Well before I ever played my first Grand Prix or even left the safety of my local Friday Night Magic, I was trying my best to brew. Many of my ideas were just bad versions of things that the good players had already perfected, but my knowledge of established decks was very shallow and no one else at my store was really enforcing a no-fun zone by showing up with established tier 1 decks and then playing them well.
I began playing Magic right as Mirrodin came out which makes this even less likely as Affinity surged to the top just a few months after I sleeved up my first Goblin deck. Affinity, while being far and away the best deck, was also only like 40 bucks to build completely. Arcbound Ravagers were five to ten bucks apiece and then the rest of the deck was primarily commons and uncommons, meaning that any player who wanted to build Affinity, could.
Some people at my shop jumped on this bandwagon, which made sense because the deck was nearly unstoppable. Luckily, as I mentioned before, they were not exactly the best players in the world, so I was given some breathing room in terms of what I could show up with and have a shot at winning with. Most players turned to anti-Affinity measures such as RG Molder Slug or Arc Slogger Red but I found those decks rather boring. Not to mention that when you ran into something other than Affinity with your anti-Affinity deck, things didn't tend to work out well for you.
Instead, I was determined that there were decks that could keep up pace with Affinity and I wanted to be playing one of those. Enter my first ever combo deck.
The deck was built around Vedalken Archmage and looked to cast a million cheap artifacts to draw through most of its deck in a single turn. From there you would figure out some way to win. My favorite win condition was actually casting Mycosynth Golem, then Lightning Greaves, Cranial Plating, and if needed, Darksteel Colossus, for a hasty, untargetable, giant trampler.
The deck was sweet and I did my fair share of winning, but had I been facing more real competition, it's pretty easy to conclude that I would not have had much success. Affinity was simply the fastest deck. Even if my deck could win a turn sooner, it did so very inconsistently. My fastest win might be better than Affinity, but my average length win was certainly slower and also relied on a four mana 0/2 to survive. I loved the idea of a combo deck winning out of nowhere, but perhaps there were other directions to explore beyond simply trying to be the fastest.
In general, combo is associated with being fast. I think a lot of this has to do with older formats where every deck is faster, but combo is extremely fast. With a huge increase in the number of tutors, fast mana, card selection, and free spells, older formats simply have the tools to supply combo decks with the leanest and meanest spells. As you move into smaller and smaller card pools though, combo begins to dry up. This is usually because the things that provide combo with its speed either do not exist, or are far too inconsistent to put work into.
The appeal of combo to me never came from the speed of the decks, but rather the ability to win out of nowhere. When an aggro deck beats you, you usually see it coming as they chip away at your life total turn after turn. When a control deck beats you, you probably already felt defeated for multiple turns ahead of time as they have locked you out of resources and now just need to attack with a 5/5 flier a few times for the win. A combo deck, on the other hand, can begin with the simplest and safest looking of boardstates and end that turn with a W on their match slip.
Combo decks make opponents do crazy things like cast Thoughtseize on turn three over their three-drop or board out of what their deck is supposed to be doing in hopes of spiking a hate card or two. I love the level of unpredictability that you present your opponent with. But I wanted to find a way to approach combo decks other than just speed. Enter Sway of the Stars.
You might not have any idea what you are looking at and I really can't blame you considering this was a list I played at the 2006 State Championships. My goal was to capture the explosiveness of combo that I had come to love while not necessarily relying on speed. States was a Standard tournament, so winning before turn four or five was a pretty tall order to ask of any deck, let alone one trying to cast a 10 mana sorcery.
Unlike my Archmage combo deck, this deck looked to be less fast and more interactive. Casting Sway of the Stars in a quick fashion was still a goal of the deck, but a ten mana card being cast "quickly" is still not quick by normal standards.
The actual play pattern of this deck is to deal with opposing threats using your burn spells early and often. You need to stay at one or more life before casting Sway of the Stars, so that is stage one. Once you can, you then want to generate a ton of mana, hopefully at least 13, but maybe more. Rituals and Signets help this process out, although you are still looking at something around turn five, six, or even later under most normal conditions. With all of that mana you want to cast Sway of the Stars and then hopefully have enough burn in hand to deal seven to your opponent immediately.
A Char and Lava Spike can handle this the old fashioned way, but the snazziest way to win was to point a Cerebral Vortex at your opponent who has conveniently drawn at least nine cards by this point and will immediately die.
The actual mechanics of the deck were not nearly as important as The General pattern that was being executed. We had a deck that tried its best to stall out a game and keep its head above water before going off and killing you. All combo decks do this, but we extended the period in which we need to and are able to stall. While I would hardly call this a control deck, more resources and deck slots are dedicated toward staying alive. Yet when it comes time to win, off of just five lands and a Signet, sitting at 20 life and feeling good, you might just die and that is exactly what I wanted to capture.
I only came in 9th place at that States, unfortunately, but it was my first one and my idea of what a combo deck could look like had evolved. I was moving away from speed as the defining characteristic of combo and instead looking at explosiveness.
Slowing It Down Further
With my notion of what gives combo its distinction changing, I spent a big portion of my early deckbuilding days working on various combo decks that looked to slow down the game before exploding in some way or another.
After Sway of the Stars came a Bant Polymorph list that was nearly a pure control deck but won the game by Polymorphing a Saproling or Elephant Token into an Akroma, Angel of Wrath.
After that came Battle of Wits in extended. This was a 250 card deck, sure, but most cards in the list were strong control cards and then there were many different ways to "combo" off and win, with Battle of Wits being the easiest and most consistent to achieve.
