How much skill is in the Commander format?

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Post by darrenhabib » 1 week ago

I've noticed a discussion in a thread and it touches upon the argument that some cards = "instant win". This sort of discussion also brought up the subject of skill level.

I just wanted to hear people's perspective on how much of winning is due to the strength of a deck and how much of it is based on the skill of the player?

Is this clearly different from dueling compared to multiplayer format? Is this also vastly different from other formats like Standard, Modern, Legacy, etc?

Without coming across as cocky. I have a mix between building strong decks and also being a very experienced player. So I find that when I win games, opponents feel like they have been run over by a "net deck" and hardly ever give credit to just how well I played that game. Whether that is using removal on the exact needed threats, not committing at times I knew something was up, or whatever. I have a very good memory bank for play patterns to look out for and thus can utilize my resources in an effective way most games.
The other thing is that the opponents are not wrong in the my decks are "net decks", but I am actually the one posting them lol. So I don't bother telling them, but take it as a compliment. But what they are trying to say is that "you have no skill, you are just copying a deck online".

But at the same time certain decks might not lead to much skill. A deck that just looks to ramp big mana and plays lots of draw cards often isn't "the hardest" to play? Often a single spell like Genesis Wave seals the game.

Anyway thought I'd get the discussion going, where do you you see your playgroups fitting in with skills levels versus deck strengths being the major factors?

What cards do you feel lead to skill-less games, and what cards do you think lead to skillful games?

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Post by pokken » 1 week ago

It's a pretty common thing to think about in magic -- how much of an edge is player skill vs. card quality drawn vs. deck construction.

In my opinion, Commander is higher variance than constructed formats for the most part. So the quality of your opening hand is quite exaggerated in effect, probably moreso than even Modern (the format with the most notorious opening hand bias I can think of).

That said, I think commander is extremely skill testing because of the nature of multiplayer and all the effects that you might see -- the sheer variety of cards rewards card knowledge to an extreme that no other format really does. Modern has a bigger effective card pool than legacy (because cantrips drive other cards out) and you can see this comparison there (there are simply more actually playable cards in Modern than legacy, so meta knowledge is more important and more difficult).

I can kinda feel myself beginning to talk in circles here, but my gut feeling is that commander is an extremely skilltesting format, but it tests different skills -- modern tests meta knowledge more than legacy, legacy tests play patterns and sequencing more than modern. Commander tests people knowledge and cardpool knowledge more any other format. And it also tests mulliganning skill probably more than any format.

As far as cards, there is a handful of big dumb cards that really get my goat from a method of winning perspective:

Here's a partial list--
I'll give an example tonight of why I detest craterhoof -- I played against a 4c saproling deck that had like 12 guys out and cast hoof. The game was over, because no one else was playing blue. He's right after me in the turn order, and everyone passes priority because they're not blue and it's my job to deal with it. So the game is the player rolling the dice and hoping I don't have a counterspell. Almost nothing else would have done it.

I had it, and that player lost, while simultaneously reducing my ability to develop my board and allowing everyone else to do their thing unfettered. It's annoying.

It's not like Pathbreaker Ibex or Coat of arms where we can just play removal.

I throw the big mana 'copy all your %$#%' enchantments because they tend to create a comical value chains that force the "do you have specifically enchantment removal, the rarest of removals, right now?" question. Because if not I am gonna copy all my damn spells and make you watch, and if I happen to counter your spell it's going to be even worse (kinda like when someone pacts your paradox engine removal and makes the mana they need to win:P).

I tend to not play those kinds of haymakers (with the exception of my MW deck, which is almost a meme deck that I pull out when people complain about my combos). Because that stuff is just super boring and nobody likes losing that way. Assembling a combo is just a much more fair way to win in my opinion and I know that probably is ridiculous but that's how I feel.

In general I find I hate the stuff that follows the underwear gnomes model of magic:
step 1. make lots of mana
step 2. windmill slam ??? stupid bombs
step 3. profit!

Ramping is not a complicated thing in commander and boring ramp payoffs are not my bag.

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Post by Mookie » 1 week ago

As @pokken mentioned, EDH tests different skills compared to other formats.

