There are ways around just about every rule ever made by mankind. We’ve all learned to push the boundaries and discover which rules really apply and which ones are not fully enforced. Kids learn which parent to ask to get that extra TV show before bed. Students figure out which teachers are pushovers that let them turn in assignments late. And let’s face it, rich people with high-powered lawyers have learned which laws they can skirt thanks to their wealth and influence.
Magic players skirt the rules too. Commander is supposed to be a format of 100 singleton cards, creating a high degree of variance in each match. In reality, players are able to search their library for specific cards and gain access to them more reliably. This is thanks to a class of cards known as “tutors” that can grab cards from the library and put them into hand, the top of the library, the graveyard or even directly into play. This reduction in variance obviously increases the consistency of a deck, if not its outright power, which is why tutors are highly controversial and why they are necessary to address as we continue our discussion on card draw in our Unified Theory of Commander.
Teach the Controversy
Once again, we need look no further than the Commander Rules Committee’s own Sheldon Menery for some important thoughts about the topic at hand. Sheldon has gone almost completely tutorless in his own EDH decks and had this to say about it:
One of the reasons I developed the format the way I did was because of the sometimes-random nature of the 100-card singleton design. I really wanted there to be a looser, more open-ended format for multiplayer. When I’m playing, I want my decks to be able to do many different things or to do the same thing multiple different ways. Going tutorless helps squeeze in more opportunity.
Here’s where the controversy tends to really heat up. Commander was crafted with the intent of being a social format, with a relatively high degree of variance, encouraging players to create fun interactions in more than a single way. So there is a certain group of players that find just about any tutor objectionable and in conflict with what they consider the “Spirit of Commander.”
The opposing view tends to come from an equally fair position. Regardless of the intent of a game designer (or Rules Committee, as the case may be), a great game can usually be played in more than one way. In fact, I’d argue that a huge part of Magic’s wild success has to do with its virtually unlimited ability to be remixed and enjoyed the way players want to experience it. That’s how we got EDH in the first place, isn’t it? So even if the judges and players who first gathered together to create the format had one idea about what it should look like, the reality is that its going to look like what players in any given group make it into. Since tutors are part of the magic cosmos and they aren’t officially banned, they are entirely fair game when building an EDH deck.
Gideon (The Good)
The fact is tutors do bring some good elements to the game that simply cannot be overlooked. First of all, most mana ramp spells count as a tutor, don’t they? Take a look at Lay of the Land or Skyshroud Claim and what do they say? “Search your library.” That technically makes those cards into tutors that allow players to reach the critical mana needed to cast fun spells. Sure, mana ramp can be a problem for the table when its twelve mana on turn three, but most of the time its used to smooth out mana draws and create the good kind of interaction at the table. So right off the bat it looks like tutors aren’t all bad.
Tutors also leave players an opportunity to search for answers that let them escape sticky situations and even better, help the entire table out in a bind. Say the player to your left cast Ulamog the Infinite Gyre and after a quick chat the table realizes that no one has an answer in hand. Someone is sacrificing four permanents on the next turn unless you can find an answer right now. You could always pray to top-deck a Path to Exile, but a tutor gives you the option to grab a specific solution instead of appealing to the EDH gods for your out to be on top the of deck. By blowing your tutor on an answer, you score some political points with the rest of the table and get to play the hero.
Remember in our first discussion on card draw, we demonstrated how drawing cards is like increasing the sample size in our hypergeometric calculations for success. I pointed out that this is great because its difficult to increase the number of successes in a population across all our elements of the Unified Theory. We can’t just keep devoting more cards to Mana, Draw and Answers because our decks are limited to 100 cards. Well, tutors actually hack the calculation and do a little bit of both for us. They can serve as functional duplicates of important cards in our deck by searching them out. So the options a tutor presents to an EDH deck are incredibly potent.
Nicol Bolas (The Bad)
There is some danger associated with relying too heavily on tutors though and its something new players to the format need to consider as they construct their first decks. The simplest challenge tutors present is the risk being “two-for-oned” by a smart opponent that is holding a counterspell or a piece of spot removal. If you cast Diabolic Tutor in your Karador, Ghost Chieftain deck to go get a combo piece like Karmic Guide, a clever control player is going to let you spend the mana on the tutor and then spend more mana to cast the creature, only to toss a two mana counterspell at your angel spirit. So you just spent nine mana and likely your entire turn only to end up with nothing. The same can happen when the Avacyn, Angel of Hope you pulled from your deck with Chord of Calling ends up on the bottom your library thanks to an opponent’s well-timed Terminus.
