Theme Decks

One of the fun things about Commander is the ability to build decks around a theme. In most constructed formats, if you want to build a theme deck, you’re limited to a few specific archetypes—Elves or Merfolk in Modern, ETB effects with Panharmonicon in Standard, Infect if that’s more up your alley. Smuggler’s Copter is necessary no matter what you’re running right now, but a Vehicle-themed deck can’t win an FNM, much less a Competitive REL event. My Modern deck is Slivers, since they’re the tribaliest of tribes, and while I net-decked off someone’s list that got Top 8 in an event, it’s not likely for me to win anything with the deck.

Commander, on the other hand, abounds with potential themes around which to build a deck. Name one, and I’ll either send you my decklist I’ve already created, or I could create a list just for you.

There are so many themes that are viable in Commander. Tribal? Just name a creature type. Admittedly I’ve yet to make my Atogatog five-color Atog deck actually work, although in testing I did once make Atogatog large enough to swing out for commander damage—against a single player, and my board was empty afterward, but still. Slivers works amazingly well in Commander. I personally use Sliver Legion because I like to stick to the spirit of Commander where every game is different, and I also like to smash face and dislike infinite combos. Hivelord of course is also a good option for that, but he tends to be a little less interactive, since he makes all your things indestructible, which tends to be more frustrating to the other players. I have six different dragon tribal decks (Scion of the Ur-Dragon along with all five Fate Reforged dragonlords), a different tribe for each two-color combination (Merfolk, Soldiers, Zombies, Spiders, Werewolves, Wizards, Clerics, Vampires, Humans, Snakes), along with mono-color, tri-color, five-color, and duplicate two-color tribes. I even have a Saproling tribal deck, for crying out loud. Saprolings. And I’m not the only one.

Bro—or hugs—is a theme that can only exist in Commander. Just try to imagine sitting down at a two-player game with a deck designed to help out your opponent. It doesn’t make any sense. Yet I have three bro decks, and I’m working on a fourth. Do they win? Well, sometimes. Zedruu seems to be the most apt to win, though Xira Arien can as well under the right circumstances. Phelddagrif has never won. The point of the decks isn’t to win; the point is to make everyone have fun. That sort of goal is only possible in a multiplayer game where the end goal isn’t necessarily about winning.

Any mechanic is fair game in Commander. My Tajic soldier tribal deck is also built around the Batallion mechanic. I do in fact have an Infect deck—not nearly as scary as Modern infect, since I’m limited to one copy of each card and have multiple opponents to kill, all of whom are trying to eliminate me as soon as possible. After the Fate Reforged pre-release, I built a Dash deck; it’s kind of terrible as far as winning is concerned, but it’s incredibly fun to play. My Rafiq deck built around the Exalted mechanic is extremely powerful; it can kill people as early as Turn 6 with the right combination of cards. My Shu-Yun deck built around the Prowess mechanic isn’t quite so powerful; each creature I include means one less non-creature to buff the others, making the deck fight against itself. It’s still fun, though. And with Shu-Yun, rather than Narset, at the helm, I don’t get hated off the table before people realize just how jank my deck really is. Then there’s the Morph deck I completed recently. I haven’t yet played any games with it, but I imagine it will run somewhat similar to CJ Shrader’s morph deck, albeit in slightly different colors: I cast all the cards in my hand using the Morph ability, someone boardwipes, and then I am sad. My Aurelia deck is all about extra combat steps, and Karador revolves around the dredge mechanic—if I recall correctly, every single card with dredge ever printed is in the deck.

And of course, that’s just the themes that have inspired me, personally, to make decks. Every Guild mechanic from Ravnica is a potential deck idea; it might not win a lot of games, but in multiplayer anything can happen, and it can be fun to play regardless. There are currently 121 keyword abilities in Magic, any of which can be used as inspiration for a deck; and that’s not even counting the 35 keyword actions, or the multitude of ability words. Between tribes, abilities, and other themes, you could make a themed deck for every day of the year without repeating a single theme. As it is, I could play a different themed deck every week and not start repeating until halfway through 2018. And my judge friends have even more. One of them has a chair themed deck. Another has a deck with a Teferi theme; it contains all cards that reference Teferi and are legal to play in the deck, and is designed to keep other players from being able to play spells. Teferi’s Isle and Teferi’s Moat are key players in the deck.

Point is, you can build anything you like. It’s not necessarily going to be the best deck, but if you enjoy playing it, that’s really all that matters. Depending on how competitive a playgroup you’re in, any deck has a chance to win a Commander pod. That’s part of what makes it so fun. With more players to gang up on the obvious threats, it’s a more level playing field for those who just want to have a good time. So go forth and build—and don’t forget to tell me about all the fun and inventive things you’re doing with your decks.

Table Politics

One of the things that distinguishes Commander from other formats is that it’s designed to be multiplayer. In two-player formats, the strategy is obvious: try to kill your opponent without getting killed yourself. If your opponent is tapped out with no creatures, you attack.

Commander is different. Attacking one player might leave you open to attack from another player. Or perhaps you know the one player is holding onto a boardwipe, so you attack another player instead, in the hopes of keeping your creatures. At the far end of the spectrum, you might even team up with another player in order to take out the rest of the table, increasing both your chances of winning above the expected twenty-five percent.

Table politics is something unique to multiplayer, and something more competitive players can have a hard time understanding. In a two-player game, it doesn’t make sense to make bargains with your opponent. “If you don’t attack me this turn, I won’t attack you next turn” is going to be of net benefit to one of you and net loss to the other. You’re playing a zero-sum game. In multiplayer, that same offer can be a net benefit to the two players entering the agreement while being a net loss to the others at the table.

Understanding table politics can increase both your enjoyment of the game and your chance at winning. When you sit down at a four-player game, the best deck isn’t necessarily the one that’s going to win. In fact, sitting down with a deck that’s clearly more powerful than anything else at the table almost guarantees that the other players will gang up on you in order to eliminate the threat. Often the level of threat is determined by the commander. Decks like Kaalia, Zur, Sharuum, and Narset tend to be extremely powerful and difficult to stop once they get going; the best strategy in dealing with them is often to get rid of them before they have that opportunity. Other times it’s a matter of knowing the players and how they tend to build their decks. I have a Selvala deck that helps everyone at the table by allowing them to draw cards and get extra mana. While the deck does contain threats like Colossus of Akros that benefit from a surplus of mana, such things are obvious threats and aren’t going to end the game in a single turn. On the other hand, there’s a regular at the gaming store I played at back in Georgia who plays a Selvala deck designed to combo off and win. Playing against my Selvala deck is fun; it allows my opponents to do some pretty crazy stuff while still providing a challenge. Playing against his Selvala deck, not so much. Either the rest of us remove him before he reaches critical mass, or he wins the game over the course of a single drawn-out turn before we’ve even had a chance to get going. A few months ago we had a game that consisted of that player, another player known for his degenerate combo decks (in this case playing an Azami deck), an inexperienced player borrowing my Krenko deck, and myself playing Nekusar. The Azami player, knowing what was coming, directed his effort toward countering Selvala every time she was cast, since he knew she was a necessary piece of the combo. Eventually the Selvala player simply conceded. In the meantime, the Krenko player had built up quite a boardstate of 1/1 Goblins, and was able kill the two remaining players. If he hadn’t scooped, the Azami player would have been able to survive for another turn, giving him the chance to combo off for the win.

In this scenario, table politics came close to allowing the Azami player to win against a deck that should by rights have beaten him. By agreeing not to attack the Azami player until Selvala was eliminate, since Azami was helping him out, the Krenko player was actually able to win the game, despite being the least experienced player at the table. Part of this was because he was piloting a well-built deck, but a lot of it was the fact that he wasn’t the most immediate threat. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Krenko is somewhat fragile, because without its commander its pace slows significantly. But despite the presence of two decks at the table with access to blue and therefore counter-magic, neither of us wanted to waste those spells countering Krenko, especially when goblin-ball seemed the most expedient way to deal with Selvala’s threat.

So how do you take advantage of table politics?

Well, it starts in deck construction. If you have a deck that’s non-interactive and is only interested in comboing off, you have nothing to offer the other players in exchange for not attacking. You could simply include cards like No Mercy and Dictate of Erebos which will make your opponents hesitate to attack, but that may make them team up in an effort to get rid of those cards.

Another method is to make yourself useful. Edric, Spymaster of Trest is a great card for this. It encourages your opponents to attack each other rather than you, because it rewards them for doing so. Cards like Font of Mythos and Heartbeat of Spring can turn you from an opponent to a valuable resource. Unequal boons like those granted by Zedruu can take this a step further. If I’m playing Zedruu and you’ve been helping me, I’ll happily give you some of my permanents to help you out as well. If you haven’t been helping me, no gifts for you. If you’ve been actively working against me, I can temporarily steal one of your creatures with something like Dominus of Fealty and permanently give it away to whomever I want.

If you don’t want to build your deck to help others, you can instead build it to stop threats. People generally don’t enjoy playing against blue decks because they don’t like having their things countered; but if you’re countering their opponents’ combo pieces, they’ll probably be a lot happier with you. I have a Talrand deck that’s basically just a bunch of counter-spells. In one-on-one, this is brutal, since every time I counter my opponent’s spell I get a drake, and he isn’t able to resolve anything at all. In multiplayer, if I counter everything, I’ll quickly run out of spells, so instead I counter huge threats and combo pieces. I even turn it into a democracy; “Hey guys, that boardwipe he just cast, do you wan that to resolve?” (In this case, no, they didn’t want it to resolve, and although it was uncounterable I was able to exile it from the stack, leaving me with several grateful opponents.) A kill-spell, or even just the threat of one, can keep them from pointing their creatures your way. In one game I played, I had a Deep-Sea Kraken, while my brother had a Seal of Doom on the battlefield. Naturally I attacked the other players instead of him, since if I pointed the kraken his way, he’d just kill it.

The next part of politics is communication. In real life, two countries might be natural allies, but if they never talk with one another, neither is likely to take the initiative to help the other. In some cases, as with Seal of Doom, verbalization is unnecessary. I could look at the board-state and know what would happen if I were to attack my brother. That’s like a third-world country knowing better than to attack the United States. But I took it a step further, and offered him a true alliance: the two of us would team up against the two other players and attempt to eliminate them. I turned a disinclination to attack into a mutually beneficial proposition. As it turned out, my brother won that game, although if he hadn’t had a particular combination of cards, I was going to win the next turn. So by allying together, we increased both our chances of winning.

