Emphasizing Fun In The Multiplayer Casual Environment: Just How Abusive Can A Combo Deck Be?

Most combo decks don’t do well in multiplayer for two reasons. Firstly, they get you bashed around next game, unless it’s a small group, and you can survive one player to get the combo out again. Related to that is that it’s hard to get the combo off multiple times. Donate-Illusions of Grandeur is kinda tough to do the second time. Pray to God that you can pull it off a third.

After my first article was posted on StarCity, a friend of mine asked me what I planned to do, now that I had gotten that out of my system.

At the time, I was playing a friend from my playgroup on Apprentice. He was using a deck that”abused”* Rancor and Auratog, while I was running an inspired deck using Life / Death, Aggravated Assault, and various kill conditions such as Sparkcaster, Fireball, and Rolling Thunder. Essentially, it was a multiplayer combo deck. (Really quickly, the idea is to get to six lands – and some time before that, play an Assault. When you do that, you cast Life, tap the five remaining lands, activate the Assault, untap your now creature-lands, tap them all again for a net gain of one mana, and repeat to your heart’s content. Season to taste with Rocket Launcher, Fireball, Rolling Thunder, or Sparkcaster.)

Most combo decks don’t do well in multiplayer for two reasons. Firstly, they get you bashed around next game, unless it’s a small group, and you can survive one player to get the combo out again. Related to that is that it’s hard to get the combo off multiple times. DonateIllusions of Grandeur is kinda tough to do the second time. Pray to God that you can pull it off a third.

Secondly, it’s in poor taste. Don’t play a deck that basically says,”I have twenty life. I’m just gonna sit here, draw cards, and hope to God I get it out soon. You guys just do your thing.” That’s just… you know, courtesy. (A friend of mine refers to these kinds of decks as”Rosie Palm” decks) (For God’s sake, if you don’t get that, don’t ask your parents. E-mail the editor of this site or someone who can’t ban you from using the ‘net.)

I may be a slightly biased party here, but Life-Assault is not as invasive as other combo decks, because – according to another friend – you don’t waste tons of time playing cards. You just play Life, tell your group how many loops you want to make arbitrarily, because infinity doesn’t exist in the Magic rules unless you’re talking about draws, and burn something(s). The beauty of all this is that unless some funny has some sort of protection (Ivory Mask, Aegis of Honor, Circles of Protection), you can take everything out in one fell swoop. (Remember, folks! If all your creatures are dead, Worship won’t save you! And if your creatures die to the same spell you would die to if you didn’t have Worship, you die. When Worship checks the damage alteration condition, the creatures are D.O.A. and so are you.)

But this still violates the generally accepted tenet of”don’t play combo decks.” But I’m going to play it at my next group gathering. Not all the time, mind you, just once or twice. And do you know why?

Because we’re a casual group. I’m going to play my deck once or twice, get my kicks, get the combo through once or twice, and then set the deck aside. More than likely, the second my opponent realizes that I’ve got a forest and a mountain out, guess who now has a big, fat target on their head? No amount of”Look! I burned that meddlesome creature for you” will help me, because the knowledge that anytime, unless someone is playing blue or some sick, sick, sick damage prevention spell or misdirection type spell, I can slap down a card and say”I win!” is too dire for anyone to ignore.

Now, I’m not saying that the deck, or I, am exempt from common courtesy. But I think that it’s a pretty fun thing to do. It’s got some shock value.”What’s he going to do with Life?” Burn everyone and everything I can. (That, and make sure that no one’s got an Aegis of Honor out.)

Now the question is, where does the line get drawn? What’s acceptable? What’s not?

First, let’s set the parameters of a combo deck. A combo does not necessarily have to be a series of cards that automatically say”I win.” It can be anything from something like Astral Slide and various cycling cards. A combo is a pair of cards that work well together – sickly well together. It goes beyond synergy.

A few examples of”synergistic” combos:

Legacy Weapon and Crystal Quarry: The quarry makes the usually difficult-to-access WURBG mana a little easier to obtain, turning the Weapon into an artifact source, removing-from-game, reusable Desert Twister. Add in some black mana producers like say, Cabal Coffers and a few swamps, as well as multiple Quarries, and you have a nice little answer to anything targetable and don’t have protection from artifacts.

Memory Lapse and Predict, Millstone, or any of many ways to deplete an opponent’s library. This one is easy to see, but its lack of recursion tends to make it more of a novelty. But it gives you a way to get rid of a threat permanently.

Humility and the Orim’s Prayer means that unless your opponent plays some nasty combat spells like Overrun, you can never be killed until someone gets rid of either enchantment. (Personally, my Disenchant would hit the Humility.)

