Superior Numbers - The Truth Behind Three Truisms

When I can't tell you anything but the truth

Welcome to Superior Numbers, where I conduct numerical analysis on cards and deckbuilding trends using just a little bit of math and a little bit less snark.

I played in a pod with a new player at my LGS the other day. He was using a modded precon, and we all had powered-down decks to keep things on an even level, but even with our powered-down decks, there were synergies and things in our veteran decks better capable of handling the game than what he had available, given his lack of experience with the format. Even my fairly innocuous Kenrith, the Returned King Exalted deck just functioned more smoothly than his build.

Afterwards, he was asking for advice for his deck and what he could do to smooth things out, and the pod made some suggestions. At some point, another player told him there are three things he should keep in mind when making tweaks as a new player:

  1. When possible, make your ramp cost two or less mana
  2. Have ways to deal with things in peoples' graveyards
  3. Understand your win conditions and how to play to them

Those seemed like three reasonable advice points to give a new player. Those maybe aren't the top three things a new person should worry about, but they're probably on the list, and they seemed like a decent starting point.

Afterwards, though, those statements kind of stuck with me. I accepted them as true, but generally when you try and help someone with something, you're better off explaining the 'why' of a thing, and none of us had explained the 'why'. You generally learn a lesson better if you understand the mechanics of that lesson, rather than just being told to do something. For instance:

  • "This is the ideal batting stance in baseball, and it's ideal because it lets you reach all sides of the plate while keeping both eyes faced forward on the pitcher and ball, to maintain depth perception."
  • "This is the best way to prepare your bread for french toast because it better soaks up the egg mixture when slightly dry."
  • "This is the proper way to slash the tire of the person playing the Grand Arbiter Augustin IV stax deck with no wincon to make sure they can't simply patch the damage."

So what are the 'whys' of those three rules mentioned above, and can they be quantified in any way? Let's look!

1. Two can be as bad as one, it's the loneliest number since the number one

First up: "When possible, make your ramp cost two or less mana."

So why is ramping at two generally preferred to ramping at three? Isn't Cultivate worth that extra mana to get a land to hand to make sure you hit your drop next turn or the turn after? Well, maybe, depending on the deck, you could argue that it is. Some of this is more art than science, and personal preference, playstyle, meta, etc. can be factors. But generally, the main reason two-mana ramp would be preferable to three-mana ramp is because ramping on turn 2 with a Nature's Lore or Arcane Signet lets you cast your four-CMC commander a turn earlier than a turn three ramp spell like Cultivate or Darksteel Ingot. Spending turn three ramping simply doesn't give you that option.

And hey, what do you know? Of the 20 most popular commanders in the last two years, nine are four-drops; 45% of the most popular commanders come down on turn 4.

In short, ramping on turn two or before is the optimal place to do it for the most popular commanders. This is just as relevant for the three-drop commanders: a three-mana ramp spell forces you to choose between ramp or casting your commander on T3, absent something like a Sol Ring already in play from the previous turn, and the spell is uncastable on T2, again, absent a zero- or one-drop ramp spell that was resolved earlier. That two-drop ramp may not help you nudge your commander out faster, but it still gives you something to do on turn two without conflicting with your options on turn three.

The math doesn't really get worse the further you climb up that chain, either. A turn three ramp spell enables a five- or six-drop commander just one turn early, too, same as the turn two ramp spell, assuming you wouldn't otherwise have missed a land drop. It should be noted that it's a bit harder to hit the amount of land drops in a row you need for a five- or six-mana commander, and depending on deck construction, the added lands from a Cultivate or extra mana from a Thran Dynamo might be what gets you there. There are advantages to the higher-CMC ramp cards with a higher-CMC commander, and that should be weighed on a case-by-case basis.

Two is also less than three. Write that down; it's going to be on the midterm test.

By paying less mana for that ramp spell, it frees you up to do more things at the point in the game where ramp means less. Sure, you can just not cast it, but even if it's turn eight, it's sometimes nice to have that extra mana for something on turn nine, and a two-mana ramp spell is less likely to interfere with what you want to do in those later turns than a three-mana spell. Yep, that's obvious. And yep, it does matter. One mana is the difference between you paying the Rhystic Study tax or not, or between you having Counterspell mana or not, or the difference between you casting a third spell that turn or not.

Again, that's not to say there aren't situations, decks, metas, etc. where you may not be better off paying a little more for the extra that comes with turn three ramp, but as far as truisms go, there's some explainable truth behind why you want to ramp in the two-mana slot vs. paying more.

