Get Murderous on Purpose

Posted in Command Tower on July 31, 2014

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.

Commander is a titular format. Choosing your commander defines the rules of your deck and often provides the impetus and focus for everything else that follows. We choose a legendary creature for innumerable reasons, and it's the most distinctive and public element. We remember other players' decks by the commanders they chose and how they used them.

That why before even a card is played, things can get tricky.

Time of Need | Art by Dany Orizio

We have a habit as humans to generalize from a small number of experiences. We try something once and decide that it isn't for us, even if we know there's a good chance it doesn't always go that way. Just because we've seen something in action once doesn't mean it works that way every time, but it also doesn't mean we weren't right the first time.

That's what led me to asking you about the commanders you love to kill a couple weeks ago. While some of us get a bad taste from just one game, I suspect most of us are willing to give things a try. It isn't until the second, third, or fourth that we lock in on the idea that something is problematic.

While shooting first and asking questions later isn't the nicest way to approach Commander, I'll admit it's something I do. Fortunately, I'm not alone.

Go For the Jugular

There were some common threads to your stories of commander targeting, and one special Izzet leader appeared more than any other. Joseph explained:

Regretful as I am to say it, the commander in my playgroup that wears a sign saying "Tuck on Sight" is my own: Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind. With a current win-loss record of 14–1, (I conceded once because I wanted to play Cube) this deck is the Big Bad Wolf of the local shop's play tables. Able to combo off with Curiosity or Tandem Lookout fairly reliably, and spit out massive amounts of damage if it does not, this deck often turns multiplayer Commander into a game more closely resembling Archenemy.

With a supreme ability to ping entire board states to death off of a large Prosperity, then mill out other opponents with Jace's Erasure and Jace's Archivist, this deck is degenerate enough to make all the blue players keep a counterspell in hand, and everyone else to pack instant-speed removal. The funniest part about it, however, is that it actually is not that terrible for the "metagame" in our area. It encourages others to build decks that are less of glass cannons and more of versatile toolboxes that can deal with a variety of issues. I am all but sure that it won't be long before another friend builds a deck that can trump my own, and so the race for supremacy will begin again. (Disclaimer: I do not use this against the more casual Commander decks, because despite how much I enjoy a good curb stomping, it gets boring after a certain point)

—Joseph

Joseph's "Wait, that pile is your HAND?!?"

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COMMANDER: Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind

A speedy, resilient, and uncomfortable way of killing off opponents is one way to rise to the top of the assassination list. Joseph's deck isn't wanting for power, and his judicious consideration for other players means those who are better suited for the potency will be the ones to face it. Commander is an experience, not a win record, and Joseph's taken that idea to heart.

While combos can do the work, sometimes it's just a pile of cards and value that gets the job done. Paul's friend used Prime Speaker Zegana to do it:

The one commander that will always be scarred into my brain as the first priority to kill is Prime Speaker Zegana. It isn't that she is overpowered or broken, although she is a great commander choice, it was the deck she was in made by one of my friends. He would always win if he played this deck around turns 10–13 no matter what happened; the deck seemed foolproof. I recall a funny incident in which I had Pithing Needled a core piece to his deck. I thought we could finally win against Zegana. However, he proceeded to loop turns until he could Cyclonic Rift the needle off the field and proceed to win.

Thus, regardless of the deck, if I see Zegana I know who I am going after first. With no remorse either. Another of my friends built a different Zegana deck, instead resorting to ramping into Zegana with at least nine +1/+1 counters and giving her infect and unblockability; another not so fun deck with Zegana at the helm. It might just be the dirtiness of UG, but Zegana decks seem to just be mean to me.

—Paul

Prime Speaker Zegana

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COMMANDER: Prime Speaker Zegana

Sometimes you can't help what a deck does, but generally it's all in your hands. What I mean is it's easy to see how cards like Tooth and Nail, Time Warp, Time Stretch, Eternal Witness, and Spitting Image can create recursive game states. Nobody likes to see others have all the fun of drawing cards and taking turn; doing it consistently is a recipe for multiplayer disaster.

But recursive value isn't the only way to become a target. Scott explained why he built an entirely different deck from Prossh, Skyraider of Kher:

A commander to destroy on sight, you ask? Well, based on experience, that commander can only be Prossh, Skyraider of Kher. His damage output is quite high, able to easily one-shot the unsuspecting player with commander damage off of any effect that gives him double strike. The tokens he generates stay behind, but that doesn't stop everybody from aiming all their Swords to Plowshares at his face without hesitation. But here's the problem: Prossh is my commander. I'm apparently too boss at deck building for my playgroup. Apart from the mana base, the whole shebang is fine-tuned to destroy without mercy, and my friends learn quickly. Things aren't very different with my other deck, helmed by Nekusar, the Mindrazer. So, I decided to construct a third deck for myself, one designed not to win, but to be fun to play, both with and against. That way, I can avoid drawing too much ire.

So far, I've had a blast with it. No one expects me to do anything with a senile old man leading my army of Straw Golems and whatnot, so I'm mostly left alone to watch everybody and play my terrible cards. Some, like Aven Shrine, are just totally useless. Others are simply funny, à la Spincrusher. Also, the looks I get when I cast Steelshaper's Gift to tutor up Razor Boomerang are priceless. Or, you know, Worldslayer if it's late-game and I'm in a mischievous mood. So yeah, Prossh does not live for long, and Hazduhr does.

