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Stopping Combos

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Morganator 2.0:
By popular request of one person and a bunch of upvotes, I'm going to make a loose guide to stopping combos. I can't go over every single combo out there (because there's lots), but I can go over the key components found in combos, and how to throw a wrench in those plans. If ever you want more specific advice on how to stop a certain combo in your playgroup, feel free to ask about it. Myself or someone else will definitely come to your aid.

First off though, before you start stopping combos, you need to make sure you've got the right tools at your disposal. It's also a good idea to get some of the other people in your playgroup to add some removal to your decks. That way you're all equipped to stop combos and it makes you better deck-builders overall.

Removal Package

First and foremost, your removal needs to be instant-speed. Sorcery-speed removal is not effective for stopping combos. You might want to also include instant-speed grave hate if you frequently go up against graveyard combos. Try to keep your removal low-cost at 2 mana or less. After ending your turn you probably will only have 1 or 2 mana open. Unless you're trying to be a dedicated disruption deck, you don't need to dedicate too many slots to removal. I used to say 3-5 creature removal and 3-5 artifact removal is ideal, but I think that 5-7 of each is better to aim for. Here are some good choices:

Swords to Plowshares
Deadly Rollick
Mogg Salvage
Nature's Claim
Force of Vigor
Assassin's Trophy

During gameplay, remember to leave mana open if you think a combo is coming. More on this later. Even if you don't have removal, there are also unconventional ways of stopping combos. I've stopped a combo with Goblin Sledder before, believe it or not. And there are also some weird things you can do with Deflecting Swat and combos. Finding creative ways of beating combos is just one of the joys that come with this amazing format.


Be careful with using counterspells. Too often I see people using counterspells the wrong way. They are not the same as removal; counterspells are primarily protective. That being said, using them to stop a game-winning combo is acceptable.

Choice of counterspells follows the same rule as removal; 2 mana or less, and about 3 to 5 in your deck (Quick aside: do not use Pact of Negation to stop combos. That is a purely defensive counterspell). When using counterspells to stop combos, you almost always want to counter the last combo piece while it is on the stack. At that point your opponent is invested in that strategy and they might not have any mana left to protect themselves with. Note that you want to counter the combo piece, not the outlet for the combo. They can always get another outlet.

Bluffing is also a very important part of using counterspells. The amount of times I've changed the outcome of a game just by leaving 1 or 2 islands untapped is staggering. You can start to tap two islands, look at their boardstate, and then untap the islands while whispering to yourself "no, gotta leave these open". That is quite literally all it takes to make people hesitate to play their combo. Good bluffing can win games.

Split Second

Angel's Grace
Sudden Shock
Sudden Spoiling
Sudden Death
Krosan Grip

I think it's worth giving special attention to these spells. Split second stops interaction; your opponent can't use a counterspell to stop you and if it's an instant-speed combo, they can't resolve the combo in response. Whatever you're stopping, it will stop. The downside? You'll notice that a few of these cards are 3 mana, and sometimes lackluster (2 damage. Really?). As a result, most of these don't show up in cEDH. In casual commander though, they are excellent at stopping combos, you just need to intentionally leave mana open.

Specific Stax

Unless you're building a dedicated stax deck, only put these cards in after doing a meta-analysis. If you see lots of creature-based combos in your playgroup, consider including Cursed Totem or Linvala, Keeper of Silence. If you come across graveyard combos, throw in a Rest in Peace or Scavenging Ooze. Just make sure that none of these actually hurt your gameplan too much. I don't want to spend too much time on this because it could be a whole discussion on it's own... It was a whole discussion on it's own.


General rules for stopping combos

Now that your deck is teched out with interaction, let's focus on actually stopping these combos. Combos always involve 2 or more cards. They also need a bit of a board presence before they can start. Combos that only take 1 card and require no prior setup get banned... after about four years or so of harassing the Commander Rules Committee. Long story. Anyhow, what this means is that there are indications to when someone is going to combo. Sometimes it's subtle, but as you go up against more combos you'll get a better feel for when someone is going to combo. Sometimes it's incredibly obvious. For example, nobody plays Pili-Pala unless they are also going to play Grand Architect. It's such a dead card and the combo for infinite mana does require either haste (hard to do in mono-blue) or for Pili-Pala to be on the battlefield for a turn. So you know that if someone plays Pili-Pala, they're getting ready to also play Grand Architect. The same is true if you see an Exquisite Blood. You know that they're also using Sanguine Bond or Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose or something else in that deck, so you know that you need to get ready to stop them. Sometimes the indications for combos can be more subtle. If they tutored for something with Demonic Tutor last turn, and then didn't play anything, it's probably a good idea to leave some mana open, to at least threaten interaction. As you play against the same decks, you'll also start to notice that certain decks tend to try to win at a certain turn count. Whatever turn that ends up being, whether it's turn 4 or 8, that is the turn that you get ready to have a response for.

