This entry is part 4 of 14 in the series Decksplanations

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth


Hello and welcome back to Decksplanations. Over the last couple of weeks we have been talking about how I approach increasing the power levels of my decks. So far we have covered the concepts of:


  • Solidarity – Focusing on what you do best and maximizing your chances of achieving it, removing elements that don’t advance your gameplan.
  • Durability – The ability to overcome the most common obstacles that would prevent your victory. Be difficult to stop.
  • Interactivity –  Capitalizing on interaction advantage. Be superior to your opponents in the ways that matter most and capitalize on their weaknesses.


As always, the information that I am presenting compliments and builds on what I have already discussed in the series. If you missed the previously posted articles I encourage you to go back and read them, if not start at the very beginning of “Decksplanations.” Today we are discussing the fourth of five parts of power: proactivity. Let it begin!


“To hell with circumstances. I create opportunities.” – Bruce Lee


Carpe Ludum!


I have discussed a lot of highly functionalized terms here on “Decksplanations,” words that have slightly different meanings within the context of strategy or gaming. Virtually all of the pillars of my deck building process use one of these words. None is a more direct translation of its normal usage than proactivity, so I’m just going to go ahead and drop the Webster’s version in here:




  • (adj) tending to initiate change rather than reacting to events



Begin immediately and relentlessly pursue your goal. Whatever your plan is in the game, get on the path as fast as you can. That sums it up right there. We don’t need to wait around for someone else to get things started. Go take control of the game. No one is stopping you. In any strategy game, we want the ability to identify what our opponent is doing and react to it effectively; that’s good interactivity, remember? Moreover, though, I want the ability to not NEED to react to my opponent. A proactive strategy puts your opponent in a losing situation immediately and forces them to do something about it. Have the discipline to advance your game plan whenever it is safe to do so and have the wisdom to know what that looks like. You can often put the game away before the other person has even started playing. This is actually equally true in multiplayer, sometimes even more so because of the way decks are designed in Commander.


People tend to take their time doing things. Something you learn from management is that  deadlines are critical to controlling the pace of a workflow. If I gave you two months to accomplish a task that would only take two hours, it might take you weeks before you finished it. Heck, if you remember college, then you know what I am talking about. That final paper really only took about ten hours to finish; a weekend’s worth of consolidated effort is more than enough time to complete it. But I bet not many people out there finish their final papers during the first weekend of classes. The human mind has an incredible ability to limit its own potential.


You can step right in the middle of this process though. If you instead give your employee thirty minutes to accomplish a task that should take two hours, they will work at their maximum output in a feverish attempt not to miss the deadline. Stress, caffeine, and adrenaline will blend a potent cocktail of productivity. They probably won’t get everything done, at least not without some mistakes, but they might complete 75% of the task and only needed 25% of the time. I encourage you to try this on yourself every once in a while. Getting addicted to getting things done can really ramp up the trajectory of your life and have a positive effect on your self-image and life ambitions.


I’ll offer an example from my personal life: I hate reading books. I do an incredible amount of reading and learning, but none of it is really for pleasure. Work, self development, professional education, news, etc. I got a ton of. I wanted to read NOVELS for FUN. So I made my new years resolution to read a book every month this year. How am I doing? From January through April I only finished one book. I almost thought it was a lost cause, but then I changed the subject matter. I started picking books that really appealed to my interests rather than what was popular or recommended by my friends. In May and June I finished ten books. What a difference, eh? The interesting part is that I didn’t spend any more time reading. I wasn’t just picking shorter books either; I was tearing through 50 times more pages with the same or less free time to get it done. The only thing that changed was that my heart was in it now. I wasn’t just committed – you can commit to go to your sister-in-law’s wedding and not enjoy it -I was really enjoying myself. By removing my own limiting factors, I was able to absolutely demolish the speed limit on my book consumption. I actively wanted to know what was on the next page so I made a more concerted effort to maximize my time, I was better able to ignore distractions and improve my focus.


These are the main takeaways. Remember them, because they’re going to be important in a minute here:


  1. Start advancing your game plan immediately, you have NO EXCUSE not to.
  2. Taking advantage of the time that other people waste. Forcing them to react or lose will result in lots of relatively easy wins.
  3. Remove your limiting factors, preferably before they can slow you down.


