Saturday, October 31, 2015

Is Your Commander Deck Fun?

Containment Priest

Commander has evolved over the past few years. We have more cards to choose from, some of which were printed in specific Commander products. Gaps are filled in.

Things are better.

This means that you can play pretty much any deck you want, with any commander you want, and dial the power level up or down as needed.

So, what is a Commander deck?

"Commander deck" means many things to different people. For some people, themes are important. Heck, even having the right artwork on your basic lands is important. For other people, making the deck do something very specific is important. Putting 1000 elephant tokens into play is super-cool.

Token - Modern Masters 2015 - Elephant 3/3

I get that.

But at some point, a commander deck is a pile of 100 cards that follow the deckbuilding rules of the format. You can fancy it up, or not. Your choice.

All by itself, the coolest deck in the world does not make a game of Magic. It's when a couple of decks come together that the "magic" happens. A "gathering" of decks, if you will.

That sounds familiar.

But, even when you are sitting across the table from someone, facing off after furiously shuffling cards, sometimes the decks you brought just don't interface well. They don't go together. It's like two entirely different games are being played at the same table.

It's still playing Magic, technically. But, 99 times out of 100, when I sit down to play Commander, the better the decks interface with each other, the more fun the game turns out to be. One guy sitting in the corner putting a combo together while the rest of the table pushes creatures into the red zone does not add much to my Magic experience.

When I talk about decks interfacing, I'm talking about having cards that interact with the other guy's cards. If you watch competitive Magic, you see this kind of thing happen all the time. You'll even hear the players talk about it, saying things like, "My deck just doesn't have the right cards to interact with that deck."

It's like bringing a golf ball to a soccer field. Both games involve a ball, but that's where the similarities end.

So, when I take a look at another person's Commander deck, I'm always trying to figure out if that deck interfaces with mine. If we shuffle up, what would the game look like? Would my strategy change based on the cards in that guy's deck?

That's the key.

If your strategy doesn't change no matter what you are up against, you aren't really playing Magic. You are playing solitaire with Magic cards.

Think about the Ad Nauseum Commander deck. Does it matter what everyone else brings to the table? Not really. You win or lose the same way every game.

Ad Nauseam

I'm not saying that it can't be satisfying to put a combo together. I'm not even saying that every deck doesn't have a certain amount of "autopilot" built into it. I'm saying that when I take a look at another person's deck, I'm trying to see if the game it plays against the game my deck plays will be interesting.

For me - for Commander at least - playing an interesting game of Magic is way more important than winning a boring game of Magic.

In my experience, decks that create an interesting game of Magic have a similar mix of cards that perform certain functions. The further a deck deviates from that general mix, the more linear and less interesting the games become.

It's a formula for Commander fun!

38-40 Lands
5-7 Ramp Spells
7-9 Tutor/Draw/Manipulate Spells
4-5 Recursion (Spells, Lands, Enchantments, etc)
25-30 Creatures
3-4 Mass Removal
3-4 Spot Removal/Counterspells
3-4 Equipment/Auras
2-3 Planeswalkers

With enough lands, you don't get stuck not being able to cast anything. It's worth it. Not being able to cast anything because you are drawing bricks is the worst.

The worstest!

Thran Dynamo

Ramp is the hallmark of the format. If you want to get to the big spells, you need to push it. Push it real good.

Rush of Knowledge

Tutoring, drawing, and manipulating your library increases consistency in an inconsistent format. You have to watch this category closely as too much consistency makes the game less fun. Conversely, getting stuck not being able to cast anything sucks. Ride the lightning.

Sun Titan

Commander games can and do go long. Recursion is a good way to take advantage of that and can create little puzzles for everyone to solve. My favorite puzzle is, "Can you deal with Sun Titan?"


Put lots of creatures in your deck. Creatures smashing into other creatures, dealing damage, coming into play with sweet abilities, and all that jazz, is what takes the "interactivity" through the roof.


Sometimes - but not too often - you need to reset the board. It can drag out the game if it happens too often, but played smartly it can break open a stuck game, too. The best kind of "mass removal" is one-sided.


Spot removal is another way to get rid of problematic things and clear a way to victory. Too much spot removal, especially counterspells, can stop the game cold, though.

