Saheeli Rai & Felidar Guardian Infinite Combo (Copy Cat Combo) - Magic the Gathering (MTG) Design Blunders
by Phoenix Desertsong, Magical Gatherer
On April 27, 2017, Felidar Guardian was Emergency Banned in Standard effective 4/28/17. This was because the Saheeli Rai & Felidar Guardian Infinite combo - also known as the Copy Cat combo - was overrunning Standard. I saw this coming, as did many other people. Of course, you can still try Copy Cat Combo in Modern, if you'd like. But for reasons I'll outline below, the combo isn't nearly as potent in older formats as it proved to be in Standard.
On the initial spoiling of the combo, my reasoning was that it would become a bit too powerful for Standard. Initially, I received some backlash for this opinion. I expected more support. Of course, there would be an eventual realization that Felidar Guardian was ruining the format. As it turned out, myself and others who thought it would be a disaster were completely correct. While it was nice to be vindicated, it was a bit depressing that Wizards so clearly overlooked a design blunder.
The Origins of the Saheeli Rai & Felidar Guardian Combo
Saheeli Rai was way too cheap at $5 for the longest time. The planeswalker was already part of a couple of infinite combos in Modern with Liquimetal Coating and Altar of the Brood or Disciple of the Vault. But, a competitive list never came out of it. Still, sooner or later, players knew that a card would be released that would make the 3-mana planeswalker part of something broken, right?
So, this happened!
REALLY, WIZARDS!? You just brought back Splinter Twin combo... in STANDARD!
But, is it, really?
Splinter Twin & Deceiver Exarch proved to be such a ridiculously powerful combination in Standard that me and a good many other players left competitive Magic for awhile because of it. Two card combos are absurd when they are so easy to perform on turn four on a consistent basis.
The combo was quite simple. You'd play Deceiver Exarch at the end of an opponent's turn since it had flash. Then the next turn, while an opponent is tapped out, you drop the 4-mana Enchantment Splinter Twin. This enchantment allows you to tap a creature to make a copy. However, because you're copying Deceiver Exarch, which has the ability to tap or untap a permanent, each of the copies can untap the original Exarch. This means you can tap and untap the Exarch an infinite number of times to make as many copies as you'd like. You just make enough copies to deal lethal damage to your opponent, and you can attack with them immediately since those copies have haste.
Sure, there are ways to disrupt the combo. But even against smart sideboarding, the combo proved consistent enough to spawn its own archetype. The only reason it stopped in Standard was that Rise of the Eldrazi, and thus Splinter Twin, left Standard at rotation in October.
Many players, myself included, refused to play Modern competitively as long as the combo was the heart of a powerful deck archetype there, too. Modern also had Pestermite, which is a similar card to Deceiver Exarch. This gives you two creatures that could create the combo. Wizards finally banned Splinter Twin after deciding it was finally time for that combo not to be a deck anymore. While Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker still does the same thing as Twin, it's harder to cast. Kiki-Jiki can still work as a win condition, but it's not the main condition of any deck anymore.
So, is the Saheeli Rai & Felidar Guardian combo just as good as Splinter Twin, or is it even worse?
Ordinarily, Felidar Guardian is just a good card on its own. But alongside Saheeli Rai, you can create infinite madness. You use Saheeli's -2 ability to make a token of the Felidar Guardian. That token uses its ability to "blink" Saheeli Rai. This means she comes back with full loyalty counters on her. Then you get to use the -2 ability again to continue the process. You rinse and repeat until you have enough Guardians to swing in for lethal damage. Yes, those tokens have haste.
What makes this combo better in some ways is that even if it’s disrupted, either Saheeli Rai or Felidar Guardian can find other targets to make good on their abilities. The Guardian can blink any permanent you control. This means even lands! You can blink a tapped land and tap it again for extra mana! Yes, using the Exarch's flash ability to enter on an opponent's end step can be better. A lot of times you'd tap down an opponent's land to make responding to your combo with counter magic more difficult.
