Ways to Play - Introducing Partner Jumpstart

MD Alvis • August 12, 2021

Maximize Altitude by Mike Bierek

Reinventing Partner Gameplay

Cards on the table: I love the partners. I love the novelty, the colors, the range of applications. I have been enamored with partners since our playgroup first purchased the Commander 2016 pre-cons. As I jammed the white-less Entropic Uprising deck against EDHREC’s own Matt and Andrew, along with our buddies Bryan and Garrett, I saw the possibility for unique and variable experiences around the kitchen table. I was hooked. 

Since its debut, partner has been a polarizing presence in the game. Partners were novel, and like many novel things in Magic they were perceived to have either been narrow enough to limit their playability (Reyhan, Last of the Abzan) or too powerful and broad for the health of the game (here’s looking at you, Thrasios, Triton Hero). Partners opened new deck-building possibilities and, by their very presence, impacted the playability of other commanders that don’t allow access to the multiplicity of colors possible in a partner pair. All told, a bit of a mixed bag. 

What if we combined the deck-building challenge of the Road to 32 (building a deck for each color combination) with the modular ethos of a battle box and the spirit of a Jumpstart? What if we were able to convert this polarizing mechanic into a fun game-night experience with friends and family? 

Welcome to Ways to Play - Partner Jumpstart, a limited series where we will build a Jumpstart-style modular gameplay experience around Commanders with Partner. Through this series we will build a mini-deck around each of these commanders so that you can choose any two, shuffle up, and play with friends! 

Who the heck is this guy?

I’m just a guy who loves this game, loves tinkering and deck-building, and really enjoys creating memorable experiences through this game we all love. 

My name is MD, and I live in southwest Missouri with my wife and two kiddos. The beautiful landscapes and surrealist art styles of the pre-Modern era was my entry point into the game. I began playing at FNM’s in 2001, and I took a long break from the game after Kamigawa (even though I love Kamigawa). I came back during Innistrad-Return to Ravnica standard, taken by the Gothic-horror themes and the ability to win games with cards like Maze’s End.

From the very beginning playing janky brews in Extended in Colorado to grinding standard and modern to playing EDH, my desire is to create the kind of games that have big plays, big endings, and big memories. So, you can probably understand why this particular idea has been on my mind for years and how the fire was rekindled with the re-introduction of partner in Commander Legends.

Let's Get Down to Business

This week is a bit of an introduction. We want to clearly articulate the philosophy of what we are doing so that we can invite you to come along for the journey! 

Here are the basic rules, restrictions, and principles we are going to use to guide our process:

  1. No deck can share any non-land cards with any other. This allows each deck to be shuffled in with any other to create unique gameplay experiences. 
  2. The goal is to create fun, balanced, and even powerful decks where there is a new experience each time you shuffle up. Some swingy cards might be best left out (Sol Ring and Mana Crypt, for instance).
  3. Each partner-commander included in the project will have a 32-card deck. We are looking to have somewhere between 12-16 decks built with a relatively balanced color distribution. 
  4. The modular nature of the system will allow us to keep a common pool of lands for the decks to share. With some decks being 3-4 colors, it would be darn-near impossible to make each deck a full 50 cards while also maintaining a playable environment. So, in addition to the 32-card decks we are going to build we will detail an easy starting point for a shared land-pool that players can use to piece a usable mana base together.
  5. There are some commanders that are too broad or too powerful to balance well in an environment like this. As a place to start, Thrasios, Triton Hero and Sakashima of a Thousand Faces will not be included.

With that out of the way, let’s start with a deck list! Every journey has to start with a first step, and I thought there was no better place to start than with my boo Vial Smasher the Fierce

Buy this decklist from Card Kingdom
Buy this decklist from TCGplayer

Each time we look at one of the partners, we want to ask ourselves a series of questions. First, what does this commander want us to do? Second, what cards, effects, or themes would maximize this commander’s impact? Finally, what interactions or win-conditions would make games with this commander memorable?

What does Vial Smasher the Fierce EDH want us to do? 

She deals damage randomly based on the mana value of the first spell we cast each turn, so she seems to want to A) be able to play on each turn when possible and B) have some big mana value spells. We need to respect curve considerations, but she seems to want us to ramp and cast some big stuff to maximize the random damage she will be throwing around the table.

What cards, effects, or themes would maximize our commander's impact? 

A quick look at her page on EDHREC shows that there are some builds of Vial Smasher the Fierce with a goblin theme, but that doesn’t answer this question because, while she is a goblin, she doesn’t really care about them. However, in the high synergy section we immediately see Kaervek the Merciless, which does a great impression of our commander, and Dictate of the Twin Gods to double up damage. I really like the idea of having ways to double up this random damage to put a clock on the table and force the action.

A theme that I have personally loved, and that appears in the instants and sorceries sections of her page is “x-spells” matter - this theme gives us some big mana values on the stack while also giving us flexibility in the early-to-mid game. We also included some naturally high-mana value spells that synergize well with our commander. For all these big spells, we need some serious ramp - all of the applicable Rakdos-colored rocks, along with Irencrag Feat to really put us in a position for a big turn late in the game. 

What interactions or win conditions would make games with our commander memorable? 

Well, suffice it to say that winning with a Vial Smasher the Fierce trigger just feels right. We aren’t building these decks for the colors as much as for the commanders, so the more we can lean into what makes them unique, the better. The random nature of the triggers also reminded me of that good-ol’ story-makin’ mechanic, miracle. Winning with a Bonfire of the Damned or Thunderous Wrath is sure to be memorable, and with our commander out we get to effectively double-up a massive burn spell, which sounds sweet! 

Wrapping Up

That’s all for today! What card choices are most interesting to you? Are there any cards you think should make the list? Are there any interactions or themes you think could make for a fun play experience? 

Next time we will tackle another two more lists and assess the land pool we will use for this experiment. We also want to work with this fabulous community to build something great. So, we want to hear your voice. Vote for your favorite partner below, and we will build the top two next time! 

MD might Force of Will your Cultivate because he's been hurt before. Spike at heart. When he isn't trying to jank out the table with Garruk Relentless and Clever Impersonator, you can find him hanging with his family, playing games with friends, or working as a coach and spiritual director in SW Missouri.