This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series No Uncertain Terms

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth


Welcome to another “No Uncertain Terms.” The inspiration for this article came from the reader academicace808. Kudos and shout outs to him and much love to everyone in the CommanderCast community who participates in the comments and discussions on our content. This week I’m going to be discussing the fine distinction between synergy and dependency, and then examining the concept larger concept of investment and key strategic concerns that come along with playing cards with networked value.


Props to my homeboys Merriam and Webster for all the definitions you are going to see in today’s article.



(n): the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements, contributions,etc.; synergism.


As defined, synergy occurs when a group of things are more valuable together than they are when taken separately. This implies something fundamental about all synergistic objects: they have both an individual value and a network value. The individual value stems from the fact that the card can function nominally by itself. It isn’t broken or diminished when alone, but rather it can become better when networked. The network value comes from the synergy with other cards. That value grows as a function of the strength and number of the synergies between the objects in the network.


Take the Allies from Zendikar Block as an example. Harabaz Druid is a mana dork that costs two and can make any color of mana. This is not what I would call exciting, but it is absolutely functional. However, it works quite well with other allies. It gives you extra mana to play more ally creatures and in turn it creates more mana for each ally you control. The individual value stays the same–it will always be a mana dork–but the network value spirals up as the number of allies increases on the board. To accurately evaluate a card in-game, you have to be able to properly estimate both types of value. When making the decision to play a second ally, you have to be able to look at that next marginal ally and see that it creates X mana from Harabaz Druid. This all sounds simple in theory, but things get much trickier in game, where you could be juggling dozens of relevant factors that have an effect on your cards value.


It’s easy to spot when two cards or concepts have synergy together. It’s so natural and intuitive that your brain starts to see connections where they don’t even exist. This is compounded by the problem that humans like to stretch the definitions of words beyond their traditional usage. I might claim that my strategy of destroying all my opponent’s lands has synergy with my current advantage in creatures on the battlefield. This is an insidious misuse of the term. My creatures will attack and my Armageddon will blow up lands. While I can certainly gain a strategic advantage from this, the individual pieces aren’t any actually stronger because they were used together. They both are merely functioning as intended. It might be poetic to say that these two strategies play well together, but take note of the individual and network values. In point of fact, there’s a lot of value in this combination of cards, but it’s all inherent to the individual cards.


When you have two cards that both have individual value, but neither have any network value, that’s great, but it isn’t synergy. As I mentioned before, two cards have synergy when they each have both individual and network value. What happens if cards don’t have individual value at all? What if they only have value when combined?



(adj): not used in isolation; used only in connection with other forms.


Dependency is a dirty word in our culture. From a young age we’re told that we’re each special individuals and we’re raised to be independent. Independent of our parent’s support, of the government, and of others’ opinions. This is, of course, a lie. A massive collective conspiracy. We’re all linked. We’re all dependent. We are eternal, brothers and sisters. Pain is an illusion.


In Magic, there are many cards which depend on the availability of other resources to function properly. My inspiration for this article came from a discussion about Daretti, Scrap Savant. One might say that this card has, or creates, artifact synergies. I would dare to say otherwise. You see, Daretti doesn’t have nominal individual value. If you have no artifacts to play around with, Daretti isn’t fully functional. You could argue that Daretti is still good enough to play in Red with only its +1 ability… and after a few weeks of playtesting Norin the Wary for my “Important Cards” series last month I might be desperate enough to agree.


Just because a card or set of cards have little-to-no individual value doesn’t mean that the total value of playing them is low. Quite the contrary. Take a look at Reanimator decks, which show up in Legacy, Modern, Commander, and Pauper. Putting cards into your graveyard doesn’t normally have any value, but you can make it valuable by leveraging the graveyard as a resource. Delve effects can use those cards to give you a mana discount on a new spell. It’s like you’re turning mana spent into mana you can spend again. Sweet. Reanimate turns a creature in your wastebasket into a creature on the board, which I think we can all agree is an upgrade in functionality. Now if only I had a card to turn the birds in my bushes into… something else…


What happens to your Reanimate if you have nothing in your graveyard to use it on? It sits in your hand, staring at you like an mfw meme.


