Rockin’ Out with Birthing Pod in Modern

Feature Article from Craig Wescoe
Craig Wescoe
8/18/2011 10:32:00 AM
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(Editor's note: Be sure and check out the TCGplayer $75k Championship Top 8 decklists here, the Top 16 lists from the Standard $2k here, and the Top 16 from the Modern $2k here!)

The more I think about, test, and discuss the format, the more I am of the opinion that degeneracy is the most important trait in a competitive Modern deck. There is no time for being cute, no reason to play fair, and no shortage of enablers to set up a degenerate combination of cards.

Ponder and Preordain are the first cards that come to mind, but these are only the beginning. There are plenty of cards that enable degenerate things almost entirely on their own while others require a specific catalyst.

The card I've been trying to break the past few days is Birthing Pod. While I haven't yet broken it, the experiment has led me through many different combinations of cards, and it's helped me to figure out which combos are worthwhile and which are simply weaker versions of other combos.

To get a feel for where I'm at, take for example, this opening (from a conversation I had with Nicolas Cuenca) :

First turn Birds of Paradise.
Second turn Lotus Cobra, fetch land, Birthing Pod.
Third turn fetch land, crack (6 mana total), pod away cobra to get Deceiver Exarch (5 mana left), untapping Birthing Pod. Then pod away Deceiver Exarch to get Entomber Exarch (4 mana left), returning Deceiver Exarch from your graveyard to your hand. Then play the Deceiver Exarch (1 mana left), untapping Birthing Pod. Then pod away Entomber Exarch to get Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. Then make infinite copies of Deceiver Exarch, untapping Kiki-Jikki off each of the Deceiver Exarch copy triggers.

Using this ‘nut draw' as the baseline for my testing, I eventually arrived at the following list:

Pod Rock by Craig Wescoe
Main Deck
4 Birds of Paradise
2 Deceiver Exarch
1 Entomber Exarch
1 Eternal Witness
1 Fauna Shaman
1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
4 Kitchen Finks
4 Lotus Cobra
1 Necrotic Ooze
1 Obstinate Baloth
1 Shriekmaw
1 Spellskite
4 Wall of Roots
Creatures [26]
4 Birthing Pod
4 Green Sun's Zenith
4 Ponder
Spells [12]
2 Breeding Pool
2 Forest (246)
1 Island (234)
4 Misty Rainforest
2 Overgrown Tomb
2 Reflecting Pool
1 Stomping Ground
1 Swamp (238)
1 Twilight Mire
4 Verdant Catacombs
1 Watery Grave
1 Yavimaya Coast
Lands [22]
Deck Total [60]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

Given the format's slant toward aggro decks, as evidenced by the decision to ban all combos that are too fast, I suspect that combo decks will have to take on a more controlling element. Ever since the Survival of the Fittest + Recurring Nightmare combo in Tempest Block, I've been a fan of Toolbox Rock strategies. The archetype is a classic midrange strategy that has the tools to adapt to pretty much any other strategy, and the linchpin is typically a card that can search out a variety of bullets (Survival of the Fittest, Vampiric Tutor, Trinket Mage, etc., and in this case Birthing Pod). That's basically what this deck is trying to accomplish, but without compromising our need for degeneracy.

The objective of the deck is to set up a Birthing Pod with six mana open and a two-mana creature on the board so you can pod into Deceiver Exarch into Entomber Exarch into Kiki-Jikki. Against zoo you typically want to set up a defense of Walls, Kitchen Finks, and Obstinate Baloth before ‘going off'. If you don't, then they'll outrace you (since you'd be accelerating their clock by paying life for the Birthing Pod activations). Fortunately the deck is designed to Withstand such pressure. Against combo decks you want to race to six mana and go off. Against control decks you change gears completely and become a creature beatdown deck. This forces them into a position of responding to your threats with Damnation of Day of Judgment, at which point you either reload by setting up a board presence again, or you simply combo off on them.

I'm not sure whether Fauna Shaman or Lotus Cobra is better as a 4x in this deck, but I'm pretty sure it's not both (since Wall of Roots is the best two-drop). The singletons are also not set in stone. I think I want to fit a Grave Titan in the deck somewhere, but not sure where. Wurmcoil Engine is better with Birthing Pod, and Broodmate Dragon is better with Green Sun's Zenith, but Grave Titan is the bigger beating against most decks (especially Zoo) since you gain a lot of value even if they have Path to Exile. Sun Titan is also a card to consider for that slot. I'm also considering Mindslicer, which has great synergy with Birthing Pod. The mana base is pretty solid, but may need some tweaking. Punishing Fires is pretty good at attacking our mana base, as well as disrupting our combo (by killing Kiki-Jikki, but as I said before, it's unclear how many Punishing Fires will see play in Modern.

