You CAN play Type I #135 – Back to Basics, Part XIII: Incremental Thinking, and How to Say No to Cute Combos

Oscar riffs on Bleiweiss, Knut, Vedalken Orrery, and why some cards belong together like chocolate and peanut butter, and why other cards, while seemingly a solid combo, are simply a bad idea.

An interlude for Ted Knutson

My editor recently wrote”Card Quality 101 or The Search for Broken Stuff,” and it seems to be on opposite poles with the last Back to Basics column (see”Counting Card Quality, or Why You Can’t“). Where Ted talks about numbers and formulas, I opined in my correspondence with Tom Carpenter (see”Counting Shadow Prices“) that Magic doesn’t lend itself cleanly to such sabermetric approaches I called”baby food mush.” Simply, I disagree with insisting on a single, unifying score for the game’s various resources and resource flows.

[Longtime readers of the theory side of this website will know that Oscar and I disagree on a lot of things, but in this case some criticism is valid. My article ended up focusing more on a system for evaluating creature strength that has inherent flaws (which I noted in the article itself, but still feel the exploration was useful in many ways), while glossing over most of the basics of Card Quality. There are still intriguing concepts in the article, but it’s not a flawless piece by any stretch of the imagination. – Knut]

In the spirit of a real university, I’d like to invite you to revisit both. Thoughts on the two might lead to an article.

An interlude for Ben Bleiweiss

I have to admit that the solitude of my vacation was broken by the electronic cries for Ben Bleiweiss head on the forums.

Now, someone writing up wild ideas is nothing to badmouth (see Ben Bleiweiss,”18,000 Words: Some Words About Fifth Dawn in Type One“), and take it from an old Beyond Dominia maintainer who had to referee”This belongs in the Casual Mill!” responses. However, I cannot for the life of me comprehend why on earth an active Star City member would take so many cheap shots at the Type I community. For example:

All Suns’ Dawn

“This spell is expensive. It also has a massively game-swinging effect.

“Returning up to five cards at once to your hand is major, and All Suns’ Dawn is easily splashable in any deck that would want to return five colors of cards to their hand. Initially, I see a majority of Type One players pooh-poohing this spell as it requires five mana to cast. They are idiots, plain and simple. Keeper can easily run a copy of this in their deck, and use it to get back:

“A) Demonic Tutor/Mind Twist

Force of Will/Mana Drain/Ancestral Recall/Brokenness

Balance/Swords to Plowshares/Decree of Justice/Dismantling Blow

Fire / Ice and Gorilla Shaman

E) Okay, so there are no good Green targets here except for

“Either way, the two-to-four for one on this card is pretty major, and this card should be given a good, hard look.”

I’m not sure about his premise, since All Suns’ Dawn is massively game-swinging if you have good cards in three or four colors already in the graveyard. It’s dead until that point, so its being a five-mana sorcery isn’t the complete reason why control players might pooh-pooh it. Moreover,”The Deck” hasn’t run Green since Onslaught brought Polluted Delta, (see”Building a 5-Color Mana Base after Onslaught“), has increased its use of Skeletal Scrying, and has been trying to cut down on powerful but conditional bombs.

Or simpler, Future Sight is stronger than this, and it’s not on the list. Moreover, I can’t see how an All Suns’ Dawn would steal a spot from a more flexible and straightforward Skeletal Scrying.

Maybe idiots have a worthwhile thought on this one?

I’ll leave it at that without commenting on Ben’s forum quip that Yawgmoth’s Will ought to be unrestricted. [Which was obviously sarcastic. – Knut]

But deckbuilding instincts aside, there was simply no casus belli for all those crude potshots. Ben even called Matthieu Durand a.k.a. Toad an”elitist type 1 player who both drives people from their format and thinks he knows everything there is to know about a given format.”

Ooooh, that vague elitist accusation again.

Now, I’ve taken the Type I community to task before (see”… And Why Did Other Decks Lose?“) and JP Meyer does it every other paragraph. I think the cajoling can be done with more logic and less abrasiveness, or at least with a lot more wit. Besides, calling the metagame stagnant is so passé already.

The”Type I sucks” article gambit with Matt Smith’s odious piece (see”Why You Shouldn’t Force of Will a Channeled Fireball“) pushed me and later Darren Di Battista a.k.a. Azhrei into Featured Writer status three years ago, but it got old with Ferrett. Let’s build a bit more credibility – and dignity – Ben, and that last try was hardly convincing.

