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BMoor's Magic The Gathering Deck Garage
"Contemplating Commander:
On the Particulars of the Format"
March 21, 2012

            Hopefully, all of you reading this have heard about the Commander Contest I’ve announced, and are at least considering entering it if you haven’t already. Perhaps even more gratifying to me would be if you plan on building a Commander deck for use in your local playgroup. For those of you who haven’t gotten the Commander itch yet, or have gotten it but haven’t had much success, let’s talk about what makes a game of Commander different from a game with the usual 60-card decks. I explained the rules of the format in my last article, but there’s more to a game than just its rules. There’s also the exploration of how those rules define the play experience. It’s said that the CEO of a company informs the company’s character; the same can be said for the rules of a game. 

Take a Different Route Home Every Night 

Build a 60-card deck, playtest it a few times, bring it to FNM every week for a month or two, and if your deck is streamlined, you should pretty much know how your games are going to play out before you even play them. In the top tiers of play, you need that level of predictability to properly adapt to what your opponent does. Commander decks are built for a completely different mindset—predictability is a liability. When you’ve played your Commander deck enough times to know how your games with it will play out, most folks would say it’s time to take it apart and build a new one, because it’s not fun anymore. Half the thrill of the format comes from your deck surprising you. Hopefully, that surprise comes not in the form of manascrew, but of card interactions you never thought of in deckbuilding and of your deck performing differently from one game to the next. The purpose of EDH as a format isn’t really to win, even though everybody deep down wants to. It’s a casual format. The purpose is to play with cards you normally wouldn’t and create interesting, fun games and board states for you to try and puzzle your way out of. EDH is naturally geared for that kind of spontaneity. You need to get your head around that if you’re going to make the format work for you.  

There is no Plan C 

In regular 60-card Magic, decks tend to be either aggro, combo, or control, though hybrid strategies exist. EDH doesn’t support this system very well. The higher starting life total means an all-out aggro strategy will run out of steam before it getPestermites the job done. The fact that your general can be recast from the command zone, and the skew towards multiplayer, makes it harder to play dedicated control and grind down an opponent’s resources. And the 100 Singleton deck rules make most combos nigh impossible to reliably assemble unless one piece is your general. Thus, in EDH, most decks tend toward midrange (a slower aggro with a higher curve, but bigger creatures) or commander combo (full of cards that combo well with the general but may not be game-winning combos. In my last article, I mentioned Niv-Mizzet and Ophidian Eye. That’s an example of a combo that can work in EDH, especially as a Niv-Mizzet deck would likely have plenty of ways to draw extra cards and find the ‘Phid Eye. But I’ve seen games where this combo actually failed, because there were three opponents at life totals high enough that Niv’s controller would deck himself before dealing enough damage to win. Other notorious combos, like Kiki-Jiki and Pestermite, are just not viable. You can’t run Pestermite if Kiki-Jiki is your general, and if he isn’t, then you may never find both without dedicating your deck to it. Adding Kiki-Jiki and Pestermite to a Niv-Mizzet deck might be entertaining and win you a game or two, but don’t expect to pull it off reliably. Make sure your deck isn’t dead in the water if you don’t draw all your combo pieces. 

We Have Mana to Burn 

Whether it’s the 100-card deck slowing people’s strategies down, the 40-point life total taking longer to whittle down, or the appeal of a format whereUlamog, the Infinite Gyre you get to hardcast Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre, EDH is a slower format that you may be used to. Getting to ten lands isn’t an unreasonable expectation, especially since you’re probably going to want to run Rampant Growth-style effects anyway. Don’t be too quick to dismiss that huge creature you turned your back on in Constructed because it cost seven. And don’t be too surprised when your opponent plays it. Everyone’s mana curve is a little more spread out and a little more likely to have a higher endpoint. If you really want to run 100-card Sligh, there have been enough decent two-drops in Magic’s nineteen-year history that you can do that. But if your opponent drops Autochthon Wurm and your biggest creature is a 3/2, well, you need to be prepared to deal with that. Whether it’s X spells, repeatable activated abilities, or even man-lands, you’ll need some means of which to properly exploit excess mana if you wants to stay competitive. You’ll also need some way to deal with whatever your opponent spends all that mana on. Burn spells like Flame Slash just don’t shine so bright when your opponent is casting 8/8’s. 

My Commander, My Constant 

For all this talk of randomness and spontaneity, the fact that your general starts the game in the command zone, where you can cast it wheneMeloku the Clouded Mirrorver you have the mana for it, does create a pattern around which a coherent deck can form. In a way, your commander is the one card you never have to worry about “drawing”. The command zone may as well be in your hand. And that changes things. For one, beneficial Auras become more attractive, as you will have at least one creature on which to play them. Life gain becomes less attractive—the “21 general damage” rule was instated specifically for fear of infinite life gain combos dominating the format. Global board wipe becomes at once more and less attractive, as you can easily get a creature back on the board, but so can everyone else. Really, you can build an entire EDH deck by looking at each card in your commons shoebox and asking yourself “is this a good card if I have my general?” Some generals encourage this behavior more than others. If your general is The Unspeakable, there’s no acceptable reason not to run Veil of Secrecy. But with a Meloku, the Clouded Mirror deck, you’re not given much more to go on than “land ramp… in monoblue”. 

