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Sophisticated Synergies and EDH Engines


Wurmcoil Engine
Wurmcoil Engine - Art by Raymond Swanland. © Wizards of the Coast

8 by 8 EDH - Building EDH Engines

The 8 by 8 EDH System is a strategy first approach to EDH deck building that aims to build fun and reliable decks. The system is founded upon a few simple principles that help guide strategy decisions, making deck design and building much quicker and easier.


In this guide we will focus on strategy and the synergies between them, the following articles will help this article make more sense:

What to Expect

This guide aims to explain what different types of engines are and what mechanics make them work really efficiently.


Exclusions

  • No new principles, just using pre-existing principles to explain the inner workings of an engine

TLDR

Synergies are like the oil and grease within the engine:

  • Sub-themes are a too general strategy that is better suited as a cross-strategy theme

  • Synergy refers to helper strategies that make other strategies more effective

  • We define an "Engine" as a grouping of complimentary mechanics that yield sustainable advantage

  • It is recommended to always include a secondary strategy that recovers cards either back to your hand or library

  • Commanders are often the main source of advantage in a deck, so its key to design the deck engine around them

  • The most powerful engines are essentially infinite combo's that lead to instant win conditions

  • Stax or Prison strategies are anti-engine spells or effects but still benefit from the 8-by-8 EDH System

  • Strategies can be sub-divided, increasing diversity and mitigating "mono-culture" risks

  • Strategy refinement takes time and testing to find the right balance between parts of your engine


Commander Synergy and Sub-Themes

Before I can discuss deck engines I need to first introduce and explain some more concepts which will help later.


Sub-Themes

Sub-themes are a select few keywords we use to identify some common pattern that exists between the Primary or Secondary strategies chosen in a recipe. These are often too general to make a good strategy grouping, and tend to be something like Creature Focus/Enchantment Focus or Sacrifice as Cost etc.


Currently, for ease of implementation almost all online or app based decklist software or webpages will by default group cards by their spell type (instants, sorceries, battles, artifacts, creatures, enchantments...) which is actually terrible for deck building. These are all far too general, and won't help you when building focused strategy groupings. Some allow for tagging which can help, but really takes a lot of time and effort. Whenever the developer makes a decision to make the product easy to produce over relevant to the customers use-cases we end up with not so helpful features, but because that's all we have, most deck builders simply go with that, which is unfortunate. I hope that the 8-by-8 EDH System encourages them to change their ways, and with the introduction of text or image recognition AI we could be about to benefit from a strategy revolution! These could automatically choose groupings for you to give more meaningful strategy analysis. Fingers Crossed!


That being said, generalized strategies are certainly not as helpful, but still necessary to take into account. And thats really the purpose of the sub-theme. I typically mention these before the Primary or Secondary strategies in the recipe as they help guide some of the upfront decision making. So when analysing your commander, write down your ideas for possible synergy strategies as well as some high level grouping ideas. From these you choose which are suited for Primary/Secondary or a Sub-theme or even a subset of a strategy. Remember the purpose of Primary and Secondary strategies are to create meaningful and trackable performance measures. You want to be able to test your strategy composition easily while performing 12 Starting Hands analysis.


Synergy

Synergy simply refers to any additional strategy that assists the functioning of some part of your decks overall strategy design. Typically with the 8-by-8 EDH System we choose synergy with our commander first, and then if there isn't enough (not all commanders are super synergistic) we synergize with other strategies (consider if your commander deals targeted damage, then your synergize by adding damage amplification abilities/replacement effects eg. triple or double the damage). Remember what makes a strategy most reliable? Having enough cards in that specific strategy so that you are more likely to draw one of its cards. You should always have access to casting your commander therefore its your main synergy target as opposed to maybe not drawing one strategy during a game due to bad luck. This is why we synergize with a commander first over any other internal strategy.


Tutors are very pro-synergy as they can fix not having that missing synergy piece. Just keep in mind tutor efficiency raises power level. I would also caution against having too many as there is a definite opportunity cost to having too many tutors. Imagine drawing 8 tutors in a row and having to constantly use them to find parts you need... so much shuffling and risk! Its easy to fall behind when this happens. You may also find yourself bottlenecked while awaiting to draw the tutored card... thus I recommend no more than 4 per recipe (I'm not including ramp tutors in this).


