This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series No Uncertain Terms

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

Last week on “No Uncertain Terms we talked about the Control archetype. That’s cool and all, but Control is boring. Now we can get to the fun stuff: Combo.

 

But first a quote:

“C-C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER!!!” – Killer Instinct

 

What Is Combo?

Generally, the word “combo” is used to refer to a series of items or interactions that are linked together and that definition definitely holds up in Magic, but we have to go deeper. A combo typically refers to a group of cards that, when used together, produce an effect that is greater than the sum of their parts. A Combo deck is simply one in which the primary strategy revolves around assembling and executing the combo. The term is also used to refer more generally to the entire strategic family of decks that utilize combo strategies.

 

The actual combo contained within the deck will be different for each leaf on this family tree. There are hundreds of different combos in Magic that all have distinct and meaningful effects. A deck that contains one combo will not necessarily resemble any other combo deck in terms of its card selection, tactics, or other characteristics. In some decks, the combo is the win condition (ex: Splinter Twin). In some decks the combo itself doesn’t win, but rather serves an an advantage engine to set up a win through some other means (ex: Dredge).

 

Some combos have small effects, generating a noticeable but modest advantage over our base expectations. These don’t generally see prominent play in competitive level decks where power level is a key concern. Other combos can immediately put the game into an unlosable state. When a deck is capable of executing a combo, when it can consistently win on the spot, we typically deem that combo to be “broken.” In Magic lingo, “broken” deserves its own “No Uncertain Terms” article, but I’m going to oversimplify here to save time:

 

A “combo” provides more return than we would expect from those specific cards. A “broken” card produces more return than we would expect relative to the power level of the format. A “broken combo” provides more return from its constituent cards than can be found in the other decks in the format.

 

Finally, I want to mention infinite combos. Some combos use up all of their inputs to create a new whole. Reanimator decks, for example, use looting and Reanimate to end up with a giant creature in play for very little mana. There are other types of combos that don’t use up their inputs and, in fact, arrive back at the beginning of the combo, but with net benefits.

 

The aforementioned Splinter Twin deck taps a Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker to copy a Pestermite, which then comes into play and untaps Kiki. At the end, you’re left with two Faeries and a Kiki-Jiki that can be used again to repeat the process. This is an example of what we call an “infinite combo,” because the combo creates a repeatable loop. Unless interrupted by the opponent, this loop can be executed an arbitrary number of times, with each iteration netting an extra Hasty Pestermite. Infinite combos tend to feature prominently in competitive level combo decks and are the subject of much debate within the Commander community.

 

What’s in a Combo Deck?

This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer. A Combo deck will often look like an unkempt mess of random cards to the uninitiated. If you aren’t familiar with how a particular combo works, it can be very difficult to identify what’s going on by looking at the deck list. In fact, the greatest advantage of Combo decks is their surprise factor. Unwary opponents won’t know what cards are important until they see the combo played out in a game and, generally, if you’re watching your opponent combo off, it means you’ve lost that game.

 

A Combo deck’s most important piece of technology is the combo. This makes intuitive sense, because you need to be able to find the pieces of the combo and assemble them within the game so many Combo decks will choose to play numerous copies of their key cards and include as many appropriate substitutes as they can find.

 

Some Combo decks, however, choose to be more streamlined in their approach. Only running a few copies of their combo cards and choosing to employ a suite of card drawing or tutoring to find the key cards when they need them. Cards like Ponder, or Demonic Tutor show up regularly in Combo decks, but they aren’t always great identifiers because they tend to show up in many other types of decks as well. The truth of the matter is that the method you use to assemble your combo is as unique as the combo itself.

 

Fast mana is a key component of some Combo decks that rely on winning quickly. A deck like Storm needs to generate and spend ten or twenty mana sometimes to win, all within the first couple turns. How do they do that? Dark Ritual, Lion’s Eye Diamond, and Lotus Petal. They use free mana to buy cheap mana and then eventually generate enough mana to cast their entire hand in search of a Tendrils of Agony. Storm is a mana hungry deck, so they need lots of acceleration, but not all Combo decks are like that. Splinter Twin uses no mana acceleration. Rather, it plays a normal number of lands and attempts to combo later in the game when more resources have been gathered.

