A Guide to Commander Politics: What you need to know about politics in Magic: The Gathering Commander
In a world where Lovecraftian horrors rule Modern and Legacy, there is one eternal format that isn’t in their tentacled grasp: Commander. I honestly thought that with the release of Kozilek, the Great Distortion (and of course Wastes) that Commander would be overrun with colourless decks abusing the free, uncounterable counter spells that Kozilek gives you. I was wrong, it turns out that a card with a CMC of 10 is still not good enough to build your deck around, so I’m stuck playing against Narset, Enlightened Master, Teferi, Temporal Archmage and weirdly, Atogatog (a deck I’ll talk about some time soon). But today I don’t want to talk about a specific deck, today I want to talk about something that is more ingrained in Commander as we know and love it. Politics.
Politics is something that everyone has a very strong opinion about, bring up politics to a friend or a family member and you’ll get some kind of reaction be it positive, negative or just indifferent. People try to keep their political views and their favourite things separate so that one does not spoilt the other for them however when it comes to Commander there is a whole new breed of politics that you need to work around.
Commander politics is something that, just like real politics, is very divisive, so much so that there is a fan-made 1v1 format for people who don’t enjoy this aspect of multilayer games (I’d recommend checking it out if you want a more competitive experience from your Commander games). Due to how broad and complex this subject is, this article will break the idea of Commander politics into six different sections (including a conclusion covering my final thoughts on the subject) and hopefully by the end both me and you will have a better understanding of this dynamic.
Sometimes a game of Commander can feel more like a Game of Thrones
What do you mean by Commander politics?
Commander politics is something that is more of an idea or a metagame than an actual written down rule. The whole idea of politics in this context is that players can use their cards to help one another defeat other players. This kind of thing is really common if the playgroup has decks that are commonly thought of as ”not fun” or ”unfair”, this is normally combo decks, decks that pack a lot of land destruction or decks that simply stop the other players from playing Magic: The Gathering.
Here are some of the cards most accused of being ”not fun”
So why do some people dislike politics so much?
There are a number of reasons why people dislike the whole idea of politics in Commander.
- Can put players off from making more competitive decks due to the fear of being ganged up on.
- People who are friends will subconsciously (or consciously in some cases) help each other.
- Players will base their decisions on politics and who their friends are rather than what is the best line of play.
These are just a few of the reasons.
Of course this will vary between playgroups, if the people you play with are all naturally spikey (like my own personal playgroup) then the first of these is less relevant and if your group plays mainly during FNM casual events, the last of these is less likely to occur as the people you play with will be switched up on a weekly basis. In short, the main reason why a lot of people don’t like Commander politics is that in their opinion it takes away from the core of the game
If politics take away from the games, why are there people who like them?
While there are negatives to Commander politics there are also positives. People often see the politics of Commander as just another level of the game, adding more depth and deck-building options to what is already an incredibly deep game. This is something I definitely agree with, opening up options for pillowfort/grouphug decks piloted by Commanders like Zedruu the Greathearted and Angus Mackenzie or chaos decks that make the game as random as possible (Warp World I’m looking at you). It’s great as it opens up options for cards that otherwise wouldn’t see play in any formats if Commander didn’t exist.
Pillowfort and grouphug decks are one way of keeping yourself safe and giving resources to other players so that you can make friends with everyone
Another reason why people enjoy this political aspect of the format is that a lot of people see the idea of teaming up with their friends to defeat the player with the strongest deck as an extra element of challenge (this is one of the reasons why the Archenemy game mode even exists).
As you can see the reasons for liking and disliking politics in Commander often have blurred lines, contradicting each other due to personal preferences in how people want to play this game that we all love. Some people feel like politics make you focus on the wrong parts of the game while others think that they don’t take away from what already exists but just add more dynamics to the gameplay.
What’s your opinion on politics in Commander?
Personally I’m on the fence when it comes to this issue, I agree with points on both sides of the argument. On the one hand some of my favourite cards like Winter Orb and Wildfire are often frowned upon in a casual format like Commander but on the other hand Zedruu the Greathearted is one of my top 5 favourite commanders and if it wasn’t for Commander I’d never get the chance to play that deck. I have also found that in some games or with some playgroups there is a definite trend of friends teaming up to help each other out more than other players and have made sub-optimal plays just so that they don’t do something that might be bad for a friend (I’ve even been guilty of this myself once or twice) but I’ve also found that there are also games where politics have kept a game afloat and prevented it from being blown out by a combo deck that has the potential to win on turn 3.
At the end of the day, for me it boils down to how I’m feeling on the day. Some days I want to play Dictate of Kruphix, Howling Mine and Possibility Storm but on other days I just want to crush games with Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur or Decree of Annihilation and Daretti, Scrap Savant.
So how can I play the politics of Commander?
There are two parts of politics. What you do and what your cards do.
