Table Politics

One of the things that distinguishes Commander from other formats is that it’s designed to be multiplayer. In two-player formats, the strategy is obvious: try to kill your opponent without getting killed yourself. If your opponent is tapped out with no creatures, you attack.

Commander is different. Attacking one player might leave you open to attack from another player. Or perhaps you know the one player is holding onto a boardwipe, so you attack another player instead, in the hopes of keeping your creatures. At the far end of the spectrum, you might even team up with another player in order to take out the rest of the table, increasing both your chances of winning above the expected twenty-five percent.

Table politics is something unique to multiplayer, and something more competitive players can have a hard time understanding. In a two-player game, it doesn’t make sense to make bargains with your opponent. “If you don’t attack me this turn, I won’t attack you next turn” is going to be of net benefit to one of you and net loss to the other. You’re playing a zero-sum game. In multiplayer, that same offer can be a net benefit to the two players entering the agreement while being a net loss to the others at the table.

Understanding table politics can increase both your enjoyment of the game and your chance at winning. When you sit down at a four-player game, the best deck isn’t necessarily the one that’s going to win. In fact, sitting down with a deck that’s clearly more powerful than anything else at the table almost guarantees that the other players will gang up on you in order to eliminate the threat. Often the level of threat is determined by the commander. Decks like Kaalia, Zur, Sharuum, and Narset tend to be extremely powerful and difficult to stop once they get going; the best strategy in dealing with them is often to get rid of them before they have that opportunity. Other times it’s a matter of knowing the players and how they tend to build their decks. I have a Selvala deck that helps everyone at the table by allowing them to draw cards and get extra mana. While the deck does contain threats like Colossus of Akros that benefit from a surplus of mana, such things are obvious threats and aren’t going to end the game in a single turn. On the other hand, there’s a regular at the gaming store I played at back in Georgia who plays a Selvala deck designed to combo off and win. Playing against my Selvala deck is fun; it allows my opponents to do some pretty crazy stuff while still providing a challenge. Playing against his Selvala deck, not so much. Either the rest of us remove him before he reaches critical mass, or he wins the game over the course of a single drawn-out turn before we’ve even had a chance to get going. A few months ago we had a game that consisted of that player, another player known for his degenerate combo decks (in this case playing an Azami deck), an inexperienced player borrowing my Krenko deck, and myself playing Nekusar. The Azami player, knowing what was coming, directed his effort toward countering Selvala every time she was cast, since he knew she was a necessary piece of the combo. Eventually the Selvala player simply conceded. In the meantime, the Krenko player had built up quite a boardstate of 1/1 Goblins, and was able kill the two remaining players. If he hadn’t scooped, the Azami player would have been able to survive for another turn, giving him the chance to combo off for the win.

In this scenario, table politics came close to allowing the Azami player to win against a deck that should by rights have beaten him. By agreeing not to attack the Azami player until Selvala was eliminate, since Azami was helping him out, the Krenko player was actually able to win the game, despite being the least experienced player at the table. Part of this was because he was piloting a well-built deck, but a lot of it was the fact that he wasn’t the most immediate threat. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Krenko is somewhat fragile, because without its commander its pace slows significantly. But despite the presence of two decks at the table with access to blue and therefore counter-magic, neither of us wanted to waste those spells countering Krenko, especially when goblin-ball seemed the most expedient way to deal with Selvala’s threat.

So how do you take advantage of table politics?

Well, it starts in deck construction. If you have a deck that’s non-interactive and is only interested in comboing off, you have nothing to offer the other players in exchange for not attacking. You could simply include cards like No Mercy and Dictate of Erebos which will make your opponents hesitate to attack, but that may make them team up in an effort to get rid of those cards.

Another method is to make yourself useful. Edric, Spymaster of Trest is a great card for this. It encourages your opponents to attack each other rather than you, because it rewards them for doing so. Cards like Font of Mythos and Heartbeat of Spring can turn you from an opponent to a valuable resource. Unequal boons like those granted by Zedruu can take this a step further. If I’m playing Zedruu and you’ve been helping me, I’ll happily give you some of my permanents to help you out as well. If you haven’t been helping me, no gifts for you. If you’ve been actively working against me, I can temporarily steal one of your creatures with something like Dominus of Fealty and permanently give it away to whomever I want.

