The Legacy Top 8 of StarCityGames.com Open: L.A. was full of combo decks and in AtlantaCombo ElvesDredge and High Tide made sure combo again took half the slots. Unsurprisingly calls for banning something have echoed through the internet ever since (Time Spiral in particular is getting attention as Atlanta was the second Open taken down by one of the Hatfield brothers playing High Tide).
Banning Bitching and Comprehending: Combo's Success
To me this is ridiculous. Yes combo is doing well – why shouldn't it? There's a large number of players who actually enjoy playing combo and some people me included actually enjoy playing against it (as long as we aren't talking about Belcher; mull for Force is a stupid game). There's no reason why combo shouldn't be able to win tournaments as often as other archetypes do. Banning cards that make combo good should happen for the same reason other cards get banned – the deck is too good. If a deck totally outclasses everything else in the format it should get the ax. There is no indication that High Tide Dredge Storm Painter or any other deck is actually on such a level so if it's just one of many powerful and viable decks leave it alone and allow those players who like it to have some fun too. For all of those on the ban-wagon how about you know adapting to the new metagame and making sure you can actually beat something that does more than just drop creatures into play?
Every deck in Legacy is playing maindeck and sideboard cards for fighting creature decks. Swords to Plowshares is everywhere; Grim Lavamancer is a beating; Firespout Vedalken Shackles Snuff Out Go for the Throat Ensnaring Bridge Moat Humility Umezawa's Jitte and many many other cards are only seeing play because the format has creature strategies so powerful that it's impossible to ignore them. General-purpose answers often aren't even enough leading to pure hate cards such as Engineered Plague Llawan Cephalid Empress and Peacekeeper making it into sideboards. Why is everybody fine with a situation so lopsided but crying over the need to run cards that allow you to interact with spell-based decks?
Why should a deck like Zoo not be punished for deciding to ignore a full pillar of the metagame? The Big Zoo lists that have been popular lately have a pretty horrendous clock for a Zoo deck with curves that sometimes even top off at four and which play a load of removal so as to dominate other creature decks. How is it surprising or even the slightest bit unfair that these decks get rolled by combo if they choose to address a whole pillar using just its sideboard and then only with roughly four cards? Try doing the same thing with creature hate and you'll see how well that goes againstGoblins or Fish if your strategy doesn't just trump theirs.
This should also tell you why combo has been doing so well lately: the metagame has become inbred. Creature strategies have become so powerful that everything else has been pushed out of the metagame slowly but surely. Heavy countermagic control decks haven't seen play since BUG Landstill made some waves. Counterbalance once one of the defining archetypes of the format has become lackluster in the face of higher-powered more resilient aggro decks to the point that even control decks that already run four Sensei's Divining Tops don't run it. Team America and other aggro-control decks with heavy disruption are running into the same trouble from aggressive and midrange creature decks that kill their finishers nullify their removal and outlast the disruption. Control decks are filled with removal and trump cards for creatures. Sideboards contain as many Llawans as Tormod's Crypts. To put it bluntly the decks that beat combo haven't seen play because everybody has been out to beat them. How can it be a surprise that graveyard and spell-based combo decks slice through a metagame this slanted like a hot knife through butter?
There is another reason why banning one of the combo engines doesn't make sense. What's the target? If these recent tournaments had been dominated by a single deck be it ANT High Tide or Dredge there would be a point in claiming that the deck is too good. Instead what we've seen are repeat performances by combo as an archetype not one deck. As such it stands to reason that the decks themselves aren't the problem – all of them but High Tide have been around in the format for years without causing real trouble comfortably held in check by other decks – but that something makes the metagame particularly favorable for these decks. That something is the weakness of control to the aggressive strategies. If everybody stops playing the decks that keep combo in check obviously combo will come crawling out of the woodwork; what did you expect? Now people should realize this and recognize that combo is likely to either keep the decks that originally pushed control out of the meta in check or force them to change which should in turn lead to a resurgence of control.
The only reason this wouldn't happen was if control was actually too bad against the non-combo decks. As such if you really want to use the ban hammer to stop combo from being as big the answer is relatively surprising: make the aggro and midrange decks worse. I'm pretty sure Counterbalance and more classic control decks would make a swift comeback if Aether Vial were taken out of the equation for example. Counterbalance suddenly becomes massively more effective as does Standstill. Counterspells and mana denial are suddenly more viable putting a damper on combo.*
*Yes I know the cantrip-combo decks have very good matchups against decks like Landstill. The thing is that's exactly because so much deck space has to be devoted to dealing with creature decks at the moment. A heavily counterspell-based deck would be a completely different matter. If you don't need a dozen otherwise dead cards to beat aggro combo becomes remarkably easier to beat.
