This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Strategy

By Aaron AKA Uncle Landdrops

 Aarons avatar

 

 

 

Salutations, CommanderCast-onians! I am Aaron aka Uncle Landdrops, one of Da Cast’s newest writers. For those who don’t know me, I’ve been clicking and clacking on the interwebz about Magic’s favorite kitchen table format for a few years. My Starfox 64-combined-Magic-Relevant Internet handle might be recognizable to any of you who’ve stumbled across either my decklists on TappedOut, or any of the mumblings combined with pop culture rumblings from my Commander blog, The General Zone.

Uncle Landdrops was once the fictional omnipotent villain who buried our basics at the bottoms of decks. He frightened me, so I became him. You know, like Batman.

 

So I guess before you get to know me, you can get to know me- my favorite decks, cards I like, etc. All things Landdrops, before Landdrops was cool.

Moving right along, today’s Strategy segment is gonna take us knees-deep into the concepts which connect Commander to ESPN2’s favorite after midnight adopted sport, Poker. It’s a little ambitious, a little long, but I’ve brought my A-game, and I think you’re gonna like it.

 

The name’s Katz. Kool Katz. Don’t you see deez shades I’m wearin’?

 

Why Look At Commander As Poker?

I’m not a Poker player, but what compels and fascinates me about Magic are the cognitive processes involved in how a player builds decks and uses the time-value and rules-based value of cards to create winning strategy. This is where I not only find room for comparison, but also how I define much of my personal credos as deckbuilder and player. Because both EDH and Poker, when played at a higher level than penny blinds and marginal shenanigans, help to create a headspace which combines statistical odds with the inherent artistry that comes from identity, serving to create and challenge our gaming spirit.

 

How Do We Do This?

To translate Poker into the Commander game, we have to combine a few ideas and techniques to re-shape how we understand the format. The first is a shift in player perception, which is that we are not just playing a game, we are also playing people. With only a few card combinations in Texas Hold ‘Em or Five Card Stud, the advantage is always going to be to who can figure out their opponent’s hand, call bluffs, sucker people in, and bet big.

While there is more to most games of Magic, these are all fundamental components which we can examine in this way to not just develop our ability as players, but also follow through in our initiative to create fun, unforgettable games.

 

We Already Bet In Commander
Like Poker, a game of EDH follows the same pattern of increasing bets. The difference lies in what we risk. What most Magic players don’t realize is that we are constantly gambling with our resources. When we cast a Phyrexian Arena, for example, we are betting our opponent not only doesn’t have a Deglamer, but that they are unlikely to play or draw a comparable answer over a designated amount of turns.

When a control deck plays “Draw, Go,” for several turns without committing creatures to the battlefield, the player is betting on two ideas: 1) that their opponent doesn’t have enough resources on the board to end the game, and 2) the time-value of playing a creature is worse than having a counter for a bigger spell or doing nothing with their untapped mana. Conversely, this player’s opponent(s) could be not playing cards because they are guessing that their opponent has an answer, and contributing nothing more to the board state keeps the control player from powering up one of these kinds of spells.

To be a good bettor in Commander means you’ve got a grasp on not only what cards and decks do, but also an understanding of the value each spell has for each player, each deck, and what it means to cast these spells at certain intervals at various stages of the game.

 

The Check(s)

This is probably 50% of the reason I attribute my playstyle to being like Poker. Basically, a check consists of any of the following questions someone might ask concerning the game state:

 

How many cards are you holding?

-What are the current life totals?

-How much general damage have you taken from X so far?

-What cards are in your graveyard?

-Which/How many lands do you have untapped?

-What does X card do (again)?

-Whose turn is it?

 

Asking these questions with some regularity is a great, non-intrusive way to keep people on-task in the game, and it can give you something to do if there’s a player who likes to take their time.

The point of the check in Poker is to see what your opponent is going to do in order to make a decision- kind of like a control player. In Commander however, the Check allows us to maintain a record of information, regardless of what archetype you’re playing.

You can also leverage the Check as strategy too. If a control player forgets they have a Kederekt Leviathan in the graveyard, and you’ve committed 3+ heavy cost threats, it’s probably not a good idea to ask to see their graveyard if you’re searching for Reanimate targets. Conversely, if you need to Wrath the board and don’t have one, looking at an opponent’s graveyard might help remind them they have a Divine Reckoning from Turn 4 that’s been forgotten under the subsequent back and forth.

