Commander: The Bubble Effect

Mikeal Basile
December 16, 2020

“Magictating” is defined as getting into the zone with your Magic the Gathering collection--thinking, planning, organizing, reminiscing about past games, and imagining future games. It is a combination of hard thinking about the game and calm meditation, reveling in the joy it brings you.


The Bubble effect...and what to do about it.

What is the Bubble Effect?

I’d like to talk to you today about a phenomenon I call the bubble effect. It pops up from time to time in Commander playgroups (well, any multiplayer play group really). It typically shows up when new players are joining the fold, but can even occur among established groups and total strangers. A player, for reasons we will dive into shortly, essentially ends up playing in a bubble, and manages to escape unscathed for most of the game or games you play together. This player is effectively in a protective bubble that allows them to hang around far longer than most players and make it to the end game state more often than not. This seeming Bubble Matrix occurs for many reasons, and they are not necessarily bad ones. However, knowing and identifying when and where the bubble effect is occurring allows you to better evaluate its validity. In short, if you can correctly identify when the bubble effect is occurring you are able to determine when it’s best to burst that bouncing beeble’s bubble.

When the Bubble Effect is Best:

Everyone starts playing somewhere and somewhen. Whether you’re the kid that just picked up your first cards with the Commander Legends precons or you are the bigger kid that has been playing since Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” topped the pop charts in 1993, we all have a time that we started playing. When you first start playing, you can often find yourself losing, and losing often. That is fine as long as you are playing among many other newbies. As a self-admitted “bigger-kid” who has been playing for decades, I try to enact the bubble effect for whoever is the newbie. This means that I try not to attack, pick-on, or otherwise hinder their development. I will keep them from winning if I must, and I won’t simply give them the game, but I don’t actively stomp them out early on. Why? Well, it means the newbie lives for longer. This allows them to develop as players. We all get better by gaining play experience.

I’ve watched my share of Magic matches, and that can help improve your play a little. However, nothing is a substitute for lived experience. The longer a newbie plays, engaging in the thought process of the game, the longer they are able to develop their play skills. They learn more cards, more tricks, more etiquette, and they get better all around. If that means they end up winning a few games here and there early on, then all the better! They will cherish these early bubble effect victories when the bubble bursts in the weeks or months to come. Eventually, they will have to claw, tooth and nail, for every kill and win they can get. In short, don’t curb stomp new players, but allow them to develop in a bubble of bliss. Once they are more experienced players, then you pop that bubble and crush them at the same time. It’s just the right thing to do.

Bubbles aren’t just for Newbies:

The bubble effect can occur among strangers and established play groups as well. Interestingly enough, they occur for the same reason. The reason is actually quite similar to the reason why the newbie gets to live in a blissful bubble while the table’s shark is often double-teamed early on. The bubble effect gets granted to the least threatening player at the table. This doesn’t mean the worst player is always in a bubble. If you sit down with Atraxa, Praetors' Voice as your commander, then you can expect people might gun for you early on. You are instantly perceived as the most threatening player at the table. Meanwhile, the person sitting down with Nahiri, the Lithomancer as their general is often regarded as the least threatening (no Commander damage threat, and you’re playing mono-white). This can lead the “best player” at the table to be taken far less seriously, and as a result could even grant them a bubble. This happens because people want to have their last opponent be an easy kill, and are willing to risk their powerful spells in a bid to finish off the most threatening players. The idea is they trust that what they have left over is enough to crush the weakest looking player. This is a fine and often successful strategy. However, when the bubble player knows this and has planned for this, things may turn out differently from how everyone expects.  

Benefiting from the Bubble effect:

Imagine that you are the one who has planned to benefit from the bubble effect. Now, I bet you’re interested in hearing how playing a Commander like Nahiri, the Lithomancer is better than playing Atraxa, Praetors' Voice. You can purposefully build an underwhelming Commander deck with an underwhelming commander in order to garner the bubble effect. Once you have your bubble, clinching the game in later turns becomes your goal. You just need to keep yourself alive long enough and not present yourself as too much of a threat. You can do this by keeping yourself from engaging in spell slinging wars with others until you are all trying to stop the main threat, or you are trying to shift the focus away from you. You preserve your resources as much as possible, and trust that an under-developed board state will lead you to living longer, thus enabling you to come from behind for the win. Let others do your dirty work. This is not a strategy for those seeking to win with the lion’s share of the kills while marching toward an epic victory. This strategy is for those that desire a sneaking, calculated approach to abuse people’s perceptions. So, enjoy it whenever you can pull it off!

