Cotopaxi by Frederic Edwin Church (1855). Scion of the Ur-Dragon by Jim Murray.
Everyone likes to win.
Today's column is the first in what I hope will become a monthly series where I dive into the many, many ways you can win games in Commander.
While my intention is to center each installment around a specific card or strategy that uniquely positions you to be able to win games, I should note that I fall firmly on the casual side of the casual / competitive EDH spectrum. I think it matters more that your games are fun - not just for you but for everyone in your meta - than that you win as many games as possible. Winning is fun, but winning way more than your "fair share" isn't always a good thing.
Winning Ways is not going to focus on building value-based decks that plan to eventually win through combat.
There's nothing wrong with that approach, and many of the decks I've built and played over the years do have that basic plan. Nearly every Commander Precon deck is built like that. You play your deck and if all goes well you can time your removal and answers correctly, dodge your opponents' interaction, navigate the table politics well and come out the victor in the end. I love games like that and it's probably my favorite way to play Commander.
Winning Ways is for deck-builders who have decks they enjoy, but which don't happen to win very often. Casual decks can get frustrating if you lose too many games in pursuit of winning "fairly". Not every opponent is trying to win by combat and sometimes it's worth mixing a more efficient tactic into the mix if you're getting a bit frustrated. Just adding a combo or wincon into a previously "fair" deck isn't automatically going to put you in the winner's circle more often, but it's a step in that direction that can be fun to experiment with.
Some of these "Winning Ways" might wind up feeling too cheap, too easy, too unfair or just too mean for you.
Not every playgroup wants games to evolve in the direction of combo and alternate wincons. Whether you find ways to fold these into your own decks or not, my hope is to open your eyes to some of the more powerful ways that Commander players close out games.
Meet Laboratory Maniac
Cards that read "you win the game" are uniquely powerful, but also present you with a challenge. Can you navigate your way to the right board state to be able to play your wincon, protect it, and trigger those four magic words.
If you would draw a card while your library has no cards in it, you win the game instead.
Both Laboratory Maniac and Jace, Wielder of Mysteries, bring this wincon to the game. A new player might marvel at the idea of bothering to play a creature or planeswalker that does nothing until you've drawn the last card out of your library. It's easy to forget how much we experienced Magic players have learned as we've waded into the format.
Nearly every player at some point in their learning process had a time where a "Lab Man" win seemed impressive.
All you have to do is make it through 90+ turns drawing a card each turn and somehow surviving, right?
Perish the thought.
I suspect nobody has ever won a game with Laboratory Maniac only drawing a card each turn and you probably won't either. Any deck that is seriously pursuing a Lab Man strategy is going to take that left turn at Albequerque and find themselves in Combo Town.
Fortunately for us, Lab Man wins are (relatively) easy to come by.
Why Lab Man is easy
Laboratory Maniac is easy because combo is a relatively easy way to win games. All you have to do is find a way to get rid of your library, put Lab Man or "Lab Man Jace" onto the field and force yourself to draw a card.
There are dozens of ways to get rid of your own Library. Many of them involve making infinite mana, but some are as simple as playing a single creature.
When this big boy hits the table, you exile your library. If Lab Man is out and you can draw a card - even in response to someone using an instant to kill him - you'll win the game.
If you play a combo like "Dramatic Scepter", which involves imprinting Dramatic Reversal on Isochron Scepter and using it to untap enough mana rocks to generate three or more mana, all you need is an outlet that either exiles or draws all the cards in your library.
Arcanis, the Omnipotent, Azami, Lady of Scrolls, and a few other creatures can tap to draw cards and will untap with Dramatic Reversal so you can keep tapping them. Hermit Druid can be played in a deck with zero basic lands so you wind up dumping your whole deck into the bin. Kenrith will let you pour infinite mana into card draw - but only if you have the ability to generate that mana in Blue.