Why did people bust a nut over Vedalken Orrery?

When the first Fifth Dawn spoilers came out, some of the most ecstatic reactions I saw on the Star City Forums were caused by Vedalken Orrery (it’s that four-mana artifact that turns all your spells into instants). For example, Nova40k said,”Vedalken Orrery just screams make me broken. Just imagine playing Yawgmoth’s Will during your opponents End of Turn.” Esternaefil added it”can turn a normally degenerate deck into something completely disgusting.”

TheManaDrain even had a thread entitled,”Time to pop Yet Another boner [Vedalken Orrery].” Let me begin today’s theory discussion with Ric_Flair’s discourse from there:

“I think we need a new phrase to express excitement over Magic cards. I mean if they had like pictures of Jessica Simpson on them and she was naked it might be more understandable, sad, but at least understandable. I refused to discuss Magic cards in terms of their boner popping capacity. I am reserving my boners for…um…real uses.”


Seriously, I don’t think Vedalken Orrery will make the cut, but I’ve seen so many of the above threads since Beyond Dominia days.

It’s not intuitive for newer players. Anyone who’s ever responded to Giant Growth or Empyreal Armor with a timely Lightning Bolt has quickly realized that instant > sorcery. For control players, it conjures memorable images of Mana Short from 1996, Fact or Fiction from 2000 (see”Why Do They Say Fact or Fiction Isn’t Broken” for the meaning of EOTFOFYL), and maybe even the obscure Morphling / Flash combo. It’s something that obviously helps your opponent, and isn’t as easy to ignore as a random Feldon’s Cane or Glasses of Urza on the table.

Go back to my two rules for gauging new cards (see”Rating New Cards from, Say, Apocalypse“):

Is the card more efficient than an established benchmark? (Or, do I get more bang from my buck?)

Does the card do something no past card ever did, and if it does, is this new card playable?

Now, let’s try to add another mental framework: Incremental thinking.

Humpus Wumpus, combos, and synergy

Let’s begin with a memorable creature: Thrashing Wumpus.

On its own, it has a strong effect. But back in Masques days, some people opined that Spirit Link would make it even stronger.

Come on, admit it… you’ve always wanted to resolve Honorable Passage against an opponent’s Earthquake, right?

Now, before every Prerelease, tomes of wisdom like Inquest dazzle you with all these”cool” combos, but their recommendations don’t quite show up in the Pro Tour decklists. Rob Hahn explained in the Kim School commentary (see”Schools of Magic,” The Dojo):

“You want to build in the possibility of a combination (as you do with Rasputin Dreamweaver + BIG Fireball, or Mana Drain into a Jade Statue or something like that) but you don’t ever want to be in a position to be relying upon it.”

That foundational advice explains why no one built a deck that relies on Celestial Dawn to fix its colors; rather, its fifteen minutes came when the Paragons boarded it in to single-handedly neutralize a Sligh sideboard with twelve to fifteen cards against”The Deck.”

Thrashing Wumpus / Spirit Link is different at first glance, though, since both cards are good in themselves.

Incremental thinking: Dissecting that Wumpus combo

If Wumpus is okay and Spirit Link is okay, why might the two combined be less okay? For starters, adding Spirit Link adds a bunch of color issues. There are costs beyond that single White mana, and note why, for example,”The Deck” long since dropped Regrowth (see”Building a 5-color mana base after Onslaught“).

Now let’s take the premise that a Spirit Linked Wumpus is really strong. We can roughly divide each card’s contribution to the combo, though. Since the Wumpus dominates the board even before it’s Linked, let’s say that it packs 80% of the punch, and the Spirit Link adds the remaining 20%.

If that’s the case, then you conclude Spirit Link only makes Wumpus 25% better. (You should also infer that adding Inviolability to make the Linked Wumpus godlike doesn’t really add all that much.)

When this light bulb flashes over your head, you should begin to wonder if you’d do better with another Black card that packs 100% of its own punch.

Taking another example, I’m sure that you marked the end of your scrub days at the point you grew out of the”uber-creature” syndrome. What’s that? Well, remember that time when a Craw Wurm was just not enough, and you just had to play Flight, Lance, Firebreathing, Regeneration, Fear, Invisibility, and maybe even Aspect of Wolf to rub it in before you’d consider attacking?

