A Beginner’s Guide To Magic: The Gathering Combos In 5 Simple Steps
This week, burgeoning Planeswalkers, we’ll be taking a look at our third – and arguably hardest to define – of the strategic archetypes: Combo.
1. What is Combo?
Combo is a strategy which seeks to ignore traditional gameplay, in favour of assembling a combination of cards which have an overpowering interaction – frequently one which will win the game instantly.
While other archetypes concern themselves with ideas like card advantage, preserving life totals or managing the opponent’s board presence, Combo frequently ignores them. Instead, it focusses on assembling its game-winning sequence at the exclusion of all else.
2. What colours is Combo?
Like our other archetypes, Combo exists in every colour – but more so than the others, its’ place in the colour wheel has changed substantially over time. This synopsis will take a long view of the role that each colour has played in the Combo picture.
White is not a classically Combo-orientated colour, although it has received several powerful effects throughout the game’s history. Most notable in recent history are cards like Second Sunrise, which were the core of the intricate, but powerful ‘Eggs’ strategy in the Modern format.
When one is in the game of assembling groups of cards as quickly as possible to win the game, the option to start meaningfully tailoring one’s hand from the first turn is very powerful; so powerful, in fact, that Preordain is on the Modern banned list. At the other end of the cost & power spectrum, degenerate effects like Time Spiral single-handedly enable combo strategies. Throw in some cheap or free counterspells to protect whatever shenanigans is being planned and a truly potent brew emerges.
As in our Control chapter, Blue has more potential entries on this list of Combo-friendly effects which I’ve omitted for reasons of space and format. It’s not known as the best colour in Magic for nothing.
You might notice something about the three Black effects I’ve showcased above: none of them bear the modern card frame.
This doesn’t mean that there have been no Combo-worthy Black cards printed since 8th Edition – Ad Nauseum certainly counts. But it highlights the fact that the most powerful types of effect have been gradually shaved off Black’s slice of the colour pie.
In any case, when we include the cards only legal in older formats, Black has the whole package. It makes mana faster than anyone else, draws cards better than anyone else, plays from the graveyard better than anyone else… it even has the best ‘Storm’ win condition. Beyond what I’ve showcased, it also has the best tutoring and excellent discard options to protect its strategy.
Having typed all that, it starts to become easier to understand why WotC has gradually diluted Black’s embarrassment of riches. I’m still bitter, though. Swamps 4LIFE.
Red has inherited some of the most powerful Combo-supporting-elements from Black, sporting its own range of mana rituals and ‘storm’ cards. Combined with the creature and spell ‘cloning’ abilities of cards like Kiki-Jiki and Pyromancer’s Ascension, this has made Red the default Combo colour in the Modern format. It’s typically partnered with Blue for card-drawing power and protective countermagic.
For a colour which is supposed to champion the purity of the natural order, Green certainly has a chequered history when it comes to enabling ‘unfair’ Combo decks. It handily combines the ability to generate idiotic amounts of mana with a plethora of big, tasty spells that love to abuse that bloated resource.
With the aid of Green, I have forced my opponents to draw 74 cards and lose the game; I have searched my library for two unbeatable monsters and put them directly into play; I have turned most of my starting life total into colourless mana and then poured it all into a Banefire pointed directly at my opponent’s face. Green might pretend to be all about the Leatherback Baloths and Thragtusks, but we know different: it’s a sneaky Combo-wolf in sheep’s clothing.
3. How does Combo work?
It will identify a combination of cards which interact in a powerful way.
Magic has a traditional axis for the power of cards and effects, which tends to relate to the investment of mana players make in them. On this axis, two mana might buy a 3/3 creature, four might destroy all creatures and six might get you a Titan or a Dragon; these are things which, as players, we can relate to easily.
Sometimes, in a game as big and diverse as Magic, certain cards work together in extremely powerful ways not originally envisioned by their designers. Sometimes, the designers even walk in with their eyes open. But the end result is an interaction which breaks the usual ratio of investment:reward.
On the back of such crazy interactions are Combo decks born.
It will identify the most explosive and/or reliable way to assemble that combination.
It doesn’t matter if you have two cards in your deck which, combined, will instantly win you the game; what matters is whether you can get them into your hand and deploy them.
This being the case, Combo decks will typically dedicate many of their available slots to draw and tutoring effects which help them find those cards.
Traditionally, a Combo deck will focus on achieving its end game as quickly as possible; however, some strategies function over a long game, their designers having determined that this improves their chance of success – more on this in the next segment.
It will calculate how much disruption, protection or redundancy it can afford to incorporate.
Sometimes, a Combo deck will be built on a strong synergy between a range of cards; this kind of deck will use a lot of its slots making sure the actual combination can run smoothly, so it won’t have much space for counterspells or discard to help protect its endgame. KCI was a deck like this.
At the other extreme, there are decks which run a combination so simple – and requiring so few slots – that they are free to create a very controlling strategy in which to embed it. The rest of the deck can be filled out with card draw, counterspells and board control measures, allowing the Combo player to bide their time and craft the best possible opportunity to snatch the win. Splinter Twin is a deck like this.
It will soberly weigh up whether the payoff is worth the work.
This is the big one, folks: this is where dreams are realised and hearts are broken.
