Cryptic Commander: Turning Corners and a Modern Outlook with Andrew Pemberton

Cryptic Commander: Knowing Your Enemy in EDH by Andrew Pemberton



Before I say anything, just let me say one thing…

I am a great, filthy liar.

Yep, that’s right. Unfortunately, my promise of more content got a little bit hampered… again.  For this, I can only apologise (which makes me kinda wonder whether this is how I should start my articles from now on…).

Now, this is not an article to say I’m quitting (lord knows I’m too stupid for that!): It’s just a notice to say “Hey, I’m going through some trouble, the articles might be a little further apart than usual.” That being said, I will try to the best of my abilities to grind out some content, and today, I’d like to talk about something that isn’t Commander-based for once… but before I do, I’d like to dedicate this article to Team Leeds, the source of much happiness, banter and love over the last few months when I needed it most.


Taking a Break and Turning Corners.

Today, I want to talk about taking breaks from Magic, and ways you can still achieve your fix without burning out. If you’re like me, then you’re the kind of person who likes to take frequent breaks from Magic in order to pursue other activities. It could be something simple like playing other games, up to concentrating on work/school, or a multitude of other reasons. The important thing about taking a break is it allows your mind to refresh itself: Thinking about one single thing for too long can cause you to burn out, and in a game such as Magic where your brain is needed at its maximum in most situations, it doesn’t help to tire yourself, leading to frustration and possibly even quitting this great game.

I had a situation about three months ago, back when I was scrambling to keep my job, where I was fairly frustrated. As a weekly thing, my playgroup get together on Tuesday nights, for what we now call TNMAOG (Tuesday Night magic and Other Games). Usually, this would involve my playgroup stopping over at my place, us playing a few games of Commander until about midnight, then all of us leaving either with a sense of fulfilment or dread, depending on how the games panned out. Since this was our schedule for the longest time, we got into the habit of playing this as our only format, and as such, things slowly became quite tedious, whether it was seeing the same combo for the 1,000-th time, players killing other players and it devolving into discussions (read: Arguments) over whether it was the right call, and almost ultimately throwing one player out of the group for repeatable actions like this. This is not the way I planned our group to go, and certainly, it is an issue that probably resides in most playgroups.

Today, I want to discuss with you ways you can keep your playgroup happy, while also keeping yourself happy! At its core, Magic is a game, so we all have to enjoy it any way we can, and we have the capacity to enjoy it any way we want, whether that be competitive Magic with my fellow writers, Commander with my casual playgroup, or even playing a different game altogether. Let’s lay out your options:

1) Changing your location.

This can seem quite mundane at first, but I’ll assure you that this can be one of the underestimated reasons for burning out. In my situation, TNM was played at my house for the first few months of its existance. For me, this meant an obligation to my playgroup to show up and play – if I just kept to myself in my room playing on my Xbox, I’d feel terrible for not taking care of my guests. Unfortunately, since this meant often playing when I had no drive to play, my tolerance would be significantly lower, and I would often either get fed up in the middle of games, or ask players to kill me so I could just get out of the boredom I was experiencing.

This is a danger when players go to one singular place all the time: If you continue to play in such an environment, such an environment will begin to affect you in ways you wouldn’t think. What we are doing actively now is splitting the play time between a number of venues, usually other players houses, but also Patriot Games Leeds, a newly-opened gaming store about 20 minutes walk from my place. Switching up locations means you can either really look forward to playing, taking the time to travel together with friends and chat, or if you’re not feeling up to it, step back and have an evening to relax and reflect on your day instead. Now I don’t have the obligation of hosting quite as much, it means I can more openly take more time to persue other projects and not get burned out with magic.

2) Changing the format.

This one is also a little under the radar, but it can yield some good results. If you’re constantly playing one single format, you’ll find that you may get burned out with seeing the same decks, or just a small card pool: When I first began playing in  the first Mirrodin block, the height of this was Ravager Affinity, a deck so powerful that it led to one of the highest drop-out rates of Magic players in recent history. However, I will admit that some players thrive under this pressure to improve, and I for one would love to be able to learn that skill!

