Commander Spotlight: Lavalanche

It’s well established that when the game of Magic was first envisioned Richard Garfield’s plan was for a card game between two players, and for many years, the overwhelming majority of cards were created, tweaked, and adjusted to match that design perspective.

How things have changed.

Today, we have myriad environments of Magic, from card-slinging drafts, to an ever growing tournament scene, to the explosion of focus on multiplayer. Due in part to R&D’s realization a few years back that most ‘kitchen table’ Magic was played with more than two people, and in part to the dramatic rise in the popularity of EDH, the game in many ways has never been more multiplayer friendly.

And yet, not all color traits are created equal in the multiplayer arena. After all, what may work in one setting won’t necessarily work for another. This is both the beauty – and the frustration – of playing a game that caters to multiple different formats, as material has to be designed with more than one focus in mind. It’d be like trying to play a board game, but having six different rule books depending on how many people are at the table, what day of the week it is, and whether you prefer chocolate or vanilla ice cream. In this sense, Magic is not one game but several different ones who all just happen to use the same cards.

So, yes, some aspects of the color pie play out differently in multiplayer. Token armies, for instance, tend to do particularly well in just about any setting, whether it’s using Lingering Souls in a draft or Verdant Embrace in Commander. After all, tokens are expendable, cheap to get out in decent numbers, and when used correctly, can be quite formidable to handle. However, not all token / small creature approaches fare the same. The ever-present “White Weenie” deck builds of cheap, fast attackers in White (or a Goblins in Red) can be highly dangerous in duels, but in multiplayer games they tend to not do as well. For one, such decks aren’t designed for the long game: if you’ve lived more than six or seven turns they’ve done something wrong. For another, shotgunning one person early in a multiplayer game will cause the table to turn on you, what with table politics and all.

Classic Blue control decks are another example of colors not expanding well with lots of extra players. These decks rely heavily on some combination of the color’s stalwart abilities to bounce creatures, counter spells, and / or disrupt what their opponents are trying to do. But unless you stack your multiplayer deck with several times the normal rate, their uses become far more situational, wherein the user is usually relegated to casting them defensively. (This says nothing of the person who attempts to lock a six player table down with something like Stasis, in which case they get what they deserve.)

By contrast, many Black styles benefit from longer game settings and more players. From the ‘exorty bat’ Basilica Screecher and friends to classic Pestilence effects to life syphon cards like Gray Merchant of Asphodel, the more targets you give them and the longer you let them sit around, the bigger their demonic power tends to grow.

Naturally, none of these examples are universal. Black has been having a great run in Standard over the last couple years, for instance, and Blue certainly has tools in its toolbox to deal with table-wide effects (looking at you Wash Out). However, one area that has been pretty constant up until very recently: Red’s distinct disadvantage in long multiplayer games.

Red is the color of fast, direct damage, with cannon fodder creatures on the low end and powerful dragons on the other. Generally speaking, they’re well, explosive. At least for a while. Over time, though, their spells quickly dry up. Moreover, unlike the other colors who have economical means of getting rid of most creatures (destruction, bounce, fighting, and exile, respectively) it becomes prohibitively expensive for Red to do its thing. With rare exception, casting damage spells traditionally either hurts one thing or everyone equally. To take down anything larger than a 3/3, Red almost always had to rely on direct damage spells with X in their costs.

So, you know, good luck dealing with something like an Artisan of Kozilek.

Once Wizards started addressing such multiplayer issues, things have begun to improve somewhat, with new damage cards that are more scalable. Red Commander players now have access to useful alternatives to Starstorm or Earthquake in the form of Chain Reaction, Blasphemous Act, and Incite Rebellion.

Being able to pull off a highly efficient Chandra Nalaar ultimate style effect, though, is still easier said than done, as sometimes a Red mage only wants to burn one person’s stuff into char rather than everyone indiscriminately. As it turns out, this week’s pick does precisely that.

Today we have: Lavalanche


Name: Lavalanche

Edition: Alara Reborn

Rarity: Rare

Focus: Direct Damage

Highlights: Lavalanche may be an X spell still, but it solves one of the two inherent problems for Red in multiplayer – the ability to focus fire on one particular army. While in some respects it’s not much different than other X spells of its kind, it is far more versatile in a format that favors politics and diplomacy.

The precedent for such a card has existed for a very long time, as this is effectively a multicolor rendition of Flame Wave, which was printed all the way back in Stronghold. It was a devastating card for its time (knowing this first hand), but Flame Wave runs into three problems for a Commander player:

  1. Flame Wave costs four Red mana, making it almost impossible to use in decks of more than two colors. Lavalanche commits you to needing three different colors, true, but if all goes well you should have that by the time you’ll be able to cast X for more than 0 anyhow.
  2. Flame Wave requires seven mana, which means by the time you can cast it, you may have missed the window at stopping whatever smaller creatures you were trying to burninate. Not only does Lavalanche cost the same amount to do the same damage, but you’re also able to cast it cheaper for less damage or still useful if…
  3. …you want to go beyond four damage. Flame Wave is locked in at four, which nowadays is below the toughness threshold of many creatures – especially in Commander. Lavalanche makes for a great late game card by being able to sink significant mana into it and cripple all but the most gigantic of creatures. Plus it’s far less noticeable to see coming than Chandra.

Flame Wave certainly isn’t a bad Red card, but Lavalanche gives it the upgrades needed to be an even more viable Commander card. Some may scoff at an X spell in the game, but by giving it the scalability to be as timely or potent as the player’s mana allows, it’s far more useful than it first seems. Doing one-sided damage to a player and their creature base can be potentially game ending for many players, even if it doesn’t always get the biggest creature on the battlefield.

Plus, it’s better than hoping you’ll miracle into a Bonfire of the Damned.

Keep an eye out for us to be regularly featuring other more accessible-but-worth-it Commander cards going forward. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light on for you.

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