Pattern Recognition #48 - The Great Machine

Features Opinion Pattern Recognition


12 October 2017


Hello everyone! My name is berryjon,'s resident Old Fogey and part-time Smart Ass. I am here to entertain, educate and otherwise not be a waste of your time on this Thursday. I am coming up on my glorious 50th article, so there's certainly some expectations laid down upon me with how awesome I am.

Today's article grew out of a comment I made over on zandl's stream, where I saw a card being played, and I made a comment about what he would do if the rest of those cards wound up on the field. And that lead me into thinking about the last time we saw this particular set of cards, and how the newest ones, from Kaladesh, are a pale imitation of the original set.

So, now that I have your interest, let me tell you a bit about...

The Great Machine

No, not that one! I'm talking about Magic's The Great Machine. Coming to us from the distant memory of the Mirrodin Block, I want you to feast your eyes on the glories of Blasting Station, Grinding Station, Salvaging Station and Summoning Station.

How does all this work, you wonder? Well, if you have one of each in play, in addition to an Artifact Land (Ancient Den, Darksteel Citadel, Great Furnace, Seat of the Synod, Tree of Tales and Vault of Whispers), you have all the components required.

Start by tapping the Summoning Station to make a 2/2 Token Artifact Creature named "Pincher". Then, tap the Blasting Station, sacrificing your token in order to deal 1 damage to your opponent. The next step is to sacrifice your Artifact Land to the Grinding Station in order to mill your opponent for three cards. Now, because an artifact has entered the graveyard, the Summoning Station untaps. You may now tap the Salvaging Station to put the Artifact Land back into play (untapped!) which in turn untaps the Grinding Station. Then, you start again, and the creature put into play by the Summoning Station untaps the Grinding Station.

This process is repeatable, it is infinite. It requires no additional input, as the reaction is self-sustaining, dealing 1 damage to a creature or player and milling a player for three with each repetition.

The Great Machine was a power combo in Mirrodin and beyond. So much so that this, and the Affinity mechanic made the Artifact Lands (except Darksteel Citadel) banned in Modern. And not banned when the next major artifact set - Scars of Mirrodin - came out, but when Modern was first implemented, they were on the chopping block from day 1. And they are banned in Block Constructed. Which means even if you went back and built a deck using just cards from that block, then you still couldn't use them. I could describe just how degenerate this was, but that's not the objective of this article. Instead, I'm going to segue into a different direction, and from there into the Great Machine's successor.

I've mentioned in general the nature of 'Combo' in passing before. These are cards that synergize and work together as a whole that is greater than the sum of their parts. It is so built into the fabric of the game that building decks that work together like that is one of the three basic styles (the other two are here) of deck in the game.

Now, of these combos, there are those that are Infinite and those that are not. To explain the difference, an Infinite Combo is one that is self-sustaining, where each card moves resources into the next step, and the output is sufficient to end the game.

Of course, if there is no output, that the Infinite Combo is locked into itself, the game ends in a draw. So don't do that as it's seen as poor sportsmanship.

A non-Infinite combo requires a constant influx of resources to operate, be it mana or creatures. A Passive Combo is just a set of cards that help each other out without doing anything active. Such as having two Veteran Swordsmiths in play. But no one really counts those as combos. That's synergy. Combos are active in nature.

So what does this have to do with The Great Machine?

Well, before and after The Great Machine, all infinite combos were accidents of design. At no point did Wizard's Development and Design - the two teams that are responsible for card creation and testing - deliberately create an Infinite combo. The Great Machine is the exception to that. It was designed, from the ground up, to be exactly what it appears to be. And they all appeared in Fifth Dawn as well, meaning that the entire combination was presented to the players all at once.

Oh, side note here - all four pieces of the Great Machine, when laid out side by side, form a coherent picture of what's going on. How's that for subtle?

It was a gamble on the part of Wizards. I mean, sure, combos exist. They have to, given the nature of the game. But this was the first time they deliberately made one. How would it play? Would it be too strong or too weak? Too many moving parts?

