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Stepping Their Game Up 2: Commander Boogaloo

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In 2015, I wrote an article called “Step their game up” that was pretty popular. Instead of worrying about how to make your 75% deck worse to make it tenable for a casual playgroup, it encouraged players who had a regular group to help that group get up to speed and make sure they were running enough removal. It’s a fairly simple thing but removal is how you get run over by opponents executing their gameplan before you can execute yours. In fact, early in the series, I advocated running counterspells like Hindering Light because they stopped your opponents from blowing your stuff up but didn’t stop your opponent from developing their own plan. I generally like counterspells like that and while I haven’t advocated Hindering Light effects lately, trusting players not to Arcane Denial the first spell an opponent plays after they draw it, I haven’t forgotten about those suggestions.

As this series evolves, I get more and more people reaching out to me to tell me they have always built this way or a slight variation on it and that’s pretty gratifying. Where I think the 75% theory has a bit of a blind spot, by design, is with established playgroups. I try to remain agnostic to established playgroups because you don’t really need to build for an unknown meta if you’re playing in a known meta. People have mentioned theirs is a 75% meta and while that’s gratifying to hear the most important thing for a playgroup is that they listen to each other. While giving advice for playgroups is a bit outside of my purview, and other series probably do a better job, I came across a reddit post today that really bummed me out and made me want to revisit my “Step their game up” concept with 4 more years of experience with this ethos under my belt.

I excerpted a few passages from the linked post so you get an idea of what OP was dealing with.

“So we’ve had a couple of issues since we started playing, which was 2 people getting majorly salty over the smallest of things, after letting this go for numerous months, last night it finally tilted me to the point of losing my shit.

So the game started with me playing Teysa Karlov, and the other decks being Mizzix, of the Izmagus Varina, Lich Queen & Gisath, Sun’s Avatar. I got a really fast start, T1 Sol Ring, T2 Teysa, T3 Grave Pact .

I was set to try and create tokens free of anyone else playing creatures. This resulted in 2 players nearly conceding just because of Grave Pact, my response to this was both of you are playing White, you should be playing enchantment removal so why is it a massive problem, I don’t have a token generator on the board yet or a sac outlet. (I had both in hand) but the only answer I got was a) I’m never playing if you play Teysa (Gisath opponent) b) this is why people hate sac decks and no one plays them. (Most popular deck on Edhrec for this month) (also this was the Varina opponent that also plays Dictate of Erebos in his deck)

This resulted in being told I’m a spiky player and that I’m playing a competitive deck and ruining the fun, all while the Mizzix player thought it was cool. After 5 mins. of being called every name under the sun I conceded and walked away without saying anything.

I felt to blame for this until I reflected and realized I was not at fault. Also I may add that my Teysa deck has played 15 games and never won. Yet it's competitive and broken.

Sorry for the rant, but this deeply saddens and annoys me and I needed to share.”

Stories like this are a real bummer for me who primarily enjoys Commander as a way to interact with my readers/listeners at events, schmooze with Magic personalities or enjoy a few adult beverages with my regular playgroup at home. This group was in a bit of a gray area between those two concepts - familiar enough with each other that people aren’t that typical kind of polite they are with people they don’t know well but aren’t quite friends and therefore won’t let perceived slights go in the name of maintaining harmony. In short, a semi-regular, semi-familiar group is a dangerous area for potential blow-ups like this.

It’s been years since I suggested how to help your playgroup step their game up and while I stand by that, you may encounter a group like this one that rejected the suggestion that they have ways to deal with an existential threat like Grave Pact which threatened to keep their boards clear. I’m actually not sure there is anything you can do in that case but scoop ‘em up and call it a day. We’re only getting OP’s side of the story and there could be more to it so let’s not be too hasty to judge his playgroup. What we do know is that basic precautions to keep the board clear or troublesome enchantments like that or ways to protect yourself, like running Sigarda, Host of Herons, can let you safely ignore a card like Grave Pact and focus on your own game.

If your group is receptive to advice about removal, why not assess the weaknesses of your own deck and mete out either advice on how to get rid of your troublesome cards or run ways to insulate themselves from the effects? The other alternatives are not play with them or use a much worse deck - and in OP’s defense, it sounds like his deck wasn’t all that spikey and Sol Ring was as much to blame as Grave Pact. Since I don’t like either of those alternatives, I want to talk about some cards that can solve some common problems.

I want to talk about a few potential issues in the following format -

Problem - Grave Pact

Solution - Enchantment removal, Sigarda

Let’s get down to it, shall we?

Problem - Stax

Solution - Wax those Stax

Effects like Winter Orb, Tangle Wire and the eponymous Smokestack can really bog the game down and make it tough for anyone to make the most of their turns. Sweepers like Merciless Eviction obviously hurt them badly but getting to that much mana under a Stax regime seems difficult. Cards like Krosan Grip or Return to Dust / Crush Contraband are much more mana efficient and are surgical, leaving your mana rocks intact and not harming innocent players, bringing the whole table in line. If you’re a bit of a casual group and one player is spiking it up a little too much, you’ll need to act quickly (meaning early in the game) so cheaper options are good. It’s why Swan Song gets the nod over more expensive Counterspells very often - it can counter a very early spell that would put someone very far ahead and you can still use your turn to develop your board without having to hold up mana.

