You Lika The Juice? – An EDH Primer, Part 1

Read Bennie Smith every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Friday, August 21st – My column’s “focus” can be said to be What Interests Bennie in the Magic World Today? Once EDH became a big part of my life, I ended up providing a fair amount of EDH content in my columns, and each time I’d get a bunch of feedback from readers who really enjoyed reading about the format.

When I first started playing Magic in early 1994, I came to the game as a “multiplayer” guy. I had a large group of gamer friends and we would play games in groups of four or more people, whether it was role-playing D&D or World of Darkness, or board gaming with Axis & Allies or Gammarauders, or playing cards like Hearts or Bridge. So when Magic hit our group like a ton of bricks we immediately started playing multiplayer Magic, despite the rules specifically pointing out that the game was meant for dueling. It wasn’t until years later that I started playing in tournaments and became more interested in that style of play, of building powerful decks containing 4 copies of the most important cards and no bigger than the 60 card minimum. Still, I never lost the love for the freewheeling chaos and politics that comes with multiplayer Magic.

Some years ago, interest in multiplayer Magic had died out amongst most of my friends, but then I heard about Elder Dragon Highlander thanks to Sheldon Menery. I was immediately intrigued by the constrictions of deckbuilding and the game play of singleton, and after a few games got hooked. Meanwhile, old multiplayer friends and new players who’d never dabbled in group games got the EDH bug and it became a regular part of our gaming experience.

My StarCityGames.com column’s “focus” (and I use that term very loosely) can be said to be What Interests Bennie in the Magic World Today? Once EDH became a big part of my life, I ended up providing a fair amount of EDH content in my columns, and each time I’d get a bunch of feedback from readers who really enjoyed reading about the format. So much so that I almost feel like an ambassador for the format, at least here on StarCityGames.com, and when I started getting forum comments and emails asking for more details on how I go about building EDH decks, it occurred to me that writing an EDH Primer might be a useful thing for the Magic Community. I love bringing players into this fun format, so anything I can do to help people fall in love with EDH and begin to dig deeper into it is something I’m happy to do.

The really cool thing is that multiplayer Magic is so rich and deep in game play that, even if you learn to play EDH following my Primer, it will hardly be the definitive approach to the format. The beauty of Magic as a game is that the cards you choose for your deck and the plays you make are expressions of you, and multiplayer Magic offers even more room for personalization and style. What follows is what works for me, my EDH style and my EDH voice. I’m hoping this may help you find or strengthen your own EDH voice.

EDH: The Rules in 30 Seconds
There’s a website that hosts the Official Elder Dragon Highlander Rules and I suggest you follow the link there to familiarize yourself with the format. However, for those who want to keep reading, here are the basic rules:

1. Choose a legendary creature as your General.
2. The General’s mana cost limits the colors of cards you can play in your deck, and your deck cannot generate any other color mana (it would just be colorless).
3. An EDH deck contains exactly 100 cards including the General.
4. Except for basic lands, you can only have one copy of each card.
5. EDH is played with Vintage-legal cards and some number of banned cards (check the link for the current list, which changes occasionally).
6. You begin the game with 40 life.
7. Your general is always available to cast so long as you have the mana.

There are some other rules you’ll want to familiarize yourself with before you play, but these basics will get you started in building your deck, which is what you’ll need to do first anyway, right?

Why Play Elder Dragon Highlander?
Some of you may be wondering, what’s the fuss about? Why not just play with whatever cards you want in your multiplayer games? I’ve got four Survival of the Fittest, and I’d like to play with them all to make my Recurring Nightmare/Survival deck work like it should. How can I play a Storm combo with just one copy of each Ritual?

The thing is, unless you’re Mr. Suitcase, with full playsets of everything stretching back to the beginning of time, you’re going to run into situations where you don’t have the cards you want and you’re scrambling to finish out playsets of cards. If these are old and/or expensive cards… well, it can get costly and take up a lot of time. And it can also lead to an arms race, where everyone else you play with has to do the same thing or fall behind.

For example, let’s say you’re a casual multiplayer and you’ve cracked a few packs of Magic 2010. Staring back at you from the very last pack you open is the mother lode: a Baneslayer Angel! You happen to have a casual Angel deck and she’s the perfect fit. The problem is… you’ve only got the one copy. If you check the StarCityGames.com singles store, you’ll see she’s sold out at $29.99 each. Ouch! Are you going to have the money to buy a few more copies or the trade bait to pry a few away from your friends?

