(This article was almost titled One Dozen Ei-Yi-Yi’s, but punning is a Bad ThingÂ™. )
Combos are cool card interactions that create synergy and win the game. Illusions/Donate is a combo.
Nonbos are combos that almost work, but are either to slow or too inconsistent to win anything – at least, not every match in a long tournament.
So, you ask, why should I read an article about combos that don’t work? Two reasons. First, knowing this may help you understand what a Regionals opponent is trying to do to you – at least in rounds one and two. These combos are good enough that people will try them. Second, I have wrongly called combos nonbos in the past.* That means that there is a chance that I have the core of a real deck, but it just needs a little tuning.
In other words, it’s possible I’m wrong in calling these nonbos. Given my record of predictions and what I have called combos in the past, that would be consistent.
Before getting to the nonbos themselves, I want to lay out the basic rules of combos. Whenever you find a new combination and build a deck around it, evaluate it against these rules. If it fails, then the deck probably will, too.
The Golden Rule of Combos: Don’t play bad cards.
Generally, if you never would play the card when you don’t have the combo, it is probably a bad combo. The pieces have to be useful by themselves. In some circumstances, one piece can be bad alone, provided the power of the combo, and of the other pieces, make up for it. (e.g. in Trix – Necropotence, Illusions of Grandeur, and Donate – Donate is bad by itself. However, the rest of the combo is so strong that it doesn’t matter.) But if your combo contains more than one card that would never make it in any other Constructed deck – and wouldn’t make the cut in a draft deck – you have problems.
What you hear when you have it wrong: “That is either some stupid combo deck or you are the worst deckbuilder ever!”
The Silver Rule of Combos: Three pieces, or Fragile Pieces, Make Garbage.
If you are trying to set up a multi-card combo, you have to make sure you can get it out and going before your opponent draws an answer. The likelihood your opponent will draw an answer increases with the more pieces you have to find. It also increases depending on how easy your pieces are to kill. Imagine a combo built around Treetop Village, Manakin, and Shifting Sky (making all creatures Red): any type of removal – land kill, enchantment kill, creature kill, artifact kill, -1/-1 effects, burn, Null Rod, Cursed Totem – anything** – kills the combo. How likely is it that an opponent will find at least one of those cards before that combo could go off?
What you hear when you have it wrong: “Smash that. Oh, did you need it?”
The Bronze Rule of Combos: Be faster than the metagame.
“I may not have been the fastest gun in the West, but I sure was the fanciest!” – dying words/punch line from an old Laugh-In sketch. [Ah Pete, do you really expect our audience to have any clue what Laugh-In was? – Knut] Right now, you need to test your deck against fast Affinity and Goblin Bidding with Skullclamp (and combo 10 below?). If you can’t go off before they off you, you need to reconsider your deck. That is true for any metagame – if you die to fast decks that are likely to be played (and what fast decks aren’t likely to be played?), you likely have a nonbo.
What you hear when you have it wrong: “In response to you dinking around, kill you.”
The Blue Rule of Combos: Find the pieces.
This is a derivative of the other rules – if you cannot find the pieces of your combo, you are too slow, or there are too many pieces – either way, you lose. It’s the Blue rule because, well, look at the major Type Two-legal tutors which can find combo pieces: Diabolic Tutor, Planar Portal, Merchant Scroll, Thirst for Knowledge, Arcanis, Fabricate, Read the Runes, Rush of Knowledge, Thoughtcast, Reshape, Concentrate and so forth. See a pattern here?
What you hear when you have it wrong: “Feel free to keep drawing until you find it. Meanwhile, please sign the match slip so I can get lunch.”
Okay, on to the Nonbos. I should note that I am only going to describe the combo itself, and some of the useful protective and other components. I am not always going to list the tutors and card drawing the deck would need, nor list the lands. You should be able to figure that out yourself.
The concept is pretty simple – Soul Foundry lets you make a creature at instant speed. This means that you can trigger the Rat’s discard or return to library ability during the draw phase, immediately after the opponent has drawn a card but before they can play it (unless it is an instant, of course.)
Aether Vial with three counters / Crystal Shard / Chittering Rats is another method of accomplishing the same thing, but it is less elegant. (Less elegant = more cards = less likely = even worse. Okay?)
Upside: The lock – especially with Chittering Rats – is pretty solid. It also creates an army of rats that should eventually win the game.
Down side: Soul Foundry costs four, and only works if you have the creature in hand. If you can live that long, great. If the opposing deck has lethal damage on the table, however…
#2 Nagato: Unblockable Swordsman (/super-enhanced sound effects on)
The engine: Sword of Fire and Ice on an unblockable creature.
Even a two-power creature, if it hits a person while equipped with the Sword, deals six damage and draws you a card. It can be a fairly quick clock.
