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In Development – Iona, I Choose You

 

I use the word ‘orthogonal’ a lot.

The strictest definition of orthogonal is “perpendicular,” followed closely by “statistically unrelated” and “extraneous.” When I use it in the context of Magic, however, I typically mean a path to victory that differs qualitatively from another path to victory under consideration. For example, decking someone for the win is orthogonal to beating them down with creatures. The two paths to victory largely don’t overlap, and, as a consequence, the opponent is significantly less likely to have defenses against both.

Keep this thought in mind as we go along.

I’ve been a little displeased with control decks in the new Standard. The Ascension Pulse build I was running earlier was not nearly as successful as the Nayamorphic build, and, after due consideration, I’ve binned it. There are some successful control builds out there, but playing [card]Earthquake[/card]s and mono-blue Sphinxes is not exactly the direction I want to take in playing control.

This is, perhaps, a good time to mention that I also don’t generally play combo decks that go “all in” on their combo. Although I appreciate the power of a resilient combo deck such as Desire or Elves in the right hands, I generally prefer a deck that has more options for interacting with the opponent’s game plan, if necessary.

How does this all come together?

Trap Combo in Standard
While I was out scouting deck lists over the course of last week, I ran into this design at the top of a Magic League trial:

Summoning Trap Combo (by Lat)

This deck is heavily dedicated to the Summoning Trap combo. Briefly, this means getting to six mana, casting a Summoning Trap, and hoping you have at least one Sphinx or Iona in your top seven cards. If you hit an Iona, you lock out the opponent’s key color. If it’s a Sphinx, you probably go on to win against most decks you’re going to be playing against, as the combination of abilities on the Sphinx simply can’t be dealt with by Jund and Boros. The deck packs four copies of the Trap, as well as three more ways to get it, along with a whopping fifteen mana-ramping cards to try and get to six mana as soon as possible.

I overcame the initial temptation to launch right into tinkering and ran Lat’s version of his deck as written. It’s incredibly tough for Jund to deal with, assuming a [card]Blightning[/card] doesn’t decimate its hand right away. Things get a little harder if the Jund player knows to kill your Hierarchs as soon as they land, but if you stick either one of your combo fatties, the game is pretty much over. Consider that an Iona naming “black” turns off something like two thirds of the spells in a typical Jund deck – and those that are left over are hardly relevant to dealing with a 7/7.

This is a fun deck, but as I said, I’m not too excited about being all in on a combo, especially one that folds to Cancel. So what could I do?

Adopting an orthogonal approach

As I’ve mentioned before, I like decks that pack orthogonal approaches. The “reach” package in Nayamorphic, comprising two Naya Charms and two Elspeths, represents one form of orthogonality. Rather than testing the opponent with burn spells and creatures, you add in the challenge of a couple of planeswalkers. This is a sort of minor orthogonality, in that it doesn’t significantly deviate from the default beatdown path to victory, but it differs enough that the opponent needs to consider when and how to spend their limited removal that can deal with planeswalkers.

This is my all-time favorite orthogonal deck:

Rock and Nail (by Zac Hill)

This deck, which helped Zac Hill and Marijn Lybaert day two at Pro Tour: Valencia, operates much like a normal control-oriented Rock build. It has some disruption to help deal with combo, and Pernicious Deed and Collective Restraint to slow down aggro decks. However, instead of a more conventional finisher, this deck uses the Cabal Coffers and Urborg combination to generate a pile of mana and power out a Tooth and Nail for some combination of Platinum Angels and Sundering Titans. At Valencia, this was often a devastating, game-ending move.

Rather like locking your opponent out of an entire color with Iona.

This is the inspiration that struck me when I happened to be looking for new control decks while reading the Summoning Trap Combo deck. Instead of running a dedicated combo deck, why not use the combo as a finisher in a control decks?

Snare Control?

My first clever thought here was to start from the basis of the Combo version and to parlay the Trapmaker’s Snares into a sort of Mystical Teachings deck that tutors up not only the combo, but also silver bullets. Unfortunately, the selection of Traps that are useful in Constructed is pretty limited. At best, we might want to run Pitfall Trap, Mindbreak Trap, Lethargy Trap, and from the sideboard under very special circumstances, Ravenous Trap.

