“Great in Commander”
I see this phrase pop up quite a bit when people are discussing big, splashy new cards. Usually this comes up when someone is discussing a card in the context of limited, standard, or modern, and saying that it’ll never see play in constructed formats. Usually it’s on a card that costs more than 6 mana. Usually it’s on a card whose effect is aggressively medium.
I don’t like the attitude that Commander is a place where seven-mana bad spells are the bread and butter of the format. Over the next three weeks I’m going to take a crack at explaining exactly why that is, and we’re going to get to discuss an incredibly deep issue along the way – card assessment!
Today, in part one of the three-part series, we’re going to look at two important concepts that are going to set the stage for the rest of the series.
This is a topic I’ve been dying to write about for some time now, and it should really be at the core of any card evaluation discussion. Setup cost, in general, is the amount of work you need to do for a card to do what you want it to do. Let’s take a look at the setup cost for a few extremely basic cards:
For vanilla creatures, setup cost is actually fairly easy to figure out. The amount of work you have to do to get a 2/2 Grizzly Bear in play is essentially getting 2 available mana in play, and one of them has to be green. This could be from lands, mana rocks, Elvish Spirit Guide, or any number of other sources. This could be done on turn 1 with a good draw, but more than likely you’re going to be casting this on turn 2 if it’s in your opening hand. Either way, the mana cost describes the conditions that need to be in place before you can reap the benefits of what the card represents.
Setup cost can get a little more complicated when you branch out into assessing other cards. Let’s explore some other broad categories so you know what to look for.
Effects on Lands
This is one setup cost that I see people assess incorrectly all the time. An effect stapled to a land isn’t “free”, despite the fact that it doesn’t have a casting cost.
Quite frequently when a land provides some kind of effect, it produces only colourless mana or no mana at all. It’s easy to look at this as a benefit – after all, this means that you can run Maze of Ith in every single one of your Commander decks! The unfortunate part is that land drops tend to occur at a set rate of one per turn, and playing one of these lands means you’re forgoing the coloured mana production that a mana-producing land would provide. This means that playing one of these lands has the setup cost of missing out on either fixing or mana production. These lands should generally be excluded from any land count calculations (except when you’re considering explicitly colourless cost requirements like Eldrazi Displacer).
I find it’s more helpful to think about these things as a permanent that you can “cast” by skipping your ability to make your land drop. In the late game, this isn’t generally a problem at all. In the early game, though, you likely have other things you can do to advance your strategy that don’t require a setup cost of putting you behind your opponents on tempo. Early game tempo losses tend to be much more severe than late game tempo losses in terms of the overall impact they have on the outcome of the game.
My playgroup sometimes laughs about how you can use Mycosynth Lattice and March of the Machines or Quicken and Show and Tell to do some truly ridiculous stuff in Commander.
Turning permanents into creatures gives you the ability to utilize effects that are normally only given to creatures with other types of permanents. Similarly, putting permanents into play at instant speed can offer a ton of opportunities to do bizarre and twisted things that would likely make even R&D read the cards they designed more than once.
This is a joke, of course, and not a legitimate comment on strategies. The deckbuilding freedom in Commander absolutely allows people to design intricate 10-card combos that allow people to steal their opponents’ commanders, equip them to their own commander, swing for huge damage, then phase out the entire pile for good. The main concern when you’re deckbuilding is that you have to accurately assess your ability to actually do these things during the course of a game.
The setup cost of doing something like Mycosynth Lattice + March of the Machines + some other effect is compounded by the variance of a 100-card format, because of the lack of functional redundancy of these two effects. When we’re assessing the entire package’s setup cost, we’re talking 3+ cards, 10+ mana, as well as the assumption that our opponents will sit back and watch while we assemble the machine. If we’re not able to assemble the pieces quickly, we have to devote additional cards and mana to protecting it. They’re not stellar on their own, so you either have to accept the liability that they’re dead-in-hand more often than not, or devote a bigger section of your deck to cards that interact positively with them. This will ensure their effects are more applicable throughout games that you’re able to satisfy their setup costs.
This is one of the biggest traps I see people fall into when evaluating cards – they see a conditional ability and assess the card based on the ability as though they will always be able to take advantage of it. In reality, when a card has a conditional ability, you need to add the ability’s conditions to the casting cost of the card it’s on to arrive at the total setup cost of the ability. LSV and Marshall Sutcliffe did an awesome job of explaining this concept during their Limited Resources reviews of Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch.
This concept came up in BFZ and Oath because of the prevalence of Landfall as a mechanic. When you look at a card like Akoum Hellkite or Emeria Shepherd, it can be super tempting to assume that they’re going to turn all of your lands into Shocks or Reanimates. Landfall on these cards is a perfect example of a conditional ability that adds to setup cost. If you think really critically about the recent games you played, how many lands did you have in your hand as of turn 6 or 7? For most decks and most games, the answer to that question is zero. On top of that, for something like Emeria Shepherd, you also have to have something in your graveyard for your late game land drops to do something. This will happen more often than having a grip full of lands on turn 7, but if your meta runs graveyard hate you might find that setting up this ability is more difficult than you anticipated.
A payoff is what you get in exchange for your setup cost. If you’re a farmer, the setup cost is the water, fertilizer, and labour that you put into growing and harvesting your crop, and the payoff is the crop itself. You’re not likely to do all that work if there’s nothing to harvest, so I think it’s also important to talk about what a payoff is. A payoff is what you get in exchange for your setup cost. In the examples above, your payoff in exchange for 3R and a few turns worth of building up that 3R is a 3/3 red Giant creature on the battlefield. This generally represents either 3 damage to your opponent each turn until your creature dies, or shielding your life total from some amount of damage from your opponent’s creatures.
In general, I think payoffs are pretty up-front. If your setup required to draw 2 cards is paying 2 mana, 2 life, and a card, the payoff is that you draw 2 cards. There’s no mystery involved here – your payoff is that you get to draw 2 cards. I don’t think that identifying payoffs is something that people really struggle with, although I do think that people will sometimes overestimate how big a payoff actually is.
Where I see deckbuilders struggle the most is assessing how much benefit they should be getting for the setup cost that’s required to achieve it.
Setup Cost vs. Payoff
You can visualize most basic setup costs and payoffs by thinking about them as a graph over time:
Each point on each line shows you the total amount of payoff that the different creatures will provide if they’re cast at the earliest opportunity and are allowed to perform their duties unmolested until that point in the game. Each of these creatures stays at 0 damage until their setup cost has been satisfied, at which point they start providing some kind of payoff. Note that the cards with the highest casting costs – even though they end up ahead in the long run – end up providing exactly zero payoff until much later in the game.
Great in the Second Half of a Commander Game… Maybe
By and large, the cards that I see described as “Great in Commander” are cards with high setup costs and big payoffs. Commander, after all, is the format where we get to play all of our cards that are too unwieldy to find homes in other constructed formats, right? That’s where I begin to disagree with popular opinion. It’s really easy to look at a card like Desolation Twin in a vacuum and see only this blue line:
Unfortunately, though, the experience of actually having this card in your deck during a game is much more likely to look like this blue line:
The Grizzly Bear’s payoff is lower in the end, but its setup cost is low enough that I know I’ll get some kind of benefit from it in nearly every game. Desolation Twin’s setup cost is so high that it’s entirely possible (and even likely) that I won’t get to enjoy any payoff at all in a lot of games I play.
The same concepts can be applied to the other types of cards that we explored earlier. With the multi-card synergies we looked at, you’re going to have a very small number of games where you’ve got a certain length of time at zero benefit, and then presumably some huge payoff (whatever that payoff might be). Overshadowing those games is a truly massive number of games where the line stays at zero for the entire game. If you average them all out, the line tends to stay near the zero mark, and that’s a pretty decent way to come up with a solid concept of how useful a card actually is.
When you look at a card this way, the number of games at zero utility has a much bigger impact on the average utility of the card than the size of the payoff in the games where you actually manage to use it. As a general rule, more obscure interactions that have less functional redundancy will have more games at zero. There are some notable exceptions to this, and building those types of interactions will use some of the tools we’ll be exploring in parts 2 and 3 of this article series.
That’s it for today! Stay tuned for next week when we’re going to talk about modifying and reducing setup costs so we can more reliably take advantage of some of these bomby effects that we all love.
Beyond that, if you’re in Winnipeg next weekend, be sure to check out the Millenium Room at Central Canada Comic Con at the RBC Convention Centre. The main event is the Fusion Gaming 5k on Saturday, October 28, but not a lot of people know that there’s a big Commander tournament on Friday the 27th as well! I’ll be there plugging away for my chance at winning a full set of Commander 2017 decks, so if you’re offended by anything I’ve written in the past year, this is your annual chance to come shut me up. I’ll also be there grinding on-demand competitive and casual Commander pods for prize wall tickets literally all weekend. Come join us!