Feature Article – Combo in the New Standard

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Friday, October 16th – Nick Eisel returns to the pages of StarCityGames.com with a spicy Combo deck for Zendikar Standard! If you’re tired of beating down with Vampires, or you can’t make your Control deck shine without Reflecting Pool, Nick has the fresh tech for you!

I suppose I could start this article out by going into detail about why I haven’t written in the last ten months or so. I’m not going to do that because I’m sure most of you don’t care (and rightfully so), and you would rather just read some good Constructed content.

I’ve been playing a good bit of Standard lately, and I believe I have something truly special to bring to the table.

I started out testing Time Sieve since it didn’t seem like it lost much in the rotation and looked to be one of the frontrunners in the new format. I was doing relatively well in the early going with Time Sieve, but something still didn’t feel right about it. I definitely liked taking extra turns and drawing lots of cards, but my Borderposts kept getting blown up by Maelstrom Pulse, and sometimes things just weren’t coming together smoothly. I added some Armillary Spheres to help handle the Borderpost issue and also just because the deck needs to get to Open the Vaults mana without missing a beat. For anyone interested, here’s the Time Sieve list I was using before moving on to better things.

I logged on the other day and was discussing the format with my friend Jeremy Darling when he told me to try out the Japanese Pyromancer Ascension list. I don’t remember the exact list I started with, but I do know that it had Grixis Charms which were painfully slow, as well as cards it didn’t want like Jace Beleren. After a few days of playing and tuning, I ended up with this UBR version.

This version was much more streamlined than the original Japanese list, and the sideboard had also been working well for me, with Spell Pierces and Swerves wrecking Jund a lot of the time. The Duresses and Pyroclasms also swapped back and forth between the maindeck and sideboard, depending on what the metagame had looked like in my matches and also where I felt the deck was weak. Also, I’m obviously not ecstatic to run 4 Divination in Standard, but it really is the best option for this build of the deck. The problem with this deck was that it was a turn or two too slow. I found that, despite having 12 burn spells to stop the beats, I still got run over a good deal of the time.

I remained unsatisfied and went back to the drawing board.

My thought process went something like this…

Okay, Pyromancer Ascension is definitely overpowered for the cost, and the tools exist to break it in this format. What I want to do is to speed up the deck, and the best way to do that is to play Green for Harrow and Rampant Growth, which also play nicely with the Ascension. This lets me afford to play Mind Spring, which is what I wanted to do all along once I started Time Warping. Once I got that far, the rest of the deck fell into place when I realized the obvious Naya Charm / Time Warp / Pyromancer Ascension combo was also available in this version.

Let me start by saying this version is by far the best deck I’ve come up with in the new format, and it has posted something around a 14-2 record in the matches I’ve played in the last 2-3 days since building it. The sideboard is still a work in progress, but I think most of the choices are solid, and the rest will naturally evolve with the format as well as with how people choose to answer this deck. This is, in my opinion, the second coming of the Heartbeat of Spring deck, and in many ways this deck has the potential to be even sicker than Heartbeat was, as it rarely fizzles once going off.

A general rundown of how the deck works is to cast some early mana acceleration and card drawing and find an Ascension. It’s worth noting that since you need spells in the graveyard in order to even trigger the Ascension, there’s no rush getting it into play. If you have it turn 2 and nothing else, go ahead and play it, but it’s not going to really do anything until turn 4-5 for the most part. Mana acceleration comes first, followed by card drawing (unless you have Ascension and can trigger it, then by all means get it started). The beauty of this deck is that most of the cards are very cheap, and they are all building towards a large Mind Spring before you start taking extra turns and finally combo off.

Before I get too far into this, I want to mention that Khalni Heart Expedition is at its best in this archetype, as what you want to do is ramp to enough mana to cast a big Mind Spring, or just simply take infinite turns with the Time Warp / Naya Charm / Ascension combination. Always play the Expedition on turn 2 if you have it.

The deck is somewhat complicated to play, and much of the advice I could give is far too situation specific to really be relevant. What I will do instead is list some common situations that come up, as well as some tricks the deck has.

