Two-Card Combinations

Posted in Level One on June 30, 2014

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

The word "combo" (short for "combination") gets thrown around a lot in Magic. In some circles, anything that seems to work well with anything else is a mondo combo. For our purposes, though, a combination—here, specifically, a two-card combination—is a set of cards that, when played together, either wins or de facto wins the game discretely. Per the title, this article is going to focus on sets of two cards (instead of three cards, or large chains of cards) that do essentially the same thing.

Played together, Vampire Hexmage and Dark Depths created a large 20-power threat that could win the game in a single swing. Marit Lage doesn't win the game immediately, but it sure sets you up.

Like we said already, the jargon "combo" gets used fairly indiscriminately in Magic. But combos in the game can and should be a big deal. Over the course of the last couple of weeks, we spent time talking about synergy. Ideally, you don't want to turn your synergistic cards into combinations. What do we mean about this?

Last week, our buddy Marshall Sutcliffe unveiled a number of new "Kird Ape"–style cards from Magic 2015; one of those was Dauntless River Marshal. Dauntless River Marshal is a white 2/1 creature for . You can ostensibly play it with a single Plains and whatever else next to that Plains.

But if you do that, you get a fairly vanilla 2/1 creature.

And a 2/1 for isn't particularly good. There isn't anything particularly bad about a 2/1 for , but it probably wouldn't earn a spot in your deck in isolation. Because creatures have gotten so good you get to be—or have to be—more discriminating.

The only reason that we are talking about Dauntless River Marshal now is that it is interesting next to an Island.

Let's think for a moment about the range of experiences Dauntless River Marshal could have (not exhaustive, illustrative)...

Of the three examples here, "lots of Islands" is really the only scenario where we are playing up the synergy built into Dauntless River Marshal.

If we have a deck where Hallowed Fountain as a bridge is the only mana to pair with Dauntless River Marshal's text box, that is a good example of making a synergy into a combo—albeit one that doesn't exactly win you the game on the spot. Hallowed Fountain could just be bad in your deck, a 2-life tax. Meanwhile, Dauntless River Marshal is underperforming as a vanilla 2/1 much of the time.

"Just one Island" is a more extreme case (although, to be fair, much more forgivable in Limited). The reason you don't want to make synergies into combos is that the whole point of playing synergistic cards is that they are quite good together. And if you aren't getting them together you might be getting sub-performing cards most of the time.

Unless...

You can increase the frequency of your combos coming up via redundancy.

Remember our Hallowed Fountain example a moment ago? Well, you can add all sorts of "virtual" Hallowed Fountains via Zendikar-block cards like Arid Mesa and Scalding Tarn (aka "fetch lands"), which increases the frequency of a combo coming up.

Why do we not want to make synergy into a combo? Because a 3/2 creature with a transactional activated ability is a far cry from winning the game outright.

In the case of an actual two-card combo, redundancy upgrades can look like this:

Splinter Twin by Michael Flores

Planeswalker (6)
2 Jace Beleren 4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Sorcery (4)
4 Preordain
Enchantment (4)
4 Splinter Twin
60 Cards

This Standard deck was the first UR Splinter Twin deck to win a big tournament.

The combo works like this:

  1. You play Deceiver Exarch.
  2. You play Splinter Twin on (a not-summoning sick) Deceiver Exarch.
  3. Deceiver Exarch gains the ability to tap to reproduce itself; each token reproduction has Deceiver Exarch's ability to untap a permanent you control. Might I suggest the Splinter Twin-wearing Deceiver Exarch? You can therefore untap the Deceiver Exarch and re-tap to make another Deceiver Exarch token that will in turn untap the original. This you repeat many times to create an army of infinite hasty Clerics.

This deck was kind of a poor control deck when it wasn't combo-killing the opponent, but the fastest deck in the format by a wide margin if it was combo-killing the opponent; ergo, it was desirable to increase the frequency of these cards coming up together.

And as opposed to a synergy—where presumably cards are always passable but much better together—we have at least one card in the group being pointless without the other.

At least Deceiver Exarch could screw up a Caw-Blade player's big turn, tapping down a Squadron Hawk planning to attack wearing a Sword of Feast and Famine.

On balance, Splinter Twin does absolutely nothing without a creature to enhance. To be fair, Inferno Titan might be an explosive partner, and even Pilgrim's Eye could be "interesting" with Splinter Twin...but anything beneath "I kill you" would be considered an underperformance for this combo piece.

The Standard version looked to compact the size of the deck with cards like Preordain; Sea Gate Oracle; Jace Beleren; and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Drawing more cards made it more likely that Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin might come up together.

Pro Tour Born Of The Gods Top 8 – Anssi Alkio

When moving to Modern, you can see the real redundancies available via that format's larger card pool.

Now, instead of having to pair Deceiver Exarch with Splinter Twin, you can also pair Pestermite interchangeably with Splinter Twin. You even get the "turn-three screw up your attack" → "turn four kill you" afforded by the Standard pairing.

In addition, you have Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker as a redundancy for Splinter Twin. Yes, it costs more mana, but you also get additional functionality! It was impossible for the Standard deck to kill an opponent all in one turn. If you drew a Deceiver Exarch on your seventh turn, you could not play it and Splinter Twin in one flourish to kill the opponent, as Deceiver Exarch would have summoning sickness.

But because Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker has haste, you can do this with your Modern seventh turn:

  1. Play Pestermite/Deceiver Exarch (four remaining), untapping a land (five remaining).
  2. Use the five to cast Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker (tapping out); tap Kiki-Jiki to copy your blue three-drop, with the consequent token copy untapping Kiki-Jiki and getting the party rolling.

If you want to branch into additional colors you get additional potential synergies.

Pro Tour Born Of The Gods Top 8 – Tim Rivera

Adding additional colors—provided you can cast your spells—generally allows you to upgrade the quality of your cards. Restoration Angel is just one of the best creatures to play in general, of course, and in this case it works very nicely with Wall of Omens and Snapcaster Mage as a source of incremental card advantage.

BUT!

Restoration Angel is also a partial redundancy on Deceiver Exarch and a substantial upgrade over Pestermite. Decks like this want to live long enough to get their cards together, and 4-toughness creatures are better blockers than 1-toughness creatures (also 4-toughness creatures live through Lightning Bolt).

Restoration Angel is good buddies with Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker if not Splinter Twin, but Splinter Twin is better with Wall of Omens than, say, Pilgrim's Eye.

Two-card combinations can be relatively simple to understand and execute (like Deceiver Exarch + Splinter Twin or Vampire Hexmage + Dark Depths) or difficult and convoluted.

Steve Sadin's Flash Hulk

The two-card combo in this deck is Flash + Protean Hulk.

As in, you can just cast Flash on your second turn and show Protean Hulk.

Everyone knows what happens next, right?

Great!

We can move on, then.

Just kidding.

If you don't know how the combo works at first blush, you have something in common with Grand Prix Champion Sadin.

In his first match with Owen Turtenwald in Columbus, Steve played his two-card combo, and Owen said, "Sure, show me how you win."

Steve had beaten tons of players beforehand just showing them Flash and Protean Hulk and hadn't actually been challenged to do what was needed next!

Steve couldn't show Owen the combo, so Owen won the match!

They had a rematch in the finals, dozens and dozens of games later, by which point Steve understood how to play his deck, and the match went the other direction (which is why we remember the Flash-Hulk two-card combo).

In case you were wondering...

When you Flash out a Protean Hulk, Flash asks you to pay the difference in mana cost; you either can't or don't, so your Protean Hulk goes to the graveyard. On balance, you get to go and find six-mana worth of creatures.

So you go and get Karmic Guide (5) and Carrion Feeder (1).

Karmic Guide comes into play and returns Protean Hulk. Carrion Feeder sacrifices the Hulk, and it's time to go fishing again. How about Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker (5)? Kiki-Jiki copies Karmic Guide. In response, Carrion Feeder eats Kiki-Jiki. Karmic Guide brings back Kiki-Jiki, who commences to re-copy Karmic Guide. A million loops later, and infinite hasted Karmic Guides attack for the win.

Simple, right?

How about this one?

Thomas Refsdal's Cephalid Life

Shuko (or Nomads en-Kor) can target Cephalid Illusionist for zero mana. That means you can do it over and over and over again while "milling" cards into your graveyard (that is, moving them from the top of your library into your graveyard).

Some of those cards will be Narcomoebas, which will jump onto the battlefield for free.

With sufficient juice in the graveyard, you can sacrifice your Narcomoebas for a free Dread Return for a gigantic Sutured Ghoul. Because Sutured Ghoul costs six or more mana, it comes into play with a Dragon Breath, which gives it haste in addition to size and trample.

Ka-boom.

When someone looks at the performance of a deck like this, whose successful execution shows off so much action—free Narcomoebas coming into play, Dread Return from the graveyard, Sutured Ghoul eating creatures from the graveyard, Dragon Breath (and probably even free Cabal Therapy from the graveyard along the way), a first-time observer might confuse what is going on. That first-time viewer might look at all these crazy interactions and think about how the deck as a whole works as a machine.

But what really matters is that two-card combination.

Sure, you need to know how the deck as a whole works, but it's really just the Shuko targeting the Cephalid Illusionist. That is what is going on. This is a two-card combination enabling action from all the rest of those cards.

Some of the most successful ones kill in a single stroke. Illusions of Grandeur + Donate will cost the opponent 20 life while gaining 20 life for you. Draco + Erratic Explosion "only" does 16, but the last 4 aren't usually too hard to come by.

Others, like Deceiver Exarch, can do infinity damage.

Now that you understand two-card combos, we can move on to more complicated combos.

For fun in the interim, to whet your appetite, some three-card combinations:

Love,
Mike

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