Doug’s Quandary

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I recently received an email from our very own Doug Linn, writer of the column Legacy's Allure, about card advantage in Commander. Well, it wasn’t just about card advantage. It may be simpler to refer you to what I call "Doug’s Quandary" (which would make an excellent name for a novel, mathematical problem, or Magic article).

Doug introduced some issues he had with his monored Bosh, Iron Golem Commander deck:

Namely, there are bottlenecks on certain resources. The most frustrating thing is drawing land after land, which is hard to stop if you aren't playing Blue...How do you tune nonblue decks so you have cards coming in, enough lands on the table and little pressure for those resources? I don't have this problem in my Lin Sivvi deck, because obviously after landing the general, I can use up as much mana as I have every turn. How do I get Bosh to that same point?

When someone so versed in the technical intricacies of Magic asks me for my input on a topic I am nigh obligated to throw my entire mental weight (which is less significant than it sounds) behind tackling a solution. I offered an answer, but even after a few paragraphs I don’t think it was enough to fully expound upon the problem. So I am dedicating this week’s article to Doug’s Quandary because I think delving into this issue will reveal a deeper method of thinking about, building, and tuning your Commander decks.

I will use monored for the majority of my examples because in the context of this archetype, the problem is simple to illustrate. Every deck other than monored (except, perhaps, monobrown) will have more tools available to gain card advantage. By illustrating deckbuilding concepts rather than just card choices, any information you glean can be transferred across to other decks you may be working on. Fishing lessons and all that!

We Need to go Deeper

Doug’s Quandary is a multi-pronged issue concerning card advantage, but not revolving around it. Card advantage (or lack thereof) is just a symptom. There are two lines from Doug’s text that are crucial to understanding this problem:

“Namely, there are bottlenecks on certain resources. The most frustrating thing is drawing land after land”


“How do you tune nonblue decks so you have cards coming in, enough lands on the table and little pressure for those resources?”

We’ve all experienced games where things just don’t go as we planned. Mana screw in the early game can be just as bad as bricking turn after turn in the late game.

To sum up the obstacles we face, we need to:

  • Hit our land drops in the first several turns of the game
  • Play enough early spells to accelerate mana or build a board state; and
  • Maintain card advantage throughout the game
  • As I wrote earlier, card advantage is just a symptom of the quandary. I believe the real issue is resource flow. It feels much like a balancing act between hitting your land drops, playing early spells to gain momentum, and reaching critical mass with your mana at the same time you reach critical mass with your spell power. It starts with your opening seven, and doesn’t stop until the game is over.

    Hit land drops in the first several turns of the game

    Consistently playing lands relies largely on a combination of the deck’s land count and the hand you keep. When you topdeck nothing but lands game after game, it may be worthwhile to re-examine your land count. And while keeping a five-land hand will ensure a fine early game from a mana standpoint, but will not likely put you ahead of other players in the grand scheme of things, and will likely not prepare you for the late-game shenanigans that Commander is known for.

    Cards like Thawing Glaciers and Journeyers Kite help ensure land drops while marginally thinning the deck. Keep in mind that these cards should not be classified as “ramp”. Consistent ramping establishes an enormous amount of bandwidth, which is why green is so powerful in Commander. Red has little in the way of true ramp so it is important to focus on consistently hitting land drops and, where possible, to accelerate land drops without compromising card value (ie. Terrain Generator).

    Play enough early spells to accelerate mana or build a board state

    Some Commander players have dismissed the notion analyzing the mana curve in their decks. I, myself, rather strictly abide by maintaining a healthy curve in my decks. That means cutting higher casting cost spells when necessary, and filling out the curve with early spells. To optimize resource flow, you need to look at a Commander deck as a true constructed deck; one with many more moving parts, yes, but that does not mean it cannot be tweaked and tuned.

    Early spells establish your board for the long game and make other players less likely to attack you. Senseis Divining Top, Darksteel Ingot and Lightning Greaves are fine examples of cards you can play early that will give you a boost throughout the game. But it is also important to establish a board presence or defensive measures relatively early. Mana-light threats like Taurean Mauler will make other players think twice about picking on you.

