The Johnny Factor - Making Combos Work

Article by Aggro_zombies

Combo decks have been out there for a long, long time. Since the earliest days of Magic, players have been looking for ways to combine cards to create ever bigger, ever better, ever more game-ending effects. Part of the allure of combos is the “surprise factor,” the fact that they never saw that devastating five-piece bomb coming. Part of it is that combo decks are usually pretty cheap to make. And part of it is that ending the game with some absurd combination of cards is just plain fun. But throwing your combo into a deck and hoping for the best is not going to cut it - a true Combo Deck is made up of several elements, each of them helping you to win. In this article, I intend to show you what these elements are and then identify them in combo decks from throughout Magic history. First up: Combo Deck Pieces.

Putting it Together

All combo decks contain four essential parts: the combo, the search, the mana accelerators, and the “combo protection.” With that in mind, here’s what everything is:

A combo is essentially any set of two or more cards that are kinda dorky on their own but, when put together create some sort of effect. For example, let’s look at the Chronatog + Stasis + Orb of Dreams combo. Stasis, on its own, is a bomb, albeit a tricky one. The other two cards, when left to their own devices, are unimpressive. But put all three together and you get a lockdown. How? The Chronatog lets you skip your turns so you never have to pay the upkeep on Stasis. The Orb puts all of your opponent’s permanents into play tapped, and they’ll stay that way, thanks to the blue enchantment. Your opponent has no way to get out of the lock without some sort of Disenchant, so your opponent will eventually deck him or herself out, winning you the game.

Of course, the likelihood of you just drawing your combo, even with four copies of each of its pieces in your deck, is pretty low. That’s why you need ways to search for your combo. They speed your deck up and make it more consistent. Usually, this can be done with tutors: Demonic Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, Eladamri’s Call, and others. Let’s go back to the combo I gave above. I have several tutors open to me. Most black tutors will fetch you any card, and Enlightened Tutor will fetch me the Stasis and Orb of Dreams. However, I want to keep my deck mono-blue for mana consistency reasons. What do I have available to me? Intuition can fetch me all of my pieces, as will Gifts Ungiven. Any card drawers, such as Brainstorm or Accumulated Knowledge, will allow me to dig farther into my library and find the combo, or at the very least, other ways to search for my combo. Soothsaying and Sensei’s Divining Top do something similar, but you don’t draw the combo, it just goes on top of your library.

If I want to make a deck around the Chronatog + Stasis + Orb of Dreams combo, I need at least a couple ways to search for it. I’ll start with Intuition, because it’s only three mana and I can search for multiple copies of a card to ensure that I get it. I’ll also include Brainstorm and Accumulated Knowledge as card drawing.

Note that Intuition and the Knowledge act as a sort of “mini-combo.” You can search for three Knowledges, two of which go into your graveyard. You can then play the other one to draw at least three cards... and if you happen to find the fourth, it becomes even more efficient by drawing you four.

Here’s what I have so far:

We’re off to a good start but any sort of Disenchant effect that comes my way will hose me, especially if it kills the Orb – then my opponent can play untapped lands and wait for a threat big enough to win. I need some way to protect my combo. In some decks, especially ones that revolve around enchantment and artifact combos, Fountain Watch or Hanna’s Custody are essential in this role. Other decks protect their combos with Counterspells or discard. Me, I’ll go the counterspell route. I now have a lot of options open – which to choose? Well, I don’t want to tap myself out to counter something, so I want cheap or free counterspells. Force of Will is an obvious one. Thwart works well too, since I won’t need Islands once my combo is out, and Daze fills that role as well. Okay, so I’ve got some free counterspells. You can see our deck-in-progress to the left.

Combo decks like a lot of mana, because you usually want to play all of your combo pieces at once to minimize the chances of disruption. Therefore, you want to have access to lots of mana and mana accelerators. Any of the game’s numerous Moxen would help here, as would Elves, Birds of Paradise, “land searchers”…heck, anything that gives you more mana helps. For my deck, I’m going to go with Chrome Mox because it’s a fairly balanced card and it doesn’t require me to pitch lands like Mox Diamond does. For my lands, I obviously want lots of Islands, but I’ll also add a few Forsaken City because it’s synergistic with my combo, and it can stand in for the Chronatog in a pinch to pay the upkeep on Stasis. Here’s the finished deck:

There! Not a terrific deck, mind you, but it illustrates how to build a combo deck. Speaking of which, let’s review: all combo decks want a combo, and a way to search for it. This makes your deck more consistent than just trying to draw your combo pieces. Consistency = more wins. Combo decks want mana acceleration and a way to protect the combo from disruption. Again, the mana acceleration will make your deck faster and more consistent, and since the combo is usually your win condition, you definitely don’t want it broken up by your opponent. But what about some real life, tournament-class examples of combo decks? Well, here you go:

Putting the Knowledge to Use

This deck is called Life, and it was played to a finalist finish at Neutral Ground on New Years' 2005 by Phil Johnson. The deck is pretty simple – you take one of the en-Kor creatures, activate its ability a zillion times, targeting either your Task Force or Daru Spiritualist, which will consequently have a very large toughness. You then sacrifice said creature to a Worthy Cause, an Animal Boneyard, or a Starlit Sanctum, thereby gaining a huge amount of life and making yourself virtually unkillable in the process. Notice that there’s a lot of redundancy here: you can win just as well with Nomads en-Kor + Task Force + Worthy Cause as you can with Shaman en-Kor + Daru Spiritualist + Starlit Sanctum. The combo has several interchangeable pieces which make the deck more consistent, in the same way tutors make a deck more consistent – having redundant combo pieces means your likelihood of drawing something you need is much higher. Redundant combo pieces serve another role, too: that of protection. If your opponent Terminates one of your combo pieces, chances are, you’ll have a replacement piece in hand waiting for the opportunity to finish what you started. Also notice I included the Living Wish as a searcher – several copies of combo pieces can be pulled out of the sideboard with it.

This deck is called ProsBloom, played during the Mirage block. The combo was fairly complicated, and worked like this: first, you play a Squandered Resources to power yourself into a Natural Balance. You then get five lands from your library, which you use to play Cadaverous Bloom. Remove extra cards in your hand from the game and tap out to play a big Prosperity, hopefully netting you a Drain Life or another Prosperity. If you get another Prosperity, repeat the cycle until you get the Drain Life. Then you remove everything in your hand but the Drain Life for lots of black mana, compliments of the Cadaverous Bloom, followed by a Drain Life for the win. This deck is an example of how to work with a more complicated combo. Notice how there are lots of search cards like Impulse and Vampiric Tutor. Both of these can net you a missing piece, and Prosperity can also function as a searcher if you need it to. This deck also offers a fairly decent idea of an “infinite mana combo” deck, speaking of which…

This deck is a Vintage-legal deck played by Michele Frasson, which relies on an infinite mana combo for the win. Well, actually, to power up the win. The combo goes something like this: you put a Worldgorger Dragon and either a Ambassador Laquatus or Kumano, Master Yamabushi into the graveyard. You then play either a Necromancy or an Animate Dead, targeting the Dragon. The Dragon comes into play and removes all of your permanents from the game. As soon as the reanimation enchantment leaves play, it kills the Dragon, returning all of your permanents to play again – untapped. You tap some lands/Moxen for mana, target your Dragon with the Enchantment again, and the whole cycle repeats itself…over and over and over. Once you have sufficient mana (say three million mana or so), or you just get plain bored, you return your reanimation Enchantment to play, targeting the Ambassador or Master Yamabushi, putting them into play instead. Dump all of the mana you just made into their ability and – voila – you win! Note that Entomb, Bazaar of Baghdad, and Careful study could all be considered part of the combo, as they allow you to put the creatures you need into your graveyard.

Wrapping Up

Let’s do one last review before you go. To make a combo deck, you need:

  • A Combo
  • Ways to Search for it
  • Ways to Protect it
  • Ways to Accelerate it out

Having redundant combo pieces helps. If you’re going to run a more complicated combo, make sure you have lots of ways to search for it, because you’ll probably need them. If your combo is fragile, have ways to protect – counters, untargetability, whatever. And don’t give up on a deck if it doesn’t work the first time – sometimes combo decks are just like that, especially if you’re building on a tight budget and can’t afford high-end tutors.

I hope you’ve found this informative, young Johnnies. Combo decks can be great fun, but you have to know how to put them together correctly…if done well, as you’ve seen, combo decks can dominate a format.

I’m out of time for today. Join me next time when I…well, you’ll see.

Do you love atogs? Because I do...Thanks to iloveatogs for the images!
Thanks to StarCityGames for the "Meandeck Dragon" decklist,
Thanks to for the other tournament decklists,
And thanks to everyone who helped!


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