A Numbers Game

Posted in From the Lab on March 11, 2013

By Mike Cannon

Mike Cannon started writing From the Lab at the end of 2012 after two years with GatheringMagic. He is an ardent casual player and loves finding uses for bad cards.

Most games at their core are all about numbers. Although coated in layers of art, flavor, and game play mechanics that make this great game what it is; deep down, Magic is a numbers game. Your opponent starts with 20 life, sixty cards in the library, and ten not-having-a-poison-counters. Your goal is to subtract from one of those numbers until it reaches zero before your opponent does the same to you. This week at the Lab, we'll be looking deeper at some other numbers that will help you defeat your opponent.


Fifteen is three-quarters of your life total. Being at 15 life is generally a pretty comfortable position. Taking 15 damage puts you in extremely uncomfortable position. Fortunately, not many things in this game hit that hard.

Worldspine Wurm does.

Emrakul, the Aeons Torn does.

Mindshrieker does.

Wait, what was that last part? Mindshrieker? The two-mana Spirit Bird from Innistrad that most players never gave a second glance? Yep, that's the one. With a little help from its big buddies, this little Bird can deal more damage than either of them. All you have to do is put them on top of your library somehow and Mindshrieker will do the rest. With a pair of insanely expensive creatures on top of your library, Mindshrieker can mill them and become massive enough to kill your opponent in a single attack. Since it has flying, your opponent often won't be able to do anything about it and will die to your 27/27 Bird.


Get on Top

Although building a combo out of many different cards can be a lot of fun, like building a cardboard Rube Goldberg machine, I've always had a soft spot for the elegance of combos that only require you to draw one particular card. Scapeshift is a good example of this. With enough lands on the battlefield, Scapeshift alone can search up a pair of Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and a bunch of Mountains to deal a lot of damage to your opponent.

Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle

In this deck, you need to find a Mindshrieker, and you need to put two of any combination of Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and Worldspine Wurm on top of your library. Fortunately, there's a card that does all of this: Congregation at Dawn. By casting Congregation at Dawn, you can search for each of these creatures and put them on top of your deck. On your next turn, you draw Mindshrieker and cast it, and before you draw your card the following turn, you can activate Mindshrieker's ability twice to pump it up to enormous levels.

Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
Worldspine Wurm

Unfortunately, you can only play four copies of Congregation at Dawn, so we'll include some other cards that can put the fatties on top of your library. Old-school staple Worldly Tutor is a great choice, and newcomer Mwonvuli Beast Tracker will happily track down a Worldspine Wurm for you.

Congregation at Dawn

Since you're putting these giant creatures on top of your library anyway, Call of the Wild makes a great backup plan. Although it's slower than the Mindshrieker route, I'm not one to complain about putting a 15/15 onto the battlefield on turn five. Brainstorm also reprises its classic combo role here of helping you find the cards you need quickly. It can also set up the top of your library for Mindshrieker.

Just Say No

We'll also add in some cards that can protect the combo and get rid of anything that might stop a Mindshrieker. Dispel is the go-to card for protecting a combo from disruption, but this particular combo makes a certain Gatecrash card into another fun way of countering spells. Spell Rupture counters any spell unless your opponent pays mana equal to the power of your biggest creature. If that creature is a pumped-up Mindshrieker, well, that's a lot of mana.

Spell Rupture

Beast Within can kill any problem permanent, whether that means a flying blocker or a creature like Izzet Staticaster that could kill a Mindshrieker. If its blockers you're worried about, you can also tutor up an Elvish Herder, which will give your giant Spirit Bird trample until end of turn so it can punch through for lethal damage.

Beast Within
Elvish Herder


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The number three is a core part of Magic, although most people don't even realize it. It is the most common converted mana cost on Magic cards. This means that most of the action in this game starts around the third turn. We can even see the impact of this in the ban list for Modern, where cards are banned to prevent the existence of decks that can consistently end the game before the opponent gets to take his or her third turn. Although the effects of this are widespread, the fact that so many cards have a converted mana cost of 3 isn't just an interesting tidbit of information, it's the genesis of a combo deck.

Immortal Servitude happens to care a lot about converted mana costs, and once you've made a decision about what number you want it is very specific about what it pulls out of the graveyard. If you want creatures that cost three, you're not getting any ones, twos, or fours in the deal. Fortunately, with an enormous pool of three-mana creatures to choose from, that shouldn't cause too much trouble.

Can I Get a Witness?

