Sunday, February 28, 2010

ptq post-mortem

Short version: 0-2 drop, to Brozek Boros both times.

Slightly longer version: I played the 75 in the last post, except I thought that Burrenton Forge-Tender would be better than Loaming Shaman.

Round one game one, he gets going with one, then two, then three goblin guides, but doesn't have the removal to stop me from comboing on turn four. I sideboard:

+4 Jitte
+3 Ranger
+1 Warcaller
+1 Viridian Shaman
+1 Burrenton Forge-Tender
-3 Cloudstone Curio
-1 Viridian Zealot
-1 Boreal Druid
-1 Arbor Elf
-1 Elvish Visionary
-1 Elvish Archdruid
-1 Summoner's Pact
-1 Primal Command

Pretty messy what I took out. Games two and three, he mulls to five and still beats me. Mostly I blame Jitte for this; I thought it would be crazy against a deck of almost nothing but X/1s, but what I didn't realize is that in this matchup, Jitte does not have the text printed on it. Instead, it is errata'd to have the following ability instead:

2, sacrifice an untapped creature: target player discards an instant.

...which is obviously a pretty terrible card. There's absolutely no way I should have cut elves at random to put in that thing; it's just way too slow and expensive for a deck that can just go "kill you." The fact that he beat me on mulls to five shows that. Yes, sure, I can blame it on him having every removal spell he possibly could, but that's just what his deck does. I misunderstood the matchup (it's the only deck I haven't played against extensively on MODO) and got crushed, as well I should have.

Second round was about the same; he deals me fifteen on the third turn the first game, putting me at one, and I can't combo next turn. Game two he has nothing and I have turn one Forge-Tender (which he attacks with Guide into) so I slowly, slowly, slowly beat him down. Game three I don't do much and he has a bunch of removal.

I'm going to try sideboarding Refraction Trap and see how that does.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

selfish elf report

Selfish Elf sucks.

Current spergelves decklist:

2 Arbor Elf
4 Heritage Druid
3 Boreal Druid
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Nettle Sentinel
1 Joraga Warcaller
1 Viridian Zealot
4 Elvish Visionary
4 Elvish Archdruid
1 Ranger of Eos
1 Regal Force

2 Primal Command
4 Summoner's Pact
4 Glimpse of Nature
3 Cloudstone Curio

4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Misty Rainforest
1 Temple Garden
1 Pendelhaven
5 Forest
3 Horizon Canopy

3 Ranger of Eos
4 Umezawa's Jitte
1 Loaming Shaman
4 Ghost Quarter
1 Joraga Warcaller
2 Viridian Shaman

Only major change is two Warcaller between main and side. It's the best card to tutor up with Ranger of Eos against basically any scary cards when the game goes a bit long; you just play one with all your mana and if they don't kill it, you probably win. If they do, play another one. Just ran a two-man against Zoo to try it out, and the game went long (read: turn five) and he had a Meddling Mage and Steppe Lynx on Heritage Druid against my board of a couple elves, so I Primal Commanded to gain seven and search up Ranger Of Eos. Next turn, Ranger for two Warcallers and block Steppe Lynx. Next turn, Warcaller meets Path to Exile. Next turn, Warcaller wins the game. Surprisingly, slow-seeming strategies like this are actually really good against Zoo as long as each card you play trades with at least one of theirs. Warcaller is a great card at drawing a removal spell kicked once, great at giving you a solid team kicked twice, and wins the game unless they kill it kicked three times... plus, it's another one-mana guy, so unlike most sideboard cards, it doesn't fuck up your Glimpse plan.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

win more = win more GAMES duh

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

why i don't play standard

For the three of you who read this blog, it's pretty obvious that my focus is on Extended. This isn't just because it's Extended season; it's also because I cannot stand Standard. Can't stand-ard. Hehe.

When the topic turns to Standard being a horrible pile of shit format at the moment, people usually bring up Jund, and how boring it is. To me, Jund is just a symptom of the larger problem: the cards that Wizards has put out over the past couple years cause people to make decks that are just piles of good cards, with no synergy. Off the top of my head, some of the best decks in Standard right now:

White Weenie
UW Control

Holy hell, look at all those different strategies that are viable! Well... no, not really. Here's what I see:

BRG good cards
Mono-white good fast cards
UW good slow cards (edit: it's been pointed out how synergistic the draw engine of Jace, Treasure Hunt, and Halimar Depths is, so I no longer consider UW to be just a good cards deck. Plus, it plays Cancel, and that's not on anyone's list of must-play staples.)
RGW good cards
RBU good slow cards
BGW good cards

They play in different ways, obviously, and use different cards, but the main deckbuilding strategy is the same: throw the best cards in your colors in a deck, and see whose cards end up being better. To put it simply, I do not play Magic for this. What I like about Magic decks is how they can operate like polished machines, each card in them with a specifically-defined function; how that Arcbound Worker is used as a critical piece in an overpowered monstrosity despite how terrible it looks at first glance. When I think dominant standard decks, what comes to mind are things like:

UG Madness
Astral Slide
Tooth and Nail
UR Tron
BW (insert variant here) from chk/ravnica

Obviously, there were some non-linear strategies, but all the above decks were either linear or had some powerful synergies built into them that made them function as well as they did, using cards no one else wanted to use. Even a good cards deck like Tron was built off the synergy of colorless lands that made a lot of mana, with signets to cast spells. Teachings was full of good cards, but the synergy that the card Mystical Teachings had with Teferi was pretty incredible. Right now, all the decks that have a powerful linear or at least highly synergistic gameplan are tier two in standard, and that really sucks.

