Heartbeat Updated

Today, Rogier brings us a comprehensive article describing the thought-process behind Heartbeat in Coldsnap Standard. This combo deck is one of the trickier weapons in the current metagame, but Rogier peels away the layers of mystery surrounding the shaping of the perfect combo kill. His new build is surprising, but the advice he offers is unmissable. Still blinded by combo madness? Rogier is here to help.

Dear readers, today I present you another article about the Heartbeat of Spring combo deck in Standard. Since I do not really like to write about decks that I did not test a lot, it has been silent from my side for a while. Lately though, with Nationals coming up soon, I played lots and lots of Magic Online tournaments. There was one week in which I played six Premier Events (these are usually six round Swiss tournaments, followed by a Top 8), in all of them using my Heartbeat deck, and doing quite well in them. Today I will write about my current decklist (also considering that we are in Coldsnap Standard now), about how to act in the most popular matchups and about sideboarding with this deck in general.

To me, Heartbeat is the most difficult deck in the format (it requires more thought than the Gifts Ungiven control deck from Kamigawa Block), but it’s also the most beautiful deck since Gifts. More than most other available decks, Heartbeat will really reward playing well. No matter what kind of deck your opponent brings to the match, your win probability will depend very heavily on the decisions you will make. With Heartbeat you do not have any decks that you want to face, or any that you want to avoid (I will mention one exception later). Obviously, you will prefer decks with no combo disruption and slow, expensive creatures, but whatever deck the opposition plays, a way to beat his strategy can always be found.

In the first two weeks that I played with this deck, I did not win a lot. Figuring out how the combo works is not that easy, and figuring out how to combo when your opponent could have two Mortifies in his hand, or two Remands, or one Mortify and one Remand for example, is quite hard. The more often you play with Heartbeat, the better you can estimate your opponent’s hand in the crucial stages of the game, which is important for your plan to win the game.

After the first weeks, I started winning matches, and events. Step by step I found a version of this combo deck that I think is a valid choice in the current Standard format. Starting from the original decklists that were used a lot in the Team PTQ season, I replaced some cards to reach my current decklist:

If you have never seen such a deck before, I will explain how it works: During the first few turns you try to get as many lands in play as possible, as well as trying to stop your opponent from putting too much pressure on you. Kodama’s Reaches and Sakura-Tribe Elders are really good in the early phase of the game. You use Remands to stop their dangerous creatures or their land destruction. Then when you’ve enough lands in play, you will have to focus on getting the whole combo online. These are the things you need for that: 1 Heartbeat of Spring and 1 Weird Harvest; or 1 Heartbeat, multiple Early Harvests, and Invoke the Firemind or Demonfire.

To collect the combo pieces you use Sensei’s Divining Top and the transmute cards Drift of Phantasms and Muddle the Mixture. If you are finished in this section, you can start to play to the combo: play a Heartbeat, put a lot of mana in your mana pool, play Weird Harvest (search for all remaining copies of Drift of Phantasms), transmute the Drifts into Early Harvests and Invoke the Firemind, and aim a big Invoke at your opponent. Knowing when to go for the combo and which cards to play around are things you will learn by practicing versus different decks, and hopefully by reading this article.

As you can see, this deck is much different to the initial versions, while it still intends to do the exact same trick. Most players that have seen this decklist so far assume that it’s a joke, and that I’m trying to trick them into playing a bad deck at Nationals. Let me tell you that all of that is incorrect. I am positive that this decklist has got what it takes to win tournaments, assuming that you have practiced a lot and have enough experience/playskill with combo decks. If you’re used to winning with beatdown strategies, or with control decks, I would not advise you to play this deck in an important tournament. But if you invest some time and get to know the feeling of this deck, then you can become an opponent that players will fear. I will give you my reasons for deviating from the initial deck as played by Max Bracht in PT: Hawaii:

