Returning to Combo

Posted in Latest Developments on November 8, 2002

By Randy Buehler

It seems kind of ironic that I’m writing a column for Mana Engine Week just before leaving for Pro Tour - Houston. The Pro Tour will start a few hours after this article gets posted and a lot of the buzz seems to be about combo decks. With Force of Will rotating out of Extended on November 1st but Tempest and Urza’s Saga blocks still legal, the coast may be clear for an explosion of combo decks the likes of which we haven’t seen since Pro Tour - Rome and the dawn of “Combo Winter.”

As a player, I always felt kind of guilty when I played combo decks in tournaments. Like everyone else, I found it fun to think about combo decks, and building fun decks that tried to put together some wacky and improbable combination was cool. But when Urza’s Saga came out and combo decks suddenly took over the tournament scene it just didn’t feel right. It felt like R&D had messed up and their once wonderful game was being turned into a travesty.

Now that four years have passed since Urza’s Saga came out, and I’m looking at the game from a radically different point of view, my views on combo decks are a bit different. R&D did indeed mess up in the Urza’s block, but I don’t think the game is a travesty just because a bunch of combo decks are running around. One of the coolest parts of Magic is how insanely varied the possible strategies are that your opponent might run against you and the existence of infinite mana engines opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

I remember going to a local tournament at a library in Pittsburgh back in 1997. I played against this kid in the first round who managed to get Contemplation and Aluren into play. Then he played a Shrieking Drake (for free because of the Aluren) and had it unsummon itself. He took great delight in gaining all that life off of Contemplation and suddenly it was impossible for me to kill him. I managed to win the match anyway by sideboarding in a bunch of enchantment removal, but I’ve always remembered the joy in that kid’s eyes after game 1.

When I think back on those years, I think combo decks (especially infinite engines) were at a really healthy level. They were good enough to mess around with and you could win with them if you got a little lucky, but they weren’t so good that you would see them all the time. Combo decks are fun the first couple of times you see them and back then it never really moved beyond that stage. After Saga came out they got so good that they got very old, very fast. Combo decks usually involve one person racing to pull off their trick and never really interacting with the opponent – those just aren’t among the most fun Magic games.

As a reaction to the Urza’s-block, R&D swore off combo decks cold turkey. Everything that looked remotely like it could be an important piece of a combo engine of any kind got unmercifully “nerfed.” In addition, R&D realized that it needed help in testing the cards. They didn’t realize what they were making when the made Urza’s Saga so they went to the Pro Tour and hired a bunch of new developers who could come in and start breaking the cards before they came out, rather than after. That’s when I got my job, and so did Mike Donais, Brian Schneider, and Worth Wollpert.

For our first few years on the job, we helped make sure there would not be a repeat of Combo Winter. Now that Combo Winter is starting to fade into everyone’s collective memory, though, the climate seems safer for combo cards. I think in future sets you’ll see R&D start to relax a little bit when it comes to engine cards. We don’t want to eliminate combo engines from the game entirely and the time for playing it safe is past now. We’d like combo to creep back into the game at a low-level so that little kids everywhere (and big kids who are willing to give in to the little kid inside them) can surprise someone by pulling off some innovative, wacky combination that suddenly gains them “infinite” life.

We won’t ever want combo decks to take over a tournament format and if that’s what happens this weekend in Houston then I’m sure the DCI will react by banning whatever is messing up the environment. In the meantime, however, it could be fun to see what everyone comes up with. I actually think PT Houston will be interesting because no one really knows exactly what’s going to happen. When the players don’t know exactly what to expect then the players who win will be the players who were the best at figuring out what really matters – that makes for a very skill-testing environment even if the decks getting played are degenerately powerful. Besides, everyone agrees that combo decks are fun the first couple times you see them … for several new decks I think those couple of times will happen this weekend.

All in all I think mana engines (and other combo decks) are a healthy, important part of Magic as long as we in R&D don’t let them get out of hand. We have a lot more playtesters on the inside now than we did back during Combo Winter so I am cautiously optimistic that we can start letting down our guard a little bit without letting anything dumb sneak through.



How do you feel about losing to Bribery?
Awful 11.01%
Somewhat worse 16.82%
Neutral 28.77%
Somewhat better 19.59%
Great 23.81%

So it looks like, on balance, you guys agree more with me than with Mike Elliot. There are actually more of you who dislike Bribery than I realized, but those of you who like the card seem to outnumber the naysayers by about 2 to 1.

Mike and I were talking more this past week about these results and we were trying to understand more about exactly who makes up my reader base. By now most of you are probably familiar with the “Timmy, Johnny, and Spike” categories that R&D uses to think about Magic players – if you aren’t, then click here to read Mark’s article on the subject. Then …

Randy may be reached at

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