Offense and Defense

Posted in From the Lab on November 25, 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.

Welcome, minions. Today I'll be looking at the most fundamental split among Magic players: Those who like playing offensively, and those who like playing defensively. To be good at this game, you need to be able to do both, and often you'll need to do both over the course of a single game. However, most players have a preference one way or the other. Would you rather attack for a huge amounts of damage, or prevent your opponent from doing so? Would you rather cast a big spell or counter one? The ability to do either or both is part of what makes Magic such a great game, and today I'll be looking at two decks that take each of these ideas to the extreme.

Many players will talk about playing proactively vs. reactively, rather than offensively vs. defensively. These are similar concepts, and often line up quite nicely. However, they are not identical. An offensive deck can also be reactive, such as Counter-Slivers, which sought to put down a threat and then prevent the opponent from being able to stop that threat through the magic of counterspells. Conversely, a deck can be both proactive and defensive, such as decks featuring Stasis and Winter Orb. These decks seek to prevent the opponent from doing anything, but do so on their own terms rather than responding to the opponent's plays.

Your Offense is Offensive

I'll start off on the offensive side of things. Most of the decks I talk about here are more offensive than defensive. Part of this is due to the nature of combo decks. Most of the time, the goal is to kill your opponent as quickly as possible. Although I usually discuss infinite combos, today I'll be taking a different route. After all, you don't have to make an infinite loop to deal several thousand damage.

Anything that copies or doubles things is generally your best bet for achieving enormous but finite amounts of damage. Cards like Doubling Season and Doubling Cube are popular choices, but today I'll be using something a bit different: Precursor Golem. Precursor Golem is a successor to Ink-Treader Nephilim, but has some differences. First, it triggers when any Golem is targeted, not just itself. Second, its effects are limited to other Golems. The latter is often a disadvantage, but the former is the method by which this deck can achieve truly absurd numbers.

Precursor Golem
Ink-Treader Nephilim

The key to going crazy with Precursor Golem is making more of them. The best tools for this are Cackling Counterpart and Rite of Replication. Since both target a single Golem, Precursor will copy them for each other Golem you control, more than doubling the number of creatures you control. Subsequent copy spells will trigger both Precursor Golems, creating two copies of the spell for each other Golem.

Ugh. Math

Once you have an army of Golems, you can use Sigil Blessing to make them absurdly large. You'll get copies of the Blessing for each Precursor you control and each copy will pump up all your creatures. In fact, figuring out exactly how much damage you're dealing can be a bit difficult. I'm not exactly a math expert, but I've put together a set of equations that should make it easier to calculate. I'm fairly certain these are accurate, but I may have missed something, so you can run them past your mathematically inclined friend if you like. Feel free to skip this section of you're satisfied with attacking for "a lot."

Sigil Blessing
Cackling Counterpart

For this example, let's assume you used a some mana acceleration and cast Precursor Golem on turn four. Then, on turn five, you cast two copies of Cackling Counterpart. It's best to target a plain old Golem token, so we'll assume you did that. The first one is straightforward. You get a copy of each of the two Golem tokens, and one of Precursor Golem itself, which will make two more Golems. Now you have eight Golems. We'll call the total number of Golems you control "n." Two of these are Precursor Golems. We'll use "p" for the number of Precursors you control. Now, we need to figure out the number of copies of Cackling Counterpart you'll be getting, or "c." This is pretty easy to do without the formula, but I'll introduce it now.

c = p(n-1)+1

So, with eight total Golems and two Precursors, you'll have fifteen total copies of Cackling Counterpart, one targeting a Golem token and two targeting everything else. You'll get fifteen Golems, bringing your total up to twenty-three, but four of those will be Precursors and will put two tokens each onto the battlefield. This brings p to six and n to thirty-one.

Next turn, to keep things relatively simple, you just cast one Sigil Blessing on turn six and attack. Plugging it into the formula again, you'll have a total of 181 copies of Sigil Blessing. Now we need to figure out the power and toughness of each Golem, or "x." Fortunately, if we change Sigil Blessing's wording slightly, we can say it gives +2/+2 to target creature, and +1/+1 to each creature you control, rather than to each other creature. This is functionally identical, and makes the math much easier.

Now, the first Golem won't be getting any additional copies targeting it, so it's power and toughness will be 3+c+2 (or c+5): 3 for the base power and toughness, c for all the +1/+1 effects, and 2 from the one Sigil Blessing that is targeting it. For the other Golems, we'll use this formula:


With 181 total copies, and six Precursor Golems, each other Golem will be a 196/196. Finally, we need to calculate the total damage you can deal by attacking with everything, or "t." Here's the formula for that:


Plugging in the numbers gives us a total damage output of 6,066 in this scenario. 6,066 damage on turn six seems pretty good to me. It also seems like an excessive number of sixes.

Back to the Fun Stuff

One downside of Precursor Golem is that it copies your opponent's spells as well. A single removal spell can destroy every Golem you control. Therefore, I've included Sheltering Word to prevent that from happening. Not only will it give all of your Golems hexproof, thereby countering the copied removal spell, it will give you an enormous amount of life at the same time. If you've cast just one copy spell on your Precursor Golem, giving you the eight total Golems we discussed previously, Sheltering Word will give you a total of 45 life. Not only does it protect your creatures from removal, it protects you from death as well.

