Combo Notation: Line of Play Visualization for Vulnerability Assessment
This is a little side piece I intend to update periodically as fashionable combo lines come and go. The idea is to create visual models of surfaces and transitions involved in each line of play so that we can better understand how they work, but more importantly identify the weak points that can be attacked with hate cards and interaction.
For example, consider a model describing Sushi Hulk:
Example Notation Model for Sushi Hulk
It might look a bit confusing at first, but what’s happening here is that we’re calling out all the zones and transitions involved in executing the combo from end to end. E.g., the Sushi player needs to cast spells (Hand to Stack), put a Hulk directly onto the Battlefield from Hand (Flash), have Hulk proceed from the Battlefield to the Graveyard, search the Library and put creatures onto the Battlefield from there, and possibly activate a creature on the Battlefield (Nomads En-Kor).
You may be thinking to yourself, “this is cool I guess, but why?”
First of all, this is a tool supporting the deck design process when we’re planning to play against a specific combo. For every line of transition, there’s a laundry list of cards that attack that surface either actively or passively. By calling out every transition, we can think about all the edges when selecting interaction and hate pieces. By holistically evaluating the points from which a combo can be attacked, we can pick and choose the best candidates (most efficient, most widely impactful, etc) and thus improve the positioning of our decks when facing off against that combo.
The other side to this practice is informing our piloting decisions. Having a detailed understanding of all the moving pieces involved in opposing combo lines will help us make good choices in what things we tutor for, how we sequence our lines, and when we absolutely need to mount an interaction. In just the same way that good design improves the expected outcomes of our matchups from a card perspective, better mental preparation and understanding will commensurately improve our capabilities as pilots.
So let’s get started.
Think of a notation as a vocabulary for communicating information concisely. Sort of like an alphabet for visualization. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case, it might be even more than that. The idea is to be able to robustly describe all the vectors involved in executing a combo without needing to commit paragraphs of explanation to cover it all. The elements in our language consist of the following:
Zone – This element represents any Zone of play a card can inhabit during the course of a game. Choices include Library, Hand, Battlefield, Graveyard, Stack, Exile, and Command.
Transition – Represents a required movement from one Zone to another during the line of play. Specifying a card type is optional, but useful for clarifying hate pieces that discriminate on specific types. (For instance, Grafdigger’s Cage doesn’t prohibit Artifacts or Enchantments from entering the Battlefield from the Graveyard or Library).
Trigger on Transition – Represents a change of Zone and ensuing trigger that is required for the line of play. A typical example would be Thassa’s Oracle transitioning to the Battlefield with its associated ETB.
Activation – Specifies that the line of play requires activation of a certain card type in a certain Zone. Most of the time this is dealing with activation of Creatures or Artifacts that are on the Battlefield, but sometimes activating cards in the Graveyard is important too.
Common Transitions and How to Disrupt Them
Casting Spells – The most basic and fundamental transition we have access to. We can often presume that this is implicit for essentially any combo, but calling it out explicitly can be helpful for considering all the avenues available for interacting with a specific combo.
The obvious method for interacting along this line is countermagic, but you do yourself a disservice if that’s the only form of remediation you consider. For one thing, counterspells have an active cost. This is normally mana that you need to hold open, but it could alternatively be cards in hand that need to be pitched or life that needs to be paid. The counterspell itself is also a limited resource. Most of the time, one counterspell corresponds to one card or action disrupted. Once you’ve used it, you’ll need to find more to remain interactive.
A somewhat different take on the counterspell idiom is single shot effects that ‘turn off’ interaction for the remainder of the turn. Normally, these are used offensively as way to ensure you can push your combo through without any unexpected problems. That said, these effects can also be excellent when used in a defensive posture. You haven’t lived until you’ve resolved a Silence over the top of an opponent’s Yawgmoth’s Will.
As a … counterpoint to the purely active means of spell-casting disruption we have in our arsenal, there are plenty of passive options as well. These have the disadvantage of only hitting spells of a certain cmc or type, but come with the tremendous advantage of requiring no resources beyond the initial expenditure. If you take a census of the best decks in the meta, it’s pretty obvious how insane a resolved Chalice of the Void or Sanctum Prelate on 1 can be. And it’s not just that it blanks over 30% of most decks. The means of removing a chalice and tutoring for said removal also tend to be largely 1 cmc, so once it hits the table, there’s going to take some doing to remove it.
In case it isn’t obvious, the tradeoff to using this category of disruption is symmetry. Make sure you’re postured to break parity and work unimpeded once you’ve got your lock pieces into place, otherwise you’re just slowing the game rather than generating advantage.
Another category in the repertoire of passive stack disruption tools includes Rule of Law effects and taxes. These incredibly powerful cards form the backbone of most established stax archetypes, but have fallen out of favor in the cEDH meta over the past couple of years. The reason for this has to do with how they shift the dynamics of active interaction at a mutiplayer table. Simply put, they generally wind up helping the Flash Hulk player. Since a Hulk player only needs to resolve a single spell to win, all they need to do is wait for the opportune moment when each other interactive player has already expended their single spell for the turn.
