The Theory of Nine

Feature Article from Bruce Richard
Bruce Richard
11/29/2016 10:00:00 AM
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Building a Commander deck can be a daunting task. Picking a commander, then finding 99 cards to go with it (or picking two commanders and finding 98 cards to go with them), can feel like an impossible mountain. One hundred cards is just so many, particularly when you are used to building 60-card decks with four copies of each card. Those decks often amount to nine different cards then lands to suit. Now you are looking at 60 or more different cards!

Now add the size of the card pool! Commander has a card pool that is 10 times larger than a standard card pool. The endless options just leave you feeling overwhelmed and reluctant to get started on what appears to be an insurmountable task.

Turning Mountains into Plains

The key is to take these two issues and make them work for you. When you build a 60-card deck, you are looking at nine different cards. What if you could do the same for Commander? What if you used seven copies of the same card in your Commander decks? You would only need to find nine cards to build your Commander decks! That paralysis you felt at trying to find 100 cards would fade if you only needed to find nine cards!

Obviously, Commander rules don't let you put multiple copies of a single card in a deck, so rather than do that, instead you could just come up with nine things you want your deck to be able to do. You don't have to worry about that monster card pool, just a handful of ideas! Once you have those nine groups, you would have a focused search for cards that do what you are looking for in the colors you are permitted to play in the deck. Finding seven cards that "give deathtouch," or "destroy a permanent," is easy.

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This method would also have the benefit of adding a level of redundancy to your Commander decks that isn't seen in most. Neale Talbot (@wrongwaygoback) developed the idea then modified it for Commander as a way to introduce redundancy to his decks. While the original article focuses on the redundancy benefit, it really helps limit how daunting deckbuilding itself can be.

While there is a joy in having your deck play out differently every time because you are running all different cards, there are some things you really want your deck to do every time. Choosing nine themes forces your deck to really focus on what it is trying to do.

Theory (of Nine) Into Practice

So let's take what we've learned here and put it into practice! I thought long and hard about the next Commander deck I wanted to build, and Queen Marchesa is it! I particularly like the monarch mechanic and how it affects Conspiracy games. I'm interested to see if it will encourage attacking in Commander games, so I want to try it out here. It also doesn't hurt that I pulled the card in a recent Conspiracy draft, and I look great in a Crown!

Starting with Queen Marchesa, what are the nine themes I think I'll need to have a fun, successful Commander deck with her at the helm?

The Usual (1, 2, 3, and 4 of 9)

The first themes are pretty straightforward and not particular to this deck. Most Commander decks want mana ramp, card draw, creature removal and permanent removal. Commander games invariably involve bigger, more expensive creatures and spells. If you are going to cast those cards, having ways to speed up your mana production just makes sense. With 100 cards, you are going to run into some spaces in your library that just don't give you the cards you are looking for. While the redundancy we are adding will certainly help, having a section of cards that let you draw more cards is a good thing. Removal spells are fairly obvious: some times attacking and blocking isn't enough to get a permanent off the battlefield. My metagame uses a lot of enchantments so a set of cards that can remove that type of permanent in particular is important.

Protection (5 of 9)

Protection for the Queen is key as I won't want her to be dying all the time. Most of my Commander decks tend to revolve around the commander being on the battlefield, so this theme shows up regularly in my builds. I would even include ways to bounce her in this category. That would eliminate a lot of targeted removal, and give me an easy way to become the monarch again, assuming you lose it.

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Monarch (6 of 9)

Monarch benefits are cards that are better because you are the monarch, or punish your opponents when they are the monarch. When I was looking at Queen Marchesa, I decided I wanted more benefit around being the Monarch than simply drawing a card at the end of my turn. This category could prove tough, since it would be completely Conspiracy cards. This may end up a little short of the seven cards we want, but we'll see.

Assassin (7 of 9)

Assassin benefits makes sense since Queen Marchesa will be sending out assassins to return the Crown to you. This category will also include other creatures that are attempting to get that extra point of damage in to regain the Crown. Every creature can be an assassin in this deck!

Evasion (8 of 9)

Creatures with evasion is a theme that offers creatures that will be able to deal damage. I want to win the game and be able to get the monarch back when Queen Marchesa is resting in the command zone (aka. The Throne Room). I find that a lot of Commander games get hung up in ground stalls, so having a couple of creatures that can fly over the fray and continue to do damage is a wonderful thing.

Fun (9 of 9)

Fun, awesome cards are the slot of the deck where you put those crazy cards that just make games insane! These don't necessarily fit into one of the other themes but they are cards I want to try or just make me smile when I think of them being revealed! I want redundancy in the deck but not at the loss of the wild card interactions that make Commander so much fun to play.

So what does our deck look like?

Long May She Reign!

