Friday, January 29, 2016

Karametra, the Underdog

Well, finally, here it is - the Karametra deck I’ve been bragging about lately. Hopefully it won’t disappoint. But, here’s the thing: it’s not one of those decks like, say, Maelstrom Wanderer or Meren, where it’s oppressively powerful. It doesn’t have a ridiculously high win % or anything like that. It’s just solid, reliable and FUN; because even when I do lose, the odds are very high that at some point I was a contender to win, that I got to do some big, powerful things. I pretty much always wind up with a ton of mana, and I usually get to draw lots of extra cards or just make giant token armies – stuff like that. But before we get too deep into the analysis, let’s just take a look at the list.


Creatures

Karametra, God of Harvests

Scute Mob
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Scavenging Ooze
Fauna Shaman
Lotus Cobra
Wood Elves
Farhaven Elf
Reclamation Sage
Eternal Witness
Oracle of Mul Daya
Garruk’s Packleader
Acidic Slime
Woodland Bellower
Greenwarden of Murasa
Rampaging Baloths
Avenger of Zendikar
Archetype of Endurance
Primordial Hydra
Serra Ascendant
Grand Abolisher
Stonecloaker
Fiend Hunter
Academy Rector
Emeria Angel
Karmic Guide
Sun Titan
Admonition Angel
Emeria Shepherd
Avacyn, Angel of Hope
Qasali Pridemage
Voice of Resurgence
Dauntless Escort
Knight of the Reliquary
Dragonlord Dromoka
Solemn Simulacrum
Duplicant

Spells

Plummet
Constant Mists
Regrowth
Evolutionary Leap
Cultivate
Kodama’s Reach
Retreat to Kazandu
Beast Within
Elemental Bond
Harmonize
Greater Good
Momentous Fall
Zendikar Resurgent
Tooth and Nail
Genesis Wave
Swords to Plowshares
Path to Exile
Wrath of God
Day of Judgement
Mirari’s Wake
Sol Ring
Amulet of Vigor
Skullclamp
Cloudstone Curio
Crucible of Worlds
Akroma’s Memorial

Lands

Temple Garden
Canopy Vista
Sunpetal Grove
Wooded Bastion
Temple of Plenty
Windswept Heath
Horizon Canopy
Krosan Verge
Selsenya Sanctuary
Emeria, the Sky Ruin
Kor Haven
Gavony Township
Myriad Landscape
Forest x13
Plains x11

So this is how it looks today… but how did I arrive at this configuration?

Well, when Karametra was first spoiled I was immediately smitten. I had been looking for a G/W commander for a while, but it was my opinion that G/W decks came in three basic flavors – utterly unplayable garbage, too cutthroat/anti-social for my group, and Rhys, the Redeemed. Every commander I looked at, every deck theme I considered I rejected for one of these reasons – either I felt it would be way too underpowered to be any fun (Tolsimir Wolfblood), or it would just piss people off (Gaddock Teeg). The one exception was Rhys the Redeemed – a deck that was potentially explosive, a bit glass-cannon-ish, and very soft to heavy control, but overall seemed like the most powerful thing I could be doing in these colors without breaking all sorts of social contract obligations.

Trouble is, Rhys was just done to death. I’m not some EDH hipster who refuses to use popular commanders, mind you – most of the commanders I play are very popular. But G/W tokens? Ugh. It just felt “been there, done that”, not just by myself, but by everyone. Basically, everyone in my group has had some sort of W/x tokens deck at some point, and one of my friends had even specifically played Rhys a couple of times. Anyway, long story short, Rhys was, in my opinion the only “good” option, but the idea was just so… boring. Outside of the occasional, rampant abuse of Skullclamp, there just wasn’t much to interest me.

Enter Karametra. I am pretty sure I ordered a foil Karametra within a week of Born of the Gods being on sale, and began brewing as soon as it arrived in the mail. My first attempts were definitely mediocre – it was a so/so fun deck that could occasionally do explosive things and win out of nowhere, but generally had some clunky and awkward draws, sorely lacked the ability to defend or protect itself, and was basically only ever good against midrange – anything that was hardcore aggro would easily outpace it, and similarly it wasn’t fast enough to outpace a dedicated control deck either.

It also wasn’t balanced well enough to have many good opening draws. One thing I learned quickly was that you always, ALWAYS wanted to have a few cheap creatures to cast to get the ramp train rolling. You also want to wait until after Karametra hits the table before you drop these little dudes. So you might have a draw with some cheap creatures you could theoretically cast, BUT if you did so, you wouldn’t have any gas after Karametra came down.

So the first key was to tune the deck towards hitting five mana as quickly and reliably as possible. The second key was to be able to get to Karametra mana without needing to empty your hand first. Once I got to that point, where I could fairly reliably hit Karametra BY turn 5 if not before, and still have at least a couple of creatures to cast in the following turns to start ramping, the deck began to play a little more smoothly.

There were still a few more problems, though. The two main issues were answers and draw. You kinda have to run a little light on the removal. Basically, this is a deck that assumes it’s going to have superior mana, which will in turn allow it to cast superior threats. The whole point of a deck like this is to simply be doing “end game” things while everyone else is still several turns away from their end game stuff. And to a certain extent you have to give yourself to that assumption and roll with it. But, there will be times when either you don’t get the fastest draws in the world and aren’t really outpacing your opponents by all that much, or maybe they’re also ramping straight to their end games as well. Sometimes it’s luck, sometimes it’s design, but occasionally the deck built specifically to trump what everyone else  is doing will be trumped instead. And even in this current incarnation, it is still a little soft to highly aggressive and fast decks.

I always had Swords and Path – those are no-brainers, but I tried to rely more on creature-based removal like Fiend Hunter, Banisher Priest, etc. Eventually I realized those were all basically garbage, and cut them in favor of Wrath and Day. I also added Plummet primarily as another way to deal with Consecrated Sphinx because gaining massive card advantage is one of the main ways a slower deck can beat us. In reality, my Karametra is actually more of a grindy, value-based deck. It just has a big ramp theme to enable and drive that value.

I simply could not find a way to make this deck work as a fast, relentless aggro deck. It certainly feels aggro in that it’s primary function is to just cast threat after threat after threat, but there are way too many ways in my group to shut that kind of strategy down, so I had to re-tune this deck to have more reach and a better long game. The outcome of this is, this is now one of those decks where it SEEMS like control should be good against it, but I often find that the longer the game goes on the more and more the odds favor me. Sometimes this deck almost feels like a UB or UBG deck, not that it’s anywhere near as controlling, but in that it can play the grindy card advantage long game surprisingly well.

And that was the final key to making this deck work. As good as the deck was at ramping into threats, that plan wasn’t nearly good enough if any of my opponents were playing something even vaguely resembling a control deck. So I cut back on the top-end fatties quite a bit (but obviously still have plenty of bombs), and just loaded up as hard as I could on the recursion aspects. Emeria, Sun Titan, and Witness were just the beginning. I also did my best to sort out the card draw and other sources of card advantage. I stopped trying to be cute with my removal and just played real answers instead of Banisher Priest and friends (Fiend Hunter did come back when Evolutionary Leap was printed, since you can still loophole him into a permanent exile effect). I cut all the “gating” creatures except for Stonecloaker Gargoyle (because he’s legit), and just put Cloudstone Curio in, instead.

And, sadly, I cut about 75% of the landfall cards. Unsurprisingly, this was initially more all-in on the landfall theme, but over time most of the landfall cards proved to be largely ineffective. A few are still in – those that proved their worth – but many fell by the wayside after underperforming on a consistent basis. I think that approach is still viable, to some degree, but it just wasn’t quite working out for me. It wasn’t an easy choice and I am still a little disappointed by it, but ultimately as much as I love a theme, making the deck functional is more important and leads to more fun games.


So right now, the typical game tends to go like this: usually I’m the first to present a serious threat, and I get some early beatdown in just to soften people up. I’m trying to win at this point, so I’m still playing as conservatively as possible, while still proactively advancing my development – this is another reason why loading up on cheap utility guys is important – I want to have fodder to cast early on that is ultimately expendable. I tend to “spread the love” – I don’t try to focus on any one opponent or make enemies. I just want to get the early beats in so later on, I don’t have quite so much work to do.

At some point, as the game progresses from the early game to the midgame, one or two opponents will finally decide that they are destined to play the role of “control” in this match up, and will finally start to cast spells that they hope will gum up my plans. Generally, this means a Wrath or something, and generally, they’re right. But, I’m prepared for that inevitability. This is where the deck settles in for the attrition war, and with some careful play, it’s surprisingly good at this part. Usually, the idea here is to present a threats that require answers without expending too many resources. You want to ultimately make them spend more on stopping you than you are spending doing stuff, whether that be in cards, mana or both. And you do this patiently, slowly but inexorably presenting threats, waiting for them to be answered, then repeat as desired. Coupled with something like Geater Good or Evolutionary Leap, this means you’ll eventually whittle away their answers long before you run out of threats – and if that doesn’t quite work out there is a crap ton of recursion in here as well. Emeria + Sun Titan is basically a nightmare for any deck without copious amounts of Exile-based removal. Emeria Shepher is also one of the best cards printed for this deck since Karametra herself. I’ve been very seriously considering Rift Sweeper for this deck, too, so that even exile effects aren’t inviolable answers.

Eventually, you’ll start to see signs that your opponents are running out of ways to kill your things. This is where you usually want to stop sandbagging all those bombs and start advancing a proper end game. It’s best if you can wait until this phase to drop key cards like Avacyn, as she can often be the final nail in the coffin – I find that savvy opponents will try their best to sandbag one last Wrath effect and try to bluff you into overextending into it. Avacyn makes this unlikely to work out for them, unless it’s a Merciless Eviction or similar effect.

But going back to that war of attrition phase for a moment, this is where cards like Genesis Wave and Tooth and Nail come in – top-decking one of these cards while in the grindy part of the game can easily propel you past the long grind right into the “I’m ready to start winning” phase. If possible, I like to sit on one of these for another turn cycle or so, just to lull my opponents into thinking I have no choice but to play the incremental value game with them. If they think you are firmly committed to conservative lines of play for the time being, they will play differently and will, eventually, give you a pretty clear “shields down” moment where your Tooth or Wave or whatever is all but guaranteed to get maximum effect.

Another possible line is the Crucible-Mists route. Basically this little combination of cards says “I can fog FOREVER so don’t waste your time attacking me”. Even though it’s probably still right to force you to use Constant Mists (thereby slowing, if not halting, your mana development), with other opponents representing more effective opportunities of attack, they will almost always just attack each other instead of you. Don’t be afraid to use Mists sans buyback if you need to slow down an early aggressor. There are plenty of ways to get it back later if you need it. The advantage to this line, though, is that you can usually just bide your time until your opponents have beat each other up enough that you can just swoop in and finish them off.