With EDH, any random cool rare you happen to open, from a pack you impulse bought from a big box store, to an awesome foil you cracked during a pickup draft at the game shop, that one card is all you need for your EDH deck. Better yet, any additional copies you open can be traded away for other single cards you need or want. If you’re a competitive tournament player, you likely won’t have a Baneslayer Angel in your trade binder unless it’s the fifth one you’ve somehow managed to acquire through some serious pack opening. If you’re more of a casual EDH player, that second Baneslayer Angel you open is a $30 siren-song that’ll have others drooling over your binder.

If you’re in a playset mindset, each singleton rare that catches your fancy is just the beginning of additional work and/or expense in acquiring more copies. Whereas if you’re in the singleton/highlander mindset, every single rare or mythic you open up is an opportunity for something cool in your EDH deck.

To me, that’s one of the most appealing parts of EDH. Before I started playing this format, those random singleton rares in my collection were mostly annoyances. Now they’re each potential superstars.

Choosing Your General
Okay, so you’ve decided to try building an EDH – congratulations, and welcome to the fun! The first and most important question now is, what general will you play? Choosing a general can be as simple as asking yourself, what colors do I want to play? Then you go pick a general that matches those colors. I’ve seen a lot of players do that and I’ve done that a couple times myself. However, you are robbing yourself of the most important and reliable element of your EDH deck. When you begin the game, you set aside your general in the Exile zone, and the general is always available for you to cast if you have the mana available. If he gets destroyed you can remove him from the game, and you can cast him again with a 2 generic mana penalty for each additional time you cast him this way. Since EDH is singleton format, your general is the most reliable and consistent element of your deck.

Legendary creatures tend to have cool and flavorful abilities, and since your general will almost always be available to you, it is often worth it to build your deck with your general heavily in mind. For instance, if you choose Doran, the Siege-Tower as your general, when building your deck you’ll want to choose creatures that have a high toughness over those that have a low toughness. Deadly Insect looks pretty silly with a Doran in play, while Grizzled Leotau is insane.

You also want to keep in mind that multiplayer Magic has a very important element that dueling Magic does not have: politics. There are legendary creatures that can hugely impact how the other players interact with you. For example, let’s look at Phelddagrif’s special abilities:

• G: Phelddagrif gains trample until end of turn. Target opponent puts a 1/1 green Hippo creature token onto the battlefield.
• W: Phelddagrif gains flying until end of turn. Target opponent gains 2 life.
• U: Return Phelddagrif to its owner’s hand. Target opponent may draw a card.

In multiplayer, Phelddagrif is Santa Claus, the gift that keeps on giving so long as you’re nice and not naughty. Say you’re attacking with Phelddagrif and it gets chump blocked. You say to yourself — but out loud — “hmm, I should give him trample, but who should I give the 1/1 Hippo token to?” You’ve got another player who’s got a Skullclamp in play but no creatures, and he steps up and casts Might of Oaks on your Phelddagrif. You give your Phelddagrif trample and give the nice fellow a token for his ‘clamp. Heck, you might give him a couple more if you’ve got the extra Green mana! Politics 101: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

Another example. A player has maneuvered himself into a commanding position and is very likely to win. He goes to kill one of the few players remaining… and you give Phelddagrif flying a few times to keep him alive. You’ve bought yourself an ally and someone who’s likely extremely dedicated to taking out the player that tried to knock him out of the game.

Another – A player taps down for a Tidespout Tyrant. It’s pretty obvious if he gets to untap with the Tyrant on the board the game is going to be quickly over as everyone else’s permanents get bounced back to their hand. Everyone looks despondent; apparently nobody has any removal in hand. You eyeball the Mono-Black player. “Got some creature removal in your deck?” He grins evilly in response. “I give my Phelddagrif flying a few times…” and you let him draw deep for an answer.

Okay, let’s go to the other end of the legendary spectrum: Grand Arbiter Augustin IV. Here are his abilities:

• White spells you cast cost {1} less to cast.
• Blue spells you cast cost {1} less to cast.
• Spells your opponents cast cost {1} more to cast.

At first blush, he seems like a perfect general. He helps you cast your spells for less mana, and his Mana Tithe affects all opponents around the table. While that’s technically true, more importantly what that last ability actually does is annoy the living crap out of everyone at the table while not really locking them out of playing spells (without some serious support from other cards). That’s a recipe for disaster; no matter how strong your position in the game, if multiple players flat out gang up on you its trouble. At a bare minimum every piece of creature removal will be pointed at your general. Worse case scenario multiple players decide the best way to remove the Grand Arbiter annoyance is to just take you out of the game.

