Pod People

Sean McKeown’s had some success recently in Modern PTQs with Kiki Pod. He goes in-depth into his build of the deck and provides a detailed matchup guide.

The Modern format has to all appearances diversified following the banning of Seething Song and Bloodbraid Elf, with no small help from the addition of Gatecrash helping it along with new aggressive creatures like Experiment One and high-impact burn spells such as Boros Charm and Ghor-Clan Rampager that let you dish out four damage for two mana and KO the opponent very quickly. Each banning has knocked the format loose when it appeared to be converging around a few key decks, and even if they seemed weird it appears to have had the desired effect, be it by luck or by design.

The loss of Bloodbraid Elf seems to have effectively convinced everyone to experiment with the good cards from Jund in different color shells, bringing us multiple decks with many of the same core cards in common as Deathrite Shaman and Dark Confidant look for a new home, sometimes with Tarmogoyf, sometimes with Snapcaster Mage, and even with both.

The loss of Seething Song seems to have finally brought an end to Desperate Ritual and its ilk, as we have yet to see a Storm deck or Past in Flames deck reappear following that banning, though cute tricks with Paradise Mantle and Steamcore Weird have showed up on the margins. While it’s probably only a matter of time before the exact moment is right for a Pyromancer’s Ascension focused build to reappear as a metagame deck, the raw-power machine Storm used to be is gone and is no longer a compelling choice to take to a tournament.

Things have shifted around into a good place that feels sustainable. While it’s true there seems to be a single deck that is ascendant and continues to be the most visible deck in the format, that deck is the inherently-fair U/W/R Tempo deck that just wants to Restoration Angel its Geist of Saint Traft and Snapcaster Mage its Lightning Helixes while using Remand to buy enough time. While it’s popular, that popularity seems to be near the 10% level—not exactly a threat to metagame diversity.

And if “enemy number one” is the fairest deck around, just trying to play an interactive game of Magic while coming ahead incrementally on a series of exchanges by a few life points here or a couple damage there, we’re seeing the format settle in a place where everything is viable and nothing is so clearly “the best deck” that the metagame polarizes.

What we haven’t seen very much of since the format shake-up is Birthing Pod. I knew at the beginning of the PTQ season that this was the deck I was most interested in working on, as while I liked the sketches of decks I had been brewing up before the season started, none of them felt as rewarding of good play and tight deckbuilding as Kiki Pod because they were all ultimately fair decks. That I was innovating playing Grim Lavamancer in my Jund deck didn’t change the fact that I was playing Jund, a fair deck through and through even if it is just a pile of good cards that gain card advantage bit by bit.

While I liked looking at Deathrite Shaman alongside Aether Vial in revisiting Shouta Yasooka’s deck from the Magic Players Championship, it was a fair deck, same as when I tried abandoning the red (as well as the Vials and Eternal Witnesses) to build a BUG Tempo deck. As far as my dabbling took me, it never went over the edge of fairness, and when Ari Lax had initial success with Kiki Pod at Grand Prix Toronto and followed it up with a deck primer, I had found the design space within which I wanted to work.

I’m certain I got things wrong at first. There were certainly challenges, not the least of which was card availability, because in my regular travails writing about Commander on Dear Azami I had embraced the concept of fairness in an easily broken design space to the point that I didn’t have a Kiki-Jiki in my Commander deckbuilding box. And when fetchlands shot up in price this past summer, I had gotten rid of all but one of each. This was undoubtedly going to make whatever I chose to play a bit more difficult to acquire, and because of this I actually missed playing in my first PTQ of the season, ten hard-to-find cards short at the start of the day.

Instead of grinding through a PTQ playing my first playtest games in round 1, I got a birds-eye-view of the format from judging it, which I suppose was an excellent introduction to the format. Rather than muddling through badly with a hard deck, I was able to watch firsthand all of the matchups I had never gotten to play myself, getting some serious immersion therapy to help bring me up to speed before I dove in the following day with my first shot at altering Ari’s GP decklist with my own tweaks and tunes.

I started where he left off, which was with the following:

I started by trying a wide number of things, too many changes at once really—especially considering that I was working off of Ari’s commentary from his primer rather than any experience. As I would learn firsthand, Pod gets better when you have more muscle memory to work with and don’t have to calculate your way through everything as if it were the first time through. I changed the mana, I changed around creature slots, I fiddled with the sideboard because I didn’t expect combo to be very prevalent at the point in the season which I was entering.

For that last one at least, I had a full day’s worth of PTQ observation to back it up, as the combo decks were barely present. Showing you those early iterations of changes would do no great good other than perhaps to establish some baseline credibility to say that I did in fact try everything—at one point I not only had Fauna Shamans in the deck, but there may or may not have been a Baneslayer Angel to try to dominate the game with as a singleton copy.

What I learned in those early experiences was formative and helped smooth over the way I understood the deck and the games you will play. Then I could really start to tinker. First and foremost, I worked on the mana base, realizing that the deck is in essence a RUG deck with a light white splash and building accordingly. This necessitated as few Restoration Angels as were actually pulling their weight, and as you’ll see in the chart below, this turns out to be two since there is a line of play that is very solid which requires having access to two Restoration Angels as we take our opponent from shrugging off Kitchen Finks to just dead.

The third and fourth might be solid contributors but stress the mana, and thus we can find other contributors in their stead. This allowed me to build centrally around Misty Rainforest and Scalding Tarn to make up for the fact that every time I drew a hybrid land or a Razorverge Thicket in trying to work these things out I just wanted to rip the card up in frustration. Even Arid Mesa led to awkwardness and frustration since the dual land I find myself getting most often when I’m land-light—Breeding Pool—is not one you can fetch.

