When is a win not a win in Commander?
How do you like to win a game of multiplayer Commander?
One of the great things about Magic is that there are a few different ways to win a game. The most common way is to bash and burn your opponent and damage them down to zero life. In my playgroup, the next most common way is to get a player's library empty and have them try to draw a card. The classic mill out. Then there's the infect route. Who cares about life totals when you only need to get in one or two creatures and pump them up to ten total power! And while we're not caring about things, who cares about how many cards you've been milled, since that almost never works without some kind of infinite combo.
An infinite combo could be considered another way to win, since we just stop the game and give them the win. But if we played it out, they would be attacking with millions of creatures or splitting up a billion-point fireball. It's kind of the same thing, but it feels different because we cut the game short. That's where the feel-bads come from: the sudden stopping of the game.
That's where the bulk of this article comes in. The cards that have been printed with the text: "You win the game". One-card combos, as long as you've met the condition. The line for when these cards are fair or unfair seems to come down to that stopping speed. How fast do they end the game? Out of nowhere when nobody could interact? No fun at all. It seems like the win is stolen. However, if there's some time to stop the player, it can lead to a very exciting tension!
Here are a few "build up" cards that can win you the game over time. Barring any shenanigans involving near-infinite mana, these should create a wonderful tension that makes the game interesting. Unless Darksteel Reactor just takes so darn long that nobody even needs to pay any attention to it. Sorry, Reactor.
Laboratory Maniac is a card that is often paired up with a combo to get you to the bottom of your deck and win instantly. No fun, right? But if you're playing the card fairly, even if you're holding off casting the wizard until the last possible moment, your opponents should be able to figure out what you're up to and stop you. They certainly won't let you get that far next time before turning their beasts on you!
These are some build-up cards of a different sort. We're still trying to accumulate something in a large number, but the cards don't do the work by themselves. We need to be backing them up! And with Hellkite Tyrant, if you're only using the dragon to steal your opponents' artifacts, and you sneak a win that way, you really do deserve that one.
It is certainly possible to play out this creature, and in the same turn kick a Rite of Replication and win in your end step, but if you are just trying to seal the deal using a Followed Footsteps or Spitting Image, there's that fun but stoppable tension again! Although if you've built up enough mana to cast the wizard and the kicked Rite of Replication, maybe you've earned it?
Maze's End is a very fun card that can add a lot of interesting excitement to your five-colour Commander deck, since you don't really have to focus on it being your main win con. Yet, if your opponents don't do anything about it, they'll watch you get closer and closer to the win. And if they do focus on it too much, that leaves you with more opportunities to pull off your deck's main goal. Probably not mill!
This is a card that I've heard the most complaints about, and I'm sure it's because they created it before they were thinking about Commander as a format. But, even though the Felidar player starts with their win condition from turn one, as long as they play the cat beast at sorcery speed, it should be a reasonable card to deal with.
As you can see, there are lots of fun cards that add some really neat angles to your decks. I think the no-funsies that these cards create are entirely centered around your timing. If you cheat in the win, it feels like exactly that. Like you cheated somehow. But if you play them as they were intended, they create an exciting moment, as opposed to a sudden anti-climactic one.
The exception is Barren Glory. Without looking up how to do it, I have no idea how to pull off a win with this card. If you do, no matter how, I salute you.