Other times, politicking can be as simple as pointing out a threat you can’t handle by yourself. “Dude, I’m clean out of counterspells and if that Stormtide Leviathan resolves we’re both boned,” or, “If you can Naturalize the Swiftfoot Boots I can kill the Malignus it’s equipped to.” Alliances don’t have to be formal, or enduring. Part of the joy in Commander can be in stabbing each other in the back. Just be wary of going back on your word—once you’ve been labeled as untrustworthy, other players are less likely to ally with you, and you may find yourself the odd man out. (I have personally experienced this, when I had an agreement with a friend who had also, unbeknownst to me, allied with another friend. Once I’ve discovered that someone is willing to go back on their word, I’m not going to ally with them in the future. Besides, it makes the game a lot less fun for everyone involved.)

Basically, just talk to each other. It’s a social game. You’re probably at home with your buddies, drinking beer around the kitchen table and discussing how many miles you walked today hatching eggs for Pokemon Go; it’s no great effort to throw in, “Hey, that Falkenrath Exterminator needs to go, anyone have a kill-spell handy?” To which the reply might be, “I do, so Falkenrath player, tell you what, you don’t point it at me and I won’t kill it.” It’s not something that comes naturally to everyone, but with a little bit of practice anyone can start learning how to navigate the murky waters of shifting alliances that make Commander the fun format it is.

Kemba

When I turned twelve, my sister bought me a kitten for my birthday. I named the kitten Princess, and she stayed with me through college and getting my own apartment and moving out of my parents’ house. I’d had her for nearly half my life by the time I joined the Navy. Since I couldn’t take care of her while I was at boot camp, my old college roommate took her in, wanting a companion for her cat.

Fast forward five years. Princess got old and developed bladder problems, and my friend could no longer take care of her. I took her back in, happy to have my furbaby back where she belonged.

A few weeks after I got her back, she died.

My friend and I buried her in a relative’s yard, with the assistance of another friend. In her honor, I decided to write about my cat deck, Kemba.

Kemba was one of my early decks. When I started playing, Scars of Mirrodin was still in circulation, and I pulled her from a pack. She immediately appealed to me, because kittens.

Most Kemba decks go hard with the Voltron—load Kemba up with equipments, make her huge and evasive, and swing out for commander damage. Mine can do that with a few cards, but that’s not the main point. Really I just want to get a bunch of cat tokens, and if I happen to win, all the better.

With that in mind, most of my equipments are low-costed, so they’re easy to play and equip. Most of my creatures are cats, because I like to hit the tribal theme. I actually got a compliment from a friend for how on-theme my deck was, even going so far as to have Grumpy Cat sleeves. (I plan to replace the sleeves soon, either with the StarCity Games kitten sleeves, or with custom sleeves with pictures of Princess from when she was little.) He did give me a hard time for not roaring when Kemba entered the battlefield, and not meowing each time I got a kitten.

So. The deck.

Equipments:

Accorder’s Shield

Argentum Armor

Armory of Iroas

Bladed Pinions

Cobbled Wings

Darksteel Plate

Dragon Throne of Tarkir

Executioner’s Hood

Fleetfeather Sandals

Grafted Exoskeleton

Helm of Kaldra

Kite Shield

Kitesail

Lightning Greaves

Loxodon Warhammer

Mask of Avacyn

Mask of Memory

Masterwork of Ingenuity

Prowler’s Helm

Ring of Thune

Shield of Kaldra

Shield of the Avatar

Skyblinder Staff

Spidersilk Net

Strata Scythe

Swiftfoot Boots

Sword of Kaldra

Sword of Vengeance

Vorrac Battlehorns

Whispersilk Cloak

As mentioned, most of these have low casting cost and, more importantly, low equip cost. People tend to be wary of Kemba, so I expect her to be killed. The lower the equip costs of my equipments, the more of them I can re-equip quickly after re-casting her.

I also went more for utility than power. Sure, Strata Scythe makes her big, as does Sword of Kaldra; but really, who wouldn’t run Kaldra-tron in an equipment deck? I’ve yet to get all three pieces out together, but one of these days it’s going to happen. And of course Argentum Armor is just good removal.

But other than those, I picked utility cards. Flying is pretty good when I can then get in there for commander damage, and of course I’m not going to sneer at an extra kitten each turn. Dragon Throne of Tarkir might seem like a nonbo with most Voltron decks, but if I can get Kemba big at all, it makes her kittens huge. Mask of Avacyn actually has a higher equip cost than I’d prefer to pay, but it can protect Kemba from getting removed in the first place, so it’s worth including in the deck.

Most people wouldn’t have thought to include Skyblinder Staff—but it meets the criteria of being low cost and low equip, and of course if I also have Cobbled Wings or Fleetfeather Sandals it means she can only be blocked by creatures with reach.

Perhaps my favorite is Ring of Thune. Vigilance means I can swing with her and still have her available to block. The upkeeptrigger means Kemba keeps getting bigger. And of course, I can cast it before Kemba ever hits the field, and the one-mana equip cost means it’s extremely easy to re-equip if Kemba gets removed.

Non-equipment Artifacts:

Caged Sun

Hall of Triumph

Leonin Sun Standard

Obelisk of Urd

Prototype Portal

Most of these are anthem effects. The only thing better than 2/2 kittens is bigger kittens. White does anthems really well, usually with enchantments; but in a deck that already runs a lot of artifacts, and therefore a lot of things that benefit from artifacts, it made sense to use artifact emblems instead.

Prototype Portal is in there to get me more equipments. Normally I’d copy something like Spidersilk Net—that’s a two mana investment every turn to create and equip. There was one game, however, where I used it to exile Argentum Armor. I only got one copy before the Prototype Portal got removed, which was arguably the correct play on my opponent’s part.

Synergy:

Brass Squire

Celestial Crusader

Crovax, Ascendant Hero

Goldnight Commander

Healer of the Pride

Indomitable Archangel

Leonin Abunas

Leonin Elder

Leonin Shikari

Mentor of the Meek

Myrsmith

Phantom General

Puresteel Paladin

Raksha Golden Cub

Salvage Scout

Taj-Nar Swordsmith

Intangible Virtue

Sigarda’s Aid

Armed Response

Nahiri, the Lithomancer

Steelshaper’s Gift

Several of these interact with artifacts. My favorite combo here is Puresteel Paladin and Leonin Shikari. With those two, I can equip for 0 at instant speed. Instant speed equip means I can equip on my upkeep before Kemba’s ability resolves, giving me more kittens from her trigger. With both cards in play, I can move my equipments around in response to, say, someone trying to target one of my creatures, equipping it with Swiftfoot Boots in response even if I have no mana open.

Others are more anthem effects. Though I don’t really need a full suite of creatures with Kemba as my commander, it helps to have a few extras in case Kemba gets killed too many times for me to re-cast her. Might as well use those creatures to buff my kittens.

Cats:

Jazal Goldmane

Leonin Battlemage

As I’ve said, I like my tribal. Jazal of course is just good, and I knew as soon as he was printed that I needed him for the deck. Since my plan is to get as many kittens as possible, if I can make all of them buff each other on the attack, so much the better. And the battlemage can give one creature a small buff—worth running in the deck due to its creature type, but otherwise not very useful.

Other:

Swords to Plowshares

Rogue’s Passage

Hour of Reckoning

Disenchant

No Commander deck is complete without at least a couple pieces of removal. Hour of Reckoning kills everything except my kittens, and I can then re-cast Kemba and re-equip. Swords and Disenchant give me at least the chance of dealing with threats. And Rogue’s Passage can make Kemba unblockable, letting me get through my opponent’s defenses.

In actual play, Kemba is far too slow to make it a good deck. Typically someone is going to boardwipe before I get enough kittens to be a threat. Even if there isn’t a boardwipe, someone is going to find a way to kill Kemba. The deck is very weak to removal of any sort.

If there isn’t a boardwipe, though, and Kemba doesn’t get killed, hoo boy. With thirty equipments in the deck, I’m going to be drawing more on a regular basis, and get an increasing number of kittens each turn.

And of course, as I stated, the point of the deck isn’t to win; the point is to get a lot of adorable kittens, which the deck does extremely well.

Rest in peace, Princess. You will be missed.

Teaching New Players

Commander is perhaps the most complicated format in Magic. It involves zones not normally relevant in most formats, there is a wide variety of viable deck archetypes, and its multiplayer nature creates a priority and timestamp nightmare. For these reasons, I do not recommend using it to teach new players how to play Magic. I also do not listen to my own advice.

I learned to play on the Commander format, and I love to teach new players how to play using Commander (because that’s what I know, and that’s what I have decks for). So, today’s blog is going to be about teaching new players how to play Commander.

First thing: don’t make the new player feel stupid if they don’t get something right away. What may seem obvious to you, as an experienced player, may not be intuitive to someone who’s never played the game. If they get something wrong, it’s really your fault for not explaining it in a way they could understand. Think back to when you first played Magic, and all the weird things you thought about the rules. I’m now a Level 2 judge; I tested for Level 1 not long after the person who taught me how to play, and scored much higher on the test than him. When I tested for Level 2, I scored 100% on the exam. I’ve judged events ranging from Casual to Professional REL; the pro players trust me to know the rules better than they do. The first night I played, I never cast my commander, because I was afraid the other players would attack her. Somehow I’d gotten the idea that creatures could be attacked directly. I’d never played any other sort of trading card game, although I suppose I might have internalized what I’d heard from friends talking about them. I also was under the impression that commander damage applied to all damage taken from the commander (Ruric Thar was much better back then), and the 21 limit applied to the total damage taken from all commanders, including your own. (I know where these impressions came from: no one had specified that it had to be combat damage from a single commander; what they’d said was damage from a commander counted as commander damage, and if you took 21 commander damage you lost the game. Absolutely the fault of the people teaching me, especially since when the format was created, non-combat damage counted too, so it’s likely that new players would intuit the rule that way. Since, you know, that’s how the creators of the format originally thought it should be.) The point is, even though I’m now knowledgeable enough about the rules to teach L3’s about certain interactions, I wasn’t always that good. Nobody starts inherently knowing how the game works, so don’t blame new players when they make mistakes.

