Monday, December 23, 2013

Magic Theory: Control in Commander

Unifying Theory

Magic Theory is what happens when the game becomes something more than just the creatures, the artwork, the cool spells, and the story. It's the "stuff" behind the game, the goings on, the inner-workings, the "what makes it tick" that gets down to what is actually happening when a game of Magic plays out.

It changes a statement like, "I won!" into a question: "Wait, why did I win?" Or more commonly, it changes, "I lost?!" into: "Wait, why did I lose?" There's a reason why we win and lose at this game, and although it can certainly come down to luck, it more often has to do with the decisions we make all throughout the process. Magic Theories are ways of thinking about these decisions that guide everything from deckbuilding (card choices) to the best times to use your spells.

For those of you that are ready for some next level Magic, I have some great news. Plenty of smart people have done a lot of the heavy lifting for us in this area already. For a solid overview, check out this article on The Best Magic Theory Articles of All Time.

Every article on that page is worth checking out. But I wanted to call out how at least a few of these concepts apply to the Commander format (and 5c control specifically). Let's take a look.

What a control deck does is not immediately obvious to a new player. Or, more specifically, how a control deck wins is not obvious. I've taught Magic to dozens of people over the years, and in my experience there are a couple of fundamental truths for new players. They like creatures and big spells. They like to win by smashing into opponents with those very same creatures. They get frustrated when playing against control.


Here's how a typical match up against control plays out.

You each start with 7 cards. By turn 3, barring anything fancy, you've seen 10 cards: the 7 you started with and the 3 cards drawn for your turns. You've played 3 lands, a couple of creatures, and a couple of other spells. You are just about out of cards by turn 4. The control player is running low on cards, too. He's been playing lands, just like you. He might have even played one or two defensive creatures, or some removal spells. It looks like you've got him on the ropes! He's at 5 life! But wait. Something just happened. It could be a sweeper that kills all of your creatures. It could be an enchantment that effectively stops (or slows down) your assault. Things aren't looking so good, but at least you can keep drawing and overpower him, right? By the next turn, the control player casts something that fills up his hand. Suddenly, you are in top deck mode while he is busy organizing all of the cards he's drawn. When you do draw for your turn, there's a good chance it's a land. When it's not a land, you cast your one threat. He counters it. Or, if it does resolve, he bounces it. Or removes it. Or nullifies it. The game is over. It's been over for several turns. You just don't know it yet. You keep playing, desperate to rip the one card that will turn the tide. But it never comes. You get beat down by something a dozen turns later, doesn't matter what. You lose. But why? Card advantage, plain and simple. Oh, and the fundamental turn. And, knowing just who is the beatdown.

When you square off against just one other deck, you better put up a good defense if you want to make it past the initial rush. In Commander, you are often squaring up against an entire table of decks instead of just one. Some people describe this situation as "politics," and in my experience some of that goes on. "Hey, let's leave that guy alone. He's missed his last three land drops." Or, "Uh oh, it's Azami wizard combo. Get him!" Combo is combo and there are quite a few decks that can win in the first four turns in this format. Even if the table gangs up on that one combo player, there often isn't much you can do about it. But if you are playing with people who want to see how the game develops, you'll see a mid-game and maybe even a late-game. The fundamental Magic Theories still apply, though.

Phyrexian ArenaSensei's Divining Top

If you've been playing Commander for any length of time, you've probably noticed that Phyrexian Arena and Sensei's Divining Top show up in a lot of decks. Why? Neither of these cards are obviously good to a new player. So, what's the deal then?

Assuming you are going to see a mid-game and a late-game, an enchantment that trades one life for one card every turn is quite powerful. Phyrexian Arena is giving you an extra card every turn it is out. In Commander, that can be a lot of turns and therefore a lot of cards. Remember, only the last point of life matters. The first 19 points (39 in Commander) don't matter, usually. You don't "win more" by having more life points when the game ends. So, anything that turns life (a resource) into cards is something worth looking at. Drawing more cards means having more options. Those options are what you use to win the game.

Okay, Mr. Smartypants - why is Sensei's Divining Top so good then? It doesn't draw you cards every turn. What gives?