You play two different kinds of games with this deck: those with Pod and those without. Games in which you control a Birthing Pod are simply a different animal than any other game you’ll see played in the format with so many lines of play unfolding before you and available if only you so will it, all inevitably converging in the singularity of a dead opponent. Let’s just say it’s hard to lose these ones, and while it does happen, it tends to be because you’re under increasing pressure from a hyperaggressive deck or you did it to yourself. Games in which you do not control a Birthing Pod aren’t necessarily harder, they just aren’t the same—you aren’t playing chess in a checkers-only format, you’re “just” playing the same format as everyone else.

Understanding the Birthing Pod games requires an understanding of the innate capabilities of the deck, as you only get out what you build into it and your knowledge of the lines of play you can undertake really push the envelope of what is possible in this format. Building for it suggests you want multiple converging avenues of play that you can take so you can go from a variety of initial conditions to the end result of a dead opponent, but other than those aggressive lines of play, you will also want some specific tools that you can access and enablers that give you enough mana to do all of this on an accelerated timetable. Life and mana are somewhat interchangeable in this deck, and having a whole turn’s more life to work with can be quite a bit of mana indeed when you explode out of seemingly nowhere with the kill.

Understanding the non-Pod games is more difficult—you have to meet all of the above design conditions and build a credible deck with an effective mana curve, balancing between the need to get as much bang as you can get for your cardboard buck and the need to deploy quickly in order to be effective. Sometimes you’ll have a Kiki-Jiki and another piece and won’t even notice that this wasn’t a Pod game, but those don’t happen quite often enough to lean on as a crutch. You’ll want some sort of supplemental way to pretend you have a Pod. This is not exactly easy because Birthing Pod is sort of off in its own special category doing its own thing and you can’t replicate it.

Chord of Calling is what is most commonly used in this regard, but plenty of experienced mages have called it the worst card in the deck for a reason—when you’re on a clock or your opponent is stressing your mana by killing off your cheap drops, you need more mana than you’ll actually have for this to be an effective card and finding another supplemental effect would be great if you could. Primal Command’s too expensive and slow, so we clearly need it to be cheap or we might as well just not play anything at all. Fauna Shaman has to at least be considered and tested, though it’s probable that it’s not going to line up well in many of the same situations that Chord of Calling is weak in as it will just eat a Bolt or be asking for mana you can’t really spare when under pressure.

I began by identifying what cards were necessary in Ari’s list and honing the deck to its streamlined shell based on the available lines of play. I didn’t realize all of these lines were necessarily available right at the start—Ari never mentioned a line of play starting with Kitchen Finks, and that is the only line of play that requires there to be a second Restoration Angel in the deck, so for a while my “streamlining” the deck cut the Restoration Angels down to one before finally settling back to two. Going through these sequences, we identify the untouchables to the deck:

Starting Point Turns Pod Activations Method
1-Drop + 2-Drop 1 4 Two-drop becomes Deceiver Exarch. Untap Pod.
One-drop becomes Phantasmal Image, copy Deceiver Exarch. Untap Pod.
Image-copy becomes Restoration Angel, blinking Deceiver Exarch. Untap Pod.
Restoration Angel becomes Kiki-Jiki.

2-Drop + 2-Drop 1 4 Two-drop #1 becomes Deceiver Exarch. Untap Pod.
Two-drop #2 becomes Deceiver Exarch. Untap Pod.
Either Deceiver Exarch becomes Restoration Angel, blinking Deceiver Exarch. Untap Pod.
Restoration Angel becomes Kiki-Jiki.
2-Drop + 3-Drop 1 3 Two-drop becomes Deceiver Exarch. Untap Pod.
Three-drop becomes Restoration Angel, blinking Deceiver Exarch. Untap Pod.
Restoration Angel becomes Kiki-Jiki.
2-Drop + 4-Drop 1 2 Two-drop becomes Deceiver Exarch. Untap Pod.
Four-drop becomes Kiki-Jiki.
4-Drop with Persist 1 2 Four-drop becomes Zealous Conscripts plus four-drop with a -1/-1 counter. Untap Pod.
Four-drop with -1/-1 counter becomes Kiki-Jiki.
3-Drop + 4-Drop 1 3 Four-drop becomes Zealous Conscripts. Untap Pod.
Three-drop becomes Restoration Angel, blinking Zealous Conscripts. Untap Pod.
Restoration Angel becomes Kiki-Jiki.

2-Drop + Conscripts 1 3 Two-drop becomes Deceiver Exarch. Untap Pod.
Deceiver Exarch becomes Restoration Angel, blinking Zealous Conscripts. Untap Pod.
Restoration Angel becomes Kiki-Jiki.
3-Drop + Conscripts 1 2 Three-drop becomes Restoration Angel, blinking Zealous Conscripts. Untap Pod.
Restoration Angel becomes Kiki-Jiki.
2-Drop 2 4 Two-drop becomes Deceiver Exarch. Untap Pod.
Deceiver Exarch becomes either Persist 4-drop. Pass turn.
Four-drop becomes Zealous Conscripts plus four-drop with a -1/-1 counter. Untap Pod.
Four-drop with -1/-1 counter becomes Kiki-Jiki.
3-Drop 2 3 Three-drop becomes either Persist 4-drop. Pass turn.
Four-drop becomes Zealous Conscripts plus four-drop with a -1/-1 counter. Untap Pod.
Four-drop with -1/-1 counter becomes Kiki-Jiki.
Kitchen Finks 2 4 Kitchen Finks becomes Restoration Angel, blinking Kitchen Finks. Pass turn.
Restoration Angel becomes Zealous Conscripts. Untap Pod.
Kitchen Finks becomes Restoration Angel #2, blinking Zealous Conscripts. Untap Pod.
Restoration Angel becomes Kiki-Jiki.

