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Unified Theory of Commander: Synergy

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Repeat after me:

“Synergy is not the same thing as having a game plan.”

No. No. Don’t just read it. Say it out loud with me. For real. Let’s say it again:

“Synergy is not the same thing as having a game plan.”

Good! Now that we’ve got that in your head, we can really dig into why synergy is the last element of the Unified Theory of Commander. Throughout the writing of this articles series, this has been the most hotly contested part of the structure we’ve put forth for building decks. But once we’ve properly defined synergy and explained how it differs from your deck’s game plan, I think the reason for its position in the My Deck Tickled A Sliver mnemonic will become more clear.  

So how should we define synergy? Google’s dictionary gives us this:

syn·er·gy

?sin?rj?/

noun

  1. the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.

It’s easy to see the definition of synergy within the context of Magic emerge from this dictionary entry. We can replace “organizations, substances, or other agents” with “cards.” So when two or more cards interact to produce an effect that’s greater than they could create on their own, we can call that synergy. To put it in context of our previous articles, you are creating a kind of card advantage by pairing these cards together to exceed their normal value.

Kird-Ape FOREST

The simplest version of this is when one card just makes another one stronger. The usual example given for this in magic circles is Forest paired with Kird Ape. By having a forest in play, Kird Ape gets stronger. In Commander, a more clear version of this kind of linear, obvious synergy is putting an enchantment on Uril. This is what I would call “programmed synergy,” since it was the obvious intent of the card designers, but it’s a solid place to start to understand interactions that produce value.

Synergy Still Requires a Game Plan

Relying on this kind of synergy to build a deck for you can function as a limited kind of game plan. Uril, lands, and a bunch of enchantments can certainly feel like a game plan. It’s also very often not enough to get your deck over the finish line. Let’s look at a couple examples that show us why not.

Exquisite Blood and Sanguine Bond are a pair of cards whose synergy can instantly win the game, assuming you can find a way to make an opponent lose life or find a way to gain some. They create an infinite combo that drains all your opponents for all their health. That’s a potent interaction that is obviously synergistic.

ExBlood SanBond

So if that’s your win condition, how do you intend to get both cards into play and trigger their effects before your opponent’s win the game? How do you plan to stay alive until those cards hit the board? Can you deck produce enough to mana to get them both into play? The synergy between those cards can only produce the desired value for your deck if you’re able to effectively turn them into a threat. Without a gameplan to support the synergy, it’s random at best, and at worst… useless.

Support The Game Plan

When Dragonlord Silumgar enters play, it allows you to take control of a creature or planeswalker an opponent controls. At first glance, the UB dragonlord appears to pair quite well with Conjurer’s Closet. Flickering Silumgar allows you to always grab the best threat in the game and turn it against your opponents, stealing something else at the end of turn if that threat is somehow lost. I see Conjurer’s Closet on quite a few of these decklists. It’s a nice piece of synergy with the commander of their deck.

DragonSil ConjCloset

Yet if the deck’s strategy doesn’t include ETB effects on many other creatures, how often do you think that Conjurer’s closet is actually a dead draw? If the commander is not available and there are no other cards that benefit from Conjurer’s Closet being in play, then you’ve not only lost the synergy between it and Dragonlord Silumgar, but you’ve lost the majority of the card’s actual value in the first place. You’d be better off having another card in that slot.

This is how synergy can become a trap. If you select cards for your deck based on synergy alone, but don’t consider their place in the broader game plan of the deck, then you’re losing value any time those brilliant interactions aren’t possible. Not only does the game plan need to support your synergy, but the synergy needs to support the overarching game plan as well to maximize value. Otherwise attempts at synergy can simply become a waste of a draw step.

Game Plans Without Synergy

Let’s use another example to drive home our point about synergy vs strategy. Hazezon Tamar is a commander that cares a great deal about the number of lands you control, and where you find lots of lands, you tend to find Avenger of Zendikar. These two cards do not synergize with each other. You gain no additional value from casting one before the other or by having them on the battlefield at the same time. Instead, these cards are both working towards the same game plan.

Hazezon AvengerZ

The flavor of Hazezon’s deck is not compromised by having two different cards that care about lands and make tokens. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who sees you cast Avenger in this deck and responds by accusing your deck of just being a pile of “good stuff.” It’s obvious from your card selection that there’s a theme. The support cards that synergize with Hazezon, also happen to synergize with big green EDH staple you put in the deck as well. This is bigger than “programmed synergy,” that vaguely points your deck in a direction. It’s a game plan that uses synergy to create value all the way down to the tactical level.

So no, synergy does not define your game plan. It doesn’t define the theme of your deck either. It can support those things or be supported by them, but synergy is not the first order of operation in construction. It’s not the ultimate goal of a commander deck. It’s actually just one element, and its less important than having threats, answers, and the resources to use them. Decide what the deck is doing first, then use synergy as a tool to edit, not as your primary guiding principle.

Conclusion

When this series first launched, some critics argued that the Unified Theory homogenizes decks and reduces fun interactions. It should become very clear now that this isn’t the case. More themes and strategies are actually opened up to players when they build around a strong game plan first. This allows us to explore new design space while knowing the core elements of their deck are still going to work.

UnifyingTheory

A unifying theory opens up new opportunities in deck building

This obsession with synergy can be why many decks fall back on aggressively using tutors and gradually stop being fun or flavorful. A deck that is relying on a few synergistic pieces to “get there” is going to become quite frustrating to pilot when those pieces aren’t coming together. Tutors are a shortcut that let players lean on narrower, less interesting deck designs that rely too much on synergy and not enough on an effective game plan.

Ultimately, synergy should be about editing a deck and finding ways to squeeze more flavor and more value out of every draw and every interaction, supporting the deck’s goals, themes, and game plan. It’s last in the Unified Theory because it has to work in support of all the other elements for the deck to be effective. No matter how much synergy you stick into the 99 card pile next to your commander, it’s all worthless if you don’t have the resources the cast those cards or a way to turn that pile into victory before someone else does.

But hey, let’s not forget why we’re playing Commander in the first place. We’re playing to have fun and bond with other players over a game of cardboard make-believe. Never be afraid to make some sacrifices to this proposed structure if it means you’ll have more fun. If eventually the deck just isn’t working anymore, the Unified Theory is always here waiting to help you diagnose the problem and make some adjustments. So good luck, have fun, and keep brewing!

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Jason Rice

Jason Rice

Jason is a creative director in the video game industry. When his crippling Commander addiction isn't consuming his thoughts, money, and free time, Jason can be found hiking the beaches, hills, and forests of California or climbing mountains in Utah. If you'd like to contract him as a writer or designer, he accepts payment in the form of EDH staples. He can also be followed on Twitter at @jasonthinks.
Jason Rice

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About the author

Jason Rice

Jason is a creative director in the video game industry. When his crippling Commander addiction isn't consuming his thoughts, money, and free time, Jason can be found hiking the beaches, hills, and forests of California or climbing mountains in Utah. If you'd like to contract him as a writer or designer, he accepts payment in the form of EDH staples. He can also be followed on Twitter at @jasonthinks.

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