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Know Your Enemy – How to Beat the Most Hated Commander Strategies

At a certain point, one person in every Commander group will build a deck everyone else hates. Suddenly it’s all about them. You were having fun, but now you’re locked out of the game or watching your best creatures beat you down. 

The likelihood is they’ve built one of the decks featured in this article. Understanding how their deck operates is the key to beating them, or as Sun Tzu put it:

Know thy enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated.

Of course, you might be the kind of person who wants to play the bad guy. In which case, here are five decks you’re sure to enjoy, just don’t blame me when you become the archenemy.

 

 

Header - Landfall

Landfall seems like such an innocuous strategy. It’s a little surprising, I imagine, that it made the list. The issue comes down to the social element of Commander. Playing a deck that leverages lands uses the general distaste for land destruction to its advantage. 

If no one plays cards that target your strategy because they’re too polite, you can easily generate a massive advantage. Landfall decks are the kind of villain that seems completely reasonable until they kill you. 

Lotus Cobra

When you see an Omnath deck drop a Lotus Cobra you know exactly what to expect. Lots of landfall and lands-matter cards, and a ton of ramp. The obvious way to win here is to play a land destruction deck with some board wipes for good measure, but you end up the bad guy that way. 

Beating a landfall deck without looking like a jerk means playing a strategy that hurts ramp decks more than the rest of the table. Group Slug decks do this expertly. Putting Zo-Zu the Punisher at the helm is the perfect response to Landfall.

ManabarbsCitadel of PainPrice of ProgressZo-Zu the Punisher

The deck’s general immediately punishes playing lands. A turn in which the ramp player drops a land and plays a ramp spell to get another eats 10 percent of their life total. Add Manabarbs, Citadel of Pain, Price of Progress and Acidic Soil which all hit the ramp player harder than others. Tunnel Ignus specifically hurts them. Multiple land drops a turn suddenly become the fastest way to die. Ankh of Mishra is a second copy of Zo-Zu. There are lots of ways to inflict pain.

Adding some spells such as Rampaging Ferocidon and Sulfuric Vortex make sure they can’t gain life to escape that pain. You can also play some less nasty land destruction that keeps specifically ramp decks in check. Impending Disaster resets the game if the ramp player gets out ahead too quickly and Mine Layer can target just the offending player’s mana. 

 

Header - Group Hug

Hang on, you’re thinking, group HUG? How can people hate those decks, they don’t even do anything?

The problem is, they accelerate the game plan of some players while hampering others. There are also plenty of Commander players who dislike the political element of the game and don’t really want to deal with debating who gets how many Hippo tokens. It forces the table into a team game. 

The pillow fort element can also be frustrating. It slows things down while the group hugger builds resources and claims they aren’t a threat. Then you get killed by some obnoxious combo they spent several turns working on. 

Torbran, Thane of Red Fell

You should have just killed them. In fact, the best counter to a group hug deck is to beat the tar out of them and everyone else at the table. You can do that with most aggressive deck; Torbran comes to mind for a red deck that uh, wins. Prowess, Ninjas and plenty of other strategies can smash the group hug deck before it creates too many problems.

My favorite way to deal with it though, is extra combat. 

There are decks that force combat, but you probably become the enemy that way – though it is effectively the anti-group hug, because it lets people get all those resources only to then destroy them. Extra combat is a little less mean.

Isshin, Two Heavens as OneAurelia, the WarleaderScourge of the Throne

Isshin, Two Heavens as One’s ability helps a lot of the cards that give you extra combat steps to trigger, to the point you can be attacking several times in a turn. Paired with Aurelia, the Warleader, Hellrider, Godo, Bandit Warlord and Scourge of the Throne, the deck can do a ton of damage, fast. 

Savage BeatingSeize the DayWorld at WarHellrider

You can add Savage Beating, Seize the Day, World at War and any other extra combat cards to make sure you consistently hit hard, and play plenty of creatures that pump your team or deal damage when they attack. Hellrider is a great example. It’s fast, it’s actually quite fun and it’s fair creature combat. 

 

Header - Theft

I’m going to be honest, I love these decks. Every time I play Commander, I think my opponent’s decks are more interesting than my own. Theft just takes that to the logical conclusion of playing their decks. There’s no plan – I take your stuff and see what happens.

That is the problem though. These decks have a strong chance of just durdling around, hoping for a win-con from someone else’s deck. It can be incredibly frustrating when they take your game-winning combo piece or a key creature. Somehow, it’s worse than seeing it killed or milled, because now its beating you to death.

The way to beat it is to play a deck with either a relatively low individual card power level, but lots of synergy such as a tribal deck or a deck that has a lot of redundancy and can interact with the board favorably when things get stolen.

Sacrifice decks fit the bill perfectly. They can be extremely strong or casual, so you can play in most groups with some small changes, and they operate in a way that makes theft of creatures often irrelevant. The only caveat is that you need to ensure there’s enough redundancy in your sacrifice outlets, otherwise if you lose one, you’re done for.

