Last week, we took a first look at Commander to see how the ideas of card advantage and tempo could be expanded from two-player Magic to the four-player world of Commander. This week, we're going to have a look at the broader implications of the social aspect of Commander, then get down to looking at the nuts and bolts of the format to see where things break down. From there, you can figure out how to use this information to your own benefit, whether to abuse the knowledge or to plan accordingly. Of course, as with anything else to do with Commander, there are no true universals in the format: there is the ultimate potential, yes, from which I am drawing some specific generalities, but your playgroup may do things their own way, and thus your mileage may vary.
You Are Only As Good As Your Word
Commander is a world where you can expect to have three people alongside you, playing the game to see what interesting things happen. The point of an individual game is 'to win,' surely, since the game reaches its ultimate conclusion by means of the elimination of every remaining player save one, but the purpose of the game is not necessarily the same. With nothing really on the line but the question of whether you had a good time or not, the purpose is to play a fun and interesting game of Magic.
To the end of 'winning the game,' any reasonable and realistic expectation would suggest that a little dishonesty about what you're capable of is just part of the game. So you lied about whether you had a certain card in your hand, your opponent believed you, and then he lost? Tough luck, maybe you shouldn't trust your enemies, right? But to the end of 'having a good time,' nothing is more poisonous to the enjoyment of the game than sharing your time with someone who feels obliged to lie and break their word in order to win a game. After all, winning the game defines when the game ends but does not define why you were playing the game in the first place, and the point of Commander to many is that it's an interesting and enjoyably social way to spend your time, not to collect bragging rights or maybe some modest prize at the conclusion of the game.
Over the course of just one single game, there are no greater ramifications to lying, no social backlash to go with breaking a promise made earlier in the game when it simply becomes inconvenient to your objective of 'win the game.' And if you're playing just one single game of Commander, no one can fault you really for playing it that way, if in fact that small duplicity allowed you to win the game. But just like how the Commander format is more than the interaction between two people, stretching out to encompass four or more mages battling it out for ultimate victory, so too is Commander more than just one game. The social ramifications, then, have to be similarly broadened.
When playing the game, sometimes you'll need help. This won't happen during every single game, but the simple fact is that choosing your Commander grants you certain limits to your capabilities, and choosing which cards go in your deck similarly puts restraints on what you can do easily. Maybe you're mono-black and thus your only means of handling enchantments comes from global sweepers like Oblivion Stone or All Is Dust, and while you can find them (and even tutor for them with relative ease - Black is quite handy for that) you still only have so many. After Disk, O-Stone, and All Is Dust, you have to get one of them back somehow, and if it ever has to happen at instant speed you'll require the assistance of a neighbor to solve the problem.
Table talk is the most potent difference between Commander and conventional Magic. You have three enemies to the ultimate goal of winning the game, but likewise you have three potential allies to assist you in stopping the shenanigans of whoever at your table might accomplish that goal before the rest of you. Alliances are shifting, nebulous things, but there is one underlying prerequisite: your word as your bond. Perhaps you trend towards the rules-lawyer side of things and want to have it codified explicitly what the terms of your alliances are, laid out specifically that you will give exactly this much or achieve one specific accomplishment, in return for exactly so much in return for a specified duration. Maybe all you want is a one-turn reprieve, or the negotiated resolution of a specific spell; you talk with the person who might otherwise deny you that thing, and a bargain can be struck.
Hopefully, you don't need to read a strategy article to teach you how to talk to people.
But the underlying fact has to be hammered home as part of the format: your word is your bond, and your actions and behaviors will be remembered in perpetuity and taken into account with every future interaction amongst your playgroup. Breaking your word once might be a convenient way to end the game with you the victor, but breaking your word once proves that sometimes you break your word, making it that much more difficult every time going forward from there that you enter into a negotiation, either as the one needing the minor favor or the one capable of granting it.
I'm not going to lie: some of the best stories and the hardest laughs in this format come from tales where somebody broke their word. Imagine a recalcitrant Blue mage negotiating with the White mage at the table about ousting their mutual enemy the Red mage, discussing how the turn to follow was going to come about. Said White mage has the ability to attack the Red mage to death in two turns, so long as the Safe Passage he is holding in his hand resolves when the opponent counterattacks him on his own turn. The Blue mage agrees to stay out of it until those two have settled their differences, in exchange for a similar two-turn reprieve from that player: after the game has narrowed to just the two of them, there will be two turns of set-up before they try to duke it out.
The White mage enters into this dance of death with every expectation that things will come up just as they planned, and confidently attacks his nemesis all-out, knowing that the Blue mage will not interfere and his position is rock-solid. On the next turn he'll be attacked and play Safe Passage to survive unscathed, the Blue mage will turtle up still for another turn to prepare for the coming endgame, and then he'll finish the Red mage and retrench to figure out how to beat the Blue mage.
