All posts by Gavin Duggan

Gavin’s Format of the Month – August 2020: Sideboards

From the inception of the Commander rules website until about 2011, there was a section for “optional rules” which the RC felt were interesting to some, but didn’t have enough common appeal. One rule which I was always a fond of was the use of sideboards for more high-powered games.

There wasn’t much in the vein of cEDH back then; a few groups in Ottawa and Paris played cutthroat games; but there were plenty people at the next tier down and I always felt that the use of sideboards (even in one-game “matches”) made those games much more interesting. If the other players all agree (in advance), playing with sideboards is viable variation of the core rules.

There’s nothing wrong with a Fencing match, but there’s no room for a broadsword.

To explain why, we need to dig into the RC’s stance on “answers” in Commander decks. Specifically, what do we consider reasonable expectations on a deck builder?

Should you play “answers” in your deck?

Yes. Obviously.

Interactivity is fundamental to any interesting Commander game. Even if your deck’s plan is an all-out blitz, you’re still looking to thwart your opponents’ plans by taking away their time. Most of the time, interactivity comes from cards which answer or preempt an opponent’s threats… removal, hand disruption, counterspells are obvious. Bigger creatures block attackers, flying creatures obviate a control deck’s blockers. The cycle goes on, but it is the interactions between our cards and our opponent’s game state which make Magic interesting.

That’s to to say that answers have to be singular in focus. Much of the interactivity in EDH games comes from cards which answer a threat and leave some resource behind: Stomping Indrik or Flame-tongue Kavu or Contagion Engine. That’s because longer games are more likely to resolve through attrition, and answers which trade 1-for-1 are inherently dangerous in a multiplayer environment. The term “Coup fourré” refers to an answer which immediately presents a threat… arguably the best kind of answer.

The downside to flexible answers is that they’re costed appropriately… the aforementioned “killer Kavu” is 4 mana, where Flame Slash costs 1. Creature-based answers are always sorcery speed… and as decks get more faster, the window to answer threats gets smaller. Draining Whelk is great in a 10-turn slugfest, and unplayable if someone is going to combo off by turn 6-8.

In higher powered, faster, games your answers must be more (mana) efficient… but those answers do nothing else.

In higher powered games, answers must be more (mana) efficient but efficient answers usually don’t advance your plan. They don’t enrich the ensuing game state as much as an expensive answer would (albeit, they enrich the ensuing game state more than an ineffective answer which doesn’t stop the game from ending). They’re a necessary evil sometimes; moreso as the power level rises.

How many [good] answers is enough?

The second problem with “answer” cards is that you have to draw them in time… “There are no wrong threats” and all that. With a 100 card singleton deck, the frequency with which you[1] draw any particular answer is low, which means that you need to put several in your deck to reliably have one when a threat arises. (I’m discounting the efficacy of answers against specific threats, and starting with the simple model of “every answer completely negates a particular threat”… later we’ll talk about different types of answers for different types of threats).

Counterplay is the idea that you can increase your chances to win by foiling an opponents’ plans, as well as advancing your own, and the interesting decisions which arise from balancing the two.

Unfortunately, putting too many answers in a deck is usually a bad thing, from both strategic and entertainment perspectives. Too many efficient answers and you’re not DOING anything to advance your position… too many expensive answers and you’re probably not doing anything at all.

So, how many answers fit in that goldilocks zone? It depends on how likely the threat is to occur. If you’re going to face a particular danger multiple times every game (say, a big creatures) then you want to have answers consistently… 10-20 creatures of your own, or targeted removal, etc. “Wide” creature strategies are also pretty common, so board wipes are popular… but you don’t need to have them nearly so often. 5-10 ways to deter a creature swarm: a mix of resilient blockers, sweepers, or a good crackback threat can be enough.

There are other types of cards which can threaten to take over the game along other “axes”… graveyard recursion, enchantments (From Omnipotence to Vicious Shadows), Artifacts, strategies which don’t win by attacking, etc. Perhaps the most prevalent is Land Ramp[2]… but that’s a topic for another day.

These “off-axis” threats require more specific answers… counterspells to stop infinite mana, disenchants to get rid of non-creature stax pieces. Stopping reanimator requires Bojuka Bog or Faerie Macabre, and indestructible or hexproof creatures can’t be answered by every removal spell.

Fortunately, those threats are less common… so in most Commander games we can:

  1. Hope they don’t show up at all.
  2. Assume they show up late enough that we can play less efficient answers which also serve to advance our board state.
  3. Play a small number of efficient answers and hope that other players do the same, such that at least one person has an answer to an early problem.

#1 is sometimes viable, but you shouldn’t be salty when you let an opponent go unchecked (and most of us don’t like flipping coins so you’ll need to find other opportunities for skill play if counterplay isn’t your thing).

But what happens when resilient or niche threats show up regularly and repeatedly in the early game? That’s what we’re talking about when we say “high powered environment.”

What happens when we play enough answers for every type of threat?

The risk (as the RC sees it) with cut-throat EDH is that, to be reliably interactive in an environment with regular, early-game, game-ending threats a deck needs to contain a very large “critical mass” of narrow and efficient answers. To make sure you’ve got lands and at least one of the “right answers” before turn 3-4, a deck needs to play 40+ narrow answers, leaving very little room for cards which advance the game and do proactive, opportunity-for-interaction things. Instead, these decks play a small set of highly reliable, hard-to-interact with threats which take up fewer slots.

