Pray for Prey

Posted in Command Tower on August 6, 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.

Predictability is a double-edged sword.

Predictability implies consistency: something is going to happen one way or another regardless of circumstances. For Commander, consistency is a common goal among players. You always want to hit your land drops and mana sources. You always want to draw powerful spells that work well together. You always have your commander to cast in every game. You always bring your favorite deck as something to play at your local game store.

But predictability can get you killed.

Xathrid Slyblade | Art by Steve Prescott

If you know you can count on your deck doing its thing pretty much the same way every game, it won't be long before your friends get wise to it. What was once the guarantee you'll have what you want when you need it can evolve to become the liability of opponents knowing your next steps. Like an assassin from the shadows, they can lie in wait for the right moment to upend your plans and, possibly, take you down altogether.

Since this is Predator Week, you can get a sense of where things are going from here.

I'm not the biggest fan of adjusting and creating decks "just" to counter an opponent. Commander foremost is about self-expression and exploration—finding the things you find the most fun and freely experimenting with cards over time to feed a sense of wonder and joy. It's a noble cause, but it's an exception for Magic as a whole.

Most Constructed formats—and Commander is definitely Constructed—follow a pattern of action-reaction over time. This "metagame" is predicated on players making decisions on the presumed decks and choices of other players. Correctly predicting the metagame can let one enter an event and prey upon all the decks one expected to see. It doesn't matter whether he or she created a new deck or lifted an existing one found on the Internet: effectively knowing what you're up against makes it much easier to win games.

Commander, in the normal sense, doesn't have a metagame. There aren't tournaments with decklists published, at least for the flavor of Commander I play and write about. The closest most of us get to seeing something like a metagame is when we start to wrap our decks around those our friends bring.

It's a delicate balance, trying to be both spontaneous and exploratory while simultaneously being constrained by the consistent deck choices of others. I don't have good advice for those who want to navigate neatly between updating decks for handling friends and trying new stuff: I eschew that approach and just build cool things in a vacuum. (After all, in multiplayer there are more losers than winners, and I try mightily to feel good even when taking a loss.)

I don't make decks tailored to slaying someone else's despite my threats along those lines. Fortunately, some of you like to prey on the predictability of friends.

Apex Predators

Sometimes, decks are one-trick ponies built to abuse something narrow. If you take that away, like a castle of cards, everything else comes crashing down. That's what Archie did:

My friend Tom has a really cool deck he calls Living in the Upkeep. The idea behind the deck is to use cards that have powerful effects in the upkeep; these include Assemble the Legion, Clearwater Goblet, the Honden cycle and many others. It's easily one of my favorite decks to play against but it is also a powerful deck that can take over a long-running game, especially if Paradox Haze is on the board. While the deck is powerful and fun it is also very predictable; it has lots of enchantments/artifacts that interact with the upkeep.

I could have gone about attacking the deck in a couple of ways—one would have been to build an artifact/enchantment-hating deck. However, I decided to try a bit of metagaming and built an Anti-Upkeep deck focused around the card Eon Hub. Instead of just slotting Eon Hub into another deck, I decided to use cards that dislike the upkeep. These include Glacial Chasm, Naked Singularity, Demonic Hordes and Endless Wurm. The fact that I don't need to give up Karona when Eon Hub is out is just gravy!



This sort of thing is one of the reasons I enjoy Commander so much, I would never have had the idea to build an Anti-Upkeep deck without inspiration from Tom and I still smile when I remember the first time I resolved Eon Hub against that deck.

—Archie


Tom's Living in the Upkeep

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Child of Alara
Planeswalker (1)
1 Garruk Wildspeaker
99 Cards


Archie's Anti-Upkeep

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Karona, False God
Planeswalker (1)
1 Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
99 Cards


Archie's approach is flavorfully literal as the other side of the upkeep coin. Eon Hub may hose Tom's deck, but it simultaneously makes Archie's way better. Between two good friends, this type of gamesmanship can be a lot of fun.

Another way to prey on decks is a theme I see come up regularly: disrupting a fundamental aspect of the game. Chaotic spells like Possibility Storm and Warp World upend presumptions about what will happen, and Link uses a deck built to take advantage of an assumption that the spells players cast will be the ones they resolve:

I've recently been on a kick of playing my Chaos Warp deck. It's a deck mainly built to interrupt the spell-casting aspect of the game by warping it with Possibility Storm or Knowledge Pool. The beauty of this deck is you never quite know what combination of warp tools you'll get dealt. Through a lucky combination of Eye of the Storm and Radiate, anything can happen. Radiating your opponents' Swords to Plowshares or Terminates (or even your own burn spells like Lightning Bolt) can clear the battlefield in the blink of an eye. And if they try to resist casting a removal spell into the Eye, you can pick it out of their hand with Mindclaw Shaman. I almost always die to some Stormed spell, but it's a fun way to go out.



—Link



While this isn't the kind of deck I'd ever build (or want to play against more than once), it is a great example of how to prey upon the expectations of others. You expect spells to resolve. You expect to get what you pay for. Taking away those basic notions isn't always fun, but when it works out well it creates stories unmatched from more mundane games (you know, where the rules work the way they're supposed to).

There's another way to prey on other players' understanding of the game without breaking the rules in half, and it's among my small arsenal of decks I have built. While I've shared it before, it's worth another look. This is Mogis, God of Slaughter:

Stybs's Mogis, God of Martyr

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Mogis, God of Slaughter
Planeswalker (1)
1 Sorin Markov
99 Cards


This isn't a deck I pull out with the intention of winning (although it found its first victory at Grand Prix Boston in a game with Serious Fun writer Bruce Richard). Mogis generally reads "Get hit with Shock on your upkeep." thanks to the pile of removal I bring. I found most players want to keep whatever precious creature they can on the battlefield, so every upkeep advances the game state by dinging a life total.

Turn after turn, my removal and burn moves the game forward. Unlike the explosive power of Heartless Hidetsugu, Mogis slowly chips away at everyone and gives them time to figure out what they want to do about it. Most decide for the obvious route of just killing me first (hence my foresight in assuming I'll lose) but sometimes I get to hang in there longer that I expect. A well-timed Drain Life for 10 or so can buy favors and shift focus.

It's also my favorite deck to break out when Oloro, Ageless Ascetic is one of the opposing commanders. It turns out limiting that deck's net life gain is a neat trick Oloro players aren't expecting.



All the God's Horses, and All the God's Men

Preying on opponents doesn't have to mean custom-built deathtraps they can't escape from. Whether you choose to play into or out of the metagame your group might present is up to you (you know my vote!), but if you're not having fun, that's a cue to try something different.

As much as I've enjoyed some moments with my Mogis deck, I've also felt it falter. It's mana base may be a little too thin. It's mana curve of creatures and "non-burn spells" may be too skewed toward the higher end of mana costs.

I have my suspicions on what to change but I turn the suggestion engine over to the (always insightful) hive mind of readers: What would you change about Stybs's Mogis, God of Slaughter Commander deck?

  • Feedback via email
  • 300-word limit to explain what you would change
  • Sample decklist or list of card changes 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)

Feel free to explain multiple things you'd adjust, or just narrowly focus on one aspect and why you'd alter it: how you go about things is up to you.

Join us next week when we unleash the fury. See you then!

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