One of the things I enjoy about this deck is, even if you are worried your opponents have answers and you don’t really have any good proactive lines of play, you’re never just dead in the water – you almost always have something you can cast that you just aren’t worried about getting answered – either it’s expendable or you can just sac it to Leap/Good for value, or it triggers Elemental Bond to replace itself immediately, etc. Plus virtually everything has a free Rampant Growth attached.

It’s pretty hard for this deck to wind up in topdeck mode late-game, but sometimes in the early turns it can easily barf out its hand wind up in that state. As much as I hate being in topdeck mode, I don’t mind so much in this deck because there have been many times I was topdecking for a turn cycle or two and then suddenly, boom, I’m  back up to a full grip. There still isn’t quite enough draw power for my tastes – many of the games I do lose almost always involve my running out of steam and not drawing into Greater Good or some other way to recharge. I cut both Mind’s Eye and Seer’s Sundial at various points because I was just too often unable to afford their activation costs, and/or they were just too slow and fragile. That sounds odd in a deck that basically always manages to wind up with 20 mana in play, but somehow those two artifacts were still just unreliable and failed to really solve my not-enough-draw problems. But because I do still have those problems from time to time, I’m always at least toying with the idea of putting them back in.

Another big decision point was the addition of Akroma’s Memorial. At first, I didn’t like the idea of playing this with Genesis Wave because it felt too combo-like. Basically, I cast G-wave for X=huge, and if Memorial is one of the hits, I probably just win on the spot, right? Well, frankly, no. The presence of such cards as Aetherize, Cyclonic Rift and Angel of the Dire Hour and their rising popularity in my meta means that the hasty alpha strike is no longer a sure thing. In fact, Aetherize and its kin got to be one of the main ways in which I failed to win games – not necessarily that I’d LOSE to them, but they were just very common ways to foil my victory, or at least forestall it. In light of this, I felt much more comfortable about adding Memorial – in fact I felt like it was vitally necessary, after realizing that of all the times I cast a large G-wave, the number of times I then got blown out horribly was alarmingly high.

And, later, cards like Angel of the Dire Hour became such a significant factor in determining my victories and losses that I actually included Dromoka and Grand Abolisher as counter-foils to those foils. So, now, if I G-wave into Memoral, and one of those two guys, AND a significant amount of power, I probably win on the spot, but those are a lot of conditions to fulfill and honestly I haven’t hit that perfect a G-wave yet (though Dromoka and Abolisher are very recent additions).

As for other very new additions, you’d see one Oath card – Zendikar Resurgent. This is one I’m pretty excited about. Mirari’s Wake might seem like overkill – you’re probably thinking “If you can reliably have 15 to 20 lands in play, do you really need Wake too?” Well, yes. Wake is admittedly better early on when I’m trying to GET to that point but this is very much a deck that can leverage having 30 mana. It helps power G-wave, obv, but also lets me cast things AND have up mana for Evolutionary Leap. Mostly, it’s just there to be a good target for Academy Rector, and in this deck I think Zendikar Resurgent is an even better target for Old Bitch – the “draw a card” text is going to be far more valuable than the “+1/+1” text on Wake, though the anthem can also be strong at times. Quick aside since I mentioned anthems – I’d love to fit Dictate of Heliod in here, as the +2/+2 does a great job of turning all those little utility dorks we’re forced to play (not that we really mind) into credible attackers, but thus far I’ve not found the room to squeeze it in.

Backtracking a bit, Zendikar Resurgent replaced (to my dismay) Primeval Bounty – I’ve tried numerous times to make Primeval Bounty work in various decks and as good as I felt it should be, it never quite performed to expectations – until this deck. Bounty was actually quite good to me in this list, but I absolutely HAD to put Resurgent in, no question, and after agonizing over what to cut for it, I realized that Bounty was the most logical and likely “correct” choice even though I hated to do it. I’ll be looking for something to underperform in my future games – and if something that costs 5 or more mana does jump out at me as an underperformer, there’s a good chance it’ll give up its slot to Bounty.

Right now, the only card in the deck that hasn’t really proved its worth (other than Resurgent which is brand spankin’ new and hasn’t seen play yet) is Retreat to Kazandu – it’s been in a short while but so far I’ve only ever drawn it late. It’s pretty marginal late game, but I want to see what it’s like if I draw it earlier. The life gain is honestly not entirely irrelevant and I know from playing Primeval Bounty that putting +1/+1 counters on things, especially Karametra) can be awesome. But I’m starting to feel that if I cast this super early, like before I even cast Karemtra, it’ll be very worthwhile, but playing it at any point after that, it’s usefulness drops off sharply. But since I’ve basically only ever drawn it super late game, I don’t have any real data on it. All I know for sure is it’s a bad late-game topdeck, but so is Wood Elves, and I’m sure as hell not going to quit running that!

But pretty much everything else in the list has been proven to be effective and useful. Because I am a control player at heart, I often feel a little like I’m working without a safety net by running so little removal, but I think I’ve done all I can in that area – like I said you just kinda have to roll with the fact that this deck is more about trumping threats rather than answering them properly. Going bigger, faster, is Plan A and what little removal I’ve been able to shove into the list is Plan B. Moreover the amount of recursion I have been able to cram in gives us ways to get more mileage out of the limited removal, so it actually tends to play out as a deck that can handle scary things quite well, at least a bit more than it looks on paper.

So, what’s missing? One likely obvious exclusion is Azusa – you might expect to see her, and at one point she was in this deck, but she was pretty much a blank most of the time. I just didn’t have extra land drops to make most of the time. Sometimes she’d come down turn three, and let me cast Karametra on turn 4, which was fine, but after that she would be useless for the rest of the game. Since I have Retreat to Kazandu, I’ve always wanted to have Retreat to Emeria as well, for symmetry, but at four mana I just don’t feel like it does enough. The synergy with Skullclamp is nice, but mostly it’s an Emeria Angel that doesn’t attack for 3 in the air, so… meh. I’d still happily run it as an Emeria Angel that doesn’t die to Wrath, but the real issue that keeps me from running it is simply that to include it I would have to cut something, and at this point I don’t think there is any card I can safely say is just plain worse than Retreat to Emeria – meaning I would almost certainly be cutting a better card to run it, which doesn’t seem wise.

I already mentioned Primeval Bounty and Seer’s Sundial as cards that I reluctantly cut as a necessity but I’d love to find a way to put them both back in, especially the Bounty. But there is another big card advantage spell I’d love to include – Shamanic Revelation, aka the mono-green Sphinx’s Revelation. Shamanic has become a huge sleeper hit for me. I figured it’d be good, but it has actually been VERY good. The main reason it’s not in is that all the copies I own are in use, in decks that need it more badly. This deck does alright without it, but it’d be a snap include if I had a spare copy. I’m actually keeping Harmonize in the deck until I have a Shamanic to replace it. I’d rather increase the number of draw spells rather than merely replace one with a better one, but whatever. Shamanic is a much worse topdeck after a Wrath, yeah, but in basically any other scenario, Revelation is vastly more potent. The lifegain isn’t a terrible side bonus either.

Dauntless Escort and Avacyn  are my anti-Wrath tech. I prefer stuff like Rootborn Defences or Faith’s Reward in a traditional deck, but finding creature-based ways to do things is very key. Casting Karametra into a handful of non-creature spells is a bad spot to be in. So where possible, I prioritize “on a stick” above “instant speed” for most effects. However, astute readers my question this statement, since I am running a few sorcery-based ramp spells instead of more creature-based ramp. In theory I could certainly see a case for cutting Kodama’s Reach and Cultivate for mana dorks like Llanowar Elves and Avacyn’s Pilgrim or whatever. They all are basically bad late-game draws, but the mana dorks interact better with Skullamp, while the spells interact better with Landfall triggers. Ultimately I’m more likely to have at least one landfall trigger in any given game than I am to have specifically Skullclamp or Evolutionary Leap. Reach and Cultivate were simply hold overs from when this deck had way more Landfall stuff and they were actually a lot less likely to be dead draws later on, given all the landfall. That’s LESS true now, but still a relevant factor, and they are also just more reliable as ways to ensure I hit the critical five mana point on time or even early. I don’t think going the mana dork route is terrible, I just think the spells are slightly better.

Another recent cut is Zendikar’s Roil. It was fine, but when I built Omnath I relized Omnom wanted that elemental producer more and I wanted to differentiate this deck from Omnath and have as few overlapping cards as possible. So I just moved Roil over to the more tribally-appropriate deck. Plus I kept getting Roil and Elemental Bond out at the same time and while that’s not exactly a nonbo (neither card prevents the other from working), the lack of synergy annoyed me. Except the one time I also had Wake out – that was awesome – but making a bunch of 2/2 was just not good enough to really matter much of the time. The 3/3’s I’d get from Bounty were way better, which is one reason I was sad to cut it, but I haven’t really missed Roil at all. It’s fine, but not necessary.

Also not running the uber-ramp stuff like Scapeshift, Boundless Realms or Nissa’s Renewal. Renewal actually was, briefly, in the deck and it was okay, but again, Omnath just needed all three of those more. And even if I took apart Omnath (a likely possibility in the near future), I don’t really feel that any of those three cards add all that much. Scapeshift is the best in that it can find Emeria, which is a very important card in games against control.

You may also have noticed I’m not running Green’s best win-con ever – Craterhoof Behemoth. I have a personal policy against putting all three of these cards in the same deck: Tooth and Nail, Craterhoof Behemoth and Avenger of Zendikar. Any combination of the two is fine, but all three together is just way too “easy mode” even for me. I pretty much have to run Avenger because it’s extremely good AND on-theme. I wanted to run Tooth and Nail because I can get Avacyn + Archetype of Endurance as well as a number of other “fair” pairings. Craterhoof was just the more generic and off-theme of the three, and the one most likely to end games in a lame, oops-I-win sort of way.

From Commander 2015, the one new card I’d really like to include is Verdant Confluence. A cheaper Nissa’s Renewal sans the lifegain is perfectly reasonable, but the recursion ability of the Confluence is where I really get excited. Recursion is a vitally important factor in winning games that go long for any reason, and ensures that you can play a proactive game even when you know your opponent is packing removal. The fact that Confluence can recur multiple cards but doesn’t self-exile makes it fairly unique (see: Restock, for instance), Witnessing for Confluence and later Confluencing for Witness is stupid value. Add a sac outlet and you can basically loop them forever netting a card or two each time, as long as you have permanents to recover.

I also used to have a few more Hydras as mana-sinks/huge threats but eventually only Primordial Hydra was consistently good enough to keep his spot. Lifeblood Hydra and Genesis Hydra were the last two to go – both are fine, but never really quite worked out as well as I wanted. Lifeblood was undeniably insane when paired with Greater Good, but when I cast it without GG in play, it got exiled by something roughly 100% of the time. Genesis Hydra, despite sharing a namesake and having superficial similarities, was so far from being Genesis Wave it’s not even funny.

