f you've ever seen a good mana engine work, you know such a thing can be a marvel. An expert player handling a powerful combo deck can turn a seemingly innocuous game state into a flourishing victory in one turn flat, leaving his opponent and any witnesses slack-jawed.
Granted, such engines and decks are exciting once or twice, but their presence can warp a competitive environment. Good engines become the focus of the metagame, and often cards must be banned in order to straighten things out again. With that knowledge, R&D has managed to keep so-called "degenerate" mana engines out of Standard and block constructed play for a while.
But some players like those types of decks, so I've decided to put together ten of the most impressive mana engines I could find from throughout competitive Magic. These are the combos the big boys play, from killer Type 1 decks to Pro Tour winning masterpieces. Remember, a mana engine is a combo that generates lots and lots of mana. Combos like Earthcraft/Squirrel Nest or Illusions of Grandeur/Donate might be capable of winning a game in one turn, but they aren't mana engines.
Keep in mind that whenever I use the term "infinite" in this article, it is just a shortcut for "arbitrarily large." There technically is no infinity in Magic; there's just 3,754,761,089,184,327. Also, not all of these engines are actually infinite. Some just manage to generate enough mana for one big game-winning spell with little or none to spare. That's ok, and they still qualify as engines.
I've broken the combos down by format beginning with current Type 1 (where just about anything can--and does--happen), and moving on to famous engines from past Extended, Type 2, and Block formats. This list is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive, nor is it meant to be. It is just a sampling of powerful engines throughout the years (most of which spawned during the time of Urza's Saga).
But first, a nod to the very first mana "engine"…
That's right, a one-card engine.
Where it's legal:
Channel is only currently legal in Type 1, where it is restricted. The card was legal (restricted) in the early days of Type 2.
How it works: For two mana, Channel allows you top spend life points in a one-for-one exchange for colorless mana. That is an especially good deal at the beginning of the game, when life is the more abundant resource.
What to use the mana on: Classy folks choose Fireball. With a mountain and a Black Lotus, Channel allows for 20-point burn spells on the first turn. In an environment full of Force of Will and Misdirection, however, such a maneuver is often not work the risk any longer. But back in the day…
CURRENT TYPE 1
Combo decks may not dominate Type 1 at the present time, but that doesn't mean there aren't some nasty mana engines out there. Here are three good ones you could run into if you play the Vintage format.
Worldgorger Dragon/Animate Dead
Where it's legal: This combo is legal only in Type 1.5 and Type 1 currently, as Animate Dead was last printed in Fifth Edition. It was legal in Extended prior to November 1st and made a little bit of noise there in small tournaments. But the combo is quick enough and cheap enough to see play in Type 1, the most high-powered format.
How it works: First the Worldgorger Dragon needs to be in your graveyard (via Careful Study, Entomb, Buried Alive, or other such cards). Play Animate Dead, which turns into a local enchantment that pulls target creature out of any graveyard into play (meaning the Dragon). The Dragon comes into play, and summarily removes all of your other permanents from the game, including the Animate Dead and whatever lands (or Moxes) you have in play.
When Animate Dead leaves play, however, the creature it was enchanting is destroyed. The Dragon dies. And when the Dragon leaves play, all the permanents it had removed come back into play, including your lands (untapped), and the Animate Dead. Animate Dead pulls the Dragon back out of the graveyard, its comes-into-play ability triggers--at which point you can tap your lands for mana and then everything but the Dragon is removed from the game… again. Repeat. You net an amount of mana per cycle equal to what your mana sources can produce.
What to do with the mana: If you have no way of stopping the cycle, it will continue indefinitely, ending the game in a draw. Fortunately there are several easy ways to stop it. One is to have an instant-speed kill card in your hand, such as Ghitu Fire or Stroke of Genius. That way you can respond to any of the numerous triggers that occur during the combo with the spell once you accumulate 30+ mana, and win the game. Another option is to have an instant-speed tutor effect in your hand that can find your kill card. Cunning Wish, Intuition, and Whispers of the Muse (reusable for 5U with buyback) can all get what you need to win. The final option is to have a different target in the graveyard available for the Animate Dead once you have gone through the cycle enough times. Bringing out Ambassador Laquatus with 500 mana in your pool is a good way to eliminate your opponent's library. Many players like the Mercadian Masques card Aerial Caravan, which allows you to remove cards off the top of your library until you find the kill card.
