There is a give and take to formats. One of the things I noted in my last article about Pioneer is that formats that are driven by slower and grindier aggressive decks and over-the-top style midrange decks are prone to being exploited by combo decks.
Two interactions have really risen up since then to become big parts of Pioneer. One is Heliod, Sun-Crowned and Walking Ballista, a two-card combo that wins the game, albeit with a lot of mana investment… or should I say, Alseid with a lot of mana investment. I'm sorry, that was bad. Alseid myself out.
The optimal way to build these decks is yet to be seen. The Heliod/Ballista decks in particular are all over the place. Some resemble aggressive decks with the combo shoehorned in, others are driven by Collected Company, and yet others take a more grindy and interactive approach with cards like Arcanist's Owl. Personally, my money is on the Arcanist's Owl builds being the eventual winner for how to build this deck, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
The Inverter of Truth combo decks are a little easier to piece together, as the cards really push you toward building a blue-black control deck with a combo finish. Still, a lot of card choices are definitely in flux and there's a few in particular (*cough* Drown in the Loch) that I'm not really sold on.
The focus of this piece is going to be on the Inverter of Truth combo deck. What makes it good, is it a flash in the pan or a real deck, and what's the reaction to it?
A number of pro players, such as MPL competitor Piotr Glogowski, have stated that they are playing this combo at the upcoming Players Tour Regional this weekend. It's also been putting up results on Magic Online, such as this 5-0 list by Salikar from a recent Magic Online Pioneer Preliminary event.
Let's start out with the fundamentals. How does this deck work?
The combo revolves around Inverter of Truth and either Thassa's Oracle or Jace, Wielder of Mysteries. Inverter of Truth is used to exile your entire library and replace it with your graveyard. While traditionally a huge drawback, in this case, it enables Thassa's Oracle or Jace to win the game with their alternate win condition modes. With two or fewer cards in your library, Thassa's Oracle's enters-the-battlefield ability wins the game thanks to the two devotion to blue the Oracle itself provides. Jace's +1 ability will also win the game if there are two or fewer cards in your library by removing the last two cards and then trying to draw a card on an empty library.
Some things to note about this combo. The first is that there is some flimsiness to it. You can't cast Inverter of Truth until you've drawn either a Thassa's Oracle or Jace or have one in the graveyard. Since it removes your entire current library, you won't ever see one of them the rest of the game if you haven't already. Thassa's Oracle and, to some extent, Jace, Wielder of Mysteries are also relatively ineffectual cards on their own right, which can create awkward draws of too many weak cards that don't do a lot.
There are also a lot of inherent strengths to the combo. Unlike Splinter Twin, or even the new Heliod, Sun-Crowned and Walking Ballista combo, this combo doesn't require both pieces to be in play at the same time, and it also doesn't even require either combo piece to survive. That's an enormous advantage.
Inverter of Truth's ability will go on the stack when it enters the battlefield, regardless of whether or not it meets an immediate removal spell. Thassa's Oracle's ability also goes immediately on the stack, and even if the Thassa's Oracle is killed, leaving your devotion to blue at zero, it will still win the game on a scry 0 if you have an empty library. Having a two-card creature combo that doesn't get blanked by creature removal is pretty incredible actually, and goes a long way toward legitimizing this combo.
Another huge advantage of the combo is that Inverter of Truth is actually a fairly sizable threat on its own. It's a 6/6 flying creature that blocks all day, and in Pioneer there aren't a lot of wildly played removal spells that easily kill it. It survives Lightning Strike and Wild Slash, and Fatal Push's revolt is harder to trigger in this format without fetchlands. Inverter can also just go beatdown and win that way. It's not unrealistic to think a copy or two of Inverter of Truth can just win a game that plays out non-traditionally.
Inverter of Truth's “drawback” isn't even that bad toward enabling the game plan, even beyond just setting up the combo. A normal play pattern becomes playing interactive cards on the first few turns of the game into a turn-four Inverter of Truth. That Inverter will make those interactive cards your library, which you can then play again, leading into either a Jace or Oracle to win the game. That's an incredibly strong game plan because Inverter lets you double dip on interaction. Interaction into a 6/6 body into more interaction into a win-the-game combo? Yes please.
The real glue that holds this deck together, though, is Dig Through Time. When a card like Dig Through Time is legal in a format, it's only a matter of time before it gets paired up with cards that break it. Dimir Inverter of Truth may well be the latest deck where that is true in Pioneer.
Dig Through Time serves two key roles in this deck. It finds missing pieces of the combo or interaction to protect it, and in doing so, it removes your graveyard. Removing the graveyard is relevant for Inverter of Truth, because a Dig Through Time can perfectly set up the turn-six kill of Inverter of Truth and Thassa's Oracle.
Dig Through Time really does it all in this deck, which should come as no surprise to people who have played with this gem before.
If the paragraph above about how this combo can win the game even through any amount of creature removal wasn't enough to sell you on its merits, I think history is greatly in its favor as well.
One of the most powerful archetypes in Magic history is combo-control. Splinter Twin, in both the Twin-Blade Standard deck as well as the later versions of the Modern combo that eventually led to its banning both serve as prime examples of this. Splinter Twin was at its core a control deck that just happened to have a combo finish, and the Inverter of Truth deck is incredibly reminiscent of Twin in that way.
Control decks are easy to exploit in Magic. Part of the reason control decks aren't thriving in today's game is that the threats are often too strong to line up answers against, but another reason for control's decline is that targeting control decks is usually fairly simple. There are so many ways to take them down. You can attack their limited ways to win a game. You can attack them with threats they can't answer. You can exploit their dependency on answers by beating them on card advantage after sideboard. You can exploit their speed by going way over the top of them. The options are limitless.
