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Curing Competitive Commander

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Casual Magic, Commander

The idea of trying to break the competitive Commander metagame didn’t really take hold until we arrived in Indianapolis for Gen Con 2012. I had decided to revisit the Commander Constructed event despite the pain and suffering endured at the same event in 2011. It occurred to me that as someone who had a public obligation to write about the format, I’d be doing a disservice to my readers and fellow forum-goers if I skipped what was arguably the format’s marquee event at Gen Con.

Patrick, my good friend, co-writer and fellow Commander enthusiast, noted that he’d rather skip Gen Con in favor of a four-day root canal marathon than actually play in the Commander Constructed event. (Yeah … 2011 went that well.) I was on my own, and Patrick opted to document the event instead.

One of us is far more logical than the other, and the other is a hopeless glutton for punishment.

When I was packing for the trip, I decided to toss Intet, the Dreamer into my backpack. Intet represented my “flagship” deck at the time, a body of work I had been slowly honing for a few years and that I considered my signature stack. It was a fairly typical ‘top-of-deck-matters’ build. Patrick and I had discussed some subtle changes for the event in light of what we knew I was going to face (and partly because I was dying to play Storm Seeker for some reason), and I packed in a few new minor options.

As we prepared what we needed for the afternoon events, Patrick handed me a copy of Riku of Two Reflections.

“If you really want to do this right, here you go.” It was more of a statement than a suggestion.

I immediately dismissed the idea before realizing how much better Riku’s abilities were for what I wanted to do. Having access to Fork at all times was way better than a free Mulldrifter or Solemn Simulacrum, after all. Extra counters, wins via duplicated Cerebral Vortex, 10-card Fact or Fiction splits … this idea had legs.

I could take this thing down.

I sleeved Riku, made a few other last-minute changes, and we headed to the Indianapolis Convention Center.

Lights, Camera, (Pro)Action!

In my first article on this topic, Diagnosing Competitive Commander, I took a stab at breaking down the types of decks and cards you’re likely to see in a competitive Commander event. The next step is applying it to figure out how to attack the metagame.

If I had to put pen to paper and define my strategy for the first year I played Commander at Gen Con, it would look like this:

  • Open my bag.
  • Pull out whatever deck I feel like playing.
  • Give absolutely zero thought as to what might be different that my usual home game.

This is the definition of being blindsided. That first year was also the last time Erayo, Soratami Ascendant was legal as a commander. I learned some good lessons that year, mostly at the hands of a final table that included two Erayo decks. And yes, it went about as well as you think it did.

Last year, my strategy changed:

  • Open my bag.
  • Pull out my lightly-modified Intet deck.
  • Expect to shut down every combo deck I come across.
  • Instead, whiff completely in Round 1 and lose to Palinchron/Blue Sun’s Zenith, get the triple-aggro pairing in Round 2, and (finally!) shut off a Hermit Druid combo deck in Round 3. (Let’s hear it for the moral victory!)

It wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed, and that finish was good for fifth out of 27 players. I guess a little goes a long way. More lessons were learned as well, and this year I can distill my primary strategy into a single word: proaction.

This is the absolute key to handling combo. I initially thought I could pack Cerebral Vortex for the guy playing Stroke of Genius, Mindbreak Trap for the Temple Bell/Mind Over Matter player, and any host of quick counters for the Hermit Druid deck.

This is a decent place to start, but it falls flat on principle.

Here’s the problem I didn’t take into account – counters are great, but they’re better when you have all of the ones in your deck at once. In reality, I’m not resolving Vortex against the guy who just Zenith-ed me for infinite cards; he Zenith-ed himself first, and he’s playing every pitch counterspell known to man. When I try to make him draw two and deck himself, he can likely counter it seven times over, and that’s not a battle I can win. I need to shut off his big spell, not try to be cute around it.

Mindbreak Trap failing me against Temple/Mind is another story. Pop quiz: Do you know when Mindbreak Trap is terrible against multi-spell combo? It’s when the second spell your opponent casts on his turn is Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir.

This does illustrate the one thing that seems counterintuitive but is actually the biggest weapon in your arsenal: time. Time is key. The more you have of it, the more chance you have to bring preventive measures online.