There is no Maga in this deck!
Even though Maga, Traitor to Mortals was the main win condition of the deck originally, often accompanied by Invoke the Firemind to prevent losing to Castigate and Cranial Extraction, I feel no need to play Maga in this deck. First of all this is because you never ever want to draw Maga the natural way. In my deck Invoke the Firemind and Demonfire play the role Maga had before, and both of them can be used in alternative ways. Drawing Demonfire is hardly ever a bad thing; I have never seen Maga kill a Dark Confidant. The second reason to not play Maga is that you can get rid of the awkward 1 Swamp, 1 Mountain configuration. Problems with this setting are twofold: sometimes you do not know whether to search for a Swamp or for a Mountain, because you do not know if Maga or Invoke the Firemind will be found first (assuming you do not have a way to acquire Weird Harvest in your hand). The other issue is land destruction, like Stone Rain, Annex and Ghost Quarter. While most players will argue that you never play your Swamp until the turn that you will combo, there will be a lot of situations in which this is either impossible or just a really bad thing. Suppose the Swamp is your third land to make a turn 3 Kodama’s Reach possible… will you not play the Swamp and lose massive tempo, or will you run the Swamp out there risking it will be destroyed soon after?

In my version I have two Mountains. The manabase of this deck is fine, with four Kodama’s Reach and four Sakura-Tribe Elders, so one can easily afford to play two Mountains. Often my opponent would play a surprising Ghost Quarter at some point in the game, killing my Mountain and exclaiming “GG!” Losing in this way would be rather embarrassing; with two Mountains you do not have to be afraid to play to first one.

Yet another reason not to play Maga is because with Invoke and Maga you will have two similar weapons, while the 1 Demonfire, 1 Invoke configuration gives you a lot more versatility. Maga does the exact same thing as Invoke the Firemind in 95% of the situations. The only advantage of Maga is that it requires less mana if you use Weird Harvest to find it. In my version, Weird Harvest just tutors for Drifts (and some Elders usually), while Maga can be found directly with the Harvest so that you do not have to spend a Drift of Phantasms to get it. As I mentioned, this is only relevant in less than 5% of all situations. Most of the time you can choose to play Invoke with X=36 or Maga with X=39. I admit that there will be a situation in which you will say: “I wish I had Maga now,” but that alone is not a reason to justify playing a bad card.

Invoke is also better than Maga in the games that you have to combo without playing Heartbeat of Spring (either because it is removed from the game, or because the extra mana Heartbeat gives your opponent will enable him to cast his triple Char), since Invoke costs XRUU and Maga costs XBBB. Having access to BBB without a Heartbeat on the table is only possible when you have the Swamp in play before playing at least two Early Harvests.

Demonfire is your better option versus decks with Counterspells. In the maindeck there is no way to tutor for Demonfire, but as games versus Blue decks go long anyway that is not really an issue. If you have a Top in play in the later stages of the game, you can easily set up a turn in which you can shuffle eight or nine times. Finding Demonfire should not be that hard in this situation. Most Counterspell decks will have to focus on countering your kill card, since countering all Heartbeats and Early Harvests is not very realistic. While they are waiting for a counter battle over your Maga, you just play Demonfire, which will be uncounterable on resolution if you play correctly. Please be careful of the Boomerang plus Counterspell plan, because if they bounce a land in response to Demonfire, a simple Hinder will get the job done for them. Other cards that solve Demonfire are: Repeal, a flipped Jushi Apprentice, and Mikokoro.

Only one Weird Harvest?
Weird Harvest is an essential card in more than 70% of the games you will play. So it only makes sense to play as many as possible, right? My deck has one Weird Harvest and four Muddle the Mixture, which gives you a total of five ways to find the Harvest. Would you play more than four Heartbeats of Spring in your deck if that were allowed? I do not think so, even though the Heartbeat is more important in the deck than Weird Harvest. Also, the second copy of Weird Harvest becomes completely redundant when you already drew the first one, and the last thing this deck wants is to have dead cards. Muddle the Mixture is so much better than Weird Harvest, because it is a combination of Counterspell and Weird Harvest! Again, a situation will arise in which you wish you drew Weird Harvest instead of a Muddle, but this is also unlikely to happen, and if it happens chances are that you misplayed in the previous turns (by not transmuting the Muddle earlier usually). For me this is absolutely not a reason to play more than one copy of Weird Harvest.

