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Combos are the most powerful kind of deck in multiplayer. Combos are the weakest kind of deck in multiplayer. Both of these statements are true.

Combo Killers

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The letter C!ombos are the most powerful kind of deck in multiplayer. Combos are the weakest kind of deck in multiplayer.

Both of these statements are true. How can this be?

It all depends on the metagame.

See, combo decks by their very nature are explosive... and when they're geared to destroy multiple opponents at once, usually by going into infinite (or, as we say in the business, "arbitrarily large") loops, they're nigh-impossible to stop once they start going off. Generally, there's a flurry of cards played, a handwave, and a quiet concession from the rest of the table.

You nuke the whole field from nowhere. If that's not power, what is?

(Mostly) Ravnica Block Infinite-Mana Combo

Before we can continue, however, we have to define "combo." As I define it, there are a handful of archetypical deck types in multiplayer:

  • Aggro, where your deck is designed to deal a lot of damage over the course of a few turns (usually via creatures) and then finish off the weaker players. Aggro decks may have some spot removal, but in general they have no way to clear the board; their sole focus is on overwhelming people with force.
  • Control, where you try to gain card advantage by playing cards that remove a bunch of your opponents' cards at once (like Damnation), or render your opponents' cards useless (like Imperial Mask), and a couple of Big Finisher cards that protect themselves (like the endlessly hated Akroma, Angel of Wrath). Generally, it's backed by a bit of early defense (like Ghostly Prison) and maybe the odd counterspell and/or spot removal.
  • Lockdown, where you try to strangle your opponents' resources, controlling the whole table at once. The current craze is to do this with Pickles (the Brine Elemental/Vesuvan Shapeshifter combo), but I had a successful run for a while with a Limited Resources deck at an eight-man table that prevented people from laying lands.
  • Combo, where you go into some arbitrarily-large loop and destroy one or more opponents at once.

Walk Through Infinity

Now, there are many significant variants on each of those decks. For example, there are several flavors of multiplayer aggro—like aggro "swarm" decks (which churn out tons of little guys and don't usually work) and aggro "generator" decks (which use reusable effects like Pride of the Clouds, Centaur Glade, or Phyrexian Processor to churn out large token guys, which do okay).

Likewise, there are several sub-flavors of multiplayer combo:

  • Damage combo – A deck that points enough damage at everyone's heads to kill mass numbers of people in one fell swoop (via, say, generating an arbitrarily large storm count and then Grapeshotting or Tendrils of Agonying the table out, or generating infinite mana to fuel a gigantic Rolling Thunder).
  • Millstone combo – A deck that relies on decking everyone in one shot (usually with the help of every decker's friend, Ambassador Laquatus).
  • Combat combo – A deck that creates a swarm of large, hasty creatures to stomp out of nowhere and bust past your opponents' defenses (using something like, say, Mana Echoes, Sliver Queen, and some sort of haste-generating effect). These often fall flat to something silly like Spore Cloud or Fog effects, or instant-speed mass removal like Rout or Decree of Pain, but they can pull out victories if you go nuts while the right person is tapped out.
  • Turn combo – A deck that uses some set of cards (like Abe Sargent's deck above) to take infinite turns and wear everyone out via some recurring threat—in this case, the kill card is almost irrelevant, since if you have infinite turns to recur your best cards and kill everything off and wipe out people's counterspells, you should be able to wipe the table with a Chimney Imp.
  • Death Star combo – A deck that produces some overwhelming recurred threat that kills people one at a time (like a deck that recurs Door to Nothingness in order to pick off players, one by one). Note that this isn't technically combo, but I think it's slightly better placed here than in "Control" or "Lockdown."
  • Bad combo – A deck that has combo-like elements, but either can't kill everyone at once or doesn't have the defenses to protect itself.
  • New Orleans combo – A fishy creole stew thickened with okra pods.

No, wait – I'm thinking of New Orleans gumbo. Sorry, I'm hungry.

But if you'd like some good starting points for combos, the Magic Deck Vortex has a whole section devoted to combos that go infinite (though before you use any of them, check out my thoughts on "Compactness" below).

Not every combo is infinite, but most of the good multiplayer combos are... Mainly because "infinite" scales to kill everyone easily, whereas "not infinite" peters out at some point. One of the best combo decks in Magic was Trix, wherein you Donated an Illusions of Grandeur to your opponent and then they lost 20 life when they couldn't pay the upkeep. That's awesome in a duel, where killing one opponent is the end of the game, but not so awesome when there are two or three opponents.

Still, there are some great combos that can take out a eight-player table with ease. Witness this very old, no-longer-legal Replenish deck from one of my favorite multiplayer writers ever, Jonathan Chabot, which dumps enchantments into the graveyard with Attunement, then brings them all out at once with Replenish. Then you have one (or many) Saproling Bursts that you can create a 7/7 token with, then a 6/6 token, then a 5/5 token, and so forth... Each time doing damage to some player with Pandemonium, which may be doubled or quadrupled thanks to Furnace of Rath. I've played this deck, and it's just mean if there are no counterspells about.

