Obviously, we're not talking about office supplies here. What I want to discuss this week is a little bit of EDH 101. The Commander 2013 product is sure to spark new interest in the format, so I figured I'd let some of those new players in on a secret or two that I've learned over the years. Regular readers will still be treated to the normal off chance of Stewie quotes and Shakespeare references, congratulations to the Red Sox for winning the Worlds Series (plus the suggestion that they can now shave the beards), and discussion of whether or not The Blacklist is the best new show on TV (despite an imperfection or two). It is. Okay, discussion over.
When I say staples, I'm not talking about specific cards. I'm not one to say, "If you're playing such-and-such a color, you must play card X," although I'll freely admit to having some favorites. I'm talking about broad categories of effects you want to work into your decks, things that will help you navigate and survive the sometimes-choppy waters of the format. I've distilled them down to the following elements: Win Condition, Avoiding Loss Condition, Card Draw, Land Enabling, Graveyard Hate, Creature Removal, Enchantment Removal, Artifact Removal, Recursion, and Fun. For those veterans who've read this far, you're welcome pop over to the forums and add categories that you think belong on the list as well.
Speaking of veterans, as we approach Veterans Day here in the US, I'd like to offer my heartfelt appreciation to the folks currently serving in uniform. I know for a fact how difficult your job is and how undercompensated you are for it. Reverent thanks to everyone who has served in the past, including those who gave everything. Your proud country is grateful.
There are two caveats before we get started. First, I'm talking here about the style of game that's widely popular in the format, not the super-cutthroat/fast-combo style. While that style is perfectly valid, I'm talking about the more social style of game that's become the format's benchmark—the middle ground, if you will. I don't want to reignite any play style debates; I just want to head off comments like "you don't need artifact removal if you're killing everyone turn 3." If you find yourself in a hypercompetitive environment, then your survival techniques will need to be radically different.
Second, you may not be able to squeeze each of these elements into every deck. You might not want to dilute your theme too much, or the colors you're playing might not lend themselves easily to certain elements (like Izzet colors struggling to get extra lands into play). I try to have some of each in all my decks, but you're only working with 60ish slots. Sometimes things will suffer, and that's okay.
The game isn't all about or only about winning, but even if you're putting together a wild theme deck and you care most about the fun, you'll want a way to wrap up games. Often that is with combat damage, which includes commander damage. It could also be doming people with Scourge of Valkas or Purphoros, God of the Forge; wicked combos like Magister Sphinx / Wound Reflection; Flinging giant fatties at their heads; milling them out; or infecting them with poison counters. How you intend to win—and there's nothing wrong with having multiple paths to victory—is all up to your personal taste.
Be warned that although it seems a little irrational, there are some folks who consider certain victory conditions acceptable and others not. Personally, I don't have much of an issue with the what or how, just the when, meaning what's fine on turn 12 can be pretty rotten on turn 2. Sure, I think that some things are kind of lame, but there are other people who think what I like it kind of cheesy, so it kind of all works out. Check with your local group for details. They might say, "Whatever you want to do is cool," or they might say, "Play Magister Sphinx once and we'll orc-pile you for a month." The golden rule probably applies here. If you think losing in a particular way is sucky (beyond a normal and healthy dislike of losing), then you probably don't want to kill people that way.
Avoiding Loss Condition
Although specifically which loss conditions you want to avoid will be highly dependent on your local environment, I'm going to give you two basic rules: never accept a tempting offer and always carry a Fog (a towel is also advised).
The former will always go sideways in a way you didn't think would be as bad as it was or in a way you didn't see coming. It's a brilliantly designed mechanic that's rarely if ever going to be as good for you as it is the caster. You're going to think, "It could be a boat," but it's always tickets to the comedy club.