The Red mage counterattacks, throwing just enough resources into the fray to force that Safe Passage, hoping to leave back some resources or maybe bluff a spell that will keep him alive when the White mage's turn comes about next. The Blue mage taps two Islands and casts Counterspell, watching with delight as the Red mage eliminates his so-called ally, and all because the Blue mage knew that the Red mage had no way to stop the Time Stretch in his hand while the White mage had cards like Abeyance to stop that from leading to a game win. The White mage is naturally furious, the Blue mage takes all the turns for the rest of the game, and the Red mage has no say in his fate but gets to die last instead of at the hands of the White mage.
Blue won the game, yes, but at what cost? You can say that it was foolish of the White mage to broadcast his plans for the next two turns so concretely, to let the Red mage know that he had to play around Safe Passage (what if Flaring Pain was in his hand?) and let the Blue mage know that his entire fate rested upon the resolution of a single spell. But the cost is invisible if you look at this one game and considerable when you look at the next. The White mage will undoubtedly seek reparations in future games by attacking the Blue mage whenever possible until his fury has receded, even when such a single-minded focus will cost him one or many games. The Red mage will likewise know the Blue mage will break his word over the course of games and never enter into any sort of bargaining with him, letting their cards do all of the talking.
Maybe in the next game, the Red mage will have the ability to save the Blue mage and simply decline to do so knowing that even a simple tap of the Maze of Ith will be rewarded by keeping a rival in the game who may seem thankful and promises to return the favor only to repay such kindness with treachery. Expand it beyond these two players to everyone who plays Commander as part of the group and you'll see word will spread easily. Maybe the Blue mage repeats the 'joke' as it were to get some laughs at the expense of the player who'd put all of his game upon Safe Passage resolving; maybe the Red mage tells about how the Blue mage stabbed his enemy in the back to save him from losing to the White mage. Far more likely, the White mage is incredibly angry and tells everyone he can about it, lambasting the Blue mage as a liar and a sneak, someone not to be trusted and thus not to be bargained with.
The Blue mage has broken his word, and now everybody knows.
In Commander, your word is your bond. Break your word even once and everyone you ever play with will have to weigh that against you, just like they make judgments about your capabilities the moment you reveal your Commander or keep relative track of what cards you are playing when they try to figure out just how dangerous you are anyway. Because of this, I'd rather lose than lie, and I go out of my way to speak plainly and honestly about how I think the game will unfold. Sometimes I make promises, and I always keep them, even if doing so means I no longer have any way whatsoever to win the game, even if it means forfeiting my last life point to do what I have agreed to do.
The simple fact is, when it comes to playing the game, it is better to work towards your rational self-interest than it is to behave self-destructively. It can be hard to see within the context of a single game that keeping your word and potentially losing because of it is self-interested instead of self-destructive, but the moment you look past this game to the next one too, you'll see the opportunity cost of that single lie is very steep indeed. Is winning one game worth not being trusted for the next ten games you play, and possibly losing because you couldn't really ask for help or get a favor from somebody?
This is a pretty good principle to have in life in general, as well, because it is just as true without cards in your hand as it is with them, but instead of 'winning a game of Commander' you have victory conditions like 'enter into a meaningful relationship with that cute girl you are pursuing' and 'do not go to jail for income tax fraud.' Just as a matter of principle, it is a simple truth that you benefit more from being honest than you do from lying, gain more by keeping your word than you do from breaking it. With a ninety-nine card deck in front of you, there are three judges of character whose opinions matter considerably, because their assessment of your honesty will counterbalance their opinion of you as a threat. If they feel they can at least deal fairly with you, they'll try to. If they know they can't, well, you're just an uncontrollable element and all three will perhaps seek to undermine you at least somewhat to keep you in check. They may even put you down like the mad dog you are, with the knowledge that they cannot reason with you.
When negotiating with others, then, it's reasonable to say that debts and vendettas can sometimes go longer than the course of a single game. Maybe someone kept you alive and in the game in return for an unspecified favor to be discussed later, and when they really needed that favor you didn't have the right card in hand or maybe you or he just died before the debt could be repaid. I for one don't like being in the debt of others, and so for my own use I have a little system I borrowed from White Wolf's roleplaying games that neatly applies when I think about what is fair to pay for what.
If someone goes out of their way to help you, by doing something you want them to do or which is purely beneficial to you, you can look at it in either of two ways: how impactful the favor was to your game, or just how much they had to spend to do that for you anyway. Most of the time, I won't ask for assistance unless I see death coming my way or possibly raining down upon the table as a whole, knowing that a certain deck is about to combo-kill us all if we don't stop it or maybe just really needing a certain creature to die before it proves to be the end of me. Because of this, I can always look at the favor as pretty drastic: you saved my life, so some could say my life is yours.
