Monday, September 30, 2013

Every Slot Must Do A Lot

This is Commander. Your deck is 100 cards. Your opponents number in the threes, fours, fives, or more! Every single card in your deck must matter or else you simply pass your turn into oblivion.

I've written before about what you are trying to do when you sit down to a game of Commander. It's not about winning. It's about winning with style. I don't win most Commander games I play, but I do my best to create interesting board states that make the game into something compelling and memorable for everyone involved. I've also written about lands that come into play tapped and passing my turn without doing anything. That's no fun for me or anyone else. Plus, it seems like it takes for-ever for my turn to come around again.

Every slot must do a lot.

In the course of a typical game, you might see one-third to one-half of your deck. That means you won't be playing the same game every time. You do silly things. Your opponents do silly things. Commander is messy. The board state is in flux. Spells are cast and countered. The stack can get huge. The individual card choices matter as much when you are building your deck as when you are playing your deck.

Let's look at an example. Take Sol Ring, please!

Sol Ring

Sol Ring is one of those cards. The ancient one. Banned and restricted and never to see the light of day. Totally legal in Commander, though. Why? Because what makes Sol Ring really good in a constructed duel is almost useless in most Commander games. Check it out.

If I'm playing a Vintage match, good ol' Sol Ring does some pretty broken things by effectively speeding my deck up a turn or more. It costs one mana and can be tapped immediately for two mana. On the next turn, it pumps out two mana again. Imagine this scenario with Sol Ring in your opening hand:

Turn 1: Land, Sol Ring
Turn 2: Land

Now, on turn 2, I have 4 mana available. I'm "two lands" up on my non-Sol-Ring-playing opponent. I can do all kinds of dirty deeds with 4 mana. Not to mention chaining Sol Ring into Sol Ring. No wonder it is restricted in Vintage and banned everywhere else. It's "broken" in those formats because it puts one player too far ahead too quickly.

But how about in Commander? Imagine this scenario with Sol Ring in your opening hand:

Turn 1: Land, Sol Ring
Turn 2: Land

Whooptie do. At best, you power out something that either paints a target on your head or allows you to chip away at one opponent (of many) who starts at 40 life. Good luck with that. If you happen to be playing combo, powering out stuff can still work to your advantage, but there is a special place in hell reserved for you anyway. By all means, please end the round more quickly so that we can get on to a real game.

In other words, while Sol Ring is damn near an auto-include in a constructed Vintage deck (and would be in other formats if it was legal), it is fighting for a card slot in Commander against a lot of other options. For example, I run Sol Ring in my demons deck because the deck wants to sit back and build up anyway. "What's he playing over there? Sol Ring? Oh, ok." Sol Ring almost never registers as a threat on its own, so I get a pass while still developing my mana. And I never play it on turn one. But in my other decks, I don't run Sol Ring. I don't need it. I'd rather fill that slot in my deck with something that does something right then and there.

This isn't a "right / wrong" type of thing. You can run Sol Ring. I'm just saying that every slot must do a lot. What is your Sol Ring doing for you? If you have it in your opening hand, are you actually powering out something special that wins you the game? If you draw it later, wouldn't you have rather drawn something else? A threat? An answer? Anything.

Hell, at least Mind Stone replaces itself if you draw it mid-to-late game.

Mind StoneMaralen of the Mornsong

When you are building your deck, pretend that your opponent has a Maralen of the Mornsong in play. He is almost certainly tutoring up combo or lock components. Are you putting cards into your deck that you would tutor for? It's not a perfect example because all kinds of crazy things can be happening in a real game, but if you are essentially in top deck mode halfway through the game, what card do you want to see smiling back at you on the draw?

Winning or losing, as long as I can cast my spells I'm going to enjoy the game. But I want my spells to matter. Making those spells matter starts when you build your deck. Every slot must do a lot. In Commander, it's all about the bombs.


