Two-Card Combos That Made Magic History: The Nineties
- Tobi Henke
Sometimes it's as simple as putting one and one together, though the equation ideally amounts to something greater than the sum of its parts. The following pairs have formed famous friendships and cooperated so well that it may be tough to name any more iconic duos. Let's take a trip down memory lane …
Some combos require a critical mass of a certain type of card, or of different classes of cards. This can be about chaining mana boosts and extra draws, or about the right ratio of enablers to payoff. Some decks are intricate engines of various interlocking cogwheels. But sometimes it really is enough to put card A next to card B to achieve greatness. This article is specifically about this type of combination: two cards that have become famous for being best friends with each other.
1993: The Beginning
Our story begins with the very first Magic release. The set that would come to be known as Limited Edition Alpha messed with the game's central parameters at levels that weren't sustainable and that Wizards of the Coast indeed did not sustain later on. You start with seven cards and draw one more every turn — unless you cast Ancestral Recall. You're allowed to increase your mana production by one every turn — unless you cast Sol Ring. But while resource management was out of bounds, actual ways to win remained comparatively tame. Stories of people trading away a Mox for a Shivan Dragon might shock you because the exchange looks so unreasonable by today's standards. For full shock value, consider the possibility that it was reasonable.
It was in this setting that the first major combo made waves. Channel allowed you to convert life into mana and Fireball allowed you to convert mana into damage. If your starting hand also contained a Black Lotus and a Mountain, you could kill your opponent on the very first turn.
The cultural import was immense. A world without internet made it hard to communicate complicated ideas, but the simple one-two punch of these two cards snowballed through magazines and spread like wildfire via word of mouth. It's funny to entertain thoughts of an alternate timeline now in which "Channel-Disintegrate" became a popular phrase. In truth, that both Channel and Fireball had names so evocative of their function surely helped their case; more so because early Magic heavily borrowed from and targeted the player base of Dungeons & Dragons. (Magic soon outgrew its roots and Wizards of the Coast bought D&D publisher TSR in 1997.)
Second on the list of widely known Alpha combos one would likely have to place Thicket Basilisk plus Lure, or perhaps Pestilence plus White Knight. Although Icy Manipulator and Winter Orb had a more powerful interaction, theirs belonged to the domain of advanced players. Icy had two possible jobs in the relationship: tap the Orb during the opponent's turn to shut it off in time for one's own untap; or tap the one land the opponent did get to untap during theirs. A supercharged version of this tandem, using Static Orb and Opposition to do all of that and more, all at once, saw success in Standard many years later.
Community voices at the time put an inordinate focus on Erhnie's drawback. They made much ado about the fact that Armageddon rendered forestwalk meaningless. Actual success was more likely predicated on deploying a comparatively large and undercosted threat alongside Llanowar Elves and then pulling up the drawbridge by cutting off everyone's mana supply.
1994: Legen — Wait for It — ds
Tax Edge, the combination of Land Tax and Land's Edge, potentially enabled a player to search for 6 free damage every turn. Conveniently, the whole thing didn't require more than three lands in play, so it was easy to meet the tax man's condition.
A few years down the road, Land Tax found renewed fame when paired with Scroll Rack. In addition to the eponymous duo, Tax Rack featured Mox Diamond, Wasteland, and/or Undiscovered Paradise to help manage its taxes, Firestorm and sometimes Empyrial Armor as additional payoff, and, for redundancy, Tithe. No longer a simple two-piece puzzle, deck design, like the available card designs at its base, had made major advances in the meantime.
Back in 1994, Legends also afforded players the opportunity to enchant their Basalt Monolith with Relic Bind and their Ali from Cairo with Anti-Magic Aura. If you think about today's incessant calls for bannings, you might want to know what happened next.
People considered either half of this double date so unfair that Wizards felt forced to break up the happy couples. They eventually reworded Relic Bind to enchant an opposing artifact, Basalt Monolith's mana couldn't pay for its own untap for a while, and Ali earned a place on the banned and restricted list at some point. When Worship and Troll Ascetic rehashed the combination about a decade later, comparable frustration didn't lead to similar reactions.
