Word of Command 13 - Troubleshooting a Deck


In this month's edition of Word of Command, our Commander mods give you a short guide to identifying problems in your Commander decks and how to fix them.
I recently built a new Karlov of the Ghost Council deck and was excited to bring it in to Commander night. I sat down and the deck took off like a charm. I hit land drops, ramped out more lands than anyone else, commanded a sizable board... but then things took a turn for the worse. I started having to bounce and reuse my current cards more and more. My mana went unspent. My threats slowly got removed, and I was left with a smaller and smaller boardstate. Finally, I was overwhelmed and crushed underfoot.

What went wrong?

Deck Tech-support


Learning from our mistakes is what allows us to improve. Win or lose, taking the time to reflect back on how the game progressed can give valuable insight to the health of your deck. Did you have too many cards in hand without enough mana to play them? Did you have a lot of unspent mana each turn? Not enough options? Did everything seem to be working, yet you were still overrun?

Some problems are easy to fix. Perhaps you noticed a weakness to an enchantress deck, and simply needed to change some of your removal to meet the new threat. Perhaps you lost due to the incremental advantage brought forth by a reanimator deck, and could use a bit more graveyard hate. These problems are straightforward, and are quickly resolved. But what do you do when it seems like the deck is running smoothly, but it is just not enough? When you have the right cards, but cannot seem to get them at the right time?

In this article, we will discuss some key situations to look out for, and what they might mean for your deck.

Too much to do, not enough mana


You are playing against a powerful synergistic deck, and they have heavily committed to the board. Luckily, you have plenty of answers in your hand. You clear the board, and drop your own threat. But then they seem to rebuild from nothing into an even more powerful position. Every time you remove their board, you can not seem to make your own side threatening enough to compare.

The first problem you may run into is simply one of pacing. Perhaps you have plenty of options in hand, but can not play them fast enough, or commit to the board as well as your opponent. Either you do not have enough mana out, or you need to spend too many resources each turn to simply draw into your next set of threats. There are several possibilities as to the cause of this problem, but the most common would be that your opponent simply has more resources than you, and that you need to increase yours.

If you have too many cards to play to keep up with an opponent, adding a bit more ramp to your deck may help out. While ramp will take up some resources in the early game, it pays itself off in dividends for the later game. If you run into this problem, you may want to look over our previous manabase article for some extra ideas to add to your deck. One thing to keep in mind as you add ramp into your deck is that it disperses your threats out, and that you will possibly run out of steam playing these threats at a faster pace. By adding ramp, you may also need to add more draw.

While the total amount of mana that you will want to pull out of your deck may vary depending on your meta's pacing, a good goal to shoot for is to be able to play your most expensive spell while having enough left over to afford protection for it, or another draw spell. Another potential minimum to shoot for would be that you should be able to replay your Commander at least three times during a game if needed: Add 6 to your Commander's cost, and see if you can achieve that amount of mana at the end of each game. As I play more Battle-Cruiser style magic, I personally aim for a minimum amount of mana equal to twice the cost of my most expensive spell. I also set a personal goal of pulling every land out of my deck for my top end. While my personal goal there may be excessive, it certainly ensures that I will always be able to cast the cards I receive, as well as cast my Commander when needed.

Too much mana, not enough cards


This brings us to the next problem. Your ramp engine is finally online, but like my Karlov deck, more and more turns see unspent mana go to waste, while answers dry up in hand. You start looking for that crucial topdeck more and more. If your deck seems to jump to a great start but then peter out and run out of gas, or if you need to keep cycling the same cards over and over again in a desperate bid to remain relevant, adding more card draw is often what the deck needs to succeed.

Keeping a set of available options is important not only to react to your opponents, but to be able to hit the ground running after the game is reset as well. By adding more card draw into the deck, you ensure that you remain relevant even as the game goes longer. You can then fine-tune your selected options by looking at what specific types of card draw your deck needs, based on whether you need more draw in the early or late game.

The balance you should look for is to keep a hand nearly full of cards, with a back-up draw engine in your hand. Once you start dropping below three or four cards without a way to refill, you should make note of that situation. If it is a repetitive problem, you should add some extra draw options to your deck. If this happens very early in the game, you should add some cheap quick refills, like Night's Whisper or Wheel of Fortune. If it happens later in the game, you should evaluate your strategy to see if you want a quick burst of cards provided by Shamanic Revelation, or a continuous engine like Bygone Bishop. Since my Karlov deck had problems over an extended period of time, I added Graveborn Muse and Bloodgift Demon to give that steady flow of cards. Corpse Augur also joined the roster as a scalable creature for any point of the game that would work well with reanimation.

Getting out-paced


Not every meta is perfectly even though, and there is no magic ration of ramp and draw to add to your deck. Since both ramp and draw take up some resources every turn, you may be outpaced earlier on by an aggro deck. Or, you may be keeping up with an opponent on lands and cards in hand, but find that they are developing their board presence and more threats than you can. How can this be?

If you find yourself in this situation, you may have too much ramp and draw in your deck. Each ramp and draw spell dilutes the number of threats you can run, meaning that you need to spend more mana simply finding the next threat to develop. It can also be harder to develop a board state earlier in the game. In these situations it may be important to scale back on the ramp and draw, and balance out some cheaper threats to be able to commit to a board state earlier.

