Today I'll once again take a look at one of the very fundamentals of Magic theory the macro-archetype we commonly refer to as "combo." The way we use that term is actually a misnomer. After all combo comes from "combination" so we expect a combo deck to be one that tries to set up a certain combination of cards that then has a powerful effect on the game. And while that definition is correct for some decks we refer to under the combo moniker a lot of them actually do something rather different.
What we need then is a better definition than the intuitive one of what we actually mean when we call something a combo deck. I propose this one:
A combo deck in Magic terms is a deck that is fully dedicated to setting up a line of plays that will if left undisrupted either end the game on the spot or move it into a position that all but guarantees a win in the next one to two turns.
Aside from the fact that it encompasses all of the decks that are commonly referred to as combo decks the reason this is a much better definition is that it describes the way a combo decks wants its games to play out instead of focusing purely on deck construction.
Generally speaking this is the correct approach to identifying strategies and deck types because what informs your decision making in a particular matchup and allows you to find cards and strategies that are effective against your opponent isn't which cards (or colors for that matter) are in their deck—it's what they're trying to do.
One example where this reaps huge benefits is classifying Counter-Top strategies. By going with the combination of card equals combo definition both U/W Counter-Top Miracles and more classical Counter-Top Goyf strategies would qualify as combo decks which they clearly aren't if you look at how you need to play with or against them.
What I'll do today is talk about the different types of decks that we call combo outline their important differences and talk about the inherent strengths and weaknesses of each type.
Why do I think this is a good idea? Because a deeper understanding of how the different kinds of combo decks work will help you to both play them better (by playing to the strength of the particular kind you're playing) and to be able to defeat them more often (know thy enemy and all that) while also helping with correct deckbuilding when looking to either tune them or prepare for them.
The Different Types
So after insisting that there's one common definition for all the decks we refer to as combo it's now time to cut up that part of the format into finer slices. That division isn't always as clear as one might like it to be especially because the different types might overlap or one type of combo strategy might be used to enable a different type.
These are what I consider to be the three divisions of the combo archetype:
Traditional Combo (generally two-card combos if tournament viable)
Let's take a look at each of them separately.
There Can Be Only One
One-card decks are in a way the holy grail of combo deckbuilding. They are decks that win as soon as they manage to resolve (or activate) their single key card. Some examples from different formats:
- 4 Shardless Agent
- 4 Elvish Spirit Guide
- 4 Simian Spirit Guide
- 4 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
- 4 Griselbrand
- 2 Maelstrom Wanderer
- 4 Progenitus
Hermit Druid Combo (2003 Extended)
Pyromancer Ascension (2011 Modern)
What these decks share is that lightning focus on abusing one particular card and the fact that they all look pretty weird. That's because Magic is a well-crafted game. Single cards that win the game on the spot aren't particularly interesting to play with and against if the condition surrounding that card doesn't lead to some significant commitment during the deckbuilding stage.
As such these decks are essentially nothing but a massive support skeleton that serve to enable their single card combo kills be it through incredible amounts of fast mana allowing you to count to seven ASAP (Belcher + activation) a ton of Timmy fatties to dump into play and nothing but Hypergenesis to cascade into ways to find a 1/1 creature and the pieces of a multi-card combo kill to end the game once that creature mills your deck or an incredible amount of cantrips to consistently trigger Pyromancer Ascension that then turn into a draw engine to allow the deck to go off engine combo style (see below if you're unsure what "engine combo" means).
This reliance on a single card is both a blessing and a curse. For one thing relying on a single card means that you are very likely to be fast. In 40% of your games your key card will find itself in your opening hand meaning you can now devote everything to just making sure it works and as soon as it does you win. You can even increase that rate significantly by mulliganing for the card playing Tutors or by running cards that can replace it reasonably well (e.g. Empty the Warrens in Belcher).
As far as actual deckbuilding is concerned it allows for a lot of redundancy too. Because you are so focused on a single card you can make sure whatever cards you draw will almost always be good—after all they're all there to help you find or enable that one card. The only dead cards you're likely to have in the deck are the pieces you need access to to make your single-card combo actually lethal.
As far as being a curse is concerned well relying that much on a single card often removes a lot of flexibility from your deck—all you can do is aim for that one strategy after all. You can't adapt to your opponent's plan you just have to hope you can brute force your way through. In addition any prepared opponents are able to paint one big target on your key card and as long as they manage to do that you're usually dead (though sometimes you can hybridize in other engines—just look at the Careful Study in the Hermit Druid deck).
