Today we'll be continuing with our series on building decks in the current age of Magic, where we'll be looking at combo decks that currently exist, as well as those that have been successful in recent years in Standard, Modern, and Legacy.
Combo decks in Magic are a strange monstrosity to tackle. They are usually based around a single interaction between two cards, but they occasionally use all their moving pieces to have an explosive turn that ends the game on the spot. Some combo decks spend their early turns developing their mana, while others sculpt their hand in order to assemble the right pieces together. Regardless of how you build your combo deck, there is some important information you need to know.
This mantra was instilled in me at a young age, and it is something I've never really been able to forget. A friend of mine from when I first started playing Magic told me that combo decks were all about maximum redundancy. Make sure you have enough pieces that all do similar things, and put all your effort into making that one big combination of cards happen.
While I've learned a lot since then (arguable), that concept has always stuck with me when building a combo deck, but it isn't as cut and dry as the original concept would have you believe. Some combo decks are full of interactive spells to buy time; others are more focused on pushing through the combo by using discard spells to clear the way. And other combo decks still have an entirely separate gameplan that they implement until the coast is clear to resolve the combo and kill the opponent.
Here is my idea of a true combo deck.
No bells. No whistles. Just a straightforward, powerful combo deck featuring as much redundancy as Legacy will allow. Eight creatures, eight ways to put them onto the battlefield, and a bunch of card selection to help you find them. Since Legacy is packed full of disruption, as well as faster combo decks, cards like Force of Will, Spell Pierce, and Flusterstorm are easy inclusions to protect your combo while also protecting you from an opposing combo.
When I hear the term "Maximum Redundancy," this is exactly the type of combo deck I think about.
But combo decks built around the mantra of Maximum Redundancy aren't always as easy to cobble together as Show and Tell. In fact, there are a ton of different combo decks in both Modern and Legacy that follow this guideline. For example:
Storm is a deck that has one goal, and they don't really mess around. Once they have a mana-creature on the battlefield, all bets are off. Remand is the only "off" card in the entire deck not built around the combo, but it still plays an important role at protecting yourself from an opposing piece of interaction, all while having some synergy with Baral, Chief of Compliance.
If you're trying to build a new combo deck that revolves around one or two key card interactions, Maximum Redundancy should be the first thing you think about. Are you playing blue? If so, consider playing a bunch of card selection like Serum Visions to help you find your combo pieces. If you aren't playing blue, figure out what the best cards are for your color combination to facilitate that big combo finish.
While we've talked a bit about Storm already, I wanted to note that Storm is unlike any other mechanic in Magic, and a major mechanic that combo decks are built around. In Legacy, Tendrils of Agony is an easy finisher. In Modern, you can go with Grapeshot or Empty the Warrens. Regardless of finisher, there is a good reason why Storm is such a popular mechanic for ending the game in combo decks: it rewards you for playing a ton of spells in a single turn.
Most Storm decks revolve around "rituals," which are spells that generate more mana than they cost. On top of them making that extra mana, Storm capitalizes on ways to use that extra mana in creative ways. The U/R Storm deck from above uses Gifts Ungiven to find Past in Flames, which lets you cast your entire graveyard again. Legacy Storm decks tend to rely on the combination of Lion's Eye Diamond and Infernal Tutor to find either Ad Nauseam or Past in Flames. Both of these decks put that extra mana from rituals to good use, but they are only viable because of how many rituals exist in their respective formats.
There was a time when Storm was in Standard, and it wasn't all that good. When Storm was first released as a mechanic, I don't recall ever seeing a true Storm deck popping up in Standard. However, Storm instantly became an insanely good combo deck in Extended due to the existence of ways to generate a lot of extra mana.
Down the line, the Storm mechanic was revisited in Standard with Time Spiral. In this era, Dragonstorm (a card previously thought to be a casual, fun card) became the best deck in Standard. All it took was printing either a large Dragon with haste or Bogardan Hellkite, and that format had both. With Seething Song and Rite of Flame also in the format, this was not a big surprise to anyone.
Combo decks can be built in a lot of different ways, but few are more interesting than combo decks that can play the control role. This is the archetype of control I most enjoy playing, and as a result I'm more familiar with. Oddly enough, we had something like this pop up in Standard just a short while ago.
These types of combo decks can be the most frustrating to play against because they seemingly kill you out of nowhere. Think you have a solid foothold on the battlefield? Kill you with infinite Cat tokens. Picked your opponent's hand apart? Refill with Glimmer of Genius and then kill you while you're tapped out. Have all the answers to the combo and never tap out on your own turn? Lose to Torrential Gearhulk.