Commander combo decks are either Hermit Druid or Ad Nauseam (and therefore designed to forego some amount of protection in order to bank on the speed of the combo), or else they’re going to take time to set up and gain inevitability. This is why it’s far easier to disrupt Hermit Druid than it is to deal with infinite Palinchron mana and X-draw spells, and this is why it’s so critical to be proactive with your answers. If you are given the time to put a roadblock in place, make it count; the combo player will have to go on the defensive in order to achieve a winning game-state.

This is your window. Open it and dive head-first through it.

Building The Core

This is where I make my first solid statement, and it will likely be divisive, but I stand by it.

Start with a blue control core.

I know. I want to believe I can bring my Slobad, Goblin Tinkerer deck to the Gen Con tables and have an honest shot at things. I know from experience that this isn’t the case.

The reason the Hermit Druid player didn’t win in 2012 was because I had a counterspell to shut off the early combo. From there, the rest of the table was able to pitch in and make sure he never was able to reassemble the right components, leading to a point where he decked himself on about Turn 5.

The same goes for Ad Nauseam combo. It’s harder to counter, but your best tools are still going to be early ways to say no to things. (Blue also gives you Extract, which is a pretty good answer to that deck as well.) This also opens you up to the best draw available as well, which is invaluable.

From there, you’re open to experiment. At the time, I was also in green and red to provide additional card advantage (e.g. Sylvan Library, Eternal Witness) and solid effects like Wild Ricochet and Word of Seizing, as well as the copy effect from my commander. But I’m of the opinion that there isn’t a correct answer as long as blue is in the equation.

It does raise a point about who you choose as your commander, however. There are three schools of thought:

  • Play whatever you feel like playing.
  • Play whatever legendary creature supports the colors you want/need to play.
  • Play something cheap and easy to leverage.

The biggest problem with Riku was that in order to actually get some use out of him, I would need five mana to play him, two more to copy something, and whatever it would cost to play what I wanted to copy. If I couldn’t come up with that, there would be no real reason to play Riku at all, and if you’re reading this and doing the mental math right now, the answer is none.

(That’s how many decks are unable to win before I can achieve the board state I just described above.)

Many people will fall into category two — see the five-color Sliver player from my last article. There’s nothing wrong with this in a competitive realm, but I do think there’s a missed opportunity to gain value. The deck that won the 2012 event is a great example of this … stay tuned.

That’s why I try to shoot for category three. Cheap is simple enough to quantify, and ‘easy to leverage’ in my book is usually a passive triggered ability for cost reasons. I’ll later address this specifically, but the gist is that if you’re looking to play a Spirits tribal deck and make the commander matter, Soramaro, First to Dream is probably not as good of a choice as Kira, Great Glass-Spinner.

Know Your Enemy

Don’t go into white because of Swords to Plowshares. It doesn’t work.

Let me amend that statement. It does work against Kaalia of the Vast and The Mimeoplasm and Rafiq of the Many, so it might be a solid contingency against the non-combo decks you might face. But don’t fall prey to thinking a reliable strategy in a normal environment will play out equally as well in a competitive environment.

Swords to Plowshares doesn’t stop Hermit Druid because that deck is designed to deal with getting permanents exiled. It doesn’t work against Teferi or Mikaeus the Unhallowed/Triskelion or Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker/Pestermite, because those combos are resilient to both timing and stack leverage. You typically have to catch the combo player going for a ‘Hail Mary’ win attempt unprotected for spot removal to do the trick, so start thinking about other angles of attack.

For instance, attack the root of the problem instead. Play white for Ethersworn Canonist and Linvala, Keeper of Silence. Most combo decks need to either cast several spells in one turn or leverage a creature with an activated ability. These are the two contingencies you need to plan for.

Think about an artifact toolbox that includes Torpor Orb and Damping Matrix. Consider effects that protect you against targeted effects, such as Witchbane Orb or Leyline of Sanctity. You can run proactive effects designed to shut off specific cards, like Pithing Needle and Phyrexian Revoker. I mentioned Extract as a solid option against specific combos; Jester’s Cap is inexpensive enough to cast and activate that it can be a reasonable answer to many decks in the metagame, and it slots into any deck.