Hideously Broken, Once-Was-Legal-But-Now-Is-Not Replenish Deck

The problem is further confused when you look at mini-kinda-combos that can cause havoc, but don't go infinite and don't kill other players on the spot. For example, I have a Seedborn Muse-based deck that has a couple of Leafdrake Roosts tossed in. When I get them both out, I get a 2/2 flyer at the end of everyone's turn, assuming nobody cacks either the Muse or the Roost (which, frankly, doesn't happen that often). That's not a combo, since it won't kill anyone in one fell swoop, but certainly churning out a 2/2 flier for each player's turn isn't a bad thing to have.

Remember: not every synergetic set of cards is a combo. As someone pointed out in the forums last week, Forgotten Ancient and Doubling Season is a nice set of cards, but it's not a true combo.

Combo needs to be able to spring the trap at once, taking several people out in one turn (or, in the case of turn combo decks, one tightly grouped set of consecutive turns).

So. For purposes of this debate, "Combo" is a deck that does little until it finally goes off with a combination of synergetic cards and destroys multiple players (and preferably all players) at once. Let us ask a valid question:

What makes a good combo work in multiplayer?

There are several factors that go into making a combo fire reliably in a large-scale game, and they're not always obvious... and, in fact, the more experienced the table, the harder it gets to pull off a combo (as I hinted at in last week's You Might Be a Combo article) because they can see it coming. Multiplayer tables everywhere are littered with the bones of players who didn't adapt their combos appropriately, because if they know a combo is on the way, they have a greater chance to a) destroy a key combo piece in response to you playing the final spell you need to go infinite, b) gang up on you to kill you before you draw that final spell, or c) both.

So what do you need to fire? Let's start with the basic elements and work our way up:

Scalability

It seems like it'd go without saying, but twice in the past month we've had people enter the Fatal Loop and only then realize that they actually didn't have enough juice to sweep an eight-man table. Combos in duels are fairly easy, because all you generally have to do is 20 damage... But not every combo can do a hundred and twenty damage.

The "I put four Kokushos into play and Drain Life everyone for 20" trick seems awesome.... Right up until someone plays Healing Salve and puts himself at twenty-three life. Now, admittedly, you're still up a zillion life and have a good chance at winning... But if your entire deck is focused around powering out one Dragonstorm and that was all the Kokushos you had, you might just lose to Mister I'm-At-3-Life.

Particularly if you're going into an infinite-turn combo (which both of these decks were), ensure that you won't deck or deplete yourself in the process.

Please Don't
As a plea to those who think bringing infinite-turn combos to a multiplayer table.... Don't. They're not fun. While other combos generally kill multiple people in one quick-n-easy loop, the infinite turn combos require you to go "Untap, upkeep, draw, do a complex series of stuff designed to let you take your next turn, do a complex series of stuff designed to slowly kill people, yadda yadda yadda." There was one instance where we literally waited for half an hour for someone to take twenty turns when he finally realized that he could only kill three people at the table (thanks to the five Howling Mines he had out) before decking himself.

I'm not opposed to combos. But if you're gonna combo out, be merciful. Do it in one shot.

Compactness. 
By definition, a "combo" requires a combination of cards to fire. But the number of elements in a combo help define how good it is. As a general rule:

  • Two-card combos are the Holy Grail of combos; if you can find a quick, two-card combo that kills everyone, that's as good as it gets.
  • Three-card combos are the industry standard. Generally, you're hoping for three cards to appear simultaneously in order to work the way you want it.
  • Four-card combos are, well, stretching it. You can occasionally pull one of these off, but generally it's the Johnny dream; it fires once every fifteen games and then you crow about pulling off this improbable victory for weeks afterwards.
  • Five- (and more) card combos: Forget it.

The fewer combo pieces you need on the table, the less likely it is that a stray Naturalize will cause your entire strategy to collapse underneath you like, well, a house of cards. Combos are hard enough to pull off in the face of removal; when there's a chance that you might never see that fifth card in your hand in the course of a game, that makes it nigh-impossible.

Stick with small stuff.

Resiliency

I used to know a guy who played nothing but combos. The running gag was that he hated the attack phase; any time he sat down, you could pretty much assume that he was going to try something a little off-center.

That was awesome. He was a great guy, and his crazy decks shook up our table. That was great.

The problem was that his decks were fragile.

His fatal weakness was that he relied on decks that utterly failed to fire if a critical piece got removed... and at the time, my group tended to play with cards like Splinter and Eradicate and Cranial Extraction just because, well, they were really good at neutering whole strategies. There were any number of times where I'd blow up something random because I knew that anything on his board could explode into strange death, and he'd just scoop.

Removing one piece meant he couldn't win. That is not the sign of a good multiplayer deck.

