The Difference Between Good and Bad Combos

In any card game, people love combos.  Absolutely any combo at all, someone LOVES it.

Can you put a given two cards together and have the sum be greater than the individual parts?  If so, some guy is out there on an internet forum somewhere exclaiming that this card is the greatest thing in the history of human civilization.  Even better than the printing press! (which just happened to be necessary to create the physical card).

But here is the thing.  Some combos are good, and some are bad!
Not just any combo is the greatest invention since the Plow!

The key to understand here is that when evaluating cards, many people get hung up on the BEST case scenario.  “If I get both of these cards together, in the right order, and this situation happens, then it does something AWESOME.  Therefore, these cards are AWESOME”.

In truth, it is far better and more realistic to evaluate a card’s expected value.  That is, weigh its value over all probabilities, weight the probabilities based on how likely they are, compute the averaged, expected result.

In a standard combo, cards A and B, if combined, provide a more powerful effect.  For example:
Parasite + Datasucker.  Sneakdoor Beta + Emergency Shutdown.  Archer + Corporate Troubleshooter.   Underworld Contacts + Rabbit Hole.  Cell Portal + Akitaro.   Pad campaign + Encryption Protocol.   Scorched Earth + Scorched Earth.  Put together, the cards grow in power due to their synergy with each other.

Most of these combos that I listed are good combos.  What is the key that distinguishes a good combo from a bad combo?  For a good combo the expected value of the cards are high.  Not just the net result of having both, but the expected value of each INDIVIDUAL card, averaging together the chances that I have its combo partner, or not.

Sneakdoor Beta is a good card, regardless of whether you have Emergency Shutdown.  Emergency Shutdown is a good card, regardless of whether you have Sneakdoor.  Their expected value was already strong.  The fact that they improve if you put them together just makes them better.
The same is true for Parasite and Datasucker.

But some of these combos are questionable.

Underworld Contacts + Rabbit Hole.  Ok, there is potential here.  But without link, Underworld Contacts is blank.  Is this a good combo?  Maybe if I build in enough redundancy into my deck, with replacement Rabbit Hole pieces like Dyson Mem Chip.  And if the Rabbit Hole remains useful to me even without the Underworld Contact.

Akitaro + Cell Portal?  Well, Akitaro is pretty good on his own.  But Cell Portal is pretty questionable.  I have to draw it early, or else I cant put it to the bottom of my ice fort where it needs to be.  Or maybe I have to add a THIRD combo card, Sunset, to make it work.  And the Sunset is even MORE useless outside of my combo.  And now I need even more cards to make my combo work.  I need non-end the run ice in front of my Cell Portal.  Maybe I need a Whirlpool somewhere.  And on and on I go, adding cards to my combo that intrinsically are not strong ON THEIR OWN, but are only good in my combo.

Its clear that this combo isn’t at the power level of Sneakdoor + Emergency Shutdown.  Each individual card isn’t as strong, and I am really depending on having both, or putting together many cards, to get value.  The average across all probabilities is weaker.  My expected value is lower.

Lets look at varieties of combos:
Auto Win combo:
In a way, the ultimate combo is the auto-win combo.  If you get cards X, Y, and Z together and they all work, then you WIN.  Sea Source, Scorch, Scorch!  Black Lotus + Channel + Fireball!
Many combo decks throughout the history of customizable card games have been built around these sorts of combos.

Now, the reward for an auto-win combo is super high.  You WIN!  Possibly in a super impressive way, which makes people secretly giggle with delight, as they are able to subject the opponent to a humiliating loss and the hand of the utter brilliance of their combo.   (Ignoring the fact that said combo was discussed in detail on every internet forum in existence).  Some combos throughout CCG history have even been so involved, that they require about 10 minutes of exacting calculation, resource management, and accounting, to generate the final result!  What could be better than that, some players think, not only do I win, but my opponent is forced to spend 10 minutes focused on watching me masturbate with my cards, counting up resources and converting them into other resources, forcing him to witness the greatness of my concoction!

(Footnote: This was especially true of any combo involving this card:

Alternately, some thought the combo was the opposite of awesome, because playing it all day in a tournament was so hard that you would get a headache for sure.  It was a true, real life, ‘Yawgmoth’s bargain’.  You endured physical pain in return for your power)

Several factors potentially assail the value of the auto-win combo.

First of all, sometimes it might not win, if the opponent has appropriate counter measures.  If my Cell Portal combo fails due to a Gordian Blade and 6 credits, it doesn’t seem quite as good anymore.  Scorched Earthx2 has Plascrete to counter it.  Neural Katana into Snare is preventable by Dues Ex, or playing Diesel first.

Now, some counters are bad, narrow cards.  They are generally ignorable, unless the meta becomes dominated by your combo.   If your combo has those kinds of counters, you might not need to worry, unless everyone starts playing the deck.  But being countered by a common card like Gordian Blade and $6, well, that’s worrysome.  This is part of why we all hate Woodcutter.  We know that all your effort is just going to get crushed by a single Parasite, a commonly played card.