• Ponder is very good with all of the shuffle effects, and you will often find yourself taking one of the top three cards and then Rampant Growthing or using Misty Rainforest to shuffle them away.
• Make sure to keep Duress and other discard spells in mind when using Ponder, as you can effectively “hide” your Mind Spring until you’re ready to cast it.
• Once you have an active Ascension, it will be hard to lose unless you are under tremendous pressure on board, as even Ponder and Worldly Counsel become great card drawers when they get Forked.
• The basic combo requires active Ascension, eight mana, Time Warp, and Naya Charm to take infinite turns. Once you’ve done that, you can draw most of your deck with a Forked Mind Spring and finish with Forked Banefire, or even Naya Charm it back if your opponent has somehow gained a bunch of life.
• You should mulligan pretty aggressively with this deck since most of the cards are cheap card drawing or land searching anyway. Not only that, but I tend to mulligan any hand without mana acceleration because the format is fast and this deck needs to start off on the right foot (exceptions could be something like 2 Ponder, Ascension, Time Warp, and lands).
• The deck consistently kills on turn 5-6 so far in my testing, but turn 4 kills are also very possible considering you can start off with turn 2 Expedition, turn 3 Harrow, Rampant Growth, sacrifice Expedition, putting you at seven lands.
• Naya Charm is extremely versatile in this deck. While the main use is obviously the combo, you have to remember that you can also tap down their side with it, or even kill something like an early Lotus Cobra that may end up causing more problems than its worth. On top of all of that, using it as a regular Regrowth has been perfectly fine as well, as it can return Ponder or Worldly Counsel to good effect when you’re low on gas. One last thing I’ve used it for is to return a land that was sacrificed to Harrow when I needed to hit a land drop to maximize Mind Spring on the following turn. Just remember to keep all options in mind with this one.
• Remember that in order to fully combo off you’ll need an active Ascension, Naya Charm in the graveyard, Time Warp in the graveyard or hand, and Naya Charm in hand. Then you cast Charm, copy it with Ascension, and return Charm and Time Warp.
• You can Naya Charm returning Naya Charm to slowly power up your Ascension if you have no other way of doing so.
• Harrow is very flexible, and you need to be delicate with it. I usually pass the turn if they have Blue mana up so I don’t get Negated, but otherwise I will use it mainphase if I can do something else afterwards. Remember to consider what you can draw into with Ponder/Counsel, as it will dictate whether you mainphase Counsel or not, and also what mana you should keep untapped.
• Time Warp is a way to untap fresh and continue going off. Because of this it’s important in the midgame to cast Ponder or Counsel first, looking for Time Warp to continue going off. Always check to see if you can leave five mana up after your card drawer so that you can Warp into a fresh turn. Once you have a good bit of mana, you should look for Ascension if you don’t already have it, and then look for Time Warps to buy time until you’ve achieved infinite turns.
• Harrow actually makes mana once Ascension is online; this is important to realize if you’re planning out a turn as it’s always right to Harrow first once Ascension is up and running.
• Above all else, the deck takes lots of testing to get used to the unique synergies, so you should definitely at least goldfish a bunch of times before playing with the deck if you don’t have time to test.

I’m sure there are some other small things I’m missing here, but the point is that the deck is very fast and also resilient thanks to Naya Charms. The only slot in the maindeck I’m not 100% sold on yet is the Sphinx of Lost Truths. The reason this is in there is because I wanted another card drawer and this seemed better than a lone Divination. It also helps that the Sphinx doubles as another kill condition if your opponent somehow exiled your Banefire in game 1 (this seems extremely unlikely and hasn’t happened to me yet). I could certainly see Sphinx becoming something else though, and I’m definitely up for suggestions.

Now on to the sideboard. The first thing I need to say here is that this deck does not sideboard very well. Taking out pieces of the puzzle isn’t easy, so the sideboard needs to be geared towards bringing in around four cards for any troublesome matchup. I looked into a transformational option, but it didn’t look better than just keeping the maindeck and boarding a few select cards for whatever I was facing.

