The Philosophy of MTG Combos with Adrian Thoung

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Legacy Deck Tech – A Beginners Guide to Combo by Gareth Hirst

The Philosophy of Magic: The Gathering Combos with Adrian Thoung

Hi there, me again. I hope the discussions on Aggro from Mark and Control from Andrew Sabisky were helpful. Here, we’re going to be talking about my favourite archetype: Combo.

To underline the overall principles of what we’re working with, a Combo deck requires the interaction between a series of cards to instantly win the game at the moments those cards are given the opportunity to interact.

Today, I’ll be talking about 3 very different decks and their design and operation. However, to start with, there are some very important theoretical terms we must be familiar with:


Kill Cards

The kill cards are the cards that interact to create the combo which wins the game. You will notice that most of the time good combo decks:

a) Do not depend on a combination of more than 2-3 cards to create a kill.

b) Run very few kill spells maindeck dependant on the nature of the deck’s combo.

c) Are built around the kill cards, with almost every other card in the deck designed to effectively institute the kill.

 

Enablers

After the kill cards, the next most important cards are referred to as enablers. Enablers are the tools designed to effectively locate the correct kill cards to assemble the combo and thus facilitate enforcing the combo at the fastest speed possible.  Enablers subdivide into other distinct groups: Linear Draw, Linear Semi-Selective Draw and Non-Linear Selective Draw.  There is also a fourth category described as Null Draw, which will be addressed later.

Linear Draw: Linear Draw is what we do at the beginning of every turn: drawing cards from the top of your deck without any option to select or organise those cards. Linear Draw is the weakest type of enabler, since you are stuck with whatever you get from the top of your library. Common examples of Linear Draw are Harmonise or Stroke of Genius. A Combo deck exclusively depending on Linear Draw (here’s a hint: there are none) will be extremely slow and unable to find the kill cards in time, since the deck itself will create the conditions of you comboing off. Moreover, since Magic as a game already institutes a compulsory linear draw mechanism (your draw step), the best Linear Draw effects operate either by weight (Mind Spring, Opportunity or Blue Sun’s Zenith) or at instant speed, allowing you to access cards. Others, such as Phyrexian Arena or Dark Confidant simply maximise the linear draw mechanism already contained in the game. For a combo deck, however, Linear draw alone is not enough.

Linear, Semi-Selective Draw: Most of the time, Linear Semi-Selective Draw is the singularly most cost effective means of locating combo pieces. This encompasses any mechanism which enables both linear draw (i.e, just drawing cards) with a limited capacity to reorder these cards (Ponder), bypass cards which you do not need (Preordain) or allow you to filter out the cards you already have and those you draw to your best purposes (Brainstorm).  Most of the time, the strongest Linear, Semi-Selective Draw effects cost very little mana and/or can be achieved at instant speed. Of course, the weakness of semi-selective draw is that you are only given a certain number of cards to inspect. (Three typical operates as the magic number here). However, this is infinitely better than being stuck “top decking” (using the cards you take from the top of your library, that is, depending exclusively on Linear Draw) and only seeing and being left with the top card of the library. Nearly all good combo decks will use whatever semi-selective draw mechanisms at their disposal. For Legacy decks, Preordain, Ponder and Brainstorm are, par excellence, the best semi-selective draw tools available.

Non-Linear, Selective Draw: This is unquestionably the most powerful enabler available to a Combo deck. We are talking about Vampiric Tutors, Demonic Tutors, Infernal Tutor, Grim Tutors, Imperial Seals, Personal Tutors, the Wishes: the list is seemingly endless. These cards are what are referred to as “virtual” card advantage. They are capable of searching your library for the card you need and effectively replace the Selective Draw card with the card you require. Since every 4 tutors you play = 4 more copies of a relevant kill spell, these allow you to factor for redundancy (that is, having spare copies of your kill cards in your deck to increase the likelihood of the necessary card becoming available). That means, even if you only have 4 kill spells, adding four tutors which can get those kill spells gives you in practice 8 kill spells in your deck! This increases the chances of drawing a relevant enabler or the kill card itself.