In the course of our Magic careers, most of us will hit upon one or more ideas for a combination which will win the game. What many of us don’t do is ask ourselves searching questions about whether our idea is really good enough to cut it.
The reasons to play a Combo deck are usually that, unhindered, it is faster than anything else in the format; that it is consistent and reliable in delivering that lightning-fast kill; and ideally that it is resilient enough to stand up to some disruption.
If your Combo deck is:
- Not faster than the format’s best Aggro deck
- Not consistent enough to produce its ‘fast’ win with the required frequency to win lots of matches
- Not able to fight through at least one discard effect or counterspell
…then, barring some unique features of the format you’re playing in, it’s almost certainly not good enough.
Combo decks are good when they are unfair. If your Combo deck doesn’t feel truly unfair to play against, I recommend you shelve it.
4. What are Combo’s weaknesses?
If your opponent is trying to race you with weenie creatures while you sculpt your hand, you will probably feel favoured as the Combo player; after all, as long as you put your jigsaw together before they kill you, the game is yours!
If your opponent is spending their time taking away all your jigsaw pieces, while nibbling you to death with a decent-sized monster, all the Kleenex in the world will not dry your tears.
Nobody likes to have their stuff stopped in mid-air, but the Combo player likes it least. At least if my Aggro deck’s two-drop is countered, I have more where that came from; when I’m invested in assembling a very specific combination of cards, the parts aren’t usually so interchangeable.
Including useful backup, like Dispel, in the sideboard will help – but when WotC prints cards like Mindbreak Trap, it’s clear that Blue ‘Stop’ signs will be an ever-present threat to Combo’s fun.
Sideboard ‘hate’ cards
Combo decks tend to attack along a particular axis – playing multiple spells in a turn, or abusing the graveyard, or making token creatures, or gaining life amongst others – which means that cards which attack their specific line of play can be more effective than against a strategy with more varied threats.
If you are playing Dredge, for instance, your opponent will all-but-end the game simply by starting with a sideboarded Leyline of the Void in play. Once that Leyline is down, all your interactions as the Dredge player boil down to whether or not you can remove it. In the meantime, your opponent is executing their gameplan with joyous abandon. This will not be a fun experience for you.
Wizards of the Coast R&D and the DCI
Wizards has not always had such rigorous product-development processes as it does today. In the past, cards have been printed which were outrageously powerful and which ushered in periods of Combo dominance; these periods were miserable for the player community in general. As a result, Wizards are now extremely vigilant about the potential Combo cards they allow into print.
In addition – and particularly in the Modern format – Wizards have displayed a willingness to ban cards ‘for the sake of the environment’. A healthy number of these bans were applied to Combo cards from then outset; the subsequent bannings have leaned very hard indeed on Combo, with Blazing Shoal, Seething Song and Second Sunrise all going the way of the Dodo.
If, after long weeks of work, you finally break a format with a new Combo deck… my advice is to enjoy it while it lasts.
5. What does a good combo deck look like?
I’m going to go back in time a little on this one.
In this article, I’ve touched on the Combo imperative to do ‘unfair’ things; also on WotC’s imperative to stop things from getting too unfair. This balancing act is at the heart of the Combo dynamic.
The more sensitive of you may also have picked up on my poorly-hidden Combo sympathies. I’ll admit, I think that there is more of a place for Combo in Magic than the R&D department does.
That said, sometimes action must be taken to stop a deck which is little short of an abomination (or as we Combo-lovers might call it, a work of art). To give Wizards their due, I’m going to profile just such a deck here today. Hopefully, this will help you understand both why there is a need to regulate such strategies – and why it is so fundamentally thrilling to play them in the days immediately following their discovery.
Steve Sadin’s Hulk Flash
This deck is a completely degenerate combination-kill, clad in the iron armour of a Counterbalance Control deck. It is a stone-cold monster – and here’s how it works:
While the execution of this combination is relatively intricate, setting it in motion could not be simpler: Sadin required only a copy of Flash, a copy of Protean Hulk and two mana (one of which was blue).
In Mystical Tutor, he had a reliable way to find a copy of Flash; in Brainstorm and Sensei’s Divining Top, combining with the shuffle-effects of his ‘fetch-lands’, he had an engine which could let him see a tremendous number of cards each game, making the location of either ingredient much easier than it might otherwise have been.
To top it all off, Sadin ran 8 maindeck counterspells which could be played for free.
The deck could win as early as turn one, thanks to the acceleration provided by Chrome Mox; or it could settle in to control the game and pull gradually ahead, via the brutal Counterbalance/Top combination and the card-drawing power of Dark Confidant.
Shortly after the tournament, Flash was banned in Legacy. R&D had little choice and I can’t disagree with their decision.
But still… like a Bengal Tiger, just because we recognise how dangerous a deck is doesn’t mean that we can’t also admire its incredible beauty.
That concludes our programme for today – and our roundup of the basic archetypes.
I strongly recommend building and playing with Combo decks, if there are viable options in whatever environment you’ve chosen; there really is no feeling which compares with the first time you ‘go off’ and achieve the impossible.
Now that this trilogy of articles is complete, I’ll be looking further afield for new topics. If there’s anything you’d like to see getting the 5 Point Plan treatment, let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading, thanks for sharing.