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Breaking Theros: Beyond Death—Heliod, Sun-Crowned


One of the themes of recent Magic sets is broken and potentially broken cards. Even after just one week of spoilers, it's clear that Theros: Beyond Death is no different from Throne of Eldraine, Core Set 2020, or War of the Spark in terms of power level, especially when it comes to older formats. Today, we're taking a look at a card with the potential to be the most broken in the set in both Pioneer and Modern: Heliod, Sun-Crowned!

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At first glance, Heliod, Sun-Crowned looks like just another white lifegain card, and in some sense, it is. If you're playing cards like Ajani's Pridemate and Ajani, Strength of the Pride in Standard or Historic, Heliod, Sun-Crowned will be an easy inclusion and most likely one of the best cards in your deck. However, in formats like Pioneer and Modern, Heliod, Sun-Crowned isn't just another decent card for Soul Sisters (although it is); it's also a broken combo piece hiding behind its lifegain facade. 

Modern

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Modern might be the format where Heliod, Sun-Crowned has the most potential of being broken since it enables a combo that was already close to being playable, but in a much more efficient and easy-to-assemble way. In Moderns past, decks have been built around the combo of Archangel of Thune and Spike Feeder, which gains infinite life as soon as both combo pieces hit the battlefield since you can remove a counter from Spike Feeder to gain two life, only to replace that counter with Archangel of Thune's lifegain trigger, allowing you to repeat the process over and over again. The problem with the combo is that Archangel of Thune is five mana, which not only makes it expensive in an absolute sense for a format as fast as Modern but also makes it hard to find with cards like Chord of Calling and impossible to find with Collected Company

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Enter Heliod, Sun-Crowned, which does the exact same thing as Archangel of Thune but as a three-mana indestructible enchantment creature, rather than an unwieldy five-mana body. The nut draw for the Heliod, Sun-Crowned / Spike Feeder combo is simple: you play a mana dork like Noble Hierarch or Birds of Paradise on Turn 1. On Turn 2, you play the nearly impossible to kill Heliod, Sun-Crowned, and then on Turn 3, you play Spike Feeder and gain infinite life. 

In theory, it's possible to disrupt the combo with a timely removal spell on Spike Feeder, but with some tight play, it becomes much harder to interact with. The window for disrupting the combo is when you remove the first +1/+1 counter from Spike Feeder and the Heliod, Sun-Crowned trigger to add another counter is on the stack. However, if you simply wait on activating Spike Feeder until your opponent taps down or attempts to kill Spike Feeder, you can combo off in response at instant speed, which forces your opponent to have multiple removal spells to prevent you from gaining infinite life. 

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The other reason to be excited about Heliod, Sun-Crowned / Spike Feeder in Modern is that the cheapness of Heliod, Sun-Crowned itself make the combo very easy to assemble. Collected Company can hit both pieces, Chord of Calling is a practical way to find a three-mana play (much more so than the five-mana Archangel of Thune) in a creature-heavy deck, and cards like Eldritch Evolution and Neoform also have potential. Plus, there's no reason why you can't play Archangel of Thune as a backup combo piece, and if you're worried that infinite life wouldn't be enough to actually win the game (although against 90% or more of Modern decks, it should be), then later in the game, you can always generate infinite damage with Walking Ballista or simply beat the opponent down with random creatures. 

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It's also worth mentioning that it's very possible to not build your deck exclusively around the combo but instead use it as a backup combo in a deck with several creature-based ways to close out the game. If we look at recent decks using the Archangel of Thune / Spike Feeder combo, they often have multiple plans. For example, the Abzan Company list above can go infinite with Archangel of Thune and Spike Feeder, but it can also go infinite with a sacrifice outlet, Melira, Sylvok Outcast / Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit, and Kitchen Finks. Considering that Heliod, Sun-Crowned can also replace both Melira, Sylvok Outcast and Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit's role in the combo (since when Kitchen Finks comes back into play, you gain life, trigger Heliod, Sun-Crowned, and can put a +1/+1 counter on Kitchen Finks to offset the 1/1 counter and sacrifice it again, giving another way to gain infinite life), the addition of Heliod, Sun-Crowned should make this style of creature-combo list much tighter, by removing fragile two-drops for an indestructible God. 