We cannot cut any of the following cards and still be able to go off from each and every one of these possible starting conditions, making them absolutely necessary—you shouldn’t even sideboard any of them out:

1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
1 Zealous Conscripts
1 Phantasmal Image
1 Persist Four-Drop
2 Restoration Angel
2 Deceiver Exarch

And, obviously, four Birthing Pod. So the central, untouchable nugget is only twelve cards—everything else can be touched and tweaked during deckbuilding. As noted by one of the lines of play, starting with just a Pod and a Kitchen Finks you can establish a very solid board presence for defensive posturing and kill on the next turn, so we’ll probably want a lot of Kitchen Finks since they’re very good both on offense and defense and can potentially count as “part of the combo” when we get to the final numbers.

The rest of the slots have two things pulling on them: mana curve considerations and utility during a game that makes you want to Pod for one. With the banning of Bloodbraid Elf and Seething Song, combo decks became the oddity rather than the regular occurrence, and thus the severe focus on them during game 1 (via having the Canonist there) and during sideboarding (all of these Chalices of the Void) can be readjusted in the face of a different reality. While people can and do still play Eggs and Splinter Twin, they don’t play Storm, and the format has shifted away from being a fight between combo decks to instead focusing on the more normal aggro-versus-midrange-versus-control questions with only a minor combo presence.

You obviously don’t want to play just the one Kiki-Jiki, but all four is not a necessity; I have been very comfortable with just the three copies. Sometimes I even board down to two, which is perfectly fine when people are leaving your Birthing Pods alone but wrong if they can actually kill one or play a hoser like Grafdigger’s Cage or Stony Silence. In those cases, you’ll need to actually draw one to go infinite, and sometimes you actually need to in order to go over the top of someone’s very strong defenses.

And while you don’t have to play mana creatures, the games you have one on turn 1 are far better than the games you don’t, and the only limitation I’ve really found is how good that creature is at making mana you can use. Birds of Paradise is the best and Noble Hierarch is excellent too, but after that we have to reach for Avacyn’s Pilgrim or Arbor Elf. Both of those have some very serious issues, and they just weren’t pulling their weight.

We want to maximize our creatures and have committed 22 slots already to the combo and the one-drop accelerators. Utility spells are pretty dead draws with a Birthing Pod active, and every wasted slot is one more option you won’t have access to because you ran out of room and couldn’t include it. 23 lands is the effective minimum in a world where people can and will kill your one-drops, so there are now just fifteen slots to work with—we’re running out of room.

I settled on just four utility singletons as well as playing one of each persist four-drop, as each has its own utility in addition to being generally awesome with Birthing Pod. After that, things got moved to the sideboard or cut entirely, as slots are tight and there is a very real opportunity cost to these things.

Wall of Roots was included because there are times when you want to start advancing a one-drop accelerator up the curve with Birthing Pod but still need access to guaranteed mana that next turn. Another early accelerant was a good addition regardless, so it matched both criteria.

Spellskite can go to work on opposing unfair decks such as Splinter Twin or Infect or do good work blocking removal that would break up your combo, though it’s worth noting that Spellskite doesn’t stop everything. It doesn’t interact with Kiki-Jiki / Deceiver Exarch or Kiki / Restoration Angel, only cutting off the Zealous Conscripts line of play in the mirror and potentially being useless against Twin some of the time.

Izzet Staticaster is just a powerful way to stop people from overwhelming you and has the right mix of abilities and toughness to maximize the effect you have when it is needed. Sometimes it’s the only card there is that can get you out of a jam, and you’d be surprised how hard you can work this with Exarchs, Restoration Angels, Conscripts, Kiki-Jiki, and even Phantasmal Image. This earned it a highly prized slot on its utility merits alone, as there have been a whole lot of games in which I focused on working Staticasters as hard as I could to stop an aggressive deck and then won at my leisure.

You’ll note we want to build a Plan B that allows for potentially curving out and beating down on an opponent then added three zero-power creatures. Utility creatures are generally underpowered for their spots on the curve and don’t interact with the Pod engine, so we’re already falling behind on maintaining pressure.

The last pure utility slot goes to Linvala, Keeper of Silence for her innate ability to shut down a lot of different things you want to not happen to you. She locks down the creature-based combo decks such as the mirror and Splinter Twin while also having corner-cases of good work like turning off much-needed Deathrite Shamans or hosing a Steel Overseer. While she’s not really maxed out for what you can get in this slot as far as an attacker goes, she still pulls her own weight since she’s the same size as a Restoration Angel just with different perks.

I tried a lot of things in the remaining slots and tried everything Ari included in his deck (as well as everything he mentioned in his primer, such as Chord of Calling and Eternal Witness). I never found myself needing a Qasali Pridemage in game 1, as even in the Pod vs. Pod games there was more value to be had in getting Linvala into play than there was in trying to have the last Pod standing. I found was more interested in finding a way to play Birthing Pod first and not have them Pod into Pridemage, killing my Pod…which was how I came upon Vendilion Clique as a Pod target.

Starting off with a Duress effect you can Pod for does a lot of heavy lifting against “generic combo decks” and also has in-game utility as you go up the chain, letting you see what your opponent has in the way of answers to your combo so you know when to just go for it and when you have to instead protect your cards with Glen Elendra Archmage and Spellskite. With that innovation also being a creature that was quite a credible beater, I tried all of the numbers between one and four and realized I liked it well enough to want more of them available in sideboard games, reaching the final answer of three across the 75.