Spell Snare maindeck?
Spell Snare was not around when this deck was created, but it is a great addition to the deck now. It replaces bad cards such as Recollect and Savage Twister. Spell Snare is great versus aggressive decks, as stopping their tempo is a big deal. Versus a Zoo deck for example, the starting hands you are looking for are solid Elder hands, or great Reach hands. Now also hands with Spell Snare become powerful, giving you more win percentage in games without sideboard. If they start, and you get to counter their Watchwolf, this will buy you two turns on average.

I am not playing Savage Twister maindeck, since this is a combo deck in essence. Spending one Early Harvest and one Muddle the Mixture (to Twister the board) is hardly ever the correct play, since it will make comboing a lot harder during the next turns. I was playing one Boomerang maindeck, to get rid of annoying cards like Kami of Ancient Law, Pithing Needle, and Burning-Tree Shaman. Since these cards are almost non-existent in the current metagame, I do not feel the need of Boomerang maindeck. If you do, it should replace a Spell Snare.

I have a copy of Recollect in my sideboard, but that is only there to fetch with Research, so that you can play Research again after the next Cranial Extraction versus the Solar Flare deck.

Why Twincast?
For a while I was boarding in Twincast versus Blue decks, to have it function as a Counterspell or as a way to gain from their Tidings. Then I realized that Twincast is also very good even if the opponent plays nothing worth copying. It is such a natural fit in this deck, that I am playing one copy maindeck now. It serves as an additional Early Harvest (in the case of Mortify, this is useful), as a way to have more lands in play early on (copy a Kodama’s Reach), and finally it makes the 5% in which Maga is better than Invoke a 2% situation. If you do not have enough mana for a lethal Invoke, but you do have a potentially lethal Maga, then Twincast solves the problem if you hold an extra Muddle. Plus you get to do all funny tricks with Twincast, and they never expect it. A lot of times I just played a Heartbeat of Spring so that the opponent would play his Mortify, which I would then Twincast to kill his Angel of Despair.

There are no creatures in the sideboard.
This is a combo deck, and I do not think that boarding in as few as eight creatures will increase your match win percentage versus any deck. Which eight combo cards are you going to take out, without weakening the combo, or without having very bad Drift of Phantasms in your deck?

In every matchup, I prefer the combo plan to the creature plan. My sideboard is thus built to support the combo by either solve their disruption, or buying you more time. I have Punishments in sideboard, replacing the former Savage Twisters, since most Orzhov aggro decks have a lot of Shining Shoals these days. Having Savage Twister deal damage to you, while not even killing a single creature, is not something you want to happen! It only makes sense to add a Maga here, as only Invoke could be vulnerable to Shining Shoal.

This decklist is still subject to changes. You will need to adapt the sideboard to the expected metagame. Cards that did not make the cut at this point are:

Bound/Determined: The Determined part is quite powerful versus heavy counter decks, and one could compare it to Orim’s Chant. It is also really good in response to a Counterspell, since your original spell will resolve and you get to draw a card.

Thrumming Stone: This addition is not really subject to any metagame. I still haven’t found a great way to break this card. It has a lot of potential, even in this deck. You can produce a lot of mana, and the combo of Thrumming Stone and Sensei’s Divining Top is really powerful. You will find all four copies of the Top in not time. With four Tops around, Thrumming Stone essentially makes you draw four cards for any one mana you spend. Every time you just ripple the other Top(s), thus gaining massive card advantage. It is still a five mana artifact, so maybe it will be too expensive for competitive play.

Pyroclasm/Savage Twister: These cards are better at killing the smaller creatures than Punishment. So if Shining Shoal is not too popular, I would always play the Red removal instead.

Life from the Loam: While this seems to be an amazing answer to the Magnivore deck, in reality it is not very good. With Life from the Loam you can stop caring about Wildfire, but in most games you do not really care about Wildfire anyway. With all Elders and Reaches you will have the mana advantage most of the time. The only issue is whether you can combo before they can play a Magnivore and attack twice. Life from the Loam is not very helpful is this battle.