If you find yourself disagreeing with me, consider how often you play against only one or two opponents. This probably happens a lot. You know a couple of people who play Magic and you play Commander with them into the wee hours of the morning. When you play with so few opponents, it's more like a duel where developing early and gaining a quick advantage matters a lot more. If you lose before you can cast your bombs, it doesn't matter how cool your spells are. But, in the bigger games, the late game matters more. And unless someone is running combo, you are likely to see the late game. So, plan for it.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

What An Amazing Game

You know how you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

This is my 100th post to Aye Commander. And this game never ceases to amaze me.

I woke up on Saturday feeling like I was pushed under water for a few minutes. Everyone at work has been dropping like flies, so it's fitting that I would make it to the weekend before the sickness caught up with me. My family and I moved a few months ago, even further from my friendly local gaming store, and between weekend projects and unpacking I haven't made it out to my regular Saturday Commander "tournament" at the shop. But I was really looking forward to getting out there again and slinging some spells, so I powered down some coffee, took a hot shower, and make the trek. I'm glad I did.

During my hiatus (moving!), the FLGS took the opportunity to do some remodeling. They actually opened the store up, big time. Supposedly, 150 players can be tapping lands for mana simultaneously now. They were running a grand prix qualifier but we still had enough people for a couple of tables running Commander. It was on.

Nefarox, Overlord of GrixisJhoira of the GhituAzusa, Lost but SeekingRiku of Two Reflections

I got matched up with Jhoira, Azusa, and Riku. I was playing demons with Nefarox at the helm. It was a good match all the way through. Even though Riku was running the Kiki-Jiki / Zealous Conscripts combo, he didn't entwine a Tooth and Nail until well into the game for it. And guess what? Azusa actually stopped the combo with a Beast Within! It was an up and down sort of game, with power switching all around the table throughout the match. I managed to flip Elbrus - only the second time ever. Jhoira ended up winning on the back of a suspended Artisan of Kozilek with Pathrazer of Ulamog in the graveyard, then casting Obliterate. There was no recovering from Annihilator 5 every turn. All in all, maybe the best game of Commander I've ever played, though.

But that's not what amazes me about Magic the Gathering.

Nefarox, Overlord of GrixisBraids, Conjurer AdeptNicol Bolas

I'm running three main Commander decks right now. Demons (Nefarox), Big Beats (Braids), and Bolas Is Behind It All! I keep track of my decks at What amazes me is that even after all these years, after all these individual games, my "maybe board" just keeps growing. I still want to rip apart decks and build them back up. I still want to switch out cards just to see if I can change how my deck plays. I still find new card combos and synergies. I still want to keep playing.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

What is power creep?

A couple of weeks ago, Sam Stoddard over at published an article titled, "Dealing With Power Creep." He had this to say:
If we need to increase the power of the new cards we are putting in packs to keep the game exciting, then we will quickly outmode cards in the past and create a further requirement to push things in the future.
I'm going to say this right off the bat: The designers for MTG have done an outstanding job over the past 20 years (!) of balancing the game and not giving in to power creep. This post isn't about bashing anyone.

So, what is power creep?

Sam defines it as, "over time the cards become more powerful." Indeed. As a player, I don't really want that to happen. But there are instances where it makes sense and the designers do push the power level around. You can see that in Theros. Let's take a look at how this works.

Ancestral Recall

Here's a simple concept from Magic: Cast this spell, draw some cards. This spell existed in the very first set. It was called Ancestral Recall. And it was broken. I talked in an earlier post about what "broken" means, but basically it means that the card "breaks" the format where it is played. It's "too good." In fact, it's banned in every format except Vintage where it is restricted. It's a whisper of a rumor of ancient power at this point.

So, the designers needed to figure out the "correct" power level for drawing cards with a blue spell. There are only a few levers to pull to make this work:
  • Casting cost
  • Spell type (instant vs. sorcery)
  • Number of cards drawn
  • Who draws the cards (choices)
  • Additional effects or delays

That's it. That's what you have to work with if you are designing a card-drawing spell.

To make this simple, let's look at drawing two cards at a time. That's what the designers have generally come up with for a baseline card-drawing spell, one that replaces itself and gives you one additional card. You can see a search of all blue instants or sorceries that draw two cards at by clicking here. The least complicated example is Divination.

