More than ever Magic players have the opportunity to make decks really personal. This is a great thing not only for a casual setting but also for competitive analysis. One of the great joys in Commander is to take a deck idea and continually hone and refine this idea until you reach the perfected form of your deck... and then new cards are released and the process starts all over again! However, do not let the insidious nature of "optimization" undermine your ultimate goals.
An Example Now Including Deathtouch
I wrote briefly about my Atraxa, Praetors' Voice deathtouch deck and it has proven to be one of my more fun, casual and interactive decks—everything that Atraxa typically is *not*. As Wizards continues to release cards with deathtouch I continue to update and "optimize" the deck. However, this deck is definitely not about winning.
Early Optimization Looked Like This
Here you can see how we were optimizing based purely on a power metric. A 1/1 deathtoucher for one mana is not great but a 1/1 deathtoucher that sometimes grows to a 3/3 for the same one mana is definitely better. However, now the deck can shift to a 1/2 for one that sometimes gets a +1/+1 counter but is *always* a Warrior for the same one mana. This is not a strict upgrade. A fair amount of the time you could have gotten a 3/3 for one versus missing a +1/+1 counter and being stuck with a 1/2. The Party dynamic might not even come into play in that game.
Expanding on a party subtheme though adds character and replayability to the deck even if it's not necessarily a power increase. That is exactly what I feel many Commander players are missing. I'm going to get a better gameplay experience by choosing the much more interesting mix of interactive cards. This is true in any environment that is not a tournament scenario.
When Deathtouch Becomes Deathtouch/Multicolored Party/Assassin/+1/+1 Counters
When new cards are released if you are too single-minded you might judge them based on far too limited a metric. This metric is usually answering the question "will this make my deck win more games?" Instead, consider this: Evaluating Kathril, Aspect Warper, Endling, and Rayami, First of the Fallen against each other becomes an interesting balancing act that defines the deck. In one of my games, when I played four multi-colored deathtouch creatures in a row a player asked me what my deck was even trying to do. For me, that was the moment I knew I had a unique Atraxa deck.
Not only does the deck contain massive points for its theme but it also has multiple completely unified subthemes that are all interconnected. Rather than simply getting "more" for "less" I balance the different subthemes against each other and steer the deck towards my goal for it.
When Old Inspires New
As a young player, I was enthralled by Pestilence. Being able to wipe the board was always powerful. However, there was a built-in limitation to the card that was notable. No creatures in play meant that Pestilence went bye-bye at the end of the turn. Back then I ran a deck full of Pestilence, Withering Wisps(aka Snow-Covered Pestilence)and also Cemetery Gate and Order of Leitbur. Difficult to kill walls and the notorious "pump knights" with Protection from Black meant that these creatures could not die to Pestilence. In 2022, should a player even consider an old off-meta card while newer and more powerful cards are printed every month?
When I built K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth, I had certain goals. Sure I wanted to win but I also wanted to utilize as many cards with pure black mana casting costs as possible. I also wanted to keep the deck pivoted towards Two-Headed Giant. An Enchantment with an activation cost of one black mana seems like it fits within those goals neatly. Of course, the beauty of a card like Pestilence is that it is not just a board wipe but also a potential win condition. That makes it potentially way better than a straightforward board wipe.
Simply put, I've lost way too many games with my take on K'rrik. The deck is intended to be fairly competitive and seeks to win. I built it with Two-Headed Giant mostly in mind, but it's still a cEDH leaning deck for cEDH tables. I know I don't write about cEDH a lot, but I certainly play my fair share of games at competitive tables. I simply find them less interesting to write about most of the time. Let's talk about a cEDH game that was interesting, and reinforces the point I'm trying to make here.
The Competitive Disadvantages of Too Much Optimization
I sat down at this table for a game, and we had our pregame conversation. We talked about decks and decided to go competitive, no holds barred. The player across from me revealed Yasharn, Implacable Earth as their commander. At this point, I'd refined K'rrik to such a degree that I felt comfortable at the prospect of consistent turn three, turn four combos ending the game. I've surprised a few tables with the naked aggression and speed of my deck. I could lose 30 life but then combo out and win. This built my confidence in my design direction. I also felt good about my backup plan.
In cases where a game stalled out, I could turn to a slow draining strategy with extort. While I saw that Yasharn could potentially shut me down, I figured I could either race my commander out sooner and Yasharn would never be in play or I could answer it with "something" in my deck.
And Then Sol Ring Happened
Well, that player had a classic turn one Sol Ring, into turn two Yasharn and they went before me. I mentally went through my deck and determined my number of outs to Yasharn to be… zero. Yes, in the highly "optimized" version I had made that was all gas and no brakes, I had zero cards that dealt with Yasharn. Oh, I had cards that dealt with board situations. Extremely powerful cards like Toxic Deluge and Demonic Tutor and Yawgmoth's Will to replay powerful cards like… Toxic Deluge. Do you see the problem? I had optimized myself into a corner.
I have not played against another competitive Yasharn deck since that day. For those curious about what they were playing, it was mostly a value engine with a lot of hate bears and Stax effects. In that kind of environment, a 4/4 actually kills people pretty quickly. In any case, I drastically underestimated how vulnerable my strategy was in light of a handful of cards or a particularly fast start from another player. While I still want my K'rrik to be on the fast and all-in side, ultimately, I want the deck to win more games. The fact is I need more answers and fewer combo pieces. Even decks that are not built primarily for speedy starts can have quick openers and I need to have more answers because more decks are running Stax effects.
The Hybridized Approach
This is where evolution comes into play. I know there are generally accepted and powerful mono-black board wipes like Choice of Damnations and I could just slot one of those into K'rrik. However, I'm going to give Pestilence a whirl because I can see that it solves other problems and has additional synergies with my overall strategy. There is a diplomacy angle to Pestilence that is hard to quantify versus Damnation and I think playing something that stays around and continues to ruin hate bears and Stax's day is a huge plus. Furthermore, if I just put in Damnation which is a known "good card" I will lose out on the chance to test what could be a better card. Damnation is already in other decks I've run and I've cast the card many times, it's proven itself. But I have not seen another player cast Pestilence in years. I am genuinely curious if it's really unplayable or, secretly, powerful. Turning my life total into board-wide damage is just too tempting not to try.
The fact is cards change in relative power all the time based on what other cards are being played. This is the simplest expression of the metagame. Theorycrafting alone is not good enough to determine card strength. When cards have relative power, you must put in games to check. My deck must evolve with the current meta or I won't win many more games.
What Have We Learned Today?
Hopefully, how it is important not to get trapped within an eternal optimization loop. In an effort to further refine a deck it's easy to miss the forest for the trees, chipping away at a decent deck concept so much that it turns into a degenerate deck. Now, there is nothing wrong with the degenerate deck if that was your initial goal. But it seems like many players and deck builders get trapped into a reductionist mindset which can limit expression, fun, and even win rate. Rather than continue to find lower mana cost deathtouchers I've branched out into several subthemes to flesh out my deck concept. Now I am on the lookout for more interesting cards in the future. Instead of pushing the envelope for raw speed and combo potential, I'm looking for the most synergistic pieces of removal for K'rrik that can be part of my game plan rather than only a reaction to my opponents.
Did you ever have a deck evolve? Tell me about it in the comments!