I’ve been playing some Hearthstone lately and one interesting thing to observe in that game was the evolution of late-game strategies. The game has
extremely powerful, expensive cards called Legendaries that threaten to overwhelm your opponent on their own. Early on in the game, these cards were the
backbone of most decks’ late game; however, as the game has evolved and been better understood, more and more decks have started to drop these cards only
to instead rely on card combinations that provide huge bursts of damage during a single turn to (hopefully) finish the opponent off on the spot.
I quite enjoyed watching this trend develop as it allowed me to feel good about myself – I’d been favoring combo kills over big guys from the start. I had
an unfair advantage, however: my Legacy and Vintage background. One of the most important lessons I ever learned playing the most high-powered formats came
in the snarky tones of jpmeyer on TheManaDrain back in the day. The lesson? The best answer to any threat is a dead opponent. When asked how to answer
difficult scenarios with his Psychatog Control deck (yep, this was quite some time ago) with his very limited Cunning Wish sideboard, his answer inevitably
was “just kill them,” at the time generally referring to casting Berserk targeting an attacking Psychatog.
However, this type of play isn’t limited to Vintage. In fact, I believe that most great decks have access to some variation of it, even though it doesn’t
necessarily involve actually killing your opponent on the spot (though that certainly is the preferred option if reasonably feasible). It could just as
well mean taking the game completely out of the opponent’s reach or ensuring their inevitable demise. Today we’ll be taking a close look at these
“finishing moves” and their strategic implications.
Combo Decks vs. Finishing Moves
To start off, let’s first establish what I don’t consider a finishing move. Casting Ad Nauseam into a bunch of Rituals into Tendrils of Agony is
not a finishing move. Show and Telling in an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn isn’t either. Yes, these plays fit the above description of a play that just kills the
opponent instead of trying to deal with their threats. The decks that play them, however, don’t use them to finish the opponent off; these plays are their whole strategy. A finishing move is something that slams the door shut, the last nail in the coffin. It is something that
closes out the game when your main strategy has gotten you to a position to pull it off. If your whole deck does nothing but enable a play, you’re not
finishing them, you’re simply implementing your strategy.
The best way to figure out if something is a finishing move or not is to check if the deck can win without ever using that play with at least some
regularity. If it can, you’re probably looking at a finishing move. If every mark in the W column requires the play to happen, what you have in front of
you is a combo deck.
The Wide Variety of Finishers
I mentioned above that finishing moves can come in different forms, from true combo-esque plays that straight-up win the game to “soft” finishers that
leave the opponent alive but (presumably) without any way to actually come back in the game. Let’s take a look at the different types of finishing moves
I’ve identified so far.
This is the most obvious and clear-cut way to give yourself a finishing move. You simply add some kind of combo-kill that doesn’t take up much space and
already has synergy with what your deck is trying to do in the first place. A perfect example for this type of finishing move is the old Rest in Peace
Miracles build with its singleton Helm of Obedience and a couple of Enlightened Tutors.
All game long, you simply play the control game, managing threats and stopping your opponent from killing you; however, when your opponent gives you an
opening, you can just slam the powerful one-two punch of Rest in Peace plus Helm of Obedience and the game ends on the spot. You can see a similar approach
at work in Shaun McLaren’s Modern UWR deck from Grand Prix Minneapolis
with Restoration Angel and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker doing the dirty work.
This isn’t limited to control-finishers, though. The Modern Tarmo-Twin deck is a perfect example of marrying an aggro-control deck to a combo finish. You
might win a majority of games just by beating down with ‘Goyfs and Perstermites, but Splinter Twin is there to end things when you need it to.
The Toolbox Combo:
One type of deck that can profit from and add finishing moves particularly easily is the toolbox deck. Similarly to how the Miracles list above use a good
card (Rest in Peace) and a singleton bad card (the Helm of Obedience) to give itself a way to one-shot the opponent, toolbox decks can use the very toolbox
they (ab)use to give themselves the ability to end games fast. Modern Melira Pod is an obvious example even (misleadingly) named for its finishing move but
ever since the latest Legend rules change, Knight of the Reliquary has its very own:
- 4 Mother of Runes
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 1 Scryb Ranger
- 1 Gaddock Teeg
- 2 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 2 Qasali Pridemage
- 2 Stoneforge Mystic
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
- 3 Deathrite Shaman
73 of these 75 cards are just the standard Junk/Maverick midrange fare we expect from Knight of the Reliquary decks, but those remaining singleton copies
of Dark Depths and Thespian’s Stage give Jacob’s list a totally new angle to steal games from. If you ever get to untap with a Knight of the Reliquary, a
simple end-of-turn Scryb Ranger or any two Knight activations can leave the opponent facing a 20/20 indestructible flier as early as Turn 4.
