So I had this hilarious intro all ready and waiting as soon as Ted assigned me this article, based around the fact that Mind’s Desire and Aluren are the only “cool” combo decks in the format and how gaining infinite life is the dumbest combo ever. But then Osyp had to go and write this article and screw me all up. Damn you, Joe Black! One day I will have my revenge!
Anyway, this article is really long, so let’s get right to the meat of it: I’m gonna give you the low-down on the best combo deck in the format: Mind’s Desire.
Why Play Desire?
Well, first things first: you have to want to play a combo deck. There are lots of people out there who don’t, because playing combo often boils down to little more than doing math problems and playing solitaire. You’ve been warned.
Given that, now consider the sort of metagame that you’ll be seeing in your local PTQs and Grand Prix Trials. The inordinately high amount of Red Deck Wins being played right now is trouble for Aluren, which goldfishes faster than Desire if and only if its nonbasic lands and/or Birds of Paradise survive. U/G Madness is perhaps the most popular deck on the East Coast, and its Dazes, Circular Logics, and Waterfront Bouncers are a nightmare for the various reanimation combo decks (Cephalid Breakfast, Dancing Ghoul, and the like). And as Osyp said, Life is not only an un-ambitious combo, but it can be trumped by both Desire and Aluren, which get around Life’s win conditions.
Mind’s Desire, however, avoids those minuses. It can (and usually does) go off on basic lands alone, and in going off it untaps a bunch of lands, so it can get around the mana-denial of RDW. And as we’ll see, it is very countermagic-resistant, so Circular Logic does not necessarily spell game over. There is some hate for the Desire combo, but only one or two rarely-played cards are of the “if this card resolves, I might as well scoop” variety. Unlike some combo decks, it can win even after a Cranial Extraction. In short, Mind’s Desire is the best of the combo decks because of its resiliency.
First things first: the goal of the deck is not to cast Mind’s Desire. If you start thinking that simply resolving a Desire for five or six is enough to win the game, you’ll have a large Desire fizzle, go on tilt, and lose your mind along with your bankroll.
Rather, a better way to look at it is that you’re playing a combo deck with the goal of resolving a lethally stormed spell such as Brain Freeze or Tendrils of Agony. Mind’s Desire is the most efficient tool to accomplish that goal, but there are other ways you can reach the finish line.
Note that each kill method has its drawbacks. Against Life the Tendrils kill is useless, and against Red Deck Wins the Brain Freeze kill is risky because you will flip all of their Lava Darts into the graveyard, which may be the final points of damage they need to kill you. You can get around this by Wishing for Stroke of Genius to deck the Freezed opponent, but that brings an additional level of complexity to your win.
Now that you know what you’re aiming at, let’s look at the two most commonly played ways of getting there:
3 Nightscape Familiar
2 Deep Analysis
4 Cloud of Fairies
2 Merchant Scroll
2 Chrome Mox
4 Mind’s Desire
4 Accumulated Knowledge
4 Sapphire Medallion
3 Vampiric Tutor
1 Tendrils of Agony
3 Cunning Wish
2 Echoing Truth
1 Power Sink
1 Memory Lapse
1 Mana Leak
1 Tendrils of Agony
1 Engineered Plague
1 Chain of Vapor
1 Brain Freeze
This list, piloted by Pat Hepner, Top 8’ed a Grand Prix – Boston Trial in Fairmont, West Virginia, on January 2. Here’s a link to PES’s Top 8 decklists from that event.
There are a lot of things I don’t like about this deck. Cunning Wish is far too slow to be running as a 3-of, there is waaay too much countermagic in the sideboard, only two Chrome Moxes are inexcusable, and there is absolutely no way in the board to deal with Red Deck Wins (which took four slots in this Top 8). I don’t recommend that you play this exact build, but it’s a good place for you to start with your own modifications.
And, there are also some things to like about this list. Note the 7 MEs, whereas Masashi Oiso PT Columbus Top 8 build had only six (four Medallions and two Familiars). The medallion effect is so important that I recommend running as many of them as possible. Also note the Echoing Truth in the sideboard, which is great against aggro and can also accelerate you in a major way if you get more than one Cloud of Fairies into play.