I run zero Planeswalkers. Garruk, Caller of Beasts is about the only one I’d really consider, though original Garruk is always a fine card. I’d mostly want Caller for the card advantage – that +1 is insane value. Plus, with Contant Mists in the deck, it should theoretically be easy to protect a ‘walker, and getting Caller of the Beasts’ Emblem could be pretty insane for this deck. But it’s another of those cards I’m short on copies of, and as good as it might be here, there are more urgent needs for it elsewhere. And, again, it’s a card I’d love to have but have no idea what it might replace.

To me, that’s one sign of a good deck – when you have what you think is a windmill slam, must-run bomb and yet you still have to agonize over what to cut to make room for it. Of course, another sign of a good deck is one you just get excited talking about (and playing, obv). For me, Karametra hits both criteria – it’s tuned to the point that further changes are excruciatingly difficult to make, and I almost never have boring games with it. My opponents might feel a bit differently about it, but overall I’d guess they’d greatly prefer to see me playing this as opposed to, say, Angry Omnath or Maelstrom Wanderer. It’s powerful, very resilient and occasionally explosive, but also very interactive and able to be interacted with. It still has the occasional terrible draws, where it basically loses to itself, but any deck has that potential; with this one it’s just a tiny bit more of a problem. But the fact that losing to terrible draws used to be extremely common and now are quite rare is a huge improvement and one reason I’m so proud of the deck. We all love underdog stories, right? This deck started out just shy of being a total failure, but I stuck with it and was able to solve most of its issues; now it’s one of my favorite decks to play.

Enjoy!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Just Checking In

Here’s the thing, folks – I hate making promises I can’t keep. When I came back to this blog and started getting hyped for the C15 decks I was all gung-ho to do the full series of deck updates. But I also told you I wasn’t going to do theorycrafted articles anymore, that I would base my suggestions for improving these decks on actual play experience – if I try something and it doesn’t work, I’m not going to tell you all to try it! Well, aside from Meren, which continues to be one of my favorite decks EVER, I have been very disappointed in the other four decks. I still want to talk about them, to some extent, but I am having trouble finding a way to approach these topics, given that the approach I used for Meren won’t work – I just don’t have that much to say about them.

But, just so you know where things stand, I thought I’d throw out an update or a sort of rundown on what’s going on.

Daxos

Three of the 4 players in my group, myself included, have tried to make him work with a variety of approaches. But none of us have actually succeeded in not making the deck suck. Frankly, I just think the Enchantress theme is terrible in W/B – it’s a bit of a glass cannon, but G/W Enchantress decks at least get the opportunity to run all the actual Enchantress cards, which provide the deck with some CRITICAL doses of card advantage and resiliency.

Meanwhile, the Daxos deck can do some insanely powerful things, but it is extremely draw-dependent and extremely weak to concentrated opposition. Basically, even with three of us playing different variations on the deck, I have actually never seen any of our Daxos decks win a single game, to the best of my memory. Again, a big reason for the losing streak comes down to the fact that in some games, you will just straight up lose to your own draws. And when you aren’t losing to your own deck just giving you the worst run of topdecks in history, you will lose to your opponents making even a token effort to shut you down. Running good cards like Academy Rector and Enlightened Tutor, or just removing all the marginal-to-bad enchantments and replacing each and every one with an actual, legitimately good enchantment doesn’t really do much to shore up these weaknesses.

There are just so many ways to easily shut the deck down that it frequently was happening as an incidental effect of someone specifically trying to shut down a different deck. Some variation on this phrase gets uttered in almost every game containing a Daxos deck I’ve seen: “Sorry Daxos player, this is going to suck for you, but if I don’t do it that Ezuri deck is just going to win anyway!” And when the Daxos deck gets what passes as a God-draw for him and actually becomes a serious threat – basically any sweeper will set it back a few turns at least, and something like Austere Command or Back to Nature are devastating plays. Hell even an early Return to Dust can, in some cases, keep the deck from every mounting any kind of real game plan.

So. It needs to draw the right cards, in the right order, at the right time. It needs to have its key cards not answered. And once it gets rolling it needs to keep fading sweepers turn after turn until everyone is dead. I don’t know how to fix all these problems without scrapping the whole enchantress theme and going with a different commander, and a different theme altogether. I was going to swap over to Karlov instead and try that out – but about the time I came to that decision Ayli was leaked and while she certainly shares a lot of DNA with Karlov, I like her a lot more. So I’m holding out hope of getting an Ayli deck sleeved up sometime soon – I just have to acquire an Ayli first.

I would love to still give you a handful of suggestions, something you can at least start out with, but frankly I just hate that whole deck from the ground up – not just the cards in it, but the whole concept. Playing “Echantress” without the broken card draw engine that the actual (green) enchantresses provide is just pointless – enchantresses are the whole reason to play Enchantress! Drawing cards is 1000% better than not drawing cards. So, of course, my take on Daxos was simply to improve the individual card quality – cutting the marginal or even downright garbage cards that were included and replacing them with cards that don’t suck but are still mostly on theme. I also tried my best to improve the card draw, the ramp/fixing and the removal. Basically I just made it a “good stuff” deck where most of the good stuff was still an enchantment or related to enchantments. In short, shore up those obvious weaknesses as much as possible. Another take I saw, and this one actually worked a little bit better, focused very heavily on Cantrip auras like Unquestioned Authority. The basic idea was to just run out Daxos, start loading him up with Auras that say “draw a card” on them to keep the train rolling and beat down with a Voltron-ed Daxos and an army of like 10/10 spirit tokens. This version is the only one that I’ve seen really make a case for Daxos as it’s been able to pull of some impressive things FAIRLY reliably, but it still has those same issues, namely that it just never wins a game, period.

Arjun

I’ve already talked about this here, but to reiterate my issues with Mizzix – my group has a sort of truce on countermagic. It’s not a strict ban, but just kind of a handshake deal where we largely avoid countermagic but, you know, running Mystic Snake in an Ezuri deck just makes too much sense to pass up. Point being, these “Instants and Sorceries matter” decks are very hard to interact with in an environment that shuns countermagic. It feels a bit exploitative to win off a huge Epic Experiment when you know there’s basically a 0.00000001% chance anyone is going to have a counterspell handy to stop you. And, more than that, we are definitely an anti-combo playgroup – where we might not enforce the countermagic policy very strictly, our stance on just combo-killing the table is a bit more firm.

So my idea was to switch over to Arjun and make the deck revolve more around permanents on the battlefield that can still be interacted with in a counterspell-free environment. A worthy cause, but I failed here, too. The first game I played with Arjun was a blowout. The turn after I cast Arjun I swung for 36 general damage thanks to a Diviner’s Wand, he got bounced in response, so a few turns later I recast him, and then won, at Instant speed, in response to a Planar Cleansing by casting Stroke of Genius for X=0 just to trigger Arjun and, in turn, my Sphinx’s Tutelage. I drew enough cards to deck everyone, with room to spare. Technically, yeah, this could have been stopped by a Krosan Grip on my Tutelage or any number of other spells that actually are commonly-played, but this still felt very combo-ish. Basically you’re forcing your opponent, not just to have an answer, but to have that answer (and the mana to cast it) right that second. So it failed in my goal of not being a combo deck in spirit even if it technically wasn’t a combo deck.

I could just not run Tutelage and cut Diviner’s Wand, as well as the Niv-Mizzet/Psychosis Crawler stuff – basically anything that says “If you let me untap with this in play I’m almost certainly going to win”… but then I’m pretty sure the deck has ZERO chance of winning. I just can’t figure out how to do this in a way that is fun, doesn’t feel like a combo deck and doesn’t exploit our group’s social contract considerations.

But, for those of you whose interests have been piqued by my comments on the deck, I can tell you that there are only about ten or so cards that I would consider absolutely essential to the Arjun plan – the rest of the deck you can figure out on your own. But if you want to build around Arjun this is the recipe you want to start with and then season to taste:

•  Diviner’s Wand – You will probably never pay for that activated ability, but you don’t need to anyway. It equips to Arjun for free, and synergizes perfectly with her triggered ability to make Arjun a one-shot killing machine,
•  Alhammaret’s Archive – Thought Reflection is already in the precon deck. Keep it! And supplement it with this, because the effect is explosive, but also very critical.
•  Scroll Rack/Gustha’s Scepter – These are great at helping you hold on to key cards that you don’t want to cast right now, but don’t want to lose to Arjun’s moil when you do cast something else.
•  Archmage’s Ascension – I don’t think there’s ever been a deck so well-suited to this card – Arjun makes powering it up trivially easy, and once it is powered up, it makes Arjun’s moil effect work for you rather than against you.
•  Psychosis Crawler/Niv Mizzet –  Duh. Obvious synergy with Arjun, good at winning games.
•  Sphinxe’s Tutelage – You might also want Jace’s Erasure. I really don’t think that’s necessary, though. Either Tutelage is either going to get the job done on its own or milling isn’t the right line anyway.
•  Chasm Skulker – Just cute, really, but it can get scary big quite rapidly.
•  Time Spiral – Seems like a nonbo with Tutelage, but trust me, if you’re going to win that way it’s going to be off one or two Arjun triggers or not at all, so you don’t have to worry about it. You’re not going to spend countless turns whittling away at libraries only to undo that work with Time Spiral. But your own library tends to whittle fast – more importantly once you get an Archive or Reflection into play alongside Arjun, you can easily get to the point where you lock yourself out of the game (you have 50 card in hand, Arjun triggers, says draw 50, but Reflection says “No, draw 100” and you’re like “Oops! I lose!”) – so having something like Time Spiral, Wheel of Fortune, etc is important to reset your handsize to prevent decking yourself. I just picked Time Spiral because getting my graveyard back was really important, too.
•  Leyline of Anticipation/Vedalken Orrery – What if you have more than one card in your hand that you really need to cast? Well, when you can cast everything at instant-speed, that’s a lot easier.

So basically, just get yourself an Arjun and the above 10 to 12 cards, and the rest of the deck can pretty much be whatever you want it to be – spells, artifacts, whatever.

Kalemne

Kalemne herself is pretty sweet. And this deck isn’t, strictly speaking, terrible at all. It’s just that every time I play it, I am reminded of my Aurelia deck which was basically a much better, much more focused version of this deck. The one big difference, of course, is Kalmne’s subtheme of Giants and/or 5+ CMC creatures. Giant tribal is cute and fun when it works, but it’s unreliable, easy to disrupt and not the most resilient of strategies. Still, it definitely has a lot more game in all those departments than Daxos. But really this deck’s biggest sin is being a worse version of a deck I already had “solved”.

