Neoshoal Combo Primer Part 1: The Cards Behind the Turn 1 Meme

So is this a meme or is it actually good?

Your turn 1 rate is what???

Should I buy out Allosaurus Rider or will it be banned on the next B&R announcement?

I’ve gotten many derivatives of these questions since the release of the Neoform/Griselbrand combo deck.  I’m excited to finally pencil this article which hopefully will answer a lot of your questions about the Neoshoal deck (TLDR: in certain metagames? absolutely/~10%/no and not yet).

Ever since my first pet deck Grishoalbrand has been forced into hiding for a variety of reasons (Phoenix/Dredge proliferating forcing our good matchups to start packing maindeck graveyard hate, printing of Dovin’s Veto/Force of Negation/Narset, Parter of Veils/Teferi, Time Raveler etc.), I’ve been wandering around lost, but seeking for a new home.  Dredge briefly had my attention but turn 3 kills are far too slow for my taste.  Thankfully, I discovered this new iteration of the degenerate Griselbrand combo deck and put in enough reps to have what I think is an informed opinion.

Without further ado…

  1. Introduction

Neoshoal is an A+B combo deck that looks to evolve (Neoform/Eldritch Evolution) an Allosaruus Rider (8 effective copies with Summoner’s Pact) into a Griselbrand as early as turn 1.  From that point, it looks to chain life gain spells (such as Nourishing Shoal) to draw the entire deck with Griselbrand, much like its distant cousin Grishoalbrand.  With the entire deck in hand and 4 Simian Spirit Guides (“SSGs”), the world is your oyster and you can win with whichever card you choose to be your win condition.  Currently, Laboratory Maniac is accepted as the best win condition.

Fundamentally, you are trying to keep hands that are able to cheat in a Griselbrand by turn 2.

  1. Why play this deck?

There are two main reasons to play this deck:

  1. You are one of the fastest playable decks, period:  My testing thus far indicates a turn 1 rate of ~9%, turn 2 rate of an additional ~21%, and turn 3 rate of an additional ~20%. Your kill speed will make the likes of Storm, Cheeri0s, and Infect jealous.
  2. You dodge most forms of traditional hate: Other fast linear decks such as Infect, Cheeri0s and Storm have the weaknesses of being susceptible to much of the common axes of hate, including spot removal (Storm, Cheeri0s, Infect) and graveyard hate (Storm).  Neoshoal gets to dodge these.
  3. You can absolutely dominate certain metagames: Timing the metagame is more art than science but having a deck like Neoshoal in your back pocket can be very handy.  If the metagame adapts to including a lot of linear decks (including the aforementioned decks, as well as other popular decks like Dredge, Hogaak and Robots) and big mana decks, Neoshoal can swoop in and outrace everyone, while dodging most forms of hate.
  1. How fast is this deck really anyway?

Keep in mind that this should be taken with a grain of salt due to the sample size (~200 matches).  Having said that, I think this serves as a good guideline on how fast this deck can be (Keep in mind these are all from real MTGO/paper games and much of it is with the Vancouver Mulligan, so the actual, goldfish turns will certainly be higher).

  • Turn 1 kill rate: 9%
  • Turn 1+2 kill rate: 30%
    • Turn 1+2 kill rate at 95% confidence interval: 22%-36%
  • Turn 1+2+3 kill rate:49%

Now I’m not sure about you, but if you are going to tell me that in Modern there’s a deck that can kill by turn 2 22% of the times (conservatively), I’d say that’s beyond acceptable for a Modern deck.  Recall that WOTC has stated that they are comfortable with Modern being a turn 4 format, and my testing with the deck smashes that boundary.  To reiterate, most of these numbers are with the Vancouver Mulligan rule.

I believe that this deck is unacceptable in the context of Modern and should be banned, if only for quality of gameplay reasons.  That being said, I’m not in charge of B&R so I’m more than happy to keep testing it and write about it!

  1. Deck Construction

At the highest level, the deck can be broken down into the following: combo, mana, win condition, and miscellaneous.  I’ll refer to the following list:

[deck title=Neoform Combo – Jonathan Zhang]
4 Allosaurus Rider
2 Autochthon Wurm
4 Chancellor of the Tangle
2 Griselbrand
1 Laboratory Maniac
4 Simian Spirit Guide
1 Wild Cantor
2 Dissenter’s Deliverance
1 Edge of Autumn
4 Eldritch Evolution
1 Life Goes On
4 Manamorphose
4 Neoform
4 Nourishing Shoal
4 Serum Visions
4 Summoner’s Pact
4 Botanical Sanctum
1 Forest
4 Gemstone Mine
1 Tranquil Thicket
4 Waterlogged Grove
1 Engineered Explosives
4 Pact of Negation
3 Slaughter Pact
3 Oxidize
2 Veil of Summer
2 Leyline of Sanctity

4 Neoform, 4 Eldritch Evolution – What make this deck possible.  These will help evolve our innocent Allosaurus Riders into everyone’s favourite 7/7 lifelinking, flying, Yawgmoth’s Bargain.