I have two maindeck in the decklist below, but I am perfectly willing to concede that is a style choice more than a mathematical certainty. Considering that Kitchen Finks is effectively a strong part of the combo and one of the best ways to start Podding for value without giving up position, it’s clear that the second copy main comes at the price of having the fourth Kitchen Finks in the sideboard instead of main, which is a real cost.

The rest of the flexible slots were filled in with Kitchen Finks, Lotus Cobra, Vendilion Clique, and Domri Rade. Kitchen Finks started as a one-of silver bullet to help regain some position before I realized it could potentially count as a very solid part of starting to combo; then I just wanted to jam as many as I could in order to enjoy the benefits of a resilient body for when I don’t have a Pod and improved matchups against aggressive decks. Vendilion Clique was discussed above, but the other two bear a little more explaining.

Lotus Cobra came from extensive testing trying to figure out the curve of the deck and its aggression. The fact that it had so much accelerative power while also being a respectable body for attacking purposes meant it meshed very well with everything I was trying to accomplish. You need two-drops just generically for their utility with a Birthing Pod, but where Ari and others were advocating for Wall of Omens, I preferred to minimize my in-game need for white sources and was hungry for ways to jump up the curve further and faster. Lotus Cobra is instrumental in games you start on the draw, and my appearance in the finals of the Brooklyn PTQ at 20 Sided Store followed being 0-7 on die rolls and winning most of my games on the draw because I had put so much work in being able to break serve.

There is also the nut draw potential, as there are three different (though related) lines of play where Lotus Cobra helps you win on the third turn. A Birds of Paradise, Lotus Cobra, Birthing Pod, and some lands (one of which must be a fetchland) enables a turn 3 kill without needing to even so much as play a spell on turn 3 that can potentially be countered. If you have the Cobra on turn 3 instead of turn 2, it still works because you’ll still have four mana left to Pod with thanks to that fetchland if you don’t have the Cobra turn 2 but did deploy your Pod. Then, of course, you could just naturally draw the nuts and instead of Pod have Deceiver Exarch + Kiki-Jiki without even needing a second fetchland to do so—any old third land will do.

In the games without Pod, you just end up going Cobra + Finks on turn 2 and seizing the initiative, playing more and bigger things fast enough that you get ahead of your opponent. In the sideboarded games, a Lotus Cobra into a turn 3 Thragtusk is a very big game indeed.

Domri Rade was the new addition that came to mind with Gatecrash’s release and hits a very happy place in the deck based entirely on context. We are already playing a deck with over 30 creatures, so his +1 loyalty ability is going to draw roughly a half a card a turn and provide a long-term source of cardboard to work with. While it’s not a Pod, the thing that makes Birthing Pod so awesome is that Birthing Pod is basically the best planeswalker in Modern. Having a second-best planeswalker to add to the deck that happens to sort of simulate what Pod brings to the long game was far better for the deck than the couple of Chord of Callings that are traditionally in these slots.

We’re also already playing a deck that has one-drop mana accelerators, so it’s quite possible we’ll play a Domri Rade when our opponent has just one land to their name, letting us build a lot of momentum over the course of a game as you can threaten to gain the emblem by turn 6 if your opponent is too passive. And against opposing creature decks, there is a potential use for the fight ability, letting us pick off Dark Confidants or Deathrite Shamans that might otherwise make our lives very difficult.

The most backbreaking line of play I’ve pulled off with Domri Rade actually came in the mirror, where we both started with Noble Hierarchs. On turn 2, I played a Lotus Cobra then cracked a fetchland and cast Domri Rade, forcing my opponent’s turn 1 Hierarch to fight Lotus Cobra to the death. Domri Rade just adds entire new elements to the deck that aren’t present otherwise, like a threat you can play against a U/W Control deck and sit around with on an empty board—even without playing the creatures, there is pressure provided that is nightmarishly bad for a control deck to have to fight through.

There is even one little (but obvious) trick I found eased the pain of missing on +1s, which is that failing to flip a creature into your hand means you either saw a Birthing Pod (yay!) or a land (boo!). With as many fetchlands in the deck as Lotus Cobra wanted and I felt were necessary to make the mana work right, you have enough of them that you can borrow a trick from the Counterbalance playbook and keep extra fetchlands around to turn the top of your deck back into live draws if you flip a land with Domri.

The reason for this article, aside from the design philosophy of the Birthing Pod deck and to showcase my particular somewhat weird build, is to look at my even weirder sideboard and see how it matches up against the rest of the format. I’m more interested in discussing broad strokes than hard requirements, but I’ve played this deck in two PTQs and finished second and tenth, so clearly I must be doing something right.

Oftentimes, I build a deck right but don’t know half of what I need to know in order to play it properly, a case most clearly seen with my Ichorid-less build of Dredge using Bloodghast and Dryad Arbor, in which my innovations are logically correct but the deck is so hard to play that I still don’t know what I’m doing with it. I’m trying to accomplish something very specific here with this sideboard, and thus I want to explain that thought process and give an idea of what sideboarding looks like.

Game 1, your opponent doesn’t have the advantage of knowing you’re playing Birthing Pod, but for subsequent games they’ll have access to their sideboard, so you have to become more resilient. While I deride the Qasali Pridemage in the maindeck, there are plenty of artifacts of relevance in peoples’ sideboards, and while I haven’t faced off against very many Stony Silences, Torpor Orbs, or Grafdigger’s Cages, these things do exist. More common is Spellskite; many an opponent has learned the hard way that this doesn’t actually hinder more than a single line of play.

