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Variety Is The Spice Of Commander

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Casual Magic, Commander

Variety is the spice of life, and Commander is an exceptionally spicy format. Commander continues to survive as my format of choice because of how rare it is for any two decks to be the same. Commander decks are like snowflakes, and who doesn’t love a good snowball fight?

Unfortunately, my perception of the diversity of the format is not universally shared. There always seems to be people complaining about homogeny ruining the game. The blame is tossed around between inexperienced deck builders and Wizards of the Coast printing overtly powerful cards that overshadow previously printed options. I won’t argue either of those points. Just because they are true facts doesn’t mean they are the causes for players to tend to build similar decks.

Players build with similar cards because they are taught to evaluate cards in the same way.

Commander players have a tendency to judge the value of cards on a one-by-one basis. At best, they judge things on how they interact with their general. This is commonly referred to as ‘judging a card ‘in a vacuum’. Aside from the issue of creating similar decks, this actually decreases the overall effectiveness of a deck. Great Magic decks are rarely a collection of strictly good cards; they are almost always a group of cards that interact in ways that give a significant advantage.

Look at some decks that have caused cards to be banned – Hypergenesis, Affinity, Storm and Caw-Blade. No one looks at Violent Outburst, Ornithopter, Desperate Ritual and Squadron Hawk and immediately thinks “OMG…this card is soooo broken!” Still, those cards were integral parts of decks that were considered to be format warping.

Good deck building is like good cooking; the goal is to have the end result to be greater than the sum of the parts. Decks that can fill the base structure of a list with cards that both accomplish a utility and fit into the theme are going to be stronger than a deck that need separate cards to satisfy both functions.

As an exercise to show exactly what I mean, let’s look at different options for one of the poster children of Commander – Kresh the Bloodbraided. The starting deck list is not exactly bad, but it only half-commits to the real win conditions of the deck and has some basic ‘good stuff’ for filler. The main idea of the deck is to control the board with a toolbox of options until you can kill opponents with some sort of massive aggro monster. The side plan for the deck is mass reanimation that brings back all the creatures you pitched and then alpha striking.

Decks with a simple plan have a simple design. The benefit of a simple design is that the deck ends up gaining consistency through redundancy without having to resort to forcing in extra card advantage. In the case of Kresh, I see five or maybe six non-land categories of cards that define the deck – Naturalize Effects, Mana Fixing, Creature Control, Card Advantage, and Graveyard Interactions. There could be another category just called ‘Other’, but I tend to avoid those cards if at all possible.

Kresh is all about creatures dying. That leaves the deck two options for getting rid of creatures it owns; value-adding sacrifice outlets and creatures that kill themselves for value. The theme of the deck is broad enough that there should be plenty of cards that both stay on theme and fit into at least one of the main categories. For the purposes of improving the deck, anything that doesn’t fit into one of the categories can be cut right off the top.

Other Cards the Deck Probably Doesn’t Need

Anathemancer
Basilisk Collar
Brooding Saurian
Creakwood Liege
Darksteel Plate
Devouring Swarm
Disciple of Griselbrand
Fling
Greater Gargadon
Hamletback Goliath
Madrush Cyclops
Melira, Sylvok Outcast
Mitotic Slime
Petrified Wood-Kin
Praetor’s Grasp
Spearbreaker Behemoth
Stalking Vengeance

I don’t think all of the cards on this list are bad; they just don’t do anything important enough to justify any new category. When a deck contains a card that does something nothing else in the deck does, cards with similar function need to be added for redundancy, or else the card should be cut. Some of the cards on this list are parts of combos. Combos that are only good for the sake of being a combo belong in dedicated combo decks. If we want to put a combo into a theme deck, all of the pieces of the combo should belong in the deck on their own merits. Melira, for example, doesn’t help as either a sacrifice outlet or giving value to creatures that kill themselves.

The benefit of cutting so many cards at the beginning is that a category can double in size and make the deck twice as good at answering relevant threats. At the end of tuning a deck to fit a theme there will be a pile of cards that, while good or bad, don’t serve a basic function in the deck. If the plan isn’t lifegain, what good does Disciple of Griselbrand do?

NATURALIZE EFFECTS

Before-
Acidic Slime
Avalanche Riders
Krosan Grip
Pernicious Deed
Red Elemental Blast
Woodfall Primus
Woodripper

The deck has a good collection of cards that effectively destroy non-creature permanents. Card quality is not a problem for the deck – lack of synergy is. Cards like Krosan Grip, Pernicious Deed, and Red Elemental Blast are popular among many players, but no matter how good they are, if they don’t contribute to pushing the theme of the deck they weaken the rest of the choices. For every card in a deck that doesn’t help Kresh get larger, he is a weaker choice as the commander. In addition, the deck is a creature-based toolbox and these are answers that you have to depend on luck to draw, instead of being able to use the searching tools that are in place.

