One Step Ahead – Playing Combo Is Hard

Gerry Thompson finds a gap in his Magic-playing game. He realized this while piloting U/R Twin at the SCG Open in Cincinnati. Why is combo trickier to play than other archetypes?

I’m not good at playing combo decks.

I had this sneaking suspicion for a while now. I used to play Meandeck Gifts in Vintage to pay my rent; I grinded out tickets with Mind’s Desire; and I even destroyed Extended with a tuned Dark Depths list.

Still, there has always been this nagging feeling when I’ve been playing that I wasn’t doing things quite right. You ever try to collect your thoughts after a match, and you feel like something went wrong somewhere, but you can’t pinpoint it? That’s roughly how I felt after every match I played at SCG Open: Cincinnati, regardless of win or lose.

As my article last week suggested, I played U/R Splinter Twin. I was grinding on Magic Online to some success, although not in the amount of something truly broken like Caw-Blade or Dark Depths. However, I could tell that I wasn’t playing optimally and that when I got to the event site, I’d be more comfortable, and my deck would be better tuned.

Well, I certainly believe the latter.

For this event, I didn’t feel like giving everyone my decklist. Drew Levin, my usual partner in crime, had his ship lured into the rocks by a seductive siren. That left my car mates, Matt Scott and Jonas Sinacola, and Jon Medina as the only ones who played the same decklist as I did.

I’d like to talk about Jonas for a second. Some of you may have heard that someone was robbed in the bathroom at SCG Baltimore, which is sort of true. Jonas went to do his business and had his head smashed into the wall by one of the two assailants.

He knew they were after his bag but chose to hold onto it and protect his already bloody face instead of giving it up. Jonas also knew that screaming for help would put them on a clock. They only had so little time to steal his bag before reinforcements arrived. They seemed to accept failure and ran off.

Jonas wasn’t done. He pulled himself together and ran after them. They split up, but he continued the chase. Later, when the police had one of them in custody, who was sobbing in the backseat of the squad car no less, Jonas was asked if he could identify the men who assaulted and attempted to rob him.

He pointed at the guy in the back seat and said, “Well, he wasn’t crying when I saw him before, but that’s one of them.”

A true American hero.

I determined that straight combo was likely better. I started with two Dispels, then moved to three, then happily moved to four. After that, I considered playing a Turn Aside, just as a fifth Dispel.

The narrow counters protected the combo, but by playing so many narrow cards, I wanted to be as combo-esque as possible. I didn’t want the game to go late, as my topdecks wouldn’t be very good. I needed to kill them quickly with Splinter Twin. There was no more Jace, and therefore, the long game didn’t seem appealing. If I wanted a U/R capable of going late, I’d play Pyromancer Ascension.

Shrine of Piercing Vision was amazing, and everyone who played the deck thought so. Clearly you don’t want to be “Shrine flooded,” so we only played three. This version of Splinter Twin is typically a turn-six combo deck. On turn five, you play a Deceiver with two Dispels as backup, and on turn six, you play your second Mountain and kill them.

In order to accomplish this, you need a Demonic Tutor-type card to find that Exarch, Twin, Dispel, or Mountain that you need on the last turn. Shrine isn’t perfect for this, but digging for 6-12 should get you one step closer.

With some Shrines in my deck capable of digging very deep, I felt comfortable playing a maindeck Pyroclasm and Twisted Image. Naturally, having See Beyond to shuffle away a dead card like Pyroclasm was another reason I could play them. The miser’s Mutagenic Growth in the sideboard was also because of these theories.

See Beyond is simply one of my favorite cards, especially in combo decks like this. As I said earlier, many of the combo pieces have diminishing returns. You definitely won’t mind shuffling in that second Splinter Twin you’re holding. See Beyond compares to Brainstorm in this regard.

Mid to late game, you will often flood out or be holding multiples of a certain combo piece. If you weren’t and still had gas, they’d probably be dead already. See Beyond is one of the few “cantrips” that lets you draw more than one card per turn. Sometimes you need to draw that Into the Roil and the Deceiver Exarch.

Mana Leak was something that I wasn’t impressed with or felt was entirely necessary, but something I played regardless. I felt naked without it, despite seeing it as nearly a dead card in several matchups, and not integral to the matchups where it was useful. I didn’t know if I was being insane, but I didn’t think Mana Leak was necessary.

My sideboard plan was another instance of me feeling like I had jumped off the deep end. I was worried about U/B Control. It gave me a few beatings on Magic Online, and I felt that with it performing well in tournaments and the articles being written about it, it would be a popular deck. Apparently I was wrong. U/B was nearly non-existent, so my sideboard was mostly a waste.

