When we started this challenge from James to make partner commanders work, I had a clever idea. Or I had an idea that I hoped would be clever. Let’s start with the core that he provided; It’s a bit hodgepodge giving a little bit of everything. The problem for deckbuilding, is that it provides a little bit of everything. Mark Rosewater often repeats a mantra that restrictions breed creativity. James didn’t provide much restriction in his core. Of course, this was also the point of the core. It was meant to be flexible for us to build into a full deck.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In my ongoing attempt to like the Partner mechanic (and based off a discussion we were having in our team Slack chat), I want to try something a little different. A while ago, Sheldon Menery posted an article detailing a ‘modular’ build – not the Darksteel mechanic, but a core deck and a selection of other cards that are interchangeable and can be swapped out to fundamentally change the deck on a moments’ notice. I remember reading this when it first landed, and brushing it off as way too much work.
But then somebody on the team brought it back up, and then Erik said it would be interesting with Partners, and I suddenly became VERY interested in pursuing it.
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on January 11, 2013. We’re flashing back to some of our best from the past several years every Friday, because what’s old is new again. Cass hasn’t been posting much, but we’re all getting hyped for GenCon (in approximately infinity months) so why not pose a bunch of questions to you, per Cass’s “Market RESEARCH”?
It also got me thinking. I enjoy speaking my mind when it comes to EDH (and I have to assume that you all enjoy reading it to some degree), but I’m as guilty as the next guy of falling into the “ivory tower’ syndrome. I have a pattern of beliefs, and I like to complain loudly when someone steps on my poor little toes.
So, then…the Blightsteel thing. This is important.
The reason that I posted the questions stems from a conversation I was having with my co-conspirator here at GDC, Patrick. I’ve been starting to dive in again to the “metagame-breaker” deck theory-crafting that drove my GenCon exploits last year. I’ve got a two-part article in the works for LegitMTG.com that will get into very specific details about developing such a deck, what it should expect to face, and how it should be built and played to overcome the gauntlet of an ‘EDH-for-prizes” event.
Long story short, I was trying to figure out how to win with a deck designed to shut down the infinite combos that permeate environments like that without succumbing to the dark side and just playing them myself. After all, that’s the point – break the broken metagame with a deck that stays true to the core of the “social agreement” at the heart of EDH.
The problem I had last year was that my Riku deck was designed to say, ‘No!”, but it didn’t know what to do from there.
That’s about when I stumbled onto the foil copy of Blightsteel Colossus I had in a box.
I managed pretty quickly to justify One-Shot Robot as a legit win-con. It was a creature, and it still had to attack in order to defeat an opponent. The specs of the card just meant that it probably only needed to attack once. But really, how different is this from swinging with Kresh the Bloodbraided? Or Moldgraf Monstrosity? Or Mons’s Goblin Raiders one-hundred or so times in a row?
Patrick called me an ass (in so many words) for playing a card that I’ve professed to hate for so long. He pointed out that this is essentially joining the dark side anyway.
So I posted the question to you, the dedicated readers of GDC. In my (thick) head, I still thought I was going to get some justification for doing what I was planning on doing.
That clearly didn’t happen. Most of you hate the damn thing as much as Patrick, and some of you think it’s worse than combo. I learned something about you all in the process, and that’s that there’s a whole world out there that I need to learn a little bit more about.
That’s what I think I want to do today.
QUESTION THE ANSWERS
Below are a series of situations and questions.
What I hope each of you will do is to read through them, and find one (or two or all) that resonates with you somehow. Head down to the ‘comments’ section, and answer the question.
While you’re there, see what others are saying. If those thoughts resonate, comment there too.
Patrick and I will be doing our best over the next several days to drop in some replies and engage in some good, solid EDH conversation. We may drop in some answers for ourselves as well…who knows.
Either way, you know who we are, and we want to see the world out there. Show us who you are.
1. Blightsteel Revisited
You know have the context that you didn’t have on Monday. You’ve sleeved up your blue-base control deck and jumped a flight to Indianapolis, ready to lay waste to the field at the Thursday night EDH Constructed Championship Qualifier. You’re planning on seeing Hermit Druid combo. There’s going to be some Temple Bell-Mind Over Matter action. Someone is going to use Palinchron to make a boatload of mana to hit you with a Stroke of Genius big enough to kill you.
You’re not concerned, because you have answers, but you do need one final, solid win-condition for the deck. You find the Blightsteel Colossus in your binder.