Some use Rakdos Charm to potentially halt a Pod or outright kill you. That one doesn’t usually require addressing with a card, as you gain dominance over the board and kill your opponent without overextending into it over the course of multiple turns, so we don’t need to really concern ourselves with it. We just need to know it is a thing that exists which we should respect. And never have I seen a Damping Matrix—I hope I continue to because that’d be a rough one to have to work through.

There are two classes of cards in the sideboard: those you want against other combo decks and those you want against other fair decks. Depending on the combo deck, you will reach for some or all of the following:

3x Path to Exile
2x Ancient Grudge
Qasali Pridemage
Vendilion Clique
Aven Mindcensor
Ethersworn Canonist

Ancient Grudges do nothing against Twin and are solid if unspectacular against Eggs and Tron, good enough to catch something early and snarl their development into the later turns. The reverse is true with Path to Exile—great against Twin, lousy against Tron and Eggs. The bullet creatures improve your game against combo decks by shutting down their plays slowly but surely, and the ultimate objective is either to establish overlapping defenses—good luck beating an Ethersworn Canonist and a Glen Elendra Archmage if you’re Eggs—or just buy enough time to win the race to pull off your combo.

Other than the Path to Exiles, I’m happy to say that I don’t touch these cards very often. I’m happiest when that is true because if I am touching them, it means we’re playing non-interactive Magic, or at the very least that my opponent is trying to do something just as patently unfair to me as I intend to do to them. Qasali Pridemage is important tactically as a disruptive element you can Birthing Pod for, able to shut off an opposing Pod in the mirror or have something to Pod for that prevents Splinter Twin from being lethal.

Between having Vendilion Clique main and the extra speed of Lotus Cobra, combo decks are surprisingly comfortable matchups for this build. We reasonably streamlined for hyperaggressively jamming the combo in non-interactive matchups and have a catchall disruptive element that breaks up whatever they’re doing with fair regularity. If this is a turn 4 kill format for combo decks, that extra bonus percent of the time you can totally kill on turn 3 thanks to Lotus Cobra is a good little trick to have tucked away in your pocket even if it doesn’t come up much.

The other half of the sideboard is this:

3x Path to Exile
3x Thragtusk
Qasali Pridemage
Kitchen Finks
Izzet Staticaster
Domri Rade

You’ll note some overlap because we’re using the same cards for different purposes at different times. Where above the Qasali Pridemage is there to break up a combo, preferably with other cards overlapping to protect you from harm, here it is something more of a “flex” slot, in that you’ll want to have access to it when your opponent might have a hate card to bring in against you.

Attacking through a hate card like Torpor Orb or Stony Silence can and does happen with fair regularity to the point where I don’t side Pridemage in blindly unless I have a slot in the deck that will otherwise be underperforming. But when you know one’s going to be brought in against you, it’s good to have access to something that lets you counteract whatever it is. Paths are being used here to blunt fast aggression, not break up a combo, but both can kill you if you fail to successfully interact with them.

This is the portion of the sideboard I find myself using the most, as there are far more “fair” decks being played in Modern at present than unfair ones. There’s no use boarding in Path to Exile against the U/W/R Geist decks, but they’re lifesavers if instead your opponent is trying to clock you with Experiment One or build an advantage over several turns with Dark Confidant. Izzet Staticaster is so good against the decks it’s good against that I really wanted to add another, between the positive impact on the Affinity matchup to its reasonable utility in the mirror match for breaking serve. And when by chance you get paired against B/W Tokens, every one of these you have makes them cry.

The third Domri Rade is for control matchups where “planeswalker” is a problematic class of card specifically. Hard control decks are starting to appear in Modern, and even the U/W/R deck is enough of a control deck that one of these can be a real complication that makes their life difficult (though I typically only bring the third in there if I’m on the play).

Against anyone on the fair decks spectrum, Thragtusk and Kitchen Finks come in to bolster our fair deck plan. We can expect getting away with murder via Birthing Pod to be much harder in these post-sideboard games, in which case we need more heavy-impact cards for beating down with. Conveniently, the best of these we have access to is also very good at road blocking aggressive decks, as the staying power of Thragtusk in Standard can attest. Sometimes, just sometimes, the combo we’re trying to achieve after sideboarding is to target Thragtusk with our Kiki-Jiki, which is every bit as dirty as it sounds and feels wonderful.

The reason we need these cards is because the silver bullets we play main are not good against everyone; we have a considerable amount of deck tuning we need to do between games in order to present the best face to our opponents as we attempt to defeat them. We have high-variance cards like Izzet Staticaster and Linvala that are either going to be awesome or irrelevant.

Likewise we are either going to be able to defend a Domri Rade or should know to give it up during the sideboarding portion of the game if the opponent is cracking with Kird Ape—planeswalkers are fragile, and we’re not actually built to defend them. Ditto for Vendilion Clique—even if we want the first, against a fair deck the second’s not a necessity and can even be a liability considering how many control decks are being built around the idea of casting multiple Electrolyze via Snapcaster Mage.

So when sideboarding, we have to ask ourselves what we’re trying to accomplish and then tune accordingly. Let’s talk about some matchups, then, and see face we’re likely to want to do in sideboarded games with an example. It would be best to remember this is an example, not a guide, and that the contents of your opponent’s deck may contain surprises that throw you for a loop. Cribbing a page of notes to put in your deckbox is not nearly as vital as understanding why the deck’s been built as it is and being able to work with the tools in your deckbox, as it’s entirely possible that just following rote rules will lead you into harm’s way.

