Welcome back to part four of my ongoing exploration into combo decks in EDH!
In the last installment, we talked about how to engineer mass numbers of spells played in a turn. We talked about whether it was better to run spells through free casting agents like Omniscience, to focus on building an infinite mana production engine, or if it was better to simply rely on synergy engines to grind mass spells out.
To restate myself, I feel that to truly earn your stripes as a combo player, you should play a synergy engine. Omniscience and infinite mana loops should add extra tools to help stabilise and improve the performance of the deck – when I say “performance”, I mean with respect to consistency and tools to enable free storm count grinding.
I used the term “synergy engine” and spoke a little about the “axis of resources” with respect to playing spells. Today, I am going to break this down and talk specifically about what sorts of strategies and tools one would need to employ if one were aiming to run a pure synergy engine deck using the storm mechanic as a guideline.
Let’s Talk About Sex…. I Mean Resources, Baby!
I often talk about how being a Vintage format player taints my viewpoint on other formats, and how it bleeds into my deck design and strategic plays. If you are in any way interested in checking out (and possibly proxying up and goldfishing) some Vintage and Legacy lists, I would highly recommend it to help wrap your head around playing a combo path to victory. Good examples are decks in the ANT (Ad-Nauseam Tendrils) family in Legacy or in Vintage decks in the Long.dec or Gush Storm family are excellent choices to examine. Playing these style of decks teach two things that you do not learn from slapping a handful of cards together and going infinite or playing modern format combo decks – You will learn about resource management and path selection to victory.
What are these resources I am referring to? There are several elements of available resources that we need to be aware of, and they all have different weight in value. Here’s the list:
Card Advantage – This is a Magic player’s primary pool of resources. Card advantage refers to several aspects of available resources and resource management. In a simplistic view, card advantage can be equated with drawing more cards into hand. A more advanced view of card advantage considers not just how many extra cards you have generated in hand, but it considers how many more cards you have potentially seen.
As an example, a spell like Preordain is a neutral spell in terms of cards in hand. You expend a card to draw a card. However, it has a virtual card value of +2/+3. This is because you first get to look at two cards. You get to see if you want either of the cards, and worst case (if you do not) you can take a blind draw for a third card.
Our ability to progress our game plan depends on our ability to see the maximum amount of resources, and to draw into our next puzzle piece in the combo train and progress our storm plan.
Cards in Graveyard – Many players see the graveyard as a dead card zone that allows tactical recursion. For those of us who have played with cards like Yawgmoth’s Will and more recently Past in Flames, you may have yourself or have seen others play with their graveyards spread out like a Dredge player. Why is that? Well, I personally spread my graveyard out so I can see what is in there at all times. I spread it out like my hand, because when it comes down to it, my graveyard under an effect like Yawgmoth’s Will IS effectively a secondary hand of cards. This therefore makes the graveyard another resource, one that generally grows a +1 for card advantage on the resolution of a spell. Furthermore, an Ancestral Recall cast from the graveyard would net a +3 gain of cards in hand.
It is important to note that cards in graveyards, while valuable, should only be given a minor resource weighting in comparison to cards in hand due to the additional difficulty in accessing them.
Available Mana – Like Cards in Hand, Available Mana is one of the major resources to consider in these calculations. You use mana to fuel spells and pay for ability activations. With no mana, it doesn’t matter how many cards you have in hand – you have no ability to progress your game plan. When playing a combo list running a synergy strategy, you should always keep track of your floating mana, not just in volume but also in available colours. I also find this is a great way to keep other players involved in the board state – tracking mana and storm count to see if the damn deck will fizzle or fire.
Available mana isn’t just what you have floating in your mana pool. Given that some spells and abilities have the ability to untap lands (the most notorious in blue combo decks being Palinchron from the Urza block), one should also consider uptapping lands to be an increase in available mana. Typically found in combo decks, Time Spiral is a card that is considered to be mana neutral as it untaps six lands and it costs six mana to cast, but even this can turn to mana advantage if you are untapping lands like Temple of the False God that produce more than one mana at a time.
The final aspect of available mana may sound a little strange – land drops. Simply put, each land drop is equivalent to an additional mana able to be dumped into your pool when you’re ready to go off.
Life – Vintage players know this well, possibly much better than non-Vintage players. Life is a resource to be spent. The fact that we have things like Yawgmoth’s Bargain and Griselbrand banned in EDH speaks volumes of how the resource of life can be turned into more palatable resources. As long as you do not drain yourself to death or near-death vulnerability, life should only be considered a minor resource. Classic examples of cards we can use to trade our life points for are Gitaxian Probe (which is basically two life for a card) or more efficiently Necropotence for mass card draw. Finally, there’s the oft-forgotten Noxious Revival which for two life points allows instant speed top-deck graveyard recursion.
