Commander is one of the best balancing acts I've ever seen in the world of Magic: The Gathering. It was envisioned as a casual format but is robust enough to withstand even hyper-competitive players without the wheels coming off, and it's the only format where both casual and competitive players can explore the game side by side with mutual enjoyment and satisfaction.
In fact, it's a world where the casual player trumps the competitive player: however powerful you think the DCI is, the power of 'we just won't play with you then' is a thousand times more potent at discouraging abuses either real or imagined.
Some tournament players look down their noses at the folks with their ninety-nine card decks, figuring that anyone who threatens to resort to shunning in order to solve their problem lives in some bizarre, throwback reality that doesn't reflect our modern world and its social mores.
But let us face facts: leaving someone out in the cold is a powerful way to get a lesson across. It's the most potent self-regulation force there is in the game of Magic: The Gathering. When you shuffle up a 60- or a 40-card deck in a sanctioned match, you've agreed to a number of things implicitly just by sitting down at that table, and while you're playing to win and can use any rule in the book to gain an advantage (so long as you aren't gaming the system), at the very top of the system you have punishment for the worst offenses: banning - the broad and sweeping resolution that sanctioned Magic players the world over will not play with you.
In Commander, no one wants power over the entire world. We only have power over our one table, the social group of people who have come to play the game and have a good time and do interesting things. We can't speak for the guys in the next shop over, and since we'd hate for them to speak for us, we wouldn't want to anyway. Without the world to enforce the punishment of social ostracism on such a massive scale, attention has to be taken at the lower levels to introduce self-regulation: if that's how you're going to be, we'll just play without you then. There are of course a few rules, mostly regarding the nature of the format and deck design. But after everyone has agreed on those, it's up to everyone playing to figure out where the format goes from there.
The vision coming down from above is that of a game where everyone is allowed to play Magic and where decks can play almost any card in existence, save for the egregious offenders and those silver-bordered weirdoes. But you don't need any vision from above to dictate terms to you, any more than you need the guys from the next shop over telling you what to do because 'that's the way things are done'. Once you build decks and sit four people down at a table to try and kill each other, a lot of things sort themselves out pretty quickly - especially when you add in the ability to play repeatedly over time, change decks over time, and track the community's previous experiences. The worst offenders are avoided until they change their wayward ways, or their opponents just play the game they wanted to play after the offender is dead.
Justice is harsh in this game, and it has the lightness of a feather. We're all just a couple of people playing a game for the fun of it, or maybe for a little bit of prize at the end of things, and so long as you let people play the game instead of lock or combo them out you'll probably do alright. If someone doesn't like how they were treated, they'll talk about it, either during the game (to your detriment) or after the fact (to your detriment). If your actions weren't defensible, a jury of your peers will judge accordingly, and if the offended party is just a whining crybaby who can't take their lumps like a planeswalker, then that'll come to light pretty quickly too.
This article is intended to help show you how the format works and how to build a deck for the Commander format (to some of us, always, Elder Dragon Highlander). We're going to have a look at how the nature of Commander itself forces us to re-envision such traditional concepts as card advantage and good deck design, as well as changes our style of play. There's a lot to possibly talk about, so this is going to be the first of two parts, possibly more if the interest is there to keep going and see just how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Card Advantage In A Many-On-One World
It may seem at first glance as if everybody is trying to kill you. That's sort of true and sort of not. Everyone is trying to win the game, or at least they should be, but it's nothing personal. They don't want to kill you; it just happens to be you're standing in the way. Typically, you'll find Commander games are approximately four people large, which means that they're trying to kill you and those two other guys, and those other two guys are trying to kill you, and everyone else who isn't them too. It's nothing personal, just the way the game has been defined. But rarely will you find one person trying to kill three people by themselves, and as long as you're able to keep up and stay relevant instead of being the easy nut to crack you'll tend to be in the game for the long haul.
Card advantage in regular Magic is very easy to quantify. Tempo is harder to pin down, but nonetheless can be figured out pretty handily by looking at sequences of plays to figure out what the critical moments were and how the game progressed. But "relevance" is not a term you see in two-player Magic. You're trying to kill him; he's trying to kill you. It's a dog-eat-dog world and easy to understand. In multiplayer games, your ability to meaningfully impact the way the game plays out is directly related to whether you keep up or fall behind.
