*This post covers the Commander Challenge Event on August 24th, 2019
Every month there is an event at my LGS, The Connection Games in Vancouver BC, called the Commander Challenge. It’s a popular ‘tournament’ where Commander players duke it out for some sort of supremacy. I go whenever I can, which is most Challenges, and I’ve played in nearly all of them, dating back to 2016. It’s great. It’s been great from day 1, even though I was overrun by millions of squirrel tokens in my very first game.
Players play four rounds in pods of 4 (ideally, sometimes it’s 5 or 3), and then prizes. Simple as that. To boot, it has some great logistics worked out which go a long way towards making it the kind of casual EDH that the format was created for. It’s not always that way, but the prevailing player sentiment is that just killing your opponents isn’t enough for Commander. There’s more to it than that. For this specific event, there is a voting system, where after each game, each player votes for another player of their choice. This player receives 2 points towards their total. Killing an opponent only gives you 1 point. Most points wins. You decide how you vote.
There are a few other wrinkles to this that can’t be undersold. First, games are an hour, timed. When time is called, there are a number of additional turns equal to the players still active. Players can absolutely be alive in multiples at the end. Some of the best games I’ve ever played have ended in a draw, but there wasn’t going to be a good way to sort those out without going another hour, or somebody topdecking something like Torment of Hailfire. Playing to a standstill felt right, and then we were off to another game. In that case, the votes really mattered, and since everybody played hard, it was tough to decide. These are the kind of games I want to play.
Second, the prizes, and the method of giving them out, is pretty great, too. Each player gets a prize, which allows for some fun random stuff from the Connection owner, Matt. As well, there is a mystery box with a randomly generated bonanza inside. Once it was a booster box of Ravnica Allegiance. I passed that up for something I figured was better. Such is luck. If there are 50 or more people, there is a mega mystery box as well. Better odds too. I think one of those had a Commander Anthology in it. We’ve had signed artwork, all sorts of boosters, precons, playmats, sleeves, and such, all of which curated for the Commander enthusiast. No packs of 60 sleeves. Naturally, the prizes are drafted, and while there’s a few obvious top choices, a lot of it comes down to preference. Covet a certain playmat? Need some new sleeves and an excuse to grab em? Personally I try to draft something I wouldn’t ever buy for myself, but would like to have just the same.
One more thing, the event expressly mentions that certain styles of play and decks can be considered oppressive or toxic, and that this isn’t the place for them. This works out pretty well, and the voting really emphasizes how poorly some of these decks end up finishing when they do appear. It seems if there’s a victory strategy, it’s currently:
- make strong plays without shutting opponents down completely
- be innovative with your cards or your angle of attack
- be cool
- know what you and your deck are doing
A lot of these boil down to the same thing. Don’t frustrate opponents. Don’t prevent them from playing, don’t win with the ‘same old’ combo, don’t badger them personally, and don’t assemble lethal boardstates that take you ages to figure out. Sounds like a pretty good strategy to me, mostly because it really opens up what kind of things you can play. If I can walk into this event knowing the playerbase all pretty much want to have games that last past turn 5, then I can build more relaxed decks. This time around, I went full-on horse tranquilizers.
One more word before I publish a decklist. I don’t play a handful of cards I consider oppressive, and I don’t play anything that skews the game in my favour so drastically it seems like I’m playing on easy mode. I’ve played oppressive decks in the past, and I found myself apologizing a lot for things the deck wanted to do naturally. I found myself holding back from winning so I could play with the deck a bit more, because I liked what was fun, more than what won. I also don’t play anything that tutors for anything other than a basic. I hate shuffling these 99ish card piles. And I like the format as a singleton format. I feel that Tutors break that.
*I do run Karametra as a Commander, but I’m only grabbing basics. The deck is from a time where I’d tutor a little, and I would swap Kara out for another legend, but it’s such a great thematic fit. It’s a Spring deck. I play it almost every Spring at some point.
Finally, I love Magic, and it’s a great hobby, but I can only put so much money into decks. I don’t own many fetchlands, or shocklands, or any OG duals. Now I’m happy to play my share of Evolving Wilds and ETBtapped lands, and my more valuable lands are spread across a great many decks. I’m not saying this is for everyone. But some element of it might jive with you. This is the way I’ve found I get the most out of the game.
I have also won one Commander Challenge, with Varena, and tied for a win once without any points from kills. I’ve always had a great experience, regardless of finish. These days I’m trying a lot of strange concepts, in part to see what kind of interesting Magic experiences I can generate.