I'm obviously in the minority in this opinion, since Standard tournament attendance is at an all-time high... apparently people just really like their good cards decks. Maybe that's why people insist on playing their Rock decks even when there are good synergies available. Back to Extended for me. Hey, that's why there are multiple formats, right?

magic as a spectator sport

A blog post not about combo, for once.

This past weekend I watched some of the Pro Tour: San Diego coverage, though not with as much interest as the GP the previous weekend, because blech standard (maybe I'll write a post about that soon). First off, I'd like to mention how much better the ggslive coverage is that the official WOTC; a video feed that covers matches as they happen with random pros stopping by the booth is incredibly cool, and way better than having Hagon (shudder) and BDM (no rock star himself) jabbering over just the top eight. More than almost anything, what bothers me is Hagon's approach to the game. Many Magic theorists seem to like talking, writing, and thinking about Magic when they could be applying the same analysis to any game, whether it's chess, bridge, or football. Hagon, on the other hand, seems to approach the game almost completely as a spectator, cheering on certain pros, and looking at it completely through a lens not of what's doing well in the tournament, but who. This bothers me quite a bit.

To be clear: LSV is an amazing player. I'm no LSV. If I was playing against him in any format and we switched decks after each match, he'd probably beat me at least 75% of the time, because he is much better at Magic than I am. But he's not really doing anything especially worthy of attention or note when he plays those games; he's just not making mistakes. When Hagon covers him, he's not pointing out the tiny differences in decision-making that give LSV an edge, he's just going "HOLY SHIT LSV LSV LSV 16-0" or whatever, but more British. What's great about Magic, to me, is that the day after a PT, anyone with an internet connection and either a good paycheck or a healthy collection can build the deck a pro player used and try the deck for themselves. Cards are expensive, sure, but the barrier to entry in terms of doing what they're doing is very low compared to, say, watching an athletic event. Wizards seems to want to mythologize pro players as if they're doing something truly incredible, without ever telling us what that is. If you're going to give LSV wall-to-wall coverage, can you at least tell us what the hell he's doing that makes him win so many more games than anyone else? If I'm giving up part of my day to watch the PT, I don't just want to know who won, because I don't care that much. I want to know why, and the Wizards coverage, especially Hagon, is awful at telling me this.

In summary, shut up Hagon, you're impossibly annoying.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

sideboarding with and against elves

I've played a couple DEs with a barely-modified version of Matt Nass's list (aka Spergelves), and I've been incredibly impressed with Ranger of Eos. Before he won, I was always under the assumption that Ranger would be too slow and mana-intensive to be useful; spending four mana to get a guy that trades with their one-drop can't be worth it, you'd rather just Weird Harvest, untap and win, right? Actually, no, the card practically instantly wins against them, since even a terrible removal spell is better than you had before, and it plays incredibly well with Curio and Glimpse. I honestly felt like I could play against Slow Zoo all day, it was that good.

Previously, I was running the red splash for Blood Moon, but it's just really bad in the current metagame: it was in there mostly to give you game against Tribal Zoo, which no one really plays any more (surprisingly). Against Zoo with Hierarch, though, it's basically incapable of stealing games like it did, leaving you jack shit against them. I'll miss it against Faeries, but that's faded away a bit too, because of the bad Zoo matchup.

Part of Elves's success, I feel, is that people's maindecks aren't prepared for it, and unless they're super on top of the latest MTGO daily events so they know what dual land corresponds to what sideboard card, they won't know what Elves is doing post-board. If you throw some Rangers in there, however, this advantage goes away... it's a tough situation, since Nass's sideboard really is that good. Against Zoo it doesn't matter too much since you can shout at your opponent "I AM GOING TO CAST RANGER OF EOS" and they'll still lose to it, but against control, it'll influence what cards they're bringing in- if a DDT (cheesy but catchy name for the deck, innit?) player thinks you're using Damping Matrix instead of Ghost Quarter, that will influence how they play and sideboard; only a week ago, people would have brought in Hurkyl's Recall, which is now an obvious blank.

Depending on the hate that people come up with, I'm excited to try a black splash for Prowess of the Fair. I've played all of one game with it, and it was a while ago, but it won! Huzzah. Anyway, it seems comparable to Fecundity last season for obvious reasons, and definitely helps your beatdown plan, as well as the fact that it's an enchantment you can tap to Heritage Druid, and get an extra mana from Archdruid.

