Autumn Landscape by Thomas Moran (1867). Gilder Bairn by Nils Hamm.
The deer was a surprise.
I'd never hit a deer while driving before. I guess technically, I still haven't hit a deer, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Today's column is a look back at one of the best weekends I've had in a long, long time. Instead of my usual look at the Commander deck I was able to brew up around a new legendary creature, I'd like to share a recap of my experience at Commandfest Montreal over the weekend of July 15-17.
I'm not a veteran of large Magic conventions. I never managed to get myself to a Grand Prix, nor have I gone to a MagicFest, but in December of 2019 I drove down to Commandfest DC. It ended up being a fantastic experience and I vowed to try to attend one every year thereafter. The COVID pandemic screwed up those plans for a while, but when I heard that Wizards of the Coast was bringing back Commandfests in 2022 I was psyched.
With seven Commandfests in North America, I just had to pick one. Richmond and Philadelphia didn't fit into my schedule, Las Vegas, Indianapolis and Bellevue were further than I wanted to go. That left Orlando and Montreal. Orlando was a quick flight down the east coast and Montreal was less than a five-hour drive north. In the end I decided that traveling with some friends from my LGS was a better choice than flying solo, so I booked my hotel and brushed up on my French. That's a lie; I didn't brush up on my French but I'm not too rusty and you can get by just fine in Montreal if you only speak English.
My secret hope was to be able to get involved as a content creator in whatever Commandfest I'd be able to attend. When I registered for Commandfest Montreal I added a note that I was a Commander writer for this fine website and would be happy to help with anything they might be doing. I was contacted by Mauro Bongiovanni from Game Keeper Online and was offered the chance to help with a few panels over the weekend.
I decided I would only bring decks for which I had an altered card as the commander. I've been busy altering cards in my spare time over the last year and a half and had over a dozen decks that fit that self-imposed requirement. My only problem was that one of my favorite decks, Lathliss, Dragon Queen, hadn't yet gotten the alter treatment. In the run-up to that weekend I managed to get ahead in my writing and made the time to alter my Lathliss with artwork from the old 1977 Basic Dungeons and Dragons boxed set.
It was the set I learned the game on, and I've wanted to do an alter using that dragon for a while. I had just done my first extended art alter using a rulebook version of Miirym, Sentinel Wyrm and I think Lathliss came out well.
With two friends from NexGen Comics to keep me company, two panels to sit on, two nights booked at the hotel next to the convention center, and 16 decks I was hoping to play, we set out Friday morning for Commandfest Montreal.
The drive to Montreal was uneventful. I packed a notebook so I could take notes after each match. I'll recap some of the better (and worse) moments, but I'm not going to recount every game.
I did start off my weekend by losing to the Nitpicking Nerds, specifically to Beezy, who artfully piloted a Brudiclad deck to victory over me on my Lathliss deck, "Cherries" on their Faldorn, Dread Wolf Herald deck and my buddy Shawn on his Nikya of the Old Ways deck.
I tallied up my wins and losses over the three days, as much out of curiosity as anything else.
I generally aim for a winrate that's a hair over 25%. I don't play cEDH but I have a range of high to mid powered decks and try to balance playing the decks I want to play with playing to the power level of my table and not playing stuff that my tablemates say they don't want to deal with. I generally think that I end up around 30%, but out of 14 games over the weekend I managed to win 6. Six wins doesn't sound like much but over that small sample size that's a 42% win rate.
One of those wins was largely the result of a player on Tahngarth, First Mate deciding it would be hilarious to put Colossification on my Lathliss. His Tarngarth was locked down with a Darksteel Mutation and he decided it would be more amusing to be a kingmaker than wait until he drew into a way to get his commander back online.
Going into Sunday I was probably around 30% but I should credit my buddy Bryan for telling me Sunday morning that I should play decks I'm excited about. I had planned to bring some less successful decks with me on Sunday and he basically talked me out of it. Instead I packed my day bag with decks I genuinely love to play and the result was a little win streak that pushed that win rate up.
My own winning decks were Lathliss, Vadrik, Astral Archmage, Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord, Garth One-Eye, Yisan, the Wanderer Bard and Muldrotha, the Gravetide. All of these are decks I play with confidence and they usually have a decent shot at winning games.
I was a little surprised that my Grumgully, the Generous deck got two bites at the apple and didn't taste victory either time. The only other deck I played twice was Lathliss. Losing does NOT mean a game wasn't fun, and I had lots of fun playing my new Miirym, Sentinel Wyrm, Multani, Maro-Sorcerer, Wulfgar of Icewind Dale, Thalisse, Reverent Medium and Runo Stromkirk decks even though none of them notched a win.
I find it interesting to see what decks are being played and are winning games at a Commandfest. It's like a snapshot of Commander at the time that the event is held.
