When I first learned about Commander many years ago, I assumed it was a lot like Standard, or Type 2 as we called it back in the day. People play control, combo and aggressive decks, and it was my job to beat them with a better deck and superior play.
I quickly found out that was not the case.
Upon having the table dead on turn four, one of the players began complaining very loudly about how stupid this was and how he'd never have joined the $5 tournament had he known people were going to play so competitively. Ok! Sure! "I'm sorry," I said. They explained to me the theory behind Elder Dragon Highlander (its name from the beginning) and the spirit of long games with wacky plays and big creatures and all sorts of fun interactions. Ok! Sure! I withdrew my commitment to end the match and was then promptly killed when the complaining player combo-killed the table on his next turn. He made sure we all understood what table politics was, and that his deck "never did that." Ok! Sure!
It was then I learned a pretty valuable lesson: in each game, you must assess the different roles and strategies of each player in your pod. Whether your aim is winning or having fun, you can't go into every pod with the same linear strategy.
Last week in my Olivia Voldaren Vampires article I addressed how to play against different decks with something midrange like Olivia. She's not an aggro, combo, or control deck, so understanding what role to assign yourself against each opponent in the pod is how you'll find your way to victory.
Say you're piloting Roon of the Hidden Realm.
Your deck is meant to extract massive amounts of value through effects like Wood Elves that help you ramp, control the board with Glen Elendra Archmage, and handle any problematic permanents with Terastodon or Woodfall Primus. These cards are all made way better with Roon blinking your creatures and giving you a "soft lock" on the board.
There's a The Locust God deck at the table that exploits how slow you are by countering your key spells and killing you through card advantage. This is you:
A member of your pod is playing Skullbriar, the Walking Grave.
They're very aggressive, and this aggression is enhanced by a Swords package (Sword of Light and Shadow, Sword of Fire and Ice, Sword of Feast and Famine), as well as various enchantments like Rancor and scavenge cards to make Skullbriar huge and kill very quickly with commander damage. Your Roon deck is extremely tough for Skullbriar to beat since your creatures are generally much larger and can bounce the 'briar over and over again.
Next in the pod is a combo-centric Lazav, the Multifarious.
They want to keep the board at bay with sweepers like Damnation and Toxic Deluge, counter as many spells as possible, and finish up the game with the powerful Thassa's Oracle/Demonic Consultation one-two punch. They'll search up these cards with Vampiric and Demonic Tutor or draw massive amounts of cards with Necropotence. Lazav is at a massive disadvantage against Skullbriar due to how quickly Skullbriar is online, and Lazav doesn't have many efficient ways of killing it once it begins rolling downhill.
Lastly is The Locust God.
This Izzet Control deck focuses on sweepers, counters, drawing tons of cards with Wheel of Fortune and Windfall-like spells, and winning with 1/1 flying Insect creatures. They will stall with Blasphemous Act, Wash Out or Cyclonic Rift. It almost feels like they never run out of spells or cards, and they can keep Lazav in check by countering combo pieces.
As Roon of the Hidden Realms, you want to win this match but completely understand that Lazav may be too fast. Skullbriar is a great matchup, but Locust God can stall you way too long and ride out your threats before killing you. There are two problematic matchups and one favorable one, so what's the plan going forward?
This one is the easiest part because beating Skullbriar naturally plays into our game plan. It's easy to stall them with your value creatures. Wall of Blossoms can handle the 2/1 Zombie, and Stonehorn Dignitary in combination with Roon will allow you to Fog all of their combat steps. Skullbriar won't be able to focus on you very well because your game plan fluidly breaks theirs apart. Instead, they'll look to get a quick start against Lazav or even The Locust God to build up a gigantic commander that'll eventually—hopefully—contest your board.
Now it gets trickier. Lazav does two things very well: maintain control over midrange decks and kill quickly, neither of which are good for you. Do you throw creatures at them and hope one of them sticks, or do you try to form an alliance at the table between yourself and The Locust God to counter their key spells while you do the heavy lifting? Skullbriar will be obliged to help in that category since they can reasonably battle Lazav and enhance their board. This is a win/win for the table, but the assumption must be that Locust God is okay with challenging Lazav.
If you're on your own, setting up key creatures will be how you beat Lazav rather than hoping a barrage will do the trick. Something like a resolved Glen Elendra Archmage can cut them off their sweepers while containing combo enablers like Demonic Consultation. But do we stop there? Where else can we attack them if the Archmage is also countered?
Their mana. Roon is going to give you access to things like Acidic Slime which, while costing five mana, can set them back a turn. Terastodon turns their valuable lands into creatures. Combine that with Roon? You can't combo if you don't have mana! This is achievable through your mana acceleration that, while Lazav is setting up, you should be able to obtain. Your creatures naturally block Skullbriar and Locust God isn't concerned by your accelerating. Landing a single mana disruption spell could be the difference between winning and losing the pod with Lazav present. Your opponents are your friends against combo decks, so try to play nice.
Things go from tricky to rough in a hurry.
Subversion against Locust God is how Roon is going to prevail, which sounds sneaky because it is. You cannot and must not focus on them initially, because that's going to get you killed and divert precious resources meant to keep Lazav in check. You want to prolong the game into the deeper phases where Roon can shine.
Building up card advantage against Locust God is Roon's best tool. Remember, you are not threatening to them for the most part in the early and middle stages of the game. They are handling all three other members of the table with mass removal (dealing with Roon and Skullbriar), countermagic (Roon and Lazav), and blockers (Insect tokens provided by their commander). This might sound like The Locust God is unbeatable, but as with most control decks, cracks will start to form the more you overload their removal and spells. A turn-four Guardian Project is going to draw you a lot of cards, or a Cloudblazer you can blink more than once with Flickerwisp or Ghostly Flicker. While Skullbriar and Locust God are keeping Lazav in check, concern yourself with drawing cards so when the game pivots you're able to overwhelm Locust God before they can get their footing.
We've established what routes are necessary against each opponent, so now you put it all together in a pod.
Your early turns will be spent developing your mana. You need this for later against Locust God and as a contingency plan for Lazav. Your natural development can protect you from Skullbriar because much of your development comes from creatures.
If you enter the midgame you'll start to build momentum. Lasav and Skullbriar get weaker the longer the game goes on, with Lazav having to deal with you and Skullbriar, and Skullbriar expending so many cards to stay on board and apply pressure. A midrange deck such as Roon loves this stage of the game, so it's where you're going to want to start setting up for the later stages against Locust God once you've stabilized the board against your worst (Lazav) and your best (Skullbriar) matchups. Those are covered, and you're getting splash assistance from Locust God to keep equilibrium on board.
Now comes the final pivot. As long as Lasav is kept on a chain so they can't instant-combo, you're in the clear to start throwing everything at The Locust God. Remember, they can only counter so many things, and because they're Izzet they don't have as many mass removal spells as black does. Your late-game powerful cards like Agent of Treachery can come online and punish Locust God for spreading too thin.
By this point you've had strong early, mid, and late phases of the game as the midrange deck. It might sound elementary, but it takes a great deal of navigation on your part to beat an aggressive deck, a combo deck and control deck.
That's your lesson for today: understand the inherent power of your deck, but be flexible and fluid in a pod to switch roles as quickly as possible to either shore up a weakness or take advantage of a strength. Games will be decided by how nimble you are at identifying where your attention is needed most.
Also Knock Knock.
Car Go Beep Beep
Always leave them with a joke.