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Winning Ways: Slow Your Roll

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Panoramic Landscape by Aert Van Der Neer (1603-1677). Worldspine Wurm by Richard Wright

Every month in 2020, I've devoted the first installment of Commanderruminations to the topic of Winning. I don't want to push everyone into playing cEDH and I don't want to encourage pubstomping, but I do think a lot of players wish their win rate was just a little higher. Some of these columns have been explorations of well-known wincons. Some have looked at how to turn a single obscure card into an eventual win if it isn't interrupted. Today I'm going to widen the focus and look at a matter of strategy, not tactics.

I already had today's column in mind when I sat down last month to work on a project and put on an episode of Game Knights for some background entertainment. I was watching their M21 Commander episode and you can check it out here. Craig Blanchette was playing Radha, Heart of Keld and he got out to a ridiculously strong start. He used Worldly Tutor to put Azusa, Lost but Seeking onto the top of his library and his second turn saw an Ancient Tomb power out Azusa and let him drop two more lands. A turn-three Crucible of Worlds let him bring a fetch land back out of the graveyard three times and a Wayward Swordtooth gave him a fourth land drop for the turn, so that Windswept Heath came out again. It was a ridiculous start and the sort of thing most players dream about experiencing someday.

An earlier-than-usual Ezuri's Predation set Craig up to be able to deal out some hefty damage and destroy everyone else's board. Nobody else had anything bigger than 4 toughness and he ended up with seven 4/4 Beasts. He followed that up with a Dragonlair Spider, which would theoretically provide him with a steady stream of 1/1 blockers.

It very much felt like Craig had the game in hand.

Josh Lee Kwai wound up top-decking a Mob Rule because of course he did, and he used it to steal all of Craig's creatures and kill him with them. Not only was everyone happy to not die to Craig's impressive board, they laughed uproariously at his misfortune. It's just a game and they all do seem to be friends, but I couldn't help but feel badly for Craig. You have a once-in-a-blue-moon ridiculously fast start and twenty minutes later everyone is laughing at you getting killed by your own army.

I won't spoil the rest of the episode for you. It's definitely worth watching - Josh and Jimmy produce fantastic gameplay videos and they are well worth your time.

I won't suggest that Craig made a mistake to try to get out of the gate so quickly. He played what his deck gave him, and was simply unlucky that an opponent happened to draw into one of a very short list of cards they had that might have saved them.

This episode of Game Knights reminded me that having a ridiculously fast start seems to backfire as often as it pays off.

I've certainly had games where I got going really fast and the deck just couldn't be stopped. My Lathliss, Dragon Queen and Muxus, Goblin Grandee decks have recently given me games like that. The train starts rolling and unless anyone intervenes early enough, a deck can be hard to stop.

I've also had more games than I can recount where I got out to a fast start and before I knew it, every piece of removal and aggro my opponents could dig up was pointed at me. My Winota, Joiner of Forces had her first game unfold that way. I got a bunch of creatures out, I tutored Kiki-Jiki to my hand, and the table did everything they could to kill me first. They succeeded, and I couldn't really blame them.

Today I'm going to explore a really interesting question: is it ever better to "slow your roll" and let someone else edge ahead at the start of the game so they can draw the table's attention and interaction?

Early Ramp

Let's say you start a game with a basic land, a land that enters the battlefield tapped, a Sol Ring and a Signet in your hand, along with some other cards that you wouldn't be able to cast any time soon.

What do you do?

The obvious answer is that you play your basic land, tap it to play your Sol Ring and tap that to play the Signet. In a game against only one opponent, you get as much mana production online as quickly as possible - and you probably don't even run lands that enter the battlefield tapped. In multiplayer you often play out your ramp as quickly as you can. Everyone else is going to be trying to do the same thing and the game is much more likely to end in a combo than to end as the result of lots of combat with a wide range of creatures.

Is there an argument that it might be better to play the land that enters tapped and then to play the basic, the Sol Ring and the Signet on turn two or later?

What if you're at a slower table?

I've seen turn one Sol Rings get blown up. I've heard experienced players argue that it's the objectively correct play to pop that turn one Sol Ring if they can, just to keep someone from getting too far ahead.

I've also seen a turn one Sol Ring / Signet used as an excuse to swing at its owner. Once someone feels comfortable swinging at you, if you don't have a way to defend yourself and don't draw into blockers, it's really easy for your opponents to keep the pain train rolling and just keep up those attacks until you are able to defend yourself.

