Mother nature said 'slow down', so naturally I kicked her in the face with my Energy legs! Aha! Cunning title drop utilising a popular meme! Big article! No space left for innovative segue into main te-
1) Sun Tzu said: The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.
When you sit down to write a body of work that will take approximately 40,000 words to see completed or when you sit down to defeat an entire table of Magic players using Vintage-legal decks, it pays to do two things. Firstly: you break everything down. Every word needs to slot into a sentence. Every sentence needs to fit into the paragraph. It's conceptually similar to the maxim "Omit Unnecessary Words", but a tiny bit different. Secondly, you need to appreciate that the whole of the experience slots into a greater whole: my article goes live on MTGS, which is one of the many Magic-related communities.
Despite all the myriad combinations and interactions and synergies and counter-threats that keep drawing me deeper into the game, it's all just raw, unshaped potential at the start of the game. Think of this potential as the 'large force' alluded to in the quote. To win, you need to think of the game, from beginning to end, as hundreds of little actions that terminate in similar, but differing conclusions: one player over the heaped mound of enemy players. Each interaction pushes down a new path, with branching possibilities (See also: the trouser legs of time, as popularised by Terry Pratchett). It's impossible to chart everything that can happen, but think about each little moment as being part of a larger, complex whole. At each point, focus on ways to increase board presence, avoid drawing aggro from the whole table, and avoid losing your resources. The big game becomes a series of partitioned chunks, each one of which is easily managed.
More practically, learn to keep track of your deck. If you're awaiting an important upkeep trigger (an all-important Pact of Negation, for example), place a bead on top of your deck. If you have a number of steps to observe in your turn* and it's crucial that you don't spend too much mana on Top activation or give away too much information by taking back a false move, lay out the correct number of beads in front of you and move one for each action.
If you want to look even more awesome, have a few beads spare and move one of them if an opponent responds with a counterspell, as if it was just another step in your schedule for this turn. (Whether you did predict it or not doesn't matter. What matters is theatrics.) For bonus points, practise looking like David Xanatos/Light/L and murmur that everything is progressing according to your ineffable plan. Then get back to moving those beads.
*Let's say, for example, you have a five-colour enchantress-style deck with all of the Hondens, Paradox Haze, and recently threw down an Enduring Ideal and intend to fetch out a Hive Mind and a Eye of the Storm. Just you wait. I'm gonna get around to ordering Cromat any one of these days and it will rock your world, man.
2) Fighting with a large army under your command is nowise different from fighting with a small one: it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.
I can approach this quote in two ways: internal command or external command. The external command interests me more, but I'll do internal command first. Let's say you're piloting a very involved deck, in which the greatest threat once you're online is not other players, but your own inability to play the deck with technical perfection. In this situation, learning to memorise each step and perhaps organising a handy flow chart could help you or at least the spectators observing your thirty-two-card-combo would know when you'd made a catastrophic misplay.
External command, then, is your ability to influence other players into doing what you want. It's not just in terms of "oh hey, I have a rattlesnake". Its about signs and signals.
3) To ensure that your whole host may withstand the brunt of the enemy's attack and remain unshaken-- this is effected by maneuvers direct and indirect.
Make no mistake – there is no situation in which you, or the cards that you're playing with, are invulnerable. At the very least, Wrath of Coke Bottle can destroy every card you own in a single instant. But for everything else, there is an answer. You can have a direct answer in the form of a rattlesnake card and an indirect answer in the form of two mana untapped in any combination – Hindering Light, Countersquall, Terminate, Surge of Strength, Aura Mutation, Batwing Brume, Diabolic Edict, Mana Leak, Swerve and the activation cost of a Sunforger can change the state of a game from "feel the fury of my unstoppable wrath!" to "meep! Please, don't hurt me!"
4) That the impact of your army may be like a grindstone dashed against an egg--this is effected by the science of weak points and strong.
What is the science of weak points and strong? Will our heroes learn its secrets before its too late? Find out in the next thrilling installment of Art of War - "Chapter 6: Weak Points and Strong"!
