By Chris “Commander Mechanic” Balon
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 deckbuilder 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 deckbuilding. 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; things like avoiding not being able to play the game due to deckbuilding issues, avoiding imposing poor scenarios on others, and ensuring you have concentrated efforts in mind when deckbuilding.
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.
You Know It’s True
is a problem in Commander. It’s a vestige of a time when multiplayer formats were barely considered at the kitchen table, and the format we all know and love was still years off. It’s become a staple of our format because of the heaps and heaps of value it can provide—drawing a card from potentially EVERY spell cast is just ridiculous.
We can all cite a first-hand encounter with an early Rhystic Study that just snowballed out of control and won a player the game; the same can be said for.
“This is nothing new,” you’re saying. “Good cards are good” isn’t a revolutionary thought. But these cards can often be either a crutch or a bludgeon in a game of Commander—overly relied upon to make a poor deck function AT ALL, or used in a well-tuned deck to snowball uncontrollably.
Maybe we should explore some options to take the sting out of these oppressive pieces.
Starting From the Top
First step to answer the question as to why Rhystic Study is so good. The answer many people have when we discuss strong cards is “just pay the tax” or “it’s easy to remove”, and sure, these are fair points. But we’re only in control of one player’s actions: our own. The moment another player at the table doesn’t respect the tax is the moment things get out of control. If YOU don’t have removal for it, you can’t force someone else to get rid of the problem, so it’s not as easy as the flippant “play more removal” replies make the situation seem.
“Treat it like a stax piece” is another common response. Sure, YOU can treat it like a stax piece. But the player of the Rhystic Study doesn’t have to, and if any other player at the table doesn’t… well, then it’s basically game over.
Take a look at these stax pieces and tell me what they have in common:
They’re symmetrical AND you have no option not to pay the tax. You can’t ignore them AND they affect the player who has cast them. It’s when symmetry breaks that you create disproportionate value, and Rhystic Study is a prime example of this. 3 players cast spells, 1 player benefits. That’s what makes cards good in our format: when we get this multiplicative bonus from it.
And when you give someone the option to not pay their taxes, just like in real life, chances are they won’t. YOU may be a good citizen and realize the need to pay your taxes, but not everyone does. And that’s just going to compound the value generated by a card like this.
What Am I Going to Do About It?
There are cards banned in our format that don’t work in a balanced manner simply due to the rules of the format., , and don’t work because of the singleton restrictions, number of players, and starting life totals, respectively. Do I feel and belong on this list?
The number of opponents in this format means that these cards don’t function as intended. If printed today, Rhystic Study would either cost 5 mana or be limited to once per turn. Take a look at these as examples:
They only trigger once each turn. That’s how modern design is balancing these abilities because we’ve seen clear evidence of how disproportionate a 3-mana enchantment can be when it lets you draw 3, 4, 5, or more cards every turn cycle. That isn’t “working as intended”, that's an “unintended feature”.
But providing we don’t house ban cards, what kind of alternatives can we use? The above options are great, but there’s also. It can come down earlier, doesn’t tax creature spells, and is basically an ensured “you WILL draw a card” with its hefty 4-mana tax effect. The built-in self-limiter is the Cumulative Upkeep, ensuring the fish only sticks around a turn or two before it gets cost-prohibitive. It’s a MUCH more “fair” and “balanced” version of Rhystic Study that was printed YEARS before the Study and over a decade before Commander was even a thought at a kitchen table yet.
But Why Play Fair?
Why NOT use a busted card? Why not turn that tool into a weapon? Simply because it can be used as a crutch, as I mentioned earlier. Rhystic Study can be a card that bolsters a weak deck or a poor opening hand, and fosters poor habits and poor game experiences for everyone BUT the player of the card.
So here’s my challenge to you: go without Rhystic Study. Build a deck without it so you need to actually focus on card draw saturation, seldom-used cards, and be more strategic with how your turns play out. Too many players keep risky hands with a Study and hope to luck into gas, counting on opponents letting them. It happens FAR too often in either direction.
Well, I say there’s only one person you can rely on: yourself.
Take a look at this week’s deck and the volume of non-card draw:
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This is a lands-heavy combo deck all about assembling a board lock with, , and . A 2.5-card combo in a deck all about lands. Imagine how easy it would be to dig up these pieces if I filled the list with tutors or oppressive card draw pieces, like ?
And that’s exactly why I didn’t include them.
Playing in a straight line is boring, for yourself and for the table, when it’s just a “Card A plus Card B” scenario.
What can we learn from it?
Much like my piece on tutors and how a reliance on them for consistency can be toxic to your play experience, the same can be said for Smothering Tithe and Rhystic Study. Everyone groans when these hit the table, and if they survive a SINGLE turn cycle they’ve more than paid for themselves.
So simply try not running them.
Doing so can make your play experience much more healthy, and it can help improve your skill as a deckbuilder.
These “boogeymen of the format” are far too ubiquitous, and that only changes if we realize that the cards are, fundamentally and mechanically, broken. Cards designed with unintended ramifications in our format, unforeseen interactions, are weapons, not tools. They’re weapons that slay game balance.
So it’s your choice when you want to sit down at a table, either with friends or strangers, if you want to wield a weapon.
Through Careful Study
Let me know what you think; this take may be a bit controversial, but an overplayed card that ALWAYS overperforms is prime for overreliance. If ais at least 5 additional cards. An opening hand with a turn-3 Rhystic Study might as well be 12 cards instead of 7.
Do you always hate when an opponent plays a Rhystic Study? Sure you could remove it but if you can’t—how does the game go?
Let me know in the comments below and, as always folks, good luck and have fun!