And then came my first ever Grand Prix in Dallas, Texas. At the time, a Grand Prix seemed like the World Championships to me. I had never even attended a PTQ, so the idea of traveling cross-country to a big event was quite the adventure. I spent nearly four months working with two of my best friends on my brew and their decks as well, trying our best to be prepared for whatever might be thrown at us.
My combo brewing had almost done a 180 from the point of Vedalken Archmage as now I was focusing more on the control and less on the combo. My goal was to control the game and maneuver things into a position where I could execute my combo and win from safety. Speed was only important when it came at no or very little cost. I was not interested in taking big risks though as I felt like big rewards would come about without needing to. Here is the Trash for Treasure list I played at the Grand Prix.
You might not even recognize this as a combo deck because it really does not fit the typical formula, at least a first glance. Comparisons can be made to Legacy Show and Tell lists though, as decks that control the game and then try to cheat on mana using a powerful three cost sorcery. Trash for Treasure requires quite a bit more set up than Show and Tell, but Extended is also a much softer format than Legacy in that regard.
And in the meantime, while I set up a Trash for Treasure or maybe Slaver-Lock, this deck does a very good job of stopping my opponent from executing on their game plan. A combo deck can go off on turn 10 just fine if it kept its opponent from winning until that point. It is our job then, to make sure we have enough cards that interact in a meaningful way to drag a game out as needed.
The above list has six different sweepers in the maindeck along with Counterspells, burn spells, mana denial, and even Mindslaver to interact with the opponent. On top of that, it is not like this deck can't be fast at times. A turn two Thirst for Knowledge into turn three Trash for Treasure does happen and did happen for me multiple times in that Grand Prix. These openings often feel like free wins which just adds to the appeal of a combo-control deck. If you have a shell that functions just fine as a control deck but also just wins 5-10% of its games for free, that sounds like something I would be interested in.
Controlling the Pace of the Game
Combo-Control is beautiful because you get to control the pace of the game throughout its entirety. You are a control deck, so you have some say in what your opponent is doing along with when they are doing it, but you are also a combo deck, so you get to present the tough questions when you feel the time is right. Traditional control can do this to a degree, but the amount of pressure that a four power creature puts on your life total versus some series of cards that essentially just win the game is quite different, especially from an opponent's perspective.
Imagine I was playing the above list and you sat down across from me playing a more traditional deck like aggro or combo. You are taxed with figuring out what threats you can deploy and what resources you can risk into my deck. Overextend and you might find a sweeper waiting for you but underextend and a Remand plus Mindslaver might take the game out of reach. You need to manage your resources in such a way that I do not run you out of them. Meanwhile, in the back of your mind, you also need to be prepared for an explosive Trash for Treasure or big mana turn at any point.
This means that some number of your resources need to be left available at all points or you risk being blown out. I have put the pressure on you to present the proper threats and to have the proper answers. Keep in mind my "combo" is probably better than whatever your best threat is. That means that even in the event where I can no longer control the game and you sneak through something powerful, I might be able to just flip it on you and combo off myself, leaving us at a one-to-one threat situation where my threat is almost certainly better.
Standard currently doesn't really have anything equivalent to this. Combo in general is less of a factor in Standard due to smaller card pool, but even when combo does pop up, so much of the deck needs to be devoted to the combo itself that leaving room for control elements can be difficult. Take a look at this Jeskai Ascendancy list from last week.
Look at that maindeck. We have a pretty sweet looking combo here that was strong enough to take down second place at an Open in Charlotte, but this deck pretty much only presents the questions and has little in the way of answers to opposing questions. Taking an inventory, here are the cards that interact meaningfully:
2 Swan Song
4 Retraction Helix
2 Briber's Purse
None of these cards are the best in the business at their given jobs either. These cards are chosen because of their synergy with the deck on offense and at other times, but in terms of keeping an opponent off of their own game plan, I think it's safe to say that this is a weak package, at best.
Instead, this list devotes almost its entirety toward elements that progress its own proactive plan. That is fine, but those kinds of combo decks simply have different points of strength than a combo-control deck. Combo-control tends to do better once people know about the deck because hating out a deck with answers to things is difficult. Your Leyline of the Void isn't a hard answer when I have Oblivion Ring in my deck and your Counterspells aren't reliable when I can counter right back. Meanwhile, pure combo, as we saw with Jeskai Ascendancy, can have a real weakness once it becomes a known entity.
The biggest tradeoff by far is speed versus control. Traditional combo wants to give you as little time to execute on your game plan as possible by winning first. Combo-control wants to give you as little satisfaction in executing your game plan by denying it in the first place. Both archetypes want to do something absurd to win the game so the only meaningful difference is how they set that up.
It is kind of like shooting a basketball when being guarded. At the end of the day, two players can have the end result of a shot going toward the basket, but how they create the space to take that shot can be very different. One player might try some fancy moves to dribble to open space while another runs past a few screens. The end result is the same, but the setup is perhaps more defining than the result here.
I find combo-control to be my favorite archetype to build just because of how much fun it is taking a control package and inserting some sweet win condition. That said I have also found the archetype to be one of the most misunderstood just because it pops up so infrequently.
I specifically wanted to talk about the archetype because of Battle for Zendikar rapidly approaching. Rise of Eldrazi in particular brought about a lot of cool mechanics and combo-archetypes the first time around. Not all of them were high-tier Constructed, but cards like Kiln Fiend and Summoning Trap were quite powerful. If Battle for Zendikar even has a taste of what Rise had, I think there will be some unique combo-control decks available and I look forward to brewing with them.
Until next time, thanks for reading!