As a rule of thumb, though: a weak board position and a hand with cards means surprises. The best surprises are found in white, blue and black (because green has subpar removal and red's removal is devalued in Commander). When you deal with these players, you deal with them as though you were playing around a counterspell or removal. The strongest board positions will come out of black, red, and green, with the use of rattlesnakes. Here, you can either use removal or some other 'indirect' method, or if you outnumber them you can attack and gladly bear the consequences.
5) In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.
There are many ways to winning a game of Magic. I hear some of them are bad, but I ain't seen it. It seems strange that this passage feels so much more applicable to Magic than real life. Before the advent of really big explosives, how would someone have gone about winning a war without actually engaging in a battle? I imagine the answer is probably assassination. So remember – if you can't beat your opponents in a pitched battle, poison their coke.
6) Indirect tactics, efficiently applied, are inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and streams; like the sun and moon, they end but to begin anew; like the four seasons, they pass away to return once more.
If you're hunkering down for a large scale conflict, you need ways to make sure that no matter how long it takes for the end to arrive, you'll still be there. Thus, the science of recursion in multiplayer. At some point, it is guaranteed that you will cast a useful spell. More than 50% of the time, you will benefit greatly if you're able to take a spell that was good the first time and play it again. Thus, the use of cards that have flashback, buyback and rebound and the amazing brokenness of Yawgmoth's Will. I run YawgWin in a Teneb deck that uses no storm cards and contains no fast mana for recursion. But every time I play it, I tend to get back something like Volrath's Stronghold, Eternal Witness and either a piece of removal or a tutor. It's bah-roken even when it's being merely very good. How can you argue with that power? Adding to its amazingness, I got my copy as a Valentine's Day present from my wife. YawgWin is both the perfect card for Commander and the perfect present for a budding multiplayer-playa.
But sometimes, games are going to go on for a loooong time and then end abruptly because someone decks themselves. At this point, a Thran Foundry, Feldon's Cane, or Elixir of Immortality recurs your whole deck and possibly gains you 5 life as well. But this is merely a way to 'not lose' a rollicking game of Commander. What we're after is ways of winning, capiche? Instead of devoting a slot to mass library shuffling, add an extra threat or a game-changer. A card as simple and unloved as Shivan Dragon is a better use of your 99 cards. Use a well-placed Repay in Kind to deny people that extra three hours of drawn-out Commander and instead inject them with pure, frantic decision making.
There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.
Let's imagine, if only for a moment, that I'm qualified to define five main Commander deck types without instantly being required to use the 1-vs-1 metagame clock. I'd pick out the following:
Midrange (/goodstuff – wraths, big critters, ramp/tutors)
Control (includes locks, mana denial, specialised counterspells, etc.)
Combo (tutors, instant win combinations, fast mana)
Graveyard (relies heavily on the graveyard)
Voltron (Commander-based. Goes for 21 damage, or uses a mechanic)
(Five is pretty much an arbitrary number. But in the tradition of Anthony Alongi's disclaimers, if I ignored your favourite way of playing its because I was purposefully trolling you or because you're a bad person, not because you've created the next big thing and it just hasn't filtered down to me.).
These archetypes can be mixed – midrange is already a hybrid of aggro and control. Combo-control makes sense, because if you're just going to sit around and establish board presence and then do nothing with it, I'm amazingly disinterested in what the rest of your deck is going to do (What? It's based on the Weisman deck? Serra Angel will beat down over ten turns to kill the WHOLE table? We're all going out for pizza. Text us when you're done. Also I'm holding Constant Mists and I have Crucible, kthxbai)
Graveyard decks are less a type and more like a confusing supertype that's only a type for rules reasons (oh hai, Tribal, I didn't see you crying in the corner like a little girl). A deck isn't just 'graveyard', it's 'graveyard-and-other'. So, Teneb and Kresh are graveyard-midrange. Savra is graveyard-control. The important thing about graveyard decks is that they're wrecked by adequate hate in a way that other decks without that type wouldn't be. Also, people who use Graveyard decks can be a little bit pallid but are charming, erudite, and the life of any party. (I mean, if the party is dying, wouldn't you want someone who was willing and able to reach into the Underworld to revive it? You wouldn't? We must move in different circles. If you change your mind, here's my card, humorously decorated to look like the flesh of a tortured soul)
Voltron decks can be anything, but if you pack a Condemn/Spin into Myth they quickly become a 'nothing' instead. Isamaru is a Voltron deck because he combines with a whole bunch of cheap equipment. Uril uses Auras, Rafiq uses exalted triggers, Arcum and Arcanis combine with untap effects, Volrath combines with Draco, and the Eldrazi titans to threaten a one-shot on any unlucky player. But if you can tuck that commander away, the deck loses most of its raison d'etre*, unless of course they have a Lightning Greaves, unless you're using Hallowed Burial, unless they blink out the creature...
