If you have been playing Magic for any length of time, it has probably happened to you before. The game is progressing at a leisurely pace until suddenly the person across the table from you (who has until now been quietly sculpting their hand) throws down a series of cards and declares “I win”. Combos take many shapes and forms in Magic but the result is usually the same; without an answer to the combo, the player wins the game. Combos are a strong win condition simply because they can steal the game in a single turn, unlike creatures which may take a full turn-cycle to be able to become relevant threats. Commander has access to some of the most extravagant combos in all of Magic, both because of its deep card pool and because of the higher starting life total. Here are some of the most common types of combos:
- Infinite mana:There are several combos in Magic which will generate infinite mana. Common ones include endlessly tapping and untapping mana-generating permanents like Grim Monolith with Power Artifact attached or Bloom Tender enchanted with Freed From the Real. Personally, I believe infinite mana combos are the weakest of the infinite loops one can achieve. Why? Because infinite mana alone does nothing to affect the board state. Once the next step or phase of the game rolls around, all that hard-earned mana disappears. Infinite mana requires another card to be effective such as Stroke of Genius to make your opponent draw their entire library and lose or even something like Fireball. This simply means that the combo takes more pieces to be effective and the more moving parts involved in a combo, the harder it is to pull off consistently.
- Infinite creatures:As with all combos, there are several ways to achieve infinite creatures. Typically a player is able to create an infinitely large amount of tokens through relatively simple interactions. Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker is perhaps king of this kind of combo as it only requires another card like Pestermite to untap Kiki-Jiki, create an infinite loop and pump out a virtually endless supply of Hasty Pestermites. This combo is more resilient because it is hard to interrupt once it gets going. If someone tries to kill Kiki-Jiki or Pestermite, the controller of the combo can simply trigger the combo in response. Kiki-Jiki is perhaps the strongest of the infinite token generating loops simply because the army of creatures he creates has haste. If we were to create an arbitrarily large amount of tokens without haste, our opponent can simply respond with a wrath effect like Supreme Verdict on their turn and all our hard work is for naught.
- Infinite Life: Melira, Sylvok Outcast is perhaps my favorite enabler for an infinite life combo. Kitchen Finks, Melira plus a free sacrifice outlet such as Ashnod’s Altar will enable an infinite loop whereby the Finks can return from the grave again and again, granting us 2 life points with each trip. As with any infinite loop, it is worth noting that the controller of the combo cannot simply say “I have infinite life”. The rules of the game state that we must name a specific value at which point we cease triggering the combo. In a 60 card game of Magic, gaining upwards of a billion life points is typically enough to win us the game. Our opponent simply does not have enough resources to do a billion damage before we can reduce their life to zero. In EDH this is also back-breaking but because we only need to deal 21 points of damage from a particular commander to stop another player, the most determined of players could theoretically still win. “Infinite” life is probably my second favorite combo as it grants us a supremely strong fort to hide behind if the other players at the table still want to continue duking it out.
- Infinite Damage:Easily the most powerful infinite loop as it guarantees us a game win in most cases. My favorite infinite damage combo involves Prossh, Skyraider of Kher, Purphoros, God of the Forge and Food Chain. Prossh and his tokens are sacrificed over and over to Food Chain which gives us enough mana to re-cast Prossh and all those creatures entering the battlefield cause Purphoros to dish out as much damage as we please. I favor this combo simply because it nets a win no matter how many people are sitting at the table.
So what does a deck that is trying to go infinite look like? This week’s decklist is of the Junk (G/W/B) persuasion with Ghave, Guru of Spores at the helm.
Creatures: 26Avacyn’s Pilgrim
Birds of Paradise
Melira, Sylvok Outcast
Knight of the Reliquary
Varolz, the Scar-Striped
Champion of Lambholt
Erebos, God of the Dead
Blood Baron of Vizkopa
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed
Avenger of Zendikar
Sheoldred, Whispering One
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
Path to Exile
Swords to Plowshares
Day of Judgment
Tooth and Nail
Black Sun’s Zenith
Gaze of Granite
Gift of Immortality
Temple of Silence
Temple of Plenty
Temple of the False God
Golgari Rot Farm
Vault of the Archangel
Ghave is a swiss-army knife of a commander. While the deck certainly leans toward combos, we have so many different lines of play that the deck is rarely boring and certainly never linear. Sometimes we go for the infinite combo, sometimes it’s a swarm of tokens with Elesh Norn/ Beastmaster Ascension pumping them up or maybe we stack a few Doubling Season-esque enchantments and swing in with a huge Ghave all loaded up with counters. Even if we can’t make all the combo pieces come together in a single, glorious move there is still enough synergy between the cards to make strong plays.
