Modern Times: Combo Breaker

I was a kid of the arcades. When I was in elementary and middle school, on the weekends you would usually find me popping quarters into machines for hours on end (heck, I even beat the original 6-player Uncanny X-men game with 5 other friends and about $10 in quarters one time!). I especially liked fighting games, but I was what you called a button masher. I was jumping all over the place, furiously pounding the buttons and somehow beating people that were supposedly pros at the game. Fighting games used to be a bit more simple, and it all came down to reflexes (mine were lighting quick when I was young). Nowadays, games have become a lot more technical. You have complicated super combos, ways to taunt players, and most importantly ways to break those super combos before they do insane amounts of damage. Magic the Gathering, especially modern and legacy, is sorta like a fighting game. Sometimes you can play a drawn out game of attrition, knocking your opponent’s life bar down a little bit at a time, but when you make it to the big leagues, you can kiss that type of strategy good bye.

Nobody waits for you to set up your attack. You can’t hold back and block, looking for an opening to strike back with overwhelming force. No, you’re on a timer whether you like it or not. Decks like Melira Pod, UR Twin, Tin Fists, and Storm are going to go infinite on you and the only thing you can do about it is hope for a C-C-C-C-C-Combo Breaker.

A First Look at the Nagoya Modern Metagame

I played in my first ever modern tournament near the end of February, and it was a big one. 44 players showed up for one of the largest casual modern events to date in Nagoya. This was before Pro Tour Born of Gods, and I can only guess that things are going to get a lot crazier from this tournament onwards. With the banning of Deathrite Shaman going into affect just a few weeks earlier, many of the players came to the event itching to test their decks against a much more graveyard friendly field. I was using the BW Tokens build from my previous article, and my first ever opponent was a Melira Pod deck.

I felt like I got dunked on.

In the first game, I found myself at the end of an infinite Archangel of Thune and Spike Feeder combo. In the second game I managed to shut down his Birthing Pod with Stony Silence then proceed to beat him down with tokens before he could put up any type of fight, but in the final game I again found myself staring at my opponent dumbfounded while he hit me for infinite damage through a Melira, Sylvok Outcast and Murderous Redcap combo. Not knowing how important it was to keep a hand with some kind of removal or answer for his Birthing Pod, I found myself utterly embarrassed and finished with my round very quickly.

In my next match, I went up against Naya Zoo. I won 2-1 by dropping A LOT of tokens to chump block his Tarmogoyf, then made them big enough with enchantments so that he wouldn’t think of attacking into them. Following this match I lost to a UB Faeries and a BUG control deck, but I managed to beat a UWR control deck in my final bout to finish 2-3. 

On my second modern weekend I played at a smaller 14 person tournament but got a lot more experience with BW tokens. I faced UR Twin, UWR Flash, and UWR control. I went 0-3 . . . It was my first time playing against these decks and I had no idea what my strategy should be. UR Twin got me in game one with an infinite creature copy combo around turn 4, and while I managed to play out the second game longer, the result was still the same. Drop a Deceiver Exarch, play a Splinter Twin on it and then copy the creature until your heart is content and attack for infinite.

Breaking the Combo

Learning how to play against these decks from scratch has been hard, but now I know more about both my deck and how to play against my opponents. I’ve learned that I need to shut down Birthing Pod and any search effects as soon as possible, I’ve learned to save removal for the creature Splinter Twin enchants, and I’ve also learned that Snapcaster Mage is an absolute menace in control decks. Modern has been a fun format so far, letting you build pretty much whatever deck you want to, but have to be able to stop the combo decks or you’ll straight out lose every time. Out of the decks I’ve played so far, here’s what to watch out for:

  • UR Twin – the deck plays Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, Splinter Twin, Deceiver Exarch, and Pestermite (amongst other cards) to make infinite copies of creatures and then attack for infinite. Targeting the Splinter Twin enchantment, Deceiver Exarch, or Kiki-Jiki are good ways to stop the combo. Use your removal as they are targeting the creatures to stop it. 
  • Melira Pod – This deck is the king of combos. There are a number of targets you need to watch out for. The first is Melira, Sylvok Outcast. She makes it so your creatures can’t get -1/-1 counters, so if the player lands a Kitchen Finks or Murderous Redcap and a way to sacrifice the creatures infinitely (e.g. Cartel Aristocrat), they’ll deal infinite damage or gain infinite life. Getting rid of their sacrifice outlets is a must. Another target to watch out for is Archangel of Thune and Spike Feeder. It won’t be in all decks, but they can also gain infinite life from this combo too. Shut down the combos with cards like Rest in Peace or Stony Silence (to stop Birthing Pod), but even Grafdigger’s Cage is a decent card against the deck. 
  • GR Tron – Tron isn’t so much a combo deck as it is more of a ramp deck. It uses the Urza lands (Urza’s Tower, Urza’s Mine, etc), land acceleration, and cards like Explore to get insane amounts of colorless mana and to push out a Karn Liberated on turn 3. The deck can also play a Mindslaver early, taking over your turn, but card you really want to look out for at cards like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn or Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre. How do you stop this “combo”? Well, playing an early Blood Moon can absolutely break the deck since it turns all non-basic lands into mountains, but you can also use cards like Leonin Arbiter to slow down the deck finding its win conditions with Eye of Ugin. 
  • Tin Fists – Tin Fists tries to do 2 things to win the game. The first is to use Fist of the Suns to sneak in an early Griselbrand or Emrakul, and the other is to use Goryo’s Vengeance coupled with discard spells like Faithless Looting and Izzet Charm to put one of those big creatures into the battlefield from the graveyard. If you have graveyard hate like Rest in Peace, Relic of Progenitus, or even Grafdigger’s Cage it will help you out a lot, but even cards like Blood Moon can go a long way in shutting down the deck if you play it early. 