The first of these is probably the least important of the two. Firstly, try to avoid letting players know what your game plan is, especially if you are playing a combo deck. If you are playing a combo deck and you say at the start of the game ”I’m going to kill you all on turn 3/4” it is highly likely that the other players will try to shut you down early and not let you do anything. This also extends to threatening another player’s board as this will normally lead to you being the target of whatever they do next.
Another big part of Commander is something that you do in all formats, and even other games. Bluffing. Thanks to the enormous pool of cards that Commander has it’s unlikely that the people you’re playing with are going to know every potential card that you could have in your deck, this means that leaving up mana is even more threatening than usual. This is most effective when you have 1UUU up.
Finally is communication. To win the political game in Commander you need to be on your toes, offering to protect other players creatures in exchange for them not hitting you or even the risky play of giving their creature unblockable if they defeat another player for you and of course offering card draw to the green player in your group in exchange for not hitting you in the face with their Craterhoof Behemoth.
Now for the important part: the cards. The cards that you have in your deck are very important in helping you gain or lose friends in a game of Commander and it all starts with your general. As it is the first card your opponents see, your general will be the first impression of what you are planning to do. Cards like Nekusar, the Mindrazer, Narset, Enlightened Master and Derevi, Empyrial Tactician have very bad connotations associated with them as they are all capable of doing some very broken things and that is something that people frown upon in casual formats.
Some of the more middle of the pack commanders like Zedruu the Greathearted, the new Kozilek, the Great Distortion or Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite are seen as less of an immediate threat due to their high costs or, in the case of Zedruu, while the deck has potential to do some very nasty things (Zedruu stax is pretty popular) they are much more associated with being decks that play nice with their opponents and just drag the game out a little.
Finally are the weaker generals, these generals are either overpriced for what you get or awkward to cast such as Rakdos, Lord of Riots, Phage the Untouchable or pretty much anything from the Legends set. While this is one way to gauge the power level of someone’s deck it can also be very deceptive as the cards in their deck may not be optimal for the deck, as per usual this will vary between player and playgroup so take this idea of ‘General = Deck’s power’ with a pinch of salt.
Of course your general isn’t the only thing that you need to watch out for, you also need to be careful where you point your removal and what removal you use. Spot removal is typical thought to be bad in Commander for two reasons. The first of these is that the board state often gets completely out of hand that one Hero’s Downfall or Swords to Plowshares is often not enough to deal with all of the problems on the board. The other is that when you kill something (especially someone’s general or something that they tapped out for that turn) it puts a big target on you as the next person they are going to hit. To prevent this problem you will often find people using Wrath of God effects so that you can hide behind the ”I didn’t only kill your stuff” excuse.
Using your cards in a way to make you seem like you are not a threat and other players are, using cards that benefit everyone, is a great way to make sure people will not hit you due to the fear of losing whatever you’re giving them. The first port of call for this is normally card draw as there are a lot of decks that lack card draw (the green and white decks out there) as well as the other decks who don’t lack card draw but always benefit from more of it. Howling Mine, Font of Mythos and Well of Ideas are some of my go-to cards that benefit all players. This can however be a double-edged sword. Using cards like Blind Obedience and Imposing Sovereign to slow down the aggressive decks can make you the target of those players and put you in the way of the danger you were otherwise trying to avoid. The best commander for these kinds of decks is probably Phelddagrif">Phelddagrif as it allows you to have more control over what you are giving to other players.
Finally, something that you will have a lot less control over, your mana. From experience if a player is getting a bad deal with his lands (too many or not enough) they are often left alone to try to get back into the game. Like I said this is something that you don’t have a lot of control over but it if you purposefully don’t play lands or your don’t play spells to make it look like you are getting flooded, you can trick your opponents into leaving you alone. This is easily done in one of my first (and one of my favourite) decks:
Now this deck is not competitive at all as it’s quickly shut down by Faith’s Fetters, Darksteel Mutation and pretty much anything else that prevents abilities, but I have had more fun than I’d like to admit playing this wacky deck and would recommend it to anyone trying to play Commander on a budget (this is a great budget deck because it’s very easy to add cards to, Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle is an easy addition to make).
While writing this article I’ve been able to reflect on my own thoughts regarding politics in Commander and I’ve learnt a lot about my own attitudes towards the format at the same time. Before writing this article I was against politics, thinking that they were just a means for friends to team up and that they took away from the core of the game, but I have definitely had time to think about it and I don’t 100% agree with that opinion anymore. I now understand the importance of politics as they keep the format less competitive and prevent games being dominated by some of the very oppressive cards that are still legal in the format (Winter Orb my old friend). However, I still do think that there is a place where competitiveness and politics can thrive hand in hand given the right environment. I will continue to play my Daretti deck but I’ll be sure to throw in a Cheatyface or play Ashling the Pilgrim from time to time. This being said disliking Commander politics and the social contract that is forced upon you when you play a casual format is still perfectly valid and if that sounds like you, I’d recommend Duel Commander, the format is a lot of fun.
Thanks for reading,
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