A Commander 1v1 Survival Guide: Know Your Meta

Despite Commander 1v1 league results pointing to Baral, Breya, and Vial Smasher completely dominating the format, I might argue that, in reality, it’s in a pretty good place.  C1V1 has quite a bit to offer; it’s rather affordable to build a competitive deck, matches and leagues run pretty fast due to a “best-of-one” format, and overall, games are interactive and diverse.  There are, however, a few things that are worth being aware of if you wish to be successful in this format.  This is not “your mama’s commander!”

Primary Strategies

Let’s start with a few key facts about C1V1:

  1. Unlike multiplayer commander, this format is based on a low curve.  Decks primarily run spells costing 1-3 mana with only a few splashy 4 and 5 drops at the top of the curve.  If you build your deck without a lot of early interaction, you’ll be dead before you get to play.  This is true for generals as well.  Ramp decks are the exception to this as payoff spells tend to be much higher costed.
  2. Like Legacy, the color-pie is heavily skewed in favor of one or two colors.  This is a blue and green format.  Most of the top tier decks are blue- or green-based with color splashes.  Expect permission spells, expect ramp.  Aggro decks struggle to beat an opponent with 30 life.
  3. “Best of One” means that you’ll need maindeck answers to problem strategies at the ready.  There’s no sideboarding.

Today, we’ll focus on #3.  In order to be successful, you’ll need to know what to pack and how to react to the top tier strategies in the format.  To do that, you’ll need to know what they are and what they do.  Here are the general ideas for the majority of decks you’re likely to see…

Please note: When you begin a game, you’ll be able to see what general your opponent is playing before you have to make the decision whether or not to keep your hand.  Knowing your opponent’s general gives you quite a bit of information about what hands will be effective.  A good knowledge of the meta will be very helpful in mulligan decisions which are crucial in C1V1.

Ramp

  

Green strategies (mono green especially) tend to all be centered around a mana ramp plan.  The most popular green generals include Nissa, Vastwood Seer, Azusa, Lost but Seeking, and Selvala, Heart of the Wilds.  All three of these commonly played generals cost three mana so you’ll tend to see many one-cost mana elves to enable playing them on turn two.  From there, they will continue to ramp to payoff spells like Primeval Titan (typically into Wasteland + Dust Bowl) or Eldrazi Titans.

Nissa functions well to find another land to further the ramp plan but isn’t totally necessary to survive beyond the initial enters the battlefield trigger, however Azusa and Selvala are much more crucial to the game plan so it is important to destroy them as soon as possible.

In the case of Selvala, things can get out of hand quickly.  Selvala decks pack creatures like Phyrexian Soulgorger and Phyrexian Dreadnaught which will allow for a card draw trigger and the ability for Selvala to add a large sum of mana to the mana pool.  Creatures like Wirewood Symbiote or Scryb Ranger allow for Selvala to untap and continue the chain.

Selvala, Heart of the Wilds

Sample Deck from MTGGoldfish

Azusa’s impact on the board is more difficult to reverse.  Though Azusa can be killed, once two more lands are put into play, the damage is done.  Cards like Life From the Loam and Seek the Horizon can load up the Azusa player’s hand with forests to take advantage of two additional land drops a turn.  In the worst-case scenario, a resolved Crucible of Worlds is paired with a fetch land for reeeeally degenerate results.

In any case, many mono green decks are readily able to pack a Crucible/Wasteland resource denial package as well because of how well this plan naturally pairs with all of the land tutoring that the decks already play (Primeval Titan, Crop Rotation, Sylvan Scrying).  With that in mind, be prepared.  You can’t keep hands against mono green decks that are short on lands.  You’ve got to keep up, apply pressure, and put a stop to the ramp as soon as possible.

Gitrog Attrition

I’ll keep this one short as The Gitrog Monster does not have nearly as much representation in the format since the banning of Strip Mine but it was a good pivot point from the previous note on the Crucible/Wasteland package.  This idea is the centerpiece of Gitrog Monster decks but the inclusion of black and the functionality of this general allow players to take it to the next level.

The Gitrog Monster

Sample Deck from MTGGoldfish

Playing against Gitrog Monster feels very much like playing against GB rock or Jund decks in Modern.  They’ll run many of the T1 discard spells that will give them valuable information, slow you down, and pick away at your plan while they set up an engine that will repeatedly destroy your lands.  A resolved Gitrog Monster will allow your opponent to draw a card for each fetch land and Wasteland activation so if it is left unchecked, this will generate a significant amount of card advantage with a Crucible in play.  The good news is Gitrog Monster is one of the most expensive generals that are played so it is particularly weak to countermagic and, if you can manage to destroy it, recasting it at 7 mana, and later 9, will be even more difficult.

Baralymorph and Mono Blue Control

 

Most of the remainder of the decks in the format are blue-based.  Baral, Chief of Compliance Polymorph, Vendilion Clique, and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy are the most commonly played mono blue decks which are typically full of cheaply costed countermagic, bounce spells, and cantrips and aim to play a long permission game that results in death by Emrakul, The Aeons Torn or High Tide / Temporal Fissure storm.

All mono blue decks are quite similar in terms of the control spells that they play but since Baral is quite the most popular, we’ll focus on it.  Baral, Chief of Compliance’s primary plan is to Polymorph its general into the only other creature in the deck, Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.  Besides Polymorph, this deck finds redundancy in cards like Reweave, Synthetic Destiny, and Proteus Staff and ensures the combo’s resolution with ‘free’ counterspells like Force of Will, Daze, and Thwart.

