Pure // Simple — Lose Weight, Not Games

It’s 2018, and with the new year comes a whole slew of quickly broken New Year’s resolutions. But just because you might drop your gym membership by February, it doesn’t mean you should be dropping as many games of Commander as you did in 2017.

Welcome back to Pure//Simple, the article series that explores the why behind the best cards in the Commander format.

Commander is full of cards that can be called “I win” buttons. Cast them in the right situations and you’re practically guaranteed victory. What I am not going to be talking about are combos, because those take at least two seperate cards and are usually easier to disrupt. For this article, I go in-depth on spotting some of the warning signs of an upcoming “I win” button, how to handle those situations, and ultimately how to avoid being in that situation in the first place.


Iona, Shield of Emeria

I’m easing you into this article since white is probably the least likely of all the colors to contain a win-now card. If white is winning the game, it’s usually not through big, flashy spells, but through the slow, incremental grind that popular cards like Ghostly Prison or Elspeth, Sun’s Champion provide.

There is a whole subsection of mono-white decks dedicated solely to grinding the game to a halt for its opponents, either through multiple “you can’t do this” or “you must do this” effects. These decks, also known as “stax” or prison, narrow your path to victory over time, until all hope is lost.

However, there is one card that can quickly signal your gameplan’s death knell: Iona, Shield of Emeria. Making it impossible to play only one color may not always be the end of the world, but at times it will, especially if you’re only playing that color. In that situation, you might not have been the direct target, but simply an added bonus to shutting down another player. Unfortunately from there, you’re stuck as a participant in a game you can’t interact with.

Multi-color decks have a better chance against Iona, Shield of Emeria, but only if they are savvy in how they build their decks. If, say, a two-color deck sways heavily in favor of one color, and puts all of their removal in that color, they might be just as out of luck as a mono-color player.

The best advice here is to 1) vary the types of removal you are playing, both in card type and color and 2) know that, if you’re in mono-color, you might have to improvise a bit more than other strategies. Each color has certain weaknesses – white doesn’t draw cards very well, blue usually can’t flood the board with creatures, black can roll over to an enchantment, etc. Knowing these weaknesses can assist in finding strategies to avoid being exposed.

Let’s use mono-black as an example. Mono-black has a hard time with enchantments, and to a slightly lesser extent, artifacts. It can’t interact with either card type very well. However, there are a few colorless and artifact options that can patch up that weakness. Cards like Unstable Obelisk, Scour from Existence or Ugin, the Spirit Dragon can mop up any pesky card types. Beyond that, mono-black can play a more proactive game by utilizing pinpoint discard spells to ensure that you never see a gameplan-ending card hit the board. A card like Mind Slash is perfect for this strategy, since it rewards you for doing something black loves to do, sacrificing creatures, while being a repeatable discard spell.

Cards like Unstable Obelisk and Mind Slash can be found in the mono-black deck I currently play for the reasons I stressed above. This decklist might be a bit odd, since the restriction I placed upon myself for this one was that all the cards in the deck (excluding the commander) had to have been printed as a common or an uncommon at some point. Even with that, the deck is plenty powerful once it gets going.


Cyclonic Rift

The game doesn’t end immediately with the resolution of a Cyclonic Rift, but it usually seems that way. The card has been on innumerable “would ban” lists and for good reason. Being able to set all your opponents back multiple turns is usually enough to clear the path to victory, regardless of what that path looks like. The fact that it is an instant means that it can come out of just about nowhere, ruining all you’ve built.

Cyclonic Rift is usually only ever used in two situations: 1) the aforementioned “I win” scenario, where its use is the last piece for its caster to seal the deal or 2) the “I don’t lose” scenario, where the player is keeping themselves alive by making everything, albeit temporarily, go away. While it may be obvious that the first situation will end in your eventual loss, the “I don’t lose” scenario can be just as deadly for you and your gameplan since you’ll have to potentially spend a lot of time rebuilding.

Something to keep in mind – Cyclonic Rift might be in just about every blue deck you play against. It’s the #2 card of all time on EDHREC, and sees play in over 50% of all blue decks archived on the site. This fact is actually good for you, to be honest. You don’t have to guess if the player runs it. It’s safe to assume that they do, which means looking out for the warning signs of a Cyclonic Rift are easier than the other cards on this list. Here’s a handy checklist for an imminent Cyclonic Rift:

  1. Does the blue player have 7+ mana available on another person’s turn?
  2. Is the blue player nicely ahead? OR Is the blue player open to attack?
  3. Did the blue player pass with that much mana, even though the deck plays spells that aren’t sorcery speed?