Unless your playgroup is looking out for these combos, they will most likely get blindsided by them. You will win "out of nowhere" and since you're in Blue you should be able to run Swan Song, Counterspell and other spells to protect your wincon. Even when they are clued in to what you're doing, a deck designed to win with Laboratory Maniac can easily catch the table with their proverbial pants down.
Why Lab Man can be hard
Just throwing Laboratory Maniac and a few combo pieces into a deck usually won't turn it into a consistent and effective deck that wins early and often. To really go after this wincon you'll want tutors and you'll want the deck to be built around that strategy. Otherwise, it's something of an afterthought that might sometimes come up but will usually just be taking up a few card slots.
This wincon is also difficult because both Laboratory Maniac and Jace, Wielder of Mysteries are vulnerable to removal. Any opponent with a clue is going to kill or exile either of those permanents on sight. You'll learn to hold them back until you feel like you're at a point where you can play them, protect them and almost immediately go for the win. You'll also learn to run recursion so that if he gets killed you can get him back.
You'll find that if you do pull off a few wins your opponents will probably start saving removal and counter spells for your wincon. They certainly should run a few more copies of Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile, Pongify, Frogify, Lignify, Rapid Hybridization, Murder, Doom Blade and the like if you're windmill-slamming Lab Man on a regular basis.
The more you focus on having your deck pursue a Lab Man strategy, the less your deck will be able to "play fair" in casual games. If your buddies want games to be more combat focused, you'll probably find that it can be hard for your deck to both play the combo game and play the combat game. I'm not saying it can't be done. I'm just saying it could become a challenge, especially if you go all-in on the Lab Man strategy.
Once your friends have caught on to what you're trying to do, they will probably learn that you are going to be vulnerable to aggro. Their best plan might be to just gang up on you and beat you to death before you can combo off. That can be hard to deal with for some players, so if you don't like getting picked on you might mix in deathtouch blockers or "pillow fort" enchantments like Propaganda, Ghostly Prison and Sphere of Safety to protect yourself.
Why Lab Man is hated
Don't get me wrong. Not everyone hates Lab Man, just like not everyone hates Infect, the Praetors or Narset, Enlightened Master. Many players view even the most effective or brutal strategies as perfectly fine and fair to play in Commander.
For better or worse, there are also lots of players who just hate losing to decks that combo off and win with Lab Man.
I'm no Psychiatrist, but my best guess is that those players invest a lot into building up their boards and feel like the basic point of the game is to have the victory won or lost on the battlefield. While your Laboratory Maniac or Jace, Wielder of Mysteries might happen to be "on the battlefield", it's not like your plan involves going to combat and trading blows until you emerge the victor. That's the last thing most Lab Man decks want to do.
I think most "sore losers" aren't really that upset that they lost. I think they're upset that all the time and energy they invested in the game was basically for nothing. You took the wind out of their sails. Some players react to the deflated feeling of losing to a combo better than others. They feel cheated, even though they know full well that your wincon was perfectly legal. Just because it's legal doesn't mean it feels "fair".
If you get a bad reaction from your Lab Man win, don't be surprised. Don't belittle your friends as sore losers. Don't mock them for not running enough removal. Don't be a bad winner yourself. Just understand that not everyone enjoys playing against combo and Lab Man decks. If your buddies are new to combo, they may take some time to get used to it.
They may even start playing some combo decks themselves.
If you're in a casual meta, consider having other decks to play so you're not turning every single game into a struggle to see if you can be kept off of your combo. Borrow a deck or build a "fair" deck that fits how your friends want to play if they are really passionate about not liking combo. That doesn't mean you can't play your Lab Man deck. You can. Just keep an eye on the enjoyment of other players and make sure your healthy meta stays healthy and fun.
No. Sivitri Scarzam. Sivitri Scarzam is an old uncommon from Legends that has no abilities. She's a "vanilla" Legendary and I built a deck around her for my Commander League games in December. We have players pick themes for each month and the theme for next month is Legendary creatures with no abilities or keywords. We get a bonus if we play on theme and for better or worse I always try to play on theme.