Those are my notes from the games I’ve played so far, and focusing on breaking these combos should help you in improving your win percentage against those decks. Of course if you’ve been playing modern for a long time you already know about these strategies, but since I’m writing this for players new to the format and for myself, I think it’s good to cover it. As a new player, I would greatly appreciate any tips or advice on the decks I covered today, so feel free to leave a comment down below if you would like to add to the conversation. 

Changing Things Up

I decided to put my BW Tokens deck on hold until I collect a few more cards I need for it, namely some fetch lands, Auriok Champions, and Elspeth, Knight Errant. With Wizards of the Coast releasing a modern event deck based around BW tokens, I’m looking to pick up a lot of what I need in one swoop. Until then, here’s the list I’m thinking of building. 

BW tokens
75 cards, 15 sideboard
1 Caves of Koilos
3 Windbrisk Heights
2 Ghost Quarter
2 Swamp
2 Vault of the Archangel
3 Plains
4 Marsh Flats
4 Godless Shrine
2 Isolated Chapel

23 lands

3 Auriok Champion
2 Hero of Bladehold

5 creatures

1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
3 Zealous Persecution
2 Bitterblossom
4 Lingering Souls
4 Intangible Virtue
4 Raise the Alarm
4 Thoughtseize
4 Path to Exile
4 Spectral Procession
2 Honor of the Pure

32 other spells

2 Elspeth Tirel
3 Burrenton Forge-Tender
2 Torpor Orb
2 Relic of Progenitus
3 Duress
3 Stony Silence

15 sideboard cards

Due to the large number of Pod and UR twin decks in the metagame in Nagoya, I’ve decided to play with 3 Auriok Champions to save myself from infinite copies of creatures. I’ve also given some thought to playing Bitterblossom in this deck to give me an early source of unending tokens, and I think it fits well. I’ve cut 2 Honor of the Pure to give me a little more pressure on the board, and in the sideboard I’ve added in Elspeth Tirel to act as a board wipe of sorts and to also help counteract the life loss from Bitterblossom in close match ups. Burrenton Forge Tender was another addition to the sideboard as I found myself getting board wiped by Anger of the Gods in some match ups when I only had 2 anthems on the board. Might take me a while to collect all the parts, but I think the deck looks strong. 

Modern R/w Devotion
75 cards, 15 sideboard
4 Clifftop Retreat
1 Plains
4 Arid Mesa
4 Sacred Foundry
7 Mountain
4 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx

24 lands

4 Ash Zealot
4 Kargan Dragonlord
4 Figure of Destiny
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Demigod of Revenge
4 Fanatic of Mogis
4 Burning-Tree Emissary

28 creatures

2 Koth of the Hammer
2 Blasphemous Act
4 Path to Exile

8 other spells

2 Stony Silence

1 Shatterstorm
2 Combust
2 Wear//Tear
2 Grafdigger’s Cage
2 Relic of Progenitus
2 Blood Moon
2 Vexing Shusher

15 sideboard cards

Modern Red/White devotion got its feet wet this last weekend at Nagoya and it’s off to a great start. I went 2-1 at a 20 person tournament and came in 5th place. I beat Mono black devotion and UWR control, but fell a little short against Affinity. The deck has performed well above my expectations as a new archetype, and I have high hopes for it in the future. I’ve made some key changes since my last article, and it’s really helped to streamline the deck. 

Previously I was running Lightning Bolts, but they underperformed in testing and also hurt my ability to get a lot of devotion early on. Therefore I added in Ash Zealot. Ash Zealot is actually really good in this deck. It is a great card to have in play against control or Storm, and it can also put a lot of pressure on an opponent early if they don’t have anything going until turn 3 or 4. Another ingenious addition to the deck is Blasphemous Act. One of my fellow Cardboard Samurai, Jose Argao, suggested that I drop Bonfire of the Damned for Act and I couldn’t agree more. If anybody remembers RBW aristocrats from last season, then you no doubt remember taking damage in multiples of 13 when Blasphemous Act went off with a Boros Reckoner or two in play. Not only is this a good card to have against Zoo or Tokens, it also gives you an alternate win condition if you have Boros Reckoners in play. 

In the sideboard, I have decided to add in an Shatterstorm to deal with Affinity, which should cripple the deck if I can play it early. Since artifacts can’t be regenerated, that means their Welding Jar will be worthless. I’ve also added in 2 Combust to help my match up against Splinter Twin, and Stony Silence for both Affinity and Pod match ups. I feel like Red and White have a lot of answers for the current metagame, so playing R/w devotion might not be as crazy as you think.  I recommend sleeving it up and trying out if you have the time, you might be pleasantly surprised! 

Countdown to GP Nagoya

Next weekend I’ll be playing in a Grand Prix Trial for GP Nagoya, which means I’ll be going into limited mode soon. The Grand Prix is just over a month away, so practicing draft is going to pretty important for me. In two weeks there is another sealed GPT and Pro Tour Qualifier here in Nagoya, and I feel like I’m in a pretty good position to do well at both. Standard will still be an important part of my week, helping me to keep my skills sharp and fresh, but it will take a back seat to the other formats as I work on getting my skill set up to the same level that my standard ones are at. I have some good ideas for decks still after some more testing, so check back in a few days for a metagame update and lists!

Next week I’ll also be talking about special events The Japan Hobbyist has planned for Grand Prix Nagoya, as well as information about how you can get your hands on some cool Cardboard Samurai swag at the event. Be sure to check back in a few days to learn more!