Weapon of Choice: Life Among the Pod People – Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

This is the last article in my series examining the Big 3 archetypes. Today will be the episode that focuses on Combo decks. Combo adapts to Commander even more easily than Control does. In almost every playgroup, you will find at least one obnoxious Combo deck. If you have trouble believing that Combo can thrive in a singleton format, take a seat at any competitive Commander table and see what the decks around you are doing, you will undoubtedly be surprised.

A Brief Primer

For those that might not know – a Combo deck seeks to win the game by assembling a combination of cards that leads to victory. Some different types of combinations include:

Infinite Combos – These are combos that have the power to create an unlimited amount of something – it can be mana, creatures, or a trigger of some kind. A popular infinite combo in Modern is [card]Splinter Twin[/card] and either [card]Pestermite[/card] or [card]Deceiver Exarch[/card]. Once active, this combo can create an infinite number of creatures with haste.

“Locks” – Locks win the game by keeping opponents from playing. [card]Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir[/card] and [card]Knowledge Pool[/card] form a pretty unbreakable lock. [card]Knowledge Pool[/card] means that players can only play spells in the Pool. Because everything cast out of the Pool is technically being cast at instant speed, Teferi shuts down the ability of everyone who doesn’t control him to play spells.

Powerful Synergies – These won’t win you the game on their own, but they will put you miles ahead of the other players at the table. A funky example is the interaction between [card]Possibility Storm[/card] and [card]Mishra, Artificer Prodigy[/card]. This particular interaction isn’t as obvious as my last examples. The synergy works like this: When you cast an artifact, it is dropped to the bottom of your library by [card]Possibility Storm[/card], which then searches you up another artifact, then Mishra triggers, retrieving the first artifact cast from the bottom of your library. Suddenly, you have two artifacts for every one that you cast.

Flawed Genius

While Combo decks will always make you feel clever, they tend to have two big weaknesses no matter the format – both of which stem from the archetype’s stubborn refusal to play the same game as other decks. Because Combo decks are so concerned with putting together their own game plan, they tend to be light on ways to interact with their opponents. One of the most common ways for Combo decks to lose the game is to spend all their time trying to assemble their combo only to be run over by their opponent’s creatures.

Combo’s second major weakness is their reliance on specific cards to win the game. Combo decks can run into the problem of being ineffective if they lose the pieces of their winning strategy. [card]Blood Moon[/card] stops the lands that Bloom Titan relies on, [card]Rule of Law[/card] stops the chains of spells that Storm relies on, and [card]Linvala, Keeper of Silence[/card] can stop anything that [card]Ghave, Guru of Spores[/card] is trying to do dead in its tracks.

Overcoming Weakness

Combo decks, especially ones in a format as diverse as Commander, frequently have the element of surprise during the first game with a given opponent. Since every combo plays out a little differently, not everyone will know how to stop the doomsday device from being assembled. The advantage of the unexpected is made less and less relevant each game the Combo deck plays. Canny opponents will quickly adapt the way they play to keep from losing to the same trick twice.

Of Combo’s two major weaknesses, the one that Commander players have to be most concerned about is vulnerability to removal. Since every player at a given table is bound to be doing threatening things, almost every Commander deck comes packing all kinds of ways to stop threats. If your opponents are well versed in fighting your Combo deck, you can bet that they will be saving some of their spells to deal with your victory condition.

Luckily, it’s not all bad news for the Commander Combo player. The unique rules of Commander work very much in the archetype’s favour. The defining rule of the format – the ability to play with a Commander – ensures that the Combo deck will have one consistently reliable element in their strategy. If you make your Commander an integral part of your combo, you will always have access to at least one of the pieces you need to win the game.

The two most obvious ways to make your Commander a key piece in your Combo machine are:

1 – Making your Commander part of your winning combo itself. For example, an [card]Azami, Lady of Scrolls[/card] deck that is looking to win using [card]Laboratory Maniac[/card] and [card]Mind Over Matter[/card]. The Maniac and MOM don’t do much on their own, but when combined with Azami, they usually win on the spot. Because you always have access to Azami when you need her, you have much more agency over how and when you can go for the win with your combo.

2 – Make your Commander a tutor. Named for [card]Demonic Tutor[/card], tutoring in Magic means searching your deck for a specific card and adding it either to your hand, the top of your library, or directly to the battlefield. Combo decks that run with [card]Zur the Enchanter[/card] or [card]Momir Vig, Simic Visionary[/card] will use their Commander to pull the cards they need to win right out of their decks. The advantage of running with a Commander that helps facilitate a combo, rather than being part of the combo, is that such Commanders have a broader amount of utility. If you are in a pinch, you can use your Commander to find solutions rather than just going for the immediate win.

This week, we’re going to look at a Combo deck that uses its Commander as both a tutor and a part of its combo:

Imma Be a Zookeeper – Zach RH.

