The Tension Between Power and Synergy

Written by Chase Keaten on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Standard

Power is the ability for a single card to affect the outcome of a game.  Power cares about large advantages and creating sudden inequalities in resources.  Power shines in scenarios where you are behind and looking to catch up…or even and you’re looking to pull way ahead.  Power tends to be weak to speed and it normally isn’t very redundant.  Power puts the emphasis on your individual cards.

Powerful Vintage Cards: Yawgmoth’s Will, Mana Drain, Ancestral Recall
Powerful Legacy Cards: Stoneforge Mystic, Tarmogoyf, Wasteland, Swords to Plowshares
Powerful Standard Cards: Any Given Titan, Consecrated Sphinx, Liliana of the Veil, Geist of Saint Traft

Synergy is the ability for a single card to positively impact the value of all the other cards in your deck.  Synergy cares about incremental advantages that make every card in your deck better as the game goes on.  Synergy shines in scenarios where you are ahead and looking to stay ahead.  Synergy tends to be weak to the right linear effects and it normally doesn’t care about what cards you have coming because they will all be functionally redundant.

Synergistic Vintage Cards: Gush, Mishra’s Workshop, Bazaar of Baghdad
Synergistic Legacy Cards: Goblin Ringleader, Green Sun’s Zenith, Ad Nauseam
Synergistic Standard Cards: Shock, Intangible Virtue, Delver of Secrets

Power and synergy exist on a scale where there is some overlap, but generally certain decks want to push the envelope one way or another.  Most control decks rely on powerful late game spells and creatures to seal the deal.  Most aggressive decks rely on a quick start that makes every card better.  A control deck has an interest of pushing a long game to build a resource and mana advantage to start doing unfair things.  Once the control deck is free to start flashing back Forbidden Alchemy in Standard, it’s probably favored to win that game.  A turn 1 Stromkirk Noble is beatable in Standard, until it’s followed up by a Shrine of Burning Rage, Chandra’s Phoenix, and a Brimstone Volley.

One easy way to evaluate card power vs. synergy is by imagining a game that is even, but half spent.  Both players are at 10.  Both players have no cards in hand and seven irrelevant lands in play.  One player draws a card for their turn and plays an Intangible Virtue.  The other plays a Consecrated Sphinx off the top.  You get to be one of those players…which would you prefer?  Apart from a borderline dissociative hatred of the color blue, most players will opt for the Sphinx because it’s more likely to win.

If I cast a Shock at you when you’re at 20 on turn one – you will laugh inwardly at me and gladly pick up your pen and adjust your life total accordingly.  Let’s see that smile just as wide when I cast a Shock when you’re at 8 and I have 3 other cards in hand.  How great do you feel about that Shock that brings you to 2 and you know half my deck will kill you off the top, even with zero cards in hand?  When almost every creature and spell kills you in my deck, I have exploited my synergies to raise the stock of every card in my deck.

Now that we have the distinction set aside for a moment – please consider that some of the most powerful cards ever printed have excellent synergies.  In balance, some of the more synergistic cards are very powerful (*cough* Delver of Secrets *cough*).  What I’m primarily interested in is how an individual card’s power level or synergy level impacts how you build and tune a deck.

Let’s take some limited examples for a second.  When I’m playing a sealed deck event, I’m normally going to try to build around power level first.  This is not to say that I will ignore all hints of synergy, just that I’m going to try to build around my most unfair cards.  The selections that I make will be more biased on getting to the late game or creating a stalled game state that will allow my more powerful cards to take over.  I will be willing to play less powerful synergies in exchange for more powerful cards.  The reason for this is in sealed deck, you get 6 packs of cards.  Oftentimes, you will have upwards of 3-4 removal spells and 1-2 game breaking cards.  All your cards are important, but with so much removal (and also knowing your opponent will have a fair amount of removal) it’s important to have a quick game ender once the dust has settled and you’ve drawn out your opponent’s removal spells.

