By Carlos

One of my favorite games is Super Smash Bros. Melee.  It’s the first game I learned to play competitively, and is one of the few games I’ve kept up with over the years.  I’ve met a few of my best friends playing that game, It was one of the first internet communities I really started participating in, and I’ve even made a little cash playing the game, and it’s been an absolute blast doing it.  Falco is the character I’m the most proficient in and play most often in that game, hence the avatar that I tend to use.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, Falco is a combo-centric character, who is completely capable of getting someone from zero to death depending on how good of a read you have on them.  Zhu was the tag of the guy who I looked up to most when I was learning the game, and I modeled a lot of my play-style on how he played against the best players of the time.  It turns out, the way you play combo in SSBM is really pretty similar to how you play combo in magic, and in Commander in particular.  Here are some tenants of playing combo in this format:

  • The element of surprise helps.  If people know what to expect, they’ll avoid putting themselves in situations where you can get them with your combo.  This might be as much as completely overhauling the face of a combo deck/character, or just putting your own spin on how that deck/character is approached.
  • You’ve got to bait the other player.  You have to force them into a situation where they’re vulnerable and you can go for it.  You can test the waters with spells that aren’t necessarily relevant, waiting for them to be too aggressive or overpredict and make a mistake.
  • You have to know when to be aggressive.  Sometimes you can’t bait the other player into making a mistake, and you just have to apply pressure, start trying to combo and wait for them to make a mistake you can capitalize on.
  • You’ve got to be technically proficient.  You need to be familiar with how the combo works, of where you’re going to go next; what you’re going to tutor for, and how the combo is going to end.

What’s funny to me is how combo can be hated so much in Commander when the face-paced, combo-based feel of SSBM is the whole reason people play it.  As someone who loves combo decks to death, I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid playing them in a social format.  Still, it seems kind of dumb to cut out one of the three generic archetypes that exist in magic, right?  So really, what we’re looking for is ways to make combo more socially acceptable.

The thing that most people find objectionable about combo is that it’s non-interactive and frequently wins out of nowhere.  Some people argue that discard and countermagic is a kind of interaction, and while that’s true, it’s not really how most people expect to interact in a game of Commander.

Really, what it comes down to is that if your deck uses a compact and easy-to-assemble combo, runs countermagic and discard to protect your combo, and tries to combo off as efficiently and quickly as possible, then you’ve succeeded in building one of the most hated decks in the format. Combo tends to be more socially acceptable if you pick one that’s harder to assemble, preferably one that has multiple pieces, all of which can be disrupted or interacted with.  People also want to see something different, not the standard Mind over Matter + stuff, Earthcraft + Squirrel Nest, and all those things that have been done to death.  Try picking something that’s not infinite, something that uses cards people don’t typically use.

What follows is a terrible, terrible combo deck based on one of my favorite cycles ever printed; a deck that I’ve tried to make work in EVERY format it’s ever been legal in.  It was the first and last deck I took to either an extended or legacy tournament, and I know just how bad this concept is.  Sometimes though, you’ve got an idea bouncing around in your head, and you’ve just got to build it.  Besides, this is Commander.  Something that’s a terrible idea in another constructed format is often the basis of a really good Commander deck.  What’s the deck based on?  Zhuberas .  See what I did there?

The Zuberas

Ashen-Skin Zubera
Dripping-Tongue Zubera
Floating-Dream Zubera
Ember-Fist Zubera
Silent-Chant Zubera
Rushing-Tide Zubera
Burning-Eye Zubera

That’s not very many zuberas, but it’s sadly all that exist.  Let’s be honest, only Floating-Dream and Dripping-Tongue are reasonable for combo, and Ember-Fist helps to get a kill.  The rest are all pretty terrible.  The only way you can activate Rushing-Tide Zubera is by using Ember-Fist.  Still, it’s as close as we’re likely to get to Zubera tribal, so we might as well run them all.  Besides, we can supplement our paltry selection of Zubera with some changelings!

The Changelings

Mirror Entity
Shapesharer
Amoeboid Changeling
Woodland Changeling
Mothdust Changeling
Fire-Belly Changeling
Ghostly Changeling

Well, the first three of these are REALLY good.  The others are just stand-in Zuberas.  Mirror Entity lets you kill off all your zuberas at once, which is always a good thing, Shapesharer lets you turn spare changelings into more Floating-Dream and Dripping-Tongue zuberas, and Amoeboid lets you use your small number of utility guys to up the dead zubera count.  This gives you a total of 14 Zuberas, which really isn’t bad considering.  It’s certainly enough.  Now all we’ve got to do is put an engine together for the deck to run off of.  There’s going to be three components to the engine: a sacrifice outlet, recursion for zuberas, and a way to turn resources into mana to continue the loop.

