Too many times I have sat down for a game of Elder Dragon Highlander only to be met with the most grueling assortment of legendary creatures that my Local Gaming Store could amass, complete with strategies that are low to the ground and unrelentingly aggressive. As someone who prefers to play Control, regardless of format, I seem to be at a disadvantage. Control functions differently in Commander than it does in any other format for a variety of reasons. This article is a lamentation and analysis of how the Commander format favors creature based strategies and shuns alternate win conditions such as mill or a “win clause.”
The point of a Control deck is to do just that: control the board. While this works in formats like modern and legacy, and to a lesser extent standard, it doesn’t translate well to a multiplayer format. Control decks have a good portion of their deck comprised of cards that draw you cards, remove permanents, or stop your opponent from doing anything. To keep this idea simple, we will use the card “Brainstorm” to represent the card drawing elements, “Vindicate” to represent the removal of permanents, and “Force of Will” to represent the permission aspect. This will seem complicated at first, however, it is necessary to explain my point.
While using a Brainstorm effect certainly grants you card advantage and is a staple piece of all legacy control and tempo strategies, it’s power level changes in Commander. In Legacy, this card is digging three cards deep, which is nearly a seventeenth of your library factoring in that you would have an opening hand of seven cards plus your draw for the turn. In Commander, however, this card is only digging through a thirtieth of your library, and it does not give you much advantage in the long run. Having to redraw what you put back with Brainstorm should be considered as an extension of your hand, because you know what you will draw and when you will draw it, giving you the opportunity to plan your strategy. However, this feeling of card advantage and progressive value that is attained in legacy is virtually absent in Commander, due to the singleton card restriction.
Removal is king, regardless of format. Vindicate destroys any permanent on the battlefield and is one of the most versatile pieces of removal in the entire game. Being able to destroy a Celestial Colonnade, Counterbalance, Batterskull, Tarmogoyf or Dack Fayden with one spell is pretty obnoxious, and it’s exactly where Control wants to be. Just as card draw, however, Commander has something to say about spot removal: You should play it, but it isn’t enough by itself. Being able to destroy any permanent of your opponent’s is powerful, but when you may have five other opponents, the number of choices increase to a complicated amount. To explain further, in Legacy, say I am faced with a Batterskull and a Jace, The Mind Sculptor. My choice is between two permanents and is pretty easy to discern which is giving me more trouble. In Commander, let’s say that my five other opponents each have a relevant creature, artifact, enchantment, and planeswalker. The decision becomes twelve times harder for my one spell to target something, which puts me at a disadvantage.
Countering spells is Blue’s answer to removal. Let us once again refer to Legacy, and use the card, “Force of Will” as a teaching point. Force counters a spell by paying one life and exiling a blue card from your hand, or it costs two blue and three. It is the premier counterspell of the format and is one of the most efficient counterspells in the game. However, once again we must realize that Commander is a battle of attrition and timing. Countering one spell leaves you open for the next spell being cast, as the most common counterspells target a single spell. What it comes down to the fact that multiple players create a dynamic where countering spells is possible, yet not as viable as the answers that this format has.
Commander Control facilitates the same role as Death and Taxes in Legacy. Commander adapts the philosophy of, “I don’t have to deal with it if they can’t cast it.” The way that control decks have to play in Commander is through permanents that make it impossible for your opponents to play the game. Card draw in this format is less about selection, and more about raw numbers. Rhystic Study makes your opponents pay one extra mana per spell, or you draw a card. This provides an insane amount of cards over the course of the game and becomes a far superior way to gain card advantage.
Rather than removing creatures with spot removal, one would consider a board wipe for multiplayer games. While these are effective, it is very easy to recover from a board wipe, or have creatures with relevant abilities on either dying, leaving the battlefield, or they simply are indestructible. Instead, effects that make it difficult for your opponent’s creatures to do anything become more effective. Whether it be taxing them to attack, taxing them to stay alive, or simply not allowing creatures to attack, the meta consists of permanents to disrupt any creature based strategy, and sometimes even non-creature based strategies can become thwarted by the pseudo-removal covered here.
You cannot counter what your opponents cannot cast, and nowhere is that more prevalent than in Commander. With cards like Grand Abolisher, Nevermore, Leonin Arbiter, Declaration of Naught, and so many more pieces of D&T that your opponents will surely fall at your mercy. In a strict sense of the word, you simply generate more value by slamming down a threat that deals with everyone else’s counterspells rather than worries about countering each thing or spell. Once again illustrating that the more people that you can hinder with one card, the better.
Creatures are what Commander is all about, considering the command zone and the commander dictating what type of deck the player is playing. Having a creature that you can cast at the ready is what pushes the meta into an inherently more aggressive position: People want to play their commanders, which leads to people playing more creatures, which leads to regular card advantage being too slow, spot removal too limited, and counterspells not relevant.
The reason that these permanents are better at controlling the board is that they have lasting effects for longer periods of time. This being said, permanents are susceptible to removal, and often are removed early to prevent them from getting out of hand, when the best way to play an archetype is susceptible to half of the removal in the format. Control is hard enough to play already; it does not need the extra hate on itself. And thus: the Kerfuffle.
If you as a player feel more comfortable with the spell based strategy, then be my guest. I merely see this as my “Control Player” eyes can see fit. Never will I shoehorn one person into playing a specific strategy because it is what I like to play. Everyone deserves to tweak their decks; this is just what I observe while playing. This has been the Malady of Control, and the evolution into commander Death and Taxes as a more viable option.
Parker “Constructed Pork” McDonald