Magic Gatherings #8: The More Things Change

By Harry Huberty on

About Harry Huberty

Harry blogs about games for GeeklyInc. He loves Magic: The Gathering, but he's always looking for new things to try, too. Find him on Twitter (@cutefuzzy_).


Welcome back to Magic Gatherings!

Last week, we took a look at the new set, Dragons of Tarkir, and tried to figure out what sorts of limited strategies its cards would encourage.  Today, we’ll have a bit of a grab bag: first, having actually now played the cards at the prerelease, we’ll refine our picture of DTK limited.  Then, we’ll discuss the big changes in the Commander format that were announced this week.  (Next time we’ll wrap up themes, I swear.)

Limited Insights

So, a quick recap of my prerelease.  As promised, I chose Ojutai as my dragonlord.  My pool, on the whole, felt pretty medium—my blue was great, but when pairing it with each of the other four colors, nothing jumped out at me.  I tried a blue-green deck (with two [mtg_card]Epic Confrontation[/mtg_card] and two [mtg_card]Segmented Krotiq[/mtg_card]) for a single game, then shifted to blue-red for the rest of the day.  It was good enough for a 2-1-1 record (I split in the last round, but won a for-fun match against a friend).

My most salient impression from the four rounds I played: megamorph mattered less than I thought it would.  It was pretty clear from my first game of my first match, when my [mtg_card]Segmented Krotiq[/mtg_card]s were effectively [mtg_card]Grey Ogres[/mtg_card]. Flipping at seven mana, as it turns out, is a big change.  Casting one of them at six was nice, but neither option left me with open mana for [mtg_card]Epic Confrontation[/mtg_card], which is what I would have needed to stabilize the board.

Still a great card—just not when you don't have creatures to fight with.

Still a great card—just not when you don’t have creatures to fight with.

Based on that, I think my review last week overstated the presence and importance of megamorph a bit.  First, as it turns out, the lower presence at common mattered: it felt like there were fewer morphs around.  The relatively smaller sizes, compared to Khans, mattered too: apart from [mtg_card]Aerie Bowmasters[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Sandstorm Charger[/mtg_card], the biggest common morphs flip at seven mana.  (I’m not counting Dirgur Nemesis, which I recommend you don’t play.)  The other common morphs are a bit easier to tangle with.

As I mentioned above, seven mana was a lot more than the six you’d pay to unmorph a [mtg_card]Glacial Stalker[/mtg_card] or the like in Khans limited.  Part of that is simple arithmetic.  The other part is that it really feels like more relevant creatures are played to the board more frequently in Dragons limited.

It makes sense: with fewer morphs, there’s less chance your opponent’s turn-four or turn-five play will only be another morph, and a greater chance it will be more threatening than a 2/2, and thus require more of a response.  Four-mana plays in this format include 2/3 flying [mtg_card]Night’s Whisper[/mtg_card] ([mtg_card]Vulturous Aven[/mtg_card]) and 4/2 trample-that-could-have-first-strike-next-turn ([mtg_card]Sabertooth Outrider[/mtg_card]).  Five mana plays include a 5/4 in [mtg_card]Sprinting Warbrute[/mtg_card], a 5/5 in [mtg_card]Stampeding Elk Herd[/mtg_card], a 3/3 that kills something in [mtg_card]Silumgar Butcher[/mtg_card], and a 2/3 flyer that makes something else stronger in [mtg_card]Aven Tactician[/mtg_card].

Against some of those creatures—and particularly if your opponent has played two- and three-mana creatures as well—flipping up a megamorph on turn five or six is unlikely to shore up the board enough to make you feel safe, and turn seven is a long time to wait.  Moreover, the variety of removal spells can punish you for investing a lot of time and mana into one creature, rather than diversifying your board presence.

