The Comboist Manifesto Volume I, Article 7: Oops, All Spells!
I only have a short article for you this week. If you were anticipating an exhaustive treatise, I apologize. To be fair, my past performance hasn't done anything to instill such an expectation, so if you really did think you'd find an exhaustive treatise at The Comboist Manifesto, you might be totally insane. So that's cool. Anyway, I apologize—not for your apparent insanity, but for the disappointment. I can't really be held responsible for your insanity, can I? Oh, I guess I should explain!
I blame The Elder Scrolls Online. I was beta-testing it during the time I'd normally have reserved for writing a new article. So that happened, and then I realized it was Tuesday night and I hadn't even started a new article yet. So you see, it's not my fault. I've heard that a responsible adult wouldn't say such things, but I guess I'm not one, so you're stuck with my lame excuses. Speaking of which, this article is actually very appropriate for that, thematically, because—well, you'll see.
Lacking the time to come up with an article that's actually any good, I'm using this week to write about a combo deck I'm currently working on. While I wouldn't normally have reservations about doing so, in this particular case, I'm covering ground that I, to some extent, already did: in my “Combo Breakfast” article, I introduced the “Oops, All Spells!” archetype. And that's my current deck. So you get to read about it again.
Oh, it gets better. I was initially going to build a different deck. Last month, I bought a bunch of cards for combo decks, mostly focused on the Legacy format. I made a shopping list and everything. My plan was to build a Belcher deck. I gathered the cards I already owned for that deck and the cards I'd just bought, and I started sleeving them up. I was almost done sleeving the deck up when I realized that I only had one copy of Desperate Ritual. Yes, I forgot about it. I even dropped the cash to finish my playset of Lion's Eye Diamond, but I completely forgot about a common. Because of that, I couldn't finish my Belcher deck (I really wanted Desperate Ritual in it, and one copy wasn't enough). But among the other cards I bought, I did have what I needed to build an All Spells deck. So, to summarize, I was lazy and forgot to write a new article (because of The Elder Scrolls Online), so I resorted to writing an article about my current pet deck, but I was lazy and couldn't build the deck I'd wanted to build (because of Desperate Ritual), and because I'm too lazy to come up with anything else (can't think of an excuse for this one, but whatever), we have arrived where we are now.
Here is my decklist:
1x Underworld Cerberus
1x Laboratory Maniac
1x Dread Return
1x Bridge from Below
1x Wild Cantor
1x Tinder Wall
3x Summoner's Pact
3x Cabal Therapy
4x Street Wraith
4x Gitaxian Probe
4x Chrome Mox
4x Lotus Petal
4x Cabal Ritual
4x Dark Ritual
4x Simian Spirit Guide
4x Elvish Spirit Guide
4x Balustrade Spy
4x Undercity Informer
Even by the standards of combo decks, this is highly unorthodox. I'd say this deck mostly follows a Pattern B (bomb) approach to winning, but it does chain mana acceleration spells together in a manner reminiscent of Pattern C (chain) decks. In my “Combo Breakfast” article I touched on the deck's game plan, but I'd better do so again...
I have 19 cards that can produce mana for free (Summoner's Pact can fetch Elvish Spirit Guide, so it counts). I also have 12 slots that can turn mana into more mana (Summoner's Pact can fetch Tinder Wall for that purpose) and other slots that can draw cards without using up mana. Instead of using lands, I rely on those cards for a manabase, hoping to generate four mana and play either Balustrade Spy or Undercity Informer on my first turn. Both of those creatures have an ability that will, because I have no lands in my deck, dump my entire library into my graveyard. I put all of my Narcomoebas onto the battlefield, sacrifice them to flashback Dread Return, put Underworld Cerberus onto the battlefield with Dread Return. This puts all of my creatures from my graveyard into my hand, allowing me to exile either Elvish Spirite Guide or Simian Spirit Guide to play Wild Cantor, exile two more of the spirit guide cards for two more mana, sacrifice Wild Cantor for a blue mana, play Laboratory Maniac, cycle a Street Wraith, and win off Laboratory Maniac's ability.
