Straying from Staples

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Over the past couple of weeks I’ve written about how you can take advantage of Commander’s structure in a quest for victory and how the format can open you up to new opportunities in every way you play Magic. But this week is going to be a bit less positive as I discuss one of the more hotly debated issues that Commander brings up: staples.

Commander is unique in a lot of ways, but like all of the competitive Magic formats, certain cards have risen to the top of the proverbial heap, and are common sights among nearly every deck. The most noticeable of these are the colorless ones; the majority of Commander decks contain a Sol Ring, a [card Senseis Divining Top]Top[/card], and [card Minds Eye]Mind’s Eye[/card]. But for basic functions which any deck can use, [card Solemn Simulacrum]ramp[/card], [card Scroll Rack]card selection[/card], [card Duplicant]removal[/card], or [card Artisan of Kozilek]recursion[/card], most people’s first instinct is to run the accepted strongest version.

Why should you run Diabolic Intent in your [card Kresh, the Bloodbraided]Kresh[/card] deck when Demonic Tutor will still be better? Or Distant Melody over Fact or Fiction in your [card Sygg River Guide]Merfolk[/card] deck? Or Prosperity over Stroke of Genius with Sen Triplets? Our staple mentality stops us from using weaker cards to provide basic effects, even when they’re more interesting in our decks.

More problematic than this, once cards establish themselves as staples many deck builders choose to start their processes by including those of appropriate colors. So, if you build a Rubinia Soulsinger deck and start off with the staples, you’ll have:

I’m sure you disagree about some of these being staples just as I’m sure you would have more of your own to add in. This is ridiculous. Sure, not all lists will run all of these cards, but the fact that most of these will show up in the majority of lists running the appropriate colors should set off red flags.

What’s so bad about having a top tier of card? It undermines part of Commander’s purpose (and fun).

Commander is a singleton format with a larger than usual decksize and limits on what cards you can play. All three of these restrictions work at a fundamental level to differentiate each game that takes place. I always burn out on constructed formats quickly; even though people won’t often be running exactly the same list, playing the same eleven spells against four different decks each with eleven distinct spells, many of which overlap with one another, makes for a lot of very similar games.

On the other hand, playing games with sixty different spells against hundreds of different decks with the same number and having minimal overlap between them, makes each Commander game unique. This allows me to play Commander all night without getting bored. Every staple that somebody sticks into their deck detracts from the uniqueness of their games, making them less likely to be memorable and more like playing regular Magic.

This isn’t too much a problem right now. While decks of the same colors will have a lot of overlap, there aren’t that many colorless staples, and people often eschew staples that they don’t like or don’t have. Unfortunately, this condition isn’t going to last long: Wizards of the Coast has recently decided to design cards with Commander in mind, and we’re just starting to see [card Consecrated Sphinx]the[/card] [card Genesis Wave]results[/card]. Going forward, we’ll see a much larger number of new Commander staples being released in each set, and without a significant change, deck builders will quickly be overwhelmed by new staple cards to jam in to their decks. The distinctness of each game will dwindle, and the format won’t be interesting to play for as long at a stretch.

This isn’t a cry to Wizards to change their actions; first off, they need to sell booster packs to stay in business, and making cards that appeal to as large a demographic as Commander players is an excellent way to do so without driving people away from the game (like would happen with overpowered constructed cards). Moreover, we, the Commander community, can solve this problem without Wizards’ intervention.

How? Well, in order to accommodate all of these staples, we ought to look to a format that should have the same problems, but doesn’t: casual. If Commander has a problem with staples, one would assume that regular (four-of, sixty card) casual would have a much bigger problem. After all, the number of cards that can be ‘staples’ in casual play is comparable to the number that hold this designation in Commander. While Commander allows extremely [card Ulamog the Infinite Gyre]mana-intensive[/card] or [card Thawing Glaciers]slow[/card] cards to see the light of day, in order to do so, the format has had to sacrifice any semblance of [card AEther Vial]aggression[/card]. With all of these staples, we couldn’t reasonably expect something as innocuous as Psychic Possession to see the light of day, instead of each staple taking up one card out of ninety-nine, it gets four slots out of sixty. Only one sixth as many cards should make it through the gauntlet.