That's a pretty pessimistic outlook, though, and games of Commander are no fun if someone is perpetually lording something over your head. After the fourth time in a row someone threatens to kill you only to say 'do as I command instead and you will live,' I'd rather call their bluff and make them kill me. Then at least I could play my game, instead of just playing theirs, especially when they were the one trying to kill me in the first place. Perhaps it's better to be a kingmaker in a game that somebody else gets to win than it is to be dead outright, because dead mages hold out no hopes of ultimately winning the game in the end, but I tend to look at things the other way.
If it costs you hardly anything at all for your help, perhaps a tap of the Icy Manipulator that doesn't expose you to any risk of harm, you have done me a trivial favor. Without even costing an entire card to help me out, I owe you a little, but don't ask for too much in return.
If it costs you an entire card to help me out, you've done me a minor favor. I'll repay this favor by spending an entire card in return, be it using my removal spell as you request or simply guaranteeing that I will return your investment of a card by making sure you get a card back for your efforts. If that card you draw is a land, well, I'll keep trying at it until you get a spell. I have in the past even gone so far as to cast Time Warp targeting someone who has helped me before, and that's a favor well-repaid.
If it takes you several cards but you're still not risking your position in the game, that's a major favor you're doing for me, and I'll try to go to such efforts in return. Insurrection is clearly worth more than a card, and I'll play it and direct the attacks as you have specified, raining death upon our shared enemies and sparing you from all harm and returning to you what was yours, or I'll similarly spend several of my cards to your needs or go out of my way to make sure you get as many cards back for your efforts as you gave me in the first place. The finest Blue Sun's Zenith targeting my gentleman friend!
If you risk your game for me, and helping me out puts you at risk of dying alongside me or maybe even instead of me, such a favor has not been repaid until I have come to your assistance in a similar fashion. Perhaps at the end of the game, I'll let you claim it, or I'll repay the favor with similar heroic fashion to burn everything I can in your defense, even at the risk of having nothing left for my own defense.
If you die for me, well, thank you. I can't do anything to help you this game, but we'll talk in the next game.
This isn't Vampire: the Masquerade, however. Commander doesn't have a 'Harpy' who keeps track of what favors everyone owes to each other, no social conscience to keep track of which players keep their word and whom has broken it instead. This is just how I think of it for my own use, and since it may prove useful to think in such terms, I present it here. The most important thing to take away from this is the fact that I don't look at how dramatic the outcome was when someone helps me out, but instead how much they had to give up to do so. It's easy for me to owe you my life, the game of Commander can inevitably put everyone to the test and sometimes you won't have the right card to keep yourself in the game. But if all you did was tap your Maze of Ith, if you expect me to play out every card in my hand exactly as you wish and suicide myself at another player, you had better cast Mindslaver targeting me.
Vendettas work exactly the same way, but instead of tracking just how much I try and give back to you, they clarify just how much I am going to seek to take from you before I feel you have been punished enough for some transgression. If I see you play a board-locking combo kill, like tutoring up Mycosynth Lattice and March of the Machines to cripple a table as you go about figuring out how to kill them, I'll have a hefty vendetta against you the next time we play, even if you aren't playing the same deck, even if you claim to have atoned for your sins and taken the combo out of your deck. (If you can prove to me you have, though, and that they won't go back in it the next time I am not looking at you, well I'll probably keep it minor and thank you for coming over to the side of keeping things interactive instead of trying to break the game harder.)
At the local shop I currently play at, Jim Hanley's Universe in Manhattan, one of our Commander players loved his Sharuum the Hegemon deck with its combo-kill engine of Sculpting Steel and the ability to profit somehow by the infinite dance of dead legendary artifact creatures. Every time he sat down at the table with that Commander, without fail, I directed all of my actions at him and tried my best to convince the entire table to do so as well until he died a messy, ignominious death. Sometimes he still got us. Usually, not. But the moment he proved he was not trying for infinity with Sharuum and instead settled for 'really good,' we just went back to playing multiplayer Magic and the danger was forgotten as if it never occurred.
The magnitude of your vendettas can identify for you what are the just reparations held over from previous games that are appropriate. Breaking your word against me brings about the 'vendetta' of trying not to bargain with you ever again, instead letting the cards do the talking. To the extent that I suffered harm because of your actions in a previous game that seemed unjustified to me, so too will I attempt to inflict just that much harm and not a hair more in the next game we play together. If you killed me for literally no reason - perhaps you had infinite power on one creature for the turn and rolled a die to decide which player you were killing - because you didn't own your actions and explain to me why it is that I was marked for death instead of another player, I will come at you until I kill you in the following game, or perhaps instead lay a path by which we seem to be getting along just fine until suddenly you die, and the point is made when you get the sharp end of things when you didn't expect it.
