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Three-Quarter Combo Decks

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The two most interesting decks in Standard are both Izzet decks. Well, one is technically a Jeskai Prismari deck but Jeskai / Prismari is necessarily Izzet... And anyway the deck has deep Izzet DNA.

Both decks have at least one foot in the realm of "Combo" ... But both can also operate as board control or mid-range decks as well. If you were to watch them play, at least in one case, you might be scratching your head as to how "Combo" it ever really played. But rest assured, it can go like three-quarters combo at least like forty percent of the time.

Jeskai Mutate

If you watched any of this month's Strixhaven Championship, the archetype of Jeskai Mutate is probably not new to you. Played by Strixhaven Championship Top 8 competitors Matti Kuisma and David Inglis, this deck is a direct descendant of the Izzet Control deck that first appeared with the printing of Goldspan Dragon in Kaldheim.


The updated Jeskai version is heavily influenced by the printing of the card Expressive Iteration. Expressive Iteration is a good card drawing card - reliably a two-for-one that helps a land-rich deck hit its drops; it's also good at digging and fixing, which can be valuable for a combo deck trying to put its plan together... But it's not the best card for a traditional Control deck.

Expressive Iteration asks you to play more on your own turn. The card itself is a sorcery. If you're tapping for it on turn three - specially to weasel out your next land drop with its unique approach to card advantage - you're not leaving mana open for interactive instants like Saw it Coming. In fact, the card (and this deck's card drawing in general - more on that in a second) are full on mediocre when trying to synergize with permission spells.

The Strixhaven Championship version plays another sorcery - Seize the Spoils - to help build resources; and there are other builds that lean even harder into the White splash for Showdown of the Skalds!

So, what is that White splash getting this deck fundamentally?

Vadrok, Apex of Thunder

There are three big things going on with this splash. One of them is that Vadrok is just a 3/3 first striker for three mana. Frost Bite kind of sucks, but it's not bad at all for helping to hold down the fort.

... But that is not why it's occupying space here.

First off, mutating a Goldspan Dragon with anything is going to produce a Treasure. And with Goldspan Dragon on the battlefield, Treasures make two mana instead of only one. Second, Vadrok can cast a card. Prismari Command is the perfect freebie. It's up against the limit of what Vadrok will cast (so you know you're on the way to getting a bargain) and one of the modes is to make a Treasure. See where all this is going?

Just mutating Vadrok onto Goldspan Dragon will make a Treasure.

Casting Prismari Command can make a Treasure as one of its modes.

Once you're going kind of deep on the "combo" Prismari Command is generally dealing two to the opponent, but you can also target your own creature for even more Treasure.

Remember: With Goldspan Dragon in play, each Treasure is worth two mana. You don't really go "infinite" but can certainly get ahead short-term, especially considering the Goldspan Dragon double mana capability. This can allow you to use this little guy for additional shenanigans:

Unsubstantiate

One of the most important cards in this deck is Unsubstantiate. In the absence of a lot of permission, Unsubstantiate is responsible for a heavy lift. It can "counter" an opposing big spell - probably most importantly an Emergent Ultimatum - creating a window for the Jeskai Mutate to take its monumental turn. Or - at the cost of only a single Treasure - you can pick up your own Goldspan Dragon! Think for a moment about how full of "stuff" that might be. If you have mutated the Goldspan Dragon, that might be multiple creatures going back to your hand to be re-played. Multiple mutations? Multiple opportunities for re-buy or otherwise card advantageous triggers.

Lore Drakkis

Two things of note with little Lore Drakkis: 1) It is really inexpensive to mutate. Again, with Goldspan Dragon as its playmate, Lore Drakkis will make a Treasure; and its mutate cost is conveniently just a Treasure-sacrifice away. Secondly, getting back what you want out of your graveyard can give you more and more material to take additional actions.

Just remember this: If you're going to Unsubstantiate your own Goldspan Dragon, make sure to sacrifice your Treasure (including the one you just got from the Unsubstantiate!) BEFORE the Unsubstantiate resolves. When the Goldspan Dragon is back in your hand your Treasure will no longer make double mana. All your Treasure? Maybe / maybe not depending on how much land you have. But some. Probably.

Increasingly in the middle turns your combo-esque actions are just going to be a bunch of Prismari Commands. Successful games will often be putting a cheap Lore Drakkis on a Vadrok, hitting the opponent for two and making a Treasure; getting back the Command and doing it again. Because you have a Goldspan Dragon in play (which may or may not be the Vadrok) all these actions can end up being heavily discounted and the opponent just ends up taking 4-6 damage from Prismari Commands while being battered in the air by 4/4s... or bigger?


While lacking the pedigree of the Strixhaven Championship, I think you are more liable these days to encounter a Showdown of the Skalds build. Even more than Expressive Iteration, Showdown of course gives you a ton of main phase card drawing. If your Treasure engine is online all the better for taking a million actions, but Chapter II and Chapter III just reward you for having one or more creatures in play while you're doing stuff.

I said that this is kind of only a three-quarter combo deck. While it can do a lot of stuff and make a bunch of Treasures all during a single turn, Jeskai Mutate isn't really the infinite loop kind of combo deck. It just rides the fact that "things" are being "done" to shorten the distance its creatures have to cross for you. Many games are won by a Goldspan Dragon and a 3/3 Vadrok hanging out on defense... Until you fire off a couple of Prismari Commands that magically get the opponent into single-turn alpha strike range when considering the additional +1/+1 buffs from a Showdown. Or, you get one good attack in, Unsubstantiate one of your mutations, and cast three things post-combat that result in an extra six damage and six available mana from Treasures. Now your guys are back on defense and the opponent is looking down a one-turn clock.

