Eternal Europe – The Combo Continuum

This week we look at the trade-off between speed and resilience in the face of opposition in Legacy’s combo decks. Is faster always better, or just better when they don’t have a Force of Will?

As the title suggests, today’s article is once more going to deal with combo decks. If you’re sick of combo, however, don’t despair. My goal today is more theoretical than practical, more about understanding the game than covering combo itself. That is to say, this article won’t be dealing with the ins and outs of playing any particular combo deck or explore which ones are the best ones. Instead, what I’m going to cover today is more fundamental: the link that exists between speed and resilience. respond

In fact, the properties I’ll be describing today aren’t limited to combo decks at all. Aggressive decks often behave similarly, and even midrange and control archetypes sometimes exhibit these traits. As such, understanding the principles behind all of this is incredibly important for efficient deckbuilding in general. The combo macro-archetype just provides the most obvious and clear representation of these principles, which is why I chose to use it as my main subject matter.

Alright, enough introduction, let’s get cracking.

The Continuum

As Zvi Mowshowitz showed us in one of the most impactful Magic strategy articles of all time – Clear the Land and the Fundamental Turn, check it out if you haven’t already – every Magic deck and every format has a fundamental turn. Put simply, the fundamental turn is the turn on which a deck (or the common decks of the format overall) is fully ready to implement its game-plan. In aggro and combo decks, this is usually the turn we expect to kill a goldfish – an opponent who isn’t doing anything at all – while with control and midrange decks we generally assume that it’s where all our defensive or disruptive elements are online and we can establish control of the game, be it through casting Wrath of God or by starting to chain Fact or Fictions/Jace, the Mind Sculptor activations to put our one-for-one trades strongly in our favor.

This idea of the fundamental turn is why we get sentences like “Ad Nauseam Tendrils is a turn 2.8 deck.” What that sentence is supposed to tell the informed listener/reader is that that specific combo deck will usually be able to go off undisrupted on either turn two or turn three, with turn three being the more likely result.

Zvi goes on to explain to us that any deck that isn’t also active when the opponent reaches their fundamental turn is significantly behind, possibly even to the point of making the matchup irrecoverable.

This conclusion would lead us to believe that the faster we can make our deck the better it is going to perform in the long run, right? Well, a short look at current Legacy easily disproves that theory. The decks that clearly have the lowest fundamental turn are easily Belcher and Oops, All Spells – their fundamental turn being turn one! Yet we don’t see these decks flooding tournament Top Eights or dominating the format in the slightest. They’re far from even being the most played or successful combo decks, actually. Storm and Show and Tell decks that are at minimum a full turn slower claim that title. So what the heck is going on here?

Yes, the glue that holds the format together strikes again – and this particular fact is exactly why it has that nickname. To reach their speed, both Belcher and Oops, All Spells are built with a ton of terrible mana sources from the point of view of an ongoing game, most of which disappear after a single use. As a result, when they go off they’re essentially pushing all the chips into the middle of the table and going all-in – if they’re stopped, they probably won’t be doing anything again until turn four or five.

Because of this extreme game-plan, a blue playing opponent suddenly has access to a plan with a fundamental turn of zero. Just counter the correct spell with Force of Will and you’re good to go goldfishing yourself for a couple of turns, generally enough to fully get your own game-plan long past its fundamental turn.

The only answer combo has to this faster-in-a-weird-way game-plan is this: sacrifice its own speed, raising its fundamental turn, to gain enough resilience to actually fight through the inevitable disruption.

And that’s the secret behind the huge variety of viable combo decks in Legacy. They occupy different spots on the continuum between resilience and speed. Imagine an arrow, if you will, with the fastest decks ending up on one end and the slowest decks most capable of fighting through or ignoring opposing interaction on the other end.

Combo deck speed spectrum

The further a deck ends up on the left side, the more likely it is to be dismantled by opposing interaction should it happen… but the further it moves towards the right side, the slower the deck becomes. The basic concept of this continuum I suggest should be easy to grasp, yet obviously nothing in life (and its subset, Magic: the Gathering) is ever this easy. Different factors arise and complicate the issue.

Once you accept that you need to move your fundamental turn beyond turn one (or simply lose the die-roll, giving the opponent the opportunity to actually use mana – gasp!), there are suddenly a lot of different forms of interaction you need to take into account, not just Force of Will – and different decks have different soft spots.

