Three-Card Combinations

Posted in NEWS on July 7, 2014

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, we left off of "Two-Card Combinations" with a teaser of these three cards:

To my knowledge (as someone who started playing Magic twenty years ago) Stasis + Kismet + Time Elemental was the first widely recognized combination in even casual Magic.

Do you see the combination?

Stasis has been the center of various competitive "Lock" decks throughout the history of the game, generally paired with Howling Mine. The power of Stasis is in its ability to grind a game of Magic to a standstill. It has been, as a card, effective in particular in times when mana-hungry decks like Necropotence were at their heights.

The disadvantages of Stasis were (at least) three:

  1. It was a difficult build-around. Although Stasis has some upside, it couldn't win the game alone, and its downside features would have to be addressed regardless.
  2. It was a symmetrical effect. That is, Stasis in isolation affected both players equally. Neither player would be able to untap.
  3. Stasis asked its controller to pay each upkeep in order to stick around on the battlefield. If you couldn't untap, you would at some point have to at least play an Island every turn to avoid losing your Stasis (which is why Howling Mine was eventually a nice playmate...it helped Stasis players consistently make land drops).

The additions of Kismet and Time Elemental were there to address those second and third points; because yesStasis was a difficult build-around!

Kismet was there to address the symmetry issue. Okay. Let's assume that Stasis is a symmetrical effect. No one can untap. Got it. But if the opponent's cards enter the battlefield tapped, that is a symmetry breaker. As the Stasis player, your cards will be entering the battlefield normally (meaning you can at least get your taps in), whereas the opponent will be getting little or no utility out of his or her cards at all. Especially in a less sophisticated era, when most games of Magic were decided by lumbering through the red zone, Kismet could make playing against (or playing around) Stasis very arduous.

The typical player might try to stockpile several untapped lands to play a threat and attack with it at least once; when all your lands—and your creatures themselves—are entering the battlefield tapped, there is kind of no point to this strategy.

Finally, we have Time Elemental.

Time Elemental was a recurring way to get around Stasis's cost every upkeep. Instead of actually paying for Stasis, you could avoid paying and just pay to return Stasis to your hand...and then just re-cast it. If that seems super expensive ( + after an incremental investment instead of just ), remember that you are getting all your mana back.

There are a lot of things we can say about these three cards taken together.

One of them is that winning with a deck playing these cards probably took forever!

One card that costs and demands more mana turn after turn...

One card that costs and doesn't do much by itself.

One creature that has a terrible body, can't really attack or block, and has a ridiculous mana-activation cost?

Forever.

But what did we say way back in the second episode of Level One?

There is only one viable end goal in Magic, and it is to successfully conclude the game before your opponent does.

How can a deck so slow fit with this paradigm?

The deck might be slow, but if it can slow down opponents even more, it can still win before they do!

Now, I think you would be hard-pressed to do so against a fast and consistent 2014 offense, but at the time of Kismet/Stasis/Time Elemental, the burliest offensive weapon was along the lines of an Erhnam Djinn.

You might have time.

The other big takeaway from looking at the original combo is something we can bring forward even to the sleek combinations of 2014, which is that most combo pieces stink in isolation. This is quite a bit different from synergistic cards.

Linear aggro cards like these can be unbelievable together; they often have nice upsides even by themselves. Goblin Piledriver is a wrecking ball on offense—at least when accompanied by other Goblins—but even just by itself it can contain even the biggest blue creature.

Goblin Warchief is such a cheatyface when combined with other Goblins, but it is still a 2/2 haste creature by its lonesome—which is not far off from creatures that have seen play in competitive Magic in other eras.

You might not play either card in anything but a Goblin deck very often, but they at least have text. Combo pieces like the ones we have looked at so far this week can't easily say the same thing. Those cards are all weak by themselves.

But all together? They can sing.

Whether parts of a two-card or a three-card combination, dedicated combo pieces generally stink by themselves. As in, they either don't do anything, or they don't do anything you'd want to actually spend a slot in your deck for.

This three-card combination was ultimately more decorated than Kismet + Stasis + Time Elemental and gives us a substantial upgrade not only over that first exploration, but a nice point of comparison against most two-card combinations.

First, let's make fun of the component cards:

  • Goblin Bombardment—Does literally nothing if you don't have a creature to fuel it. Has been an intermittent contributor in some creature decks, but never anything of significance outside of this combination.
  • Shield Sphere—To its credit, this card has had a minor career slowing down opposing offenses, but most notably in combo decks that needed to gather time to set up their kills. Obviously doesn't kill anyone by itself; like Time Elemental, it can't attack, although, unlike Time Elemental, it is a good blocker.
  • Enduring Renewal—The "Stasis" of this three-card combination, in that this is the difficult build-around. You get a sexy upside (your dead creatures can come back, a route to future card advantage) but you give up a lot of information—and all future creature topdecks—in exchange.

This combo works like this:

With Enduring Renewal on the battlefield, you can sacrifice Shield Sphere to Goblin Bombardment to deal 1 point of damage to the opponent and always get it back.

Because Shield Sphere cost 0 mana, you can get play it without a need for any more incremental mana, so you can rinse and repeat the "take 1/get my Shield Sphere" loop twenty or more times, winning the game on the spot.

This three-card combination was great because it was fast.

Remember the old "win the game before the opponent does" adage from, you know, earlier in this article?

Unlike Kismet + Stasis + Time Elemental, this combination was great because it could flat-out win the game on the fourth turn. That is, if you had Goblin Bombardment down already (only a two-mana investment), the 0 cost of Shield Sphere meant you could win the game as soon as you had resolved Enduring Renewal. With a little cheatyface mana, you could win the game even more quickly than turn four!

Three-card combinations like Enduring Renewal are obviously more difficult—some would say 50% more difficult—to pull off than two-card combinations. However, you can see that the payoff here is substantially greater than the payoff on most two-card combinations.

To that end, please don't rate all two-card combinations on Deceiver Exarch + Splinter Twin or Kiki-Jiki + [whatever]. Most of them don't read "deal infinite damage."

Get a 20/20 creature. Granted, a 20/20 creature is pretty good! Especially when it is hard to kill and/or block. BUT! You still have to make it through an attack.

Gain 20 life/ultimately force the opponent to lose 20 life. This combination was great, both because it blunted the opponent's offense (essentially doubling your starting life total) while putting the opponent into a position to lose the game as soon as he or she couldn't pay for Illusions of Grandeur. BUT! It only dealt 20 damage. If the opponent had so much as an Ebony Charm or Spike Feeder, the combo player would at least have to find a way to deal the next few damage.

This cool combo was about putting Draco on top of your library and revealing it to ka-boom the opponent with Erratic Explosion. Even weaker than Illusions of Grandeur + Donate or Vampire Hexmage + Dark Depths, this combo didn't even do the full 20! Luckily, a deck playing red cards like Erratic Explosion could usually find a way to get in the next few damage. Plus, it would put pressure on the opponent's mana base, where opponents would commonly put on a few bruises, themselves.

Even the Splinter Twin or Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker paragons of combo decks still have to attack.

So for all their weird cards...

Combo decks have a payoff in speed. The great ones, anyway.

Splinter Twin and Enduring Renewal could pretty much win games on turn four, on the spot. Provided you got a few licks in, or the opponent got some in on themselves, Erratic Explosion could reveal Draco on turn three. And Dark Depths + Vampire Hexmage (with a little help) or Shuko + Cephalid Illusionist could win on turn two or three quite often.

Bad cards, maybe; but good decks.

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