Francis Law's picture
By: Francis Law, Frankie Law
Aug 12 2016 5:19am
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Describe Reid Duke's Seasons Past control deck from Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad. Designer Mark Rosewater might identify it as a "Spike" deck, noticing the presence of many rares and mythics designed to play roles in the forecast standard format. Reid's experienced opponent sitting across the table may answer that it's a control deck - a useful shorthand for informing their mulligan and sideboarding decisions. A spectator watching on stream may see a rogue deck - excited by the prospect of a previously unknown quantity, like decks of their own design, competing with the established top tier strategies.

Rephrasing slightly, was Reid's deck good? And if so, why? Certainly, the above descriptors tell us little in this regard. Looking to the tournament results, they would perhaps imply otherwise - despite the deck affording Jon Finkel a 16th top 8, its other decorated pilots wound up with middling records. And reasonably, that might be reason enough for a player to dismiss Reid's deck in favour of, for example, Steve Rubin's Green/White tokens deck, which has continued to impress after his Pro Tour win, moving into the next week of competition. However, when Reid constructed his deck, he was not privy to this information - though playing games is a critical process for iterating ideas, a deck's inception must arise from something else. In practice, this is typically achieved through a combination deckbuilding principles and iteration of existing precedents.

Existing popular principles generally fall into one of two types - rules of thumb (following a well distributed mana curve, including 25 lands in a midrange deck), or involve finding cards to fulfil roles within a given template or archetype, which in turn is derived from historical precedents. These shortcuts have the benefit of being fast to apply and reliable, but are not suitable for exploring the zanier possibilities of Magic deckbuilding - it is hard to imagine that these methods would be sufficiently sophisticated to develop decks such as Lantern Control or Vintage Dredge. Instead, it can be beneficial to take a step backwards and work from what might be best described as "first principles" and the assumption that a deck's individual card power and its inter-card synergy are ultimately the only two metrics that determine its inherent "winningness". Consolidation of the existing understanding of this approach, particularly focusing on usefully defining the nebulous concept of synergy about which the conversation remains in its relative infancy, is the intent of the following.

Understanding Synergy 

Doom Blade is a powerful card against an opponent with many large creatures. Negate is strong against a deck full of spells. However, Thoughtseize is strong no matter the opponent, so long as one can afford the loss of life.

Or so one might think. During Modern Jund's heyday, Reid Duke advocated the removal of Thoughtseize during sideboarding in the mirror match, arguing that the possibility the card would become dead as both players became empty handed was unacceptable given that he didn't require Thoughtseize to limit his opponent's ability to assemble any particular combination of cards in order to win. By implication, Thoughtseize's effectiveness was shown to correlate with the summated synergy of an opposing deck in much the same way that Doom Blade's potency is to its number of desirable targets. Reid's advice provided another tool for discussion - now it could be speculated that a given card might be specifically effective against a high synergy deck, largely superseding the prior "anti-combo" nomenclature, as well as more basic assessments of whether a card was anti-creature, anti-spell and relatedly anti-aggro, anti-midrange or anti-control.

Defining what constitutes a high or low synergy deck is more troublesome. Certainly, all decks that have been designed with any thought will contain synergies, as this will arise naturally from building to an archetype "template" and having a consistent plan or plans. Having multiple cards that align thematically to achieve a shared goal can be thought of as adding vectors in mathematics - while Lava Spike is fully aligned with the strategy of a Modern Burn Deck, it would achieve nothing at all in the context of control deck (its imaginary vector is pointing in the opposite direction). Another common source of synergy is that  written explicitly into certain cards. This typically takes the form of tribal bonuses as seen on Master of the Pearl Trident, Goblin King etc. and other forms of "cares about X" cards, such as Argothian Enchantress and Master of Waves. However, many inter-card synergies are implicit, requiring a deeper understanding of the game to identify. For example, synergy may be born out of breaking symmetry (Upheaval + Worn Powerstone), abusing "false" resources (delve cards, Young Pyromancer, Yawgmoth's Will) or creating loops (Snapcaster Mage + Kolaghan's Command, Eternal Witness + Chord of Calling).

As for defining the concept itself, synergy is best thought of as a property between cards, and generally between exactly two. That is to say that if a table was drawn, listing every card within a deck both along the top and side, which at each intersection assigned a numerical value the synergy between each card pair, these values could be summated to roughly compare the total synergy between one deck and another. Put more simply, it is very easy to think of a pair of cards that have inherent synergy with one another (Tarmogoyf and Thoughtseize, Skullclamp and Siege-Gang Commander), but much harder to think of a set of three cards in which any given card profoundly synergizes with both others. Notably, there are certain exceptions - sometimes between trios of cards that expressly require each other to unlock addition effect, such as Urza's Mine, Urza's Tower and Urza's Power Plant, and multiple card combos such as Heartless Summoning, Myr Retriever, Myr Retriever, Altar of the Brood, in which the constituents operate at low efficacy if not fully assembled.

