Coping with machine decks in casual formats
Like any term in Magic (see: “casual”, “aggro-control”, and/or “broken”), “machine” decks are going to get a wide interpretation by the universe of players out there. If you want the official definition from Wizards see Mark Rosewater's article from the first week of Fifth Dawn previews, Dawn of a New Day.
My own personal interpretation after reading Mark's column is that machine decks are “complex combo” – that is, combo decks that require at least three pieces (and often more) to generate some arbitrarily large number of creatures/mana/events. The fact that all of the pieces happen to be artifacts is fairly irrelevant, to this casual player. Whether it's Triskelion – Scythe of the Wretched – Blasting Station or Goblin Bombardment – Enduring Renewal – Ornithopter, the point of these decks is to trudge through a game with whatever defensive measures ensure survival, and then pounce on turn X with an endlessly repeating series of events.
I don't consider such decks to be terribly fun, so I'm pretty ambivalent about the emergence of a whole new generation of machine decks.
So what does the “casual format” writer do with a theme week on machine decks? Well, he'll play along for a moment; but then he's going to incite a little well-intentioned wrench-chucking.
Speaking Of Machines I Don't Like… My email ran into a fairly serious difficulty a few weeks ago. It bounced back every email I tried to send out. I honestly did try to respond to many emails during the month of May, but ultimately gave up. In addition, spam and viruses essentially overran the account.
My sincere apologies to those who did not get a reply from their recent emails – I do make a commitment to answering each and every email I get; but machines conspired against me here. To fix this problem, magicthegathering.com is going to be switching to a form-based email system with new addresses for the writers so you can still reach us by email but we don't have to plow through a mountain of spam to find it. The new system goes in place next week for most of the writers, so if there's something you'd still like me to respond to, feel free to resend at that point. Of course, in the meantime the message boards are also a feedback option, and I engage readers there as well.
In (Ambivalent) Praise Of Machine Decks
During some theme weeks where I wink at Wizards and take a fairly contrary path (e.g., how to beat those people who follow the suggestions from everyone else this week), some readers interpret my perverse enthusiasm as insolence, or even worse as reluctant toeing of some horrific corporate line. I'll set the record straight, so you can all breathe easy.
Our good editor Scott Johns gives each writer the opportunity to opt out of a theme week since typically we only run a theme in five or six columns out of ten. I have never taken this opportunity, even when the theme appeared quite difficult for Serious Fun to manage. There are three reasons for this. First, I enjoy a good challenge. Second, I don't think it's much for them to ask: it is their site. Third, I like the mix of structured and unstructured weeks.
This particular week – “machines” – some readers may leave with the impression I don't like machine cards or decks at all. If so, it would be my fault for not being clear.
When I say I'm ambivalent, I mean ambivalent. That doesn't mean I love them, and it doesn't mean I hate them. To take another example from Mirrodin block, I'm ambivalent about imprint because of the massive potential to recur things like Balance on Panoptic Mirror – but that doesn't mean I don't play with or enjoy imprint cards. Heck, I'm using at least two in decks right now.
I can bet at least two people in our group will build amazing machine decks as Fifth Dawn comes out. They probably won't be arbitrarily large combos – but they'll crank through enough repetitions, using anywhere from two to five cards, to have an impressive effect. It will be fun to see what they come up with, because my friends are terribly creative people. (Please don't tell them I said this.)
So machine decks? Sure, I can deal with that. In fact, I can make one right now. How about Lantern of Insight, Salvaging Station…and Pyschogenic Probe? It requires 1 mana for every 2 damage to a player, so the machine will run out of gas each turn – but in the late game, it'll clean two or three struggling players' clocks in a single turn. And it'll make 'em shuffle a lot. I can get in the spirit, here!
As long as most casual players show some restraint, and don't go looking for arbitrarily large numbers, machine decks should be a blessing to group games.
The rest of this article is to help that majority deal with the unpleasant minority who will look to satisfy their egos through endlessly repeating loops to the exclusion of all other players.
To those killjoys, I say this: we will break you.
Sabotaging Machine Decks
Let's say someone in your group has put forward a ridiculously stupid machine deck – that is, an artifact-based combo deck. You hate it, because every time the deck comes out, no one else gets to do a darn thing but watch the silly robot-puppet show. Whatever shall you do?
I have advice for each color. These lists are not exhaustive, and I hereby task the message boards with uncovering additional tools.
White: I think white has the easiest job of all colors, because as the “rules” color it can put incredibly restrictive enchantments into play, and then go about its normal course of action. Rule of Law alone can stop many machine decks cold – though it won't stop those based purely on activated or triggered abilities. What Rule of Law won't stop, Ivory Mask pretty much will. Heck, even Worship can work under certain situations (e.g., you have phantom creatures out with Spidersilk Armor, and the machine deck wants to do massive damage).
