combo deck (sorry, New Perspectives) received an enormous buff with the addition of Sai, Master Thopterist. Aetherflux-Reservoir-based combo decks were all-in on blasting opponents for 50 before Sai arrived. The 1/4 gives the deck an entirely new scope, making it possible to meaningfully contest the board and not die immediately to quick starts.
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
PV doesn’t seem to be able to resist playing Glint-Nest Crane at the Pro Tour, and as a result his deck of choice this time around was Reservoir Combo. You can see the new dimension this deck is taking on, playing the full four copies of Sai while trimming Reservoirs down to just two. The remainder of the deck is largely unchanged. It’s full of cheap artifacts, many of which replace themselves, to provide fuel for the Reservoir, and now for Sai as well!
This is a terrific direction for the archetype to take. A 4-drop artifact that doesn’t immediately impact the board is a risky investment in a world overrun by Abrade, and Sai helps to mitigate the impact of all the main deck Shatter effects. Given the popularity of red decks, flooding the board with 1/1 blockers is also a useful way to slow down the game (Goblin Chainwhirler notwithstanding—at least Sai blocks it, as a 1/4).
Another string to Sai’s bow (I’m not sure why you’d ever want more than one bowstring, but whatever) is that Mox Amber is now better than ever in this deck, as it actually taps for mana even without Inspiring Statuary. Finally, the fact that you can start dumping useless late-game Prophetic Prisms or Renegade Maps into Sai’s activated ability is a massive boon, and will help to find those Reservoirs or Karns to close out the game.
In short, Sai is an absolutely perfect fit for this deck, as everything that he does happens to line up perfectly with what Reservoir Combo needs to mitigate its previous weaknesses. An early blocker, a way to play to the board, and a late-game value engine—Sai does it all.
Sai in Modern
When the CFB trio of Juza, Stark, and Utter-Leyton were first seated in the feature match area, I was surprised to see Stark, who was of course on KCI, play a Yavimaya Coast. I immediately began to guess at which blue cards he might be playing, thinking about sideboard Negates. I was right on that score, but I didn’t anticipate the three copies of Sai he’d brought along as well!
Much of what was discussed about Sai in Standard is applicable here. Sai offers a good defensive option and allows an otherwise highly non-interactive deck to contest the battlefield at least a little bit. That isn’t, however, the primary reason Sai features in this 75, although it’s a big part of it. Nor is it his role as a late-game value engine, as KCI churns through its deck pretty effectively with its numerous cantrips.
Instead, one of Sai’s primary roles in KCI is to contest graveyard hate. That may sound weird, but we saw this very thing take place in the finals of the Pro Tour—a Leyline of the Void rendered Stark’s graveyard useless, and so he relied on drawing cards and generating blockers with Sai, Master Thopterist.
KCI can play through some amount of graveyard hate, relying on cheap Disenchant effects to remove Rest in Peace, Leyline of the Void, etc. It can also survive having its graveyard one-shotted by Nihil Spellbomb, if its pilot is canny (and lucky) enough. But there are times that the hate is too hard to overcome, and for that, KCI relies on Sai.
The first thing you board out against KCI is creature removal, so it makes good sense to bring in a tough, value-oriented creature. But it’s more the fact that Sai has a total lack of graveyard reliance that makes him a great post-board pivot for KCI, as it allows the deck to minimize the impact of cards like Rest in Peace and instead win the old-fashioned way, by attacking with creatures. Keep this in mind the next time you sit down against KCI, as you may want to keep in a little more removal than you would have otherwise.
Bonus: Sai in Brawl
While Sai isn’t turning the Brawl format on its head—the undisputed champion of competitive Brawl right now is of course Teferi, Hero of Dominaria—a few decks have emerged that make the most of the Master Thopterist. My weekly Brawl podcast, Stacking Sixties, featured a sweet Sai list on this week’s episode.
Sai, Master Thopterist
As you would expect, there are plenty of cheap artifacts to make the most of having Sai on turn 3 (remember, you always have access to him), but what really stands out about this list is its capacity to play expensive blue threats like Gearseeker Serpent and Zahid, Djinn of the Lamp at a steep discount. This deck has a bunch of sweet cards that never quite broke into Standard—it’s a blast to cast things like Reverse Engineer and The Immortal Sun! A full breakdown of the deck can be found in this week’s episode.
I’m curious to see what the future holds for Sai, as right now he benefits enormously from the artifact-heavy Kaladesh block. Kaladesh, of course, rotates out in a few months. Does Sai have the chops to stick around as we head back to Ravnica? Current results demonstrate his power level very clearly, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Sai remains an important centerpiece of niche artifact decks for quite some time to come!