Thursday, 6 October 2011

Swords of Schwing and Schwang - Musings & a Top 10

Swords of Schwing and Schwang.

I’ve never had a huge amount of time for Equipment in Commander. Some is obviously great, others are occasionally helpful but, on the whole, it just seems like a lot of effort to turn things sideways with benefit and I’m pretty opposed to just throwing things out into the Red zone with only the hope of Step 4 happening (Yes, that’s the “Profit” step). Up until recently the only equipment ever I really played were Jitte, Greaves & Clamp.

A very strange part of Commander is discovering that 100 cards is, in fact, not really a lot when you get down to it. Take the pre-build count of your average Commander deck, that being the obligatory 100 cards; slice off 40-ish cards for land & mana rocks; add a general; now take the entire history of magic and condense it into the kind of deck you want to play in just 60 remaining card slots……. You now have a deck.

The obvious problem here is that, in those 60 card slots, there’s really only so much you can do. You have your criteria for the deck you want to build and that’s going to form the greater part of these slots. If Equipment isn’t an integral part of that strategy, you need to have a very good reason to make room for it.

A lot has to come together to get "value" from equipment: A creature, the equipment and, usually, a successful attack step. Bearing in mind that the equipment (artifact) and the creature involved are the two most gunned-after card types in the format and there's a whole table of guys worried that whatever scariness you've cobbled together is coming their way. This makes for a very hostile environment.

Probably the most played equipment in Commander is Lightning Greaves. It’s cheap, equips for free and grants two excellent abilities: Surprise and protection. The only-slightly-less-exciting version that M12 gave us, Swiftfoot Boots, trades off an additional 1-mana equip cost for the ability to interact with your own creature. I expect Lightning Greaves to stay top dog in the equipment stakes because general-centric decks really, really need to protect their general and "Das Boots" does this. (Amusing sidebar: Lightning Greaves has long been nicknamed “Das Boots” despite actually being a pair of greaves. Now that we actually have a functionally similar pair of boots, will we have to dub them “Das Greaves”?)

Past fancy footwear, equipment is either incredibly niche or exceedingly high on the cost/benefit scale. Some form of protection or evasion is a minimum requirement and triggered abilities or granting some sort of stat/keyword that’s outside the usual remit of your colors is the bar against which successful EDH equipment is gauged.

This leads to a very short list.  

One of the inherent drawbacks associated with equipment, the congruence of all the favourable elements, was addressed with the Living Weapon mechanic in New Phyrexia. Suddenly you didn't have to make a guy and protect it while you played your Axe and paid to equip it. By giving you the token, weak as it may be, you're essentially making a mana saving of "X+Y" where "X" is the cost of the creature and "Y" is the cost of equipping the Living Weapon and a card saving of whatever creature you’d have attached the non-living weapon version to. Sure, the creature you're given is a 0/0 but even a 0/0 has it’s uses, including dying piteously should the situation require it, and it can still attack (all living weapons grant a toughness boost of at least +1). A 0/0 with +10/+10 is still a 10/10. While the initial popularity for Living Weapons seems to have tapered off, we are still left with 3 that are getting some serious play: Bonehoard, Lashwrithe & Batterskull; essentially a huge beater, a huge beater and a one-man army.

I have to admit that my main experience with equipment is Clamp, Greaves, Jitte and seeing small, cheap strength boosts, Banners and Jittes across the table in an aggressive deck or the occasional Sword in a 1v1 game but, on the whole, really nothing very overbearing.

Then I completed a trade that finally saw me getting my hands on a Sword of Fire and Ice and, about 2 days later, I cracked a Sword of War and Peace and thus completed the full set of Swords of One-thing and Something-Else. The only small issue was what to do with them now that I had them?

I initially thought about parceling them out between different decks or, possibly, constructing a new Voltron deck, though neither appealed to me all that much. In the end, time and utter laziness won over and I dropped them all into my Thada Adel deck, kicking out some of the less friendly artifact stuff. This was the only change I made to the deck overall so it was still theoretically a slow rolling artifact/control deck that can go big quick but generally turtles until it can swing some mid-game hay-makers and ride the tempo to victory. Needless to say, I didn’t expect the swords to make all that much difference to the deck as a whole.

What I didn't realise was that just adding 5 swords (with the possibility of a couple more in copy-artifact effects) turned Thada into an aggressive show stopper and it's all on the sholders of to those 5 Swords.

Case in point: Yesterday playing a 4-man against Ghave Combo-Tokens, Sapling Good-Stuff and Glissa. A little explosiveness on my part allowed an early Consecrated Sphinx (backed up with Reliquary Tower) which survived a couple of turns around the table before getting killed. Its demise coincided with Ghave landing Aura Shards and destroying every non-land permanent I controlled. A couple of turns later, I passed my turn after landing a Myr Retriever and a Maze of Ith and possessing pretty much nothing else but a precarious life total and a large hand filled with land and spells that had nothing to do just at that time.

Oh, and a Sword of War and Peace.

I then eliminated one player in each of my next three attack phases with that lowly 1/1.

Here's how it happened:
Ghave, after wrecking my board, fell low on life to a Massacre Wurm. Subsequent attack phases from Sapling and Glissa meant he would have perished before I untapped unless I saved him with my Maze of Ith, which I did.

Leaving him on 1 life and no board to speak of allowed me to untap and drop the sword onto the mighty Myr gaining a boatload of life courtesy of a Reliquary Tower and the earlier Consecrated Sphinx and, most importantly eliminating the Aura Shards from the game. I played a Memory Jar and passed the turn

Neither Sapling nor Glissa had the power on the table to finish me off on their turns and the turn came back to me. I cracked the Jar, drew into Sword of Feast and Famine and, with it, hit Glissa for exactly 12, enough to kill him. I untapped my land and added a second Sword of War and Peace in the form of a Sculpting Steel and passed the turn, recovering my exiled hand from the Jar.

