This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series Community Contribution

By DAN aka chaosorbFTW
When does synergy become combo?

I was walking home from school one day when a man standing outside a comic book store asked me if I wanted to learn how to play a new game. I quickly thought about all the lessons my parents and teachers had told me about strangers, paused then and said “Sure, why not?” That was my introduction to Magic, and my first purchase was a crisp, beautiful Chronicles pack containing an Arcades Sabboth. It was almost as if the fates were pushing me towards EDH from that first day.

Fast forward many years, and I had stopped playing Magic entirely. I just didn’t have the motivation to grind out competitive tournaments, play-testing, and FNMs anymore. I sold everything and walked away, convinced I was done. I happened to run into an old friend at work one day, and we spent some time talking about games we had played like a pair of war vets; remembering when every weekend day meant a new tournament and format to prepare for. Then he mentioned he had been playing EDH. I nodded and thought that must be a new deck type or card name, but never asked until many days later what exactly EDH was. As he explained the rules and game play, I felt that excited tingle coming back about deck construction and game play. Not long after Wizards released the Commander product and I was hooked again, thinking about lines of play and deck tech with most of my spare time.

I really tell that story to tell another one about my transition from competitive player to casual magic. I have always been a Spike. I love competitive, fine-tuned decks. I started playing EDH with that mindset, and it took quite some time for me to come to grips with the idea of a more social interaction. I built Sharuum decks looking to break CIP abilities and artifact combos. I built reanimation decks looking to get the most abusive creatures into play as fast as possible. I built a 5 color storm deck to kill the table around turn 3 or 4. Then I started noticing that I never had a lot of repeat games with the same people. What I loved about playing tournament Magic wasn’t what people were looking for in the format, so I had to back off my play style a bit and retool myself as a casual player. It’s still a work in progress. My first real question about what I needed to change in my philosophy was this: when is a combo degenerative, and when does a deck just have great synergy?

I started thinking about this idea when I was prepping some decks to play at GP Baltimore a few months ago. Where is the line where a deck’s components go from working exceptionally well together to becoming a combo based deck? I’m not sure there is a universal answer to that question, but as a normally very competitive player it’s one I constantly think about when building casual multiplayer decks. In order for me to be comfortable building decks to bring to new playgroups, I wanted to get a good handle on what the general feeling was about what exactly crossed the line from fair interactions to being “that guy” at the table no one wanted to really play with.

I came up with 5 major topics I wanted to discuss, and started talking about it with a lot of people. I read forum posts, listened to podcasts, and talked to a lot of the people I was playing with. I still don’t have an answer I’m happy with, but I think a lot of the topics I covered are important to any playgroup, especially new ones like mine. Based around those topics I started working on adjusting a deck list that tried to play to my Spike tendencies but also satisfy what everyone else at the table was expecting out of the game. The deck is still in progress, but I’ll walk through my line of thought on each of the major topics I considered.

Tutor vs Card Draw
One of the things I love about this format is the variety, and a table of 4 decks rarely have the game play out the same way twice. Eternal formats and more competitive environments have access to extensive and efficient card drawing choices that can create more stable and predictable games, but adding a strong tutor suite along with multiple copies of functional reprint cards can ensure that each game follows a very straight path to victory. Clearly that type of redundancy is much more difficult in a 100 card singleton format, but not impossible. The repetitive tutor ability seems to be the deciding factor on whether or not a deck is considered combolicious or just very functional vanilla. If a deck has multiple pieces that come together and can combo out, if that occurs naturally through either random luck or heavy card draw it seems to be generally accepted. If you are constantly tutoring for the same 1-2-3 cards to set yourself off, that generally seems to be outside of the general scope of the social idea of the format, no matter how offensive (or inoffensive) the actual card interaction.

Win Conditions
How you win the game seems to matter in EDH more than any other format. Abusing the red zone is much more acceptable than decking an opponent, and that was a variable I never considered playing more competitive formats. Multiple cards interacting to make a lethally large creature? No matter how quickly that seems to be generally accepted. Drawing your deck with Azami and Stroking out the entire table? No matter how long it takes that finish to the game seems to be much less desired.

