The C Word in EDH/Commander

Today I’m here to talk about the infamous C word in Commander. It’s not the new official name for EDH, its combo. Not much polarizes a group of Commander players the way a combo can. Are infinite combos okay? What if you can only execute the combo 5 times? Does it matter how many cards it involves? Can your commander be one of those cards? Can you tutor for any of the pieces?

These are the kinds of questions each play group will have to work out. For the purpose of this post I’m going to assume that combo is frowned upon and that it’s not the way a game should end. I’m not saying that this initial assumption is correct, but it’s my baseline for the moment. I’d also like to answer another question that I don’t think enough people ask, is okay to not go for it if you have it?

What Makes a Deck a Combo Deck?

My opinion is that a combo deck is a limited to a dedicated combo, one in which plan A is win condition , that to me is combo deck. If your deck has a combo in it, but it’s reserved for incredible late game (say turn 56), plan D or similar, I don’t consider your deck a combo deck.  It is a deck that has a combo in it.

Why the Distinction?

Good question! Honestly, the reason I draw the distinction is because I do see a heavy stigma calling a deck: a combo deck. I don’t want my decks classified as a combo decks with all of the ire it brings at many tables. One of my decks, Sedris the Traitor King, is a deck focused on cheating mana costs and tries to evoke the feeling of Ice Crown. It has cards like Sneak Attack, Feldon of the Third Path, Grenzo, Dungeon Warden, and Jalira, Master Polymorphist. In my mind, this is not a combo deck. However, it also has both Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Zealous Conscripts. Simple two card infinite combo. I have plenty of ways to recur pieces from the graveyard and even run an Entomb (normally reserved for Haakon, Stromgald Scourge). I firmly believe my version of Sedris is not a combo deck in my hands. Why? Because I won’t go for it unless we are clearly playing that kind of game or it is the point where everyone just wants the game to end.

Wait, What?

You read that correctly. I have a two card combo that I can tutor for and protect in my deck that I simply choose not to go for. I also don’t think it’s a combo deck. The cards are independently good for what the deck wants to do. The fact that they are an infinite combo is unfortunate. I can have both cards on the table, or the ability to easily, and I won’t go for it. I understand that this can and probably will really upset people. Many players don’t want to see “poor play” at their table. Some may want me to go for it and either scoop to let people play for 2nd or let’s all shuffle up and play again. I won’t. I’ll even tell you before the game starts or when the combo comes up that I won’t use it. There’s no shadow of the combo. It’s simply not there in my eyes.

“Build Casually, Play Competitively” – Sheldon Menerey

This is common quote from the Godfather of EDH/Commander. So does what I’m saying completely contradict this basic philosophy that many Commander players adhere to? Possibly. I am saying that you can choose not to go for the win just because you can, sometimes that’s not what the game is looking for. I think you have to read the table and/or know your playgroup.

There’s the sliding scale of casual and competitive. What those words to me and what they mean to an aspiring pro player could be very different things. As an example, I was in a game with someone at Gen Con 2015. He was playing his Edric, Spymaster of Trest list and was out in front early. Another players spell, let’s say Syphon Mind, made him discard. He quickly flashed me Craterhoof Behemoth and discards it saying, “this isn’t the kind of game we’re playing”, I was dumbstruck. He’d just discarded an easy win. This is someone I respect and his comment is something I’ve taken very seriously. I believe you have to keep a firm read on the table and play the kind of game the table is looking for. This is especially true when you’re playing in the wild. In his case it wasn’t going for a quick and easy win at a table that he could have crushed. In my case, it might mean going for it and shuffling up.

One Step Further

I’m working on a new deck building project. All but two my decks are shelved or in pieces. One of my new projects is one Magic’s original royalty in Sliver Queen. I want to build a five color token deck and plan on running Ashnod’s Altar because it has strong synergy with what I’m trying to do. Its blank spot removal against anything other than the Queen herself by turning it into a sliver token. My dilemma is, do I add Bitter Ordeal? With the three cards I can simply exile everyone else’s library and win on the spot. It’s an alternative win condition if I can’t win with tokens or Commander damage if the social contract accepts that combo kill as a fun way to end a game. But what if it’s not? Bitter Ordeal would be nearly dead in the deck. If it was an instant I could say that its punishment for an opposing Wrath of God, but it’s a sorcery. It has to be used proactively.