If I was playing a PTQ today, I'd run this sideboard (assuming two maindeck Primal Command):

4 Ghost Quarter
4 Umezawa's Jitte
3 Ranger of Eos
1 Loaming Shaman
1 Burrenton Forge-Tender
1 Elvish Champion
1 Viridian Shaman

The Champion is for any adopters of the deck or Conley devotees trying out some Bant concoction. In those matchups against midrangey decks that pack a bunch of crap like Meddling Mage, you basically just want to make your guys bigger than theirs and beat down, and unblockability seems like it'll help there. I haven't tested the mirror more than a couple times, but Champion seems like a no-brainer one-of, especially with Jitte. Speaking of Jitte, still playing four of them seems questionable, since they only come in against the moderately-played Faeries and Elves, but I feel like there's room in the sideboard to make those that much better.

There's been a bunch of talk about what the right hate cards are against the deck, and I can confidently say that by far the best one is Darkblast. Barring Pendelhaven or ridiculous Nettle-Nettle-Heritage-Archdruid draws, the deck cannot beat it if the opponent can cast it turn one. This is very different from Explosives, which you can play around by just attacking a bunch, or slow shit like Night of Soul's Betrayal where they need other cards to stop you from turn three or fouring them. Chalice is reasonable, but most of the time you can get an elf or two down before they play it, and if their draw is otherwise slow you'll have time to find artifact removal. In summary: just play Darkblast. It is good, and not just against this deck; it's really strong against Brozek Boros and DDT as well.

Also depending on what the metagame looks like, I'm excited to start testing a list resembling this:

Selfish Elves
4 Heritage Druid
4 Nettle Sentinel
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Arbor Elf
4 Joraga Warcaller
4 Elvish Visionary
4 Elvish Archdruid
1 Regal Force
4 Summoner's Pact
4 Glimpse of Nature
3 Strength of the Tajuru (SELFISH ELF)
2 Primal Command
18 land

Obviously, it's a bit more beatdown-centric, and the general idea is to be much more resilient against Darkblast and Volcanic Fallout. The disadvantage is the loss of Curio, and only eight Llanowars instead of ten or eleven, but the combo is still strong since it plays more one-drops than most Elf decks, as well as having a beatdown plan worthy of Extended. It'll be a couple days before Worldwake is on Magic Online, but I'll be trying it out the instant I can get my virtual hands on the virtual cards. I will probably start doing the Spongebob the first time I win the game with Selfish Elf.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

how to play elves

Since the GP win, I assume that there'll be a lot of discussion on Elves in the coming weeks- sideboarding strategies, different builds, numbers of Curios, and other such minutia. In my opinion, the variations in lists and sideboards are, combined, roughly 10% as important as knowing how to play the deck effectively. This is not a deck you can pick up and play; despite what Nass said, he didn't just have experience with the Standard version, he's played the Extended version pretty extensively (there's really no way to arrive at a list like that unless you do; a less experienced person would take LSV's word that Thoughtseize and even Night's Whisper is the way to go). Despite that, he played really, really horribly, but got lucky enough that it didn't matter. Don't try that at home: the majority of games lost by the deck could have been won with better play.

As I see it, there are three main aspects to playing it well: goldfishing, general strategy, and sideboarding. Goldfishing is probably the easiest to learn: just lock yourself in a room with either a paper or online copy of the deck (MWS works better here than MTGO) and combo until your hands bleed. Most of it gets pretty rote, but there are still some strategic and probabilistic decisions to be made, and most of them involve Summoner's Pact. If that card didn't exist, aside from the amazing level of consistency it would take away from the deck, it would be reasonably simple to play. Most of the time, you just need to know what to get in certain situations, like if you untap on turn two on the play with a Forest and Nettle Sentinel in play, and a hand of:

Verdant Catacombs, Summoner's Pact, Summoner's Pact, Nettle Sentinel, Nettle Sentinel, Glimpse of Nature

Obviously, it's ridiculous, and pretty much the best you can ask for. Assuming you want to show off the turn two kill to your friends, the play here is pretty simple: fetchland to Forest, Pact for Heritage and play it, play Nettle, tap them for GGG, Glimpse, Nettle (GG), tap Nettles and Pact (5*G) for Regal force, tap Nettles (8*G), cast Regal, do the happy dance as you draw six cards plus what you drew off Glimpse already and easily turn two. Obviously, this is a pretty basic goldfishing example with the absurd triple-Nettle-and-(pseudo)-Heritage in it, but it shows a few basic principles: first, don't be afraid of Pact. Pact is your friend, it's a nice card that would never kill you unless you've done something very very bad. Don't be afraid to Pact when you can Glimpse but can't fully combo with 100% certainty; the deck is just under a third one-cost guys, so if you can draw three or four cards off Glimpse and won't completely run out of mana, it's probably worth it. There are no hard and fast rules; just practice a bunch and see what works for you.

That example was using Pact in a situation where it was used early, for a very clear, obvious combo purpose. Sometimes, it's not that simple. For example, you could be trying to combo with one Glimpse, two Nettles in play, you've used your land drop already, you have seven mana floating, and you're down to lands and Pact in hand. What do you go for here? If your instant response was Regal Force, that is wrong if you absolutely must combo (but may be correct in some game situations). It'll use up all your mana, and you'll have to ship the turn with two untapped Nettles and a bunch of cards in hand. You might also think that the better play is to go for the third Nettle Sentinel, but this doesn't do anything for you- you're a mana short of going for Regal now, but if you draw a few more cards, you'll have essentially infinite. The correct play is to Pact for Elvish Visionary. When you play it, you'll draw two cards and have five floating. This means that if you draw into Pact or Regal, you'll win outright; if you draw Primal Command, you can use a bunch of mana but go for another Visionary to keep going; and you have twice as many chances to draw one-drops to keep things going.

