How to Build Combo

Posted in How to Build on January 31, 2017

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

There's a moment for every Magic player when a lightbulb is turned on. It's a moment of awe and wonder, when a possibility never considered becomes clear as day. By taking a specific sequence of cards, a resulting play becomes something far greater than the sum of its parts.

In a Kaladesh Draft, for example, I (and many of you too, presumably) assembled these three cards:

While individually these cards do things that are interesting, together they let me make one-mana Thopter tokens—assuming I kept three energy around to start the sequence—and absolutely run over my opponents.

That's what combos are all about.

Whirler Virtuoso and either of the other two cards, Era of Innovation or Decoction Module, have synergy. As a pair they are more efficient, but the efficiency quickly runs out. Once the scale is tipped by adding the missing third card, you suddenly get much more than your opponent bargained for. Assembling dangerous combinations of cards—a combo—has a storied history across Magic. The power of mechanics like storm and dredge were proven as combo decks, and when a combo is created from just two cards, things get particularly dangerous.

Why Is Combo Great in Standard?

Combo is easy to find in Standard right now because of those two-card opportunities. The plane of Kaladesh, built on innovation and invention restrained only by inventors' imaginations, brought us several ways to take a few cards and make something more.

These are the key combo cards you can expect to see.

The talk of Aether Revolt preview season included rares and mythic rares, but an adorable Cat uncommon stole the spotlight. Felidar Guardian "blinks" one of your permanents by exiling it and immediately returning it to the battlefield. While decks that like the idea of Cloudblazer or Panharmonicon are quite happy with this effect, Saheeli Rai from Kaladesh is where it's at.

Her second ability creates a copy of Felidar Guardian, and that copy blinks Saheeli. She returns as a new card, ready to use her -2 loyalty ability again. From there it's elementary to make as many copies of Felidar Guardian as you want, each with haste, to attack.

Echoing Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin, a combo that dominated Modern until one half was banned last year, it's easy to see why these two are putting combo on the Standard map.

Combos aren't limited to arbitrary numbers and just two cards. Sometimes it's more a puzzle where, by putting the pieces in place in the right order, you can craft your way to victory. Electrostatic Pummeler from Kaladesh is a proven combo card, allowing you to stock energy while attacking with Voltaic Brawler or other aggressive red and green creatures. Then, when you have an opening against your opponent, you strike, making Electrostatic Pummeler huge by giving it additional power and trample then doubling it until lethal damage is assured.

Combos often come with "protection" like Blossoming Defense to ensure an opponent can't interfere. Sequencing cards correctly, like generating energy, finding protection, then finally drawing Invigorated Rampage to start the sequence is the only way this combo works. And like other strictly two- or three-card combos, missing a piece means your deck isn't going to be as effective.

That's the risk of combo decks—it doesn't always work out the way you planned.

A venerable duo from before Aether Revolt was Aetherworks Marvel and Woodweaver's Puzzleknot. Aetherworks Marvel is what you call a "build-around" card meant to inspire combo-seekers to find glory. With a proven pedigree of a Pro Tour and several Grand Prix, decks built around Aetherworks Marvel settled on things like Woodweaver's Puzzleknot to get the engine primed.

Once the energy threshold is hit, your Aetherworks Marvel can go looking for something great. Before Aether Revolt, this was typically Emrakul, the Promised End, but now the Marvel can find a toolbox of different builds:

What Else Can We Do?

There's more than just the proven pieces to work with in Standard. Even more amazing options are waiting to be released.

You can throw this firmly in the pile of "Things I Will Try in Commander Someday," but it's also in Standard now: Paradox Engine and Cryptolith Rite. Paradox Engine untaps your nonland permanents whenever you cast a spell, and Cryptolith Rite gives all your creatures the ability to tap for mana of any color.

If you find the right way to go digging—Duskwatch Recruiter has been sighted with Cryptolith Rite before—you can see the cascade of spells to follow.

While Metalwork Colossus had a moment in Standard, it's fallen away from the spotlight. The "cast this for free" possibility is where many focus, but its other ability is interesting alongside Scrap Trawler. Getting back three things seems better than one, which is an incredible amount of value to work with.

If you don't have any energy, Greenbelt Rampager turns one green mana into one energy. It also turns on revolt and would trigger anything that cares about when a creature enters the battlefield. It's a card that turns one resource (mana) into another (energy) and, therefore, is looking for a way to be taken advantage of. Fabrication Module is one place to start looking.

Metallic Mimic is a creature after my own heart, helping any number of lesser-known creature types get ahead on the battlefield. (See this throwback Jellyfish tribal deck for a hilarious example.) But you don't need to leave Kaladesh to get a sweet combo going—Animation Module works.

Name Servo as your creature type with Metallic Mimic, make any Servo creature token, then churn out 2/2 Servos for just one generic mana each. What do you do with all those extra Servos, aside from the obvious attacks? Improvise, the mechanic that turns untapped artifacts into mana for your spells, is an obvious next step. I can hear the Whir of Invention from here.

The unlikely triumvirate of Crackdown Construct, Wandering Fumarole, and Barrage Tyrant is something that's been on my mind since Aether Revolt was revealed.

It works like this:

  • Get all three cards on the battlefield.
  • Get to seven mana, at least which two must be red and one must be blue.
  • Activate Wandering Fumarole as a creature. Use its zero-mana power-toughness swap ability as many times as you want, triggering Crackdown Construct to become as large as you'd like. (Like with other "infinite" combos—see Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian—you still must choose a number.)
  • Activate Barrage Tyrant to throw the enormous Crackdown Construct at an opponent.

This isn't a fast or efficient combo, but it's fairly removal-proof. Once all the pieces are in place and you have the required mana, you can "go off" through the steps outlined above regardless of any removal your opponent might have.

The only thing that can stop you then is the apropos Disallow. Thanks, Baral!

Putting It All Together

Whether you want to explore a combo in a need of a home or put the tried-and-true methods to work, right now Standard is the best place to do it. And with Aether Revolt results coming in, it's clear those tried-and-true ways are working.

Robert Graves's Four-Color Saheeli

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Daniel Fournier's Jeskai Saheeli

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Whether it's the four-color Oath of Nissa or three-color Jeskai version, decks built around Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian will be popular. Removal and answers in Shock or Harnessed Lightning help fight other copycat "Copycat" decks, and the option to add Torrential Gearhulk or Cloudblazer for greater Felidar Guardian value means these decks can play a more traditional tempo or control role too.

Don't be fooled into just going to the turn-four combo; play the long game and you can craft the perfect moment to win uncontested.

Bronson Gervasi's Red-Green Energy

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Red-Green Energy works just like its previous Standard incarnation. While the build has shifted over the weeks, the core of "make energy with Voltaic Brawler, Bristling Hydra, and Attune with Aether to fuel Electrostatic Pummeler" was updated with Aether Revolt's Invigorated Rampage. Like Larger than Life, it gives 4 additional power and trample. Unlike Larger than Life, Invigorated Rampage is an instant, so it can wait until the last possible moment.

With Verdurous Gearhulk around to help spread the power out, attacking with large creatures is a solid plan too—forcing your opponent into a position where either the combo or critters beat them down.

Carter Newman's Temur Aetherworks

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Temur Aetherworks is another holdover from Standard before Aether Revolt, and Aetherworks Marvel isn't going away anytime soon. While recent takes can add white and shoehorn in the Saheeli Rai-Felidar Guardian combo, traditional Temur types go big with Elder Deep-Fiend or Torrential Gearhulk into value.

Unlike the past when the goal was to spring Emrakul, the Promised End on an opponent early, new builds are more control-oriented to both fight other combo decks and ensure time to take over. Winning on the fourth turn may not happen, but an early Elder Deep-Fiend backed by some removal and Disallow means once your combo puts you ahead of tempo, you can hold on just long enough to win.

What Comes Next

With Pro Tour Aether Revolt just around the corner, the next wave of combo-deck innovation is underway. The odds are fair that there's even more lurking to be unlocked in Standard, and the greatest players in the game will be out to find what we've missed here.

Of course, you don't need to wait for experts to try their hand. Friday Night Magic at your local game store is the best place to take your favorite combo out for a spin. If opponents aren't expecting it, then the odds are tipped even more in your favor.

After all, if they aren't expecting it how can they possibly stop you? Good luck, renegade!

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