What is combo?

You may think that is a strange question. We all know what a combo is, right? It is a combination of cards that do something… erh… wild? Something that wins the game? Cards that work well together? Winning without using the attack step? Something unexpected? A combination of cards where the effect is greater than the sum of its parts?

Nope. The definition is not really clear. So today I want to try and come up with a definition on the question: What is combo? It will not solely be about Old School – it should be more general, and I will use examples from other formats (even though, surprisingly, most of the examples can actually also be found in Old School – it continues to amaze me how complex the game is even when you just play the first couple of card sets).

I know defining combo is a rather narrow subject, but I find it interesting that most of us use the term combo or combo deck, and we all have a rather stern idea about the meaning. But there is no very good, clear definition out there – at least none I have found.

Before you read on, I would just like to say: If you only have time to read one article on combo in Old School, you should probably click here, and read the one by Stephen Menendian instead of my scriblings.

Menedians article is a great and well-researched article of some of the earliest combo decks in the history of our game. But even the great Magic writer and scholar Menendian can’t seem to define combo. He writes:

Combo, unfortunately, suffers not only from greater ambiguity in what that appellation describes, it lacks a universal set of markers such as those generally found in Aggro or Control strategies, and therefore describes a much more diverse, if not broader, set of strategies.

The origins of the term “combo” as applied to Magic decks is lost to the sands of time (and I have searched!), but it almost certainly arrived as a shorthand for “combination.”

So, combo is short for combination. That is the etymology of the word, but it cannot be the definition, because when you play Magic, you only ever make combinations of cards. Unless you play a zero-cost card, you will at least have had to make the mana to play your card. Thus combining mana producer with card: a combination.

Let’s see, if we can come up with a definition that clearly describes what we talk about, when we talk about combos. Brace yourself for a very long read – with some pictures, but still!

Some definitions

First I would like to go through some of the definitions of combo, I have found scouring the Interweb. There is a vast amount of slightly differing definitions. Here I will try to go through some of the most common amongst the ones I have stumbled across:

“A combo refers to cards that interact with each other in a way that’s significantly stronger than the sum of their parts. For example, a single Pestermite by itself isn’t very impactful. A single Splinter Twin by itself doesn’t do anything. However, these two cards in combination create an infinite number of creatures. That interaction is significantly stronger than the two cards individually.” Link

A combination of cards, where the effect is stronger than the sum of its parts. This is one of the most used definitions, I have seen, which makes sense seeing that Wizards themselves use it. Of course, the above citation is correct, but I can’t help to think that the definition is both too broad, and too unspecific. What does it even mean that the effect is greater than the sum of its parts? By following that definition, would this be a combo:

I guess many would consider this a combo. But how is combining these cards greater than the sum of the individual cards? Show and Tell simply cheats a great card into play. A card that would often, otherwise cost you a lot of mana. Is that the greater effect? Isn’t it just the actual effect?

Then what about this:

These are widely considered a combo. But how is the effect of combining them greater than the sum of the parts? Again: Channel is just a card that enables cheating. It is thus a card that is often very good.

If the above is a combo, then what about this:

I know it is slower, but if the effect of Channel and Fireball is greater than the sum of its parts, then why isn’t it the same deal with Channel and Dragon Engine? Maybe not as greater but still…

Okay. I may simply have trouble understanding what “an effect greater than the sum of its parts” actually means. In a game of combining components (cards) where the components cannot change, I simply don’t get it. If the text of a card could change when combined with a specific other card, then I would say we get closer to a greater effect than the sum of its parts, but it would still be static, in the sense, that it is always written right there on the card. I don’t know – I don’t like this definition…

In another – older – article (or actually article series) by Mike Flores, also on Wizards’ homepage, the definition is slightly different. Mike Flores writes: “… a combination (…) is a set of cards that, when played together, either wins or de facto wins the game discretely.” See, here he introduces the “wins the game”-clause. This is also something that we will have to talk more about later, because I often see this as one of the very defining core parts of combo: They win you the game. Maybe not on the spot, but they put you so far ahead that you will probably always win if you manage to assemble your combo. This differs in a significant way from the “effect stronger than the sum of its parts” definition, because many combinations of cards could potentially have a stronger effect, than the sum of the parts, without actually winning the game.

I think Mike Flores gets very close to the definitive definition of “combo” in Magic. But I still don’t think he quite nails it. It seems kind of… endless, maybe? The “set of cards” seem so vast. But we will get back to this too.

Combo – Short for ‘combination’.