I also tested Dryad Arbor and it was not very good, despite running eight green fetches and four Green Sun's Zeniths. Other packages I tried and did not like are as follows:

Reveillark + Body Double + Viscera Seer + Mogg Fanatic + Ranger of Eos

This package was not as powerful as the Deceiver Exarch + Kiki-Jikki, Mirror Breaker package, so usually these singletons would clog up my hand and either get pitched to Fauna Shaman or cost me games I would otherwise win if I had a more streamlined deck focused on setting up the better combo.

Melira, Sylvok Outcast + Greater Gargadon + Murderous Redcap + Phyrexian Plaguelord

The Plaguelord was not really necessary, but it was useful to have a five mana sac outlet to pod into. It was also relevant to have in the graveyard for Necrotic Ooze. That way you could clear the opponent's entire board by sacrificing an army of Necrotic Ooze tokens (thanks to Kiki-Jikki, Mirror Breaker). The main combo was using Melira + a sacrifice outlet to either gain infinite life off Kitchen Finks or deal lethal damage with Murderous Redcap. Greater Gargadon replaced Viscera Seer as a superior one-mana sacrifice outlet once the Reveillark combo was removed from the deck.

The problem with the whole Melira package was that she is almost always an afterthought. Early I want to be playing Wall of Roots to set up for the Exarch Combo. The fact that she must remain on the board for the combo to work means I have to find a different creature to sacrifice to the Birthing Pod to start the chain. All things considered, this combo just wasn't the best way to utilize Birthing Pod.

Devoted Druid + Quillspike

The fact that Quillspike has to attack is really a dagger. This combo is better in a Fauna Shaman shell since then Necrotic Ooze can be the centerpiece. Druid is pretty good, but Cobra and Wall of Roots are better for that role. And the fact that Deceiver Exarch combo cannot be stifled by a chump blocker puts it over the top.

I also tried AEther Vial, but it was worse than Birds of Paradise and the two-mana accelerants. I also tried Arbor Elf, Bloodghast, Renegade Doppelganger, Stonehorn Dignity (as tech against attack decks like Zoo), none of which pulled its weight.

Thoughtseize, and Inquisition of Kozilek were ultimately cut. The hand disruption is good against combo and control decks, but it hinders the deck's development against aggro too much to merit maindeck inclusion. The deck needs enough creatures in order to reliably turn on Birthing Pod, and the other non-creature spells are each more important than the hand disruption spells. In the sideboard I would consider Memoricide as well as the aforementioned one-mana discard spells.

All in all, the combo is a bit fragile, especially in a field of Punishing Fires, but the deck can recover pretty efficiently and it often acts as a value-based attrition deck with a built-in combo kill. Birthing Pod is quite possibly the real deal in Modern. Unless there is a better card I cannot think of, Birthing Pod will be the linchpin of the best Toolbox Rock strategy for the format.

Aside from Birthing Pod, there are plenty of other combinations worth considering:

Single-Card Combos

Sovereigns of Lost Alara

Mythic Conscription may be a deck in Modern. You get Noble Hierarch, Lotus Cobra, Sovereigns of Lost Alara, and Eldrazi Conscription. You also gain access to cards that weren't available to the original Standard version such as Academy Researchers, which would allow you to play a 12/12 on turn 2 off a bird or hierarch. It may be too cute, depending on the amount of Path to Exiles in the metagame, but the Researchers are something to keep in mind.

Gifts Ungiven

I posted on Facebook a few days ago “What are the best four cards to get with Gifts Ungiven?” These were the three most reasonable answers:

Chris Mascioli: Grove of the Burnwillows + Life from the Loam + Punishing Fire + Tectonic Edge
Adam Rodgers: Eternal Witness + Life from the Loam + Punishing Fire + Grove of the Burnwillows
Tony Visconti: Life from the Loam + Academy Ruins + Vedalken Shackles + Engineered Explosives

Honorable mention goes to

Jack Grannan: Glimmerpost + Cloudpost + Vesuva + Life from the Loam

As you can see, Gifts can fit into a number of different shells and serve as a card-draw engine or combo enabler. Everyone wants to run it with Life from the Loam (and for good reason), but it can also get something like Deceiver Exarch + Splinter Twin + Pestermite + Kiki-Jikki, Mirror Breaker. That would at least guarantee you get half your combo.

Bloodbraid Elf (into Boom / Bust)

Kyle Boggemos piloted an Extended deck last year that focused on cascading into Armageddon with Bloodbraid Elf. That combo is still around, and can really throw a wrench in anyone's plans. The support cards are there (Knight of the Reliquary), so an updated version may be worth looking into.

Multi-Card Combos

 Grove of the Burnwillows
Store QTY Price  
The Gamer's Haven 2 $23.53
CC Magic House 3 $24.49
Cptnsweets Cards 4 $24.65
Cardcravers 1 $24.69
Liberty Comics 1 $24.95
The Gamer's Haven 2 $26.15
Brute Force Games 1 $26.99
Haunted Game Cafe 1 $27.09
Game Citadel 1 $28.07
Pastimes 2 $28.49
Magic MTG Card
Magic MTG Card Grove of the Burnwillows Magic MTG Card
Magic MTG Card

Punishing Fire + Grove of the Burnwillows

At Pro Tour Amsterdam (and to a lesser extent, Pro Tour Austin) this combination was the biggest reason to not play a creature-based strategy. I suspect that in Modern the defining characteristic of a playable creature will be having at least three-toughness in order to survive this combo. Tarmogoyf passes the test, whereas Dark Confidant does not. I can see the Rubin/Kibler Zoo deck being a contender as it preys on the ‘smaller' zoo decks. I can also see it being used to good effect in a Gifts Ungiven shell, similar to what Chapin did for that same Pro Tour (Austin).