I’m currently leaning towards including it. Why? Primarily it’s because I want to protect a table from the fluid meaning casual and competitive. I currently don’t have an established playgroup. I moved from Chicagoland to Florida and am trying to reestablish a place to play. I’ve seen the distraught faces of my fellow players enough through the years when someone sits down with something clearly more powerful than what everyone else brought. My plan is to actively police the table, combo off on that player, and continue playing with the rest of the table. This would require me to accurately read the table on what is acceptable at the time and potentially have a dead card in my hand when everything else works fine. Would this make Sliver Queen a combo deck? Am I way off base and turning myself into “that guy” by acting as the judge? Am I being condescending to my opponents if I have the combo and let the game play out without comboing off? I think no, as long as I’m comfortable losing a game I could win if I just went for it.


I am one of the people that doesn’t enjoy combo kills. The easier it is to pull off and the earlier it is the less I like it. I’ve been in grueling board stall games for hours wishing they could end and someone would combo off. Although, I’ve been saltier than I’d like when it happened earlier than I preferred. It’s a moving scale. I believe you can put a combo in your deck, even assemble the whole thing, and not go for it without it being inherently rude. I’m not talking about playing with your food. That’s disrespectful and time consuming. I’m talking about reading the table properly. If the game isn’t ready to end, don’t finish it.

What Do You Think?

I’m curious what you think fully, understanding that I believe I’m in the minority here. You can find me on Twitter @KyleCCarson. Until next time.

  • Cowboy Kyle

3 thoughts on “The C Word in EDH/Commander

  1. I’ve only been playing Magic/EDH for about 5 years now. Starting out, I liked the idea of playing combo decks. Then, I found joy in just playing decks with a few combos in them. Now, I only play decks that have strong synergy between the cards but nothing that’s game shattering to the point that players can’t recover. Whenever I encounter players with combo decks I do not have fun. They do the exact same thing every game at a pace that can’t be stopped by one player alone. At my LGS I now avoid those guys. So, if you’re playing a combo deck, please let the table know.


  2. As a combo deck player myself and as an advocate of the social contract, I believe there are two types of combo decks.

    1) the X-card monté
    2) the synergy weapon

    I am the kind of combo player that wants to “earn the right to kill the board with a combo”. I don’t want to “oops I killed the board, my bad”. I want to feel that I had to battle a gruelling race on a downhill touge engine pumping hard, tires and brakes screeching as I connive and conjure my way through the forest of my foes. i want to have to sequence and play my deck in an optimised path based on the obstacles my opponents throw and the resource combination I have to win. That’s the game I want to play with a synergy combo deck. That’s the kind of combo deck I can get behind and my LGS has fun with me playing.

    I feel bad when I have a win condition in hand that I don’t use. I don’t like playing suboptimally. It isn’t me.

    But you and I are different people mate. Everyone is different and every playgroup is different. As you’ve touched on, have that conversation with your group. Determine what is and isn’t acceptable and go for it.

    I do have decks that run X-card montés. But I run them when the situation is appropriate, with the appropriate people and I play them to their optimal path.

    If this works for you, awesome, it may also a work for others. At least I hope it helps people think. 😉


    1. Appreciate the thoughts. The play group I sat in with Tuesday night, would not be okay with the Bitter Ordeal. Sedris was already borderline too strong. I did make it very clear to the table that I wouldn’t be using the two card combo if I found it. We weren’t even close to that game. Lorthos may be too much entirely which would be sad, maybe it’ll still be acceptable as a challenge deck. The next time I’m at a major event, I think having a backup combo for the random Spikes is a decent idea. We’ll see if I even get around to building it (Sliver Queen).


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