The reason I'm going to give you my Sivitri Scarzam list today is because it is at its heart a Laboratory Maniac deck. It is an experiment in seeing if I can use our new Mulligan rules as part of a wincon, and that wincon will culminate in putting Laboratory Maniac on the field and drawing a card.
The current Mulligan rules have you put cards on the bottom of your library if you Mulligan too many times.
This deck's simple plan starts by using the Mulligan rule to put a non-land card on the bottom of my library. My goal from that point on is to cast Tunnel Vision and name that card. Tunnel Vision will put my entire library into the graveyard because I'll reveal cards until I get to the named card. If I eventually hit the card I chose, it goes on top of my library and the rest go in the graveyard. I'll still need to draw that last card and sacrifice three creatures to flash back Dread Return and put Laboratory Maniac onto the field. Then if I can just draw one card I'll win the game.
It's worth noting that this is the same basic method you use if you play Hermit Druid in a deck with no basic lands. You activate Hermit Druid, put your library into your graveyard, flash back Dread Return to play Laboratory Maniac and draw a card to win the game.
If you think I should run some tutors so that I can get Tunnel Vision more quickly, I should point out that every tutor ever printed requires you to shuffle your library after searching for the card you want. We do run tutors, so we'll need ways to "bottom a card" after tutoring.
This deck will run other ways to fix the bottom card of my deck so that if I start with one of those at the start of the game, I don't have to my Mulligan for that purpose. Not having to rely on the Mulligan also means I can tutor up Tunnel Vision, fix my bottom card and then go for the win. I'll need enough mana to cast Tunnel Vision, draw the cards I'll need to draw, and also protect my wincon. That's no small feat. This deck is unlikely to push for any early wins, but it is definitely going to be capable of stealing the occasional game with a Lab Man victory.
I'm running a pretty heavy list of artifacts, as Dimir () doesn't provide the kind of traditional ramp you get in Green. I'm also running a decent number of counter spells and creatures that will bring spells back from the graveyard. Most of my past experiments with mill and with self-mill strategies were more broad and flexible decks that could adapt to different types of games.
This Sivitri Scarzam list is very heavily focused on a single wincon. I only expect to ever play it a handful of times so I'm OK with it being a bit of a "trick" deck. If it does its job I'll win a game, feel a little dirty about it - especially if I used the Mulligan rule - and move on to other projects (as I do).
Sivitri Scarzam Mulligan Abuse | Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Commander (1)
- 1 Sivitri Scarzam
- Creatures (38)
- 1 Alchemist's Apprentice
- 1 Alloy Myr
- 1 Arcanis the Omnipotent
- 1 Artificer's Assistant
- 1 Augur of Bolas
- 1 Augury Owl
- 1 Cephalid Broker
- 1 Crypt Ghast
- 1 Dakra Mystic
- 1 Dreamscape Artist
- 1 Dregscape Zombie
- 1 Faerie Seer
- 1 Fatestitcher
- 1 Forgotten Creation
- 1 Junktroller
- 1 Laboratory Maniac
- 1 Leaden Myr
- 1 Merfolk Looter
- 1 Mnemonic Wall
- 1 Mulldrifter
- 1 Narcomoeba
- 1 Nirkana Revenant
- 1 Omenspeaker
- 1 Palladium Myr
- 1 Phyrexian Delver
- 1 Reckless Scholar
- 1 Rune-Scarred Demon
- 1 Sage's Row Savant
- 1 Salvager of Secrets
- 1 Scribe of the Mindful
- 1 Seeker of Insight
- 1 Sidisi, Undead Vizier
- 1 Sigiled Starfish
- 1 Silver Myr
- 1 Spellkeeper Weird
- 1 Spellseeker
- 1 Sphinx of Foresight
- 1 Viscera Seer
- Instants (8)
- 1 Counterspell
- 1 Cyclonic Rift
- 1 Flusterstorm
- 1 Mystical Tutor
- 1 Spell Pierce
- 1 Swan Song
- 1 Turn Aside
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- Sorceries (7)
- 1 Beseech the Queen
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Diabolic Tutor
- 1 Dread Return
- 1 Mastermind's Acquisition
- 1 Merchant Scroll
- 1 Tunnel Vision
- Enchantments (1)
- 1 Black Market
- Artifacts (8)
- 1 Arcane Signet
- 1 Commander's Sphere