Developing a rhythm with Checks has become a big part of my style. Not only does it allow me to interact in a game-oriented way with my opponents, but it also has become an internal control I can rely on so I don’t have to be over-attentive every time a play is made, and still have the in-the-moment information so I can stay in it.
The Tell

Tabletop Poker uses a lot more cunning and attention to behavior and social cues, which is the Tell–the idea that our opponent is telling us their cards without showing us.

In Commander, the human element isn’t lost, but body language isn’t going to be as good an indicator as it is in Poker, where there are less cards to consider.

Still, if we can combine the information from our Checks, pre-existing knowledge of a player’s deck, and even deckbuilding habits and in-game stylistic idiosyncrasies, we can establish solid indicators for predicting what’s in a player’s hand, we might forecast what they’ll do next.

 

Going All-In, or Better Betting

Let’s be real. There are a lot of cards in Magic (20,000-plus and counting, at last estimation), and I am not here telling you my Poker techniques will help you become an ace at picking out cards in people’s hands. I’m no Sensei. I haven’t reached the top of this mountain either.

However, we can accomplish this goal by re-appropriating these cards into easier, more predictable categories: four “suits,” broad categories, for identifying what we cannot see.

These suits are self-explanatory: Threats, Answers, Utility, and Land. Every Commander deck is made up of a specific combination of cards that serve one or two of these functions. This is obviously going to change based on what you’re playing, and a variety of other factors. It’s up to you to figure out how you’d like to evaluate cards. This is just my way.

While every play, every spell is ideally going to be contributed to a player’s winning strategy, there are undeniable moments in the game where we know that we have to make an appearance. It is these points specifically where our tells have the most value, so this is what I’ll be alluding to- the idea of having a threat or managing answers in order to win.

The plan is simple: we make educated guesses concerning the threat/answer dynamic, which is Magic at its most fundamental, and our bet in its simplest form, to estimate the odds that a player has an answer to our threat. Again, we’re not trying to get poker specific- we’re just trying to arrive at a point where we either feel confident that they don’t have an Answer, or we’ve done enough fundamental grunt work to discern this based on the data.

To do this we have two levels of examination- our pre-existing knowledge, and the in-game environment.

We’ll start with our pre-existing knowledge. These are basic pieces of information that seem obvious to any player who’s played a long time, but are helpful reminders that our opponents have the same deckbuilding restrictions we do, and that there are plenty of weaknesses to each deck’s design.

Before I talk about the obvious, remember that there’s bound to be valuable information talked about at the table. Often, me and my playgroup are really open about what we’re doing, what we’re playing, and other various deck specifications. We share our decks on TappedOut, we talk about card choices, get feedback. This information can all be invaluable when you’re playing- the more accurate your ratios are, the better your Tells are going to be.

 

Lands are roughly 35-40% of a deck. Maybe less, maybe more. Player experience, gimmicks, and access to ramp are the primary factors here. Azusa and Ashling are going to probably defy this rule, as will decks that have Commanders with mana costs over 5. Surprisingly, most other green or green-based multicolor decks looking to ramp will probably have less land, as dedication to Rampant Growth effects will decrease their need to add extra lands.

Threats can be anywhere from 10%-40% of a deck, and relies on knowing whether the deck is Control, Aggro, or something more gimmicky. Ruric Thar, Momir Vig, and Animar are all going to be on the upper side of my estimations, potentially even more than that. Control decks are going to be on the lower side if we’re talking about creatures, while Combo decks are also going to be low, considering that their specific pieces have high value. Using these numbers is going to help you assess how to handle a threat.

For example, an Aggro deck playing a Titan with cards in hand early in the game signals confidence, and a backup plan. Odds are favorable that the player has draw power, a way to protect the Titan, or another, better threat that they’re saving for later in the game. Conversely, a Control player is much less likely to commit a Titan at the same point in the game, considering that their deck is going to fundamentally have less Threats. Therefore, we can conclude that if the Control player does this, they do so with a higher confidence level that their Titan is going to be removed.

Utility cards are going to increase in combo and rogue decks, as a result of having to provide more support. Decks like Vorel, for example, probably want to play a ton of enchantments and artifacts that help provide additional pumps, so it’s a good estimate here that most of their pieces will be sorcery-slow. Other deck archetypes, like Voltron, might have a dedicated set of cards like Remember the Fallen and Eternal Witness to retrieve any blown up Swords of X and Y. These decks are going to focus on having redundancies across the board, and more than likely, these decks are going to be tutor heavy.

