Note: this article has super TL;DR potential. If you’re interested in seeing the inner workings of the Living End Modern deck, then I recommend reading the whole thing. Otherwise, check out the two videos below, and the TL;DR is I went 4-0-2 in swiss, beating Burn, Bogles, Grixis Control, and 8-Rack, then beat Abzan CoCo combo in the quarters and lost to it in the semis.
Aside from its substantial financial barrier to entry, Modern is a fantastic format right now. The metagame is diverse and full of interesting deck strategies. You can win with aggressive creatures (Zoo, Elves), a midrange/tempo strategy (Jund, Abzan), control (Grixis Tasigur), or combo (Scapeshift, Amulet Bloom, Splinter Twin), with plenty of decks somewhere in between (Infect, Bogles, Black-red 8-Rack).
Speaking of combo decks, lately I’ve been messing around with the Living End combo deck. The Living End archetype was developed by Travis Woo of ChannelFireball.com a few years ago, and has gone in and out of popularity amongst fringe-deck players. The deck revolves around filling the graveyard with creatures by the using the Cycle mechanic to draw more cards, and then exploiting spells with the Cascade mechanic to cast Living End for free and bring all the graveyard to life while leveling the opponent’s board.
Before we get into too much detail about my recent play experiences, check out the video below for an analysis of the decklist I’ve been piloting.
It’s a great time to play a degenerate combo deck in Modern given how open the format is, and Living End is especially well positioned due to the sheer number of unknown cards and mechanics it throws at most players. It’s amazing how many players at in-person events have never heard of Cascade (thanks mostly to the banning of Bloodbraid Elf, one of the few constructed-playable Cascade cards), and thus play incorrectly in response to me casting Violent Outburst or Demonic Dread. Additionally, I have had many opponents not understand how the card Living End works, resulting in a small but favorable advantage.
For those unfamiliar with how the Living End combo works, check out the video below for a brief demonstration.
I recently lost in the semifinals of a PPTQ at Flat Land Games (great store, check it out if you’re in southeastern Michigan!) playing Living End, and I’ve included a round-by-round tournament report below. I was undefeated in the swiss rounds (4-0 then two intentional draws) and then played against the same deck archetype in both Top 8 rounds.
(the first record is the record for that match, and the record in parenthesis is my overall event record at that point)
Round 1: Red Burn, 2-0 (1-0)
The first thing you’ll notice after playing a few matches with Living End is that the deck has some really great matchups. I mean really, really, really great matchups. If your opponent tries to play fair with a deck full of creatures and spells like Jund or Zoo, you can almost* never lose. At the same time, you’ll find that there are matchups that are nearly unwinnable. These tend to be combo-based decks that go nuts faster than you do – Storm/Pyromancer’s Ascension, 50% of games against Amulet Bloom, god draw Tron, etc. Burn is much closer to the latter than the former. It is a terrible matchup, and we need a solid miracle to win.
(*sometimes you draw all three Living End and don’t have time to suspend them)
Fortunately, a miracle happened at the PPTQ. While having the unfortunate luck to get paired up against the only burn deck in the 40-player event, I was somehow able to come away with the 2-0 victory. Here’s how I did it:
First, it was extra helpful that my opponent mulliganed to six cards both games. Add 3-4 damage to their total offense each game that the missing cards represent and the games are a lot closer.
Second, in Game 1 my opponent missed two triggers against me from Eidolon of the Great Revel. It’s not great to have to rely on your opponent missing easy damage in order to win, but in competitive events it’s a real thing. I think he was so confused by Living End that he didn’t realize that it would trigger the Eidolon. The other missed trigger was an earlier-played Fulminator Mage (which actually blocked a Monastery Swiftspear and took out a Sacred Foundry so it was surprisingly helpful for a potentially dead card against a basic Mountain deck).
Add four damage from missed triggers and a presumed Lightning Bolt lost on the mulligan and that’s seven very relevant damage for a deck aimed with counting to 15 or 16 (I won the game at 11 life, so I would likely still have pulled it off, but you get the idea).
Third, a bonkers Game 2 opening hand Leyline of Sanctity. I don’t play any white mana-producing lands in the deck, so Leyline post-board will always be a surprise. He had no reason to board in Destructive Revelry or other enchantment hate. There was almost nothing he could do except pray for more Goblin Guide or Eidolons to try and attack, but all it took was a Deadshot Minotaur to make it nearly impossible for him to get any damage through.
Leyline is so important in our worst matchups that it is worth keeping two in the sideboard and hoping that we mulligan into one. Yes, they are dead cards once we start the game, but without them we are virtually dead to Storm and Burn without some kind of miracle – they are a necessary evil, for sure. I would almost want to go to a straight four in the board if I was concerned about these decks being overly popular at an event.