The other important point to stopping combos (and this may seem strange) is that in most cases you should always wait until the last possible moment before interacting with the combo. Let's say you have a removal spell in hand. When your opponent plays Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, you do nothing. When they play Felidar Guardian, you do nothing. When they tap Kiki-Jiki to copy felidar, that is when you respond by removing either of those creatures. There are a lot of reasons for doing this. First of all, when they play the first combo piece, you don't actually know if they are going to combo this turn. They might just be playing Kiki-Jiki for value. That's not worth removing. Second, at any point during these steps, a different opponent might try to interact. They might counter the felidar, or jump the gun and remove Kiki-Jiki. If you can get other players to expel resources instead of you, it puts you further ahead in the game. Third, by letting the combo get to that point, your opponent is invested in it, so it's even more spectacular when it fails. If someone counters their Kiki-Jiki, they aren't going to play felidar. They'll use card draw, or recursion, or they may hold up the 4 mana to mess with your boardstate. Let them waste their mana and cards first, then stop the combo.

Here are some examples of combos and when you should use removal on them.

Karmic Guide + Reveillark + sac outlet: With Karmic Guide’s ability on the stack, remove the sacrifice outlet. Instant-speed grave-hate can also work as soon as either of these creatures gets targeted by the other.

Isochron Scepter + Dramatic Reversal: If you respond while Isochron is untapped, your opponent can activate it and then generate infinite mana in response to your removal. Wait until Isochron is tapped and the copy of Dramatic Reversal is on the stack, then remove it. Your opponent will still get a little bit of mana, but not infinite.

Mikaeus, the Unhallowed + Triskelion: If you respond while Triskelion has even one counter on it, your opponent will be able to play out the combo in response to your removal/grave-hate. They’ll remove all but one counter to deal damage to you, use the last counter to get Triskelion to deal damage to itself, and then it comes back, repeating the loop. If you’re using creature removal, remove Mikaeus in response to Triskelion targeting itself. If you’re using grave-hate (like Scavenging Ooze or Nihil Spellbomb), wait until Triskelion’s undying trigger is on the stack before exiling it from the grave.

Notice that for some of these combos there is a wrong time to respond, so don’t just remove a combo as soon as you see it. Hopefully when you encounter different combos in the future you’ll be able to figure out when to stop them. I go over some more specific combos later on.

Is that it? We got the basics down? To recap:

* Use efficient removal and counterspells
* Use specific stax if able
* Learn to recognize the signs of when someone is going to combo
* Always wait until the last possible moment before interacting
Alright, if your deck is ready, go grab a snack or something for this next part. It's going to be a long process.

Types of combos and how to beat them

At the time of me writing this, there are 8163 combos recorded in Commander Spellbook. I refuse to go through all of them. Instead, I'm going to describe categories of combos and how to deal with them. Note that a well timed counterspell will stop like... every combo, so I'm not going to mention it in every entry. When I mention stax pieces to use, you should only use them if there are multiple decks in your meta that use similar combos. Otherwise that Collector Ouphe will just tick people off. Afterwards I'll go through some specific examples of combos that require special attention.

Pili-Pala + Grand Architect
Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker + Combat Celebrant
Grand Warlord Radha + Hellkite Charger
Core-description: Combos like these have a creature at the center of them, quite often a commander. Remember what I said earlier? You always want to wait until the last possible moment to respond. It could be an activated ability of a creature, it could be when your opponent goes to combat. Whatever it is, this event is what you respond to.
How to stop it: Creature removal. Duh. If it's a combo with the commander it's usually a good idea to remove the other card and leave the commander alone. They can easily re-cast their commander, not so much the other combo piece.
Stax to use: Cursed Totem and it's ilk are good at stopping activated abilities. If the end goal of the combo is to win with combat damage, pillowfort effects like Crawlspace or Propaganda can mess this up.

