Monday, December 21, 2009

A six step guide to building a combo deck

Today, I shall talk about how one builds a combo deck. Note that this is different from the synergy deck, since while there may be some cards that work well with the combo, it is a deck that will not work at all unless the combo goes off.

I will usually talk about T2 combos, but for this example I'm going to talk about a recent combo I discovered in the Casual format. I like this combo because it uses not one, not two, but three cards which were deemed worthless for actual play, and it wins quite handily with them (though after some time). It is actually a combo requiring 5 cards to work, making it extraordinarily unplayable in any competitive format, but anyways, read on to see the combo and how the deck would be built around it!

I found out about this in the 2008 Beat the Champs! article, in which someone beat a very happy Mark Rosewater with this combo. Here's the play:

1. Play Lich's Mirror at some point
2. Play Barren Glory
3. Play Oblivion Ring, hiding Barren Glory under it
4. Play One with Nothing
5. While One with Nothing is still on the stack, play Spoils of the Vault, naming a card that is not in your deck (note: Spoils can be replaced with any card that will kill you immediately, this is just one of the easier ones)
6. Let Spoils of the Vault kill you, which triggers Lich's Mirror
7. Shuffle up all your permanents, bouncing Barren Glory back into play, then draw 7 cards
8. One with Nothing resolves, you discard your hand
9. Unless they can batter you down from your new 20 life total thanks to the mirror in the next turn, and if they have no Shatters, you win on your next upkeep!

This combo is vintage UberJohnny. I can't tell you how many people have told me that One with Nothing is the worst card ever printed, but here it gets to shine as a win condition. And Lich's Mirror, that undeserving Mythic which lets you die twice (who can get board control back after that?) is made useful with Oblivion Ring. And we don't even need to talk about The Cheese Stands Alone, do we?

But what is the best way to build a deck around this? Let's go through the steps:

1. The Combo Pieces & Win Condition
This is the obvious bit. But it gets less obvious when you need to put in a number 1-4 of them. Usually you will want 4 of each card, because you need them all to go off. However, say for example your combo relies on Impromptu Raid (as my first FNM deck did). You might just want 3 of them, since having 2 Raids at once isn't useful. It usually depends where on the curve they lie and if they have any uses other than for your combo; more expensive cards can usually be cut down to 3 or even 2, depending on how much tutoring you have. But be careful, because your opponent might Duress your only copy. Also, be careful about cards like Thought Hemorrhage, which can ruin you if you don't have an answer for them (though those can go in the sideboard)

2. Getting the Pieces
This is where you put in cards that tutor or have tutor-like effects (Diabolic Tutor or Merfolk Looter are good examples of both). Ponder is actually super nice here, as it's useful in almost every circumstance. But be careful, because while cards like Diabolic Tutor are good (it's unfortunate that the better tutors are invariably quite expensive, even ones like Idyllic Tutor), they don't do anything else to help you and so aren't always the best choice. For example, you might prefer Liliana Vess, since she might give you the equivalent of 3 life as well. But even card draw engines like Howling Mine or Jace Beleren can be nice. And if you can manage it, cascade can be your best friend (like in the popular Hypergenesis deck)

3. Protecting the Combo Pieces
Are they all Shatter-able enchantments? Will you be sad if they side in Gaddock Teeg? Look at your deck from an enemy's eyes and see how you would disrupt it, then try to shore up those areas. Counterspells are usually the best way to go here, but that only really works in blue. Also, when possible have multiple cards fulfilling the same purpose in the combo, for example you might put in Malfegor along with One with Nothing (this is a bad example, but it works) so that they can't stop cards being played by name.

4. Don't die
Remember that there's a game going on as you get there. How many turns does it take you to go off, keeping in mind that there are other combo decks that may work quicker, and that there are aggro decks that can kill you before then? Remember, as a wise man once said, death is the best Counterspell. This is a place you should play to the strength of your colors. If you're mostly green, you might want to ramp up to get there faster, if you're in red or black you might prefer to kill their creatures first, white should run lifegain and wraths, and blue should obviously run card draw and counterspells. The point is, many people think that building a combo deck means you need to throw in blue, but since adding more colors usually increases the need for fixing and thus the price of your deck (if you're actually building it), it's important to note that you can still make it work by sticking to as few colors as your combo allows. For example, the above combo only needs to be WB to work, and while you shouldn't be afraid to throw in blue, remember that it's not required.

5. Sideboard Building
A Spike sideboard is designed to give his deck a slightly bigger edge, or to shore up small weaknesses, but his deck will work whether or not he sides in. A Johnny sideboard, on the other hand, is absolutely necessary for any serious play (but for casual it doesn't really matter). You're really worried about the control decks that will interrupt your combo, and the aggro decks that will kill you first. Your sideboard should include strategies against both of these, and you should know exactly which cards you're siding out against what decks. Keep in mind that if the aggro deck isn't killing you first, you don't need to side in against it, and if the control deck has a definite win condition you might be able to beat them just by getting rid of it. Or you might even throw them a curveball by throwing in some aggro (if it fits with your deck), like maybe killing them bit by bit with a Great Sable Stag. Also, be careful against cards that will kill you instantly (Telemin Performance is an instant mill against decks with no creatures, and a free Progenitus against some other decks)

6. Playtest, playtest, playtest
You're looking for a few things here.
-The most obvious is looking for cards that you are never happy to draw. Say you have a deck built around somehow cheating out big creatures, like Polymorph Progenitus; if you notice that you're drawing Progenitus too much and it's just a dead card, you might want to reduce how many of those you have. There will be other cards that you notice that you can cut entirely, even if you're unwilling too (I still say that hilarious beats good any day, so I keep cards in for that reason on occasion).
-At the same time, notice when you find surprisingly synergistic things. My first FNM deck (which I have alluded to, it was named "Top Deck Champion") was during Llorwyn/Tenth Edition, and it was based around Cream of the Crop/Impromptu Raid, filled with big beasty creatures to top deck. I noticed with surprise while playing that whenever I used Cream of the Crop, I was always happy to topdeck Composite Golem, as it might give me two more Raids. This was enough to make me stick in 4 of him over bigger bombs. At the same time, I noticed that Malfegor was a great card, since I didn't actually care about my hand after I went off, so it had no downside.
-While playing, keep a close eye on empty spots on your curve. In the One with Nothing deck, you have no plays until turn 5's Lich's Mirror, so either use ETTT lands (Enter The Thunderdome Tapped) or tutoring spells, or have counter mana open. You never want to have an untapped land at the end of an opponent's turn.
-You also are trying to design your sideboard while playtesting. Notice which cards you always side out, and which you always side in. Be careful about siding out important combo pieces, or things that might slow you down even more.

Anyways, that's how I build a combo deck. Synergy decks tend to be easier since you just build around a theme. Sometimes you build around one card (I recently did one for Beastmaster Ascension), but in that case, the card isn't necessary as much as it is nice to have.

I use Magic Workstation (MWS) to playtest most of my decks, so if you see someone named Wicket on there feel free to play against me. I tend to play mostly T2 on there, and my decks tend not to be "good" as much as "fun".

[These days I go by Epsilon on MWS. I don't play on it as often, but if you see me, say hi! -Lee]