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Diagnosing Competitive Commander

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

Welcome to the beginning of a comprehensive look at competitive — otherwise known as “for prizes” — Commander. For those of you who haven’t rage-closed your browser window while screaming, ‘Commander and prizes should never mix!!!,” let me be clear.

This isn’t what you think it is.

This isn’t a primer on how to build the quickest, most redundant combo deck the format has ever seen, or how to be faster than the other combo decks you’ll face. This is a look at the typical metagame you’ll face in an EDH event that offers prize support. I’ll discuss the prevalent decks and strategies and how to prepare for them to have a fighting chance.

Let’s face it. Competitive Commander is a thing. Whether it’s a side event at a major tournament or your local game store that offers a pack and promo card for playing Commander on Wednesday nights, playing for prizes is a reality.

Do you know what doesn’t need to be a reality? Sitting down for an event and watching someone combo the entire table out on Turn 5, stand up to go grab the prize, and tell you, “Sorry about that. At least you guys can continue to play a ‘real game’ now.” This drives me nuts, but I understand the reason it happens.

My goal is to put a stop to that.

The Thesis Statement

If you’re looking for the cutting-edge combo list, you won’t find it here. In fact, a very quick search through the official EDH forums or the discussion at MTG Salvation will yield plenty of lists you can use to that end.

My goal isn’t to break an already-broken format. My goal is to try to un-break it.

I’m a Commander purist. I like the games for the enjoyment of the social aspect. I don’t care much for infinite combos or mass land destruction. I can’t stand Myojin of Night’s Reach. For better or worse, I believe in the “social contract” the founders of the Commander format point at as the core concept. For me, it’s all about a group of friends and a good time at the end of the day.

I also understand not everyone shares the same beliefs. Game stores and tournament organizers have figured this out as well. If you go to a Grand Prix, chances are better than not there will be sit-and-go four-player Commander pods available all weekend.

At its core, Magic is a competitive game. Commander is a popular format. End of story.

That doesn’t mean you need to play in these events. I know dozens of players who wouldn’t touch one if the prize was a new car or an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii. Some people know their comfort zone with the format and don’t want to go somewhere it wasn’t really intended to go.

But what if you want to have it both ways?

As a Commander player, I would have a hard time going to an event and not dipping my toes into the water. You shouldn’t have to steer clear of these things if you really want to play just because you know they’ll be a disappointment. The trick is to identify the metagame considerations and be prepared for them so that you can stand a chance of succeeding.

Stick around and I’ll show you how to beat the system without going to the dark side in the process.

(Tossing) The Social Contract (Out The Window)

If you’ve never seen competitive Commander played before, I can attempt to sum it up:

  • Take the “social contract” that defines the casual format.
  • Light it on fire. Watch it burn down to a fine gray ash.
  • Prepare to play multiplayer 100-card Vintage Highlander.

Commander with prizes on the line is no different than any other sanctioned Magic format. The point is to win. The only difference is the list of banned cards and the deck construction requirements. By and large, the enjoyment of interaction is replaced with the end goal: win and be compensated.

The nature of a singleton 100-card format with essentially the same banned list as Vintage is that you have the availability of most of the most-broken cards of all time, without the threat of consistency from control decks to keep things in check. Let’s face it: Eternal formats would be a drastically different place if players were only allowed to play one Force of Will in their decks.

The other piece of the puzzle is that Commander is viewed as a “soft” format. To be fair, this is largely a true statement. The format is based on a core belief that games should be fun, casual and flavorful over any sort of competitive consideration. This is a large difference from other formats; you’ll never see someone show up to a Legacy tournament with a minotaurs tribal deck, but you will see some pretty serious metagame analysis and development that leads to a balanced ‘rock/paper/scissors’ gauntlet.

Since very few Commander players expect to have to make this sort of analysis and preparation, it’s pretty easy to build a redundant combo deck that can just wipe the floor with the other unprepared players. Easy money. While we’re right here, it seems like a good time to actually take a look at the metagame.

Rock, Paper, … Well, That’s About It

Competitive Commander is a vastly different place than the other Magic formats as far as balance between the typical archetypes. As you can probably figure out by now, combo is heavily represented. Aggro makes a strong showing as well — in numbers, mostly, if not in performance. From there things make a radical shift, with core components of one type of deck showing up as a secondary theme in another, and vice versa. The lack of a cohesive metagame means people will often prepare for the unknown in whatever way they think is correct; the results are decidedly all over the map.

And yes … for those of you keeping score, true control is nearly totally absent.

