A Magictation by Mikeal Basile
“Magictating” is defined as getting into the zone with your Magic the Gathering collection–thinking, planning, organizing, reminiscing about past games, and imagining future games. It is a combination of hard thinking about the game and calm meditation, reveling in the joy it brings you.
If you are a die-hard combo player, then I think you’ve already found your answer. However, I’m more interested in parsing out if it’s acceptable to have an infinite combo in your Commander (EDH) deck. I’m not talking about cEDH mind you, because I’m pretty sure if it’s not banned, then it’s all good over in that sub-format. I don’t play Commander for cut-throat competition, but instead for friendly competition. I’m more of a social player, as are most Commander players, and as I’ve been over that avenue before I’d like to spend some time instead teasing out the issues inherent when employing combos in traditional Commander circles. For the sake of clarity, when I refer to infinite combos in this column I’m referencing game-ending combinations of cards that end the game. The complex question about their validity in casual Commander is comprised of many layers. Should we, as casual players, allow ourselves to employ the infinite combo? Is it right to have a deck that should otherwise have lost a game, suddenly win because we’ve assembled a two or three card combo? Do we need decks to have access to combos in order to avoid stalled board states? Is it against the spirit of the format to include combos that crush your friends while denying them the opportunity to fulfill their dreams? These are valid questions, and the answers are trickier to assemble than you might think.
Should we allow our friends to play infinite combos in their Commander decks? The answer here is found by rounding up some more questions. Is your idea of a good game one where players expand and develop strategies over time? If yes, then combos may still be acceptable. Do you want the game to progress and reset and progress again? If yes, then combos may still be acceptable. Do you want the game to end suddenly, and at times without warning? If yes, then mobilize those combos. Do you want people to win in ways that are clear and allow traditional answers to stop them from winning? If you answered yes to this, then you probably don’t want to see infinite combos in your games. Infinite combos win games, and they do so instantly: the game is over once the combo is initiated. I don’t necessarily have an issue with someone creating unlimited mana with their Basalt Monolith and their Power Artifact. This can happen fairly early, but unless the deck is solely built around capitalizing on this, then the table should have an opportunity to stop it. Traditional answers can be utilized and the game can be saved from the calamity of the combo. The key here is the vulnerability of the combo, and the viability of it to win the game on the spot. The ability to create an advantage that is difficult to overwhelm is far different from ending the game. I see no reason to scoop my cards up until I’m dead, and when other players run up an advantage that’s the opportunity for the rest of the multiplayer and political avenues of the Commander format to shine.
It may seem to some that combos are better when they end games, but it really depends on when and how that is happening. The difference here is subtle, but I don’t like losing to someone when they win using the same two or three cards every single game. This is one of the many reasons I don’t usually like having tutors in my decks. Sure, tutors can be used as a tool box concept, but I really don’t like seeing a deck that has fifteen tutor effects, a two card combo, fifteen pieces of recursion for the combo, and proceeds to follow the same lines of play every single game. I feel that is just not in the spirit of Commander. In fact, I would go so far as to say that game-ending combos destroy the soul of the casual Commander format. The format is casual, political, multiplayer. The infinite combo is inherently anti-casual. It is competitive to a degree that can lock out many decks from ever winning. It brings back memories of old tournament formats that ran along the lines of rock, paper, scissors (aggro, combo, control). The casual scene is not the place for hyper competitive combos. Additionally, combos ignore that there are multiple players (or in the worst cases ignores all other players). The worst offenders are decks that are essentially playing against themselves in an effort to assemble the pieces as quickly as possible. I don’t mind combo decks in other formats, but I’m fairly certain that those decks are breaking the social atmosphere of Commander. They crush people’s dreams and syphon away the fun that comes from the ebb and flow of a traditional multiplayer game. The last piece of the puzzle is the political aspect. The infinite game-ending combo eschews all political pretexts. When the combo player goes off it doesn’t matter what you wanted to do the next turn. It doesn’t matter how you could have helped one another to a first and second place victory. It doesn’t matter what your name is, because the combo just stole the game. In essence, the infinite game-ending combination crushes the soul of a Commander game.