The List I brought to the event can be found here.
At first glance, you may think, ‘What? A bunch of counters, and proliferate, and… random jank?’ And you’d be right to do so. Nothing about what ties these cards together makes a major mechanical impact on the deck. This is actually a common phenomenon in Commander. Think tribes without much synergy, where a bunch of beaters are tied together by a lord or two. I have a bunch of counter cards, tied together by some proliferate cards. Why bother? Same as the reason to play tribal Spider, or Troll, or Horse, or something like that: I like the flavour.
In this case, I like all the unique flavours of counters. The deck wants to produce as many different kinds of counters as possible. I have slightly more than 50 unique types, all written on the cards (not implied, like some age counters). This is by no means a win con. It really guarantees nothing along the axes of normal, interactive Magic. Unlike tribal Horse, it doesn’t even necessarily produce any kind of threat at all. So why on earth play a deck like this?
First, I have a lot of decks. I like to experiment. I found that a lot of my decks looked different, but ended up winning in similar fashion. And they could only really win that way, so anything they did outside of that was like spinning my wheels. Some were like sad, tragic, inefficient versions of other decks I also played. By playing in the Commander Challenge I’ve realized that you can have good games, making good connections, and do reasonably well in the tournament by playing decks that try to do something different. Even if they fail.
Second, this deck is SERIOUSLY underpowered, so I’ll have to push it. My removal suite is low, and my interactivity is of wide variation and not reliable. Everything I do has to count, so I have to use my wacky resources smartly, or not at all. But the upside is that any influential play I make will probably also be memorable. I do have several specific ways to win: Helix Pinnacle and Simic Ascendancy, Azor’s Elocutors, Viral Drake (hopefully not, but I’ll go there) with poison, Assemble the Legion with a ton of proliferate, and real long shots like a creature with a +1/+1 counter growing large, Gutter Grime, Myth Realized, Hoofprints of the Stag or even Legacy’s Allure. My Commander is also a large flying, growing threat, which can’t be discounted. I can win the game, and once Pinnacle is online with Astral Cornucopia, Everflowing Chalice and such getting proliferated, I can be a serious threat. …Probably not.
Mostly I just want to see how many counters I can put on things. How many on one permanent? How many different kinds on one permanent? How many kinds on a player? How many different kinds in play? Why? I’m curious. I think my opponents will be, too. I’m a low-level threat, so I’m a decent political ally, and like I said, my plays could be memorable. One last thing, I find a lot of my opponents have to read my cards. I play a lot of weird, old stuff that’s great in the right shell. Not a lot of what I’m playing here is great, but it is weird, old and demanding to be read. This is the only format for literally thousands of cards to ever see proper play. Finding out about a new card, especially under fire in a real game, is one of the things I enjoy most about the format, and I know others appreciate it, too. Sometimes what looks like trash now might be amazing with the release from next summer.
Since this Challenge occurred the same weekend as the C19 release, there was a special rule that if you played with an unaltered precon, you could use all 3 commanders as partners. Several of my opponents did this. Some of the combinations showed off why we can’t do this all the time, but the lack of honing kept the decks in check. I’ve played against precons each of the last few years, and these are among the most cohesive. I didn’t get to see Morph or Proliferate close up, but one Morph player at least was very happy with how he did. I’m pretty happy with what I’ve seen from C19 so far.
So how did my pile of jank play? Overall, I had a really good time, but I was taking frantic notes for most of it. Game 1 was everything I hoped for.
My opponents were Grenzo, Havoc Raiser, Pir & Toothy, & the Madness precon, starring Anje, Chainer and Greven. I started with a strong play that left my opponents baffled, Sol Ring followed by Mercadian Lift. My opponents read the card. I speculated that it was an early draft of Aether Vial. Grenzo played a Lotus Bloom. Madness got the first creature in with Sanitarium Skeleton. Grenzo (the card) appeared on turn two, while the rest of us added mana.
Turn three I dropped Briber’s Purse and Magosi, the Waterveil. Pir & Toothy matched my power play with As Foretold. Grenzo played Loyal Apprentice, then played a very cool Thopter token, and started to spread some damage around. None of the pulls from Grenzo were castable.
