Mechanical Engineering - Minimal Interaction

Commander Mechanic • August 26, 2021

Kalamax, the Stormsire by Nicholas Gregory

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.

Tipping your Hand

Previously in this series I’ve discussed multiple aspects of how you can improve your gameplay experience before you ever sit down at a table by building a more concise deck. From mana costs to mana curves to tutors and gameplans—but I’ve recently been asked how some of that applies IN GAME.

In my experience there’s two aspects at play here; the first is how your experience is improved and the second is how your opponents’ gameplan is impacted. In Commander when you’re facing down 3 times as many opponents as in any other format it’s important to ensure you can go toe to toe with them. And like in boxing, the last thing you want is your opponents knowing where your next haymaker is coming from!

Covered in my piece about mana curves, typically only 1-2 spells 7+ mana value are cast per game before it’s over. Whether that be a Cyclonic Rift, a Villainous Wealth, or a Ruinous Ultimatum you typically only get one shot to end the game… so who’s going to get that shot off? And who’s going to blink?

Pulling the Trigger

And that’s where interaction comes into play. You typically see this in higher power level games, but interaction plays a crucial element to seeing who wins—if you try to win and are stopped, you’ve not only sunk YOUR gameplan but you’ve strengthened AN OPPONENT’S as you’ve now drained interaction pieces from the table.

And interaction is a delicate—and contentious—aspect of deck building. How much do you run? How much is too much to the point it slows down a game? How little can you get away with running? And when or why do you use it in-game?

Slow down, we’ll get to that. Removal, like all things, is VERY contextually relevant.

I’d ask a few questions during deck building to solidify an answer:

  • Is there anything that shuts you down?
  • For instance, is a Spirit of the Labyrinth or a Graffdigger’s Cage just “game over” for you?
  • Do you have one card you NEED to resolve in order to go off?
  • Is it CRUCIAL that you resolve a Maskwood Nexus or an Academy Manufactor in order for your deck to DO THE THING?
  • Do your opponents NEED to resolve a spell in order for them to win the game?
  • Easy enough, is there a combo piece like a Food Chain that is so crucial to their gameplan that it resolving just ENDS THE GAME?

The more of these questions you answered ‘yes’ to the more interaction—not necessarily removal—you need to consider in deck building.

A Winning Hand

Being able to assess a threat and know when to stop it and when to interact with it is key here. Do you fire off a Counterspell for the first available spell cast? Or do you play with that dreaded double blue up in order to freeze out an opponent’s gameplan? Whether you HAVE the counterspell or not is another matter—the point is making your opponent think twice about it.

And when you’re in that position—knowing you have a spell you need to resolve—and your opponent is sitting smug behind double blue? That’s where you need to be ready with interaction of your own. A Veil of Summer or a Force of Will or a Red Elemental Blast to ensure in this showdown, they’re blinking first.

Knowing if we—or our opponents—have lynchpin pieces to our gameplan allows us to adjust in deck building. If we’re creature-heavy but don’t have absolutely essential pieces to our gameplan? Our interaction comes more in the form of Heroic Intervention than Wrath of God. But that may mean we’re at a lower power level table as well, and our opponents may not have a crucial piece to their plan. So what’s the harm from letting them DO THE THING as long as THE THING doesn’t win the game?

Over-investing in interaction, on the other hand, can create poor play experiences for you and your opponents. ‘Control’-style decks are notoriously difficult to play in Commander because the level and volume of threats often outweigh your volume of answers very quickly. This is 3:1 not 1:1 as in other formats. If you cram your deck with nothing but counters… you may burn out very quickly or become a target very quickly.

Interaction also slows games down considerably. Many of us have experiences where 3-4 board wipes are fired off in a single game. Blasphemous Act followed by Toxic Deluge followed by Phyrexian Rebirth followed by—it just gets to be too much and disengages the entire table.

Pinpoint Accuracy

And this is where I advocate having the right solutions, not just ALL of the solutions. Yes, every deck should consider board wipes, even creature-based decks. If you fall behind you want to be able to reset the board in order to re-establish a position. But do you need 4-5 board wipes in a single deck? NO, because drawing all of those board wipes makes for a poorer game rather than a better one! No one at the table will enjoy not being able to progress the board at all—it’s like a version of stax. When no one gets to stick permanents on board, no one has fun.

To showcase what I mean, here’s an older build of a favorite of mine, Kalamax, the Stormsire. This is an “instant-tribal” deck mainly due to Kalamax only doubling instants, but it’s intentionally tailored to use only interaction that benefits from that ability. You’ll find NO free counterspells, NO Cyclonic Rift and NO sorcery-speed board wipes whatsoever.

Kalamax EDH

Commander (1)
Lands (32)
Creatures (16)
Spells (52)

And this demonstrates the other decision making factor with interaction—what kind of interaction best suits your deck. Here I went for maximum synergy and, while there’s a lot of targeted removal, you’ll find it’s not necessarily the format’s BEST removal spells.

That’s an important distinction. Just because a spell is considered to be good, or one of the best, doesn’t make it an auto-include. Be it budget or a lack of synergy, you don’t need to jam a Force of Will in every blue deck just because you have one.

No, instead using efficient targeted removal that fits your gameplan is better than all the free counterspells and board wipes you could jam in these colors. The saturation is there, but they can be used for different purposes, get bigger bonuses, and work well in multiples. That can’t be said for every spell that would come to mind first.

Choosing your Battles

So with all of this in mind we know how much interaction we’d ideally like to run—based on our deck’s goals and our meta—what kind of interaction we’d ideally like to run—based on our synergies and our deck’s goals—and when to USE that interaction—based on our goals and our opponents’ goals.

Before choosing to use a critical piece of interaction offensively or defensively, take a moment to consider EVERYTHING. Using interaction in priority order is crucial—we all know a Tommy Triggerfinger who jumps out of order and says “NU UH”, slamming down some kind of interaction piece. But if you hold your tongue and be patient you may not need to lose that critical card, instead letting an opponent take care of an imminent threat.

However if you need to use a critical piece of interaction defensively rather than offensively—that may set your whole gameplan back several turns. Pick your moment to strike based on what your opponents have, what they’ve been doing, and what they’re working towards. How many cards do they have in hand? How much mana is available to them? Would THEY be willing to reset THEIR boards just to stop you?

If you can read the table, assess the threat, and identify the opportunity—maybe you don’t need interaction at all. Maybe you just need everyone else to have used theirs.

Let me know in the comments below how YOU decide what interaction goes into your decks and what your favorite piece of interaction is!

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!