However, if you’re the type that has only just started Magic and comes to this point, there’s a lot left undiscovered! Trying different formats not only gives you a different way to play the game, it also teaches different skills for improving your game. Drafting, for example, is one way to both improve skill and try something different. Most online / Brick ‘n’ Mortar stores will do draft sets, most certainly for anything recent, and buying a box and drafting it among your playgroup or at an FNM is one of the easiest ways to get an ‘in‘ into a new format: You get to see new cards, have to make on-the-fly decisions that could alter the course of the draft for you, and shows you the importance of certain types of cards. Even Commander is a great way to do something different now, and with the new decks, £25 pays for a lot of fun right out of the box, and not much more investment can give you something that fits your playstyle perfectly. If your budget stretches, Eternal formats such as Legacy and the newly-announced Modern format can also be good bets, giving your cards a form of investment due to them not rotating out such as with Standard.

Our playgroup regularly switches formats, with alternating Standard and Drafts over a month, usually twice a week. Not only this, the 5th week of a Month is put forward as a fun format, with anything from Two-Headed Giant, 15-card Highlander, and more recently Modern. This way, you rarely get burned out on one format unless you want to.

3) Changing the game.

Heresy! Sacrilege! Yes, I hear your cries, but trust me. One of the things I’ve also discovered while playing Magic is other games. The one thing about Magic is that some of its skills lend well into other types of games. For example:

-Deck-Building games, i.e. Ascension, Dominion. These are the ones that hold the most relevance in terms of Magic. As deck-building games, these are essentially draft sets in a box. Most games of this type revolve around having some form of currency in order to buy items from a central pool, either to increase your buying power, your military strength, or to banish cards of lower use from your own deck. These types of games teach you the same type of skills used in drafts: How to gauge card quality, choosing certain cards over others, and how to build a deck in order to get the most out of it every turn. Both of these games also have expansions, so as you grow, so does your collection – Dominion currently has 6 Sets with a 7th due next month, while Ascension has just released its first expansion, giving it two sets worth of cards to play with. All in all, the initial investment of £30-35 is worth it for the base games, and if you grow to enjoy it, the expansions are competitively priced in order to give you the most enjoyment. If you’re wanting a quick and easy way in, I would definitely recommend Ascension to start, as its rules are fairly easy to grasp while also having a little more card interaction than Dominion.

-Board Games, i.e. Settlers of Catan, Carcasonne, Talisman. These ones are more about resource management than anything, and so hold a little less true to games such as Magic, but still have relevance in the field. These games can have a wide variety of different ways to play and win, and often provide some very interesting interactions. Catan, in particular, brings a political side to the game much like what we see in Commander, and the trading of resources, along with the random aspect in which resources are allotted can lead to some interesting gameplay situations. Again, you’d look at around £30 for these sorts of games, and some even have expansions as well. I’ve been known to stay up until 4am playing a game of Talisman once, and we didn’t even finish that game! If you’re local to a Brick and Mortar store, ask them to demo a game for you and see how you like it before you decide to spend the money.

-Roleplaying games, i.e. Dungeons & Dragons, Dark Heresy, Shadowrun. These are often aimed more towards the artistically-inclined players, though most Roleplaying games also have a wide array of different settings. D&D being the classic example, it holds true to Magic with a very similar setting in a fantasy era of your own design. However, you can also go for other types: Mutants & Masterminds deals with a universe in which you are a superhero, while Dark Heresy sees you fight as a mighty Space Marine in the Warhammer 40K Universe. There is a little bit more development time for these sorts of games, and the cost is as expensive as it gets for this style of enjoyment, but there is still a fair amount of enjoyment to be had. One way of saving money in this regard is to go with older editions – D&D’s 3rd Edition books can be had for around £30-40 for a set of 3 if you’re a savvy buyer, which gives you everything you need to start a campaign for a group. On the other hand, by joining an already established group, only the Player’s Guide is necessary for play, and you can grab one of those fairly inexpensively depending on what system you play and how old it is.

So those are just three ways to avoid burning out, and I hope my lack of Commander-based reading hasn’t put you off at all!


A Modern Outlook.

