Hello everyone and happy New Year! I'm happy to present an extensive primer on Melira Pod, one of the most interesting and underestimated decks in Modern. Despite getting second at two Modern Grand Prix, Melira has never been popular enough, especially when it was ousted from competitive scene by Kiki-Jiki. However, the red-haired lady recently proved that she deserves the title of cornerstone of Modern, so let's take a look at her place in the format.
For those who are new to the deck or the format, Melira is aggressive deck based on cheap creatures and Gavony Township; the deck sometimes wins through the infinite combo of Melira, Sylvok Outcast, Viscera Seer, and Murderous Redcap (or Kitchen Finks), but this line of play is rarely considered the primary plan by anyone who has played at least three matches with the deck. Actually, you can win with the combo only against opponents who are already in bad shape, who made a significant mistake, or who don't really understand what's going on. So why is there a combo in the deck? To threaten the opponent! Chord of Calling is instant and the combo pieces are cheap, so as long as you have Kitchen Finks in play, your opponent can't tap out without risking losing on the spot. Therefore, the primary game plan is to win through combat damage while forcing the opponent to take your combo into account.
The deck has a ton of search and a good number of hate bears form the secondary plan: creating trouble for the opponent, protecting it, and winning through combat damage while the opponent is trying to solve their problems. This plan mostly works against combo decks (where you can easily "fix" certain cards or strategies); combo races are unlikely, as our combo is very easy to interact with. So our combo is just the tertiary plan, playing the leading role only in very specific matchups (like Merfolk).
The ability to understand the best way to win and to play accordingly is extremely important for the Melira pilot. That's why the deck is so interesting to play—and why it requires a lot of testing. A typical Melira decklist contains 40 or more different cards which interact with other cards you and your opponents play in extremely complicated manners, and any mistake could be devastating. Many matchups are defined by who did their homework better. For example, the matchup against Jund is negative if you're trying to win through combo; very positive if you know what you're doing and your opponent still tries to prevent the combo; and almost odd if both players understand what's going on. However, assuming that you actually did a lot of testing, Jund is usually considered a good pairing (if you're not playing in the finals of a Grand Prix against Willy Edel).
The question of why Melira over Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker has no simple answer. Both decks are playable, both have certain problems, and the most important thing to consider is the state of the metagame—and the player's comfort. Kiki Pod is more combo-oriented, while Melira is better in aggro mode due to its lower mana curve. Melira is better against Jund and Affinity but can't win against "land decks," while Kiki Pod has access to Sowing Salt. An increase in blue decks' popularity shifts the metagame from these decks, but they're still viable if you like this way of playing Magic.
Now to the actual decklist. "Actual" isn't a very good term since the deck constantly evolves to adjust for the surroundings. The key is to understand the principles of putting certain cards into your 75. This is the latest iteration of the list, which I've used with some success on Magic Online.
- 1 Ethersworn Canonist
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 2 Deathrite Shaman
- 4 Kitchen Finks
- 2 Murderous Redcap
- 1 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Orzhov Pontiff
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 1 Ranger of Eos
- 1 Reveillark
- 1 Shriekmaw
- 3 Viscera Seer
- 1 Wall of Roots
- 1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
- 3 Melira, Sylvok Outcast
- 1 Saffi Eriksdotter
The mana base contains 23 lands with three Gavony Township and four basics and eight mana creatures, including seven one-mana ones. Gavony Township is the best card in the deck, but three is the right number as it can't produce green mana on the first turn. That's also a reason to avoid Dryad Arbor; it's nice in the late game but awful in your starting hand because it ruins your early development completely. Dryad would be fine as a way to Pod into Viscera Seer or Deathrite Shaman, but Podding into Ranger of Eos is at least not worse in most cases.
Speaking more about mana, all eight fetchlands are green because it's usually important to protect our life total, so basic Forests are what we need. Mana development is one of the most underestimated problems of Melira; the deck is three-colored (which is common for Modern), but the mana costs of its spells aren't easy and are usually painful, so be very accurate. Always search for a basic land if possible and search for Overgrown Tomb and Godless Shrine before Temple Garden—you need a lot of black mana, while the white requirements are fewer (that's also why there's no basic Plains in the list).
Eight mana dorks, including seven one-mana ones, became common some time ago, but you might remember Andrew Cuneo's deck from the finals of Grand Prix Lincoln where he used four Wall of Roots. That version of the deck is more powerful but slower (which is unacceptable for the current state of format) and used to have much more mana. Cuneo's deck played Eternal Witness and the full four Chord of Calling, while the current version just can't take full advantage of these cards. Contemporary Melira is much more aggro/tempo than combo, so the fourth Chord of Calling and Witness are too slow to be used here. There's only one Wall of Roots in the list for situations when we must eat a dork with Birthing Pod but still need mana for the next turn.
