Card Spotlight: Complex Automaton

[shamelessly taking a page from Taylor’s last article…] Belbe frowned. The hulking automaton was certainly impressive in size, but its movements were a study in inefficiency. For every step of the metallic beast, it would creak, spin its torso, wind a tangle of gears and eventually let loose a blast of steam. Belbe found the…

[shamelessly taking a page from Eric Taylor’s last article…]

Belbe frowned. The hulking automaton was certainly impressive in size, but its movements were a study in inefficiency. For every step of the metallic beast, it would creak, spin its torso, wind a tangle of gears and eventually let loose a blast of steam. Belbe found the machine difficult to watch, almost bewildering in the amount of concentration it took to track the thing’s movements.

“This is your great weapon?” she said skeptically, then snorted.”This wasteful design cannot possibly be Phyrexian.”

I do a lot of studying when a new set is about to be released. In examining the rares, I look for two kinds of cards: first, I look for cards that pro players are generally getting excited about. Not because they’re pros, but because they tend to play a LOT of Magic. I read their arguments and see if the logic is sound. Some people generally have more thought-out arguments than others. If I like the analysis, I usually put in orders for these cards before prices soar. I bought my four Rishadan Ports for about $8, for instance, when a lot of noise was being made about Dust Bowl. Jeff Donais’ article convinced me that while Dust Bowl was good, Rishadan Port could be used in every single mono-colored deck.

The second kind of rare I pay particular attention to is the one that everyone universally says is bad. It’s a strange tactic, I realize. I guess I like trying to make bad rares good because I consider it a personal deck-building challenge. Instead of working on silly turn-two combos, I test myself to try and turn a janky rare’s seeming disadvantages into an opportunity. It usually doesn’t work. Then again, sometimes it does and I’m able to feel all clever and what-not.

Anyway, I take this list of”bad” cards and stare at them for a long time, trying to decide if any of the downtrodden can possibly be playable. I don’t buy these cards right away; if I experiment with them in decks, it’s most likely with proxies. If I eventually decide a card is better than advertised, I wait for the prices to drop or until they start showing up in trade binders. Often times, I’m out a few bucks for some truly bad rares. Other times, I manage to pick up a gem in the rough. I loved Oath of Druids when it was first released – it just seemed so breakable to put a creature directly into play – and managed to obtain four of them for practically nothing before the U.S. Nationals.


A card from Nemesis that has recently made it onto this second list is Complex Automaton. Here’s the card info in case it doesn’t immediately ring a bell for you:

Artifact Creature – Golem
At the beginning of your upkeep, if you control seven or more permanents, return Complex Automaton to its owner’s hand.

I’m intrigued because it’s a 4/4 for four colorless mana. And my favorite part: it’s a 4/4 that blue can’t steal! That has to be good, right?

Most people don’t think so. In fact, most people have been writing off the Automaton as a horrible creation. At a recent tournament, someone offered to trade me uncommons for his Automaton.

The best I can figure is that R&D decided to make a more playable Reclusive Wight when they made Complex Automaton. I might be wrong, but the similarities are striking to me. If you don’t remember the Wight, you’re probably not alone. Reclusive Wight is a black Urza’s Saga uncommon that reads:

Creature – Minion
At the beginning of your upkeep, if you control another nonland permanent, sacrifice Reclusive Wight.

Just like the Automaton, the Wight is a 4/4 for four mana with a significant drawback that causes it to leave play. Unfortunately, no one ever played with the Wight largely because a) black has access to better fatties, and 2) the restriction was far too prohibitive.

I always felt sorry for that poor guy holding his face.

Enter the Automaton. Now any color can use it, and instead of going to your graveyard and actually _dying_ of embarrassment, the creature just gets confused when too much is going on and jumps back into your hand. These are both steps towards making a card like the Wight more playable in constructed formats.

The question is: did R&D do enough to make the Minion into a playable Golem?


There are two ways in which I think the Complex Automaton might make its way into constructed decks. The first idea is to”break” the card through some bizarre combo. If the creature leaps into your hand every turn, then there may be some way to use its recursive nature to produce a good effect. For example, a weak combo involves the Automaton and Pandemonium. Aha! I get to do four damage to you every single turn for four mana! And I don’t even need an attack phase!

Unfortunately, this little Pandemonium trick isn’t so tricky. In fact it’s dumb and isn’t likely to win you any games. But Pandemonium illustrates the point that in some decks, you may _want_ a creature that is going to bounce to your hand every turn.

I can begin to imagine a combination of two or three cards in which the Automaton is bouncing around endlessly at the beginning of a turn, producing endless mana or damage. If such a combo exists, it’s likely to be in Extended. The DCI has largely been able to neuter super-trickiness in Type 2, but the sheer number of cards in Extended opens the possibility for abuse of the Automaton.

