How better threat assessment in Commander can make you a better player

After most games, I like to have a post-game chat with my friends, usually the next day, after I’ve had some time to reflect on my game and my decisions. We recently chatted about threat assessment, the correct play in our games, and why.

I thought this would be the perfect time to write about this in our format and why it is crucial to make better decisions when assessing the immediate threats. There isn’t much out there on threat assessment either; there is a video from Command Zone and a recent video from EDHRecast. There is also a great series by The Spike Feeders called Better know a combo. 

I found this a little surprising, considering that proper threat assessment is such a big part of the game. If any newer players are looking to improve their games, there is very little to help them. Threat assessment will also help you build your decks more effectively; thinking about what will be a threat to your opponents will then determine what type of protection you run and what you decide to protect. A few of these threats are based on my own decks. You can look at the full decklists for those decks on my Moxfield.

One caveat I’d like to make is that this is subjective to my own experience, and whilst this could guide the best ways to identify and neutralise threats, it’s too broad a subject to consider all angles. Lets get into it.

Defining a threat

A threat is a key card in an opponent’s strategy that will either let them win on the spot or stop you from winning or generating value in your game. That may seem pretty straightforward as a definition, but it can become a little more complex based on the information provided to you in a game.

It can also come down to the type of deck, and wherein the game you are a red deck that wants to hit face fast is going to be a threat at the start of the game, but these decks tend to lose momentum, a control deck is always going to be at its peak in the mid to end game. Being able to identify what is going to be a threat and when is a skill that you will develop over time.

When addressing threats, there are a few things to keep in mind; something that might not cause you problems now could cause you some pain next turn. Is the problem something that affects your board-state less than it affects others? Is the card really a problem, or is it just a minor inconvenience? let’s look at some examples.

Combo Decks: A case study of Izzet Pirates.

A combo deck is usually built around a few 2 or 3 card combos that create a loop of damage or value to win the game.

An excellent example of this is what happened in my last game. One of my opponents was playing Malcolm, Keen Eyed Navigator partnered with Breeches, Brazen Plunderer, a pirate combo deck. Its main win-con is to get Malcolm out along with a Glint-horn Buccaneer.

Malcolm, Keen Eyed Navigator is a 2/2 legendary siren pirate for 2 and a blue with flying that generates treasure tokens whenever another pirate deals damage. Glint-horn Buccaneer is a 2/4 Minotaur Pirate with haste for 1 and 2 red. Whenever you discard a card, you deal 1 damage to each opponent, and so long as you are attacking with it, you can pay 1 and a red to discard a card and draw a card. The combo is to move to combat with both, pay the initial mana for the ability, deal 3 damage (1 to each player) and generate 3 treasures which gives you the mana to keep going until you can win.

My opponent managed to get Breeches out pretty early; Breeches,Brazen Plunderer is a 3/3 goblin pirate with a menace for 3 and a red, which exiles the top card of a player’s library when a pirate damages them. Note this doesn’t say combat damage, and there are plenty of pirates that tap to deal damage. The opponent can also play these cards, so it takes card advantage from you and gives your opponent a more significant advantage. 

It could be considered a stax piece in this deck. He had been exiling the top card of our libraries and then got Malcolm out on the board and a few other value pieces. The clear threat is always Malcolm; it is part of a win-con, but Breeches keeps everyone in check. It’s taken lands from people, exiled key pieces from decks and ramped my opponent by giving him access to mana rocks.

This could be easy to misidentify in the middle of the game, but Breeches is only a tiny problem; it doesn’t let our opponent win; Malcolm does that. So we should focus our energies on Malcolm, right? Well, it’s complicated. 

By this time, Malcolm has generated a tonne of treasure, he isn’t very expensive to cast, and so the treasure tokens can be used to bring him right back out. What we need in this situation is something that can either deal with the treasure as well or keep up some interaction for when our opponent goes for the combo. If we have access to cards like Song of the Dryads, Imprisoned in the moon or my new favourite Witness protection, we can neutralise Malcolm as a threat, and because he doesn’t die, he won’t go to the command zone. There aren’t many of these spells, though, so holding up something to remove a critical piece is essential. Identify its requirements and act on them. 

Glint-horn needs to attack to activate, so you can either counter it, remove it before combat or if your running black, use Praetors grasp to remove it from the deck, but it has to be instant speed removal. We can also consider dealing with the treasures. Vandalblast will outright destroy them, and Yasharn Implacable Earth will make it, so those treasures cant be sacrificed; whilst this isn’t an outright solution, it can buy you some time to find a more permanent solution.

If your opponent goes to combat, it’s already too late unless you can use  Teferi’s protection and take your opponent out on your next turn. 

Creature heavy Decks: A case study of Sliver Overlord.

Most decks are usually wining by combat damage; they establish an overpowering board state and then swing out for lethal. A lot of these decks, whilst they start to telegraph what they are going to do early on, can have many potential problems. Deciding what to remove or interact with can be tricky.

