I’ve always loved the idea of a mono-combo deck. It started years ago, back when Survival of the Fittest was tearing up Legacy tournaments left, right, and center. I forget where I saw it, but I distinctly remember seeing a decklist with the following combos to get with Survival of the Fittest:
- Vengevine(s) + Memnite
- Trinket Mage (getting Grindstone) + Painter’s Servant
- Squee, Goblin Nabob plus a few grindy creatures and Genesis
- Loyal Retainers and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
This deck had it all. It was never doing the same thing in a given game, all of its combo pieces did something, and no single piece of hate was going to lock it out of the game because it attacked from so many different angles. Sure, you can have Karakas for Emrakul, but that does nothing against Painter’s Servant. Ancient Grudge? Attack with some Vengevines. Surgical Extraction? Beat you down with value creatures.
Then, of course, Survival of the Fittest got banned. In fairness, that change was probably for the best since repeatable tutors are bound to eventually be too good at a low enough rate, and Survival’s rate was as competitive as it gets.
But I digress. The heart of this article is a deep and abiding love for a combo deck that switches gears, attacks from multiple angles, and always has ways to beat a hate card. Enter Disciple of Deceit.
There are two ways that I can think of to play with this card – either you want to be Grixis or you want to be Esper. Red gets you Goblin Welder, which plays well with the artifacts that you can discard to Disciple of Deceit’s trigger. Since there are several artifact-based two-card combos in Legacy, Goblin Welder can play a solid supporting role across the board in lining up the permanents you want. As an added bonus, Welder can provide a way to beat an active Counterbalance.
Being red instead of white also allows for Faithless Looting, which is rapidly growing on me as a consistent support card for Goblin Welder. Although Looting clearly isn’t as good as Brainstorm, it’s a fine way to filter through various combo pieces in the midgame. The synergy with Sword of the Meek and Goblin Welder is obvious, but the subtler part of its value comes from just how many dead cards this deck wants to play.
You see, a deck that’s interested in triggering Disciple of Deceit wants four Springleaf Drum. Waiting two turns for your first tutor trigger is miserable, so you always want a Springleaf Drum in play. Having eight ways to produce any of your three colors of mana is also nice in a deck that wants a ton of artifact lands for Goblin Welder to weld out, since having a ton of artifact lands means having far fewer sources of each color of mana than a fetch-dual manabase. One of the big perils of playing an artifact-based Legacy deck is missing on colors – even monocolored artifact decks in Legacy have lost because of colored mana issues, so playing three colors requires a real dedication to manafixing.
Springleaf Drum and Mox Opal are that dedication. Drum will require us to play at least twelve creatures, while Mox Opal wants us to play at least twenty-three cheap artifacts (I’m less sure about the Drum number, but I’ve built enough Mox Opal decks to know roughly how many low-drop artifacts you need to get Metalcraft in the first few turns). We’re pretty deep on requirements already, and the inclusion of four Drums and four Opals creates another problem for us: we’re going to have a lot of air in our deck in mid-game topdeck wars. When you already have a Drum or an Opal in play, there’s little worse than drawing a second copy. Faithless Looting (either the front end or the back end) can sift through your deck and throw out the chaff that can accumulate in your hand.
Once we get past the red-specific cards, we get to the meat of the deck. Our various combos are the following:
- Painter’s Servant plus Grindstone (plus Lion’s Eye Diamond, rarely, for the turbo-kill)
- Thopter Foundry plus Sword of the Meek
- Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas plus the rest of our deck
- Auriok Salvagers plus Pyrite Spellbomb plus Lion’s Eye Diamond
You may have noticed that there are no white lands in our deck. Fortunately for us, there are still eight white sources in the deck for the one-of Auriok Salvagers. Should an opponent be intent on defending with Abrupt Decay, we can find a four-drop-driven combo to beat their resistance.
I want to take a few paragraphs to discuss a broader deckbuilding point here. Unlike the other deck in this article, we aren’t interested in trying to interact with our opponent’s interaction via discard spells or counterspells. The reason we don’t want to do this is that this deck relies on drawing a wide variety of threatening cards and putting an opponent to the test each and every turn, making them decide when and where to use their resources. If we put cards in our deck to interact with their cards, we are fundamentally weakening our various combos’ versatility – we could just be playing more copies of something that they can’t answer. To make this comparison even simpler, imagine a very simple situation:
You have two cards and they have two cards. Your objective is to have one of your cards survive. Would you rather play one piece of disruption and one creature or two creatures with as many different attributes as possible?
