If William Shakespeare had been a Magic player instead of the legendary playwright that we know and love today, I daresay we would have heard him utter the fateful words around the Commander table:
“To combo or not to combo, that is thy question”
Recently I have been involved in a few discussions about the nature of and the use of combo decks in our beloved format. Combo decks and the use of combos are a difficult and a touchy subject with most players, and often create quite divisive arguments. Here at General Damage Control, we generally advocate several things. I’d like to highlight two of them:
- We believe that games are best played where there is an agreed social contract between the participants.
- We believe that the fun is in the journey of the game, not shortcutting immediately to the destination.
There are many points and positions that we take and discuss; however, the above two are our universal and fundamental positions as a group.
What is fun? Fun is a tricky thing to really define, but I’ll take a crack.
Fun is the derivation of a sense of pleasure and/or satisfaction from performing an activity.
I’ll let that sink in for a few minutes. Go on, take a break, have a coffee and absorb that one.
Good! Now that I have all of your attention again, let’s continue. This definition of fun allows that my sense of fun can be derived differently from yours; we could still be deriving that fun from the same activity, even though what we find fun can be very different. Part of the nature of the Social Contract is to find the balance in what you and the people you’re playing with find fun. We play our games of Commander to generate that fun, and we choose the people we choose to play with in the hopes of generating a situation where we can have that fun.
For some people, fun is simply ‘winning the most’ or ‘winning the fastest’. For others, it is ‘making cool things happen’ or feeling like their plays in the game mattered. For some, it is going to be the table talk. I’ve looked in the past at finding a mutual dynamic that allows your group to derive the maximum fun from a game, so I don’t feel the need to dredge that discussion up today; what I really want to talk about is a particularly divisive topic – combo decks – and how they relate to fun.
I hear all the time lines such as:
“Oh yay, the same boring combo again”
“Well if I knew I was going to play combo all night, I’d have brought a degenerate pile of cheese too”
Funnily enough, I don’t hear that with every combo deck. I do, however, hear this with one specific subset of combo decks. “A specific subset of combo decks?”, I hear you all exclaim in confusion?
Yes, a specific subset. There is much more to playing combo than meets the eye.
Takes One to Know One
I’ve outed myself on several occasions before: I’m a combo tragic. When I go to play Vintage, anyone who knows me counts another Storm deck in the room. I like working for my kills, and playing games where I have to choose the right sequencing of spells and abilities to chain together a path to victory.
Simply put, I love the adrenaline of playing a combo deck well.
However, when people make the statements I outlined above, often these decks are nowhere in sight. As such, I’d like to outline my categorization of combo decks:
The Monte: The Monte is a combo deck that engineers a repeatable and often infinite loop of events utilizing a discrete pool of cards. For example, one could combine Sensei’s Divining Top with Future Sight and Helm of Awakening to create a loop of draw triggers from the Top, and then replay it for free due to Future Sight and Helm of Awakening, thus giving you a discrete loop enabling you to draw your deck and produce an absurd amount of storm.
A Monte deck has at least one Monte combo; however, it is often packing several. A particularly canny Monte player will run synergistic Monte combos that allow the discrete puzzle pieces to interact with several other puzzle pieces; this allows for a degree of protection from offensive strategies like Sadistic Sacrament and other similar avenues of attacking resources. The Monte deck, however, will almost always have a linear game plan – one where the strategy is always to run out the Monte sequence and finish the game.
The Synergy Engine: The Engine is different from the Monte in that it does not rely on specific puzzle pieces locking together. In a Synergy Engine, the whole deck is one giant combo; each piece ideally should be able to softly perform in many roles, with each one played helping the progression of the deck to the next game milestone, and each milestone is yet another progression of the deck towards the endgame. The Synergy Engine is most commonly seen in competitive formats as decks like Eggs in Modern, Ad Nauseam Tendrils in Legacy, or (my preferred deck) Long in Vintage. These decks are all examples of where the deck plays sequences of cards to reach a critical mass before unleashing a killer card that is somehow fuelled by the previous stages of play. A familiar example of a Synergy Engine is my Riku of Two Reflections deck that I have recently been discussing.
The other side of the coin is a very different animal both in construction and execution. There is no room in a Synergy Engine for dead weight. Every card, more so than in a Monte deck, has to fill one or more roles. Unlike a Monte weapon, the Synergy Engine doesn’t need to rely on finding or tutoring up specific puzzle pieces. The Synergy Engine is a cardboard version of a big ball of putty; you can mold it and shape it depending on the situation. The play of a Synergy Engine deck may have a focused game plan with an overall linear strategy, but the deck will handle very differently depending on the nature of the pilot and what the game state is asking of it.
The Meat in the Sandwich
Why am I rambling on here about the structural and play difference between the different types of combo decks? Synergy Engines cannot just be randomly jammed into the shell of another deck, unlike a Monte. The puzzle pieces of a Monte only need to take up one or two slots, and often one of those slots is a tool that the deck would otherwise be running. This means that a Monte combo loop can be retrofitted into almost any deck with minimal design disruption or alteration to the core play of the deck. Think of it as a loop that can likely have constituent components tutored up with the existing tutor package in the deck. This makes for easy, ready access to finding and assembling the Monte combo. I don’t personally feel that this is a good or skillful way to play EDH, but on the flip-side, if your group likes and accepts this, by all means go have fun. All too often however, I hear the line “I’ve got an infinite combo in my deck for [insert reasons]”. These reasons range from ‘needing to police a situation’ to ‘needing to be able to end a game’ to ‘needing to be able to remove an unfun player’ right through to “I have this cool combo” and “it’s just what my deck does”.
To that end, I’d like to pose you all a few questions. Please think about your answers as if you were in game. You’ve added an instant-speed infinite combo to your deck that you can readily tutor up.
- You’re playing a fun game, it’s about turn 3 and you draw the combo. Do you play it?
- The game has been going on for an hour or so, there have been plenty of back and forth twists and turns and you get access to the combo. How about now – do you play it?
Okay…now, let’s try this:
- You’re staring down the barrel of an impending alpha strike by the biggest asshole at your LGS. Do you pull the pin and lob the grenade?
- Say it isn’t the biggest scumbag in the store…say it’s just an everyday alpha strike and you’re about to be on the receiving end. What about now?
If you didn’t, are you running a Monte instead of a Synergy Engine? If so, why?
Now, I’m not trying to make anyone feel judged…I just want to get you all thinking. I want you all to think about combo decks, what you run, and why. I personally feel that running a combo deck is a choice – as much of a choice as playing aggro or control. It’s a deck choice that suits your style of play and sense of fun. I prefer to run Synergy Engine combos over Montes, but do not get me wrong – I do run Montes in decks where the engine or the market I target them to is appropriate. However, I prefer to not run a Monte in most of my decks, no matter how easy it is to shoehorn in, and no matter how easily it would fit with existing tools in the deck. Why? Because I know I can’t resist that temptation. I know that I am going to reach for that nuke button. I know I’m going to respond to that threat with apocalyptic might, and I no longer find it fun to be on the giving or receiving end of a Monte (at least not all the time).
It all comes down to the social contract. If your group dynamic likes sudden game detonations? Sure, by all means. If they don’t and you’re packing that kind of heat…do you actually know why?
I’d love to hear from you guys, so can of worms…open: Go.