You roll out your mat, you get out your dice, you wipe panini grease from your fingers and you introduce yourself to the people who will be your opponents for the next hour or so. It’s like a ritual. It’s Commander night.
“Agent of Treachery really brings this list together,” she says, her casual tone a flimsy facade for the hateful glee she’s already feeling just thinking about locking you out of the game with Stonehorn Dignitary.
This is looking to be a hellworld of a game. You’ll probably take out one of these decks early on and then get ground into the soft-drink-stained textured plastic of your LGS’s table by the other.
The fourth player, beaming at the rest of you, takes a box from her bag. She opens it, with all the care and love of an occupied cat carrier, and draws out a Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis deck. The sight of Theros’ lovely dads feels like the sun has paused on the cusp of setting, filling the otherwise bleak landscape with light and hope. Your pod has a Group Hug deck in it!
Everyone is smiling, the Karlov player hoots as they get ready to roll for first. Your outlook turning on a pin, you can’t wait to see how fun this game is going to be as you draw your seven cards.
Eleven turns later, you shake hands with the Brago player having been reminded as to just how good Detention Sphere is against token decks. Your pregame prediction was startlingly accurate. As you leave the table, cold panini clutched like a condescending participation trophy, you think about how the Group Hug deck didn’t change the game much at all. If anything, it only led to the inevitable occurring faster.
We all love the idea of a playing with an EDH Group Hug deck, either piloting one or simply being in the same pod as one, and get excited when we see it. But they’re a surprisingly unpopular archetype for people to build, at least judging by their meager 606 decks on EDHREC.com. For context, this places them just below Land Destruction decks and Defender Decks, and only slightly above Curse decks and Relentless Rat decks.
But why is this? Why is the supposed most entertaining deck archetype to play with so seldom built, clocking in at less than half the amount of Stax decks?
Well, at least from my experiences of playing in EDH pods with Group Hug decks, they’re not actually that exciting to play against. I’ve always found that these decks only end up helping whoever was going to win anyway win faster and more comfortably, or the Group Hug deck themselves sneak in a victory with an admittedly hilarious combo.
The vast majority of Group Hug decks are made up from cards that benefit everyone equally. Staples like Howling Mine, Collective Voyage and Braids, Conjurer Adept give everyone some kind of universally desired boost to their gameplan. But these cards don’t really affect the direction of the game, save for timing-based corner cases when you flash in Dictate of Karmetra at the end of one turn and the following player resolves a Torment of Hailfire after pouring a gorillian black mana into it.
Universal positive effects may seem like the obvious way to go about giving everyone a fair shake at success, but it’s built on the flawed notion that everyone enters a game of Commander just as likely to win as anyone else. We all know this isn’t the case; some people haven’t spent hundreds of dollars on maximizing the efficiency of their landbase, some people aren’t as slick as others at orchestrating political gambits, some people just get mana-screwed and spend the first six turns watching everyone else play the game around them.
This near-symmetrical playstyle of most Group Hug decks doesn’t lend itself to creating any meaningful impacts on a game of Commander. It doesn’t facilitate the unexpected twists in the narrative of a game that we all love to be a part of. Games where the underdog, boosted by some surprise boon, can finally match up against their rivals now that they have enough cards or mana. These games don’t happen more often when you’re playing with a Group Hug deck in your pod, because the underdog’s rival (the overdog, if you will) has probably benefitted just as much, if not more, from the Group Hug player.
But with the reveal of Kenrith, the Returned King as a new 5-color literal king of political Commander, this got me thinking about proposing a twist on the tried and tested Group Hug archetype. What if the Group Hug deck you’re playing with/against focused less on “group hugs” and more on “hugs given proportionately to the players whose needs are greater”? I know, I’m surprised it hasn’t caught on too.
This is a proposition for you to change your mindset when you play a game of commander from one of equality to one of equity. Equality, the act of assisting everyone equally regardless of the boardstate, without Equity, the act of assisting each player fairly based on their in-game standing, only reinforces the probable predetermined outcome of a given game of EDH.
