Deviations from the Norm with John B. Turpish  



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Combos are Fun

Synergy happens any time a card makes another card more useful.  Many synergies are so obvious they are taken for granted, as is the case with the synergy between Island and Counterspell.  Another obvious synergy is that between Lord of Atlantis and Rootwater Mystic.  Sometimes synergies are so powerful that when those cards are together they operate in an almost entirely different fashion.  This is called a combo.  Trade Routes and Groundskeeper are a combo, because together they essentially have the ability, ď2G: Draw a card.Ē  Some combos are so strong that they win the game, or virtually win the game.  Decks are often built with the sole purpose of getting to use such a combo.  Enduring Renewal, Goblin Bombardment, and Shield Sphere are a combo of this nature, and this combo has had decks built around it.  These are called combo decks.

Combos are lots of fun to try to think up, and in my opinion combo decks are fun to build.  Can you make it work?  Usually, when you first come up with a combo itíll be obviously not competition-worthy, and sometimes it will be obvious that it is.  Itís those other times, though, when you just have to see if it can be done in a reliable way.

Combo decks have gotten much criticism for reducing player interaction.  They typically do, and as such they get old rather quickly.  This isnít what Iím talking about when I say combos are fun.  Iím talking about the early stages when youíre seeing a new way to play the game.  Thatís one of the reasons I love Magic.

Iíve come up with a number of combos in my time.  As most of my Magic buddies will tell you, the majority of them are insanely implausible.  The most absurd Iíve ever come up with is the subject of the very first Deviations from the Norm contest!  The first person (excluding anyone who has heard me explain it) to email me a decklist that meets the following criteria will receive an appropriate rare.  Donít get too excitedĖitís not Shadowmage Infiltrator, but I personally feel itís stronger than Security Detail!

1.     It must be type 1 legal.  Give me a sideboard too.

2.     It must include Battle of Wits, and be capable of winning with it in a tournament.

3.     It must have no more than 199 cards in it.

Good luck!  And remember to email me your entries at  I donít think itís necessary to put a deadline on this, as someone is sure to come up with it.

For the second sort of combo, one which seems obviously useful, almost as soon as I saw Hanna, Shipís Navigator, I started thinking of ways to combo with her.  Obviously, there is going to be synergy with any artifact or enchantment which can be sacrificed for something useful.  What synergy would be REALLY powerful?  Second Chance, anyone?  So 2 cards, in 2 colors, requiring a mana investment of 6, gives you infinite turns.  It may not single-handedly win you the game, but there are plenty of ways to win when you are the only one playing.  Sure you have to be at 5 life or less, but still there has to be some way to abuse this.  I still have yet to see anyone do it, though. 

Now in the current type 2 new combos are popping up.  Thereís been much discussion as to whether theyíre good.  The general consensus is that Nefarious Lich + Zombie Infestation + Confessor (with two legacy weapons, a Phyrexian alter, and a Soul Burn somewhere in the deck) is not very good, mainly due to the mana costs involved.  There is a certain sect of people out there that would have us believe the Rice Snack deck is a combo deck (it kind of is) and is worth playing.  Many others have less faith in it.  Well, I intend to present you with yet another type 2 combo deck, which I myself donít have much faith in.  Still, I donít like to discount an idea before it has been proven to be implausible.

Overly Devout Squirrels

4 Buried Alive
4 Phyrexian Alter
4 Nantuko Shrine
4 Horned Kavu
4 Tainted Pact
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Utopia Tree
4 Desperate Research
1 Soul Burn
1 Wild Mongrel
1 Restock
1 Chromatic Sphere
4 Llanowar Wastes
4 City of Brass
4 Swamp
8 Forest 

The ideal game goes like this:

Turn 1: Forest, Birds of Paradise

Turn 2: Swamp, Buried Alive (3 horned kavu)

Turn 3: Forest, Phyrexian Alter, Birds of Paradise

Turn 4, Nantuko Shrine, Horned Kavu, gating itself.  Sacrifice 2 of your three squirrels, play the kavu again and again.  You have an infinite number of squirrels, which you can sacrifice for any amount of mana in any combination of colors.  Soul Burn and win.

It is currently undefeated in testing (itís only played one game).  Feedback is welcomed, of course.