Neoform is our preferred enabler by far because of the 2 cmc vs. 3 (the gap between 2 and 3 can feel like an eternity in a 14 land deck) and because of the +1/+1 counter it will give

Griselbrand, which does come in handy sometimes.  However, Neoform is susceptible to Spell Snare (but you aren’t playing around a 1-of anyway) and cannot be combined with Chancellor of the Tangle+basic Forest for a turn 1 kill (which is why Matsugan, noted Allosaurus Rider enthusiast, has a basic Island over a Forest).

An issue which comes with Eldritch Evolution sometimes is that you are stuck with an Island, another green land and SSG (which does happen sometimes with Field of Ruin/Path).  However, there’s also some corner cases only with Eldritch Evolution, which is that you can Evolution into a Laboratory Maniac if you otherwise cannot access the Lab Man, whereas you cannot do so with Neoform. Personally, I’m in the camp of the Forest being useful coming up way too frequently, so I am on the basic Forest.

4 Allosaurus Rider, 4 Summoner’s Pact – The butter to the above’s bread. Evolving an Allosaurus Rider into a Griselbrand is the entire premise of this deck.  Keep in mind that occasionally, you’ll be casting Allosaurus Riders to beat down.  This is most common when you have your Griselbrand removed or Nourishing Shoals Surgically Extracted, but there are other corner cases for casting Allosaurus riders, including sheltering yourself from Liliana’s Edict or circumventing a turn 2 Meddling Mage (where if you don’t play Rider on turn 2 opponent will certainly name Allosaurus Rider, but if you cast it at least they need to guess between the two evolution spells. Keep in mind this is still vulnerable to Reflector Mage and discretion is needed).

Two additional notes to Pact usage: 1) There are many times during the combo where you Have Griselbrand where you want to liberally fire off your Summoner’s Pacts because the library size is comfortably above X/7.  In this case, Pacting thins your library for better hits on your future Griselbrand draws.  You can also guarantee a gain 15 with Nourishing Shoal if you Pact for Wurm, and 2) there are times where you absolutely must combo and win this turn.  In this case, you may want to Pact on your upkeep to thin the library so you have a better chance of hitting your key spells (commonly an evolution spell or a Nourishing Shoal)

Land Base: 4 Gemstone Mines, 4 Botanical Sanctum, 1 Forest, 1 Tranquil Thicket, 4 Waterlogged Grove – It’s a delicate dance between having too many and not enough mana sources.  Lists have gone from 13 lands, 14 lands to 13+one pseudo-land.  Anecdotally, I’ve found myself wanting to draw a land more often than not, which led me to this configuration.

The first two 4-ofs should be self-explanatory as the first eight painless G/U sources. Without the Safewright Quest package, Waterlogged Groves fill out the rest of the land base. The basis for the Forest over the Island can be found above.  Tranquil Thicket is an experimental card that I’m testing as the “13.5th” card.  Now some (including myself at first) may be outraged about a tap land in a deck where timeliness is key, but you should think of it as a 13 land deck with a high floor as a cycler that could come down on turn 1 to enable turn 2 kills.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t optimal though.

Honorary Mana: 4 Simian Spirit Guide, 1 Edge of Autumn, 4 Manamorphose, 4 Chancellor of the Tangles – The Simian Spirit Guides and the Edge of Autumn are the honorary lands.  The SSGs enable some of the more broken starts (turn 1 with mana source+SSG+Manamorphose into Neoform or Chancellor+land+SSG into Evolution, etc.) as well as enabling the win con when comboing off. Edge of Autumn serves to ensure ample green card density as well as being a pseudo-land, although that mode of Edge of Autumn rarely comes up.

Some lists do play 13 lands with Safewright Quest and Breeding Pools, but I have found that to be too clunky and Safewright to be too low impact.

The Manamorphoses are great here as they are in any decks they are included in.  They pitch to Allosaurus Rider, fixes mana (including being your only outs under Blood Moon) and replaces themselves if you have a surplus of its effects.  It’s a common play to cycle it on turn 2 for G/U with a Rider/Pact in hand to try and hit the Neoform or set up a Serum Visions.