- 1 Dimir Cluestone
- 1 Dimir Signet
- 1 Mind Stone
- 1 Proteus Staff
- 1 Reito Lantern
- 1 Sol Ring
- Lands (37)
- 9 Island
- 9 Swamp
- 1 Cabal Coffers
- 1 City of Brass
- 1 Darkslick Shores
- 1 Dimir Aqueduct
- 1 Exotic Orchard
- 1 Fetid Pools
- 1 Forbidden Orchard
- 1 Lonely Sandbar
- 1 Lotus Field
- 1 Morphic Pool
- 1 Opulent Palace
- 1 Phyrexian Tower
- 1 Polluted Delta
- 1 Reliquary Tower
- 1 Remote Isle
- 1 Temple of Deceit
- 1 Underground River
- 1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
- 1 Watery Grave
The challenge with playing a deck like this in our league is that we see a pretty wide range of decks in our meta. There are decks that are barely stronger than a precon and there are legit cEDH decks. I have no idea if this list will be able to pull off a win, but I'm excited to be playing something weird and goofy for at least three of the six games we'll be playing in December. Since I'm playing Blue and will have some amount of control and removal, I should have a decent chance to at least threaten a win in some of those games.
This section is a little bit of "me from the future". After writing up this column I was able to play Sivitri Scarzam in a game on one of our local game store's "causal" Commander nights. We had agreed to play lower powered decks and I figured a vanilla Commander with a janky wincon would qualify.
I started the game by putting Artificer's Assistant on the bottom of my library and had Tunnel Vision in hand. I was able to get out a Sigiled Starfish and some creatures that would let me tap them to draw cards.
An opponent had a Relic of Progenitus on the field from turn one, so I knew I couldn't just put Lab Man into my graveyard and pull him out with Dread Return. I got really lucky though. Another opponent blew it up. I was able to hang out, play some small creatures, eventually play Sivitri Scarzam and then go for the win.
I had Turn Aside in hand and was able to resolve Tunnel Vision and name Fatestitcher, which I had bottomed with my Sigiled Starfish earlier. Nobody claimed to have any answers and I was able to draw into the win.
After the Game 1 of the guys admitted to having had a piece of targeted removal and just didn't want to use it because he was happy I was winning a game. I'd been on quite the bad streak lately, but it made me feel good to know that even if he had tried to Path my Lab Man I would have been able to counter his removal.
I've both won and lost a lot of Commander games over the years. The fact that I build and play a wide variety of decks means that I've managed to win games in a lot of ways. I've activated Hermit Druid while playing my Muldrotha, the Gravetide deck, put my entire library into the graveyard, put Narcomoeba onto the battlefield, sacrificed three creatures and used Dread Return to put Lab Man on the field. I've then nailed down the win by cracking a Commander's Sphere. It usually feels pretty good to combo off with Hermit Druid, but the common thread between a lot of cEDH decks happens to be that Laboratory Maniac is the eventual wincon.
If I've sparked your interest in putting this pesky little Wizard into one of your decks, I hope you find it as fun a challenge as I have. Lab Man is a fantastic cherry to put on top of a self-mill sundae, but heed my warnings about how important it is to build around him and to keep a finger on the pulse of your playgroup. If it works, you win a ton of games, but nobody wants to play with you any longer, that's probably not the long-term outcome you're looking for.
You can look forward to an installment of "Winning Ways" each month from now on. There may be months where I'm writing up so many deck lists that I don't have room for this series but in general I'll do my best to consistently include it every single month.
If there is a wincon that you'd like me to write about next month, please comment and let me know. If I don't get any feedback I'll find some wincon that I can present to you along with a decklist that uses it - hopefully in an odd, clever or interesting way.
That's all I've got for today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!