Speaking of removal spells, please save them as often as you can.  I could probably write an article on the art of waiting for the right moment to play a removal spell in limited.  Brainstorming for maximum value is a lost art in magic, just like using removal to maximize value in limited.  

Compare the sealed deck event to a draft event.  When I’m drafting a deck, every selection I make is based off what this will do for my deck.  It used to be a viable drafting strategy to just “take the best card in the pack”.  Nowadays, you may get passed a really strong rare or mythic (say a Moonveil Dragon or something like that) that you would be overjoyed to play in a sealed deck event that can’t make your draft deck because you first picked Lingering Souls and got passed a Skirsdag Flayer in the next pack.  It’s better to just take the Gather the Townsfolk right there and build on both themes and let someone else fall on the dragon trap.  It’s not like the dragon suddenly got worse (he’s still a great topdeck, can win games on his own, etc.).  It’s just you’re already in WB and your deck isn’t really interested in red 6 drops when you can win with an aggressive tilt and only 4 lands in play.

In the above sealed deck and draft event examples I’m picking a path beforehand. Normally, in sealed deck you should build around your most powerful effects and in draft you should build the most redundant thing that you can and emphasize synergy.  But I’ve opened many sealed pools without a bomb rare, and all of a sudden I’m trying to make the fastest deck I possibly can out of my pool to have a chance to beat the clunky 4 removal spell, 2 bomb rare decks.  I choose to reframe the situation, shift my focus, and instead of complaining on how the person on my right opened a Sorin, Lord of Innistrad and the person on my left opened a Charmbreaker Devils with a Devil’s Play and 2 Brimstone Volleys.

So my card pool can’t support the 2 bomb plan…what deck will have the best chance of playing unfair as a deck then?  I might not have the individual cards but I can put a few flyers and low cost creatures together and deal 20 damage before you can cast that Reaper from the Abyss.  I’ve accidently made top 8 with a pile of aggressive guys in limited PTQs simply because I didn’t have the Rares to build to and I had to maximize my chances of success.  Lots of bears and a few fliers can get there, even when you only have one removal spell, one pump spell and have to play a Thraben Purebloods maindeck.

The converse is true in draft.  Normally, by around halfway through the second pack you know whether your deck is going to come together or not.  You’ll either have about 10-12 cards that work together to form a cohesive game plan or about 10 playable cards that get along about as well as a broken down busload of agitated people.  When you find yourself in the latter situation; start drafting for power level.  This will maximize your chances of winning.  It’s true that the synergistic decks might take you down but the bottom line is that you will be playing a different game than most of your opponents.  How can you leverage that into wins?  Start emphasizing power over synergy and prepare for a bumpy ride (i.e. lots of mulligans and clunky draws).  If you always draw that Moonveil Dragon and that Fortress Crab and that Geistflame every game, you have a plan that can beat even a crazy good WG draft deck.  It probably won’t all the time but forcing a synergy that just isn’t there doesn’t make your deck better, it makes your options worse.  Seeing people with all the enablers of the Mulch/Forbidden Alchemy/Spider Spawning deck and none of the finishers makes me want to cry…but they could have drafted a more powerful deck by abandoning the synergy plan earlier.  This is how the 1-2 decks can become 2-1 decks (with luck, a 3-0) and that can make a large difference in many events.

Let’s jump out of limited and into the land of Standard.  It’s a bread and butter format, for which I am most thankful for.  I’m going to share a decklist that I played and the root decklists that my choice was based off and talk about the immediate synergies and power levels of the cards within.

The first decklist is innovative and very interesting (although very hard to play correctly).  I played this in a recent FNM.  Credit goes to @smi77y for the original list.

Ok, first let’s examine power level.  The most powerful cards in the deck are Snapcaster Mage, Sorin, Lingering Souls and Delver.  This seems fine from a power level perspective.  Where this deck starts to break down though is when you start looking at the synergies.