Keep in mind common errors. In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, I’ve seen players thinking they have to tap their creatures to block (I think I myself was under that misapprehension at first), miscounting mana costs (oh there’s just one green symbol on this, I only have to tap this one forest; well, no, there’s also a 2, so you have to tap two other lands as well), and miscounting permanents. A little more on that last one—one of the cards in the deck I use to teach new players is Drove of Elves, which has power and toughness equal to the number of green permanents in play. Players will forget to count Drove of Elves itself, will fail to count Tanglewurm because it’s not an elf (the deck is elf tribal), will try to count their lands along with other permanents (lands are by nature colorless), or will fail to count the tokens, because they don’t have mana costs. A good teacher will be prepared to head these off at the pass—whenever it becomes relevant, ask the player how big their Drove of Elves is. When the player tries to cast a spell, ask them how much it costs. When they answer incorrectly (because they will), correct them gently—”Actually, the Drove of Elves is a 5/5, you probably forgot the +1/+1 from Elvish Archdruid.” Or, “That spell actually costs four, not three, it’s got this 3 here which means three of any color, plus this one green.” Remember, Magic is supposed to be fun, and most people don’t have fun when they feel dumb because their mistakes are being pointed out. But, if it’s clear that you see and understand where they went wrong, it becomes a learning opportunity. Repeated assurances of, “Don’t worry, you’re doing fine, everyone makes mistakes,” will go a long way to making them feel good about themselves even when they don’t get things right away.

Another important thing: choosing the deck that they’ll be using. I use my mono-green Ezuri, Renegade Leader elf tribal deck. My reasoning is that it’s a single color, which reduces the complexity significantly, it has a fairly straightforward win condition (play a bunch of elves, pump them up with Ezuri’s ability, and trample over your opponent’s blockers), and it’s also the first deck that my friend who made a habit of misreading and misplaying his cards was able to play without mistakes. While the comedic flowchart on what to play would indicate that a new player should perhaps play goblins, rather than elves (since you choose goblins over elves if you tend to miss triggers), my elf deck doesn’t have a lot of upkeep (or other) triggers, and my goblin deck is actually slightly more complicated than my elf deck, along with being much easier to disrupt.

I tend to teach using one-on-one, ignoring the difference in banned list and simply using my multiplayer decks. Normally I don’t like playing one-on-one, since it’s a completely different format at that point, but it simplifies things for teaching new players. Having only two people to wrangle, one of whom is myself, makes it much easier for me to control the different variables. I don’t have to make sure that another player is having fun while training up the new player, and I don’t have to worry about another player making the new player feel dumb or unwelcome because they’re having a hard time understanding the game. Also, the new player might feel self-conscious for slowing down gameplay in a multiplayer game.

New players don’t want to be handed the game—that’s condescending—but winning a game is a rush, and will mean they associate the game with having fun. My first night, one of the games came down to me versus the person who taught me. It looked like I had the game in the bag—he even said he couldn’t see a way to beat me—until he looked at his hand one last time, saw a way out of certain doom, and took it. If, instead, he’d been slightly less competitive, and just passed turn, I never would have known the difference, and could have come away from the night that much more psyched about playing, because I’d actually won a game. Instead, I was left with the bitter knowledge that he could have let me win, without letting me know he’d let me win, but instead chose to win himself. Clearly I chose to continue playing, but that was more a testament to my personal stubbornness than to this person’s ability to teach new players.

My strategy for letting the new player win without letting them know you’re letting them win is to pick a deck that’s just not as powerful as the deck you’ve handed them. If you’re doing one-on-one, it’s pretty easy to guarantee that they’ve got a good shot at beating you. One recent game I played to teach a new player, I played my janky pirates deck. It’s not a bad deck, but it’s not on par with my other decks; to put things in perspective, the commander is Ramirez DiPietro. Usually he just sits in the command zone looking fabulous. Another time, a few months ago, I played Scion of the Ur-Dragon, under the theory that my five-color deck would be rather a lot slower than the mono-color deck I’d loaned to my cousin. We played two games; in one, I beat him, and in the other, he completely destroyed me. For the rest of the vacation, he was bugging me to play. That is, of course, the goal in teaching new players: to make them eager to play the game again.

Basically, the thing to remember is, you want this person to want to play the game. You want to provide them a challenge, but not so much of one they feel discouraged. They’re going to make mistakes; use those mistakes as a teaching opportunity, but make sure you both understand that making mistakes is natural for new players and nothing to be ashamed of. And, most importantly, if you have non-Commander decks, perhaps consider using those to teach rather than your super-complicated three-color combo Garza Zol Commander deck.

Phage

About a year ago was the release of Commander 2015. In that set were two cards that seemed custom-made for my Phage deck: Command Beacon, which can be sacrificed to place a Commander directly from the Command Zone into its owner’s hand; and Thief of Blood, which has an ETB replacement effect that removes all counters from all permanents. Command Beacon, of course, is great for Phage herself, since if she’s cast from hand that gets around her ETB lose the game; and Thief of Blood combos well with Dark Depths, immediately removing all counters and causing it to meet its trigger condition.

Phage appeals to me as a commander, because on the surface she looks absolutely terrible. I can’t even cast her without losing the game. Of course, there are ways to get around that—Torpor Orb, Platinum Angel, Sundial of the Infinite—but they don’t immediately come to mind for an inexperienced player. She’s kind of the embodiment of the format: Take something that seems on the surface to be unsalvageably bad, and turn it into a win condition.

Because I need one of a few specific cards in order to make Phage playable, I run a lot of tutors in the deck—something I try to avoid in most of my Commander decks. But with Phage, I excuse it under the philosophy that I’m only running the tutors to allow me to play my commander, to whom I should have access regardless. And not every game with Phage is necessarily going to play the same way. Yes, my wincon is my Commander, but she costs seven mana. The game might well be over by then. And of course, black is the color for tutors; I have so many to choose from, eventually I’ll have to start making choices about which to include.

Thus, while the deck is mostly built around getting Phage and giving her some sort of evasion—shadow, trample, fear—it can do other things as well. Torpor Orb keeps Phage’s ETB from killing me, but it can also give me a Turn 3 Phyrexian Dreadnought. I’m already running a lot of tutors, so it’s possible for me to search out the parts necessary to get me Marit Lage. The deck is designed to be mean, so why not an Endless Whispers so that if someone manages to kill Phage, I can make target opponent lose the game?

Anyway, the decklist is as follows:

Phage Synergy:

Sundial of the Infinite

Torpor Orb

Abyssal Persecutor

Gauntlets of Chaos

Endless Whispers

Platinum Angel

Command Beacon

Most of these are pretty obvious. Torpor Orb keeps Phage from triggering, Sundial exiles the trigger while it’s still on the stack, Platinum Angel negates the trigger upon resolution, and of course Command Beacon gets around the trigger by putting Phage directly into my hand. Abyssal Persecutor seems at first to be counterintuitive, but with Gauntlets of Chaos or Endless Whispers I can give it away to an opponent, thus keeping myself from losing the game.

Evasion:

Akroma’s Memorial

Chariot of Victory

Sword of Vengeance

Trailblazer’s Boots

Vorrac Battlehorns

Whispersilk Cloak

Archetype of Finality

Dauthi Trapper

Filth

Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

Mogis’s Marauders

Shadow Alley Denizen

Dauthi Embrace

Sewers of Estark

Rogue’s Passage

Shizo, Death’s Storehouse

Dirge of Dread

Profane Command

Of course once I get Phage on the field I want to be able to get through my opponents’ defenses. Trample, fear, landwalk, and shadow—along with straight-up unblockable—lets me get in their and touch my opponents. Deathtouch added to the trample means that even if my opponent blocks with a creature larger than Phage (not hard, since she’s only a 4/4), some of the damage is still going through. Unfortunately things like Shadow Alley Denizen are kind of a nonbo with Torpor Orb; but that’s why I have multiple options, both for evasion and for negating Phage’s detrimental effect.

Tutors:

Ring of Three Wishes

Rune-Scarred Demon

Vampiric Tutor

Liliana Vess

Beseech the Queen

Dark Petition

Demonic Tutor

Diabolic Revelation

Diabolic Tutor

Naturally, with so fragile a deck, I have to be able to tutor up the pieces necessary to make it work. Due to budget constraints, I don’t run every tutor ever printed—Imperial Seal is a bit out of my price range—but I do come close. Of my decks, Phage has probably the highest concentration of tutors with the exception of my Judgebreaker deck, which has the advantage of being all five colors.

Other Combos:

Aether Snap

Phyrexian Dreadnought

Thief of Blood

Thrull Parasite

Vampire Hexmage

Dark Depths

Thespian’s Stage

The Dreadnought combo I already described; the rest of these are designed to combo with Dark Depths. This particular combo could go in any deck that runs black (or, with the Thespian’s Stage version, any deck at all), but I chose to put it in this deck for two reasons. First, I’m already running a lot of tutors, so it’s possible to make the combo work; second, the deck is designed to be mean anyway, so if I’ve already decided to sit down with it, I’m not going to feel guilty over a Turn 3 Marit Lage. Basically how the combo works is, either I use one of the counter-draining effects to take all the counters off the Dark Depths, thus causing it to trigger; or I turn the Thespian’s Stage into a Dark Depths, at which point I have to sacrifice the original, and I’m left with a Thespian’s Depths with no counters on it, triggering its effect.

Ramp:

Caged Sun

Extraplanar Lens

Snow-Covered Swamp (x27)

Crypt Ghast

Magus of the Coffers

Nirkana Revenant

Cabal Coffers

Crypt of Agadeem

Liliana of the Dark Realms

With my commander being so costly—and likely to be killed as many times as my opponents can manage—it makes sense for me to make sure I’m going to have enough mana to cast her. I shelled out the money for Snow-Covered Swamps for this deck specifically because of Extraplanar Lens; usually I’d be fine with my opponents benefiting from my ramp, but as mentioned before, this deck is supposed to be mean. If I’m playing it, I’m trying to win—admittedly in a fun and unusual way, but I’m not going to give my opponents any advantage if I can avoid it.

