Magic 2012 has been released, which means that if you're like me you've already got your eye on Innistrad. A few cards have already been discovered by the rumor community, and both they and the setting point in one direction: the graveyard. As those of you who are Commander veterans are well aware, recursion is the name of the game in this format, which makes the graveyard an important zone to abuse utilize.
Haters Gonna' Hate
When every deck is using the graveyard as an integral part of it's game plan, graveyard hate gains a lot of power. Because grave-hate is best used in response to recursion, repeatable graveyard exiling, such as Scrabbling Claws, Phyrexian Furnace, Withered Wretch, or the new(ish) Scavenging Ooze are best. The fact that these are so cheap to use makes them great rattlesnake cards. Who wants to be the one to get hosed by making you use them?
Relic of Progenitus at first looks very similar to these cards, but the vast majority of the time you'll also rely on recursion, so while you can play around it better, it's still not exactly what most decks are looking for. Options that can only exile a certain subset of cards, such as Myr Welder or Necrogenesis, are effective if you know what you're up against, but dangerous in an undefined metagame. Still, all of these are purely defensive cards, and the very best hate is incidental. Bojuka Bog fits effortlessly into your mana base; Shred Memory is usually a tutor; The Mimeoplasm is a huge threat with combo potential; and Stonecloaker allows you to reuse creatures' enters-the-battlefield abilities.
Between truly incidental graveyard hosing and cantripping options, you should be able to debilitate your opponents' game-plans without severely crippling your own, but for some reason, people always seem to run too little. It's not that nobody understands its utility; most decks pack a piece or two, but more that these 'do-nothings' are often first on the chopping block when you have trouble cutting enough cards. That's fine. Deck building in the abstract is difficult, but when a spot opens up these utility cards should be the first to go in.
So that's all well and good, but why bring this up now?
It's about to change.
Innistrad seems to be graveyard-based, and as such should have a larger than normal quotient of strong Commander cards. [card Mystical Teachings]Flashback[/card] spells have extra utility and are inherently stronger in a long game; Lhurgoyf-style effects scale both with game length and number of players; and cards that work from the 'yard are easier to get value out of in multiplayer. In discussing Odyssey's design lessons, Mark Rosewater noted that it was hard for players to keep track of a lot of different aspects at once (such as battlefield, hand, and graveyard). This effect is only multiplied when you have more people to keep track of, and Vengeful Pharaoh is a lot better when somebody doesn't realize it's there.
Beyond that, people usually play a higher percentage of cards from the most recent set than from others because everybody wants to try out their new, shiny toys. Just look at how many Scars of Mirrodin cards we had running around right after its release as opposed to now. With this huge influx of graveyard-centric cards, people will be forced to pack more grave-hate. That means that now, before Innistrad's release, is going to be our last chance for quite a while to build a deck that plays entirely out of the graveyard.
To make use of our graveyard we need two major classes of cards: cards that get stuff into the 'yard, and cards that make use of what's there. Today we'll cover how we're going to fill the yard with goodies, but make sure to check back next week for more on how to make use of these tools (and who ought to lead the effort). There are a few different options for this role depending on what colors we end up in, but more likely than not a given build will end up running a mixture of them:
The first place to look for graveyard abuse is the tutors. Much like conventional tutors, they'll let you find just the right card for the situation. Because they're either limited to the subset of cards that function from the graveyard, or require additional cards to do anything meaningful, you can get the effect for a much more reasonable price. When you're using another card with the tutor, the opportunity cost is essentially that: a card for a card. Entomb is like Vampiric Tutor, Buried Alive is like Congregation at Dawn, and so forth. The synergy breaks down when you find independently useful cards, at that point you just saved a ton of mana.
Self-Mill—Blue, Black, Green, Colorless
If Entombing is tutoring, then milling is drawing, a fact that the Dredge mechanic from Ravnica: City of Guilds emphasizes. To this end mill falls on the opposite side of the spectrum: it won't get you exactly what you want, but it will give you a whole lot of good stuff to work with. For better or for worse, there aren't enough Dredge cards to make a Commander deck that plays like the Legacy namesake, but more conventional mill cards still make for hyper-efficient draw spells once you can make good use of your 'yard. Compare Traumatize to Tidings for a second. Yeah.
It's also important to note mill's interaction with top-of-library tutors like Worldly Tutor or its [card Mystical Tutor]mystical equivalent[/card]. While building your own Entomb isn't all that exciting, a little bit of extra value never hurt anybody.
Unlike milling, discarding cards lets you pick and choose what you put into your 'yard, and it's generally the fastest way to bin something. This makes it the method of choice for strategies like fast [card Reanimate]reanimation[/card], but it forgoes one of a graveyard strategy's greatest strengths: card advantage. Discard can be useful to rush out a combo if that's how you roll, or as a mitigated cost for something inherently powerful, but usually it shouldn't be at the top of your list for Commander graveyard strategies.
Looting—Blue, Red, Colorless
"Looting" plays out much the same way as discarding, but trades speed for card advantage. As casual Commander is a very slow format, this is almost always a reasonable trade-off and as such looting is much more powerful in the format. When a card in the bin is as good as one in the hand, you'll be more than happy to turn Merfolk Looter, Thought Courier, and [card Looter il-Kor]Looter il-Kor[/card] into a squad of two mana Archivists. Then again, who needs cards in hand? Why not Dredge something up then pitch it back to make yourself some sort of Tome Scour on a stick?
Finally, we come to sacrifice. While sacrificing your permanents isn't a very effective graveyard filling method (after all, you already had to get the cards onto the battlefield somehow), it can do great things in conjunction with Dawn of the Dead or Corpse Dance, and gets extra value out of [card Sedraxis Specter]unearth creatures[/card]. On top of that, having a few sacrifice outlets is never a bad idea when you're [card Necromancy]necromancing[/card]. It sucks to have an It That Betrays that you just gave the Breath of Life answered, but I'd much rather have it back in the ground where I can bid it “Rise from the Grave” than off converting Swords to Plowshares.
Great, now that we have all of these tools to fill the graveyard we can finally get to the fun stuff! Let's start off with–actually I'm not supposed to deliver a twenty page manifesto for a column that most of you will read in one sitting.
So I guess there's always next week! For now, I hope you've enjoyed this look at graveyard hate and enablers for a graveyard-based Commander strategy. Next time I'll be back with all sorts of fun stuff to bin, and a few Legendary creatures who are just dying to lead an army of the, well, dead. I'll be out of town when this article goes live, so I may not be able to respond to your comments right away, but rest assured that I'll read all of them when I get a chance. Feel free to share your favorite cards or experiences having to do with the graveyard, your thoughts on the article, or anything else!
Happy brewing gravedigging!
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