Spiking the Social Contract

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Today we're going to explore how to win in casual multiplayer Commander without violating the format's social conventions or impeding upon anyone's fun. It's a little bit different than you might think!

First things first: multiplayer strategy is a completely different beast from its two-player counterpart. While in a duel the other player is nothing but your enemy, doing all they can to stand in your way; in multiplayer the other players can be your allies as easily as your foes. That isn't to say that you can't play multiplayer Commander like an all out fight. Most people play Commander fairly casually, so if you built your deck to be a powerhouse you could often just take out the whole table.

But that isn't what they came for, and if that's what you came for you should probably find a more competitive playgroup or start playing a tournament format. Your playgroup has probably come hoping for, and expecting, a long game with a lot of back and forth, during which everyone gets to make an impact.

So don't be a jerk.

You want to win (because let's face it, winning is fun) but not at the expense of everyone's good time. I'm going to tell you how to win in multiplayer Commander while adhering to the format's spirit.

Powering Down

Coming out of tournament Magic, the easiest method might seem to be just building a powerful deck and running the best cards in your colors with an established commander in an effort to be the strongest one at the table. This is counterproductive. While coming out of the gates strong will put you ahead in a duel, in Commander it will only make you the most threatening player. You'll soon get ganged up upon. Most people either are quick to jump on whomever they perceive to be the biggest threat, or want to sit back and wait. Either way will work fine for us because we plan to do the latter, but much more effectively than the other players at the table.

If people are going to go after the player who they initially perceive as a threat, we need to mitigate two factors. The biggest red flag proclaiming ‘I am the number one threat' is playing a top tier commander. Many players know that Zur the Enchanter and Azami, Lady of Scrolls spell trouble, and if they don'tyou can be sure that your other opponents will be only too happy to inform them. But even taking a more innocuous option, such as Gwafa Hazid, Profiteer, won't save you from the table's ire when your first turn involves Sol Ring into Mind Stone into Sensei's Divining Top. Thus, in order not to be the table's first target, we need both to run commanders who can fly under the radar and to play conservatively.

As tempting as it may be to drop an early Consecrated Sphinx it will draw a lot of unwanted attention to you, and might actually put you further behind. But you can't just hold back everything: quite a few people know that sitting back and letting others fight it out will get you ahead, so if they see you holding all of your cards they might get suspicious. Thus, we need to be casting spells, just not ones that anyone feels threatened by.

So now we can make sure to survive the early and mid-game by being non-threatening, but when we get into the late game, even if other players are killed off first, we're not going to be able to compete with the remaining players if we play a deck full of weak spells. So don't do that. Both our spells and our commander only need to appear weak, but it's a rare card indeed that appears weak while being singularly powerful (and undiscovered by the rest of the playgroup). So we need to depend on synergy. With an overarching, synergistic theme to our deck we can deploy "weak" role-players throughout the mid-game to avoid looking problematic, yet still ready ourselves to compete at the game's end.

Kick it up a Notch

Usually, this sort of gambit would only work once. The next time we play, if we're with any of the same people, they'll know our deck isn't worthless. They will put us under some direct pressure or, in the late game, may turn all of the surviving players against us. But that's okay because we've been preparing during early and mid-game. We're going to take on the whole table.

You know all of those good cards that you see people playing? Arachnogenesis? Woodfall Primus? Future Sight? Those cards will put you ahead. They give you a recurring advantage in order to grind out the game over tens of turns. They require a lot of time to work as they paint a target on your forehead.

In order to win, we need cards, or combinations of cards, that over the course of only a couple of turns will put us so far ahead that we can fight the rest of the table and come out on top. The most obvious place to look is straight-up card advantage. Consecrated Sphinx, Necropotence, and Damia, Sage of Stone are incredible because they let you out-spell every other player put together; but these don't work in a vacuum.

The secret is, while you might have more cards than the other three players they have three times as much mana. Your cards do no good when you can't cast them all. The best way to win in Commander is to out-mana your competition. In casual groups that are light on land destruction, a combination of Cabal Coffers, Isle of Vesuva, Deserted Temple, and, if you aren't mono black, Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth is the most effective means of doing so.

Boards also get wiped in Commander.

A lot.

