Today’s Monday, which means it’s time for another Commander article. This week I’d like to take a moment to offer some advice on how to become a better Commander player by playing Limited. Better, in this case, doesn’t just translate to ‘winning’ more. Hopefully, this article will help you improve not only your decision-making, but also your deckbuilding, threat assessment, card evaluation, and general gameplay strategy – even if you’re not winning, you’ll still feel like you’re improving. Let’s jump into it.
Out of every format, I think that Booster Draft is the format which can offer you the most ‘value’ in terms of improving as an EDH player. I feel like this is probably going to come across as a ‘hot take’ to some – either the formats are so different that you’ll immediately be thrown by what I’m suggesting, or you’ll agree with me and internally sigh at my ironic use of one of the more pervasive terms to come out of 2019 so far. Playing a draft (and to a lesser extent, sealed) is a challenging experience, and one that taxes your ability as a player on many different axes. I’ll break down the ones relevant to us so that we’re all on the same page:
The first thing you’ll need to play in a draft is the ability to evaluate the strength of a card. You need to be able to look at a card and decide how powerful it is, not only in a vacuum but also in the context of the format and the deck you’re going to be playing. This can be a difficult skill to master, and even the very best of players can have very different opinions on how good a card is – the title of this section is also the name of one of the best podcasts about draft, hosted by Luis Scott-Vargas & Marshall Sutcliffe, and even they are sometimes way out. I guess what I’m trying to say is that whilst you’re never going to be perfect with this, as at its heart it’s subjective, you can get better at deciding what makes a card less good. This is a great transferable skill which you can apply to playing Commander.
- When drafting, as a rule, cards that don’t immediately impact the board state aren’t as good as those that have an immediate effect (at least in more recent limited environments). In Commander, it’s very similar – playing a five mana ‘do nothing’ enchantment is sometimes a risky play, whereas a five mana instant or sorcery is a safer bet. Now, obviously, most decks will still play a number of cards that are only good when you can untap with them, but keeping the number of cards in your deck which have this drawback to a minimum is key to building a good deck.
- Similarly, having a given effect stapled onto a creature is usually always better than running a spell with a similar function – combat damage wins you the game, and creatures are easier to recur than spells. Think Ravenous Chupacabra vs Impale, or Callous Dismissal vs Disperse. In Commander, this translates to running Noxious Gearhulk over Murder, or Knight of Autumn over Naturalize.
- Going even deeper, anything that gives you a ‘2-for-1’ is always a strong pick. Modal spells, or creatures with strong enters-the-battlefield abilities are almost always preferable to those with static or triggered abilities or just plain ‘beatsticks.’ This is a little less true in Commander, as a lot of the engines and win conditions often revolve around static and triggered abilities, but it’s still good advice to take. For example, when considering board wipes, you’d rather be running Fumigate over Day of Judgment these days. When it comes to redundancy, you’ll still want to be playing Resplendent Angel and Angelic Accord, or Hellkite Charger and Aggravated Assault, but generally speaking, trying to get more value for your money is a good bet.
- Knowing what’s good in the format is also a key part of drafting – some cards that look good at a surface level can be aggressively mediocre or even unplayable in some limited environments. A good example of this is Bloodlust Inciter. While a little unassuming, it was an excellent pick in Amonkhet block drafts; however, the same effect, as seen on Goblin Motivator in Core 19, was less good (but still playable in the right deck, especially one with Goblin synergies). To better frame this in terms of Commander, I’ll go for a personal anecdote. In my Lyra Dawnbringer deck, I originally tested out Mass Calcify, because it seemed to be, at least on the surface, a strong one-sided boardwipe. After some testing, I realised that it just didn’t ever work out that way – hitting seven mana wasn’t the issue, the metagame was. Mono-white decks are typically only ever going to be playable at power levels of around 6 to the high-end of 7, with most optimised decks of 8 or above being able to handle our lack of card advantage and being well-equipped to limit our combat potential. The thing was, against stronger decks, we’d never be in a position to cast Mass Calcify, but against decks at the lower end of the scale, my local meta had way more decks with white creatures in. The spell was just ineffective either way.