Card combination: Any combination of two or more cards which produces a beneficial effect, designed to gain an advantage over the opponent.Link

This is simply a way too broad definition. I would argue that every time you combine two or more cards, it is designed to gain an advantage over the opponent – at least if you try to win the game. Basically everything we do from the start until the end of a game is designed to gain an advantage. This definition is closer to defining a synergy, which is a related term, but not the same. More on this later.

Combo is a strategy which seeks to ignore traditional gameplay, in favour of assembling a combination of cards which have an overpowering interaction – frequently one which will win the game instantly.Link

This one is interesting! In this definition a combo is a strategy – not just a combination of cards. With this definition we are changing the scope from simple combos to combo decks. The first is a word to describe a certain interaction between cards. The second is a strategy. There is a very important difference that I will get back to several times in the following. As a definition for a combo deck, I think the above is actually rather good. But it also lacks something. For example; what on earth is “traditional gameplay”? As Steven Menedian writes in the aforementioned article, combo decks have been around since the inception of this game!

”Combo deck: A deck or archetype which uses a combo as its victory condition. The deck is designed entirely for the purpose of setting up and protecting the combo.” Link

From the same page as the “beneficial effect designed to gain an advantage” definition of combos, here is a shot at a definition of a combo deck. On the surface, it may look like a rather precise definition, but later I will argue, why a combo deck does not have to contain any actual combos.

“Combo decks use the interaction of two or more cards (a “combination”) to create a powerful effect that either wins the game immediately or creates a situation that subsequently leads to a win. Combo decks value consistency, speed, and resilience: the deck should be reliable enough to produce the combo on a regular basis, the deck should be able to use the combo fast enough to win before the opponent, and the deck should be able to withstand disruption and still win.” Link

I think this is way too long, and it suffers from some of the same problems as some of the definitions above. But at the same time, it has some interesting elements, especially the focus on speed.

Right, enough of this! There are many more definitions to be found around the web, but these were some of the most interesting I found. I haven’t found any, which does not share some traits with the above mentioned. My definitions will also share a lot of traits, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Some thoughts on combo(s)

Combo is probably the most feared archetype in the game of Magic the Gathering. Nothing makes players’ spines having chills running down them, like knowing they are up against a combo deck. I think this has something to do with the fact that combo decks often have a tendency to make sudden explosions, just killing people. It is difficult to fight a combo deck, because they are vicious monsters attacking from different angles, than what you are used to. A wall is no match for a combo.

When you are up against a combo deck, you basically have one of two choices: Either you race, killing the combo player faster, than he kills you (and this often means FAST); or you try to hold up some mana and cards to make sure, the combo never happens – you disrupt your foe like green lasers to the eyes. In reality, you have to combine the two choices to beat finely tuned combo decks.

This element of speed and surprise has to be part of the definition.

Combo is also often hated on. Combo decks have a tendency to be very non-interactive, and thus not what many people expect from an interesting, fun game of Magic.

I have played many different kinds of combos and combo decks throughout the years. Actually, as I have mentioned several times in other posts, I primarily play combo decks or other decks that don’t need the attack phase to win. So I have a lot of experience playing combo. But it was not until last year I really started thinking about, what “Combo” actually means. What it is. What constitutes a combo? When is a deck a combo deck, and when is it simply a deck containing a combo? These and more are some of the questions I will try to answer, on the path to actually defining combo in a sentence.

Back in July 2020, I was invited by Simon “I Sleep to Dubsteb” Rokkjær, to talk about combo in Old School Magic on his Channel Simon Says (https://www.youtube.com/watch?fbclid=IwAR1MJS0rJaOxZZV1ElI-Wioxa5HnWowX5LVJ8n70vcOUhBN61JtRemXCyO0&v=zQvTPcWJx6I&feature=youtu.be). Please watch the episode, and make sure to like Simon’s channel.

I oozed of my apparent wisdom on the subject for about an hour. It was – in my humble opinion – an interesting discussion (at least for me), and it helped open my eyes to the fact, that this really isn’t a very easy question to answer.

Notorious TeamTron member, Henrik “Has-Never-Been-Defeated-In-Old-School-Magic-In-Denmark” Storm and I, tried to boil down a definition, but the closest we ever got was something along the lines of: “A synergy between two or more cards, that is easily disruptable.”

I don’t think that is very precise nor a very useful definition, because by this definition you will open a way too broad aspect of the game to being combo. For example:

This is not a combo, in my view. But it is a synergy (albeit very slow and clunky) between two cards, and it is very easily disrupted (for example by a Swords to Plowshares or any Artifact destroyer).

What is a combo?

