A few weeks ago I wrote a piece on Combo-Control as I feel it is one of the most powerful archetypes out there when done well, but it is rarely done well. A few comments and questions made me realize that Combo-Control is certainly not the only archetype cross section that tends to be underutilized and misunderstood though. Aggressive decks that have a combo element tend to come up way less frequently than basically every other archetype and, as a result, many people don't know when or why you should play an Aggro-Combo deck over something like a straight Aggro deck or a straight Control deck.
Pairing Aggro with Combo is generally found to be unappealing as the two strategies require execution during the early phases of the game in order to cascade that into victory. If one strategy disrupts the other strategy during these early turns, you end up with an overall weaker approach than either of the individual archetypes alone.
When you combine combo with control, the benefits of one archetype help to shore up the weakness of the other. Control is known for taking a long time to win the game, for example, so adding a combo element allows you to win much faster, surprising opponents who thought they might have more time against you. So, when building an Aggro-Combo deck, you need to first have a reason for doing so and you need to know what elements one half is bringing to the table to make it worth it.
As I mentioned in the previous article, I began playing right as Mirrodin came out, meaning I was exposed to one of the scariest Aggro-Combo decks of all time in Ravager Affinity. Before Darksteel came out, Affinity was very much an Aggro deck, looking to abuse the cost-reduction mechanic and play cheap-but-gigantic Broodstars. The deck was very good, but was not yet what I would call a combo deck. When Darksteel came out though, multiple cards that created combo kills saw print and the whole game changed. Here is a sample decklist from that time:
Take a look at that list one more time. There are probably a ton of cards you expect to see and even some you forgot existed because they have been banned for so long, but is there any card that you couldn't imagine Affinity without missing from the list?
That's right. The untouched Affinity lists were so powerful that they would actively slow themselves down by including Cranial Plating, one of the agreed upon most powerful Affinity cards of modern day. This is because the deck had such an explosive combo element to it that chances were good you didn't even have many artifacts in play at any given point and your opponent probably didn't have much life either.
Skullclamp and Arcbound Ravager would both do their part to keep your permanents in check, making Cranial Plating a little less appealing naturally, but more importantly, Disciple of the Vault plus the massive card advantage in the list would simply lead to games being over on turn three and four far too often as it was. Plating would potentially only slow those draws down as a noncreature that costs two mana and did not function with Skullclamp in a meaningful way.
The beauty of the Affinity list is that its aggressive components and combo components are all essentially the same; they just switch roles to become more or less effective. Drawing a Disciple of the Vault without Ravager in play might be worse, but just cast the card and watch a few artifacts trade in combat or die to Skullclamp and you will quickly find him to be a Lava Spike or Lava Axe while still sitting in play and threatening a combo kill in the future. The deck only drew cards that were relevant at all times. Artifact lands fueled everything so smoothly and the deck was one of the most powerful of all time.
Power level aside, the key element to Affinity as an Aggro-Combo deck is that it had to make no sacrifices (...) to its core aggressive game plan in order to incorporate a secondary explosive combo. Few Aggro-Combo decks have ever been able to claim that, but we can still aim to approach that and to make very few sacrifices to incorporate a combo element.
How Much Life?
One deck I worked on back in the day that tended to get mislabeled a "combo" deck was Soul Sisters. Soul Sisters was a very synergistic deck that used a lot of various life gain plus creatures that benefited from life gain in tandem. There were some small "combos" that the deck could muster, such as Serra Ascendant on turn one into Martyr of Sands plus sacrificing it on turn two. Even this sequence would only result in a 6/6 flying lifelink creature which, while impressive, was hardly the end of the game in a format that contained Path to Exile.
But Soul Sisters did have some variants that actually pushed the deck in a direction that contained big, play defining combos. While I would argue that the vast majority of aggro decks do not want to touch a combo as it weakens the core functionality and consistency of the deck, Soul Sisters actually makes for a great candidate here.
First of all, Soul Sisters has the ability to last for a long time, even against an opposing aggro deck. This means more new cards to look at and therefore an easier route to setting up a multi-card combo. Most aggro decks either win or lose before they see too many cards, making the addition of a combo less than fruitful.
Additionally, because Soul Sisters is a synergy driven deck, there are times where you fail to draw certain enablers or certain finishers and your deck struggles to put up real offense. A hand of multiple Soul Wardens and Soul's Attendants is cool, but it doesn't make for the most explosive offense when you fail to also draw a finisher. A combo gives the deck a way to close these games, regardless of what the opponent might do.
