Dennis Lackmeyer and I are taking another week to finish up Seven-Mana Bad Spells Part 3: Amplifying Payoffs, so you’ll see that on November 15. If you missed the first two installments, you can check out Part 1: Setup and Payoff and Part 2: Minimizing Setup Costs. Today we’re going to look at some more gameplay analysis!
So often in Commander games I see people make plays without assessing how their actions will impact the game. We’ve talked a lot lately about information and signals that can help you determine when it’s appropriate to take action, and we’ve talked a lot about what needs to go right in a game for you to actually benefit from your actions. The missing piece here, of course, is the impact that your actions have on the game holistically.
Good for Me and Bad for You
This concept seems to come fairly naturally to a lot of people. Entire decks are designed around creating effects that are beneficial for their pilot. We draw cards to increase the number of potential actions we can take, ramp to increase our access to resources, and cast creatures to protect our life total and threaten our opponents.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of actions that are taken in Magic are motivated by maximization of personal benefit. This doesn’t always mean advancing our own game plan, though. If you and I are racing to perform some defined task, like stacking blocks, I can try to finish before you by either completing the task faster or interfering with your attempts to complete your task. They’re both fairly effective methods of finishing my task before you finish yours.
Similarly, in Magic, I have the option of racing to complete my own task (winning the game), preventing you from completing your own task (stopping you from winning the game), or some combination of the two. Both of these strategies, if executed correctly, create a net benefit to me.
Bad for Me and Good for You
Magic would be a much easier game if I didn’t have to play against you. Opponents tend to want to win the game as well, so it’s easy for me to assume that you’re also going to either race to win the game, or interfere with my attempts to win the game.
When you execute your strategies correctly, they create a net detriment to me.
I love Commander more than any other format, and this is one of the reasons why. Multiplayer dynamics bring a whole new dimension of gameplay challenge to an already challenging game. In a multiplayer environment, the question “Who does this benefit?” can have incredibly complex answers, and the ability to answer it accurately is one of the hallmarks of an exceptional Commander player. In reality, most individual actions can create benefits or detriments of varying magnitudes that can be different for each player in the game. We talked about this a bit in my previous article (Threat Assessment Part 3), as well as (Stax, Tax, and Resource Denial), but this is a deep enough topic that I think it warrants its own article.
For each of these scenarios I’ll be taking a crack at representing the likely benefit to each player visually. This isn’t against an objective scale, and there are a ton of details that could change the likely payoff. This is simply to demonstrate the thought processes I might employ to assess each play. For all of these scenarios, we will be using the following pod composition:
Meren of Clan Nel Toth Reanimator / Light Stax
Locust God Wheels
Winter Orb is a card that I play with quite a bit, and its applications are considerably more nuanced than simply “make the game a miserable slog”. Winter Orb does a great job of slowing the game down, providing a disproportionate disadvantage to proactive decks that want to tap out every turn. Decks that benefit from Winter Orb get a decent chunk of their mana from rocks, dorks, and big lands like Gaea’s Cradle and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx.
In this pod composition, Winter Orb generally looks like this:
Winter Orb is a disadvantage for everyone, but—as you can see—its disadvantages are not evenly distributed throughout the pod. In general terms, Azusa’s ability to make multiple land drops per turn (presumably entering the battlefield untapped), gives her the ability to break parity on Winter Orb’s effect. Both Azusa and Meren have access to green, meaning we’re likely to see a healthy suite of inexpensive mana dorks that will provide mana every turn. Meren and Azusa both have access to Gaea’s Cradle, and the number of coloured mana pips on the board means we’re likely to see Nykthos in one or both of these lists as well.
I haven’t posted decklists here deliberately, because we’re not always privy to the entire contents of our opponents’ libraries. This assessment is under the assumption that the Atraxa list is running a more robust suite of mana rocks than the Locust God is, because in a 4-colour deck you have heavier fixing requirements that often require signets and talismans to smooth out.