In addition, casual players with collections older than two years have access to plenty of Disenchants, Devout Witnesses, and even stuff like Orim's Chant or Abeyance. None of this is foolproof; but it is incredibly helpful.
Of course, you could also just go with a full-creature feature. White does have decent cheap creatures, after all! Try the following “start” to a mono-white anti-machine deck:
Casual deck fragment
(A gentle reminder to readers: when I present a deck fragment, I expect you to fill in the blanks. The point here is to spur creativity, not steer you to a particular build. You know your own group, collection, and deck preferences best. For all these reasons and more, I won't complete deck fragments, even if you ask nicely.
Green: Here's a color that's gotten a lot better at machine disruption over the years. It used to be all sorcery speed – witness the slow (but undeniably terrific) Splinter. But with creatures like Nullmage Advocate and Woodripper, the green mage's lot improved. Then came Naturalize, and Oxidize – and creatures like Molder Slug and Glissa Sunseeker. Add to this the orangutan “reprint” of Viridian Shaman, and green honestly shouldn't have much trouble with machine decks.
I won't bother with a deck fragment, since most of this stuff works in just about any deck you'd build without pulling too much from your central theme. If you want to go completely bonkers and wreck a machine deck, I'd consider a “trash” Mirrodin rare: Hum of the Radix. Folks, if past patterns of block themes are any indication (i.e., if the next block doesn't emphasize artifacts), then this card is going to be reliably good in multiplayer groups for exactly six more months. Fifth Dawn is probably spurring the last wave of artifact-dominant decks you'll see in a while. If you've busted one or two Hums from packs, why not use them now?
Red: The last of the three colors that should have a fairly easy time against artifacts, red still doesn't have a cakewalk. Its most impressive artifact destruction – mine is Meltdown – happens at sorcery speed. But the rapid-fire guns are still there – take a look at Rack and Ruin. It would be so simple to find targets with this card now, even in games where no one's playing a machine deck. Yet how long has that baby been gathering dust in your collection? (In my case, since it was printed.) Shattering Pulse is the other excellent instant here.
But I can understand if you don't want to devote precious instant-speed slots in a red deck to artifact destruction. Consider the following deck fragment:
Casual deck fragment
Hearth Charm is underrated in today's casual game – not only can you blow up a Platinum Angel with it; you can also play it during another player's turn, if they're attacking the machine mage, to pump their creatures.
Another path to consider (though you'd probably splash blue for Hurkyll's Recall or similar card) is Blood Oath. This will not only penalize the machine's controller for the artifacts he has in his hand…but also the artifact lands. Oh yes, Blood Oath decks are a good way to go.
Black. The way that black generally deals with combo decks – that is, when it comes to tournaments and duels – is through discard. If the pieces never see play, black doesn't have to worry about them.
The problem with this approach in multiplayer is the same as it is for many disruptive control strategies (including countermagic and land destruction): you can't devote the entire game to stopping only one deck.
It has improved, to be sure. Over the years, discard has become more and more viable in group games. Cards from Unnerve and Syphon Mind to Mindslicer and Megrim are all excellent in such decks. Geth's Grimoire is the latest in discard tech, and I have no doubt there are good opportunities for group-oriented discard decks out there. But you have to have a very specific set of cards, and you still have to focus a lot of energy on the machine mage…and then you still have to get lucky enough that the rest of the board doesn't see you and your Bottomless Pit as the worse threat.
And for all that, if the machine mage gets anything on the board, you can't cope with it.
It may be better to go with black's other advantage: speed. A strong black speed deck can get an awful lot done by the third or fourth turn. With some modifications, a “suicide” black deck can quickly finish off the most threatening (machine) player, and still have enough steam to have a chance for the long game. If you haven't gotten your hands on four Hypnotic Specters (or any of their cousins, such as Hollow Specter), you may want to invest in them now. Use Dark Ritual to get them out early, Lightning Greaves to give them haste, Bad Moon to crank them, and any number of power finishers like Nightmare or Mortivore. For removal, remember Dark Banishing is a perfectly acceptable variant on Terror – and it nails artifact creatures.
I think I've just given your deck fragment, right there!
And of course, there are boutique tricks. If the combo your opponent uses involves sacrificing artifacts, you could always try Disciple of the Vault. It won't survive pinging; but it will be effective against most other finishing strategies. Also worth consideration: Tainted Aether, which doesn't look too effective…until you have multiple copies out.
Blue. Like discard in black, multiplayer countermagic is difficult for blue. But I don't believe it's impossible. The trick is threefold:
1) Keep the number of counterspells small. Don't expect to counter everything, because you won't.
2) Be selective. Since you'll only have 4-8 counterspells, you'll likely only see two or three in the course of a given game. You must reserve those for the two or three worst spells you can possibly imagine. Piece #3 of the machine player's combo is probably one such spell.
