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Synergy Is Not a Four-Letter Word

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Spring is one of my favorite times of year. As a huge baseball fan, especially of my hometown Seattle Mariners, it's easy to get caught up in the whole experience of Opening Day. It's the time when everyone has an equal chance to get to the playoffs, even my Mariners.

Before you get worried, there are a good number of similarities between baseball and Commander. You can put together a team (deck) of good players, which is what you usually see in all-star games and the like. They can be very good teams that have what it takes to win. On the other hand, you can have a great team of players who aren't as good, but who work well together. They're the ones who know what their teammates are going to do in certain situations, are able to turn the double play much more smoothly, and work together on a hit-and-run.

Last week, I talked about not having to put certain cards in your deck. Listen, I'm not saying you have to stay away from those cards; they're staples for a reason. Staples wouldn't be staples if they weren't good. If you do have them in your deck, I don't think you're being uncreative or fitting into a mold (as a popular Magic Twitter meme says: Sol Rings are too mainstream. #MagicHipster).Today, we're going to look at deck-building in the way I happen to construct Commander decks.

When I did this before, I talked about a Kemba deck I put together. I wanted to build a subtheme around the Commander with the equipment and Cats she creates. What I'm going to talk about is something that you can build around a Commander or around a concept you may have for a deck.

Today, I'm talking about synergy.

Synergy is more than just combos; it's about making sense. There are a ton of things that you can use to "combo," but it's not just synergy. Example:

Crystal Shard is one of those cards that just "works" with everything. Eternal Witness, Massacre Wurm—really, anything with an enters-the-battlefield effect—work with Crystal Shard. I really don't think of that as synergy, but as a great combination. However when you add this card into the mix . . .

. . . we're looking at more than just a combo. Especially when you add these cards to your deck . . .

. . . you can create synergy.

I firmly believe that it is much better to build a deck with synergy, where cards work together, rather than just one of "good" cards. That doesn't mean you should only fill your deck with cards that work well together; you need those silver-bullet cards that you can use to control your opponent's cards and actions (which will be covered another time).

Some of the best competitive constructed decks of all time have been built on synergy: Affinity, Faeries, Goblins, Jund, Merfolk, U/G Madness. None of these decks were built on one combo, but around multiple strategies (though, to be honest, from a designer standpoint, they all have been basically linear designs as well, which is a little sad). If one thing isn't working, they shift gears and can go in a different direction.

We're going to be using the example of my favorite Commander deck for today. I believe it completely represents me as a player and deck-builder: It does some cute stuff, can come out of nowhere, and tries to win small chunks at a time. As I alluded to last week, it's Sygg, River Cutthroat. Let's look at him, for those that aren't familiar with him:

I built the deck around him, and it's much harder than you think to get to 3 damage in Blue and Black (I wanted to build him in Standard/Extended with Blightning). Most of the loss of life Black causes is 1 or 2 life, so you need to pair cards and effects together to get to that 3 damage.

The first thing to ask is, What I do with that extra card I draw? Besides being a draw machine (and one where people start to get scared at how many cards I can draw), there are a couple of cards that can benefit from Sygg's effect:

At one point, I had Words of Wind in the deck, but I didn't always have something to return to my hand, and it felt really awkward. Again, all of these make a nice combo, but it's not really synergy. Let's look at what I've done with a major subtheme of this deck using one of these cards.

With Words of Waste, it ties into my drawing more cards and making my opponents discard them. It sits there passively waiting for me to draw cards. How do I draw cards in this deck?

Longtime Commander players might see a couple of tricks here. First, Mind's Eye with Words of Waste means that during an opponent's draw step, it's "2: Each opponent discards a card." Mind's Eye is one of those cards that players need to get rid of right away; otherwise, it becomes too out-of-control. The other combo is the little-known Geth's Grimoire.

