After Stanislav Cifka won Pro Tour Return to Ravnica a few weeks ago, quite a few people complained about how boring his deck was to watch in the feature match area. What struck me about that reaction is that my experience was totally different. I was bored with the Jund mirrors: play a guy, kill a guy, discard your card, play a guy, kill a guy ad infinitum. At some point, one of the players would miss either the new creature or the removal spell and the attacking would start until someone lost. Obvious choices. Straightforward plays. Predictable standard Magic.
Watching Cifka play his deck, on the other hand, was fun. Lots of cards moving from zone to zone, gaming probabilities, and the constant questions of if he would get there and what his opponents could draw or do to still stop him. So many things to consider.
Now, maybe that's just because I prefer spell-based Magic. I'd much rather fight a counter war than find the correct blocks. I'd much rather cast a bunch of Rituals than curve creatures from turn 1 to 3. Maybe it's just personal bias.
But maybe there's something else involved here. Maybe it's just familiarity. Could it be that the reason that so many players don't like seeing combo play simply stems from the fact that they don't know the decks and the lines of play involved well enough to relate to the experience?
By the way, one thing I saw Cifka do that every combo player in the world should strive to emulate is the way he handled comboing off. What did he do when it was clear his opponent would be unable to interact with his combo turn? Put his hand on the table face up! Think about it. You're all in€”if you don't win now, you aren't winning later either. So there's essentially no cost to doing this.
Yet, it's a brilliant gesture for including the opponent in an otherwise totally one-sided game. Instead of sitting there watching you play with yourself, they get to play your turn with you, get to think about the decisions you're making, and get to participate in the conclusion of the match. Sure, it doesn't mean your combo turn is ending any sooner, but at least it gives your opponent something to do other than to wonder why they can't just go and take a bathroom break.
Comboing off shouldn't bore you out of your skull. Going off with (engine) combo is a delicate dance, figuring out when to do what and how to maximize your chances of getting there. You're going in with a pretty clear idea of where you are and where you want to end up, yet the way from A to B can be quite convoluted.
Going off is only part of what's sweet about playing combo, though. What makes playing (and watching) combo truly fun for me is something we only rarely got to see in the Modern Top 8: the struggle to find the corrected pieces while engineering an opening to actually be able to go for it.
Playing this kind of game is incredibly exciting and nerve-wracking. There are a million things to consider, your thoughts are racing, there are all kinds of distractions€”not to mention the slow play clock is ticking to put even more pressure on. I honestly believe that, if the viewer could see all the things going on in the combo player's head, the experience of watching combo play would be one of the best things imaginable to see on a MTG stream. Let's see if you agree!
We're at a big tournament somewhere in the depths of Europe. The turnout's large; there will be eight rounds then Top 8. Time to crush. Here's what I've brought:
The plan is to dodge Reanimator and win the roll against Dredge while beating everything else by either being faster or well prepared.
Eight hours later, said plan has been working out reasonably well. I'm 6-1, ready to draw in. Pairings go up. I'm looking forward to grabbing some nutritious tournament food, but€”zoom in on the pairing sheet€”dagger! I'm paired down. I have to play. Alright, one round for all the marbles.
I sit down at my table and get out a die, pen, and paper. I start shuffling. I'm ready. Waiting. Ratcheting up the adrenaline for the round to come. Finally my opponent arrives. I've seen him before, a few tables down the line. He's on RUG Delver. A real game, then.
Riffle. Pile. Riffle. Present.
We banter and wish each other good games. Come ooooon dice€”and he wins the roll. Alright, on the draw.
Shuffle and cut, hand it back.
Count out seven.
I pick 'em up one by one:
Grim Tutor €“ Alright, I need one of those eventually.
Lotus Petal €“ Whatever.
Duress €“ He's blue, so this helps.
Dark Ritual €“ Ah, the good mana.
Ponder €“ We're getting there.
Cabal Ritual €“ Oh darn it. Come on last card, be a land...
Lotus Petal €“ So close.
Riffle. Pile. Riffle. Hand it over. He shuffles and cuts. Count out six.
Misty Rainforest €“ There you are, finally! Needed you last hand.
Lotus Petal €“ Alright, I guess.
Ponder €“ Keep it going.
Dark Ritual €“ That's the kind of mana we want.
Misty Rainforest €“ Keeping this.
Brainstorm €“ Suh-weet!
He opens Tropical, Ponder€”come on, shuffle€”rearranges, and draws.
Alright, at least he's tapped out. No Stifles.
Draw€”Lion's Eye Diamond. Alrighty then! Go off mana established.
Time to make sure I have access to cantrip mana for the rest of the game.