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We've also seen Archangel of Thune and Spike Feeder show up as a backup plan in Devoted Vizier decks, both as just one-of tutor targets. Much like Abzan Company, the addition of Heliod, Sun-Crowned not only improves the Archangel of Thune / Spike Feeder combo but also offers another way to go infinite, in this case with Walking Ballista. If we can get a Walking Ballista with two counters on it and use Heliod, Sun-Crowned to give it lifelink, we have a Walking Ballista that can generate infinite damage. Pinging our opponent for a damage and then gaining a life thanks to lifelink triggers Heliod, Sun-Crowned to replace the counter on Walking Ballista, allowing us to ping our opponent to death one damage at a time from any life total.

The biggest question around Heliod, Sun-Crowned in Modern isn't if it will be good but, because it supports so many combos, the best way to build around it. Spike Feeder and Heliod, Sun-Crowned, along with plenty of tutors like Collected Company, Chord of Calling, and Eldritch Evolution, will likely be the core of the deck. The most powerful thing the combo can do is gain infinite life on Turn 3, and that nut draw should be maximized. But beyond Spike Feeder and Heliod, Sun-Crowned, should the deck focus on Walking Ballista for infinite damage? Is it a Kitchen Finks / sacrifice outlet deck? All of the above? It's going to take some testing to figure out, but the combo seems to have the speed and consistency to make it a real player in the Modern format. While I'm sure this build will change a lot as it gets tested, here's where I'd start for Heliod Combo in Modern.

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Pioneer

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Meanwhile, there's a lot of hype around the idea that Heliod, Sun-Crowned might be even better in Pioneer than it is in Modern since the Pioneer format is much slower and lacks efficient two-card combo decks. That said, comboing off with Heliod, Sun-Crowned in Pioneer is also slower and less consistent than it is in Modern since the Spike Feeder combo is missing. Instead, in Pioneer, Heliod, Sun-Crowned is all about Walking Ballista

The main goal here, as we briefly mentioned above, is to get a Walking Ballista with at least two +1/+1 counters on it, give it lifelink with Heliod, Sun-Crowned, and generate infinite damage by pinging the opponent, by removing a counter only to replace it with Heliod, Sun-Crowned. The main problem with the combo is that it's actually somewhat clunky if you really dig into the nuts and bolts of how it works.

The issue is that for the Walking Ballista combo to work, you don't only need a Heliod, Sun-Crowned and a Walking Ballista with two counters but also two extra mana to activate Heliod, Sun-Crowned's second ability to give Walking Ballista lifelink. This means that something like casting Heliod, Sun-Crowned on Turn 2 off of a Turn 1 mana dork into Walking Ballista with X = 2 on Turn 3 isn't an immediate win. Instead, you need to untap and activate Heliod, Sun-Crowned, which gives your opponent an easy window to deal with Walking Ballista and fizzle the combo. 

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There are ways to speed things up, but they require adding a third combo piece. For example, if you play Hardened Scales on Turn 1 (or Winding Constrictor on Turn 2), you can cast Heliod, Sun-Crowned on Turn 3 and then Walking Ballista on Turn 4 with two counters for just two mana thanks to Hardened Scales, leaving enough mana left over to immediately activate Heliod, Sun-Crowned's lifelink ability (or whenever your opponent taps down) to generate infinite damage and win the game. You can also try to use something other than Heliod, Sun-Crowned to give Walking Ballista lifelink, but this mostly requires playing bad cards like Lantern Scout or Swift Justice, which should probably be avoided. 

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Another part of the combo worth addressing has come up a few times on Twitter and in the comments on YouTube: the idea that you can cast Walking Ballista with one counter, activate Heliod, Sun-Crowned to give it lifelink, and attack with Walking Ballista to trigger Heliod, Sun-Crowned and put the second counter on Walking Ballista to combo off. While this is technically true, it requires your opponent to have not only no interaction but also no blockers, which is asking for a lot on Turn 4 of a Pioneer game. While it is worth knowing that this is a way to combo off, and I imagine it will happen in a game of Pioneer somewhere, sometime, in reality, it's so unlikely to work that it's not worth considering as a primary plan. Instead, it's just a cool thing that might happen every once in a while.

