Flowstone Chat — Jim from Spike Feeders
I had the chance to sit down and chat with Jim from The Spike Feeders, a group of friends that create YouTube content and stream Commander games — usually gravitating towards the competitive end of Commander. On Twitter, Jim has been an active voice in representing the cEDH community and can always be counted on to provide well thought out arguments and opinions. He also works to keep people together rather than dividing them into factions.
Hi Jim, thanks for sitting down with me to chat. I'm looking forward to getting your perspective on Commander.
Thanks for reaching out! I don't do many interviews so this is exciting.
So first off, can you tell us a little about yourself for anyone who may not know who you are?
I'm 33 years old and I've been playing Magic for about 22 or 23 years. Not continuously though. I played from Revised-ish until Exodus-ish, then came back around Innistrad and I started playing Commander around Theros. I'm a former L1 judge that never really did much judging to begin with. I started in MTG content creation by writing an article series called The Metaworker on www.themanabase.com, and now I run a Commander gameplay channel with five of my friends here in Winnipeg, MB, Canada.
I have to ask since you're Canadian. What's with all the Tim Horton's hype?
I'm not a big fan of Tim Hortons, personally. They play up the Canadian patriotism but they're owned by Burger King, and they've got frozen donuts and weak coffee. I think people like it because it's predictable and there's always one close by.
Huh, I didn't know that Burger King owned them. This makes me feel better though. I went to one when I was in Canada for training and didn't see the fuss. Miles better than Dunkin Donuts, for sure, but it still felt like a chain.
Recently you were doing a fundraiser for the wildfires in Australia. What prompted that, and how did it go?
We ordered the dice for a Christmas giveaway we were going to do but due to a manufacturer delay we didn't get them until January. We decided we'd do something charity-related with them because we had already planned on giving them away. Right around that time the wildfires were front and center in the media, so we decided to put our platform to good use!
We put the dice up in our online store for $20USD per pair with free worldwide shipping, and man did they move fast. We only had 100 pairs made, and when they started selling really quickly we put up a limited amount of our classic green dice for $10/pair as well. After a couple hours we were completely sold out! We raised a total of $2400USD for WIRES, an Australian wildlife preservation charity. It was totally wild, and I am floored at how generous the MTG community can be when they get behind a cause like this!
That's amazing, and awesome of you and everyone else on the Spike Feeders team to do that.
How did you get into Commander?
When I came back to the game I just played kitchen table 60-card casual with my brother [Bill] and a couple of his friends who had just come over from Yugioh. He showed me the card Master Transmuter, and I thought it would be cute to run alongside my Phyrexian Walkers and Shield Spheres I had in a box from the '90s. I hadn't discovered Blightsteel Colossus yet so I was mostly using it to bounce Myr Battlespheres and Filigree Angels while he beat my face in with werewolves.
He invited me to modern night at our LGS and I found out my deck wasn't Modern legal, so I sat out and watched. A few weeks later he and his friends invited me to try out a new format they were learning and I immediately latched on because it meant I could use all my old cards!
I actually started building a proliferate/modular deck that you could call an absolutely horrendous version of Modern Affinity, but if eventually became my first deck - Vorel of the Hull Clade!
I guess it would be fair to assume that you started playing Commander casually and building goofy decks, right? At what point did you start to gravitate towards the competitive end of the spectrum?
Bill and I almost exclusively played 1v1 with me playing Vorel and eventually Aurelia the Warleader and him playing Obzedat, Ghost Council He'd pretty soundly thump me with a combination of Divinity of Pride and Debt to the Deathless and a ton of removal. Eventually we added a third (Eliot) who Bill met through Yugioh, and a fourth - Eliot's roommate, Jerry. None of us could really keep up with Bill's nonsense by tuning our existing decks, so I dropped some big money on a complete overhaul of my Aurelia deck, halved the CMC, and created my Anax and Cymede enchantress aggro deck.
Around that time my local LGS was running a weekly Commander points league with themes for each night, and I was building a lot of decks. I built a Roon of the Hidden Realm golem tribal for tribal night, The Grinch who Sacrificed Christmas with Shattergang Brothers for Christmas. On "any creature as Commander" night I picked Horseshoe Crab and built my first ever combo deck.
I swapped the Commander for Nin the Pain Artist and started playing it in our playgroup and found that the draw-go control style fared VERY well. I leaned really heavily on Tezzeret the Seeker, and started buying fast mana to take advantage of his -X ability.
At that point the arms race in my playgroup was in full swing. Jerry was new to the format and dropped like $900 on a Kaalia of the Vast deck. I forget what Eliot was playing. Bill came across Cobblepott's Boonweaver Giant/Karador, Ghost Chieftain list and we started exploring the cEDH community.
