Whether you like it or not, it looks like Modern's newest combo deck is here to stay. GP São Paulo was another major Modern tournament in which Krark-Clan Ironworks put up a strong performance, including a Top 8 appearance in the hands of Constructed Master Sebastian Pozzo. Nor was he the only Latin American superstar wielding this new technology – many others including Carlos Romão were ready to get it done with Scrap Trawlers and Myr Retrievers.
There is a fair bit of literature available on how to play the deck – including the classic How to KCI article, written by Matt Nass himself – and so that's not the focus of today's article. Instead, this article for those who are looking to prevent KCI from winning, not aid it in doing so.
Happily, for those people, there are plenty of ways to do this. While it may seem that KCI is nigh-unassailable and very difficult to fight effectively, there are a range of ways in which you can meaningfully contest the deck. It's fair to say that KCI is resilient, consistent, and highly uninteractive – but it has a number of glaring weaknesses, too. Granted, these weaknesses require specialized technology to really exploit, but as we will discover, this is by no means the end of the world.
As is almost always the case, glass cannon combo decks leave themselves pretty cold to disruptive elements backed up by a relevant clock. All the disruption in the world won't be enough if there's not a respectable clock to back it up, and conversely KCI is fast enough to keep pace with most decks that seeks to race without any interaction.
For example, more than once this weekend we saw KCI pull off comfortable turn-four victories against quick decks like Burn, who were a single turn behind the pace. Burn's lack of interaction (even post-board Destructive Revelry isn't all that good, as we'll discuss) means that KCI can combo off uncontested and will generally have the opportunity to do so without a worry when on the play.
The other side of the coin is a black-based midrange deck like Mardu, Abzan, or Jund. You would think with all their removal and discard, they'd be favoured against creature-reliant combo – however, it's not that simple. The only way these decks can actually win against KCI is with a quick Tarmogoyf/Young Pyromancer start that applies a lot of pressure concurrently.
In my view, the deck that does the best job of combining pressure and disruption is Five-Color Humans. Despite being almost entirely creature-based, the Humans deck is really able to mess with KCI's gameplan – Kitesail Freebooter, Meddling Mage and of course Thalia, Guardian of Thraben all come together to make life hell for combo decks in general, and KCI is no exception. Against Humans, it can often be Engineered Explosives or bust for KCI.
Throughout history, many famous philosophers such Sun Tzu and Green Day have reminded us to "know your enemy." KCI is an enormously complex deck that only functions due to weird rules interactions, and playing against it is not intuitive. Learning how and when to unravel their gameplan is a key ingredient to success against the deck.
For example – which cards are the most important to neuter and what's the best way to attack these key cards? Rather obviously, Krark-Clan Ironworks is essential for the deck to function at all, and has a huge target painted on it. If you get the opportunity to counter, discard or destroy it, you'll often want to take it – but it's a little more complicated than that.
The recursion engines built into this list are ridiculous. Even if you succeed in getting the Ironworks into the bin, Buried Ruin (or a chump-blocking Myr Retriever) can regrow it, or Inventors' Fair can tutor up a new one. For that reason, be aggressive in attacking these lands. Typically KCI only plays two Forests, so it won't be long before your Field or Ruin or Ghost Quarter becomes a Wasteland.
It's not just recurring Ironworks that is the problem – both Scrap Trawler and Myr Retriever are must-kill creatures, and both of them will come back from the graveyard with relative ease. For this reason, decks with access to white-based exile effects are well-positioned to punish these inefficient creature plays. Path to Exile and Detention Sphere are terrific answers to these creatures, and while Mauro Sasso opted against including Spreading Seas in his particular list, White-Blue Control has a lot of the tools you want in making these surgically disruptive plays.
As an artifact deck with a heavy reliance on the graveyard, you might think it would be very easy to load up on hate cards that will be enormously impactful. Surprisingly, however, this isn't necessarily true. KCI combines its artifact and graveyard synergies to have an unusual resistance to the traditional cards you might rely on to fight decks like this.