Remove-
Krosan Grip
Pernicious Deed
Red Elemental Blast

MANA FIXING

Before-
Cultivate
Farhaven Elf
Garruk Wildspeaker
Primeval Titan
Skyshroud Claim
Sol Ring
Yavimaya Elder

First off, this list was obviously written before the banning of Primeval Titan. From there, most of the ramp cards here already work perfectly with the theme (Yavimaya Elder and Solemn Simulacrum.) Cultivate and Skyshroud Claim are both green staples, but neither do anything but ramp. With the abundance of ramp options available, it is better to choose cards that stay on theme. I would even recommend cutting Sol Ring for a one-mana creature, which will be a better draw on any turn but turn one. Sol Ring can’t be easily tutored, and most of the deck is color intensive, which means it doesn’t help to ramp as much as a colored mana producer would. It is a dead card later in the game, where a creature will always have value in the deck.

Remove-
Cultivate
Farhaven Elf
Primeval Titan
Sol Ring
Skyshroud Claim

CREATURE CONTROL

Before-
Big Game Hunter
Bloodshot Cyclops
Butcher of Malakir
Goblin Bombardment
Grab the Reins
Urabrask the Hidden
Spore Cloud

Making a deck work better isn’t always about swapping out cards for better ones. You can also improve a deck by adding more of the same type of effective cards. Almost every piece of removal on the list is perfectly situated to work well with what the deck is trying to do. If there is any issue, it is that there isn’t enough removal for how much Kresh (and most of the deck) wants things to die. Toolbox decks are control decks; in a situation where a deck is trying to control multiple other decks, it requires lots of control cards.

Remove-
Spore Cloud

CARD ADVANTAGE

Before-
Demonic Tutor
Garruk, Primal Hunter
Greater Good
Lurking Predators
Momentous Fall
Pelakka Wurm
Rune-Scarred Demon
Skullclamp
Survival of the Fittest
Tooth and Nail

Like it or not, this deck is a control deck at heart. Control decks live or die based on card advantage. What we have here is a good start; card advantage engines need to be as powerful as possible when trying to keep multiple people in check. Since ‘sacrifice’ as a cost is an advantage for this deck, some cards that would usually be sub-par get to outshine well known staples. Demonic Tutor is strictly an amazing card, there is no denying it; however, Diabolic Intent is better for this deck, as it fills the role of tutor and sacrifice outlet.

Remove-
Demonic Tutor
Lurking Predators
Pelakka Wurm

GRAVEYARD INTERACTIONS

Before-
Eater of the Dead
Living Death
Lord of Extinction
Makeshift Mannequin
Mimic Vat
Necrogenesis
Regrowth
Scavenging Ooze
Scrabbling Claws
Tormod’s Crypt
Victimize
Withered Wretch

A fast engine in a car is useless without tires; a strong mechanic in a deck is useless without a proper base. When a deck thrives on killing with the creatures it plays, it needs ways to get those creatures back. The more it wants to kill, the more recursion it needs to keep going. Single use spells just don’t cut it.

Remove-
Eater of the Dead
Necrogenesis
Regrowth
Scrabbling Claws
Tormod’s Crypt
Withered Wretch

Painting a Picture

A deck isn’t a good deck unless it all works together. Building a deck is like writing a paper or painting a picture – sketch out the structure of what you are making, and then flesh it out the rest of the way. In this case, we have a basic structure to begin with and twenty-nine spots already filled, with thirty-four spots left to work with. We have the five overlaying categories of cards to work fill out:

  • Naturalize
  • Mana Fixing
  • Creature Control
  • Card Advantage
  • Graveyard

Once a mechanic is identified as being a fit for a deck, all relevant cards from that mechanic should be identified and then categorized. Evoke is a mechanic that I think fits in perfectly in this deck. The evoke mechanic is always on creatures, so it is easy to find the required answer within the current Card Advantage package. When the evoke cost is paid, the creature sacrifices itself, which is one of the basic tenants of the deck. The power on evoke creatures is high compared to the cheap cost of paying for evoke, making Kresh larger than other creatures with similar converted mana costs. I started by looking up all evoke creatures, and then added them into the different categories.

Naturalize
Ingot Chewer
Mana Fixing
Creature Control
Cloudthresher
Shrekmaw
Spitebellows
Card Advantage
Graveyard
Offalsnout

With a primary mechanic categorized, the next step is to build onto the base with known synergies. I know Genesis, Mikaeus, the Unhallowed, Nim Deathmantle and Mimic Vat border on absurd with evoke creatures; the deck essentially gets to keep the creature for its extremely cheap evoke cost or else get to continuously retrigger the enters-the-battlefield ability.

Naturalize
Ingot Chewer
Mana Fixing
Creature Control
Cloudthresher
Shrekmaw
Spitebellows
Card Advantage
Graveyard
Offalsnout
Genesis
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed
Nim Deathmantle
Mimic Vat

When looking at a deck, it is important to imagine playing with the selected cards. The amazing interactions that help define Commander as a format don’t usually come up by accident; innovative interactions have to be built into a deck. Here, I can already imagine evoking a Shriekmaw with Mikaeus in play and paying 1B for double-Doom Blade and a 4/3 with fear.

