I’ve started to settle in down here in L.A. I’ve been at the local shop a lot, and even got to hang out with a few old friends from San Francisco who are also here for school. Of course, I’m still adapting to the playgroup, but after two straight weeks of it I doubt you’re scrabbling for more advice about playing Commander in a new group. Instead, let’s get back to actually building Commander decks. Hidden in plain sight, we have a treasure trove of powerful and exciting cards that many people would never think to use in their 100-card decks. These are cards that appear to be nothing more than competitive sideboard options: cards that hate on your opponents.
When you’re building a Standard deck, you probably don’t want to maindeck Flashfreeze; what are you going to do if there’s nothing to counter? This problem doesn’t quite evaporate in Commander, but you’re much more likely to have something to hit with three opponents than one. Now, I’ve talked a lot about trying to make things fun in Commander, so at first it might seem odd that I’m encouraging you to play hate cards in the format. After all, isn’t being singled out unfun? Yes, yes it is, but I’m not advocating Flashfreezing anything in Commander.
A Better Way
Magic entails a key divide between threats and answers. In duels, the difference is clear, as David Price famously declared “while there are wrong answers, there are no wrong threats.” Answer cards are printed at more efficient costs because they aren’t always applicable, so the choice between threat and answer is one of metagame analysis. Commander likewise highlights this duality. While the lessons from competitive Magic apply here, there’s a more salient difference at work. Answers are less likely to be fun for your opponents. Remember the list of things that some groups hate in Commander that I made two weeks ago? Both threats and answers appear there. Unstoppable Angelic Overseers and combo kills are both much maligned threats, but their numbers are overshadowed by ranks of Counterspells, Cabal Conditionings, Vindicates, Life’s Finales, and Stifles.
Every card needs to be evaluated individually and in the context of your playgroup, but if you’re trying to decide between two contenders for a deck slot, the card that builds rather than destroys is more likely to create enjoyable game states. I’m not telling you not to run any answers. In fact, having a small number of answers is important to keeping threats fun. Creatures like Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre and combos are unfun primarily because it’s very difficult to answer them before they make you unable to. If you build all of your decks with no answers, every Ludevic’s Abomination you face down is going to seem harder to kill than Uril, the Miststalker. At the same time, running too much removal will start an arms race where other players will feel like they have to run Hexproof and Indestructible creatures to ever land a hit.
So, if we’re looking to carefully balance the number of answers we run to maximize the amount of fun that everyone has, we can’t run hate cards that serve as answers for what they hate. If we don’t include them in our removal count, we’ll have too much removal against the decks they work against, but if we count them towards our total number of answers, we’ll have too few ways to deal with threats that come out of decks that our hate doesn’t hit and feel powerless against them.
But not all hate cards single out the player they hate; many make you want to keep them alive! Black mage using Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth to power up Cabal Coffers? They must be dealt with! Or you could just kill off the rest of the table with your Crusading Knight. Is there one blue mage who’s countering everything? Carpet of Flowers doesn’t have to be used to cast more spells than they can counter; you can point out that it disincentives you from killing them, and relish your free reign of spell-casting.
Those are all well and good, but they play almost as inconsistently as hate cards do in duels. The multiplayer nature of Commander improves the chances of some one at the table being heavily committed to the color that they punish, but these sorts of effects are pretty unimpressive against the three color decks that run rampant. We can get better results from effects that care about a color’s presence rather than its abundance. For instance, Submerge and Mogg Salvage fill answer roles without having to be aimed at the offending player, and you’ll almost always be able to cast them for free!
Unfortunately, not all colors are created equal in Commander. Green’s powerful ramp and recursion combined with its propensity for absurdly expensive monsters make it the best color for a more casual crowd. Blue’s range of broken effects, superiority in terms of card advantage, and ability to answer almost anything via counterspells makes it the strongest in cutthroat playgroups, and certainly don’t leave it out in the cold even when the strongest of all colors is made to play fair. Black’s ability to trade life for cards and tutor for the appropriate response to any situation combine with Coffers’ insane mana generating capabilities to take full advantage of Commander’s alternate rules. White’s weenie decks get hosed by high life totals, but it has a lot of tuck effects and board sweepers to keep it in contention.
