Catching Up in the End

Posted in Command Tower on December 12, 2013

The game has been going for more turns than you can remember. Life totals are still high and everyone is in the thick of the action, but you haven't had the greatest night so far. Whether you didn't find enough mana sources earlier or just aren't finding the tools you want later, you fell behind everyone else.

Now, you're stuck.

Hands of Binding | Art by Raymond Swanland

You're outmatched in some way and you have a difference to make up. It isn't an uncommon position: In a multiplayer game, there's still usually just one leader, so your odds of being behind are good. So how do we pull even or ahead when we're coming up short?

It's a tough question plenty of you shared answers for.

    The Brave and the Bold

Catching up isn't necessarily easy or hard to do in Commander. Every game and its context is unique, so what works in one situation may be useless in another. Your responses varied just as dramatically.

My favorite comeback card is Austere Command. People love their commanders and will use any card in Magic to strengthen their advantage with them. I love to use the best and most fun cards with my commander possible and cannot think of another card with as much valuable variability when it comes to board-wipes. Austere Command's options allow you to ruin half the board while leaving the best two-fourths of the field in your favor. Never have been disappointed to draw this card and increasingly have been mulliganing around and dropping tutors on it. As long as I am alive at turn six, no matter what the threats, I can fix it.


Wrath of God and its myriad descendants, such as today's Supreme Verdict and Planar Cleansing, are staples of the Commander format. The ability to reset the creatures, enchantment, artifacts, or more of the battlefield can level the playing field when you aren't the one losing much.

However, Wrath effects aren't exactly what I'd call catching up. While they can create equilibrium on the battlefield, it likely isn't pulling you ahead to a dominant position.

Cards that change the battlefield, there are three that come to mind immediately. There is Arbiter of Knollridge, Magister Sphinx, and Sorin Markov. The Planeswalker is always powerful, but the neat trick with the others is obvious. In any game where someone has infinite life, it's good to be able to match that with one card or take them down to 10 life with one card. I like the Arbiter best, because no matter how poorly your life is, if you can cast him, you're back in the game and he is a pretty big body to deal with.


Sorin Markov was in the very first booster pack I ever bought. He holds a special place in my heart, and when it comes to Commander, he does a great job of hacking into someone else's.

Does a turn-six Sorin Markov get you out of a tight spot? Strictly speaking, no. There aren't too many games where turning a player defensive on turn six gets you out of a tight spot.

But on turn ten, or eleven, when he hits the person with the best board state, he can turn the game on its head. Suddenly a little bit of evasion, or a Fireball, can straight up flip them out of the game.

The best time I have seen him fire off was in a game where my opponent resolved an Archangel's Light to go up to 115 life, allowing them to feel safe enough to turn sideways for 20 and just about close me out of the game. I dropped Sorin Markov, made my Lazav unblockable with an Artful Dodge, and swung in for exactly lethal.

It was brutal, unexpected, and felt really awesome to pull off. It's the kind of big swing play that I really love seeing in Commander, and seeing things like that happen is why I play the format.

As they say in the movies, the best defense is a good offense, and Sorin Markov's a card that seems to have "SURPRISE: instant offense" written all over him.



Vulnerability is a powerful thing. Commander's high starting life total is meant to give us room to take a few hits, and asks opponents to deal tremendous amounts of damage over the course of the game. Magister Sphinx and Sorin Markov shortcut this process. The main issue with nearly every card that can get you back in the game is that those already ahead can use them too. While life-changing cards are unavoidable, using them judiciously will be rewarded by your fellow opponents.

One card that came to mind right away was Genesis Wave to get you back in the game; this card in Commander can become detrimentally broken in the fact that you pay 20 for X and all the sudden you went from the quiet guy in the corner to the loudest in the room. Changes games in one turn. Especially with landfall triggers and Warstorm Surge like effects.


This is catching up on things. Genesis Wave is a fearsome tool in the right deck, and when used from behind it's one of the few ways to flood the battlefield with potential power. It can even win games all on its own.

The kinds of effects which help me most often out of a tough position are "stealing" effects and "copy" effects. Copies and Clones allow you to balance whatever is the strongest threat on the board, and stealing effects, like Treachery, not only nullify a problem card but give the power to you.

Blue is inherently the strongest color in Magic due to the strength of counterspells, copy effects, card draw, and permanent theft abilities, but whenever other colors get a chance to do this, it seems especially noticeable.

Black gets to do this by reanimating devastating creatures from other graveyards. Red has some temporary theft abilities as well as spell copies. White has the random Debt of Loyalty or Preacher effect. Green falters in this realm, but with the vastly superior mana-acceleration, rarely does it have the smallest creatures on the field.