Just look at something like ANT and Sneak and Show. Both deck’s fundamental turn is relatively close – counting the moment a fattie hits play for Sneak and Show as it reaching its fundamental turn – yet outside of countermagic and discard, totally different sets of disruption affect them. Sneak and Show isn’t substantially hindered by an Ethersworn Canonist (as long as said Canonist isn’t backed by countermagic) while Storm simply can’t win as long as it’s in play. Storm on the other hand laughs at cards like Karakas, Ensnaring Bridge and other forms of defense aimed at dealing with Sneak and Show’s huge fatties. Nonetheless, both decks have conceded between one and two turns of their fundamental turn compared to Oops, All Spells in order to more readily fight through Legacy’s most common forms of early-game disruption. And that’s why the continuum has more than one deck occupying almost every single turn point.

Achilles’ Heels

Now that we know what we’re looking for, some illustration might be helpful. Conveniently enough, Legacy has a huge pool of combo decks to choose from – and all of them exist because they cover some particular weaknesses the others exhibit. So let’s take a look at a number of common decks, organized by their fundamental turn and figure out where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

Turn One

There are only two somewhat widely-played decks (sorry fans of the Spanish Inquisition) that can boast the speed to make everything but Force of Will (and Mindbreak Trap) irrelevant if they win the roll. Those two decks are Belcher and Oops, All Spells.

Of these two, Belcher is actually the slower deck because roughly 70 percent of the time it will not actually win on turn one even if it does go off. That’s because half its combo is based around Empty the Warrens, which will “only” create a (hopefully) insurmountable Goblin army and therefore often needs another turn or two to actually close the game.

Oops, All Spells on the other hand will always kill its opponent when it goes off, but pays for this in resilience. Where Belcher is only vulnerable to countermagic (and a few specific cards like Pithing Needle on the draw) and exceedingly cheap mass removal, Oops, All Spells also opens itself up to graveyard hate such as Leyline of the Void or Surgical Extraction. It can’t even beat an active Deathrite Shaman should it stumble for long enough to let that happen, actually.

Now, the all-spell deck adapts to that somewhat by transforming into a different version of Belcher post-board – actually daring the opponent to have now-dead graveyard hate in hand – but that sideboarded list is significantly less consistent than a true Belcher deck (otherwise Belcher would look like postboard Oops, All Spells after all).

Turn Two

There are only a couple of true turn two decks in Legacy, mainly Reanimator, Tin Fins and TES.

While all three of these decks still rely on speed to blow out most of their opponents, all of them acknowledge that speed isn’t the be-all, end-all in a format with free countermagic and they sacrifice some of it to make room for protection, be it Silence, discard or free countermagic of their own. Yet each one comes with its own set of costs and benefits.

Tin Fins and Reanimator are quite similar, both planning to bring a fattie back from the graveyard for the win. Similar to Belcher and Oops, All Spells though, one of them generally kills the turn it achieves escape velocity (Tin Fins) while the other just plans to ride its fattie to victory over the next couple of turns (Reanimator).

By doing so, Reanimator opens itself up significantly more to specific hate such as Karakas or even Liliana of the Veil, something Tin Fins preempts by simply using Griselbrand as a Yawgmoth’s Bargain that also gains seven life when it comes into play.

On the other hand, the additional space and in-hand cards required to enact this game-plan make it impossible for Tin Fins to run Force of Will and Daze as disruption (believe me, I’ve tried), giving Reanimator a huge advantage when fighting other combo decks with a similar fundamental turn and in interacting with hate that actually needs to be cast. Being one of the fastest decks while also pushing back the opponent’s fundamental turn with your free countermagic is big game.

TES finally is probably slightly slower than the other two decks and also doesn’t have countermagic to protect itself (though Silence does a solid countermagic impersonation against other engine combo decks) but carves out its own space thanks to avoiding all the pitfalls of giving the opponent turns after going off, using its graveyard, or relying on cards sporting that weird card type “creature”. When facing TES, you either keep it from resolving the spells it wants to (be it through mana denial, discard or countermagic), have hate specifically aimed at it (say Ethersworn Canonist), or you’re going home.

Turn 2-3

Because Legacy is so large and the power level so high, we can’t actually jump a full turn further once we pass the turn-two mark. There are a number of decks that sacrifice less than a full turn of speed to gain resilience compared to our turn two friends, the three most common by far being ANT, Dredge and Sneak and Show.

ANT is essentially a slightly slower version of TES that trades that loss in speed for a better manabase and no life total dependency (caused by TES’s reliance on Ad Nauseam). If you’re interested in an in-depth comparison, check out this article of mine.

In the same vein, Sneak and Show plans to enact a similar game-plan to that of Reanimator (make a fattie and win with it) but sidesteps the whole graveyard reliance thing by relying on Show and Tell and Sneak Attack to get its monsters onto the battlefield straight from the hand – once again at the cost of some speed compared to the UB deck.

