This entry is part 33 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

Hello and welcome back to “In General.” Last week I began a new series detailing the particular strengths that each color brings to Commander and what effect those specific cards or groups of cards have on how we build our decks. The existence of certain powerful staples heavily influences what ends up being playable in the Commander format. Thinking critically about these metagame constraints is the best way to gain familiarity with them and will help us learn strategies to take advantage of them. Last week we discussed White, as well as an explanation of the article format that will help you get the most out of what we talk about today. This week we continue our journey around the color pie with Blue!

 

Cheap Counters

Notable Cards: Mana Drain, Force Of Will

 

Blue’s most defining characteristic is its natural affinity for card draw, but it’s most recognized and surely most despised mechanic is “counter target spell.” Since Alpha Counterspell has been the universal solvent of Magic cards. Blue has access to an answer that is viable against 99% of all possible threats and opposing disruption or removal. That fact alone should make us pay close attention. Counters are often capable of creating efficient trades in terms of tempo through the ability to cast instants at the last possible moment. The general design principle that answers are cheaper than threats just adds more fuel to the fire. In my opinion, sweepers are the most important card in Commander, but they are followed very closely by counters (we will see the third and fourth most important cards next week in Black). A cheap universal answer is a major impediment when designing new decks to compete in Commander. I’m sure I don’t need to detail for you all the ways that counters can mess up a metagame. They can take a game from ‘fun’ to ‘torture’ right quick and in a hurry.

 

I don’t have a firm opinion about what the best counterspell in the format is. If you want to make a case that Desertion or Forbid are better in Commander you are free to do so. The real point that I want to make is about the cutoff of what is typically playable in an average deck. I happen to think that Mana Leak is quite playable in Commander, being particularly great in multicolor decks where UU on turn two is not guaranteed. In my experience, people never stop tapping out. The average EDH deck is so full of expensive cards and random mana sinks that it is easy to use up all your mana every turn, even into the late-late. However, I believe that this is the exception and not the rule. In general, soft counters fall squarely into my definition of unplayable.

 

There is such an abundance of excellent hard counters that you don’t even need to play soft counters. Standing on the convention that you should play hard counters of the same cost whenever possible, you would need dozens of counters in a deck before you even considered a soft counter for your next marginal card slot. You can have a lot of fun playing head games with your opponent by changing out your counter suite on a regular basis. Spell Pierce and Mana Leak would be my the standout exceptions for me, but the possibility of a counter not working as intended is too great a drawback just to feel creative in my book.

 

Efficient Card Draw

Notable Card: Fact or Fiction

 

The incredible power and flexibility of counterspells can really dominate a game. They aren’t completely unbeatable though, and the best way to overcome them is for your opponent to simply run out. If you stress their answers early on with cheap threats, then you can consistently clean house by deploying a haymaker at the right moment. This all sounds great in theory.

 

The only problem is that Blue also has dominion over the largest body of instant speed card drawing spells in the game. If you do nothing, or the Blue player can get to a point where they have enough mana to cast two spells, then they can easily just fill up their hand while you’re stuck not using your mana. Gross. The flexibility that instant speed card drawing adds to a deck will insure that a Blue player can consistently make the most effective use of their mana, and as we know from Mana Sum Theory, higher mana use is correlated with higher win percentages.

 

The optimal strategy that I have found for interacting favorably with Blue is to use my disruption to take away their card advantage. Be willing to trade your threats 1-for-1 with their counterspells, but then save your card drawing for after they run out. This will boost your chances of doing relevant things in the late game by invading the Blue deck’s home turf.

 

Flash Threats

Notable Card: Snapcaster Mage

 

You should be noticing a trend by now. In a nutshell, what makes Blue strong is that it can build an entire strategy around its most attractive card: Counterspell. Stop opponent(s) from doing anything intelligent -> draw cards when necessary -> deploy threat when stable. That is a cohesive game plan. The ability to put power onto the battlefield without letting their guard down puts Blue decks in an advantaged position against many of the slower midrange decks in the format. This strategy works equally well when built into Aggro-Control. Using one threat to pressure an opponent’s life total and backing that up with four to five pieces of disruption or removal is likely to be good enough for a win.

 

The good news for non-Blue players is that there are only a handful of choice Flash creatures. The (extra) bad news is that those creatures are incredibly good. Snappy is great in every format, as is Vendilion Clique. Commander has a handful of native threats like Wydwen and Teferi which can also take center stage.The drop in quality from the rares to the lower rarities is dramatic, though. With the exception of Kiki-Jiki combo pieces and Vedalken Aethermage, you want to stay away from the silver and black symbols in this category.