The risk with cut-throat EDH is that, to be interactive in an environment with regular, early, game-ending threats a deck needs to contain a “critical mass” of narrow answers.

Moreover, because of the math of drawing a small hand from a large deck, the number of answers that must be in the deck to reliably draw at least one means that you’ll usually draw more than one.

The result is games are a tight-knit “fencing” match of counterplay, seeing who can thread the needle of opposing answers to land a threat. This contrasts with the “broadsword” or “claymore” style of swordplay that most people look for in Commander game. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a “fencing matches”… they’re elegant and skill testing in the extreme. Leaning on the metaphor a bit, they’re harder for the audience to understand though and there isn’t as much room for creative expression as there is in a high-variance format[3].

The RC generally feels that creatures are central enough to Commander that players can be expected to play a reasonable number of answers to “normal” creatures… but must-answer enchantments and artifacts, indestructible creatures, and graveyard strategies are less frequent. Expecting players to pack 5-10 answers to every threat type is undesirable.

How should sideboards work? Do they help?

Hopefully, it’s obvious by this point why sideboards could make the game more interesting. By allowing game-time flexibility in deck composition, high-powered players can cut irrelevant answers and play more proactive cards[4]. The questions which arise are:

1) What’s the downside?

Regular readers[5] know that I believe every variant has a downside to go with its upside, and sideboards are no exception. The most important one is sideboards let people play cards with large caveats while often avoiding them. As long as everyone has the same opportunity that’s (probably) ok… but sideboards only work if everyone has a sideboard.

Another downside to sideboarding is that the narrow “silver bullets” which become playable are often feel-bad cards. Chill, Choke, and even Leyline of the Void can be groan-inducing when they land well… and that’s why Sideboards aren’t part of the core Commander rules. The RC doesn’t think that they enhance most playgroup’s fun quotient.

2) How would sideboards work in single-game matches?

TL;DR – sideboard after revealing all commanders.

To make a sideboard useful (see question 4), you need to know something about your opponent’s deck. I messed with the idea of allowing mid-game sideboards, but the games which need more answer specificity need it sooner not later. Fortunately, the pregame procedure for Commander has a perfect opportunity… an opponent’s commander tells us a lot about their deck (especially in focused metagames with Tiered commanders). If we know someone is playing a graveyard deck, pulling in even 2-3 silver bullets substantially decreases the chances anyone goes off with Hermit Druid on turn

3) How big should sideboards be in Commander?

Back in the days where sideboards were listed on the website, sideboards were 10 cards… I don’t actually remember where that number came from. For simplicity’s and consistency’s sake though, 15 cards is the right number. If you’re playing a game where silver bullets are allowed and needed, that gives you 3-5 cards in each of 3-5 categories, which (assuming you have 3 opponents and a few maindeck answers each) increases the chances of someone having an answer in the opening turns to a reasonable 80%+ range.

Unlike other formats , you still have to sideboard out one card for each card you bring in. Commander has a maximum deck size as well as a minimum.

4) If I’ve got a sideboard, do wishes work?

Wishes (cards which bring other cards into the game from outside) are an interesting piece of templating technology which first arose in Odyssey block… and with the rising popularity of 1-game matches for Standard (thank to Arena) they’re seeing a surge of popularity in newer sets. Unfortunately, they come with all the same caveats that sideboards do… they drastically lower the cost for feel-bad silver bullets. That’s part of why the RC doesn’t want to see wishes in Commander, and it raises the question of whether Wishboards should be a thing in games with sideboards.

Given the time restrictions on competitive games, my inclination is that wishes are probably too slow… but I’ve leery of how burning wish was so powerful in Vintage, usually fetching Yawgmoth’s Will to end the game. Wishes, like Tutors, get around the singleton nature of Commander… and tutors factor quite heavily into cEDH games. Wishes are generally more expensive than the (best) tutors. I would probably not allow opponents to play with wishes even if we were sideboarding, but YMMV and I’m really not knowledgeable enough to decide without more testing.

5) Can we use sideboards for casual/mid-power games?

[Keeping in mind that this is still a variant, and requires permission from every opponent before it applies]

Contrary to everything I’ve said above, yes you can… but everyone (starting with you) needs to obey the same kind of social contract which makes Commander work in the first place. Use your sideboard to make the game more interesting for everyone… and that means starting with a conversation about what they find intersting. Include answers which slow your opponents down, but don’t shut them out.

Better yet, bring in answers which capitalize on opponent’s predictability, and use them to do interesting things. If you tell them you’re doing so, it will have the collateral benefit of encouraging them to be less predictable!

Footnotes

[1] Granted, one of the advantages of a multiplayer is that you can be saved by other players in a sort of diplomacy/prisoner’s dilemma way. Unfortunately, it’s a tragedy of the uncommons… the person who spends a resource to stop a threat rarely comes out ahead of the other opponents who didn’t. (Again, that’s why Draining Whelk and the like are popular, because answers which put you ahead avoid this trap). Worse, the multiplayer nature can also become a race to the bottom… relying on other players to break up combos or Path to Exile an early monster means you can put more threats in your own deck.

[2] Unfortunately, there really aren’t a lot of good answers to land ramp, short of Armageddon effects which reset everyone back to square zero and make the ensuing game much less interactive. There are a few, but it’s one of the things we hope to see more of from future magic sets.

