(Editor’s Note: Apologies for the delay in publishing this week. We’re experiencing some pretty heavy real-life time requirements on several fronts this week, so we’re a little light. We’ll make it back up to you next week.
(Editor’s Note, Pt. 2: Welcome to Talking Strategy. Erik is spearheading this first article in what I think will be a series that we all will add to over time, meant to take a relatively light ‘a la carte’ look at in-game topics and issues, rather than deck construction. These are things that may be easy concepts, or may be things you’ve never thought much about, but will be easy to pick up ant take with you into your next game. Hope you enjoy!
Keeping up defenses is something that isn’t nearly as useful in a duel as it is in multiplayer Magic. Blocking barely happens in 1v1 games because the trade in resources rarely works in favor of the blocker. Commander is different; we have far more chump-block worthy creatures to toss in front of the bus, and even though we get the benefit of a much higher starting life total, there are more threat sources to offset this benefit. Maintaining proper defenses can keep your life from reaching a precarious total and putting your game at risk.
However, too often we overvalue our defenses and think that we need far more than we do, which robs slots from our decks that could be otherwise utilized. For example – are you playing against tokens regularly? If not, you need a lot less defensive cards available than you think. Tokens can swarm around most blockers, so stronger defensive options are needed; worse yet, they’re expendable, making the return on investment pretty high. (Ever attack into a token swarm with a key creature before? Count the times that your opponent didn’t just swarm block it. Now, count the times said opponent looked unhappy with the trade you just made…)
Against the regular old value EDH deck that is just trying to get ahead on resources, you really only need one or two solid creatures to deter attacks. Of course, this is barring a Craterhoof Behemoth, because that card ruins math and just wipes out a player or two. But against most decks, just a few solid creatures will keep most of the pressure off your back. That is all you really need; not an impregnable fortress, but a solid turret system.
Making an attack too costly for an opponent is sometimes just as powerful as stopping it dead in its tracks. Often that cost is in the creatures lost in the attack and in board position lost over-committing; the potential counter attack from several players is a strong deterrent to an aware player. This is why something like Thragtusk is a good general creature choice, since the five power can trade with a lot and you gain life from its ETB trigger, making it a net gain in value. Plus, if it dies you get another blocker!
Of course something like Avatar of Woe or Visara, the Dreadful is an even better deterrent, since they can block and kill many creatures and then tap to kill another in the process. And speaking of deterrents, you can value cards like Propaganda as long as you are conscious of its drawback. These effects don’t stop or strongly deter an attack, but rather they present a strategic choice to your opponents – They can attack you, or they can deploy more resources. Most often, the cost of attacking into a Ghostly Prison is too high until a critical moment is reached, making this ‘pillowfort’ option just as stron a defensive play as a host of large creatures, or even strong removal.
However, this card does nothing against a Voltron commander. (As with the tokens example above, know your metagame!) The Voltron strategy will gladly pay two or four mana to hit you for a big chunk of the 21 necessary damage. Something else to think about is that with value equipment being popular, even a non-Voltron commander can suddenly become a massive offensive threat. Argentum Armor may be expensive, but it turns even a five-power creature into a two turn clock. Now imagine a creature holding multiple Swords of Value and Card Advantage – what do you think your opponent is willing to pay for those triggers and your demise? Probably quite a lot, so Propaganda just got quite a bit worse.
This is why I don’t recommend relying on pillowfort effects for defense. At least keep a blocker back just in case! Besides, nothing says you need to block this one attack if you suspect something from your opponent, or if you’ll lose more in the exchange. Just don’t throw away your resources without cause.
Take More Damage
Now that we’ve covered protecting your life total, here’s the other side of the coin – you need to take more damage before your react in Commander games. You have forty life to start the game off. I’ll say it again – you have forty (40) life to start the game off. Literally twice the life of a regular game.
Commander players need to be better at managing that life as a resource. The easiest thing is to use it to buy time. Don’t blow that removal spell right away; hang on until a more dire need is present. Too often, players will throw premium removal like Swords to Plowshares at an early aggressive creature.
Don’t do this.
When you are above 30 life, how much does that early bit of damage matter?
This is where these two seemingly-opposite bits of advice fit together. Your life total as a resource is also a means of adding time to your game-plan. As such, I like to stop and mentally run through a few questions before I use removal early in a game. The first question – How much does this damage really matter? Then I ask – What I can expect to come later in the game? (Put another way, does the damage matter now or later?) You don’t want to waste a limited resource on an early creature when you know that something more terrifying is coming.
When you’re evaluating another deck, don’t forget to double check the commander. The commander can be a direct threat or signal of threats to come, so always double check the commander in your evaluation. A Voltron Hippo (Phelddagrif) is a thing; a Voltron 0/1 (Kathari Remnant) is a thing. Just be aware. Also note that when facing certain commanders, more damage is certain to come later…such as Xenagos, God of Revels. Xenagod will pump creatures and it is worth taking an early five or six damage to prevent a sixteen-point alpha strike later.
The final question I ask – Will this impact another opponent more? I often take an early beating to set up more damage to my opponents later. First blood counts…last blood counts more. (Not everyone is as…uh…bloodthirsty as I am during a game.) But consider how much a card will hurt another opponent. Linvala, Keeper of Silence is really annoying, but if you can get by, you probably want to force the Samut, Voice of Dissent player to act against Linvala. Their resources are better used than yours.
You can buy time with your life through damage, but it can be used in other ways too. Black often demands some life for great power. Sign in Blood is only not worth it when you are at two life. I’d probably still cast it at three life. Toxic Deluge is another life payment that can buy you a lot of time. If you’re fortunate enough to own Forcefield, it will buy you practically an eternity.
Long story short – consider how you can use your life total to your advantage while building and playing.
Maintain a Lead VS Expand a Lead
When a player achieves a lead in a game, there are usually two choices in front of them: work to maintain that lead, or try to expand that lead. Many players work to expand their lead, trying to close out a game quickly.
This is wrong.
It is more often better to just maintain your lead and seek to exploit it than to try to expand it. In the first place, expanding the lead encourages you to overcommit, and if your opponent(s) capitalize on your over-commitment, it can be devastating. Don’t lose your lead because you want to win more. I first learned about this concept from Day when the Day Daily was running about StarCraft II. (Unfortunately I do not remember which Daily and could not easily find it in the archive. )
His point works incredibly well in Commander games; when you are ahead on mana, it is time to use that resource productively. You don’t need to cast more ramp spells if you can already out-mana your opponents. The same is true when you have a lead in creatures – you don’t need to run out more and more just because they’re in your hand. Just maintain your lead and work to exploit it; use what you have to make an impact, and bring more to the table when you need to. You don’t want to run out of gas after an opponent casts a sweeper spell; that would be completely throwing away the lead you had.
I ran into this when I borrowed a friend’s Riku of the Two Reflections deck recently. I was ahead on board position with Wood Elves and Avenger of Zendikar[car]d out, as well as a [card]Conjurer’s Closet. Everyone assumed I was going to blink the Avenger every turn, and I could have, but I was a little tight on mana and knew a sweeper was coming. Instead, I blinked the Wood Elves repeatedly to make the Avenger tokens more impactful before they died. Without a haste enabler, I couldn’t leverage a huge number of 0/1s, and I wouldn’t have the lands to boost their power. Getting more mana was useful, and pumped the tokens I did have. Additionally, I had an Eternal Witness that I was holding, planning to use it only after someone cast a wrath effect. I won that game, but if I had blinked the Avenger, I could have given away my lead by trying to win more on the creature count up front.
You only need to win – not win more. This is why exploiting and maintaining your lead is always safer than trying to expand it. If your creatures are the biggest, just make sure they stay that way. You don’t need to have more. If you have the most cards in hand and the most card draw…good! But you don’t need to run up to a twenty-card hand for no purpose. Instead, you should seek to maximize the impact of your card advantage – not the raw numbers
I cannot tell you the number of games I have seen where a player in the lead loses for being greedy in this way. I mean, it still happens to me; I often immediately point out how I was foolish for being greedy, and that whatever effect that currently wrecked me shouldn’t have done so, because my experience has taught me this. I know better!
Try to keep your wits about you and don’t get too excited to extend your lead. (Now you know better too, so you don’t have an excuse when this happens to you!) Exploit your advantage…don’t try to win more.
Easy-peasy, right? Maintaining a good defense doesn’t take a massive amount of resources and it allows you to still attack. You can save some creatures in hand for when you lose your current ones. As you go about defending yourself, remember that it’s okay to take some damage. Especially in the early game, (Fetchland into Shockland from 40 is much safer than from 15) that damage is measly and barely matters. This allows you to use your 40 life to your advantage. Finally, when you get an advantage, seek to maintain it rather than expand it. Maintaining a lead enables you to exploit it, but expanding a lead often means overextending so your opponents can punish you for your greed and take away that advantage.
If you remember these strategy tips, you will throw away fewer games that you had legitimate chances to win. Don’t give your opponents anything for free…especially a win.
What other tips do you have for Commander games? Let me know in the comments and on Twitter.