A couple months ago I joined a local sketch comedy and improv troupe. It’s been a fascinating experience because improv does not come naturally to me. I’m having to do outside research, and practice in the mirror, and spend time doing riffs and reps to get to something approaching natural. It reminds me, as many things do, of Magic—of trying to get the experience in so that the training takes over when the actual day-of arrives. There’s a lot of commonality between a major tournament and opening night.

I keep learning new things and applying them to the things I already love, and improv is another set of skills to apply. There are some basics to improv—the equivalent of the turn order or of deck construction rules—and the fun of the format lies in seeing how far you can stretch that space while abiding by the rules. Those rules are numerous, and every group has a different set. But there are some shared understandings that define improv, and those same rules can even be adapted to Magic—especially Commander, which is essentially an improv scene shared between you and your opponents.

Take this deck, for example:

Yes-And Muldrotha

Commander: Muldrotha, the Gravetide

Creatures: Veteran Explorer, Magus of the Vineyard, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Snapcaster Mage, Gilded Drake, Riftsweeper, Kami of the Crescent Moon, Lazav, the Multifarious, Jungle Wayfinder, Wayward Swordtooth, Courser of Kruphix, Heartwood Storyteller, Eternal Witness, Phyrexian Metamorph, Hostage Taker, Gonti, Lord of Luxury, Scarwood Bandits, Sower of Temptation, Braids, Conjurer Adept, Clever Impersonator, Duskmantle Seer, The Scarab God, Taigam, Sidisi’s Hand, Underrealm Lich, Oblivion Sower, Shefet Monitor, Regal Behemoth, Dragonlord Silumgar, Memnarch

Planeswalkers: Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, Sorin Markov

Artifacts: Sol Ring, Fellwar Stone, Howling Mine, Horn of Greed, Temple Bell, Helm of Possession, Mindslaver

Spells: Exploration, Burgeoning, Eladamri’s Vineyard, Collective Voyage, Sylvan Library, Pernicious Deed, Mnemonic Betrayal, Rites of Flourishing, Dictate of Kruphix, Creeping Dread, Tempt with Reflection, Talent of the Telepath, Kumena’s Awakening, Damnation, Desertion, Palace Siege, Extract from Darkness, Windgrace’s Judgment, Hedonist’s Trove, Grave Betrayal, Prosperity, Villainous Wealth, Fascination

Lands: 9 Forest, 7 Swamp, 7 Island, Breeding Pool, Overgrown Tomb, Watery Grave, Polluted Delta, Verdant Catacombs, Misty Rainforest, Opulent Palace, Command Tower, Opal Palace, Temple of Deceit, Temple of Malady, Temple of Mystery, Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, Ash Barrens, Cabal Coffers

You don’t want to overload the table by playing too many group-hug cards. Heartbeat of Spring and Dictate of Karametra have only ever resulted in the next player winning the game, for example—but you do want to ensure everyone has a slow drip of advantage. Rites of Flourishing is the perfect card for this deck, as it operates by creating a fun playscape—a little ludic microgame where everyone draws cards, drops lands, and builds up a resource pool. Then the slaughter kicks in.

Good sketch actors aren’t flashy, they’re just always one step ahead of the audience and focused on guiding their scene partners to that same step. That’s what this deck does—until it steps out into the audience and starts heckling. I love this color combination, and it’s probably the most Rob deck I’ve ever built. But how does it reflect improvisational comedy?

Well, for example:

The answer is in your scene partner.

“Listening” is a kind of facile word to describe the communalism of theater or the reaction-based economy of a good Commander game. There are times when you’re operating together in a way that’s much closer to ritual than communication. You do the work beforehand—whether that’s memorizing your lines or playing improv games until your voice goes—so that, in the moment, it doesn’t feel like work. The training takes over—not just your training, but that of your partner, and the shared trust (or antipathy) you’ve developed in your work together.

In Magic, this is reacting to both what you opponent is doing, and what they plan to do. Magic operates on anticipation and reaction, and both are important to keep any game fresh and flowing.

Anyone can get from A to B. It’s your job to lead people from A to C in a way that makes sense and anticipates their needs.

In Magic terms, this means avoiding the Tooth and Nail, fetching Avenger of Zendikar and Craterhoof Behemoth, line of play. This means avoiding the Mindslaver/Academy Ruins soft lock.

Maintain hope within the fiction. Ensure that everyone is both a) surprised and b) can see how we arrived here. Improv isn’t Sleight of Hand.

Pursue “the shiny thing” and retain it for later callbacks and use.

The “game” is the central conceit of the scene that requires two or more characters who are in some way at odds with each other or with each other’s motives. It can be something as simple as “this character doesn’t want the other to enter their room” or as esoteric as “these characters don’t speak the same language and are trying to make themselves understood.” Within these games, you’ll find shiny things—whether that’s a repeated line, a new spin on the game, or something you can rely upon later to call back to—thus leading the audience into a new understanding of the relationship between characters or the scene as a whole.

In Commander, this means finding the central game—in this case, stealing your opponents’ cards in massively swingy fashions—and iterating upon it in ways that are unique and amusing. The first Mindslaver is obnoxious, but the Palace Siege/Phyrexian Metamorph/Mindslaver lock is absurd and disruptable.

Always have an exit strategy.

Nothing’s worse than a scene that loses all momentum but still keeps going. Be certain you have some way to shut it down before it reaches that point. A three-hour, haymaker-laden Commander game is fun, but the games where someone eventually grinds it out after the fifth Cyclonic Rift need editing.

In improv, someone can always clear the scene by walking in and saying “Wow, this movie SUCKS” or some other, fourth-wall-stretching joke. It’s an easy laugh line, and it allows the scene to die without alienating the audience or stressing out the performers. In Commander, then, you always need to have a “did we stop having fun thirty minutes ago?” button. Whether that’s a two-card combo or—my favorite—a ticking clock like Sulfuric Vortex or Havoc Festival—is up to you. Pacing is as vital to Magic as it is to comedy, and pace comes through practice.

Of course, sometimes improv falls flat on its face; you make a fool out of yourself on stage and have nightmares about it for years—not speaking from experience, obviously. But that’s part of it, just as you’ll sometimes wake up sweating because you realized you accidentally angle-shot a Prerelease. Failure is a part of theater, or a part of communication, or hell, a part of humanity. It’s taking a lesson from those mistakes that makes us a better actor or a better player, or even a better person.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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