The Combo That Couldn’t

This story begins way back when Darksteel first came out, when a little Artificer that goes by the name Vedalken Engineer caught my eye. He said to me, in the same crooning voice that he used to speak to so many others, one thing:”Turn 2 Gilded Lotus.” Yes, this little man, with an assist from Chrome Mox, could put a Gilded Lotus on the table just about as fast as a Tinker and leave you with more mana on the next turn than you would know what to do with. I had to have it.

This story begins way back when Darksteel first came out, when a little Artificer that goes by the name Vedalken Engineer caught my eye. He said to me, in the same crooning voice that he used to speak to so many others, one thing: “Turn 2 Gilded Lotus.” Yes, this little man, with an assist from Chrome Mox, could put a Gilded Lotus on the table just about as fast as a Tinker and leave you with more mana on the next turn than you would know what to do with.

I had to have it.

However, I also had to have a win condition. I toyed with the idea of a turn 3 Forge[/author]“]Darksteel [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] followed by March of the Machines for about half a second (Indestructible 5/5 and 9/9 swinging on turn 4! Incredible!), but it was just a little too cutesy. I quickly settled on the massive-mana-combo standby, Mind’s Desire.

I fleshed out a decklist with more mana artifacts the Engineer could power out and a suite of card drawing. One of the final iterations:

4 Seat of the Synod

4 Vault of Whispers

4 Darksteel Citadel

4 Chrome Mox

4 Talisman of Dominance

4 Talisman of Indulgence

3 Serum Powder

2 Darksteel Ingot

4 Ur-Golem’s Eye

4 Gilded Lotus

4 Vedalken Engineer

4 Thoughtcast

4 Thirst for Knowledge

4 Concentrate

4 Mind’s Desire

3 Tendrils of Agony

In its final stages, I changed the list a lot. Serum Powders and Darksteel Ingots came and went, Tendrils hopped between two and three, I even tried a version with Seething Song and another with no Engineers. The reason for all this tinkering was that the deck was actually pretty bad.

Don’t get me wrong – it worked… sometimes, at least. But it was pretty slow, not very consistent and not the least bit elegant.

The optimal situation included a Gilded Lotus on turn 2 or 3 (depending on what accelerators you drew), then firing off a Mind’s Desire for between four and six and just comboing out from there. Far easier said than done, believe me. There were a lot of problems with this plan.

First, the deck needed nine or ten mana on the table to go off. Enough to play some spells and then cast the Desire. If you didn’t draw the right accelerators, or drew them out of order you’d never get to critical mass. Saying”go” on turn 3 with a grip full of Loti and Eyes was rather unfun.

Second, even once you hit critical mass, you generally had to take another turn to cast all the expensive card-drawing spells so you’d have enough gas to fuel a Desire. Four mana for a Concentrate may draw you three cards, but it’s still only one spell for storm purposes and it’s still four mana. Barring a lot of Thoughtcasts in your opening draw, you were probably going to be sitting around for an extra turn gassing back up.

Third, even if you did get the Desire off, it was easy to fizzle. If you didn’t hit a second Desire, you were in for it. The second best situation was to turn over some card drawing to dig you into the second Desire, but usually the first one left you tapped out. This meant you also needed to turn over enough mana artifacts to cast that second one, if you even found it.

(For the record, both of these plans also sometimes worked with Tendrils instead of the second Desire, but Tendrils with seven copies is not going to win a game and generally just left you out of gas and waiting to be killed.)

Fourth, you often had to rely on a one-toughness dork to not die in the first four turns. This is a bad plan for obvious reasons.

Fifth, without a Chrome Mox, you had no play on turn 1. By extension, there was nothing to do with a single leftover mana except the four Thoughtcasts, so a lot of mana ended up going to waste.

I don’t have numbers to hand for these versions, but as I recall it went off 30-40% of the time, usually on turn 5 or 6 (sometimes spreading the kill over two separate Tendrils on two turns). These are not results you want from a defenseless combo deck.

I might have continued working on this, but Ravager reared its all-powerful head and I just gave up. Ravager-Disciple is just a better combo than Engineer-Lotus.