I will now try to explain how the important matchups work for our Heartbeat deck, and how it should be played to maximize your win probability. I will not estimate the match win percentage versus any deck you can face, because it really depends on how well you play the matchup and about how comfortable you are. Also, I think that in every strategy article matchup percentages are greatly exaggerated, and I do not want to lie to you. Flores, especially, is master is these expressions, he is always saying that deck x can never beat his deck because he has four copies of some card in his sideboard. At PT: Los Angeles he claimed to always beat Affinity with his White/Black control deck, only because after sideboard he would have four Akroma’s Vengeances! Let me tell you this: at GP: Bilbao I played versus Olivier Ruel, and all he had to do was draw one of his four copies of Solitary Confinement to win (since I played Affinity and did not have any answer to it). Needless to say, I won that match 2-0, so I think beating Akroma’s Vengeance was also a real possibility. When someone writes that a matchup of his deck versus something else is 50-50, most of the time I interpret this as an unfavorable matchup. Likewise, 60-40 means the matchup can go both ways more often than not. So without bothering you with percentages, here is the matchup overview.

Solar Flare
This deck became popular only weeks ago, but has been really popular ever since. Game 1 works like this: the only thing that you really worry about is Persecute. Most Flare decks only play two or three Persecutes maindeck; more often than not, your opponent will not even draw one. Still, you should always keep in mind that Persecute is in his deck, and be sure that it does not wreck you. Sensei’s Divining Top helps greatly, as not only can you find Muddle the Mixtures sooner (to counter the Persecute), you can also hide your Heartbeats and both Harvests on top of your library. Green is the correct color to name in general, because most Blue cards can actually counter Persecute, so bear in mind that the green part of your hand can be discarded during the game. Besides Persecute, you should do normal things: accelerate as much as possible in the beginning. If you can choose between drawing Kodama’s Reaches or combo cards, you should take the Reaches until you are sure to have access to nine lands. The only combo disruption they have is Remand and Mortify. This is not a lot, and that is why you should let most Compulsive Researches and Court Hussars resolve without a fight. The cards they will draw will be more Researches and Dragons, and you do not really care about them. In general, your plan should be to combo before they get the opportunity to play a Dragon and still have mana up for Mortify plus Remand. This also means that you should never play a Heartbeat of Spring unless you are going to win on that turn. The Heartbeat will enable them to cast Angel of Despair, whereas without the Heartbeat they would have to tap out for it.

Sideboarding: They will bring in Cranial Extraction and Castigates most of the time. To beat this, I considered a creature strategy. Most creatures lose fights with Yosei and Angel of Despair however, so I do not think that this is the way to go. Protecting your combo plan versus all the discard spells is the plan I am going for. Bottled Cloister is great versus Persecute, Castigate, and Cranial Extraction. It is abysmal versus Angel of Despair, so boarding in Cloisters is not a valid concept here. I board in two more Spell Snares and one Research/Development, taking this out: one Heartbeat, one Early Harvest and one Drift of Phantasms. Since games will go long after sideboard, you do not need all that many combo cards anymore. Boarding out a Drift weakens Weird Harvest, but since you will end up with more than seven lands in play this is not really relevant. Again, accelerating is a big deal, especially if you have a Top in play. With many lands in play, no matter what they discard or remove, you can always make a big comeback by just drawing two good cards. Try not to get destroyed by Persecute, and use Research to shuffle either the Heartbeats or the Early Harvests back in your library along with the Recollect (so you can Research again). Use Remands for their big creatures, since Remanding a Castigate does not solve you the problem usually. Sometimes you can also go for the Twincast/Remand plan, to either remove all their Extractions from the game, or to discard their hand with Persecute.

To summarize this matchup: do not combo early if you will lose to a single Mortify, and do not wait to long because at some point they will have enough mana to start playing their big Dragons.