Turns out that the Great Machine, much like a good chunk of Mirrodin, was kinda overpowered. You may think having one of the pieces cost would be a hindrance, but not really. Consider first that the entire combination was colourless. Which meant that this was something that could go into any deck, and not just ones that needed a certain colour to build up. This was also a block where artifact mana acceleration was a thing. From simple things, like Blinkmoth Urn (which counts Artifact Lands), Copper Myr, Gold Myr, Guardian Idol, Krark-Clan Ironworks ... and that's just pure Artifacts. Green's traditional ability to accelerate their mana is still in the block as well.

And when it goes online, all it needs is that last piece in play, and it goes off. And then everyone else takes infinite damage and mills for infinite cards, and you win the game.

Here's the problem with infinite combos. They're extremely technical, and while I can see the fun in watching them, it's not so fun to play against them. There's no way to react to them, nor can they run out of gas. The only measures you can take are to either find someway to short it out before it can go online, or make yourself immune to the output. And both options are a gamble at best.

Although to be fair, this was also the block that reprinted Shatterstorm.

You don't really find The Great Machine decks in Modern any more. With the banning of the Artifact lands, you lose out on being to incidentally generate infinite mana easily. It has just been left behind because the pieces are so hard to find nowadays, meaning that newer players can't get to see it for themselves. Heck, when I tried to find the Grinding Stations for my deck, To Infinity and Beyond, I only found two of them in all the stores in Edmonton, and had to borrow two from a friend who did have a full Great Machine deck built back when Mirrodin was StandardType 2.

My editor, Boza, pointed out that the examples of Infinite Combos go all the way back to Alpha. How many of you remember the old InQuest magazine? Well, back in one of their early issues, they printed an example of an infinite combo using just cards from Alpha. What were they? Time Vault, Animate Artifact and Instill Energy. By turning the Time Vault into a creature with Animate Artifact, you could then target it with Instill Energy. This would allow you to generate Infinite consecutive Turns as you gain an extra turn from the Time Vault, then untap the Artifact (Creature) indirectly, rather than during the untap step as normal.

So yeah, don't think this is anything new. This game was broken from the start.

But there is something new. Something that was a callback to The Great Machine, but was a pale imitation.

From Kaladesh, we now have Animation Module, Decoction Module and Fabrication Module.

Now, this is not an Infinite Combo. Rather, this is a combination that requires both an activation cost (which can be provided using any of the cards involved, or even another one ) and a constant influx of mana through the Animation Module.

How it works is a bit simpler than the Great Machine. Let's have all three Modules in play, and cast a creature. Like, say, Bomat Courier. Now, the Courier enters the Battlefield, the Decoction Module triggers, giving you symbol:e. Because you got that symbol:e, the Fabrication Module puts a +1/+1 counter on a creature you control (like the Bomat Courier). With that counter, the Animation Module kicks in, putting a 1/1 Servo token into play for the cost of .

And then, as a creature has come into play, the whole cycle begins again. And it will stay in motion until you run out of mana to pay for the on the Animation Module.

Thankfully, you can't convert symbol:e to on a 1-to-1 ratio, meaning this reaction isn't self-sustaining with the addition of more cards.

The Not-So-Great-Machine has a couple of interesting differences from the Great Machine that make it stand apart, rather than just being a pale imitation. I mean, it's that too, but it's also more. And less. And let me get to the point, shall I?

While both came from Artifact heavy sets, the themes between the two are a far cry in difference. The Mirrodin Machine is, at its heart, a destructive one. Not just because it deals out damage and milling, but also through the activation costs that include sacrificing cards to it. The Kaladeshi Machine is a constructive one, as it adds to your board state through giving you more creatures, making them bigger and by also giving you symbol:e to improve other things as well.

I want to say that this is an extension of the whole change in how Magic views itself over the fourteen or so years between the two sets. I've talked before about how the game has been maturing over the years, moving away from destructive interactions as the norm to constructive ones to give the players a sense of accomplishment. And in a way, this is a microcosm of that change.

Not to say that I'm right. Urza knows how wrong I've been in the past, but I'm willing to make the connection here.

The Not-So-Great Machine is also constructed differently. The Kaladesh version is a straight cycle, as paradoxical as that may seem. Each part fits into each other and you can see the progression from one to another. On the other hand, there is no easy connection to make with the Great Machine. It's not like one piece leads into another directly. Rather, the Great Machine is constructed by having two separate combos that mesh together like a pair of gears, with the Artifact Land and the Creature token being the two points of contact. One gear can't spin without the other, and the two of them do more together than apart.

