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— by Quintivarium Quintivarium
Strategy Thoughts: Card Combinations

For a while, I have been wanting to share my thoughts on certain aspects of Spellcraft strategy.  With this post, I present the first of what I hope will be several.  Please add your insights and corrections – there are many players out there who are better at this game than I.

In this article, I want to discuss card combos – not necessarily specific card combinations, but a general principle/theory behind combos.

First, what is a card combo?  Clearly cards like strangle vines and giant constrictors (jungle) are excellent in combination – both increase the effectiveness of the other.  But I would argue that such disparate cards as savage blood-drinker (jungle) and triton aquamancer (ocean) are a legitimate combination.  Neither directly impacts the other.  But the casting costs are such that both could be played in the same turn, and doing so leaves the opponent with a significant dilemma.  Unless the aquamancer is dealt with immediately, it may become very difficult to kill and an established aquamancer is a game changing force.  But the blood-drinker inflicts 4 life drain if allowed to hit.  Because the blood-drinker has 2 health, no single spell can kill both aquamancer and blood-drinker.  And it is hard to effectively neutralize the aquamancer and block the blood drinker in the same round.  For purposes of this article, I will consider a combo to be any collection of two or more cards intended to be played in tandem.

I do observe that decks are rarely successful on card combinations alone – it is generally far more important to have useful cards than to have flashy combinations.  The reason for this stems from simple probability: by definition, a combination requires at least 2 cards.  Even if you have the maximum four of each of those cards, you have to draw 11 cards from your deck to have better than a 50% chance of having one of each (this is turn six since you start with a hand of five cards).  It requires more like 15 cards drawn to get to a 75% chance of having one of both types draw.  It is very conceivable that a game is over before that cool combo even arises!  Of course, in games that are otherwise close, combos usually make the difference.

So what have I learned about combos?

1.  The combo cards should be organic to the deck.  They should flow naturally from the deck and not be artificial add-ins just because they are nice.  For example, fire faction’s rage card works very well with pyro-hydra as it triggers the hydra’s regeneration.  But if I have a fire-air deck that revolves around air faction’s multitude of minions with the quick trait, together with fire’s destructive, lane clearing spells, adding in rage and pyrohydra cards just for the sake of a combo is counter-productive.  It consumes 20% of the deck with cards that don’t support its theme, and rage will likely kill the friendly low health, quick minions.  If I really love the rage-pyrohydra combo, at the very least I should try to fit the rest of my deck to it.  The rage card calls for high health, or even better, health regenerating minions.  I think giant octopus or ancient turtle (hmm, maybe the deck should be fire/ocean).  I also think giant oak, living essence, wild growth (fire/ forest?)  But I hate to depend too much upon either rage or pyrohydras.  What if my key card is not drawn?  What if my opponent can meteor my hydras?  What if my opponent can counter the rage aura?  So I begin to ask, “What other cards fit?”  A giant volta (ocean) would also trigger my pyrohydra growth as well as work alongside an octopus.  Maybe some sink spells to help the strength 3 octopi and hydras stand against (or overcome) high strength opponents.  Maybe some razor sharks or aquamancers to give the opponent something to worry about other than my pyrohydras.  But these might not work well with rage – maybe deepsea things better fill this role.  Or maybe rage is the wrong card for this deck; what if I use fire shroud instead?  Or in addition?  Or maybe I should go back to my forest deck.  Living essence and wild growth would also support primeval flame.  Rebirth could be handy to bring back important minions.  These decks are starting to feel organic.

2.  Choose otherwise useful cards.  This is related to point 1.  If combos arise organically in a deck, the card should be generally useful, but I list this separately for emphasis.  Again, an example from fire faction.  Lava bombs and inferno are another natural combination – the bombs protect higher cost friendly minions from the inferno and the inferno detonates the bombs without waiting the six rounds otherwise required for the bomb to hurt an opponent.  But without careful deck design, neither card is very helpful by itself – the bombs are too slow and inferno is too self-destructive.  Inferno could possibly work with other cards (cloud of bats from swamp faction, mass collapse from underearth), lava bomb is not bad (just slow) and could be accelerated by melt, but none of these other cards are tremendously useful either.  I, at least, have not been successful with this combo.  Pyrohydra/rage is the opposite.  I almost never find a pyrohydra unuseful.  Rage is trickier, but is useful in the correct context (which doesn’t have to include pyrohydras).