In Modern, you can play Exarch in this deck, too! In fact, you can build a really, really good Jeskai Control deck with these two cards! Saheeli Rai can even Scry 1 for you and deal 1 damage to each opponent! Then you get to play all the counter magic and burn spells your typical Jeskai deck would already play! Saheeli can also copy other creatures and artifacts you control. So you can still get value from either half of the combo even if the other half becomes somehow unavailable.
Fortunately, as good as the interaction between these cards are, it's not quite as dominant as the combination of Splinter Twin & Deceiver Exarch became. There are instant speed ways to deal with the Guardian, like Fatal Push with Revolt active. There was Declaration in Stone in Standard, and Fatal Push, as well. But the Declaration was Sorcery speed, so it was often too late of an answer. It’s also possible to burn away Saheeli before the Guardian can copy her. This is actually fairly easy to do since she brings herself down to a single loyalty. So, it’s a bit easier to disrupt than Deceiver Exarch and its 4 toughness was during its Standard days.
In Modern, you can stop the combo from resolving with Abrupt Decay targeting Saheeli Rai, particularly if you use it in response to the planeswalker’s ability. Even though the -2 ability would take priority, by the time the copy of the Guardian resolves, there will be no Saheeli Rai to blink. Saheeli Rai can be dealt with quite quickly with Lightning Bolt, as well. Path to Exile and Dismember will do the trick, too, just as they always did for dealing with Deceiver Exarch. So, this combo is also a bit easier to stop in Modern than Twin was.
Still, this combo was still a strong one to build around in Standard. Many players are shocked that no one at Wizards R&D caught this very obvious combination. Some people called for an emergency ban of Felidar Guardian. One Twitter user also demanded an apology from Wizards for their oversight. It seemed that Wizards committed an extremely obvious design blunder. Aether Revolt was already considered an overpowered set as it is, so creating a new infinite condition seems just absurd.
Is the Saheeli Rai & Felidar Guardian Combo Really Broken?
As good as this combo is on paper, many people thought it was more of a "fixed" Splinter Twin combo, if anything. The argument was that there wasn't a lot of card selection spells in Standard right then. This meant that consistent Turn 4 wins are a lot less likely than they were years back. However, while the Saheeli Rai/Felidar Guardian deck wasn't quite as consistent as Splinter Twin combo decks were, it proved to be an effective win condition.
Did one or both cards actually need to be banned? There was the sentiment that it would likely take the printing of other cards to bring this deck to a dangerously over-powered level. However, with Wizards now making banned and restricted list announcements more often, players decided that if it did become too busted, it would be dealt with.
In the early going of Aether Revolt being legal in Standard, Saheeli Rai & Felidar Guardian combo decks performed quite well. Jeskai Saheeli was the most successful build at the outset. A Jeskai Saheeli deck placed 7th at SCG Columbus. There were also four-color Saheeli decks performing well, known as 4-Color Copy Cat Combo. Even in Modern, Copy Cat Combo saw early success, at least on Magic Online.
In paper Magic, the deck quickly won at least one major Standard event. Dylan Donegan of MTG Card Market took down SCG Richmond with his Jeskai Saheeli deck! So while the archetype hadn't broken the format just yet, it quickly became clear that the combo was definitely a good one to build around. As a deck that could win, players battled to find the best version of this deck!
By late April 2017, so many Copy Cat combo decks had won an unbelievable number of events. It finally became clear to Wizards that the Copy Cat combo had actually become almost just as bad as Splinter Twin had been. It was announced that Felidar Guardian would be emergency banned in Standard as of 4/28/2017, as to not ruin a brand new Standard format featuring the widely praised Amonkhet set.
Was the Copy Cat combo a design blunder on the part of Wizards? Clearly, this particular interaction was overlooked. It was definitely a strong enough combo to be at the core of a Standard deck from the get-go. Fortunately, Wizards recognized that Copy Cat combo was becoming oppressive in the format, before it became the Splinter Twin combo in Standard all over again.
Of course, another deck would take Copy Cat Combo's place in needing the banhammer. But that was for a much different reason, and that's a whole different story altogether.
