Pro Tour: Oath of the Gatewatch begins Friday, and all eyes are on the pros as they grapple Modern without Splinter Twin and Summer Bloom. The banning of these cards opened up room in the combo niche for decks that were previously on the outside looking in. These decks are hungry to feast on the scraps of the metagame, and the best among them will emerge from the scuffle as the new go-to combo deck in the format. Perhaps one of these decks will eventually find itself labeled oppressive, and it too will be banned from the format in a future round of bans.
My goal this week is to shed light on what viable competitive combo options exist in the new Modern cardpool while leaving no stone unturned. I'll include decks from the established to the brand-new, the favorites and the underdogs. This is a comprehensive look at the combo decks of the format that players are actually playing and winning with. These are decks I would not be surprised to see at the Pro Tour this weekend and going forward as viable competitive options locally and beyond.
The first card that many people thought of immediately after the bannings was Scapeshift. This "one card combo" uses its namesake to sacrifice its lands to find Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and enough Mountains to kill the opponent. Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle was originally banned in Modern, and since being unbanned it has persisted through the format as a constant but minor presence in the combo niche. The deck is consistent and powerful, and the Scapeshift shell can be taken in various directions.
The typical Modern Scapeshift deck looks like its Extended forebearer, a Temur Control deck that sacrifices speed for disruption like Remand and Cryptic Command, and card selection like Bring to Light, Peer Through Depths, and Compulsive Research.
Another take on Scapeshift is to push its speed to the maximum with a higher density of land ramp to get the combo going as fast as possible. Prismatic Omen helps further by allowing Scapeshift to kill the opponent with just six land in play. It also allows the deck to play a more traditional game, winning three points of damage at a time for each Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle in play, double for fetchlands. The above deck broke through with a Top 8 at GP Pittsburgh last year, and this past weekend it finished second at the SCG Classic.
Grishoalbrand garnered a lot of attention last year when it broke into the Top 8 of Grand Prix Charlotte. The deck was hyped, and plenty of people called for it to be banned, but the deck failed to gain significant traction. It remained on people's minds, especially with its recent finals appearance at an SCG Modern Open.
The deck uses Through the Breach or Goryo's Vengeance to put Griselbrand into play, and it's able to draw a ton of cards by using Nourishing Shoal to gain life in eleven point chunks with Worldspine Wurm. The deck is fast, capable of winning on turn two, and it's resilient, with multiple avenues to victory and plenty of backup combo pieces. It's not necessarily the most consistent deck in the format, but that doesn't make it any less threatening.
Storm initially emerged as one of the single best decks in Modern, and it defied expectations by continuing to perform after multiple rounds of bannings rendered it a shell of its former self. Storm was at a low in the metagame before the bannings because it was generally a worse choice than Splinter Twin or Amulet Bloom, but it's poised for a comeback. Storm is a perennial favorite of many pros, and it's a given that it's going to be a contender at the Pro Tour.
Living End had something of a resurgence in 2015, especially in the hands of top European pros. The matchup against Splinter Twin decks was notoriously poor, so it's reasonable to expect it is going to have a decent showing at the Pro Tour, and if so I'd expect it to be universally present going forward.
A major issue with many of the combo decks I have described is their vulnerability to graveyard removal. One deck that pays no mind to the graveyard is the Ad Nauseam/Phyrexian Unlife/Angel's Grace combo deck. This deck has persisted since Extended into the new Modern format, but it never truly established itself as a real concern. It finished in the top 8 of Charlotte, but it was overshadowed and mostly forgotten. The Amulet Bloom deck was simply faster, more powerful, and more resilient, and there was little reason to play a combo deck like Ad Nauseam. Now the deck is thrust into battle, and to me it's the deck with the most potential to take the throne as the next broken Modern combo.
Chord of Calling decks come in many flavors, but they are all an extension of the Birthing Pod decks that died with the banning of their eponymous engine. These decks use Chord of Calling to assemble creature-based combos to go infinite and win the game. Chord of Calling allows for a deep, deep toolbox of value and utility creatures, and it provides consistent access to hateful sideboard cards to attack specific archetypes. These decks had success before the bannings, so it's reasonable to think they will be even better now that some of their fiercest competition is absent.
The combination of Restoration Angel and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker is one of the defining Modern combos after the banning, and the premier deck to use it is the Kiki-Chord deck.
The traditional Abzan Chord of Calling deck uses Collected Company to provide even deeper access to its creatures and more redundancy in its combo of Anafenza, the Kin-Tree Spirit or Melira, Sylvok Outcast, Viscera Seer, and any persist creature to gain infinite life or deal infinite damage.
A new version of Abzan avoids the graveyard by giving up on the three-piece combo and Collected Company for the two-card combo of Archangel of Thune and Spike Feeder.
This deck, by Pro Tour Hall of Fame player Kenji Tsumura, takes advantage of the interaction between Goryo's Vengeance and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, which can immediately flip itself and stay in play indefinitely. The legend also supplements Faithless Looting as a graveyard enabler to help cheat Griselbrand or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn into play with Goryo's Vengeance. The deck is a clean, neat package that is exceedingly powerful.