Viscera SeerAshnod's Altar

The great thing about sacrifice decks is that once you have a sacrifice outlet on the battlefield, such as Viscera Seer or Ashnod’s Altar, you can respond to any attempt to snatch your creatures. If your opponent goes for your graveyard or library, you can force them to sacrifice whatever they take soon after with Grave Pact or Dictate of Erebos. You can even play something like Corpse Dance to respond to your graveyard being targeted by reanimating a creature.

Decks like this can reliably win through either creature combat, grinding out value or combo, so you have a lot of angles to attack from. The theft player cannot take everything, especially with the rest of the table needing to be kept in check too, so you should be able to deny them the resources they try to steal – your other opponents might even thank you for it.

Don’t play Tergrid though, unless you hate having friends.

 

Header - Land Destruction

One of the big two evil decks (the other one is next), land destruction is incredibly unpopular because it denies your opponents the ability to play the game. Particularly egregious is when lands are destroyed but the land destruction player cannot close out the game and everyone just waits to draw more lands and restart the process.

The most efficient way to beat land destruction is to not rely on lands at all. Elves decks achieve this consistently, playing a huge number of mana-generating creatures so that you can lose all your lands and still win the game with relative ease. 

Elvish Mystic (Timeshifted)Llanowar ElvesElvish ArchdruidHeritage Druid

From Elvish Mystic and Llanowar Elves to Elvish Archdruid and Heritage Druid, there are so many ways to generate mana that a well-built Elves deck can play a single Forest and win the game. The land destruction deck can do very little about you following their Armageddon with Craterhoof Behemoth pumping 20 mana dorks.

Heroic InterventionTajuru PreserverWorldly Tutor

Land destruction decks often play board wipes, so be sure to have an answer in Heroic Intervention, Wrap in Vigor or Caller of the Claw. You can also beat sacrifice cards with Tajuru Preserver, in case your opponents try to get clever. It’s wise to play a few tutors such as Chord of Calling and Worldly Tutor to secure access to what you need. 

Land destruction players rely on you running out of resources, but with a resilient Elf deck, you won’t unless they have multiple board wipes, and it’s surprisingly easy to recover if you include some artifact ramp and maybe a Freyalise, Llanowar’s Fury.

 

Header - Stax

I played a stax deck for a while. Hokori, Dust Drinker was the commander. Everyone despised it, and for good reason. The game was locked up with Winter Orb, Static Orb and Smokestack, but it took forever to actually end. 

I think of stax as a combo-control archetype, but most players in a pod fail to recognize when the game is over, and dislike being cut off from the ability to play their cards, which is reasonable. The goal of a stax deck being to stop basically anything your opponent wants to do is cruel and not especially suited to a casual multiplayer experience. 

The biggest problem though is that stax is incredibly hard to beat. Once a few lock pieces are down, you can’t do a lot to stop the inevitable, grinding loss you’re about to experience. Your spells cost more, your lands are all tapped and you can’t draw extra cards. What on earth do you do?

There are two strategies that jump to mind. Superfriends decks packed with planeswalkers are hard to interact with and generate a lot of value. That’s true for the stax player too. A lot of the best stax cards were printed before planeswalkers existed and can’t deal with them effectively. It’s a good way to get around the tax effects and keep building your board presence. 

It’s also going to annoy people almost as much as stax. A better option is an aggro/control deck.

Edric, Spymaster of TrestTalrand, Sky Summoner

You could use Edric, Spymaster of Trest and beat down quickly with small flyers. It’s a proven strategy that goes faster than stax can reasonably keep up with, but I prefer Talrand. The token generation ensures you can get creatures on the board consistently, and you benefit from having a hand of counters to keep problem permanents off the board.

With Talrand, Sky Summoner, you can counter things that affect you badly, but let the cards that bother your other opponents resolve. You basically make the stax player part of your game plan, and then kill them. Not with kindness either. 

The key is to be quick about it and get Talrand out early. My favorite part is that you can play Talrand on a tiny budget and he’s still good. Just jam Cancel and whatever Cancel variations you can find in your bulk boxes in the deck, and you’re close to done. The poor stax player will think you’re the bad guy, and with a deck full of counterspells, maybe you are.


There are plenty more decks that make you the target as soon as your commander hits the table, but for every play style there’s a counter strategy. Find the weakness in their deck, and you’ll come out on top. Like Sun Tzu said:

The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

 

4 thoughts on “Know Your Enemy – How to Beat the Most Hated Commander Strategies”

  1. Zo-Zu the Punisher’s ability doesn’t deal commander damage. Damage is only commander damage when it’s combat damage.

  2. What about Sacrifice decks? To be honest I thought they will apear here as well as they are also considered bad guys at many tables and are hard to interact with 😉

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