Here is a deck from the forums of themanadrain.com, a popular Type 1 website. Note that this deck is stocked to the gills with power cards; a Worldgorger Dragon deck doesn’t necessarily need all these restricted cards, but this build has a reasonable chance of winning on the first or second turn.
Worldgorger Dragon Combo
Type 1 - dicemanX
Power Artifact/Grim Monolith
Where it's legal: Just Type 1. Grim Monolith is legal in Extended, but Power Artifact (from Antiquities) is not. And because the Monolith is restricted in Type 1, it is subsequently banned in Type 1.5.
How it works: This one is as easy as they get. Power Artifact reduces the cost to untap Grim Monolith from to . And because the Monolith produces three mana when tapped, it can pay to untap itself, netting one mana per cycle.
What to do with the mana: Blue X-spells are the weapon of choice; you need one blue mana to play an arbitrarily large Stroke of Genius, or two blue mana for a similarly-sized Braingeyser.
Tolarian Academy/Capsize/Candelabra of Tawnos
Where it's legal: Just Type 1. Tolarian Academy, one of the most abusive lands ever made, has long since been banned from other constructed formats.
How it works: You need to have an ample number of artifacts in play, including the Candelabra of Tawnos, so that the Tolarian Academy taps for at least nine mana. Spend one of that mana to activate the Candelabra for one, untapping the Academy. Spend six more mana to play Capsize with buyback on the Candelabra, and then replay it for 1. The board is now back to where it was before, except you've netted at least one blue mana.
What to do with the mana: Again, blue X-spells work the best. These are generally the preferred kill cards in these types of decks because they can be played prior to getting the combo off as a means of drawing a few more cards.
The following is a deck culled from an Oscar Tan article on StarCityGames.com. (Sideboard taken from zongo.be/t1/) This one sports the Candelabra combo (as well as Mind over Matter, which will be discussed below), and could probably be altered to support one or two copies of Power Artifact for even more combo potential. Like the Worldgorger deck, this deck is packed with powerful cards that are probably not indicative of the Type 1 metagame as a whole. But we're talking about mana engines here, and such constructs do best when backed by the best cards in the format. Eighteen artifacts provide ample fuel for the Academy, and also provide lots of mana themselves. Helm of Awakening pulls double duty by powering up the Academy and making spells cheaper; with a Helm out, Candelabra costs to play and Capsize's buyback is reduced by one.
Type 1 - Matt D'Avanzo
The "free" mechanic from the Urza's Saga block, which let you untap lands equal to the mana cost of a spell when that spell resolved, spawned some insane mana engines in Extended. Time Spiral, Peregrine Drake, and even Snap were used to untap lands like Tolarian Academy and Gaea's Cradle, which provided more than one mana. Here are a few of the powerhouse decks and combos that block spawned.
Tolarian Academy/Mind over Matter
Where it's legal: These cards were both legal in Standard and Extended for a short while after Urza's Saga was released. But both cards, along with many others, were banned from both formats over the course of 1999. They are now legal only in Type 1.
How it works: Again, you need several artifacts in play to power the Academy. Mind over Matter is an enchantment that allows you to discard a card to tap or untap a permanent. So you tap the Academy for a large amount of mana, and then untap it by discarding a card. Repeat until you have tons of mana and just one card remaining in your hand, which should be some way to "refill," like Windfall, Time Spiral, or Stroke of Genius. Continue until you have enough mana to play the coup de grace. This combo isn't technically infinite, as you eventually run out of Time Spirals, but several hundred mana is usually plenty.
Mind over Matter also works well with Mana Vault, returning lots of colorless mana. Voltaic Key--another problematic "untap" card--works similarly to Mind over Matter, but can only be used once per turn.
What to do with the mana: Take a guess. Yep, Stroke of Genius.
Here is the well-known Academy deck played by Tommi Hovi to win the Extended Pro Tour in Rome. Like most good combo decks, it tries to freeze the opponent with an Abeyance before attempting to "go off."
Extended (1998) - Tommi Hovi - PT Rome Winner
Imagine an Extended format similar to the one from Hovi's Rome, except that Toalrian Academy and Mind over Matter are banned. That should quash the infinite mana, right? Wrong. There were so many options available, players just had to pick which new way they wanted to pull of the 200-point Stroke.
Where it's legal: These cards were legal together in Extended for the period of time between Palinchron's release in the beginning of 1999 until High Tide rotated out of the format that November. With High Tide now out of Extended, this combo is only legal in Type 1.5 and Type 1.