The main advantages of Dark Desire are that you get to play with Vampiric Tutor to find any missing combo piece you want, and you have Nightscape Familiar to block anybody and regenerate to tell the tale. This deck doesn’t do it, but you can also try the old “transformational sideboard” by boarding in Psychatogs as an alternate win condition (that’s a good plan against Cranial Extraction, for one).
But, that’s not the end of the story. Vampiric Tutor is disadvantageous for you in terms of both cards and tempo. Leaving 1B open for the Familiar can be very annoying, and it’s worse than useless against Red Deck Wins, which can kill him repeatedly until you run out of regeneration mana. Even if you do board Psychatog, Doctor Teeth doesn’t really give you an decisive post-sideboard advantage in any matchup.
4 Mind’s Desire
4 Sapphire Medallion
4 Sunscape Familiar
4 Cloud of Fairies
4 Accumulated Knowledge
2 Deep Analysis
3 Merchant Scroll
1 Cunning Wish
1 Brain Freeze
This is my current list: I tried Prismatic Strands instead of the Sphere in a recent GP Trial, but it didn’t work out (more on that later). The list is slightly modified from Morgan Douglass’s deck from PT: Columbus, where he took 88th place. I would link to Morgan’s decklist from Columbus, but that page takes an absurdly long time to download, so I’ll spare you that nonsense.
The big reason I prefer this deck is that you are as fast as you can possibly be, with four each of Mox, Familiar, and Medallion. In my opinion, eight MEs are absolutely necessary: if you don’t draw one, you’re not casting your first Mind’s Desire until turn 5 or 6, and even then for a storm of about three, and only if you have a godly draw. Plus, Sunscape Familiar can be a good blocker, as you can throw him in front of a Frogmite or a Goblin Cadets all day long.
Also, this build runs more of Turnabout, which is a hugely important card. First, it lets you go off even if the opponent has a way to stop you from Snapping Cloud of Fairies. It can serve as a Fog, buying a turn against Goblins, U/G Madness, Affinity, etc. Finally, it can be an Abeyance, tapping the opponent out so that tricky control decks can’t wreck your plans. Thanks to Turnabout, I have won test games after the opposing deck has resolved an Isochron Scepter on Orim’s Chant or a Cranial Extraction on Mind’s Desire. I can’t go on long enough about how awesome Turnabout is. Knutson might have to cut me off here.
It’s not all sunshine and daffodils, though. By giving up Black, you have to give up Vampiric Tutor for Merchant Scroll, which can be a problem – you can’t Scroll up a Mind’s Desire, which can seriously cramp your style. You’re also forced to either adopt the Brain Freeze plan, or run the risk that you draw an uncastable Tendrils while you are going off.
Preparing the Deck
First, you will want to play a lot of “goldfish” games (i.e., games with no opponent), just to practice going off. This will hone your skill in recognizing which hands are keepers and which are not, and which board positions allow you to go off and which do not. Take copious notes, tracking your floating mana, your storm, and whether you played land this turn or not; all of those things will be important to keep track of during a match.
Develop ways to determine, just from looking at your hand, how much mana and storm you can build up for a Mind’s Desire. For example, since I’m a math guy in “real” life, I have no problem with simply assigning numerical values to each of my spells. With a ME in play, each copy of Cloud of Fairies and Snap in your hand becomes +1 mana, +1 storm. Cloud of Fairies/Snap becomes +3 mana, +3 storm, since the Cloud will be played twice and the Snap once, derf. Each copy of Turnabout becomes +1 storm and +[(L)-(ME)-2] mana, where L is the number of untapped lands in play and ME is the number of Medallion Effects in play.
Play the games all the way out; do not stop once you resolve a Mind’s Desire for twelve or whatever. It’s important to see the win develop on the table in front of you, especially if you’re playing for the more complex “Brain Freeze + card-drawing spell targeting you” win.
