Combo -- the be all, end all of archetypes. Combo is an enigma...a taboo. It is the dark side of Magic that players hate, yet are drawn inevitably to its secret power. Playing Combo is like playing a whole different game. This archetype can say something that no other archetype can say: "I win." Combo decks do many things normal decks do not -- they "go through motions," "set up engines," and "use enablers." They are perhaps the hardest things to balance that Wizards R&D ever encountered, with the greatest repercussions if the scales are tipped.
For those of you who have been playing long enough to remember, there was a long dark winter period of Magic tournament play where Combo decks and first-turn kills reigned. Thankfully those days are long past. Pro Tour--New Orleans, perhaps the most Combo-oriented environment since, paled in comparison.
A Combo deck uses an unusual assortment of cards that, in combination with each other, have a devastatingly powerful effect on the game -- usually killing your opponent...if he's that lucky. Some crueler combos of the past had the ability to wipe out every permanent you own and every card in your hand before killing you, or put you in some sort of cruel lock.
There are two basic Combo types.
Combo I: The Engine
The engine is a combination of cards that will let you repeat an effect at no cost: generate infinite mana, let you draw your entire library, and so on. For example, Aluren
decks use an Aluren/Cavern Harpy
engine to repeatedly put creatures into play and return them to your hand at instant speed. Combined with Man-o-War
and a creature that gains you life (such as Spike Feeder
), you effectively have infinite life. Now, add a Wall of Blossoms
to the mix and you can draw your deck in a turn when the combo "goes off". Add any creature with a comes-into-play effect and you can do whatever you want to your opponent: Ravenous Rats
her hand down to nothing, Rishadan Cutpurse
her a billion times, or simply Ghitu Slinger
her right out of the game.
Another classic is the Mind Over Matter Engine. With Mind Over Matter in play, you discard most of your hand to repeatedly use a Grim Monolith or Mana Vault. Then cast a Stroke of Genius (targeting yourself) for about X times 3, where X is the number of cards in your hand. Once you draw about 12 cards, you should have another Stroke in your hand. Now Stroke yourself for the rest of your library. You'll undoubtedly have another Stroke in your 40-card hand with which you target your opponent for a hundred or so. (It was possible to Stroke your opponent for over a thousand when using Tolarian Academy!) Yeah -- he probably doesn't have that many cards in his library. And, yes, in the heyday of the MOM Engine there were plenty of jokes about players "Stroking themselves."
And with that, on to the second type of Combo deck.
Combo II: The Lock
The lock is not an instant kill. Oh no -- it's exactly the opposite. The lock disables your opponent, making her meek, feeble, and barely able to make a play. Any attempt to win is futile once the hard lock is out, but if you only achieve soft-lock, your opponent might have a shot. Many lock decks are more appropriately labeled "Rogue," but they are still essentially Combo decks at their cores.
An example of hard lock is Stasis/Kismet. This is the combination that all locks are defined by. There are very few ways out and, back in the day, the most plausible way was hoping to draw more Fireblasts than your opponent could handle.
How did you keep paying for Stasis? Well, you play a lot of Islands in your deck, Howling Mines to help draw them, and then Boomerang effects for when you are about to run out. You Boomerang the Stasis at the end of your opponent's turn, untap all your Islands, and replay it, keeping him in the lock. Winter Orb/Opposition is an example of a similar, "softer" lock. While it is possible to get out of the icy grip, your opponent will find it extremely difficult.
So, how do you build Combo decks on a budget? Perhaps a better question is how do you build Combo decks at all. Most Combo decks look like they came out of the mind of a genius who spent countless hours in a basement tinkering with ideas -- sometimes this isn't far from the truth.
The best way to build a Combo deck is to find an existing (known) Combo you like and build a deck around it. The harder way is to pour over cardlists and look for some key elements: cards that untap things, let you play spells for little or no mana, let you generate mana for free, or have non-mana activation costs. Then see if any of them work together. I posted a budget Combo deck a while back in the form of Elf-ball, which you can find here.
This is another Elf-oriented Combo deck, but with a whole new engine. The last one generated mana from the untap effect of Aggravated Assault. The way to think about that combo was that Assault says "you can untap your creatures if you have 5 mana available." With 6 mana coming from creature sources, you have infinite mana and infinite combat phases.
This is a much simpler, straightforward combo. One element that determines the viability of a Combo deck is how many cards you need to pull the combo off. The fewer the cards needed, the greater the chance of it happening. While the Aggravated Assault deck was in effect a many-part combo, this one is basically a three-part combo.
Building on a Budget - Budget Combo
The three parts to this combo are Wirewood Channeler, Pemmin's Aura, and a win condition like Kamahl, First of Krosa. Read the Runes also counts as a win condition because with the infinite mana provided by the combo, you can draw your deck, get Kamahl, use his Overrun ability a million times, and win. The only other piece of this combo is that you need at least two Elves in play for it to work. (This isn't difficult, as Wirewood Channeler counts as one, but it's good to keep in mind.)
Here's how the combo works: cast Pemmin's Aura targeting a Wirewood Channeler. Tap the Channeler for (this is why you need two Elves in play). Then use to untap the Channeler, netting your self . You only have to generate every other time you tap the Channeler for mana, so you can generate infinite mana of any color each other time.
Read the Runes and Deep Analysis are also necessary to the deck, as card drawing lets you find the combo pieces faster. The deck slows the game down with Vine Trellis, Moment's Peace, and Timberwatch Elf. Sometimes you can win without the combo because you can generate so much mana with Kamahl even without Pemmin's Aura.
This deck is rather simple to play, but many Combo decks aren't. Unfortunately, Combo decks are almost always better when you're willing to put serious money towards the cards in them. Birds of Paradise would be wonderful in here, but it isn't going to happen on a budget. While you could probably build a decent Pentavus/Mana Echoes combo deck on a budget, it would be difficult to make the Twiddle deck from PT--New Orleans.
Until next time, gain 20 and make them lose 20.
NateHeiss on Magic Online