Jim LaPage: Origins

Early in my EDH career, my all-star deck lineup consisted of Aurelia the Warleader (double combat), Kresh, the Bloodbraided (double +1/+1 counters), and Vorel of the Hull Clade (double… everything). Despite being able to double up everything all the time in every deck, I had a ton of trouble closing out games. It seemed like my opponents always had responses for what I was doing. Quite frequently, these were games I was convinced I was going to win until an ass-hole combo player top-decked the right card and stole the game.

This might sound pretty familiar – it’s a playgroup I hear described day-in and day-out on all of the EDH forums I frequent. People (especially new players) find a cool new format that lets them jam their favourite cards and strategies. Everything goes smoothly until something interferes with their carefully laid plans. At that point, I asked myself one of the most crucial MTG-related questions I’ve ever asked myself:

What am I going to do about this?

This is one of the most important questions any of us can ask ourselves, really. It doesn’t do me much good to dwell on the fact that I’m losing more than my fair share of games, but how I respond shapes me as a player and contributes a significant amount to shaping my playgroup. The way I see it, there are 4 main ways to respond to being the loser in your playgroup, and they conveniently align with a nursery rhyme – Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Sailor:



Let the arms race begin

I think it’s perfectly fitting to name the first response after one of the few cards that’s too powerful for Commander. This response simply involves building a better deck than the ones that are beating you.

If you decide to go this route, you need to be aware of a few things:

  1. Competitive EDH is expensive
    Prepare your pocketbook. This is not the road to go down if you’re not  in a position to spend a little extra cash. There are some things you can do to build effective budget decks, but competing with the best means you’re into some pretty pricey cards.
  2. As you adapt, others will too
    This is why they call it an arms race. If you’re around like-minded people and you start to improve your decks, the decks you’re up against will likely improve as well. This is not a situation where you build a high-powered deck and rest on your laurels while you rake in the wins.
  3. Increasing the power level of your decks means your decks will be too strong for some metas
    This is why I’m a strong advocate of having multiple decks at various power levels. I love playing high-powered EDH with my playgroup, but I don’t feel like I’m getting the full EDH experience unless I get my library Paradigm Shifted every once in awhile.
  4. You have to read a lot to be good at doing this
    Magic is a really complicated game. Like, really complicated. When people ask me which articles I read to get better at magic, I usually send them at least a few dozen along with a few primers. Not all of them are Commander-focused (like this recent article from PVDDR), but having a deeper understanding of game mechanics is always a good thing.
  5. Not every playgroup will be receptive to this
    Before going down this path you need to know that not everyone is competitive by nature. Some people have different priorities, and winning isn’t always at the top of the list. I know when I sit down with my Vial Smasher list, I always have a goal in the back of my mind that I want to dome someone for more than 20 damage at once. Why? Because it’s awesome.

There are some serious benefits to doing this, as I mentioned before. This is the route that my main playgroup took, and it’s been a crazy journey for the past couple of years. We went from building piles of jank to piles of good stuff to meta-specific decks to a meta full of the established best decks in the format.

During this time I’ve learned a lot about some of the more obscure interactions in the game of Magic. As it turns out, activating Nin targeting Psychosis Crawler is a lot like bolting a Goyf when there’s no instants in graveyards.

Damage doesn’t kill creatures – state based actions kill creatures.

Learning these corner case interactions taught me about layers, stack and priority, and replacement effects. When my local L2 judge asked me if I wanted to take the L1 exam, I expressed some trepidation. He assured me that he’s seen me play Commander, and the rules interactions on the exam are way less complicated than the things that go down on league night.

This in-depth knowledge of the rules has spilled over into an improvement in my game play, as well. Reading articles on tempo, card advantage, and threat assessment have helped me pilot all of my decks, whether they’re tuned to win or not. It’s helped me understand why certain decks and strategies under-perform, as well as what to do to shore up weaknesses.


Build for your specific meta

Tailoring a deck to fit your specific meta can be an entirely reasonable response to losing a lot. I still do this from time-to-time, even in my competitive meta. I find the most effective way to do this is to build decks that are entirely different from one another, because answers to one deck are less-likely to be effective against the other deck. To give a concrete example, I played Nin, the Pain Artist as my only high-powered deck for quite awhile. When it started getting stonewalled by effective meta-hate pieces like Stony Silence and Null Rod, I built an Animar, Soul of Elements deck.

When your opponents have to build a deck that is equally effective against Nin and Animar, they’re less likely to go all-in on a strategy that effectively shuts down either Nin or Animar completely.

This can be done at every power level, and you can keep your decks at the same power level to avoid escalating the power level of the playgroup.

At the very least, this option allows you to change gears every so often if you hit a cold streak with one of your decks.


Keep on keepin’ on

This one can be pretty tough. Soldiering on and doing your own thing means you’re going to keep losing until something changes, but that something doesn’t always have to be you. This is a good approach to take if you’re constrained by budget, because it requires everyone to talk to each other and end up on the same page with respect to power level. If the entire spectrum of EDH power level were laid out on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the lowest, soldiering on sometimes means convincing some 8s to come play with you at 6.

