Graveborn Musings—The Fast (Mana) and the Furious (Timmies)

One of the biggest issues in the Commander community has for some time been the prevalence of mana acceleration. For example, check out this analysis of Sol Ring and ensuing discussion, the discussion on fast mana in this episode of CommanderCast, and this article from my fellow Muse. Brandon’s discussion last week dealt with a lot of these items when considering the Legacy banned list, but the discussion keeps coming up in various forms and various forums (fora?). Some people consider the whole issue of staples, others focus on specific cards, especially Sol Ring (which symbolizes everything we’re talking about, one way or another), but one of the most common elements seems to be the way that acceleration warps the game. It certainly has in mine…

Torrent of Sols

For a couple of years now, my group has seen an abundance of artifact mana. It’s not so much a steady progression (the decks that most abused it have since moved on), as a raising of the bar.[1] Sometimes one person will accelerate so quickly that the jump straight past the point where you can balance against them, to the sweet spot of the Security Curve, where you’re desperately bandwagoning with them in the hope that they kill someone else while you burrow through your deck looking for answers; at other times you’ll be playing against three opponents who each have twice as much mana as you, and who are dropping their bombs and card advantage engines before you can even play your Commander for the first time.

Now, I don’t want to exaggerate and say that the March of Sols is ruining games for me, but I have noticed that this approach to playing Commander has some effects on the meta that should concern all casual players.

1)    Sol’s Might: These cards are just flat-out powerful, and they make it very hard for decks that aren’t playing the same game—Solless Ones, if you will—to compete. This leads to less powerful decks (including more budget-friendly builds, new decks and experimental or theme decks) getting ousted first in most games. Sure, the pygmies can balance against a single giant, but when the meta consists mainly of giants, pygmies tend to get stepped on first.

2)    Sol Collectors: Following from this, the variety of decks tends to shrink as people don’t bring their less powerful decks. I’ve experienced it myself, with a dozen decks that haven’t seen the light of day in months partly because they struggle to keep up in a meta full of ‘best decks.’ Those who do bring new decks may only build decks up to the number of pieces of artifact accel they own, or swap out/proxy these uniquely powerful cards to make sure they max out on staples no matter what they play.

3)    Wall of Sols: The variety of cards you see will ultimately decrease as a result of this. I did hear one of the guys on CommanderCast say that acceleration can increase variety, by which I assume he meant that people feel more free to play expensive bombs because they know they’ll be able to play them. However, I feel that this argument falls apart for two reasons. Firstly, in my group we virtually never see early plays that aren’t mana rocks, and mid-game plays tend to be much more on the order of five-eight mana plays than the kind of mid-game goodness I like to find. Why play a four-drop on turn four when you have the mana to go straight to ‘Titan, equip, go’?

Defiler of Sols

There are, of course, ways to deal with excessive reliance on artifact mana, but all of them can be problematic when you’re dealing with a fundamental shift in ideas about how the format could be played. You can play artifact hate—I’m always on the lookout for cheap copies of Creeping Corrosion and Shatterstorm, for example—but it is so much harder when everyone else is only playing spot removal because they don’t want to wreck their own artifact mana base. I have added significant artifact destruction suites to most of the decks that I play regularly, even to the extent that I removed all but four artifacts from my previously voltronic Kresh deck,[2] but it just isn’t enough. I’ll get some artifact removal in every game, but will only draw a sweeper in time every couple of games. In the other games, I can expect to spend most of the game reacting to whatever monstrosities the Sol Wardens are powering out.

