A cEDH Field Guide
This field guide covers what you need to know to win more games of cEDH than you should. No frills, no tangents. Just the good stuff.
A necessary preface: cEDH is a young metagame within a young format of a young game. cEDH is also the most complicated version of a game whose complexity is already insoluble. We don't yet know what we're doing. At least not precisely.
Humility and curiosity serve us well.
When to Win
Playing cEDH well requires a good sense of timing.
In a pod with an average distribution of colors (so with ≥1 deck on blue), trying to win first usually makes you lose. Your chance of winning will be higher if you attempt to win second or third. A cEDH player starts the game at a severe resource disadvantage: when you draw 7, your collective opponent draws 21; when you play a land, your collective opponent plays three. You overcome this disadvantage when your opponents have fewer resources to stop you.
Your opening hands will imply play patterns and tempos. It's good to ask of your openers: Is this tempo favored to win this pod? If the answer is no, ask this followup: Will someone else's first few turns cause this hand to win?
By our best estimates, cEDH is a five-turn format on average (with a standard deviation of two turns). This prompts another question for your mulligans: Does this hand feel wildly impressive? In most cases, mulliganing to a hand that feels like it breaks Magic's baseline rules (e.g., accruing one extra mana per turn, drawing one card per turn, etc.) is smart.
A Series of 3v1's
Eternal format and cEDH champion Brian Coval describes cEDH as "a series of 3v1's."
Commander is a multiplayer format. Draws notwithstanding, each game has one winner and three losers. When one player is trying to win, each of their opponents share one goal: ensure that the game does not end. When you're part of this trio, you should share information with the other two players. People in this situation often under-share, hiding key information about cards in their hand or on the battlefield, which then causes a temporary ally to make an error. This usually leads to a loss. Do not make this mistake.
In cEDH it is better to over-communicate than be silent. cEDH players who regularly show opponents cards in their hand win plenty (I'm confident they win more than players who never reveal that info). Conversely, if an opponent is about to make a legal mistake in a tournament game (like forgetting an opposing as they cast ), stay quiet. You're not obliged to help your opponents play their deck well.
If you're the player attempting a win, expect at least one disruptive spell or ability to be put on the stack. You'll usually lose if you try to win without backup, particularly during games in which you're the first player to attempt a win.
Tournament cEDH has additional challenges. The most important of these is the clock.
Tournaments are split into timed Swiss rounds and untimed semifinals and finals games. During Swiss rounds, you must play quickly and efficiently. You will have 70 to 90 minutes to finish a rule-following, priority-passing game of Magic. Sometimes this feels like enough time, but other times it feels like everyone's on a sinking ship.
Smart opponents will be conscious of the clock and play with it, slowing down or speeding up to better position themselves. You need to be aware of this, and you need to play similarly. This means you should feel comfortable calling a Judge to watch your opponents for Slow Play and be comfortable playing quickly when a Judge has been called to watch you.
Sometimes Swiss matches will have a finite number of additional turns added to the game once the round timer has expired. Increasingly, though, if the clock has run out, Swiss rounds will end when the Active Player finishes their turn. Whenever possible, you should slow or quicken the pace of play so that you're positioned to take the game's final turn. This becomes crucial when you want to play towards a draw (which typically gains everyone in the pod 1 match point).
Reaction, Misdirection, & Faking a Yawn
- Mab casts . She has two more mana up via .
- You're next in turn order.
- Your first option is to nod then pass priority.
- Your second option is to wince, say "Here comes Naus!", put your cards facedown on the table, then pass priority.
So which option will improve your chance of winning the game?
A large, if not the largest, aspect of cEDH is manipulating attention. I'll say it bluntly: to win more than 25% of your games, you must make your opponents spend resources against each other. You should highlight the game actions your opponents are taking and downplay the game actions you are taking. One method of doing that is to react and emote.
We are social, emotional creatures. When someone near you yawns, you'll yawn; when someone near you is afraid, you'll feel afraid. So when you portray fear or worry over what an opponent is doing, the other two players at the table are more likely to feel that emotion. A competitive mindset prioritizes reasonable decision-making, but emotion still motivates action.
Use emotion to win. Play a social multiplayer format like a social multiplayer format. If you want to master your poker face, play poker. (You'll make more money, too.)
cEDH is Magic
We can extend the logic above by asking: While trying to win, would you rather surprise your opponents or do exactly what they predict?
You'd rather surprise them, because surprised people make more mistakes.
