While not exclusive to Commander, the Group Hug archetype is exclusive to multiplayer games. This archetype is political in nature – it gives gifts to the other players at the table in hopes of being the last player attacked, and then wins the game.
With a Group Hug deck at the table, players can expect the pace of the game to accelerate greatly – mana flows freely, card draw is plentiful, and many permanents will find their way onto the battlefield without ever touching the stack.
OBJECTIVES OF THE GROUP HUG DECK
Card Draw: You want everyone at the table drawing plenty of cards. Artifacts like Howling Mine make this possible for all colors, but blue and black excel at this. More cards drawn means more cards get played. Players like playing cards, so they’ll want you to stick around in the game so they can draw more of them.
Mana Acceleration: Green is the undisputed king of this, so most Group Hug decks will want some green in them. You can let players retrieve lands through effects like Collective Voyage and Oath of Lieges, double the production of existing lands through enchantments like Mana Flare and Heartbeat of Spring, or give them mana directly with spells like Eladimri’s Vineyard. Of course, all these effects help you just as much as everyone else, so that when your opponents have finished each other off, you’ll be in position to counterstrike.
Permanent Generation: This encompasses a large category of effects that can be summarized by “cheating things into play.” One way of achieving this is through spells like Dream Halls that allow players to cast spells without needing mana. Another method is through token creation, which can be achieved via Forbidden Orchard or any of the “hunted” creatures like Hunted Horror. Spells like Gate to the Aether, Oath of Druids, and Wild Evocation allow players to bring permanents in from their library. Finally, there’s the category of “hand dump” spells, like Tempting Wurm and Hypergenesis. Permanent generation is important for a group hug deck, because it keeps your allies in the game (or if you have no allies, makes the players who are a bit behind in the game happy that you’re there.)
Lifegain: Though not strictly necessary in a Group Hug deck, life gain keeps players in the game that would otherwise be knocked out -which creates some very appreciative allies. White is the champion of this category, with heavy hitters like Arbiter of Knollridge and Beacon of Immortality.
Recursion: Also optional, getting creatures and spells out of players’ graveyards and back into their hands (or battlefields) is another great way to make friends.Exhume is almost always welcome at the table, particularly after a Windfall or Wheel of Fortune. There are a cycle of creatures, the Advocate cycle, that give you powerful effects at the “cost” of returning cards from your opponents’ graveyards to their hands. One such example is Spurnmage Advocate that lets you destroy a target attacking creature at the cost of returning two cards from an opponents’ library to their hand. In a group hug deck, that is 100% upside.
Protection: At some point it the game, players may start to decide that they have achieved all the benefits they want from your presence, and would like to take you out of the game before you can give the rest of the table your blessings. This is why you can’t just rely on politics to keep you in the game until the final two – you must be prepared to defend yourself. The ways to accomplish this are too numerous to list, but spells like Swans of Bryn Argoll that allow you to defend yourself while still hugging the players at the table are great. You can also make other players more enticing to attack through tax spells like Ghostly Prison and Propaganda, or through incentives like Edric, Spymaster of Trest.
Win Condition: If all goes well, eventually you will have only one opponent, and will need to bring him/her down to win the game. There are numerous ways of accomplishing this. General damage is always an option. In group hug decks with heavy card draw, mill is possible. Combos are fairly reliable in this archetype. You can steal your final opponent’s creatures and kill him in one fell swoop with the likes of Insurrection. This is also an excellent chance to try your hand at alternate win conditions such as Celestial Convergence.
Of course, there are some psychopaths out there playing group hug decks with NO win conditions, just to watch the world burn. Admittedly, my own Phelddagrif deck didn’t have any stated win conditions for about five months (though I did manage to win three games with it anyway – twice through mill and once through general damage). I have added Laboratory Maniac in there now, but playing just to play, with no expectations to win? It’s actually kinda liberating.
ADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE
1. Group Hug decks are fun for the whole table. They enable players to play their decks in a different way than normal, because they are provided more resources to do so. The player of a group hug deck usually has the luxury of sitting back and watching a game unfold, without worrying so much about how he/she is gonna win it. In a format that is all about epic plays, group hug decks are like epic accelerators.
