The Extended format from Pro Tour Austin brought a whirlwind of changes. Eighth Edition as well as Odyssey and Onslaught block rotated out with the release of Zendikar. Staple cards of the old format left for new ones to take their place. Amongst the ever-present Zoo and Dredge archetypes emerged a new one with a recently printed card: Thopter Foundry. In combination with Sword of the Meek, Thopter Foundry has been tried in nearly every deck that can make Blue and Black/White mana to varying degrees of success. How do you fight this powerful new combo? In order to answer that, you must understand its strengths and weaknesses.
What exactly is the Thopter Foundry combo? At the basic level, it’s a two-card, artifact, Blue and Black/White combination that will win the game eventually. Every turn, you gain X life and get X 1/1 flying artifact Thopter tokens where X is the amount of mana you can produce. The combo is widespread across the current metagame because it takes up so little space in a deck and is often much harder to stop than traditional win conditions. Being an artifact is a benefit because of the intersection between Blue decks and Thirst for Knowledge, which is the best card-drawing spell available. Both cards have a converted mana cost of two which makes transmute cards like Muddle the Mixture quite effective. Cards like Gifts Ungiven and Tezzeret the Seeker enable game-winning turns.
Thopter Foundry decks are usually split up into two categories, decks that focus on the combo and decks that don’t. Here are some examples:
Pro Tour Austin
Thopter Hexmage Hybrid
This deck focuses intently on finding both Thopter pieces and winning with them as quickly as possible. Gifts Ungiven, Muddle the Mixture, Thirst for Knowledge, and Ponder all help find whichever piece is missing. The deck also has a few backup plans if the Thopter combo is disrupted by a prepared opponent. Dark Depths/Vampire Hexmage offers a different route to victory that requires different answers than Thopter Foundry. Ancient Grudge is good against Thopter Foundry but does nothing to disrupt Dark Depths. Tarmogoyf provides a third way to win if both maindeck combos are insufficient.
Pro Tour Austin
This deck is another all-in combo deck that doesn’t have as many alternate win conditions compared to the previous deck. Using the ultimate ability of Tezzeret the Seeker to attack with a bunch of 5/5 artifacts is the only way to win without Thopter Foundry. However, the deck can play different roles well enough to give it an edge in each matchup. Unlike traditional combo decks, this one can also play a control game with Thirst for Knowledge, Engineered Explosives/Path to Exile, and counters to grind out the long game.
Thage (3rd Place)
Extended PTQ #867877 on 01/14/2010
Unlike the first two combo decks, this one focuses heavily on the Dark Depths combo and has the Thopter Combo as a backup plan. Common cards that are good against Dark Depths like Path to Exile and Repeal aren’t good against the Thopter Foundry combo. Thopter Foundry fits very well into the deck because of the number of cards that overlap. Muddle the Mixture can get either Thopter piece or Vampire Hexmage. Beseech the Queen functions the same way as well and also gets Dark Depths. (Editors’s Note: Thage is Gerry Thompson, and he ended up winning the next online PTQ with almost the same Depths/Thopter list. Check back here tomorrow for his report and deck primer!)
sulivan (1st Place)
Extended PTQ #847957 on 01/10/2010
Unlike the first Blue/White list above, this one is a more dedicated control deck. It runs various silver bullets like Aether Spellbomb, Wrath of God, Chalice of the Void, and Tormod’s Crypt to deal with a variety of board situations while using counters and card-drawing to grind out the opponent. At some point in the late-game the deck will combo off at its leisure.
So what exactly is there to learn from the four lists above? Thopter Foundry is a flexible combo. There are many different shells to incorporate the combo into, and as a result each deck won’t necessarily be vulnerable to the same hate cards as other versions. The decks play out at different paces/styles and will require different cards to fight them. It’s also important to consider the speed of the deck that is playing against Thopter Foundry, as its game plan won’t always allow for the slower hate cards to be played.
There are plenty of cards to bring in from the sideboard to fight the Thopter combo. In addition to Thopter Foundry, most of other cards that need to be thought about besides other combos are utility/disruption cards. Academy Ruins, Thoughtseize/Duress, Engineered Explosives, bounce effects like Echoing Truth/Repeal/Into the Roil/Cryptic Command, and permission spells like Spell Snare/Muddle the Mixture/Mana Leak/Cryptic Command are the most common. Here are some examples of the more common cards that fight the Thopter Foundry combo:
This stops all the combo cards that will be played against you. Thopter Foundry will at best have a 1/2 Thopter token (equipped with Sword of the Meek), and further sacrifices won’t trigger the Sword while in the graveyard. The enchantment also prevents Vampire Hexmage and Dark Confidant from doing anything useful. It’s quite powerful. The main problem is its high mana cost. Four mana means it’s going to be stuck in your hand for a while before you’re able to play it. It will be vulnerable to Thoughtseize for much longer than most of the other hate cards. Double Black in the mana cost also restricts the card to a few decks. There are some upsides to the card. It’s not vulnerable to Muddle the Mixture or Spell Snare. It’s very hard to destroy with Engineered Explosives. In fact, nearly every current Thopter list can’t produce more than three different colors of mana. If Night of Souls’ Betrayal comes into play, then the game will turn into a race between the Thopter player finding a bounce spell against your ability to kill them with creatures (unless the Thopter player is tricky and has sideboarded in a plan that doesn’t care about the enchantment like Baneslayer Angel).
