I’m losing a lot. One guy repeatedly shows up to league night with a tiered competitive deck and spikes the event. It’s scaring away new players and contributing to a miserable play environment.

Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme. This is a story that crops up frequently on every message board I’ve ever been on. People post this story and follow it up with my favourite question – what do I do about it? They want a way to even the playing field so the game doesn’t end by turn 3 every time. They want a way to take their resident spike down a few notches when their win rate gets a little too high. In general, I see the community respond in one of two ways – win faster, or play hard control and make them wish they were never born. Today I’d like to discuss the merits of each of those responses.

 

Win Faster

Build a better deck

This is what you’ll sometimes hear. The resident Spike is steamrolling a casual pod with Kaalia or Animar or Slivers, and the community tells the rest of the group to git gud. Play Zur. Play Thrasios/Tymna. Play Teferi PW.

What’s the goal?

This is a little more common on the CompetitiveEDH subreddit than it is on the EDH subreddit, but the core of this message is that it’s time to kick off an arms race. If you go this route, you’re looking to put together a deck that you keep in a black box with a skull and crossbones on the top. This is the deck you pull out when you’re sick of losing and you want to give that filthy spike a taste of his or her own medicine. If you refer back to my my previous article on the topic (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor), we’re going with a mix of Tinker and Tailor. We’re cranking it to 11. We’re looking to make a statement.

Does it work?

This is really going to depend on the playgroup. If the type of competitiveness is healthy and not toxic – that is to say that your spike relishes the challenge of winning against good decks rather than pubstomping an unprepared meta – this method can work really well. As I mentioned in my last article, I’ve gone down this path with some really great results. There’s a level of maturity required to do this effectively, though, and people have to be okay with the idea of adapting their strategies and even trying out new strategies.

If your meta is full of players who are set in their ways and change avoidant, I would never recommend this strategy. In metas like that, all you’re doing is amplifying the problem by becoming another spike that everyone hates to play against. In Playing Commander to Win, /u/Razzliox talks about practicing empathy as a means to predict your opponents’ in-game actions:

In the same way, we’re using empathy here to gage our playgroup’s receptiveness to the idea of equalizing the power discrepancy of the meta by improving the lowest-power decks.

If your playgroup is receptive to it, though, having another fast deck in the meta can force your resident Spike to devote fewer slots to winning the game and more spots to interacting with their opponents. If your Spike wants to keep their win rate up, they can’t ignore the fact that someone might beat them to the punch. When the fastest deck at the table is challenged, and they start running responses to each other’s decks, it has the strange effect of making the game go past turn 3, which increases the likelihood that slower decks can get going.

Play Hard Control

Build the meanest, hardest, fun-policingest deck you can possibly make. Pack that sucker with land destruction, stax, tax, and get the salt flowing. See your resident Spike driven before you and hear the lamentations of their commander.

What’s the goal?

When people encounter a strategy that they hate playing against, many times the temptation is to try to punish the person running it. I think the thought process is that people like to “give them a taste of their own medicine” by trying to create a game environment that’s a miserable slog to play through.

Does it work?

Somewhere, somehow, I’m sure it has worked for someone. In that playgroup, the resident Spike stares down the barrel of Jokulhaups.dec and sees the error of their ways. The playgroup applauds as the Spike dismantles his favourite deck while Albert Einstein hands out crisp hundred dollar bills. The anti-Spike deck is encased in gold and ascends to the heavens, only to return in the meta’s next moment of need.

More often than not, though, what gets built is a deck that never wins. It’s Talrand counterspell tribal. It’s Child of Alara 5C chaos. It’s colour hosers, narrow meta calls, Iona naming blue, and trying to port Lantern Control into a format that doesn’t support it. After watching the resident Spike have their way with the playgroup, the temptation is strong to make them suffer through the feelings of helplessness that everyone else has had to endure.

Control/stax is important, but it’s not what most people think it is

I can hear the responses already – “Jim, don’t you play a lot of control and stax?”. Of course I do! But I have a very particular way of building them that’s decidedly not an exercise in amassing the most hateful cards in the history of the game.

Stax is really great when it’s done correctly. For all the hate it gets in the EDH community, it really does fill an important role in bringing balance to fast combo metas. If people stopped to think about the board more often, and assessed the impact of stax pieces on the entire game rather than assessing it solely in the context of their own game plan, they’d realize that it’s a necessary evil.