Artifact Combos
Isochron Scepter + Dramatic Reversal
Basalt Monolith + Rings of Brighthearth
Core-description: Combos involving artifacts that don't include creatures are usually either infinite mana, or a lock (explained below). Keep in mind that they still need an outlet of some kind to win the game (Walking Ballista is a simple example).
How to stop it: Artifact removal. Don't remove the outlet though, get rid of the thing that's actually making the infinite mana. With infinite mana, it's easy to get a new outlet.
Stax to use: Collector Ouphe. You can also slow down artifact strategies with an Aura of Silence.

Instant-speed combos
Emiel the Blessed + Dockside Extortionist
Azami, Lady of Scrolls + Mind Over Matter
Kenrith, the Returned King + Infinite mana
Core-description: These combos are rare (thankfully), but they require special attention. What's important is that at some point in the combo it can be resolved at instant-speed, so if you try to use removal, they can just re-activate the combo in response to your removal. Using one of the examples above, if you try to get rid of Mind Over Matter, the Azami player will just draw and discard in response to the removal until they've drawn their whole deck, which is what they were going to do anyway. This means that you need to remove one of the combo components while the other is on cast. If everything resolves, your opponent has probably won the game.
How to stop it: Remember how I brought up split second cards earlier? This is where they really shine. Just when your opponent thinks they've won, Krosan Grip saves the day. If split second isn't available, remove one of the combo pieces while the other is on cast.
Stax to use: Can't really think of anything specific to stopping instant-speed combos. Look at other factors of the combo like if it uses creatures or artifacts. Just be sure to time your removal really well.

Stax locks
Karn, The Great Creator + Mycosynth Lattice
Maralen of the Mornsong + Stranglehold
Core-description: There are two kinds of locks. A soft-lock is a situation that is really hard to get out of. A hard-lock is impossible to get out of. Soft-locks deny you so many resources that the game grinds to a halt. Hard-locks make it impossible for you to cast spells. While neither of these win the game, it's pretty easy for your opponent to wipe you out with combat damage when you can't do anything.
How to stop it: Do not let it get this far. When you see a hard-lock incoming you have to either destroy one of the components before the other one resolves, or counter the spell on the stack. If there are lots of stax like Winter Orb, Static Orb, and Rule of Law, you're going to want mass removal. Seeds of Innocence is a personal favorite of mine.
Stax to use: Don't try to out-stax a stax deck. Just be smart about your removal. No one likes getting staxed so you can expect that the other two opponents will also be gunning to get rid of that Winter Orb.

Examples... of Commanders: Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain, Yidris, Maelstrom Wielder, Kess, Dissident Mage.
Core-description: Storm decks rely on casting a bunch of spells in one turn. They aim to get incrementally more cards drawn and incrementally more mana produced, all in the same turn. Quick example how this works: if you cast High Tide and then Frantic Search, you will untap three islands (netting 3 mana) and get two new cards. Then if you cast Underworld Breach you can re-cast the Frantic Search to net more mana. The end goal is to play something like Aetherflux Reservoir to nuke people, or to play Mind's Desire to get into another combo.
How to stop it: A lot of storm decks rely on generating card advantage off of their commander. In the case of something like Selvala, Heart of the Wilds they may instead use their commander for mana. In either case, denying a storm deck either cards or mana can set them back. Also grave-hate. It is no surprise that a lot of storm decks rely on recurring cards from the graveyard, so an instant-speed exile with Relic of Progenitus can mess them up.
Stax to use: Grave-hate like Leyline of the Void, or those cards that limit spells cast in one turn (Deafening Silence, Rule of Law). Denying card draw via Narset, Parter of Veils or Spirit of the Labyrinth also works. In other words, storm is pretty susceptible to stax.

Graveyard combos
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed + Walking Ballista + Sac outlet
Karmic Guide + Reveillark + Sac outlet
Anything with Protean Hulk
Core-description: A lot of graveyard combos are sacrifice loops. Fortunately, most of them actually require 3 or more cards, so they are a little easier to predict. If you can time your creature removal you can sometimes stop these combos. Unfortunately, graveyard decks are really good at bringing back things that get removed. Who would have thought?
How to stop it: Grave hate. Creature removal will often only delay a graveyard combo, unless it's an exile effect. I'm a big fan of Soul-Guide Lantern, because it's 1 mana, instant-speed grave hate, can be used as card draw if nothing else, and it costs about $0.10 to get your hands on one.
Stax to use: Also grave hate. Rest in Peace and Ground Seal mess with a lot of reanimation strategies.

