Defending the Commander Social Contract

Category: Card Evaluation (Page 2 of 11)

Staying Ahead of the Curve

It’s preview season! This means we posture and conjecture wildly about which cards will break which formats or that none of these are true. This tradition carries into EDH where players are making claims about which cards will become new staples or potentially even become as ubiquitous as Sol Ring.

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CC with ET – Wolf Pack

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Three Cards Deep – 06/28/2013

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on June 28, 2013. We’re flashing back to some of our best from the past several years every Friday, because what’s old is new again. I (Dave) don’t post much these days either, but I play, read, and argue with team GDC about EDH A LOT. So this is the very first in a series I used to do, in which I pick three random cards and evaluated them, trying to draw a thread between them. It was fun, but be nice; this was the first one.

(OLD Editor’s Note – Welcome aboard, Dave!)

Check it out-
Three Cards Deep: The Good, The Bad, and the EDH Ugly

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How Partners Made Jeskai Fun Again

I’m a creature of conflicts it seems.  My favorite color in Magic is black, but my favorite three color combo is Jeskai. There is a bit of a problem there – Jeskai commanders suck. Sure they can be competitive and super powerful, but if you are looking to relax and jam some games with friends, then Jeskai starts causing problems. This is a terrible problem, because I really wanted a Jeskai deck that was enjoyable to play with and to play against.

First things first, though…

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The Thing That Should Not Be Part 4 – 50 Shades of Eggs

Editor’s Note: After a brief hiatus that had nothing to do with GDC going down for a few weeks, Lord Krazy Kaka is back with the next chapter in his multi-part series discussing how to build an eggs deck in Commander, and what his favorite breakfast food can really do.

 I recall many years ago watching a fishing and travel documentary called “A River Somewhere.” It was an entertaining tale of two blokes travelling to different locations and fly fishing for whatever was there. While travelling around they would have a bit of a chat about the local town or some other amusing anecdote. One particular episode they were fascinated at one restaurant offering 50 different ways to fry an egg. While I don’t know 50 ways, I do often employ several methods depending on whom I am cooking for and my mood. As I become more sophisticated and adventurous in the kitchen, I find myself trying and employing new and different techniques on my eggy dishes.

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The Bystander Effect – And a Vial Smasher Decklist!

The bystander effect is a fascinating and horrifying psychological phenomenon. The bystander effect, or ‘bystander apathy’, is an effect where people are far less likely to offer help to an individual when others are nearby. In crowds and groups, responsibility is diffused across the group; this leads to each individual feeling like someone else is going to offer help or offer better help. The bystander effect can be especially threatening when someone is in danger.

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Archetype Analysis: Ramp

Welcome back to Archetype Analysis. Today, I’m tackling ramp decks – the biggest-mana decks in our big-mana format.

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Deck Doctoring Your Own Decks

We suck at finding problems. For example, answer this question immediately. During your last work project, where did you underperform? Humans are typically bad at identifying weaknesses in ourselves. We have a bias towards believing we are awesome and ignoring concrete examples of mistakes or opportunities to improve. (I don’t want to fight this bias too much; more people need more confidence.) This weakness at identifying our faults is why deck doctor articles exist.

In fact, I would go as far as saying deck doctor articles (and the like) exist for all genres, because of our struggle to identify weaknesses. Want to know the exact point at which you know you are getting good at learning something? It’s when you are able to self-identify the specific behaviors or thoughts you need to correct in your next attempt at a task.

That is what I’m working on today. You don’t need millions of articles telling you to run Exsanguinate because it is the world’s best goodstuff inclusion. (Seriously, Mr.P taught slackbot about Exsanguinate. Now the thing friggin auto-replies with a quote about the card, just so Mr.P could prove a point.) You need help getting better at identifying your deck’s weaknesses so that you can improve them yourself. Without Exsanguinate inclusions. Easy peasy.

Getting the Deck Doctor

Doctors study diseases and how to diagnose them. Treatment too, but diseases are a huge focus of medical doctors’ studies; knowing the progress of the disease allows a doctor to properly treat it. Essentially, studying a deck’s weaknesses offers the same, helping you become a deck doctor. In emergency situations, medical professionals like nurses, use the ABCs to quickly assess the patient’s greatest needs during resuscitation: airway, breathing, circulation, in that order. Deck doctoring has a similar order to follow, but without the clever mnemonic.

