A lot of Commander players like to hone their decks in order to increase their win percentage. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Winning is fun, and more winning means more fun. However, the way people tend to go about it often ignores the aspects that make the Commander format unique.
For instance, many players will try to make their decks as consistent as possible. While consistency is good, part of the fun of Commander is that every game is different. The singleton, multiplayer format means new interactions come up every game, even when playing with or against the same deck. It can get boring when one of the decks plays the exact same sequence of cards every single game. If you want to play the same game every time, there are formats like Legacy that are far more suited to making that happen.
In addition, decks that depend on a certain combination of cards have an inherent weakness. If you play the same game every time, and I play against you once, the next game, I can predict your every move. I know what spell to counter or permanent to destroy to disrupt your combo. I once locked a Kaalia player out of the game entirely by simply playing and leveling a Guul Draz Assassin. If I know you require certain combo pieces which you fetch using tutors, for instance Curiosity to put on Niv-Mizzet in order to combo off for the win, I can hold a counterspell in hand until such time as you attempt to tutor, or wait for you to activate your combo and Naturalize the enchantment. If that’s the only thing your deck is designed to do, you’ll be left twiddling your thumbs while the rest of us continue to play, acknowledging you only as long as it takes to eliminate you from the game. While you may have succeeded in increasing your win percentage—even playing Talrand, my counterspell deck, I’m not necessarily going to have answers every single game—you’ve decreased the amount of fun you can have in games you don’t win. If winning is all that matters, play some format where it actually matters, like Modern, where you can improve your skill enough to win significant prizes. Commander is about maximizing fun.
So how do you do that?
The answer lies in versatility. If you build a deck that can adapt and respond to challenges, you’re going to have more fun. Have several wincons, not just one—or have ways to retrieve key combo pieces if they get removed.
For example, I have four decks that run heavy on tutor effects. Although I depend upon tutors to dig for my combo pieces, I have several different combos to choose from. In my Judgebreaker deck, which I wrote about in a previous post, the idea is to create a situation that is confounding even to certified judges; to that end I have several different interesting interactions requiring vastly different cards. If I played the same cards every game, the judges would soon learn how they interacted and it would be impossible to provide a challenge. Instead I have a baker’s dozen distinct combos that each require knowledge of different rules. If an opponent gets rid of my Hive Mind before I can cast Warp World, I can still copy my Doubling Season using Progenitor Mimic. If last game the judge nailed the interaction between Eye of the Storm and Possibility Storm, this game I can tutor for Hamletback Goliath and Rite of Replication.
Garza Zol and Damia, on the other hand, are all about synergy, things like making Master of Cruelties unblockable using Aqueous Form or perhaps Rogue’s Passage, and then tapping Niv Mizzet to make the opponent lose that last point of life; or creating a loop with Inexorable Tide, Seedborn Muse, and Ring of Three Wishes that allows me to tutor and cast a new spell each turn. Both decks are chock full of fun little combos like that, so if one gets disrupted, I can search up another to replace it.
Then there’s Phage. Unlike the other decks mentioned, Phage is designed with the commander as its wincon. The idea is to find some way to cheat Phage into play without losing the game, be it Command Beacon, Torpor Orb, Sundial of the Infinite, or some other method. Once Phage is in play, I have a number of ways to keep her from being blocked, either through fear, shadow, or just plan unblockable. Of course, none of that does me any good if Phage gets countered or killed until she’s uncastable, which is why the deck doesn’t depend solely upon its commander. It can also do things like use a Vampire Hexmage to remove all the counters from my Dark Depths in order to get that sweet Marit Lage token.
Giving the decks versatility accomplishes two things. First, it allows me to recover from an opponent foiling my original strategy. Second, it keeps games from becoming dull and repetitive.
Perhaps you don’t rely on tutors. Why pay extra mana to tutor up the card you need when you can just run a bunch of cards that do essentially the same thing? An example of this might be my Talrand deck, which is home to every halfway decent counterspell I could find. Doesn’t matter if Talrand gets countered or killed; I can always re-cast him. Until the command tax is 8 mana plus Talrand’s original 4 and I’m stuck on 11 Islands.
With Talrand, I’m unlikely to run into that problem, since I can probably counter any kill-spell thrown at him, netting myself a fancy Drake token in the process. And on the rare occasion where my commander does become inaccessible, such as when all my lands got destroyed via a Cycling effect I couldn’t counter, I can get petty revenge by countering everything else that player does. I may no longer be in contention for victory, but I can still affect the game.
Krenko, on the other hand, doesn’t have that advantage. There aren’t a whole lot of counterspells in mono-red, and without my commander to create exponentially increasing numbers of tokens, the deck is seriously hobbled. But even then I can get out a great number of goblins with abilities ranging from first strike to menace to mountainwalk to haste. I might not be able to win, but that Kresh player is going to be really sad when my ten 3/3’s come at him for that final 30 points of damage and he can’t block because he controls a Mountain.
What these decks have in common is the ability to do something even when the commander isn’t in play. The Kaalia deck I mentioned couldn’t even play creatures without Kaalia to cheat them in—the mana cost was too high.
So what could the Kaalia player have done differently?
Well, first off, he could have run removal. He’s in the three best colors for creature removal, after all. With Guul Draz Assassin out of the way, he could have re-played his commander with impunity. Alternatively—or additionally—he could have run some way to protect Kaalia. Slip on a pair of Lightning Greaves and the Assassin is left without a target. If he did this when the Assassin was already tapped, I wouldn’t have had a chance to respond.
For dealing with everyday, non-repeatable removal, including counter-magic, recursion can be a good idea. If you sit down with a Kaalia deck, you’re making a statement. It’s extremely likely that the rest of the players will try to gang up on you to prevent you from taking advantage of your commander’s ability. They’ll try to counter or kill her until you don’t have the mana to cast her. If, rather than sending her to the command zone, you instead allow her to go to the graveyard and then return her with something like Animate Dead, you can get around having to pay the command tax.
In addition, being able to hard-cast some sort of threat can make people think twice about targeting you. If you have a nuclear bomb and no way to defend yourself, your opponents want to kill you before you get the chance to use said bomb. If you have a nuclear bomb and also a couple of tanks and guns, and can retaliate if attacked, they might hesitate to attack until they can kill you in one swing, which gives you a chance to marshal your forces and cast your commander. For Kaalia, those cards might include Archangel of Thune; Master of Cruelties; and Linvala, Keeper of Silence. (Linvala, incidentally, would have been a beautiful answer to Guul Draz Assassin, and at only four mana, she’s quite easy to cast.) Note that these cards are still good if you have Kaalia out; you’re not sacrificing a slot you could fill with a bigger threat in order to include them. Master of Cruelties in particular is an auto-include in pretty much every Kaalia build, since her ability gets around his attack restriction and allows for a one-turn kill if the opponent has no blockers. While this might mean you want to hold off on playing him in case you get Kaalia out, it’s nice to have the option if you know there’s no hope of getting your commander any time soon.
Point being, honing your deck should be about more than just maximizing your chance of winning. While those decks are great for commander pods at GP’s where you’re playing against strangers and the winner actually gets a prize, a more versatile deck is a lot more fun to play sitting around the kitchen table, drinking beer with your friends. To make your deck more versatile, include alternative wincons and/or ways to recycle your primary wincon, either through multiple cards with similar effects or methods to retrieve them from the graveyard. While this won’t always ensure that you win—or even have a shot at winning—it will increase your potential to have fun. And at its core, that’s what Commander is really about.