Sapling saw the writing on the wall with 17 damage heading his way and no means to block and conceded the game.

Mighty Myr carried the day (and the Swords) with a victory that was facilitated in large part by a lot of card drawing but truly unlocked by the Swords themselves.

The subsequent game went in a similar vein with Swords flying around between whoever could hold them and proving too much advantage in the red zone. With the level of search and recursion the deck has for artifacts anyway, adding 5 equipment has proven to be a very aggressive step for Thada allowing resources to be sandbagged elsewhere while all the relevant colored generals around the table worry about lowly merfolk swinging swords.

I think I’m revising my stance about Equipment in Commander…..

I don't usually do Top 10s but I thought I’d do one here to see what I could come up with. How do you balance cards that have hugely varying power-levels depending on the deck they are in? For example, Jitte is great in a creature-heavy build but doesn’t particularly suffer against creature decks ether so can go in any build that has enough creatures to support it, whereas a sword of the incorrect combination for your playgroup could end up being just a +2/+2 for your opponents' defenders to chump all day.

10. Lashwrithe/ Bonehoard

I put these up last because they are “only” Strength boosts. Both fail on evasion and suffer on cost but make up for it with the potential to go big. If your target creature has evasion already, that's half the battle. Bonehoard is slightly weaker because of the necessity of playing graveyard hate in Commander but Lashwrithe has a color drawback that restricts its use. Even Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth won't turn your General's color identity Black! I hesitated long about putting Loxodon Warhammer in here but, in the end, the Living Weapon aspect gives these the edge.

9. Sword of Body and Mind
8. Batterskull
7. Sword of Light and Shadow

Being the least useful of the swords in commander (from a triggered ability rather than a protection standpoint), Sword of Body and Mind scores low in the top 10. It’s just behind Batterskull that scores on both resilience and Lifelink keywords but possibly loses out on cost. If you don't have either a lot of available mana or some means to cheat on costs, you're probably looking at a Time-Walk in anything but the late game and, while it may gain you some life, it doesn’t grant any protection. Rounding out this section is the Sword of Light and Shadow: It gains very relevant protections but once again the abilities are not as impressive as the other Swords. The ability to put a better creature than a 2/2 wolf back into your hand and subsequently into play is what gives it the edge over its blue/green brother.

6. Sword of War and Peace
5. Sword of Fire and Ice
4. Skullclamp  

Putting Swords of War, Peace, Fire and Ice into the Top 10 is a no-brainer but they have to be edged out by much, much better equipment as they are either huge on the damage stakes or huge on the card- / board-advantage stakes.

Here’s where it gets divisive: How do you relegate one of the most broken pieces of equipment to a mere 4th on the list of best Equipment in a format? An advantage to Skullclamp is that you don’t really need to build your deck around it to benefit. Once you have a decent creature count, it can do its thing peacefully enough because your creatures will die often during a game. Having a deck built specifically to takes advantage of ways to abuse it is why it got banned in the first place and it speaks of a power-level in Commander that’s extremely high. What could possibly beat one of the best and most controversial equipment ever to the top 3 spots?

Why, more "best" and "controversial" equipment, of course!!

3. Sword of Feast and Famine
2. Umezawa’s Jitte
1. Lightning Greaves

This is roughly where everyone looks at the number one and says: "Holy-Moley!! He put Greaves in first!!" Simply put, it's not on the same power level as most of the rest of the top 10 but it's so ubiquitous, efficient and useful that it's hard not to put it into every single Commander deck you build. It protects your commander, it allows you to grant scary beasties haste and is generally one of the most annoying permanents in the early- to mid-game.

Coming hot on the heels of Das Boots are Sword of Feast and Famine and Umezawa’s Jitte. The Sword has been the subject of quite a lot of attention in recent Standard due to the ease of finding it with Stoneforge Mystic. It enables "double" turns by allowing you to play spells in your pre-combat main phase, attack and untap to allow you to play more spells either during your post-combat main phase or your opponent's turn. You got your cake and you ate it. 

Two very relevant protection colors added to this "double turn" ability make this sword just as potent in Commander as outside. The only small downside is the second triggered ability, discarding an opponent's card, can often actually facilitate his gameplan.

In compiling the list I had an issue not including things like Sunforger who’s restrictions are both color and build-based though, when you have those two combined, it’s very strong, arguably stronger than Bonehoard or Lashwrithe. Where do you think more specialised equipment like the Sunforger or, Loxodon Warhammer, Blade of the Bloodchief, Darksteel Plate, Swiftfoot Boots, Konda’s Banner, Nim Deathmantle, Skullclamp, Thornbite Staff & Umbral Mantle fit in on the list of top equipment?

1 comment:

  1. I do love me some Swords. Glad you came around. I think your list is pretty dead-on, too. The only quibble is Jitte - in my experience, the Fork of Doom is just "meh" in EDH, with the sole exception being in Rafiq where doublestrike makes it a huge bomb. The -1/-1 ability is typicaly the best but I can never kill anything that truly needs killing. 99% of the time I just end up gaining 4 to 8 life in response to a Naturalize effect. That's pretty unimpressive.

    I think I'd have to put Sunforger on the list regardless of it's narrow-ness - in the decks it DOES go in, it just dominates games. I have most of your top 10 in my Jor Kadeen deck, including all 5 Swords, Greaves and Clamp... but Sunforger is almost always the first Equipment I tutor for if I draw Stoneforge or another Equip tutor.

    And yeah, I too have been pleasently surprised with Sword of War and Peace... I mean I never expected it to suck, but man that thing is brutal in the right situations.