A lot of the time, finishing moves can be rather incidental. The Boros Charm (for double strike) plus Ghor-Clan Rampager interaction in Brad Nelson’s Brave
Naya (Standard) deck is a great example of this, but I’d even tend to count the traditional burn finish in red aggro (control) decks in this category. Yes,
holding back and digging for three-plus Lightning Bolts is a totally valid way to unexpectedly finish things off, and perhaps the biggest reason aggressive
decks tend to run some red mana when they can get away with it.
: Finishing moves don’t even have to be convoluted combos or consist of multiple cards. In fact, some of the best of them are that good exactly because
they just require you to play one particular card that provides all by its lonesome. Psychatog, Price of Progress – there’s a long list of cards that we
consider(ed) extremely powerful simply because they allow their wielder to spontaneously end the game almost on their own. The most obvious representative
of this kind of finishing move in current Legacy is end-of-turn Entreat the Angels for five – one that’s good enough to make any additional finishing moves
like the abovementioned Rest in Peace-Helm combo largely unnecessary, in fact.
These tend to be the weakest finishing moves, simply because they are predicated on the idea that you can present a threat that is too powerful for the
opponent to ever beat. Think Natural Order for Progenitus or suiting True-Name Nemesis with a Batterskull. The problem with these is that they don’tactually leave the opponent dead nor unable to play the game, meaning they are actually liable to be trumped or answered given the correct tools.
This final category is here to collect all those finishing moves that don’t actually aim at ending the game but instead try to shut the opponent out
completely. These angles can be implemented through all of the above ways, from single-card combos (think Armageddon) to multi-piece collections of toolbox
elements (Gaddock Teeg plus Sylvan Safekeeper stopping Miracles from ever doing anything relevant again) to something that looks suspiciously like a
two-card combo (Counterbalance-Sensei’s Divining Top) or just trying to make the game impossible to win for the opponent (gaining arbitrarily large amounts
of life, Platinum Angel plus Lightning Greaves, etc.). I’m giving these their separate category exactly because they’re “soft” wins much like the
unbeatable threat plan just above. They allow you to assume you’ve won the game, but some unexpected piece of tech or insane topdecks might well allow an
As that last category indicates, the lines between these different categories tend to be a little blurry – many of these finishers can “downgrade” from
actual instant finish into just overwhelming threats depending on available resources, the opponent’s capabilities, and the actual game state. Obvious
examples include Entreat the Angels for a less-than-lethal amount of angels and Marit Lage against an opponent with more than twenty life.
Costs and Benefits
The easiest way to understand why you would want to include a finishing move in your deck is to just look at a typical Vintage control deck:
- 1 Sensei's Divining Top
- 1 Brainstorm
- 4 Mana Drain
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- 1 Mystical Tutor
- 1 Yawgmoth's Will
- 4 Force of Will
- 1 Mana Vault
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Time Walk
- 1 Ancestral Recall
- 1 Mana Crypt
- 1 Time Vault
- 1 Thirst for Knowledge
- 1 Misdirection
- 1 Tinker
- 1 Voltaic Key
- 1 Black Lotus
- 1 Fact or Fiction
- 1 Mox Emerald
- 1 Mox Jet
- 1 Mox Pearl
- 1 Mox Ruby
- 1 Mox Sapphire
- 1 Spell Snare
- 2 Steel Sabotage
- 2 Mental Misstep
- 1 Flusterstorm
- 1 Toxic Deluge
So this is a control deck. How many pieces of actual board control do you see? Two Steel Sabotage, one Toxic Deluge. The rest of the interaction is
countermagic. Three cards. Because of the mana acceleration provided by Moxen and the incredible potency of the deck’s finishing moves (Tezzeret the Seeker
into Time Vault, Tinker into Blightsteel Colossus, and Time Vault + Voltaic Key, not to mention Yawgmoth’s Will + lots of broken cards), you can play as a
true combo-control deck and don’t actually need to answer most threats; you can simply answer your opponent. If they’re dead, you don’t need to worry about
Now, the typical finishing moves we have access to in lower-powered formats, combined with less mana acceleration and less efficient tutors, mean we don’t
have the luxury to ignore what our opponent is planning to do quite as much (we need to run actual dedicated combo-decks to get to do that). You only have
to look at Miracles, however, to realize that the effect is still quite noticeable. A deck with something along the lines of eight counterspells, two of
which are Spell Pierces, usually wouldn’t stand a chance of beating Storm in a game that goes even reasonably long.
