Commander can be an intimidating format for people to get into. No matter how much experience someone has, the deck building restrictions and format variety tend to cause a reaction of both awe and anxiety. Then once people play a few games and wish to build their own deck, they start seeing just how expensive a Commander deck could become. One of the biggest problems plaguing Commander is resource inequality. If a player is willing to spend $1000 to improve their mana base to near perfections then their opponents who stick to Guildgates and Bounce Lands as their primary fixing will have quite a disadvantage.
My playgroup has players with duals, fetches, and all those other indicators of expensive cards. Every so often we would clash with players new to our group. Those with expensive cards of their own were pleased to have found us, but more frequently people would see Timetwister, Hermit Druid Combo, Reset Combo, or some other cog in the competitive Commander metagame and leave disgusted. The truth is that if you want to compete in a Competitive format you need to be prepared to spend the proper resources. These resources aren’t just monetary; it can also take innovation and determination to succeed.
Innovating to Success
The deck I am showing you today is the culmination of a project I did with a few of the younger players I knew who were getting into Commander. Being young men, too young to get a job, they had small disposable incomes but still wished to play Commander at a higher level. To help them out I tried to lead them through the exercise of how to construct a deck to attack the format. We kept budgetary restrictions in mind and tried to overcome card access with digging deep into the history of Magic.
The first decision was about which Commander to use. The Commander decides the colors and that decides which strategies you have access to. Before selecting the Commander, it was decided on to try a combo deck and their preference of colors were Blue and Red. We kept it two colors so that we could rely less upon nonbasic lands for mana fixing as there either tends to be a cost of money or quality attached to those lands. After both choosing Blue and Red, their favored colors, Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind was the easy choice for the Commander. Of all the Izzet generals that have been printed, Niv-Mizzet has the simplest, easiest, and cheapest combos available. We knew we were going to focus on the various Niv-Mizzet combos so our next task was focusing on building the deck to succeed in the desired metagame.
The task here was to analyze some of the common points of weakness amongst the best decks and see what efficient cards, which were relatively inexpensive, could do a lot of damage to them. The first answer was nonbasic land hate. One of the big differences between players with a lot of capital invested in the format and those players that are just starting out is the quality of their lands. So by noticing this trend we have positioned ourselves to attack that point of weakness and build around it so we aren’t hit by our own weapons. The best cards for this strategy are Blood Moon, Magus of the Moon, Back to Basics, and Ruination. These cards can slow down and annoy your opponents while providing you an advantage you can play around, usually by opening your own window for mischief. Those 4 cards can usually be obtained for around $30-$40 so they aren’t too expensive. In my experience the better your opponents, the better their lands will be. The fearsome Hermit Druid Combo decks play 0 Basic Lands and the increasingly popular Child of Alara and Sliver based decks both also run few if any basic lands. Most of the competitive single color decks tend to have 15+ nonbasic lands. Nonbasic lands are just inherently stronger than Basic Lands at least until you unleash some of the cards to change that equation.
The next common point of weakness we found was a lot of artifact mana. This led us to consider options such as Shatterstorm and Rebuild to annoy the entire table, but we had to discount those eventually. When it was decided that we wanted to play our own artifacts for mana we decided upon more controlled destruction like Vandalblast, Shattering Pulse, and Rack and Ruin. While their number is few, the impact they provide is large. Shattering Pulse is especially important as it helps us have a lot of options later in the game as, along with Capsize, it has Buyback for reuse potential.
After looking towards the anticipated points of weakness in the metagame, it was time to attack the points of strength. While sometimes it is an effective strategy to ignore an opponent’s strength but that doesn’t work out well against the strong combo decks of the format. From examining the format we see that counterspells are the most efficient and universal answers available to us. Every deck has a key spell or two that can be ambushed by counters. The problem is that some of the very best counters have large price tags. While spells such as Force of Will, Flusterstorm, and Mana Drain may be outside of a player’s price range we can still splurge a little on quality spells like Pact of Negation, Misdirection, and Spell Crumple. When power options such as Muddle the Mixture, Counterspell, and Spell Pierce meet with niche choices like Dispel, Swan Song, and Forbid we can have enough counterspell coverage to both stop our opponents and protect our combo.
We have a few cheap burn spells as they are strong in the more competitive metas. With mana creatures and utility creatures gumming up the boards it can sometimes call for precision removal. Hermit Druid, Edric, Spymaster of Trest, and even Joraga Treespeaker can all demand removal and we don’t want to lack in that department. If your meta is dominated with Elves, Goblins or other utility creatures, then perhaps Starstorm or Pyroclasm could help. This deck hopes to ignore the more aggressive and tribal decks until it can set up something sweet like Cyclonic Rift or Evacuation. In the worst case scenario, Niv-Mizzet can help control the creatures we face. Sometimes it is nice to play more removal spells but we only have so much space. We focus on bounce spells like Into the Roil, Capsize, and Cyclonic Rift because they hit all types of permanents that annoy us.
So much of our deck building was predicated upon making our opponents feel pain but what about our plans? Once you add the combo pieces to our nonbasic hate, counterspells, cheap removal, and lands, we see what we are missing. It’s normally artifact mana and card draw to our rescue. The artifact mana is important as the extra fixing helps us play around our own hate as well as ramp towards our big plays. The card draw is to refill our hands from the fights we pick with our opponents and all the mana we play down. Mystic Remora joins Rhystic Study as a cheap tool to not only deter out opponents from casting spells but helping us keep up our card flow. Fact or Fiction, Blue Sun’s Zenith and various card filters round out the card advantage suite. These card drawing spells are important for making sure we have a steady stream of plays to stay involved in the game.