1 Queen Marchesa

7 Mana Ramp

7 Card Draw

7 Creature Removal

7 Other Permanent Removal

7 Queen Protection

7 Monarch Benefits

7 Assassin Benefits

7 Creatures With Evasion

7 Fun, Awesome Cards

40 Lands

By now, you've probably noticed the most obvious issue: the deck total is 104 cards. While I might be willing to go as low as 38 lands in a Commander deck, cutting four lands and going to 36 is not the solution, especially for a deck with three colors. Part of what we are looking for with this style of Commander deckbuilding is consistency. With a mana base of only 36 lands, the only consistency this deck will offer is mana screw.

The point of choosing seven cards for each group is that it will give you roughly the same consistency as four identical cards in a 60-card deck would. The problem is that the ratio works out exactly to 6.67 cards per theme. A solution would be to make some themes seven cards and others six, but I have a better alternative. There are plenty of cards that can fill a slot in two or more different themes. Solemn Simulacrum both adds a land, so it can be added to the mana ramp section, and also draws a card, so it can work in that section as well! Utter End exiles any permanent so it can do double duty as well. This reduces the number of cards you have in the deck without having to go to six in any theme, or reduce the number of lands in the deck to an unstable number.

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Filling the Themes

So now comes the easy part! A few quick pointed searches to find cards to fill the slots and we're done! Cards marked with an asterisk are counted in another category, but still help with that theme.

Long May She Reign!

1 Queen Marchesa

7 Mana Ramp

Sol Ring

Burnished Hart

Chromatic Lantern

Darksteel Ingot

Journeyer's Kite

Mardu Banner

Solemn Simulacrum *

Commander's Sphere *

7 Card Draw

Solemn Simulacrum

Phyrexian Arena

Humble Defector

Bygone Bishop

Commander's Sphere

Ob Nixilis Reignited

Sorin, Grim Nemesis

7 Creature Removal

Utter End

Vindicate

Anguished Unmaking

Crackling Doom

Swords to Plowshares

Path to Exile

Wrath of God

Ob Nixilis Reignited *

Sorin, Grim Nemesis *

7 Other Permanent Removal

Utter End *

Vindicate *

Anguished Unmaking *

Merciless Eviction

Austere Command

Return to Dust

Rakdos Charm

7 Queen Protection

Swiftfoot Boots

Lightning Greaves

Champion's Helm

Whispersilk Cloak

General's Kabuto

Flickerwisp

Bastion Protector

7 Monarch Benefits

Garrulous Sycophant

Custodi Lich

Knights of the Black Rose

Skyline Despot

Ghostly Prison

Orzhov Advokist

Kazuul, Tyrant of the Cliffs

7 Assassin Benefits

Whispersilk Cloak *

Archetype of Courage

Marchesa's Decree

Iroas, God of Victory

Mother of Runes

Boros Charm

Darksteel Plate

Shielded by Faith

7 Creatures With Evasion

Flickerwisp *

Teysa, Envoy of Ghosts

Angel of Despair

Gisela, Blade of Goldnight

Butcher of the Horde

Vampire Nighthawk

Bygone Bishop *

Drana, Liberator of Malakir

Teysa, Orzhov Scion

7 Fun, Awesome Cards

Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite

Grenzo, Havoc Raiser

Master of Cruelties

Avacyn, Angel of Hope

Deflecting Palm

Kaya, Ghost Assassin

Sorin, Solemn Visitor

40 Lands

Command Tower

Nomad Outpost

Temple of Triumph

Temple of Silence

Temple of Malice

Badlands

Plateau

Scrubland

Rugged Prairie

Fetid Heath

Graven Cairns

Isolated Chapel

Dragonskull Summit

Clifftop Retreat

Godless Shrine

Sacred Foundry

Blood Crypt

Bloodstained Mire

Arid Mesa

Marsh Flats

Temple of the False God

Rogue's Passage

Vault of the Archangel

Maze of Ith

5 Mountain

5 Swamp

Bojuka Bog

5 Plains


Results

So how did the Theory of Nine perform? The theory brings a few things to the forefront when deckbuilding:

First, be very careful with your themes. With themes for both creature removal and other permanents, I have 11 cards that are there to deal with my opponents' cards. That may prove to be too much.

Secondly, this demonstrates the value of cards with options. Angel of Despair is a flying creature that destroys a permanent when it enters the battlefield. That fits in four separate categories. When trying to bring the total number of cards used to 100, you can easily see why cards like this are so popular. This can also lead to some categories including more than seven cards since many cards overlap categories. Your redundancy climbs even more.

I have been using a version of the Theory of Nine in my deckbuilding for a long time, since I used to regularly build decks and realize afterwards that I was missing something obvious that left my deck horribly unprepared for certain large groups of decks. Breaking down decks this way takes the daunting task of choosing 100 cards and turns it into something far more manageable.

Special thanks to Neale Talbot for introducing the theory to me and the Magic Community years ago, and for pointing me to his Commander-friendly version of the theory!

Bruce Richard

@manaburned




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