Even though Ghave and Melira are the heart of this deck’s combos, the deck cannot generate infinite mana without Ashnod’s Altar. This isn’t a huge deterrent though as casting a game-winning Exsanguinate is probably my least favorite way to win and there are a multitude of other ways to close the game in our favor. I have seen many other Ghave lists that include Phyrexian Altar as a back-up plan in case Ashnod’s Altar gets exiled.
The simplest combos in this deck are based around Melira. As previously mentioned, Melira +Sac outlet + Kitchen Finks= “infinite” life. Replace the Finks with Woodfall Primus and we can infinitely destroy all of our opponent’s lands at instant speed which is generally aggravating enough to make any opponent concede. If we put Ashnod’s Altar in the place of our Sac outlet, we net infinite mana which can be used on a few different spells but mainly we want to cast Exsaguinate for a game win. Viscera Seer lets us cycle through our library an arbitrary number of times. Since the core of most of our combos involve sacrificing, Cartel Aristocrat and Varrolz are simply there as more free sac outlets. Adding Blood Artist to this infinite loop will let us drain our opponents down to 0.
Ghave’s combos are a little more complicated because he needs a colorless mana to activate either of his abilities. Therefore he requires a little more effort. Ashnod’s Altar is generally the center of the Ghave combos since it allows us to pay for his ability with the tokens he creates. We pay 1 colorless mana, remove a counter from Ghave to make a token, Sac the token to the Altar and now we have 2 colorless mana floating. Adding Cathars’ Crusade to the equation means that the counter on Ghave is replaced whenever one of his Saproling tokens enters the battlefield. With this configuration we can make infinite colorless mana. Death’s Presence gives us some redundancy in place of Cathars’ Crusade. We can also use Nim Deathmantle and Ashnod’s Altar to take all the counters off of Ghave, make 5 colorless mana with the Altar and trigger the Deathmantle’s ability to bring Ghave back from the grave over and over while netting 1 colorless mana each time. Mikaeus, the Unhallowed gives Ghave Undying so that he comes back from the grave every time he loses all his counters and dies as a state-based action for having 0 toughness. Gift of Immortality will give us a similar effect but will not create an infinite loop. This infinite cycling of tokens and counters is the basis for Ghave’s combos. Now all we need is to plug some additional cards into this loop.
If we plug Doubling Season or Parallel Lives into the aforementioned loop, we can now create an army of tokens as well. What do we do with so many tokens? Beastmaster Ascension is a fine place to start although I prefer to have Sublime Archangel on the field so we can create an arbitrary number of Exalted triggers. Including Champion of Lambholt in our aforementioned loop means that not only will she become infinitely large but also make our army of tokens unblockable. Lumberknot is the poor-man’s version of Champion but sometimes it’s nice to have another place for the +1/+1 counters to stack up. Grave Pact lets us keep the board clear of creatures while we work and even if it’s not an infinite combo, it sure is a fine soft-lock on the board-state.
Even if we lose pieces of our various combos, Junk colors handle reanimator very well. The combination of Deadbridge Chant and Hunting Grounds, while definitely not a game-winning combo, still creates a fun board-state and allows us to easily recur missing pieces. Foster is something I’m testing as another means of seeding the graveyard in case the plan shifts from “combo out” to beatdown. Skullclamp is one of our main card drawing engines and Scroll Rack shines in this deck as a way to dig for our combo pieces with ease. Birthing Pod makes it easier to tutor for them as well and having access to Ghave’s tokens lets us begin our Pod chain at 0 so we can find creatures like Birds of Paradise or Viscera Seer.
Obviously this is just the tip of the combo iceberg. I hope to see you all down at Nu Games on Thursday nights at 6 pm for Commander. Bring your best combos!