seanblacksheep

 

I have failed as an author.  Writing for me is about entertaining the few readers I have and helping players have a better experience in Commander by giving them the information they need to improve decks – and hopefully their play experiences.  In that vein, my thought was that I would offer deck advice to anyone who asked me for it, and break it all down in my articles.

Giving people advice is very rewarding, and I walked away from each encounter feeling accomplished. 

The problem is that I was only ever giving temporary help.  Instead of teaching someone to fish, I was simply giving them a fish.  This meant that whenever they needed to improve another deck or update the deck I’d helped with, they were back at square one – they had never learned to fend for themselves.  Individual deck advice added with the information I’ve included in articles was simply not enough for many readers to develop enough as Commander players to take care of themselves – let alone become mentors within their own communities.

To rectify the situation once and for all, I’ll show you how I personally go about looking at decks, and how I find the cards that I suggest as additions.

THE KHER KEEP

One of my local friends recently posted a deck he wanted advice on, so I’ll use it as an example just as it was presented to me.  My friend wants the deck to be a Prossh, Skyraider of Kher-focused deck that is dragon-themed.

The functional goals are threefold: make it more competitive to match his meta, keep it dragon themed, and make sure there is a reason Prossh is the Commander.

[Deck Title=Starting Deck]
[Commander]
Prossh, Skyraider of Kher[/Commander]
[Lands]
Dryad Arbor
Savage Lands
Opal Palace
Windswept Heath
Temple of the False God
Darigaaz’s Caldera
Golgari Rot Farm
Gruul Turf
Rakdos Carnarium
Temple of Abandon
Bojuka Bog
Mortuary Mire
Mosswort Bridge
Spinerock Knoll
Vivid Crag
Vivid Grove
Vivid Marsh
Fertile Thicket
Bloodstained Mire
Wooded Foothills
4 Swamp
6 Forest
6 Mountain
Command Tower[/Lands]
[Ramp]
Wayfarer’s Bauble
Cultivate
Explosive Vegetation
Kodama’s Reach
Seething Song
Mana Geyser
Sol Ring
Ashnod’s Altar
Skyshroud Claim
Gruul Signet
Rakdos Signet
Everflowing Chalice
Commander’s Sphere
Yavimaya Elder
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Beastcaller Savant
Lifespring Druid
Shaman of Forgotten Ways[/Ramp]
[Tutor]
Sarkhan’s Triumph
Signal the Clans
Increasing Ambition
Diabolic Tutor
Genesis Hydra
Fierce Empath
Seek the Wilds[/Tutor]
[Card Draw]
Fecundity
Underworld Connections[/Card Draw]
[Dragons]
Deathbringer Regent
Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury
Steel Hellkite
Boltwing Marauder
Warmonger Hellkite
Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund
Moonveil Dragon
Dragon Broodmother
Ryusei, the Falling Star
Jugan the Rising Star
Kokusho, the Evening Star
Hellkite Charger
Atarka, World Render
Savage Ventmaw
Tyrant’s Familiar
Broodmate Dragon
Hoard-Smelter Dragon[/Dragons]
[Instants]
Darigaaz’s Charm
Putrefy
Last-Ditch Effort
Hit // Run
Volcanic Offering
Relic Crush[/Instants]
[Sorcery]
Decimate
Plow Under
Void
Vandalblast[/Sorcery]
[Enchantments]
Flameshadow Conjuring
Sadistic Glee
Parallel Lives
Beastmaster Ascension
Shared Animosity
Dictate of Erebos
Goblin Bombardment
Vicious Shadows[/Enchantments]
[/Deck]

Let’s get to it.

1. Separate the cards in the deck by function

I won’t go into how good the deck is to start, because if you are looking at a deck of your own (or someone comes to you with a deck looking for advice), the goal should always be to make it better somehow – so I dive right in.

The first thing I do is break the deck into generic categories.  The categories have little to nothing to do with card types, and more to do with function:

  1. Mana ramp and fixing
  2. Control of any kind – it can be mass removal, spot removal, non-creature removal, control magics, or counterspells.
  3. Tutors, cards that let you look at and rearrange the cards in your library, and draw cards.
  4. Cards that interact with the graveyard in some way. This can be cards that return things from the graveyard, remove cards from the graveyard, shuffle cards from graveyards into the library, copy abilities from cards in the graveyard, or return cards from the graveyard to the battlefield.
  5. Lands
  6. Cards that are part of the theme of the deck. You could call these the ‘win conditions’ of the deck.  Note: If a card fits one of the first five categories and is on theme, I arrange it with the first four categories.
  7. Cards that don’t fit into any of the above categories. These cards could also be called win conditions, but they don’t go along with the rest of the strategy of the deck.  These cards usually evoke a “What is this supposed to do for you?” response.

Going to our example deck, when we look through the deck now looks a little different.