This part will also be about Gruul and Boros decks, since your role is essentially the same in all these matchups. Most games against a Zoo deck are straightforward. You can easily calculate in which turn you need to combo, simply by counting when they will put you at seven or at eight. Eight is often the magic number, since two Chars (or Flames of the Blood Hand) will kill you from there. Remember that they will have enough mana to play the double Char on the turn in which you go for it. This matchup is all about finding Time Walks. Delaying your opponent by one turn is often enough to win. You should assume that the Zoo deck will have two power on turn 1, and five power on turn 2. This means that they will put you at 18, then at 13, then at 8. Barring any Time Walks, you need to combo on turn four if you play first, and even earlier when they start. This seems impossible, but a lot of cards can buy you time here: Sakura-Tribe Elder is your biggest weapon, Spell Snare (or Remand when playing first) can stop the Watchwolf on turn 2, Muddle the Mixture and Remand can counter the lethal Char. Also, playing Heartbeat of Spring the turn before you combo will give you six more mana (since you do not have to play it anymore) on the next turn, while they can hardly exploit the extra mana. Since Spell Snare is so good, you board up to four copies for sure. Carven Caryatid is only good when you play first, and then I would still prefer Savage Twister or Punishment so I did not include them in this sideboard. Because you need to win as early as possible, you cannot board out any combo cards. This is how I sideboard versus Zoo:

(I start) +2 Spell Snare, +1 Maga, +1 Swamp, +2 Punishment, -1 Mountain, -1 Demonfire, -1 Twincast, -1 Invoke the Firemind, -2 Remand.

(They start) +1 Maga, +1 Swamp, +3 Punishment, -1 Mountain, -4 Remand.

Please remember that sideboarding also needs to be based on the actual deck of your opponent, not on his deck archetype. For example, if he is playing Stone Rain, then boarding out Invoke the Firemind is bad, because you will depend on your sole Swamp. If there are Burning-Tree Shamans around, then cutting some Tops is advised, etc.

White/Black Aggro
This is about Ghost Dad, Ghost Hulk, Hand in Hand, and other nicknames of a deck that is always the same to you. Keys things are: they are slower than Zoo decks, they have Mortify to kill Heartbeat of Spring, before sideboard they cannot run much hand destruction since they need creatures as well, after sideboard they will have discard effects (Okiba-Gang Shinobi, Castigate, Persecute), and they cannot remove a Bottled Cloister.

Surviving is what is important in this matchup. Use Remands and Elders to keep your life total high, while searching for combo pieces in the meantime. You should combo on turn 6 on average in this matchup, but actually it depends on how much time they give you. A W/B player will always represent a Mortify by keeping two lands untapped late in the game. This does not mean that he actually has a Mortify in his hand! So if you cannot beat a Mortify on turn 6, usually it is correct to go for the combo anyway. The only cards that you can draw to beat Mortify the next turn are Muddle the Mixture and Early Harvest (sometime Drift is also an out, if you have a lot of lands in play), while you risk a lot of things by passing the turn. A Ghost Council might kill you, you may put yourself in Shining Shoal range, the opponent might draw a Mortify, or a Castigate; these are all scenarios in which you wished you had tried to combo the previous turn. Of course, this is all based on your judgment. Just try to figure out how likely it is that he has a Mortify, and base your plan on that.

I would recommend bringing in these cards: 3 Bottled Cloister, 3 Punishment, 1 Maga and 1 Swamp. Cards that can be taken out (depending on who is playing first, and what version you are up against) are: 4 Remand, 2 Spell Snare, 1 Demonfire, 1 Mountain, 1 Early Harvest and 1 Twincast. If there will be many Cranial Extractions, then Research can be boarded in. If you can choose between Invoke and Maga, then remember than Shining Shoal does not work versus Maga.

Your game plan is quite simple after sideboard: try to get a quick Cloister in play, and use it to protect your Heartbeats and Drifts. If B/W strategies become popular again, I would suggest going up to four Bottled Cloisters in sideboard.