If they have, say, a Swords to Plowshares and an Abrupt Decay, you would rather have a Tarmogoyf and a Thrun, the Last Troll than a Tarmogoyf and a Thoughtseize, or two Tarmogoyfs, or two Thoughtseizes. That theory of deckbuilding diversity is at the core of why this deck is designed the way that it is. Adding disruption will almost certainly weaken it.
By adding something like Auriok Salvagers, Lion’s Eye Diamond, and Pyrite Spellbomb, we gain access to an angle of attack that people are unlikely to see coming. If they prepare for that line of attack by sideboarding Rest in Peace or other graveyard hate, we can beat them with Painter’s Servant and Grindstone or Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas’s 5/5-making ability. Either way, the addition of threats over disruption is fundamental to the deck.
Tweaking the numbers on this deck is the truly difficult part. Once you know that you’re playing all of these combos, what should your numbers be? What’s the difference between playing one, two, three, and four copies of a given combo piece? How does that decision get made?
I think that the best heuristic for deciding which pieces to include more of is to think about the average value of a given card. If you draw Grindstone in a random game, how good is it? Pretty bad, right? So we probably don’t want more than one of those. On the other hand, Thopter Foundry is going to be good at stalling games and pressuring planeswalkers and ultimating Tezzeret, so there should be more copies of that.
This leads me to the following (mostly arbitrary) decisions:
One each of Auriok Salvagers, Pyrite Spellbomb, and Lion’s Eye Diamond. Each of these is fairly marginal on its own. Being able to “transmute” a Tezzeret into Salvagers is sweet.
2 & 1 split of Painter’s Servant and Grindstone. People are going to aim removal at Painter’s Servant, so having a backup copy of that seems more important than having a backup Grindstone. Besides, the removal that hits Grindstone is far more likely to destroy it, whereas Painter’s Servant can reasonably be exiled or put on the bottom of our library by Swords to Plowshares or Terminus. A destroyed Grindstone can be Welded back in while a truly removed Painter’s Servant requires a backup copy.
3 & 1 split of Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek. Sword of the Meek comes back a ton and can’t be targeted by Deathrite Shaman, so there’s no real need for a second copy. After sideboarding, people are most likely to have Surgical Extraction and they’re most likely to point it at Sword of the Meek, so including a second copy seems extraneous. Thopter Foundry, as mentioned above, has real value in neutral game states.
From there, the list falls into place fairly easily. The deck wants four copies of Goblin Welder, Disciple of Deceit, Baleful Strix, and Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas. If there weren’t so few ways to shuffle the deck, I’d want a full set of Sensei’s Divining Tops. In the absence of fetchlands, I still want to play several, but not all four.
This leaves us with:
The upsides of the red version are clear: Faithless Looting and Goblin Welder provide resilience, they allow for more angles with Disciple of Deceit, and they ameliorate the issues created by having a bunch of mana-fixing and acceleration in the deck in order to maintain an artifact-combo-oriented approach. The deck favors threat density over interaction and gets to keep people guessing after sideboarding. What about the other option?
The Esper list of Disciple of Deceit was sent to me on Twitter roughly a month ago. There’s a thread on The Source dedicated to it, a few players have tried it out at Legacy tournaments, and there’s a consensus that it is – if not good – at least decent. Like so many other Esper midrange concoctions in Legacy, though, it has a huge capacity for improvement and tuning. Patrick Pichette’s brew is fascinating, to say the least:
It is fairly obvious that the two-drop slot is where the action is for M. Pichette – Squadron Hawk finds three proxies for everything from Baleful Strix to Thopter Foundry (or Sword of the Meek) to Zealous Persecution. There’s a ton of spice in this list – it’s clear that he explored the outer limits of what can be done with Disciple.
I love the direction of the Esper deck – it clearly doesn’t want to be all-in on any combo, as part of the value of Squadron Hawk is that it does a fine job attacking and blocking – but it is a touch scattered for a midrange deck. My first inclination is to add Stoneforge Mystic, given the sheer power of Stoneforge Mystic and an endless stream of 1/1 fliers. As an added bonus, Stoneforge Mystic gives you a backdoor combo setup of Thopter Foundry, since Sword of the Meek is, in fact, still an equipment (I checked!). Besides, once you have Stoneforge Mystic and Squadron Hawk, you get to call it Caw-Blade, which is value all on its own.
