Hey Commander players! Last week I went to the Commander Challenge at The Connection Games & Hobbies. I’ve attended the tournament many, many times over the past several years, though I took a big long pandemic break.
The tournament has generally been a ‘casual-forward’ affair. Players play in groups of 4 if possible, and play 4 rounds. The rules have changed since I’ve been gone. In the past, there were points for knocking players out, then each player got a vote at the end, and votes were worth points also. Currently, the system is a point for ‘winning the game’ and then each player gets 2 votes to give, one worth 2 points, and one worth 1. This system is still encouraging to casual play.
However, it feels like there’s been a phase shift in the decks. A pair of them, actually. One is Treasure-level, the other is power level overall.
I didn’t see a lot of creative brews, and the ones I did see were stifled by decks that ran circles past them effortlessly. The Streets of New Capenna Commanders were out in force and were very, very strong. There was Treasure everywhere. I was playing it myself.
In the past, there’s been an established group of players that attend these things, and while I’ve been part of that group, I’ve tried very hard to contribute to the kind of environment that welcomes new players, rewards creativity, and not play stuff that prevents my opponents from playing Magic.
That last one is important, because I think it’s the definition of toxic play. It’s not always about the cards, but Commander does run on the unspoken rule that attacking manabases is not cool. Armageddon is generally unwelcome. Because it stops people from playing cards. In a four player game, there should be better things to do and ways to win than forcing people to sit there topdecking in frustration turn after turn with no mana.
Here’s the thing though: it’s not the players. I think Wizards is printing cards that force players into toxic play patterns. I don’t think my opponents were doing problematic things on purpose, they were simply playing the cards as intended. The matches are below. Decide for yourself.
I brought Juri, Master of the Revue, a deck I call ‘Hot Potato.’ It’s a casual deck that seeks to get a big Juri on the field and throw the damage at whoever kills it. Too casual for this environment for sure, and I didn’t get the idea that I was playing a meme deck across at all. People thought I was crazy for not leveraging Juri as some kind of board control device. It’s tough to explain that it’s easier in that scenario to kill all my opponents than any variety of creatures, and killing my opponents easily is not what I’m there to do.
Kelsien started strong and used some fun Auras to give their Commander Deathtouch. Evelyn got a lot of exile going early, then added fuel to the fire with Panharmonicon and a non-legendary copy of Evelyn using Spark Double. Then they added copies of each. K&T got in on the fun, copying the Panharmonicon a couple of times themselves, and with a Faerie Artisans out as well, got the non-legendary Evelyn copies too. In a couple of turns, our piles were very small. Evelyn looked at the stacks and just made copies to exile all of our decks. We each drew on an empty library in succession.
While this was a unique way to win, it’s actually fairly viable for an Evelyn player. As far as the game went, we all just sort of stopped playing and just watched our decks get exiled to an endless series of triggers that it took several people to manage. And then Evelyn won.
Evelyn, played as intended, could be exactly that same non-game every time, backed up by tutors and some variety of Laboratory Maniac or even Necropotence to be able to win on an empty library. Because you’re exiling your own deck too, you don’t even have to rely on an opponent having cards you can use. Though you can snag all their mana rocks.
A powerful way to win without trying too hard, based in large part on an overcomplicated boardstate, is baked into a card like Evelyn. Not needing your opponents to be anything more than life total/deck heights is the kind of Magic Commander was created to escape from. And Evelyn looks like a ton of fun to play for casuals. I don’t know what to do with that.
I’d only seen Olivia in the brief glance I gave the Double Innistrad set previews. I got Edgar, Charmed Groom in a prerelease pack. Now I know who he married. Good for them.
The Hamza player and Bullies player were close friends and frequent opponents. Hamza drew Scavenging Ooze early and threatened to exile anything Bullies put in the graveyard unless it was given to them to use. Bullies ramped into a quick Final Parting, getting (I assume) Despotic Scepter to hand and putting Pathrazer of Ulamog into the graveyard.
I’m not a fan of tutors, and way less so of Annihilator. But they are perfectly legal.
For some strange design reason, the Bullies have haste. You’re supposed to be able to use them turn 4. Hamza got the Pathrazer of Ulamog and sent it my way. I scooped.
This was a major feel bad for the table. Not the tutoring for Annihilator pre-turn 5 in a casual-forward tournament in a casual-forward game format, or having your established friend at the table help you out – me conceding defeat.
