Commander Concepts: What’s In a Card?

sheoldred whispering one

Welcome to my first article of Commander Concepts!

My name is Samuel, but you gorgeous gents and gals can call me Sam. I am a Magic player who loves powerful cards, but I love something else even more: card interactions! I have one goal for this column. I want to share what I have learned about Commander with the community. But I would love to learn from you guys too so feel free to post your ideas in the comments below. Also, at the end of each article I am going to give the readers the option to choose the topic of my next article. With my introduction out of the way let’s dive in!

We all know the feeling. Sitting in an uncomfortable chair, hands pulling on your hair as you stare out across a table littered with cards. You have been glaring at these cards with such intensity that you have yet to notice your elbows are starting to ache as they rest upon the solid surface of the table. Your eyes are focused on a Commander deck and you want it to be perfect.

Whether you are looking at a deck you want to make some changes to or finally building your first deck after months of nagging from your friends, the scene changes little. For me it is quite common to have so many cards on the table while building a deck, or tuning one, that I can barely see the table. We have not even mentioned the cards you have thought about trading for or buying! The number of cards to think about can be completely overwhelming at times.

Whether the deck does not look right, play right, or just FEEL right the changes must happen anyway, and I want to help you make those changes.

My goal for today’s article is to help make some of you guys’ tough choices a little bit easier. To do this I want to go over three powerful concepts of card selection and combo crafting. One of these concepts was written about, and named, by Adam Styborski here.

He called it Harmonic Synergy. The other two concepts may have names, but I call them “one card combos” and “zero card combos.” First, let’s talk about what I mean by “combo.” I do not mean every one or zero card combo will instantly win you the game, but some will. What I do mean is that the cards play extremely well together and generally start netting you free card advantage with zero additional work, or very little.

slivers playing poker Not to be confused with Harmonic Slivergy, which is a different beast entirely.

Now that we have that cleared up let’s get an example of a one card combo and start looking at what makes it different from the “two card combos” and “three card combos” we have all heard about. One card combos involves two specific cards. Yes, you read that correctly, two different cards. How does that work? Well it is a one card combo so it only costs you one card from your hand. The second card does not come from your hand so the entire combo only costs you mana and one card. Where does the second card come from? Well in a game of Commander we have these things called … Commanders! They sit in their own game zone where we can cast them whenever we want. If they get put into the graveyard or exile from anywhere you can put them in the command zone instead, at a cost of more mana next time you cast them.

The command zone is like having an extra card in your hand, but it keeps coming back to your hand. It is like starting the game with eight cards in your hand. If during every game of Magic I played with a specific deck I was allowed to start with the same extra card in my hand, I would certainly build my deck around it.

That idea of exploiting consistency in a highly varied, singleton format by making a combo with your commander is exactly what this kind of card combo is trying to accomplish. A perfect example of this kind of one card combo is [c]Sheoldred, Whispering One[/c] and [c]Reaper from the Abyss[/c]. Combined you will normally get to kill about two creatures on each of your opponents’ turn. Sheoldred is always patiently waiting for you to cast her from the command zone so she can kill some creatures. Therefore, she does not cost you a card from your hand. [c]Reaper from the Abyss[/c] is the only card you need to draw, or tutor for, in order to set this combo up. This match made in Phyrexia almost instantly grants free value!

Examples of this kind of combo can be much more devastating than just killing a few creatures. [c]Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon[/c] goes with [c]Lashwrithe[/c] to kill people easily. [c]Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker[/c] has [c]Zealous Conscripts[/c] to instantly win the game. [c]Progenitus[/c] has either [c]Finest Hour[/c] or [c]Rafiq of the Many[/c] to start killing people in one swing.

Not every instance of this kind of one card combo is an instant kill or works perfectly without any additional effort. [c]Teysa, Orzhov Scion[/c] plus [c]Darkest Hour[/c] sets you up to combine the concepts of “card plus commander” and “card plus average draw from my deck” (which we will talk about in a second.) The average [c]Teysa, Orzhov Scion[/c] deck generally has spare creatures or sacrifice outlets lying around to set you up to start exiling every creature your opponents have. If you are thinking that starts to feel like a three or four card combo, then you would be right. The important thing is not about what kind of combo we are discussing, but that you have now got that kind of synergy, or positive interaction, in your deck and in your mind to use when building future decks.

