Combo is a heavy component of the Modern meta at the moment. It is always important to understand what any given deck is trying to do so you can play your cards to best counter that. I think this is even more important with combo. Many of them are “one-turn kills.” However, if you know what they are trying to do then you can often counter their nefarious plans, or at least pretend you can, and thus stop or delay them while you win—depending, of course, on what sort of deck you are playing.
Some combo decks have an incredibly strong game 1 because they require particular sideboard hate to be defeated. The archetypal example of this comes from Vintage, where Dredge will almost always win game 1 but every deck has about 10-12 hate pieces in the sideboard, which makes winning the match a challenge.
Many combo decks in Modern have high variance in terms of matchups. They have some decks that they expect to beat easily and others that they are almost certain to lose to. However, the matchups they expect to lose get better for them when their opponents don’t know what they are trying to do.
There are a lot of decks in this category. They either use Splinter Twin or Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker to make infinite copies of a creature with haste, which can then all swing at your face with expected consequences. There is a growing list of creatures that allow Splinter Twin or Kiki to have this effect:
Bellringer doesn’t see play currently, but, if you do see one in Modern, you’ll know why. There are probably some others that have this effect but you only see the first three.
For a summary of how this combo works, check my old article here.
There are now many different decks using Splinter Twin as a win condition. There are the straight-up UR Twin lists which are mostly about the combo, but can win with tempo beatdown instead. RUG Twin runs Tarmogoyf, which gives it a better beatdown plan, but can still combo-kill you if you tap out. Kiki Pod uses Birthing Pod and complex chains to assemble the combo using Kki-Jiki rather than Splinter Twin. Finally, there is UWR Twin, which is a control list that uses the Kiki/Angel combo as its finisher.
The most important thing to note about all Twin/Kiki combos is that they rely on creatures—squishy creatures that die to all sorts of cards which are commonly played in Modern. Abrupt Decay deals with Pestermite and Exarch; Path to Exile removes everything; Lightning Bolt kills Pestermite and Kiki; and so on.
To beat twin Twin, you need to leave up removal mana at all times—even if you don’t have the kill spell in hand. Remember, they can tap one of your lands with the ETB from Pestermite or Exarch, so that can make it harder for you to bluff. However, if you can buy a few turns to actually draw the removal spell that you are pretending to have, you can win. If you tap out, they don’t have to think about what they are doing—they will just go for the kill.
Birthing Pod decks are incredibly popular so you are probably familiar with the two combos. I don’t want to go into too much detail here as there are many articles discussing various Pod lists but, in short, here are the two combos.
Melira + Kitchen Finks + usually Viscera Seer = infinite lifegain and scry
Melira + Murderous Redcap + Viscera Seer = infinite damage and scry
Archangel of Thune + Spike Feeder (with two counters) = infinite life gain and excessively large creatures
As with Twin, these combos are weak to removal. Make sure you use it at the right time though! That is also true for Twin. You need to understand priority and the stack and the triggers involved here.
Pod lists can play either, both, or neither of these combos. Note: Junk colors indicate Melira/Archangel but RUG colors mean Kiki Pod
Scapeshift decks have been through many iterations and today’s lists are pretty tuned. Scapeshift is a control/combo deck which makes use of Scapeshift (duh) combined with Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle after it was unbanned.
How the combo works: Get many lands in play using ramp spells. Cast Scapeshift sacrificing many lands. Fetch up a combination of Mountains and Valakuts so as to generate sufficient triggers to kill. The important thing to know for why the combo works is this: every Mountain that is fetched sees all the other Mountains being fetched/already in play.
For example I sacrifice all of my 8 lands. I find two Valakuts and 6 “Mountains”—normally shocklands of some variety. Valakut triggers when a Mountain comes into play if you control 5 other Mountains. As all 6 Mountains see 5 “other” Mountains, each Valakut triggers 6 times, generating 36 damage.
Note: Valakut has an intervening if. This means that if you can make one of those 6 Mountains disappear before the triggers resolve, by using a Tectonic Edge for example, then each Mountain will now only see 4 other Mountains and so no damage will happen. A clever Valakut player won’t walk into this but not everyone is clever.
An important aspect to note is that, as opposed to many more recent cards which feature sacrificing permanents, Scapeshift sacrifices lands as part of the resolution, rather than the cost, so countering it isn’t quite as huge a blowout as it might first appear.
Another feature common to casting Scapeshift is that, since your Scapeshift-playing opponent is likely going to sacrifice all of their non-Mountain lands to get as many Valakut triggers as possible, they will want to float any mana they’ve not yet used. If your opponent casts Scapeshift, they have to declare the type and amount of mana they are floating before the spell starts to resolve—before they even pass priority to you. If they pass priority to you, and you allow the spell to resolve, it is then too late for them to declare that they are floating mana from their untapped lands—you should call a judge.
Scapeshift is another deck that is weak to Slaughter Games and it also strongly dislikes cards that prevent searching of libraries… especially at instant speed! They are a controlling deck, so they should have ways to deal with these cards—but they can’t have everything all the time.
Twin variants, Pod, and Scapeshift decks are probably the most common combo decks you will encounter at a Modern tournament. Some of the rise of combo decks can be attributed to the diminished role of Jund, as hand disruption is always a good way to upset any combo player. When considering sideboard cards against “combo” decks then look for cards that hit these three major ones. If you can arrange that some of that hate also affects the more rogue combo decks out there, which I will go into next week, then that’s great!
My best advice if you want to understand further how a particular deck works then find someone who regular plays it and ask them. While I’m going into more rogue decks next week they are a small percentage of your field. You can improve your success just by learning how the decks I talked about today work and, most importantly, how they can be stopped! If you can, play one for a bit to see how it feels.