3.  Be attentive to probabilities.  If your combo doesn’t arise, it could be bad luck.  But it could be (and likely is) an improbable event.  I once tried a combo involving festerplague (swamp), and time eater (air).  It seemed natural – the time eater is immune to the spell and enemies affected by the festerplague are killed by the time eater.  But, of course, my opponent always kept the time eater blocked.  So I added horrify (swamp) to clear the path in front of the time eater.  And the deck just did not work.  I needed a time eater, festerplague, and horrify (three card combinations are not highly likely).  Of course, I want the festerplague to hit several enemies.  But I need an open lane to horrify an opponent into.  And horrify only opens the time eater’s lane for one round.  Best case, I was using 12 cards (30%) of my deck to get maybe 2 kills a game.

4. Look to improve probabilities.  There are several ways to do this.  More combo cards dramatically improve the probability of drawing a particular combo.  If my deck contains only 3 copies of both cards needed for a combination, it requires 15 draws from my deck to have a 50% or better chance of drawing at least one of each (as opposed to 11 draws with 4 copies of each).  Some combos work with a variety cards, rather than just one.  Nobbling trickster/hunt (forest) is a nice combination – the trickster, when played, gives its opponent 1 health; the hunt can then kill the opponent.  But there are several other cards that can replace hunt in this combo: fire rain, forked lightning, magic missile, an aquamancer or giant volta special power, a freshly played stormship, etc.  Combos that can utilize a whole class of cards (rather than one specific card) will occur far more frequently.  Probabilities can also be improved by utilizing units that draw the desired card.  Blood orb/cloud of bats (a swamp combo) is very effective as the blood orb inflicts 2 life damage on your opponent for each bat sacrificed.  It works even better with 2 or 3 orbs in play to prevent the bats from dying before they can be sacrificed.  Needless to say, it is hard to draw blood orbs fast enough.  But kobo miners (underearth) will draw the cheapest item from your deck – and afterwards, they are a cheap sacrifice, too.  Throw in kobo summoners to pull kobo miners into play and blood orb strategies become feasible.  There are cards that pull spells (aeromancer, mage tower), traps (savage kobo, trapvines), and auras (faerie enchantress and sometimes ancient turtle) as well.  Finally, look to use the same cards in multiple combinations.  I love aetherfish/overload (air) combinations.  The aetherfish will effectively remove the timers inflicted by the overload on creatures that would otherwise have no timer.  But I also like aetherfish with bodyswap (swamp).  The aetherfish can be played on the same turn as bodyswap.  The aetherfish has 0 strength to leave with the opposite enemy – and it has quick to likely destroy that enemy in the same turn.  And I like overload with any minion that already has a timer (whirling djinn, doomcloud).  The more I interlink combos, the more likely one will occur.

5.  Be attuned to timing.  Some combinations work best played early:  I love placing astral armor (air) on aquamancers the turn I play the aquamancer.  Magic immunity protects the aquamancer from almost anything that could destroy it except for strength 3 and above minions or quick minions opposing it.  If played early (while there are lots of open lanes), the aquamancer can simply run away (using its evasion trait) from strong minions until it gets established.  Later in the game, with no safe havens anywhere (big minions on every lane), it is almost impossible to establish an aquamancer.  Other combos work better late in the game.  My most successful deck to date tries to combine catastrophe with magic immune forces.  As long as my cloud dragons, primeval flames, astral armored ruby dragons, etc. are holding their own, I am perfectly happy to wait with catastrophe until my opponent has lots of forces in play for me to destroy!  The later the combo, the lower the acceptable probability of drawing the cards can be.

6.  Consider your opponent’s likely cards.  My earliest effective deck combined burning world with pyrohydras – a natural combo indeed.  And very effective against the AI.  But I found in PVP, that my opponent was very likely to have pyrohydras, too – and often drew them sooner than I did.  I have abandoned such combos, because being the unlucky guy I am, I found burning world to better benefit my opponent than me about half the time.  Many friendly cards can be used against you: primeval ooze (ravager played opposite), narrow tunnels (fire giant or spore farm opposite), lavapult (pyrohydra opposite), tornado (unicorn opposite – or aeromancer!), etc.  These friendly cards are really only issues when your opponent is likely to carry the correct opposing cards.  

7.  Avoid anti-combos – cards that detract from each other.  An aerovore does not work well with cards with timers – unless you want the timer to run out.  Implode does not fit well with most barriers.  Stitched golems don’t mix well with cloud of bats.  Lava bombs need cheap minions – but not those with magic immunity.  Etc.

8.  Never rely on just one thing.  Highly effective decks always have “the right card”.  Combos are not always available and may be thwarted.  The best combo in the world will probably lose if half of one’s deck serves no purpose other than supporting that combo.  Always weigh the resource commitment (cards, power points, etc.) against the value of the combination and its likelihood of arising.

I have seen several threads where players ask others to share favorite combos.  But combos are not hard to find: know the capabilities of a variety of cards, ask how one capability may support another – presto! you have a combo.  The real challenge is making those combos work to the benefit of the deck; that is what I have tried to address in this post.