I was personally skeptical of the viability of a two-card combo across three colors in a format with limited access to tutors — until I played against it. Playing half a dozen matches was all it took to convince me that Copycats (as people are calling the deck – I just call it “that stupid combo deck”) was the real deal.
So I dumped the spicy new brew that I was working on and went back to an old stand-by, the R/B Vehicles deck that had been so dominating for me in Kaladesh Standard. That seemed like a workable idea for about two days. It matched up well against Copycats on Day 1, but on Day 2, Wizards released their B/R announcement and without Smuggler’s Copter, the deck just fell apart. So from that day on, I decided, “hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” and put my mind to building the best possible version of the Copycats deck.
You’ve probably already read an article or two about the deck. But rather than throw different shells at you, as others have done, and tell you to build your own version, I’m going to give you the version you should be playing — or preparing to play against.
You can break down all the combo decks in Magic history into three categories: fast combo, aggro/combo and disruptive combo.
Fast combo is best typified by the Legacy decks of Belcher and Oops, All Spells. These decks want to win before the opponent can do anything that’s relevant to the game, and will generally fail if you have a way to interact with their combo.
Aggro combo encompasses things like Vengevine Survival, Melira Pod, Project 420.5n and the like. Generally, these decks are creature-heavy because one of the key pieces requires it. Aggro combo is a bit slower and is inherently easier to interact with, because interacting with creatures is easier than interacting with any other type of permanent. However, they do have a plan for winning if the combo is disrupted or locked out with hate. It’s generally a worse plan than strictly fair decks have, but they don’t just fold under pressure the way fast combo does.
Finally, we have disruptive combo. These are the decks that tend to be the most dominating. Fast combo that’s too difficult to interact with quickly gets a banhammer. Aggro combo can be dealt with if you throw enough removal at it. Disruptive combo is harder to answer because you have to present a clock and attack the combo in ways it’s not prepared to disrupt. This is the category that includes decks like Trix (hey, I’m REALLY old), Twin, ANT, etc. These are the decks that the field can’t just shift to beat, because they just shift the disruption and stay competitive. If you have a choice, disruptive combo is, historically, where you want to be. That makes it the starting point for any combo that can possibly be sandwiched into that category.
Disruptive combo is best played in a control shell, which is the general consensus for how to build Copycats. There’s a second reason as well: planeswalkers.
Outside of black, there are no good ways to interact with planeswalkers in this format. Shock has been touted as an answer to this deck, and we’ll touch on that later, but we’re looking at a format that is chock full of powerful ‘walkers and incredibly light on spells that directly interact with them.
Previously, grindy midrange decks were mostly kept in check by the dual threats of Copter and Emrakul, the Promised End. The speedy Copter decks forced a lot of interaction to keep them from running over you and the Emrakul decks put a hard cap on how late you could win the game before you were just dead in the water. You had two very separate targets to shoot at, and finding a build that could hit both was very, very difficult.
The removal of both of these constraints has vastly increased the playability of a lot of already very playable planeswalkers, all of which do a bang-up job of protecting themselves. Gideon, Liliana, Nahiri, both Nissas — they’re all very hard to deal with through combat damage, and the inclusion of Heart of Kiran in Aether Revolt just makes it that much harder to get damage through to them.
Your options for dealing with them on-board outside of the combat step are even more limited. Ruinous Path and To the Slaughter represent the two best removal spells – after that, we fall off to Imprisoned in the Moon, doing its horrible Oblivion Ring impression. The best way to deal with the brutally efficient planeswalkers in Standard right now is to never let them hit the board. Fortunately, Copycats is in blue, meaning we have the options to keep those ‘walkers off the board.
The final reason for a control shell is that there is no cheap, efficient direct tutoring in Standard. That means you’re assembling your combo by either naturally drawing into it, or via card selection and draw spells. That can take a while, making control a natural fit if the combo is going to be your Plan A.