At first glance, the top looks like a little effect, but it really packs a wallop. There are lots of tricks you can pull with the top, but even if you simply use it to re-order the top three cards of your library every turn, you are basically setting yourself up to draw "the card you need" out of the bunch. If you can cook up a way to shuffle your library, you get to see three new cards with the top. Over the course of a game, the ability to always draw the best card of the bunch means that you increase your deck's consistency. In a format where you are running only one copy of each card in your deck, increasing consistency is a big deal.

If you bring a control deck to the Commander table, you are already planning to make it past the early combo rush. It doesn't always work out because this is Commander and crazy things happen, but when it does you know that you are the control deck. If you have any doubts about this, check out the "Who's the Beatdown?" article. What does it mean to be a control deck at the Commander table? It means sitting back even more than usual, not picking fights, and diverting attention elsewhere. It means riding the line between being a threat and getting ganged up on. Things you can do to defend yourself at instant speed matter - a lot. Things that stop people from coming at you (without stopping them from going at someone else) matter. It's a twisted version of a traditional, dueling control deck.

To the uninitiated, a 5c control decklist can look deceptively like a pile of random cards. Now that we have some of the underlying concepts out there, I'll take a look at some of the ways to build a control deck in all five colors for the format and what cards fit where.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Inevitable 5c Control: Cromat Commander


I've posted before about how I tend to build the same deck over and over. Doesn't matter what color I'm playing or even the format, I gravitate toward certain strategies. This isn't entirely surprising. I've been playing this game for a long time and have tried lots of different builds, strategies, and cards. But, when it comes right down to it, playing a deck that "clicks" makes playing the game a whole lot more fun.

MountainRaging Goblin

I remember a guy who I used to run into at my friendly local gaming store, back when Tempest was the cool new set. This guy was into Magic, big time. He had the mana symbol ring from the back of the cards tattooed to his arm. No joke. And this guy did not like blue. He played aggro. Every week. Red aggro. If you were facing him, you could guarantee you would be facing a first turn mountain and something with haste. If you were facing him with a blue deck, he did not hold back with the trash talk. He main-decked Red Elemental Blast. You could take your combo deck or your control deck for a long walk off a short pier as far as he was concerned. He had clearly found his "thing" in an aggro-style deck, and red was the color that fit best with that strategy for him.

My thing is control. But, not "land, go, bounce, counter" blue control. I like five-color (5c) control. A million years ago, I played against a guy with a deck simply called "the deck." I had a bunch of decks with me at the time, and I threw everything at this guy. He beat me every game. I couldn't understand what was wrong. He was barely doing anything! I've picked up a lot of strategy and theory since then. Now, I know that his deck was building card advantage. And wow, do I like card advantage. It was like a whole new game when I figured that out.

Here's a link to the MTGSalvation Wiki article about "the deck." A lot of those cards are now banned in most formats, but the concept behind "the deck" can still be applied.

Does "the deck" work in Commander? Basically, yes.

I may have been a little harsh with my criticism of 5c control not winning in style. The trick is to ease back on the throttle a bit for the format and to choose your win condition(s) carefully. I'm still working on a mix of cards that feels like 5c control, without the soul-crushing control elements showing up too early.

Choosing the right Commander is a good place to start. There aren't many options for this deck because you need a Legendary creature in all five colors, and there just aren't that many that fit the bill. Selecting the Commander gets to the heart of building this deck because the format is multi-player and your Commander will signal how you intend to play.

Scion of the Ur-DragonSliver Queen

For example, if your Commander is Scion of the Ur-Dragon, everyone at the table will assume you are running a dragon-combo deck and come gunning for you. Unless you are, in fact, running said dragon-combo, that's not what you want. Ditto for anything with "sliver" in the name. These 5c decks are fine, but they are not the deck we are talking about. They are based on an entirely different (combo) strategy.


I'm going with Cromat. Not only is he awesome in his weirdness, he can do lots of different things and makes use of all the colors we have available. In general, he ranges from non-threatening to down-right-confusing. That's what we want. We want people to squirm when they see him across the table because they are not quite sure what we are up to.

What does it mean to ease back on the throttle? If you are familiar with "the deck," you may recall that dropping a Moat can blank entire decks. Creature-based decks without fliers or enchantment removal roll over to this one card. And if they do have removal, you have counterspells. Awesome. Should we run Moat in Commander, then? Probably not.