Casual play’s difference starts right as the deck building does. There are way too many ‘great’ cards in each color to begin deck building by jamming in a playset of each, so people don’t start decks that way. They’ll pick an individual card or a strategy to build around, and then they’ll look for cards that fit that mold. Why should Commander be any different? Sure, in some ways it’s more difficult to execute a single-card strategy, you have a much smaller chance of drawing your Sneak Attack, but you always have access to your Commander.

One of the best ways to make sure your decks stay unique and interesting is to really build around your Legends. This doesn’t just mean running Thornbite Staff in your [card Kiki-Jiki Mirror Breaker]Kiki-Jiki[/card] deck, it means building your entire deck with your Commander in mind. If you’re using Captain Sisay, you should run Dosan the Falling Leaf over City of Solitude, but moreover, you should run Yomiji Who Bars the Way; build your deck to make the best possible use of your Commander. Each and every card should support the strategies you’re trying to execute.

Not everyone wants to build around their Commander, and you don’t have to. Building a deck around a theme is equally effective. You may not always draw a specific [card Sprout Swarm] token producer[/card], or a specific [card Muraganda Petroglyphs]anthem effect[/card], but you can consistently draw both types of card because there are so many cards with similar functions. Once you’ve decided to build your deck this way, you can decide on cards the same way as in a Commander based deck (i.e. Collective Unconscious over Harmonize). Again, cards have to prove not only their power, but their relevance to your game-plan.

Both of these approaches are definite steps in the right direction: they’ll give you incentive to play cards which aren’t good in every deck, and thus will make your games more memorable for your opponents and keep them interested in playing with you. Nonetheless, you can still easily fall prey to running too many staples. The way to avoid this is the same way that one builds a competitive deck: don’t look for cards you want to play; figure out what roles you need to fill and how often you need that type of effect to come up. If you have a six mana Commander that you want to rush out, you want a good chance of finding a ramp spell by turn four, but you don’t want an infinite number of dead draws late game. Let’s say you decide that you want to have at least an 80% chance to get a ramp spell by your fourth turn: with a ninety-nine card deck, you’ll need twelve ramp spells. If you’re building your deck, and you immediately include these ramp staples:

you’re going to draw more ramp than you want. Card’s don’t deserve slots just because they’re good at what they do, they have to perform the functions your deck needs.

This issue is essential to address now. Come summer, the new preconstructed Commander decks will bring us new players in droves, and it will be a lot harder to convince them to change once they’re established in the format than to show them that playing with unique card choices is how the format works. If we can establish this sort of mindset in the community before then, I imagine that Commander will grow and flourish. But if everyone’s decks become too similar, Commander will inevitably lose some of its charm.

I hope you took something away from this article, and whether you agree or disagree, I think that this issue bears discussion. Is this threat as big as I think it is, or is it a non-issue? Let me know what you think below, over Twitter, or in an email.

Jules Robins
@JulesRobins on twitter
toahaomin on mtgo

8 thoughts on “Straying from Staples

  1. Casual is a format that largely only works because it is self-policed, while the players most inclined to break it are selected out into competitive formats. EDH was designed to be a format inherently hard to break, that also counted on many of the most competitive players selecting out. However, now we have Wizards designing cards to be strong in Commander, negating the first protection, and heavily promoting the format, which partially negates the second. I think people fond of the format should prepare themselves for a shock.

    I'm a predominantly casual player who has branched into EDH/Commander as a way to play more games of Magic. My theory regarding Commander deck construction is that it should be possible to identify the general based on the other 99 cards, or else why even have a general? The links can be mechanical or flavorful, but they should be there.

  2. Jonathan, in principle I agree with your assertion about connecting your deck with your Commander, although occasionally I encounter a strategy that Commander makes viable but doesn't have an appropriate Legend to head it. Thanks for chiming in!