2. This archetype can greatly accelerate games. By giving all players at the table more mana, cards, and resources, the big plays that the Commander format is known for can happen faster. Players who get mana-screwed or forced into top deck mode aren’t put on the sidelines of the game when a group hug deck is around, because they will get lands down in front of them and cards in their hand. Stalemates are broken faster when players are drawing more cards (and getting more answers in their hands).
3. Group Hug decks can support almost any win condition. Because the primary engine of your deck is dedicated to being one of the last two players standing, you are not beholden to any particular general or win condition. You will benefit almost equally from all the mana acceleration and card draw you are providing the table, and should have your win condition situated in your hand when it’s time to win the game. (If you even seek to win the game at all.) Have a combo you want to play? Win through general damage? Cast some big, nasty creatures? You should have plenty of resources to make that happen.
4. This archetype is fairly budget-friendly. Because the cards that make up the core of group hug decks have little value in two-player games, they tend to carry low price tags. Those with some degree of use in other formats, like Howling Mine, have generally been printed multiple times, so the supply is high (and as such, the price is low.)
5. Group Hug decks have options in all five colors. Each color has options for each, if not all, of the objectives for the archetype listed previously. This gives you a wide range of options for deckbuilding and general selection.
DISADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE
1. Despite what you might think, Group Hug decks are NOT universally loved. Be forewarned that this archetype is somewhat controversial; many players just don’t find having one at their table fun. The accelerated pace of the game can render control decks useless, and make combo decks nigh unbeatable. They also tend to create a fair amount of chaos at the table, so it’s not a good idea to play it at a table with inexperienced players. If you have concerns that your deck will create a negative play experience at the table due to the previously-mentioned issues, always ask the table first – or at least let them know that you’re playing a Group Hug deck.
2. More so than any other archetype, Group Hug decks are at the mercy of the rest of the table. Unlike every other deck at the table, the Group Hug deck is not full of threats and answers. If even one player at the table concentrates his full effort against you, you will have a difficult time remaining in the game. As this is a political archetype, you must be comfortable playing the “above the table” game, or you will not enjoy this archetype at all.
3. This archetype cannot be your primary Commander deck. The group hug archetype will “get old” much faster than other deck types, both for its pilot and other players at the table. Its ability to create fun at the table increases as its frequency of play decreases. Attempts to keep a group hug deck at the table past its welcome will resolt in player revolt, meaning the table allies to take you out before you can warp the game too much. (Or, even worse, the players start a new game without your presence.) It is the chocolate fondant of the Commander buffet – play it only on occasion, or you will quickly grow sick of it.
CHOOSING A GROUP HUG GENERAL
All five colors have something to offer a Group Hug deck. Green is probably the strongest, offering the best mana acceleration, strong permanent generation and lifegain, and a bit of card draw. If you have green in your general’s color identity, you have pretty much all the tools you’ll need, and any other colors you pick simply strengthen your deck.
White gives you the best lifegain cards, and strong recursion in the Advocate cycle. Blue gives you incredible card draw and powerful enchantments that allow players to cast spells via alternate mana costs. Red has the closest thing to sweepers that you can safely play without making other players terribly angry – spells like Warp World and Thieves’ Auction. Red also has a tiny bit of mana acceleration and card draw, plus a fun little infusion of random effects. Black gives a degree of reanimation, recursion, and card draw (albeit Black’s group hug cards tend to come at the price of the player’s life total.)
Phelddagrif is the heavyweight champion of group huggery. In addition to being in very favorable colors (green, white, and blue excel at everything you want to do with a group hug deck), his abilities are actually tailored to giving other players gifts. Finally, as a 4/4 flyer (after you give another player a card to let him grow his wings) he’s not the worst creature in the world to deal 21 general damage.
Karona, False God is a good choice if you want to use all five colors. It means that, once you cast him, every turn each player can count upon having a 5/5 hasty general that buffs their own creatures while attacking. Just be careful not to cast him when the table is in a position to gang up on one player and do a quick 21 general damage with Karona – or you’re going to find yourself on the defensive sooner than you probably wanted.
Zedruu the Greathearted is another great political general. Though he is used primarily in decks which “donate” cards like Transcendence, Steel Golem, Thought Lash, and Illusions of Grandeur – he can also be used to donate permanents that players actually want. This creates strong incentives to keep you around – if you lose the game, then all the gifts you’ve given them cease to exist.
Ruhan of the Fomori is in the same colors as Zedruu, but he plays a bit different. He is a serious threat to see 21 general damage, but since you can’t control who he attacks, you can’t really be held responsible. Ruhan is a great general for Group Hug decks that go red-heavy, and utilize random effects like Grip of Chaos and Chaos Warp.
Edric, Spymaster of Trest is in green and blue. His ability gives your opponents incentive to attack someone other than you, and is a great general if you want to play a more defensive style of group hug deck.
Braids, Conjurer Adept is mono-blue, but has built-in permanent generation. Add in blue’s card draw capabilities, and you have a viable group hug general. She trades mana acceleration for more control options – letting her bounce or counter the things she doesn’t necessarily want on the battlefield.
Nin, the Pain Artist is an unusual choice, but a viable group hug general. Like Braids, she will be primarily focused upon card draw, but has some mana acceleration capability from red. Her ability allows you to eliminate creatures you don’t want on the battlefield, while giving that creature’s controller some card draw for their trouble.
Next, let’s analyze a group hug deck I constructed for this article…
SAMPLE GROUP HUG DECKLIST
General Choice: Palladia-Mors doesn’t seem to offer much as a group hug general. He’s just a very expensive 7/7 flying trampler with no other abilities. This analysis is correct. I chose him simply because he is in Naya colors – Green, White and Red. None of the Naya generals have abilities that make sense for a group hug deck, but this is an excellent color combination for it. Palladia-Mors gives us two things – first, a 7/7 flying, trampling general that will help me win the game once I have only one opponent. Second, dude is just oozing style. Seriously, he looks like he either belongs on a metal album cover or a 1st edition D&D sourcebook. He’s an elder dragon – that’s old school.
Mana Base: The vast majority of decks I build on this blog will not include ABR Dual Lands and Onslaught/Zendikar fetchlands, since they will be out of reach for most players. This deck is no exception. Even though the deck packs heavy mana acceleration, the deck itself isn’t particularly fast, so there’s no reason to fear lands that come into play tapped. To that end, priority one was ensuring a consistent manabase. With 10 lands capable of producing all three colors, and 14 capable of producing two of them, I think I have that covered. The deck skews a bit green-heavy, so the mana base skews slightly that direction as well. Homeward Path is a utility land that should have a slot in most Group Hug decks (and is all but required in Karona decks), and Reliquary Tower helps me keep all those cards I’m going to draw. I kept nine basic lands in there, because I run several cards that search for them, and I wouldn’t want to deny myself the benefits of my own huggery.
Mana Acceleration: I decided this should be the focal point of the huggery, because I would be including several high-CMC cards in the deck that I would eventually like to cast. There are twelve different cards in the deck that accelerate the table’s mana.
Permanent Generation: I’m running all the Hunted creatures in my colors. I decided to leave Tempting Wurm out of this one, because this deck is seeking not to put itself at a disadvantage for political gain. One of the reasons I wanted Naya colors was to run Death By Dragons, a personal favorite that I rarely get to play. This deck is packed with cards to give my opponents (and myself) permanents on the field.
Card Draw & Recursion: Not having access to blue or black, this deck isn’t pushing the boundaries with card draw, but there’s still plenty in there. I’m running Wheel of Fortune and Reforge the Soul to complement my full cycle of Advocates.
Protection: This deck has both reactive and proactive protection, utilizing a couple walls, and Warp World and Theives’ Auction when the board becomes disadvantageous to me. The Advocate cycle, Crib Swap, Path to Exile, and Swords to Plowshares deal re-actively with direct threats.
Win Condition: I decided to take a “wait and see” approach with this deck, so that I had multiple options depending on what the board state was when the game was down to two players. If my final opponent has a pretty clear board, the Palladia-Mors starts plugging away for 21 general damage. If my opponent has a full board, Insurrection gets cast and I hit him in the face with it. If I’m drowning in mana, Helix Pinnacle hits the table. If I have a very high life total, then it’s Felidar Sovereign or Test of Endurance for the win.
So, that’s the deck! Tune in next week when I analyze a new Commander archetype!