Commander Roundtable

Posted in The Week That Was on June 24, 2011

By Brian David-Marshall

It has been five long weeks of high-level competition that saw the pro contingent zig-zag across the globe from Booster Draft in Prague to Legacy in Providence on to Standard in Singapore and Block Constructed in Nagoya, before coming back to see Luis Scott-Vargas win Grand Prix Kansas City in the format the whole quintathlon started in.

I am exhausted from just covering three of the five events. I can only imagine how bone weary the players who hit more that that were feeling by the time their planes touched down in their own time zone on Monday. It was an invigorating boost to find my five Magic: The Gathering Commander edcks waiting on my desk and an opportunity for my column to be on-theme in my inbox.

With all the excitement about the new product, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to look back on the format with some of the players who introduced me to the format—and with whom I have played more Commander than anyone else—to give you some perspective on deck building, the format's philosophy, and maybe a couple of cards you might want to trade for to add to one of the five decks you purchased over the last week.

Joining me for the roundtable were Judge Emeritus Sheldon Menery, one of the most famous faces of the Commander format going all the way back to five friends in Alaska playing the format originally known as Elder Dragon Highlander, after the five Legends dragons that were the headliners for each deck.

Organized Play Program Manager Scott Larabee and Sheldon advocated the format to me for years before I finally took the plunge. Not only is frequent TWTW source Larabee an advocate for the format, but he got the chance to be on the design team for the new decks.

I had played a couple of times without the format sticking by the time I went to Grand Prix Kobe a couple of seasons ago. It was there I first tried out Japan Organized Play meister Ron Foster's Momir Vig deck and became hooked by the possibilities of playing all my favorite green and/or blue cards in the same deck.

Also joining us is GGSLive guru Rashad Miller. I have probably played more heads-up Commander against Rashad than against any other player, usually ending in me grousing about Godo, Bandit Warlord and Sword of Body and Mind, or Rashad complaining about how much land I play in my deck.

Finally, Level 5 Judge Toby Elliott is one part Don Quixote and two parts Rube Goldberg when it comes to Commander, tilting 100-card piles in the direction of crazy machinations that promise spectacular wins—even if the winner is not always him.

BDM: How would you describe your approach to Commander? What do you get from playing the format?

Sheldon: My approach is trying to build decks that are strong but are geared toward playing a longer game while not taking the game away from the other players. The reason is my answer to what I get: the social interaction. Social interaction is why I've tried to engineer the format in the direction I have. Turn-four kills don't lead to social interaction. I want to play with and against the people at the table. I want a combination of deckbuilding, play skill, and politics to be what matters. I want to see things happen that make all the players at the table cheer. I'd rather lose an interesting game than win a boring one—which is opposite my attitude in one-on-one Magic.

Scott: I really like the deckbuilding aspect. I have always enjoyed Constructed over Limited. Ask anyone—"Larabee don't draft!" The singleton restriction on deckbuilding makes for some really interesting choices. I remember the first Commander deck I built on my own. I thought it would be easy. I mean, 100 cards! No duplicates? This will be easy. I started pulling cards and ended up with about 300. I also enjoy the politics of multiplayer. I am a big board game fan, and I love how playing Commander is like playing a board game—trying to convince the other players that YOU are NOT in the lead... pick on that other guy! But my favorite aspect is the social nature of the format. Sitting around, playing Magic, and cutting up with friends is the best.

Ron: I enjoy the potential interactions between cards and decks. I appreciate that I can play with just about any card from any set, while the singleton aspect and social banned list help it from becoming too degenerate. That also ensures that nearly every game is different, even with the same decks. The choice of commander colors informing the deck's makeup makes thinking of decks fun.

Rashad: I build my decks with the commander as the focus. My game plan is to cast my commander as fast as possible and to win the game with the abilities of my commander. The thing I really like about the format is that it is a low-maintenance format. You invest effort into building your deck initially, then as time goes on, you only need to make minor tweaks when new sets are released.

Toby: Commander to me is an excuse to get together with friends and have a social game. If it takes multiple hours and there's breaks to have dinner, that's not really a problem. Who wins isn't all that relevant; it's who comes out with the best story. I build decks with big, splashy effects, and try to find mad-scientist moments. There tends to be a point during each game where it looks like I've assembled an unstoppable doomsday machine, at which point someone finds a weak spot and it all comes crashing down. It would have worked, too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids!