1 Sliver Overlord
1 Blood Crypt
1 Bloodstained Mire
1 Breeding Pool
1 Cavern of Souls
1 Clifftop Retreat
1 Command Tower
1 Dragonskull Summit
1 Drowned Catacomb
1 Flooded Strand
2 Forest
1 Glacial Fortress
1 Godless Shrine
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Hinterland Harbor
2 Island
1 Isolated Chapel
1 Mountain
1 Overgrown Tomb
2 Plains
1 Polluted Delta
1 Reflecting Pool
1 Rootbound Crag
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Sliver Hive
1 Steam Vents
1 Stomping Ground
1 Sulfur Falls
1 Sunpetal Grove
1 Swamp
1 Temple Garden
1 Volrath’s Stronghold
1 Watery Grave
1 Windswept Heath
1 Wooded Foothills
1 Woodland Cemetery
1 All Is Dust
1 Blasphemous Act
1 Boros Charm
1 Chromatic Lantern
1 Conspiracy
1 Counterspell
1 Cultivate
1 Faith’s Reward
1 Farseek
1 Genesis Wave
1 Heartstone
1 Kodama’s Reach
1 Nature’s Lore
1 Patriarch’s Bidding
1 Render Silent
1 Return to Dust
1 Skyshroud Claim
1 Tempt with Discovery
1 Utter End
1 Vampiric Tutor
1 Vindicate
1 Basal Sliver
1 Bloom Tender
1 Blur Sliver
1 Bonescythe Sliver
1 Brood Sliver
1 Clot Sliver
1 Crystalline Sliver
1 Dack’s Duplicate
1 Darkheart Sliver
1 Diffusion Sliver
1 Evil Twin
1 Galerider Sliver
1 Gemhide Sliver
1 Ghostflame Sliver
1 Harmonic Sliver
1 Heart Sliver
1 Homing Sliver
1 Horned Sliver
1 Manaweft Sliver
1 Mirror Entity
1 Muscle Sliver
1 Necrotic Sliver
1 Prophet of Kruphix
1 Psionic Sliver
1 Pulmonic Sliver
1 Quick Sliver
1 Root Sliver
1 Sedge Sliver
1 Sentinel Sliver
1 Sigarda, Host of Herons
1 Sinew Sliver
1 Sliver Hivelord
1 Sliver Legion
1 Sliver Queen
1 Striking Sliver
1 Syphon Sliver
1 Venom Sliver
1 Ward Sliver
1 Winged Sliver

This deck comes from the mind of Zach, my playgroup’s resident competitive spirit. Slivers are Combo personified. Each of them builds on strong interactions with one another until they are a solid wall of synergy.

This deck works for this column in so many ways, but let’s start at the beginning:

The Combo Finish

[card]Sliver Queen[/card] + [card]Basal Sliver[/card] + [card]Heartstone[/card]

Sliver Queen can produce a sliver token for the investment of two colourless mana. With [card]Basal Sliver[/card] on the battlefield, this sliver token can then be sacrificed for another two mana, which can be used to make another sliver.

If you have a [card]Heartstone[/card] on the battlefield, it only costs one mana to make a sliver, but that sliver can still be sacrificed for two mana. Every sliver you sacrifice can be used to either make two more slivers or one more sliver and one mana. In case you missed it, this can be done ad infinitum.

Once you have an unlimited number of slivers and mana, you can throw in another element to the combo to seek a swift victory:

+ [card]Psionic Sliver[/card]

Your newfound Sliver army promptly executes itself, but blows away the table at the same time.

+ [card]Necrotic Sliver[/card]

The combination of as much mana and as many slivers as you need, let you use [card]Necrotic Sliver[/card] to exile everything your opponents control. This is a cruel way to wrap up the game, but sometimes you need a lock to get things done.

Getting There

With [card]Sliver Overlord[/card] at the helm of the deck, you have a pretty obvious way of getting to the winning combos waiting within. Every time you active the Overlord, you are not only getting pieces of your combo directly into your hand, you’re also thinning your deck. By taking a card out of your deck, you are allowing yourself easier access to any other cards you might need in the future.

Ok, I think that’s a pretty good segue into talking about a disadvantage that Combo picks up in the transition to Commander; just as the ability to have a commander helps Combo, the limitation of only being able to play one copy of a given card hurts it.

If you look at a Storm list in Modern or a Charbelcher list in Vintage, you will notice that each of those decks runs multiple copies of the cards they need. Without the same luxury, Commander players have to rely on the truly obscene size of their available card pool to make up the difference.

With [card]Sliver Overlord[/card] as the commander of his deck, Zach has the ability to rely on some alternative combo pieces if his primary plan of relying on [card]Basal Sliver[/card] doesn’t work out. [card]Gemhide Sliver[/card] and [card]Manaweft Sliver[/card] act as a solid Plan B for mana – and when combined with [card]Heart Sliver[/card] or [card]Blur Sliver[/card], they do almost as good a job as Plan A.