[Deck Title=Reorganized]
[Commander]
Prossh, Skyraider of Kher[/Commander]
[Ramp and Mana Fixing]
Wayfarer’s Bauble
Cultivate
Explosive Vegetation
Kodama’s Reach
Seething Song
Mana Geyser
Sol Ring
Ashnod’s Altar
Skyshroud Claim
Gruul Signet
Rakdos Signet
Everflowing Chalice
Commander’s Sphere
Yavimaya Elder
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Beastcaller Savant
Lifespring Druid
Shaman of Forgotten Ways
Savage Ventmaw[/Ramp and Mana Fixing]
[Control]
Deathbringer Regent
Steel Hellkite
Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund
Ryusei, the Falling Star
Tyrant’s Familiar
Hoard-Smelter Dragon
Putrefy
Last-Ditch Effort
Hit // Run
Volcanic Offering
Relic Crush
Decimate
Plow Under
Void
Vandalblast
Dictate of Erebos
Goblin Bombardment[/Control]
[Library Manipulation]
Sarkhan’s Triumph
Signal the Clans
Increasing Ambition
Diabolic Tutor
Genesis Hydra
Fierce Empath
Seek the Wilds
Fecundity
Underworld Connections[/Library Manipulation]
[Graveyard]
Darigaaz’s Charm[/Graveyard]
[Lands]
Dryad Arbor
Savage Lands
Opal Palace
Windswept Heath
Temple of the False God
Darigaaz’s Caldera
Golgari Rot Farm
Gruul Turf
Rakdos Carnarium
Temple of Abandon
Bojuka Bog
Mortuary Mire
Mosswort Bridge
Spinerock Knoll
Vivid Crag
Vivid Grove
Vivid Marsh
Fertile Thicket
Bloodstained Mire
Wooded Foothills
4 Swamp
6 Forest
6 Mountain
Command Tower[/Lands]
[Theme]
Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury
Boltwing Marauder
Warmonger Hellkite
Moonveil Dragon
Dragon Broodmother
Jugan, the Rising Star
Kokusho, the Evening Star
Hellkite Charger
Atarka, World Render
Broodmate Dragon
Shared Animosity[/Theme]
[What is this doing here?]
Flameshadow Conjuring
Sadistic Glee
Parallel Lives
Beastmaster Ascension
Vicious Shadows[/What is this doing here?]
[/Deck]

 

2. Look at the number of cards in each category

Mana ramp and fixing should be around 7-16 cards unless you have extenuating circumstances, such as the deck being very low CMC or being a high-end ramp deck.  If you have cards that fit into multiple categories, you want to put them in the category that has the most space in your deck.  A card like Haven of the Spirit Dragon could be seen as both a land and recursion; you want to count it as a land (to keep your land count at 37-40) rather than count it as recursion, so that you can increase the odds of drawing recursion while not over-saturating your deck with lands.

It is beneficial to have a more evenly-balanced deck, so by increasing the presence of the smaller categories, you level the load of utility.  In the case of this deck, the number is a little high:

 

CD 1 CD 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CONTROL:

For control cards in Commander…well, there is almost no such thing as too many.  This category can be be broken down further into the following: creature control, non-creature control, and counterspells;  The color identity of the deck is typically what will determine that breakdown.

If it’s ever under seven cards, there is a serious problem with the deck.  Control cards are the last type I’ll ever remove from a deck, unless they are really bad and don’t fit the theme at all; looking at this deck, the numbers here seem fine on first glance.

CARD ADVANTAGE:

The total number of cards that let you tutor, draw, or otherwise gain access to cards outside your hand should be proportional to the amount of mana ramp and fixing you include.  Mana fixing is essentially a necessary evil in Commander decks; the ramp itself rarely does anything, but decks need it to keep up with the speed and consistency of opponents.  Since you play a fair number of cards that aren’t helping you progress toward victory, you need a way to gain access to more cards and refill on threats to keep pressure on your opponents while still achieving all of this.

Looking at this deck, the ratio is a bit off and it looks like we will need some more card draw.

GRAVEYARD HATE/RECURSION:

For cards that interact with graveyards, you want to make sure you have a minimum of three to four cards.  Cards that affect the graveyard really go into either control or card advantage, but you want to separate them out to make sure you have some actual interaction there before combining them with their parent categories.

The minimum dictates that you should always have at least two cards that remove things from opponent’s graveyards, and at least two cards that can bring things back from your own.  You might only have three cards slotted if your recursion could also be used to steal form an opponent’s yard, like Diluvian Primordial or Rise of the Dark Realms

QUESTION MARKS:

For cards that fall into the “What is this doing here?” category…you want zero of these cards in the deck.

While some of these cards are powerful and potentially game ending, like Blightsteel Colossus and Insurrection, they can actually bring down your deck as a whole.  Aside from distracting you from a fun theme, they are still only as powerful as the text printed on them.  This means they are as powerful for your opponents as they are for you, and become prime targets to get stolen and used against you.  If someone casts Knowledge Exploitation and you have a Rise of the Dark Realms in your deck, there is a good chance you just lost the game; if the best equivalent card in your deck instead is Patriarch’s Bidding, you have little to worry about.