If you don’t want to build your deck to help others, you can instead build it to stop threats. People generally don’t enjoy playing against blue decks because they don’t like having their things countered; but if you’re countering their opponents’ combo pieces, they’ll probably be a lot happier with you. I have a Talrand deck that’s basically just a bunch of counter-spells. In one-on-one, this is brutal, since every time I counter my opponent’s spell I get a drake, and he isn’t able to resolve anything at all. In multiplayer, if I counter everything, I’ll quickly run out of spells, so instead I counter huge threats and combo pieces. I even turn it into a democracy; “Hey guys, that boardwipe he just cast, do you wan that to resolve?” (In this case, no, they didn’t want it to resolve, and although it was uncounterable I was able to exile it from the stack, leaving me with several grateful opponents.) A kill-spell, or even just the threat of one, can keep them from pointing their creatures your way. In one game I played, I had a Deep-Sea Kraken, while my brother had a Seal of Doom on the battlefield. Naturally I attacked the other players instead of him, since if I pointed the kraken his way, he’d just kill it.

The next part of politics is communication. In real life, two countries might be natural allies, but if they never talk with one another, neither is likely to take the initiative to help the other. In some cases, as with Seal of Doom, verbalization is unnecessary. I could look at the board-state and know what would happen if I were to attack my brother. That’s like a third-world country knowing better than to attack the United States. But I took it a step further, and offered him a true alliance: the two of us would team up against the two other players and attempt to eliminate them. I turned a disinclination to attack into a mutually beneficial proposition. As it turned out, my brother won that game, although if he hadn’t had a particular combination of cards, I was going to win the next turn. So by allying together, we increased both our chances of winning.

Other times, politicking can be as simple as pointing out a threat you can’t handle by yourself. “Dude, I’m clean out of counterspells and if that Stormtide Leviathan resolves we’re both boned,” or, “If you can Naturalize the Swiftfoot Boots I can kill the Malignus it’s equipped to.” Alliances don’t have to be formal, or enduring. Part of the joy in Commander can be in stabbing each other in the back. Just be wary of going back on your word—once you’ve been labeled as untrustworthy, other players are less likely to ally with you, and you may find yourself the odd man out. (I have personally experienced this, when I had an agreement with a friend who had also, unbeknownst to me, allied with another friend. Once I’ve discovered that someone is willing to go back on their word, I’m not going to ally with them in the future. Besides, it makes the game a lot less fun for everyone involved.)

Basically, just talk to each other. It’s a social game. You’re probably at home with your buddies, drinking beer around the kitchen table and discussing how many miles you walked today hatching eggs for Pokemon Go; it’s no great effort to throw in, “Hey, that Falkenrath Exterminator needs to go, anyone have a kill-spell handy?” To which the reply might be, “I do, so Falkenrath player, tell you what, you don’t point it at me and I won’t kill it.” It’s not something that comes naturally to everyone, but with a little bit of practice anyone can start learning how to navigate the murky waters of shifting alliances that make Commander the fun format it is.

Kemba

When I turned twelve, my sister bought me a kitten for my birthday. I named the kitten Princess, and she stayed with me through college and getting my own apartment and moving out of my parents’ house. I’d had her for nearly half my life by the time I joined the Navy. Since I couldn’t take care of her while I was at boot camp, my old college roommate took her in, wanting a companion for her cat.

Fast forward five years. Princess got old and developed bladder problems, and my friend could no longer take care of her. I took her back in, happy to have my furbaby back where she belonged.

A few weeks after I got her back, she died.

My friend and I buried her in a relative’s yard, with the assistance of another friend. In her honor, I decided to write about my cat deck, Kemba.

Kemba was one of my early decks. When I started playing, Scars of Mirrodin was still in circulation, and I pulled her from a pack. She immediately appealed to me, because kittens.

Most Kemba decks go hard with the Voltron—load Kemba up with equipments, make her huge and evasive, and swing out for commander damage. Mine can do that with a few cards, but that’s not the main point. Really I just want to get a bunch of cat tokens, and if I happen to win, all the better.