Round 2: Bogles, 2-0 (2-0)
Bogles is one of those insanely-great matchups I was talking about. They try to play a fair game of enchanting one main hexproof creature with a bunch of auras and try to smash you in as few as three turns before you can do anything. However, the third turn is a great time for us to cast Violent Outburst and ruin their fun.
Remember that Living End makes all players sacrifice all creatures in play, so it gets around Hexproof (doesn’t target it) and Totem Armor (sacrifice is not a ‘destroy’ effect that the aura’s mechanic would prevent). Thus, the whole strategy against Bogles is to just get a Cascade effect as soon as possible and kill off the beefed-up creature. Remember that we have Beast Within to help create a Demonic Dread target while taking out one of the better auras (or sometimes the one land they have in play at a time), but obviously we’d prefer Violent Outburst to ensure an in-response-to-Rancor combo.
Sometimes Bogles gets a great start and we don’t get the cards we need to end the game, but don’t fret about getting low in life. Once you combo with even one or two creatures in your graveyard, it will be nearly impossible for your opponent to recover (ex. a 1/1 with Hexproof sadly looking at all of those sweet auras in the bin). I may have been at 2 life both games when I won, but really, it wasn’t close, considering 4-6 damage was self-inflicted cycling Street Wraiths to add more threats to the bin the turn I cast Living End.
Round 3: Grixis Control, 2-1 (3-0)
The control decks fall somewhere in the middle of the matchup spectrum. They are not auto-wins or auto-losses, but rather take a more grindy effort to emerge victorious. Counterspells are bad for Living End, especially value-tastic ones like Remand. However, we must all remember that Living End can be suspended for three turns, giving us a second chance at reviving our threats and time to plan for the next wave of countermagic.
The nice thing about playing a strict control deck like Grixis is that we have plenty of time to find land destruction to help lessen the amount of blue mana our opponents can access. Using Beast Within, Fulminator Mage, and the one-of Avalanche Riders, we can make it more likely that the opponent cannot cast Cryptic Command. The land destruction spells also make our control opponents choose whether to lose the land or waste a counterspell, further opening the door for Living End to resolve. Thus, Beast Within is generally used as a bait-and-test for two-mana spells like Remand and Mana Leak, rather than a removal spell like it is in other matchups.
Along with counterspells, we face the problem of the long games potentially forcing us to draw all three Living End. However, the flip side of the long game is, again, that we can suspend the spell. We do have to be careful about the threat Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler pose in the late-game because of how big they are (they block our 4/4 and 3/4 creatures well), but generally we can focus on going wide by filling up our graveyard with a ton of creatures and make their one blocker irrelevant (plus we have Demonic Dread).
Games one and two of this match were extremely long and grindy. To win Game 1 I was able to finally resolve Living End on my third combo try, after blowing up several lands with multiple Fulminator Mage. Game 2 was very close with my opponent at 2 life before he was able to stablize with a Gurmag Angler, and I couldn’t find another Living End or Beast Within to fight back for the last few points of damage.
For Game 3, I won by suspending Living End. I actually missed the chance to suspend it a turn earlier due to some land fetching mismanagement. It wasn’t until I went to suspend the spell that I realized I didn’t have a second black mana source. Oops. I fetched a swamp on the next turn and exiled Living End for a grueling three-turn wait, while Tasigur beat me up from 16 to 4. Now here’s the epic moment that defined the match: Living End went on the stack, and my opponent tapped out to cast Cryptic Command. He ponders for a minute about which modes to choose. I have 8 or 9 land in play, so bouncing one of them really doesn’t seem as relevant as drawing a card for value, making it a fair choice to go for the counter-and-draw options. I have a particularly relevant sideboard card in hand and I cannot wait to play it:
Ricochet Trap is our main anti-control sideboard plan. We can cast it in response to a counterspell (since it’s a blue spell generally, it’ll fulfill the requirements to make the spell cost R) and redirect the counter to the Trap. The Trap will resolve and be off the stack, leaving the counterspell to fizzle without a legal target (meaning no Remand draw, etc.). While this works with virtually any counterspell in Modern, Cryptic Command gives us a potential wrench in the plan.
If you read Ricochet Trap again, you’ll notice it says “target spell with a single target,” meaning you can’t Trap a spell that has more than one target (when it’s on the stack, not in the reading of the card). Let’s look at Cryptic Command again:
Two of Cryptic Command’s modes require targets – Counter and Bounce (the first two options). If the opponent chooses these two modes, the Command will be on the stack with two targets (the spell to be countered and the permanent to be returned). Ricochet Trap can only target a spell with a “single target,” so Trap can’t target this form of Cryptic Command. However, if the opponent chooses the first mode (counter) and any of the other two options (tap all creatures your opponents control; draw), then the Command on the stack will only have one target (counter target spell), and thus Trap can get it.