Overall, this isn’t as effective as Night of Souls’ Betrayal. The Thopter player can still get one token per artifact to beat down with as well as use other combos like Dark Depths/Vampire Hexmage to win. Leyline of the Void still has its benefits. It overlaps in its usefulness against graveyard-oriented decks (like Dredge). It’s free if in your opening hand which circumvents the common disruption spells like Thoughtseize/Duress and permission spells. Leyline of the Void also turns off Academy Ruins, which is more important than most people might think. Many games are played out where the Thopter player uses Thirst for Knowledge to get ahead or find whatever they need to stabilize, dumping their Sword of the Meek/Thopter Foundry in the graveyard in the process with the intention of getting it back at some point with Academy Ruins. Leyline makes Thirst for Knowledge much worse in that regard. The Thopter player has to be much more careful not to lose their combo pieces because they won’t be able to get them back.
These cards also have the benefit of being useful against other combo decks, like Scapeshift. Cranial Extraction’s mana cost isn’t as restrictive on which decks can play it, though you won’t see it out of more aggressive decks like Zoo and Affinity. One problem that this four mana spell has over the previous two is that it’s vulnerable to Muddle the Mixture and won’t stop the Thopter combo if both pieces are in play.
This can be used by many decks because of its low cost. Permission spells can’t stop it. However, Extirpate can still be difficult to use. If the opponent expects it, there are a number of ways to play around it. The most common line of play with Extirpate is to remove Sword of the Meek once it’s in the graveyard. However, if the Thopter player has more than one Sword, they can leave one in play and combo with the other one. Thoughtseize/Duress can be used before beginning to combo off (if the Sword isn’t in the graveyard already) to clear a safe path for the Thopter player.
This is one of the easiest cards for a deck to bring in (being a 1-cc artifact) against Thopter Foundry. It’s much more vulnerable to Engineered Explosives unless you have multiples in hand to name both cards. The Thopter player will have to find a bounce spell before being able to win which is going to theoretically give you more time to win than without having Pithing Needle in the first place.
Hand disruption is effective if your deck is able to capitalize on the Thopter player’s game plan being temporarily set back. A problem arises when you allow the Thopter player to draw out of the barrage of hand disruption to the point of them being able to find Academy Ruins, if you’ve made them discard a combo piece, or find a tutor spell (like Gifts Ungiven, Muddle the Mixture, or Beseech the Queen) to get whichever piece they’re missing. Discard effects are less narrow than the other hate cards because they’re able to take the card in their hand that best helps them advance their game/stop yours even if the card taken isn’t a combo piece itself. Discard doesn’t directly prevent the Thopter player from simply drawing the combo pieces and winning. In that regard, it’s one of the weaker cards to fight Thopter Foundry with. The Thopter player won’t have to go searching for one of their few bounce spells or Engineered Explosives or disruption to ensure a spell resolves.
Ancient Grudge/other artifact removal:
Artifact removal is good if you can pair a clock with it. If you give them time, then it becomes similar to discard effects. Eventually, the Thopter player will draw a way to deal with your removal spells whether it’s with a Thoughtseize, counterspell, Academy Ruins, or simply another combo piece. Artifact removal will at least force the Thopter player to spend mana casting their combo pieces whereas discard spells won’t. However, Artifact removal is much worse than Duress against a card like Thirst for Knowledge.
There are quite a few cards to fight Thopter Foundry with. How do you pick the right one? What should be considered is the type of game your deck is trying to play. A deck that expects to win on turn five shouldn’t concern itself with Night of Souls’ Betrayal or slower cards. Thoughtseize/Ancient Grudge would be better suited simply to buy you time if your deck is generally faster than theirs.
What allows you to beat their secondary win condition? Can your deck deal with Baneslayer Angel, Marit Lage, Kitchen Finks, Umezawa’s Jitte, or Dark Confidant? Consider what your deck is set up to deal with. If you’re playing Bant Charms, Path to Exile, Spell Snare, and Mana Leak, playing something like Pithing Needle would be fine since it doesn’t overlap with what your deck could already do. It wouldn’t make sense to sideboard in Annul if you already had a bunch of counterspells.
What do you expect them to sideboard in? If you’re expecting them to bring in Deathmark, Doom Blade, and Engineered Explosives, then you probably don’t want to sideboard Meddling Mages in your two-drop Green/White aggro deck. Pithing Needle would be a better choice because it doesn’t get beaten by how the Thopter player is trying to beat you.
Can you beat the rest of their deck? You aren’t going to win against a traditional control deck that is playing a bunch of card drawing, one-for-one removal, and counterspells by overloading your sideboard with artifact removal in a mid-range creature deck. They’ll simply clear your board with Wrath of God/Day of Judgment/Engineered Explosives, outdraw you, and assemble the Thopter combo when they have lots of mana available.
Thopter Foundry is here to stay in Extended and you must be prepared when you face it. Understanding the role that each deck is playing and how they interact is crucial for figuring out which cards are best used to fight the combo. Each has its strengths and weaknesses that should be compliment what your deck is good at doing, whether it be disrupting the opponent through a long sequence of two-for-one trades or simply winning before they can play any spells that matter. Whichever strategy you go with, understand the matchup and be prepared. Your success will greatly increase if you do.