Protection:

Darksteel Plate

Lightning Greaves

Swiftfoot Boots

Once I get Phage out, I want to be able to protect her, because you better believe she’s going to be a target. Greaves and Boots are pretty much my go-to cards for any Commander deck, and of course Darksteel Plate protects her from non-targeted removal.

Removal:

Ashling, the Extinguisher

Butcher of Malakir

Dread

Phyrexian Obliterator

Reiver Demon

Sheoldred, Whispering One

No Mercy

Doom Blade

Go for the Throat

Hero’s Downfall

Murder

Tragic Slip

In Garruk’s Wake

Plague Wind

One of the keys to any successful deck is removal. If I can give Phage fear, but my opponent has a black or artifact creature, what good does that do me? Also, being able to get rid of threats early on can keep me in the game while I’m working my way up to casting my commander.

Other:

Cabal Surgeon

Chainer, Dementia Master

Erebos, God of the Dead

Gray Merchant of Asphodel

Phyrexian Arena

Exsanguinate

The remaining cards are a conglomeration of things that help out the deck, or do well in this particular deck. For example, with the amount of ramp the deck can provide, Exsanguinate can be lethal on its own. Erebos and Phyrexian Arena both get me extra card draw. Chainer and Cabal Surgeon can get me creatures back from my graveyard, if for instance Platinum Angel has died. And Gray Merchant of Asphodel is just good, especially in a mono-black deck whose commander has four devotion.

The first time the deck actually saw play was Grand Prix Atlanta 2015, shortly after I finished its first iteration. I played it a couple times, it didn’t work very well, then I switched to Pirates and later to Judgebreaker, which went so well I wasn’t even tempted to switch back. At that point the decklist was still in a bit of flux, and the deck works much better now that it’s stabilized, although it can still be rather hit-or-miss.

In one game a few months back, I was playing against a couple fellow judges. I had down Sundial of the Infinite and Dauthi Trapper. A boardwipe got rid of my Dauthi Trapper, but I had Dauthi Embrace in hand. The game ended rather shortly after that. For some reason not a lot of people run cards with shadow. This was the second game of the night; the first one, Phage refused to give me the mana I needed to cast anything, and I was left rather frustrated.

Recently, when playing against a friend over lunch, I opened with a god hand. Now, the ideal starting hand would be Urborg, Dark Depths, Vampire Hexmage, Sol Ring (not currently in the deck, but an easy insert if I decided to do so), Lightning Greaves (or Swiftfoot Boots), and perhaps a Torpor Orb and a Phyrexian Dreadnaught. That would lead to Turn 1 Urborg, Sol Ring, Lightning Greaves, and Turn 2 Dark Depths, Hexmage, sac the Hexmage to remove the counters from Dark Depths, get Marit Lage, equip, and swing for 20 in the air. The Sol Ring could then be tapped to drop Torpor Orb, and the next turn I could get the Dreadnaught, equip it, and be swinging for both 20 and 12.

The hand I had wasn’t quite that good, and not only because I didn’t have a Sol Ring; it was two Snow-Covered Swamps, Dark Depths, and Demonic Tutor. So Turn 1 was just a Swamp, and Turn 2 was the tutor to grab my Hexmage. Turn 3 I played the Hexmage and Dark Depths, sac’ing the Hexmage to remove all counters from Dark Depths in order to get Marit Lage. Turn 4 I was swinging with a 20/20 flying indestructible on a board with no other flyers. Needless to say that game was over rather quickly.

I played the deck again a few days ago. Opening hand was 2 Swamps, Vampiric Tutor, and Thespian’s Stage. Once again, I was on track for a very early Marit Lage, this time Turn 4. Turn 1 Swamp, Tutor for Dark Depths. Turn 2 Swamp. Turn 3 Thespian’s Stage. On my opponent’s turn, he cast Awakening Zone, which wasn’t relevant yet but would become relevant shortly. Turn 4 was Dark Depths, to get Marit Lage at the end of my opponent’s turn. Turn 5 I was swinging with Dark Depths—and also Mogis’s Marauders, which I cast that turn. On his turn, due to the two Eldrazi Spawn tokens from Awakening Zone, my opponent had just enough mana to cast All Is Dust, getting rid of my Marit Lage and saving himself from slaughter the next turn.

By this point I’d drawn Rune-Scarred Demon and Rogue’s Passage, so when I cast Diabolic Tutor I decided to grab my Phyrexian Obliterator. Getting one of my ramp spells was a consideration, but I figured the opportunity to make my opponent sacrifice permanents was more advantageous at that time. Of course he never did sacrifice permanents to the Obliterator, electing instead to let the damage go through, which was also fine. By the time I had the mana to cast the Rune-Scarred demon, tutor out my Torpor Orb, cast it the next turn, and finally cast Phage the turn following, I had lethal on board.

These examples show much greater use of Marit Lage than I’d intended when I built the deck. Then again, that’s a two-card combo that only costs me two mana to activate, which means I can make it happen much faster than I can do anything else with the deck. At some point I’d like to get my Phyrexian Dreadnought down on Turn 3, but that’s a goal for another day. Mostly I’m just happy that I took an unworkable deck idea and made it brutally good at what it does.

Partner

With the spoiling of Commander 2016 came the advent of a new mechanic—partner. This allows you to have not one but two commanders, and gets around the issue of trying to create four-color legendary creatures in order to have a four-color deck (an issue also solved by the five four-color legendaries spoiled with the decks).

My first reaction is violent denial of WotC’s right to change the rules of my pet format. How dare they come up with this two Commander rule? Who do they think they are? It’s one Commander, and ninety-nine cards. That’s the way it’s always been.

Of course, this isn’t the first time WotC has messed with the Command Zone. In Commander 2013, the Commanders interacted with the Command Zone—all in different ways, which rubbed my OCD the wrong way. And then Commander 2014 had the Planeswalker Commanders, which I surprisingly had no problem with—probably because when I first started playing, I was under the impression that Planeswalkers could be Commanders, so the idea wasn’t completely foreign to me. And I really liked the Experience counters from Commander 2015.

Of course, none of those actually changed the number of cards in the library, or messed with the mechanics of casting your Commander. Still, isn’t part of the fun of Commander its versatility? If it had never changed, we’d still be limited to the original Elder Dragons, and no two people could have the same Commander—or general, as it was called back then. Commander damage wouldn’t be limited to combat damage, and you wouldn’t be able to die to your own Commander.

Those of you who follow my blog might also remember my rant about the new tuck rule from about a year ago. But so far, that rule has only benefited me—I’ve yet to encounter a situation where I wished my opponent couldn’t send her Commander to the Command Zone rather than the hand or library.

So—what’s the likely outcome of this Partner mechanic? Gut reaction aside, it’s actually pretty cool. You can mix and match the Partner Commanders to get different color combinations, or even use Partners of the same colors to have an alternate Commander you can access at will. That’s pretty cool. So. What options do we have?

Silas Renn, Seeker Adept—Deathtouch; whenever he deals combat damage to a player, you may cast target artifact card in your graveyard this turn. (Blue/Black)

Vial Smasher the Fierce—Whenever you cast your first spell each turn, deals damage equal to the spell’s CMC to an opponent chosen at random. (Red/Black)

Tana, the Bloodsower—Trample; whenever she deals combat damage to a player, create that many Saproling tokens. (Red/Green)

Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa—Flanking; creatures your opponents control without flanking or reach can’t block creatures with powers two or less. (Green/White)

Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker—Flying; whenever an opponent casts a spell, put a +1/+1 counter on it. (Blue/White)

Bruse Tarl, Boorish Herder—ETB or attack, target creature you control gains double strike and lifelink until end of turn. (Red/White)

Kydele, Chosen of Kruphix—T: Add C to your mana pool for each card you’ve drawn this turn. (Blue/Green)

Ravos, Soultender—Flying; other creatures you control get +1/+1; at the beginning of your upkeep, you may return target creature card from your graveyard to your hand. (White/Black)

Ludevic, Necro-Alchemist—At the beginning of each player’s end step, that player may draw a card if a player other than you lost life this turn. (Red/Blue)

Ikra Shidiqi, the Usurper—Menace; whenever a creature you control deals combat damage to a player, you gain life equal to that creature’s toughness. (Green/Black)

Akiri, Line-Slinger—First strike, vigilance; +1/+0 for each artifact you control. (Red/White)

Thrasios, Triton Hero—4: Scry 1, then reveal the top card of your library. If it’s a land card, put it onto the battlefield tapped. Otherwise, draw a card. (Blue/Green)

Tymna the Weaver—Lifelink; at the beginning of your postcombat main phase, you may pay X life, where X is the number of opponents that were dealt combat damage this turn. If you do, you draw X cards. (Black/White)

Kraum, Ludevic’s Opus—Flying, haste; Whenever an opponent casts his or her second spell each turn, draw a card. (Red/Blue)

Reyhan, Last of the Abzan—ETB with three +1/+1 counters; Whenever a creature you control dies or is put into the command zone, if it had one or more +1/+1 counters on it, you may put that many +1/+1 counters on target creature. (Green/Black)

So, first thing I notice—the enemy color combinations each get two Partner Commanders, and the allies only get one. That upsets my sense of order. The second cycle of enemy Partners aren’t adding anything to the possible color combinations.

The second thing I notice is that most of the Partner Commanders really aren’t worth running without the back-up of a second Commander. Akiri is okay, but it gets way better with Silas Renn’s ability to return artifacts to play. Kydele is fine for mana-ramp, but it’s Thrasios that will help you draw the cards to make it worthwhile—or you can use Kydele’s ability to pay for Thrasios’s scry. Reyhan is pretty good, but why would its command zone clause be relevant unless you’re also running Ishai?

Also—the fact that these Partner Commanders open more opportunities for four color decks, without needing to come up with more four-color cards—a prospect which is extremely difficult—makes me quite happy. When there’s only one option for a certain deck archetype, anyone who wants that archetype is forced to play the same deck—and part of the fun of Commander is that any deck is viable. With the Partner Commanders, plus the four-color Commanders, we now have seven different ways to make each of the four-color combinations. That’s way better than having a single way for each combination, which is what it would have been had they not come up with the Partner mechanic. So, really, the only way it could be improved—is to create more cards with Partner, in order to provide more options.

