We’ve all won games of Magic by dealing 20 to the opponent, and most of us have probably scored the odd victory by running the opponent out of cards. There are, however, plenty of other ways to win a game of Magic – by using one of the 40 or so alternate win conditions in Magic that have been printed over the years.
Some have been competitively viable, some are so ridiculous they probably hardly have a body count at all, but all are interesting and often sweet methods to snatch victory. I don’t know how many people have won with Chance Encounter, but I wonder if it’s more than with Mayael’s Aria? There’s even a brand new addition to the list with Strixhaven in Strixhaven Stadium!
Today, we’re counting down the top five alternative win conditions printed throughout Magic’s history. Let’s get to it!
As you might already know, this card started out as an un-card: The Cheese Stands Alone, from Unglued. This card, with its terrifying art, took almost 10 years to make it to the world of black-bordered Magic, but in Future Sight it finally got there and now no one can take it away. Except, I guess, Ian Duke and a B&R announcement. Now that would be an interesting Monday.
It’s perhaps the weirdest and definitely one of the most difficult alternate win conditions to satisfy. Obviously it shouldn’t be easy to win the game with an alternate win condition, but Barren Glory really makes you work for it. You have to empty your hand and destroy everything except the enchantment, and then you have to wait until your next upkeep for it to trigger. Almost makes 20 damage sound trivial.
It’s been awhile since I’ve seen someone make a real go at breaking Barren Glory – SPBKASO made an attempt, of course, but that was five years ago and it’s been a quiet old time for Barren Glory since then. Still, Barren Glory is one of the few cards to be a functional reprint of a silver-bordered card – another notable example, of course, being Flame Spill as a black-bordered Super-Duper Death Ray.
Battle of Wits is a classic alternate win condition that has put determined puzzle-solvers to work for two decades since its first appearance in 2001’s Odyssey. I remember opening a foil Battle of Wits in a Magic 2013 booster just as I started playing Magic, and being determined to build a deck around it – you’ll be surprised to learn that I never actually completed this objective. It had a lot to do with me vastly underestimating just how big a 240+ card deck is.
Here’s the thing – you can’t build a 200 card deck. That’s not how it works. You have to build a deck that can survive long enough to find and play a five-mana do-nothing enchantment, survive to the next upkeep, and still have a minimum of 200 cards in the library. It’s not an easy thing to do, but that hasn’t stopped people like Caleb Durward getting the job done – and in Legacy, no less!
Legacy Sultai Battle of Wits by Caleb Durward
For a regular 60-card deck, you have just under a 40 percent chance to have at least one copy of a card you’re playing as a four-of in your opener. In a 240-card Battle of Wits deck, you have an 11.2% chance. Sure, you can load your deck full of tutors, but that only makes the problem of trying to survive long enough to cast a five-mana do-nothing enchantment all the more difficult!
Still, I salute anyone who was brave and tenacious enough to do what I could not and win with Battle of Wits. Having said that, perhaps it’s not too late – I think I still have my foil Battle of Wits somewhere, maybe I could dig it out and build a deck so large it would need its own postal code, hmm…
If you’re the kind of person who wants to win with an alternate win condition, but are far too lazy to shuffle 200 or more cards, can’t figure out how to trigger Barren Glory and can’t be bothered with jumping through all the ridiculous hoops other alternate win conditions ask of you, I’ve got the solution. Just play Felidar Sovereign in Commander!
These days, Wizards don’t often make the mistake of printing cards like Felidar Sovereign or Serra Ascendant, with life total conditions that are met literally the moment a game of EDH starts. Instead, we get cards like Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim or Righteous Valkyrie, where you have to have X more life than your starting life total. Before this change, cards were not stress-tested for exploitation in Commander, and it shows.
Felidar Sovereign is a hotly controversial card in EDH. It’s played in many life gain decks, of course, but there are those who consider it a “cop-out”. It’s too easy – you don’t even have to work for the win, you just play a six-drop and wait – and with commanders like Oloro, Ageless Ascetic kicking about, it’s not difficult to maintain a life total above 40.
On the other hand, it’s a clunky six-drop that dies to removal, so life gain players defend themselves by saying if a table can’t beat a 4/6 in a whole turn cycle, they deserve to lose on the spot. Love it or hate it, Felidar Sovereign is a contentious alternate win condition!
Every alternate win condition ever printed in Magic asks something of you. Much of the time, it’s something difficult or complicated, something that will never happen as a matter of course in a game of Magic. Not so with Approach of the Second Sun – all it asks you to do is wait. And waiting is something that control decks are very, very good at doing.
Approach has seen play in various control decks as an all-in-one win condition, a way to make sure you can close out a game without having to include too many pesky win conditions that get in the way of all the counterspells and card draw you’d rather play. We see control players do anything to avoid clogging up their decks with ways to win the game – hiding win conditions in their mana base (Castle Ardenvale, Celestial Colonnade) or using laborious planeswalker abilities (Teferi, Hero of Dominaria). Approach of the Second Sun does it all for you!
Pay seven, gain seven, wait seven turns – except it never is, is it? They’ll scry, they’ll draw extra cards, they’ll find a way to burn down to the buried Approach, using the seven life they gained as a buffer to get there. While we’re out here playing honest games of Magic, attacking and blocking as Garfield intended, control players are resting on their laurels, taking it easy, waiting for the Approach to show up and lazily winning games without effort. Disgraceful.
Poor old Laboratory Maniac. There was a time when his ability was ground-breaking and had him see play in various decks across multiple formats, even in Legacy as the win condition in silly combo lists! Then he was downshifted to uncommon in Ultimate Masters and now he’s been relegated to the sidelines altogether by a pair of cards that took his whole deal and just do it better and more efficiently.
Thassa’s Oracle and Jace, Wielder of Mysteries once ran roughshod over the Pioneer format before Inverter of Truth was banned. You’d use the Inverter to obliterate your library, then the Oracle or Jace to burn through its remnants and win the game on the spot. While it’s no longer a force to be reckoned with in Pioneer, the Inverter/Oracle combo is starting to see some play in Modern!
Modern Dimir Inverter by AluminumMonster
Thassa’s Oracle is so entrenched as an alternate win condition that whenever I’m playing a long game on stream and it might come down to decking, the chat will start warning me to play around the card. Even if they’re not playing blue! “Well, yes, they’ve only played Jund lands so far, but who’s to say they’re not sandbagging their blue splash to really get you on turn 53?” Thanks, Twitch chat. You’ve always got my back.
If you’ve got an idea for a list like this in the future, I’d love to hear it. Get at me on Twitter with any suggestions for Riley Ranks articles in the future, and perhaps I’ll break them down in coming articles!