Card Economy In Commander

Magic’s considered by many to be a game of resource management. How should you evaluate attrition and card advantage in Magic’s most open format?

Today, we’re talking about Magic cards. Specifically, we’ll be looking at why we play the cards we do in Commander and how we should be usin’ and choosin’ these cards for maximum mayhem.

By now, the Magic community is very familiar with the concept of card advantage. Just in case, I’m going to go ahead and explore it very slightly, since it’s key to understanding today’s article.

In the modern era, most of the big names in Magic theory have rightly considered card advantage a facet of the concept called “card economy,” which encompasses more than the basic arithmetic of “two cards better than one card.” Still, the idea is that when playing your cards against cards of a similar power level, the most advantageous trades will generally leave you ahead on resources (including cards, life, and presence) or the opponent behind. Why is that an advantage?

Because if you have more resources than your opponent and your cards are roughly as good as theirs, then you have more options. If you have more options, you can exploit the opponent’s vulnerabilities more effectively and more powerfully. You’ll be able to direct the game, and your opponent will be forced to find ways to overcome you, not the other way around. All of this points to wanting more cards, not less, as a general rule.

More cards equals diversity of decisions, and thus your choices have more impact on average.

Two cards better than one card!


In Commander, I consider the ramifications of card advantage theory very differently. I get eight cards to start the game and one card a turn…as do all of my opponents. I’d have to draw about 40 extra cards in a game in order to out-muscle everyone at a four-player table on pure attrition, and that’s not very realistic.

Doable? Yes…but not an appropriate goal in and of itself. It’d be easier to kill them all some other way!

(Please, please don’t be pedantic and correct me on all the ways to Stroke yourself for the deck before killing everyone.)

So what does govern our card economy in Commander? We definitely want more cards—that’s still true, and you should direct a lot of your efforts towards accruing additional cards. That’s why effects like Rhystic Study, Harmonize, Skeletal Scrying, and so forth are so good. They’re not flashy, but they’re consistent sources of additional cards that keep your game plan cooking.

But what you shouldn’t be doing is trying to out-attrition the table. The effort required to do so is more effort than winning actually takes, making it a strictly worse tactic than just winning. Trading your cards straight up constantly is a waste of resources and time, especially considering the wealth of proactive potential in the Commander card pool.

Thus, we can arrive at this basic understanding of card advantage in Commander: Commander decks should want to draw more cards than conventional Magic decks, because there’s more to do, but trade less of them, because trading is a less effective strategy in the format.

If you aren’t interested in straight up exchanging your cards for your opponents’ cards, then what should you do with those weird-looking cardboard rectangles? As discussed, accumulating more of them is a worthwhile goal…but that’s basically wishing on your genie for infinite wishes. It doesn’t answer the actual question of what to spend your resources accomplishing, which is the most important part of the game. How you dedicate and spend resources in any game of Magic, including Commander, determines how you win, how you lose, how you have fun, how you get lucky…everything! So you need your cards to do something worth doing.

There are three general purposes of the best cards in Commander, with the end game of these elements being victory.

1) Stay Alive

It’s very, very difficult to win games that you lose.

One of the most frequently made mistakes even at the competitive Constructed level—believe me, I see it all the time—is that players will try to win games they have already won too fast and wind up dying to an unlikely or unforeseen confluence of events from the other side. The moral of the story? Play to not lose and winning will happen by default.

Many cards in Commander, especially the ones that appear to be attrition spells, are in fact worth their slots primarily because they keep you from losing. Krosan Grip, Oblivion Stone, Counterspell—these spells can be used in a variety of ways, but the most effective use is to stop your opponent from gaining an advantage that will lead to them winning the game.

That’s a mouthful. I’m not saying you should only be countering the Tooth and Nail or Krosan Gripping the Splinter Twin—I mean, definitely do those things when you can—but consider carefully the effects of your opponent’s cards when deciding 1) which spells you should play and 2) how you should play them. Maybe he can leverage that turn 3 Phyrexian Arena into an overwhelming engine; maybe not. Perhaps that Rings of Brighthearth will be innocuous, or perhaps it’ll oppress you for turns to come.

Certainty of victory is a rare thing, of course—when you think you’re winning, there’s always going to be an impulse to seal the deal on the spot. This impulse is dangerous and will lead you to lose games from time to time. There are moments when going all-in is correct, but these are moments when the opponent has significant, measurable potential to reverse their disadvantage. When there’s little (or nothing) that they can do, there’s no harm in taking your time.

Play around everything!

The only time to play around nothing is when everything kills you.

2) Develop Mana Advantage

Remember how I described card economy earlier?

“…the idea is that when playing your cards against cards of a similar power level, the most advantageous trades will generally leave you ahead on resources (including cards, life, and presence) or the opponent behind.”

Note one important caveat: “a similar power level” is crucial.

Have you ever died with a hand full of cards, none of which did precisely what you needed to stay alive? Of course; we all have.

Your opponents will likewise be able to get very far ahead on cards, but it won’t always matter. If their cards aren’t as good as yours, you will often be able to reverse your position. It’s not hard to win on one life with zero cards in your hand and no untapped lands…if Tooth and Nail is on the stack.

Developing your mana is the first step to casting the most powerful spells. Wizards of the Coast’s design team, in their infinite wisdom, rightly recognized that spells which outright kill the opponent shouldn’t cost one mana—you know, except for Delver of Secrets.

I kid, I kid.

I meant to say Sol Ring.

Still kidding!

Sort of. Mana advantage, after all, is why Sol Ring is so powerful!

The most powerful spells tend to cost the most mana; that’s how they’re balanced within the game. If you spend the first four turns of the game growing your mana and then drop bomb after bomb on the table, you’ll be threatening opponents with death turn after turn. Cards that cost ten are deliberately powerful enough to outright kill the opponent!

Meanwhile, if they spend the first four turns casting proactive spells that cost one, two, three, and four mana…what are the odds that their five-drop will be able to match the might of your nine?

Not great, generally speaking. Especially when you get 40 life to start!

Of course, one of the reasons U/W Delver is so good in Standard is that its very cheap cards line up well against more expensive ones—so watch out! Sometimes, opponents building their decks to be particularly aggressive will hit their curve and dismantle you. They might play actual creatures, a poison kill, Reanimate a fatty…et cetera, ad nauseam. By and large, the best Commander decks can grind pretty well late even if they have the capability to finish the job early.

If you have more mana in play and you play powerful spells in your deck, then your draw steps will be more likely to outmatch your opponents’ over time. It’s the same advantage that comes from being the control deck and surviving into the late game against an aggressive deck filled with early creatures. It isn’t attrition, per se—your cards are just doing more work than theirs!

Try to keep yourself on a high enough life total to avoid random death, and your position will naturally reward playing for the bigger game. It’s not uncommon to sometimes sit with several lands in play and nothing to do, but keep in mind that the top of your deck will always look better alongside those lands.

Superior forces, and so forth.

Mana is important. In Commander, your legend of choice also ensures that you’ll nearly always have something to do with that mana, so keep that in mind as well. Many of the best commanders grow more powerful the later in the game you get, assuming you’re tailored to maximize their various powers. This makes cards that might have narrow applications worth consideration if they interact with your commander in a particularly powerful way.

3) Kill the Opponent(s)

The average Commander deck really doesn’t need a lot of kill conditions. Have you ever beaten someone to death with one large creature while a handful of others sit in your grip doing nothing? Commander wins tend to come after long grinds and on the back of cards powerful enough to kill one or more opponents by themselves.

Win conditions don’t help you grind out advantage in a long game—that’s not what they’re for. It’s relatively rare that a card is capable of winning the game by itself while also building your presence. A notable exception is Primeval Titan, one of the most powerful cards in the entire format! If one win condition and a backup or two will win the game, you don’t want to run so many because you risk glutting your hand with cards that have no function. I’d guess I run about five to seven cards worth considering “closers” in Commander.

These are important deckbuilding constraints because the hard part about Commander games often come while you’re playing them to live. Mopping up once you’ve twisted the board to your favor? Not so difficult! That means you should keep your deck well stocked on cards that keep you alive and minimize—without ignoring—the elements dedicated to ending the game.

After all, you may only need to kill one person to win the table: the last one.