So here was a version of the deck with the Leonin Relic-Warder combo which saw a fair amount of play a few years back.
The premise behind the combo here is that playing a Phyrexian Metamorph as a Leonin Relic-Warder would allow you to exile itself to its own ability. As it left play, its ability would put the Metamorph back in play, allowing you to Clone Relic-Warder once again, therefore looping this act of a creature entering and leaving play infinite times. While this does nothing on its own, with a Soul Warden in play, this results in an absurd amount of life. If your opponent has some means to deal with this life (which would be rare) add Ajani's Pridemate or Serra Ascendant to the mix and now all that life translates into a lot of damage as well.
In theory, this combo was pretty nifty and added to the deck without costing it much. Having played with this list though, I can tell you that these cards did come with real costs. While it was easy to justify Relic-Warder in a vacuum, concluding that most decks run some kind of artifact or enchantment, the reality was that drawing a vanilla 2/2 in matchups where that was not true was quite the penalty. Additionally, while Phyrexian Metamorph is an outstanding card, if our opponents did not have a great target for it, our deck could have problems getting a worthy creature or artifact for it to Clone.
Both cards do have some highlight moments, of course, but the clunkiness of the combo and of those two cards was certainly felt. I remember sometimes even holding some number of the combo pieces, waiting to assemble it all in one go and not to expose anything too early, but even then, you are often slowing down your aggressive game plan in hopes of establishing a combo later.
I would say that this idea, while definitely an Aggro-Combo deck, is a decent example of trying a little too hard to force a combo into a deck where it seemed to make sense, but in reality, never proved amazing.
Scapeshift for 4?
One of my favorite Aggro-Combo decks of all time was essentially an aggro deck that needed to only add a single card to the deck to transform it into a combo deck. Of course, the number of cards needed for the combo is not too important, but the fact that we are not costing much deck space and we therefore limit inconsistency within our aggro deck is certainly a plus.
This deck is best explained simply by being shown first, so here it is (note that there is a Modern equivalent of this deck that some people are running to this day).
As you can see, the basis for this deck is simply a bunch of small aggressive creatures that benefit from landfall, or lands in one form or another. Literally every creature in our deck save for Qasali Pridemage benefits from lands. This means that fetchlands and Flagstones of Trokair already provide an extremely strong engine with our creature base (the legend rule at the time would have both copies of Flagstones sacrificed, resulting in the landfall triggers) and Scapeshift simply puts the list over the top.
The dream curve of Steppe Lynx into Plated Geopede into almost anything into Scapeshift was very difficult for many decks to beat as they had to have the right cheap removal in hand and correctly cast it to avoid death. When you are sitting at 16, facing down two creatures, and have the option to cast your own big creature or to waste your mana efficiency on a Lightning Bolt, the choice doesn't seem tough.
Once this deck untaps with four mana though, Scapeshift leads to four or more landfall triggers in one turn, making Geopede or Steppe Lynx absurdly large. And blockers don't matter much when a few copies of Sejiri Steppe get dug up, giving your creatures protection and therefore making them unblockable.
The deck does run the risk of drawing Scapeshift in scenarios where it is not ready to take advantage of it, therefore making it a "dead" draw some amount of the time. This is the all-important cost that we have mentioned but remember that these costs need to be weighed against the benefits. Offering a turn four win through a clogged board is no small bonus.
We risk the occasional bad topdeck for situations where we are behind, but what spell would we be running in that slow otherwise? I would imagine something like Tarmogoyf, which is certainly good but in this deck would cap out as a 3/4 without help from the opponent. That said, a 3/4 is consistently a 3/4, so the real question is whether you are ok trading some consistency for some power.
Very few aggro decks actually want a combo element to them because it is just unnecessary and risky. Because of this, you really need to find a good fit when you explore this path. The Scapeshift list is perfect because it is a rather small cost to pay with big upside and you can clearly see both the costs and benefits in action as you play with the card. For our Soul Sisters modification, things are a lot tougher to parse because our cards are not just dead or an instant win, but rather offer marginal utility. We need to compare their relative impact against other cards which is so difficult because their relative impact can and will change against every new opponent.
In general, unless you have a perfect pairing or can come up with some meta reasons why a combo is wanted in your aggro deck, I would try to avoid including one as it is generally just going to do more harm than good. Please don't allow this to limit your brewing in any way, but just be aware of the pitfalls involved before spending too much exploring these types of lists.
Meanwhile, if you want to spice up your aggro deck, might I recommend looking into a few control elements? Until next week, thanks for reading!