However, the base plan of controlling the game is not actually a bad one. Control decks are actually very good at holding down the fort for quite a while in a normal game of Magic. The problem with control decks isn't that they die too early, it's that they can have a hard time turning that advantage into a win when the opponent has the right cards to exploit their one-dimensional game plan.
However, when control decks also have a clock themselves, especially one that also aids in controlling the game along the way, then it becomes very difficult for the opponent to exploit them. Forcing a deck to play interactive elements to deal with the control deck's threats can leave them vulnerable to just losing to the normal control game plan if they get stuck with too many dead, reactive cards. Forcing them to lose the interactive elements and just try to beat the control angle leaves them vulnerable to just dying to the combo angle.
I've actually had enormous success in Magic by riding on the coattails of these kinds of decks. Miracles with Monastery Mentor is a great example of a control deck with a proactive game plan that left opponents struggling to deal with both. Leave in removal for Mentor? Have fun with Counterbalance/Sensei's Divining Top. Ignore Mentor? Have fun dying on turn five to Miracles, widely regarded as one of the slowest decks in Magic. Monastery Mentor also played defense very well, making it the perfect counterpart to CounterTop.
Esper Hero is a very muted version of this archetype, being a control deck that plays a threat on turn two that could win a game by itself while you played a control game plan around it. That threat also playing defense very well is very reminiscent of Monastery Mentor in Miracles.
Caw-Blade is another example of this archetype. Control decks that offer versatile proactive game plans have really just been some of the best decks in Magic's history.
So when I see a control deck (albeit one where the control elements look pretty mediocre) that isn't trying to win with some mediocre planeswalker or Aetherling or some other marginal big effect, but instead has a proactive two-card combo that can also aid in defense along the way… well, I think it's going to be a real deck and not a flash in the pan. This doesn't look like just another flavor-of-the-week combo that's all-in and exploitable, but rather like a robust deck with a game plan that has historically been not just good, but great.
Now comes the fun part: adaptation. How do we adapt to this deck, assuming it is real, and how does this deck adapt to how we adapt to it?
I think step one is understanding how to beat a deck like Dimir Inverter Combo. I don't think trying to grind it out or match pace with it each step of the way is a successful method. It's hard to out-grind Dig Through Time, and if you're not presenting a clock against the deck, they have time to set up enough pieces of the combo to win through whatever hate you have.
I think a basic and easy way to beat this deck is to present pressure backed up by just enough interaction to hammer it home. Mono-Black Aggro is a good example of a deck that offers this approach. Play tough-to-deal-with early threats and hope a timely Thoughtseize or two messes up the Dimir deck enough for those threats to go all the way. Other decks that can do this are things like Azorius Spirits with cheap countermagic or Izzet Ensoul Artifact, also by employing cheap countermagic.
Another way to win is to attack them at their combo. The combo can't be beaten by normal creature removal, and cards like Hushbringer to negate Inverter of Truth or Thassa's Oracle's abilities are vulnerable to Fatal Push or just dying to 6/6 flying creatures that they can now jam with no setup or drawback.
However, there are a number of cards that can proactively attack the combo. Infinite Obliteration, Unmoored Ego and Lost Legacy can all take out Inverter of Truth before it comes down. Cards like Gideon's Intervention also offer a potential, although perhaps too slow, answer to Inverter of Truth. Gideon of the Trials looks to be a great answer against the combo by providing insurance against it with the emblem and a plan against Inverter of Truth's portly 6/6 body with the +1 ability.
The problem with the Unmoored Ego / Gideon of the Trials style of approach has to do with the very reason combo-control is so devastating. If you dedicate too many resources to beat the combo half of the deck, you leave yourself vulnerable to the control half.
So while other decks get to react to Dimir Inverter by bringing in cards like Ego or Gideon, the Inverter deck also gets to react to that, and can add in alternate win conditions like The Scarab God or Pack Rat and win a game the way control decks usually do. It's particularly devastating for Dimir Inverter to come after sideboard with a creature threat, because the combo itself is so impervious to creature removal and it's unlikely opponents will have any in their deck after sideboard.
The way to react to the Inverter deck's reaction to your hate cards is to find hate cards that aren't embarrassing and can also interact with alternative win conditions out of the sideboard. Teferi, Time Raveler, for example, is a card that replaces itself, interferes with the Dimir deck's instants, and can also provide some respite or enough time to beat something like The Scarab God.
Rankle, Master of Pranks out of the black aggro deck can be very good for exactly this reason. It provides an out to killing creatures even after siding out removal, but it's also just a good, hasty, disruptive threat in games where that role is unneeded. Counterpoint: it can't attack through Inverter of Truth.
As for which side of this fight I want to be on, the answer depends on how powerful the Dimir deck proves to be, which is yet unseen. As we saw with Modern Splinter Twin, even when it was known as the best deck in the format, it still won all the time. It's not like being a known entity will kill the deck. Even if people know how they must attack, that doesn't mean they can succeed at doing so.
Most likely, I'd rather be playing Dimir Inverter and coming up with the best way to beat people's hate than trying to outguess what the Inverter players are doing and come up short or guess wrong. Being the one with the proactive threat others have to scramble to beat is almost always the right place to be in Magic. Be the broken, or the breaker. I'd like to be the breaker.
Brian Braun-Duin is a professional Magic player, member of the 2020 Magic Pro League and recurring special guest on the Bash Bros Podcast.