Ad Nauseam | Jeremy Jarvis
As most of us know, life totals in commander aren’t the big deal they are in other formats. For my first article on this site, I wrote about the few decks in commander that can effectively use combat damage as a win-condition. In this article, I will discuss how combat plays a key role in the format, even when none of the decks at the table are combat-oriented decks.
Let’s begin by discussing life totals as a resource, because that’s what they are. Even in decks that don’t play cards that deal damage to themselves, the life total represents the combat steps you can give your opponents before you try to win yourself. If my life total is 40, then even if you have a board full of hatebears, I have a few turns before I need to either end the game or somehow deal with your creatures. If my life total is five, I better be going off this turn. In this way, the life total functions as a sort of countdown timer.
More importantly, several decks actively convert their life total into other resources. The most flagrant example of this is Ad Nauseam, and it’s true that it’s often correct to attack one player over another simply because Ad Naus is in the deck. Converting life points into cards is pretty common (Sylvan Library, Necropotence, Dark Confidant, etc) but you can also use it as a resource directly with cards like Reanimate or Toxic Deluge.
So, the question is - what factors should I take into consideration when choosing who to attack? There are quite a few, and ultimately there is no mathematical formula you can use to determine what the best attack is. The best you can do is keep in mind a few variables in the combat step.
Relative Life Total - The majority of the time, it’s in your favor to attack the player with the lowest life total. This is because you have the greatest chance of forcing that player out of the game, and your reward comes sooner. If one opponent is at 14 life and the other is at 40, swinging at the lower life total is going to reward me sooner by making this game into a 1v1 quicker. That being said, there are times when you want to attack the player with the highest life total. If you commander is Jarad, for example, distributing the damage between opponents might make his fling ability lethal for the whole table instead of just one player. It’s also in your favor to attack the player with the lowest life total because that deepens the gap between you and them, further incentivizing your opponents to attack them and not you.
Life Total as a Resource - As mentioned above, life points are as much of a resource as mana or cards. That means that dealing damage to your opponents can be resource denial! The deck that relies on its life total more than any other is probably Zur the Enchanter, since their commander can consistently find Necropotence along with playing Ad Nauseam. Any Ad Naus deck is a good attack. Other decks that commonly play Ad Naus include Prossh, Sidisi, Undead Vizier, Jeleva, and Sharuum. If you don’t see any of these decks at the table, your best bet is probably to swing at the black player. Black has the vast majority of cards that pay life for card advantage. (Don’t swing at the black player when another player has an on-board way to use their life total, like a Sylvan Library. Then, just swing at that player.)
Game Plan - Decks that use stax strategies to take the game long are much more reliant on keeping their life total healthy than decks that want the game to end rather quickly. Using combat to keep the pressure on these decks forces them to either deal with the random utility bears, which is basically wasting their resources, or close the game quickly, something stax decks aren’t great at doing. On the other hand, a faster deck like Hermit Druid combo doesn’t care about taking damage, because if the game goes long enough that the combat damage matters, that player has likely lost anyway.
Blocking - Don’t get blown out by combat tricks! Imagine you have a Void Winnower and a Phyrexian Revoker naming your opponent’s commander, Derevi. Derevi has a Consecrated Sphinx. You swing both your creatures in, since C Sphinx can’t block thanks to Void Winnower. Whoops! Your opponent casts Swords to Plowshares to kill the Void Winnower, and now can successfully kill your Phyrexian Revoker. Don’t make swings that lose to removal.
Think about what zones you want creatures in. Even if you control a huge fatty, you might not want to swing at the reanimator player with an Eternal Witness in play. Giving them that block gives their future Reanimate variants an additional target, and that extra resource might be all they need to combo out. In the same line of thought, if you’re the reanimator player, consider swinging your E Wit into the 5/5 on the other side of the field to give you that extra resource.
Keep in mind that players are more likely to kill a creature if it’s pointed in their direction. If you’re attacking a player low on life with a utility creature, they might point a kill spell that way just to keep their life manageable. If you’re banking on keeping that creature, then you’re out of luck, and even if it’s something that you don’t care to keep around, it might be in your favor to allow your opponent to keep the removal.
One last tip. Combat is a weirdly effective deterrent. If you have a general policy of “All things even, I will attack whoever disrupts me,” and you make sure people know it, you’ll have a chance of not being disrupted. When your deterrent is something like “I’ll Strip Mine your land,” you wind up in a position where either you’re going to not deliver on your threat, making all future threats less effective, or you’re going to make a poor play just to follow through. When your deterrent is combat, which costs next to nothing, you don’t have to give up playing well to make good on your threat.