One of the few axioms of competitive Vintage is that there is no such thing as a mediocre Combo deck. Combo decks are primarily threatened by a core set of cards, generally permissive or hoser in quality (i.e. Chalice of the Void, Force of Will, Null Rod, Root Maze, Tormod’s Crypt, etc). A combo deck can fight these cards, or it can’t. Now it may be the case that no combo deck can jump this hurdle. That either ends the discussion or is an incentive for ambitious engineers to see if they can construct a worthy combo deck. The important point is that the criteria which single out the best combo deck in the format (for example, speed, resilience, consistency, and power), make it glaringly apparent that alternative combo choices are so much worse. As such, even a marginally worse combo deck, as measured by any of these criteria, is much more likely to lose a substantially greater number of games.
This is why there is a tremendous drop in quality after you find the best combo deck. Implicit in what has been said so far is a handy rule of thumb: there is generally one best combo deck. The rare exception is when you have combo decks that function in dramatically different ways, both in terms of design and metagame position.
The quest to win with combo then becomes a search to find the most powerful synergies and effects that the Vintage card pool has to offer. To a certain extent, this will appear to be a matter of degree. Many of the combo decks overlap as much as 80-90%, 50% of which generally consists of restricted cards and other key accelerants, utility, and Tendrils of Agony. But as I have said earlier, only one is likely to be best, and it will be significantly better than the next best alternative. While many will eventually play Tendrils of Agony, how they end up at that point is a matter of critical concern.
I don’t want to waste time canvassing the range of combo decks, comparing and contrasting their various strengths and weaknesses. My purpose here is to present what I believe to be the gold standard for Tendrils-based combo at the moment.
If you enjoy absolutely wrecking people as much as I do – instilling fear and intimidating based upon the strength of your deck, I present:
4 Gemstone Mine
4 City of Brass
1 Tolarian Academy
1 Crop Rotation
4 Dark Ritual
4 Elvish Spirit Guide
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mox Emerald
1 Lotus Petal
1 Black Lotus
1 Lion’s Eye Diamond
1 Sol Ring
1 Mana Crypt
1 Mana Vault
1 Vamp Tutor
1 Demonic Tutor
(no Mystical or Consult)
So, what makes this deck so special? I did an analysis of the Restricted List for the manadrain.com and suddenly I was struck by how old and decrepit much of that list is. Time Spiral is not something I think any self-respecting Type One combo player would willing playing with. If Combo has to have an average turn 2 win in order to be playable, Time Spiral is anything but”free.” This led me to Diminishing Returns. Returns was the amazing re-discovery of Kevin Cron for the Long sideboard, the final component which allowed us to move Tinker maindeck and complete the build. A few months before this, after the restriction of Gush, Koen van De Hurst posted a list on The Mana Drain that heavily emphasized Diminishing Returns. Draw7 is in many ways the descendent of that, even if it’s inspiration was my analysis of the restricted list.
Diminishing Resistance v1.0 (7/4/2003)
4 City of Brass
4 Gemstone Mine
2 Underground Sea
1 Tolarian Academy
1 Mana Crypt
1 Black Lotus
1 Lotus Petal
1 Sol Ring
1 Mana Vault
1 Grim Monolith
1 Lion’s Eye Diamond*
4 Dark Ritual
4 Helm of Awakening
4 Chromatic Sphere
3 Candelabra of Tawnos
R Demonic Tutor
R Vampiric Tutor
R Yawgmoth’s Will
R Yawgmoth’s Bargain
R Ancestral Recall
R Time Walk
R Mind’s Desire
R Mystical Tutor
R Crop Rotation
R Wheel of Fortune
R Memory Jar
At that point in time, the full power of Lion’s Eye Diamond was not understood – and understandably so, as it was the Burning Wish + Yawgmoth’s Will combo which really makes it shine. Koen’s list was inspired in that he dared to use Diminishing Returns in a combo deck as another Timetwister. Nonetheless, he used many cards that I think any serious combo player recognize as simply too slow or ineffectual: Helms, for example.