Auxiliary stuff: The first step is choosing evasion creatures. In the current Standard, these include Covert Operative, Phantom Warrior, Sneaky Homunculus, and the new Bouncing Beeble – Neurok Spy. Of these, only Phantom Warrior is really playable, although the Spy is great if you are not up against the mono-green hate deck. After the unblockables, fliers are the best available evasion creatures, with Blinkmoth Nexus, Spire Golem, and Spiketail Hatchling your the best options. (Yes, I built and playtested this pile. Not great, but not dreadful.) Glacial Wall would really help.
Upside: Stifling the draw cards off a Clamp is sweet, and 4/4 unblockables are fun. Putting the Sword on even a Spiketail Hatchling is pretty good – it’s a four-turn clock.
(/super-enhanced sound effects off)
Get a creature into play, use staff to put on the bottom of your library, reveal a Darksteel Colossus.
Auxiliary stuff: Raise the Alarm and Blinkmoth Nexus create creatures without stalling the Proteus Staff. Chimeric Egg is another possibility. A final option is Lifespark Spellbomb, but that messes up the mana too much. Non-creature mana acceleration is good, so maybe Cloudposts and Talismans – Talismans for sure, both for the activation cost of the Staff and for counters and card drawing / Fabricate. Wrath of God is a great sweeper, and works wonders with both Darksteel Colossus (no effect) and Chimeric Egg (activate after the Wrath has finished resolving). Don’t make the mistake of running just one Colossus – you may want to be able to beat with one, then switch him for another, untapped one to block with. By the way, Keith showed me just how good Sculpting Steel can be in this deck: it copies opponent’s creatures, so you can activate the Staff and it makes another Colossus for a truly bargain price. It can copy the Staff, an artifact land, or a Talisman, if necessary. It can even be a Skullclamp – but remember that putting something on the bottom of your library is not putting it into the graveyard.
Upside: Darksteel Colossus is a pain to deal with, and this deck can get several in play quickly.
Down side: It is completely reliant on the Staff – and stuff like Damping Matrix just kills it.
#4: Infinite Ornithopters, Take One
The engine: Soul Foundry imprinting Ornithopter; Dross Scorpion, Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault. The combo is simple: make a Thopter, sacrifice it to Ravager, use Dross Scorpion to untap the Soul Foundry, repeat. They either die to the Disciple, or you have an infinitely*** large Ravager to beat down with.
Auxiliary stuff: You could add most of the pieces of a fast Affinity deck – although if you have that, I don’t know why you would want to play the Soul Foundry and Dross Skeleton.
Upside: It works. I guess.
Down side: It’s a four-card combo, built around fragile cards. It violates every single rule above. I’ve seen it work, but it still stinks. (This almost certainly means that this deck will be really big in months to come, but I can’t conceive of how.)
#5: Infinite Ornithopters, Take Two
The engine: Intruder Alarm, Aphetto Alchemist, artifact to create token creatures (Nuisance Engine, Riptide Replicator, Soul Foundry), Vedalken Engineer. The Intruder Alarm untaps the Alchemist, which untaps the token producer. The Engineer can power the token producer, if necessary. Infinite tokens.
Auxiliary stuff: You will be Blue, so Mana Leak works, and you could probably play Chrome Mox and Thirst for Knowledge and/or Fabricate. Thunderstaff can pump all the tokens, if you have something like Soul Foundry pumping out Ornithopters, or Nuisance pests. Coretapper can add a lot of counters to the Riptide Replicator, or put them on a Darksteel Reactor.
Upside: The Vedalken Engineer can power out the artifacts, and, if you have two, or if your token producer only costs one to operate (e.g. a Soul Foundry producing Steel Wall), then you can generate infinite Blue mana, which can be used to cast and power Memnarch.
Down side: Too many pieces, and too fragile. The combo also misses out on alternative ways to win. Aphetto Alchemist beatdown is not going to get the job done.
Okay, the last two decks are not really all that different, so I’ll count them as one and a half combos. Here’ a bonus combo framework. It’s not enough to count by itself – so call it the other half.
The idea is to bounce your creatures with great comes-into-play abilities, and lock your opponent using Chittering guys, or remove their creatures with Duplicant, and so forth.
Down side: The combo is slow and is very prone to being drawn at the wrong time. Rats are only useful if they have something in hand. Boomerang can help, but it isn’t much, not once they have the mana to cast whatever they draw. Remember, Shard is coming down turn 2 at best – assuming a Mox – and it is not going to be active until turn 4. Having this combo against a deck that can empty it’s hand is useless. The Duplicant / Shards thing is a limited trick – it is too slow for Constructed.
The Puzzlebox requires the player to put their entire hand on the bottom of their library, then draw that many cards. Rule of Law keeps the player from playing more per turn. Howling Mine gives them extra cards. Megrim hurts them when they discard.
This is a multiplayer standard. It is not, necessarily, a viable T2 deck, although the pieces are here.
Down side: The draw (take damage) and discard (take damage) deck has one main drawback – the opponent will almost certainly draw an answer, if they have one. That, and the fact that the combo has about thirty pieces.
#7: Dark Reactions
The engine: Darksteel Reactor and counters
Auxiliary stuff: You need some method of putting counters on the Reactor. I see three options:
1) Take infinite turns. I don’t see any practical method of doing this – aside from nonbo #12.
