While there are many different types of decks in Magic, most of them feel like they exist in a similar space. While the skills are slightly different, understanding how to play with and against creatures, removal, and counterspells will benefit you regardless of which of these you’re playing. Combo decks, on the other hand, are a horse of a different color. Some of the best players in the world still feel uncomfortable playing combo as it is so different from normal Magic. Today I’m going to talk about some of the most common mistakes players make when building and playing with combo.
1. Diluting Their Deck
Combo decks generally require a lot of resources, and sideboarding in eight or more cards can dilute the deck to the point where it’s no longer functional. Coincidentally, our team did this a lot in testing with Simic Nexus for the last Mythic Championship. We tried a bunch of 8+ card sideboard plans for matchups like Esper and Sultai where our opponents were bringing in Duress and Negate. In the end, we concluded that the best plans were minimalist.
With this in mind, the best sideboard cards for combo decks are often ones that fit with the deck’s strategy. Dredge, for example, can sideboard discard outlets like Lightning Axe, dredgers like Darkblast, and cards that are good to dredge into like Ancient Grudge so that it won’t be too diluted in post-board games. In Elves, I would look at Reclamation Sage as an Elf with a situational ability, and Scavenging Ooze as a graveyard hate card that works well with the mana production of Elves. Tormod’s Crypt was a perfect fit in KCI as a 0-cost artifact that could sacrifice and be returned by Scrap Trawler.
Diluting your deck isn’t only done in sideboarding though. Sometimes, decks can be diluted in the main deck as well. Scapeshift needs to draw 7 or 8 lands and a Scapeshift to kill. With that in mind, it needs a lot of resources to operate. Despite that, people often play Lighting Bolts, Anger of the Gods, and other disruptive spells in their main decks. I prefer to either play a lower amount of disruption, or play effects that can draw cards when you just need that land like Relic of Progenitus and Sweltering Suns.
Another version of this is playing too many “silver bullets.” Combo decks often play tutors, but playing too many random Echoing Truths, Scavenging Oozes, Bojuka Bogs, and Tormod’s Crypts main deck can slow you down in game 1s when the cards aren’t going to be useful in the vast majority of your matchups.
2. Playing “Pure” Win Conditions
When I say “pure” win conditions, what I am referring to are cards whose sole purpose is to win the game after you’ve combo’d. These are cards like Banefire and Emrakul. The reason I try to avoid these cards is because it is a huge cost to play a card in your deck that does nothing the vast majority of the time. Every time you draw that Emrakul or Banefire early in the game you are going to want to rip it in half, and there’s no reason to subject yourself to this. Your win conditions don’t have to be big and flashy.
Once you pull off a crazy combo that makes infinite mana, draws infinite cards, or goes through your entire deck, there’s no need to kill with something big. Convoluted win conditions are often the best ones. In Grand Prix Oakland, my Elf Combo deck would create an infinite loop with Cloudstone Curio and draw its whole deck. I could’ve easily thrown in a Banefire or an Emrakul and called it a day. Instead, I added one Primal Command and one Eternal Witness to my deck. I would draw my whole deck, loop Primal Command with Witness and Curio, gain infinite life, put every enemy land on top of my opponent’s deck, and then pass the turn and attack for 50 or so. Some people asked why I used such an awkward kill that involved passing the turn, but of course I didn’t mind. I just wanted to play win conditions that also worked in my deck. I probably would’ve played Eternal Witness anyway as a Summoner’s Pact target, and Primal Command was a very useful card. It tutored up Heritage Druid, and helped answer a Chalice of the Void I couldn’t have beaten otherwise.
Original KCI lists had an Emrakul. Soon, we realized sleeker win conditions like Pyrite Spellbomb or Spine of Ish Sah were all we needed. As soon as I cut the Emrakul, I got a ton of questions asking why, and my answer was pretty simple. There were some games where I could hard cast it, but overall it wasn’t pulling its weight and I could use a win condition with much more utility.
One card that somewhat fits into the category of “pure” win condition but is correct to play is Tendrils of Agony in Storm. Storm’s non-infinite nature makes it so no other win condition is really viable, and Tendrils is not too bad a draw since it means your tutors can find more Rituals or other useful cards.
3. Being Too Patient
Patience can be a virtue in combo decks. Often, waiting until you can combo off through a removal or counterspell can be the correct play. That said, I often see combo players playing a bit too patiently. It can take three of your cards to allow you to combo through one extra piece of disruption. With that in mind, waiting often helps your opponent have more disruption more than it helps you fight through it. Sometimes, the best play is to just go for it and hope for the best. In addition, many of the best combo decks can recover from “fizzling out.” KCI could often combo off the turn after it fizzles with extra Buried Ruins and Inventors’ Fairs untapped. Elf Combo has a pile of creatures that can beat down even when it fizzles. Make sure you know exactly what the costs are when you decline to go for a combo kill.
4. Valuing the Wrong Resource
Many combo decks have to weigh making plays that draw more cards vs. plays that leave you with more mana. Knowing which resource you are tighter on is crucial to playing this type of deck. In KCI, this was almost always cards. This means that you usually want to sacrifice Mind Stone to draw cards even though it costs you 4 mana to do so. Similarly, I would happily legend rule my own Mox Opal before playing KCI to allow me to keep up an extra Buried Ruin or Inventor’s Fair, even though it means I won’t be able to sacrifice an Opal.
With Elves, it is much more difficult to determine whether mana or cards will be the concern. To play Elves optimally, you must evaluate which resource is more important each time you combo off, and make plays based on that evaluation.
5. No Clear Plan to Work Around Disruption
Disruption is always hard to beat, but with tight play, most combo decks can work around it. Sometimes, the best way to work around disruption is unintuitive. The game 1 Simic Nexus vs. Sultai matchup is a perfect example of this. Sultai has limited pressure, and Vivien as its only disruption. The best way to approach this matchup is to work hard to never expose Wilderness Reclamation or Search for Azcanta to Vivien. The best way to do that is to play an end step Nexus of Fate on 7 mana and combo off using your two consecutive turns. During the game, you should do everything you can to set this up. For example, I often Root Snare on 6 mana even if the attack isn’t lethal so that I can afford to use all my mana on turn 7 to cast the end of turn Nexus.
The game 1 Simic Nexus vs. Mono-Blue matchup is another matchup where planning is very important. Mono-Blue only has seven-ish counters main deck, so your goal in this one is simply to play a Reclamation with either Sinister Sabotage or Expansion backup and hope they only have one counter. With that in mind, you should use your card draw and selection to make sure you have Reclamation, six or seven lands, and one of the counterspells in hand. Blinks and Root Snares can be used to buy time as needed, but this should always be what you are working toward. Sticking to this plan can make what is considered a pretty bad matchup for Nexus close.
I hope this article helps you understand combo decks a little better. Until next time, whether it’s Elves, Storm, or Nexus—combo off to your heart’s content.