Argentum Armor

Equipment tends to stick around long enough to create more of those mini puzzles that make things interesting. "I can remove your Sun Titan, but what the heck am I going to do about that Argentum Armor?"

Liliana Vess

Some people hate Planeswalkers in Commander. I'm not one of those people. Many of the 'walkers have powerful ultimates that make dealing with them before they can get there a mini game all on their own. Think of it as a spell that changes the fabric of the game, but without wiping everything out and starting over.

In my experience, that's a good card mix for an interesting game of Commander. It doesn't matter what cards you put into that mix, as long as the mix stays the same. You can follow this mix in any color or combination of colors and get a good result. In fact, think of the best, most interactive, games of Commander you've played. What deck did you use? How closely does that follow that mix?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

So Many Cards!


Choosing the right card for the job during the game starts with choosing the right card for the job while building the deck.

Hey, if you don't put the card you need in your deck, it won't be there when you need it.

One of the things I love about Magic is that there are so many different cards. And with Commander, the card pool really opens up. You can build a "best of the best" competitive deck, a theme deck, a deck that contains only cards from a single block or set, plus oodles of other possibilities.

There are so many cards, the choices are overwhelming.

In a good way.

When people have too many choices, we make arbitrary decisions to cut down the number of selections we have to make. If you flip through your collection and pull every card that would be awesome to use in a Commander deck, the pile will probably be so big that you might as well give up. So, what do we do?

We put limitations on it.

"This will be a red, double-strike, extra combat phase deck."
"This will be a green, proliferate, tokens deck."
"This will be a black, vampire tribal, lifegain deck."

You get the idea.

Restricting your choices is how we get through the deckbuilding process.

But even with the restrictions, when I start building a new Commander deck, I usually end up with 250 cards all fighting for 60 slots in the deck (with 40ish lands).

There are so many cards!

So, I make the tough cuts and get the 100 card pile together. Then I play a few games and swap some cards. And then I have a stable 90 card deck with about 10 flexible slots.

Sound familiar?

Here's what happpens next. I do some trading. New cards are printed. A friend gives me "the perfect card." Now, I have to figure out what cards come out so that the new cards can come in.

Oh no.

When I read through an article about a Commander deck, the biggest thing I look for is why a player put in a certain card. Why they made that particular choice is what makes the deck interesting. It's no longer simply a list of cards. It's a thought process, and one that can have a profound effect on my understanding of the game.

I'm limited to playing one or two games a week. Reading about why you put a particular card in your deck is almost like playing all of the games you played that lead you to that choice.

Experience booster!

With all that in mind, here is my thought process about a few cards I'm considering for my mono-black deck, The Usual Suspects.

Reason #1 - New Cards are Printed

They printed a new Ob Nixilis in Battle for Zendikar. At 5cc, Ob Nixilis Reignited is a reasonably costed planeswalker with a bunch of solid abilities. But, does he fit in the deck?

Ob Nixilis Reignited

The question is, what does he actually do for us? Remember, we need to cut something to put him in the deck, so it's not simply a matter of determining if he is a good card.

His +1 ability is like Phyrexian Arena. Drawing cards is strong (and covers a multitude of sins).
His -3 ability is also nothing to sneeze at. Doing an impression of a sorcery speed Murder has lots of applications.
His -8 ability is like, uh, eh? If you get from his starting loyalty of 5 to 8 and activate him, you put a very conditional clock on one other player. So, there's that. He's no Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker.

If I was going to put in Ob Nixilis Reignited, what would I cut for him?

Well, I don't want to cut a creature because I like the creature count. I could cut the other Ob Nixlis, but that version of him makes demons. I could cut Necropotence, I guess. Or one of the other card-drawing spells, like Promise of Power. Oh, but that one makes a demon, too. I almost always entwine it. I could go the other way and cut a removal spell for him. Ashes to Ashes is often a one-sided sweeper, though.

See? It's not easy. Even when they print a solid card.

Reason #2 - New Cards are Acquired

There are lots of ways to end up with new cards. There's outright buying the card you have your eye on. Getting it as a gift. Drafting and ending up with the leftovers. Cracking packs when a new set comes out. Getting an old collection dropped on you. But whatever the reason, sometimes a card that's been around for a while just hasn't made it's way to you until now.