Gone ‘Goldfishing’

What up 90’s?


The most important test for how proactive your deck is on average is called ‘goldfishing.’ It’s so named because it represents how long it would take for you to win in a vacuum, with no resistance or pressure from your opponent, as if they were a dead gold fish. Or one in a tank, I guess. Or even if they were a ham sandwich. I’m going to keep calling it ‘goldfishing,’ but it should really be called the “ham sandwich” test.


To get a feel for how fast your deck can kill a goldfish, just play some mock games by yourself and keep track of when you get past the point where losing is realistic. You can deal forty damage, mill your opponent out, ‘Slaver lock – doesn’t matter. We just want it done fast. After enough test draws, you should get an average for how fast your deck can win if it isn’t molested –  the faster the better. This ties very closely to an idea I touched on last week: the fundamental turn. I talked about how to position your deck so that it can take advantage of the weaknesses in your opponent’s strategy, with one of the ways being that you can go for the kill on a turn where they aren’t yet ready to stop you. In terms of interactivity, getting the better of the speed interaction by having a lower fundamental turn than your opponent is a great way to get an advantage. With proactivity, we are concerned with isolating this concept and training it in the abstract. If you want to end up being faster than your opponent, the key thing that you need to do is GET FASTER.


There is not a hard cap on what your fundamental turn needs to be, especially in multiplayer where games can drag into that abyssal grey no-man’s land of the ‘late-late game.’ For single player, I would push you to try and arrive at the late game with a massive advantage, if not having the game all sewn up. That sets the benchmark for turns six, seven, and eight. This will position you to win before people can do anything really absurd like cast an Eldrazi or turn up the wonk with The Great Aurora.


Adopting a Proactive Posture


You can’t control how your draw matches up against your opponent from within the game. You have to start addressing this problem in the deckbuilding process. The tricky bit is that many cards can play an important part in a balanced breakfast proactive game plan. Even answer cards, typically thought of as being reactive (the name sort of implies it) can serve a role in your deck’s game plan. Whether or not a card can be used proactively needs to be evaluated on a deck-by-deck basis. My general rule of thumb is to ask two questions: is this helping me get to my end goal? and can I use it without being prompted? Example:


  • Counterspell absolutely helps me get to the end game with enough life to stabilize, so it advances my game plan. However, despite being efficient and cheap on mana, I can’t use it actively.
  • Divination may not preserve my life total, but it does help me get ahead on cards. That is important for a Control deck’s plan, so it gets a check there. Now, even though it is more expensive and arguably a worse overall card than Counterspell, it doesn’t require anything from my opponent to use it. In Commander, I’m going to be pretty safe just casting it and enjoying my cards.


It is important to note that this is just a hypothetical. That shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of Divination. Keep in mind what we discussed in “Be Consistent, Not Redundant”: if a better version exists, you should play that instead.


Rather than concluding with an arbitrary list of cards that I deem’ to be proactive I am going to finish up by talking a bit about each of those three key strategy points and some cards that I use to promote them. These suggestions should be available on any budget.


Starting Immediately


If today was your last day…then tomorrow would come too late guys.


Turn one is usually your first opportunity to do anything in the game. Why not start there? Here are some one-drops that I have played that have helped my decks become more proactive:


White: Mother of Runes. She can just be a nightmare for some decks to play against.


Green: Scute Mob. I don’t think Scooter has really ever gotten there for me, but it does demand an answer.


Red: Goblin Welder. Despite being in every single iteration of the MTGO Cube, people still don’t readily play this in Commander as far as I have seen. This card can be a major pain in the keister with Tangle Wire or Winter Orb, but I wouldn’t be disappointed with Armillary Sphere. It isn’t straight up broken, but it’s Red. What else can you do?


Black: Demonic Consultation. If you are on the play and didn’t mulligan, you have a ~6.5% chance of losing the game straight up. If not, you have a great way to find key pieces like Isochron Scepter. I heard somewhere that Commander players like variance…


Blue: Peek There are so many good cantrips that I am already playing in my Blue decks that I find it impossible to create space for B-listers like this, but it is a great alternative if you regularly play unknown opponents.


