Dominion: Combos, Combo Decks, and the pretenders

There are lots of cards that work well together in Dominion, many people call this a “combo” and there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just a word. Collectible Card Games have decks called “combo decks” that have a very specific purpose (draw a lot of cards and survive until you draw all the pieces of your combo, then play your combo to win the game), and many people wish to find the Dominion analog to this concept.

With this mentality, people see Festival and Library on the board and try to play that deck with no other support, and they wonder why it doesn’t work. Yes there is synergy between these cards but it needs a lot of other support. This certainly doesn’t fit the definition of a “combo deck” in my mind, and it definitely doesn’t resemble the “combo decks” from other CCGs.

So what is a “combo deck” in Dominion? How can we define it in an instructive way that helps us understand the game better? Then, once we have that definition, what combo decks exist in the game? Let’s talk about it.

Disclaimer: I realize that my definition here is not the only possible definition and that there are plenty of other ones out there that are equally as viable. It’s perfectly OK to think of things in a different way, this is just something that has helped me and others understand Dominion a little better.

Definition: Combo

Exactly two cards that allow for a strategy that beats most other decks with no outside support.

A Combo Deck is the deck built around this combo.

Why only two cards?

This question really has two parts: Why not more than two cards? And why two particular cards (instead of one of them being a type of card)? I’ll answer the second part first: stuff like [village]/Torturer or [village]/Wild Hunt is less of a combo-deck and more of a “Torturer deck” or “Wild Hunt deck”, so specifying two specific cards allows for us to talk about more specific decks that require very different ways to build them, while the decks I mentioned tend to focus around a single card and its support.

As for limiting it to two cards, it’s simply because there are so many Dominion cards now that seeing three particular cards in the same game is so unlikely that I don’t think it’s worth talking about.

Why no outside support?

I want to make a distinction between two cards that work well together under the right circumstances versus two cards that will shape the entire course of the game by themselves. From my experience I’ve found that combos that require no support at all to beat most decks are the ones that are worth actually practicing, plus they fundamentally change the way I look at the board away from “build a good deck” to “build around the combo.”

I realize this is the more contentious part of the definition, so if you don’t agree with this, then you probably won’t agree with a lot of the rest of the article. Again, that’s OK (see the disclaimer) but this definition has given other people a deeper understanding of the game, even if it doesn’t work for you. Neither one of us is “right” or “wrong” in this case, we should just celebrate our diversity!

 

So what decks out there are actually combo decks?

1. Hermit/Market Square
2. Travelling Fair/Counting House
3. Mandarin/Capital

There are good articles on each of these, so I’ll just link them and not say much else.

What decks are NOT combo decks, and why?

1. Native Village/Bridge
2. Royal Carriage/Bridge

Wow, people really like to find creative ways to play lots of Bridges in a turn. Unfortunately that’s really hard to do with just one other card to support. Each of these two strategies is flawed enough that it doesn’t quite carry the same impact as the actual combo decks. The reasons why this is the case are actually interesting to talk about because they shine the light on how to play against them, so I’ll focus on that in the rest of this article.

 

Pretender 1: Native Village/Bridge

This is probably the first “classic” combo deck in Dominion, it’s been around since Seaside, the second expansion of the game. It’s true that a deck played around these two cards is pretty good, but the main problem is that the “combo deck” of just NV/Bridge is worth going for so little of the time that it just doesn’t have that same presence that these other combos normally do: the whole “you better be playing something absolutely amazing if you aren’t going for this combo deck” presence.

Why is NV/Bridge not worth going for so much? The short version is that it’s not powerful enough. I think it’s a combination of several factors. You have to fully commit to playing the NV/Bridge deck very early on and counters do exist, so pretty much any other deck that can play multiple Bridges per turn more consistently than NV/Bridge is going to have more flexibility in the mid-to-late game, and since NV is a village itself, all you really need for this is any other decent source of draw, trashing, or a junking attack.

NV/Bridge just doesn’t have the speed that’s necessary to be so fast that you have to go for it or lose the game. When contested, it doesn’t have the raw, inevitable power you need to make up for that slowness, and there are just so many things out there that will allow you to contest Bridges or NVs and build a better deck that I find myself not going directly for this combo most of the time, even when NV/Bridge is on the board. Normally the combo just isn’t enough without at least 5 NVs AND 5 Bridges, and you should really have more of both of them.

All that said, practicing the NV/Bridge deck is still a potentially useful skill, because it has been a dominant strategy in maybe 5 or so games of Dominion that I’ve ever played and I was glad I practiced it when I played those games. So if you want to up your chances in those 0.2% of games, there you go.

 

Pretender 2: Royal Carriage/Bridge:

This is not a combo by my definitions for similar reasons to NV/Bridge: to play the combo deck you have to commit strongly enough that changing into a hybrid strategy isn’t really feasible, and this benefits so much from other types of support that I find myself rarely going for the RC/Bridge “combo deck,” but rather incorporating the synergy between these two cards into the payload of whatever deck I’m building.

The RC/Bridge “combo deck” is weak to pretty much every kind of attack there is, and while lucky draws can find you emptying Provinces on T12, the average case is closer to T14 or 15; too slow to outrace even a strong Big Money strategy, or almost any decent engine (remember that this “decent engine” has Royal Carriage and Bridge as tools it can use, so the only missing piece here is trashing or draw, or an attack. Sound Familiar?).

The other big point against the combo deck here is that it needs a minimum of 6 Royal Carriages or else it’s not going to be able to do anything; it’s actually easier for other decks to pick up RCs because they can go for other support, plus Royal Carriage is a good card in almost any deck. Even a 5-5 split of RCs can completely cripple the combo deck, leaving it with no backup plan at all.

The fact that other support plays so nicely into a deck that aims to play lots of Bridges means that it outperforms the RC/Bridge combo deck so much of the time, so that Looming Combo Presence™ isn’t usually a factor with these two cards. RC/Bridge is an explosive payload, no doubt, but it’s not a combo by this definition because you’re frequently better off building a good deck and then adding RC/Bridge as the payload.

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