It's easy to think of blue as just Counterspells. Commander has access to all of the best ways blue can stop spells cold, and when you see Islands on the battlefield you can usually count on it. I once made a mono-blue Commander deck around Sakashima the Impostor that specifically eschewed countermagic for copy and steal effects. Marshall's idea is a sound one from everything I've played, and cards like Rite of Replication can certainly bring you up to speed in a moment's notice.

Giant lifelinking monsters can certainly help to bring you back from a losing board position. Creatures like Baneslayer Angel, Sphinx of the Steel Wind, and Wurmcoil Engine can make it much more difficult for an opponent to have profitable attacks. If Brian Kibler can race a Progenitus with a Baneslayer Angel, seems anything is possible.


Life is an underrated resource in Commander. Between effects like Erebos, God of the Dead and those available to green, and the ability to take extra hits, it's easy to feel like we always have enough life. While dying to Commander damage is a real threat from some decks, most have a plan to deplete your life total through other means.

Gaining a pile of life is easy insurance against surprising attacks or a massive Fireball. Given the choice between Sword of Feast and Famine and something like Basilisk Collar, I'm much more likely to go the route of the Collar: Gaining life, winning combat, and flying under the radar are all positive attributes in my book.

I enjoy playing common cards with cheap, small, passive effects to help get me ahead when I'm behind. I like to play cards that when my opponents read them, they think this card is not going to hurt anyone, and then they leave it and me alone. Those players think he is not a threat; I need to concentrate on the other more dangerous players instead.

A few examples of cards like these are: Soul Warden, in a Commander game, basically reads pay , gain 10 life. Dream Fighter reads don't waste your turn attacking me, everyone else is a far better target. Predatory Hunger reads pay , target creature gets ten +1/+1 counters. To most players, none of these cards seem overpowered because they do not directly harm anyone and they take multiple turns to grow. However, I believe they are powerful for those exact same reasons. As long as my opponents are not attacking me, my cards can gain me a small repeatable advantage that will eventually pull me ahead when I am behind.


Speaking about being under the radar, using cards that aren't terrifying for most opponents is a generally sound approach to multiplayer. Drawing less attention to yourself as you amass resources is a plan, and some cards that start weak but grow into something strong aren't to be underestimated. Starting from behind and quietly surging ahead is a recipe for success if I've ever heard one.

My best way to catch up and get back into a game of Commander is to drop that one global effect that everyone benefits from, but that I benefit the most from because of my deck construction. My favorite card for this is Bludgeon Brawl.

In Commander, where cheap artifacts reign, I always seem to have a Bludgeon Brawl in my deck somewhere. When it hits, suddenly all of those Sol Rings and Chalices and Maps pale in comparison to the Goblin carrying a Trading Post on his back. By building around a subtle Equipment sub-theme, getting my enchantment to stick suddenly turns the game into a frenzy in which I have the slightest of upper hands.


Similar to the "quiet but growing" strategy above is this: Loud but louder for us. Giving everyone a benefit is a great way to keep your cards around longer, but planning to get a bigger edge out of the effect is a path back to the top of the battlefield. It's a wide, gray line between a build-around-me effect and one that you just plan to use better than everyone else. That confusion is your friend as you accumulate value from whatever you bring to the table.

I play Zedruu the Greathearted as my commander, and I must say, my absolute favorite way to get back into a game when I am behind is Thieves' Auction. This card allows me to simultaneously get some good cards, level the playing field, and completely change the course of the game all at once. Not to mention, when the dust settles, there are usually six to ten of my permanents being controlled by other players. Which, needless to say, is just what Zedruu wants.


My playgroup likes to utilize the Planechase Planes. It gives us something to do early in games and provides some nice tension later in games. There have been times that games have been won and lost based on either someone's ability to planeswalk or their die hates them and they cannot get away from an oppressive Plane.



One way to solve imbalance is to ensure the game is constantly unbalancing itself. Whether its shuffling around everyone's permanents or layering in additional rules to keep the game state in flux, "catching up" is always relative to how far ahead the other players are. If they suddenly find their fortunes changed, that gap between you and them closes quickly.

    It's the End of the Year as We Know It

Just like the years of Magic we play, there isn't a "right answer" to how you should catch up from behind in your Commander games. However you enjoy playing, and wherever you look to build a deck, Commander (and Magic!) is always what you want to make of it.

While there will be few surprises here on over the next three weeks, this is the last new Command Tower article for the year. Shortly after we return there will be plenty of Born of the Gods previews to go around. I hope you're as excited as I am to see where we go next on Theros.

Enjoy the break and see you in the new year!

Adam StyborskiAdam Styborski
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Serious Fun Archive

Adam "Stybs" Styborski joined in 2009 to take over Serious Fun, before switching over to begin Command Tower in 2013. With his passion for Commander and community inclusion, you'll find plenty of opportunity each week to share your thoughts about everyone's favorite casual format.

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