What is an Engine?

Before we can discuss different kinds of engines, we should first establish what an engine actually is. The way I define an engine is as follows:


A deck's "engine" is grouping of complimentary mechanic's that yield sustainable advantage.

Lets break this down further to explain these parts.


Complimentary Mechanics

The best way to explain this is by example. Consider the Cycling mechanic (we will exclude other types of tutor based cycling like basic land cycling) where you pay some mana cost, discard the card (with cycling on it) and draw a new card. This will register as a discard, as well as a draw. So when looking for complimentary mechanics you might consider cards like:

These cards all trigger off some aspect of the cycling mechanic, providing you with some kind of additional advantage or recovery.


What you will notice is there are many possible options which can make deck building tricky. The 8 by 8 EDH System helps in this regard as you define your strategy choices upfront in the recipe. When you realize there are many variants of a complimentary mechanic like this you can solve the complexity by adding focus to your chosen strategy.


Lets say you have "Cycling" as a sub-theme and added a secondary strategy called "Cycling Triggers". This means that you are aiming for there to be many cards in the deck with cycling, that are found in any of your Primary and Secondary strategies, but you want to make sure you specifically add cards that will give you advantage from cycling (or related mechanic) triggers hence the secondary strategy. To make it clearer what you are aiming for, you can increase the specificity of the strategy:

  • 12 cycling triggers (4-on draw, 4-on discard, 4-on cycling)

This means you aim to have at-least 4 cards that will specifically trigger on draw, 4 that specifically trigger on discard and 4 that specifically trigger on cycling etc. Your search and decision making now becomes easier as you have clear goals on how many of each kind you want. This is great as it balances out your strategy and also gives you ideas for what other kinds of strategies might synergize (such as general card draw, or having other discard as a cost cards).


You can keep the other cards that don't make the cut in a separate pile for possible substitution later. You inevitably will come across some cards that feel incorrect and need to be swapped out.


Sustainable

I'm using sustainable in this case to mean a few things:

  • repeatable

  • recoverable

  • affordable

Repeatable will ensure that your engine runs continuously. Ideally we favour permanents with abilities rather than instants/sorceries.


Recoverable means some way to reconstitute the engines fuel (all engines have to run on something disposable). In our case having a small recovery strategy to get "spent" cards back into your library or our hand.


Affordable means either we have means to reduce costs or we focus on cards that aren't super expensive (mana-value-wise). There's no point if every card in the deck is 6 MV or higher, as often you won't be able to perform multiple actions each turn. Lowering costs will also mitigate your risks as it raises the opportunity cost of opponents removing parts of your engine. Sure they can destroy this one part, but its cheap and easily recoverable or replaceable (even potentially in the same turn) so they might consider different targets for their removal.


My recommendation here is to always add at least one secondary strategy which will get cards back into your library or hand. I often find myself sneaking a 4 card strategy in, but if your opponents like playing removal or control you may need to increase this to 8-12 cards. I personally aim for things that are artifacts (so they go in any color deck) that put cards back into your library or maybe a big bang type refresh to shuffle your graveyard back into the library. Instant speed interaction is usually better for this as opponents might attempt graveyard removal.


I acknowledge that not everyone cares about engines, and its definitely not compulsory to build one in every deck, but it definitely helps you get going.


Advantage

Advantage refers to the product of the engine. To achieve great synergy you will typically aim for any of the following:

  • some kind of token generation

  • extra card draw or atleast rummaging (draw and discard)

  • resurrection (creatures from graveyard to battlefield)

  • extra lands per turn

  • spell/permanent theft

The goal is simply to get more of something than you would normally otherwise be able to. So if we try to describe this all together now:

I want to repeatedly gain additional advantage from performing my chosen mechanics, which yields an advantageous board state for myself over my opponents.

Often your Commander is the key to your greatest advantage engine as it is the most reliably repeatable card in the 100 cards. Partner commanders are equally awesome for this same reason. Why just have one repeatable card when you can have two?