This is why goldfishing is so crucial with the deck: when you're not even playing for two tickets in an online 2-man, you can try to combo on turn three when it looks like you shouldn't. You'll probably be surprised how often you'll draw the combination of cards you need if you assume that if you don't combo on turn three, you've lost. Then, when you need to do this in a tournament, you'll feel at least reasonably confident, and look like a true genius/total lucksack when you win with from a position that seems impossible.

As far as general strategy outside the combo goes, you'll need to always have a plan based on your hand of what your next few turns are going to look like, especially against decks that are beating you down. Against Zoo and the like, the tension for them is between removing your creatures and playing threats of their own: if they do nothing but play Goyfs and Knight of the Reliquary, you can goldfish them pretty easily. If they do nothing but kill all your creatures as they hit the table, you'll eventually draw into some way to combo, since if they only have one threat, it'll give you all the time in the world. Because of this, you'll need to think carefully about the creatures you're playing, and how your board position stacks up to the aggro player. Generally, if you do nothing but play dorky elves with no Heritage Druid, eventually they'll think you just don't have anything, and play more threats to kill you before you do. The most crucial thing is knowing when to chump block: if you do it randomly, you're not going to have enough mana to go off, and you'll die anyway; instead, you need to think about what, exactly, your plan is when you untap, and if you can combo, especially through a single removal spell. Generally how I win games against Zoo is to play out my Llanowars and sub-Llanowars, keeping Heritage in hand if I have just one along with a Glimpse, and waiting to go off until they either tap out for more creatures or I know that one removal spell isn't going to stop me. Minor note: it's often best to play Heritage as your third creature, giving them the choice between letting you tap your guys for mana, or using a removal spell on a suboptimal target. They'll misplay by killing non-Heritage when you can combo, or misplay by saving it when you just wanted to tap them to play out your hand.

It doesn't affect strategy too much, usually, but know that if you untap with Archdruid, you almost always win.

The Thopter-Depths matchup is, surprisingly, one of the more straightforward ones. They don't have much removal pre-board, so Archdruid will generally win the game by himself, and if they don't have the 20/20 really early, they'll have to spend their mana tutoring and casting Thirst for Knowledge. If you can't combo, just play out your entire hand and see if they have anything fast enough to stop it. There's really no use playing conservatively here.

Against slow blue control decks, just play a few 1/1s, keeping all your good spells in hand. Attack for three or four, turn after turn, until they feel like doing something about it. Then combo them. They have almost no clock whatsoever, so there's hardly ever a reason to play out more than four creatures or to try to force a combo into open mana. Try to bait them into countering superflous elves.

Against everything, just remember: what you want to present to your opponent is a difficult situation where they're facing threats on the table, but have no earthly idea whether or not you can combo. Keep this in mind at all times; sometimes a play will come up where you can trick your opponent one way or another.

As far as sideboarding goes, the important thing is to think about what you want your gameplan to be, and sideboard out cards accordingly- this is much more important than what you bring in. Often, people will over-sideboard cards that seem good, but don't help your game plan at all. Remember: if you are bringing in more than six cards, you are doing it wrong. This holds true against almost every deck. Generally, you want to take out a couple one-drops, unless hitting your 1/1s early and often is important (like against Faeries), and take out a couple Visionaries if your plan is to combo them as soon as possible, since they can be a bit slow. Faeries is the matchup that is worth mentioning specifically: they won't let you combo after turn three hardly ever. Instead, you want to make them trade their two-mana answers for your one-mana dorks. Take out everything that costs more than three, as well as Curio. On the play, take out a couple Pact; on the draw, Archdruid, since it's the only card you have that they can trade profitably with. The matchup basically comes down to Jitte, so hope you get one.

I hope this was helpful to everyone that wants to play the deck. Now get out there and... stay at home goldfishing.

Monday, February 15, 2010

elves wins GP oakland

Well, fucking hell. There goes my easy cruise to PTQ victory on the 27th.

Unlike Dredge, which caught a bunch of splash damage from people running Leylines to fight Thop-Depths, no one was prepared with any real mass removal or, well, anything that could easily defeat Nass. It really shouldn't surprise anyone that a combo deck no one expected took down a GP, not losing a round until he was already in top eight. Elf pilots from here on out won't have that luxury, unless people think it sucks again.

There are a few possible metagame outcomes from this: a) Elves becomes another accepted "good deck" instead of a fringe strategy, so people start sideboarding accordingly; b) people are hesitant to start playing it, since it's really difficult, so those few players that do play it get a lot more success; c) another deck like Hypergenesis becomes popular that has loses to some of the same sideboard cards (in this example, Chalice), keeping down popularity of the deck.

