Solve the Equation – Choosing and Using Your Interaction

(Omnath, Locus of Creation | Art by Chris Rahn)

Your 'Threat Assessment' Assessment

Feel like your deck just is not coming together? Welcome to Solve the Equation, where we take a look at the numbers and see what's making your deck and in-game decision-making fall flat.

If you've never had a friend get on your case about “bad threat assessment”, then you've not been playing Commander long. Far too often, Commander players will critique their opponents' decisions, but the truth is, we can never know exactly why our opponents make the decisions that they do. That being said, we can focus on improving our own threat assessment.

Commander, a Zero-Sum Game?

You may have heard that Magic is a “zero-sum game”, meaning that whatever puts an opponent behind puts us ahead. Unfortunately, Commander is not that simple. 

Chaos Warp is a somewhat polarizing card, but it shouldn’t be. It is easily the best removal spell in red and should often find its way into multicolored decks as well. If you're getting burned by the card regularly, then you probably aren't playing it right. How do we know how to play the card correctly? There are a number of principles we can apply in game to decide if a removal spell is “worth it” to cast in any given moment.

With three other players, almost any interaction we use on one opponent will benefit the others without the need for them to spend any mana or cards. Outside of the most competitive playgroups, games will be won by the player who can most consistently generate mana and card advantage. Unfortunately, most removal will affect the caster negatively, as they are benefiting two players and often not advancing their own game. That doesn’t mean we can ignore them all together.

A Necessary Evil

Unfortunately, this does not mean we can neglect removal entirely. I know many players who are upset when a combo or Craterhoof Behemoth abruptly ends the game. This is often a sign that your playgroup is either not running enough interaction or not using it well.

I've heard many players who advise running board wipes rather than single-target interaction. Personally, I think this is risky once your group reaches a certain power level. If you play in a combo-friendly environment, or even a higher-power environment, then often the game ends in a single big turn. This is where a well-timed removal spell or counterspell will save the game.

Take a look at a cEDH deck and you will see it is jam-packed with interactive spells. As your power level climbs, your interaction suite should scale up proportionally. How do we prevent our hand from filling up on removal spells?

Too Much of a Good Thing

I am sure we've all sat and stared at a handful of removal spells with nothing to advance our own board. I'm going to break it down into three simple steps to ensure that we don't get stuck in this situation: choosing a commander, keeping our hand full, and selecting efficient removal.

First: Choosing a Commander

Your commander choice can put in a lot of the leg work to ensure your deck runs smoothly. Take a look at the top commanders on EDHREC, and it's no surprise that the most popular ones can generate card advantage themselves. My favorite, and the focal point of my deck build here? Omnath, Locus of Creation.

Omnath can generate mana and card advantage in a neat little package. Perhaps most importantly, Omnath generates mana while allowing us to keep mana up on our opponents' turns for interaction. Commanders such as this (e.g., Prosper, Tome-Bound or Muldrotha, the Gravetide) will allow you to keep spells up. They either draw cards themselves or generate advantage in a manner that mimics card draw.

Second: How Does Your Card Draw Keep Up With Your Efficiency

Many “best practice guides” suggest 10 removal spells and 10 card draw spells. The truth is that the more efficient your deck gets and the lower the curve becomes, the more this ratio falls out of favor. My Omnath deck can produce loads of mana and will drop its hand on the table quickly and run out of gas with no card draw. I would argue a deck with double-digit interaction should run 15+ card draw or card-draw-adjacent spells. When I say card-draw-adjacent, remember that cards such as Augur of Autumn and Oracle of Mul Daya will put you ahead on cards without actually drawing any. 

Keep an eye out for cards that do double-duty. Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath both ramps you up and can draw more cards later in the game. Trust me, Uro does not see enough play in Commander. This card is incredible in this format as well as others. Also, keep an eye out for cards such as Chart a Course and Expressive Iteration. These can draw you two cards, which puts you up in card advantage, and they are efficiently costed. Stronger decks should shy away from the big draw spells such as Blue Sun's Zenith and focus on a combination of efficient card draw and card draw engines, such as Tatyova, Benthic Druid or Valakut Awakening.

Finally, let’s touch on cantrips. Preordain, Ponder, and Brainstorm are the premier cantrips. It's important to remember that these are neutral on card advantage but provide solid selection. These cards should find their way into stronger decks, in particular those that run fetchlands and can take maximum advantage of them. Weaker decks can Opt out of including these, and even the stronger decks should not venture farther down the pecking order than these unless this is a very desirable effect in the deck. My Omnath deck has cycled through all of these at times, but my current favorite is Preordain, which has the lowest floor.

Third: Valuing Efficiency

Card evaluation is a skill. The more cards you know and see played, the better you will get at it. In general I think there are a few solid rules of thumb to consider when evaluating a spell.