Then do you remember getting your uber-creature hit by Swords to Plowshares in response to that Aspect of Wolf?

You realize that each of those buffs does make the creature better, but not by much. You are expending draw steps and mana to buff, but it’s simply better to just play more creatures. While you might laugh at Aspect of Wolf and Lance, this is incidentally the same reasoning regarding cards like Crusade (the increments on Crusade and Glorious Anthem were a lot better when Waylay was still a rules loophole, as seen in Kyle Rose’s 1999 White Lightning).

Thus, going back to Vedalken Orrery, sure, an EOTYWYL is devastating, but what if 90% of the devastation comes from Yawgmoth’s Will itself and Vedalken Orrery contributes only 10%?

The increment sucks.

Conclusion: Instead of making good cards better, why not spend that one card and four mana on another good card?

I remember one funny scene from David Eddings, which pooh-poohed a fantasy knight plunging his sword to the hilt to kill an opponent. The quip went that since the first twelve inches of the blade kills as effectively as the last twelve, why make it hard for you to pull out the sword for the next foe?

The most pervasive old school example of a”cool combo” that’s really a lousy increment is what I’ve called the”Megrim problem” (see”Deconstructing Darksteel, Part II“) for years.

Imagine your archetypical casual mono-Black discard. Duress is amazing. Hymn to Tourach is great. Hypnotic Specter is the bomb. But having Megrim on the board, in reality, doesn’t make them all that much better, since the key here is the first twelve inches of disruption. It’s better to just get a good creature finisher instead of spending an extra card to bury your discard spells to the hilt. Besides, you’ll play out your discard before anything else, anyway, and will get to play Megrim when the opponent has an empty hand.

So, be wary of flashy but lousy increments. If a”cool combo” doesn’t have the last piece win you the game, it’s likely not worth it. Megrim is itself an example. Its best moments came not with discard, but with unrestricted Memory Jar.

Going back to Fifth Dawn, I’d like to think Crucible of Worlds is”lousy increment” as well. Ben Bleiweiss said:

“…you never know – a Goblin deck might want to recur Wastelands every turn of the game – or some deck might want to bring back a slain Mishra’s Factory every turn. Zvi’s Turboland deck has never been accurately translated to Type One… Look Type One people – another deck for you to stea… errr, borrow and retool!”

First, some infinite combo that uses cards like Fastbond, Zuran Orb, or Crystal Vein is likely weaker and clunkier than what we have now. Next, you think about putting it in a slower deck, to combo with cards like Strip Mine and Wasteland, turning mana disruption into a mana lock.

Think about the increments, however.

I’d argue that the first or first two early Wastelands are the most disruptive, and adding Crucible takes you to diminishing returns. An aggro deck may be better off with another threat to finish. As for control,”The Deck” has its land destruction option and Gorilla Shaman (see”The Rubies“), and can win leaving the opponent with no land in play (see”Head to Head: Zoo“). A broader card or a faster combo might prove better as well. Thus, my first take is that Crucible has to be used in a deck where all those small increments – anti-land d, recurring Wasteland, Consecrate Land analog, and Thawing Glaciers analog with Polluted Delta – add up, or in a narrower role such as a sideboard.

Incidentally, today’s Goblin decks combo out more with Food Chain than Wasteland. (Hello to Mark Acheson a.k.a. Nevyn, I hope you read the above paragraph from Ben.)

Doubling Cube might inspire another good increments analysis. Again, Ben said Cube:

“Gives you more of what you don’t need, unfortunately. Watch me eat these words when this card is used to power turn 0 kills after the entire Type One community has been sufficiently motivated by my words to build innovative and new decks.”

Now, Doubling Cube only begins to produce additional mana when you have seven in your pool, and only beats Mana Vault and Grim Monolith when you have ten mana. If you have ten mana, making more is easy, and the difference between having twenty mana and forty mana is superfluous.

Conclusion: Just get another mana accelerator to help you get the first ten.

Of course, there are combos that don’t win outright, but are well worth integrating. Goblin Welder and Thirst for Knowledge come to mind, for example. Either is incredible on its own such that there isn’t even any incremental cost to speak of.

Incremental thinking: Paying attention to resources

I wore out all my casual leather shoes before going on vacation, so I was happy to stumble upon a Rockport store at Hilton Head in South Carolina. The replacement pair I wanted cost $80, but the large sign at the door said they’d give you 50% off on a second pair if you bought one. I did the math and figured I’d shell out the $120 for two.