The Most Powerful Engines

The most powerful engines in magic are those pesky 2 card infinite combo's that often result in some kind of winning board state. The most infamous (at the time of writing) is the Thassa's Oracle + Demonic Consultation combo and win-con.

First lets clarify a few terminologies here:

  • Infinite Combo: a repeatable interaction between a card or cards that has no limit to its repetition (think of this as an engine that never runs out of fuel, perpetual energy machine!)

  • Instant Win-Condition: some condition that if met, wins the game for you in that precise moment on the stack; typically this is written as part of an ability on a spell (like Thassa's Oracle)

  • Combo: a more limited but also repeatable interaction, usually constrained by a cost that is too high to be paid infinitely (Demonic Consultation is not infinite, as it can only repeat as long as you have cards in your library)

  • Win-Condition: this is a state or process that needs all opponents to be eliminated so you are the last planeswalker/wizard alive; typically this describes your process of how to win more than a the ability that states "you win the game"

This is important to clarify as the 8 by 8 EDH System classifies "instant-win conditions" or "infinite combo's" as cornerstone markers of competitive decks. In the power ratings, if you have an instant win condition or infinite combo in the deck, then you concatenate "+" to the rating, if you don't, you concatenate "-". Infinite combo's don't guarantee victory, but can certainly result in one. A common example are creature token infinite combo's where you make a million hasted rats and then proceed to combat to gnaw your opponents to death.


You might consider an instant wincon to be A+ where-as the less instant go-wide to infinity attack as a B+. Efficiency and tutors also contribute to reliability and the speed at which the deck will win, but these are more subjective measures so should only change the rating letter not the competitive symbol.


Combo's like this typically satisfy the engine definition from earlier but might skip recovery of cards because they go straight for the proverbial throat. Competitive decks will still aim to have ways to recover combo-pieces that were disrupted, just in case. Its always great for deck strategy resiliency to include some amount of recovery.


Anti-Engines aka Stax Builds

Stax or Prison builds aim to increase costs or restrict players abilities to cast or trigger abilities. These are inherently anti-engine as they aim to remove the grease/oil from the engine or outright break them. Board-wipes/resets could also be considered anti-engine as they remove all of a thing like Bojuka Bog exiling a graveyard engine's fuel (exile the graveyard).


Some examples are:


Some "Combo's" utilize certain card abilities in a great synergy with each other to lock a game down eg. Uba Mask and Knowledge Pool along side Drannith Magistrate or Teferi, which essentially prevents opponents from being able to continue playing the game which can lead to a concession win (or angry table flipping depending how upset they are).


I'm not currently particularly experienced in building stax/prison decks as I aim for my decks to be fun and interactive. That doesn't mean that the 8-by-8 EDH System can't be used to design these kinds of decks. Remember, you get to choose the strategy composition, and the purpose is to balance probabilities. So choosing things like how many prison enchantments or ETB (enter the battlefield trigger) blockers fits perfectly within the scope of the system.


I would recommend always including some kind of instant win-condition along side a small tutor strategy if you are going to be one of "those" people who wants to play stax or prison decks. Don't just lock down or combo infinitely without a reasonable win-con.


Engines and Risk in the Strategy Recipe

We have already covered the points I aim to make in this section to some extent but not with a great example to better highlight the risks.


In nature "mono-culture" refers to a large grouping of isolated homogenous (similar) organisms that become too similar (genetically speaking) which increases their risk of "Colony Collapse Disorder". This is where an outside pathogen or threat (change of environmental condition) leads to mass die-offs. Horrendous right? The solution is generally encouraging diversity, more mix and match than copy paste.


This same catastrophic failure can occur within mono-culture-strategy builds where you choose for example, to build your entire deck (including lands) using artifacts, and then one opponent uses a single spell "Farewell" choosing the mode to exile all your artifacts. Bye bye happiness, your game is over. You should always keep this example in mind while building as you don't want to experience this level of despair. I frequently refer to the concept of strategy diversity or "hedging your bets" so that you mitigate this kind of strategy collapse during a game.


