Last updated on November 30, 2023
Thassa's Oracle | Illustration by Jesper Ejsing
Magic can be a difficult game. Sometimes you look at your opponent’s defenses and see that there’s no way in. If only you had a card that said, “you win the game.”
What if I told you that those cards actually exist?
As many of you may know, you don’t actually have to reduce your opponent to zero life to win. From milling your opponent’s deck to running a crazy Hive Mind combo, there’s always a way to come out on top.
If you’re looking to add a new dimension to your otherwise straightforward deck, read on. Today is all about the unconventional ways to win a game of Magic!
What Counts as an Alternate Win Condition?
Simic Ascendancy | Illustration by Izzy
An alternate win condition is a way to win the game without reducing your opponent’s life to zero. I’ll try to be as objective as possible when choosing what counts as an alternate win condition in Magic.
If the rules of the game declare you the winner while at least one of your opponents has one or more life, then you’ve just won thanks to an alternate win con!
Mill is probably the first alternate win condition that comes to everyone’s mind, so I’ll start with that. For those of you who aren’t entirely familiar, a mill strategy involves removing your opponent’s entire deck, usually by putting cards directly from their deck into their graveyard.
If a player tries to draw a card while they have no cards in their library, they lose the game. It’s a pretty evil way to win if I say so myself, but hey, as my old buddy Dark Confidant would say, “greatness, at any cost.”
The other is to let your opponent mill themselves the good old-fashioned way: by letting them draw a card every turn. You’re golden if you can stop every one of your opponent’s threats while preserving the size of your own library with Elixir of Immortality or a Mystic Sanctuary loop. But your opponent will usually concede before you go through the motions of decking them out one card at a time.
First introduced in Legends, poison counters are placed on players. A player loses the game if they have at least 10 poison counters.
While it’s technically possible to give a player poison counters directly (Caress of Phyrexia comes to mind), the most popular poison counters strategy involves running a bunch of infect or toxic creatures.
These creatures deal damage to players in the form of poison counters. If all of your creatures have infect, you only need to deal 10 damage to win the game! This is a particularly strong strategy in Commander where the starting life total of 40 won’t slow you down.
Dealing 21 damage with your commander can sometimes be easier than dealing a whopping 40 damage over the course of the game. Players often forget about this one, even during an actual game of Commander.
Building a deck focused on commander damage is a perfectly reasonable strategy. Consider using Rafiq of the Many or Uril, the Miststalker as your commander and then build a deck full of equipment and auras to maximize their damage.
Individual Cards and Combos
Nine Lives Donation Combo
Nine Lives, while primarily a defensive card, acts as an alternative win condition by utilizing the “you lose the game” mechanic to kill an enemy. It's pretty simple:
Get Nine Lives to eight counters so that one additional counter kills its controller. Then, have an opponent gain control of it by activating the ability of Zedruu the Greathearted. Then, simply deal damage to the new controller, adding a ninth counter and killing them!
This combo works with most permanents that have a “lose the game” condition. Any card that lets you give control of that permanent to an opponent or force them to make a copy of it puts them under an alternate loss condition, which is a roundabout way to win the game. Examples of “donate” combos include:
- Harmless Offering + Demonic Pact
- Donate + Illusions of Grandeur
- Metamorphic Alteration + Archfiend of the Dross
- Fractured Identity + Phage the Untouchable
Heartless Hidetsugu + Damage Doublers
Heartless Hidetsugu‘s activated ability causes each player to take damage equal to half of their life total, rounded down. If you pair that with a damage-doubling card like Gratuitous Violence, you'll kill anyone with an even life total. That means it’s a one-shot kill as long as you have odd life total and your opponents’ life totals are even.
Exquisite Blood + Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose / Sanguine Bond
Exquisite Blood has a very simple combo with one of either Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose or Sanguine Bond. It creates an infinite loop of damage and lifegain. All you need is both cards in play and a way to get the chain started.
Self-Mill / Demonic Consultation
“Wait, I thought you said you lost the game when you milled your entire library?” Yes, I know this isn’t called “Alternate Loss Conditions.” Just hear me out.
You normally lose the game by drawing cards while having none left in your library, but some cards cause you to win the game instead. These cards include:
If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that Thassa's Oracle works a bit differently than the other two. I decided to put it here anyway since they’re so similar.