And since everyone wanted that arms race, there was no desire to go back, huh?
Our ceiling got higher but we all had multiple decks, except Bill. Jerry preferred playing lower power decks like his Uril, the Miststalker voltron, and I had all the weird stuff I'd built for league night that I loved playing, so if we played 3 games in a night we'd probably play 2 with our best decks and 1 with goofy decks.
So you still play casually as well?
So much. I do a lot more brewing on the casual side of things.
What kind of casual decks do you play or have?
Right now in my Arkhives I've got these assembled:
- Anax and Cymede: Enchantress Aggro
- Saskia the Unyielding: Wild Pair = 7
- Kangee, Aerie Keeper: Lord/Changeling Tribal
- Vial Smasher/Silas Renn, Seeker Adept: CMC Matters Group Slug
- Derevi, Empyrial Tactician: Mill
- 4C Aetherlich
- 65-land Ad Nauseam Landstorm
- Narset, Enlightened Master: Form of the Dragon
- Riku of Two Reflections: Protean Hulk / Mass Polymorph
- Sygg, River Cutthroat: 8 Rack
They range from barely playable to pretty tuned, but all decidedly casual. I also carry two Commanders Quarters decks with no changes, Nezahal, Primal Tide voltron and The Scarab God zombie tribal. I'm rarely satisfied doing something standard or run-of-the mill. If I'm building a casual deck it's because I've thought up something weird and I want to see if it works.
That's a pretty interesting mix. It's funny that you call them casual and I see stuff like Derevi, Narset, Vial Smasher, and Protean Hulk in there.
That's deliberate, weirdly enough. Back in 2017 after I started writing articles I wanted to imagine what a casual deck might look like if it used the engines that ran the competitive decks of the time. They're objectively powerful cards and strategies used to do ridiculous things, essentially. In Derevi I use her and creatures that mill when they do combat damage to untap things like Grindstone and Keening Stone. In the Riku deck I use the Hulk death trigger to get all of the 0-drop creatures in the game, and use the remaining 6CMC allowance to grab Purphoros, God of the Forge or Ogre Battledriver or some other utility creature. If that doesn't work I Mass Polymorph them into big dumb beaters. In Vial Smasher my primary source of damage is spells with either big CMCs or alternate casting costs. It's the kind of deck that pitches Draco to Blast of Genius.
So who is involved in The Spike Feeders, and how did it get started?
The Spike Feeders are myself, my brother Bill, Jerry, Eliot, Jan, and Madison. We met Jan through Commander nights and the local judge community, and Madison worked at the LGS. She came on a little bit later to help us with things like graphic design because she is an incredibly talented artist. Towards the end of my article writing career the content manager for The Mana Base wanted me to start doing video top 10s and that sort of thing. I pitched him an idea for gameplay content. We filmed the first episode, but he didn't have the time or resources needed to edit it. The six of us got together and decided we were going to do it on our own, so the (then) five of us kicked in about $300 each and we bought lights, webcams, and a camcorder for the overhead angle. We shot our first episode in my dining room with the camcorder masking taped to the hanging light fixture over the table, and quickly upgraded to suspending it from two broom handles taped together resting on a pair of ladders.
Have you finished renovating your basement studio yet? What sort of setup do you have now?
In all the ways that matter, yes. My girlfriend and I are dragging our feet on installing the drop ceiling because it's really finicky. Right now we're in an open space in my basement. It's got a dry bar that mostly serves as storage for my cards and the recording equipment when we're not using it. We use the same camcorder we always have for the overhead angle but have upgraded our webcams that we use for recording player reactions to camcorders as well. We've also upgraded our audio from a Blue Snowball to a pair of XLR shotgun microphones feeding into an audio recorder. The great part about having an open ceiling is that we can mount everything to the joists overhead! It was a bit of an adventure, though, because we filmed nearly all of Season Five right in the middle of the renovations, which took place in December 2019 and January 2020.
You're fairly invested in cEDH. What is it about playing so competitively that draws you to it?
I'm a big fan of exploring what's possible in Commander. Sometimes that leads me to a pile of barely playable garbage, and sometimes it leads me to something really powerful. My playgroup is really receptive to it, so I don't hold back when I think something could be interesting or cool.
So it's more the drive to create rather than the drive to be the best?
Definitely. I would say if there's any Spike in me it would be the smallest measurable amount. I'm a Johnny through-and-through.
And yet it's not called The Johnny Feeders
We explored a few different names and that one was the only good one. Originally we were going to call ourselves Seven Mana Bad Spells.