The 4 Chancellors seem gimmicky, but they too serve a few different purposes and I’ve been impressed by their inclusions.  It goes without saying that they enable the broken turn 1 kills that we all love. Turn 1 Chancellors also allow you to cycle through Manamorphoses or store a mana with Wild Cantor.  Lastly, they serve to ensure you have a critical mass of green cards as well as be respectable food for Nourishing Shoal.

Win Condition: 1 Laboratory Maniac, 0 Seismic Assault/Conflagrate/Lightning Storm – An astute reader will notice that this deck’s cousin, Ad Nauseam, plays both Laboratory Maniac and Lightning Storm but Neoshoal does not.  I have tested multiple win conditions but have settled on a single Laboratory Maniac and here are the pros and cons for each of them:

  1. Lightning Storm – Theoretically, it can be played purely off of SSGs, you can win at instant speed, and you do not have to draw your deck to have enough lands to kill your opponent.  However, you are now susceptible to Leyline of Sanctity and Spellskite.  Also, because you play a very low land count, it’s not unreasonable to have scenarios where your opponent has enough lands to turn the tables on you or have gained enough life to outlive the Lightning Storm (Hello Creeping Chill!)
  2. Seismic Assault – Shares most of the characteristics of Lightning Storm.  In addition, it can be cast pre-emptively (though that seems optimistic to get RRR without comboing) and gun down hatebears and clear the way.  Mostly, I view it as an inferior Lightning Storm
  3. Conflagrate – Conflagrate kills for the “same cost of 3 SSGs” and can kill with potentially less cards than what any of the other options require.  However, you suddenly become susceptible to Leyline of Sanctity AND graveyard hate, which led me to…
  4. Laboratory Maniac – I’ve found it to be the cleanest win condition by far.  The blue mana requirement and drawing your entire deck haven’t been too big of a problem for me and allowing you to win through life gain and hexproof has been a big benefit.  The biggest sell for me is that I think Neoshoal can thrive in certain metagames because of how very few axes of hate hit it, and I wouldn’t want to open myself up to more (white Leyline, graveyard hate, etc.).  Some are concerned about getting your only Laboratory Maniac discarded, but that rarely becomes an issue in practice.  If you are worried, Noxious Revival is a great catch-all to ease your mind.

Lifegain: 4 Nourishing Shoal, 2 Autochthon Wurm, 4 Allosaurus Rider, 4 Chancellor of the Tangle, 1 Life Goes On – These allow you to keep going during your Griselbrand turn as well as give you buffer against aggressive strategies like Burn.  Keep in mind that Summoner’s Pact can fetch these, and Pacting for Wurm is a very common play pattern.

Life Goes On merits further discussion, as people have played other cards such as Samut’s Sprint and Reckless Charge in this slot.  Again, I have to stress how important maintaining a density of green cards is for Allosaurus Rider.  The other two spells being red and therefore castable with just a SSG isn’t as much of a benefit as it seems, as you generally have two SSGs+Manamorphose often during your combo turn.  If not, that is what Wild Cantor is for if you have 1 SSG (can be searched with Pact).  Keep in mind that rarely, it is correct to fire off the Life Goes On before your combo turn if your mana is going to be constrained.

Flex Slots: 4 Serum Visions, 1 Edge of Autumn, 1 Wild Cantor, 2 Dissenter’s Deliverance, ? Pact of Negation, ? Noxious Revival, ? Safewright Quest – The importance of having enough green cards lead to some funky looking cards.

  • If a combo deck can afford to fit them, then cantrips should come in for to improve its consistency.  Having played with 35 green sources in the deck, I believe we have enough green cards to be consistency comboing before turn 3, so 4 Serum Visions are no-brainers for me.
  • Edge of Autumn cycles and can get the third land in a pinch for Eldritch Evolution.
  • Wild Cantor is a green card that can also serve as “ramp” for a turn 2 Evolution, color filtering under Blood Moon, and most importantly, a tutorable way to convert one SSG into blue/green mana during the combo for Serum Visions/Life Goes On as well as blue for Laboratory Maniac.  One of the key things people may not realize at first glance is that if you have used up your Wild Cantor, your library is divisible by 7, and do not have a blue mana open, you may not be able to guarantee a win as drawing a card with a Manamorphose will deck you before the Maniac comes down, so watch out for a scenario like this
  • Dissenter’s Deliverance is a recent addition that I’m testing.  It’s a green card that cycles so the floor is already pretty high.  After Mythic Championship Barcelona, I predict that Karn, the Great Creator decks (Etron, Gx Tron) and GBx decks whose hate pieces can vary (Jund’s graveyard hate piece of choice has been 4 Leylines to combat Hogaak, but you can reasonably expect Grafdigger’s cage as an addition/substitute) will be on the rise.  Against these decks, a flexible card that can kill the unexpected Grafdigger’s Cage while providing a high floor will be very useful.  These can easily be cut depending on the metagame though.
  • Noxious Revival serves many purposes besides being green, including offering redundancy vs. discard, protection vs. Surgical Extraction, randomly messing with your opponent’s graveyard, and rebuying key cards (most commonly Nourishing Shoal).  It’s been pretty good for me, and I can’t fault people for playing this.
  • 1 Pact of Negation maindeck has been there in most lists as a catch-all vs. nonsense (such as Path/Trophy on Griselbrand).  I expect a pretty well-defined metagame full of linear decks, GBx and Tron, so I’ve decided to shelf the blue Pacts into the sideboard.
  1. Sideboarding

