Why Saheeli Combo is Bad for Standard

It has been a while since I really played Standard. In fact, after playing Standard competitively for a good portion of 2015 and 2016, I basically just skipped the entire last Standard season. Thankfully, Magic is an incredibly deep and complex game that offers a lot of formats to play. So while I was not playing Standard, I still had plenty of magical things to keep me entertained in Modern and Legacy.

That being said, Amonkhet has just released and I was hoping to dive back into Standard when it did. Every new Magic set brings with it not only new cards, but also a ban list update. Many people, myself included, had hoped that Amonkhet would bring about the end of one particular combo that has been looming over the Standard format:

There are many reasons why people wanted these cards removed from the format. The first and foremost is that the combo is oppressive. According to MTGGoldfish, the two most popular Saheeli Rai combo variants make up almost 48% of the successful decklists in the previous Standard format.

Then there is the fact that this deadly combo was never even intended to exist in the first place. According to this article:

“We did miss the interaction with Saheeli, however, and that has led to some . . . interesting decks in Standard. While we were pushing for more combo decks in Standard with Aether Revolt, this is not the kind of deck we would intentionally take a risk with. In hindsight, Felidar Guardian definitely should’ve said “creature or artifact.””

This means it was a mistake from the start, but not one R&D was willing to correct preemptively or even after the combo had been oppressive in an existing Standard format.

Next, there is the purely subjective viewpoint–the combo itself creates fairly uninteresting and unfun play patterns. Standard is supposed to be the introductory format for most and historically speaking is often the most successful at all levels ranging from FNM to Grands Prix. Losing to an infinite damage combo as early as turn four while you are still trying to learn game is a negative play experience, one that could turn someone off of playing Magic.

There are a subset of people that will cite the fact that Saheeli Rai Combo is “not unbeatable” as a reason to keep it around. After the Saheeli Rai Combo variations there is another archetype that makes up a large portion of the previous standard metagame: Mardu Vehicles. In fact, you could even argue that because Mardu Vehicles is able to hold an impressive ~30% of the top finishes, Saheeli Rai Combo is not any more oppressive than Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Heart of Kiran are.

Just because something has a counter does not mean it is healthy to have in a format. Additional deck types impose unreasonably high “barriers to entry” on new decks. These are the minimum things a deck must be able to do in order for it to be competitive in the format you are building it for. In most Standard formats, these requirements are not that strict. You generally have an aggressive deck that you need to be reasonable against while having some sort of plan for whatever midrange or control deck is grinding people out.

Once you start adding fast combo decks to a format you start having lots of barriers for every deck that aims to be competitive. The more barriers a deck needs to overcome in order to be competitive, the more narrow the pool of playable cards gets in the format. This is because there are only so many different cards that can help you cross each barrier.

You see this happen a lot in non-rotating formats like Modern where combos are more the norm. Take, for example, when Splinter Twin combo was legal in the Modern format:

This put the requirement of needing to interact with a 1/4 creature or a four mana enchantment by the fourth turn of the game. It also required you perform this interaction while being down a mana from Deceiver Exarch tapping one of your lands.

Thankfully because Modern has such a deep cardpool there are a variety of answers in a bunch of different colors:

This means you could pass the barrier of “can you interact with Twin?” without being very restrictive about the colors your deck was playing. Even with all this quality interaction, Twin ended up going the way of the banlist in Modern.

Then we get back to Standard, where the Saheeli Rai Combo is far less powerful than Splinter Twin was, but the answers we have to said combo are also worse and more limited. Looking at the Standard legal cards that allow you to interact with the combo at different times yields the following cards:

Walking Ballista looks promising. It is colorless which means you can slot it into to literally any deck. The problem with Walking Ballista and Thalia though is that they are creatures. This means they are the weakest of the available interaction since your opponent can simply remove them from the board before attempting to combo.

The more powerful answers require you to be playing Red or White, which makes it come as little surprise that the one archetype keeping up with the Saheeli Rai Combo deck in the previous Standard format was a Mardu deck.

The next thing people will jump to is the fact that Amonkhet has not been added to the mix yet. Excluding more spot removal, it adds exactly two semi-reasonable interactive pieces for other colors:

Trespasser’s Curse is likely very reasonable and Manglehorn is helpful (since the copies of Felidar Guardian that Saheeli makes are artifacts), but again suffers from the issue of simply being removed like Ballista and Thalia.

Finally, there will be the people telling me you need to simply leave removal up to respect the combo. The thing is, the successful Saheeli Rai Combo decks are not dedicated combo decks. They play out a lot like the Chord of Calling decks do in Modern. This means when you are not executing a combo kill, your Felidar Guardians are drawing cards with your Oath of Nissa and your Saheeli Rai is creating a thopter by copying your Whirler Virtuoso.

This means if your opponent sees you leaving removal up, and they do not have a Dispel to protect themselves, they can simply keep advancing their secondary game plan of playing a fair game of Magic. They get to use their mana every turn you pass with removal up while you fall further and further behind.

Wrapping Up

I am kind of sad that Wizards chose to let their Standard format continue to suffer through a design they had never intended to exist. Allowing the combo to exist takes a card pool that is already narrow by design and slims it down even more.

Hopefully, the banlist update that comes five weeks from now will bring some reasonable change with it, but in the meantime I am going to stick to enjoying Modern and Legacy when it comes to playing Magic.


~Jeff Hoogland

Jeff Hoogland

Jeff Hoogland

I largely play constructed magic formats. Modern is my favorite format followed closely by Standard. I travel to as many large events as possible in the Midwest United States. My current Magic resume includes:
* One SCG Invitational Top 8
* Two SCG Invitational Top 16
* 14 SCG Open series Top 8s
* One GP top 16
Jeff Hoogland

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Published:April 25, 2017


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