It turns out that this is a terrible idea. Much like the temptation to screw up a deck featuring Trinket Mage by adding in subpar one-mana artifacts, the desire to extend the usefulness of the Snares beyond simply digging for combo pieces led to a suboptimal deck. I tossed this idea and moved on.

How much combo do we need?

If I wasn’t planning on going all-in on the combo, I had to look very carefully at the component pieces. If we examine decks that pack orthogonal win conditions, we see that they don’t bleed away too much space to their combo. The Rock and Nail deck devotes just seven “hard” slots to the combo, and four of these can be used on their own (the Sundering Titans and Platinum Angels). Similarly, the Project X combo deck operates as a midrange deck that devotes from seven to nine hard slots to that combo. In either case, we’re not crippling the deck’s ability to operate on its “Plan A” mode (being a controlling or midrange deck) by devoting too much space to “Plan B.”

The Summoning Trap Combo build runs fifteen “hard” slots, with four Traps, three Snares, four Ionas, and four Sphinxes. This is a cripplingly large amount of deck real estate to devote to an alternate win condition, so we clearly need to start pruning. If we’re not going to repeat the failed Snare Control experiment, the Snares can go. This leaves twelve cards, eight of which are almost always dead without the other four. I’d like to cut out some of these Summoning Trap targets to get the combo portion of the deck down to a more manageable size, but how many can I cut and still expect effective Summoning Traps?

Here’s the quick hack I use in situations like this. It’s not statistically correct, but it’s good enough to guide my decisions. I apply a binomial distribution function, treating each card draw involved as a separate trial. For example, when considering a turn six Summoning Trap with eight targets in the deck, I might treat the event as seven trials (since Summoning Trap looks at your top seven cards) with an 8/47 chance of a successful hit on each trial (since you have eight targets you’d like to hit, and I’m assuming that you have not already drawn one). In this case, I then ask for the likelihood that I will have no successful hits – that is, that I won’t be able to Summoning Trap into one of my win conditions.

It’s a hack, and the numbers aren’t quite correct, but it has the substantial upside that you can quickly and easily calculate these likelihoods using the binomial distribution function in Excel or another spreadsheet application.

In this case, I asked what I could expect my failure rate to be as I brought my number of targets down from eight. Here’s what I found:

8 cards yields a miss rate of roughly 27%
7 cards yields a miss rate of roughly 32%
6 cards yields a miss rate of roughly 38%

Keep in mind that a “miss” here doesn’t mean I don’t get anything, it just means that I don’t get one of my finishers (Iona or a Sphinx). And once again, yes, the math is not precise, so please don’t write to me about it. Looking at these ballpark percentages, I decided that I was okay with about a 60% hit rate, and that having six otherwise dead combo-oriented cards in the deck was reasonable.

Which combo targets?

The original Summoning Trap Combo deck uses four copies each of Iona and Sphinx of the Steel Wind as targets. I spent a fair amount of time perusing Gatherer in search of creatures that might be either better or, in the manner of the targets in Rock and Nail, somewhat more compatible with the core deck. My eventual conclusion was that the original target selection is the best choice for the current Standard environment. Consider the targets that exist in both the main and sideboards.

Iona, Shield of Emeria is the most obvious of the targets. When she comes down, she can largely turn off an opposing deck’s game plan. You do need to be very careful in your choice of colors – for example, against Boros, it’s often best to name “white” despite the temptation to name “red,” as “white” cuts out a significant fraction of their deck, including the only single-card solution to Iona in Path to Exile. As long as you pause and make a conscious choice with Iona rather than simply going on autopilot, she’s probably the best possible hit with Summoning Trap. Also note Iona’s hilarious effect on the new Eldrazi Green deck.

Sphinx of the Steel Wind is a powerful, if more metagame-dependent, choice. Being a black creature with protection from red, it dodges a lot of removal, including every single option that a typical Jund deck has. The combination of vigilance, first strike, and lifelink also means that it can immediately serve as a wall that digs you out of a hole and turns the game around in short order. You do need to be wary of having your Sphinx Pathed in the Boros matchup, but the card is otherwise very, very strong.