Debts, then, should look at what was spent to help you, while vendettas should be determined by how much detriment was dealt to me no matter how little were spent to harm you. Looked at the other way, you can see any number of ways to claim to hold another player's life in your hands and ask for that life repaid in debt to you, or justify any gross actions that you can realistically hold against another player with 'all I did was play one card, dude.'
Another important perspective to keep in mind is that these things fade over time. We do not all keep a list of things to say 'what have you ever done for me?' and note that you owe six cards to Bobby, the use of a Strip Mine to Sheldon's benefit, and a tactical counterspell to Michael for that time he saved your bacon. The question should instead be "what have you done for me lately?" and slowly but surely tick down over time, not just as favors are repaid but also as more games are played out. I keep a list of these things in my head as we play Commander week after week, and every week we play, everything ticks down a notch. Sure, you died instead of me two weeks ago, but that was two weeks ago, I'll give you a fresh hand or spend a couple of cards to keep people off your back, but I won't sacrifice my game on your say-so. Vendettas work similarly: if you haven't gotten your revenge quickly, it shouldn't be left to simmer over time. As a matter of course, people should be able to earn your forgiveness, and a month after you got stabbed in the back by somebody is a little long to hold a grudge by going at them right out of the gate just because.
Just Because It Can Be Broken, Doesn't Mean It Should
Commander has its limitations, and on top of the Banned List they include the highlander nature of the format and occasionally card expense. I'd really love a Mana Drain for the new Memnarch deck I am working on, but these things are expensive and it's probably never going to pan out. But with over ten thousand cards to choose from, and only a hundred you get to play with, you have some selecting to do. The first step is picking your Commander. Some people leave this until last, preferring instead to pick which colors they want to play and working on a theme and then seeing which Commander works best for their deck. Since the Commander is the one card you can always guarantee you'll have access to in your starting hand, I think it makes the most sense to pick it first and let that choice inform every other decision you make.
With ninety-nine problems left to figure out, the broad and massive question of play style comes into the equation, to figure out what you can do and whether you should do it. I've seen plenty of Commander decks that are just an assortment of two-card combo engines and as many Tutors as they could jam into their deck, figuring that any one piece plus a tutor can equal a table kill and that sometimes you'll just draw two halves that go together. This is a valid decision, but it is not necessarily a wise one.
The simple fact of the matter is, Commander as a social game is played for a grander purpose than simply the winning of the game. On an evening in which I am sitting down to play Commander and have fun with a big highlander deck in front of me, I could just as easily be spending the night with my girlfriend and having a good time. She's adorable and a lot of fun, and we could snuggle up and watch MythBusters or Netflix all we want, so there is a pretty high bar to clear when I've sat down at the table and decided this is how I want to spend my evening. This is the true cost of my time that evening, not the five-dollar entry fee to go towards the modest prize we usually play for, nor the cost of transit to get me from my home on Long Island into New York City. I pay more in gas alone than I do to enter our Commander games, so the plan when I sit down for a game of Commander is that the game I've come to play satisfies the emotional desires I had come to the table with.
This cost is common to all of us, I'd like to think. Commander began as a grassroots movement intended towards promoting fun, a format meant to be a casual but enjoyable romp through a world where interesting things happen and the game swings back and forth frequently. Sure, an entry fee may or may not be paid every time you sit down at the shop to play an 'official' game of Commander. We play a game for five dollars to the store, and a pack in prize for each player at your table... but we also usually play a couple more games after that one, until they kick us out, and both the paying game and the free games that follow are equally satisfying. But no cost of entry you're likely to find is going to top a night of your life as the sunk cost you're investing, and for those of us who put a high price on the time in our life and don't want to spend it poorly, there is the concept of the social contract: to resist the lure of the tournament Spike, and instead chase the paths of Timmy and Johnny as we explore the game for its experiences rather than just jam as hard as we can at trying to win it.
Winning is the ultimate goal in Commander sort of like how dying is the ultimate goal in your life. Yes, in the end, someone wins the game, and in the end everybody dies. In Magic you can defy this somewhat by drawing the game with an Earthquake, but in life that inevitable end-game has no known outs, not even sticking your head in a vat of liquid nitrogen (sorry, Walt Disney). The point of the thing is not to look at the termination of a good time and say about that very last moment 'this was the purpose,' but instead to have as good a time as you can in the time we have together. With cards in our hand, we're not exactly enemies and we're definitely not friends, but sometimes we will be both of things as we duke it out in simulated warfare using the cardboard crack we know and love.
