The Combo Decks That Don’t “Just Win”

Posted in Feature on January 12, 2005

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

Last week I talked about modifications Neutral Ground Time Walk Tournament finalist Phil Johnson made to Ryuichi Arita's "Life" deck. One of the assumptions made by that article was that all of the readers of Swimming With Sharks know how the Life deck works. Life is an intricate combination deck with a lot of cool elements, but how it wins or even what it does are not obvious. This week's Swimming with Sharks is going to be a primer on two Extended combination decks -- one you will have to know, and one you might have never seen before -- that don't actually win when they get their combinations going.

First up is Life:

Ryuichi Arita

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The above is the deck that Ryuichi Arita played to the Top 8 of Pro Tour Columbus. As will be the case for most of Swimming with Sharks during the Extended PTQs, the Columbus Top 8 forms the backbone of the decks we examine, the skeleton holding together the emerging metagame.

The Life deck is essentially a three card combination deck, but unlike a lot of specific combinations (like Kismet + Stasis + Time Elemental or Icy Manipulator + Icy Manipulator + Winter Orb), the Arita deck is built on modules. It can take any card from Group A, any card from Group B, and any card from group C to assemble the combination.

The basic combination is to take a creature from Group B, say a Task Force, and target it repeatedly with the damage prevention ability of a creature from Group A, say a Shaman en-Kor. Once the Group B creature's toughness is acceptably high, say fourteen trillion, a group C card is used to generate essentially infinite life (but actually only, say, fourteen trillion, since you do need to pick a finite number) by sacrificing the Group B component.

Now the game isn't technically over once Life attains a huge life total, but most decks can't deal fourteen trillion damage before their 60 card decks have been drawn out, so actual victory tends to be academic. Arita used Test of Endurance (and a Sterling Grove to cover it), but there are all kinds of ways to win. You can play out a bunch of white creatures and attack with them every turn; as long as you have any kind of numbers advantage on the board, you'll eventually win because you can move all the damage done to any of your creatures to some infinitely tough teammate while poking for one or two, while no amount of counterattacks is ever going to kill you. You can Living Wish for Serra Avatar like Phil Johnson did. Serra Avatar is actually fairly reliable, as it will be cracking for much more life than your opponent has, and can't be easily dealt with over any long game. You can just deck the opponent, whether via Serra Avatar or the old fashioned way. Because of these potentialities, most opponents concede to a 14,000,000,000 life total.

Now "not actually winning" aside, the strength of Arita's Life deck is not just in its modular nature, but in its redundancy. While all successful combination decks over the years have played with some amount of redundancy, life takes the proxy concept of deck thinning and card drawing to a new level. Not only does it have 2-3 true combination elements in every group, it has all kinds of ways to tutor up pieces. Let's look at those modules again:

Eladamri's Call can get any card in Group A or B and that Living Wish can get any card in Group A or B and Starlit Sanctum from Group C.

Enlightened Tutor and Sterling Grove can also finish the game by getting Test of Endurance, screw an opposing combination deck by getting Rule of Law, or assemble the third part of the combo with Animal Boneyard from Group C.

Even when the true combination has not been assembled, any combination of Group A and Group B creatures will demolish conventional beatdown. A Nomads en-Kor isn't that impressive by itself, but with a Task Force? They can hold off two non-evasion creatures of any size! The Nomads en-Kor can put any number of damage prevention shields on the Task Force, pumping its toughness. The Task Force should be big enough to stop any threat, while its little buddy the Nomads en-Kor will absorb any size beatdown because all of the damage coming its way will be redirected to the infinitely tough Task Force; Shaman en-Kor + Daru Spiritualist is just a more explicit version of the same.

Life is awesome against single-minded beatdown decks. There is no better choice against a deck like Red Deck Wins, and it will literally lose to a deck like StOmPy only if horribly manascrewed. So why doesn't everyone just play Life?