*(Babelfish informs me this means "Raisins are for Eating" in French).
Aggro doesn't make this list because people insist that Aggro is best played with small, efficient creatures. In Commander, aggro is medium-sized, efficient creatures (Spiritmonger, the Titans, Wurmcoil Engine), combined with some sort of horribly crippling disruptive element that throws everyone off – like massed land destruction. Remember, kids – a douche strategy is just the capstone of an aggressive deck that's been orphaned and given to a control deck. It doesn't belong where it is and nobody understands it, but if you help it find its niche in the world it can become a respectable force for good and bring down the average playing time of Commander by roughly ten hours.
There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.
W - Isamaru
U – V. Clique, Azami, Arcanis, Arcum Dagsson
B - Maga, Drana, Skithyryx
R – Godo, Ashling
G - Omnath
WU – Augustin IV, Gwafa
UB - Oona
BR - Rakdos
RG – Wort the Raidmother
GW – Rhys the Redeemed
WB - Teysa, Selenia
BG – Savra,
GU – Momir Vig, Kraj
UR – Niv-Mizzet, Jhoira
RW – Brion Stoutarm, Razia, Agrus Kos.
WUB - Sharuum, Sen Triplets
UBR – Nicol Bolas,
BRG - Adun Oakenshield, Kresh the Blood-Braided, Karrthus
RGW – Rith the Awakener, Uril the Mistalker
GWU – Rafiq of the Many, Angus Mackenzie, Phelddagrif
UBG - Vorosh
GWB – Teneb, Doran, that sweet new guy who hasn't even been released yet.
BRW - Oros
WUR - Numot
WUBRG – Cromat, Slivertastica, Horde of Notions
Each of these commanders encourages a certain "build around me" feel, which makes for a large number of viable deck types, even if I purposefully skip over a very, very large number of good commanders (where viable is assumed to mean 'tier 2 or greater' not, 'I can win against the whole world this way').
There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.
Whenever you ask a question about game theory, or probability, there is usually an instruction to assume that all players are playing rationally, or rather that all players are attempting to maximise their chances of victory. It's my experience that this is simply not true. People play with certain mindsets and will mistake their desire to exact revenge on an opponent for being a stepping stone to victory rather than a distraction. That said, Magic is stupidly complex. It's impossible to have perfect knowledge of what's going to happen next turn, let alone know whether or not some well-deserved payback now will turn out to be the wrong answer much later on.
If we assume that each taste refers to a specific mindset, we have five different ways of thinking: a sweet mindset can focus on improving their board or by means of a group hug deck improve other's experience. An player who has given in to an acrid mindset can be intent on bringing horrible, disproportionate measures of justice to bear against anyone who looks at their creatures the wrong way. However, giving in to any individual arbitrary mindset is a recipe for disaster, as is painting other people with broad strokes like 'well, he must be angry at me because I destroyed one of his lands earlier'. When you make sweeping generalisations about people (as I'm forced to do when creating examples in this series), you miss out on the smaller details that will help you negotiate corner cases. I'm led to believe that this has applications in the wider world, but I'll get back to you.
In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack--the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of manoeuvres.
