This entry is part 29 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

Hello and welcome back to “In General.” A couple of weeks ago, I concluded a series which examined the most important cards in Commander, broken down by color. That series generated a lot of discussion, both internally and in the community, about how to increase your game against each color. It produced some great feedback, but after all was said and done, I couldn’t help but feel as though I had let the audience down a little bit. My goal was to help guide players through the format by showing them the important landmarks they could navigate by. What ended up happening, though, was a heated debate about how much better the countryside would look if you bulldozed some of those landmarks.

 

People like to feel as though they have an identity. We as humans are driven by an unconscious urge to identify ourselves and others in discrete terms, no doubt a holdover from our evolutionary past. We are uncomfortable when things lack clear identity and even more uncomfortable if we can’t crystallize and explain our own identity. This leads to all manner of conversations where people casually and needlessly pigeonhole themselves into an archetypal personality that others can easily digest and understand, such as, “I am a combo player,” or, “She is a Blue player.” Naturally, the border posts where these identities come into contact are breeding pools for conflict.

 

In my previous articles, much of the content that I wanted to deliver was lost in the undertow of a larger discussion about community standards. It’s hard for me to talk objectively about the strategic applications of mass land destruction when the current of the community conversation is flowing towards demonizing any type of resource denial. Strategic principles and norms for social play are going to remain an unavoidable topic, but I want to draw the content of this column back to playing Commander strategically. To help remove the overtones of a near-political conversation, I think the best way to proceed is to reframe the issue. Instead of examining particular colors, I’d like to examine the format’s most important cards by mana cost. After all, most everyone has a color or deck that they identify with, but basically no one has a particular mana cost that will get them riled up the same way.

 

Rather than doing this series all in a row like I have done previously, I’m not going to commit to a six-or-seven part saga for this. Some things to note though: Cards that have X in their cost are not going to be discussed, even though their converted mana cost might be one. Finally, it doesn’t matter on what turn you would actually want to play these cards. I wrote an article about that a few years back, which you can check out here, called Turn One.” Without further ado, here are the most important cards in Commander that cost one.

 

Mana Development

Notable Card: Sol Ring

 

As Commander and Cube have become more and more popular this card has really been dragged through the mud with reprints. A fancy modern card frame and crisp new digital art were dramatic improvements, but I still like to rock my old school German language edition. Notably, this is my pick for best altered arts of any card in Magic. A quick Google search will reveal galaxies, pulsars, solenoids, The Eye of Sauron and the One Ring respectively, Nyan Cat, Sonic the Hedgehog, and a host of other things. Perhaps my favorite is this Green Lantern power ring alter by Ondal-the-Fool.

 

I know I was supposed to be talking about how Sol Ring is used in the format and all the strategic considerations, but…come on man. DAT ART!

 

Sol Ring, Mana Crypt, Mana Vault and to a lesser extent, Grim Monolith, Basalt Monolith, and Worn Powerstone are all incredibly powerful mana accelerators that increase the overall speed of the format, particularly in the more competitive decks. There mere existence of these cards lowers the average fundamental turn of the entire format by about one full turn in my (non)professional estimation. It’s a strange thing to say that a card can decrease the length of game by a fraction of a turn, when the card hasn’t even been played in that game, but the math supports it. Combine this with the fact that these cards are relatively inexpensive on MTGO, and you have a Commander format where dirty deeds get done dirt cheap.

 

In offline Commander play, these cards can be harder to obtain. The price tag on a Mana Crypt might turn many people off from playing it, but finding a physical copy that is in playable condition can be the biggest hurdle of all. This results in an environment where most don’t own it and many who aren’t interested in changing that stance. The same would be true of Sol Ring if it hadn’t been printed umpteen times in Commander precon products. Remember when we were all ecstatic that each of the original five Commander deck products would contain both a Sol Ring and a Lightning Greaves? Those were the days. I own many copies, but I still rock the German language edition with the original art in my Jhoira of the Ghitu deck…which I haven’t shuffled up in almost three years.

 

Anyway, fast mana is available, colorless, and universally useful, so expect some percentage of decks to be packing it. I understand that this isn’t everyone’s bag, but if your playgroup hasn’t curtailed the use of these cards in some way, you should be willing to fight fire with fire, or lose some percentage of games as a result.

 

Hand Disruption

Notable Card: Thoughtseize

 

This is a somewhat loose definition of important. Depending on how you play, Thoughtseize is either an obscure tournament card or your worst nightmare. By volume, most of games of Magic come from MTGO. Because the multiplayer support on MTGO is so wretched I play almost exclusively single player, 1-v-1 oriented cards can show up quite a bit in my day to day.

 

The key points on targeted hand disruption is that it can very easily punish poor keeps. If you do not have a balanced hand, you likely to be in bad shape after this resolves. I default to choosing color fixers or ramp cards if I get my druthers. This slows things down for my opponent and gives me ample time to develop my own resources. Because I tend to build and play decks which are much more proactive than the average Commander brew, my fundamental turn is typically lower than theirs. If my Thoughtseize has the effect of stealing even one turn’s worth of tempo by forcing them to miss a land drop or skip a spot on the curve, then I feel like I am way ahead. It is almost impossible to win a game of Commander with just your first seven cards. You are sure to be missing at least one important card. Thoughtseize can elegantly derail even the tightest lines of play by requiring the opponent to draw running hits in order to just play the damn game.

 

Removal

Notable Card: Swords to Plowshares

 

Removal spells are all over the map in terms of mana cost. Lately, it seems like R&D thinks a removal spell should cost one to two more mana than the creature it is meant to kill. “Good” removal spells in my opinion cost three or less. The best removal spells cost one.