Turn four, things accelerated. Madness played Bone Miser. I had ramped and surprised myself with Arbiter of the Ideal. I had some winch counters, gem counters and charge counters. Pure gas. P&T dropped Pir, but passed on making one of us shuffle. Partner is a really coll mechanic, and the ability to force a shuffle on another player is useful against topdeck stacking. I digress. Grenzo casts the Bloom, plays Thawing Glaciers (his deck is all snow-covered mountains) and attacks. Bone Miser gets goaded, but his topdecks are all uncastable. He gets to exile my Simic Ascendancy, though. Yikes. After combat he Mana Geysers for 13, and casts Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin, Goblin Warchief, Bedlam, and Elixir of Immortality. Bedlam turns everything sideways.
Turn Five, Madness plays Chainer, discards a land for mana with the Miser, and plays Anje. This is a nice little package. Chainer is amazing. Anje gives you a lot of flexibility. The Miser chips in cards and mana. It didn’t break the game, but it provided for some great plays. I played Bomb Squad, prompting another read. So many of these cards are relics of other ages. I’m fascinated by the ideas they present, and why they succeed or fail. I don’t know that anyone ever played Bomb Squad competitively. I wonder about what kind of card would have to appear to make something like that good. And not break a bunch of other stuff first.
Speaking of good, P&T played Chasm Skulker for free with As Foretold on 3, then Toothy. Grenzo untapped with a nasty board. I bribed Krenko, but he still swung with enough thopters to exile my Atraxa and P&T’s Kodama’s Reach from the tops of our decks, and do some goading.
Turn six, Madness fired off From Under the Floorboards for 5, then attacked with his goaded creatures.
I had attacked the previous turn with my Sphinx (Arbiter of the Ideal), but whiffed on the manifestation counter on my untap. It was Hoofprints of the Stag. I drew it instead and played it. P&T rolled out Deepglow Skate, and followed with Echo of Eons. I bribed Toothy, but Grenzo got it for 19 from Chasm Skulker, putting him at 10 life. We’ve all been chipping away at each other, but this is the first time anyone was close to death. It was a bit of a surprise.
Grenzo went on the offensive, swinging at Madness with the team. He got the superb Hate Mirage off the topdeck and cast it, copying Chainer and Bone Miser. He discarded a land and cast Skullclamp and Wayfarer’s Bauble. It was a last ditch effort and it fizzled. Turn Seven, Madness killed Grenzo with Zombie tokens and assorted attackers.
I followed up with some of my best plays of the day. I played Helix Pinnacle and Soul Echo for 2. A wincon and a way to weather the storm. I cast Contentious Plan, forgetting about Pir for a moment, and including in my proliferate a Fuse Counter I had put on Toothy. I thought I had one, but it was 2 via Pir. We actually got a ways into P&T’s turn before I realized, and had to go back in time and blow up Toothy. One of the realistic ways I could kill the P&T player was to make them draw their deck with a timely Toothy exit, when Toothy got swole. I was planning to make that a turn from now or so. Oops. This draw wasn’t enough, as it was ‘only’ 19. P&T played Selvala’s Stampede, and Madness and I voted for Wild (not the usual vote for Stampede). Consecrated Sphinx followed, then Solemn Simulacrum, Managorger Hydra and Psychosis Crawler. Then Echo of Eons again. Madness responded with the play of the game, Big Game Hunter to snipe the Psychosis Crawler. P&T drew 35 anyway. I bribed the Skulker, sitting pretty at 130 power. P&T had to go to endstep and discarded down to seven.
Turn eight, Madness cast Greven Predator Captain, who got haste from Chainer, and tried to alpha P&T. They traded a few creatures, but enough Zombie tokens connected to bring P&T to 16. On end step, I offered my vote to anyone who could guess what I’m winching into play with Mercadian Lift. 3CMC is the only clue. Nobody guessed it. It was Mathas, Fiend Seeker. Of course? My Arbiter of the Ideal’s manifestation counter hit Sensei Golden Tail. I followed with Sandstone Needle, Inexorable Tide, Quest for Renewal, and Font of Agonies. I attacked P&T in the air to get a quest counter. I ended my turn and put a bounty counter on Chainer.
P&T played Jace from War of the Spark, then Greater Good. With the Chasm Skulker as big as it was, that would be lethal. In another game saving move, Madness played Dark Withering on the Chasm Skulker. Amazing. P&T responded with Bioshift. There are plenty of targets. Game over. In response I activated the winch once more, with a vote on the line if my target can be guessed: 5CMC, with a clue that it’s another wincon. Madness guessed on the spot: Azor’s Elocutors. Nice. Madness got my vote, but also for the Hunter and Withering. Part of what made those plays so great is that we didn’t really know what to expect from the madness precon, and it rose to the game nicely.
