Stop wasting removal and just play blockers in Commander

Stop Wasting Removal and Play Blockers in Commander

Kristen GregoryCommander, Strategy

Commander players love firing off removal, but removal has a finite supply. Kristen is here this week to argue that there’s a simple solution: playing more blockers.

Most points of contention in a game of Commander center around what to do with removal. “Why did you target X, instead of Y?” “If you didn’t remove, X, you would have had removal for Z!” We’ve all been there, and despite threat assessment being predicated on incomplete knowledge (and subject to the political whims of the table), everyone thinks they know best.

Stop Wasting Removal

To be clear, threat assessment can be performed using multiple levels of knowledge, and not everyone has access to all levels. It’s also always incomplete, so overly judging someone for a different choice can be petty. Instead, seek to elevate each player’s understanding and ability post-game.

Level 1 thinking might be, “hey, that 4/4 is going to hit me because I can’t block it. I should remove it.” 

Level 2 thinking might be, “I can talk my way out of being hit, and next turn I can play a bigger creature, so I’m safe”. 

However, it’s only by playing lots of games of Magic, both 1v1 and multiplayer — and by playing other games, even — that you can really build up your heuristics and make quick decisions about what you care about and what you don’t. 

The reason people debate the use of removal so often is because it is a finite resource. Think of it like an ammo clip. 

You have six shots, and you have to make them count. Taken to a logical endpoint, that means making sure your removal is as versatile and easy to cast as possible — so your gun doesn’t jam, and also so your rounds make an impact no matter the enemy. 

Deck construction isn’t the only metric, though. It’s one of many. 

To really excel at Commander, you need to engage lateral thinking. Let’s consider the use case of a handgun in combat. You have six rounds. Would you waste a bullet on an opponent you can fend off in hand to hand combat? 

The answer is no, because unless that enemy has a ranged weapon pinning you down, you save the round and fight them off. 

Let’s pull in some experience from another place: videogames. We’ve all played RPGs and saved our healing elixirs and buffing potions “just in case,” reaching the endgame with way more resources than we need because we were prepared for a “what if” scenario. 

What can we glean from that general truism? Should we be more liberal with our resources, or is it evidence that we will generally be OK more often and don’t need to rely on them?

Start to build on your Commander knowledge by integrating it with heuristics from other places and you’ll level up your play.

Why Do You Care About the Haymaker

A common misplay in Commander is to overly focus on a haymaker creature when there are many reasons not to. Here are a bunch of reasons. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s pretty broad:

  • It might not come at you. Consider if there’s a lifegain player, or whether you’re a threat, or if someone needs a damage trigger
  • You can make a deal for it to not come at you. Simple negotiations in the developing or midgame stages are easy to accept and less pivotal
  • You can threaten to remove it and play a game of chicken. It helps to actually follow through on this from time to time to make them think you have the answer.
  • If you don’t have removal, or don’t want to play it, you can remove a noncreature permanent or counter a spell as retribution for attacking you. Everything has a cost in Commander. Just check my article on “No Such Thing as Free in Commander.”
  • Taking five damage now might mean 10 damage goes somewhere else on a later turn. In developing stages, people like to spread damage to avoid a blood feud. A great example of this is whether to take the initial hit from Breena, the Demagogue. Is a player likely to gun for you with Commander damage or feel bad and hit someone else next time?
  • You can sandbag a fog so that taking five now will not matter. Fogs have never been better, and every deck I play usually tries to fit one nowadays.
  • If you sequence properly — and by that I mean sequence in a way that doesn’t put you beyond parity unless trying to win — the creature is unlikely to come at you in the first place
  • You can threaten equal force as a cost to attack you. “I will send my flyer back at you if you attack me.” Works especially well if you’re a Voltron player.
  • Someone else might be more afraid of it or have more resources, meaning you shouldn’t spend your own unless absolutely necessary
  • Consider when the creature becomes a problem. Do you need to use removal right now? Or can it wait a bit? Always wait until the last moment.
  • And all of that comes before we even get to the fact that using interaction now might cost you the game because you don’t have interaction later for someone trying to win.

It’s important to approach game decisions in Commander in the same way you would in 1v1 Magic — you play to your outs. That might mean taking damage and permitting a haymaker to exist because your best out to winning the game is holding removal and hoping that the haymaker doesn’t end up killing you. 

It might also mean accepting that the haymaker might kill you, because you might be more certain to lose by removing it and letting someone else win. You were never going to win, and it’s OK to lose. I see this mistake all the time — players worried about being punched when they should really worry about being run through. 

This decision making around haymakers or chonky creatures is also transcribable to removing permission or stax pieces. Sure, the Thalia, Guardian of Thraben might be annoying you. The Narset might be stopping you from drawing multiple cards on your turn. But are they really hurting you more than an opponent? Will dropping the floodgate hurt you more than keeping it up? 

This can work both ways, too. Is your deployed Reidane, God of the Worthy stopping a potential ally from casting a board wipe that might save you both from the archenemy player? Well, in that case, you’re glad you saved your removal, because now you can remove your own Reidane and make a deal with that ally to stop the player ahead and reset the board.*

I’ve talked before about How to Play Your Seat in Commander. Nowhere does this decision making matter more than when you’re in Seat 4, and behind. Do you really want to waste time being a table cop, spending your removal? 

