Land Destruction in Commander

Today I’d like to talk about one of the taboo topics of Commander: land destruction. We’ll look at both the single target variety and the mass destruction type. There’s been a wide variety of it printed over the years, and every color has access to it, through lands and artifacts at the least. Overwhelming popular opinion is that land destruction is antithetical to the nature of the format and should be played sparingly as a last resort to deal with particularly troublesome lands like Cabal Coffers or Volrath’s Stronghold.

As many people have already mentioned in format primers and discussions, the best ways to win usually involves getting ahead on mana and winning the tempo race by playing the huge bombs for which the format is famous. This does not strike me as a healthy metagame. My personal feeling is that the lack of land destruction in the format is what causes this, and a little land destruction would do most playgroups some good.

In more traditional formats, the traditional way to disrupt the opponent from playing game-winning effects is to use countermagic. You can see examples of this in pretty much every dueling format. In multiplayer, there simply aren’t enough counterspells to go around. You can’t counter every bomb, and you can’t deal with every potential threat from three or more opponents.

For those out there who are old school enough and remember the days of Stone Rain and Sinkhole, there is a proactive form of countermagic: simply blow up your opponent’s lands before they can actually cast a spell. We’ve even seen it do well on the tournament scene a few times in the past. But this is Commander, the format of [card Titanic Ultimatum]Ultimatums[/card], [card Primeval Titan]Titans[/card], and [card Ulamog the Infinite Gyre]Eldrazi[/card]. Destroying lands will definitely make you The Threat, whether you like it or not.

The Pros of Land Destruction

Dealing with Broken Lands

Doing a quick Gatherer search can easily turn up multiple lands worth destroying. Academy Ruins has a tendency to do very dumb things. Volrath’s Stronghold causes similar issues. Gaea’s Cradle cranks out mana like it’s going out of style. Emeria, the Sky Ruin is less scary initially, at least right up until it’s online.

Sometimes you just really need to get rid of a land.

This is the standard reason people run Strip Mine and Wasteland in every deck they play (and to a lesser extent Tectonic Edge and Dust Bowl), and most people have no problem with running any or all of these. They do tend to get upset when you decide to recur them a bunch, though.

Controlling Ramp Strategies

Being able to slow down heavy ramp strategies is a huge deal. The biggest argument behind banning some of the format staples such as Sol Ring and Mana Vault is that whoever finds one early wins by virtue of the tempo advantage. While an individual deck needs to be able to capitalize on this bonus mana, the general idea is getting to the bombs sooner. Cards as simple as Mind Stone are considered great in the format just because they provide that early mana advantage needed to get your most powerful spells online before your opponents. While this is a column aimed at casual players rather than the more competitive types, everyone still likes to win. Different players like their tribal Elf or Goblin decks as much as other players likes their tribal Dragon decks that just plays mana ramp until one can cast the first dragon.

When I look at this format I see a format designed for the archetypal casual player, Timmy, being able to play what he likes best. The concept that lands are sacrosanct keeps more aggressive strategies from flourishing in the format. When you play your whole hand by turn 5 and your opponents still have five or more cards in hand because they designed their decks to take advantage of the extra 20 life they start with and focused on getting ahead on mana and cards, you’re likely in a very bad position for dealing with more than one opponent. You’ve also painted a bull’s-eye on your chest for the entire table since you theoretically have the most dominate board position. It’s a bit hard to deal with multiple 6/6 flyers on turn 5 when your deck plays a few tribal cards on turns 1 through 4 rather than trying to ramp into something huge.

Enables Aggro Strategies

Interestingly enough, the colors that are the most likely to dump their hands and have little in the way of backup are the colors with mass land destruction available: red and white. Following up your four weenies with an Armageddon or the Bust half of [card Boom Bust]Boom//Bust[/card] will give you a few turns to get in the damage before your board gets wiped. By slowing down your opponents ramping, you have a much more realistic chance of winning with your smaller creatures.

Right now, aggro is extremely ineffective as a strategy because it can’t get in 40 damage before an opponent can deal with the quick creatures they drop, let alone enough to kill another opponent. This forces aggro to build very resilient decks, but they still run into the problem of not having the right kind of haymaker punches that most of the other decks do. The solution is either to shift into a midrange deck, or to slow your opponent down enough that you can keep up with your smaller creatures and lower curve. Land destruction provides the latter.