For a clear example, apply this thinking to a game of Mario Kart, in which the Group Hug deck is the arbiter of what power-ups each racer gets. If your Group Hug deck predominantly focuses on giving all players equal benefits, it’s the equivalent of giving all racers red mushrooms regardless of their position. This does help the player in last, but only compared with how they’d do without powerups. In this race, they’re still in last. If your Group Hug deck instead has a good amount of asymmetrically beneficial cards, it’s the equivalent of giving the player in last a bullet bill or a blue shell. Yes, they may still lose the game, but it gives them and other racers a fighting chance of achieving victory. At the very least, it makes the game more of a competition and a more satisfying challenge for the player in first.
It’s also worth mentioning that playing a deck that is mostly cards with across-the-board effects makes for a very boring experience for the pilot of the deck.
“Do I benefit everyone with card draw this turn, or with mana? Or with card draw AND mana? I really am spoilt for choice!”
Obviously it’s an exaggeration to suggest that Group Hug decks can be played without any agency, but if most of your cards effect everyone all the time then there’s significantly fewer opportunities for meaningful choices compared to the majority of other Commander archetypes.
With this thinking in mind, let’s consider how we can change the makeup of the average Group Hug deck to remedy these two major issues.
First, instead of jamming every “Each Player Gets/Gains/Draws X” card that fits your commander’s color identity into your deck, why not look for some cards that can only directly benefit one or two players? Cards like Skullwinder are only found in 18% of Group Hug decks, yet this card presents a great opportunity to help a single struggling player out without allowing the already winning players to increase their lead. An opponent land-starved on turn 3? Let them go get their Evolving Wilds back. Board wipe just left someone open? Here, go get than Sun Titan you just lost, it’s on me! See also the Advocate cards from Judgment, especially Nullmage, Pulsemage and Spurnmage Advocate for similar effects.
There are a great many other cards which directly benefit your opponents in individual ways, from instantly generating a boardstate like with Hunted Dragon or with card draw like Intellectual Offering. For me, a personal favorite is Dubious Challenge. This incredibly stupid card is in only 87 decks throughout the whole of EDHREC–a third of them blink decks–and yet has the potential to greatly benefit both the player floundering in last and yourself.
Effects like this also have the added metagame effect of currying favor with individual players. In my experience this leads to trust-based cards like Diaochan, the Artful Beauty or vote-based cards like Plea for Power to end up working out in your favor far more often than when you’ve been benefiting everyone indiscriminately. It’s suddenly not such a bad idea to give your opponents choices when one or more of them are on your side, in an emotional sense.
Asymmetrical effects don’t just have to be limited to cards that benefit single players. There’s a huge range of cards which benefit all but one player in a prospective pod, allowing you to show some love to the underdogs of any given game while taking the overdog (it doesn’t work does it?) down a peg or two.
The Friend and Foe cycle from Battlebond is a great example of this kind of card, as are Curses in general, especially the cycle from Commander 2017. Trust me when I say that replacing symmetrical cards like Eye of the Storm (which always disproportionately benefit spell-slinging decks) with asymmetrical cards like Curse of Echoes (which allow non spell-slinging decks to share in their power and whose targets can adapt depending on the standings of a given game) will lead to a great deal more fairness and fun in your games.
Of course, you can and should still run cards like Heartbeat of Spring and Temple Bell. Either for maximum effect when the board state is at reasonable parity, or just because turbocharging everyone’s gameplay can be exhilarating provided care is also taken to bring everyone to a level where they can benefit equally.
This kind of thinking and deck construction doesn’t just apply to Group Hug decks either. I’ve been adding cards that benefit specific players to all of my Commander decks and I’ve been having so much more fun with the game. Adding cards like Scheming Symmetry to my Shirei deck over other tutors hasn’t led to any significant changes in my win rate when I’ve drawn it, but it has invariably led to exciting and dramatic shifts in the dynamics of a game. Now, if your goal is just to win then… well you’re probably not building a Group Hug deck any time soon. What are you doing here? Get out of my article. But if you enjoy the narrative of a Commander game, the ever-shifting hierarchy of power, those unexpected victories or moments of genuine cooperation, then I highly recommend you consider adding some of these kinds of cards into your existing decks.
I rarely remember the Commander games where players only focus on their own chance of winning. All the stories of games I share with other players always involve the brokering of deals, or a multi-player takedown, or self-sacrifice in the name of in-game solidarity. Casual commander is one of the few popular formats where these kinds of opportunities present themselves and where these interactions can happen. It’s nice to know that, even in an environment where someone has to come out on top, people are still willing and able to lend a helping hand so that everyone can have a fulfilling and fun game. I think it’s neat to cherish that.