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Part Way to Paris

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Over the last few weeks I’ve been exploring some of the more meta issues surrounding the Commander format, but this week we come back in line with my first article: Commander strategy. Commander is a casual format, but let’s face the facts: winning is fun. That’s not to say it’s worthwhile annoying all of your friends to win. The social contract is essential to the Commander format because, after all, the point is to have a good time. But if you enjoy winning even a little bit, you might as well use the format's peculiarities to get a leg up on the competition without raining on anyone else’s parade. The first place to look for an opportunity is the new rules Commander brings to the table, both written and unwritten.

Today we’re going to explore the Partial Paris Mulligan, Commander’s unique mulligan rule. Just to clarify for anyone who may not know (I’ve run into numerous Commander players who don’t use it), the Partial Paris Mulligan works like so:

  • Each player draws seven cards.
  • Then, in turn order, each player may exile any number of cards from their hand face down.
  • Next, each player who did so draws one fewer card than they exiled.
  • Each player may repeat this any number of times.
  • Finally, when everybody keeps their hand, the exiled cards are shuffled back into their owners’ libraries.

One piece of this rule’s potential is obvious; if we were allowed to do this in regular Magic, it would highly favor players who were looking to assemble combos. While the same holds true to a lesser extent in Commander, this application falls outside of today’s purview as the majority of Commander groups consider quick combo kills unfun. We’re not looking to do anything big and flashy with the Partial Paris, but rather we want to gain an advantage without tipping anyone off to the fact that we’ve done so.

Like any mulligan rule, the Partial Paris Mulligan aims to alleviate mana screw and mana flood because, as experience has taught us, those lead to unfun games. Now it’s time to disregard your experience. My recommendation for abusing the Partial Paris Mulligan is to mull away almost every non-mana source card you draw.

You want to be flooded.

Full on Flooding

Am I insane? Am I claiming that every strategy writer in the history of the game has been wrong, that mana flood is beneficial? No. But Commander isn’t like normal Magic. This isn’t a duel, so the other players’ top priority isn’t necessarily to kill you. Most people will go after whomever they judge to be the biggest threat to them at the table, and as we all know, a mana flooded player is the least threatening of all.

As Conley Woods mentioned in an article about MSS draft, while at least a mana screwed player has a bunch of spells to cast if they can ever find lands, a mana flooded player will have to hope for a topdeck to save them every turn. This mode of thought holds true when it comes to multiplayer. Sure, you might not have a whole lot to do, but when the other players see that, they’ll probably leave you be.

That’s right! For the low, low price of one card, you can be left to develop your mana for the early and mid game. You get to choose when to come out of this shell by doing something threatening (unless you run out of lands to play, in which case it may be hard to feign being flooded). Moreover, by intentionally flooding yourself, you’ll ensure that come late game, you’ll have the requisite mana to compete with the rest of the table. When each threat except the last one is answered, timing your strike is much more important than having a lot of threats, so all that you need to ensure that you can compete is a boatload of mana.

Broader Applications

Flooding yourself will help you keep a low profile, and put you in a good position for when things really start to heat up at minimal cost. Just make sure not to use this plan too often, or your playgroup may kill you (despite your lack of spells under the illusion that since you keep winning while flooded, your deck must just be enormously powerful). Since this strategy depends upon players making logical threat assessments, you’ll be in hot water should you find yourself the center of attention while you have no spells with which to defend yourself.

Of course, the lessons learned here apply even when you’re playing more conservatively. Commander is a format in which a single momentous spell can put you back in the game, so flooding is more beneficial than being mana screwed. Additionally, as you always can cast your Commander you have to keep in mind that each of your hands always has two extra spells: that Commander, and a copy of it that costs two more mana.

To this end, even when you aren’t committing to flooding out, Commander demands that you look for hands with more lands than you might be accustomed to from other formats. Even if you draw an ‘ideal’ three land, four spell hand, you should strongly consider mulliganing the three weaker spells. You aren’t really going from three lands and four spells to an average of 3.8 lands and 2.2 spells. You’re going from 3 lands and 6 spells to an average of 3.8 lands and 4.2 spells. Surely that’s a healthier ratio.

Consistency

Of course, flooding out and finding combos aren’t the only uses of the Partial Paris Mulligan. The rule also allows you to ensure that you have a certain type of effect provided that enough variations have been printed. Because you always have access to your Commander, making sure that you can find an effect which complements them well will put you in a good position to take over the game with synergy.

The most potent (legal) example of this is Zur the Enchanter. Zur is such an impressively powerful Commander by virtue of the fact that his ability will not only lock the other players out of the game without assistance, but also can find answers to your problems. Zur is practically a deck in and of himself, and all he really needs to dominate a table is a method of getting him to swing. Lightning Greaves obviously facilitates this goal, but there aren’t a whole lot of cards that can fill that role. That said, it’s still easy to make Zur hit earlier by running a way to accelerate you into a turn three Zur the Enchanter; just about any accelerant that costs two mana or less will do.

With conventional mulligans, you’d need nine of these cheap accelerants in your deck in order to have a 90% chance of dropping one by the second turn (with very aggressive mulliganing), but with the Partial Paris rule, you can attain a better percentage with only six such cards in your deck! By employing this method, the Partial Paris Mulligan rule allows decks that are willing to mulligan aggressively enough an unprecedented level of consistency for a one hundred card singleton format. Feel free to drop turn three Zur with impunity, or if that’s not your thing (because you like it when non-Spikes continue to play with you), ensure that you have either Mesmeric Orb or one of just a few tutors(Demonic Tutor, Diabolic Tutor, Demonic Collusion, Liliana Vess, Vampiric Tutor, Beseech the Queen) in your Geth, Lord of the Vault deck. The point is that if something is beneficial enough to your strategy, you can find it consistently in Commander by abusing the Partial Paris rule, you’ll just have to sacrifice a bit more than in sixty card formats.

The moral of the story is that Magic isn’t really just one game. The things you learn from one format can be completely different as you move to another, and if you want to give yourself the best chance at success, be it at the top tables of the Pro Tour or at the kitchen table, you need to be willing to reevaluate everything you think you know about the game. Card advantage may not decide the winner of a long game of Commander. Being inefficient with your mana may not leave you behind in multiplayer. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn may not be worth sending on a Journey to Nowhere in Respawn Magic. Scathe Zombies are better than Grizzly Bears in Type IV. Every format brings its own challenges to our assumptions, and while I’ve noted some of Commander’s, I’m sure it has more.

What have you seen? What holds true and what assumptions crumble under scrutiny? How do you bend the rules Commander to your advantage? I’ll come back to this and explore further in a few weeks; in the mean time, share your thoughts in the comments!

Jules Robins
julesdrobins@gmail.com
@JulesRobins on Twitter

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