A Defense of Unfair Combo

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This is going to be a controversial month for my column. My banlist testing article series will return shortly, which will incite a firestorm even if readers like my results. Rather than run from this, I'm going to embrace it. Bring on Argument Month! I'm going to defy consensus and defend something many believe is indefensible.

First, some background. We're coming off another SCG Modern Open, this time in Dallas. Once again, Death's Shadow won the event. This should not be surprising. Midrange Jund was one of the best decks in the history of Modern, and the current Death's Shadow deck is just Jund built around the namesake card. The threat and support spells have changed, but the core of discard and removal remains intact. That the deck is extremely potent should be no surprise. I was a bit surprised that Burn fell to it in the finals, but in my opinion Trent Avera's deck did not perform very well and with similar draws would have lost to any deck.

More interesting to me are the Classic results. Living End won, with Cheeri0s taking second and sixth. There is no Death's Shadow in the Top 8. This is a significant result. Not just for showing that Death's Shadow is not the end-all-be-all in Modern, but also for the fact that combo decks are starting to make their presence felt again. This is a good thing. Having unfair combo in the metagame, as long as it isn't too powerful, is a good thing for a healthy metagame. Today, I argue that the presence of unfair combo decks works to slow down the format by reducing the presence of uninteractive aggressive decks and promoting slower control and aggro-control decks.


Contention #1: Fast Combo Preys on Fast Aggro

A fast combo deck has a faster average goldfish than an aggressive deck. In Modern no aggro deck can reliably win before turn four. Affinity can under certain circumstances, but it is highly unlikely. Infect and Death's Shadow used to be able to win on turn three reliably, but the banning of Gitaxian Probe has significantly slowed them down. Death's Shadow is now closer to midrange speed and Infect has significantly fallen off. Merfolk and Burn can only win prior to turn four with substantial help from their opponent. Eldrazi cannot realistically win before turn five. The speed of Modern aggressive decks has declined. It could be argued that their kills were turns 3-4 before, but now they are decidedly 4-5.

Unfair combo decks tend to win on turn three. Both Cheeri0s and Grishoalbrand are capable of winning on turn two, though it is very unlikely. It requires a very specific set of draws to happen and, given the resource requirements, is unlikely, though not impossible. More realistically, both decks win unimpeded turn 3-4. As this preempts the best kills from aggressive decks, unfair combo is a natural predator to aggressive decks. When two ships pass in the night, the faster one will win. Therefore if your metagame is overrun by fast, uninteractive aggro the response is to go combo.

Contention #2: Combo Decks Are Vulnerable to Interaction

Unfair combo decks are powerful but fragile creatures. In the pursuit of speed they must discard anything superfluous to the combo. Furthermore their combos require multiple pieces to function. As a result if their engines fail, they struggle to recover. As I said in the Beginner's Guide article, only a few cards in a combo deck actually matter. If those cards are answered the rest of deck is just air. Playing air does not win games.

Compare this to aggressive decks. If you want to stop an aggressive deck it takes a lot more work, Ensnaring Bridge notwithstanding. As long as aggressive decks have a single threat in play, they are executing their game plan. (Whether this would actually translate into a win is another matter entirely.) Interaction and disruption are not particularly harmful to aggressive decks because their cards are interchangeable and redundant. So long as the aggro player does not lose too many resources to sweepers or similar card-advantage spells, it can continue to play the game with a reasonable expectation of victory, no matter how many of its cards trade with their opponent's cards. It only cares when it can no longer attack because it is either outclassed or out of spells.

As a result, highly interactive decks naturally prey upon unfair decks. These decks are designed to mess with opposing gameplans and unfair combo does not respond well to disruption. If Grishoalbrand fails to resolve the Goryo's Vengeance or Through the Breach it cannot realistically win. Counterspells, targeted discard, and removal are all speedbumps to aggro decks, but they can be a death sentence for combo. Therefore, when your metagame is full of combo decks the response is to go disruptive.