 

Restricted Tutors

Notable Card: Intuition

 

If you weren’t already sold on the features and benefits of operating a Blue deck in Commander, then wait until you hear this: Blue also has fantastic tutors! That hardly seems fair given the great stuff I have already discussed, but hey, I didn’t design the game. #blamerosewater

 

I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about how access to your best cards can lead to more victories. Blue’s assortment of tutors is no exception to this rule and you would do well to take full advantage of the cheap, versatile tutors that are available if you are playing this color.

 

A more interesting question is how to effectively fight against a deck with solid tutors. That is the million dollar question. The short answer is that you don’t need to worry as much about the tutor if what they are getting with it is not a problem in and of itself. If you have designed your deck to be as durable as possible in a given matchup, then their ability to tutor for value will be significantly hindered. However, this is just setting things up for a fall. You choose threats that are durable against what they are doing, but they can just as easily follow suit and change their suite of answers to match and again we have a problem. Their great access hasn’t changed, but the cards they have access to have just become more relevant. It seems like any move that you make to adjust to the metagame can be quickly and easily countered by an observant or predictive playgroup. You can establish a competitive advantage, but you can’t sustain it. A classic problem in business, now available in Magic the Gathering.

 

It seems like we need to address the real problem. We have to limit our opponent’s access, but good tools for doing so just don’t exist. The available options are few in number and generally low in power level. Stranglehold and Mindlock Orb require you to invest mana, tempo, and a card for no guaranteed benefit and they do nothing to advance your own game plan. Leonin Arbiter can at least attack, but it is hardly what I would call a solution. It proved to be ineffective at curbing Caw Blade in Standard, a deck that was 50% or more of the metagame and tutored 3+ times a game. That is not a strong track record. Shadow of Doubt is the only anti-tutor card that I consider even remotely playable, and really only because it cycles.

 

The truth is that I don’t know how to stop tutoring from being good. I’m not even sure that it can be stopped. The basic mechanics of a game where you draw random cards of unequal importance inherently favors the ability to select for higher value cards. I may not be able to show you how to thwart tutor-heavy decks, but I do know this one thing that I heard somewhere: if you can’t beat them, join them. I would way rather be the guy doing all the searching and shuffling.

 

Truly Broken Nonsense

Notable Card: Show and Tell

 

These are the cards that get people talking, usually about changing the banned list. Questions like: whether Omniscience is better than Bribery or whether Tinker should be banned or not. The point is that Blue is the home of the busted stuff. White was at least courteous enough to make their crazy cards expensive. Broken Black cards usually have a wonky drawback. Great Blue cards come at every mana cost and can mess up an entire metagame with their b.s. Sometimes I will cast Invoke Prejudice and people won’t even believe it is a real Magic card. I don’t blame them. These cards are the reason you should be targeting Blue players from the get-go in every game; you just never know what they are up to. Chances are it is something well and truly snapped.

 

“So, What Can’t It Do?”

Thankfully the Magic gods have blessed us with a light at the end of the tunnel, however small and far off it may be. Blue has three major limitations when it comes to competing against the other colors:

 

Lack of True Removal: Blue has very poor answers for things that are already on the battlefield. Often the best thing that Blue can do is return a permanent to hand. [card[Dehydration[/card] effects are a very weak substitute for a Swords to Plowshares. Blue has the same problem with noncreature permanents, meaning that something like Stranglehold or Blood Moon could prove to be a brick wall. Lastly, Blue sweepers have come a long way in recent years with cards like Whelming Wave seeing print, but that is still a long way short of a true Wrath effect.

 

Lack of Native Ramp: Blue has almost no way to put extra lands in play, which is my preferred method of mana ramp. And with only a handful of creatures that produce extra mana (which all happen to be pretty bad) Blue is stuck relying exclusively on mana rocks to accelerate into the late game. I covered this topic extensively in Decksplanations: Durability, but the short version is this: don’t play mana sources that might be caught in a board sweep. It unnecessarily exposes you to losing card advantage, which can be a game-ender in many strategies. The net result of this is that Blue often ends up getting to the late game the old-fashioned way: one land at a time. Slow and steady wins the race, right? Not really.

 

Comparatively Weak Threats: In terms of power/toughness, Blue’s threat cards are pretty bad. Flash, Hexproof, and Flying are great, but they often come at the cost of damage potential. In my opinion, Blue has the second worst selection of threats. It only narrowly beats out Red for last place.

 

Well, that’s that. Short and sweet, just the way I like it. While Blue may not present the largest number of problems to the Commander metagame, those which it does present are often the most severe. Be sure to sound off in the comments if you have any big ideas on how to effectively combat the ubiquitous Blue decks in the format! I’ll be back next week to continue the series by discussing Black, the gooiest color.

 

-GG

“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.

 

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