Magic the Gathering combo decks have been around since the beginning of the game, when players first made the connection between Channel, Fireball, and Black Lotus and cratering their opponent on turn one. Other combinations were discovered soon after—some more devastating than others—that leveraged multiple cards together to either win the game on the spot or create an immediate overwhelming advantage. How many of us had a deck that tried to cast Animate Artifact on an Aladdin’s Lamp just because it made an unstoppable-seeming 10/10 creature? Or wanted to cast Armageddon with a Dingus Egg or two in play (and fewer lands than the opponent)?
In the Black Summer of 1996, Necropotence emerged as a one-card engine for mono-black decks. Combined with Ivory Tower or Drain Life, it provided a constant source of cards to control the game, eventually winning with Knight of Stromgald. This kind of incremental gain is great, of course, but it’s more what I would call “synergy” than “combo.” Rather than winning all at once by putting together cards, it won over several turns, with multiple creature attacks. Really, every deck should be looking for the best, most advantageous cards it can play.
The first modern combo deck is generally considered to be Pros-Bloom, which, rather than relying on a pair of cards for instant advantage, used a series of draw spells and mana making cards to finish the opponent with a lethal Drain Life. This was essentially the first storm deck, resolving several spells in series to win at once. It demonstrated the power of Vampiric Tutor, as well as the power of getting an undisrupted turn, using Abeyance to play through counterspells and other disruption.
Obviously a dedicated combo deck like Pros-Bloom can be very powerful. However, they are often fragile- especially in Vintage where several types of decks play Sphere of Resistance effects that make spells cost more, an exponential problem for a chain of spells. They often also fold to counterspells on a critical spell and may not have room to run much protection.
Later, in the Extended format of 1999, the Trix deck featured the combo of Illusions of Grandeur and Donate to first gain 20 life when Illusions enters play and then make the opponent lose the same when they can’t pay the upkeep on the Donated enchantment. This combo fit neatly into a mostly mono-blue control shell, allowing the player to stay alive long enough to put together the mana and cards necessary to get the enchantment in play on its opponent’s side of the table. Trix was also a good example of having Force of Will backup for getting a combo to go through.
The Illusions-Donate combo was easy to play, quick to win, and readily supported. If I were looking to innovate a deck in Vintage—especially if I needed a sanctioned Vintage deck for Eternal Weekend—I’d look for a combo with the same attributes to include.
The Elephants in the Room
Tinker has the advantage of being a three-mana, one-card combo that works with most of the artifact acceleration in the format. It has been used over the years to get different devastating artifacts depending on the deck and what’s available. Initially it was used in storm decks to get Black Lotus (usually to fuel Yawgmoth’s Will) or Memory Jar. Later, Darksteel Colossus was added as a two-turn, difficult-to-deal-with win. It would trample over most other creatures and was fast enough to secure victory. Today, of course, it wins a turn faster with Blightsteel Colossus and also works to find Time Vault or Voltaic Key, which win on the spot.
Tinker is restricted, and there’s usually no need or desire to play more than one Tinker target in a deck, so it’s the win is nicely packaged into just two cards. Tinker, of course, can also function as a tutor, in case you need to get something like Nihil Spellbomb to answer Dredge when waiting for an attack phase might be too slow. Decks without Moxes can still play Tinker, though they’ll need enough artifacts to make it consistent: playsets of Chalice of the Void and Aether Vial would work. Also note that you can sacrifice a Grafdigger’s Cage to [card]Tinker[/car]d and put the tutored card into play.
Time Vault will combine with anything that untaps artifacts—most commonly Voltaic Key or Tezzeret, the Seeker—to set up “infinite” turns. This won’t win the game on its own, but it does prevent your opponent from interacting and gives you plenty of time to set up a win, usually by attacking or using a planeswalker over several turns. One of the best features of this combo is its accessibility; Time Vault plus Voltaic Key and activation is a whopping four colorless mana. It has potential in almost any deck and is a turn-one possibility with Black Lotus.
Really, the main drawback to Tinker and Time Vault is their status as public enemies numbers one and two. Because they’re so common and powerful, every deck has maindeck answers to them. Are they powerful enough to play despite the answers? Absolutely.
With a cardpool as broad and deep as Vintage’s, of course, there are many different combos to choose from, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. There are a lot of two-card combos that have potential as imminent game winners, in that they will win within a turn and be difficult to stop.
Grinding Out a Victory
Basically, Painter’s Servant changes all cards (including those not in play) to be a single color, then a single Grindstone activation will mill an entire library away. The Grindstone target loses at their next draw.