But, Copy Cat Combo is still a deck in Modern. Decent Modern builds of Copy Cat Combo saw some competitive play. in the wake of the Standard banning. One of these builds was a deck called Saheeli Evolution. It's more of a creature toolbox deck that runs the Copy Cat Combo plus the Kiki-Jiki and Restoration Angel infinite combo. While they are potent win conditions, Modern wouldn't be overrun by them.
In 2019, Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian gained some valuable new allies. The upgraded Four Color Copycats deck benefited from the release of several cards from Modern Horizons. They included the snow artifact Arcum's Astrolabe - a card powerful enough at common that it was banned in Pauper - which not only draws a card when it enters, but even helps mana fix for the deck. It gained further card draw from the snow creature Ice-Fang Coatl, which has flash and flying, along with conditional deathtouch if you control three or more snow permanents. Since the deck plays snow-covered lands in order to play Arcum's Astrolabe, that's easy to do.
Four Color Copycats also benefits from the addition of two new planeswalkers. One is Wrenn and Six, the value engine that has benefited many top decks in Modern by both retrieving land cards from the graveyard and being a "Gut Shot on a stick." The other key addition is a single copy of Throne of Eldraine all-star Oko, Thief of Crowns for his Beast Within-like ability and the ability to swap an artifact or creature for an opponent's creature with mana cost 3 or less. Basically, the deck gained a nice value engine, which makes it much easier to pull off the Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian combo in short order.
Copy Cat Combo BANNED Early in the Pioneer Format!
Now, with the Pioneer Format being announced, Copycat Combo was not only a playable deck in the non-rotating format that begins with Return to Ravnica. In fact, it was so playable that people are already expecting either Saheeli Rai or Felidar Guardian would get banned in the early days of the format. That would indeed be the case, as before competitive play began, Felidar Guardian was banned in Pioneer (along with Leyline of Abundance and Oath of Nissa). Clearly, based on the deck's dominance in Standard and the unofficial Frontier format (which began with Magic 2015 core set), Wizards decided to nip the problem in the bud before the deck overran the new format.
So, if you want to play Copy Cat Combo, which is actually a pretty fun deck when it's not owning the format, it's still alive and well in Modern. How much longer it will stay alive there, though, remains to be seen.
Polymorphous Rush is a versatile instant spell from Journey into Nyx. It has been used in brewing up plenty of interesting Magic the Gathering combos. How does it work, and how well does it work? Let's take a look.
First, the card itself. It costs 3 mana to cast (2U), which is a fair cost considering what this card does. Upon casting it, you choose a creature on the battlefield. This ability doesn't even target, so shroud and hexproof can't stop you from choosing a creature. You can then make any number of target creatures you control into a copy of that creature until end of turn. You do have to pay 1U for each target beyond the first. But it can become quite a blowout if you're copying the right creature!
This ability to target multiple creatures was a mechanic called Strive, one that's exclusive to the Journey Into Nyx set. There are other spells with Strive that would go on to see some amount of tournament play. This looked like it would be one of them.
Did Polymorphous Rush Ever Enable Combos in Standard?
People were very excited when this card was spoiled for Journey Into Nyx, especially because of the Strive ability tacked on to it. Polymorphous Rush seemed like a toolbox card that could work well on offense and defense. While it can end up being a lot of mana for this card to work well, Mono-Blue Devotion, one of the premier decks at the time this card was released, made plenty of mana. It looked like a great way to get out an extra Master of Waves in Mono-Blue Devotion! It could copy a Blood Baron of Vizkopa several times and make your opponent's life miserable!
Also, Heroic was a big mechanic in Standard due to the Theros block. Playing a spell that could target multiple creatures such as Polymorphous Rush seemed awesome! It would get the heroic ability first, such as gaining a +1/+1 counter, then become that creature. That works well in theory.
There was also a cute combo with Sage of Hours and Hero of Leina Tower. Essentially, you'd copy a bunch of Heroes and turn them into Sage of Hours. You could then pay X to add extra +1/+1 counters to the Heroes, and then use Sage of Hours ability to take a bunch of extra turns. Once the Heroes turned back into themselves, you could just beat down with them during all those extra turns. Worked well in theory, but it seemed a bit janky even at the time.
