Unlocking Legacy – Combo: The Missing Link

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Today, Chris talks about the combo season that never came, and where the Combo archetype is currently sat. He also discusses the effect this has had on Goblins and what that deck might look like post-Lorwyn.

I. Where’s the combo?

Combo has always been the least popular of Legacy’s archetypes. Given the high profile and serious attention given to Combo decks in all other competitive formats, it is surprising to see a disproportionate amount of attention given to the archetype in such a large card pool. Control, Aggro, and Aggro-Control have all had vigorous development and significant popularity regardless of their strength, but Combo has never been as popular. Legacy was dominated for a long time by an Aggro deck, which ostensibly should have motivated Combo to develop and succeed. No matter what level of familiarity of Legacy you have, there are reasons to be genuinely curious about this phenomenon.

Some regular tournament players may be so used to this that it seems unremarkable, so let us look at the format’s development with Combo specifically in mind.

II. Why is this unusual?

Despite my criticism of the DCI’s decisions and policies regarding Eternal formats, I was very happy when they announced their program for the new 1.5, and I approve of their objectives for the format. The banned list has its problems, but the fundamental strategy behind its construction was very clever and I agree with the principles.

When the format was still new, many players were paranoid about the possibility that Combo decks would crush the format. They looked at the potential power of unbanned cards, but did not consider seriously the bannings that were going to happen. The DCI has constructed a very elegant balance of powerful cards such that there was and is no danger from degenerate combo decks. From years of experience watching Extended and Vintage, the DCI had found an innovative solution to the power problem: they decided to unban almost all of the powerful mana sources, and ban the cards which interact in broken ways with them. Cards that are allowed in other formats due to modern standards for mana acceleration would never be allowed in Legacy – for example, Mind’s Desire was very successful in Extended recently, but this card would be completely unfair in Legacy. The reason is that other formats have moderate restrictions on mana and card advantage engines, whereas Legacy has harsh restrictions on card advantage, but light restrictions on mana acceleration.

For combophobes, all of the new mana was cause for concern – decks could play full sets of Lion’s Eye Diamond, Dark Ritual, and Chrome Mox! But just as the DCI planned, there was nothing broken to cast with all of that mana. Without danger of the broken card advantage generators, the mana acceleration was fair, and with the huge card pool, there were sure to be viable Combo decks in the format. However, they were not investigated intensely or by many players. The delay in the development of these decks and their unpopularity were certainly unexpected.

Shortly afterwards, Goblins became both the most popular and most successful deck in the format for an extended period of time. As a Goblins pilot, I was acutely aware of the weaknesses of my deck and the potential for Combo decks to capitalize on the ubiquity of Aggro, but this coup never occurred. My best builds of the deck played only mana disruption in the maindeck, and from four to eight combo disruption cards in the sideboard. I say this to demonstrate just how vulnerable the deck was in the Combo matchup, as Goblins was unable to form a consistent strategy against Combo decks. I played through many Combo matchups in tournaments, and I was never comfortable with the lack of control the deck had over the game. I won many of these matches due to mulliganing and strong draws, but had the popularity of Combo decks been appropriate to the consistent success of Goblins, this would have been a disastrous weakness. The rarity of Combo decks at tournaments was even more surprising than the lack of interest in developing them. I expected to see change right after Goblins started to dominate, but this development would be a long time coming.

The introduction of Time Spiral block began to change the dynamics of the format. Combo decks received new mana acceleration and win conditions, and Aggro-Control received several strong threats. Gradually these decks developed and incorporated new cards, and by the end of the block, the risks of playing Goblins in tournaments began to have a serious effect on its performance and popularity. I have more experience with Goblins than any other deck in this format by far, so I did not want to retire the deck, but I knew the risks of playing an Aggro deck would become too significant to be defensible. The new technology turned out to be much better for Aggro-Control than for Combo decks, and so far they have seized most of the power vacated by Goblins. Despite this, there is still much room for Combo decks to develop, particularly in a slower environment that is also seriously focused on dealing with Tarmogoyf.

In what seems to be a continuation of the last year’s additions to the format, Lorwyn is currently giving both Combo and anti-Combo strategies a boost with several strong cards, including Ponder, Thoughtseize, Thorn of Amethyst, and Gaddock Teeg.

Let us return to the fundamental design problem of storm Combo decks – what are you going to do with all that mana?

III. Storm Combo

At the moment there are two main responses to this problem. The first is quite simple: cast one expensive threat that can end the game in relatively few turns. The deck that takes this approach, Belcher, has a very high mana ratio, and is very fast, but it is often vulnerable to countermagic:

One of the biggest problems this deck faces is the cheap disruption played by Threshold decks. The free counterspells buy the deck enough time to resolve more serious threats or draw more disruption. However, I think Belcher has enough speed and threat diversity (as well as a dedicated sideboard) to force aggressive mulliganing and maintain decent strength against Aggro-Control.