You've talked on Twitter about how you don't believe that Commander should be split into two different formats for casual and cEDH. Could you tell us why that is? What challenges would that bring?
I think if we're going to talk about any major structural changes for the format we should talk about the merits of the goals we're trying to accomplish, and whether the proposed changes have a good chance of accomplishing those goals. With that in mind, I've seen a couple goals proposed for a split:
1) Playing a casual format competitively will ruin it:
As far as the merits, I find this one difficult to wrap my head around. I see the same signature Commander experiences in my competitive games (memorable experiences, relaxed environment, etc.) as I do in my casual games. I think it's really important to note here that my competitive games are still played in my basement with nothing on the line. Nobody's making the Pro Tour, and the beer fridge was one of the first things we bought for the studio renovation.
As far as the likelihood of success, I don't think splitting the format in two will prevent anyone who's currently causing problems in their playgroup from continuing to do so. Power level discrepancies that sour people on the format are usually rooted in lack of communication and empathy.
2) cEDH needs its own banlist to thrive:
When this line is thrown out by the more casual side of the community they're usually using it to tell the more competitive minded folks to go away and do their own thing. When it's thrown out by the more competitive side they're usually using it to express their lack of confidence in the Rules Committee. No matter how you use it, it's making an awful lot of assumptions. First is that anyone wants to volunteer to get yelled at constantly. I get yelled at enough already and I'm not even on THIS Rules Committee. Second, it ignores the things that made Commander a successful format: its unique value proposition.
The Rules Committee, throughout the course of shaping the format, took deliberate steps to differentiate Commander from other similar formats like Vintage. If a cEDH offshoot is just Commander with Flash banned and Coalition Victory legal, the two formats are not different enough for both of them to succeed.
I certainly wouldn't stand in the way of anyone who wanted to step up and try it as an experiment, but my prediction is that the split would be followed by a slow trickle of players returning to regular EDH over the course of a year or so.
So are there any cards you would like to see banned to help the cEDH meta?
I think we can all agree that Divine Intervention has no place in the 99 no matter what deck you're playing. Despicable, awful card.
A friend of mine built a Bant deck that ran that as one of its wincons. As a backup, it ran Eureka if it actually wanted to try and win.
Oh, right. Also there are some legitimate problems with homogenization at the top end of the power spectrum. At the moment, there's a first best deck in the format. People are playing it for a variety of reasons, but it has some pretty unique characteristics that limit the amount of counterplay available. Much like Prophet of Kruphix, the best way to play against it is to play your own.
I haven't mentioned any specific cards and that's deliberate. The problem cropped up about three years ago when Protean Hulk was unbanned and partners were created, making 4C Flash Hulk the deck to beat. When Paradox Engine was banned it kneecapped a whole boatload of non Flash Hulk decks that actually stood a chance at beating it. When Thassa's Oracle dropped, it allowed Flash Hulk to incorporate a second resilient win condition whose pieces heavily overlapped, and greatly increased the deck's redundancy. What we're left with is a single strategy that's so far ahead of anything else that's available in the format that it's become the go-to deck for anyone whose primary goal is winning.
I think banning Flash would bring this strategy pretty well in line (or at least within striking distance) of the other unique things that exist at the top end of the power spectrum, but I also think that the players at the top end of the power spectrum could do a better job communicating their game preferences and practicing what they preach. Ideally I'd like to see all of these things happen.
If you'll indulge me, I have two hypotheticals for you. First, let's say the RC announces Flash is banned. What do you see happening to the meta? Does Demonic Consultation/Thassa's Oracle continue to dominate and we're right back where we started like you described with players gravitating towards one deck, or does removing Flash weaken the strategy enough that we see more diversity?
Definitely more diversity. Consultation strategies existed before Hulk was unbanned and weren't homogenizing the meta at all. Consultation Oracle would be good, but not good enough that people feel like they have to play it or have no measurable impact on the games they play.
As a follow up, are Flash and Hulk still interchangeable? Or does Oracle change things if Hulk was banned instead?
Hulk without Flash is a pretty fair card in the grand scheme of all things Commander. It's got some fun uses (like tutoring up Phyrexian Walker and Shield Sphere) in lower-power groups. Flash is played primarily because of a unique templating choice that allows a creature to enter and leave the battlefield without ever offering a round of priority to interact while it's on the battlefield. Other cards like Mox Diamond are templated such that they never enter the battlefield if their controller doesn't want to pay costs during resolution. If Hulk were banned rather than Flash, this same issue would eventually crop up again when a new creature with a similarly busted ETB or LTB trigger gets printed.
