Trying to cheat in Old School

… or how I learned to jam all restricted or should-be restricted cards into a pile and lose a whole bunch, while doing awesome stuff…

It should come as little surprise to you, my dear reader, if you have followed my blog or just read a little on and off here, that I like playing combo. I find great joy in wielding really powerful spells or chaining some weirdly powerful combinations of magic to win the day.

Old School really isn’t a combo format. There are combo decks, but they are so very fragile. They are relatively slow. They have few and far-between pay-offs. And they have a tendency to simply succumb to the first counterspell from the opponents’ side. Sometimes they even die to a Disenchant. Or a Blue Elemental Blast. Or a Savannah Lion…

If you are not familiar with Old School but know your way around combo in other formats, let me just say this: Unless you are playing a finely tuned TwiddleVault deck that you have practiced with for years, playing combo in Old School is not for the faint of heart. It is not for the Spikes. And it is certainly not for the budget guys.

But if you are familiar with Vintage, you may find it fascinating that many of the greatest and most insane cards in most Vintage decks – also Vintage combo decks – are actually also legal in Old School. Some of them are not even restricted as they are in Vintage.

You may probably already know this. 

But I often find it strangely intriguing how you have access to some of the very best combo enablers in the game – Ancestral Recall, Wheel of Fortune, Fastbond, Timetwister, Dark RItual, Regrowth, Mana Vault and others – but it is almost impossible to build and wield a truly competitive combo deck.

Of course, this should not prevent us from trying. If there is one hill I am willing to die on, it is the one built from heaps on heaps of failed combo attempts in Old School…

The similarities

I have previously written at length about my definitions of combo. You can find it here. I will not write much about it here.

What I do want to write a bit about, is how similar many of the combo decks in Old School are. Most of them – Fork Recursion, Lich, Hurkyl’s Recall, CandleFlare, Draw7 Recursion and even to some extent Enchantress Combo, PowerMonolith and TwiddleVault – all share the same basic plan of playing as many restricted and what I call “should-be restricted” cards as soon as possible. What I call “should-be restricted” are cards like Mana Vault, Fastbond, Dark Ritual, Fork, Mirror Universe, Copy Artifact, Sylvan Library, Candalabre and Recall. They are not cards that I would ever argue should be restricted, but they are all – in the right context – potentially very strong.

Almost all of these combo decks play most of the restricted cards, some of the “should-be-restricted” cards and often Howling Mine to draw more of these strong pieces of cardboard. The decks primarily differ in how they try to make the mana for that big, final Fireball. 

Basically they play restricted good stuff until they find their two-card combo.

This should not be a big revelation. Almost all decks in Old School are around one fourth to one third restricted cards. Of course they are. There is simply such an insane difference in power level from the best cards in the format to the mediocre to the bad. Everyone should always splash for Ancestral Recall, play Library of Alexandria and most should even find room for a Wheel of Fortune. Simply because it is a way to draw cards at a reasonable price – a rare treat in this format – or it can function as a reset button.

But still. I think it is worth thinking about this, if one wants to design a combo deck in Old School.

Is it possible to build a beautiful blend of all the restricted-centered combo decks and make a strong(-ish) combo variant that is able to adapt to the situation it is confronted with?

That is what I want to try today.

And we want to cheat

And what do we want, when we play combo? You guessed it, we want to cheat.

How do we do so without being a real douche, and actually cheating? By playing cards that cheat the game.

As I see it, there are two ways in which you can cheat, without risking a ban from your local playgroup. Either you “norm-cheat.” That is the lesser way of cheating. For example playing creatures that defy the p/t to cost ratio. In Old School Serendib Efreet and Juzám Djinn are the best examples of this. But a card like Triskelion is also cheating norms, because it has the possibility to be a three- or even four-for-one in one card. That is way beyond the norm. Even costing six mana and only being 4/4.

The other form of legal cheating is what I call “design or gameplay cheating.” That is when you play cards that let you do things that are otherwise not allowed due to the game design or gameplay, and make sure that your deck is more ready for this “rules change” than your opponent’s.

The gameplay-cheating cards are cards that create effects that ignore, circumvent or simply break central rules of the game. For example tapping a land for more than one mana (Mana Flare). Paying a life to get one colorless mana (Channel). Playing extra copies of your best instants and sorceries, even if they are restricted (Fork). Drawing a card for two life (Greed). Not dying when losing all your life and drawing cards when gaining life (Lich). Drawing an extra card in your draw step (Howling Mine) and so on. 

Most combo decks – especially those based on a cascade or storm-like effects to win – are somehow based on one or more of these gameplay-cheating cards. It is often some combination of these cards that are the two-card combos the Old School combo decks want to assemble to actually finish the game.

What would happen if we played all, or at least most, of them? 

We are building a tribal combo deck here. Our tribe is restricted cards. And the should-be ones.

The outlines of a pile

So we know we want to play 20 restricted cards (out of a total list of 22! – Sorry Mishra’s Workshop and Strip Mine). We probably also have to play somewhere in the near vicinity of 18 lands. Those are the first 37 cards (Library is both restricted and a land).

So we have 23 free slots to make some cheating combos happen!

The dream. 23 free slots! That never happens in this format full of very tight lists and a lot of must-plays. But in all fairness, we haven’t really gotten anywhere yet.

Number one priority in the first couple of turns of this deck’s gameplay is going to be drawing cards and sculpting a winning hand. There are not a lot of great options here. Cheap card draw or filtering is very few and far between, and we already have Ancestral Recall and the two Draw7’s. 

The one thing we have is a symmetric, fragile artifact costing 2. I am a big fan of Howling Mine, even if it is often hit by a Disenchant. It seems I am often playing against gentlemen who know how much fun it is to draw extra cards, so they often leave the Mine alone and use their Disenchants for other stuff. The Mine is especially great together with Sylvan Library. A 4/2 split in this pile is where we will start. 17 free slots left.

We would also like some fast mana besides the power ones. Here we actually do have a couple of options. There is Mana Vault. We have the legendary Dark Ritual. Fellwar Stone is also a possibility.

I think the Stone is too expensive. We want something that lets us play a turn one Howling Mine. So really, the choice is between Vault and Ritual. 

What speaks in favor of the Mana Vaults is that they can be played off of any mana. They also provide net plus three mana the turn after they are played. And they potentially combo with Hurkyl’s Recall, if we were to play that. Finally, of course, they can actually be used more than once. But I feel that if you are in a situation where you can spend four mana in your upkeep to untap a mana generator, you are probably losing anyway. With this deck, that situation cannot happen a lot. What speaks against them are, that they only provide colorless mana, which makes them a bit less useful in some situations. Especially in a deck like this with five colors and some strong requirements. They can also be killed by a host of different opposing Magic Cards. Not always relevant, but if you want the full three net mana, you have to play the Vault, pass the turn and hope for the best. 

The Dark Rituals on the other hand are the epitome of explosive mana. They come very much out of nowhere and they provide colored mana. Not the most useful color of mana in this deck – a red ritual would be bonkers! – but we probably want to play some black cards in addition to the two restricted ones, and in those situations it is helpful. It is also Fork-able, even though that will also only occur in very rare situations. Of course it speaks against the rituals that they also cost colored mana to play and that they will never net you more than plus two mana. 

Which one is the better is difficult to say. For now I will try to go with Dark Rituals for a couple of reasons. Firstly because I own a beautiful Beta set. And secondly because we want to cheat… 13 free slots left.

Ahh yes, the singleton cheaters. Playing Dark Rituals makes it possible to play Lich. What a treat. We want to play Mirror Universe anyway, and then Lich is the most sexy you can do. One of those. We also want a Mana Flare to go with some Fireballs and a Fastbond for when we get to draw a lot of stuff. 10 free slots left. 

We add two Fireballs and two Mirror Universe as kill conditions. Then we are left with six free slots.

We want to play as many restricted cards as possible! What could be better than filling those six slots with a set of Fork and two Recall?

And then we arrive at this. 

Possibly the most beautiful deck I have ever assembled, even though I admit those two Unlimited Forks are a bit of an eye sore here.

Variations and play

This is just one iteration of the restricted tribal deck. There are loads of possibilities. One I tried out was to remove Lich and one of the Mirrors to play two Greed. Greed is a great card here, because you really just want to use your life as a ressource to find som cards and play some powerful spells. And of course Greed is monstrously fun to play together with Mirror Universe and Dark Ritual. I may prefer the Greed version over the Lich version, but Lich is just such an insanely iconic and beautiful card, that I wanted to showcase it here.

I have also tried a version with Mana Vaults instead of Dark Rituals and then a couple of Hurkyl’s Recall to make for that one big turn. 

I have even tried a version with Candelabras and an extra Mana Flare. Then we are, of course, basically just a CandleFlare deck. 

But that is also the thing about this deck and kinda my point before, when writing about the similarities of the combo decks in Old School. Here we are everything and nothing at once. We can do a lot of different things, and sometimes cards are used for some rather surprising effects. For example, I once played the deck and needed just a single turn more, but I would get killed by the opposing creatures. Down goes Lich and saves the day, because I can just sacrifice some Sylvan Libraries and a Mox or two instead of taking damage. 

We also sometimes use Fork for really strange things – but that is very much the nature of the card. It is also the center of this deck. I don’t deny that this is very close to being a Fork Recursion deck – at least that is the Combo Deck it resembles the most. And we also often want to do the same things as the Fork decks.

Anyway, playing the deck takes some practice and a bit of intricate knowledge about rules, the stack and game mechanics in general. It is by no means a tier1 deck, because it will die to a whole lot of different cards – I have played it, and lost against: Underworld Dreams, Shatterstorm, Disenchant, Counterspell, Blue Elemental Blast, Red Elemental Blast, Blood Moon and so on. And it also dies to itself a lot, simply not drawing the relevant restricted cards at the correct time. At least you won’t get flooded with additional Fastbonds, Liches and Mana Flares. But it is still a deck that wants to play certain cards in a certain order and hopefully do so before turn five.

There is not a lot of protection in the deck. A single Mana Drain, a Chaos Orb, a Mind Twist and a Balance. Sometimes the Forks can help, but not often. All the protection cards are doing different things to protect you against whatever the opponent is throwing at you, so the right protection has to be present at the right time.

One could argue that the deck would benefit from at least one maindecked Red Elemental Blast. I tend to agree with that notion, but here I have presented you with the “clean” version of the build. More protection is probably in order, especially if you want to take the deck for a spin at a local tournament.

But that should not prevent you from giving it a go. If you like to play power and powerful cards, this could very well be the deck for you. You really get to do some idiotically broken stuff sometimes! In one game I played Howling Mine turn one; into a Forked Time Walk turn two. From there it was not very difficult to win the game. 

Playing, forking and recalling your restricted awesomeness is basically what this deck is all about.

And let’s face it, isn’t it really what this format or, indeed, Magic and life in general is all about?

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