3) Don't get too fancy. A simple Counterspell will do. A Syncopate is also fine, since that blasts the spell out of the game altogether. It may be tempting to run something like Spelljack; but the chances you'll have the spell available at the right time, with the mana ready, and you'll want to keep whatever they're playing…well, you're pushing your luck. That said, I have to encourage the more enterprising souls out there to try Desertion, in no more than one out of every four countermagic slots. Let me know how it goes.
Blue also has decent options for bouncing or stealing whatever parts of the combo seem most important. I wouldn't count on stealing creatures too much, since many “machine” combos depend on sacrifice at instant speed. A well-timed Rushing River on two key components of a machine deck can do far more to wreck their “critical turn”. Make them go through the first few repetitions slowly, and have everything go onto the stack and resolve aloud. Once you see the opening for a well-placed instant, take it. As long as the machinist doesn't have tons of mana available to replay all the pieces, she'll be facing some serious retribution from the entire table the following round…and you'll be a hero.
Casual deck fragment
Artifacts. You may be an artifact-crazy mage with enough sense to despise those of your kind who engage in arbitrarily large combos. They're ruining your good name! What do you do?
Well, you might consider Kill Switch. Certain combinations will even counteract the mighty untapping stations of Fifth Dawn. (One member of our play group uses it in conjunction with Mycosynth Lattice and/or Neurok Transmuter to selectively lock/unlock the board.)
Another fine answer would be Dingus Staff, which should present particular problems to those machine decks that depend on sacrificing creatures. The staff is flexible enough to use in many control deck strategies (and has always looked spiffy in decks running Wrath of God, Earthquake, and/or Pestilence).
But the true killer is Damping Matrix, which unfortunately is very selective and not much good at anything other than stopping artifact or creature combos. It'll also force your deck into card choices you may or may not want to pursue. It is, however, an excellent answer to an environment where things have plainly gotten out of control. (Some players combine this card with stuff like Glittering Lynx. It's pretty cute.)
There are many other options if you focus on a particular color combination – combining with blue for a mega-mill deck (Vision Charm, Ambassador Laquatus, Grindstone, Whetstone, Millstone, Grinding Station, etc.) gives you the chance to watch the forlorn machinist has he flips combo card after combo card into his graveyard. Mixing with black for combinations like Braids, Cabal Minion and Smokestack can cause heartache for a deck that needs multiple pieces in play. And mixing with white for Leonin Abunas can protect your own aggressive army of artifacts – from Arcbound Ravager and Arcbound Slith to Juggernaut and Masticore – so that you can off the machinist the old-fashioned way: taking his life from 20 to zero through a savage pounding.
In Praise Of Machine Decks, Again
Do you know what will happen if readers follow my (or others') advice on destroying machine decks? Those machine decks will become less competitive, and get played less often.
And that's not a bad thing, even if you love machine decks. In fact, it's good for machine decks! See, I'm just trying to be helpful. Let me use a situation that has little to do with artifacts as an example.
I have a Grave Pact deck that goes back about six years. (I've mentioned it before, so I'm not going to list it all again right here, or in an email. If you're interested, start with stuff like Hornet Cannon, Skittering Skirge, and Prowling Pangolin. Add recent touches like Greater Harvester and Spawning Pit, and you're pretty much there.) When it first came out, it had a terrific win percentage in chaos games, something like two out of every three. I'd play it at least once a night, sometimes twice. (We get in about six games on an average night.)
Then, after a few weeks, it did less well. My friends adjusted to it and began playing Tranquil Grove (and later, Aura Shards). They used direct damage, creatureless decks, and so on to counteract my strategy. To be clear, it wasn't just my deck they were trying to beat – I'm hardly a uniquely unstoppable force. Other players were having great success with global enchantments like Subversion and Furnace of Rath, so Grave Pact was just part of the problem.
I took the deck apart eventually…and then put it back together a year later and played it with a vengeance, and then played it less again, and then modified it so I could play it some more, and then set it in a dusty box for another year…and then took it out and updated it again. And then put it away.
A couple of weeks ago, I began playing it again for the first time in months. It surprised the heck out of a few players, but it was a pleasant sort of surprise. Like seeing an old friend. (Sure, it's a bloodthirsty and abusive friend; but some friends are just like that. My group understands.) It eked out a win, and now I'll retire it for a few more weeks because I don't need our entire metagame to shift against it. Then it will show up again, unexpectedly for a moment, before it disappears yet again.
This is where I'd like to see machine decks go – occasional use, to spur friends' memories of a time when every once in a while, a deck got silly and did a few ridiculous things. Never dominant, sometimes contributing a little tension, always spurring creativity as its maker updates it with the latest tech.
I believe teaching people how to beat the stuffing out of machine decks will help machinists reach that beautiful reality as quickly as possible. I'm just helping you folks along to paradise.
Anthony cannot provide deck help but feel free to send him all your spam this week since his account is no longer working anyway.