Poet, gamer, lover of Magic and punk rock. Non-binary agender lesbian anarchist. They/them. My views are my own.
Hi everyone, welcome back to Playing to Win. I want to build off of our last discussion about defining what winning means and move onto defining cEDH. I have seen a lot of talk lately, mostly on social media like Twitter and Reddit, about people either ascribing things inaccurately as cEDH or having no idea what it’s like in general, both because of a lack of information. So today I want to define what cEDH is to help everyone have a better understanding of the format. Definitions need to, by nature, have limitations; otherwise they become so nebulously open ended that they start to lose their function in conceptualizing ideas. Similarly, cEDH needs to be defined as having certain limits in order to be identifiable, which is why you often see inexperienced players throw the term cEDH around at many high powered decks and strategies, because they don’t have the knowledge of where the borders between EDH and cEDH actually exist.
To start I want to identify three important pillars of cEDH as a format: speed, consistency, and power/efficiency. These three could be found in any given regular EDH deck, but a cEDH deck will absolutely include all three and focus on maximizing them as much as possible, which makes this one of the factors that separates the two playstyles.
Speed has two forms in cEDH: proactive speed and reactive speed. Proactive speed is how fast a deck can start its own game plan or get ahead of other players, and this usually means mana dorks or zero to two cost rocks, because the earlier you can increase your mana pool the earlier you can start casting your other spells. Other forms of proactive speed include early tutors, stax pieces and the ability to play your commander(s) earlier than other players, which is especially important for decks that actually need their commander for their game plan to function, such as Selvala, Heart of the Wilds or Animar, Soul of Elements. One maximized aspect of those decks speed is that they can often get their commander out on turn two, which means their ideal game plan starts a turn earlier than if that commander had been played “on curve.”
The stax pieces I mentioned earlier are also an important speed factor, because decks that play stax pieces generally want them out as early as possible so they can start disrupting their opponents early and start focusing afterwards on their own game plan. Stax pieces also importantly slow down your opponents speed factor because now there is a new rule they have to follow or extra costs to pay, and even if they remove or ignore the stax piece they’ve spent time and resources to do it, which means they haven’t been actively advancing their own game state as fast or at all.
Reactive speed on the other hand, is how quickly you’re able to start answering your opponent’s cards and strategies, usually in the form of removal and counterspells. The reason stax doesn’t apply here is because stax pieces want to be played before the cards they stop, which makes them proactive because you’re trying to invalidate effects before they occur. Counterspells are the fastest answer to a problem because they use the stack to stop spells from even resolving, whereas removal in cEDH can sometimes not kill a problem card fast enough to stop it from going off. Counterspells are also the fastest answer because there are several “free” counterspell options, such as Force of Will, that don’t cost mana, meaning they can theoretically be used before you’ve even taken your first turn, which could be important if your opponents try to resolve important or even game winning spells before you’ve had a chance to go. Because this speed is reactive and relies on your opponents making the move first, it is generally worse than proactive speed, and this problem is tripled when you consider that you’ll have three opponents instead of one. All of this adds up to reactive strategies being ineffective as a primary strategy and you don’t see many traditional control decks in cEDH because of this.
Consistency is the ability to regularly and reliably perform a specific action. Consistency is incredibly important to cEDH because of the nature of the EDH format – ninety-nine card singleton limits the traditional methods by which a deck could achieve a repeated outcome, because many strategies rely on resolving multiple copies of the same spells, and we by nature of the format, cannot do that. So to make up for it we have to look in other directions for our repetition. One strategy is to make use of functionally similar cards and play as many of them as can fit into your deck – the multiple Thrasios/Tymna lists, for example, often have around ten mana dorks, which means they can reliably cast a dork on turn one or two in most games. This is the “core” mana dork package and it shows up in most green decks because of how many there are creating a consistent ability to get ahead on mana. Similar packages exist for many other important deck building elements – counterspells, mana rocks, interactive spells based on color identity, etc. The previously mentioned Animar and Selvala decks can also factor in their commander speed as part of their consistency, because their speed of mana generation increases their regular ability to cast their commander ahead of the curve. So for decks relying on their commander, the ability to consistently cast it early and often is an important element of their consistency factor.