"When possible, make your ramp cost two or less mana, because in most situations it's the most efficient way to get your commander out quickly while still letting you do other things during later turns."

2. It's winding down, there's much you missed, working on that graveyard shift

So how do you find a way to quantify a statement like "Have ways to deal with things in people's graveyards"? Well, I guess you can look at which commanders care about graveyards to see how frequently that kind of thing will pop up in pods. Let's look at the ten most popular commanders of all time:

Muldrotha, the Gravetide says it right there in the text: "During each of your turns, you may play up to one permanent card of each permanent type from your graveyard." Lord Windgrace has a relevant -3 ability that reads, "Return up to two target land cards from your graveyard to the battlefield." Cat Dad also has a +2 that lets you discard the lands you plan on replaying with the -3. Kess, Dissident Mage, again, has it right there on the card: "During each of your turns, you may cast an instant or sorcery card from your graveyard. If a card cast this way would be put into your graveyard, exile it instead."

Meren of Clan Nel Toth, like Muldrotha, plays with the graveyard extensively. "At the beginning of your end step, choose target creature card in your graveyard. If that card’s converted mana cost is less than or equal to the number of experience counters you have, return it to the battlefield." Teysa Karlov cares about creatures dying. It's not precisely a graveyard ability, but some grave hate like Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace, which replace dying with exile, will totally scupper her, so I'm going to count her, particularly since Teysa decks often want to loop things in and out of the yard for repeated triggers.

That's half of the top 10 most popular commanders that have a primary strategy involving graveyard interaction. If we dig down further into the top 20, we find noted graveyard abuser Yarok, the Desecrated and artifact looper Breya, Etherium Shaper.

I'm not sure anyone really thought running answers to graveyard players wasn't a good idea, but at least now you can point to a little truth behind that truism. "You should have ways to deal with things in people's graveyards because a whole bunch of the commanders that you're statistically more likely to see treat their yard like a second hand."

3. We can be heroes, just for one day

This third truism was much harder to quantify. The previous two were concepts you could investigate by looking at decks and commanders and seeing what you could find that might back up your accepted truism. "Understand your win conditions and how to play to them," is much trickier. The best I could come up with was looking at the most popular cards for each color and see how many are the kind of thing people often consider a win condition. Yes, I recognize the irony in using a truism like "Craterhoof Behemoth wins games" to provide evidence for the truism that you should have a plan to win.

White: Approach of the Second Sun, Cathars' Crusade, True Conviction, Felidar Sovereign, and Karmic Guide + Reveillark

Blue: Laboratory Maniac, Blue Sun's Zenith, Deadeye Navigator, Dramatic Reversal (in conjunction with Isochron Scepter)

Black: Gray Merchant of Asphodel, Kokusho, the Evening Star, Torment of Hailfire, Exsanguinate

Red: Warstorm Surge, Purphoros, God the Forge, Impact Tremors, Hellkite Tyrant, Comet Storm, Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker + Zealous Conscripts

Green: Craterhoof Behemoth, Overwhelming Stampede, Triumph of the Hordes, Genesis Wave

Those are all cards off the top lists in each color that either win games or are used to enable some sort of win condition. This is also by no means comprehensive, as even a single Etali, Primal Storm can carry you to victory, and a Necropotence or Birthing Pod can be used to enable a game-winning play. The point is that some of these cards look like obvious win conditions, and some don't, and if you're piloting them, it's important to recognize how they can be used for value and for victory.

"Understand your win conditions and how to play to them, because if you look at some of the most popular cards, you'll see most people are going to be doing that in some way when they play against you."

All I want is the truth, just gimme some truth

So the next time a new player asks for some advice, you'll at least have a little data to back up a few commonly accepted truisms about the format. Are there any particular truisms about Commander you accept and share with newer players that are easily quantifiable? I'd love to hear about them below to better help me when I'm helping out someone else. Thanks for reading, and I'll be back next week with more Superior Numbers.

Kenrith, the Returned King: The Exalted King

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Commander (1)
Creatures (22)
Sorceries (11)
Instants (13)
Lands (36)
Enchantments (11)
Artifacts (6)

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Dana is one of the hosts of the EDHRECast and the CMDR Central podcast. He lives in Eau Claire, WI with his wife and son. He has been playing Magic so long he once traded away an Underground Sea for a Nightmare, and was so pleased with the deal he declined a trade-back the following week. He also smells like cotton candy and sunsets.