The finer points of Bubble making:

If you are attempting to build yourself a little bubble, then start with a non-threatening commander. Once you’ve done this, then you need to try and find a balance between solid cards, and game swinging spells. Generally, you will be winning off the backs of sub-par creatures or some other critical mass style of creatures using either enchantments, equipment, or pump spells. These tend to work best as having creatures that don’t present dramatic threats leaves you low on people’s to-kill lists. However, you also need to do your part in shifting the attention away from you and pointing out how dangerous other players are. This does not work if you are presenting yourself as a serious threat. Instead, you need to put a dash of honesty in your distraction. You are concerned about other power-house players, and you need others to help you deal with them. Meanwhile, the power-house players aren’t going to target you since you’re the one begging for help. Generally, asking for help makes you look weak and therefore the ones you are asking for help become juicier targets. The alpha threat usually views you as the one they will deal with once they’ve killed off the ones you are begging help from. They figure that you wouldn’t be asking for help if you didn’t need it, and thus, you are the weakest one. Therefore, you will be the easiest to crush in the end. If you can manage to play the table with a combination of politics and slow building, then you are on your way to riding a bubble to victory!

When and How to Burst Bubbles:


I feel like I’m playing Bubble Bobble while writing this article. I’m asking you to put people in bubbles, use bubbles, and now burst those bubbles. The time to start bursting newbie bubbles is once they seem to be taking down a few too many games in a row. That shows you they are more than ready to feel everyone’s full might. The newbie will no longer be allowed to slide along unnoticed. This is a healthy time to burst the newbie bubble and allow them to become a regular. Meanwhile, the much more difficult bubble to burst is the one that someone is using to their benefit. The existence of this bubble is difficult to notice. Often we are far more focused on the opponent that is actively trying to win or who is the biggest and most immediate threat. One way to avoid falling into a bubble trap is to keep a close eye on people’s life totals and hand sizes. If you notice that someone has a grip full of cards, is deflecting attention away from themselves, and is trying to get people to take care of all the threats for them, then you just might have a bubble to burst.

Once you notice the bubble it can be tempting to call attention to it. You may wish to blurt out to everyone that Mike is just creating a bubble effect, and if we don’t band together and crush him, then he’s going to steal this win from all of us. I’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work out too well. You are often the crazy person who is just carrying some old vendetta, or if you are playing with strangers, then you’re the jerk who’s asking everyone to beat on the weakest player. Rather than play politics, you need to just begin applying a little pressure on that bubble. You don’t need to exert maximal effort to destroy the bubble blower, but you should begin to try and whittle away their answers and life total. By pressing them bit by bit you deny them the advantages they need to gain a late-game victory. Sure, you might find yourself in a bit of a battle, but remember that they likely won’t be able to kill you without first revealing what a threat they truly could become. That’s all you really need to do. Once you’ve exposed them, their bubble is burst, and perhaps you can now assume their old role. Or you could crush them along with everyone else!

Bubbles Bounce:

I didn’t bring up this topic to burst your bubbles. I want us to keep using the bubble effect. I think it’s great, and I think that if we recognize it more often we can all benefit from it. Allowing newbies to ride their bubbles until they are tenured is great. Allowing them to ride the bubble longer than they ought to is not. Once you recognize bubbles occurring in your Commander games, then you can choose if you wish to burst them or play along. Having that knowledge is important, and knowing what to do with that knowledge is even better. The most intriguing aspect about the bubble effect is that we can abuse it to meet our own ends, while still preserving it for the benefit of a new player’s long-term development. Now that you know how to recognize, abuse, and burst those bubbles, you should bounce yourselves into a game as soon as possible!