The most relevant restriction on Non-Linear Selective Draw is the fact that the most powerful of these are few in number as a result of bannings or the tutors themselves can only seek certain cards, meaning that you can often only create virtual copies of one piece of the combo. Still, this is a perfectly fine approach and the best combo decks typically combine both Linear Semi-Selective draw alongside Non-Linear Selective draw to maximise the opportunity to find the combo, at least where available.

 

Protection

The third and final important types of card that appear in a combo deck are the protection cards. These are the cards designed to prevent people interrupting with your combo and allowing you to protect it sufficiently in case your opponent throws a spanner in the works.

Protection generally covers any interactive spell (which are rarely used by combo decks anyway) that can remove relevant resources from your opponents to deny them the possibility of interacting with your combo. There are thousands of options, but the major tools include:

Discard: attacking your opponent’s hands is a common way to remove any threats to your combo. It also allows you to gain information on what your opponent may or may not have. Most eminent amongst these are Duress, Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek, all of which cost only one mana.

Counterspells: the one and only perfect means to enforce permission in Magic belongs to the lowly counterspell, which has the advantage of responding to any spell in the game. Unfortunately, counterspells often require you to leave mana untapped during your opponent’s turn, which could be vital for setting up a combo. Any counterspell will do, but Legacy arguably has the best form in Force of Will, which doesn’t need mana. It does however require you to exile a card, which might be a key combo piece.

Hard Protection: in Legacy, the most obvious examples of these are Xantid Swarm, Silence and Orim’s Chant. Standard has the new Grand Abolisher from M12. All of these flat out prevent your opponent interacting altogether and thus are the most effective and superior form of protection at your disposal.

 

Finally, some other terms to help you

‘Going Off’: To help you understand what I’m talking about (I admit it: most people don’t), the term “going off” typically refers to the moment when you attempt your combo. Therefore, used in context, the going off turn is the moment when you have assembled the required kill spells (or enablers to virtually have those kill spells) and institute the instant-kill, zero-clock victory. Usually, the “going off turn” involves all your kill spells and some modicum of protection (how much protection typically depends on the deck itself).

Redundancy: it’s all well and good to have a 3 card combo that instantly wins the game. However, you want as many ways of ensuring you can find those cards as possible. The concept of redundancy is that you should have more than you ever need to combo (be it more enablers or more protection) in increase the possibility of you having the enabler or protection at your disposal when you choose to “go off”. The obvious strength is that you can assemble your combo from a seemingly random assortment of cards and almost any starting hand from your deck. The downside is that you may often draw extra copies of useless cards which you don’t need from time to time.

With the theory out of the way, here’s some deck lists to help you understand what I’ve just explained:

Ad Nauseaum Tendrils

4 Misty Rainforest

4 Polluted Delta


2 Verdant Catacombs


2 Underground Sea


3 Island


2 Swamp

4 Lion’s Eye Diamond


4 Lotus Petal


4 Infernal Tutor


2 Grim Tutor


4 Cabal Ritual


4 Dark Ritual


4 Brainstorm


4 Ponder


4 Preordain


2 Thoughtseize


4 Duress


1 Ill-Gotten Gains


1 Ad Nauseam


1 Tendrils of Agony


We’ll start, as every conversation with me starts, with my baby. To help you understand what’s going on, let’s break down the deck into the convenient subtypes:

Kill Spells

1 Tendrils of Agony

1 Ad Nauseam

1 Ill-Gotten Gains

4 Dark Ritual

4 Cabal Ritual

4 Lotus Petal


Enablers

(Non-Linear, Semi Selective Draw)

4 Preordain

4 Ponder

4 Brainstorm


(Linear, Selective Draw)

4 Infernal Tutor
 (but only in conjunction with 4 Lion’s Eye Diamond, otherwise it’s a very narrow Selective spell)
2 Grim Tutor


Protection

4 Duress

2 Thoughtseize


Goes Off: The fastest and most consistent win is turn 3. Any earlier usually involves too much risk (e.g, without protection) or a certain degree of recklessness (usually as a result of having no other option but to combo). It is more than possible to win on turn 2 with the correct hand and facing next to no disruption from an opponent. Otherwise, attempting to combo before turn 3 often ends badly.