Before we get to the meat and potatoes of the deck list, I want to say that some of the choices made for this deck may not be as cheap as possible but that is intentional. Building with a budget doesn’t just mean spending the smallest amount of money on a deck. It also means maximizing your money so you don’t feel like you wasted your time, money, and effort. You may spend a little more, but you get a lot more out of it.
Niv-Mizzet Combo featuring Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind
Niv-Mizzet lets you deal 1 damage to a creature or player whenever you draw. Curiosity and Ophidian Eye let you draw a card any time the enchanted creature deals any type of damage to an opponent. So by putting Curiosity on Niv-Mizzet, we get to draw a card each time it deals a damage to the opponent which will trigger Niv-Mizzet’s damage ability again and set us off on a loop.
This is the reason so many people fear Niv-Mizzet. When Niv-Mizzet is enchanted by one of these cards you can normally kill two players instantly and have 80+ cards in your hand. Hard to complain with a result like that, but the downside is that you won’t be able to instantly kill three opponents. The work around for that in this build is Laboratory Maniac.
This combo will deck the entire table. You tap Temple Bell to have everyone draw a card. That ensures that you can discard a card to Mind Over Matter to untap the Temple Bell. Then you can activate the Temple Bell yet again to continue this loop. Eventually you will draw Guile and discard it to untap the Temple Bell. Instead of going to your graveyard, Guile is returned to your library to be drawn yet again. While eventually all your opponent’s will run out of cards in their library, you will not because Guile is there.
While it is normal to use the one or both of Kozilek and Ulamog, Guile slots in here as a much cheaper alternative. There is actually a situation in which Guile is superior to these giant monsters and that is against Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace. As both Guile and Rest in Peace are replacement effects, you get to choose which one applies.
So assuming you have the ability to activate Niv-Mizzet’s draw ability, you can use it and then deal 1 damage to an opponent. Mind Over Matter lets you turn that card into an activation to tap or untap a permanent so you will choose to untap Niv-Mizzet. Use Niv-Mizzet’s ability to draw and then ping again, putting you in a loop to do damage equal to the number of cards in your deck. Guile, or one of the similar cards, lets you expand that number further by returning to the deck rather than staying in the graveyard. This means you won’t run out of cards to draw with Niv-Mizzet and thus be able to deal an unlimited amount of damage.
One of the heroes of the deck is Laboratory Maniac. This crazy man is able to turn difficult circumstances to near certain victory. Sometimes your ability to reuse parts of deck may be compromised. Perhaps Guile gets exiled and then you need some other way to ensure victory about multiple opponents. Most of the combos in Niv-Mizzet involve drawing your deck so Laboratory Maniac is a natural fit. Laboratory Maniac also solves some of the less easy to solve issues such as opponents with shroud, opponents with extremely large life totals, or your shrinking deck.
Adding More Tools
If you want to start spending more money on a deck like this, the easiest place to start is the lands. Thawing Glaciers is a powerful card for any basic land heavy deck. It works well with Sensei’s Divining Top by giving you a steady supply of shuffles and can let you keep land light hands you may have to otherwise mulligan. Scalding Tarn is an easy addition if you can get one. The rest of the fetch lands go up in power if you have Volcanic Island and Steam Vents, but otherwise they are end up being slightly worse than Basics without nonbasics to fetch. Sulfur Falls is a strong one for the mana base and could straight up replace Izzet Guildgate. Cascade Bluffs is another of the strong ones. Cavern of Souls and Boseiju, Who Shelters All are always strong for control/combo hybrid decks like this one as they help you pass through the oppositions counters. It’s important to not play much more than 15 nonbasics (most of them fetches if possible) to avoid ruining your own mana base with your Blood Moons and Back to Basics.
There are also plenty of powerful pieces of artifact mana to upgrade into. Mox Diamond and Chrome Mox can accelerate your clock by a turn or better depending on the match. Grim Monolith is just a strong one. Mana Crypt is the type of treasure that most any Commander deck would appreciate and Niv-Mizzet is not one of the exceptions. Coalition Relic is strong and usually takes the place of Chromatic Lantern.
Outside of the mana base you have plenty of potential upgrades. Force of Will, Mana Drain, Flusterstorm, and Mindbreak Trap could all find homes in this deck based upon personal preferences. Despite having some solid 2 mana spells to find, I think Muddle the Mixture is an easy cut once you have access to more powerful cards. Time Spiral is another card I’m a fan of with Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind. It can be help set up the combo or just refill your hand after a long game has taken its toll. Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre and Kozilek, Butcher of Truth could both be great additions. This deck can actually cast them easily enough thanks to the artifact mana and they are often favored over Guile for the combos we wish to do.
No matter how you wish to take Niv-Mizzet it is clear that the core combos are quite strong. This deck is great for a starting point on your road towards Competitive Commander and can be effective at multiple levels. I hope that this article has given you some tips and ideas for how to build to succeed regardless of your budget. Feel free to ask me any questions here or by email.
alextobriner @ gmail dot com
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