Commander is a format where the odds are always against you. Like Dwight learned from the Spartans, sometimes you can beat the odds by a careful choice of where to fight; where to fight counts for a lot. Setting up board states that tilt in your favor increases your effectiveness in Commander. Many times this happens without other players ever realizing it.
Edric, Spymaster of Trest gives us a clear example of how this works. The deck lets everyone draw extra cards, while it draws the most cards and is setup to take advantage of always having a full grip by play low mana curve control. Edric decks have dominated several meta-games. It’s not because Edric is that broken. It’s because learning that drawing those extra cards isn’t worth playing on the Simic deck’s terms is a slow process.
You don’t want to be on the side of the table learning how to deal with a deck. You want to be the deck that forces everyone to operate on your terms. Before you can do this, you need a well-defined deck that has specific strategies. Good stuff are not this. They work best out on an open plane and can only derive limited benefits from corralling players into playing a specific way. For the rest of the decks, (the decks that are actually good instead of being made of good stuff) the more specific your strategy is, the more reshaping the world can help you.
You need to define at least five aspects of your deck to be able to start warping the world around it.
- Win Condition: What does your deck want to do to win? Commander damage, combo kill, aggro, poison, mill, ect.
- Card Types: Are you playing mostly with artifacts, enchantments, creatures, non-permanents, planeswalkers, tokens, tribal, flyers, or what ?
- Mana Curve: Does everything you play cost a ton of mana, middle of the road, or do you have a low curve?
- Stack Interaction: Do you play things at instant speed or sorcery speed?
- Graveyard: Are you using your graveyard as a place you can easily grab cards or not?
The most important question to ask yourself is, “How do I want to win?” Once you know what you want to do, you can play cards that make it as easy as possible for anyone on that path to win in that way. If you plan to win with poison, you can play cards like Bedlam and Furnace of Rath. When infect creatures do double damage and can’t be blocked they are four times as likely to deal lethal damage as a vanilla creature. A combo deck like Ad Naseum may be ok with everyone searching their decks because it knows it can win if it just grabs the one card it cares about.
On the other side of things, you want to make it as difficult as possible for players to win if they are not using your tactic. If you plan on never using combat damage, Solitary Confinement and Moat will annoy the players trying to win through the usual routes. On the other end of the spectrum, a Rule of Law could be used if you aren’t depending on a combo kill on the back of a storm spell or casting lots of spells each turn, so you can protect yourself while executing your creature-based strategy.
The card type you use is commonly thought of as the theme of your deck. This could be an elf tribal deck, an enchantress deck, or a token deck. In any case, it usually means you are playing a lot of similar cards, so you want to setup a situation where those cards are the best things anyone could have. One of the best examples of this are the Child of Alara “Lands” decks. They play only land permanents, aside from Child of Alara and then they continuously wipe the board of any permanents. Once they get the Child destruction loop going, it can feel impossible to win if you are playing against it.
The important point to learn from those decks is that it’s not just about using a spell that is most beneficial to you at one moment, like Patriarchs Bidding. It’s about constantly bending the entire game to your will with cards like Kataki, War’s Wage or Linvala, Keeper of Silence.
Easily the most controversial way to turn a game in your favor is effecting how people deal with mana. Wherever your deck falls in terms of possible mana curves is where you want the game to stay. If you are playing ramp, Mana Flare may not be the worst thing you can play. The thought is, it’s OK for your opponents to have some resources as long as you can make better use of them. If you have creatures and spells they can’t compete with, go ahead and play an enchantment that “helps” them. It has built-in protection from other players’ greed.
If your whole deck cost less than four mana, playing Winter Orb or mass land destruction will keep other players from casting their important spells. Keeping players in a medium range of mana is a little more difficult and usually requires targeted but effective land, artifact, and enchantment hate.
Regulating mana levels seems to be something more casual players latch on to as being against the spirit of the format. The reasoning is that if you built your deck to play with mostly giant, splashy spells and someone showed up with a deck that slowed down your mana production you would never get to do anything. One school of thought says Commander is about playing giant, splashy spells you could never play in other formats. My personal belief is that Commander is about playing spells you could never play in other formats, regardless of converted mana cost.
If we shun the ability to regulate mana in Commander [editor’s note: and if most groups shun hard combo, another type of deck that eats big-mana resource accumulation decks alive] we cut out 2/3 of the decks we can play in the format and are left with nothing but high-curve “ramp” decks. I think the shunning of mana regulation is why the rules committee banned Primeval Titan and why so many groups agreed with the decision. I encourage you to be tolerant of mana regulation so that you can get a larger variety of decks in your group.
This is a relatively simple concept. If you play your deck at sorcery speed, you should try and prevent players from casting spells on your turn. If you play at instant speed, you want to capitalize on the ability to cast spells every turn.
Of all the ways to make the board state go in your favor, this is the one you should be most careful with. The problem that can come up with regulating this aspect of the game is that there are only two options. That means that there will most likely be at least one other player who can benefit from you shifting how players can cast spells in your favor. You still want to try and manipulate this because one to two opponents who can execute their game plan are easier to handle than two to three opponents. Just be aware that you could be unintentionally winning the game for someone else if you are not careful. Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir is great if you have some counterspells in hand, but terrible if you don’t and the combo player just goes off at sorcery speed.
Similar to decks that use the stack and decks that don’t, there are two types of graveyard decks; decks that abuse the graveyard and decks that ignore the graveyard. If you are using the graveyard, there is nothing additional you really have to do. Just utilizing in your graveyard is a significant advantage over players that do not. This means that if you are one of the players who only gets one use from a card who or very rarely recurs cards, you need to be packing ways to stop players from accessing their ‘yards.
Put It All Together
It’s easier to win a battle when you get to choose the battlefield. The strongest decks are the ones that change the board state into a place where they are advantaged and everyone else is weaker. In the world of Magic, I like to call it Home-Plane advantage. Beating multiple opponents is always going to be difficult. You want to try and help yourself as much as you can.