How many non-game winning interactions can a deck has before they can become a liability? How does one determine if a card, interaction, or synergy is “game winning” or worthy of inclusion in a deck? These are the ideas I explored this week. There is a four color rabbit hole in standard right now, and I would like you to follow me down it.
First though, what exactly is a combo? Typically we think of combos as ways to “go infinite.” In modern see Kiki-Pod decks create a loop which creates a near guaranteed winning board state while Scapeshift and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle has risen in popularity with a combo that easily delivers lethal damage. My personal favorite combo, designed by Frank Skarren, is Training Grounds, Umbral Mantle, and any a mana dork (but preferring Birds of Paradise). In most publicized combos we see a specific interaction between two cards which when played together “goes off” and instantly wins the game. The primary risk to a combo is that you need all of the requisite parts of it in order to succeed.
Wizards has been careful to avoid allowing this sort of combo in standard (though currently Jeskai Ascendancy does allow what represents a combo in standard). What standard does allow for are powerful synergies. These synergies are the core of a brewer’s pursuit, to take mere interactions and turn them into the gears which make a deck. Most cool brews though never make it much farther than scribbles on a napkin or being tested as proxies, they fall victim to a myriad of challenges ranging from inefficiency, accessible hate cards, and more often than not being unnecessarily complicated.
To do something in a way which is more difficult and less efficient than other ways is to complicate your solution. The easiest way to win a game is to attack with creatures, which is why most of us learned the game by turning our cards sideways until one player lost. To win the game by countering spells, clearing the board, and shuffling your graveyard into your deck until your opponent no longer has any cards in their deck is much more complicated than a ‘red deck wins’ style build. Using Phyrexian Unlife to safely bring yourself to -45 life with Ad Nauseam in order to fling a lethal Death’s Shadow at your opponent is certainly powerful (designed by Travis Woo), but is the added complexity worth the value of the card interactions?
Again, is the added complexity of the interactions worth it?
Purphoros, God of the Funk
What is this crap?
This is four colors of pure synergy. This is the furthest reaches where synergy stands on high and challenges possibility. It is the combination of the best parts of multiple successful idea. Most of all though it is a deck in which the only thing more serious than the game it brings is the fun you have playing it.
The first thing that needs addressing is the mana; yes, it is four colors. No, that isn’t a problem. While the Khan’s wedges are limited to one tri-land and one fetchland, adding another color allows you to add a second tri-land and two more fetchlands. Yes, they are spread across another color, but the additional fixing in having so many cards that can access multiple colors of mana makes it extremely rare you will not be able to play your curve on time. Mana Confluence adds further smoothing, though at a cost more severe than a fetchland, and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth not only helps you get fixed on black mana, but allows you to tap fetchlands for mana allowing you to wait until later to crack them and preventing them from being dead cards if your life total is too low, allowing them to simply be used as basic swamps.
Now that that is out of the way, can we talk about how good Hooded Hydra is with Purphoros, God of the Forge? Seriously. You want to kill my 5/5? How about ten damage to the face? Cue maniacal laughter. I often find myself using my own targeted removal on Hooded Hydra to close out games. Outside of the interaction between these two cards, Hooded Hydra is a solid creature on its own. Being able to morph out for three is convenient in times where you may not be drawing your fourth or fifth land, and a when it is played in full, a 5/5 body is not bad in today’s standard. As the game goes on and you have increasing amounts of mana laying around, the Hydra just keeps getting better.
Goblin Rabblemaster is another card who loves to be used in concert with ol’ Purphoros. Each turn, even if the Rabblemaster doesn’t attack (an advantage in addition to lower color requirements over Brimaz) a creature enters the battlefield triggering Purphoros’ burn ability. Butcher of the Horde is a card we all need to be ready to face. Not only does it threaten our life but its ability to give itself lifelink can stabilize games that would have been lost. The Butcher in concert with Rabblemaster is an engine that is hard to overcome.
Butcher of the Horde is not the only sacrifice outlet in the deck, our friend Tymaret, the Murder King also can take out unneeded bodies, turning them into direct damage. Purphoros, Tymaret, and a Rabblemaster can yield you four damage a turn even before you even attack with anything. All of this sacrificing makes one demon very happy. Ob Nixilis is a card who fits best in EDH/Commander, but here we not only are killing our opponents creatures, but our own as well, doubling his opportunities at counters. Admittedly, he is the weakest card in the deck due to his high cost, but he still makes the cut as a reliable threat who will continue to get bigger.
Another card that likes all the sacrificing going on is Grim Haruspex. Sacrificing your own creatures hurts a lot less when it does not yield negative card advantage. He also creates a choice for your opponent where they have to choose between first killing Haruspex and then the other creature, or letting you gain cards as they deal with your threats. The other card draw engine in the deck is Eidolon of Blossoms, which seems to stick out at a sore thumb until you start considering the cards around it in concert. There are 15 enchantments in the deck with another five in the sideboard, this is a lot of opportunities to draw more cards as you naturally play out your hand.