Kristen poses a new resolution for Commander players: optimizing a deck for fun, rather than just raw power.
Players get very invested in Commander — it must be said. This shows up whether it’s in crafting the ultimate Vorthos experience with a finely tuned and reasoned thematic deck, getting matching sleeves, playmat and cool basic lands or, more commonly, in optimizing a deck to be as consistent and powerful as possible.
While casual Commander players may dip in and out of different deck building approaches — the likes of which I cover in my article on the four types of Commander player — they all tend to want to make their deck “good” instead of simply fun. However, I think there’s an argument to be made in favor of the latter approach.
Optimizing Commander Decks
Optimization happens at multiple stages of the deck building process, and begins as early as picking a Commander in the first place. While you may pick a Commander because you enjoy the character or the mechanics, it’s often the case that the Commander chosen is the “best-in-slot” leader for a particular deck or archetype.
Edgar Markov, for example, is the de facto choice for most tribal Vampire brewers. Likewise, those wanting to employ a more controlling flicker strategy will be drawn to Derevi, Empyreal Tactician over Ranar the Ever-Watchful. Access to more colors and a stronger overall win condition in the Command Zone is often the crux of that choice.
During the brewing of the deck, it’s generally the case that players opt for the most powerful cards in their collection that fit the strategy. If you own a Dockside Extortionist or Jeska’s Will, it’s going in your red deck. If you want to play your Elfball or Hatebear tribal deck at a high power table, chances are you’ll be proxying up a Gaea’s Cradle if you don’t own one.
Card choices during the deck building phase overwhelmingly opt for power and consistency, and this is true even when building a more thematic deck. I’d even go as far as to say that trying to “min-max” a thematic deck is half of the fun.
Upgrading a deck is where the real optimization kicks in, however. After playing a few games, natural cuts emerge. And with new Magic cards releasing constantly, it’s obvious that new cards will inevitably vie for your deck’s attention. I mused recently on the premise that you should stop upgrading your decks and rebuild them instead, but I think there’s a heuristic we should focus on that’s a little more subjective: focusing on fun.
Optimize Your Deck For Fun
Optimizing for power is a reasonable goal, but you tend to end up on a linear path that’s hard to diverge from. Once you lock in on the optimization path, you might find your deck can’t tangle with more chilled out decks anymore. It’s important to have a range of decks, sure, but I also think it’s important to embrace variance when you build a deck.
Optimizing toward variance, and vis-a-vis fun, can lead you to a more satisfying in-game experience. While many players will opt to play a pet card or two, they still might not be optimizing their experience at the table.
I think that’s one of the most important parts of adding longevity to not just your decks, but your enjoyment of the format in general. Commander is about crafting epic tales, after all, and it’s through playing those slightly suboptimal, situational or weird cards that those stories can emerge.
A Card is for Life, Not Just for Combo
The festive season is nearly upon us, so I’m sure you can be charitable toward that strained pun. Dualcaster Mage for value is a play I don’t see nearly often enough. While yes, you can combo with it, that’s not the only reason you should play it. Dualcaster Mage lets you do absurd and cool things, like copying someone’s Torment of Hailfire that’s on the stack and winning before theirs resolves.
You should play Dualcaster and cards like it for the opportunity to do cool things. Maybe you catch a ramp spell or some card draw. Maybe you copy a Ruinous Ultimatum.
Play Dualcaster like you would Cursed Mirror and you’re guaranteed to have a good time. Dire Fleet Daredevil and Wildfire Devils are also reasons why red is arguably one of the most fun colors to play, and cards that lead to phenomenal comebacks and stories.
Living Death is another card that looks to maximize its efficiency through exiling opponents’ creatures and stacking your own graveyard. There’s nothing wrong with a “value” Living Death, though, and I encourage players to run this card in black decks even if they’re not interested in self-mill or other ways to make this interaction more asymmetrical.
At the end of the day, Living Death is a ridiculously fun card to resolve, and it makes for some wild plays. It also gets around Indestructible pretty well, as an added bonus.
Choose good games and low salt. Choose wondering who you are on a Sunday morning, deconstructed decks sprawled over your desk, linear win conditions clogging your sleeves. Choose your future. Choose variance.
Sometimes, players won’t spot the train headed straight toward them, and it’s because they won’t know it’s coming. There are enough ways to make oodles of mana ahead of curve these days, and games do tend to be about big, swingy plays. So lean into it.
I run both Selvala’s Stampede and Kindred Summons in my Shalai Angel tribal deck, and they consistently overperform. Instant speed “Angel Tron” with Avacyn, Angel of Hope and Serra’s Emissary never felt so good. Add explosiveness, because you’re going to lose some of your games. Losing games to a misfortunate wheel-spin is OK.
I couldn’t really write this article without mentioning Chaos Wand. I once played a hilarious game with Chase, fellow writer Scott Cullen and Callahan. Scott and I were pretty much dead on board, and our only route out was through Scott spinning the Wand to hit my Boros Charm to eliminate Callahan so I could untap and deal with Chase.
Then that’s exactly what happened. You can’t write this stuff. This card is the epitome of fun, and you should try it out.
Letting everyone play creatures at any time leads to fun and interesting stacks to navigate in games that might not normally use the stack all that much. Vernal Equinox offers this effect globally, meaning it’s unlikely you’ll Time Walk yourself by playing a Vedalken Orrery.
In my experience, players let this card stay in play at least a few turn cycles because it’s fun. It isn’t group hug in the sense that it gives resources to a player ahead, either, which is a plus in my book.
Mini Games are Fun
While the monarch is a fun minigame, Coveted Jewel really gets things moving in the mid-to-late game. It’s still one of the better draw spells in white decks regardless of what else you want to do with it, and it gets real interesting when you throw certain artifact synergies into the mix. There’s nothing worse than a stalemate at the table, and Coveted Jewel often solves them.
I’m glad to see new cards continue to add fun options to Commander, even when they’re not in a Commander-oriented product (though, I guess you could say Standard sets are Commander oriented these days). Hostile Negotiations is one of my favorite cards from the new set, Brother’s War, and I’m always up for playing fun minigames.
If you’ve ever played against an Atris deck, there’s a certain excitement in the tension of making choices with unknown consequences. It’s just fun, and it helps when the card is exceedingly playable anyways.
While optimization will always favor power level (because players want to win), I think self reflection is in order. What do you want to get out of your game experience? If you just love playing optimally and building optimally, then you’re either a cEDH player or this article just doesn’t apply to you — and that’s OK, too.
For the most part, though, I posit that a lot of frustration and burnout can set in when the game experience is bereft of high highs and low lows. Adding situational or risky cards that have fun and splashy effects can be the difference between a pedestrian game and one you’ll always remember.
What cards do you like to include to make these plays possible? Let me know on Twitter.
Kristen is a lover of both Limited and Commander, and can most often be found championing the Boros Legion when called upon to sit down and shuffle up. As a member of the Commander Advisory Group, Kristen lives and breathes Commander. When she’s not playing Magic, she works as a freelance writer and editor in the UK.