A problem for creature-based strategies at many Commander tables is the threat of a creature sweeper. There is a ‘sweeper-culture’ present in many Commander groups; players will often play more cards like Wrath of God than single-target destruction like Swords to Plowshares. The reasons are perhaps inscrutable, but I chalk them up to two features of the format: first, Wrath of God is arguably more efficient, since it will destroy a creature that actually threatens you and also take a few others in the bargain. The second feature is more complicated: as you add players to the game, more complex board states become more likely – or even inevitable.
Players, whether they realize it or not, simply want the complexity to go away and start all over dumping out creatures into an empty board.
Obsolete Or Not?
The Commander life totals are what make many people think that aggro is not especially a viable archetype at casual tables. If you’re at a four person table, you will need to break through 120 life before you win, less what your opponents do to each other (which won’t be much, given that you’re probably going to want to come out of the gate quickly.) The devil is in the details here; to even plow through 40 life, you’ll probably be faced with the problem of overextension, which is a rather poor position to be in when the inevitable sweepers arrive.
Of course, when I say ‘creature-based strategy’, I mean actually playing creatures with casting costs, as distinguished from token-based strategies. Token-based strategies often skirt the ‘sweeper issue’ by only investing a few cards, multiplying them through enchantments like Doubling Season, and finally boosting them to lethal levels with Overrun effects. In practice, they operate somewhat like combo decks; there are a few pieces, and once you assemble them, they win the game. While token-based strategies can benefit from some of the solutions below, they are in far less need of it.
Enter the Return to Ravnica block ‘sweeper cures’, which make your creatures indestructible or temporarily whisk them away to safety before they’re destroyed: Rootborn Defenses, Boros Charm, Legion’s Initiative, and the Ready half of Ready // Willing. Legion’s Initiative has the additional honor of being a Glorious Anthem effect and being proof against Terminus, Merciless Eviction or -X/-X effects, but it will obliterate any tokens you might have wished to survive the ordeal. Simply save two or three mana and use any of these (or Ghostway from Guildpact) and you’re set to survive. To make matters better, Sunforger can get whichever card you need, letting you take advantage of Rootborn Defense’s populate or Ghostway’s flicker to avoid the different sorts of hazards that will come up.
If I had to guess the purpose for these effects in terms of Magic’s design, it could probably be traced to the risk/reward of populate and especially the battalion mechanic. The entire block saw a marked upswing in Wizard’s design to bring swarming creatures to the forefront. On the one hand, attacking with three creatures is inherently risky; you’ve already put three cards on the table that risk mass removal – like the dreaded in-block Supreme Verdict – and for battalion effects, you then have to risk them all in combat against your opponent’s blockers. Balance for battalion on its face would require significantly more powerful trigger effects, considering your opponent might just kill one or two of your attackers from regular combat. The sweeper-protector cards allow design to have appropriately-costed tokens to populate and balanced Battalion triggers, without having to worry that these mechanics will be lame ducks in the face of the many available sweepers.
But … Aren’t These All Functionally Counterspells?
This all prompts a serious question: If you’re leaving mana open for these, couldn’t you have always just spent that mana countering Wrath of God with a simple counterspell? Many are cheaply available (such as Negate) or are more narrow in application for an absolute rock-bottom price (like Envelop, viable since most sweepers are sorceries.) It goes without saying that the more flexible the counterspell, the more likely it will be proof against any non-Supreme Verdict sweeper, unlike the interaction between Boros Charm and Black Sun’s Zenith. But the options are easy to find.
Counterspells are also good against other cards, like nasty blockers or combo pieces. Some counterspells, such as Cryptic Command, Render Silent or Counterlash, could have some serious red-zone-related bonuses attached, by way of cutting out potential blockers, adding more attackers, anthem and protection effects or any number of other ways of changing the combat math.
With the cheaper costs and percieved increase in flexibility, why aren’t counterspells just better, then? The truth of the matter is that not all sweepers are counterable. Supreme Verdict cannot be countered, and serious control decks might be willing to cast Wrath under Boseiju, Who Shelters All. This also belies a more serious point; by using Ravnica block sweeper-cures, you are not merely stopping a board wipe, but making it work for you. The cards I’ve mentioned do not spare your opponent’s potential blockers, and a resolved Boros Charm against a Wrath of God produces a dramatically different outcome than a resolved Negate against a Wrath of God.
Finally, to use counterspells (other than aberrant out-of-colour ones, like Lapse of Certainty) you’ll need to be in blue. The Ravnica sweeper-cures are in colours well known for their aggressive tendencies, and include many suitable generals for a creature-based fight. They’re an easier fit.
Like many things, though, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Some counterspells will work very well against sweepers (Render Silent), but sweeper-cures are in the colours with generals that will strongly support your strategy. A timely Boros Charm can tilt the game well in your favour, or provide other strong effects (a double-striking beater in an Aurelia, the Warleader deck can mean a lot of damage.) Additionally, the mass-flicker effects available from Legion’s Initiative and Ghostway can provide you with increased value from enters-the-battlefield effects attached to your creatures as well.
Limiting Your Exposure
If you live in a very sweeper-heavy area, like my fellow LegitMTG Commander writer and blogger Cassidy McAuliffe, these cards might not be enough. You may face more sweepers than you can handle with individual spells. It may be the case that as you play Boros Charm to survive one player’s sweeper, another player will be quite tempted to follow it up with their own, considering they have an empty board and you have threats that survived the previous wipe.
The solution might be to make individual creatures more effective, rather than playing more creatures. If you play a card like Rage Reflection or Gratuitous Violence, you need only play half the creatures to put in a day’s work of aggressive swinging. Come a sweeper, you’ll have more creatures in hand, boosted by those enchantments and ready to take up the mantle of smashing face. Finally, if it’s sustainable, Eldrazi Monument will keep many sweepers at bay and provide your creatures a small power and evasion bonus, though you will blunt your own offensive with continual sacrifices.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Wizards of the Coast has gone a long way to make creatures more viable, especially in the last few blocks. There are now creatures that don’t really mind dying while also having excellent cost-to-power ratios (Gravecrawler, for instance), creatures that give out most of their value when they enter the battlefield (Snapcaster Mage), and creatures who won’t take “no” for an answer (such as Loxodon Smiter). Because of the singleton nature of Commander, the bonuses of many of these creatures are invisible in the format; it is pretty rare that someone will force you to discard your single Loxodon Smiter, and you will never have more than one Gravecrawler capable of digging itself out of the yard and producing a force that can fight unendingly in the face of sweepers.
Creatures are more powerful than ever, and there are more options than ever to interact with them. There are many sweepers, and now many new ways to protect against them.
For your own aggro decks, what’s your solution?
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