Greetings and welcome to Word Of Commander!
I've borrowed the title from a pair of columns written by folks I respect. Those are one-shots, this will be a running blog, so I figure they won't mind. Both Mark Rosewater and Cranial Insertion used this title a year ago, but here I go!
I've started this blog because frankly, the idea has been buzzing in my head for a while, and what better time than 11 pm on a Monday to begin to realize the dream!
I hope that you come here looking for a different perspective on Commander (and I know for sure that I will call it EDH, so I apologize if you get confused) so here we go.
This first post is going to be reminiscent of the Spike, Timmy, and Johnny columns that have run on the M:TG mothership, wizards.com.
In fact, it's so close that I'm going to steal those psychographics and combine two of them to create the two commander player profiles I've come across. I'm not claiming that this is it, that you are one or the other, but you'll be able to tell which you're closer to. I myself have decks that are along the range from rather Spiky to totally TJ.
This is also not meant to be a definition of good or bad. I have my opinion, which you'll hear about later, but there is no right or wrong way to play commander.
Let's make a small diagram for this, to illustrate what I mean:
Spike Timmy/Johnny (TJ)
Spike wants to win. Every time. The weapon of choice is not always relevant--the end goal is the focus, and the fewest steps to get to that goal, the better.
A simple way to measure how Spiky a deck is: How many tutoring spells are there?
Spike likes to remove variance, because why should I bother winning in different ways when I have an infinite combo on turn four?
Spike doesn't understand why other people aren't ready for 'serious' decks...or preys on them, in some cases.
To Spike, chaining Elf after Elf by using Heritage Druid and Skullclamp over and over, getting a redundant amount of mana and then using Ezuri to attack for a crazy amount of trample damage...that's a sign of a well-built deck. A finely tuned machine. Spike knows precisely which card will earn the win.
Beating 3,4,5 players after a ten-minute turn, taking extra turns to set it up, getting the right cards, fending off counterspells and tricks, creating that infinite loop between Mind Over Matter, Temple Bell and an Eldrazi...there's a satisfaction to Spike's game that is hard to argue with.
TJ is all about the game, the interaction. TJ wants to put things together, for a grand attack, for making eyes go wide and jaws hit the floor.
TJ sees a general and wants to build around it. TJ has a hard time putting Grave Titan into a Zombie tribal deck because "It's not a Zombie!" A theme/tribal deck is right up TJ's alley.
TJ has no problem with a drawn-out Commander game, with back-and-forth, the social interaction, and the swingy nature of a well-timed Insurrection or Blatant Thievery.
TJ likes branching out, to see what other things are possible. TJ will bring together cards, and not always be sure what works better, or discover that two good cards may not work well together in the middle of a game.
If you have ever enjoyed Scrambleverse, or Warp World, welcome to being a TJ.
Why does this matter?
I wanted to lead off with my impression of the attitudes of players (or decks) because I've seen and experienced the collision of worlds that can take place when the opposites meet.
To Spike, TJ is someone who didn't build well enough, who didn't anticipate the range of decks they would meet, and needs to go back and revise some card choices.
To TJ, Spike is a jerk who takes too long, has to shuffle too often, and isn't very fun to play with.
Neither one is wrong, and neither one is right.
Now, about me: I'm more of a TJ, though I have a Kaalia deck that's very Spike. I'm deliberate about my card choices, generally speaking, and I often make a conscious choice to leave out the more broken cards. A case in point: my Hanna, Ship's Navigator deck is an artifact/proliferate theme, yet I never want to put in Unwinding Clock because it is a touch too good with Magistrate's Scepter and Voltaic Key.
Right now, if you're saying to yourself, "Too good?! What the heck does that even mean?" then you're more of a Spike.
If you're thinking "Hmmmm...untap all artifacts on each player's untap...that's a lot of time/effects I'm doing every turn, that's good but kind of a pain," you're more on the TJ side.
My old playgroup had a very direct way of dealing with people that were too Spiky (infinite combos, ten minute turns, etc.) for the group's comfort. We would say "Congratulations, you win. Now we'll play for second place." We would then proceed to play our usual game for another hour or so, while the 'winner' sat there watching us. There was a corollary rule: No one ever won two games in a row.
This had the effect of either making Spikes find other places to play or build a different style of deck.
To a Spike, deliberately playing anything less than the best possible cards seems like the dumbest idea on Earth. It requires a different level of thought. Not higher or lower, but different. It's very difficult: someone who knows how to win the game, and is skilled at doing so, has to choose a deck and playstyle that is deliberately less than their best. Again, why would you do something that lowers your ability to win?
To a TJ, it seems like a terrible idea to take out fun cards and put in cards that are meant to stop others. It's less enjoyable, there's less of my fun interactions, and worst of all, my deck is no longer about what I want it to do and more about stopping you from doing your routine. If my Experiment Kraj deck is filled with awesome creatures to get abilities from, it's no fun for me to take those out and add Counterspell, Dismiss, Forbid, etc.
Here's a story about the worlds colliding. My girlfriend Elizabeth and I went to Worlds 2011 in San Francisco, where one of the side events was a Commander game for $5. Each player got a Pro Tour Ajani Goldmane, and 7 packs of Innistrad went to each pod. You won 2 packs for eliminating a player and you got the last pack for being the last one standing.
We signed up for a Commander event near the end of the first day, and one other person had already been on the list. His name is forgotten to me, but he had a super-sweet altered Hazezon Tamar, with all but the name, cost, and p/t painted over very well. He was proud of the thing too, and liked the custom foils that I'd made for myself and Elizabeth.
This gentleman worked the crowd tirelessly for the fourth player we needed, and he was also asking for "no jerk decks" which we liked the sound of. Eventually he found someone and we sat down, but unfortunately, this fourth guy had a Kaalia of the Vast deck that was ready to kill quickly. Turn 1 Mother of Runes, turn 2 signet, turn three Kaalia, turn 4 I'm dead, turn 5 the others die to Savage Beating.
The guy with the Hazezon deck literally tosses the 7 packs at the Kaalia pilot, snarling about "I hope that was fun for you!" Not five minutes later, we hear the Kaalia pilot telling the story to his pals, about how he won 7 packs for 5 bucks against some scrubs.
Again, there's no right or wrong side. I've been to places where you'd better be ready to get your combo off AND stop the other guy from doing his. I've been to others where 2 hours is a light workout for a Commander deck, and if you're not ready for sweepers, stealing, and shenanigans, why bother?
In this space, I'm going to try hard to not allow my preference for the TJ style to handcuff me from talking about a great format. If you feel I'm being unfair to the Spikes in the audience, then please, let me know.
Hope you enjoyed this, and come back soon!