Goblin Charbelcher Is Back And Bringing The Heat In Modern

Combo just emerged as a huge Modern threat for the SCG Invitational at SCG CON. Dom Harvey breaks down Gruul Charbelcher and its surprising nuances.

Goblin Charbelcher, illustrated by Jesper Ejsing

It’s been a long few months for combo enthusiasts in Modern. Current top dogs like Living End or former giants like Amulet Titan might technically qualify as ‘combo’ but they simply don’t scratch the same itch. You can find combo-control decks like Esper Reanimator or Four-Color Indomitable Creativity, but who wants to sell out that way? If you want to take antisocial turns with dozens of game actions, you’re out of luck.

That may all be about to change. 

Modern combo master Sodek has been the lone voice in the wilderness promoting Gruul Charbelcher for some time and just gave the deck its breakthrough finish. In a weekend full of competitive tournaments on Magic Online, there were several good results by Gruul Charbelcher in each of them, and the deck is a legitimate contender heading into SCG CON.

Goblin Charbelcher Balustrade Spy Selective Memory

Like Oops All Spells and similarly strange combo decks, Gruul Charbelcher uses the modal DFCs from Zendikar Rising to rig the game for its namesake card and ensure a Goblin Charbelcher activation is lethal — making it a strong enough payoff to justify building your deck around it. For fifteen years, players had to jump through a lot of hoops to make Charbelcher work with the likes of Mana Severance or Myr Incubator and found that an acceptable price. Now, all you have to do is play with one of the most unconventional manabases in Magic history.

Every combo deck that makes this commitment has access to Goblin Charbelcher, which was often seen in the Oops sideboard as an alternate win condition against graveyard hate, but Gruul Charbelcher has the right recipe to carry the torch for combo in Modern. 

Shatterskull Smashing Spikefield Hazard Valakut Awakening

Red enjoys the best selection of DFCs for this shell. Shatterskull Smashing is little more than an untapped source of red mana, but Spikefield Hazard is just a good card even in decks that get to play actual lands in a format where Dragon’s Rage Channeler and Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer are the premiere threats. Ignoble Hierarch is more popular than Noble Hierarch these days, but both die just as easily to Hazard. Sniping an Inkmoth Nexus or a cheap creature enabling Springleaf Drum buys crucial time against the fastest starts from Colossus Hammer decks. Valakut Awakening lets you tear through your deck in search of your combo pieces and can send back cards like Reforge the Soul that want to be there instead.

Strike It Rich Desperate Ritual Irencrag Feat

Desperate Ritual and Pyretic Ritual are go-to mana accelerants for anyone up to no good in Modern, but Gruul Charbelcher enjoys an even wider range of options despite the loss of Simian Spirit Guide. Irencrag Feat gives you exactly enough mana to cast and activate Charbelcher as your final spell of the turn (and the game). The early but temporary boost from Strike It Rich is ideal if you have to cast Charbelcher on one turn and activate it later.

Blood Moon

Blood Moon is a game-winning one-card combo against many decks in Modern and is often crippling even for the decks that should be strong against it on paper. Some common responses to complaints about Blood Moon are that you should just play more basics and fetchlands or that it’s a useful way to check greedy manabases, which shows an ignorance of how games against Moon actually play out. From the Moon side, I’m not putting that card in my deck as a healthy response to ambitious manabases but because it racks up free and forced wins against anyone.

A clear trend in Modern right now is the rise of Azorius Control, which has demanding coloured mana requirements for a two-colour deck, as well as decks like Four-Colour Blink (Yorion) and Five-Colour Control that have enough trouble casting their spells even before Blood Moon comes down. Blood Moon’s prey isn’t as obvious as it was in Amulet Titan’s heyday, but even that deck is picking back up again. Being able to support Blood Moon is a big selling point for a Modern deck right now and Gruul Charbelcher.is an ideal home; Rituals and sometimes Strike It Rich threaten Turn 2 Blood Moon before the decks that can sequence around Blood Moon have time to do that (though the loss of Simian Spirit Guide is especially punishing here).

Recross the Paths

Recross the Paths is a land of contrasts — laughably bad in Limited and unplayable in even the most obscure Constructed decks… except for this one, where it makes Doomsday look weak and simple. The ability to stack your entire deck presents unique deckbuilding challenges (and logistical challenges in paper play, where the elusive slow play warning becomes a concern if you have to figure out the pile from first principles), and any one-of without a clear purpose in this list is here to let Recross solve a specific problem. 

The default low-resource Recross pile looks something like this:

  • Reforge the Soul
  • X
  • X (e.g. Shatterskull Smashing if you need another mana source)
  • Pact of the Titan
  • Infernal Plunge
  • Desperate Ritual
  • Irencrag Feat
  • Goblin Charbelcher
  • [end of new Reforge the Soul hand]

Infernal Plunge and Pact of the Titan (or any free creature – Ornithopter / Memnite can block early, but Pact is a red card for Fury and a Hail Mary when your other plans are neutered) let you convert one red mana (from Smashing if necessary) into more to start a Ritual + Irencrag Feat chain culminating in a lethal Goblin Charbelcher. If you have mana to spare post-Reforge, you can skip these initial steps and work some other situational cards into the mix. 