There’s a good reason for this, but let’s take a deeper look at the components before blurring the lines.

Combo

This is easily the most popular deck archetype. Dedicated combo decks exist, and a large percentage of other types of decks will usually include a combo or two to bolster their endgames. The motivation is fairly clear.

Your average player is going to get the idea to build a Brion Stoutarm tribal giants deck or a Jenara, Asura of War Bant planeswalker deck, but they likely aren’t stopping to think about what the people across the table will play. In casual games, this is the joy of the format — figuring out the puzzle and interacting with other players to see what happens on the way to the finish line. But this is a recipe for combo-goldfishing in a competitive environment, and most players concerned with only pulling in prizes will figure this out quickly.

If everyone is doing their own thing, and nobody is saying no to other people’s things, the logical thing is to build the fastest combo deck you can afford to put together. This works. A lot.

If someone shows up with a five-color deck, it’s often a good sign the general is unimportant and the deck is running the best cards in every color with the express purpose of using them find and execute combos. At GenCon last year, I was paired with a friend running an Animar, Soul of Elements deck and a Level 1 judge playing Sliver Queen. My friend didn’t miss a beat:

“What slivers are you playing in there?”, he asked.

The judge looked surprised.

“I … er … well, there are a few important ones, but … well …”

Sometimes, you don’t have to guess. Sometimes the player simply drags an “I’m Playing Combo!” neon sign to the table with them.

  • Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind/Curiosity or Ophidian Eye — This will usually be enough to kill two players outright and give the Niv player the tools to reload his or her library to finish off anyone else.
  • Mind over Matter/Temple Bell — This is very easy to support in a mono-blue shell, and it effectively allows the controller to force everyone to draw themselves to death at instant speed. At the same time, he is using the same draw to find counter backup and things like Elixir of Immortality to prevent self-decking.
  • Palinchron/Any mana doubler — Infinite mana in blue. The usual plan involves the old-school Stroke of Genius (or Blue Sun’s Zenith) win condition. (Also see Grim Monolith/Power Artifact.
  • Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker/Pestermite — Infinite Pestermites at instant speed. Kiki-Jiki also happens to represent the color that is really, really good at giving your team haste. Pestermite represents the color that loves to let you say “No” to things. Two great tastes, as it were. (See also Splinter Twin. Kiki redundancy.)
  • Mono-black Ad Nauseam — A boatload of tutors and cheap cards to complement your format-inflated life total. It is possible to play an early Ad Nauseam that will allow you to draw your entire deck without dying because the cards are all cheap and/or free. Duress effects clear the way, Skirge Familiar makes each land into a Spirit Guide, and Exsanguinate kills everyone all at once.

And then there’s the Hermit Druid combo. Bear with me here. This will seem totally janky, but the end effect is a guaranteed delivery of a win condition for next to no cost.

First, find and play Hermit Druid. Activate him, milling your entirely-devoid-of-basic lands deck into your graveyard. In the process, put Narcomoeba into play. Unearth your Fatestitcher and sacrifice all three creatures to the Dread Return you milled off in order to reanimate Necrotic Ooze. You can now do anything you want. Morselhoarder and Devoted Druid in the graveyard equal infinite mana, which works great with that Shivan Hellkite to chain-gun the other players down. If an important piece gets exiled somehow, flash back Memory’s Journey to get Pull From Eternity. Add Runic Repetition to reload if needed.

I know it’s a glass cannon. But it’s a lightning-fast glass cannon that wins when it simply outraces any reactions from other players. It has so much built-in redundancy that it is very easy to rebuild if something goes wrong. It’s also very hard to know what to attack, when to attack it, and what to use in the process.

When you hear Sheldon Menery say it isn’t hard to break the format, he’s not kidding around.

Aggro

Lots of players still show up with what can rightfully be considered aggro decks. In all honestly, it takes the perfect convergence of a perfect draw (and a terrible one for the combo player) for the average aggro deck to win. With a 40-life buffer as protection, it’s not hard to sit back and sculpt a perfect hand while losing chunks of life to a horde of goblin tokens or whatever Kaalia of the Vast is cheating into play on Turn 5, only to fire off a protected combo just before you would be eliminated.