When you evaluate a deck, you should go in the following order: manabase, draw spells, ramp spells, removal spells, mana curve, and then win conditions. You always proceed in this order when “Deck Doctoring.” Always. I had a good discussion with Dave about this. Even Dear Azami articles followed this advice for a long time (back when Cass and Sean split the content).


Mana Base (Lands)

I’m not going to explode into a mini-article about mana bases. Read this article. I want you to read my article too, but if you have to pick only one then go read Dr. Moldenhauer-Salazar’s article. It will make you a better Magic player. Fix your mana, fix your colors, run enough lands. Too often players have only 34 or 36 lands. Even 38 lets you miss several land drops. Add some basics too. I often see decks with almost no basics, and those decks often suffer because so many lands enter tapped.

Draw Spells

If your mana works, the next step is assessing card drawing power. Most often, this is the place where you can make the single greatest non-land impact on your deck. Blue decks get to cheat here, so I am skipping them. Run draw spells! Black and red actually can run some spells that draw cards. Wheels are draw spells. Wheel of Fortune is a fantastic spell that more people should consider. Or at least look at the more budget friendly options. Black has fewer wheels, but tons of options to trade away life and creatures to draw more cards. Do it.

White and green are a little trickier. Well, they were until WoTC decided that green needs every damn toy in the color pie except removal. Now green decks can sacrifice creatures to draw, draw based on creature size or creature count, draw for smashing face, and like every color, draw with artifacts.

Now white has no draw power. At least in comparison to every other color. There are a few specific cards, but they tend to have restrictions. Artifact based draw is probably the best thing you can hope for. Fun tech: Serum Tank. You’re welcome.

If your draw power is in place, ramp is the next spot to evaluate. Ramp and card draw are like peanut butter and jelly. They go together and make decks great. When you ramp out and have a steady supply of cards, you are thinning the deck, which increases the quality of future draws. Adding more ramp is rarely a bad thing, especially when players are running something like six ramp cards. Would you consider 6% of a 60 card deck as ramp to be enough? That is 3.6 cards. Would you run a deck with four Llanowar Elves and nothing else to ramp and consider that a viable strategy? It’s madness!


Run more ramp. The Command Zone espouses the ten ramp and ten card advantage rule. I think those numbers are off, but the core is there. You need a minimum number of ramp to enable you to get to the good stuff. Even if you are running a deck that is heavy on three through six drops, you will have a few big cards you want to cast. Plus you will miss land drops occasionally. Ramp enables you to keep your deck moving towards something, reduces the chances of drawing lands late, and lets you cast multiple spells a turn (from all the card draw you added).

Activated abilities are another reason to up your ramp spells. EDH players hate vanilla creatures. We want value! Creatures with ETB effects are one method of getting value, but we often use cards with abilities that cost mana too. Look at Riku of the Two Reflections, Spirit Bonds, or Azorius Guildmage. These all use more mana to improve your situation. Having enough mana to cast your spells is good. Having enough to activate these abilities, and to hold up mana for answers or improve your board is better.  


The next step is to check removal. This is sweepers, spot removal, artifact, and enchantment removal. The works. Ideally, a deck can handle everything. But when you simply cannot stop your opposition but you have the other sections in line, you just need more removal. We are fortunate to have so many options with artifacts and ETB creatures. Spine of Ish Sah, Universal Solvent, Scour from Existence, All is Dust, Karn Liberated, and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon all provide options for decks that may be lacking the ability to answer something.

Of course, this also homogenizes EDH decks. But there is no excuse for not having removal. There may be an explanation such as art or theme restrictions, sure, but people are not clamoring to deck doctor their theme and gimmick decks.

When evaluating removal, you want options and mana efficiency. You also should minimize drawbacks. Swords to Plowshares is better than Path to Exile because of the importance of ramp in the format. Condemn is worse than both because it has a restriction, even though the drawback is better than Path to Exile’s. I often favor cards with a higher mana cost when they provide greater flexibility. Mortify and Putrefy are excellent cards. If I have few removal slots for a deck in those colors I would usually take Abzan Charm and Utter End to have more variety, even if it costs me some mana efficiency.

