Sunday, February 10, 2013

Biggest Effect, Least Mana

In other posts, I talked about how cards that were good in constructed formats are often good in Commander. I also talked about how the designers create a relationship between cost and effect when designing cards. So, what can you do with this information?

Whenever I am selecting cards for a deck, I use a website like to search. Something as simple as "draw a card" shows up in every color and in lots of different ways. Certain cards rise to the top depending on what I am trying to accomplish with the deck, the theme, and how I think it will play when it is all put together.

For example, if I wanted to put a deck together for a constructed tournament (like Legacy), I look for cards that give me the biggest effect for the least amount of mana. The priority is to get the effect for the least amount of mana. In Commander, the priority is the other way around. I still want the card with the biggest effect for the least amount of mana, but in Commander, I the biggest effect is the priority.

Here's a simple example of how this works. Let's say that I am building a quick, Black / Red deck for Legacy and I want to include some burn. For one red mana, Lightning Bolt is an instant-speed, 3 damage spell. Boom. At one Phyrexian red mana, Gut Shot does its thing, but it only does 1 damage. A while back, they slowed down the direct damage by printing Shock for one red mana and 2 damage. Shock is inferior to Lightning Bolt. They go back and forth on Lightning Bolt and Shock depending on the set, but one of those two spells is usually the benchmark for the mana-to-damage ratio curve.

Lightning BoltShockGut Shot

Now, let's say that I am building a Black / Red Commander deck. Do I want Lightning Bolt, Shock, or Gut Shot? I probably don't want any of these spells because even though they are efficient, they don't do much in the grand scheme of things. In a game that can last more than 10 turns with a whole table full of players, 3 damage isn't going to cut it. Besides, there's a really good chance that I'll have the mana to support spells that cost way more than one red. So, what I really want is a spell that hits everyone or everything at the table for lots of damage at the lowest mana cost, but the priority in this format is the damage not the mana.

So, a spell like Disaster Radius for 5RR (7cc mana) costs a lot more than Lightning Bolt, but the effect can really swing the game. Sure, you can't drop Disaster Radius out of nowhere to burn a little creature that is giving you trouble, but you can drop it out of nowhere to really flip the game in your favor. How about each of your opponents creatures take X damage?

Disaster Radius

Another way to look at this is in one-vs-one constructed formats, turns 1-4 really matter. Games are often decided in those turns. Decks that hold out and take a long view of the game can work too, but you're still only running up against one opponent. In Commander, you're looking down a lot of barrels and turns 1-4 are almost always just setup turns. You might play a ramp spell or two. You might play a small utility creature or something that gives you a small incremental advantage. You probably aren't coming out guns blazing and dropping bombs all across the table.

By turn 5 though, things get interesting. Many players will have access to their Commander and a good amount of mana thanks to all the land dropping and ramping from the first 4 turns. But, you still probably aren't going to cast a flurry of spells that turn. This is where looking at your spells as bigger effects starts to matter. All the way up to turn 10, you are going to have enough mana to play one or two spells per turn. So, if I have 7 mana available, I want a big spell, the biggest spell I can get and still cast it. Bolting someone for 3 and passing my turn is not what I want to do here. Pointing a Flame Wave at someone looks pretty good though.

Flame Wave

Things Players Hate

I touched on this in a few previous posts, but now seems as good a time as any to list my personal rules for deckbuilding since I am adding a new "no-no" to the list.

Okay, here's the thing: You can build your Commander deck any way you want to. It's a great idea to follow the banned list if you are going to be playing against strangers since it puts everyone on the same page. At the same time, lots of us play with the same group week after week, so if your group has a separate banned list, go with that.

Now, with that out of the way, there are a few main themes and game mechanics that suck to play against. This isn't a universal truth, but it's probably close to one. If you are the kind of player that takes special joy in playing with the things on this list, that's cool. Just know that the rest of the table is probably going to start looking for excuses to not invite you to the next gaming session. :)

Off the top of my head, here's the list of major items that I won't include in a deck. I might put one or two cards in that do something on this list, especially if they serve a good purpose; but, I won't make it a "main theme."

No-no List
  • Hand Destruction
  • Land Destruction
  • Eldrazi (Annihilator, See Land Destruction)
  • Combo
  • Bounce
  • Creature Steal (This one is new.)

Watch List
  • Taking Extra Turns
  • Life Gain
  • Counter Magic
  • Poison / Infect

Hand Destruction / Land Destruction / Eldrazi

As it turns out, people like to play the spells they put in their decks. Who knew? Things that directly interfere with being able to play the game at a basic level are totally part of the game - a part of the game that sucks to play against.

