Combo decks seek to win games by putting together combinations of two or more cards which, in conjunction, creates a game-ending effect. The combo archetype in Commander is very tricky to discuss, because every player has a different opinion of its place in the format. There are some who believe that infinite combos have no place whatsoever at the Commander table. Others believe that anything goes.
I am personally of the opinion that combos are fine, as long as they’re awesome. It’s just too easy to slap a Curiosity onto Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind and machine-gun a player down. It’s another thing entirely to have a zombie deck with Haakon, Stromgald Scourge sitting in your graveyard during a Rooftop Storm, while Ashes of the Fallen turns all those zombies in your graveyard into Knights so you can cast them for free. Of course, one of those zombie-knights in your graveyard is Corpse Connoisseur , who lets you tutor more zombies into your graveyard – and because your general is Grimgrin, Corpse-Born you keep sacrificing that Connoisseur over and over dig out every single zombie out of your deck and put it into your graveyard – and quickly thereafter onto the battlefield.
You just recreated Night of the Living Dead at the Commander table. That other guy just slapped a Curiosity on Niv-Mizzet.
ADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE
It’s fun to play. As I frequently say, having fun is the single most important thing in Commander, and combos (particularly those that come in three or more pieces) are just fun to play. Just imagine the narrative that takes place when Melira, Sylvok Outcast stands over a Spawning Pit, sacrificing a Puppeteer Clique over and over to it. The lifeless wooden bodies of the puppets dance in the pit as they spirit away the dead souls of all your opponents’ creatures from their graveyards. The dead have risen to slay their former masters, and making all this happen is a red-haired elven puppetmaster. This is what brings Johnnies to the table – if you’ve got the disposition for it, combos are just plain awesome.
Combos snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat. As long as the possibility of landing a game-ending combo exists, then it doesn’t matter how far behind you are – you are ALWAYS still in the game. You could be at 1 life, 9 poison counters, 20 general damage, and have only 3 cards left in your library, but if you’ve got an Aluren, Mortus Strider, and Blasting Station in hand with the means to cast them? You just won the game.
There are LOTS of combos to choose from. There’s a pretty good site devoted to cataloging the various combos of Magic: the Gathering, located here. With over 12,000 available cards in the format, there are a seemingly uncountable number of crazy interactions that do awesome and powerful things. That being said…
Using combos does not require devoting your entire deck to it. Combos need three things: the combo pieces themselves, methods to dig those pieces out of the deck, and protection from disruption. This gives you flexibility to include multiple combo interactions, and explore other themes and archetypes. Many Commander decks will keep at least one powerful combo in their 100 cards to break stalemates. Decks devoted to combos have plenty of space for a secondary focus or win condition, which is like playing two decks in one!
Combos are equally playable in all colors, so you can pretty much just choose whichever general you want to play. Of course, generals which are combo pieces themselves (or tutors) have an advantage over generals that aren’t – but they also signal to your opponents that you’re looking to launch some combo action.
This archetype is highly proactive. You have a two step plan: Assemble your combo, and play your combo. If you accomplish this goal, you win the game.
DISADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE
Combo wins are not always fun for everyone at the table. No one likes having a fun game ended because some jerk slapped a Squirrel Nest on their land with an Earthcraft in play, and now suddenly the table is infested with 8.4 billion rodents. You have to be careful, diplomatically speaking, when you play this archetype at the table. As a general rule, any two-card combination that ends the game instantly is going to get you uninvited from the table if you play it. If your combo takes at least a full turn to win, or is three or more pieces, then you are probably okay – as long as you’re not ending the game before anyone actually gets a chance to play it. The golden criteria of Commander deckbuilding is, “would I still have fun playing against this deck?” The answer to that question needs to be yes, otherwise it probably doesn’t belong at the table.