I know that some of you wonder at why we would want to play games that have “stalled board states”, and I shake my head in response. What is the definition of a stalled board state? Stasis lock? Stax decks employing oppressive tactics with Goblin Welder and Smokestack? People having developed armies of creatures and waiting to attack each other? Those are pretty different circumstance. Ultimately, the only stalled board states exist when people are playing that sub-game of politics within the normal bounds of Magic. A stalled board state doesn’t require an infinite combo to break it up. It simply requires some bravery, a bargain perchance, or even a little stupidity or gullibility. It requires an over extension, a leap in faith, or perhaps simply a wrath effect. These states do not require a combo to end the game. When creatures have stalled the game we don’t have to turn to a combo. Those players have been fighting and maneuvering to position themselves into defensive states with the hope of taking the offensive. The armies and resources amassed have been building all game long, and then when they are a turn or two from breaking the “stalled” board, the combo says, “it doesn’t matter what your plan was, because the game is over.” The clash of armies, and the activating of artifacts doesn’t matter. There are no repercussions for an attack, and there is no further drama. The game is over. Anti-climatic really. I mean all that fuss and Heliod, Sun Crowned and Walking Ballista just ended it all. That’s a salty ending indeed.
The ease with which a player can call together the pieces of their combo also helps to determine if it is something that seems viable and acceptable by the table at large. The more pieces required to make the combo work, then the more exciting it could potentially become. A two card combo isn’t nearly as exciting as watching someone pull off a four card combo to win the game in a very unexpected and ridiculous manner. When someone pulls off a win with The Cheese Stands Alone…er I mean Barren Glory or even Happily Ever After it is much more satisfying than seeing someone cast Approach of the Second Sun for the second time in the same game. It also feels a lot more exciting when you can interact with that combo and keep it from fusing into that game-ending synergy. This requires work on both the combo player’s part and those that play with the combo player. We need to have interactive cards in our decks in order to avoid stalled board states and instant losses to coalitions of cards popping off. A little interaction goes a long way. It helps build drama and requires the combo player build some redundancies into the deck to account for people interrupting their ability to muster all elements required for victory. However, we still have to wonder what that combo looks like. Is it a focused two card combo to snatch games from having climatic finishes? Or are those combos in the deck merely synergies that allow further development and encourage interaction and the ebb and flow of the game to continue. The way a deck plays helps decides how fitting it is for the casual Commander environment.
How do you get a player in your group to move past their infinite combo kick?
I don’t mind if someone wins with their Commander every time, but I certainly don’t enjoy playing against the same combo every play session. That grows stale for others even faster than it does for those that are playing the combo. I remember playing regular multiplayer. We had eight or so of us playing. My friend Jeff was on an infinite combo kick. He would proceed to take a twenty minute or longer turn in which he would either fizzle out and kill himself (those were the glory days of mana burn), or he would kill all of us as once. That was miserable. So, we figured out a way to stop him from doing this. After he announced his combo, played it out, and then “won” the game, we all decided we would continue playing for second place. We would include him in our next game. The game would invariably stretch on for at least another hour or so (or hours if we managed to live the dream and cast multiple Forks on someone’s Shahrazad). He got the message pretty quickly that we hated playing against that deck. It was fun for him, but the rest of us didn’t have any fun. Am I advocating that you should solve your own play group issues by playing for salty seconds? Yes, yes I am. Does this make me a sore loser and more importantly, are you if you employ this tactic? No. No, you are not. You are attempting to fix a problem. The problem of infinitely repetitive play in a format that people often come to in order to find variety and dream fulfillment. I have never experienced a format where I was able to hard-cast four ultimatums in a single game, and still lose. No, I did not lose to an infinite combo, because if the combo had existed, I suspect I never would have made it to casting the third ultimatum.
Is it against the spirit of the format to include combos that crush your friends while denying them the opportunity to live their dreams? Yes. You may not agree with me, but everyone is allowed to be wrong now and then. If you feel you must build an infinite combo oriented Commander deck, then I highly suggest that you make it as a side project. Do not make that deck your only deck. This style of deck building, at least in Commander, is something that should be approached as a secondary project. Sure, this mistress may become your little obsession, but it could burn you worse than Scorch Thrash with a Mana Flare and Over Abundance lending a hand. Using this style of deck building as a mad scientist’s side project will keep you from becoming Mr. Hyde and allow you to command the kind of respect Dr. Jekyll deserves. The decision to employ game-ending infinite combos is a personal one, but it is also one that will affect your friends. I’m not convinced that casual Commander is the place for game ending infinite combos. So, should we be playing them in our decks? No, but don’t let that stop you. You can do whatever you want, but don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself waiting while your friends play for salty second.