After a brisk walk around the venue, particularly with a visit to the top tables, a trend quickly becomes clear to me—people love their combos, and I don't mean the nacho cheese kind. I swear, it's like walking into an arcade circa 1995. Some poor kid fresh off of a win streak in Mortal Kombat decides to give this new Killer Instinct game a try. A nice selection of characters, pretty sweet graphics (like I said, it's '95), and decent music—sounds like a pretty good game to me. So he steps up to the plate. He tries the typical moves one expects to find in fighting games and is pleased with the cool looking special moves his little avatar does. And then his world collapses.
Punches and kicks are all fine and good, but when you start to string them together into 14- and 15-hit combos, things quickly go from "this game seems fun" to "You killed me with one combo? Are you serious?! " It's pretty similar to the feeling you can get playing against the combo decks in Extended. One minute you're playing creatures and attacking your opponent, and the next, you're dead. It's almost like your opponent is playing a different game.
Extended has such a vast card pool, that many serious combo decks can be constructed, but the constraints of the format usually limit the decks to only a few viable ones. There are four or five combo decks represented here today, but only two of them are showing the explosive dominance that really pushes a combo over the top.
, or as the Japanese call it, *gasp* Epic (you have to gasp. I swear they do it every time), spends the first few turns of the game building up its mana and resources for one massive turn, usually on turn three or four, in which they play Enduring Ideal
and begin to lock you out of the game. I know what you're thinking. It's only one enchantment a turn. Well, when the first two enchantments in play are Dovescape
/ Decree of Silence and Form of the Dragon
/ Solitary Confinement
, you had better hope you packed your Indrik Stomphowler
s. Form of the "five you" only usually takes three hits to end the game in this format.
Between Sensei's Divining Top, Burning Wish, and actual copies of Enduring Ideal, this deck has a fairly good chance of getting the Ideal to set up the game by turn 4. Combine that with its huge mana generation capabilities from Seething Song, Lotus Bloom, the Invasion sac-lands, and Chrome Mox, and it becomes actually quite feasible to lock the game away on turn four more often than not. Boseiju, Who Shelters All provides the protection against counterspells to get the combo rolling just in case you play against control, and once Dovescape hits the table against them, they're through.
As a general rule, if you aren't sure what deck you are playing against, you want to try to keep a hand that has some form of mana acceleration (Lotus Blooms and Invasion lands are best) and some way to get a hold of an Ideal. If you don't have the ideal, getting a good enchantment like Form into play can still win you matches, but you have to be careful. Without the Ideal, you have no real way to establish the lock and maintain it.
The deck mulligans fairly well and, thanks to the redundancy of the deck, you don't have to very often. Feel free to aggressively mulligan, although you obviously can't go too low in cards or you'll lack the resources required to get the combo into action. One of the only real downsides the deck presents is that its prevalence of mana sources can cause some peculiar draws involving enough mana to hardcast an Autochthon Wurm, but nothing to do with it. The deck doesn't really have any card drawing or shuffle effects, so the Sensei's Divining Tops are more of a way to cheaply dig a few cards deeper in the early turns of the game. If they don't turn anything up, the game won't last long.
One benefit of the deck is that it's relatively easy to play. It's perhaps the least reactive of all the combo decks in the format. It just does its thing and either wins or loses. There's very little interaction, which makes decisions easier for most people. There's also considerably less hate in the environment than for the other major combo deck, Dredge.
Dredge is a beast. It's big, it's burly, and it's mean. However, it's also incredibly
complex to play and
wading through a sea of hate. Trying to dodge the hate aimed at Dredge is like trying to dodge cars on the freeway. Sure, you can do it, but you have to be either really lucky or really good.
Despite the hate aimed squarely for it, Dredge is thriving here at Valencia. Countless Tormod's Crypts have met with Pithing Needles, and Leyline of the Void with Chain of Vapor. The Dredge deck is prepared. Best of all, it's a chimaeric combo deck. It has so many different modes into which it can go that it is incredibly difficult to plan for and defeat them all. So you decided to keep a creature you can sacrifice to deal with Bridge from Below. Who cares? The Dredge player will just reanimate a Golgari Grave-Troll and start attacking with a creature bigger than your deck. Maybe you're ready for that, too. Can you stop an army of recurring Ichorids? Maybe, maybe not. There are so many roads for the deck to go down, it's near impossible to barricade them all.
What amazes me so much about this deck is how much it defies conventional wisdom. I've watched Dredge players effectively win the game on turn three with only one land in play and no hand. About the best play you can make with the deck is to Breakthrough for one on the second turn. It leaves you with a single card in play, but you probably have half of your deck in your graveyard at the end. Turn two! How fair is it that a deck can go from nothing to two Ichorids, two Bridge from Belows, a couple of flashed back Cabal Therapies, and a million Zombies before they've drawn a third card? Don't get me wrong, it's an exceptional case, but simply the fact that it's possible amazes me.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to just picking up the deck is its overwhelming complexity. With so many ways to win and so many cards that require your complete attention in the first few turns of the game, it's easy to see why players new to this deck have a propensity to make so many mistakes. But, with the raw power the deck possesses, it's also easy to see why it's so attractive to try.
One of the single biggest chances to make mistakes with the deck happens before the first turn. It's an incredibly difficult deck to mulligan. Some hands are obviously good. You have a dredge card and an enabler. Keep it. What do you do, though, when you have the dredge cards, but no enabler, or the other way around? It's times like that that experience with the deck comes into play. The deck has so many of each type of card that it almost seems reasonable to keep all but the worst hands. However, in a format this fast, you can't be waiting for the pieces to arrive. Sometimes, it's just better to reshuffle and try again.