A second answer to the Combo question is a series of small investments of card advantage and mana generation. The next deck takes advantage of strong disruption cards and efficient draw and tutoring. The deck is slower than Belcher, but it has much more control over the game, which it uses to build up a critical mass of spells and mana to force through a win.

I think the use of Orim’s Chant is superior to previous disruption plans, as it is a strong baiting tactic against control while being very good against other combo decks. The popularity of Counterbalance decks makes the use of Dark Confidant appropriate, which the deck will usually have enough mana on turn 1.

I think this deck could successfully incorporate Thoughtseize into the sideboard as an answer for problematic continuous effects, such as Gaddock Teeg.

IV. Non-Storm Combo

Non-storm combo has been infrequently played, the most notable example from older tournaments being the Salvagers archetype. Before GenCon this year, my teammates and I rebuilt Cephalid Breakfast and made some significant improvements to the main strategies and sideboard plan. Since then I have made some additional changes to the deck. Portent, which was already a very strong card for Threshold, and good enough to be run here as well, has been obsoleted by a stronger version of the card, Ponder, which will certainly replace the cantrip in both of those archetypes. I have also put the Abeyances in the maindeck:

I would cut the Eladamri’s Calls for any large tournament, due to the dangers of unpredictable removal strategies. When I took this deck to tournaments, I lost many first games to removal that I could not either discard or bounce before I was forced to go off. Umezawa’s Jitte in particular is a card that is extremely difficult to play through without Abeyance, but there are others that are likely to show up in tournaments. Cabal Therapy helps protect the Ghoul once the deck goes off, but it is less likely to help you start the combo in the first place. Abeyance can protect the combo from the majority of dangerous cards, and is also useful against all other Combo decks.

Last month I speculated about the emergence of a B/R Goblins deck. Since I’m discussing the application of Lorwyn cards, let me follow up on that and sketch out a list:

One of the best new cards for this deck is Boggart Mob, which is an amazing fit. It deals with the weenie problem nicely, comes down off a weak Aether Vial setting, only costs four mana, and even has synergy with the draw engine of this deck. Another convenient addition is Thorn of Amethyst, which costs two mana (typically a gaping hole in the curve), is strong against both Combo and Aggro-Control, and allows this deck to execute a normal aggressive strategy without interference.

The sideboard is clearly geared to deal with the important matchups, namely Combo and U/G/R Threshold. Leyline of the Void is excellent against Breakfast, Threshold, and any Combo deck that will attempt to use Ill-Gotten Gains as a shortcut to victory. The strength of Cabal Therapy depends on your familiarity with the opponent’s deck and good reads, but it is crucial for dealing with hate cards and early kills. Dralnu’s Crusade is old tech, and is just a way of dealing with Pyroclasm and Engineered Plague.

I still think Goblins is a high-risk deck, but I would work on this shell were I to consider it for a serious tournament.

V. What else is there?

There is still a great deal of room for both innovation and optimization in the existing card pool. There are several Combo decks that could become very competitive with further development. Two of the more promising decks are those built around Aluren and Ill-Gotten Gains.

Aluren plays a lot of strong cards, but the combo requires at least three pieces, and the deck uses very little mana acceleration. This deck may be comparable to Cephalid Breakfast, the main difference being that Aluren’s cards are slower and more expensive but the combo is more difficult to disrupt. Unfortunately for Aluren, playing the best deck with efficient disruption and slower win conditions is likely to lead to Threshold instead.

Another deck I have not discussed is the Tendrils deck based around Lion’s Eye Diamond and Ill-Gotten Gains. This is a powerful engine that can race almost any deck, but it has had problems beating cheap disruption strategies, exactly the defense that the current defining deck of Legacy uses. The four-color storm combo archetype has progressed from two directions: one fast, fragile deck and one slower, more resistant deck. I believe these two strategies will continue to converge. Ill-Gotten Gains has been played as a one or two-of in most storm decks in Legacy, while the IGG archetype has begun to adopt the win conditions and disruption of other decks. I think this area of development will produce some strong results in the future.

These are just two examples of established archetypes with development and moderate success. There are likely to be more engines already within the card pool, and certainly there will be new Combo tools in future sets. However, Combo is a difficult archetype to design and play properly, and continually re-evaluating the decks requires even more effort.

I think this is the archetype with the most unfulfilled potential, and for that reason I suggest that designers pay more attention to it, in the interest of succeeding in competitive environments. Worlds is six weeks away, and there is a clear opportunity for an innovative Combo deck to surprise the tournament.

Christopher Coppola