Glossing Over: Engines
Tap Birthing Pod, sacrificing Elvish Visionary to get Deceiver Exarch. Deceiver Exarch triggers, untapping Birthing Pod. Activate Birthing Pod again, sacrificing Birds of Paradise to get Phantasmal Image copying Deceiver Exarch. Trigger untaps Birthing Pod. Sacrifice the copy of Deceiver Exarch to get Restoration Angel. Angel triggers and blinks the Deceiver Exarch, which triggers to untap the Birthing Pod. Sacrifice Restoration Angel to get Zealous Conscripts, which triggers to untap Birthing Pod. Sacrifice Zealous Conscripts to get Sun Titan, which returns Phantasmal Image to the battlefield as a copy of Deceiver Exarch, which untaps Birthing Pod. Sacrifice Sun Titan to get Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. Pass turn.
Did you catch all that?
The slang term “engine” is derived from a car engine; in Magic, an engine is something that makes a particular deck go. It is usually the focal point of the deck, from which all card choices made during deck construction are derived. Often, but not always, a deck’s main strategy will be to find its engine card and protect it, or at least utilize it as much as possible before the opponent has a chance to destroy it.
It is important to understand the distinction between an engine and a combo. While the two terms can overlap, a combo is defined as a combination of cards that, when used in conjunction, create an instantaneous win or a board state that is impossible to answer without a very specific set of answers. By contrast, an engine is any card or combination of cards that have synergy with other cards in such a way as to provide increasing card advantage or board presence over the course of a game. One must also make a distinction between something that is an engine and something that is simply “synergistic.” Restoration Angel is great with enters-the-battlefield creatures, but it’s hard to consider it an engine in the same sense as Birthing Pod or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. It provides extra value out of other cards, but doesn’t promote a specific style of deck building as a 3/4 flash flier for four mana is a reasonable creature in its own right.
So, now that we’ve properly defined what an engine is, let’s discuss some of the more potent examples of engine cards in Magic’s history, and talk about the pros and cons of each type of engine.
The most obvious example of an engine card (and the one with which I began this article) is Birthing Pod. Birthing Pod is the latest in a long line of cards known as “toolbox” cards, a name derived from the fact that the cards in question allow their user to search up specific answers to any situation. Other toolboxes from Magic’s past include Survival of the Fittest, Knight of the Reliquary, and Kuldotha Forgemaster. What these cards do is allow their controller to have access to his or her entire deck every turn, as well as providing opportunities for synergy with other cards. When you’re facing down a Fauna Shaman, you know there’s likely some number of enters-the-battlefield-from-the-graveyard creatures in your opponent’s deck, and you know a Birthing Pod deck will have plenty of creatures with enters-the-battlefield abilities.
However, these benefits are also a cost of utilizing these cards. Because your strategy is obvious, the hate for your strategy is equally obvious. Grafdigger’s Cage and Torpor Orb do an excellent job of shutting down Birthing Pod decks, and hate cards like Aven Mindcensor or Mindlock Orb can completely hose a deck whose main source of card advantage involves searching the library.
By the same token, a lot of these strategies are substantially weaker when their namesake card isn’t in play. Birthing Pod decks, by nature, need a specific number of creatures at each casting cost in order to function with the namesake artifact on the field, leading to situations where you have a hand of do-nothing one- and two-drops while your opponent is dropping haymakers or comboing off. At the same time, your deck plays at sorcery speed and plays very few noncreature spells, leaving you incapable of meaningful interaction with the stack. As such, when building a toolbox deck, having individual cards that work favorably with your plan A, like Restoration Angel in Birthing Pod or Lotus Cobra in Naya Vengevine, are essential to finding success when plan A fails.
The Fast Mana and the Furious
The favorite of competitive and casual players alike is the fast mana engine, best exemplified by Cloudpost, Primeval Titan, and the Urzatron. The idea behind these cards is that each successive copy of these cards (or, in Primeval Titan’s case, each trigger) puts you further along in the game than your opponent by widening the gap in available mana. These engines can be some of the most back-breaking and powerful in the entirety of the game, often locking opponents out of the game before they’ve even made their third land drop. Moreover, these engines are much harder to disrupt specifically because the engine is the mana base, which lies just behind enchantments in “permanent type most hard to interact with” (outside of Legacy).
However, utilizing fast mana comes with a huge risk. Because decks built around this strategy need a critical mass of land fixing and searching, they can be prone to top decking irrelevant cards as the game progresses. Without an early trump to go over the top of whatever answers your opponent might have, you become a slave to the top of your deck and lose to Jace, the Mind Sculptor or simple counter magic.