I was sweating a bit while my opponent thought about which modes to choose, convinced he was going to play it safe and bounce a land (but then again, did he even know Ricochet Trap was a thing? Maybe he was looking for extra value by not letting me hard-cast a larger creature like Jungle Weaver?). But he chose to counter Living End and draw a card. I showed him the Trap, explained what it meant for Cryptic Command, and he shook my hand. A virtual 50/50 shot on winning or losing (since I’m dead to Tasigur if LE doesn’t resolve), and I fortunately came up positive.
Round 4: Black-red 8-Rack, 2-1 (4-0)
As I said earlier, Modern is full of diverse deck strategies and archetypes. Some may call those decks that don’t follow the top 16 of major events “fringe decks,” but in Modern even the fringe decks are strong enough to win. Black-red 8-Rack is one of those stronger fringe decks that wins off the back of an old-school Magic strategy: make your opponent discard every card possible, and then bleed them slowly with a bundle of The Rack effects.
Gotta love the old-school cards getting some modern-era Magic love. Now, on its face you’d expect this deck to be an easy win for us, considering how helpful it is in getting our graveyard built up. BUT, a deck bent on discarding ALL of our cards will also take away our Violent Outburst, Demonic Dread, and Living End spells too!
Surprisingly, this matchup fits in the middle of our spectrum, although it is still fairly favorable because we can just top-deck our victory condition even after our hands have been fully stripped. That was the case Game 1, where my entire hand was discarded after a slew of Blightning, Thoughtseize, and Inquisition of Kozilek, and then I drew Violent Outburst and that was that.
Game 2 a similar situation occurred, except I never top-decked a Cascade card. I errantly sideboarded out most of the Demonic Dread, believing that I wouldn’t have a creature to target, but I clearly forgot about how much I would be wanting to cast Beast Within against The Rack and Shrieking Affliction. Sometimes it’s easy to ditch Demonic Dread against decks that don’t have creatures, but the fewer Cascade cards in the deck means the less likely we are to combo into Living End, which is how we win!
For Game 3 my opponent’s deck ran a little inconsistently with a mulligan to six and more land than spells, so I was able to combo into Living End fairly easily and take the match.
Rounds 5 and 6: Intentional Draws (4-0-2)
After two ID’s I ended up 2nd in the standings, meaning I’d have the choice to play first in the entire Top 8 until the finals if I played the top seed.
Top 8 (quarterfinals): Abzan Collected Company Combo, 2-0
Did I already say how awesome Modern is? Wizards can ban a card like Birthing Pod and still have an archetype that plays virtually the same! Abzan Collected Company is the offshoot deck from the previous Melira Pod combo deck, just with slightly less consistency but more combo potential. Melira Pod used Birthing Pod to find three pieces of an infinite combo – Melira, Sylvok Outcast, a sacrifice outlet like Viscera Seer, and a Persist creature such as Kitchen Finks or Murderous Redcap. The Persist creature would be sacrifice and the ability to bring it back to life would trigger, but Melira would prevent the Persist counter from being placed on the creature, resulting in the original creature able to be sacrificed infinitely.
Abzan Collected Company functions the same way, but just without Birthing Pod to consistently find the combo pieces. Instead, the current combo deck uses Chord of Calling and Collected Company (often referred to as “CoCo”) to find the necessary creatures. Additionally, Dragons of Tarkir introduced a creature that can be used in place of Melira:
Anafenza lets those Persist creatures enter play as X/1 creature, trigger a bolster, and get a +1/+1 counter on them to offset the -1/-1 Persist creature. It’s functionally the same as Melira’s no -1/-1 counter policy, just with more priority passing and trigger resolutions (the bolster trigger can be missed in competitive events, and it gives us a chance to respond before the counters offset each other to reset the Kitchen Finks or Murderous Redcap)
Outside of assembling the combo, the deck uses a zoo-like strategy of playing creatures and beating down your face. Collected Company helps find combo pieces while helping the opponent rebuild after a Living End, and Kitchen Finks is generally difficult to destroy given that it will come back to life as a 2/1 post-Living End. We can take some solace in our maindeck Faerie Macabre, but it is definitely a tough matchup given it’s resiliency against our namesake spell.
All it takes is our opponent having a Viscera Seer or other sac outlet on the board to make our Living End play ineffective (similar to how affinity can bounce back with Arcbound Ravager in play). However, in Game 1 of the match I was fortunate that my opponent did not realize this before allowing Living End to resolve.
