The Trouble with Tibalt: A Case Study

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It's always interesting to see how spoiler predictions play out. You can have all the experience in the world with which to judge a card, but miss some corner interaction that just blows up. Or there's an application that you never considered. The only constant is that predictions will be off and there will be surprises. The only question is whether they'll be pleasant.

Kaldheim is proving to have quite an effect on Modern. And it's all down to Tibalt. His cards have proved unexpectedly disruptive and dangerous. Which is a major flavor win considering his character. However, it is playing havoc with MTGO's metagame, to increasing discontent. Of course, any time that anything happens on MTGO it spawns discontent, so that's not a reason to get involved. However, there is enough evidence that something's off for a deep dive. And I think that there may be something to the rage.

Tibalt's Trickery's Trials

To start, Tibalt's Trickery has been blowing up recently. This isn't totally surprising, since in my previews I mentioned it as the card to keep an eye on. The initial decks with Shadowborn Apostle have given way to cascade decks, which makes perfect sense. The former had to mulligan into Trickery to have a chance while the latter can find any cascade spell and simply contort themselves so Trickery is the only target, just like Living End used to do. The combo works by playing the cascade spell, hitting Trickery, choosing said cascade spell as Tibalt's target, and then... Spin the Wheel of Emrakul! Hit an Eldrazi, win the game! Hit anything else and... likely lose! The deck takes two forms, as we'll now see.

The Straight Combo

The most straight forward version of Trickery seeks to maximize its odds of hitting something. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is as always the ideal, but it can also hit various Titans or try again to hit Emrakul with Brilliant Ultimatum. Omniscience is another option to empty a hand full of titans. What I'd consider the definitive version of this strategy comes from Reid Duke, who posted a video of the deck a few days ago. If you have CFBPro, he summarized his thoughts from said video in an article, too. And I agree with his evaluation.

Is the deck good? I point to Reid's video and say... "kinda?" When things come together, it is a blistering and hard-to-beat deck. If not? His first game has a turn 2 combo that fizzles by hitting another Trickery. A few games later, he gets a turn 2 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and loses to Path to Exile. The deck certainly has busted games. However, the totality of possibilities leaves much to be desired.

Then there's the issue of disruption. While discard is of limited utility thanks to redundancy, every other form of spell or hand disruption is quite effective. This quote (which I'm struggling to source) perfectly explains how to beat Trickery: "Remember Living End? It traded losing to graveyard hate for losing to Mindbreak Trap." And it's totally accurate. Counters are potent, but the best answers are permanent-based. A-Teferi, Time Raveler stops any cascade shenanigans cold, while Damping Sphere also works (backed up by a clock) by charging extra mana for the payoff.

The Artful Dodger

However, at least some pilots are cognizant of this vulnerability, and are trying to dodge. And their solution is very smart. For game 1, they lean heavily into the combo. After sideboard, they transform into a weaker version of Amulet Titan, which is a classic way to avoid hate.

The plan for game 1 is to mulligan into Violent Outburst. If that doesn't happen, the only remaining option is to try and be a Field of the Dead deck but without any of the enablers that make that strategy good. Or wait and hardcast Emrakul, but that will only work if the opponent is dedicated to not winning themselves. Once the deck has Outburst, it casts it to find the only Trickery, which is guaranteed to find Emrakul. That should be enough to win.

However, that is a true all-or-nothing shot. Thus, in the face of counterspells, the plan for game 2 is to transform, taking out the combo package and some lands for the creatures from Amulet Titan to win via Field and Valakut. It's a clever move, but I'm skeptical of how effective it really is. I have seen this version far less than Reid's, and I suspect it's because a transformational sideboard works brilliantly once, and then never again. The lands should make it abundantly clear which version of Trickery you're up against. Against the former, go all in on anti-combo answers. Against the latter, prepare to fight Titan. Once the secret's out, transformations are a huge risk.

The Trouble with Trickery

Kaldheim has been legal online for about a week and a half now, and opinions are already turning against Trickery. Apparently, the Leagues are absolutely flooded with Trickery. I wouldn't know; I haven't seen it in an anomalous amount, and Trickery isn't appearing in the Prelim or Challenge data a worrying amount. Still, the existence of the interaction has hit a nerve. It wins quickly and bypasses a lot of interaction, so there are already calls for a ban.

