Weapon of Choice: Making Friends in High Places

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In my last article, I wrote:

“the goal when playing Magic is usually to win games”

It might seem odd that I needed to put “usually” in there, but this game we love can be played in a lot of different ways. Today is going to be about an unorthodox way to enjoy Magic, one that doesn’t concern itself too much with victory.

If my little introduction made you incredulous or skeptical, this might not be the article for you, and for that I apologize. Before I go any further, I feel like I need to reassure all of you that I have no problem with those that want to focus on winning as often and as effectively as possible, even in Commander. Most days, I will be writing for you, but today is about a different kind of player. Today is about the kind of player that looks at Tempting Wurm and thinks: “This is the card for me!”

Welcome, my captive audience, to a very special Group Hug episode of Weapon of Choice.

The More, the Merrier

If you ask me, the ideal game of Commander consists of four people. I think most seasoned veterans of the format will agree. Four players is enough to keep the game moving at a decent clip while still capturing the political intrigue that is an essential part of the game.

Wait, political intrigue?

Ah yes, if you have never experienced multiplayer Magic before, the idea of politics at the card table might take some explaining.

When you are sitting across from just one other player, there is no room for negotiation – the only way that someone is emerging victorious is if someone else doesn’t. Beating one opponent can be tough, can you imagine trying to successfully conquer three? I want to use an example to demonstrate what it’s like:

Imagine players A, B, C, and D.

Player A has played a land every turn and a permanent every second turn, they have a stable board that looks strong.

Player B has only just played their 4th land and it’s the 7th turn, they have one thing in play, but a full hand.

Player C spent the first three turns casting ramp spells and have now practically emptied their hand onto the board, their position is imposing.

Player D is keeping up with Player C, but they ended up being one turn ahead, this means they don’t have to wait to make their move – they are the threat player.

As the threat player, what should Player D do?

If they attack Player C, they will deal a severe blow to their closest opposition, but they will lose a lot in the process. If they leave themselves open to opportunistic attacks from Player A and retaliation from Player C, they might go from being ahead to far behind.

Player B is wide open, but they have a full hand and a 4 open mana, which can mean a lot, also, they don’t really pose a threat right now, so does it make sense to leave yourself open to Player C in order remove a player that isn’t doing anything?

Or you could attack Player A –

We’ll stop there as that’s probably enough to show what I mean. The decisions you have to make in your games of Magic are magnitudes more complex when there are more than two people sitting down to play. My example isn’t quite complete either, I didn’t mention what can happen when people take in-game slights to heart. Some players will hold you accountable all game for destroying their Sky Diamond on turn three. Vendettas can be serious business at the Commander table.

Multiplayer politics and decision making can turn a lot of people off of formats like Commander; so many victories and defeats are secured by opportunity rather than raw skill, and there are tons of players that view this as a bad thing. On the other hand, there are those that see the addition of politics as a way to test another set of skills in the context of Magic – skills like bluffing, persuasion, and negotiation.

If you are one of those people, this archetype might be the deck for you:

They Like Me! They Really, Really Like Me! – Zachary Miller

This deck is an example of the archetype colloquially known as Group Hug. The acolyte of the Group Hug philosophy believes that when people sit down to play Commander, they are aiming to actually play. By building their deck the way they do, the Group Hug player is hoping to make sure that a good, even game of Magic happens. However, it is not all just sunshine and rainbows, the Group Hug deck can use its friendly means to a sinister end. Sometimes, the Group Hug deck will leverage its resources politically to ensure that everyone at the table is dancing to its tune.

To demonstrate how my younger brother’s Phelddagrif deck takes the political aspect of Commander and turns it into a weapon, I want to tell you the tale of Phelddagrif’s birth and the start of the Group Hug faith.

The Three Gifts

The stars aligned just right and in a manger at the Concordant Crossroads, Phelddagrif was born to a young Orcish Lumberjack and his wife. As the infant Phelddagrif lay in swaddling clothes, three wise man came to see the young king, each one bearing a gift:

Cards – The first wise man approached and set Temple Bell, Vision Skeins, Dictate of Kruphix, and Edric, Spymaster of Trest at the foot of the cradle. He told of how giving the whole table cards would ensure that everyone stayed on equal footing. He explained that if people wanted to stay on this same footing, they would be forced to rely on the extra cards and thusly, the player providing those cards.

Mana – The second wise man swaggered up and brought forth Upwelling, Veteran Explorer, Magus of the Vineyard, and Collective Voyage. This wise man expounded on the virtues of limitless resources. He explained that while extra cards will help everyone equally, the gift of mana keeps the players who would otherwise be behind in your debt. He painted a scenario is which a player, unable to draw lands, has been kept in the game by your gifts and is willing to do almost anything to remain in your good graces. He also pointed to the cards Helix Pinnacle and Suture Priest and suggested that maybe, sometimes, you may want to win the game, and that mana might just be the best way to do that.

