Thursday, February 11, 2010

You Suck Against Combo

I've been playing Elves in extended recently. It's a bit different from most combo decks throughout the game's history (except, obviously, last season's version of the same deck), due to the fact that its engine is based around playing a ton of one-mana creatures. It's still a combo deck, though, which means it has some of the classic advantages of combo decks: you need dedicated hate to have a chance against it, and people play like morons against it.

There's a couple reasons this happens. The first is that, often, people don't respect what the deck can do, or have no idea when it's possible for it to win- this leads to things like a control deck tapping out for Baneslayer Angel or something else dumb like that when the Elf player has a grip full of cards and a decent board position. It's just asking to lose. Neither player can fall into the trap of "if he has it he has it;" going for the combo in the face of untapped lands is usually going to end up really badly unless you have a good plan to go off, or at least cast some spells, through resistance. The control player needs to realize the Elf player is thinking this, meaning that if they tap out for some non-threat like Baneslayer Angel, they are yelling at their opponent "I DON'T HAVE SHIT! PLEASE KILL ME!" When you're playing some controllish deck against combo, as odd as it sounds, your gameplan should not change based on what is in your hand; you need to keep up the appearance that you can smack them upside the head if they try anything funny, or risk having them kill you right off the bat. This doesn't just apply to big five-cost bombs, either; if you're a Faeries player on the draw and you see some Elves hit the table across from you, that turn two Bitterblossom might not be the best course of action. Even if they don't have the turn three kill, it's very likely that they'll fart out their entire hand, and a 1/1 a turn isn't going to do much to stop that. Leaving up those two mana will probably slow them down a turn- which is fantastic, since Faeries practically auto-wins if it resolves Ancestral Visions.

The other way that people play badly against combo is by not respecting the backup plan, and not respecting their sideboard against your sideboard. This comes up a lot in Dredge games, post-sideboard: the hater will keep some 7-card hand with absolutely no action (maybe even no land) and expect to take things home on the back of a Leyline or whatever. Unfortunately for this player, the opponent's cards still exist; their entire deck isn't removed from the game just because you had a sideboard card in your opener. They'll be casting all those 1/1s and pointing Hedron Crab milling at you until either they win or find a bounce spell (if they play it). If the hater isn't able to actually cast spells, well, obviously he's going to lose, since the Dredge player is attempting to play Magic: the Gathering (or something loosely resembling it) while the hater looks silly and marks down his life total. He'll look even sillier if the Dredge player had an Echoing Truth, and wins even more easily than he took game one.

It's even worse for the anti-combo player if they're up against a deck like Elves that has a reasonable backup plan. 1/1s for one and three-mana lords aren't going to win too many Extended tournaments if you can't combo, but if your opponent is using all their resources to attack your combo plan (like if they've Thoughtseized and Extirpated your Glimpse of Nature and just assume you can't win now), it becomes a lot more reasonable, since they have very little to interact with a bunch of bad creatures attacking them. If you're going to try to combat a combo deck, make sure that either your plan works against both their main strategy and their backup, or have some cards that can deal with the latter. It's hard coming up with examples to explain how bad it is to neglect a combo player's backup plan, but it's so pervasive that it makes people play terribly, and make bad sideboarding decisions. You wouldn't assume that Zoo can't beat you without Wild Nacatl, so why are you assuming Elves can't beat you without Glimpse?

Playing against combo, lesson number one: HATE IS NOT ENOUGH.

Hate does not win games. Interacting meaningfully wins games. The same hate cards can do nothing or be completely brutal, depending on the strategy that the person playing them is using: to go back to Elves, if you look at the (now outdated) UW Thopter lists, they look like a nightmare. Maindeck Explosives, Trinket Mage and Tolaria West to tutor for it, often maindeck Chalice to tutor for as well, two Wraths, counters, card draw to find all that, finishing off with a combo of their own... how can Elves possibly win? Pretty easily, as it turns out. Just play 1/1s and attack with them for three a turn until they feel like doing something about it. Sure, UW plays some scary cards, but they have no pressure to back them up with, so what's forcing you to run your cards into their eeeevil mass removal? UW does really well against Zoo, because Zoo doesn't have any choice but to run their guys out there in the first few turns and hope they're good enough before UW plays some big spells that end the game. Elves is different: it's fine just attacking for three turn after turn, because if UW ever taps a bunch of mana to try to stop your pitiful beats, you can combo them fairly easily. This is why aggro-control decks are, traditionally, the normal combo deck's worst nightmare: they have cards that can interact with your combo, as well creatures that threaten you enough that you have to try to win the game anyway.

How does this impact your deckbuilding? First of all, you need to think about what the combo deck in your sights will do post-sideboarding, if your plan is to beat them with sideboard cards. Say that, for example, you're playing that BW Martyr deck that put up some good finishes. You can't just throw Explosives and Chalice in there and expect to crush Elves, because Elves doesn't give a shit about any of your other cards. Oooo, you're gaining life! Oh no. In this scenario, it would be better if you could put in some relevant creatures to put a clock on them while you disrupt them, instead of throwing Chalice out on the board and waiting until the end of time, when they find Viridian Shaman/Zealot and win anyway.

How does this impact your play? A narrow hate card and no action isn't going to put away the game for you. If the hand looks like complete garbage but hey, at least there's an Explosives in there, you probably need to throw it away anyway.

Something else I've seen is assuming that post-sideboard games against combo just come down to whether the hate is drawn or not, and as such, they don't really need to test it. This is wrong. Play the damn games.


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