Specific combos

Here are some examples that you may come across frequently. I've tried to include where you're likely to see these combos (cEDH versus strong casual) but there are always exceptions. Please don't argue over this minutiae. I'm just going to remove those sections rather than debate it with people.

Consultation Oracle/Tainted Oracle
Cards Used: Thassa's Oracle, Demonic Consultation/Tainted Pact
Description: The pilot will play either consultation or pact to exile their entire library and then play Thassa's Oracle to win.
How to stop it: So removal actually doesn't work here, the abilities will resolve regardless. This is one of those times where you have to use a counterspell somewhere. Alternatively, if you can get a stax piece like Rule of Law the combo will never start.
Frequently spotted with: Anything cEDH with blue and black.

Divergent Transformations
Cards Used: Divergent Transformations, Thassa's Oracle, Leveler
Description: The pilot will target two of their own creatures with transformations, exile them, and flip the top of their library until they find the only two creatures in their deck; Thassa's Oracle and Leveler.
How to stop it: In order to do the flippy thing, both creatures need to be exiled by transformations. If you can remove one of the targets on cast, they will only flip into one of those creatures. Hope it's Leveler!
Frequently spotted with: Kykar, Wind's Fury, Thrasios, Triton Hero + Vial Smasher the Fierce

Doubling Season and Planeswalkers
Cards Used: ... Doubling Season and planeswalkers. Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider can work as well.
Description: Playing Jace, Unraveler of Secrets with Doubling Season out will have him enter with 10 loyalty counters, so you get his emblem right away. And that’s just one example. Tamiyo, Field Researcher is another really good emblem to have. These aren’t really combos but they are a really strong synergy when you play a bunch of planeswalkers in your deck. Another thing: with Doubling Season activating a loyalty ability of a planeswalker does not add double the loyalty counters. Those counters are being added as part of the cost, not part of the effect. They do double with Vorinclex however.
How to stop it: Don't let the Doubling Season stick around. Remove it as soon as a planeswalker is cast. Planeswalkers are designed to be value cards, don't let them be even more so than that. Some people try to use The Immortal Sun as a stax piece, but at such a high cost it’s unreliable.
Frequently spotted with: Atraxa, Praetors' Voice. Sisay, Weatherlight Captain

Flash Hulk
How to stop it: Get the Rules Committee to ban it after four long years. Moving on.

Food Chain
Cards Used: Food Chain, Eternal Scourge/Misthollow Griffin/Squee, the Immortal
Description: Using Food Chain and one of the three creatures I mentioned, the pilot can get infinite mana that can only be spent on creatures. Then they just need an outlet, which is often the commander.
How to stop it: Removing Food Chain while the creature is on cast is reliable, as is using a Rule of Law stax effect. Food Chain combos can start with very little mana, so most mana-denying stax isn't effective.
Frequently spotted with: The First Sliver, Korvold, Fae-Cursed King, Sidisi, Brood Tyrant.

Hand Thief
Competitive and casual
Cards Used: Notion Thief/Narset, Parter of Veils/Alms Collector, Windfall/any wheel effect.
Description: If a wheel effect resolves with Notion Thief on the battlefield (or one of the other cards above), the controller of Notion Thief will draw a bunch of cards, while everyone else just discards their hand. It doesn’t win the game outright, but putting everyone else in top-deck mode pretty much guarantees a win. And because Notion Thief has flash, they could even do it in response to someone else’s wheel effect. Narset and Alms Collector will give all of your opponents one card, making them slightly worse.
How to stop it: You must either counter the Notion Thief or remove it before the wheel effect resolves. Sometimes Narset, Parter of Veils is used. In that case you’ll want a counterspell or planeswalker removal (like Beast Within).
Frequently spotted with: Kraum, Ludevic’s Opus + Tymna the Weaver, Kenrith, the Returned King

Hermit Druid
Competitive, fringe competitive
Cards Used: Hermit Druid and four other cards. Yes I’m going to tell you what they are, be patient.
Description: The pilot will tap Hermit Druid to mill their entire library, which happens to have no basic lands. Then they need to get two other creatures out (Narcomoeba, Fatestitcher) so they can flashback Dread Return, getting Thassa’s Oracle.
How to stop it: Hermit Druid will need either haste or to stick around for a turn, so this is a very predictable combo. You can remove Hermit Druid or instead remove one of the three creatures so Dread Return can’t be cast. A lot of grave hate will also stop this combo.
Frequently spotted with: Kenrith, the Returned King, Sidisi, Brood Tyrant. Because this combo uses a lot of dead cards it’s not very common.