Misty, crack it€”19€”get an Island. "Ponder." He thinks for a moment€”he wouldn't Force this...Daze then?€”and nods. I see:
Lands are always good against threshold. I have LED, Ritual, Petal already, so what I need is business and disruption. "Shuffle." Draw€”Cabal Therapy. Time to draw a Probe!
He untaps and draws. Drops Misty Rainforest. Studies me€”wondering if you can tap out, aren't you?€”and taps Tropical for a Nimble Mongoose, followed by a go. I guess he figured out I'm on combo. So is it Stifle or Spell Pierce?
Untap my Island and draw€”another Therapy.
And thus the dance begins. Alright, I need reliable black mana to use both of these Therapies. Why couldn't that Misty be a Delta? Swamp can't be Wastelanded€only matters if he doesn't have the Stifle, though. Is it worth using the Petal to Therapy to make sure? Damn, I want a Probe.
"How many cards do you have?" He fans out five. Too damn many.
Petal plus Ritual plus LED plus my two lands is eight€”exactly enough for Tutor plus business through a Daze. Can't waste the Petal, then. Alright, I'll need to Brainstorm, and I don't want it to get Pierced.
Alright, crunch time. Cast Brainstorm.
He thinks, then nods. Draw three:
Long game here we go. I want all of these cards. The cantrips to find a Tutor, the fast mana to go off with, and the land to cast disruption and play through soft counters. Not going to do anything else this turn, though I might want to crack a fetch next turn to start Therapying. What do I shuffle away... I don't have a tutor yet, so I need to see as many cards as possible€”the cantrips stay. I need lands to blank the likely Daze and the possible Wasteland. Ritual and LED should be just enough to go off. Alright, so the only cards I can spare are the Therapies. I need at least one, though, to make sure he doesn't have Force, so I'll keep that. The other card I'm drawing anyway; let's hide a Brainstorm. Gives me the best hand if he forces me to shuffle somehow.
Put back a Therapy under the Brainstorm.
Untap. Draw my Brainstorm.
How much time do I have? "Goyf's what, 3/4?" He counts them out: "Sorcery, land, instant, so 3/4." Four a turn. Two more to burn range.
Cards in hand? "Four." Alright, limited disruption. Let's get rid of the second Therapy; I'll likely see more disruption with the cantrips. Time for the Stifle check.
Get Underground Sea. Gotta dig. Mustn't get Pierced.
Play another Misty.Tap the Island, "Ponder." Resolves. I see:
How many spells do I have? Ritual, LED, Brainstorm, Therapy, Duress, this Ponder...six? Far from enough; Tendrils is blank. Still no business. I want the Duress to spot for Therapy, and the Ritual will help counteract any mana denial. Draw the Duress, keep the Ritual on top.
Rearrange, draw Duress.
Do I Duress here? If he has the Pierce or the Daze, he can force me to shuffle the Ritual, maybe even crack the Petal. Yet if I don't Duress and he has Waste, I'm in even worse shape. Goyf and Mongoose will take me down to thirteen. I guess I really want to Past in Flames or Tutor chain. Definitely want the Ritual.
He untaps, draws. Attacks for four. 13.
He passes. Sweet, no Wastelands.
Untap, draw Ritual. Time to take a peek. Tap Sea, "Duress."
Brainstorm in response. Darn it, still no perfect information!
He reveals Daze, Spell Pierce, Delver of Secrets, Tarmogoyf, and Brainstorm. Ok, the only thing that makes sense for him to hide with a hand like that is Force of Will, so I need to hold back the Therapy or use it to hit Brainstorm if I can win this turn. Double Ritual plus LED gets me to eleven mana with Petal and lands. Paying for Daze and Pierce leaves me at eight, which is fine for Therapy plus winning if I find business. I might get into trouble with the colored mana, though. Wait. Can I win with the Tendrils somehow?
Storm is at two so far. Double Ritual, LED, Brainstorm, Therapy is seven. If he counters twice or counters and Brainstorms, that's 20. Can I bait him into that? One Sea tapped, only fetch and Petal for Black, can't crack Misty early if I plan to Brainstorm into the Tendrils, yet if I Brainstorm into that, I'm all in on getting it to 20 with his help. I need to know what he intends to counter to make correct decisions...
And the clock keeps ticking
Alright, gotta decide on Duress, no time to math around anymore. It has to be Brainstorm or Spell Pierce. Brainstorm means I know what he has. Can I win through that? Not this turn if he Pierces my Ritual or Brainstorm. So Pierce messes up every line.
"Take Spell Pierce."
Ok, Daze and a possible Force after Brainstorm. Storm is two. LED three, Ritual four, Ritual five, Therapy six, Brainstorm seven€”only sixteen. Assuming he has the Force, if he Dazes either the first Ritual or the LED, I'll be forced to shuffle the Tendrils away to get enough Storm and mana, and I'll die to the Force of Will on the other Ritual. Let's crack the fetch to blank a hidden Stifle and see what the extra card and Brainstorm deliver next turn.
