Knowledge Pool: Top 10 Combo Commanders (And Why You Shouldn’t Play Them)

knowledge pool Anthony Jacob Bednarz

Hello everybody, my name is Anthony, and I'm a combo player.

That's really one of the reasons why my format of choice is EDH. Sure, I loved the sometimes-janky Pyromancer's Ascension deck back in Zendikar standard. And the only Modern decks I've looked into are Storm and Eggs (and with the banned list the way it is, it doesn't look like I'm going to be playing that format any time soon). And, really, who has the money for Legacy? So here I am.

"But Anthony," you might say, "isn't EDH supposed to be about fun?" Sure it is. Playing combo is really fun for me. And honestly, in a 40-life, multiplayer format, sometimes combo is just the way to do it. Combo is a viable archetype in EDH with a variety that no other format can really claim. I mean, there's loads of ways to kill somebody with Tendrils, but it's all the same to me.

And once you get to more competitive EDH tables, combo is where it's at. There are quite a few high-tier voltron, aggro, and control commanders, but realistically, you're probably going to see a whole lot of combo, or at least decks with combos in them. And by combos, I don't just mean good interactions. I mean infinite, game-ending loops. And there are a few Commanders that stand out as the figureheads of the combo archetype in EDH. In this article, I'm going to go over how to execute these combos. But before you start terrorizing all your friends and loved ones, I also want to talk about why playing combo, and these combo commanders in particular, may not always be the right decision.

There are a few combos (Hermit Druid and Ad Nauseum, really) that play without a specific commander attached to them. They can really be played in anything, so long as the color requirements are right. I'm not going to talk about those right now (although I have discussed Hermit Druid in the past). I want to focus on combos that are, functionally or in the mind of the community, tied to a certain commander. This is because, while they aren't as explosive as the Druid, they are quite a bit more prevalent in terms of what you might see at your LGS or kitchen table. It's also because I want to discuss the social stigma attached to playing certain commanders--and how you can avoid it.

They're unfair. They're "un-fun." They're always on the tip of the tongue right before each new banlist announcement. These are my top ten EDH Combo commanders.

Honorable Mentions: 'Lark Combo and Kiki-Jiki

... okay, it's just that "Top 12" sounds a lot less cool than Top 10. These are a couple of combos that at least deserve mention, but in my opinion aren't really dominating. The first of these is the Lark Combo. This involves combining Reveillark with Mirror Entity and Karmic Guide. If you put Mirror entity's ability on the stack an arbitrary number of times (say, one million) for zero mana, 'Lark will revive Karmic Guide (which returns Lark to play) and any other creature with power two or less that number of times. You can use Acidic Slime to destroy everybody's lands, or Saffi Eriksdotter to re-animate any creature infinitely (Yosei, the Morning Star, for example). The two shells that this is typically accomplished in are Captain Sisay and Karador, Ghost Chieftain. The combo involves a lot of pieces, so it requires some enabling--Sisay lets you search up Saffi and Yosei fairly easily, and Karador lets you use a wider array of tutors (Buried Alive, for example, is a great enabler). Thanks to 'Lark's evoke ability, you can execute the combo with a good number of pieces in the graveyard anyway. This is one of the flagship "weird" EDH combos, but it's one of the easiest and most effective... but it does require a lot of specific creatures to set up, and therefore I don't think it makes the list.

The other honorable mention is Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. You've seen it in modern, and you'll see it in EDH. The reason Kiki doesn't make the list for me, is that he's not the greatest combo piece when used as the commander, because mono-red really limits your combo options. Sure, you can just draw Zealous Conscripts and insta-win. But in terms of tutors, red has [Gamble] and... that's about it. You can go another route and combo with Lightning Crafter and a sac outlet. This is a bit easier, since Goblin tutors give you a bit more redundancy. But really, Kiki is a better combo piece in a deck that uses Tooth and Nail, or gives you access to some of the blue or white creatures that also go infinite with him.