A game in which nobody has fun, not even the winner, is a terrible experience. If winning the game doesn't drag you out of the depressing doldrums of the combo-kill engine, and clearly nobody else had fun, the simple fact of the matter is that your time has been wasted. Maybe you could've stayed home, sat on the couch and watched Dancing with the Stars that night and had a better time... but as valid as a 'griefer' strategy or a combo kill is as 'something which is contained within the boundaries of Commander,' at the end of the day you didn't have fun, you wrecked three other people's fun too, and all you have to show for it is a draft set. To some people, the expected value of their time is so low that this can sound like a good deal for an evening. To most of the rest of the people who look to Commander as their social outlet for fun, 'their' format to enjoy because the games are laid-back, interesting, and ultimately noncompetitive, you kicked their puppy.
When I ask myself 'how much fun can I have while I still have pants on,' watching a Commander combo deck go off and putting my head down on the table for fifteen minutes before finding out I'm dead was not the number one answer.
So the reason for the Banned List we are pointing towards as we figure out what is going on is not to say 'these things are not allowed, but literally everything else is acceptable' so much as it is to say 'there is no good things that ever come from playing these, explore something else instead.' This is why the Banned List includes Sway of the Stars but not Yawgmoth's Will, despite the fact that Yawgmoth's Will has a near 100% correlation with winning the game in Vintage and most of the same cards are legal in Commander. Sway of the Stars forces a non-interactive game state where one person clearly ends up the winner, while Yawgmoth's Will can still be easily interacted with beyond the simple concept of 'counterspell or die.'
The simple truth of the matter is that it would be unreasonable to ban every two-card combo that is possible in Commander. Even if you could ban them all, there would eventually be more of them, or maybe three-card combos would be sufficient to make combo decks still viable. The hunt for viable two-card combos is never-ending in a game as large as Magic: the Gathering when you have access to almost every card ever printed. The banning has to go on inside of a player's head, not on the piece of paper in front of him, and maybe a banning doesn't even need to happen at all. If everyone's happy with you playing that way, go for it. If they aren't, they'll let you know, whether by killing you first, refusing to play with you, or simply pretending you don't exist anymore the moment you go and combo off, ignoring your declaration of victory by pretending you just said 'go' and no longer exist.
With the idea that interactivity is key, that it is the thing that makes Commander fair, most people who play Commander have the reasonable expectation that they are going to get to play interactive Magic rather than watch other people play non-interactive Magic. The multiplayer format and the long memory of the playgroup both go a long way towards balancing the format towards whatever the group as a whole agrees it wants to play. Maybe you and your friends like nothing more than to go at it with combo decks. By all means, go right ahead. Remember how I said Commander players don't want to let someone else tell them what's right and what's wrong when they're having fun playing the game they want to play it? Some jerk on the Internet is included in the subset of 'someone else trying to tell them what to do,' even if they like the cut of his jib. If that's what you want to do, go at it... but please tell everyone who doesn't already know that implicitly before they sit down at the table with you, before giving them the rude and abrupt exit from the game because their 'fair' deck can't compete with three broken ones.
And so the two keys to the format, in my mind, are interactivity and self-restraint. Self-restraint can be taught as a tool that allows you to sneak under the radar when others are clearly doing more broken things: if you have no instant-kill combo that can wipe out individual players or even an entire table, you don't have to be the first to die. It is the means by which you color within the lines of the social contract of the format, whatever that happens to be amongst your local group of players. There is a vision coming down overall as to approximately what this means, a game that is fun and interactive where players as a whole get to play the cards they draw instead of getting locked out of the game or insta-killed by redundant backup combo #12 that happens to be the kill mechanism the combo deck drew this game. When everyone is on the same page, a lot of fun is had. But it's better to know the moving parts of the format, so we're going to look at the interactive and non-interactive parts of the format as a whole to see how it can inform your deckbuilding choices.
An important reminder: murder is an interaction. If everyone wants to play the game one way and you're the odd man out with an infinite combo deck, all they have to do is dog-pile you every game until you stop, and most of those games they'll get to play how they want once the dissenting opinion has been accounted for.
There are a few interesting things you can do in this format that are really devilishly hard for other players to work around. Almost everything, but not quite exactly everything, has a possible counter-move, but even in this intricate dance of questions and answers things break down and 'best questions' can be asked. After all, with such a limited scope of cards that can interact with some of the non-interactive aspects, even if they have it in their deck they might easily not have it in their hand, and there are entire colors of Magic that are valid choices for a Commander deck that can't interact with entire classes of effects.