Does that mean I advocate banning Vial? No far from it I'm quite sure the meta will balance itself out all on its lonesome. But if you want to ban something to put the check on the combo infestation Vial is probably the card you should be advocating.
What To Do About Combo
What's that? You aren't reading my articles to read a big rant? Well how about some advice as to how to beat the combo decks? There are a few things you should keep in mind:
Be able to interact
This follows pretty easily from what I just said about the state of the metagame. Legacy is a large format; ignoring the fact that powerful spells can be cast early isn't a great plan. As such if you want to be successful right now you have to realize that spells matter. There are more than the cards on the battlefield to Magic.
Put on the pressure from different angles
Most of the successful combo decks are pretty resilient if you attack them only from a single angle. Discard alone usually won't stop Storm or High Tide; they'll just hide their business with cantrips or rebuild afterwards. The same is true for light countermagic or taxing effects. Hate bears mana denial you name it; they can beat it. Once they have to deal with more than just one of these disruptive elements though things get ugly for combo. Even something as simple as Extirpate can give you that additional way to hit them that makes it that much harder to play through the disruption.
Dredge is the exception to the rule here as having nothing but graveyard hate is totally fine as Dredge isn't vulnerable to much aside from specific hate. It also has a much harder time beating that hate though. Everything has its costs and benefits.
Have a clock
Every good combo deck can win through significant amounts of disruption if you give them enough time. Elves can just go beatdown if you stop the combo plan; Dredge can easily keep enough of its library in reserve to try again after its graveyard has been nuked; and High Tide and Tendrils decks run enough library manipulation to fight through multiple counterspells if you give them time to do so. Note that a clock doesn't necessarily mean beating down. Locking the opponent out of the game with Counterbalance Forbid with backup or Trinisphere accomplishes the same thing quite handily. Just make sure you have a reasonably fast way to actually put the game in a position where there's (pretty much) no way they can win.
One more thing concerning your clock: the faster you clock them the less other disruption is necessary. Belcher doesn't have anything for other combo decks but does reasonably well by just winning the die roll and hitting a Belcher instead of Empty the Warrens. Something like Zoo can probably get by with one disruption spell a game while something like Bant-Aggro most definitely needs two at the very least.
There's one card that bears mention in particular: Mindbreak Trap. Trap is extremely important in non-blue decks for the same reason Force of Will is so good against combo in blue decks. It's not really about countering the spell; it's about forcing them to slow down to answer the possible counter. Considering you only have a roughly 40% chance of drawing a Trap in your opening hand it might even be a good idea to “accidentally” drop one on the table during sideboarding. That might just buy you the turn you need to get a Teeg to stick or get them into burn range to kill them after Time Spiral or Ad Nauseam.
Decks for the New Metagame
With that covered I'm sure you'd enjoy a few examples of decks that I think should be viable in a metagame like this. I'll focus on non-blue decks because I don't think you need me to tell you that Counterbalance is good against combo (I think I did that already anyway didn't I?) or that mana denial discard and countermagic all out of the same deck and backed by a reasonable clock make for a tough opponent when you're playing ANT.
As a final warning these aren't tested decks; they're mainly meant to illustrate the direction decks should be moving in a metagame that has a reasonable amount of combo. If you want to play them you should probably at the very least give them a fast run through your gauntlet. Let's get going!
If you enjoy playing red aggressive decks go for speed. Something that looks like a cross between Burn and normal Zoo for example puts out a clock that can regularly simply race High Tide (creature power creep really shows...) and if you have any form of disruption you'll often put even ANT under severe pressure. There are a relevant number of games in which Tendrils decks can't actually win before turn 3. This is a Zoo deck that has a decent chance of killing them by then on the play so if you have anything that makes them spend additional time it will usually prove fatal.
The deck still isn't what you would play as a metagame deck against combo but it definitely has a reasonable chance of winning what's usually a >20% matchup. The high burn component allows you to play the standard “kill all your guys attack you with Tarmogoyf” games against aggro anyway which should make for a pretty well-rounded deck.
The interesting side effect of going for speed is that it also makes you reasonable against those decks that prey on combo Counterbalance and Tempo. If CB doesn't get the lock down very early there's a solid chance they just die before having anything that matters and if you don't get Stifle-Wasted out of the game most tempo decks will burst into flames after eating significant amounts of damage from your creatures – they have something like four actual hard counters after all and close to zero basic lands (making Price of Progress very very lethal).
A disruptive black deck along the lines of Suicide Black which can actually capitalize from its disruption better than by hoping Knight of the Reliquary gets there is also a good answer to a metagame full of combo. Discard and fast beats give you a decent chance game one already and sideboard hate allows you to really capitalize from the time window it creates. Land destruction is also surprisingly effective against combo especially if you can turn off the artifact mana in Tendrils decks. The Null Rods in the sideboard might even be maindeck material with Sensei's Divining Top Engineered Explosives and Aether Vial making sure that you actually have something relevant to hit against almost anything (not to mention how much Affinity players will want to cry if they see one).