Because of how powerful and fast single-card combos are by nature all of those that don't demand an excessive amount of focused deckbuilding (as Belcher and Hypergenesis do) or that don't have additional conditions holding them back (the need to get Pyromancer Ascension active after having found and resolved it) have ended up on the Legacy Banned List. Still there are some decks of this type out there and even if there wasn't it pays to always be on the lookout for new cards that only need some creativity to win on their own.
As one of the first people to play Belcher in Vintage I can tell you that the surprise value and raw power definitely give you a significant edge until people are ready for you.
The Traditional Angle
Since almost none of the single-card combos are legal what is one to do? Well for one thing we can approach combo the way it has traditionally been conceived: setting up a combination of multiple pieces to win the game. Here are a few decks that exemplify this way of building combo:
Sneak and Show
- 1 Benevolent Bodyguard
- 1 Body Snatcher
- 1 Carrion Feeder
- 1 Karmic Guide
- 4 Protean Hulk
- 1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
Splinter Twin (2011 Modern)
- 1 Angel of Despair
- 1 Blazing Archon
- 1 Empyrial Archangel
- 1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
- 2 Griselbrand
- 2 Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur
- 4 Cephalid Illusionist
- 1 Grand Abolisher
- 1 Lord of Extinction
- 2 Mother of Runes
- 1 Murderous Redcap
- 3 Narcomoeba
- 3 Nomads en-Kor
- 4 Stoneforge Mystic
- 1 The Mimeoplasm
The game plan for these kinds of decks is very straightforward: find your two pieces resolve them good game. Sure not all of these combos actually win the game yet given their speed what they do is usually good enough to guarantee the win. Griselbrand and Emrakul are just that good.
The first thing you realize when looking at these lists is that almost all of them try to set up two-card combos instead of larger ones. The reason for that is simple: the fewer cards you need to find the easier it is to actually get to the point where you can go off and win meaning you will be both more consistent and faster than larger setups. As such two-card combos usually have a significant advantage over ones that need three or even more pieces to work.
That by the way also illustrates one of the better ways to fight these combos: turning them into three-card combos. Against Painter for example just having at least one Emrakul in one's deck means they now also need to find some way to remove your graveyard from the game with the reshuffle trigger on the stack necessitating an additional piece.
If you look closer again one of these decks—Omni-Tell—contains not only a two-card combo (Show and Tell plus fatty) but also a three-card combo (Show and Tell Omniscience and Burning Wish). Why does it have that? Didn't I just tell you that three-card combos are inherently too inconsistent to work well enough to be worth going for?
While that is true look at what the three-card combo actually looks like. If you Show and Tell Omniscience into play all your now free cantrips can be chained to find a way to win and Griselbrand and Emrakul also work to generally end the game. Essentially you get to run so many versions of your third combo piece that getting Omniscience down almost always works like a two-card combo—one that actually ends the game instead of relying on your fatty to stay in play for a turn.
So what are the advantages of running these kinds of two-card combo decks? Well first and foremost you have a straightforward way to win the game. That's an advantage not to be underestimated. As soon as you've found and resolved your pieces the game is usually over which makes it comparatively easy to choose the right plays—just maximize your ability to get to that point.
Secondly you get more redundancy than the single card combo decks with much reduced deckbuilding requirements. Because every viable multi-card combo demands a relatively low amount of mana to come online these decks don't have to overload on acceleration instead leaving room for more search and protection. It also means that as long as your pieces are cheap you'll be really really fast. If you only ever need to pay two mana to win (see Flash) it becomes really easy to win on turn 1 or 2. The reason Flash was so much better than anything that had ever been legal in Legacy is exactly that—nothing has cost less than two mana and two cards to instantly win the game yet.
In addition all of these decks have significant ways to achieve redundancy in addition to heavy cantrip engines be it through Tutors (like in Omni-Tell or Painter) or through multiple cards filling the same roles (say Sneak Attack / Show and Tell and Emrakul the Aeons Torn / Griselbrand in Sneak and Show or Reanimate / Exhume and Entomb / Careful Study in Reanimator).
The biggest disadvantage these decks have is that they run a lot of cards that don't do anything at all without their counterpart leading to a high amount of possible dead draws when they don't have access to both of pieces yet or even worse to neither.