 

Removal that is cheap on mana and on the wallet means that it should be a major concern for anyone who is trying to win with creatures. Sadly, not enough people read my articles, so they don’t play adequate amounts of removal. In a stunning M. Night Shyamalan twist, you can play all the creatures you want and people will hardly ever doing anything to stop you. Weird, huh?

 

That Card That Shows Up In Cubes For No Reason

Notable Card: Land Tax

 

Land Tax is great. It is a hardcore card advantage engine that is aggravating to play against.There really is no winning against this. You have to destroy it on the literal first turn or you’ll miss your opportunity. You could not play your own lands, but that isn’t what I would call a smart tactic. There is no reliable way to ensure that intentionally missing your own land drops is going to measurably improve your odds of winning the game. You always have the option of simply ignoring the Land Tax and allowing your opponent to search out all the lands their heart could desire, but one would have to assume that is what your opponent wants you to do, and that’s a clue it’s probably not in your best interest.

 

Cantrips

Notable Cards: Brainstorm, Preordain

 

Cantrips are not widely played in Commander, ergo they can’t rightly be among the most influential cards in the format. I stand by the assertion that they should be played more because many of them are extremely powerful and will substantially improve a deck’s velocity and selection. I’d also like to offer an explanation as to why they are underplayed (the following thoughts represent my opinion only):

 

Magic is game of skill. There are certainly elements of probability and unknown information, but, by and large, the more skilled players prosper. The best definition that I’ve heard for what “skill” means in Magic is “the ability to continuously make optimal decisions.” The more often you can do the right thing, and the bigger chain of successive smart moves you make, the higher your chances of winning. An optimally played game is one in which you have fully eliminated all human errors stemming from incorrect decision making; when only the probabilistic outcomes matter, your chances of victory are at a local maximum.

 

There are cards that allow you to make more decisions, though. Cards that reduce variance minimize the more “random” elements of playing a game of shuffled cards and afford you the opportunity to make more correct decisions that will generally improve the power and consistency of your deck (I covered this more extensively in “Decksplanations”). Playing these cards come with the implicit cost of actually having to make those extra decisions correctly. If you can’t do that consistently, you will often do more harm than good. You can also selectively force your opponent into making more decisions through cards like Fact or Fiction. If they misplay these difficult choices, they stand to lose equity in the game.

 

It also stands to reason that many players have shied away from playing more complex “skill-tester” cards because they don’t fully understand how to apply them. Without the necessary decision-making competencies, a card like Brainstorm will underperform expectations. If a newer player consistently sees their Brainstorm underperform, they’ll start to build a body of evidence that Brainstorm isn’t a good card.

 

The implications of that judgment can’t be fully appreciated because this hypothetical player necessarily lacks an understanding of certain lines of play. You can’t fault them for following their data to a logical conclusion, but we can all understand the flaws in the premise of their observational structure. A less skilled player can obtain better win percentages by playing less complex decks that might perform worse against the metagame than a more complex deck. The skill gap creates some extra number of losses that overshadow the complex deck’s superior nominal win percentage. If you didn’t check it out the last time I mentioned it, read Arvin Uppal’s article for more on this subject: The Casual Competitive Player and Deck Selection.”

 

The most important lesson that I want anyone reading this article to take away is that it doesn’t have to be like this. Humans are learning animals. We can acquire new information. We can change our behavior. If there are decisions that you aren’t playing optimally (and, trust me, no one is getting it right all of the time), then keep practicing. Magic isn’t just hard; it’s deceptive and frustrating. You can’t master it overnight.

 

Dishonorable Mention

Sensei’s Divining Top

 

Speaking of cards that force you to make extra decisions and can seriously jeopardize your chances of winning…

 

Let’s assume you get it into play and had to do no extra work or pay any additional costs to do so. You’re still burning a card and a bunch of mana to use this. Unless you are using it to draw tons of extra cards with Helm of Awakening, I’m not interested. It’s a gigantic time-waster that makes me want to keel over in my chair every time I see it. Please play Scroll Rack. It still wastes my time, but it’s so much better.

 

//End Opinion

 

Top is a great card that is used in a variety of decks to smooth out draws. If you don’t have access to Blue for traditional cantrips, this can be a good option that doesn’t cost a ton of mana like Crystal Ball does.

 

Tutors

Notable Card: Enlightened Tutor

 

You know Grandpa loves him some access and there are multiple cycles of tutor cards that cost only one mana. What could be better than that? Nothing, I tell ya. ET and friends may carry the burden of card disadvantage, but often the right card can be worth several wrong ones. As part of the running theme in this article, these cards are often underplayed in Commander. Many people are of the opinion that any attempt to limit the variance of a Commander deck is not in the “Spirit of the Format.” Many of these same people express the viewpoint that tutoring and shuffling isn’t an effective use of the group’s time in a multiplayer situation. I dare to stand in Opposition! What would these same players think if I said that Cultivate needed to be banned for the same reasons? My guess: the streets would run red with Grandpa’s blood.

 

 

Honorable Mention

Stop That

 

If I give a dishonorable mention, it is only fair that I allow an honorable one as well. I don’t generally advocate for the widespread acceptance of ‘Un-’ cards in Commander. Many of them break fundamental rules of the game and the nature of certain mechanics like half-values and staring contests do not enhance the experience of the average Commander game. Stop That, though, really does make life in the land of fat stacks a bit more worthwhile. Are you annoying everyone at the table with your hyperactive Brian Kibler impression? I hope you have been practicing a different trick for when you have to discard your whole hand to Stop That.

 

As always, I appreciate the support and participation of the community. Be sure to call me out on my b.s. in the comments and I’ll see you next week.

 

-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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