DivinationCounsel of the Soratami

Divination costs a total of 3 mana, one of which is blue mana. It is a sorcery. And only you draw the cards. You don't get to force your opponent to draw cards with this spell. As a side note, Divination is a "functional equivalent" to an older card called Counsel of the Soratami. This was likely done for "flavor" reasons, not wanting the Soratami to appear in the M10 base set. As a player, I don't mind functional reprints at the common level. Commons tend to be relatively inexpensive, so reprinting a common with a different name doesn't ruin my day. But, it does allow a player to use up to 8 copies of a particular card in a given deck which is an important consideration for the designers.

To actually have power creep, you have to have context. Context is all of the other cards that exist in the game or in the format you play. So, even though I'm going to be comparing newer cards to older cards, all of the existing cards fit together like a puzzle to create context. For example, check out the spell Catalog from the Urza's Saga set:


This spell looks a lot like Divination, but at instant speed. So that it is not strictly better than Divination, the designers gave it an additional clause. You still get to draw two cards, but with Catalog you have to discard a card too. Even though this spell was actually printed before Divination, the designers are wise to consider that it exists when creating new cards to avoid power creep (or at least to be aware of it).

In other words, if the designers had printed Divination at instant speed it would have been strictly better than Catalog. This is the very definition of power creep.

Perilous ResearchPulse of the GridInspiration

Now, you can see the pattern by looking at a few other spells and what they can do. Perilous Research costs a total of one less mana than Divination and it still draws two cards, but it's at instant speed. How do we balance that out? Well, you have to sacrifice a permanent when you cast it. Ouch. Pulse of the Grid, on the other hand, costs the same amount of mana as Divination except there is a higher commitment to blue mana (1UU vs. 2U). What do I get for this commitment? Instant speed and the possibility of getting the spell back to use again. Of course, I still need to discard a card. How about if I spend even more mana, now what do I get? For one additional colorless mana, Inspiration allows me to choose another player to draw the cards instead of me.

With only so many levers to pull when designing a card, there's always going to be the possibility of power creep. Imagine if I designed a card that was just like Divination except it cost 1U instead of 2U. That would be better, right? But that's almost never what players want. That kind of "race to the bottom" mentality would have ruined the game eons ago.

With Theros coming out as the 62nd (!) expansion to Magic, there's bound to be some power creep. It's been 20 years, after all. Some older cards, like Ancestral Recall, are not likely to ever see reprinting in a current set. They are simply too good. And, the designers are going to have to push the power levels around from time-to-time to balance things out. It's a good thing, if it's done right. I want to thank the designers for keeping a close eye on the game we play. Thank you for coming up with new ways to revisit the same themes and concepts. Thank you for keeping it interesting.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Theros Spoiler: Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, Erebos, God of the Dead, Whip of Erebos

Check out the current spoiler at MTGSalvation for more!

A few more cards have been spoiled that tickle my fancy. And by "my fancy," I generally lean toward blue and black. There's nothing quite like swinging with demons and drawing cards.

Up first! This guy:

Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver - he weaves... nightmares! Cool artwork. At 3 mana, easily castable, too. The +2 isn't too exciting on its own, but the -X ability is pretty awesome. And the -10 is as backbreaking as any planeswalker ultimate should be. It's my understanding that Wizards hasn't been moving forward with publishing Magic novels. Too bad. I'd like to read more about what makes this guy tick.

With an opening act like that, what do we do for a follow up? How about a dark god and his toys:

When I saw the artwork for Erebos before the card was actually spoiled, I was brimming with excitement. Check that guy out! A 5/7 indestructible for 4 mana is certainly nothing to sneeze at, even with the devotion requirement. Plus, card drawing. Yes! Add in his sexy whip and boom, we've got life gain to fuel all that card drawing. The tap ability on the Whip looks good enough to throw into just about any deck looking to get some mid-to-late-game mileage out of dead creatures without too much fuss.