Sac Outlets

Phyrexian Altar
Viscera Seer
Devouring Greed
Reprocess
Ashnod’s Altar
Skullmulcher

Recursion

Nim Deathmantle
Cauldron Haze
Second Sunrise
Patriarch’s Bidding
Twilight’s Call
Living Death

Conversion

Mind over Matter
Earthcraft
Phyrexian Altar

So this is the heart of the deck.  You’ll notice that Phyrexian Altar is listed twice.  That’s really exactly the sort of engine the deck wants: a sac outlet and source of mana at once, but the other two engine cards do a fair job of it.  It’s unfortunate that Earthcraft and Mind over Matter are two of the flagship combo cards of the format, but they’re really good at what they do: turning one resource into another.

You recursion mechanisms are pretty straightforward.  Second Sunrise is the best of them, whith Cauldron Haze being a pretty close Second.  Nim Deathmantle is the weakest most of the time, but makes Ashnod’s Altar much more acceptable, and is really good once you’ve generated a ton of man and just need to win, since you can recur the specific Zubera you want.

The sac outlets are the interesting part.  Viscera Seer helps you dig for whatever pieces you happen to be missing, usually the recursion effects, as do reprocess and Skullmulcher.  Ashnod’s Altar makes Skullclamp and Nim Deathmantle legitimate engines in this deck.  It’s definitely the worst of these, but it’s okay at least.  Skullmulcher is interesting because it can be recurred by Second Sunrise and the like, and is better at controlling the number of cards you draw.  Devouring Greed is a good way to close out a game, and is okay when you’ve got a couple of zuberas and aren’t sure if you’ll be able to combo.  At least you’ll get enough life to try again in a few turns.

Sidenote: decking yourself is a VERY real concern.  Keep careful track of the number of cards in your deck.  Floating-Dream Zubera is NOT a may effect.

Keeping the Combo Going

Eternal Witness
Call to Mind
Reclaim
Regrowth
Recollect

As a rule, I’m not a fan of infinite combos in this format.  It just feels so lame to have a game suddenly end because someone broke the game.  The problem with Eternal Witness, Izzet Chronarch, and Mnemonic Wall is that they let you go infinite with a sac outlet and Second Sunrise or some such.  With these cards, you’ve got to keep drawing into more relevant effects.  It makes the critical turn more about building an overwhelming advantage than going “oops, I guess I win.”  Eternal Witness makes the cut because it’s a regrowth, and CAN serve purposes other than going infinite.  If you wanted more ways to just win, you could definitely swap Call To Mind and Reclaim for Chronarch and Wall.

Tutors

Buried Alive
Survival of the Fittest
Genesis
Oversold Cemetery

Defense of the Heart
Weird Harvest

Demonic Tutor
Diabolic Tutor
Diabolic intent

Idyllic Tutor
Enlightened Tutor
Sterling Grove
Academy Rector

So these serve two purposes only.  Find you your sac outlets, or find you your zuberas.  Pretty straightforward.  Genesis and Oversold cemetery try to let you play more of an attrition game if you can, so you don’t have to go all in.  The only other card of interest is Sterling Grove, which serves as protection and a tutor at the same time.  If you wanted, you could add Drift of Phantasms as a way to tutor for Phyrexian Altar off of Weird Harvest like the old Heartbeat Combo decks from Champions-Ravnica standard.

Corner Case Spells

Altar of Bone
Victimize
Skullclamp

Mulldrifter
Shriekmaw
Crib Swap

Horde of Notions (General)

So here we see a few ways to sort of continue comboing; to generate a little more advantage, dig a little further.  These aren’t really recursion spells or tutors, but they’re really powerful sometimes when you just need a little more gas.

Then there’s the general, and the slots that go with it.  Horde of Notions is what I settled on since it lets you recur your changelings if you’re short on gas.  It also gives you Shriekmaw and Crib Swap to grind out the mid game if that’s what you have to do.  Lastly, it gives you mulldrifter, another of my favorite cards.  Now Mulldrifter is interesting because it does a lot more than it looks like it does because of Evoke.

You can Evoke it early game and then buy it back later with Horde.  Or you can turn it into a TON of gas on a combo turn.  I’ve had turns where I evoked mulldrifter, did Zubera shenanigans, then proceeded to cast Second Sunrise 3 or more times.  That’s 6 extra cards I got from my mulldrifter than I would’ve if I’d blown it on turn 3.  Mulldrifter is surprisingly versatile in this kind of deck, and I’ve quickly learned to stop and think before I cast my mulldrifter; can I get more value if I wait?  Can I afford to wait?  Or am I under pressure and have to dig for pieces quickly?  How likely is it that I hit that Second Sunrise in those next two cards?

