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In Development – Three Weapons and a Billion Life

The first time I attended Regionals, I didn’t do my due diligence and thus had a sort of limited understanding of the environment.

So when I sat down in one of the early rounds and put my opponent on white-black-green, that didn’t set off any particular alarm bells. He played [card]Elves of Deep Shadow[/card] and [card]Loxodon Hierarch[/card], I killed them with removal, and so forth…until he hit this trifecta:

…and gained a million life. Hm.

He clearly saw the gears in my head reorienting toward a decking-based victory and helpfully told me he had a way to shuffle his deck.

Double hm.

I didn’t win that match.

We find ourselves suddenly returned to a Standard environment that features genuine “your game ends now” combos, something that we’ve been without for a while. Done right, the combo leg of the aggro-control-combo triad presents a tremendous amount of power, but often at the cost of a lack of resilience. Still, a combo can be so powerful that it’s worth going (nearly) all-in on it.

But who wants to do that?

I’ve always preferred mixing the types – running aggro or control decks that build in a combo as a finisher.

In today’s column I’m going to present one of those “mixed type” decks and talk a little about the hows and whys of swinging with swords and gaining life.

I punch you in the face until you shoot me in the knees

I’ve written before about the idea of power and resilience in deck design. Put quite briefly, power is all about how badly your cripple you opponent when you successfully execute your game plan, and resilience is all about how much your deck resists being crippled by your opponent’s actions.

Given the same fundamental combo, you have a pretty broad range of options for deploying that combo, and they all boil down to where you set the balance between power and resilience.

Consider the [card]Splinter Twin[/card] combo in two of its recent incarnations.

Almost all-in on Splinter Twin

Michael Strunk took second place at the Orlando Standard Open with a deck that was mostly all-in on the Splint Twin combo.

Grixis Twin (as played by Michael Strunk at Orlando)

[deck]3 Duress
4 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Preordain
2 Go for the Throat
2 Into the Roil
4 Mana Leak
3 Spellskite
4 Deceiver Exarch
2 Dismember
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Splinter Twin
1 Consecrated Sphinx
2 Mountain
4 Island
4 Blackcleave Cliffs
4 Darkslick Shores
2 Halimar Depths
4 Creeping Tar Pit
4 Scalding Tarn
Sideboard
2 Combust
2 Shatter
3 Pyroclasm
1 Consecrated Sphinx
3 Twisted Image
4 Calcite Snapper[/deck]

I call this deck “mostly all-in” because it has a few other win conditions – Jace, [card]Creeping Tar Pit[/card], and two copies of [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card]. However, if you look at the deck in the absence of the Splinter Twin combo itself, it’s probably not a good enough control deck to stand on its own most of the time, so if you’re Memoricided, you are dramatically less likely to be able to pull off a win.

This is why most of the deck’s features that attempt to bolster resilience are oriented toward protecting the combo or buying time to execute the combo.

Hybridized Splinter Twin

In contrast to Strunk’s primarily combo-focused build, Tim Landale played a hybridized RUG / Splinter Twin deck at the same event.

RUG Twin (as played by Tim Landale at Orlando)

[deck]3 Lightning Bolt
4 Preordain
2 Explore
4 Lotus Cobra
2 Mana Leak
2 Jace Beleren
4 Deceiver Exarch
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Oracle of Mul Daya
3 Splinter Twin
4 Inferno Titan
2 Mountain
4 Island
2 Forest
4 Copperline Gorge
4 Raging Ravine
3 Halimar Depths
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Misty Rainforest
Sideboard
2 Obstinate Baloth
4 Pyroclasm
4 Flashfreeze
3 Natures Claim
2 Spell Pierce[/deck]

We can either think of this as the Splinter Twin combo wrapped in a RUG shell, or as a RUG deck with the Splinter Twin combo appended as a finisher in the place of [card]Avenger of Zendikar[/card] and Precursor Golem. Although it’s probably cognitively important which way you think about the deck, I think the important point for my purposes is that both plans are solid. Basically, you have:

The non-Splinter Twin plan is right there with the typical RUG deck, featuring acceleration, everyone’s favorite planeswalker, and four killer Titans. Although it has trimmed a few cards (some [card]Explore[/card]s, some [card]Mana Leak[/card]s) to fit in the combo, it is nonetheless a solid standalone deck.

In this take, the Splinter Twin combo is a rather less protected against disruption – but the tradeoff is that if your opponent spends too much time trying to stifle your combo kill, a Titan’s going to eat them instead.

As I’ve made clear before, my preference runs toward decks that maintain multiple, significant lines of attack.

Also, I like [card]Vengevine[/card]s.

Fortunately, these concepts come together quite nicely with the other infinite combo in Standard.