Necrotic Ooze combo
Fringe competitive, casual
Cards Used: Necrotic Ooze, Phyrexian Devourer, Walking Ballista
Description: Often this combo starts with Buried Alive putting all three creatures in grave, then a reanimation effect brings back Necrotic Ooze. The pilot will exile cards with Phyrexian Devourer's ability, get a bunch of +1/+1 counters on Necrotic Ooze, and then remove them to deal damage via Walking Ballista's ability. Once Necrotic Ooze is on the battlefield this becomes an instant-speed combo, so that's a problem.
How to stop it: instant-speed grave hate. When they go to reanimate Necrotic Ooze, exile that graveyard.
Frequently spotted with: Graveyard decks like Meren of Clan Nel Toth that felt like including a combo.

Primal Surge
Cards Used: Primal Surge, a deck with only permanents.
Description: Primal Surge gets cast. Because the rest of the deck is only permanents, their entire library gets dumped onto the battlefield.
How to stop it: You've probably lost the game if their entire deck comes out. Not a guarantee though. They might not have a haste enabler, or they may be lacking enough combat damage to wipe the table. Regardless, your best bet is to not find out and just counter the Primal Surge.
Frequently spotted with: Nikya of the Old Ways, Vaevictis Asmadi, the Dire, Ruric Thar, the Unbowed

Smothering Tithe loops
Competitive and casual
Cards Used: Smothering Tithe and a bunch of wheel effects.
Description: Let’s say your opponent casts Wheel of Fortune with Smothering Tithe on the battlefield. Each player discards, draws 7 cards, and then they get approximately 21 treasure tokens. With all that treasure, they’ll be able to cast pretty much anything they just drew. They’re likely going to get another wheel effect, and then the cycle continues until they can find a win-con.
How to stop it: Remove that Smothering Tithe before the wheel effect resolves. If you can’t, but you have mana open, don’t use it. Wait until you draw into a removal spell and then use it at the first opportunity.
Frequently spotted with: Kraum, Ludevic’s Opus + Tymna the Weaver, Brallin, Skyshark Rider + Shabraz, the Skyshark.

Worldgorger Dragon
Competitive, fringe competitive
Cards Used: Worldgorger Dragon, Necromancy/Dance of the Dead/Animate Dead
Description: By using the reanimation enchantment on Worldgorger, the dragon continually enters the battlefield, exiles all permanents, gets sacrificed, returns all permanents, and then starts all over. During this time, the pilot can float infinite mana off of their lands.
How to stop it: This has to be one of my favorite combos to stop. With worldgorger's enter the battlefield ability on the stack, remove either it or the enchantment. That way it dies so the leave the battlefield ability triggers first (doing nothing) and then the ETB resolves, exiling all of that opponent's permanents. They now don't have a boardstate, so they end up losing the game instead of winning.
Frequently spotted with: Anje Falkenrath, Scion of the Ur-Dragon

Closing Remarks

Alright, so this took the better part of two days. It's a lot of info but if you still have questions, or if you want me to go over a combo that wasn't mentioned, let me know.

Please pin this. It's a really well written and thought out guide. I think this is exactly what the readers wanted to see.

I included Primal Surge as a secondary (or thirdary haha) win con in my less competitive Animar deck. It was amazing how many people would let it resolve, sometimes with a counterspell in their hand.

Karmic Guide + Reveillark + sac outlet should also warrant mention because all the cards included in the combo are solid cards on their own in aristocrat-style decks (basically no reason to not run them) and the combo can be difficult to interrupt if you lack prior knowledge in beating the combo.

Morganator 2.0:

--- Quote from: MustaKotka on September 23, 2020, 04:07:17 pm ---Please pin this. It's a really well written and thought out guide. I think this is exactly what the readers wanted to see.

--- End quote ---

Does everyone agree with this sentiment? It's not like I haven't made guides on this site before, and only like, two of them have been pinned.

As for the Karmic Guide combo, I didn't include it under the specific examples because it falls into the same category as a graveyard combo. It gets interrupted by the same things as the Mikaeus + Walking Ballista combo. I'll probably just add it as an example of a graveyard-based combo.


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