Generally speaking, formulating such a table, or "synergy matrix", is impractical in reality - quantitatively assessing the synergy between cards is an exercise in guesswork, and combining this information with information about the nominal power level of its constituent cards adds another level of complexity. However, imagining such a table can inform certain deck-building consideration. For example, when deciding whether to splash Oblivion Strike in your white/green limited deck by removing two plains and a forest for three swamps, one must consider that the deck's white and green cards will all lose some amount of synergy with the deck (as Serra Angel has less synergy with swamp than with plains, and Ajani's Pridemate arguably has none), while the Oblivion Strike will also have little synergy with the majority of the mana base. This loose reasoning would seem to demonstrate that Oblivion Strike should not be included even over the most mediocre filler.

Types of Synergy

What are the top nine best cards in the format? Four copies of each makes 36, leaving room for a 24 land shock-fetch manabase monstrosity.

Such a deck would nominally be the most rawly powerful possible in a format, though it is rare that we see anything approaching this extreme and heavy handed. The question when building a deck is how far to deviate from this imaginary powerhouse - what concessions do you make to individual card power in order to include a key synergy. That is to say, it can be helpful to consider synergies (more specifically, the cards between which there is a synergy) in terms of an opportunity cost against simply loading up on Tarmogoyfs, Snapcaster Mages and the like.

Low Opportunity Cost Synergies

Even between the nine most rawly powerful cards in a format, there are likely to be a number of these types of synergies. Thragtusk and Restoration Angel were both top tier cards in M13 standard on their own merits, but also provided considerable payoff when used in concert. As these synergies are all but a freeroll - little or no opportunity cost is paid on their constituent cards - they will often define the core of so-called "fair" decks; those that are not married to enacting a particular linear strategy. An example could be Modern Grixis Control - an unashamed good-stuff deck that freerolls the Snapcaster Mage + Lightning Bolt and Tasigur, the Golden Fang + cantrips synergies.

High Opportunity Cost Synergies

The combination of Splinter Twin and Deceiver Exarch in Modern proved sufficiently centralising to warrant a ban, despite the clunkiness and inefficiency of both cards in a vacuum. Due to the opportunity cost incurred in running such cards, there is pressure on these kinds of synergies to win the game on the spot (Grindstone + Painter's Servant), or translate into a win a very high percentage upon assembly (Thopter Foundry + Sword of the Meek, Lantern of InsightCodex Shredder). Decks based around these synergies can be described as synergy decks (or as is currently preferred, "combo" or "unfair") and typically take one of the forms described below.

It is worth noting that the low vs high opportunity cost paradigm is somewhat of a false dichotomy - most synergies fall somewhere between these two extremes on a spectrum. For example, there is a small cost incurred in running Goblin Dark-Dwellers and Ancestral Vision in Modern, but the combination offers a powerful if not game winning payoff.

Geometric Synergies

One Watchwolf is more powerful than a Master of the Pearl Trident, two of either offers both six power and toughness, while three or more masters outclass their weight in wolf. Tribal decks such as Merfolk, Elves and Goblins comprise many interchangeable elements which collectively will overpower comparable boards from lower synergy decks if left unmolested. However, due to their need for redundant pieces, such decks naturally have weakness to appropriate anti-synergy measures (Doom Blade, Thoughtseize) and can fold entirely to a well-timed Wrath of God or similar.

Min/Max Synergies

Honor of the Pure tells us to play it with white creatures. However, it goes without saying that it is more potent in combination with Spectral Procession than Baneslayer Angel. The perfect compliment maximises the number of white creatures to benefit, while minimising the mana investment (possible in this case due to the minimal size of the creatures created). On its face Goblin Bombardment may look to offer an unenticing resource exchange, but the ability to pair it with throw-away creatures proves a synergy too potent to allow for a reprint any time soon.

Cards that make reference to "false" resources are similarly applicable - Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time were ushered out of Modern and Legacy for offering an unreasonable power level in return for playing cheap, chainable cantrips - something that continues to be popular in their absence.

Decks that play powerful symmetrical effects such as Wrath of God tend to also follow this min/max principle - minimising their creature count whilst maximising life gain, card drawing and mana development effects that are unaffected by the sweeper.

Synergy Decks 

Whilst it's easy to think of two cards that pair well, ensuring that an entire deck plays nice can be a much more tricky pickle. In practice, decks that make significant concessions to raw power to enable synergies typically fall into one of the following patterns.

Matrix Synergy Decks

Def: A deck in which, as much as is reasonably practicable, any and all pairs of its constituent cards can be said to have positive synergy.  

It's relatively rare to find a genuine matrix synergy deck with a wide range of different effects - if any card in the deck has negative synergy with itself (say Brimaz, King of Oreskos or less obviously Birds of Paradise), then such a deck would only be allowed to play one copy. For this reason, such decks tend to feature redundant similar effects that work well with themselves as discussed under Geometric Synergies.

Alternatively, certain "goodstuff" decks have a sufficiently delicate web of low opportunity cost synergies that they can be considered matrix synergy decks.