Is aggro futile? Mostly yes. But the fact remains that most Commander players start with the idea that the format is about playing all of the giant beaters you’ve always wanted to play, so aggro remains a popular angle. And there are some good strategies available if you’re interested:

It’s not quite that black-and-white, but this area is smaller because aggro simply can’t hang with combo in a competitive environment. I know there are people writing hate mail as I speak, swearing up and down that they have a Krenko, Mob Boss deck that runs cards that crush combo. I appreciate the sentiment, I really do. But as I began documenting above, combo is a moving target with many faces, tons of speed and tons of inevitability. If your plan is to win by combat damage, you’ve got an uphill battle ahead of you. And the hill is Mount Everest.

Control

This is the missing link. True control decks do not exist in Commander.

End of story.

OK, that’s an oversimplification, too. But with an undefined metagame, it’s not possible to build a control deck that has the right answers to the correct questions. There’s also the fact that someone who shows up to Casual Commander with an Ertai, Wizard Adept deck designed to do nothing but re-buy Forbid over and over and counter everything from Avacyn, Angel of Hope to Sakura-Tribe Elder is going to draw a massive amount of ire from the group.

There’s not a good place for control decks other than competitive events. In the same way it’s hard for aggro decks to splash the right combo hate, it’s equally hard for control decks to come prepared with the right tools as well. Still, I can’t say they don’t exist.

The majority of control decks fall under “prison” strategy. They’re designed to attack other players in a general sense through things like land destruction and hand disruption. Red and black figure prominently, and signature win conditions usually feature Eldrazi (or more to the point, annihilator triggers resolving). And there will be removal. Lots of removal.

There are other angles. Clearly, blue represents classic counter-based control strategies, and the more-accepted copy and steal effects such as Rite of Replication and Gather Specimens. By and large, these effects are corollary effects added to other decks, not features of a dedicated build.

Well, so far, anyway.

Goodstuff

Most decks that aren’t dedicated combo decks fall into this category. These decks usually have a main strategy, such as a Doran, the Siege Tower build that loads up on traditional Rock-style elements like Pernicious Deed and Austere Command. Merieke Re Berit is a classic ‘goodstuff’ commander; her colors promote a perfect blend of tutors, removal and card advantage, and she is a relevant rattlesnake effect that serves to keep big threats form hitting play.

There are a lot of premier strategies in here. Combos that easily fit usually get added as an auxiliary backup win-con. Extra-turn effects are common. Most of the format ‘haymakers’ will show up in this category to one extent or another. Traditional control elements are at their best here, and often you’ll see a small amount of the accepted premier counter spells (Hinder, Spell Crumple, Mana Drain) slotted among Swords To Plowshares, Oblivion Stone, Eternal Witness and Demonic Tutor.

These are the decks that most people have built for home games, and they often churn out wins there, prompting owners to think that they’ll stand up to anything that could come down the pike at the PTQ side events.

This is a wide-open category, and it serves no purpose to really go into detail. You know what these decks look like. You know what they play like. You have one or more yourselves. (I absolutely do. Guilty as charged!) What does serve a purpose is looking at why these decks will typically be the ones still sitting and playing the concession-prize games after the combo player has walked off with the main goods.

The wrap-up

The common denominator for everything I’ve discussed that isn’t a combo list is that these decks are designed to be played in group games. Swords to Plowshares might well be the best spot removal ever designed, but many Commander players won’t give it a single consideration over Wrath of God because Wrath hits more creatures, and more creatures are expected in games with multiple players.

The crux of this idea is that most decks can’t stand up to an entire table on their own; they require a shared workload among all players to get the job done. No single player can pack enough of the correct removal to handle every problem that hits the table. It takes a nation.

This is precisely why combo rules the day. It breaks the rules. If all you need to do is find a way to reduce everyone else’s life totals to zero, you likely won’t care that someone has a Maze of Ith that is preventing creatures from attacking successfully. You won’t care about Propaganda or armies of plant tokens or aura-laden angels.

You can block it all out (including how many actual players are in the game) and just focus on winning instead. Is that fun? Not particularly. But it’s not supposed to be. With prizes on the line, the goals of the game change drastically, and you need to be able to plan for that if you want to handle the competitive metagame.

Stay tuned …

I hope this generates some serious thought, and I’d love to hear some reactions in the comments section. Commander is a wide-open format, and there’s no way I came close to covering everything that you’ll see in a competitive setting. Let me know what else is out there, and let me know what you want to see addressed.

Next time, I’ll take this information to the next level.

I’ll show you how to plan for these strategies you will likely face at events that offer prize support, and what counter-strategies work better than others. I’ll also share what I took to GenCon 2012, why I built it the way I did, and how it worked. (And how it failed as well.) I’ll also show you what I’ve learned from all of this, along with the new deck with which I plan on taking down the GenCon 2013 events.

— Cass

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