There have been several attempts to make Prime Speaker Vannifar work before, but it was only with Theros Beyond Death and the printing of Hyrax Tower Scout that an unbroken chain from one mana to four emerged in Standard. This, alongside the release of two other key pieces for the deck, Nightmare Shepherd and Woe Strider, spawned an entirely new archetype whose goal is to untap with Prime Speaker Vannifar and win the game immediately.
While the combo does require a number of suboptimal cards, it’s also capable of winning the game deterministically while completely bypassing the combat phase, which we very rarely see in Standard nowadays. If your opponent cannot interact with you in a timely manner (the Simic decks come to mind, for example), you’ll just beat them. Because of this, I believe this is a shell worth exploring. Here’s my latest build:
- 2 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
- 4 Prime Speaker Vannifar
- 2 Paradise Druid
- 1 Fblthp, the Lost
- 4 Gilded Goose
- 4 Corridor Monitor
- 4 Woe Strider
- 4 Nightmare Shepherd
- 3 Hyrax Tower Scout
First, you need an active Prime Speaker Vannifar. Then, you need to have Nightmare Shepherd on the battlefield.
This can be done by simply casting it normally, but the most common way is that you use Vannifar to get it. You can turn any one-drop into Corridor Monitor, which untaps Vannifar, and then you can sacrifice the Corridor Monitor to get Hyrax Tower Scout, which untaps Vannifar again, and you finally sacrifice Hyrax Tower Scout to get Nightmare Shepherd. This means you can turn any one-drop, two-drop, or three-drop into Nightmare Shepherd. You will often do this even when you don’t have access to the combo immediately because it will protect your Vannifar for future turns.
Then, you need to cast a Corridor Monitor from hand, and this should be enough to win the game if the rest of your deck contains another two copies of Corridor Monitor, one Hydrax Tower Scout (or one Monitor and two Scouts), one Nightmare Shepherd, one Woe Strider, one Gilded Goose, and two copies of Gray Merchant of Asphodel.
These are the steps of the combo:
- Step 1: Have both Prime Speaker Vannifar and Nightmare Shepherd on the battlefield.
- Step 2: Cast Corridor Monitor, untapping Prime Speaker Vannifar.
- Step 3: Sacrifice Corridor Monitor to get Woe Strider. You will get a 1/1 Corridor Monitor token (from Nightmare Shepherd), and this token will untap Prime Speaker Vannifar.
- Step 4: Sacrifice the Corridor Monitor token (it keeps its mana cost) to get Hyrax Tower Scout, which untaps Vannifar.
- Step 5: Sacrifice the Goat token you got from Woe Strider to get Gilded Goose.
- Step 6: Sacrifice the Hyrax Tower Scout to Woe Strider. This creates a 1/1 Hyrax Tower Scout token, which untaps Vannifar.
- Step 7: Sacrifice your Gilded Goose to Vannifar and get Corridor Monitor, untapping Vannifar.
- Step 8: Sacrifice the Hyrax Tower Scout token to Vannifar and find a second copy of Nightmare Shepherd. Your Vannifar is now tapped.
- Step 9: Sacrifice the Corridor Monitor to scry with the Woe Strider. You’ll get a 1/1 Corridor Monitor, and that will untap Vannifar.
- Step 10: Sacrifice either your Gilded Goose token to Vannifar to get a Corridor Monitor or your new 1/1 Corridor Monitor to get Hyrax Tower Scout, untapping Vannifar.
- Step 11: Sacrifice one of the Nightmare Shepherds to get Gray Merchant of Asphodel. You will get a 1/1 Nightmare Shepherd token and drain for seven (Gray Merchant + two Shepherds + Woe Strider).
- Step 12: Sacrifice either Corridor Monitor or Hyrax Tower Scout (whichever one you got previously) to Woe Strider and get a 1/1 version of it. Use it to untap Vannifar.
- Step 13: Sacrifice the other Nightmare Shepherd to Vannifar and get a second Gray Merchant of Asphodel to drain for nine (two Gray Merchants + two Shepherds + Woe Strider).
- Step 14: Sacrifice one Gray Merchant of Asphodel to Woe Strider, getting a 1/1 Gray Merchant token. Drain for nine again.
- Step 15: If they aren’t dead, sacrifice the second Gray Merchant of Asphodel, draining for another nine.
There are a lot of steps, but it sounds more complicated than it actually is. A lot of the things just happen naturally, especially on Magic Arena, and it’ll usually be obvious what you have to do. Besides, you don’t always need to deal this much damage and you often have extra pieces lying around, so it can be a bit simpler than what I described. Here’s a video version of me crushing Sparky with the combo so you can follow along:
It’s also important to keep in mind that sometimes you cannot go off entirely because you don’t have all the pieces left in your deck (for example, Gray Merchants), but you leave yourself in a very good position by doing part of the combo anyway and you have a good shot at winning in the following turns.
Assembling the combo cards is relatively easy, and you can win as early as Turn 4 if you have a mana creature and play Vannifar on Turn 3. The necessary pieces take up a reasonable amount of space in your deck, but there’s still some flexibility on what to play. The way I see it, there are two issues you need to address during deckbuilding:
- You need access to Vannifar. Without it, you can’t even start your combo.
