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The Comboist Manifesto: Explanation
By Stephen Bahl
The Comboist Manifesto Volume I, Article 2: Explanation

In 2013, I finally graduated from a university. I've been getting back into Magic after what wasn't quite a hiatus, but more a period of relative dormancy. As it happens, I've been interacting with some newer players, something I find to be really fun and intriguing. It's certainly different from most of the Magic I remember before my dormancy. These players are generally unaware of popular archetypes that were part of the Magic experience when I was younger, like Necropotence, Oath, and the Weissman deck. They're also much more familiar than I am with the newest cards (and even the not-so-newest cards, such as those from Innistrad). Since I'm an avid combo player, I've introduced some of my favorite combo engines, both famous and obscure, to these newer players (but I'm not using broken combo decks to thrash the unprepared or anything like that), and gotten to see how they react. Some players, on on seeing powerful card interactions they didn't know existed, are amused or impressed. Other don't take to them as much, perhaps appreciating them from a theoretical sense, but not wanting to play such decks in their games.

The same sort of thing also goes for more experienced players. I'm an avid combo player myself, and always have been. But that doesn't go for everyone. Combo has had mixed reception at the CPA. Some of the more critical things said of combo have been...

“Then I found out that 'Infinite' anything combos:

A) Suck.

B) Are no fun.”

“Combo is not challenging to pilot. And is really easy to defeat.”

–Exaulted_Leader

“I hate combo decks. With a passion.”

–Limited

Most archetypes don't generate that kind of response. There's a perception that combo decks, uniquely among Magic decks, run counter to the way the game should be played. It's not fun to lose before you can even do anything. Combo decks have been likened to a sort of solitaire. Most likely, the fact that many combos arise out of cards mistakenly made too powerful and the fact that combo components are some of the most frequently banned cards both bolster this perception. And it's not entirely wrong.

In my introductory article, I stated that combo as a theme for my articles probably isn't surprising: at the CPA, I'm the local combo freak. I guess it all started when I discovered that I could use Enduring Renewal, Ornithopter, and Fallen Angel for an infinite loop of pumping up Fallen Angel. From there, I branched out into lockdown and control-combo decks. I started exploring all things combo. And I never really stopped. Often I lacked the time or the money to do much with Magic, and even more often I didn't have anyone to play with anyway, but I've stuck around, year after year, all because of combo.

There are other games out there. There are even games that are, at least superficially, similar to Magic. But for so many Magic decks I've played, no other game captures the experience playing that deck provides. It's the synergies between cards that don't just make Magic unique, but make individual archetypes within Magic into unique experiences that can't be replicated anywhere else. I've even seen this principle at work between players of Magic, who played different formats or at different times from each other. It's like all of us who used to play Necropotence decks form our own secret society that we don't even know about. We have no obvious connection to each other. We can appear to be similar or to be dissimilar. We're just part of the Magic community—until the topic comes up. Then, no matter what our differences might be, we remember what it was like, seeing the opponent's board position, knowing what card we needed to answer it, counting up the number of copies of the answer in our library, and figuring out how much life we would need to pay to have a good chance of finding the answer. We become the Necropotence community. Magic is full of styles of gameplay that can't be found anywhere else, and all of this is due to interactions between cards—to combos.

It might seem as though I am conflating generic interactions between cards with the infamous “combo decks” derided by some players. And that's actually pretty close. Pure, dedicated combo decks are just taking the concept of card synergies to the extreme. And I like extreme. There are problems accompanying this, but that does not mean combo decks are best defined by their tendency to cause problems. Even for those that do not play combo decks themselves, the level of card interaction that makes such decks possible adds interesting qualities to gameplay. Combo decks focus more on synergy than other decks, and can even serve as a crude metric for the level of synergy present in a particular format: if combo decks overrun a format, the pool of available cards has very high synergy, and if combo deck are nonexistent in a format, the pool of available cards has very low synergy. Even players that eschew combo decks play in environments that make combo decks possible, sometimes using some of the same cards that combo decks use.

First-turn kills are a large part of the stigma associated with combo decks. If you don't even get a single turn before your opponent wins, then the game stops feeling like a game and starts feeling more like a show. And an involuntary one, at that. In tournament play, the DCI tends to ban cards that too easily allow for very early kills. In some cases, decks aren't built to try to do anything else: such decks don't advance their position in any way, other than preparing to “go off” and win in one fell swoop. To the uninitiated opponent, it can seem as though the individual playing such a deck is playing a different game, ignoring opposing efforts and focusing entirely on comboing. Comprehending that this is not the case, appreciating interactivity with opponents, is key both to beating combo decks and to successfully playing them. Contrary to the sentiment expressed by Exaulted_Leader, combo decks can be challenging to pilot and difficult to defeat. The Comboist Manifesto is about all of that. It's my attempt to elucidate the nature of combo in Magic.

Traditionally, decks can be broken up into the three major categories: control, aggro, and combo. Generally, aggro decks have a hard time against combo decks (they get outraced), control decks have a hard time against aggro decks (too many threats emerge, becoming overwhelming), and combo decks have a hard time against control decks (they get disrupted). But there is incredible diversity within these categories. Magic is not Rock, Paper, Scissors. Both in tournaments and in (some) casual games, players strive to have their decks balanced against the field. It is better to have a deck that is merely decent against all opponents than a deck that is great against half of the opponents, and loses automatically to the other half. Combo decks help shape their formats. Decks must be able to answer their prominent combo rivals while simultaneously being able to address other types of opponents. Combo's place in any environment, assuming some ingenuity on the part of the players, is inextricably linked to the conditions of that environment.

I don't delude myself enough to think that I can persuade ardent opponents of combo decks to change their minds, at least not about matters of taste (if one thinks combo is always easy to beat, then perhaps an empirical demonstration of that claim is in order). But even for those that do not personally wish to play combo decks, these articles might still be useful. For one thing, understanding combo decks is a good way to beat them. And for another, I'm not restricting this series to pure, dedicated combo decks. A combo is an interaction between cards, played by the same person, that does something good for the person playing the cards. In my next article, I'll examine these combo elements. I hope to see you there. Well, I don't literally hope that. It's not something that even seems possible. Or maybe it is? In that case, if you don't read my next article, I'll know, because I won't have seen you reading it. So you'd better.

Read More Articles by Stephen Bahl!

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