This entry is part 4 of 13 in the series (Vexing) Devil's Advocate

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“Goddammit, not again!” Groaned Murphy. She was getting pretty tired of seeing Rest in Peace paired with Helm of Obedience. “This is bull. Infinite combos are so cheap.”

Dresden started shuffling up his deck for the next game. “Sorry Murph, it’s my win condition.”

“Well get a new win condition,” growled Murphy as she also picked up her Aurelia, the Warleader deck and started pile shuffling.

“Like what?” Dresden asked. “I’m playing Lavinia of the Tenth. You want me to run more lockout cards and beat you to death with a Mistmeadow Witch?”

“There are plenty of threats you could run. Sun Titan, Baneslayer Angel, Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite…” Murphy listed.

“Murph.” Dresden sighed, “I play this deck specifically to avoid the combat step. Why would I play cards meant for the combat step.”

“Because the combat step is how you win!” Murphy exclaimed.

“No.” Dresden said simply. “That is how you win. Don’t tell me how I should win, because this,” Dresden paused to expose the Rest in Peace from the middle of his deck, “is working out for me so far.”

See that steam rising off of her? That's because she just got smoked!

See that steam rising off of her? That’s because she just got smoked!

Playing infinite combo is a pretty easy way to make enemies at a casual EDH table. As a matter of fact, “…and then he went infinite.” is the conclusion to many an EDH horror story. And while these cautionary tales will warn you against how unfair and unfun these synergies are, I have a confession to make.

I don’t just think these combos are acceptable. I think they actually make the formatĀ moreĀ fun.

Anyone still here? You guys still listening? Cool, cause I’m gonna break this down for you.

In My Client’s Defence…

In order to explain why I think these pariahs are so essential to the fun of the format I am going to have to break down the purpose they serve in each type of deck. This means I’m gonna go through the holy trinity one-by-one: control, aggro and (of course) combo.

 

It's like this, only less french. Unless your playing 1-vs-1, in which case it is about this french.

It’s like this, only less french. Unless your playing 1-vs-1, in which case it is about this french.

Whenever I am sitting down and playing against a control deck, the first thing I do is pray to the merciful gods of Commander that they are running some kind of combo. Control decks function by preventing their opponent’s from playing while gathering enough advantage to keep themselves ahead. And whether you’re playing a mono-black Smokestack deck or a Zedruu the Greathearted pillow fort deck, what this strategy lacks is a definitive win condition. Unless your general is a legitimate threat you will just play cards, lock your opponent out, and wait for them to get sick of playing with you and scoop.

As a general rule, any strategy involving your opponent getting sick of playing with you is probably not fun for some of those participating. Control decks can run a few threats to try and get there, but even this tends to be a little on the slow and painful side. Additionally, many control players don’t like watering down their decks with win conditions that allow their opponent’s time to answer them. Because, y’know, that’s what they’re used to doing.

"It seems okay, but I don't like cards that die to removal."

“It seems okay, but I don’t like cards that die to removal.”

By sticking an infinite combo into a control deck, that player gets a win condition that they are comfortable playing (because their opponent has less of a chance to respond). It is also a speedy-quick win condition, as opposed to the death of a thousand, excruciatingly slow, paper cuts. To put this in perspective, picture who you would rather play against in one on one: Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir or Vendilion Clique. Almost identical decks, with the exception that one relies on a lockout combo and the other relies on killing you ping-by-ping over the course of seven turns, while you sit back and watch.

In aggro decks infinite combos serve a very different purpose; rather than being a primary win condition, they serve as a back up to the main game plan (read: smashing you with stuff). What this means is that a player that relies on punching you with creatures (a traditionally difficult strategy to pull off in a forty life format) always has an alternative somewhere in the deck. Even if the combo is difficult to piece together or unreliable, it is a huge psychological boon to the player. So when Ghave, Guru of Spores is stacking up a constant supply of chump blockers, the aggro player can try to draw into their helm-leyline and be able to win despite how hopeless things seem. Just having that possibility in a deck is a massive drain on the frustration many aggro players feel when they look like they are going to be locked out.

*Sigh*, Ghave. You impossible, mossy D-bag. And here we get to the real crux of what drives people to want to stab their opponent’s more important organs: dedicated combo decks.

"Ah, we meet again Mr. Bonvie. I heard you talking all that $#!& on your podcast. You will now pay for that..."

“Ah, we meet again Mr. Bonvie. I heard you talking all that $#!& on your podcast. You will now pay for that…”

It’s easy to be intimidated by these bad boys. Decks like Sharuum the Hegemon, Animar, Soul of Elements, and Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind have only gotten more synergies, tutors, and draw spells as WOTC has printed new sets. The speed and consistency of these decks can be scary enough to brown the inside of your new jeans.

But as strong as these decks can be, they are ultimately pretty fragile. Once a combo deck has beaten you a few times it’s very easy to see their combo being assembled and answer it before they can fire their doomsday laser from the moon. One of the biggest frustrations for combo players is how easily they get beaten down once people know what their particular shtick is, since most combos are one trick ponies and they can only operate on a few different axes. So just lose those first two games, figure out their angle, and pack the appropriate hate. Soon they will be the ones chewing their sleeves in frustration, and you will be the one polishing a doomsday laser. Yours will be cooler though, since it’s gonna be inside an active volcano. The moon is for suckers.

Kryptonite Rings and Silver Bullets

Ah yes, the appropriate hate. Combo decks rely on cards working together like cogs in a machine, playing off each other to grind their opponents to dust. And what do we do to these finely tuned and meticulously crafted machines, ladies and gentlemen of Commandercast?

That’s right my people, we hit them with a stick. A big, heavy stick.

"This is what I think of your recursion engine!"

“This is what I think of your recursion engine!”