Example of Simplified Synergy Matrix for Modern Jund Deck Core

A + B Synergy Decks

Def: A deck in which its non-land cards largely fit into two categories which are inherently synergistic with each other if not themselves.

The dream of a perfect web of interconnecting synergy is out of the reach of the majority of decks that are serious about putting together potent card combinations. A+B synergy decks ensure that each card will play strongly with at least half of the deck, even if that means incurring some poor synergy with similar components.

Many popular decks fit this category - ramp decks which look to combine mana acceleration with payoff cards that might otherwise be prohibitively expensive, token decks that marry small creature producers with sacrifice outlets or "anthem" style effects, Infect decks that abuse the interaction between pump spells and cheap infect creatures and "Boggles" decks which alleviate the inherent risk of powerful auras by combining them with inexpensive hexproof creatures.

As A+B synergy decks are so reliant on drawing an even mix of their two halves, cards that can fulfil both roles are of a particular premium. As discussed in Sam Black's Bant Tokens deck tech below, even a less straightforwardly powerful card such as Retreat to Emeria can be a key piece in this type of synergy deck to maximise consistency.


Given that we accept that the juice is worth the squeeze when it comes to making concessions in the name of synergy, why do people still play synergy light "goodstuff" concoctions? And why are these often some of the most successful decks in a format? The answer, of course, is that the payoff of including synergies within a deck is not a constant - it is a function of the anti-synergy tools within its given environment. If the payoff drops below the opportunity cost of not playing the most powerful cards, then you'd be better off sleeving up your Siege Rhinos or Jace, Vryn's Prodigys.

It is tempting to imagine a paradigm of synergy vs anti-synergy decks: to the casual observer it would seem that powered formats like Modern and Legacy fit this description with blue "delver" and control style decks along with midrange "rock" decks on one side and degenerate aggro and combo decks on the other. However, unlike synergy, which is inherently a property between cards, it is more helpful to think of anti-synergy (that is, the ability to counteract and break apart opposing synergies) as the property of individual cards such as Thoughtseize, Mana Leak and Doom Blade. For this reason, it is best to consider a given card's anti-synergy potential as inexplicably linked with its power, and not something that forgives it from being paired with other cards synergistically. For example, though Thoughtseize can be considered an archetypal anti-synergy card, it is still important to pair it with complimentary cards like Tarmogoyf and Snapcaster Mage; the same is true of Mana Leak and Doom Blade with flash creatures such as Vendilion Clique. The reason that the synergy vs anti-synergy paradigm appears to be true is that in such formats, the angles of proactive strategies are so novel and varied that generic answers, such as cheap discard and counter spells, are the only reliable forms of interaction. It is also true that the number of potential card combinations, and therefore potential synergies, increases geometrically with the size of the card pool, explaining the prevalence of high synergy "degenerate" combo decks in larger formats.

It is precisely because in Magic one plus one can equal three, that the right anti-synergy card can make three minus one equal one. This is exactly why low synergy decks often run a spread of anti-synergy cards, despite the well-worn adage "there are no wrong threats, only wrong answers" - to compete, such a deck will normally have to contribute to an environment that is hostile to certain types of synergistic strategies. 

Actionable Advice

In an attempt to excuse the rather dry and heavy consolidation of known information that comprises the majority of this article (colourful banners can only excuse so much), the following hopefully summarises the helpful take-aways that can be gleaned from this approach to viewing synergy:

  • Imagining a table in which synergies between all the cards in a given deck (as shown for the Modern Jund Midrange deck) can be a useful tool when deciding whether or not to splash a colour in limited, run the 4th copy of a card which is poor in multiples in a synergy deck (such as Aether Vial) or whether to go the whole hog and play the generally inferior Expedition Envoy over Champion of the Parish in your Allies matrix synergy deck.
  • Do not make the mistake of thinking that you are exempt from including synergy in a deck purely because of the generic anti-synergy tools you are playing: Delver and Jund have synergies too you know!
  • When deciding on a deck to play, look at the prevalence of anti-synergy tools in a metagame. If there are many, it may be worth choosing a deck that features many of the format's most powerful cards. Further, if these decks have pushed out synergy decks almost entirely, it may be worth looking to replace some of your answer cards for more rawly powerful effects.
  • A similar principle can be applied to sideboarding: knowing that after board decks are likely to contain more appropriate anti-synergy methods against you, it may be worth counteracting by transforming into more of a "goodstuff" strategy. For this reason, cards that may appear to fill no specific role, such as Pia and Kiran Nalaar or Baneslayer Angel may be worth sideboarding in in almost all matchups, even if it doesn't warrant a spot in the maindeck (counter-intuitive as that may seem).

As always, please leave any questions or discussion points in the comments below - I will be sure to check in and answer them in a timely fashion.


All images and videos included in this article are property of Wizards of the Coast


Top quality breakdown of the by AJ_Impy at Fri, 08/12/2016 - 07:56
AJ_Impy's picture

Top quality breakdown of the subject, well presented, excellent read.