How to Lose in cEDH

Harvey McGuinness • August 30, 2023

Summer is starting to wrap up, and as I sit back and pack up for my new adventures in graduate school I'm left thinking about all the Magic I was able to play back home in Santa Fe these past few months. Nights spent ambling around the local game store tables, hours of debating every facet of the format, from the seemingly uncounterability of creatures in the current meta to the viability of stax, all the while booster packs wrappers decorated the countertop space. I've gotten to play a lot of cEDH recently, and it's been one hell of a ride, but if I learned anything, it wasn't how to win, but how to lose.

To clarify, I'm not saying I spent this summer trying to figure out how to be worse player. That would be a poor use of my time. Rather, I spent it trying to figure out every possible way to learn from my losses. I'm not quite at the 50% winrate threshold yet for my games logged, so statistically speaking I'm still more likely to lose than not. Why not put those games to good use? Noting what went well in a game you won will be informative, sure, but there's nothing quite like jotting down the challenges of a loss for further use. The strategy of cEDH continues far beyond the moment we all pack up our cards and leave, after all.

Regardless of whether I win or lose a game, there are two primary things I try to keep track of: what happened and what didn't. Between those two categories, you've just about covered every possible configuration of games, so the information may get a little bit muddled if you aren't careful, but there's a method to this madness.

The First Big Takeaway: What Happened

Understanding how things work is important: that's the "what happened" aspect of playing Magic. In my game log, these are the columns of "Opening Hand Size," "Game End Turn," "Win/Loss," "Turn Order," "Opposing Commanders," and "Notable Cards." Right away, this provides excellent information about how your deck operates. Does a lower opening hand size correlate with a lower win/loss ratio, or can you mulligan aggressively? What about turn order: you may think your deck is midrange, but how does that play out in theory? While intuition can take a pilot far, crunching the hard numbers will often be the key to what we're all chasing in the end: incremental advantage.

In my case, I spent this summer playing one deck and one deck only: Grand Arbiter Augustin IV. It's a bit slow and durdely, so I always thought that it was a list which needed to be played on greater opening hand sizes (deck linked here in case you're into that sort of game). I'm not on Ad Nauseam or the like, so explosive draw isn't in my toolkit. Every card dropped before the game starts was something that I really felt. That is, until I started paying attention to the numbers. Turns out, this deck secretly mulligans extremely well... if you chase a turn one Grand Arbiter, that is.

My point here is that, regardless of the list, math doesn't lie. You may think you know a list like the back of your hand, but memory can be a bit finicky, so it's never a bad thing to back it up with extra data. Had I not run the numbers, chances are I'd still be hesitant to mulligan past five, and who knows how many games that would've cost me.

Beyond the inwardly focused information which this can offer (stats like "Opening Hand Size" or "Notable Cards"), tracking losses also provides a wonderful snapshot of the context of your games. Without sideboards in cEDH, decks need to be built with a greater mainboard consideration towards the rest of the field. There's no opportunity to pull out a silver bullet in game two, so it's all up to us to make the most of our ninety-nine.

Going back to the speed of a deck, this becomes particularly noteworthy when talking about windows of opportunity. A TurboNaus deck may be built with the goal of winning by turn three, but, if you find yourself losing a significant portion of those early games to other decks, there might be a hidden message about pacing yourself a bit slower so as not to burn out. Goldfishing games can teach you the ropes, but losing in the training grounds of your LGS can reveal opportunities for bolstering hidden strengths which you may have never even noticed.

The Second Big Takeaway: What Didn't Happen

The second key aspect of a game worth considering is what didn't happen. This is the part of Magic that is more easily dismissed, and it's also the part that's more easily obscured by emotion. It can be frustrating to lose, especially when the game was yours to win and all you needed was one more card.

Instead of kicking yourself over a misplay, or bemoaning that you never drew that one more card, it's instead worthwhile to spend some time on the constructive exercise of evaluating both why something didn't happen, and what would've been done differently if it had. Going straight to "why didn't I win" is too loaded of a question, so start small and work outwards. If you lost a counter war and that one more card needed to be a Force of Will, then take note of it. A handful of lost stack exchanges is normal in a format with as much variance as cEDH, but if you lose most of your games due to a lack of interaction, then chances are it's worth looking for another few counterspells to toss back into your list.