Most serious attacks in Commander games don't occur in the first few turns, but I've noticed that players will remember who got off to an early start even if things eventually balance out. There's a sense that the player who hit the ground running at the start of the game is still somehow worthy of a little extra attention, even if they're no longer ahead. I'd love to say that players always properly assess threats and understand who is really doing better in a game of commander, but those early fast mana rocks really can stick in an opponents' mind.

To put it another way - when you dropped that turn one Sol Ring and Signet, your opponents probably wanted to punish you for it at the time. If they couldn't that doesn't mean they forgot about it or forgave you for it. Later in the game their ability to deal out damage will probably just get better so you might wish they got their pound of flesh for your good fortune early on in the game.

You might have blockers, and you might be able to ride that early ramp to victory. I've done just that and it felt great. Exploding early and winning feels a bit like pubstomping, but it might just be good luck that your opponents didn't draw answers or removal in time.

You might also drop a pile of ramp on the table and find yourself drawing lands and wishing you hadn't made yourself look quite so scary. Putting a target on your back and then not drawing into the cards you need to be relevant in the mid-game can result in a quick death.

I do think that early ramp is nearly always a good choice, but there can be situations where you're better off sitting on a turn one Sol Ring.

You want to be aware of whether or not there's a chance you're likely to get hit by a Windfall or other wheel effect. You really don't want to have to discard cards you were putting off playing for a turn or two. You also want to be aware of whether your opponents are likely to blow up the first Sol Ring, Mana Crypt or Mana Vault they see. Lastly, you need to evaluate how much aggro a fast start will bring and how well you are able to weather that storm and use that early ramp. If you've got a good shot at going for the win, by all means go for it.

If you're unlikely to be able to mount much of a defense and you think you'll be better off sandbagging your advantage for a turn or two, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there can be times where that's really the best play.

I know - it sounds crazy to suggest you shouldn't play out your mana rocks as fast as you possibly can, and often that will be the best play.

I'm just saying it isn't always the best play. Sometimes it can be better to let someone else play the turn one Sol Ring, get beat up for it by early aggro, and then get yours out a turn or two later when nobody will bat an eye or think twice that you played it.

This kind of strategy is more likely to work in casual metas where the games are long and folks are worried about someone getting lucky and getting out of the gate really fast. If someone else gets out of the gate really quickly and you know your tablemates run lots of interaction and answers, maybe it's worth letting them soak up some of that removal and in a few turns you can roll out your ramp and power yourself into the mid-game.

Sandbagging Creatures

If you don't always want to play out your mana rocks as quickly as possible, surely the same can't be true about creatures, right?

In casual Commander games, victory is often won or lost on the back of the army you can put onto the battlefield. Playing your creatures is nearly always the right thing to do, but again I'm going to say that there can be reasons to "slow your roll."

Every meta is different, and if you play in a group where boardwipes are a common occurrence, you know as well as I do that it feels terrible to empty your hand only to see all those creatures get swept into the bin.

That doesn't mean you don't play any creatures. Games are won and lost on how well you are able to generate mana and use mana to advance your boardstate. I'm just saying that you want to pay attention to what's going on in the game.

Did a player untap a Nevinyrral's Disk? Did a player in White just equip Darksteel Plate to their commander? Did someone just whisper "maybe you shouldn't play any creatures right now" to you? Has the table been talking about how there needs to be a boardwipe once the Avacyn, Angel of Hope or Sliver Hivelord gets exiled? The cues can be subtle, but sometimes they are far from subtle.

Pay attention and know when to keep your creatures in your hand.

If your games so regularly see boardwipes that it's just become a part of the pattern of your games, you need to try to pick up on when they're coming and there will be times when you'll want to hold a threat back for a turn or two.

Solemn Simulacrum is the kind of creature you'll always want to play. Wipe the board? You'll be happy to get your land drop and then a card when it gets destroyed. "Sad robot" is a no-brainer.

If you're sitting with a combo piece in hand, you'll need to decide how much it's worth the risk of drawing a boardwipe from one of your opponents.

Do you have recursion so you can get it back? If not, you might do well to keep that combo piece in hand for a while unless you're worried about Windfall and wheel effects.

Do you have a Boros Charm or Heroic Intervention to protect your creatures? You might want to play out as many creatures as possible to try to goad a boardwipe out of an opponent.

Clearly there is no one answer to this question.

If you hold your creatures back, someone blows up, and then there is a boardwipe, you'll be glad to have those creatures ready to hit the field once the dust has settled. If your opponent plays a Teferi's Protection, you might be glad to not have lost a huge army, but your game of Archenemy won't have gotten any easier.

Sandbagging your creatures can be an essential way to position yourself to emerge in the wake of the first boardwipe of the game in a position to push your way ahead and eventually emerge victorious.

The problem with this is that it's nearly impossible to clearly explain exactly when you should do this and when you shouldn't. Every game is different, and even in a meta where you're dodging boardwipes left and right - there's no way to know for sure that your gamble will pay off. Sometimes you'll regret holding back, but sometimes you'll have played your hand perfectly and your opponents will have used all their interaction on the player who built up a big army early in the game.

Holding Back a Combo

Playing a lot of ramp or a bunch of creatures always feels like a no-brainer, but I've done my best to explain that there can be times when it's more advantageous to keep them back for a turn or more so you're not putting a target on your back.

When you're playing a combo deck, I think the same argument works, but the construction of your deck has a big impact on how quickly you'll want to play out your hand.

If you have a deck that wants to win off a combo that has a lot of redundancy, you might want to play out your cards quickly. If an opponent removes your Impact Tremors but you also have Purphoros, God of the Forge in hand, you might catch the table relaxing and thinking that you've been stopped. When you have 6-8 cards that could swap in for each of the things in your combo that you need to do, you usually don't need to hold back. My Grumgully, the Generous deck can do this, as nearly every part of the wincon has a half dozen cards that can work to let the deck do what it wants to do.

If your combo doesn't have a lot of redundancy, but your deck provides a lot of recursion or flexibility, you can also play more aggressively. My Muldrotha, the Gravetide deck runs Food Chain as a wincon. The ability to cast cards out of the graveyard with Muldrotha gives this deck an amount of flexibility that makes it extremely resilient. Destroy or exile Muldrotha or one of the Food Chain creatures (Eternal Scourge, Misthollow Griffin or Squee, the Immortal) and I can get them again quite easily. If you destroy my Food Chain I can cast it again out of the graveyard. You pretty much have to exile Food Chain if you want to cut this deck off from that particular combo. Sure, there are other options, but my point is that playing out combo pieces early isn't as much of a problem for a deck that has really strong recursion.

One of the best and most competitive players I know has a saying: "I don't think the first person to try to win the game should get to win the game." I might have gotten that slightly wrong, but the basic point is that he builds his decks with a ton of interaction so that if someone tries to win early, he'll probably be able to stop them.

Imagine a story like that. "Once upon a time there was a stableboy. He became King and lived happily ever after." Great story, right? Full of suspense and drama? Not so much.

We want our games to have dramatic twists and turns and the best players run enough interaction to stop that first attempt to win. Many of them can stop the second, third and fourth attempts and then protect their own wincon.

If you're playing with good players who run lots of interaction, there's a real argument that you should let someone else draw out that removal and interaction. Let someone else throw themselves into the breach. Don't play out those combo pieces early on and wait until you can protect your attempt to win. Maybe you'll draw into your Grand Abolisher or Conqueror's Flail. Maybe the cEDH decks will exhaust themselves stopping each other from winning and the door will be open for you to walk through with some goofy, suboptimal combo that you've been hoping to assemble for years.

Final Thoughts

This week's column was a weird one for me.

At the start it seemed like a great idea. Sometimes it feels like every time someone surges out ahead at the start of the game they get smacked down and the eventual win goes to someone who was just hanging around through the first half of the game until they lit their afterburners and shot off to the victory. Then again, I've seen and had lots of games where a player just blew up, nobody drew into the right answers, and they wound up "in the lead" from the starting blocks to the finish line.

Partway through this piece, I had some real second thoughts. Am I really going to put my name to a column that could get misconstrued by inattentive readers as advocating that you shouldn't play at full speed and play to win? Will lazy readers just assume that I think you should always hold your Sol Ring back?

I think the answer is that some players will just refuse to see any value or nuance in what I've written today, and that's OK. I'm not always right, but I do stand by today's column.

There are definitely times when getting that early lead backfires, and the more experienced you are at playing Commander, the better you will be at figuring out when it's a good idea to "slow your roll".

I can definitely see the argument that you should always play out your deck's strategy as quickly as possible. In fast cEDH and semi-competitive groups playing aggressively is probably always what you want to do, but even then, there might be times where you want to hold something back to keep it safe or to avoid getting it removed..

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Have you ever had a game where you held back a little and it payed off by letting you avoid falling into the role of archenemy, or maybe you dodged a boardwipe and were poised to play out your hand after the dust settled?

That's all I've got for today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!

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