Hello hopefully faithful readers and welcome back! I apologize for being gone for so long; I was getting personal affairs in order and going back to school. Now that I have my schedule and rhythm in check I’ll hopefully be back to more regular postings here on DeckTechs.
As you may have noted, Ixalan spoilers have started, along with Wizards confirming and addressing the leaks that happened a few months ago. I unfortunately did not have enough time to properly prepare an article about said spoilers or my thoughts on Ixalan as a set overall, so I thought I would backup a bit and discuss something as a general concept and as related to the Commander 2017 decks which came out just a few weeks ago.
What, you may be asking, do combos have to do with the Commander 2017 precons? Inalla, Archmage Ritualist is what they have to do with one another. Inalla is a fairly potent general that acts as a Flameshadow Conjuring for your wizards. A fairly strong-looking ability but it seems to only get you extra ETB triggers or haste-y tap abilities. However, Inalla can combo off with enough mana and Wanderwine Prophets to take infinite turns. To do this, stack Inalla’s clone trigger and the Prophets’ champion trigger so that the token comes in and champions the real Prophets’, swings with haste, sacrifices itself to take an extra turn, gets you back the real Prophets, which lets you clone it again, get it back on your end step and clone it one last time so that you have a token championing the real Prophets on your new extra turn, ready to swing again and repeat the process (this can be referred to as the champion dance)– thus giving you infinite turns (with the obvious caveat that it can’t be blocked, but you’re in blue so that’s not difficult).
I play this combo in my own personal Inalla deck. It’s one of the better win conditions that the deck has besides traditional Laboratory Maniac combos, but it is a prime example of a design problem that I want to discuss.
Combos are an integral part of Magic. They have existed since Alpha was first released and people realized that Channel + Fireball could kill a player dead as early as turn one. Combos are everywhere in Commander and I am not here to rail against combo. Combo is a healthy piece of the Magic puzzle that I run and encourage players to play combo more often and put it in more decks regardless of strategy. In the end the combo should win you the game, and you can simply avoid playing it if you don’t want to do that too often. But having access to it in your otherwise non-combo deck means that you can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat or simply end a game that has gone on for far too long.
So what’s the problem? One-card combos. This may seem nonsensical, since how can a card be a combo by itself? In the above example of Wanderwine Prophets, you require the Prophets and Inalla. The problem is that you have permanent access to Inalla in the command zone, and her eminence ability means that you don’t even need to ever cast her in order to use her effectively. Thus all you ever need to do is draw or tutor up the Prophets with enough mana to cast it and champion dance on the same turn and voila, you win. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with playing this combo, but it does demonstrate a design failure on the part of WotC and/or the Rules Committee. Obviously they can’t be aware of every interaction that exists, especially in an ancillary product for a secondary format, but their insistence that “cards can just be banned”, while healthy for pushing new design space, can often be problematic for the game from an objective standpoint.
Another similar “one card combo” is Tooth and Nail, a card that some players think deserves to be banned. How is this a combo you ask since it requires creatures? Well you wouldn’t be running it if you had no creatures to tutor, but the fact that it searches them out and puts both right on the battlefield means you get immediate access to whatever combination of effects those two creatures give you. Maybe Avenger of Zendikar and Craterhoof Behemoth aren’t a “combo” in the most traditional sense but the fact that those are the de facto targets of Tooth and Nail and often leave your opponents dead means that it functions as a combo regardless. Similarly are Mikaeus, the Unhallowed and Triskelion a one card combo when Mike is your commander.
One card combos aren’t going to destroy the format, but they do create boring strategies with minimal deck building costs. Normally a combo deck like FlashHulk has to commit fully to their combo and generally does nothing if they haven’t won, so there are risks to playing them if your opponents have the answers or you simply draw poorly. One card combos require absolutely no problem solving or restrictions in deck building other than putting a single card in your deck and letting everything else be what it wants to be. And just as the colour pie restricts our possible card options, so too should our choice of commander restrict us (to a degree) to playing certain cards to bolster our strategy while weakening us in other ways. As Mark Rosewater is fond of saying, “restrictions breed creativity.” I’m not saying one-card combos are uncreative or you’re boring for playing them (I play them a lot) but they require no effort and are generally unsatisfying for everyone involved.
Another issue this creates is that it pulls your deck in specific directions that you don’t necessarily want to go to. If you’re playing Inalla, there’s almost no reason that you shouldn’t play Wanderwine Prophets. It’s a good card that generates value even if you’re not comboing off. But then you start to build your deck to maximize the ease with which you get access to Prophets either through tutors, recursion or lots of card draw. And then you start to build your deck to win more often with the Prophets and slowly it spirals into becoming a combo deck where the combo is one card because of an unfortunate interaction. This is obviously not true for many players, but the logic of this path of events isn’t too far-fetched and probably happens to more of us than we may realize.
I’m going to keep playing Prophets in my Inalla deck and you should too. Why? Because despite all my discussion of the issues this combo has, there is still a relatively large amount of setup required. You have to cast the Prophets, have 3 mana available afterwards to champion dance, the Prophets can’t be blocked and is susceptible to any form of interaction whatsoever. If this combo fails or is halted your opponents will almost assuredly wipe you from the face of the table in the next go around for even trying. There are a lot of things that can go wrong and in the end it’s just another infinite turns combo in a format with multiple commanders built around this concept. I simply wanted to use this most recent example as a method of illustrating the design mistakes made that can create format monstrosities like the one card combo – they’ll never be banned, nor should they be, but they’ll make your opponents groan for decades. And not in the fun way like when you Winter Orb lock them.
Win conditions aren’t bad, but ones we never ever have to think about make the format more stale. Does that mean ban them? No, simply be more aware of them and the context they thrive in. Be more conscious of such combos and perhaps consider avoiding them. You may find yourself enjoying the game more if you do.
Until next time.