Only once you think you have a good grasp on your various methods of going off, then you sit down with your teammates (or Apprentice or whatever) and start playing the deck in matchups. Especially focus on aggro matchups – Red Deck, U/G Madness, Affinity – because they put you on the quickest clock and force you to try and go off from untenable positions. Be sure to play against Cranial Extraction, just so you can force yourself to adopt the “casting Brain Freeze without ever casting Mind’s Desire” plan and be aware that savvy opponents may call something else with their Extractions – something that hinders the deck more than just blindly naming Mind’s Desire. Also be sure to test plenty of post-board games against Red Deck Wins; since they are the favorite in game 1 you absolutely must be at the top of your game in games 2 and 3 against them.
Playing the Deck
It’s said that Mind’s Desire is very hard to play. This mainly comes from the sheer number of decisions you are offered, and the mental weight of those decisions over the course of an eight-round tournament. But, some of the key decisions are not so bad as long as you have practice ahead of time in making them.
Your first step is whether or not the opening hand can be kept. Brainstorm is one of the best cards in your deck; if you’re on the play you can usually get away with keeping a one-land hand containing Brainstorm (that keep is slightly riskier on the draw because your opponent might Duress you, or might decide the spell is worth a Force Spike).
The next step is to plan out your first couple of turns from the hand. Obviously, your best possible turn 1 is “Land, Mox, Medallion.” Next best is to Brainstorm with a fetchland in hand, and the next best after that is to Brainstorm blind, hoping to draw a fetchland or other shuffle effect. Turn 1 “Land, Mox, Merchant Scroll for Intuition” is an okay play, but if you didn’t play a ME on turn 1, then you will face a tough choice: will your Intuition fetch AKs, or Medallions? Also keep in mind that if you Scroll for something on turn 1, an opponent wielding Cabal Therapy knows what to name.
If you played a turn 1 Medallion, it’s notable that your absolute nut-high draws can cast Mind’s Desire on turn 2. “Land, tap two lands for Cloud of Fairies (1 floating), tap two land to Snap the Cloud (2 floating), tap two lands to replay Cloud (3 floating), Mind’s Desire for a total of 4 effects with 1 floating” is one way to do this. However, even if you can do this you might not want to, hoping to build up a bigger storm count by waiting a turn.
Assuming you can’t or don’t want to cast a turn 2 Desire, the next-best play following a turn 1 Medallion is to Wish for the final going-off piece, i.e., you have a Cloud and Desire in hand and you Wish for Snap. After that, your best post-Medallion play is to Intuition for AK, or equivalently, to Merchant Scroll for Intuition and cast it.
If you did not make a turn 1 ME, then your best possible turn 2 is to play one, otherwise Merchant Scroll for Intuition, but that is a distant second because you have already wasted a lot of time. If you would make any other play on turn 2, you kept a bad hand (although it might have been unavoidable, for example, if you had already mulliganed to five).
Sometimes it makes sense to wait with your turn 2 play, so that you can do it while going off on subsequent turns. For example, you are on the draw and have a turn 1 Medallion; let’s say your draw on turn 2 gives you (Cloud, Scroll, Desire, land, land). You could Scroll on turn 2 for Snap, allowing you to cast Desire for 4 the following turn. But, if you do nothing on turn 2, then on turn 3 you’ll go “land, tap land to Scroll for Snap, play a Cloud (3 lands and a Mox untapped), Snap the Cloud (1 floating), replay Cloud (2 floating), Desire for 5 with 1 floating.” So, waiting that extra turn helped your storm count by 1.
In fact, that example can be expanded into a more general rule: playing Desire requires an odd combination of patience and aggression. Sometimes when a control deck leaves UU open, you will cast your spells right into them with no fear of Counterspell, and sometimes you will decide to wait until you can Turnabout them in your end step. Sometimes Affinity will call for you to go all-in with a pretty small Mind’s Desire rather than risk them playing Cranial Plating or Disciple of the Vault on their turn, and sometimes you will have to simply wait a turn and pray that they don’t have either of those tricks, so that you may go off on the following turn. There is no hard-and-fast rule, “always go off when X happens.” Playing the deck involves a large number of judgement calls; for my part, I find solving challenges such as those to be a lot of fun, which is why I play the deck.
