Understanding Combo Deck Construction

People often wonder why certain cards are not played in any given deck. Sometimes, the answer is simple; however, it can be quite complex when specifically talking about combo decks. In the past few years, there have been several sound theories regarding the matter, but it can never be reiterated enough. Here’s a quick article to help you understand how combo decks are built and how they operate.

lonefire blossomFirst, let us define what makes a deck a “combo deck.” Any deck where all of its plays require two or more card interactions is a combo deck. Easy examples from the past include Mermails, Sylvans, and Wind-ups. These decks favor complicated gamestates where both players have several cards at their disposal. This allows the combo deck to perform at its highest level since it requires at least two cards to do anything worthwhile. The more cards, the better the combos. Think of Abyssteus + Dragoons, Lonefire + Soul Charge, Magician + Shark. Those are all two-card combos, but it can get even more complex. If you add Wind-up Factory to your Magician + Shark combo, you can perform an even more powerful play. I remember back in 2012, during Nationals format, if a Wind-up player happened to draw Monster Reborn or Pot of Avarice with their basic two-card combo, it meant that they could take more cards from the opponent’s hand, which was always an autowin. Now think about what happens in a simplified gamestate where all you have is Mermail Abyssteus, or just Wind-up Magician, or just Lonefire Blossom (not as bad as the others but you get the point). If both players have fewer cards, it will be easier for a non-combo deck to win. If both players have several cards, it will be easier for a combo deck to win. For combo decks to avoid simplified gamestates, they must veer away from playing cards that send the game in that direction.

Examples of cards that will simplify the gamestate include: Mystical Space Typhoon, Bottomless Trap Hole, Dark Hole, Raigeki, Effect Veiler, Ring of Destruction, etc. Essentially, these are cards that subtract from both players card advantage without necessarily advancing their gamestate. Sometimes, combo decks are forced to play these types of cards because the format is set up in a way that they cannot get by without them. For example, when Edward Lee won ARGCS Milwaukee, he piloted a Sylvan deck with three copies of Rose Archer and two copies of Forbidden Lance. At the time, Geargia was the most played deck and it used close to twenty traps. It would have been silly to try to power through all of that with no way to deliberately deal with backrows. The fact of the matter was that you didn’t need to stop all of them. You just needed to stop the one that actually prevented you from making your play, and then proceed to win the game by creating an unbreakable board. It also helped that a chunk of Geargia’s trap lineup was used to stop other traps, and his Sylvan deck didn’t play any.

forbidden lanceNow what would have happened if everyone started converting to Sylvans after his win? Well, for one thing, I can tell you that those three copies of Rose Archer and two copies of Forbidden Lance would have been moved to the side deck if they were played at all. You can’t afford to go into a tournament with several dead cards against a huge portion of the field. If we think about the current format, Nekroz are certainly the most played deck, and they do not play many traps—if any. This means that cards like Mystical Space Typhoon run the risk of being completely dead in that matchup. However, we must consider the matchups that aren’t Nekroz and then decide if it makes sense to play such a card. The way I see it, the format is divided into two categories right now: Nekroz vs. Nekroz and Nekroz vs. Anti-Nekroz. Every deck that is not Nekroz will be made to beat it. This means you will see people maining cards like Mistake, Vanity’s Emptiness, Shared Ride, Mind Crush, Dimensional Fissure, Macro Cosmos, etc. Catching these cards with an End Phase MST, or just catching them when they’re first activated—if continuous—could be the difference between winning and losing a match. The hard part is figuring out what you’re going to play against in any given tournament. We can always make an educated guess, but you just never know. I’ve entered tournaments where most of the field was dominated by one deck, but I played six other decks throughout the ten to eleven rounds of swiss. I think a big part of understanding your combo deck relies on you trusting in your side deck.

You will not win every game one regardless of how well your deck is built against the field. The good thing is, we play more games with our side decks than we do with our main decks. Therefore, I think it is perfectly legitimate to forego cards that push you into a simplified gamestate, or do not contribute to the overall goal of your deck, for cards that help you to get started and combo off effectively. Let the decrees and Denko Sekkas deal with the rogue strategies because your main needs to focus on the combo deck mirror match. Surely, at the top tables in this particular format, you will see more of the combo deck.

maxx cPlaying cards that push your combo deck into a simplified gamestate may help you to get through the early rounds when you are more likely to play rogue strategies, but once you get to the top tables, it will become harder to remain undefeated against other combo decks. On the bright side, Qliphorts are virtually gone from the format, so some decisions are easier to make. When that deck was seeing a lot of play, it made things awkward because the cards that were good against it were not good against anything else. For example, Bottomless Trap Hole and Mystical Space Typhoon are both very good against Qliphorts, but they suck against Shaddolls and Burning Abyss. Cards like Maxx “C” and Vanity’s Emptiness are great against Shaddolls and Burning Abyss, but terrible against Qliphorts. This made deck building a nightmare.

Given what you know now, how do you feel about maining cards like Raigeki, Mystical Space Typhoon, Dark Hole, etc? Mass destruction cards can deal with the Djinn lock, which is a common play in this format, but if you play anything other than Nekroz they become lackluster. Also, those cards are not searchable, so there’s a chance that you will not see them against the decks that you want to see them against, or you may see them too much against the decks that you don’t want to see them against. Draw too many Maxx “C”(s) and Effect Veiler(s) against a deck like Qliphorts and you’re going to have a bad time. Draw too many Mystical Space Typhoons against Nekroz and you’re going to have a bad time. Be smart about it—learn to ride the wave of the meta. It constantly changes, and so should your card choices.

Until next time, duelists! Remember, Play Hard or Go Home!

-Frazier Smith

-The Dark Magician

Frazier Smith

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