How it works:
High Tide increases the mana production of each island in play by , and its effects are cumulative. Palinchron costs seven mana to play, but it untaps seven land when it comes into play. So with one High Tide resolved, seven islands can be tapped for 14 mana, seven of which would pay for Palichron, leaving seven mana floating and all your lands untapped. The kicker? Palinchron can be returned to your hand for , meaning a loop of "play it, return it" can be created with three mana per cycle to spare. Frantic Search, Turnabout, and Time Spiral perform similar antics with High Tide until Palinchron shows up.
Some players also tried the combo using the red enchantment Mana Flare in place of High Tide.
What to do with the mana: I'm not even going to say it.
The Extended deck Kai Budde used to win Grand Prix - Vienna in March of 1999 had a single Palinchron:
Extended (1999) - Kai Budde - GP Vienna Winner
Great Whale/Recurring Nightmare
Where it's legal: While the cards are legal in Type 1, 1.5, and Extended, the combo no longer works due to errata. So don't bother trying it.
How it worked:
Great Whale used to untap up to seven lands whenever it came into play from anywhere, including the graveyard. So the trick was to get it into play using less than seven mana. With seven lands in play, a Whale in the graveyard, any other creature in play, and a Recurring Nightmare in hand, a loop could be created. Tap all seven, spend three to Recur the Whale into play, untap all seven, and spend three more to Recur the Whale back into the graveyard. Now the board is in the same state, except you've netted one mana. Repeat. With two Whales you can pull this off with only four land.
Caveat: The Whale, along with several other creatures with abusive comes-into-play abilities (such as Peregrine Drake and Iridescent Drake) have been officially errataed so that their abilities only work if they were played from your hand. The errata have eliminated these cards' combo potential. Remember to check the Oracle if you are unsure of any card's current wording.
What to do with the mana: Once enough black mana had been accumulated, the target of the Recurring Nightmare shifted from the Great Whale to Triskelion. The "Trike" can shoot for three damage, even on the turn it comes into play, and by Recurring it a handful of times it wasn't hard to deal 20 damage.
Below is the deck played by Jean-Louis D'Hondt to a money finish at Pro Tour - Rome. It had numerous ways to get Whales and Trikes into the graveyard, including Merfolk Traders, Merfolk Looters, and Intuition.
Extended (1998) - Jean-Louis D'Hondt - PT Rome
OLD STANDARD (TYPE 2)
Even after the Academy and all the crazy untap spells were banned from Standard, there were still a few ways to create potent mana engines using Urza block cards.
Yawgmoth's Bargain/Skirge Familiar
Ah, the dreaded Bargain deck.
Where it's legal:
Yawgmoth's Bargain is currently banned in Extended, banned in Type 1.5, and restricted in Type 1. Feel free to play with Skirge Familiar in any of those formats, although I wouldn't expect anything exciting. All jokes aside, when this combo was legal in Standard back in 1999, it was a force to be reckoned with.
How it works: The Bargain lets you pay one life to draw one card. The Skirge lets you discard one card to get one black mana. Simple. One life = one black mana. Harkens back to Channel. No, it isn't infinite, but it generates enough mana to kill the opponent in one turn.
What to do with the mana: The worst card in the prototypical Bargain deck is also the "kill card": Soul Feast. It works well because it hits the opponent for four life, and nets you four life, which translates into cards and mana thanks to the engine. The ultra-powerful Yawgmoth's Will allows reuse of Soul Feasts, Dark Rituals, and other goodies for even more card advantage.
Here is the "Sabre Bargain" deck played by Jon Finkel in the Magic Invitational in Kuala Lumpur in 1999. Academy Rector helps get the Bargain in play, and Renounce can turn excess permanents into life to fuel more cards and mana.
Standard (1999) - Jon Finkel - Magic Invitational
Saproling Cluster/Ashnod's Altar/Fecundity
Where it’s legal: This combo was legal in Standard when Sixth Edition, Urza block, and Masques block were legal, which was around the summer of 2000. All the cards are currently legal in Extended, Type 1, and Type 1.5.
How it works: With all three cards in play, pay 1 and discard a card to Saproling Cluster, creating a Saproling token. Sacrifice the token to Ashnod's Altar for two mana, which triggers Fecundity (tokens go to the graveyard). Draw a card for Fecundity, and now you are back where you started and have netted one colorless mana. You can repeat this until your library runs out of cards. You are digging through your deck as you generate mana, so you'll have no problem finding a kill card.