Reanimate doesn’t have synergy with the cards in your graveyard, because it truly can’t function without them. In fact, the best way to fight graveyard-based decks is to just get rid of your opponent’s graveyard. When a card needs something else to work, it’s said to be dependent upon that thing.


Let’s get back to our example of Daretti. To fire on all cylinders he needs several different things happening. To use his “welder” ability, you need an artifact in play to ditch and a more desirable artifact in your graveyard to return. Daretti’s +1 can at most help you with one of those things. The ultimate ability lets you generate extra value when your artifacts end up going to the graveyard, but it doesn’t help you put them there.


You see, Daretti itself interacts with artifacts in particular ways, but to get the most out of him you need to set up different artifact interactions own your own that Daretti doesn’t directly create. It’s a complex and interesting card because it has dependency on certain things and synergy with other things. It’s an engaging deck design puzzle that many Commander players seem to really enjoy. Pretty sweet card all around, especially in Red.


So we’ve covered all the bases now: cards can have synergy, dependency, both, or neither and these conditions can vary with the situation. Some cards allow you to create interactions where none existed before. Coat of Arms alters the game by adding a new interaction. This additional parameter changes the way we evaluate our cards.



(n): a devoting, using, or giving of time, talent, emotional energy, etc., as for a purpose or to achieve something


Investment is an incredibly important concept in Magic that relates closely to the other keywords we have discussed today. In Magic, you make an investment any time you commit resources into a line that you do not immediately recover or expend. Things like suspending a card or playing a creature require investment. You put in resources and over time you hope the returns from that investment will be large enough to justify the initial outlay. If returns are lower than you expect, you could easily lose value and might lose the game as a result. Reid Duke has an excellent article from his series “Level One” which runs on the mothership about investment.


In that article, he uses the example of one of the simplest and often safest investments in Magic: playing a tapped land. You commit one of your cards to the board, which is a spending your “cards in hand” resource to increase the value of your “cards in play” resource. Every turn your land will produce a mana for you to use on other things. Think of the mana like a dividend. With a land that enters the battlefield tapped, you have to forego one turn’s worth of mana dividends. The expectation is that this extra investment will be worth it in the long run. That tap land might provide us with multiple colors or a special ability that gives us back value in ways other than producing mana.


Back when I was writing for The General Zone blog, I did a three-part series called “Engines and Investment” on the concept of investment in strategy games. Those articles focus on the theory and design concepts that underpin investment. (You can check out parts one, two, and three here.)


It’s important to remember that any time you build a deck that revolves around the interactions between different cards, you’re going to be required to make investments. You have both implicit and explicit costs associated with synergy and dependency.  Each card takes up a slot in your deck, which comes with an opportunity cost of not being able to play other cards which might have higher average or potential value. Investing comes with risk. You might lose both the resources that you committed and all future returns to unforeseen circumstances or disruption from your opponent.


Synergistic cards usually have lower risk than dependent cards because they can still function on their own. I play Zealous Conscripts in all my Red decks. Even if I can’t go infinite with Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, I still have a solid card to work with. This lowers the risk and minimizes my potential loss of value if I end up without one of those combo pieces.


Many people share an inflated sense of potential value. The attractive rewards are what make investing worthwhile, whether it be risky combo decks or risky stocks. I will never say that you should shy away from the pursuit of greater value; my value lust drives me to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to “get big,” but you should carefully consider all of the relevant interactions and their costs before you decide to invest.


As always, rational thought is the key to greater understanding no matter the subject. If today’s article has you about ready to “go off” with your knowledge combo be sure to leave some love in the comments!



Wherever knowledge goes, misinformation is sure to follow. Some topics can be confusing. Magic is a place where this is true more often than not. “No Uncertain Terms” is meant to give all players that same base of requisite knowledge to completely understand an issue; to give all Magic players, new and old, the language to communicate and fully understand each other. This series functions as a curriculum of vocabulary, with each new segment building on the last.

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