The original kill condition for All Spells decks was similar, but used Angel of Glory's Rise as the Dread Return target, with the angel's ability putting Laboratory Maniac and Azami, Lady of Scrolls onto the battlefield, winning by activating Azami's ability in order to trigger Laboratory Maniac. Although Theros has been out for several months, this still seems to be the most popular version. Some builds don't use Street Wraith, and at least one copy is required to make the Underworld Cerberus victory possible. But most builds use a full complement of Street Wraiths anyway. The Angel of Glory's Rise victory doesn't require casting any more spells after Dread Return and doesn't require any life to be paid, but those are very minor considerations. In contrast, the Underworld Cerberus victory frees up a card slot, which is, by itself, better. It also minimizes dead hands resulting from drawing into combo components: in a deck using the Angel as a Dread Return target, drawing Angel of Glory's Rise, Laboratory Maniac, Dread Return, or Azami is problematic, whereas a deck using the Cerberus only has to worry about drawing the Cerberus itself or drawing Dread Return. This is a considerable improvement over the Angel-based method.
As I mentioned in my “Combo Breakfast” article, this is a very fast deck. The most successful combo decks in tournament play aren't generally the fastest ones, but the ones that can fight through disruption. While it's more of a casual exercise, there are also decks that trade resilience for sheer speed. This is nothing new. 2-land and 1-land Belcher decks have been based around this principle since 2004. And there's an obscure storm deck in Legacy called “Spanish Inquisition” that is extremely fast, designed to beat anyone not holding Force of Will (which happens to be a staple of the format) by chaining mana acceleration with Infernal Contract and Cruel Bargain (I used to play a similar deck for a brief time). I just might be one of the few remaining fans of a forgotten deck known as “The Fluctuator.” I wrote about it here at the CPA. Well, actually I wrote about it on a now-defunct blog and archived some of the content from that project here at the CPA, but whatever. I still have a Fluctuator deck. My Burn deck outraces most other aggro decks, and it can't hold a candle to my Fluctuator deck, which frequently achieves second-turn kills. This deck makes my Fluctuator deck look sluggish: it picks up first-turn kills more easily than any other deck I've ever played. And when I say “easily” I mean it both in the sense that opening hand with first-turn kills show up frequently and in the sense that piloting this deck is a piece of cake. All it takes it a little practice to understand mulligan decisions.
Street Wraith and, to a lesser extent, Gitaxian Probe, are sometimes shunned by players who believe that they ruin mulligan decision-making. While these cards do need some conditions to be met in order to be good options, they don't mess mulligans up very much. I'm using full playsets of both in this deck, and it has the most comfortable mulliganing I've ever seen. Yes, really. Using mulligans is key to the success of All Spells decks. The basic rule of thumb is that if your opening hand doesn't have Balustrade Spy or Undercity Informer, mulligan until it does. In most games, that's not a problem. But I can get unlucky, so I've had to get a bit more sophisticated in corner cases. Still, it's a surprisingly robust generalization. I've had five card hands that I kept because I was nervous about going down to four, cycled Street Wraiths, played Gitaxian Probes, chained together Manamorphoses, and ultimately drawing into nothing useful. I've also mulliganed down to four cards and arrived at hands that gave me first-turn kills. If nothing else, that's something one can say for All Spells: you can mulligan down to four cards and then get a first-turn win. This is a deck where that happens.
I have 99 reasons why I've kept my Fluctuator deck around, and a few dozen of them are just “because it's awesome.” But another reason is that it's something useful to show people, especially new players who might never have seen anything like it. This is not because I'm a sadist: I don't spring ridiculous combo decks on unsuspecting victims. It's because the notion that one's shiny deck filled with all the cool new mythic rares might not stand a chance against a deck consisting mostly of 15-year-old commons, because the deck filled with crappy old cards can get a second-turn kill.
