Graveyards are Far from Sacred in Commander

Graveyards Are Far From Sacred in Commander

Kristen GregoryCommander

Unlike lands, creatures, planeswalkers, artifacts and enchantments, there’s something of an aura of sanctity around graveyards in Commander. It’s easy to see why, if you really think about it: everyone loves a good graveyard deck, and everyone has one. In a format where people are encouraged to let everyone “do their thing,” it’s courteous to let a graveyard deck tool around in the dirt, at least a little. The thing is, though… we’re probably being too forgiving.

Everyone Should Get to Do Their Thing

Before we get into it, I want to acknowledge that I’m talking about more social games here. There’s no question that the optimal play should be followed when playing at tables that necessitate it, and I’m not here to argue against that style of play if that’s what you enjoy.

In more social games, there’s generally an agreement that every deck should get to “do its thing,” whatever that is. The journey is often more important than the destination, and the fun of everyone at the table is paramount to having a welcoming atmosphere. Like I mentioned last week, the game isn’t taken too seriously. 

Regardless of that being the case, there is a fundamental hierarchy of “reasonable” interaction during the developing stages of the game, if not a casual game itself. It’s more of an unspoken agreement, and you may find that if you step over it in a casual game, it’ll be considered a faux pas. 

Essentially, creatures are always fair game, as are artifacts and enchantments (though there’s less removal for those card types at more casual tables). Planeswalkers are generally worth attacking, and then we come to the remaining categories: graveyards, hands, libraries, and lands. 

Mill isn’t usually a problem at casual tables, especially if it’s not optimized, so libraries are pretty fair game. Lands and hands, on the other hand, are pretty sacred, and for (mostly) good reason: stripping either away can lead to long, drawn out games that aren’t exciting or memorable. 

Resource Imbalance

Consider Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger. I run it in my Chainer Reanimator deck, and I use it as a finisher. Once hands are low and I’m in a commanding position, I’ll play it, and play it again, and maybe even escape it in the same turn to close the door on the game. Most people will agree this is a fair way to use the card, even if some will be a little dubious about how “fun” resource denial is when playing a social game. On the flipside, using this card to strip hands in the developing stages of the game is much more problematic, and can cause the kind of stalemates and “draw-pass” gameplay that can lead to players checking out – emotionally, if not literally. 

Like all cards in Commander, Kroxa is a “tool.” Tools are used by players to enact strategies. They can be used in good faith, or for ill, and the verdict on how problematic a card can be is more complex than what’s written on it: it requires context of how and when it’s played, with what cards it is played, and in what scenario.

Take Mana Crypt. Mana Crypt can absolutely be a casual card. It’s the epitome of casual, in some ways: a dumb, powerful card that lets you cast your dumb, powerful cards quicker. Is a turn one or two Smothering Tithe off of a Mana Crypt casual? What about a turn two Winota? Or a turn one Cultivate into a turn two with access to five or more mana?

Those scenarios can lead to huge resource imbalances and require every deck at the table to achieve a similar fast start. But a Mana Crypt in an Angel or Dragon tribal deck that isn’t running green? That’s far from the end of the world, and we all know it. 

In a similar way to stripping lands and hands, a massive resource imbalance that leads to “locking up” a game can leave the other players feeling similarly deflated. It’s why playing against Lands decks that can throw out double digit lands by turn five can feel so hopeless if you’re not built to play that way. Mass land destruction doesn’t solve that kind of resource imbalance, and indeed, it’s those decks that can bounce back from MLD the best. 

This is what Rule 0 is for. All of this and more is considered “casual,” and if you don’t have a good chat first? Well, the chances of having a rough game unfortunately go up. 

So What About Graveyards?

After that tangent – which I promise will be relevant as we move forward – let’s check in with our interaction hierarchy. If creatures, planeswalkers, artifacts and enchantments are in Tier A, libraries are in Tier B, and lands and hands are in Tier C, where are we supposed to slot graveyards?

Therein lies the problem. Most Commander decks try to circumvent the singleton aspect of the format by including cards to recur things from the yard. Recursion is necessary not only to power through removal, but also to get back what you lose from Wheel effects, or from being milled. 

The faux pas has its origins in considering how decks get to “do their thing.” If a Reanimator deck has to reanimate to do it’s thing, then sure, that means we leave it alone unless it’s trying to win, right? Well, I wish it were that simple. If we apply that same logic to a creature-based combat deck, then that would strike off board wipes and Fogs as being unfair, which sounds exactly as ridiculous as it reads. Nobody has an issue with stopping creature-based decks amassing a board, so why do people react so badly to having their graveyard targeted?

It’s not very fruitful to dig into this too deep, as the answer will mostly be some version of “people whine too much.” Instead, I’d like to look at the crux of the issue: is the deck doing something fair? 

Well, if your deck is built right, your graveyard is often just a second hand. Which is exactly the kind of resource imbalance that we talked about before.

Fair vs. Unfair

I think for any level of Commander that isn’t cEDH, what kind of interaction you choose to play boils down to asking yourself, “Is my opponent doing something fair?” Graveyard decks are the perfect example to look at for this, as they are fundamentally breaking the “rules.” 

Whenever a game action is achieved through spending less mana than it usually should, it’s considered to be “breaking the rules.” Similarly, when a game action rewards you with more card advantage, mana production or other resources in greater abundance than the going “rate,” it’s also considered to be “breaking the rules.” 