That's the problem, and one of the reasons why decks like this have had a huge target on their head for the last few years in both Standard and Modern. With the banning of Splinter Twin and Felidar Guardian, this archetype fell off the face of the Earth. This leads me to believe that two-card combos that have other basic functions are ultimately too powerful in some formats. Because they're so easy to assemble and win the game on the spot, you can put them in virtually any shell. We saw a lot of this with Splinter Twin and a good amount with Felidar Guardian/Saheeli Rai.
While combo/control decks are certainly powerful, they start to become oppressive when they become fluid. This means they can transition between combo, control, midrange, and even aggro in certain matchups. Four-Color Saheeli was the "final form" of the Saheeli Rai combo because it could move anywhere on the spectrum given the matchup. Your opponent is coming at you hard and heavy? Slow it down a little with more removal and specific answers to their threats. They're trying to slow things down and beat you with Torrential Gearhulk? Be more aggressive with your combo and kill them through removal with Negate or Dispel.
No matter how you slice it, the Felidar Guardian/Saheeli Rai combo was the best deck in Standard, and it ultimately got the ax because it (alongside Mardu Vehicles) shut the door on basically every other deck in the format. During that time period, I heard stories of people going through an entire Grand Prix playing against either Felidar Guardian or Heart of Kiran. Two-deck formats are a nightmare for everyone, including those at Wizards of the Coast who design formats, and ultimately forced their hand in banning Felidar Guardian.
Turn-4 two-card combo decks aren't something we see every day in Standard. But when we do, they're usually pretty dominant.
Another major type of combo deck is what we colloquially call a "glass cannon." In essence, this type of deck has one route to victory, and will do it quickly if the opponent doesn't interact with them. If the opponent does have a way to interact with them, then they're usually dead on the spot. We see this a lot more in Legacy than any other format, but decks like this have been around forever.
Disregarding that this is an old (and bad) list of Goblin Charbelcher, you start to see exactly what I'm talking about. Ritual effects grant you speed, while your deck's ultimate function is to win on the first or second turn with either Goblin Charbelcher or Empty the Warrens. And while these decks are certainly powerful thanks to their speed, they rarely end up winning tournaments because they have to fight through so much disruption along the way. This problem is exacerbated by the existence of Force of Will in Legacy, which can interact with them on the first turn without their opponent actually playing a land.
Fast-mana combo decks that move "all-in" instead of trying to protect their combo in some way or another are much less attractive than something like Ad Nauseam Storm because losing to a single piece of interaction leads to some strong "feel bad" moments. When you have a first turn win cooked up, but your opponent has the Force of Will, it will make you never want to play a deck like this again. In my opinion, these types of decks are only as good as the rest of the format is at interacting with them in the specific time-frame it takes to assemble the combo. On occasion, decks like this will warp a format, but I haven't seen anything like this outside of Legacy (and Force of Will to keep it in check) in quite some time.
Protect the Queen
The first deck that comes to mind when I say Protect the Queen is Infect. In these style of decks, your goal is to assemble one major victory condition and use it to kill the opponent. On top of that, your deck is normally stocked with spells that keep your opponent from killing your one thing. Infect does a great job of killing the opponent quickly while also having a bunch of cheap spells that can keep the Queen alive.
And while the Legacy version of Infect is certainly more powerful than the Modern one, they both function on the same wavelength and have the exact same strengths and weaknesses. Decks like Infect tend to dominate opponents who are trying to play unfair Magic. And when I say "unfair," I'm typically referring to combo decks. But why is a deck like Infect so good at beating other combo decks?
For starters, Infect is fast, and most of its cards do the same thing. Even the protection spells like Vines of Vastwood can push you closer to killing your opponent via kicker. But aside from the speed and consistency of the archetype, you also have some disruptive elements like Daze and Force of Will to act as reactive measures against other combo decks. And while they usually have one or two cards that matter more than everything else, you have twelve "Queen" cards and approximately a thousand pump spells. So which one should they counter? If my opponent ever targets Glistener Elf with Force of Will, I'm fairly confident that the game will be over before it even begins.
But sometimes that's the right play. Using cards like Force of Will or Lightning Bolt to take out the opponent's major players is important because they will occasionally have a tough time finding another one. The problem comes from putting too much strain on your resources to interact with their key pieces, only for them to find another on the next turn. Regardless, that's one of the strengths of a deck like Infect. You have redundancy, interaction, consistency, and most importantly speed.