An example of a card in this category is Phyrexian Reclamation.

Phyrexian Reclamation

What it does is let me reuse sweet, sweet "enters the battlefield" abilities. It can also create an overwhelming situation where creatures must be dealt with permanently or you will face them again and again. It is competing with cards like, Diabolic Servitude, Whip of Erebos, and Oversold Cemetery that have similar functionality. The Whip has gained me massive life in the past, plus it puts the creature directly into play with haste. It's not clear which card is better, but I do get to say, "Watch me whip, whip," when I use the Whip.

That's nothing to sneeze at.

Reason #3 - New Synergies are Discovered

There are certainly decks that go for raw power. And in a lot of ways, that can be tough to argue with. Putting the "best" into every slot is going to go a long way toward your deck being relevant against a lot of the field.

But, over time, it's the synergies that really push a deck over the top in this format. A deck like Endrek that makes a lot of tokens can be oppressive when every card you run is designed to take advantage of having access to a lot of creatures. The more of these synergistic effects that appear in your deck, the more often those cards come up in those combinations and crazy things happen.

An example of a card in this category is Thawing Glaciers.

Thawing Glaciers

This is a card that's been on my watch list for a long time. I tried it out a couple of years ago and it didn't blow me away. In a deck that runs Cabal Coffers, every other land has a high bar to cross. Swamp is a pretty good land, you know?

But, now that I am running Deserted Temple to untap Cabal Coffers, there is a possibility of getting two activations out of Thawing Glaciers in a single turn. That synergy is intriguing because it puts even more swamps into play and, unlike with Myriad Landscape, it can tutor up swamps over and over.

Reason #4 - The Metagame Shifts

Do I want more spot removal? How about building in a combo kill as backup? Is everyone using indestructible creatures? Flyers? Am I seeing more artifacts? Enchantments?

That's the thing with Magic. The metagame shifts. This happens all the time in a small Commander playgroup. After the 5th game in a row losing to Oloro combo, the hate cards start to show up. I try to actively resist this, but if you know that a guy in your playgroup is running mono-green elves, Perish and Engineered Plague start looking pretty strong.

But even without going "full hate," you can shift your deck to be a little bit faster, or a little more consistent, or to have a stronger earlier game at the expense of a weaker late game. What makes your deck tick today may not match up well with your playgroup tomorrow.

An example of this is Sanguine Bond and Exquisite Blood.

Sanguine BondExquisite Blood

Running straight for a combo kill is not my style. But, having the option of a combo kill in my back pocket is sometimes the only way to pull out a win against certain types of decks. If your group is running massive hate against creatures, and creatures are your only way to win, then you are going to lose. Having tricks up your sleeve will help to keep the game fresh and create those "seat of your pants" wins that make for a good story when the dust settles.

I actually used to run this combo along with some additional tutoring to put it together, but that was back when I was playing in a very competitive group every week. I pulled the combo and most of the tutors out so that I could run more planeswalkers and card-drawing. Planeswalkers still create an "alternate" win condition, but without the comborific kill.

Reason #5 - The Card is Badass

Look, this is still Commander. Deep down, we aren't playing to win at any cost. There are a lot of decks out there that have a strong theme, where running the best card is not really what it's about. Maybe every creature in your deck was drawn by the same artist. Maybe your deck is full of cards with a pun in the name or flavor text. Maybe you just really want to run your signed, Beta, Orcish Oriflamme.

Who knows?

You do.

There are cards in this game that reach out and slap you the first time you see them. There are cards that bring a smile to your face when you see them in action. There are cards that, for whatever reason, make the game fun to play. This is as good a reason as any to make sure that the cards you really like make it into the final deck and stay there.

An example of a card like this, for me, is Phyrexian Obliterator.

Phyrexian Obliterator

That's one scary dude. The flavor text is awesome (and in theme), he has knife-things for fingers, there's 4 - count 'em - 4 black mana symbols. But!

Yes, he tramples. But, he doesn't fly. Yes, he has a crazy damage-trigger ability. But, most people will just avoid dealing him damage. He's awesome, but there are so many cards that are awesome that being awesome is not enough.

Still, that is totally... one scary dude.

Look at the bones!