Perhaps you’ve noticed by now, I’m a bit of a janky combo builder. So I was thrilled to watch the streaming coverage of Pro Tour Valencia, and see that the (at least temporary) death of Jund, and the associated relative absence of Thoughtseize and Liliana of the Veil, resulted in a massive surge of combo decks. And all of them within the range of the budget builder!
Or… at least within the range of a budget builder with access to a time machine. Because when a deck appears in a Pro Tour, it instantly prices itself out of common use. The deck I found most exciting was Matthias Hunt’s Amulet Combo deck. Unfortunately, Amulet of Vigor, Primeval Titan, and Azusa, Lost but Seeking all immediately shot up by ridiculous amounts.
Now, my opinion on overnight price jumps is a matter of public record. But here’s an observation I haven’t shared before: the fact of what does and doesn’t jump is f’ing weird and sometimes arbitrary. The core pieces of Amulet Combo skyrocket, but the pacts that fuel it go nowhere. Sideboard copies of Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir and Porphyry Nodes—yes, Porphyry Nodes—jump beyond all reason, but the entirety of reasonably successful decks like Ad Nauseam Unlife sit perfectly still. Even the Ensnaring Bridge in 8 Rack is…
Wait. 8 Rack?
Ha ha, okay. All is forgiven, Pro Tour.
Here’s the thing: I’ve built this deck. I was maybe sixteen, and it consisted of The Rack, Hypnotic Specter, Hymn to Tourach, and Mind Twist. And it was awesome. It rocked my friend’s Thallid deck, and… yes, his Thallid deck. Look, it was the ’90s, and you kind of had to be there. So crank up Ace of Base, develop a weird crush on Fairuza Balk, and dust off your B.U.M. sweatshirt, cuz we’re building a Rack deck!
The deck we’re looking at was piloted by Arjan van Leeuwen, and it took 54th place at the Pro Tour. (Which is a fine showing for a tournament with hundreds of people, but still one that might account for the fact that several components are still affordable.) The way I see it, there are six cards that we need to remove or replace in order to make this work as a budget build. And I’ll cut through the suspense right away: Mutavault, Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, and Ensnaring Bridge are all just getting cut without a replacement. They’re all good cards, and we won’t be using them here. Which leaves three cards that need replacing.
Liliana of the Veil
I feel like we’ve done this one before, haven’t we? If you’ll recall, last time we landed on Cunning Lethemancer as a replacement. Our reasoning was that the important thing to focus on was Liliana’s ability to force a discard, rather than attempting to duplicate the edict effect in her second ability.
In a deck with eight cards that punish the opponent for having an empty hand, you can guess for yourself whether we’ll take a different approach this time around.
Okay, pencils down. We won’t.
Okay, really now, this is starting to sound awfully familiar. But as it happens, unlike with our friends Liliana and the Lethemancer above, we’re going to take a different approach this time out. Last time we used Phyrexian Arena as our Dark Confidant substitute, but this deck works differently, and will work with an even lower-cost alternative.
Is it possible that I have gone mad with an extremely small amount of power, and am now just messing with you, trying to see what cards I can actually get you to play? No, it’s really time for Blood Scrivener. The great disappointment of Dragon’s Maze; the card that was just enough like Dark Confidant to enrage people by being far too situational to actually use as a cheap alternative to Dark Confidant.
Here’s the fun thing about situational cards, though: Sometimes you wind up finding yourself in that very situation.
This deck empties its hand, and it does it quickly. There’s a reason the original deck uses Ensnaring Bridge, and with our uncontrollable Lethemancers, we’ll be emptying our hand even faster than that. If you have a card in your hand for longer than your first main phase after turn four or so on any sort of regular basis, you’re probably playing the deck wrong.
If and only if that is the case, Blood Scrivener is better than Dark Confidant. He’s got the low life cost of a Phyrexian Arena, with the mana cost and body of a Confidant.
So here’s the thing about Thoughtseize: I’m thrilled about what’s happened to the price. Thoughtseize is like a testament to what a wider reprint policy could do for Modern as a format; from $65 a copy to $16 in less than six months. For those interested in accessible gameplay, this is a wonderful thing.
However, when I write this column, I set myself an arbitrary rule: no cards over $10. If I can help it, I even avoid cards that I think might approach $10 in the foreseeable future. Thoughtseize is over that arbitrary line, and will probably go farther above it when it’s no longer readily available in print. So despite the fantastic things that have happened to the price of Thoughtseize, we won’t be using it in this deck. But can we find a substitute of some kind?
Yeah, we should do okay.
Now while we’re on the subject of trying to avoid cards that might get more expensive in the future: Inquisition of Kozilek is one of those cards that sets my warning bells going; it’s over $7, and it’s a powerful enough card that it has the potential to rise in price. However, as long as Thoughtseize is a legal card (and I don’t see why it ever wouldn’t be) it should act as a check on Inquisition of Kozilek’s price. Competitive players always want the most efficient option, which Inquisition is not.
We’re also going to add a combo that, surprisingly, isn’t in van Leeuwen’s deck:
This deck curves out at three mana. And really, without Cunning Lethemancer, it would curve out at two. This is the kind of deck where, if you’re feeling especially daring, you could risk keeping a one-land opening hand, because if you draw a second land in your first couple turns you’re probably good to go. Even running only eighteen lands, we’ll definitely be drawing way more lands than we want. Raven’s Crime will, as it does in the original deck, turn those extra lands from dead-draws to discard spells.
But Dakmor Salvage combos with Raven’s Crime to create a mid-game lock. It lets you discard a land to recast Raven’s Crime, dredge it back to your hand, then discard it again to recast Raven’s Crime every single turn. If you get your opponent’s hand down to empty, this combo will make sure whatever they draw has to be used on their turn, because if they keep it they’re gonna lose it.
Okay, then. Let’s put it all together:
Off the Rack
When you play this deck, never start with a Rack or a Shrieking Affliction. An ideal hand will start with a one-drop discard spell, follow it up with a Wrench Mind or an Augur of Skulls, and keep the pressure up with a Cunning Lethemancer. Once your opponent has nothing left to hit you with, then you start laying down the win conditions. The Geth’s Verdicts and Smallpoxes should help keep your opponent’s board clear; if they’re especially creature-heavy, side in your additional removal spells. Whatever they try to play, deny it to them, preferably before they get a chance to cast it. Meanwhile, your Racks and Afflictions will put them on a clock.
What have we lost from the original deck? Well, the loss of Ensnaring Bridge is a huge blow. We’ve upped the amount of creature removal to compensate, but we’re still going to be pretty vulnerable to anything that makes it past our discard spells. Play around the deck you’re facing, and in extreme circumstances, bring that Norn’s Annex in off the sideboard. As soon as you can, get back to dismantling their hand. Even if you lose, you’re sure to annoy the hell out of your opponent. And really, isn’t that what the game is all about?