With that in mind, most of my equipments are low-costed, so they’re easy to play and equip. Most of my creatures are cats, because I like to hit the tribal theme. I actually got a compliment from a friend for how on-theme my deck was, even going so far as to have Grumpy Cat sleeves. (I plan to replace the sleeves soon, either with the StarCity Games kitten sleeves, or with custom sleeves with pictures of Princess from when she was little.) He did give me a hard time for not roaring when Kemba entered the battlefield, and not meowing each time I got a kitten.

So. The deck.

Equipments:

Accorder’s Shield

Argentum Armor

Armory of Iroas

Bladed Pinions

Cobbled Wings

Darksteel Plate

Dragon Throne of Tarkir

Executioner’s Hood

Fleetfeather Sandals

Grafted Exoskeleton

Helm of Kaldra

Kite Shield

Kitesail

Lightning Greaves

Loxodon Warhammer

Mask of Avacyn

Mask of Memory

Masterwork of Ingenuity

Prowler’s Helm

Ring of Thune

Shield of Kaldra

Shield of the Avatar

Skyblinder Staff

Spidersilk Net

Strata Scythe

Swiftfoot Boots

Sword of Kaldra

Sword of Vengeance

Vorrac Battlehorns

Whispersilk Cloak

As mentioned, most of these have low casting cost and, more importantly, low equip cost. People tend to be wary of Kemba, so I expect her to be killed. The lower the equip costs of my equipments, the more of them I can re-equip quickly after re-casting her.

I also went more for utility than power. Sure, Strata Scythe makes her big, as does Sword of Kaldra; but really, who wouldn’t run Kaldra-tron in an equipment deck? I’ve yet to get all three pieces out together, but one of these days it’s going to happen. And of course Argentum Armor is just good removal.

But other than those, I picked utility cards. Flying is pretty good when I can then get in there for commander damage, and of course I’m not going to sneer at an extra kitten each turn. Dragon Throne of Tarkir might seem like a nonbo with most Voltron decks, but if I can get Kemba big at all, it makes her kittens huge. Mask of Avacyn actually has a higher equip cost than I’d prefer to pay, but it can protect Kemba from getting removed in the first place, so it’s worth including in the deck.

Most people wouldn’t have thought to include Skyblinder Staff—but it meets the criteria of being low cost and low equip, and of course if I also have Cobbled Wings or Fleetfeather Sandals it means she can only be blocked by creatures with reach.

Perhaps my favorite is Ring of Thune. Vigilance means I can swing with her and still have her available to block. The upkeeptrigger means Kemba keeps getting bigger. And of course, I can cast it before Kemba ever hits the field, and the one-mana equip cost means it’s extremely easy to re-equip if Kemba gets removed.

Non-equipment Artifacts:

Caged Sun

Hall of Triumph

Leonin Sun Standard

Obelisk of Urd

Prototype Portal

Most of these are anthem effects. The only thing better than 2/2 kittens is bigger kittens. White does anthems really well, usually with enchantments; but in a deck that already runs a lot of artifacts, and therefore a lot of things that benefit from artifacts, it made sense to use artifact emblems instead.

Prototype Portal is in there to get me more equipments. Normally I’d copy something like Spidersilk Net—that’s a two mana investment every turn to create and equip. There was one game, however, where I used it to exile Argentum Armor. I only got one copy before the Prototype Portal got removed, which was arguably the correct play on my opponent’s part.

Synergy:

Brass Squire

Celestial Crusader

Crovax, Ascendant Hero

Goldnight Commander

Healer of the Pride

Indomitable Archangel

Leonin Abunas

Leonin Elder

Leonin Shikari

Mentor of the Meek

Myrsmith

Phantom General

Puresteel Paladin

Raksha Golden Cub

Salvage Scout

Taj-Nar Swordsmith

Intangible Virtue

Sigarda’s Aid

Armed Response

Nahiri, the Lithomancer

Steelshaper’s Gift

Several of these interact with artifacts. My favorite combo here is Puresteel Paladin and Leonin Shikari. With those two, I can equip for 0 at instant speed. Instant speed equip means I can equip on my upkeep before Kemba’s ability resolves, giving me more kittens from her trigger. With both cards in play, I can move my equipments around in response to, say, someone trying to target one of my creatures, equipping it with Swiftfoot Boots in response even if I have no mana open.