The other winning decks at tables I played at included Beezy's Brudiclad deck, Titania, Protector of Argoth, Kenrith, the Returned King, Liliana, Heretical Healer, Go-Shintai of Life's Origin, Gyome, Master Chef (piloted by Guillaume), Mayael the Anima, and a partners deck led by Reyhan, Last of the Abzan and Keleth, Sunmane Familiar. I played against a wide range of commanders and a range of power levels, though most people who go to a Commandfest seem to bring their better decks to play.
I never saw anyone get upset by how a game went, though I'm sure some salt flowed over the weekend. It's not possible to play a dozen games and not get a single bad game, but everyone seemed very upbeat. When you ran into a table you couldn't handle or had a game where your deck didn't show up, it was easy to just focus on the fact that there were lots more games to play and over the course of the weekend everything would probably even out.
I strictly played in casual pods where our prize tickets were evenly dispersed prior to playing. I don't think of any of my decks as clearly being a tuned cEDH build and I wasn't that interested in vying for a greater share of prize tickets. Tickets could be exchanged for packs, singles or even bigger prizes.
I got to wrap up my weekend with a final game, losing to none other than one of the founders of our format: Gavin Duggan. Gavin outlasted me on my Runo deck, the aforementioned Yidris player on Yidris and Madison from the Spike Feeders on her Elenda, the Dusk Rose deck.
I distinctly remember Gavin mentioning that he really loved the fact that all weekend long he was able to walk the hall and hear people laughing.
The enjoyment of Commander is about a lot of things. It's about competing and trying to win. It's about self-expression. It's about camaraderie and having a shared experience. I remember hearing that laughter that Gavin mentioned and was struck by the joy and pride he clearly felt in having played a part in the creation and development of Commander as a format.
The High Points
It's hard to limit myself to just a few high points. I'll try to not go on too much about any one memory. Meeting Gavin and Maddy, sharing a game with them, and talking about painting cards with her was fantastic. Most of my best memories were from games, and some of my favorite moments were in games that I lost.
My second favorite loss was in a five-player game where I was playing Multani, Maro-Sorcerer.
I was helping the table draw extra cards and play extra lands, but had an Orvar, the All-Form player who was very focused on not letting me resolve Multani or keep him on the field. I was able to get an Unnatural Growth out from under a Mosswort Bridge and swing to kill a tablemate on Kykar, Wind's Fury and then I used Roar of Challenge to get Multani through against the Orvar player to exact lethal revenge for his earlier counterspell.
I had made a deal with a Kenrith, the Returned King player that I'd deal with Orvar and he'd deal with our last tablemate on Hidetsugu. The Kenrith player was a man of his word but while he killed our last tablemate, he also combo'ed off. He let me live, though. He let me live after having me draw my entire deck except for 3 cards. I had no outs, but he gave me the chance to go out on my own terms. I played Grothama, All-Devouring and swung Multani - assuring my tablemate that he was safe. Multani fought Grothama and I lost by having to draw another 80 or so cards out of an empty library. It was a pretty fun way to go out and was much better than just being forced to draw out from Kenrith activations.
My favorite loss was in the very next game.
I was on Wulfgar of Icewind Dale, up against an Omnath deck, a Reyhan / Keleth deck and a Pako, Arcane Retriever and Haldan, Avid Arcanist partner deck. I managed to get a double trigger with Mage Slayer to dome the Reyhan player for 20 but didn't push more damage towards him. I was looking for everyone to have fun and didn't really want to knock anyone out early.
I ended up killing the Omnath and the Pako / Haldan players but found myself empty handed in the late game. Matt, the Reyhan player who I had hit for a huge chunk of damage early on, had a Mana Crypt on the field. I was able to put him to 3 life but his boardstate was such that he would be able to kill me on his next turn. A long, winding, interesting game with lots of twists and turns ended up coming down to a single coin flip. Matt happened to be rolling dice instead of flipping and on his upkeep he managed to roll and not take damage. He had the win. It was a hilarious ending to an awesome game and I was just happy to have been a part of it.
It's always memorable when a game that goes for an hour or longer ends up hinging on a literal or figurative coin flip. If I had done a few little things earlier in the game l might have been able to finish off that tablemate instead of having it decided by chance. Chip damage in the early game can matter later on, but I'm happy with the way the game ended. It was both fun and dramatic, and it got me and everyone else laughing and in a good mood.
On Saturday I managed to come across a wandering Gilder Bairn cosplayer!
He wasn't the only cosplayer on site, but I went over and said hello and showed him the Gilder Bairn mashup that I used at the header for this very column. I figured he'd get a kick out of it, and he did seem to like it. We chatted a bit and I told him I used to run Gilder Bairn in an old Vorel of the Hull Clade deck. It's a fun card with great artwork. We never got a game in together, but it always makes me happy to see cosplayers at cons and events.
