On Cannons and When To Use Them

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the kings’ horses,
And all the kings’ men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

Thanks to pictorial evidence, many of us have believed our entire lives that Humpty Dumpty was an egg. The nursery rhyme says nothing of eggs, but Lewis Carroll dressed an egg in a fine suit and called it Humpty Dumpty. Did you know that legend has it that Humpty Dumpty was actually a cannon employed in the English Civil War?

A powerful weapon was destructive to its enemies, but even it had a weakness: it couldn’t withstand a fall. Depending on the fall, who can blame Humpty? Not many of us do well with falls, particularly with age.

As a format, Modern is full of cannons of varying weaknesses. By this, I mean that Modern has a lot of combo decks. I would argue that the proportion of combo decks is larger in Modern than in other formats. Brewers love Modern, and brewers love combos, whether strong or weak. What’s more, watchers of brewers particularly love to see combos work. For fun and flavor, let’s give each combo type a name: Fodder Cannon, Loose Cannon, and Glass Cannon.

Fodder Cannon

These are combos that are too weak to the format or otherwise require a lot of effort but produce minimal result. Here are the simple rules of combo decks and some ways that decks adhere to or break these rules:

1) The deck must be able to win by turn four or tame Burn.

Burn is the pacesetter of Modern. If you have a combo deck that is built around [c]Rooftop Storm[/c] and [c]Beck[/c], then you had better do one of two things: play removal and counter-magic, or play ramp (frankly, in this case, you’d better do both, and then scrap the idea). Otherwise, once you have finally assembled six mana of specific colors and successfully played the enchantment, you will probably be at approximately -49 life.

This rule sets the casting cost bar at roughly four. [c]Splinter Twin[/c] and [c]Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker[/c] are able to break this rule because they have removal and counter-magic.

2) Your combo must not contain more than two cards.

Additionally, it would be best if the order of card resolution didn’t matter. Modern is full of soft counters, so if you have to resolve spells in a specific way, [c]Mana Leak[/c], [c]Remand[/c], and [c]Spell Pierce[/c] become more powerful.

In accordance with the turn four rule, we cannot try to sculpt our hands to contain three specific cards for a combo. [c]Serum Visions[/c] has become more expensive online than [c]Timetwister[/c] of power nine fame, and it is because the hand-sculpting in Modern is ghastly. We do not have [c]Brainstorm[/c], [c]Ponder[/c], and [c]Preordain[/c] like other formats do (even Pauper!), so while it is great to witness [c]Bronze Bombshell[/c] play an [c]Emrakul, the Aeons Torn[/c], we cannot depend on it happening reliably enough to be a good idea.

Notice here, I mean that combos must be two cards period, to win or do something big. I am not saying infinite-mana two card combos. [c]Freed From the Real[/c] and [c]Bloom Tender[/c] is a three-card combo, and as such, it hasn’t shown results.

3) If your combo has two cards, then it must have some redundancy.

Again, our draw is terrible. [c]Ad Nauseam[/c] combo plays [c]Angel’s Grace[/c] to draw its entire deck, but what does it do if it doesn’t draw [c]Angel’s Grace[/c]? It plays [c]Phyrexian Unlife[/c]! Meanwhile [c]Mystical Teachings[/c], [c]Dig Through Time[/c], and [c]Peer Through Depths[/c] find the [c]Ad Nauseam[/c].

Decks that win based on an infinite two-card combo will suffer if the two cards are limited to four-of each, especially if that two-card combo only generates infinite mana.

4) [c]Lightning Bolt[/c] is the most commonly played card in Modern, period.

[c]Midnight Guard[/c], [c]Etherium Sculptor[/c], [c]Laboratory Maniac[/c], [c]Grand Architect[/c] and [c]Pili-Pala[/c] are all cards that scream “Build a combo around me!” but ultimately, they die too easily to a card you will face in roughly 47% of your games. In the case of [c]Laboratory Maniac[/c], when he goes, so do you.

Decks that break these rules are fodder. Trade fodder, trash can fodder, just fodder. Without a draw and tutoring engine, a two card combo with redundancy, pieces that cost less than five mana, and some level of resiliency, these combo decks are, sadly, trash.

Loose Cannons

This, like “fodder cannons,” is a term that I am coining here myself, I believe. These are combo decks that can prey on a format that is soft to them. These are the most interesting to me. These aren’t glass cannon decks that are only strong as long as the opponent shows a lack of respect for them, but they are decks that are only strong when particular decks are strong.

My favorite example of this is Mono-Green Infect.