Vintage tournament combo decks have always been excellent at quickly assembling a number of parts for victory, and also protecting their combo from disruption. I’m not offended by a dedicated counter deck in EDH, and while blue generally seems to get an immediate bull’s eye at the table it is usually accepted as a viable strategy. Where things get difficult to judge is how much protection is too much, and what level of protection is acceptable. The faster the combo, typically the more difficult it is to disrupt. Flipping Erayo could be done devastatingly quickly, and was extremely difficult to stop, and led to it being banned as a general. However even slower combos with heavy protection can be extremely frustrating to a table, especially if each piece played leads to an increasing sense of inevitability. Cards like Darksteel Forge and Dovescape could definitely be used fairly, but it seems like most playgroups don’t like waiting around to find out if that’s how the game is going to play out.

Are you actually contributing to the game? This is the thing that is most difficult for me to really judge. If you are simply biding your time and waiting for your combo pieces to fall into your lap, or for the right circumstances to occur you aren’t really doing anything to negatively affect the game state. However, you’re also very close to violating the idea of this being a social format. Your job isn’t to put up a protective shell and wait to demolish everyone else; you are there to play a game and hopefully ensure that everyone involved enjoys their time playing. While I can understand the reactive deck that just waits for other players to cast spells and then plays answers, a deck that does nothing but fly under the table’s radar and then combo out isn’t really hitting what most people see as the minimum expectations for that interactive portion of the format.

Table Reaction
The final thing I looked at was how did the table react to the deck? Almost no one is going to be pleased when you drop a lock and basically prevent the game from being played any more. It’s one thing to immediately go infinite with Palinchron and bounce and X spell the table to death; at least that’s quick and final. Locking down the table and preventing any real play with Stasis or Arcane Lab effects gets a whole different type of reaction, usually in the form of swift and brutal retribution in the next few games. However, there are a lot of options in between, and I’ve played interesting combos where the other players were interested in seeing how the combo worked out, at least the first time it went off. Spend 10 minutes casting multiple spells and drawing cards and making plays and you can get a favorable reaction once, it just probably won’t go over as well on a regular basis.

I’m still working on building my decks identities for this format, and at the same time balance what I want out of EDH with the expectations of the groups I play with. I took a look at my Animar list and tried to apply the 5 major points I reviewed to see if it would hold up against the stress of the social expectations in the format. After reviewing each set of criteria I’ve set, I’ll give a pass/fail grade and the explanation of why I feel it is warranted. First off, here’s the list itself.

1 Animar, Soul of Elements

1 Mana Crypt
1 Sol Ring
1 Mana Vault
1 Skullclamp
1 Lightning Greaves
1 Mox Opal
1 Mox Diamond

1 Arcbound Worker
1 Arcbound Crusher
1 Arcbound Ravager
1 Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre
1 Junk Diver
1 Copper Myr
1 Primordial Sage
1 Fierce Empath
1 Magus of the Future
1 Workhorse
1 Extruder
1 Triskelion
1 Brutalizer Exarch
1 Oracle of Mul Daya
1 Man-o’-War
1 Spellskite
1 Wall of Blossoms
1 Psychosis Crawler
1 Mulldrifter
1 Kozilek, Butcher of Truth
1 Birds of Paradise
1 Frogmite
1 Iron Myr
1 Myr Enforcer
1 Primeval Titan
1 Treasure Mage
1 Azusa, Lost but Seeking
1 Phyrexian Devourer
1 Mindless Automaton
1 Memnite
1 Artisan of Kozilek
1 Duplicant
1 Vedalken Archmage
1 Solemn Simulacrum
1 Myr Retriever
1 Phyrexian Soulgorger
1 Sylvok Replica
1 Silver Myr
1 Trinket Mage
1 Arcbound Reclaimer
1 Palladium Myr
1 Phyrexian Metamorph
1 Phyrexian Revoker
1 Shimmer Myr
1 Grim Poppet
1 Steel Hellkite
1 Eternal Witness

1 Mystical Tutor

1 Glimpse of Nature
1 Wheel of Fortune
1 Time Spiral
1 Windfall

1 Sylvan Library
1 Concordant Crossroads
1 Warstorm Surge
1 Future Sight

1 Windswept Heath
1 Bloodstained Mire
1 Flooded Strand
1 Verdant Catacombs
1 Polluted Delta
1 Mishra’s Workshop
1 Tropical Island
1 Volcanic Island
1 Taiga
1 Steam Vents
1 Wooded Foothills
1 Scalding Tarn
1 Misty Rainforest
1 Breeding Pool
1 Stomping Ground
1 Ancient Tomb
1 Temple of the False God
6 Island
6 Forest
4 Mountain
1 Gaea’s Cradle
1 Command Tower
1 Reflecting Pool

As a quick overview, the deck has several paths to victory. It can simply cast a large number of creatures and come into the redzone, or it has several combo options it can win with. Warstorm Surge or Psychosis Crawler allow you to turn your card draw and creature drops into damage to win without ever attacking, but that plan takes some time and a whole lot of table space.