Then there are”finite” combos-the aforementioned Auratog/Rancor combination. These combos take advantage of a property of a particular card, and use it to the maximum extent. Decks like Enchantress builds and Psychatog Decks (yes, I know, it’s not really a ‘combo’ deck per se), that can ‘go off’ but usually have a limiting factor. For instance, Enchantress decks might run out of mana (granted, it’s going to be a very long time), and Psychatog decks are limited to the number of cards it can draw and pitch. As demonstrated, these decks tend to end the game when there are enough resources to pull off the finite combo. Illusions of Grandeur and Donate work on a similar basis.

And here’s where people tend to get touchy… Infinite combos. Super-happy fun things. Squirrel Nest and Earthcraft, Animate Dead/Worldgorger Dragon and a kill condition at instant speed, High Tide and Tolarian Academy decks (which are not infinite most of the time – but for all intents and purposes, are infinite), and my new pet, Life / Aggravated Assault.

Combo decks that don’t allow for others to react, or worse yet, even if they do react, are still forced to sit on the sidelines because of instant speed responses, or blue Counterspells, are generally frowned upon because the game for the combo player essentially becomes a game of solitaire. Play out the cards, and do your thing. Cast the occasional Counterspell or gain the occasional life, but otherwise you’re on your own.

Considering the previous article dealt with solutions to potential problems, one would think that I wouldn’t mind at all. But I do. And so do most people. Why is that? What is it that makes combo decks generally frowned upon? That question, we know the answer to-it’s exactly because someone is playing with Rosie Palms.

But where is the line drawn?

I think some easy criteria can be set in stone right now:

  1. Combo decks are bad when it leads to Rosie Palms. Magic is a game of interactivity, and no one likes not being able to do anything, or sit helplessly as things happen. (Incidentally, burn decks are maligned for this reason – what’s the point of playing creatures and enchantments when those are just going to be ignored, and you’re being attacked without regard?) When there is no interactivity, there’s no fun. It’s called Magic: the Gathering for a reason. It’s not Magic: let’s see who gets certain cards first.

  2. Combo decks are bad when they get infinite. No one will argue with someone playing UG Madness or Crystal Quarry/Legacy Weapon because card interaction is also at the heart of the game. But there are times when, for lack of a better phrase, things just shouldn’t happen. For instance: Intruder Alert, Voice of the Woods, and four other elves. Okay, granted – it’s not the easiest thing to get together, but when it does it will sorely test your group’s tolerance. Infinite mana to Capsize threats eternally, enough card drawing to get to the Counterspells you need, and unless you’ve got an Obstinate Familiar (and let’s be honest; who does?) in play, an uncounterable kill condition… Magic’s rules have limits well in place for a reason, and when people bend, twist, and contort those rules and limits… Something’s going to break.

  3. From here on in though, it gets very difficult. Is politics really enough at this point to allow combo decks? In some cases, maybe not. My friend playing Auratog/Rancor/cheap enchantments keels over to anyone playing Execute, or Terror, or Diabolic Edict, or any number of infinite creature removal spells. Abusing Rancor’s return to hand ability has its limits, after all, and relying on a single creature is generally shaky. And often, someone will be playing creature removal.

    But if someone manages to get Intruder Alert down with enough elves and Voice of The Woods, someone may not have that mass creature removal, and attacking with creatures is not feasible, unless you’ve got twenty power worth of evasion, or possibly more. Someone may not have enough burn, or enough mana to burn the opposing foe out, since turn 5 or sooner is pretty early point and time to have the resources to eliminate someone with an infinite amount of 7/7 tramplers. At this point, one can only pray that someone’s got a Wrath of God, Perish, or similar spell. This leads us to another point of criteria in combo”allowability”:

  4. Combo decks are bad when the power they provide is excessive. Allowing a player to break game limits is generally a bad thing. Mana, cards, creatures, heck, even land (which, in and of itself, becomes a source of mana)… The phrase,”everything in moderation” also applies to magic. Infinite life can be a win condition – but sickly high amounts of life, such as from Congregate, generally is used as a part of something greater: For instance, to buy time to get to a kill condition, or to work towards decking foes.

  5. Corollary to the above, a combo that is very easy to assemble is worse than one that is not. Two-Card combos are bad; Seven-Card combos are not. I won’t go into the statistics of that, and unless the Seven-card combo player gets the God hand, I am pretty sure that people will be able to eliminate the offending player.

So, in sum, combos are frowned upon when they 1) become non-interactive, 2) become abusive, 3) are excessively powerful. No one will try to stomp you into the ground for playing Morphling with a lot of control, I hope, but should you try something like Black LotusFireballChannel, you run the risk of bodily harm.

When, then, can combos be allowable? Obviously, we can draw criteria from the above three.

  1. Interactive combos are fun. Crystal Quarry/Legacy Weapon affects the board position, in a way that causes players to work around that. Do they try to ally themselves with you, or remove the Weapon from the game and gang up on you? Things that make the game fun, strategic, and most of all, interactive, are almost always allowed.

