Command of Etiquette—Cut the Library

Recently I went to Grand Prix Atlantic City with an EDH deck sleeved up in the hopes of being able to play in some casual side events.  Part of this is just that I haven’t had as much time to play Commander as I would have liked as of late, since I have been grinding away at competitive events in order to make it to the Twenty Sided Store Player’s Championship this upcoming weekend.  Part of it was also that I’ll admit some interest in getting a few casual events under my belt to fill out my achievements section of the Planeswalker Points website.  They’re totally meaningless, and yet given the opportunity to check one off I am going to do it.  Alas, my hopes did not come to fruition in this regard, but I learned a few things and heard some anecdotes I’d like to address.  But first, here’s the deck I brought with me, one that I planned to be powerful enough to win some games, but no so powerful as to focus aggro on me:

Maelstrom Wanderer

Creatures (40): Animar, Soul of Elements; Bloodbraid Elf; Budoka Gardener; Coiling Oracle; Consecrated Sphinx; Djinn Illuminatus; Dominus of Fealty; Dragonlair Spider; Edric, Spymaster of Trest; Eternal Witness; Etherium-Horn Sorcerer; Experiment Kraj; Frost Titan; Fauna Shaman; Garruk’s Horde; Inferno Titan; Intet, the Dreamer; Izzet Chronarch; Lotus Cobra; Magmatic Force; Magus of the Future; Mnemonic Wall; Momir Vig, Simic Visionary; Mul Daya Channelers; Mulldrifter; Murkfiend Liege; Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind; Nivix Guildmage; Oracle of Mul Daya; Overbeing of Myth; Phantasmal Image; Phyrexian Metamorph; Riku of Two Reflections; Sakura-Tribe Elder; Soul of the Harvest; Spellbound Dragon; Trygon Predator; Veteran Explorer; Wort, the Raidmother; Yavimaya Elder

Permanents (3): Future Sight, Garruk Wildspeaker; Prismatic Omen

Spells (18): Biomantic Mastery; Chaos Warp; Cultivate; Exploding Borders; Explore; Evolution Charm; Farseek; Frenzied Tilling; Harrow; Kodama’s Reach; Rampant Growth; Recross the Paths; Recurring Insight; Rude Awakening; Search for Tomorrow; Spitting Image; Violent Outburst; Wordly Tutor

Lands (38): Alchemist’s Refuge; Desolate Lighthouse; Forest x15; Hinterland Harbor; Island x9; Kessig Wolf Run; Madblind Mountain; Moonring Island; Mountain x6; Rootbound Crag; Sulfur Falls

Now, as you can probably guess, my initial intent in building this deck was to write about the choices you have to make when using a budget manabase.  I’ll take a moment to address the core of that article, before moving on to my larger point.  I play a variety of formats, so my Commander decks don’t always get first choice of lands.  One way to get around this is to play a bunch of second-tier multicolored lands, like the M10/Innistrad duals, the Refuges, the Guildgates and so on.  But there’s another way to go!  If you’re in green, running ramp spells can help stabilize even the tetchiest of mana commitments, with the added benefit of letting you go bigger, earlier.  Plus, in the late game, running cards like Djinn Illuminatus or Nivix Guildmage lets your ramp spells be better top-decks, since you can copy them multiple times to really thin out your library and keep your deck gassed up.  Of course, you’re vulnerable to Armageddon, but most decks are, and people who play Armageddon effects in EDH are evil.  Or at least no fun.

But back to the larger point.  As you likely noticed, Maelstrom Wanderer is the type of deck that’s going to be shuffling its library a fair number of times.  By my count, 16 different cards are tied to shuffle effects, and that’s not counting the several ways the deck has to clone or recur these effects.  The design function of this shuffling is to interact with the several ways I have to look at the top card of my library, thus giving me an idea as to what I might be getting off my first Maelstrom cascade.  But, this brings up the etiquette issue of cutting your opponent’s deck.

In a side tournament at the Grand Prix, my friend Tim was playing EDH with a prize on the line.  At the beginning of the game they all shuffled up, and then Tim went to cut his opponent’s deck.  His opponent indignantly told Tim that “you don’t cut in Commander” … and then proceeded to win on turn two with a Tooth and Nail combo he ramped into with the perfect hand of artifact mana.  Tim was aghast at this, because he plays EDH with my group of friends, and no one has ever suggested that EDH is a non-cutting format.  It takes literally two seconds to do, and the idea that doing so would be wrong boggles the mind.  So, after he related this story to our email list, I got some context for this belief by such great minds as Alex Ullman and our resident judge Connor.  Apparently in the higher levels of Commander, it is felt that cutting your opponent’s deck is some subtle sleight on their honor.  Since, on many levels, playing Commander is more about the social contract than winning, it is seen as a dick-ish move.