If you expect some form of resistance, you may have to improvise. You can set up a slow pile that draws into one or more Pact of Negations over several turns if you think the first Reforge the Soul is unlikely to resolve. Putting a second Reforge in the flex slot immediately beneath the first lets you hedge against a dashed Ragavan affecting the order of your library (especially important to consider against Izzet Midrange, where Thought Scour can also interfere with your library in a way that requires a different response). Putting Manamorphose as the top card can let you set up a delayed or instant-speed Reforge in other corner cases. 

What if Goblin Charbelcher itself is off the table? Sodek’s maindeck has no way to beat Karn, the Great Creator or Pithing Needle on Goblin Charbelcher pre-sideboard, and there’s a lot of pressure on Recross the Paths to cough up a viable backup plan. Traditional pivots like Empty the Warrens are increasingly unreliable. We must go deeper. 

Pyromancer Ascension

This is where the seemingly out-of-place copy of Pyromancer Ascension — this may be the only time a deck has ever wanted exactly one of that card — comes through. You can build a Recross stack like this:

  • Reforge the Soul
  • X [Shatterskull Smashing if necessary]
  • Pact of the Titan
  • Infernal Plunge
  • Desperate Ritual
  • Pyromancer Ascension
  • Desperate Ritual (Ascension has one counter)
  • Manamorphose (Ascension has two counters and is now fully charged)
  • [end of new Reforge the Soul hand]
  • Manamorphose
  • Manamorphose
  • Bala Ged Recovery
  • Bala Ged Recovery
  • X
  • X

With an active Ascension you can loop two copies of Bala Ged Recovery (targeting the other one and another spell each time) with Desperate / Pyretic Ritual and Manamorphose to generate infinite mana and draw through your deck before swapping Spikefield Hazard (or Pact of the Titan / Emeria’s Call + Song-Mad Treachery) into the loop to end the game.

Endurance Fury Force of Vigor

One consolation prize for all your mana sources being DFCs is that you have a higher coloured card count for the Modern Horizons pitch spells than any other deck, and Gruul Charbelcher can win with few resources, which frees up these excess cards as Fury fodder. The intended targets for these cards like Mono-White/Orzhov Hammer are resilient enough that they can fight through a Fury or Force of Vigor with ease if given enough time; going off quickly with a combo deck ensures they never get that. 

Innovations like the Ascension kill add a new dimension to the deck but the core hasn’t changed in some time. Why is it only just gaining traction now?

Azorius Control (both Kaheera and Yorion) has taken off, becoming one of the most successful and popular decks in Modern that you need to have a plan for heading into SCG CON. Sodek’s startling 5-0 run against Azorius to clinch the Modern Challenge title is a strong case for Gruul Charbelcher on its own, but the reasons for that are revealing about its place in the format:

Chalice of the Void Teferi, Time Raveler

You expect your spell-based combo deck to shrug off Supreme Verdict and Solitude, but usually at the risk of running into Chalice of the Void and Teferi, Time Raveler. Magic Online grinder mashmalovsky is often seen in the Top 8 of the Challenges fighting the good fight with Ad Nauseam, but you couldn’t pay me to pick up Lotus Bloom and Profane Tutor right now. Gruul Charbelcher doesn’t care about these cards and has no targets for Prismatic Ending either (other than as a pipe-dream answer to Blood Moon). 

At that point, there aren’t many cards in Azorius Control that have text any more. You have to beat their Counterspells and Archmage’s Charms, but you have more threats than they have counters as well as Bala Ged Recovery to try again eventually and Pact of Negation to plow through them. Post-sideboard they get more interaction, but you pick up Veil of Summer, which is as good in that role as it ever was.

Living End Primeval Titan

More broadly, there aren’t many combo decks to attack in Modern and beating Belcher requires specific cards that don’t have much overlap elsewhere. Your choice of graveyard hate will serve you well against Living End or Esper Reanimator and leave you helpless here. There’s some splash damage from cards like Flusterstorm, but you know you’re in a good spot when people only have suitable cards for you by accident. That may change if other players replicate Sodek’s success.

Field of Ruin Ghost Quarter Cleansing Wildfire Assassin's Trophy

The same mana requirements that make Blood Moon strong against Azorius Control have caused the deck to drop Field of Ruin, a straight-up Strip Mine against Gruul Charbelcher. With Mono-Green Tron held down by other popular land hate like Spreading Seas and Alpine Moon that are more effective against the format at large, similar effects like Cleansing Wildfire are nowhere to be seen and that won’t change until decks like this become popular enough to move the incentives there. 

Time will tell if Gruul Charbelcher has staying power or is just one more flash in the pan. For now, though, Modern players have to contend with a dizzying array of strategies. A pure control deck is on top of the format and classic combo is back to punish anyone who doesn’t show it respect.