Mechanical Engineering - Call it a Draw?

Commander Mechanic • July 1, 2021

Spring // Mind by Josu Hernaiz

Hey folks, I’m Chris and I’m YOUR Commander Mechanic. You may recognize me from my YouTube Channel or from guesting on major streams around the community—I’m a deck builder and brewer with a very analytical view of the format of Commander.

Some have said I take a competitive mindset and apply it to casual Commander, but I prefer to think of it as taking an efficient look at deck building. More of the game is played before you ever sit down at a table with other players. There’s a lot to be said about other players’ impact on play experience. Expectation mismatches, lack of communication, and differing opinions on what constitutes ‘fun’ can all play a part in how much you enjoy Commander. Throughout this series I want to take a look at how you can improve play experience—your own and that of others—before you ever play a game. Avoid not being able to play the game due to deck building issues, avoid imposing poor scenarios on others, and ensure you have concentrated efforts in mind when deck building.

But, as always, Commander is about having fun YOUR WAY—don’t let anyone tell you there’s a right or wrong way to play this game.

Draw Me Like One of Your French Girls

One of the most important nuts and bolts of ANY Commander deck is your draw engine. These are cards that ensure you have higher probabilities of continuing to play the game, and ways to avoid “topdeck mode”—a situation where you have no cards in hand and are HOPING your library gives you something usable. Along the same lines as my previous pieces, this is a key to ensuring that YOU are engineering a healthy gameplay experience for yourself. Avoiding situations you can put yourself in that exclude you from PLAYING Commander.

So how do we engineer a situation where this doesn’t happen? And what are the benefits of repeatable draw effects over one-time draw effects?

And most importantly we’ll take a look at what role your Commander can play in ensuring your gameplay experience happens AT ALL, and what kind of benefits having any kind of card advantage always at your fingertips can ensure.

Taking Advantage

“Draw” can take many forms and can range from card quality, with a Sensei’s Divining Top to Impulsive draw effects with an Outpost Siege. So even if putting a card from your library to your hand doesn’t happen, these are all what I’d consider “Card Advantage” effects, crucial to any deck. The advantage to this… advantage… is that you can keep playing. Ensuring ONE bad draw doesn’t stop you from actually playing. We’ve all kept a 2-land hand hoping we draw into a third. We’ve all hit a run of lands on the top of our libraries, just hoping to hit something useful soon. If we have access to more options than our opponents, then we have ADVANTAGE.

And this is where Magic’s inherent core game mechanics come in.

In-built into the rules are that players draw one card per turn. It’s a pacing mechanism. But as explored in previous articles, these rules and mechanics are made to be broken! And when we break them we get more and more value, and are able to gain access to more and more options.

When you exclude sufficient card advantage engines from your deck you’re giving your opponent one of these above effects for FREE. You’re doing nothing but choosing to set yourself back. And engineering a poor gameplay experience; even before you’ve sat down and shuffled up. Don’t give them that satisfaction. Don’t play by the rules—break them!

Drawing Rules!

So now that we’ve defined “Card Advantage,” having access to more options than our opponents, let’s look at the quality of these effects, and what the proper balance is. When do we play a Return of the Wildspeaker over a Bident of Thassa?

The difference between these two effects are one-time bursts of card advantage and steady streams of card advantage. Each deck wants something different, but each deck may want these in equal effect.

Steady card draw effects like Phyrexian Arena look great in theory, but you’re essentially paying 3 mana for the HOPE the game goes on as long as possible. Once you get past 3 turns with a Phyrexian Arena in play you’ve gained VALUE from it, but if you drop it late into the game, the chances of you getting the 3 mana out of it as opposed to a Sign in Blood drops significantly.

On that same note, card advantage engines that rely on having other pieces in play may end up being less than ideal. Maybe you don’t have the creatures for a Toski, Bearer of Secrets to matter, or maybe you have no cards in hand for a Frantic Search to matter. But we can control those situations, and we can ensure we’re including as many diversified draw effects as possible.

Ideally you want your card advantage to be incremental, and not so much that you feel the NEED to have no maximum hand size—I’ve spoken my piece about Reliquary Tower. Keeping “topped off” is excellent, but we can see how drawing TOO MANY cards is great too, giving you access to card selection, fuel in your graveyard, and a way to sculpt the best seven cards to keep.

For me it’s a rule of thumb: “If you can draw too many cards, you should be able to win with the best 7 of those cards” Don’t get too Greedy.

Asymmetry and You!

Now one of the advantages to our format in particular is that we have access to effects that key off of our opponents, drawing us multiple cards in a turn cycle, thanks to actions of our opponents. These effects may not be as amazing in a one-on-one format, but in our format they EXPLODE with value. This results in some of the most powerful draw effects, since they aren’t one-time, and they don’t require an ongoing cost for us to activate.

Wheel of Fortune-style effects are similar here but in the opposite direction, as they generate more card advantage for our opponents than they do for us. While it’s great to pay three mana to get a full grip, you’ve just let your opponents look at a combined 21 new cards. That’s NEGATIVE card advantage!

Drawing Heat

So what role can your commander play in your card advantage engine? Well considering your commander is always available to you, I recommend ensuring they have some kind of synergistic value built into them. Whether it’s a commander like Chulane, Teller of Tales that acts as a triggered draw engine off of most of the creatures in your deck, or Meren of Clan Nel Toth that acts as a card-advantage-from-the-graveyard engine, ensuring that casting your commander gets you MORE OPTIONS is always ideal!

And that brings us to today’s deck list. This is a personal deck I’ve built around Rielle, the Everwise, a unique example that inverts card advantage, turning what WOULD be disadvantage into multiplicative advantage.

This is a deck that takes card advantage from a foundation and turns it into a strategy. But note the role Rielle, the Everwise plays here—even if we’re struggling for card advantage our commander ensures just about anything we draw in to turns into card advantage, whether it be a cycling land, a wheel, or a looting effect.

So while it’s not necessary for your commander to draw you cards, having that advantage engine in the command zone is a BIG benefit. It’s a strategy you often see at higher power levels, with more efficient gameplans, for this exact reason; so you’ve never caught empty-handed and without options.

Quality Over Quantity

“So Chris” you’re asking, “what’s the magic number?” and I hate to tell you there is no “one size fits all” number for card advantage in a deck. It’s going to depend on how synergistic your pieces are, how reliable they are, and how much you need that card advantage. If you have a deck with a VERY high curve, say a Keruga, the Macrosage-companion deck, then maybe you don’t need a significant amount of card draw. You’ll be casting one spell per turn until you refill your hand with your companion.

If you have a very low-to-the-ground deck and you’re burning through 3-4 cards per turn then you’ll want AS MUCH card draw as possible, even to the point where you may go overboard to ensure you aren’t in a position where you have nothing to play. But most likely you’re going to fall into a nice middle area, where you’ll want regular, occasional card draw. Here’s where your Erebos, God of the Dead effects come into play. Draw on demand, when you want it, when you need it. Those are the most reliable draw effects you should be striving to include, and enough that you can always have one.

Remember that you likely won’t need to draw cards until you’re about 10% of the way into your library (opening 7 plus 3 draws at the start of turns). So is the magic number 10 draw spells? If your commander doesn’t draw you cards or gain you card advantage, then yes; include 10 draw spells in your deck to ensure you have at least ONE way to refill your hand at the point in the game where you need it.

Drawing is Just Your Deck Going for a Walk

This advice is all leaning heavily into actual card DRAW and not card QUALITY as I think there’s a whole additional article about cards like Sylvan Library, Mirri’s Guile, and Sensei’s Divining Top. These effects both balance with each other and in many cases card draw and card quality can be interchangeable depending on both effects and your strategy. Don’t get caught harming your own play experience before you ever sit down at a table. Making sure you can play the game you’ve set out to play is key, and deck building with conscious choices towards that goal are necessary.

Hopefully I’ve helped you engineer a better Commander experience! Let me know in the comments below what you think of card advantage, and the ideal quantity for you—what are your favorite card advantage engines?

Until next time folks, good luck & have fun!

"I'm Chris and I'm YOUR Commander Mechanic!" A die-hard Commander player, Chris is a brewer, deck builder, and player experience advocate. Check out YouTube for Tune-Ups, Twitter for hot takes, and catch him on streams all over the community!