Of course, all of this hinges on you having a Precursor Golem. Fabricate will make sure you can find a Precursor if you weren't lucky enough to draw one. I've also added in one of each artifact land in the appropriate colors, so it can help you if you're stuck on mana.

Sheltering Word

Blade Splicer and Wing Splicer can give you some early defense as well as a boost to your Golem count. In its time in Standard, Blade Splicer was notorious for putting a huge roadblock in front of aggressive decks, and it does the same here. Although having non-Golem creatures throws a bit of a wrench into your damage calculations, their power and toughness after a Sigil Blessing will just be c+1, making it relatively easy to add on the extra damage.

Finally, Azorius Signet and Simic Signet give you something to do on turn two. They accelerate your game plan by a full turn at very little cost. On turn two, you have nothing relevant to cast anyway, and afterward they only cost a net one mana, since they can be used immediately.


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It's Right After C-Fence

Many defensive decks seek to stop your opponents from being able to do anything. I'm generally not a fan of locking players out of the game, however, so I'll employ a different strategy. This deck stops your opponents from doing anything to you. This is much more fun in multiplayer, as the other players still get to battle it out for 2nd place. Meanwhile, you watch from the safety of your protective bubble.

Perhaps the most well-known "can't touch this" card is Solitary Confinement. It prevents you from taking damage, and also gives you shroud. This prevents you from dying to cards like Maga, Traitor to Mortals. The drawback is that you must skip your draw step, and you have to discard a card each turn to keep the enchantment alive.

Solitary Confinement
Maga, Traitor to Mortals

There are a few ways to solve this problem. The first is through drawing a card each turn anyway with something like Temple Bell. While this plan doesn't require any mana beyond the initial investment, it makes you vulnerable to artifact removal, which is something I'd rather avoid. A better option is Squee, Goblin Nabob. Squee returns himself to your hand every upkeep, just in time for you to discard him to Solitary Confinement. This does make you vulnerable to graveyard removal, but most of the time that is much less common than the ability to get rid of an artifact.

You won't always have Squee, so I've also included a backup option. Magma Phoenix can also return itself to your hand each turn, although it requires five mana to do so. Since you're not really planning on casting anything once your bubble is set up, that shouldn't be a problem. The Phoenix can also be used as a blocker that threatens to wipe away most of your opponent's creatures when it dies.

Squee, Goblin Nabob
Magma Phoenix

The Backups have Backups

Why have just one combo when you can have two? After all, using Solitary Confinement alone means you have to wait for your opponents to draw their entire library. If they have a way to prevent this, you're stuck. That's where the next bit comes in.

Sulfuric Vortex will slowly kill all of your opponent, and there's not much they can do about it. It prevents players from gaining life, so everyone's life total will slowly tick down turn after turn until death. If you have Solitary Confinement, however, your damage will be prevented, leaving you sitting pretty at 20 life.

Sulfuric Vortex just so happens to form another "bubble" combo with another enchantment: Transcendence. Transcendence makes you lose the game if you have 20 or more life, and causes you to gain life whenever you lose it. With Sulfuric Vortex on the battlefield, however, you can't gain life, so your life total will go down as normal. Fortunately, Transcendence also says you don't lose the game for having 0 or less life, so you can keep taking hits from the Vortex indefinitely while everyone else dies. This combo is even more sturdy than Solitary Confinement, preventing you from losing even to cards that don't target, like Exsanguinate.

Sulfuric Vortex

Since both of these combos revolve around enchantments, I've included a few cards to help out. Greater Auramancy gives other enchantments shroud. If your opponent wants to destroy one of your combo pieces, he or she must take out Greater Auramancy first. If you have a second copy on the battlefield, the two will protect each other, and only an enchantment sweeper like Tranquility can stop you.

Idyllic Tutor can be used to search for whichever enchantment you need most, ensuring you can put together on of your combos quickly. Sterling Grove is a Greater Auramancy that can also be sacrificed to search up an enchantment, giving you the best of both worlds.

Greater Auramancy
Idyllic Tutor

Finally, Swords to Plowshares can be used to nail any troublesome creatures with almost no drawback, since neither combo particularly cares about what life total your opponent starts out at. Day of Judgment also protects you from an early assault, clearing the board of creatures and giving you time to protect yourself with enchantments.

Can't Touch This

Download Arena Decklist

Challenge Time!

We're nearing the end of the year now, and I've decided to go out with a bang. To do this, I need your help. Send me an email or a message on Twitter via the links below, telling me what set you'd like to see me work from. I'll take the two with the most votes and create combo decks built around a card from each set. You can vote for your favorite set, or the set you think has the best Johnny cards. You can also make things tougher for me by voting for oft-maligned sets like Homelands or The Dark. It's all up to you. I'll be counting votes until the end of the week, but get yours in now before you forget. I know how absent-minded we mad scientists can be.

Also, make sure to join me next week, when I'll be showing my devotion to combos. See ya!

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