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Sultai Vannifar Combo Primer

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A new Standard season is underway, and while there are a lot of sweet things to explore, there is one new deck in particular that has really caught my eye: Sultai Vannifar Combo. Prime Speaker Vannifar has enabled a variety of different combo kills in larger formats like Modern and Pioneer, but until now it was fairly tame in Standard, offering utility but not the ability to outright kill the opponent. With the addition of some key cards in Theros Beyond Death this is no longer the case.

I present my current iteration of Sultai Vannifar Combo:


Past Prime Speaker Vannifar, the pieces of the combo are three new cards from Theros and one that was printed in Eldraine:

Nightmare Shepherd
Woe Strider
 Hyrax Tower Scout
Corridor Monitor

The cliff notes version is that Nightmare Shepherd along with Woe Strider and our untapping creatures allow us to deal over 20 damage as early as the 4th turn with Gray Merchant of Asphodel on our best draws.

There are a few different situations we can combo from in slightly different ways. As an example let's consider the following:

We start our turn with just Vannifar and four lands in play. We have a 1 mana creature and Corridor Monitor in hand. Assuming no interaction, we can kill our opponent from this position. Our first goal is to get a Nightmare Shepherd into play. We can do this first set like so:

Now that the easy part is done - let's kill our opponent.

  • Cast Corridor Monitor,untap Van
  • Van Corridor into Woe Strider, Shepherd creates a Corridor, untap Van
  • Van Corridor Token into Tower Scout, untap Van
  • Van Goat Token (from Woe Strider) into a Goose
  • Woe Strider sacrifice Tower Scout, Shepherd creates a Tower Scout, untap Van
  • Van Goose into a Corridor, untap Van
  • Van Tower Scout Token into second Nightmare Shepherd
  • Woe Strider sacrifice Corridor, Shepherd creates a Corridor, untap Van
  • Van Corridor Token into Tower Scout, untap Van
  • Van Nightmare Shepherd into Grey Merchant and drain for 7 life
  • Woe Strider sacrifice Tower Scout, Shepherd creates a Tower Scout, untap Van
  • Van other Shepherd into another Grey Merchant and drain for 9 life
  • Woe Strider sacrifice each Grey Merchant for another 9 life each when Shepherd brings them back

The steps above can be simplified if you already have some of the other creatures you need to find in play, but the above is likely the most game actions you need to take from a minimal board state to a lethal one.

The hard part about playing a deck like this is not memorizing the patterns you need for the combo, although that is certainly part of it, but actually playing through the games where you do not combo. This is because while you will win a number of games by simply chaining through Vannifar activations, there will be many more where you never draw the namesake card or you do and it dies / gets discarded / gets countered.

While our combo pieces like Corridor Monitor and Hyrax Tower Scout are nothing to write home about, Nightmare Shepherd and Woe Strider are genuinely powerful cards that provide some grind advantage outside of the combo. Nightmare Shepherd makes our board resistant to removal, while being a fast clock in the air. Woe Strider is capable of generating card advantage in longer games thanks to escaping from the graveyard over and over again as our things die.

This early in a format things are still very much in flux, but I feel I can provide some useful general information as well as some specifics for post board games and matchups. Firstly - we never board out Grey Merchant, Vannifar, or Nightmare Shepherd. We also never board out more than one copy of each of our untapping creatures.

In general, Neoform is my go to trim. Post board games tend to be more interactive and Neoform requires us to invest two cards - which hurts if the thing we find just dies right away. After this trimming Incubation, untap creatures, Paradise Druid or Woe Strider are all fine. If you see / expect permanent based hate, such as Grafdigger's Cage, you should bring in some copies of Assassin's Trophy. When in doubt - just board in some Trophy because it is flexible enough to rarely be a dead draw.

These exact details are likely to be a bit hazy as the format developes - so keep in mind to adjust your plan based on things you might see that are unique from your opponents.

VS Simic Ramp

Out:

In:

This is the matchup that makes me think this Vannifar deck might have a real home as this format settles down. The Simic Ramp decks largely ignore their opponent for the start of the game, giving us free reign to combo kill them as late as turn six often.

I like trimming Neoform against any deck that could have counterspells post board. This is because sacrificing the creature is part of Neoform's casting cost, so if they counter it we get two for one'd. Likewise - bringing in Agonizing Remorse is great against counter spells because it can let us clear the way for Vannifar to resolve.

VS Cat-Oven Decks

Out:

In:

Their most important card in this matchup is Mayhem Devil so we bring in a slew of ways to take it off of the table.

VS UW Control

Out:

In:

This is a matchup we will likely win more with scrappy beats than via comboing. Getting creatures into play early and chipping away at their life total is our best route to victory through all of their interaction. Double Nightmare Shepherd is one of our best setups to insulate against their ability to sweep our board away.

Post board we have Agonizing Remorse to poke through their defenses and Find to recover threats from our discard pile after they are countered / killed.

VS Jeskai Fires

Out:

In:

This matchup has felt reasonable against builds that are still leaning on Deafening Clarion as their primary sweeper and harder against builds moving to Shatter the Sky. One upside to them playing Fires of Invention, though, is that we know that we for sure get to combo with no disruption if they let us untap most games.

Wrapping Up

It is not unreasonable to say I have not felt like this about a deck since I first touched Kiki Chord in Modern oh so many years ago. Scrappy creature midrange decks capable of a combo finish will always have a near and dear place in my heart, and this one is no exception. If you are looking for something sweet to catch people by surprise with I would highly recommend giving this one a try!

If you would like to see some of this deck in action as we have developed it on my stream over the last little while you can find videos of me playing it on my website here.

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