On April 27, 2017, Magic the Gathering found it necessary to urgently ban the card Felidar Guardian in the game’s most popular competitive format at the time, known as Standard. This emergency ban was necessary due to the Saheeli Rai & Felidar Guardian Infinite combo decks – also known as the Copy Cat combo – overrunning Standard. I saw this coming, as did some other people. Of course, you can still play Copy Cat Combo decks 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.
When players initially began talking about the potential of the combo, my reasoning was that it would become a bit too powerful for Standard. Initially, I received some backlash for this opinion, though I expected more support. As it turned out, there would be an eventual realization that Felidar Guardian was ruining the format. So, 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 of the Coast 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!
Yes, they brought back something akin to the infamous Splinter Twin combo… in STANDARD!
But, is it, really?
Some time after the release of the New Phyrexia set, 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 a while because of it. Two card combos are absurd when they are as easy to perform on turn four on a consistent basis. Splinter Twin was a card from the Rise of the Eldrazi set, which people had played around with for awhile, but Deceiver Exarch from New Phyrexia finally made the combo often unbeatable.
The combo was quite simple. You’d play Deceiver Exarch, a 1 / 4 creature 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.
So, 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, especially if you can remove the Twin or Exarch before the combo resolves. But, the card combination 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, giving 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 much 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, or even worse than Splinter Twin & Deceiver Exarch?
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 copy 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, meaning they can attack right away.
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, 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 could 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. People argued the Felidar Guardian wasn’t quite as good, as planeswalkers can be dealt with in more ways than Enchantments, including direct burn damage.
As good as the interaction between these cards are, most people felt it wasn’t going to be as dominant as the combination of Splinter Twin & Deceiver Exarch became. There were instant speed ways to deal with the Guardian, like Fatal Push with Revolt active. There was Declaration in Stone in Standard, as well. But, the Declaration is Sorcery speed, so it could still be too late of an answer. It’s also possible to burn away Saheeli before the Guardian can copy her, which is fairly easy to do since she brings herself down to a single loyalty. Yes, it’s a bit easier to disrupt than Deceiver Exarch and its 4 toughness was during its Standard days. But, as it turned out, the answers weren’t enough.
Still, this combo was still a strong one to build around in Standard. Many players were shocked that no one at Wizards R&D caught this very obvious combination and were extremely angry when the combo deck made just about every other deck unplayable at top tournament tables. Some people called for an emergency ban of Felidar Guardian. Some players even 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 in its day, so creating a new win condition so easily attained was 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 weren’t many 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 overpowered 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, often known as Copy Cat Combo.
In paper Magic, the deck quickly won at least one major Standard event. The Star City Games Open at Richmond was taken down with a 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 can win, players battled to find the best version of this deck!
By late April 2017, so many Saheeli Rai & Felidar Guardian combo decks (affectionately known as Copy Cat Combo) 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.
Another deck would take Copy Cat Combo’s place in needing the banhammer. But, that was for a much different reason, and a whole different story altogether. It was far from the last blunder that Wizards would make printing cards that combined well with others or were far too powerful in their own right.
Copy Cat Combo in Modern
While Felidar Guardian and Saheeli Rai were wrecking people’s lives in Standard, Copy Cat Combo also saw some quick success on Magic Online. While Splinter Twin was actually good enough in Modern that Wizards finally banned it, Copy Cat Combo is still a deck in Modern. One of the early 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, Mirror Breaker and Restoration Angel infinite combo. While they are potent win conditions, Modern wouldn’t be overrun by them and continue to see play into 2020.
In Modern, you can play Splinter Twin hero Deceiver Exarch in this deck, too! In fact, you can build a really strong 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.
Unlike in Standard, the Modern card pool offers more options to halt the combo than Standard ever did. 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. Path to Exile and Dismember will do the trick, too, just as they always did for dealing with Deceiver Exarch when it was in Standard. So, this combo is also a bit easier to stop in Modern than Splinter Twin was.
In 2019, Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian gained some valuable new allies. The upgraded Four Color Copy Cats deck benefited from the release of several cards from Modern Horizons. They included the snow artifact Arcum’s Astrolabe, which not only draws a card when it enters, but even helps mana fix for the deck.
The deck 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. The Astrolabe would soon be banned, as all you needed to play it was playing Snow-Covered Lands in your deck, not much of an opportunity cost at all.
Four Color Copy Cat Combo also benefited from the addition of two new planeswalkers. One is Wrenn and Six from Modern Horizons, the value engine that helped 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. Oko would be banned in Standard fairly early after the release of Throne of Eldraine, but continues to see play in the Modern format.
Copy Cat Combo BANNED Early in the Pioneer Format!
When the Pioneer Format was first announced, Copy Cat Combo was one of the first big winners in the non-rotating format that begins with Return to Ravnica. In fact, it was so playable that people expected either Saheeli Rai or Felidar Guardian would get banned in the early days of the format. That would indeed be the case.
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. For now, the Saheeli Rai & Felidar Guardian infinite combo is good enough to play, but it isn’t winning tournaments all too often any more. But, with the rapid power creep happening in Magic the Gathering, who knows how long that will remain true.