Then again, that’s probably because I’m more interested in how damned good Kalmene is at wearing Equipment than just trying to pump up her Experience ability. A few Giants like Sunrise Sovereign are pretty great, but there aren’t really THAT many of them. The whole 5+ CMC thing really pushes you to do the exact opposite of what you should be doing if you are on the Equipment plan. That is, play small, cheap, disposable creatures who can come out quickly, suit up for a few attacks and not cost you a considerable mana investment when they die.

If you do want to focus a bit more on the 5-drop approach, I can tell you this much – Sunrise Sovereign, the two Titans and Gisela were all fantastic, and I’d keep them. Beyond that, almost everything else is either bad, or only situationally good – and by that I mean you are drawing a great mix of lands, mana rocks and threats, while your opponents are presenting almost no opposition or disruption. Magical Christmasland, in other words.

Some of the key 5+ drops I added to my build include:

• Battlegrace Angel – Seriously, one of my favorite follow-ups to Kalemne that isn’t an equipment card.
• Karmic Guide – Better late-game, obv, but it’s one of the best all-around five-drops in these colors.
• Stonehewer Giant – Kind of a gimme, really, but it hits all the right notes – it’s a giant, it costs 5 and it gets Equipment.
• Godo, Bandit Warlord – Costs six, but otherwise, see above.
• Malignus – Holy shit this thing is actually a real card in this deck. Seriously. Run it.
• Iroas – Okay, not a five-drop, but still really good!
• Aurelia – She my bae, so I’m biased, but effectively gives Kalmene “Quadruple Strike”.
• Emeria Shepherd – We already know this card is nuts.
• Urabrask, the Hidden – Just plain good.
• Wurmcoil Engine – Another generically-good staple; not essential, but miles better than some of the crap in the precon.

And of course some of the key equipment I used:

• Swords of Stuff and Junk – Big fat “Duh!”. Rafiq already proved to us that a doublestriking commander wielding a Sword of power and value is a thing of beauty and terror. Kalmne is, quite possibly the only commander in existence who is even better than Rafiq at wielding swords: she has Double Strike all the time, not just when attacking; and Vigilance is huge when it comes time to defend yourself.
• Jitte – Yawn, another obvious gimme. But like the Swords, if I didn’t mention it, I’d have people telling me I should have included them.
• Tenza, Godo’s Maul – Now that the really obvious stuff is out of the way, let me tell you about Tenzo. Well, really, any equipment that grants Trample is big game for Kalmene. Tenzo is just my favorite, but Loxodon Warhamer is also pretty damn sweet. I usually find Warhammer overrated but Kalemne just wants Trample that badly.
• Sword of the Animist – The more I play this in various decks the more I love it. It’s sometimes a little awkward or slow, but it really pays off big in the end.
• Hero’s Blade – I’m not actually running this, but it’s really neat and I wanted to.
• Sunforger – Oh, we’re back to the gimmes now? Right, well, there’s no more compelling reason to play Boros Equipment than the hammer of Thor.

For more budget options, I would definitely consider Infiltration Lens and Mask of Memory to be very playable options. Kalemne will get blocked. A lot. Especially once you get her leveled up a bit. Lens means you draw when she does get blocked. Mask will let you draw when she gets through. There’s also Rogue’s Gloves but they’re pretty garbage. I’d highly prefer the Mask.

Beyond the above considerations, I’d just say this: mana rocks and removal. That’s pretty much all you need. Beefing up the card draw capabilities is always welcome, of course. But mostly you just need a handful of bombs, a handful of equipment and lots and lots of mana to cast them. You want Kalemne to hit on T3 as often as possible, and you want to be able to follow her up with either a good 5 CMC creature or a strong Equip on T4 and swing. The rest of the game is basically the same – play a sizeable threat, equip it up, swing until dead. Repeat until you win. Stop only to answer things that get in the way of this plan.

So despite thematic differences and a horrible mana curve, it’s basic game plan is identical to my previous Boros decks. I just so happens that I like Aurelia (and playing with two-, three-, and four- drops more than I like playing with five-, six- and seven- drop) a lot better. But Kalemne herself is the real deal, very solid.

Ezuri

Ah, good ol’ Ezuri, doer of stupid things. I was pretty excited about this deck, and while it’s still probably my second-favorite of the five, it has some real issues that have greatly dampened my enthusiasm for it. I still plan to write a full article on this one, though, so I don’t want to spoil things too much. But suffice it to say, the whole “glass cannon” thing I complained about with Daxos is equally true here. It’s just better at hiding that fact and isn’t quite as likely to lose to its own draws – it’s in the two best colors for drawing cards and coming back from sweepers. But by his very nature, Ezuri’s deck is highly, HIGHLY dependant on him being in play. His abilities say “Just jam your deck full of 1/1’s and 2/2’s and don’t worry about it –when it comes time to win, I’ll take care of everything!” So winning with a bunch of tiny guys that got huge because of Ezuri is definitely a viable plan – if you can keep Ezuri around to do the buffing up. But if your opponents can keep Ezuri from sticking around it is VERY hard to win. And since Ezrui can’t put counters on himself, you have to find other ways of protecting a vanilla 3/3 dude.

I was once completely shut out of a game entirely by a stupid Firemane Avenger – a card that isn’t even really good in EDH. My opponent didn’t even need to attack me or kill anything else. All he had to do was swing at whoever was open and Helix my Ezuri. No deck should just roll over and die to Firemane Avenger! But this one did. But on the other hand, games where Ezuri doesn’t die? Those tend to go my way more often than not. He’s not nearly as linear as Kaalia and way more fun to play, but he’s still like her in that games tend to be fairly binary – were you able to keep Ezuri in play for a while? If so, you probably won, if not you almost certainly lost.

The real problem is finding a way to shore up this weakness and protect Ezuri without diluting the deck. You really NEED a critical mass of 1 and 2 power creatures to make him effective, but a lot of the better ways to keep him alive aren’t synergistic. Asceticism is great, and there are a handful of other things, but most of them don’t synergize well and you can’t really rely on drawing them every game unless you really load up heavily on them. Oh - I did try Kira, Great Glass-Spinner thinking I was a genius… until I had them both in play at the same time and realized I was actually a moron. Don’t run Kira, is what I’m saying.

Anyway, I’ll get more into the details when I eventually write up the full article, but for now I will just tell you, when the deck works it’s awesome, but games where Ezuri dies even two or three times tend to be miserable, boring slogs, and I haven’t managed to solve that problem yet. But, if it comes down to it, I will simply tell you what IS working in my build and let you sort out how to plug the leaks yourselves.

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Outside of the C15 decks, I have one other deck I’m eager to talk about. I’ve mentioned it here before, but never posted a list – Karametra. I had long been searching for a G/W commander to no avail when Karametra was spoiled. My gut instincts told me she was the one I had been waiting for – but my earliest attempts at the deck were not exciting. The deck had an amazing late game, but simply living long enough to get to the late game was a real issue and it turned out to be a wildly unreliable and inconsistent deck. But the very few games I had where it actually worked as intended were pretty awesome, so I rebuilt it from the ground up and really tried to make it work. It still took a lot more fine-tuning and going back to the drawing board than I’m used to – but in the end it was worth it. It is now one of my favorite decks currently in my roster, and one of my most reliable and consistent, too. Unlike my issues with Daxos and Ezuri, I was able to find ways to overcome the weaknesses and issues of the deck and whip it up into something I dearly love to play. So I’m hoping to write that list up pretty soon. After that, we’ll see what comes next.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Chocolate Cake Club

Author's note: This is my 299th post on this blog. I kinda wish I could have saved it for 300 but the timing didn't work out. Anyway, this is also very certainly going to be my most divisive, inflammatory and controversial post ever, probably by a very large margin. I may lose one or two of the, like, six people still reading this blog, and beyond that it'll languish in obscurity. Some part of me hope it blows up the internet, but mostly I hope no one at all reads it and I don't get flamed to death. But for better or worse I had little choice but to write these words, and only slightly more choice as to posting them. But frankly even if I get nothing but hate for this post, it is by far the thing I am most proud of and I feel it is the best thing I have written here. Even if you disagree in the strongest possible terms, I hope you can understand that.

Once upon a time a group of guys decided they really liked chocolate cake. They decided to put together an informal group, a sort of club, wherein they could make and eat chocolate cake, together. Over time they encountered more people who shared their love of chocolate cake and wanted to join their chocolate cake appreciation group. They were happy to share in their love of chocolate cake, so sure, why not, let anyone who likes chocolate cake join in the fun! But over time as the chocolate cake club grew, some people said “I like cake, but chocolate isn’t my favorite flavor… can I bring a vanilla cake to the next chocolate cake club?” The originators of the club were a little uneasy by this but they wanted to be inclusive rather than elitist, so they said “Sure, go ahead. We just don’t want to eat any of your vanilla cake, because we’re all about the chocolate, but to each his own.” Then someone else was like “I love chocolate, but cake is kinda boring to me. Can I bring a chocolate cream pie to the next meeting?” And again, they wanted to be inclusive, and at least this time it was still a chocolate-based desert. There were many debates among the founders of the chocolate cake club about how strictly they should define chocolate cake – for instances, was a chocolate pie closer to being chocolate cake than vanilla cake was? Or vice versa. They didn’t want to be so strict as to outright disallow all non-cake items AND all non-chocolate flavors… but should they stick to just cake, but allow more flavors? Or stick with chocolate but allow more types of dessert?

So, they came up with a compromise – if your favorite dessert was at least chocolate in flavor, OR a type of cake, you were allowed in, but if it was both non-chocolate, AND non-cake, you couldn’t join. So, no lemon meringue pie, for example – there was already a club for that anyway. But still, the club had grown so big and had so many people that even this was dissatisfactory to some. A few people who had joined the chocolate cake club willingly, but then after joining complained that they were diabetic and wanted the club to incorporate some diabetic-friendly options. The vegans joined and, of course, wanted vegan options. Those with celiac disease wanted gluten-free chocolate cake. One guy tried to SUE the chocolate cake club because he gained over 80 pounds while a member of the club! Fortunately the case was thrown out.

Point being the chocolate cake club was founded because of a handful of guys who just wanted to socialize while enjoying chocolate cake club. And while they tried their level best to make everyone who joined happy and to be as inclusive as possible, no matter what they did, there was always some segment of the membership who hated what the club had become. Eventually the club was barely recognizable – only a small percentage of its members were actually eating chocolate cake. To make matters worse there were even some people who willing joined the chocolate cake club, only to ridicule other members for eating chocolate cake and not some other more advanced type of cake.

So, we’ve got the chocolate cake club, with only the original members and a fraction of those who joined later eating chocolate cake. We’ve got people eating all manner of other desserts, but insisting that they belong in the chocolate cake club because their strawberry cake is just a better version of chocolate cake. We’ve got people ridiculing the founders because they can’t bring their CHICKEN POT PIE to chocolate cake club – “It’s a PIE!” – and when you explain to them that chicken pot pie isn’t even a dessert, and that there’s actually already a club called the “CHICKEN POT PIE CLUB”, they get all whiny and say “But I want to join THIS club, I want to be part of the chocolate cake club!”, so they are grudgingly let in the door, but then complain that no one in the chocolate cake club wants to eat their chicken pot pie!

So, to sum up, there are people who, inexplicably and against all reason, want to join a club that has the words “chocolate” and “cake” in it even though these people clearly don’t want to have anything in the slightest to do with actual chocolate cake. Why would you want to join the chocolate cake club if you dislike chocolate? Why would you join if you already have a weight problem? Why would you join if you think chocolate cake is the most pedestrian of all desserts and anyone who eats chocolate cake is a simple-minded buffoon who doesn’t know what real cake is? Why would you join a chocolate cake club and insist that the club be made to revolve around vanilla cake instead?

Why would you join the chocolate cake club for ANY reason other than that you really like chocolate cake and want to eat it in a group with others who like chocolate cake?

I believe this little story illustrates perfectly the problems the EDH/Commander format faces today. But, there is one really huge logical flaw in this analogy, which I wrote it into the story on purpose – the name. If you’re at all clever, that should be the first thing you latched onto – “Well, sure, but the name “Elder Dragon Highlander” isn’t really informative at all, beyond the word “highlander” implying a singleton format – and the new official name “commander” is only descriptive in that the deck has a commander – so basically if you’re going by the name, any deck that is A) singleton and B) has a commander is basically chocolate cake, right?” And to an extent this is correct – calling your club the chocolate cake club is short enough and concise enough to get pretty much the full message across. It would be impossible to convey ALL of the rules and intent of the format into a simple, concise name. “Hundred card singleton format with a commander, a commander tax, and some color identity rules” is about the shortest you can make it and that just doesn’t roll off the tongue, now does it?

So the name doesn’t convey everything the way the name “chocolate cake club” does. But surely the RULES of the format do, right? Well, to an extent, sure. But remember, the chocolate cake club founders didn’t want to explicitly ban everything that was not both chocolate AND cake. They didn’t want to spell out the exact recipe one should use to make said chocolate cake, either. They wanted to make chocolate cake club as inclusive as possible without completely eradicating the core purposes of “chocolate” and “cake”. So they adopted a more lenient approach – let people diverge from the chocolate cake core quite a bit, but not too far – but leave the chocolate cake name intact to continue to promote and remind people that, while they will ALLOW something like, say, brownies, and they won’t kick you out of the club for bringing brownies, they aren’t exactly fitting with the spirit on which this club was founded.

They hoped people would respect the clear, stated intentions of the club without them having to enforce them via policy and rules. But the people who joined chocolate club were not interested in observing things like “spirit” or “intent” –  “If you INTEND this club to be about chocolate cake, but don’t explicitly ban vanilla, then screw your intent, I’m bringing goddamned vanilla!” And if you DARE to say “No I don’t want to eat any of your vanilla cake, I came to this club for CHOCOLATE cake” you are derided as being elitist and exclusionary. And heaven forbid you shoot a sidelong glance of irritation at the guy chowing down on his chicken pot pie over in the corner – “I disagree with your definition of what chocolate cake club IS, and it is my opinion that chicken pot pie is close enough to chocolate cake that I should be allowed in this club and this club should accept my opinion no matter what evidence to the contrary is put forth!”

Simply put, EDH or Commander, regardless of the name you chose to call it was created by a group with a very specific vision and a very specific intent. But EDH is NOT a format that can be everything to everyone – that was not part of their intent at any point. They wanted it to be bigger than themselves and their singular vision, but in giving people the leeway to make it less about “chocolate cake” and more about whatever other “dessert” they happened to like, the chocolate cake club is, in essence no longer the chocolate cake club. It is now more of a “I guess bring whatever the fuck dessert you feel like bringing, but if you INSIST that it’s chocolate cake even when it’s clearly a peanut butter cookie, we’ll let you in Club”. EDH is no longer EDH. It is not the format the creators envisioned, it is a thousand-headed hydra created by a combination of the RC’s unwillingness to cut off some of those heads for the sake of their own vision, mixed with the overblown sense of entitlement that is a scourge upon many aspects of our culture as a whole, but which tends to pervade the Magic community incessantly.

I want to play EDH. And I define EDH not JUST by the explicitly spelled-out rules listed on the commander.net website, but ALSO by the clear INTENT by with the RC has attempted to govern the format. When something like playing Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth in a mono-White is TECHNICALLY legal but CLEARLY it goes against everything the founders of the format INTENDED for it, then I’m not going to play Urborg in my White deck. And frankly, if you are doing so you are not playing EDH. You are playing “Hundred card singleton format with a commander, a commander tax, and some color identity rules” which is NOT the same thing. You are eating vanilla cake or chocolate pie but trying to tell me it’s chocolate cake. I want to eat CHOCOLATE. CAKE. Not whatever dessert you brought.

This is basically a complete reversal of what I previously THOUGHT I believed. I’m generally in favor of inclusion – it’s a word with positive connotations, while exclusion is very negative. But those moral values are not inherent in the words themselves – excluding someone from the format because, say, they’re black? Or female? Those are clearly such wrong-headed, immoral acts that their taint carries over to the point where excluding anyone for almost any reason feels dirty. But what if someone said they wanted to play their 50-card tiny leaders deck in a Commander game? What if they just wanted to run Fable of Wolf and Owl in their mono-Green deck? Well, those examples are clearly against the rules, very explicitly, so we wouldn’t allow that, and likely no one would consider us to be elitist or exclusionary for disallowing those actions. So we have here clear, undeniable proof that we are all comfortable with enforcing the rules of the format, but for some reason, we are nowhere near as comfortable enforcing the RC’s vision or their intent or the “spirit” of the rules.

So, it’s indisputable you can’t play Fable of Wolf and Owl in an Omnath, Locus of Mana deck, and no one seems uncomfortable with that fact – well, not the enforcing of it, anyway. Plenty of people disagree with the RC’s current stance on Hybrid cards, but even they don’t dispute that enforcing the rules even if you disagree with them if perfectly fair and indeed even expected. But, if you want to play Wooded Foothills and Windswept Heath in your Omnath, Locus of Mana deck, that is clearly and indisputably LEGAL per the exact letter of the rules, but it is also clearly and indisputably something the RC does not endorse, so doing so is in effect exploiting a loophole in the rules that the RC is unwilling to close because they value OTHER things more than they value closing this loophole. Fair enough – it’s good that the RC has priorities and is able to say “Okay we don’t LIKE this thing, but the work it would take to fix it and the various downsides of doing so suck even more than this thing, so we’re just going to have to live with it”.

But there again is the problem – you give people an inch, they want a whole foot. You give them a foot and they demand a yard. And so on and so on. While the RULES are being largely upheld, the INTENT and SPIRIT that was supposed to be a guiding principal rather than an ironclad rule has been all but eradicated. It’s just like Wall Street and the banks – if it is TECHNICALLY legal, if they can do it and not be punished for doing it, and it makes them money, then they don’t care one whit about the spirit of the law or any moral question. They don’t care if it will send the economy of the whole country into recession, or put hundreds of thousands of people out of jobs – if it’s good for their bottom line and it is, technically, legal per the LETTER of the law, that is ALL they care about. And that is very similar to the state of the format today.

Sheldon Menery, the other members of the RC and those of us who are still in the chocolate cake club because we like CHOCOLATE CAKE can talk all we want about what the format SHOULD be, but as long as the rules allow people to completely ignore the SPIRIT or the INTENT if they want, they WILL do so.  We have reached the critical turning point – either the RC starts enforcing their vision a little more strictly, or the format will no longer be the format they created at all. “The spirit of the format” is a phrase that no longer has any meaning whatsoever to the majority of those playing EDH, and no amount of proselytizing on our part will change their minds. It is time to kick all the other flavors and all the other dessert types out of the chocolate cake club and tell everyone else to either start eating chocolate cake or GTFO – OR, we can take the exact opposite approach and stop pretending that this is still the chocolate cake club and start calling it the “Generic whatever dessert club” and the founders and those of us chocolate cake fans can let them have the club while we all go start a new club that is, once again, back to its roots of being about chocolate cake.

So there it is. If you want to eat vanilla cake, you should be allowed to do so, but you shouldn’t be in chocolate cake club doing it. Go start up a vanilla cake club. If you want to eat chicken pot pie, you should be allowed to do so – but don’t get mad when I, a fan of chocolate cake, don’t want to eat your nasty chicken pot pie with you. If you want to eat chocolate cake, but want a sugar-free option? Okay, sure, you should be allowed in chocolate cake club – sugar-free chocolate cake is disgusting to ME, but it is undeniably still chocolate cake! So there is clearly room for different people with different tastes, and chocolate cake club should be as inclusive as possible, but it should still be ABOUT chocolate cake at the end of the day. If you aren’t interested in chocolate cake, don’t join the club called chocolate cake club and then try to change it to be about whatever you like better than chocolate cake. It’s not that I don’t like the PEOPLE that want to eat vanilla cake. I don’t have anything against vanilla cake fans. I just don’t like vanilla cake itself and I don’t want to eat it with you.

But until the RC stops saying “we’re really more into chocolate, but vanilla is fine too”, and starts saying “no more vanilla cake allowed” I’m going to continue to be served the occasional slice of vanilla cake anyway, and worse, I will be subjected to harsh ridicule and called names when I say I don’t like vanilla cake and would rather not eat it. I will be labeled an asshole for simply wanting my chocolate cake to be actual chocolate cake. I will be forced to endure people telling me their recipe for chocolate cake is far, far superior to my amateur chocolate cake recipe (only to be handed a recipe for pumpkin pie when I ask what they put in their chocolate cake).


Or we can do what we’re doing right now and have a million little individual micro-clubs – chocolate cake clubs, vanilla cake clubs, brownie clubs, peanut butter cookie clubs, tiramisu clubs, etc. all doing their own individual, different things, but somehow all of us PRETENDING that all these different clubs are have equal, legitimate claim to the “chocolate cake club” title, and acting all offended when someone says we aren’t chocolate-cake-y enough because the rules don’t explicitly say we have to bring chocolate cake to the chocolate cake meeting. We can completely and utterly do away with anything to do with “spirit” and “intent” beyond what the actual rules state, rebrand the club as “generic dessert club” and all just agree that anything that isn’t explicitly spelled out in concrete rules is fine, and if the RC wants their “vision” to match reality, then they better start writing some rules to enforce it.

There is just too much bickering and arguing over what should be acceptable in the chocolate cake club these days - but the answer is clear: either make it so only chocolate cake is allowed in chocolate cake club, OR make everything allowed but stop pretending it's still the fucking chocolate cake club!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Thaumaturge's Guide to Plundering them Graves

As I talked about in my previous post, I am trying a new approach to these Commander deck write-ups. The end result is still going to be much the same, I believe, as the basic goal of these articles is to provide you with some suggestions and inspiration on fixing up the pre-constructed decks into actual, real decks you would want to play “out in the wild” so to speak. But in the past, I wrote these articles almost entirely based on “theorycraft”; often I would have the articles 90% complete before the decks even went on sale. But for reasons I discussed in that prior post, I don’t want to do it that way for the time being. Starting with this article, today, my suggestions and ideas for deck improvement will come largely from my actual gameplay experiences. Of course I still want to provide as many suggestions as I can, so I will still throw out a few cards that I might have wanted to try but didn’t have room for, etc.  And if the situation warrants I will suggest, in broad strokes, other thematic or mechanical direction one might take to differentiate their build from my own.

Sometimes, a commander strongly suggests a clear line of play that leads to some pretty concrete deck building choices. Other commanders, though, lend themselves to a variety of strategies and could feasibly allow for more variance. So, my goal is not necessarily to provide a definitive or authoritative commentary on what you SHOULD be doing with the deck, but simply to provide a helpful voice to suggest what you COULD do. To put it simply, I want to ensure that the bulk of my input on these decks is battle-tested and proven (with the obvious caveat that what works in my metagame may not work in yours, but I am working off the assumption that my meta is similar in power level to the average EDH playgroup/meta).

Anyway, today we’re looking at “Plunder the Graves”, the Golgari deck led by Meren of Clan Nel Toth. Circumstance has forced my hand, in that this is the first deck that I have managed to fine-tune to my own personal standards, but I will admit to a bias in that this deck was probably going to be the first one I dug into regardless of circumstance, because it was the one I was most hyped for, by far, even before I got a chance to play it. Meren has not only lived up to that hype, but surpassed it, even. It has turned out to be quite powerful, but even when it doesn’t win it’s incredibly fun to play. It always feels powerful and rarely do I ever feel helpless or defenseless playing it. But more than that, I love grindy value-engines and synergy-driven strategies, and that’s pretty much what a Meren deck does.

But before we get too deep into the analysis, let’s see the out-of-the-box list we’re starting with:

Creature
Meren of Clan Nel Toth
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Satyr Wayfinder
Viridian Emissary
Wall of Blossoms
Viridian Zealot
Korozda Guildmage
Lotleth Troll
Blood Bairn
Phyrexian Rager
Wood Elves
Eternal Witness
Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord
Shriekmaw
Indrik Stomphowler
Kessig Cagebreakers
Phyrexian Plaguelord
Acidic Slime
Mycoloth
Vulturous Zombie
Champion of Stray Souls
Extractor Demon
Cloudthresher
Butcher of Malakir
Eater of Hope
Terastodon
Verdant Force
Skullwinder
Corpse Augur
Centaur Vinecrasher
Bloodspore Thrinax
Banshee of the Dread Choir
Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest
Great Oak Guardian
Thief of Blood
Pathbreaker Ibex
Scourge of Nel Toth
Caller of the Pack

Sorcery
Mulch
Victimize
Primal Growth
Ambition's Cost
Sever the Bloodline
Barter in Blood
Rise from the Grave
Spider Spawning
Overwhelming Stampede
Dread Summons

Instant
Altar's Reap
Tribute to the Wild
Golgari Charm
Grisly Salvage
Putrefy
Wretched Confluence

Artifact
Skullclamp
Sol Ring
Golgari Signet
Lightning Greaves
Bonehoard
Eldrazi Monument
Thought Vessel

Enchantment
Diabolic Servitude

Land
Command Tower
Evolving Wilds
Golgari Guildgate
Golgari Rot Farm
Grim Backwoods
High Market
Jungle Hollow
Polluted Mire
Slippery Karst
Tainted Wood
Terramorphic Expanse
Vivid Grove
Vivid Marsh
13 Swamp
12 Forest

I actually enjoyed playing the unaltered version of this deck more than I usually do with these preconstructed decks. It’s up there with the Teferi deck from last year for being both fun, well-designed and sort of close to the power level I’m accustomed to with my own decks. It still has a lot of questionable card choices and ample room for improvement, of course, but it’s above average for the product. Let’s break it down.

Looking at Meren herself, it’s clear what she wants to happen: she wants creatures we control to die so she can gain experience, and she wants creatures in our graveyard so she can return them. This informs further deck construction goals – clearly we want a high creature count, we want ways to kill or sacrifice our creatures, and we want creatures with ETBF triggers or death triggers so we can turn all this death and resurrection into something resembling a proactive game plan. For me, one of the very first cards that sprang to mind when I read Meren’s text for the first time was Fleshbag Marauder, and that’s still a very good example of what we want to be doing. He can answer, usually, multiple creatures at once, so he’s card advantage, but he also contributes directly to Meren’s experience-gaining ability by making you sac a creature too (usually you just sac Fleshbag himself so you can recur him over and over). Other great low-end creatures that I just LOVE to see in my opening hand include Sakura-Tribe Elder or Viscera Seer. Neither of those does a tremendous amount of work on their own, but in concert with Meren they are potentially explosive value engines.

My approach to Meren was a sort of STAX-lite/reanimator hybrid. I don’t really have a lot of huge bombs to reanimate, instead focusing on smaller, cheaper creatures with ETBF effects that I can just grind value out of over the course of several turns, while hopefully being able to answer most anything that really threatens me. One could certainly play up either angle a bit more strongly, but it could be tricky pushing the reanimator thing too hard – you need plenty of cheap fodder to die before Meren can start resurrecting the really big guns.

But one of the cool things about Meren is that you don’t need all that many big creatures, just a few will do, since she can just bring them back should they die. Exile effects are a bit of a nuisance, but one of the other things a Meren deck strongly encourages is running plenty of sacrifice outlets, so if your opponents do start trying to hit you with exile effects like Swords or Path, you should typically be able to just sac in response.

So, in addition to the three basic things almost all EDH decks require (Ramp, Draw, Removal), we know our recipe is going to call for fodder to level up Meren, creatures that are worth bringing back from the grave again and again, ways to sacrifice that fodder for more value, and things that trigger off all those creatures dying. Fortunately I have some prior experience with this type of deck. A Meren deck is really not all that different from a Savra deck in the types of cards it wants to play, but at the same time Meren is still a bit more dissimilar than I expected in that it prioritizes what it wants very differently. For instance, creatures like Deranged Hermit, Creakwood Liege or Abhorrent Overlord – those “army in a can” creatures – were very highly desired in Savra but in Meren they are good but not so much that you want to just jam as many of those as possible. It’s worth having a few sprinkled throughout the list, but there are other things we want to prioritize higher.

Another decision point to consider is how much we want to rely on artificially stocking the graveyard. I’m talking about things like Buried Alive, Jarad’s Orders or Survival of the Fittest. In my opinion, the answer is “a little bit, but don’t overdo it.” A handful of these effects can be useful to get the ball rolling if you don’t start out with a cheap sac-able guy like STE or Viscera Seer, or let you dig up some sort of finisher if the game has progressed to that point. But it’s better if creatures are going to the graveyard from play – casting Buried Alive doesn’t level up Meren, and returning creatures to play is, generally, much better than returning them to our hand. But, one cool feature of having Meren in play – any creature is a Squee Goblin Nabob for purposes of exploiting the crap out of Survival of the Fittest. If you have something that costs more than what Meren can reanimate, you can just pitch it to Survival then get it back into your hand EOT. For the most part, I found all those “Mulch” effects to be clunky, unreliable and awkward. I was almost never happy drawing them, but the one exception was Satyr Wayfinder, simply for being a cheap, reusable creature. I quickly cut all the spell-based Mulch effects and never looked back.

The deck already comes with a Butch of Malakir; obviously we want an actual Grave Pact and probably a Dictate of Erebos as well. We might as well make this deck as hostile to creatures as possible.

When putting my own list together, I tried to look for overlapping synergies as much as possible. We know we want sacrificial fodder, death triggers and some “army in a can” creatures, right? Take a look at Pawn of Ulamog, then – he has a death trigger, which in turn makes tokens, and those tokens can sac themselves, so Pawn is a card that checks of multiple boxes on our to-do list. I also like to find creatures with Echo or Evoke or some other sacrificial mechanic… exploit is another one.

As for sac outlets, I definitely like those that are both free and repeatable. Being able to just sac your whole team in response to a Final Judgement could easily mean the difference between getting blown out and just shrugging it off. Also, dumping your whole board into the ‘yard right before you cast your own Living Death is pretty good, too. But one of my main go-to sac outlets is Greater Good and I’m not sure that works all that well here. Too many of our creatures are small enough that we’ll often be breaking even AT BEST, and actually netting negative cards far too often. Most of my free sac outlets are on creatures – Dimir House Guard, Viscera Seer. That kind of thing. But I also like to find cute ones like Birthing Pod or, one of my absolute favorites, Helm of Possession. Evolutionary Leap is another great one – repeatable, and while it does cost mana to use, it’s cheap enough you can usually cash in MOST of your creatures even if not every single one. Vampiric Rites is a little more awkward but still fairly cheap to use. I considered Spawning Pit, as it was pretty good in my Savra deck, and while I ultimately decided it wouldn’t be quite as useful here, it is another example of the kind of thing I’m talking about. In short you want your sac outlets to provide value from creatures that were going to die anyway, protect them from exile effects, and just help you ensure Meren can build up those experience counters.

Now that we have an idea of the kind of things we want, a list of ingredients, we have to figure out the right amounts of all those different things. That’s one reason why, as I mentioned above, finding cards that fulfill multiple roles within the deck are key, as they allow us to fit everything we want into the deck while still having room for the bare necessities like lands, ramp and basic utility spells. You can certainly try to rely solely on creature-based answers but I feel like it is too big a risk not to allow ourselves access to some instant-speed removal and some board wipes like Damnation. I have become increasingly more driven by theme over the years, but one of my mantras has long been “do not be a slave to your theme”. Decks that are nothing but a pile of good stuff aren’t that exciting or interesting to me, but decks that utterly forego any generically good spells at all are often much worse decks than they could be if they did not adhere quite so strictly to thematic limitations.

I guess at this point I should just share with you my current Meren list as it stands now, and then I can talk more specifically about my own choices, as well as what I might change or what I think you might be able to do differently. I still feel like my list is missing quite a few things, but so far it has just been running so well I am not too motivated to mess with it. After running down the list, I’ll mention some of those cards that I feel probably should be included somewhere.