Having Elves as a major player in the metagame poses a fairly unique challenge for people hoping to prepare for it: since it's so difficult to play, playtesting against it will be really tough to do. My advice is, if Elves becomes a real deck in your area, become bestest friends with someone who's good at playing it. This is the only way you'll get any real testing in against the thing.

The real surge in interest after this GP, though, seems to be in the Brozek Boros deck... and that's completely reasonable. It's a deck that plays removal, guys, and has a more than decent chance of racing Elves, Depths or Dredge, even without getting their hate cards. Personally, I expect this to pull a lot of players who like "tier two" strategies that seem cool... except in this case, the deck is actually good.

Metagame prediction for the next couple weeks: Depths will fall a bit from 20% down to 10-15%. Zoo will keep steady, but I'm unsure how long the dominant build will be the slow, mirror-beating version- at some point you just need to go back to doing what Zoo is really good at, instead of playing blue spells and leaving mana open. Scapeshift will keep falling, as people realize that it really is just bad. Faeries, Boros and Elves will round out the top of the metagame, but far behind those top two decks (but not as far behind as they were before).

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Theory of Combo Decks

I wrote this last season, so I'm posting it here. I don't stand behind everything in here, and I was probably just flat wrong on combo vs aggro, but there's still some interesting theory in it. It's rather outdated, just by how derisive I am of most a+b combo decks, when the current top deck in extended is one with two a+b combos (and it loses to aggro). Here's the article:

Articles on Magic theory (even the very good ones) almost always ignore combo decks, by making excuses and exceptions for them, while talking almost exclusively about aggro and control decks. For example, in talking about the value of a mana curve, to act like every deck either plays dudes on the first few turns of the game, or sets up with removal spells and card drawing for mass removal, completely ignoring the set of decks that do nothing until they untap and win. The way I see it, this is part of a broader problem: most Magic players, even very good ones, seem to view combo decks as freak accidents or completely unique concoctions that have nothing in common except their speed and style of winning. This is wrong. For all the talk about the strategy and theory inherent in aggro mirror matches, aggro-on-control, or control mirror matches, there are just as many guiding principles behind combo decks- they just happen to be different.

Until recently, there was almost no way to talk about the theory behind combo decks. They don't get card advantage, really; Dark Ritual is pretty poor by that metric, and there's absolutely no way to describe a deck like Dredge that actively wants to dump its hand. Card quality? All but a few cards in the deck don't really do much of anything (by themselves), so no. Tempo? How is playing a land and saying go for two or three turns tempo? However, Zac Hill has written a couple fantastic articles about what he calls "interaction advantage." Giving a definition is difficult, but if I could take a shot at it, I'd say that it's the ability to interfere with an opponent's gameplan while advancing your own. Generally speaking, a pure aggro deck wins via tempo: its cards come out the gates faster and at higher quality than the opponent's. Control wins via card advantage, that's obvious. Combo decks win via interaction advantage: it plays a set of cards that win the game immediately that the opponent can do nothing about. A combo deck (or at least, a good combo deck) is not one which can simply win the game quickly. A hypothetical card that costs zero mana and reads "you win the game next turn unless your opponent plays a land or spell" probably isn't the basis for the next killer combo deck, as literally everything can stop it. All combo decks want to win as quickly as possible, of course, but they also must be difficult to disrupt to be any good.

Just like other broad archetypes have their subcategories, "pure" combo decks generally break into two camps: decks which feature some kind of engine or a single card that wins the game when played, or decks that require two (or more, but usually two) specific pieces in order to win. For lack of better terminology, I will call them engine and a+b decks.

As a straightforward example of an engine combo deck, here is LSV's list for TEPS, quickly on its way to becoming one of the most copy-pasted decklists of all time (behind Sligh, Trix and the original incarnation of The Deck).

4 Desperate Ritual
2 Electrolyze
4 Lotus Bloom
4 Manamorphose
4 Mind's Desire
4 Peer Through Depths
4 Ponder
4 Remand
4 Rite of Flame
4 Seething Song
2 Sleight of Hand
2 Tendrils of Agony

4 Cascade Bluffs
4 Dreadship Reef
2 Island
4 Shivan Reef
4 Steam Vents

The deck's engine is, of course, Mind's Desire. The deck works as well as it does not because if you have Mind's Desire and a specific card in your hand, you automatically win the game, but because the card works so well with every one of the 38 other spells, you will probably win when you cast it. This is an important point to note about engine decks: very rarely does a deck come along that, in goldfishing, will win a full 100% of the time upon casting its main card. A win percentage of between 50% and 99% (depending on the storm count and amount of mana floating) is judged to be good enough. A key mistake that people make in looking for the next big combo deck is looking for cards that will always win the game. These decks are (aside from not being engine decks) generally less reliable and more easily disruptable. This is mainly due to the fact that most of these sorts of combos are just so damn obvious that Wizards would never ship them out the door without making sure the deck was bad first.

This brings us to the next type of deck: the a+b combo deck. Here is a list of one of the few tournament-caliber decks of this type: Flash.