An easy way to mill yourself out is Demonic Consultation. If you name a card that you know for certain isn't in your deck, then you'll end up exiling your entire library. Remember, this can be done before Thassa's Oracle enters play, or right before Oracle’s trigger resolves.
An easy way to mill yourself out is Demonic Consultation. If you name a card that you know for certain isn't in your deck, then you'll end up exiling the entire deck. Remember, this can be done before Thassa's Oracle enters play, or as late as when the ability from Oracle is on the stack.
Hive Mind + Summoner’s Pact Combo
Let’s say you cast Summoner's Pact, then each of your opponents copies Summoner's Pact thanks to Hive Mind’s triggered ability. Each opponent is then forced to pay at the beginning of their upkeep. If they can’t, they lose the game.
You obviously want to execute this combo when you know that your opponent can’t pay the cost so make sure to choose a Pact outside of your opponent’s colors.
Life Total-Dependent Win Conditions
The following cards win you the game if you have a certain life total. I like to run these cards in Commander since getting higher life totals is easier when you start at 40. Check them out:
There’s also Celestial Convergence which requires you to have the highest life total among all players at the table after a certain number of turns.
Last but not least are the cards that require a specific life total for you to win the game. Or for your opponent to lose the game, if there’s a difference.
Boardstate-Dependent Alternate Win Conditions
Since Coalition Victory’s release in 2001’s Invasion, lots of similar cards have been printed that require certain unique boardstates to win the game. Some are easier to achieve than others, but they all require some level of precise deckbuilding to work.
Biovisionary works best if you have a lot of clone effects in your deck. Maze's End requires 10 gates in play, which has been made easier over time. Revel in Riches requires 10 Treasures, Liliana's Contract needs demons… you get the idea.
Here’s the list:
- Barren Glory
- Coalition Victory
- Epic Struggle
- Halo Fountain
- Happily Ever After
- Hedron Alignment
- Hellkite Tyrant
- Liliana's Contract
- Mayael's Aria
- Maze's End
- Mechanized Production
- Mirrodin Besieged
- Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God
- Revel in Riches
Counter-Dependent Win Conditions
This is all about permanents that require a certain number of counters on them to win the game. This can range from winning coin flips with Chance Encounter to paying 100 total mana for Helix Pinnacle. Either way, more counters = win. Maybe a good reason to run a lot of proliferate cards? Hmm…
- Azor's Elocutors
- Darksteel Reactor
- Faithbound Judge / Sinner's Judgment
- Helix Pinnacle
- Simic Ascendancy
- Strixhaven Stadium
Combat Damage Triggers
Phage the Untouchable has what I like to call “mega-infect.” All the cards listed below basically kill your opponent if they deal damage to them, plus a few other conditions in some cases. Note that Ramses, Assassin Lord doesn’t actually win the game on its own, but it turns a win against one player into a win against everyone.
- Angel of Destiny
- Atemsis, All-Seeing
- Etrata, the Silencer
- Frodo, Sauron's Bane
- Hidetsugu Consumes All / Vessel of the All-Consuming
- Phage the Untouchable
- Ramses, Assassin Lord
And these cards grant or create creatures with “mega infect” (or “mega deathtouch,” if you prefer):
Threshold Alternate Win Conditions
Some alternate win-cons require you reach a certain number of cards in zones other than the battlefield. They’re much less common but usually slot into specific deck types. For example, Mortal Combat requires 20 or more creatures in your graveyard to win, which might serve as a backup wincon for self-mill decks. This category includes:
Battle of Wits
Unfortunately you won’t be able to surprise your opponent with this one, especially if you’re playing paper Magic. Everyone within a 10-mile radius will know that you’re running a Battle of Wits deck when you show up with your 250-card behemoth. Not to mention that sleeving your deck will take forever
Door to Nothingness
Honestly, there isn’t much to say about this card. Just read what Door to Nothingness says and… That’s it. Looks like lazy card design, but who am I to judge?
Approach of the Second Sun
Another relatively straightforward card, although this one is a bit more flavorful. Yep, winning a game of Magic can be as easy as casting Approach of the Second Sun twice in one game.
