Inner Workings: Creatures Toolbox
In each installment of the Inner Workings series, we’ll examine a different Modern archetype to find out what makes it tick. This time, it’s the turn of Creatures Toolbox, the only true heir of Pod decks, continuing a long tradition of creature-based combo builds capable of finding an answer to anything.
When Birthing Pod was ousted from the format on January 19, 2015, it was the end of a powerful archetype that had made its mark on the first few years of Modern play. But Pods banning also hit a large variety of creature toolbox decks in the meta, leaving many creatures without homes, as plenty of 1-ofs or 2-ofs that lack a home elsewhere (e.g. the still remarkable Murderous Redcap).
However, as much as the Pod engine was broken, it wasn't beyond fixing. For one thing, the secondary piston was still there, and was more than able to fulfill the combo needs of the deck on its own.
Chord of Calling was going to prove itself as the savior of the Creatures Toolbox family of decks in Modern. It needed redundancy, though, and something that could conjure onto the battlefield more than a single creature per use, the way the Pod could, as that was necessary to establish a definite advantage on the board. Luckily, the solution was around the corner. Skip to just two months later, March 2015, when Dragons of Tarkir is released, bringing with it a little card called Collected Company.
Compared to the Pod, it was a blunter instrument. First of all, you couldn't choose what to fetch. And most importantly, it would reorient the deck entirely around cards that are CMC 3 or less, which would become a feature of the new creature-combo archetype, assuming the names of “Creatures Toolbox” or “Collected Chord”, or any kind of green-based combination of colors followed by “Company”.
Just like the Pod decks never had a single agreed-upon list, and would present several endgames concurrently (Melira, Sylvok Outcast + Viscera Seer + Murderous Redcap, or Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker + Zealous Conscripts/Restoration Angel, or Archangel of Thune + Spike Feeder), sometimes even within the same build, the same goes for Creatures Toolbox, which has assumed various different forms and colors in the three years since its creation. A popular version that sets itself apart comes in the Bant combination and involves making Knight of the Reliquary huge via Retreat to Coralhelm (while also getting access to Spell Queller). Another version goes Naya and can't help but revisit Kiki-Jiki. But the most common style of Creatures Toolbox, recently updated with one Dominaria card, is Selesnya at the core, as our sample list shows. Keep in mind this is just one way to build it, as several slots are fairly customizable, which was one of the reasons Pod was so fun to play with; Creatures Toolbox encourages the same degree of creative freedom within a given shell.
kamiso, 1st place on MTGO Competitive League, May 8
|1Bojuka Bog||1Burrenton Forge-Tender||1Eidolon of Rhetoric|
|1Kataki, War's Wage||1Linvala, Keeper of Silence||3Path to Exile|
|1Qasali Pridemage||1Reclamation Sage||1Shalai, Voice of Plenty|
|4Voice of Resurgence|
The basic idea of every toolbox deck is accessing the toolbox itself as fast and as consistently as possible. Our two fetch spells do just that. Chord of Calling is a surgical tool, capitalizing on the creatures already on the battlefield to quickly go and fetch exactly the piece we're missing, or, in a pinch, the one answer we need to remain in the game. On its part, Collected Company's efficiency is based on the deck's composition, meaning that it's very likely to hit two eligible targets among any six cards in our library, since roughly half of it is made up of creatures (Chord and Company are often the only noncreature nonland cards in the entire deck), and almost every creature is CMC 3 or less, a deckbuilding restriction not too hard to satisfy within the Modern pool and especially in Selesnya colors. Also worth noting, the one thing contemporary Creatures Toolbox has over Pod is that both its fetching effects happen at instant speed.
Some builds use Eldritch Evolution in lieu of some or all copies of Chord or (more frequently) Company; it's essentially a single Pod activation, except jumping two casting costs ahead instead of one. The exile clause prevents it from attaining greatness, but it's a good card nonetheless.
This is the plan the most commonly encountered version of the deck aims to accomplish since Amonkhet. Vizier of Remedies has taken the place of Melira as a persist negator (most notably in conjunction with Kitchen Finks), because she actually does one better than the old redhead scout, in that she turns Devoted Druid into infinite green mana (whereas Melira would just prevent the Druid's second ability from even working). The Druid has been part of combo setups before (for instance, with Necrotic Ooze), and the combos involving her always become particularly resilient, because she can answer any spot removal by untapping herself and starting a new chain. It means it's extremely hard to stop the deck from getting to infinite mana once the second of this two-card combo has reached the battlefield. At that point, all that mana get dumped into Duskwatch Recruiter until you inevitably find your copy of Walking Ballista, hardcast it with near-infinite +1/+1 counters, and burn your way to the win (on MTGO, replace “infinite” with “large enough to kill your current opponent without timing out in the process”). And, of course, the Recruiter can also find an answer to anything that would interfere with this outcome. You have infinite mana, after all, so you can fundamentally retrieve via Recruiter and then cast every single creature in your deck. Neat, uh?