1 Badlands
4 Flooded Strand
4 Polluted Delta
1 Tropical Island
4 Underground Sea
1 Volcanic Island
1 Body Snatcher
1 Carrion Feeder
1 Karmic Guide
1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
4 Protean Hulk
1 Sylvan Safekeeper
4 Brainstorm
4 Cabal Therapy
4 Daze
4 Duress
1 Echoing Truth
4 Flash
4 Force of Will
4 Lim-Dul's Vault
1 Massacre
2 Mystical Tutor
4 Peek

In contrast to the above deck, Flash is one that has no engine that will win in combination with the other cards in the deck; it simply has Flash and Protean Hulk that, for two mana at instant speed, will automatically win the game if the opponent doesn't do anything (and usually even if they do). It plays a multitude of cards that, without the rest of the combo, are utterly useless on their own. The upside, of course, is the deck's breakneck speed, the fact that it doesn't need the "support" cards an engine deck does, and that it will win every single time in goldfishing, rather that it just being overwhelmingly likely.

The overwhelming majority of bad combo decks are of this latter type, because the cards to play are so much more obvious. This is also the type of deck that gives the popular impression of most combo decks: their cards are useless until they get two or three specific ones in play, in which case, they win. Most of the time, these instant-win interactions are better suited to being a part of an aggro or control deck. Project X, for example, was a GWB midrange deck that could play three specific cards to gain infinite life. Many people assumed, wrongly, that this was the deck's only strategy, and played specifically to combat that. If they opposing player was any good, they just attacked with dudes and won. Swans in Standard is similar: it's a control deck that can combo off when it feels comfortable about its board position. On a more personal level, one of my favorite decks of all time is a deck I made for Regionals about two and a half years ago that I called The End, and wrote an article about for StarCity. It played sixteen green mana accelerants, big fat green creatures, including Protean Hulk, which could be sacrificed to Greater Good or Miren, the Moaning Well to lock the opponent down infinitely. Usually, though, I just played big guys and attacked. Don't assume that any "instant win" combo needs to go in a combo deck.

So what do these decks have in common, aside from speed? The cards in both decks can be broken down into a few general categories. Obviously, it needs to play land. Because TEPS has to cast a six-mana spell whereas Flash only needs two mana, the landcount is higher in the former (though still lower than that of a "fair" deck).

Neither deck plays any of what would generally be thought of as card drawing or card advantage. Generally, since this will cost more mana and not necessarily get the card you want, card selection or tutoring is generally what's used instead. TEPS plays sets of Ponder and Peer Through Depths for this, whereas Flash uses Lim-Dul's vault and a couple Mystical Tutor. What are generally preferred here are not cards that tutor up just one specific type of card in your deck, but card selection mechanisms that can find whatever you need at the moment. The package TEPS is running can be used to find nearly anything in the deck, whereas Flash's Mystical Tutors, while they can't be used to find Hulk, can get any of the disruption or the namesake card. It also played Peek, but I'm not sure what the hell category that can fall under. (It's worth noting, though, that Flash was banned before Future Sight became legal, and would have run Summoner's Pact, which contradicts the idea of the card selection being able to find anything; however, it would have changed the skeleton of the deck to be even more consistent.)

Next up is the disruption package the deck uses. Combo decks use disruption in a different way from other types of decks: aggro might use hand disruption to take away removal and bigger guys, whereas control uses it as a fundamental part of their strategy to stop whatever the opponent is doing. Combo, on the other hand, only cares about taking the cards that could possibly interact with it. It might seem bizarre that it's a great first-turn play to use your Duress to take someone else's Duress, trading one-for-one for the exact same card while dropping a mana behind in the bargain. Often, though, that Duress you took is the other player's only way of interacting with you, so it's a fantastic deal for you. TEPS has the playset of Remand that, in addition to being tremendously useful on the combo itself (Remanding the Desire after the additional copies resolve), can stop anything the opponent throws at the deck's strategy. Flash plays a full eight hand disruption, plus Peek to make Cabal Therapy more useful, plus a one-of Echoing Truth to bounce anything annoying like Leyline of the Void, plus a full set of Force of Will. This is what really made the deck as good as it was: while it could have been faster if it had used those 17 card slots on more tutoring or card selection, instead it used them to completely prevent anything from interfering with the strategy. I don't mean to go all Mike Flores gushing about how great the deck was, but it's worth pointing this out to explain how it wasn't just all combo cards and ways to find them: it was going to screw up whatever your plan was for beating it, period.

After this comes the mana acceleration. Flash was unusual in this respect because, as it relied on a two-mana card, it really didn't need any (though some people added some anyway just so they could show off by winning on turn one or zero). TEPS, on the other hand, plays sixteen, which should tell you how important Ritual effects are to almost every engine deck. It's fairly easy to keep combo out of the top tier: don't print those Rituals. Guess what, there haven't been any, and Standard is a large mash of creatures smashing into each other and making vaguely sexual grunting noises.

Finally is the win condition itself. For almost every combo deck, the way that the deck gets the opponent from 20 to 0 (or 60 to 0) is almost irrelevant, because the way the deck wins isn't really what drives it. There was at least one other Flash kill, involving Disciple of the Vault, that saw play at Columbus, and Grapeshot plus Pyromancer's Swath is an alternative to the Tendrils kill- plus they almost all run Brain Freeze in the sideboard. Occasionally, people will get excited when they see a card that's the kill for some theoretical combo deck, or an improved kill to an existing one. Unless it speeds the deck up or drastically changes a matchup, chill out, it doesn't matter.