The Company Spokesman 

Of course, not every EDH deck is built by starting with a legendary creature and working from there. Sometimes you just want to build a Goblin deck tSek'Kuar, Deathkeeperhat uses Goblins from every good Goblin set there is all in one deck. Commander’s 100-card singleton format makes that work, but then who do you pick as the general? Ib Halfheart has a decent ability for a Goblin deck, but then you can’t run any of the black Lorwyn or green Shadowmoor boggarts. Sek’Kuar, Deathkeeper is all three of Goblins’ biggest colors, and its ability fits in pretty well in a Goblin deck, but neither it nor its tokens are Goblins, so it doesn’t benefit itself. Wort, Boggart Auntie is a decent choice if you’re planning to sacrifice a lot of Goblins… not so much if you want to make Goblin tokens.

But don’t forget—your general is visible to the other players at the beginning of the game. Show them Ib or Wort and it’s obvious what you’re playing. Show them Sek’Kuar, not so much. But which of the three is most likely to “make a good impression”?

Forget Goblins. Let’s say you want to make a mono-black deck, with all that implies. Lots of discard spells, Phyrexian Arena, reanimation, the lot. For your general, would you rather have Maralen of the Mornsong or Seizan, Perverter of Truth? Imagine your opponent was playing the mono-black deck. Which general would you rather see? Which one would intimidate you more? Personally, if I saw Maralen, I’d be determined to keep it off the board. If I saw Seizan, I’d likely be grateful when its pilot hit five mana because I enjoy a free Sign in Blood every turn… until he uses that turn to cast Kagemaro, First to Suffer instead. Your choice of general shapes your deck, but it also shapes your opponents’ expectations of your deck. Notorious powerful generals like Sharuum the Hegemon or, yes, Niv-Mizzet will draw targets on your head. Otherwise powerful generals with no obvious route to domination, like Patron of the Kitsune or Glissa Sunseeker will put opponents at ease and allow you to surprise them. Five-color generals like Cromat or Progenitus could imply literally anything. A general with a “quirk” like Shimatsu the Bloodcloaked or Kozilek, Butcher of Truth may encourage opponents to leave you be simply because they want to see what your deck actually does.

Here’s a thought experiment. Five people sit down to a game of EDH, multiplayer free-for-all. Their generals are: Maralen of the Mornsong; Mayael the Anima; Gwafa Hazid, Profiteer; Sapling of Colfenor; Arcanis the Omnipotent. Before anyone has seen a single card of anyone else’s deck, who do you think is going to win?Maralen of the Mornsong

Maralen of the Mornsong’s ability seriously handicaps Arcanis, who will likely have to devote a good chunk of his resources to keeping her off the table. Gwafa Hazid actually benefits from having Maralen on the table, as it eliminates his ability’s drawback. Since both Arcanis and Hazid are in colors that imply a control deck, one could easily expect Arcanis to try and stymie Maralen, only for Hazid to step in with his own counterspells to force Maralen through. Since it’s unlikely Arcanis has the resources to survive Maralen and Hazid teaming up against him, he can be safely counted out.

Meanwhile, both Mayael and Sapling of Colfenor has abilities that allow them to circumvent Maralen’s “can’t draw cards” ability. But Sapling’s ability requires her to attack to use the ability, which puts her at a disadvantage against Gwafa Hazid. Sapling of Colfenor, therefore, finds herself in a similar position as Arcanis, and may team up with him against the Maralen/Hazid team-up, which would give Arcanis a chance.

How Mayael fares in all this is the wildcard factor. She may be able to drop an Eldrazi titan or Blightsteel Colossus on the board on turn five, but her ability is random in nature and thus subject to misfires. Of her four opponents, Gwafa Hazid and Sapling of Colfenor have the least reason to fear Mayael. Gwafa Hazid can lock down attacking beef, and Sapling of Colfenor is indestructible, which not only makes her a good blocker but incentivizes her to run Damnation-style board wipes. Arcanis and Maralen, on the other hand, may be legitimately threatened by what Mayael might summon… or they might dismiss Mayael as a gimmicky Naya block deck that just wants to run Godsire and the like.

This is very much the same mental gymnastics that each player at your table will go through at that moment when everyone flips their general over and opening hands are drawn. You have to take into account not just how well your general supports your strategy, but how loudly it broadcasts it and how badly it scares your opponents into thinking you need to be knocked out first.

You Can’t Win it if You’re Not In It

I’ve gone over a lot to think about, but I’m starting to regret taking so long to go over it. April 1st will be here before you know it, and there’s still a chance to enter the Commander Contest! We’ve had some good entries, but not as many as I’d hoped. If this hasn’t inspired you to enter, I just don’t know what I can say that will. Except maybe this: I’m extending the deadline! Instead of April 1st, the contest will now be open for entries until April 15th! This means you now have 25 more days to come up with a Commander deck instead of ten more! It also means that the week-long winners announcements won’t interfere with PAX East, where much Magic: the Gathering will no doubt be played and many of my readers will no doubt be attending. Even if you’re not going, this deadline pushback means two more instances of Friday Night Magic for you to consult with your colleagues over your entry.

Good luck!





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