If you said yes to the questions above, Cyclonic Rift is incoming!

So how do you play against it? First, avoid overextending. Overextending is when you play more cards in your hand than you need to given the situation you’re currently in. Sometimes it’s best to hold spells in your hand and ride out the board wipe or removal so that you have things to play later. If you think a Cyclonic Rift is afoot, it’s best to hold mana up for instants than to play permanents, but if you don’t have that option, it’s better to play creatures with enter the battlefield effects than those that don’t, since you’ll get to use them again on your next turn (if you get one).

However, the best answer to a Cyclonic Rift is Counterspell and its brethren. At 7 mana, it’s very possible that the blue player will not have much open mana after casting the Rift, so they might not be able to protect it with a Counterspell of their own. This might mean that you have to hold up more mana that you’d like, but it’s a small price to pay.

If you’re playing white, Ghostway or Teferi’s Protection will save you from a Cyclonic Rift, essentially negating the massive drawback.

Unfortunately, green suffers the worst from Cyclonic Rift, as it doesn’t have many answers for the spell, so the best option might be to beat the blue player’s face in with a bunch of creatures before they even have the chance to cast it.


Torment of Hailfire

Torment of Hailfire is new to the Commander landscape, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be looking out for it already. In many ways, it’s similar to Exsanguinate, another potential “I win” button, due to its ability to win the game on resolution. Oftentimes Torment of Hailfire feels much, much more devastating between the two, especially when X is a significantly large number.

Let’s look at it this way – Exsanguinate is going to hit your opponents for X, guaranteed. With Torment of Hailfire, however, if an opponent decides to pay life for each instance, you’re getting three times the life loss. Even if they only choose to lose 3 life for one third of the instances of X, it’s even with Exsanguinate.

Of course, with Exsanguinate, you gain three (or four, or more) times the life lost, depending on your number of opponents, which is a great life swing against anyone left alive. But with Torment of Hailfire, any time your opponents choose not to lose 3 life, they are definitely losing card advantage. When comparing the two situations, I’d rather resolve the Torment of Hailfire over the Exsanguinate, mainly because a life total difference is much easier to even out (cough, Sorin Markov, cough) than all the cards lost to Torment of Hailfire.

So how do you play around or even beat a big Torment of Hailfire? The card is at its best with massive mana, which is usually preceded by mana rocks (like Sol Ring et al) or mana doublers (like Crypt Ghast). I wouldn’t include green-based mana ramp (like Cultivate) here, because both Torment of Hailfire and Exsanguinate play best in mono-black and control decks (specifically Esper and Grixis), but that doesn’t mean you won’t see it elsewhere.

With this information in mind, you have to attack their mana sources early and often to hobble the spell later in the game. When facing a mono-black deck, Cabal Coffers is a kill-on-sight land if you don’t want to get dunked on by Torment of Hailfire. Any deck can slot in a Wasteland, Strip Mine or Tectonic Edge to shut down Coffers.

Another point of attack are creatures that can double black mana, like the aforementioned Crypt Ghast or Nirkana Revenant. It’s inadvisable to let these creatures stay on the broad for long, if at all. You may want to remove them on the same turn cycle as when they were cast, but you might be able to get away with holding off for a turn or two – it really depends on the situation.

Of course, a good counterspell is also a solid plan against Torment of Hailfire, but you must be mindful of multi-color control decks that run Torment of Hailfire, since they might have counterspell backup. In those cases, politicking other players to bring down the control player may work in your favor.


Getting There

Time sure does fly when you’re writing about strategy. I’ll let you go for now to do whatever you resolved on New Year’s to do. However, I’ll be back next month to go over even more “I win” buttons you should always be on the lookout for. What devastating thing could green have in store for you? Here’s a hint, it’s big and tramply.

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Jeremy is a data analyst in his hometown of Chicago. He is the commissioner of a Commander league at a local LGS, Near Mint Games. He is also a board member for AnimeChicago, an 800+ member NFP anime club for adults, and an avid craft beer fan.