Others are more anthem effects. Though I don’t really need a full suite of creatures with Kemba as my commander, it helps to have a few extras in case Kemba gets killed too many times for me to re-cast her. Might as well use those creatures to buff my kittens.

Cats:

Jazal Goldmane

Leonin Battlemage

As I’ve said, I like my tribal. Jazal of course is just good, and I knew as soon as he was printed that I needed him for the deck. Since my plan is to get as many kittens as possible, if I can make all of them buff each other on the attack, so much the better. And the battlemage can give one creature a small buff—worth running in the deck due to its creature type, but otherwise not very useful.

Other:

Swords to Plowshares

Rogue’s Passage

Hour of Reckoning

Disenchant

No Commander deck is complete without at least a couple pieces of removal. Hour of Reckoning kills everything except my kittens, and I can then re-cast Kemba and re-equip. Swords and Disenchant give me at least the chance of dealing with threats. And Rogue’s Passage can make Kemba unblockable, letting me get through my opponent’s defenses.

In actual play, Kemba is far too slow to make it a good deck. Typically someone is going to boardwipe before I get enough kittens to be a threat. Even if there isn’t a boardwipe, someone is going to find a way to kill Kemba. The deck is very weak to removal of any sort.

If there isn’t a boardwipe, though, and Kemba doesn’t get killed, hoo boy. With thirty equipments in the deck, I’m going to be drawing more on a regular basis, and get an increasing number of kittens each turn.

And of course, as I stated, the point of the deck isn’t to win; the point is to get a lot of adorable kittens, which the deck does extremely well.

Rest in peace, Princess. You will be missed.

Teaching New Players

Commander is perhaps the most complicated format in Magic. It involves zones not normally relevant in most formats, there is a wide variety of viable deck archetypes, and its multiplayer nature creates a priority and timestamp nightmare. For these reasons, I do not recommend using it to teach new players how to play Magic. I also do not listen to my own advice.

I learned to play on the Commander format, and I love to teach new players how to play using Commander (because that’s what I know, and that’s what I have decks for). So, today’s blog is going to be about teaching new players how to play Commander.

First thing: don’t make the new player feel stupid if they don’t get something right away. What may seem obvious to you, as an experienced player, may not be intuitive to someone who’s never played the game. If they get something wrong, it’s really your fault for not explaining it in a way they could understand. Think back to when you first played Magic, and all the weird things you thought about the rules. I’m now a Level 2 judge; I tested for Level 1 not long after the person who taught me how to play, and scored much higher on the test than him. When I tested for Level 2, I scored 100% on the exam. I’ve judged events ranging from Casual to Professional REL; the pro players trust me to know the rules better than they do. The first night I played, I never cast my commander, because I was afraid the other players would attack her. Somehow I’d gotten the idea that creatures could be attacked directly. I’d never played any other sort of trading card game, although I suppose I might have internalized what I’d heard from friends talking about them. I also was under the impression that commander damage applied to all damage taken from the commander (Ruric Thar was much better back then), and the 21 limit applied to the total damage taken from all commanders, including your own. (I know where these impressions came from: no one had specified that it had to be combat damage from a single commander; what they’d said was damage from a commander counted as commander damage, and if you took 21 commander damage you lost the game. Absolutely the fault of the people teaching me, especially since when the format was created, non-combat damage counted too, so it’s likely that new players would intuit the rule that way. Since, you know, that’s how the creators of the format originally thought it should be.) The point is, even though I’m now knowledgeable enough about the rules to teach L3’s about certain interactions, I wasn’t always that good. Nobody starts inherently knowing how the game works, so don’t blame new players when they make mistakes.