  2. Finite combos are generally allowable, especially when you have to work for them. The idea of Soulcatcher’s Aerie and bird decks are generally okay, despite the ridiculous possibility of a 20/20 or so flyer coming out for W. Why? Because the player had to work for that 20/20. Because the 20/20 isn’t something that kills everyone and everything just by existing. Because it’s hilarious to think that a lowly Suntail Hawk killed you. And on that note…

  3. Combos are generally allowable when they’re of a moderate power level. Zombie Infestation/Nefarious Lich/Confessor (a deck that saw play in my casual playgroup) was a deck that no one complained about. How can someone complain when part of the combo is a card that says,”If someone has a Disenchant, you lose?” Granted that as many zombies as your deck will allow is pretty scary, it kills you if someone plays a Disenchant. The power level of allowable combos varies from group to group.

Combos are not just about instant wins. They’re not always broken. But people have a preconceived notion about combo decks as a whole. I think that it’s pretty obvious that when someone refers to a combo deck, they refer to the kind that is overly abusive or infinite. Now that we’re done talking about the in-game mechanical aspects of not playing an abusive combo deck, let’s talk social factors.

In this case, peer pressure provides an initial barrier. Out of respect for fellow players, out of desire not to be excluded or hated, one tends not to bring combo decks. The golden rule applies here: treat others, as you want to be treated. A zany combo such as the aforementioned Nefarious Lich/Confessor/Zombie Infestation deck was allowed in our playgroup, and no one complained about it, because everyone loves new and funny ideas. Personally, style impresses me most. That deck certainly impressed me.

Politics in game become the second social factor. Do you like getting… ummm… gang banged every game? Do you like everyone focusing on you, and even conspiring to eliminate you? If you care at all about your friends’ and fellow players’ feelings at all, this is something to consider before you think about bringing that Squirrel Nest/Earthcraft deck.

Keeping in mind that playgroups vary in their opinion, now we are armed with concrete criteria by which to judge”allowable” decks. My group has not really explored the issue of abusive combos in-depth. There is a set understanding of what we can and should not do. Occasionally, someone will break that, such as when one of us brought a High Tide/Stroke deck. More of the same resulted when a Shadow deck emerged. I’m about to test those waters with my Assault deck.

So what do you think? Is my Assault/Life deck abusive? Would I get the snot kicked out of me at your kitchen table? I’ve done my best to set standards and criteria. The levels of tolerance and allowable levels are up to each individual group to decide. Though I am interested in what you think. Here’s the decklist and sideboard. Our multiplayer group focuses very much on creatures, though alternative win conditions exist as well. The format is vintage.

Asking for It

A Type One Casual Multiplayer Deck

The Combo:

4 Aggravated Assault

4 Life / Death

The Win Conditions:

4 Rolling Thunder

4 Fireball

Card Drawing:

4 Abundance

4 Sylvan Library

1 Burning Wish

1 Regrowth

1 Browbeat

1 Living Wish


1 Hull Breach

1 Spore Frog

2 Overmaster

2 Tangle


1 Shivan Gorge

5 Forest

6 Mountain

4 Taiga

2 Karplusan Forest

4 Forgotten Cave

4 Tranquil Thicket


1 Spore Frog

1 Maze of Ith

1 Thunderscape Battlemage

2 Overmaster

1 Hull Breach

1 Refreshing Rain

1 Savage Twister

1 Breaking Point

1 Hurricane

1 Earthquake

1 Firecat Blitz

1 Rocket Launcher

1 Sparkcaster

1 Insurrection

Some notes on my card choices:

Rolling Thunder/Fireball: These two divisible spells allow me to do several things, primarily target multiple players and play around things like misdirection or deflect, or abilities such as those belonging to Silver Wyvern or Quicksilver Dragon.

Shivan Gorge: Note that this also acts as a kill condition. With infinite mana, I can tap and untap this as often as I need to, getting around things like Aegis of Honor, Circle of Protection: Red, and other such things.

Browbeat: Until I obtain a Wheel of Fortune, this is the only red card-drawing spell worth its mana. Five damage brings people closer to non-combo kills, too.

Tangle: One of the best Fog effects out there, this leaves any attackers wide open to other players wishing to take advantage of the situation.

Refreshing Rain: Life gain for burn. The free casting cost is great.

Savage Twister, et al: Burning Wish targets for a more permanent solution when the Spore Frog and Tangle maindeck is not enough.

Firecat Blitz, Rocket Launcher, Sparkcaster: Alternate win conditions that are wishable in the first game, and can be brought in later.

Insurrection: So sue me, I like this card for the comedy and gasps of disbelief that usually result.

Thanks for listening, and hopefully this has been of some use to you.

John Liu

“Crystal Quarry? What in the world are you using that for?”