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Attention to Detail #16
All the World's a Stage
by Jordan Kronick
April 7, 2006

When asked, many actors will say that comedy is harder than drama.  That it is harder to make your audience laugh than to make them cry.  I think that this can be analogous to tournament Magic, in a way.  If we view drama as playing control and comedy as playing combo.  Drama is the spike and comedy is the johnny, as it were.  Although combo has made appearances at the top, it is much harder to make these decks viable than it is with a strong control strategy.  Over the years, many control decks have come to power in every constructed format.  From the very beginning when “The Deck” first showed people that you only needed one creature to win, control has been setting the stage for what other decks are viable.  Combo decks and aggro decks have certainly had their days in the sun, but their effectiveness is often dependant on how strong the control in the format is.  An aggro deck is not going to survive in a format where Wrath of God and it's variants are heavily played.  And most combo decks will not survive if there are an abundance of counterspells out there to gum up the works. 

 

It used to be that the strength of the baseline counterspells and mass removal was a lot higher.  Counterspell itself was considered to be untouchable until it was removed from the core set with 8th Edition.  Instant-speed card draw – the bread and butter of control – was never stronger than in the years leading up to 8th edition.  Invasion gave us Fact or Fiction, Opt and Repulse.  7th Edition was providing us with both Opportunity and Inspiration.  The latter seemed awful at the time.  I'm sure the blue players of the world wish they had it, now.  Counsel of the Soratami is just no comparison.  Even the sorcery speed card draw was better.  Odyssey gave us the incredible Deep Analysis.  And that's not all control had going for it.  Mass removal with the help of Rout was at a high point.  Purely control tricks like Meddling Mage and Orim's Chant were all over the place.  It is telling that one of the most-tinkered with combo decks of the day – Turbo Chant – sought to combo out by reusing a control element.  The preeminent deck of the first years of this decade was, of course, Psychatog.  The early versions had a hint of combo to them, seeking to use Upheaval as the huge reset button.  Nowadays, Psychatog decks simply control the game until the ubiquitous 'tog can come in and win the game.  Control in it's most basic form.  Just like the first forms of 'The Deck' from years earlier – except this time it uses Psychatog instead of Serra Angel (or her replacement – Morphling). 

 

It seems that building a control deck is a fairly elemental process.  You combine elements of card draw, removal and disruption.  Add in a threat which seemingly cannot be stopped.  And the games play out similarly every time.  A look at the more recent Mono-Blue Control decks from Standard before Ravnica will show the same story.  The card draw has had to be shifted around a bit – with permanent sourcers of card draw taking center stage in the form of Jushi Apprentice – and the removal comes more from counterspells than it does from actual removal spells.  However, the games play out the same way.  The control player waits and wait, amassing more cards and more lands.  Handling every threat that the opponent plays.  Eventually, Meloku – the threat du'jour – comes in to win the game. 

 

In this way, control is drama.  Dramatic scripts are written according to a formula.  The structure of the script is nearly always the same.  In the first act, you develop the characters and present us with the situations.  In the second act, you put them in terrible peril.  In the third act, the peril is conquered.  The themes are always the same.  They reflect the most basic emotions of humanity.  In the same way, the elements of control are always the same.  So what then of comedy?  Comedy is never the same.  Indeed, if a comedy is to be successful it must make us laugh in new ways that we never predicted.  The same is true of combo.  The most memorable combo decks of the past have always thrived because they took advantage of a situation that none predicted.  When ProsBloom burst onto the scene, it's great strength lay in the fact that nobody had ever seen a combo engine that was as fast or efficient as this one.  People were used to combo decks that used half a dozen pieces, precisely assembled, and finished the game with some kind of lock.  My old favorite, Chains of Mephistopheles, formed such a deck.  People were not expecting a combo deck to go off and kill them before their aggro deck could win.  If you look at the deck lists for ProsBloom decks from that era, you will notice that there is very little removal.  It was unnecessary.  The idea was to get your combo going before you could lose to anything else.  In the past week and a half, Pojo has examined many of the functional pieces of ProsBloom in the Cards of the Day.  If you're unfamiliar with the deck, I advise learning how it worked.  It's a study in the origins of combo.

