Mechanical Engineering - Pulling the Parachute

Commander Mechanic • November 5, 2021

Mana Crypt by Matt Stewart

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.

Having an Ejector Seat

Not everyone likes infinite combos. Some people find them to be boring and unfun--just look at what two-card combos do to the high-end of the format's power level. Thassa's Oracle and Demonic Consultation have always been a boogey-man of the format, and was preceded by the graciously-banned Flash. These sleek, efficient combos may not be infinite but they end the game on the spot, are easy to tutor up, and are largely predictable.

And that's not necessarily a problem.

I'm a big advocate of having some kind of game-ending combo in your deck. Whether it be super efficient like a Godo, Bandit Warlord and Helm of the Host or something sillier like an Orvar the All-Form, Whim of Volrath and Covetous Jewel - you should have what I call an "off-valve" to a game of commander. An ejector seat to get everyone out of a game that's been dragging on forever. A parachute to pull to ensure you aren't heading for a disastrous 5-hour slog of a game.

The issue most players have when they include these efficient and effective combos in their decks is that it goes from plan C to plan A in a lot of strategies. "Why WOULDN'T I fire off this Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy and Basalt Monolith combo on turn 2?" you may ask yourself. And that's where we creep beyond deck building and into how a deck is played.

Plans Within Plans

When building your deck you can lay out your 1-2-3 strategy as I've discussed before, ensuring your tertiary strategy is some kind of combo, and your primary and secondary strategies are a little more involved and--as some might say--fun. But the temptation is always going to be there when you draw into your combo. Do I fire it off now? Do I do it because I can? And most players will emphatically say 'yes'.

But should you? Is your playgroup going to be willing to shuffle up for another game when you combo out on turn 3? Did everyone agree on a 6-7 turn game during pre-game discussions and you're finding yourself able to go off on turn 4?

Are you turning a game with strangers and potential new friends into a pubstomp?

If you have half of a 2-card combo in hand and a Demonic Tutor, are you going to be tempted to go get the other half of your combo?

That's where you should ask yourself if the problem is the cards, the deck... or the pilot.

Many players in this situation, as polled on my channel, are willing to fire off their combo and shuffle up for another game. "I can win so why wouldn't I?" is the response many gave when prompted. In even more instances the common response was "it's the job of the table to stop me from winning" and that's an even more troubling concept. That's putting the onus of empathy, honestly, and group experience on others. Absolving yourself of the responsibility to have a mutually-shared experience.

Known When to Hold Back

This week's deck is an upgrade to the recently-released Undead Unleashed precon from Midnight Hunt. It contains an efficient 2.5-card combo (requiring 2 cards and your commander, Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver). This combo of Altar of Dementia, Poppet Stitcher and your commander can be assembled as early as turn 4 and has multiple redundant parts, and can be put together by adding an additional ~$50 or so to the out-of-the-box list.

I'm sure that all sounds fine, but when you sit down at a table with strangers and your only pre-game discussion is "I'm playing an upgraded precon" do you think you're being honest about the potential to go infinite on turn 4 or 5? Have you set the expectation or precedent? How would the rest of the table FEEL about that? That's where Commander and empathy need to be considered together.

The crux of the famed "rule zero conversation"--setting pre-game expectations--is about ensuring everyone is on board with the experience all 4 players at the table are set to have. Do we feel putting an arbitrary number on our decks on a scale of 1-10 sets the table for that, or should we have a more in-depth discussion about what we WANT to see in a game? Or what we're trying to DO with our decks?

We've all encountered THAT GUY who won't even reveal the commander he's playing until the game's ready to start and--pardon my French--fuck that guy. A collaborative experience, despite one where you're trying to defeat other players, is about honesty. If you have an infinite combo in your deck, let the rest of the table know. If you've all agreed to play a 7-8 turn game because you were all HONEST about what your decks are planning on doing then don't bust out an infinite combo on turn 4.

What's the Missing Piece of the Combo?

So at this point you're probably wondering why include infinite combos in your deck at all, and that's fair. But if you're open and honest about it, and the table is cool with it, then it's cool to try and rush to victory. Otherwise it's prudent to wait to pull the emergency brakes on a game.

If you've agreed to play a game that'll last 10 turns and it's now turn 11 or 12? Go off, king. Fire off that combo without remorse--the game has to end eventually. And at that stage everyone will appreciate the game coming to an end. Especially if you're pitting upgraded precons against each other like this one:

Having an 'out' to a game of commander is necessary, in my opinion. We've all been stuck in 3-hour games with 10 board wipes where all of the players are itching for it to end. Or a game where one player was eliminated very early and everyone else feels bad that they have to sit by and watch for another hour. That's where infinite combos shine. The "well it's getting late" way to end a game.

But the issue is when it becomes the ONLY route the pilot considers to victory.

If that's the understanding of the table? Excellent. But if it's not, then it's not the right time to deploy the 'Game Over' screen just yet. And it's not up to the table to stop you, it's up to YOU to choose whether it's appropriate or not. Take ownership and responsibility for your actions. Don't put the burden of policing you on someone else. That's telling them what they need to do, and removing their agency, not creating an enjoyable experience.

Hitting the Ejector Seat on this Article

Do you build infinite combos into your decks? If you do, is that the primary--or in some cases ONLY--way that your decks close out games? And when you sit down to play with that deck are you open, honest, and up front about being able to combo out?

How do YOU react when a player at the table combos out much earlier than anticipated?

Keep these things in mind not only when you're building your deck but when you're playing. What kind of game--what kind of experience--do you want from this and do you want everyone at the table to get?

Let me know in the comments below and, as always 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!