The only things left standing are the lands. This isn't to say that non-black decks can't win with this strategy; they're just more fragile. Mirari's Wake, Mana Reflection, and Vernal Bloom give you the potential to take on the table, but they rely on Counterspells or luck to dodge the hate. On the other hand, less explosive but more stable ramp, such as Seedguide Ash, Explosive Vegetation, and Temple of the False God, can still add up to give you potential if not assuring you to come out on top. Meanwhile, Primeval Titan and Oracle of Mul Daya straddle the line allowing you to pull far ahead without endangering you mana base. Mana rocks like Boros Signet are a bit faster than land-based ramp, and may be necessary if you don't have enough basic lands in your green deck (or if you aren't playing green). Regardless of the type of acceleration you prefer, a successful deck will most likely incorporate multiple options because unless you have Coffers, you don't really want to spend your time and tutors finding ramp.

Going Big

Alright, so we have our mana in order, and Consecrated Sphinx or Necropotence are good right? So why is that the case, and what other cards can fill this role? We're looking for what I'll classify as an ‘unbeatable play.' This is a play that, given sufficient mana, will actually be what tilts the scales so that the rest of the table simply can't win.

The most straightforward, and the only one we've covered thus far is to draw a lot of cards. When you have 20 or more mana, you should get some stuff which together will overpower the opposing board presence. Praetor's Counsel, Blue Sun's Zenith, Stroke of Genius and friends also fall into this category. Genesis Wave holds a position of distinction: it's effectively a Mind Spring for about seventy-five percent of X stapled to a 15-40 mana ritual.

The second option is to cast a spell which given adequate mana will actually win by itself. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn was banned in part for being unfun in this role, leaving people alive but resourceless. Other spells in this category include Exsanguinate, Blightsteel Colossus, and Insurrection (a combo would also fill this role, but as they are generally frowned upon I've excluded mention here).

You Won the Pre-Game

Our plan for victory is to lay low early on, so our first few plays aren't too important, but rather just help set up for a singularly powerful end-game. I already talked about the implications this has for our early game play (hold the Sol Ring), but there are greater implications even before we start the game! As Conley Woods taught us in this article, when playing bomb heavy formats one-on-one we'd rather be mana screwed than flooded because at least that way if we do draw lands we have action rather than drawing possibly irrelevant spells.

Even though Commander is the epitome of a bomb heavy format, the opposite is actually true here. Except in the case of ramp, tutors, or the one or two strongest cards in your deck, mulligan away all of your non-lands until you have at least four ways to make mana. Yes, you will get flooded. You're welcome. As I covered in Part Way to Paris, you want to flood out because it makes you less threatening, ensures you have mana for the late game, and isn't as devastating as in other formats because you always have your chosen commander to cast. Moreover, by ensuring yourself a greater density of lands early on you can skimp a little bit on your mana base and run a land or two less than you might otherwise. While this isn't that big of an edge, improving your chance to top deck in the late game is a nice bonus. Just be careful not to take this strategy too far: people might choose to attack you out of spite in the next game after your fifth consecutive win.

That's it for this week. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, on twitter, or over email!

Jules Robins
@JulesRobins on Twitter

3 thoughts on “Spiking the Social Contract

  1. Good article, and quite true. The last game I played my Rafiq deck and had a decent hand, but started drawing some huge cards. Gilt-Leaf Liege with Rafiq makes him deal 12 damage if unblocked… that's just a tad ridiculous. So rather than play all of those good spells and cast my commander early, I laid back a little. Sure enough, everyone ignored me until I had 20+ life more than everyone else.

    To be honest, I thought the plan was going to backfire, but I haven't played with this group much so I decided I'd rather lose from not having enough creatures in play than win too quickly for everyone's taste. Playing with a new group of people in a multiplayer format can be quite difficult, as you don't know what to expect.

  2. It would be nice if you mentioned some "under the radar"-commanders. Otherwise your article describes exactly that kind of deck i´m working on right now. i´m rather new to the format (playing it for maybe half a year in a rather small playgroup) so i´m still looking for the "right" commander to play. i actually like the new goat-commander a lot because he i does not look that threatening and gives you a really nice toolbox to build around. but i still think the card-drawing might cause too much attention…

  3. And this is exactly why I am building a crucible of worlds/Armageddon/winterorb/static orb engine…. That and I am in the Dave psychographic.

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