On the other hand, the Punishing Fire + Grove of the Burnwillows combo has received mixed reviews recently. It was great in Extended when it was legal, but Modern is a format with a much larger card pool. Moreover Bitterblossom is banned, so the necessity of running something akin to Punishing Fires is lessened. Zoo is the default aggro deck of choice, and Punishing Fires does almost nothing against them since Wild Nacatl, Loam Lion, Kird Ape, Tarmogoyf, and Knight of the Reliquary each survive Punishing Fires. I'm thinking it is a real possibility that this combo is simply the ‘wrong answer' for the format, and will only be capable of preying on ‘the wrong threats' (i.e. the ill-prepared aggro decks).

Angel's Grace + Ad Nauseam

This may be the frontrunner for best pure combo deck in the format. Everything better got neutered by the bannings. It is unclear to me at this point how much of a control dimension is optimal. Even though it cannot be searched out by Mystical Teachings, I think Damnation is probably the best card against creature decks. Depending on the metagame, they could be either main or side.

Swans of Bryn Argoll + Seismic Assault

The 48-land gambit with Treasure Hunt could pay dividends if you're feeling lucky, but I'm thinking Splinter Twin is a better two-card combo. Certainly a step up from the Standard Zombie Infestation deck, but Modern affords better options than this.

Glissa, the Traitor + Executioner's Capsule

This is the type of combo that I think could have success. It's not something you go all-in on, but something that can be splashed into an otherwise solid deck (like Punishing Fire + Grove of the Burnwillows). Unlike the Punishing Fire combo, this combo has the ability to take down the bigger threats posed by Zoo. Trinket Mage can search out the Capsule, and Pithing Needle and AEther Vial are reasonable singletons to play with the above cards. May prove too weak, but something to consider. It can definitely dominate certain matchups if properly supported.

Isochron Scepter + Silence

The old scepter-chant combo was a favorite for many back in its day, and it's been a while since the combo has been legal in non-classic formats. Well, it's legal again. I don't see myself running this in Philadelphia, but someone else might do it.

Arcanum Wings + Eldrazi Conscription

Turn 3 kill! It ended up not being good enough for Extended when it was legal, so it's doubtful that it will be good enough for Modern, but if it goes off, it's pretty devastating.

Intruder Alarm + Imperious Perfect + Llanowar Elves

This combo can only really fit into an Elf deck that is already running Imperious Perfect and is looking to add a combo kill. It's too slow, requires pieces of questionable power level, and produces an effect much weaker than many of the other combos of the format. Still, it exists.

Bonus Section: Under-the-Radar Core Set Cards Legal in Modern

When perusing deck lists from various eras in order to try and find the hidden gem, I have found it instructive to keep in mind some of the powerful cards available in Modern that were not available to corresponding Standard and Extended Seasons (at least , altogether). I started by making a list of all the cards from Eighth Edition, Ninth Edition, Tenth Edition, Magic 2010, Magic 2011, and Magic 2012 that I might easily forget about but that could easily be the right card for a Modern deck. The following list has been helpful to me. I would recommend at least reading through the list. Unless you have already done the same thing, there are probably at least a few cards you did not realize were legal. If for no other reason, you would want to know what niche cards exist for you to play around.

Pain Lands
Blood Moon
City of Brass
Crucible of Worlds
Defense Grid
Ensnaring Bridge
Exhaustion (against Pacts, or just as a tempo card)
Great Sable Stag
Grim Lavamancer
Master of the Wild Hunt
Merchant Scroll
Might of Oaks (Inkmoth Nexus)
Mind Shatter
Paladin en-Vec
Peace of Mind (with Life from the Load against burn decks)
Phantasmal Image
Phyrexian Arena
Pithing Needle
Planar Cleansing
Plow Under
Rule of Law
Sacred Ground
Siege-Gang Commander
Sparkmage Apprentice (competing with Blister Beetle)
Squee, Goblin Nabob
Stampeding Wildebeests
Thrull Surgeon
Time Warp
Trade Routes (with Life from the Loam against control decks)
Treasure Hunter
Treetop Village
Troll Ascetic
Underworld Dreams
Urza's Tower + Urza's Mine + Urza's Power Plant
Vampire Nocturnus
Viridian Shaman
War Priest of Thune
Weathered Wayfarer
Windborn Muse (stops Twin combo and is solid against aggro strategies)
Wood Elves
Zur's Weirding

Craig Wescoe
@Nacatls4Life on twitter

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