The first, most difficult thing to interact with is a spell on the stack. Unless you're Blue, for the most part you can't expect to be able to interact meaningfully with a spell that is on the stack. Black can try out its incredibly limited countermagic suite of Dash Hopes, Withering Boon, and Imp's Mischief if choosing a new target would be sufficient. Red can answer blue or targeted spells with some ease, but otherwise has to rely on the pretty-terrible Mage's Contest for all its countermagic needs. White has access to Lapse of Reason, maybe Illumination or Dawn Charm or Rebuff the Wicked if it happens to be a spell that falls within their purview, or Mana Tithe if you think that is going to ever work. Green is much better at preventing a spell from being countered than it is at removing a spell from the stack, and really has to rely on the fact that whatever the opponent wants to do, he gets to do.
There are some real problem spells. The biggest of haymakers, stuff like Insurrection, can kill an entire table out of nowhere, doesn't care how many blockers you left untapped to defend yourself, and even if somebody does have a Fog effect to keep people from dying you can still severely mistreat their permanents while they are under your control. Barring countermagic or discard, Sprout Swarm will slowly but surely grow out of control, and any other spell with Buyback is similarly difficult to answer. Each of them does something different, if you want to interact with it outside of pure countermagic, and some spells you can forestall but not even stop with your 'answers'. Corpse Dance, for example, can be stopped for a turn with judicious graveyard hate, but the next time they have managed to get a worthwhile creature into the graveyard it goes right back to being a problem again.
Worse yet, some spells don't even let you counter them. There are cards you don't even cast to get major effects; I've won my fair share of games off of cycling Decree of Justice in my day, and blown out a few opponents by cycling Decree of Pain. These may not be spells but they do at least give the opponent priority with the ability to put a spell on the stack; split second cards do not, and force non-interactive Magic at a critical time that can be used as the major tactic in defeating even the best-prepared opponent. More than one cycled Decree of Pain has been followed with Sudden Spoiling for the unanswerable blowout, given that the cycled Decree kills Willbender-morphs dead to begin with.
Some spells you can counter, but they don't even care. My favorite of these types is Recover spells, and I have countered more than my fair share of spells with Controvert and built an entire deck more-or-less around the fact that Grim Harvest is an almost-unanswerable card for grinding out slow card advantage in a Rock-like deck. I like some of these cards and hate others: Grim Harvest makes me a happy man, Controvert makes me feel like I am a jerk when I cast it for the fourth or fifth time, and if Icefall ever happens over and over again targeting someone's lands, I'm pretty sure the rules text of the card says you get to kick them in the nards. Similarly, suspend spells that do something as they tick down are very powerful, and devilishly impossible to interact with. Detritivore earns you enemies, and Aeon Chronicler should be watched very nervously when X is large.
There are things you can do, however, to handle a spell you can't touch. Even a spell you can't interact with can be managed by picking the time and place where it needs to be used; a Sudden Spoiling used just to survive is a very different animal than a Sudden Spoiling used at the time of their choosing and with as much preparation as they could ask for. Spells cost mana, after all, repetitive effects even moreso than mundane spells, and a beatdown approach to the game can rush a big-spell deck before they are ready and thus before that card, whatever it is, is a problem to you.
The best way I know of to work against a spell without using discard or countermagic is to be aware of its existence, absolutely and with certainty, before it is cast rather than after. Teamwork, after all, can answer a mutual threat far better than trying to answer it all on your lonesome can, and if you can prove the problem is there then the conversation of how you solve the problem can be worked towards. The humblest card I know for this purpose is the simple Scrying Glass, which happens to also provide card advantage by letting you draw an additional card most turns if you know what's going on already. Reveal a massive problem to the other two players and enlist them as allies and most problems can be smooshed out of existence or forestalled by some other means. A big Living Death is great, but it's not even good anymore when somebody sees it coming and tutors up Relic of Progenitus.
The cards that are the best for interacting with spells either stop recursion (exiling cards in the graveyard, for example), counterspell or force the discard of the offending problem, or gain information about what is to come in order to formulate an alliance by means of which the problem can be surmounted. On top of these polite and perfectly socially acceptable means, you can also go for the cruel and badly-received answers: Winter Orb to choke the mana that the spell is relying on, or Armageddon to destroy that mana outright, or maybe simply Dust Bowl used every turn to keep that player bottlenecked. Most Commander players take it very badly indeed when you cast Armageddon, but it's better to be alive with no lands than dead to a large Mind's Desire, so you take your lumps and move on with the game. Several of my decks have a Dust Bowl with the caveat that I will use it very sparingly in most games, but every once in a while I sacrifice a land every turn (and with it a good chunk of my position in the game) just to keep that guy from doing something completely unfair.
There are, in fact, times when it is a good idea to be rude and cast Armageddon. It's not a card I'd include in my deck as a matter of course, but plenty of people carry a few extra cards with them to switch into their deck if they think they'll need them, and bringing in an Armageddon when you suspect you'll have to face a combo deck at your table can bring them crashing to a halt just long enough to finish killing them with the creatures in play. You're not going to be the most popular guy at that table, but you hopefully won't be the least popular either, and with that over and done already the non-combo no-Armageddon game can progress from there. If everyone would rather play the game with a reasonable amount of lands again, well, it's perfectly within everyone's capability to agree on a detente until each player has at least four lands again, or whatever suits the table.