Storm – Finally, our most unusual resource, and the only one we cannot get through any other means other than casting spells (except in the case of mass replication). While storm is not the most readily available resource, it does not spend itself as it is used. It can be built up by any player casting a spell, and it only expires on change of turn. Storm as it works to generate the critical mass of spell count for the actual kill should be considered a major resource.
Shifting the Symmetry
We now know that at the core of a synergy engine, we need to maintain a neutral net change or a positive net change in our resources until we hit lethal storm with a kill in hand. The question then becomes “How we can achieve this goal?” We all know that Wizards R&D will simply not produce a spell that will generate a net gain of all resources. (Well okay…that isn’t strictly true – they did print Time Spiral, and that can produce net gain of mana while also reloading your hand with seven fresh new cards in hand. But that was a looooooong time ago.)
Wizards does like to print cantrips, however. I have used the example of Manamorphose before, but let’s take a look at it in more depth. It has a casting cost of two mana, it produces two mana, and draws a card to replace itself. The resource change here is a net +1 storm and +1 card advantage due to the physical card replacement, but Manamorphose is otherwise functionally a neutral card. What would happen if you could change that balance? If you had a Helm of Awakening in play, a card which allows you to pay one less generic mana for your spells, you could instead pay only R/G as opposed to 1 R/G for Manamorphose; this would bend the symmetry to a mana net-positive and card advantage-positive tool.
An example of an alternative cantrip taking a different angle on neutrality is Explore. Like Manamorphose, Explore is physically card-neutral in that it draws a replacement. It is however mana, negative unless under a cost modifier. (It should be noted that it does break even and even come to an advantage with untap effects due to the additional land drop.)
Another example of shifting neutrality is the “egg” cycle from Odyssey block. Darkwater Egg requires three mana from casting to completion of activation. It produces a card draw for physical card neutrality, but with a +1 rating for card advantage; however it is natively mana negative, in that it only produces two mana compared to the three it uses. However, under Helm of Awakening, Darkwater Egg and its ilk now become mana neutral.
How can we push it to become positive? Three methods come to mind:
1) Mana Reflection – This will double the amount of mana being generated off the activation of the egg, thus pushing it in an otherwise vacuum to be +1 mana positive. Under a Helm, this can be advanced as much as +2 mana positive depending on lands played.
2) Thought Reflection – This will double the card draw from the egg, but the activation will remain mana-neutral. This means the egg is now +1 physical cards in hand and +2 card advantage.
3) Training Grounds – This one is a little more involved. Training Grounds allows the activation cost of creature abilities to reduce by up to two mana. As such, the trick would be to use March of the Machines or something similar to turn our eggs into creatures. The problem here is that this will also necessitate having a haste enabler to bypass the summoning sickness rule, which would otherwise prevent play and activation of the eggs in the same turn.
The handy thing about these types of cards is they come in cycles:
And two hangers on:
I also mentioned an array of cards from the Urza block. These were developed ostensibly to be “free spells”. In Commander we’re most familiar with two of them in, the form of Palinchron and Time Spiral – but there are others. These spells are designed to untap the same lands that were used to pay for them; however, as I alluded to earlier, the synergy here can be broken by untapping lands like Izzet Boilerworks that tap for two mana.
The synergy can also be broken though spell copies; aiming a Fork at a Time Spiral does require eight mana, but it reproduces a minimum of 12 mana. Thus we have broken the symmetry for the untap ability. If we had cast Time Spiral under a Thought Reflection or a Mana Reflection, we have again broken the symmetry as we are now producing far more than the card was designed to do.
Of the nine “free” spells, four of them are attached to creatures. Of these, Great Whale and Peregrine Drake are the most vanilla in that they are mostly only broken when paired with Deadeye Navigator. Palinchron is only different due to its ability to bounce itself.
(Authors note: Uncle Kaka detests Deadhead Wasteofspace, but it does need to be addressed!)
Cloud of Faeries is a different matter. Its very low mana cost makes it easy to take it asymmetrical under the likes of Helm of Awakening[card]. Its ability to pitch for cycling also allows it to have a degree of virtual card advantage, in that you can pay two and pitch it for a new card from the deck.
[card]Rewind is the classic free counterspell, which while a great weapon is more of a liability than an asset in a deck that wants only to progress game plan. Treachery, on the other hand, is a limited-value tool used for the stealing of threats and win conditions that have legs.
The final three spells are of actual interest to us here. Snap is well known to anyone who has gotten their hands dirty playing Pauper; like Cloud of Faeries, its mana cost is so low that a simple Helm makes it +1 mana positive, and double mana lands push it further mana positive. Its secondary ability to bounce a creature makes it extra handy.
