If you don’t know how a particular combo works and how to defend against it then you will, in all likelihood, lose the game. Combo decks don’t particularly care about what you are up to as long as you don’t interrupt them. It’s your job to know how to stop them.
There are four (and feel free to argue about this) commonly played combo decks in the current Modern meta game and some rogue ones that occasionally pop up. I have attended three PTQs in as many weeks and have painfully observed matches where the defending player clearly doesn’t know what his opponent is up to or what to do about it resulting, ultimately, in defeat.
This week I aim to discuss the plans for the main combo decks you will play against in a Modern competition and touch on some slightly rogue ones. If you are already confident against these decks then this article is not for you. However, to the rest of you welcome and enjoy.
Let’s start with the most commonly played combo deck–Splinter Twin.
It is actually one of the simplest combos in Modern to explain. They aren’t going to play twenty spells in one turn to build Storm or draw through their entire deck. Instead they are going to play searching spells such as [card]Serum Visions[/card] and [card]Sleight of Hand[/card] to find one of [card]Pestermite[/card] or [card]Deceiver Exarch[/card] and also a copy of [card]Splinter Twin[/card] or [card]Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker[/card].
Since [card]Pestermite[/card] and [card]Deceiver Exarch[/card] both have flash they will normally be cast at the end of the opponent’s turn, thus avoiding Sorcery-speed removal. Then [card]Splinter Twin[/card] can be attached to the creature. This allows it to tap, making a token copy of itself which has haste and has the ETB trigger to untap a permanent. This targets the original creature with the [card]Splinter Twin[/card]. Rinse and repeat to make 100,000 hasty creatures and attack. Alternatively, Kiki-Jiki works in the same manner to target the Mite or Exarch to make a copy of it, but importantly the untap trigger now targets Kiki-Jiki.
All of these tokens, whether made by Splinter Twin or Kiki-Jiki, are sacrificed at the beginning of the next end step. If they are made in an end step they go away in the end step of the following turn. I painfully watched a player concede in the Quarter Finals of a PTQ because he did not realise this.
How to defend.
Rule number one: don’t tap out. The Splinter Twin player’s dream is that an opponent that taps out on turn 3 or 4 so they can just go off without fear. Even if you don’t have anything don’t tell them so! Against a good player this may gain you some turns to actually find your answer.
Instant-speed removal works, but you have to target the correct things at the right time!
Let us use [card]Path to Exile[/card] as an example.
You can cast [card]Path to Exile[/card]:
-In response to the [card]Splinter Twin[/card] being cast on the creature it is trying to enchant
-In response to [card kiki-jiki, mirror breaker]Kiki-Jiki[/card] you have two options. Path the only target for Kiki while it is on the stack.
Or, wait for him to tap to make a copy and then Path him before the untap trigger. The second option here it better most of the time because that way they can’t use Kiki next turn on a new Pestermite.
If your removal spell is [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] there is not much you can do about Exarch/Twin, but if they have [card]Pestermite[/card] you can use it as above. Alternatively if they are using Kiki-Jiki you can still win by killing him at the right time.
You must let Kiki-Jiki resolve. You must now not do anything until they try use his ability. Once they have tapped Kiki-Jiki then is the time to strike. While the trigger to untap Kiki-Jiki is on the stack you can bolt it.
Another important note while talking about removal–you have to be careful with the lands you leave open. You can’t just leave up one red mana with [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] against Exarch/Kiki-Jiki as they can flash in Exarch end of your turn and can tap your red mana source. This catches people out time and time again.
Another important interaction I have seen messed up is how and what parts of the combo [card]Spellskite[/card] interacts with. [card]Spellskite[/card] can redirect [card]Splinter Twin[/card] onto itself while it is being cast and it can redirect the [card]Pestermite[/card] untap trigger. It cannot redirect the untap trigger from [card]Deceiver Exarch[/card] as the exact wording is “untap target permanent you control”. You can pay the life to attempt to redirect, but nothing will happen. Similarly you cannot redirect [card kiki-jiki, mirror breaker]Kiki-Jiki’s[/card] ability as it taps to make a copy of target creature you control. So [card]Spellskite[/card] can successfully defend, when used correctly, against any combo combination except [card]Deceiver Exarch[/card] with Kiki-Jiki.
One last consideration for the defence–[card]Spellskite[/card] is used by the deck itself to protect its combo piece from removal. As such, boarding into answers that [card]Spellskite[/card] cannot redirect successfully, such as [card]Combust[/card] and [card]Go for the Throat[/card], can work well. Naturally this has lead to the next level where Twin decks are boarding [card]Vines of Vastwood[/card] as alternative protection, so if they have tutored a Green source be aware!
Alright, I think that covers most of the obvious mistakes against Splinter Twin.