Gifts Ungiven

Gifts is trying to lock the board up with a hard control mechanism, their choice at the time of Elesh Norn or Iona. Unfortunately, both are weak to Path to Exile. Iona on white doesn’t stop us from doing much of anything anyway, and while Elesh Norn is very likely to do a lot of damage, so long as it’s not in play you can still win normally.

While their control state can be a bit difficult, the remainder of their deck is not really problematic—not really enough removal to be trouble for you since they’re unlikely to draw too many at the same time, and they lean on Liliana of the Veil, whom you can more-or-less ignore. When sideboarding, I aim to make sure I don’t lose to their Reanimated critter by accessing Path to Exile and otherwise just bulk the deck up to be more resilient to anti-creature countermeasures. This is the kind of deck that Domri Rade can pick apart almost by himself, though Lingering Souls means we have to keep in our Izzet Staticaster despite the fact that it is not at its best.

U/W/R Control

Some of these sorts of decks eschew the third color, going hard U/W and gaining access to more utility lands and less pain in their mana base. Those are easier mostly because they have fewer instant speed removal spells to work with since you don’t have to play around Path and Bolt and Lightning Helix, just Path to Exile. Your anti-creature countermeasures are going to be dead, and you won’t need to Vendilion Clique them more than the once, giving us a fair number of slots to work with as we tune the deck up. Because they’re aiming to have board sweepers consistently for turn 4, Lotus Cobra is weak on the draw but still quite solid on the play because you can do a lot of damage setting up that even a Wrath won’t get them out of.

Because we will have room, I tend to bring in the Qasali Pridemage here under the realistic assumption that as a control deck in the best color for sideboard cards they will have something to try to make me unhappy. I otherwise just lean on the built-in durability of my threats after sideboarding and control’s general weakness to removing a planeswalker from play.

U/W/R Tempo

Both sides of this matchup will feel like they’re advantaged. Clearly, we can’t both be right. This is the deck that has beaten me most consistently at PTQs—across two events my record was 4-2, and those two losses kept me from the Pro Tour and kept me out of Top 8. It was a good portion my own fault—I gave percentage away when I shouldn’t have and let out what should have been an advantageous margin. In one of the two matches, I simply lost a game I should have handily won by picking the wrong plan of action and picking the route U/W/R is good against.

U/W/R has a lot of cheap removal spells, with the trifecta of Lightning Bolt, Lightning Helix, and Path to Exile making this a serious risk to push up against without seeing their hand even before adding Snapcaster Mage to the mix and their growing trend for Electrolyzes and/or Cryptic Commands to continue causing problems. If you just go for the combo because that’s what your deck does, well, your deck won’t do it unless they’re actually just tapped out.

Instead, this game is a grind—Plan B needs to be Plan A, and the threat of turning over into infinite damage combo is the blunt force trauma that looms over their every misstep. You’ll want to grind for value by attacking with Finks and Podding Finks into Restoration Angels to rebuy them, not “just” because this is still a good and threatening posture to combo off from but because this is a way to generate threatening resources on the fairly cheap and bleed off their removal.

If you’re going to win with the combo, you’ll need to Vendilion Clique first, but as this is not really Plan A to build around, you’ll want to sideboard one of the two Cliques out and use the other just as a utility card in the course of a normal, grindy Pod game. Thragtusk makes them super unhappy, and the combo of Kiki-Jiki / Thragtusk is at least as good as going infinite if not better because when they kill the Thragtusk in response you will still at least get a Beast for your troubles. I’ve lost due to underestimating the importance of Spellskite and Glen Elendra Archmage in this matchup, exposing Archmage unnecessarily to Path to Exile more times than I want to remember, and learned the lessons that beating entailed so I can pass them on to you.

Strange though it may sound, in this matchup you’re the control deck and the combo deck since you’re better at gaining card advantage. Their best chance of winning is your screw-ups or their Geist of Saint Traft, so sideboard with the intention of jamming everything that can block a Geist in its way every time. If they’re on a lot of Electrolyzes or bringing sideboard Wrath effects to bear, Lotus Cobras may just be a liability, and because they have an overbearing number of Bolt effects, Domri Rade is not so good that the third copy should come in and may simply be too exposed on the draw, though I find I am still happy to keep the two since there are other things that go first.

Just remember that they don’t play real countermagic so you shouldn’t play around it and that they’re a tempo deck rather than an actual control deck. Downshifting speed in the middle of the game if there’s not much going on may actually work to your benefit, as you tend to break even on Kitchen Finks thanks to the heavy wear and tear you can put on yourself between Pod and your mana base— they may be relying on those three to ten self-inflicted damage to win the game.

Grixis Delver

Like U/W/R, you may find it profitable to downshift if things are not cascading one direction or the other already and it’s not a pure race. If you’re on the wrong end of a Delver draw and they’re leaving themselves exposed to get their attack in, by all means capitalize, but your self-inflicted pain is part of their game plan and is a variable you can deny them.

Ultimately, this matchup feels like the easier version of U/W/R since they have the same game plan but are trading access to Geist of Saint Traft and possible white sideboard hosers for Thoughtseize. They are also massively more vulnerable to Izzet Staticaster—instead of it being largely irrelevant as it is against U/W/R, where its job is to contain Vendilion Cliques and Snapcasters that may have already done their damage, literally every creature in Grixis Delver dies to a ping if you catch them in time.