If you understand the mechanics of the decks you’ll be facing, you can build an aggressive strategy to shut them off before they get going, and protect that strategy with the proper counters. This is the single-most effective combination you can bring to bear without resorting to running combo yourself. (Not to mention it’s a blast to win a counter war over Canonist and watch the combo player sit back, puzzled beyond belief, trying to figure out what went wrong. Solid gold.)

Tunnel Vision Is A Killer

Last year, I spent a ton of time figuring out how to handle combo decks, and it was completely ironic that I found my second round seated at a table with three dedicated aggro players. I should have expected as much, and you can imagine the results; I was completely useless for the entire game. I think my one relevant play involved bouncing Kaalia of the Vast at an opportune moment to allow another player to counter-attack that player with lethal damage. I lost soon after.

To that end, the best thing printed in blue in years is Cyclonic Rift. It is your best friend. Use it often. You also have the option of Devastation Tide, which I have played to good effect in conjunction with Sensei’s Divining Top. The key is being able to deal with a large amount of creatures, which usually involves planning that is completely at odds with anti-combo measures.

However, it is necessary. Avenger of Zendikar is still a valid threat. And there’s also the deck that won the event, which was Edric, Spymaster of Trest. At the time, it was just getting started as a serious contender online, so many of us never saw it coming. When you see your opponent play Shanodin Dryads, you don’t immediately fall all over yourself to remove it from play. The problem is you have about three turns remaining before the Edric player is drawing five cards a turn and taking infinite extra turns. I mention this because Patrick saw the same player later in the weekend, right after he had lost a counter war over Wrath of God. Two cards in hand, no board position, and a big frown.

All in all, it’s important to plan for the whole spectrum. If you have my luck, you’ll face it all.

Win Conditions And You

You can control the game as long as you’d like, but you still have to win somehow. This is probably painfully obvious to anyone with a pulse, but the qualifier again is time. Every turn you don’t seal the deal is another turn your opponents have an opportunity to get back in the game.

This is probably just as painfully obvious as the above statement. Let me illustrate what I mean.

Last year, in the match that I was able to stop the Hermid Druid combo deck, I was in position to pitch cards to Commandeer to grab the player’s Dread Return on the turn he was about to win. Without the Commandeer, Hermit Druid just wins right there. Instead, he was shut down for the turn.

The thing is, I didn’t have the win either. And when the Hermit Druid player untapped the following turn, he was nearly able to reassemble the combo. I believe another player had appropriate graveyard hate to take away some key components for another turn.

And still, nobody won. Sure enough, on the following turn, the Hermit Druid player untapped and nearly won again. Shutting his combo down a third time sealed the deal, and we could finally move on with the rest of the game.

This is why it’s critical to have some artillery in reserve. It’s nice to think that something efficient like Giant Adephage or Avenger of Zendikar can get the job done efficiently, but it’s simply not true; even if you control one player, there are two more left unchecked.

I really don’t have a strong suggestion. The options are out there, and it’s a matter of finding the one you’re comfortable using. Part of my process is not resorting to infinite combos myself, so that narrows my options. It’s highly possible I could take a page from Vintage and look at Blightsteel Colossus as a closer; it’s uniquely positioned in that it can slide into any deck, and it ends the game for one player in a single swing regardless of life totals. Your mileage may vary; I typically dislike poison almost as much as combo for the same reasons I’m discussing taking advantage of it, so I’m either a giant hypocrite or I’m just playing by the rules of the event in doing it anyway. The jury is out.

By the way, how the Hermit Druid match finished is relevant. It’s possible the correct finishing tools are already in the deck, as I tabled Riku and then managed to Spelljack a Bribery from an opponent. I played the Bribery, copied it, and targeted both remaining opponents to keep it nice and fair.

The first guy gave up a foil Primeval Titan. The second guy got a little sour; he rolled his eyes, turned to his friend, and said, “Well, I know what this is going to be.” I got through looking at the deck, and the best creature was Jin-Gitaxis, Core Augur. I had to. I dropped it into play, and my opponent made a show of sighing and making comments to indicate he was irritated with the turn of events.

Eventually, I was able to draw a ton of cards and make some aggressive and protected attacks. Finally, the guy I stole Jin from looked at his buddy and said, “I’ll scoop so he loses Jin. That will give you a better chance to beat him.” In the long run it didn’t really help, and I eventually beat the other guy to win anyway.