Overall, I’m cautiously optimistic about this new mechanic. It opens up new deck archetypes that have thus far been unavailable in sanctioned play, while skirting the problem of trying to design multiple four-color legendary creatures. I look forward to seeing what kinds of decks people build around these new commanders.

(Please comment below with your commanders and archetype if you plan to create a Partner commander deck.)

Lunarch

Mikaeus the Lunarch was one of the first decks I created all on my own. Back when I was first getting into the game, I pulled one in a pack, and since, at the time, he was the only white Legendary creature I owned, I decided to build a deck around him. With his ability, white weenie tokens was a natural way to go, and since I like tribal, the deck had a human tribal bent. At around the same time I’d pulled a Mikaeus the Unhallowed, and I built them as sort of duel decks against each other, human tribal versus hate humans. Unhallowed has since gone through various revisions, and at this point looks like I’m going to take him apart; but Lunarch has remained as a fun deck to play.

The core idea of the deck hasn’t changed much since its conception. It’s still white weenie human tribal tokens. The tribal aspects have been tightened, some of the token-producers removed because they don’t contribute to that theme, but the idea is still to get a bunch of little guys that Mikaeus can buff until my field becomes an unstoppable force. It’s weak to boardwipes and somewhat weak to targeted removal, but with a very low curve I’m usually able to do something to remain in the game.

Human Tribal:

Gallows at Willow Hill

Angel of Glory’s Rise

Champion of the Parish

Dearly Departed

Devout Chaplain

Elder Cathar

Herald of War

Thalia’s Lieutenant

Hope Against Hope

Repel the Abominable

Spare from Evil

Naturally with the main theme of the deck as human tribal, it makes sense that I would have cards that interact with Human creatures specifically. In many other tribal decks, I run Door of Destinies and Coat of Arms; while those would undoubtedly be good in this deck, they haven’t yet made their way onto the list. Perhaps later.

White Tribal:

Ring of Thune

Celestial Crusader

Crovax, Ascendant Hero

Paragon of New Dawns

Crusade

Honor of the Pure

Mass Calcify

Since the deck is mono-white, it also makes sense that I would run cards that benefit whit e creatures, including old cards that could also aid my opponents. I feel this falls under the tribal umbrella.

Tokens:

Captain of the Watch

Evangel of Heliod

God-Favored General

Hanweir Militia Captain

Heliod, God of the Sun

Gather the Townsfolk

In early incarnations, the deck had quite a few token-producing cards. That has decreased as I’ve narrowed its focus, but I still want to be able to make multiple creatures to benefit from Mikaeus’s effect.

Counters:

Abzan Battle Priest

Abzan Falconer

Ainok Bond-Kin

Dragonscale General

Dromoka Captain

Gideon’s Avenger

Lightwalker

Unruly Mob

Tempt with Glory

With Mikaeus’s ability to distribute +1/+1 counters to all of my creatures, it makes sense to run other things that interact with counters. Some of these give my creatures advantages—lifelink, first strike, flying—some gain advantages themselves, and some just give themselves counters that can then benefit from the other effects.

Anthems:

Spear of Heliod

Consul’s Lieutenant

Goldnight Commander

Kongming, “Sleeping Dragon”

Pianna, Nomad Captain

Veteran Armorer

White is very good at anthem effects. These effects are even better when they can affect a large number of creatures—such as a deck that is designed to get down a lot of creatures, both token and non-token.

Boardwipes:

Day of Judgment

Divine Reckoning

Terminus

White also does boardwipes very well, and it seemed prudent to have a few in the deck. Depending on play, in the future I might take them out for more anthems, since in most cases I’m going to have the most threatening board state, unless a boardwipe has previously occurred.

Planeswalkers:

Gideon Jura

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

Gideon, Champion of Justice

Kytheon, Hero of Akros

All of the Gideons have the advantage of turning into a Human creature—and of course, Planeswalkers are inherently powerful. Ally of Zendikar doubles as a token producer, and Champion of Justice is a potential boardwipe, but they all have the advantage of being able to turn into creatures but being immune to sorcery-speed creature removal.

Creatures:

Aegis of the Gods

Archetype of Courage

Boros Elite

Crusader of Odric

Fencing Ace

Masako the Humorless

Odric, Lunarch Marshal

Odric, Master Tactitian

Silverblad Paladin

Slayer of the Wicked

Soldier of the Pantheon

Thalia’s Lancers

Thalia, Heretic Cathar

Village Bell-Ringer

Basically the idea with the other creatures was to find the best humans to contribute to the deck. Since humans are one of the best-represented tribes in Magic, and the majority are white, it wasn’t terribly difficult. Many of the choices are great options for any deck that includes white, which made the decision to include them in this deck rather easy.

Other:

Faith’s Reward

Valorous Stance

These are both protection cards. While they don’t exactly fit the theme, they don’t go against it either, and they have enough use to warrant keeping them in the deck.

Lands:

New Benalia

Plains x36

Currently my mana base is extremely simple. In the future I might expand it with more non-basics, but at the moment basics provide me everything I need.

I played Lunarch on Thursday at one of the local stores. It started off strong, getting down Mikaeus on Turn 2 and quickly populating the board with white wheenie humans, which I made bigger using my commander’s second ability. But then the Scion player decided my board was getting too scary and swung at me with Scion, turning it into Balefire Dragon to wipe my board. Just as I was starting to recover from that, with both Odrics on the field and a couple other creatures, the Scion player cast Ugin, using his minus ability to exile all of our colored permanents. Bye-bye Odric. Now I was top-decking, not a good thing in a mono-white deck, especially one that relies on getting out a lot of little creatures. But hey, I still had my commander, right?

Well, yes. Until I top-decked Terminus and decided to cast it for its miracle cost, because that Narset just had to go. Mikaeus got removed two more times after that, until I just couldn’t cast him anymore. No hand, no field, can’t even cast my commander—poor Lunarch was completely out of the game.

Or so I thought. For a moment things were looking up when I got an Evangel of Heliod. Devotion was only two, but three creatures is better than none, and I had plenty of mana. Then that got wiped as well, leaving me just as bereft as before. Until I drew Angel of Glory’s Rise. Literally the only card in the deck that could have saved me at that point. I went from having no creatures on field to having about a dozen—my devotion was seven this time, with Evangel seeing all the other cards as they returned. I still couldn’t re-cast my commander, but at this point I didn’t need to.

Next turn, Scion was at 18 and Narset was at 10. There had been a Cromat player, but he had to leave. I had 18 power on the field, and Scion was the one who’d boardwiped me twice early on, but he had a blocker so I wasn’t going to be able to get all the damage through. Instead I decided to send 10 power at Narset and the seven tokens and the Evangel at Scion. Narset bounced my Angel of Glory’s Rise and somehow gained two life, going down to 6, then Swords to Plowsharesed Scion’s blocker, putting Scion at 14 after damage. Scion cast Unexpected Results into Dragonstorm; since Unexpected Results was the second spell of his turn, he stormed for 3, getting his last hasty dragon (Hypersonic Dragon), a dragon that dealt 5 damage divided as he chose upon ETB, and one other. Two damage to the Narset player and the other three used to kill two of my creatures, then swing at the Narset player for lethal. He then played another dragon, and passed turn.

On my turn, I re-cast Angel of Glory’s Rise, getting back my guys from the graveyard, and cast my draw for turn, which was Paragon of New Dawns. I swung with ten creatures, all of them at least 2/2 due to Paragon’s buff, and he didn’t have enough blockers to prevent it from being lethal.

I played it again against some friends, having loaned Unhallowed to one of them and Daretti to another. Daretti was at 11 counters and was going to bomb the next turn, so I swung at Daretti with enough to keep him in check, and swung at Unhallowed with my Abzan Falconer and another creature. Rather than try to make a deal with me and ask me not to swing at him, he cast Hero’s Downfall targeting my Abzan Falconer, which allowed the Daretti player to block my attack and let Daretti survive the turn. Naturally the next turn, she bombed Daretti, basically ensuring she would win the game.

At that point, Daretti was the biggest threat. Two things made her not the most enticing target. First, there was very little I could do at that point to keep her from winning. Second, and more important, she’d just played her deck like she should have; it was her boyfriend, piloting Unhallowed, who had failed to utilize table politics in order to keep me from attacking him. Of course I was going to attack, when he had an Erebos and I had an Abzan Battle Priest, and I was running human tribal and he could cast Unhallowed at any time.

A few turns later, I drew Spare from Evil. Counting up my creatures, I discovered I had the potential for 27 power on the field, assuming that I removed the final counter from Lunarch in order to distribute it to my other creatures. At that point Unhallowed was at 28 life. So, I couldn’t kill him. But I could bring him within easy kill radius. In doing so I’d lose all my creatures, since he had his Commander in play. So the question was, was a suicide charge worth it?

With Daretti able to get back all artifacts, having bombed the turn we failed to kill her Commander, there was little to no chance that I would win. And the person responsible for this state wasn’t Daretti—it was Unhallowed. A suicide charge wasn’t going to change my chances of winning—they were practically nil regardless. So the question was, did I want to try to defeat Daretti, who hadn’t done anything except play her deck, or did I want to negate Unhallowed’s chances of winning?

When put that way, it was an easy decision. Similar to when I countered the land destruction player’s spells to prevent him from winning, essentially handing the game to another player, I elected for a suicide charge at the Unhallowed player. He could have allied with me and kept Daretti from bombing, but instead he chose to wait to see what I was planning to do, and punish me for the decision when I had no way of knowing that he could or would do so.

After being dropped to one life, the Unhallowed player died to a Sword of Fire and Ice trigger, then the Daretti player won with Purphoros and Myr Incubator. On the other hand, if he’d spoken up about the fact that he had Hero’s Downfall and asked me not to attack him, I’d have attacked the Daretti player, he could have killed Daretti, and he’d have had a chance at victory. Communication is key to diplomacy in Commander—when you utilize it, you increase your chance of winning.