[3] As it turns out, real broadsword fighting between experts actually involves a lot of counterplay and is extremely skill-testing. The difference is that broadsword matches between casual competitors is at least interesting… fencing between amateurs is boring for everyone.

[4] They can also play more relevant answers… again, there’s nothing wrong with playing control decks if that’s what everyone wants. But at least there’s more room to think.

[5] I’m not convinced such a thing exists, but grant me the rhetorical device :).

Gavin’s Format of the Month – July 2020: Augment All The Things

This is going to be the first of an occasional “series” discussing ways to use Silver-bordered “Uncards” in Commander games, for fun and value. Please let me know in the comments if you try this out and what happens for your group.

During a recent game with the other RC members I posited that, while it wouldn’t fly to make Un-cards legal all the time, there are a lot of fun mechanics buried in silver-bordered land. Toby has been killed on stream by his own Baron Von Count (twice, in the same game) and I enjoy getting chat involved with “bystander” cards. Splashing silly cards into a deck can introduce novelty, which is one of the ingredients for creating humour.

We’re not just looking for a balanced solution, we’re looking for something we can easily convince other players is balanced.

One such mechanic was the Unhinged mechanic Augment, which was really interesting in draft. Augment was a spiritual precursor to Ikoria’s Mutate mechanic (in a future variant, I’ll explore synergies between them), but the cards were somewhere between Mutate and Auras. Augments could

1) Only target a creature with the Host supertype. Each host was a small creature with a single ETB ability.

2) Provide an alternate means to trigger that ETB again.

3) Add a small buff* to the host’s power and toughness.

4) Stay in the owner’s hand* if the target became illegal in response.

5) Not augment a creature which was already augmented.

Unfortunately, there aren’t really enough Augment (or Host) cards to build a Commander deck around. So, I went looking for ways to pad out the mechanic’s card pool. I figured I won’t have any difficulty finding people willing to allow it if I did it in a way which was fun and interesting, and don’t play it too often.

A Masterful Transmutation | MAGIC: THE GATHERING | Mtg art ...

The basic idea

All of the host creatures in Unstable were simply costed creatures with a single ETB ability… in fact, many of them have a black-bordered analogues which are costed the same:

We can also see most of those effects are pretty small, so Host creatures weren’t anything special; they were just visual cues as to which creatures had ETB abilities, separating the trigger condition (ETB) from the effect. Given that, it seems reasonable that we can redefine “Host” as any creature with a single ETB ability.

What if we redefine “Host” as any creature with a single ETB ability.

Each Augment card then reads:

{Cost}: Combine with with target non-augmented creature that has one ETB ability.  (If this ability would resolve and its target is illegal, it stays in its owner's hand). 

Augmented creature gets +X/+Y.

{Conditon}: Augmented creature's ETB abilities trigger (again).

Does this work?

It’s silver-bordered land, so you’re always going to need to apply some creative interpretation occasionally, but for the most part the rules implications are no worse than normal cards. The creature’s ETB ability triggers, but it didn’t actually leave the battlefield or enter it again. That means:

  • Other cards’ abilities won’t trigger.
  • Effects which would replace entering the battlefield (like arriving with additional counters or making choices “as” it enters) don’t happen.
  • You can use Panharmonicon as a rules reference for what happens when the ability triggers/is activated.
  • The cards are combined, so anything which exiles the creature exiles both cards (just like Meld or Mutate).

We could have treated the cards more like Auras which sit “on” the creature, but IMO Meld/Mutate are better matches for the flavour intent of the cards.

All things considered, Augment was a very well designed mechanic.

Is this fair?

Our new ersatz-flickerforms aren’t quite the same as a flicker because they can’t be used to dodge removal, but can be used to exile multiple targets with e.g. Banisher Priest. We’re in the the same neighbourhood though, so it’s worth asking whether this idea is (a) too powerful or (b) unsellable? There’s a reason Flickerform costs four mana to activate. Fortunately, all of the augments take time or resources to use:

  1. At the end of each turn, if an opponent lost three life…
  2. Whenever you’re dealt damage…
  3. Whenever a non-token creature enters the battlefield…
  4. Whenever you attack with two or more creatures…
  5. Whenever a non-token creature you control dies…
  6. Whenever this creature deals combat damage to a player…
  7. Whenever this creature blocks…
  8. At the beginning of each end step, if you ETB’d an artifact…
  9. Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control…
  10. Pay {5}: …
  11. {2B}, exile a creature card from your graveyard: …

Pretty vanilla black-bordered magic stuff, and nothing which is easy to “go off” with. All things considered, Augment was a very well designed mechanic.

Will other players allow this?

Pros:

  • It’s a very clean rule… easy to explain.
  • Lots of interesting applications.

Cons:

  • There are some pretty powerful ETB creatures in Commander.

In theory, the existence of powerful ETB abilities shouldn’t be a show-stopper… like an aura, Augments are easy to kill, expensive to lose, and we have to resolve the creature first to get its ETB ability anyway. Having a Zombified Craterhoof Behemoth isn’t going to win the game any faster than the first trigger did. A Bat-Terastodon is splashy but hardly quick once you’re into the late-game.

Nevertheless, there are some scary combinations possible; stuff like Monkey-Baloth Null would yield an hard-to-kill regrowth engine, and a Half-squirrel, Half-Kederekt Leviathan would elicit many groans. Even if most of that power comes from the non-Augment half of the combo (Kederekt Leviathan + Baloth Null is already saucy), the blame will fall on the formerly “illegal” part. The fact that your Monkey Baloth recurring nightmare cost 6GGB and two cards might be enough to convince some people it’s ok, but 6GUU for Squirrel-Leviathan isn’t going to save you any friends.