Artifact: Mana Vault. There is nothing like a turn two Bribery to let people know that you mean business. It is mind-boggling to me that the RC considers this to be unhealthy for the format, but refuses to ban it. If you aren’t into these kind of shenanigans, then Wayfarer’s Bauble can move up to the first string.


Take Advantage of the Time That Others Waste


Last week, I talked a little bit about generally lowering your mana curves so that you could take advantage of spots on the curve where your opponent(s) either can’t respond to you or are busy with other things. This is key to lowering your fundamental turn and leveraging the interaction advantage of sidestepping opposing answers. My goal is to win all games where my opponent stumbles. With a consistent deck, I should have fewer losses due to my own awkward draws. With a proactive deck, I can make sure that my opponent doesn’t get the chance to recover from a bad keep.


Here are some early-game plays that match up well against common play situations:


White: Student of Warfare. This performs well against decks that are overweight on counterspells and underweight on removal, especially on the play. It provides good value against any deck that is generally slow to react or requires multiple turns of ramp. You can often get in nine or more damage before they have a way to even trade with it.


Green: Predator Ooze. Super annoying for everyone except White. Great with Nylea and Xenagos.


Red: Dwarven Miner and Viashino Heretic provide key resource denial that can make Red decks viable in control mirrors.


Black: The entire ‘lady fingers’ suite. Cheap card advantage is a key path to victory against decks that want to trade resources early on and then finish in the late game. You will be able to get ahead early on with a few incremental bits of card advantage. (Sidenote: It is amazing to me how much more expensive great Black cards are these days. You used to be able to get a Necropotence for about a dollar.)


Blue: Fatespinner. Under normal circumstances, this will prevent early attacks.  If that rides too close wonk territory, play Coralhelm Commander. They are pretty much the same, right? This presents early pressure that you can back up with counterspells for a reliable source of damage. You can attach equipment or send it into the air once your opponent is able to land some threats of their own.


Artifact: Mimic Vat. Five years later, this card is still sweet. It allows you exploit decks that are overweight on creature removal, but lack answers to non-creature permanents. It’s fantastic for powering through board sweepers and generating incremental advantages with enter-the-battlefield effects.


Remove Your Limiting Factors


If there are ways that you could potentially lose the game, you should close off those paths as quickly as possible. The most obvious way to not lose is just to win, but that option isn’t usually available at the beginning of a typical game, so we need some tool to delay our opponent and push the game into a phase where our plans can come to fruition. In the game of Magic, that role is filled by disruption. Let’s take a look at some disruptive cards that can make you more durable against common strategic-level answers.


White: Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. A tax effect with a body can be very disruptive. On the play, it is virtually guaranteed to start getting in damage. Once you get the turn back you will be able to have counters available to protect her or you can continue to twist the screws with something like Lodestone Golem…blegh. Tax effects are a great way to slow down opponents enough for you to claim victory before they can establish late game dominance. Delaying early mana acceleration can have ripple effects throughout the game. In general, hate bears of any kind can fill this role, although you must select cards that have abilities which will be relevant against your known opponents and their common lines of play.


Green: Xantid Swarm. Same scenario as Student of Warfare. Great against counterspells, weak to removal. While this doesn’t provide its own clock, it has been used to great success in combo decks for years. Sometimes sneaking through a key spell like Splinter Twin is enough to win.


Red: Impending Disaster. It is not likely to make you the most popular gentleman at the table, but backed up with artifact acceleration it can devastate some decks’ ability to reach the late game.


Black: Duress. It doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive, it just has to work. Duress has been doing work for almost two decades. It hits mana ramp, opposing answers, many types of threats, and nearly all card draw. Nothing makes a hand go from “keep” to “scoop” faster than this beauty.


Artifact: Defense Grid. There are a lot of cards that are terrible, but would be so good if they were Instants, instead of Sorceries. Imagine if we could turn the tables and force people to play in their main phases, so many cards start to look silly.


Given that this is the article about building decks that are more proactive, it is only fitting that I close with a word of encouragement to motivate you to get out there and seize your game, a tagline that we’re want to say around these parts…


“Let’s get it!”




Decksplanations is all about sharing my deckbuilding philosophy. If you want to change how you behave, you must change how you think. The same is true of your decks. My goal is you give you the foundation to analyze and improve your decks. In each article I will share one idea that shapes how I approach creating a new deck.


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