My heart is sad that the Eldrazi fall into this category. They are damn cool. But, I hate the look on my opponents faces when I attack into them with one (or more!) of the monsters.

Words of WasteWildfireUlamog, the Infinite Gyre


There's a big difference between synergy and outright combo. No one cares that you play Sylvan Library and Abundance in your green deck and draw three cards per turn with no loss of life. That's just cool. What people care about is your crazy, fifth turn, storm combo deck that kills everyone. It's neat once, maybe.


Same deal here. One or two bounce spells are fine. Bouncing everything, over and over, falls into the "not getting to play" camp. A camp that sucks.

Creature Steal

This one is new to my list. As usual, there's a story that goes along with this.

Chris (Kaervek), Will (Kemba), and I (Bolas) were playing a quick three-player game of Commander. Will played Kemba on turn two or three, equipped her up with a couple things including Darksteel Plate, and started pumping out filthy, filthy cats. I took Kemba with Treachery on turn five. I believe that if I hadn't done that, Chris and I would have gotten slaughtered with steriod-rage-kitty beat down. Will had Crusade out too, for good measure. But, that's not the point.

The point is that between Treachery, Slave of Bolas, Control Magic, and other similar spells, I was able to steal creatures left and right. When I took Kaervek, I saw the light dim in Chris' eyes. It's just not fun to play against that much creature steal. And I'm not having fun when it's at the expense of others.

The problem is that if I cast Murder, I'm down one card and my opponent is down one creature. But, if I cast Control Magic on that same creature, it's a double-plus swing. My opponent is down one creature still, but now I'm even because I gained a creature. Oh, and now I'm going to beat your face in with it. Thanks.

MurderControl Magic

Taking Extra Turns

As for the Watch List, taking an extra turn once in a while is annoying. It's not that it's a powerful effect (which is really is), it's that it means they don't get to play. People are already waiting for 3-8 other people to finish their turns before they get a crack at casting the cools spells they brought to the table. When you take an extra turn, it means that they have to wait even longer.

Life Gain

You want to pick up a handful of life points here and there? Great. But, don't be that guy that spikes to hundreds or thousands of life. Yes, you can still lose to Commander damage, but too much life gain completely nullifies a lot of decks out there that can't chew through that much life before the universe suffers heat death.

Counter Magic

Counterspell (and it's ilk) is not quite as powerful in a multiplayer game, given that there are usually too many targets to stop everything from getting through. So, Counter Magic is only on my watch list. If I find myself cramming too much Counter Magic into a deck, I take a step back.

This also applies to "tucking" the Commander with Hinder. It's a valid strategy, but against the right deck and Commander, it means the player you target is basically out of the game. Is that their fault for relying so much on their Commander? Maybe. But, what if they love that particular Legend? What then?

HinderGather Specimens

Poison / Infect

Until or unless they make it more than 10 poison counters to take a guy out, this one stays on the watch list. There are a handful of ways to sail in under the radar with some sort of evasion and take a guy out in one or two swings. Unless your opponents are set up to handle this particular line of attack, it's like the ultimate way of saying "you don't get to play."

Playing against more than one opponent makes the "no-no" list flexible. I mean, if you start to show strength at the table, these things have a way of self-correcting when everyone targets you with their bombs and their guns. But, just because everyone wants to put pressure on you doesn't mean they can. Destroying lands and stealing Commanders can push a player towards irrelevance in short order.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Playing for Points

A long time ago, when we started playing the Commander format, we did a lot of sitting around, posturing and not attacking one another. In addition to being new to the format, the reason we did this is that we played with the understanding that "Last Man Standing" wins the game.

While I don't have a problem with that approach, it tends to incentivize a certain kind of deck-building and a certain style of play. These incentives lead to really long games. It also tends to choke out creativity in deck design since cards that would be spectacular, fun, new, different, or just plain funny get passed over for cards that keep you alive or push through that last point of damage.

Nicol BolasZur the EnchanterTeneb, the HarvesterCaptain Sisay

Last weekend, we had a 4-player game going with Nicol Bolas (me!), Zur the Enchanter, Teneb, the Harvester, and Captain Sisay. Fun stuff. I lost first. Let me explain. We were testing the modified Commander rules I posted earlier, the rules for new players. The exception was that we were all playing our standard Commander decks (not the 60-card version in the rules).

Battle MasteryEdge of the DivinityMaze of Ith

I lost first when Chris, playing Zur, hard cast Battle Mastery on his Commander, giving him double strike. That's bad enough, but in the modified rules, Commanders deal double damage to players. In other words, Zur + double strike = Quad Damage. When Zur attacked, Chris tutored up Edge of the Divinity (I think) and ended up swinging for lethal. Mind you, I had Chris dead-to-rights the turn before, but Ben, playing Captain Sisay, saved Chris by untapping my attacker with Maze of Ith.