By virtue of all the publicity, Copycats has a giant target on its head and every deck is gunning for it. That means that people are maindecking disruption for your combo. Thalia, Heretic Cathar; Walking Ballista; Shock; these are all cards that you’re going to see played against you Game 1. The decks that are going to be hardest for you to beat are the ones that can pack a respectable clock while threatening your combo. That’s where your build needs to be focused (well, that and the mirror), because you can just walk over decks like B/G counters or Aetherworks Marvel.
Since everyone loves decklists, here’s the one I’m running (and what I think is probably really close to optimal):
The creature base is a bit lighter than you might expect, even for a control build. I would love to have room for the 3rd Torrential Gearhulk; the card is an all-star and turns Nahiri from “good” into “game breaking,’ but 24 lands wasn’t cutting it and Torrential isn’t one of the cards that keeps you alive, it’s one of the cards that pulls you ahead. As such, it’s easier to cut than something like Harnessed Lightning or Anticipate.
Because you’re not aiming to combo on turn 4 every game, Guardian doesn’t need to be a 4-of. Outside of the combo (or a scenario where you’re already winning because you’ve cast a Torrential Gearhulk and it stuck), it’s just an expensive wall.
Saheeli is, of course, a main combo piece. And while she’s not the most impressive planeswalker in the format (or even in the top 5), she’s cheap and she helps dig. She also helps keep opposing planeswalkers in check; once they’re on the board they can be hard to remove, so keeping them off ultimate loyalty is helpful.
Nahiri is quietly the heart and soul of this deck. She’s not flashy. She doesn’t win the game single-handedly. But she chips away at either their clock or their hate — or she’ll fetch out a Gearhulk, and any game where you get to Snapcaster twice is probably a game you’re going to win. She flat-out beats Authority of the Consuls, which is currently a go-to board card for people who think it beats Copycats. She’s very threatening to have on board, and I could see an argument for packing four of her in the 75.
The removal suite is split 50/50 between single-target and sweepers. Because your first goal is to survive until turn 5 or 6 where you can really start dropping haymakers or combo out with counter back-up, Radiant Flames gets the extra sweeper slot.
Select for Inspection looks a little odd; it’s a card that’s generally just short of the power level you need for Constructed, but it’s something you can use to buy time and smooth your early draws, ensuring that you hit the land drops you need to get to Glimmer/Nahiri/Fumigate. If we had access to a Legacy- or even Modern-style mana base, I’d run Stasis Snare instead, but WW early is just too greedy. Select also deals with Gideon far better than Harnessed Lightning. It can actually take Gideon off the board and, on Turn 3 on the draw, you can Select and still leave up Negate mana. Harnessed Lightning, on the other hand, can be useful against Heart of Kiran and scales nicely in the late game, where you have a lot of energy with nothing to burn it on.
The counter suite is a bit lighter than I’d like, but that’s the way Standard has been since they decided to stop printing Counterspell. We’re working with counters that are a bit too expensive and a bit too narrow, so they’re not a catch-all solution. Negate gets the nod in the main over Disallow because it’s a cheaper answer to the things you can’t easily remove (planeswalkers and vehicles), it’s a cheaper answer to the removal that disrupts your combo, and it doesn’t require UU (again, this isn’t a mana base that you can afford to get super greedy with).
We still rock Disallow in the board because of its massive flexibility and because there are decks out there packing creatures that we don’t want to see, such as Distended Mindbender or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. Dispel is a rockstar for protecting your combo from things like Shock or To the Slaughter, but its utility outside of protecting the combo is limited, which is why we can’t afford to fit the full four in.
Our dig is just four-of copies of the two best draw spells in the format. Anticipate helps smooth early draws and go three cards deep when we’re looking for a late-game threat. Glimmer lets us get up to four cards deep and generates some much-needed card advantage in a deck where everything else is merely selection. I’d prefer Sphinx’s Revelation, but we work with the tools we have.
The mana base is pretty straightforward. We want access to all of our colors as fast as possible, but we need enough lands that we can drop Nahiri, Fumigate and Torrential Gearhulk on curve. Most of the lists I’ve seen run 3-4 Wandering Fumarole, but frankly, I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve activated one. While it can put in work to hold off creatures or take out opposing planeswalkers, it’s decidedly mediocre when you have to play it after Turn 1.
