This entry is part 20 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

Matchups are incredibly important in 1-v-1 Commander. The nature of specific decklists, and even minute changes in card selection, can dramatically change the texture of a Commander matchup. A lack of familiarity with the finer points can lead to preventable losses. In the world of casual multiplayer, Commander matchups receive much less attention, but are still just as important in determining the outcome of a game.

 

The problem is twofold. For one, many players hold the mindset that changing your strategy or the cards in your deck just to gain an advantage in future games is taboo. “Metagaming,” rather than being the core strategic skill of the entire game, is considered by some to be bad form in casual formats. To me this behavior strange and beyond my ability to justify or explain.

 

A second issue is that people don’t tend to think about their deck’s strategic identity as much as they should. The number of generic “good stuff” decks in Commander is beyond counting. Some might even say that it is too damn high. Even further, umbrella terms for some of the more popular play styles like tokens or tribal get thrown around a lot to describe decks, but are they really all that descriptive?

 

“Tribal” isn’t a strategy. Token decks could utilize very different avenues to end the game, so it might be more helpful to classify them as anthem/overrun decks–more akin to a typical beatdown strategy. Terms like these are overly broad and don’t focus on the defining characteristic of an archetype: strategies in common.

 

When your deck lacks focus and solidarity, it won’t consistently produce hands that develop on script. And when your deck can’t effectively execute its own game plan, every matchup starts to look bad. Too often in Commander, players are so far off the rails that their deck can’t function in the role of an established strategic archetype and they lose the ability to examine where their deck stands in the metagame. Archetypes are useful signposts that can inform your strategic decision making inside the game, such as determining whether or not to play aggressively or properly assigning who is the beatdown. They can predict outcomes ahead of time and help you plan out your offensive.

 

To correct this, I want to take a deep dive into some well established multiplayer archetypes and examine what makes them so effective decks in group games. By comparing the opening script of key decks, we can get a sense of how they’ll interact and gain a better understanding of how those interactions go on to determine the winners and losers in the game.

 

Combo/Control

This is a direct port from more traditional Magic formats. Combo/Control is just what it sounds like: A classic Control deck that uses a suite of removal and disruption to stabilize the board and slow the pace of the game. The only twist is that this Control deck utilizes a combo win condition so that, when ready, it can eliminate multiple players at once.

 

A great example for this is Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind. Optimized versions of this deck can play equally well in either multi- or single-player. In fact, you can probably just copy a tier one competitive Niv-Mizzet list and it’ll perform very well in multiplayer. The reputation of this deck is sure to draw you some early attention in a casual game, but at the same time multiplayer affords you a certain amount of safety.

 

Take a look at this list. With fifteen, you are very likely to be holding more counterspells than anyone else at the table, so you can protect yourself from direct aggression and shape the power structure as the game goes on. Answers are always great tools for political interactions, but the real power is being able to end the game on your own schedule… with back up.

 

A good opening script for a Combo/Control hand really only has a couple of lines:

 

Turn 1: Play applicable cantrips

Turn 2: Play applicable mana ramp

Turn 3+: Chill on counterspells; win whenever, dude.

 

Admittedly, this script is less informative than I’d like, but it does set up a few important points:

 

  • This deck seeks to control the board with answers, not disruption, limiting the need to single out opponents or draw negative attention to yourself. Acting in self-defense is rarely punished in Commander.

  • This deck wants to control the players just as much as it wants to control the game. The option to say “no” is powerful. This can selectively cultivate positive and negative responses from your opponents, allowing you to naturally build alliances by reacting strategically to the game situation. Effortless statecraft.

  • This deck doesn’t need to tap out, which sharply decreases its potential vulnerabilities. People are wary of untapped islands. Further, opponents who can’t play at instant speed will have no way of interacting with you.

 

As a final thought, I want to address the major downside of this archetype: Infamy. Azami, Lady of Scrolls, Sharuum the Hegemon, Sidisi, Brood Tyrant. What do these Commanders all have in common? A reputation for abuse.

 

Experienced Commander players will be familiar with how your deck works before even entering the game. They might be cognizant of the fact that you’re manipulating the other players, piloting the game state into a favorable spot for your combo-kill. The Combo/Control strategy is very strong and it will only take a few wins before people really start to pay attention to your deck. Without the trust of cooperation of the other players it can be impossible to win the game and what these decks gain in power, they often lose in diplomacy.

 

Group Hug

In most contexts, the word “enabler” is a dubious label to apply to something. Connotations of twelve step programs notwithstanding, Group Hug is one of the better received archetypes in the Commander metagame. The premise is to jam your deck full of things that help other players or empower them to make choices. The goal is to create a more enjoyable game for everyone involved by playing cards that benefit everyone, or by selectively aiding players in weaker positions to balance the board. Cards like Howling Mine and Eladamri’s Vineyard are staples of this archetype.

 

I want to draw a clear distinction here: “Pillowfort” decks that inhibit combat and “Turbo Fog” decks, which seek to inundate you with card draw but disable you from using any of those cards, do not really meet my definition of Group Hug. I’m talking here about genuinely attempting to aid other players for their benefit, not doing something coincidentally helpful that’s inconspicuously supporting you.

 

I’m not sure why, but Phelddagrif seems to have taken up the torch as the poster child for this type of deck–probably because it’s a big silly hippo, which is kind of a metaphor for how this deck functions in the game. Let’s imagine a sample script:

 

Turn 2: Helm of Awakening

Turn 3: Rites of Flourishing

Turn 4: Hippo

 

We’re off to an amazingly friendly start. So friendly that I’d be suspicious, but as long as you aren’t secretly trying to screw everyone over this will usually work the opposite way from the Combo/Control’s reception at the table. Once people see your deck in action and learn to appreciate it, they’ll start to build and play in a way that takes advantage of the extra resources you’re able to give them. This also naturally promotes “big game hunting,” because things can get out of hand pretty quickly. Let’s take a look at the implications of a script like this.