Tutors are another important method of acquiring consistency, especially for effects with very few functional copies, and tutors help you find them more often. One adage about Demonic Tutor is that it is a second copy of the best card in your deck and in a format where you’re only supposed to be able to play one copy of any given card that becomes quite powerful. Tutors also have a “core” package like mana dorks or counterspells, but these are more defined by color identity, with black obviously having the most and best tutors in the game. Something to consider is that some decks have so many tutors that they actually cut down on the number of cards they run that have specific effects because those effects are very narrow and you might not want them every game or you don’t need them at all times. This applies largely to niche effects and win conditions – if a card’s only purpose is winning the game it can be considered useless at all other points in the game, and so having multiple cards like that in your hand can effectively become virtual card disadvantage, and tutors can often grab from a pool of cards which grants them far more utility. For example two years ago Laboratory Maniac was the only card with its effect in existence and many decks were built around winning with Lab Man. Last year with War of the Spark Jace, Wielder of Mysteries was printed and all of those decks got access to a functional second copy of Lab Man, which improved their consistency at winning the game. Finally with Theros Beyond Death, Thassa’s Oracle joined the “Lab Man package” and bumped the number to three. You could easily think that every Lab Man deck would immediately move to slotting in Oracle and maximizing their Lab Man count, but many found that having three Lab Man effects often took up too many card slots in decks and could lead to more dead draws, and so lots of players started replacing Lab Man with Oracle, and the decks tutors functioning as copies three to X. This is a good example because it shows where the line between efficiency and deck maximization can be drawn in ways you might not think about initially.
Finally power and efficiency, which in many ways are just the culmination of the first two categories. These define cards on the strength of their individual rates or effects, which often means cheap to cast, powerful when resolved and useful at many stages of the game. One drop mana dorks are efficient because they cost a single mana and generate a mana, making them mana positive just one turn after hitting the board. Similarly counterspells are rated by efficiency, with most counterspells that see play, such as Swan Song, Flusterstorm, Mana Drain, Delay, costing one or two mana, so they answer problem spells for the same or lesser costs than your opponents. Notably, the many free counterspells are actually technically inefficienct – Force of Will and Force of Negation actually cost you two cards to freecast and Pact of Negation either costs a delayed five mana or it costs you the game. These are powerful as free spells and should still be considered good cards, but their inefficiency is an important factor of their use.
Removal is much less ubiquitous and often has some sort of “downside” to make up for its efficiency, but this downside is far less relevant in cEDH – Swords to Plowshares giving life is largely irrelevant, Assassin’s Trophy giving your opponent a basic land is better but still not overly relevant, Nature’s Claim giving life also makes it twice as good as Naturalize because it exists at half the cost. The cheap cost and wide targeting is what makes these efficient, and their downsides can become easily ignored.
Power is a bit of a nebulous concept – Craterhoof Behemoth, Avacyn Angel of Hope and Griselbrand are all objectively powerful cards, with Griselbrand obviously being the most powerful, but can you easily pick out which is the second best? It’s not cut and dry. Lab Man Jace is harder to kill than Lab Man and has the ability to draw a card on his own, which is a weakness of Lab Man needing another spell to help him win. But Lab Man can more easily be tutored as a creature, has a far more efficient cost and can be reanimated. Obviously both of them can win you the game, which is very powerful, but which of these cards is more powerful? I don’t think there’s a universal answer.
Many players have a misunderstanding that cEDH has no place for big splashy effects that regularly show up in EDH, and this is fundamentally untrue. There are simply less of them and they need to perform above and beyond in the particular meta of cEDH. Ad Nauseum showcases this perfectly as a massive five mana “draw” spell that can easily flip ten, twenty, thirty cards as it resolves, which I would say is pretty splashy, especially as its very difficult to play in regular EDH with so many big spells. Big creatures also show up, with Tana/Tymna Blood Pod regularly making use of Inferno Titan, Elesh Norn or Sire of Insanity, while the Thrasios/Tymna Razakats deck is built around getting Razaketh into play, albeit usually through reanimation. All of these creatures share one thing in common however: immediate game impact. This is not the place for big dumb beatsticks that sit around and get blocked by mana dorks, your large creatures can still see play if they regularly generate value. Their power is in accruing or denying resources while being attached to a body, with all the upsides that brings. The lower numbers of creature removal and boardwipes in cEDH also means good big creatures are harder to kill and thus more likely to go on a rampage over multiple turns.
Obviously cEDH has a lot on its face that separates it from EDH, but I hope that this walkthrough of the foundational pillars of the format gives you a more specific understanding of what cEDH is and how it works. After all knowledge is power and now you know just how important power is. Feel free to reach out to me here in the comments or on Twitter for your questions regarding cEDH, high powered EDH or anything else I write about.