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Permission In Commander

In this excellent breakdown of the role of counterspells (and their helpers), Sheldon Menery talks about the art of saying “no!” He also shares some of his favorite counterspells and permission cards! What are some of yours?

In its simplest form, permission as it applies to Magic in general and
Commander in particular means the ability to say “yes, I’ll allow it” or
“no, I won’t.” Permission, however, is far more complicated both
strategically and tactically. This conversation came up during recording
the latest episode of the

Elder Dragon Statesmen podcast

with Anthony Alongi (“the only Commander podcast with 100 years worth of
hosts!”), and I thought it might be something worth expanding upon here.

I see three types of permission. The first is your classic, or reactive
permission. The second is static, or on the battlefield permission. The
third is what I like to call “retro-permission,” the details of which we’ll
get into below.

Classic/Reactive Permission

This is the Magic permission we all grew up with. It involves playing
counterspells, which strictly exist in order to allow you to deny spells to
other players (or in some weird circumstances, yourself). I’ve long been a
proponent of the idea that in Commander (or other multiplayer variants, for
that matter), counterspells must also do something else. Without extreme
mitigating circumstances, a one for one is simply not going to get you
ahead in the format; in fact, it will leave you behind since there are two
or three other players in the game who haven’t committed anything to this
fight. Here are my ten favorite counterspells in the format:

Cryptic Command: The king of all counterspells, Cryptic Command is so good
because it’s so flexible. You can use it to tap down the creatures of all
your opponents, bounce a permanent (perhaps even your own), or draw a card.
The great thing about it is that it’s a counterspell that you don’t need to
counter anything with. Chicken dinner.

Desertion: There are lots of great creatures in Commander, and spending
five mana to get one is hard to beat. Bonus points for getting the other
player’s broken commander to smash them with. Lots of people forget that
you can also get an artifact with Desertion; ruining the plans of the
person who wants to reset the board with Nevinyrral’s Disk always tastes
good. In a pinch, you can use Desertion to counter anything-you only get
the permanent if it’s an artifact or a creature.

Draining Whelk: There are many large spells in Commander. Turning one of
them into an enormous flyer (“did you say Genesis Wave for 20? Nice!”)
turns the tide of a game.

Forbid: An oldie but goodie, Forbid lets you buy it back for the price of
two cards. I like to play it in black decks which are going to reanimate
creatures anyway, so it can help put the right ones into the graveyard. Of
course, you’re also in blue, so you might just be able to draw enough cards
to have access to it all the time. Note that the card doesn’t go back into
your hand until the spell resolves.

Mana Drain: One of the best tempo swingers in the game, my favorite target
for Mana Drain is someone’s Turn 3 Skyshroud Claim.

Mystic Confluence: Cut from the same cloth as Cryptic Command, Mystic
Confluence is another flexible counterspell which you can use
situationally. It’s a conditional counterspell (the opponent can chose to
pay the {3} for as many times as you’ve chosen that mode), but you have all
the control in waiting until they’re casting something they can’t pay for.
In the worst case scenario, Mystic Confluence can just draw you three cards
to get out of a tight spot.

Overwhelming Intellect: Remember those big creatures? How about turning
their converted mana cost into that number of cards? Sure, it can’t counter
anything except for creatures, but those are generally the heart of the
games I play, which is why it’s on my list (and has been since the
formative days of the format).

Plasm Capture: A better (albeit more expensive) Mana Drain, Plasm Capture
lets you have the same amount of mana that Mana Drain does, but instead of
it being colorless, you get to choose any combination of any colors you
like. And no, colorless is not a color.

Spelljack: With Desertion, you take the creature or artifact right away.
With Spelljack, you can wait until the right time. And if you really want
to, you can just leave the card exile for the rest of the game. Also
remember Spelljack’s morph cousin, Kheru Spellsnatcher.

Disallow and Voidslime: The only real one for one on the list, the two of
them occupy this one space because of the word you’re going to get tired of
hearing from me: flexibility. Voidslime has been doing lots of yoga,
because it can take care of not only spells, but activated or triggered
abilities. There aren’t too many cards what can do either. Bind is a cool
one for activated abilities, since it replaces itself, as does Interdict.

Honorable mention to Ertai, the Corrupted and Ertai, Wizard Adept, even
though the latter might be able to create a pretty oppressive board state.


Destroying things right after they enter the battlefield is a loose kind of
permission. It might stretch the definition a bit, but Krosan Grip is a
pretty good permission spell. It doesn’t counter anything, but you can
effectively rid the board of something immediately should you choose to,
which in many cases can have the same net effect (obviously
enters-the-battlefield triggers aside).

