Am I The Bolas? - Combo No-No

Mike Carrozza • January 3, 2024

(Paradox Engine | Illustrated by Christine Choion)

Hello, and welcome to Am I the Bolas?

This column is for all of you out there who have ever played some Magic and wondered if you were the bad guy. I'm here to take in your story with all of its nuances so I can bring some clarity to all those asking, "Am I the Bolas?"

I'm ready to hear you out and offer advice. All you have to do is email! You might see your story in the column. You might even hear it on the podcast. Which podcast? 


I'm Mark Carbonza, the guy who is bad at resolutions!

I can't believe I've already dropped my swords!

This week, our pal Brandon sent us a Reddit post!

(Post edited for brevity, clarity, swearing, spelling, and to shoehorn in the column title somehow!)


So I recently was at an EDH event at an LGS. It was kind of a Swiss-round tournament, but also there were rule zero talks in every round etc. All that people kept asking was: "Do you play combo?" When I'd say, "Yes," they were like, "Okay, that's so good, I'll need my strongest deck."

I was completely baffled. Playing combo or not says [nothing] about how strong your deck is. I have a five-card 15-mana value Colfenor, the Last Yew combo deck that goes off, like, on turn eight, maybe, while I have non-combo decks that can kill the table on turn four even without degenerate mana.

No one was worried about actually relevant stuff, like degenerate mana rocks, free spells, tutors, etc. They only cared about whether a deck was a "combo" deck or not. 

I don't get that. If I get killed on turn four, I don't give a flying [okiedokie] about whether I got killed by a combo or an aggro deck. Why would anyone care if the finisher was a turn-four Craterhoof Behemoth or a turn-four Heliod, Sun-Crowned+Walking Ballista? What matters is the turn-four win, right?

What I care about is stuff like:
- Do you play degenerate mana rocks?
- Do you play a lot of tutors?
- Do you play free interaction?

Stuff that actually says anything about the actual power of the deck. If it's a "combo deck" or any other wincon says nothing about the power at all. I wonder if they'd be happy if I played a turbo aggro deck or an Overrun deck that kills the table faster than my actual "combo" deck.

Can anyone explain why combo seems to be such a no-no?


Hello, Brandon, and thank you for forwarding along this Reddit post. If you, the reader, would like your story or opinion commented on in this column, please email Even if it's a Reddit post you found interesting and wanted to send my way, like Brandon did, I welcome it! Thank you to everybody who reads the column and everybody who submits to it.

Let's have a chat about combo and what it means.

I get why, but much like the original poster, I disagree with what combo has come to mean. 

As I understand it, "combo" has basically become shorthand for "infinite combo". Getting that out of the way will help with folks seeing why it's so reviled. An infinite combo is expected in competitive games, and a lot of those games end in multiple players attempting to combo off to take the win and blocking those attempts. I believe this is also where some confusion around combo exists. They're expected to be quick and game-winning. Sometimes, they loop infinitely; other times, they loop until a resource is exhausted. 

There's a difference between combos and synergies. 

Synergy is when cards work well together, chain together nicely, but do not loop or repeat a large amount of times in one go. An example of this is something like Thalisse, Reverent Medium and Illustrious Wanderglyph. Every upkeep and end step, you make at least a creature token unless something prevents it. 

A combo can be as simple as Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker + Pestermite. It can also be something like Underworld Breach + Brain Freeze or Phyrexian Altar + Gravecrawler + Diregraf Captain.

Sometimes a combo is Thornbite Staff + Othelm, Sigardian Outcast + Ashnod's Altar + Wernog, Rider's Chaplain + Krark-Clan Ironworks + Disciple of the Vault. The windows for response are tight, but they exist. A well-timed Krosan Grip could wreck this plan with three available targets. 

My point is that some combos take some assembling. The Othelm/Wernog combo is in my deck helmed by them, and when I've described it as a combo, my playgroup has said, "Well, six-card combos are less frustrating."

That's where the juice is here: when people think of combos, they think of two-card combos that cannot be stopped. They think of two-card combos that happen infinitely and end a game. A six-card combo, two of which start in the command zone, is much less scary for some reason. As someone who has been on the receiving end of both kinds of combos, I'll try to explain further. 

The two-card combos that folks think of when they hear it's a combo deck are thinking the deck's whole plan is that combo and is built to get that combo and win. I know what I think when I see two cards come together to go infinite: "Boring! I've seen it before! You did this last game, too!"

Unless I'm playing competitively of course; then I think how am I going to disrupt the two-card combo and then go for mine. It's different. 

However, that six-card combo from before? I live for that. Give me an engine. Give me the Ikea furniture equivalent of a combo. I want to have ten pieces put together to form some kind of assembly line of cool interaction. I love when I play them, I love when I see them played against me. But when it's all said and done, combos like these mean that almost any deck is a combo deck, so unless you're a tutor-for-your-pieces kind of combo deck, I'd specify how many cards the combo takes or just say "not really". Is there a combo? Yes. Is this a combo deck? Nope. 

For what it's worth, I fully agree with the sentiment that simply having a combo deck doesn't mean the deck is high-powered. "Are you running Mana Crypt?", "Are you running tutors?", and "What turn does your deck tend to win on?" are all better questions to ask for a better gauge on power level. But every question has an answer that flips it on its head.

"Yes, I run Mana Crypt, it's on-theme in my Auntie Blyte, Bad Influence deck."

"Yes, I run tutors to go fetch my secret commander Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker." 

"My deck wins on turn 30 when I've staxed everybody, reset life totals, locked everything down, and annoyed them until they conceded."

"Yes, my deck is a combo deck, but the combo is six pieces that are synergistic until absolutely all of them are in play, my commander doesn't have summoning sickness, and the Staff is equipped."

This isn't an article where there's a clean Bolas or not, but I found the post interesting and worth chatting about. Hopefully, this allows you to reflect more on the questions being asked and allows you to take it all with a grain of salt. 

We're playing a game. It can be personalized a ton, it varies, it changes every couple of months; find the folks you mesh with and can grow with. 

Happy new year, everybody. 

Mike Carrozza is a stand-up comedian from Montreal who’s done a lot of cool things like put out an album called Cherubic and worked with Tig Notaro, Kyle Kinane, and more people to brag about. He’s also been an avid EDH player who loves making silly stuff happen. @mikecarrozza on platforms