You can of course push this past the point of interaction and into the non-interactive. There isn't much you can do about an Obliterate after all, besides handle it in the above-stated fashions to deny a big spell from happening at an inopportune moment, but Obliterate is made even worse than a mere Jokulhaups due to that pesky 'uncounterable' clause. That's about the furthest you can push things without deserving to be killed by an entire table for it, and you can go further still: silly two-card combos like Mycosynth Lattice + March of the Machines can destroy all lands in play and the hope of ever playing any more, and Land Equilibrium + a sacrifice outlet can ensure that no one ever gets to meaningfully play another land for the entire game. Locks usually require two cards, the shakiest ones take three or more, and these locks only actually lock things up once both pieces are in play.
Interactivity can be restored by killing the first piece before the second can arrive, though sometimes this is easier said than done. After all, Arcum Dagsson can turn any artifact creature into Mycosynth Lattice, which turns each creature (including Arcum) into an artifact for the next usage and we're one four-mana enchantment away from never controlling lands ever again. The window of opportunity here can be narrow indeed, the span of time between the preceding player's end of turn step and the lock player's next turn, so instant speed removal can be very key to have in some quantity in your deck. Flexible removal able to answer a wide class of permanents is very good, but most people can kill a creature with ease and few creatures contribute to these sorts of locks, so you really need to be able to focus on artifacts and enchantments as these are the types of permanents that can be used to create a locked board. Even a color that can't interact with an enchantment normally can play Oblivion Stone, so building with the thought in mind that you may need to call upon this ability in most games is worth doing as you design your deck.
Another cute trick, if you're not the fastest beatdown deck but somebody on your 'team' is, would be the well-aimed Time Warp. People all too often see Time Warp in a deck and assume you're planning on comboing out, chaining that Time Warp into a good enough position to get to Time Stretch before anyone can stop you, then figuring out the win from there. More than once, however, said Time Warp has targeted the guy who played a creature at every point of his mana curve, just to get another attack in before the combo fired off. Everything is all about context, and even the most negative things in Commander can sometimes have a context that is acceptable and fair. The key is whether they are played that way, or played to stifle interaction.
Some 'big spells' are actually creatures. As I discussed last week, the most powerful mechanism for killing interaction in the game is Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir. Teferi sets the game to 'what is in play, and only what is in play' the moment he comes down, and can give the Blue mage who recruits him an entire turn without opponents getting to do anything to stop him. Because of this, permanents that are already in play can be very valuable against Teferi: no Mage of Zhalfir likes to see a Mouth of Ronom in play, so the choice of Snow lands for your basics and that Expedition Map you were probably playing anyway is a good way to build a little insurance against Teferi showing up right into your untapped mana. Mass-removal permanents like Oblivion Stone are good against Teferi for the obvious reason as well, and since they work so well against opponents' non-interactive strategies (be they locking you out of the game entirely, or just for a turn) I find I include them even in my highly-aggressive beatdown decks simply because I'd rather have the mass sweeper than have to rely on an imperfect answer to the situation that happened to have come up.
Answers to Teferi that aren't permanents sitting in play already are good, but they are few and far between and require either advanced setup or a really narrow list of cards. Removal spells in play waiting for the right use, like an Executioner's Capsule or the omnipresent O-Stone, ward off the worst of problems, but the controller of Teferi can see them coming and seek to negate them before committing Teferi to the board. There are some surprising answers to the problem, however. Gather Specimens is a laugh and a half, allowing Teferi to resolve but cutting his owner off from instant-speed interaction himself, even to protect his own spells on his own turn. And the biggest of surprises can come from the Channel ability and some peculiar cycling cards. Jiwari, the Earth Aflame may not look like it's the most efficient Earthquake in the world, but the first time you use him to rock Teferi's world you'll forgive him for being slow, expensive, and otherwise generally bad. Resounding Wave and Resounding Thunder are completely inefficient cards for their cost, but do get around the pesky 'Teferi is in play' problem and can give the table a window of opportunity to interact again.
Teferi is not the only man who exists to cripple the ability of a large number of opponents to interact with your game. Dosan of the Fallen Leaf is very similar, casting City of Solitude on legs, but as a creature without Flash (and let's face it, a Green creature instead of a creature the same color as Time Stretch) he tends to be comparatively fair. Possibly even more powerful than Teferi, however, the second guy on the list is pretty impressive: the mighty Myojin of Night's Reach. Teferi kills interactivity on your next turn for a one-turn window, which is admittedly just enough if you time things just right. Black Myojin, however, kills interactivity by nuking each opponent's hand back to the Stone Age, making it a much clearer means of gaining an advantage: dead spells cannot be cast, after all, and an empty hand was described in Part One last week as the surest way of diagnosing who was going to be the next to die.