10. Melek, Izzet Paragon

Melek is the scrappy underdog of EDH combo generals. The primary way to build him, seriously, is with no creatures. But as janky and gimmick-ey as that sounds, it really works out. The big idea is to tutor up and play Proteus Staff, and then use it on Melek. If you have no other creatures in your deck, this will put Melek back into play and, as a brilliant side-effect, allow you to re-order the rest of your deck exactly how you want. From there, you can play as many red rituals as you want (a la Seething Song), and then Grapeshot everyone to death (or Ignite Memories, if you're sadistic and want to make people play it out). As a little bit of back-up, UR can also include the Turnabout/Reiterate combo, which produces infinite mana, and therefore, infinite casts of any instant or sorcery. If you have Melek in play, putting Turnabout on top of your deck helps lower the start-up cost of the combo, allowing you to execute it more quickly. Or you can go crazy with Firemind's Foresight, and fetch Reiterate, Reset and Lightning Bolt, which functions the same as the Turnabout combo for infinite mana and damage.

Melek is strong because tutoring for artifacts, instants, and sorceries in U/R is really, really easy. Easy enough to make the deck viable, even without putting creatures in it. That restriction, though, is why Melek ends up on the lower end of the list.

9. Animar, Soul of Elements

There are more combos with Animar than I can begin to imagine, but they mostly revolve around one card - Cloudstone Curio. Having the ability to cycle through ETB creatures with Animar's cost-reduction ability is, frankly, insane. You do, of course, have to get around the color requirement of the creatures you're using. There are a few ways to do this. First of all, use Eldrazi. Artifact creatures are a no-go, because of the Curio's restriction. But I think chaining free Kozliek, Butcher of Truths and Ulamog, the Infinite Gyres are probably going to win you the game pretty quickly. Secondly, there's creatures that untap lands, like Palinchron and [Cloud of Fairies]. This is the go-to for Animar, really. With Curio and any creature with a single colored requirement, Cloud of Fairies gives you infinte counters on Animar and infinite ETB's of the other creature. Man o' War is a favorite, removing blockers for that large/large Commander. Aluren and Curio also makes it easy to go infinite with Animar, provided you have a couple creatures that have CMC three or less.

The trouble with Animar is that you often have to win with combat damage, which is hard to do to multiple opponents all in one turn. Neither Cloud of Fairies or Aluren lets you cycle Acidic Slime infinitely, for example (although Palinchron will). The amount of creature tutors in green makes the combo pretty easy to pull off. Animar has the benefit of being a really good commander outside of his combo, allowing you to drop something like Blightsteel Colossus with ridiculous ease. Because Animar is a typically creature-heavy deck, he's a prime candidate to play as a Primal Surge deck. Just include all permanents (except the Surge), and it's a random "Oh, look, I win" button with a global haste outlet or Warstorm Surge. Just make sure not to let your Mulldrifter trigger kill you afterwards.

8. Arcum Dagsson

News flash: a tutor on a body is going to be a good combo commander. Dagsson typically brings into play Mycosynth Lattice, [ccProd]Darksteel Forge, and Nevinyrral's Disk, and then proceeds to blow up all of your opponents' permanents, every turn, forever. Blue, generally speaking, does very well with artifact combos, and access to counter magic for tempo and protection is just the icing on the cake. He's also very versatile--if you don't think you'll be able to execute your combo, there's a lot of things you can tutor for to lock the board down (Winter Orb) or prevent people from attacking you (Ensnaring Bridge). The only problem with Arcum is that, for the combo to work, you need to use him three times, and then you still need a turn to untap with Nev's disk. A good way to circumvent this is to make Lattice your first tutor, and Unwinding Clock the next, allowing you to fetch during each other player's turn. A good piece of exile removal, however, can really ruin your day. This isn't necessarily a combo deck that aims to win as fast as possible. In essence, it's a lock down deck that plays a combo as a finisher.

7. Ghave, Guru of Spores

In the words of MtGSalvation user Sanity's Eclipse, "something comboing with Ghave at this point is like air comboing with your respiratory system." And it's true. The amount of synergies that Ghave has--and has been given since he was printed--is frankly astounding. He has great interactions with any creature that has Undying, removing their counters for creatures and sacrificing them to give himself counters, and doing it all again, for just two mana per iteration. Add any other sac outlet to the mix, and you just pay one mana to activate it. If that sac outlet is Ashnod's Altar, suddenly you have infinite colorless mana, infinite creatures, and an infinite number of +1/+1 counters on those creatures. Anything like Cathar's Crusade, Dauntless Escort, or Juniper Order Ranger works as well, giving you an exponentially growing army limited only by your mana (and again, with the Altar, it goes absolutely nuts). This is the combo commander you're most likely to see, because he's from a pre-con and his pieces are so numerous and so cheap. He's powerful because he's so non-linear. There's so many interactions with this guy that it's hard to see which one is coming. Even if you disable him, a good number of cards in the deck play well together, as well.