 

The final element of a Combo deck is disruption. Combo decks are stereotyped as being “fragile,” meaning that the combo has a low likelihood of succeeding and is even less likely to succeed if they’re pressured or disrupted. Good Combo decks tend to break that mold, resisting early pressure by removing threats and fighting back disruption with some disruption of their own. The type of disruption used is, again, specific to the type of combo. To continue the examples from above, Storm uses cheap discard like Thoughtseize or Duress because they want to look at the opponent’s hand and remove a Force of Will. Storm can win on turn one if they know the coast is clear. ‘Twin decks however, don’t usually employ discard. Instead, they use counterspells, particularly Remand. This is their go-to, because they can stop opposing removal or counterspells without needing double Blue mana. The opponent is unlikely to get the chance to cast their spell again, because they’re often dead that turn.

 

What You Won’t Find in a Combo Deck

In short, anything that doesn’t execute, enable, or protect the combo should be cut. Creatures that don’t feature in the combo, tutors that can’t find the combo pieces, disruption that doesn’t protect the combo, or excess creature removal are usually the first things to disappear when tuning a list. Combo decks tend to be pretty airtight. After fitting in as many combo pieces and enablers as you can, there isn’t much room left to play around. This is what we call going “all in” on the combo.

 

If you’re experienced in the given format, you’ll inevitably become familiar with the best cards and decks. Often your first clue that you’re playing against a Combo deck is that they’ll have strange cards that you aren’t used to seeing. The reverse can often be true as well. A player that runs generic “good stuff” cards is less likely to be hiding a combo somewhere. This is definitely true in Limited, Standard, and Modern, but in eternal formats deck identification can be a much bigger challenge.

 

Historical Combo Decks

 

Now let’s look at some of the best Combo decks from the history of the game:

 

1993 ChannelFireball

This was perhaps Magic’s first competitive deck. When the game was originally debuted at GenCon in 1993, the rules were quite different. You only needed 40 cards in Constructed; there was no Limited yet. There was also nothing stopping you from playing more than four of a card. The best deck in the game at this point was about one third Black Lotus, one third Channel, one third Fireball. Random Moxen could also appear.

 

The idea of the deck is to pay 19 life into Channel to power up a lethal Fireball pointed at the opponent. Easy-peasy, mac and cheesy. Add some bacon, make it greasy. Need a drink, lemon squeezy.

 

1994 World Championship 2nd Place “Zoo” – Bertrand Lestree

As I mentioned last week, Zak Dolan won the first world championship. However, history has taken the viewpoint that Lestree actually had the superior deck. His Zoo list was a Aggro-Control/Combo hybrid. There were only like 200 cards to play with at that point, so there were really only a couple distinct archetypes that could be made of the playable cards. This deck however was the first prominent tournament performance of the Channel/Fireball combo.

 

At this point the Restricted List had come into being, forcing players to strip out all but one copy of their Moxen, Loti, Channels, and such. Clearly, there was too much fun being had.

 

1997 Pro Tour Paris Champion “WishingWell.dec” – Mike Long

Mike Long called his PT winning brew “Wishing Well,” but it’s since been known as Prosperity/Bloom. The idea is to discard your hand to Cadaverous Bloom, cast a huge Prosperity, and then repeat until you have enough spare mana to cast a lethal Drain Life.

 

1999 Grand Prix Vienna Top 8 “Broken Jar” – Randy Buehler and Erik Lauer

Memory Jar is no stranger to Combo decks or to the top tournament tables. However, this might be the only good Megrim deck every put together. While the broken fast mana from Urza’s block plunged standard into the dreaded “Combo Winter,” Randy and Erik were busy putting together a Memory Jar deck for Extended. Although they didn’t bag a trophy, they got their message across and the DCI stepped in to ban key cards from the deck in fear that it would exacerbate an already chaotic situation in the metagame. This earned the deck a reputation as one of the most feared of all time, perhaps second only to “Trix.”

 

1999 Grand Prix Vienna Champion “High Tide” – Kai Budde

Kai Budde is one of the best Magic pros of all time and certainly the most decorated with seven Pro Tour trophies and another seven from Grand Prix. He asserted himself as the dominate Combo player in an all-Combo metagame in 1999 by piloting his mono Blue High Tide[card] deck past a field of other [card]Tolarian Academy decks. The High Tide deck uses multiple islands, which now all tap for more than one mana to produce huge amounts of extra Blue by untapping with Frantic Search and Turnabout. With enough mana the deck can produce a Stroke of Genius that forces the opponent to draw their entire deck. This archetype would later be adapted for Legacy play using the powerful artifact Candelabra of Tawnos.