Creatures

Meren of Clan Nel Toth

Viscera Seer
Blood Artist
Grim Haruspex
Fleshbag Marauder
Merciless Executioner
Pawn of Ulmaog
Liliana, Heretical Healer
Dimir House Guard
Disciple of Bolas
Smothering Abomination
Bloodline Keeper
Shriekmaw
Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder
Puppeteer Clique
Phyrexian Plaguelord
Sidisi, Undead Vizier
Soul of Innistrad
Grave Titan
Massacre Wurm
Butcher of Malakir
Overseer of the Damned
Viridian Emissary
Satyr Wayfinder
Wall of Blossoms
Fauna Shaman
Viridian Zealot
Farhaven Elf
Wood Elves
Yavimaya Elder
Eternal Witness
Acidic Slime
Hornet Queen
Woodfall Primus
Catacomb Sifter
Creakwood Liege
Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest

Spells

Vampiric Rites
Diabolic Intent
Shadows of the Past
Buried Alive
Victimize
Barter in Blood
Dread Return
Damnation
Grave Pact
Living Death
Dictate of Erebos
Evolutionary Leap
Survival of the Fittest
Beast Within
Awakening Zone
Birthing Pod
Putrefy
Sol Ring
Skullclamp
Thought Vessel
Lightning Greaves
Golgari Signet
Mimic Vat
Helm of Possession

Lands

Command Tower
Reflecting Pool
Bayou
Overgrown Tomb
Twilight Mire
Woodland Cemetery
Temple of Malady
Llanowar Wastes
Golgari Rot Farm
Golgari Guildgate
Jungle Hollow
Tainted Wood
Volrath’s Stronghold
Phyrexian Tower
Grim Backwoods
High Market
Temple of the False God
Evolving Wilds
Terramporphic Expanse
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Bojuka Bog
Barren Moor
Tranquil Thicket
8x Swamp
7x Forest

I guess I’ll start off with the easiest section, the lands. Obviously, I threw in pretty much all of the relevant duals. Some EDH players turn their noses up at stuff like Jungle Hollow or the Guildgate. In some decks those ETBF-tapped lands can cost you critical tempo, but that hasn’t been a problem for me with this deck. I also upgraded the cycling lands from the Urza’s Saga versions to the Onslaught versions. Cycling for one colored mana is just plain better, IMO, than two colorless. I added in an Urborg, mostly just because I could, but it’s not necessary by any means. I don’t have Coffers, but I am planning to add Sheoldred at some point so she could be a justification for it later. Bojuka Bog is one of those cards we really don’t want to see our opponents playing, but it’s a pretty good precursor to a Living Death.

The heavy hitters in this department are Volrath’s Stronghold and Phyrexian Tower. Tower is a great sac outlet that happens to provide a small mana bump. Stronghold, of course, is a generically great card that happens to fit our theme and is a sort of back-up plan for Meren should we find ourselves unable to keep her around long enough to rely on her. I also like it as way to fight against opposing graveyard hate. Someone trys to Bog us, we can at least save the most important thing in the ‘yard.

About the only thing missing is the fetch, Verdant Catacombs. Other than that I don’t have any real quibbles with the mana base. I can see an argument for just replacing the Guildgate and Hollow with basics, but like I said, they’ve been fine for me so far.

Moving on to the creature selection, right off the bat we have Viscera Seer. The Seer has actually proven to be far more valuable than I anticipated even as I was slotting him in. I have been very impressed with him overall, but he’s one of my favorite cards to see in my opening hand.

Blood Artist is pretty obvious, I think. I’d like to include more of these effects – right now I have Artist and Massacre Wurm but I could see adding Zulaport Cutthroat and/or Falkenrath Noble. In fact, I’ll go ahead and take this opportunity to talk about this deck’s end-game. What are our win conditions? Well, I’ll be frank – my primary win-con seems to be the good ol’ frustration-scoop. Usually you don’t really need take your opponents all the way to zero. You can just grind them out over time, and once you get to the point where you have a board and they don’t, you have a hand and they don’t, etc., most people tend to just give up at that point.

Sometimes you get that optimist that thinks he can top-deck out of it, though, and honestly sometimes he might do just that! Well, life-loss effects like Blood Artist can get there, especially when you can just keep bringing Blood Artist back no matter how many times they kill it. This is a lot less reliable unless you really do load up on multiple sources of the effect. Kokusho is probably the big one you want, but Grey Merchant of Asphodel is potentially another really strong option.

Just beating down with your mid- and large-sized creatures like Butcher of Malakir or Woodfall Primus is actually perfectly respectable here, too. By the time you have those heavy hitters out, you really should not be having any trouble keeping opposing threats off the table. I’ve seen this deck get there with a flipped Bloodline Keeper and a few vampire tokens, even. There’s also Mazirek who can quickly turn your small fry utility guys into serious threats pretty easily. I actually cut all those cards like Overwhelming Stampede and Pathbreaker Ibex. They’re perfectly fine, but they didn’t really do much besides occasionally win the game (usually in a very “win-more” fashion, as the times those spells are good is when you are already in a strong position).  But Mazirek is pretty legit, so he stays.

There’s always the option of just stealing your opponents’ threats and winning with those. Puppeteer Clique and Helm of Possession fill this role nicely. I actually believe I can technically go infinite with Puppeteer Clique, Mazirek and a free sac outlet like Dimir House Guard, but that is limited by the number of creatures in my opponents’ graveyards. So far I have never really even come close to pulling this off, but if I do at some point, I will potentially need to make a choice here. If you really wanted to go this route, add something like Altar of Dimentia – that way you can simultaneously mill them out while continuing to fill their ‘yards with more things for Clique to target.

But most of my wins that aren’t just frustration scoops come from Living Death. I also want to try and fit Rise of the Dark Realms in at some point, too. But, yeah, LD tends to be game over most of the time.

Right, so, back to the creatures…

I’ve got Fleshbag and Executioner both. It’s an important effect and one I want to try and draw as often as possible, but I left out Slum Reaper because that one costs a little bit more and I didn’t want to be drawing nothing but Fleshbags all the time.

We have card draw in the form of Grim Haruspex, Disciple of Bolas and Smothering Abomination, all of which hit those synergy notes quite nicely. For tutoring, we have Sidisi and Fauna Shaman. Dimir House Guard can be either a sac outlet or a tutor (or both if you Transmute him first, then put him into play with Meren).

Our “army in a can” package includes Hornet Queen, Grave Titan, Bloodline Keeper,  Creakwood Liege and Endrek Sahr. Grave Titan is a bit generic and could be virtually any large, efficiently-costed creature, but I find the tokens useful as fodder. Sahr and Bloodline Keeper are kinda pet cards and hold-overs from the old Savra list. Both have been adequate but could be replaced with similar things. Hornet Queen, however, is definitely something I consider pretty essential. It’s very easy to just build up a wall of hornets that are very hard to attack through. She’s just really good at slowing down aggression and buying you time to get those grindy value engines rolling.

We’ve also got Pawn of Ulamog and Awakening Zone, though they aren’t that great at producing “armies” as the 0/1’s they make don’t typically attack well. But they do provide abundant death triggers and extra mana, both of which are highly useful. I’ve used both cards elsewhere but this is the deck where they have really performed quite well for me. Highly recommend these.

Shriekmaw is a pretty obvious pick. I also like Bone Shredder, but with all the Fleshbags and other removal it didn’t quite make the cut. On the top end, Overseer of the Damned has been pretty steller for me. It’s removal on a stick, and also a way to churn out zombie tokens, so it’s one of those cards that plays multiple roles, like I keep talking about. Green gives us ways to deal with non-creatures via Acidic Slime, Viridian Zealot and the mighty Woodfall Primus. Primus combos with Mazirek the same way Clique does… but as I said I have yet to actually assemble this little combo. I feel like I should really have a Reclamation Sage in here too, but as I said earlier I don’t want to rely solely on creature-based utility so having a few instants like Putrefy or Beast Within, I think, is a necessity.

For ramp, we have the obvious suspects in Wood Elves and Farhaven Elf, but the true stars here are Sakura Tribe Elder and Yavimaya Elder. Their self-sacrifice abilities make them very easy to abuse. STE is probably my second-favorite card to have in my opening 7, next to Viscera Seer. Sometimes he’s even better than the Seer.

For some extra recursion, we have the obvious format staple, Eternal Witness. Yawn, I know, but she’s amazing and particularly strong here. One of the very first games I played, even before I made a single change, I won off the back of an Eternal Witness + Barter in Blood recursion loop. My opponent was basically never going to have creatures again. I also cut the terrible Champion of Stray Souls in favor of another six-mana, black Mythic: Soul of Innistrad. I’ve tried out Soul in a few places but it’s been “meh” for the most part. In this deck, though, it’s been pretty darn good.

One thing I avoided due to social reasons was including any of the admittedly-on-them discard stuff like Sadistic Hypnotist, Mindslicer or Mind Slash. Mind Slash isn’t that mean, but the other two are pretty intense for some groups. The Hypontist can pretty easily strip everyone’s hand but yours, while Mindslicer is far less symmetrical in this deck than it typically is, since all those cards you dump can just further fuel Meren’s shenanigans. If I felt the need to beef up my list’s competitiveness, I’d definitely be looking to add some of these potent discard options, but thankfully the deck has been functioning quite well without resorting to such tactics.

A quick note on Wall of Blossoms – at one point I actually had cut this for something, I don’t remember what, but I eventually found room to put it back in, because it was honestly better than I expected. I have also given very strong consideration to including Wall of Roots. Wall of Roots is not something I’d typically consider to be worthwhile EDH material, but the more I play this deck the more it seems like it could really do some work here.

The last few creatures to talk about are Phyrexian Plaguelord, Catcomb Sifter and Liliana, Heretical Healer. Lili is basically a “good stuff” card, but she fits the theme and is extremely easy to flip in this deck. She’s a good fit, and a solid role-player but not something I’d consider essential. Catacomb Sifter should be pretty obvious too. That one Scion token isn’t a huge draw, but it’s still a pretty nifty bonus to what is already a great creature at 3 mana. Those “whenever a creature dies, Scry 1” effects actually come in very, very handy. So much so that I’ve tried to fit Reaper of the Wilds in here as well, but can’t quite seem to make room for her. And of course Plaguelord is decent removal combined with a free sac outlet (cross-synergy!). He’s actually been, surprisingly, an underachiever in this deck. I feel like he should be quite good, and maybe it’s just bad luck, but I frequently find that I either have plenty of removal already and he’s redundant, or I simply don’t have enough sacrificial fodder to kill things reliably. Cutting back on the “army in a can” cards has weakened his position somewhat.