He was confused about how Cascade worked and had not seen Living End before. Seeing this, and not wanting to give away the potential blowout he could deal me, I used the Competitive REL to my advantage. My opponent had two Viscera Seer, a Persisted Kitchen Finks and a Birds of Paradise in play, so if he just sacrificed them all my Living End would have done virtually nothing to him.
As I remember it, this is the exact wording I used in casting the combo:
Me: “I cast Violent Outburst, putting a Cascade trigger on the stack.”
Him: “What does Cascade do?”
Me: “I exile and reveal cards off the top of my library until a hit a spell that costs less than the cost of Violent Outburst, so 2 or less. Is it okay to do that now?”
Him: “Yeah go ahead.”
Me: (after revealing Living End, and silently shuffling the revealed cards, offering him to cut, which he declines, and setting them under my library) “I will choose to cast Living End. Do you have anything before I resolve it?”
Him: (taking a second to read the card) “No. What do we do now?”
Me: “Exile all creatures from your graveyard (we both begin to sort through our bins), and then sacrifice all the creatures in play.”
Him: “Wait, what? I want to respond before we do that.”
I looked at the judge as that point, who then told my opponent that he already let the spell resolve and was in the midst of resolving it by sorting through his graveyard, so it was too late to do anything. My opponent conceded and was visibly tilted by this course of events. While shuffling for Game 2, he told me that he felt I “misrepresented how Living End worked,” but the judge reassured us that I had communicated well and sufficiently for the Competitive REL requirements.
Game 2 was a blowout thanks to a turn 3 Slaughter Games (with help from Simian Spirit Guide) naming Viscera Seer (so he could never execute the combo, although in the future I think I would rather name Kitchen Finks first), and my opponent seemed to give up caring early in the match. Sometimes tilt hits you hard.
Top 4 (semifinals): Abzan Collected Company Combo, 1-2
While I was somewhat happy to play against the same deck I had just beaten, the deck is still a fairly bad matchup for Living End (as described above in detail). However, sometimes you just draw like a God.
On the play, on turn 2 of Game 1, I Cascaded into Living End, bringing back THREE Street Wraiths and a Deadshot Minotaur. I high-fived my opponent after that, since we both appreciated what had just occurred. This was after we both had mulliganed to six cards, too. Living (End) the Dream there.
Feeling extremely good after that nuts game, I started Game 2 with similar shenanigans, dumping two Wraiths into the bin along with a Monstrous Carabid. I went for the combo on turn 4 with my opponent having all his mana open, but nonetheless thinking that the White-Black-Green color combination couldn’t possibly deal with all three of my threats immediately (multiple Path to Exile maybe?) Magic Origins had released the night before, so I figured the chances of Hallowed Moonlight were very slim, especially given how there are better sideboard choices to combat graveyard shenanigans (like Rest in Peace).
Oh hey there, that’s a Breeding Pool chilling in my opponent’s land row. Now it’s being tapped for blue mana. “Negate Living End.” Heart sink.
Yep, Living End was countered by Negate that came in from the sideboard of an Abzan combo deck. This is like my Leyline of Sanctity in a non-white deck from Round 1 against burn. Now that was tilt-inducing. I drew into the other two Living End before I could draw another Cascade card and my opponent made quick work of me with Kitchen Finks beats. Not the way I expected to go down in Game 2. Touche.
Game 3 was somewhat uneventful while disappointing. I played multiple Fulminator Mage and took out several lands, preventing him from reaching three mana in order to cast Kitchen Finks. He eventually pulled a Scavenging Ooze before I was able to find what would have been a game-winning cascade into Living End, but instead drew four lands in a row during those sad turns watching his Ooze eat my graveyard. I went from Living the Dream in Game 1 to Living the Nightmare in Game 3.
My opponent beat Merfolk in the finals to win the event, so at least I lost to the victor…?
I can’t really complain about my showing. I dominated the swiss and played well enough to make the semifinals. It was an extremely fun deck (especially that god hand in the semifinals), and the deck is consistent enough to take to a real event. Sure, it has some major weaknesses (besides variance – Burn and Storm, CoCo Abzan), but with a few tweaks to the sideboard we can be ready for those decks next time (more Faerie Macabre).
I’ll be piloting the bulk of this list again this weekend at another PPTQ, and hopefully I’ll do well there too. I highly recommend this deck for anyone wanting to get into Modern who wants to play a fun and not-grindy deck. Sometimes you just combo and win, and sometimes you have to earn it, but it’s never super grindy like a control deck or Splinter Twin.
Thanks for reading, and good luck!