This combo has showed up in a few different Vintage decks, including Rich Shay’s mono-red list , Two-Card Monte, and control decks that use Painter’s Servant to turn Red Elemental Blast into Vindicate and make extra lands pitchable to Force of Will.
The six-mana combo has a natural progression since Grindstone can be played turn one, Painter’s Servant turn two, and then activation on turn three. Because all the pieces are artifacts, it has potential in many different builds. It is also usually lethal, being risky against only a few cards, like Memory’s Journey and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, that can put cards back into the library. Without one of those, even Yawgmoth’s Will or Dredge won’t be able to get around losing to not having a library.
Some drawbacks to the combo include weaknesses to artifact and creature disruption, as well as to Null Rod and Pithing Needle effects. Grindstone’s susceptibility to Mental Misstep can also be an issue.
Taking the Helm
Similar to the Painter’s Servant combo, Helm of Obedience combines with Leyline of the Void or Rest in Peace to eliminate an opponent’s library. Because of how Helm is worded, it continues trying to reach its goal of putting X cards into the graveyard but can’t because of the enchantment’s replacement ability. In this case, though, it has the benefit of removing the library entirely.
Leyline and Rest in Peace are both strong disruptive abilities in Vintage because there are so many things that access the graveyard, from game-winners like Yawgmoth’s Will to advantage machines like Snapcaster Mage and Crucible of Worlds. Consider how great it would be to have multiple maindeck disruptive spells against Dredge, and you can see why playing the combo is worthwhile. Unfortunately, Helm itself is mostly useless and gets sacrificed when it does work.
Especially using Leyline of the Void, the Helm combo is reasonably costed: four colorless mana for the artifact and just one for the activation. Rest in Peace, raises the cost slightly, but not as much as hardcast Leyline, and the white enchantment is better disruption. Spells like Dark Ritual can help pay for Leyline (or Helm), which is part of the reason the combo was in the initial versions of Dark Times. Playing black also gives access to tutors, which helps find this combo and any others you might be playing, along with providing discard to play around disruption.
Because the individual parts of the Helm combo are generally cumbersome, it makes the combo especially weak to artifact or enchantment removal, as well as Sphere of Resistance effects. You may have to wait a turn or more before getting both pieces into play. Also, like Painter’s Servant, it fails against Null Rod and Pithing Needle.
Exit Stage Left
The biggest creature in Vintage isn’t Blightsteel Colossus or Griselbrand, it’s a 20/20 flying, indestructible token. Take the shortcut to removing the counters from Dark Depths and do them all at once with Vampire Hexmage (as in Dark Times deck), or make a Thespian’s Stage version of Dark Depths without the counters in the first place.
Both of those combos are just two cards and two mana, either BB for Hexmage or double colorless for the Thespian’s Stage ability. Using Thespian’s Stage or Cavern of Souls on vampire or shaman also makes the combo entirely uncounterable by normal means. However, both Stage and Cavern run further into this combo’s biggest detractor: Wasteland. It’s not impossible to play around Wasteland (for example, with Pithing Needle), but it will slow you down.
Still, as a creature, the Marit Lage token is mostly unbeatable. Since it’s not an artifact, it gets around many of the problems faced by Blightsteel Colossus, leaving mostly general bounce like Echoing Truth or Chain of Vapor and exilers like Swords to Plowshares. Many of the best removal for Marit Lage ends up being weak to Mental Misstep, a handy spell in Vintage on its own.
The Legend of Bomberman
Unlike Worldgorger Dragon, which is banned, the Auriok Salvagers combo periodically rears its head in Legacy, powered by Lion’s Eye Diamond. The Vintage version gets a strict upgrade in Black Lotus, which you can recur an arbitrary number of times with Salvagers without discarding your hand. This makes infinite mana.
Salvagers combo and Trinket Mage form the backbone of UW Bomberman and UWB Bob-Bomberman decks, generally played as control decks with a combo finish. After making infinite mana with Salvagers and Lotus, it’s generally easy to clear most of the opponent’s board with Engineered Explosives and draw cards with Aether Spellbomb. You can then fill the board with creatures and keep a hand filled with disruption as you attack over several turns. (Pyrite Spellbomb also works to win with damage that turn, though it has fallen out of favor to drawing cards.)
The main drawback of this combo is that Salvagers is a four-drop creature that won’t always do much outside the combo. Surprisingly, though, it’s often easy to resolve a four-drop creature in Vintage because it avoids narrow counters like Flusterstorm, Spell Pierce, and Spell Snare. The card it combos with even helps power it out!
