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100 Combo Decks in 20 Weeks

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Hello, Nation! Welcome to my last Magic article for 2012. It’s a sad thing, I know. Earlier this week, I spent seven hours on the Core Set Challenge results, and it needs more time, so instead of submitting it today, we are going to start this a bit sooner. I had intended for this to be the first article of the year and for the Core Set article to be the last, but it’s a large project with many results.

The rumor is that I love building decks. A few weeks ago, I was browsing Gatherer. I was trying to find some cards for a deck I was considering. While I was doing it, I came across Lure. I remembered the old Lure plus Thicket Basilisk decks that would also toss in Regeneration. I asked myself a thoughtful question: Was that a combo deck or not?

With a quick train of thought that led to a few new tracks, I realized that a project to build a bunch of combo decks in real life would be pretty keen, nifty, and cool. I originally had the idea of making this 100 Combo Decks in 100 Days. It had a cool title!

I pondered it for a couple of weeks and sent out an e-mail to Adam. He made some helpful comments. I also came to realize that one hundred days might be a bit too fast for the articles. If I had an article published on this every two weeks, that would be fourteen decks per article, and that’s a bit too much.

Therefore, I decided to slow things down a bit to just five decks per week for a total of twenty weeks. I will share the decks with you—along with pictures.

There are two main reasons I am doing this.

Building Decks is Fun!

It’s been a while since I’ve built simple little sixty-card decks in real life, and I think it will be fun. I think having a cavalcade of decks to pull out for stuff is also interesting. Plus, I really am itching for a new Magic project. I built a real-life Momir Vig group of cards, some Horde decks, and Abedraft is down to just needing sixty-three cards (that includes fourteen cards I still need from Portal: Three Kingdoms). This can be my next grand project.

It seems like a lot of fun–that that’s why we do stuff like this.

What Makes a Deck a Combo Deck?

I also intend to use this project to explore a really tough question in the Magic community. What makes a deck a combo deck? Imagine the following deck list:

This is just a simple little aggro deck for all of you Red aggro–lovers out there. There’s nothing comborific about it, right? What makes a deck a combo deck? It uses cards in combination to create a winning game state? Then is this a combo deck?

“Oh Abe,” you say, “That’s just a tribal deck. That’s not a combo deck!” Why isn’t it a combo deck? Does it not use cards in combination to create a more powerful game state, making it more likely that you’ll win? Does a combo deck need to go off in order to count?

Most people seem to think that every deck is combo, aggro, control, or some combination thereof. What about this deck:

This is your prototypical deck that mills someone. What type is it–control, aggro, or combo? I’d argue that it’s a combo deck, but you might want to say control. Maybe it’s something else. Let’s look closer at some other deck concepts. Are any of these decks combo decks?

Deck 1 – This is a normal deck that includes Splinter Twin and Deceiver Exarch as an alternate win condition in case it gets bogged down or needs an out.

Deck 2 – We have a Burning Bridge deck, built around the interaction of Ensnaring Bridge, Grafted Skullcap, and many burn spells.

Deck 3 – With Megrim dealing damage to people when they discard, this is a deck that focuses on forcing discards and kills with Megrims or similar cards.

Deck 4 – Similar to the deck above, this rocks land destruction and kills with Dingus Eggs and Ankh of Mishra.

Deck 5 – Using Pestilence along with creatures with Protection from Black and Sphere of Grace, this deck keeps the board swept and the Pestilence on the battlefield.

Deck 6 – Affinity ruled the roost for a long time. Envision the best Ravager Affinity deck ever, with all of its combos and synergies.

Deck 7 – Our final deck is the aforementioned Lure plus Regeneration plus Thicket Basilisk deck that attacks with the creature to kill all of the opposing untapped creatures.

This is an interesting conundrum. What makes a combo deck a combo deck? I tried to define all of this stuff in a mega-series called The Casual Metagame, which looks at a lattice of decks and tries to define their deck types. It needed visuals, but in it, I created five archetypes of decks around which this lattice of decks revolves. I included aggro, combo, control, plus tempo and hybrid. Even if you split off tempo decks as their own thing, the question of what is and what is not a combo deck remains.

And we have no super-easy answers. Of those seven decks I just listed, how many are combo decks? To me, the middle five all clearly are. I’d say Deck 3 is combo/tempo—as is Deck 4—Deck 5 is combo/control, and Deck 6 is combo/aggro. Deck 2 seems to be just pure combo, although I could see it defined as combo/control. Is Deck 7 combo/aggro or no? And what about Deck 1?

Even if these are all combo decks of some sort or another, we still haven’t answered the question about decks like milling decks or a simple Goblin deck.

I need a definition. The perfect definition of any term includes everything I want to include but does not include anything I don’t want to include. My first working definition of “combo” included a lot of things people may not feel comfortable with. For another example, consider the following definition.