My Sliver deck wins this way. It wants to unload a tonne of creatures, make them big, make them hard to deal with and then make them unblockable. It takes a few turns to establish this board state, but let’s make some hypothetical assumptions. We are on turn 5 on the board. There is a Gemhide sliver, a Lavabelly sliver, a Sol Ring and a Herald’s horn in play, and a Sliver overlord is about to be cast. Sliver overlord is a legendary 7/7 sliver that costs WUBRG ( 1 of each of the 5 colours). It has two abilities; pay 3 to find a sliver creature card, reveal it and put it into hand, and the second ability is to pay 3 to gain control of target sliver. 

The second ability isn’t that usable unless someone is playing changelings. If the Overlord is coming out, we can assume that our opponent will be tutoring for a card before their next turn. Our opponent probably won’t want to attack because they will need the mana from the Sol Ring and the Gemhide Sliver‘s ability. The commander will have summoning sickness, so they cannot tap it for mana, so they have access to 4 mana, and Slivers cost 1 less from the Heralds Horn.

This gives us time to find answers to what could be coming out. 

We could remove the commander now with cards like Path to Exile, or maybe just a hard counter like Essence Scatter. What if we don’t have those cards in hand? We can remove the cards proactively using cards like Duress, stop the activated abilities from being able to be used in the first place with Cursed totem or narrow the searching ability with Aven Mindcensor or Opposition Agent. If counter magic is available to you, it’s usually more advisable to counter the tutored card rather than tutor itself. The commander can always be brought back out, and you counter a key piece that may be gone for good.

Like in the previous segment with Malcolm, we can also consider Song of the DryadsImprisoned in the Moon and Witness Protection to neutralise Sliver Overlord so that the activated ability is taken away.

What if it’s too late, and our opponent has successfully tutored up a Sliver Hivelord giving everything indestructible and also has a Crystalline Sliver on board, giving everything shroud.

We can Play cards that give -1/-1 counter’s that can still get around this.

Massacre girlToxic Deluge, or Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite can really take this deck from under its feet and neutralise any threats.

Some new cards from the Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and Innistrad: Crimson Vow are Toxrill, the Corrosive paired with Sludge Monster, will also take away all the keywords on your end step and potentially wipe the board.

Another way we can deal with a board on indestructible and shrouded slivers is to bounce everything to our opponent’s hand. Cards like Cyclonic rift, when overloaded, Devastation tide or Perplexing test don’t target, so they can bounce everything; we can then use cards like Windfall or Wheel of Fortune to make our opponents discard those cards.

We can also use Farewell, a board wipe that doesn’t destroy or target, getting around the problematic indestructibility and shroud abilities.

Interactive Decks: A case study of Kalamax, the Stormsire.

What about threats that aren’t apparent? How do we go around dealing with instant speed threats?

Again using one of my own decks as a template, let’s assume that our opponent has got a Vadrik, Astral ArchmageSorcerer class and Kalamax, the Stormsire on board and is moving to attacks with all their lands untapped.

This type of deck leverages value from draw spells into bigger X spells and can win with Sorcerer class, Shark TyphoonComet Storm, or Double major to make a bunch of Kalamax.

So what’s the threat? is this a threat? sure, they have Sorcerer class, but until it’s levelled up, is it a problem? It depends; it’s hard because we don’t know what’s in our opponent’s hand. The deck does rely heavily on Kalamax, so removing Kalamax will slow our opponent down by at minimum 2 turns, possibly more. 

The Sorcerer class is something to note, but until it’s had some mana sunk into it, it’s not going to be a problem; ideally, we wait until our opponent has sunk some mana into this before we blow it up. 

This then controls the resources available for them to start slinging spells.

So broader removal is what we really want to interact with this deck; cards like Assassin’s Trophy, Chaos Warp or the new one about to come out from Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate Wild Magic Surge can help us deal with this sort of deck. Spell-Slinger decks don’t run a lot of permanents either; the chance of getting something as good for them from this is slim.

If you are in a deck that runs a lot of artifact removal, you should also consider running Liquimetal Torque. A mana rock which turns any permanent into an artifact, making it easier to remove.

What about what’s in their hands? This sort of deck does run a lot of countermagic as protection, ramp to get ahead on resources and card draw. Really the deck is built to control the game and then win in one explosive turn. Using Praetors Grasp, we can remove some more critical spells from the deck. Duress, ThoughtsiezeThought Erasure and Inquisition of Kozilek can help us control our opponent’s hand, eliminating spells that could be detrimental later on.

We can consider stax as a way to slow our opponents down. Thalia Guardian of Thraben, Rule of LawSilence will help reduce the number of spells our opponent can cast. Rhystic study can also be considered stax; with the number of spells being played, it’s unlikely our opponent would like us to benefit from that. These are great for another reason. They draw out removal from our opponents that could be used against our own key pieces. Ruric Thar, the Unbowed, can also punish our opponent for casting all those non-creature spells.

There is so much more that could be discussed for threat assessment; it’s such a broad topic that it’s pretty hard to encompass it all here, but it is an important skill to develop.
Make sure you have those post-game and pre-game conversations and talk about how cards interacted with one another; that way, you can learn and strategise for future games.

I will see you again on Tuesday for the following Article, which will be looking at the Background Commanders and the Backgrounds from the latest set Commander legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate. 

Leave a Reply