There are three categories of sideboard cards you can attempt to utilise in going up against KCI: artifact hate, graveyard hate, and the rather inventively titled "miscellaneous".
Ancient Grudge is often touted as one of the best cards against artifact decks like Affinity, with good reason. However, artifact removal – all the way up to the might Shatterstorm – is much less effective against KCI than you might think at first, due to the ease with which it can recur its artifacts from the graveyard.
Destroying artifacts, in short, just isn't enough. If you're going to fight on this axis, you need Stony Silence - there' no better card to play on turn two. It turns almost every single card in their deck into a blank piece of cardboard. There's a reason KCI usually has a full playset of Nature's Claim, as the deck is stone-cold to a resolved Stony Silence otherwise.
In short, don't expect to gain much traction by relying on artifact destruction. Unless you're going to play Forsake the Worldly instead of Disenchant, spot removal for artifacts isn't going to get it done. Sending artifacts to the 'yard simply isn't good enough – you need to invalidate them with Stony Silence or find a way to exile them.
Which brings us rather neatly to the next category of sideboard cards: graveyard hate. Once again, however, it's not as simple as picking your favorite sideboard hoser and calling it a day – KCI's recursion engines can fight through many commonly-played graveyard hate cards. A skilled KCI pilot will have little difficulty navigating a Relic of Progenitus, Nihil Spellbomb, or other one-shot effect.
Instead, a card like Rest in Peace closes the issue (again, unless they have a Nature's Claim). KCI simply doesn't function without access to its graveyard, so if you remove it from the equation, they're reduced to playing two-mana 1/1s and three-mana 3/2s. Similarly, Leyline of the Void is a terrific option, as is Ground Seal (which even replaces itself!).
Finally – and somewhat regretfully, as I don't like the card too much – Surgical Extraction is very, very good against KCI. Discarding or slaying a Scrap Trawler and then immediately Extracting it shuts off KCI's main way to win. We saw this take place during the semi-finals of the weekend's GP – Pozzo was left with a single Wurmcoil Engine as a route to victory!
There are some other alternative options that shine against KCI. One reason I'm very keen to play Stony Silence is due to its power level against other decks, such as Affinity, Lantern, and even Tron - and another card with similarly broad applications is Damping Sphere. Hosing both Tron and Storm, it's a great post-board inclusion against KCI.
The list continues. Gaddock Teeg is a great option for toolbox creature decks with access to Chord of Calling or Collected Company. Rule of Law is a stronger (albeit narrower and more expensive) Damping Sphere and comes with legs in the form of Eidolon of Rhetoric. Creature decks can make use of Spirit of the Labyrinth to hose all the card draw from cards like Chromatic Star and Terrarion.
Depending on how deep you want to go, cards like Dispossess offer extremely narrow answers to KCI – but given the lack of utility against the field, I don't like cards like this. Instead, I'll look for broader answers like Ceremonious Rejection; not only does it take care of basically every card in KCI, it can wreck other decks, too – there's no better feeling than sniping a turn-three Karn for one mana!
Unsurprisingly, the vocal critics of KCI are hollering for a ban. This may have more to do with the deck's play style than its power level, in my view (and I'm not disputing it can be tedious to sit and watch your opponent play solitaire for five or ten minutes as they figure out if you're dead). Right now, however, I think there's time to wait and see.
There are significant barriers to success with KCI, and its complexity is just the beginning. The format will become more and more hostile as people adapt their approach to Modern to cater for the new menace – we'll see an upswing in cards like Stony Silence, and we'll see a downswing in unsuspecting opponents blindly misplaying against the deck as it becomes better known.
I'm cautiously optimistic that KCI can be beaten, and that it won't utterly dominate the format to an unacceptable degree. There's no doubting its power level, but we've seen similar breakout decks establish themselves in Modern like Humans and Hollow One without a similar level of complaint. Let's put down the pitchforks and pick up our white sideboard cards for just a little while and see if we can't tackle KCI the good old-fashioned way.
- Riley Knight