Speaking of redundancy this is where the last type of combo deck comes in: Engine Combo. These decks are what totally demolish the intuitive definition of a combo deck. Instead of trying to set up a particular combination of cards they try to achieve a "critical mass" of interchangeable pieces that all perform one or both of two critical functions: drawing cards or producing mana. What they aim to do is to accumulate the resources to fuel one big turn of constant resource exchange cards into mana into cards into mana and so on. The very first of these decks ever created and still the purest incarnation of this type of deck is Mike Long's Pros-Bloom deck back from PT Paris 1997:
3 Bad River
4 Undiscovered Paradise
4 Cadaverous Bloom
1 Drain Life
1 Elven Cache
1 Emerald Charm
4 Infernal Contract
2 Memory Lapse
4 Natural Balance
1 Power Sink
4 Squandered Resources
1 Three Wishes
4 Vampiric Tutor
3 City of Solitude
4 Elephant Grass
1 Elven Cache
3 Emerald Charm
1 Memory Lapse
1 Power Sink
2 Wall of Roots
The closest we have in today's Legacy are:
The Spanish Inquisition
- 1 Bayou
- 1 Flame-Kin Zealot
- 4 Golgari Grave-Troll
- 3 Golgari Thug
- 3 Ichorid
- 4 Narcomoeba
- 4 Putrid Imp
- 4 Stinkweed Imp
What makes engine combo decks special is the fact that they don't actually have any single key card. Instead other than Dredge which operates on the basis of a totally different type of engine they're all mana acceleration and card drawing with some way to kill the opponent (Tendrils of Agony Drain Life or Stroke of Genius for example) thrown in as an afterthought once the critical amount of mana and/or storm count has been reached.
Most engine combo decks are a little less multifunctional often relying on a particular card to really get going such as Tolarian Academy in the ultimate boogeyman of Combo Winter High Tide in Solidarity and Spiral Tide and some kind of Tutor in TES and ANT though these decks still retain the ability of traditional engine combo decks to work around the absence of their most important card to a certain point.
What makes these decks powerful is the fact that they avoid the traditional pitfall of multi-card combo decks: the dead draws. Because almost every single card in the deck works as part of the overall engine almost everything you can draw will help to get the deck kick started into its big go off turn as long as you have access to enough pieces over all. As a result these decks are extremely consistent in achieving their own game plan and very hard to meaningfully interact with.
You either have to shut down their game plan completely with cards such as Ethersworn Canonist or be able break exactly the right gear at exactly the right moment while they're going off (if you pick the wrong target for one of your limited interactive cards they likely have some replacement already available).
All of this is complicated by the fact that their engines usually contain significant amounts of card drawing and library manipulation which means that they're very good at finding answers to disruption that doesn't totally shut down their ability to act (as in not Counterbalance). This means that you not only need to stop them from winning first but you also have to provide some kind of relevant clock as otherwise they're likely to punch through whatever obstacles you put in their way.
The biggest problem these decks have is that their game plan while flexible card wise is still very much all-in on a single strategy. That means deckbuilding requirements for engine combo decks are similarly stringent like those for single-card combo decks; almost every piece in the deck is meant to advance one particular game plan and if this gameplan can be stopped their options become very limited.
Because the many interlocking pieces provide so many different lines of play these decks are also very hard to play optimally. Judging if you have enough to go off is often already quite difficult in a vacuum. Once the opponent insists on messing with your plans things can easily become overwhelming. In addition they generally need to go all-in when they're trying to go off instead of being able to just try again next turn like traditional combo decks so a single misstep often very much ends the game.
Being aware of the exact nature of the beast we're holding on a leash or facing up against is important. Without an in-depth understanding of what it is we are doing or working against making the correct decisions is impossible.
For me personally understanding the parameters something operates on helps immensely to both clarify my options and develop coherent game plans. I find that some level of abstraction helps a lot to keep this kind of knowledge easily accessible and transferable to situations/challenges I haven't encountered yet. At the same time though too much abstraction means that the knowledge isn't actually applicable enough to provide useful results.
I hope today's article hit the sweet spot of being precise enough to enable you to recognize seemingly disparate decks as manifestations of the same basic principles while being general enough to cover almost anything the game could throw at you—well as far as combo is concerned that is.
If you have questions comments or criticism let me know in the comments section. Thanks for reading and until next time: go off!