My All Spells deck, although not filled with quite as many otherwise bad cards as the Fluctuator deck, serves the same sort of demonstrative purpose; it showcases what combo decks can do, how fast they can be. Oh, I still think it's a really cool deck, and if you do too, that's great, but it isn't the point here. The point is to recognize what you might be up against. This isn't some Power 9 monstrosity that casual players wouldn't normally be up against. The only pricey cards in my maindeck are the Chrome Moxen and the Cabal Therapies, which average around $15 a piece on the secondary market, and a lot of players (like myself) have had them for years anyway, before they went up in price. The rest of the deck is dirt cheap. Even with the Chrome Moxen and Cabal Therapies, it's a cheaper deck than most competitive Standard decks. Many casual players could, if they wanted to, build this deck. And anyone that does build it will have almost no trouble piloting it. In the words of Gerda Äagesdotter, “What can be a stronger shield than concealment? Have you ever defeated an enemy you didn't know existed?” I don't expect every casual deck to stand up to All Spells. But if, in building or tuning your deck, you know that it doesn't have an answer to all-out combo decks like this one, be conscious of that weakness, and justify to yourself why you're giving up a potential matchup. Is it because you'd weaken your deck too much against other types of opponents? Is a compromise possible? I realize that veteran tournament players are familiar with asking these types of questions, but I've noticed that it's a line of thinking that's too-often absent in casual play. And now, with Extended dead and Legacy unapproachable to most players, these considerations may become a thing of the past for tournament players too.
When I analyze decks built by inexperienced players and criticize their lack of early answers to opposing threats, it's often hard to explain because their opponents, being likewise inexperienced, are doing the same thing, so the playing field is essentially level. If everyone else is only using bad decks, there are no repercussions for using bad decks. My attempts to cite examples of how these bad decks are weak to this or that are met with dismissal, considered to be far too fancy and high-powered to compete in the same league as the humble decks of the everyman. Chrome Mox and Cabal Therapy aside, All Spells pokes a hole in that reasoning. There is no Black Lotus here, no Ancestral Recall, no Wheel of Fortune, no Fastbond, and no Skullclamp. With largely mundane cards, properly tuned, it's possible to make a deck that is really, really fast. I think that's great. I also think players need to be cognizant of it, lest they get run over by other players who don't have any qualms about using this sort of deck.
Some notes on individual card choices...
Cabal Therapy: Technically, Therapy is viable as a means of protection, especially when paired with Gitaxian Probe, a minor combo often employed in storm decks. However, because this takes mana, it's not an option to lead with this in most games. If opponents fail to stop Balustrade Spy or Undercity Informer, that's another story. Cabal Therapy can, through its flashback, remove opposing disruption, clearing the way for a safe Dread Return. Cabal Therapy's other application comes up if Underworld Cerberus or Dread Return are drawn before the deck goes off. Yes, I cast Cabal Therapy on myself. Nothing wrong with a little self-therapy. Three copies are enough. Two would be pushing it: I could draw both and not have one in my graveyard when I need it.
Bridge from Below: While unnecessary for the deck to function, Bridge from Below helps make sure that there are enough creatures for the flashbacks of both Cabal Therapy and Dread Return, often allowing me to Therapy both myself and my opponent, or to Therapy my opponent twice, when it would otherwise not be possible. I've seen that many decklists don't use Bridge from Below, but I think it's worth the slot. If it's drawn, it could possibly be imprinted onto Chrome Mox anyway.
Street Wraith: It appears as a full playset in most All Spells decks, but some prefer not to use it. I think it's great. With Gitaxian Probe and Manamorphose providing a similar effect, there is a very high probability that Street Wraith will cycle into something useful. As a black card, it's also a good imprint choice for Chrome Mox.While imprinting a card of another color can also serve, it's ideal to have a black card for this purpose. And extra rogue is the most common choice, but Street Wraith is second. And of course, at least one is needed to trigger Laboratory Maniac.