 

Sometimes famous combo decks borrowed from the elements of control in order to stabilize the game long enough to work their combo.  In continuing my analogy, I present these decks as the intelligent satires of the world of film and show.  They combine elements of both drama and comedy into a cohesive deck which is not understood by all, but greatly respected.  Such a deck was Trix.  For those who never got to experience this deck, I will explain it a bit.  It used Donate to give your opponent an Illusions of Grandeur.  The Illusions was then bounced and the opponent lost.  The first impression is that this is a silly combo, the likes of which we've seen many times before.  However, the elements of the day – that being Urza's Block – provided unheard of strength and speed to this deck.  Illusions of Grandeur gives the caster 20 life.  When combined with perennial favorite Yawgmoth's Bargain, that means it gives the caster 20 cards.  And with 20 cards, you will win the game.  So the theory goes.  This presents my favorite function of combo.  When the engine becomes the means of victory.  Contrast this with the ProsBloom deck.  In that deck, the engine was Cadaverous Bloom and Prosperity, along with the mana elements of Squandered Resources and Natural Balance.  None of these cards wins the game, however.  That was left up to Drain Life.  The most basic win condition of all – hitting your opponent for 20 with a big spell.  It was dominant in it's day, but you don't see ProsBloom in high level Vintage events today, do you?  The means of victory proved that they were unreliable.  The deck relied on using all of it's resources for one huge explosive victory.  Not so with Trix.  With Trix, the engine was Bargain and Illusions.  But the means of victory was also Illusions.  The satirical element of control in the deck was the true genius however.  The reason that ProsBloom couldn't stand up in today's environment (or the environment where Trix was most powerful during it's reign over Extended) is that it is too complex.  While it was fast by the standards of 1996 Magic, it still borrowed on the complexity of older combo decks like Chains.  If you look at a ProsBloom list, you won't see much removal.  You also won't see much disruption or protection for the combo.  The former is because it sought to win before removal was necessary.  The latter is because there simply wasn't space for it.  The deck required so many different cards to work properly that it couldn't afford to protect itself.  Not so with Trix.  This deck required very few cards to accomplish it's goal.  At it's most basic, the only required cards were the Illusions and the Donate.  Even if you couldn't bounce the Illusions, eventually the cumulative upkeep would win the game for you.  Examine the card drawing engines, as well.  ProsBloom needed to repeatedly remove it's entire hand from the game to generate mana for Prosperity.  Trix only needed one card to draw more cards than ProsBloom could ever hope for – Yawgmoth's Bargain. 

 

This brings me to one of the most basic elements of combo decks in general.  Most combo decks will trade an abundance of one resource for an abundance of another.  In ProsBloom, you traded cards in hand for even more cards in hand.  In Trix, you traded life for cards in hand.  When Magic was in it's infancy, people didn't really understand that cards were more important than life.  Although it was clear that Ancestral Recall was more powerful than Healing Salve, it would take a while before people realized just how great the gulf between those two cards was.  It took one card to change people's mind on this issue.  When Necropotence was printed in Ice Age it was at first hailed as one of the worst cards ever printed.  Eventually, people came to understand that a point of life paid for a card drawn was not only a fair trade, it was an extremely unfair trade in the favor of the cards.  People began to understand that the only point of life that matters is the last one.  If you can protect the last point of life, the other 19 didn't matter.  They began to understand the concept of resources.  Magic is a game of trading one thing for another, in an effort to come out ahead.  At first, these trades were very simple.  You traded mana for creatures.  You traded your cards for your opponents cards – either through removal or counterspells.  You traded cards in hand for accelerateion – as with Dark Ritual.  Eventually, cards like Bull Elephant taught people about trading acceleration for creatures.  The idea of using life as a resource first appearered with Necropotence's predecessor, Greed.  Unfortunately that card was terrible.  Even by the standards of 1994.  Imagine if the first car that Henry Ford had built exploded and killed bystanders.  It would have set the entire process back.   That's what happened with Greed. 