As long as Flash remains a part of the metagame, Rule of Law effects will remain a suspect inclusion in most lists. That said, if anything does happen to Flash, expect these to quickly come back into vogue since they work particularly well against Demonic Consultation.
You probably didn’t expect to see these next two cards in a discussion about stack disruption, but here they are. Think of these as a soft form of Rule of Law effect. Even though an opponent can choose to cast spells through an active Mystic Remora, most skilled players will respect them enough to refrain from unnecessary feeding of the fish. (At least when they aren’t trying to combo out.) The net effect here is that when opponents choose not to give you cards, they do so at a tangible cost of tempo. Through this lens, we can evaluate Mystic and Rhystic as control tools exerting additional pressure on the stack.
Tutoring Creatures to the Battlefield – The most familiar cards in this category include Protean Hulk, Green Sun’s Zenith, Finale of Devastation, Eldritch Evolution, Neoform, Yisan, and Birthing Pod. Each performs two notable actions as part of their resolution. First, they’re tutors. They allow arbitrary searching of your library to identify a specific object card. Second, they transfer the object card directly to the battlefield from the library.
It’s sensible to distinguish the two actions performed by these tutors because each can be disrupted independently. But just to be clear, disrupting either part will effectively counter the effect as a whole. We can use this information to diversify our hate and disrupt a wider band of targets than just a specific combo we happen to be teching against.
The more generally applicable segment to attack has to do with searching libraries. The cEDH metagame is heavily saturated with tutors, so slotting hate against this activity, particularly of the asymmetric variety like Aven Mindcensor and Ashiok, Dream Render, generates tremendous value whether or not your opponents are on Sushi Hulk.
The second half of this effect category (putting creatures directly into play) also has strong representation in terms of efficient hate pieces.
The thing to keep in mind here is that these effects tend to be symmetric, so if your own list needs access to these attack vectors, slotting this kind of hate will create internal conflict in your list. It’s possible to make arguments in support of including ‘dissonant’ hate pieces in lists that are really flexible in pivoting between win lines, but designing your decks to never need to pivot in the first place is much stronger ground to build upon. (That’s a subject we’ll cover another article 😉
As far as hate pieces are concerned, they’re a virtual subset of those that deal with transitions from the library to the battlefield, so there’s not much to talk about for this one.
Just like various other surfaces, we can attack this transition line actively or passively. We can typically expect passive hate pieces to exemplify the more efficient, better value plays since they provide a continuous effect rather than requiring a held resource to be expended as a response. As is the case elsewhere, the hidden cost of enjoying this efficiency is symmetry. I.e., you won’t run these effects profitably if any of your own lines require access to ETBs getting triggered. Thus, only slot these if your deck design allows for it. (Or alternatively, design your deck to allow for slotting them. Again this is a discussion for another article).
The active side of interaction along this axis follows the same rules as we’ve outlined before. You need to be holding up mana to engage and your interaction potential goes only as deep as the cards you have ready to commit in hand. For this line in particular though, there’s an additional wrinkle to consider in that the surface area we’re interacting with is significantly more narrow than conventional countermagic. For example, a Mana Drain sitting in your hand is going to have many, many more application targets than a Stifle is going to. This narrowness is balanced by the fact that Stifle effects take more effort on the part of your opponents to unwind. Suppose, for instance, that an opponent casts Thassa’s Oracle and priority comes to you. In this case, a Mana Drain will disrupt the immediate threat and Oracle will transition to the graveyard, where it now becomes an reanimation threat. If we instead choose to Stifle the Oracle trigger, we also disrupt the immediate threat, but leave the opponent in a position where they need to find a way to get their Oracle off of the battlefield before being able to reuse it.
At the end of the day, you’ll need to evaluate the tradeoffs involved before deciding if the inclusion of Stifle effects is a reasonable choice based on the texture of your local metagame.
Hate against this line of transition can be divided into two groups: cards that attack the transition to the graveyard and cards that attack the graveyard itself as a zone. The latter forms the more powerful and more generally impactful grouping. When we establish a game state where any cards transitioning to the graveyard just disappear forever, not only do we place a substantial burden on the players who use the graveyard in their gameplan, but we also often enjoy the … Windfall of incidentally exiling combo pieces that aren’t graveyard bound through the course of normal play. This is especially true if we design for it. We can implement our decks around this tactic of Rest in Peace weaponization as long we’re careful to choose asymmetric graveyard hate or wincons that don’t care about our cards getting exiled.
It’s also worth acknowledging that we can attack this surface more systematically by choosing hate that only attacks certain card types. This enables more precise, targeted game plans that can open more breathing room to inhabit and create, in effect, broken parity where it wouldn’t otherwise exist.
More to Come
Like I said at the beginning, this is going to be an ‘open’ piece that will receive updates periodically to catalog lines of transition and ways to interact with them as lists and metagames evolve. Expect downstream articles to call back to this one in a vaguely ‘reference’ fashion. As always hit me up on Twitter (@cobblepott__) or Reddit (/u/cobblepott) for more discussion!