With Mikaeus (and to a lesser extent Nim Deathmantle), the combo role that Melira, Sylvok Outcast was serving has now been refilled. As mentioned earlier, persist creatures work well with sacrifice outlets; sacrifice outlets are a crucial part of the deck and as a result any combo that happens to use them easily fits right in. Even without Mikaeus, the persist creatures with sacrifice outlets are great for the theme. This is the kind of combo that theme decks can feel good about playing.

Naturalize
Ingot Chewer
Mana Fixing
Perilous Forays
Sneak Attack
Creature Control
Cloudthresher
Shrekmaw
Spitebellows
Furystoke Giant
Murderous Redcap
Card Advantage
Birthing Pod
Viscera Seer
Graveyard
Offalsnout
Genesis
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed
Nim Deathmantle
Mimic Vat
Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord

Between each step it is a good idea to take a look at how the deck is looking as a whole to see if any card patterns and lines of play are beginning to emerge. As the deck stands, it looks like creatures will hit the battlefield, be killed, and then brought back multiple times. It’s likely that at some point this deck will be evoking Spitebellows, bringing it back with Deathmantle, and then sacrificing it each turn in the same way to machine gun away opponents’ hopes.

With an insight into tactics that will be commonly used, cards that benefit from that line of play should added to the deck. At this time in the deck construction, look for the ‘enchantress’-type cards (ones that naturally create card advantage through the core mechanic of the deck) for your theme. In the case of Kresh, I looked for cards that trigger when cards either die or are brought back from the grave; from the cards that have triggered abilities that go off based on that expected line of play, I separated out the ones that fulfill the needs and added them to the outlined categories.

Naturalize
Ingot Chewer
Mana Fixing
Perilous Forays
Sneak Attack
Pawn of Ulamog
Creature Control
Cloudthresher
Shrekmaw
Spitebellows
Furystoke Giant
Murderous Redcap
Flayer of the Hatebound
Gravepact
Card Advantage
Birthing Pod
Viscera Seer
Harvester of Souls
Graveyard
Offalsnout
Genesis
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed
Nim Deathmantle
Mimic Vat
Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord

In the final phase of deck building, the typical Commander deck is usually left in one of two positions; too many cards or too few cards. It is much more common to still need to add cards at this point; if deck builders are honest with themselves during the cutting process, cards clear away like dry undergrowth in a forest fire.

Now we can start adding redundant versions of cards in the deck we really like. Value engines in particular are important to keep a control-ish deck like this running. The best value engines are ones that can be continuously used and create an avalanche of advantage; value creatures that can be recurred and draw/tutor abilities are crucial for themed decks. As far as duplicating effects go, here are several examples;

Yavimaya Elder and Solemn bring in Sakura Tribe-Elder, Seedguide Ash, and the like.
Woodripper brings in Sylvok Replica, Viridian Zealot and Wickerbough Elder.
• We change out Demonic Tutor for Diabolic Intent and Garruk.
• Add a third Greater Good effect with Disciple of Bolas.
• Bring in Shriekmaw’s brothers – Fleshbag Marauder and Bone Shredder.
• Round out the theme of fading and echo that started with Woodripper and Avalanche Rider and ends with Deadwook Treefolk.

Naturalize
Ingot Chewer
Sylvok Replica
Viridian Zealot
Wickerbough Elder
Mana Fixing
Perilous Forays
Sneak Attack
Pawn of Ulamog
Awakening Zone
Dawntreader Elk
Growth Spasm
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Seedguide Ash
Viridian Emissary
Joraga Treespeaker
Creature Control
Cloudthresher
Shrekmaw
Spitebellows
Furystoke Giant
Murderous Redcap
Flayer of the Hatebound
Gravepact
Bone Shredder
Fleshbag Marauder
Card Advantage
Birthing Pod
Viscera Seer
Harvester of Souls
Diabolic Intent
Disciple of Bolas
Fauna Shaman
Garruk Relentless
Graveyard
Offalsnout
Genesis
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed
Nim Deathmantle
Mimic Vat
Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord
Deadwood Treefolk

Conclusion

After all the hard work with the deck list, the fun of imaging all the possibilities begins. Evoke Shriekmaw with Harvester of Souls and Nim Deathmantle in play; kill two enemy creatures draw three cards for six mana…Yeah, that seems good. Sneak Attack in a Seedguide Ash, swing with it, then sacrifice it to Birthing Pod to put a Deadwood Treefolk into play, put Seedguide Ash back into hand and Sneak it into play again, ending up with six Forests and more value to come! It’s hard to believe what can happen once the engines start running. The more I look at decks built like these, the more excited I get to play them.

The best part of following this process is ending up with a deck that is fundamentally different from the ‘Primordial.dec’ that is seen everywhere. This is also likely to be more fun and more effective overall. It is possible to change decks to be more fun and more effective without having to spend bundles of money or change play styles; through this method, decks can be more effective, more original, and maybe even a little more fun to play – which is really the whole point.

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