Different Strokes

It’s no secret that I’ve loved Commander for a long time, but I do have a secret to let you in on: I used to hate playing against new groups of people. Commander is fun in large part because everyone has a chance to do cool things, but even without anybody playing Hokori, Dust Drinker, that just wasn’t happening when I went outside of my playgroup. I would either end up playing against players with high-powered decks and have my threats buried under waves of game-breaking spells or play against low-powered decks and win easily despite turning the whole table against me.

The issue goes beyond game balance; it’s more about perception. Most playgroups will give you a piece of their mind if you go around casting Armageddon, but there’s no clear line telling you when you’ve moved into jerk territory. Mana Reflection can range from normal to completely unfair depending on whom you ask, and the same can be said of something as seemingly innocuous (to most of us) as Silvos, Rogue Elemental. In short: It’s hard to feel involved in a game of Magic when everything you do is inconsequential, and even among “fun” decks, there’s a huge range in power level.

Table politics can help with slight imbalances, but anything more than that requires a more involved approach. The solution that’s most often floated is to build multiple decks of varying power levels. That’s not a fruitless approach, but in addition to being expensive, it’s not going to work all of the time. The rift is too wide to span with just a couple of decks, and you really want multiple decks that are an appropriate level for a given playgroup so that the same person isn’t always public enemy number one.


What’s more, you don’t always know what level of competition you’re going up against while selecting a deck. The real solution is to make decks that can adapt to different power levels during the game. That all sounds nice, but how do you do it? Do you build a really powerful deck and hold back on the best plays if the group can’t handle them? That’s not generally my idea of a good time. But how can you play optimally and still have your deck be weaker against lower-powered opposition?

Big Game Hunter by Carl Critchlow

The easiest answer to this dilemma is to play your opponents’ cards. Clone, Rise from the Grave, Silent-Blade Oni, Reverberate, and Lord of the Void all scale directly with the power of the cards other people bring to the table so you can avoid worrying about whether they’re too strong or weak. Even better, because they’re so high-variance, they’ll keep whatever deck they’re in exciting to play for a good long while, obviating the need for a bunch of other decks at a similar power level. This, by the way, is why The Mimeoplasm and Geth, Lord of the Vault are some of my favorite Commanders: Your whole strategy is undetermined until you start to play!

But for many of us, having a cool and unique game plan is a major draw to the format. You don’t want to throw that all away and only play what your opponents play. Luckily, you don’t have to; there are plenty of ways to shape your game plan into a more adaptable form. For instance, imagine you’re playing a R/U/G tribal Beast deck and you cut Wirewood Savage for Distant Melody. You’ve made your deck more powerful but also more fun to play against both more and less powerful decks because your plays are more explosive. That means that by the time you beat a group of weaker decks, their players will have had time to have fun without you clearly dominating the game for its entirety. On the other hand, if you’re playing against stronger decks, you’ll have a chance to make plays that are big enough to impact the table, and you may even be able to sneak under the radar until the other players have softened each other up enough for your position to actually be on par with theirs.

In a similar vein, you can choose to only play threats that are easy to deal with (primarily creatures without hexproof, indestructible, undying, or the like). Doing so will enhance the power of ingrained political balancing since your threats will be possible for weaker decks to best if they’re focused on you, but when you’re up against more powerful opponents, your threats will be passed over for more pressing threats, and thus, they’ll be able to affect the board for a few extra turns.

Sudden Impact by Wayne Reynolds

But sometimes, you come up with an exciting game plan and there’s no good way to tweak its power level. You can resign yourself to leaving that deck in a box gathering dust while the power levels don’t match or you can give it a wider range of application by adding a secondary game plan with a different power level. The secret to making this work is to find another plan that feeds off the same resources; not only will that allow you to easily select either plan at the outset, but it will also ensure that your draws won’t accidentally force you into the other plan.

One excellent example of this is the Hellcarver Demon–centric Kaalia of the Vast deck I wrote about last year. Hellcarver Demon demands spells that will make a big impact despite the fact that you never are able to keep a hand or board, and when you’re not on the Hellcarver plan, Kaalia demands a bevy of Demons, Dragons, and Angels. A lot of creatures fit into both categories, so you don’t have many dead draws for either plan, but once you’re in on Hellcarver, nothing you draw matters, and once you have a board of other threats, you don’t want to throw it out for the Demon. Unless your deck naturally wants a bunch of tutors, the commander slot is generally the best place to situate one of your plans so that you don’t end up drawing, say, a bunch of sacrifice outlets when you have numerous anthems for your token army. Of course, you can still do the reverse, but cutting the chance of a bunch of dead draws in half does a lot to make the two-pronged approach more viable.

Vendetta by Karl Kopinski

That’s about as far as I’ve managed to go in battling the amorphous blob of varying power levels, but that doesn’t mean it’s all you can do. Really powerful, but “fair” decks can arise from specific synergies that you can’t prepare for, but more often than not, they stem from similar places. They’ll be drawing a ton of cards, making a lot of mana, invalidating all of your threats, or recurring powerful threats no matter how often you deal with them. By playing cards that are especially powerful against these strategies, you’ll end up with decks that are stronger against them, but they’re running inefficient answers when you come up against other strategies from less potent decks. Play Shatterstorm against the tide of artifact ramp, Cavern of Souls against the deck full of Counterspells, and Sword of War and Peace against the deck headed by Azami, Lady of Scrolls. Identify the rift, even the playing field, and have fun.

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