Static Permission

Remember that when can and can’t argue in Magic, can’t always wins. Static
permission cards are generally permanents which tell players they can’t do
things. There are also few emblems which apply, like the ultimate of Dovin
Baan or Narset Transcendent, but they’re rare enough to not focus on. There
are certainly lots of spells that tell players no without counterspelling
what they try, such as Abeyance and Orim’s Chant. For the most part,
however, static permission involves permanents.

There are 79 cards which say “can’t cast” on them (although a fistful of
those are cards with split second or epic). Here are a few favorites:

Angelic Arbiter: The card in Commander which has caused the most cursing
(at least for me; if someone else is playing it, I have a “dammit!” loaded
up in the chamber because I know I’m going to fire off at least one),
Angelic Arbiter doesn’t tell anyone that they specifically can’t do
something, it tells them that they need to make the choice of either
casting spells or attacking.

Arcane Laboratory/Rule of Law: Limiting players to one spell per turn means
no counterspell wars, which isn’t an awful thing. You just have to pay
attention if you’re the one playing counterspells to protect whatever you’d
like to do on your own turn.

Ashes of the Abhorrent: This card is so freaking good that I can’t believe
it costs only two mana. Sure, it shuts down my own favorite deck, Halloween
with Karador, but I’ve tried to build that so it can play even without a
graveyard.

Ethersworn Canonist: So the translated version is that you can only cast
one non-artifact spell per turn. It’s another one that sometimes gets the
foul language coming out of peoples’ mouths (but not nearly as much as
Angelic Arbiter). Obviously, you’re likely to see it in a Sharuum the
Hegemon or other artifact-heavy deck. It’s reasonable enough to play
around; you just have to pick your spots.

Grafdigger’s Cage: While Grafdigger’s Cage doesn’t stop you from activating
abilities from your graveyard (so Volrath’s Stronghold to your heart’s
delight), it does shut down quite a few popular Commander strategies-so you
better be prepared to have a non-graveyard answer for it.

Grand Abolisher: An extremely popular card and one that you should probably
kill at first opportunity, Grand Abolisher pretty much tells opponents to
shut up altogether on your turn. I suppose they can activate the abilities
of lands, so while they can’t Fog, they can Maze of Ith.

Llawan, Cephalid Empress: This long-time personal favorite (I’m pretty sure
it was in an early Phelddagrif deck) Llawan will keep quite a few decks in
check. I’ve played it to a great deal of success in each of the last two
draft leagues we’ve run. And you’re only shutting down blue’s creatures,
and we all know if you’re playing blue, you’re a bad person. Oh, wait. I
guess Llawan is blue. Well, make your own judgments.

Mana Maze: Restrictions breed creativity. I love Mana Maze because it
forces you to simply think differently about the game. No, colorless is not
a color (should I have that on a macro somewhere?). To be honest, my own
Mana Maze has screwed me over once or twice, but that’s a small price to
pay for all the laughs and cool plays which happen as a result of the card.

Sphinx’s Decree: You were going to be up to something on your next turn, I
know. Just cast some creatures and be done. I have my Fogs.

Ward of Bones: Want to reign in other players who are greedy? Use Ward of
Bones. It doesn’t stop them from casting creatures, artifacts, or
enchantments so long as they don’t have more than you do. Balances it out
nicely for everyone. It’s almost worth it just because of the land clause,
although that doesn’t prevent anyone from using spells or abilities (like
Cultivate or Wayfarer’s Bauble) that will put a land onto the battlefield.

Yes, I know some folks are going to want to talk about Iona, Shield of
Emeria. I’ll tell you that the Commander Rules Committee frequently talks
about it, and we’re not unanimous on it-and also not unanimous enough to
ban it. It will continue to get discussed.

Static permission isn’t just not casting spells, it’s about making spells
more difficult to cast. Aura of Silence is a great example, as is Grand
Arbiter Augustin IV (although that’s another “kill it on sight” card,
because you know that person is up to no good). Color hosers like Chill or
even the ability on Frost Titan apply. When we played in the four-color
Commander Rotisserie Draft League, we agreed that color hosers for the
color we didn’t have would be bad form. For example, my commander was
Yidris, Maelstrom Wielder. Playing Gloom would have been downright
unfriendly. In general, I might suggest staying away from color hosers
unless you’re really having an issue with a specific player or deck. Just
jamming Gloom into a deck for the LOLZ isn’t all that LOLZy.

Static permission also limits the kinds of things which can enter the
battlefield or what they do when they enter, like we’ve already seen with
Grafdigger’s Cage. Torpor Orb and Hushwing Gryff also apply. Containment
Priest is a fine example as well, and since it has flash, you know it’s
getting cast in response to Tooth and Nail. Hallowed Moonlight will do the
same thing as an instant, plus it replaces itself.

