Skip to main content

MtG Archetypes: Combo

I've been playing Magic: The Gathering for some time, and today I want to share my tricks.

Channel + Fireball = BOOM!

Channel + Fireball = BOOM!

What Is the Combo Archetype?

The combo archetype (short for combination) focuses on playing two or more cards, often with precise timing, to give you a greater advantage over the effects of individual cards.

The Construction of Combo Decks

Combo decks, by their nature, can vary enormously. This is because they can take advantage of every single card ever printed in the world of Magic: The Gathering—and, as new cards continue to be printed with each new expansion, new interactions or synergies will continue to be discovered.

In some cases, it is precisely the expansions that present these synergies, representing them as "themes" of the expansions; in other cases, there are what the developers call "seeds," where one piece of the combo is put into a specific expansion and the second piece is put in a different expansion. They do this in order to create connections between the expansions and to make sure that these combinations are "discovered" by the players. This happens mainly in the Standard format to keep it fresh and challenging for the players.

Furthermore, it is also possible that these interactions are present at the level of the same card type (creature with creature, instant with instant, etc.) or that it may involve different card types (land with creature, planeswalker with instant, etc.).
This creates a great advantage for combo decks as opponents, not being able to handle all the possible combinations with the same tools, expose themselves to other types of decks or a different combination of cards.

Where Did the Combo Concept Come From?

The concept of combo goes back to the very origins of Magic: The Gathering. In fact, the first combos ever made were created by mathematician Richard Garfield himself (and his roommates as playtesters) with the Limited Edition Alpha.

The very concept of Magic's Golden Rule (where cards can change what is defined by the general rules) was the reason why a newly founded company called Wizards of the Coast decided to publish a game made by a math major who wore unmatched socks (but that's another story for another article).

One of the first combos ever created was the pairing of the Channel and Fireball cards shown at the top of the article (hence the name of a popular website that talks about Magic).


The Channel/Fireball combo is a great example of a "combo-win" where a series of cards, played in a precise order, lead to an advantage so great that a quick victory is guaranteed if the combo is not immediately countered by the opponent.

This is just one example; over the years, we have had tons of combo-wins. Some created infinite token creatures, giving the opponent the illusion of grandeur; others worked by decking, putting an indestructible 20/20 into the battlefield, etc.

Combo-win is the best known of the approaches when looking at the combo archetype, but it is not necessarily the only one.


Broadly speaking, any time you combine cards for an enhanced effect, they can fall into the combo category. When these are minor (they do not allow you to win immediately or bring limited advantages), they are called "synergies."

Synergy decks are decks that focus on a specific theme and try to maximize the small interactions of the cards that compose them. In these cases, victory occurs through the marginal advantages that accumulate until we reach a level where they can turn the game in our favor. This can be either in terms of "tempo," "card advantage," "mana efficiency," etc.

Let's consider, for example, a deck that is based on the "storm" mechanic. Can we consider it as an X-piece combo, or would it be better to define it as a deck that is based on creating the greatest possible synergy around the mechanic? Ramp decks can also fall into this category, as with a precise succession of cards they obtain a tempo advantage that leads to a dominant position.

Summing up:



Decks based on small advantages that lead to victory in the long run


Decks that rely on a precise combination to win instantly

Board Presence With Combo Decks

Another typical feature of combo decks is that they do not build a presence on the board as it is not strictly necessary for their gameplay. Creatures are sometimes played, but they are almost always a consequence of the combo or pieces supporting it (ramp to speed up the combo, protection for the combo, etc.).

For this reason, combo decks need to be able to perform the combo before losing the last life point. So, the best time to play the combo against aggro decks is to wait until the last second to make sure you get as many resources as possible.

And if that's not enough, it's also possible to put a second combo into the deck (if there's enough space) in case Plan A isn't viable. In some cases, there are also transformative sideboards to make any opponent's counter moves ineffective.


Speaking of resources, as mentioned before, life points are expendable—all but the last. In addition to life points, the best resources are the cards in hand and the quality of the same; for this reason (if the colors allow it), we tend to play many cards to tutor the necessary pieces or to draw as many cards as possible or to manipulate the top deck.

A 20/20 creature on turn2? Yes, Please!

A 20/20 creature on turn2? Yes, Please!

Functional Reprints

Building a combo deck is a game of consistency, in the sense that everything has to be built around the combo and make it statistically reliable. For this purpose, there are many possibilities, including (in addition to those already mentioned) functional reprints.

Functional reprints are cards that differ from each other only in minor details and therefore can be extremely useful for playing more than four copies of the same combo piece. Is it easier to draw a card from the deck if there are one, two, four or eight copies?

Mitigating the Risks of Having Too Many Copies

Multiplying the pieces, however, can also have the opposite effect because it increases the risk of drawing pieces of the same type and not the missing piece. So, in this case, the cards that allow you to improve the quality of the hand (cards with scry or draw/discard, etc.) tend to acquire an even greater value.

An example of a combo with functional reprints

An example of a combo with functional reprints

The Combo Archetype Is Ever-Evolving

Combo decks are usually not very suitable for novice players, but they can be a challenging choice for an experienced player who may be able to untangle the rules and interactions.

At the same time, they also challenge the opponent. It can be easy to misinterpret the timing for some plays and lose the fight.

This archetype tends to be more varied than the others because of its ability to take the best of all that Magic history has to offer, not counting the printing of new cards and the rediscovery of old ones. This means that this archetype can only continue to evolve as long as people continue to play Magic: The Gathering.

© 2020 Christian Allasia