You guys are in for a treat. I usually peddle my Esper ideology to you all, and because I practice what I preach, you guys continue to walk with me on this journey. Esper in Standard is powerful, Esper in legacy is consistent, and Esper in modern is not too bad. However, “not too bad” isn’t good enough for me, and it shouldn’t be good enough for you all. The reason why Modern is the topic of today is the fast approach of Grand Prix Richmond in March. I’ve mentioned Modern here and there, but because it isn’t a supported format of the SCG Open Series or the bulk of WotC events, I’ve pushed it aside like Limited.
I love all competitive formats. I was a huge advocate of Limited strategy during the Draft Opens and an even bigger fan of old Extended before Wizards axed it. Luckily for fans of Modern, Richmond is nearby a lot of the SCG personalities, and that means a lot of ideas will be flying at you guys to test out. Today I’ll try not to disappoint. I’ll unveil the “secret” combo deck for those who want to be adventurous.
The combo deck I’m referring to was piloted by me in its earliest form at Pro Tour Philadelphia, which was the first Modern tournament to hit the competitive scene. This was a time of Blazing Shoal on Inkmoth Nexus and many other bannings that changed the format forever. Since that Pro Tour my combo deck has added a wave of cards from RTR block, and now it’s show time ladies and gentlemen.
Combo Card Draw
The first incarnation of my combo deck ran four Magus of the Bazaars. Now that we have cards like Izzet Charm and Faithless Looting, we can cut the mediocre two-drop that dies to everything. The card we are pitching to the graveyard is Protean Hulk. The last time Protean Hulk was discussed was during the era of Flash Hulk in Legacy. The reason why that era was short lived is because Flash was banned immediately after its GP win. Even though we don’t have Flash in Modern, we have Footsteps of the Goryo to provide the same result. Just like it was in Legacy, it is a two-card combo in Modern. Just like it was in Legacy, it is one of the fastest combo decks in Modern (if not the fastest).
At PT Philly, I went 3-2 during the Constructed portion and bombed in Limited to fail to make day 2. I destroyed the Cloudpost deck, defeated Matthias Hunt playing Affinity (two turn 3 kills), and defeated a midrange blue control deck. My losses were to an Affinity deck playing four Dispatches and a Zoo deck with four Path to Exiles. The obvious weakness of the deck was Path to Exile effects, and this second run needs to have an answer to one of the best removal cards in Magic’s history.
The combo pieces are Protean Hulk and Footsteps of the Goryo. Like any other two-card combo deck, the remainder of the 75 contains ways to find and protect the combo. At the PT I had Preordain and Ponder, but now we are stuck with Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand. The addition of Faithless Looting and Izzet Charm has made the combo easier to find and place in the graveyard. Faithless Looting being only one mana provides the combo with an easy transitional plan for the turns ahead that can go a little something like this.
The ability to set up the combo very early on gives this combo deck an edge over others. There are some decks that can’t interact with a “good” start from us and just die on turn 3. The Izzet Charm version of this kind of start is even more powerful. The reason why you would rather Izzet Charm is because they don’t even know what you’re doing to them until it’s too late. Turn 1 can be a random dig or hand-disruption spell. Once you hit them with that, you pass on turn 2, Izzet Charm EOT, and then untap and kill them with a little help from Goryo. These are a few examples of the powerful starts that two-card combos can give you when the deck is dedicated to spells that dig your way to them.
The bread and butter of Hulk Combo is Ideas Unbound. Faithless Looting and Izzet Charm are more efficient, but the ability to draw three cards, Probe for another, and then discard at the end of turn gives Ideas Unbound an edge. This removes the chance to be sneaky due to the sorcery speed of the spell, but additional cards are nothing to scoff at. I’ve mentioned Gitaxian Probe a few times, and anyone who has played combo knows the power of taking a peek at your opponent’s hand.
In addition to Gitaxian Probe, we are using Serum Visions over Sleight of Hand. The easiest explanation for this decision is that Sleight of Hand is garbage and Serum Visions is not quite garbage. The cantrips in Modern are limited in availability, but luckily Faithless Looting and Izzet Charm give the combo enough ammunition to ignore their absence. Here is the card-draw suite for the Hulk Combo deck I crafted:
Hand disruption was mentioned as well. There isn’t anything better than Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize. These two disruption spells are played heavily in Legacy, which is usually a good sign for formats that are newer. The sideboard caps off the disruption with a couple Pact of Negations and more Inquisition of Kozileks to protect the combo, but the maindeck is set up to give you a game 1 victory through minor issues like Path to Exile. I also threw two Lightning Bolts in the maindeck to help against Deathrite Shaman. Izzet Charm and Lightning Bolt combined can give you ample ways to remove the Shaman on the draw, and the five hand disruption spells on the play can do the job as well. This leads us to the combo itself.