6. Damia, Sage of Stone / The Mimeoplasm

At some point, everyone breaks their one rule, and that's why there's one entry on this list that isn't a combo tied to a specific commander. Frankly, it's so popular on the competitive scene that it would be blasphemous not to include it, and that's BUG combo. Now, the combo is playable in many other color combinations, from mono-black to mono-blue, but having access to three of the best tutor colors in the game, ramp, and counter magic, makes BUG the go-to choice for players able to support a three-color land base. The combo is, basically, a single card: Tooth and Nail. With a back-up of Defense of the Heart. Getting either of those cards to go off gives you Mikaeus, The Unhallowed and Triskellion in play, which deals infinite damage to all opponents (Trisk removes its last counter to damage itself, and Mike brings it back with undying, ready to unload again). As an alternate, you can search up Deadeye Navigator and Palinchron, which gives you infinite mana, and infinite ETB's of any creature, which should allow you to win somehow.

BUG doesn't have a lot of options in terms of Commanders, but Mimeo and Damia both add something to the deck. Damia lets you draw a lot of cards each turn, which makes the combo easier to find. Mimeo lets you use graveyard tutors to fetch pieces of the combo, as a Mimeo copy of Mike or Deadeye works just as well in the combo (even if it is a bit risky to RFG  your combo piece).

5. Zur the Enchanter

It feels almost sacrilegious to put Zur as low as #5 on the list, but I do so (strangely enough) because he's just a fantastic commander rather than a hardcore combo commander. Typically, you can just win with Zur by slapping on a powerful aura or two and holding down the fort with countermagic. But a tutor on a stick can always enable combo, and there's a few good ones with Zur. Personally, I like to find Necropotence and Solitary Confinement, preventing all damage to you for the low cost of one life each turn. Another good combo is tutoring up a way to give Zur vigilance, and then slapping down Stasis. He can also lock a good portion of the board from playing spells with a combination of Bitterblossom and Contamination. Zur is powerful just because he grows so quickly. He only needs one or two tutors to make a big impact, but each one you get after that further seals your opponents' fates. The one problem, however, is that he has to attack to tutor.

4. Oona, Queen of the Fae

What's better than having a tutor in the command zone? Having a combo piece. And that's exactly what Oona does. She takes any infinite mana combo and turns it into an instant win. You can do it with the aforementioned Palinchron and Deadeye (or Phantasmal Image), but it's easier to do with either Basalt Monolith or Grim Monolith with either Power Artifact or Rings of Brighthearth. Then, you can play Oona and exile your opponents' libraries, which gets around things like Eldrazi lurking in their decks. This is dependent on your colored mana, which is solved by including [Gemstone Array] as a piece of the combo.

Oona is good because of, go figure, tutors and counter magic. Blue is, again, particularly good at getting artifacts into play.

3. Niv-Mizzet the Firemind

Oh, Niv. Alright. There's basically four cards that go invite with Niv-Mizzet: Curiousity, Ophidian Eye, Mind Over Matter, and Tandem Lookout. Simply, have your general in play and able to tap, and have one of these cards, and you win. Dealing a boatload of damage to everybody. The reason I place Niv below the next two is because he's, in a small sense, dependent on the number of cards in your deck, and he has to be able to tap. These aren't big restrictions - there's a bunch of haste outlets in red that means you can win as soon as you slap Niv down. Secondly, if you include an Eldrazi in your deck, you can get around the restriction of decking yourself pretty easily (although it's easiest with Mind Over Matter, otherwise you have to have some other way to draw a card, and be able to discard the Eldrazi. Although with your deck in your hand, that shouldn't be hard).

