Today, I’ll be exploring a fun and flashy topic: incredibly, iconic two-card combos in Magic. The criteria for today’s list is pretty straightforward: two cards that appeared prominently together in a deck to combine for maximum havoc!
Today’s article will specifically highlight two-card combos that have left their mark on the history of the game over the years.
An “oldie but goodie,” the classic “Illusions Donate” combo was a defining feature of combo control decks in the early 2000s.
I love “Pandaburst” as a moment in Magic history because it represents aggro decks that also had two-card combos built into their core that can steal games outright.
The condition created by Pandemonium (when a creature enters the battlefield, it deals damage equal to its power to another creature or player) is particularly nasty with Saproling Burst’s ability to create a lot of Saproling bodies with a lot of power in a hurry.
The first token created deals six damage, the second five damage, the third four damage… you get the picture. The opponent is in big trouble if they can’t counter one or the other!
I remember when Shadowmoor Block came out and Painter’s Stone was all the rage in Vintage and Legacy. The price of Grindstones shot up from a bulk rare to over $50 overnight!
Painter’s Servant creates a condition where all cards in all zones share a color of the caster’s choice. Since all cards in all libraries (including lands) now share a color, a singular activation of Grindstone will mill an opponent’s entire deck!
Honorable Mention – Helmline
The Helmline combo creates a similar milling victory condition to Painter’s Stone; since, cards never actually go to the opponent’s graveyard (as a result of Leyline of the Void’s ability), a singular activation from Helm of Obedience exiles an opponent’s entire library.
Heliod Ballista is the most “modern” inclusion on my list of incredible two-card combos. These two cards combine to allow a player to deal an infinite amount of damage at instant speed. All we need to do is activate Heliod, Sun-Crowned’s ability to grant Walking Ballista lifelink and each time the Ballista removes a +1/+1 counter to ping something, the counter is replaced for free by Heliod’s second ability.
The two-card combo has been a mainstay of green-based toolbox combo in Modern:
Heliod Ballista reminds me of another, older combo from yesteryear:
The cards get better and better but at the end of the day they accomplish the same ends!
What happens when an infinite two-card combo is released into Standard? Copy Cat ran roughshod over Standard and was so powerful it essentially collapsed the entire metagame into two decks before it was eventually banned.
This is a straightforward two-card infinite combo. Felidar Guardian blinks Saheeli Rai and Saheeli returns to play and makes a Felidar Guardian token; rinse and repeat for infinite hasty Felidar Guardian copies.
In Magic, there are a ton of different ways to cheat a giant monster or win condition into play (either from your hand, graveyard or library) at a bargain rate (in some cases, we might even cheat a Yawgmoth’s Bargain into play!).
These combos occupy an interesting space on the list because a player doesn’t actually cast both halves of the combo! The first card played essentially allows a player to “cheat” an expensive card directly onto the battlefield from another zone (hand, library, or graveyard).
The Protean Hulk and Flash combo was particularly nasty in Vintage and Legacy for the short duration of time it was legal for competitive play. Flash allows a player to dump a Protean Hulk from your hand onto the battlefield and then immediately sacrifice it (kind of like the evoke mechanic). When the Hulk “dies,” its controller can search their library for a bunch of little creatures and put them directly into play:
In the scheme of things, “Flash Hulk” was particularly obnoxious, since it creates the conditions by which the game can be won via an infinite combo by simply casting a two-mana blue instant and having a Protean Hulk in hand at the same time!
Few combos are as iconic as…
Much in the same way that the two-card, infinite “Copy Cat” deck was a defining feature of Standard, so too was Twin – but Twin’s real legacy came from its tenure in Modern where it proved to be a formidable and dominant metagame force.
While Twin did prove to be the top strategy before it’s eventual banning, many players from that era remember the “Twin Meta” with particular fondness. With the insurgence of incredibly powerful Modern Horizons 2 staples like Urza’s Saga and Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer into the format, is the time finally right for the powerful combo to return?
As an aside, both of these cards are legal in Modern. Also, an interesting tidbit, I had both of these cards in my Sealed deck of the original Modern Horizons Grand Prix in Las Vegas! It’s not everyday that your Limited deck has an infinite combo.
Control decks can have busted, format-defining combinations as well. While we tend to think of “combos” as two cards that combine to kill an opponent, some combos are more subtle but nonetheless deadly…. Make no mistake, an opponent with CounterTop active is killing you softly, or so the song goes.
Sensei’s Divining Top can manipulate the order of the cards on top of your library with a Counterbalance in play in response to an opponent casting a spell, which means, every time an opponent tries to cast a spell, you can simply pay one to spin the Top, find the matching mana value and counter it!
Few two-card combos have dominated more formats, more ferociously, for a longer period of time than Countertop. The combination was absolutely dominant in Standard for the short duration where Kamigawa and Coldsnap were both legal at the same time.
Countertop decks also emerged as the dominant archetypes in both Legacy and Extended as the shell for various flavors of aggro control.
The addition of the miracle mechanic in Avacyn Restored changed the trajectory of these archetypes into UW attrition-based decks until Top’s eventual banning.
Countertop was a strategy that was so dominant that the only way to beat it was to ban it!
Objectively speaking, I think “Key Vault” is the most powerful and compact combo in the history of Magic. In terms of what it provides, infinite turns (for two cards and four mana) is an absurdly dirty rate!
Time Vault is a very bizarre Magic card from yesteryear that has had some very strange wordings and errata over the years. In fact, before the Modern errata (that allows Time Vault to go infinite with Voltaic Key), Time Vault had an oracle text errata that allowed it to “go infinite” with another card:
At one time, Time Vault had wording that allowed it’s controller to “0: skip your next turn to untap Time Vault.” So, if a player controlled a Time Vault and resolved Flame Fusillade, they could skip their next turn to untap Time Vault at instant speed, then tap it to ping a player for one, rinse and repeat infinite times for infinite free damage!
So, Time Vault is involved facilitating two completely different two-card power combos at different points in history depending upon what it’s oracle wording was at the time!
The OG and most iconic combo in all of Magic! There’s even a Magic website that you may have heard of that takes its name as an homage to this classic combo…
In the early days of Magic, Channel Fireball was many player’s first experience with a “combo.” Both cards appeared in 3rd Edition Revised (which was a set with a long print run) and neither card was a rare.
It’s also worth noting that “turn one kills” were not nearly as easy to assemble back in the day as they are now. Channel Fireball is one of only a handful of ways to win on the first turn with a seven-card hand using only cards from the original set (other than chaining a bunch of Ancestral Recall, Black Lotus, Timetwister and Regrowth).
While I’m on the subject of “old, iconic combos.”
These two did a lot of teaming up to dominate games at the kitchen table back in the 1990s. Tap it and smack it.
Are incredibly powerful, consistent openings combos?
It’s just a sequence, right? Some opening sequences are so incredible, compact and difficult to recover from that they translate very strongly to Ws.
Perhaps, the most oppressive opening two card sequence of all time is…
There are very few ways to interact with this sequence outside of Force of Will in Vintage. There were a whopping six Trinisphere Shops decks in the Top 8 of Vintage Champs before 3-Ball was restricted.
Are two 11/10 quality utility cards together in the same deck that share synergy a combo? EOT Bolt, Snap, Bolt has become about as iconic as a duo can be!
Is the second Siege Rhino a combo? If you played Standard during Khans Block it sure felt like it sometimes…
There have been so many incredible two-card combos that have graced the Magic tabletops over the years. It’s hard to make a breakpoint at 10, or even 20, but these are the ones that really stand out to me as having made a huge impact at the time and remain highly iconic in the memory of players and fans alike.