Additionally, I’m fed up with people saying that the answer to anything is to evolve your deck. When a particular metagame shift is really profound, adapting your decks in response can lead to a couple of outcomes that are problematic for casual play. Most obviously, you might find yourself having to play with sub-fun cards (like replacing my beloved SoLaS with Manic Vandal). Secondly, you might be forced to make the same kinds of changes to all of your decks to stay competitive, significantly reducing the variety that is the whole point of playing multiple decks. I don’t think I own a red deck without Shattering Pulse and Into the Core, for example. Thirdly, I’ve often found myself in a rock-paper-scissors situation where I know I can beat the artifact deck easily if I play my hate-heavy deck, but will usually lose if I play a deck that isn’t tailor-made to deal with that deck.[3]

Finally, many of us play in multiple groups with different metagames. I would much prefer knowing that I can play all of my decks against any of my friends, but the reality is that I’ve had to amp the artifact destruction up to such a high level in some of my favorite decks that they’ve become very weak against the other groups that I play with. I lost one particularly embarrassing game where an enchantment-based Teneb deck locked down Kresh and a friend of mine playing blue. I had two pieces of artifact removal in hand but couldn’t do anything about the Mana Reflection, Debtor’s Knell and Mirari’s Wake that Teneb was using to kick our asses. The whole time he was drubbing me, I couldn’t help remembering that the useless Rack and Ruin in my hand used to be a Tranquil Grove.

Remove Sol?

So let’s not pretend that adjusting your decks is automatically enough to solve any and all problems that might occur in your metagame. While you should try to deal with problems at the strategic level first, if you are being overwhelmed by a flood of artifact mana in your metagame, you shouldn’t have to take sol responsibility (sorry) for dealing with the problem.

There are a lot of issues in play here, including questions of fairness, competitiveness, redundancy and variety. All four are important criteria for any casual metagame, although they are really two pairs of opposite considerations, which tells that we need to be searching for a delicate balance rather than a sweeping generalization.

There are also arguments to be made on both sides. I certainly don’t doubt that artifact-based acceleration makes your decks more powerful, and everyone loves playing with power: the only thing better than a turn eight Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, is a turn four Nicol Bolas Planeswalker, and the same can be said for most of the Timmytastic bombs that are supposed to define the format. The problem is that Sol Ring, Mana Crypt and so on are actually coming to define it instead; to my mind, every deck is better with these cards, but the format itself is worse.

I’m not suggesting that the Rules Committee should ban outright Sol Ring or anything like that, but I would suggest that, if the majority of decks in your meta share the same five to ten (or more!) artifact accel cards, you experiment with a temporary moratorium on anything more powerful than a Signet. Take a note of which new cards see play, which strategies are more or less powerful as a result,[4] and how much more interesting your games become. Some groups might prefer this restriction and stick with it; others will hate it and go back to playing with the most powerful accelerants allowed. Hopefully some groups will develop more creative (probably informal) ways of dealing with it. I’d certainly like to see everyone building decks that contain fewer mana rocks, perhaps spreading their collection over several decks. If you have five Sol Rings, then you ought to have more than five decks, or proxying these staples or swapping them between decks might become frowned upon, even if proxies of other cards are allowed, for example.

The right way to deal with this problem is on a playgroup-by-playgroup basis, but it seems clear to me that the Carnival of Sols is going to have a negative impact on many groups. Try living life in the slow lane for a while; the view is much more interesting and you have more time to enjoy it!


[1] What I’m mainly referring to here are the cream of the cream—the cards that I see most often are Sol Ring, Mana Vault, Mana Crypt, Thran Dynamo, Sculpting Steel, Solemn Simulacrum, Pilgrim’s Eye, Grim Monolith, Darksteel Ingot and Coalition Relic. If you add these ten cards to a list of such (arguable) staples as Lightning Greaves, Swiftfoot Boots, Maze of Ith, High Market, Duplicant, Expedition Map, perhaps Dreamstone Hedron, dual lands, shock lands, fetchlands, and for decks with a lot of basic lands, Thawing Glaciers, Rings of Brighthearth and Deserted Temple, there isn’t really that much room for creative deckbuilding or out-of-the-box card choices.