As for other decks control doesn't enjoy all the disruption either (particularly because Vindicate will usually dodge Counterbalance should it be present) and Goblins is surprisingly vulnerable to mana denial if they haven't drawn a Vial because they need about four mana to really function without one. That and Tombstalker plus Tarmogoyf are actually quite good against a deck full of 1/1s and 2/2s.
Let me address this sideboard a little more as on first sight it might look like a ton of combo hate at the sacrifice of your other matchups. I already talked about Null Rod above; its applications are larger than just against combo. The same is true for Chalice of the Voids (which are in here mainly because they not only cripple Storm but also put quite the damper on Elves). What exactly is Zoo going to do if it loses half its deck against someone who can kill creatures and beat for a lot? Even tempo decks like Team America or Next Level Threshold are crippled immensely by a Chalice for one and it works perfectly well to prevent Affinity or LED Dredge from really exploding when you're on the play.
Admittedly Leyline is close to pure hate for Dredge and other graveyard decks (Loam Cephalid Breakfast) but that's Dredge for you – it doesn't really care about much else. You could run Extirpate here but you don't really need more storm hate after Chalice and Null Rod so I think going for the game-over button against Dredge makes some sense. Yixlid Jailer is another consideration as it can at least carry a Jitte or attack for two if you feel you just need more guys but I honestly don't think you'd want that upgrade against pretty much anything.
If you felt the sideboard is light on actual High Tide hate (I wouldn't want Null Rod only for the Candelabra) you would be correct. The combination of discard and land destruction is already pretty tough to beat for a deck that will often need four lands in play to go off.
Jitte finally fills the role of all-purpose answer to creature-decks and is especially powerful because you have eight fliers meaning you'll usually be able to put counters on it without trading creatures to do so.
These decks aren't even that different from what people already play which should tell you that the combo menace really isn't off the charts. They're simply faster versions of regular decks that accept the fact that spell-based decks exist. Combo should make the current crop of midrange and aggro decks that have been so widely played take a significant dip in popularity which in turn will allow more disruptive decks to flourish taking combo back down a notch. You know the same thing that happens in most healthy formats.
If you actually want to build new decks specifically to answer the current combo-heavy metagame there are many possibilities out there. Something like Pox is probably hell on wheels for High Tide (the LD hurts quite a bit and the discard makes it so that the cantrips can't find everything they need business and Islands) base-white decks with a bunch of powerful hate bears maindeck and a sweet Stoneforge Mystic package to turn around the aggressive matchups Ancient Tomb decks that can support Chalice of the Void Trinisphere and Null Rod or even Armageddon (resolving that against Tide is a sick blow out). Something that tickles my fancy is trying to find a Tezz-Affinity build that's actually well setup to run Force of Will and Ethersworn Canonist maindeck. Having Canonist in a deck that aggressive seems excellent against pretty much anything that plays cantrips anyway and Force is simply icing on the cake. There's more unexplored territory that should be viable now than there has been for a long time simply because a Legacy format where combo is a definite part of the top of the heap hasn't existed in years (Mystical Tutor ANT and Reanimator weren't dominant enough and around long enough to really force people to adapt). Just keep in mind what your deck needs to be able to do to compete and go from there.
Combo really isn't the boogeyman [some] people make it out to be. Sure if your deck doesn't plan for it you'll be in for a rough awakening but honestly that's a good thing. I understand that for newcomers having decks that play a bunch of spells and then kill you don't feel like the games they're used to. That doesn't mean it's wrong just different. If you have access to the full range of strategies that Magic players have come up with from the beginning of time things are bound to be different. Jump over your own shadow and embrace the fact that this game has more to offer than is apparent by looking at rotating formats.
I for one am pretty happy that there's a safety catch that keeps Legacy from turning into another version of the big creature battles that so dominate Standard. Magic is about more than turning creatures sideways and if none of the widely played formats reflected that it would be a sad day.
Until next time ignore pillars of the metagame at your own peril!
P.S. If you really want to put a crimp in combo's style you should give DreadStill a try. There are few other decks as eminently suited to blow spell-based opponents out of the water.
The decklist is a few months old so you might want to consider updating it slightly but overall Rich Shay is someone I'd definitely trust when it comes to Eternal decks. He knows what he's doing and something like this seems like it should be good right now – if the rest of the metagame adapts that is. If people continue to insist on playing midrange-y decks tuned to beat creatures and control taking up one of the combo decks until they do seems like the right way to punish them.