What to do with the mana: Because it's colorless mana, you need to stick to X spells like Blaze (just remember to save one red mana somewhere), or effects that require only colorless mana like Snake Basket.
Nicholas Labarre played the following deck to the Top 8 at Worlds in 2000. The quiet star of his deck was Serra Avatar, which could be discarded to the Cluster and immediately shuffled back into his library, meaning he could go "infinite" without ever running out of cards. With an endless supply of mana, his main kill card was Whetstone, which is a reusable Millstone variant. He had a Heart of Ramos and a Blaze in his sideboard as a backup plan. Like the Bargain deck, the Cluster deck relies on Academy Rector to help find the combo pieces.
Standard (2000) - Nicholas Labarre - Worlds Top 8
OLD BLOCK CONSTRUCTED
Even though the Urza block was the "combo block," most of the offensive cards were banned by the time the block format was played in earnest on the Pro Tour. But the two block previous to it--the Tempest block and Mirage block--each produced some interesting mana engines.
Where it's legal:
Earthcraft has proven itself to be one of the best engine cards ever made, and that distinction got it banned in Type 2 and Extended. It is currently legal in Type 1 and 1.5, where it forms a potent combination with Squirrel Nest from Odyssey. If you ever need to play in a Tempest Block Constructed tournament, however, the combo is still legal there.
How it works: Have any creature in play, and other in the graveyard. Put Overgrowth on a swamp, giving you a land that is capable of producing enough mana to play Recurring Nightmare on its own. Play Recur and bring a creature out of the graveyard. Tap that creature to pay for Earthcraft's ability, untapping the enchanted swamp. Repeat.
Now alone, that combo does not generate extra mana, and therefore isn't a mana engine per se. But if one of the creatures you are Recurring is a Workhorse (an Exodus artifact creature that can generate mana by removing counters from itself), then you begin to net mana during each cycle.
What to do with the mana: It isn’t pretty, but the idea is to store up enough mana to eventually win with Corpse Dance and Mogg Fanatic. The Workhorse will provide all the necessary colorless mana, and Earthcraft gives you the black mana (by tapping the Mogg Fanatic each time).
Here is the crazy "Horsecraft" deck played by Randy Buehler and Mike Turian in the block portion of Worlds 1998. With utility creatures like Wall of Blossoms, Spike Feeder, and Spike Breeder, the deck can gain infinite life, draw infinite cards, and create infinite 1/1 tokens in addition to killing the opponent with a Dancing Mogg. Now this is a deck with "horsepower."
Tempest Block Constructed - Randy Buehler - Worlds 1998
This final engine is perhaps the most famous; it taught a generation of Magic players what dedicated combo decks were capable of.
Where it's legal: The Mirage block has rotated out of Extended, meaning the combo is only legal in Type 1 and Type 1.5, where it is currently woefully outmatched. In Mirage block constructed, however, Pros-Bloom was hands-down the most powerful deck available; so much so that one of its components (Squandered Resources) was banned from the format.
How it works: After a period of initial posturing and mana development thanks to a different "engine"--Squandered Resources and Natural Balance--you put Cadaverous Bloom into play and then play a large Prosperity. From this point, the deck plays like a cross between Academy and Bargain. You discard unnecessary cards to the Bloom to generate mana, and use that mana to cat another, bigger, Prosperity. The second Prosperity usually gives you enough cards to win with, although a third is sometimes necessary.
What to do with the mana:
Drain Life. Because all the mana you generate with Cadaverous Bloom is black, you can fire off a mammoth Drain Life that ends the game.
Caveat: This deck's heyday was prior to the issuing of the current set of rules. Back then you could survive until the end of a phase at 0 or less life, meaning repeated playing of Infernal Contract and Vampiric Tutor were fine as long as you recouped the life with the big Drain at the end. Obviously the deck would be a little more fragile under current rules.
Here is the famous Pros-Bloom deck used by Mike Long to win Pro Tour - Paris (Mirage block constructed) in 1997:
Mirage Block Constructed - Mike Long - PT Paris Winner
If you like these types of engines, be sure to tune into the coverage of Pro Tour - Houston on the Sideboard this coming weekend. The format is New Extended, and with Force of Will finally out of the environment, combo decks should be free to run wild. Who knows what we'll see!
Send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.