An article on Commander entitled “A Unified Theory of Commander” hit the interwebs over at Brainstorm Brewery this week, and it seems to have struck a chord with the community. I wanted to take some time to weigh in with my thoughts here; I think the author, Jason, came with a solid angle, but might have lost sight of the forest for the trees in the process.

For reference, your required reading:

http://brainstormbrewery.com/a-unified-theory-of-commander/

Jason makes a compelling argument, which reads like a well-written look at how to explain Commander deck-building basics to newer players. He builds on the “BREAD” acronym, a tool given to beginners so they have an intuitive, effective strategy to get through a booster draft. BREAD stands for:

  • Bombs
  • Removal
  • Evasion
  • Aggro
  • Duds

Drafting cards by using this acronym to make pick decisions will likely get you decent results, even if you know nothing about a particular draft format (or drafting in general.) Personally, I adhere strictly to the following draft acronym:

  • 0 bombs are opened or passed to me.
  • 2 copies of the crappiest rare in the format, however, are (passed to me early).
  • Don’t manage to pull any decent removal at all.
  • Rare-draft to try to recover at least some value from this train-wreck.
  • Overlook late draft synergy in favor of flashy junk as a consequence.
  • Pray that my final pile gets me into prize standings.

Results are what you would expect.

Anyway, Jason discusses the inherent difficulty that people seem to have grasping the ins and outs of Commander when they first access the format. He does note that the Commander box products are a pretty strong way to get people into the format, and I agree – Wizards really did a good job at positioning the decks they did, all nit-picks about the general design aside.

From there, though, my personal opinion diverges from his theory quite drastically.

Jason addresses new players’ issues grasping the fundamentals of the format. He says that the specifics of a given metagame present a major hurdle, and understanding them hurdle is a big stepping stone toward learning how to build decks and play:

“So why is it so easy to communicate a basic theory for drafting, but so difficult to offer sound advice on how to play Commander? Why can a five-letter acronym start any player off at Friday Night Magic, but building your first deck for a casual game of EDH requires multi-thousand word essays to explain? Some might argue that the complexity of the format demands this much detail. Others will suggest that since there is a wide spectrum of expectations for the format that fall somewhere between the casual “House Rules No Counterspells, No Attacking Until Turn Ten” and the cutthroat “Stax Lockdown No One Plays But Me” playgroups, that any general advice is essentially meaningless.”

From there he goes on to say that the system he developed (content to be discussed further down) can not only bridge the gap here, but essentially ignore it completely:

“I disagree. I believe that if you break Commander down into its constituent parts and examine every deck that successfully creates fun and interaction at the table, you can assemble a list of rules for EDH deckbuilding and playing that are as simple to learn and apply as BREAD. Whether you are building a casual squirrel tribal deck for laughs or assembling a competitive Animar list for a local tournament, I’d like to suggest a Unified Theory of Commander that can help inform your decisions both during deck construction and while you are slinging spells at the table.”

[Editor’s Note: Before we dig into the disagreements, it’s worth pointing out that everyone on Team GDC is wayyyyyy on board with his goal – making decks that create “fun and interaction at the table.”

Rock on.

-Dave]

DISAGREEMENT THE FIRST

I whole-heartedly disagree with Jason’s position here. EDH is a casual multiplayer format at its core. The place to start is with the metagame you’ll be playing in. Ignoring the social climate for an EDH group on this level is kind of like saying, “Well, how much different can running the Indy 500 be from the go-cart races I used to do? I’ll just make sure to check the oil and see that the tires on my Toyota Corolla are properly inflated. I should be fine.”

START with your playgroup. The best possible entry to the format is to borrow a deck from someone and jump into a game. You may still step on some toes, but the damage you can do is mitigated greatly by the fact that the deck you’re using is made with the group in mind already. You’ll also have a front-row seat to the group dynamics, and you’ll see a wide array of other cards, strategies, and general choices that will set your mind spinning with ideas. You’ll have a better understanding of the format in general – and more importantly the group in specific – if you start here.

Moving on, we get into Jason’s theory. The mnemonic is this:

“My Deck Tickled A Sliver.”

The basic principle is the same as “BREAD” above is for drafting; you focus on prioritizing types of cards in the order of the following categories to build a successful deck that will get you, the newer player, into the games quickly and easily. The categories:

“My” – Mana

“Deck” – Draw

“Tickled” – Threats

“A” – Answers

“Sliver” – Synergy

I’ll give Jason credit, as the categories are pretty strong – I think there are some ways they can be improved, such as swapping “draw” for “card advantage” to encapsulate tutor effects as well as things like Cycling lands and Cascade – but all in all, the basics are there (and I’m just nit-picking.)

I see two fundamental flaws with the theory itself as it stands, however.

DISAGREEMENT THE SECOND

I would start by changing the mnemonic by adding a “G” at the beginning for “General”. (Possibly making it read, “Golly! My deck tickled a sliver!” I suppose that to be format-correct these days, it needs to be a “C” for “Commander”, possibly making the phrase, “Criminey! My deck tickled a sliver!”)

This is where you start. Always. Unless you’re constructing a shameless “goodstuff.dec” list (more on that later), your general is always going to lay the foundation of what comes next in your build. Are you hankering for a tribal Elves build? Perhaps a graveyard-centric Unearth deck? Maybe you’re taking a page from @GUDoug and looking to make a “scale birds”, “old men”, or “things wearing capes” deck. Maybe you’re simply looking to utilize an interaction that exists in specific colors, or there’s a certain sub-set of cards that you want to pull together to nail out a strategy. (I did this with my Zedruu the Greathearted list, for example.)

Maybe you really do just want to play a giant pile of all the best green, black, and blue cards.

No matter what, you’re starting with your general. The thing that makes EDH/Commander what it is – how it differentiates itself from other formats – starts with the design implementation of a command zone, and someone or something sitting inside of it. (There’s a discussion about the loss of resources suffered when you ignore your general, but that’s for another time…) Don’t ignore or waste the opportunity to make the most of it.

Moving on –

DISAGREEMENT THE THIRD

This is all about “slivers”. Not only is “synergy” in the wrong place in regard to level of importance on Jason’s list, I’d even argue that it shouldn’t be on the list at all, but rather it should be an overarching design reference for everything you put in your deck. I guess that does screw up the mnemonic, which is kind of a bummer. I’ll have to re-create it, so going forward it now reads:

“Son! Get My Damn Tequila Already!”

The main problem I have here, and the main reason that so many EDH writers and forum denizens tout the strength and importance of synergy, is that a lack of it will steer a deck firmly into a directionless pile of goodstuff cards. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve sat down at a table to play a game with a newer player, only to watch him flip Damia, Sage of Stone as his general and then play out a game like this:

-Land, Sol Ring.

-Land, Kodama’s Reach.

-Land, Seedborn Muse. Hinder opponent’s removal.

-Land, Phyrexian Reclamation. Fact or Fiction on opponent’s end-step.

-Land, Boundless Realms, Avenger of Zendikar, opponents checking email, people trading, Slobad, Goblin Tinkerer player heads off to make some soup, etc…

The deck stagnation is simply oppressive at best, and downright stifling at worst; if you aren’t taking the time to consider what your general is capable of or what your metagame looks like, every new deck is going to simply default to the best possible examples of the cards in Jason’s list. Decks will start to look very similar. Worse yet, it runs the risk of forcing people into specific decks that serve the categories the best. If “mana” is most important, why would anyone choose a non-green general? Since blue owns draw, so every deck should have a Simic base, and so on.

[Other editor’s note: Your deck will also not be that good if it faces any tuned deck with an actual focus and theme.

-Sean]

Again, it’s fine if you just want to experience playing all the best cards in a color combination, but it will not retain any long-term attachment, and deserved or not, the Sol Ring-into-Prophet of Kruphix play will start to irritate people in a hurry if every game sees it happening.

This disconnect has a multiplying effect on everything it touches. The experienced player with his new experimental minotaurs tribal deck who gets stuck at a table with two or more new players will be too annoyed at being good-stuffed out of the game that he’ll likely not bother to spend the time to help explain some other options and angles to these players. The new players won’t see any interesting tech or interesting old-school card selection, and they won’t progress as deckbuilders, players, and more importantly, understanding members of the metagame.

THE CORE OF THE ISSUE

Jason’s strategy is all well and good if the overall goal is to create a competitive (read: winning) deck. Now, I don’t think that’s what he’s necessarily suggesting here at all, but I think it illustrates why trying to shoe-horn EDH/Commander deckbuilding strategy into a mnemonic is not a great proposition. The flavor of the format is really what makes it great; it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. The reason that we, as ambassadors of the format, try to give open-ended advice to new players is that it’s an open-ended format in general. Winning isn’t a be-all, end-all goal. There’s so much ground to cover, so many hundreds of thousands of different decks to be made and enjoyed, that it’s a shame to close off the cardpool and the possibilities in the way that competitive formats often do.

All of that said, here’s my suggestion for a “Unified Theory of Commander”:

-Watch and learn. Borrow a deck and play some games before you even consider what to build yourself. Take it all in, from cards to strategies to how people interact with each-other. Learn what flies and what is frowned on.

-Open your favorite Magic search engine (Gatherer, Magiccards.info, etc.) and run a search for “legendary creature”. If you saw some cards that looked cool or did awesome things in the games you witnessed, focus on those colors. Pick a general that jumps out at you.

-Start with a good basic blend of mana production-to-business spells that floats somewhere in the 40%-60% range. A good starting rule of thumb is to aim for 38-40 lands and a handful of mana producers (Signets, Cluestones) or mana fixers (Burnished Hart, Expedition Map.) Think about how they interact with your deck; are you running an Elves build, or perhaps a Karador, Ghost Chieftain reanimator deck? Wood Elves will be better than Rampant Growth.

-Work in some card advantage; every deck needs a way to reload, find answers, and stay in the game. It’s easy to add draw to any deck, and there are tons of tutor effects in every color and for every type of card, so look at what helps you out. Demonic Tutor grabs anything in your deck, but Survival of the Fittest feeds your creature toolbox and makes Karador easier to cast. Your artifact-centric build can gain a ton of card advantage by running Salvaging Station and Aether Spellbomb to draw cards and keep relevant answers on tap. Garruk’s Packleader gives you a beater and a way to draw every time you drop a big creature into play. You don’t have to overdo it here, but make sure you see some way to get card advantage going with some regularity – I typically look to add 8 to 12 cards in this category, but go with what you feel.

-You need to deal with things one way or the other. That might mean board sweepers, pinpoint removal, cards that prevent others from functioning (think Null Rod here), or even counterspells. Is your deck designed to swarm the board and be aggressive? Rootborn Defenses is a great answer to Decree of Justice. Will your artifact deck fold to Return to Dust? Pack a counterspell or two, and the discipline to use them to protect your cards. Need a sweeper, but don’t want to wreck your own board? Austere Command lets you hit what needs to be hit, while maximizing what survives at the same time. Think about what works for your build.

-Have a way to win. Don’t fall into the trap of running Avenger of Zendikar in your green deck just because it’s one of the best green threats; pick something that works with your build. While you’re busy protecting your artifacts from Return to Dust, use them to also power out a huge Broodstar. Run a “counters matter” deck that lets you reload Wickerbough Elder and Triskelion with proliferate cards like Contagion Clasp, but also toss in Darksteel Reactor to see if you can get there. The cardpool is pretty huge, so get digging for that gem that ties everything together.

-Once your deck comes together, play it! See how well it fits into your playgroup. Was it fun to pilot? Did it feel like it was struggling to compete, or too strong? Did some cards work better than others? Keep your eyes open, and change things in and out as often as you feel like it. My weekly regimen is to play Wednesday night, analyze the results Thursday night, and tweak the deck Friday night.

-Don’t be afraid to switch to a new deck (or build a totally new one!) The format is wide open, and half the fun is coming up with cool new interactions and strategies to try out. Paint yourself into a “staples mentality” corner; you’ll have fun and enjoy playing for years and years if you keep trying new things out.

CLOSING TIME

Jason, you’ve written a solid article, and I’m all for anyone who wants to help new players get going. Like I said, we’re the ambassadors here, and we need to…er…ambassadorize. Just make sure that you don’t overlook the parts of Commander that make it so great and fun in the process.

-Cass
@GDCCommander