Play Your Hand and Have a Plan (BLU #11)

Sometimes I will hear when playing commander, “If I had only drawn that card I would have won.” This often falls into the category of smack talk. It does point out an important facet of the casual commander format. That facet is variance. As stated many times before, commander is a 100 card singleton format. With the average deck running 36 to 40 lands this means that there are 63 to 59 cards that you may draw excluding your commander. The ability to draw any one of those cards outside of land is not good in any specific situation. This excludes haveing a way to search your deck. If you need to develop a specific combination the odds are even worse. Decks that rely on combining multiple cards to accomplish a board state can’t count on to win the game.

This level up moment is not about play tutors to get the cards you need. Instead, you must play the cards that are in your hand and to build a strategy around playing those cards. The what-ifs do not matter. You may have an awesome idea of how to win with your deck. If you do not have the cards to accomplish it, then it does no good. Often beginners hold off playing their cards or make their presence felt in the game until they assemble their combination. They build to their strategy they envision for the deck in hopes they will get to the cards they need for the awesome synergies.

As a Johnny deck brewer, I most certainly understand. But that is not necessarily the best way to play the current game. There will be games where you can build towards that crescendo and accomplish your awesome idea for your deck. Many games will not allow you to accomplish it. Variance keeps you from acquiring the cards you need to achieve the strategy.

Instead, you need to play the cards that are in your hand. You can not count on the what-ifs for what you will draw. The odds are against you. If your card allows you a strong play now to hinder an opponent from winning or gain you a strong advantage, then take it. Sometimes you have to wipe the board against your opponent even if it hurts you. It’s the only answer in your hand to the board state and no one else can do anything about it. Focus on the here and now of the game as opposed to what can happen in the future. If the here and now is not dealt with, then there will be no future.

How far you go in a commander game is often based on what’s in your hand and how they’re played. Your opening hand should have a line of play that you can plot out your early turns. If you are not able to cast a couple of cards by turn four then you probably should mulligan. Once you have that hand that is mappable, then as you draw cards you can adjust the plan when you draw something better.

Start with the lands. How many do you have? Are they diverse? Make sure you play them in an order that will allow you to cast your cards on curve. Cast on curve means if a card has a converted mana cost of three that you can play the card on turn three or earlier. Order the cards you will cast from low to high in the early game. People are building their boards. Often you do not need to think about interacting with your opponents. Leave the removal in your hand looking to cast the other cards early. Prioritize casting your mana ramp and then card draw cards. You may be vulnerable early if you do, but with a larger mana base it opens you up to more lines of play later. You can choose the best one later to your advantage.

Finally, these things become clearer the more games of commander you play. As you play more games you will see more cards and cast them. You will discover when you cast them and how effective they are and in what situations. You will also see your opponents playing cards and you will observe how effective they were. This experience helps you identify what you have in your hand and the possible uses of the cards. You will know the plans you should have for your specific hand for any commander deck you are playing. This will improve your play and chances to win by actually focusing on what you have in your hand. It also teaches what is the most efficient way to utilize the card.

The perfect example of this is a target removal spell like Swords to Plowshares. It is instant speed removal and you can play it at any time. For this reason, you learn to leave one white mana open to cast it whenever it is in your hand. You learn if an opponent is not attacking you it doesn’t matter if it attacks another opponent. He may spend a card and remove the threat and if he doesn’t your opponent is losing the life. This puts you in a better position by doing nothing. But if you are attacked by the creature or if the creature has an ability that will greatly hinder you from winning the game this is when you cast the Swords to Plowshares. In this scenario, you played the cards that were in your hand. You also had a plan on how to use them.

This concept can be difficult to teach it is more about learning the mantra. Keeping it in mind and then working through it during the game. Your deck may have a strategy. If you don’t have the cards to execute it, you may need to pivot to try to win the game. In these situations, you need to recognize that you need to pivot and then have the flexibility to do so. Keep in mind, commander is multiplayer with many cards in hands and on the battlefield. The options of playable cards are much larger than other formats. The board states can be very complex and for this reason, you are embarking on what many consider the most complex game of magic. Play mistakes happen but by playing your hand and having a plan it will help keep them to a minimum.