"What's the combo?"
It is not uncommon for those words to be the first I read from any new viewer to my Modern streams. It seems to the point and harmless enough, but my answer never seems satisfactory. I usually respond by telling the viewer that there are many combos and we do not rely on any given one. I might explain some of the core combos a bit, such as Intruder Alarm plus Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, but inevitably someone asks about how the Hunted Phantasm in my hand helps out that combo.
It doesn't. At least, not directly.
This seems to trip people up. I think that they imagine a Storm deck with Tarmogoyf in it or something similar. What's the point? Why are we weakening our combo in order to play some mediocre 4/6 with a drawback? Isn't this a combo deck? Get me to the combo!
Marketing a deck as "combo" comes with some baggage these days. Most people hear "combo," and they assume you are talking about the some lightning-fast, one-dimensional strategy that is looking to play unfair. Some amount of the time, that is an apt description, but lately my focus has been on a different sort of combo deck. For those of you that may remember, before Collected Company was a deck in Modern, perhaps the best green deck in the format was Birthing Pod.
Birthing Pod was clearly a combo deck, but the way its games played out was a lot different from how your normal Storm or Eggs deck might. Storm or Eggs has one natural end-point that it is trying to reach. Therefore, almost independent of what your opponent is doing, you want to aim at that end-point. If the opponent disrupts you, you try to recover and stay the course.
Birthing Pod, however, rarely only has one end-game it is working towards. Because of the ability for Birthing Pod to find specific one-ofs in your deck, Birthing Pod would often play out like a disruptive midrange deck before pulling ahead enough in the race to combo out and win.
Those games in which Birthing Pod does not assemble some natural turn 3 or 4 combo hold my interest. What makes the Birthing Pod deck have that level of resilience? What allows it to morph in and out of combo mode and into midrange mode? The answer lies in its ability to find individual, select answers to cards or strategies while maintaining a coherent through-line among its card choices.
If a Storm player wanted to have better Game 1 against Affinity, it pretty much has to double down on its speed unless it wants to dedicate three to four slots for removal, thereby weakening its core strategy. Birthing Pod, on the other hand, can dedicate one slot to Reclamation Sage, a few slots for lifegain such as Kitchen Finks, and some basic form of removal, and all of sudden its Affinity matchup has become substantially stronger without weakening many other matchups in return. We dedicated maybe one total slot to Affinity in the Reclamation Sage and that is plenty versatile enough in Modern.
Storm only has one mode of operation when it runs into Affinity and that is to be faster. Birthing Pod has that option as well (although it is certainly less consistent in the pure-speed game than Storm), but it also has this ability to pivot and hit your deck right where it hurts most.
Reclamation Sage and Qasali Pridemage for those Cranial Platings, please! Maindeck Scavenging Ooze to fight graveyard strategies? Check! Voice of Resurgence protects against control. Even maindeck Linvala fought the mirror off. All of these small additions bring an enormous amount of versatility to what would otherwise be a straightforward combo deck. In fact, if you remember the old Project X lists from Standard, those were more akin to a Birthing Pod list that was focused much more on its combo and less on the toolbox package.
Birthing Pod was a poster child for one of my favorite models of deckbuilding, which is simply to layer synergies and interactions one on top of the other until enough like-minded cards form a cohesive deck. This was done through various two-card combos available in the list as well as a consistent backup plan of midrange creatures and disruption.
No matter how odd any individual card may have looked in the list, it fit into one of these two categories and filled its role. The hope was that, while any individual piece of disruption might weaken a combo line slightly, access to that card would bolster certain matchups greatly. Because Birthing Pod and Chord of Calling both existed in the list, the idea was that any inconsistency gained would be minimally felt while versatility would have a maximum impact.
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Bonded Fetch
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 4 Hunted Phantasm
- 1 Izzet Staticaster
- 4 Nest Invader
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Restoration Angel
- 2 Steward of Solidarity
- 1 Thraben Doomsayer
- 1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- 1 The Locust God
- 1 Dryad Arbor
With the Intruder Alarm combo deck I have been working on, the deck almost ends up looking like a Venn diagram with every element of the deck overlapping others but also existing in its own space. When I draw Intruder Alarm plus Beck // Call, my deck will operate a little differently from when I draw Hunted Phantasm plus Intruder Alarm, which will operate a little differently than when I draw Hunted Phantasm plus Beck // Call.
All three of these combinations of cards are doing something my deck wants, but unlike storm, the direction you move from each of these positions is not necessarily the same. One direction might win the game from an arbitrarily large combo, whereas another might look to beat down with a 4/6 unblockable creature. Neither of these is wrong in the abstract, but the pressure is put on the pilot to assess which path is the best route to victory in that given game.
If you happen to line up all of your synergies in that purple sweet spot in the middle, that is the moment where your deck will feel most like a linear combo deck (such as Storm). That is not to say that this should be your goal in every matchup, as some decks will have the tools to take your pure combo down while they might struggle against Aether Vial and being beaten down. Again, by giving the player more autonomy over their path to victory, we also put more pressure on that player to make correct decisions, but if the player can manage that, they have much more control over the outcome of each game. This does make experience with the deck extra-rewarding as obscure lines and scenarios become more easily recognized.
