Put Down That Tooth And Nail! – The Issue Of Staples In Commander

Written by Cassidy McAuliffe on . Posted in Casual Magic, Commander

Put Down That Tooth And Nail! – The Issue Of Staples In Commander

Cassidy McAuliffe

Cassidy has been playing Magic for the better part of two decades. He's dabbled in every format over the years, but these days he calls Commander home and runs a Commander-centric blog at www.generaldamagecontrol.com. He currently lives in New Hampshire with his wife Nina and son Declan.

Identity. That’s what Commander is all about. From the ground up, this format was designed around not only what you bring to the table, but more importantly, who you bring to the table. Spend some time poking around in the various forums and blogs out there and you’ll understand exactly how critical it is to the majority of Commander players that what they play with is unique to them. Off-the-wall commander choices (Joven!), crazy theme decks (tribal minotaurs!), cards with altered art, foreign foils that are impossible to come by… it’s all about standing out from the crowd.

This is also precisely why no other topic can cause a typical Commander player to lose their mind and fly into a rage faster than a discussion about staples.

What is a Staple?

Defining the term “staple” as it applies to Commander is difficult. Ask the players at your local game store or regular play group to give you an example of a definitive staple, and you’re just as likely to start an inconclusive two-hour debate as you are to have a room full of people yell “TOOTH AND NAIL” so loudly that you’ll suffer permanent hearing damage.

If I had to throw a definition out there, this is where I’d go:

A staple is a role-playing card that performs so well that it serves as the prime example of what it is designed to do. It is the go-to card for players looking for that effect, and as a result it shows up in a disproportionate number of decks.

I know it’s a little wordy, but there’s a method to my madness. Why “role-player?” If I show you a red deck with Insurrection in it, you’d call that a staple. If I show you a blue deck with Rhystic Study, that’d be a staple too. But what if I show you a U/B deck and point out Underground Sea? Or Kodama’s Reach in a green deck?

I choose to use the term ‘role-player’ because I think there’s a valid difference between a high-profile card that makes something happen, and a relatively innocuous card that really only helps a player to set up and get in the game. Now, I know this is completely wide-open for interpretation. What I’d really like to say is this:

A staple is a card that causes people to groan and complain and throw things at you when you play it.

But that’s not particularly helpful (even if there is a bit of truth to it.) The major take-away is that very few people are going to call you out for playing something that tosses an extra land or two into play, or that helps you to fix your colors.

Now, if you’re drawing eighteen cards between your turns from a Consecrated Sphinx, or tutoring up and playing Primeval Titan [Editor’s Note: this article was written pre-ban, sagely] and Avenger of Zendikar to end the game, that’s a completely different story. Staples seem to only really draw hate when they’re ending a game or severely unbalancing it.

You’re probably used to hearing someone say something like, “OK … there’s the threat!’ after someone else plays first turn Sensei’s Divining Top or second turn Sylvan Library. You probably rarely ever hear, “Oh man … Sylvan Scrying on Turn 2! Someone take that guy out!” Perception is clearly a huge part of this equation.

Before we move on, though, we may as well get Sol Ring out of the way. Fair enough. I won’t even pretend to assume that I have the answer to where this card fits in. Lord knows you can’t throw a stone without hitting a group of Commander players arguing about whether it needs banning and breaks the format or not. Suffice to say that I feel it’s a reasonable include most of the time, and Wizards of the Coast must feel the same way based on the inclusion in last summer’s Commander Pre-Cons. Most importantly though, nobody ever was attacked for lethal damage by a Sol Ring. Yeah, yeah … that’s a direct challenge to all you Karn, Silver Golem players out there. I want pictures.

So the definition is fluid and changing and very perception-based. What now?

When (and When Not) to Play Staples

My “when” list is pretty short:

  • If you’re playing an event which offers a prize that is worth trying to win over any other considerations.
  • When it fits the job you’re looking to perform.

The first criteria is pretty easy to knock out. At GenCon this year, there were nightly Commander events that offered a box of M13, a sealed From The Vault: Legends, and an entry into the “GenCon Championship”–an invitational event that offered the grand prize of a full ride to GenCon ’13 (including hotels, meals, and event entries among other things.) If you don’t already read my blog and guessed blindly that these events were chock-full of tuned combo decks designed to win as quickly as possible, you’d be right.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. For that prize, I don’t blame a single player for going over to the dark side and running a broken combo deck. If I wasn’t a total slave to my morals (read: if I wasn’t more interested in having some drinks, enjoying the Indianapolis night life, and planning to be dead asleep when the Championship was held at 8 a.m. on Sunday), I might have done the same thing.

Also note that ‘other considerations’ is highly personal in interpretation. I honestly wasn’t interested in tossing away my enjoyment of playing actual Commander games in order to win the offered prizes, so I chose to play an interactive non-combo deck instead. I had a blast. Something about the journey, not the destination. However, I do recognize that your mileage may vary, so go with what you feel. And yeah, I got crushed by combo a few times anyway. But I did stop a Hermit Druid deck from going off, so I’m calling it proof of concept. That’s me — the king of lofty goals!

The second consideration is a little more complex. I’d like to start with a current trend I’m seeing pop up with alarming regularity around the internet. It usually starts when someone sets out to do a write-up on a deck they’ve made or are currently working on, and they usually begin by saying something like, “Well, you’re playing blue, so here’s a basic list of all the cards you should always include in a blue deck first.”

For the record, it’s really hard for me to respond to this theory without using several four-letter words. I’ll simply say that I couldn’t disagree more if I was being held at gunpoint and forced to.

Here’s the key statement of this whole article:

There’s not a single card in print that absolutely belongs in any given deck.