There’s as many ways to stick it to a combo deck as there is ways to go off with one. As such, I am only going to be able to cover some general strategies. If there is a particular combo that you don’t feel like I gave you a solution to, please feel free to ask me for a silver bullet in the comments below.

Now despite all the many combos out there, they for the most part fall into two categories: Permanent synergy and graveyard recursion.

Permanent synergy is composed of things like Helm of Obedience and Leyline of the Void, Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind and Curiosity, or Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Zealous Conscripts.

Or this guy and...everyone?

Or this guy and…everyone?

These are the most commonly seen combos, and it’s easy to see why. Many of them are reliant on permanents that you would probably want to play anyways, and the creature based ones fill your deck with possible attackers and blockers in addition to valuable combo pieces. Lucky for us, the fact that they are based on permanents on the field means they are very vulnerable. The best way to keep these combos down is to pack the appropriate removal. Trying to make sure that your removal package is predominantly instant speed allows you to respond even if your opponent uses Tooth and Nail to fetch up their combo. The usual suspects should do you just fine here, favourites like Swords to Plowshares, Chaos Warp, Beast Within and Cyclonic Rift. But you’re already playing all those cards, right? (Seriously folks, play your spot removal. This stuff is important no matter what deck you’re up against.)

The second most common combo type is recursive combos, and these rely on bringing something back from the graveyard over and over (the obvious combos for this involve sacrifice outlets, but most infinite turn combos fall into this category as well.). They are less common than permanent synergy because the cards (and colours) that are able to do them tend to be more limited and narrow, leading these combos to be a lot more “build around”. On the flip side, these combos are far more resistant to spot removal, discard and counter spells. If a combo piece goes to the graveyard, the combo deck almost certainly has more than one way to recur it. Lucky for us, those fine folks at Wizards of the Coast have seen fit to print a special kind of removal for just such a occasion. Graveyard hate is by far the biggest bane to any type of graveyard shenanigans. And just like the Batman villain of the same name, these cards can singlehandedly snap a powerful opponent clean in half.

Choose your weapon!

Choose your weapon!

Alright, I’m not gonna talk like we all don’t know about graveyard hate. You know the best ones in your colours, and almost every colour has some. I am only gonna spotlight the two pieces that I feel are not only some of the best, but will also fit nicely into any deck at all: Scrabbling Claws and Relic of Progenitus. They are both one mana artifacts, they both have two different kinds of graveyard hate on them, and (most importantly) they both cantrip very easily, meaning that if you draw them against a deck that doesn’t abuse their graveyard they are not dead cards. But which one to pick?

Simple. If you’re planning to abuse your graveyard, then pick Scrabbling Claws. It doesn’t touch your own resources, and you can even use cards like Glissa, the Traitor or Sun Titan to recur it over and over to draw more cards. If you don’t run any recursion of your own, use Relic of Progenitus. It is one use only, but its effects are much more powerful: allowing you to hit all the players on the board and stopping large scale recursion like Living Death or Praetor’s Counsel.

Besides those two targeted strategies, there are plenty of other tricks you can use to Stifle a combo. See what I did there?

Oh, Magic puns. How much nerdier could I possibly get.

Oh, Magic puns. How much nerdier could I possibly get.

Many a combo player lives in fear of a well timed Counterspell. Their habit of sandbagging their combo pieces until they’re ready to go off also makes them very vulnerable to hand disruption such as Mind Twist or Duress (or even Wheel of Fortune effects). For the decks that use their general to combo off, some denial like Meddling Mage will do; and if they have to search their deck for their pieces, then use Stranglehold or Aven Mindcensor to shut that down (I bring up these cards a lot, and for good reason. Some of the best top tier decks crumble against them.).

Lastly, don’t be afraid to use a little Mob Justice (Oh sweet Angel of Mercy, I’m doing it again. Okay, seriously now. This $#!% needs to stop.). If you see that your opponent has landed a combo piece or seems to be getting ready to go infinite, point it out to the other players and explain why you think they are a threat. If you don’t have a answer in hand, it’s very possible someone else might. Take advantage of playing a multiplayer format.

We, the Jury, Find the Defendant…

Of course sometimes you won’t find an answer. And what is the worst case scenario for that, really? A quick end to the game followed by shuffling up for another round to try and answer, taunt, and have fun with your opponent? Sometimes a opponent will have the card that ends the game. Sometimes that card will be Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre, sometimes that card will be a Shared Animosity, and sometimes that card is going to be a part of a combo. Ever since the first silly interaction has allowed standard players to make endless squirrel tokens, people have played combo decks. Wizards of the Coast isn’t planning on doing anything to get rid of them, so we just have to learn to live with them.

And why would we want them gone, really? The death of infinite combos would mean the loss of an entire archetype and all of the cool, nifty, or just plain strange cards and interactions that make them up. Nay, I will accept that I will sometimes lose to Kiki-Jiki if it means that I get to use Zealous Conscripts to steal my opponent’s Karn Liberated and have it eat itself. Attempting to avoid infinites would mean that we do not get any other creative effects at all, and that is far too many babies to throw out with the bathwater for me. Because at the end of the day, there are worse things than an opponent playing two cards that give you an excuse to shuffle up and get a fresh hand.

Why!? Why would someone think this was a good idea!?

Like, say, playing one card that gives you an excuse to shuffle up and get a fresh hand.

Eric writes (Vexing) Devil’s Advocate for Commandercast.com and wonders how many times he can get away with persnickety footnotes to his articles before the powers that be demand that he standardize his outro. Mmm, that’s a good word, persnickety. Not used nearly enough. If you would like to discuss the merits of persnickety, feel free to leave Eric a comment below or send him an email at EricBonvie@gmail.com.

 

 

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