The big, massively huge caveat here is that these assessments are made without looking at the board state at all. Like most stax pieces, Winter Orb can disproportionately benefit a player who is way ahead in resource production. If Azusa and Meren stumble out of the gate while Locust God chains together a turn-1 Mana Vault into 2 or 3 other mana rocks, none of the other players should even think of dropping a Winter Orb. Winter Orb in this scenario only serves to prevent the players who are behind from interacting with the Big Bad at the table. If Atraxa already has a developed board state, they don’t really have to cast very many spells at all to impact the game. 1 or 2 planeswalkers on board could very easily flip this assessment, so Atraxa loses the least.
If you’re one of the players with a bigger red bar here, you should be actively working to prevent this Winter Orb from sticking around. If you’re one of the players with the smaller red bars, it might even be in your best interest to interfere with someone else’s attempts to remove it from the board. This might even mean burning cards to disrupt spot removal, or even protecting its controller if your other opponents try to take them out of the game to break the lock.
Windfall is a really incredible card in EDH for a few reasons. In quadrant theory, Windfall disproportionately benefits you when you’ve got few or no cards in hand, and it can force people to discard a hand they’ve been sculpting for a few turns. Windfall is a really interesting one in this pod:
Assessment of Windfall is going to vary pretty wildly depending on who has the most and least cards in hand, but I think in general this assessment fits the scenario. Meren—in general—will benefit from the discard as well as the draw components of the spell, as creatures are much more accessible in the graveyard than they are in hand. The Locust God and Atraxa decks are the only ones actually capable of casting Windfall, but the Locust God deck is the only deck at the table that’s specifically designed to take advantage of draw triggers. Given that Azusa allows its controller to play more than 1 land per turn, Azusa is the deck at the table that’s most likely to be hellbent at any given point in the game, so Azusa is more likely to net cards off of the play. Azusa is probably also playing Crucible of Worlds and a regrowth package, so pitching lands to the graveyard – if that’s what’s happening – hardly means they’re gone forever.
If I’m Meren or Locust God at this table, I’m doing everything in my power to help this spell resolve unless it means that the Locust God is going to use it to close out the game in the short-term. If I’m Atraxa or Azusa I’m probably doing what I can to prevent it from happening.
I’m going to come right out and say it – I hate Group Hug decks. They’d be 100% fine to play against if I could say, with confidence, that their pilots regularly engaged in the type of analysis I’m describing in this article. Feel free to provide your anecdotes to invalidate my personal experience, but I’ve never seen it.
Howling Mine is the poster-child for these Group Hug strategies, and the impact they have on the board is actually fairly predictable. If you’re in a colour identity like Boros that’s gated by access to card draw, you’re probably going to benefit quite a bit by having someone else draw you some cards. More than that, though, symmetrical resource generation benefits the player whose deck makes the best use of those resources already. If there’s a combo player at the table, you’re drawing them into their combo pieces. If there’s a player who aggressively trades cards for resources by leaning on a fast mana suite, you’re taking away the downside of making them use those resources to refill their hand.
With that in mind, what does Howling Mine look like at this table?
Similar to Windfall, the Locust God is the clear-cut winner. The deck is designed to draw cards and take advantage of triggers whose conditions involve card draw. Azusa gets a big bump here for similar reasons—the deck ramps and dumps big spells really fast and runs the risk of ending up hellbent in the midgame. Atraxa and Meren both benefit, but not nearly as much as the former two.
There aren’t a ton of scenarios here where Meren or Atraxa end up in the same ballpark as Locust God or Azusa, so tight play likely involves Howling Mine eating a Nature’s Claim before the game is too far gone. If you’re Meren or Atraxa it can be super tempting to just take those cards and run with them, but it’s about as big of a trap as I can think of.