Steam Vents decks
Decks in this category are UrzaTron and Magnivore. Your plan to beat these decks is similar. The main thing is to try to get ahead in the mana department. This can be tough, since one deck is playing Stone Rain and Boomerang and the other has Urza lands and Signets. In the later stages, it is not important to have more mana than your opponent has, your main concern should be that a resolved Wildfire does not blow you out of the game. Therefore, I always fight about every Sakura-Tribe Elder, about every Eye of Nowhere and about most Signets when possible. This game is only about the first few turns. If you look healthy on turn 5 versus Magnivore, you will win almost all the time. The UrzaTron is something you cannot fight about, so a turn 4 Keiga with Remand mana up is hard to defeat. Realizing that these decks so not play many Counterspells is important obviously, as do you not want to wait unnecessarily. I board in more Spell Snares versus Vore, taking out one or two Heartbeats (you do not need them early). The Gigadrowse package comes in only if you expect them to have many counters after sideboard. Since you do not want to board out many cards, only few sideboard slots are used here.

Mirror Match
A lot can be said about this matchup, but most things there are to know one can only learn by playing. Obviously the player with a Top in play has an advantage (that is also why there is a Dizzy Spell in the sideboard). You should only fight mana acceleration if you think you can punish them for having fewer lands. Most of the time however, they will catch up, and have more Counterspells left in the deciding game. The important cards in this matchup are: Remand, Muddle, Spell Snare, Twincast and Sensei’s Divining Top. I always board out three Heartbeats, and keep four Early Harvests (since they also stop Gigadrowse). A final remark is this: the player who is the first one going for the kill, will lose in over 75% of all games. The other 25% of the games are often decided on Demonfire.

The Snake decks become more and more popular these days. It is not that difficult to play correctly here. A few things are important:

You will get a lot of time, but be wary of a surprise Coat of Arms kill.

Try to get many lands in play, so that their Remands and their Mana Leaks become irrelevant.

Do not panic of they draw some extra cards (with Ohran Viper, for example); most cards that they will draw are just other Snakes!

Punishments and Spell Snares are good after sideboard. I do not think boarding in Maga is good, since you will get time to develop your hand and manabase. Therefore, Demonfire and Invoke the Firemind are better. All sorts of Sea Stompy decks (with Trygon Predators and Rumbling Slum, for example) can be considered as Snake decks when it comes to this article.

Scrying Sheets decks
I have read about Green/White control decks with Scrying Sheets. Do not worry much about these decks. Again, they will probably draw more cards than you do, but they have to make up time for having bad cards against you. Maybe a mono-Blue Scrying Sheets decks will appear, with many Counterspells.

Your plan is the same as versus every other heavy counter deck: set up Demonfire, and set up Gigadrowse after sideboard. They will draw many cards, but in the end their hand size is also limited to seven cards. Without a clock, you will also be able to find the cards you need. Remember that Remand is a real Counterspell when you target your own spells with it.

Blue/Green Ninja/Erayo
Isn’t it ironic that the person who used the first version of Heartbeat to Top 8 PT: Honolulu is now trying to destroy his own deck? Since last week the new Ninja deck has been all over the place online. I have played six matches versus it in tournaments already, and it is the only deck that I do not want to face. A flipped Erayo spells trouble, but can be beaten. Ninja of the Deep Hours is not that big a deal for you (you will only die on turn 10 or so). However, a flipped Erayo backed up with a stream of Counterspells is not the situation you want yourself to be in. In these six matches I got destroyed four times, while winning only two matches. You will have to do everything it takes to stop Erayo. This means boarding in Spell Snares and Punishment. You will also need to take more risks when deciding when to go for the kill, since the opponent is always trying more cards a turn and threatening to flip Erayo.

I could go on describing other matchups, but I think that if you want to have good results with Heartbeat you will need a lot of practice yourself. Most other decks can be beaten using a strategy that is also used versus similar decks. For example, Greater Good has the same problem cards as Solar Flare. Decks like Ghazi Glare you can probably beat with your eyes closed, so there is no need to elaborate on that. Also, this article is very long already, and I doubt if anyone would want to read more at this point.

There are still some months before Heartbeat of Spring will rotate out, so there is plenty of time to master this beautiful deck. I am quite sure that I will play a version that is a copy of the decklist above, or one that is really close to it, at my Nationals, and I hope to do well again!