There are lots of things you can do which will leave you unable to ever play your deck again.

In practice, even if the power level isn’t higher than “real” cards in the format, potential for abuse can be deal breaker when proposing an alternative format. Many potential opponents are going to (quite rightly) be conservative about what they allow in the way of rules-twisting. They’re going to think about worst-case scenario and assume that, with some planning, you can make it even worse… spoilers: you can. There are things you can do with such a rule which will leave you unable to ever play your deck again.

As such, it’s important to remember that, if you’re going to muck with the rules, you’re not just looking for a balanced solution, you’re looking for something you can easily convince other players is balanced. Depending how much they trust you, that might be a big gap so play it safe. Reveal your deck to everyone beforehand… the surprise will still come, but the lack of huge ETB abilities will go a long way getting your deck a chance to shine.

The secret to making this work will be to tell a good story with what you do.

Spontaneous Mutation | Mutação Espontânea - carta de Magic: the ...

Let’s Brew!

Surgeon General Commander or Dr Julius Jumblemorph are the two obvious places to start an Augment deck, but the former has too many colours and the latter doesn’t have enough. Karador is an old favourite for creature-heavy decks, and lets me get creatures back from our graveyard, which will be useful. Unfortunately, I can’t cast the augments from the graveyard, even though they’re “Creature” cards, because they don’t have a mana cost, but he’ll make sure I always have hosts available.

Keen eyes will note that I’ve included most of the relevant Hosts from Unstable, even though there are certainly better ETB cards. This is a concession to the aforementioned rhetorical challenge of convincing people to play against the deck… if I skip the “real” hosts, it moves the deck away from a theme and towards just “min maxing.” I’ve also excluded any Human creatures, as a hat-tip to Mutate’s non-human host restriction.

So, there we have it… a Timmy-Johnny monstrosity-creation-machine ready to shuffle up and induce all sorts of hilarity. There’s enough value engines to keep us in the fight, even with all the removal in a long multiplayer game.

It’s definitely not optimal, even discounting power levels… I should either have more non-creature enchantments, or cut the enchantment-creature subtheme. Some of the smaller hosts are probably unnecessary, but hopefully the payoff for building such a menagerie is worth it.

I’ll try to play this against the other RC members in an upcoming stream, so be sure to tune in on Thursday evenings to kibitz and cheer for team monsters!

July 2020 Update

It’s been a busy few months in Commander, so let’s start with the easy bit: there are no changes to the Banned list this quarter.

We know that, for many players, keeping up with rapid changes can be frustrating.  A number of other things have changed since our last quarterly update, so we’ll recap those events below and strive to stick with scheduled updates in the future.  The world is in flux though and Magic is no exception; we’ll continue to monitor the experiences of Commander players and adapt if necessary.

Two events which don’t impact the format but we hope will be of benefit to the community are

  1. The introduction of regularly streamed games by the RC (http://twitch.com/CommanderRC) where we chat with the audience and play games on camera. We play every Thursday evening (8pm EDT), with pickup games throughout the week as time permits. The primary focus is to increase visibility and two-way communication with the player base, talking about how and why we do the things we do. We also host special guests from Wizards of the Coast and the Commander community.
  2. The creation of a Commander RC Patreon through which players can contribute funds towards both the costs of running the format, and a number of great 3rd-party content creators.

Both are part of our 2020 focus on building connections between the RC, the CAG, and you… the players who make Commander the great format it is!

Rules changes since April 1st, 2020:

Commanders now “die” like other creatures.

TL;DR – Commanders being put into the graveyard from the battlefield trigger “dies” abilities.

Previously, the “Commanders go the command zone when they die” was handled using a replacement effect — a piece of MTG technology which entirely replaces one event with another. A side effect of that rule was that cards like Grave Pact wouldn’t trigger if someone’s commander was destroyed.  This was played incorrectly by many players, so we’d been looking for a way for commanders to behave “more normally” for many years.  It turns out the templating for that rule was tricky… more-so than 99.9% of us realized. Fortunately, the RC’s Toby Elliott and WotC’s Eli Shiffrin are really good at clear, clean rules and working with Sheldon Menery (at the time with a foot in both worlds), they found a way to make “dies” triggers work correctly without any significant corner cases. 

Technically speaking, the solution is a stated-based action (SBA), the things the game does to “clean up” each time someone would get priority, like exiling a token from the graveyard or destroying creatures which have lethal damage.  The new SBA now says “if a commander is in a graveyard or exile, and was put there since the last time SBAs were checked, its owner may choose to put it in the Command zone.”  

This means a commander first goes to the graveyard, triggering abilities (of itself or other cards which say “Whenever X dies”), then goes to the command zone.

Some clarifications

  1. The owner only gets to make this choice once… if your Commander is being exiled “temporarily” (e.g. by Oblivion Ring) you have to choose immediately if it is going to the CZ or staying in exile, in hopes of being brought back by whatever card put it there.
  2. The replacement effect remains in effect for zones like the hand or library, so the commander will never arrive.

Commander no longer uses the Vintage banned list as a basis for our banned list.

TL;DR – Lurrus is still legal, nothing else changed.