I'm sure that there's a ton of guys out there running Moat with loads of success. What I'm saying is that Moat is the kind of card that shuts down the table. Suddenly, you have two-three-four players all looking right at you. One of them is going to have removal. One of them is going to have the counter for your counter. You don't want that. What you want is a card that says, "Hey, wouldn't you rather attack that other guy over there?" You want a card like Aurification.

(Also, good news: Aurification costs a million times less than Moat in real money.)

The same argument applies to The Abyss vs. No Mercy. The Abyss says, "Hey, you know all your great creatures that you love? Kill them. Again and again." On the other hand, No Mercy says, "Hey, you know all your great creatures that you love? Keep them. Just keep them away from me." That's what you want. Push the threats elsewhere while you bide your time to work your evil plans.

The AbyssNo Mercy
(Also, more good news: No Mercy costs a million times less than The Abyss in real money.)

Cards like Aurification and No Mercy are doing for you in Commander what Moat and The Abyss are doing in "the deck." But because this is a multi-player format, they are working for you in a slightly different way.

There's lots to consider for a 5c control deck. More to come.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mirko's Here and He's Thirsty

Someone get this guy a Gatorade. He looks like he's running low on electrolytes.

Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker

That's right, Mirko's here. Let's see what we can do about that drink.

For a peek back into Magic history, check out this card:


In Magic, one way you can lose the game is by drawing a card when there is no card to draw. In other words, if you can run your opponent out of cards he would lose the next time he had to draw. Millstone was one way to speed things down that path. Every turn, you could slowly "mill" away at your opponent's library. Thematically, "millstone" is a great name for what was happening. It wears away at "what your opponent knew." This became known as "milling" and there are a lot of variations on this throughout Magic's history. Mirko is the walking (flying), talking (skulking), rock god (creepy dude) incarnation.

Running everyone at the table out of cards is tricky for a lot of reasons - especially in Commander format because the decks are so big - but doing it without being a jerk is damn near impossible. Did I do it?

For a current decklist, check it on out Dimir State of Mind... Drinker

The astute among you will notice that the deck contains several infinite combos that border on douchbaggery. That's not exactly on purpose, but rather a byproduct of what I needed to do to keep the deck in-theme and flavorful (with one exception).

Duskmantle GuildmageMindcrank

For example, Mindcrank and Duskmantle Guildmage combo to damage (or mill) a guy out. But, I like both of those cards for this deck. They fit with the theme. They work with the other cards, too. Besides, it's a two card combo that relies on a small creature and requires either 7 mana to start or 3 mana when someone takes damage. Furthermore, it smokes one guy - not the entire table.

Rings of BrighthearthBasalt Monolith

Okay, so what about that "one exception" I mentioned? Rings of Brighthearth (which is awesome with the fetchlands) and Basalt Monolith make unlimited colorless mana. That's all fine and good, but it gets downright silly with Oona, Mindshreiker, or Mind Grind. It's my get-out-of-jail combo for when the going gets tough. In Commander, you need something that takes your deck over the top when things go long. This is my way out.

If you are building a deck like this and want to avoid the unlimited mana, switch out Rings of Brighthearth with Strionic Resonator and smack people by copying all of your crazy triggers. Pull the Basalt Monolith and put in another counterspell for added protection. I may end up going this route myself.

So, what is this deck doing? It's all about the synergy! Let's look at some of the cards.

This is basically a (bad) control deck coupled with a (bad) combo deck. It draws all kinds of hate because you are actively "attacking" the libraries around the table. Players often feel like you are cutting them off from the cards they "could have drawn" if only you didn't mill them. Plus, in addition to taking forever to actually knock someone out, milling does almost nothing to keep people from killing you. Don't play this deck if you want to win. You have been warned.

With that out of the way, what's happening here? We need to play some defense.

No MercyForcefield

No Mercy, Forcefield, Maze of Ith, and Vengeful Pharaoh team up to make us a slightly less attractive target. Coupled with the handful of counterspells we run, we have a shot at stopping terrible things from happening to us along with some protection from combo. It's not much, but politics is a thing. Just nod knowingly at the guy playing reanimator. That usually works. They love getting milled, right up until the last card.

If we are going to be milling anyway, is there anything else we can do to really twist the knife?

Consuming AberrationGuiltfeeder

Consuming Aberration and Guiltfeeder both love a full graveyard. An active Bloodchief Ascension is bad news all around. Oversold Cemetery, Volrath's Stronghold, and Beacon of Unrest give my guys a second chance to make a first impression. Sepulchral Primordial brings friends to the party. Lest we forget the humble Crucible of Worlds to ensure that we never miss another land drop. Good God Y'all if Liliana gets to her ultimate.

All good things, but what else can we do?

Teferi's Puzzle BoxPsychosis Crawler

Building around cards that look for cards drawn gives this deck a little shove. Teferi's Puzzle Box is a fun little card. Add Psychosis Crawler to the mix and things get interesting. When you draw a grip of cards from the box, everyone gets smacked.  Speaking of which, Windfall, Whispering Madness, Jace's Archivist, and Memory Jar can turn this into a one-two punch. It's relatively easy to cast-then-trigger-cast Whispering Madness in a surprise, single turn. Oh, and don't forget Underworld Dreams.

Liliana's CaressSangromancer

Building around cards that look for cards discarded gives the deck an even bigger shove. Liliana's Caress, Megrim, the aforementioned Bloodchief Ascension, and Sangromancer lap it up. In addition to the Windfall, Whispering Madness, Archivist, and Jar all causing multiple discards Forced Fruition really packs a wallop. Try to cast your way out of this and see where it gets you.

Which brings me to good old-fashioned mill.

Every deck slot is precious. Cards that only mill (and nothing else) need to be incredibly good to make the cut, simply because they don't do anything on their own. In this deck, I have some of the best. They either hit everyone at the table, hit one guy really hard, or play nice with the other cards.

TraumatizeKeening Stone

In the single target department, Traumatize (or a well-targeted Telemin Performance) can be devastating, especially when backed up by Keening Stone. Nemesis of Reason and Jace, Memory Adept both come with a handy, repeatable 10-card deck flip. Alter of Dementia can turn your massive Consuming Aberration into a surprise library-eater. With enough mana, Oona can eat library and crap out blockers. Lord of the Void is no slouch either. I like to think of him as Oona's counterpart. And Mirko swings for the quad-land-mill!

Dreamborn MuseMesmeric Orb

In the multiple target department, Consuming Aberration's triggered ability can work wonders if you can stack multiple spells in a single turn. Mind Grind or Mindshreiker pumped with enough mana will work a table over, too. Dreamborn muse is both sexy and flips over cards, big time. But the crowning jewel here is Mesmeric Orb. It's a beautiful, simple, and savage card.

Undead Alchemist

Undead Alchemist is happy to get his jambi meat-hooks on all of this hot milling action, turning creature after creature into cold zombie death. This can get out of hand pretty quickly if you drop a big mill right after the Alchemist.

Which brings me to good old-fashioned beat down.

If you can get a big Consuming Aberration to connect, it's usually too much to handle. With 3-4 opponent's at the table and a couple of mill spells, the monster will be huge. Remember, when you cast Traumatize (for example), everyone is going to mill to a land from the Consuming Aberration trigger. That's good for roughly 10-15 power right there. Then the Traumatize resolves and Dreads didn't know what hit him. That's likely another 30-40 power.

Dauthi EmbraceRogue's Passage

The Consuming Aberration (and Guiltfeeder) can go from "eh" to "lethal" in seconds. Dauthi Embrace, Rogue's Passage, Sword of Body and Mind, and Whispersilk Cloak give you a way to push that damage through. These also helps keep Mirko alive and working away. He's no good if you can't connect. Dauthi Embrace has the added fun effect of being able to give your opponents' creatures shadow, too. If you are paying attention, you can use it to kill people by giving an attacker shadow before the other guy declares blockers.

What's wrong with this deck?!?

It's already in a bad position by relying on a tactic that draws attention (and hate) from the table. Layer on that quite a few cards in the deck don't do much to affect the immediate board state or help you put up a fight, and it's easy to get blown out. If you find that you need to cram in counterspells and tutors to make a deck work, that's not a good sign (or at least not the spirit of the Commander format).

But, this deck does create some "edge of the seat" moments. I've had eyeballs on short, short libraries the turn before I got ran over. I've double Whispering Madness into an active Bloodchief Ascension. I machine-gun-preachered someone with the Duskmantle Guildmage. And I've ran people over with a massive, clicking, skittering, Consuming Aberration. Fun stuff. Now I'm thirsty.