Protecting Your Investments

All combos have some level of vulnerability to them. Lab Maniac triggers can be Stifled, [card]Splinter Twin[/card]s can be stolen by [card]Spellskite[/card]s, and Dredge can get eaten by [card]Ravenous Trap[/card]s. Combos are just as vulnerable in Commander, which means they require protecting.

In the case of Zach’s deck, he has it easy. [card]Diffusion Sliver[/card] and [card]Crystalline Sliver[/card] both do an excellent job of keeping spot removal away from key slivers. The new [card]Sliver Hivelord[/card] grants the most powerful defensive keyword in the game to each and every creature. [card]Sigarda, Host of Herons[/card] keeps away [card]Grave Pact[/card] shenanigans. And both [card]Patriarch’s Bidding[/card] and [card]Faith’s Reward[/card] can help rebuild your entire board if your other protective measures fail.

Plan B

Good defensive plays are not the only thing a solid Combo deck will need to succeed in Commander. A tempting risk to take when deck building can be to go “all-in”. Going all-in is when you focus entirely on your combo – you actively sacrifice other parts of your deck’s function to make sure that you combo off every game. In 60-card Magic, Combo decks can rely on multiple copies of their key cards to make going all-in less risky. For Combo decks to truly succeed in Commander – when facing down stiff resistance from multiple opponents – they need a back-up plan.

One of the reasons I chose Zach’s sliver deck for today’s example list was because of how clear its back-up plan is. The presence of [card]Sliver Legion[/card], [card]Bonescythe Sliver[/card], [card]Galerider Sliver[/card], and [card]Muscle Sliver[/card] in the list all make Plan B pretty obvious; when in doubt – smash face. If its attempts to combo for the win fall flat, the sliver deck can shift gears into an Aggro deck and win through overwhelming amounts of combat damage.

Hanging On For Dear Life

Sometimes its not about finding another way to win the game, sometimes it’s about surviving just one more turn. Most combo decks will happily run things like [card]Damnation[/card], [card]Cyclonic Rift[/card], or [card]Merciless Eviction[/card]. Zach approaches playing large-scale removal from a very cool angle which is something I want to address before wrapping up today.

Rather than relying on the ol’ workhorses to get the job done, Zach leans even harder on the singular way slivers play together. Lots of decks play [card]Blasphemous Act[/card] as a simple board wipe, a defensive measure you curtail runaway opponents. Zach plays it offensively instead. Thanks to [card]Ward Sliver[/card] naming red he can cast the Act and watch his opponents suffer while he still has all the slivers he needs. An even crueler one-sided wipe is the combination of [card]Ghostflame Sliver[/card] and [card]All Is Dust[/card].

Magic’s long and storied history is full of all kinds of little niche interactions like the ones listed above, and one of the joys in playing Commander is getting to use all of them.

The Trilogy Box Set

Commander is a format of madness. So many things can – and do – happen over the course of a single game that it is impossible to prepare for everything. In my last three articles, I have done my best to articulate how you can adapt some classic deck building theory to suit Commander’s needs. While writing these three columns, I have realized something: wrapping things up neatly is hard.

It took some rumination, but I think I may have found an old saying that puts a neat little bow on my Life Among the Pod People series:

“If you want to survive a bear attack, you don’t have to outrun the bear, just the person beside you.”

When you’re building a Commander deck – no matter the archetype – you always want to be prepared to outrun the other players at the table. The ferocious grizzly of defeat is clawing at your heels from the moment you first draw your hand.

Ideally, you avoid getting eaten by making sure that every play you make gets you closer to securing victory. If you’re playing an Aggro deck, you want all of your cards to have the ability to be weaponized; if you’re playing a Control deck, you want all of your cards to put you ahead of the table in terms of banked resources; if you’re playing Combo, you want each and every card to make sure that you are going to be able to safely assemble your customized death machine.

With so many cards available and so many unique cards going into each deck, it can be very easy to get distracted while building your Commander deck. Rather than getting pulled in by every shiny gimmick, you want to be focusing on how your deck gets where it wants to go and what obstacles are going to be the hardest for it to overcome.

It’s time to set aside the mixed metaphors of bears and body snatchers – let’s talk brass tacks. Adapting to Commander means learning to think holistically; it means holding up each card you are choosing for your deck to the light of intense scrutiny. You need to examine it through the lenses of past experience, multiplayer politics, and ferocious competition and decide if it does enough to warrant inclusion in your deck. 99 cards might seem like a lot, but you would be surprised how quickly that space can be eaten up.

This conclusion might make building a Commander deck sound like a daunting task, but nothing worth doing is ever going to be easy. Commander gets dismissed as a format for casuals by people that have never played it, I suggest that the next time you’re looking for a challenging game of Magic, you might want to give it a try.