Welcome to part four of Bolt the Bird’s series on competitive deck building! Today’s topic is how to build a competitive combo deck. If you missed the previous articles in the series you can find them here:
Reviewing the Basics
Playing more than 60 cards hurts your consistency and the chance of drawing the cards you want. The only reason to ever deviate from 60 cards is if you are playing Yorion as a companion.
Your deck should also have a clear plan. Combo decks look to win the game by combining two or more cards that work together to either win the game outright or create an overwhelming advantage that will almost certainly win the game.
Your cards should all work together towards a goal and further your deck’s plan. For combo decks, your cards should all work towards either finding your combo, protecting your combo, or staying alive long enough to execute the combo. You are not typically looking to play cards that serve any other purpose.
Next, you need to ensure you have a solid mana base with enough mana sources of the correct color. Start by referencing Frank Karsten’s 2022 updated article about crafting the perfect manabase.
You also need to have a solid mana curve. This will vary greatly depending on what kind of combo deck you want to build. Some types of fast combo decks have a very low curve, while more controlling combo decks and decks that use ramp/rituals or other ways to cheat things out may have cards with a very high mana value.
As a general tip, decks with a higher curve should try to avoid being too slow and clunky to avoid getting run over or out-tempoed.
How to Build a Competitive MTG Combo Deck
We’ve covered the basics, but what separates a competitive combo deck from a janky one? Here’s what you need to know.
What your manabase should look like depends on how fast your deck is trying to be.
For fast combo decks, you will typically want to build a manabase similar to what we discussed in the aggro deck building guide by prioritizing a fast and reliable manabase.
For a slower combo deck, you can build your manabase more like the one we discussed in the midrange deck building guide. For Standard, this means a slightly slower manabase, and some tapped lands can be acceptable.
Types of Combo Deck in MTG
How to exactly define what is and isn’t a combo deck can be a tricky endeavor. The line between combo and synergy is sometimes a bit unclear. From a technical perspective, any card whose primary purpose is to work with other cards to create an effect that is stronger than the sum of their parts can be viewed as a combo card.
In the traditional sense, we think of combo decks as ones where you assemble a particular combination of cards that allow you to win the game on the spot, or that create a situation where you are almost guaranteed to win. There are, however, many other types of decks that combine cards to create a stronger effect that don’t win on the spot.
For the purposes of this article, we will define decks that combine cards to “win on the spot” or create a situation where they are almost guaranteed to win as combo decks. Decks using cards that work together to create a strong but not game-ending effect are synergy decks.
Some examples of “win on the spot” combo decks would be:
Card A + Card B combos like Splinter Twin. These decks combine two or more key cards to win.
Engine decks like those built around Krark Clan Iron Works use a combination of mana generation and mana discounting along with card draw to create an “engine” that keeps drawing cards and creating mana. These decks ultimately win through an advantage that is gained incrementally by looping effects.
Storm decks look to cast a flurry of spells and win via the storm mechanic. They are similar to engine decks, but unlike engine decks, they need to go off all in one shot for the combo to work.
Win or loss condition decks like those built around Battle of Wits look to fulfill a condition that causes you to win or your opponent to lose on the spot.
Some examples of synergy decks would be:
Decks built around a particular card. For example, “I’m gonna build a deck around the card All Will Be One.”
Creature-based decks that target their own creatures like Modern Infect and Bogles or Illuminator Virtuoso and Poison Ivy decks in Standard.
Reanimator decks like those using Goryo’s Vengeance in Modern or Exhume and Reanimate in Legacy.
Aristocrats decks like Rakdos Sacrifice with Cat-Oven and Mayhem Devil
I’d like to primarily focus on “win on the spot” combo decks for today’s article, but I will say the following regarding synergy decks. If you want to include some synergy in your deck you need to go about it in the right way.