Knowing that your main plan is to ‘take the high road’ against the combo decks you’ll face, do you play Blightsteel Colossus?
2. When Is The Game Really Over?
This is an example from this past Wednesday that I’m trying to wrap my head around, if for reason other than I still feel conflicted about my feelings, and the other player is a regular reader and good friend. I’d love to clear the air and see what the feeling is here.
You’re playing in the regular Wednesday shop game. Buy-in is five dollars; you get a pack for participation automatically, and play for ‘points’ that determine a pick order at the end of the night.
The prize pool to pick from is an additional pack for every two people (so half of the field will get a second pack), as well as a selection of foil promos; the difference between coming in first for two packs or last for a pack and a promo card is pretty negligible. It’s a really flat payout to promote fun games.
You’ve killed off another player and amassed five points, enough to guarantee that you’ll get a second prize pack no matter what happens. Suddenly, the player across the table cranks out a series of cards that will kill you on the spot. You can’t save yourself. He’s about to deal you exact damage, which will net him three points; one for eliminating a player, and two more for doing so with exact lethal damage.
You have a Goblin Bombardment and a creature in play.
Knowing that you’re getting a prize pack no matter what, do you sacrifice your creature to Goblin Bombardment to deal yourself one damage, preventing the player who is about to kill you from getting two extra points for the exact damage kill?
3. Pick Your Poison
Rank the following cards from best to worst using any criteria you want:
- Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre
- Rite of Replication
- Time Stretch
- Boundless Realms
- Myojin of Night’s Reach
4. Duck, Duck, Duck…
You sit down at a table to play a game of EDH with four other players. You’ve never met any of them before in your life, and you have no idea what the actual contents of any of the decks are. The other four generals are Kaalia of the Vast, Zur the Enchanter, Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, and Omnath, Locus of Mana.
You’re the first person to find a creature. Furthermore, no-one else has a creature in play when you untap on the following turn. There are no blockers, and you move to your attack step.
Who do you attack? Why?
5. A Simple Question
When I resolve a kicked Tooth and Nail, I put _____ and _____ into play.
6. A Loaded Question
The game is winding down. You have no cards in hand, and one left in your deck. You untap and draw. It is Banefire. You can deal thirty damage with it before you lose the game. Who do you target?
- The slow player who takes fifteen-minute turns every turn.
- The player who killed you off first in the last game for no good reason.
- The rules lawyer who openly critiques your plays during the game.
7. Enough Is Enough
“Goddammit! If I never see that ever again for as long as I play EDH, it’ll still be too soon!”
What was “that”?
8. Judge, Jury, And Executioner
As a part of the promotion for the 2013 Commander Pre-Cons, you enter an arm-wrestling competition with Sheldon Menery at one of the release events. You manage to beat him in a close best-of three match, and the prize is that you get to ‘protect’ any one card ever printed from being on the EDH Banned List. It can never be banned for the rest of eternity, and if it’s already on the list, it immediately comes off and is legal for play.
Name that card.
Have a great weekend, everyone.
Control decks are too often placed on a pedestal. They are the most “skill intensive” decks, or “most difficult to pilot” decks, or “the most punishing for misplays” – or whatever else players feel like claiming. The point is that people tend to think control decks are extremely demanding of the pilot. Yet, anyone who has seen Pat Sullivan play burn knows that any deck can be demanding of the pilot. What a control deck has are clear moments where you can be demolished if you make the wrong move.
We want to avoid that.
So what is a control deck trying to accomplish? Controlling the game, of course! I know – that’s a fairly useless statement, because every deck is trying to control the game in some manner of speaking. What a control deck is trying to do is establish a game state where inevitability takes hold and victory is assured. This typically happens through a combination of removal (and/or counters), board wipes, and card advantage to stall until a win condition finishes the game in your favor. While a combo deck establishes a condition to just win the game outright and an aggressive deck applies pressure to collapse the opposition before they have a chance, a control deck sculpts a game so that it can win after an opponent is neutralized.
This applies to Commander a little differently than regular games (curse those pesky extra opponents trying to cramp your style!) That factor also makes removing and countering key threats more difficult. You will run out of cards or mana (or both!) and then your opponents will capitalize on this, gang up, and squish you like a bug. If you do manage to counter everything, then you reach a position where you have to take out every opponent on your own.
In Commander, you need to let the game advance, and you need to use your opponents as a resource.
First – don’t counter everything! Seriously…no one will have any fun. If you want to stop everyone from playing, suck it up and run a prison deck. (And then enjoy how fast your friends come to hate you.) Rather, you should let the game develop. Counter key threats, but let your opponents fight each other; you can always hang back and use mass removal to wipe the board when things get out of hand. Using Wrath of God to take out ten creatures is the best four-mana draw spell in Magic (Unless you wait it out to try to get a few more creatures…)
A control deck in Commander is mostly about the long game. A Krenko, Mob Boss deck may have tons of aggressive potential, but after a couple wipes, the deck cannot generate enough traction to continue in a long game. Control decks lack this problem; they have late game threats that can handle strong opponents.
This is where many control deck generals come into play – as a finisher. Dragonlord Ojutai, Oloro, Ageless Ascetic, and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet all examples of control finishers; this also includes combo commanders such as Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind. One thing to remember is the emphasis on evasive finishers. A deck like Kalitas needs far more removal to make up for its ground-pounder status. Oloro doesn’t even need the attack step. If you don’t take evasion into account, you end up trying to win with something like Thragtusk which can be chump-blocked all day.
The other option for a control commander is one who provides card advantage. Arcanis the Omnipotent is one of the clearest examples, but others like Karador, Ghost Chieftain or Damia, Sage of Stone provide card advantage through extra cards or extra resources. Other possible generals exist; but the most successful commanders for a control strategy fall into these broad categories (or if you’re lucky, the ideal general can do both!)
Importance of Defense
If your opponents are good at all, they will recognize the late game potential of a control deck. This demands that you have some early defense to keep your life total high.
The defenses for control decks mostly break down into disincentives and blockers. Disincentive cards make you an unattractive target. Ghostly Prison, Dissipation Field, and Vampire Nighthawk are examples. They demand that an opponent lose resources to commit to an attack against you.
I should address this now – those are not “political cards”. That term is overused and pointless. The cards provide a hard choice – Propaganda makes attacks difficult because the mana spent on the attack tax cannot be used to develop the board state. Vampire Nighthawk dissuades attacks because deathtouch really cramps a creature’s style.
On to blockers! If you are going to use creatures with defender, make sure they have other uses. Mnemonic Wall brings back a spell, Wall of Blossoms draws a card, Vent Sentinel can kill an opponent. I typically don’t use many walls because I like my creatures to be able to attack when someone’s shields are down, but some of my friends have good success with very defensive creatures.
If you simply want more defensive creatures that are not quite a wall, this opens up a lot more options. Silklash Spider and the aforementioned Vampire Nighthawk keep away the opposition. Nighthawk is evasive to get on the offense, while Silklash can nuke fliers that are giving you a problem. My preferred method of defensive creatures are tokens – they can be easily replaced, can take to the offense well, and are more often overlooked by opponents. Token producers also provide a mana sink to use after counter mana has been held up – I don’t like contributing nothing to the board for several turns.
Counter Spells and Mana Woes
First and foremost, a control deck does not need counter spells. At all. Board control and discard provide alternative means of controlling the game. A deck does not need to be blue to be a control deck (and every blue deck is not a control deck!)
It deserves repeating – don’t counter everything! You simply can’t stop the whole game in a multiplayer format, so you need to be more conservative with counterspells. Watch some Magic coverage; the pro players allow things to resolve all the time. If you have an answer, or the card isn’t threatening to you, then let it resolve. Instead of trying to stop everything, focus on defensive counters. You need to protect yourself and your threats. Even Darksteel Colossus is not invincible. When someone tries to Comet Storm you for a bazillion, that is a good spell to counter.
A big scary threat…sure. Go for it. But all too often, people counter odd spells like a late game ramp spell. Don’t do that.
Instead of wasting your counters on every opportunity, stop the biggest blows coming your way. In a video game where you can spend a resource to break an attack, you don’t spam that every chance you get. You wait for the big moments to have the most impact. If you aren’t sure what I mean, check out DOTA 2 games and look for when BKB is activated (It makes you magic-immune temporarily). Players usually BKB to initiate a fight, or to survive a fight going badly. They do not activate it every chance they get – that is how you get caught with resources and no defenses.
Since I’m talking about resource management, I want to also talk about lands. Hit your land drops! For crying out loud, the number of people I’ve seen over the years who play a Faithless Looting or similar spell early and then discard lands is mind-boggling. Do you know what usually happens? They always start missing land drops in a few turns. Don’t hamstring yourself like this!
In Standard, a control deck is likely to run something like twenty-six lands because they cannot afford to fall behind in mana production. In Commander, don’t run thirty-six lands and expect to never miss a land drop. You need to be able to deploy a threat and keep up pressure on your opponents; shorting yourself on lands stops your ability to attack the game on multiple fronts.
This goes for mana rocks too. Use them, run them, and play some cheaper ones. If your only mana rock below three mana is Sol Ring, you might have an issue.
To beat a control deck you need to keep them under pressure. If you back down and give a control deck breathing room, you are giving up and letting them take a game away from you. A control deck will get more powerful as the game continues – they are like a carry in DOTA or League. If you give a control deck breathing room early, then right around turn six things are going to get difficult for you. Keep them from developing, take out their lone threats, and keep that life total as low as you can. Steal their time; force them to act before they are ready.
You need to hit a control deck hard. High impact cards are the best case for this. Last week I talked about how five mana is a huge break point for effectiveness. Use that! Attack with haste creatures so that a board wipe lessens the impact against you. Specter creatures (like Hypnotic Specter) are not often played, but this type of creature is exactly what you need to pressure control decks. They lose a card no matter what they do, and if they don’t answer it, they lose more cards.
You can also put control decks into tight squeezes by attacking their resources. Destroy their mana, blow up mana rocks, make them discard spells. Just don’t let up. It just takes one good Sphinx’s Revelation to undo a lot of your hard work and allow a control deck to reload. To help keep up pressure, use the early game for maximum gains. Stigma Lasher on turn two against Oloro is basically a death-knell for that deck.
Still, there are many control decks with incidental life gain or a few recovery spells like the Sphinx’s Revelation. Turn off their options! Leonin Arbiter puts a tax on tutoring, which makes several of their cards worse and makes Path to Exile and Ghost Quarter much better for you. Many players are using Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker in a control deck these days; however it also works wonders against control decks.
The other cards that gain counters from opponents casting spells can use everyone’s contributions to fighting the control deck. (Think Taurean Mauler, Sunscorch Regent, Mangorger Hydra, and their grand pappy Forgotten Ancient).
Never forget to hold back a little bit in reserve. Overextending into a Wrath effect is a great way to turn a winning game into a loss. However, there is a fine line between applying enough pressure and holding back enough to keep that pressure going. This tends to be group and game-dependant, so I can’t give you an easy answer as to what is always correct. I prefer to hold back a haste critter or two so that I can follow up a board wipe with a good counter-attack. We’ve got to punish the control decks for their audacity, right?
The overextending protection can come in a few forms like critter lands, more big threats, or something simple like burn spells. Mutavault is pretty safe from most sweepers and can be cheaply animated to grab a few pieces of equipment to bash in on someone. You go the burn route after a sweeper with something like Fan the Flames to burn a control mage to a nice crisp. Mind their open mana with burn spells – buyback is stopped if the spell is countered and a timely Misdirect can ruin your day too.
The Inevitable End
With any control deck, your goal is getting to a state of inevitability (Mr. Anderson) so that you cannot be beaten. Unlike Agent Smith, you can finish off your opponents once they’re out of gas to keep up. How do you achieve the inevitable victory? How to do you fight against a control deck?
Hit me up in the comments or the Twitterverse. I’ll see you next week.
I have had the privilege—or maybe the pain (depends on the person)—to work with creative designers for most of my professional career, as well as having many friends that are in various design fields. This has led me to expand my own creativity and helped me understand their workflow and how the creative process works for many of them. This has also increased my understanding of a debate that I think most designers have constantly as they work on projects: Form versus Function. Basically, it boils down to a question of, when you create something, whether it doesn’t need to look good, it just needs to work, or is it about the aesthetic the project yields? Apple has tried to create products that capture both of these elements, with devices that look beautiful and perform flawlessly. Magic could be the same way but does Wizards hi the mark?
From The Beginning.
Now that I have you thinking, let me start from the beginning. In my last article, I spoke about the C16 generals and how in my opinion Wizards missed the mark on the partner mechanic when it comes to theme. It appeared to me they focused mostly on the Function of creating great toolbox commanders and not so much on the Form or theme of the commanders. This generated a lot of great discussion (people I love comments), both on thewebsite and in my twitter mailbox, which I thought was awesome. It has also led me here to an article I think is important to write. For the rest of this article we will replace Form with theme as I feel like this is still the same discussion, but theme fits it a little better in the Magic world. Before I hop into each area, know that there is no right or wrong answers here, just a balance that you need to find to maximize your enjoyment of the game. Once you find that, use the social contract to find a group that values the same thing (or as close as you can get. Honestly it’s a lot like hand grenades, close is good enough).