However, let's have a reality check. Does anyone else remember how everyone reacted when Neoform came out? How the new turn 1 win deck was super busted and could and possibly should be banned? Do you also remember how it just went away? And has completely disappeared now that Oops, All Spells and Belcher are Modern decks? Trickery may well be on a similar trajectory.

Reid noted both in his video and article that Trickery combo is very vulnerable to disruption. These decks are very all-in on their combo, and with no library manipulation, there's a high likelihood there will only be one chance to combo. If it misses the shot, there's nothing left. A successful Force of Negation on the lone Trickery actually beats the second version. Both can theoretically keep making land drops and cast the big bombs, but no opponent who wants to win should ever give combo that much time. And Mindbreak Trap is available to anyone, which is probably why it had a huge price spike last week.

It's not like Trickery can just beat all the hate with sideboard cards. There's very little room to change the deck without making the combo too inconsistent. Reid says you should try to avoid sideboarding as much as possible, which is probably why traditional Living End anti-counter card Ricochet Trap isn't seeing much play. It's a terrible hit for Trickery, despite hitting everything including Mindbreak Trap. As a result, I'd evaluate Trickery as a slightly better Neoform. It's fast and decently consistent, but has a fail rate and can't survive disruption. There's no significant problem here.

The Power of Lies

The same can not be said of Valki, God of Lies // Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor. Or rather, Tibalt, Cosmic Imposter. I didn't cover these cards in my previews because there wasn't much chatter surrounding them at the time, and there's only so many cards I can hit per article. Also, at the time, Valki looked fairly innocuous. That appears to have been wrong. Not because the power of the card is different than expected, but because I didn't think that players would take things as far as they have.

Bob's Replacement

It looked initially like Valki was another Jund card which may or may not pan out. Traditionally, Jund relied on Dark Confidant for card advantage. However, the rise of Wrenn and Six has made Bob too vulnerable. Valki looked like a potential replacement. For the same stats, Valki nets at least some value by looking at opposing hands before getting removed. If Valki takes a creature and isn't killed, best-case scenario is Valki becomes a turn 3 Uro. Which is a huge upside when it happens, though mostly it's just a Peek.

However, the real appeal was Tibalt. Tibalt's cost and abilities are very similar to those of Karn Liberated, a Modern staple. However, Tibalt also creates an emblem when it hits play, and that emblem lets you cast anything exiled by Tibalt. Does anyone else remember the Shared Fate deck from a while ago? Tibalt's emblem lets it emulate Fate, but better, because it draws two cards a turn and the emblem never leaves. However, that alone isn't good enough to make it in Modern. Just like Karn, Tibalt's cost is prohibitive and abilities are weak unless accelerated out.

Rules oddity to the rescue! Cascade looks at the CMC of a spell once it's found to see if it can be cast. If the answer at that time is yes, the spell goes onto the stack. When a MDFC is cast for free, the controller gets to decide which side to cast. So choose Tibalt after cascading into Valki and profit! This is the rules working as intended. When that was limited to Bloodbraid Elf in Jund, it all seemed fine. Valki Jund didn't do very much and seemed too inconsistent and slow to be a worry. However, over the past week, all that changed. Because it turns out, getting to draw extra cards every turn is really good.

Taking it Up a Notch

Take the Trickery combo decks from earlier. Now make Valki the target, not Trickery. Add in split cards and adventures so that Valki has protection, and suddenly you have the deck that started gaining traction. I will take a stand here and say that without an early Tibalt, these decks are quite bad in Modern. They're Standard decks, and I'm not sure how good they'd be there either. They're medium midrange decks whose interaction all costs two or more and the threats cost three or more. The only reason it can work is by contorting itself to maximize the chance of an early Tibalt. But it does appear to be working.

Maindeck Commandeer is an interesting choice. This particular version appears to be metagamed against a cascade-heavy field, as Commandeer stealing control of Trickery's target is a huge swing. It also protects against a lot of potential answers. However, outside of a particularly warped field, this deck is very all-in on Tibalt. Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft is just not going to win the game on its own unless the opponent has no chance of winning. The control elements other than Supreme Verdict are lacking. This particular deck and its ilk are meant to get Tibalt into play and ride him, and if that doesn't happen it's going to really struggle.

