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.