This entry is part 34 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

 

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

Hello and welcome back to “In General,” a weekly column where we talk about playing Commander and host of other things. Over the last few months I have talked extensively about my approach to deckbuilding both in its philosophy and its execution. A big part of that approach was to take the path of least resistance through your metagame: don’t force themes that don’t work! Take advantage of the opportunities and exploit the weaknesses that crop up in your opponent’s decks. In this new series, Important Cards”, I’m going to examine some of those opportunities by talking about key cards in each color and the underlying design environment that makes these particular cards so good in Commander. This series is going to be structured as a color-by-color walkthrough of the Commander format, stopping to take an in-depth look at the most significant landmarks.

 

Before we dive in, let me lay out the format:

 

[Archetype of Cards I Will Discuss]

Notable Cards: The best card(s) in this subset. A staple of the format by definition; we are starting from the premise that this type of card sets a boundary or constraint for the format and this is the best card in that category.

 

Explanation: This is where I will discuss why this category of card is so important and what restrictions it places on us in terms of deckbuilding. The explanation is mostly going to be about what is suppressed by the card that we are discussing; what cards/decks are not good because this exists.

 

You might be confused, but let’s jump in and you’ll get the hang of it.

 

‘Swords’

Notable Card: Swords to Plowshares

 

One-mana instant-speed creature removal. There are a half-dozen or so cards that fit this M.O. and you will see most of them from time to time. Swords is naturally the best fit for the format because life is a less relevant resource in the early game than mana, so Path to Exile can be very helpful to your opponent’s early resource development. Dispatch is better than both of them in practice, but it can only function properly in certain decks. It is tough to argue that an archetype specific card is really a staple of the format. In fact, that’s what the phrase ‘archetype staple’ is for. Reciprocate has been pretty poor in my experience, because it has an implicit cost of your life points and it can’t be used to hit things that don’t regularly attack, which is relevant. The same was true of Condemn, but it used to have crossover usage for tucking commanders before the most recent rules change. As it stands now, the card really isn’t positioned well.

 

One mana removal is incredibly powerful. Because there are so many efficient removal spells it is difficult to find aggressive creatures that can compete effectively. In the frame of an eternal card pool, there are far more playable removal spells than playable cheap creatures. By definition, this creates a hostile environment for aggressive decks. Additionally, the strategy of leaning on just a single threat to win you the game is somewhat unreliable. Ramp decks in Commander have the same problem that they do in Cube: if your opponent has more accessible removal in their deck than you have accessible threats in yours, then you are unlikely to win.

 

The nature of White’s removal spells is also important. Exiling is at premium because of the relatively high percentage of the metagame that wants to interact with graveyards. Swords can also hit active God cards, Ulamog, and Blightsteel, which are significant players in cutthroat metagames.

 

The power and availability of White’s removal is a powerful competitive advantage in the Commander metagame. If I know I am going to be facing White, I don’t want to be packing creatures. This is a severe limit on our ability to select threats, demanding a higher amount of durability in our own lists.

 

Catch-all Removal Spells

Notable Card: Oblivion Ring

 

There are a ton of different options in this category that are nearly equivalent in function and power level. These cards generally cost three or more mana and exile any type of permanent. Lower quality options will sometimes have added benefits or drawbacks corresponding with a difference in mana cost. Again, the majority of these spells exile their target, but some might function as auras like Faith’s Fetters. White has an absolute overflow of this style of card. They come in different shapes, sizes, and you’re sure to have a dozen copies lying around in your collection.

 

The availability of O-Ring and friends creates a situation where White decks don’t need to play as much situational removal. We don’t have to go heavy on creature-specific removal. We don’t have to play Disenchants. We can often answer any type of permanent with the same set of removal spells. That sounds attractive, but be careful not to go overboard. The downside to replacing all of your removal with O-Rings is that:

  1. They are slow. Sorcery speed is not ideal for all situations.

  2. When you leave behind some sort of permanent you are exposing yourself to the risk of ‘re-answers’ or a board sweeper that can retroactively ‘counter’ your removal.

 

White has the best removal spells in the format. That is not a secret. They have the best spot removal for creatures, for artifacts and enchantments, and for all permanents. They even have a few spells that deal damage, that shuffle cards into libraries, that counter spells, steal other people’s stuff, and, as we will discuss in a moment, White also has the market on sweepers pretty much cornered. Is it fair? No. It is an incredible advantage for the color though.

 

The diversity of removal types, the high power level of the available spells, and the liberal targeting restrictions give White the best chance to answer opposing threats of any color. When we play against White, we must have the expectation that what we play will get answered one way or another. When we are playing White ourselves, we can feel relatively safe because we can answer 90% of the typical win conditions in the format.