The advice I'm giving then is to target Tibalt. Particularly, don't let Tibalt resolve, as the value it might (some hits may be worthless) generate from one activation goes a very long way. Given the number of free counters this deck runs and the trend towards a full set of Teferi, I don't think counters are the way to go. Permanent-based answers are a little risky as they can be bounced, but a diverse suite of answers is very effective. They can't answer everything. For example, going Pithing Needle into Damping Sphere followed by Teferi will completely stop the combo and lead to a lengthy fight to keep all the hate safe from bounce effects.

That said, the actual best way to beat these Turbo-Tibalt decks, regardless of their answer suit, is to just win. Burn in particular has a big advantage in that it just flings its hand at the opponent's face and none of the cards are really good enough to steal. Tibalt is aware of the weakness, hence the full set of Leylines, but the strategy seems effective.

An Escalation

I thought that would be the end of it. However, the data for Sunday's Challenge has thrown it all out the window.

So, yeah. What we have here is a proven, crushing value engine in Uro/Omnath stapled to the new and good-enough-to-warp-a-deck-around engine of Tibalt, Cosmic Imposter. And this appears to be the way things are headed. And, ah... I got nothing. Seriously.

The deck pulls in two directions that require very different answers. If you go after the cascade combo, Uro will just ignore all that, do its thing and get all the value for the win. Targeting Uro hasn't proven to be too effective so far, and if you do go that direction the combo will sneak past. A preponderance of counters appeared to be the most effective answer, but that still wasn't enough. Blood Moon also looks effective given the manabase and mana requirements, but that doesn't appear to have worked.

Maybe I'm missing something because this is my first experience with these decks, but the combination of value engines that require too different answers to fight and just overwhelms overstretched decks seems like A Very Bad Thing.

What's to Be Done

Which begs the question of whether anything is likely to happen. And the answer is that it's too early to tell. Maybe there's a solution that hasn't been found because the Valki decks are too new. However, the discussion is moving toward Wizards taking action, so I'll toss my read into the discussion.

Trickery's Fine

As noted above, it's frustrating to lose to a turbo-Emrakul. However, the evidence for that deck being an actual problem is severely lacking. This isn't the first time someone's cheated out Emrakul, and it won't be the last. There's nothing suggesting anything other than a Neoform-like trajectory for Trickery. Anyone can play Mindbreak Trap, and white aggro decks have lots of relevant cheap disruption (Thalia, Meddling Mage, Archon of Emeria, etc.) to keep the deck in check. There's nothing wrong with having unfair combo decks in Modern, and the deck has enough of a failure rate to justify its fast wins. Leave Tibalt's Trickery alone; you can beat it if you want to.

Tibalt Really Isn't

The cheap value engine is another story. If Tibalt's emblem came from his ultimate, then there wouldn't be a problem. Then he'd just be a color-shifted Karn Liberated. However, that isn't how it works, and as a result Tibalt, Cosmic Imposter draws two cards a turn from the moment he hits the board. We've already had this problem with Oko and Uro; adding another ridiculous cheap engine is not okay.

The most obvious solution is to just change the rules so that cascade can only find the front side of MDFC's. Without that, Tibalt can't be cheated into play early, so problem solved. However, I suspect this is actually the most difficult solution for Wizards. They'll have to decide which rule (cascade or MDFC) to change, then how to change it so that this problem is fixed but no new problems are created, including issues of maintaining their functionality. The split cards underwent a similar rules change once their CMC weirdness started causing problems, but only after 17 years of being simultaneously three different CMC's. Wizards should fix the rules for long-term safety, but I wouldn't be surprised by a banning instead. If only Tibalt is a problem, why make extra work for themselves?

Don't Hate the Ape

I've also heard rumblings of banning Simian Spirit Guide. The logic is that the real problem is that the decks are too fast rather than too powerful, and SSG is the culprit. And they're not wrong; turn 1 kills in Modern aren't really possible without SSG. However, in my opinion, banning SSG is just putting a band-aid on the problem. Cascading into Valki is the problem, and SSG only amplifies that slightly. The number of answers doesn't increase dramatically when the combo turn moves from two to three. As the second deck I mentioned showed, these decks would function the same with or without SSG. At best I see a Bridge from Below situation, so if the decks require bannings, better to just ban the problem cards and be done.

The Waiting Game

However, we have to wait and see. Wizards is finding out about the problem at the same time as us, so it may be a while before they take action. By then, maybe the shock will have worn off and there will be no need for action.

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