A combo deck is one that is focused on enacting a powerful (game-winning) combination of cards.
Playing against a combo deck can sometimes feel like fighting against a phantom. Like aggro, combo decks are designed to race. However, combo decks do so in a way that is less perceptible to the opponent than aggro and its incremental lowering of the life total. A combo deck's position is often hidden. In many cases, it is to their advantage to wait as long as possible (even if they are taking damage) to build up cards and mana before attempting to assemble the combo. The combo deck avoids general interaction and may strand creature removal spells, or other cards, in your hand. It may also be resilient to certain forms of disruption, leaving you feeling helpless. Beating a combo deck requires a working knowledge of its internal mechanisms, along with active disruption.
For reference, Shuhei Nakamura provided this combo listing:
This deck wins by assembling a hand that contains several rituals and a Dragonstorm. The rituals both provide the mana to play the Dragonstorm, and the spell-count to enable a Storm count of four. Four dragons means death on the spot (from 20) for most decks. It also has Gigadrowse to shut down a potentially disruptive opponent before the big turn.
Understand their combo: A combo deck that no one's ever heard of is much more dangerous than one that's already established in the metagame. This is because a large part of being able to play properly against a combo deck involves knowing how it operates. This informs, among other things, whether your disruption is actually a deterrent, the important targets for disruption (like which spells to counter), and the conditions necessary for the combo deck to go off (which helps you decide whether to play a spell and leave yourself defenseless, or to wait).
If the deck is already established in the metagame, make sure you know how it works.
If you've never seen the combo deck before, try your best to reason how it works.
Example: It's your turn four and, with a couple creatures already in play, you have the choice between playing an Order of the Sacred Bell or leaving mana open for Naturalize. Is Naturalize significant in this matchup?
Balance pressure and disruption: A good general approach to beating combo decks is to have played your disruption before they can plausibly go off, or to have it ready for when they do, but to play out as many threats as you can before that. Unless disruption is crippling, it needs threats to really be effective.
Example: You don't think your opponent's combo deck can plausibly go off until turn five. Your hand has Trained Armodon, Order of the Sacred Bell, Mana Leak, and Coercion. You play Armodon, Order of the Sacred Bell, and then Coercion with Mana Leak mana up.
Take damage for advantage: It is unusual for a combo deck to be able to punish a player at a medium-life total; the combo deck is typically designed to kill in one fell swoop. This makes aggressively taking damage for a purpose more attractive.
Example: Against an aggro deck, you would only use your City of Brass when absolutely necessary. Against a combo deck, you will use it whenever is convenient.
Pack disruption: To combo, a deck without disruption is a sitting duck.
Discard, especially focused discard, is very valuable. Countermagic, land destruction and other disruption can also make the combo deck's plans much more difficult to enact.
What qualifies as effective disruption can depend on the specific deck you are facing. Sometimes the deck will be resilient to countermagic, land destruction, or discard. Sometimes more narrow disruption is valuable (Stifle).
Use cheap threats: Combo decks, like aggro decks, can kill very quickly. Clunky attackers for four, five, or more mana are not at their best against combo decks, where the game might not go long enough for them to have a significant effect, and where tapping out to play them represents defenselessness. The best threats, and disruption, against combo decks are cheap enough to be relevant.
If an expensive card is powerful enough (Haunting Echoes), or if you play enough disruption to slow the game down, it may still be valuable here.
Example: On turn five you play Spiritmonger. Your opponent untaps and kills you.
Shoot to kill: Many combo decks have some serious weak spots that you may be able to exploit. Because they depend on a combination of cards, if you can disable one part of the combination it may be enough to topple the entire strategy. Or, because the ultimate function of the combo may be narrow (e.g., it may be able to put your entire library into the graveyard once), there will sometimes be a loophole (playing Krosan Reclamation as an instant before you would draw).
Example: Though your deck has many ways to find them, your only actual win conditions are two copies of Blaze. I play Cranial Extraction, and remove all your Blazes, leaving you with plenty to do, but no way to kill.
Control against Combo: For control to beat combo, it is important for the control deck to have inevitability. The control deck is designed to drag the game out. But if the combo deck has a long-term trump (such as Gigadrowse) then this approach is unsound. If the control deck does not have natural inevitability, it may be forced to include crippling sub-strategies, or quicker threats, to be able to beat combo decks-for example, Disrupting Scepter, or Persecute.
It may be important to ration your countermagic. If your combo opponent appears to be struggling with mana, countering a mana-search spell might be worthwhile. If your opponent is low on cards, countering a card-drawing spell might be worthwhile.
Aggro against Combo: A good aggro deck should be fast enough to compete with combo. Sometimes the aggro player will win the race, or sometimes the combo player will be forced to try and enact their combination prematurely.
Combined with aggro's quick clock, disruption is especially valuable.
A combo deck may have general foils against aggro (for example, boarding in mass removal). An aggro deck should be resilient against this.
Combo against Combo: Combo mirrors are generally non-interactive, but your opponent may have the ability to threaten some sort of foil, which will complicate play decisions. Again, a bit of disruption is valuable. Too much, though, and you risk diluting your own deck's power.
A combo mirror can break down in a few different ways. Sometimes it is simply the fastest draw that wins. Other situations, it may be that the first to act is at a severe disadvantage, and the game will go long. Make sure you know the plan.
That's it for this week. Join me next week when we look at game play itself…
In the meantime, let me know if there are any topics you'd particularly like Magic Academy to look at!