This entry is part 26 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth


The holiday season is in full swing. Most of us here in the states have long since abandoned any semblance of a healthy diet and are now frantically scrambling to assemble a complete set of gifts for our friends and loved ones according to our respective cultural traditions. Since I’ve completed my holiday shopping I’m ready to power down my brain for the remainder of the year. The only future decisions that I’ll be making are which college football games I’ll watch and where I’m going to get wasted on New Year’s Eve.


Following along the lines of powering down my higher brain functions, I’m taking a short break from strategic content for the remainder of December. Don’t panic! You’ll still get your regularly scheduled Wednesday wordfest, but rather than in-depth strategy discussions or vocabulary lessons, the topics will cover somewhat lighter fare.


This week I’m going to discuss five pervasive myths about the Commander format; the phrases you hear people say all the time, but are only partially true at best.


Combo Isn’t Good

This myth usually takes the form of inexperienced admonition. One player says to another that assembling some combo in a one hundred card singleton deck is unrealistic. They might say that it’s “too hard to do,” “unreliable,” or a “Magical Christmas Land” win-more scenario. This is just flat out wrong. With the exception of Gifts Ungiven, every single tutor card ever printed in Magic’s history is legal for play in Commander. Add to that every filter cantrip that’s banned in Modern. Now take into account that none, NONE, of the broken infinite loop/instant-win combo pieces that populate other format banned lists are restricted in any way in Commander with the sole exception of Time Vault.


Let’s not forget that you also get to have a commander in your Commander deck. For many of the top decks in the format, the commander is one piece of the combo they are trying to assemble. So, you’re really only ever one card away from winning in this format. You can easily create a list where twenty percent or more of your deck is combo pieces or ways to specifically find them, not to mention that you can draw a bunch of cards very easily with an eternal card pool, and card advantage is powerful whether you find the combo or not. Lastly, the most popular combos tend to revolve around cards that are worth playing in their own right. This quality of being able to just play great cards and occasionally win by surprise is why all of the top decks in the format include some sort of “back door” combo.


It’s Full of Expensive Cards

This is somewhat true in relative terms. Commander decks can certainly have expensive cards in them. Why not? Every Commander deck has a dedicated package of mana accelerators, a feature that you don’t find in any other format. This gives you access to more expensive cards at a reasonable point in the game. You can hard cast Eldrazi, right? This has to be true.


In reality, Commander is dominated by cheap cards. With the eternal card pool, you have access to the most efficient spells in the history of the game. The removal is cheaper. The threats are cheaper. The tutors are cheaper. The mana is cheaper (heck, sometimes it’s free). Combine this with the relatively high land counts in Commander and suddenly you have a deck with an average converted mana cost that rivals Legacy.


I also want to make a note about value. Legacy and Vintage are full of “cheap spells,” right? But those same spells have more impact than their Standard counterparts. Magic is all about the subtle edge of getting more effect out of your cards and mana. Nowhere is that more true – or more important – than Commander. There’s no question that you see more six, seven, and eight drops in Commander, but remember that when we stretch our deck’s mana to include those spells, we’re squeezing more value out of that play than would be possible in any other format.


A Card Is “Only Good In Commander”

When spoiler season comes around, there’s inevitably going to be some cards in a new set that are designed specifically for casual Magic players. Right now, the bulk of those casual designs are focused on Commander, so I have the terrible misfortune of listening to one set review after another that decries some ridiculous seven drop as a “Commander-only card.” The myth that Commander is some sort of whacky wizarding world where all bad cards are good just isn’t true.


The cards that are good in other formats are good In Commander. With very few exceptions, if you think about a top card in Legacy or Modern, it’s playable somewhere in Commander. There are even many cases where the best cards in those formats are banned, but are perfectly legal in Commander. So when I hear people say that a card is only good in Commander, I assume that they are talking about Necropotence or Survival of the Fittest.