The Deck of Many Things
Winning a game with The Deck of Many Things requires quite a bit of luck and some setup. It’s weird, wacky, and it might even be good once every hundred games or so! Although I’ve never played with it, The Deck looks like the kind of card that’s a lot more fun to play in theory than it is in practice.
Non-Tournament Legal Alternate Win Conditions
As Luck Would Have It
With the release of Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, As Luck Would Have It could work as a black-bordered card. Forget your regular 6-sided dice and bring all your D20 cards from AFR if you really want to maximize your chances of winning with this enchantment.
Amulet of Quoz
Some cards allowed players to “play for ante” in the earliest years of Magic, essentially adding an element of gambling to the game. Players could each put a random card from their library into the ante zone at the beginning of the game and whoever won received permanent ownership of said card.
This rule has thankfully since been removed. Amulet of Quoz doesn’t even affect the board at all anymore. It forces the opponent to either ante the top card of their library or let the outcome of the game be decided by a coinflip. Probably one of the worst cards ever printed in Magic.
Baron Von Count
Sometimes, making a player lose the game isn’t enough. Enter Baron Von Count, a silver-bordered Magic villain who actually destroys a player at the table. I don’t exactly know the difference between a player losing the game and being destroyed is but one definitely sounds cooler than the other.
The Cheese Stands Alone
Okay, let’s move on.
Now I Know My ABC’s
This may be my favorite card so far. Building a deck around Now I Know My ABC's sounds like an insurmountable task, but you can actually combo Now I Know My ABC's with Jacques le Vert and Kruphix, God of Horizons to win. Feel free to verify this claim yourself.
Plus there are all sorts of other possibilities if your playgroup doesn’t restrict you to only playing cards with English text. Some German cards have exceptionally long names.
Form of the Approach of the Second Sun
Form of the Approach of the Second Sun feels a bit more like an Un-set card than the other silver-bordered honorable mentions, and it might not even be worth the headache even if your playgroup allows it. Pair with Battle of Wits for maximum amusement.
Topdeck the Halls
Topdeck the Halls is a silver-bordered Holiday Promo, which means very few exist, and it’s not technically legal in tournament play anyway. It seems like a fun casual card to proxy up and try out around the holidays.
Heroes of the Realm Cards
Heroes of the Realm is a set of employee recognition cards meant to congratulate Wizards employees, and they’re not tournament legal and basically unobtainable. There’s nothing stopping you from proxying Ersta, Friend to All or The Cinematic Phoenix in a casual setting, if your playgroup allows it.
Which Alternate Win Conditions are the Best?
#5. Helix Pinnacle
Paying 100 mana over the course of the game is no easy feat. This card gets busted when you have an infinite mana combo and need a way to spend all that mana. But there are some more versatile ways to empty out your mana pool. Especially in Commander where your commander itself can be your payoff card. Think Kenrith, the Returned King.
#4. Battle of Wits
You need to be really good at shuffling Magic cards to play Battle of Wits. Running over 200 cards in a single deck poses its own risk, especially since finding one of your four copies of Battle of Wits becomes much more difficult.
With enough tutor effects in your deck you’ll still be able to find Battle of Wits more often than not. Some decks even run Bring to Light which effectively allows you to cast Battle of Wits from your deck for .
#3. Simic Ascendancy
Unlike Helix Pinnacle, Simic Ascendancy doesn’t need an insane amount of mana to pull off and you can even build a solid EDH deck around it. I actually own an Ezuri, Claw of Progress deck and, I must say, winning with Simic Ascendancy is a piece of cake.
#2. Felidar Sovereign
I should note that Felidar Sovereign is only really viable in Commander where your starting life total is 40. If you really want to ensure that the Guardian wins you the game, make sure to run a few lifegain effects to stay at (or above) your starting life total.
#1. Thassa’s Oracle
If you’re looking for raw power, Thassa's Oracle is the way to go. This little merfolk may not be the best creature when you have a full library, but the Oracle is the best card to capitalize on Hermit Druid or some other way to mill your entire library.
Battle of Wits | Illustration by Jason Chan
Well, I think that’s all of them! There are quite a few ways to win a game of Magic as it turns out. If I’ve missed any other alternate win conditions make sure to let me know and I’ll get them up here ASAP.
That’s all for me. See you next time!Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: