"I guess for me right now, I don't give a shit about being the best."
When I rung up Phil Gallagher, better known as the Legacy Youtuber ThrabenU, I had a pretty straightforward plan to chat with him about cEDH. After all, he's recently taken to the format, has been through a range of decks, and has competed in the latest big competitive Commander tournament, the TopDeck Expo's $8k main event. Beyond him hitting me with the shocking quote above, which I'll explain at the end, we got to chat a lot about his entry into cEDH and what about it appeals to him. Funnily enough, he started in a way that I'm sure is pretty similar to most of us who play.
"Somewhere on the order of two, maybe three years ago, I started getting back into casual EDH. I played primarily EDH in college, in grad school. And that was my casual Friday nights. Grab a beer with friends, sit down around a table, play Magic for a handful of hours," he told me. "As I started playing competitively more and more, I lost that desire to play at that casual level. I rediscovered a love for casual EDH again when I started wanting to make guest appearances on streams and meet with other people... Soon after that, I learned that cEDH was a thing that was outside of my radar for a very long time and I hopped in, and I'm going to say that I made some very poor deck choices at first, and I don't know, maybe I still am."
That first deck choice was the beloved, a mono-green combo deck. It has a lot of fans due to its uniqueness, its fiddlyness, and lots of flexibility in how you can build it, even for a single color deck. These are the things that appealed to Phil when he was looking for a deck, but he quickly found out that it wasn't for him. Heck, he went so far as to call it uncompetitive.
"You feel like a smart person playing it because there's all of these like intricate niche lines that you can figure out. But I played it for a couple of weeks. I shot some messages to the Discord and I'm like, 'Hey folks, this is what I think of this deck. You know, I think X, Y and Z are wrong. I think this isn't playing enough early mana dorks. I think the land numbers are wrong,'" he said. "I got laughed out of the room, and I'm like, okay, I need to play this a little bit more... But after more testing, I came to the conclusion that it was not a competitive deck... It's in the competitive database. But this isn't a competitive deck. I have chosen a poor entry point into this format."
What is one supposed to do when you first have not succeeded and need to figure out what to do next? Go to the ever-loving arms of what was once one of the most popular decks in cEDH.
"Winota was really good for a little while. I started feeling like I was understanding the format. My win rates skyrocketed when I switched decks."
Life was good for our hero. Especially with Phil's extensive experience playing Stax, hatebears, and Boros (Thalia is in the logo of his channel for a reason, after all), he was seeing success with such an explosive and powerful deck option. Then, Disaster struck. People finally understood how to beat Winota: don't let the pilots control Winota. You'll lose the game.
"The meta started shifting. My win percentage started falling off a cliff, and I decided that I needed to be in the blue portion of the color pie, and I came around to Tivit."
Of course, as soon as he swapped to, it started having problems as well. The deck, popular as of a few months ago and seeing great results, has since started to get hated out by opponents who are more cognizant of how powerful the deck can be if left to its own devices. Phil said it feels different this time, though."I felt like moving to Tivet from Winota was a great choice. My games became more interactive. I was able to leverage my own skill much more. I was able to politic better than I was with Winota," he confided.
"Tivet with a handful of cards is a different beast. The deck is powerful. I would not be embarrassed to show up to an event playing Tivet. I have done so twice, but I don't feel like the deck is just clearly one of the better choices and given my highly competitive spiky nature, if I'm going to travel for an event, I want a real shot at winning."
His latest thoughts on the deck were formed by the recent TopDeck Expo $8k, one of the largest cEDH tournaments of all time, where he piloted the Sphinx Rogue to a winless Day One before dropping to regain the rest of his weekend.
"My deck did its thing in every single round of Magic that I played. I put a win attempt on the board in every game. And in that capacity, Tivet was a good choice. Your attempts to win don't always work out."
Phil thinks of decks in cEDH in a very pragmatic way, looking at how many cards they can draw, what their most powerful cards can do, and similar. Of course, this is the correct way to go about things if you want to win tournaments. However, where he failed in his deck selection this time is that he didn't go hard enough in any one direction, making a deck that was middling at everything and therefore great at nothing, something he doesn't think cEDH incentivizes.
