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The “C-Word” of Commander

Graeme takes a moment to go over a polarizing archetype played in Commander



5 Minutes to Read

“You’re in a commanding lead. You just survived a board wipe and have re-built faster than your opponents. It hasn’t been easy, but you’ve outplayed your opponents and set up your value engines early to pay dividends now. You think to yourself that if you can reach your next turn you think you can seal away the game and win. Just before your next turn, the opponent to your right draws their top card. They’ve been behind all game and haven’t felt too competitive but now, you look at them, they have that all too familiar ‘knowing and grinning’ smile ear to ear. They turn over their cards to reveal the “C” word and win” 

No, no, no…not that “C-Word”. At Six Sides of Gaming, we aspire to bring only the most wholesome of family-friendly content. Today we’ll be discussing the “C-word” also known as “Combo” of Magic the Gathering and Commander. There are many different archetypes or styles of decks in Magic. Classically there is aggro, which tries to race your opponents and close out the game before they can get going. Then there is mid-range which tries to go bigger than aggro and tries to grind out wins. There is also control that tries to escape the early game to pull ahead and control the endgame traditionally using board wipes and counterspells. And last but not least, there is a combo, which bends the rules of Magic often by ignoring life totals and board presence all so that it can assemble specific cards together – and win out of seemingly nowhere. 

Combo is as old as Magic the Gathering, dating back to Alpha. One of the very first combos discovered was using Lich and Mirror Universe to set your life total to 0 and then exchange it with your opponent.

When a combo is assembled it often results in a game win or a strongly advantageous position. This is often referred to as an “Infinite Combo” on one end or “Synergy” on the lower end of power. 

Combo is a staple archetype of Commander often because aggro strategies are much less viable than traditional 60-card formats. Most traditional aggro decks use low mana value creatures and burn spells to race to 20 life points worth of damage. However, in Commander, instead of 20 life points of damage, aggro decks need to reach 120 life points total. This isn’t impossible and strategies like infect make it plausible for aggro decks to win, however, it will often paint a target on your back and show your opponents what you are trying to do. Combo on the other hand can fly under the radar of your opponents and win all at once, giving them less time to react. 

There are few things as polarizing as playing combos in Commander. On the one hand, Combo can act as a way to clear a two-hour board stall. But, it can also lead to wins as early as turn 0. Many playgroups place bans on combo decks as they feel they are too strong and lead to unsatisfying wins. Whether you agree or not, casual Commander is 

often a form of collective storytelling. The most satisfying wins are when there is lots of struggle, unknowns and even comeback moments where all decks get to demonstrate their mettle. Combo can subvert all expectations of collective storytelling to steal away wins out of nowhere – stopping a story before it starts and/or before it has completed a ‘hero’s journey’. So some playgroups, including even the Rules Committee (RC) of Commander have decided to house-ban or place limitations on combo and the number of cycles that people may loop. 

This leads to the important question “Are all combos competitive or created equally?”. I can assuredly say they are all not the same. While formats like Competitive EDH or cEDH use only the most competitive combos there are many lower power ones that have a home. As I mentioned before, combos can be a great way to end a game especially as it approaches the two-hour mark. Few playgroups want their collective storytelling experience to resemble Tolstoy’s 587,287 word telling of “War and Peace”. At a certain point, games need to end and sometimes combo is the answer. It is for these reasons I think combo has a home in casual commander. The trick for creating interesting combos in non-competitive games boils down to consistency and number of pieces. 

To create more fun combos for your playgroup you should aim for as many of the following: 

-Create 3 or more piece combos 

-Use as few tutors as possible in your deck (1-2 max.) 

-Create more points for interaction (Sorcery speed combo vs. Instant speed) -Create combos or synergies with fail rates (no guarantee that it’ll win; meaning you have to choose a window and time it right) 

-Require higher mana value to assemble (gives opponents time to see things develop)

All of the above are ways to play combo but in a way that is more interesting for you and your opponents to play with and against. Like a good story, we want to create enough tension, like a doomsday clock ticking down, for us and our opponents to experience. 

Let’s look at some examples of combos played in cEDH and one of my favorites in EDH to play. 

One of the strongest and most highly played combos of cEDH right now is the Oracle Consultation combo. This combo first gets Thassa’s Oracles ETB (Enter the Battlefield) trigger on the stack and holds priority to cast Demonic Consultation in response to exile your whole library and win. This combo is extremely competitive because ETB triggers are hard to interact with, it is at instant speed, is a two-card combo and only costs 3 mana value total. This is the type of combo you’d expect to see at power level 9 or 10 table.

My favorite combo uses the following: 

This is the type of combo you can expect to see at a more casual table. Grenzo, Dungeon Warden has been a favorite Commander of mine for years. This combo has many of the criteria we described before that makes it lower powered. It is often a 3-4 card combo, has a fail-rate, uses few or no tutors, requires many turns to assemble and sometimes has even my opponents cheering for the randomness and chaos that comes from the bottom of my library. 

Take Away: 

While combo is not for everyone it can be a fun archetype to include in Commander even at lower powered games. My hope for you today is to realize that indeed not all combos are created equal and that they all have a home. While not all playgroups enjoy the archetype, hopefully, you start a conversation about how they can be made a valued, and more fun, archetype for the whole table.

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