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Top 8 Most Iconic Combo Engines

Today, I’ll be discussing the Top 8 most iconic combo engines in Magic history. Last week, I explored the Top 10 Two-Card Combos and I received a request in the comments to take a closer look at combo engines. You ask and you shall receive!

 

 

Header - What is a Combo Engine?

First things first, for discussing this topic, we’ll need to establish a working definition for what is, or isn’t, a combo engine. So, what is a combo engine in Magic? 

Gavin Verhey lays out a nice working definition for “Combo Engine” in his 2017 article Building Your Own Engine, which can be found here: 

 

 

Here’s how Gavin laid it out: 

“Okay–so what does it mean to be a combo engine? 

When talking about individual cards that are combo engines, people generally mean a card that you build around and around which your combination then revolves. Generally, to be an engine, the card is a permanent so it can stick around on the battlefield and continue revving you up somehow.” –Gavin Verhey, “Building Your Engine,” 2017. 

In a sense, a combo engine refers to the card or cards that help facilitate the victory condition (in this case a combo). These are pretty recognizable cards because they are exactly the kind of cards that people see and quickly think, “Oh, that’s nice… I could build a deck around that!” 

 

Header- #8 - Enchantress

Argothian EnchantressEnchantress's Presence

 

I led with Enchantress for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s iconic enough to warrant inclusion and secondly I believe it clearly depicts what a combo engine is in a straightforward way as described by Gavin. It’s permanent, it sits in play, it synergizes and it helps facilitate the conditions of victory later to come. 

Across time, Standard, Extended and Legacy Enchantress decks have played a variety of different combos and synergies at the top end:

 

Words of WindSolitary ConfinementReplenishSigil of the Empty Throne

But, the thing that will always remain the same (so long as it’s legal in a format!) is the Argothian Enchantress and Enchantress’s Presence engine because it is the engine of the strategy. These are the cards that support, synergize, and set up the other combos within the strategy. 

One of the earliest combo engines in Magic history is an Enchantress dating all the way back to Alpha

 

Verduran Enchantress

Argothian Enchantress obviously has much better stats (and shroud!) but I’ve seen a few Old School Enchantress decks floating around at tournaments over the years. 

 

Header - #7 - Birthing Pod

Birthing Pod

 

It’s impossible not to love playing with Birthing Pod! It made a huge impact in Standard and was so powerful that it eventually needed to be banned from Modern. 

The ability to repeatedly tutor from one’s deck and put creatures directly onto the battlefield meets the requirement of being a card powerful enough to build a deck around. Also, if you’re ever trying to decide whether or not a card is an “engine,” a good rule of thumb is that engines are often the “name of the deck.” In this case, “Pod.”

“Pod decks” are pretty interesting. On the surface, they’re pretty much stacked to the gills with great creatures that are both sticky and have ETB triggers to generate value. Pod could pressure with beatdowns if necessary, but once the card Birthing Pod hit play it could and would directly tutor up one of the many infinite or game ending combos built into the deck. 

 

Header - #6 - Cadaverous/Squandered

Cadaverous Bloom

 

Pros-Bloom is the first Magic combo deck I ever saw where I was actively confused as to what I was watching. Is this Magic? What is happening here!? The entire design of the strategy was to quickly draw one’s entire deck into hand and repurpose all of the cards into a lethal Drain Life.

It may be fairly normal and intuitive now in 2021, but it was pretty shocking to see someone floating dozens of mana and essentially playing speed solitaire with themselves at the table. It’s really the first deck (especially in Type 2) that I remember seeing that has a play pattern that would now be recognizable as Storm. 

However, this archetype predates the Storm mechanic by quite a few years and so combo pilots couldn’t just cast nine spells and put Tendrils of Agony on the stack to win. Back in the day, the engine needed to generate enough net black mana to Drain Life an opponent for 20. So, the deck essentially needed to cast a Tendrils equivalent that cost BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB1 and could be answered by a single counterspell.