A similar but certainly different deck is this beauty, which is essentially a control deck with a Through the Breach-Emrakul, the Aeons Torn kill. It doesn't win the game cleanly, but it's almost reminiscent of the Splinter Twin combo deck in its simplicity. This deck has a ton of disruption to slow other decks down along with a powerful way to take over the game for itself, so I like this deck's chances against the field.
Possibility Storm combo uses a zero-cost creature, like Endless One, to trigger Possibility Storm, which then digs through the deck for Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, which is presumably enough to win the game. It's a simple and elegant combo, with Tolaria West providing consistent access to Endless One, and with so few slots spent on combo pieces, the deck can be filled with disruptive elements.
Enchantment ramp spells like Utopia Sprawl and Overgrowth can be used repeatedly with untap effects like Arbor Elf, Voyaging Satyr, and Garruk, the Wildspeaker. Add Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx as an additional mana engine to be abused, and you have a deck capable of generating massive amounts of mana. The cleanest way to win the game with said mana is Tooth and Nail, which can win the game on the spot by finding Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and Xenagos, God of Revels to double its size and give it haste.
The printing of Retreat to Coralhelm brought a lot of attention to Knight of the Reliquary, which can "go infinite" with the enchantment by repeatedly sacrificing and searching for lands before growing to 20/20 and killing the opponent in one attack. The deck had a big finish by finishing in the top 4 of GP Porto Alegre, but the deck remains under the radar. The deck functions like an aggressive Bant Company deck without any need for Retreat to Coralhelm. It's a very functional deck that is impossible for opponents to completely contain with any one specific sideboard card.
Jeskai Ascendancy was feared when it burst onto the scene after the printing of Treasure Cruise. Trasure Cruise may have gotten banned, by Jeskai Ascendancy is still here, and it's a much more viable option with Splinter Twin and Amulet Bloom out of the picture. This version of the deck is aggressively focused on getting Jeskai Ascendancy in play to untap mana creatures repeatedly
This version of the deck is built to play like a control deck, and Jeskai Ascendancy plays a supporting role.
The Banned Decks
Don't completely discount Splinter Twin and Amulet Bloom. These decks both lost a key piece of their puzzles, but they have replacements that allow their respective decks to function in some capacity. Splinter Twin can easily be swapped for Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. The deck slows down by a full a turn, and extra mana for counterspells to protect the combo become harder to come by, but the deck is otherwise fully functional and strategically identical. There are upsides, notably Spellskite losing much of its value against the deck. Amulet Bloom lost the combo of Summer Bloom and Amulet of Vigor, but the deck has other options. The deck can play more Azusa, Lost but Seeking, or expand into creatures like Sakura-Tribe Scout or Oracle of Mul Daya, but it can also include Explore as an additional way to speed itself up.
Attacking Combo Decks
Eldrazi from Oath of the Gatewatch add a new variable to Modern, and they have spawned a new deck that is influencing the metagame in its own way. Abusing the graveyard is a dangerous proposition when Eldrazi decks with Relic of Progenitus and Scrabbling Claws are rampant, and this deck is doing its part to warp what combo decks might be viable going forward. Its prevalence makes combo decks that ignore the graveyard especially attractive, but the metagame is diverse enough and the payoff for using the graveyard is so high that graveyard decks are going to persist despite graveyard hate.
Infect is historically known as a combo-killer. It's like a combo deck in its own right, and it's capable of winning the game as early as turn two, and consistently by turn three when unopposed. It can also play blue counterspells to disrupt its opponent's combo. All of the factors make it a great choice when confronting a metagame filled with combo decks.
The speedy Affinity deck can race against combo decks. It also has access to five colors of disruption options in its sideboard, including discard and counterspells, so it has to tools to beat any combo decks. Affinity also has access to five colors of powerful hate cards against specific combo decks, like Ethersworn Canonist against Storm, that it can reach for in specific metagames.
Another deck with great tools for fighting combo is W/G Hatebears. This aggressive deck contains creatures with built-in disruptive elements, and they combine to make the world difficult for many combo decks. The aggressive nature of the deck puts combo decks on a very limited window to win the game.
Faeries hasn't made much noise since Bitterblossom was unbanned, but historically it has been a powerful foil to combo decks.
Something to keep in mind about Modern is that it's largely defined by linear decks racing against each other, and most interaction comes in the form of highly specific and potent sideboard cards. A significant advantage can be gained by playing a combo deck that opponents are not expecting. If a combo deck can play its way through a tournament and dodge specific cards that hate on its strategy, then it has a free pass to goldfish its way to victory. Playing a deck that is unexpected by your opposition will pay dividends, and it's something to keep in mind when selecting a Modern deck for a tournament. It might be a better idea to play a less powerful deck if opponents will be prepared for a different, more powerful deck. Switching decks from week to week is another way to keep opponents guessing.
The best Modern combo decks are able to win even in the face of disruption and hate cards, and time and tournaments will tell us which combo decks will stand up to the test that is Modern.