In 1998, I read an article in Inquest Magazine about Recurring Nightmare and Survival of the Fittest. From that point, I was hooked on the idea of playing value-laden creatures, aiming to overpower an opponent in card advantage and maybe pull off a combo kill. Decks at that time ran Great Whale and Shivan Hellkite to make infinite mana and then burn out the opponent in conjunction with Recurring Nightmare. These days, we have more elegant combinations. Combos like the Melira/Persist combo that we'll be looking at today.
I first became interested in the Melira/Birthing Pod deck when I saw the Pro Tour deck tech video on it. Later, I saw the number-crunching article that rated it with a 61% win performance at the PT. That's good news! I dismissed the deck initially as a terrible Zoo deck, but I have come to understand it now as a powerful Modern combo. I do not think it's the best deck in the format by a long shot, but Melira is solid, metagameable and consistent. The deck punishes stumbles and misplays from opponents very well, and an active Birthing Pod over a few turns will win the game.
I had a Modern tournament in Columbus, Ohio that was coming up, so I determined to play this deck. I was comfortable with Survival-style decks, thanks to years of love in Legacy. One of the keys with these toolbox decks is that you must not be cute when building the list; having three or four "silver bullets" that will shut down a strategy is just fine, but having ten is overkill.
In this article, I'll talk about my read on the Modern format and present you with my tournament deck. I will present my brief tournament report, too. In my next article, you will read about card choices and design philosophy in the deck. We will also explore different building variations that show promise to me.
The State of Modern
I love Modern. It's a terrific format and games are long and interesting. I found in playing that most games of Modern last at least six turns, with many going on to ten or twelve. This was even before the banning cycle! There is enough time for me to feel like I have played a real game of Magic.
Modern is also a very threat-light format. Most of the decks tend to stick a guy or two and hope to ride it to victory. Whether it's Wild Nacatl from Zoo or a Deceiver Exarch from Twin, dealing with that one threat can buy a lot of time. Affinity uses cards like Signal Pest and Cranial Plating to do the same thing. Kill that Plating and they're stuck with a pile of 0/2s and 1/1s that can't threaten a thing. Zoo, while seemingly full of dudes, is about half burn spells. Stop those early creatures and Zoo's plan is to rip three damage per turn from the top of the library.
This threat density observation makes me unconcerned about Tarmogoyf in the post-banning world. People are wildly reacting to the card, mostly because it is currently $100, saying that it needs to be banned because it is too powerful. While it is the most efficient creature in the format, Goyf is no stone killer. It lacks the great counterspells that protected it when it was in CounterTop in Old Extended, and now we have many efficient creature-kill spells to handle it. Cards like Path to Exile and Deathmark are superb choices that can punish the player who keeps the threat-light hand because of Goyf.
Successful decks in Modern must have enough threats that they don't lose to a removal spell, and they need enough removal so they do not lose to a two-Nacatl draw. I like consistency, resilience, and clear game plans in decks. Twin's plan is typically "Endstep a flash guy, copy it on my turn." That is a clear plan, with a deck built around making it happen. It can run up to eight copies of each combo card and it has inherently-powerful blue spells. Zoo's plan is obvious, as is Affinity's. Melira's plan isn't as clear, since it can both combo out and just grind attrition wars. It has enough resilience, though, that it does not lose to combo hate, nor does it frequently lose to creature rushes.
Melira Combo Basics
The Melira combo works this way: you need Viscera Seer, Kitchen Finks and Melira, Sylvok Outcast on the table. When you sacrifice Kitchen Finks to your Seer, it persists, but Melira prevents it from getting a counter. You net two life and one Scry each time you do this. You'll gain infinite life and Scry your whole deck to find Murderous Redcap the next turn, where you can do the same Persist trick with it to kill the opponent.
The Melira combination gets help because Birthing Pod can search up relevant parts. Birthing Pod also plays very nicely with persist creatures, which is a foundation of good Melira deck design (and something I'll extensively cover in the next article). Pre-bannings, the deck could run Green Sun's Zenith to search up pieces, but that was mostly sidelined in favor of Chord of Calling. Chord is part tutor, part combat trick, part card advantage engine. Though expensive, Chord gets everything to start the combination up, which made it superior to Zenith. Now, it's our only option. I'll explore Chordless lists in the next article, but Chord is a standard in the deck and we will assume its worth for the purposes of this article.
Melira decks need a bunch of creatures. They typically run Birds of Paradise and Wall of Roots for acceleration. Since Melira has a good deal of men, it can become a beatdown deck if it needs to. The deck can pressure an opponent while assembling its combo, which is unique in Legacy. Twin can cast a Pestermite and start swinging, but that lacks the punch of a Kitchen Finks and a Melira on the board, menacing five points of damage and a potential insta-kill if the deck draws anything to put it into a Viscera Seer.
Melira In Action: A Brief Tournament Report
The following is a report of a 30-person event I played in a few weeks ago, before the 9/20 bans were released. I ended up IDing into the T8, which means that I played only four rounds of Magic the whole day. I don't present this to you as proof that Melira is good, only to show what the deck does in actual tournament settings. This deck is pre-ban and I do not recommend netdecking this list. Stick around until the next column and you'll get my updated list, along with full card explanations. I just want to whet your appetite for Melira and get you to come back!