The deck was also interesting because it had a secondary combo engine:

 

Squandered ResourcesNatural Selection

Cadaverous Bloom was the “primary” engine, but the secondary combo engine was also quite powerful as well, not only at generating mana but also thinning the dead draws out of your deck when digging for a C-Bloom. 

 

Header - #5 - Tron

Urza's TowerUrza's Power PlantUrza's Mine

 

If not for being randomly reissued in Eighth Edition, it’s possible that Tron isn’t even in today’s discussion: but it was and it is! 

Tron got to work as a combo engine right away in Standard:

 

Tooth and Nail

For…

 

 

Mephidross VampireTriskelion

Or…

 

 

Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker (Timeshifted)Sundering Titan

Or…

 

 

Platinum AngelLeonin Abunas

There were lots of great packages. 

Today, the two most likely places that you’ll see Urza Tron facilitating combos are in Pauper and Modern. 

In Modern, Tron is used to power out gigantic planeswalkers like Karn Liberated and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon

 

Karn Liberated

In Pauper, the gratuitous amount of mana these mana engines are used to loop Ghostly Flicker over and over again to overpower and bounce an opponent right out of the game.

 

Ghostly FlickerMnemonic WallStonehorn Dignitary (Timeshifted)

Lands, in addition to spells, can be engines:

 

Bazaar of Baghdad

For instance, in Vintage, there have been plenty of Dredge decks that only need to play a Bazaar of Baghdad in order to dredge their entire deck and win the game. 

It’s interesting that one set of lands can be a mana engine (Tron) and another (Bazaar) can be a dredge engine.

 

Header - #4 - Survival of the Fittest

Survival of the Fittest

 

Survival of the Fittest is one of the most powerful and iconic engines of all time. It’s sort of like Birthing Pod except it doesn’t put a creature directly into play, is cheaper and can be used multiple times in the same turn. 

 

Basking RootwallaSquee, Goblin NabobVengevine

The cost of discarding a creature isn’t always a cost but actually a benefit in a deck with an engine like Survival of the Fittest – especially, when the engine ensures the ability to bring those creatures directly into play! 

Survival was also famously the engine for Recurring Nightmare combo decks in Standard and Extended (before they were eventually banned). 

 

Recurring Nightmare

A player could simply pitch a Verdant Force to Survival of the Fittest, find a Wall of Blossoms and then cast Recurring Nightmare to bring back the fatty. 

 

Header - #3 - Life From the Loam

Life from the Loam

 

Life from the Loam is just a really good card all around. I’ve played Loam in control, midrange and combo. It’s an all around excellent and efficient card. 

With that said, it’s quite powerful as a combo engine card in Legacy land-based strategies. 

 

Thespian's StageDark DepthsWasteland

In fact, it’s basically the only “spell” (outside of the other engine card, Exploration) the deck is ever looking to actually cast in most cases. 

 

Lonely SandbarPsychatog

Loam was also a powerful engine in Extended Psychatog decks. It was quite efficient at netting cards in hand and graveyard to power up Tog. 

Loam was also an important card in Modern Dredge decks. It has dredge but also did some unique engine work ensuring players hit their land drops and also netting cards in hand to power out Conflagrate:

 

Conflagrate

Life from the Loam is an excellent engine in all sorts of decks, but particularly great in combo decks. 

 

Header - #2 - Necropotence

Necropotence

 

One of the first major challenges the DCI ever faced back in the mid 1990s was trying to set up rules for deck construction to create a version of the game that players all over the world would want to play. The first big hurdle was to split Magic into two formats: Type 1 and Type 2. 

Type 1 allowed for the original, out of print, power cards to be played in a restricted capacity. Type 2 banned most of these restricted cards and focused on building a format to play with the in-print cards. 

Necropotence was the first card to really “break” Type 2 (now called Standard) during a period of time now infamously referred to as “Necro Summer,” when players gravitated heavily toward these Necropotence strategies. 