Do we want an extra bite of a cherry? Hell yes we do! Snap that puppy and snap it good.
Frantic Search is a classic tournament weapon. Natively mana-neutral, it ramps cards in graveyard +3, and filters your hand for the best cards that you want to get two bites of the aforementioned cherry from. Like the previously discussed Time Spiral, Frantic Search offers its best value under a Thought Reflection, where it draws four cards and pitches two for a gain in card advantage of +4, as opposed to +2 with a physical gain of +1.
Finally, there are two stars that are similar to the Urza block free spells. Turnabout and Rude Awakening are unique amongst spells; there are permanents that allow a similar untap to occur through inflicting combat damage, but these two cards are unique in that they are spells alone. They do not require combat. They can be cast in the midst of a storm grind. They can be Forked and manipulated like other spells. Much like the Urza block free spells, they can be shifted to cheaper cost to cause net mana gain.
Rorting the Taxman
I’ve been waxing lyrical about Helm of Awakening for a little while now. Helm is an oft-forgotten toy from Visions which lowers all spells’ generic mana costs by one. How does a free Sol Ring sound? What about Snapcaster Mage for U? How much better is Time Spiral (I’m sorry folks, I have to keep going back to Time Spiral, as it is the perfect benchmark card) if you only have to pay UU for it?
If your answer is “Hell yeah!”, keep on reading because there are more awesome toys to come.
There are actually several options that can be brought on board through cheating the taxman his dues:
-Helm of Awakening is of course the best one; the next most flexible cost reduction engine is Stone Calendar. While other arguably better cost reducers do exist, they are far less flexible.
-There are cost reducers for most card types, such as Etherium Sculptor for artifacts.
–Cloud Key is an option that allows you choice in what mode you set it to.
–Sunscape Familiar reduces the cost of green and blue spells.
The funny thing about all of this, though, is that we’re slinging spells. Specifically, we’re letting fly as many instants and sorceries as we can. This means we only need to focus on the modifiers that matter to us. Three specific ones come to mind – Goblin Electromancer knocks one mana off, while Mana Matrix and Arcane Melee both take the taxman for two.
Going Big or Going Home
Assuming you all have been following along, we can recognize that we now have the core components for the ability to play a bunch of spells, and to grow mana and cards in order to keep playing into more spells. As I am sure you have also realised, drawing cards in ones and twos has the potential problem of regularly fizzling out, but sometimes you need to hold the line and go big or go home. This is where we need some draw power to bridge the gap between runs of cantrips, and there are two angles we can take:
2) Free Spells
Both options are synergistic with each other, with the cantrip engine, and also with the eventual kill spell. Draw-7s are best cast under cost reducers, so that when you reload from a Wheel of Fortune, you only paid R for as opposed to 2R – a huge difference mid-spell chain. The Draw-7, even with the larger deck size, should hopefully see at least one more cantrip or additional big spell to allow the sequence to progress; with enough cheap wheels and cantrips you should eventually hit a critical spell count and kill an opponent.
The other tool we have to go big or go home are the free spells. In permanent-based decks, tools like Genesis Wave and Primal Surge exist to simply put your deck into play. We also have some tools in our repertoire to likewise allow us to sling free spells en mass.
The brutal beauty of these spells is that they are – you guessed it – in sync with the rest of your deck. An old favourite is Mind’s Desire. Desire is an amazing spell in that it has a fixed casting cost; while its cost is fixed (and I might add modifiable by our tax evaders), its performance is dependent on how far you have managed to ramp your storm count before casting. A small storm count can quickly be doubled and mana freely ramped up through hitting a free Turnabout or Time Spiral amongst other cantrips.
Similarly (although more mana intensive), Epic Experiment can be just as devastating as a well-fuelled Mind’s Desire. Epic Experiment can be even stronger in a low-storm count, high-mana availability scenario – one where you may even have fizzled the previous turn, but now have a solid supply of mana open.
The two flaws in Epic Experiment are the mana requirement and the vulnerability to counter-magic; a worthwhile casting is for a minimum of X = 6, and anything less means you are potentially wasting a free casting of a key spell that would mean almost certain lethality for the kill if used at the right time. Speaking of, in the case a kill is not reached, the depth at which a Mind’s Desire or an Epic Experiment can reach mean that it is almost certain you will be able to hit some or more cards to progress your storm strategy.
Hopefully, I’ve showed you that even in a 99-card format like EDH, you can still get away with combo-murder if you correctly build and observe the rules of synergy. What do you think? Have you tried something along these lines in EDH, or faced an opposing deck that has pulled off this strategy? Do you think this is a failed idea in a big-deck singleton format?
I’d love to hear from you. Hit the comments up below.
Thanks for tuning in-