2) Infinite untaps with something like Intruder Alarm, plus a Coretapper. (Aphetto Alchemist, Coretapper, Nuisance Engine, Vedalken Architect, Reactor, counters, card drawing, Lightning Greaves, heck, Archivist or Arcanis. Too bad there’s no room for lands.)
Note: March of the Machines, modular dudes doesn’t work – yes, the counters get onto the Reactor, but they are +1/+1 counters, not charge counters. But you could always beat with the indestructible Reactor.
Upside: It’s pretty hard to get rid of the Reactor once it’s in play, and it will, eventually, win the game.
Down side: These decks have a lot of cards sitting around doing nothing but speeding up the win. I think you lose to anything that keeps dropping threats – even the eighteen land, forty-two Grizzly Bear deck.
The engine: Whispersilk Cloak to make stuff unstoppable, plus stuff.
Auxiliary stuff: You want to have creatures that can win the game by getting through unblocked. I have tried three different versions of this:
1) Mono-Red control, with Pyroclasm, Starstorm, Pyrite Spellbomb, Firebolt, Slith Firewalker (cool when he’s unblockable and untargetable), Juggernaut, and Vulshok Warboar (I also ran Detonate maindeck – maindeck artifact hate looks more and more important.) It worked, but wasn’t amazing. Unblockable Juggernauts are actually pretty good.
2) As part of a milling deck, with Raven GuildMaster.
3) With Black support, including lots of creature kill, plus Phage and Greater Harvester as the monsters under the cloak. Black support is pretty good. Black also has some morph guys that are okay when they deal damage to a player – and I’m not talking Ebonblade Reaper here. Actually, Headhunter and Greater Harvester are okay – too bad Akroma’s Vengeance is such a beating.
Upside: An unblockable Phage is a win condition. No question about that.
Down side: Building a deck that can take make that happen is another story. It costs a lot to cast Phage, and then equip her. Aether Vial is not the answer.
#9 I’m Indestructible!
The engine: Obliterate and Darksteel stuff
Upside: When it works, your opponents will be struggling for answers.
Down side:”When it works” is likely to be about five turns after your dead. Rumor has it the next deck goes off consistently turn 4. How fast can you cast Obliterate?
Auxiliary stuff: More Elves. Chrome Mox – just to make sure the deck isn’t cheap.
Upside: When I was playing beatdown Elf Clamp, I noticed how fast it seemed to rip through the deck. If you can get Tangleroot and Clamp in play, you should be able to storm for a ton. I haven’t tuned this a lot, but the theory works, and the deck seems to.
Down side: Any deck not running artifact destruction is in trouble already, so expect maindeck artifact removal. If that fails, then the deck can get hosed by instant speed creature kill – kill the creature in response to the Clamp activation, and you can stall the deck. The deck could also be vulnerable to cards like Echoing Decay killing the Birchlore Rangers, or Pyroclasm. Finally, watch out for Gilded Light in the MWC matchup.
(Note: I’m doing final edits on this, and I just noticed that someone posted a decklist for this on another website. He claims it kills turn 4, and has some tourney results to back that up. I may be lying when I say this is a nonbo.)
Mind’s Eye triggers when an opponent draws a card. If you replace that draw with Words of Waste, you can force them to discard during beginning phase, before they have an opportunity to play that card. Geth’s Grimoire means that you get to draw a card for free.
Upside: It is a pretty solid lock.
Down side: That takes forever to set up.
Auxiliary stuff: The trick is to get the Angel out, and get the artifacts into play, all in a fast format with artifact kill coming out the wazoo. Leonin Abunas might help. Four Holy Days might also help, since it could slow early beats, and Holy Day on a Scepter is a problem for many decks. So far, the deck is mono-White, so Wrath of God, and even Akroma’s Vengeance are options.
Upside: A single color, everything but the Final Fortune is useful without the other combo pieces.
Down side: They banned Tinker. Getting Platinum Angel into play is no picnic. That, and you have nothing to stop the opponent from casting Akroma’s Vengeance and smashing you. On the plus side, you do not have to cast the Angel first: imprint Final Fortune, cast it, then play the Angel on your next turn – but to Final Fortune again that turn, you do need nine mana.
So, do any of these combos really work? Some definitely do, at least against certain decks. Even powerhouses like Mono-White control have a problem if the Proteus Staff deck gets a turn 4 Colossus. If the elves really can kill turn 4 (I think so), they are good against everything but Pyroclasm and Goblin Warchief/ Goblin Sharpshooter… and maindeck artifact kill.
If you have a solid build of any of these, post it in the forums. That’s what they are for.
* Way back, when I worked with a team of pros, I identified both the Illusions/Donate and Pande-Burst combos before they saw play, but I didn’t get the decks fully developed before others broke them.
** Okay, not Turn to Dust.
*** Okay, okay, judges, settle down. Yes, technically, it’s not infinite, it’s arbitrarily large.