Life is one of the worst decks against another combination deck, and not very strong against a true control deck. Even though it can generate what we think of as "infinite" life, another deck with an infinite combination can just pick a bigger number than the one you chose. "You're at fourteen trillion? Okay, I deal you fifteen trillion life loss." Life is pretty weak against a deck like Mind's Desire (at least when Desire goes the decking route) because its creature beatdown is slow and its Orim's Chants are in the board. Nick West and his Isochron Scepter deck beat Arita with ease in the Columbus Top 8. As good as Red Deck Wins is against West, that's how good Meddling Mage and Isochron Scepter are against Life. The reason the addition of Aether Vial we mentioned last week is so important is that Aether Vial gives Life a way to evade Meddling Mage's ability, escape a permission lock, and (barring Worthy Cause) even ignore Isochron Scepter + Orim's Chant!

That said, if you expect a lot of single-minded beatdown, Life is a solid choice for the upcoming PTQs, or any Extended tournament.

The next combination deck that "doesn't actually win" that we will look at is Solitary Confinement. Though not as well known as Life, or even a U/W “sort-of” combination deck like Nick West's Scepter Chant, Solitary Confinement is a powerful weapon with true control elements second to none.

Like U/G Madness, Solitary Confinement is an Odyssey Block Constructed deck that sort of "grew up" and got powered-up by Extended cards. Former US Nationals and PT Top 8 competitor Jordan Berkowitz clawed to a PTQ win with this Odyssey Block deck:

Jordan Berkowitz - Winner

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The goal of the deck is to spread its mana and eventually lay Solitary Confinement with Genesis in the graveyard. It can pay every turn to return Genesis to hand, discarding Genesis to Solitary Confinement indefinitely. Because a player with Solitary Confinement in play doesn't have to draw a card, that defensive enchantment / combination piece is also an implied win. Forty turns or so after it comes down -- assuming the Solitary Confinement doesn't leave play -- the opponent will deck.

A few months after winning a Houston PTQ, Jordan found himself at the 2003 World Championships. Not knowing what to run in Extended, he just modified his PTQ winner for Extended competition.

Jordan Berkowitz

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The Extended version of the deck takes advantage of some simply awesome interactions. The most important are Intuition and Squee, Goblin Nabob. The deck has a "turn three win" against a good many decks, just by playing Solitary Confinement with Squee in hand. A huge number of Extended decks have no way to beat that draw in game one, including some of the most popular choices, and most of the standouts from the Columbus Top 8.

Moreover, Intuition + Squee is next to unbeatable for a control deck when Compulsion is in play. The Solitary Confinement player will just draw four cards per turn, every turn, until it is so far ahead that the opposing control player has no chance; With Sapphire Medallion in play, Forbid + Squee is a non-combination synergy that turns three cards into a fist full of Counterspells, not to mention a lock that would put a smile on Jon Finkel's face.

For the Worlds 2003 version, Jordan played Spirit Cairn -- an Odyssey Block card he missed for his PTQ version -- at, I believe, the behest of former Swimming with Sharks auteur Brian David-Marshall. Spirit Cairn gives the deck a nice combination with Squee, Compulsion, and Solitary Confinement itself. Though Solitary Confinement implies a win -- much like the Life combination -- Spirit Cairn helps to actually take the game faster. Unlike a card like Morphling, which is only unbeatable (rather than just fantastic) once Solitary Confinement and a large mana advantage is already in play, Spirit Cairn operates with just Compulsionout, and maximizes the strength of the deck's existing card advantage outlets.

The Solitary Confinement deck has a lot of nice tricks with Cunning Wish; the best of them is probably going for Enlightened Tutor, but stopping an all-in Wild Mongrel or Arcbound Ravager (or just any old Akroma, Angel of Wrath) with Unsummon has to be up there. Masticore is nice out of the board, realizing the potential we originally saw with Squee, Goblin Nabob, back when Mercadian Masques was first unveiled to the public.

Though Solitary Confinement has been largely forgotten -- and might even qualify as a "never was" in the Extended category -- Brian David-Marshall recently tried it in the Neutral Ground Time Walk tournament, and, because of its potential turn three auto-win, it might merit a closer look for the upcoming PTQ season.

So there you have two combo decks... that don't ACTUALLY win when they get the cards they need for their combos. Both are strong against aggro and have a lot of neat little nuances.

Up next: Hi-Yah!

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