Decks like Infect that play Protect the Queen are often poor at beating decks focused on what I like to call "hyper interaction." This means they're hitting you with removal, discard, land destruction, and even counterspells. The combination of all of these elements is hell for a deck like Infect because you can't ever rely on assembling all your important pieces together. Once you stick a creature, your hand will get hit with discard spells before you can piece together the victory. And that's usually after they've already killed one or two of your other threats.
Protect the Queen-style decks are also bad at playing defense, and can fall behind on the battlefield quickly. You don't have much removal, if any, so if your opponent is able to dismantle your early aggression, then you're usually defenseless against something as minor as a Tarmogoyf. We saw that a lot in Modern as Infect struggled to beat stuff like Jund or Grixis Death's Shadow. And the rise of both of these decks continues to make Infect a risky proposition in Modern because it has so much trouble dealing with the swath of interaction.
I remember seeing a deck by Kai Budde back in the early 2000s featuring the combo of Illusion of Grandeur and Donate. After gaining twenty life, it was virtually impossible to win the game before they cast Donate to give you the Illusions of Granduer, all while you had to pay the cumulative upkeep cost. But the deck was so much more than that.
It might not seem like it now, but back in the day this deck dominated the Extended format. But the thing that really caught my attention was how well it could sideboard into something completely different.
I talked briefly last week about how control decks could transition into a more aggressive strategy, but the same can be said for virtually any archetype given the right set of cards and sideboard configuration. This deck in particular used Morphling to win games once the opponent had sideboarded in cards like a plain old Disenchant. On a fundamental level, the deck was a lot like Splinter Twin in that it was pretty easy to slot this combination of cards into virtually any shell. And like Splinter Twin, the combo was much harder to assemble when your opponent had the right tools to interact with it.
Since this deck had a lot of control elements already slotted into it, transitioning away from the combo only required cutting around eight or so cards. Even though stuff like Merchant Scroll is much worse in a deck featuring Counterspell, it isn't that big of a hurdle to get around. I've been known to attack with a Pestermite or two without Splinter Twin in my deck. You gotta make due with what you have, and your best configuration after sideboard might not necessarily be able to take out all of the "bad" cards. But even your "bad" cards still function, and can do some neat things without being at their best.
One strength of this deck was also the virtual Jace's Ingenuity with Intuition and Accumulated Knowledge. And if you were ever lucky enough to draw the fourth copy, the game was virtually over if you weren't too far behind on the battlefield. And after sideboard, this deck got a lot more ways to interact with the opponent, regardless of what archetype they were playing. And we all know how good drawing cards can be while you're interacting with your opponent. Remember Treasure Cruise?
But this deck isn't the only example of a transitional sideboard in a control deck. In some scenarios, a combo deck is able to switch into a different combo entirely.
At the time, I thought this was genius. Stephen Neal was able to fit an entire "Splinter Twin deck" into his sideboard. And when his opponents would come ready with the Storm hate like Ethersworn Canonist or Relic of Progenitus, he would just kill them with the other combo. Honestly, I hadn't seen anything like that in quite some time, and I was taken aback.
But while this instance is rare, it also gives us a better understanding of just how similar some combo decks can be. Splinter Twin and Storm used a lot of the same cards to function. Serum Visions and the like helped you find the combo, but the hate for each combo was completely different, so blanking ten or so of your opponent's cards is huge. And if you obliterated your opponent with one combo in the first game, how would they ever be able to expect the second combo from the sideboard?
One instance of this type of sideboard that I've seen recently, and used myself, is a simple one:
This one-card combo only requires you to play zero other artifacts in your deck, but could spell disaster for your opponent if they don't have a way to interact with your big creature. And in a glass-cannon or extremely linear combo deck, something like a Madcap Experiment package out of the sideboard might just steal games you have no business of winning.
While combo decks are a major part of Magic's history, they are often regarded as the least fun part of Magic. And in some cases, this is certainly true. Glass cannon decks are particularly egregious here, but even two-card combos can lead to some uninteresting, fast games. And when the combo deck is fresh out of the gates in a new format, many opponents just won't have a way to interact with them properly.
Nowadays, thanks to the internet and a vast library of Magic content, combo decks are rarely a secret when they get to the big stage. Our job, and our goal, is to bring you the most up-to-date information we have on a given format, even if we haven't worked out all the kinks yet. Michael Majors is one of the best deckbuilders I've ever had the privilege of knowing, and was better than just about anyone at coming up with two-card combos that could dominate the game. And unfortunately, that particular skill was never my strong suit. But now that he's on the Play Design team at Wizards of the Coast, I'm confident that we won't see a mistake like Felidar Guardian/Saheeli Rai for quite some time. And while I do like a good combo deck, something like that just shouldn't see the light of day in Standard ever again.