So those are the creatures that have made the cut, but what wound up on the chopping block? Well, as you can tell, I pretty thoroughly gutted the original list’s creature base, in favor of more power, more synergy and more redundancy of the most important effects. I even cut some pretty good cards like Jarad and Scourge of Nel Toth. Those were fine cards, but didn’t really synergize as well as you’d think. I never had anything huge enough to make Jarad super threatening and the Scourge was always more exciting while it was in my graveyard – once it was in play it was just a generic beater. I believe I replaced it with the almost-as-generic Grave Titan, but I still think the Titan plays better in a higher number of situations.

As for cards I wanted to add, but didn’t find room for, there are quite a number of those. I’ve already mentioned a few, but one of the most glaring omissions, in my opinion is Sheoldred. It was honestly just an oversight on my part that she didn’t make it in sooner, but once I realized I’d forgotten her, the deck was in pretty sweet spot already and figuring out what I might cut for her has been tough. The second thing that jumps to my mind as a huge, HUGE omission is Duplicant. It’s very rare for me to build a deck without Duplicant to begin with, but in a deck that can so easily recur it again and again, I definitely feel like I have made a mistake in leaving it out. But again, the problem is figuring out what does NOT belong in my list. Sepulchral Primordial is big, stupid and obvious… but it would nonetheless clearly be amazing here. I already mentioned Kokusho as a powerful win-con, and he’s definitely one of my top contenders for inclusion down the road. And, lastly, I think Mikaeus the Unhallowed is another one of those obviously-great cards that I just somehow failed to find room for.

Oh, I have also considered trying to fit in some kind of Necrotic Ooze tricks for use alongside Buried Alive/Survival, but everything I think of along these lines is either an infinite combo, which I want to avoid, or just a slower, grindier value engine like the ones the deck is already very capable of. Abhorrent Overlord was an all-star in my Savra deck, but I initially passed on it this time, and so far I think that’s been the correct decision. Obviously stuff like Grave Pact is good for our Devotion count, but MOST games, I rarely see my devotion to black hit those higher numbers, and if it does hit them it probably means I’m winning pretty decisively already. Avenger of Zendikar and Soul of the Harvest are a couple of other cards that made the cut in Savra but not in Meren. Both would be perfectly fine to have, but I have not felt like I’m missing out by skipping either of them.

Our last batch of cards to go over is the non-creature spells. Our Artifact suite is pretty standard stuff – a few mana rocks, Greaves, and of course the ridiculously powerful Skullclamp. Clamp is no secret tech – it’s amazing in a wide variety of decks, and already a staple. But it’s particularly welcome here, where stuff dying is already of benefit, before we even get to the drawing two cards part. One creature I really love to pair with Skullclamp in a deck like this one is Bloodghast to create a great little draw engine. Bloodghast also happens to work pretty well with Evolutionary Leap and Vampiric Rites, but we’ll get to those in just a bit. So, Bloodghast is just another creature I probably should be running but somehow managed to overlook initially.

I mentioned previously that this isn’t really the ideal deck for Greater Good, normally one of my all-time favorite cards. Instead I’ve gone for stuff like Evolutionary Leap. I’m running that one, plus Vampiric Rites, Shadows of the Past, Survival of the Fittest, and Birthing Pod as sac outlets that double as card advantage or card selection engines. Running all of those together is possibly overkill and Vampiric Rites in particular has been running slightly below my expectations, but it is usually pretty critical that I have a sacrifice outlet in play. As I said, I like to have free ones like Dimir House Guard so I don’t have to worry about leaving a bunch of mana open (for something like Evolutionary Leap), but the better effects, like “Draw a card” usually have a mana cost tacked on. The other benefit is that a lot of these enchantments are pretty cheap, usually around two mana to cast. Birthing Pod, like Skullclamp, is a very well-known card anyway, so I probably don’t need to explain its inclusion here.

Other sacrificial cards I chose include Diabolic Intent (strictly worse than Demonic Tutor, yes, but in this deck sacrificing a creature is negligible as a downside, and can often actually be an upside in fact), Victimize (one of the holdovers from the original deck, and a damn good reanimation spell), Dread Return (another fantastic reanimation spell for a deck that actually wants to sacrifice things), and one of my pet cards, Helm of Possession (one of the decks win-cons, or at least a way for me to “borrow” someone else’s win-con).

In the removal package, we have Barter In Blood (this is in the stock list, but I keep seeing people cut this! WHY? This is seriously one of the best cards in the deck), Putrefy (generic, yes, but flexible and instant speed), Beast Within (same as Putrefy: flexible, instant, but as a bonus can also deal with planeswalkers), Damnation (left it out originally, but having this as a Transmute target for Dimir House Guard is pretty essential it turns out), and then of course we have Grave Pact and Dictate of Erebos. Running those here is about as “creative” as putting Doubling Season in a Ghave deck, but sometimes even the mind-numbingly obvious choices are still the correct choices. I appreciate originality and outside-the-box deckbuilding, but hey, when a card works, it works. Simple as that.

For ramp, I rely almost entirely on creature-based ramp like Yavimaya Elder, but I kept the few mana rocks that were already in – Sol Ring, the Signet and Thought Vessel. Outside of the occasional Skullclamp hand, this deck isn’t really prone to having more than 7 cards in hand. It treats the graveyard like a second hand, so it is much less concerned with pure card draw, and doesn’t need to get overly greedy here – but I kept Thought Vessel around simply because two-mana rocks are just really good when you have a 4-cost commander. Playing Meren on T3 instead of T4 actually seems to make a big difference in a lot of my games, so having a ramp spell on T2 as often as possible is a thing worth doing. I’ve actually considered including a Rampant Growth or maybe a couple of 1-drop mana dorks just to improve my odds of hitting Meren earlier than T4, but that might be pushing it. I feel pretty comfortable with where I’m at now. And I’ve already mentioned Awakening Zone but I just want to take a second to reiterate that this card has been very impressive so far; after trying it in a number of other decks including Savra, Ghave and Prossh where it was surprisingly ineffective, I think that in this deck it has finally found its rightful place.

Now of course, that will probably make most of you think immediately of From Beyond, the new riff on Awakening Zone in BFZ. I’m not going to say “don’t play it” because as good as AZ has been, this one might also be worth a shot. But I decided against it for two simple reasons – firstly, I don’t own a copy and haven’t seen any for sale in my LGS’s yet. But more than that, I think that it being a four-drop is pretty relevant. Or to put it another way, being three mana, and thus coming down the turn before Meren (usually) is one of the big reasons A-Zone has been so good to me. Having to choose between casting Meren and From Beyond is a bit awkward. That all said, really loading up on these Spawn/Scion producers could be a legit way to go. Simply put, I have a LOT of different ideas and things I want to try out all competing for a limited amount of space, so I have to be picky about which effects get lots of redundancy and which ones only get one or two slots. This is one way in which I think you can differ your own build from mine – a lot of Meren decks will have the same basic strategies, similar cards and effects, etc., but which of those types of things you really emphasize and which ones you back off on can give your deck a slightly different feel.

And lastly, we’ve got Mimic Vat, another staple that is basically good in almost any deck, but is particularly useful here. It’s just another way to get someone else’s big, swingy threat out of their hands and into ours. But it’s not terrible if you just put, like, someone’s Mulldrifter or Spitebellows on it. Of course our deck has plenty of great creatures to put on it as well. Anything from Wood Elves up to Woodfall Primus can get some work done on the Vat.

On the subject of cards that did not make the cut, there is quite a huge list. Most of the obvious good-stuff staples you can probably figure out on your own – Pernicious Deed, Decree of Pain and Tutors of the Vampiric and Demonic Variety are at the top of my “Should probably be running these” list. I’d also consider something like Whip of Erebos, but I have a bit of a bias against exiling my own creatures. The lifegain would be a nice bonus though. I could also see an argument for more mass-reanimation spells like Living Death. LD is already one of my most reliable and effective ways to end a game, but throwing in Rise of the Dark Realms is already something I plan to do at some point. Wake the Dead could also be a minor hit here, with all the sac outlets you’re likely to have.

Finally, there are a few obscure/niche cards that I’d like to squeeze in, but can’t so far. Grim Harvest is one such card. Grim Harvest was pretty sweet in my Savra deck, but the lifegain was more directly needed there, as Savra was often quite a bit slower to develop a strong defense, and usually took quite a bit of punishment before she could establish control of the board. Meren certainly draws a lot of hate, too, but in my experience is much quicker to stem the bleeding, and I find myself usually stabilizing at a much higher life total than I did with Savra.  Nonetheless, Harvest is a card I enjoy playing, so I’d like to find room, but since it doesn’t feel essential, it’s hard to justify it.

Attrition isn’t exactly obscure – it was in one of the Commander decks already, even – but it still seems largely underplayed in the format. Yet, as good as I feel it could be in a deck like this, killing creatures is already like the #1 thing this deck does extremely well, so I really just haven’t been all that motivated to include it, despite thinking it would be a fine choice – perhaps if you are looking to build a version of Meren that does not run all the Grave Pact effects, Attrition would make a lot more sense there. I think that’s actually my only real problem with Attrition – Paying 1 mana and sacrificing a dude to kill one creature is fine, honestly, but paying zero mana and sac’ing a dude to kill as many as three creatures is just way better. Pact effects, Fleshbags, and Barter in Blood all kill things way more efficiently (though aren’t targeted, of course), making Attrition feel like the worlds clunkiest, least-efficient verison of a Grave Pact. But some people consider Grave Pact, especially with multiple redundancies, to be stiflingly oppressive and may find them to be a bit too anti-social for their desired EDH experience. I can certainly empathize with that sentiment, even if I do not necessarily agree with it. So I would certainly consider Attrition in such cases as a “fair” stand-in for Pact.

Well, I think that’s about all the advice I can give you. For further ideas, I’d just head to Gatherer and look for more sacrifice and death triggers, things like that. You could probably go a little deeper on some of the things I only gave cursory attention toward, such as the Reanimator plan. Switching your commander to Mazirek could potentially allow you to keep much of the core sacrifice theme intact, but push the deck in a much more aggressive direction, if you prefer a more mid-range beatdown plan. Both Mazirek and Meren should be able to play strong supporting roles in a more traditional Savra build. I like it when commanders overlap enough that the play quite well together, but each one is different enough to lead you down different deckbuilding paths when at the helm, and that’s what we have here – a trio of synergistic Legends that compliment each other well, but are not just blindly interchangeable. They each would want a lot of the same core cards, but they advance their goals in slightly different ways.

Meren is probably my favorite Golgari commander, because she does what she does so darn well, but I will likely switch back to Savra at some point. Partly because I have a nice, lovely foil Savra now sitting unused, whereas Meren is not available in foil and might never be. But also for social/political reasons – Savra plays very similarly but is a bit slower, a bit less obnoxious about it, and frankly just a “nicer” way to play Stax-Lite. But for now, I am quite thrilled with how Meren has turned out –resilient, powerful and a real blast to play.

Enjoy!