Then, on Saturday, I played the deck against four other judges after the local judge gathering. Turn 1 I got Kytheon, Turn 2 Veteran Armorer, Turn 3 Mikaeus for 2—usually I’d have cast him Turn 2, but I wanted the Veteran Armorer that turn. Turn 4 I got Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, since one of my opponents had cast Call to the Grave and I needed a way to create creatures I could sacrifice. Of course at that point I no longer wanted to transform my Kytheon, because then I’d have to sacrifice it.

Not long after, Kytheon was bounced to my hand. I drew Terminus, revealed it to the Miracle trigger, then elected not to Miracle it because I wanted to attack first, and had the mana to hard-cast it. I bombed Gideon to get the emblem, minused Lunarch to increase my creatures’ power, and swung with them. Then I drew a Thalia’s Lancers, which I used to tutor for Heliod so I could create more tokens, since Call to the Grave was still a thing. As tempted as I was to get Odric, or other Odric, I knew I needed the tokens. Thalia’s Lancers was then copied by the zombie player, who wanted the tutor effect. I got an effect that gave something indestructible until my next turn, which allowed me to keep Thalia’s Lancers alive. Then I cast Mass Calcify, destroying everything except the evil Lancers and my creatures, in order to keep Omnath in check.

Shortly thereafter, I cast a Gideon Jura, choosing the “insult your mother” mode because Omnath was starting to recover. Tempt with Glory got me three +1/+1 counters on each of my creatures, and I managed to kill Omnath, after using Faith’s Reward to get Gideon back.

Then there were three players left—one with Nev’s Disk, which he used to boardwipe in order to keep us from killing him. At that point all I had left was Gideon, with five +1/+1 counters from Lunarch and Tempt with Glory, and Heliod, with a similar cast of counters. Heliod was no longer a creature since I’d lost devotion. The zombie player was at 13, and the other player was at 6, with one blocker after Gideon insulted his mother, as well. In order to kill him, I had to top-deck a permanent with two white in the casting cost.

My top-deck was Crusade.

I could have killed either of them at that point, but the zombie player and I had been working together, so I killed the other player, allowing the zombie player to win.

All in all, a pretty good show. Perhaps not as overwhelming as the first time I played it three years ago, when the deck just stomped all over my friends, but it’s still powerful enough to hold its own and affect the outcome of the game—even coming back for the win after top-decking on a barren field. And it’s not the type of deck that forces other players to play around it, or keeps them from being able to play their decks. They can use spot-removal to get rid of my biggest threats, or boardwipe and completely obliterate me. It’s not a deck that people refuse to play against, or target for removal first if they see it at the table; and yet it still has a decent chance at winning. Add in the tribal aspect—something you may have noticed is a running theme in my decks—and overall I’m rather pleased with the outcome.

Banned List

Nearly all formats in Magic have a list of banned cards. These are cards you’re not allowed to play in your deck, usually for reasons of them providing an unfair power advantage over other decks. (Cards that deal with ante or dexterity are universally banned due to creating problems with game play itself, and some cards are banned due to the decks that played them causing issues at tournaments.) Commander has its own banned list, which can be found here.

The Commander banned list is managed not by WotC but by the Rules Committee. This means the philosophy of banning cards in Commander is a bit different from the philosophy in banning cards in other formats. In Modern, Birthing Pod got banned because it was used in a large percentage of decks, and WotC wanted a greater variety in game play. In Commander, Sol Ring and Sensei’s Divining Top are used in a large percentage of decks, but they seem in no danger of getting banned.

There used to be a distinction in Commander between “banned as a commander” and “banned in the 99.” I personally liked this distinction, because it meant that if there was a card that was overpowered if you were guaranteed access to it, but less overwhelming otherwise, you could still play it. Something like Narset could be banned as a commander without being rendered completely unplayable. However, that rule is no longer in effect, so if something is banned, it just can’t be played at all.

Since Commander is ultimately a casual format, it’s up to each playgroup to determine their own banned list. If all the players in a particular group are fine with playing with banned cards, those cards may be played. The banned list is only official for officially sanctioned tournaments, such as Commander pods at a GP.

That being said, the banned list exists for a reason. The first card to be banned was Rofellos. In fact, the command tax was originally known as the Rofellos rule, and stated that if a commander cost less than 6 to cast, its controller still had to pay 6. Rofellos was still a problem, though, and eventually it was just decided to do away with the card altogether. That banning created a lot more parity in the format.

For the most part, bannings in Commander are designed to keep the format fair and fun. While the Rules Committee wants to keep to the philosophy of being able to play all your old cards that are unplayable in other formats, they also want the game to be welcoming to new players and rewarding of innovative ideas. Cards that consistently create an unfun and unfair environment for those forced to play against them are carefully considered for potential banning.

Unlike with other formats, Commander bannings don’t come out with each new set. The last one was Prophet of Kruphix, which was announced in January. That’s because the format doesn’t require regular banned list updates. Between the format not being tournament-supported, and it being multiplayer singleton, cards that are broken in other formats are much more manageable in Commander. Either their monetary value puts them out of reach of the patrons of the local gaming store, or their impact on the game is severely reduced by the fact that each player has multiple opponents who all start at forty life and are likely to take it ill if one player starts the game with a distinct advantage. Something that could win the game if it showed up opening hand in a game of Legacy will be much less advantageous in a game of Commander, as well as being less likely to show up early on. The chance of having a particular card opening hand in a typical game of constructed is about 40%. The chance of having a particular card opening hand in a typical game of Commander is about 7%. (These numbers don’t take into account any mulligan decisions that might be made.) While a one in fourteen chance of being able to play Olivia on Turn 2 due to having a Sol Ring in opening hand seems pretty good to me, it’s not going to make my opponents never want to play with me again.

Then there are cards like Shahrazad. While she’s not over-powered or anything, Commander games last long enough as it is, without throwing a subgame into the mix. Don’t get me wrong; I would love to play the card in my Judgebreaker deck, just to see the judge’s face when I ask what happens to the commanders still in the Command Zone at the beginning of the subgame.

There are of course still some cards that make the cut. Rofellos, mentioned earlier, is just way too powerful in a format that encourages large, stompy creatures that would normally be too costly to cast. Prophet of Kruphix allowed its controller to basically take a turn on each other player’s turn, the only mitigating factor being the lack of card advantage. Then again, an Azami or an Arcanis on the field would create or even increase said card advantage. The end result was that if the game wasn’t over after you dropped Prophet of Kruphix, it was because you’d built your deck wrong.

That’s not the sort of play style we want to encourage in Commander. It shouldn’t be about whether you can draw or tutor into a specific card. Commander is about fun interactions that come about when you have multiple decks trying to do disparate things all in the same game. We don’t want one player taking up half the time we’ve allotted for the game. We want everyone interacting and having a good time.

So there you have it. Some cards that are super-powerful in other formats are much less game-changing in Commander. And some cards that are fine in two-player suddenly become oppressive in Commander. The banned list reflects this. Don’t be surprised to see cards that are banned in Legacy or Modern are legal in Commander, or vice versa. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because something is a bomb in another format it will be equally good in this one.

Nemata

This one is at the request of my friend Nik Zitomer, the fungus guy. He wanted me to do a deck tech on a fungus deck, and Nemata is my Saproling/Fungus fun deck, that is surprisingly able to win games. I built the deck because I love tribal, and upon seeing Nemata’s ability, and knowing a lot of cards, fungi especially, that either created or dealt with Saprolings, I couldn’t resist. I had a Saproling tribal subtheme in one of my other decks, which gave me an opportunity to pull those cards and co-opt them for Nemata, where they were more useful and thus more fun.

Naturally most of the deck revolves around cards that create Saprolings. There aren’t any actual Saproling cards in Magic, only Saproling tokens. Most of the creatures that create Saprolings are Fungi, which gain spore counters on their controller’s upkeep and have an ability that removes spore counters to create Saprolings. The deck is not at all optimized—for instance, Coat of Arms would improve the deck significantly, and Adaptive Automaton would probably be a good addition, along with any permanent that gives my creatures trample. But the point isn’t to win as many games as I can; the point is to get a bunch of adorable Saprolings and occasionally turn them into an army that stomps all over my opponents.

Fungi:

Feral Thallid

Fungal Behemoth

Mycoloth

Psychotrope Thallid

Savage Thallid

Spore Flower

Sporemound

Sporesower Thallid

Sporoloth Ancient

Thallid

Thallid Devourer

Thallid Germinator

Thallid Shell-Dweller

Thorn Thallid

Utopia Mycon

Vitaspore Thallid

Most of these interact with Saprolings, although not all of them do. Some of them, while they don’t create Saproling tokens, still get spore counters, which can become Saprolings if I have Sporoloth Ancient. Even those that wouldn’t normally get counters can get them with Sporesower Thallid in play.

Other Creatures:

Dreampod Druid

Elvish Farmer

Jade Mage

Thelonite Hermit

Verdant Force

Verdeloth the Ancient

All of these creatures do interact with Saprolings, either by creating them or by buffing them. Earlier versions of the deck had some creatures that were just good for the deck, but I decided to take them out in order to make the deck more on theme.

Saproling Creators:

Druidic Satchel

Sarpadian Empires, Vol. VII

Greener Pastures

Night Soil

Saproling Cluster

Sporogenesis

Verdant Embrace

Scatter the Seeds

Sprout Swarm

Fungal Sprouting

Saproling Symbiosis

Spontaneous Generation

Naturally I want to make as many Saprolings as possible, in order to take full advantage of Nemata’s ability. With enough Saprolings, I can swing all out at an opponent, sacrifice the ones that get blocked, and kill him with the remaining ones, which are now huge.

Interactions:

Doubling Season

Fungal Bloom

Life and Limb

Overwhelming Instinct

Parallel Lives

Primal Vigor

Bloodscent

Second Harvest

Parallel Evolution

Cards like Doubling Season and Second Harvest are pretty obvious: They increase the number of tokens I’m getting. Doubling Season has the added advantage of also increasing the rate that apore counters are placed on my Fungi, essentially quadrupling the number of Saprolings I can make. Life and Limb, of course, turns my Forests into more Saprolings, but it also turns my Saprolings into mana. Overwhelming Instinct gives me card draw, which I probably need to replenish my field. Bloodscent allows me to sacrifice a single Saproling in order to get the rest of them through, enabling me to swing in for the win even against an opponent who has a stronger board presence.

Buff:

Tower Above

Predatory Rampage

Overrun

Hunter’s Prowess

Enlarge

Tribal Unity

Sylvan Might

Strength of Cedars

Stampede

Resize

Primal Boost

Might of Old Krosa

Might of Oaks

Giant Growth

Echoing Courage

Awaken the Bear

These cards are vital to the function of the deck. They allow my harmless little Saprolings to get big enough to deal actual damage. Even without Nemata in play, something like Overrun can buff my Saproling army enough to take out one of my opponents.

Removal:

Krosan Grip

Naturalize

Unravel the Æther

Bramblecrush

Skyreaping

Removal is necessary, even in a fun deck—perhaps especially in a fun deck. If one player is dominating due to one or two cards—for instance, because he has an Akroma’s Memorial, or a Dictate of Erebos—there’s not much of a chance for me to remove that player from the game, so my best bet is ensuring I can remove his problem cards. While I can’t do much about Avacyn, I have the potential to handle just about anything else, ensuring a fair game for everyone.

And there’s the deck. Nothing too overpowered, just a lot of good synergy and adorable Saprolings. I took it to the card store to play at Friday Night Commander, so I could see it in action. Admittedly the deck I was playing wasn’t exactly the same as the decklist I have, since I just threw the deck together from cards I had on hand and haven’t gotten around to ordering the better pieces, but the core of it was the same.

The first game, I was playing against Leovold, Nekusar, and Daxos the Returned. Nekusar actually arrived late and we allowed him to bubble in the first three turns, during which he played a few lands and a signet. Daxos I’d played against before, with my Kaalia deck, and the Leovold deck I’d glanced through before the start of the night, because he was borrowing it from a friend of mine.

Leovold stole my Verdant Force, earning my enmity. I’d gotten out Nemata on Turn 5, and cast the Verdant Force the next turn, which would have netted me a ton of Saprolings over the course of the game. Leovold wound up with 11 before losing the Verdant Force, and he only lost it because he attacked with it…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

With Leovold on the field, Nekusar’s main wincon was fairly useless, since Leovold prevents all opponents from drawing more than one card per turn. So, Nekusar played Kiki-Jiki, Mirror-Breaker, and Pestermite. It’s an infinite combo which sees play in Modern. The basic idea is to copy the Pestermite using Kiki-Jiki’s ability, which allows you to untap the Kiki-Jiki with Pestermite’s enters-the-battlefield trigger, allowing you to get another Pestermite, ad infinitum. The tokens all have haste, and are exiled at end of turn; so you swing out for the win, since you can create an arbitrarily large number.

I’d had a Spore Flower since Turn 2, slowly accumulating spore counters, and when Nekusar tried to end the game, I removed three of them to prevent all combat damage that would be dealt this turn. The Nekusar player was at 39 life, and the Leovold player had potentially 38 damage on board, with the Nekusar player tapped out, as long as I sacrificed all my Saprolings so his would get Nemata’s buff—because she buffs all Saprolings, not just those I control—and cast Tribal Unity for all my mana. Leovold also had a Duskmantle Seer, so it would probably be fine, but we wouldn’t know that until his upkeep; if Nekusar revealed a land to Duskmantle Seer, he wouldn’t lose any life, and we’d be screwed. So, I attacked him with my one Saproling that could attack, bringing him definitively into killable range.

Leovold attacked, and I dutifully created three more Saprolings, sacrificing them along with the two I’d gotten from Utopia Mycon, which had been out since Turn 1. That was enough to eliminate the Nekusar player, leaving just myself, Leovold, and Daxos.

Daxos was building up a decent boardstate, including Cathars’ Crusade, which I initially took out of several decks because it’s such a headache to keep track of, but have been putting back in so I can use it to troll my fellow judges. Being a deck that generated a number of tokens, Daxos of course had some difficulty representing how large each token was, since normally they would all be the same size but Cathars’ Crusade was throwing off the math.

I knew Leovold could kill Daxos if I cast Tribal Unity, which I had in hand, and sacrificed the four Saprolings I had on board; that would give all his Saprolings, eleven total, a bonus of +11/+11 until end of turn. I indicated this to him, also pointing out that if he attacked me, I could just use Spore Flower’s ability to Fog again. After he declared attacks—all at Daxos—Daxos said he’d kill Leovold next turn then scoop to me if I saved him. While I was considering this, he tried to talk Leovold into changing his attacks to me. I determined that, with the mana I had available, I could make three Saprolings with Nemata’s ability, giving me seven total that would be able to attack on my turn. After Daxos killed Leovold, he’d have three blockers. Between sacrificing the three blocked Saprolings and casting Tribal Unity for seven, there would be forty-four damage getting through, which was more than lethal. For me, the knowledge that I could have won was enough to get me to honor my initial agreement; I am, after all, a woman of my word. Plus, in a casual game with no prize support, there’s no quantifiable difference between knowing you could win, and actually winning. My deck had the wherewithal to win on its own; I’d agreed to let Leovold kill Daxos; the most advantageous path for me would be to uphold my agreement, and thus prove myself to be a reliable ally. Daxos chose to block several of Leovold’s attacking creatures, including Verdant Force, thus killing them.

With Daxos dead, we were at a stalemate, because Leovold had Experiment Kraj, and Nemata had +1/+1 counters on her. He cast a Stunt Double copying my Spore Flower, and later got a Lighthouse Chronologist. He’d put a +1/+1 counter on Utopia Mycon using Kraj, and thus was able to activate Utopia Mycon’s ability to sacrifice seven of his Saprolings to produce seven blue mana after casting Lighthouse Chronologist, leveling him up all the way.

At that point he had two spore counters on his Stunt Flower Double, so I swung all out, knowing he’d need to block or die. He had to block with all but two creatures in order to keep me from killing him; the two he chose to keep were Experiment Kraj, because it allowed him to continue to create Saprolings; and Stunt Double, for the Fog effect. Five of the Saprolings he blocked with also survived, since I sacrificed the ones they were blocking in order to pump the rest.

The next turn, I swung again, forcing him to use up his Stunt Fog. He then misplayed, casting Villainous Wealth rather than Mind Grind for 17, which would have milled me out, since he’d already Traumatized me, and I was at 31 cards in my library, only 13 of which were lands. Because he misplayed, I was able to swing in the next turn for the win—just as time was being called.

The second game, I was playing against Athreos and Sliver Overlord. That game started off much slower—no Turn 1 Utopia Mycon or Turn 2 Spore Flower. My first play was actually a fungus on Turn 3, then on Turn 4 I was able to cast Sprout Swarm and pay its Buyback cost. I really like that card. It seems underpowered—two mana for a 1/1? Five mana if you pay the Buyback? But with Convoke, it becomes easier to cast each subsequent time, and you can cast it multiply times in a turn. Sure, five mana for a 1/1 is a bit much even as an activated ability, but since I don’t have to invest actual mana to get the effect, it evens out.

On Turn 5, Athreos was able to sacrifice his Quest for the Holy Relic in order to tutor out Loxodon Warhammer and attach it to his commander. Slivers took eight commander damage, among other combat damage. The next turn, Athreos cast Silverblade Paladin, soulbonding it to Athreos, and swinging for another sixteen commander. Slivers blocked four of it, just enough to survive at twenty commander damage and five life. He then Fetched, bringing himself down to four.

On my turn, I had four Saprolings that could attack, along with a few creatures, one of which I didn’t really care about, since it was one I’d decided to purge from the decklist but hadn’t gotten around to physically replacing. I case Predatory Rampage, giving my guys +3/+3 until end of turn. Since Slivers had four blockers, I attacked with my four Saprolings and the dude I didn’t care about. None of them actually died, since Slivers’ largest creature was a 2/2. Even though I’d just killed him, he did me a solid by destroying the Loxodon Warhammer, which actually dragged the game out quite a bit.

Several turns later, with eight Forests in play, I used Utopia Mycon’s ability to sacrifice a Saproling to create a mana, then cast Enlarge on Feral Thallid, followed by Fungal Sprouting in order to get 13 Saprolings. I should have attacked with my 13/10 trampler but was so excited about my Saprolings I completely forgot.

Athreos attacked all out; after blocks and combat damage, his commander’s ability resolved, and I chose not to return Silverblade Paladin or the other creature to his hand, in the hopes that he wouldn’t be able to play enough creatures to keep me from killing him next turn. With fourteen Saprolings on the battlefield and the mana to re-cast Nemata, who’d been killed the first time I tried to play her, I had enough to deal the thirty-five damage necessary to kill him. Unfortunately he boardwiped, and since I was at three life, there was no way I would recover in time to save myself.

Overall, the evening was a smashing success. I’d forgotten how much fun it is to play a janky deck that isn’t designed to win. Although it was neat to win the first game, and almost win the second, that wasn’t the best part of playing the deck, which should be obvious given that I gave up a guaranteed win for what seemed at the time to be my certain demise. Teaming up to prevent the Nekusar player from killing us with his infinite combo was definitely the highlight of the evening, and it was pretty cool that my janky deck was able to do that. Unfortunately there wasn’t time this past weekend to play against Nik’s Ghave deck and see who could fungus harder, but perhaps we’ll get another chance at some future event.

Infinite Combos

Coming up with new combos can be one of the most fun aspects of playing Magic. Seeing a card and realizing it has synergy with another card, then putting them in a deck together and seeing how they function, is part of what drives my own personal enjoyment of the game. The best are infinite combos—those aren’t just good, they’re abusable. But the problem with abuse is that there’s now someone getting abused. My opponents are in this game to do fun and crazy things with their own decks, not have the game end Turn 3 because I combo’d off with Sharuum. And iven if the game doesn’t end, they’ll know it’s only continuing at my forbearance.

You might wonder what’s so bad about that. They’re getting to play their decks, right? Shouldn’t they be happy? Well, not so much. It’s a matter of basic human psychology.

My ex liked to be king of the battlefield. Even if he didn’t win, he liked to know that he could have won at any time, and that the game only continued because he oh-so-magnanimously allowed it to. He also liked to announce this to the table, so everyone could be appropriately grateful for his generosity. Thing is, people don’t like having their fun be at someone else’s discretion. Just like he enjoyed being in control of the table, so did everyone else. They wanted to command their own destinies.