Dredge, on the other hand, doesn’t really have a faster equivalent but carves its niche with a very different trade-off: it accepts totally vulnerability to graveyard hate – the deck doesn’t really do anything at all when it can’t access its graveyard – but is by far the hardest deck to really stop via traditional means of interaction such as countermagic and discard.

Turn 3-4

Interestingly enough, the next step up from the turn 2-3 decks are the turn 3-4 decks. I’m unsure why there aren’t any pure turn-three decks I can think of, but suspect that it has something to do with my way of looking at these kinds of decks, in particular the fact that I qualify these decks by how fast they feel compared to other decks mentioned here instead of hard goldfishing statistics.

Anyway, there’s an abundance of turn three-to-four combo decks in Legacy, so let’s look at three that carve their own niches quite clearly: Elves, Manaless Dredge and Omni-Tell.

Elves differs from every other deck mentioned so far because it’s based around something inherently fair: casting creatures. The fact that these creatures happen to form a formidable mana engine allows the deck to use Glimpse of Nature and Natural Order (for Craterhoof Behemoth) to turn into a full-blown combo deck, but at its heart Elves remains a creature strategy. Because of that, Elves sports a back-up plan none of the other decks discussed so far can rely on: going aggro. When countermagic or discard is used to stop Elves from playing its combo game, it can just start to turn the little tree-huggers sideways and deal lethal damage surprisingly quickly between normal attacks and multiple Deathrite Shaman activations a turn.

That reliance comes with a price, though. While the deck is less vulnerable to classic disruption than other combo decks and laughs at graveyard hate, it actually can be dismantled using the most basic form of interaction: creature removal in all shapes and forms. Even with that being the case, attacking from two completely different directions gives it an incredible amount of resilience from just turning into a fair deck when forced to do so.

Manaless Dredge, on the other hand, simply takes the approach of the more common LED Dredge lists above to the extreme. The deck literally is built to not interact with anything but graveyard hate. Your game-plan is to draw and discard thanks to the hand size rule, using triggered abilities and flashback spells to actually impact the board. By doing so, the deck can ignore almost anything the opponent was planning to use to buy time but at the cost of its own interactive capabilities. If there is something it has to care about, be it graveyard hate or a deck with a lower fundamental turn, there are only a very limited number of ways for it to actually fight back.

The Mono Blue Omni-Tell deck also tries to eliminate most interactive possibilities, but it does so while playing a more normal game of Magic. Usually, the deck will spend a couple of turns casting library manipulation with nothing but basic Islands on the board before dropping one of its mana-cheating enchantments into play and just ending the game on the spot. An almost purely basics manabase laughs at Wasteland, and its combo finish is constructed in such a way that in can be pulled off through almost any form of permanent-based hate given the correct resources. Leyline of Sanctity in the sideboard even gives it a solid shot at preemptively neutralizing discard spells.

Turn Four And Beyond

There are basically no dedicated combo decks in the format that plan on ending the game after turn four, and for good reason: turn four is generally when aggressive decks goldfish in the format, and what’s the point of playing a pure combo deck if you can’t race aggro? By nature, a combo deck is pretty much a goldfish against aggressive decks while also being much more vulnerable to key pieces getting taken out through disruption. So for it to make sense to play these decks, they have to be faster than the much more redundant beatdown decks.

Or, put more simply: once you go beyond turn four, you’re behind the fundamental turn of Legacy as a whole – it seems the fair decks define that one, huh? – and therefore your whole deck is flawed if it doesn’t have any redeeming quality such as the ability to also play a completely normal game of Magic instead of comboing the opponent out. Basically, once you fall beyond the turn-four threshold, you have to not only plan for opposing disruption but also need to interact with their actual threats yourself. That’s the point when you should start to wonder why the heck you aren’t just protecting a Jace, the Mind Sculptor instead of trying to put a fancy combination of cards together.

To Be Continued?

As we’ve seen, Legacy is populated by a host of combo decks with different speeds, and each and every one of them strives to reach a perfect balance between speed and resilience. As a result each of these decks has its own set of strengths and vulnerabilities, and which one is the correct choice depends largely on which types of interaction or threats you expect to face as well as what kind of game you personally are most likely to be able to play best in.

There’s something I have to admit… today’s article is incomplete in a certain way: there is a second area of trade-offs I haven’t touched on today that are made when speeding up your deck. That is the balance between consistency and staying power.

When you decide to sacrifice resources to make a deck faster, you not only sacrifice resilience to certain kinds of disruption but you also give up a certain amount of late-game potential. I didn’t include this analysis in today’s piece as there’s as much to say about that subject as I’ve already written so far – if not more – but if you’re interested in my observations on the matter, make sure to share your interest in the comments. I’ll find a moment to satisfy your curiosity at some point.

Until next time, turn the speed up to eleven!

Carsten Kötter