 

1999 Pro Tour Chicago “Fruity Pebbles” – Kai Budde

In the years before the popularization of the internet, there was a tendency for top players to give their decks stupid names. Enter: the breakfast decks. Fruity Pebbles uses Goblin Bombardment to sacrifice Ornithopter, which is then returned to your hand with Enduring Renewal. Repeat as necessary until victory. This deck was followed by “Cocoa Pebbles,” a somewhat more intuitive name that added Black mana for Necropotence and Duress.

 

2000 Grand Prix Philadelphia Champion “Trix” – Scott McCord

Take one look at this deck and you’ll understand why it holds a place of infamy in Magic history. It was the literal black spot on the resume of tournament Magic, catapulting degenerate cards like Dark Ritual, Necropotence, Demonic Consultation and Vampiric Tutor to the top of the standings. The win condition revolves around playing an Illusions of Grandeur and then gifting it to the opponent with Donate. When they can’t pay the upkeep costs, they’ll take twenty damage and die. The deck was fast, powerful, resilient, disruptive, and could operate on a variable clock to throw off the opponent. There’s a good reason that most of these cards are still banned.

 

2005 “Cephalid Breakfast”

The combination of Cephalid Illusionist and the strange activated ability on Nomads En-kor allows you to dump your entire deck into the graveyard. Flashback on your single Krosan Reclamation shuffles your Reanimate into your library which is then drawn as it’s the only card in your deck. Reanimate a giant fatty which is granted haste from Dragon Breath. A highly complex series of interactions that’s simple to execute and ultimately very effective at cheating a huge creature onto the board.  

 

2007 World Championship “Dragonstorm” – Patrick Chapin

While not really the original Storm deck, Patrick Chapin’s 2007 World’s deck is famous because of an incredible moment during a match between he and Gabriel Nassif. The point of the deck was to cast multiple Rite of Flames to generate mana and then kill with either Grapeshot, Ignite Memories, or Dragonstorm searching up multiple Bogarden Hellkite. As it happens, Chapin has all of them, but is still unable to kill the insanely lucky Nassif. Despite the excitement of this game, Chapin goes on to win the match, but loses the championship, ending up in second place.

 

2008 Pro Tour Berlin Champion “Elves” – Luis Scott-Vargas

At this point LSV had not yet become a household name in Magic, but after his success on the PT stage playing Combo Elves, a lot of things changed. This deck utilizes dozens of Elf creatures to either flood the board and beat down, or preferably to fuel a large Grapeshot. The deck relies on generating mana from Nettle Sentinel and Heritage Druid. Glimpse of Nature lets you dig through your deck to find more elf fuel. The deck was explosive in game one, but could become very grindy after sideboard with the addition of disruptive tools like Thorn of Amethyst and Thoughtseize.

 

2009 World Championships “Scapeshift” – Shi Tian Lee

Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle was one of many breakout cards from Zendikar. Combining the card with Scapeshift can create an 18-point burn spell by fetching up six mountains and a Valakut. To ensure that you live until you have seven lands in play, the deck also employed a series of ramp cards, burn spells, and light countermagic, making the deck a slow but incredibly consistent and resilient competitor.

 

2010 StarCityGames Open 5k “Painter Stone” – Sim Sung

The combo of Painter’s Servant and Grindstone allows you to mill out your opponent’s entire deck, which is an efficient and oblique kill condition against many decks. However, the introduction of the Eldrazi to the Legacy format meant that many opponents would be immune to milling. This made the deck somewhat inconsistent and it’s since fallen out of favor. The concept is proven, however, and the deck has enough power to steal wins against unprepared opponents in Legacy to this day.

 

2010 Grand Prix Madrid Champion “ANT” – Tomoharu Saito

ANT or “Ad Nauseum Tendrils” is a Storm Combo deck that uses cheap mana like Lotus Petal[card] and rituals to cast an [card]Ad Nauseum. With that, they can draw nearly their entire deck and cast a dozen or so spells, eventually finishing with a Tendrils of Agony to kill the opponent. This deck has evolved quite a bit over the years and has more or less remained the Storm deck of choice in eternal formats.

