Thursday, December 1, 2016

Free Hugs

Sorry for the delay in posting, folks, but you know how the holidays can be – full of food, family and… stress. Anyway, I was planning to write up either Saskia or Ydris next, but got distracted when I finally got inspiration for the group hug deck, Stalwart Unity, led by Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis.

This one remained a conundrum to me up until the moment something suddenly clicked. And I’m not sure my solution is actually a viable one. I haven’t yet had the chance to test this out, so this write up is a lot more theoretical than I’d like. But whatever, it’s the thing I’m most excited about and I want to get my ideas down on paper before I move on to something else and forget! So, on we plow.

Let’s just start with the original list…

Creatures

Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis

Veteran Explorer
Humble Defector
Hushwing Gryff
Orzhov Advokist
Chasm Skulker
Gwafa Hazid, Profiteer
Ludevic, Necro-Alchemist
Selvala, Explorer Returned
Edric, Spymaster of Trest
Akroan Horse
Selfless Squire
Windborn Muse
Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa
Horizon Chimera
Zedruu the Greathearted
Psychosis Crawler
Kazuul, Tyrant of the Cliffs
Kraum, Ludevic's Opus
Realm Seekers
Rubblehulk
Progenitor Mimic
Blazing Archon

Spells

Minds Aglow
Collective Voyage
Swords to Plowshares
Swan Song
Arcane Denial
Benefactor's Draught
Evolutionary Escalation
Oath of Druids
Hoofprints of the Stag
Cultivate
Kodama's Reach
Beast Within
Oblation
Ghostly Prison
Propaganda
Rites of Flourishing
Entrapment Maneuver
Tempt with Discovery
Reins of Power
Wave of Reckoning
Sphere of Safety
Migratory Route
Sylvan Reclamation
Seeds of Renewal
Lurking Predators
Reverse the Sands
Treacherous Terrain
Blasphemous Act
Sol Ring
Empyrial Plate
Howling Mine
Commander's Sphere
Temple Bell
Assault Suit
Prismatic Geoscope
Venser's Journal
Keening Stone

Lands

Ash Barrens
Azorius Chancery
Command Tower
Evolving Wilds
Exotic Orchard
Forbidden Orchard
Frontier Bivouac
Gruul Turf
Homeward Path
Izzet Boilerworks
Jungle Shrine
Krosan Verge
Myriad Landscape
Mystic Monastery
Opal Palace
Rupture Spire
Seaside Citadel
Selesnya Sanctuary
Terramorphic Expanse
Transguild Promenade
Plains x5
Island x5
Mountain x5
Forest x5

So, yeah, a fairly typical group hug deck, though a bit unfocused as these precons tend to be, and with a few legit win-cons. As I’ve said before I’m not a fan of pure group hug decks; I’ve tried them before of course, but eventually decided the archetype was not for me. But I always prefer to stay true to the intentions behind these precons as much as I can. If I were to go in a radically different direction with one of these decks, as I have occasionally done in the past, it’d be this one. But I kinda liked some of what this deck hinted at, in that it’s group hug with an actual plan to win.

One of my favorite little details about this list is how you bait everyone with free lands, then punish them for it later with Treacherous Terrain. This is the one deck where that card makes complete sense, in that it directly benefits from our commander’s ability and all the other ramp-for-everyone cards in the list. The best part is, even if your opponents see the trap, and refuse to take the bait, then you’re just turning all those symmetrical ramp cards into asymmetrical ones that benefit just you. So they either take the bait and get punished later, or you get to pull way, way ahead.

I like that Sophie’s Choice aspect: take the gifts I offer, or don’t; if you do, you get punished later, but if you don’t I get to pull way ahead. Unfortunately it’s still pretty hard to find exactly the right pairings of cards – for this plan to work you need two things: cards that give everyone a resource (including yourself), and cards that punish people for having a lot of that resource. I was having trouble coming up with ideas – I could find ways to give people resources, but not ways to punish them, or vice versa. Not having access to Black is a big factor, as it’s the #1 color for “punishment” effects.

I also like the idea of pairing cards like Edric and Gahiji with cards like Alliance of Arms, and backing those up with stuff like Propaganda. As long as everyone is fighting each other, it’s good for you, but it’s also good for them. Of course giving everyone free lands and card draw is a risky move that could backfire easily. So, again, you want to punish your opponents for greedily accepting your gifts. Let them have their fun, but be ready and able to drop the hammer if need be.