Luckily for the world at large, I am neither smart enough nor interested enough to break Complex Automaton in Extended. No combos immediately spring to mind, which is about as far as my little brain will take me. So I mention the idea of using the Automaton’s weakness as an advantage only to tickle your brain.

But actually, forget I said anything because I hate combos.


The second idea is to limit your number of permanents, making the Automaton’s weakness a non-issue. Such a deck would need few lands and rely primarily on sorceries and instants for its spells. The Automaton would be the proverbial wrecking ball in such a deck, the feature creature designed to do a lot of damage and be scary.

Clearly,Extended provides far better creature choices than the Automaton for this kind of strategy. The sheer number of choices means that for almost any situation, a better creature exists for a sorcery/instant deck with few permanents. As a normal creature, then, the Automaton is pretty bad in Extended. This news probably doesn’t come as a great shock to you.

But the current Type 2 is a slightly different situation. Here we have Morphling, and Masticore, and… well, a lot of stuff that’s situational. Masticore is probably the biggest inhibitor of using Complex Automaton in a deck, since the Masticore is the same casting-cost, same power/toughness AND has a slew of useful abilities. Still, Masticore usually requires a lot of land and wants a full hand (or at least a hand) while the Automaton does not. Let’s brainstorm, then, about the kind of decks in each color that may be Automaton-worthy.

(Note: I’m assuming that you can only make a land-light and permanent-light deck mono-colored, which might be a false assumption)

In white, the Automaton has the advantage of Armageddon. If you blow up all of the land on the table, then you will almost certainly possess less than seven permanents and make the Automaton just a good colorless 4/4. Complex-Geddon! This kind of deck might include control cards like Disenchant and Wrath of God, maybe with some lifegain thrown in. The problem with this strategy is that you would likely need to cast Armageddon and Complex Automaton on the _same_turn_ in order to keep your beastie on the table. If you have eight mana available, don’t you have better things to do? And why would you want to kill all of that land?

Blue is a neat choice since its staple of countermagic relies on few permanents. Unfortunately, blue has a hard time with creature-control, which Masticore provides and blue has the almighty Morphling for only one more mana. As an added difficulty, I haven’t met a Draw-Go deck yet that doesn’t love a lot of land on the table. If the deck is more creature-based and less mana-reliant, then you have more than seven permanents. Damn. Let’s keep looking…

Green’s a good choice because it’s got all of those creature-enhancers like Giant Growth, Rancor and Might of Oaks. Creeping Mold and Plow Under make good green control cards too. But the Automaton doesn’t have a place here largely because green already has the best creatures in the game. For four mana, I would rather have the new Beat-o-Derm or Wumpus on the table than the Automaton. They’re both bigger and when has protection from green ever been a huge problem? Too bad, too, since I’m basically a green mage now and would love to use that Complex little fella.

There may be hope in black, where the Automaton could fit into a deck heavy on discard and creature removal. Once again, the Complex Automaton would have to be the feature creature, but that sort of deck might look something like:


4 complex automaton
4 dark ritual
4 duress
4 unmask
4 stupor
4 vendetta
4 massacre
4 soul feast
3 vicious hunger
2 yawgmoth’s will
1 howl from beyond
4 peat bog
4 crystal vein
4 blasted landscape
10 swamp

This doesn’t look so bad – and it truly isn’t horrible – until you consider what you could be choosing instead of the Automaton. Phyrexian Plaguelord, Thrashing Wumpus and (yes, again) Masticore all likely make this deck more versatile. Phyrexian Negator is both cheaper and scarier. Just like with the Reclusive Wight, black just has better fatties.

Belbe’s probably right… the Automaton _isn’t_ Phyrexian.

Finally, we’re left with red. Stupid red. All red has is land-destruction, and some direct damage, and… hey… that actually doesn’t sound so bad. The Automaton in red gives a Ponza-style deck colorless damage in a fairly serious clock. Let’s try that out:


4 complex automaton
4 raze
4 seal of fire
4 shock
4 parch
4 stone rain
4 pillage
4 avalanche riders
3 cave-in
1 landslide
4 crystal vein
2 dust bowl
4 ghitu encampment
4 sandstone needle
10 mountain

I’ve actually built this deck and the results have been fairly impressive. The deck lets you empty your hand and just go crazy. You don’t need Masticore as much because the deck already has plenty of creature removal and the idea is to keep creatures from hitting the table. Lightning Dragon doesn’t fit as well because the Sandstone Needles and Crystal Veins make paying Echo difficult (notice that for these reasons I consider the Avalanche Riders to be a 4cc Sorcery that destroys a land and does 2 damage). Balduvian Horde is bigger, but is also red which means a Thermal Glider would shut the entire deck down.

