When I played Magic back in the mid-90’s at our high school’s cafeteria table, we used pretty terrible cards. This was when competitive information came to us from a magazine called Scrye, the internet was in its early stages, and even if you were obsessive about Magic, you probably didn’t have an exhaustive knowledge of the card pool and deck archetypes. So, the environment that we played in was fairly uncompetitive, and though there were some competitive players among us who went out to events and had a taste of tournament level Magic, the rest of us played the random stuff we opened and traded for; more often than not, we played with what would commonly be considered utter rubbish.
One of the cards that stood out for me during that era was Frozen Shade. No, your eyes do not deceive you: Frozen Shade. Back then, there wasn’t much good card draw, and we didn’t have much effective removal between us. These factors – coupled with the fact that few of us knew anything about competitive Magic – made Frozen Shade king; he was nearly unbeatable in combat (barring those cursed White Knights), and if you were careful, you could pump through Lightning Bolts (perhaps with a saved up Dark Ritual!).
Frozen Shade has a place in my heart that modern Magic theory condemns as not just merely wrong-headed, but downright bizarre. Yet, I won many games by spending mana rather than drawing cards. To this day, I get unreasonably excited about the latest Frozen Shade variant in the next set, briefly thinking to myself “that’s pretty awesome!” before realizing that the years of experience and increased card availability will ensure that it will never have the impact it did at the cafeteria table.
Make no mistake, Frozen Shade and its legion of variants are awful cards (except, perhaps, in a very odd sealed pool). But, like so many things in life and Magic, there’s something to be learned from a mis-apprehension of a thing. Part of the equation that made Frozen Shade a real contender was the lack of removal, and the weak card draw in our highly local environment. Often, games of Commander are dead-locked in the exact same way, by players trading questions and answers one for one and eventually running out of gas. Or, more commonly, through the randomness inherent in playing one-hundred different cards, where you don’t always find your card draw or removal by sheer virtue of those cards finding themselves in the remaining eighty cards in your deck. Occasionally, games can be won by effectively spending mana, rather than by drawing more cards.
Even if you build a lot of card draw, ramp and other mechanics considered staples to most Commander games into your deck, you’re going to have many games where your deck does not like you, and will not let you dig out of top deck mode, or you will not be able to accelerate to the mana you need for your critical plays. It happens to everyone. What I want to suggest is not that the answer is to play even more card draw, but to offer ways of effectively spending more mana. Your Commander deck will probably have between 36 and 40 land in it. You will almost always have some mana available to you, even if you don’t have the cards to spend it on. Enter cards like Frozen Shade (but aren’t awful like Frozen Shade).
It dawned on me what was actually happening with Frozen Shade for the first time last year, while I was playing a mono-red Homura, Human Ascendant deck. Perhaps instinctively, I played Kargan Dragonlord and Lord of Shatterskull Pass in the deck simply because I felt (at the time) that there was a dearth of good red creatures that could handle early game creatures, and because a creature with a small body is not always a small thing: they can eat an Edict for a more important creature, carry a sword, or make themselves useful in countless other ways. They didn’t have any particular synergy with Homura, but, I found that games were sometimes decided by them. I had reasoned with myself that ten red mana for an 8/8 Flying, Trample, Firebreathing creature was not unreasonable, and that since Kargan Dragonlord offered a payment plan over several turns, it was rather attractive. Lord of Shatterskull Pass offered similar benefits, only on a grander scale; if you invested a lot more, Lord of Shatterskull Pass became a serious must-answer threat.
This belies a couple of serious points: The first is that by playing Kargan Dragonlord and Lord of Shatterskull Pass, I was simultaneously increasing my ability to respond in the early game and proactively use cards that required a body, like a Sword of Protection and Value, while having a greater density of must-answer threats in my deck once I invested enough mana. Many games passed where I invested mana in a Kargan Dragonlord or Lord of Shatterskull Pass against my opponent’s sluggish boards, and while they dug for removal, or played creatures to block with, I maintained a healthy grip of cards. Second, if removal gets spent on your general, or your ‘real’ threats, a Kargan Dragonlord topdeck later on isn’t quite as awful as another small utility creature might be. It is rather like getting the best of both worlds; you can play a Kargan Dragonlord early, or you can play one late, but it need never be a dead draw, even if you never invest much mana into it.
The second point concerns the issue of card draw that I brought up earlier. The examples I’ve used mostly involve red, a colour known for its paucity of card draw. The same sort of cards hold up well for white; Student of Warfare and Transcendent Master are both highly playable in most local environments, and both enter a threatening middle and late game when invested in. Best of all, each of these is only one card, where something more threatening, like a piece of equipment with a reasonable beater is two. It comes as no surprise that Figure of Destiny, a commonly played card in Boros colours, also falls nicely into this category.
With that in mind, reliably having access to a place to dump mana can become an important fall-back for any deck. Since we’re talking about Commander, there are a few generals that neatly fall into this way of managing your resources. The first two are, again, in the colour that arguably needs it the most: Ashling, the Pilgrim and Kumano, Master Yamabushi. Ashling can effectively take an unlimited amount of mana, despite what her game text implies: you can put two counters on her on your own turn, two on the next opponent’s turn, two on the next, and so on, without ever triggering her blast. Is this usefully spending mana? I think so. If you ever need to wipe the board of non-indestructible creatures, stop her from being stolen with a control effect, or simply get a great deal of reach against an opponent after an attack step, dumping mana into Ashling on each turn is like putting money in the bank that will probably pay out in full later, once you have the six mana available to make her bust. More importantly, as you’re investing in and attacking with an ever more incendiary Ashling, you’re not spending mana on the cards in your hand, while still gaining ground against your opponents. Jenara, Asura of War is very much like Ashling, and I think that if the Bant colours lacked Rafiq of the Many, Jenara would be a much more popular general.
Kumano provides a similar benefit, though less dramatic. Like Ashling, Kumano can take an unlimited amount of mana, though unlike Ashling, you can’t store it up and unleash it when the time is right. Rather, Kumano can always use mana to prod an opponent trying to get Luminarch Ascension online, to kill chump blockers, or exile choice creatures (like Eternal Witness, who, without exception, is up to no good). Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief is a somewhat similar good choice: you can destroy blockers with Drana, and though they might have a set number for toughness, it’s often useful to pay well more than is necessary so Drana can swing for more damage.
The list does not stop here; Oona, Queen of the Fae and Memnarch are well known for endlessly accepting mana for value, Eight-and-a-Half-Tails maintains a tighter grip on the game as you have more mana to spend, and even Bladewing the Risen can use as much as you can give him, converting mana for damage. Finally, there are some generals that can use an ever-increasing amount of mana: Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed can be played and sacrificed to use his ability, and if you choose to place him in your command zone, you will need even more mana for the next bit of retrieval.
That said, there are many generals which do not grant more for value for investment, and many of those do not land in colours that can simply draw more cards to spend mana on. For them, there are a few mana outlets available without too many restrictions. The most notable, perhaps, is the freshly unbanned Staff of Domination. Staff of Domination was previously known as an inveterate infinite combo piece, particularly with Rofellos, Llanowar Emmisary as a general. Once this became a serious issue, the Rules Committee consigned both to the banlist with Rofellos only allowed as part of a player’s 99, and with Staff of Domination being banned completely. The years have been unkind to Staff of Domination as more and more infinite combos have appeared in the eternal card pool, and what was once a dreaded combo is now only on the margins of actual gameplay, not even a distant second to Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and a variety of game-winning targets.
The unbanning of Staff of Domination brings new life: while the capacity of Staff of Domination to go infinite is now laughable compared to the infinite combos printed during its ban, it does remain a useful mana dump for decks that are capable of generating huge amounts of mana, but not capable of usefully expending it (like, mono-Green, whose card draw has improved, but not expanded past the its capacity to spend).
Some of this might seem obvious in retrospect; players have been running Nezumi Graverobber for as long as Kamigawa block has been around, and in many games, putting dozens of mana into Nezumi Graverobber, and later Nighteyes the Desecrator can win you games without the need for further card draw. The highly technical way of thinking this is trading tempo for card advantage. You invest a lot of mana into a Level Up creature or some other mana dump, and you get some value in return without playing more spells. Instead you rely on the increasing quality of cards you’ve already tabled. With that in mind, there are many other cards that trade tempo for card advantage: draw spells. As games drag on, that is all that the efficacious expenditure of mana is about, and that is gaining card advantage through higher card quality and through reasonable investment.