Consider this: against most Modern decks, a card like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is mildly annoying. Their gameplans are robust enough that they can still execute their plan despite the drag from her tax. Thus Thalia is not a popular or effective Modern card. Cheeri0s, on the other hand, will not win with her in play. It cannot overcome that type of disruption due to the concessions it has made in order to ensure that its combo works. Merfolk can fight through waves of removal thanks to creature redundancy, but a few discard and counter spells can permanently cripple Storm. Aggressive and fair decks are able to withstand and win wars of attrition. Unfair combo is not.

Conclusion: Adding Combo Promotes Diversity

If you add more unfair combo decks into a format you will promote diversity, not only in terms of decks, but of strategy. By adding additional unfair combos we decrease the ability of uninteractive aggro to win. This replaces robust fast clocks with fragile faster clocks. This incentivizes slower and more interactive decks to enter the format to feed on the fragile speedsters. In turn this causes uninteractive aggro decks to return to run over the slower decks. Over time this cycle leads to an equilibrium state between the major archetypes and promotes strategic diversity.

A lot of the criticism of Modern stems from the perceived lack of interaction and overabundance of aggressive decks. Previous metagame updates have shown the only consistently Tier 1 interactive deck has been Jund. So what happens when we add unfair combo? Consider a metagame that is made up of Jund, Infect, Burn, GR Tron, Bant Eldrazi, and Abzan Company. This metagame has one true interactive Fair deck, three uninteractive aggressive decks, a Ramp deck, and a Fair Combo. Lets throw Cheeri0s into the mix and pretend it is Tier 1. In the original metagame, the non-Jund decks seek to execute their gameplans as quickly as possible while Jund tries to hold them off. Whoever among the non-Jund executes their plan first will win, matchups depending. Jund will win when it cripples the initial attacks of the aggressive decks and then out-resources them going long.

Cheeri0s disrupts this equilibrium. The non-Jund decks run a bare minimum, if any, of relevant interaction. Infect is the only deck with a realistic chance to win on turn three, which is when Cheer0s is supposed to go off, so it will get some wins through racing. It is possible, if very unlikely, that Abzan Company will execute its infinite combo on turn three and so not lose as well. The other non-Jund decks will be severely impacted. They cannot race the combo and cannot reliably disrupt the combo. At most those decks have 8 disruption spells, and they may not actually work in certain circumstances. As a result their share of the metagame will decrease. Jund meanwhile, which plays as many as 20 pieces of relevant disruption in discard spells and cheap removal, will reliably stop the combo and beat Cheerios. Jund's share rises and incentivizes Tron and Eldazi to return.

Over time, you would see an equilibrium format where the interactive Jund thrives on eating Cheeri0s players and grinding with the aggressive decks while the aggressive decks will lose share to Cheeri0s. This will force at least some of them to adopt more interactive pieces to compete. This will necessarily make them less streamlined and slow them down. While the new combo deck may be faster than the aggressive decks, it is only one deck compared to several. Therefore the total number of very fast decks will be low compared to the slower decks. In this way adding a faster deck slows down the format and makes it more interactive.

A Corollary

This is all based on unfair combo being good but not too good. Being fast and powerful is okay, but too fast or reliable and we can get into problems. The decks must be good enough to threaten to win on turn three or earlier but not so good that they can do it reliably. It is a balancing act because the threat needs to be real enough to change the deckbuilding calculus of the aggressive decks and force them more towards Tempo or aggro-control, but not so real that it happens every game. I think that the current builds of Cheeri0s and Grishoalbrand are close to right. They can win early, but it is better for them to wait a few turns. The mere threat of that early win is enough to force players to change their play habits.

Case in Point: Legacy

I offer the Legacy metagame as an example of how this works. Aggro decks as most formats understand them are not present in Legacy. For the most part all that is present are aggro-control and tempo decks. Most of these are Delver variants, and Delver pilots will pontificate at length about how their decks are not aggressive decks. There are no Zoo or Affinity decks, no true aggro. Colorless Eldrazi and Death & Taxes are close, but both are closer to Prison/Tempo hybrids than linear aggro. In fact, looking at these standings, the only "real" aggro deck with reasonable metagame presence is Burn. Decks like Modern Affinity just aren't viable in Legacy.