 

The weakest spots in White’s answer arsenal are in the hand and on the stack. Combo kills that don’t require any permanents in play are strong against White, as are hand disruption spells. If we choose our own threats to resist spot removal – Hexproof for example – then we can go after the board sweepers with targeted hand disruption. Using this two-pronged approach you can effectively removal-proof your decks and improve your chances of overcoming White’s high answer density.

 

‘Wraths’

Notable Card: Supreme Verdict

 

Pre-emptive side note: Interestingly, the best Wrath is Blue somehow. This is super cool, because for many years the best unrestricted sweeper or ‘big wrath’ as I call them, has always been Blue as well: Upheaval. Funny how that works out.

 

I’m going to refer to a board sweeper that costs four and only kill creatures as a ‘wrath,’ after the eponymous Wrath of God; board sweepers that cost more than four, or remove things other than creatures, I’ll refer to as ‘big wraths.’ This is my normal nomenclature, but I want to make sure we can all get on the same page with the terminology for this article.

 

Wraths are excellent in Commander. They are positioned extremely well against the vast majority of possible decks and can really wreak havoc on people who are driven by their ‘Timmy’ instincts. Wraths provide the single most influential deckbuilding constraint for the Commander format. If you can’t consistently beat a board sweeper, your strategy is just not viable. Sadly, it usually isn’t as simple as just beating the first wrath. You could often be competing against a deck that can produce as many sweep effects as you can creatures. Try this goldfish experiment with your favorite creature deck: Play out the game normally from your end, but on turns four, six, and eight your board gets swept. What are the chances that you can deal lethal damage through a game like this? Yuck.

 

 

Here are the three main factors that combine into a perfect storm to promote the value of sweepers in Commander.

 

  1. Creature decks of all types struggle against the inherent card and tempo advantage that mass creature destruction provides. It is very difficult to apply adequate pressure with early creatures, because unlike in Standard where there usually isn’t a true wrath, Commander has dozens. With so many available copies you can count on seeing a lot of them, and it can be difficult to play around the nuanced differences between cards like Day of Judgment and Wrath of God unless you know which one your opponent is holding.

  2. High life totals make it tricky to get clean kills before your opponent assembles enough mana to wrath. It isn’t impossible to win by turn four, but it is bloody difficult. This minimizes the effectiveness of aggressive creatures and burn spells that play crucial roles in other eternal formats like Cube and Legacy. Without a highly tuned deck and a nut draw, it is unlikely you will get your opponent into burn range before the first wrath of the game is cast.

  3. Time only moves forward. If you don’t kill your controlling White opponent during the early game, you won’t be able to get back that time you lost later in the game. As players get access to more and more mana, expensive cards become more feasible to play and less miserable to draw. In the later stages, being efficient with your mana usage becomes less important and less typical. The difference between one and four mana means a lot more on the first turn than it does on turn ten. The net effect of this is that players can afford to over-commit to playing a high number of sweepers. Sometimes a deck really won’t even need access to spot removal if you can regularly sweep the board and plan to use a win condition that doesn’t sit on the battlefield.

 

Now about big wraths: I try to avoid playing them. In my experience paying more for something like Planar Cleansing isn’t a good trade. There are certainly powerful noncreature permanents that you might be interested in killing, but in my experience it is easier to build around these types of cards than to remove them directly. Let me provide a couple examples:

 

  • God cards are great and they see a lot of play in Commander. Being that they are often not creatures and always indestructible, typical four mana wraths will only ever slow these cards down, not stop them. I can dodge this problem pretty easily by choosing to play semi-symmetrical wraths like Divine Reckoning in combination with control effects like Confiscate. You can still keep your opponent from using most normal creatures, but now answering the God card is their problem, not yours.

  • I am a big advocate for going ‘over the top.’ Take a card like Doubling Season –  a fan favorite and Commander staple. The card is certainly powerful and can help you do some interesting things, but ultimately it isn’t even worth answering in my experience. I play few true Disenchant effects, instead choosing to use less restrictive removal like Oblivion Ring. I typically use normal Wraths to sweep away any tokens it creates and just ignore the enchantment. Is Doubling Season, and whatever nonsense they make with it, going to beat a Glacial Chasm? What about my old friend Mind Slaver?

 

To sum things up: specifically in the context of White decks, I don’t see any real need for Big Wraths. In other colors besides White, we will see that this is a different story. Fast mana rocks are the most common ‘targets’ for big Wraths, but hardly the most significant. If you are casting an Akroma’s Vengeance on turn six, your opponent has probably already done something pretty broken with their fast mana by the time you get around to stopping them.

