Nearly every defining aspect of a Commander deck depends on the context of your playgroup. The speed of a deck, the competitive level, and the social acceptability of decks must be measured against this context because you don’t play Commander in a vacuum. When looking to improve a deck, the playgroup represents the single most important factor to consider. It’s likely that defeat awaits even the most objectively cutthroat deck in a group where the environment hates it out.
Back before Erayo, Soratami Ascendant was banned, a local player in my area tried to make it work. He spent hundreds of dollars creating a deck that regularly flipped Erayo in the first couple turns. I saw him win exactly zero games with the deck before he gave up and built something else. Erayo decks primarily play instants and low cost artifacts. At the time he built it, the local playgroup was full of decks built to stop combo players. This meant they had filled their decks with instant speed removal and Counterspells. Consequently, Erayo was countered or destroyed before ever locking down the table. The Erayo deck lost because it failed to take into account the axes on which the local playgroup operated.
Defining the Axes
For this article, I’m using “axis” to mean the area where your spells resolve and where you utilize cards most often or most importantly. You may call this the areas of play, the levels of play, or something else. If you can play cards from an area or the cards you play effect an area, that area is what I am calling an axis. The five primary axis are the battlefield, your hand/the stack, the command zone, the graveyard, and your library. There are a number of secondary axis such as your life, the different types of permanents, randomization, and various other factors that the lessons in this article can be applied to, but I will not be focusing on them.
The most common axis of play for Commander is the battlefield. On the battlefield you have permanents that represent various resources in the game. Nearly every deck puts at least some importance on this axis. The only way you could ignore this axis would be to play some sort of manaless storm deck. You interact with this axis by playing permanents or interacting with permanents by activating abilities, using removal, or using the combat phase
This axis refers to are anything you can utilize from your hand at instant speed, or anything that affects hand size or utilization. Most prominently, these are counterspells and Redirects. The hand can also be affected by permanents and spells that force you to discard or shutoff your ability play things at instant speed. While all players cast things from their hand, not many new players see the hand as a resource or a threat. Primarily combo and control players use their hand to store their main threats.
The command zone is pretty self-explanatory. It’s where your commander sits as a resource until they enter the battlefield. Cards that affect the command zone include tuck effects, Control Magics, the commanders themselves, and Meddling Mage effects. Your dependence on your commander and how well you can keep commanders from being cast or returned to the command zone define how heavily invested you are in this axis.
The graveyard is also self-explanatory. Any cards that let your return cards to your hand, cast cards from the ‘yard, bring cards to the battlefield, exile cards from, or shuffle cards back into your library from the graveyard affect this axis.
Finally, your library itself can be an axis. If you have a lot of search functions, library manipulation, or can play cards directly from your library with cards like Oracle of Mul Duya, Dragon Storm, Sunforger, or Birthing Pod, you are playing on the library axis. Card’s that take cards out of opposing libraries or stop you from searching libraries interact with this axis.
Operating on a Different Axis
The axis are not exclusive and your deck doesn’t need to (and probably shouldn’t) operate on a single axis. Most Commander groups have some level of interaction with all the axes. In most cases when someone from a group has come to me looking for help due to either being unsuccessful with an idea or having another player dominating the group, the issue is not with the quality of their deck but with an imbalance in how their group as a whole approaches the axes of play.
My most competitive deck Arcum Dagsson has the possibility of becoming oppressive to a group. The deck isn’t the best deck out there, but it does play on one of the least used axis of play. Arcum primarily relies on the library as a resource over the more traditional axes. Most players do not actively think about the threats inside another players library. This means in most games, my most important resource is left completely alone while people try to deal with what is on the battlefield. In cases where players do affect the library, such as Thada Adel, Acquisitor decks or decks that play cards like Jester’s Cap, Stranglehold, or Mindlock Orb the deck loses exponentially more often.
Operating on an axis players in your group ignore or avoiding placing your win condition into an axis that is saturated is one of the best and easiest ways to increase how often you win and push for variety within your playgroup. If your playgroup doesn’t play much out of the graveyard and therefore doesn’t play much graveyard hate, a Reanimate deck will mop the floor until the group adapts. Constantly evolving decks creates a greater variety of experiences and makes for less stagnant play experiences. Constantly looking to play in a way that is different from the group can both give you fun challenges as a deck builder and ensure your commander games are exciting.
Using the Knowledge
There is some danger in knowing about the theory of axes if you don’t understand how to apply that knowledge. If you are attempting to shut down players on the hand/stack Axis with something like Dosan the falling leaf, you aren’t actually keeping them from casting spells and you are preventing other people from stopping them. They can feel entirely confident that they’ll be able to go off with their storm combo without anyone interfering.
Leaning too hard on one axis can also be detrimental, as it opens your deck up to being completely shut down. If you are playing an entirely permanent-based deck and someone shows up with Child of Alara as their Commander, it could be a bad day. Alternatively, if you are all in on an Ad Naseum plan and someone plays Dissipate or Mindbreak Trap you could end up finding out that the deck you think is so good that a card should be banned is, in fact, a glass cannon.
There are two ways I recommend approaching the axis theory in Commander. You can build a balanced deck that can play on all axes. It’s hard to go wrong with a balanced approach. Balance means rarely or never being locked out of a game, because even if someone shuts down an axis you still have so many other options. It also means overall resiliency to hate cards.
The other way, which I like to do but can come off a bit spike-ish, is too completely shut down one or more axes and have a deck setup to play in the warped environment. An example of this would be playing a Zedruu the Greathearted deck that includes Mindlock Orb, Aven Mindcensor and Stranglehold while including zero cards that search your own library and depending entirely on drawing instead. Any decks that played out of the library or even depended on fetchlands would have an incredibly difficult time, while Zedruu would play as if nothing was wrong.
Next time you are trying to tune up your deck, think about your playgroup and what axis might be being ignored. Try building your deck with an emphasis in that area and see how you do and how your group reacts to the change in style. I’m betting it will spark some innovation and new and interesting interactions between you and your friends. If you try this, please let us know how it works for you. Either post in the comments or tweet me @swordstoplow.