Control and card disadvantage go hand-in-hand

This is one thing that a lot of people don’t realize. When you counter a single spell in a 4-player game of EDH, you and that spell’s controller are down a card relative to your two opponents. Playing control successfully usually means you need either a robust draw engine, or a suite of cards that give you more than one card worth of advantage each. Add this to the fact that your opponents will collectively draw three times as many cards as you will throughout the course of the game. Trying to pin 3 opponents down simultaneously in EDH is often an exercise in card disadvantage that simply serves to ensure that you’re hellbent while you watch the winner close things out. Stax is generally one of the better ways to play control because symmetrical effects scale well with the number of players in a game. That being said, stax by itself doesn’t win games!

Why can’t I rely on people scooping?

Simply put, sometimes a light goes on and people realize they’re not dead yet.

I ran into this problem during my brief foray into playing Leovold. Sultai colour identity made it really easy to race to the Puzzle Box lock. It’s one of the most consistent and devastating locks you can land in Commander – right up there with Derevi / Stasis. The problem is that the resources you expend while racing toward the lock are resources that you’re not putting into setting up your win. If people don’t scoop to the lock, you’re stuck sitting around for 5-10 turns hoping nobody draws into a Return to Dust or Phyrexian Metamorph before you’ve assembled your machine.

What should I do instead?

With all that in mind, I want to throw this out there:

A proper stax deck’s goal is to win the game.

The competitive meta – in broad strokes – consists of combo and stax. For the uninitiated, this makes it seem like denying people resources is the best way to combat fast combo. To some degree, that’s accurate. Storm has a much harder time going off under tax effects, and a turn 1 Grafdigger’s Cage is sure to throw a wrench into even the most tuned Protean Hulk lists. What isn’t immediately evident from the “Combo vs. Stax” paradigm is…

Competitive stax decks are combo decks

There. I said it. The most effective way to build a control deck is to decide how you want to win, and build the deck so every piece contributes to that in some form or fashion. Rather than devoting the majority of the deck’s slots to speeding things up and increasing consistency like fast combo decks, stax decks aim to slow the game down, stabilize the board, and create game conditions that allow the stax pilot to win without having to worry about disruption or another pilot winning first.

I really don’t think this can be overstated, so I’m going to say it again – stax is a means to an end, rather than the end itself.

Why do I have to focus on winning?

Let’s think about this for a moment – if a Spike’s primary motivation is optimization towards an end goal of winning the game, is a “miserable” game environment going to dissuade them from acting the way they’re acting? It might, provided the miserable game environment significantly impacts their win rate. If they built their deck to win, and they’re still winning, they’ve accomplished their goals and they’re going home satisfied. Beyond that, the other two players in the pod have to endure this fresh hell and watch from the sidelines as it leads to the same outcome.

Losing forces your resident Spike to shake up their strategy if they want to keep raking in the wins. Rather than being able to spend tons of time fine-tuning their deck for your specific meta, introduction of a stax deck often forces them to swap out large chunks of their deck. Having to focus on pieces that effectively challenge their winning strategy means they often have to take a step back from race-to-the-finish-line combo, and cut consistency and speed to beef up their own disruption suite.

Can I just netdeck a well-built stax deck?

The short answer is no. The types of stax decks that you’ll see in the sidebar on the CompetitiveEDH subreddit are tuned to handle the other established decks in the competitive meta. The reality is that stax decks tend to have a really high number of flex slots – pieces that can be swapped out to better handle dominant threats in your local playgroup. 4- and 5-colour heavy metas might need more nonbasic land hate, artifact-mana heavy metas might need more Null Rod and Stony Silence effects, stompy metas might need something like Meekstone or Ensnaring Bridge. If someone built a stax deck to effectively handle the threats in their meta, you’re only going to succeed with their list if their meta looks like your meta.

 

Threat Assessment: the true MVP

Finally, I want to talk a little bit about threat assessment. I touched on it a little in my three-part series on threat assessment (1 / 2 / 3), but I think it bears repeating. Stax and control is not inherently bad. Sometimes something like a Stony Silence is setting you back a turn or two in terms of mana production, but if it’s pinning down your opponents more than it’s pinning you down, or if they would be closer to winning if the Stony Silence weren’t around, you need to keep it on the board. Sometimes this means actively protecting it, but at the bare minimum it means not removing it until you’re ready to handle things.

 

On their surface, the two pieces of advice I outlined at the beginning of this article seem to make sense. Once we start pulling at threads, though, we realize that “play control” can backfire pretty spectacularly if you don’t put a ton of thought into deckbuilding. Would I recommend either of these strategies for handling a single spikey player who’s dominating the meta? No, not really.

