“The Fear” and cEDH Deck Selection
There is an all-time-great concept in Magic theory called “The Fear,” first coined in this article I believe: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Circle? By Dan Paskins
Practiced avoidance of The Fear is even more important in cEDH than it is in competitive 40 or 60. Why? We can expect to lose roughly 75% of our games. There is a monster under the bed 75% of the time we check. 75% of the time you think someone might be following you, and you don’t make it to your front door. Etc. If you’re world class, maybe you get to revise these figures to 70%?
Bad Shit is Gonna Happen
The inevitability of bad shit happening to good people in cEDH can be a blessing in disguise (and you must see it this way to keep things in perspective). You will mull to 4 in one game and then go 4th without getting a 2nd turn the next game. But if you win the next 2 games, you’re not just back at par you’re doing AMAZINGLY well.
And where The Fear comes in is that losing 4 in a row with your stax deck where you influenced every game, you didn’t misplay any combo turn, and nobody picked on your commander (all things we might reasonably fear) doesn’t get you anything. Better to have won 1 out of 4 with a glass cannon combo deck when the table didn’t have anything and lost 3 in an embarrassing fashion.
You have to get 1 out of 4 at baseline at 2 out of 4 to win the tournament. And those wins come more easily when we don’t succumb to The Fear.
Case Study: Krarkashima in 2022-2023
Both logic and the sage wisdom of people who helped me learn about cEDH told me that Krark + Sakashima is not a tier 1 deck. If people kill Krark in response to Sakashima, you’re set back roughly an eternity. Shouldn’t I fear that? I’d be concerned about that for sure, as we need to be concerned about any weakness our deck has, but I wasn’t just concerned when learning cEDH - I was dismissive, arrogant, and rigid in my thinking about Krarkashima, all because of The Fear.
Remember folks, you can get Krark killed twice in one game, lose to a faster combo the next, get Krark killed AGAIN in the next, and still be right where you’re supposed to be when nobody can deal with your commanders in game 4. The deck has converted more than its fair share of top 4s I’d guess, and its pilots are more scary than scared, as far as I can tell.
Fearing the Right Things in cEDH
It turns out that Krarkashima (and Najeela, Malcolm, and several other top decks of late, and sometimes even Godo) has, in some ways, the right kind of weakness. Creature removal isn’t that prevalent. It gets played, but decks that have 17 ways to stop an Ad Nauseum might only have 3 ways to kill Krark or Najeela and 2 ways to counter it. Counterspells and Silences and the like play two ways – they can disrupt an opponent on their critical turn or protect you on your critical turn.
Removal kind of sort of works this way since you do sometimes need to kill that Drannith or Voidwalker on your critical turn, but mostly it’s just disruption, not protection. And to the extent it is trying to be both, the user probably selects Bounce over Kill because it will answer more problems on our critical turn (if we’re using e.g. Chain of Vapor) or be free (if we’re using Snap or Snapback). So while sometimes Krark will get Rollicked or Plowed in response to Sakashima, it isn’t happening every time or anything close to every time.
As I alluded to above, sometimes we Fear not a particular set of cards or opposing strategies, but something more human like embarrassment. Making a mistake because we’re new to a deck (or to Magic) is something we Fear. Having to engage socially and politically at the table because we’re playing blue now and need to be part of the Distributed Responsibility of Stopping Player A conversations at the table is something we Fear. My advice here is to remember that all of us started out being uncomfortable in various situations (and/or we still are).
I started playing Magic in 1994 and yet, these nearly 30 years later (holy shit), I still worry that I might look stupid when playing a new deck or talking about a new deck. Someone asked me for deck advice recently about their Inalla deck and I didn’t know the Spellseeker lines. The advice I gave was embarrassing, even though I was wise enough to caveat it by saying I probably just don’t know the lines well enough. We’re all still improving at this, and there are aspects of this that are still new to all of us. But participating and trying is how we turn these corners. You can play that deck you’re scared to play. If not perfectly in the first game or the tenth game, competently at some point soon.
Is my refusal to even try a deck like mono white stax or The Gitrog Monster, which both seem like they simply do not play at the right power level for the format, just me succumbing to The Fear? Probably yes in part and no in part. Again, valid concerns remain valid. And these decks don’t seem to operate with the speed and consistency needed to get those 2 wins out of 4 in a tournament. But they do fly under the radar and get help from the table, and this dynamic is WAY more powerful than I thought it was when I first started playing cEDH.
How much of my Fear about picking up pure stax or parasitic combo is based on reality vs. The Fear? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out.
My Plan to Take My Own Advice
I started this year, in January of 2023, by forcing myself out of my comfort zone, and past objections that I impose on myself in a manner that feels like The Fear. I built and played some Rocco. This deck doesn’t have Blue in its color identity. And yet I didn’t lose every game. There was no monster under the bed. Am I about to bet my life on the fact that I don’t need Mystic Remora and Rhystic Study in my deck to be tier 1? Again, I’m not ready to say. But I forced myself to try it.
In February of this year, I’m going to try some Codie. I see what the Krarkashima faithful have willed into existence for themselves and I want that for me. “Everyone will just kill your commander and attack you with their Kraum and you’ll wish you had Najeela instead.” Maybe, but are we talking 40% of the time or 80% of the time? Because I can come up with 3 colorless mana and put this stupid, cartoonish, talking book into play damn near every game.
Again, am I ready to bet my life or my life savings on Codie? No, but getting past The Fear means I’m willing to try it and bet that I learn something by embracing the exercise and allowing for the possibility that my fears, concerns, heuristics, and the advice I’ve been relying on are all not quite as well calibrated as I thought. And if there is a monster under the bed 75% or more of the time, those other commanders we all know and love aren’t going anywhere. It’s not just the likelihood of success vs failure in trying something that we get mixed up about, the consequences of trying something also gets blown out of proportion in our primitive brains.
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
CommentJoin the conversation
Excellent article. Thank you! A few things come to mind, speaking from the perspective of one of the many Krarkashima fans: 1. Playing a deck that flips coins really highlights that Magic is ultimately silly. Not to say that we can't or shouldn't take it seriously—just that it's a game, and games are for fun. Enjoying what you design and play is paramount. Krark's good at reminding us of that. (Just like stupid talking books.) 2. While you can punt and be haunted forever by your misplays etc. etc., you can't statistically lose *worse.* Getting better at something is primarily a numbers game. So The Fear should be mitigated by the fact that you're gonna need to lose a lot either way. I'm grateful that you make this point clearly and often. 3. I've urged people to go up on creature removal and wipes for years. We're playing a format primarily based on powerful Legendary Creatures, after all. But I'm also kinda glad that folks haven't moved significantly on this in their deck construction (for selfish reasons). When white decks are still off Path to Exile (in a Tainted Pact era!), you *know* the noncreature Fear is real. Anyways: thanks again.
Kenneth BaumannFeb 7, 2023