One way this is commonly used is by means of permanents that serve specifically towards this purpose. Some call them "rattlesnake" cards, things you can point to and shake to ward off other players. They might want to seek an easier nut to crack or perhaps just leave their creatures at home instead of throwing them into the slaughter. Lands are the best of rattlesnakes because things like Mystifying Maze add a hard-to-kill element to your overall protection, let you come to the assistance of others, can be used turn after turn, and best of all, count as a land in your manabase instead of devouring a spell slot. But things with "relevance" are not just those that you can point to that sit in play; they're the easiest ones to spot, of course, but anything that helps to impact the game lets you keep up as the game goes long.
When you have meaningful things you can do, you have relevance. Permanents in play can be destroyed all in one fell swoop, however, and should not be relied on to the exclusion of everything else. Lands are best, not just because they are hard to kill but because inevitably, mana-flood will occur, and lands that can do spell-like things let you have relevance even when you don't have a lot of spare spells to work with. Also, many players shy away from anything that affects lands on a massive scale, well-aware that shutting out multiple people from a game will receive punitive measures in future games, even if they remove the cards or change decks.
Drawing cards is relevant. If you're capable of replenishing your resources at about the same clip as you play your spells, you'll be able to hold on to your own defenses or treat your spells and resources as bargaining chips without making desperate plays. Even better, in my book, is repeatable effects. Buyback, flashback, recover... I don't care what mechanism it uses, but anything that lets you get multiple spells out of a single card is very worthwhile and (unlike permanents) tends to take a very specific answer to deny you a resource of this type.
This awareness of what the multiplayer version of 'card advantage' looks like is a critical threshold to pass for a Commander player. Some come from two-player Magic and find this different usage hard to understand, while others are more casual and not used to applying rigorous judgment to the cards they include in their decks. All players looking to venture into the world of Commander would benefit from using a critical eye to the cards they're including in their own decks; even old hands at this, who don't need to be lectured about how to play Elder Dragon Highlander, would do well to understand why their best cards are so good.
Commander is, if anything, a format about context. Most of the cards you'll play in Commander are being used in a very forgiving context. The best attributes of a card can be built towards, and the worst shortcomings can be forgiven by the singleton nature of deck design and the greatly dilated expectation of a game's length. An eight-mana spell can be realistically considered a mid-game option in Commander, while in most other formats it's unplayable unless you're cheating it into play for free from your hand, graveyard, or library. Emrakul was the traditional endgame, but unlike Legacy with Show and Tell or Vintage where thoughts of Oath of Druids make it all worthwhile, we had every intention of casting Emrakul and being rewarded by the touch if its noodly appendage.
Relevance, then, is something that scales over the course of the game. In the developing turns of the game, having cheap but meaningful spells that impact the board is a good way to be relevant at the game's beginning. Inexpensive cards that replace themselves, grant a future option, or are not merely one-for-one removal spells are very important because as good as it is to impact the board on turn two or three, it's not something you can guarantee you'll only draw on turn two or three, and a cheap spell with a useful function at any point in the game is something to prioritize. A black deck could choose Innocent Blood because it sweeps more than one creature off the board or Chainer's Edict because it grants a future option to be used at a later point that will keep you relevant in the game.
As the game goes longer, you can measure relevance in two ways: you can have recursion that lets you reuse that option, or you can play a card that has a meteoric impact on the game and is well worth more than a single card to pull off. The swinging haymaker is the classic hallmark of Commander, and many a game has been won or lost by the sudden resolution of a card like Insurrection that radically shifts the game in one fell swoop and can even eliminate one or more players by its proper use alone. If we're counting "card advantage", Commander is going to go all sorts of screwy on the math, with the game changing drastically as haymaker after haymaker lands and we have to ask ourselves how many cards an Insurrection is worth compared to how many cards a mere Master Warcraft is worth.