But then Fifth Dawn came along, chock-full of cards begging to be put into combos. And everything changed.

Well, okay, not everything, but many things.

In particular, one of the cards in Fifth Dawn immediately stuck out as a near-perfect fit for this deck: Blinkmoth Infusion. Blinkmoth Infusion provided a very sizable shot in the arm for this combo, solving a lot of the problems listed above. It adds to storm without costing (and often generating) mana and resets your mana completely when turned over by Desire. The deck now has two actual combo cards, whereas previously it was just Mind’s Desire and Friends, and this drastically affected the composition of the rest of the deck.

Because of Infusion, the deck now no longer needed to turn over more artifact mana to cast a second Mind’s Desire. As such, the expensive mana (Loti, Eyes and Ingots) got the boot. Without Gilded Lotus, the attraction of Vedalken Engineer went way down, so he hit the sidelines as well. Infusion’s affinity meant more cheap artifacts were needed, so Talisman of Progress and Chromatic Sphere (and eventually even Conjurer’s Bauble) filled up the empty spaces.

Looking at the hard numbers, Infusion dropped the deck’s critical mass from ten mana down to a relatively sleek seven. At seven (artifact) mana, Blinkmoth Infusion can be cast for no gain, merely untapping the mana used to cast it. However, each Talisman of Sphere or Bauble you cast before the Infusion reduce the affinity by as much as it costs, so when that Infusion resolves, you have a storm count of three or four and three mana free to cast more card drawing or artifacts before firing off the Mind’s Desire

Speaking of card drawing, Fifth Dawn features a pair of very nice, very cheap card drawing spells: Serum Visions and Night’s Whisper. To be perfectly fair, Visions is really a filtering card, but these two together help keep the engine gassed up in the early turns while providing cheap spells to add to storm count while you’re going off.

As you may have noticed, all five of the problems with the deck are now solved. Hooray! Let’s have a look at the current decklist:

4 Seat of the Synod

4 Vault of Whispers

4 Darksteel Citadel

4 Chrome Mox

4 Talisman of Progress

4 Talisman of Dominance

4 Talisman of Indulgence

4 Chromatic Sphere

3 Conjurer’s Bauble

4 Serum Visions

4 Thoughtcast

4 Night’s Whisper

3 Thirst for Knowledge

4 Blinkmoth Infusion

4 Mind’s Desire

2 Tendrils of Agony

This version of the deck goes off more reliably, goldfishing a lethal Tendrils on turn 5 with more consistency – and in this version,”lethal” is no longer scraping to make nine copies. The win often sees two or three castings of Desire (usually recycled thanks to Conjurer’s Bauble, actually) resulting in the possibility for the entire deck to be turned over and the storm count to climb to twenty or so. Turn 4 wins are a lot more possible as well, seemingly always coming off a turn 1 Chrome Mox (although I’ve come close to making it happen without one). A turn 3 kill has a slightly better mathematical possibility than before, but is still not exactly likely to show up. The cheaper, more plentiful card drawing and filtering also makes the deck quite resilient off of mulligans, with even five-card hands still sometimes able to go off on schedule.

I have to admit, when I updated and started testing this deck again, all these improvements had me jumping out of my shoes. Thanks to Fifth Dawn, this deck had become a seriously competitive Standard combo deck! Right?


Why are you all looking at me like that?

Oh. It must be because even though the deck isn’t exactly bad anymore, it still isn’t good. You see, when I said that the deck is more reliable, that was true. However, more reliable than 35% isn’t a big achievement. In fact, even though this new version goes off almost twice as often, that only makes for about 55% of games.

The win percentage is still dragging for a couple different reasons. One is the mana. There are only twelve lands in the deck, sixteen counting the Chrome Moxes. You need two of these to cast a Talisman and start the ball rolling. A turn 1 Serum Visions is quite helpful for the one-land draw, letting you look at three more cards, but there is always a chance that the second source won’t turn up. Visions and the”cogs” give you something to do with that single mana, but they don’t win you the game all by their lonesome. If you don’t have that second source by at least turn three, your chances are nil. If it arrives on turn 3, you are not officially out of it, but you are in a bad way.