The second part of the story is that Dark Ritual, like Mishra’s Workshop, is stronger than many of the mana accelerants on the restricted list. Of course, it could very well be that the reason for this is that they are restricted and Workshop and Ritual are not. As”one-of’s,” Ritual and Workshop leave a lot to be desired, but at least Lotus Petal can still see play.
Nonetheless, while I certainly do not think Dark Ritual should be restricted, I’d say that Ritual and Returns certainly are equal to the power of many of the cards in the restricted list.
With this idea firmly planted in my head – the idea being: how do I exploit both of these cards as much as possible, I came to the idea of taking the complete opposite tack than I did with Long. With Long I was obsessed with trying to win without using Draw Sevens. What if, I thought, I play nothing but them?
One of the advantages of Long.dec over the TPS (The Perfect Storm) lists that have emerged is that they have more business. (The Perfect Storm decks are essentially the Academy lists before Scourge, that removed the Academy combo of Stroke, Candelabra, Capsize, and Gyser for Tendrils – something which was obvious to everyone, but everyone was focused on other things at the time). The Wishes meant more business spells in the maindeck, as there were more threats that had to be countered. The Wishes also gave the deck a lot of resiliency to hate that might pop up. With Death Wish you can get any card in Magic and you don’t even have to reveal the card! You can even get creatures and land.
In a way, the deck I’m about to propose has filled up that four or five card gap that Long has over TPS – but it’s done so because I had the balls to play three to four Diminishing Returns in a deck with only two win conditions because of my experience with Extended Desire. The first thing most Type One players say after they see the list is: don’t you remove your win conditions very often? The answer is no. To this day I have not removed both in the first Returns. But too many Type One players don’t play other formats, and so they wouldn’t have had the same experience.
So here we go, while I know that combo decks aren’t particularly popular, there is a small crowd of strong Type One players who will be happy to try their hand with new decks. If you are daring, and you want to try something broken, follow along…
The Draw Sevens
The draw sevens are really the heart of this deck and what it is all about. The basic assumption underlying the concept, broadly put, is that the draw 7s are overwhelming card advantage. You dump your hand of acceleration on turn 1, play a Draw7, and suddenly you have given you opponent a hand they cannot mulligan out of, and what’s more, you have just, for three or four mana, gotten an entirely new hand out of the deal. Moreover, by having such a high concentration of maindeck Draw7s, if your first one gets countered, try, try again. That is, next turn, play another!
Don’t be afraid to play a draw seven. There are few cards that are a stronger play on any given turn. One thing you will find is that if you have any extra bit of acceleration you will be able to continually Draw7 into more Draw7s because your Draw7s will actually generate you mana. This becomes especially true when Fastbond hits – and then things get really sick.
One of the most importance concepts in economics, a premise upon which the entire structure of economic theory is built, is the idea of diminishing returns. The idea, basically, is that with each additional unit of a thing, we value each unit less. In other words, let’s say you go to a movie theatre. You go up to the candy bar and you see a tub of popcorn cost $3 and a drink costs $4. But you are really hungry, so you decide to get a tub of popcorn. In fact, you are so hungry you think about getting another tub, but you decide it’s too expensive to buy two, so you’ll settle for one. That’s diminishing returns. You’re willing to spend $4 for the first tub, but less for the second.
Unfortunately, this deck removes a huge chunk of its deck from the game over the course of a game. Because of that, there are two senses in which Diminishing Returns is, well, diminishing returns. First, each subsequent Diminishing Returns you might play is more dangerous, in that you risk removing both of your win conditions from game. The basic rule of thumb is that there is no danger in playing your first Returns in removing your win conditions. The only caution is that if you have a choice between playing another Draw7 or Returns, that might sway you to play the other Draw7 (as if the casting cost didn’t in the first place).
The second rule of thumb is that your second Returns is also relatively safe, unless you have already removed one of your win conditions. If that is the case, all bets are off. You still have a much better shot of not removing it than removing it, but recognize that you are making a relatively risky play. Hopefully, it will never come to it, but if you play a third Returns, you are really rolling the dice.
The second sense in which Diminishing Returns suffers from diminishing returns is the number of optimal Returns in the deck. Restriction policy is based on the assumption that one copy of a card is worse than being able to run four. With most cards, this is certainly the case. Gush, for instance, is an engine in copies of four, but unreliable as a single copy. Dark Ritual and Mishra’s Workshop are similar. Only being able to run one of either card makes them almost worthless.
