Magic can get weird at times. There are utterly incomprehensible cards like Ice Cauldron. Sometimes it's rules weirdness, like Blood Sun not stopping Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth's ability. Other times it's a deck that makes no sense, like Inverter of Truth combo. And sometimes it's because of logical paradoxes and other contradictory truths. Case in point: today I'm going to discuss an utterly busted combo deck. Then, I'm going to conclude that it's nothing to worry about. Because it isn't very good, and it's only worth worrying about good decks in a format as big as Modern.
All this lead in may be pointing to an article about Neoform combo. And, to be fair, I've definitely said that about Neobrand before. It's capable of winning on turn 1, but probably won't, and folds to itself most of the time. No, I'll never pass on an opportunity to give Neobrand a kick in the ribs. However, I'm going to have to retire that deck as my whipping boy. Not because anything has changed my mind about Neobrand, but because I don't think I'll be seeing it as much. There's a new kid on the block. A deck that is very similar to Neobrand, but doesn't fizzle mid-combo and is far less likely to sit there and do nothing. It's still not very good, though.
In case you've been hiding under a rock, there's been a lot of buzz about Zendikar Rising making Goblin Charbelcher viable in Modern for the first time. Not the first time the deck was playable, mind, just that it's actually viable now. The older versions were bizarre Elves piles running around five lands and trying to cheat in mana dorks using Chancellor of the Tangle or Simian Spirit Guide into Aether Vial. They were clunky, fragile, and bad, but could just win out of nowhere in theory. They didn't, of course, and I thought that they'd died off by 2016.
Apparently I was wrong. There existed an entire community dedicated to Modern Belcher the whole time. They never actually fixed the problem with the deck, and all that effort didn't translate to legitimacy, but they were out there. Waiting. For Rising and the MDFC's, apparently. As soon as the combination spell/lands were revealed, speculation about Belcher's viability ran wild. Shatterskull Smashing // Shatterskull, the Hammer Pass and its ilk are always the front face, which is a spell, unless being played as a land. Anything that is looking for land won't see Smashing, but anything that allows lands to be played will allow Shatterskull, the Hammer Pass to hit the table. Thus, Belcher can finally run lands without making Goblin Charbelcher ineffective. And so, the Belcher community got to work.
I kept tabs on the goings on, though I didn't participate. I'm always on the lookout for new developments, but I don't know anything about making combo decks. Particularly when it comes to Belcher, the only experience I have is playing against it in Legacy. There, it's an incredibly busted deck that sees almost no play. It either wins on turn 1 or 2, or it doesn't win at all.
Reason being, it's all-in on the combo and if anything goes wrong, it just loses. I play Death and Taxes and don't fear Belcher because there's nothing I can do against a turn 1 kill, but after that, all it takes is one Deafening Silence, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, or Phyrexian Revoker to completely shut it down. It's a much less precarious matchup than the other combo decks that can win through a single hate piece.
The Modern version is always going to be worse than Legacy's, so I have nothing meaningful to contribute to the discussion. Modern lacks all the fast mana that makes Legacy Belcher possible. More importantly, Burning Wish is illegal, and with that goes win condition flexibility. Legacy Belcher does just win via dropping the namesake, but more often it has to take a longer route, wishing for Empty the Warrens, Reforge the Soul, or Echo of Eons. The Modern version has to play everything maindeck, with far fewer and more expensive rituals and no moxen. I had no clue how it was going to shake out.
The breakthrough came when someone realized that Recross the Paths, a piece of Morningtide draft chaff, could stack a landless deck. I guess that's the kind of memory and lateral thinking it takes to be a combo player. This typically sets up a combo turn using Reforge the Soul for the perfect hand. However, there is tons of utility to stacking a deck, including sculpting a gameplan to play around the opponent's interaction. With that piece of tech, the Belcher players hit MTGO, trying to make the deck work.
I began to hear about actual results coming in the middle of last week. There had been hyperbolic declarations previously, but actual results can't be dismissed. Admittedly, they were just League results, but that does indicate that there's something to the deck. And that meant that I would have to test the deck. I normally wait for results to come in and then analyze them. However, I had doubts I'd ever get enough data waiting around, so I made my own.
Testing the Brokenness
In fairness, I did have to wait for decklists to come in; I'm not a combo player, I just emulate one on Twitch. About the middle of last week, I saw a list had 5-0'd a League, so I took it as my test platform. It looked like a reasonable deck and much more stable than some of the 4-5 color piles I'd heard about.
My understanding of this deck and similar is that the goal is to maximize the ability to accelerate into the Belcher kill in game one. To that end, they're playing all the rituals, including Irencrag Feat, which conveniently produces exactly enough mana to cast and activate Goblin Charbelcher. Vessel of Volatility is finally getting some love, too. There's also a full set of Veil of Summer to force the combo through disruption, be it Thoughtseize or Archmage's Charm.
The sideboard is split between answers and a transformational plan. Leyline and Blood Moon are standard faire for red combo, though I was surprised by Pyroclasm. Most combo decks opt for Lightning Bolt or Abrade as the anti-Humans card. I'm unsure what prompted the switch in this case, though sweeping up lots of creatures always seems like a good idea. The transform is for decks with Pithing Needle. The plan is to Recross, stack Collected Company above Oracle and Informer, and make five mana the next turn so that in response to Oracle's trigger, Informer exiles the library and wins the game.