How does the 8-by-8 EDH System help with this? Well remember the principle of the MVS (4 card subsets of essentially everything)? Utilize this to define subgroupings within a bigger strategy decision eg. 12x removal spells made up of 4x creatures with repeatable creature removal abilities, 4x exile creature/planeswalker instants, 4x artifacts that can destroy permanents. Here you have enough diversity to mitigate staxy/prison abilities that would prevent triggers or instants being cast. Its still possible a complete lock down occurs, but hopefully having a "Goblin Firebomb" out will help you remove that pesky Drannith Magistrate or Uba Mask before it can ruin your game.


With greater diversity in your strategies, it makes it harder for anti-engine builds to take control of a game and makes your engine more resilient. You may also be able to build a multi-engine strategy with a secondary engine as a contingency.


You always should aim to start simple, focusing on your commander and choosing appropriate strategies accordingly. As you test and experience your playgroup responses, you will need to make strategy adjustments (in multiples of 4!) which refines your strategy and helps you mitigate risks of failure. These adjustments should be with the mindset of mitigating risk to a reasonable point, you can't beat everything so do your best without completely undermining your main strategies. For example, there probably isn't much benefit to being over protective (like a protection strategy with 32 cards in it), where you are constantly waiting for your opponent to do something... and then they don't but still win the game... ah well... I bet you were hoping to draw that elusive win-con piece and instead drew 10 protection spells... balance and priority matter!


Engine Examples

Its all fine an well to talk about engines, but really you want to know some common engine patterns to follow right? Here are some of my most common engines and proposals for recipes.


Note: we are following the standard 64 + 35 + 1 = 100 formula here. With these builds often the commander makes a massive difference with power level.


Token Generation Engine

Here the focus is on generation of some kind of token, whether creature or clue or treasure, there are many generation options. Win conditions range from go-wide overruns, to sacrifice aristocrat life lose builds. You may also wonder where enchantress builds fit? Well they have to do something right? Not just draw cards...


Sub-themes: tokens, sacrifice as cost

Primary Strategies:

- 12 Draw (sac to draw)

- 12 Ramp (treasures?)

- 12 Removal (sac to remove)

- 4 Wraths (non-token focus)


Secondary Strategies:

- 12 Token related win-con (overrun or aristocrat burn)

- 8 anthems/protection

- 4 amplify (more tokens)


Voltron Engine

Here there is typically a choice to build heavily around the commander to get them doing most of the damage (only needing 21 commander damage to make opponents lose is quite strong, but not really OP like poison). The problem usually plagues Voltron builds is that you can take out 1 or 2 players, but die to the 3rd. They can run out of steam unless you add ways to multiply damage to opponents.


Sub-themes: equipment/enchantment

Primary Strategies:

- 12 Draw (also very important)

- 12 Ramp

- 12 Removal

- 4 Wraths (vital to clear problem boards)


Secondary Strategies:

- 12 Damage Amplification or Pump (your main pump up equipment or enchantments go here)

- 8 Protection (keep commander going)

- 4 Extra Turns (if possible)


Recovery Engine

Here the focus is on casting spells, and then recovering them to cast again. An example is Atla Palani with a few Avatars, where you shuffle the creatures back into your library if they get to the graveyard or are exiled. This might also partner with a mass board wipe strategy where you recover faster than opponents like with Living Death but you clear opponents graveyards. Here we aiming to deal combat damage to win still, rather than lots of little etb triggers.


Sub-themes: creatures that etb with some advantage

Primary Strategies:

- 12 Draw

- 12 Ramp

- 12 Removal

- 8 Wraths (opponent graveyard wipe focus)


Secondary Strategies:

- 8 Repeatable Recovery (resurrect or get creatures back to hand)

- 8 Battlefield Generator (make lots of token creatures)

- 4 mega recover (big steal/recover where you put all your creatures back but opponents lose theirs)


Tutor Combo Engine

This style aims to tutor up pieces to complete a combo. This can form the basis for some of the most competitive decks builds. These decks favour efficiency and may choose to run less lands as a result, and add more control to try prevent opponents winning.