One-Shot the Sheriff
The next type of engine is what I like to call the one-shot engine. These are similar to toolbox engines in that they are usually tutors, but differ in that their use is normally a once-and-done affair. Classic examples of this category include Stoneforge Mystic and Squadron Hawk. Each of these cards provides card advantage when cast, but do not necessarily have to be dealt with once they’ve resolved (with Stoneforge Mystic sometimes being the exception). The advantage to this sort of engine is its flexibility; because most of these cards are self-contained packages, decks don’t need to be built around them, but rather built with them in mind. While there is such a thing as a “Stoneforge deck,” the actual Stoneforge package is mostly comprised of four of the namesake card and two to three equipment for it to search up.
The disadvantage of these types of engines is not as apparent, but it is a very real disadvantage. One-shot engines have a tendency to provide diminishing returns as they thin out the well of resources with every cast or activation. The fourth Squadron Hawk is never as powerful as the first, and eventually Stoneforge Mystic becomes nothing more than a glorified Squire. While these cards are flexible in use, they do require deckbuilders to find some way to make use of their components once their main usefulness has been extinguished.
DRAW ALL THE CARDS!
This brings us to the last type of engine; the card-drawing engine. This is the most easily understood and wide-ranging of all classes of engines, spanning the entirety of Magic’s history to include Necropotence, Yawgmoth’s Bargain, Life from the Loam, and the infamous Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Some of these cards, like Necropotence and Yawgmoth’s Bargain, provide raw card advantage without asking for any sort of synergy with the rest of the deck. Wizards no longer prints cards this inherently powerful, which is good for the sustained health of the game.
As for Life from the Loam or Jace, the Mind Sculptor, the card advantage is both real and virtual. For those of you unclear on these terms: “real” card advantage refers to any effect that leaves you with one more card either in your hand or on the battlefield from when you cast the spell or activated the effect, while “virtual” card advantage is any effect that gives you access to more cards than those to which you initially had access.
When you first cast a Jace, the Mind Sculptor and use his second ability, you are adding a card into your hand to make up for the Jace you just cast. This is card parity. However, Jace also drew you three cards deeper into your deck; thus, you drew a “virtual” two extra cards. The next time you activate Jace, you’re going up a card from your initial investment of the Jace, and digging deeper into your deck as well. Factor this into a format with fetch lands, where you can reset the top of your library after every Brainstorm, and now you’re essentially drawing three cards every time you activate Jace.
With cards like Life from the Loam, Land Tax, and Crucible of Worlds, the card drawing is more powerful but requires help. Simply drawing three lands a turn off Loam or Land Tax is not enough; you need to take advantage of the fact that you have excess lands in your hand. Classic examples of “things to do with extra land cards” include Seismic Assault, Raven’s Crime, Liliana of the Veil, and Scroll Rack. Each of these cards turns the excess lands in your hand into other cards (Seismic Assault turns lands into Shock, Raven’s Crime turns lands into Raven’s Crime, and Scroll Rack turns lands into Oona’s Grace).
What is the greatest shared weakness of engine-based strategies? Aggressively linear strategies! This includes both aggro and combo; because they put a clock on their opponent, aggro and combo decks can race a slower player to the finish before they are able to set up their Loam engine or their Birthing Pod chain. As with any deck, building an engine deck requires a knowledge of the turns in which your game plan is likely to take over and figuring out if you have to race or disrupt the strategies that are faster than you. In the case of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, things like counter magic and board sweepers are common. With Birthing Pod, having an aggressive midrange strategy backed up by life gain through Kitchen Finks or Huntmaster of the Fells is a great way to stabilize against aggro while presenting a threatening clock against combo.
Before we go, I’d like to provide one of my favorite examples of an engine in action (this is not something that actually happened, but it is not out of the realm of possibility!):
In a game of Commander, I’m playing my Sedris, the Traitor King reanimator deck. Anyone who knows me knows that my favorite card in the deck is Cauldron Dance, bar none. It’s like Sneak Attack and Shallow Grave rolled into one awesome package! Anyway, with seven cards in hand at the beginning of my combat step, I cast Cauldron Dance, putting Thraximundar into play from my hand and returning Wrexial, the Risen Deep from my graveyard to the battlefield. I swing at an opponent with both creatures, forcing him to sacrifice his only blocker, a Kokusho, the Evening Star. After blockers are declared, I ninjitsu Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni onto the battlefield tapped and attacking and return Thraximundar to my hand. Combat damage is dealt, and I put both abilities on the stack, one targeting Kokusho, the Evening Star and the other targeting the Spelltwine in that player’s graveyard. I cast the Spelltwine targeting the Cruel Ultimatum in my graveyard and the Radiate in another player’s graveyard. I cast the Cruel Ultimatum and target it with the Radiate, making each of my opponents discard three cards and lose five life while I draw nine cards, gain fifteen life and return three creatures from my graveyard to my hand, while also reanimating my opponent’s Kokusho, the Evening Star. At the end of my turn, I return Wrexial the Risen Deep to my hand.
Did you catch all that?