 

Once people began to view life as a resource, it began to change people's ideas about resources entirely.  At first it seems like Necropotence is an even trade, if not a fair one.  You trade one life for one card.  The key comes in what that card is.  If that card can cause your opponent to lose two life, for instance, then the trade becomes one of your life for two of their life.  Now that seems like a very equitable trade indeed.  And that's just a Shock.  Now suppose it's your opponent who has the Shocks.  Suppose the card I paid 1 life for was a Hymn to Tourach.  Suddenly, I'm paying 1 life to deprive you of two cards.  Which essentially preserves four of my life.  I'm paying 1 life to gain 4 life.  Life as a resource is a well documented and experimented with idea now, but it was in these most basic terms that people had to think, more than a decade ago.

 

This brings me back to Trix.  Trix pioneered the most one-sided trade in the history of resources.  It used two cards (Illusions of Grandeur and Yawgmoth's Bargain) to give itself 20 cards.  An exchange of that proportion of course puts itself far ahead.  When you consider that it only needs two cards (that selfsame Illusions and a Donate) to win the game, you begin to see just how broken the math was behind this combo.  Your two cards gave you 10 times as many cards as you needed to win.  ProsBloom decks often had just enough to win with, when the turn was done.  Trix had far more resources than it could ever use, on a good day.  This left it open for that satirical element to it's comedy.  Trix utilized the strongest control elements available.  It had disruptive cards and the best counterspell ever printed – Force of Will.  What was two cards and one life to a deck that treated both life and cards as a neverending buffet?  It's easy to see now why the deck was so completely dominant in it's day.  It it wasn't just that Wizards printed a few cards in a set that just happened to be a perfect combo.  Illusions of Grandeur was printed more than five years before Yawgmoth's Bargain and Donate.  This brings me to the second ideal element of combo.  First, if you recall, is surprise.   When you come out of nowhere with a deck that the metagame is not at all prepared to fight.  The second is what I will call 'The Royal Sampler'.  Some of the most entertaining and powerful combo decks of all time have used elements from a wide range of sets which – when properly combined – were devastating.  Sometimes a combo will present itself to everyone who reads a set spoiler.  For instance, my Leyline of Singularity deck that I recently presented.  It's a clever combo, but it's fairly straightforward.  It's not surprising to most people.  And it does not use elements that are hard to stop in the current format.  Block Constructed is certainly the most unlikely constructed format to see combo do well in.  These days, Wizards R&D does a good job of designing blocks as a whole.  They don't leave any gaping holes in the design.  You're not going to find a block where there's no way to deal with an enchantment effectively, for instance.  So, while the Leyline combo is funny (there's that comedy, again), it just doesn't stand a chance.  People know what's going to happen.  It's the sight gag of the world of comedy.  The joke that everyone sees coming.  If you spend too much time setting up a joke and don't surprise them with the punchline, they aren't going to laugh.

 

There are two kinds of combo decks, then.  There are the one-liners and there are the sight gags.  Trix is a one-liner.  It comes out of nowhere and shocks you with a punchline that is as much a part of the set up as it is the execution.  Leyline of Singularity is a sight gag.  From the moment you play the Leyline (which hopefully happens before the first turn even starts), your opponent already knows how it's going to end.  To take it a step further, the succesful combo decks are the Marx Brothers.  Rapier wit applied with impeccable timing.  Unsuccesful combo decks are the Three Stooges.  It's funny, but there's no edge to it.  This of course betrays my preference for the Marx Brothers over the Stooges, but that's a column of a different sort.

 

So where does this leave us with the coming Block Constructed season – for which I am very excited?  Unfortunately, I think it's going to be another tear-jerker.  The Academy Awards – like Block Constructed PTQs – are won by the dramas, not the comedies.  The most prevalent deck so far is GWB control, which plays slow, packs lots of removal and makes you cry at the end.  Dissension presents us with three more guilds, each of which represents an archetype very well.  The Azorious guild is blue and white – the colors of The Deck and a thousand other control decks.  The Simic are green and blue, the colors of many silly combo decks including – with the addition of black – ProsBloom.  And lastly is the Rakdos.  Red and Black, and aggressive to the core.  Having seems some previews and spoilers for Dissension already, I can say that things are looking more in favor of the control and aggro elements.  Drama may win the awards, but it's because a good comedy is so hard to write.




 

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