[2] The artifacts I kept were Sol Ring, Pilgrim’s Eye, Solemn Simulacrum and Birthing Pod, the latter of which is just too insane to cut. More importantly, the first three demonstrate the overwhelming power of artifact-based acceleration. A first turn Sol Ring is worth it even when you use it to power out a Creeping Corrosion on turn two.

[3] Don’t think that this is a fun situation for the artifact player either, knowing that there is at least one card in your opponent’s deck that just crushes you; it may be similar to playing monogreen and knowing that one of your opponents is running Acid Rain.

[4] It has been suggested more than once that artifact accel is the only thing that stops green from getting out of control, but that really seems like a man of straw argument. Some individual decks may pull out all the stops and go crazy accelerating with Azusa, Lost but Seeking or Omnath, Locus of Mana, but they can do that now anyway, and you can deal with that eventuality, I suspect most green decks will not go too far down this route. My own monogreen decks can’t keep up with the mana ramp of the artifact decks, and don’t particularly want to, but if you find that green does become the new blue, then feel free to limit green ramp in some way—for example, by limiting cards like Explosive Vegetation and Skyshroud Claim that put more than one land into play.

About Graveborn Muse

Daryl Bockett has been an avid Magic addict since Legends/Revised. He lives and breathes deckbuilding and casual play. "The more the merrier" is his creed! In those brief moments when he isn't playing, reading or thinking about Magic, he teaches at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. He has a Ph.D. in International Relations, which is basically only useful for helping him to understand the strategic interactions at a multiplayer table.
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12 Responses to Graveborn Musings—The Fast (Mana) and the Furious (Timmies)

  1. Alex P. says:

    I’ll be honest: fast mana brought me to Commander. The very first Commander deck I ever put together was a fast-mana monstrosity. It ended up being a mono-black deck with only 33 black cards (not all the artifacts are mana accelerators, of course, but then I’ve got cards like Soldevi Adnate and Magus of the Coffers in my black count). I heartily enjoy ramping into a Cabal Conditioning or killing the table with a 38-power Drana sacrificed to Xathrid Demon.

    And yet, I find that fast mana makes Commander kinda boring. I think the other culprit is 40 life, which rewards fast-mana navel-gazing much more so than curving out with moderately-sized beaters. I’ve developed a strong preference for 60-card multiplayer because the early-turn buildup feels much more *interactive* in that format.

    • Graveborn Muse says:

      Thank you!! Not just for agreeing with me (never get enough of that) but for reminding folks that casual play involves more than just Commander. I’ve heard a lot of people saying they can only play some of these cards in Legacy or Commander – it’s all I can do not to scream “MAKE CASUAL DECKS!!!” Maybe this is how we will turn COmmander into a casual gateway drug…

      • Razjah says:

        I want to see more regular multiplayer too! I used to love EDH, but now it is everywhere and I want to see more attention on the thing that got us all here- regular 60 card multiplayer.

        I feel like a lot of EDH discussion is on finding the sweet spot for playing. I think 60 card offers a much larger sweet spot.

  2. Matthijs says:

    Slightly off topic. Or completely on…

    I have Sol Ring and a lot of the other artifacts. And I hardly ever have room for them. Why?

    Because my metagame is a three player free for all in which emphasis is on originalty and in deck synergy rather than raw power.

    My decks tend to run three to five colors and use a variety of dial and tripple land mana fixing.
    Rules are mostly vintage but some styles are frowned upon. (I’m looking at you Debtor’s Knell and other overpowered friends of yours)
    I think the 4-offs in my decks prevent the use of artifact staples.
    My decks are always 7 in number and get updated (read completely torn apart for new decks) every new set.

    Uhm… Maybe playing Commander (cool as it is) holds people back from creativity.

    M.

    • Matthijs says:

      I just read the other posts… They seem to say something similar.

