Commander Spotlight: Custody Battle

Welcome back to week twenty-four of Monday Magic: COVID Edition. It has been wild and totally unplanned for 212 days since my last summoning. I would say that particular number means I’ve reached my boiling point on the matter, but if anything it’s been more the opposite. Instead of a crescendo of perpetually rising angst or anger, it feel more like watching a balloon or one of those wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tubemen deflate incredibly slowly.

While it’s certainly disappointing and a bit demoralizing that I can’t partake in seeing friends and playing games with said friends, there is a part of me that knows our current situation is only temporary. This whole mess will pass at some point. And there will be opportunities once more to thunk sizable Commander decks on the table once more for an evening of strategic fantastical warfare.


Indeed, my fear at this point isn’t one of stagnation over our game group not focusing on new Magic content much in 2020 or even that we haven’t been able to play. It’s more about when the painter puts down the brush for a lengthy break and never picks it back up again. And it’s a very real concern.

There is a reason that the bread and butter of the MTG player base is the 14-30 crowd. Speaking in wide generalities, when you’re younger there are fewer obligations that eat up your time, making for a much more flexible lifestyle, fewer expenses on your income, giving you the added leisure of spending money on luxury goods such as games, and overall a typically easier time to focus on a singular interest.

As people get older, the circumstances around their lives change, and it’s entirely plausible (if not likely) that some of the people with whom you play start to move away from the game entirely. Whether it’s financial hardship, a time-consuming job, starting a family, or simply socializing with new non-Magic friends and doing other things, it’s all but guaranteed that the longer you play, the higher the Former Players group in your life grows.

It is pretty safe for me to say that after 25 years I know many more people who used to play than currently do.

On the one hand, c’est la vie. Situations change. People change. It’s the way of things. The concern here, however, is that thanks to the pandemic imposing such an unplanned extensive and extended break on your entire game group, a creeping worry has started to slowly edge its way into my mind. What if not everyone who played as of March 2020 starts up again when the circumstances allow?

At the apex of my gaming metas, some ten years ago, we had around 25 people who played at least semi-regularly (though even then it was practically impossible to get more than a dozen together at any one time). At the beginning of 2020 the number of particularly active players in our group was down to about 10. So…what if some of those 10 opt not to start up again? What then?

It’s a question I’ve started to dwell on slightly. While I’ve been incredibly fortunate over the years to have a decent base of Magic-playing friends, I’m also quite particular about whom I’m willing to play multi-hour games with – both in terms of the temperament of the person and the temperament of their game style. Suffice it to say, we’ve cultivated an atmosphere that is competitive, creative, and even goofy at times, while tamping down showboating and gameplay attitudes that are designed to win at any cost. As we all get older, finding new friends to play itself is already more challenging than it used to be, let alone those that fit into the cultural balance we’ve worked at over 15 years. And every time someone else bows out, that effort gets a little harder.

All of this had me thinking about this invisible tug of war over that social fabric. Which also, coincidentally, reminded me of yet another card that I’ve personally wanted to put into an EDH deck but haven’t for one reason or another. Making it all the more apropos this week.

Today we have: Custody Battle

Name: Custody Battle

Edition: Onslaught

Rarity: Uncommon

Focus: Creature Stealing / Land Destruction

Highlights: Onslaught was a popular set for a number of reasons, with cards that catered to both tournament and casual players, and a dizzying amount of tribal support. But it also had more than a few cards of lesser renown that are hidden gems all their own. Custody Battle is easily one such card. For at passing glance (largely thanks to the artwork) it seems merely like another of the set’s ample Goblin tribal, but it’s actually much more versatile. Deceptively so, even. AKA my kind of card.

Custody Battle, at least from a mechanical standpoint, is not that complicated. For a massively economical two mana, this is an Aura that you cast on another player’s creature. When used during that era, an early casting of Custody Battle would immobilize an opponent’s early threat, giving it up-tempo advantages in an aggro deck.

When it comes to EDH usage, however, ideally the bigger or more important, the better. Speed is less the issue than control.

The effect itself is a classic lose-lose dilemma for the creature’s controller and a win-win for you. It states that at the beginning of the creature’s upkeep its controller must make a choice: sacrifice a land, or give control of the creature to another player. If the player opts to retain it to use, it’ll cost them a land. Even in Commander games with ample land, saccing a land just to maintain your own creature is hardly ideal. Opting to do so also puts Custody Battle amongst the most cost efficient land destruction cards in the game. (You just have no control over if it happens.)

On the other hand, if the player chooses not to lose a land, they must donate their creature to someone else. It could be to the person who enchanted it in the first place, but in a multiplayer setting it really could be anyone. Then, when it becomes that players turn, they must make the same choice. If no one wants to lose a land over the creature in question, it will bounce around like a hot potato until another choice is made or the creature or enchantment leaves the battlefield. At best, this turns the creature into a painful Threaten that constantly shuffles around the board. At worst, it’s a de facto Pacifism in Red – something few people would ever see coming. Which in and of itself makes it appealing from strategic and flavor perspectives. Even when factoring in the rise of multiplayer-focused Red creature removal in recent years, the ability of the color to deal with large creatures in EDH does not make for a long list of cards. But Custody Battle most certainly should be on it.

Custody Battle is one of those cards that every time I see it think should be considered for my next Red-aligned Commander build. Yet the last couple times I’ve done so I completely overlooked it.

Here’s hoping I’ll still have an opportunity the next time around.

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.

You can discuss this article over on our social media!