seanblacksheep
Last night, I played with some new local players. Most of the games were decided through traditional combat damage. I took down two games with infinite mana combos. (Well, one game was won by an infinite mana combo. I realized after the fact that in the second game the combo wasn’t required to cast the Overrun effect I used to actually win…oh well). We talked about what the players considered socially acceptable before the game began, so infinite combos were established as something to be expected. The part that surprised me a bit was that the table was taken by surprise by the combos, even though one of the pieces had been out for several turns.

From my experience, one of the reasons so many people dislike combos is the “SURPRISE! I win!” factor. There are enough combos in Magic that it is unreasonable to expect players to memorize them all; however, players can learn what mechanics commonly fuel combos. Once they understand what it takes for combos to run, it is easier for them to spot and deal with the combo pieces before they end the game. Groups that soft-ban combo use for social reasons should also understand what makes these combos work to avoid accidentally stumbling upon them mid-game.

Untap Loops

Both of the combos I played last night were untap combos. This covers the vast majority of combos in Commander. You have two broad versions of these combos – permanents that untap themselves and spells and lands that untap other permanents. The crazy part is almost every card that allows you to untap can be used to go infinite.  (Most people know about the Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breakercombos where you just copy a creature that can untap Kiki-Jiki.)

However, even cards you don’t immediately think of like Maze of Ith can be used to generate an infinite loop. In the case of Maze, it can go infinite with any creature that can attack and untap more than one land. It can also go infinite with a creature than can only untap one land if you have Rings of Brighthearth/ Illusionist’s Bracers and a land that produces more than two mana. It can go infinite with Rings of Brighthearth and another creature that produces more than two mana. It can also go infinite with…. I think you get the point.

These combos can sneak up on players because most of the permanents that are being untapped are useful outside of just going infinite. Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary doesn’t need Staff of Domination or Umbral Mantle to be good. Doubling Cube is a perfectly reasonable play even if Filigree Sages aren’t there to kick start the infinite engine.

When fighting a player that may have these combos, you want destroy anything that untaps permanents or taps for mana.

Yeah – I know that second one sounds crazy, but it doesn’t take a lot of mana for these loops to get started. The QuillspikeDevoted Druid combo runs off a creature that taps for a single mana, and the Grand ArchitectPili-Pala combo runs off creatures that don’t exactly beg to be destroyed.

Another route is to keep instant-speed answers ready whenever you can and be on the lookout for the untap pieces of the combos. No matter how innocent that Horseshoe Crab may look, you never know when Expirmement Kraj is going to steal the ability along with Bloom Tender to wreck your day.

If you are building a deck and want to avoid accidentally running into these, don’t play the untap spells. There are too many valuable cards on the other side of the equation to try and avoid. Since players play cards like Bribery and Necrotic Ooze, getting your group to avoid untappers will help to curb the accidental conclusion of games via combo.

Trigger Loops

Getting untap effects is far from the only way to go infinite in Commander. The other popular way for players to win is through an infinite loop, usually involving two to three cards but rarely more than that. Discovering these effects rarely occurs on accident. The formula for these combinations goes like this:

  • Card 1: Whenever x happens do y
  • Card 2: Whenever y happens do x

Result – Whenever x or y happens, continue to do both until the game ends.

The most important thing to look out for in game is the word “Whenever” followed by a free trigger. Cards that give a free effect whenever something happens are terrifying, even if they don’t go infinite. For example, Bloodghast comes back into play from your graveyard whenever a land comes into play under your control. Little two-power creature coming into play, no biggie…right? That’s true right up until the player also has Perilous Forays and Earthcraft in play. That player then empties their deck of basic lands.

You want to exile at least one piece of the combo to break them up forever. Destroying just one piece at sorcery speed is rarely enough to prevent the real damage these can cause. Many of these combos call for instant-speed answers, and nothing else can stop them. Worldgorger Dragon + Animate Dead can go off in a single turn if they have a discard outlet. If you can exile or even just destroy the dragon with his ability on the stack, you can crush the player trying to pull it off.

Avoiding putting these combos in your deck is not too difficult; just make sure you don’t have cards that hit the listed formula above and you will be fine. Sometimes strong theme decks will want to play cards that happen to combo, so double check your “whenever” triggers against each other to make sure you don’t end up putting Mind Crank and Bloodchief Ascension or Exquisite Blood and Sanguine Bond together.

