Alternative Facts err... Win Conditions

The quick onyx goblin jumps over the lazy dwarf. If these words seem familiar to you, then you just might be a Johnny, that Magic personality type who simply loves brewing, tinkering, and tweaking, all for that moment where everything falls perfectly into place. You don’t just want to win, you want to win in style, and with the greatest amount of cheese possible!

You've just sat down at a Modern tournament — be it FNM, a GP, online… doesn’t matter where. You play Celestial Colonnade or maybe Hallowed Fountain, suspending Ancestral Vision if you’ve taken the latter line. Your opponent plays Misty Rainforest and fetches Breeding Pool, tapping for Green and putting Glistener Elf into play. There’s a very strong chance that you’re dead on the next turn.

Okay, the Infect mechanic isn’t exactly an alternate win condition, at least in the sense of how we understand the term, but nevertheless it is a way to achieve victory without dealing the traditionally requisite 20 points of damage. When we speak of win conditions, we tend to speak about reducing an opponent to 0 life (or less, but you get the idea) or milling them, i.e. putting their entire library into the graveyard, so that the opponent cannot draw a card on their next turn. Poison counters didn’t make an appearance until Legends, and Infect as a mechanic only took shape in Scars of Mirrodin.

There are over two dozen cards in Magic: The Gathering which state or have wording to the effect of “you win the game”. Here we will look at some of those cards, and discuss their place (and the place of non-traditional win-cons) in the game of Magic.

Cutting the Chaff

We’re not going to talk about Amulet of Quoz, Now I Know My ABC’s (whence the above quote), or Felidar Sovereign. Even for Johnny, alternate win-cons need to be possible (however improbable). Helix Pinnacle might be a fun card to play with, but you’ll never win with it without other insane combo pieces, or the generation of obscene amounts of mana, and if that’s the case, why not utilise other win conditions?

Alternate win-cons are sometimes easy to gauge in terms of strength or feasibility. Battle of Wits requires you to have 200 cards in your library during your upkeep, Test of Endurance requires you to be at 50 life in your upkeep, and Chance Encounter needs 10 luck counters, where counters were earned by winning coin flips. At a glance, the White card seems to be the easiest to win with, and you’d be right. That Standard season (Type II as it was known then) saw Test decks in action, abusing the ludicrous value that was to be had from Life Burst. Robert Maher gave us Dark Confidant by winning the 2002 invitational with a Battle list, which we’re not going to reprint here for reasons of space…

On the other hand, the other two cards in this cycle tend to stand out rather bleakly: Mortal Combat from Torment and Epic Struggle from Judgment. These cards, requiring either 20 creatures in the graveyard or 20 creatures in play, tend to ignore the obvious — that if you have that many creatures, generally speaking, you’d be better off attacking with them and winning before ever needing an upkeep trigger.

Newer alt win-cons have been less clunky, however, and we pick it up with Laboratory Maniac, a creature which wins you the game if you have zero cards left in your library and you’re required to draw a card. Given the insane amount of self-mill spells in the game, this was a clearly breakable card. In addition to being used in Ad Nauseum decks as back-up in games where you’re unable to "go-off" and just draw your library, this Human Wizard saw some decent amount of play on the SCG circuit.

This is Andrew Baeckstrom’s deck from several years ago. Okay, again, the main win condition here is Boros Reckoner, but the deck is designed to draw and self-mill in order to power a massive Harvest Pyre. Séance is there to bring back the Minotaur or the Lab Man, as required, which you can do before your draw step… Nice!

One of the cards in the above sideboard, Assemble the Legion, also saw play shortly afterwards, as part of another AWC deck — this time Maze’s End. This rare land from Dragon’s Maze has the ability to go fetch a Gate from your library, and put it into play. It’s pretty straightforward, but ultimately a counterintuitive card. Part of a Turbo Fog shell, it was almost always better to activate the Maze’s End on your main step (certainly as the game progressed) in order to replay it so that it was available the following turn. Should you find it a slow grind, Assemble the Legion was there to provide an ever increasing horde of blockers or attackers, creating additional pressure on opponents who were facing vague inevitability regarding more and more Gates hitting the table.

This is what Gabriel Nassif took to the Pro Tour that year. It was not at all similar to the versions that were seeing play in FNM all around the globe, which ran two of each Gate and more fog effects. But the Pros have the benefit of greater testing groups, and only have to account for what they expect to meet over one weekend.

There have been several AWC cards printed in the interim, and only two really saw play. Demonic Pact, which was the key part of Chris Botelho’s Cat Pact deck from GP Portland in 2016

…and Approach of the Second Sun, which has been covered extensively already, and which will continue to be so.

Cat Pact took advantage of what Demonic Pact provided, in card advantage, some life drain, before being faced with the “you lose” clause. Of course, Harmless Offering was the solution there, putting the problem firmly on the other side of the table and doing so on more than one occasion with more than one option available.

The most recent AWC is Revel in Riches, and while it looks absolutely doable on paper, Standard in 2018 is either too controlling or too fast, leading to board states where 10 Treasure is a tall order. As of now, it serves to highlight the gap in quality when such cards are printed. Does the pilot have a coherent game plan in the event that Route 1 fails? How does it fare against the existing metagame? It’s evident that waiting until Turn 5 to resolve a RiR against Vampires or Mono Black is basically a concession. Against Approach decks, you’ll face no creatures with which to expend the removal suite you’ve been obliged to play in order to eke out those precious Treasures.

It’s a mixed bag overall. Perhaps Revel in Riches will find a home when Dominaria (whence Coalition Victory came, all the way back in Invasion) hits the shelves, or maybe not. The takeaway here is that the more successful AWC cards have ample redundancy in their 75. Maze’s End made quite a lot of soldiers, Approach decks can either beatdown with Hostile Desert or lifelinking Cats, or even mill out an opponent as the game enters the later stages. These cards shouldn’t be viewed in an absolute vacuum, but rather as a complementary card to already-existing archetypes. Don’t be drawn in or blinded by the "cool" factor; take a reasoned "approach" when evaluating such cards. Happy brewing!

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