Learn From the Past art by Chase Stone

Learn From the Past art by Chase Stone

Speaking of removal: there was a fair bit of it, but as I mentioned last week, it’s of variable quality.  I had three copies of [mtg_card]Reduce in Stature[/mtg_card], but I wasn’t as happy with it as I thought I would be.  It’s awful against exploit decks, but it can also be awkward on a megamorph (as I made the mistake of doing one game), or against an opponent with tricks.  [mtg_card]Tail Slash[/mtg_card] was usually great for me, though—the instant speed mattered quite a bit.  [mtg_card]Cunning Strike[/mtg_card] was always great for me (especially with how long some of those megamorphs stay face-down for), but some pros have been sour on it in their set reviews.

Over on Star City Games Premium, Sam Black makes the observation that Dragons limited has a lot of parallels to constructed formats, particularly in how some of the removal spells line up very well against certain decks and very poorly against others.  It’s a great insight.  For example, a blue-white deck might have a few [mtg_card]Pacifism[/mtg_card]s and a few [mtg_card]Reduce in Stature[/mtg_card]s as its best removal spells, and feel pretty good about itself.  But those enchantments are a liability against exploit decks (which will happily sacrifice a the enchanted creature for value) and against Dash decks (an interaction I didn’t foresee last week: that sorcery-speed removal can’t answer Dashed creatures).

Some friends and I ran back a Dragons-Dragons-Fate Reforged draft after the prerelease, and that aspect of the format was in full effect: I went black-white warriors, and had a number of extra removal spells and combat tricks, which I had to sideboard heavily: [mtg_card]Defeat[/mtg_card] in against [mtg_card]Dromoka Dunecaster[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Updraft Elemental[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Butcher’s Glee[/mtg_card] when I thought I could draw double-blocks.

As for the dragons themselves: not all games featured them, but dragons were important in the games they appeared in.  4/4 flyers end the game quickly anyway, and especially so when they have good abilities.

Condemn art by Daren Bader

Condemn art by Daren Bader

Tuck, Tuck, Goose

Meanwhile, back in our beloved Commander-land, changes are afoot.  On Monday, the Commander Rules Committee, a collection of dedicated format luminaries who maintain the rules and banned cards lists for the Commander format, announced a new rules change: Commanders can now be put in the Command zone anytime they would go anywhere else. You already had the option to send your commander to the Command Zone instead of putting it in your graveyard or into exile, so the change now extends that choice to situations where your commander might be returned to your hand or shuffled into your library.

If you’re scratching your head as to why this matters, the change is specifically targeted at a class of cards colloquially known as “tuck” spells, which put cards on the bottoms of decks or shuffle them into decks.  (I.e., you “tuck” the card onto the bottom of your library.)  Tuck spells have traditionally been a tool for permanently or semi-permanently putting opposing commanders out of commission.  The most popular tuck spells include counters like [mtg_card]Hinder[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Spell Crumple[/mtg_card], as well as targeted removal spells like [mtg_card]Condemn[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Oblation[/mtg_card], or [mtg_card]Chaos Warp[/mtg_card].

The popular targets for tuck spells typically include some of the strongest commanders in the format—commanders like [mtg_card]Narset, Enlightened Master[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Sigarda, Host of Herons[/mtg_card], or any of the Theros gods, who are difficult to remove once they’re in play.  There are also commanders like [mtg_card]Zur the Enchanter[/mtg_card], who can quickly deploy game-winning combos, or [mtg_card]Prossh, Skyraider of Kher[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Maelstrom Wanderer[/mtg_card], who deliver huge bonuses when you cast them over and over again.  Tuck these commanders, the theory goes, and the decks built to abuse them crumple.

Also crumples fun.

Also crumples fun.

So why neuter tuck spells?  Well, simply put, tuck spells suck, at least when it’s your commander getting tucked.  You’ll also notice that the majority of tuck spells are blue or white; the Rules Committee didn’t want certain colors to have access to an entire class of answers other colors couldn’t replicate.  They also suggested that tuck spells encourage players to run more “tutors”—spells that can find a particular card in your deck and put it directly into your hand.