BDM: Who are your favorite commanders of all time and how did you build around them?

Sheldon: I have a special place in my heart for Phelddagrif. Back in 2003, when I first got together with the Virginia group, I needed to tone down things a bit because their collections weren't particularly large. They were stereotypical kitchen-table Magic players. I chose Phelddagrif because it's not particularly good. Then, I just started building a "good stuff" deck in the colors and what I could get in foil.

I love Lord of Tresserhorn since he's so old school and people still have to read what he does—not to mention the fact that he has a power of 10. Building a Zombie deck around him seemed kind of obvious as well. I've also used Thraximundar as the Commander for that deck to some success.

Probably the absolute best deck I've ever built was Intet, the Dreamer, also well-chronicled on I built it around the theme "top of the library matters" and found some insanely good strategies, like "put a pile of land on the battlefield, cast Avenger of Zendikar, put a few more land out." When Emrakul, the Aeons Torn was still legal, I was actually unaware (at first, obv) that I had an infinite combo with it, Scroll Rack, Djinn of Wishes, and Tidespout Tyrant (okay, that's a pretty convoluted combo). I've disassembled that deck, but I want to rebuild around Intet because it has a very cool ability.

Scott:Garza Zol, Plague Queen. I was looking at all cards that had downside for "all opponents" or "each other player." Patterns presented themselves in the list: lots of black card, lots of draining effects. Vampires were good to build around and I needed a blue-red-black general, so I selected Garza Zol.

Ron: That's a hard one...I've built so many decks. Right now, I carry twelve decks around with me. Of them, probably my Hazezon Tamar, Horde of Notions, and Sek'kuar, Deathkeeper decks are my favorites. The first deck is pretty much a red zone deck that's designed to get lots of land into play quickly and rush opponents. It's capable of explosive turns where dozens of Sand Warriors get generated who are all buffed with things like Balefire Liege and Wilt-Leaf Liege and have haste. I've actually been able to take two opponents out at once with it. The other two are more combo-ish, one relying on graveyard recursion and the other on enter-the-battlefield abilities. They both have a high level of versatility and are like giant puzzles—nearly every card in the deck can interact with another in some way, and there are multiple potential unbounded ("infinite") combos in both. The Horde of Notions one is particularly fun because it's just creatures and lands—no other spells of any type. That design effectively makes a lot of reactive cards in other people's decks useless against me.

Rashad:Captain Sisay / Seton, Krosan Protector. My Captain Sisay deck was one of my first decks. I basically used her as a card advantage / tutor engine, searching for legendary land early game and for big monsters late game. My Seton, Krosan Protector deck uses Seton as an explosive mana acceleration tool. I'm pretty sure I have every druid ever printed with mana cost in the deck, along with card drawing and utility creatures.

Toby: I initially stared with a Barrin, Master Wizard deck. Everyone else had enormous Dragons and similar generals, and I thought it'd be funny to bring a 1/1 to the table. There were two main win conditions: assemble cards from other players into some weird contraption or fall back on Myr Matrix.

I then built a deck around Ghost Council of Orzhova, which seemed to me to be dripping with flavor—and excuses to blow up the (nonland) world a whole lot. It has slowly moved towards an enchantment subtheme and tries to get there with cards like Hoofprints of the Stag and Sigil of the Empty Throne.

Finally I built Ulasht, the Hate Seed. Unlike the last two, I built the deck first, and then the Commander became obvious. It makes lots and lots of tokens, does silly things with them involving devour, Goblin Bombardment, etc. I'm a green mage at heart, and this deck makes me happy every time I do things like Tooth and Nail into Avenger of Zendikar and Vigor. It's splashy green goodness and the deck I'm most likely to pull out for a fun game. The list has been published in a few places, and the forum responses are always equally split between "Oh my god, your mana base is so bad, and these cards are terrible!" and "I put this together and it was a riot to play!"

BDM: What are your five favorite cards to play with in Commander that were not Constructed staples in 60-card decks?

Sheldon: Decks come in 60 cards???
Scrabbling Claws: Graveyard hate is a must in the format and people still don't do enough of it.
Lord of Extinction, aka "Boom Tube": That guy is giant. Always good for a Fling or a Momentous Fall.
Sudden Spoiling. That thing is always a blowout.
Spore Cloud. It's a Tangle and then some. Even funnier if used in a combat in which you're not directly involved.
Lurking Predators. The thing is, you have to commit. If there isn't a creature on top, you have to ship the card (unless it's about to be your turn and the player to your right can't cast anything else). You can't be squishy about your LPreds.