Because they have the potential to get aggressive early, Domri Rade is not going to work for you here, and you should be aiming to slow the game down, grind out an advantage, and keep their threats from hurting you. Do this successfully and the rest of their cards turn to garbage since their deck is a symphony of synergy that does not approve of you throwing a monkey wrench in the works. I’ve found myself bringing in a few Paths and making things really miserable for them with Izzet Staticaster; because of this I don’t bother to keep in Linvala just for Deathrite Shaman, as it’s not particularly hard to find a way to get a second use out of a Staticaster and clear them away. They can also be mostly ignored in that their primary function is as a too slow burn spell and denying you value on Kitchen Finks.

Jund and Its Offshoots

Favorable matchups through and through—you should be undersideboarding. Depending on how aggressive their deck is, Domri Rade will either be good or not, and the potential is always there for this to be true on the play but false on the draw, so you should be consistently thinking before each game and reanalyzing what you’re planning to do. Vendilion Clique is just unnecessary, but Linvala is still good enough to keep in. You can safely shave another Kiki-Jiki without it impacting your game plan in the slightest.

It’s likely that your opponent will try to save a Rakdos Charm to kill you outright when they should instead be using it to kill Birthing Pod, so remember that this card exists at the very least and play accordingly. In this case, combo killing them slowly over the course of several turns is preferable to losing to a Charm if you can’t protect against it with Glen Elendra Archmage, as you’ll still be able to defend adequately with as many blockers as they have attackers for free so it’s still a problem situation for them. It’s still not free and automatic—them drawing a removal spell to break up Kiki-Jiki is entirely possible—so make your blockers during the upkeep rather than before they draw and try to kill them over two turns rather than three if you have that ability.

If you have to give them three turns, you might as well just go for it and cross your fingers since the chances they can’t kill a 2/2 over multiple draw steps is probably greater than the chances that they have exactly Rakdos Charm. With a Pod and all of these things, it’s likely a non-question though, as the first turn will be a weak attack and the second turn will be defended by Glen Elendra Archmage and allow you to go for the kill. This is why they should be killing the Pod instead of trying to kill you, but they tend to not see things this way.

Naya Aggro / R/G Aggro / Zoo

If your opponent’s build is weak to Izzet Staticaster, things get easier because the new plan after sideboarding will be to suppress them with Staticaster and double or triple that up with Exarchs, Angels, and Phantasmal Images or even Kiki-Jiki copies if need be. Vendilion Clique and Domri Rade are dead weight here and Linvala tends to be as well, but the plan is to board into life gain men and point removal. This can still be scary when you’re on the draw, but any hiccup on their part and you’ll be able to put yourself into an unassailable advantage – you do board into a Thragtusk + Restoration Angel deck, after all.


The same deck but with more swingy highs and lows to take advantage of; I have eaten hot Plating from their deck on the play, but I have otherwise been able to just patiently assemble the best, hardest-working team of Staticasters ever and added Ancient Grudge to my lineup of Path to Exiles. The same cards are dead as against the regular red aggro decks save that Linvala can potentially actually have a use and Spellskite will never do anything, not even profitably block. When boarding, I’ve actually found the third Thragtusk to tip my mana curve the wrong direction, and I only bring in two on the draw since they’re capable of dealing damage in chunks of ten, not five or fewer, and their most threatening line of play gets around life gain entirely.

Boy, are they weak to a Staticaster, though. After sideboarding, their entire deck is basically focused on putting Cranial Plating on Etched Champion, and you should be planning in advance to make sure that doesn’t kill you.


I find this to be a laughable matchup thanks to the fact that I built the deck around never ever wanting to lose to Burn because it needs your respect when you are playing a deck that can realistically spend double-digit life totals as pseudo-mana in trying to kill your opponent. Fetch your basics and ride your life gain creatures; it is worth noting that you should always bring in your Qasali Pridemage as a hedge because even if they don’t have a card to break up your combo they may very well have a card to break up your life gain and you are somewhat reliant upon that working out right.

It would be awkward to catch the wrong edge of an Everlasting Torment or, dear God, a Rain of Gore just because you didn’t think they’d have sideboard cards like Torpor Orb. Chances are good they have Torpor Orb just to shut down your Kitchen Finks—don’t be so smugly superior just because you think their deck is for five-year-olds.Plenty of smart mages lose to Burn decks every day at PTQs. Give them the respect they deserve and then give them the rough edge of a Thragtusk. You’re advantaged, but it’s certainly not easy—it’s by careful design, and you can throw that away if you let yourself.


This is a weird mix of Burn and Affinity as far as what you have to respect. Strangely enough, Vendilion Clique is very live here since it is a blocker as well as disruption, and they are just as dead to Staticasters as the Affinity deck is. Treating them like a combo deck that has the weaknesses of an aggro deck is important; you’ll want to board out the irrelevant things like Domri Rade, Kitchen Finks, and Linvala while jamming in the extra Clique, the Paths, and the second Staticaster. More flying blockers of different colors is very vital, so watch those Birds of Paradise taps because Apostle’s Blessing is how they tend to try to jam lethal across. This matchup is real and very dangerous, but it’s also not very common since we are finding ourselves living in a world full of Lightning Bolts next to real clocks.


This is not a real deck. Chump block once or twice while you assemble the combo kill and don’t lose any sleep. You can’t protect Domri Rade and shouldn’t try. All your removal effects go dead, but your life gain is relevant, making this the only time I’ve found myself both adding the third Vendilion Clique and the fourth Kitchen Finks (these tend to fight over deck space for relevance). Because this will just be a pure race and they do have access to Path to Exile after sideboarding if not main, respect one piece of removal to play around and don’t shave on Kiki-Jikis—there are enough other dead things, and your Thragtusks are not as backbreaking as they feel in other places.