We all have our pet cards. Culling them is one of the hardest parts of deck design, and their ability to have relevance over the course of a game is the best way to figure out whether a card is worth including in your deck. Sure, you can also warp your deck around something and try to build an artificially inflated sense of the card's relevance by adding synergy to your deck, but an honest appraisal of what that card is going to do most of the time and whether you need or merely want that effect will help you improve your Commander deck as you give your deck a second pass.
After you've picked your Commander, you have ninety-nine problems to figure out, and everything should be up on the chopping block or at least up for consideration as you try and figure it all out.
Even more than haymakers, even more than rattlesnakes, and even more than just regular good old-fashioned card drawing, I've found that repeating spells are the best things you can include in a Commander deck for impacting the board and helping you survive to the end. The reason for this is simple: it's a marathon, not a sprint. Rack and Ruin is card advantage now, and Ancient Grudge is card advantage delayed until it's right to use the second effect, but Shattering Pulse is forever.
For over a year now, I've had a mono-black deck that is very good. It's full of delightful and powerful cards and all sorts of tricks. But in this year, I've learned the best card in my deck is a humble one, or at least it is now that the mighty Emrakul has been torn from the aeons of Commander for the egregious crime of simply being the best thing you can possibly do with fifteen mana and being too easily abused for the purposes of taking all of the turns. It's not Yawgmoth's Will, which has frequently been the best card in Vintage; it's not Sensei's Divining Top, one of the best cards in Legacy and the one true automatic inclusion in any Commander deck. The best card in my deck has proven to me time and time again that it is Grim Harvest, for being devilishly hard for an opponent to contain and giving me an unending tank of gas whenever the game goes on long enough.
When picking your cards for Commander, sure, look at the eight-mana superbombs, but consider the humble utility of less flashy spells which can be played more than once when trying to figure out how you grind out a win against opponents who are doing likewise. After all, Insurrection might kill two people, or it might end up doing nothing as an opponent sacrifices a land to cast Constant Mists with buyback.
Playing To Win Versus Playing To Win Eventually
If "relevance" is Commander's card advantage, does Commander also have a form of tempo? The answer to this is yes, just not in the direct and linear way cutthroat tournament players tend to think of it. Tempo makes a lot of sense in a two-player world when you're trying to kill each other, but it's a lot harder to figure out when the big spells are flying and four players are in the thick of it. The question of tempo in multiplayer is thus included in the question of not whether you can do something but whether you should.
In two-player, non-cooperative Magic, you have one enemy in the way of you and your game win and no need to play politics with him most of the time. Most of what you'd call 'politics' in two-player Magic are thought of as 'Jedi mind tricks', or attempts to veil your strategy so as to lay a trap across a particular line of play in which your opponent will find themselves caught. In multiplayer Magic, winning is not merely the end goal but also a trap in and of itself, one in which the impatient or unwary often find themselves caught.
Remember: a game of Commander is a marathon, not a sprint. Sprinters will find themselves sorely outclassed after about the one-mile mark, and looking to make a game a sprint is the kind of thing that's met with recriminations. Maybe they get teamed up on and eliminated so the other three players can go back to the intricate game of politics and haymakers that they wanted to play in the first place; after that first Winter Orb or Armageddon that lets them win by crippling the rest of the table, the cat's out of the bag. Combo-kills are great and easy to build towards if that's what you want to do, but being the front-runner in a game of Commander is just the best way to paint a target on your back.
For a single game of Commander, maybe that's just fine. Who cares, after all, what the social ramifications will be if you have no intention of sitting around to reap those sour rewards? Magic Online Commander is thus probably a different animal, just as Magic Online PTQs are different from the offline thing; sure, you're playing to the same goal in the end presumably, but you can do it from home in your underwear and never have to talk to another human being if you don't want to. Maybe this means online you should jam your deck with as much power as possible and just push for the early lead and infinite-combo endgame, but even in that case, it's quite possible that just appearing to be ahead will unite the others to depose you and eliminate your broken combo deck from the equation. Three people is a large number of people to try and kill with an unbounded combo. It's hard enough killing someone in a two-player duel without their throwing a monkey wrench in the works, and here you have more than one opponent with a vested interest in not dying no matter how cool your combo is.