I happened to play a few games with a pair of brothers who hailed from UMass Amherst and who grew up in the dormitory hall (Grayson Hall) where I spent my freshman year over thirty years ago. I think they said that their mom was the residence hall director, and as I understood it they basically grew up there. They were both great tablemates and my only regret is in not seeing their Hinata deck have a chance to go off. That might have been the weirdest coincidence of the whole weekend.
I ended the weekend with a few takeaways about specific cards. None of these qualify as a revelation but I hadn't fully appreciated these cards - for better or for worse - until Commandfest Montreal.
Keeper of the Accord is quite good. I have it in my Thalisse, Reverent Medium deck but hadn't seen it in a game yet. I got a decent number of lands and tokens from that bad boy in the one game I played with my Thalisse deck. Possessed Portal on the other hand might be good, but is also incredibly annoying. I ran into that buzzsaw playing my Grumgully, the Generous deck and went from having a poor start to being completely out of the running thanks to that weird old artifact. The owner of the Possessed Portal ended up screwing themselves out of the game as well, and I'm not sure why they even played it when they played it. Lastly, I was a little surprised to find out how good Miirym, Sentinel Wyrm is. I threw a deck together for Miirym without a lot of effort or thought and it played much, much stronger than I expected. Miirym is a real beast and if you let one stick around you may regret it.
Threading The Needle
My two favorite wins were both games where victory was far from assured. I always love when I have to do what I call "threading the needle". There might be stax pieces or other permanents on the field that limit my ability to make a push for the win. There might be players with open mana, packing removal or counterspells that I'll have to get past. Games where the win is achieved only by battling through, or artfully dodging, interaction are always the most fulfilling.
There were three games that really fit this description.
The first was one where I was playing Garth One-Eye. The deck is built to try to combo off with Food Chain and a haste enabler, though it can also win using Deadeye Navigator. I had the haste enabler on the field but an opponent had Kozilek, The Great Distortion on the field. The Kozilek player had a full grip and was poised to be able to discard and counter my spells if I went for the win, but I had no idea what they had in their hand. I was able to play a Pongify or Rapid Hybridization and got lucky - the Kozilek player didn't have a 1-drop in hand to counter my spell. That opened the window to go for the win on my turn with Garth.
My second favorite win was with Yisan. I happened to be matched up against a player on Wyll, Blade of Frontiers and the background enchantment Sword Coast Sailor. That was weird because I had last week's column in the works about that very commander / background pairing. I was also up against a Wulfgar of Icewind Dale deck and a fairly oppressive Yidris deck. The Yidris player had a Glacial Chasm and a Mesmeric Orb out and was gleefully milling us on our upkeeps. My main wincon in that deck is Yedora, Grave Gardener and it got milled early on. I also got Altar of Dementia, Temur Charger and Proteus Machine out but they all found their way into the graveyard. I ended up using Timeless Witness to get back Yedora and then played a Temur Sabertooth and bounced and recast "Twit" to get back Temur Charger and Altar of Dementia so I could mill the table out.
The game of the weekend, at least in terms of the wins, was the one game I played with my Muldrotha, the Gravetide deck.
I was up against Omnath, Locus of the Roil, Elminster, and the Yidris player, now on Urza, Lord High Artificer. I was able to Traumatize myself and put Food Chain, Hermit Druid, Mana Crypt, Swiftfoot Boots, and forty other cards into the graveyard, but my Eternal Scourge and Misthollow Griffin were both still in my library. I was able to play Hermit Druid and counter a Counterspell from the Elminster player with a Flusterstorm. My attempt to win got interrupted by a Chain of Vapor from the Urza player and I was sure I had been stopped. I ended up casting Food Chain out of the graveyard and sacrificed some utility creatures along with Muldrotha so that I could re-cast Muldrotha and get a new set of casts out of the graveyard. That gave me the mana to re-cast Hermit Druid. I cast Mana Crypt out of the graveyard to get the mana to equip Swiftfoot Boots and go for the win. It was a great feeling to know that I was able to pilot my deck through multiple attempts to stop me and do some creative problem solving to find the path to victory.
Jumping through hoops and finding a convoluted path to victory is much more fulfilling to me than having a deck do its thing and not encounter any resistance. I notched a win with my Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord deck, but it was simply a matter of building up a strong board, drawing into Staff of Domination and swinging an arbitrarily large trampling Elf at each opponent - with Jarad waiting as a backup in case I needed to sacrifice one of them to kill the table. The deck played well and did its thing, but the table didn't happen to have or draw into ways to try to stop me.
Before I go on, I have to take a moment to talk about the Yidris player, or as we jokingly called him, the Tergrid player.