Permanents – The last, and most generous, of these Noble Benefactors stepped forward. He lay down Hypergenesis, Tempting Wurm, Oath of Druids, Second Sunrise, and Seed the Land. He explained that sometimes, the best games are the ones that no one can predict. He hoped that the young Phelddagrif would follow in his footsteps and welcome the chance to thumb its nose at those who hold to narrow, competitive definitions of fun. He hammered home that Magic is a game above all else, and that it can be approached from many different angles, including the angle of playing the players first and the cards second.

As the third wise man turned to go, he paused, and dropped Proteus Staff, Knowledge Pool, Perplexing Chimera, and Pyxis of Pandemonium. He chuckled and spoke of those who arrogantly forget that Magic is a game; he made sure that Phelddagrif understood that there would be times when those types of people would need harsh reminders that the outcome of games can frequently rely on chance.

The Gifts That Keep on Giving

Hopefully my little fable has given you a little insight into why certain cards were chosen and what the desired effect of each gift will be. Beyond the granting of boons, there are other things going on up there that should probably be addressed – like the fact that this deck does indeed, very rarely, try and win.

I briefly touched on the win conditions that my brother has chosen to run – Helix Pinnacle is the obvious one (as it blatantly says “You win the game” on it). But there is also Suture Priest, which is a little more subtle. The plan for winning with the Priest is to reach the late game with more mana than you know what to do with, run the Priest out onto a table that has been exhausted from a long game, and give everyone a lethal number of hippos with Phelddagrif. Neither of these win conditions are particularly efficient, but winning efficiently isn’t what Group Hug is about.

There are some cards in the deck that can oscillate between being played generously and harshly. Djinn of Infinite Deceits and Aura Graft come readily to mind. The Djinn can be used to turn your side of the field into a far more effective fighting force while giving your opponents the likes of Veteran Explorer, or it can be used to trade the struggling player’s Birds of Paradise for the threat player’s Consecrated Sphinx. Aura Graft can do something hilarious like giving Eldrazi Conscription to a hippo token, or it can slide the same aura onto Phelddagif for a sudden Commander damage win.

Cards like Dawnstrider, Spike Weaver, and Reverse the Sands remove all subtlety from the manipulation. These are really powerful cards that can be used to push the game exactly where you want it to go. The Dawnstrider and Spike Weaver will become targets quickly, once people realize how powerful it is to Fog on command, but even being active for one or two turns can give them the chance to make a massive impact. Reverse the Sands is a one-time thing, but the ability to say “Sorry, you’re not winning – (s)he is,” is the kind of thing that should only be useable once.

The Fourth Gift a.k.a The Tedium Trap

Believe it or not, for a deck archetype that is all about being sociable and fun, Group Hug has a fair number of detractors. There are people that see the archetype as pointless, frustrating, and unproductive. I think that the best method for explaining this attitude is to use a card:

Arbiter of Knollridge

The Arbiter here is the kind of card that a lot of people think of when they think of Group Hug, and this kind of association is why the archetype enjoys a less-than-stellar reputation in some circles. While giving everyone at the table extra life is totally in Group Hug’s wheelhouse, keeping life totals high accomplishes nothing but needlessly dragging out the game. Yes, Phelddagrif has the ability to give people life, but it does so in small portions of 2, not giant swings that can add hours to the game.

When some people build their Group Hug decks, they indiscriminately throw in every card they can think of that gives something to everyone. These deckbuilders seem to think that since they’re building a gimmicky deck that doesn’t try to win, it’s an excuse to let tight deck construction go out the window. While it’s true that you are building along non-traditional lines when constructing Group Hug, it doesn’t mean you can forget things like strategy.

By choosing to play Group Hug, you are choosing to embrace a deck that seeks to constantly interact with everyone at the table. Setting out to effect the game on such a large scale means that you are taking on a certain level of responsibility for how that game plays out. If every time you shoulder that responsibility to squander it by making boring, frustrating, and irritating games, not many people are going to want to play with you.

A Hug Goodbye

I am a really big fan of well-made Group Hug decks; I think they are beautiful pieces of rebellion that approach the game from an under-explored angle. Being a manipulator, a bluffer, and a politician is just as important to victory in a multiplayer setting as tight play is. Magic is a mental workout, and playing Group Hug is a set of lifts that too many people neglect.

If there is one dead horse that I am going to keep beating, it is the horse with “Commander is a varied format” written on its corpse… Huh, that turned out to be more gruesome than intended. Last time, I discussed a deck archetype that approaches Commander from the angle of ruthless competition. Today, I flew in the exact opposite direction (on a friendly purple hippo) and looked at an archetype that tosses traditional competition out of the window entirely. The fact that both of these decks can survive and thrive in the same format is a testament to just how diverse Commander is.

Diversity in a format means that a format is healthy, and it’s hard to find one more robust than Commander.

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