Tutors Make Commander a Worse Format

Corbin Hosler • March 18, 2021

I had originally planned to write another edition of Hidden Gems, but sometimes even the best-laid plans go awry. That’s not a bad thing – and one response in particular spurred me to write this article about EDH tutors.

I don’t know if this counts as a hot take or not, but I completely agree with Marshall here. So much so, in fact, that I’m willing to stand behind the claim that tutors like Demonic Tutor make Commander a less enjoyable format. Everyone can and should play the game as they want, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with playing a bunch of tutors if you like them (and I certainly play my share), but they do make the format less enjoyable in several key ways.

Shuffling Sucks

I’ll get this out of the way upfront. Magic designers have always referred to it as a “loading screen” – the game cannot progress until you’ve finished your 30 or 45 second ritual of shuffling your deck and then waiting for one of your opponents to think they’re cute and cut it five different ways. No single instance of this is particularly problematic, but I would venture to say that nearly 10 minutes of the typical Commander game in my groups is beset by shuffling.

Fetchlands are one of the biggest offenders here since the vast majority of the time they’re going to operate functionally similarly to any other two-color dual land, except you have time to watch a TikTok or three while you wait for the game to finish loading.

But tutors aren’t much better, and they come with their own set of problems that even fetchlands don’t. When your opponent casts Demonic Tutor and knows exactly what they’re going to get, you’re still forced to wait as they pick up one half of their deck, look through it and fail to find the card, then pick up the other half and fail again before realizing it was the next card they were going to draw all along. And then you have to wait for them to shuffle a 90-card deck and play Mind Games with an opponent cutting their deck.

And that’s really a best-case scenario. In reality, we’ve all seen someone in a tough spot cast Dark Petition and spend three to five minutes thumbing through their entire deck looking for the perfect card to solve all their problems and then look again when they miraculously can’t find a card that wipes the board, discards everyone’s hands, is uncounterable, costs very little mana, gains them life and then gives them a cookie and brings back their favorite childhood pet. In other words, the perfect card doesn’t exist, which they’ll only realize after wasting everyone else’s time and communing with the spirits to decide between the three cards they’ve set aside as possible choices.

And then they still have to shuffle.

Shuffling sucks. So don’t play cards that make you do so.

Tutors Make Games Repetitive

After all, that’s their point, right? Magic is a game full of variance, and tutors trade resources (time and mana) for reduced – or zero – variance. Simply put, Demonic Tutor may be the most powerful Magic card ever printed. It’s Ancestral Recall. It’s Mind Twist. It’s Sol Ring when you need mana, or Torment of Hailfire when you have nothing but mana.

But there’s a reason we play Commander instead of slamming our 68-card Soulshift Tribal deck against three of our friends piloting their Elf Combo or Stasis or Goblin Charbelcher decks tricked out with 4-ofs and copious amounts of Vampiric Tutors (seriously, that’s how I was introduced to Magic). Those games didn’t make for great experiences, so eventually the entire Magic world moved on to this weird variant created by Grand Prix judges in their hotel rooms.

We play Commander because of the variance. Because nearly every game plays out differently when you’re working with 100-card singleton. The player who crushed the first pod with their powerful combo simply may not draw it the next game, or not in the same order. Competitive Magic seeks to eliminate as much variance as possible, and yet the most popular way to play Magic across the globe is the format with the most variance. That’s not a coincidence.

Tutors break that experience in half. If every game involves your deck ramping for five turns and then using one of your eight tutors to find the same win condition time and again, the fabric of the format that drew us all in begins to slip away. There’s a reason EDHREC has a Saltiest Cards page – people get tired of Emergent Ultimatum setting up a combo win or Worldly Tutor into Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger time after time or cards like Spellseeker, which has never once fetched anything but Cyclonic Rift or Demonic Tutor (okay, maybe Torment occasionally). If I wanted to die to the same three combo finishes every game, I’d play Modern.

Obviously there’s a balance here – the deck running a Diabolic Tutor and Beseech the Queen is obviously a different beast than the deck with the full suite of one- and two-mana tutors to always have the perfect card; Enlightened Tutor for Sol Ring or Rhystic Study; Mystical Tutor for Rift or Temporal Mastery. Sure, a lot of players will tutor responsibly, but many more will not, and it’s a really fine line between some tutoring and too much tutoring.