Because creature combat—especially in sometimes overwhelming numbers or high digits—is a major part of the format, preventing combat damage will keep you fighting. Who doesn't love undoing the master plan of an opponent casting Tooth and Nail for Craterhoof Behemoth and Avenger of Zendikar or someone working out exactsies on combat math with a simple Holy Day or better yet Tangle? Aetherize is especially good at wiping out attacking tokens (even if you're not involved in the combat—it never hurts to make friends). Cards like Mirror Strike and Reflect Damage may also double as Win Conditions.
You can keep yourself alive by limiting how many creatures can attack you with cards like Dueling Grounds, Island Sanctuary, and Crawlspace (or Moat if you've got the dosh). If you're worried about getting targeted with Comet Storm or Tendrils of Agony, you can give yourself shroud with True Believer or hexproof with Leyline of Sanctity or Witchbane Orb. Eldrazi are great for keeping you from getting milled out.
The other way to avoid loss is to consider locally popular strategies. Two cards designed to keep some of the insanity in check are Grafdigger's Cage (sorry, Genesis Wave) and Torpor Orb (sorry, bunches of stuff). Look at how you're getting knocked out of games and adapt accordingly.
Card draw in this sense refers to anything that puts additional or specific cards in your hand (the latter is referred to as "tutoring") even if it's not a "draw" (and thereby doesn't trigger Underworld Dreams or get replaced by Notion Thief) such as with Court Hussar and Forbidden Alchemy. Part of the game is resource acquisition, and your one card per turn isn't likely to be enough.
While the simple draws of Jace's Ingenuity and Harmonize are often enough, there are some card-draw pieces that serve other functions. Any creature which also draws cards for you, like Masked Admirers and Consecrated Sphinx (although be careful with that one—it might get you gang-tackled), serves as a body for either offense or defense. Lashknife Barrier is a hidden gem from the format's earliest days. One of my favorites is Ground Seal, which shuts down some graveyard shenanigans while also replacing itself in my hand.
One piece of super-secret tech that I'll share with you is the Urza's Destiny/Seventh Edition enchantment Compost. For a low, low two mana, you will draw piles of cards. Trust me on this one.
Land enabling comes in three forms: simple land ramp, lands to hand, and fetching. Whether you can do the first or need to do the second depends on the colors you're playing.
Land ramp is getting additional lands into play, with the mechanic's namesake Rampant Growth, Cultivate, and Skyshroud Claim. Green is the best at it, although Burnished Hart has come a long way in helping other colors keep up.
Getting lands into your hand serves two purposes. First, it ensures that you hit at least one land drop per turn. Second is thinning them out of your deck so that you're drawing only gas later on. The Grixis colors of blue, black, and red aren't great of ramping (unless you're using Clone to copy someone's Oracle of Mul Daya or Wild Ricochet to copy their Boundless Realms), so you'll need cards like Armillary Sphere and Gem of Becoming to smooth you out. Journeyer's Kite and Expedition Map are other excellent tools for helping the nongreen colors.
Fetching is the act of replacing one land for another. In its simplest form, it's Evolving Wilds or Terramorphic Expanse. It got its name from the "fetch lands" like Arid Mesa, which get you lands of particular types.
Some will also call this category mana acceleration, but that also includes mana rocks like Obelisk of Esper and Fellwar Stone. The major reason that I prefer putting extra lands into play over mana rocks is that the rocks are eventually going to get blown up by a board sweeper. That said, the environment that I play in is generally resistant to mass land destruction (again, that's not a comment on the strategy's validity), so there isn't a downside to going for the additional lands. If you play where Armageddon is more likely, then you'll want to add a Mind Stone or Jet Medallion to your deck.
Arguably the most ubiquitous card in the format is Solemn Simulacrum, which brings a little land ramp to whichever colors you're playing. It's so popular because it also features card draw when it dies. One of the best things about it is that its cost is perfect. At three mana, it would be overpowered. At five, significantly less useful. Despite its popularity, no one hates the sad robot.
Your graveyard is nice. Other people's graveyards are nasty, festering, fetid places that exist only to hurt you. You have to be prepared to clean them up. There are two lines to consider taking. The first is removing cards after they get to the graveyard. You can do that with artifacts like Scrabbling Claws or creatures like Withered Wretch. There is the always-helpful Tormod's Crypt and Bojuka Bog to get rid of an entire graveyard that's gotten out of control. Relic of Progenitus will do the same, but be careful since it hits yours as well.