The question, then, is all about pacing.
Pacing, like relevance, is the fine art of figuring out what matters and building towards it. Relevance is something you can be mindful of during the deck construction portion of the Commander game, making sure you have enough cards that keep your hand full and options open so that you'll always be able to have something to say in your continued existence. "Pacing", however, is pure gameplay. And it's not the hard grind of competitive Magic where you have to spend turn after turn playing tight and finding a way to win from behind; it's all about playing the game to play the game and figuring out where you're going with things when you get there.
It's safe to say that everyone who sits down at the table wants to win. It's not as big of a cookie as getting to play a good and interesting game is, perhaps; if you've read any of Sheldon Menery's Embrace the Chaos (and if you're reading me, I'm assuming you have) you know he'd rather play a good game than win a bad one. There has never been a Commander game yet that has had a prize pool big enough to warrant pulling out the manual of dirty tricks in order to win it, but it's nice to win a game, so you can probably figure everyone wants to unless the seats are really, really comfortable. But wanting to win too badly paints you as a threat, and someone who is pushing too hard gets pushed back.
You can do something about this when you pick what you're playing in the first place. After all, Skithiryx is the kind of Commander that says he intends to finish the game really, really quickly, and the rational response that three opponents might make is to hobble the frontrunner by means of a concerted effort. So actually winning the game is a different thing from being the first person to be winning the game. The game isn't over till the last life point has been depleted and the last opponent eliminated.
A lead is a dangerous thing to have. Keep your head down and your hand full, however, and you'll probably do all right. I've found many of the games of Commander I play are determined by a simple rule: the first player who tries to kill someone dies first, and the second player who tries to kill someone besides that first casualty is the next person out. After that it's just a duel, and there's no longer any benefit to disguising your intentions of winning the game and the politicking is done because your opponent is unlikely to do you any favors.
Because pacing is so important to a game, you want to be able to impact the board early in the game, later in the game, and even as you have gone through the meatgrinder and your best-laid plans have turned to grist. 'Getting an early lead' isn't what I mean here; by the simple fact that you have to deal 40 to three different people, a purely aggressive deck is not something that really works, and Commander is more of a midrange / control / combo universe. Threatening early plays aren't quite as good as more defensive early plays, simply due to the fact that when everyone has the full resources that they began the game with, things die. A lot. And if you look like you're ahead, the rest of the pack will pull you back with a concerted effort and maybe even keep the kickings coming until you're soundly in last place or eliminated for the audacity of 'winning'.
Table talk is great for this. Perfectly innocent people have died because they took a slight early lead and got everyone nervous, and one of the best political tricks is to convince two other players that a third is threatening to start eliminating people, and form a coalition of the willing to eliminate them and settle their differences later. Better still if you can accomplish this while spending the fewest resources in the attempt, to let two future enemies squander their own strength. But we'll talk more about politics, favors, and dirty tricks campaigns in the future, as this article is about what you can plan for in a vacuum as you design your deck or fan out your opening hand and the style of play you should expect coming into things if you want to succeed. "He owes me a favor" might be better than any card in your deck, but it is also a thing of opportunity that can be capitalized upon but not planned for.
The easiest way to 'be in the lead' is how you pick your Commander. Remember, 'being in the lead' is not something you want to be, and it's certainly not something you want to reveal to people early in the game when it's so easy to be ganged up on by three opponents of full strength and capabilities. The social contract of Commander is red in tooth and claw and self-regulates over time from the lessons and communal history that comes from playing the game in the same social group over time. And there are a few Commanders everyone feels strongly about because they've seen what you can do. Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon is very powerful at eliminating one or maybe two players very quickly and needs to be given the same care a rabid dog is given because you don't want to be the one bitten. Sliver Overlord or Scion of the Ur-Dragon almost certainly has the ability to use their inherent abilities alongside the contents of their deck to surprise-kill one or many players at the same time, though really it's not a 'surprise' anymore. From the moment you plop your Commander into the Command Zone, the measuring sticks have come out and each player has formed an opinion of how the game is going to play out and 'who is ahead'.