Where’s the increment?

This cheapskate didn’t finally break down to buy new shoes after five years at $60 a pair. Really, when you think about it, the second pair cost $40, and thinking $60 is misleading. You might either think that $40 is a bargain for new shoes, or $40 is too much to spend on a second pair you don’t really need, but you need to make the call using the right number.

Dissing”cool combos,” we’ve been pooh-poohing shelling out an extra card for marginal improvement. However, remember that there are more resources in Magic, and incremental thinking is equally applicable to shelling out extra mana, and so on (see”Counting Shadow Prices“).

My favorite incremental example here is Kjeldoran Skycaptain.

Let’s assume that Benalish Hero or Tundra Wolves are steals at one mana – hey, you can only have four Savannah Lions, right?

Now, pay just one more mana, and you can have them in one creature with Pikemen.

Pay still one more mana, and you can have the Pikemen on a Mesa Pegasus, with Kjeldoran Skyknight.

Finally, for just another mana, you can get another +1/+1, getting the mighty Kjeldoran Skycaptain.


Thus, you look for the cheapest possible spell or effect, since very often the increments are lousy. This is another way of saying that Jackal Pup is better than Ironclaw Orcs since getting rid of the drawback simply isn’t worth playing it a turn later (see”Counting Tempo, Part II“).

Going to Fifth Dawn from this example, just ask yourself if Auriok Champion is so much better than Soul Warden or Death Speakers. (It depends whether you’re playing competitively where Sligh and Suicide Black are extinct and Soul Warden would suck anyway, or you’re in a non-hardcore corner store and just traded for a set of Pariahs.)

Again, the first twelve inches will do the job, or what you get for the first mana or two.

There are obvious examples, such as Swords to Plowshares against Wrath of God, Gorilla Shaman against Viashino Heretic, and Lightning Bolt over Incinerate. There are subtler ones, however, such as using Snuff Out or Vendetta over Smother or Diabolic Edict. Finally, neophytes who pick Suicide Black as their first deck may finally understand why Mind Twist doesn’t belong.

Going to Fifth Dawn, this thinking immediately shows you why Roar of Reclamation and Bringer of the White Dawn pale beside Goblin Welder.

It gets interesting when the increments are actually better given your circumstances. There are reasons to choose Oxidize over Naturalize and vice-versa, for example. Rack and Ruin is a lot stronger than Shattering Pulse or Disenchant in today’s fast, target-rich environment. Diminishing Returns is stronger than Time Spiral unless you expect to have Academy in play every time.

Decisions like this are everywhere. If you’re playing a Blue/Green with Intuitions, are your dumbo drops Call of the Herd or Roar of the Wurm? If you want obscure comparisons, is Thran Foundry better for you than Feldon’s Cane since you get the option to get rid of your opponent’s graveyard?

For Fifth Dawn, you’ll be using this thinking to ask which of the Scry cards are worth using, and this is how you look at cards with cantrip, cycling, kicker, and buyback options (example: Dismantling Blow over Disenchant?).

On a broader scale, this sort of left-brained thinking can help you spot segments of your deck that are marginal, even though they give you synergy. Stacker 2, for example, originally had burn (see”Head to Head: Stacker 2“), but gained more punch when this turned into Survival of the Fittest components, or artifact disruption such as Chalice of the Void, Sphere of Resistance, and Trinisphere. Three years ago, at the dawn of Mishra’s Workshop decks, German mono-Blue players splashed Black for Edicts to combat artifact fat. In fact, the premise of”The Deck” is that you get good increments by splashing those tertiary colors.

Again, going to Fifth Dawn, you ask just how much using Shattered Dreams, as Ben proposes, would contribute to a deck that runs four Duress. Maybe you’d be better off using the slots for some other effect.

Till next week. Don’t break Vedalken Orrery or All Suns’ Dawn without me.

Oscar Tan (e-mail: Rakso at StarCityGames.com)

rakso on #BDChat on EFNet

Paragon of Vintage

University of the Philippines, College of Law

Forum Administrator, Star City Games

Featured Writer, Star City Games

Author of the Control Player’s Bible

Maintainer, Beyond Dominia (R.I.P.)

Proud member of the Casual Player’s Alliance