With this deck there is no single play pattern that you are always trying to find.

In fact... Sometimes you don't even combo at all! A really deep percentage of the time it just feels like you're a regular mid-range control deck. Here's my 4/4 flyer; have you got something for it? I can get in for four, protect it with a Mystical Dispute or Unsubstantiate, and get in for four again. Is that good enough?

Spikefield Hazard is an interesting card in all versions because of its ability to turn one mana into two; you Spikefield Hazard your own Goldspan Dragon (1) but then get a Treasure which you can short-term make into two mana. You can also "wash" mana this way, turning Red into another color; or rather, color-color.

However, Spikefield Hazard is also a point! In the spirit of just wanting to do twenty damage, it can get you a point closer and can make nice with Vadrok or Lore Drakkis if you don't have a sexier playmate in your graveyard. While not super popular these days, I like the Defiant Strike in the Hicks build for much the same reason. It can jump mana for a very low cost... But above and beyond Hazard you are getting that Treasure for only one mana and getting an extra damage in. It's even better with Showdown of the Skalds because it compounds what the Showdown was already doing for you and keeps the party going at the same time.

Again, the goal is often to just do more "stuff" and Defiant Strike is a cheap way to do that that helps to deal damage, draws a card, potentially inches you even closer to the twenty-point finish line. I love the ambiguity of this deck. Sometimes it's not a combo deck. Sometimes it just wants to deal an extra four points with Prismari Command. Sometimes you have one creature in play that gets extremely big for a single alpha strike due to sacrificing a ton of Treasures feeding a ton of assorted actions (often including just making more Treasures) while hoping for the best.

In any case, it's good. And a riot.

This three-quarter combo deck is kind of the opposite:


When Strixhaven came out I was initially most interested in making a combo deck using new card Body of Research and very old card Fling.

Body of Research
Fling

For eight mana you could make a creature with 20+ power and then throw it at the opponent for a one-shot. I wanted to play Green because I thought that would get you to eight mana faster.

In my initial runs, I was pretty good at outmaneuvering big spell decks, or just staying ahead with permission while building my mana base... But the deck was not good at defending itself against small creature beatdown.

This straight U/R version lacks the ability to Ramp to eight... But is a good deal better at defending itself on the way to getting there.

Frost Bite and Shock are super cheap. End. Fin. They cost little and kill little guys.

In this deck, Blitz of the Thunder-Raptor is a Terminate and a half! With enough stuff in the graveyard it can kill almost anything... And more importantly in Standard, it can take out the god Anax without leaving the opponent a body or more.

I say "in this deck" because an essential part of the play pattern is just getting a lot of instants and sorceries into your graveyard. That makes Blitz of the Thunder-Raptor a big defensive spell, but more importantly turns on Experimental Overload.

Here's how it works:

  1. Assume for a moment you have 10 (or more) instants or sorceries in your graveyard.
  2. At some point you will have tucked away Dual Strike. This part isn't 100% necessary, but you don't do it ahead of time, you need a ninth mana.
  3. Cast Experimental Overload. Make a 10/10. That's four mana.
  4. Use your Dual Strike for r. That's five.
  5. Cast Kazuul's Fury. Eight mana and ten damage. Now Dual Strike does another ten.

Unlike Standard's other mostly-Izzet combo deck, this one has a pretty specifically defined play pattern it is trying to reach. 8 mana. Ten or more spells down. Dual Strike tucked away. Clear path to the double Fury.

But it doesn't have to end games all the same way. Sometimes you just make a pretty big Experimental Overload. I mean... An 8/8 for four is still pretty good. That draws a card? How many times exactly do you have to hit someone? And in a deck with Shock?

You can't generally expect your Overload token to live... There just aren't a lot of other targets for opposing removal in this deck. But sometimes you will just untap with it. Or if you previously foretold a Dual Strike? You might have two to work with.

The second most common way to win is probably to just make 1-2 Experimental Overload guys and successfully attack with one of them. Then just Kazuul's Fury the next turn to complete the "combo".

I actually think this is one of the best positioned decks in Standard if you only have to deal twenty damage. It is extremely good at defending itself from small creatures while building toward a big eighth turn. If the opponent goes all in on a big spell, it can stick one strategic permission response, untap, and get them for twenty while they're tapped down. It can let Emergent Ultimatum resolve! Just don't give them the Time Walk and you can untap and kill them much of the time through a pair of Planeswalkers.

I think where it gets a little flimsy is when Izzet has to deal more than twenty under pressure. A Food source might cost it a full turn or even more cards. A bigger deal is probably the still-popular cycling deck. Maybe you can handle the ferocious creature attack, kill Irencrag Pyromancer before it kills you... But still fail against Zenith Flare while your mana is tapped. The Zenith Flare doesn't have to kill you outright. Gaining 10 life in the middle of your combo will have set you far enough back that you might never be able to rebuild.

I think that this deck gains a little extra for best of one play. Like any Lesson / Learn decks, it has a little more oomph in terms of card availability because it takes some advantage of the sideboard... But it also has no non-land permanents! This has led some players to add Zirda, the Dawnwaker to the sideboard as just another extra card.

Sadly, though; it is not the true inheritor to Splinter Twin.

Experimental Overload
Dual Strike
Kazuul's Fury

Even setting aside the first ten spells you've got to discard or cast... That's three my friends; not a two-card combo.

LOVE

MIKE

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