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Simple Synergy


Magic borrows much of its language from other disciplines, or even other games. "Tempo" comes to us from chess; while Magic's take on the ubiquitous term "Strategy" has its roots in military or even business theory.

How about synergy then? If you asked the average Magic player what it meant for cards to be synergistic in a deck, you might - might - get something like "individual pieces that, together, are greater than the sum of their parts."

This isn't bad. I mean set aside that a Mountain doesn't do very much without a Lightning Bolt to cast; and even a celebrated Lightning Bolt doesn't do very much without gluing together another six others. So even many staple Magic cards would theoretically fit the bill as synergistic by this definition just by accomplishing more than net-zero.

How might I think about it?

Simple Synergy

The most useful way to think about synergy is 1 + 1 = 3.

Let's say we have two companies each with Cost = $1 and Revenue = $2. That means they earn $2, but in order to do that, they have to spend $1 in salaries, rent, electricity, and free office snacks. Simply each one earns $2 but keeps $1; or together they earn $4 but keep only $2.

The reason that big companies are so gung-ho for mergers and acquisitions is synergies. Imagine the two companies were more-or-less identical. They sold the same kinds of products to the same kinds of people. Each one just sold $2 to those people individually and spent $1 to keep $1.

If one of the companies bought the other (or a big financier bought both) they could theoretically keep all $4 in revenue... While cutting out some of the companies' combined costs. After all, if they are selling the same kinds of products to the same kinds of people, they certainly don't need two different sales teams talking to the same customers; or for that matter, to rent out two different offices. Even better, the bigger combined entity can keep the best people or other resources while cutting their overhead, gaining even more performance.

Well... This kind of structure can suck if you're an employee on the short end of the stick, but it's impossible not to see the tremendous value an investor, financier, or acquiring entity gets. They don't have to actually earn a single extra dime. Theoretically they gain, not lose, performance while cutting costs.

Instead of 2, 1 + 1 suddenly = 3!

In Magic, we have lots of cards that are good, on their faces, by themselves. Some of them are great by themselves. But when we can exploit a synergy... That's making the Magic happen.

Synergy v. Combo Decks

At some level, every Magic deck is a combo deck. You kind of always have to lace together certain cards (and sometimes in a certain order) to successfully navigate your opponent's twenty life points or whatever.

But when one player uses a linguistic shortcut like "combo deck" ... Most of us know what they're getting at. Legitimate decks - be they beatdown or control (and certainly any kind of mid-range) are full of legitimate cards. They have 2-drops that attack for two, and two-mana spells that spell Doom for incoming attackers.

But combo decks?

Combo decks play cards like:

Natural Balance
Despotic Scepter
Mana Severance

Why would you want to do that? Whatever that is? You certainly wouldn't want to do it in isolation! It is not unusual for combo decks to play cards that destroy their own resources. Or something similarly outlandish. Things you would not generally want to do... Or at the very least would not want to do in isolation.

Because combo decks play cards that pretty much only have text when combined with other cards that also probably don't have useful text by themselves we often start out disliking them. How can a meal be beautiful when composed with so many hideous ingredients?

This is coming from someone who has entered The Red Zone with a Nomads en-Kor armored up with Shuko!

To be fair, on the way to winning the first ever tournament with Izzet Exarch Twin, I attached Splinter Twin to a bunch of weird targets. Manic Vandal was pretty cool. Killed a lot of Spellskites and Batterskulls that match! Also, I once put Splinter Twin on a Consecrated Sphinx just so I could avoid sending it into an active Gideon Jura. But everyone knows that that card's opposite number - Deceiver Exarch - is not a very threatening creature with its 1 power and obnoxious vulnerability to any kind of removal.

Every deck is a combo deck because one Lightning Bolt isn't beating anyone. But only Combo Decks are full of nonsense cards that don't do anything without a mated pair. Hold that thought.