What's direct? What's indirect? On the one hand, there are periods of action and inaction. People work hard to kill other players, they achieve their goal and all of a sudden realise they're out of gas. Thus begins the indirect manoeuvres, where people play their tutors, use draw spells, convert resources (Greater Good / Necropotence / Voltaic Key and such) until one person establishes enough of a lead to resume the business of directly killing the other guys.
The direct and the indirect lead on to each other in turn. It is like moving in a circle--you never come to an end. Who can exhaust the possibilities of their combination?
The onset of troops is like the rush of a torrent which will even roll stones along in its course.
I've noted over the month or two that I've been compiling this article that more and more authors are highlighting the importance of a 'deck that does something'. I hadn't realised it was secret knowledge, but here's what I understand the progression from where-you-are to where-you-wanna-go looks like: The most primal form of deck building is picking up all your cards of one colour, sorting through them for your 40 most favourite and then adding 20 land cards. You end up with a "green deck". Later on, you decide to make sure that you at least run Llanowar Elves and Elvish Warrior, because you need to be able to beat the savage beats of Raging Goblin. You reach the next step when you decide to run Elvish Champion instead of Scaled Wurm. People with access to the internet quickly learn that there's this marvelous contraption called "Elfball", and it uses these really sweet Elves that are way better than Elvish Warrior, so they order them all off the internet. They shuffle up, draw a card with an odd frame in their opening hand and they're like
But that epiphany never spreads beyond victory with that one particular deck. It's more like... "well, Elfball is really cool, so I guess I'll just break it out occasionally when I'm playing against jerkfaces, to show them who's who". For many years, my Affinity deck lay at the bottom of my bag, ready to reap the souls of people who griefed multiplayer tables. But in that time, did I ever learn a thing about synergies or aggression in multiplayer? Noooo, I just killed one guy and then died to the rest of the table.
When you build a deck, you're laying out a plan. That plan isn't "building up to a glorious but ultimately undecided ragnarok in which you and everyone else take it in turns to swing for the kill", it's always "I play a threat that wins the game". Other people will attempt to stop you, but that's not a part of Plan A. Your plan is to win. Compare the structure of a story, which is supposed to end, or a sentence in a paragraph, which is supposed to have a single idea, generally involving a noun, a verb, and a full stop to show that it's officially over. An overly long sentence is less dramatic and more 'hard to read'.
The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim. Therefore the good fighter will be terrible in his onset, and prompt in his decision.
A Commander deck is all about the build up of energy - ramping, tutoring, drawing cards, sculpting an elusive 'perfect moment'. At some point in the game, you reach what Zvi Mowshowitz once called the "Fundamental Turn"*. There was an entire article about it, but for now it's the point at which your deck's potential peaks and you have a window of opportunity in which you can push one or more players into negative life totals. When you reach this point, don't delude yourself: if you hold off one more turn, you won't get that one extra card that makes the victory that much more sweet. You will get someone else's board wipe, or someone else's one extra card. You won't be able to make sure that so-and-so isn't sandbagging removal, or that what's-his-face is tapped out. You will instead find out that Carl has been waiting for the fifth piece in his laughably overblown combo.
Also, it bears repeating: the fundamental turn is the turn where you kill your opponents. Attacking for incremental gain in Commander is better known as 'losing'.
Energy may be likened to the bending of a crossbow; decision, to the releasing of a trigger.
Your fundamental turn uses up as much of your energy as you have available to you, even using up your removal and counterspells to force your course of action through. Assuming your opponents aren't pushovers, this means you will use up most of your resources in the pursuit of defeating your opponent. If you can achieve something like ten credible threats on the board at any one time, you can essentially do anything you like. Your opponents need to start playing removal or shelling out money for board wipes and a copy of Mind Twist, or you need to suggest that you pool money for Archenemy schemes and make you the Archenemy by default until the power imbalance is corrected.
Amid the turmoil and tumult of battle, there may be seeming disorder and yet no real disorder at all; amid confusion and chaos, your array may be without head or tail, yet it will be proof against defeat.
How can you chaos-proof your army? From the bleedingly obvious to the more esoteric, there are ways and means of warning sticky-fingered blue mages to leave your stuff alone. If you fear the board wipe, as indeed we all must at some time in our lives, consider Ghostway, sacrifice outlets, or my new love affair, Angelic Renewal.