Picking your Commander, then, is the easiest way to make a statement about how you're going to play this game, whether you're here to be a competitor or you want to try and be a steamroller. Very threatening Commanders are treated with respect and distrusted according to the measure they deserve, while Norin the Wary can probably be the guy you try and kill last. After all, we form our first impressions very quickly, and the very first thing we can see is your Commander, leaving us to extrapolate our opinions of what is probably in your deck from there. Just something worth keeping in mind.
It is of course a delicate plan to balance being strong against the obvious appearance of strength. You don't want to have to actually be weak in order to look weak, and a lot is to be said for playing the game with a communal approach, just trying to hang out and be part of the crowd doing interesting and fun things but not making any major moves on anyone yet. For those who do make aggressive moves, there are two counterbalancing facts: players start at twice as much life, so your threat is only half as threatening, and nonland permanents have a nasty habit of dying on a very regular basis. A creature is the easiest of all possible things to kill, followed by planeswalker, artifact, enchantment, and land. Things that immediately provide a replacement of their own invested value help to offset the cost of playing a spell, and things that come into play and help everybody out will almost certainly be around for a good long while as long as the kool-aid is flowing freely and can purchase goodwill.
The question, then, is how do you actually win the game if you aren't supposed to start eliminating players? I've found the best answer to this is to be fair and judicious in spreading creature damage around, increasing individual danger slowly but surely until someone goes for the low-hanging fruit. Remember that I said during deck design you must choose carefully what you put in your deck so that as the game progresses later and later you still have relevant plays to make and cards in hand, and this slow and inevitable grinding action on the part of all players is the reason why: when the low-hanging fruit becomes an irresistible temptation, you don't want it to be you.
Playing the game to win late but not necessarily early, the strategy of exposing weakness and grinding out a long game is incredibly valuable to be the eventual winner. Winning the game is usually decided by having the most you can still do and the best long-game capability when the game inevitably becomes a two-player game as players are eliminated, but you can't win late if by the time players start getting eliminated you're the easy kill. And the best way to suddenly flip into a position of strength is to negotiate and pay your dues throughout the game, and then all of a sudden not anymore. There are a very few cards in Magic that literally deny interaction once they're played, and these cards are of incredible value to a Commander deck that wishes to flip the switch from multiplayer to duel and not get caught doing it. Cards with split second are excellent for denying any number of opponents the ability to interact with you for one key moment, which is why many a fine game has suddenly come crashing down in the face of a Molten Disaster. Sudden Spoiling is a cruelly harsh blowout spell in this format because so very little can stop it, only morphs and the occasional blue enchantment like Counterbalance or Hesitation, all things that have to be carefully set up well enough in advance that you'll see them before you commit to casting the spell.
And Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir does not negotiate with anybody. If you want to see the literal definition for 'a Commander who will get you killed', this would be the man you'd find in the dictionary, for his body count is impressive indeed. With Teferi in play, the doors are locked shut, and people's hands might as well be in their pockets for all the good they will do with Teferi coming into play before you start your one big turn. But make no mistake, you get one big turn. (Unless you take more, but hey, that's Time Stretch for you.) A premature Teferi can, should, and will get you pounded into mush if he is answered or you pass the turn after he's in play because Teferi singlehandedly removes the ability of every single opponent to be relevant beyond the permanents they already control and forces noninteraction that turns multiplayer Magic into a puzzle where you need only find a way to win around the things already in play where you can see them.
Noninteraction is the best way to craft a plan which ends with you on top. Just remember that this plan is something you best keep to yourself, and whatever you do, don't screw up. Politicking is a great way to make sure you end up on top based on the opportunities that come up as you play the game, but if you want to form a concrete plan to win with, Teferi (and previously Emrakul) is your go-to guy that can brute-force pretty much anything so long as you set it up right beforehand. More than one end-of-turn Chord of Calling for eight has been thought to be summoning a Terastodon to save the table from multiple dangerous permanents 'the winner' had in play only to reveal Teferi and who the winner actually is.
Next up: a look at why keeping your promises is important, the question of what have you done for me lately is asked, and a true look at the kind of thinking that goes into solving the ninety-nine problems that come after you pick your Commander.