Multiplayer combos need to have a backup strategy. You can fix this in a couple of ways:

Have not one combo, but several. Some of the best multiplayer decks are filled with synergetic combos at once; if you remove one piece, fine, these three other cards can go off together.

Check this out, for example:



As Robert says, "I've found no less than six ways to go infinite with this deck, though I'll be darned if I can remember what they've all been. Of course, the Great Machine itself is a rather obvious one, and probably my favorite infinite combo ever. It takes a while to assemble, so it's fairly easy to answer (which I like), so, when it does get to go infinite, I don't feel so bad.

"The others are more innocuous, such as a pair of Myr Retrievers + Krark-Clan Ironworks to generate infinite untapping and mana with a Dross Scorpion out, or infinite myr tokens with a Genesis Chamber out, or a very happy Lodestone Myr with a Dross Scorpion out (or infinite myr tokens with a Myr Matrix out if infinite mana becomes possible, which it usually does). Other than that, with just one or two pieces of the machine out, it's usually easy to find some sort of infinite loop with whatever's on the board."

This Myr deck is a little clunky, but there are a lot of ways to go crazy with it. That makes it a danger at any time, no matter what you remove.

Have a backup plan. Look at this older deck by Chris Franson, which was submitted in an article to StarCityGames.com long before Skullclamp got the banhammer (though since Skullclamp isn't essential, it shouldn't be too hard to replace the Skullclamp with something else):

Obviously, the goal is to go nuts with a bunch of Elves and Staff of Domination, using the Staff's "untap a creature" trick to use elves to get infinite mana. Then you filter through your deck, Tooth and Nail into Mephidross and Triskelion, and then get Kamahl to blow up everyone's lands before you smash across the bow.

But if you can't go infinite with the Staff, you can still just go beat down with some savage Elvery. This deck is worsened considerably by the removal of the Staff, of course, but it's still a valid deck.

Recycle. It's a little harder to recover when you have your combo pieces extracted from the game (though you can pack your deck with Wishes for just that circumstance). But it's a good bet that eventually, someone might kill one of your combo pieces, so it helps to have spells that refetch your core components at a moment's notice.

Take this little decky by Britton Young, one of the infrequent visitors to our table:

The deck's a little random, but the goal here is to eventually go nuts with Pemmin's Aura on Wirewood Channeler, then either Brain Freeze everyone out with infinite storm count or just hyper-mill everyone into the graveyard. Britton's like me; while he knows that more streamlined decks are technically superior, he likes the feeling of a different deck every game.

What works, however, are the elements of recycling. He's got two Reminisces and a Regrowth and a Feldon's Cane in the deck to fetch any strays that get capped along the way. He's won at least one game with this deck because I popped Laquatus at the end of a turn, he fetched him back with a Reminisce, and there it went.

Sneakiness

One of the main rules of multiplayer combo is that if people see it coming, they will gang up on you. Thus, it's often better to wait until turn seven, when you can lay all of your pieces out and fire in one turn, instead of putting out one part of the combo and exposing it to removal in return for the chance of going off on turn five.

You can sometimes hide your deck. For example, the Elf deck above looks like, well, an Elf deck. Some folks will go, "Well, that's not a problem, I can handle Elf beatdown," and then suddenly you lay Staff and go crazy.

Whatever you do, make sure that by the time you go off, you're in a position where no one can stop you. Which leads to...

Defense

Combo decks without any defense will often lead to speedy demises. Some groups of players just stomp on whoever's weakest, whereas others will say, "Hmm, he's done nothing yet—he must be up to something." Either way, you're gone.

Have something in the way of blockers. It doesn't have to be huge—just large enough that someone on turn three won't go, "Oh, you're open!" and get you down to the point where a Sudden Shock can take you out of the game.

Consistency

The whole "I Dragonstorm into four Kokushos!" is an awesome plan... Until you get a Kokusho stuck in your hand. Then what do you do? If you don't have a way to anticipate and work around these common glitches in your combo, you can get stalled.

Finale

But none of that answers the core question: how can multiplayer combos be the best and the worst deck?

Well, leaving aside the question of, "Why would anyone play a deck that's not fun to play?" (since many people think combos are distinctly unfair), combos can be truly powerful in the right hands. The best combos are almost invisible before they go off and kill you.

The worst combos, however, are clunky, sprawling monstrosities that never quite fire because they get disrupted, never drawn, or can't compete. A combo's a careful thing; you have to make sure you get it right.

And you know what? I haven't used the "poll" section of this site a lot, so let's start by asking you what your local metagame is like:

 In my multiplayer group...  
We never face combo decks. No one ever plays 'em.
Someone occasionally brings a combo deck in to see if they can blow us out, but usually it's non-combo decks.
Combo decks are a healthy part of our multiplayer metagame, and you need to be prepared to face them, even if they're not dominant.
Our group is almost exclusively combo decks facing other combo decks, and it's a race to see who can go off first.
I don't currently play multiplayer, but I sure do like to fill in polls.
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