To the Sideboard!
Now, Birthing Pod as a comparison point has been a little unfair. Obviously nothing in Modern quite fills the role of Birthing Pod, as it was just such a strong engine that it needed to be banned. This means that, while we can have some silver bullets in the maindeck, we ultimately need to dedicate more of our list toward consistency than a Pod list might, simply because they got to rely on that powerful namesake. We have Chord of Calling, which is great, but Pod decks had that too in addition to Birthing Pod. As a result of this, we end up with the majority of our hate and silver bullets in the sideboard, where they can come in when they are most effective.
Unlike most decks' sideboards, ours is primarily a toolbox from which we can tutor up specific answers to specific problems. This has been a method of sideboarding in decks that have a tutor package for as long as I can remember, but I like to take the task a step further. While every card in the sideboard has matchups in which it is the sideboard all-star, I wanted each card to have roles in other matchups, even if it is not able to shut things down completely.
A great example of this is Kambal, Consul of Allocation. Kambal comes in against other combo decks looking to play a lot of spells (Storm), as well as in very aggressive matchups where a few extra points of life matter. If I wanted to specifically target Storm or Ad Nauseam, I would probably elect to play Eidolon of Rhetoric in that slot as it is so much more damaging to their strategy. In making that swap, however, I would lose quite a strong game piece against Burn or Zoo. Eidolon being a 1/4 is relevant, so it's not like I am giving everything up, but I have sacrificed a little power in one area to gain it in another.
Ultimately, I tried to construct this sideboard in such a way as to have one or two primary tutor targets for any given matchup as well as one to three additional targets that offer some splash hate. So let's go back to the Storm example. For this matchup, I would consider Ethersworn Canonist; Kambal, Consul of Allocation; and Loaming Shaman to be my primary targets.
Two of these shut off combo potential, while the third disrupts their primary plan of utilizing the graveyard. In addition to those cards, though, I also get to bring in Meddling Mage, Gaddock Teeg, and Scavenging Ooze. Now, given the entire pool of Modern cards, these would not be the three best choices to fight Storm, but when they're complementing my other choices, I end up with six reasonable cards and four tutors to grab them with, all the while maintaining my core combo shell.
This last point is actually quite crucial. While a control strategy might go into sideboarding with some obvious cards it wants to take out, combo decks don't quite have that luxury. In control, you can lighten your removal in a mirror match or take out some countermagic against aggro; almost regardless of what you bring in, your matchup becomes a little bit better. In a combo shell, you are often removing essential elements of your deck and therefore weakening the actual combo itself. Our deck happens to have enough of a combo element to it that we can afford to shave in some areas, but we still can't be bringing in eight cards in very many matchups.
Let's go over the reach of our sideboard to see just how much we can adapt to any given match up. This is an area where I expect to improve the list substantially, but it is still good to get a sense of where we are currently.
This one is pretty self-explanatory and one of your more versatile sideboard cards. You will be bringing this in against Affinity, Burn, Tron, Ad Nauseam, as well as to stop particular hate cards that the opponent might have (although not Torpor Orb, which is where our next card comes in handy).
This is mostly interchangeable with Reclamation Sage but does have the ability to take out the aforementioned Torpor Orb. Occasionally the exalted trigger comes in handy and sometimes you only have the ability to Chord for two, which warrants the split, in my opinion.
Staticaster already shines in our deck by being able to clear our Forbidden Orchard tokens and Hunted Phantasm tokens, so we do run one in the main. That said, there are many matchups where X/1s or other small creatures are crucial and being able to control the battlefield gives us a huge edge as the game drags on. These come in against Affinity, Mono-Red, most Lingering Souls decks, all of the Vizier of Remedies lists, as well as most other Collected Company decks such as Humans. If you are on the play, you can also bring them in against Merfolk, but I have found their lords blank the ping effect too often and you need to combo it with Intruder Alarm to be effective, which isn't ideal.
This is a bullet target intended primarily to beat Affinity, although it does have splash applications in other places, such as various prison decks. Kataki is the best single card against Affinity, and although it is true that they can break out of it, doing so tends to take time and resources from a deck built on speed. Even just slowing them down by a turn or so will often be enough to assemble your own combo and win. Generally speaking, though, I would say that a good 75% of the time Kataki comes down against Affinity, you win the game without needing to do much else.
This is possibly the sideboard card I am most skeptical of at the moment, but its intended role is pretty clear. The idea here is to protect yourself from countermagic or nonsense removal spells in the middle of your combo. That part does work great if you manage it, but the issue I have been having is that window at the end of my opponent's turn. When I go to Chord for Abolisher, the opponent can either counter my Chord or use their removal on Abolisher immediately before it is actually my turn. This makes the protection not as reliable as I might like. Other options like Vexing Shusher have come up, but they fail in too many places to be valuable. Glen Elendra Archmage is a potential option here that I have not tried yet, but will look to test soon.