So, as most of you know, we have a new Eternal format called Modern. Starting from 8th Edition and going forward, all Advanced and Core sets are legal, essentially meaning anything with the newer-style borders, aside from those in special Box sets such as From the Vaults and Duel Decks. Yesterday was my first chance to play the new format, and after a week of scouring the Daily events from MTGO and various formats, I could not find a deck I wanted to play. Being a blue mage at heart, I knew I wanted to play a Control deck, but unlike the Combo and Aggro decks that had already been established, there was very little in the way of true Control decks to choose from. Seeing little in the way of inspiration, I decided to homebrew my own deck, and with the help of good friend and fellow mtgUK writer Rob Wagner, I created this list;

4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Ghost Quarter
7 Island
5 Plains
1 Academy Ruins
1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
4 Vendilion Clique
2 Baneslayer Angel
2 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
4 Path to Exile
4 Preordain
3 Spell Snare
2 Repeal
4 Rune Snag
2 Crucible of Worlds
2 Wrath of God
3 Cryptic Command
2 Jace’s Ingenuity

15 Sideboard.

2 Bribery
4 Kitchen Finks
2 Mindbreak Trap
3 Threads of Disloyalty
1 Wrath of God
3 Annul


That’s right. No Swords, no Squadron Hawks, just a pure UW Control shell at its finest. I decided that I wanted the vast majority of my threats to come into play at Instant speed, and with the power of both Vendilion Clique and Teferi at my disposal, I felt I could do that easily enough. The main plan is with all Control decks: Control the board through cheap, effective spells, then drop a threat and attempt to swing for the win.A little discussion on the card choices:

-Creatures: I think the bare minimum I wanted in terms of this was to allow myself instant-speed threats that I could drop, either to force a counter or get a genuine threat on board. Teferi and Clique definitely filled those roles, and Baneslayer acts as your backup beater.

-Rune Snag vs. Mana Leak: Both are acceptable counters, but I feel Rune Snag gives you a lot better reach in the late game. In the early game, if you’re countering with either of these, there’s not a massive difference between 2 and 3, and after one Snag, all of your other Snags become better than Leaks… and keep getting better, too. At 4 mana per spell, they’re essentially hard counters.

-Jace’s Ingenuity: I had a long discussion with Rob Wagner about what draw spell to run. Initially, I was considering Thirst for Knowledge and Careful Consideration, but after much deliberating, we decided that as much as Thirst and Con are cheaper, they very rarely give you card advantage, just card quality. They’re great in pitching useless lands for potentially amazing spells, but for an extra mana, Ingenuity gives you both. The other consideration was Blue Sun’s Zenith, though it only equals Ingenuity for cards at 6 mana, albeit the recycling ability is nice. It’s still up in the air to be honest.

-12 Basics: To aid in getting around Blood Moon, Rob also suggested running a lot more basics than I was used to. I’m still not 100% sure if 12 is the right number, but it feels pretty close.

Annul in the Sideboard over Disenchant: In the sort of matchups where I’m facing Artifacts/Enchantments, I want to be able to deal with them in multiple ways. With Annul being half the cost of Disenchant, plus a higher blue contingent throughout, I thought they would give me a better game overall than Disenchant. Not to mention, once Hive Mind is down, you have no more priority to stop it, only to try and stop the Pacts, which is a heftier battle. The other nice thing is that it answers Affinity’s threats for cheap. Cranial Plating is one of the things you absolutely must counter, and with 6 1-mana counters against it post-board, you should have no problems.


Reporting Back.

We played 4 rounds of a tournament last night, so I’ll proide you with some results.

Round 1: Vs Infect OTK, cheap Infect dudes being pumped with a free Blazing Shoal.

This match was pretty easy, but mulling to Paths is a given. I unfortunately did not heed this advice in game 2 and got taken down on turn 2. Games 1 and 3 I got the control shell in full working order, and after a few Cliques ripped his hand of relevant dudes. He couldn’t keep a dude down to swing, so I ended up taking the Match due to Clique’s swinging prowess.

Sideboarding: -2 Baneslayer Angel; +2 Bribery

When he has Progenitus in his deck to fuel Blazing Shoal, Bribery gets you a pretty sweet kill condition :)

Round 2: Runeflare Trap Combo

This match was very interesting and swingy. It’s the standard shell, Howling Mine and Temple Bell to force the draws, and Trap to kill them off. The matches for combo decks I seem to find are very similar, whether it’s Hive Mind, Pyro Ascension or Dragonstorm, where your removal becomes blanked out (though less so in the case of Dragonstorm). These matches were all about drawing live cards, especially in Game 1 where you need to not draw your useless Wraths and Paths. Unfortunately, the two games I won were due to the immense Card Advantage my opponent was providing, and had I had better draws in Game 1, I’d have had a chance at survival. The matchups were very close and tense, but with all combo decks in mind, you need to be on the ball with your decision making. One thing I ended up bringing in for the matchup was Kitchen Finks, a card that not only provided me a 3-power beater against his combo, but also a very useful 4 life while he used removal on it.