There is another side of this story, as well, but this seems to get less coverage in set review shows. Legendary creatures are the centerpiece of Commander, so naturally this format should have a better appreciation for what makes a good legend. More often than not, legendary creatures are at their best in Commander where the singleton construction rules prevent the legend rule from being a drawback. I always chuckle a bit when I see a Vendilion Clique cast in some other format and I can’t help but think to myself, “their deck would be so much better if they didn’t have all this other junk and they could just play like…fifteen Cliques!” That’s what it’s like in Commander.


Decks/Games Are Slower

People often conflate “Commander, the format” with multiplayer games in general. That’s an easy mistake to make and if I were a better person it would be an easy thing to forgive. Unfortunately for everyone, I’ve got 100% of my daily recommended condescension before I even get out of bed in the morning.


Commander isn’t slow. Commander is ridiculously fast. Sol Ring is THE defining card of this format. Mana acceleration is the one thing you can’t leave home without, and it makes for faster games. The real problem is your friends.


Multiplayer is a slow process. Social play is a slow process, but that’s a feature of taste rather than one of strategy. If I’m just shooting the breeze with my friends, I don’t care if I finish ten games in an hour or none; I’m there to enjoy the company. Now, if I’m grinding on MTGO and I need to get a hundred test games done before the end of the week, then my time matters much more. Those are completely different situations, but they both involve playing Commander.


I can see how people get these ideas. These perceptions are an amalgamation of social dynamics, multiplayer politics, and a genuine slow pace of play, but none of this has anything to do with the speed of the format. In actuality, Commander decks are capable of consistent and fast kills. Turn five or six wins are very common, even with forty life. Vintage definitely has more turn one kills than Commander, but other than that, I can’t think of a faster format. And that being said, right now Vintage is clogged up with Workshop decks that slow the game to an agonizing grind. The best decks in Legacy right now are Counterbalance and Lands. Look at your format…now look at mine. Now back at yours…but now look at mine.  


You Can Play Whatever You Want/The Format is Wide Open

Well, you technically can. Each playgroup is different and some are going to be more casual than others. This is really aimed at the more competitive/cutthroat metagames. No one is going to stop you from building “Pillowfort.dec,” but you aren’t going to get very far. If you really want to swim with the sharks in Commander, you need to be prepared to do a couple of things in your script:


  • Survive on Minimal Lands: It’s not exactly like playing four copies of Wasteland in Legacy, but if you have a shaky manabase you can be dead before you take your second turn. If your deck can’t beat Wasteland you’re gonna have a bad time.

  • Destroy an artifact: When you draw the fast mana, your deck is great. When they draw the fast mana their deck is great. Symmetry in game design naturally pushes towards balance. To swing things in your favor, you need to deny some of those broken draws to your opponent. Usually this starts by countering/smashing/stealing their accelerator.

  • Counter a Spell: Blue has always been a controversial topic in casual Magic. It’s particularly polarizing in Commander. Blue players often draw a larger proportional share of negative attention in playgroups that swing more towards the Timmy side of things. No matter what your personal feelings on the matter are, we live in a reality where counterspells remain the most effective means of not losing to broken decks. If you want to have any chance of executing your game plan, you have to protect yourself. Seriously consider whether any other color, or any other type of card, will empower you to do that. If there is something better, I haven’t seen it.

  • Break the Game: This is perhaps the most difficult thing to believe for Commander outsiders. If you haven’t played much of the format, you won’t really appreciate how many degenerate interactions are possible. Simply put, if your deck isn’t capable of doing something unusually powerful, then you are starting from behind. Commander games just don’t usually end in a whimper. We like to go out with a bang. The way I see it, if you don’t do something broken, somebody else will.


So, yeah, any deck can be competitive…as long as it’s generally a Blue combo deck with tons of disruption and a land destruction sub theme.


Happy Holidays.



“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” – 2015 ReviewStrategy: “In General” – Annoying the Weary >>