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Casual Observations – I Call Shenanigans


Art by Carl Critchlow

“Ford! There’s an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they’ve worked out.” — Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

To Infinity and Beyond!

To some, establishing a game state where victory is certain because an infinitely-repeatable card interaction is hurtling them toward an infinite life total, or is powering-up an infinitely large Fireball, is an achievement to be proud of. To others, it’s a tiresome thing to watch and is depressing to lose to.

But let’s ignore the haters for a few minutes, shall we?

I’ll admit that I am not the biggest fan of infinite combos. I mean, let’s look at what was probably the first infinite combo ever conceived of:

Time VaultAnimate ArtifactInstill Energy

There you have it: an artifact creature that could tap to grant you an extra turn, and that could untap exactly one extra time per turn for free, thus cleverly circumventing Time Vault‘s untap restriction.  If you pulled it off, you could have infinite turns, and all your opponent could do was sit there and wait to be vaporized (or execute one of a dozen ways to blow up the Vault and end the combo — look, I didn’t say it was a solid lock, just the first).  Back in the day, we had a nickname for this combo…which unfortunately can’t be repeated in polite company.

Suffice to say it highlighted the fact that you were, more or less, playing with yourself.

As a fledgling player, I feel that I was rightfully derisive of anyone who had the gall to try a fragile multicolor, three-card infinite turn combo. Nowadays, though, I find myself appreciative of particularly elegant combos, including infinite ones. I’d like to share with you a combo that I believe to be simple, elegant, and, above all, entertaining. It’s a combo that is so cunning and maniacal that it could only be masterminded by one of the most savage and devilish creatures ever printed. A truly ruthless, dastardly rogue:

Gilder Bairn

No, seriously.

He may not look like much, but Gilder Bairn is a unique card. While there are plenty of ways to add counters to permanents, or to move them between permanents, Gilder Bairn stands alone as the only card capable of doubling the number of counters on a permanent, at instant speed, completely disregarding what kind of counters they are. Dozens of potential uses come to mind, such as beefing up creatures via +1/+1 counters, adding tons of charge counters to artifacts, or skyrocketing a Planeswalker’s loyalty count. But when I first laid eyes on Gilder Bairn, one of my very favorite cards leaped to mind as a potential partner in crime: Saproling Burst.


In principle, the combo is straightforward. Saproling Burst grants you token creatures equivalent to the number of counters you’re willing to remove from it, each with power and toughness equal to the number of counters remaining on Saproling Burst, with the stipulation that one counter goes away each turn automatically due to the Fading mechanic. If we let Gilder Bairn work his magic, he can theoretically keep the Saproling Burst alive indefinitely, thus exponentially increasing our ability to pump out bigger and bigger Saprolings turn after turn.

But that isn’t good enough for me. I don’t want 600 giant Saprolings on turn 30; I want ALL of the Saprolings, I want each one of them to be the size of a SMALL PLANET, and I want them RIGHT NOW!

Since there’s no cost to removing a counter from Saproling Burst, let’s look at the limiting factors that are preventing us from going infinite and find some solutions. Saproling Burst comes into play with a hefty 7 fade counters. While that’s enough ammo to make some pretty frightening Saprolings, it’s still a limit. Fortunately we’ve already solved this problem: we’re enlisting Gilder Bairn to double and re-double (and re-double, and re-double, ad infinitum) the number of counters we have to work with. The only thing holding us back is how many times we can use Gilder Bairn each turn.

Since Gilder Bairn’s ability has a mana cost associated with it, we need to find a way to generate infinite mana. As if that weren’t tough enough, here’s a serious curve-ball: Gilder Bairn was one of the few creatures lucky enough to have an activated ability that relies on the untap symbol. In order for Gilder Bairn to do his thing, he needs to be tapped beforehand. So now we need to find a way to keep Gilder Bairn tapped, and to generate infinite mana while doing so. Gee, if only there were a card, perhaps an enchantment, that allowed us to tap creatures in order to generate mana…

austin powers 1

Wait a tick!

Crafting with Earth

Unless you’ve been paying close attention for the past sixteen years, you might never have heard of Earthcraft.  It was first printed in 1997 and has been banned since 2003 (first in the Extended/Type 1.5 format, then in Legacy), and is unlikely to come off of the banned list any time soon. Fortunately, though, since we’re playing casual Magic, we’re not restricted by such trivial concerns as legality. We’re here to make an interesting, elegant and fun infinite combo deck, and, by golly, Earthcraft is going to help us do that!

(Aside: Please understand that I am a budget-conscious Magic player, and it’s not my goal here to urge everyone to run out and drop $80 on a playset of Earthcrafts. If you can get them through purchase or trades, good on you. If not, and if you still want to build this deck to play at the kitchen table with your buddies, please proxy them and give it a go. I firmly believe that someone’s inability to procure key cards shouldn’t prevent them from enjoying this game.)

So now we have a means of keeping the Gilder Bairn tapped. As long as Earthcraft is in play, we can tap him to untap a basic land. We can then funnel mana through him and untap him via his ability, at which point we double the number of counters on Saproling Burst. But that only gets us halfway there, right? If Gilder Bairn’s untap ability ran off of one mana, we’d be home free. Sadly, it runs off of three mana, so the Bairn is going to need to recruit a couple of buddies to help him pay for his ability.

Fortunately, the solution to this dilemma is already on the table. Literally. Saproling Burst is a creature-generator par excellence, and the Saprolings it generates can be used to untap more lands via Earthcraft. At first glance, it looks like this interaction runs afoul of the rule that creatures can’t tap or attack on the turn they come into play, but this combo makes use of a loophole: what the rule really says is that a creature’s ability with the tap symbol as part of the cost can’t be activated the turn that creature comes into play, but the creature can legally be tapped for other reasons, such as paying for another card’s activated ability.

