Ach Hans, Run! It’s the Humility!

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Next week I’ll discuss some of the exciting Commander previews, but for the time being I’m ignoring the future in favor of the past. Last weekend, I was testing out my newly completed (not compleated) Saffi Eriksdotter deck at the local store. My opponents were playing Merieke Ri Berit control and Numot, the Devastator land destruction. After battling through some abuse to my mana base and sticking Birthing Pod under Counterbalance (okay, maybe it is compleated), I began chaining Reveillark into six drops. I had, to say the least, a dominating board presence, and when my Numot opponent cast Wrath of God, I casually sacrificed Saffi to recur ‘Lark and continued to go off. He asked incredulously “How do you stop that thing?”

Hallowed Burial, or maybe Final Judgment,” I replied. From the look on his face, I got the distinct impression that he was running neither of the aforementioned sweepers. After a couple more turns of beating face, the Merieke player dropped Humility. “What a pain,” I thought, “let’s see what outs I have.” I cast an Idyllic Tutor to examine my options, and after looking through my deck, found that all of my enchantment removal was creature based (so as to better synergize with Saffi). Resigned to my fate, I commenced to beat down with Triskelion and 1/1s against Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek while commenting that I needed to add a Beast Within or something to the deck. After all, having your synergies turned off makes you lose, and it’s not hard to beat Humility or Torpor Orb without playing bad cards.

Power Dynamics
We didn’t finish the game because the next round of Draft was beginning, but as I went into my match, I wondered: should I really be adding a Beast Within? Of course the card is strong, and while I’m certainly no fan of staples, I’d be adding this to fill a specific role. No, my problem was that the removal might be too much the right fit for the deck. Commander is great in that you can pick pretty much whatever strategy you like, and in a casual playgroup, you can make it work. This format is open as such because everyone is not running the most powerful or efficient cards (yet another issue with staple filled decks). If you’re running a deck based around Psychic Possession, admittedly not the most potent or robust of strategies, you can still stay ‘competitive’ by giving your deck every tool you can muster. You need to find a specific enchantment; you can reach for Demonic Tutor. You need to protect it from destruction; you have access to Arcane Denial. You need to get it back when it’s inevitably dealt with; you have Holistic Wisdom waiting in the wings. These cards may not be directly linked to your theme, but they’re necessary to be a major player in the game.

Not so with Saffi.

The deck is plenty powerful. No, it’s not going to best Arcum Dagsson in a duel, but the deck certainly isn’t struggling to avoid chastisement at a multiplayer table. Saffi doesn’t need every edge she can muster merely to put up a fight; I’ll often be the frontrunner on the back of the deck’s inherent synergy. It answers a lot of problems, and it demands a lot of answers. The truth of the matter is that anything like the aforementioned Psychic Possession deck is going to have a tough enough time competing as it is. And the format should allow decks like that. Otherwise, what really separates casual Commander from the cutthroat groups that so many cry out against? So if we want to build intrinsically powerful decks, they absolutely must not cover all of their bases. They need a weakness.

“Okay,” you say, “I won’t put any creature removal in my Zur the Enchanter deck. If they can stick a creature, it’ll stay there.” That’s not going to keep you from locking them out of the game with Solitary Confinement, Necropotence, and Steel of the Godhead. Just like with creating your own Commander, you need to weave a weakness into your deck that undermines the very core of what it was trying to do. Most of the time, a themed deck’s game plan is proactive: Uril, the Miststalker aims to suit up its General and SWING FOR MASSIVE DAMAGE! Sharuum the Hegemon looks either to combo off or to Darksteel Forge an unbeatable board position (yes, that is a verb now). Wort, the Raidmother wants to conspire an entwined Tooth and Nail… repeatedly (Eternal Witness + Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker).

Each of these powerful plans is vulnerable to disruption, and thus they usually include countermeasures to keep their plans from being derailed. Uril runs Bear Umbra to beat Day of Judgment; Sharuum runs Counterspells to fend off Return to Dust; Wort uses Boseiju, Who Shelters All to fend off countermagic. That’s all well and good when they’re battling one another. They form a level of competition that allows for awesome plays and huge swings: a healthy, enjoyable format. But, ultimately, a narrow one.