The Companion mechanic has made waves in every format, and Commander was no exception.  When they were first released, we removed Lutri because its lack of additional deck building restriction made it a “free card”. As sad as it made us, we hoped that would be the end of it.  Unfortunately, Companion was so impactful on Vintage that it resulted in the Wizards banning a card in that format for a combination of mechanical and power-level reasons, something which hasn’t happened in more than a decade.  

While it’s a big deal for Vintage, Lurrus is just fine in Commander. In fact, it’s probably one of the stronger handicaps in a format with an average mana cost near 4, so it doesn’t make sense for it to be banned in the format.  That raised the question of whether we should continue using the Vintage banned list as the basis for Commander, with other cards banned over-and-above.  

Historically, The Vintage (nee Type I) banned list has been used as a shorthand for “Cards which aren’t viable because of practical, physical-world considerations.” With the addition of Lurrus this wasn’t true anymore so we needed to make a philosophical decision.  Where possible, we prefer to let people to play their cards in Commander, so we decided to sever Commander from its Vintage roots and instead explicitly call out:

  • All oversized cards
  • All cards which don’t have black or white borders
  • All cards which mention the Ante Mechanic
  • All subgame and conspiracy cards

Shortly thereafter, Wizards removed some culturally offensive cards from constructed magic.

There are some cards which just shouldn’t be played around, or by, friends — they can be unnecessarily, even if accidentally, hurtful. Wizards of the Coast took a look at the message some of its cards were sending, and decided Magic would be a better game if those cards just weren’t around anymore.

Perhaps even more than tournament formats, Commander is about social connections so it only made sense for us to follow WotC’s lead and remove those cards from our format.  

The full list of excluded cards is:

  • Invoke Prejudice
  • Cleanse
  • Stone-Throwing Devils
  • Pradesh Gypsies
  • Jihad
  • Imprison
  • Crusade

As with other cards on the Banned List, we encourage players to avoid these cards, and any others which make your group unhappy.

Gavin’s Format of the Month – May 2020: 10-Tix Commander

To help with social distancing, people are finding ways to play Commander online more and more. Playing with physical cards over webcam is easier than it seems, but requires opponents you really trust. Arena is another option, but only supports two-player Brawl which falls far short of the experience many Commander players want.

MTGO has a full multiplayer Commander implementation, but is what we call an “untrusted” experience. That means you don’t have much (if any) chance to talk to your opponents and hash out what kind of experience you want ahead of time.

Those rule-zero pre-game discussions are more than just power level… it’s agreeing how long you expect the game to go, what levels/types of interaction are enjoyable, etc. If that sounds like it takes effort, well… it does.

If that sounds like it takes effort, well… it does.

Surprise! It’s worth it!

So how do we do that in an untrusted environment? Sub formats are effective because they can be communicated quickly using just the name of the variant in the game description. If that name is self-explanatory, even better.

A format for deck-builders!

One such variant of Commander which has picked up a lot of traction lately for MTGO games is 10-ticket Commander. I originally learned about it from Eric Levine… an old friend and Commander content producer under the nickname Raging Levine. He originally wrote up the format back in 2016, but for the aforementioned reasons it’s got a real shot in the arm this year.

You will have to make hard choices… which feels great!

Eric invited me to join a Discord community where folks play Commander on MTGO, with the restriction that the total “cost” of the cards in the deck (excluding the commander) should be 10 tickets or less. I use mtggoldfish to price out decks, and there are a bunch of sites online which have prices built in. (If you run such a site, feel free to message me and I’ll add a link here).

Is ten tickets enough?

Remember: Your commander doesn’t cost towards the limit.

Because MTGO ticket “prices” are very different than physical card prices, the power level you can squeeze out of 10 tix is actually pretty reasonable… this isn’t low-budget magic in the classic sense. Even rares usually only cost 0.05 tix, so you can fill a deck with interesting choices.

What the price cap does preclude many of the “usual suspects”… the automatic must-haves, which usually cost 1-2 tickets and now aren’t worth the cost. You’ve got some room to wiggle if there are a couple of cards you REALLY want for a particular archtype, but either way you will have to make hard choices… which feels great!

Cards you won’t have to play, or play against:

Sol Ring (3 tix)Eternal Witness (2 tix)
Cyclonic Rift (2 tix)Smothering Tithe (2 tix)
Mystical Tutor (1 tix)Rhystic Study (3 tix)
Avenger of Zendikar (3 tix)Craterhoof Behemoth (3 tix)
Insurrection (1 tix)Demonic Tutor (4 tix)

Since most cards you’ll want are less than a tenth of a ticket (Your non-basic lands need to average about 0.13 tickets), it’s useful to think of cards in centi-tix (cT). You’ve got 1000cT to spend.

How do I build a 10-ticket deck?

You can easily put together a first-cut deck in an hour or so, and might have more fun. Ten ticket decks tend to evolve over time more than my full-price decks, because the set of playable cards is larger, so it’s less important to get the first cut “just right”… a pile of playables will likely be sufficiently powerful to be involved in the game. From there you can learn as you go; I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where I didn’t witness at least one card I wanted to add to my deck after I was done.

Building with a mechanical theme will help, as always. Mechanics like Cycling or Reanimation, which have been printed at common in multiple sets, are a good place to start. Counters (+1/+1, -1/-1, poison, etc) are another… just about any non-parasitic mechanic will have enough support to build around, but you should keep that support in mind when choosing your commander.

I tend to start by pasting a bookmarked manabase into MTGGoldFish’s deck pricer tool and then go from there. It will find the cheapest “printing” of each card for me.