Seven one-mana dorks defines the tempo of the deck. Four Birds of Paradise is unquestionable due to their ability to produce black mana without restrictions. Also, don't underestimate Birds' fighting ability with the help of Gavony Township. The proper number of Deathrite Shaman is one and half because there are enough situations when he fails to produce the mana you need. However, a pair Deathrite Shamans could be so good in the late game that amount to play should equal the number of cards to fetch with Ranger of Eos. This also means that there is only one slot left for Noble Hierarch, and I was forced to accept that despite my desire to have two exalted mana dorks.
The next part of the deck is combo. Different versions of the sacrifice outlet have been played, but the most common combination is three Viscera Seer, three Melira, Sylvok Outcast, and one to three Murderous Redcap. The point is that each of these creatures is good without the combo. Kitchen Finks doesn't need any words, Murderous Redcap kills half of the format, and Viscera Seer is a nice late game way to deal with mana flood (eating dorks), insurance against sweepers (increasing the chance to reload the battlefield), and can perform some tricks.
The most important of them includes Orzhov Pontiff (learn how to kill a bunch of X/2 creatures with Pontiff!), preventing the life gain of Wurmcoil Engine and Baneslayer Angel, and killing X/3 creatures with Murderous Redcap. Aside from that, Viscera Seer is the best card against Living End. Melira, Sylvok Outcast is the weakest combo piece (so she is often sided out), but she still kills Infect decks (and Inkmoth Nexus in Affinity as a bonus) and can do unfair things with Kitchen Finks but without Viscera Seer.
If your deck somehow contains Saffi Eriksdotter or Body Double, you could organize alternative combo kills using Reveillark. These combos use four creatures but may be realized without Melira herself and could have better applications (like destroying all lands with Emrakul, the Aeons Thorn, who doesn't care about our infinite hit points). These unusual interactions form a little edge that allows you to overcome hard situations, so take enough time to learn your cards and interactions with them. For example, Melira, Sylvok Outcast has three separate static abilities, and Orzhov Pontiff's haunt is one of the most complicated abilities in the history of Magic.
The last cards for combo are Reveillark and Ranger of Eos. They aren't normally used in the process of going off, but they are important for searching and for early creature exchanges, allowing us to survive long enough to take control of the game. Early exchanges are a necessary part of our strategy against "fair" aggressive decks because we can easily stabilize and win with Reveillark and Gavony Township in the late game. Having six persist creatures also helps, especially when Jund has no Kitchen Finks to nullify ours.
Summing up, the deck has 31 mana sources and 21 combo pieces (including Ruel, Lark, four Birthing Pod, and three Chord of Calling). Add three more necessary cards (Qasali Pridemage, Shriekmaw, and Orzhov Pontiff) and we have 55 cards and only five maindeck slots for experiments. These last three are important due to their power and reliability, filling the holes in our general strategy: universal Disenchant, removal for big dudes, and efficient sweepers. Qasali Pridemage is superior to Harmonic Sliver because it can be played when you have Birthing Pod on the battlefield—and because exalted matters.
It's nice to have Harmonic Sliver in the sideboard to be able to beat both Torpor Orb and Damping Matrix, but I prefer Abrupt Decay to Maelstrom Pulse for these purposes. The viable substitute for Shriekmaw is Nekrataal, but it has a worse mana cost and can't be Podded into from Murderous Redcap, allowing you to kill two (or hopefully three) creatures in the process. I played both last season, but Nekrataal effectively became the second Murderous Redcap now.
The last five slots are filled with generic hate for the format or to pre-board against certain decks if you expect a lot of them. These cards are effectively parts of your sideboard, so it's correct to consider them jointly. So I mention my current choice of maindeck Thoughtseize (as generic combo hate), Ethersworn Canonist (pre-board against Storm and a generally good card; could be Thalia, Guardian of Thraben), Saffi Eriksdotter (protection for creatures; could be Spellskite), and Linvala, Keeper of Silence (having a second big fliers matters, especially in conjunction with its viable ability).