-it has a significantly larger viable cardpool than any other format
-there is a significantly higher deck diversity
-multiplayer nature means that political skills can matter
-people generally build their own decks (instead of netdecking), so deckbuilding ability matters more
-no sideboarding, so you'll need to be familiar with your individual meta to know what hate cards to run
-significantly higher board complexity requires a good memory and understanding of interactions
-you need threat assessment, and an ability to gauge how close opponents are to winning

The multiplayer nature of things really skews a lot of things - it is very common for two decks at a table to burn each other's resources, only for a third deck to swoop in and snatch away victory.

I would also say that some decks are more difficult to play than others. Ramp decks tend to be more straightforward to play, while control decks tend to be more difficult. How hard it is to play a deck may also depend on what else is at the table - combo decks are significantly easier to play when no one at the table has interaction, for example.

Going back to the original question though... if every player in the game is playing a deck with a roughly similar power level, the most skilled player will win more often. If every player at the table has a similar skill level, the deck with the highest power level will usually win. If you have a mix of high-power, low-skill and high-skill, low-power decks and players at the table... it would be hard for me to say which player is most likely to win, especially without knowing the skill and power level differentials. I would probably lean towards the higher-power deck though. By parallel, I would expect a casual player piloting a competitive Standard deck to beat a pro player piloting a Limited deck the vast majority of the time, and I don't think that changes for EDH.
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Post by Dragonlover » 1 week ago

If there's one skill that Commander definitely tests, it's the ability to react to rapidly changing boards. We've all played games where when we've passed the turn, player B is clearly out in front and by the time it gets back to us Player B was dethroned by Player C but then Player A did a thing and now it's anyone's guess who's in front and the battlelines get redrawn for the umpteenth time.

Knowledge of interactions (potentially incredibly meta-specific ones) is also definitely a thing, as well as being able to selectively ignore chunks of a players board while they're irrelevant. A friend of mine has a couple of decks where you can mostly ignore the creatures he plays, it's the enchantments you have to kill otherwise every time he discards a card he's making four dudes and some mana.

In terms of 'how good at Magic do you have to be to play Commander?', in the skill level mirror match it comes down to luck of the draw, but past that I'm with Mookie: deck complexity swings things too much. You give a new player and an experienced one my Lathliss deck? Experienced player has the edge, but at the end of the day it's a mass of 6/6 fliers that do stuff, it's not that hard to pilot. There's also playstyles to consider, if you give me something that's incredibly spell-based I'll flounder cause that's just not how I play Magic, but there's 20 years experience behind that floundering so does that put me at an advantage against a new player who groks the spell game better than me or not? I don't have the answer to that question btw.

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Post by DirkGently » 1 week ago

This is something I've thought about a fair bit. I kind of want to answer it by drawing some graphs. But I also don't actually want to create any graphs in excel or whatever, so I'll just describe them.

The first graph is deck strength - commander versus competitive constructed (say, standard). Commander has a huuuge variety of power levels compared to standard. Obviously there are decks that are played in standard that are trash, but the vast majority are somewhere near the top metadecks - either netdecks, modified netdecks, or brews meant to counter the meta. There's a good reason for this - in 1v1, playing a worse deck means your odds are significantly worse. Obviously there's always some chance to win - mana screw is a thing - but for the most part, the stronger deck is going to win more often. If the decks are close then either one has a decent chance, but past a certain point, your odds of winning are going to diminish dramatically.

Commander is a lot more complicated, obviously in part because there are twice as many people, in addition to the wider swath of typically-played-at power levels. It becomes more important what sort of decks people are playing. A powerful but uninteractive deck - say purphoros - might provide very little competition for a more competitive combo deck, whereas a deck that's equally as powerful as purphoros in a vacuum, but more interactive, might provide the resistance that enables the other decks to overcome the combo deck. In a 1v1 matchup the control deck might have the same chance as the purph deck, but because of the help of the other decks, it might do better in a multiplayer scenario. Or if they're the best deck at the table, the purph deck, being resistant to interaction and quick to kill a table, might do better than the control deck. So what does the graph look like exactly? Well, it's hard to be anything but very general, but I think the curve from powerful to less powerful is much longer and softer, especially if the meta is known and players know what to expect from each deck. Yes, a powerful deck can almost always beat unsuspecting weak decks, but that's certainly true of standard as well. For the most part, multiplayer gives weaker decks a better chance, and means that any deck CAN win, if they get lucky and find an opening while the more powerful decks battle it out.