Recognizing this state of affairs is trickier than it is for the others, and requires paying attention to lots of little cues. One thing to pay attention to is how many of your cards turn into dead cards the longer the game goes. If you spend mana to draw seven cards, you should expect a fair number of those cards to be useful in some capacity. Aim for about half of your cards to be lands, ramp, and other mana sources, with the other half split between threats, answers, and further draw effects. Another aspect to examine is how often you have to refill your hand. If you are casting an extra draw spell every turn without that being part of your deck's strategy, you may want to change gears and run more draw engines that passively reward you for doing what your deck intends to be doing anyways, such as Temur Ascendancy in a deck which aims to play many creatures. This can help keep your mana costs down and stretch out the amount of plays you can make before you need to refill your hand again.

Finding the perfect balance of ramp and draw is difficult, as you not only need to balance the two against each other, but also to the pace that your meta plays at. This gives you a perfect opportunity to look at where the other decks you play against balance out, and build your deck to match your playgroup's pace. Not only will this allow your deck to remain equally relevant, but it will also help create those back-and-forth situations that many epic stories come from.

Getting blown out of the water


Now you have your deck running smoothly; you are committing to the board and furthering your capabilities through ramp and card draw. You start to build up a larger and larger board presence. Suddenly, a single Austere Command takes it all away. With your board presence gone and your draw engine destroyed, you are left gasping for air as your kingdom lies in ruins.

While part of the problem might be solved in gameplay, by holding on to options in your hand to quickly rebuild, a large part can be answered in deck construction as well. After all, even your hand can be removed at an opponent's will.

This is where maintaining a diversity of options becomes important. Having a permanent-based draw engine in play helps to quickly recover from the loss of a hand. Spreading your draw engines across different permanent types helps protect from sweepers, and having recovery options in the graveyard helps if all else fails. By spreading your recovery options out, you increase the number of answers that your opponents need to run to put you on the back foot, and help prevent against the massive blowouts that can swing a game against you.

Even once you find the ratio that works for you, getting it to work in each game can be tricky. Decks are random, and even with a perfect balance of ramp, draw, and threats, variance will offset it. This is where you can slot in a few extra tutors to replace some of the weaker cards. Aside from helping to find answers and silver bullets, tutors act as early game wild cards; they allow you to smooth out bumpy rides between games. By adding tutors to your deck, you can help an opening hand have both a source of land ramp as well as card draw, rather than having two of one or the other.

Taking Notes


Even when you know what to look for, identifying the specific problem can be tricky. Then, even when you identify the problems you face, cutting cards can be difficult. Keeping some brief play notes can help you see long term trends and assist with both problems.

The emphasis there is on the "brief" though. Information overload can happen, so limit your notes in order to keep them useful. The easiest for me was to start by simply writing up a play report of the major events that stood out to me during a game. This helped me to identify trends in my various decks. For example, Kurkesh, Onakke Ancient was initially dependent on specific cards to break through for a win, so adding more cards to answer opposing board states helped to break that problem.

From there, you can add a few particular notes based on problems you are trying to solve. In my Kozilek, the Great Distortion deck, I wanted to find a good level of Wastes compared to other utility lands, so I started tracking how many Wastes I was able to search up in any given game. For my Karlov of the Ghost Council deck, I started recording around what turn my options started to dry up, and how many extra cards I had managed to draw in that time. I also took small notes of how much extra mana I had, compared to how many lands I had ramped. These were not always done by hard numbers either. One of my notes was simply "Cast a Solemn Simulacrum through an Invoke Prejudice." This showed me that I had nothing better to do that turn than to spend eight mana simply hoping to advance even one extra card. This clearly showed an overabundance of mana compared to draw, and a lack of better options.

How to Fix Karlov


Running out of cards was the main problem I saw in Karlov after a bit of goldfishing. Despite adding some more draw during the deckbuilding phase, the problem persisted through several sessions of playing the deck. This leads to three possible solutions:

  • Since the ramp options seem to be fairly solid, I could remove some of the ramp for more draw. This would lower the amount of mana I have to use, but since I currently have an abundance, this may not necessarily be a bad option. Increasing the amount of cards in my hand, though, means that more of my mana will get used, so this begins a careful process of balancing the two against each other.
  • I could replace some of the ramp options with tutors. The advantage to the tutors is the flexibility for that slot to remain a ramp slot if needed. The disadvantage over replacing with draw would be the tempo lost in the extra cost. Going directly for a draw option may work better to simply draw into the ramp naturally.
  • The final option would be to replace some of the smaller draw options with bigger ones. Adding enough medium-to-large draw spells allows the deck to chain draw spells more easily, keeping a full hand. The drawback again is that this process can be quite mana-intensive.
In this situation, I opted to go for the first option, replacing some excess ramp cards with some draw. Some careful note-taking showed that a number of my ramp spells became dead cards quickly, so replacing them was a minimal cost. Since I wanted to keep the deck aggressive, I opted to replace them directly with more draw effects rather than tutors. This allowed me to keep the extra mana costs down, which gave me more mana to continue to apply pressure to my opponents.

Troubleshooting Your Own Deck - What Will You Find?


Troubleshooting a build is something anyone can do, whether the problem is minor to a deck build that is simply falling apart. It does not need to be difficult or even take long, but it takes an attention to detail and recognition of key trends. Even if you do not immediately identify a problem, recording your plays after the fact can help identify areas of improvement, even in highly tuned decks. Give it a try!


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