"If Blue Farm [& ] is close to maxing out the Control knob, and RogSi [ & ] is maxing out that Speed knob, I kind of maxed out the Punisher knob...I ended up with a really solid deck, but I don't feel like I maxed out a stat [that mattered]. So I don't think I did that well... I want to be playing the good version of the deck that is playing the most broken cards. Tivet not having access to red mana for Dockside and Breach is something that I'm definitely feeling. So I might need to just shut up and play some Blue Farm and get my wins."
More to Magic than Magic
When I first called up Phil, I was pretty convinced we would talk about cEDH the whole time. Like I said up top, it was technically the point of this article, and also it was our main overlap as content creators and players. However, as things can tend to go, we went off the rails immediately. Phil started telling me about the video he had been working on, something that was a bit different for his channel, a guide to being the best Magic player you can be. This is definitely a change of pace from his normal fare, which usually features Magic: The Gathering Online leagues with a range of Legacy decks. It's interesting that he was making a video about the topic because, well, as he said to me (and I already quoted), he doesn't personally care about being the best anymore. Neither is he focused fully on making the best possible content:
"I think the thing that I care about is trying to be the best person that I can be. The parts of the Magic community that I am most proud of being a part of in the past year are things like the charity events that I ran and being part of Magicons and things like that," ee told me. "So I would like to work on maximizing my stats in that capacity more than I care about my win rate and things like that right now."
Part of this push, both on his own and together with other content creators, has been a range of charity events supporting Trans Lifeline. Combined with the charitable matching of Alan (MentalMisplay), a total of nearly $60,000 was donated to the charity through Phil's effort this year. As to more events in the future:
"I don't have any event started in the works yet, but coming from the COVID era of Magic, where I was sitting alone in my room for the better portion of two or three years recording games, I miss the gathering portion of Magic so, so much," he told me. "So when I can do something [for charity] to help the world be a better place for marginalized groups of people, I would like to do what little part I can with my clout to help push that stuff along."
One would think that sitting alone in a room making Youtube videos on Magic: The Gathering Online all day would get, well, a bit lonely and boring even if one does love playing. He has a secret that he confided in me, the thing that helps him keep going. Every morning he sits down and reads the comments on his previous day's video, something that got an involuntary "Oh, no!" out of me.
"You know, there is some of that 'oh no', but there's an awful lot of warm fuzzies in there. I'm not gonna cry, but, I think it was two days ago, I got a message from someone in Ukraine who said, life is kind of shit right now, but it's really nice that you make videos that I can look forward to every day. I'm so happy to be a part of that life. That's cool," he replied. "[By reading comments] I get those reminders that for somebody, I'm their lunch hour. I'm the thing that they fall asleep to every night. Not every day can be Magic Fest Vegas or a cool cEDH event that I get to go to or anything like that. I'm doing a better job of keeping track of the humans associated with the Magic community than I used to."
This is, I think, the natural evolution of somebody who enjoys the Magic community and also actually gives a shit, as one could say. We're all here to play a great game together, but there is a lot more going on there than just the Ws and Ls you can get, no matter what format you're playing. There are a lot of humans out there who could use the help we all can provide, whether monetary for charity or otherwise. It is a bit sappy and weird to say, but we'd all be a lot better off if there were more Phil Gallager AKA ThrabenU's out there in the world. That being said, I couldn't let him go without picking his brain a little bit more about cEDH. What advice would a skilled, long time player in the realm of competitive eternal Magic give to players of the format?
"If I had one just generic piece of advice for blossoming cEDH players, it's to test everything, explore everything, and don't assume that you have solved the format because this format is probably going to explode over the next two years and the growth that cEDH has seen this year is immense. I expect the growth next year to spiral, up and up and up. We're going to start seeing cEDH side events, cEDH at Magic Cons is going to become a very real thing. And, you know, be ready to learn because the handful of big fish in the cEDH pool right now are going to be challenged by a whole bunch of new faces. Be ready to adapt for it and hit the ground. Running."
Thanks for reading! This piece was a long time in coming and I want to thank Phil again for sitting down with me for nearly an hour. As these things work, so much of the interview was left on the cutting room floor, including some of his background before he went full-time in Magic content. Ask him about it sometime. If you want to read more pieces like this, definitely let me know.