As a result of this aggro deficiency, Legacy is a notably slower format. Some of this must be attributed to the power of Brainstorm and Ponder. These cards create quite the incentive to slow down and durdle (a little too much for my taste. Judges really need to be more aggressive enforcing slow play warnings), but that is not the only reason. Even in a format full of Force of Will, fast aggro should have a huge advantage over tempo decks, especially ones that like to durdle. Even with a control deck as powerful as Miracles ruling the roost, we should still see Affinity-style decks. But the closest is Legacy Infect, which plays a lot of interactive spells and durdles more than its Modern counterpart. Why is that?

I believe that the presence of very fast, but fragile, combo decks has actually slowed Legacy down significantly. An "all-in" deck like Affinity cannot afford to dedicate enough slots to interaction to not just lose to combo and it is incapable of racing them. Storm and Belcher can win on the first turn, sometimes through a Force. The threat of such kills requires most decks to run Force. Once you are playing Force, you have to fill your deck with sufficient cards to turn Force on, which leads you to playing the cantrips, which leads to a much slower game. Decks with Prison elements are an exception to this, but the slot commitment necessary for their taxes and lock pieces leave little room for fast kills. Because there are combos too fast to race, Legacy is a slow format.

Consider Goblins

Goblins is not a very successful Legacy deck, which is surprising considering that it has a very good matchup against fair decks, particularly Miracles. Between Aether Vial and Cavern of Souls the deck never fears counterspells, even the Counterbalance lock, and it has significant card advantage built in through Goblin Matron and Goblin Ringleader. It also plays creature interaction in the form of Goblins like Stingscourger. The result is that Goblins can grind harder than nearly every deck. If you want to really embarrass Miracles, play Grenzo, Dungeon Warden and actively punish Terminus. You cannot grind with Goblins—you have to race them, and that is hard for many decks.

Despite this, Goblins sees very little play because it is incredibly weak to combo. Realistically it will not beat Storm or Belcher. These are the fast unfair combos keeping the less interactive decks out of the format. Without fast combo, decks like Goblins would be far better choices than they currently are. Without the threat of dying before your first turn, the incentive is lower to play interaction, and out of the cutthroat desire to win, most players would streamline their decks to kill more quickly. Already, Force gets cut in many non-combo matchups as card advantage matters more. If Force wasn't necessary anymore, would you still play it? If you don't need Force, do you really want to durdle?

Fast Combo Slows Formats

I believe that if we want to slow down Modern and make it more interactive, we need to make streamlined "all-in" aggro decks less attractive options. The best way to do that is to allow more fast but fragile combo decks into the format. This will encourage players to play more interaction and discourage non-combo uninteractive decks from competing. There is a historic aversion to unfair combo, both on the part of Wizards and the players, and while it can at times be justified, I believe that it has been taken too far. Without the threat of the combo pillar, aggressive decks are incentivized to get as uninteractive as possible to win earlier. Therefore, to encourage more interactive games we should embrace the combo-playing polite-euphemisms and allow more decks like Cheeri0s into Modern. I look forward to hearing about your perspective in the comments.

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David Ernenwein

David has been playing Magic since Odyssey block. A dedicated Spike, he's been grinding tournaments for over a decade, including a Pro Tour appearance. A Modern specialist who dabbles in Legacy, his writing is focused on metagame analysis and deck evolution.

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14 thoughts on “A Defense of Unfair Combo

  1. It’s obvious that having some linear combo decks in the format would benefit Modern’s archetype diversity, but it’s not possible given the way the format is laid out.

    “Contention #1: Fast Combo Preys on Fast Aggro”

    One of the quirks of the format is that this is true in general Magic theory but not in Modern, where aggro-combo is actually the fastest archetype. The reason is that aggro-combo can be interacted with by any deck with removal (read: any deck), so Wizards allows it to goldfish turn three kills. Linear combo decks that consistently goldfish turn three kills are harder to interact with (requiring Thoughtseize/Leak/etc.), so Wizards bans them.