Players have often pushed against theme, saying it isn’t important. In fact, some players go so far as to speak against the story of Magic and how it gets in the way of just playing the game. Theme doesn’t have to be a part of the game you enjoy, but it is a major motivation for a large percent of people that play. Why else are the most popular tribes in magic dragons and angels if most dragon and angel cards never see competitive play? Theme.
Wizards is committed to the story of magic, and they do push themes and metagames to fit their vision of a set. Every set’s design starts with world development, when they determine their key characters and start build cards around the characters and interactions. For instance, look at the Eldrazi sets. There was no way of getting around playing with them and the eldrazi cards, which makes sense since the characters were the flagship images their sets. Wizards built the story around the Eldrazi (Theme) and made sure their cards were pushed to be very efficient and powerful (Function). The Magic Story that goes up every Wednesday also proves this point, as they even interrupted the standard story to give a little background story on the four-color commanders from the C16 set. If Wizards throws that much money at the story, then it should be clear that they believe theme/story/world building is extremely important to a good many people.
Function is a core reason why most of us play the game. We strive to create decks whose functions meets our goals and gives us the experience we desire. In some cases we take it so far that we feel like the only thing important in a deck is how it functions. In fact, some people take no interest in art and story; for them the key is only how fast and efficient can I make my deck. Some EDH groups enjoy this. One group I played with felt if an EDH game went more than four turns it wasn’t worth it (it cut into the amount of games you could have after all). If that is your group’s goal this is fine, just as long as everyone is on the same page.
However, restricting a deck to only focus on function limits your card pool. I call this the “25 best” syndrome. You just acquire the 25 best cards of each color and that is in effect all you play with, because if your focus is only on function why play cards that aren’t the strongest at all times. When people get focused on this style of play, decks tend to get very linear and very similar, which can lead to games feeling the same. It does have the effect keeping a collection smaller and probably cheaper in the long term, however.
All Together Now.
So why try to balance the two together? Why not just focus on that of function? Those are questions we chat about all the time at GDC and honestly the answer generally comes back as, “It’s all been done before.” Now some believe that every deck has been done before, but I can say without a doubt that the closer you get to having that perfectly functioning deck, or the deck that is the most optimized, the closer your deck is to everyone else’s. With a smaller card pool, even different decks start to look alike. When different generals leading “different” decks start to lose their ability to stand out, they become more a toolbox type of general and not something you use to build a story or play out the lore.
The toolbox approach is why I was critical of Wizards in my last article. Partners can be a very rich and fun mechanic, but at least the first iteration focused mainly on good-stuff generals. They are good, but they lack thematic definition. Instead of theme, they become defined by function: combat, or group hug, or card draw. They lack a theme or identity to really build around. Without this build-around theme, they lost the people who want to add a story or theme to their deck. Like in life, the key to making the game fire on all cylinders is balance, like if the Partner Commanders still maintained their functionality but also nailed Theme. You can’t have just theme or just function. Leave one out and you are leaving out a whole subset of players not interested in what you are creating. The story boards and world building are already there so why not make sure you use them.
Wrap It up.
Give it a try. See what adding more balance (via Theme) to your decks does for you play experience, no matter which side you find yourself on. If you already do, great! I hope to sit across from the table from you and see cards played that make me stop and need to read them as you smile along. There’s nothing better than seeing something hit the table I have yet to see and to see it do work!
Until next time, focus on balance, this is EDH.Ghost out!
On a personal note, I feel somewhat conflicted running regular EDH content today, when there’s so much heavy stuff happening in the United States. After discussing it with the team, I was convinced of the value people get from having a place where they can stop thinking about serious issues to recharge. I am not a fan of separating one’s political & moral/social stances from their professional or personal lives, but I respect that others find a break for the political barrage useful. If you want to talk about what’s going on, or have any questions (fair warning, I’m relatively liberal), I’m on twitter: @MdaveCS. Thanks for reading and understanding.
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 StarCityGames.com, 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.
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:
- The number of cards in the deck.
- The number of copies of the effect in the deck.
- 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.
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.
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).
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.
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
So it was Saturday. I went to the Planechase release event, which I organized at my local game store because I knew that Planechase was coming out, and I knew there was a promo card, and I know that no one would do anything, so I talked my guy into calling his distributor to get the promo card, because I knew that Wizards wasn’t going to promote this since they’ve only got like three more weeks of promoting Avacyn Restored before M13 comes out, and I knew that was a silly idea, but I don’t work for them, right?