Combo is weak against aggro. If there is a concerted effort at the table to bring you down before you can combo off for the win, then chances are you’re not going to win that game (or have any fun playing it.) You had better believe as well that once you win by taking infinite turns, the rest of the table is going to be watching you very closely, and won’t hesitate to join forces in order to take you out if they think you’re about to go off. So, if you get your feelings hurt easily, this is not the archetype for you.
This archetype requires a higher level of skill to play than others. You have to constantly be thinking. “I have a tutor in my hand; what should I fetch with it?” “I just drew Murderous Redcap; which other cards combo with it?” So on, and so forth. You also have to be constantly thinking about the lands your opponents have untapped, and what might be in their hands, because…
Your combos can and will be disrupted. Once players are wise to the fact that you’re seeking to combo off, you better believe they are saving up their counterspells, instant-speed destruction, discard, Time Stops, and Silences to make sure you don’t.
Combo is not terribly budget-friendly. Since combo is a popular archetype in Modern and Legacy, combo pieces and tutors tend to come with high prices. This isn’t to say that you can’t create a combo deck without breaking the bank – far from it. I used to play Presence of Gond and Midnight Guard in Pauper. However, I would not suggest making combo your only (or even highest) focus if you’re on a budget. You still need tutors, and the best (Demonic Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, Tooth and Nail, Survival of the Fittest, etc.) are not cheap.
The power level of your deck decreases as the player skill at the table increases. Players who have been around a while, or who study hard, know what’s up. They know something’s up the moment you cast that Pentavus. Why? Because no one plays Pentavus unless they intend to do something combo-ish with it. So, these players are going to hold on to their disruption. They’re going to draw more cards off of Necropotence because they know you’re not going to attack their life total.
HOW TO PLAY COMBO
Well, the first thing you have to do is stay alive. As previously mentioned, once your opponents figure out your game plan, they’re going to do everything they can to wreck you. If they think there’s a chance that they can reduce your life total to 0 (or hit you with 21 general damage) before you assemble your combo and win, they are going to try. You have to make sure they fail. There are multiple tools to accomplish this – lifegain, Fog effects, damage prevention, control options, taxing spells like Propaganda, and more. Just make sure they are usable in the early game, because that is where you are most vulnerable.
Next, you have to assemble your combo pieces. This is accomplished through a combination of card draw and tutoring. The best kinds of tutors are those like Diabolic Tutor which do not require you to reveal which cards you have retrieved. It’s best to keep your opponents guessing. If you use a Worldly Tutor to pick up a Sun Titan, then you make your graveyard a huge target for disruption. That brings us to the next step…
Have a plan to beat disruption. You are probably not going to have the luxury of having fully tapped-out opponents when you’re ready to combo off. (But if you do, by all means teach them the error of their ways.) You will inevitably be forced to discard your combo pieces – so you either need a backup plan, or a means of retrieving them from the graveyard (like Creeping Renaissance and Raise Dead.) You will face counterspells – be prepared for them. Silence is golden.
Finally, set your combo in motion. If you have stayed alive long enough to fetch your combo pieces, and have a plan to beat the disruption, then it’s time to win the game. If you have the option to do so, start with the piece you can most afford to lose, just in case you gauged the table incorrectly. You never know when a Force of Will or Pact of Negation will come out of nowhere.
SOME SAMPLE COMBOS
There are WAY too many combos in the game to list off, so I’m just going to list a three-card combo in every color to get the brain juices flowing.
COLORLESS: Dross Scorpion, Triskelion, and Cauldron of Souls – Tap the cauldron to give Triskelion persist. Remove two counters from Triskelion to do two damage to an opponent, and one damage to itself, killing it. Triskelion persists, but one of the +1/+1 counters eliminates the -1/-1 counter. When it comes back into play, Dross Scorpion untaps the Cauldron. Tap the cauldron to give Triskelion persist again, remove one counter for one damage to an opponent, and one damage to itself. It dies and persists again – rinse and repeat until all opponents are dead.