During Game 1, I managed to get the following counters into play: Fuse, Echo, Hoofprint, Bounty, Manifestation, Gem, Winch, Tower, Charge, Quest, and Depletion. 11 different kinds, all at once. I had 29 Hoofprint counters, but only 4 Tower counters. Not good math, but pretty fun overall. Soul Echo and Briber’s Purse were my only real plays, with my oops moment from the Bomb Squad adding gas to a bonfire. The reveal of Bioshift meant my plan to blow up Toothy was a faulty one, but you have to try.
Game 2 was less eventful. My opponents were Atla Palani, Egg Master, Selvala, Parlay Master, and Sevinne, still having Flashbacks. Selvala, despite being a ‘budget’ deck, was clearly here to do anything but parlay, though she did that too. Burgeoning on turn one set the tone, while the rest of us played lands. Alta Palani stalled out badly on mana, and managed just an Impact Tremors. I dropped an Astral Cornucopia, but Selvala had Mirari’s Wake. It was off to the races. I played a Kyren Toy, a wacky old mana rock, and a Grateful Apparition to start growing my Cornucopia. A turn later, the Apparition was plowed before combat by Selvala, now out in card form and parlaying. I put out Hedron-Field Purists, prompting a groan from Atla Palani on behalf of Impact Tremors. Selvala added Al-Hammaret’s Archive.
Sevinne tried Talrand, who ended up being pretty good and making a flurry of Drakes. I played Deadly Designs and a Triassic Egg, hoping to win over Atla Palani, who passed, still nowhere with mana. Selvala fired off Heroes’ Bane, Phytohydra and Hydra Broodmaster. Sevinne cast Dockside Extortionist. It’s good. 9 treasures. That’s almost as good as the Mana Geyser in the first game. Sevinne plays the commander and some draw spells.
I play Haphazard Bombardment, naming Broodmaster, Archive, Phytohydra, and Sevinne. Phytohydra dies on my endstep. In retrospect I probably should have killed the Broodmaster and Bane with the Deadly Designs ASAP. I was expecting some sort of response from Sevinne, as it was a modified precon, but relying on an opponent to get the job done for you isn’t always that smart. Selvala turned around and made 8 8/8s and started attacking, including me for 15, bringing me to 14.
Sevinne played some spells. I held mana up for Deadly Designs, and Bombardment ate the Archive. Atla Palani had a Dragonmaster Outcast making tokens, and Rhys the Redeemed ready to roll, but it wasn’t enough. Selvala played Mirror Entity and tried to equip Swiftfoot Boots on Selvala, so I used Deadly Designs to kill her and the Entity. The response was to make Heroes’ Bane 64/64 and kill Atla Palani.
Sevinne copied Increasing Devotion twice, making 30 humans. I used Wanderer’s Strike to kill the Bane, cast Contentious Plan, and then Spread the Sickness on Selvala, who was back again. With all my counters on the Cornucopia, I was able to get my Purists to level 5. Selvala cast Genesis Hydra for ten, got Avacyn, Angel of Hope, and killed me. Sevinne cast Clever Impersonator targeting Avacyn. He beat down in the air with Drake tokens for 8. Not enough. Selvala cast Path to Exile on the Avacynian Imposter, and then Austere Command. Game over.
Game 3 involved the Flashback precon as the triple threat, Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca, and Judith the Scourge Diva. Pramikon came down turn 3 from Flashback, sending everyone Left. That meant Kumena was pointed at me. Hadana’s Climb came down too early for me to do much about it, and when I could finally block, an Adaptive Automaton made Kumena unblockable. I died to Commander damage turn 7 with a few blocking options, Azor’s Elocutors and Myth Realized, out. Ready to chump, but not given the chance.
The others duked it out for a while. Flashback landed Elsha, and turned the table Right with Pramikon. Kumena seemed unstoppable until a surprise appearance from Kozilek, Butcher of Truth from Judith. Judith had been ramping consistently with Sword of the Animist and Burnished Hart. Anger was in the yard. Judith annihilated most of Kumena’s board, but Kozilek died to a flashed in Winged Coatl. Judith also had Heartless Hidetsugu, and life totals had been halved once. Flashback was at 18, Kumena and Judith both 15.
