One would think that I would use my time off of work over the past few weeks to write a ton of articles for the upcoming year. One would be entirely wrong about that, though. Between visiting my parents and my girlfriend’s parents, I didn’t really stop eating for long enough to hammer out anything of value, so here I am on January 2nd thinking about The Man from Nebraska.
Note: This article is not about the play by Tracy Letts.
A Little Background
A few years back, I found myself working for my jurisdiction’s driver licensing authority. I wrote a lot of instructional material, and travelled a fair bit to teach a few different training courses about some fairly obscure topics. I ended up in that position because I led a team of support staff in a call centre that would take calls from front-line reps who were encountering the weirdest situations you could imagine: suspensions, incarceration, even brushes with the odd foreign diplomat. When you’re stuck behind someone in line at the DMV and you can’t imagine what could possibly be taking them so long, the person behind the desk was probably on the phone with someone like me.
This experience would eventually land me on some projects designing new software functionality and business processes, because I had a pretty good concept of what this stuff needed to do to satisfy the needs of those front-line employees that my team talked to every day. It was in that capacity that I met one of my formative mentors – Monika. I’m very thankful for the things I’ve learned from her.
I’m going to share one of these things with you today, because it’s a fairly useful idea that’s applicable to Commander.
The Man from Nebraska
We were sitting in a meeting one morning, and someone was presenting a new piece of system functionality related to road tests. My role in these meetings was generally to play Devil’s Advocate. I was tracing a path through the proposed processes based on an actual scenario I’d dealt with recently, just to see how everything would hold up in the real world.
I was about half-way through my proposed scenario when Monika asked me if I was worried about a Man from Nebraska. I paused for a moment, so she started to explain.
“We don’t get a lot of people who move here from Nebraska. Are you more worried about them than you are about the people we deal with every day?”
It was at that moment that I realized that the real world scenario I was walking everyone through had happened exactly once in the several years I’d been working for the driver licensing authority, and Monika had a pretty good feeling that this was the case. After the meeting we went for coffee and she expanded on the idea:
Complexity Can Be Costly
There’s something to be said for elegance and simplicity. When you start to heap on tons of moving pieces to something that doesn’t need it, you’re also adding ways for your opponents to interfere with what you’re doing. When you’re building competitively or tuning your deck towards the competitive side of things, this means taking stock of the cards you’ve chosen to get you from A to B, where A is the start of the game and B is you winning. Dennis Lackmeyer and I touched on this in parts 1 and 2 of Seven-Mana Bad Spells – there are some tried and true ways to simplify your strategy so you’re not relying on everything going your way to have a chance at closing out the game.
Contingency Comes in Handy… Sometimes
This is the meat and potatoes of idea behind The Man from Nebraska. When people come to me for deck advice, I invariably pull a card or two out of their deck to ask them what it’s for. Sometimes it’s part of a combo or synergy I didn’t see on the first or second pass through the deck, but more often than not, it’s a narrow answer to a situation they’re scared of.
I’m not going to go so far as to say that Darksteel Plate is always one of these cards, but if you’re running it in your deck and you don’t have a good answer to the question “What are you doing with this?”, you may want to take a good long look at it. Most of the time, I think people run this when they don’t have a good supporting or secondary strategy. Rather than tuning up the deck so it plays well without the commander, people focus really hard on making sure they always have access to it. Leaning on cards like Darksteel Plate can be fine in some games, but you’re planning for a contingency (“destroy” effects specifically affecting a key creature) that actually happens less than most people assume it does. The premiere removal in the format tends to use things like exile, auras, and shuffle/tuck. Sure, wraths are everywhere, but you have to recast your commander three times from the command zone before this card starts to show you any appreciable returns.
Sometimes I’ll pull a card like Counterflux or Summary Dismissal, and the deckbuilder I’m talking to will tell me all about the blowout scenario that this card is involved in. It’s an extended counterspell war, or a stack 10 miles high with triggers. It’s saving your ass from Scapeshift, Purphoros, Abrupt Decay, or worse without missing a step. I play a lot of EDH, and I can honestly tell you that these scenarios happen very, very rarely. I think I can count on one hand the number of counterspell wars I’ve seen that go past 3 spells, and usually if you’re able to take care of a giant stack, the person who made it giant is ready to go again the next turn, if not immediately.