A card which costs 0.03 tix is 3cT.

You’ve got 1000cT to spend.

What if the price of cards goes up?

It’s always a bit bittersweet when a card you like becomes unavailable, and it does happen in 10-ticket commander… but it helps to see it as a blessing in disguise. A card spiking in value is an opportunity to find a replacement… harsh, but fun.

In the end, it’s mostly up to you. If the cost of some of your cards creeps up over time by 10-20%, it’s probably fine for you to leave the deck as-is. Maybe check once a year by pasting it back into a pricing tool… but don’t sweat it too much.

Unless your deck is blatantly cheaty, it’s unlikely people will call you out… you’re the only one who will know you’re bending the rules, but the community is small so if you betray the public trust you can be sure people will share your name and ostracise you.

(It’s worth noting that some cards will never go up in price no matter how popular they are in Commander, or even 10-ticket commander.).

Mana Bases

Duals, Shocks, Tricycles, and Fetches are a mainstay of regular Commander mana-bases, but they’re also the first thing to go under budget constraints. Making your mana work with only a ticket or so is a good place to start, and there’s a lot of pre-existing solutions:

Two- and Three-colour mana bases (sans green)

To start with, a surprising number of top-shelf mana fixers are 1-3cT. Thawing Glaciers hasn’t been playable in any online format other than commander, so it weights in at a paltry 3cT. Unfortunately, some cards (like Command Tower), occasionally list at “default” price of 0.01 but aren’t actually available for that price… the format rule is you have to be able to actually purchase it for a given price to count towards your budget.

Command Tower
Actually 150-200cT (not 2cT like it shows online), so we’ll need to get clever.

The real secret to building a budget mana base is finding ways to leverage basic lands, and there are a bunch of colour-agnostic ways to fetch basics without spending significant tix. Evolving Wilds and Terramorphic Expanse effects are fairly easy to come by as a start: Panoramas, Myriad Landscape, Thaumatic Compass, and Warped Landscape are all less than 5cT.

Magic has a huge variety of lands which tap for two or three colours, but only saw play in one standard format. It turns out that many of those “Tier 2” lands are quite cheap even at rare, e.g. Ravnica Karoos, Tarkir Trilands, M10 Buddy Lands (Dragonskull summit and the like), and Hybrid Lands (e.g. Graven Cairns). Tapping into those will easily round out a mana base with only three colours, without needing to play anything bad like Invasion duals. (Invasion Lair lands are some of the most stylish three-colour lands, but they’re still fairly unplayable outside Landfall decks).

The Hybrid lands in particular are some of the best mana-fixing lands ever printed, and cost 2cT. Some of the two-colour animating lands are about 5cT, but others are more than a ticket so you’ll have to shop around… when they fit, they’re a great addition.

Cheap mana rocks are the third piece of the puzzle, and again there’s a lot of them available which are suddenly very playable in a 10-ticket metagame. 2-mana rocks sometimes cost more (Some Ravnica Signets are more than 100cT), but the three-mana counterparts are usually around 5cT:

Managathering.com has a great rundown of options here.

Four- and Five- colour mana bases

Once you have more than three colours, lands which tap for any colour become worth considering, and the good news is that, once again, many all-star 5-colour lands are nearly free on MTGO.

Even if you have access to green, it’s usually not a good idea to lean hard on one colour for fixing; you might not draw it till mid-game. Instead, spending a little more on your mana is a good idea for 5-colour decks, because you’ll be able to easily make up the power from multi-colour uncommons and junk rares (Conflux is 11cT!).

Maze's End

Gate package: 10 Gates + Circuitous Route, Open the Gates, Gateway Plaza, Guild Summit, and Maze’s End (total 14cT)

5x Panorama + 5x Mirage Fetches will get you any basics you need for 10 buddy lands to come into play untapped. You shouldn’t need to dip into stuff like Vivid lands, but can if you want (usually because you want to play some 1-colour utility lands).

Handy Artifacts: Wayfarer’s Bauble, Armillary Sphere, Journeyer’s Kite, Khalni Gem, Firemind Vessel, Gemstone Array

Price check every card though, because some ostensibly “common” solutions might sneak up on you… Expedition Map is more than 3 whole tickets!

Green-first 3+ colours

Another way to go for mana is to make green a majority colour, and then splash other colours. One advantage to this approach for 3-colour decks is that you can usually guarantee 2, and even 3, copies of those off-colours in the late game. To that end, there are a collection of Rampant-growth style fixers which are cheap enough that they won’t take up any of your budget:

Journey of Discovery, Edge of Autumn, Kodama’s Reach/Cultivate, Fertile Growth, Weirding Wood, etc. Gaea’s Balance does yeoman’s work in 5 colour decks.

One-colour mana bases (aka: good utility lands)

There’s been lots written about good utility lands, which often make your mana base worse, but if you’re playing only one land are a good way to go. Again, managathering.com has a good rundown of lands and rocks which generate colourless mana, which can be good utility+acceleration.

Tutors

Now that we’ve cranked up the variance, it’s worth talking about ways we can make sure our deck still hits on its theme? One area where 10 ticket commander shines is the value of tier-2, unappreciated tutors. Goldfish again comes to the rescue, with a starting list someone put together. You can find others easily though, by searching for cards with “search your library” and then browsing for old favorites you’d forgotten about or could never find a home for. Sometimes the good ones, like Bribery, will top out your cost-curve at 70cT, but Acquire can be had for 3cT!