1995: Urbi et Orbi
Play Balance and respond by sacrificing all your lands to Zuran Orb. Ta-dah, you've just cast Armageddon — and probably Wrath of God too — for the mere price of two mana. If you wonder how bad it must have felt to get the sorcery countered after sacrificing all lands, you don't know your rules history. At the time, there was one window for the opponent to cast an interrupt like Counterspell and then there was another window during which players could only respond with regular instants and abilities. So when you activated the Orb, you already knew that Balance was going to resolve.
1997: Start the Engines
You draw X cards. Cadaverous Bloom converts them into twice as much mana, fueling another, bigger Prosperity. Later this turn, you cast a massive Drain Life to kill the opponent. Right? Well, sure, but the Prosperous Bloom deck was never a chamber drama carried by the talent of two actors alone. The production featured an ensemble cast. First of all, there was Squandered Resources plus Natural Balance. Arguably more broken than the strategy's namesakes, this combination allowed you to turn a pair of untapped lands into ten mana. Without it, the deck never would have got off the ground at all. Infernal Contract was likewise crucial in jump-starting the card flow.
The reason to list Prosperous Bloom anyway is that the deck did become famous for the interaction between two cards, albeit in an error of history. To do the design justice, the record would show it as the first competitive engine combo build, a predecessor to Academy, High Tide, Jar, and Storm.
1998: Recurring Survival
On its own, the twosome of Recurring Nightmare and Survival of the Fittest didn't do anything of course. But if you had any creature card, you could not only get whatever creature you wanted into your hand, but into the graveyard and onto the battlefield, and onto the battlefield repeatedly, if necessary. And it often was necessary because cheating something huge into play didn't just end the game back then. 1998 World Champion Brian Selden employed Spirit of the Night and Verdant Force as finishers. The true strength of his deck lay in the utility belt of creatures with enter-the-battlefield abilities or a limited number of activations. For example, against beatdown strategies the Nightmare was all about recurring Wall of Blossoms, Nekrataal, Spike Feeder, and Spike Weaver.
In October 1998, Urza's Saga rang in what became known as "Combo Winter." However, it were multipart engine decks that dominated the tournaments of this era, not two-card combos. Though Rec-Sur itself picked up an infinite-mana tool in the form of Great Whale — at least until Wizards issued errata.
1999: Bunny and the Beebles
Our final entry didn't gain prominence until 2000 and comes with a bit of a roundabout origin story. Here it goes: there once was a three-card combo — Enduring Renewal, Goblin Bombardment, Shield Sphere — that became competitive (again) when paired with the infernal trio of Demonic Consultation, Dark Ritual, and Necropotence. Hitherto mainly tasked with sourcing creatures, disruption, and drain spells, only now people realized the true potential of Necro. When seeing upward of ten extra cards per game, it was possible to assemble even the most janky of combinations. Such was the power of the Skull.
Things took a turn when Michelle Bush discovered Illusions of Grandeur and Donate. Not only was this a duplet instead of a triplet. Not only did it require just one color. It also offered extra synergy with Necropotence, namely adding 20 to one's life total. Suddenly it was entirely feasible to pick up 30 bonus cards in a game.
The usual sequence involved paying the ever-increasing upkeep cost of Illusions once, then donating the enchantment to live the rest of its days on the other side of the battlefield. Since all of this typically took place over the course of the first four turns, thanks to Ritual and Mana Vault, the opponent often couldn't pay the four mana to maintain the Illusions and lost 20 life right away. Rarely ever could they pay six.
The supporting cast rotated over time, several times and always dramatically for the worse. Wizards first banned the fast mana, then Necropotence and Demonic Consultation. But the two leads, Illusions and Donate, stuck with the show for years. In 2001, Kai Budde won his fifth Pro Tour title with a mostly monoblue version featuring Sapphire Medallion alongside Merchant Scroll/Intuition/Accumulated Knowledge. Different characters with different lines, same final act. Before, one could blame Necro. Afterward one had to give due credit to the finishers themselves. It would indeed make no difference if this list were sorted in ascending order of box office turnout instead of chronologically by release date.
The central storyline also proved popular with younger audiences way past its Extended original run. Chris Botelho staged a successful if shortlived 2016 revival, with the main roles recast in different colors, taking his "Kitty Pact" on the road and all the way into the quarterfinals at Grand Prix Portland. Demonic Pact wooed critics with a modern interpretation of the Illusions part, a performance more nuanced across a longer build-up of tension but even more forceful at the concluding release, and Harmless Offering played a convincing Donate.
Tobi Continued …
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