Lessons learned here:

  • Open collusion is really awesome.
  • If you’re going to be irritated if someone uses a specific card against you, DON’T PUT IT IN YOUR OWN DECK TO BEGIN WITH.
  • Bribery is a pretty solid win-con. Maybe the deck has the right tools in place already after all.

The Failed Approach And The New Jam

Here’s the deck I played last year:

It was pretty close to this, if I recall correctly. I was toying with the idea of Bonfire of the Damned for some better removal, but I’m not sure if it actually made it in. There’s also the realization after the Thursday event that there was another one on Saturday night, prompting me to spend Friday combing the dealer hall until I had picked up a Mindbreak Trap, Mana Drain, Mana Crypt, and a few other odds and ends to really tweak things.

But that’s another story for another time.

The Good, The Bad, And The Future

This deck did some things very well, and fell very flat in other areas. Sadly, the cards that Patrick and I slotted to try to catch the field by surprise (Cerebral Vortex, Parallectric Feedback, Storm Seeker) fell pretty flat or didn’t get played, although Storm Seeker has been the source of some epic wins since then.

The countermagic and manipulation were top-notch; things like Commandeer and Twincast were always relevant, and in some cases won games. You’ll notice there are a few glaring holes in this list; apparently, Wizards of the Coast printed a card called Force of Will a while back. Something to look into, I suppose.

The biggest problem is likely my total lack of proactive answers. My whole plan was to sit back, sandbag counters and tricks, and stop the combo decks from doing their thing. I didn’t really stop to think about the other options I could have brought to bear, and my performance suffered as a result.

There’s also the issue of the threats and engines I chose to utilize. Deadeye Navigator and Zealous Conscripts seemed like a great idea, and neither ever came close to seeing play. They would have been largely irrelevant. The same goes for my top end; Kozilek, Butcher of Truth and Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre are great and all, but when are they getting cast against decks that go critical in half the time it would take to ramp?

It doesn’t merit a failing grade, and it is probably overpowered for most casual games. But it just doesn’t have the correct tools to compete with what I’ve been outlining here.

Again, I’m on the fence. If I really wanted to go all-in on the concepts I’ve discussed, the color combination I need to play is either blue/white or blue/green/white. If I go in one of these directions, I gain the benefit of white hate creatures, while still retaining the ramp and recursion of green and the counters, draw and manipulation of blue. I gain some better answers in the removal department, and I can also play Silence/Orim’s Chant if necessary.

Even keeping the configuration using red has merit. The deck picks up Counterflux and gets to retain Wild Ricochet and Word of Seizing. I can add Runeflare Trap as well to double up on the Storm Seeker effect.

The other option that I’ve been kicking the tires on is a straight green/blue deck using Momir Vig, Simic Visionary as the commander. There are some solid upsides to this plan; I get to refine my manabase a bit further, making it much easier to cast things like Spelljack. Blue plays nice with artifacts, so I can still leverage some proactive hate in the form of Damping Matrix and Phyrexian Revoker, and Pithing Needle fits neatly into a Trinket Mage package. Extract and Jester’s Cap come in, and I can also support extra mana acceleration and add Blightsteel Colossus as a finisher if I choose.

More importantly, Momir Vig is a solid example of the commander specifications I was pointing out earlier. Momir is cheaper than Riku, and the pair of passive triggered abilities are relevant and free. This is a very compelling direction, but I’ve got some time to try out different options well before my flight leaves for Indy this August.

Wrapping Up

I really hope you all enjoyed my two-part series on competitive Commander. I know it isn’t something many Commander players like to think about, and I also know that many of the concepts are pretty basic for players of other competitive formats. I’m sure there are also many of you that may disagree with my angle.

Still, I think the topic is very relevant for this format. Even in my normal weekly games, I see the lines between casual and cutthroat blurring more and more with each passing session; sooner or later, this will rear its head for you. It’s a hot topic of discussion, and I want people to read and think about and discuss, no matter where you might stand on the subject.

Again, Magic is a competitive game by nature of design, so I think there’s a takeaway for every level of Commander player. I hope you find something that speaks to you somewhere in here, and I hope that you manage to maintain the Commander experience you want to have no matter where you play.

Thanks again for reading.

— Cassidy

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