Progenitus shows up in the sideboard as an option against control decks. It’s not a main deck choice because it doesn’t do as much to turn the game around if you’re already on the back foot. However, in control matchups where your life total is likely to be safe, but there may be a number of annoying defensive options that can trip up a Sphinx, Progenitus offers up a finisher that dodges everything except Day of Judgment. Note that Progenitus is the only Trap target in the original deck that can’t be hard cast if need be, which is one more reason to have it in the sideboard.

Making Summoner decks

Having decided on a default “Summoner” package of four Traps and six targets, we are left with fifty other cards to make a deck. As I spent so much time trying to decide how best to deploy the Summoner package in the first place, I haven’t had that much time to test the designs below, and I don’t know that one of them is clearly best. Of course, the natural upside of changing from being all-in on the combo to simply pushing it in as a finishing package is that we have a lot more freedom to work with in our design space.

The one thing you do want to keep in mind when inserting the Summoner package into a deck is that it’s useful to be able to actually cast the Trap targets, should you hit the right mana count. This converts the targets from strict combo components into powerful late-game plays. The Sphinx in particular can come down on a relevant turn in many of the decks one might want to put together with this build, and is a solid finisher.

With that said, let’s take a look at three possible Summoner designs.

Summoner Control

 

This very control-oriented build is the first direction I tried to take the design. There are a few relevant inclusions here. First, Wall of Denial is excellent here, and along with Ranger serves as the first line of defense against aggressive deck. Second, after considering the full range of sideboard options, I ended up simply maindecking the Celestial Purges. Finally, although this deck has no strict card draw, it has many card advantage tools. This is intentional, as I want to maximize card advantage and deck thinning to simultaneously avoid drawing Trap targets early while maximizing my likelihood of hitting them with a Summoning Trap.

The Empyrial Archangel is an experimental sideboard card that might come in for aggro matchups where the Sphinx is slightly less effective, such as Eldrazi Green.

Notice the single Swamp, there to let you actually cast your Sphinxes if you need to.

Summoner Midrange

 

This midrange variant drops the combo into a mix of disruption and threats. There are a couple nice interactions in this deck that the control version lacks. Both [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card] and Garruk Wildspeaker are simultaneously threats and mana accelerators, allowing Traps to be cast one turn earlier, and the hardcasting of Sphinx and Iona one, two, or even three turns ahead of schedule.

Once again, notice the single “off color” land, this time an Island. The midrange deck has more access to this land than the control variation, via both Harrow and Knight of the Reliquary.

Naya Summoner

This final Summoner variation offers some fun adjustments to the core Summoner game plan. Notice that I’ve added in two copies of Mayael in the main deck. In this deck, Mayael is a mini-Summoning Trap. She has the substantial downsides of being slow and highly killable, with the upside of being repeatable, letting you dig for finishers turn after turn. Given her fragility, I wasn’t willing to go above two copies, but she does offer two more ways to access your game-ending play. Over in the sideboard, I’ve also taken the opportunity to hack in some powerful finishers that we could imagine using in place of the Sphinxes in, again, the Eldrazi Green matchup. The Hellkites also have the advantage of being castable in this deck, especially with the assistance of Garruk and the Knights.

Playing Summoner decks

It’s still early days for this concept. As I mentioned, I spent a lot of time just figuring out the basic requirements for porting the Summoning Trap combo into other decks. As a consequence, my playtesting has been limited, so I have no specific matchup advice I want to offer. The core thing to keep in mind, however, is that these are not combo decks. Rather, they are control or midrange decks that should operate very much on their normal game plans until they happen to draw a Summoning Trap, at which point you can cast your Trap and hope to immediately win the game right then and there.

There’s more to it than that, of course. There’s thinking about whether to main phase the Trap or do it during your opponent’s turn. There’s mulliganing. There’s sideboarding. I’ll be testing these builds and expect to have more to say about all these options going forward.

In the meantime, I’ll hope for Summoning Trap into Iona, for the win.

Discussion

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