First off, we want to choose instant-speed spells. Interaction falls off in value quite drastically when it is at sorcery speed. The biggest exception is flexibility or necessity. According to EDHREC, the most played sorcery-speed removal cards (that are not attached to a creature) are Vandalblast and Damn, which are valued for the flexibility to play as a board wipe instead. Third on the list is Feed the Swarm, which sits on the other side of the spectrum as a necessity in mono-black to blow up enchantments. Vindicate is past its prime and works great on a budget, but will likely slip out if your deck gets stronger.

Efficiency is the other key. Let’s start with counterspells, since we've discussed a lot of removal. At higher power levels, all your counterspells should sit at 0-2 mana. Almost every set brings us a new variety of the 3-mana counterspell, and none have made the cut for me yet. I find myself much more likely to drop even a 2-mana counterspell for a more restrictive 1-mana counterspell, such as An Offer You Can't Refuse. The difference between 1 mana and 2 mana is huge, and that gap grows exponentially as you move up in cost.

Removal spells work a bit differently. My general rule of thumb is that if it hits only one target & card type, then it should cost 0-2 mana. Path to Exile, Pongify and Nature's Claim all have “downsides” and are limited, but the efficiency just makes them so strong. The price for flexibility is steep, but the best flexible removal comes in at 3 mana, with Anguished Unmaking, Chaos Warp, and Beast Within being some of the strongest. My deckbuilding leans toward a split of 75% efficient/cheap and 25% flexible.

When To Fire Off Your Removal

Okay, you’ve built the deck and you're almost there. Now let's make sure that we don't waste our removal. Let’s take a look at what happens mathematically when we use a removal spell. Let’s say Player 1 (Us) uses Swords to Plowshares on Player 2’s commander, Kaalia of the Vast, before it can attack. The table cheers and you feel good, but let’s take a look at how that leaves the table.

Player 1 (Us): -1 Card, - 1 Mana

Player 2: Player 2 still has access to their commander, meaning they aren’t down a card. This leaves them -0 Cards, - 4 Mana

Player 3: -0 Cards, -0 Mana

Player 4: -0 Cards, -0 Mana

This leaves us with a mana-advantage on player 2, but behind to the remainder of the table. These are the advantages that win 1-on-1 games but that fall flat in Commander. Did you make the right decision? In this case I would argue no: unless we are in impending danger, we can wait to see who the player attacks and if someone else will waste removal. The first and most important consideration in threat assessment is imminent threat. Instant-speed interaction lets us be picky. Wait to spend that removal spell until a chunk of our life total is at risk.

Let’s look at another example. Player 1 (Us) uses Nature's Claim on Player 3’s Rhystic Study. We are a responsible Commander player and pay the 1-mana tax. How do the numbers look now?

Player 1 (Us): -1 Card, - 2 Mana

Player 2: -0 Cards, - 0 Mana

Player 3: -1 Cards, -3 Mana

Player 4: -0 Cards, -0 Mana

The numbers once again look pretty ugly in this example, but this is a great illustration of the nuances of threat assessment. The first example puts us a card down to each player, but this example highlights removing a snowball threat. This interaction immediately puts us behind, but Rhystic Study could very easily snowball out of control and put us much farther behind. In this example, the threat warrants removal. These threats grow harder to deal with the longer they stay on the table and often lead to requiring multiple answers. It’s better to remove these early.

Let’s take a look at one final example. Player 1 (Us) casts Arcane Denial to counter Player 4’s Chaos Warp targeting our Omnath, Locus of Rage. How does that leave us?

Player 1 (Us): -0 Card, - 2 Mana

Player 2: -0 Cards, - 0 Mana

Player 3: -0 Cards, -0 Mana

Player 4: +1 Cards, -3 Mana

Arcane Denial is another polarizing card. It gives us a card back, putting us neutral on card advantage, but it gives two cards to our opponent, which puts us behind every other player on either card advantage or mana. So when could this possibly be the right call?

Omnath, Locus of Rage is one of our deck’s win conditions, and protecting it will likely win us the game in the long run. Counterspells are almost always best used to protect your winning position or to stop a game-ending threat across the table. Their negative card advantage means they should not be used lightly.

To Sum Up

Be very stingy with how you use your removal, and you're less likely to get burned. It can be so tempting to fire off a removal spell just because you have a few extra mana on a turn, but often this will bite you in the butt in the long run. These are the small improvements that are hard to notice in game, but when you focus on them, they will elevate your play to the next level. Use interaction sparingly to take out an imminent threat, a snowball threat, or to protect your winning position.

Check out the full deck below. This one is a personal favorite of mine, and full of pet cards. I hope you enjoy!

Omnath’s Threat Assessment

View on Archidekt

Commander (1)
Creatures (23)
Instants (15)
Sorceries (19)
Enchantments (3)
Artifacts (2)
Lands (37)

Buy this decklist from Card Kingdom
Buy this decklist from TCGplayer

What removal do you use in your decks? What is your threshold for removing a threat? Let me know in the comments below.

Ben is a Michigan native who fell in love with Magic just a few years ago in 2019. He loves making big splashy plays in Commander as well as crunching the number to optimize his decks. Outside of Magic, he works in marketing and loves a great cup of coffee to start each morning… maybe with a splash of hot chocolate for his sweet tooth.