      *grin*

    • Alex P. says:

      I think that may actually be the fault of the 100-card singleton structure. 4-ofs are a very graceful middle ground between totally random draws and getting whichever card you need when you need it. In the absence of that, Commander skews towards building everything tightly around your general, tutoring for perfect answers, or playing numerous highly-similar effects (best example of this: MANA ROCKS).

      You could play tons of tutors and mana rocks in 60-card, too, but with 20 life and no command zone, it’s easier for other players to punish you with tempo. The consistency of 4-ofs is just good enough that it’s usually not worth it.

  3. Far be it for me to defend Commander, as I play it fairly infrequently, but if you have an issue with mana rocks in Commander, I’m not sure how it will be better in 60 card. Instead of one Sol Ring, you can have four!

    The only reason 60 card appears to be a more innovative format is because if its lack of popularity. Without the decklists and popularity of Commander, 60 card is allowed to be played at a less optimal level, meaning you don’t need the mana ramping artifact mana provides. This makes 60 card appear to be a far more wide-open, varied format.

    Please play the 60 card multiplayer and enjoy the undefined metagame, but realize that as soon as it gets popular, people will be explaining how Sol Ring is an auto-include in this format too.

    • Matthijs says:

      Uhm… Sol Ring is restricted, not a 4 off candidate.

      But I agree that netdecking and endless tuning can destroy a lot of fun.

      Until, and I quote:

      it’s all I can do not to scream “MAKE CASUAL DECKS!!!”

      (-:

      Fortunately my two others in my tiny three-for-all metagame play for fun. (but we do use a pretty strict guideline on which cards we allow to prevent endless discussions on what is fun and what isn’t)

      I think each playgroup must set out guidelines to keep things fun. The alternative is a shrinking playgroup I’m afraid.

      (though in our case the playgroup shrunk due to raising kids and out of the area job opportunities…)

      All the best, Matthijs.

      • Sol Ring is only restricted if you are playing with a banned and restricted list in your casual group. Admittedly, my group uses the Legacy banned list, so there are no Sol Rings in my play group at all unless we are playing EDH. That was sort of my point though; 60 card casual is the wild west where anything goes. No banned lists, no known broken combo decks. It will only stay that way until it goes big time like EDH. Enjoy it for what it is!

  4. Razjah says:

    I don’t think playing with a banned list is really a problem. My group plays with the Vintage banned list. We had a guy show up two weeks ago with 4 Tinkers. We told him that it was okay to finish the game, but that he really needs to drop to 1 Tinker.

    We haven’t had any problems keeping the banned list running smooth. I’m my groups best player and Threat. When I say that we need a banned list to keep me in control, most of the group falls in line.

  5. QED2 says:

    One interesting solution would be to implement the rule: a spell of converted mana cost N can’t be played before turn N.

    So you can use your Sol Ring to power out two 2-drops on turn 2, but not a 4-drop. It’s remarkably less broken to do that.

  6. Graveborn Muse says:

    A lot of good ideas folks, thank you! My ¥2.5:
    1) I don’t know how useful it is to compare Commander and casual 60s because the former appeals to a wider audience for some reason. Someone who builds cut-throat 60s can more easily move to tourney decktesting, whereas someone who builds killer Commander decks is still going to sit down at a COmmander table. This is the essence of the problems we see in Commander side events and tournaments.
    2) When I started building Commander decks I had to scavenge Sol Rings from my 60s, which was really tough. I know Brandon said he wouldn’t run Sol Ring in his Radha deck but I honestly can’t think of ANY deck that couldn’t benefit from it, 60s or 100s. I guess if you wanted to build a CHroma deck, it might be useless, but otherwise not really. If I could run 4 I would (in fact back in the day a friend did run 4 and it was buh-ROKEN).
    3) QED, a reasonable option in the early game, altho I’d want to forget it after turn 8 or earlier. In fact, something like Gaddock Teeg or Rule of Law would be reasonable effects to agree on for the first couple of turns if you have this kind of problem.

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