On the upside, these powerful cards that kill opponents are relatively similar. Sure, Avenger of Zendikar might be the best green beatdown machine…but he’s not universes ahead of other contenders like Kamahl, Fist of Krosa, and they’ve each got pros and cons. If you like one win condition more than another, feel free to play it. You’re not losing the same amount of margin that a moral opposition to Sol Ring might cost you. If Tooth and Nail for Kiki-Jiki and an infinite loop isn’t your thing, that’s fine—it’s not very hard to dream up two different creatures that will also have a strong shot at ending the game without devolving into a degenerate combo. These are the spaces I consider totally open to exploration in Commander.

Even if it’s worse, it’s not a lot worse…and if it’s fun, that’s a very acceptable trade-off.

Featured Format: The Casting Cost Game

I spend most of my epilogues in these articles going over different ways to play with Magic cards, but today’s episode will have a little something different.

As some of you may know, I spend a lot of time traveling. When you’re attending something like thirty tournaments a year just for work and even more for recreation, you wind up with a lot of time to fill inside cramped, metal spaces at high speeds. As a sociable fellow constantly making these trips with my gamer friends and coworkers, I enjoy passing the time with the occasional game.

And frankly, the iPad’s battery only lasts so long.

We’ve played a lot of the old classics: Twenty Questions, I Spy, and so on and so forth. One of our favorite variants has been the Casting Cost Game, which has some pretty simple rules.

The winner of the previous game (or a randomly determined participant) names a casting cost and a card at that cost. Then, each player takes a turn naming another card at the same cost, until they can’t think of one within a reasonable amount of time. No repeats!

Once it’s down to just two players, the first player who fails to name a card loses on the condition that the remaining player can also name a card. If he can’t, it’s a draw.

You can play with a few variations. One of the more interesting ones I like is that a player can buy back in after losing by naming five valid cards when it would have been his turn, but my enthusiasm for this version hasn’t been shared.

We mostly play pretty soft—allowing players to ask if a card has been named, provide enough of the text for us to know the card even if they can’t recall the precise name—but you should feel free to prison rules it if you want! It can get monotonous to wait while someone strikes out over and over, especially if they just start making cards up. *ahem*

Some fun games can exist. For example, coordinating when to “remind” everyone about a cycle merits some timing. Ideally, you mention a cycle when the last entry will be available on your turn. Don’t just run Circle of Protections and Specters out there into the cold!

The ultimate accomplishment in a category is to exhaust all of the legal options—ideally resulting in a win rather than a draw—but that’s quite difficult. I think we’ve only come remotely close a handful of times (a single G being the most recent), and even then we had about five or so left out. Vitalize, you rascal!

Our own Reuben Bresler is especially dominant in this game (and always eager to play), though I consider myself relatively competitive with him—and to be honest, almost anyone at StarCityGames.com has a shot at winning when we’re en route to an event. You pick things up sorting bulk you’d never learn anywhere else!

Let me know in the forums if these “Magic-related” games are the kind of topic you might be interested in hearing about from time to time. I’m not going to go overboard, but I like to mix it up. After all, variety is the spice of life.

At least, that’s what I told myself as I watched a bartender pour A-1 and sriracha into my Bloody Mary this weekend.

I’m getting ready for Gen Con this week, where you’ll be most likely to find me battling in the Cryptozoic room with the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, one of my favorite hobbies. I’ll also be helping out at the Ascension booth on Sunday, and virtually any time I spend playing Magic will involve battles in three dimensions (Cube). If you happen to spot me, feel free to say hello!

With any luck, I’ll have gotten a haircut by then.

Glenn Jones


P.S. I started writing this article a few weeks ago, and for my other SCG projects I wound up researching in our archives. I stumbled upon this wonderful piece by one of my personal all-time favorite Magic writers, Zac Hill. If you haven’t read [all of] Zac’s work then you really should, but for the purposes of this particular article I’ll encourage you to read precisely this one.

Chatter of the Squirrel: Interaction Advantage (Or Card Advantage Is Wrong, Kinda)

A lot of what Zac’s talking about relates to my thoughts above, and I wouldn’t even rule out the idea that some dark, forgotten corner of my mind had this article buried in it like a crypt prior to my writing this week’s piece. I’m glad to be able to point you in its direction!