Some Birthing Pod decks are moving away from the combo contained within but you are still likely to see it. The combo comes from [card]Melira, Sylvok Outcast[/card] preventing -1/-1 counters being placed on creatures you control and Persist. If you have a sacrifice outlet (normally in the form of [card]Viscera Seer[/card]) you can constantly loop a [card]Kitchen Finks[/card] to gain infinite life or a [card]Murderous Redcap[/card] to deal infinite damage.
I have actually seen this combo being played wrong, so before I move onto defence let’s just look at a recent addition to the deck in the form of [card]Mikaeus, the Unhallowed[/card]. Mikaeus can take the role of Melira allowing a persist creature to alternately undie and then persist. It does not work in combination with Melira to allow you to loop any old creature since Melira only stops -1/-1 counters. I watched someone try to stack infinite Scry triggers with a [card]Viscera Seer[/card] sacrificing itself. Sadly for him this does not work.
They can assemble the three pieces of their combo alarmingly quickly from very little. For example: with [card]Reveillark[/card] plus [card]Birthing Pod[/card] in play (and Seer and Redcap in the graveyard) they can turn [card]Reveillark[/card] into [card]Mikaeus, the Unhallowed[/card] and return [card]Viscera Seer[/card] and [card]Murderous Redcap[/card] to play. The combo is now online. Alternatively, Chord of Calling is an instant and frequently catches people out if they try to Terminate Melira and have Redcap summoned up in response.
As you’ve now hopefully gathered, defeating this deck is about killing creatures with correct timing. The combo works at instant speed so don’t try to remove a piece when everything is just sat there. You can kill Melira or Seer while the Persist trigger is on the stack or kill the Persist creature in response to Melira being cast to get a counter on it, as the combo does not then work until they find a new copy. You do not get priority after [card]Birthing Pod[/card]’s ability or [card]Chord of Calling[/card] has been allowed to resolve so if that will acquire them the remaining piece kill one of the other bits!
As well as killing creatures there are a number of hate cards that really hurt this deck: you can stop library search effects with [card]Grafdigger’s Cage[/card] or [card]Aven Mindcensor[/card]. You can prevent ETB triggers with [card]Torpor Orb[/card] or remove the whole graveyard or the creature in response to the Persist trigger with cards such as [card]Jund Charm[/card] or [card]Surgical Extraction[/card] respectively. Artifact destruction for [card]Birthing Pod[/card] is also a good plan.
This reminds be of another misplay I saw with the deck. The player’s opponent had a [card]Torpor Orb[/card] preventing the onboard combo from winning. However you can still stack infinite Scry trigger with [card]Viscera Seer[/card] until you find the [card]Ancient Grudge[/card] I really hope you remembered to board in. Or at least a better creature to play.
Interestingly this appears to be a easier deck to defend against correctly than to play correctly.
Moving onto Storm now we get a combo that is simple enough in principle, but I can’t provide you with a “this is the sequence of plays that you need to stop and here is where.”
Let’s start with the combo itself.
The idea is to chain lots of rituals, draw and card selection effects to eventually have enough Storm to cast [card]Grapeshot[/card] for lethal.
Optionally they can also use [card]Empty the Warrens[/card] or [card]Pyromancer Ascension[/card] as additional win conditions. It is common to see [card]Past in Flames[/card] to help the comboing off process as they get to recast all the spells from their graveyards to add further mana, Storm and card draw. One misplay to watch out for is trying to flash spells back that were cast after [card]Past in Flames[/card]. It only gives spells which were already present in the graveyard Flashback.
Defending against this deck is very dependant on what you are playing. Decks with counter spells have to pick their moment. Countering an early ritual is often the right play but sometimes you can get [card]Past in Flames[/card] or the first ritual they attempt to Flashback if that leaves the mana pool empty.
A really good idea to get a hang of defending against Storm is to watch it online. People often play Storm in the casual queues on Magic Online as it is quite cheap to build. You can spectate a match and see where the weak links were in that particular sequence. Better yet, obtain a copy (online or not) and try it yourself. Actually that is a pretty good idea with all combo decks, but there is only so much time in the day.
Discard slows the initial assault but with [card]Past in Flames[/card] they can go off using all those spells you took away. Graveyard removal in response to [card]Past in Flames[/card] is pretty good though.
Unsurprisingly there have been a significant number of different relevant hate cards printed, which means most decks can board something relevant if they desire (I have included some examples but there are more!). You can stop players casting more than one spell a turn ([card]Ethersworn Canonist[/card]), you can make non-creatures spells more expensive ([card thalia, guardian of thraben]Thalia[/card] and [card]Thorn of Amethyst[/card]), you can stop cards being cast from graveyards or eliminate graveyards entirely ([card]Grafdigger’s Cage[/card] and [card]Jund Charm[/card]) and you can exile any number of target spells for 0 if multiple spells have been cast that turn ([card]Mindbreak Trap[/card]). Notable for [card]Mindbreak Trap[/card] you don’t tend to go for the actual Storm spell as they have probably found or can find a second copy to use but often you hit the [card]Past in Flames[/card].