How are we going to cast all these cool spells in Theros? How about with some cool temples:

Temple of Deceit is only one of a cycle of temples for different color combinations. I am not a fan of lands that come into play tapped. They stop me from casting my spells right away and I hate that! Now! Now! Er, anyway. What I am a big fan of is scrying. Well, lookie here. These temples (get it?) scry 1 when they come into play (get it?!). I'm not sure that this makes the cut in my three-color Commander decks since it does still come into play tapped, but it's worth a try.

This card seems good:

Hero's Downfall reminds me of something. What could it be?


Oh, that's right. Dammit Wizards. Really? Tag "or planeswalker" on there and bump it to rare is your plan? For crying out loud.

Moving on.

Here's a couple of fun cards I'd probably never run in my Commander decks, but hey look at all the flavor!

I can't wait to see someone alter the Akroan Horse into an Akroan Bunny. You know that's going to happen! And the flavor text on the Fabled Hero makes me think of how you'd write a hero for a Disney movie (with artwork to match).

Up last, check out this beard:

Prognostic Sphinx is in the running for best beard in Magic, I'd wager. Scry, scry, scry. It's cool flavor for this set. It fits with Sphinx creatures in general. And, I love it. I run Darksteel Pendant in anything that's not blue just so that I can manipulate my library. I wish it was discard a card to scry 3 instead of attacking to make it happen. There are too many times that I don't want to attack, but I always (always) want to scry.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Theros Spoiler: Curse of the Swine, Chained to the Rocks, Nighthowler, Read the Bones

Check out MTGSalvation for the rest of the Theros spoiler so far.

The more cards that get spoiled for Theros, the more exciting the flavor gets. Like Christina Aguilera, it Keeps Gettin' Better. Er, no wait. That's something else. Onto the cards!

"You have how many creatures over there ready to block my armada? Just four? Hmm. Bacon-wave for 4."

Curse of the Swine is crazy. I had an awesome deck that abused Ovinomancer a million years ago. I turned my opponent's creatures into sheep and then attacked into the flock with wolves. Endless fun. Now, I'm getting ready to relive the fun with boars.

Actually, Curse of the Swine seems like an incredibly efficient way to deal with lots of creatures - permanently. Even if X is something miniscule like 3, it exiles 3 creatures for 5 mana. How crazy is that? Sure, they get 2/2 boar tokens to replace them, but I can handle bacon beats. I really like that the card "sweeps" without actually sweeping.

"Your best blocker? I chain him to a rock and leave him to die."

Chained to the Rocks makes me want to high-five someone on the design team. That card totally gets it. Chaining something to a rock has to be one of the coolest ways to deal with a problem that anyone on any plane can muster.

"How many creatures do you have in your graveyard again?"

Nighthowler has restored my faith in the bestow mechanic. Go-go-gadet rare cards! Every spoiled "bestow" card so far has left me wondering when I would run this. I just keep thinking that the casting costs should be switched with the bestow costs. Mechanically, the designers came up with a new way to make the 2-for-1 nature of enchantments a little less of a problem: bestow the enchantment on a creature and when it dies, you get another creature out of the deal. How cool would it have been to make it more expensive to cast as a creature and less expensive to bestow instead of the other way around?

Casting of BonesNether ShadowAshen Ghoul

In the way, way back time, Casting of Bones from Alliances was one of my favorite black cards. I was into flavor back then too. I put together a deck designed for my creatures to die and to come back full of Nether Shadows and Ashen Ghouls, and fueled my hand with dark magic by reading dem bones. (Gosh, check out how much worse the templates were for rules text back then.) Throwing bones is back in style in Theros with Read the Bones.

Unlike Casting of Bones, where you have to wait around for the creature it is enchanting to die, Read the Bones gets you sweet, sweet cards right away. Reminiscent of of Night's Whisper from Fifth Dawn, Read the Bones costs one mana more, but gives you the ability to manipulate the cards on top before you draw. This feels more like a blue card, but I just don't see a blue wizard tossing a pile of bones down to change fate. Black wizards just draw and bleed.