The Magic Stick
Metalworker is downright scary in an all-artifact deck. Even without a combo piece, it can still make a huge amount of mana and fill the board with lock pieces, once it loses summoning sickness. With Staff of Domination or Umbral Mantle, it uses cards in hand to win the game. Three artifacts in hand means that Metalworker can use Staff’s untap ability first to make infinite mana and then to draw cards and tap the opponent’s board. With two artifacts in hands, Umbral Mantle will make Metalworker arbitrarily large (and untapped) for an attack.
The biggest drawbacks to this combo are that all the pieces are three-drop artifacts. If it weren’t for Mishra’s Workshop they’d be cumbersome to cast, and they fall victim to artifact hate, which is generally common in Vintage, especially postboard. Beyond that, the other big drawback is needing to have artifacts in hand to fuel Metalworker; topdecking one piece midgame means you might not have the resources to use it.
That said, Mishra’s Workshop is very available in proxy metagames, and there’s potential to accelerate the combo out with Ancient Tomb into Grim Monolith. Artifact decks also have lots of powerful cards to surround the combo, including Memory Jar and Kuldotha Forgemaster to help find things and Lightning Greaves for protection.
Now I am become Death, the Gorger of Worlds
This is where things start getting weird. Casting Animate Dead (or Dance of the Dead or Necromancy) with Worldgorger Dragon in the graveyard has the following effect:
1. Animate Dead enters play, returns Worldgorger Dragon, attaches to it and becomes an enchant creature card.
2. The Dragon’s enter the battlefield trigger happens and exiles all of your permanents, including Animate Dead.
3. No longer enchanted, Dragon goes back to the graveyard.
4. The Dragon’s leave the battlefield trigger happens and returns all of your permanents to the battlefield untapped, including Animate Dead.
5. Begin again from step 1.
There’s time to respond to the various steps by casting instants and, more importantly, tapping lands and artifacts. So this becomes an infinite-mana engine; it can also be a card-drawing graveyard engine with Bazaar of Baghdad and can combo with so many things that have abilities tied to entering or leaving the battlefield or using mana. Common win conditions in the past have been to use infinite mana with Emperor Laquatus, Shivan Hellkite, or Oona, Queen of the Fae.
This combo isn’t used much now because it’s so reliant on the graveyard and Dredge already necessitates that players prepare for those strategies. Also, getting Dragon removed with the exile trigger on the stack means you lose everything you had. However, using a graveyard deck that doesn’t rely on the Dredge engine also means that you have room for control cards and mana, meaning you can be better prepared to deal with challenges using discard and counters. In the end, it’s a bargain two-mana combo once the Dragon is in the yard.
This combo is banned in Legacy but is unseen in Vintage. Simple enough: enchant a land with Squirrel Nest, tap to make a squirrel, use Earthcraft and the squirrel to untap the land, rinse and repeat. Intruder Alarm and Concordant Crossroads also have your squirrels untap and attack that turn.
Green by itself is not an especially powerful color in Vintage, which is probably a big reason why this combo doesn’t see play. The pieces are already weak to Nature’s Claim and Abrupt Decay (basically anything that removes Oath of Druids), and playing additional colors forces you into non-basic lands, which might end up in your Squirrel Nest getting wasted. Making 2GGG, even over two turns, can be a tall order.
However, green has gotten some interesting tools recently, including the aforementioned Nature’s Claim and Abrupt Decay, as well as Tarmogoyf, Deathrite Shaman, Qasali Pridemage, Noble Hierarch, and Gaea’s Cradle, benefitting from the new legend rule. There’s potential for this combo to develop inside a BG or WG aggro-control shell, as well as an Enchantress shell, though that might work better with more synergistic cards. Neither Earthcraft nor Squirrel Nest is particularly bad on its own, at least in certain matchups.
Personally, I just want to see someone win with squirrels in Vintage.
Of course in a format as expansive as Vintage, there are so many potential infinite combos to experiment with. I’m not even close to discussing all of them here, missing things like Grim Monolith and Power Artifact, or Channel into Emrakul, the Aeons Torn (or Lich’s Mirror). Vintage is vary rarely about the early, unstoppable combo (though it does happen), since everything has its weaknesses. The point is really that the format is wide open, and there are areas that remain unexplored or that could be explored further. A strategy or idea that may have not worked a few years ago might have had support printed for it in the meantime. And with the format’s tutors, draw, and mana, there are plenty of opportunities to win games with previously unseen ideas.
I suggest you proxy up some crazy stuff and give it a try! Good luck!
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