- You need to be able to win through people that can remove Vannifar, either by protecting it or by simply winning without it.
The three best ways of finding Vannifar in Standard are Incubation // Incongruity, Neoform, and Finale of Devastation.
They each have their pros and cons, but I think Incubation // Incongruity is the best by a lot. It’s very cheap and can find you a mana creature to combo on Turn 3, as well as Vannifar herself or the Corridor Monitor. On top of that, it has a very useful second mode that answers the most problematic card in the format: Hushbringer. You absolutely cannot win the game through that card, as it stops not only all your enters-the-battlefield abilities but also the Nightmare Shepherd ability, and any card you cast to deal with creatures (such as Wicked Wolf) also gets stopped by it. I’m maxing on Incubation // Incongruity before I play any of the other options.
Then, I actually like a mix of Neoform and Finale. Neoform is significantly faster, but it’s also a bad card in any game where you aren’t comboing and it’s pretty bad in multiples. The +1/+1 counter, however, can be surprisingly important: a Neoformed Vannifar will be out of Lava Coil and Elspeth’s Nightmare range, for example. Finale is the clunkier card, and usually used to find the first Corridor Monitor rather than Vannifar, but can serve as a six-mana Vannifar if you’re desperate. Finally, we also have Woe Strider, which can scry and help find Vannifar.
The second problem is a bit harder to solve. The best card for the job is, I think, Nightmare Shepherd. You should just play four of it, even though you only need two in your deck to combo off. If you cast it preemptively, it actually protects your Vannifar by acting as a barrier that they have to kill first, and it’s also a good card in your fair games; if someone were to hypothetically Unmoored Ego your Vannifars, then Nightmare Shepherd would be your best way of winning the game. 3/3 and 1/4 creatures don’t look like much (and, well, they aren’t), but it is definitely possible to just cast Hyrax Tower Scouts, Woe Striders, and Nightmare Shepherds and kill people who stumble. Add that to Woe Strider’s escape ability and this deck is actually a lot more resilient than it looks, and you don’t just “lose to anyone that can remove Vannifar.”
Another way of going around people who are getting rid of Vannifar is simply reanimating her. There are a number of cards that can return her to your hand in Standard (the best one is Find // Finality if that’s what you want to do), but I think the best card to play to beat removal is Bond of Revival. It’s extremely clunky, but it both brings back Vannifar and gives it haste, which means you can combo off immediately if you have the right pieces, and your opponent will need instant-speed removal to stop you. As far as I know, it’s the only card in these colors in Theros Beyond Death Standard that can actually give Vannifar haste.
The last card that I play to improve your fair game that I haven’t seen anyone else play is Fblthp, the Lost. If you draw him, he’s a cantrip that can be sacrificed to Vannifar, Woe Strider, or Neoform, and if you happen to have Nightmare Shepherd on the battlefield while you do so, you net an extra card. But the real strength of Fblthp in this deck is his second, mostly forgotten ability: if you put him onto the battlefield directly from your library, you get to draw two cards. This works with Vannifar, Neoform, and Finale of Devastation, and is a good fallback when you’re flooded and need to find material to work with.
The sideboard is a bit of a work in progress. I think Duress is the best disruptive spell — you don’t care about creatures such as Dream Trawler very much, so there’s no reason to play Agonizing Remorse, and I don’t think the mana supports Thought Erasure — and Wicked Wolf is the best anti-aggro card, given that you can search for it and you already have Gilded Goose anyway. Shifting Ceratops is the best “win on its own” threat against blue decks, though it’s possible a different approach in these matchups is better.
Assassin’s Trophy is a catch-all answer that can change in numbers depending on how many answers you expect people to have. It’s rarely going to be good if you’re trying to answer their proactive plan, as it’s just an inefficient card, but it destroys cards like Grafdigger’s Cage and Hushbringer which are otherwise hard to interact with. I think right now you don’t need many copies of this, as I don’t see many decks with Grafdigger’s Cage, but you can adapt depending on what you play against the most.
The others three cards are situational one-ofs. Plaguecrafter is a fine card to have and search for on occasion, and it combos really well with Nightmare Shepherd, as you just sacrifice it and immediately bring it back and they have to sacrifice two creatures, and Thrashing Brontodon is also a good option to search for if you need to get rid of cards like Fires of Invention. Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath is also good in grindy matchups, but it’s here mainly as an answer to Hushbringer that you can search for. If they have Hushbringer out, you aren’t going to draw a card and gain three life when Uro enters the battlefield, but you’ll also not have to sacrifice it, and the attack trigger still happens, so you get an incredible creature for only three mana.
Overall, I’ve been really enjoying playing this deck, and the combo goes much more quickly than you’d think once you get some practice with it. You have a ton of options at all points because of all the searching, and you really do beat some people seemingly out of nowhere and exploit all decks without interaction, which is something that we truly haven’t had in a long time in Standard. If you like this play style or if you’re tired of losing to decks like Simic Ramp, you should try Sultai Vannifar.