The fear was that they had a million cards that broke up my combo, so it was very rare that I could safely assemble it. Every turn they’d draw a useful card (except for their six-drops, which weren’t great), and I would draw a cantrip, dead Roil, or pseudo-dead combo piece. If I didn’t find enough See Beyonds to fix my hand, there was no way I was ever going to assemble my combo.

I tried to outdraw them somehow, but it didn’t seem to work. Jace’s Ingenuity was an easy thing to counter or make me discard with Duress. Their Jace Belerens were insane against me, while mine paled in comparison to theirs due to Creeping Tar Pit. It was a shame.

I knew that some people spliced Pyromancer Ascension with Splinter Twin, but that wasn’t groundbreaking or anything. Mixing the two decks didn’t make much sense, as the combo pieces don’t overlap, but then again, neither did Dark Depths. They simply ran off the same engines, so in that way, they were synergetic.

My problem with the idea of splicing the decks was that you were rarely going to trick your opponents by adding Splinter Twin to Pyromancer. They expected some six-drop or Deceiver Exarch, so their removal was staying in. However, making it work backwards was appealing.

U/B Control was the matchup where I feared my opponent’s removal the most, so taking out all of my creatures (and Twins) seemed like the perfect plan. However, how do you kill your opponent? Time Warp was absolutely pristine in the old versions, but we had no such luxuries. Modern Ascension decklists killed with burn spells, but I didn’t want to be siding in burn spells against my U/B opponents.

Finding two Call to Minds and going infinite was a possibility, and Shrine made it so that if you could only kill them with a single Burst Lightning, you wouldn’t lose due to it being on the bottom of your deck. However, I was a bit worried that: it would take too long, it would be tough to fight off their six-drops while I set up, and that even after “comboing,” I was vulnerable to discard.

To combat this, I decided that even though it was a worse card in general, I would play Elixir of Immortality instead of the Call to Mind plan. At that point, I most likely had to deck myself each time while looking for my finisher, but that was probably fine. I’d be able to chain enough cantrips into more Ascensions into more cantrips eventually. Playing Elixir over Call to Minds also saved me a sideboard slot.

Sure, my U/B opponents could still figure out what was going on and Memoricide or Surgical Extraction my Burst Lightning or Elixir, but I would be actively trying to play around those cards. They wouldn’t know what hit them until the very end of game two. Their first Memoricide was likely going to name Splinter Twin anyway.

Onto the actual tournament!

Round One: R/U/G Birthing Pod

I was able to see his hand with Gitaxian Probe early. That knowledge, combined with the fact that most Pod lists have very few interactive spells, meant it was safe to combo early.

Because he had very few spells that interacted game one, I predicted that he would sideboard in some number of hate cards. Genius logic, right? Well, if he couldn’t win game one, it seemed correct for him to be siding the “best” hate card against Splinter Twin, which was likely Combust.

With so few Dispel targets already, I wanted to cut most but decided to hedge and cut only two just in case he had Dispel or Nature’s Claims. The Mutagenic Growth was likely going to be key, as were the Twisted Images for Spellskites.

Oddly enough, he opted for Dispel and Nature’s Claims over Combust, and I lost game two with a dead Mutagenic Growth in my hand. Game three, I was able to defend myself from getting comboed, Roiled his Spellskite, Misstepped his Nature’s Claim, and Deprived his Dispel.

Round Two: Goblins

Game one, I assembled the kill with Dispel in hand and Mana Leak on top with a Shrine active and five mana. I could have Pyroclasmed his guys and ran Deceiver out there, but if he had a removal spell I would be dead in the water. He had a Goblin Grenade that I knew from an earlier Probe, so I couldn’t cast my Deceiver in combat.

I decided to go to nine from his attack and watched in horror as he played a fifth land and two Goblin Grenades. Perhaps Clasm and disregard Dismember was the better play?

Second game was more of the same. I was mostly stable and had Mental Misstep for his Goblin Grenade but not for his topdecked Goblin Bushwhacker.

Overall, the matchup is a pure race, and with Misstep, Pyroclasm, and Dispel, I think Twin is a favorite. This is the first of many matches I walked away wondering what happened, and I still can’t figure it out.

Round Three: Valakut

Turn four, you’re dead.

I let his Solemn resolve to play around his two Summoning Traps, Dismembered his Urabrask, and killed him after peeling Splinter Twin. I even had the Growth for his Combust, but he didn’t have any mana open.

