The feeling you get when you play an engine-based combo deck is like none other. Picking the exact but subtle decisions in the only order that will ensure the maximizing of mana and cards, followed by a barrage of spells, provides a feeling of accomplishment like no other play.
An “engine deck” uses cards that make more mana than their cost and cards that draw multiple cards to provide a stream of spells. After going through most of the deck and creating a large cache of mana, the decks us a kill card or kill cards to finish off the opponent. For example, Elves (an engine-based Extended deck), Heritage Druid and Nettle Sentinel makes the mana, Glimpse of Nature draws the cards, and Eternal Witness and [card]Primal Command[/card] provide a loop as the kill. Similarly, in Ad Nauseam’s case (an engine-based Legacy deck), the rituals provide the mana, Ad Nauseam draws the cards, and Tendrils of Agony finishes the opponent off.
While most professional-level players like to play control decks to take full advantage of their abilities, I have found that engine decks are often a better way to push ones skill’s to the maximum than the blue decks of the major formats. Decks like Elves and Ad Nauseam are very hard and very powerful decks, yet they are played by talented players much less frequently than the comparable Dark Depths and Reanimator, respectively.
Because engine decks are generally less popular than other decks, they can often make great off-the-radar choices. Elves is an incredibly fast goldfishing deck, and it has Ranger of Eos to grind out post-board games against decks bringing in removal, and Ad Nauseam is a consistent Turn 2 deck that gets to play eight Duress effects. Nonetheless, Elves is considered a Tier 2 deck in Extended and Ad Nauseam is considered a Tier 2-ish deck in Legacy. As a result, neither of these decks sees significant hate. I took down GP Oakland with Elves and David Mayer dominated the last major Legacy tournament with Ad Nauseam, showing that when played competently, these decks can win tournaments.
Even with the lack of hate for these powerhouses, people still seem reluctant to play them. Instead, they will play Dark Depths in an Extended format filled with hate cards like Night of Soul’s Betrayal and Damping Matrix or will play Reanimator against hate cards like Leyline of the Void and Tormod’s Crypt. The seeming advantage is that these decks involve simple two card combo that a pure novice could. Engine decks are more complicated than combo decks, but one reward is not having to fight through as much hate.
Another reason that engine decks aren’t popular and seem more complicated than they really are is that they require a different type of thinking than other Magic decks. Engine decks require players to keep track of multiple criteria for every option they consider for each step in the characteristically lengthy turns. Keeping track of the possible mana in your mana pool, the number of cards you can draw, the number of spells you’ve played, the number of artifacts in play, etc., for each hypothetical option at each decision point in the turn is very different than what one normally worries. For example, an engine deck like Time Sieve is not necessarily harder than the premier control decks of the format, but it is very different. Part of peoples’ aversion to Time Sieve can be explained by the fact that it isn’t a very good deck, but I don’t think that’s all of it. It still has a Turn 5-ish goldfish and a very good control matchup. People know how to be patient with their Wrath of Gods or not over-commit against them, but it is a much rarer skill to understand how to maximize value out of Howling Mines. Even though there are more decisions in a Blue/White Control deck than Sieve, I would be willing to wager that most people would still feel a lot more comfortable playing control. People just aren’t used to eking out every Time Sieve activation to get full value on an Open the Vaults or figuring out which artifacts to sacrifice.
When playing an engine deck, there are a lot more things to keep track of than with a usual deck. However, there are two that stand out: mana and cards. As long as you know whether you need mana or cards, all you have to do is figure out which play provides you with the most of whatever you need. Sometimes, this will involve using spells in awkward ways, but as long as you are contributing to the necessary resource, your play is almost assuredly correct.
Here is an example of having to use this engine theory that came up in a test game:
You are playing a card for card copy of my Grand Prix Oakland Elves list:
In this particular situation, I was testing against Ben Stark playing Hypergenesis with Josh Utter-Leyton (Wrapter) sitting next to me. In play, I had a Forest, a Nettle Sentinel, a Heritage Druid, and a Llanowar Elves. In hand I had Cloudstone Curio, Glimpse of Nature, a Nettle Sentinel, and an Elvish Visionary. Hint: The top cards of your deck are irrelevant.
