The Collectible Card Game Thread – On Combo: To Infinity and Beyond

Welcome to the *CG thread, where we talk all manner of Card Games – Collectible, Trading, Living, and otherwise! Feel free to chat amongst yourselves about the card games you’re playing or anything card game-related that strikes your fancy.

As part of my… ongoing(?) series(?) on deck archetypes, I wanted to talk this week about my personal favorite, Combo. Since the strict definition of a combo deck can be pretty broad, and different combo decks can play extremely differently, from using a combo as inevitability to guarantee victory in a long game to sealing a win before your opponent even gets to draw their first card, Combo is an archetype that occupies a kind of “Wildcard” space in the environment, usually attacking from an odd or unexpected angle and driving a wedge into a gap in the metagame.

What the Combo archetype means for a collectible card game is, ideally, that it a) rewards creativity, exploration, and discovery, b) creates explosive, exciting moments, and c) provides a “predator” that keeps the metagame environment from getting greedy.

Literally speaking, a “combo” is just any combination of cards that does… something. Often that “something” is to win you the game on the spot, but it can also just be to gain an instant, hopefully insurmountable advantage, such as gaining a million life or drawing all of your cards at the same time. It could even just be an engine that gets you incremental advantage over time. There are also categories within the broader realm of a combo for infinite combos, alternate-wins, and hard/soft locks. The definition is, as noted above, broad. A true “combo deck” kind of ends up being a “know it when you see it” kind of thing that shrugs off rigorous categorization. A common critic’s refrain is “That’s not a combo, it’s just synergy” when a combo isn’t “combo-y” enough for their taste.

When a combo “goes off”, you know it. One of my personal favorite things in CCGs is that moment when cards that you otherwise hadn’t given a second thought suddenly click together into something greater. It’s a spectacle that follows directly from the modular nature of the game as something that is special to the genre. To me, Combo is about that moment of excitement and accomplishment, where the machine comes together suddenly something huge happens, ideally before my opponent just kills me while I’m still putting my pieces together.

If you remember from my article about archetypes, the idea behind a combo deck is that it progresses the game to the End Game as soon as possible. A combo deck wants to assemble its combo and from there, accomplish everything that it ever wants to do in the game. Ideally, this will mean that it reaches the End Game faster than its opponent and they won’t be prepared to interact with Combo on its level. That “wildcard” factor that I mentioned above lets Combo bypass “normal” metagame defenses and win on its own terms. However, if it loses that edge, its single-plan nature will tend to be blunted. Thus, Combo is rarely at the top of the metagame…. unless things go wrong.

The nature of Combo is that when it’s in its ideal position, it’s hard to fight it. It wins on an axis that is hard to interact with at a speed that is difficult to prepare for. When things go wrong with Combo decks, they go really really wrong. The majority of bans, nerfs, and errata across all card games tend to go to combo cards. There was a period in Magic history known as Combo Winter when combo decks were so fast and powerful that people have described the format as “Early game: Shuffle your deck. Mid game: Draw your opening hand. Late Game: Turn 1.” On the other hand though, when things are healthy, Combo enforces flexibility and interaction. The potential Combo demands to be dealt with, and prevents decks that are overly single-minded and “greedy” from ignoring the rest of the game.

This week’s prompt: What’s your favorite combo? Or most hated combo, whatever, you do you.

Or, as always, feel free to talk about anything going on with you in the world of *CGs.