In that sense, this example actually runs counter to the idea of diminishing returns. Being able to run four rather than one, or even four rather than three, makes the card of more value to the player. The rules of Magic are structured in such a way that this is usually the case. If there was no card limit of four, then the law of diminishing returns would be more visible – you probably wouldn’t want twenty-four Wheels of Fortune – and at some point, you would actually have too many Black Lotuses. The case of Intuition and Cunning Wish in Psychatog are good examples of cards which you simply do not want to run four-of.
In a deck like this, you don’t have to run four Diminishing Returns, but there are good reasons to do so. First of all, you want to get a very high probability of drawing Draw7s. The more Draw7s you draw, the better, and as a derivative of this tenet, you want to have a very good chance of drawing more Returns. Having more Returns also makes easier to use Force of Will effectively.
While it is almost always a good idea to play a Draw7, the rare exception is generally when you have:
The four cards that need no explanation are arguably the four most broken cards in the entire format: Yawgmoth’s Bargain, Yawgmoth’s Will, Mind’s Desire, and Necropotence. The reason I lump these cards together is because they singlehandedly create”W’s,” and they do so, with the exception of Will, just by virtue of being in your hand with the right acceleration. Perhaps the easiest card to protect is Necropotence. Land, Dark Ritual, Necropotence with Force of Will backup is a very plausible scenario. My recommendation when playing with Necro is to Necro for eight.
Anyone who has experience playing Long is likely to want to gorge themselves on Necro, but unlike Long, you simply cannot draw your way into a spell that finds Yawgmoth’s Will. This deck will still likely want to play a Draw7 after drawing eight cards with Necro, so gorging is a waste of resources. Experience has shown that eight tends to be correct. With Long, the standard is twelve, simply because you want to make sure that you can win that turn and still have a little left over in case something goes wrong.
Protection/Setting Up The Combo
As a theoretical matter, trying to abuse Draw7s certainly opens you up to all sorts of problems. In particular, it helps your opponent draw into Force of Will and gives them an entirely new hand to work with, should they get the opportunity. Once the decision about which spells were to be added that helped protect and set up the combo, the rest of the deck almost fell into place. Despite that, this is the area in which there is the most wiggle room.
Force Of Will
Something I should have said in the introduction to this article is that, since combo no longer has to run Lion’s Eye Diamond, it should probably always run Force of Will. Without being able to abuse the degeneracy of Lion’s Eye Diamond, there is no reason to waste mana for Duress if you simply do not have to. What’s more, Force of Will actively protects you from the worst kind of threat to this deck of all: hate. For this deck, hate means Trinisphere, Null Rod, Chalice of the Void, Root Maze, and the like. Moreover, running a Diminishing Returns deck probably means you’ll have enough Blue spells to pitch, and sure enough, there are as many Blue spells in this deck as there are in Keeper circa 2001. Additionally, being able to Force backup your Yawgmoth’s Bargain is a pretty good deal.
The function of this card vis-à-vis Brainstorm in Long, is much different. In Long, you wanted to avoid casting Draw7s if you could, and you wanted to win with what you had. This deck is almost entirely different. However, Brainstorms are still an absolute necessity – but for a different reason. This deck may feel threat light at times because the mana ratio is so high. As a result, it is not difficult to Draw7 your way into a hand with nothing but acceleration and cards that are in the subcategory of Protection/Setting up the Combo. As such, all mana and a Brainstorm may mean all it takes to keep going is a Brainstorm into Academy and a Mind’s Desire, or a threat and a Force of Will. The point is that you do not Brainstorm on your opening play if you can play Timetwister/Wheel instead.
What may deserve explanation are cards that I considered and/or cards that could be played in the mainboard.
Chain of Vapor / Hurkyl’s Recall
Chain and Hurkyl’s perform very similar functions at critically different casting costs. Chain is able to deal with Root Maze and Pyrostatic Pillar, but Hurkyl’s is actually better at dealing with Chalices. Both cards have neat tricks that can lead to very large Mind’s Desires and can help solidify your game advantage.