Reactions have been mixed, but personally, I’m optimistic about the change.  Truth be told, tuck spells rarely hit the super-powerful commanders for which they are intended; more often, they hit whatever commander happens to be getting cast or attacking while a player has a tuck spell in hand, and mana up to play it.  I once saw a friend’s [mtg_card]Atarka, World Render[/mtg_card] get tucked by a [mtg_card]Condemn[/mtg_card]; my friend’s deck, built entirely around Atarka, was essentially eliminated.  Meanwhile, that Condemn couldn’t even hit the Narset which eventually won the game.

As you’d suspect from that example, tuck can also disproportionately affect certain commanders and decks more than others.  This is particularly dependent on deck composition: the more important your commander is to your game plan, the more severely your deck is punished by tuck.  In this way, tuck spells encourage players to build more generic “goodstuff” decks, forsaking larger synergy in the hopes that they won’t lack for powerful spells if they suddenly don’t have access to their commander.

For those reasons, when you’re the player hit by the tuck spell, it stinks.  Ultimately, one of the best parts about Commander is how each legendary leader presents its own interesting deckbuilding project: even in the same colors, a Tasigur deck will want different cards from a Sidisi deck, even though decks will play the same colors and both will seek to utilize the graveyard as a resource.  Tuck spells punish more specialized card choices which may be more effective when you have your commander, but far less effective without it.

In contrast, dedicating slots to “correct answers” (like tuck spells) and “correct tutors” (to find your commander again) makes decks more similar overall, which in turn makes the format more homogenous.  This change frees each deck to play more of the cards it really wants to, rather than the cards it really has to.

There’s also the fact that your commander, sitting in the command zone, is effectively an extra card in your hand.  Having access to your commander means you’re never really empty-handed, and therefore you almost always have something you can do to participate in the game.  It’s a subtle aspect of the format’s rules, but it’s among the things which make Commander an amazing casual format—in particular, an amazing multiplayer casual format.  If your commander is tucked, too often you’re effectively doing nothing.  Having nothing to do in a four-player game is unacceptable.

Terminus art by Jaimes Paick

Terminus art by Jaimes Paick

But you might be wondering about what will happen to those powerful commanders that were supposedly being held in check by tuck spells.  What’s stopping them now?

Well, in truth, nothing.  There are things you can do, of course, though those answers may make the game even less fun than the commander’s they’re trying to stop.  But if you want to wreck your friends with an all-out Narset combo deck, you can probably do that.  (Of course, you probably could have done that already, if you were willing to hazard getting Narset [mtg_card]Hinder[/mtg_card]ed every once in a while.)

Hopefully, though, that’s not what you really want.  Commander is a community- and communally-focused format, where everyone having fun is prized over the ultimate victory.   In that sense, I look at the change as a vote of confidence in casual play.  Just because there are fewer tools to stop commander-based combos doesn’t mean there are more reasons to play them.  (Of course, if your group wants to go no-holds-barred, do so by all means. Just talk things out with your friends and make sure you’re all on the same page as to what’s going to be fair game.  This can be easier said than done.)

Finally, it’s important to remember above all that Commander is a casual format.  If you find, in your playgroup, that it’s really not possible to balance things—that certain commanders just can’t be beat without tuck spells, and your friends can’t be dissuaded from playing them—you can always house-rule them back.

A Parting Note

Last but not least, I’d like to extend my heartfelt condolences to the friends and family of Mike McArtor, editor of WotC’s Magic website,  McArtor was tragically killed in a car accident on Monday.  From the tribute to him on the WotC website, it’s clear he touched everyone he worked with.

It’s times like this we should remember that as fun as games are, the greatest things they give are the connections we make with others while we play.  The next time you sit down to game, take a moment to make sure the people you’re playing with know how important they are to you.  The game will only last a few hours, but your friendships will last a lifetime.

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