The sideboard is divided by spells and creatures, as the latter are searchable. You can find up to four Rule of Law, or Stony Silence, or Rain of Tears, or Creepng Corrosion, or Abrupt Decay in sideboards; this means the deck's pilot is trying to improve a certain matchup and is ready to spend a lot of space for it. The most common bad matchup is G/R Tron. It's just awful and painful… I'll return to it later. Creatures in the sideboard are usually singletons since the deck has enough search; however, it's good to have multipurpose creatures and be able to draw them naturally from time to time. So our options are (counting those that actually made the cut and those that didn't):
Lingering Souls: One of the best cards to be sided in for combo pieces. Lingering Souls is great with Gavony Township, complements Kitchen Finks very well, and is invulnerable to countermagic. So two or three copies in the sideboard are just necessary against Jund, U/W, and other aggressive decks. Possible substitutes are Tarmogoyf and Strangleroot Geist, but Souls is simply better right now.
Wurmcoil Engine, Baneslayer Angel, Sigarda, Host of Herons, Restoration Angel, Linvala, Keeper of Silence, Obstinate Baloth, Loxodon Hierarch, Thrun, the Last Troll: These are anti-Jund and anti-aggro options, powerful and efficient beaters. These cards are needed to break stalemates (that's why the first options have flying). Additional abilities and usefulness in other matchups are necessary as there are just fifteen cards in the sideboard, so I finally came to maindeck Linvala and sideboard Thrun.
The Troll is fine against countermagic-heavy decks, especially when Wrath of God is ousted by Supreme Verdict. Generally, the increasing popularity of blue decks is very bad for Melira but fine for the format, so I'm somewhat happy to eschew Obstinate Baloth in favor of Thrun. Speaking of Baloth, it's still fine in an aggro-heavy metagame and cutting it may be a mistake. An interesting note: if you only have one copy, the second ability is very rarely used, so the old and forgotten Loxodon Hierarch may be marginally better.
Kataki, War's Wage, Ethersworn Canonist, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Linvala, Keeper of Silence, Gaddock Teeg, Tidehollow Sculler, Aven Mindcensor, Heap Doll, and other fringe cards like Dryad Militant: These cards are anti-combo options that are divided between generic (Thalia and Sculler) and dedicated hate (Kataki, Canonist, Teeg) and are necessary parts of the game plan against combo decks. Don't hesitate to find additional purposes for these cards because they're better than Melira, Sylvok Outcast in many matchups. For example, side in Kataki, War's Wage against G/R Tron and Eggs; it will not ruin their game but could save enough time and force them to use removal, which could otherwise hit a better creature.
Burrenton Forge-Tender, Spellskite, Saffi Eriksdotter: Cards to protect our combo or our anti-combo creatures. They do this job in different ways, so I finally decided to play all three. Spellskite is fine against Scapeshift and Splinter Twin Combo; Saffi is good at protecting legendary creatures; and Burrenton Forge-Tender is our only hope against Pyroclasm.
The rest of the sideboard is filled with generic cards or spells that complement creatures for some matches (like Rule of Law to complement Ethersworn Canonist). I prefer having a pair of Abrupt Decays, Fulminator Mage, and Phyrexian Metamorph here. Other options include spells I mentioned above, Eternal Witness, and Withered Wretch.
Ten Rules for Playing Melira
Before going to the matchups, here are ten very basic rules for the Melira player.
1. The infinite combo into Kitchen Finks is not always enough (especially on Magic Online), so when you're going off, know where to scry. Viscera Seer can't exchange cards in your library but can shift it to a certain card. So when you're gaining infinite hit points, don't forget to put Murderous Redcap to the top of the deck. If you can't cast Redcap next turn or have it in your graveyard, shift to Reveillark instead. If you can't cast Lark either, try to imagine the best top deck. If your opponent didn't concede, they have some plan that you must be able to answer.
2. However, shifting to Murderous Redcap is the right choice in 99% of all cases.
3. Casting Viscera Seer during the first main phase is generally better as you'll be able to extract at least marginal satisfaction from the opponent's unexpected combat tricks.
5. Manage your mana base with maximal precision. Try to save hit points with basic lands, but don't forget the heavy black mana requirements. Searching for early Forest instead of Overgrown Tomb is rarely good.
6. Casting Chord of Calling with a larger X than you actually need could completely shut off the opponent's mind. If you don't need additional blockers and don't expect Mana Leak, just do that. There is the chance that the opponent will allow you chord for X=3 when you have Viscera Seer and Kitchen Finks on the battlefield, will suddenly die to Orzhov Pontiff from Chord with X=4, etc.
7. Even if you're able to search for your last combo piece, it's often correct to find a good beater instead (second copy of Kitchen Finks) to avoid losing to removal into combo piece. The vast majority of games are won by regular combat damage and for good reason.