Teeg sort of plays middleman in his ability to disrupt a lot of strategies in significant enough ways to warrant a slot. This is in spite of his requirement to shut off future Chord of Callings. I bring Teeg in against Tron, Storm, Scapeshift, Ad Nauseam, and any deck playing Supreme Verdict or Cryptic Command. The game tends to become about Gaddock Teeg once he hits the battlefield, which gives you time to set up whatever you have going on.
I have been wondering recently if Scavenging Ooze does enough to warrant a sideboard slot out of this deck. Obviously, Scavenging Ooze is a great Magic card and can take over a game against any graveyard or aggro strategy if left unchecked for a few turns. That said, is it worth tutoring for over something else, especially in a deck that wants to be using its mana regularly? In my experience, I have often exiled one to two cards with this before it dies or the game ends, and I think I can probably do better. In any case, this slot wants to be something that interacts with the graveyard as Loaming Shaman is only a one-time effect and needs the support. Perhaps Yixlid Jailer or something along those lines is worth looking into.
This offers us the big graveyard reset we need without any further mana investment. Being able to effectively exile a single graveyard in one shot allows us to disrupt strategies like Storm, Living End, Dredge, or even Death's Shadow, while selectively shuffling back any key cards we want access to ourselves again. Generally you should leave whatever you feel is the best Eternal Witness target, but then shuffling back the rest of your stuff will shrink opposing Tarmogoyfs and turn back on your Chord of Callings.
We talked about Kambal quite a bit to open this, but I will quickly reiterate. Kambal pulls double duty in his ability to punish aggro decks, even including Death's Shadow, while also being relevant against Storm or Eggs or many other big-turn combo decks. While there are better options against either half of that spectrum, I have found Kambal to be the best at bridging the gap. I also do most of my testing online, and having a few extra nods to Burn and Mono-Red is never a bad idea when you grind Magic Online.
Your anti-combo all-star. It should be noted that Canonist will prevent you from going off with Sprout Swarm and as a result should usually be swapped for it, but its ability to shut down other decks is much more pronounced. Storm, Ad Nauseam, Living End, Eggs, and Puresteel Paladin all become severely dampened with a Canonist out, and because we are our own combo deck, all we are looking for is an extended window of time to go off. We are using one of our resources in Chord of Calling to hopefully gain a few turns worth of time to make up for that resource loss and cruise into a win.
Meddling Mage often functions as a second copy of Gaddock Teeg or Ethersworn Canonist, depending on the matchup. Rarely will you want to tutor it as your primary piece of disruption, but in combination with anything else, you can usually lock up a game. Against Living End or Ad Nauseam, you can certainly steal a game with the card outright, but usually it will be naming the Slagstorm or Lightning Bolt that could come down and wreck your Teeg or Canonist. I could see Mage being cut as we develop a better sideboard plan for Death's Shadow specifically (a matchup I feel could use more work from this list).
Linvala has been a holdover from previous decks of this nature like Birthing Pod, where it often proved an extremely valuable disruption piece. Of course, without Birthing Pod mirrors around, Linvala loses some of that value, but we still have Vizier of Remedies and Devoted Druid running around, as well as the usual cast of Affinity and B/W Eldrazi. I have replaced Linvala with Phyrexian Revoker in the past to gain interaction with planeswalkers and the like, but I am not convinced on which to land on. Possibly both.
Of all the cards in my sideboard, Zealous Conscripts makes the best case for finding a position in the maindeck. It serves no particular purpose, yet covers them all. Similar to Restoration Angel, Conscripts goes arbitrarily large with Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, so it has a baseline functionality already. Beyond that, it can steal problematic cards like Gideon Jura who has just used a +2 ability, or a Nahiri who just ticked up to her ultimate. Additionally, because Intruder Alarm provides untapping, you don't even have to target Kiki-Jiki with the Conscripts trigger, allowing you to take all of your opponent's permanents before killing them. This lets you win through essentially any game state other than the strange Privileged Position locks that occasionally pop up (although usually a combat step is enough to win from here anyway).
I would not be surprised to see some of these cards shift their way into the maindeck, similar to the way Birthing Pod managed before. As we learn what decks in the metagame give us the most trouble and which decks we need to be prepared for in game one, we can make adjustments to meet those barriers.
It is definitely worth mentioning Glittering Wish quickly before we wrap things up. Glittering Wish provides this deck with an even greater toolbox, as it can access the sideboard in Game 1 situations. It also happens to find Beck // Call, The Locust God, and some number of current sideboard cards, although we would need to make a lot of changes to maximize its effectiveness. I like the idea of Wish a lot more in a shell running Jeskai Ascendancy, as it can find multiple important pieces of your combos. Still, if someone wanted to experiment with bending this list enough to make Glittering Wish work, I could definitely see that being successful.