As far as the card choices themselves, the Spell Pierces are an absolute necessity. They are excellent against Jund, which is bringing in Jund Charms, Duresses, and 2 Thought Hemorrhage. I may end up putting 2-3 Negates back in the board just for this matchup, but it’s really hard to sideboard out more than 4 cards in this deck without hurting the core deck. I also bring in the Pierces against Control and Mono Black, for obvious reasons.

The mix of Pyroclasms and/or Fogs is certainly subject to change after more testing. I’d really like to just play 4 Fog and feel confident that it was the correct solution, but I haven’t played enough against aggro yet to be sure or not, and I know both are good in different matchups. I also tried Safe Passage here, but it seemed far too slow.

The Fireball is against Thought Hemorrhage and Jund Charm, since they can be nasty. I’m also tempted to put a different win condition in the board, but am unsure if it’s even necessary since I’m already bringing in Fireball / Pierces against Jund.

Finally, the Naturalizes will likely get bumped up to 4 if Time Sieve becomes popular and / or to fight the Pyromancer Ascension mirror match.

I’ve considered other options for the board, such as Ajani Vengeant, Negate, and Flashfreeze, and they could very well end up making the final cut.

I know there are some of you out there who may read this and dismiss the deck because it seems incredibly easy to disrupt. This simply isn’t true in today’s Standard environment. Yes, cards do exist that can put a real damper on this archetype. As of right now though, those cards are not being played very heavily, and the deck can also evolve to whatever it needs to be to fight the hate to a certain degree. Even if the format does become extremely unfriendly to this kind of archetype, there will be some surprise value at least for a little while, and you will also tend to win most game 1s as the opponent will rarely be prepared in his maindeck.

A final benefit of running this archetype is that it creates dead cards by not playing any creatures (Sphinx clearly doesn’t count as a creature, in my opinion). I’ve had a ton of fun testing and tuning the deck, and hopefully you decide to give it a try for yourself as the strategy is extremely powerful.

— EDIT —


I wrote this yesterday and figured I was ready to go for a local tourney, and then found some more time to playtest late at night and changed the list. Initially I was going to delete what I’d already typed and just put in the final deck I decided to run. However, since this new list is something I’ve only played in about three matches with since making the changes, who’s to say the changes didn’t make it worse?

Anyway, point of all that being that I wanted to include both lists to see which you the reader think is better. I’m liking the changes a lot so far, but we’ll see what happens.

To summarize the changes, when I really thought about how the format should play out at this stage, not having Fogs maindeck had to be a huge mistake. The RW Bushwhacker deck is getting a lot of attention, as is Goblins (the Kyle Sanchez version which is very good). Fog is also pretty awesome against a deck like Vampires, against which Pyroclasm would do next to nothing. I also realized that I was drawing a few too many Mind Springs, and tapping out in this format can be risky. Not only am I tapping out less often now, I’m also doing so with Fog protection for a lone Green mana. The other cuts were two Heart Expedition since I’m not going all in on the Mind Spring plan, and the Sphinx. These are pretty self explanatory given the direction the deck is taking, and they were by far the worst four cards left, synergistically.

The other big changes are in the sideboard, since I now had space from taking out the Fogs.

The Into the Roil is a catch-all for the Dragon Fodder plus Polymorph combo deck which spits out Iona, Shield of Imeria or Progenitus. For what its worth, I don’t think the tools are there for this deck right now, though if I was attempting it, I’d only be going for 2 Iona and skipping on Progentius.

The one Negate is a perfect fit since I wanted slightly more than 4 Spell Pierce against Jund and Control, and any more Negates than one seemed like too many since I still want the game to end pretty quickly. The Ajani Vengeants are probably the best proactive answer that my deck has to Jund in the format. They buy me time, and can be vicious with many extra turns just from Time Warping naturally. They also may come in if I feel like they will be good in other matchups.

Anyway, figured I should definitely get that update in there, and good luck at the tables!

Nick Eisel
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