How Does This Work?

The principle aim is to string together 10 spells and play a Tendrils of Agony (which copies itself 10 times) to instantly kill an opponent in a turn by taking 20 life from them. Your first few turns consist of playing Linear Semi-Selective draws to sculpt the correct hand.

The kill is achieved by two principle methods: in each case, you use a variety of spells to successfully add up plenty of mana and generate the number of spells needed to activate a lethal Tendrils (we refer to the number of spells played in the kill turn as the “Storm Count” or just “the Count”). You would usually lead in with a discard effect. Then, you can either play Ill-Gotten Gains, returning 3 more spells (instantly adding 4 Storm to your count) or Ad Nauseam in instances where the count is low, to find the kill. Ad Nauseam is viewed as the most common win condition, since most of the deck is composed of 1-2 mana spells and it is very easy to generate a Storm of 10 with no cards in hand except for an Ad Nauseam where the count is zero.  At the core of each combo is an Infernal Tutor, transformed into a monster of Non-Linear, Selective Draw with Lion’s Eye Diamond by allowing you usually to find either the Tendrils, the Ill-Gotten Gains or the Ad Nauseam. Grim Tutor also plays this role, but has double duty in finding Protection or Combo Pieces.

This is a very interesting deck indeed: you will notice that this deck combines the two types of Linear Semi-Selective and Non-Linear Selective Draw. The protection suite, as usual, is very light indeed, but you usually only need to resolve one protection spell; that’s typically sufficient to protect your combo. The choice here, since the deck is in Black, is discard. Counterspells rely on you having mana open or losing cards (Force of Will) which you need to combo with. Holding back protection is also useless when you keep using Lion’s Eye Diamond to discard your hand.

You’ll notice that I included the various fast mana effects as parts of the combo, because it is impossible to assemble a kill without them. That is the deck’s other strength: it actually contains a wide variety of kill spells and it does not necessarily depend on certain cards, so much as putting together the relevant number of spells to kill your opponent. Thus, to use an analogy, the deck is filled of nuclear missiles and all you have to do is fire them (as opposed to finding them).

What do we learn from this deck?

1: Good combo decks combine Linear and Non-Linear means of draw.

2: Good combo decks contain few actual kill cards to maximise room for protection spells. They are also helped by the amount of draw.

3: A combo deck usually can muster an extremely fast kill.

4: Combo decks also do not pack absolutely bucketloads of protection; just enough to stop opposing disruption.

Since so many of you must be bored about me talking about my baby, here’s something most of you should be more familiar with:

Exarch Twin

10 Island

8 Mountain

4 Scalding Tarn

4 Tectonic Edge

4 Deceiver Exarch

4 Sea Gate Oracle

3 Spellskite

2 Gitaxian Probe

4 Preordain

4 Into the Roil

3 Mana Leak

2 Spell Pierce

4 Splinter Twin

4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor


Again, here is the breakdown:

Kill Spells

4 Splinter Twin

4 Deceiver Exarch


Enablers

(Linear, Semi-Selective)

4 Sea Gate Oracle

4 Preordain

4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor


(Linear)

4 Gitaxian Probe

4 Into the Roil
 (with kicker only)

Protection

3 Mana Leak

2 Spell Pierce

3 Spellskite

4 Into the Roil

4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor


Goes Off: Obviously, you could just play Deceiver Exarch on turn 3 and Splinter Twin on turn 4. That’s still a turn 4 combo, which is reasonably fast. In practice though, because this deck has much much more protection than the previous deck, it can afford to hold back for a bit longer before going off.  What we have here is a deck which can play as a Control deck (see Andy S’s article) and ends the game with a combo: not unusual at all.

