5 Mistakes You're Making in Commander

5 Mistakes You’re Making in Commander

Kristen GregoryCommander

Commander is arguably the most popular way to play Magic right now. Regardless of what type of game you’re looking to play, there are some things that players get wrong frequently. Kristen shares five mistakes you’re making in Commander.

5 Mistakes You’re Making in Commander

Commander is awesome, and I think we forget that when we get mired in the discourse around the format. It’s still my favorite way to play Magic, and the social aspect is another bonus of the multiplayer format. Here are some mistakes Commander players make game after game that can be easily rectified for a better experience.

Not Attacking

There’s nothing worse in Commander than damage left on the table. If you’ve ever played Limited, you’ll have developed the understanding that if you don’t expect to be blocking with a creature this turn cycle — whether because you’re not bothered about taking a small attack, or because you absolutely don’t want to lose the creature — then you should be attacking with it. It’s free damage!

Players underestimate chip damage at the start of the game, and there will always be a correct player to swing it. Even if you’re playing a more social and relaxed game where you’ll be kicking the person behind a little less, there are always good attacks. If you’re unsure, look at the commanders you’re playing against. 

Do any of them suggest they’re going to the late game and playing more controlling? Do any of them care about lifegain or using life as a resource? Is there anyone that’ll be harder to attack later because they’ll have good blocks? Rolling dice is boring and unfun, and I’ll stand behind that statement; there’s always a correct attack. 

What can be even more frustrating is when there’s a lot more than chip damage on the table, and it’s still not being utilized. While there will be stalemates in which it’s detrimental to swing out, or boards where attacking to knock out a player is actively a bad decision, there are just as many in which half an army is being held back for no good reason. If you have a half-dozen 4/4 Beasts with trample, or a good few creatures with +1/+1 counters on them, then just swing already! A board wipe is inevitable, and the last thing you want is to be kicking yourself because you didn’t attack when you had the chance. It can be the difference between winning and watching the door slammed shut by the more controlling player after they resolve a board wipe when resources are low.

Decks like Wulfgar of Icewind Dale know all too well how vital getting value from your creatures is, and they generally won’t be caught dead casting an Etali, Primal Storm without giving it haste or protection. Take a page out of the more aggressive decks’ books and get the most out of your creatures: they’re here today, but will be gone tomorrow. 

Basing Threat Assessment Only on What’s in Play

It’s very frustrating to watch TV villains monologue too much, only to have their plans foiled. It’s nonsensical and is used solely as a way to serve exposition or highlight the hubris of the foolish archenemy. In Commander, those very same villains will never betray their plan or what’s in their hand. They play guardedly, hoping to survive long enough to achieve their Apex of Power

So why wait around to find out what they have in store?

In too many games, I see players base their threat assessment only on the tangible and real permanents on the table. They waste a counterspell or premium removal on what is colloquially known as a “beatstick”: a fat creature with a bunch of keywords. They react to a play emotionally and in the moment rather than logically deciding if that play will win the game in short order or not. 

Take creatures, for example. Unless they’re combo pieces, or there’s enough Equipment in play to knock a player out if a commander can scoop it up, creatures are generally a problem for later. Wasting a premium removal spell on something that can be swept away in a board wipe in a turn or two is a sorry sight, but one that I see quite frequently. This is especially true if that player has few cards left in hand to back it up. 

Also, just because a player is “not doing anything” doesn’t mean they deserve to get away scott-free. In actuality, they’re the player you should be worried about. Save removal for when it matters, because when you need it, you’ll need it. A player with a full hand waiting for an opportunity always has a Plan B, and quite often a Plan C as well. They’re ready to foil your attempts to stop them, so keep the pressure on.

In practice, basing threat assessment only on what is currently in play hurts creature combat-based decks the most. When threat assessment is poor, it’s those decks that won’t be able to string together a good combat step, and it’s those decks that will constantly lose to the combo decks at the table.

Developing good threat assessment is a skill learned from playing many games, though, so don’t place too much blame on players that make this kind of mistake. Eventually, they’ll learn that it’s useful to have an aggressive deck putting pressure on the other decks at the table, and that the best social experiences come about when everyone gets to experience their own deck.  Engineering it so that the spear is pointed away from you and so that it deals with other problems is the dream; when players realize this, it’ll lead to more satisfying games for everybody at the table. 

And if you’re playing the aggro deck and still being ganged up on by the other value-decks? Well, it’s probably best to just find a new table, as it’s clear that you both want different things from your EDH gameplay — and that’s okay. 

Not Using the Stack Properly

If there’s one thing even more frustrating than watching wasted damage evaporate in a board wipe, it’s having players not play at the correct pace to encourage proper use of the stack.

The stack is what makes things interesting in Commander, and it’s what draws many players to Magic in the first place. Getting to respond and engage in counterplay is exhilarating and leads to memorable games. 

Too often, though, players ignore the rules of the game, and don’t use the stack properly. This can be boiled down to two major mistakes, the first of which is not cycling priority correctly. Players have an order in which they can respond, and jumping ahead of that queue excitedly is often going to end with you wasting a spell that you might have been able to save for later.

