Commander 103: Mana Value, Ramp, and the Meta

At the dawn of Commander…

Long ago, in the Great Before Time, Commander exploded in popularity as a format, giving birth to more competitive spirit, and many more competitive decks were born.

Many of these decks are still around in some form, but some of them have disappeared almost entirely:

  • Zur, either with necropotence or bea- down or some combination of the two
  • Boonweaver, a deck that functioned as a way to get pattern of rebirth and recur creatures repeatedly
  • Curios Niv-Mizzet, based on putting a “draw when damages” effect on Niv-Mizzet, like Curiosity

What all of these decks had in common, and what eventually forced them out of the competitive meta, were two factors: Speed, and the meta.  Originally “cEDH” was such an uncommon format that playing competitive was more akin to pubstomping, e.g. going up against three weaker, untuned opponents. It was relatively rare to see 4 tuned, competitive decks in the same pod, so the meta of cEDH largely consisted of cards that were good against bad decks. This led to certain patterns of interaction, and in my reviews from time-to-time I note cards that are basically better when your opponents are better. One of the most common examples of this are stax effects; a good player may leave a stax effect on the table because they know it is also stopping two other people from acting or ending the game, whereas worse players may simply blow up whatever the stax card is, wasting their resources while also allowing another player to pull off a combo that they may not have been able to execute with say, a winter orb on the table.

Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Ever since the first world championship tournament (and likely even before that), it’s been apparent to good players that decks never exist outside of the context of the decks they are playing against. If you know that literally everyone is running blue in their deck, then pyroblast and red elemental blast are suddenly much stronger cards, and potentially boil or boiling seas may be as well. In creature-heavy metas Wrath of God or Pestilence are both much stronger than against players that only use a relatively large commander and play off of enchantments, or use planeswalkers or artifacts to achieve their ends. I tend to run murderous rider as creature control in most black decks; because of its flexibility, it can be a creature or cretaure control effect and it also destroys planeswalkers. A lot of the best creature control in black can only destroy a creature, and the added ability to simply blow up an opposing planeswalker is occasionally invaluable.

As players started to play more and more competitive decks, and as articles and content and decklists started to spread across the internet, and as online play continued to grow in popularity, a meta started to emerge. And in response the decks changed. Now cEDH decks are increasingly designed to beat other cEDH decks, rather than simply stomp on creature-based, turn-guys-sideways, battlecruiser decks. If battlecruiser is one level of play I think of cEDH as almost the opposite: Submarine decks, which sneak out something and launch a devastating attack, ending the game with little or no warning (generally).

Aisde from being designed to beat each other, the other common aspect of increasingly competitive decks is speed. Arguably the “most” competitve current deck is some version of turbo-ad nauseum, which functions around Rograkh and Silas Renn. Rograkh is a desirable commander purely because he guarantees even more speed.  Having a 0-cost commander sitting in the command zone is an amazing thing; it allows you to dependably use Springleaf Drum, and Paradise Mantle, as well as Mox Amber. And the fact you are running so many artifacts lets you play Mox Opal, which also allows for powerful sacrifice effects like Infernal Plunge and Culling the Weak or Phyrexian Tower. That edge lets a competitive deck cast an early Ad Nauseum to pull off an early Thassa/Consult combo that much faster, and so a 0 cost, 0 power, creature is arguably a broken commander.

A need for Speed

That need for speed has driven a revision of what cards ought to be considered staples in the format. For a long time cultivate and Kodama’s reach were considered staples. They do curve extremely nicely; if you can get a turn 1 mana dork you can fetch two lands on turn 2 and put one in play, meaning that on turn 3 you have five mana available, generally enough to drop your commander or do something.

But as more and more efficient ramping cards are printed, and as we’re able to become even choosier about which effects we include, these older staples may no longer cut it. Cheaper effects have become more common. Mana rocks – cheap artifacts that tap for mana – have long been considered key for ramping. However in the current environment, almost every 3-cost mana rock has become nearly unplayable. There are some exceptions, of course – worn powerstone taps for CC and Chromatic Lantern manafixes all your lands. And you might consider Honor-Worn Shaku if you’re running a lot of legendary creatures and possibly Coalition Relic, because it effectively allows you to store up a mana, and colored mana at that, but that’s purely to get out something like Niv-Mizzet a turn faster. And that’s effectively powering a deck that’s too slow anyway.

So in general you see Arcane signet and Fellwar stone, and then you have the talismans that tap for colorless mana (sometimes useful for Eldrazi effects), but also allow you to take damage to generate colored mana. And then there are the signets, which cost 1 mana to activate but net you two colored mana.

And then there are the colorless generator. The most common of those are Thought Vessel because it gives you no maximum hand size and Mind Stone because it can be cycled effectively at a cost of 3 mana. But from time to time you may see Liquimetal torque, Fractured Powerstone, Ebony Fly, or Prismatic Lens.

So Why is 2 so much better than 3?

At this point, you might be saying that comparing Cultivate to Into the North, it seems like Cultivate is a better card.  Cultivate lets you fetch two and put one into play, leaving you with a sure land drop for next turn. It only costs one more mana right? But that’s not just one more mana; it also typically means one more turn. And when everyone else on the table is ramping as quickly as possible, one turn can make a world of difference. Assuming you don’t generate any ramp on turn 1, turn 2 will be the first turn you ramp if you have the spell available, and if you don’t, your opponents will. Being able to drop a Commander, two ramp spells, or a 4-cost Stax effect on turn 3 is a huge advantage.