Now the great part of working on combo decks is the idea that if you can come up with something really good that has been overlooked by most everyone, then you have the edge.  Therefore, itís really all about coming up with your own combo.  How do you go about this?

Step 1: Notice a card which seems unusual in the way it interacts with other cards you have.  Donate struck me as such a card because I had known that no card allowed you to give control of an enchantment you control to your opponent.  Then Donate did, and this made it not only unusual, but quite unique (itís still the only card that can do this).  For the deck above the initial card was Nantuko shrine, because I noticed it is a permanent way to create lots of tokens without tapping, the way Squirrel Nest makes you tap.  Thereís not a lot of untapping greatness in type 2, so thatís a serious limitation, one which this does not have.

Step 2:  Ask yourself when the card is powerful.  In the case of Nantuko Shrine, it is powerful when youíre playing a card which has three copies of itself in your graveyard.  In the case of Donate, you realize that the card your handing them needs to have a serious drawback to make it worthwhile.  Come up with some cards that fit this criteria and see which one works best.  When we were thinking about donate, Forbidden Crypt seemed most obvious.  We didnít think of Illusions of Grandeur until about two days after everyone else had read about it online.  Recycle had also been considered (with discard effects) but that was too weak.  As for the shrine, I thought about Buried Alive, because it immediately gets those three copies for me.

Step 3:  Complete the deck in the most logical fashion, or repeat step 2.  If youíve got Illusions and Donate, then complete the deck.  The most important part of any combo deck is its library manipulation, but never underestimate the power of disruption in a combo deck, either.  With Shrine, just having Buried Alive and Nantuko Shrine and some creatures isnít very strong, so keep thinking.  In this case, I realized the power was rather minor, so it would be best to make it cyclical, therefore multiplying the power.  So I thought of the cheapest gating creature I could think of in type 2, and threw it in, so that those squirrels could be made again and again.  Realize itís just one step from infinity, throw in the Altar.  Then come back to step 3, and see that adding Soul Burn can shave an entire turn off of the kill time.  Since Buried Alive is in the deck anyway, use Blackís very powerful deck manipulation spells.

Have fun but keep it all in perspective.  Just because a combo seems really neat doesnít mean itís worth its salt.  Although seemingly rudimentary, playtesting is the best way we have to determine whether a contest can stand up to the rigors of the environment.


Apparently there was some doubt about this matter.  Iím not inventing these formats, nor have I claimed to.  Iím only reviewing how to go about playing it, what strategies you might use, and the pros and cons of the format.  The vast majority of the formats I intend to review will not have been my own creations.  The auction format from the previous article, and the format below, are not my creations.

Kangaroo Court

For those who think this name doesnít make any sense, consider the judicial system invoked in early colonial Australian history.  It wasnít exactly fair, and often the arguments didnít make sense.  As a result, any strange legal proceedings came to be known as Kangaroo Court.

The curious thing about this format is that it isnít a format so much as a very specialized set of rules.  You can play type 2, sealed deck, or the more common ďanything goesĒ.  I took part in a Kangaroo Court tournament once, where the decks needed to be type 1 legal. 

So what are these rules?  Well, it is played a little differently in different places, but the best-defined version is that at any time, a player may appeal to the judge to change the rules text of any given card on the spot.  The reason for doing so should be based upon the title of the card, the flavor text, the illustration, knowledge of other cards or real-world knowledge that might affect how that card interacts with the game.  The judge listens to the playerís argument, then allows his opponent to counter the argument.  It can go back and forth until the judge has made a decision on how the card should work.  Typical changes include giving Frozen Shade flying (especially if it isnít the fifth edition version) because of its picture, adding the clause ďif that creature isnít Lightning Elemental or Ball LightningĒ to Lightning Boltís text since lightning canít kill lightning, and adding ďWall of Spears may block up to three creatures if each creature is named ĎCraw Wurmí.  If it does, prevent all combat damage that would be dealt to Wall of Spears this turnĒ because of the flavor text on Wall of Spears in Antiquities, fourth and fifth editions.