Some cards, like Vampiric Tutor or Tooth and Nail, are still available for only a few cT. Others like Liliana Vess, Cruel Tutor, Diabolic Intent, Fabricate, Brutalizer Exarch, Idyllic Tutor and Hoarding Dragon are super cheap, but you will need to get creative. Transmute Cards are restricted in what they can fetch, but also serve as spot removal/counterspells/anti-token hate in a pinch. Even jank like Night Dealings can be a power house.

Wrapping up

10-ticket magic is one of many ways to easily quantify deck power, by capping everyone at a low level. It’s easy to communicate (just put “10-ticket Commander” in the game description) and will lead to a lot of veritable Commander-style games. Deck building skill and/or experience are more significant, but the higher variance means you can afford to explore the corners of your collection (or your favourite trader bot’s collection) for stylish plays. Feel free to join the format’s discord (linked above) and say hi!

Sources

  • mtggoldfish.com
  • managathering.com
  • edhrec.com
  • gatherer.wizards.com

Footnotes

[1] The pre-game conversation is core to the format’s experience and success and it’s always worth it. When we talk about “power level” conversations, and ways to communicate power level, it’s actually more than that… really what we’re doing is communicating play style preferences. But lowering power level usually increases variance and interactivity; limited-vs-constructed, standard-vs-modern, etc.

Personally, I’ve fought hard to ensure that “rule zero” conversation remains core to the Commander format because in my experience it is the ONLY way to create a social experience. We can’t write rules which force people to be social. The discussion invariably increases the enjoyment of the game for everyone (well, except trolls).

And if someone says “But I don’t have that option.”? Remember that you never HAVE to play with someone. The freedom to walk away from a game is an essential right you should protect, and exercise. It’s what makes Commander work.

Gavin’s Format-of-the-Month – March 2020: Tribal Identity

If the rules for Commander are intended as a starting point (spoiler: they are, and ignoring that won’t earn you anything), then one of the best things you can do is mess with its fundamental rules. Last month’s variant was a strictly tougher set of rules than normal, and hence always “acceptable” to other players. This time I want to talk about how to diverge from the rules of Commander but still embrace its spirit, in a way that other players will enjoy.

Of course, before breaking the rules it’s useful to understand why they exist. Colour Identity is one such fundamental rule of the format, which dates back to the early days of the format. It provides two things…

  1. A deck building restriction, which increases diversity of card choices
  2. A more coherent theme for each deck

… each of which serves the over-arching purpose of the format: richer experiences. Done right, Commander isn’t just competition, it’s performance art.

But Colour Identity is only one way to achieve those goals, and you should feel free to experiment with others. Back in Coldsnap, I experimented with a way to abandon the mana-symbol restriction, and replace it with a restriction on creature types.

Enter, Lovisa Coldeyes… the OG representation.

Image result for lovisa cold-eyes
Lovisa Coldeyes, art by Brian Snoddy

I decided to build a deck with any colour of mana symbols, but only cards which fit the “Warriors, Barbarians, and Berserkers” theme. Adapted the standard rules for Tribal decks:

  • At least one third (33) of the cards must be creatures
  • All non-land cards must
    • Mention a relevant creature type in their name, subtype, or text, OR
    • Contain the text “Choose a creature type”

This is a pretty high bar… which is one of the secrets to making it work. It’s obvious to other players that I’m not trying to circumvent the normal deckbuilding challenge to a net advantage. I considered restricting non-basic lands as well, but it goes over the top — the effective prohibition on mana rocks and other fixing is sufficiently punishing. Excluding all non-basic lands as well would be equivalent to saying that all lands in a Commander deck must generate coloured mana.

(Yes, allowing “Choose a creature type” cards is a hack, with several holes… it’s not something which could ever be codified in real rules, but we have the advantage of just having fun)

So, let’s get the obvious questions out of the way:

  • Is this deck good? No, not even close.
  • Is this deck fun? Oh yes.
  • Could I could have made a mono-red deck instead? Of course, but the result would have been less interesting than a deck which really leveraged her ability.
  • Could I have used a different commander for the same deck? Sure… a Najeela deck would be much better at winning the game, and lots of other commanders would suffice. Less interesting though, somehow.
  • Could I have abused this? Yes… but nobody would want to play against it.

I’ve rebuilt this deck a few times over the years. These days it looks like this:

Lovisa Coldeyes
Combat Celebrant
Alesha, Who Smiles at Death
Ankle Shanker
Archetype of Aggression
Belbe’s Portal
Berserkers’ Onslaught
Blood-Chin Fanatic
Boldwyr Intimidator
Brion Stoutarm
Champion of Rhonas
Civic Wayfinder
Coat of Arms
Den Protector
Drumhunter
Duskwatch Recruiter
Elvish Skysweeper
Flaxen Intruder
Furystoke Giant
Gilt-Leaf Winnower
Goblin Bushwhacker
Grand Warlord Radha
Hazezon Tamar
Huatli, Warrior Poet
Jungle Wayfinder
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Kindred Dominance
Lightning Mauler
Lord Windgrace
Madrush Cyclops
Mercy Killing
Mindblade Render
Mirri, Weatherlight Duelist
Mogis’s Marauder
Moriok Replica
Nath of the Gilt-Leaf
Oakhame Adversary
Obsidian Battle-Axe
Ogre Battledriver
Oketra’s Monument
Patriarch’s Bidding
Raiders’ Spoils
Reckless Bushwhacker
Rhys the Redeemed
Rush of Battle
Samut, Voice of Dissent
Secure the Wastes
Sedris, the Traitor King
Start/Finish
Surrak Dragonclaw
Sylvan Offering
Undead Gladiator
Vanquisher’s Banner
Viridian Zealot
Warrior’s Oath
Warriors’ Lesson
Wren’s Run Packmaster
Yasova Dragonclaw
Zealous Conscripts
Pillar of Origins
Unclaimed Territory
Cascading Cataracts
Crystal Quarry
Fabled Passage
Wooded Foothills
Command Tower
Gateway Plaza
Rupture Spire
Fire-Lit Thicket
Breeding Pool
Stomping Ground
Krosan Verge
Verdant Catacombs
Temple Garden
Sacred Foundry
Smoldering Marsh
Arid Mesa
Godless Shrine
Sheltered Thicket
Ghitu Encampment
Bloodstained Mire
Steam Vents
Cavern of Souls
6 Forest
5 Mountain
3 Swamp
1 Island
2 Plains

Again… could I have broken this more? Absolutely, but it’s important to notice that’s no different than any other Commander deck. It’s easier in this case for potential opponents to refuse to play against me (using the rules-as-written to justify their preference), but they shouldn’t be forced to play against ANY deck. If you look at a deck and think “This works because other people have to play against me”, you’re doing it very, very wrong.

So does a Tribal Identity commander need to have an intrinsic “creature type matters” mechanic? No, but it’s a good idea… it makes the “creature identity” of the card clear. There are tribes which are more or less powerful… I don’t even know if there are enough Digeridoos to make an all Minotaur deck, but Kangee Bird Tribal is fine. You’ll have a hard time convincing people your Elf Tribal deck is fun to play against.

Going further…

Are there other “identities” your group could experiment with? Card Type Identity springs to mind… there’s lots of commanders who would work well with only “Lands and Instants”. Karn with only lands and Artifacts is a challenge as old as the format (first built by format pioneer Gijsbert Hoogendijk circa 2005?). Mechanic Identity could also be viable… all-flying for easy mode, all-coinflip if you’re nasty.

Whatever variants you try, it’s important to decide (or at least think about) whether it’s a variant that mixes well with “basic” Commander, or should be used alone. Most Tribal Identity decks will play fine with “colour identity” based decks… restricting the cards in your deck by creature type is arguably more of a constraint than restricting the colours available.

To recap, the key is that Colour Identity is meant to provide a thematic coherence and deck building challenge, both of which improve the experience for everyone involved. You can use other constraints instead (or in addition) to achieve the same thing… just remember to embrace them, not try to abuse them.

Gavin’s Format-of-the-Month – February 2020: Junior Dragon Highlander

I’m going to start this series with an easy one that I know works well… “JDH”. A common way to mix up Commander games is to restrict the cardpool to provide fewer “obviously correct” choices and more room for interesting deckbuilding. Brawl is one popular version of this, but tries to serve too many masters, and the rotating nature isn’t for everyone… to build in just 4-6 sets, it was necessary to loosen the restrictions drastically.

Whether you’re trying to keep yourself in check (vs a playgroup that maybe isn’t on your level, yet), or inviting an entire playgroup to build with the same rules, the easiest way to restrict your cardpool is based on the year a card was printed. Most cards list their year of printing at the bottom, and most deck building sites can filter by set easily.

Choosing a year is up to you, but three versions which work well are:

Mercadian Masques and later: Taking away Urza’s Block and earlier removes a lot of the most broken, degenerate cards in the format. There’s lots of goodies in later sets, but they’re usually not as obvious as [Sol Ring], [Demonic Tutor] and [Swords to Plowshares]. The year 2000 was arguably the point at which R&D really started to figure out how to balance magic card design.

Mirrodin or later: This cutoff is easy to identify because of the change in card frame, and rules out another four years with a lot of Commander staples which you sometimes feel you “have to” include.

Modern or Pioneer Commander: One downside to setting your “cutoff” somewhere in the recent past is that other constructed formats often have more impact on card availability. That said, if you’re more familiar with the more recent sets, there’s lots of goodies in the last 5-10 years of magic and building within those constraints can feel really good.

Finally, if you really want to be hardcore, you can take it even further and play Block-Commander. Think of it as Brawl-with-a-Tardis: you can build a commander deck with ANY legendary creature, but all the other cards have to come from a single 24-month period in Magic’s history.

Have you ever built a deck with a year-based restriction? What was it, and how did it work out?

January 2020 Rules Update

With a busy year in the books, we open 2020 all quiet on the B&R front.

The format continues to grow in all its forms, but there’s been a lot of good discussion about ways to improve and capitalize on opportunities. With the introduction of Commander-focused premier events, the number of games played outside local playgroups is rising. Similarly, more games are being played between friends, in stores and homes, than ever before.

In terms of cards, there were no consensus threats to players’ enjoyment and we’re not making any changes at this time. We continue to emphasize the importance of pre-game discussions as an important part of finding enjoyable games.

Oh, and we’re releasing a new website.

In addition to hosting the rules, banned list, and leadership contact information, members of the rules committee will be posting regular content here. The new site also aims to help players find interesting content about the format, from across the web.

The RC would like to thank Andrew “Shoe” Lee for his assistance with site construction and coding. To provide feedback on the site, message Gavin.