The last step of your grand scheme could technically be anything that you can fetch with the Recruiter and cast with only green mana; but I don't think there's anything safer than the Ballista in this regard, since with it you win right away with direct damage at instant speed and, again, the Ballista is not easily stopped once it hits the battlefield and gets going.
One of the combo pieces is already a mana dork (that can even give you two additional mana on turn 3, if needed), but the battleplan calls for even greater velocity, so it's not unusual to see 6-8 other accelerators of the 1-drop variety. Birds of Paradise is a timeless classic and interacts well with Gavony Township, which most builds include. Noble Hierarch is also useful when the deck turns to its aggro backup plan.
Both Eternal Witness and Scavenging Ooze are mainstay of any Creatures Toolbox build. The former is all-purpose recursion and the latter fights graveyard strategies starting from game 1, provides some life and swings for some damage in the meantime.
Notably missing from our sample deck is Pod star Kitchen Finks, which is commonly found in Creatures Toolbox as well, due to its winning interaction with Vizier of Remedies. That's a combo that requires a sacrifice outlet, though, usually Viscera Seer. But if we look at a typical Abzan variant of the deck, we can see how black is there only for the Seer and a few strong yet non-essential sideboard options (Abrupt Decay, Orzhov Pontiff, Sin Collector). While removing black entirely simplifies the mana base. Of course, Kitchen Finks doesn't need to go infinite to be a brilliant card against aggro and burn, but this particular build chose to do without.
One innovation that has recently bolstered this deck is Shalai, Voice of Plenty from Dominaria, as it both protects your other creatures (and you) and additionally serves as a win-condition similar to Gavony Township once you have infinite mana. She unfortunately, however, is just out of Collected Company range at four mana, making it hard to justify including too many copies of her.
And of course, any green-based deck containing 30 creatures can't go wrong including one copy of Rhonas the Indomitable. He's not especially linked to anything in the list, but he's a cheap indestructible fattie, and giving trample to a giant Knight of the Reliquary can be one alternative way to victory.
The Plan B
PICTURES: Knight of the Reliquary; Tireless Tracker
This is a main feature of this particular version of the archetype: a full playset of Knight of the Reliquary. Even outside of the combo with Retreat to Coralhelm, the Knight can easily grow out of control, and allows for a potential land-based toolbox on top of the creature-based one. This “lands matter” theme is reprised by Tireless Tracker and Courser of Kruphix, the latter picking up some of the lifegaining duty left vacant by the absent Kitchen Finks.
The Mana Base
Going with just two colors makes everything simpler, so the deck's mana just takes the form of a typical Selesnya setup including one Horizon Canopy and with an eye towards Knight of the Reliquary's needs.
Gavony Township is notably missing from this list, but it's a 1-of usually found in Creatures Toolbox builds to reinforce the aggro plan.
The toolbox nature of the deck is more evident when looking at the sideboard, which is filled with singleton answers to be fetched when required from game 2 on. Reclamation Sage and Qasali Pridemage are generic enchantment/artifact hate, while Kataki, War's Wage is traditionally there to dismantle affinity/robots. Eidolon of Rhetoric takes care of Storm, Burrenton Forge-Tender battles Burn (Kor Firewalker is also good for this purpose, if slightly more problematic to hardcast), and Linvala, Keeper of Silence is obviously great against creature-based strategies, especially in the mirror match.
In this specific build, Bojuka Bog is a supplement of anti-graveyard hate that Knight of the Reliquary can fetch at instant speed.
Path to Exile, still one of the best removal spells in the format, can be frequently found in the main 60 too, and is generally the third most common noncreature spell in the deck.
Voice of Resurgence also frequently makes an appearance in the main deck, which turns up the aggro factor of the deck.
Other common sideboard cards can be seen in combo protectors Selfless Spirit and Spellskite (the latter also handy against specific archetypes like Bogle and Infect); old favorites like Aven Mindcensor and (in Abzan builds) Tidehollow Sculler; alternative hard-to-kill finishers like Sigarda, Host of Herons and Thrun, the Last Troll; and even Worship as a nifty enchantment that protects you upstairs while you still have creatures.
In summation, Creatures Toolbox is a powerful and rewarding deck that competently took up the mantle of its illustrious predecessor, but without ever managing to replicate the Pod's rate of success; it's been sitting comfortably around the 3% of the meta, as one of the top three or four most played combo decks in Modern. And most importantly, it's a fun, non-oppressive deck that can effortlessly switch between its combo and aggro battleplans.
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