  3. MiHammett,

    It's not so much that there's something inherently wrong with running powerful cards, nor am I arguing that in a vacuum it's not in your deck's best interest to run staples. My point is that a big part of why Commander is so much fun is that the games are so unique and unpredictable. The issue is that if everyone's decks are 75% staples, the games will be a lot more repetitive, and therefore less fun as a whole. I'm not even saying that you shouldn't run staple ramp spells, but a lot of people I know just start by jamming staples into their decks, and the truth is that these staples are utility cards that fill specific roles, and they should be included because they do what your deck needs and are the best at doing so in your deck, not because they are 'good' in some vague sense. Even if throwing a Jace, the Mindsculptor into your Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir deck (with an all instant speed theme) will make it stronger, it makes the deck less interesting to play with and against because the deck is no longer as focused on what you set out to accomplish with it.

    1. That's debatable, situations are inherently defined by the cards that appear within the current game. What you are saying is correct if you are drawing your entire deck every game. Not sure about you but I have plenty of win cons in my EDH deck, and I consider myself a very competitive EDH player. Though I am competitive staples vary from deck to deck, because you're doing it wrong if you are just jamming blue cards into blue EDH decks cause they are staples.

      But how can you argue against having the most fluid deck you can make? Like believe me I completely understand that the format is supposed to be different and exciting and I think that means everyone should be running different decks. My playgroup although not recently playing EDH, have a general rule not to have the same general as someone else, and to not have the same colors as someone else, like if someone is running sharuum, try not to run Sen Triplets if it can be helped. And we all make new decks all the time because it's so easy to make your shell of staple lands mana accel card advantage cards and just slide in the cards needed for the new general.

      As much as the deck should be about "Theme" it's pretty easy to do that without making the deck impotent. Take for example Sheldon's new Sliver Thrax deck, honestly that thing is terribad and couldn't handle a one on one with a competitive deck, it doesn't interact with the other player and doesn't combo off so what does it do? It just plays slivers and attacks :/ meh… That was supposed to be the most interesting deck, and when you look at his play by play, the deck doesn't even do anything spectacular. So why not play a deck that at least does something whether that's one of five things or not?

      1. I would certainly expect this to be less of an issue the more often your playgroup builds new decks, so that may be the source of our differing experiences. That said, on your point about not seeing the entire deck every game, I don't think that any deck having a bunch of staples is necessarily problematic in and of itself, but if everyone's decks share thirty cards, most of those will come out of somebody's deck every game.

        On Sheldon's Sliver deck, the fact that it's weak can certainly inhibit having fun playing it, but that stems mostly from the extreme linearity imposed by tribal mechanics. For instance, were I to build a deck focused on blinking 187 creatures, I would be able to include power players like Terastodon, Eternal Witness, and Karmic Guide. These card are staples, but I'm including them because of how they interact in the deck. On the other hand, while both Solemn Simulacrum and Cultivate are strong ramp spells, I'd play Wood Elves instead of Cultivate because it interacts with the way I've built my deck. Often this sort of decision will detract from a deck's power (for instance, choosing not to play Necropotence in a Balthor, the Defiled deck), but usually not to a degree which makes it unplayable. In general, I think most people would enjoy playing many very different games that validate the goals they set in building their decks with slightly weaker ones than repeating the same (admittedly fun) game ten times.

  4. Jules,

    I agree with your view on staples, at least for the most part. I definitely have a number of cards I look at playing in particular decks pretty much every time I build a deck, but not all of them make the cut. They have to fit the theme.

    The funny thing is that while generic goodstuff.dec is often very powerful, it can easily end up rolling over and dying to a well-tuned synergistic deck designed around a theme. Goodstuff.dec is almost always the most threatening deck at a multiplayer table, so you're highly likely to be The Threat and have the entire table gang up on you from the start as well.

    All in all I think goodstuff.dec is almost never the right way to go, personally.

    1. Rob,

      That's a very interesting observation. I'd never really considered the correlation between staple heavy decks and who we as a community view as threats before, but this reasoning should be a great way to convince players who fall closer to the Spike end of the spectrum to run fewer staples. Thanks for the insight!

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