Josh and I were trying to figure out the right line of play and he suggested leading with Glimpse to maximize the number of cards drawn. This was my first instinct as well, and it was likely to work barring a bunch of lands in a row. If you took this approach, you will get a draw off the Nettle, and two off the Visionary, and should have plenty of mana and a Glimpse going, which usually leads to success.
However, I told Wrapter that in this case, I would be better off playing the Cloudstone Curio with an Elvish Visionary which would begin an infinite loop. Since the Curio is a three mana spell and the Visionary is a two mana spell, mana became more important than cards. By taking this approach, we wouldn’t have to put the game in Lady Luck’s hands. I played Nettle Sentinel, then tapped 2 Nettles and an Elf to float three. I then played Glimpse of Nature floating two mana, essentially as a ritual, and then tapped the now untapped Nettles and the other Elf. This meant that using the two floating mana and the three newly created mana I could make the five mana necessary to cast Curio and Visionary and go infinite. While Josh’s play was probably 90% to be successful, my play was 100%: those extra percentage points can be the difference between winning and losing.
Wrapter had used his normal Magic instincts to try to get full value out of his cards. However, in this scenario, Curio would lead to infinite cards as long as I had sufficient mana to play it and the Visionary. I could then loop until I found Eternal Witness and Primal Command. Thus, my goal was to maximize mana rather than to maximize “value.” Thus, the play I made, which looks wrong from a value perspective, was quite clear once I decided that nothing was more important than mana. In this case, I knew that with Elves, the way to maximize mana is to look for an opportunity to play Nettle Sentinel and follow it with spells. When I did the math in my head, I came to the conclusion that I was sure to go infinite with the play above. No matter how much value one might get from a Glimpse of Nature (or any other “value” card), no amount of value is better than winning the game.
If you are in the mindset of an engine deck and have experience with them, plays like the one above should become easier and easier. Unfortunately, because most players are so scared of engine decks, they don’t develop the habit of considering plays in this way. More than any other type of deck, getting good at engine decks requires you to intensively play decks that require you to think in terms of mana and cards.
Before Pro Tour Berlin, most professional players in the know were convinced that Elves was the best deck. However, Elves was only discovered a week or so before the PT. Players interested in playing Elves did not have a lot of time to test, so many players even elected not to play Elves simply because they were concerned about their proficiency with engine decks. In the end, the Top Four of the Pro Tour were all playing Elves: Players who did not feel comfortable with engine decks essentially gave up their chance to win the PT.
There is one impediment to engine decks that does not involve their intrinsic worth: the current rules. The way slow play rules are currently established, combo decks are expected to take the same amount of time per decision on their normal turns as their combo turn. Judges are allowed to allot players more time for complicated board states, but the board is not usually what’s complicated in engine decks. In addition, if judges do not understand what your deck is trying to do, it is extremely difficult for them to figure out how much additional time to think is reasonable. Obviously this has not prevented engine decks from being successful, but I do think it is a problem worth looking into. I am not really sure of the best approach to solve this problem, but there could certainly be something in the rules about extra time being permitted not just for complex board states but also for complicated decks and hands.
One way to become a more successful player is to learn how to play engine decks, regardless of how good they are in the current format. For players who want to take their game to the next level, learning how to play engine decks will allow you to play with Glimpse of Nature as naturally as playing with Wild Nacatl or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Even if you don’t love engine decks like I do, there are some formats in which engine decks will be most powerful. Becoming better-rounded is one of the best ways to take your game to the next level. Whether you decide to play with Time Sieve at your next FNM, Elves at your next Extended Tournament, Ad Nauseam at your local Legacy, or even TPS at a Vintage tournament, practicing how to use engine decks will improve your game and help take you to the next level.