Infinite combos in MTG are always as they should be in paper. One simple combination can lead a player to have eternal life, unlimited tokens, or infinite whatever they desire! Unfortunately, these can become problematic online. Two card combos that should win you the game will fail to do anything simply because you can’t execute the loop fast enough before your chess clock threatens a game loss altogether. The discussion around MTG infinite combo etiquette is long and controversial, but it ultimately comes down to a couple of interesting points.
A Moment of Weakness
A few years back, an MTG Streamer made an agreement with their opponent in a high-level tournament on MTGO (part of the MOCS series). To avoid the constraints of the MTGO client, they decided that the streamer’s opponent had infinite life due to the Spike feeder and Heliod, Sun-Crowned combo they had on board. This agreement was made so the opponent could save time on their chess clock by not demonstrating the loop repeatedly (which isn’t something you would have to do in paper play). Long story short, the MTG streamer in question killed their opponent by putting their life total to zero because the opponent didn’t actually demonstrate a loop.
There’s much more at play in this instance than just the dishonoring of an agreement. Ultimately, because the agreement was made on stream in a high-profile tournament, the streamer is at fault. They apologized, so there is nothing to worry about there. The point behind bringing this event up is to branch into the discussion of infinite combo etiquette online. What is actually expected when facing down an opponent’s infinite combo or having an opponent face down yours?
Infinite Combo Etiquette
On MTGO, it’s a fairly common expectation for one to concede when they are facing an infinite that is guaranteed to kill them. You can still make your opponent play it out depending on time constraints, but that is a generally frowned upon act. Magic Arena is entirely different. There are no player expectations, and the function of the combo in question entirely depends on how the client deals with it. This leads to various situations that should result in instant wins that don’t work because of the client.
One example of this is the early days of the Jeskai Mutate deck in Standard. I piloted the crap out of this archetype and got incredibly sufficient with it. To make the deck work on MTG Arena, however, you had to train your APM (actions per minute) to a point where you could kill your opponent in time. If you failed to do so, your turn would rope out, and you would generally lose the game as the turn passes. Seeing as you would have the win in a paper game, there’s something wrong here.
Etiquette Impacts the Meta
Did you know that our current Standard format has a deadly infinite combo? You can gain infinite life if you get Teferi, who Slows the Sunset out with a Lithoform Engine and a source that taps for two mana (between one creature and one land maximum). Additionally, if you can untap one land and one nonland permanent that adds more than two mana, you can also gain endless mana. This combo should be a viable deck. With cards like Storm the Festival that can cheat all of your pieces into play, assembling this combo is much easier than you may think. With the best deck in the format being a deck full of counterspells, this archetype probably missed its time. However, there was a long period where all of Standard was just midrange. This combo would have dominated that format.
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Why didn’t it? Well, MTG Arena kind of ruined the whole deck. The highest amount of life you could get to before your timer passed the turn was about 200, which is not enough to be a win condition on its own. Theoretically, should you have trillions and trillions of life, you should be able to win by making your opponent deck out before you do.
Going back to the title of this video, if you manage to win against a life gain player in Historic by reducing their life total to zero after they pull off the Scurry Oak infinite (providing you don’t have infinite damage), did you really win the game? No agreement between you and your opponent was made, but if you were playing in paper, it would be impossible to win that way. This can, therefore, be seen as cheating. However, the client said it was ok, so is it really cheating? Its time we faced a fact that may be tough to swallow:
Each MTG Client is an Entirely Different Game
If you’re playing MTG Arena or MTGO, are you really playing MTG? Most rules are generally the same, but there is enough variation between paper and Arena play that the argument is viable. There’s nothing wrong with MTGA and paper MTG being different games. If one comes to that conclusion, this entire article loses its premise, but that’s a good thing. At that point, we accept that some strategies that work in paper don’t work online.
The flip side is that cards that don’t work as intended online can now become entirely different game pieces from their paper counterparts. Remember the ridiculous Sacred Ground glitch that allowed you to blow up all of your opponent’s lands (it got patched the day before this article was written)? If each iteration of MTG became its own game, there is also sound reason to state that those abusing the bug aren’t cheating at all. This is how online Sacred Ground works, and that’s how paper Sacred Ground works. These are two different games, after all. This line can be defined by an act of intent on the developer’s part, but would the developer then intend for specific paper strategies not to be viable online?
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Disqualifying Unfun Play
Magic Arena has made bans due to extremely unfun play patterns. The best example of this is The Book of Exalted Deeds and Faceless Haven interaction. This combo was banned in best of one Standard because of how unfun the result of the combo was and the inability to have counterplay available in one’s sideboard. If you activate The Book of Exalted Deeds’ ability and put a counter on your animated Faceless Haven (which counts as an Angel), you would be unable to lose the game. This wouldn’t be so bad if Faceless Haven remained a creature, but it will turn back into a land at the end of the turn. You can’t lose the game unless your opponent can blow up lands.
Should your opponent decide to play it out, they will have to deck out naturally before losing the game. We all know how salty MTG players can be, so this happened more than one may expect. If the infinite life combos like the Teferi one mentioned above were to work, we might see the return of the ‘death by deck out’ play pattern. As shown by past actions, this is not a play pattern that MTG Arena wants to support. Unfortunately, bans like this just grow the differentiation between paper and online Magic. It’s not difficult for a player who doesn’t keep up with every bit of detail to make a mistake and complain that the combo is banned during their best of three sets at an LGS. It wasn’t banned (Faceless Haven is now banned in Standard for entirely different reasons), but that individual is going to feel cheated because, in their mind, it was banned.
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So, is Winning Against a Timed-Out Infinite Cheating?
The only conclusion I can come up with is that this is a difficult question to answer. The inherent issue has nothing to do with players but the client itself. If paper magic didn’t exist, there would be no premise here. That’s because, in every iteration of the game, the combo doesn’t work. That would be the end of the discussion. It’s only because we have two different versions of the game that offer vastly different outcomes that this becomes a talking point.
Personally, I hope that online clients become as close to paper play as possible. The upsides to online play is you don’t have to worry about blatant cheating or accidental rules violations since the client takes care of that for you. I am also a rather lazy person, so I would like to not leave my house to play MTG when possible.