The key to having successful Kangaroo Court competition is to have a good judge.  I guarantee you that some player(s) will attempt to abuse the system and come up with arguments why their cards should be unbelievably powerful.  Itís then up to the judge to show them why it isnít the case.  A good example of this was when I tried to play a Remove Soul, targeting my opponent.  I was basically saying Remove Soul should be worded, ďCHOOSE ONEĖCounter target creature spell -OR- Target player loses the game,Ē due to the fact that removing my opponentís soul would cause him to die and in a duel that is the goal.  The judge actually didnít explain why it doesnít make sense, only saying it would be too powerful.  So we had an OK judge in that case.  You also donít want the judge making stupid and arbitrary rulings.  I once saw a judge insist that a player hold a fork at all times.  Iím not going to get into why they ruled this way, but you should never use logic to justify something that stupid.

What strategies should you use when playing Kangaroo Court?  Well, unless an argument is made, itís played exactly the same way any other game would, so play according to the strategies you would otherwise have based on your, and your opponentís deck.  There are some added strategies, though. 

The first I will mention is in deckbuilding.  If you know the deck you are building will be used in Kangaroo Court, try for cards with obvious arguments which make them powerful.  For that same tournament, someone built an angel deck and borrowed my study bible to show everyone that angels could not die.  Iíll tell you what, the arguments on that just would not stop.  Something to take into consideration is ambiguity, particularly in the title, which is typically the focal point of argument.  Pernicious Deed is an excellent example of this.  We all know a deed is something that is done, so what is Pernicious?  I looked it up, and it can mean fatal, extremely harmful, or, though archaic, evil.  So an argument based on this card has to figure out what is really going on.  We know itís a spell, and we can assume youíre the one doing this deed.  Itís an enchantment, so thereís a strong argument for it to be changed to an enchant player, though that would change very little.  Itís enchanting you, making you capable of doing something REALLY bad, though doing something of that nature expends it.  Since it requires magical power to do this really bad thing, you can assume itís something a human wouldnít normally be capable of.  So you can basically argue that Pernicious Deed should have the text, ďSacrifice Pernicious Deed: Take any one action which your opponent will dislike very much and would otherwise defy logic.Ē  Thatís really good.

The next is a simple matter of dominating all arguments.  If youíre really good at debate, youíll win a lot, if not always.  Remember that good debating skills is all about convincing the audience, in this case the judge.  So even if it doesnít make sense to you, if the argument works, youíre a success.  Knowing the story line and the concepts behind Magic will help you in this, though they are more important in a judge.  For instance, if the judge who was present when I attempted to Remove Soul my opponent had thoroughly understood the concepts of Magic, he wouldíve said something to the extent of, ďHeís a planeswalker, and as such has certain Magical protections about him.  Urza was decapitated and still lived.  That spell is far too weak, far too low-level, to kill a planeswalker, or to sever the soul from the body.  Itís SO weak, that once the creature has finished crossing over onto this plane of existence and therefore the soul being stabilized within the body itís no longer capable of separating themĖwhich is why it counters creature spells and doesnít kill creatures.Ē  But what if your judge doesnít know all this, and your opponent attempts to remove your soul?  The judge is thinking, ďWow, yeah that makes sense.Ē  You have to set him straight.

The final bit of strategy Iíll mention has to do with logical exhaustion.  Most judges will be willing to stretch things for a certain extent, but if youíre arguing to improve the power of each card you play and nullifying each your opponent plays it wonít be long until theyíre sick and tired of it.  So you need to pick your battles.  Only argue things if you feel you can probably win that argument, or if you need to win that argument to win the game.  Also, if your opponent makes a stupid argument, act annoyed.  Try to covertly point out every instance of your opponent being unreasonable.  This will help the judge get tired of your opponentís arguments.  For these reasons, itís sometimes OK to concede an argument.  This makes you seem more reasonable, and then the judge will listen more closely to your future arguments.

I honestly think this is my favorite format.  Perhaps itís because I like to argue.  Perhaps itís because it allows the cards to get closer to what they should do, which causes the game to make more sense.  Honestly, how can you Drain Life a Wall of Vapor?  Perhaps itís because itís about the biggest break from the usual Magic that Iíve ever experienced.  Or maybe itís just because Iíve had tremendous amounts of fun playing it.  I await the day when there is a sanctioned Kangaroo Court tournament!

Until next time,

May you find what you seek.

John B. Turpish

Copyright 2001

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