Token Synergy Package:
4 Intangible Virtue, 4 Lingering Souls, 3 Midnight Haunting, 3 Gather the Townsfolk

This is a 14 card solid tokens package – one that many successful decks are based around.  So where does this deck go wrong?  First of all, I can’t tell you how many times I drew 2 Intangible Virtue and 2 Delvers in my opening hand.  It was like playing with fire.  I virtually had to keep because any draw that includes the possibility of a pair of early flipped Delvers should be close to game, and my backup plan is unstoppable if I draw a Lingering Souls, even a Midnight Haunting or a Gather.

That hand didn’t get there.  There were games where I felt like I was drawing incredible hands. I was an unstoppable tokens deck with Mana Leak and Snapcaster Mage.  But the deck kept on reminding me that it was trying to do too many different things by my hands and my draws.  This deck is a perfect example of a deck trying to maximize both power level and synergy.  Play some of the format’s most powerful spells and creatures and back it up with a synergy that dominated Innistrad block so much that they had to throw the banhammer at both Lingering Souls and Intangible Virtue.

This list is really a hybrid of two decks: a stock list of UW Delver and the new iteration of BW Tokens.  Play with caution, it’s a really fun list to play but it doesn’t really scream ‘play me’ at a large event by any stretch.

Let’s look at the decks that inspired this decklist:

This deck is pure powerful cards.  The whole goal is to play difficult to answer threats with some sort of tempo (read: bounce spells in this case) and countermagic to ride early game threats to victory.  It can play the role of beatdown or control depending on the matchup, and has a lot of forgiving late game spells such as the equipment that allow it to pull ahead.  The reason this deck is successful is every spell is tuned to be the best at what it’s supposed to do, and that’s ending the game quickly and making the opponent’s trump cards not matter.  It can literally beat anything.  This deck seeks to take advantage of how powerful Delver of Secrets and Geist of Saint Traft are, and put them in the most efficient killing shell that can be brainstormed.

Let’s take a look at the other end of the spectrum.

This deck is emphatic on synergy.  There are 6 enchantments that buff tokens or creatures (also, 3 Sorin).  There are 24 cards that produce tokens (including Mortarpod). Each of these cards makes the others better.  Sorin can fulfill either purpose.  The deck doesn’t have a ton of raw power but it does offer a very finely tuned package.  It’s going to create lots of little tokens.  It’s going to buff those tokens, and it’s eventually going to kill you with anthem effects or die trying.  This deck doesn’t care about card draw or card selection because of the amount of redundancy it has.  It’s not trying to find the right card for the right situation.  Gather the Townsfolk and Midnight Haunting are virtually the same card if you only factor in they produce two tokens that affect the board.  Compare this list to the Delver Tokens list; against 14 cards that produce or care about tokens, this deck has 30.  Guess which deck will execute the same game plan more often?

So, the Delver Tokens list led me to a sad and average 2-2 record at my FNM.  I beat UB control and a GR Ramp strategy and lost to Naya Pod and a mono white Humans list.  I was able to beat the powerful decks but the more synergistic decks were able to tear my deck apart.  I sacrificed the easy and free wins off the back of Geist of Saint Traft and instead opted for a more Ponder friendly and ambitious manabase and the ability to make some tokens.  Looked at from another angle, I sacrificed the ability to be the best token making deck in the room in favor of being a mediocre token deck with a few more powerful effects.

The lessons here are many, but if you only take one thing away from this article, ensure that you know whether or not your deck is attempting to exploit synergy or power level.  Have reasons that push you in either direction and ensure that you’re not trying to do both.  Juggling these constraints can easily water down both plans.

As always, thanks for reading.
I appreciate your feedback.

Chase Keaten
@chasekeaten on Twitter

Forum Firestarter Questions:

Which plays better to your style, power or synergy?  Why?
Have you seen this tension in less competitive formats like cube or commander?
Can you describe a deck that masters the tension between power level and synergy (hint: most combo decks have to)?

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