But I reject the idea that we cut our opponent’s library because we suspect some of them of being ne’er-do-wells.  I’ve always thought that cutting an opponent’s library was a sign of respect.  Games of Magic play out better when our decks are truly randomized, but no human algorithm is great at providing truly random results.  The closest we can come to random is an aggressive riffle, which is less than favored in general because of the damage it can do to cards, and specifically in EDH because 99 sleeved cards are too many to riffle.  I mean, sure, you can riffle sections, but you’re back to an interceding algorithm, and that undercuts the true random nature of the shuffle.  Given this, adding a second layer of randomization, coming from another person who likely has different unconscious biases, is only going to make your deck more random, and thus it’s only going to make the game better.

I see this in other constructed formats as well, particularly when you’re testing or playing at a more casual REL.  Often, my opponent will just give my deck a glancing tap instead of a proper cut.  It doesn’t save time, and if you think cutting an opponent’s deck is a safeguard against cheating, I can see how someone would want to take that shortcut.  But both players are helped by the cut.  Refusing to actually take that second or two and cut makes it seem like you don’t care enough about the game and me as an opponent to do the bare minimum in assisting the randomization of my deck.  So the idea that there’s a high-level judge there preaching the gospel of not cutting in what is usually a casual format?  It rubs me the wrong way.

So you should cut your opponent’s deck in every format.  Their draws will be more interesting and fun if they’re random.  Think of it as a sign of respect: for your opponent, for the experience, and for the integrity of the game.

9 Responses to “Command of Etiquette—Cut the Library”
  1. Obviously the guy cheated if he refused to get cutted and then goes off immediately.

    • Allen says:

      I completely agree with needing to cut. On a second note, could you talk more about the deck? I’m playing RUG Animar so I’m curious about your card choices.

      • thejlina says:

        Sure! Part of what I was trying to do with the deck was to recapture the magic I had with a Bant deck I used to play. It was based around Call of the Wild and a bunch of similar cards, and it used cards that revealed the top of my library to cheat things into play. I think there were also Crystal Shard/Quicksilver Amulet shenanigans in it as well? It turned into my Edric deck, and I cut out a lot of my free spells mechanics to make it a little more fair, but I missed getting all that extra value, so Maelstrom Wanderer seemed the right deck.

        For the card choices, there’s some tension between not really wanting to read as a combo deck and playing powerful cards. Part of this tension is probably magnified by all the different legendary creatures I am playing. On the one hand, they can’t be cloned or copied with Riku, but on the other hand they all tend to have powerful effects for the mana cost while seeming a little loose in their inclusion, thus potentially making it seem like I just want to be playing with some cool dragons.

        Which, well, I’ll admit, there’s a part of me that just wanted to play with some cool dragons. And oozes. But even then, most of the legends are relevant to the deck’s goal. Riku is another way to copy ramp spells lategame, Momir Vig sets up cascades, Intet’s ability becomes relevant when you know the top card of your library, Animar lets you do more things in a turn, while being annoying as hell to remove, and Experiment Kraj is something I use defensively, in case someone else has a combo he can get in the middle of. I’m running two huge draw spells for the late game, but in the early turns I should be able to keep up by ramping out lands instead of drawing extra cards. Plus, just in case, I am running Edric, who is practically the best EDH card draw engine ever made.

        So, yeah. Short of maybe a reliquary tower I think I like my list. What more do you want to know?

  2. “His opponent indignantly told Tim that “you don’t cut in Commander” … and then proceeded to win on turn two with a Tooth and Nail combo he ramped into with the perfect hand of artifact mana.”

    And this is why you cut in Commander.

    We cut out of habit. Either way, if I don’t know you, I’m cutting. Commander at anything other than kitchen table is not “casual no-cutsies” to me.

    • thejlina says:

      Seriously. Especially with prizes on the line! What boggles my mind the most is the pure amount of shamelessness it must take to stack your deck for a turn two table kill in an EDH game for prizes. Like, there’s cheating to get an advantage (like that cyclist, or those baseball players), and then there’s just stealing. Winning on turn two with a stacked deck is a hell of a lot more like stealing than it is like getting an advantage.

  3. Tim says:

    An interesting aside I heard, regarding cutting and sleights of honor: westerners often took advantage of Japanese players because they would routinely decline to cut due to cultural values related to honor and what not. This is actually what led to cutting your opponent’s library going from being an option you can exercise to a mandatory thing. I don’t remember the source of that story so it could be all poppycock, but I am sure of reading that somewhere before.

    • thejlina says:

      Dana actually told me that she looks at it in an interesting way… that presenting your deck to your opponent to cut is the sign of respect, that you respect your opponent enough to give them the chance to interact with it to make sure that it’s on the level.

      But I can totally see your anecdote as being true. So much of the etiquette around Magic stuff is based in cultural quirks, and Magic spans a huge variety of cultural backgrounds, micro and macro. I just don’t have empathy for people whose culture sees assistance in randomization as an attack on their honor. Because, while it happens to occasionally fuck cheaters, that’s not the real goal of the cut! That’s why the penalty for not cutting your opponent’s library is “insufficient randomization!”

  4. DMG says:

    I would keep to point out that we ran the maelstrom wanderer deck against my two more competitive decks last night at the living room table and it more than held its own against my best. Any deck that can use worldly tutor to set up Cascade is going to be pretty awesome!

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