You can do this by using hidden information to your advantage. You can pursue sequences of play (i.e., "lines") that your opponents didn't anticipate. You can also pretend to be down and out when you're actually ready to go.
You can and should play cEDH like you're performing a well-rehearsed magic trick. (Which means don't show the audience how your trick works.)
We can learn much from great magicians. They start to manipulate your attention the second they walk on stage. They put you at ease and make you laugh so you watch their hands less vigilantly. Their benevolent end goal is to cause surprise and delight; ideally, you as a cEDH player should pursue the same goal while playing, even if your end goal isn't as kind.
To Whom Losing is a Pleasure
Read this article about Andrew Goff, one of the world's best tournament Diplomacy players.
Andrew says, "You'd be surprised how often people pick their allies not on some immediate tactical concern, but on the person they'd like to talk to for the next six hours." The same is true for 70- to 90-minute long cEDH games.
To put it bluntly: your opponents should fear you the least and like you the most. If this isn't the case, you're starting the game with an even greater resource disadvantage.
It's hard to say "Be charismatic!", but this is what I recommend. Athletes train to compete; Magic players do the same. cEDH players get another cool gym or testing house in which they can hone their skills. Plus, improving your social skills will help you in every other domain of life.
Be a player to whom losing is a pleasure. You will form more and better connections, connections which will help you hone your playing, thinking, and brewing. Some of these connections will become friendships, too.
Do not neglect the power of The Gathering.
Rate evaluations of cards in 1v1 Magic are not adequate for cEDH. Players often misvalue a card's utility in cEDH.
Because you start the game heavily disadvantaged on all resources (40 life vs. 120 life, 7 cards vs. 21 cards, etc.), you should play cards that say "at", "each", and "when" or "whenever". For example: in cEDH, is much better than because its ceiling is much higher. A card that replaces itself is inefficient. A card that nets you a card is also inefficient. But a card that draws you ≥6 or more cards--while also discouraging opposing resource development--is efficient.
We can think about this more precisely. Card advantage in 1v1 Magic is created when your single card (e.g., ) disrupts two or more of an opponent's cards (e.g., into ). In cEDH, you can consider your three opponents as one hydra-headed opponent with three times the resources. From this perspective, you only generate card advantage when your one card (e.g., ) disrupts six or more of your opponents' cards.
Most of cEDH's interactive spells (like or ) are inefficient. Players have recently begun to notice the quality of cards like , and are slowly realizing that running ≥2 wraths is correct in most metas. These facts imply that it is usually wiser in cEDH to play a proactive deck proactively, since proactive cards and strategies are usually more resource-efficient. This also demonstrates the strength of cards like and (since each renders hundreds of cards useless).
A scale to evaluate cards by their mana value in cEDH:
- 1 mana should stop a win ();
- 2 mana should set up a win ();
- 3 mana should put you far ahead of your opponents in resources ();
- 4 or more mana should win you the game within one to two turns ().
Using that rubric, you can see that cards like perform well above rate.
In order to compensate for your starting disadvantages in cEDH, you can and should use all available resources. You should use your library, graveyard, battlefield, command zone, hand, and the stack, as well as your life total, mulligans, and demeanor.
Let's imagine a Bruse Thrasios deck that wins with an infinitely large or infinitely casting . The deck uses its library and hand by playing draw engines, like and . It uses its graveyard by recurring cards with . It uses its life total with cards like . It uses the battlefield to create extra mana via cards like , apply pressure via Bruse triggers, and block creatures like Tymna or Najeela's Warrior tokens. It uses its command zone as an outlet for infinite mana (so as a combo piece). It uses the stack well by playing efficient, multipurpose countermagic and removal.
Decks that efficiently use all available resources will continue to show up in Top 4 tables at tournaments across the world. Some decks, though, can afford to neglect or disrupt a particular zone, but only when their presence in another zone is disproportionately strong. Winota can effectively play stax effects that put tighter boundaries on the stack (via creatures), but only because the deck utilizes the battlefield much better than other lists. Decks that try to eliminate the utility of multiple zones without simultaneously and disproportionately utilizing another will lose, and often.
You start the game so disadvantaged that you should use every resource at hand to win more than your fair share of games.
Quiet & Loud Machines
You can better assess a cEDH deck when you consider it a modular machine you build as you play.