Ok, so now let's talk about player skill.

I'm not a constructed player very often, and part of why I'm not is that I think the graph for play skill is rather short. There aren't that many major decks. There aren't that many commonly-played spells to consider when making plays. There's only one person to think about. You only have your own, one deck to know how to pilot. Apologies to those who love constructed magic - obviously the strategy runs deep-ish or there wouldn't be such big tournaments around it. But imo, the graph for play skill looks pretty short. Skill obviously plays a major role, but most people playing the format at any serious level will be relatively close to each other, and I would assume most people are within 10-20 percentage points of each other when playing an even matchup. Some formats like modern can be very topdeck dependent - did you draw the hard counter you sided in? etc. With particularly low skill the odds to win do become pretty low, but most people who play standard for a decent amount of time will outgrow that range.

Now, commander. In general this can be tricky because I don't play against many players who I think are particularly skilled at commander. Draft, yes, constructed, yes, but most commander players don't focus much on play skill. Hey, it's a casual format. That said, from my experience, I tend to win a very high percentage of games even when borrowing decks, and I think play skill is probably a major part of that. Imo commander has much deeper potential strategy that constructed, thanks to the added dynamics of multiplayer. So again, the graph is a lot longer, on both sides. As far as how it's shaped, I think skill can be incredibly important, but it's also more forgiving of being a total scrub. Total scrubs can still win, if they topdeck that craterhoof at the right time or whatever. They're more likely to have the time to draw out of their poor keeps, and their misplays might make them a lesser target in the long-term. I think the multiplayer environment also gives particularly skilled players more chance to find a way to win, rather than games being dictated by a strong draw from an aggro deck, for example, in standard.

So while I think the standard graph of skill/win% is fairly linear, I think the commander one is more complicated. It stays relatively flat for most skill levels, only really peaking up at the high end. Within a certain range, better plays and becoming a bigger target kind of cancel out - knowing how to sequence plays, finding the most powerful card to play a given time, etc, is still useful, but it won't necessarily mean you win the long game, even though it likely would in standard where you aren't trying to overcome multiple players. In commander, seeing further ahead, being able to read other players and knowing how to keep the pressure off yourself until you're ready to strike, and all those multiplayer politics that are frequently disdained by the "competitive" crowd - that's where you can really squeeze out some major win%, because you aren't fighting the multiplayer dynamics to get ahead, you're HARNESSING them.

Again, that's very generally - specifics can trump the general trend. At the end of the day, commander is a format of massive variety, both in deck strength and play skill, while constructed formats tends to be more about getting smaller advantages in the margins.
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Post by darrenhabib » 1 week ago

One thing that is missing on a top level in Commander is intricate combat math combined with playing with or around combat tricks.
Some of you might argue this, and state that with more creatures on the battlefield there is more to deal with. Don't get me wrong I've had a large army and had to work out exact math to see if I could kill all 3 players in one combat.
But really the complexity of the combat phases is normally around how life totals look after a number of very even turns from you and your opponent. You have to sequence out the total tally of both players life totals given potential attacks, blockers and even "what ifs". The 20 life total makes small margins account for a lot more of the complexity of planning out combat all the way from the beginning of the game.

Commander on the other hand tends to be about amassing enough creatures to simply overwhelm in situations, rather than chipping in for minor damage. Sure you can attack for small damage from a number of players, but it's not the major factor that dictates a game.
Simply put life total as a resource is far less of a factor when it comes to the early game and especially combat in Commander.

This has the effect that I admit that my skills as a limited player or constructed player playing with combat math isn't as good as it would have been if I spent more hours playing other formats.

