I’m a curmudgeon. There. I’ve said it. If you’re reading this and you know me, this isn’t news. If you tell me to do something, I’ll likely not. If there’s a “best deck”, I want to brew something to beat it.
But I display this most proudly when people say anything like this:
“Oh, you’re running [blah.dec]? You have to play this card!”
No. I. Don’t. The more someone italicizes their statement, the bolder I make mine.
This mindset is so prevalent in Commander that it makes me want to…um…not play Commander. There is an idea that every list of 100 you sleeve up should have a certain few cards regardless of the deck plan. The list runs deeper if you’re talking about a certain color or combination. In this world where a 100-card list is really only about 85 of your choice, you should be running Sol Ring, probably Ancient Tomb, dual lands if you can get them, Oblivion Stone, and so forth, and you’re stupid or hopelessly underpowered if you don’t.
To me, this is the equivalent of saying every Scars of Mirrodin draft deck is helped by Myrs as mana-fixing. What if you just packed your deck full of lands and threats so that, while people are using small cards to set up threats, all your draws are live? Is a topdecked Iron Myr in the late game better than a topdecked land? Not really. Threat quality v. threat density is a consideration in 40- and 60-card universes. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be a consideration in 100ville.
What about a topdecked Sol Ring, or an Ancient Tomb when you’re at low life totals? Those things take up space in a deck, and even the stuff to find those things takes space. Simply put, if you don’t have guaranteed early access to these mana artifacts or sick lands, you’re taking up a lot of cards for something that will be an awful topdeck. And while I resent the argument “Bad topdeck = bad card,” Commander has so many situations where you’re re-establishing the board after a sweeper that it’s worth entertaining.
Currently, I have three Commander decks: one that I took the time to put together thoroughly and the other two that were initially thrown together as themes from stuff I owned 1 of. That’s changing with some cards I’m trading in, and so I’m building what I consider the most curmudgeonly list of the format, at least in terms of challenging notions of cards that absolutely have to be played. The final list is in flux on the last few cards, but say hello to…
RADHA AND HER CURMUDGEONS
(Commander: Radha, Heir to Keld)
You may notice that I haven’t listed my artifacts or nonbasic lands. That’s because there are neither. That’s 59 spells and 41 basic lands, and there are perfectly good reasons for configuring it that way.
The basic theory here besides fun with Radha is that the space that most decks take for artifact mana and nonbasic lands can be replaced with artifact/nonbasic land hate. In this sense I’m building a Commander metagame deck, one whose goal is to focus on basic lands and creatures and force others to respect that plan by stripping theirs away.
Note, however, that I don’t have major solutions to basic lands. I’m not running Obliterate and I refuse to buy Deus of Calamity since I could hit basic lands. I can bounce a basic land with Primal Command, destroy one with Chain of Acid, or give one a blaze counter. That’s it. The rest of the land hate is against nonbasics. The trick with the artifact/nonbasic hate is that I never for a second have to weigh destroying my stuff v. their stuff. It’s all their stuff! I have five cards to hate on nonbasic lands and nine to hate on artifacts, while having a ton of creatures that can sweep the board. (Were you aware that Butcher Orgg can divide its combat damage among creatures that aren’t involved in combat? That’s all kinds of cool.)
Radha as a commander ensures that you’ll have 4 mana on turn 3. As a basic mana elf, nobody’s too worried about her in the early game; they have to set up their board still. But you can get in early beats or hide behind walls until you get what you want, at which point you’re suddenly ahead on development. The deck basically curves out at 6, but the difference is that every card drawn from there out is a threat instead of a dead mana fixer.
There are enough activated abilities to make an extra land relevant, especially if it’s a Mountain, as Obsidian Fireheart, Hoard-Smelter Dragon, and Lord of Shatterskull Pass are fine uses for them (Silklash Spider and Omnath can use your excess Forests). Note that those abilities also give plenty of use for Radha’s RR from attacking. This week, I killed a Heartless Hidetsugu deck with just three Radha swings when I used her mana and 4 more to stick Epic Proportions on her in the declare attackers step. War Cadence is a similar boon, with the added benefit of being usable on others’ turns, i.e. you can help someone kill Mr. Elf Token by letting Mr. Ground Pounder swing unblockably at him. See if they can pay 7 for each wannabe blocker…
I have 4 enchantments and 1 planeswalker, so I’m not wildly vulnerable to noncreature permanent hate myself. I am vulnerable to Wrath effects, but I don’t think I am more than other decks of the ilk; in fact, having so many independent threats lets me recover naturally post-Wrath. Mordant Dragon tells me I don’t have to overextend to win. Wrap in Vigor, Recollect, Woodland Guidance, Genesis, and Praetor’s Counsel help me protect against wipeout.