Based on my testing and what I’ve seen and heard, there are three decks that are most likely to be the lion’s share of the field at early events: Copycats, Mardu Vehicles and G/W Tokens. Copycats beats most everything handily — except those other two decks. Vehicles and G/W can be tough matchups because they can present good clocks and both decks pack a mix of creatures and planeswalkers that makes it hard to have the right answer at the right time.
Against Copycats (or any control deck), you can just chuck out all of the removal to bring in seven more counters and three Hope of Ghirapur. Unlike control mirrors in previous formats, creaturelands are too risky to use as a clock, because you’re lowering your counter wall too much to stop your opponent from winning the game on the spot. This means that you can safely ignore the threat of creatures and focus on stopping both the combo and Torrential Gearhulks.
Hope of Ghirapur helps force through Nahiri (or combo pieces, if you need to), who is an absolute house in slow, threat-light matchups. Using her ultimate to fetch out a Torrential Gearhulk means you get to Snapcaster multiple times (and the first time you don’t even have to tap out for it!) which will quickly put you too far ahead for your opponent to recover. Note that Hope does not allow you to safely combo out; if you’ve used Hope, you’ve used your combat step and can no longer just win that turn. However, the card is dangerous enough that people will often blow removal on it, and that’s just fine.
For Vehicles, your best bet is to cut the sweepers (the better versions run Selfless Spirit anyway), the Dispel and a Glimmer, and bring in Fragmentize, Blessed Alliance and Spell Shrivel. You can’t cut the removal entirely; the deck’s clock is too fast to ignore, but you have to keep counters in to stop Gideon and potentially Chandra and Nahiri post-board. If you run into a ‘walker-less version, cut the counters, bring in all 5 removal spells out of the board and thank your lucky stars that they made it so easy for you.
The key here is to try and slow the early beats while always keeping counters up for the walkers and/or Heart of Kiran. They’re going to be playing Thalia, Heretic Cathar, Authority of the Consuls, or both, but those cards aren’t the real threats; the real threat is that you’ll die before you can stabilize or that avoiding death will result in them landing a hard-to-deal-with Gideon. Don’t count on being able to handle a resolved Gideon; our best answers of Select for Inspection and Blessed Alliance are weak at best.
G/W Tokens is the absolute hardest deck to board against. You could board out all your removal and treat it like a control matchup except for the presence of Lambholt Pacifist and Tireless Tracker. In this matchup, two Radiant Flames come out (Oath of Ajani, Gideon and baby Nissa help keep creatures out of the reach of Flames), Dispel comes out (the only disruption you’ll likely see here is Thalia, Heretic Cathar), a Glimmer comes out and a Nahiri comes out. The third Fumigate goes in, as well as four Disallow. This deck is not as threat dense, as it has wasted slots for things like Oath of Nissa and Oath of Ajani. You need the sweepers to deal with any token generators that made it through (baby Nissa, Sram’s Expertise) but if you can stem the initial onslaught of planeswalkers, you have a very good shot of winning the game. Their deck has a lot of dead draws past the first 4 or 5 turns.
There are, of course other decks out there. B/G Counters is a deck. Aetherworks Marvel is still a series of decks. Emerge is a deck. But I’m expecting these decks to be more fringe, as they have a hard time competing with Copycats, and that’s probably going to be the most common deck you see at any event, at least until after the Pro Tour.
If we’re lucky, five weeks after that point, we’ll see a ban of either Saheeli or Felidar Guardian (my money would be on the Guardian, although if they’re *really* clever, they might just ban Nahiri to bring the deck down to the mortal realm without gutting it completely) and we can all go back to playing the kind of fair, creature-heavy decks that Wizards wants us to be playing. In the meantime, have fun burying your opponents under the weight of infinite cats!
Mike Torrisi is a veteran Magic player and Level 2 judge from Madison, Wisconsin.