While it's great fun to explain why good decks are good, it's more useful to focus on something else: what separates the format-defining, DCI-enraging monstrosities that go on to take seven out of eight slots at the top of a Pro Tour from the bad combo deck a kid might bring to your FNM? They're the same general concepts. Here, then, is what makes a good combo deck:

First, and most obviously, it has to be faster than the best aggro deck in the format. This one is straightforward: if you get 50/50 or worse against the aggressive decks, why aren't you just playing those? However, as controversial as it may be to say, the speed of a combo deck, if it can beat aggro, is almost irrelevant, as in every other matchup, you'll be waiting as long as possible to combo off so that you can disrupt as much as possible.

Second, it has to not completely scoop at the first sign of an Island. TEPS, like Dragonstorm back when it was in Standard, had favorable matchups against blue decks partially because of Gigadrowse and the fact that its main card is virtually uncounterable by what's normally played in the maindeck. Essentially, this one comes down to having a solid enough deck that it can wait and set up its turn, and playing the right disruption elements to stop them. It doesn't necessarily have to be a good matchup- plenty of good combo decks, like Elves, don't have this- but if it's dreadful, there's a fundamental weakness in the deck.

The third part is the most complex, and ties into the last. The angle that you are attacking from (that is, the combination of cards that wins you the game) can't be the same angle of attack that other decks are already trying to defeat. What this means, usually, is that if you make a new combo deck that relies on you untapping with a certain creature in play, and that creature has no built-in way to defend itself, it's almost certainly a terrible combo deck. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people going insane over the new "broken" creature (or sometimes artifact or enchantment) on a spoiler that almost always costs four or more and doesn't win the game when you cast it. They'll frantically try to build a deck around it, win on turn four 10% of the time and get excited before realizing that their broken combo deck loses to the creature removal already played in every single deck. This point may seem to be contradicted by how good the Elves deck is in Extended, but it isn't. That deck doesn't depend on a specific one of its creatures surviving; its engine is Glimpse of Nature, not a single fragile dude. Plus, they all cost one or two, it doesn't necessarily depend on untapping with them, it plays four of a card that can bounce any of its creatures for free, and if you kill all their Heritage Druids, Nettle Sentinels and Wirewood Symbiotes, it'll just beat you down with the ten power they have remaining. The point is, it's incredibly resilient, and this is an aspect that every single successful combo deck needs to have, and it's much, much more important than what turn it kills, if that turn is fast enough for the format.

Fourth, the card selection available has to be good enough to find your key parts- and you can't just lose if you don't find the part you're looking for. If every piece of TEPS was reprinted in the next set except the card selection, and there weren't any good alternatives available, the deck would fall apart to its own inconsistency. Alternatively, as a deck with no card selection, if Elves doesn't find its Glimpse, it's perfectly capable of just making a board packed with dudes who will happily attack for 20 over a couple turns. TEPS doesn't have that option, but anyone who's played it will tell you how many games they've won without Desire by casting Tendrils, Remanding it, and casting it again.

Finally, if your new combo deck was also independently discovered by someone who posted it on MTG Salvation under a "decks for critique" forum, abandon it immediately, it's garbage.

The basic point is this: theory of combo decks is just as valid and just as important as theory about any other deck, and these decks shouldn't be ignored for purposes of discussing theory just because they win in some weird way.

On a related topic, an interesting thing to me has been the discrepancy of results among people playing Elves between the latest GP and all of the PTQs that have been going on. Simply put, I think that only a very small minority of people that play the deck are the slightest bit good at it; it really is impossibly difficult to play correctly. In a recent game when I was dicking around with a bad deck on Magic Workstation, I played against someone using the deck. They went off, and probably made upwards of twenty or thirty misplays on that one turn... and I lost anyway. I think that a lot of people play a few matches with it, think they have the hang of it since they're doing fairly well, and miss top 8 at a PTQ because they were never that good with it. It's not just the small, obvious misplays that they might make a thousand of over eight rounds, like forgetting to untap Nettle Sentinel or make a few additional mana, but big mistakes in strategy. Way too many people try to go for the combo and end up losing rather than just crapping five or ten power onto the board and making your opponent play more conservatively than the Heritage Foundation. And for god's sake, learn to play it fast! After my match was done at the last PTQ, one of the only matches left was a guy going off with Elves, and god damn did he just take forever. You may find yourself with a beautiful board position, and a beautiful hand. And you may ask yourself, how do I work this? And you may ask yourself, where is that Nettle Sentinel? And you may ask yourself, which creature should I play first? At this point, you should probably just tell yourself that this is not your winning deck. Or... maybe you should just goldfish it three hundred times. Either way.

You Suck Against Combo

I've been playing Elves in extended recently. It's a bit different from most combo decks throughout the game's history (except, obviously, last season's version of the same deck), due to the fact that its engine is based around playing a ton of one-mana creatures. It's still a combo deck, though, which means it has some of the classic advantages of combo decks: you need dedicated hate to have a chance against it, and people play like morons against it.