Metamorph combo explained

It’s not at all coincidental that I opened today’s column with a discussion of the Project X combo deck. The Project X combo relied on getting three creatures onto the battlefield – [card]Saffi Eriksdotter[/card] and [card]Crypt Champion[/card] (the engine) and anything that triggered on creatures entering or leaving the battlefield.

The combo I’ve been monkeying with lately works very, very similarly.

The engine – covetous cats and skittish metamorphs

The core engine of the metamorph combo is super-straightforward:

So basically, cast Relic-Warder, cast Phyrexian Metamorph copying Relic-Warder, Metamorph bounces itself…and this cycle repeats an arbitrary number of times.

The output – gaining life

The Project X deck benefited from having several cards that did different, useful things when creatures entered and exited the battlefield, like gaining life, making tokens, and even using those tokens to exile opposing creatures.

In the current Standard, we just have two choices:

In both cases, our combo finish boils down to “gain an arbitrarily large amount of life.”

Note that this alone is not a win. On the face of it, it’s a “not lose” that under normal circumstances would force your opponent to deck you. Right now, however, we’re operating in a Standard environment in which there are multiple possible ways to lose even after gaining a billion life:

That’s right – even after you pick up your giant pile of life, someone can just slap ten poison counters on you and call it a day. Pesky, right?

So the Metamorph combo is not, in itself, a win. It does, however, give you room to win at leisure against the format’s premier boogeyman, Caw-Blade and its variants, as well as other major contenders such as Valakut and RDW. Not having to worry about losing to damage gives you tremendous leeway to keep Jace suppressed, make the kind of even combat trades you’d normally avoid, and generally grind your opponent to death.

An arbitrarily large number of glass cannons

There’s a significant downside to this combo, and it’s the reason I’m not fond of decks that are dedicated to it.

Splash hate.

Consider the top two decks in Standard at the moment. One of them is all about small creatures wielding killer equipment. The other one is all about small creatures being infinitely replicated by an enchantment.

As a consequence, a prudent player goes into battle with a deck featuring some combination of creature and artifact/enchantment removal. Given this, you can’t expect to successfully pull off a combo that is built from three creatures, one of which is an artifact. Your average opponent will have removal, and if they have nothing better to spend it on, your combo is toast.

Splinter Twin decks typically try to protect their combo, using discard, countermagic, and Spellskites to disrupt and deflect the hate until the combo goes off – and if this is your plan, then I would pick a two-card combo over a three-card combo.

But if this isn’t your only plan, then the combo suddenly gains a lot of value.

Mystics and Metamorphs

As I mentioned in the opener, my predilections run toward mixing combo finishes in with other strategies rather than running pure combo. That’s why I like Dredge – sometimes you win with a combo finish and sometimes you beat down with Ichorids.

Right now in Standard, this means gaining infinite life and swinging with Mystics and Vengevines.

The list

Mystics and Metamorphs

[deck]3 Souls Attendant
4 Fauna Shaman
4 Go for the Throat
4 Leonin Relic-Warder
3 Lotus Cobra
4 Stoneforge Mystic
1 Suture Priest
1 Sword of Feast and Famine
1 Sword of War and Peace
4 Phyrexian Metamorph
4 Vengevine
1 Batterskull
1 Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre
4 Razorverge Thicket
4 Plains
3 Forest
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Marsh Flats
4 Stirring Wildwood
2 Swamp
Sideboard
4 Divine Offering
1 Melira, Sylvok Outcast
4 Kor Firewalker
1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
3 Memoricide
1 Acidic Slime
1 Sunblast Angel[/deck]

I’ve got more things than you can kill, son

There are two realistic approaches to an environment skewed to hate out one or more categories of cards. You can either try to dodge the hate entirely by refusing to play cards in those categories, or you can try to overload the hate.

This deck picks the second option and beats it into the ground.

Of the fifty non-land cards in the entire deck, thirty-nine of them (78%) are creatures, artifacts, or both. More to the point, these creatures and artifacts tend to be solid threats in their own right, being jam-packed with “must kill” cards. As I saw anecdotally in action during the recent Extended PTQ season, once you hit a critical threshold of high-value threats, you tend to find that your first creature to hit the battlefield takes a bullet for the team, clearing the way for the second creature to go to town.

More generally, M&M has hybridized three major lines of attack into one frame.

First, there’s the combo. The deck packs four copies of each of the engine cards as well as four copies, total, of cards that trigger off of the engine going off. These are bolstered by the four copies of Fauna Shaman that can pitch the creatures you don’t need for that vital third combo piece. In some cases the combo will simply catch your opponents off-guard, but if you assume they know what’s up, then that means that any time you start playing combo elements onto the field, your opponent has to start aiming removal at them.