Going back to Marshall’s tweet, notice that he didn’t specify Commander. In pre-pandemic times when we could do stuff like go the bar or gather to cast powerful magic spells at each other, we squared off in many a Canadian Highlander battle. It’s 100-card singleton (no commander), and the most powerful cads in Magic’s history are legal. But they’re gated by a different mechanic: those cards are awarded a point value, and no deck can contain more than 10 points. The power of tutoring is reflected in the points list: Demonic Tutor costs four points, the same as Mana Crypt and Sol Ring, and more than every Mox ever printed.

While Canadian Highlander has a built-in way to police too much tutoring, Commander does not. That’s why the discussion has always been a community issue, and my Brainstorm Brewery cohost Jason Alt wrote the “Who’s the Beatdown” of Commander deckbuilding when he introduced the concept of 75% deckbuilding to the world back in 2014 when we were a silly folk who thought Zur the Enchanter and Uril, the Miststalker were overbearing commanders and Insurrection was unbeatable. Since then, we’ve gotten more and more tutors and powerful cards to tutor for, and Commander win conditions have become more homogenized than ever. Tutors exacerbate that problem.

Tutors Make Games More Unfun

This may seem like a retread of the last header, but it’s not. So far I’ve simply described the impact of tutors on any single game, but I haven’t tackled the meta issues they cause.

Consider the typical big-mana Lord Windgrace deck. Ramp for five or six turns, draw some cards along the way, and then cast some haymakers with all that mana. That describes a lot of Commander decks, but in general the tension between buildup and payoff cards helps create that game-to-game variance that makes Commander so unique and so much fun. We’ve all been the player with 20 mana and nothing to do with it, and the tension of drawing one of those haymakers versus drawing another land or ramp spell is emblematic of the variance that makes Magic such a fun game to play.

Now consider that I’ve watched that Windgrace deck play five or six different tutors in the past two weeks. All of a sudden, instead of three or four cards that are really dangerous, it’s 10 to 12. You can’t give that deck very long to mess around, because sooner rather than later they’re going to find that Tutor to pull out the perfect card.

Consider what that knowledge does to a table. If I know you’re mostly at the mercy of the top of your deck, I’m more apt to focus my resources elsewhere and let fate run its course. But when you have a virtual seven or eight Torment of Hailfires on top of your deck instead of just one, I’m forced to focus down that player or just lose to a ton of topdecks. The Windgrace player is going to feel targeted for being focused when they don’t have any threats in play, or the rest of the table is going to feel bad when they ignore that player only to lose to them tutoring up a game-winning bomb or combo piece.

Commander is a lot more fun when you play against the cards in play or in hand, not when you have to play against the top of someone’s deck that isn’t actually the singleton format we signed up for.

It’s clear that Wizards recognizes this issue, too. You can tell there was a very conscious effort with Commander Legends to push back at some of the more repetitive parts of Commander gameplay: card-drawing and tutoring.

The flash on these cards (as opposed to something like Stranglehold) is not an accident. Hullbreacher just completely shuts down instant-speed draw shenanigans, while Opposition Agent may have the wildest lines of text I’ve ever seen on a non-Illusionary Mask card. If the goal was to create more variance by punishing tutors, they certainly accomplished that goal. But they did so in a completely hamfisted way that kills just as much fun as it might create. Sure, the first time Opposition Agent gets someone’s Tooth and Nail, it creates a fun moment. But that’s offset by a third-turn Agent destroying a new player’s Naya Panorama or Evolving Wilds and ruining the game for them. Opposition Agent attacks the problem, but is the cure worse than the disease? I don’t think so in this case, but it’s not that far off – and these types of hard, punishing counterplays are necessitated by the power and abundance of tutors that take the singleton out of our singleton format.

Of course, all of this is reflective of my own experience playing Commander, but it’s clear from the response to Marshall’s tweet that this topic continues to strike a nerve in the community. I feel strongly about my position here, but I’d love to hear what you think about tutors in EDH.

Thanks for reading,

Corbin Hosler