You’re not getting back to parity, and you’re never going to be ahead either. While it’s tempting, you should play to your outs. The out you play to might involve ignoring the problems, saving removal for lethal attacks and continuing to develop your board, putting the burden on players with more mana and card advantage. If you have your stuff removed in back to back board wipes, well, you lose. But you were always going to lose.

*Just be aware that sometimes when you do this, you unlock the archenemies’ Force of Will. True story. 

You Can’t Master Commander by Playing Commander

Not by playing solely Commander, anyway. 

If you want to get better at Commander, you need to play 1v1 Magic and learn about tempo, quadrant theory, virtual card advantage, who is the beatdown (how to play your seat, in EDH) and figuring out the windows you can win or lose a game. 

Generally speaking, The Cards You Play In Commander Don’t Matter — not nearly as much as many other factors, many of which are beyond your direct control. The best place to learn many of these lessons is by playing Limited. 

Sealed and Draft are malleable but controlled environments where you can experiment with limitless (pun intended) permutations and game states. Limited is the “boring studying” that puts people off of other hobbies and pursuits — except in this case, it’s still Magic, and it’s still fun.

You can liken the fatty or haymaker creature we’ve discussed thus far to an opponent playing a flyer in Limited. You have no blocker right now: do you use removal on it early to prevent a repeatable 2 damage, or do you hold removal for their bomb creature and hope you draw into your Flyer or your copy of Shock? 

It’s even worse to spend premium removal on a creature like Cloudkin Seer, which has already enjoyed an EtB ability before it even attacks you.

If you also have access to Anvilwrought Raptor in your deck, then play to your outs — drawing the Raptor or your Shock, or racing them — which is preferable to spending that removal spell. 

The question essentially boils down to: Is it more important to curve out than play removal?

The constant choice is whether to remove something, or continue building toward parity. Depending on your seat position (which I’ve linked to above) the answer is usually to continue building toward parity unless it threatens to win the game or causes you to lose the game. 

Some threats are obvious and need removing right away, but this also applies to value engines, too. Will the cumulative value smother you in a few turn cycles? Maybe nip it in the bud. 

The reason 1v1 Magic is so important for learning these skills is that it is a controlled environment (in so much as there will always be one opponent and you always want to make the play that either helps you set up or punishes that single opponent the most). Commander is, on the other hand, nebulous. 

Between politics, power level mismatches, skill level mismatches and the many more opportunities for misplays and chaos you can’t control, you’re never going to develop those skills if the only way you play Magic is shooting the s*** with three friends.

At that point, maybe you don’t care to — but then why are you still reading? 😉 For those who are still here and don’t want to put the time in, I can offer one shortcut that covers many of these bases without having to employ the more esoteric heuristics you might not have the time or inclination to develop.

Play Some Blockers

Commander in 2023 is about attacking, combat damage and triggers. Battle for Baldur’s Gate brought us Wizards’ vision of the format: incentives for attacking the player with the most life (who might not even be the one you should attack, but that’s a discussion for another time) and Goad in spades. 

Personal feelings on Goad aside (when abused, it’s not too far away from rolling dice to decide where to attack and removes all player agency), you can’t deny that most casual games center around building value through attacking. That is honestly preferable to building pillow forts, in my humble opinion. 

While some creatures don’t need to attack to take over a game, it’s usually pretty obvious that the table needs to band together and use removal on them — Seedborn Muse, Consecrated Sphinx, a Dockside looking to be fought over. 

For the rest of the haymakers deployed in casual Commander, it behooves you to understand if and when you should remove them. In the meantime, you don’t want your life total to drop faster than Containment Priest’s market value. So what can be done? 

Well, play some blockers. While often it’s right to remove the value engine creature granting these buffs, it can be just as effective to simply play a blocker. 

Players just want their triggers, so they will attack you. Put a roadblock up. It’s even better if it has Flying, Deathtouch, First Strike or Vigilance. Make some tokens to chump with. Play a couple creatures that can be recurred like Reassembling Skeleton

There’s something really obvious to 1v1 players when asking the above question “Is it more important to curve out than play removal?” It’s one side of a coin, with the other side reading “Can I race them?” 

Quite often, racing them is the optimal line. You’ll know that if you play a combo-control deck, and the question you’re probably wrestling with more these days is a social one: “Should I play all of these board wipes or play more blockers instead?” 

Life totals don’t matter as long as you win, and by building to parity, you can out-damage what’s coming at you by deploying your synergies, while also diverting attacking creatures elsewhere. Hell, if you have some Lifelink in there, too? It barely matters. Lifelink can buy you a whole extra turn

The shortcut to not wasting removal in casual Commander is to just play some blockers. It’s not really a hot take — at least compared to whether Chromatic Lantern is playable. It’s just good sense. 

End step

I hope you enjoyed today’s strategy article. I referenced a number of other strategy pieces I’ve written over the years in this piece. If you’d like to read more and up your Commander game, consider checking them out: