Your First Combo Deck

Posted in Magic Academy on March 31, 2007

By Shuhei Nakamura

What is a "Combo Deck?"

Savannah Lions
Imagine that your opponent plays an aggro deck – a white-red beatdown build, for instance. He drops Savannah Lions on the first turn, and drops two more Lions on the next. He has a full grip of burn spells in hand, while you don't do anything on the first turn, even on the second turn. You don't move on the third turn, either. Your life is decreasing quickly – and your opponent never doubts his easy victory.

However, it is the end of his show.

Having waited for a long time , you show the true form of your combo deck. You make use of cards that you played as the preparation or cards that are waiting in your hand. You increase your mana, play a key card, or create an infinite chain... Whatever the specifics, you win by breaking the playground that your opponent managed to make. This is a combo deck.

What is the purpose?

Enduring Renewal
There are a lot of kinds of combo decks in Magic. Some of them deal 20 damage to the opponent, while others deal one million, or more damage if you would like. Some target your opponent's library, and make him or her draw 60 or more cards in one turn. Others gain an infinite amount of life, or make an opponent unable to do anything, or eventually take extra turns eternally. Those are the examples of combo decks that have been made. What combo decks have in common is that they are designed to gather a few cards to win.

But there is something you have to pay. By the time you complete the combo, remember that your combo parts are totally unplayable. Even if your combo can kill an opponent immediately, they are just "papers" when you couldn't gather them all. In addition to this, they take a lot of space in your deck. You have been in trouble that you can't reduce your deck-size to 60 when you build a deck, haven't you? As combo deck needs a lot of cards that may become unplayable, so you often have to throw away the hand or tempo advantage. Anyway, if you completed the combo, the anxiety would be blown away. What I would like to say is combo decks are decks that have handicaps until the combo is completed, and essentially aim at reversal.

How to Build?

Firstly, you must find the combination of the cards that will be a "combo." Suppose you are building a racing car. This process is likened to the assembly of an engine. No car will move without an engine.

Invoke the Firemind
process can be considered in basically two ways: One is the way that you win, or make a situation where you essentially win, by completing a combination of cards. The other is the way that you get a huge or infinite amount of mana by a combination. This way alone can't defeat your opponent directly, but don't worry, fire your Blaze or Invoke the Firemind with X=20.

Then, what to do is to find a card that seems to be a part of a combo and search the card list for a card that helps it, or to refer some deck list from the past and get some idea.

"Can I deal 20 damage at once by using Pandemonium?"


"There must be a deck that played Enduring Ideal."

Enduring Ideal

"Can Izzet Guildmage produce infinite mana?" and so on.

Izzet Guildmage

Sometimes you get nothing after even long consideration, but sometimes an idea comes to you as if it were a revelation. Of course, this is the worst way in terms of efficiency. As my advice, if you get some idea, however silly it is, give it a form instead of giving up, because in the combo decks that conquered a Pro Tour or a Grand Prix there are ones that were laughed at the time, but everyone knows them now.

Also, an unexpected combination of cards can be a combo because Magic creates cards one after another. Indeed, one of the best combos ever took three years to be in a tournament since the cards were created. You may find gold from forgotten veins. Your sudden flash of insight may make you the first discoverer of the unknown combo.

If you finished the engine, next is the body. To make use of the engine of a Formula 1 you must prepare the Formula 1 body. A weak body can't show the nice combo deck's real worth.

There are also two ways to implement a combo. One is adding a combo to an existing deck as the win condition. For a recent example, in PTQ Yokohama at Louisville, Carlos A. Carillo played Blue-White Tron with the Stuffy Doll+ Guilty Conscience combo.

Blue-White Tron with Stuffy Doll + Guilty Conscience

Download Arena Decklist

Carillo's deck is a typical Blue-White 'Tron deck, except that it runs Stuffy Doll and Guilty Conscience. At the moment you get Stuffy Doll and Guilty Conscience, the instant kill combo will begin. When you tap Stuffy Doll after it's enchanted with Guilty Conscience, it deals 1 damage to the opponent and then takes 1 itself as it is tortured by Guilty Conscience. Then once again 1 damage is dealt to the opponent, and 1 to the doll... Infinite damage occurs.

Stuffy Doll
Guilty Conscience

The other way is to build a dedicated combo deck that contains only cantrips to get the combo parts, ways to survive until you complete the combo, or cards that deal with the opponent's ability to disrupt your plan.

Dragon Storm, which made Mihara the 2006 World Champion, is the good example.


Download Arena Decklist

Boosting your mana with Lotus Bloom, Rite of Flame, and/or Seething Song, and you play Dragonstorm with a storm count of three or more. Four Bogardan Hellkites fly into play and deal 5 x 4 = 20 damage to the opponent.

Lotus Bloom
Rite of Flame
Bogardan Hellkite

This is the real combo deck. Do (the combo) or die.

Great Decks

This is my personal thought, but I think great combo decks have a simplicity that destroyed their opponents, even a certain amount of beauty. For example, the representative combo deck in Standard, Dragonstorm, and a key combo deck in Extended, called TEPS, resemble each other in the point that they both make use of the storm system.

Tendrils of Agony
Both consist of a few key cards and a lot of mana source spells. They are designed to win just by playing a key card – Dragonstorm, Mind's Desire, or Tendrils of Agony. In addition to this, those mana source spells not only support you to play the expensive key card, but also increase the storm count. In great combo decks, the cards involve each other, create a multiplier effect, and extend the perfection of the combo to victory.

In order to achieve this, the core combo must be simple. When you look through most of the great combo decks of the past, the key combo consists of only two or three cards at most.

This is because the number of cards that make the combo is connected directly to the stability. If your deck could pull of a turn-one kill 1 out of 100 times, and in the other 99 times you didn't know when you would win, it would be a bad choice in a Constructed format where the games end by turn ten.

The important thing for a combo deck is how many turns on average it takes to make an opponent concede. If you would like to make your original combo deck stand well in a tournament, you have to complete the combo earlier than an aggro deck kills a nonresistant opponent in average in that format: Fifth turn in Standard, fourth turn in fast Extended, approximately. Jeff shared info about the various Constructed formats here.

And there is more. You must not forget you have an opponent. For him or her, you are just a statue when you haven't completed the combo yet, but the reverse is not true. They prevent your combo with various ways, not only overwhelming speed, but also hand destruction, counter-magic, and destruction or restriction of the resources in play. That is why many combo decks play Duress or Orim's Chant even though they have nothing to do with the combo.

Orim's Chant

As long as it is possible, you must not forget to deal with opponent's disruption.


That's what I can tell you. Finally, I would like to introduce the combo deck that I played in GP – Dallas: Balancing Act Combo, often called "Balancing Tings."

Balancing Tings Combo

Download Arena Decklist

This deck was created and tested by Yoon Soon Hang, who lives in Tokyo. In the early turns, you play the Invasion "sac" lands, such as Geothermal Crevice. When you can, you sacrifice all of your lands (at least four) for mana and play Balancing Act, "floating" the remaining mana. Because you control no permanents, your opponent sacrifices all of his or hers, and you use that leftover mana to play a very large Terravore and win the game in short order.

Geothermal Crevice
Balancing Act

Chromatic Star and/or Terrarion help you to get the color of mana needed to run the combo and dig through the deck. Remand and Fire make the time, and they dig through your library, too. Fire is a useful card that can deal with creatures that must be killed. My favorite point is that most of the nonland cards in the deck let you draw a card to gather the combo parts quickly.

Good luck! May the Flash be with you! See you, somewhere in the world.

Shuhei Nakamura
(Translated by Naoki Shimizu)

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