    Cheeri0s stands to be the first exception to this rule in awhile, since it’s a pure combo deck with no aggro dimension. But that’s because it can be answered by the same cards that deal with aggro-combo and even aggro-control: removal. If Cherri0s had enablers that were enchantments or even artifacts, and not 2/2s, it would not be allowed to exist in Modern.

    1. The first paragraph definitely used to be true, I’m not convinced it is still true. Infect and similar Gotcha! decks have declined significantly since Probe was banned. The only deck like that which remains is Affinity, and the stars do not often align.

      Linear combo is harder to interact with, that’s the point. Most decks are capable of interacting with creatures to some degree, even aggro decks. My argument is that faster linear combo will force more interaction into the format for that very reason. As long as they don’t get too good, there should be no worry of a WoTC ban.

      1. “As long as they don’t get too good, there should be no worry of a WoTC ban.” …Well, unless they become tiered in representation and violate the turn three rule, which linear combo much do to keep up with Modern’s aggro decks. Winning-est is one parameter Wizards uses to ban cards, but the turn four rule is just as important to them.

        When I say aggro decks, I’m not even talking about aggro-combo like Infect, which goldfished turn three kills, but less-busted stuff like Burn, Affinity, Zoo, Elves, etc. These decks still win on turn four a good amount of the time if left unchecked, so linear combo must necessarily break Wizards’ rules by winning on turn three to get under them and claim its spot in Modern.

        “Linear combo is harder to interact with, that’s the point.” Would you not consider Cheeri0s a linear combo deck? Do you not agree that it’s the definitive “loses-to-any-interaction” deck in Modern?

        As it stands, the only way for linear combo to survive Wizards’ format guidelines is to adopt a go-over-you plan like Ad Nauseam, which is a turn four or five combo deck with lots of consistency and resilience. The type of linear combo you write about in this article necessarily must outpace aggro to have the metagame effect you describe, and in doing so, it seals its fate on the banlist.

    1. Counterspell would not solve the problem of fast aggro in Modern. Recall that even in the golden days of Draw-Go, Jackel Pup still got under you and often won without additional help. Is Counterspell or a similar answer a good addition? Almost certainly. But the strength of answers do not by themselves keep aggro down. Aggro is meant to fight through removal anyway. We need a different angle of attack.

  2. Great article. One question that I have: with the banning of Probe as well as the introduction of Fatal Push into the format, aggro has already receded considerably and the general speed of the format has slowed. With unfair combo preying on aggressive decks, I feel this could set up a flanking situation where aggro is either outsped, or too easily answered. Do you feel there’s a legitimate threat of (perhaps ironically) aggro underperforming in an overall metagame that includes unfair combo?

    1. Aggro underperforming in an overall metagame due to losing to midrange AND combo is def. possible. We see it even now, as infect, one of moderns premier aggro trifecta, falls to new lows. Affinity and Burn are both not as powerful now as well. That being said, a few months ago, people cried over the linear aggro metagame. Today, moderns linear aggro decks are either too strong to die (burn, affinity), struggling (infect) or adapting (death shadow). I dont see this as a problem, as aggro, midrange and combo are all present.

  3. I thought that the death of Goblins in Legacy was due to the Deathrite Shaman print in RTR? A card that could block a turn 1 Lackey and live, provide consistent lifegain, as well as a clock or chump blocker. Yes, it had a bad Combo matchup, but that didn’t keep it from being playable for a long while. Together, they crushed Goblins.

    However, in paper magic, given the popularity of Miracles (and lack of popularity for the turn 1 combo decks) even with a bad combo matchup it could be playable at this point. However, technically about anything is playable in Legacy, so….

    1. I was under the impression that the banning of Goblin Recruiter was the beginning of the decline. In any case, the point is that Goblins is no longer played. Given that what you say about paper Legacy may be true (I have no data to say) the most likely explanation for its absence is the threat of terrible combo matches.

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