There's a couple reasons this happens. The first is that, often, people don't respect what the deck can do, or have no idea when it's possible for it to win- this leads to things like a control deck tapping out for Baneslayer Angel or something else dumb like that when the Elf player has a grip full of cards and a decent board position. It's just asking to lose. Neither player can fall into the trap of "if he has it he has it;" going for the combo in the face of untapped lands is usually going to end up really badly unless you have a good plan to go off, or at least cast some spells, through resistance. The control player needs to realize the Elf player is thinking this, meaning that if they tap out for some non-threat like Baneslayer Angel, they are yelling at their opponent "I DON'T HAVE SHIT! PLEASE KILL ME!" When you're playing some controllish deck against combo, as odd as it sounds, your gameplan should not change based on what is in your hand; you need to keep up the appearance that you can smack them upside the head if they try anything funny, or risk having them kill you right off the bat. This doesn't just apply to big five-cost bombs, either; if you're a Faeries player on the draw and you see some Elves hit the table across from you, that turn two Bitterblossom might not be the best course of action. Even if they don't have the turn three kill, it's very likely that they'll fart out their entire hand, and a 1/1 a turn isn't going to do much to stop that. Leaving up those two mana will probably slow them down a turn- which is fantastic, since Faeries practically auto-wins if it resolves Ancestral Visions.

The other way that people play badly against combo is by not respecting the backup plan, and not respecting their sideboard against your sideboard. This comes up a lot in Dredge games, post-sideboard: the hater will keep some 7-card hand with absolutely no action (maybe even no land) and expect to take things home on the back of a Leyline or whatever. Unfortunately for this player, the opponent's cards still exist; their entire deck isn't removed from the game just because you had a sideboard card in your opener. They'll be casting all those 1/1s and pointing Hedron Crab milling at you until either they win or find a bounce spell (if they play it). If the hater isn't able to actually cast spells, well, obviously he's going to lose, since the Dredge player is attempting to play Magic: the Gathering (or something loosely resembling it) while the hater looks silly and marks down his life total. He'll look even sillier if the Dredge player had an Echoing Truth, and wins even more easily than he took game one.

It's even worse for the anti-combo player if they're up against a deck like Elves that has a reasonable backup plan. 1/1s for one and three-mana lords aren't going to win too many Extended tournaments if you can't combo, but if your opponent is using all their resources to attack your combo plan (like if they've Thoughtseized and Extirpated your Glimpse of Nature and just assume you can't win now), it becomes a lot more reasonable, since they have very little to interact with a bunch of bad creatures attacking them. If you're going to try to combat a combo deck, make sure that either your plan works against both their main strategy and their backup, or have some cards that can deal with the latter. It's hard coming up with examples to explain how bad it is to neglect a combo player's backup plan, but it's so pervasive that it makes people play terribly, and make bad sideboarding decisions. You wouldn't assume that Zoo can't beat you without Wild Nacatl, so why are you assuming Elves can't beat you without Glimpse?

Playing against combo, lesson number one: HATE IS NOT ENOUGH.

Hate does not win games. Interacting meaningfully wins games. The same hate cards can do nothing or be completely brutal, depending on the strategy that the person playing them is using: to go back to Elves, if you look at the (now outdated) UW Thopter lists, they look like a nightmare. Maindeck Explosives, Trinket Mage and Tolaria West to tutor for it, often maindeck Chalice to tutor for as well, two Wraths, counters, card draw to find all that, finishing off with a combo of their own... how can Elves possibly win? Pretty easily, as it turns out. Just play 1/1s and attack with them for three a turn until they feel like doing something about it. Sure, UW plays some scary cards, but they have no pressure to back them up with, so what's forcing you to run your cards into their eeeevil mass removal? UW does really well against Zoo, because Zoo doesn't have any choice but to run their guys out there in the first few turns and hope they're good enough before UW plays some big spells that end the game. Elves is different: it's fine just attacking for three turn after turn, because if UW ever taps a bunch of mana to try to stop your pitiful beats, you can combo them fairly easily. This is why aggro-control decks are, traditionally, the normal combo deck's worst nightmare: they have cards that can interact with your combo, as well creatures that threaten you enough that you have to try to win the game anyway.

How does this impact your deckbuilding? First of all, you need to think about what the combo deck in your sights will do post-sideboarding, if your plan is to beat them with sideboard cards. Say that, for example, you're playing that BW Martyr deck that put up some good finishes. You can't just throw Explosives and Chalice in there and expect to crush Elves, because Elves doesn't give a shit about any of your other cards. Oooo, you're gaining life! Oh no. In this scenario, it would be better if you could put in some relevant creatures to put a clock on them while you disrupt them, instead of throwing Chalice out on the board and waiting until the end of time, when they find Viridian Shaman/Zealot and win anyway.

How does this impact your play? A narrow hate card and no action isn't going to put away the game for you. If the hand looks like complete garbage but hey, at least there's an Explosives in there, you probably need to throw it away anyway.

Something else I've seen is assuming that post-sideboard games against combo just come down to whether the hate is drawn or not, and as such, they don't really need to test it. This is wrong. Play the damn games.