Answers are going to be a huge chunk of dedicated control decks, and an under-appreciated part of aggressive decks. Every deck is going to have a suite of removal with ratios most likely being the inverse of the Threats, depending on whether it’s an Aggro or Control deck. That’s not ruling out dedicated Combo decks- that’s me telling you that Combo decks are more than likely going to fall into one of these two categories.

 

Predicting what kinds of Answers our opponents are playing is the most difficult part of the game, and so we’re not going to try to differentiate from Doom Blade or Murder as much as we are trying to figure out if they have one of these cards. Every deck is going to have to have Answers, even if they are going to be the all-creature Animar deck loaded with Indrik Stomphowler, Phyrexian Ingester, and Duplicant, as well as a handful of multi-function cards that are Answers in hand and Threats when they turn them sideways.

The next part of the Tell is something we’ve already talked about: environmental analysis. This is the part where our in-game Checks get applied to our immediate decisions, replacing our theorycraft with the practical luck of the draw and randomness of shuffling.

Analyzing untapped mana yields us the potential threshold for what a player can cast. This isn’t always the best indicator, as double Island is a lot more intimidating than double Mountain, but it gives us a benchmark when we want to think about what spells can be cast.

Combining this with our assessment of the deck’s archetype is going to give us a good estimate for the kinds of cards they have in hand, but we’ve got a hiccup. The ratios we know for Control and Aggro decks are only good if our opponent has Entered the Infinite or Necropotence-d a bunch, and by then, the game is probably over.

So we add pertinent Check information. The “cards in hand” Check gives us a tangible denominator for estimation, and that relationship is pretty basic. The more cards in hand, the more likely they are to have an answer to use. This doesn’t always mean they’ll use it, or use it immediately, but that is a different strategy for a different day.

Cards you’ve bounced, cards on the battlefield, and cards in graveyards are easy to forget about, so don’t do it. Don’t be afraid to double check if you forget. These Checks tell you what’s in play, or been played (or milled/discarded), of course, but it also allows you to literally “count cards,” giving you a more effective estimate of the ratios left in a player’s hand and deck. If you’ve played any amount of Magic Online, these are numbers that are more easily accessible, and completely transferable to the Kitchen Table.

Counting the cards using the Threat/Answer/Utility/Land suits should give you a good estimate. Working backwards, if they’ve been keeping up with their land plays, there’s probably a good chance that at least one or more of the cards in hand is a land. Keeping track of this is relevant as you progress into the later game is relevant. This is because there’s a high chance, for example, that a player probably kept a 2-lander and a Cultivate or Thran Dynamo thinking they’d have no problem catching up. Weeding out Utility cards are going to be easy, because they are going to be things players will hold up and not play because they have the highest probability of being a dead card.

Threats are the opposite–they tend to be cast quickly, especially in Aggro decks. Per our ratios, if an Aggro player is sitting on cards, it means they probably have some big, powerful threats that they can’t cast in the same turn.

Answers, as a result, get to disguise themselves in between these cards, making them the most difficult to pick out. The hope is that if we can figure out all these other cards, we can assume the unknown, in most cases, is a removal spell. What kind, we may not know. This is where we’re going to play the player and their deck archetype more conservatively, especially if we don’t know them. If they have an Answer, it’s better to make them use it when you have another Threat to cast. Good Control players know how to buy extra turns from counters and removal, so putting pressure on them early gives you a good barometer for reaction time. Not all Answers are created equal, so learn what kinds of cards your opponent likes to play.

Most of my Control decks, for example, have always featured more Negate and Memory Lapse than Counterspell, Snap/ Snapback over Unsummon, and Snuff Out over Doom Blade. Learning these idiosyncrasies and player habits of recurring players in your group is a process, but eventually you’ll be able to pick up on themes, styles, and various player personalities that can translate to just about every metagame.

 

And that’s it. Before I pass the proverbial turn, I’d like to thank you for getting here without too much TL;DR-ing. Feedback’s always appreciated, so leave some comments below if you think I’m onto something, or I’m “on” something. If you’ve got questions, anything else you’d like to ask, feel free to find me at The General Zone or email me at unclelanddrops@gmail.com.

Pass Turn.

Series Navigation<< Boom Goes the GoblinStrategy: Boom Goes the Warrior >>