I think Wild Ricochet and Misdirection fall into these categories as well. If you’re playing these for the lulz, great. They can sure result in some wacky stuff going on, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we’re going to get to do them frequently. The average use case here is a player reading every card their opponents cast to see if they target, signalling really loudly to their opponents that something’s coming the second a target is announced.
Shining in Your Time of Need
Comeuppance, Deflecting Palm, and Boros Fury-Shield are the poster children for this type of corner case.
Could you imagine a situation where someone’s preparing their alpha strike, and you’re sitting on four mana to aikido your way out of it? Pretty tempting, right? There’s nothing more satisfying than beating people with their own tools, but these either kill a single opponent (provided it doesn’t get countered) or do stone cold nothing in the games you draw them. Pass.
Reliquary Tower is probably the most common Man from Nebraska I’ve ever seen in this format. It’s played so often, but it’s really not that good outside of a handful of decks. When you play a Reliquary Tower, you’re planning for a scenario where you’ve drawn enough cards to put you over your 7-card hand limit. If you’re in a meta where games tend to go long, there’s no way this is happening without a really strong draw engine or an absurdly high mana curve. If you’re not burning at least a card a turn after turn 5 or so, you’re generally going to get left behind by the people that do.
Sure, it negates the need to exile things you’ve drawn off of Necropotence, but the difference between keeping the best 7 cards out of the top 20 cards of your library and keeping all 20 cards is generally pretty negligible.
When You’re from Nebraska
Having said all of this, I think it’s also worth talking about situations where the macro EDH meta doesn’t align with your specific experience at your LGS or kitchen table playgroup. If you regularly play against mass token strategies like Rhys, the Redeemed or Krenko, Mob Boss, cards like Electrickery are going to be useful in a huge proportion of the games you play. When you’re looking at these types of cards—sometimes referred to as meta-calls or flex slots—just be aware that they can become obsolete as your meta changes. They require regular review as your opponents’ deck preferences change, or if you are planning on playing in a blind meta. When those types of things happen, sometimes you need to take a step towards more generic, versatile pieces until you get a feel for where you can really apply pressure.
The Importance of Versatility
What, then, do we do to avoid this deckbuilding trap? We start to look for cards that are rarely dead in hand. These are the cards that put in work game after game when you slot them in. They’re generally good stuff, but if you don’t need the slots to go deeper on theme or flavour, they’re cards that will be a little more reliable than our friends from Nebraska.
Charms and Modality
Not all of them are great, but man are there some incredible charms out there. My two favourites—Bant and Rakdos, are some of my favourite cards in the entire format. These spells are versatile because at least one of their modes will be useful and relevant at nearly any point in the game. I wouldn’t go too deep on modal spells, because sometimes you have to pay a premium for things like the Command cycle, but one or two in a deck whose manabase can support them is generally fine.
Cycling and Cantrips
Cycling is an incredibly powerful ability in Magic in general, and that holds true in Commander. Cycling highlights the power of having options, so if you find that the card you’ve drawn isn’t useful at this specific point in the game, you can expend some resources to turn it into something else. Likewise, with Cantrips, you might find that something like Into the Roil is less impactful than you’d like it to be, but it’ll make up for it by not putting you down a card. Again, the emphasis here is making sure that you maximize the number of options that you have at any given point in the game.
Observe and Grow
This is one of those skills that just comes with time, but you’ll get there a little faster if you pay a lot of attention to the games you play. When you’re including a card to serve a specific purpose in one of your decks, think back to the last 5 or 10 games you played. Would you have reasonably been able to cast it for good value if you drew it in your opening hand? What about if you topdecked it on turn 5? Would you have reasonably tutored for it at any point during the game? These are the types of questions that should help you determine if you’re planning for corner case scenarios that are never reasonably going to happen.
Have you had one of these realizations recently, where a card you’ve included doesn’t ever seem to be relevant? What did you cut it for? On the flip side, have you included a card that you thought might be a Man from Nebraska and ended up taking your meta by storm? As always, hit me up in the comments!