Mastering Commander – Part 1

A Foreword – Resources You Should Know About

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With an ever-expanding cardpool, researching Commander can be as fun as playing it

Before you dive head-first into the Commander format, it’s vitally important that you have a good set of research tools at your disposal. In traditional constructed formats the card pools are smaller and there are typically a number of “strictly inferior/worse” cards in a given role. This is not so in Commander as niche, quirky, and unusual cards are a trademark of the format. In addition, the nature of a primarily multiplayer format (and the room for card and player interaction this provides) alongside a lot of mana to spend makes the card pool’s number of “live”, playable cards far closer to one hundred percent . Finally, the absence of four-of playsets means that functional reprints and redundancy in a given card role are critical to some decks. Here are some great entry-level resources for researching your Commander deck.

Magiccards.info Advanced Search – Fantastic Magic card search resource, my most used Magic related page

Top Commander Cards – A great thread over at MTGSalvation and though it isn’t updated that frequently, it is very useful for discovering new cards

TappedOut – My preferred deckbuilding website, it lets users view their decks in one easy-to-read list and provides helpful data such as mana division, mana curve and so on. Also a useful research tool if you value others’ decklists as I do

MTGSalvation’s EDH forum – A great drop-in resource that allows you to field questions, search existing threads and engage in discussions

CommanderCast – This website is really useful and provides insightful articles, community contests and a podcast to boot. Definitely worth a bookmark if you plan to commit to the format! The site also features great video deck techs with commentary

Metamox Staples and Commanders – This really interesting resource was linked by a reader named Tilio on Reddit and is a great way to see what cards other people use in their respective Commanders’ 99s, which is great when you’re new to a colour wedge or strategy in the format

If you know of any other useful sources of Commander-related information, don’t hesitate to comment below. With that out of the way, let’s take a look at this week’s topic – format dynamics and their implications for card selection in deckbuilding.

Card Advantage

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Keeping up on cards is vitally important to furthering your plan

Card advantage theory states that the player who draws more cards has more options, and can therefore advance their game state faster than their opponents. This theory holds true in Commander; however, the nature of a multiplayer game changes how you need to think about card advantage. Ultimately, your opening seven and every draw, trade, or advantage gain you make are the card exchanges that put you closer to winning. In a five player game, before anyone draws or mulligans, you’re down twenty-one cards by default. There are mitigating factors (see “Politics” below!) and flip-sides to this, however. “Each opponent” spells naturally generate more advantage for you. Board wipes, particularly your own, won’t always put you, and solely you, on the back foot.

On a side note, Howling Mine type cards are an interesting piece of kit in Commander – though some people condemn them to playability only in Zedruu the Greathearted-esque, Pheldagrif-y “grouphug” decks. While they may not be a perfect inclusion in each and every deck you work on, Alex at CommanderCast wrote a great article entitled “Why Temple Bell Isn’t As Bad As You Think” which is definitely worth checking out. Bearing card advantage in mind, who at the table gains and loses as a result of any given play, and who has the most to gain from drawing cards is a crucial skill in Commander construction as well as play.

 Implications for deckbuilding

The nature of card advantage in Commander as outlined above has a number of implications when it comes to deckbuilding. For example, you do not want to fold to a Wrath in your aggro or token strategy. You may want to pack wipe-recovery cards like Second SunriseFaith’s Reward, Fresh Meat or their functional equivalents in your colours. Alternately, you may want to pack a plan-B to your token rushdown. Similarly, in your black deck you may value “Each opponent discards x cards/loses x life” type cards more highly. Blue features a lot of powerful draw spells and engines, as well as draw-doublers. Black’s tradtional one-for-one hand disruption (Thoughtseize for example) will not make the cut for a multiplayer deck as it’s relatively low impact when you’re trying to beat multiple hands. On the other hand, it’s pretty strong in 1v1 where picking off a single key card can be huge. Experiment with these cards and be sure to assess these impactful cards in the context of a three- to five-player match if multiplayer is your typical setting.

Land and Mana

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Enormous amounts of mana is one of the hallmarks of Commander to those on the outside looking in. Whether it’s via an infinite mana combo, copious amounts of mana rocks, traditional land-based ramp or mana doubling effects, most decks will tend to use and/or abuse ramp in one form or another. This lets players keep up with everyone else at the table, make plays sooner, and also be able to leave mana open for reactive plays. Reacting to, as opposed to pre-emptively dealing with, threats is not only efficient witholding of information from opponents as it is in traditonal Magic, but it’s also important in the context of the political game. You may know your opponent’s fatty is a serious threat, but you may not opt to Path it until it declares an attack in your direction (and not someone else’s)! Mana ramp lets you do a lot of unfair things (read: fun), but it also lets you make subtle game-changing plays. For example, being able to go land-Sol Ring-Lightning Greaves on turn one in a Commander-centric build like my own can be one of the most valuable starters out there. That said, being able to ramp into a game-ending X-spell is a flashy way to end things fast. Avenger of ZendikarExsanguinateVerdeloth, and many others are infamous for making the most of huge mana pools.