So after some brainstorming on my own, and a good bit of help from the folks over at the official EDH forums, I finally solidified my idea. Again, I still don’t know how well it’ll actually work, but this is probably about as good as it’s going to get if I’m forcing myself to work within the archetype of group hug. Let’s start this time by talking about what we want to add.

First of all we want to supplement the Alliance of Arms plan by adding more effects that give everybody tokens.

Sylvan Offering
Tempt with Vengeance
Benevolent Offering
Curse of the Swine
Genesis  Chamber
Hunted Phantasm
Hunted Dragon
Hunted Troll

And because this is EDH and we either go big or go home, let’s add Primal Vigor and Parallel Lives as well.

I like the interaction between the Hunted creatures and Oath of Druids. We let our opponents get ahead by giving them tokens, and that lets us take more advantage of the Oath than they will. Parallel Lives means we’ll be getting more mileage out of cards like Sylvan Offering, while Primal Vigor lets everyone reap double the benefits. Which one is better for our strategy will depend on a number of factors, but it’ll be important to not just run those out without a plan. Hunted Lammasu got left out for being kinda boring and only making one token. Curse of the Swine is really just more of a removal spell, but will have other possible interactions we’ll cover later.

Next up we need to make sure our opponents don’t just turn on us and kill us with all these tokens:

Gahiji, Honored One
Soul Warden
Essence Warden
Fumigate

Gahiji compliments Edric in the politics department by making it more profitable or enticing to attack someone other than us. Soul Warden and Essence Warden obviously just gain us craploads of life so we can weather a few storms if need be. There’s already a pretty solid suite of pillow-fort in the deck, via the likes of Propaganda and company, so we’ll obviously be leaving those intact. Fumigate is just an emergency out if we start to go for our plan but something goes wrong and we need to hit the release valve.

Now here’s where I start to reveal a little bit of my true intentions. Next up we need to add:

Suture Priest
Purphoros, God of the Forge
Vicious Shadows
Insurrection

Yeah. See, we really are group hug, but I want to win games with this deck, dammit. Sure there’s a minor bit of anti-synergy here, in that if you play out one of these before you cast Tempt with Vengeance, you aren’t likely to get any takers, but the other mass-token producers aren’t really optional. They’re going to get tokens whether they want them or not. Vicious Shadows should often just end games immediately. I wanted to include a sac outlet like Goblin Bombardment or similar, but couldn’t find room. Still, it’s no trick getting stuff to die in EDH, so we can just wing it. Insurrection is a gimme. Boring, but clearly too on-point for what we’re doing to ignore.

Now we need to ensure we have lots of mana to cast things like Sylvan Offering or Alliance of Arms for huge amounts (thereby creating a reliable kill with Purpohros, for instance).

Keeper of Progenitus
Heartbeat of Spring
Mana Flare

Oh man these things are risky! But what’s the difference if we’re already playing stuff like Collective Voyage? We’re already committed to giving people extra lands, so might as well. The hope here is, we’ll be better equipped to exploit all this extra mana than they will, which brings me to the next batch of cards…

Sphinx’s Revelation
Comet Storm
(plus the other x-spells already mentioned)

Those mana doublers are there to service what is quite a high count of x-spells. In addition to the two above we also have Mind’s Aglow, Alliance of Arms, Sylvan Offering, Tempt with Vengeance, Collective Voyage, and to some extend Curse of the Swine. So we make lots of mana, draw lots of cards and create lots of tokens. Hopefully we find a way to translate all of that into a win. Simple, no?

To ensure we stay ahead or at least caught up in the mana race, and to help our little Treacherous Terrain trap along, we need a few helpers.

Burgeoning
Exploration
Horn of Greed

Nice little feedback loop with our commander, we draw extra cards to play extra lands, and play extra lands to draw extra cards. Plus Horn of Greed helps our plan of being a group hug deck superficially, while helping along are actual plans as well.

There’s one last card I want to add just for the hell of it, because why the hell not:

Warp World

Now, usually a “serious” Warp World deck wants to ensure it has far, far more permanents than anyone else, so that when it resolves, they stand a very high chance of coming out WAY ahead. There are certainly ways we could do that. For instance, if we cast a huge Tempt with Vengeance and no one wants to take us up on that offer for fear of a Vicious Shadows or because we have Suture Priest of the board, we could easily pull miles ahead in the permanent department, fueling a Warp World that is very favorable for us. Or we can just cast it on a massively cluttered board and say “screw it, let’s just see what happens”. There was a very strong argument for leaving this out and including something like, say, Invoke the Firemind or Clan Defiance, but the idea seemed far too fun to disregard. It may get cut later if I find it backfires too often or causes groans among the other players.

