Have you ever had a deck that just doesn’t work for some reason? When you go over the decklist, there are no glaring holes; if you break things down into categories like ramp, removal, card advantage (tutors and the like go here), recursion, synergy, and win conditions…it all adds up.

But somehow, when you’re playing the deck, it just repeatedly falls flat. Despite several games, you still cannot figure out what is going wrong.

Don’t panic. Many of us have been there. I’ve been there, particularly with my Ravos, Soultender deck. The deck was supposed to be an Orzhov tokens deck. With Ravos recurring creatures, I put a bunch of cards like Cloudgoat Ranger and Viscera Seer to make tokens every turn. Instead of being a nice clean token deck, it just durdled to infinity – and my death – every game. I had Ravos paired with Tymna the Weaver so that my tokens could go wide into more cards in hand. If I discarded to hand size, I still had Ravos to get back the best things.

That didn’t work once.

Change Focus

The original plan was to get an engine online and slowly swarm the board by playing token maker after token maker. Ravos, Soultender was a huge focal point, and everyone at my LGS knew it. Ravos barely tabled, I was making slow and clunky plays, and the games weren’t fun. Not because I was losing – though I was – I wasn’t contributing to the game or doing anything my deck really wanted to be doing. When I have more fun grabbing hot chocolate and watching games then I need to reevaluate something.

I stepped back and looked at the deck. I laid the thing out by mana curve on my table to evaluate the whole thing. I had an engine and I had the mana to get it, but I had no early game. I was being pulverized in the first few turns, I’d have a mana rock or enchantment blown up, and then I was stuck making suboptimal plays with no advantage. It felt like the whole table was faster than me.

I had an idea. What if I changed gears with the deck? I already had Tymna as a commander and a source of card advantage. I tweaked the ramp, I cut more expensive mana rocks for more two and three-cost options, and I swapped in a few more early token makers. In total, I think I changed about seven cards.

But what was important about the changes was that I changed my goal.

The deck is still very much a Ravos deck, but in the early game, Tymna is my commander. I drop her early and start attacking anyone with an opening. I’m just gaining two life here and there and then spending it on drawing cards. Since I’m trying to maximize Tymna’s impact, my attacks are different. I’m more eager to attack an open opponent and hit people for one or two damage. I’m just triggering her effect as often as I can. As I pay life to draw more cards, I emphasize the ramp and cheap pieces of the deck. The big pieces can be discarded since Ravos is bringing them back later. Now I only bring in Ravos early if I have an outstanding board position. He is more like the Big Damn Heros play in the deck – boosting all the little tokens and enabling the deck to recover from board wipes. After a sweeper is my preferred time to play Ravos. He starts the recursion and transitions the deck to a more robust token strategy.

Avoid Tunnel Vision

When you get tunnel vision about your deck goal or gameplan, it can severely limit your options. Changing gears allows you to adapt to the opposition your pod is presenting. Don’t be like the generals in the First World War who didn’t adapt quickly and sent thousands to die; they didn’t change gears when strategies didn’t work. How many great decks in Commander change gears? Look at the decks that have longevity…the ones that have stayed together and part of your herd for years.

I’m betting that many of your long term decks can play multiple roles. It allows a deck to combat more situations at the table while staving off boredom from you. Plus, it means that not every game is the same. I love enabling more dynamic play and being able to adjust to my opponents either stumbling or blazing out of the gates.

Much of this advice is based off Who’s the Beatdown by Michael Flores. This article is aimed at duel style Magic, but this is still among the best strategy articles written for the game.

You should read it. At least once a year.

Apply it to Commander. Find your role and play to that role. If your deck is normally the aggressor, but then things change – you need to adjust. Like the Counter Slivers example, just because you are normally in one role does not mean you are always in that role. Changing the focus of your deck and your game plan by adjusting to the current game is going to increase your chance of winning. Or increase the ability for you to do your deck’s thing so you enjoy the game.

Flores addresses sideboarding towards the end of his article, which is something most Commander players don’t use. We aren’t playing the best of three games with the ability to tweak cards between games, but we can change the application of those cards. Decks running very similar cards with great overlap can use them differently.

For example – in college, a friend Eric was running Tariel, Reckoner of Souls while I played Oros, the Avenger. We used many of the same cards like Withered Wretch as graveyard hate. I used the Wretch to limit recursion options or to make cards like Regrowth fizzle, while he used the Wretch to keep big scary creatures in the grave, instead removing most of the small utility creatures so that Tariel’s effect had the best choices. We used removal differently too; I would use Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile to remove the worse threats. He wanted them in the grave, so the exile effects were a last resort and used more on non-haymaker cards. The results were decks with close to eighty cards being the same, but our decks feeling tremendously different.

Don’t get caught up in your archetype role, or how you think the game should play out. My Oros deck is a very controlling deck, but that Tariel deck had a better late game which put me in the position of being the aggressor. I would inevitably lose the late game due to Eric stealing my best stuff. Adjusting also make the game more fun. Switching between being aggressive to having a more laid back style half way through a game changes the pace and experience. Moving from B/W Aggro to B/W Tokens changes my experience and how my opponents need to attack my board. You can think of it like driving – do you always want to be in high gear on a highway? Or do you enjoy driving through some winding roads or mountains for change of pace and using some lower gears?

Evaluate

Which of your decks struggle but don’t seem to have problem? Make sure your deck has the bases covered. Then, look and see if you can adjust your game play focus for better results. These results may be wins, but looking to win in Commander is difficult. It’s better to focus on contributing to the game and making sure your deck can accomplish it’s goals. Shifting your focus for even a few turns can go a long way towards making games more fun. You’re “doing the thing” – whether that is sacrificing your creatures for fun and profit, making tokens, taking a picture and posting your Pirate ship, crew, cannon, and captain to Twitter because the deck can never win a game, or having something else as a goal like using Fling on Thromok the Insatiable to kill someone at the table. You’ll enjoy the games more and hopefully win more. If you are adapting to the things your opponents throw at you then you are in a good position to take them out.

So – which decks do you have that are able to shift? Can you change some focal points in your decks to improve your games? Do you think I’m way off base? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on Twitter.
-Erik