 

2010 Grand Prix Oakland “Thopter Depths” – Gerry Thompson

At the end of the period where Extended was a tournament Magic format, Dark Depths Combo decks were a top tier strategy. The original versions used Black for hand disruption and Dark Confidant and Blue for counters and cheap card drawing. The idea of the deck was to use Vampire Hexmage to knock all the counters off of your depths and create a giant Marit Lage token. While lightning fast, the deck could easily be disrupted by land destruction, Thoughtseize, counterspells, or creature removal. Gerry Thompson innovated on this design by including a second Combo win condition that helped resist many of the deck’s existing weaknesses. Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek create a steady stream of tokens and life that gave the deck an alternate path to victory and allowed it to stave off aggressive decks.

 

2010 Grand Prix Oakland Top 8 “Living End” – Travis Woo

First, you cycle through your hand with various creatures, setting up a stocked graveyard. Then the eponymous Living End is cast via a cascade spell like Violent Outburst. This simultaneously kills all of your opponent’s creatures and leaves you with a board full of beefy attackers. This process can be repeated two or three more times as necessary, but it usually isn’t. The remarkable consistency and resiliency of the deck has led it to success in Modern. Even against prepared opponents the Living End player can shift gears, cycling to hit lands and eventually just casting the creatures from hand. Although glacially slow, this provides an outlet to win against opponent’s packing graveyard hate.

 

2011 SCG Cincinnati 1st Place “Manaless Dredge” – Nicholas Rausch

The Dredge deck really began as an offshoot of the Cephalid Breakfast strategy. When the Dredge mechanic was printed in Ravnica, the deck was granted a more efficient way to dump cards into the graveyard and a more reasonable name. Over the years, Dredge has evolved and spawned an entire family of related decks. Usually the goal is to put Narcomoeba into play with its special ability and then sacrifice those creatures for some beneficial effect. Bridge from Below makes Zombies, Cabal Therapy can preempt disruption, and Dread Return can reanimate something nasty. The key to Dredge’s success is that it rarely casts spells and can operate on little-to-no mana, making interacting with the deck very difficult.

 

2013 Grand Prix Antwerp Champion “Splinter/Twin” – Patrick Dickmann

Splinter Twin was the boogeyman of the Modern format for years. Although the combination of Kiki-Jiki and Pestermite was known for years to be abusable, the deck was not consistent or enough to see top tier play until the additions of Splinter Twin and Deceiver Exarch. This meant the deck could now consistently win on turn four and Lightning Bolt was no longer a viable answer. The deck remained in a dominant position in the metagame for several years before eventually being banned in 2016.

 

2015 Grand Prix Kyoto 2015 “Belcher” – Ryuichi Shirakihara

Belcher is a classic Storm style Combo deck that has hung around on the fringes of Legacy play for years. Fast mana fuels a flurry of spells that ultimately ends in a direct damage finish. The big differences are that Belcher players usually only have one or two lands in their whole deck and the combo finisher is not a Storm card: it’s Goblin Charbelcher. Once activated, the Belcher will flip cards until it finds the lone mountain remaining in the deck which will almost always be lethal. The deck is lightning fast, capable of turn one kills with startling frequency. However, Belcher is its own worst enemy. The deck is remarkably inconsistent compared to some of the other lists we have discussed and the deck will completely fold to disruption. Countering the Charbelcher or Stifling the ability will end the game on the spot and even if the Belcher goes off, there’s still a chance that the mountain will be near the top of your library. If this happens, you’ll probably be dead anyway without the resources to activate the Belcher again because you have no mana.

 

What are some of your favorite combos? What’s the stupidest name for a deck that you’ve heard? Share your thoughts in the comments below, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and be sure to support Commandercast.com on Patreon.

 

-GG

Wherever knowledge goes, misinformation is sure to follow. Magic is confusing more often than not. “No Uncertain Terms” is meant to give all players the same base of requisite knowledge to completely understand an issue; to give all Magic players, new and old, the language to communicate and fully understand each other. This series functions as a curriculum of vocabulary, with each new segment building on the last.

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