Ben is a good player. And kudos to him for keeping Chris alive and pushing his vengeance my way the following turn. Ben ended up as "Last Man Standing" that game, but right after the game my mind started racing to figure out what cards I could pull and replace to counter the strategies that lead to my untimely demise. But that would mean taking out cards I really like, neat cards. Or, sitting back for an hour and not getting to use my beasties.

The way around this is to create other ways to win. We played for points for a while and really liked it. For one, it encouraged a certain recklessness because if you could take someone out it was often worth the points you'd pick up even if you weren't the last one left in the game. Armada Games posted the points and conditions they use (lots of them!). We never used this many conditions, but we are thinking of going back to points. It makes it so that you can't simply win by killing everyone. Or, maybe you can, but maybe the guy brings a deck to the table that is designed to pick up lots of points from meeting other conditions. Can you kill him quick enough to stop him from racking up those points?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Bolas Starts Taking Heads

Lots of changes to my Nicol Bolas deck now that the new Dimir cards are out in Gatecrash. Let's review.

Cards I took out:

Slice and Dice
Oblivion Stone

VoidSlice and DiceOblivion Stone

Sweepers are fine, but I got tired of wiping the board so much. Resetting everything prolongs the game and tends to wear players out. It's a great control strategy, but I wanted to tone it down in this deck. Besides, with all the control magic in this deck, I don't actually want to kill the creatures; I want to take them!

Savor the Moment

Savor the Moment

I'm still a fan of this card. It is especially useful with Planeswalkers. For 1UU, it replaces itself with a draw, gives you another attack, and gives you another round of planeswalker activations. I still have two other "time walk" spells in the deck, but I might pull Walk the Aeons and put this back in.

Dreamstone Hedron
Recurring Insight

TidingsDreamstone HedronRecurring Insight

Most of the time, I have spells that I want to play that actually do something. Drawing cards for the sake of drawing cards almost never takes priority. Taking these cards out made some room for the stuff I added (below). I still have Fact or Fiction, the flying Fact or Fiction (Sphinx of Uthuun), Kozilek, Rhystic Study, the Jaces, Future Sight, the walking Future Sight (Magus of the Future), and more. Getting access to more cards is rarely a problem.

Thirst for Knowledge

Thirst for KnowledgeBrainstorm

For similar reasons as above, I wanted to tone down the deck manipulation and put in more effects (below). I still have Ponder, Impulse, Halimar Depths, Forbidden Alchemy, and Scroll Rack.

Cards I put in:

Consuming Aberration
Mind Grind
Keening Stone

Consuming AberrationMind GrindKeening Stone

Consuming Aberration and Mind Grind are from Gatecrash. Both are pretty damn cool. Both can take big bites out of every opponents' library at the same time. Along with Keening Stone, these spells bolster the milling theme and go along with Geth, the Jaces, and Telemin Performance. These make Bloodchief's Ascension, Liliana Vess, Sepulchral Primordial, and Wrexial better.

Whispersilk Cloak

Whispersilk Cloak

This should probably be Darksteel Plate, but since I am not running the Whispersilk Cloak in any of my other decks it's "okay" to put in here. My Bolas deck is only running cards that I am not running anywhere else. I wanted at least one way to keep my creatures from getting jacked or killed since they form one of the major themes in this deck.

Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief
Wrexial the Risen Deep
Sepulchral Primordial

Drana, Kalastria BloodchiefWrexial, the Risen DeepSepulchral Primordial

I wanted to up the creature count for two reasons. One, it helps me protect my planeswalkers. And two, it pushes the "useful creature" theme I'm working on. I like the idea of creatures with reusable (or powerful) abilities. These three creatures fit the bill.

Dark Depths

Dark Depths

The flavor on this land is awesome and very Bolas. You drop the land. Load it up with counters. Then, sit back and slowly funnel mana into it until, well, the thing that should not be. I don't have any tricky ways to remove the counters. And, I'm okay with that. Plus, I have the foil Marit Lage token. It'll be a personal victory to get that guy into play at some point.

All Is Dust

All Is Dust

I know that I said I wanted to get rid of the sweepers. And I did tone it down some by removing the three spells above. But, bringing a knife to a gun fight isn't a great idea either. All Is Dust takes care of most problems by getting around those pesky "indestructable" permanents, regenerators, and more! It's a one-stop death shop. When you absolutely, positively, need (almost) everything dead, accept no substitutes. Great artwork, too. :)