Losing Benefits

Posted in Command Tower on August 13, 2015

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

We build decks and play games of Magic to, well, win. It doesn't matter the format we play or players we face. We sit down to battle with a game plan, and make decisions along the way that we think will propel us to victory.

Gleam of Authority | Art by Jakub Kasper

In Commander specifically, there's a small problem with playing toward winning: The odds are ever stacked against you. It isn't just a matter of the power of the cards in your deck or how well your starting 100 have been built and tuned; it's that you're planning to defeat multiple opponents all in the same game.

In multiplayer (except for Two-Headed Giant), there are always more losers than winners.

Sometimes I feel like it's luck that helps me find my last-player-standing moments, such as when Bruce Richard decided to annihilate another player instead of me in an aggressive moment late in a game at Gen Con this year.

While playing the first game with a new deck still informed me about its obvious weaknesses and issues, more often it's in losing that I gain an understanding of what's not quite working. With Oloro, Ageless Ascetic, I keenly felt the lack of creatures across my card choices, and it wasn't just because the deck was so far removed from my normal creature-heavy preferences. For several turns, I had both Sword of Fire and Ice and Sword of Feast and Famine out without a creature to equip to.

Fortunately, the follow up game I squeezed in confirmed I have hardly enough bodies to make speed bumps, let alone create awesome attackers.

At a Loss

Losing games of Magic is one of the greatest tools to help us understand what went wrong. While formats like Standard and Draft are often about the strategy used and individual decisions made, I find many Commander errors come from something much simpler to resolve: the mix of cards in decks.

That's the question I turned over to you a few weeks ago, and the responses I got were great lessons for the rest of us. Holger found his deck needed a new base from the ground up:

I got the idea of building this deck from a Daily Deck some years ago. I wanted to build my own five-color commander, and I like planeswalkers. I can control the game with board wipes, get "extra life" through planeswalkers, draw my cards and finish with Akroma, Cruel Ultimatum, or even Vraska the Unseen's Assassin tokens or Venser, the Sojourner. My commander is just there for color and fixing the board if everything goes wrong.

The biggest change to this deck was fixing my mana base. Early on, I had the bounce lands from Ravnica and a lot more basics in it. But the more I played, I knew I needed to get mana faster and not have it enter tapped. With Return to Ravnica (shock lands) and Khans of Tarkir (fetch lands), I got the best tools. Chromatic Lantern, Gilded Lotus, and my mana creatures help fixing.

I lost quite a few games because I needed time to gather the right lands and start rolling. Fetch and shock lands help me find the right mana faster.

After the change, my friends have to face me from the beginning. But due to my faster mana, I can interrupt them far earlier and play planeswalkers—which they have to destroy or else they get destroyed.


Holger's Child of Alara

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Child of Alara
Encantamiento (3)
1 Doubling Season 1 Future Sight 1 Necropotence
99 Cartas

Mana. Mana matters. Mana matter a lot.

Now say that until it sticks.

One of the many errors I made early in my Commander career was with my mana. The following issues are all things I ran into:

  • Too few lands and mana sources in the deck, starving me early and shorting me later
  • Inconsistent sources of mana, leaving me unable to cast some more colorful spells
  • Too many lands and mana sources in the deck, flooding me out and leaving me to fall behind
  • Too many artifacts and enchantments that supported my mana, letting other players effectively lock me out of casting anything

There's a ton of nuance, trial and error, and adjustments that go into figuring out the mana any given deck wants. Ultimately, for first passes, I've found a happy sweet spot that makes fine-tuning more like dialing in the right numbers than rebuilding from scratch:

  • Use dual lands and tri-lands whenever possible. Sandsteppe Citadel, Dismal Backwater, and Simic Guildgate are easy to track down, and they let you cast your spells.
  • Use a small number of artifact "mana rocks," such as Darksteel Ingot and Astral Cornucopia. I find five to seven is a nice amount to add some extra oomph to any deck that isn't casting Rampant Growth cards.
  • Check your mana curve. Have plenty of things that cost three and four mana, in addition to the five-, six-, and seven-plus-mana haymakers you adore.

Managing your mana by ensuring a distribution of mana costs within the deck is something ripped straight from Limited, but it's an easy-to-miss aspect of having a good mana base. If you aren't casting spells, it doesn't matter which lands you have. Make sure you start using the lands you're playing early!

However, addressing one obvious problem may not actually solve all that ails you. Alan shared how he fixed his mana, but it took a strategic adjustment to make the difference he needed:

I have trouble making sweeping changes to any deck after a loss. I often go five or more games just to get a feel for any changes I make. However, I did make large changes to my Sliver Overlord deck after just two games. The first issue I ran into was self-inflicted mana screw, in that I only ran 33 lands. The second—and almost more pressing—issue was that my Slivers drew loads of hate, from pointed removal to Wraths, to the point that I had no way to do anything. The land problem was easy; finding ways to keep my creatures was more challenging. I found that some Slivers can save your team (Pulmonic Sliver, Crypt Sliver, Clot Sliver), while others prevented targeting (Crystalline Sliver, Diffusion Sliver, Opaline Sliver). I also found ways to return the team all at once (Living End, Living Death, Rise of the Dark Realms). The best part of Death and End is that the symmetry isn't very symmetrical. Sure, you can have all your dead creatures back, but mine are better than yours. And if you wipe again, I'll return them better than before. Nothing is scarier than undead Slivers.


Alan's Sliver Overlord

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Sliver Overlord
Instantáneo (3)
1 Bone Harvest 1 Footbottom Feast 1 Gravepurge
Artefacto (1)
1 Cauldron of Souls
Encantamiento (3)
1 Lurking Predators 1 Wild Pair 1 Debtors' Knell
99 Cartas

You don't have to wait to fix one problem before fixing another.

Alan's Sliver focus isn't my cup of tea, but swap in Elves or Merfolk or Goblins or Saprolings and I'll bite. Many of us have tribal proclivities, and what he shared here applies across them all. Just having a base to cast spells off isn't enough for a Commander deck. Cohesion between cards is important too. I always include some off-the-wall and just-for-fun options in decks, but having cards in your deck cooperate to create something greater is awesome.

While it can be flashy—like adding The Chain Veil and Contagion Engine to a deck with plenty of planeswalkers—often it's the down-in-the-dirt workhorses like Clot Sliver that you'll find success with. Regeneration, undying, persist, and other ways to ensure one Crux of Fate isn't enough to determine yours go a long way. Bringing things back from the graveyard or out onto the battlefield from the library is a great recovery tool, too.

No Loss for Words

Casting spells and keeping your options at work are the two biggest lessons I've taken from Commander losses, but there are plenty more:

Whatever you find that needs fixed in your Commander deck, I assure you there's a way to help smooth it out.

This week's question is a repeat, but it's been so long since we've looked at it that I'll bet some of our answers have changed: What are your favorite lands to use in Commander decks, and why?

  • Feedback via email in English
  • 300 word limit to share the lands and decklist
  • Sample decklist (does not count against word limit)
  • Decklists should be formatted with one card per line with just a leading number, such as "3 Mountain"—just a space (no "x" or "-") between the number and the card name, without subtotals by card type. Submissions that don't follow this rule will be ignored.
  • Name and email required (non-personal information to be used in column)

Mana really matters in Commander, and with Battle for Zendikar beginning to brew, I want to get us prepared to make the most of the base we build every deck upon. There are so many great lands in Commander, there's truly something for everyone.

Join us next week when your quick questions get rich, pithy answers. See you then!

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