Unlike the Grixis deck, this deck isn’t as much in need of Baleful Strix. There’s already lots of draw power in the deck and it shouldn’t struggle against creature-oriented strategies, so Strix is really just there for the Metalcraft on Mox Opal. Given that your best two-drops are Stoneforge Mystic and Squadron Hawk, though, it’s probably just better to give up on Opal and find other ways of fixing your mana. Besides, once you have this many ways to shuffle your deck – Disciple, Hawk, Stoneforge – why aren’t you playing four Brainstorms? Brainstorm is perfect with Squadron Hawk, it’s great as a way to maximize your Disciple of Deceit triggers, and it’s a generically powerful card in the format. If you’re playing long games with blue midrange decks, you need a reason to not have four Brainstorms.
If we’re not trying to Metalcraft, we’re probably also not trying to Thoughtcast, so those can get out. Brainstorm is kind of like Thoughtcast, except it always costs one and sometimes draws us three cards instead of two. Also, we can play it as an instant. I consider that an upgrade.
I would cut a lot of the fun-ofs (Darkblast is nice, but if you’re trying to beat Elves or Death and Taxes and you’re triggering Disciple of Deceit, Zealous Persecution should be good enough) and play a fetch-dual manabase to accommodate Brainstorms. I still love Gitaxian Probe and Cabal Therapy, since any deck that tutors gains inordinate degrees of value from more information, while Cabal Therapy is obviously just gas with Squadron Hawk, Thopter Foundry tokens, and so on.
My thought process, in order, was this:
Cut: 4 Thoughtcast
Add: 3 Brainstorm, one free slot
Cut: 2 Baleful Strix, 3 Mox Opal
Add: 4 Stoneforge Mystic, 1 Umezawa’s Jitte, 1 Batterskull
Cut: Meekstone, Darkblast, Engineered Explosives, Thopter Foundry, Sword of the Meek
Add: 3 Swords to Plowshares, 1 Gitaxian Probe, a twentieth land
Cut: all of the lands
Add: eight fetchlands, nine dual lands, and three basic lands
My starting point for the deck, therefore, would be this:
The advantages of having maindeck removal are pretty clear – you get to have it when you want it and you can Disciple away your Plows for Therapies when you don’t. Similarly, against creature-centric decks you can discard your Cabal Therapies (combo!) and find more removal. You can even tutor up your Force of Will by discarding your tutored Batterskull, should things ever come to that. It’s unlikely that that’s your best line of play a lot of the time, but the great thing about Batterskull’s activated ability is that once your board position is set up, you can bounce and discard your equipment to find some generic protection for it.
You will note that I cut some of the more sideboard-feeling cards from the deck – Meekstone is a powerful card against some strategies, but the deck is inherently good against large, monolithic threats that don’t kill in one shot. Similarly, Darkblast is just too narrow now that it doesn’t even kill the most important one-drop in the format, Deathrite Shaman. Engineered Explosives is going to have collateral damage basically all of the time between Springleaf Drums and the plethora of two-drops in the deck. Finally, I cut down on some of the two-drop combo pieces since there is an enormous glut of two-drops in the deck already.
Pithing Needle and Zealous Persecution, by contrast, are excellent cards that have a broad range of interactions with the format. Pithing Needle is going to have important cards to name across the board – Deathrite Shaman, Wirewood Symbiote or Quirion Ranger, Sensei’s Divining Top, Sneak Attack, and Griselbrand are all legitimate selections – while Zealous Persecution is a nice way to cover True-Name Nemesis, Empty the Warrens, a ton of Elves, and Mother of Runes before Umezawa’s Jitte comes online.
Whereas the Grixis list is likely to sideboard more threats (Helm of Obedience against Rest in Peace, as seen in action by Kennen Haas at the Invitational a few weeks back), the Esper deck is likely to sideboard a dazzling array of silver bullets. Rather than build two sideboards filled with one-ofs and only play one, I want to turn the process over to you all.
I want you to vote on which deck you want me to record with over the weekend. Once you’ve done that, I want you to leave a comment laying out what you think some good sideboard options would be for your deck of choice. I’m confident that you all have some sweet ones for me.
For those of you who loved the Vintage videos from earlier in the week, I got your message loud and clear. Come July, there will be quite a bit more Vintage action. I’m not exactly well-versed in the ins and outs of Vintage deckbuilding, so I can’t enlighten you with article-level analysis, but I’m more than happy to pilot any number of non-Workshop, non-Dredge decks through a few Vintage heads-up queues. If you have any deep-seated desires about a Vintage deck that you want to see in action, link it in the comments. You know me – I’m all about giving the brews their fifteen minutes of fame.