I played three games with Shawn and he was easily my favorite tablemate. He played decks that were unapologetically trying to be the problem at the table. I'm not always in the mood to play against decks like that, but he brought a great energy to the game. He knew he was being the problem at the table. He seemed to revel in it, and took my kidding about the fact that he was a bit of a monster for playing Tergrid in his deck completely in stride. I made a point of making sure that he knew I wasn't seriously upset about the cards he put in his decks. Cards that are legal in the format are really fine to play and Tergrid is legal in Commander. Shawn was happy to play cards that were real headaches and that we absolutely, positively would have to deal with if we wanted to have a "normal" game of Commander. He expected to take extra heat for the decks and the cards he was playing. He knew we likely had to kill him first, and just seemed happy to just be able to make us stress out and work hard to remove the problems he kept putting on the battlefield.
I would never have guessed that my favorite tablemate of the weekend was the dude who played Urza, Mesmeric Orb and Tergrid, God of Salt.
One of my favorite things about Commander is that a player's attitude and personality can turn a game that could have been a real headache or a bore into an engaging and entertaining match. Shawn did that for us in every game even when we knocked him out first for the sin of playing cards like Tergrid, God of Fright // Tergrid's Lantern.
In Good Company
The biggest new experience for me at Commandfest Montreal was the chance to sit on two panels. I'm comfortable with public speaking and my offer to help was met with an invitation to help run the Start An EDH League and Upgrade Your Deck panels. The former was at 6pm on Friday and the latter was at 6pm on Saturday.
Friday night's EDH League panel was sparsely attended, but the overall attendance at the event was lower on that first day so we weren't surprised. I was joined on the panel by Sean, better known as Astralsflame on Twitch. Sean had run online leagues and we ended up chatting with a half dozen interested players for over an hour. Sean was great company and between the two of us, I think we did a good job fielding questions and encouraging attendees to go out and try their hand at getting something started up at whatever LGS they call home.
Saturday night's panel was with Chris Balon and Gavin Duggan. Chris is from Commander's Herald and has made deck upgrades a big focus of his writing and youtube content. Gavin is none other than part of the core group of judges who founded Commander back in the day. We wound up having less of a panel and more of a circle of people chatting about all things Commander. It wound up being several of the best hours I've ever spent talking about Magic. We did talk about deck upgrades a bit, but the conversation wandered through lots of different topics.
It would have been really cool to fly down to Orlando for the Commandfest that CoolStuffInc.com ran the weekend after Montreal, but I'm very glad I made it to one Commandfest this year. From everything I could gather, Montreal was on the small side, but it was wonderful to be able to help out with some panels and to share the trip with friends from my LGS. Down at Commandfest D.C. back in 2019 I had my first Dim Sum and before we headed home from Montreal I got to try my very first Korean BBQ.
Getting to meet Sean, Chris, Pongo, Madison and Gavin was great. Mauro was a wonderful host and I'll never be able to adequately thank all of my many tablemates, from the UMass kids to Guillaume (on Gyome), to Shawn "The Tergrid Player" and everyone in between for making it such a great weekend.
You never know when a little thing you do in life or in a game could end up making a big difference later on. This column could end up getting one of you out to an event next year and we could find ourselves matched up in a game. You could be next year's Tergrid player at some random 2023 Commandfest.
Speaking of little things making a difference, our crew ended up leaving for home after having that fantastic Korean BBQ dinner in Montreal. Once we got going, one of the guys suggested that we stop for ice cream, but we decided to push on through. I don't generally speed, but a stop for ice cream, a moment of driving slower (or faster) or any of a dozen things along the way could have made a difference in how this story ends.
I started today's column by saying that the deer was a surprise.
Somewhere in the dark as we drove down the highway coming south out of Montreal, well before we reached the border, we were literally hit by a deer.
Yes, you read that correctly.
I was driving and chatting and the next thing I knew, a deer ran straight into the side of my old 2004 Honda Element. By the time I had pulled over it was far enough back and it was dark enough that we didn't try to go back to find the deer. It was jarring and just came out of nowhere. My car was damaged but drivable and we were able to make it home safely.
I was telling you about how small things can make a huge difference later on.
Chip damage on an early turn might have won me that coin flip game. Just the tiniest delay in my trip home and I might have run right into that deer and wound up stuck on the side of the road in the middle of the night. If I had gone just a little faster or started my trip home 30 seconds earlier and I might have been 20 feet further down the road when that deer decided to play a game of Frogger on Route 35 South in Quebec.
The little things matter, even when you have no way of knowing it beforehand.
I will be making it a habit to get out to at least one of these every year and if you're into Commander enough to be reading columns on CoolStuffInc.com, you should definitely get yourself out to a Magicfest or Commandfest if you can.
That's all I've got for today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!