These may follow a slightly altered formula 68 + 31 + 1 = 100


Sub-themes: hyper efficiency focus (lowest mana value vs spell impact)

Primary Strategies:

- 12/16 Draw (cantrippy instant speed)

- 12 Ramp

- 12 Removal

- 4 Wraths


Secondary Strategies:

- 8/12 control (counterspells to protect the combo)

- 4/8 combo pieces (too many combos spoil the broth, so avoid more than 2)

- 4 tutor


Theft Engine

Theft decks aim to steal other deck engines and aim to prevent opponents from gaining the upper hand. You can either aim to steal from grave yards or straight from opponents libraries.


Sub-themes: steal effects/spells/abilities, sacrifice as cost (help get rid of things after use)

Primary Strategies:

- 16 Draw (cast from top of opponents library to steal more things)

- 12 Ramp

- 8 Removal (you will still have some nasties sneaking onto the battlefield)

- 4 Wraths (reset everyone)


Secondary Strategies:

- 8 control (counter opponents problem spells)

- 8 increase opponent costs (their stuff must be more expensive so you can steal it)

- 4 recover from graveyard (including opponents)

- 4 mass copy things (opponents things can be nice too)


Storm Copy Engine

These want to cast as many spells as possible in a single turn to burn out their opponents, and are often border-line combo builds.


Sub-themes: cheap spells, spell copying

Primary Strategies:

- 12 Draw (cantrips)

- 12 Ramp (cost reducer focus)

- 12 Removal (burn or bounce)

- 4 Wraths


Secondary Strategies:

- 8 Recover or allow Cast from graveyard

- 8 on cast triggers (spell slinger or tokens)

- 4 Copy Spells repeatedly (usually enchantments)

- 4 Mega Storm explosions (typically result in massive burn turns)


Hybrid Engine

Its possible in some isolated cases to build a very synergistic multi-engine deck but this can take a lot of testing and refinement to get the balance right. It helps to have a significantly powerful commander. A great example here would be a Yuriko build that has tutors and a demonic consultation with thassa's oracle win line, but also has ninja cloning alongside high MV spells like eldrazi or extra turns and top deck control to really burn out opponents fast and reliably. The fact that you can just keep casting Yuriko for just 2 mana each time makes her super overpowered against any removal attempts. She's like that sticky gum under your shoe that just won't come off...


Again this might lean into the 68 + 31 + 1 = 100 formula.


Sub-themes: hyper-efficiency as well as several very expensive

Primary Strategies:

- 12 Draw and Top-deck Control (scry effects)

- 8 Ramp (not as important, make these as cheap as possible)

- 16 Removal and Control (counters or exile)

- 4 Wraths (opponent only focus eg. Plague Winds)


Secondary Strategies:

- 12 super cheap evasive creatures

- 8 High MV (extra turns or eldrazi)

- 4 combo

- 4 tutor (to top of library)


Final Remarks

The main goal of this guide was explain what the different kinds of engines are and give some examples of mechanics that synergize well with each other. Several baseline terminologies were established (sub-themes, synergy, combo, win-cons, complimentary mechanics, sustainability, advantage, strategy mono culture collapse etc.)


We also covered how you can incorporate a description of the engine and deck goals into your strategy recipe and gave some examples. There are many possible synergies which all need testing to find the right balance. The 8 by 8 EDH System's recipe helps you keep track of and control your changes to avoid risks and to keep decks focused and reliable.


Infinite Combo's and Instant Win-conditions are a clear indicator for measuring the competitiveness of a deck, and the recipe's power rating system helps give POD's clearer indicators of what a deck does, without giving away too many details.


Stax or Prison builds are anti-engine and should be mitigated through appropriate interaction and strategy diversity, but can also benefit from the same strategy balancing more fun decks utilize.


You may now be wondering a bit more about other ways the 8 by 8 EDH System can help you build better decks, and I hope to explain more in some upcoming guides, so make sure you subscribe/follow @intothe99podcast on YouTube and Instagram to keep up-to-date!


Thank you for taking the time to read this guide, and I hope that you found it helpful! You can find me on Instagram as well as a bunch of my decks and 8 by 8 EDH Recipes (in the Primers) on Moxfield if you do have any questions @thunder.emperors.command

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