At this point, for those that have been following Pioneer, it’s no surprise that Amalia Benavides Aguirre combo is having a lot of success. The combo emerged victorious in the most recent Magic Online Pioneer Showcase Qualifier, sending the winning player to the Pro Tour. The combo is more resilient than it appeared at first, especially as players began adapting within the metagame.
What’s interesting about how the combo is executed, however, is that it relies on two triggered abilities from two different MTG cards, neither of which allow you to stop the combo from happening without interaction from other cards. Most combos, even infinite combos, have some built-in way to prevent a loop from going on forever. This can be as simple as a combo piece’s triggered ability being a “may” ability, ultimately providing you with the option to stop the loop.
Amalia, however, is different. The card simply states that “whenever you gain life, Amalia Benavides Aguirre Explores.” The way the Amalia combo deck in Pioneer is built, this still isn’t usually a problem. There are corner cases, though, where a loop will come up, and a recent example has led to a lot of discussion amongst players and judges on Twitter.
With a Regional Championship in Atlanta on the horizon, this rules analysis is extremely important. Before we get into the exact scenarios where this loop may take place and how it can be resolved, it’s important to understand exactly how the Amalia combo works in Pioneer.
Amalia and Wildgrowth Walker
This combo relies on two key cards: Amalia and Wildgrowth Walker. With both of these cards in play, you also need either a way to gain life or a way to Explore. Cards like Lunarch Veteran or Cenote Scout should do the trick. The idea is that, once you gain life, Amalia will trigger, allowing you to Explore. This will trigger Wildgrowth Walker, allowing you to gain life. If you Explore first, this will trigger Wildgrowth Walker, which in turn will trigger Amalia.
As you might expect, this causes a chain reaction, allowing you to Explore and gain life over and over. Generally, this chain reaction would go on forever unless you or your opponent could break it up. Luckily, part of Amalia’s ability generally helps stop the loop itself. When Amalia reaches exactly 20 power, all other Creatures in play are destroyed.
To guarantee Amalia reaches 20 power, you can simply dig for a non-Land card you want to draw, then repeatedly keep it on top of your library and grow Amalia via Explore. Once Wildgrowth Walker goes to the graveyard, the chain stops and you can simply attack with Amalia for the win, assuming Amalia isn’t affected by Summoning Sickness.
Where Problems Can Arise
The vast majority of the time, Amalia’s ability to destroy all other Creatures will be enough to break up the loop caused by itself and Wildgrowth Walker, but this isn’t always the case. Take the post above, for instance. Azax’s opponent used Selfless Savior to give Wildgrowth Walker Indestructible. As a result, when they gain life and the chain reaction starts, Amalia’s ability to destroy all other Creatures will not affect Wildgrowth Walker. This will cause Azax’s opponent to Explore forever.
Generally, if a loop would go on indefinitely through mandatory actions, the game ends in a draw. Even without a way to give Wildgrowth Walker Indestructible, similar situations can arise. For instance, let’s say an Amalia combo player is in the process of executing the combo against a Boros Heroic opponent. Once Amalia reaches 19 power, the Boros Heroic player can respond by casting Monstrous Rage targeting Amalia. In this case Amalia will never reach EXACTLY 20 power, and the loop will continue infinitely, causing a draw if no one can intervene.
As you can see from the tweet above, though, azax does, in fact, have a way to break up the combo. They can use Fading Hope at any time to stop the loop. This poses a couple questions. First, is azax required to cast the removal spell to stop the loop? Second, if the answer is no and the opponent gets to Explore forever, can they choose to leave the same non-Land card on top of their library over and over?
An Important Ruling
In the event that something similar comes up, we now have an official ruling as to what happens. If an Amalia loop begins, the player utilizing Amalia must eventually choose to mill cards via Explore. They cannot choose to keep a card on top via Explore over and over. While this wasn’t the original consensus, as described above, this was the ultimate decision that was reached, and it does make some sense.
The idea behind this ruling likely has to do with the fact that, generally speaking, the player that is responsible for the infinite loop taking place must progress the game state in some way if possible. Judges seem to have determined that, in this case, milling a card via Explore fits this description. As such, the Amalia combo player will eventually end up with a library with zero cards left in it.
Notably, even with an empty library, the infinite Explore loop would normally progress. This is because Explore abilities are still being put on the stack and, since no cards are being drawn from an empty library, the game would eventually end in a draw. In azax’s situation, however, he has the removal spell necessary to break up the loop by bouncing Wildgrowth Walker and can therefore stay alive.
Because the opponent has no cards in library at this point and can’t deal lethal damage, azax can just take his turn, pass the turn, and the opponent will lose by trying to draw a card from an empty library. The Amalia combo deck is certainly quite strong, but it can lead to very strange scenarios. It’s definitely worth monitoring how the deck performs at the Regional Championship in Atlanta and if any other weird cases arise.