Of course, just getting back a bunch of random creatures isn't good enough for From the Lab. We need to do something a little more awesome than that. Eternal Witness is the first step. If you have Eternal Witness in the graveyard, Immortal Servitude can bring it back, and then Eternal Witness can bring back Immortal Servitude. If you can sacrifice Eternal Witness, you can do it all over again. Or you could, if you had another six mana. Maybe there are more three-mana creatures that can help with that.

Eternal Witness
Immortal Servitude

Priest of Gix costs three mana and it alone gives you half the mana you need to cast Immortal Servitude again. With two of them in the graveyard, you can be ready to go again with a nice, full mana pool. Basal Sliver is another three-drop that can give you some mana, and although it doesn't give you as much as Priest of Gix, every bit helps, and two mana is respectable enough. Pawn of Ulamog can also give you some extra mana in the form of Eldrazi Spawn tokens. Although it can't help you pay the hybrid mana half of the cost, the Spawn tokens you get from sacrificing it and your other creatures should be more than enough to pay the colorless part, with a little left over as well.

Priest of Gix
Basal Sliver

Devouring Swarm gives you a way to sacrifice your creatures in preparation for another Immortal Servitude. It also gets bigger each time you do so, giving you an infinitely large flying creature. Most of the time that will be enough to finish your opponent, but if he or she has a creature with flying to block with, you'll have to go another route. With so many ways to get mana from your creatures, you'll usually have some left over on each cycle, giving you infinite mana. Another three-mana creature, Bloodrite Invoker, is an easy way to turn that mana into a win. For eight mana, you can make your opponent lose 3 life—and you'll gain 3 life as well. That might seem like a steep cost, but paying fifty-six mana to win the game isn't a problem when you have several trillion in your mana pool.

Devouring Swarm
Bloodrite Invoker

Searching for Answers

Bone Shredder gives you a bit of removal to deal with your opponent's creatures and is another three-drop that can be brought back with Immortal Servitude. Continuing the three theme, Buried Alive costs three mana and lets you search your library for three creatures and put them in your graveyard, giving you most of the things you'll need to combo off. The only spell in the deck with a converted mana cost other than three, Diabolic Tutor, lets you grab Immortal Servitude and start going off. In a pinch, you can also use it to grab an Eternal Witness or any other card you need to get things rolling. If you want to stick even more tightly to the three theme, you can use Rhystic Tutor, Cruel Tutor, or Grim Tutor instead.

Eternal Servitude

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There are two decks here, each with numbers of their own, but the only number that matters now is one. One winner. One loser. One victor and one victim. Let's take it down to the arena and find out which of our competitors will be number one.

Game 1

Eternal Servitude won the roll and started off with a Swamp. Worldshrieker played a Breeding Pool, and Eternal Servitude laid down a Woodland Cemetery before passing the turn. Eternal Servitude played a third land and cast Buried Alive, getting Eternal Witness, Bloodrite Invoker, and Devouring Swarm. Worldshrieker cast Worldly Tutor at end of turn, putting Mindshrieker on top. Mindshrieker hit the battlefield and Eternal Servitude cast Pawn of Ulamog.

Buried Alive
Pawn of Ulamog

Worldshrieker searched up a Worldspine Wurm with Mwonvuli Beast Tracker, and Eternal Servitude cast Priest of Gix, used the mana to cast Basal Sliver, and sacrificed that to help cast another Basal Sliver. Pawn of Ulamog made a Spawn token, and the black deck passed the turn. Worldshrieker drew the Wurm and cast Brainstorm. Mindshrieker attacked and used its ability twice, putting two Worldspine Wurms into the graveyard and hitting for 23 damage.

Game 2

Eternal Servitude led with a Swamp and Worldshrieker started things off with a Breeding Pool again. A Woodland Cemetery came in for Eternal Servitude and Worldshrieker put Temple Garden onto the battlefield. Eternal Servitude cast a Priest of Gix and followed up with Pawn of Ulamog. Worldshrieker cast its namesake Bird and Eternal Servitude cast a Diabolic Tutor. Worldshrieker played a land and passed the turn, and Eternal Servitude cast Basal Sliver, then sacrificed it to cast Buried Alive, putting the last few pieces into the graveyard.

Breeding Pool
Diabolic Tutor

Although the Eternal Servitude combo was set and ready to go, Worldshrieker cast Congregation at Dawn at end of Eternal Servitude's turn. On its turn, Worldshrieker attacked for lethal before the black deck could untap and combo off with Immortal Servitude.

Secret Dealings

I hope you all enjoyed today's visit to the Lab. Join me next week when I... wait. I can't talk about that. In fact, don't come back next week. I'll be working on a secret project for the... for some people, and they don't like prying eyes.

Until next time, may the numbers always be in your favor.

See ya!

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