I’m playing Rakdos. I lose half my 6 permanents. I either lose my board presence entirely, including defenses (Juri, Ring, Maze), or I lose my ability to make mana in non-ramp colours. There isn’t a good compromise. Without another land in hand, I’d be relying on a topdeck to even replay my Commander if I chose to keep my mana-producing lands, which I’d have to. And this against a deck that tutored a Leveler into their graveyard the next turn. In what sense was I even going to be playing the same game at that point? I could try and rely on pity votes for my feeble topdecking, but that’s tough in a group where people are established friends, and not a way I want to succeed in a tournament. I did not give the other players the opportunity to vote for me either.
The game continued. Hamza poured creatures and +1/+1 counters onto the board too fast to be able to keep track of them. Oliva played fewer, but struggled just as much to keep track. The Scavenging Ooze kept the Bullies from easily winning turn 5 or 6.
Hamza tried a succession of alphas, but the Bullies cast Fog and then killed Hamza with Rakdos Charm. Time was called, and I think Olivia killed the Bullies in a couple of quick turns. The boardstate was a complicated mess, and again, I was required to help manage game function most of the time I sat there post-scoop. Token copies and +1/+1 counters were the culprit here, and are fairly common overall, but the Hamza deck was calibrated to get into that state every game, and Olivia’s board could do the same with random vampires with triggers and Blood tokens.
A deck like Hamza wants to get into alpha strike territory, where it wins with a single attack. Hamza had new card Skyboon Evangelist to give evasion and do just that. Many decks want to win via alpha strike, because non-alpha strikes leave you vulnerable to alpha strike. Most aren’t fast enough or present enough threats to win otherwise. Hamza and Olivia were doing what the cards demanded. Bullies too.
Bullies having Haste is too much. Vigilance was also completely unnecessary. Being in red grants easy enough access to haste, including on several lands. They’re in green and black as well, so tutors and ramp abound to find the reanimation targets and replay the Bullies quickly. I’m not sure what you do against a tuned Bullies deck except force a lot of premium removal into your decks, force a lot of early game acceleration into your decks so you have a chance at avoiding a turn 3-4 Leveler, and maybe just counter the Bullies. Y’know, build a Legacy deck.
For the record, I don’t fault the players. They put logical cards into a deck based around an appealing new Commander. That trend carried on into the next match.
I like Gonti decks a lot. It’s a bunch of tricks and stuff to get Gonti’s ETB trigger over and over, then cast stuff from the top of opposing decks. While it has access to the full power of mono-black (tutors, Cabal Coffers, etc), it’s usually a balancing act and requires a lot of skill.
I like the idea of Tovolar werewolves, which I think Tovolar was playing. Seemed like. They played some wolfy cards.
Jetmir said they were just a bunch of cats. Fair enough. But the Jetmir deck was strong, and the good cards plus the looming threat of the Commander was much too much for the rest of us.
Jetmir played Felidar Retreat early, and some other token makers. The Retreat, combined with various fetch-lands, built up some quick tokens, and Jetmir quickly dropped Impact Tremors. I’m not sure exactly if the Boss’s Chauffeur was down yet. I think so. But it plus Impact Tremors was going to be lethal in a hurry.
As a Rakdos deck (black/red) I have almost no answers for enchantments. Chaos Warp is about it in the deck. Luckily, I had it in hand and used it on the Impact Tremors. My Warp yielded the worst topdeck I’ve ever seen or heard of in a game of Magic. Guesses?
Of course you know, and the Jetmir player even remarked that it should be, and of course it was Doubling Season.
Jetmir’s boardstate was now out of control. Literally. They couldn’t keep accurate track of all the counters and tokens. Third game in a row. This was maybe turn 6-7.
Jetmir tried playing the Commander but it was killed. Jetmir then decided that the goad was displeasing and casually alpha struck me with the token army. Neither Gonti or Tovolar (still playing, sort of) had any answer for the tokens or the Commander replay, and that was that.
The sense of inevitability from the Jetmir deck was pretty scary. Like a deck you know will produce a Craterhoof Behemoth eventually, except it can be recast over and over. And it’s a green deck, so that’s no issue. There are easy ‘army-in-a-can’ enchantments and creatures like Felidar Retreat and Boss’s Chauffeur that make piles of tokens by accident. Impact Tremors and Purphoros, God of the Forge and even newcomer Witty Roastmaster will kill opponents while the army comes together. Cards like Doubling Season push it over the edge. What do you do against stuff like this? Are there enough flexible boardwipes out there? Is it viable to do anything but try and outrace them?
We played a second game, where instead, Jetmir played Tuvasa the Sunlit and Gonti played Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice. I played my 0-power Nethroi, Apex of Death, another meme deck. I think Tovolar played the same deck. Tuvasa is another enchantment-heavy deck, and it’s a wonder how anything black/red would ever be able to handle it.
