Inner Workings: KCI
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 KCI, the combo decks that picked up the mantle of Eggs, ensuring the continuous presence in the format of hardcore artifact recursion.
Almost five years ago, on May 3, 2013, Second Sunrise ended its Modern career. It wasn’t a decision based on sheer performance, as much as it was caused by the Eggs archetype, of which Second Sunrise was the prime engine. It potentially generated such long turns that it would end up delaying entire tournaments for even a full hour per day, due to occurrences of the Eggs combo going off after the time allowed for a round had already expired. (In a Grand Prix, you get five additional turns after that, which means five additional chances for one of the Eggs decks to become a pain in everyone’s ass.)
The Sunrise purge stopped Eggs from being a tournament thing, but it didn’t actually prevent the archetype from functioning. After all, both its bigger, slower brethren Faith’s Reward and Open the Vaults were still there. But the true heir of this archetype, if we take it as “infinitely recurring little cantripping artifacts for the win”, would prove to be based on, and named after, an already established Johnny Combo card that wasn’t seeing a lot of play in Modern: Krark-Clan Ironworks.
Before delving into a full deck tech, let’s have a look at a sample list that placed high on Grand Prix Phoenix last month.
Matt Nass, Top 4 on GP Phoenix 2018, March 18
|3Aether Hub||1Emrakul, the Aeons Torn||4Ancient Stirrings|
|2Buried Ruin||1Hangarback Walker||2Chromatic Sphere|
|4Darksteel Citadel||2Myr Retriever||4Chromatic Star|
|2Forest||4Scrap Trawler||2Engineered Explosives|
|4Grove of the Burnwillows||4Ichor Wellspring|
|3Inventors' Fair||4Krark-Clan Ironworks|
|1Collective Brutality||2Defense Grid||2Ghirapur Aether Grid|
|2Guttural Response||4Nature's Claim||2Nihil Spellbomb|
Meet Scrap Trawler, the Aether Revolt guy that turned this latest resurgence of competitive egg-breaking into a reality. So, here’s how KCI works: Ultimately, it’s about feeding your many little artifacts to Krark-Clan Ironworks, triggering Scrap Trawler’s ability, thus bringing one of them back at each iteration. To close the circle and go full Sunrise, though, you need something that’s able to bring back your curve-topping artifacts no matter what, bypassing Trawler’s restriction. And this is Myr Retriever, of course, a well-known friend of recursive shenanigans. To achieve the goal of infinity, you must also exploit the rules governing mana abilities in a way that’s a bit tricky. You see, the Retriever is meant to bring back KCI itself, but if you sac KCI first, then the Retriever will no longer have a sac outlet. And if you sac the Retriever first, it’ll have to choose a target when the death trigger goes on the stack, and KCI won’t be in the graveyard yet. So, what you actually need to do is to sac both as part of a mana cost (and be aware you’re allowed to activate any number of mana abilities no matter the cost you’re paying for). This way, all the triggers, both from the Trawler and from the Retriever, will be placed on the stack only once you get priority again, that is after the spell you were paying for resolved. And by that point, the cards will be already sitting comfortably in the graveyard, which means the Trawler will bring back the Retriever due to KCI’s cost exceeding the Myr’s cost, while KCI will be eligible as a target for the Retriever’s effect. Everything’s back into your hand, and if you sac-ed enough artifacts to generate more mana than they require to be recast, you’ll be able to cover for the cost of your expensive stuff, net some extra mana, and start the trick all over again. All you need is one 0-mana artifact and one 1-mana artifact, on top of the three engine pieces (KCI, Trawler, Retriever), to generate excess mana, moving closer to infinity, or an approximation thereof.
Of course, the deck’s central idea, just like in Eggs, is not just to hit infinite mana, but also to draw your entire library, and that’s why many of the “eggs” incorporate a cantrip effect.
Back in 2006, the original Eggs deck was an Extended deck, and as such it had access to the namesake cycle from Odyssey. The Modern incarnation had to replace them with other, yet similar artifacts, and KCI is making use of even more of them, due to Scrap Trawler pushing from different casting costs. The “proper” eggs are those that you can manually “break”, especially Chromatic Sphere and Chromatic Star, the latter being generally better since the cantrip is a death trigger that a sacrifice to KCI can produce with no additional cost. (On the other hand, the Sphere allows to dig for answers while under a Rest in Peace scenario.) Terrarion is a bigger Star, with the caveat that it comes into play tapped, so if you need the filtering, you’d better cast it on a previous turn than the one you plan to go off with the combo. Mind Stone requires a steeper 3-mana recursion if you want to keep drawing, but it helps with acceleration in early turns. Ichor Wellspring is not technically an egg, since it can’t be sacrificed on its own, but it’s KCI’s best friend otherwise. And Mishra's Bauble is just one egg more, with the downside of not providing an immediate draw, but the upside of being most easily recurred via Trawler.
The actual quantities of each egg may vary according to different pilots, but it’ll invariably be a combination of these six, making up to about one third of the list. They’re the fuel for the engine and keep the battleplan moving while the combo is being assembled, while also allowing a wide range of sideboard action due to the mana filtering half of them come equipped with.
This is where the key differences with Eggs become more evident. The older deck’s most common plan was to complete several iterations of the Sunrise cycle, sacrificing each piece individually, then recurring all of them enough times to generate a lethal amount of damage through Pyrite Spellbomb. And while a Spellbomb backup plan is typically still included (and there are KCI variants that more directly try to emulate Eggs), KCI is generally faster to get to the fireworks factory. Once you hit your Lament Configuration and start digging into your library via cantrip eggs, you’re bound to find yourself with either Hangarback Walker or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn in your hand soon enough. The Walker is especially useful because it’s not a dead draw early on, can be easily recurred by Scrap Trawler, and can be sacrificed to the Ironworks to generate a Thopter-based alpha strike (thus dribbling spot removal and even to some degree Ensnaring Bridge), or the Thopters can be in turn sacrificed to accelerate into Emrakul’s advent. For these reasons, Walking Ballista is almost never seen in KCI builds, filling the same role as Pyrite Spellbomb without providing any meaningful advantage.
While Eggs heavily relied on colored mana for key elements like Reshape and Second Sunrise itself, KCI is mostly content to generate colorless mana in the maindeck. The main exception is the powerful digger Ancient Stirrings, which is able to find anything the deck needs. And of course, since the deck does generate a fair amount of mana of any color, Engineered Explosives becomes a catchall answer that’s also not going to disrupt our own deck very much, if at all.
Some less common, more Eggs-oriented lists use Whir of Invention as a Reshape replacement, while a certain number of copies of Glint-Nest Crane as a backup for the Stirrings playset was a fixture of earlier KCI decks, but it seems to have been dropped lately. Even more unusual builds incorporate the Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek combo, if not plain oddities like Roar of Reclamation and/or Aetherflux Reservoir.
The Mana Base
Mox Opal and Darksteel Citadel are the most crucial sources of mana in the list because both are sent to the graveyard by KCI while netting 3 mana, and both are brought back via Trawler by sacrificing one of the main eggs. Less effective in this regard but still sometimes found in KCI is Everflowing Chalice, which is mostly meant to accelerate in the early game, since you certainly won't need a big Chalice later on.
Inventors’ Fair, other than plain obvious in an artifact-heavy list, provides some measure of tutoring, while Buried Ruin is more graveyard recursion. Past builds featured up to a full playset of Sanctum of Ugin, which would fetch Emrakul once a larger Hangarback Walker is cast, thus directly linking the former to the latter. This is not as frequent as it once was, especially after the number of Walker copies has been reduced to just one in most cases.
In this build, Ancient Stirrings makes green the color the deck most heavily relies on, hence the presence of Forest as the basic land of choice, while Grove of the Burnwillows is still the only land to pair green mana with mana of another color with essentially no downsides: Good for Explosives, Spellbomb, and a couple sideboard cards.
Finally, as far as generating extra colors goes, Aether Hub is a safer alternative to Glimmervoid (It doesn’t die to artifact shortage or to Spire of Industry, and it doesn’t cost life to activate.) although both are still frequent options in KCI decks, which inherently, if ephemerally, provide mana of any color via the eggs, anyway.
Clearly a deck with so much maindeck fixing can accommodate all sorts of sideboard splashes, so customization is huge. However, green remaining the main supported color leads to Nature's Claim as the most trustworthy and commonly played sideboard answer, with Defense Grid and Guttural Response frequently encountered as ways to protect the combo against UW Control and other permission decks.
Nihil Spellbomb plays into the deck’s theme, therefore it’s the graveyard hater of choice. Ghirapur Aether Grid is meant to put all the artifacts to some use while enduring a Stony Silence situation, which remains the most problematic card for the deck. Thus, the playset of Nature’s Claim, which deals with the problematic enchantment along with other troublesome graveyard hosers like Rest in Peace and the like. Notably, Grafdigger's Cage does nothing against KCI, since all the recursion involved passes through the hand.
Wurmcoil Engine is an anti-Burn measure; Battle at the Bridge is a strong alternative. As a way to protect Scrap Trawler from spot removal, Padeem, Consul of Innovation has been tried, most notably by Pascal Maynard back when the archetype was still little known, i.e. one year ago.
In summation, KCI is a combo deck with lots of moving parts that doesn’t necessarily force the opponent (and yourself) to sit through a painfully non-interactive slog. It’s still up-and-coming but getting some promising results. And price-wise, it only has Mox Opal as a main roadblock. Unfortunately, that’s a critical piece you can’t make do without (unlike other money cards like Grove of the Burnwillows, which isn’t strictly necessary, and even Engineered Explosives).
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.