Let’s look at a few test hands, which I pulled while goldfish-testing the deck at home:
This hand probably goes back. As you’ll see in the next section, even hands without MEs can go off just by drawing into them, but in this case you have to scrounge up both an ME and a Mind’s Desire. Now, this hand can go Scroll for Intuition / Intuition / AK for three / Scroll for AK / AK for four, which will probably draw you into those combo parts, but this will also be a lot slower than the hands below, and you’d like to have a much more aggressive hand.
This hand is a keeper, but it’s also very average It’s a keeper because you have the two MEs and the Cloud + Snap combo, and if you have another land by turn 3 you’ll be able to go Scroll-Intuition. However, hands like these can also completely crap out on you: either you won’t draw a Desire, or you’ll get disrupted because it’s slower than your Mox hands, or you won’t draw a third land, etc. Hands like these can sometimes leave you thinking, “Damn, I could have won that game if only…”
2 Cloud of Fairies
Seems good. You have a Desire, you can Scroll on turn 1 for some gas, and you can generate a lot of mana when you go off. But, you have no MEs; is that a deal-breaker? That question really deserves its own section:
The Mechanics of Going Off
I decided to play three goldfish games with hand 3, assuming that I was on the play and making the same turn-1 play each time (land, Mox imprinting Cloud, Scroll for Intuition), to see how the hand developed. All of these games ended in lethal Brain Freezes on an average turn of 4. Here is how they worked out:
I topdecked and played Sapphire Medallion on turn 2. Then I got my second Island on turn 3, which I calculated would allow me to go off that turn. First, tap Mox and land for Intuition. I need to pump up the storm count, so I would like to get (Snap x 3). But, there’s a Snap in hand. Next best would be (Cloud x 3), because I don’t want my Clouds to be in the deck when I cast Mind’s Desire – due to errata, a Cloud played off of a Desire untaps zero lands. But, there are only two Clouds left in the deck. So, the Intuition fetched (Cloud x 2, Snap). I assumed the opponent gave me a Cloud; if he gave me a Snap, my mana and storm count would be even higher when I cast Desire.
Then, I tapped my remaining land for a Cloud, untapping the two Islands (storm = 2). I played a second Cloud (storm = 3, U floats), Snapped one of the Clouds (storm = 4, UU floats), and re-played the Cloud (storm = 5, UUU floats). I had UUU and two untapped lands, which allowed a Mind’s Desire for six total effects.
The first three Desire effects flipped over Sunscape Familiar, Chrome Mox, and Cunning Wish. The next Desire effect flipped over Brainstorm, which allowed me to make a key play: with two Desire effects left on the stack, I cast Brainstorm (storm = 7), drawing (Desire, Merchant Scroll, Island). I kept the Island in my hand and put back the spells; this makes it just that much more likely that my last two Desire flips will reveal gas. And then I flipped over … Turnabout and Mind’s Desire!
I played Sunscape Familiar and Chrome Mox for free (storm = 9). I played Cunning Wish for free (storm = 10), getting Intuition from my board. I played Turnabout for free to untap my two lands (storm = 11), and used those lands to cast Intuition from my hand (storm = 12), fetching (Island x 3) to thin my deck for the next spell: Mind’s Desire for 13 total effects.
I drew Adarkar Wastes on turn 2, and played Intuition. I could fetch three Familiars and play the Familiar on turn 3, which will allow me to cast a Desire for four effects on turn 4. I could also go for three AK, but I did the math and realized that even if the top three cards on my deck were the nut high, I could not go off on turn 3. So I fetched (Familiar x 3).