This approach involves talking to your playgroup about your motivations behind playing Magic, and requires everyone involved to have a little bit of self-awareness. This will also necessarily involve some people making more sacrifices than others, but the benefit is that the entire playgroup is healthier as a result.

Essentially what we’re doing here is we’re all agreeing to build under a set of restrictions that’s more restrictive than the official rules of the game. Set budgets, pauper, house banlists, card-for-card substitutions (like tutors -> draw) are all pretty good methods of doing this.

I’ve got two big pieces of advice for you if you decide to go this route:

  1. Your conversations should yield a list of goals that describe your ideal play environment
  2. You should initially and regularly review the decisions you’ve made to ensure that they’re helping you accomplish your goals

Quite often I see people extol the virtues of house ban lists where they don’t seem particularly appropriate. House ban lists are not a replacement for getting your playgroup to agree to play at a set power level, and a spike who’s banned from comboing infinitely will build storm, stax, Doomsday, or any other number of finite, combo-adjacent interactions. This thread comes up about once every two weeks on /r/competitiveedh. I’ve never seen a situation where the proponents of the house bans welcome these strategies with open arms, because the goal was to power down the playgroup, and the result of the decision was that people built alternative high-powered strategies.

Reviewing the decisions regularly ensures that people understand the rationale behind the decisions of the playgroup, and each player will ideally be less likely to violate the spirit of the restriction even if the letter of the restriction allows them to.


Sail off into the sunset


Find a new playgroup. There’s really not a ton to say about this reaction, aside from the fact that I would only recommend this as an absolute last resort. I consider myself pretty adaptable to most environments, but there are some playgroups I just don’t mesh with. I don’t particularly enjoy the mechanics behind playing 5-pointed star, and I’d rather play 2v2v2 than Emperor. I don’t like combining Commander and Planechase or Archenemy. I don’t think there’s a great reason to functionally errata cards like Felidar Guardian or screw with the poison counter rule. There aren’t a ton of points-based leagues I’ve found that I’d be willing to play in.

These are all personal preferences that some people really dig their heels in on, and none of the responses I’ve listed in this article are going to get me on the same page with playgroups that do these kinds of things. What they’re doing isn’t wrong or bad – it’s just not my thing. In these situations, where neither party is willing to budge, the best thing for both me and them is that I find a playgroup that better suits me as a player.

This doesn’t necessarily mean totally leaving a playgroup, but the best solution might be to find multiple playgroups that scratch different itches. On weekends I play primarily competitive games with my regular playgroup. On Wednesdays I head down to my LGS for some casual/75% fun with a lot of strangers. Sometimes on Fridays I’ll play in a competitive tournament setting. These are pretty drastically different environments that let me flex different sets of deckbuilding, gameplay, and social muscles, and no single environment can give me the entire experience.

Where are they now?

Enough about the journey – where did my playgroup end up? Playgroups aren’t neches My playgroup is both. In fact, just the other day we played 6 games in one sitting:

Games 1, 2, and 3:

Jim: Nin, the Pain Artist (Paradox / Dramatic Sceptre)

Eliot: Thrasios / Tymna (Flash / Hulk)

Bill: 5C Sliver Queen (Toolbox Kiki / Hulk)

Games 4, 5, and 6:

Jim: Vial Smasher / Silas Renn (Alt Casting Cost Tribal)

Eliot: Anax and Cymede (The deck from my first article, linked above)

Bill: Arcades Sabboth (Hive Mind / Epic Spells)


In one of the more competitive games, I managed to stick Metalworker and Staff of Domination, and wheeled twice to try to stock my hand with the 3 artifacts I needed to go infinite and draw my deck. After drawing 1 artifact off the first wheel and 2 artifacts off the second wheel, I cast Mystic Remora and drew the third artifact on my opponent’s turn, drew my deck, and choked the table out with countermagic until I could untap and close the game out. It was a pretty tight game with lines I’ve never had to use before.

In one of the casual games, Bill managed to pull off one of the most devastating plays his casual deck is capable of making – he cast Paradigm Shift into Hive Mind and made us all exile our libraries.

We enjoyed all of these games.

Final thoughts

As with most things, the real world doesn’t work in absolutes (except when it does). The story of my playgroup is mostly a story of Tinker and Tailor with a little Sailor mixed in – everyone powered up their decks while maintaining a gauntlet of low-powered jank, and a few of us get out and play in different environments regularly. You might find that your playgroup needs a healthy dose of Tailor with a dash of Sailor, or any other combination of these methods. If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell where you employed any of these methods, or intend to use any of these methods to address an issue in your playgroup, hit me up in the comments. I’ll feature the best ones before my next article!


The underlying message between all of these methods, though, is communication. Whatever path your playgroup decides to go down, do it deliberately and make sure everyone’s on the same page.

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