Sideboarding: -2 Baneslayer Angel, -4 Path to Exile, -2 Wrath of God, -1 Repeal; +4 Kitchen Finks, +3 Annul; +2 Mindbreak Trap.

I had to take out the useless removal, so Paths and Wraths went. Baneslayers were too slow to do anything, and ended up getting cut as well. The last slot is debatable, and I may even have considered removing a land for the last card, but both options are viable – the curve does lower slightly without BSA and WoG, so you can afford to cut the Academy Ruins as the worst land in the setup.

Round 3: RDW

This is the bane of any Control player: Without Kor Firewalker, I was dreading this matchup, though Finks gave me some vital life in some games. Unfortunately, some coaching mid-matched marred the occasion for me, but a topdecked Lava Spike left me dead whatever the result, so I can at least report a decent matchup. Game 1 is all about having your removal online. Spell Snare, Path and Baneslayers are all at a premium in this match, and surviving until you can drop a fatty is the #1 goal. Game 2 I ended up taking a ton of damage fron an Immolating Souleater, which was nasty, and makes me question my decision to mulligan more aggressively in this matchup: You definitely need a solid set of removal in hand to deal with the threats they present to you. Unfortunately, a triple Goblin Guide in game 3 left me with a mountain to climb, and unfortunately one that I could not reach the top of. Well fought victory for my good friend Dan Hiscutt, and certainly gave me some thoughts for the Aggro matchups.

Sideboarding: -2 Crucible of Worlds; -2 Wrath of God, +4 Kitchen Finks

I think this was one matchup in which I mis-sideboarded. Having seen only Spark Elemental and Hell’s Thunder among other sacrificial threats, I figured the Threads would have been a lot worse. However, with them having Goblin Guides and Keldon Marauders, they’re not terrible. I’d have probably taken out the Jace’s Ingenuities and a land for the three, possibly even Cryptic Command, but this is one side of the matchup where I’ll admit I should work a little more on.

Round 4: Pyromancer Ascension

Another Combo deck, and the best type of matchup for a Control player. The player did play quite aggressively, especially with Shocklands and Fetches, and I found myself not needing to do much to ensure victory. Ghost Quarter and Crucible ended up being very tight in the matchup, and by the looks of it, my opponent was only playing basic Islands, and trading a land drop for 2 life of his seemed perfectly reasonable with a Clique and Crucible on the table. Game 2 gave me the addedsecurity in Annul for his Ascensions, and he never got one online in the matchup. Solid 2-0 win, and again, Kitchen Finks played a vital part as a sideboard component.

Sideboarding: -2 Baneslayer Angel, -4 Path to Exile, -2 Wrath of God, -1 Academy Ruins; +4 Kitchen Finks, +3 Annul; +2 Mindbreak Trap.

Seeing him trying to combo with Grapeshot game 1, Mindbreak Trap immediately increased in value. As his shock lands took a lot of damage, Finks helped me clear up a decent victory.

End result: 3-1 and 5th

So overall it was a good outing for a Control deck in a meta where this style hasn’t been perfectly defined yet. A few notes, post-tournament;

-Baneslayers were definitely not what I was expecting, and unfortunately, they seem a little bit slow and clunky. Even against the aggro deck, tapping out turn 5 isn’t what I wanted to be doing. I’m not even sure this deck needs a big beater, as Clique and Finks did the job the vast majority of the time. I’m currently considering three replacements: Venser, Shaper Savant; Aven Mindcensor; and Seht’s Tiger. Each of these is a Flash threat that impacts the board pretty well, Aven blocking off the library, Venser bouncing a relevant threat or Time Walking an opponent, and Tiger preventing vital life loss against the aggro decks.

-Repeal was a pretty good card throughout. Answers anything on the board, and cantrips too. I prefer this over Oblivion Ring because it’s a little bit faster, albeit getting very expensive if they drop something huge down.

-MVP from the sideboard was definitely Kitchen Finks. He doesn’t just give you a bit of extra live vs. the Aggro decks, he also represents a viable threat against the combo decks as well. Not to mention flashing them in with teferi down is pretty good beats ;)


I think that’s it for me, folks! As it stands, I’m loving the new Modern format, and I’m confident that with the Pro Tour this weekend, we’ll see and uprise in the amount of Control decks, and I for one thing this color combination will be among them. As always, feel free to MSN, Facebook or reply!


Andy P

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