Additionally, three-mana ramp is less reliable, requiring you hit that threshold before you can cast what you need. Two mana ramp spells are playable in a larger number of opening hands and more easily turn risky draws into good bets that aren’t dependent on topdecking a land.

The same logic applies to the 2 vs three cost mana rocks. Several of the 3-cost rocks have neat abilities, and we’ve discussed that each of them individually might be playable in some decks, but more than generally – rather as a rule – do not play 3 cost mana rocks.  Yes, it’s only one more mana but it’s actually about how the game plays out.  It’s also 50% more mana.  And if your deck edges into 3 mana territory on cards like this, it’s much more likely that you’ll be forced to choose on later turns between “doing something” and ramping, effectively giving up another turn.


never stop

This gets even more aggressive if you run mana dorks, leading you into 5-6 mana on turn 4. And while you might be saying that you could drop a dork on turn 1 and then following with Cultivate on turn 2 – and there’s a pretty strong argument in favor of Cultivate and Kodama’s Reach if you’re running multiple copies. But look how many good 2-drop land tutors there in green:

AttacksHitWoundS1 AverageS1 VarianceS2 AverageS2 VarianceDiff Avg (S2 - S1)Diff Var (S2 - S1)

The other reality of focusing on mana value of spells is that it means on later turns, if you have a surplus of cards, you can do two things when otherwise you’d only be able to one. If you have 3 mana available and you cast a 2-cost ramp spell, that means you still have 1 (or two depending on the tapped status of whatever you retrieve) available to cast a flusterstorm, or a swords to plowshares, or a lightning bolt.

What this all means is that effects that cost 3 or 4 mana should be considered very carefully, and while there are some extremely playable 3- and 4-cost ramp spells, this is dangerous territory because you are talking about investing your entire turn in a single spell most games.

You also might be saying “oh well I don’t play cEDH, I only play battlecruiser.” That is totally legit, and cool. But I find that even in these games it’s more fun to actually do something… like cast spells. If you really want to just land drop every turn until turn 3 or 4, and your whole pod is doing that well, fine. But there are so many good commanders who can generate card draw or value in some other way, and so many strong value cards that it seems almost bizarre to insist on the 4- and 5-cost cards that seem to fill out so many commander decks (especially the precons sold by Wizards).

Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Don’t play enters-the-battlefield tapped lands

Do not play lands that enter play tapped. Just don’t do it. If you are doing it it better be a really special land, or else it should be a part of a combination or deliberate synergy.  Yes, there are a few bonkers lands, like Boseiju, Who Shelters All, which are worth running, but think about our targeted progression of ramp above – if you are missing spells because of lands entering the battlefield tapped, you will be turns behind where you should be later on.

There are sufficient cycles of good dual and rainbow lands running around that it’s not necessary to be running that enter tapped and scry, or gain life, or other things like that.

If you’re forced into a turn 2 tapped drop you’ll miss an opportunity to drop a rock or tutor for a land, or do something else meaningful. The knock-on effect of this means decks that combine these sins are just not in the game when other decks are putting out threats or resolving combos.

Where the Meta is, and where it’s headed

Wizards is increasingly putting out “pushed” commander designs. Prosper, Tome-Bound is a great example of this. He combines card draw with an incredible value engine that an entire deck can be built around. If you can successfully drop a rock on turn 2 or any kind of ramp he will consistently come out on turn 3, and start to wreak havoc.

Additionally, each set includes quite a few legendary creatures now, and many of them obviously intended to be commanders. There are also more Commander set products. It’s hard to say for sure, but the last couple of sets have included reprints of 2-cost rocks and wizards has also announced Commander Legends 2, there’s still multiple commander collection: colors to go (white, blue, and red). All this indicates a willingness to reprint at least some core cards for sets, as long as they aren’t on the actual reserve list, and an awareness of what’s played and playable in commander. I think the inclusion of Rhystic Study in Jumpstart tells you a lot about Wizards knowing that certain cards, some of which were basically unplayable in 4-of single-player formats are completely different in 1-of multi-player.

Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Even at battlecruiser level decks are getting better.  There is a thriving content generation scene, where players discuss decks, strategies, and cards, and players of all skill levels can watch and learn. The slow death of Koadma’s Reach and Cultivate – moving from being “core cards” to not playable – tells you a lot about where the meta is headed. On the face of things, two cards for one is obviously stronger than going 1-for-1. But the critical element of Cultivate vs Rapid Growth is the ramp. And players are increasingly relying on either card advantage in the Commander zone or else very efficient draw spells or enchantments.

There’s another facet to this that is important, even critical, to remember: It doesn’t matter if you end the game with 7 cards in hand 1.  It doesn’t matter if you end the game with 200 life or 1 life.  What matters is ending the game. Cards that generate theoretical card advantage on a future turn aren’t good if that card advantage never matters, and as players come to understand this better, the meta will evolve.

I know a lot of this is somewhat vague, but it’s where you have to focus if you want to be more interactive and have better games.

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