While an early Solemnity from Tuvasa/Jetmir threw off my mostly +1/+1 counter-based strategy, it was only really a game between the tuned and competitive Atraxa and Tuvasa decks anyway. Atraxa was playing Planeswalker Superfriends, and Tuvasa an aggressive Commander-damage strategy. Lots of compelling Rhystic Study action, groan.
Tuvasa made a flurry of moves, culminating in Omniscience, but lacked card draw after I nuked all the Eidolon of Blossoms-style creatures with Kagemaro, First to Suffer. Instead of casting all the spells, they had to pass.
Atraxa managed to get the Ultimate Emblem from Narset Transcendent using Deepglow Skate, and blew up all the enchantments with Cleansing Nova, mostly locking Tuvasa out of the game. The next round was called, so we all scooped.
I guess Grist is a legal Commander choice, but it kind of rubs me the wrong way. I think it’s the crack of a design-space door that leads nowhere good. I’m not a fan of Planeswalkers as Commanders at all. My opinion is that they’re too powerful as value machines, and there’s not enough actual card interaction with them that doesn’t require targeting them to be a bit of a meta-choice. I’ll attack them whenever possible, even if the owner passionately defends their 3 abilities and eventual ultimate as ‘not that powerful’.
I apologize to the Grist player for consistently targeting your Commander and killing your Scute Swarms if possible. I disagree that they weren’t threats.
The game was pretty brief. I had my best game and got a big Juri going. I even killed Phenax, but not before they took out Grist with a Tree of Perdition double mill for 44. I did not realize the Tree takes on the life total as toughness after the swap. Phenax had used the Tree on Lurrus the turn before to get it to 44 toughness.
With the tree tapped, I cast my second big Chaos Warp of the day, thinking it could hardly be worse than Impact Tremors into Doubling Season. Soooo… how’s a 44-toughness Tree of Perdition into Kozilek, Butcher of Truth grab you?
Those are the two worst I’ve ever seen. Not sure which of the two was worse, honestly. Both were game-savers.
Lurrus killed me quickly with value. Lifelink plus multiple drain triggers from Vizkopa Guildmage. We did have to consult a Judge to make sure the triggers were viable, but it was still a game that somebody won clearly, so that’s something.
We tried a second, but the Scute Swarm came down early, and Grist scooped when I killed it with Kozilek’s Return out of my Morophon, the Boundless ‘Rick and Morty Ultimate Suit-Up’ deck. Time was called soon after.
I did not get votes, and won no games, and finished dead last. There’s a drafted prize pool, and everyone gets a prize, so there’s no reason to complain about that. I even dodged getting stuck with a playmat, and got some really useful card sleeves.
My other big takeaway was things have changed. If I want to play this format, I’ll need to play less memes and more efficient instant-speed interaction. I’ll probably have to bring my best manabase regardless of deck, and play Fetches and such to thin my deck and make sure I have my colours. I probably can’t play the black, red, or black/red decks I love until they have more ways to deal with enchantments, because a single Rhystic Study puts those decks so far behind it’s not funny.
I need lots of boardwipes, too, for the token armies that just show up. I need all that removal to be final, and backed up with plenty of graveyard hate. I need to be on the ball on the stack.
I have played decks that do these things, and been top dog of the stack, but I find it really oppresses my friends in my casual meta. That’s unfortunate.
Worse, all these requirements really limit what I can play, and reduce the density of cards in my decks that support my strategies, unless I want to lean into the newer Commanders and simply play one of the linear, tough-to-interact-with strats like Bullies or Jetmir. I don’t.
I’d prefer not to build decks as part of an arms race that Wizards is stoking between players who just want to test out the cool new stuff from the cool new set. I don’t want to have to account for opposing boardstates my opponents can’t even keep track of. What do I do there? Keep silent and let things drag out? Point out how they can best kill me? Try and mislead them into thinking they’ve actually got nothing?
Is there any way I can play this same game but without either the too-quick defeat or the incomprehensible and often accidental victory? Can we please get rid of Doubling Season?
We’re on the cusp of another huge dump of Commander cards. I’m sure many will be broken in ways the designers did not foresee, as seems to happen with regularity. I love this format, and this tournament, in theory. But in practice? It’s tough.
I’m working on a format for play at home. It’s sort-of Battleboxy, but it could totally be adapted to player-constructed decks. Things are simplified. If it turns out to be really good I’ll happily share. Thanks for reading!