Chaining your own Moxen can often be a very important play – especially when you sacrifice tapped land to continue the chain in order to replay all the Moxen again. If you have Fastbond and Yawgmoth’s Will, you can replay the land and Chain all over again, generating boatloads of mana in the process. Hurkyl’s Recall works well in this deck because as it plays draw sevens, it increasingly deposits more artifact accelerants on the board. At some point, a Hurkyl’s Recall to bounce them all up and retap them means that you are going to generate some insane mana and produce a really powerful effect. Hurkyl’s and Chain in the maindeck make a lot of sense if you expect the hate that I mentioned above. Additionally, they both pitch to Force of Will, and you will find them useful in the maindeck.
This is the configuration I prefer as a”standard” build for an upper level Type One metagame. However, there are several alternative configurations that one might try in any given environment. There is no doubt that specific hosers such as Null Rod, Chalice, and Pyrostatic Pillar are the biggest threats to this deck. The bad news is that most decks can run these cards, but the good news is that most decks that do run these cards run them in the sideboard.
I want to be absolutely clear on the distinction I am drawing. In terms of metagame threats, Control is the strongest opponent to this deck. In terms of game ending threats, specific hate is most harmful. This leads to me discuss some alternative builds.
In the local tournament in Columbus, I expected a lot of Tog. As such I knew that I’d be better off putting Xantid Swarm into the maindeck. Xantid Swarm is a perfectly legitimate maindeck choice. To run four, I cut the Lion’s Eye Diamond (always makes me sad), Chrome Mox, Chain of Vapor, and Hurkyl’s Recall, and moved them to the sideboard. This worked fine as a metagame decision. By the same token, if you expect a lot of Workshops (Trinisphere and Sphere of Resistance are about as close as you can get to an autoloss) and one of these cards slips by your Force of Wills, you’re going to want answers instead of the Xantids. The function of Xantid Swarm is rather straightforward, but don’t let them forget that they can’t do anything. Sometimes your turns will take so long – they will have seen so many different hands because of your Draw7s that you both will be disoriented and might forget that your opponent is”turned off.”
The key protection elements consist of Force of Will, Xantid Swarm, Chain of Vapor, and Hurkyl’s Recall. The key to defeating a tier one metagame may be to correctly determine the most optimal configuration of these four spells for your maindeck.
Demonic Tutor and Vampiric Tutor require no explanation. Demonic Consultation has been omitted because the win conditions are so sparse. With only two win conditions, the chance of you removing both is simply too great to justify the spell. The other spell I have cut is Mystical Tutor. Too many of the bombs in this deck are not Sorceries or Instants. Mystical never nets you anything and in topdeck mode, it doesn’t actually set you up because your opponent knows what you are going to play. After a lot of testing, I could no longer justify running Mystical Tutor and was very pleased to cut the card once I realized that I had sufficient Blue spells to play Force of Will without running Mystical.
All that remains is a brief explanation of the victory conditions and tutors, and an even shorter explanation for some of my mana accelerant choices.
I have already dealt with the issue of scarcity of win conditions. This is simply not a problem. One legitimate question though, is if I should play with two Tendrils instead of one Tendrils and one Burning Wish. Analyzing this question is extremely difficult. By the time you get into a position to win, you generally have a huge advantage, so the extra mana needed to cast Burning Wish for Tendrils is a non-issue. In my experience, I have never had a problem using Burning Wish – and the advantage of being able to get spells Removed from Game or sitting in your sideboard has proved invaluable. One other configuration proposed by some people who have tested my deck include one Death Wish, one Tendrils, and one Burning Wish. This is also a configuration that has merit – the Death Wish could potentially be quite good after a Returns. In conclusion, its up to you to run what you feel most comfortable with.
There is another thing you should keep in mind in case your Tendrils and Wish do become removed from game. One of the things this deck can do is cast Time Walk quite a bit. You can play Time Walk, Twister, Time Walk, Diminishing Returns, Time Walk, Timetwister, Time Walk, Yawgmoth’s Will, Time Walk… you get the idea. If you manage to get a large enough Mind’s Desire, or get the combo going, you should be able to recur Time Walk enough times that you can win with Elvish Spirit Guides. I realize it’s not ideal, but if they don’t get a turn, who cares? It’s something to keep in mind.