ROUND ONE: Second Sunrise
The Second Sunrise deck attempts to get a few of these into play:
and then sacrifice them all and cast Second Sunrise. All their cards come back, they draw many more cards, and then they Sunrise again. The endgame involves the deck drawing its library, then using Conjurer's Bauble to recur Pyrite Spellbomb infinitely. It gets tutoring from Reshape and acceleration with Lotus Bloom, which it can even Reshape into for instant availablility.
In the first game, my opponent played out a bunch of little baubles, then killed me with Second Sunrise looping. I had to ask him several times to stop looping the combo, since I knew I was dead if he would just show me the Spellbomb. He seemed pretty tense about playing the deck, which is understandable; it is very hard to recover from a fumble with it.
I had a solid turn-4 draw. He was unable to get his combination up in time, so he died to my hardcast Murderous Redcap.
In Game 3, I basically turned into an aggressive deck. I mulled to six and kept a lackluster one, but late in the game, he still wasn't playing cutesy baubles. That was a sign, to me, that he was unable to successfully combo off and I had a bit of time on my hands. I had Melira and an Aven Mindcensor, which was Ruining His Game while beating on him. I used Acidic Slime to kill a land. On his turn, he Slaughter Pacted my Mindcensor, then started comboing. After Sunrise, I brought back my Aven like a good player. He attempted to Ghost Quarter his own lands for value, and then I reminded him that Mindcensor had him locked up. He couldn't Reshape, either. He scooped 'em up to lethal on the board.
ROUND 2: Affinity
In the first game, he gets a crazy fast draw and rolls me a turn before I could do anything. That is what Affinity does! I had Nekrataal, which is awful against him. It cannot kill anything in their deck, and while the First Strike is relevant, it's not worth four mana for.
In the second game, he makes a massive mistake by playing a Mox Opal into another one. They legend-kill and he can't cast his Blood Moon or Cranial Plating, whatever he had in hand. I had Pridemaged a Signal Pest earlier and I had Pod online. This is where Melira starts to play for value. Assembling the combo would take too long, but the deck is full of cards that force trades, and I was certainly going to punish him. I was down to six life and I had a Kitchen Finks in play from Aether Vial. I got a Murderous Redcap, shot his Memnite, ate it with Seer, shot the other Memnite, then Podded it away for Reveillark next turn. Incredible. I sacked Reveillark to bring back Redcap and Pridemage, and on the next turn, I turned a drawn Birds into Melira. One reason that Ranger of Eos is so bad in this deck (and the reason that I cut it) is because Olivier would have done nothing here - I needed Melira or I needed a big value play. Redcapping into Reveillark was just what I needed and it was demoralizing to do.
Game three, he mulls to 4. I have the turn 1 Seer, turn 2 Melira, turn 4 Redcap. Nothing more to say.
RD 3: U/G Lorescale Coatl/Counters homebrew
I had seen this guy finishing up his last round and I knew to expect this deck. He was a really cool guy to play with and had some really nice foils. I kept a hand with two Birthing Pods, knowing he had things like Remand and Rune Snag. I led with a Birds, which was so potent. The plan was to run the first Pod into a Rune Snag and then land the second. As it turned out, I get a Pod on turn 3 after getting Remanded once. I proceeded to Pod, uninterrupted, for a few turns. Podding a Birds into a Wall of Roots into Finks into Nekrataal is incredible, but turning that Nekrataal into a Reveillark is EVEN BETTER. I eventually skunked him.
Game 2, he barfs out a billion Tarmogoyfs and I lose. I forgot to Scry with a Viscera Seer on a guy that was leaving play, and my top card was a Slay. That would have kept me in the game. Mistake.
The third game was incredible. I have an opener of: Vial, land, land, Birds, Wall of Roots, Slay, Slay. I play the Vial, then the Wall and the Birds. He used Repeal to take a counter off of Vial and draw a card, but his hand was business-light. He Gitaxian Probes me and sees THREE SLAYS in my hand. He was slumped at this point. Onlookers asked what sets Slay was in. I ran Slay for these kind of decks, since they are threat-poor and a Slay or two is crushing. He had a grip of six cards and had to feed trash like Quirion Dryad into my Slays so he could free space for his Goyfs. He used Engineered Explosives to clear my Birds and Vials away, but I put Redcap and Melira into play in response. On my next turn, I played a Pod, a Finks an then Podded Finks into Dimir House Guard to kill him. That is why you run Dimir House Guard over Ranger of Eos!
He was holding three Rune Snags, but he didn't blast the first one to turn on the others so that he could combat my Slays. He had a chance but misplayed.
Rds 4-5 draw in, after patiently doing the math for all the 3-0s to explain that yes, we can draw in and no, we won't be bagged by a superstar.
T8: Boom/Bust Zoo (our own Mike Lanigan!)
In the first game, I combo him really early with both Redcap and Finks out!
After sideboarding, I have the Seer, Melira, Finks draw, but he Bolts Melira and then Booms a land on his third turn to take me off Finks. I lose. Against Zoo, I'd love to have something like Spellskite, since it blanks most of their removal and forces Zoo to trade in 2-for-1s against me.
I won $30, which covered entry and gas!
Like I mentioned before, Melira isn't a broken strategy and this tournament report isn't supposed to advance that idea, but the deck has a lot of motion to it.
Join me on Wednesday, where we will talk about:
-Alternatives to Chord of Calling
-Huge lists of silver bullets
-Mistakes in Melira deckbuilding, including over-hating combo
-Whether your list should contain Fives, Sixes and Sevens (mana costs, of course)
-Why White is important
-The secret part of the manabase that nobody has caught onto (yet)
See ya then!