If you are less worried about collateral damage, Creeping Corrosion or Shatterstorm is always a fine idea. Four-mana sweepers can deal with quite a few Stax cards and while it’s not uncounterable like Krosan Grip, it can still happen early enough that everyone can recover before the Stax player gets too many turns to disproportionately develop their board.

Finally, the 75% way is to appropriate the offending rocks. Give them a taste of their own medicine by removing the cards from their deck like we used to in the 90s with Jester’s Cap. However, unlike with Cap, we will be using those cards against them. This creates a new villain at the table, which is fun, splits the hate Stax gets two ways, or lets you decide not to play the cards, neutralizing them until someone pulls ahead and you keep them in line. Aladdin is one way to make use of Winter Orb by giving you one more mana rock and them one less. Alternatively, something like Goblin Tinkerer can wreak some havoc. The best part is, as a Black player, you don’t have many ways to deal with troublesome artifacts and Praetor’s Grasp works wonders.

Problem - MLD

Solution - Mana on the rocks

Decks that run a lot of Armageddon effects can really punish casual groups because they usually have a tougher time getting back in the game, and when a casual deck is the one running those effects, they less often have a way to win quickly. It can be a frustrating exercise, but one way to shrug off Wildfire or Ravages of War is to make sure you have enough mana rocks. Sol Ring is an obvious mana rock, but I see a lot of casual players with a Darksteel Ingot that should be a Commander’s Sphere or, heaven forbid, a Manalith that should be literally anything else. Decks that don’t have access to Blue, especially Boros, Selesnya and Gruul should consider Cluestones or Lockets. Lockets are especially potent in those colors because they provide mana early and two cards late, which helps.

Having a way to get lands back out of the graveyard never hurts, but having creatures and artifacts that produce the mana you need to keep you in the game can help you shrug off the land destruction and complain less. If a player is spamming it, maybe you run more countermagic so that never resolves. If the entire group really can’t cope and the offender refuses to update how they play, they’re the problem, but if it’s an Armageddon or two and they don’t win immediately, you bear a little responsibility if you don’t have a healthy amount of alternative mana sources to keep you in the game.

Problem - Efficient Graveyard decks

Solution - Mow the yard

Maindeck graveyard hate takes up space and isn’t the first thing new player necessarily consider. Sometimes playing with yard hate main feels like you’re playing with a sideboarded deck. However, a few cards like Bojuka Bog, Relic of Progenitus, or Scrabbling Claws do double duty and make a better case for this inclusion. I like cards like Loaming Shaman and Body Snatcher a lot. In fact, Black decks of mine are thrilled with decks that dredge greedily because I tend to run Animate Dead effects that let me remove a problem creature from their “second hand” and get a threat on my side of the board. If your group can’t deal with a Karador or Meren deck and you’re always losing to the combo, it only takes one of you to stick a “nuclear option” like Leyline of the Void or Rest in Peace. That player may get salty that they’re being targeted, but I think some of that satliness comes from the frustration that such a powerful deck has such a large weakness that’s easily exploited. At least have those cards on you to swap in if that player wins the first game handily and refuses to switch decks. Fool the table once, shame on you. Fool the table twice, shame on the table, for not upping their game on the table.

Problem - Swipe effects

Solution - Write your name in Sharpie

Remember when your Mother used to try and write your name on everything so you could prove it was yours if someone swiped it? Maybe Branding your permanents isn’t such a bad idea. Brand isn’t a great card but one card that anyone can easily run is Homeward Path. It taps for mana, which is nice, and it gets you back your creatures from the Thada Adel or Bribery player (me). No one loves having their cards used against them, and getting them back means the Bribery player just paid five mana and a card to put a creature into play on your side of the board. Reward their kindness with a beatdown. Gruul Charm is a non-useless charm with a “Brand” mode on it and you can always just run bounce effects to return anything they steal to your hand.

These are all common complaints I have heard from players who are sick of that one player running the table with that one deck, but a lot of them have fairly simple solutions. Most players focus too much on executing their strategy (I’m guilty of this as well) and don’t run enough removal, mana fixing, and card draw. Mind Stone and Boros Locket are mana-fixing AND card draw and they help shrug off MLD, so it’s not that you’re maindecking MLD hate, it’s really that you’re building the way you should because Commander’s Sphere is a very good card and you were running Manalith instead. Rather than wince whenever a player in your group gets that same deck out as every week, make sure you have taken precautions against it, built your own deck to address its weaknesses and make sure their deck is actually good and didn’t just happen to stick the turn one Sol Ring one game out of 10. If you’re going to play with a regular group of players you’re not necessarily friends with, communication is key. As always, hit me up with horror stories in the comments, share this on social media with anyone in your group who needs to read it and tune in next week for more 75%y goodness. Until next time!