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Much like in Modern, the question about Heliod, Sun-Crowned and Walking Ballista in Pioneer isn't whether or not the combo is playable—it almost certainly is, considering the speed of and removal in the format—but what shell can best take advantage of the combo. Hardened Scales could splash into white or maybe even drop black altogether (which is mostly just for Winding Constrictor and sideboard cards in some recent builds), in an attempt to speed up the combo.

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Another option is to take a page from Modern and play an Archangel of Thune deck with lifegain synergies and tutors like Chord of Calling and Eldritch Evolution, although it is worth pointing out that Walking Ballista isn't exactly an easy card to tutor directly onto the battlefield since it's almost always a 0/0 that dies (technically, you can get around this with an anthem effect, but it's probably not worth the effort. Rhythm of the Wild is interesting, although it will be tough on the mana base). Meanwhile, tutoring creatures to your hand isn't all that easy in Pioneer. Cards like Shared Summons can grab both Heliod, Sun-Crowned and Walking Ballista but are expensive, while cards like Dark Petition are tougher to maximize in a presumably creature-heavy shell like what Heliod and Walking Ballista will desire. 

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As such, the biggest concern for Heliod, Sun-Crowned and Walking Ballista in Pioneer is the potential lack of consistency. Walking Ballista is much harder to tutor up than Spike Feeder is in Modern, which probably means that whichever Pioneer decks manage to use the combo will need to have a solid, fair game plan, with the combo being an additional line of attack when both pieces show up, rather than the centerpiece of the deck as Heliod, Sun-Crowned might very well be in Modern. Maybe this plan involves the lifegain aspects of Heliod, Sun-Crowned in some sort of neo-Soul Sisters shell, or maybe it's just Selesnya (or GWx) Midrange. Maybe it's a devotion-based deck that can use Heliod, Sun Crowned to go infinite with Walking Ballista or use Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx to simply cast a massive Walking Ballista and win fairly. 

Despite this downside, Pioneer isn't a format with a lot of two-card combos that can potentially win the game on Turn 4, which means the deck probably has a chance to be very good, despite the fact the combo is significantly slower and clunkier than it is in Pioneer. However, it will likely take quite a bit of brewing to figure out the right shell to support the combo while still having a solid enough game plan for the games when a combo piece is missing. '

Conclusion

All in all, I personally expect Heliod, Sun-Crowned to be more broken in Modern than it is in Pioneer, at least for the immediate future. The Spike FeederHeliod, Sun-Crowned combo is so fast and potentially so consistent thanks to cards like Chord of Calling and Collected Company, and (essentially, by gaining infinite life) it wins the game so immediately when it hits the battlefield, while blanking much removal, that it's hard to imagine it won't be good enough for the format. 

In Pioneer, comboing with Heliod, Sun-Crowned takes a lot more work. The combo is less consistent since it can't be tutored directly to the battlefield, and it's more easily disrupted by any of the popular removal spells in the format, unless you're willing to wait until the late game to try to go infinite (like playing Walking Ballista with X = 2 with eight total mana on the battlefield so you can activate Heliod, Sun-Crowned twice to fight through one removal spell). The excitement for (and / or fear of) the combo in Pioneer is more a result of the fact that the format simply doesn't have two-card combos that can potentially win the game on Turn 4 than for the actual power of the combo, which is way, way less scary than something like the no-banned-list Copy Cat combo of Felidar Guardian and Saheeli Rai. While I expect the combo to see play in Pioneer, due in part to the lack of other options, right now, my expectation is that it will be one of several plans in a deck that can win fairly, rather than a deck's sole focus.

Anyway, that's all for today. How good do you think Heliod, Sun-Crowned will be in Pioneer? What about in Modern? What is the best way to build around the God's combo potential? Let me know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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