Remember how I listed card draw as the first thing after lands you need to evaluate? Look at Abzan Charm again. It lets you draw cards and function as removal when you are in trouble. This is the versatility we prize so highly in Magic. Shriekmaw and Mulldrifter aren’t the most efficient cards. But they play multiple roles easily in the early, mid, and late game. Since spot removal is typically seen as card disadvantage (you and another player lost one card each, while the other two players are up a card), you usually want to find other sources of removal. Viashino Heretic can repeatedly destroy artifacts, Visara the Dreadful or Avatar of Woe can take down a creature a turn. The repeatability enables you to get an advantage over several turns.

When you are in doubt, just add more removal. Everyone talks about how Wrath of God and Austere Command are excellent for Commander. But few players say to run more spot removal. Wraths do great work. But a Wrath won’t save you from a haste creature or allow you to decide exactly when to remove a problem. Spot removal does. Why do your opponents’ work for them? Let them attack each other and save the spot removal for when you need it.

Mana Curve

I’ve talked about mana curves before. Deck doctoring the curve is mostly about noticing a gap or extra density. Six mana is a likely glut. Six mana in a three color deck is especially juicy. Big sweepers, titans from M11, Wurmcoil Engine, souls of places from M15, commanders, dragons, big enchantments like Collective Blessing or True Conviction, and more are all at the six mana slot. Upping ramp cards enables you to get to all these great cards. But sometimes you need to drop the curve a bit when you have six Eldrazi cards that cost more than seven mana, plus other top end cards.

Win Conditions

This is the first place I see players look when they need to fix their deck. This is the last place to look! Commander has endless win conditions, and they don’t need to be huge spells. A small army of 2/2 and 3/3 creatures can make short work for an opponent’s life total, even with multiple opponents. Learn from Starcraft and don’t ignore the possibility of a Zerg rush.

Sometimes people mislabel cards aswin conditions. I see this most often with green ramp decks. Rampant Growth, Explosive Vegetation, The Baron approach that Adrian Sullivan used won’t work in EDH.

But don’t worry too much about making them more efficient. I recently built [card]Rishkar, Peema Renegade"> into nothing. A win condition impacts the board. Make sure you have more than one. The Baron approach that Adrian Sullivan used won’t work in EDH.

But don’t worry too much about making them more efficient. I recently built [card]Rishkar, Peema Renegade with all the big dumb green creatures that get cut from decks to make room for the show stoppers like Avenger of Zendikar. You can certainly win with cards that are awesome-but-maybe-not-quite-as-good-as Avenger and Hoof.


ABCs Again

When you deck doctor, follow the order. Mana, draw, ramp, removal, curve, win conditions. Always start with the mana and work your way down the chain. You will be amazed at how many two or three color decks start off balanced but shift into a splash of one color over time. That isn’t actually a bad thing. What is bad is the mana still looking like the Jeskai deck is a full Jeskai spread rather than a W/U deck with a sliver of red. Always go in order.

Importance of Synergy

When I discussed the deck doctor concept with Dave, he included a bit about where Sean would place synergy in the list. I disagree. Not that synergy shouldn’t be included, it should. But synergy should not be included in the ABCs of deck doctoring. This may seem counter intuitive, but synergy should not be added in like a patch. Synergy should be incorporated into every step of deck building and deck doctoring.

Increasing a deck’s synergy increases its strength, sometimes exponentially. Adding synergistic mana, draw spells, ramp spells, removal spells, and win conditions will turn a deck into a machine. A machine functions better than the individual parts that comprise it. Here is an example of what I am talking about, turning Jori En, Ruin Diver from a card that occasionally triggers into an engine that keeps a deck flowing in cards. Synergy is like a deck’s morality or ethics. Everything we do should follow our morals, to the best of our ability. Everything in a deck should be as synergistic as we can make it.

The Explanation

You should always follow the ABCs for resuscitation. You should always follow the deck doctor order: mana, draw, ramp, removal, curve, win cons.. But why?

You start with mana because you cannot do anything if you cannot cast spells. You cannot draw cards without lands. You cannot ramp without ramp spells in hand. You cannot remove problems if you don’t have enough mana to make removing something worthwhile. You cannot drop your curve if you have no way to use the excess mana for interactions. You cannot win a game that you have already lost.

Moving from lands to win conditions strengthens a deck. Each step makes the others possible and improves your deck. Simply fixing your lands, adding draw spells, and adding ramp spells will usually fix all your problems.

Learn this and you can deck doctor for yourself. You can evaluate which pieces are weak and adjust your deck to maximize your goals.