It’s style of protection is much more advanced than the previous deck, since it can rely on Jace, Spellskite or any of its removal and counterspells. The combo is much simpler to achieve in this deck and arguably much easier to disrupt, so extra removal is a real treat.

What does this deck do?

This is something a lot more straightforward: put Splinter Twin on Deceiver Exarch, tap and untap them a million times making lots of hasty copies and kill your opponent.

Be aware that this is a (former-but-being-revised) Standard deck, so it doesn’t have the wealth of options at its disposal that the above Legacy deck does. However, you’ll notice that it plays the best Linear and Non-Linear draw it can. Moreover, since its kill spells are actually permanents, unlike the previous deck, Spellskite is an inspired type of beneficial protection to blank your opponent’s removal. It also doesn’t need to tap down to play the combo, so the majority of protection spells are counters. This is the perfect example of how protection reflects how a deck works and not simply running “awesome” protection for the sake of doing so.

There are other perks; you’ll notice that Jace before his banning operates both as protection and Linear, Semi-Selective Draw, which means that he can be used on double duty and makes the deck remarkably flexible at facing different routes of attack.  He is also an alternative win condition, giving the deck a feasible backup plan should the combo be impossible to secure. Other cards, like Into the Roil combine Linear draw and protection (when kicked). Although Linear draw, as we mentioned, is not ideal, Standard has fewer Linear, Semi Selective tools aside from a few. There are also no Non-Linear Selective Draw effects in Standard.  So, we play adequate combinations of the other two dependent on availability. The resources available to a format massively dictate what the deck can and can’t run.

Note the difference between this deck and the previous one: Legacy obviously gives you access to more cards and the best Enablers possible. Standard does what it can but will always play the best possible enablers it can. That doesn’t mean the deck is worse: it is still powerful within its own archetype.

Now let’s look at our rules:

1: Good combo decks combine Linear and Non-Linear means of draw… or they use both types of Linear Draw, depending on what is available. At the very least, they must run some combination.

2: Good combo decks contain few actual kill cards to maximise room for protection spells. They are also helped by the amount of draw. But the protection must match the personality of the combo you are using.

3: A combo deck usually can muster an extremely fast kill. Yes, but it’s not vital to all decks: Combos can be imported into a Control or even an Aggro shell depending on their personality.

4: Combo decks also do not pack absolutely bucketloads of protection; just enough to stop opposing disruption. Actually, some do; this one has plenty of protection at its disposal, since it aims to lock down the game before it goes off. Protection must match the deck.

Of course, some rules are there to be broken completely. Here is a combo deck which is frankly, something else completely…

Belcher

1 Taiga

4 Elvish Spirit Guide

4 Simian Spirit Guide

4 Tinder Wall

4 Pyretic Ritual

4 Burning Wish

3 Empty the Warrens

4 Land Grant

4 Rite of Flame

4 Desperate Ritual

4 Manamorphose

4 Seething Song

4 Chrome Mox

4 Goblin Charbelcher

4 Lion’s Eye Diamond

4 Lotus Petal


Goes Off: Between turns 1 and 3 (yes, this deck can kill you on turn 1). Any later and the deck will be overpowered and lose.

What does this deck do?

First of all, as a novice player, looking at this list probably doesn’t tell you much. The deck has one land and a whole load of spells. So how is it supposed to win?

Let’s do our break down:

Kill Spells

4 Goblin Charbelcher

3 Empty the Warrens


Enablers

(Linear Draw)

4 Manamorphose


(Non-Linear Selective Draw)

4 Burning Wish
 (these get Empty the Warrens from the sideboard)
4 Elvish Spirit Guide

4 Simian Spirit Guide

4 Pyretic Ritual

4 Tinder Wall

4 Land Grant

4 Rite of Flame

4 Desperate Ritual

4 Manamorphose

4 Seething Song

4 Chrome Mox

4 Lion’s Eye Diamond

4 Lotus Petal

1 
Taiga


That’s right: this is a deck composed entirely of enablers! The aim is to either generate seven mana, play a Goblin Charbelcher and instantly kill your opponent or to make a Storm count of five or more to put 10+ Goblin Tokens on the board on turn two (more is good). There is very little draw, be it Linear or Non-Linear.