In a Vacuum
First off, I did some goldfishing. I played Storm a few times when I thought I could steal wins, but I'm not naturally a combo player, and needed to learn how this Belcher deck worked. It's also just good policy to try a deck out before testing with it. Especially with a deck as atypical as Modern Belcher.
The primary thing I learned is that the deck is very weird. There are a number of ways for it to win on turn two. There exists a turn one kill too, but I never had that come together. However, if the fast kill doesn't happen, Belcher is actually quite slow. Most of the lands come into play tapped, the sculpting cards cost three, and until you go off, there's not much to do. Storm and Neoform have a lot of play to them because they cast lots of cantrips. I mostly just sat around playing tapped lands until I went off. On that note, the deck only wants to keep hands with at least one Valakut Awakening // Valakut Stoneforge, Recross the Paths, or Goblin Charbelcher. The only cantrip is Manamorphose, so if the opening doesn't have a payoff, it's unlikely to draw one. As such, aggressive mulligans are crucial.
As for the combo itself, I appreciated that it couldn't fizzle. I know that sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise, but that's not my intention. Playing Storm or Neobrand is an exercise in comboing until the win happens, and both fizzle sometimes. It happens a lot more to Neobrand since it's entirely at the mercy of its library order. Sometimes it never draws Nourishing Shoal in 14 cards or it can't get the Laboratory Maniac to win because it's the last card in the deck. If Charbelcher's ability resolves, the game is over.
A Challenger Appears
Lots of decks seem reasonable in a vacuum; what matters is reality. Thus, I was going to have to test against another deck. And I couldn't find anyone able to do some consistent testing against Belcher in time, so I did it all myself.
It's easy to do: Take 60 random basics. Mark them and sleeve them to make a generic proxy deck. Then, write out a decklist that corresponds to your markings. I use a 15 x 4 grid, with the rows being letters and the columns numbers. Thus, I can look at my hand, see A1, and now that it's a specific card. Keeping information straight and not acting on knowledge of the opposing hand is tricky, but you learn how with practice. It's a great way, from experience, to kill time while on hold or when you're done with work for the day, can't go home, and aren't allowed to surf the internet at work.
The deck that I played against Belcher was Humans, because it's currently the only paper Modern deck I have built and handy. The Belcher lists are more set up against slower blue decks, but I'd already spent a lot of time making the proxy deck, and wasn't about to rebuild Stoneblade. Also, I know how Humans matches up against Neoform and Storm, so it's a good yardstick.
I only played with the maindecks because I don't know how I'm supposed to set up Belcher post-board. The info and streams I found online were contradictory, so I just moved on.
I got 36 games in between last Wednesday and writing this sentence. I played 20 games where Belcher was on the play and 16 with it on the draw. And Belcher managed records of 5/20 and 2/16 respectively. 2/5 of the play wins and all the draw wins were thanks to turn two kills when Humans didn't disrupt the combo. The other three were longer games with a very anemic Humans clock and low disruption, usually just Kitesail Freebooter. These results are quite poor, but it bears remembering that Humans is very much an anti-combo deck, so the result isn't entirely surprising. Belcher performed better than Neoform typically does, but much worse than Storm in my experience. And the reasons are revealing about the deck.
Numbing the Numbers
First and foremost is Thalia. She's a legendary anti-combo card, but wasn't always great against Storm because her tax trades with Goblin Electromancer's reduction effect. This certainly makes it harder for Storm to go off, but not impossible. Neoform can't combo against a Thalia. It can certainly tutor up Griselbrand, but won't have the mana to pay for the Shoals and keep going. Manamorphose is also mana-negative against Thalia.
Belcher is between the two decks. It can power through Thalia if it gets out Vessel early, keeps playing lands, and/or plans to go off in over two turns. However, she is a huge wrench in the gears. The rituals become uselessly mana-neutral, while Feat is still somewhat useful.
Meanwhile, Meddling Mage is a huge beating. Storm has multiple combo lines and plays maindeck answers, so Mage is mostly annoying. Neoform scoops to Mage naming Allosaurus Rider, especially game 1. Mage on Belcher is crippling, but not lethal. Most recent versions can only win via resolving Belcher, but they can remove the Mage with Shatterkull Smashing for 4 or more or two Spikefield Hazard // Spikefield Caves. Those aren't impossible to pull off, but the odds aren't great.
Finally, there is a time issue. If Neoform is disrupted at all, it struggles to win. Storm is quite robust, and it takes a lot of disruption to really kill the deck. One is a hiccup; it's the second piece that actually has an effect. Conversely, any disruption of Belcher buys a full turn. However, if it's a momentary thing like Freebooter, that's all that happens. It takes persistent disruption (meaning Thalia) to nail the coffin shut.
After testing, my conclusion is that Belcher is unlikely to be a format-breaking combo. At least in its current form, it's too clunky and slow to ruin Modern. Humans just eats it, and I doubt it can reliably race other combo decks. There's not enough here to recommend it over the premier combo decks like Ad Nauseam or Storm.
However, I will unequivocally recommend it over Neobrand. It is less all-in, never fizzles mid-combo, has more outs to disruption, and can adapt when it can't just go off. Belcher occupies a middle ground between Storm and Neobrand in all things, and I think that's where it will remain. And the middle combo deck is a fine niche to fill. If Neobrand has been Modern's version of Belcher for the past year, then the new Belcher lists are the best Belcher decks in Modern. Funny how that works out.