Let me know if you start somewhere else in deck doctoring or what should be added? Does the order need to change in your opinion? Hit me up in the comments and the twitterverse.


Quick Hits: Dice, Take Backs, Rebuilds, & Mana Curve

Today, I want to do something a little different. Sometimes, little nuggets of an article bounce around in head. I try to back-burner them and hope they boil into a full length article. At, my articles were usually around 2,200 words. GDC aims for articles closer to 1,000-1,500 words; however, some some ideas are too direct or short to turn into a 1,000 word piece.

Enter Quick Hits!

This is where I can put together several small bits and bobs that don’t need as many words. Today, I want to talk briefly about dice, taking back moves, rebuilding decks, and focusing on the lower end of the mana curve.

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The Thing That Should Not Be – Part 3

An interesting fact about eggs: not only can they be cooked and used in many dishes, but they also come in a large number of edible varieties. Not only bird eggs, but fish eggs (caviar/roe), frog eggs, and even snail eggs can all be consumed. Furthermore, there are many types of edible bird eggs. Most folks would be familiar with chicken eggs, but maybe you’ve tried duck, quail or pheasant, and perhaps even goose or turkey eggs. For the adventurous perhaps even ostrich, pigeon or even emu eggs.

If you wanted to have eggs every day, you could go almost two weeks without duplication, simply through the types of eggs I’ve listed above. With a little research and a slightly wider view of thought on the matter, I’m sure you could go even longer without repetition, as long as the common denominator is not too restrictive.

The point is that they are all eggs.

The 7 to 9 Rule of Consistent Combo

This is a little something I learnt when I was first getting into playing Vintage Long Storm decks. This rule states that in a 60-card format, if you want to have access to something in your opening hand, you need seven to nine copies of the effect in your deck. To look at the probability of actually having something in your opening hand in EDH, you need to look at several factors:

  1. The number of cards in the deck.
  2. The number of copies of the effect in the deck.
  3. The number of cards you are going to see.

We can use this kind of information to calculate the probability of finding any card or copy of an effect in a deck at any given time (providing you can do the math quickly enough). For the purpose of the conversation today, let’s look at the odds of finding a given card or effect in your opening hand.

In a 60-card deck, the 7-9 rule states that we need seven to nine copies of an effect to reliably see one in your opening hand. Specifically having seven copies gives 86% probability, eight copies leads to an over 98% chance and nine copies is 110%. Therefore if I want to guarantee access to an effect in my opener, I’ll play nine copies of it. If we’re less desperate for the effect, ie able to wait a draw or two, then we can reach a degree of certainty that we could expect 100% access to an effect with fewer instances of it in our pile of 60 cards.

60 card opener probability

This is in essence the 7-9 rule. In Cifkas’ Second Breakfast list, the rule is applied heavily to allow the deck to reliably recur its namesake effect. It featured four copies of Second Sunrise and four of Faith’s Reward, totalling eight copies of the mass recursion effect. Following this rule is fairly straightforward for deck design in 60-card formats, as you are able to include up to four copies of the same card. EDH throws two mighty spanners into the works – we’re playing a singleton format and we need to fill 99 slots as opposed to 60.

Extrapolating the Math to the Big House

As with any probability equation, the 7-9 rule can be adapted to fit the different scenario that EDH presents. The first problem is recalculating what density of an effect is required in order to find it reliably. As for the 60-card format, I’ve produced some data that we can use to extrapolate this. How this is calculated: the probability of finding a copy of the desired effect, calculated as the sum of the probabilities of finding the effect on each drawn card, based upon how many cards are left in the deck (assuming that the previous draw failed to find). Here is a big table and graph of said data.

99 card opener probability

Editor’s note: The chart goes up to 30 copies, but that image wouldn’t fit. Here’s the file if you want to play with it, including both 60- and 99-card calculations.

Suffice to say, the closest probability of finding a card in a commander deck should use the 12 to 14 range as a minimum.12 copies of the effect offers as close to similar opening hand probability as seven in a 60-card format. This offers a range of high 80’s to just over 100% on an opening hand of seven. Obviously you can also increase the density of the required effect as far as needed, under the constraint of being able to find sufficient functional copies of said effect.

As a personal preference, both for explaining the extrapolation behind the maths and for meeting my preference for a slightly higher density probability, I generally recommend in the range of 13 to 15 copies, preferencing 15 copies where possible for a necessary effect. Why 15? When you look at a 60 card deck, you can roughly divide 60 cards by seven cards to get nine groups of cards (in actual fact 7 x 9 = 63, so we’re talking six-and-a-bit worth of opening hands in a 60-card deck). So if we want to make a given effect highly likely to show up in an opening hand, then we need one copy per opening hand. Nine hands of cards means nine copies of the effect. To equate this to EDH, our favourite 99 card format, a rough comparison of 99 to 60 cards is an increase of exactly 65% .This is roughly equal to an additional six opening hands in the deck, which means we would be looking to add an extra six copies of our target effect on top of the nine you need in the 60 card format.

Editor’s note: The previous section is dense, and was tough for me on the first read, but it is actually a great way to think about the math, and all the numbers and logic are there. Please give it a few reads before firing off in the comments, if you’re struggling to follow Kaka at first (unless I’m a moron and you’re all mega brains).

Multirole Madness

Combo in a non-highlander format is easy. You can find the optimal card (or two), grab a playset of four, and jam them in the pile. In singleton formats (and sometimes Vintage and Legacy), it’s not that simple. When you can only have a single copy of a card in the deck, you have to look for different cards with the same effect. As an example, say I wanted to be able to reliably exile an opponent’s graveyard. As a classical Vintage player, my mind immediately jumps to Tormod’s Crypt. In EDH however I can only have one Tormod’s Crypt, so as I want to reliably access this exile effect, I need to find 14 more functional Tormod’s Crypts. The modern players out there are probably confused as to why I didn’t immediately start with Relic of Progenitus (heh easy one, Crypt is free), which is a great example of a functional approximation of Tormod’s Crypt despite being overcosted (HAH).

We still need 13 more. Okay well how about everyone’s favourite card – Leyline of the Void? Great card, but if you weren’t in black you may well be now. Black also adds Ravenous Trap for some surprise (and often free) action. This brings us to four functional approximations off the top of my head. A quick rummage through the Gatherer database turns up a surprisingly large selection of graveyard hate, including some odd coloured gems like Bazaar of Wonders in blue. Depending on your deck design restrictions (only spells, all creatures, death by enchantments, mono blue, whatever), I’m pretty sure you could fill out 15 cards fairly easily.

What if however you were trying to find 15 copies of something much narrower, An effect that is so bizarre that it has only ever been printed once? What if you needed to find 15 functional copies of Leeches? There are plenty of ways to get poison counters, and a prolific number of ways (literally…. prolific) to proliferate more poison counters, yet only one card has ever been printed that removes poison counters. There is no Blood Drinker Worm card, nor an Anti-Coagulation Supper Slug card, and definitely no BYO Blood Drinkin’ Swamp Varmint card to clear off your toxic tokens. As such one has to consider the question:

“I need this card. There is only one copy of this card that I can put in this deck. How can I make this deck behave as if it had 15 ways to get this effect?”

I’ll bet most of you by now are taking bets on where I’m going to mention that fateful word “tutors”. You’re probably nodding along there chuckling and thinking “yep, I got fifty bucks on at the bookies that he’s about to do this.” Well, sorry gang, but look again at the last sentence – I guess I win this one.

Yes, the answer is in part tutors, and I know that a lot of people out there choose not to use them or just despise them as ruining the randomness of the 100 card deck. I can totally respect that and I do recommend using as few tutors as possible to fill the gaps, as using a tutor to fish up your target card functionally removes two copies of the effect from the deck. In the case of Leeches, this is dangerous, as there is only one copy of that effect in existence. Hence if you needed to use it again, no matter how good Demonic Tutor is, you cannot use a DT to grab the Leeches out of your graveyard. Demonic Tutor however could find a Regrowth, which could be used to bring Leeches back to your hand. In that sense you have a slightly convoluted and fairly expensive copy of Leeches relatively on tap.

My point here is that a card can best be defined by how you look at them. When I look at a Demonic Tutor, I see literally every other card that is still in my deck, from a basic land through to a Black Lotus. When I see a Regrowth, I see literally every card in my graveyard. Sometimes you have to look sideways, but looking at what things could be, what they could do for you, will often allow you to fill in those blanks.

Parting Thoughts

I hope that has got you all thinking about cards in a different light. Until next time I’d like to leave you with this quote from H.P. Lovecraft as food for thought.

“Pleasure to me is wonder—the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal in the ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty.”
― H.P. Lovecraft

Love and Velociraptors

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