Conceptually, you are a critical mass combo deck that requires you to maintain a certain density of green cards to function.  Additionally, because you are the best and fastest deck at what you do, I prefer to include strictly answers to your opponents’ answers and not include any additional threats or hate cards for others (additional 7 drops to evolve into have been looked into but nothing comes close to Griselbrand in Modern).  Therefore, you’ll note the bias for sideboard cards to be 1) green if possible, and 2) the most efficient answers for the hate cards so you can sideboard in minimally.  One of the biggest advantages of playing this deck is how many of the common axes of hate misses you (all graveyard hate except Grafdigger’s Cage, creature removal, Chalice to an extent), so it’s easy to have a focused sideboard.

Hate cards that you want to answer generally come in these forms:

  1. Artifact Hate (Chalice for 0, Grafdigger’s Cage, Damping Sphere etc.)
  • For these Oxidizes have been the preferred option over Dissenter’s Deliverance (close second) and Nature’s Claim.  Oxidize being a one mana answer that’s green and ignores Welding Jars (especially with the resurgence of Whir-style decks in the various Urza decks) are the main reasons for this.
  • Dissenter’s Deliverance can be a reasonable card because of its floor, and it’s generally nice to have against a deck where you are not sure whether they are playing Cages or not (e.g. GBx) because the floor of a green cycler is so high.
  • There are rarely any relevant enchantments to hit (Blood Moon being the notable exception) for us, so we forego a card like Nature’s Claim even though it’s flexible and the life gain rarely matters.
  1. Creature Hate (Thalia, Meddling Mage, Kitesail Freebooter, Eidolon of Rhetoric, Gaddog Teeg, Spell Queller, Mausoleum Wanderer etc.)
  • Slaughter Pact is the preferred option to answer these, with a sprinkling of Engineered Explosives because of its flexibility and because many hatebears are at two mana.
  • Cards such as Pongify aren’t great in my opinion because mana is generally a constraint against these decks (Wanderer, Thalia).
  1. Discard
  • Veil of Summer has been a huge boon for many decks across formats and it’s no surprise that the “Green Elemental Blast” has been a boon for this deck.  This card turns their discards into 2-for-1s in your favor and even has applications vs. a Liliana downtick when you can’t combo or turns Fulminator Mages into a joke.  These reasons, combined with its ability to combat counterspells including Dovin’s Veto, make Veil of Summer a slam dunk inclusion
  • Leyline of Sanctity has also overperformed, but I’ll likely never play more than one because Veils are so good and you don’t want to overboard against any decks.  It does have cross-archetype applications against Burn/Red Phoenix, though it’s debatable whether you want those against those decks.
  1. Permission (notably Dovin’s Veto and Force of Negation)

As an all-in combo deck that values every point of mana as well as how fast you can combo, Pact of Negation is a slam dunk inclusion, as has been the case traditionally in similar decks (Grishoalbrand, Ad Nauseam).  The UWx matchup isn’t particularly great because of the myriad of tools they now have (imagine the matchup with UW where it doesn’t have Narset, Teferi, Veto or Force!) but between the Forces and the Veils,  you do have a fighting chance.

  1. Miscellaneous, Off-Axis Hate (Narset, Parter of Veils, Teferi, Time Raveler, other funky permanent hate)

My philosophy is to take your lumps and scoop to these off-axis hate that you do not have any clean answers for.  I have played some Spell Pierces in the sideboard occasionally as this is an unknown tech and it can punish the UWx players who think slamming a turn 3 Narset is an auto-win.  Also great in random matchups like traditionally Dredge and the mirror.  Teferi can be combated with a proactive Veil, but it’s otherwise a very tough card to beat if your Pact of Negations are offline.

Hopefully this has shed light on the details behind the memey turn 1 kill screenshots (my opponent never got to take a game action before they died!, etc.) as well as how the deck operates and the cards interact.  In the next article, I will go deeper into the gameplay, starting hand evaluation, sideboarding concepts, and of course a sideboard guide.  Until then, keep on turn 1ing!