Most of the accelerants are automatic inclusions. The marginal accelerants include Crop Rotation and Chrome Mox, and to a certain extent Lion’s Eye Diamond. Breaking an LED after a turn 1 or 2 Draw 7 is one of the strongest plays you can make if you are certain that your Draw7 is going to resolve. However, you may be frustrated in that you are one mana short of being able to play a Draw7, and yet you have that stupid LED anyway. Them’s the breaks. Chrome Mox is also marginal, and is probably the worst of the bunch – but it still probably deserves that one slot, unless you want to try something better. Some of you may want to try Mox Diamond, and I encourage you to do so, but my experience with it has been unfavorable.
Elvish Spirit Guides fit very nicely in the theme of the deck. They also facilitate Fastbond. Fastbond is one of the cards that distinguishes this deck, because it uses so many Draw7s and makes Fastbond so incredibly dangerous. Crop Rotation is also another very nice spell – I consider it a”wet” ritual because that is often how it functions – it finds Academy and taps for three or four mana. Alternatively, you can be completely tapped out, need a Black, remove Elvish Spirit Guide, play Crop Rotation, and Bam!, you’re back in business.
Please, please, please, do not feel that you have to stick to the mana base that I have chosen. I highly encourage you to do what works for you. In particular, you may find that you have a distaste for the two Glimmervoids – which I completely understand. If you expect a lot of Prison, you may want to play Underground Seas in those slots.
How The Heck Do I Play This Thing?
The first thing to do when you are playing this deck, is realize that your approach is going to be different depending on what you face. If you are playing against Aggro, the worst threats are hosers such as Chalice and Pyrostatic Pillar. As such, speed is of the essence. Most good Type One aggro decks can goldfish rather quickly – so while you can slow play if you want to maximize resources, the best play is to go for the jugular. As an illustration, if you mulligan into a hand like this: Gemstone Mine, City of Brass, Mana Crypt, Brainstorm, Wheel of Fortune, Timetwister – don’t waste time casting Brainstorm and then playing a Draw7 on the next turn with another land drop. That kind of play can cost you games. First, you allow them to maximize their opening hand – casting as many spells as their limited mana resources will permit will make the Draw7 that much better for them, should your Draw7 make you sputter for a turn. So play your Draw7s ASAP and try to win as quickly as possible.
I realize that Dark Ritual has great synergy with most of the Draw7s, but is not so effective with Diminishing Returns unless you have a non-land accelerant that is either Blue or Black (Mox Jet, Mox Sapphire, Black Lotus, Lotus Petal, etc). If it comes down to delaying Returns a turn in order to cast Dark Ritual, it’s generally best just to forgo the Ritual and play Returns.
Combo decks like Long generally have a plan – they want to cast Burning Wish to find Yawgmoth’s Will. But how then end up at that point is anyone’s guess. This deck is a bit more myopic in that it is heavily focused on playing Draw7s, but do not ignore the handful of restricted uberspells in here that can randomly win games.
Against Control, your plan is to play aggressively. As always, miss-assignment of Role = Game loss. You are the beatdown, so act like it. Play a turn 1 Draw7. If it’s countered, play another. At the very least in countering your threats, you will have parity with the control player, who is expending all of his resources to fend you off. Once in a while you can try and set up an enormous Mind’s Desire, which the Control player can do little to prevent. When this comes up, take advantage of it.
Most of the time, playing against Control will involve robust hands that have multiple threats and/or Force of Will backup for key threats or”Force of Will or No” hands in which you simply lose if they have Force of Will. Such a hand might be a mulligan of: Elvish Spirit Guide, Elvish Spirit Guide, Gemstone Mine, Fastbond, Lotus Petal, Diminishing Returns. In that case, if your Returns resolve, you have a tremendous shot to stay in this game. If its countered, you’ve lost nearly all your resources and will have to start from scratch while your opponent will have six cards going into his first mainphase.
So, Why Is This Such A Good Combo Deck?
