I hate Oloro, Ageless Ascetic.
I have a bitter loathing for Oloro, and it’s not because I need to deal you two more damage every turn that you live.
Rather, I hate Oloro because it’s emblematic of a growing problem with Wizard’s card design: he makes things too easy. This isn’t especially meaningful, though. I’m sure you understand what it means intuitively, but it does not fully illustrate the depths of my contempt. If I’m going to show you what I mean, it’s going to take a bit of legwork.
First things first: I’m going to suggest something that many competitive players accept as fact, and I’m going to apply it to EDH in a unique way. The decisions you make outside a game of Magic proper will affect your likelihood of winning games of Magic. This ranges into all sorts of things; if you stay up late before an event, you’ll be running on fumes in the actual event, and no matter how good a player you are, you will make more mistakes and earn yourself more losses. Even setting aside that kind of trivial fact, I’ll throw out something more intuitive; the kind of deck you bring to an event will govern how well you do. This is like bringing an aggro deck to a control heavy environment and seeing if the control archetype’s natural predator will win you more games by virtue of favourable matchups. Same thing with sideboards. If you think there’s a lot of graveyard play, you bring your hate along with you. Playing against an environment can be as complex as gets for a competitive event, or as simple as “how am I going to be my friend’s favourite deck next week?”
These things are obviously decisions. You already knew that; it’s pretty clear that something is being decided there. What I want you to start believing is that these are game decisions. These are the same kinds of decisions as the ones you make when you’re selecting which land to play, which land to get when you fetch, or how much you want to commit to your board against the perceived likelihood of a sweeper. So far I’ve said everything with a competitive bent, implying that we’re playing in events. But, the next thing I want to do is apply this to Commander, specifically with deckbuilding.
Choosing a Commander is an important aspect of deckbuilding. If the obvious colour restrictions did not grab your attention, the next part will. Many people generally want their Commander to interact with the kind of deck they’re playing. If you’re playing with Odric, Master Tactician at the helm of your deck, you’re probably going to want a lot of creatures or a lot of token producers so you can trigger Odric’s ability. If you’re playing Krenko, Mob Boss, you probably want some way of having a few goblins out so Krenko produces many more ahead of time. This is true for many competitive decks as well, especially Azami, Lady of Scrolls, or Oona, Queen of the Fae. While it’s true that one can pick a commander “just for the colours” (and many do, especially for odd colour combinations like the wedge colour combinations), players that I’ve encountered generally are interested in taking advantage of their Commander. Outside of five-colour decks, commanders are usually intrinsic to most competitive decks as well; Erayo decks leaned heavily on Erayo before she was banned (and the deck was usually useless without her), and Azami and Edric, Spymaster of Trest are deeply rooted in abusing commander abilities. Oloro is the best general for lifegain, hands down. No other commander comes close, so if you’re interested in playing lifegain and you want your general to do something, Oloro is essentially the only choice.
So far, I’ve only explained that I want you to think about decisions before you sleeve your cards as a game decision, and to see your commander choice as game decision as well. This is the part that I may have trouble convincing you of. The existence of Oloro makes meaningless a lot of potential game decisions. Specifically, choosing a commander, and consequently, choosing which colours you’re going to play, and further consequently, what cards you’re going to play. Oloro’s lifegain is so powerful that other commanders or colours aren’t even a consideration.
One can make arguments for Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter as a lifegain commander on the back of his lifelink. Gerrard Capashen or Zedruu, the Greathearted provide steady lifegain, and Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice can go places with mass lifegain effects. Failing those, you could rationally want to play Karador, Teneb, or Ghave for the colours. But, really, none of these match up to Oloro’s steady lifegain, even when he’s in the command zone. The only reason to not pick Oloro is because of a dislike for the Esper colour combination.
Even considering that Oloro is a superior commander on abilities alone, one could rationally wish to play different colours, but it’s probably the case that Oloro’s advantages will simply outweigh those afforded by other colours. If you want lifegain to do real work for you, you’ll pretty much have to be in black and white for Sanguine Bond, Vizkopa Guildmage, and those two or three cards in the modern era designed for white that look like they want to make lifegain good. This leaves players in a sticky spot if they want to play green for cards like Ageless Entity and Dawnglow Infusion. Since Oloro provides lifegain all the time, and commanders in green don’t, it’s pretty difficult to justify playing a non-Oloro commander for some maindeck life cards. Even if one were printed, it would be awfully difficult for anything to measure up to Oloro’s two life per upkeep in the command zone.
As written, Oloro eliminates an important part of decision-making in the game. Before you ever sleeve up your cards, you’re pretty much pigeonholed into playing Oloro for any deck relating to lifegain. The decision to play Oloro is pretty one-sided; the sheer power alone obviates other choices since Oloro can all but guarantee lifegain throughout the game, unless you’re willing to play a very sub-optimal commander for rather trivial reasons. In terms of game decisions, choosing to play Oloro is a lot like choosing to play Lightning Bolt over Shock. Sure, there might be some obscure corner-case reason to play Shock, but it’ll never come up. It doesn’t help that Oloro is blue as well.
At this point you might ask, “so what?” People like to play the best cards, and Oloro happens to be the best lifegain general. No one plays Shock instead of Lightning Bolt. What’s wrong with playing the best card? The reason is this: I feel like Oloro defines a genre and that the diversity among lifegain decks just dropped precipitously. That diversity is important to varied gameplay. Just as the standard players who played during Zendikar block with Scars of Mirrodin discovered that everyone playing the same Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Stoneforge Mystic, Sword of Feast and Famine and Batterskull made for pretty stale gameplay, Oloro makes for a dearth of worthwhile lifegain deck choices.
Is that so bad? That Oloro is the only life gain general you’ll ever see? You could say that it’s a pretty narrow concern. You might be right, but I see it in a broader context. Before Oloro, a lifegain deck would be unique; many people might play lifegain decks, but each of those people weighed the different colours against each other, and some would choose Teneb, others might pick Zedruu, or some might have gone in some Orzhov direction. There might have been variety, and the idea of a lifegain deck might be rather novel. If you showed up with a life gain deck, people might have said “that’s pretty cool, I’ve never died to Beacon of Immortality and Sanguine Bond before!”
Post Oloro, there are no lifegain decks. There are only Oloro decks. If you ever show up somewhere with a lifegain deck with Teneb at the helm, people might ask why you aren’t playing Oloro. Perhaps worst of all, Oloro decks will never have players dig for tech like other generals might. No one will choose Zedruu as their commander, find Collapsing Borders and surprise all their friends with an amazing piece of tech. Sophic Centaur, Ageless Entity and Voracious Wurm will never see play. Oloro showed up, and made it too easy to choose to play the same stuff as everyone else. And that’s pretty damn boring.