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.
On The Attack
I famously like to build decks that don’t need to attack. While they can, and often do, I always build in noncombat options to decks. Some feel like combat is a necessity to the format of Commander—if you aren’t attacking, you’re doing it wrong. But often combat can’t occur. Whether it’s one opponent behind a pillow fort effect that you can’t pay for, like a, or the board is mucked up with enough creatures that no one can get through profitably, sometimes the game needs to move forward on an axis that ISN’T attacking.
I’d like to dive into that philosophy further and expand on noncombat wincons. Many feel like this has to be a combo wincon, but there are plenty of ways to deal noncombat damage, accruing incremental value over time, that slowly whittle down opponent life totals and close out a game.
After all, every game has to end sometime.
The Pacifist’s Route
Most players will only attack when it benefits them—when there aren’t blockers or when there isn’t going to be a trade, or when they aren’t going to lose resources for attacking. This can lead to situations where there’s a stalemate at the table and everyone is building up armies, looking at their situations and assessing. We’ve all asked ourselves, “Can I attack without losing on the crack-back?” “If I’m shields down do I just lose?” “Can I afford to attack if they can’t afford to attack me afterwards?”
This conundrum happens all the time, especially for decks that are focused on attacking. Voltron decks, aggro decks, go-wide tokens decks… and we as players feel like a single, straightforward strategy is enough for us to ‘get there’.
But what happens when it isn’t?
If for whatever reason—be it a rattlesnake-style card, a pillowfort effect, or a board stall—we can’t attack, how are we going to close out a game? Wait for someone to concede? Stare at each other until someone draws a game-winning-style effect, like an ?
Or do we resort to incremental damage effects and synergies that help win the game in parallel to our primary strategy?
These are effects like, where we can be throwing away disposable tokens to damage the table, putting opponents in a do-or-die scenario.
These are effects like, where we can play lands and get access to more cards, but also damage the whole table simultaneously.
These are effects like, where we can damage the table as we dig for answers to our current predicament.
It’s having a pivot to attacking that’s crucial. And it’s something many overlook.
An Unfriendly Interaction
When you’re in a situation where you can’t attack, some players will default to the age-old solution of “play more removal”. If you can get rid of your opponents’ biggest threats, you can attack and close out a game.
However, interaction is a commodity. A resource. You typically only pack so many pieces of removal in a deck, and using them proactively means you can’t use them reactively. Using ato remove a blocker so you can attack means you can’t use it on an opponent’s creature that may be looking at you next.
So we enter these stalemate scenarios. Do you run MORE removal so you have enough to use both offensively and defensively? Or do you include more pieces within your deck that force your opponents to answer them?
I’m firmly in the camp of “be more threatening”. Ensure that there’s more in your deck that does things that scare people—include pieces that MUST be answered, because if they can’t then you run away with the game. This may make you the threat, which, trust me, happens more often than not, but it also means that you’ll be the one controlling the pace of play.
I know there are people that LOVE their decks, but those decks do ONE THING—attack. That’s great, but someone then can’t be upset if they can’t attack. You’ve built your deck with a weakness, and sometimes you just take the ‘L’ for it. That’s part of the problem of not diversifying the threats within your deck.
Some decks can win entirely without combat as well. These are thedecks with noncombat threats in the command zone. These are the decks that want to play creatures and make tokens but never HAVE to do anything with them. These are the decks that want to achieve something other than reducing life points to zero.
A good balance is needed. So let’s take a look at that.
In All Things, Balance
This deck is a Rakdos build around the newfrom Neon Dynasty. This deck features some fantastic, big beaters, like and and , but it also features a bunch of ways to damage opponents directly, like with our commander. It excels at both being able to get punchy with evasive threats and with dealing damage over time via activations of Hidetsugu or through spells that damage or drain our opponents.
This way we can deal damage without having to attack, but ideally have attackers at the ready if it suits us best to start going to the red zone.
Hidetsugu’s Big Old Spells
This deck almost puts combat as a secondary route to victory than a primary route—reducing life totals through noncombat makes each potential swing with a big, evasive attacker that much more threatening. It puts players on the defensive but also ensures they know they can’t hide as you can threaten life totals without their board states mattering.
Damage and value MULTIPLIERS are a huge aspect of getting damage through when combat isn’t allowed or possible as well. It means each point of damage goes further and shortens your clock. If you want to muscle through for every little bit, then twist that knife and turn 2-3 points of damage into 6-9 (nice) points of damage instead!
Plans within Plans within Plans
Having backup plans leans on my 1-2-3 strategy for deckbuilding. Know what your primary, secondary, and tertiary routes to victory are and ensure your deckbuilding plays to that. If your answer to 1-2-3 is “combat, combat, combat” then you’re setting yourself up for feel-bad experiences when that’s not possible.
Again, it’s these same players that think and build across a single line that are disappointed when it doesn’t work. It’s like only knowing one route to work and being upset when there’s traffic. Like building a single bridge over a river and being upset when everyone’s using it. Diversify, think beyond combat as the only way to win or progress a game, and you’ll find you’re far more satisfied by what your deck can do.
You can do one thing really well, but make sure you’re able to do 2-3 other things pretty OK, too.
Otherwise you only have yourself to blame when you encounter a poor gameplay experience. It’s not “That game sucked because I wasn’t able to attack”, it’s “I didn’t have a backup plan to attacking”.
To The Red Zone
If attacking is the way you want to play Commander, more power to you—no one should tell you how to play EDH. This format is exactly what you make of it. But if you’re finding that your playgroup knows your decks ONLY attack… it’s time to diversify. Thatdeck is starting to get a reputation for being pretty brutal, so don’t be mad when an opponent puts the new on her, turning her into the most threatening bus of all time.
Let me know in the comments below how you diversify your decks in regards to paths to victory—or, conversely, why you’ve chosen NOT to. I love to hear from all of you, and I love to know what your playgroups think too. Is combat the way most of your games end? Or do you have players that ALWAYS avoid turning creatures sideways?
Whichever it is, as always folks, good luck & have fun!