Now, I know I’m slightly contradicting myself a little bit here. I did just get done saying that staples do what they do better than any other potential options, and that you should play staples when they serve a purpose. The important nuance to understand here is that there’s a difference between a functional include and a blatant good-stuff include. I’m all for playing a card that has a justification for being included in a deck, but I take issue when there’s absolutely no other reason for a card to be in a deck other than that it’s clearly a powerful card.

For example, are you playing a green token deck? Excellent. Avenger of Zendikar makes perfect sense. If someone complains about you playing a staple in this context, rest easy in the knowledge that some people are more interested in hearing the sound of their own voice rather than actually trying to analyze things. Now, what if you’re playing your spiffy new tribal squirrels deck? Ramping into Tooth and Nail for Primeval Titan and Avenger of Zendikar probably means you need to start actively planning an exit strategy before a mob forms.

The ultimate challenge is to boil things down to the basic components and really look at why you’re putting a given card in your new deck. The Commander card pool is absolutely huge, but that’s a door that swings both ways. It’s possible to find cards that serve your needed purpose without just grabbing the low-hanging fruit. But, by all means, don’t feel like you shouldn’t include Bribery in your Pirates theme deck. That’s what pirates do. If the shoe fits, go through your opponent’s library, find it, and steal it. Just remember that zombies aren’t very good at scheming, so if you run Bribery in your Grimgrin, Corpse-Born deck and the person you target responds by punching you in the nose, you probably deserve at least some of it.

Pop Quiz!

Q: What is the most important difference between Tooth and Nail and Defense of the Heart?

A: Defense of the Heart is much cheaper to cast, and very easy to trigger in Commander.

A: Tooth and Nail offers flexibility; you can tutor different cards than what you choose to play. Defense of the Heart triggers when its condition is met whether you like it or not.

A: Price! You can afford a pair of Defense for each Tooth on average.

A: Playing Defense of the Heart causes opponents to read the card. Playing Tooth and Nail causes half the table to concede and the other half to flip over the table, fly into a maniacal rage, and try to beat you to death with your own trade binder.

It’s such a fine line. I’ve watched Defense of the Heart end a game with the tried-and-true Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker/Pestermite combo on turn three, but the offending player got encouragement and slaps on the back. Contrast this with any time anyone plays Tooth for the same combo, where the offending player will usually receive discouragement and slaps. Most likely in the face.

So the difference is once again all in the perception. Enough people have seen a Tooth and Nail resolve and win a game on the spot that a stigma is now attached to it; it can never again be used fairly, and it’s just never fun. Contrast this with Defense of the Heart, which is still absolutely fine in almost every playgroup I’ve ever seen, even though the end result of both cards is essentially identical.

Now, I’m not encouraging you to play Kiki-Mite combo here, but it’s another important thing to point out. There are tens of thousands of cards out there, folks. Chances are better than not you can find something that fits the bill and isn’t stale and hatred-inducing. Branch out a bit and see what you can find.

Dealing with the Fallout

Let’s face facts: there’s always going to be someone who plays staples just for the sake of playing the best cards they can. You’ll never escape it. Furthermore, Wizards of the Coast will keep printing new cards that will turn into tomorrow’s staples (as well as potentially just reprinting existing ones in various products, such as the From The Vault series or the upcoming Commander’s Arsenal). You’re never going to be completely rid of them. And if we’re being totally honest while we’re here, I’d be very hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t play at least one or two staples in some of their decks. It happens. I’m personally very guilty of it.

The real danger is the road that this trend can lead Commander play groups down. If there’s enough homogenization in your local metagame, things can grow very stale very quickly. Interest in the format can start to waver. I’ve read more than one account of scheduled Commander nights at shops around the globe slowly dwindling down to nothing and getting cancelled under the weight of players who resort to power increases from other players with their own staple inclusions.

This arms race usually ends with hyper-overpowered decks, lousy games, and dwindling interest and attendance. It’s is a sad-but-valid outcome. Believe me when I say that I’d rather endure a weekly root canal than play in an environment of highly-tuned decks all executing the same highly-tuned gameplans week after week. For me, that’s not Commander. That’s just painful.

So what can you do about all of this? Head back to the beginning. Find your identity. I recommend rethinking how you go about building decks for Commander. Try to find different tools that can help you achieve the effects you’re looking for, and see if it opens your eyes. Pick a theme and build around it. One of my favorite decks of all time was a Sisters of Stone Death list that ran absolutely no creatures in the ninety-nine main cards. You know what’s incredibly refreshing? Building a green deck without Eternal Witness and Primeval Titan.

Challenge yourself. Can you make a competitive tribal Kobolds list? How about a deck limited to cards that only start with the letter “G”? Realistically, those might be extreme examples, but try working on a specific goal somewhere along those lines. One of my close friends has a Skullbriar, the Walking Grave deck that he designed to have a completely balanced mana curve. That flies in the face of the usual play–expensive-haymakers gameplan that most Commander decks go for, but it results in some extremely unconventional choices that allow the deck to curve out optimally and stay very competitive with other decks. It’s a great challenge that is always interesting to see in action, and it pays off very well.

Another recent experiment that worked for me was metagaming. I had an Intet, the Dreamer deck that essentially was the same old boring “top of the deck matters” build, and I was a step away from lighting it on fire. Leading up to GenCon, I decided that I’d retool the deck to deal with the combo I was prepared to see there in the big events. Out came Insurrection and Tooth and Nail. In went Cerebral Vortex and Storm Seeker. The result? I now have a deck that I’m excited about all over again, and it breaks from the mold. It’s fun to play, and it’s unique. For me, that’s what Commander is all about.

— Cassidy
www.generaldamagecontrol.com

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