Is this a combo:

Why is it different from Channel – Fireball? The first one is only three cards, it kills in one blow. The second is globally considered a combo. Both of them kills in one blow, when you are properly set up.

Right, the Djinn costs six mana, so it is rather slow, whereas the Channel-Fireball-Lotus can be done on turn one. But what if we add a Concordant Crossroads to the mix?

This is not easy… It is still slow, but imagine a situation where you actually have a game-state where you can produce the UURRGG4 mana needed to play this in one turn. Is it a combo? “Of course not!” most of us would say. But why not? It kills out of the blue. It kills in one turn, and it only requires four different cards (besides mana).

But what about this, then; Is this a combo:

Many would probably say (or even scream) yes, but I would actually argue it is not. This is just two cards that function well together. But they won’t win you the game singlehandedly. At least not more than playing a Time Walk.

There is great synergy between Twiddle and Time Vault, and thus they can be the core of a Combo Deck. On the other hand Time Vault enchanted with Animate Artifact and Instill Energy is a combo, because when you combine those three cards, you win immediately.

There is a small but significant difference between synergies and combos. Synergies could be the star of another post, but for now, let’s just define a synergy like Wizards themselves do: “Synergy refers to cards that work well together and enhance the value of each other. Decks that are high in synergy are sometimes combo decks, but not always. For example, Goblin Tribal is a synergistic deck, but not a combo deck.

What is a combo deck?

A very interesting thing about combo decks is that they don’t need to contain any combos. Storm decks are the best example of these kinds of decks. In Old School, Underworld Dreams decks are probably the best example of combo decks without any combos, but also – as I have just argued – Twiddle-Vault decks.

A Dreams deck simply wants to field one or more Underworld Dreams, and then play as many Timetwisters, Wheel of Fortunes, Winds of Change and Howling Mines – basically the rest of the cards in the deck – as possible. But that is not a combo, I’d say. At most, it is a synergy between Underworld Dreams and cards that make the opponent draw cards. And that is almost squeezing it. Really, it is close to Underworld Dreams just being a “combo card” in and of itself.

A combo deck can, of course, contain one or more combos. For example the PowerMonolith Deck, who’s primary purpose, is to assemble Basalt Monolith and Power Artifact to make infinite mana and kill the opponent with a Fireball, a Braingeyser or a Rocket Launcher. These combo decks often look a bit different, and they can look a lot like control decks, because you want to protect your combo at all costs.

And the number of cards actually involved in the combo is often lower than in combo decks without combos. Don’t believe me? Let’s have a look at two decks then:

This is a combo deck without any combos. The core of the optimal build of this deck, will almost always contain at least 3 Time Vault, 4 Twiddle, 4 Howling Mine, 3 Sylvan Library and 3 Recall, 1 Fireball.

For this deck to function optimally, the core only has to be 4 Basalt Monolith, 4 Power Artifact and 3 Fireball.

The same, I’d argue, is true for a MirrorLich deck with relatively few core cards, but a combo in the center, and for example Enchantress Combo or Underworld Dreams combo, where almost all the cards in the deck are core cards that are very difficult to remove.

But then, is this a combo deck?

(these are, unfortunately, not my cards. The deck belong to Niels Thiim, whom I have promised to mention that he has, since this picture was taken, upgraded a lot of the cards to even sexier versions)

In the aforementioned Twitch discussion, at first I said “yes, it is a combo deck.” But then I gave it some more thought, and arrived at the conclusion, that it really isn’t a combo deck, it is kind of a control deck filled to the brim with synergistic cards.

Now, after doing some more research and thinking about the definitions on combo and combo decks, I still think that is the case. Living Plane + Falling Star is not even a combo. There is just great synergy between the two cards.

Then what about burn?

A burn deck is defined by being very non-interactive, and it has a very linear playstyle, where the only plan, is to shoot fire and lightning at the opponent, often winning the game very quickly. But I would argue that a linear game plan does not necessarily equal a combo deck. A lot of aggro decks also have linear game plans a la: play creatures turn 1 and 2; removal and creature turn 3 and so forth.

But what about decks containing a combo? Are they by definition combo decks? I would argue no. Consider this deck:

Looking at it, I would never define it as a combo deck, but I would most certainly say it contains a combo, namely Channel+Fireball.

But the thing is that the inherent combos are not the prime focus of these kinds of decks. (Not even in that strange monstrosity above, where I even added a lot of creatures with a colorless casting cost to make Channel stronger). This is important because it underlines a key part of defining what combo decks are, and how to easily recognize them: A combo deck is built around the combo, and often has a very hard time winning if unable to assemble the combo.