Deckbuilding has never been a suitable replacement for communication

As big of an advocate as I am for solving social problems with deckbuilding and gameplay, there really is no substitute for talking with your playgroup about the games that you want to play. People’s preferences are bound to be different, and just because someone’s concept of the Spirit of EDH™ doesn’t line up with yours doesn’t mean they deserve to be punished. Open lines of communication about threat assessment, desired power level, and budget are always more important than card selection.

That being said, if you’re going to try to solve problems with in-game actions, just be sure that your solutions are going to achieve your desired outcome.

8 Responses

  1. Keven M

    Great article. We had some issues in our local meta and we found that communication cut down a lot of the issues. Knowing the environment helps too. Generally I have a competitive deck and a casual deck handy. When everyone at the table accepts that it’s a hyper competitive round, the games are very interesting and certainly more complex and fun. Thanks again!

    Reply
  2. Daniel Duncan

    You’re on! 🙂

    Btw, I think at the core of my argument, I am intending to make the Spike either Tinker down to a lower power level or Sail off and find a conpetitve playgroup (to reference an earlier article). I believe that the Spike should be the one to change, since they are the ones making it un-fun for the rest of the table.

    Should I drop a link to my column here or email it to you?

    Reply
  3. Daniel Duncan

    I disagree completely with this article. They have basically stated that the only way to combat this is to build a deck that beats them by winning.

    I play Commander at FNM. It is intended to be a casual event: $5 entry, winner gets 3 packs, everyone else in the pod gets 2. One person at the store plays a billion dollar thrasios combo that tends to win turn 3. Every game. Every time I sit down at the table with him, I pull out my Esper “Fun Police” which is packed with basically every obnoxious spell in the history of ever. All of my spells go at him to make sure that he loses, which is often the case.

    The article is right about one thing: my “Fun Police” (almost) always loses. However, I am not playing to win, I am playing to make the combo player lose. As soon as he brings a fun deck to the table, I’ll pull out my fun decks. Simple as that. I go home satisfied knowing that the dick at the table didnt go home with the extra prize pack.

    Communication doesn’t work either. He knows nobody likes playing with him but he doesn’t care that nobody likes him because he gets one whole extra pack a week. This is the only way I have to punish his “dicketry” as my girlfriend calls it.

    The other problem with this article is that the author is out of touch with the reality of the situation. Often, the Spike at the table is the one who is willing to spend bookoo bucks on the game, while other players are not. For a casual format, not sinking in a ton of money should be acceptable. The author’s solution is “Sink even more money into the game that they did!” Congrats, now you’re the dick at the table, and someone is complaining about you in a comments section somewhere.

    TLDR: punishing is fine as long as you can make them lose every game.

    Reply
    • James LaPage

      I’m not sure you disagree with me as much as you say you do. We are certainly in agreement that the only way to send a message to someone when their primary motivation is winning is to prevent them from winning.

      Where we start to deviate, though, is *your* motivation for playing the game. I approached this article under the assumption that people are looking to remedy the problem set out in the quoted line at the very top. This article is for the people who want to return to a roughly 1 in 4 win rate in a 4-person playgroup.

      The solution you chose doesn’t accomplish that, which I successfully predicted in this article as well.

      If people are aware that going down the path you’ve chosen only serves to accomplish the goals you’ve accomplished, this article has served exactly the purpose I intended it to.

      Reply
      • Daniel Duncan

        I don’t think we are in agreement at all. As soon as the Spike player realizes he will never win, he’ll either switch to a more fun deck, or quit. That WILL return you to a 1/4 win rate without your proposed nuclear arms race.

        I /do/ want to win some games. That’s why I want the table to return to an appropriate power level.

        You say that the only way to force a Spike to reevaluate is to affect his win rate, but when someone offers a way to do that that you disagree with, suddenly it doesn’t work. The beauty of “targeting down” a single player (as opposed to Stax, which you suggest) is it only rains hell on one person, and still allows others to play the game (unlike Stax). My solution is don’t let the dick play the game. Your (Stax) solution is don’t let anyone play the game. I guess you’re right. You accomplished your goal. Now you don’t have an opponent at the table who doesn’t understand appropriate power levels because no one wants to play with you.

      • James LaPage

        Hey man, the only time when I pretend to have all the answers is when I think someone is about to go off.

        Feel free to publish a counterargument for why you think your solution is more fitting for the problem described. If you put more effort into it than you do into accusing me to be out of touch with reality, I’ll link to it before my next article and highlight every part of it I think is worth highlighting.

      • James LaPage

        Great! I already had an article in the chamber for today but I will give this a read and hit you up on my next one.

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