Summoner's Pact: This is a bold maneuver that I don't think I'd have tried if it hadn't already proven itself for others. Summoner's Pact can only ever be used on the turn that this deck is going off, or it means losing the game. It's a nice toolbox that makes first-turn kills happen more consistently. If I need just one more mana, I grab an Elvish Spirit Guide. If I have enough mana, but need a certain color, I grab Wild Cantor. If I'm holding Manamorphose for color-fixing, I grab Tinder Wall.
It all seems simple enough to me, but just in case, I'll provide some sample goldfish hands...
Opening hand #1: Summoner's Pact, Undercity Informer, Simian Spirit Guide, Dark Ritual, Cabal Ritual, Dread Return, Simian Spirit Guide
I keep. I exile a Simian Spirit Guide and use the mana to cast Wild Cantor. I sacrifice Wild Cantor for a black mana and use the black mana to play Dark Ritual. I use two of the mana from Dark Ritual to play Cabal Ritual. That gives me a total of four black mana. I cast Undercity Informer and use my last remaining mana to activate its ability, putting my library into my graveyard and four Narcomoebas onto the battlefield. I sacrifice a Narcomoeba to flashback Cabal Therapy, targeting myself and naming Dread Return, which I then discard. I also get a zombie token thanks to Bridge from Below. I sacrifice a Narcomoeba to flashback Cabal Therapy on my opponent, naming whatever card I suspect might be a problem and getting another zombie token. If I see something that it still threatening, I sacrifice a third Narcomoeba to flashback my last Cabal Therapy and get rid of it, possibly getting another zombie token if my opponent hadn't already had any cards discarded. I then sacrifice three creatures, say one Narcomoeba and two zombie tokens, to flashback Dread Return targeting Underworld Cerberus. All of my creatures in my graveyard go to my hand. I exile a Simian Spirit Guide for a red mana and use it to play Wild Cantor. I exile two Elvish Spirit Guides for two mana, sacrifice Wild Cantor for a blue mana, and cast Laboratory Maniac. With the Maniac on the battlefield, I cycle a Street Wraith and win.
Opening hand #2: Gitaxian Probe, Lotus Petal, Undercity Informer, Manamorphose, Street Wraith, Undercity Informer, Cabal Ritual
I keep. I Gitaxian Probe my opponent, drawing a Cabal Ritual. I cycle a Street Wraith, drawing a Dark Ritual. I cast Lotus Petal, then use it to get a black mana. I use my black mana to cast Dark Ritual, then use two of the mana from that to cast Cabal Ritual. With my four mana, I cast and activate Undercity Informer, then win in a nearly identical manner to the previous example. But this time, I know what's in my opponent's hand, so I won't be casting a blind Cabal Therapy.
Opening hand #3: Narcomoeba, Dark Ritual, Dark Ritual, Simian Spirit Guide, Cabal Ritual, Summoner's Pact, Cabal Ritual
Plenty of mana, but no rogue. Mulligan to 6!
New hand: Manamorphose, Undercity Informer, Narcomoeba, Balustrade Spy, Chrome Mox, Chrome Mox
This hand is not very good and has no first-turn kill, but it does have two rogues in it and I'd rather not risk another mulligan. I keep. I draw a Street Wraith, so I cycle it right away, drawing Manamorphose. I cast imprint Undercity Informer onto one Chrome Mox, Manamorphose onto the other, and tap both for mana to cast the Manamorphose that's still in my hand. I'll get a black mana and a green mana from that. Unfortunately, all I draw is a Dread Return, which sucks. On my next turn, I draw a Summoner's Pact, which doesn't give me enough, so I pass the turn again. The next time, I draw a Lotus Petal. That'll do. I cast the Lotus Petal, then cast Summoner's Pact, grabbing Tinder Wall. I tap my Chrome Mox that's imprinted with Manamorphose to get a green mana and cast Tinder Wall. I sacrifice Tinder Wall for two red mana, tap my untapped Chrome Mox for a black mana, and activate Lotus Petal for my fourth mana. I cast Balustrade Spy, dump my library into my graveyard, and get three Narcomoebas. I sacrifice a Narcomoeba to flashback Cabal Therapy and use that to discard my Dread Return, getting a zombie token as usual. I use the other two Therapies on my opponent, still having enough creatures left over (Balustrade Spy and at least two zombie tokens) to flashback Dread Return and win. That's assuming I haven't lost yet. On the play, this would have been a fourth-turn kill. On the draw, it would have been a third turn-kill. That's too slow.