There may come a time when you face off against a highly competitive player. He always brings his A-game and runs a well-known or a deceptively powerful commander and his decks are well thought out. But tonight, something's different. Most of his cards are just that – pieces of cardboard, not the harbinger of grim reckoning. The glint in his eyes has gone inert, dulled and tarnished by the imprint of your foot against his face. Hoping to salvage his pride, he adopts the position of a world-weary scholar. "Yep. That experiment is a total bust, man. I guess this deck doesn't have what it takes after all. You go right ahead and kill everyone, I'll just sit here and wait until you come back to finish me off". Before you nod in agreement, or say anything pithy, actually kill him. He's holding a combo. He's drawn an out. There is a card in his hand and he just needs one more turn to make horrible bad things happen to you.
Whenever an opponent goes out of his way to assert weakness, they have 1) removal, 2) just need one more turn to lay down their combo or 3) actually have nothing but want to politick their way out of being first one out. All things being equal, this would suggest it is correct to attack a 'weak' player 66% of the time.
Hiding order beneath the cloak of disorder is simply a question of subdivision; concealing courage under a show of timidity presupposes a fund of latent energy; masking strength with weakness is to be effected by tactical dispositions.
Misdirection is the art of making people focus on whatever it is that you want them to think is important. Do you need to spend some time not losing creatures or life points? Cast a planeswalker. In general, it is easier to get fifteen forum goers to agree on whether or not mythics are killing Magic than it is to get a planeswalker to activate its ultimate ability*. By the time the dust settles, your planeswalker is dead and everyone is congratulating themselves on heading off an incredibly dangerous, possibly even mortal threat, while you're untapping and trying to remember how it is that Reveillark actually works on the stack.
Other alternatives involve laying down the piece from one combo while you work on assembling the other. If it gets removed, that's one less removal card and people may even convince themselves that they've neutered you as a threat. If not, that's a combo piece, just sitting on the table, looking cute. I like this.
*Unless it's Gideon, or Sarkhan the Mad, in which case, I think we can all agree it's actually Homarids that are killing Magic, every fourth turn. I'm using the best years of my life to make Homarid jokes. What are you doing with yourself, guys?
Thus one who is skillful at keeping the enemy on the move maintains deceitful appearances, according to which the enemy will act. He sacrifices something, that the enemy may snatch at it.
In the previous section, we spoke about sacrificing one card so that you could achieve a combination of other, more powerful cards. Now, we talk about sacrificing the appearance of victory in order to savour the taste of a later, more satisfying conquest.
In multiplayer, especially in gaming groups that prefer games won on the back of combat and superior board position, it pays to always be the second biggest threat at the table. The biggest threat is the guy who needs to be dealt with. If they can't keep up their defenses, they'll be subject to a frenzied attack from weaker players. If they overextend, they're the yardstick for whether or not it's 'wrath time'. If you're second best, you still lose stuff, but you lose less stuff than the other guy. When the playing field has shrunk down to a couple of contenders, you'll ideally have more tools at your disposal than the other guys. Thus, you'll have to suffer the occasional short-sighted individual saying loudly "well, I was winning for *most* of the game, but you got lucky there at the end", but you and hopefully a couple of onlookers will realise that the 'lucky' Titan that got you there was actually in your opening hand.
In a broader sense, you are always sacrificing something in order to do something in Magic. Playing a card costs a card to play. Having a card in your deck takes up room that other cards would have used. In a quantum sense, every decision you make costs you every other decision that you could have made, but we'll get back to that when I adopt "A Brief History of Time" to explain cube drafting. For now, consider the possibility that you might be able to use a card in your hand as the cost of getting an opponent to cast a card in their hand. To draw out a wrath, play a big dumb creature that isn't vital to your eventual beat down. To get attacks, burns, and combat tricks out of the way, a planeswalker. To draw out a counterspell you can attempt to force a mass discard. I think the 'creatures get you a wrath' is the most general and therefore useful example, but if the trick works just once it was a good trick.