I will just show you two very similar decks, to underline my point the last time. And because these are AB60 beauties!

There is not a lot of difference between the two, but the latter has a very narrow focus on creating a lot of mana and killing the opponent with an x-spell. The first is rather a ramp deck that contains more than one road to victory.

Conclusion and a hit on a definition

That was a lot of words on a very specific topic. I actually want to do even more words on this topic at one point – I want to write a book! Well, when my kids (5 and 1½ years old) are moving out, I will. Until then I will try to give my definition on what combo actually is.

A short disclaimer before the below sentence in italic: As I wrote in the intro of the article, many Magic players have very stern ideas as to what constitutes a combo. I know it is impossible to make a short, clear definition that we can all agree on. My definition is the result of a long thought-process of which I have highlighted the most important parts above. I hope you can follow my argument, and I would love to hear, why you think I am horribly wrong.

Here goes. A combo is:

A combination of two to three cards, unintendedly creating an immediate game-winning situation.

I admit it. This definition creates some problems. For example Lich and Mirror Universe is not really immediate, as you have to wait until your next upkeep until you are able to throw your opponent into the alternative universe, but I’d argue it is a combo. The same problem arises with Show and Tell and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. You get an Emrakul onto the board, but have to wait a turn to attack. But Sneak Attack and Emrakul is a combo by this definition. It is not obtimal.

So what do I mean by “unintendedly”? Well, I don’t mean unintended by the player – but unintended by the designer of the card. I think almost all two or three-card combos in the game are based on unintended design or simple blunders. I know, I know; who am I to judge such things? No one is who I am. But think about it! Can you name a card that is part of a two or three card combo, that is not in some way completely absurd? I mean absurd when compared to things written in – I don’t know – the Comprehensive Rules? Often when talking about combos, people mention the ability to “cheat”. Channel cheats; Show and Tell cheats; Power Artifact cheats and so on. That is what I mean.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Bloodlust-mm.jpg
Nope, not a combo. There is nothing unintended in winning by a combination of these three cards

So why is the “immediate” part necessary? Well, I think it is necessary to really portray the nature of combos. A combo or combination of cards you build up over several turns, will almost always loose one of the most defining characteristics of combos: They are sudden; they surprise people; they come out of nowhere, and you will be dead, if you don’t have any disruption ready at the exact moment. This is also why Prodigal Sorcerer – Living Plane is not a combo. It is a synergy. It can win you games. But it cannot win you games immediately. Then what about Goblin Sharpshooter – Living Plane? That is a combo, I’d say, as it lives up to all of the above criteria.

So how does my definition differ from Mike Flores’ above? Well, aside the unintended part, primarily through the introduction of a cap of cards. A combo cannot be more than three cards. Flores’ definition is just “a set of cards played together.” A cap is necessary if we want a precise definition, because otherwise crazy absurd situations as the one I mentioned with Mahamothi Djinn with Berserk, Fork and Crossroads would be covered. And that is simply not a combo. Should it be four cards? Maybe, but I think it broadens the term too much.

Please let me know, if you can think of a better wording.

Unfortunately, no. This is not a combo either. Even though it is sassy!

The definition of what a combo deck is, is much easier, I think. A combo deck is:

A deck who’s main focus is finding and playing specific cards in a specific order, in order to win the game.

This one is, in my humblest opinion, spot on. Here there are no really interpretable words. I think it has to be “main” and not “sole” focus, because most Combo decks have secondary win conditions. Even a very single-minded combo deck like PowerMonolith has a secondary win in simply burning the opponent to death with one or more Fireballs. Several times, I have even naturally Braingeysered people to death. As mentioned above, these win conditions are often very secondary and the pilot will only revert to using them, if he has exhausted all possibilities to complete his or her main combo.

This definition also excludes Burn decks from the club of combo decks, because burn decks do not have to play their cards in a specific order. Dredge Decks are on a balance in regards to this definition, because you have to get a card with dredge in the Graveyard, and doing so often requires you to have some kind of discard outlet, but there are so many different cards, that all solves these problems, that it is almost like burn, in the sense that you don’t have to play them in a specific order. In a Dredge deck, you almost consider the discard outlet as a land (in Vintage Dredge it IS a land…).

I have worked on this article for quite some months now. It is a write-up of some of my thoughts for the last year or so. I hope you have enjoyed it! I know I won’t please all with my definitions, and I concede that it is probably impossible to agree on a concrete definition on this very vast subject.

I am really looking forward to hearing your definition of what a combo or combo deck is.

Thank you for following my (long) thought-process on this very specific topic!

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