    Maintain card advantage throughout the game (Optimize individual card value)

    As one angle for trying to solve the problem, I say, “Don’t think about card advantage.” What are you thinking about?

    The more we play Magic, the more the notion of “card advantage” is hammered into our heads. We spend so much time trying to draw more cards that we sometimes gloss over the very cards we are trying to draw into. When we run out of gas, we curse ourselves, hoping for a Jaces Ingenuity or a damned Jayemdae Tome to put us back into the game (monored ain’t pretty sometimes, folks).

    But how did you empty your hand in the first place? Did you just bolt everything you saw?

    Monored is an archetype that can ill afford playing one-for-ones, which means it is exponentially more important for that Commander deck to play cards with value. It can’t play like white and search for cards it needs, and it can’t play like black and pay life for cards to reload. It relies on artifacts instead, but those are generally clunky and conditional. Instead of jumping through numerous hoops for more cards, wouldn’t it just be easier to play better cards that last longer and provide more of an impact? Cards with good value? It seems neater.

    The real reason for playing high value cards is that they should enable your deck to use fewer card advantage spells.

    I fell into a trap by adopting a school of thought for my monored deck that eschewed red creatures in order to avoid red’s traditionally fragile board states. I thought it would be easier to play a control game with red spells like Encircling Fissure and Cinder Cloud, but at the end of the day they’re still one-for-ones (and they’re pretty poor ones at that).

    Red has a lot of cards with good value. Shattering Pulse, Fanning the Flames, and Reiterate are examples of good spells with added value. It is just a matter of recognizing the right ones for the deck.

    Ponder a choice between Brittle Effigy and Predator, Flagship.

    Brittle Effigy fills a niche that red woefully lacks: exiling removal. But it’s a one-for-one. You can’t recur it and do it again, so it’s pretty much always a one-for-one. You only have one copy, so in a do-or-die situation, you either have it or you don’t (and chances are you don’t). And it’s a permanent, so it can be removed if it’s just sitting on the table, which it will, because it costs only one mana, right? But it actually costs five, and it’s essentially a sorcery. Would you still play a 5CC sorcery to exile a creature (see Iona's Judgment).

    Predator, Flagship actually costs five, and it costs another seven to destroy any given creature. There’s no question that it’s more mana-intensive to strafe a creature to death. But consider this: you’re not killing little things with this card. Red actually has great options to kill small critters. But big ones? Not so much. By the time other players are dropping huge dudes, you should ideally have mana to power the Predator. With the Predator, you have the ability to repeatedly kill creatures and/or give other creatures flying: two significant abilities that carry a certain amount of political weight in Commander.

    Permanents like Predator, Flagship arguably offer more value than straight-up spells. Creatures can repeatedly deal damage over time. Artifacts can provide mana and abilities every turn. The weakness of the permanent is that it can be removed, but if your permanents make enough of an impact (ie. offer enough value), you should not need to overextend in order to make a difference in a game.

    By running fewer one-shot spells and more value-added spells, you are easing the strain on the card advantage engines that you are already running. You can afford to hold back cards because the ones you have already played have placed you in a safe position in a game.

    Managing your Commander deck’s resources often starts when you’re first drafting up your list or sitting in front of a pile of cards. It is difficult to throw a catch-all net that will help address all the myriad issues that can come up in any given Commander game, but I hope this has helped you pick up on a few things you may want to look at for solving the quandaries in your own Commander decks.

    David Lee
    @derfington on Twitter

    5 thoughts on “Doug’s Quandary

    1. One way to deal with drawing too many lands is Scrying Sheets, as long as you have 10 or more basics in your deck. It's a land, so it won't use up a spell slot, and by simply exchanging your basics with snow-covered ones, you can ensure you never topdeck another basic again in the lategame. For a mere 3 mana investment (including the mana you'd otherwise get from the Sheets) at instant-speed, you can clear a basic off the top of your library if there so happens to be one there. Yeah, every once in a while you'll have multiple basics in a row, but generally, it's a good way to increase the likelyhood of drawing gas AND ensure your land drops. Not to mention it makes Sensei's Divining Top even better.