Of the Tendrils-based combo decks, this is the fastest. The only faster combo deck at the moment are Belcher-based decks (they can sometimes have a Tendrils). Belcher is a fatally flawed concept because it has no resilience – a single Duress, let alone Force of Will is likely to significantly impair its game plan, if not single handedly prevent it from winning. Draw7 is very consistently a turn 2 combo deck, much like Long.dec before it. The difference is that the percentage of turn 1 wins is lower – but not as low as you would think. This deck has its fair share of the coveted Turn 1 win – often unaided by Bargain, Desire, or cards of that nature.
Moreover, this deck is in many ways more resilient than old Long, because you can now run Force of Will. The only flaw in the deck as it relates to control is that Draw7s necessarily provide an opportunity for the opponent to try and stop you with new cards. As far as consistency goes, the extremely high number of Draw7s and broken cards means that you have the highest concentration of absolutely busted effects in Type One. Finally, this deck is probably the best deck to mulligan with imaginable, since there are so many Draw7s.
So, How The Heck Do I Sideboard With This Thing?
Against most Control, you will want Xantid Swarms. Lion’s Eye Diamond is worse because it actively interferes with your ability to use Force of Will, and potentially causes tremendous card disadvantage. Hurkyl’s Recall can probably be safely cut, in light of the fact that you won’t need both Chain and Hurkyl’s. But the fact is that you probably don’t want either, unless you think they might sideboard in Chalice for some reason. I’d sideboard out the Hurkyl’s, Chain, LED, and Chrome Mox or Crop Rotation.
Against Prison, you can expect a nightmarish amount of hate. As such you’ll want +2 Oxidize, +2 Chain of Vapor, + 2 Hurkyl’s Recall. Sideboarding in all six spells is probably overkill in consideration of the lack of spells to take out. The sideboard itself is an unfinished product and as such, should reflect what you fear most. If you simply cannot find room for these goodies, if you are playing first, you can probably safely remove the Force of Wills, because by the time they get a turn, you will have plenty of mana in play to play one of these answers that you will undoubtedly draw.
Something that is perhaps more important to winning a matchup is playing your deck optimally. This will get you much further than any sideboarding decision. However, if you fear any specific, matchup, be wise about it. Adjust your deck to answer your feared matchups.
For example, if you are playing against lots of control, then you should consider a list something like this:
4 Gemstone Mine
4 City of Brass
1 Tolarian Academy
4 Dark Ritual
4 Elvish Spirit Guide
It is no exaggeration when I say that Control is going to have a hell of a time beating this. Just remember, you must play aggressively against control. Play threat after threat, and eventually not only will something slip through, but that will be game.
The maindeck has some flexibility in terms of tuning it to suit your needs. If you feel that the deck needs Chromatic Spheres, by all means add them. Ditto with Chrome Mox. Test for yourself and see what works best.
Many Happy Returns
One of my favorite episodes of the legendary television show”The Prisoner” is”Many Happy Returns.” If you know anything about the Prisoner, the premise is simple: it’s a forced retirement village for people who”know too much.” In other words, government officials, spies, and the like from around the world are kidnapped after retirement and brought to the”village,” where they will live out the rest of their years in forced seclusion. In the episode I’m particularly fond of (although there are many), Number 6 (the main character), manages to escape the village. Over time he builds a raft out of spare lumber, constructs a sail, and finally wakes up one morning and finds that the coast is clear, for some mysterious reason, the entire island is completely deserted from its normal coterie.
Of course, he seizes the opportunity and after a while at sea he manages to land in some Eastern European nation. He hitchhikes back to London and meets with his former bosses (MI6 Intelligence), describing in detail his imprisonment on this island, and how he was forced to become”number six.” After some thought, they decide to investigate despite the fantastic nature of his story. After some legwork, they find the Island and do some reconnaissance. On one such expedition, Number 6 is taking a closer look at the Island from his helicopter, when the pilot ejects him from the vehicle… returning him once more to the Island. He goes back to his home and the community members come in with a birthday cake and candles (it was his birthday), wishing him”Many Happy Returns.”
Sometimes, playing Draw Seven’s may feel like your running circles going nowhere, but always remember, you’re manhandling your opponent in the process – they may go through four or five new hands before they get a turn, if they get a turn. So in that spirit, I wish you: