Lately we’ve been talking a lot about trade-offs and opportunity cost—the idea that doing one thing means you’re acting at the expense of doing something else. If you have a budget of $20 to spend on cards and you want to buy both a fetch land and a shock land, buying one means you won’t have enough money left over to buy the other.
Today we’re not going to be talking about budgetary trade-offs and the best way to spend your money, but we will be talking about the trade-off between building towards your own objective and disrupting your opponents’ attempts to build towards theirs.
I think when most people start building Commander decks, it’s natural to focus a lot on building. People come up with a vision for what they want the deck to do, and they start sketching out a path to get there. We pick Omnath, Locus of Mana and start building a suite of ramp spells. We pick Kess, Dissident Mage and start sifting through a list of all of the creatures and artifacts in the game with activated abilities.
This is a fun process, and it’s definitely not the wrong way to go about drafting a list for a new deck. Your deck, after all, has to actually do something, so figuring out what it is you want to do and supporting it isn’t out of place at all as step 1.
I find that the first couple times I play a deck that I’ve assembled, I feel like a mad scientist, ready to unleash the monstrosity I’ve cobbled together from draft chaff and Scars of Mirrodin uncommons. More often than not, that will come crashing down to earth when I realize that my opponents are playing the game, too. They approach the game with the same excitement I do, and are actively building towards their end-game as well.
These are the games where I have to pay the most attention, because they will often highlight the fact that I’ve gone light on disruption.
Spot removal, mass removal, counterspells, bounce spells, and hate are all types of disruption that represent obstacles for my opponents, and sometimes when we build decks we get so caught up in building that we forget to include as many as we should. If you’re making a conscious decision to go light on disruption, know that you’re signing up for games where you’ll be a passive observer for long periods of time. You’re relying on the idea that your ability to build will bring you closer to winning than your opponents’ collective ability to stop you. Even on a good day, that’s a losing bet.
I Want it All!
Is it possible to do both? At this point, I hope this is the question on your mind, because it’s exactly what we’re going to explore today. The way I see it, there are three main ways that you can try to both build and disrupt your opponents:
Use fewer resources to build
If we look at this problem as one where you have to build less to disrupt more, one of the solutions is to actually build less. This means including fewer cards in your deck that ramp, filter, draw cards, and establish a board presence. This isn’t the only solution, however – you can also try to do do the same thing using fewer resources. Lowering the average CMC of your building package means swapping out cards like Cultivate and Explosive Vegetation for things like Three Visits and Farseek, or exploring the wonderful world of inexpensive mana rocks. If you’re not spending your entire allocation of resources every turn building up your own board, you can free up a little bit of your resource budget to throw up road blocks for your opponents with your disruption package.
When I started to do this, I noticed that casting 1- and 2-mana ramp spells on turn 4 felt a lot better than casting Explosive Vegetation, because I often had ways to use my remaining 1 or 2 mana that kept my opponents from pulling too far ahead.
1-mana dorks are some of the best cards in the format, even if you’re not feeding a Gaea’s Cradle. They’re reliable, inexpensive early-game ramp that can serve as chump blockers and pay sacrifice costs, and fill any number of other roles in a ton of different strategies. They don’t fit in every deck, but if you’re looking for ways to nudge the power level up in a green deck, this is generally the way to do it.
Use Fewer Resources to Disrupt
If you only read one paragraph in this entire article front-to-back, make it this one. I often hear people extol the virtues of Krosan Grip as a combo player’s worst nightmare. As a combo player, I can tell you without hesitation that it’s not. You might also hear similar things about Cryptic Command, Mystic Confluence, and a whole host of 3+ mana counterspells. I’m not worried about these cards for two main reasons:
- I’m actively looking at the resources you have available during the game to determine the best time to do my thing. If I see you have a ton of cards in hand and are holding up 3+ mana, you’re not going to have a target to point it at.
- If you’re holding up 3+ mana because you’re waiting for something to target, you’re often doing it at the expense of advancing your own game plan – especially on turns 3 through 6. If you’re doing this, you’re not representing a threat to win the game.
To be clear, these cards are good cards in that their effects are desirable and sometimes lead to blowouts. They’re not the kind of cards you can cast without planning your whole turn around them, though, so they’re only really going to shine when whatever else you might be doing isn’t very important.
Lowering the average CMC of your disruption package usually means swapping out these spells for things like Nature’s Claim, Dispel, Into the Roil, and Red Elemental Blast. By lowering the average CMC you’re often accepting some downside or a little less versatility, but if you’re designing your deck effectively you should be able to put together a package of role players that will collectively perform roughly the same function as a package of universal solutions at a cheaper average mana cost.
Doing this—along with lowering the average CMC of your package that builds your own board—means that you won’t often have to choose between building and disrupting in the early game. On turn 4, you’re in a much better situation if you’ve got something like Negate and Farseek in your hand, as compared to Explosive Vegetation and Mystic Confluence. In the former situation, you’re able to both build and disrupt, giving your deck a feeling of being agile and adaptive. In the second situation you’ll see a larger benefit, but being forced to build then disrupt means you’re going to feel slower and less reactive to what’s going on around you.
Build While Disrupting
This one is really interesting, because it blurs the line between the building and disrupting. Rather than making the deliberate choice to go with one or the other, it focuses on things that allow you to do both at the same time. This method is really embodied in green, white, and sometimes black hatebear strategies. You might see this under Karador or Gaddock Teeg or Derevi or Meren, and in competitive circles lately it’s been showing up in Tana / Tymna Blood Pod. The idea behind these strategies is that you can get disruptive effects on creature cards rather than non-creature cards. This generally serves a few main purposes:
- Your creatures provide you with some value even if they get removed
- It allows you to use inexpensive tutors like Worldly Tutor and Survival of the Fittest to search for utility effects
- Reanimation themes allow you to circumvent casting costs
Cards like Caustic Caterpillar, Gorilla Shaman, and Kinjalli’s Sunwing do a great job of throwing up obstacles for your opponents, and it’s fairly obvious how they fit into a disruption package. That’s only one part of the value they provide in these strategies, though. Each creature on board makes things like Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and Gaea’s Cradle tap for more mana. In Blood Pod, having creatures around gives you Birthing Pod fodder as part of a line that creates infinite tokens with Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and lets you refill your hand with Tymna’s triggered ability. In both of these situations, your disruption package is pulling dual duty by drawing you cards, dealing and defending against combat damage, and allowing you to tutor up pieces of your win condition.
Even if you’re not playing hate bears, there are plenty of ways to do this in all sorts of decks:
- My group often jokes that Muddle the Mixture has a lesser-known second mode that allows you to counter instants and sorceries. On its face, it may seem like a strictly-worse counterspell, but there are so many things that you might want to tutor for at 2 CMC! Grim Monolith and Power Artifact both cost two, as do Isochron Scepter and Dramatic Reversal. Bloom Tender is an incredible mana dork that’s almost always worth tutoring for in the late game if you’re playing 4+ colours. It can even search for things like Into the Roil or Unsubstantiate if the threat you’re staring down isn’t likely to be on the stack any time soon.
- Chain of Vapor seems like a disruption spell and only a disruption spell, but I can’t tell you how often I’ve used this as a ritual. If you’re running cheap, net-positive mana rocks like Mana Crypt and Mox Opal, you can sacrifice a bunch of tapped lands for a one-time infusion of mana. This obviously isn’t something you’re going to be able to do every turn, but sometimes it’s the difference between being able to win and not being able to win. Using it to bounce your own things for re-use can definitely be worth it.
- Similar to how creatures on board feed into Gaea’s Cradle, enchantments on board feed into Serra’s Sanctum. Enchantment-heavy strategies can also turn disruption like Oblivion Ring into resource production through enchantress effects, or into creatures through Starfield of Nyx, Opalescence, or Sigil of the Empty Throne.
- Tezzeret the Seeker and Sydri, Galvanic Genius can give your artifacts the Opalescence treatment, allowing you to disrupt people with artifacts while actively building towards a beatdown end game.
Early-Game Tempo Losses
With all this in mind, it should be pretty evident why I’m often outspoken about early-game tempo losses, especially from your landbase. If your goal is to get to a point where you’re able to cast 2 spells per turn (to both build and hold up interaction), having your lands come into play tapped undoes a lot of work you’re doing to lower your curve. If you haven’t done any work to lower your curve, it’s even worse. At that point I find decks feel really clunky, as though they’re in a perpetual state of being almost ready to do things.
I could probably write a 3-part series on multiplayer tempo, but that’s another story for another time.
Really, at the heart of this discussion is the idea that you can’t focus on your own stuff to the point where you’re ignoring what’s going on around you—especially if you’re not the fastest deck at the table. If your goal is to build and pilot an agile and versatile deck, you have to be constantly thinking about how it’s going to interact with the other decks at the table.
What kinds of things have you done in your decks to increase your ability to build and interact? Do you reject this method wholesale and go all in on one or the other? As always, hit me up in the comments!