Wrath of God / Damnation
Board wipes are incredibly important for a few reasons in commander, but they’re definitely not the reset switch that some people make them out to be. Wiping the board punishes people who overextend into creature presence on board, and can be one of the truly insane card advantage and tempo plays in the format. It can be super tempting to pull the trigger when your opponents’ boards start to spill over their playmats, but should you? Let’s take a look:
For Atraxa, if we’re looking at a deck with a small or nonexistent suite of creatures, a wrath is all benefit. This prevents all opponents from removing any on-board planeswalkers, and could be enough of a benefit to actually win the game. For Meren, wraths aren’t the end of the world because they extend the length of the game, and likely result in a few experience counters or charge counters on Black Market. When the game goes long and the pilot is able to recast Meren shortly after, it could mean that the only creatures on the board are Razaketh or Wurmcoil Engine, making this a net positive play.
The Locust God needs its insects. Although commander tax isn’t a massive concern, having to recast a 6-drop creature to get your engine back online likely means you’re taking a turn off from advancing your board, keeping up interaction, or both! Similarly, Azusa is going to be disadvantaged because the strategy relies at least partially on having a board full of creatures. This could pop an Avenger of Zendikar and a dozen plant tokens, or a board full of dorks. Either way, you don’t want to be on the red side of this graph when a wrath happens.
What Should You Do in Game?
I obviously can’t go in-depth here and describe the impact of every card on every game state with every mix of archetypes at the table, so I’d like to wrap this up by talking about some quick tips for getting better at this type of thinking:
Have an idea of what your opponents are trying to do. This is perhaps the most important skill you can develop in any format. If you don’t have even a general idea of what your opponents are working towards, it makes it incredibly difficult to determine whether an in-game action will be a boon or a detriment to them.
Determine whether the potential action moves them closer or further away from accomplishing their goals. Once you know what they’re trying to do, you should be able to take a minute and roughly list the pros and cons for each player for any given potential in-game action. If you’re unsure, talk about the potential action in generic terms and try to gauge people’s reactions to it. If you talk about how you’re hoping to topdeck a wrath and Atraxa starts salivating, it could be an indication that they’re going to be able to bury you with it.
Creating options for opponents who are behind can pay off in card advantage later. This isn’t necessarily a politics play like you’ll often see in EDH games. It’s not always going to be an explicit “If you don’t attack me next turn I will counter that removal spell” kind of a scenario. There could be a situation where you have an opportunity to drop a piece that’s going to lock two of your opponents out of the game. If the one that’s not locked out is the odds-on favourite to win the game, you might actually need your other two opponents and their disruption spells to prevent the game from ending. In these situations, it’s generally better to sit back and verbally emphasize where the biggest threat at the table is.
Similarly, if a spell you’re playing has collateral damage (like a Grafdigger’s Cage shutting off the big threat Yisan while inconveniencing Meren Reanimator), you might want to verbally emphasize to Meren that their disadvantage isn’t going to be fun, but it’s necessary to prevent the game from outright ending. This kind of conversation goes a long way towards good in-game threat assessment by all players.
Don’t disrupt things solely because they suck. If you’re a mono-coloured deck, that Blood Moon might turn your Gaea’s Cradle into a mountain, but if it shuts down two or three 4-colour opponents to the point where they can’t do much of anything, you’re probably ahead in relative terms.
Finally, talk about these plays while they’re happening! If you think a play is going to disproportionately benefit one player in a game, call it out! If nothing else, it allows the other players to readjust their strategies to deal with the unintended consequences of one player’s poor threat assessment. They might hold up mana they weren’t going to hold up before, or sandbag a removal spell, or even prevent the spell from happening at all. If you can’t talk about this in game without revealing too much strategic information, talk about it after the game. Talk about what the board looked like, what the questionable action was, and what the intended and unintended consequences were. Doing this often enough definitely has the potential to improve the quality of your games.
Which cards do you see most often that are misplayed in ways that disproportionately benefit someone at the table in an unintended way? Do you have any stories of situations where you won off of someone else’s boardwipe, stax piece, or group hug effect? As always, hit me up in the comments below!