Commander Spotlight: Bend or Break

It’s been stated several times here before, but there are certain tactics and play styles that generally go over poorly with the casual multiplayer community. Overly abusive combos, routinely targeting the same person from one game to the next, and eliminating another player just a couple rounds in are all considered multiplayer faux pas. In Commander, that’s all doubly so. Yet few things touch that third rail of Magic gameplay like land destruction.

Land destruction is the type of ability that almost no one likes being the recipient of, and depending on the scope and severity, there can be times when even the instigator feels bad afterwards. The reason for this is pretty straightforward: taking out someone’s mana base can be absolutely crippling for their ability to continue enjoying the game. Unless that person is sitting on a bunch of mana rocks, can replace those lands quickly, or can somehow survive with little to no mana going forward (perhaps due to a strong board presence), then odds are that person is just going to sit there while everyone else plays the game around them. If you follow that up by attacking them, that player is going to feel agitated that you are merely piling on injury to insult. But if you simply leave them be afterwards, they may despondent about their capabilities of even proceeding. In big spalshy games like Commander, no one likes to merely spin their wheels while the rest of the table carries on.

Therefore, if you’re going to pursue land destruction tactics, you either have to hurt everyone equally or you have to ensure that the person you just garroted is eliminated quickly to avoid said animosity. It’s weird, but it does lessen that sting knowing losing your land was just part of a knock-out move.

Which is the thing: land destruction has a purpose, and if used correctly, that includes multiplayer settings.

Although nearly every color, as well as artifacts and other lands, has some means of targeted land destruction, the most powerful land destruction cards come in either Red or (at least in the classical era of the game) White. The reason for this tends to get lost among conversations as to whether it should be something done at all due to its unpopularity (a stance in recent years Wizards seems to have informally adopted), but its strategic purpose exists mostly to counteract issues of tempo. Both Red and White are at the bottom of the chart when it comes to card draw, and Red is also near the bottom when it comes to mana acceleration. Normally this is acceptable because Red is known for being aggressive and potent in their early spellcasting; no one can come out swinging better than a Red mage. Yet when that’s scaled up to games with multiple opponents, twice the starting life, and playthroughs lasting into hours, Red struggles to stay relevant both in terms of its spells and its mana base without assistance from artifacts or another color. Until very recently the color even had difficulties finding ways of dishing out large amounts of damage in EDH settings without it being horribly inefficient.

Essentially, the longer a game goes on, and the more opponents it faces, Red becomes less and less effective at doing what it does best. It simply can’t keep up with the pacing of other colors in those environments. Land destruction, like it or not, is a means of reclaiming that tempo.

If you think about it, most players are willing to accept some degree of land destruction as a tactic. Cards like Ghost Quarter and Acidic Slime, for instance, are common sights in Commander, letting its caster destroy a single land. It’s when land destruction disproportionately affects one player but not another that it rankles people. How is it fair, for instance, if one player loses four lands while another loses eleven? (The answer of course is that it’s not, but tell that to the player whose been stuck at four mana and been unable to play the game.) Likewise, casting a mass land wipe card that doesn’t hurt you at all is a quick way of making you persona non grata at the table.

Yet if some about of LD is okay, but too much is not, then the trick for Red players who wish to utilize it as a balancing tool is to find cards that are effective but not overly mean. Cards, perhaps, like this week’s pick.

Today we have: Bend or Break

Name: Bend or Break

Edition: Invasion

Rarity: Rare

Focus: Land Destruction

Highlights: Bend or Break was a series of You Split, I Choose cards popular during the Invasion block. In each instance, the card forced players into splitting up cards in different ways, be it card draws from the top of a deck, destroying creatures, or defining which creatures can attack or block that round. Then their opponent decided on the pile for them. Each card one put forth a dilemma of some kind, forcing you to create two piles, knowing that your opponent was ultimately the person who gets to make the call on what was either the best choice for them – or the worst choice for you. Bend or Break is no different, as it asks you to split lands into two piles, knowing one of those piles is getting destroyed.

At its most benign, Bend or Break is four mana spell that destroys half – and only half – of each players’ lands. It’s almost egalitarian in that sense, because unlike the silliness of real world ideas involving flat taxes, within a Magic context such a proposition actually works. The player with the least land is going to feel pain, yes, but they’re likely already far behind the player with the most at that point and is most likely willing to take the hit to significantly stagnate the person(s) with the biggest board advantage. If you’re the person with the least to lose, then that’s probably why you’re casting it in the first place. Unlike aggressively costed spells like Stone Rain, land destruction in EDH isn’t about getting a tempo advantage in your favor so much as taking it away from your enemies.

Of course, like all such split cards, no where does it say the piles have to be even. These cards have the potential to open up diplomacy and table politics into the decision-making just as much as it invites spite. You could, for example, put all of your land in one pile and none in the other, hoping that an opponent of your choosing would be benevolent in letting you keep them all. We all know that’s unlikely, but it is technically possible. In more plausible scenarios, unequal distributions allows you to arrange things such that your opponent also has to make hard choices. You could split up a pair of powerful nonbasic lands such that they have to decide which is more dangerous to get rid of. Or you could stack it such that they could get rid of your three most powerful lands while leaving you five basics. And so on.

Bend or Break also has a secondary kicker that often gets overlooked: the pile of surviving lands all get tapped. This admittedly opens up a prime opportunity to attack if possible, knowing they won’t be able to cast anything in response. If you choose to do so, however, make it count. Because you’ll be the last one to untap your lands in the end, and you may have just set up a round of play where people will want to retalliate for your actions, so blockers may be necessary.

It is still land destruction after all.

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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