Secondly, the auto-win combo is limited by how many different cards must be assembled to complete it, and how fast it can work.  Clearly, a 3 card combo is way worse than a 2 card combo, and something faster and cheap is far better.

If an auto-win combo is too consistent, too fast, and without sufficiently good counterplay, then it becomes DOMINANT.  It becomes an easy way to win the game.  For example, if you play Weyland Scorched Earth, with Project Atlas for consistency, and there is no Plascrete in existence, then you’ve got a dominant combo.

The 1 card combo
The ultimate form of an auto-win combo, or even just a very strong combo, is the ONE CARD combo.  Whats that, you ask.  How can ONE card be a combo?    Throughout the history of customizable deckbuilding games, certain cards have existed as the engines of powerful combo decks.

For example, in Magic: the gathering we had the notorious Necropotence.

Ironically dubbed the “Worst card” in the Ice Age set by Inquest Magazine when it was released, (lol! How bad are people at card evaluation!), this card fueled various combo decks for years, by providing nearly infinite card draw potential.  When having one card lets you draw ALL other cards, your combo is suddenly not just completed, but also supported and backed up by tons of other cards in your deck to ensure that it works.

For another example, there is Survival of the Fittest:

You could spend a mana and discard a creature to then go get any other creature.  Ok, sounds like a fair trade right, no net gain of cards?  Well, the thing about REPEATEDLY looking through your deck and picking any card is that, with a big enough cardpool, you tend to be able to circumvent any obstacle, and break any resource cost loop.

You see, first you could go get Squee, and then you would discard him to get another creature.  Now every turn Squee comes back to your hand, so we are negating the ‘discard a creature’ repeated cost.  Next we are going to find some Vengevines, discarding them all to search for the rest, and get them all in the discard.  You see, we actually wanted them there.  They come back out of the discard.
Rather than my combo requiring me to draw Survival, and Squee, and Vengevine, to do something amazing, my combo is one card.  With Survival, I AUTOMATICALLY get every piece of my combo.

Hopefully by now you haven’t thought “screw this guy, he keeps talking about Magic cards, and I only care about Netrunner”, hopefully you’re still reading.  (I understand the feeling, I only care about netrunner too!  You, me, and Richard Garfield all agree that it’s his best game)!

So whats a 1 card combo in Netrunner?  No, we don’t have anything as broken as Necropotence or Survival of the Fittest yet.
Aesop’s Pawnshop comes to mind quickly.  It adds small efficiency onto many cards, like Armitage Codebusting, Bank Job, anything you can play for free, etc.  Is this a 1-card combo?  Yes, in a way.  You can build a deck around it, and its inherent existence in that deck makes all those cards a little more powerful.  It’s a weak 1-card combo.  But even that can be good.

How about Noise?  Yes, Noise is a 1-card combo.  You build a deck around him and he adds a substantial benefit onto many cards.  Your deck can be so full of cards that combo with him, that you essentially always have some of them.  When a card combos with your entire deck as a whole, it’s a 1 card combo.  Not only that, but you can begin the game with him in play, how awesome!

Noise might be a powerful 1 card combo, but is that strategy a good one?  If all the virus cards sucked and didn’t do much (like Original Netrunner, lol!), then he wouldn’t be a GOOD combo.  If the synergy is REQUIRED for the card to reach an okay expected value, then that’s kindof a bad strategy.  If the synergy your combo creates takes ALREADY decent or strong cards, and makes them REALLY strong together, then THAT is a good strategy.

Noise is an example of a good Synergy deck.  I grouping of cards that are individually all good and together even stronger.  Parasite?  Good.  Datasucker? Good.  Medium? Good.  Imp? Good.   Personal Workshop? Good.  Parasite + Datasucker?  Even better.  Parasite appearing off Workshop?  Even better.  All of those cards, individually reasonable, playable, even strong cards, also trashing the top card of R&D?  Wow.  That’s synergy.

This deck is a strong archetype because the expected value of every card is high.  Every card is individually decent and gains automatic bonuses from things like my noise ability, and additional synergy power part of the time, when combed with the right other cards in my deck.
That’s a 1 card combo.  That’s a Synergy deck.  Its not an autowin 1-card combo.  Noise doesn’t fetch three other cards by himself, put them in play, and then say GG.  But it’s a strong combo.

1 card combos tend to be either Engine cards, that is, cards that provide access to tons of cards, tutor repeatedly for cards, or provide nearly unlimited resources.  Or, they are synergy cards, cards that provide a significant boost to a wide array of other cards, so that when you play them all together the result is very strong.
Noise and Aesop’s Pawnshop are examples of synergy 1 card combos in netrunner. Project Atlas is kindof an Engine 1-card combo, though only if you can manage to overadvance it, so it’s a limited one.

We have different kinds of combos, of varying effectiveness.
* One card combos are engine cards that provide massive access to cards or resources, or repetitive deck-searching potential.

