Improving is hard. Like really hard. When you rarely see any meaningful changes it can dissuade you from continuing to invest hard work. To challenge the urge to give up, you should create different ways to set goals and measure progress. Many tournament players do this. They focus on improving a single matchup and measure results, or they focus on learning the archetypes in a limited environment to know what they should seek. But focused improvement is something that Commander players tend to engage in only passively. To actively engage in improving, we need to change our approach.
One theory of improvement is called Marginal Gains. It was pioneered by Dave Brailsford for British Cycling. I first learned about this from an NPR interview during the Freakonmics broadcast. The basis of Marginal Gains is that improving is difficult. But you don’t need to “improve at cycling” all at once. Rather, you break it down into discrete pieces and optimize them. When all the optimized parts are working together, the improvements are much greater than the individual efforts.
For cycling, this breaks into categories like seat ergonomics, head position when cycling, having the same bed at each hotel (moved by support crew) during races, optimizing nutrition and diet for each cyclist, sleep cycles, tire weights and having the right tires for specific road conditions, and loads of tiny things. Changing a head position for more optimal aerodynamics will not win the Tour de France. Not alone. But it does give a cyclist the best chance of winning.
You too can work on each of these little tiny, discrete, measurable changes while striving towards overall performance. It’s all about optimizing things for the greatest performance possible.
Translation to Commander
When I heard about this style of improvement, I immediately began to compare it to my running and rock climbing experiences as well as Magic. Particularly with Magic, I found this to be a great way to approach improving at the game. Magic is one of my greatest passions, and I strive to improve continuously. If I’m doing something, I want to be good at it.
Too often, we look at improving in Magic as something for the tournament realm. Commander players can, and should, work at improving too. Playing casually doesn’t mean we need to play poorly or sloppily. With everyone playing to the best of their abilities, the games improve and players continue to improve.
This also bleeds into my points about winning. Winning a game of Commander is not the result of a single play. It is the sum of the game; every decision made by every player leads to one player’s victory–mulligan decisions, early plays, destroying a piece of an engine, blocking choices. Casting Chord of Calling for a Gaea’s Revenge may have been the game winning play but the game developed to a point where that single 8/5 meant a game ended.
However, Commander is not all about winning, despite my focus on winning and trying to do what you can to win. You will have a miserable time if winning is your sole focus. All things being equal, you should only win a quarter of your games (assuming three opponents). Instead, we can focus on achieving our goals and gameplay. This will ensure your deck routinely does “its thing,” while giving you the best chance of winning the game.
Marginal Gains in Commander
The first step is to play regularly. There’s no substitute for “practice” to improve. Complicated schedules make this difficult, so try to set up a fixed schedule and include playing in your routine. If that isn’t an option, you can rely more heavily on other resources. Read articles, listen to podcasts, watch videos. Get as much information as you can to improve your theoretical knowledge. Even if you are playing regularly, goldfish your decks periodically. You really want to understand what makes your deck operate best in the first few turns. A good start is a huge boost in Commander. If you really cannot find some games, you could try MTGO like Cass, and stay away from the 1v1 games.
The next step is deck knowledge. I hinted at this with knowing your early game. But this also means knowing the cards in your deck. Some players only have a couple decks and perfectly recall the cards in their decks. If you are like me and have tons of decks, then you may want to review your deck before a game. Make sure you know targets for tutors or which cards are high impact. Deck knowledge also includes keeping your deck up to date. Seeing Cruel Edict in a deck is painful. Why do people still play that card? Chainer’s Edict flashes back, Diabolic Edict is an instant, and Tribute to Hunger is an upgraded Diabolic Edict. Use these instead. There are many cards for which upgrades exist, yet we fall behind in keeping our decks tuned. Tribute to Hunger over Diabolic Edict isn’t going to win you a game, but the lifegain can help you live longer against pressure.
Now we can move to breaking down the component pieces. Commander has many moving parts so I am only giving a few examples. Taking a leaf from PurgeGamers, I’m breaking things down chronologically from the beginning and moving through the parts of a game. There is always an early game. But a game is not guaranteed to reach the mid or late game.
Moving to purely mechanical things, make sure you are shuffling properly. Many players have some hefty clumps in the decks due to improper shuffling. Shuffle more! Another mechanical aspect that is overlooked is mulliganing well. How often do you see an opponent contribute nothing to the game as they sit with two lands on the board and nothing to do? Players often keep a hand with no action too. You want a hand that has something to do. Commander has a free mulligan, use it. Also, if you keep a sketchy hand and draw out of it, keeping was still incorrect. The first few draws could just as easily have gone against you. A typical Commander hand has three lands, a ramp piece, and something to do. Ideally you have an answer or a follow up threat.
If your mulligans are good, then you can evaluate your sequencing of plays, little things that can be improved. Do you play a haste creature after combat? Do you activate a Flooded Strand and then cast Brainstorm? You probably want to Brainstorm then crack the fetchland. Land drops after combat allow you to bluff more options, and holding some excess lands in hand can provide a barrier against land destruction and make bluffing better. Do you counter an opposing threat or use a removal spell? That answer depends on how the threat affects you compared to your opponents and how well that threat can be protected. Attack, then cast Wrath of God to squeeze out maximum value. I see people cast a pre-combat sweeper and lose out the opportunity to get in more damage all the time.
I also include a few pseudo-sequencing topics here: forgetting triggers and not putting your triggers on the stack in the order that benefits you. To remember your triggers, take your time through your plays. For the latter, the triggers either are simultaneous or you can manipulate them, such as with Fiend Hunter and a sacrifice outlet. You put the exile effect on the stack, sacrifice the hunter in response, and the return effect goes on the stack; the return effect resolves with nothing to return (yet), the exile effect resolves, and the creature that was exiled is now gone forever. The most common sequencing error is with ETB triggers. You don’t need to announce the target of your Oblivion Ring when O-Ring is on the stack. Let it resolve, then put enter the battlefield trigger on the stack. Don’t give away extra information with Fiend Hunter or Zealous Conscripts, it only aids your opponents.
Make sure your shortcuts work. In many games, I have to slow down an opponent to make sure that all the effects going on the stack are legit and are resolved in the proper order. Learning to shortcut things is excellent, but learn to shortcut them correctly. It will make your wins better, and your opponents will not feel like you were being scummy.
My final example for marginal gains deals with removal. Removal spells are a valuable resource. Do not waste them! Keep it secret, keep it safe. It’s tempting to use a removal spell immediately to get rid of a big scary threat. But if you do not need to use it now, then hang on. Is that creature a threat to you right now? If you can take the hit and everything still be fine, you probably should. Holding back removal until you get maximum benefit takes a lot of discipline.
Breaking down Commander plays and options into discrete parts allows us to focus on optimizing components of our game play. Focusing on Marginal Gains enables you to improve pieces by 1%. When you improve each aspect of gameplay by 1%, the dividends are huge. In cycling, a 1% increase per mile is astounding because the cyclists bike one hundred miles a day. The goal isn’t to have Marginal Gains lead to a win, it’s to optimize your chances of winning.
In Commander, winning in only a small part of the fun, so don’t focus on that. Rather, focus on optimizing the component pieces of your game play so that you can have the best games possible. This may lead to winning more, but the idea is to ensure that you have the best chance of accomplishing your deck’s “thing,” so that you will have contributed to and enjoyed the game.
Have you tried using something like Marginal Gains? What component pieces can you work to improve by 1% to make your game play better? Let me know your thoughts in the comments or in the twitterverse.