Opening hand #4: Street Wraith, Undercity Informer, Simian Spirit Guide, Tinder Wall, Lotus Petal, Blaustrade Spy, Laboratory Maniac
I keep. This one's not a guaranteed first-turn kill, but it has two rogues and some mana, so it'll do. I cycle Street Wraith, drawing Summoner's Pact. That works. First-turn kill coming right up. I cast Lotus Petal. I cast Summoner's Pact to grab Elvish Spirit Guide. I exile Elvish Spirit Guide and use the mana to cast Tinder Wall. I sacrifice Tinder Wall and exile Simian Spirit Guide, giving me a total of three red mana. I activate Lotus Petal for a black mana, then cast Balustrade Spy, dump my library into my graveyard, and get my four Narcomoebas, hitting my opponent with a Therapy or, if I want to, all three Therapies. Note that in this case, even though I've already exiled some spirit guide creatures, I only need three of them to cast Laboratory Maniac. Even in a worst case scenario, unless my opponent disrupts me, I'll always have enough spirit guides to cast Laboratory Maniac.
Opening hand #5: Wild Cantor, Bridge from Below, Lotus Petal, Simian Spirit Guide, Dark Ritual, Cabal Ritual, Balustrade Spy
This one's really easy. I have plenty of mana. I cast Lotus Petal, and caress it gently because I don't even need it. I exile Simian Spirit Guide for a red mana, cast Wild Cantor and sacrifice it to get a black mana, cast Dark Ritual, cast Cabal Ritual, and then use my four mana to cast Balustrade Spy, dumping my library and getting four Narcomoebas again. This time Bridge from Below is in my hand. No problem: I Therapy myself to get Bridge from Below into my graveyard, and I still have one Balustrade Spy and three Narcomoebas on the battlefield, so I can Therapy my opponent twice and still have enough creatures left for Dread Return.
So, that's five sample hands, with four of them resulting in first-turn wins. Lucky me. But how often does this deck really go off on the first turn? In order to answer that I'd need to record data. As of this time, I haven't done so. Just going by experience, it seems like it's about half of the time. I'm confident that it's more than 20% and less than 80%, but I'm not comfortable narrowing it down any more than that.
Finally, since this could technically be a tournament deck, I'll make a note on sideboarding. Firstly, this deck is designed to do one thing very well: get one of its rogues out as quickly as possible and use that to win with Dread Return. There's no room for slowing the deck down with anti-hate cards. Instead, the approach I'm taking is to use a transformable sideboard, one in which I side out key cards for the deck's default combo to work, and side in the entire sideboard. While this can't provide the consistency of the pre-board deck, it offers an option against cards like Surgical Extraction, Leyline of the Void, Rest in Peace, and Tormod's Crypt. However, I haven't really settled on a sideboard yet. I'm not satisfied with any of the options I've tried so far. My current sideboard is...
2x Empty the Warrens
4x Goblin Charbelcher
4x Lion's Eye Diamond
3x Spoils of the Vault
2x Tinder Wall
If I expect my opponent is going to be siding in strong graveyard hate, I take out my primary combo and bring these cards in. An opponent that mulligans into Leyline of the Void isn't going to find that very useful against a swarm of goblin tokens or a lethal Goblin Charbelcher activation.It's not to my liking, but there is some poetic justice to the idea that a reckless combo deck with a single-minded focus on speed would turn sideboarding into a glorified shell game.