Myojin of Night's Reach thankfully has a few ways in which he is worse than Teferi. Like Dosan, he's not playable as an Instant, nor is he the same color as Time Stretch, helping to keep him fair by comparison. He's also considerably more expensive, making him much harder to cast and protect, and he has the additional requirement of having to come from your hand in order to do the job. As often as I've cast a Teferi from my hand, I've also brought it into play with Chord of Calling or some other cheat mechanism that tutored for it and deposited him directly onto the battlefield, and none of these sorts of things work with Myojin of Night's Reach. Myojin even has the ignominious handicap of not doing his job when cast from the Command Zone - Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir is a dangerous Commander who needs to be respected or contained, while Myojin of Nights Reach as a Commander is paying far, far too much to give +1/+0 to a Giant Cockroach.
If the choke point of the format is the opponent trying to deprive you of the ability to interact, as it essentially is when boiled down by hard locks or a non-interactive sequence starting with Teferi or Myojin of Night's Reach, building your deck to interact as meaningfully as possible is an important thing to do. The speed of the cards you choose is therefore very important - if you don't have access to an instant worth casting, you had better be playing some impressive sorceries if you don't want to just get steamrolled as soon as you've passed the turn. Permanents that sit in play are great to have but terrible to rely upon, because that exact same class of cards you're hoping to use to break up a combo can be used against your combo-breakers: you live by the Oblivion Stone, and you can die by the Oblivion Stone too. (Many an Oblivion Stone has started its life by putting a fate counter on itself.)
There are more ways that simply deck design to favor building interactivity. I don't want to tell you that you can't play sorceries because sorceries are bad. Clearly this is not true, but everything would be better if it were also an instant. Some players swear by Vedalken Orrery for exactly this reason: you can't be deprived of the ability to interact very easily when you can play any spell at any time, and what you gain for this ability to pick the absolute ideal moment for each card in your hand is easily worth the investment of four mana and a card in an earlier turn of the game. The problem with this idea to my mind is the fact that like every other artifact or enchantment, it may have to face multiple board wipes in a single game, as sweepers like Akroma's Vengeance and Oblivion Stone are good catch-all answers to almost every problem in the book.
Allow me then to introduce my candidate for the second card that should go in every Commander deck: Winding Canyons. Unless you are playing a deck with practically no creatures, or somehow have conspired to only play creatures with Flash, Winding Canyons allows you to gain interactivity by removing the requirement to advance your board on your own turn. Sensei's Divining Top clearly goes in every deck simply because it is a catchall cheap card filtration effect that replaces itself as necessary and can become invisible if your draw requires it. But the fact of the matter is this: I have built at least one deck without Sol Ring because I didn't have very many ways to make use of the extra colorless mana, with all of my spells so color-rich that only a handful used more than one colorless on top of the colored component of the spells and creatures. I have built zero decks without Winding Canyons, having found that it builds so much more interactivity into your later turns that the added resilience is well worth the inclusion.
Changing the speed at which you are capable of making plays allows you to be significantly more responsive to the players who might otherwise try to close the door on interactivity and kill everybody in the room. To some degree, this should be done during deckbuilding - if you can realistically favor an instant to do the same job as a sorcery is currently doing, it's worth keeping in mind that the extra flexibility will pay off in a few games. I've found it can be even more potent to use non-interactive tactics to argue with an opponent who is trying to be non-interactive. Krosan Grip is so powerful in this format because it is an answer that doesn't care what your opponent has to say about it, Word of Seizing can solve all sorts of problems, and even Wipe Away is worth considering if you expect people in your group are going to try and play by degenerate means.
It's powerful to expose the tactics of an opponent, play the teamwork card, or even try and convince them to play Commander the way you prefer to play Commander. These sorts of negotiations however can break down, and then you need to enter aggressive negotiations, i.e. with a lightsaber in your hand, or 'actually breaking up their combo and not letting them stop you.' Split Second is incredibly potent in Commander - for each opponent who could have had a response but now doesn't, that card is now just that much better than its non-split-second counterpart. Split Second on a win condition is a very rough way to end the game, but thankfully that's just Molten Disaster and this can be prevented by keeping your life totals higher than the mana available or at least above the life total of whoever has the card. Split Second is the most powerful way to stop anything short of Teferi, but even more powerful than split second is the gaining of information, table talk, and the formation of alliances: attacking and killing players who have the audacity to win the game by putting Teferi into play is the most powerful way to stop Teferi himself.