A machine can be built with high-quality expensive parts. Some people will disdain that machine for being fancy while others will appreciate it for doing its work almost invisibly. Alternatively, a machine can be bricolaged together with low-quality cheap parts. That machine will be noisy and less reliable, but some people will admire its DIY charm.
A cEDH deck is either a quiet or loud machine.
Bruse Thrasios is a quiet machine. It plays the best mana sources, draw engines, and combos it can. Some might misunderstand how consistently it can win because many of its parts--Thrasios, Rhystic Study, Dockside--are so common they're taken for granted (see the part above about attention). Bruse Thrasios can win with numerous two-card combos, and often out of nowhere.
Krarkashima is a loud machine. It plays bad cards--, , --that are nearly useless without Krark in play. It features a couple efficient combos, but its main route to victory is usually convoluted and time-consuming.
Quiet machines usually do better in tournaments. So why not build the quiet machine every time? For a few reasons.
Quiet decks attract disdain from some players for being uninspired/boring or for being incredibly expensive. Quiet decks also elicit fewer strong emotional associations and responses, be they positive or negative, since quiet decks are well-represented in tournament settings. Everyone likes an underdog story, so you risk losing social capital by picking a popular deck to champion. Lastly, because quiet decks are full of Magic's best cards, they're more predictable than loud decks.
The loud deck might alienate opponents with its inefficiency, but it can also endear opponents to it for being outside the norm. (You don't see many fanatical Kenrith players, but you definitely see zealous Tayam or Krarkashima or Yuriko players, etc.) The loud deck can also take advantage of the fact that quiet decks are often tailored to beat other quiet decks; Formula One cars are designed to beat other Formula One cars, not to survive a demolition derby.
Regardless, make sure your deck can regularly accomplish its work.
"With Extra Steps"
The goal of playing cEDH is to win. The best way to win is to resolve the fewest spells at the lowest cost. Thus the best path to victory is to play and protect one game piece that wins on the spot.
Some folks believe that two-card combos with one part in the command zone are best (e.g., Tivit + Time Sieve), whereas others think single-card engines, like supported by the command zone, are best (e.g., Rograkh Silas). A third group prefers high-quality engines in the command zone (e.g., Tymna & Kraum) with efficient combos (e.g., & ) in the rest of the deck. Efficiency and consistency are usually the qualities cEDH players seek most. Regardless of those beliefs, the most efficient combo in cEDH is plus . With two cards and three mana, you can win the game. This is peak efficiency.
We could reasonably argue that all cEDH decks are Thassa's Oracle + Demonic Consultation decks, but with extra steps.
Now not all cEDH players enjoy Thassa's Oracle; most players choose style over efficiency and novelty over consistency (within cEDH's loose boundaries). This makes the meta diverse, which keeps cEDH healthy/interesting, but you should remember while brewing or choosing a deck that you are building a machine whose work is to win. Minimize the extra steps wherever possible--and to the extent that such efficiency is aesthetically pleasing to you.
Enjoying cEDH sustainably requires finding the ideal ratio between winning games and playing a deck you enjoy.
Confused opponents lose games, so playing a confusing deck more often than not increases your chance of winning games.
This fact allowed a deck like Magda to be piloted by Koibito to a 7-0 victory at a large in-person tournament. Opponents did not understand the Magda machine. This confusion has been called the brewer's advantage.
An erudite cEDH player will rarely be surprised by an opponent's deck because Magic features very few combos that win the game efficiently. Yet new cards are printed all the time; each new card increases Magic's already incalculably complex space of possible interactions. Quickly identifying and building around novel interactions enabled by new or obscure cards can win you tournaments.
If you'd rather not lose to the brewer's advantage, you need to keep up with Magic's new sets, read about new combos, and pay attention to flavor-of-the-month decks. Knowledge is power.
Variance, The River
cEDH is a high-variance game. This means that accurately knowing yourself as a player and brewer takes a great deal of practice and analysis (we're talking thousands of hours).
You need to play and thoughtfully analyze hundreds of games to get a sense of your average win percentage. Rigorously evaluating individual cards is essentially impossible.
What you can do well: try new things and learn from your mistakes. By playing numerous decks, you'll understand different play patterns and find the ones you like best. By tracking your games, noting when you misread a situation or made a misplay, you can quickly stop making the same errors.
Think of cEDH's variance like an uncharted river. It will take you downstream one way or another; all you can do is prepare for a rough ride, maneuver safely and intelligently, and read the water the best you can.
The path downstream is worth it.