On turn 3 I topdecked another Desire. I cast the Familiar and moved to turn 4, where I drew Brainstorm. I tapped the two lands for Cloud of Fairies (storm = 1, C floats), Snapped Cloud of Fairies (storm = 2, CC floating), re-played Cloud, tapping the Wastes for U (storm = 3, CCU floats), tapped the Mox for Brainstorm (storm = 4), drawing (Medallion, Adarkar Wastes, Cloud). I put back one Desire and the Medallion, and played the Wastes and a second Cloud of Fairies (storm = 5, CCCU floats). Then I emptied my hand by casting Mind’s Desire for six total effects and two Adarkar Wastes untapped.
The Desire was a disaster: AK, Island, Flooded Strand, Island, AK, Plains. I cast the two AKs for free, drawing (Island, Merchant Scroll, Brainstorm). I Brainstormed and drew (Snap, Cunning Wish, Sapphire Medallion). Unfortunately, because I have already played a land this turn, I cannot continue going off. However, I calculated a path that could let me try again next turn. I put back Island and Cunning Wish, and moved to turn 5.
On turn 5 I drew the Island I had put back on top from Brainstorm, and played it. My hand is (Snap, Scroll, Medallion), my board is 2 Islands, 2 Wastes, and a Mox. After using the Snap in hand on a Cloud to build up mana, the key play was to use the Scroll in hand for an Intuition, which fetched (Deep Analysis x 2, AK). I assumed I would get a DA in hand, because it is the most mana-intensive. I flashed the DA in the bin back, which gave me another Snap and another Cloud, which allowed me to build up enough mana to cast and flashback the DA in hand, which gave me Cunning Wish and Merchant Scroll and some other nonessential spells. The Wish fetched Echoing Truth for my three Clouds, at which point my notes went all to hell, because I was too busy calculating my mana and storm. But, the end result was that I was able to Scroll for a Brain Freeze that milled 51 cards, without ever casting a Mind’s Desire in the turn. Remember: the goal of the deck is not to cast Mind’s Desire!
I pulled a second Snap on turn 2, and was forced to do nothing and pass the turn. On turn 3 I pulled a Sapphire Medallion and played it. On turn 4 I pulled Flooded Strand and fetched an Island, then went Cloud-Snap-Cloud-Snap-Cloud to build up a storm count of 5 and UUUUU floating. I then cast Intuition (storm = 6, UUU floats), fetching a Cloud as in Game 1, and then cast the Cloud (storm = 7, UUUU floats). I then used the floating mana and the Mox to cast a Mind’s Desire for eight effects.
The revealed cards were Adarkar Wastes, Turnabout, Island, Sunscape Familiar, Mind’s Desire, Adarkar Wastes, Sunscape Familiar, and Intuition. I played the two Familiars for free (storm = 10) floated two mana and cast Turnabout for free on my lands (storm = 11, UU floats). I cast Intuition for free (storm = 12, UU floats), fetching (Island x 3) and thinning the deck so that I can cast a Mind’s Desire for 13 total effects. The top seven flips had only one land, and included Brain Freeze, so I ended the game right there.
Whew! That was tough. I gotta go get a beer. Thanks for reading.
[Ahem. -Knut, using the black arts to possess Mark’s body]
Oh, yeah – the matchups. This is my experience from testing (both solitaire and with teammate Rick Rust), and also from a Grand Prix Trial in Rockville, MD, on January 2. As is my habit, I don’t list percentages, since nobody trusts them worth a damn anyway. The sideboarding is mainly for my build of White Desire, as it is the deck I have the most experience with, but I will mention Dark Desire as I see fit.
A. Red Deck Wins
Sideboard: You will always want -1 Cloud of Fairies, -2 Deep Analysis, -1 Cunning Wish, +4 Sphere of Law. If you suspect that they are bringing in non-Red hosers such as Tangle Wire or Psychogenic Probe, you may want to pull the other three Clouds for Echoing Truth also.
Probably your worst matchup, because they are so damn fast and they can disrupt you just enough with Wasteland and Rishadan Port to delay your going off by a couple of crucial turns. It has gotten even tougher since most people got the news and started running Lava Dart, which makes it near impossible to go off with Cloud of Fairies + Snap.