Keep in mind common errors. In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, I’ve seen players thinking they have to tap their creatures to block (I think I myself was under that misapprehension at first), miscounting mana costs (oh there’s just one green symbol on this, I only have to tap this one forest; well, no, there’s also a 2, so you have to tap two other lands as well), and miscounting permanents. A little more on that last one—one of the cards in the deck I use to teach new players is Drove of Elves, which has power and toughness equal to the number of green permanents in play. Players will forget to count Drove of Elves itself, will fail to count Tanglewurm because it’s not an elf (the deck is elf tribal), will try to count their lands along with other permanents (lands are by nature colorless), or will fail to count the tokens, because they don’t have mana costs. A good teacher will be prepared to head these off at the pass—whenever it becomes relevant, ask the player how big their Drove of Elves is. When the player tries to cast a spell, ask them how much it costs. When they answer incorrectly (because they will), correct them gently—”Actually, the Drove of Elves is a 5/5, you probably forgot the +1/+1 from Elvish Archdruid.” Or, “That spell actually costs four, not three, it’s got this 3 here which means three of any color, plus this one green.” Remember, Magic is supposed to be fun, and most people don’t have fun when they feel dumb because their mistakes are being pointed out. But, if it’s clear that you see and understand where they went wrong, it becomes a learning opportunity. Repeated assurances of, “Don’t worry, you’re doing fine, everyone makes mistakes,” will go a long way to making them feel good about themselves even when they don’t get things right away.

Another important thing: choosing the deck that they’ll be using. I use my mono-green Ezuri, Renegade Leader elf tribal deck. My reasoning is that it’s a single color, which reduces the complexity significantly, it has a fairly straightforward win condition (play a bunch of elves, pump them up with Ezuri’s ability, and trample over your opponent’s blockers), and it’s also the first deck that my friend who made a habit of misreading and misplaying his cards was able to play without mistakes. While the comedic flowchart on what to play would indicate that a new player should perhaps play goblins, rather than elves (since you choose goblins over elves if you tend to miss triggers), my elf deck doesn’t have a lot of upkeep (or other) triggers, and my goblin deck is actually slightly more complicated than my elf deck, along with being much easier to disrupt.

I tend to teach using one-on-one, ignoring the difference in banned list and simply using my multiplayer decks. Normally I don’t like playing one-on-one, since it’s a completely different format at that point, but it simplifies things for teaching new players. Having only two people to wrangle, one of whom is myself, makes it much easier for me to control the different variables. I don’t have to make sure that another player is having fun while training up the new player, and I don’t have to worry about another player making the new player feel dumb or unwelcome because they’re having a hard time understanding the game. Also, the new player might feel self-conscious for slowing down gameplay in a multiplayer game.

New players don’t want to be handed the game—that’s condescending—but winning a game is a rush, and will mean they associate the game with having fun. My first night, one of the games came down to me versus the person who taught me. It looked like I had the game in the bag—he even said he couldn’t see a way to beat me—until he looked at his hand one last time, saw a way out of certain doom, and took it. If, instead, he’d been slightly less competitive, and just passed turn, I never would have known the difference, and could have come away from the night that much more psyched about playing, because I’d actually won a game. Instead, I was left with the bitter knowledge that he could have let me win, without letting me know he’d let me win, but instead chose to win himself. Clearly I chose to continue playing, but that was more a testament to my personal stubbornness than to this person’s ability to teach new players.

My strategy for letting the new player win without letting them know you’re letting them win is to pick a deck that’s just not as powerful as the deck you’ve handed them. If you’re doing one-on-one, it’s pretty easy to guarantee that they’ve got a good shot at beating you. One recent game I played to teach a new player, I played my janky pirates deck. It’s not a bad deck, but it’s not on par with my other decks; to put things in perspective, the commander is Ramirez DiPietro. Usually he just sits in the command zone looking fabulous. Another time, a few months ago, I played Scion of the Ur-Dragon, under the theory that my five-color deck would be rather a lot slower than the mono-color deck I’d loaned to my cousin. We played two games; in one, I beat him, and in the other, he completely destroyed me. For the rest of the vacation, he was bugging me to play. That is, of course, the goal in teaching new players: to make them eager to play the game again.

Basically, the thing to remember is, you want this person to want to play the game. You want to provide them a challenge, but not so much of one they feel discouraged. They’re going to make mistakes; use those mistakes as a teaching opportunity, but make sure you both understand that making mistakes is natural for new players and nothing to be ashamed of. And, most importantly, if you have non-Commander decks, perhaps consider using those to teach rather than your super-complicated three-color combo Garza Zol Commander deck.