Ok, now let's consider the exact opposite. The RC comes out and definitively states that they aren't going to make any changes to the format solely for cEDH, to include banning cards. At this point what do you do? Do you get together with other players and form your own rules committee? If you do, are there any other changes besides the ban list that you would make?
I expect that some group of people in the cEDH community deal with the problem the same way I do - by expressing my distaste for the strategy vocally to the people I play with. We don't have it house ruled in our group but I don't think any of us have played Flash Hulk since Oracle was printed because we just don't find it interesting or challenging.
Another group will likely quit playing Commander altogether. The message they're taking away from this whole thing is that their enjoyment of the game is not important enough to act on, and they're not currently enjoying their gameplay experience. These are usually people that play in more organized settings like LGS cEDH nights or at MagicFests. They've seen their concerns voiced and they don't see any options aside from playing in a boring environment or playing some other format. Some of them only play Commander, so I assume they'll quit playing Magic altogether.
I wouldn't be surprised if people decide to organize and form their own Rules Committee. I'm actually kinda surprised that it hasn't happened already, but I suspect it hasn't because most of the recognizable names in the community feel the same way I do. They don't want to subject themselves to the abuse, and they're not confident it would be successful.
This raises a really interesting question, though - I see myself as part of the Commander community rather than part of some external group called cEDH. When I raise concerns that I see, I'm not doing it because I think I need to wrestle control away from the RC and mold the format into competitive Vintage 2.0, I'm doing it because I see some problems in our format that I think are fixable and I want to work with the RC to fix them.
Well Canadian Highlander proved that you can have a successful offshoot, so anything is possible. It's certainly not for the thin-skinned person or someone of little patience.
Couldn't it also be viewed as trying to gather a group of like-minded players so as to not interfere with the core philosophy, rather than competing with the RC?
I think that's what it would be, but cEDH is not the only thing I care about. Regardless of the outcome, I think the core philosophy would benefit from being more accepting of differing motivations for playing Magic. I play a LOT of lower-power Commander, so I'd still have one foot in each format if a split happened. I'm not ready to shut up about the social problems we have in our format even if the cEDH community has a wonderfully healthy metagame.
So Rule 0 is a pretty big deal for you then? Do you frequently have a pregame chat about expectations?
It hasn't been necessary in my Spike Feeders playgroup for years, but in my other regular playgroup it's an ongoing discussion rather than just a pregame chat. It's composed of five people who span the entire range of power levels, and we've only been playing together since November. In the past three weeks we've talked about everything from proxying to Commander Cube to budget restrictions.
In blind metas it's a little different. I do my best to assess the power level of the table, and I shoot low for power level on my first game. For me, Rule 0 in a blind meta is about the second game, where you can talk about specific things that people did in the game and whether or not they were in line with the group's expectations. I lose a lot of game 1s, but as long as the people are fun to talk to that part doesn't matter to me at all.
That's a good attitude to have if you're fortunate enough to be able to get that second game in. Along the same lines, what's your take on these various power level ranking systems for decks? What factors do you look at when you try to quantify the power level of your decks?
I have a relative idea of how powerful my decks are compared to each other, but I wouldn't put a number to them because I don't think they're very useful. The desired outcome is seating four people together who can enjoy a game together, and there are a lot of things that can ruin a game at a table where everyone's playing identical decks. In my mind it's much more useful to talk about people's motivations for playing the game and what they need to get out of it to walk away happy. Sometimes that's meandering through Phyrexian lore, sometimes it's getting to know people as friends, sometimes it's assembling a 10-piece doomsday device, sometimes it's sprinting to the finish with everything you've got. I think when you group people with similar motivations they're more likely to have good games even when power mismatches are present
Is there any particular message you wish you could get out to the Commander community that could help with the divide that seems to exist between cEDH players and everyone else?
Most of the messages I try to launch out there boil down to having empathy for others, and emphasizing the things we have in common rather than the things we don't. People are really passionate about the game and that sometimes manifests in unnecessary and unproductive things like condescending attitudes and insults. I think we're totally capable of channeling that passion into telling stories about why we love the game and encouraging people to play the game the way they want to play it.
I think one thing we have in common at all power levels is our love of the game, and if anything can bring us together it's that.
Well Jim, thank you for taking this time to chat and answer some questions. It has been an absolute pleasure to hear about your perspective on Commander and I can tell you've spent a lot of time thinking about these issues.
Thanks so much for inviting me to do this!
You can learn more about the Spike Feeders by visiting their website at https://www.spikefeeders.com/, where you can find links to gameplay videos, deck tech and lists, and more. You can also follow them on Twitter.