Enter the Tiger - Redefining Card Roles in Commander
Back in the dark ages, when the internet was young, life totals were kept on clay tablets, and Wizards of the Coast still hosted a whole team of quality bloggers on its flagship website, there was Serious Fun. I mean, we still have serious fun playing Magic, but back then there was Serious Fun, a whole column dedicated primarily to multiplayer strategy. Originally written by Anthony Alongi, later taken over by a mysterious, hairy man known as The Ferret, those original Serious Fun articles remain the standard for how to evaluate cards, build decks, and decide plays. At this point, the original articles are older than many of the players in today’s game. Every once in a while though, a MTG writer will go back and update those original texts, so I think it’s fair for my first article, I take a stab at examining those ancient texts.
The most important Serious Fun precepts were described as animals, which were used to evaluate cards and decide how to maximize their effect. There were rattlesnakes (scary cards that deterred attackers), spiders (also scary cards that punished people for attacking and deterred future attackers), gorillas (powerful threats that change the whole table) plankton (something about it feeds everyone -- seriously, what kind of zoo is this?), and pigeons (cards that get better the more players there are in the game… hey! this is multiplayer all of the cards should be better with more players!). Also: cockroach. What kind of zoo is this anyway?
From left to right, your archetypes, Rattlesnake, Spider, Gorilla, Plankton, Pigeon, and that other one… what was its name again?
Is this model even useful anymore? I think we got work to do.
Unleash the Beasts
Unlike ye olden days, we play in a literal age of gods and monsters. Creatures have become fantastically powerful, and looking at cards from ten or more years ago, the only relevant ones ramp into, tutor for, or otherwise enable our current cohort of abominations. The old menagerie doesn’t quite cut it anymore. Snakes and spiders aren’t too scary against self-recurring, indestructible death machines. Plankton has become its own deck-archetype, the notoriously tricky-to-pilot group hug deck. Almost every multiplayer-playable creature has some sort of enter-the-battlefield trigger or other implicit value engine attached, so there’s no need to go scrounging for cockroaches. Pigeons are similarly situated; when Wizards savvied up to the popularity of casual multiplayer games, they made sure to include relevant cards at all rarities in every set. The multiplayer card pool has become very deep, so again, there’s no reason to hunt for pigeon-worthy cards… you probably opened a fistful in last Friday’s draft. And gorillas are endangered species in decks filled with cards capable of single-handedly titan stomping the field into submission.
Put simply, when those animal-themed articles were written, creatures were not good. We need a new way to describe the cards we play if we want to be able to talk about tactics and strategy in multiplayer Magic.
Welcome to the Jungle
If we’re going to continue with the animal analogy, then the current Commander metagame is dominated by the tiger. The tiger’s goal is simple. It wants to get strike swiftly and then kill its prey as efficiently as possible. Unlike the previous animals in our menagerie, there’s no jockeying for position, no signaling or cooperating with the rest of the table. The tiger just wants that one fatal pounce.
For example, let’s take a look at one of the most feared staples in Commander, a card I consider the iconic tiger in the jungle:
If a player gets to resolve an entwined Tooth and Nail, the game’s usually over. The creatures it fetches usually make for some combination of an arbitrarily large number of attackers (or just an arbitrarily large attacker), infinite mana, an entire deck drawn… whatever the exact play, it spells doom. Now, those creatures could be answered, but unlike the gorilla in the old analogy (who attracts the attention of the whole table), stopping a tiger usually is usually an individual effort. Tooth and Nail is typically thwarted by one player who has the right combination of mana and instants at the right time and can make the right play.
The crazy part about tiger cards is they still haven’t hit their peak power level yet. Again, Tooth and Nail provides a great example. When I started playing Magic in 2003 or 2004, the game had already seen a big leap forward in the post-Onslaught era creature decks, and at the time, T&N decks were a Standard powerhouse.
At the time, the goal was to ramp a bunch, and then if you thought you could win, you’d fetch Kiki-Jiki and a titan, or if you were under pressure, you’d fetch Mephidross Vampire and Triskelion and wipe their board.
A few years later, when I started playing EDH, quite a few of my friends gravitated back to Tooth and Nail decks. Unlike in Standard though, that resolved Tooth and Nail didn’t always win immediately. Sundering Titan was certainly miserable to play against, and it wasn’t always to win through a soft lock against creatures, but this was still the age of the ape. The person who resolved the Tooth and Nail still had work to do, and it was still possible for the rest of the table to prevent a win. There were a couple cards like Palinchron that hadn’t seen Standard play, but they were still sort of known threats that needed some extra set up. The times, they were still changing…
Pestermite is an odd choice to cite as a game changing card, but it was a big step forward for Tooth and Nail. Now, instead of slowly bludgeoning the table to death, you had immediate death for everyone. The problem was, Pestermite was still a bad card. It was easily killed, it pinned you in Temur colors (which didn’t have great options for legendaries to use as a Commander), and even when it was joined by Deceiver Exarch a few years later, it was still a niche combo. Once Innistrad block arrived, everything changed for Tooth and Nail.
Suddenly, you didn’t have to run bad creatures to get your single card kill. All of your combo cards were powerhouses on their own. Moreover, you weren’t limited to a certain set of colors; you had lethal options across the spectrum.
Flash forward to present, and we’ve hit a point where I think we’re past peak Tooth and Nail in Commander. It’s not that Tooth and Nail has become outdated exactly (I actually think it’s a card that will continue to grow in power), it’s that players have so many different options for tigers that they don’t need to go to T&N. Our jungle’s grown deep and tangled, and is chock full of vicious beasts. We need a new generation of strategists to chart a path through it.
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