This deck cycles rather unimpressive high CMC creatures to draw cards and then casts [card]Demonic Dread[/card] or [card]Violent Outburst[/card] to cascade into the only cards with CMC less than 3 in the deck–[card]Living End[/card]. This causes all creatures in play to be sacrificed and all creatures previously in graveyards to be put onto the battlefield. They then kill you with [card]Deadshot Minotaur[/card]s and [card]Monstrous Carabid[/card]s. An effective, if embarrassing, army.
Amusingly, [card]Demonic Dread[/card] requires a creature to be in play to be cast so if you cast a [card]Duress[/card] effect and have a choice take the [card]Violent Outburst[/card] then try to win without using creatures. Of course that is often difficult to arrange but you can buy some time for yourself this way. Countering the [card]Living End[/card] is very effective here as it instant speed mass graveyard hate (or [card]Leyline of the Void[/card]). It can often take game 1 against non-blue decks that can’t stop the [card]Living End[/card] resolving. Post board you will want some effective hate against it, but bear in mind that [card]Grafdigger’s Cage[/card] does nothing to stop either Cascade or [card]Living End[/card].
The following combos are less frequently played but you should be aware of how they work as that can show you how to defeat them.
This deck is going to get [card]Hive Mind[/card] in play then cast a Pact that you cannot pay for and therefore causes you to lose the game in your next upkeep.
Once [card]Hive Mind[/card] is in play (assuming they have a Pact to cast) you have basically no way to interact with it. They have priority to cast Pacts before you can destroy it and any counter spells you have, they can also copy (I think [card]Angel’s Grace[/card] is the exception to prove the rule). However, [card]Hive Mind[/card] is a six-mana enchantment, making them one of the slowest combos out there. They can use ramp and rituals to get there early but if you focus of stopping this resolving then you will probably be okay. Bear in mind that they have [card]Pact of Negation[/card] so you might need multiple counters. Racing them also tends to work well for non-blue decks.
This deck is going to combo through it’s entire deck one card at a time using cantripping “eggs” in the form of [card]Chromatic Star[/card] and friends, followed by [card]Second Sunrise[/card] to constantly return them all to play and draw again. Once the library has been empty it can win in a couple of ways. 1. Use [card]Noxious Revival[/card] or [card]Conjurer’s Bauble[/card] to put [card]Laboratory Maniac[/card] back in the deck. Draw, play it, then draw again. 2. You end up with the board state of: two [card]Lotus Bloom[/card]s, [card]Conjurer’s Bauble[/card] and [card]Pyrite Spellbomb[/card]. Sacrifice the [card]Lotus Bloom[/card]s for White and Red. Sacrifice the Bauble to put [card]Second Sunrise[/card] on bottom of the empty library and draw it. Use Red to shoot the Spellbomb at opponent for 2 damage. Finally, use the White to cast [card]Second Sunrise[/card] to return to the start. Loop this sequence until opponent is dead. 3. Alternatively you sometimes see [card]Banefire[/card] winning the game a bit earlier as they do end up making a lot of mana from recurring [card]Lotus Bloom[/card]s.
It’s a pretty fragile combo. Some well placed counters can really hamper it. Particularly hitting the first [card]Second Sunrise[/card] or [card]Lotus Bloom[/card] as it comes off suspend. Graveyard hate can be played around (although not [card]Leyline of the Void[/card] or [card]Extirpate[/card]). Other graveyard removal must be timed very carefully as [card]Second Sunrise[/card] and all the “egg” effects are at instant speed.
Last but not least we have Ad Nauseam combo. This deck has fallen out of popularity at the moment (which is good because it’s one of the dumbest mirror matches ever). Its plan is to cast [card]Angel’s Grace[/card] or [card]Phyrexian Unlife[/card] followed by [card]Ad Nauseam[/card] allowing the entire deck to be drawn with impunity. Then three [card]Simian Spirit Guide[/card]s are used to add three mana to the pool and then cast [card]Lightning Storm[/card] or [card]Conflagrate[/card] to deal lethal damage. Given the correct pieces this combo can work entirely at instant speed.
As with [card]Second Sunrise[/card] decks this deck is quite soft to hand disruption and counter spells. It also uses [card]Lotus Bloom[/card] as an accelerator so mana disruption can buy you enough time.
Well I think that has covered everything I wanted to say on combo this week. Hopefully now I will observe combo players getting fewer free wins! Apologies to the combo players out there. I hope you have found this to be useful.
I will be moving away from Modern for a while now as my future appears to hold a vast quantity of Standard and Sealed. If there is something you like me to consider writing about or you just want to say hi feel free to do so in the comments or on Twitter (@onionpixie). Ciao!