* A one card Synergy combo is simply a card that powers up tons of other cards, allowing the creation of a synergy deck to be built around it.

* A one card win combo is something that lets you tutor for or massively draw to get multiple pieces of a win combo.  If these are consistent and fast they tend to utterly dominate formats and require bannings to fix.

* A multi-card win combo is a set of cards that, if you draw them all, can enable you to simply win the game.  Possibly in some sort of mega-turn where you execute a loop repeatedly, or by executing a ‘hard-lock’ on your opponent, denying him the ability to do anything.
The strength of a multi card win combo depends on several factors:
A.    How many cards are required (more cards is WAY WAY worse).
B.    Do any of those cards have redundant backups that fulfill the same purpose (this makes the extra cards needed more tolerable).
C.    How consistently does it win if assembled?  Is it 100% automatic?  Or are there viable, played, counter cards (Plascrete countering Scorch.  Gordian Blade countering Whirlpool/Cell Portal infinite loop).  A commonly played counter card is far more detrimental than a narrow, ignored one like Deus Ex, which will only become a factor if your combo becomes popular in the metagame.
D.    How fast is your combo (resource intensive to pull off).  Cheap cards are obviously better, since you need to assemble your combo and win before your opponent wins.

* A standard combo is two or more cards that, if used together, generate a more powerful effect than they normally do.
The strength of a standard combo is determined by looking at the EXPECTED VALUE of all the cards.  Not the best case scenario, but looking at all three of the individual strength of card A, the individual strength of card B, and the strength of A+B together.  If A and B are good cards on there own, this combo is very likely powerful.  If one of A or B is worthless on its own, such as any combo using Sunset,  your combo is really narrow.  Perhaps you can justify your Akitaro + Cell Portal combo by saying Akitaro is good on its own.  But if the net effect of that card that’s worthless on its own isn’t VERY strong, when combined, you’re probably better off cutting it.

* In general, if you are trying to make a combo work and one or more of the cards is bad by itself, then the combo had probably better WIN or do something INSANELY strong, to justify it.  Merely doing something ‘good’ is not enough here.  But if each individual piece is a useful, decent card, then the bar is set lower.  The combo being merely ‘good’ is sufficient here.

Historically, potential combo cards that are bad on their own are some of the absolute hardest cards to evaluate the strength of.   Some people will try to think of their combos, and see potential, and thing they are amazing.  They might be right, and a crazy good deck will be built from it.  Or they might be massively overvaluing the actual value of the combo, or underestimating/ignoring possible counters to it, and be wrong.  Others will look at the card and go “God, that sucks.  It doesn’t do ANYTHING”.  They might be right, because the combo wasn’t actually that viable.  Or they might be wrong, and other people will make the amazing combo deck with it and then make fun of them on online forums because they had said it was bad.   Anyone giving their thoughts/analysis of these cards is taking a risk.  First of all, no matter what they say, tons of people will violently disagree with them.  “No this card is the best EVAR.  Because With X and Y you WIN THE GAME, if they don’t have Z!”  Or simply because they might say a card is okay because of its potential, which is hard to determine, and then it turns out it actually was the greatest card ever because its win is consistent, or some cards are printed later that make it suddenly amazing.

Some final thoughts on some new netrunner cards
Replicator:  Repetitive tutoring.  That’s a potential 1 card combo engine right there.  You get a hardware that has the ability to trash itself to tutor for other hardware, and this becomes a true tutor loop.  Maybe its just a synergy card. Maybe it actually sucks, and will suck forever, because its not efficient enough or something.  I DON’T KNOW.  But it’s a card to keep your eye on, because even if its bad now, and it might be terrible, at any point in the future the right mix of cards might exist to make it suddenly turn into an unstoppable engine of hardware fuel.

Whirlpool:  Yeah, its totally a piece of a 3+ card win combo (with Bullfrog or Cell Portal, and a third card to kill, possibly with more required).  That’s right, it’s a combo with BULLFROG or CELL PORTAL.  Cards that are bad on their own and defeated by a Gordian Blade.  (Nobody plays Gordian Bla…oh wait.  You can say no one plays Deus Ex, but you cant say no one plays Gordian).  So this card has POTENTIAL to be a part of an auto-win combo, but there are very valid consistency questions.  That said, Whirlpool combos do have redundancy in their favor.  It can be in front of either Bullfrog or Cell Portal to do something nasty.  And in the future maybe better cards than these will come out that it works with, and it will get a lot better.  You can bullfrog them over to a Junebug for the kill, or to a Cell Portal server.  So there are multiple endings to the combo that are possible.  Right now most of the combos are just stopped old by a Gordian Blade, so I question their validity, but the card does have potential.  Its not a strong card on its own though, and its one-use, so if you don’t kill them with it it just goes away, and thanks a mark against it.

Surge:  It’s a combo card that does nothing on its own, that’s a mark against it.  But at least it does combo with MANY cards, not just one, so that’s in its favor.   Is its synergy enough to make up for the fact that you cant use it by itself?  Maybe.

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