There is also one very important consideration: there is no protection in this deck. None. Why? Because the deck can kill you on turn 1: why bother running protection? What do you need to protect yourself from? You will either win the game there and then or lose (okay, the sideboard sometimes contains protection, but still: the maindeck expects game 1 to be the race)

Given the limited number of typical enablers, how do you play with this deck? We have a fourth type of enabler thatI alluded to at the beginning of this article: the Null Draw. This is not a characteristic of a card or anything: this a facet of Magic itself. Null Draw refers to the all-important mulligan. (No-Enablers, Mulligan). With this deck, you keep mulliganing until you find the appropriate kill. Then you just go. No option to sculpt your hand, no protection to buy you time to build your hand: you want the kill in hand from the start.  And that’s it.

This is a very good example of what a Combo deck pushed to its utter limits can look like. Sometimes, the design of the deck can be such as to build the deck as the combo, not necessarily as a deck containing a combo. This is the case here.  Although this deck is exciting and outright hilarious, it is also extremely weak to some hate, making it much more show than substance. But it is the perfect illustration of what the model can look like if you push it far enough.

 

So, just for fun: what have we learnt?

1: Good combo decks combine Linear and Non-Linear means of draw…or they use both types of Linear Draw, depending on what is available. At the very least, they must run some combination of the three.

2: Good combo decks contain few actual kill cards to maximise room for protection spells. They are also helped by the amount of draw. Check

3: A combo deck usually can muster an extremely fast kill. Yes, but it’s not vital to this deck.

4: Combo decks also do not pack absolutely bucketloads of protection; just enough to stop opposing disruption. Actually, some do; this one has plenty of protection at its disposal, since it aims to lock down the game before it goes.

 

ABSOLUTELY NOTHING

I’m kidding: Combo decks normally prescribe to the rules I laid out at the very beginning of this article: the kill spells, the enablers and protection. They are also very capable of putting the win together with the resources at hand. While these three things are constants, not all combo decks can or will look the same. Everything depends on what the combo contains and how it’s meant to get there.

As a quick aside, my advice to anyone considering how to beat combo is to learn how to attack enablers, not kill spells. When a kill spell resolves, most of the time, you’re dead anyway. Stop the enablers; once enablers are lost, you drastically reduce the number of virtual copies your opponent might have access to. Also understand what protection your opponent is running and learn how to fight it off. Once you feel you have effectively disabled their enablers, then your next priority is to attack kill spells. Obviously, if you see your opponent’s hand and they have the kill ready for next turn, you would obviously attack the kill spells. But if they are still getting ready to go, the more enablers you attack, the fewer options your opponent will get to see and that will buy you time. Remember when we discussed clocks and I said Combo decks are effectively, clockless decks? The more turns you buy, the longer you might get to enforce your own plan: use your interactive spells as much as you can to reduce their resources!

I really hope you’ve found these articles helpful: if you really liked this approach I’ve taken (i.e, using Andy S and Mark to help me out and to produce a wider perspective on Magic) please contact me and let me know. I’m trying to experiment with a variety of methods both to keep these articles interesting and varied as well as to help you become as good at Magic as you possibly can.

Remember: I’m also trying to write MtG 102 for you guys who are reading this! If you want me to discuss a particular idea related to novice Magic theory, please contact me and suggest something. I love discussing Magic and I’d be keen to hear your ideas!

Until Next Time!

Adrian Thoung

 

The Philosophy of Magic: The Gathering Combos with Adrian Thoung
Hi there, me again. I hope the discussions on Aggro from Mark and Control from Andrew Sabisky were helpful. Here, we're going to be talking about my favourite archetype: Combo.

Please let us know what you think below...

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