Even in version 1.0, the general concepts behind the deck were winning far more games than they ought. Radha allowed for mana consistency to drop midrange threats like they were mad phat beats (which they would commence if left unchecked). The key was understanding that consistent mana development out of one card, namely Radha, freed up space for other cards to affect the board. Not every deck can use this, of course, but it’s the principles I got from this that matter for whatever you’re building.
As 100 is 1.67 x 60, if you want your deck to be as fast as it is when Sol Ring is out, you’ll need 1.67 x however many cards you’d devote to acceleration in a 60-card deck. You’re looking at about 12 cards to fill that role; otherwise, your deck will be absurdly fast sometimes but normal the other times.
But just like the difference between a deck that would like early mana and a deck that needs it, putting in a Sol Ring and a couple other cards like it isn’t enough. Your starts are better with it, of course, but that doesn’t mean anything if you’re unlikely to have those starts. All you’ve done is nudged your early odds while punting threats from your late game. Before you start inserting random mana ramp in your deck, ask yourself how desperately you need it early and how dead it is drawn late. The earlier you need it, the more cards you need to make it happen.
Part of why people auto-include these cards is the desire to play all the splashy spells. But a deck that relies on these things to ignore curve considerations is asking for trouble in Commander just as it is in Constructed. Just because you have Grand Architect and a lot of blue creatures in the deck doesn’t mean you should run Blightsteel Colossus as a 4-of. Just because you would like to cast Blightsteel Colossus every time you have 12 mana doesn’t mean you will have 12 mana every time you draw Blightsteel Colossus.
Commander is a format for splashy spells, but so is every format; it’s just that the splashy spells of other formats cost less because the games are faster. Primeval Titan is a splashy spell. Jace, the Mind Sculptor is as haymaker as they come. But while curve is paramount in Constructed, it’s assumed less important in Commander, probably because it’s a casual format, you want to play with big spells, and you have sprinkled mana acceleration.
Take every card in your deck, label its roles (it can have multiple ones), count up how many cards there are for each role, and divide the total by 1.67. This is how many effects you would have in a 60-card deck, so if you’re familiar with that realm, work with that idea. As much as my deck hates on artifacts, that still works out to about 5 artifact hosers in a 60-card deck. That’s a reasonable amount, but it’s very different from saying “I have 8 cards in here to stop you” as though we could draw one any second. It is safe to say that I will kill either nonbasic lands or artifacts over the course of the game. Since my deck has neither, I’m fine with whichever comes up, but it’s not the same as an auto-win against them.
You see how this math reveals deck consistency? Do you also see how replacing your mana artifacts with cards that all do one thing well can give your deck consistency of another sort? If I’m running a Worn Powerstone, a Thran Dynamo, a Sol Ring, a Mana Vault, and a couple other things, I could replace all of those with sweepers and turn my few sweepers in the deck into a guaranteed draw rather than a wishcast with all this mana sitting around.
This necessitates lowering your curve slightly, but it’s not like limiting your nine-mana plays makes you aggro or anything. There’s a point at which it doesn’t matter what sweeper you draw; it will hit something, and any 2+-for-1 is better than none.
Maybe your deck needs to run Sol Ring; by its ubiquity I assume many do. But there are other ways of achieving consistency and other ways of taking control of a board. Yes, Sol Ring and friends allow explosive starts. But also yes, there are plenty of cards that mitigate explosive starts, and maybe it’s better that your deck beats the explosive starts instead of dedicating card space to making a better explosive start.
One of the fundamentals of chess is that you gain a massive tempo/control edge if developing your pieces forces your opponent’s pieces to retreat. A pawn that opens up a diagonal for your bishop while also threatening their knight in the center gets you quite far ahead, as they will waste a move retreating the knight while your next move can add pressure to the board.
If everybody’s intent on running out their mana pieces early, then you make them waste their moves by destroying them with one card. If your deck has this as a built-in plan, as the Radha list above does, then you’re developing your board just by playing lands every turn, even while setting back their development because they were relying too heavily on their artifact mana. Not every color combination allows for this, but red, green, and white all can work with this, and in other color combinations you can stake your claim to a similar consistency (e.g. getting rid of small creatures, or having tons of protection from a prominent removal color, or shroud). Reliable artifact destruction can develop you as well as reliable artifact mana; it just depends on what your goal is.
But most importantly for my purposes, building a deck this way lets me be a Commander curmudgeon. So take that, Mr. Sol von Ringerstein. I will not be part of your machine.