Yes, the only evidence that there was a Geth before we saw his appearance in Scars of Mirrodin, this might be his most powerful card—and most fun. Words of Waste now turns into "x: Each opponent discards X cards."

Since Geth's Grimoire triggers off the discard of Words of Waste, it creates a loop that keeps going to how much mana you have.

The absence of Consecrated Sphinx might be a notable one. I play in a meta where the better players have access to Bribery, and I want to make sure I'm not an option. A Sphinx in an opponent's hands against this deck means he will flat-out outdraw me. Even though I have some countermeasures, I fear it's too much of a risk. But again, that's me, and maybe in the future when no one's been targeting me for a while, I might sneak it back in and surprise everyone.

Those with keen eyes will notice that there's a discard package buried within the drawing section:

This is intentional as well. I believe that good decks that rely on synergy need to have pieces that fit in other sections as well. Sometimes, cards can't have just one function—they must fit multiple roles. Take my new favorite "bad" rare from Mirrodin Besieged:

Why they paired these two abilities together on one card I'll never know—A vampire profiting from your misery? Yeah, I guess I can buy it—but it receives so much love in this deck. Besides hitting that sweet spot of 3 life, it can work when I Damnation away or make opponents discard. Plus, it swings for 3, which is nice design.

You want cards that gain 3 life? Oh, that doesn't work with Sygg at all. Unless . . .

Oh, hi.

That explains the Well of Lost Dreams in the card-drawing section and why Bloodchief Ascension can start to make players worried with all the little patches of loss in life I've been making them suffer.

I'm not going to keep going through the deck, because I like a little surprise when I play someone. But, if you're looking at making your deck synergistic, it might help to think of it as an ecosystem. If something doesn't work in there . . . Why is it part of your deck? Ignore the whole "good-card" argument—I have those in my Sygg deck as well. As I construct my deck, I put cards into piles based on what the card does. If a card would fit into multiple piles, that's a major bonus. This is why I don't like the whole MTGO interface (as I said last week), because I can't put all the discard-effect cards together. This helps you see if you're actually doing a subtheme in your deck, or only have the illusion of it.

If you've got the start of an idea of a deck, don't just map it out—build it. My Sygg deck has changed over the years, and things I didn't do before have now been added. See what works and what you never do. I cut the gain-life portion of the deck after Scars of Mirrodin, since I didn't feel it was strong enough. But with Sangromancer fitting into several of my synergies, I couldn't resist but rebuild the deck with the life-gain section added back.

Also, see what doesn't naturally fit the mold of going together. With all of this discard in this deck, one card that's been coming in and out of my deck is Beacon of Unrest. If players can't cast their creatures, they'll discard them, which allows me to swoop in and pick them up. That's where Necrotic Ooze and Body Double fit into my deck, taking advantage of the discarding my opponents are doing. They don't seem like cards in a discard deck, but they have won me games where I've done just that.

Don't be afraid to search through old cards as well; if you do, check the Oracle wording. The card to the right is a rare from Visions. When I was digging through a junk bin and found this card, my jaw dropped. Then I remembered that it was printed pre–Sixth Edition rules, so the Oracle wording might have changed.

It hasn't.

Crypt counts as a Sygg trigger and a discard outlet. And if anyone from WotC decides to change that, I will drive down to his office and talk him out of it.

I'm sure you've got that player in your group where everything in his deck just works. He's always smiling as everyone keeps trying to keep up with what he's doing. That's me—always adapting to everything going on. Don't be left behind.

The point of synergy is that one card isn't going to beat you; it's every card working together that's going to beat you. Instead of crying when an opponent breaks up my one main combo, I smile and throw more pieces to overwhelm them. I would love the Mariners to sign Pujols and have him on my team, but if they spend that money to find fielders and batters that work with Safeco Field (the home field of the Mariners) rather than pinning their hopes on one guy, I'd be very happy with that, too.

The Yankees didn't win the World Series last year; the Giants did, using this same model.