In my last article, I discussed how to play and build combo decks, but where do combo decks come from? Well, as everyone knows, they are brought to us by the Magic: The Gathering stork. The first step to building a combo deck is finding cards that can be built around. These cards are very different for different types of combo decks, so I’m going to break them down type by type.
Engine decks are my personal favorite type of combo decks. They don’t necessarily involve an infinite loop, but can assemble some combination of mana generation and card draw that allow them to “go off” for a really long time, sometimes drawing their whole deck. Examples of these types of deck include KCI, Elves, and High Tide. Engine decks have two main pieces they are looking for: mana engines and card draw engines.
Mana engines are generally pretty obvious. It is pretty clear here how Heritage Druid, High Tide, or KCI could produce enough mana to keep a pretty long chain going. The key point here is that unlike traditional mana spells like Dark Ritual, these cards must be able to provide lasting mana. Heritage Druid and KCI do this by being permanents, and High Tide does it by working with other untap effects like Turnabout, Snap, and Time Spiral.
The card draw engines are often a bit harder to find. The “eggs” like Chromatic Star and Ichor Wellspring help KCI run, but it wouldn’t really function without Scrap Trawler. Similarly, Elves needs Glimpse of Nature and High Tide needs Time Spiral. What you’re looking for here is a powerful enough draw engine to make sure you won’t fizzle out part of the way through your combo. One trick to create an engine that is less likely to fizzle out is to thin your deck. The Second Sunrise combo uses Ghost Quarter over and over again to create a deck that is full of good draws.
Infinite Loop Decks
While some engine decks like KCI can finish with an infinite loop, infinite loop decks are specifically built around assembling their two- or three-card combo. Splinter Twin, Saheeli–Felidar, and Melira combo are all infinite loop decks.
There’s no real formula for finding infinite loops. The best advice I can give is to think in terms of “if only” statements. If only my Splinter Twinned creature could untap, I could make infinite copies! If only Saheeli could copy something that let you use its ability again I could make infinite copies! If only my persist creature didn’t get its -1/-1 counter, I could sacrifice it infinite times!
The storm mechanic has created a combo archetype all its own. Storm decks don’t have an infinite loop, and while they have some resemblance to engine decks, they often don’t get close to drawing their deck. What they do is cast just enough mana-making Rituals and other spells to get to a lethal storm spell.
When looking to build a storm deck, you need a few things:
- A powerful storm win condition: e.g., Grapeshot, Tendrils of Agony, Brain Freeze
- Cheap card draw and/or ways to recur your Rituals to get the storm count high
Build-Around Combo Decks
“What if” thoughts are also pretty effective for these. What if I flipped Pyromancer Ascension with a bunch of spells in hand? What if I resolved Hypergenesis with a hand full of 10+ cost creatures? What if I played a Primeval Titan with an Amulet in play? If this “what if” thought leads to something incredibly powerful, your build-around may be worth exploring more.
Filling Out Combo Decks
Now that you know how to identify a combo deck, the next question is how to fill it out. While combo decks vary a lot in specifics, they tend to have a few common components:
Card draw can help you assemble the pieces of your combo. While most decks tend to prefer card draw like Ancestral Vision, which gives you as much card advantage as possible, combo decks generally prefer more filtering in their card draw. Cards like Serum Visions and Ancient Stirrings are more appealing.
Tutoring can be really powerful in combo decks, especially those that require a couple of pieces for a loop or are built around a specific card. When you are looking at which tutors to play in a deck, cost is generally the biggest factor. Prioritize tutors that can find your combo on the cheap, since going fast is the name of the game for combo. Remember, don’t dilute your deck with too many silver bullets. You are usually just going to get a combo piece anyway.
In general, a good combo deck can find its combo pretty consistently. The tricky part is when your opponent is disrupting you. Having discard and counterspells can help force your combo through enemy disruption. How much anti-disruption you should play depends on how much disruption is in the metagame, and the opportunity cost. That is, how much your deck can afford extra slots to devote to those cards without losing too much speed or consistency.
In many cases, combo decks are the fastest decks in the format. Decks like KCI don’t really need to worry about being raced. But some combo decks, especially in Standard, aren’t as fast as low-curve aggressive decks. For example, Simic Nexus in Standard is a little slower than Mono-White and Mono-Red Aggro. Having some cheap cards like Blink of an Eye that can buy time can be the difference between a won and lost race. Ideally, these cards should draw a card or fit into your plan in some way so that they don’t contribute to the dilution problem. Anti-disruption can also count as a stalling measure. Thoughtseize can take a key counterspell, or take their 2-drop so they apply less pressure. Sinister Sabotage can protect your Wilderness Reclamation from a counterspell, or counter a Jadelight Ranger that would clock you.
Some combo decks have very natural win conditions. If your infinite loop can deal infinite damage like Splinter Twin, you don’t need to worry about how you are going to win the game. Similarly, if your plan involves playing Hypergenesis and a bunch of big creatures, they can probably finish your opponent off.
But a number of combo decks do need to figure out how they are going to finish their opponent off. What should you do once you have access to a ton of cards and mana? In general, you want to look for something that already fits with your plan. Pyrite Spellbomb, Sai, and Spine of Ish Sah are great KCI win conditions. Pyromancer Ascension can make sure it has enough burn to burn someone out, or play Noxious Revival and one Bolt to create an infinite damage loop.
Modern Ad Nauseam Combo is one of the few exceptions to this rule. It plays two different win conditions that have very little value other than for combo’ing. It usually plays both Lightning Storm and Laboratory Maniac. The reason Ad Nauseam has to play such awkward win conditions is because while it does draw its whole deck, it has very little mana to work with. Having two win conditions allows Ad Nauseam to win through random hate pieces like Runed Halo, Witchbane Orb, or Leyline of Sanctity. Having to play two cards that are near mulligans is one of the biggest costs to playing Ad Nauseam. That said, you can occasionally use Laboratory Maniac with Angel’s Grace and Spoils of the Vault, naming “Abandon Hope” to deck yourself and kill your opponent out of nowhere, so even the Maniac is not completely useless.
I hope this look into how to build combo decks in Magic was helpful. Until next time, enjoy combo’ing off!