Breaking parity in this way – whether through a play as powerful as reanimating Griselbrand or something as innocuous as flickering a morph for less mana than the morph cost – is what helps us win a game of Magic. We’re always aiming to play the cards that give us this advantage; cards need to be a two-for-one, or better, and that’s never more true than it is in Commander, a multiplayer format, where cards are worth a lot less than they are in a 1v1 format. 

Now, the exact definition of what is “fair” is up for debate, and is as nebulous as the term “casual” when describing non-cEDH Commander. But, generally speaking, a “fair” graveyard deck might be one that seeks to reanimate or recur creatures for value, and try and win the game through swinging those creatures in for combat damage. An “unfair” one, then, is one that is seeking to combo out using the graveyard, or use the graveyard in a way that seeks to oppress opponents with resource denial; think a deck all-in on Grave Pact and Dictate of Erebos. Graveyard decks getting to “do their thing,” then, kinda hinges on how fair the “thing” they are trying to do is exactly. 

The fair vs. unfair dichotomy – though much more shades of gray than black and white – extends to other decks, too, of course. A “Fair” combat deck might be swinging in for the win once it amasses a board. An “Unfair” one might specialize in making every card unblockable, or packing infinite combos – whether through cards like Helm of the Host or Aggravated Assault. Is it fair to use the graveyard to recur a Spore Frog against an infinite combats combo deck? Maybe. What about against a casual tribal deck with combat as a win con?

Potency of Interaction is Key

Like all things in Commander, achieving a balanced table can lead to the best game. “Gotcha” moments are super fun, but recurring ways to shut other decks out of the game? Maybe not so much, depending on your opponents. 

Is Rest in Peace overkill against graveyard decks? Not as often as they’d lead you to believe, especially given the number of powerful cards like Underworld Breach and Syr Konrad that have been printed in recent years. As I mentioned above, it comes down to the potency of the deck and the threats that you’re playing against. Muldrotha? Meren? Sure, they both play green and can remove an enchantment easy enough. Against an Alesha, Who Smiles at Death tribal deck that can otherwise be answered by board wipes? You’re probably fine running less nuclear answers, like Remorseful Cleric, Angel of Finality or Soul-Guide Lantern

“But Kristen,” you may ask, “what about my ‘fair’ Muldrotha deck?” Well, most players might quip that there’s no such thing as a fair Muldrotha deck, and to this day, I haven’t played against one – though I am always open to having my mind changed. The thing is, Commander outside of a regular playgroup often comes down to Reputation vs. Intent. 

I’ve experienced this firsthand with my Aurelia deck. While I can sit down in Rule 0 and mention that I haven’t got any infinite combos, and that I’m not a Voltron damage deck, I’m still treated with a sometimes unfair amount of interaction, and that’s because Commander players tend to be both empirically led and often emotional. It’s easy to be logical in a vacuum, but we’re not machines – not all of us, at least. 😉

Graveyards Aren’t Sacred

One thing to keep in mind when playing Commander is that people play Magic because it’s an interactive game. Magic is best when it’s interactive, and interaction isn’t only instant-speed from the hand; it can take form in on-board effects, political plays and sometimes in being pre-emptive about threats, i.e., running light stax or taxing effects. 

Decreeing that you don’t wish to play against certain cards is tantamount to saying you don’t want to be interacted with, and though there’s obviously nuance to that conversation, you shouldn’t expect to just talk people out of playing things you don’t like, at least not in every game. Graveyards are fundamentally broken, and just like Magic cards themselves, how the tool is used will dictate an appropriate response. 

All decks can afford to run Scavenger Grounds, especially as it’s under a dollar. It can slot into any deck, and it’s free to run, as it’s an untapped mana source. Likewise, every color has access to graveyard hate in some shape or form, and you should be running at least a little to keep on top of the many ways in which decks use their graveyards. 

What’s more, Wizards is printing more and more incidental graveyard hate that might be worth more of a slot than wedging Soul-Guide Lantern or Relic of Progenitus into your deck. I’ve long advocated for Remorseful Cleric in Equipment decks as an evasive beater, but with cards like the impressive Cemetery cycle from Crimson Vow, the shuffle-Fog Blessed Respite, and even Honored Heirloom – a three-mana rock I think is more than playable – there’s plenty of ways to keep on top of opponents’ “second hands.” 

So, where do graveyards fit in the hierarchy of interaction? Well, alongside the other permanents, of course. You shouldn’t be put off of packing graveyard hate, and provided your removal is appropriate for the kind of game you’re playing – both in power and quantity – then graveyard decks should be happy to be interacted with. They’re no more sacred than any other strategy, and to pretend that they are is to indulge in the dark side of all of us that just wants to reanimate ALL OF THE THINGS. 

As always, talk to your pod before playing a game to figure out what kind of decks to play. Rule 0 is about making a fun environment for the table, and just because you get a whiff of interaction from another player doesn’t mean your deck is automatically out of the running. Besides, we’re all comfortable admitting that decks should only win around 25% of the time. Getting cold feet at having to work for a win is maybe a little too focused on your own fun, right? And besides, there’s a lot of fun in a challenge. Holding up interaction to stop an opponent’s plan when you try and go off is immensely rewarding, so try to recontextualize “bad” match-ups as an arena for learning. 

That said, in closing, I do want to consider the anatomy of Bojuka Bog as a card. It’s free to run in any black deck, and costs nothing to get value from. Is it a little too good? Maybe. Coming in tapped isn’t enough in my eyes. Should it have an activation cost or sacrifice itself? Perhaps. It can be an awkward card in more casual games, as often the player playing it has to make a land drop, and they inevitably strip away early game set-up pieces from a graveyard deck.  What do you think? Let me know on Twitter.