2. Azami, Lady of Scrolls

Azami is another piece of a two-card combo. If you pair her with Mind Over Matter, you can cycle through your deck. Then, if you have some mana (not hard, with MoM), you can play Laboratory Maniac and Win, or play Beacon of Tomorrows every turn forever. Incidentally, you can also play Arcanis the Omnipotent in the command slot, which is nice because you end up with more cards in hand than you started with, making managing mana with MoM absurdly easy. The reason I prefer Azami is because she's so useful outside of the combo. You can load the deck up with useful wizards, and be confident that you can very quickly draw your combo piece. Azami replaces tutors with sheer draw power. And outside of other blue decks, she's hard to stop, because her ability can be used instantly, for free, with every Wizard you control, if someone so much as points a removal spell at you. As mono-blue, the room for counter protection in this deck is frankly insane, especially with respect to free counters. Even Foil ends up being a valid option, because card disadvantage should hardly bother you with such a great draw engine at your disposal. And in EDH, blue isn't bad at Big Mana either, between mana artifacts and cards like High Tide.

1. Sharuum the Hegemon

Sharuum is my top pick for combo commander for a few reasons. The biggest of which is that I'm probably biased, having played this deck basically since I began playing EDH. Realistically, though, she's a combo piece in the command zone, but more than that, she's reanimation on a stick, giving you multiple paths to victory and making your combo obnoxiously resilient. She has the added benefit of being the one combo to straight-up give the middle finger to the rules of the game itself in execution. Basically, Sharuum abuses the rules surrounding state-based effects and legendary permanents. If you have two copies of the same legend in play, one goes to the graveyard as a state-based effect, before anything (even ETB abilities) can be placed on the stack. You can't, for example, play a second Gaea's Cradle and make a boatload of Green before both die. But that rule works well for Sharuum. If you have Sharuum in play and clone her with a Sculpting Steel, for example, you will have to obey the legend rule and put one in the graveyard before even putting the copy-Sharuum's ability on the stack. At that point, the reanimation effect can target the card that was just put in your graveyard (Sharuum herself, for example), returning it to play, causing state-based effects to happen again. So, you have a constant loop of cards entering the graveyard and being pulled back out. You can win from there with either [ccProd]Disciple of the Vault or Bitter Ordeal. Furthermore, the recent legend rule change makes this combo work with any clone, not just an artifact, because you're allowed to keep one. Nifty!

As a secondary combo, you can run the legacy famous Thoptersword (Sword of the Meek and Thopter Foundry) and pair it with Ashnod's Altar or Time Sieve to go infinite. Sharuum is amazing because of her tutor potential--there's no better way to find combo pieces than with white, blue, and black, especially when you're looking for artifacts. Add to this the fact that Sharuum lets you tutor your clone into the graveyard (provided it's an artifact), and it becomes almost too easy. And if your combo isn't working out? Be cheap in a different way and keep reanimating Magister Sphinx.

The Double-Edged Sword

There's two big downsides to playing these high-profile combos, though. The first is that your playgroup probably won't like you for it. This is the sort of thing you should probably discuss with your fellow gamers first. If they're all into a pretty cutthroat environment, go for it. If they think having an average life expectancy of five turns is no fun, look elsewhere. It does not pay to be "that guy." On the other hand, if you're registering for an EDH tourney and you want to play with no holds barred, whip these suckers out. In any case, if you choose to build one of these, please have something else sleeved up, just as a go-to. Even I wouldn't want to play against one of these game after game after game. Here's the thing - almost every one of my decks has some sort of infinite combo in it. Sometimes, that's just what it takes to close out a big multiplayer game. But these are decks that are very, very focused on comboing out, and as soon as possible. They tend to play the same way just about every game. And while that may be your cup of tea, keep in mind that it might not be for everyone.

The second downside to playing these commanders is that you're probably going to be the target of the table from the get-go. And while these decks can be good enough to play Archenemy without schemes, well... sometimes they're not. If you really like fighting the odds and outmaneuvering multiple players, then go for it. If you don't like everyone to groan when you flip over your commander, maybe stay away. The other downside is that it's hard to play a casual version of one of these commanders, especially in a new environment. I don't know if someone's playing combo Mimeo or an out-of-the-box pre-con, but I'm not taking any chances.

Remember: politics and the social contract are big parts of EDH. For your own sake, and for the sake of everyone else that loves the format, don't take them for granted.

That being said, go forth and slaughter.

-Jacob

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