On the subject of A Brief History of Time, I've sent off the initial draft to a couple of publishers and let's just say the response has been pretty positive. If you can't wait till April, here's a sneak peek at some of the subject matter and one of the reviews:
By holding out baits, he keeps him on the march; then with a body of picked men he lies in wait for him.
Ambushing. This is a hard concept to model in Magic. In fact, of the eleven cards with the word "Ambush" in their text box, only one is actually capable of truly surprising an enemy and only one isn't terrible in Commander. However, there are a few ways to turn an otherwise inert army into a true 'ambush' experience. Masako the Humorless is quite cool, as is Sneak Attack (although that means actually having Sneak Attack in play…), as is Dramatic Entrance.
The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too much from individuals. Hence his ability to pick out the right men and utilize combined energy.
If you are a big fan of self-improvement, learn to love the effect of an enemy with a Jester's Cap. If you have a single infinite combo that makes an otherwise ineffectual deck into a terror at your gaming table and someone takes away your engine card, did you ever have a good deck to begin with?
When he utilizes combined energy, his fighting men become as it were like unto rolling logs or stones. For it is the nature of a log or stone to remain motionless on level ground, and to move when on a slope; if four-cornered, to come to a standstill, but if round-shaped, to go rolling down.
In Commander, we achieve greatness through the creation of a deck in which each card has synergy with the cards around it – we build the slope and then we roll on down it.
The elementary version of this is "Tinker needs a small artifact to sacrifice and a much bigger artifact to fetch out of my deck", or "Tooth and Nail requires two creatures".
The next stage is picking out which two creatures you'll use to beat face – Triskelion and Mephidross Vampire if you're a fan of cute interactions, Kamahl, Fist of Krosa and Crovax, Ascendant Hero if you're a fan of deterrents and any two Eldrazi if you feel that your mum and dad* never paid you enough attention as a kid. But it goes even deeper. Let's decide that we never want to pay retail price for a creature, ever again. How can we do that? Survival of the Fittest and Living Death are possibilities. Weird Harvest and Hypergenesis, Sneak Attack, Show and Tell, Dramatic Entrance, Elvish Piper are all greats.
I know he's not going to win me any friends at
the kitchen table, but dangnabbit I'm a sucker for
activated abilities and broken synergies...
But that's elementary stuff. I aim to deliver more value to you. Let's decide that we want each of our turns to live on forever in every efficiency seminar ever given: we'll try our luck with Arcum Dagsson. I've been a little bit in love with the commander ever since I read crz87's primer (partially because it was well written and partially because I'm envious of the banners and headings he uses to break up his manuscript). I have a friend who has recently started playing a Dagsson deck. Here's the gist of it:
The individual pieces look innocent in their inert states. Liquimetal Coating seems to tickle peoples' googly bits when all they're doing is thinking about Shatter, but its capable of so much brokenness. Arcum devours a creature to fetch Winter Orb. Winter Orb stops opponents from doing anything meaningful, but Clock of Omens stops it from affecting the Arcum player. When you add Liquimetal Coating, it enables you to untap anything you so desire, which in this deck means that Arcum noms down on something else and fetches out yet another combo piece. If you just so happen to be acquiring the station combo, the stations will untap of their own accord while you're looking for new ways to beat face. I'm not denying its humiliating to lose against, but it must be such fun to design and indeed, it makes for a fabulous Archenemy experience.
*or, as you Americans would have it, Mawm and Parp.
Thus the energy developed by good fighting men is as the momentum of a round stone rolled down a mountain thousands of feet in height. So much on the subject of energy.
Okay, class, what have we learned? Our decks have a plan, a structure, and within that structure is the end of all things. We want more than just a good mana curve, we want more than just understanding the structure of an ordinary game. We want a deck that does something, whether it's unusually resilient to removal, or capable of disrupting cards that haven't even been drawn yet, or capable of making an unanswerable threat, or able to subvert the natural order of a game to our own advantage.
This was a very long article, so I've elected to skip the conclusion. See you again soon!