The presence of Counterbalance–Sensei’s Divining Top turns this dynamic around completely. Because the combination essentially ends the game once
assembled, those couple of counterspells don’t have to keep us safe for the whole game. They only need to buy enough time to get both cards into play and
it should be smooth sailing from there on out.
In addition to allowing us to cheat during deck construction, having access to powerful finishing moves has profound implication during gameplay itself. Be
it that our opponent doesn’t know what our deck is capable of or be it that they simply can’t avoid giving us an opening, once you have said opening, you
get to mark one down for the good guys. This has a couple of consequences.
Assuming your opponent doesn’t know what you’re up to, you get to leverage your information advantage to work towards an innocuous yet deadly position. Say
you played a small Knight of the Reliquary on Turn 3 and got to untap with it. You play your fourth land and pass the turn back. Your opponent slams Jace,
the Mind Sculptor and bounces your Knight, confident that the best Planeswalker ever printed will easily carry them to victory from here on out. If you’re
running Jacob’s Dark Maverick list from above, all it takes is a Scryb Ranger and they’re just dead. Float mana, activate the Knight to find a Dark Depths,
return a Forest to untap the Knight, and go find Thespian’s Stage and activate it. Voila! Gerry Thompson is coming their way.
Even if they know what you’re capable of, however, that doesn’t mean you won’t profit. If they don’t have the removal spell, what are they supposed to do?
Allow you to sit around with a Knight of the Reliquary? That isn’t exactly a recipe for winning, either. And even if they have a removal spell, if that
means they can’t play that Jace this turn, that’s still a clear win for you. Just by adding those two little cards to your deck, you either get to win
games straight up thanks to your information advantage or at the very least manage to force the opponent into very awkward lines of play that might allow
you to carry the day without ever having to actually use your finishing move.
Because of the raw power level of finishing moves, they also allow you to come back in games in which you are (supposedly) irrecoverably behind in
resources. You have just seven lands and a Sensei’s Divining Top against a Jund opponent with a Liliana of the Veil ready to ultimate, lethal damage on the
board for next turn and five cards in hand? No problem, just flip over that Entreat on top of your library at the end of turn and swing for the full twenty
before they ever get to make use of all they’ve amassed. You also set yourself up to get lucky. Rest in Peace in play and dead next turn? Just rip that
Helm of Obedience of the top like a champ and mark down a wholly (un)deserved W on the match slip.
On the flip side, your finishing move prevents your opponent from topdecking out of it when you’re the one massively ahead. Your board position of five
lethal creatures with three counterspells in hand might evaporate to a Supreme Verdict, your Delver of Secrets can die to Abrupt Decay, and your
triple-Planeswalker-dominated board can always go down your opponent ripping Sneak Attack followed by Emrakul. When they’re dead, they don’t get to topdeck
So with all those benefits, what does it cost you to have access to a strong finishing move? The answer should be immediately obvious: you need to devote
cards in your deck to it, cards you can actually draw at inopportune moments (how many Dark Depths would you like in your hand without something to enable
them?) and you might even have to warp your deck construction around them to a certain point. If your finisher is ineffective at the moment or you only
have access to parts of a multi-card finisher, this can lose you games you would have won by just relying on down-to-the-ground, efficient threats and
So what does that mean? Should we sacrifice whatever consistency is necessary to enable the most powerful endgame possible, or are those cute options just
not worth it? The answer, as is so often the case, is “it depends.” If we have to warp our whole game plan around our finishing move or include a dozen
dead cards in our deck, all the cool things we can do won’t buy us enough wins to justify the effort (or we should just be playing a dedicated combo deck).
On the other hand, if it comes basically for free because our deck is already perfectly set up to profit, there is no good reason not to have it (think
Miracles – the deck is already built around using Sensei’s Divining Top to enable Terminus; Entreat and Counterbalance are just a natural fit).
For me, personally, the real question usually isn’t if I should try to shoehorn finishers into existing decks to try and reap all those strategic and
tactical benefits. There either is a compact, efficient way to easily put the game away that fits a deck or there isn’t (rule of thumb: if you have to
include more than two to three otherwise dead cards to make it work, it likely isn’t worth it). And if the option is there, I’d always take it.
While others have found success with decks that can’t really pull off instant wins – BUG Delver, I’m looking at you – I’d always make sure I will be able
to “FINISH HIM!” when the opportunity arises. Maybe that’s just my Vintage background blinding me to the power of fair play, but I simply can’t get those
enticing words out of my system: “Just kill them already.”
What about you? Do you feel as naked as I do when you can’t just end the game at your convenience, or do you prefer to play out the game step by step in
complete honest-to-God fair game mode? Let me know and make sure to include questions, comments, criticism, suggestions and whatever else you feel like
– Carsten Kötter