The last set of cards is just some mana ramp.  Ideally, this deck would be packed with fetchlands and dual lands and shocklands for the most part.  But you actually have to run a decent amount of basics in order for Earthcraft to be a good engine.  At least one basic of each type, preferably more.  These are the ramps spells and lands that I think are pretty much mandatory:

Ramp & Land

Explore
Cultivate
Kodama’s Reach
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Coalition Relic
Skyshroud Claim
Explosive Vegetation

Horizon Canopy
Cephalid Coliseum

The ramps spells should be pretty self explanatory.  The one card that might seem a little out of place is Sakura-Tribe Elder, but he’s deceptively good here.  STEve loves to be turned into a Zubera before he rampant growths.  He also loves to be recurred on combo turns to thin your deck of lands.  Fetchlands are sweet in this deck because you can do similar things using fetches  + Second Sunrise.

The lands here are more slots that are deceptively powerful.  There’s one thing that I learned from my stint playing various storm combo decks in vintage: NEVER play your land until you have to.  You never know when you’re going to Timetwister into Tolarian Academy and just win.  Similarly, you can start do tricks like that with Horizon Canopy and Cephalid Coliseum to get approximately infinite value.

So the next question is, what does this pile do?  Well, that’s a pretty good question, to be honest.  Here’s the general outline, with some specifics thrown in for good measure:

Develop your Resources
Pretty self explanatory. Ramp up some mana, cast some Zuberas. This is where you’ll typically want to find a Floating Dream or Dripping-Tongue Zubera.

Kill them All!
All Zuberas want to do is commit cult suicide. The more that die at the same time, the happier they are. It’s worth noting that you can cast Second Sunrise or resolve Persist triggers BEFORE the zubera’s death triggers resolve. This will let you double not only the number of triggers (assuming you can sacrifice them all again), but also the number of Zuberas that have died. The triggers don’t check how many Zuberas have died until they actually resolve.

Combo Out!
So now you’ve made some guys or drawn some cards or some such. Here’s where you use Earthcraft to untap some lands and make more mana. Or use your extra cards to untap Mind over Matter. Or use Phyrexian Altar to turn tokens into mana. Regardless of how you’re doing it, make some mana. What do you do with it? Cast Second Sunrise. Or Patriarch’s Bidding. Or more Zuberas. Then kill them all again.  Hopefully you’ll draw into more recursion, and you can do it all again, doubling or tripling the number of Zuberas that have died in the process.

Winning the Game
So you’ve just about drawn your deck, made a million spirit tokens, gained a bunch of life, etc, etc. How do you win? Well eventually you’ll find Ember-Fist Zubera and Shapesharer; start turning all your changelings into Ember-Fists, deal a ton of damage to people, and win the game. Or, you can make a million Zuberas and drop a Goblin Bushwhaker if that’s more your style. Really, once you’ve recurred your Zuberas a few times, you can win just about however you’d like, since you’ll have developed approximately infinite resources.

If you want to be lame, you can just go infinite with Second Sunrise, Eternal Witness, and Phyrexian Altar.  As long as at least three creatures come back with Sunrise, you can make three mana, which is enough to cast the sunrise your witness got back.

So, just how good is this deck?  Pretty awful, to be honest.  It’s a lot of fun to play though, and you’ll get some pretty strange looks when people see you playing Zuberas.  Honestly, the best part about the deck is that you get value out of Zuberas when people wrath the board, so you can overextend into them to your heart’s content.  You’ve got three outs to having your “combo” zuberas (dripping-tongue and floating-dream) wrathed away: Living Death, Twilight’s Call, and Patriarch’s Bidding.  You’re usually better off waiting to tutor for those until you’re ready to go all in.  Instead offer up the ones that are less important.  Ashen-Skin is really good for emptying the hands of the blue players.

Decks like this are the reason that EDH is an awesome format.  You don’t need any format staples.  You could cut the “good” tutors and add things like Congregation at Dawn, or other less powerful and less costly tutors.  I bought most of the cards for a build of this deck for less than $30.  Sure, I don’t have my Mind over Matter or Earthcraft yet, but the deck still works, and it’s definitely given more tuned decks a run for their money.  Besides, can you think of another format where zuberas are playable?  Those things weren’t even playable in Block constructed!

As a fledgling author, I’m always looking for comments and criticism, preferably constructive.  If you have any ideas and questions, and really any contributions you want to make;   If you’ve just got a deck you want to show off or have looked at, I’d be glad to help out.   I’m taking any and all questions and comments at cag5383@gmail.com, and I’d be glad to hear from you.

-Carlos