Red is left out in the cold. Not only are it’s aggressive strategies and burn much weaker in a format full of high life totals and huge creatures, it’s one powerful effect in the format, land destruction, is frowned upon by many playgroups. Red is by no means unplayable (as that’s part of the format’s beauty) but you can expect to see a lot more green decks than red ones at your average Commander table. Cards that need an opposing red mage to be strong are considerably less effective as a result. The numbers depend on how many people you usually find seated for your Commander games, but in general you can expect to find some Forests, Islands, and Swamps to take advantage of, but relying on enemy Plains and Mountains is a risky proposition.
On Another Subject Entirely
I hope looking at color hosers for tasks other than hosing colors has inspired you to try out a few cool new cards in your decks, but now we’re venturing into a world where they once again are nothing but sideboard cards. No, I’m not turning this column into a Spike category strategy piece about sideboarding, I’m talking about an exciting upcoming Czech sports drama about Magic: the Gathering!
Here’s part of the official press release for Tap: Max’s Game:
“Everyone has happy endings. If it’s not happy, then it’s not the end.” Karel Adam (Ondřej Holeček), however, seems to disagree. Several years ago, he and his four best friends were the top players in a Magic club Fireball and had the time of their lives. They needed nothing but still had it all – they had each other.
However, these times are long over. The Fireball gang had shattered and the club was sold. Only Karel now visits the closed club, remembering the great times he had.
One day, he sees his favourite game being played in a café, and so he asks himself a question: Can you stop being someone who have you been all the time?
And the answer changes his card career forever.
Max’s Game is a story about a friendship, separated by love…
… a friendship, separated by time…
… a friendship, separated by glory…
… a friendship, united by memories.
Come join Karel on a hard path towards a second chance, which is given just once in a lifetime.
About the film
Tap: Max’s Game is a Czech independent film, a sports drama, produced by 2D studio in coproduction with AVC ČVUT. Written and directed by Kamil Beer. Directors of photography Tomáš Lénárd, Petr Pulc and AVC ČVUT. Editor Tomáš Lénárd. Musical score composed by Stanislav Ferko, author of the Srdce musical and Srdcefest organisator. Max’s Game is the first film inspired by the card game Magic: the Gathering, played by over six million people around the world. This unique independent film, dedicated not only to Magic players and fans of the sports drama genre, tells an exciting story about the strength of a true friendship.
Max’s Game began only as a thought. The film’s writer and director, Kamil Beer, was listening to Rocky IV soundtrack every morning while traveling to school, and imagined the film scenes.
He met Tomáš Lénárd and with their first film crew, they commenced the shooting. The cinematography wasn’t going as expected, though, so a year after, they welcomed Petr Pulc of AVC ČVUT along with his colleagues into the crew and began reshooting. The team consisted of Kamil Beer as the director, Jana Machová as the assistant director and Ladislav Vitouš and Jana Alferyová as the much needed motivators. After a national casting, the Key Make-up Irena Mášová found her way to the team and slowly, the film crew gained many talented members, united after a common goal.
And so they started playing Max’s Game…
The expected release date is this winter, and I’m excited not only to see what looks to be a potentially great film, but also to have something to point people to when I tell them about my hobby. Saying, “well, it’s a fantasy card game based on a wizards’ duel, but there’s sort of a divide in the community, and a lot of people play in a tournament setting where it’s more like chess,” doesn’t really convey Magic, but I imagine Tap: Max’s Game will give much truer insights into the card game we all know and love than Role Models did for Live Action Role Playing. This is a big step forward for our community, so please support the official release!