Round Four: Grixis Twin

Both of our games were super strange. In the first, I ran a Shrine into his turn two Mana Leak, despite being able to wait a turn and force it through with Dispel. This seemed like a mistake, so when I drew one off a later cantrip, I decided to hold it and get value from my Dispel, but he nabbed it with a discard spell.

He ended up drawing all five of his maindeck discard while I continually pushed blanks to the bottom with Preordain but drew more blanks. After he stripped my two Into the Roils, I was left with three Dispel, Pyroclasm, and Twisted Image with Island, Island, Mountain in play.

We both basically played nothing the entire game. On about turn fifteen, he assembled the combo.

Second game was fairly normal. He allowed me to fight over his discard spells and then slammed down a Memoricide. I acted like it was a big deal, Roiled his Deceiver in response (since he knew I had it, and I had drawn a second in the meantime), and he predictably named Splinter Twin.

He whiffed.

I managed to assemble Pyromancer Ascension but burned my card drawing in doing so. He drew a Creeping Tar Pit and then dealt me 20 damage with it.

Both games ended super late with neither of us really casting anything of note.

At 2-2, I decided to drop. I played some games against Nick Spagnolo with Ascension while we discussed each U/R deck and which is better/worse. He looked to be having a lot of fun while playing, while I was scoffing at my hands with two copies of Splinter Twin.

I hopped in an eight-man after purchasing some cards from the wonderful people at StarCityGames.com and hoped to recoup a little value from the weekend. U/W Puresteel Paladin seems like a joke of a deck, and I crushed that easily in round one.

Second round I lost some close games to RDW, despite having a sideboard full of life gain spells.

Overall, the deck seemed good. Pyromancer is a weaker, sleeker version of Twin, with probably the exact opposite matchup percentages. I expect Twin to beat Tempered Steel and Valakut, while losing to U/B, but I expect Ascension does the opposite.

Going forward, I’m not sure what I’d play, although Shouta’s U/B Tezzeret deck looks promising. I’m not sure if cutting Kuldotha Forgemaster is correct, but I know that Shouta is all about playing a control game. If nothing else, I know that I’ll play his decks correctly.

Combo, for some reason, just doesn’t resonate with me. You watch someone like LSV play Swans, TEPS, TPS, or Elves, and he’s right at home. Granted, he seems to be right at home bashing people with Naya and Tempered Steel as well, but that’s beside the point.

I feel like whenever I’m playing combo, I don’t want to take risks. “I could go for it now with one Dispel as backup, but what if he’s got this or this? I can just wait a turn and use these cantrips to find what I need.” I’m not playing a control deck, yet I want to play the inevitability game, which is apparent once you see my sideboard.

Mostly, I need to figure out the rhythm of the combo decks I’m playing with. Elves was a breeze, but that was a different sort of combo deck. I feel like I’d be horrible with straight Dark Depths and probably didn’t play the Depths part of the deck well. I know for a fact that when I knew I was on the Thopter Foundry portion, I was playing well.

Casting Gifts Ungiven for Recoup and Yawgmoth’s Will was difficult too. I remember always wanting to wait until I had just one more counterspell. Deciding when to cast Doomsday and what to put in the piles was near impossible. If I didn’t mess it up one way, it was the other.

Replaying the games in my mind, I see that there are mistakes I’m making, but for whatever reason, can’t see the game that way when I’m playing.

Maybe I need to practice more; maybe I need to watch one of the DIs play; or maybe I need to give it up entirely. Regardless, I’m pretty proud of myself for realizing this is a limitation of mine that I need to work on.

For Sunday, I was going to play High Tide. The deck seems to be getting no respect, but I’d seen a couple cool lists online and decided that it was time for a comeback. I remember beating everything that wasn’t Hymn-ing me, and virtually no one plays that card anymore. Despite having Mental Misstep, I’m certain that my U/W matchup was good, and that was probably reason enough to give it a shot.

Mental Misstep plus a clock kind of scares me. Mental Misstep and a Mishra’s Factory certainly does not. I have my own Missteps, and overall, probably more counterspells than they do. Inevitability favors High Tide, and therefore, I feel like High Tide has the edge.

Unfortunately, I slept in. Not only did I disappoint myself, but also a friend of a friend who scrambled to get the deck together for me, plus the two Candelabras that Matt Scott needed for his copy. Instead, Matt and I decided to donate some money into the Draft Open prize pool.

If you’re looking for some advice as to what you should be playing in Standard, you’re out of luck. If you figure that one out, let me know. It seems like nothing has a huge edge over anybody else, so just like I said a few weeks ago, play whatever you want!

I, for one, am going to stick with playing what I know.