The combo requires a few dedicated slots. Here are the pieces of the combo that we have to include:
These fourteen cards make up the pieces required to kill an opponent with an infinite loop of life loss. This isn’t like Sneak and Show or a combo deck that loses when you draw too many of the pieces. As you cycle through your deck, you can toss the majority of these pieces in the graveyard and still easily win. Here is how the combo works:
1. Put Protean Hulk in the graveyard (Izzet Charm, Faithless Looting, Ideas Unbound, Thoughtseize self).
2. Cast Footsteps of the Goryo on Protean Hulk.
3. Sacrifice Protean Hulk, get Body Double and Viscera Seer.
4. Body Double copies Protean Hulk, sacrifice Body Double and get Body Double and another Viscera Seer.
5. Body Double copies Protean Hulk, sacrifice Body Double and get Reveillark and Death Cultist.
6. Sacrifice Death Cultist (life drain), sacrifice Reveillark, Reveillark trigger returns Body Double and Death Cultist.
7. Body Double copies Reveillark, repeat process (infinite).
I added an extra step with #4 for a reason. The reason why we get another Viscera Seer instead of just going straight to the kill is to play around Lightning Bolt or a random removal spell. If you don’t get a second Viscera Seer and they Bolt the original, your combo halts. This is a “better safe than sorry” step. The combo seems complex, but it isn’t. Just goldfish and test it a little bit and you’ll be fine.
The biggest perk of these types of combo decks is we don’t care if we draw the pieces. As discussed above, if you draw them, you can just pitch them to the graveyard and move on. If Reveillark is in the graveyard already, just fetch a Body Double to copy it and continue on with the combo. The more pieces in the graveyard, the less Protean Hulk shenanigans you have to do. Just make sure you have a Viscera Seer in play and combo off.
Shaheen, you don’t play combo, so what do you know?!
Not true! I have been an advocate of control in all formats since the beginning of my competitive play; however, I have been known to churn out a combo deck here and there. Frank Karsten will tell you himself that his Greater Gifts combo deck from Worlds was my list that was from a State Championship tournament and featured on Swimming with Sharks with Mike Flores. That combo deck was one of my favorite creations in my Magic career, and right up there is Blink Riders from Worlds in 2006. Many of you that have followed me for quite some time remember 21, which was the Mass Polymorph combo deck I ran at Pro Tour Paris during the Caw-Blade era. The point is I love combo decks that are unique and powerful at the same time, which I believe Hulk Combo in Modern is.
One of the biggest advantages this deck has over others is its speed. The best matchup for Hulk Combo is Tron. Tron is a much faster deck than it used to be, but our deck is just much faster. Turn 3 Karn Liberated when we’re on the draw is rough, but that’s the only play they can make that can disrupt us in the first game. They simply don’t have the disruption needed to derail our plans. We, on the other hand, have disruption to go with speed. The matchup is very similar to the old Cloudpost decks in Modern, which bodes well for Hulkin’ people playing colorless lands. Other combo decks are also a bit slower than us. Pod and Splinter Twin are stronger against hate, but they suffer in their matchup against Hulk due to the speed we have and the hand disruption they don’t have.
The matchups for Hulk Combo really boil down to amount of Path to Exiles and Deathrite Shamans faced in game 1, the ability to deal with those threats in the early turns as well as hit the combo pieces in an orderly fashion, and the abundance of countermagic in our opponent’s deck. I’m not including a full sideboard in this article because I’m not confident about the metagame in Richmond just yet. Here are some of the cards I’m considering for the sideboard, but the inclusion and numbers of each is still up for debate:
These are some common choices in the sideboard of a Grixis combo deck. There are different ways to bounce, destroy, and/or shutdown hate from opposing decks. One of the few cards I plan on running to “hate” a deck out is Hurkyl’s Recall. It’s just an efficient way to send Affinity back to the locker room and buy an extra turn. The other hate card is Faerie Macabre, which can deal with anything graveyard based. I’ll have an updated sideboard on Twitter in the near future, but here is the list for GP Richmond.
I hope you guys enjoyed a little combo break from the regular control talk; with an exciting Grand Prix approaching here in Richmond, I felt the urge to branch out. I have an Esper Control deck ready for Modern if I get obliterated, but I don’t see that happening. I promised myself I’d keep this deck secret, but it’s just too cool and fun for the world not to see. I’d like to think everyone reads my articles, but that’s obviously not the case. That means if you decide to run this deck with me chances are you’ll take your opponents by surprise.
The key to victory for this deck is the ability to overcome hate. Since we use the graveyard, there will be Grafdigger’s Cage and Relic of Progenitus. Modern Hulk falls into the normal hate of hand disruption and countermagic, the usual combo killers. The beauty of this deck is its consistency. Play well and outmaneuver the hate with sideboard assistance and you might just win the tournament.