Winning the game can be an odd topic in Commander. Most games aren’t about the win itself, but the fun you have along the way. The journey from first land drop to scooping it up is one that we try to make as memorable as possible. While it doesn’t usually matter who wins, sometimes it’s fun to change how the game is won.
In my previous article about Clones, I mentioned Biovisionary as an alternate win condition for clone decks. It got me thinking about how it feels to win through different means than simply reducing your opponents’ life totals to zero. While some are infamous for being difficult to interact with, most of them tend to be a fantastic spectacle in their own right. I think they’re a wonderful way to make the act of winning a fine and memorable end to any great game.
There are plenty of practical reasons to run an alternate win condition too. You might have a deck that doesn’t really win in combat or amass much of a board state, or you might want an additional way to win in case your main game plan is disrupted or locked out. You might also find that an alternate win condition already fits the theme or strengths of your deck, making it an easy inclusion.
Unlike combat, which is at the mercy of life totals, alternate wins put a definite clock on the game. If an opponent has a Laboratory Maniac on board with ten cards in their library, you know you probably won’t have more than a couple of turns left; this forces action, and can keep games from dragging on too long. Finally, bragging rights are important; it can feel good to laud a Barren Glory over your friends (even if it took dozens of games to achieve).
My definition of an alternate win condition is one that directly wins the game in a manner other than reducing life totals. This covers cards that say “you win the game” and cards that say “target opponent loses the game”. Mill is typically seen as an alternate win condition as well, but that’s a large enough subject for its own article in the future. Let’s start off at the tip of the alt win con iceberg, before we make our way further down into the janky depths.
The Usual Suspects
These three need no introductions. These effects are easily the most popular alternate win conditions in Commander, thanks to their ease of use. Thassa’s Oracle is generally seen as the more powerful one, and the other two are generally better suited to more casual levels.
Out of the three of them, I think Jace, Wielder of Mysteries is the perfect mix of usefulness and power: he can be played early in the game for advantage, but he also encourages combat as he can be attacked directly.
Laboratory Maniac can be removed in response to card draw, but it’s also easy to hold cheap protection or an instant speed cantrip. It has the highest risk to reward difference of the three, but to this day it’s still a satisfying win.
The next most popular win conditions see a lot of play as they require very little setup, and they reward you for playing the game. Revel in Riches rewards you for your opponents’ creatures dying, and for playing treasures – two things that tend to happen a lot in the average game.
Approach of the Second Sun tends to see play in slower decks that don’t mind waiting to draw the spell again, or in decks that draw a lot of cards to speed up the process. An interesting interaction with this is it doesn’t matter if the spell resolved the first time you cast it. It only checks to see if it’s the second time you’ve cast the spell, so it only really needs to resolve the second time.
Since you start a game of Commander with 40 life, Felidar Sovereign isn’t hard to enable. It generally sees play in decks with either dedicated or incidental lifegain, as it’s not hard to keep above its threshold, though this depends on how well you’re set up to deal with aggressive decks.
Make You Work For It
Many win conditions require a bit more work to pull off, but most of them come with additional value to either help you throughout the game or help assemble the win. These tend to be the safest alternate win conditions, as they don’t draw as much attention as the likes of Approach of the Second Sun, and they still reward you to a degree for just playing the game.
Maze’s End is a crowd favorite that never fails to impress. It may require you to put a lot of tap lands in your deck, but it ensures you hit your land drops while putting a healthy time limit on the game.
Hellkite Tyrant is a great threat by itself, and it can steal a lot of permanents if left uncontested. I generally recommend this for Dragon decks or decks that can take advantage of the additional artifacts (like Daretti, Scrap Savant), though it would fit nicely into most red decks as another angle of attack.
Mechanized Production copies artifacts, so it’s easy to see how this can help you in other ways. You could copy your Sol Ring a few times as a ramp option, or make it harder to interact with by enchanting Darksteel Citadel. You could even cheat a little by putting it onto a Thopter token in a Brudiclad, Telchor Engineer deck to speed up the process!