Tutors also run the risk of making a deck particularly boring and predictable. Most players enjoy the social aspects of the multiplayer format and the variety offered by singleton deck construction. Run too many tutors and your shiny new commander deck might start to feel old hat to you and to your playgroup after only a couple games. If a deck rushes to exactly the same combo pieces, exactly the same way at the start of every game, then you might find yourself wondering why you are playing EDH instead of just playing a more consistent format like Modern.
The deck may also fall on hard times when the local playgroup learns which cards to remove on sight. If that Karador deck is looking to Tooth and Nail into Mikaeus the Unhallowed and Triskelion in every game, we can be certain that the table is going to look for ways to exile those cards from the deck before the tutor even gets into your hand. It’s not the playgroup’s fault if they decide to answer your deck that way either. They aren’t being mean to turn off the instant-win combos in your deck. They want to win the game too and if the only way to make sure you don’t win first is to remove the non-interactive parts of your deck, that’s a good decision on their part. Which brings us too…
Garruk (The Ugly)
Here’s where tutors can become a problem in certain playgroups. The consistency they create in a deck can lead to frustration for the rest of the playgroup, who see themselves losing to the same pieces over and over again. It’s not an immature response for those players to then tweak their decks to respond to the potency of a consistent deck filled with tutors. Of course this can lead to an arms race that spirals into hurt feelings and accusations that one side or the other forgot about the “Spirit of Commander.”
It’s important in these instances that everyone in the group can take a step back and have a mature conversation about the situation. Commander is a game, and if its stopped being fun then then healthy communication broke down somewhere and the group is missing the point of sitting down at the table together in the first place. It’s OK for power levels to go up over time, but its important to have conversations about it and make sure the players are communicating their expectations of fun and fairness. That’s the real spirit of the format, whether you are playing pre-con decks straight out of their boxes or piloting thousand-dollar decks that would make a Spike at a Legacy tournament laugh maniacally. Don’t let things get ugly because you are unwilling to talk about your expectations for the game or unable to accept that your version of fun might not be entirely compatible with every player at the table.
Tutors can do good things. They can also do bad things. Tutors can help your deck hit its land drops and play a savvy political game, but they can also make a deck boring to pilot and annoying to the other players. So what should you do? My advice is to set some clear goals.
Before you build or adjust any deck, take a few minutes to consider what you want the deck to do and just how consistent you really want it to be. I showed you in our article on mana how some basic math can make your deck hit its land drops and cast its big spells. We also discussed in our first article on card draw how this second element can increase options over the course of a game. But you don’t have to dial these elements all the way up to 100% in every deck, do you?
Certain deck archetypes really need tutors to function. So if you goal is to play some kind of combo deck, then tutors are going to be necessary to hit those combo pieces. That’s got to be part of your goals for the deck, even if some players aren’t going to be happy about it. They can’t force you to play a different archetype because they have fun a different way than you do. But be aware that if your deck is too consistent, you may become the table archenemy and be forced to play 1v3 each time you pull it out. If that falls outside your vision for the deck, you should consider reducing the consistency so the deck aligns with the playgroup and your overarching goal.
Likewise, you might find your deck a bit underpowered and inconsistent for your playgroup, violating your goal for the deck by failing to be competitive at all. If your voltron deck is having a hard time pushing damage through for the win, you may need to consider adding a card like Stoneforge Mystic or Idyllic Tutor to go digging for auras or equipment to keep the commander swinging and picking up its fair share of wins. Don’t be afraid to add a little consistency to the deck if you feel like a tutor is a necessary addition.
Unified Tutor Theory
So this continued discussion on card draw actually brings us back to utilizing the My Deck Tickled A Sliver mnemonic to edit our decks. Tutors allow a deck to hit its land drops and to draw the threats and answers it needs to be successful. Utilizing the right tutors for the deck’s archetype taps into the synergy element and helps a deck meet its stated goals. Using too many or the wrong kinds of tutors just because they are available in the deck’s colors can result in a boring, noninteractive experience that leaves the entire table underwhelmed. It might not even make the deck functionally stronger either, as you may become too predictable or be grabbing the wrong pieces simply because you drew into a tutor.
So set some goals and then don’t be bashful about using a tutor to help achieve them. Just make sure your deck is actually meeting its stated purpose and that you aren’t becoming the instigator in an arms race that leaves an entire playgroup unhappy. As I’ve said before, editing an EDH deck is a process, even using our Unified Theory. Finding the right balance of tutors for your deck might be as well. So make sure to review after each game and after each adjustment and keep asking yourself if the deck meets your standards for fun and interaction. You and your playgroup will be happier with the deck and the EDH experience if you do.