Next we will discuss Adam’s kind of “combo,” Harmonic Synergy. This is a combo between one card and the rest of your deck. Think of it as a card which has a lot of synergy with your average draw. This is usually the weakest kind of interaction in this article. Let’s look at an example.

sun titan 2

[c]Sun Titan[/c] gets to bring something back from your graveyard pretty often, but if you decided to build a commander deck which is almost exclusively made of instants and sorceries, [c]Sun Titan[/c] is going to be a rather boring 6/6. If your deck has cards like [c]Seal of Cleansing[/c] and [c]Soul Snare[/c] then the [c]Sun Titan[/c] will start to glow a little. Add a couple of cheap creatures into the deck, throw in an [c]Oblivion Ring[/c], drop in a [c]Mind Stone[/c], and plop down a [c]Tormod’s Crypt[/c] and suddenly that [c]Sun Titan[/c] starts to be a pretty brilliant card. You can quickly arrive at a point of critical mass where there are so many cards in your deck that are good by themselves and get better with [c]Sun Titan[/c] that the idea of not including the gold giant seems ludicrous. For a [c]Sun Titan[/c] to be very strong you need your deck to have this critical mass.

There are tons of cards that fall into the same vein as [c]Sun Titan[/c].

Some notable ones of each color are: [c]Birthing Pod[/c], [c]Mnemonic Wall[/c], [c]Deadeye Navigator[/c], [c]Craterhoof Behemoth[/c], [c]Mentor of the Meek[/c], [c]Twilight Drover[/c], [c]Phyrexian Delver[/c], [c]Past in Flames[/c], [c]Thousand-Year Elixir[/c], and [c]Voltaic Key[/c].

Some one card combos may actually just do nothing by themselves, like [c]Voltaic Key[/c], but if your deck is built to support it, then in an average game the card will do something.

These interactions are cool, but I am willing to bet that you want to hear about those “zero card combos” I talked about earlier.

Zero card combos range in function from acting like a wish effect, like [c]Cunning Wish[/c], to a true combo like Sheoldred plus Reaper. The idea of a zero card combo may sound ridiculous, but I believe you probably have seen one at the Magic table already.

For the combo to actually require zero cards we will need to exploit the idea that your commander is virtually always in your hand. You never need to find it or tutor for it so again, it does not cost a card in this math equation. Having your commander in play is not a combo though (unless your commander uses lands like [c]Kamahl, Fist of Krosa[/c].) Most people think a combo needs two cards but what if your commander searched your library for a card?

[c]Scion of the Ur-Dragon[/c] has more zero card combos than most. Simply activating his ability grants you access to cards like: [c]Nicol Bolas[/c] to control peoples’ hands, [c]Dragon Tyrant[/c] to kill people, and [c]Scourge of Kher Ridges[/c] for a free wrath.

Another of those “zero card combo” commanders is [c]Captain Sisay[/c]. She can just tap to get free cards, but that does not make it a combo. Search for [c]Karametra, God of Harvests[/c] and then each creature you cast grants extra value whether you got it from a random draw or tutored for it.

[c]Reki, History of Kamigawa[/c] also functions as a zero card combo when searched for with [c]Captain Sisay[/c]. These commanders have some awesome zero card combos, but no commander that I can think of has more than [c]Zur the Enchanter[/c]. We all know a lot about good old Zur so I do not feel the need to go over his immense arsenal of options.

One card combos for your commander can be tricky to spot. They have a variety of different forms and power levels but they are out there and they are everywhere. They have low deck building costs and immense upside. The simplest way to find them is to find the things that make your commander tick. The things that your commander does best are the things you want to support.

For a simplistic example let us take a look at [c]Borborygmos Enraged[/c]. If he is your commander then you want a way to get lands in your hand. One easy way is to play [c]Life from the Loam[/c]. Another such card for Big ol’ Bor-Bor is [c]Creeping Renaissance[/c]. Either way you have repeatable ways to get value out of your commander which is the whole point of this kind of one card combo.

Some one card combos are more obvious than others and some commanders are incredibly difficult to find a combo piece for. Some simply have zero one card combo pieces. Most have something, though, so if you are having a hard time figuring out a combo piece then feel free to post the name of your commander in the comments below. I will try my best to figure out some combo pieces.

Happy deck-building and happy tuning!


P.S. As a sign off of sorts I want to give the readers some options about what kind of article I write next. Should I breakdown one of my decklists or should I talk about getting card advantage out of your opponents’ decklists?