A combo deck is any deck that includes cards which, by themselves, do not win the game, but in tandem, make the game much more likely to be won.

That seems fair, right? While it certainly would include a deck like Fruity Pebbles, it would also include a U/G control deck with Future Sight and Exploration or a G/W deck with Birds of Paradise and Armageddon. That’s not what I want to do. It’s too wide a net to cast. Let’s try again.

A combo deck includes multiple elements that, through combos and synergies, create a game state that allows someone to win.

That still includes stuff I don’t want. The net remains too wide. Bringing it in makes the definition too tight. For example . . .

A combo deck requires two or more cards that win the game through their interaction.

Okay, that certainly would include things like Pandemonium and Saproling Burst, but it would not include things like Burning Bridge. It’s more about going off, and not every combo deck needs to do that.

I’ve been racking my brain for an operative definition of combo decks that perfectly works on those decks I feel are combos—but not on those that are not. I can’t come up with one. That makes me sad. I have operative definitions for everything, including sports:

A sport is a physical, head-to-head contest with an objective means of determining a victor.

Examples of things that are sports according to this definition include hockey, volleyball, and fencing. Things which are not included are gymnastics, archery, and golf – which is perfect, because I don’t feel that any of those is truly a sport. Show choir is highly athletic and has competitions, but no one considers it a sport, yet gymnastics somehow mystically counts. I don’t get it. If you are judged, it’s not a sport, it’s a contest. It’s still hard, and tough, and pretty, but it’s not a sport, you know? Similarly, golf is a past time, not a sport. It’s you playing the course—not each other. There’s no option for me to body check the ball or anything—it’s not a sport. I like my definition; it’s perfect for me.

I don’t have one for combo decks. That’s disappointing. Therefore, for this series, I’m just going to have to slide into 100-Synergetic-Decks-in-20-Weeks-mode and hope no one notices if I slip something in that may not be a combo deck. The only hope is that one of you can give me a great definition in the comments. We’ll see.

Well, those are the reasons I want to do the article. Now, let’s talk about the challenges I see ahead of time.

Reasons the Series May End Early (Insert Sad Face Here)

I Run Out of Cards

When I moved to London a few years ago, I divested myself of a lot of my extra commons and uncommons. I gave away boxes and boxes of cards. I’ve never regretted it, but it does seriously reduce my card collection. This is the sort of project that may run aground because of it. I only kept four of some older commons as deck stock, such as Chain Lightning and the Kobolds. I don’t have a lot of spare rares running around either. All I have is a smattering of extras, and then major deck stock.

What happens when I run out of good cards? Am I allowed to raid my Momir Vig or Type 4 for cards? Does it work in reverse—am I allowed to raid these decks for cards for my next Commander deck? I might even run out of basic lands. If I run out of cards, we’ll have to end things early.

You Don’t Like Me . . . er . . . the Series

Maybe we get through a few of these articles and build some decks, and then you get bored. “Abe, no disrespect, but let’s see something else. Sheesh!” I’ve never done anything like this before, and I have no idea whether it will be something you want. There’s sometimes a disconnect between what I really, really like and what you really, really like. I’ll write a nice article about something cool and be really happy, but then I see that no one else cares. It’s okay—it doesn’t hurt my feelings or anything. If we start this, and it’s just not your thing, we can move on.

I Don’t Like You . . . er . . . the Series

It’s also possible that three weeks in, I get tired and want to slide into something else. I don’t think so; I‘m pumped. I’m also fickle. I dedicate myself obsessively to my newest thing and just do the crap out of it until I become tired of it and leave for the next obsession. I call myself a serial obsessor. (All made-up words are my own!) That’s who I am. If this starts to become work that I dread rather than a cool Magic past time I enjoy, it’s time to hang up the cards.

What Else?

Okay, we have all of the basics out of the way. We talked about what the project is, explored what makes a deck a combo deck, and discussed the issues surrounding it. Now, let’s get down to brass tacks.

This challenge begins on Sunday, January 1, 2012. Twenty weeks later, on Saturday, May 12, it will end.

During this time, expect deck articles roughly once every other week to give you an update as to what is going on—what decks have I made, how they play, and so forth. What makes this series different than my normal deck-building articles is that these will all be built in real life. Expect pictures of each deck!

If this goes really well, is it possible we’ll extend it? Sure! It’s also possible that I will breathe a sigh of relief and we’ll move on. Other than the Core Set articles, the only article I know I’ll want to write during that twenty-week period is a card review of Dark Ascension. Perhaps Avacyn Restored will fit into this chunk as well. It comes out May 4.

Other than that, it’s olly olly oxen free—anything can and will likely happen.

Are you ready for the New Year and its deck-tastic-ness?

See you next week.

Abe Sargent

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