If you want to use cards that are individually weak or do nothing on their own, the payoff you get needs to be worth it. A good example would be the Cat-Oven combo with Cauldron Familiar and Witch’s Oven. You wouldn’t want to throw this combo into just any deck. Cat-Oven is not worth playing in a random midrange deck that doesn’t have any synergy with the combo. This is because the cards are individually weak, and without any synergy in the rest of the deck, the payoff you get from combining them is not strong enough.
Cat-Oven is playable and powerful in Rakdos Sacrifice because the entire deck is built around sacrificing things and the payoff you get when you combine the combo with cards like Mayhem Devil is strong enough to warrant playing them.
If you want to play combo or synergy cards that your deck is not built around, then you typically want to use cards that are individually strong. For instance, the synergy between Fable of the Mirror-Breaker and Bloodtithe Harvester is fantastic. But on their own, these are both powerful cards.
Weak cards lacking payoff or synergy with your deck will simply make your deck weaker. The more hoops you need to jump through, the greater the reward needs to be.
Refining Your Combo Deck’s Plan
When building a “win on the spot” combo deck, you need to decide whether you are trying to race your opponent or not.
If you are not fast enough to race the other fast decks in the format, then you need to be able to slow your opponent down enough that you don’t just get run over and die.
Fast combo decks are often viable in eternal formats, however, they are not often seen in Standard. Let’s take a look at the different speeds of combo decks you can choose from.
Any of the combo types can be a fast combo (win/loss con, A+B combo, engine, storm). The goal for a fast combo deck is to be able to assemble the combo quickly and consistently enough to be able to race the other fast decks in the format. If you regularly lose to aggro decks, your fast combo deck is too slow.
Fast combo decks look to focus the vast majority of their efforts on finding and assembling their combo. The deck is primarily looking to “goldfish” as much as possible, with a minimal amount of interaction; just enough to avoid getting run over by a fast start from the opponent.
Slow combo decks tend to be A+B combo or win/loss con only. This is because engine and storm decks require a minimum threshold of enabler cards and cannot function properly if they dilute their decks with too many controlling cards.
Slower combo decks need to ensure they have enough interaction or battlefield presence to avoid getting run over before they have time to assemble their combo. If the combo deck is able to drag the game out long enough, they will inevitably be able to assemble their combo and win.
Cards to Play In an MTG Combo Deck
Here are the types of cards that a combo deck wants to play.
Combo Pieces: The actual pieces of your combo will obviously need to be in your deck
Ways to find your combo pieces: Card filtering effects like faithless looting or Serum visions
Ways to draw cards: Tutors like Stoneforge Mystic or Chord of Calling
Ways to stay alive: Spot removal, board wipes, counterspells, creatures to block with, ways to gain life, etc.
Ways to protect the combo and anti-hate-card measures: Counterspells, targeted discard, protection cards like Surge of Salvation and Leyline of Sanctity, artifact/enchantment removal, etc. Cards like these are usually run at a minimum, and often in the sideboard.
Consistency in MTG Combo Decks
Consistency is important when building a competitive combo. You need to be able to actually assemble the combo if you want to win!
For A+B style combos, a combo that requires only two cards is far better than a combo that requires three. Any combo that requires four or more cards is usually too unreliable and is likely to be jank only.
Another way to help consistency is redundancy. If only one card exists with the effect you need to execute your combo, you can only run four copies in your deck. Using combo pieces with redundant copies can help with consistency by allowing you to run more than four copies. Splinter Twin decks often ran both Deceiver Exarch and Pestermite to help with this. Modern Rhinos uses both Shardless Agent and Violent Outburst (and sometimes even Ardent Plea) to find its namesake card.
Redundancy is also useful in that it helps you be more resilient to your opponent’s interaction. You aren’t too upset about them removing your combo piece if you have a duplicate in hand.
Resilience in Combo Decks
Some combo pieces are harder to interact with than others. The harder your pieces are to interact with the more resilient and hard to disrupt your combo will be.
Combos that win using sorceries and instants tend to be quite hard to interact with. Combos that have pieces that can be cast at instant speed like Splinter Twin are very resilient as well.