In Commander, we can often become distracted by the prospect of resolving janky, expensive spells, or running more mana-intensive cards that are a little slow. This can have a detrimental effect on our deck composition, which can lead to us losing games we normally wouldn’t.
- In limited, we want to make sure we have enough creatures in our deck to not just lose to an unanswered early game creature. Even when playing a ‘spells’ archetype, like Blue-Red, we need, at the very least, 10-12 creatures. Our creatures also act as ‘removal’ in limited – trading with a more expensive creature is usually favourable and becomes more valuable the fewer removal spells we have. In Commander, I see this as having enough interaction to allow you to set up a win. It can be as simple as the above – having enough creatures to block with (or prison style effects, like Ghostly Prison) – or it can mean running enough board wipes to not die to combat damage while you’re tinkering away at your value engine or combo.
- This leads me on quite nicely to ‘Answers.’ I mentioned above how our creatures would have to trade out more often if we lacked good removal, and even if you haven’t drafted much at all, you’ll know that removal is very strong. In a draft, prioritizing removal is key, and later in a pack you should be taking strong ‘sideboard’ cards. These can range from effects like Plummet to artifact and enchantment removal (which is usually less relevant in limited). In Commander, we don’t have a sideboard, and so we aim to maindeck answers to common threats. One of the mistakes I often see new players make is not running enough answers. It can be hard to fit removal into a deck, but fit them in you must. The only way people tend to learn this is through experience, and so I’d advocate that a great way to experience the despair of not being able to answer a game-winning bomb is playing booster draft. It only has to happen once to convince you that some cards have to be answered. Applying the ‘2-for-1’ approach can help you fit these cards into your deck, though, so try and fit your answers onto your creatures or your lands – think Scavenging Ooze in a +1/+1 counters deck, and Scavenger Grounds in… basically any deck.
- One of the hardest things to master in draft is making sure you hit your curve. Sometimes you’ll have to forgo an amazing four or five drop to take that boring two drop to fill out your curve. Sometimes, the ‘splashable’ rare you took in pack 2 won’t make it into the deck because you didn’t hit quite enough fixing. It happens, and although I’m an (admittedly reluctant) advocate that in limited it’s sometimes better to be lucky than good, I’ll never give suboptimal advice. In Commander, this translates to making sure you have enough interaction early game, and making sure your deck doesn’t have too many spells above six mana. It also means analysing where your impactful spells are on the curve and where your ramp is. If you’re playing a five mana Commander, for example, you’ll want your ramp spells to be castable on or before turn three (Rampant Growth, Darksteel Ingot, etc.), but you should prioritise playing something like Explosive Vegetation if you value hitting six mana more highly.
- The curve of a limited deck often dictates how many lands are run in the deck – 16 for aggressive decks or 17-18 for those with a number of costly spells or activated abilities. Commander isn’t vastly different; the lower the curve and the fewer the colours (or coloured mana costs), the fewer lands you can realistically run, and there is a similar absolute minimum – 36-38 being the lowest I’d advise.
- I’ve mentioned the number of lands, but while we’re on the topic of splashing for colours, it would be remiss to not also talk about manabases in more detail. In limited, where every spell matters and tempo is a very real thing, taking turns off because you don’t have the right colour of mana can lose you games. It’s not as clear-cut in EDH, at least at a non-competitive level, but learning the hard way here is preferable – it’s like learning the guitar on an acoustic and then graduating to an electric and feeling better than you thought. You’ll start to look closer at the colour requirements of your cards and maybe even forgo hard to cast spells precisely because you’d rather ensure you can hit the right ones on time. My Edgar Markov deck, for example, is essentially a White/Black deck, with the only spells requiring Red mana being Edgar himself and Stromkirk Captain. I made this deckbuilding choice partly because I knew the strength of my deck was in being aggressive and having fast starts, but also because the colour requirements of a lot of the stronger Vampires involve double Black or double White mana, or a combination of both. By priotising my ability to cast these spells, I kept the number of Red cards in the list to a minimum. Stumbling on your mana, especially when building at a more budget level, can render some strategies sub-optimal. Stromkirk Captain, however, is good at any point in the game, being a ‘lord’ that offers a buff and a keyword to our Vampires – not being able to reliably cast him on turn 3 often isn’t a downside. Consequently, the deck only runs only one basic Mountain, with the rest of the red sources coming from lands that also produce Black and White.