Both Flashback and Kumena added to their board, but Judith dropped Master of Cruelties, Grave Pact, and then Last One Standing. Of course it was the Master of Cruelties. Both Flashback and Kumena tried in vain to keep the pace, but Judith’s Torment of Hailfire killed Kumena and brought Flashback to 5, then finished Flashback off with Twilight Prophet. Game over.
Between Games 2 & 3 I did less well. Game 2 saw me play Plot, Charge, Level and Aim counters, but none got any higher than 5. Game 3 I got Lore, Charge, Brick and Petal counters, again topping out at 5.
Game four unfortunately doesn’t need a lot of description. It was Chainer, the new hotness, alongside not one, but two Yuriko decks. Both aggressive, both hitting their big numbers. I wish it had occurred to them to attack each other first, but it might not have mattered. At the end of turn 2, both Chainer and I had 23 life. On turn 5 we were both dead, and it was Ninja face-off for a while. One of the Ninjas missed a chance to finish the other, assuming Maze of Ith removes a creature from combat. It proved to be enough for the other Yuriko, who smashed in with an Ancient Stone Idol stolen by Hypnotic Siren. Before that, Decree of Pain, Swan Song, Disdainful Stroke, Stolen Identity and Silumgar’s Command all played minor roles. For Chainer and I, it was like being caught between two buzz saws. I managed Brick, Slumber and Energy counters before getting chopped down.
So all totalled up, I had no kills and I died in every game. I had to rely completely on the votes from my opponents to not finish dead last. I didn’t. I didn’t finish first, either. Closer to last. About 3/4 through the pack. Not bad considering what I played. My prize was Battlebond and Unstable packs. I got a nice, full-art Plains. The winner was someone who has won before, and regularly does well. His deck was Kaervek the Merciless. Go figure. I’ve played against it, and it’s a sort of damage over time thing, with lots of smart choices and efficient answers. He had a game where he dinged someone to 3 with Kaervek, then Repaid in Kind, then finished them all off with Chandra emblems. I really appreciate that kind of reach. You could be dead, and still get kills from emblems you put on opponents. Last time around I was playing a wacky mill variant, and this same player and I were in a game together where he killed me with Aetherflux Reservoir, but I had Mindcrank, and milled him out as he paid the life. I was dead when he drew from an empty library, and got the kill while dead. Achievement unlocked.
I don’t know if I really achieved anything with my counters concept, but I took my jankiest experiment out for a spin, and I really enjoyed it. Game one was excellent, and set the benchmark for counters that I can test myself against if I ever play this deck again. Game two I did okay, getting way more out of Deadly Designs and Haphazard Bombardment than I should. Game three I was on the wrong end of a short clock, and game four, well, sometimes that kind of thing happens. We sat around after and talked Ninja deck tech, as I also run Yuriko, and that was great. None of our decks are that different, because Yuriko is so focused, so the minutiae we’ve discovered to cover our shortcomings is a pleasure to pass around. I don’t mind losing to a deck that executes a gameplan well and doesn’t rely on a single card or combo to carry them. Kumena got me neatly and efficiently with synergy, and the Ninjas more so. I appreciate my efficient, early game interaction so much more.
What can you take away from this? Mainly that Commander Challenge is awesome. The format is one that should be further explored and adopted by the community at large. It’s a great shape for a tournament, and offers a lot for players of all kinds. Look at me, I played a steaming pile and I didn’t finish last. It is an event I always recommend if a player is not aware of it, and it seems to do well with new and more casual players. Kudos to Matt, the owner of the Connection, for developing this format.
I remember back in the early 90s, when I was still trying to open my first Island, and a friend of mine showed me his Revised Desert Twister card, and told me it ‘migrated’ from Arabian Nights. For a moment I felt this sense of a huge game, out there to be discovered, with exotic locales and characters, maybe unknowable. Scrye and Inquest magazines, and then the Internet quashed that, and now we have spoiled pre spoilers sometimes, and spoiler seasons, and solved formats. But I remember that sense, and I remember something Richard Garfield wrote about it too. How he wanted his game to be. Could he have ever dreamed of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or Hogaak? Of e-sports and secondary markets? This game is crazy. But the Commander Challenge is the closest I’ve felt to that environment of my childhood, when the game was too big to ever know all the cards, and any Legend was cool, even Marhault Elsdragon. I’m a bit more grown-up now, and the urge to explore is now turning inward to game mechanics and offbeat strategies tuned to some nebulous pursuit of metaphysical wincons. Commander, and the Challenge seem to offer me endless opportunity to scratch that itch. It’s an Event the community needs to know about, and try out.