Consider Player A who has a strong attack trigger like Aurelia, the Warleader’s extra combat. Now, as Player D, you might be terrified of the prospect of Player A having the potential to do some serious damage. However, if you jump in with your removal spell before Player B and Player C get priority, you could potentially be at a disadvantage. If Player B is threatening Player A more than you, and they have a removal spell, too, then they are incentivized to stop Aurelia attacking. And because they receive priority before you, then they might feel that they have to remove Aurelia, because if they don’t? Well, there’s no guarantee Player C or D will, and no guarantee that Player A won’t attack them. 

This scenario can backfire for Player D further if they do answer Player A’s Aurelia. They might live through Player A’s attack, but then they might lose to Player B or C attacking them or playing a must-answer combo piece after the turn passes around. There’s absolutely no incentive to jumping priority order, and the only reason this happens is because the game is played on paper and not digitally, where priority order is literally a part of the turn cycle. 

There’s a lot of virtual card advantage in letting other players jump ahead of priority, and you will be punished if you do it. Let other players decide if they want to respond before priority passes to you. 

The other way in which the stack is used incorrectly is when a player skips through priority by moving to their next game action. What I mean by this is when a player assumes they can move to combat, or that their spell resolves, and they start to take the next game action. This can be particularly annoying when they have specific triggers that it’s crucial to step through in case somebody has an answer, and it gets downright gamebreaking if a player gains more information, like drawing a card before passing priority with these triggers on the stack. 

Playing over Spelltable isn’t always easy, but there’s no excuse for not stepping through triggers and steps and phases. While it’s definitely inconsiderate to do this for the aforementioned reason, it can in fact ruin an opponent’s careful planning and consideration to foil your plans, which is an egregious error in obtaining hidden information. 

Let’s assume that a player wants to try and initiate a synergistic series of plays that rely on a couple different permanents triggering. By casting a creature and immediately moving to their next game action, and having opponents pointing out that they need to slow down, they obtain extra information that there might be interaction. This extra information might seem innocuous, but in reality, it can indicate which lines of play are safer, how much mana to hold up for interaction, or whether to even go through with the rest of the line of play at all. 

By skipping through priority, steps or phases, you can unintentionally obtain extra information from frustrated opponents that have to point out you’re playing too fast, which is of course not in the spirit of a fair game. Slow down, and put things on the stack. Trying to obfuscate or speed through a turn might not be intentional, but it has the same result: tablewide frustration. 

Not Utilizing Virtual Card Advantage

I mentioned virtual card advantage a moment ago, and if you haven’t read my article on it? Well, you’re missing out

While there is a lot of VCA to be gained in letting players jump ahead of you in priority, it’s a little bit cheeky and something that’ll happen less if you play with experienced players, so don’t rely on it. There is still a lot of VCA to be gained in Commander, though. Having on-board tricks or ensuring opponents know about tricks in your hand can prevent lethal attacks. Casting a Reconstruct History and grabbing a Soul Snare, a Boros Charm, and a Disrupt Decorum is a nightmare to figure out for opponents; just having those cards in your hand can do a lot without you having to actually cast them all.

Similarly, having a card like Cathar Commando in play can deter people from even casting artifacts and enchantments. While it’s still a fantastic card to play out at flash speed, it can often provide VCA by just camping out on the board. Classic cards like Oblivion Stone and Nevinyrral’s Disk do the same thing, but VCA isn’t limited only to effects like these. Cards like Duelist’s Heritage, Confounding Conundrum and Yasharn, Implacable Earth can do a lot to slow down the pace of a game without you even having to lean into full-on stax or tax pieces.

Taking it Too Seriously

When it comes down to it, the biggest mistake many of us make is taking things too seriously. Commander is a format built primarily on providing a fun and inclusive social experience, one in which we can be expressive and enjoy the rich tapestry of cards released since Magic first started so many years ago. 

Overthinking is one way people take it too seriously, and whether that manifests as being too entrenched in the discourse, or too focused on winning, or too focused on optimization matters little. Relax — you have too much tension in your shoulders. Breathe out. Laugh a little. You’re here to have fun. 

Let yourself run that pet card. Make the “fun” play instead of the correct play. Don’t be afraid to lose games, and if you do? Don’t automatically assume your deck should be stronger to compensate. Your deck shouldn’t always win, so before joining the arms race, play more games to get more data. Your deck probably isn’t that bad, I assure you. 

Don’t assume that talking about your deck in Rule 0 ruins the surprise, or betrays how people can beat you. Assume instead that they’re asking in good faith to ensure that you all get a good game. And if it feels like they’re asking a lot about your deck? Well, that’s probably because you’re not being forthcoming enough. Open up about your deck, and open yourself up to new experiences. The beauty of Commander is exploring and enjoying all of the different ways it can happen. A game of Commander is an unfinished tapestry, and it’s your opportunity to add color to it. 

As my fellow CAG member Rachel Weeks pointed out this week, it really is a Showdown of the Skalds, and like any good showdown, it should be one with plenty of mead, tall tales, and raucous laughter. Celebrate the path the game takes, even if it’s not the path that leads to you winning. 

There’s no right or wrong way to play Commander, and the rich variety of power levels and playstyles mean there’s something for everyone — whether that’s cEDH, high power value-offs, or games where you can pit Cat Tribal and Angel Tribal against one another while a Queen Marchesa deck watches eagerly to see where to stake her claim. I hope the mistakes I’ve highlighted today can help you become a better Commander player. Join me on Twitter to continue the discussion.