—Scott

Scott's Hazduhr the Abbot

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COMMANDER: Hazduhr the Abbot

There's a few—ahem—unexciting choices here and I wouldn't recommend this for every player, but knowing what Commander power is and going in the opposite direction when needed is a skill all players should pick up. It isn't that "building bad decks" is somehow better (as I've had my fair share of showing up underpowered compared to the board) but taking your opponents and their experience into consideration is an awesome thing.

Wacky, random cards loosely tied together by a theme isn't exciting itself, and exploring it means you'll find new things to incorporate into your regular decks. Most players test their decks for formats. Often, decks don't pan out as expected: It's hard to bring something novel when others have already been building for a long time. But it's the journey to those shining moments when cards outperform expectations.

That said there are some commanders that will inspire fear and distress regardless of how "exploratory" your deck is—the commander itself is cause for concern, like with Reginald and Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon:

The only kill on sight, no questions asked, "I don't even know the deck but that has to go" commander in my opinion is Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon. Sure, Memnarch or Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind or Kaalia of the Vast are likely up to no good, but I usually give the owner the benefit of the doubt, while keeping an eye on that player. Skittles, however, is up to one thing and one thing only: poisoning people out in one shot.

If they wanted to play mono-black in Commander there are better and/or cheaper options out there, and enough of them—66 Commander-legal choices, by the way—that Skithiryx is clearly not a choice of convenience, but of strategy.

—Reginald

Poison can be a contentious issue in play groups, as those expecting it will likely change their decks accordingly, and those who aren't are most vulnerable to a quick ten count. A commander built to infect the enemies has obvious advantages if you're planning to spread some germs.

Other commanders cause rules headaches for everyone, wrecking otherwise stable and dynamic games. Corey explained how Ruric Thar, the Unbowed did it:

One of my friends runs a very evil and mean Ruric Thar, the Unbowed Commander deck. As soon as Ruric Thar hits the field, everyone is trying to kill the big guy off in a way that doesn't hurt them too badly. And if we can't then we're stuck holding back our big spells because they usually aren't creatures.

I personally run an Esper artifact deck so most of my best stuff is cut off almost instantly. You can only guess how annoying that is.

The worst part of his deck is that it contains little mana-ramping creatures such as Zhur-Taa Druid, Somberwald Sage, and Llanowar Elves along with a Sol Ring to cast Ruric Thar and his big creatures as quickly as possible. Add in a Vigor and suddenly we can't stop his attacks without major worries and problems.

It's especially mean because he freely admits he wasn't trying to be competitive with the deck even though it's extremely strong. He just thought it would be funny.

And it only makes him laugh harder when he has Ruric Thar and Possibility Storm active at the same time. Thanks to Ruric Thar dealing 6 damage whenever a player casts a noncreature spell, the first cast does damage and then Possibility Storm kicks off to exile the spell and cycle through the player's deck into another spell, and if the player decides to cast the newly acquired spell then Ruric Thar hits for another 6. That's 12 damage in one go!

Trust me, Ruric Thar Commander decks are just plain evil.

—Corey

How games flow is important. Is every player getting to participate? Is everyone progressing on their plans? Keeping Commander inclusive means looking at the total effect of one's commander, not just the net result of wins or losses. I trust Corey here: I'd built my own Ruric Thar deck before.

Another commander that can cause problems in a game is Riku of Two Reflections. DailyMTG.com Editor Mike McArtor explained to me why he aims high when Riku is around:

Riku of Two Reflections is generally at the top of my list of commanders to murderize on site (and of players to knock out of the game ASAP). His powers are just too threatening, giving the player so much extra value no matter what nonland card he or she draws (assuming the player builds the deck correctly). A well-run Riku deck is just discouraging to play against, and even a modestly played deck can warp the game in ways that are bad for the table.

The last Commander game I played had both a Riku player and a The Mimeoplasm player. The table decided to knock out The Mimeoplasm player first (his deck got up and running a little too efficiently for our tastes) and the Riku player was the third (of five) to be knocked out, despite my best efforts to convince the table otherwise, and we only ganged up the Riku player once the other players saw how dangerous he really is.

—Mike

When words like "warp" and "saw how dangerous" are used to describe how a game played out, you can see how even innocent awesomeness can lead to uncomfortable situations. When you accumulate enough negative experiences you begin to just have the list of "evil" commanders ready:

Go Big and You Go Home

Finding yourself on the opposite site of "I love this commander!" isn't something to worry about. While working hard to take down specific leaders when you see them is fine, there's plenty of room for powerful, dangerous commanders to have a home in games: It just takes the right group to make an enemy into an ally.

This week's question isn't about that: When you want to destroy things in Commander, what are your go-to ways to do it?

  • Feedback via email
  • 300-word limit to explain how you destroy things
  • Sample decklist is requested (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)

It's been some time since we've looked at destruction en masse in Commander, so I'm looking forward to even more ways we hit hard and take everything out.

Join us next week when we turn the tables and prey upon our friends. See you then!

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