Artifact, enchantment, and land-based combos are somewhat resilient, whereas combos based primarily on creatures tend to be fragile. Creature removal is by far the most commonly played form of interaction.
Your opponent may be packing hate-type cards somewhere in their 75. It’s very common to see grave hate and other similar cards in many sideboards. You need to build your deck in such a way that you can play through the opponent’s hate cards, or you must have answers to their hate cards yourself. For instance, make sure you have a way to remove their Rest in Peace. Answers to specific hate cards typically belong in your sideboard.
Consider the Meta
As always, you need to be careful about falling into the trap of only considering your deck in a vacuum.
First of all, you need to consider if a combo deck is even worth building in your format. In Standard, for example, combo is not always a supported archetype. Sometimes there just isn’t a viable combo deck even possible.
Supposing you do have the tools to build a competitive MTG combo deck, you should also consider how well-positioned your deck will be in the meta.
If people are main-decking grave hate in the meta, for example, a grave-based combo doesn’t look as good.
Combo also tends to be weak versus control and tempo decks, while usually being good versus midrange. Fast combo decks often have a good matchup versus aggro, depending on the format, while control combo can sometimes struggle with aggro.
Priorities for Combo Decks
When brewing, keep in mind that a combo deck’s priorities are some combination of:
- Find and assemble the combo
- Don’t die/control the game
- Protect the combo
Fast combo decks will want to prioritize finding and assembling the combo much more than trying to stay alive, while slower combo will want to focus on staying alive and controlling the game more than assembling the combo.
Applying Combo Deckbuilding Principles
I typically like to wrap these articles up by using the principles we’ve discussed to analyze the current top standard deck for the archetype in question. There is, however, not currently a competitive combo deck available in Standard. So, I decided to take a look at one of the best combo decks from recent Standards past, Izzet Epiphany.
Izzet Epiphany was one of the last really good combo decks in Standard. It looked to win the game by creating multiple copies of Alrund’s Epiphany to take multiple turns in a row and beat the opponent to death with bird tokens. There are a number of factors that made Epiphany decks so good. The deck was able to effectively leverage an excellent mix of battlefield control, card draw and filtering, and had an extremely hard-to-interact-with combo finish.
The deck ran plenty of efficiently costed removal in the form of cards like Abrade and Fading Hope.
It had good sweepers like Cinderclasm and Burn Down the House.
Cards like Expressive Iteration and Behold the Multiverse helped dig for interaction or combo pieces as needed, as well as being a form of card advantage.
Unexpected Windfall also helped dig for what was needed, in addition to ramping you towards being able to execute the combo.
Demon Bolt and Divide by Zero were great ways to handle bigger threats. So much so that Divide ended up eating a ban eventually.
MDFC lands like Jwari Disruption, Spikefield Hazard, and Shatterskull Smashing were great ways to help the deck hit its land drops while mitigating the risk of flooding too much.
Galvanic Iteration was useful because you could copy anything you needed more of, like card draw or removal, not just Epiphany.
And the two main reasons the deck was so good:
1. Pulling off the combo was almost guaranteed to result in a win
2. The combo was exceptionally difficult to interact with. The fact that the combo was sorcery/instant based and had no permanent combo pieces means it could more or less only be interacted with via discard or on the stack. Furthermore, it was exceptionally difficult to interact with even on the stack because the combo made so many copies that a single counterspell of your own wouldn’t even save you. And since Alrund’s Epiphany could be foretold into exile, hand disruption was also largely ineffective. The best counterplay to the opponent copying Epiphany a bunch of times with Galvanic Iteration was, ironically, to copy a counterspell with your own Galvanic Iteration.
Well, that’s all I’ve got for today! Combo decks can be a ton of fun to play and can be very competitive when given the right level of support. With a little practice, and by following the principles in the above guide, I’m confident you can brew a great combo deck! Thanks for reading and happy brewing.