[Editor's Note: I'd like to welcome Jules Robins, another new Commander writer for QS! I'll let Jules handle the introduction. Enjoy!]
Hello everyone. I’m Jules Robins, and this is my first article for Quiet Speculation in this shiny new column: Ray of Command. I’m planning to discuss broad strategy considerations in how Commander differs from other forms of Magic (you can assume I’m talking about free-for-all multiplayer Commander unless I explicitly state otherwise) and what makes the format so much fun. Ultimately, this column is about what you want, so if you have other Commander-related topics you’d rather hear about please let me know!
You’re here to read about Commander, right?
Commander strategy has a multitude of interesting facets, both in the inherent implications of the format’s rules, and in the ideas and culture which have grown up around it. One of these developments has been the assertion that players should run board sweepers rather than point removal to deal with creatures, and today I’m here to tell you otherwise.
The reasoning behind this assumption actually stems from a common thread in multiplayer strategy at one of the major points where it diverges from its duel counterpart. In a duel, one-for-one trades like removal and counterspells create card parity, and so when used in conjunction with card advantage generators like Concentrate, they can bury your opponent with card advantage while answering their threats. Multiplayer is a different beast altogether. If you play a lot of one-for-one removal and some card draw in a multiplayer game, instead of staring at an empty board while pulling farther and farther ahead, you’ll be wide open to the threats that your other opponents are laying down, and might even be their prime target because of all of those cards you’re drawing.
In conventional multiplayer, a sweeper is much better than a point removal. Sure it’s slower, but if there’s an aggro deck it probably isn’t focus firing you since its pilot has a lot of people to deal with. Instead of putting you behind with each casting, sweepers have the opportunity to put you ahead while simultaneously eliminating each opponent’s threats. But Commander isn’t quite like other multiplayer formats. The most obvious change to the need for creature removal is the life total difference: with 40 starting life early attacks aren’t usually much of a concern. Moreover, with the singleton nature of the format there isn’t much risk of consistent aggressive starts or combos involving creatures which need answered promptly. Thus, one might assume that what is true in the sweeper vs. spot removal question for regular multiplayer would be truer here. This thinking fails to take into account how people play the format differently, which is usually more important than what should be true.
Because the format is inherently so much slower, very few players are trying to come out of the gates aggressively and instead most games escalate to slugfests of enormous bombs. With the combination of a lot of players, and the extra time provided to them by higher life totals, only the biggest threats will usually matter. Sure, on occasion random beats from a Flametongue Kavu will get there, but more often than not, it will get knocked out by a sweeper intended to deal with a real threat.
While everyone else is playing a bunch of sweepers, it opens you up to not having to. Once we don’t need to worry about the small fries, we can consider the big tradeoff that comes with running sweepers: castability. With the exceptions of Rout and a couple of blue gems, board sweepers are expensive sorceries, whereas a fair number of pinpoint removal spells come in cheap instant form (just like ramen). If we’re only aiming to answer the big threats, the vast majority of the time the ability to interfere with our opponents’ machinations will outweigh the card disadvantage that comes with one-for-one removal spells. In fact, the concept of card advantage doesn’t bear much on Commander because the threats are powerful enough to win unsupported.
“But wait!” you cry, “Point removal may be more effective, but isn’t the point of the format to do big splashy things? Surely you aren’t going to try to convince me that Doom Blade is cooler than Martial Coup!” No, no I’m not. Instead, I’m going to contend that what we’re really looking for in Commander are the very biggest and splashiest moments and interactions; we aren’t just jamming in the biggest version of each individual effect.
As I see it, there’s a threshold of awesomeness: while a card like Martial Coup isn’t something you would label as ‘uninteresting,’ casting it for anything less than 1,000 mana isn’t really memorable. Moments that are memorable, like Forking a Living Death with a bunch of [card Eternal Witness]1[/card][card Karmic Guide]8[/card][card Bogardan Hellkite]7[/card] creatures (now 603.6a creatures, but did you really want to know that?) on the board and in the bin, are usually proactive, and can happen with a lot of unexciting cards in the mix. Removal isn’t the part of our decks that needs to be splashy, so we don’t need to favor splashy answers over effective ones.
Before we go on I should clarify that I’m not arguing against playing sweepers. The mentality which a lot of the Commander community has gotten into, that there is no reason to run spot removal, is flawed, and that because of this mentality you may be able to eschew board wipes from your own lists. Obviously, a deck full of Mortifys without a Damnation in sight is going to have a tough time beating a table of token decks, so choosing to run no sweepers would require a playgroup that had really gone hog-wild. But I think many Commander decks could benefit from replacing a couple of their [card Wrath of God]Wraths[/card] with [card Path to Exile]Paths[/card].
In order to successfully replace sweepers with point removal, you’ll have to do more than open yourself up to being swarmed: you’ll have to be patient. With the ability to remove fewer creatures over the course of the game, you’ll need to use your removal sparingly. Don’t just sling Doom Blades at every threat you see, instead hold your answers for the cards that will really make a difference, the Consecrated Sphinx, Primeval Titan, Memnarch, or what have you. This approach will probably lead to you getting hit by utility creatures a bit more often, but that’s not as bad as leaving Consecrated Sphinx for a whole turn cycle of draw phases, or Primeval Titan for everyone and their sister to Threaten. By being conservative with your point removalyou can stop shenanigans like these from occurring, and with enough removal spells and enough patience you might never get blown out by one.
That’s not what we want. Magic isn’t a whole lot of fun when you feel like you can’t get anywhere because your opponent has all of the answers. Sure you might win by packing answers to every major threat, and you wouldn’t even have to explicitly violate the format’s social contract; you don’t need land destruction or combo kills to stay in control (this is a dangerous word, but that’s a topic for a future article). While a hand full of counterspells and card draw isn’t as oppressive in multiplayer Magic as in a duel, you will nonetheless put a damper on the table’s fun with too many answers.
At the same time, we don’t want Commander to degenerate into ‘whoever drops a bomb first wins,’ so we need to carefully balance the number of answers we have to give us a reasonable number of outs while still leaving the people we’re playing with license to do some awesome stuff. In my experience, I’ve found this sweet spot to be right around twelve slots, but the number depends upon the answers themselves as well as the density of such cards in the rest of your playgroup’s decks. Give it a try: remove what you care about, and let the community’s infatuation with board wipes cover the rest.
I hope you enjoyed my first article here, and I’d love to hear your thoughts (positive or negative) in the comments, on Twitter, or over email. Did you find this article interesting or helpful? What could have improved it in your mind? Let me know, and I look forward to seeing you again next week!
@JulesRobins on Twitter
toahaomin on Magic Online