The most important question you need to ask yourself when choosing your general is this: how will the other players react when this general gets played? Multiplayer is tricky because you don’t want all your opponents to be “opponents” until the time is right to take them out. The best generals tend to be powerful without being too overtly threatening or provocative. Think about a recently printed Legend – Uril, the Mist Stalker. He’s a big Rabid Wombat and he seems like the perfect flavorful general to build a deck around. However, Uril is a massive threat the moment he hits the table due to the general damage rule. No matter how much life a player has, if he takes a cumulative 21 points of combat damage from a particular general, that player loses the game. If you’ve seen Uril in action, you know it’s ridiculously easy to enchant Uril with Auras enough to deal 21 or more points of damage. Say he’s got Runes of the Deus and Shield of the Oversoul on him – that’s a 13/13 double-striking, trampling, flying and indestructible Wombat that can’t be targeted by any opponents’ effects. Basically, Uril is a player-killing shotgun, loaded and ready to kill nearly anyone in just one attack step. Savvy players might recognize this and likely be proactive in trying to stop him from ever hitting play, either screwing up your colored mana sources so you can’t cast him, or saving counterspells for when you try to cast him (forcing you to spend 2 more mana each time). Imagine the frustration in having a handful of Auras and no Uril available to receive them!

Contrast Uril with Doran, the Siege-Tower. Doran is undoubtedly powerful, especially in a deck built to take advantage of his toughness-related ability. But he’s just a creature that can be targeted, chump-blocked, and will need a few hits in order to kill someone with the general damage rule. He’s not likely to get people’s feathers too ruffled as to provoke the entire table to gang up on you.

Another overly powerful general is Zur the Enchanter. Many play groups are openly hostile to this guy because the ability to tutor up the perfect enchantment for the situation and then putting it directly into play is extremely potent on a general that can hit the board often on turn 3. Between Auras you can tutor up and place on Zur and counterspells in hand, Zur can be pretty much unstoppable.

On the far opposite end of the spectrum is Norin the Wary, a general I played not too long ago. Norin has the distinction of never actually being able to inflict general damage and is pretty much the definition of non-threatening. Even the funky combos you can pull off with him are relatively mild. I picked Norin specifically because I’d played an aggressive general in the previous EDH and won the table, and wanted to keep a really low profile the next time around. And it worked; I wasn’t messed with much and didn’t make any aggressive moves until late in the game.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever play aggressive generals like Uril or “griefer” generals like Grand Arbiter Augustin IV. The takeaway is this: make sure you think through the reaction the other players will have when you play your general, or in some cases even threatening to play your general, and plan accordingly. In the case of Uril, maybe you make your deck more of a Green/White/Red “good stuff” deck with a fair number of Auras, and maybe make the Auras more fun or wacky as opposed to lethal (I’m thinking something like Elemental Mastery and Daily Regimen). That way, your deck still plays fine even if someone is freaked out over Uril and keeps you from playing him.

If you don’t already have a favorite legend you’re itching to build an EDH deck around, I’ll recommend a few “starter” general suggestions that should be pretty easy or cheap to acquire, have a decent power level yet should not freak out other EDH players. I’m avoiding generals with more than two colors because then you start running into colored mana issues and that can be tricky to pull together in a 100-card deck for newer players. Feel free to ask me my opinion on other legends as generals in the forums.

Ashling the Pilgrim: On magicthegathering.com recently, there was an EDH deck posted that consisted of Ashling the Pilgrim… and 99 Mountains. It certainly doesn’t get any simpler than that! However, a more traditional monored and artifact approach to Ashling would be a fine starter general, either surrounded by a bunch of burn spells and fiery creatures, or focusing more on some of the wildly wacky and chaotic spells red has in its arsenal.

Sygg, River Guide: Lorwyn’s linear focus makes many of their legends great generals to build around. If you like the fishy folk, Sygg’s your man.

Rhys the Exiled: A general for your monogreen Elf deck.

Wort, Boggart Auntie: Perfect for your Goblin deck.

Sapling of Colfenor: He may not mention Treefolk, but if you use him as the general for your Treefolk deck, you’ll have plenty of high toughness creatures to maximize his ability (and don’t forget a Sensei’s Divining Top and Sylvan Library to stack the top of your deck).