BLACK: Phyrexian Altar, Vengeful Dead, and Gravecrawler – Sacrifice the Gravecrawler with Phyrexian Altar for one black mana. Vengeful dead causes all opponents to lose 1 life. Cast Gravecrawler with that black mana, and sacrifice it again, generating one black mana and causing 1 loss of life. Keep killing that Gravecrawler and bringing it back until your opponents have lost all the life they have.
BLUE: Mnemonic Wall, Followed Footsteps, and Time Warp – Enchant Mnemonic Wall with Followed Footsteps. Cast Time Warp to take an extra turn. During the upkeep of your extra turn, make a copy of Mnemonic Wall, which brings Time Warp back to your hand. Cast it again. Boom. Infinite Turns.
GREEN: Myr Turbine, Parallel Lives, and Clock of Omens – tap Myr Turbine to make a 1/1 Myr token. Parallel Lives gives you a second Myr token. Using Clock of Omens’s ability, tap those two Myrs to untap Myr Turbine. Tap it again for two more Myrs. Keep tapping and untapping until you have an arbitrarily large number of Myrs.
RED: Zealous Conscripts, enchanted with Splinter Twin and equipped with Illusionist’s Bracers – Tap Zealous Conscripts. Doing so creates a copy of the conscripts, and Illusionist’s Bracers creates a second copy. Have the first copy untap the enchanted Zealous Conscripts, and the other copy steal an opponent’s permanent. Keep tapping that Zealous Conscripts until you have stolen every single one of your opponents’ targetable permanents, and have an arbitrarily large number of Conscripts with which to win the game.
WHITE: Altar of Dementia, Angelic Renewal, and Sun Titan. Sacrifice Sun Titan with Altar of Dimensia to mill six cards from an opponent’s library. When Sun Titan dies, Angelic Renewal triggers and brings Sun Titan back onto the battlefield. Sun Titan’s ability triggers, bringing Angelic Renewal back onto the battlefield. Keep sacrificing the Sun Titan and bringing it back until you have milled every single card from all opponents’ libraries.
POPULAR COMBO GENERALS
Sharrum the Hegemon: She is a general who is so synonymous with abusive combos that players will frequently ask whether or not you’re running “combo Sharuum.” If you answer in the affirmative, be certain that everyone else at the table will seek to destroy you before you can combo off. Her most infamous abuse is the two-card infinite turn engine of Time Sieve and Thopter Assembly.
She herself is part of an three-card infinite combo with interchangeable pieces to either mill all opponents’ cards, or do infinite damage. The first piece of the combo is an artifact clone – either Phyrexian Metamorph, or Sculpting Steel. With Sharuum in play, cast the artifact clone, copying Sharuum. The clone-Sharuum’s enter-the-battlefield ability triggers. When state-based actions are checked, you get to choose one of the Sharuums to go to the graveyard – choose the cloned Sharuum. Then, the trigger goes on the stack, and you choose the target. Choose the artifact clone as the target, and the artifact clone returns to the battlefield. The loop continues. So, that’s two pieces – Sharuum and an Artifact Clone. The final piece makes use of the loop we’ve established. A card like Disciple of the Vault or Blood Artist allows you to turn that loop into infinite damage.
Arcum Dagsson: He’s capable of blue’s infinite turn combos, and can tutor up any piece of an artifact combo. His most famous combo is Darksteel Forge, Mycosynth Lattice, and Nevinyrral’s Disk to destroy all permanents his opponents control. He’s also fully capable of the Mindslaver lock, using Academy Ruins to recur it.
Azami, Lady of Scrolls: She’s the default “mono-blue combo” general. By herself, she’s part of a two-card combo with Mind over Matter to draw-and-discard through as much of your library as you want, until you have the perfect hand and graveyard to combo off with. She’s perfectly suited for infinite turn combos and Palinchron-based infinite mana combos. She can even win by Storm (ex. Brain Freeze) by casting Sensei’s Divining Top a ridiculous number of times, in combination with Future Sight and Cloud Key.
Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker: Kiki-Jiki really, really wants to be equipped with a Thornbite Staff. Copy Mogg Fanatic, Fire Bowmen, Frostling, Goblin Firestarter and you’ve got infinite damage. Emrakul’s Hatcher and Skirk Prospector give you infinite mana. Hearthcage Giant gives you infinite creatures.
Even without the Thornbite Staff, however, Kiki-Jiki is the center of several combos. Just Zealous Conscripts and he alone are enough to make infinite creatures. Kiki, Lightning Crafter and a sacrifice outlet is good for infinite damage.
Ghave, Guru of Spores loves Ashnod’s Altar and Phyrexian Altar.. With Ghave and an Altar, Geralf’s Messenger means infinite damage. Juniper Order Ranger means infinite tokens (or infinite mana). In addition to Juniper Order Ranger, there is a great many ways for Ghave to create infinite tokens (or turn those tokens into infinite mana).
As previously mentioned, combo decks are not beholden to their general, so the choices are endless. These are only some of the more popular ones and what they can do – but be warned that if you show up to the table with one of these generals, it will be assumed you intend to perpetrate some combos on the table. Your opponents will react accordingly.
A COMBO DECKLIST
Here’s a deck I’ve put together starring under-loved general Melek, Izzet Paragon. It is a straight-combo archetype deck, featuring one stable win condition, one awesome win condition, and one ludicrously awesome win condition.
Stable Win Condition: We want to generate infinite mana with which to fuel one of our three kill spells. There’s two different engines in the deck to make this work.
The second is to use Reiterate to copy a spell that generates more than six mana, and buy it back to copy that spell again. The two spells in the deck capable of generating that kind of mana are Mana Geyser and Turnabout.
AWESOME Win Condition: You will need to get Proteus Staff and Melek, Izzet Paragon on the board with at least 1 blue, 1 red, and 2 colorless mana. Activate Proteus Staff, targeting Melek. Melek goes to the bottom of our library, and since he is the only creature in the deck, we get to reveal our entire library – then put it back in the order we want. We will then use Melek to cast each spell in order.
Stack the top of the deck as close as you can to the following configuration: Rite of Flame, Desperate Ritual, Pyretic Ritual, Seething Song, Mana Geyser, Empty the Warrens, Brightstone Ritual, Past in Flames, and Comet Storm.
With your red mana, you cast Rite of Flame. Melek copies it. You have 4 red mana. Cast Desperate Ritual. 8 mana. Cast Pyretic Ritual. 12 mana. Cast Seething Song. 19 mana. Cast Mana Geyser. We’ll call the mana you generate with this spell X, so at this point you have (14+2X) red mana. Cast Empty the Warrens. This brings us down to (10+2X) mana, but puts 14 goblins into play. Cast Brightstone Ritual. (38+2X) mana. Now, cast Past in Flames. (34+2X) mana. Now we’re gonna do it again! (Alas, Melek does not copy these flashed-back spells.)
Rite of Flame, (35+2x). Desperate Ritual, (36+2x). Pyretic Ritual, 37+2x). Seething Song, (39+2x). Mana Geyser, (34+3x). Empty the Warrens produces 28 more goblins (30+3x). Brightstone Ritual, (71+3x).
Feed this absurd amount of mana into a kill spell, preferably Comet Storm. Laugh maniacally as Melek copies that spell too.
LUDICROUSLY AWESOME Win Condition: Follow the steps listed above, but stack your deck in such a manner as to cast the maximum number of spells with all that mana you’re generating, instead of funneling it into a kill spell. Cast as many spells as you possibly can, and then flash back Past in Flames to cast whatever instant and sorcery spells are still left in your graveyard over again.
Build up a ludicrously-high Storm count, and then cast Ignite Memories to burn down opponents with cards remaining in their hands, and Brain Freeze to mill out those who don’t. Stand tall as one of the few players who ever pulled off a Storm victory in the Commander format.