I know what you’re about to say and I’m going to stop you before you say it. You’re about to say”play more lands.” That is a perfectly reasonable thing to say. Regarding this particular deck, it is also, in my opinion, wrong.

I have tried additional lands (Great Furnace, for the record). Adding additional lands, bringing the (zero-cost) mana sources from sixteen to as many as twenty, does give you the necessary two mana sources more often. However, it also to the same degree takes away the necessary card drawing and combo components later on. When this deck goes off, the Mind’s Desire is the last or second-to-last card in your hand. You will likely use every other card to build up the storm that sends you over the top and the Tendrils to your opponent’s face. If one of those Thoughtcasts had been a land, you wouldn’t have drawn that extra Talisman that you played before the Infusion and which created the extra storm copy that turned over the Thirst for Knowledge that drew you into a second Infusion that you were able to cast because of the extra Talisman. Get it?

Look at the numbers. At sixteen (zero-cost) mana sources in a sixty card deck, one in slightly less than every four cards is a source. That’s two in slightly less than every eight. That’s your opening hand plus one. On average, you get the lands you need. It varies, but as long as two of them show up in the top ten cards, it can still work. If you pull the average up by adding more lands, the ground you gain from less mana screws, you lose out the other end in lack of business spells (which already happens a decent amount and is what causes the rest of the failures to combo out). If you get a one-lander that won’t let you cast Serum Visions on turn 1, just mulligan. The deck can handle that much, as I wrote above.

Of course, sitting down with a 55% chance to win any given game isn’t so bad, right? You’ll still end up above average. (Yes, I know you need to win more than 55% of your games to win a tournament. Shut up, I’m trying to segue here.) The catch is that that figure is based on games played from only one side, assuming an opponent with no disruption that can kill you on turn 5. That describes approximately zero decks in Standard that fit that profile.

Most of the aggro decks in pre-rotation Standard, primarily Ravager and Goblins, but also Elves, can churn out a turn 4 kill, beating out the combo, and they certainly won’t be getting worse from the addition of Fifth Dawn. If that weren’t enough, you’re helping them kill you to the tune of four to six life points a game, sometimes more. This deck needs a lot of colored mana and there are only so many Chromatic Spheres to go around. As a result, it draws a lot of colored mana out of Talismans, each costing a life point. Add to that a couple castings of Night’s Whisper (a.k.a.”Two Cards and a Poke in the Eye”) and you’re accelerating your opponent’s clock by at least a turn. Any speed that an Affinity deck might lose with a banned Skullclamp is more than made up for with the pain you’re causing yourself.

Speaking of Affinity, the artifact hate that everyone packs to deal with everyone’s favorite artifacts does wonders to completely destroy you. The mana problems described above are exacerbated by Detonate, Oxidize, Echoing Ruin, Viridian Shaman and anything else that people might find room for in their sideboards. Achieving critical mass is just that – critical – and if you can’t get to seven mana, that’s the condition you’ll find yourself in.

Finally, as with any combo deck, your win condition is vulnerable. Any card that stops a lethal Tendrils from being lethal is just an auto-loss. Gilded Light, Stifle, and Platinum Angel all qualify. If Condescend sees any play, and it seems good enough to if there’s a deck that can fit it in, that too (or any countermagic, really) can quash the combo by countering your first Blinkmoth Infusion.

Keep in mind, these are the problems with the best version that I could make. With all these failings in mind, I am yet again giving up on this deck. I’ve tried to make it happen, and I could keep trying, swapping around accelerants and card drawing spells for all eternity, but I am now convinced it would be so much wasted effort. I could also try out a different engine, but then it’s a different deck, and wouldn’t really belong in this article.

And so we reach the end of the story of the combo deck that couldn’t, even with help from the most combo-oriented set in years. There are combos out there waiting to be discovered, some of which probably involve Blinkmoth Infusion and/or Mind’s Desire, but this isn’t one of them. I doubt I’ll be the one to discover them, though – I’m getting a little weary of Talismen and storm copies. If one of you out there manages to make it happen, don’t hesitate to let me know.

Signing off,

Andy Clautice

clauticea at kenyon dot edu

KenyonMystyc on AIM