Sometimes, when I’m playing with my friends at my dining room table, I get looks for “always having an answer” (even though, like most magic players, I have an answer roughly half the time). [Editor’s note: Welcome back Imshan!!!!!!! We haven’t heard from our swarthiest member in a while. Hope everyone enjoys his wisdom.)
Answers are an integral part of magic, but like so many things, they are not all created equally. Some people pack their Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exiles – or in-colour equivalents – and call it a day. I prefer a more refined, surgical approach, with answers that will handily take care of many problems, which will typically be a surprise coming from your quarters, or those that will leave the player who is leveraging a threat in an awkward position.
I’ll take mono-black cards that can answer Sigarda for $200, Alex
A staple for my mono-black decks is Withering Boon. On its face, it’s a dreadful card; it’s like Remove Soul, but you have the privilege of paying out three life, too. This is not appealing on the surface. You could just play Go for the Throat, Murder, or some other destroy equivalent. And you have to keep mana open for when they cast their creature, instead of post-hoc destroying it. And there are some creatures that can’t be countered. Oh, and did I mention you have to pay three life?
These are all drawbacks, but the first time Withering Boon spares you a Craterhoof Behemoth’s trigger where Murder wouldn’t, you’ll be happy you packed a terrible Remove Soul in your deck. Being able to cancel triggers, to handle indestructible/hexproof/protection from black creatures, or avoid the triggers from something like Ashen Rider can be invaluable. Certainly, it can be foiled by Cavern of Souls, and you’ll never properly handle a Loxodon Smiter like a Go for the Throat would, but that doesn’t mean Withering Boon is inferior. It just happens that it is situationally very strong. Add to that list of strong points that no one, even people who have been bitten by it before, ever sees this coming. It certainly gives some food for thought for playing with Remove Soul, and about the general strength of counterspells in the game.
I’m not suggesting anything radical here
If I earnestly suggested that you “go out on a limb” and try playing Hinder or Spell Crumple, you’d probably stop reading here. Suggesting you play with tuck spells in Commander is perhaps like suggesting you try drinking water when you’re thirsty. It is not so much the inclusion of these cards that I want to point the finger at, but their usage. Much of the time, people are itching to tuck other Commanders, and with good reason: tucking a Commander can put a player at a tremendous disadvantage. However, back before both Primeval Titan and Sylvan Primordial were banned, I would witness players tucking Phelddagrifs only to later (eventually) lose the game to one of these green cards.
Tucking cards is a lot like exiling them; they can’t be flickered, reanimated, or otherwise continually abused. Players often get this tunnel vision with tuck cards, where a general is always the best potential victim. This is just not the case; the vast majority of generals will be mechanically worse than a Rune-scarred Demon that gets flickered continually. If you find yourself with this tunnel vision and you can’t seem to break it, switch to Dissipate for a few games and see how the way you prioritize your targets changes and which darlings you have to kill.
Sometimes it’s better to do less with less
Often a card will seem worse than alternatives because it is weaker, but that ability to make a subtle change in the game ends up more beneficial than a heavy-handed answer. A card that does this and doesn’t get a lot of talk is Trickbind. Sure, it’s just a split-second Stifle, but it’s important to really think about what is going on with Trickbind. It has a lot of features: obviously it has split second and narrow usage, but there are other aspects that are somewhat opaque.
For starters, using Trickbind on an obnoxious enter the battlefield ability might serve better than countering the creature (like with Withering Boon). A regular Counterspell will conveniently deposit the creature in the graveyard, leaving it there to be reanimated and abused. Rune-scarred Demon is my poster child for this sort of thing; the first thing a lot of people tutor for is Living Death, so when someone inevitably wipes the board, they can undo it and find another part of an engine (like, Xiahou Dun, or some sacrifice outlet for Living Death loops). If you Trickbind a Rune-scarred Demon’s trigger, they don’t get that opportunity, and the whole project is miraculously foiled unless they already have their reanimation spell and a sacrifice outlet.
Secondly, there is a subtlety with Trickbind’s timing. Trickbinding a trigger or activated ability usually means that a spell has already resolved or not been answered. This is after the window other players could have acted. Since Trickbind operates in a post-hoc way, it means that other players would necessarily have to play their answers first if they feel threatened. With Trickbind, you can play chicken with the other victims at the table, but be able to pull out the stops after.
Finally, there is another simple subtlety to using Trickbind over a traditional answer; it will make your opponents aware that there is something up, and that they should target another player. Consider the Rune-scarred Demon earlier. Players can now SEE that there is a Rune-scarred Demon hanging around, lurking with the potential to be abused or even just swing. With that in mind, player might now attack the Rune-scarred player. There is a sort of graveyard blindness at many tables, where people subconsciously do not assign the same sort of threat value to a full graveyard that they do to a less full battlefield. The truth of the matter is, if Rune-scarred Demon was in their graveyard, it would potentially be more threatening than the damage it can swing for, but it would not prompt the same reaction from other players at the table.
Obviously, Trickbind will not get the job done in every scenario another answer would. Some creatures are ‘Trickbind-proof’, like Nekusar the Mindrazor, Consecrated Sphinx, and Ephara, God of the Polis. They make Trickbind’s impact minimal or non-existent. Sometimes, leaving a creature on the table will be worse than leaving it in the graveyard (Rune-scarred Demon also loves Rite of Replication). I think, however, if you mix your traditional answers with cards like Trickbind, you might find that they do a better job.
Play stuff you like. You might discover something new!
At the risk of singing the usual anti-staple chorus here at GDC, I recommend playing answers you like. What might happen? You’ll discover something new, maybe. A personal favourite card of mine is Imp’s Mischief. I started playing it because I really like the concept; it appeals to my sense of humour and mischief, and the life loss effect is a lot less punishing in Commander than it would be in other formats. Also, it’s really rare stack manipulation in black; black might have a lot of kill instants, but instants that do anything else are few and far between.
I discovered that I not only really liked Imp’s Mischief (that was probably always going to be a given), but that it could be a real staple in monoblack control. Some card types, like auras (especially on hexproof creatures) are very hard to deal with in black. Imp’s Mischief can ruin your opponent’s gameplay. On one occasion, I Mischief’ed an Indestructibility targeting Uril, the Miststalker to my Skithyrix, the Blight Dragon. Sometimes a little nudge to send a Swords to Plowshares in this direction or that will completely change the shape of the battlefield.
Another example is Telekinesis, from Legends. This card is pretty weak compared to others. It doesn’t kill a creature, and all it does is Fog, and then hold it down for the next two turns. What’s good about it? Firstly, Telekinesis is cool. Second, Telekinesis is so cool. Third, three turns is a really long time. The game could end while a creature is still being man-handled by Telekinesis. Finally, it plays in the same realm as Trickbind where nobody gets to reanimate the creature. It’s a crippling cut (unless they’re playing Flicker effects).
So, if you think you might like playing a card for one reason or another, just play it and see what happens. It’s not like there’s anything at stake.