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Post by darrenhabib » 1 week ago

DirkGently wrote:
1 week ago
I'm not a constructed player very often, and part of why I'm not is that I think the graph for play skill is rather short. There aren't that many major decks. There aren't that many commonly-played spells to consider when making plays. There's only one person to think about. You only have your own, one deck to know how to pilot. Apologies to those who love constructed magic - obviously the strategy runs deep-ish or there wouldn't be such big tournaments around it. But imo, the graph for play skill looks pretty short. Skill obviously plays a major role, but most people playing the format at any serious level will be relatively close to each other, and I would assume most people are within 10-20 percentage points of each other when playing an even matchup. Some formats like modern can be very topdeck dependent - did you draw the hard counter you sided in? etc. With particularly low skill the odds to win do become pretty low, but most people who play standard for a decent amount of time will outgrow that range.
I will say that I watch a ton of streams around all the constructed formats (Standard, Modern, Legacy, Vintage, but I don't watch any Commander) from many of the highly ranked players in Magic, and even between this group you can notice major differences in skills levels. When you get to hear their thoughts on plays, you get an exact feeling for just how deep they go into the planning out of the game.
Literally once you watch enough of each player you get to know their strengths and each of them do have elements that they are best at.

But this is the very top guys and girls, and I do agree that most of the rest of the pool of players will be a lot closer. But there are still a lot of decks within all the formats, so learning each deck and the nuances of meta changes can't be underplayed in my opinion.

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Post by DirkGently » 1 week ago

This is true. Different formats do focus on different things. Limited in particular frequently comes down to a number here or there making the difference, whereas commander tends to end from either triple-digit craterhoof turns, infinite combos, lockouts, and other things that don't really require much math. That said there are still plenty of decks that come down to careful sequencing of spell casts, untaps, mana generation, etc to maximize their effect, which can get quite mathy. I think it's more like legacy/vintage than standard/limited in this regard, with standard/limited coming down to combat math very frequently, and legacy/vintage being more likely to be decided on properly-sequenced burst plays.

(btw, to clarify my previous statement. I think the graphs of commander skill/win% and standard skill/win% are shaped thusly: the standard graph arches up, with play skill plateauing as you get closer to perfection, whereas the commander graph arches down, with play skill being more negligible until you get particularly good. The limited graph would look similar to the standard one, except that the graph is longer and plateaus less quickly.)

EDIT: I don't really think there's any good commander streamers that I'm aware of, in terms of play skill. Obviously there are many excellent standard/limited/etc streamers.

At the end of the day, every format has a very long skill graph compared to most games. Sometimes it's easy to forget until you see a new player struggle to decide, while tapped out, if they should attack their 3/3 into an opposing 4/4 :P
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Post by umtiger » 1 week ago

No matter the format, there's an incredible amount of skill involved with Magic.

There are some skills that get used more often or less often in EDH because of the structure of the format (e.g. multiplayer, 40 life) but I feel that all formats essentially require players to use all of their skills before the game, during the game, and even after the game.

I don't mind losing any game to any card and I don't even mind playing against resource denial. But having a game end from certain cards are less satisfying.
pokken wrote:
1 week ago
As far as cards, there is a handful of big dumb cards that really get my goat from a method of winning perspective:

Here's a partial list-- In general I find I hate the stuff that follows the underwear gnomes model of magic:
step 1. make lots of mana
step 2. windmill slam ??? stupid bombs
step 3. profit!

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Post by toctheyounger » 6 days ago

I think there's a lot of skill involved in even giving yourself the chance to win, let alone even getting close to the finish line.

Firstly, it takes a lot of thinking/crafting to make a list that works well. In most cases anyway - some commanders do have a clear build path, but nonetheless for any list it's important to have a balance between synergy and control, win conditions and card advantage, lands and non-lands, so on and so forth. This is not insignificant. I won't say I'm a master at this, far from it. I do like to think I'm good at working round issues in this respect though and I'm blessed to have some great feedback available in the Nexus community, To me, this is an important part of engaging in this game, especially because I try not to lean into combo, so I really do need to give myself the best opportunities I can within that limitation.

Secondly, actual gameplay I think there's a ton of skill required (outside of the aforementioned 'winmore list' of Gen Wave et al). You're competing for one prize against potentially up to 4-5 incredibly complex value engines, and even if you're the biggest Timmy the world has ever seen, there are going to be times it's not advisable to turn your creatures sideways. So much of this game is push and pull, gauging momentum (both yours and others'), and knowing what you have available to you to control this momentum to your own benefit and/or to your opponents' detriment.

It sounds weird, I guess, but I think one of the most valuable skills needed in the game is being able to tell the future. I guess it's what's mostly known as threat assessment or probability assessment, whatever. It's important to know what you're likely to see across the table from you, when your window for disruption is, what ways you have to disrupt, and vice versa for making your moves.