In addition, the Not-So-Great Machine was designed to be a bit better in Limited, with activation abilities that are synergistic with the combo piece they provide.

Which is kinda a metaphor for combos in general, isn't it? You get those that synergize well together, but can still do their jobs. And then there are those that exceed even your wildest expectations when they fire off. The Not-So-Great Machine is the former, while the Great Machine is the latter.

Combos are, as I mentioned at the start, not the results of deliberate design. Certainly not to the same extent that these two sets of cards were. And while Wizards has, does, and will make cards with the intent that they become part of something greater than they can conceive of, they can never be sure what the end result will be; be it greatness or One with Nothing (which gets synergy with Ravnica's Hellbent Mechanic and Amonkhet's Heckbent).

It's a chance that is taken with each and every new set. Is there something in there that will break the game in new an unexpected ways? Has Wizards missed something obvious or obscure that might result in something spiralling so far out of control, they have to resort to desperate measures - banning or issuing errata to cards?

It's a balancing act, and it's something that the game can't really live without. Experimentation brings new life into the game, and the deliberate construction of combos rather than the accidental one is simply another tool in their tool box.

Although most of them are by accident.

Join me next week, when I talk about a few similar mechanics - named and unnamed - that all work to make a card more potent than they first appear. One of those mechanics is in my top list of greatest mechanics in the game, so I'm certain to splurge on it.

Until then, I'm selling out! Or is that tapping out? Visit my Patreon page, and see if you want to help me out. Basic donors get a preview copy of the final article, while advanced donors get that as well as the opportunity to join me in a podcast version of the series where I talk and you respond.

This article is a follow-up to Pattern Recognition #47 - Friends and Family The next article in this series is Pattern Recognition #49 - Modal

Small nitpick: "Start by tapping the Summoning Station to make a 2/2 Token Artifact Creature named "Pincher"."

The Pincher tokens are very specifically not artifacts. If they were, Summoning Station and Blasting Station would go infinite by themselves. I only point this out because this was actually an extremely common misconception back when these cards came out, in part because Pinchers were colorless, and until the Eldrazi, we hadn't had colorless creatures that weren't artifacts, aside from these Pincher tokens.

October 12, 2017 12:31 p.m.

Myrph says... #2

I actually ran the module machine as my standard deck for a while because I was determined to make it go infinite and it was actually relatively straightforward to achieve, although with 5/6 moving parts it was difficult to actually assemble.

With Cryptolith Rite in from Shadows block and the Spontaneous Artist from Kaladesh, you could give the servos haste with the energy and then tap them for the mana to continue the cycle infinitely. Of course without something like Reckless Fireweaver you'd end up with millions of tapped servos that couldn't attack that turn. A lot of fun when it all fell in to place!

October 12, 2017 2:39 p.m.

lilgiantrobot says... #3

"no one listens to Zathras"

October 12, 2017 4:52 p.m.

GoldenDiggle says... #4

Servant of the Conduit and Intruder Alarm make the not-so-great-machine go infinite.

Just figured I would throw that out there!

October 12, 2017 7:20 p.m.

To be fair, GoldenDiggle, Intruder Alarm goes infinite with damn near half the game.

October 12, 2017 7:43 p.m.

majin_shinsa says... #6

Since the Artifact lands are gone, you can always use the 0 casting cost equipment to fill the hole along with citadel for some more redundancy.

October 13, 2017 8:17 a.m.

berryjon says... #7

Yeah. Paradise Mantle was in the same set even!

October 13, 2017 11:33 a.m.

berryjon says... #8

Due to my ongoing job search, there will be no Pattern Recognition this week (19 October 2017). I will have PR#49 up on 26 Oct 2017.

October 14, 2017 9:03 p.m.

TheVectornaut says... #9

Have you guys seen the latest Tolarian Community College video? berryjon just got some free advertising. XD

October 16, 2017 12:13 a.m.

berryjon says... #10

So I see. Thanks TolarianCommunityCollege!

October 16, 2017 12:35 a.m.

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