Reinforces a Good Mana Curve

What do you do if you have to worry about people blowing up your lands? You either play counters to it or you build your curve such that you can recover from losing a few lands. One thing I often see in Commander decks is a terrible, terrible curve. It appears that many people build decks that don’t do anything relevant (including accelerate mana or draw cards) until turn 3 or 4. In a non-40 life format, they’d get destroyed for that or at the very least be on the back foot for several turns. Putting a little LD in your deck will force your opponents to do something before turn 4, and helps make up for you spending cards early to deploy threats by forcing them to do the same.

Punishes Greedy Mana Bases

From Aaron Forsythe’s Twitter account:

I just took Sundering Titan out of my Commander decks because everyone whines. When every person agrees the card sucks, it should be banned.

I disagree that Sundering Titan should be banned, and that’s because of 5-color goodstuff decks. I’m guessing that many of you know what I’m talking about: the deck that plays nothing but the best spells and effects across all 5 colors and plays nothing but original duals, Ravnica block duals, and fetches along with the broken lands I mentioned above.

There’s only one way to really stop decks like this and that is to attack their mana. While that might not be fun for that player to deal with, it’s often not fun for the rest of the table to play against a deck that’s just filled with the best cards available for multiplayer. I fully advocate talking to the person first and asking them to play a deck that is more fun for to play against per the Social Contract, but if they refuse or don’t understand why everyone’s asking for it sometimes the best solution is to return the favor.

Tit for tat only goes so far regrettably. Sundering Titan is by far the best way to go about returning the favor since you can selectively destroy only the 5 color player’s mana and leave the rest of the players untouched. Hopefully after a few games the player will understand why you’re annoyed at that point.

The Cons of Land Destruction

Against the Spirit of Commander

This is the elephant in the room, the 800 pound gorilla on the LD player’s back, etc, etc. Commander is supposed to be about big spells and effects that normally don’t see constructed play because they are too expensive. Getting to play with more fatties and silly sorceries is one of the reasons I love this format (the others are the multiplayer focus and the flavor inherent in Commander).

Unfortunately, some people feel the need to play other effects that aren’t banned and are effectively auto-wins when they resolve. Time Stretch is Public Enemy #1 in this category. The problem with a lot of these types of effects is they don’t truly become broken until the other player has a way to generate truly ridiculous amounts of mana, and when they do the game is very often just over with no one having a way to respond to it. While this can be okay every once in a while, more often than not the entire deck is built around doing that continuously. Personally I’d rather play against a few land destruction spells than Time Stretch recursion. I’m sure many people would say they hate them both, but sometimes you’re in a position where you have to choose between the lesser of two evils.

Causes Lopsided Positions

Many people dislike land destruction because it causes lopsided board positions: the aggro player has 5-10 power worth of guys out and Armageddons, leaving the rest of the table to figure out a quick way to get out of the hole before he kills someone. This is a bit of a fallacy, as every spell that is considered “good” in Commander is good because precisely because it pushes other players ahead in the tempo game and gets them closer to being at the point of inevitability.

The true problem is that as much as people hate countermagic, they hate not being able to play their spells more. I agree that it can be very unfun to play against land destruction when your deck is chock-full of spells you can’t cast because you need more mana, but just as countermagic can be played around, land destruction can be played around. As I mentioned above, building a deck with a true mana curve that has 15 or so 1, 2, and 3 mana spells will go a long way toward mitigating the problem of having people destroying your lands because you’ll still have relevant things to do on the early turns.

Slows Down the Game

Land destruction has the potential to slow the game down. However, it certainly has the potential to speed things up by giving more aggressive decks the chance to get opponents into the danger zone before they establish board control, like many Commander decks are designed to do. Being in a position where they have to respond to the current board position forces the more controlling decks to play more proactively as soon as possible rather than sitting back on their answers and threats. For players who want to have a faster game, this is a great way to encourage it.

Famous Last Words

I can say with sincerity that the greater majority of Commander games I have played I have felt no need to play land destruction beyond point removal for some of the broken nonbasics I mentioned earlier. It all depends on your playgroup. There’s frequently a thread running in the Rules Discussion section of the official Commander forums detailing how people hate mass land destruction and think it should all be banned.

However, if you ban all the answers, you’re left with a situation where blue-based combo is allowed to run rampant. The only answer to decks like that is to take out their lands before they can combo out or to run some sort of combo of your own 99% of the time. If you have no decks like that in your playgroup, that’s fantastic. Skip the mass land destruction completely if you want …but it might not hurt to bring a few more removal effects beyond Strip Mine and Wasteland, too.

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