Wasting a slot on a card that isn’t on theme means the deck includes one less card that adds to your synergy.  When building on theme, the overall power of your deck is dependent on how many cards you can get to work together – and how well they effectively accomplish that.  In this case, a card like Blightsteel Colossus would be taking the place of another dragon that works with cards like Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury and Shared Animosity; while the Colossus can possibly take out one player a turn, the combination of Prossh+Kolaghan+random dragons can take out a table.

 

3. Determine the Strength of Cards for Each Function

After we identify the basic needs of a deck, we need to go through and organize cards so that we can prioritize which cards we can comfortably swap out.  To do this, we need to understand what really makes cards good in each category.

After I separate cards into the three general groups, I then rank them within that group: cards within a group that are on theme, cards within a theme that are excellent at what they do, and cards that aren’t excellent at what they do or are not on theme, with the latter being the ones that we want to try to remove.  (Depending on your theme, it may not always be possible to remove the cards from the third category.)  You still want to pay attention to the overall numbers in each category to maintain balance as detailed above while you remove and replace – keep that in mind.

For this deck, we still haven’t removed any cards yet – we are still presorting before we look for cards to add to the deck.

MANA RAMP/FIXING:

Mana ramp and fixing has one test to determine if a card is excellent – does it produce more mana (or allow you to play more lands) than the mana cost? Sol Ring, Boundless Realms, Exploration, and Crypt Ghast are all examples of great cards; Mind Stone, Explosive Vegatation, Explore, and Liliana’s Spectre are all similar examples of cards that are all fine, but aren’t top tier.  You’d look to replace the second group if they weren’t on theme, while you would only replace the first group if your theme had ramp that was all excellent.

For example, it’s hard to imagine decks without Sol Ring, but if you look at a tribe like elves that have Llanowar Elf, Joraga Treespeaker, Heritage Druid, Bloomtender, Elvish Archdruid, Elvish Mystic, Fyndhorn Elves, Priest of Titania, Wirewood Channeler – and several more that produce equal to or more than their CMC themselves – you may not need Sol Ring anymore.

If you are trying to decide between two similar cards that you want to cut, cards that get lands are generically better than cards that need to be in play to produce mana.  If you needed to choose between Worn Powerstone and Cultivate, Cultivate would be the better card in most decks; mana rocks are frequent collateral damage to things like Bane of Progress.

CONTROL:

Excellent control cards fall into three generic groups:

  1. Cost 3 or less and instant speed
  2. Mass (or high impact) removal
  3. Continuous effects.

For instant speed removal, you want to have it be as cheap as possible.  Cheap removal allows you to still progress your plan while keeping mana open for control.  If your removal gets too expensive, you are effectively forfeiting your turns to try and police the board.  (Note that decks with themes that allow you to cast things at instant speed or act in other players’ turns can ignore that limitation.)  Mass removal is how you wipe the slate clean and should be pretty obvious, and the continuous effects are how you keep it under control without impacting your available mana resources much – think Torpor Orb for example.

CARD ADVANTAGE:

Looking at tutors, draw spells, and other ways to gain access to additional cards is a little more complicated when trying to determine what is truly exceptional and what is simply ordinary.

Tutors that cost three or less are always exceptional. Examples of this are Stoneforge Mystic, Vampiric Tutor, and Sarkhan’s Triumph.  Cards that let you draw additional cards on a regular basis are also fantastic; These are cards like Consecrated Sphinx, Necropotence, and Garruk’s Packleader.

Any card that lets you take an additional turn (where you don’t lose the game – hello Final Fortune!) is excellent.  Any card that tutors permanents into play or lets you cast what you tutored for without paying mana is also excellent – these are cards like Tooth and Nail, Dragonstorm, and Bribery. Any spell that can completely refill your hand is excellent, such as Wheel of Fortune

Finally, any X spell that has to do with gaining card advantage is excellent.  These are cards like Blue Sun’s Zenith, Genesis Wave, and Epic Experiment.

GRAVEYARD:

Graveyard cards are pretty simple; anything that repeatedly affects the graveyard or affects the graveyard en masse is excellent.  The individual target spells are not quite as good.  Repeated effects are things like Leyline of the Void and Debtors’ Knell.  Mass effects are cards like Rise of the Dark Realms and Tormod’s Crypt.

THE REST:

Anything left is judged by how well it aligns with the theme of the deck, and how quickly they can help win the game.  Anything that synergistically interacts with either the commander, two or more cards in the deck that can be used to win within two turns, or seven-or-more cards in the deck in general are going to be worth it.  If a card doesn’t interact with enough cards and doesn’t just win within four turns, it can be replaced by the any cards you find while looking to improve the deck.

Next Time

In the next article, we will go over the techniques for finding the actual cards needed make these improvements.  We’ll put two and two together to combine the knowledge of how to organize and valuate cards, and how to find the best cards for the deck and the strategy going forward.

-STP
@swordstoplow