Breaking down the 5 category social litmus test above, here’s how I would rate this decklist:

Tutor vs Card Draw
There are definitely tutor effects in this deck, however most of them are creature based. I’ve never really seen a table get frustrated over a resolved Brutalizer Exarch or Treasure Mage, so these seem to be fair game. The lone “power” tutor effect is Mystical Tutor, and it is in the deck solely to get Glimpse of Nature. While such a surgical purpose may seem to bend the idea of not being combo to the limit, 1 of 100 slots dedicated to finding a specific threat seems fair to me. The deck runs more on sheer card drawing with Glimpse, Vedalken Archmage or Primordial Sage to keep your hand full of gas and pump Animar to lethal levels. Whether I’m being the beatdown or going the direct damage route, those three cards are the ones that let me continue to apply pressure and set up my win.

Grade: Pass. Tutor effects generally search for a game state relevant threat or answer, and every game they have unique targets. While getting Glimpse, Archmage, or Sage is great you can definitely win without finding them.

Win Conditions
Creatures. Then I play some more creatures. After that, I finish with a few more creatures. That’s an overstatement to some extent, as Warstorm Surge and Psychosis Crawler are stretching the boundaries of saying that creatures are my only win condition, however it is very close. If you can deal with my team either on the stack or on the board, you can easily beat me.

Grade: Pass. As creatures are about the easiest card to interact with, this win condition seems to be both viable and acceptable in terms of interaction criteria.

This seems to follow perfectly with the reasoning for win conditions being fair. The deck has no inherent protection for it’s spells. While it is blue, there is no countermagic and little protection for individual creatures. The advantage engines can turn into a flood of incoming cards, but the deck does not pack anything to really prevent you from getting a chance to play answers.

Grade: Pass. While many of the creatures turn into efficient, redundant bodies that can replace each other seamlessly, they do still have to play within the normal rules of the game. A well placed wrath or bounce effect will stop the decks combos from working, or keep my out of the red zone.

I cast creatures as early and often as possible, and I try and send the team to your face. It doesn’t get much more interactive than that. While I have limited interaction with spells on the stack or other permanents in play, the deck is usually playing threats and forcing decisions.

Grade: Pass. This deck can definitely play for the long game, waiting to set up a board position and proper hand to enable a Warstorm or Crawler victory. If it is forced into that path, it can become very non-interactive, as you are unable to really attack or deal with the stack. The reason I still chose to grade this as a pass is that almost every deck has match-ups where it has to turtle for some time, however this is the category I had the most hesitation about giving a ringing endorsement for.

Table Reaction
Every time I play this deck against someone new, they are usually really interested seeing it work. When you have an explosive turn, you cast 20 to 30 creatures, add counters, sac mana enablers, and generally do very cool, splashy effects. Win or lose, most people enjoy seeing the deck work.

Grade: Conditional Pass. When you play beatdown, this deck is fairly straightforward. You attack and deal lethal damage, no one at the table bats an eyelash. Where it can get complicated is when you with through one of your other avenues. If you ever played against Yawgmoth’s Bargain combo in standard, you probably remember watching intently while your opponent did all kinds of mana and damage math, sacrificed permanents for effects, and set up a long series of card interactions for the win. The first time seeing it was almost magical, even if you were going to lose. The problem was you knew you were going to have to watch it again during the second game of the match, and that got a lot less fun and interesting. This deck is one of my favorites to have as a back pocket option for when I play with new people, but it can get very stale if played regularly.

After applying all of my criteria, the deck seems to work in the context of being high synergy, not combo. There are some rough spots in my grading, but I think most competitive decks have similar flaws. I’m definitely not saying the guidelines I used are set in stone, or even will work for every group, however they seem to be a good fit for a majority of different game environments. As I play in different areas, attend GPs and major events, and just sit around my usual gaming store tables I’ll keep working through the definitions I’ve tried to nail down above. If you agree or disagree with me, I’d love to hear why. Nothing makes for a better game than getting to pull up a chair with new people, slinging some cards and talking about these or any other EDH topics. This is, after all, a social format.

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