8. Practice Viscera Seer's synergy with other creatures, especially Orzhov Pontiff. Dealing with a bunch of X/2 creatures is often important, even if you'll be forced to use Viscera Seer as a haunt target.
9. The deck is able to provide very good six- and five-card hands, so there is no reason to keep a bad seven or six. Yes, don't afraid to mulligan a mediocre six cards, it works, and I have enough statistics to prove it.
10. Learn how your cards work and interact with each other and with opponents' cards. That's the primary way to improve your win rate.
Bonus: The rules allow you to bring a list of paper with some advice like boarding plans to the tournament, and there's nothing bad or sneaky about doing it, especially for a tricky deck like Melira. Consult your tournament's head judge, but A4 paper is usually acceptable. You could use it between games, and don't forget to put your paper on the table before the start of the match. A judge can give you some advice about the exact procedure if you have any questions.
Now to the matchups. I'll provide a boarding plan and game plan for the most common matchups. Alternative versions are viable for most cases, and I'll be happy to discuss them because a better game plan often helps improve matchups and can even reverse them. Right after GP Lincoln last year, the winner's Life from the Loam deck became very popular, and I with my teammates was able to turn our MTGO statistics from 0-5 into 10-1 without changing a single card in the deck.
This matchup is considered good, but it's just slightly positive if you play against a qualified pilot, so test it extensively. Turn 2 Liliana of the Veil is one of the most destructive starts in Modern, but Jund has no maindeck Jund Charm and Kitchen Finks anymore, so our task is slightly easier than it was as Lingering Souls is rarely able to force unfavorable exchanges. The goal is to preserve our life total and prevent our opponent's card advantage via Liliana of the Veil and Dark Confidant. An opposing Deathrite Shaman doesn't hurt as much as some players believe since we never try to win through combo; eating our Kitchen Finks with Shaman in response to the opponent's Shaman activation (and in response to the persist trigger) is usually fine.
Post-board Jund will have more removal and one or two copies of the fearsome Olivia Voldaren. There are not many answers to Olivia (especially if we have no Clone effects), so don't waste Linvala, Keeper of Silence without good reason. Our game plan is improved post-board since we take out all weak cards and put in efficient creatures instead.
Zoo and Other Aggressive Decks
Different versions of Geist of Saint Traft decks are nearly as popular as Jund right now. There's Reid Duke's Zoo with six or seven mana dorks, the version with four Snapcaster Mage, good ol' U/W/R Delver, RUG Delver, Burn, etc. The generic strategy against these decks is similar to Jund and includes surviving the early turns through creature exchanges and winning through the advantage generated by our good creatures. The goals are to keep our life total out of burn range and to deal with opposing early threats. Don't hesitate exchanging a fast Geist of Saint Traft for two creatures, etc. Most of these matchups are positive, especially if the opponent tries to beat our combo by siding in fine cards like Ancient Grudge.
This is not the usual aggressive deck because it's impossible to race. I dislike playing this matchup, like most Melira players I know, but it seems to be slightly positive despite that. Our pre-board plan is to go off faster than the opponent can win (it's nice when they play Master of Etherium instead of Galvanic Blast). The post-board strategy is changed to "find Kataki as soon as possible and protect him." If you expect to face a lot of Affinity, you should add Stony Silence to your sideboard. It's better than the other options because despite making Birthing Pod useless, it improves the G/R Tron matchup a little bit.
Siding out Thoughtseizes is somewhat controversial; they are definitely slow on the draw but may be better than Viscera Seer on the first turn. However, assuming that we need Birthing Pod or Chord of Calling to find Kataki, War's Wage, Seer is fine. I also keep Linvala because Affinity's best long-term plans are Steel Overseer and Arcbound Ravager, but it's still an unclear decision for me.
One more unusual aggressive deck. We can't exchange with Lord-powered creatures, so the only way to beat them pre- and post-board is combo. Modern Merfolk happily for us doesn't play much countermagic, and it's usually possible to play around a few removal spells. Our best non-combo creature here is Murderous Redcap, especially early.
G/W Hate Bears, popularized by my fellow countryman Dmirty Medvedev, is a tough matchup, especially pre-board, but I have some ideas to make the matchup better, so it should be slightly more favorable after some testing (and if the deck's pilot is not as lucky as Mr. Medvedev himself). There is no way to win through combo, so concentrate on having at least some mana to cast your creatures. We aren't afraid of Baneslayer Angel, who is hard to cast and easy to outrace (prevent life gain with Viscera Seer). Mirran Crusader is the real problem, so side in all creatures able to exchange with him or at least chump block. The best cards in our deck in this matchup are Gavony Township and Deathrite Shaman (one of the reasons to have two).