Baral, Chief of Compliance

Sample deck from MTGGoldfish

An experienced Baral player won’t attempt to combo off without at least one backup plan vs. instant speed removal, but when they are up against mono green and there is little that an opponent can do to interact with the combo (short of Beast Within targeting Baral), the plan may be to just play the combo as soon as possible regardless of what counterspells are hanging around.  Once Emrakul is put into play, it will have to sit on the battlefield for a turn before it can attack so you’ll have a chance to exile it with a permanent (like Fiend Hunter, Oblivion Ring) or a wrath effect.  Alternatively, you could play Bribery before your opponent combos to put their Emrakul into play or Hide // Seek to exile it entirely and gain 15 life.

Though it is less immediate, the deck CAN win without access to the combo.  It plays cards like Treachery and Vedalken Shackles to steal your biggest threats and beat you with them and Jace, the Mind Sculptor just might -12 you into oblivion.  Beyond that, a resolved Baral is frankly very difficult to deal with.  The reduced cost for instants and sorceries means that the stack of 1U-costed counterspells in this deck will cost just one mana AND allow the player to loot away a spare land any time one is used.  If you’re playing from behind vs. a resolved Baral, you’ll have a hard time resolving anything without a Prawling Serpopard or Cavern of Souls.

Temporal Fissure is win condition that is present in some of the Baral decks and many of the Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Vendilion Clique decks.  This storm spell is enabled by the mana that can be generated from High Tide used in combination with untap spells like Treachery.  Look out!

Vial Smasher and Tasigur Control

  

Vial Smasher (who is most often paired with Kraum, Ludevic’s Opus) and Tasigur, the Golden Fang are quite different decks but the concepts are similar.  These decks lean rather heavily on damage dealt by their generals and are composed primarily with control spells to ensure that they stick around for maximum effect.  Both decks play just a few of the best creatures and planeswalkers available in each color combination and generally keep a pretty low curve (topping out at about 4 or 5).

Tasigur, the Golden Fang

Sample deck from MTGGoldfish

Tasigur plays like a weird Delver deck in which cheap control and cantrip spells fill up your graveyard to allow an early casting of Tasigur and then you can more or less play ‘protect the queen’ while you strike repeatedly for 4 general damage.  Tasigur’s color combination grants you access to the strongest three colors in Commander 1v1 so it’s easy to fill the remainder of the deck out with the most valuable removal, counter, and tutor spells.

Vial Smasher / Kraum

Sample deck from MTGGoldfish

Similarly, Vial Smasher decks (which are really just Vial Smasher decks and only sometimes even bother with Kraum, Ludvec’s Opus) trade green for red and have access to some a stack of control/removal spells which tends to be a little heavier skewed towards counter magic.  In this case, a resolved Vial Smasher and a hand full of counter spells/removal spells allow a player to trigger ‘Smasher’s damage ability on both player’s turns to maximum effect.

Some versions of this deck play “walks” cards in combination with Vial Smasher due to the synergy or these types of cards with with his damage trigger (particularly Temporal Tresspass).

Breya Stax

Breya, Etherium Shaper plays a lot of the same cards as Tasigur and Vial Smasher but with one very significant difference.  Breya’s synergy with mana rocks like Azorius Signet, Talisman of Dominance, etc. allow for this deck to play Winter Orb to lock it’s opponent out of their lands.  Once this lock is established, keeping you out of the game will be as easy as countering the few spells you can manage to play by untapping one land each turn.

Sample deck from MTGGoldfish

Sidisi Combo

At first glance, this list can look relatively harmless.  In fact, when you play against it you’ll likely be lulled into a false sense of security as it may play a few discard or removal spells without applying too much pressure and then BOOM…combo.

Sidisi, Undead Vizier

Sample deck from MTGGoldfish

Sidisi, Undead Vizier is a consistent tutor which is frequently paired with a slew of many other tutor cards available in mono black to search for one of two combo pieces; Buried Alive and any creature reanimation spell.  The plan for this deck is to place Necrotic Ooze, Phyrexian Devourer, and Walking Ballista into the graveyard and reanimate Necrotic Ooze to deal infinite damage.  To clear the path for the combo, the deck plays a plethora of one and two-mana discard spells and plenty of ritual spells to play Sidisi ahead of curve.

Once these three creatures are in the yard and a reanimate spell resolves, the combo is quite hard to interact with as the Devourer abilities can be activated in response to removal spells so you’ll need to preemptively remove them from the graveyard or counter the reanimate spell.

Tymna and Sidar Hatebears

Tymna and Sidar is a very punishing “Death and Taxes”-style creature deck.  It happens to be one of my favorites.  In fact, I’ve recently done a Card Knock Life Plays series for it so rather than writing about it, I’ll just refer you to that link where you’ll get plenty of info.

CKL Plays (Commander 1v1) Tymna and Sidar

Tymna and Sidar

Sample deck on MTGGoldfish

Go Forth and…?

The meta certainly isn’t limited to the decks I’ve detailed above and the strategies within each are definitely not limited to each of those that I’ve wrote about in this article.  There truly is a lot of room for innovation as long as you keep the meta in mind.  Unfortunately, the speed of this format and the existence of combo decks doesn’t allow for about 95% of legendary creatures to stand a chance.  The GOOD NEWS is Magic is 25 years old and there are a ton of “legends” out there.  There’s bound to be something that’s yet to be discovered.  Maybe it isn’t printed yet!  Maybe the innovation lies in one of the decks that we’re already playing.  You won’t know until you give it a shot.  Commander is cheap and it truly is a lot of fun.  Go get em.

Corey Murphy is one of two hosts of the Card Knock Life Podcast. He started playing magic in 1999, lives in Wisconsin, can touch his tongue to his nose, plays the trombone, and focuses his MTG content efforts on Modern. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You’re here for the magic content right? Ok, I’ll shut up now…

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