Scott:Wound Reflection: Great political card. Why attack my when you can attack one of my opponents and do double damage? Bonus: every time I play this card Ken Nagle reminds me that he designed it.
Commander Eesha: Cheap, flies, blocks everything.
Netherborn Phalanx: Go ahead, make a hundred token creatures. Plus it lets me get Wound Reflection.
Brand: Gimme that back!
Karmic Justice: Everyone has to pick it up and read it. Great solution to a lot of problems.

Ron: Another difficult question. There are so many cards that are better in multiplayer than one-on-one. Naturally, anything that affects more than one opponent is great. I've had lots of fun with Eternal Dominion in my mono-blue deck. Surprise damage cards like Soulblast and Inferno are great, especially in response to board sweepers—everyone forgets they're instants. Burgeoning is a great early-game drop in multiplayer, especially in conjunction with things like Kodama's Reach or Yavimaya Elder that put lands into your hand. Cards like Tel-Jilad Stylus or Rishadan Pawnshop are good ways to recycle cards, and are key to my Zirilan of the Claw deck. I love to torment Ken Nagle with Hall of Gemstones in my mono-green Sachi, Daughter of Seshiro deck—he has a great talent at not naming the color he needs to play the card he draws each turn.

Toby:Cultural Exchange: I adore the art and the card made me laugh every time I played it and gave someone a bunch of Myr in exchange for their team.
Warp World: kind of a fringe Constructed card, but it's as big an effect as you can get and everyone gets to join in on the fun. Odds are you'll come put on top, but if the rest of the table has big splashy decks, craziness can ensue.
Fecundity: This is a great multiplayer card. Everyone feels so good about the fact they can draw cards when their guys die that they don't notice just how many of your tokens are dying.
Lurking Predators: A little lottery every time someone casts a spell. I've been known to ship spells to the bottom that would be strategically correct to keep just so I can take another spin on the next turn.
Muraganda Petroglyphs: Everyone always has to read what it does. Then they dismiss it. Then they look back on the board and realize that those fifteen squirrels are about to do mean things to them.

BDM: Your best win ever in Commander?

Sheldon: The first one that comes to mind is when Florida SuperJudge Ben McDole and I were in a game with two other players in which he had a pile of mana, Vedalken Orrery, Future Sight, and Sensei's Divining Top. At the end of the turn of the player to his right, Ben eventually tapped out to draw a quarter of his deck or so. I asked "How many cards did you draw?" and then cast Cerebral Vortex targeting him.

Scott: I once won because my last remaining opponent had Phage the Untouchable in his graveyard when I top decked Living Death. But my favorite win of all time was at PT Kuala Lumpur in 2008. I had just built my Brion Stoutarm deck and some of the judges and I were slinging the 100-card decks. I took out the table on turn 6 or 7:

  1. Rings of Brighthearth and Brion Stoutarm on the battlefield. All players at 40 life.
  2. Cast Sneak Attack.
  3. Activate Sneak Attack, put Serra Avatar onto the battlefield.
  4. Attack Player 1 for 40.
  5. Activate Brion Stoutarm, fling Avatar at Player 2 for 40.
  6. Copy effect with Rings, 40 to Player 3.
  7. Game

Ron: There are so many good stories! A recent good one was using Pernicious Deed while one of my opponents had Enchanted Evening out, leaving my Mycoloth with four counters on it as the only permanent. I've also been known to attack out of nowhere for over 100 points of trample damage with my Hazezon Tamar deck.

Rashad: Right here.

Toby: Who remembers those? I'll tell you about a couple great games, though:

We had one game where I was all set up to win with a Saproling horde once I untapped. Seamus, going next, had no way to stop me and was forced to cast Time Stretch on Gis, who managed to kill me given the additional turns. The rule is that whoever casts Time Stretch wins the game, and Seamus did end up winning. Apparently that rule doesn't require that you cast it on yourself!

In heads-up play against Sheldon, I was staring down Akroma, Angel of Wrath with an Ulasht deck whose entire removal suite was red. I figured out that I had one way to pull it off in my deck—Rings of Brighthearth + Mouth of Ronom—and I actually did it. At which point Sheldon reanimated her a few turns later after a board wipe. Never fear! I ripped a Restock and did it all over again. I doubt either of us remembers who won that game, but we certainly remember the play.

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