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Commander in the Time of COVID-19

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As I write this column, the world is in the early stages of a pandemic. COVID-19, also called Novel Coronavirus (probably much to the chagrin of the makers of Corona beer) has spread to all corners of the globe. In my home state of Massachusetts schools are closed, restaurants may only provide take-out service and gatherings of 25 or more people have been banned. The National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League have both put their seasons on hold. The world has, in many ways, turned upside down.

The last thing many of us should be worrying about is Commander, but Commander is also a refuge for us in times of trouble. We gather at homes and local game stores, tap mana, cast spells, create stories and forget about our troubles. As the most popular multiplayer format of Magic, and one of the most popular card games in the world, we're faced with a bit of a conundrum.

Today's column is going to hit on a few topics and will wrap up with a timely deck. We're going to tackle some important topics today so please forgive me if I get a little pedantic.

Transmission & Risk

As I understand it, COVID-19 is highly contagious and is most easily transmitted when people are touching their face (especially their mouth & nose) and not washing their hands adequately. The risk to most people who play Magic might seem low, but the big issue is that you can be contagious for days before you show symptoms and some populations are at very high risk. Your teenage brother might get through a Coronavirus infection, but it might kill elderly grandparents or a stranger you pass who has a compromised immune system.

COVID-19 is not the Black Death. That doesn't mean that a lot of people across the globe might not wind up dying from it. We are still in the early stages and our healthcare system seems uniquely ill-suited to cope with this challenge.

What this means for Commander is simple. In theory we should probably not be gathering together to play games for at least a few months. We are supposed to be engaging in "social distancing." If the spread occurs at too rapid a pace, our healthcare system will simply not have the beds to accommodate the number of sick people who need medical attention. If we slow the spread of the virus by dramatically reducing our social interactions and we keep the number of sick people at any given time to a lower number, our healthcare systems may bend, but hopefully won't break.

Playing Online

The obvious solution is to play online, but not everyone is able to play Commander online. Some folks have fancy camera setups and are well versed in how to set up the audio and video to get their in-person playgroup up and running over the internet. I might be showing my age but I'm not in a position to educate you on how to go about setting that up.

I expect the day will come when we aren't just playing on a desktop app, but we're playing online games of Commander in virtual reality. You might even be able to do that now, but for me nothing beats playing a game in person. I love to crack jokes and bluff that I have a Fog. I like to see if I can convince an opponent to do something that's not in their interest. There's nothing quite like playing in person.

Healthy House Rules

If you are going to play games of Commander in person, you'd do well to follow some precautions. If you're asymptomatic, you really have no way to know if you've healthy or you've got COVID-19 and are contagious but just not showing symptoms yet.

I'd suggest having some house rules for every game that you follow as strictly as possible. No, I'm not a doctor or a nurse.

  1. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before every game
  2. No touching your face. Each time you are caught doing so, you lose 1 life for each time (in that game) that you've already done it - so it's like a reverse Aetherflux Reservoir. This is part of what the CDC is advising (minus the Aetherflux Reservoir part).
  3. No touching each other, so no handshakes, high-fives, or even fist bumps.
  4. No touching opponents' dice, decks or cards. This means spells that would have you take control of an opponent's permanent are probably best left out of games entirely for the coming weeks or months. Act of Treason and Mind Control effects should be removed from decks. Gonti, Lord of Luxury, Sen Triplets, Etali, Primal Storm and other commanders who have you playing your opponents' cards or taking their permanents should be left at home.
  5. Give yourself a little elbow room at the table if possible. Space out your playmats just a little more than usual.

These five guidelines might seem pretty extreme (you can see full CDC guidelines here) but the right answer is probably to not play in person at all until this has all blown over. My suggestions are for ways to try to minimize risk if you absolutely, positively refuse to stay home. It should go without saying that if you are sick at all, stay home and do not engage in unnecessary social interactions.

Support Your Local Game Store

Whether or not you think my five guidelines for Commander in the Time of COVID-19 are crazy, there's another concern I want to share with you.

Most of us don't know the fine details of how profitable our favorite game store is. We don't know if the owners are running in the red, making a healthy profit, or are just barely scraping by. We might have an educated guess, but it will usually be just that: a guess.

If the coming weeks or even months see your local Magic community encouraged to no longer gather at the LGS to play Commander, Standard, Modern or even Draft, it's hard to imagine that won't be a financial challenge for them. Some game stores might even wind up closing down if they are already close to the edge of solvency.

My first suggestion would be to talk to the folks who run your LGS. They may or may not be willing to let you know how things are going, but it can't hurt to ask. Find out how they're doing. The local community can do a lot to support an LGS through a downturn like the one we're starting to go through, but only if they open up about how things are really going.

Even if you're not going to be playing at the LGS as often, there are things you can do to help them out during what might be a financially difficult time.

  1. If you would normally pick up boosters at a "big box" store, instead make sure to buy them at your LGS, or from an online retailer like CoolStuffInc, which does operate brick-and-mortar stores.
  2. If you are going to stop by your LGS, don't be shy about buying snacks and drinks from them if they have any for sale. It might seem like a small thing, but profits are profits and it all adds up.
  3. Pre-order product that you know you'd be buying later. If there are going to be weeks when people won't be at the store, adding some cash flow during a temporary downturn might really help them get through to when things balance back out again.
  4. Gift Certificates are a way to also provide a store with cash. If you've got a friend with a birthday coming up, even a $10 or $20 gift certificate will make for a thoughtful present and will again help with that cash flow.

You really don't want to turn around and find that your favorite LGS is out of business. I certainly don't expect any one person to keep their favorite store afloat. If we all try to remember that our purchases make a bigger difference when made at smaller establishments, maybe we can help make sure more of our favorite haunts make it through the Coronavirus pandemic.