If your playgroup consistently gets big games running this may not be an issue as politicking makes up for large power imbalances, but if you often find yourself playing with one or two other "Commandites" (What’s the proper term for a Commander player?), then this invulnerability will make it nearly impossible for really off-the-wall decks to compete. Without your protective measures, you play on the same level. Your deck is naturally redundant because it’s playing a strategy that the format inherently supports, either because of a particular Commander or because of an abundance of strong cards; in turn, they’ve fought tooth and nail to force redundancy upon a plan that is practically a glass cannon. We want to build blind spots into our innately strong decks, but how do we get there?

Theme Songs
When somebody exploits your deck’s blind spot it should be devastating. If your board position is strong enough to fight the whole table, a single spell should send you back to the stone age; if you have twenty more cards in hand than the rest of the table put together, a precision strike should invalidate all of your spells. In order to empower the other players you should be beatable. But how can you ensure such a ploy will crush you without just building a terrible deck in the first place?

You need a theme.

If your deck has a lot of divergent game plans, then once you’re far enough ahead you’ll be unstoppable. But if all of your game plans overlap in what sorts of cards they rely on, the right answer can disrupt multiple lines of attack. If you build your deck around creating huge numbers of token creatures, your Plan A might be to drop a Glorious Anthem effect or two and have a huge army. Plan B could be to Shivan Harvest your tokens to mana-screw your enemies. Plan C could be to lock down your opponents with Glare of Subdual. Plan D could be to Overrun.

Each of these plans has its own weakness. Stoic Angel might shut down Kaysa, but Glare of Subdual will keep the Angel down too. Playing a bunch of basic lands will spoil the Harvest, but won’t save you from Glare. Slice in Twain gets rid of Gaea's Anthem, Shivan Harvest, or Opposition, but it won’t stop your opponent from delivering a Titanic Ultimatum. A Fog will avert a Triumph of the Hordes, but it won’t stop any of the other threats. In a dominating position, the deck might have multiple plans assembled, and even with multiple opponents, it’s unlikely they’ll all draw the appropriate answer to each, but because each of them relies on tokens a well placed Wrath of God can put a stop to all four.

The more strictly you build to your theme, the more overlap you’ll find, and the more powerful a theme you can pick without annoying the entire table. A token deck that’s a slave to theme will have a really tough time against opposing Akroma's Vengeances, but once you add Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Karn Liberated to the mix, Nevinyrral's Disk starts to look a lot less threatening. But if the deck is weak, you want to eke out every potential advantage (maybe not Mindslaver + Mirrorworks + Glissa, the Traitor + Forbidden Orchard, but you get the point).

Balancing Act
So how do you know when to cut every answer out of your deck, when to plan for every eventuality, and when to take the middle road? Ultimately, you have to assess how powerful your theme is. If you’ve played Magic for a long time, some may immediately jump out to you as strong. Anybody who played in tournaments when Torment was new knows the power that Cabal Coffers and its monoblack friends offer (or less monochromatic ones with the help of Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth), and anyone who has played a lot of casual Magic can attest to the power of Elves.

However, just because you haven’t played for long doesn’t mean you’re left in the lurch. One of the best ways to find great cards for your themed decks is to search a database for cards that play into your theme of choice, and compile the ones that look good somewhere. Through this process, you should get some sense of how many cards that are on theme you’re excited to run (that is, how many feel powerful). This number may be abstract at first, but after doing this a few times, you’ll start to get a sense of what constitutes a lot (every card that pumps your team) as opposed to few (every card that Norin the Wary can abuse). Alternatively, if you’re willing to do a bit of math, you can see how often you’ll draw a card that fills the role you’re looking for by the turn that you need that effect, and use that level of consistency as a gauge for your strategy’s power.

I hope you found today’s suggestions helpful and that they’ll lead you to better balanced Commander games, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Next week we’ll finally take a look at the imminent Commander release; until then, may your crazy decks succeed.

Jules Robins
@JulesRobins on Twitter

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