If there was only one thing that I think people could take away from playing Limited, it’s that having a game plan vastly improves your chances of winning a game of Commander. Too often do I see people with sub-optimal threat assessment – they’ll counter a strong spell, sure, but without reading the context of the wider board, and without the context of how other decks may advance toward the endgame. This happens with removal, too, and the misplays are amplified when people aren’t running enough answers in the first place.
Take a common limited scenario – you play game 1, and you get beaten by a creature with Flying. You don’t have any creatures with Reach, and you’re a little light on removal. So, you shuffle up for game 2, and you sit and tell yourself that unless a creature is close to winning the game for the opponent, you won’t use your removal too soon, and if you do have any of your own Flying creatures, you’ll hold back on casting them or blocking with them to give you the maximum chance to win the game. You may also decide that it’s simply easier to kill the opponent quicker and lower your mana curve, to improve the chances you can curve out and kill them before their flyers become an issue.
It’s this kind of insight that you need to bring to a Commander table, and it’s this kind of insight that you need to fire up as soon as you sit down. Take a look at the other decks at the table – are there any that are likely to be playing combos? Keep a hand with some interaction. Are there any likely to have a fast start? Make sure you have a decent amount of lands in your opener or other ways to catch up.
Commander is more complicated than Limited, I’ll give you that – the four-dimensional chess skills needed to evaluate a gamestate can be quite demanding – but honing your threat assessment, tempo plays, and more in Limited can give you an edge. One of the biggest mistakes is over-committing resources to the board. In Limited, not every set has a wrath to watch out for, but some do, and so playing out your hand when you’re already winning can be detrimental – it can also show your opponent more of your deck for game 2. Meanwhile, in Commander, you’re always playing with a ticking clock in the background – that board will definitely Buckaroo when there’s too much on it! Play enough of your hand to be in a good position, but always keep in mind how you’ll rebuild should the tables turn – and how your opponents might too. Resource management is the name of the game, and you’ll learn how limited those resources can be a lot quicker when playing booster draft.
Limited can teach you a lot, but it won’t teach you everything. One thing I haven’t mentioned so far is that it can teach you a wide range of different ways to play Magic and a wide range of different rules interactions. Learning what works and what doesn’t and how to win (or lose!) can sometimes be learned within one draft environment. You’ll grow quickly as a player, especially when being exposed to new cards, new ideas, and new ways to play magic.
If you want to go more in-depth on this, have a look at Modern or Legacy. I’m not saying you should go out and buy a deck – far from it! – but it would be useful to look into some decklists and gameplay and watch how certain situations can play out. It’ll level up your rules knowledge and give you some idea of how combos can come together. I’d be surprised if you didn’t level up your threat assessment, too. Modern and Legacy cube are good ways to try out different archetypes, and a lot of the archetypes in these cubes – like Green Ramp, Storm, Death and Taxes, Reanimator, and Combo – are popular strategies in games of Commander. If you don’t know anyone with a cube, or don’t wish to spend the money online, then watching some drafts and gameplay on YouTube will do the trick – there’s plenty out there.
I hope you enjoyed today’s article. It was a little out of the blue – I’d been discussing with some other players how different experiences since starting Magic had made my friends and myself different Commander players, and I thought it was a really interesting topic to share. Let me know your thoughts on Twitter @TheKristenEmily!