Right around the release of Theros, Jund, Pod, and Twin were kings. As such, Tron was the fourth most popular deck. Tron preyed on its favorable match-ups, and Tron players grew in numbers. This paved the way for combo decks that were able to beat Tron such as Infect. Every time I saw an [c]Expedition Map[/c], I knew I was well on my way to a pack.

Similarly, a few months ago, Burn reigned supreme. It was awful how prevalent Burn was in Modern. As a result, Soul Sisters, Martyr Proclamation, and Bogles entered the foray. Guess what’s good against these decks! Infect, of course. And naturally, like clockwork, decks with price tags under 50 tickets have been earning packs because their opponents were worried about gaining life.

We will call these Loose Cannon combo decks “C” decks, because they are designed to beat deck “B.” Deck A is ruling the format, so a tier 2 or below deck has emerged as a foil. If you can recognize and capitalize on these moments, then you stand a fair chance of winning with your combo deck.

I will say, though, for the players aspiring to win with C decks, it is often miserable to play against Deck A. When I played Green Infect, it was dreadful to get paired against Twin, Jund, and Melira Pod (especially the latter), and it was wonderful to get paired against the decks that beat it. Today, if you registered an event with Green Infect hoping to be paired against Bogles, Soul Sisters, and Martyr Proc, you will be happy to face those (and probably a few others), while being disappointed to face the Delver and Burn decks that they are designed to beat.

Glass Cannon

This term has been defined so many times. I personally use it to describe a combo that is vulnerable to an often-hated mode of Magic play. In every eternal format, you can expect there to exist varying amounts of artifact hate and graveyard hate, and you can expect [c]Lightning Bolt[/c]. There are powerful, powerful decks built around both artifacts, graveyards, and low-toughness creatures, and as long as the metagame isn’t paying these strategies the sideboard slots they are due, the decks will win big. The best example of this is Vintage Dredge. Expect to lose on turn two games 1 and 2 without dedicating sideboard space (or maindeck even) for its hate.

In Modern, combo decks that are dedicated to artifacts are Eggs variants. These will always be soft in the Modern metagame as long as Affinity requires players to use artifact hate. Nevertheless, sometimes [c]Etherium Sculptor[/c] isn’t bolted, and [c]Rest In Peace[/c] doesn’t enter the battlefield, and [c]Stony Silence[/c] doesn’t disrupt [c]Krark-Clan Ironworks[/c], and absolutely nothing is targeted by [c]Smash to Smithereens[/c] or [c]Shattering Spree[/c] enough times in an event that [c]Open the Vaults[/c] decks will place.

Combo decks that are graveyard-centric in Modern include [c]Griselbrand[/c]’s very own Tin Fins. [c]Goryo’s Vengeance[/c] has seen more play recently, or perhaps it is better to say that it has seen more victories recently. Three results of it cashing in dailies are published in the past month. Apparently [c]Tormenting Voice[/c] really was that much better than [c]Wild Guess[/c]. Many decks are hating graveyards to combat Delve strategies, but maybe there just were enough Delve decks that didn’t want graveyards exiled that [c]Griselbrand[/c] could come out to play. If it ever became a real problem, though, players would easily be able to adapt with a few sideboard slots, and the fire would be squelched for a few months.

Finally, glass cannons that are built around creatures include the [c]Kiln Fiend[/c] strategies. Gerry Thompson polluted many a mind by playing four of these with [c]Nivmagus Elemental[/c], and others have followed him, toting [c]Death’s Shadow[/c] and [c]Monastery Swiftspear[/c] with them. I just don’t know what these people are on about. Modern is lousy with [c]Lightning Bolt[/c], [c]Path to Exile[/c], and [c]Abrupt Decay[/c], but I guess I have to forgive them with all the talk I do about [c]Glistener Elf[/c]. It is, after all, very tempting to play a deck that aims to lower the opponent’s life total when 1/4 or more of the damage is done for you with fetches, shocks, and [c]Gitaxian Probe[/c]s that U/R Delver players are firing off with no regard for their safety.

All of these glass cannon decks are insanely powerful, insomuch as the opponent does nothing. They are ever-present blips in the Modern metagame, whereas the Loose Cannon decks are those that have their heyday until the format puts them out.

I hope this discussion gives you some direction with how to build decks and what to play. My Magic-centered thinking for the next while is Legacy and Vintage, thanks to the Holiday Festival. I still haven’t landed on a Vintage or Legacy deck, but it is often on my mind. Will I see you there? Hope so!

Good luck, have fun.