 

Restricted Tutors

Notable Card: Enlightened Tutor

 

A restricted tutor is one that can only search for specific cards or types of cards. This category is especially hard to evaluate, because each card’s playability is defined by what it gets in your deck. Different examples of these cards often don’t appear in the same decks. Three Dreams is an all-star in Bruna, Light of Alabaster or Uril, the Miststalker (it should really be Uril the Consonant Crusher). Those cards are sweet, but for thematic reasons someone might not include them in a Kemba, Kha Regent deck where Stoneforge Mystic might be more appropriate. The reason I pick out E.T. as being the best of the bunch here is that it can grab fast mana on the first turn. Having double the access to a Sol Ring or Grim Monolith can break a game wide open. I bring this point to demonstrate a contrast. With Black, the tools exist to get any card. Comparatively, White has a disadvantage here that will require you to make up some ground in deckbuilding. People seem to like this because it breeds creativity in the design of theme decks, such as those mentioned above. However, White’s tutoring isn’t so innocent.

 

Because of some unconventional cards have been printed over the years, one could easily use that same E.T. to find a mana source, removal spell, threat, annoying showstoppers like Humility or Stasis, or just about anything else. For crying out loud you can E.T. for Expedition Map and Map for Strip Mine! E.T. wasn’t really meant to be able to tutor for everything, but in the reality of today’s Commander, it can. White’s tutors were designed to be restricted, but they don’t always feel like much of a restriction in practice. The lesson: act like a Boy Scout. Be Prepared (for shenanigans).

 

Endgame Threats

Notable Card: Iona, Shield of Emeria

 

This club is for the people like Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, Blazing Archon, and Avacyn, Angel of Hope. They aren’t universally the best threats in the format, but they are each capable of ending a game in a reasonable fashion. The real beauty is that they can wreak untold havoc on a specific archetype that just so happens to be popular in Commander. A rank ordering of which card is best is nearly irrelevant; they aren’t meant to compete, but to complement.

 

These are specific tools meant for specific application. To that end, expensive late game cards in this same space aren’t as good if they don’t do something similarly unfair. Luminate Primordial looks sweet, but the allure of a 2-for-1 can be somewhat misleading when you could just as easily lock your opponent out of casting spells for the same amount of mana. Old stalwarts of the EDH scene like Reya Dawnbringer just aren’t cutting it anymore. They don’t make ‘em like they used to… they make them much more brutal. Currently, there are threats at four and six mana that are powerful enough to end games quickly, so we don’t need to waste precious deck slots on clunky expensive cards unless they are key metagame decision.

 

As we build our decks we must be cognizant of what we expect to face from our competition. The existence of these cards provides an avenue for opponent(s) to have the final word in a game by playing a creature that we aren’t able to interact with. As always, I stand by a proactive approach to dealing with these problems. When building your deck, try to avoid the common stereotypes which could potentially be hindered by the cards we just talked about. Have plenty of disruption and discard available to disable your opponent and insure they can’t regularly cast these haymaker spells. Lastly, each of these cards is vulnerable to Counterspell. Enough said.

 

Mass Land Destruction

Notable Card: Armageddon

 

Only a handful of cards like this exist and, because of the negative associations that most players have with them, we are unlikely to see any comparables printed. Nowadays, land destruction is given a prohibitively expensive mana cost. Weapons of mass (land) destruction are the best way for Aggro decks to compete against a metagame dominated by powerful control decks. It is strange to me, though. So many people want Aggro to be viable in Commander, including the EDHRC, but – almost universally – these same people condemn ‘land death.’ It’s said to not be in the ‘spirit of the format,’ or to be unfair, unfriendly, or even *gasp* ‘cheap’! Those are opinions. I have opinions about those opinions, but that is a story for another time. Commander is purported to be a place where you can ‘do your thing,’ without somebody taking a dump in your cereal. Well, if your thing is attacking with small creatures, you are a second class citizen in Commander. Form the Aggro proletariat and take down the bourgeois control hegemony!

 

Luckily for us, because MLD is so out of favor with the players of Commander, we don’t really have to worry about running into it too often in casual environments or multiplayer groups. As a metagame becomes more competitive though, expect to see more and more of it as people elevate the power level of their decks to fight their way to the top of the metagame.

 

As long as you are okay with being labeled ‘that guy,’ you are uniquely positioned to take advantage of a huge gap in the Commander metagame. The average Commander deck is INCREDIBLY weak to Armageddon, which should be your cue to step in and blow up some lands. Don’t be surprised if this produces a few instant concessions. Also don’t be surprised if people ask you to stop playing these cards.

 

Rather than leaving the group, changing your decks, or intentionally being confrontational, think of this an opportunity to start a conversation. Have an open and honest discussion with your play group about why certain things are unacceptable. If you play in a Control-slanted metagame, you should have a right to express yourself strategically by using fundamental anti-control cards. If players are okay with Combo decks, soft locks, or Bribery, then they really have no excuse for why you can’t play with Armageddon. If this discussion comes to the resolution that perhaps none of these things should be acceptable, don’t feel too bad either. Just save your sharpest tools for when ol’ Grandpa Growth comes to gunsling at your local store! I’m always ready for an old fashioned shoot out.

 

-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.

Series Navigation<< Strategy: “In General” – Important Blue CardsStrategy: “In General” – The Library, Part II >>