Every player has a specialty. Jordan is a tempo zealot. It's disconcerting to see Gabriel Nassif playing anything other than a slow control deck. And I am an Aether Vial enthusiast. I love Vial decks and have spent most of my career forcing them in every format. I know what I like, what can I say. However, I have aspirations to be a combo deck designer. Not a combo player; I can do that well enough when I set my mind to it. I want to be able to actually make decent Modern combo decks.
The problem is that I'm terrible at it. I can identify powerful combo interactions well enough and build decks to support them. But they're always missing that certain something that makes a combo deck tick. I'd have never seen how important the now-resurgent Engineered Explosives was to Krark-Clan Ironworks, for example. However, that has never stopped me from trying. Tameshi, Reality Architect really caught my eye this time, and I've been trying to make it work. The title of this article is a spoiler for how that went, but the why was instructive, and hopefully a better combo builder than I can crack the code. Here is my story.
So Much Potential
I mean, just look at Tameshi's text box. He's a value machine. The triggered ability seems like irrelevant text until you realize that the second ability triggers it. This means that the first activation draws a card and retrieves whichever artifact needed. Or an enchantment, which means that it synergizes with Urza's Saga. For one mana, I can break even on lands, draw a card, and set up for a steady stream of constructs. And if I haven't made a land drop yet, I just replay the land and am likely ahead on mana now. Tameshi's an awesome card just begging to be built around!
Long Time Coming
And it actually starts back in 2019. I didn't like Emry, Lurker of the Loch when she was spoiled, and I still don't. Part of that is pure pettiness: Why is she the "Luker of the Loch" rather than the "Luker in the Loch?!" I constantly want to call her that despite the years, and it makes writing these articles a nightmare when it breaks the card tags. I vaguely remember Mark Rosewater being called out on this on his blog and wish it were easier to search for that post.
Spite aside, I dislike Emry as a value engine, despite being decisively on the losing side of the argument. She's been an intrinsic piece of so many grindy value decks at this point that questioning her inclusion feels a bit silly. But I do because she's so linear that she's easy to blank or even make a liability. Emry is only valuable when you have A) a graveyard and B) castable artifacts in said graveyard that do something when cast. This is just increasing vulnerabilities to graveyard hate and Stony Silence, and since she self-mills, when A) isn't true it's actively bad to cast her.
Head to Head
When I saw Tameshi, I was impressed. So impressed I speculated on the card and bought a bunch of copies. If I could see the value, certainly others would too, decks would get made, the price would rise, and I could profit. Which hasn't happened yet (as the above graph should make clear). However, rather than lament, I am trying to find a use for my investment. And I was really hoping that use would be replacing Emry.
Tameshi has a number of pluses over Emry. He has a few big minuses too. To summarize the pros:
- Additional point of power and toughness
- Ability can be used immediately on resolution
- Works with enchantments too, most notably Urza's Saga
- Gains additional value from bounce effects
- Ability is a direct return rather than option to cast
The last point was a really big one since Chalice of the Void is quite the card. The cons are fewer, but they are significant:
- No cost reduction
- Ability costs mana to activate
- Tempo-negative in the long run
The first point is significant, since cost is everything for card power. The last one is a problem, but is mitigated by artifact mana and by artifact decks tending to have both cheap targets and surplus mana. It's certainly close, but my read on the possibilities offered and personal biases pointed toward Tameshi being what I'd hoped for.
An Obvious Start
The obvious way to test my theory was to replace Emry with Tameshi in existing decks. Fortunately for me, Emry is only played in a few decks. The most prominent fair deck is 8-Cast, which uses Thought Monitor and Thoughtcast to continuouly dump artifacts into play and then win via massive Constructs. As it's a Saga deck and the interaction between Saga and Tameshi was where my mind went initially, I thought it the perfect place to start.
I went for a version of the deck that was more Emry-focused than traditional Affinity. And I was confused by the results.
Cue the Questions
The deck was very different from the original version. Not good-different nor bad-different. Just different-different. Without Emry, the deck did a lot less in the early turns. However, this didn't affect the way games played out very much, as Emry was just durdling in the first place. This is a function of the list's design rather than an indictment of Tameshi.
As the game went long, Tameshi became quite good. Recurring Saga's was as awesome as advertised. So long as I had Tameshi, it was impossible to run out of Constructs, eventually overwhelming any opponent. I never ran out of cards either, but again, that was something this deck never did in the first place. Bouncing a land was surprisingly not a problem. Replacing an in-play Saga with one from the yard negated the normal tempo-loss of the third chapter quite effectively. However, even when bouncing a real land, I usually just played it as the land for the turn since the deck was so land-light, effectively mitigating the drawback.
However, that didn't change the overall feeling that this deck was a compromise. And a clunky one. I didn't feel like I was maximizing Tameshi's potential, nor was he fully contributing to the decks strategy. So I went tinkering.
Tuned It to Death
I didn't have a specific end-goal in mind other than trying to make Tameshi as integral to the deck as possible without compromising the essential artifact-hemorrhage which defines 8-Cast and Affinity more generally. And that snowballed out of control until this monstrosity emerged:
I had just enough self-awareness left to realize that I'd turned 8-Cast into a Yorion deck with Meloku, the Clouded Mirror in Modern and that brought me to a jarring halt. I've put the deck down as I don't think my trajectory was healthy.
My thinking had been that the deck is dependent on the Constructs to win, and could use an alternative, which led me to Sai. I also wanted interaction, which logically pointed to Portable Hole. The problem was that I didn't want to cut anything, so I just made it a Yorion deck and tweaked the mana. Noticing that the deck was slow with the tap lands and that she combos with Tameshi to remove his drawback, I added Azusa. Since I had so many legends I could play Mox Amber as fixing, and to get more milage from Tameshi's first ability I could pull out another alternative win in Meloku!
All of which left me with an amazingly clunky pile that struggled to actually do anything. The density of impactful plays to draw spells is significantly lower, the synergies aren't as potent as expected, and the deck is way too slow in general. There may be something here, but it's not this deck.
An Ulterior Motive
So I changed gears. If Tameshi was surprisingly decent to use in fair decks despite feeling underutilized, perhaps combo applications would make more sense. Tameshi returning Lotus Bloom was potentially more powerful than recurring Saga if I could figure out a decent payoff. Which wasn't coming to mind, as the combo isn't infinite. It's more akin to Rain of Filth than Ironworks, and so I needed to figure out something else.
While I was pondering my options, I did try out Tameshi as an Emry replacement in Grinding Breach. It was close, but Emry was definitely better for setting up the combo, primarily due to the self-mill. Getting all the pieces at the right time and in the right zones has been a failing of the deck and Tameshi didn't help. He was closer in the aggro-control versions pioneered by Jiggywiggy, but still felt worse. It may be plausible with a redesign, but I don't know that it would actually be worthwhile.
Seeking the Answer
Using what I learned about Tameshi's place in combo following the Breach test, I started assembling cards to make comboing off with Tameshi plausible. Since the combo is neither infinite nor generating Storm count, it would have to facilitate some other cards winning the game. And do so in a way that was actually worth pursuing rather than being a worse version of another deck.
My thinking began with Tameshi returning lands to my hand. I could throw them at my opponent in some fashion. However, Life from the Loam and Seismic Assault already do that much cheaper. Conflagrate could use all the mana generated to get the opponent most of the way there then finish them with flashback. However, Dredge already functionally does that, and more cheaply. Also faster, because Bloom comes off suspend on turn 4 at earliest and Tameshi's combo potential is limited by the number of lands in play so the later the better.
Acceleration is the answer to comboing faster, but I'd have to rely on land search exclusively for the acceleration to be usable. And if I'm planning to drop lots of lands into play, Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle suddenly looks like a strong win condition. And that got the ball rolling.
I needed protection for the combo, as it happens at sorcery speed and can be disrupted by Lightning Bolt. The best at that is Teferi, Time Raveler. If I'm going Bant colors, then I could use Wargate as a Bloom tutor. If I'm using Valakut as a kill condition, I need Dryad of the Ilysian Grove. I also need a way to immediately combo into Valakut after turning all my lands into Bloom activations. Which brought to mind Cultivator Colossus. All that eventually yielded the following deck:
And you know? This deck is surprisingly not bad. You can accelerate into a big turn on turn 4 quite consistently, sometimes sufficiently to drop a huge Colossus without Tameshi. Unless Dryad is out, that won't win the game with Valakut and then you're on the Tinker gameplan, but that is sometimes good enough.
The mana base is still quite rough because Valakut is basically wasted mana. I'm not sure how to fix that without compromising something else, however. Perhaps I should forgo the fetchlands for an Amulet-style manabase.
I was actually prepared to go ahead with article thinking I'd really found something here, but thinking on the mana base problem brought me to a halt. Again. There's a huge flaw with this deck. What I've made here is a more elaborate, slower, and therefore worse version of Amulet Titan. Same general accelerate into lands for the win plan, many similar cards, but without the speed and streamlining which makes Amulet good. And that's enormously frustrating as it feels like this deck feels So Freaking Close to being real but I just can't get around it being worse Amulet. And that really sucks.
Always a Catch
The problem with brewing any new deck is the risk of unconsciously treading old ground. A new deck needs to be better than an existing one to get traction. Why bother making a switch to something equally good that you don't know as well? Right now it seems that Tameshi is stuck in that void. It's so close to being great, but actually unlocking that potential is proving beyond me. Hopefully, the answer is out there and some more creative minds will deduce the answer. And maybe even let me move my extra copies.