But it never really took off in Standard. Not even in the battlecruiser format of Commander where there's plenty of mana. What happened?
The problem is pretty much this: it really just ended up being more mana than it was worth. Another issue is that you don't get the enter the battlefield effects of the creature it copies. The decks that really wanted this were those that wanted to get extra copies of Master of Waves, but ones that came along with tokens, not just a +1/+1 boost for the Elementals. And yes, it could be an awesome card to copy powerful creatures on your opponent's side of the board, such as the aforementioned Blood Baron of Vizkopa, one of the more powerful creatures that has been in any Standard environment.
But even if it never cracked its way into competitive "top 8" Magic, there were other ways that more casual players could use it, right?
Polymorphous Rush, Battlefield Thaumaturge, and an Easy Biovisionary Win?
One deck that screamed Polymorphous Rush to me at the time was Biovisionary Combo. One of the more fun win conditions available in Magic the Gathering, Biovisionary gives you the chance to win the game at the end of any turn if you happen to control four or more creatures named Biovisionary. There are numerous ways to do this, obviously, but Polymorphous Rush became the easiest method available in Standard. With the addition of Battlefield Thaumaturge, also in Journey into Nyx, Strive costs became a lot more palatable. The Thaumaturge would make an instant or sorcery spell cost 1 less colorless mana to cast for each card that it targeted beyond the first. It seemed pretty good.
But wait, you need 4 Biovisionaries at your upkeep to win the game! Not a problem. Because Polymorphous Rush can be played at instant speed, you can do it at an opponent's end step, which is silly. With how quickly Simic (blue/green) decks can ramp, it looked like this could be a decent Tier 2 deck until the October 2014 rotation. I wasn't alone in feeling that Biovisionary, Rush, and Thaumaturge were made for each other. I felt that this combo could even slip into fringe Modern play-ability with the existence of Mirrorweave from Shadowmoor.
While this worked in theory, setting up the combo really just never worked in Standard. It proved to be far too easy to disrupt. However, a Biovisionary deck would in fact work eventually. In 2016, SaffronOlive of MTG Goldfish would make a Biovisionary deck that worked in his Against the Odds series. He went 0-8 in his first attempt using Mirrorweave. But in his second attempt, which utilized Collected Company, it didn't even need Biovisionary to win. Funny, right? And no, there were no copies of Polymorphous Rush in the deck.
Polymorphous Rush & Young Pyromancer?
There was another thought about Polymorphous Rush. What about using it alongside Young Pyromancer? People were already trying out Battlefield Thaumaturge in Pyromancer decks, too. Young Pyromancer is an awesome creature, and he still sees play in Modern, Legacy, and Vintage today. But sadly, while you could turn the Elemental tokens from the Pyromancer into other Young Pyromancers, Polymorphous Rush itself wouldn't make extra copies from the new Pyromancers. This is backed up the official rulings on Polymorphous Rush from Wizards of the Coast.
Even then, it seemed like Rush would still see play to make more Pyromancers, since there were plenty of cheap spells that would immediately help you benefit from the extra Pyromancers. In theory, this was a good idea, but who wanted to spend that much mana to not get tokens off of the new Pyromancers?
So it was a non-bo.
What About Commander, Where Fun Cards Like This Live On?
Polymorphous Rush never caught on in Commander. Usually, that's a format where a lot of cards with splashy effects like this live on. It does see play, but it's very scattered. So due to it not really being played outside of a handful of random Commander decks, its price has remained that of a bulk rare. You can find copies for about $0.50 USD or less, but due to the casual appeal of the card, some retailers may ask as much as $1 a copy.
Even then, you should definitely keep this card in mind if you're already considering using it. You can use the existing combos in a Commander deck that you might have already. It's just more mana-intensive in practice that you might at first realize, for any of these, and even with the help of the Thaumaturge.
So yes, Polymorphous Rush does work with Biovisionary as you might expect. It works with a lot of cards. But in all of these cards, it's been proven to be too slow to be effective on a consistent basis. It's still neat. And its past history doesn't mean that you won't ever see it become part of a broken combo, though. That it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean anything. Wizards just hasn't printed the card that it will break just yet.
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