Ultimately I think the rabbit hole is pretty deep in what elements of critical thinking are required to succeed in this format, there's tons of skills that can be handy. I think with regards to the thread you're alluding to a lot of the cards mentioned there are ones that just skew really heavily towards the value side of a cost:value ratio. None of them are entirely 'oops I win', but some of them get close, and some of them generate enough value that the scenarios in which they reliably win the game are many, and the ways in which they can be interacted with are few. That's sort of the essence of that discussion. Nonetheless, you could stuff a deck chock full of these and still lose. People probably do, and they probably lose more than they win. The difference is skill, to my mind.

A perfect example is Dirk's Phelddagrif list. There's a lot of what many in the format would call jank in that deck, but I've played against similar phelddy variants and if they're piloted well they can just keep the table under heel. That's not value cards, it's skill. The closest I have in comparison is my Nissa build. It's got a lot of pretty strong cards, but it also goes in a lot of directions. There's been times I've lost, mulled over the scenario hours later, and Rube Goldberg'ed a possible win out of the game state I lost from. In fact, those sort of crazy game-saving plays are almost my win now. I couldn't care less who's left standing a lot of the time, so long as I've done some neat %$#% and used my brain to get there I'm pretty happy.

TL;DR - there are many relevant skills to this format, and game in general, and ultimately you cannot throw money or fat at a list and win every game (at least not in this format anyway).

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Post by ISBPathfinder » 4 days ago

I let people borrow my decks all the time and in a lot of cases they don't play them very well. Being able to pilot a deck well is a lot of how to win in a game of commander. Having built a deck myself I often know what the objectives are, tutor options, and the planned play patterns. I think in order to be good at magic with any format knowing a deck's composition AND playing it well are both required to be successful.

There are decks where knowing the contents are less important. Generally speaking these are decks with lower tutor numbers.
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Post by Sinis » 4 days ago

I think there's a huge amount of Skill in Commander, probably the same as other formats. This is from the perspective of a kitchen-table definitely not-cEDH group.

1. Commander has a huge variance. Not so much a skill-detractor; if you're playing 6 board wipes (or some number including functional copies like tutors or recursion), you're likely to have a very limited number in any given game. That means you need to be judicious about how you use them. Same with any answer. Choosing good answers is one thing, but playing them carefully is also very important.

2. Multiplayer makes things very weird and hard to assess. That board states shift wildly from turn to turn, players can combine resources (or not) to answer threats, etc. This makes 1. a lot harder.

3. The skills are different. 60-card formats have this perspective of 'counting your outs' with cantrips like Ponder. When I played Legacy, I had rounds decided by first turn plays with things like Duress. There's a lot of hard math skills in those formats about how to best play around what your opponent is most likely to have. Commander, by comparison, is a wtf grab bag. There are commonly played cards, but playing around one card for another is about thinking about what they could have with any given set of mana up. On the other side of the coin, politics is nonexistent in 1v1 formats, and Commander demands a certain amount of savvy for leveraging other players' resources.

-----

I think the so-called 'skill-less' cards (my pet-hated one is Insurrection) are reviled not so much because there's no skill involved, but because they generate so much value or instantly win that they're kind of unsatisfying to play against. I hate it when my games suddenly end with my own board, and I would even say that if you have a habit of building enormous boards, then Insurrection seems like a good meta choice against you.

But, I still think they're unsatisfying, because they basically require you to either a) win before any player can leverage on of these big dumb spells, or b) play blue so you can say 'no, we are not losing this way'. a) is often a losing proposition because of the life totals and mechanics of the format, and b) is just an unsatisfying answer because we want to play colours other than blue.

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Post by pokken » 4 days ago

ISBPathfinder wrote:
4 days ago
I let people borrow my decks all the time and in a lot of cases they don't play them very well. Being able to pilot a deck well is a lot of how to win in a game of commander. Having built a deck myself I often know what the objectives are, tutor options, and the planned play patterns. I think in order to be good at magic with any format knowing a deck's composition AND playing it well are both required to be successful.

There are decks where knowing the contents are less important. Generally speaking these are decks with lower tutor numbers.

I can't even pilot my own decks well if I don't play them for a while so picking up a stranger's deck and piloting it well feels almost impossible to me.

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