Once all the pieces of the combo are in play, here’s how it works:

  1. Play Saproling Burst
  2. Remove two counters from Saproling Burst, leaving five counters on it.
  3. Place 2 Saproling tokens into play, each is now 5/5.
  4. Tap Gilder Bairn and your two new Saprolings to untap three basic lands.
  5. Tap those lands to run three mana through Gilder Bairn, which untaps him and increases the number of counters on Saproling Burst to ten.  Your Saprolings are now 10/10.
  6. Remove another two tokens from Saproling Burst, leaving 8 counters on it.
  7. Place 2 Saproling tokens into play, each is now 8/8.
  8. Tap Gilder Bairn and your two new Saprolings to untap three basic lands.
  9. Tap those lands to run three mana through Gilder Bairn, which untaps him and increases the number of counters on Saproling Burst to sixteen.  Your Saprolings are now 16/16.
  10. Repeat until you run out of tokens/counters, or until your opponent punches you in the nose.

The reason I believe this combo to be truly elegant is that there is a symbiotic relationship between all of cards involved in the combo. Each component has its own limitation, and each component makes use of the other two to overcome those limitations. Saproling Burst generates the creatures you need to untap your lands with Earthcraft, which you need to use in order to fuel the Gilder Bairn’s ability, which you need in order to create more creatures.


I designed the table at the right to illustrate how insane this combo is. Here’s what your board state looks like after you repeat the combo 15 times: you have 30 tapped Saprolings in play, and each one has a power and toughness approaching 100,000. You should be able to win the game solely by crushing your opponent under the weight of your Fade counters. Once you’ve gotten to this point, you can then remove counters to create untapped Saprolings on a one-to-one basis. Removing four counters creates four fresh Saprolings, each with a power/toughness of 98,304/98,304. That alone is enough to kill your opponent 19,660 times over.

Putting it All Together

Well, there’s my fun, elegant infinite combo. Whaddaya say we build a deck around it?!

What we need to focus on is getting our combo in play and protecting it. Coincidentally, the color that is best at protecting combo pieces also happens to be very good at deck manipulation. And you might have noticed that the Gilder Bairn’s hybrid mana colors were Green and Blue…come to think of it, I don’t think that was a coincidence…

Since we can technically go infinite the instant we get all three combo pieces in play (unless Gilder Bairn was the last one to be played), the rest of the deck is going to consist of card draw, a couple mana dorks, and a few assorted answers just in case things get out of hand. Here’s what I have in mind:

Saproling Shenanigans

Individual Card Choices

Concordant Crossroads

The combo we’ve been discussing will generate an arbitrary number of creatures, but they can’t really do anything (aside from tap to activate Earthcraft).  Having a Concordant Crossroads in play allows you to pull off a few (or a few hundred) counters and Zerg-rush your opponent on the same turn.

Green Sun’s Zenith

Combos that rely on creatures are often problematic because creatures tend to be fragile.  Green Sun’s Zenith allows us to tutor for one and place him directly onto the battlefield.  Think of these as Gilder Bairns number 5 and 6.

Brainstorm / Fact or Fiction

Barring anything in the Power Nine, these are probably the best draw spells ever printed.  Brainstorm allows you to dig three cards into your library, and then evaluate your hand and select the two least beneficial cards, which you then return to your library.  This means that you can accidentally stumble into more than one combo piece while drawing, and then keep both of them.  Fact or Fiction works in much the same way: no matter how your opponent divides your cards, you will almost always wind up with exactly what you’re looking for.

Into the Roil

This deck is incredibly light on spot removal, so I tried to include something versatile.  Into the Roil doubles as removal and card draw, depending on what stage of the game you’re in and what your current level of desperation is.

Arcane Denial

I have always loved Arcane Denial.  Two-mana hard counters are difficult to come by, and they’re incredibly useful.  Without resorting to stuff like Mana Drain and Remand, A.D. is your best option for a cheap, effective counter.  You lose some card advantage here, but I don’t know if that’s much of a problem.  If you’re squeamish about the notion of letting your opponent draw extra cards, Mana Leak or Negate might be a good alternative.

Sword of the Ages

Undoubtedly, you’re going to find yourself in a situation where swarming your opponent with an infinite number of infinitely-large Saprolings isn’t good enough.  Maybe she has a Moat in play.  Maybe she’s playing a wonky Turbo-Fog deck.  In these cases, you need to use alternate means to punch through for the win.  Sword of the Ages lets you convert your creatures’ power into raw damage, so defenses against attacks won’t help your opponent avoid crushing defeat.  Pity.

Stroke of Genius

As a second ace-in-the-hole win condition, you can always use your army of Saprolings to untap a basic land an infinite number of times, floating an infinite amount of mana into your mana pool.  You can then use it to fuel all sorts of interesting spells, but the best on-color option has to be Stroke of Genius.  When in doubt, deck ’em.  I chose Stroke of Genius over the cheaper Braingeyser because it can be played at instant speed, making it that much more versatile (and playable off of an end-of-turn draw spell).

Temple of Mystery

Of all the possible dual-land choices, this may strike you as an odd one.  I selected Temple of Mystery because I was mindful of the fact that Earthcraft doesn’t work with non-basic lands, and, since we therefore couldn’t go hog-wild with non-basics, I wanted the few that I selected to be versatile and useful.  Temple of Mystery is good for mana fixing in a pinch, but it also allows us to scry for 1, thus setting up our next draw.  Since we don’t have access to tons of tutors, I felt that this merited inclusion.  It’s still an experimental idea, though, so feel free to use your Tropical Islands instead (kidding, Hinterland Harbor works just fine).

Anyway, that about wraps it up for my foray into The Infinite.  Happy dueling!

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