Shoot For The Stars
These are some alternate win conditions that are both heavily telegraphed, and do not provide any additional value. These can be extremely hard to pull off in most decks, as they tend to raise alarms for opponents when played; as they only have one use, it’s near impossible to minimize their effects and reduce the additional attention they will bring you. These are the ones that give you the best bragging rights though, so if you’re a sucker for a story, then maybe you should have a Near-Death Experience in your deck!
Decks that want to prevent combat or lock up the table through Stax or a heavy hatebear package can use Azor’s Elocutors to great effect. They require you to go five turns without taking damage (or proliferate their filibuster counters), but there are many ways in blue and white that can keep you clear from danger, like Magus of the Moat, fogs, and Ghostly Prison effects.
More coin flip decks exist now than ever before, and Chance Encounter is a great addition that will lead to the best memories. You can cheat by proliferating counters, like with Azor’s Elocutors, but Okaun and Zndrsplt decks can often put ten counters on it with one good turn! This kind of win also feels thematically on point, allowing you to win exclusively through the flip of a coin!
Lose The Game Effects/Instakills
There are a number of alternate wins that can be gained through cards that cause opponents to lose the game, rather than make you explicitly win. They can be very powerful, but can also be a liability. Many players will see the “lose the game” text and either rush to remove it, or disproportionately target you. They can require a lot of setup too, but just like with the other tricky win conditions, these make for the best stories!
Triskaidekaphobia is a classic instant-kill card that requires you to be surgical with your opponents’ life totals. This can fit well with commanders like Belbe, Corrupted Observer, as she regularly runs many creatures that ping opponents in small increments.
Door to Nothingness is a classic win condition that many players have tried to pull off since its printing. It can be tricky as it enters tapped and is sacrificed upon use, but as it’s a 5-color card you can combine this with a few different instant kill effects to take out the table at once!
Atemsis, All-Seeing is a brilliant win condition for the player that loves to draw cards. It can be tricky to get cards with six different mana values into your hand, but Atemsis’ activated ability really helps to get you there much quicker than you’d think.
Instant kill cards don’t have to be terrifyingly dedicated pieces, though. There are several options that provide you with value at any point of the game, before becoming a way to win. They tend to be less frightening than dedicated auto-win cards like Door to Nothingness, and can be useful at any stage of the game.
Vorpal Sword is perfect for any deck running black that likes to go into the red zone. It’s a decently-costed equipment in the early game, and paying eight mana to make an opponent lose the game later on is a fantastic extra benefit.
Strixhaven Stadium has become one of my favorite win conditions in aggressive decks. Not only is it basically a free include as a mana rock, but it has really helped to close the gap between aggro in Commander, and aggro in other formats. It adds another layer to combat, and anything that makes combat more nuanced and dramatic is a brilliant addition to any creature deck.
For the artifact decks, you can run Mirrodin Besieged. In the early game it can function as an additional Sai, Master Thopterist, but it becomes a dangerous topdeck in the late game. Not only does this have a lot of utility as a value piece, but the way it triggers on your end step is important to point out. Most alternate win conditions trigger on your upkeep, meaning it has to survive a full turn around the table; with Mirrodin Besieged, you dramatically shorten the window before you can take out a player by playing it when the criteria is met, then immediately move to your end step!
Not Losing Is Not The Same As Winning
There are a few cards that stop you from losing the game, and often prevent opponents from winning the game. While these have their uses in Magic and Commander in general, they are certainly not alternate win conditions. “Not losing” is not the same as winning, and these shouldn’t be seen as a different way to win. Relying on these will just drag a game on and reduce the time available to play another one. There’s nothing wrong with using them, but it’s important to know when you’re beaten and to shuffle up once more.
These are just a few unique or quirky ways to win the game, and there are countless more options out there. If you’re looking for more inspiration, I made a post about it over on Twitter; I showed off my favorite ways to win, and asked everyone to share theirs. There are some great options that I didn’t even consider! Feel free to add yours to the list to help other brewers in their search for the most memorable win. Happy winning!
Scott is an Irish content creator and the Head of Budget Magic for the Izzet League. He focuses on affordable decks in Pioneer, Modern, and Pauper, particularly ones that stray from the mainstream. When he’s not writing about his favorite decks, he can be found talking incessantly about them on Twitter and on The Budget Magic Cast.