Second, the deck runs a stereotypical [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] package. If this bores you, then I’ll apologize (just a bit) and point you toward the nearest article about Splinter Twin.

Much like the time-honored rule of “burn the Bird,” “kill the Mystic” is rapidly becoming a core element of standard operating procedure. The package of four Mystics and three pieces of very dangerous equipment puts a lot of pressure on your opponent to hold their removal back so they can knock out a Mystic or destroy a [card]Batterskull[/card].

And, of course, [card]Fauna Shaman[/card] once again lets you trade creatures you don’t need for threats you want.

Finally, Vengevine remains one of the most effective Caw-Blade frustrators around. You can freely pitch it to pull up Mystics or combo pieces, or race it into combat, content in the knowledge that even if you don’t run Squadron Hawk you have so many creatures that it’s typically trivial to recur it.

In combination, these three lines of attack operate by different, distinct pathways but they all require many of the same solutions from your opponent to deal with them, putting tremendous pressure on their deck’s ability to stop one of your game plans from getting through.

Ulamog, the Infinite Accessory

Assuming all of those explanations made sense, this one card might still have caught your eye. Why does my otherwise svelte, most-things-cost-two deck run a pretty much uncastable Eldrazi?

Of the alternate win conditions other than life loss, the only one that all of your opponents have access to – or at least think they have access to – is decking. Like my Project X-wielding opponent from that first Regionals, you want access to a way to convince opponents that you really do, indeed, have the game won.

Soul Sisters is also an actual deck that sees play, and it runs this exact same combo – given the possibility of a head-to-head life-fest, you want to be able to recycle your deck indefinitely.

With all that said, Ulamog is frequently sided out after game one, and if you’re confident in your local metagame and its lack of (1) Soul Sisters and (2) stubborn players, then you can run without one.

The power of secondary uses

Taking down the opposition

I’ll wrap up today’s introduction of M&M with a few notes on the key matchups in contemporary Standard.

Caw-Blade and friends

Sideboarding:

IN:
[draft]4 Divine Offering
1 Acidic Slime[/draft]

OUT:
[draft]4 Go for the Throat
1 Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre[/draft]

The plan against Caw-Blade and Darkblade decks is to play their own game – sticking Mystics and gear – while also running Vengevines at them. Don’t try to rush into the combo, since that only increases the value of their countermagic. Rather, in making an initial push with Mystics and Vengevines, you’re likely to drive them to the point of tapping out repeatedly, at which point you may well be able to land the combo and then kill them at leisure. The biggest problem is an early Batterskull. Pre-board, Go for the Throat is there for kill the Mystic before it goes active, and after board, Divine Offering deals with the Batterskull directly.

Splinter Twin

Sideboarding:

IN:
[draft]3 Memoricide[/draft]

OUT:
[draft]1 Stoneforge Mystic
1 Batterskull
1 Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre[/draft]

The plan against Splinter Twin is to play out your aggro plan while keeping your removal up when your opponent can combo off. Ideally, you’ll land an unopposed Memoricide and strip the combo out of their deck, and then you can knock them around like the hobbled control deck they (now) are.

Pay attention to the (awesome) interaction between your combo elements and the Splinter Twin combo. The Splinter Twin player literally cannot combo for the win if you have a Soul’s Attendant on the battlefield. They make infinite Exarchs, you gain infinite life. Suture Priest is even worse, making the Twin combo lethal for your opponent much of the time – especially since your life total is likely to be higher than theirs when they start their combo attempt.

I’ve considered bringing in the Divine Offerings as well, but so far they haven’t felt necessary.

Valakut

Sideboarding:

IN:
[draft]3 Memoricide[/draft]

OUT:
[draft]1 Stoneforge Mystic
1 Batterskull
1 Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre[/draft]

The plan against Valakut is to run the combo out as fast as possible, beating face and gaining incremental life in the meantime. Post-board, it’s the same, except now you can Memoricide their Titans away.

Everything else

The rest of the sideboard is meant to address various types of aggro pairings, including Firewalkers against RDW, Melira against poison, Linvala against Elves, and Sunblast anytime you really, really need to kill a bunch of creatures.

Get a (billion) life

Some of the strongest strategies attack the opponent along a few major lines of attack simultaneously. Before New Phyrexia, Caw-Blade exemplified this approach, firing off a series of jabs with well-equipped Hawks before Gideon Jura stepped in with a blind side haymaker to knock your opponent out. Since the release of New Phyrexia Standard decks have clarified down to a more streamlined, essential approach, as Caw-Blade decks play tug of war over who drops the first Batterskull and who follows it up with a Sword.

This is an excellent time for a flexible thinker to pick up deck like M&M that strikes along multiple lines of attack and gives you the ability to gear, beat down, or just gain a billion life.

***
magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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