A Legacy Synergy Bonanza

The inspiration to this article was a Tweet I read over the weekend:

KILLERSUV didn't just do a great job in the Legacy Super Qualifer... This deck is a triumph of deck design, specifically because of its many synergies.

One of Magic's all-time greatest minds recently said that the game has lost its once-identity as a deck-building game. It used to be about making decks; whereas now it's more about choosing from preexisting archetypes. Which is not to say that the latter isn't good, or potentially skill-testing... But it's certainly less interesting and not unique.

To me, KILLERSUV's deck is a brilliant beacon shining a light on the old deck-building traditions and skills!

Narset, Parter of Veils

Let's start with this War of the Spark Staple. Good card, right? Legitimate card. I certainly played it as long as it was legal in Standard. Most notably in Azorius Control alongside another 3 mana Planeswalker from the same set.

Narset, alone, is sometimes a great card; not just a good one. For 3 mana you get to draw two extra cards - with additional selection - and still have the benefit of the static ability. Narset is punishing on anyone trying to draw extra cards; in particular on their own turns.

Well, what about when you add this to the mix?

Day's Undoing

Day's Undoing is fine. It can be good. Sometimes it can be great! If you mulled to four and this is your third turn play? It's hard to think of a better tap out. Not only do you get to draw up to seven cards, but the more cards the opponent had, the worse it is for them! You can also be strategic with Day's Undoing. You can spend your hand. Cast some 1-for-1 removal; or play a creature. Then draw back up to seven. If the opponent had three cards... They essentially only draw four to your seven. If they already had seven? They basically get a different look (but no net)... And maybe a worse hand. But also sometimes a better hand! It's not great all the time, but can be good.

Teferi, Time Raveler

The last line of Day's Undoing is "If it's your turn, end the turn." That's to prevent a differently Constructed deck from using this as a turbo Lightning Bolt machine. But what if it's not your turn? Teferi, Time Raveler allows you to cast sorceries on the opponent's turn. Do you get any value by shaving off the last line? At the very least, Teferi's static ability means that if you want Day's Undoing to resolve, it will.

But what about in combination with our first three-mana Planeswalker?

Each opponent can't draw more than one card each turn.

The opponent had better have SOME KIND of battlefield position [already] if you put these two cards together. Under normal circumstances, Day's Undoing is fine. Sometimes good, sometimes great... But sometimes pointless. If you have more cards than the opponent you might be helping them more than yourself. It's kind of a terrible topdeck if you're about to lose on the table.

But with Narset down? You will draw seven (great) and the opponent will discard their hand. When they're together, Narset turns Day's Undoing spectacular. Not just great! And the synergy doesn't end there. Narset finds instants and sorceries. You don't even have to have Day's Undoing at the start of the turn, or even your draw step. Narset might just find it for you.

That probably still smells pretty combo-y. Narset might be good alone, but Day's Undoing is maybe medium. Another way to shift into synergy-ville is to create a context where a card like Day's Undoing is good (or better) more often.

You can't always have Narset in play. But what if you just had this?


Hullbreacher is a nice little Merfolk, in part because it has Flash. You can test the opponent, or just rumble for three. The card has text! It's amazing in response to a Ponder, and absolutely soul-crushing in response to a main phase Brainstorm.

Hullbreacher isn't necessarily the best against Expressive Iteration; but KILLERSUV beat TRUNKS123's Four-color Life From the Loam deck in the qualifying round. That deck plays Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and maybe more importantly Jace, the Mind Sculptor as own-turn card drawing that tend to commit 4 mana on its own turn.

Hullbreacher is unbelievable against the "better than all" Planeswalker in particular... Even better than against Brainstorm, for the mana committed! Not only will it be a mini-Mind Twist, but will have an almost immediate opportunity to attack.

Beyond just being a 3/2 Flash that is conditionally nice on its own, it's not difficult to imagine Hullbreacher as a stand-in for Day's Undoing duty. You can't always have Narset in play, but there are many cases - I think especially in a deck with Teferi - where Hullbreacher's second fiddle will still make beautiful music.



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