The second direction is to make cards never get to the graveyard in the first place. You can do this with Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace, which replace the action of going to the graveyard with getting exiled. Remember that when either of these is in play, "when this dies" triggers don't happen since the event of going to the graveyard is replaced. Note that Planar Void isn't exactly the same as Leyline of the Void. It has a triggered ability (of a card going to the yard) and not a replacement.
There will be creatures that annoy you. Whether it's the Rafiq of the Many about to hit you for 22 commander damage or the Ballynock Trapper that keeps tapping down your fatty, sometimes you need to Murder something.
Some folks think that every deck needs to run whatever board sweepers you can in your colors, but I'm not sure that's absolutely necessary. It's a nice failsafe because even in your best creature deck there will be times when some has a better army than yours. Whether or not that's frequently needed is up to you.
One method of creature removal that people don't always think of is stealing them, whether permanently with Blatant Thievery or temporarily with Threaten. I'm particularly fond of Grab the Reins as creature removal, getting to borrow a creature and then sacrifice it for my own nefarious purposes.
You'll want to be careful about the number of one-for-one bits of creature removal you pack. In this format, creatures often come in multiples, so more Ashes to Ashes and fewer Swords to Plowshares will fit the bill. I'm not saying don't run any; I'm just saying don't overload yourself with them—and use them wisely.
Enchantments, like Greater Good and Lurking Predators, do some of the most broken things. You must not let them happen (unless you're planning on Plagiarize or Gather Specimens). You can fold your enchantment removal into other functions, like with Aura Blast, which draws a card, or Aura Mutation, which gives you creatures. Repeatable removal is highly desirable, which is why Aura Shards and Harmonic Sliver are so popular. You can also go the route of the mass sweeper like Oblivion Stone or Nevinyrral's Disk, especially in colors, like black, blue, and red that have difficulties with enchantments. With all the high-quality recursion available in the format, you might look to cards that exile enchantments, like Silverchase Fox.
I suppose we could merge artifact and enchantment removal into one large category, especially since there are multiple cards that can destroy one or the other like Disenchant and Indrik Stomphowler. I'm fond of the very strong Return to Dust and Into the Core because they can get multiples and they exile.
Again, you can go the sweeper route to take care of artifacts that are bugging you. Vandalblast gives you excellent flexibility in leaving your own on the battlefield.
You have some cards that are loads of fun. Why not use them multiple times? There are simple forms of recursion, like Eldrazi to shuffle your graveyard back into your library so that you can draw them again later, and there are things that put cards from your graveyard either back onto the battlefield (Karmic Guide) or into your hand (Eternal Witness). I'm a huge fan of no-cost (after the initial) recursion like Oversold Cemetery and Charmbreaker Devils.
Putting things from your graveyard back on top of your library also counts as recursion. Volrath's Stronghold and Academy Ruins are two very powerful lands that let you pick what you'll draw next. They're especially nice if you have something valuable that someone else has taken great pains to get rid of.
My favorite card of all time and up until recently the mack daddy of all recursion is Living Death. These days you can get all of the creatures for your own with Liliana Vess and Rise of the Dark Realms.
Amidst all the strategy and tactics discussions, don't forget to put things into your deck that are simply fun. If they're fun for more than just you, that's even better. They don't have to be chaos-inducing cards like Possibility Storm or Grip of Chaos, and they don't have to be group hug cards like Phelddagrif or Jace Beleren; they can just be cards that give you a warm fuzzy when you play them. Don't let anyone tell you different (unless the only way you can have fun is by making other people miserable). This is the format where it's encouraged to give in to your Timmy side.
To those of you who are long-time supporters of the format, many thanks. You're the reason we're as popular as we are. To those of you just discovering us, welcome. I think you're going to like it here.
Embracing the Chaos,
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