Once you have an infinite combo set up, that game is yours. Eliminating you is the only way for the other players to take back control. Until you’re gone, their potential to enjoy the game is greatly reduced. So don’t be surprised if they team up against you despite your restraint.

Imagine a farming monopoly that controls all the produce available. The only way to get any sort of vegetables is through them. They benevolently give away their produce at no charge, but refuse to break up the monopoly. Should the people be content with the way things are? After all, they’re being provided free food. Or would it be reasonable for them to revolt in some fashion? To create their own farms and eliminate the monopoly?

That being said, there are still some ways you can have fun with infinite combos. One way is to run combos that don’t immediately end the game. I have an infinite mana combo in my Riku deck, consisting of Myr Galvanizer copied with Riku’s ability and any two manadork Myrs (or one also copied with Riku). I can tap the two Myr Galvanizers in succession to untap each other and all my other Myrs, then do ridiculous things with arbitrarily large amounts of mana. That doesn’t in itself automatically win me the game, unless I have an X-spell in hand.

Actually, that kind of infinite combo has the potential to be the most fun to play against. If my opponents do win the game after I’ve supposedly combo’d off, their success is all the more sweet. A combo that leads to a powerful board state that can still be defeated a large percentage of the time can still be fun for all players. Especially if it doesn’t come up every game.

Another way is to run multiple decks. You can have your degenerate combo deck you play against strangers in the Commander pods at GPs, and your fun deck you play with your friends. Or, if you only want to run one deck—maybe you’re broke, or you only really like one style of play—you can sideboard out the infinite combos when playing more casual games. But you actually have to take them out; if you leave them in, we’re back in the situation where your opponents are only having fun because you’re nice enough to allow it. (Alternatively, you could promise not to play those cards, which changes the dynamic from being nice to being trustworthy.)

But what if you never go to GPs? Maybe you’re one of those players who never leaves their local store—or never even goes to a store at all. You still want to try out these fun combos.

Well, go ahead and try them out—once. See how they work, and whether they’re achievable. Then take them out of your deck and bask in the memories of that one time you did something awesome. If you’re excited to be doing it, your friends will probably be excited with you, at least the first time. It’s when it happens more than once that it becomes a problem.

So let’s take a look at some infinite combos that are possible in Commander.

Exquisite Blood is a popular one. That card is good all by itself, since in multiplayer opponents lose life a lot. Pair it with anything that causes opponents to lose life when you gain life, such as Viskopa Guildmage, Cliffhaven Vampire, or Defiant Bloodlord, and you’ve got yourself an instant win.

This is also one that shouldn’t be brought out too often. Any kind of instakill like this—especially one that only requires two cards—can be extremely frustrating for opponents. That’s fine when you’re playing for prizes against people you’ll likely never see again. Not so fine when you’re playing a casual game against friends who may decide they don’t want to play with you anymore.

Mindcrank is another one that goes infinite pretty quickly. Pair it with Duskmantle Guildmage or Bloodchief Ascension, and they’ll trigger off each other, Mindcrank making the player mill a card every time life is lost, the other card making them lose life every time a card is milled. Anything that causes each opponent to lose life at once—extort comes to mind, since it’s already possible in those colors—and unless someone has more life than the cards in their library, the entire table is dead. Even the lifegain player is going to die on their draw step unless they’ve got something like Elixir of Immortality to shuffle their graveyard back into their library before they draw.

Another mill combo is Leyline of the Void or Rest in Peace plus Helm of Obedience. This one functions because the text of Helm specifies that the cards must be put into the graveyard; since Leyline sends them directly to exile, neither condition (X cards or a creature card) can be met, and therefore the player continues to mill until their entire library is in exile. The Rest in Peace version is actually the better of the two. Besides costing less mana, it also gets rid of already existing graveyards, preventing the victims from saving themselves with something like Elixir of Immortality.

These two are pretty cool the first time they’re executed. Mill is a fairly underused strategy, and while it upsets players all out of proportion to its actual usefulness, it can be interesting to see in action. That being said, doing either of these a second time is like telling a bad joke the listener has already heard. The first time might have gotten a chuckle; after that it’s just annoying.

I’ve actually seen the latter combo in action, against a Kaalia player who absolutely deserved it, because she was a whiny crybaby who got upset when I took the initiative of removing her threats and who then talked her boyfriend into targeting me. Since the other players unfortunately had to deal with her on a regular basis (I was just visiting town for a few days), one of them got bullied into letting her shuffle what graveyard she already had back into her library so she could survive a few more turns. Let me reiterate that this was a Kaalia player, who got so butthurt at getting targeted other players were afraid to make her less of a threat lest her crazy boyfriend do something to physically hurt them. While of course I’m biased because she took it out on me, I heard from the other players later that the only reason they played with her was to make their friend happy.

This actually illustrates another aspect of some infinite combos in multiplayer, in that they’re not truly infinite. The Leyline/Helm combo is only good to take out one player at a time. If used properly, it can be a useful political tool to keep other players in check. For instance, if the Sharuum player starts trying to combo off, his entire library can be exiled at instant speed, and the rest of the table will probably be grateful for the rescue. It’s when you succumb to the temptation to use it as a club rather than a scalpel that it becomes a problem. Exiling libraries just to help yourself win the game, or using it as a threat whenever someone tries to do something you don’t like, will draw the ire of everyone else, who will try to eliminate you before you can do the same to them. Making it clear that you’re restraining yourself because of the threat posed by multiple people—assuming there is such a threat—rather than any innate benevolence, can even make them feel good about themselves, rather than oppressed by the way you’re controlling the board. And yes, in some cases, this is a lie, and in some of those it won’t even be believable. If there aren’t at least two players at the table with the potential to wreck you in one or two turns, it might be better just to keep the pieces in your hand until the boardstate becomes more equitable.

Another semi-infinite combo is Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind, and either Curiosity or Ophidian Eye. This one is found in almost all Niv-Mizzet decks, and is typically the purpose of the deck. The limit to this one is the number of cards currently in your library; often you can only kill one or two players with the first pass, and lifegain is difficult to overcome. But as long as you have some kind of graveyard shuffle effect—usually one of the Eldrazi titans—you can repeat the combo on your next turn.

While this could be used as a political scalpel similar to Helm of Obedience, it never is, and no one expects it to be. The deck is built around getting the combo to happen in order to win, and everyone knows it.

Now, to be quite honest, there are a couple instant-win combos I do run. I justify them to myself by saying that I rarely play those decks and the combos haven’t ever come up.

In my Mikaeus deck, I run a Triskelion. It’s a 1/1 that enters with three +1/+1 counters, with an activated ability where I can remove a counter to deal a damage to target creature or player. With Mikaeus in play, it’s actually a 2/2, so I remove two counters targeting itself, then one counter targeting an opponent with the first two activations still on the stack. It dies with no counters, returns with four counters due to Mikaeus granting it undying, and the process repeats. The thing is, because I don’t tend to run tutors in my decks out of respect for the singleton nature of the format, I have no way to make this happen reliably, and in fact it’s never come up in a game.

The other combo I run is Hellkite Charger plus Sword of Feast and Famine. Hellkite Charger has an attack trigger that lets me pay a certain amount of mana to untap my creatures and get an extra combat phase. Sword of Feast and Famine has a combat damage trigger that lets me untap all my lands. In this combo, Hellkite Charger can be replaced by Aggravated Assault, an enchantment that does the same thing, and Sword of Feast and Famine can be replaced by either Bear Umbra or, if you have a sufficient number of creatures, Druids’ Repository. The idea is to have some way to untap your lands or otherwise create mana with each combat phase.

This is also a combo I’ve never actually played, because it’s in my Aurelia deck, which is still under construction. I like it in my Aurelia deck because the theme of the deck is extra combat phases. However I’ll probably take it out after the first time it happens. Hellkite Charger will stay, but Sword of Feast and Famine doesn’t really do anything for the deck except facilitate the combo. (Yes, I know all the Swords are good. Almost too good. They tend to hose specific decks, which I find neither fair nor fun. So unless I have a specific reason, I don’t like to run them in my decks.)

One combo a friend and I came up with, but I’ve never actually seen in action, is Time Sieve plus Thopter Assembly. The way it works is, at your upkeep, as long as you control no other thopters, Thopter Assembly returns to your hand, and you get five thopter tokens. You then sacrifice those to the Time Sieve in order to take an extra turn, and re-play Thopter Assembly so the process will repeat. It’s slow and ungainly, but the net result is infinite turns. I tried to build a deck around it—the original design was Phenax big butts with mill as a primary win-con, and I also played around with it in a Sharuum deck—but I was never happy with the build, probably because I was trying to force an unfun wincon, and eventually I gave up.

The other day I actually was able to stifle a combo, which I’ll talk about more in my next post. The combo was the Kiki Jiki/Pestermite infinite hasty tokens, swing out for the win, and I delayed it a turn with a Fog effect, then was able to buff another player’s creatures enough to eliminate the player who’d played the combo. I’d actually been planning to ally with the Kiki player, but the fact that he had an insta-win combo convinced me to team up with the other player, who’d actually stolen one of my creatures earlier that game, earning him my enmity. Ironically, the player would have had a better chance at winning if he hadn’t tried to combo off and win.

The point is, while infinite combos are fun to play, they aren’t very fun to play against. In one-on-one, where fun tends to be zero sum, that’s fine. In a multiplayer format like Commander, whose casual nature means your opponents have the choice whether or not they even want you at their table, pursuit of fun at the expense of your opponents becomes negative sum, and if everyone’s playing a negative-sum game, no one’s actually netting enjoyment.

So don’t be that guy. If the GP Prize Wall tickets are that important to you, save your deck for a GP. If you just like winning, build a deck that others enjoy playing against even when it wins; while your win percentage may be lower, your number of games played will increase, because people will actually be willing to play against you, and thus your number of wins will likewise increase. If you just want to try out this cool new infinite combo you’ve discovered, either take the combo out after you’ve managed to make it go off, or switch to a different deck so your opponents don’t have to deal with it every game.