Arcanis the Omnipotent & Azami, Lady of Scrolls: You can do worse than a general who just draws you cards.

Stonebrow, Krosan Hero: Red and Green have plenty of trampling beasties, give them a lord to rally around!

Vhati il-Dal: An incredibly flexible and politically useful general with both offensive and defensive abilities.

Tolsimir Wolfblood: A fun and flavorful card that boosts all your Green and White creatures.

Godo, Bandit Warlord: Kamigawa block is chock full of flavorful legends; pick Godo if you’ve got a couple of killer pieces of equipment (and some Samurai!) you want to play with!

Michiko Konda, Truth Seeker: A great “rattlesnake” general to encourage players to attack elsewhere.

Patron of the Orochi: Kamigawa has a lot of great snakes, and there are some good ones scattered throughout other Magic sets too. Being able to play your general at instant speed will be very helpful sometimes.

Rune-Tail, Kitsune Ascendant: Considering your starting life will easily trigger the flip ability, this makes a great general for a White Weenie deck.

Sakashima the Impostor: If it seems all your opponents have creatures that are so much better than what you own… just copy them! Note that copying them is much friendlier than stealing them with Mind Control or Control Magic

Your Win Condition: Combo or No?
Okay, so you’ve picked your general and you’re starting to pull together cards for your deck. Before you go too far, you’ll want to consider your deck’s end game. Winning an EDH game is much more difficult and complicated than winning a duel. For one thing, each opponent starts with 40 life, and many will often go up astronomical life totals in a long game. Also, you never know what crazy things might happen in the course of a game that lasts hours.

Many players will put one or more “infinite” combos into their deck, figuring that, no matter what people’s life totals end up becoming, if you can combo infinitely you can pretty much overcome any obstacle. Multiplayer games often go long enough that you’ll have the opportunity to combo out even in a singleton format, given enough tutors and card drawing. An example of an infinite combo I recently lost to is Squirrel Nest and Earthcraft, which can create an unbounded loop to make as many squirrels as you need at the end of a player’s turn, untap, and then attack for however much damage you need to kill everyone else. While these combos don’t tend to be too difficult to disrupt by themselves, it’s often quite easy to set up an airtight defense before launching your combo, like casting Silence first or accumulating a fistful of counterspells.

The problem I see with infinite combos is that they don’t tend to make a very satisfactory ending to an EDH game. So one player managed to get a couple cards together that no one could stop and just instantly won… woo hoo. Some play groups dislike infinite combo kills to the point where everyone else shrugs and says okay, ace… you won. The rest of us are going to keep playing for second place. Let me suggest to you there’s cold-comfort in “winning” if you sit there for a couple more hours watching as everyone else continues playing.

As Jon Flieger recently said in an email, “EDH is about throwing haymakers.” I think he really boiled down what is truly fun about the format. When my friend won with the Squirrel Nest/Earthcraft combo, I tried to take humor from the mental image of dying to a swarm of squirrels, but a couple of the other guys around the table mentioned that they vastly preferred losing to my army of flying dragons a month prior. Why is that? You could argue I most certainly “combo killed” with my Karrthus deck, playing Patriarch’s Bidding to bring back a bunch of dead Dragons in my graveyard, and playing Mana Geyser to help play Karrthus from Exile and several other Dragons from my hand. I think the difference though is that I didn’t “go infinite.” I managed to have enough hasty dragons in play to kill four players but I didn’t have enough offense to kill the last remaining player. I didn’t “go off” so much as I threw a heckuva haymaker that turn. It was nearly enough to win… and in fact I did win the following turn, but I gave that last opponent the chance to beat me before I got another attack phase – and playing an Elf deck after Patriarch’s Bidding, he came pretty close to doing that.

On one hand you can play to combo kill; on another, you can just add powerful cards and haymakers to your deck and play for something cool or spectacular that just might get you victory if the chips fall right. Maybe it’s a late game Guiltfeeder equipped with Whispersilk Cloak. Maybe it’s sacrificing a Lord of Extinction to Xathrid Demon. Maybe it’s an end of turn Twilight’s Call, untap and then cast Insurrection. Maybe it’s a Dark Depths ticking away until Marit Lage makes an appearance. These sorts of powerful plays are much more acceptable because they are not necessarily going to win the game on the spot, but they’ll certainly shake up the game.

Okay, this is getting a bit long so I’ll break for this week and pick it up again next week. Have a great weekend!

Take care…


starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com