Immortal Loops

Infinite loops involving sacrificing a creature over and over again became popular with the printing of Melira, Sylvok Outcast and Mikaeus, the Unhallowed. These two cards enable looping once a player gains the ability to sacrifice a creature, thus enabling them to have it come back to play as much as they want. Some of these are trigger loops, but they require distinct answers.

These loops require two important pieces: a sacrifice outlet and a way to recur permanents repeatedly. Some of the loops are simple, such as Mikaeus and Triskelion, and others are vast Rube Goldberg machines that take a minor in quantum physics to explain. Those loops go something like: Krark-Clan Iron Works, Lotus Bloom (in play), three or more other artifacts, Codex Shredder, and Second Sunrise. (You generate a ton of mana/value then bring everything back with Sunrise, and rebuy Sunrise with Codex Shredder over and over).

What makes these loops so infuriating to play against is that the sacrifice is a cost. The result is that there is no response that will stop a creature/permanent from dying. It goes to the graveyard without priority passing. The best way to stop these is to either destroy the sacrifice outlet or to pack plenty of instant-speed graveyard hate.

If you are trying to avoid these loops, stay clear of sacrifice outlets that generate mana, or use recursion that brings things to your hand instead of to the battlefield. I would also suggest just avoiding Ashnod’s Altar and Nim Deathmantle. Those two cards are really good, but either one will put you in a situation where you can do crazy things.

Face Smack

I feel obliged to mention that not all combos are infinite. It is possible to take people out without counting to infinity. I think decks led by Heartless Hidetsugu demonstrate the best examples of these combos. If you give him Inquisitors Flail, Furnace of Rath, or Gratuitous Violence, he will kill each player with an even life total. You can get him to kill everyone aside from yourself by giving him lifelink. He gets included in a few decks as part of the 99 because of how he has the ability to one-shot the table with either Gisela, Blade of Goldnight or Wound Reflection.

To be honest, these combos are difficult to spot if you haven’t seen them before. How would you know that Spellskite, Platinum Angel and Soul Conduit knock players out if you had never seen it before? By the time all the pieces are out, it’s probably too late to survive what is about to happen. Usually counter spells and instant speed Naturalize effects are your best protection.

Avoiding these combos is the easiest task of all. If you don’t know about the combination, it is unlikely you would play the required cards together. Avoiding these are just as simple as not including them in the deck.

Lockouts

Locking players out of the game as a win condition is something I am guilty of from time to time. Arcum Dagsson may be the commander best known for this strategy since Erayo, Soratami Ascendant was banned. A lockout combo occurs when another player makes it near impossible for you to resolve spells. Arcum does this by turning all permanents into artifacts and then destroying all permanents but his own. Without permanents, other players can’t cast spells, so Arcum wins the game.

There are two types of locks you will hear players reference – soft locks and hard locks.  Soft locks are where you can technically do things, but it’s just very difficult. These would be things like Static Orb and Winter Orb, or the “Pickles” lock (Vesuvan Shapeshifter + Brine Elemental.) Hard Locks are Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir+Knowledge Pool or flipped Erayo + Rule of Law. There are still ways to break hard locks, but it’s just incredibly difficult and usually involves a commander, cycling effects, or spells with effects that happen when cast (even if they don’t resolve).

These are another set of combos that really are a pain to try and fight. Most of the time you are going to need counterspells and a good knowledge of what the lock player is attempting to achieve. These kinds of decks are only appropriate in developed playgroups where they warp the format a bit around them. Lock decks can be very good against random players, but once players learn how they work they can usually be shut down with a little preparation.

I’ve never seen someone accidentally lock down a table. Casual players don’t have to worry about accidentally locking people out.

Conclusion

In a similar vein to the article I had about having a critical mass of mana in Commander, my intention of this article is to reduce the surprise factor of combos. I am of the firm belief that every style of play can be fun in Commander as long as the players in a group are able to interact with what’s going on. Hopefully by being aware of how combos work and how to shut them down, it will actually allow more groups to include them and still have a good time.

-STP
@SwordsToPlow