Here is a deck relying on few lands (in fact, often destroying its own land) and in desperate need of a good colorless fattie. By golly, that sounds like a job for the Complex Automaton!

Another way to go with red is to use the Viashino fellows who jump into your hand at the end of turn. I’m not sure this kind of deck is as competitive as the version above, but it would have the potential to do more damage more quickly:


4 complex automaton
4 seal of fire
4 shock
4 flame rift
4 parch
4 scent of cinder
4 viashino sandscout
4 blood oath
4 cave-in
2 viashino cutthroat
4 ghitu encampment
4 sandstone needle
4 blasted landscape
10 mountain

Scary. I haven’t put this version together because I’m as disinterested with red burn as I am with combo decks. But you get the idea. There may be some hybrid deck that combines ideas from both of these that would allow Complex Automaton to make in impact in today’s Type 2.


One of the cards I’ve discussed a lot that’s keeping the Automaton from a lot of decklists is Masticore. Thus if we remove the Urza Cycle from the card-mix, either by looking ahead to future Type 2 or by looking at the upcoming Masques Block Constructed format, it’s likely that the Complex Automaton becomes a much stronger choice.

I would look ahead in Type 2, but then we’ll have Prophecy, another base set and maybe 7th Edition so there’s no way to predict Complex Automaton’s viability. Some sneaky R&D guy knows about all of those cards already and is playing with them. Jealousy is such an ugly emotion.

Quick checklist for Masques Block… White: no more ‘Geddon, no strong non-permanent themes, no Automaton. Green: still has Beat-o-Derm and Wumpus and loses a lot of its good Type 2 sorceries. Black: Thrashing Wumpus is still around for one more mana, as are Enslaved Horror and Scandalmonger. Okay. Still not great for our complicated friend.

Blue looks a tad better without the ability to hide behind Morphling and Masticore. Blue control traditionally only uses one staple creature anyway, so by combining blue’s countermagic, card-drawing and bounce it’s possible to create a control deck that isn’t also a land-horder:


4 complex automaton
4 seal of removal
4 accumulated knowledge
4 daze
4 hoodwink
4 trade routes
4 counterspell
4 gush
2 thwart
2 misdirection
4 rishadan port
4 saprazzan skerry
16 island

This deck takes advantage of blue’s alternate casting-cost spells from the Masques block to cast things without mana (Misdirection) or to have less permanents in play (Daze, Gush, Thwart). Trade Routes lets the deck use lands it draws later in the game to fish for more control. Again, it’s not a deck I’ve built but at least theoretically the idea is sound enough to open the way for the Automaton.

Red, too, doesn’t lose a lot of its need for the Automaton. Control Red in Masques Block probably wants to play a lot of land in conjunction with Rishadan Port, Dust Bowl and the Flowstone Overseer. But speed red can still make use of few land and a good colorless fattie:

SIMPLE BLOCKY RED (oh man, my names are getting worse… shoot me now)

4 complex automaton
4 flailing soldier
4 seal of fire
4 flame rift
4 lunge
4 stone rain
4 blood oath
4 cave-in
3 downhill charge
2 thunderclap
3 dust bowl
4 sandstone needle
16 mountain

I’m not sure if spells like Thunderclap are strong enough to use maindeck, but they at least fit the theme of using red’s alternate casting-cost spells to make the Automaton’s drawback a non-issue. Flailing Solder technically counts as a permanent, but since it will likely die soon after cast, the hope is to either gain time advantage or do a lot of damage in the Soldier’s brief, flailing life.

In an environment slower than any we’ve seen a long time, strategies like land destruction and four casting-cost creatures like the Automaton look like a potentially potent combination.

Potentially potent?


Okay, I’ll admit that the Complex Automaton isn’t a powerhouse creature. But I don’t think it’s a card that deserves to be ignored either. Right now the Automaton’s niche, if it has one, is largely occupied by Masticore and other cheap big creatures. As Urza Block rotates away, though, big cheap creatures become a distinct commodity. As such, I expect the Complex Automaton–an efficient, big, colorless creature–to ilicit a few less sneers in the near future.

I hope I’ve shown something else, too. Just because someone else is telling you a card is bad might just mean that they’re unimaginative. It takes a lot of analysis, a lot of playtesting and a lot of varied (read: bad) decklists to really”prove” a card is horrible. By doing the research yourself, you may create a deck that lowers the price of those Masticores a little.

Besides, think how cool you’ll be when you win your next tournament with Shrieking Mogg. Those Shrieking Mogg people… they’re cool.

Have fun. Comments and questions are always welcome.


Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar, Ph.D.
[email protected]
Proud Member of Team Purple Pepper