Karona, False God in Commander

I promised you a deck, and in the spirit of a global pandemic I can't resist taking a crack at building a questionable theme deck.

Our commander can only be one legendary creature: Karona, False God.

Karona, False God

The question I'm trying to answer is a simple one: can you build a viable Infect deck around a legendary creature that really cares about tribes?

While building a themed deck around Germs might work, I have no idea whether there are enough creatures with Infect in the same tribe for Karona to synergize as a commander.

Karona, False God has haste, and at the beginning of each player's upkeep that player untaps Karona and gains control of it. The reason I'm focused on tribes is that Karona has a sweet attack trigger. Whenever Karona attacks, creatures of the type of our choice get +3/+3 until end of turn.

Infect isn't a type; it's a keyword. As I crunch the numbers, I'm seeing 48 creatures with the keyword. That's a bit of a surprise to me. I would have guessed that it would have been in the high 20s or 30s, but the biggest question is whether or not there is any tribal synergy at all.

The initial results don't look good. We've got the following creature types: Beast, Bird, Boar, Cat, Cleric, Construct, Dragon, Drake, Elf, Goblin, Golem, Gremlin, Hydra, Juggernaut, Imp, Insect, Horror, Hound, Human, Knight, Myr, Ogre, Rat, Rogue, Shaman, Skeleton, Snake, Soldier, Specter, Spider, Warrior, Wolf and Zombie. That's 33 separate creature types, so you might assume we've hit a dead end.

I'd rather build a bad deck than just give up, so let's look at which creature types are most heavily represented in that list.

A lot of them have only one representative, like the Golem creature type and Blightsteel Colossus certainly doesn't need Karona's help to kill someone. There are two creature types that appear over five times in our list: Zombie (6) and Horror (8). There are no Horror Zombies (or Zombie Horrors) so that means we've got over a dozen creatures to work with if we decide to run both tribes.

Over a dozen of our key creatures might not seem like enough to make this work, and that might be accurate, but it leaves us plenty of room for other key parts of a good deck. If we decide to run nine "slots" of seven cards each, we can run a slot of six infect Zombies, a slot of eight infect Horrors, a slot of proliferate cards, a slot of Karona staples, a slot of card draw, a slot of ramp, a slot of boardwipes, a slot of interaction, and call it a day. It might even wind up being a pretty decent attempt at a Karona Infect deck.

The "Karona staples" deserve a quick mention. Karona has haste and goes under the control of each player on their turn, so there's nothing more important than making it difficult for our opponents to kill us with our own commander. That means Assault Suit and the Vow cycle of enchantments are a key to this deck working.

Assault Suit
Vow of Duty
Vow of Flight

Vow of Lightning
Vow of Duty
Vow of Flight

With any of these attached to Karona, False God, she won't be able to attack us. We'll hold her back until we have a decent number of Infect creatures. We're running some creature removal and a few fog spells to help deal with this unique Karona problem.

Naya Charm
Cryptic Command
Cyclonic Rift

We should also note that if we've got at least four power in two or more infect creatures of the same creature type and a spell like Naya Charm or Cryptic Command in our hand, we might just let them hit us with our own commander because we should be able to kill them on our turn. Naya Charm and Cryptic Command can be used to tap their creatures, and Karona will give our creatures +3/+3 so we'll be able to get to 10 poison counters in one swing fairly easily with only a handful of same-type infect creatures if we survive to our turn and get Karona back. Cyclonic Rift and In Garruk's Wake will also serve to remove our opponents' blockers pretty nicely.

The Decklist

While Atraxa, Praetors' Voice doesn't have infect, she happens to have the Angel Horror creature type, so we've actually got a pretty nice little Horror theme in this deck and we should be able to occasionally proliferate an opponent out of the game. This first draft feels a little light on creatures, but I'm loath to remove my removal or interaction just to load up the list with mana dorks or utility creatures.

My lands are very much a placeholder for whatever five-color manabase you can throw together. In some of these columns I wind up loading up the list with fetch lands and shock lands. I've also built budget lists full of Panoramas and Vivid lands. You should feel free to just pay attention to the colors you need and play the lands you have or that you can afford to buy. Better, pricier lands will make for a better five-color deck, but this list isn't exactly pushing the limits of cEDH so you can probably get by without breaking the bank.

Final Thoughts

I went out of my way this past week to stop by the LGS I call home to pick up a box to use for sorting and storing some of the cards we've got strewn about the house. I made a point to pick up an extra little something for one of my decks even though it's not one I play that often. My Narset, Enlightened Master deck didn't really need a foil Time Stretch, but she'll be happy to someday swing and "flop" into it and it was a way to throw a few more coppers at my own favorite game store.

I don't know how COVID-19 is going to wind up affecting the Magic community, but I would urge you to take it seriously, and to do what you can to help keep your LGS going strong. Our game is one that, when played in person, seems like it would be an incredibly easy way to transmit Coronavirus. I feel very much between a rock and a hard place-wanting to urge everyone to just stay home, but knowing that very, very few local game stores can survive two months of virtually no events or income. I don't know the best answer, but I'll encourage you to keep supporting them in any way you can.

I'll do my best to be a little less of a downer next week. I've got a Progenitus deck that I've been working up and need to put the finishing touches on. I'm not actually sure when I'll get a chance to play it, but I'll be happy to share it with you.

If you've got feedback on today's list or just thoughts on the global pandemic, please comment below. I'm always happy to hear from readers and do my best to reply to every comment.

Thanks for reading, wash your hands, and I'll see you next week!

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