 

  • You might be creating a resource gap. Equal distribution of extra resources seems like a fair thing to do* [Editor’s note: *only if you’re a dirty commie], but the player with the most dominant position will likely benefit the most from that. They can easily trade away their extra resources to oppress the players who have less. This will make you unpopular [Editor’s other note: this is also why Animal Farm never worked out for anyone but the pigs].

  • Everyone will progress more quickly to the late game. A deck which has a naturally quick win might be able to end the game before other players can react.

  • Players who focus on developing their own resources may find themselves unable to compete without a mana or card advantage. Ramp decks, for example, have lower threat densities and could easily lose if a Control opponent is given a steady supply of removal spells.

  • You’re going to have to make difficult political decisions about how to apply your targeted effects. The Group Hug player often finds themselves in the unenviable position of playing kingmaker, but has no real prospects of winning the game outright.

 

This creates a very strange dynamic that you must be comfortable with before deciding to play Group Hug: it’s almost impossible to win. This stands to reason; after all, you have few win conditions and gifting a Combo/Control player with mana development and higher card velocity will only allow them to win faster.

 

Now that we have two archetypes to compare against each other, we’ve discovered a related pair of major takeaways: Combo/Control defeats Group Hug head-to-head and the presence of Group Hug makes Combo/Control the dominant strategy. The latter is really just a stronger form of the same assertion; these are related quantities. The Combo deck has strong potential to win the game and can do so in short order, but it’s more likely to face opposition. However, it’s also in the best position to capitalize on the extra resources offered by a Group Hug opponent and can leverage that into a victory.

 

Interesting thought experiment: When Group Hug decks play each other, how do you predict who wins?

 

Group Slug

I wanted to be careful to draw a clear distinction between puritan Group Hug and something like “Pillowfort” because I am going to finish this article by talking about Group Slug. Slug is the spiritual opposite of hug (even though they are not actually antonyms). The deck aims to apply equal aggression or disruption to all players either to irritate them into action or to effectively disable them.

 

This is a broad category which includes strategies like the aforementioned “Pillowfort,” Heartless Hidetsugu mass damage, Prison decks, “Overdraw” decks (like Nekusar, the Mindrazer or Kami of the Crescent Moon), Tax decks (like Grand Arbiter Augustin IV), and many others. Cards like Underworld Dreams, Bottomless Pit, and Sulfuric Vortex are common standards of these strategies.

 

Pound-for-pound, Group Slug is the fastest way to lose all of your friends. When Nekusar was originally printed, it became so popular that it nearly stifled Commander altogether. The only upside is that my foil copy of Forced Fruition was suddenly worth something. Now that I’ve ground that personal axe nice and sharp, let’s take a look at a possible opening from Uncle Landdrops’ HH deck:

 

Turn 1: Magmatic Insight

Turn 2: Lightning Greaves

Turn 3: Uphill Battle

Turn 4: Grim Monolith into Heartless

 

You have aggravated the entire table and seriously threatened at least some of them. This will likely have consequences:

 

  • You draw immediate negative attention to yourself. Your chances of winning the game are dramatically reduced because any player capable of killing you will certainly have incentive to do so.

  • You create a resource gap similar to the Group Hug decks. The decks who are closest to losing will do so much quicker, leaving the decks who are in a strong position to dominate the game and focus on eliminating you when it is convenient.

  • However unlikely, you can actually win the game. Without a tactical response you can effectively grind out multiple players.

  • You can present enough disruption to effectively counter a Combo/Control player, making you the “disabler.”

 

This highlights the core relationship between these three archetypes. Just like any good Pokemon game there is a rock-paper-scissors dynamic between these fundamental players: Slug disrupts Combo, Combo outraces Hug, and Hug outlasts Slug.

 

A strong start by a Group Slug deck can dismantle a Combo/Control player, or at least delay them long enough to be overwhelmed by other opponents. In turn, a Combo/Control player can work wonders with the added help of Group Hug player. The Group Hug player can’t really defeat a deck that’s so dedicated to winning without a tremendous amount of help from other players. Finally, a Hug deck is likely to successfully outlast a Slug opponent by gaining life and drawing extra cards–the resources traditionally attacked by most Slug decks. Additionally, the Hug deck makes for a much more attractive ally and can position other players to eliminate a Slug opponent.

 

This triangle relationship is a basic description of how these archetypes interact when they are the dominant decks in a given game. The players who are in the strongest positions have the most control over the flow of the game and can more effectively dictate how resources exchanges play out. Control players selectively answer problems, Hug decks promote players into dominant positions, and Slug decks stop others from establishing dominance.

 

This model has incredible predictive power. When you’re in a multiplayer game, pay attention to what archetypes your opponents are playing and analyze the situation in game. Look at who the two most dominant players are at some point during the game and use the thoughts from the previous paragraph predict who will win the game. This analysis gives you greater insight into how the game will develop and can inform you on how best to apply your resources so as to take advantage of not just the current game scenario, but the scenario that’s about to occur as the power balance shifts as a result of the interactions between the two dominant decks.

 

Have you enjoyed multiplayer month? Let me see some feedback in the comments below. As always, support us on all your social media platforms, and if you can contribute to the CommanderCast Patreon we would greatly appreciate it.

 

-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<< “In General” – Bushnell’s LawStrategy: “In General” – The Laws of Commander Power >>