Part of playing cEDH is understanding the cooperative element of the game as well, considering it's often times incredibly difficult to eke out a win in a purely 3 vs. 1 experience. When it comes to losing, this means understanding your role as a communicator in the game: what information didn't I share? Hidden information is a valuable resource, no doubt, but so too is the potential for politicking by sharing information. Think of any time you have backed up an opponent's counterspell to stop a Thassa's Oracle or the like; it's the exact same case with Magic. Winning doesn't just mean being successful at your strategy, it also means not losing to your opponents' strategies. We're often so caught up in keeping track of our opponents that we forget how to present ourselves over the course of the game. Magic tricks often invoke an illusion of openness, so why not Magic games?

Overall, the "what didn't happen" part of a loss can largely be summed up by these two categories: what didn't my deck do, and what didn't I do. Identifying these occurrences and understanding the difference between the two is a crucial step towards increasing your odds of success, both as an individual player and as a specialized pilot. cEDH isn't just about playing a deck, it's about playing your opponents as well. Take note of how the cards were used in a social setting to divert attention.

Rigorously Evaluating Decklists

We've talked about understanding a deck quite a bit, but times change, and so too must our lists. If losing has taught me anything, it's that modifying a list can be incredibly deceptive, and there most definitely is a wrong way to go about it, so let's get into it.

A wise cEDH primer once said you can't rigorously evaluate individual cards. So, why not evaluate all of them simultaneously? It may sound a bit crazy, but understanding the way everything works together as opposed to individual functionality is actually a feasible task, one which brings with it a crucial foundation when it comes time to update a decklist.

Overall, decks are built like machines in that they are frequently assembled from compartmentalized modules which are held together by and overarching structure. Individual card functions - interaction, mana accelerant, etc. - aren't just a descriptor of how that one card functions on its own, but also the list of other functionally similar cards which can fulfill its role if variance throws a different card your way. Mindbreak Trap is powerful card, sure, but where it really shines is as the Nth copy of free interaction. As a single counterspell without any similar cards in your list, Mindbreak Trap is functionally useless. Singleton makes individual card evaluation a fool's errand because chances are you won't see any one given card over the course of your game. Rather, evaluating cards from amongst a gallery of their peers offers a better glimpse into how your deck will function. Don't ask "how does Llanowar Elves shift my curve," instead ask "how does going up to 10 mana dorks cut into the rest of my slots."

"But wait!" I hear you shouting, "There's no other card that quite does what Ad Nauseam does, and I play it in nearly all of my games! Doesn't that break your argument about card evaluation?" Not quite. Whatever your deck's wincon, chances are you'll be running a suit of tutors to up your consistency. In that case, the flexibility of tutors allows single-card engines, like Ad Nauseam, to be evaluated with a higher degree of statistical prevalence across games, as you functionally have more copies of it. Sure, Demonic Tutor can grab a Llanowar Elves, but chances are that you'll more often than not be digging for a win as opposed to a dork. This isn't to say all tutors are only ever extra copies of your wincon, but it does point towards the need to approach a deck more so as a medley of specialized packages strung together across a skeleton, rather than as a list of individual cards. Once you've done this, you can approach your losses with the more holistic questions regarding each package, as opposed to panicking over the granularity of slots.

Wrapping Up

There are a lot of things to learn from losing a game of Magic, both about yourself and your decklist. cEDH is a four-player format, after all, so odds are you'll gain more experience from losing than you will from winning. I encourage y'all to track your games, take a deep breath, look at the big picture, but more than anything have fun with it. I know I sure have.

Harvey McGuinness is a student at Johns Hopkins University who has been playing Magic since the release of Return to Ravnica. After spending a few years in the Legacy arena bouncing between Miracles and other blue-white control shells, he now spends his time enjoying Magic through cEDH games and understanding the finance perspective.