Pod Mirror

If they’re on Melira Pod you’re already advantaged because you have a great disparity in how your Pods work—yours set up an insta-kill combo for next turn, while theirs need a few turns to work towards that. They can even complete their combo and be entirely ignored if they’re just gaining infinite life. If it’s the true mirror, the game will be about throwing monkey wrenches in each other’s’ way until one of you completes the combo. In either case, you will want Path to Exile, Qasali Pridemage, the third Vendilion Clique, and the second Staticaster; Kitchen Finks is weak, Domri Rade is surprisingly strong at picking off parts of their team, and Spellskite does far less than you think it ought to.

Practice and aggressive mulliganing are your friends in this matchup, and because the game is so nuanced, it is one of the matchups I suggest playing frequently enough to be fluent and comfortable with before you go into a tournament with the deck.

Splinter Twin

By comparison, this is the mirror on easy mode. Spellskite is actually useful, and Linvala is usually good enough for an outright concession game 1. The likelihood they will just have the combo is nowhere near as high as they would like you to believe it is. You’re both reaching for the same end point, but you’re able to get there far more consistently than they are; yours is the deck with all of the mana acceleration. Unless Vendilion Clique tells you otherwise, build up your board to protect a Spellskite and Linvala and then figure out setting up your own finish.

They’ll try to do much the same to you, but Spellskite doesn’t do anything but misdirect your Paths and they don’t have a card like Linvala or Glen Elendra Archmage. Do note that Izzet Charm is real and will counteract your Birthing Pods and that the chances are good you won’t be able to afford the window you’d want to deploy Domri Rade without leaving yourself exposed to the combo. Lotus Cobras will probably just die in a Pyroclasm, but chances are good there are worse things to take out and you’ll still have two after sideboarding because they’re still dangerous.

For the record, last-ditch Hail Mary plays with Deceiver Exarch tapping their creature in response to Splinter Twin will occasionally save your ass, but the same play done smarter will usually involve tapping their land during their upkeep the turn before to prevent things from growing so dire in the first place.


You’re the faster combo deck, and they have problems with Spellskite, Aven Mindcensor, and Glen Elendra Archmage as well as generally are very reliant on one Scapeshift, making Vendilion Clique a serious problem since their resistance to discard is based on Snapcaster Mage. Anything that affects a creature will be useless, even Murderous Redcap, and Qasali Pridemage will be better than whatever generic thing you were probably planning on leaving in its stead. Domri Rade is actually quite solid in this matchup as something to play out early and leave ticking up like a time bomb, but it’s not the end-all be-all thanks to Cryptic Command. You should be hesitant to go all in towards a plan that includes an emblem because that’s likely too optimistic to work.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to just be too damn fast and barring that to wrap them in layers of protection at least two different named cards deep as you plink away at them. Also, your life total is very relevant, so fetch your basics early and often as long as you have enough lands to work with that you can afford to, and Kitchen Finks will be worthwhile beaters so you’re not both just staring at each other forever. Meanwhile, Lotus Cobra is likely to just put another card in the graveyard when they Pyroclasm and is probably not good enough even on the play.


A studious lesson in two decks trying as hard as possible to ignore each other. If they have Torpor Orb in their sideboard, it might as well not matter because you’re bringing everything you can throw at a Torpor Orb or Grafdigger’s Cage in anyway because Grudging two artifacts the turn before they try to go off is the kind of disruption that prevents their engine from firing. So many cards do nothing, but the ones that do something either let you combo kill them first or are things like Vendilion Clique or Aven Mindcensor that cause them great pain and misery.

I’ve never actually played it in a tournament and haven’t wasted a lot of time testing it other than to be aware of roughly where the choke points are as we stare off at each other. This is the sort of matchup where Lotus Cobra shines because it allows you to break serve when you’re trying to be two players ignoring each other—you’ll either be racing to kill them before they can kill you or racing to put enough roadblocks in place. Either way, Cobra is an all-star, even if you’re just playing a turn 3 Glen Elendra Archmage with a blue mana still untapped and at the ready.

G/R Tron

Finally, we have the team leader of Team Not Interacting With Each Other, Tron. It’s not actually a combo deck, so you can’t do the same tricks to watch them fall down dead, but this is very much a matchup of two players trying to flop the nuts on each other and seeing what happens at the end. Pyroclasms are backbreaking, but you need to keep your Cobras anyway because so many other things like Domri Rade, your silver bullets, and anything that interacts with creatures are even deader.

Cobras at least can catapult you ahead by a turn—they have to spend a portion of a turn on that Pyroclasm, after all, which gets in the way of their just jamming Karn. The choke point tends to be “number of cards that actually do something in their hand,” so you should be aiming to Clique them and ride that disrupted flow to victory. You can safely ignore Wurmcoil Engine, so real cards are all named Karn.

So very little matters and there are very few ways to force an interaction that matter, and since we’re on a highly truncated timeline, it’s got to do it by turn 3. Because of this accelerated scale of things, Ancient Grudge is good even if it’s not awesome, as one of their key “failure modes” is to try to protect themselves quickly with Oblivion Stone and you can clear the way. There’s always the chance of catching an Expedition Map unawares and preventing them from completing the Tron on time.

I tend to think of G/R Tron as the deck’s worst matchup and cut any Tron-specific sideboard cards like Fulminator Mage, Magus of the Moon, or Avalanche Riders accordingly. If it’s that bad and they’re not helping, why waste the slots? I’m also told they tend to think of Kiki Pod as their worst matchup, and in this case it’s entirely possible that both are right.

Sean McKeown