U/R Splinter Twin
Slightly worse matchup, one in which combo is our primary plan and is a pure race. Linvala, Keeper of Silence backed with Saffi Eriksdotter or Spellskite shines here and gives us a chance to win with combat damage (this plan works better post-board). Their troublesome cards are Volcanic Fallout / Pyroclasm and Grim Lavamancer. I'm not sure about the boarding plan for this matchup as I tend to have more creatures to side in than out, but it's something like this:
Good matchup; the best line of play is protecting Ethersworn Canonist. Many Storm players just concede in response pre-board and sometimes even post-board. Maindeck Ethersworn Canonist may be worse than Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, but Magic Online is full of decks which are bad against her (for example, Infect) or where Canonist isn't much worse than Thalia, so I still keep this artifact creature. However, she's the first candidate for going to sideboard.
If you've seen Goblin Bushwhacker or Empty the Warrens, it's fine to side in Gaddock Teeg, while I'm not sure if he's good against just Past in Flames. An important note: always kill Goblin Electromancer as fast as possible or all your measures may become futile (that's why you keep both Redcaps).
Storm players usually try to board into a different deck: Splinter Twin, exchanging Grapeshot for Empty the Warrens, even U/R Delver. If you don't know their exact plan, try attacking from multiple angles (Canonist, Thalia, Deathrite, etc.) and winning with combat damage while the opponent is trying to deal with your threats.
Ethersworn Canonist, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Gaddock Teeg, and Kataki, War's Wage are all best friends against an Eggs player. The plan is the same as for Tron: create trouble and win through combat damage. They tend to have Leyline of Sanctity post-board, but I still think that boarding in discard is the right move.
Pre-board, try to win through combat damage, even with the risk of being destroyed by Pyroclasm—their bad draw is the most realistic way to win. Post-board, our plan is centered on Gaddock Teeg and Burrenton Forge-Tender. They don't reverse the matchup but give us a reasonable chance. A paranoid fifteen-card board plan for this matchup doesn't make it much better, so I recommend trying to do what's possible with minimal resources and simply avoid Melira in favor of Twin Pod or another deck if Tron is expected to be very popular.
Similar to G/R Tron but a slightly better matchup, especially if they have Primeval Titan instead of Cryptic Command. It's also fine that infinite life will win the game for you, so resolving fast a Birthing Pod will be rewarded. Generally, it's right to combine going combo and disrupting the opponent's plan according to their line of play. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is very good against accelerations spells, especially when backed by Saffi Eriksdotter.
Gifts Ungiven and Other Control Decks
These mono-answer decks are tough because we have no good way to beat Unburial Rites and Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. The most realistic plan is to protect hate bears and win through combat damage. A fast Birthing Pod also helps.
As for other control decks, which have increased in popularity after the first PTQ on Magic Online, I still don't have enough statistics to figure out the best plan against them, so all I can say is that they're tough and are even worse if they run ten and more counterspells, Gifts Ungiven, or Vedalken Shackles. Planeswalker-based Esper builds are the simplest among them but are still negative. Our best cards are Thrun, the Last Troll, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, and Lingering Souls; winning through combo is extremely unlikely, so just try to beat them very fast. If the popularity of these decks increases, I'll seriously reconsider my deck choice (as Tron will improve its position to beat them).
Mirror and Kiki Pod
These matches are somewhat similar since they're both combo races; winning though combat damage is rare (usually only happens when you have enough disruption). However, if you can be aggressive, just do so and force the opponent to solve two problems simultaneously.
Linvala, Keeper of Silence is a key creature in both matches, and Melira, Sylvok Outcast is for the mirror. Remember that they are both legendary, so Saffi Eriksdotter helps. In the mirror, playing your Melira will usually prevent the opponent's combo for a turn, and that is worth a dead Melira. Other hate bears are usually good too.
Boarding for the mirror match:
Boarding against Kiki Pod:
Nice deck, they can pump our Spellskite.
The Rest of the Field and Unknown Decks
Modern has a ton of possibilities, so even a very large primer can't be complete. When you face something unusual, try to figure out which game plan is the most promising—aggro, combo, or hate bears—and play accordingly. Adapting is what Melira Pod does best, especially if you know what you want.
Whew! That's probably all I can say about Melira Pod right now. I hope this primer will help you during PTQ season. Keep an eye on the metagame, as it seems to be changing to be unfavorable to the deck. The Favorable Winds of Modern are very fluky, however, so I hope that this work will be useful over the course of the whole season. Modern is the format that rewards players for knowing their decks, so good luck!