Up through this point in the Unified Theory of Commander, we’ve been primarily concerned with what our own decks want to do. Threats define the goals of the deck, while Draw and Mana give us access to those threats and the ability to cast them. As we move into the fourth element in our theory, its necessary for us to switch gears and start thinking critically about our opponents. Answers are all about responding to the other decks at the table.
Remember from our last discussion that threats attempt to advance a gameplan and create a win condition. They exert pressure on the table and “demand answers.” That means answers are the cards that respond to and hopefully stop threats from creating momentum for another’s players strategy. They relieve pressure at the table and ideally put your deck in a position to continue executing its own plan.
So we’ve got a functional definition of answers, but a lot of players who understand what an answer technically is still miss the material advantage of running answers in their decks. If we go back to our discussion on card advantage, its clear that Commander is a game of resource acquisition and management. Acquiring and utilizing resources is bound by rules, which dictate the time and pace at which we can use them. Threats attempt to reduce the amount of time left in the game. That’s “pressure.” It says that if this threat goes unanswered, then the table only has X turns before its controller wins. And sometimes X equals zero! If no one is holding an instant speed answer, the game is over.
Many answers cards may seem like card disadvantage in the moment, but when used properly they actually create time. They add to X, which creates more turns for you to acquire and utilize resources. So making sure your deck has appropriate answers to the threats at the table is going to be critical. Maintaining card advantage is pointless if you don’t have the time to execute your strategy and win the game, right?
The Answers Menu
So what cards qualify as answers? The most ubiquitous and obvious answers for our multiplayer format are wraths and boardwipes. A single spell that clears potentially dozens of your opponent’s assets from the battlefield clearly produces significant card advantage. Rarely does a friendly game of commander reach its conclusion without a single one of these powerful cards making an appearance, but these aren’t your only options.
Single target removal spells such as Swords to Plowshares certainly have their place in the format, especially since they tend to function at instant speed and allow you to be very selective with their use. Removing artifacts, enchantments and other permanent types is important to consider as well. And yes, no matter how sad you are when it happens to you, land destruction is part of the answers package as well. Being able to use Strip Mine on the Maze of Ith that’s keeping your commander from getting in for lethal damage might be pretty important if you are playing a voltron deck.
There are broader answers available as well. Cards like Chaos Warp or Karn Liberated hit just about any permanent and cover weaknesses in colors that struggle removing specific threats from the table. “Prison” cards such as Oblivion Ring and Detention Sphere and other oddball defensive spells such as Nevermore see play in specific deck archetypes as well, so always be on the lookout for the right options for your deck’s specific gameplan.
So how do we go about selecting answers for our decks? For that, we need to turn inward again for a moment to the goals we set for our decks. If you know what your deck wants to do, you can begin to figure out what threatens it. If your deck isn’t creature heavy, then wraths will certainly work in your favor. Wraths become your enemy in a tokens deck, so finding answers that protect your side of the battlefield are much more important. Suddenly a card like Soul of New Phyrexia might seem attractive as an answer.
We also need to consider each type of threat we might see at the table and make sure we are able to respond to all of them. We can do this broadly to get started. Make a list of permanent types and consider whether or not your deck has a way to deal with each of them. If your deck is missing removal for a particular permanent type, consider how it is going to handle one of those being played as a threat. You may need to make some edits.
We can get more specific by building another list of threatening deck archetypes, particularly those that might show up at our own card shops or regular gaming night with friends. If your deck is combat oriented, do you have answers for a “pillowfort” deck stacked with defensive enchantments? If not, a Bane of Progress might be an excellent inclusion. Is a voltron deck king of your playgroup? Then make sure your deck is packing enough instant-speed removal or sacrifice effects to keep their commander pointed at someone else. Consider the strategies that tend to leave your deck feeling hopeless and go find the tools to fight back effectively.
Reliability of Your Answers
Including another threat is almost always going to make you happier during deck construction than adding another answer. Its easy to imagine the myriad of ways each threat can win the game, but hard to consider all the ways in which you might need another answer. Have you ever daydreamed about casting Wrath of God for four mana on your own turn? Or blowing your Swords to Plowshares on turn three against a threatening Rafiq? Probably not. So almost every EDH player to sleeve up a deck has fallen into the trap of overvaluing the density of their threats and undervaluing the need for answers.
We try to avoid hard rules for things like card ratios in the Unified Theory because each deck has its own goals and each playgroup its own nuances. However, it is safe to say that when an opponent plays a big threat, you are almost always going to wish you had an answer in your hand. So its generally a good idea to distribute answers in your deck in such a way that you will see at least one in your opening hand or by the turn at which players at your table tend to start resolving major threats.
It’s relatively easy to follow that rule and use a hypergeometric calculator (like we did for mana sources) to find a good number of answers for your deck. If players at your table start resolving big threats around turn six, then fifteen answers makes your deck 90% reliable at playing defense. You can tune up or down based on a variety of factors, but remember that this is just a starting point. Just like the “start with 40 lands” guideline, make sure you don’t just cram 15 answers in your deck and call it a day. Like mana sources and threats, your deck needs answers that fit its strategy and the expected play environment. So keep adjusting until you don’t feel helpless against any strategy, but don’t give up the character of your deck to fit a specific rule.
Answers don’t feel as good as threats, but they are every bit as vital to making sure your deck is fun and functional at any table. When holding a shiny new threat from the latest set that desperately needs to join your favorite deck, you will be tempted to remove an answer to make room. You will even feel good about the swap when that threat resolves and the table collective groans at the advantage create your new toy. But those good feelings might be covering up the way your deck is actually getting weaker and less able to respond to your opponent’s own shiny new toys. Don’t fall into that trap. Find that answers that keep your deck in the game and run them.