This entry is part 15 of 37 in the series Generally Speaking

By Imshan AKA Sinis

One of the last games of Commander I played involved the use of Pestermite and Splinter Twin by an opponent, on turn four.  This is highly abnormal for most of the groups I play with.  The player who comboed out simply scooped and the rest of the table continued on with the understanding that PesterTwin won the game, and that the rest of us were playing for “second place” or “victory in the losers’ bracket”.  PesterTwin seemed happy enough that he won, even though he spent the next hour or so lying on a nearby couch while the rest of us played a ‘real’ game of Commander.  In short, his presence was fairly innocuous; the only thing PesterTwin did in that game was win it, and the rest of us easily continued on as though he had never been there.

Combo is often derided by Commander players as an non-interactive deck archetype that sucks the fun out of games.  Yet, PesterTwin gleefully took his victory and bowed out, and the rest of us were, casual jokes aside, pleased enough to continue playing.  The line between an acceptable combo and an unacceptable one is often blurry.  This week, I offer some clarity and advice on how – but not necessarily where – to draw the line between combos that are fun and combos that are not.  Of course, this will be minimally objective, and your group’s reaction to combo may be totally different than mine.

The reason why combo is considered unfun by many should be fairly obvious; it is non-interactive and overwhelming by definition.  This means two things; first, there are frequently very few ways to stop a combo player’s game winning play because it requires a narrow answer, and second, that the previous game state tends to matter very little.  For PesterTwin, the first aspect is that one of us needed a counterspell, removal for the Pestermite, or removal for the Splinter Twin, and mana to cast it.  This seems broad on its face, but note that I and the players at PesterTwin’s table had basically no warning; Pestermite came out on the last player’s end step, tapped a land that might have been used for counterspells or removal, and then PesterTwin played a land and Splinter Twin, completing the combo and ending the game.  Further, not all combos have so many answers; combos involving Turnabout and Reiterate or many Storm based combos (like decks based around Tendrils of Agony or Brain Freeze) can typically only be interacted with by countermagic, or a narrow set of countermagic-like cards.

The second aspect of non-interaction for combo was not quite so obvious for PesterTwin; we were on turn four, so not much development had occurred, and PesterTwin may as well have not been there.  But, had this happened much later in the game after some swings back and forth and instead of surprise, PesterTwin simply had back up in the form of countermagic, the game would have ended on a much more sour note.  Firstly, it erases the game’s previous interactions; none of the swings back and forth, board positioning, resource consumption or expenditure matters after a combo lands.  Moreover, if the combo player simply bows out after winning, someone with an aggressive deck who bore the brunt of the combo player’s answers will not feel that the combo player’s presence was innocuous.

Finally, non-interaction with a combo is not always complete.  With PesterTwin, there was a real possibility that one of the players could have flashed out Seht’s Tiger, gave himself protection from blue, and bought themselves an extra turn to answer Pestermite or Splinter Twin while the other two players were promptly eliminated.  The game is suddenly much more complicated for the Seht’s Tiger player and PesterTwin; the combo player cannot bow out content with a victory, bidding the other players to continue on without him because he hasn’t actually won (unless he’s content with a loss, and to have not killed the other players).  The Seht’s Tiger player has made an epic countermove, now has only one opponent to deal with, and might gladly continue on, since the victory is still undecided.  This is uncommon, but it does happen; when someone plays an infinite number of spells (probably with Palinchron and High Tide) followed by a Brain Freeze, a player with a Mindbreak Trap may be only inclined to exile the spells targeting him, and let the other players get milled out.  Or, in that situation, a player might have a Legendary Eldrazi or Blightsteel Colossus in their deck.  Or, Seht’s Tiger might make another appearance.  Once this sort of thing happens, the game state becomes sticky.  Combo in this scenario invariably forces a player to bow out without winning in order to start a new game with the whole table again.

Thus far, I’ve talked about combos that end the game instantly in decks with express combo pieces, like Pestermite and Splinter Twin.  I want to distinguish ‘dedicated combo decks’ from ‘decks with combos’.  Dedicated combo decks use tutors and combo pieces that interact with multiple other combo pieces to end the game as fast as possible, while deck with combos are simply decks with cards that will end a game after a long and grueling game.  I’ve been unfair in representing PesterTwin; he doesn’t run tutors, and only a few of his combo pieces interact with each other, or even have infinite consequences.  He merely got lucky with his opening hand and first few draws.  PesterTwin’s combos are typically acceptable, because he has taken pains to avoid attempting it every game.

The ‘decks with combos’ category is much more nebulous, but mostly differ on the basis of when they want to end the game.  Many green decks that play a lot of creatures are going to play Overwhelming Stampede or Craterhoof Behemoth, and might play tutors to find them.  I think most people would say Craterhoof Behemoth and ten creatures is an acceptable combo, even though it will probably kill a table and otherwise meets all the conditions of a dedicated combo deck, including the aspect of difficulty of interaction.

What separates Craterhoof Behemoth with a bunch of creatures from dedicated combo deck?  Arguably, a couple of things, with neither factor being sufficient to make a ‘dedicated combo deck’.  Firstly, the difference lies in how many combo pieces are used.  For the Craterhoof Behemoth, there needs to be a lot of creatures on the board capable of attacking for it to be a truly backbreaking play.  Usually that means a large number of creatures on the board, many of which are going to be non-token.  What draws offense from a low number of combo pieces is the likelihood and ease with which it is pulled off.  This also means that functional duplicates (i.e. tutors and cards that are replicas of each other with different card titles) also affect this criterion by effectively increasing the number of available combo pieces without increasing the number of required combo pieces.  There are exceptions, of course; Rhys the Redeemed plays Craterhoof Behemoth because it’s going to win games and because it makes a lot of sense.  It’s down to only two combo pieces one of which is a general, which brings me to the next point.

Second, mana investment is a serious issue for Craterhoof Behemoth.  No matter how you slice it, it’s going to take a great deal of mana and time to play a lot of creatures and then drop biggo the great.  Even Rhys has to churn out a lot of tokens and get up to eight mana before Craterhoof Behemoth becomes unstoppable.  Comparing this to Pestermite and Splinter Twin should be obvious; Pestermite and Splinter Twin can get going much earlier, and afford fewer chances to interact by sheer timeliness of the combo.  Similarly, if someone is going to play Decree of Annihilation with Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker out, it’s perhaps not unreasonable to call it ‘fair’.

With these two things in mind, it might be easier to separate out what a group might frown or grin at.  The fewer cards and the less mana it costs, the more offensive it will be to many players.  If you assemble a Rube Goldberg machine of a half dozen pieces or more, players are more likely to congratulate you if they lost to it, even if the pieces themselves have a low mana cost.  At the other end of the spectrum, few players will be willing to call Craterhoof Behemoth and Rhys the Redeemed unfair even though it’s only two cards.  These criteria for what’s in a combo are fuzzy and vague, and they’re meant to be.  It is along these two axes that I find players judge the acceptability of a card combo, whether they realize it or not.  The advantage of not giving you a concrete answer?  You get to decide, and talk about it with your local groups.

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