Fetch for Sea (12). "Go."
He untaps, draws, swings for four (8) and drops the second Goyf before passing the turn with a Tropical up. Delver in hand, huh? I guess I was right about that Force.
Untap. Draw Grim Tutor. That's how we do it!
Ok, time to win. Let's assume the card he hid really was Force of Will. I have Petal and three lands, two Rituals, and the LED: eleven mana. At eight life, Ad Nauseam is out. That leaves Tutor chaining and Past in Flames. Six storm in hand means I need three Tutors. That's six mana, plus two for Therapy and Brainstorm, plus Tendrils and the original Grim Tutor... Fifteen mana€”not even close. Past in Flames it is.
Grim Tutor plus PiF costs seven, an eighth to cast the Rituals from the yard and another two to flashback Tutor and cast Tendrils. Ten mana. That leaves me able to exactly win through Daze. Sadly, I just lose to the hidden FoW with this line. So I have to figure out how I can get a Therapy into the mix.
LED is the most mana, so I won't expose that.
If I Brainstorm and he Forces it, I'm at ten mana and he's at eighteen. I'm cold to Daze unless I Therapy and he responds with something, at which point I can Grim for Tendrils to win. If he doesn't cast any spells, I'm just dead though. One stupid storm. Maybe I should have just held back the Petal. Whatever, not relevant now.
If I cast Therapy and he Forces, I can cast Brainstorm and hit any spell-based mana source to Tutor-Tutor-Tendrils. If he doesn't counter, I take Force but now lose to Daze, which means I have to Brainstorm and hope to hit something that gives me plus two mana.
If I start with a Ritual and he counters it, I also need to Brainstorm into a mana source, but it will also be much harder to get a Therapy in, meaning I'm further from Tutor chaining him.
Alright, it seems like Therapy gives me the most outs and control over what's happening.
Tap Sea. "Cabal Therapy, targeting you."
Can't win against another Force in the Brainstorm, so ignore that possibility. Might as well play around Brainstorm into a second Daze hitting my first Ritual and cutting me of off blue mana by casting one now, though.
Tap Sea, Dark Ritual. Storm is two. Resolves. Looks like he's going to wait for the Tutor to hopefully bottleneck me on either mana or storm. Clever. BBB floating.
Tap Island, "Brainstorm. Storm is three." Resolves.
Draw€”mana mana mana:
Ok, I can bait him into casting either Brainstorm or Daze with the Therapy, but I always end up short. Gotta trust in Brainstorm, I guess. Alright, I'd like to see fresh cards. Can I shuffle with the Tutor first? Maybe. Anyway, I'm casting Ritual and LED. Let's see if he gives me storm for either of those.
"Lion's Eye Diamond. Storm is four." Maybe he finally Dazes this? Resolves.
"Dark Ritual. Storm is five, BB floating." Resolves. BBBBB.
I wish he'd just Daze something so that I can stop thinking so much. I really want that storm count, too...Petal, LED, and five black. Brainstorm, Tutor, Tendrils is only sixteen. I guess I have to Tutor for Past in Flames and hope to hit a Ritual with the Brainstorm, sacking LED to flashback the Past in Flames. Alright, six outs. Let's go.
"Grim Tutor, storm is six, BB in pool." He Dazes. Storm is seven.
I can Brainstorm and sac LED in response. If I hit any spell/mana source in that one unknown card, I can Tutor for Tendrils and just win. If I just pay for Daze, I have to get Past in Flames and now have to hit any Ritual with Brainstorm out of three new cards to just win. Seems like better odds.
"Pay, B floating."
He starts calculating before letting the Tutor resolve (5). I guess my thinking clued him in that I have an instant in hand and that missing on Brainstorm just kills him. Also, he clearly hasn't hid anything relevant on top.
Get Past in Flames.
Come on Rituals!
Don't fail me!
Put back both Tutors.
"Cabal Ritual, RR floating, storm is nine."
Brainstorm in response. Storm is ten. No Force, no Force, no Force!
"Flashback Past in Flames, BB floating, storm is twelve." Resolves.
And that's all she wrote.
One game. Tension, tight decisions, and a little luck in the right places. That's the beauty of combo. There probably were some better lines for both players€”another beauty of these decks is they have so much complexity. For those wondering, this isn't an actual tournament report. That huge tournament is completely fictitious. As for the game itself, I'll let you decide.
I hope you enjoyed this little experiment in combo coverage and that you'll now appreciate watching people who do this live and on camera a little more. Maybe it even made you want to give combo a try! Go ahead€”sweet games await.
Until next time, remember: the real action is in your head!