 

Dark Ritual

It’s kind of funny looking back because the Necropotence decks from Necro Summer actually remind me a lot more of proto-midrange decks than what I would consider combo decks in the present. They played Hymn to Tourach, removal and threats and simply leveraged Necropotence to run an opponent out of resources. 

However, at the time nobody had seen a deck or card quite like Necro! It simply felt unfair in its ability to cheaply net resources without paying mana. In a sense, Necropotence being so broken, undercosted and being able to be Ritual’d out felt like a combo! In a sense, Necro is so powerful that it’s a combo in a can. 

 

Yawgmoth's Bargain

Urza’s block saw the printing of a “fixed” Necropotence variant in the sense that it cost more mana to cast, but people were still happy to cheat it into play (and even just Ritual it out!). 

So, there’s a weird tension where Necropotence was sort of a one-card combo that functioned as an engine in decks that I would describe today as midrange (but felt like combo decks back in 1996 because of the play pattern of Necropotence). 

Perhaps Necropotence is a controversial number two pick but hopefully it was at least an interesting observation to read about. Alright, let’s get to number one!

 

Gush

 

I have absolutely no hesitation about putting Gush at the top spot on my list of most incredible and iconic combo engines. In fact, if you were looking to make a list of decks that best utilized a combo engine, there would likely be several different Gush lists, spanning several eras of play and design. 

It’s a free card draw! Sure, you have to return two Islands, but you don’t need to pay mana to cast. 

 

Quirion Dryad

The first really good Gush deck I remember playing against was “Grow,” which was essentially a turbo Xerox blue deck that deployed a Quirion Dryad, drew a bunch of cards and countered all of the opponent’s important spells for free with Force of Will and Daze

 

Psychatog

‘Tog is really the monster that took Gush to the next level. While ‘Tog is clearly a combo finisher, it can also be thought of as an engine in it’s own right in a lot of decks. The key being that, like Cadaverous Bloom or Necropotence, it allows a player to repurpose an unwanted or unneeded resource (in this case cards in hand and graveyard) into a different resource: damage. 

Psychatog and Gush went together like peas in a pod. The Islands returned to hand via Gush’s alternate cost could be pitched to pump ‘Tog and then exiled from the graveyard for even more damage. 

 

Psychatog + Gush = 😊

 

Gush put four cards into hand (two draws and two Islands) and Gush itself goes to the grave. If you do nothing other than pitch the cards netted by Gush it’s 6.5 damage… just for casting the Gush! 

Gush was also an outright powerhouse when combined with Fastbond in Vintage:

 

Fastbond

Gush is powerful enough “the fair way” (if there was ever such a thing), but in concert with Fastbond, it actually draws two cards and makes two mana! It’s no wonder the strategy has needed to be restricted so many times in Vintage (the real question is: why was it ever unrestricted?).

Gush and ‘Tog also formed a fearsome duo in Extended where it was used in combination with Mox Diamond and Armageddon. Gush to return two Islands and then Armageddon. Oh, wow. 

 

Armageddon

If you need further evidence that Gush is likely the most incredible engine in Magic history, look no further than Pauper last year where it needed to be banned. The engine was just such a potent source of advantage that it needed to be banned. 

 

Header - Afterthoughts

I hope you enjoyed the trip down memory lane and thinking about sweet cards that formed the engine of various incredible and iconic combo decks. After thinking about the topic, writing the article and doing a rewrite, I’d like to add my own definition of what constitutes an “engine.” 

“In Magic, an ‘engine’ is the card, or cards, that helps generate the resources necessary to deploy the condition of victory.” 

Different types of victory conditions require different types of resources. Some of the staples on today’s list are mana engines that helped various combo decks ramp out their combo (Urza Tron and Cadaverous Bloom). Some of the staples generate card advantage (Necropotence and Gush) or facilitate tutoring (Survival of the Fittest) or moving cards from one zone to another (Life from the Loam). Often engines will allow a player to take one resource and repurpose it into another. 

 

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