      Alternatively, just running more useful utility lands can help mitigate the problem of mana flood, since you'll have more lands that provide spell-like effects to make up for your lack of real spells.

    2. There's really no shortage of card drawing, even in mono-red. Hell, I can get enough in mono-brown!

      If you want to ensure a good flow of mana and cards, look for cards that are cheap but will be useful even late. Some example:

      -equipment, especially the good card advantage ones like SOFI and SOLS
      -cheap card drawing, like Harmonize
      -utility lands. Urza's Factory comes to mind.
      -cards that draw while doing/after doing other things. Everyone gets a Dreamstone Hedron; other colors have more specialized options.
      -cantrips like Preordain, or anything that cantrips. You don't want Tormod's Crypt; you want Nihil Spellbomb, or Relic.
      -cycling cards are generally pretty marginal, but the lands are generally fine, and there's others with a wide-enough application to be worthy of inclusion (Radiant's Judgment)
      -a commander that can get your cardflow moving. Captain Sisay is one. Xira Airen is also.
      -a commander you can replay effectively.
      -scalable cards (think X spells). Wolfbriar Elemental is fine at 5-6 mana and great upwards.
      -cheap tutors. all black decks can start with demonic, vampiric, diabolic, and beseech (and grim and imperial seal if you have money or proxies). specific decks can add Diabolic Intent, Buried Alive, or Dimir House Guard (->Diabolic if you're flooded or have Coffers going). You can also stretch for Shred Memory (transmutes for Demonic if nothing else) and Dimir Machinations (Phyrexian Arena).
      -recursion effects: Mimic Vat, Erratic Portal
      -just plain old card drawing: Mind's Eye, Temporal Aperture, Illuminated Folio. This is the richest nation of earth, there's enough of these out there that no one should ever have to use a Jayemdae Tome again.

    3. @Alex: Your idea of utility lands is the kind of streamlined efficiency I am striving toward in Commander deckbuilding. Every card slot counts, and the more options and flexibility you can incorporate into each slot, the better. And I agree, Scrying Sheets is quite awesome!

      @QED2: I like how you pointed out the scalability of cards like Wolfbriar Elemental (or something like Comet Storm in mono-red). That is definitely important to opening up your options. Now if only red had Transmute…

      I think the more we try to come up with synergistic answers to lack of cards/mana/options, the less we need fill up card slots with hard card draw engines.

      Thanks for the ideas!

    4. I forgot to mention, buyback is great value. Shattering Pulse, Allay, Slaughter, Evangelize, and Reiterate are the main nonblue ones. Blue gets Capsize and Walk the Aeons.

      For reference, here are the raw draw spells I run in a monored deck:

      Wheel of Fortune
      Wheel of Fate
      Illuminated Folio
      Temporal Aperture (doubles as 'mana ramp' in the same way that Bloodbraid Elf was "cantrip+Black Lotus")
      Mind's Eye
      Dreamstone Hedron
      Memory Jar
      Crystal Ball
      Thawing Glaciers

      and there are plenty of other decent options I'm not running:
      Urza's Blueprints is fine if you have enough mana, or are running various untappy things (Karn+Voltaic Construct is nice to use while echo is on the stack)
      Candles of Leng
      Kozilek, Butcher of Truth
      Darksteel Pendant
      Planar Portal
      Tower of Fortunes

      Cards that 'buy' me additional 'cards':
      Kumano, Master Yamabushi
      Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
      Flameblast Dragon
      Hellkite Charger
      Jiwari, the Earth Aflame
      Obsidian Fireheart
      Shard Phoenix
      Viashino Heretic

      Single-use cards that are scalable:
      Comet Storm
      Fault Line
      Jaws of Stone
      Molten Disaster
      Shattering Spree
      Spire Barrage

      And last but not least, there’s Akroma, Angel of Fury, who is a good mana sink, and also playable at two different costs.

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