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When Magic Surprises You


I didn't know it at the time, but I realize now that when I sat down to play Commander that day I was searching for something. I was searching for surprise. I wanted to be surprised by a game of Commander again.

Two of my friends at work met me in the break room during the lunch hour. A quick, 25-life-and-no-Commander-damage game of Commander has become something of a weekly activity for us. Though our games sometimes go unfinished, nothing breaks up another long day in cubicle land like a trip through the Blind Eternities. It’s a nice break from the world of endless email and death via meeting.

The only problem was that Commander had grown stale for me. I've been in many Commander games that have turned into one long Robot Combat League-style battle — one souped-up monster clobbering another. We cast our Commanders, enchant them, equip them, and otherwise suit them for battle, then bash heads until there's only one creature standing. This is fun in its own way, but for a long time I've felt like this Voltron-style Commander isn’t for me. It doesn't hold the promise of mystery, and the puzzle-solving fever that Cube Drafting does. And it has rarely scratched the story-loving Vorthos itch that grips me like a Kudzu. Mystery, puzzle-solving, story — these things comprise the magic that keep me playing Magic.

Yet, Commander is one of the most popular formats in the game. So, I play. (And during the wait between turns jot down notes in my phone for Vorthos-themed decks that will never beat the Voltron decks my friends build.)

When I sat down on this particular day, I wasn't expecting much — another Commander game over lunch. The best part would not be the game, but hanging out with friends.

I didn't have my deck with me, but someone had the Commander 2016 decks. I opted to play Stalwart Unity because I thought it had the best chance for a fun and weird interactions. Also, due to the limited time available to us I wanted to play something that would accelerate the game by giving everyone extra lands and cards.

And that's when the unexpected occurred . . . 

Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis

The Incredible Hulk

In the late 1990's I was a snail-mail subscriber to Marvel's The Incredible Hulk. (Does anyone still do this?) Finding the shrink-wrapped issue in the mailbox each month was like a mini Christmas morning. In those pre-fatherhood days of yore I would regularly pore over my comics, usually reading, and re-reading each issue multiple times on the day I received them. And then a few more times throughout the week.

A specific event occurred in the life of Bruce Banner during this era which earned a reference in the first Avengers film: Banner was in self-exile. He knew he couldn't control the monster inside him and didn’t trust himself to live around other people. In one particularly memorable moment, Banner put a revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Spoiler Alert! (Though this story is at least 15 years old.) The bullet didn't kill Banner. Whatever it is inside Banner that triggers his transformation into the Hulk is evidently faster than a speeding bullet. As the bullet entered Banner's head the Hulk emerged, saving their collective life.

The idea that the Hulk is so strong he can't even stop himself is utterly fantastic. What power! It would be like the indestructible Blightsteel Colossus trying to destroy himself with his own Predatory Urge. It can't be done!

Blightsteel Colossus
Predatory Urge
Bruna, Light of Alabaster

This brings me to Bruna, Light of Alabaster.

Bruna was the hulk I was facing that day. She wasn't big and green, but she was just as deadly. My friend and colleague graciously supplied his deck list for this article. I think it speaks for itself.

Bruna, Light of Alabaster (The Incredible Hulk) ? Commander | Andrew Rogers

How on earth was I going to beat this thing? As I watched him enchant her over and over I readied myself to suffer another Voltron-style beat down. The third player and I were uniting against her. But she was getting too powerful. She was about to swing with something like 33 damage, with double strike, flying, vigilance, lifelink, unblockable, and infect (thank you, Corrupted Conscience).

I managed to destroy her with Wave of Reckoning before she could attack. That was a close call.

On the opponent’s next turn she was cast again. This time she had haste from Swiftfoot Boots. But I was fortunate to survive instant death with Entrapment Maneuver. Whew! A second close call.

On the opponent’s next turn she was cast again, but due to a lucky draw (thank you Stalwart Unity deck-builder, whoever you are!) I had Arcane Denial in hand and was able to counter her. WOW! Death averted for the third time!

On the next turn she was poised to attack again (this is the fourth time, for those keeping track) and she eliminated the third player. It was just me and Bruna now, and I was running out of tricks. Could a store-bought Commander deck really pack enough punch to defeat a carefully-constructed Bruna deck? Could I take down the Incredible Hulk? I didn't believe so. And not without reason . . . 

Phyrexian Fuel for my Disbelief

While I've been playing Customizable Card Games since the mid-90's, (OverPower, anyone?) I didn't start playing Magic until spring of 2010, during the first Zendikar block. At that time Duel Deck: Phyrexia vs. the Coalition was on the market. I picked up a copy while I was learning the game. I loved the rainbow craziness of the Coalition deck, and though I didn't fully understand who the Phyrexians are in Magic lore, the Mono-Black deck featuring Phyrexian Negator gave me a good sense of what they might be like. (Later that year The Scars of Mirrodin Block released and we all learned the depths of their evil.) In short, both decks appealed to the Vorthos in me, and their synergies started to help me understand the potential for combos in Magic.

I took my Vorthos-friendly decks to various game nights and quickly started losing every game. To be fair to the designers of these decks, I did not play well. I was still learning the game (and am still learning it today!) and made a lot of dumb mistakes. That said, I also learned during this season something that I believe holds true today: The Duel Decks and other decks built by Wizards of the Coast do not pack enough power to compete against(even casual) constructed decks. I've acquired a number of pre-constructed decks over the years; Forged in Stone; Sorin vs. Tibalt; Ajani vs. Nicol Bolas; and they usually lose pretty quickly when matched against someone else's deck in their respective format.

So, did I really think that Stalwart Unity could do anything against my buddy's Bruna monster-piece? Absolutely not.

Dismal Failure
Lose Hope

The Day the Hulk Beat Himself

Bruce Banner was lost in the deep pit of hopelessness when he put that revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He believed he couldn't stop the monster within him. Driven to desperation, he tried to stop it the only way he could.

I won't say I was suicidal like Banner was. But I was certainly facing a hopeless situation against a scary a monster. Enter Reins of Power. This was the surprise I'd been looking for in Commander Magic.

You can probably guess how the story ends. After my friend eliminated the third opponent I drew Reins of Power. Because it’s able to get around hexproof and all the other enchantments on Bruna by targeting the player, I was able to cast it and turn Bruna against herself. The Incredible Hulk-Bruna pulled the trigger! With only two minutes before we had to return to cubicle land, the game was suddenly over. I knocked out the remaining player with his own commander.

Total chaos ensued. It was workplace Magic at its best.

End Step

I have nothing against Voltron-style decks. They may not be my preferred style of play, but they are still awesome. Each time I lose to one of my friend’s monster Commander’s I can say nothing but, “Well done!” in admiration for their combos and deck-building prowess.

Still, it is the surprises in a game of Magic that keep me coming back. Reins of Power did it for me. I was so inspired by that game I built a new Commander deck filled with chaotic elements around Sek'Kuar, Deathkeeper. And I was reminded that for every deck archetype (ahem, Voltron) Magic is deep enough to provide a foil. There are endless surprises in this game. You just need to grab the reins.

Reins of Power

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