Commander is the people's format. The format of creativity and self expression. It's also the format where you can run Un-cards and a playset of Squadron Hawk (if you have that Rule 0 conversation with your pod, of course). The health of the Commander is unique, because it relies on the enjoyment of the players.
Rule 0 conversations are at the heart of this enjoyment. Whether it's letting people know you run proxies or gold bordered cards, these conversations are important for all games of Commander. While running powerful cards in your deck aren't necessarily part of that Rule 0 conversation (unrelated to power level), as of late I've been finding myself letting my opponents know the 'controversial' cards I run in my deck.
"I run Hullbreacher in my Locust God wheels deck."
"I run Maralen of the Mornsong in my Phage deck."
"I run Opposition Agent in my Varragoth tutor deck."
These are all things I've said before games as part of this Rule 0 conversation, partially because I know how others feel about these pieces. They are potent, powerful, and can often lead to 'feels bad' moments in games when played at the wrong time. Now, this article is not me calling for the banning of these cards, nor is it imploring you to have the same Rule 0 conversations as I do. I wrote this article because I wanted to share a lesson I've recently learned being a paper Commander streamer—holding back.
I know what you're thinking: "But Chase, I want to win!" Let's be honest—I completely understand this. Winning is fun! It's a great feeling to see a deck you worked hard on do something crazy, and do it well. However, holding back in Commander doesn't mean sacrificing a win. Instead, it allows our opponents to play the game and experience the same fun and joy we're experiencing.
But what are we holding back from? Allow me to explain. Have you ever been playing a game of Commander and you slam down a powerful piece early on because you were so excited? Has this ever resulted in a game ending early or going on too long? I feel this has happened to everyone at least once in their Magic career. As a streamer, this has happened to me many times. I've looked at my hand, seen that Winter Orb, and thought, "Chat would love and freak out if I played it on turn two!" And while chat does love it, I quickly discovered my opponents don't. That excited feeling quickly faded and I ended up feeling bad and was (rightfully) targeted.
Cards like Hullbreacher, Cyclonic Rift, Winter Orb, and Opposition Agent create bad situations when played at the wrong moment. I'm not saying don't ever run those cards. I love me some Hullbreacher. Instead, I want to encourage playing these spells at specific moments in the game. So when exactly do you play these cards? Well, unfortunately the messy answer is that it depends. In order for us to understand when to play cards like these, we need to understand why they can negatively impact the social contract at the table.
Why do these cards create these feelings? The short answer is they put the breaks on card advantage. When you sit down to play a game of Commander, there is an unspoken agreement that you're all there to play a game. When cards like these come out too early, or even at the wrong time, game play can stop. Rather than focusing on the game, your opponents focus on you, because you bounced their board, took away their ability to draw cards, or took their tutors away.
The "feels bad" situation stems from opponents having to focus on someone else's boardstate to possibly continue the game as it was. The enjoyment of the game has shifted. This isn't to say playing potent cards like the ones previously listed shouldn't happen. A well-placed Cyclonic Rift can lead to a game-ending combat step, and a flashed-in Hullbreacher can prevent that The Locust God player from popping off. However, denying people a boardstate, or denying them their draws around turn three can weaken that unspoken social contract one goes into a game of Commander with.
What is the solution? Rather than cutting such cards from my deck, I've opted to hold back in certain games. If I draw into that Hullbreacher early on, I don't play it. I wait until I can flash that thing in for some much-needed extra mana. I Cyclonic Rift if the board has gotten too scary or I need that lack of blockers for combat. I allow the game to progress, but not get so out of hand I can't come back from it. Winning is fun, but denying others the ability to play is not.
Another solution is sideboarding replacement cards that are considered a lower power level. While this may not lead to those powerful, heart-pounding plays, they don't harm the pod's enjoyment of the game. Good substitutions for Cyclonic Rift are Evacuation, Whelming Wave, and Engulf the Shore, because it also returns your permanents to your hand. Bounce spells like these are not one-sided, and literally level the playing field.
But what about Hullbreacher? Depending on the color of your commander, cards like Plagiarize and Alms Collector are much less impactful than Hullbreacher. Yes they still rob your opponents of card draw, but not completely so. The advantage is there, but it is drastically reduced.
Holding back does not mean you sacrifice winning. In fact, it strengthens the social contract you've made with your pod. By holding back you're not allowing your opponents to win—you're allowing them to play and participate in the game. Commander is the format where participation is at the heart of the enjoyment for most players. Everyone wants to be able to make wild and wacky plays that make your hands shake and your heart pound. After all, isn't it much more fun to steal the win last minute rather than making yourself the archenemy early on?