Although static permission doesn’t violate the tenet of not taking away the
game from other players, it’s something with which you’ll need to be
careful. Any Stax style decks are going to be only narrowly popular, so
make sure the folks you’re playing with don’t mind that type of challenge.

“Retro-Permission”

Retro-permission is more of a theoretical construct than anything else.
It’s not actual permission in the sense that you’re denying people their
permanents, it’s setting up environments so that they’ll choose to not do
things. We can take this in the direction of entire decks (I think fellow
RC member Toby Elliott has a 20-Wrath Ghost Council of Orzhova deck) or
individual cards. Toby’s deck doesn’t stop you from playing creatures, it
just makes you ask if you want to play that second or third one. It forces
you into restricting yourself, because you know if you overcommit, you’re
likely to get blown out.

On a completely unrelated note, although loosely applying to the permission
discussion, is that I sometimes hear people say that they don’t want to
cast any spells because they know an opponent has a counterspell. The thing
about that is, if you just sit there, that person is going to use their
resources (you know, the ones you haven’t forced them to use) to draw more counterspells. Sure, you don’t run your best thing
into certain death, but don’t be afraid to dip your toe in the water a
little. Cast your third best creature; if they counter it, you’ve traded
up. If they don’t, bash them in the face with it. Magic is so simple.

Retro-permission also applies to individual cards which force you into
awkward choices. Tainted Aether was the first one to come to mind, although
there are quite a few of my decks that would say “yeah, no problem; I love
sacrificing creatures!” Then when you cast Leyline of the Void, they get
less happy. Lethal Vapors forces similar choices (unless you have Avacyn,
Angel of Hope on the battlefield).

There are certainly any number of directions for this conversation to go.
Although it seems like permission is a limited concept, if we think just a
little broader about it, we find that there is more to it than just your
basic counterspell.

This week’s Deck Without Comment is my own deck with the greatest number of
permission cards in it (which still isn’t all that much),

Dreaming of Intet

.

Dreaming of Intet
Sheldon Menery
Test deck on 02-13-2014
Commander


Check out our comprehensive Deck List Database for lists of all my decks:

SIGNATURE DECKS





Purple Hippos and Maro Sorcerers

;

Kresh Into the Red Zone

;

Halloween with Karador

;

Dreaming of Intet

;

You Did This to Yourself

.

THE CHROMATIC PROJECT

Mono-Color



Heliod, God of Enchantments

;

Thassa, God of Merfolk

;

Erebos and the Halls Of The Dead

;

Forge of Purphoros

;

Nylea of the Woodland Realm

;

Karn

Evil No. 9.

Guilds







Lavinia Blinks

;

Obzedat, Ghost Killer

;

Aurelia Goes to War

;

Trostani and Her Angels

;

Lazav, Shapeshifting Mastermind

;

Zegana and a Dice Bag

;

Rakdos Reimagined

;

Glissa, Glissa

;

Ruric Thar and His Beastly Fight Club

;

Gisa and Geralf Together Forever

.

Shards and Wedges










Adun’s Toolbox

;

Angry, Angry Dinos

;

Animar’s Swarm

;

Borrowing Stuff at Cutlass Point

;

Ikra and Kydele

;

Karrthus, Who Rains Fire From The Sky

;

Demons of Kaalia

;

Merieke’s Esper Dragons

;

Nath of the Value Leaf

;

Rith’s Tokens

;

The Mill-Meoplasm

;

The Altar of
Thraximundar

;

The Threat of Yasova

;

Zombies of Tresserhorn

.

Four Color



Yidris: Money for Nothing, Cards for Free

;

Saskia Unyielding

;

Breya Reshaped

.

Five-Color


Children of a Greater God

Partners




Tana and Kydele

;

Kynaios and Tiro

;

Ikra and Kydele

.

THE DO-OVER PROJECT



Adun Oakenshield Do-Over

;

Animar Do-Over

;

Glissa Do-Over

;

Karador Do-Over

;

Karador Version 3

;

Karrthus Do-Over

;

Kresh Do-Over

;

Steam-Powered Merieke

Do-Over;

Lord of Tresserhorn Do-Over

;

Mimeoplasm Do-Over

;

Phelddagrif Do-Over

;

Rith Do-Over

;

Ruhan Do-Over

.

If you’d like to follow the adventures of my Monday Night RPG group (in a
campaign that’s been alive since 1987) which is just beginning the saga The Lost Cities of Nevinor, ask for an invitation to the Facebook
group “Sheldon Menery’s
Monday Night Gamers
.”