Implications for deckbuilding

Manabases and ramp have a number of implications for deckbuilding. First, packing your own mana rocks, doublers, ramps, and duals is essential. You want to be able to cast your big guys early and afford the double and triple color mana costs in your lineup. Strip Mine-type cards help you deal with powerful lands such as Gaea’s Cradle, Cabal Coffers and Gavony Township. Packing your own ramp lets you consistently cast your key cards early, get the most out of cheap activated abilities with mana costs, and stay on par with the rest of the table. Second, the powerful lands and mana sources in Commander mean that artifact, enchantment, and land disruption spells can be incredibly powerful in keeping players from reaching their endgame. Sol Ring is considered an auto-include by the vast majority of players in my playgroup, and I personally pack it and Mana Crypt in every multiplayer EDH I build. As a result, cards ranging from Aura Shards to Krosan Grip are highly valuable inclusions. Sol Ring can put a player two turns ahead of curve for a tiny investment that even ramps on the turn it comes into play. Mana Reflection puts them on twice the mana they had prior to its arrival. It becomes rapidly apparent that removal for these game-changers can maintain parity between players and keep you in the game. The fact that they double as removal for equipment, Anthems and deck-manipulation cards like Sensei’s Divining Top and Scroll Rack is just icing on the cake. Players’ dependence on Signets for mana fixing and equipment to protect their Commanders are just two reasons cards like Return To Dust and Hellkite Tyrant are great in the format. I would strongly recommend prioritizing Naturalize-type effects in your ninety-nine for these reasons.

Politics

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Doing people favours can go a long way

Politics in Commander is probably one of the most important and unique aspects of the format. There are a number of reasons for this. Bargaining (or at least its pretense) is common among players. Players will typically form alliances among one another in the face of one player who is dictating the pace of the game or making big plays. Players’ definitions of what constitutes a “big play” varies however, so if I cast Kaalia of the Vast on curve people tend to eye each other desperately and shuffle their removal to the fore of their hands. This is usually referred to as the “lightning rod” effect, where certain permanents or spells are practically always answered where possible before they can impact the board in a meaningful way.

That said, some players simply do not see certain cards or Commanders as particularly threatening and going under the radar is entirely possible for many players. Cards like Zedruu and Edric are some Commanders I have encountered that tend to play the political game a lot when the deck backing them up is tuned to do so. They make attacking their controller less lucrative and doing what they want done appear a lot more appealing in the early- and mid-game while building advantage themselves with their Commanders. With this in mind, let’s look at how multiplayer politics factors into our card selection process.

Implications for deckbuilding

Packing cards that let you conspire with other players can be a very profitable decision. One infamous example is Trade Secrets. If you’re behind, you can choose another unfortunate individual and both get back in the game. However, other players’ agreements and joint decisions will also impact your choices. Cards that require tapping or attacking to provide any benefit in terms of card or board advantage can be a risky proposition if they provoke “lightning rod” reactions in your playgroup. A card I often refer to when describing this principle is Royal Assassin. He costs a relatively small amount of mana and offers recurring removal. While this makes him an apparent auto-include, it also makes him a dead man walking to most players. Most players will attack with their creatures that are worth killing. He draws a lot of aggro therefore, and as a 1/1 without any form of innate protection he is in most cases going to die before the turn wheels and you get to remove anything. It’s fairly clear that you’d rather play a Murder than pay the same mana for a worse effect that telegraphs itself to everyone and has a minimum of Suspend 1. For this reason, I avoid running cards that need to stick around to pay for themselves. You may want to take this approach too – or at least be certain that when they do stick around, they pay off in a big way. At any rate, it is important to forecast people’s reactions to a card before you center your game-plan around it.

Until Next Time

I hope you enjoyed this article – I’ll be writing more with same premise in future, covering different aspects of Commander and these aspects I’ve already talked about in greater detail. I intend to do Commander-focused set reviews for upcoming set release and I’ll also be working on some exciting new decks such as a certain five-colour Commander and some tribal 1v1 decks! Be sure to leave a comment if you enjoyed the article and Like us on Facebook for updates on new content.

~Matt McGowan

2 responses to “Mastering Commander – Part 1

  1. Pingback: From FFA to 1v1 – Kaalia of the Vast | The Shameless Geek

  2. Good article keep it up

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