So these are all the cards I could actually find room for. There are other cards I wanted to add, of course, and those include:

Intellectual Offering
Invoke the Firemind
Clan Defiance
Seed the Land
Echoing Courage
Arachnogenesis
Mogg Infestation
March of Souls
Skullclamp
Crown of Doom

But alas, I could not find room for all of those. It’s possible I should be running something from the above list instead of Primal Vigor and Parallel Lives, I don’t know. It’s also possible the correct package for my mana-doubling section would be Academy Rector, Mirari’s Wake and Mana Reflection, but I don’t think I have any copies of any of those three cards not already in decks! Plus, we do want to function as an actual group hug deck, so being selfish with our things is probably not the way to go.

By the way that brings me to a critical point. Typically you see group hug come in two flavors: decks that actually ARE group hug and just want to help everyone out indiscriminately, and decks that pretend to be group hug but have a nasty surprise waiting at the end. The problem with the former is that they often ruin games by playing “kingmaker” and rather than help everyone equally, they just propel one player in particular to a steamroll victory. The problem with the latter is that they are like movies with big twists as the end – they work once based on the surprise factor, but on repeat viewings you see the twist coming and it no longer works. Once people know you have a knife up your sleeve to backstab them with, they just use your “gifts” to kill you first.

Now, my hope is that I have avoided falling into either of those camps. I’m not out to play kingmaker, I want to win games myself. But I’m not trying to surprise anyone with “gotcha!” cards. I fully expect that my opponents will be fully expecting cards like Insurrection, Treacherous Terrain and Vicious Shadows to bite them in the ass, but if I’ve done this right, it won’t matter that they see the trap coming. They either play right into it, or let me get way, way ahead and I just beat them above-board with superior mana and armies of tokens.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about cuts. We need to dump quite a bit of the original list to make room for all these new goodies, so what gets thrown out?

Let’s start with the easy part. 40 lands is too much. We have lots of ramp and draw anyway, so we’re going to be hitting land drops, I’m pretty confident. Let’s cut the atrocious Transguild Promenade +Rupture Spire duo in favor of cards that, hopefully, don’t suck balls. Actually I’m pretty confident nothing we’ve added will suck as badly as these two turds.

Creature-wise we can lose the following:

Hushwing Gryff
Orzhov Advokist
Chasm Skulker
Gwafa Hazid, Profiteer
Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa
Horizon Chimera
Zedruu the Greathearted
Psychosis Crawler
Kraum, Ludevic's Opus
Realm Seekers
Rubblehulk

Hushwing Gryff is an obnoxious card that I despise playing with or against, so out it goes. Orzhov Advokist was needed for another deck (Queen Marchesa), and it doesn’t really do much here anyway. Chasm Skulker would certainly have been a respectable card to keep around, but Ydris, the deck with all the Wheel effects, wanted it more, so… cut! Gwafa just doesn’t have nearly enough gold coins in his pouch to bribe all the masses of tokens we’ll be handing out, so he’s out. Sidar Kondo actually seemed worth keeping as he could do some cool things with Edric and an army of 1/1’s but was a casualty of theme. He’s one card I might try to squeeze back in if the overall plan works out but needs tweaking. Horizon Chimera is just “meh” and we’ll gain far more life off the Wardens. Zedruu does virtually nothing in this list. Psyhosis Crawler, like Chasm Skulker just makes me think “why the f*** aren’t you in the Ydris deck?!” so he gets cut just so he can move to that deck. Kraum has zero synergy so out he goes. Realm Seekers was fine, but mostly just a generically-huge thing. Boring, so… gone. Rubblehulk came very close to not getting cut, as I did like the idea of one-shotting someone with our 2/8 commander, but ultimately he was just another big, generic thing that didn’t contribute much to the synergy of the deck.

From our spells, we will be dropping:

Swan Song
Benefactor's Draught
Evolutionary Escalation
Hoofprints of the Stag
Entrapment Maneuver
Wave of Reckoning
Migratory Route
Lurking Predators
Reverse the Sands
Empyrial Plate
Howling Mine
Assault Suit
Venser's Journal
Keening Stone

I dislike countermagic in general, so Swan Song was an easy cut (kept Arcane Denial, for now, just because it’s a good political counterspell). Benefactor’s Draught is a card I just don’t like much, despite having never cast it. Evolutionary Escalation was needed for a different deck (Marath). Hoofprints of the Stag is a bit slow and clunky, and doesn’t fit the deck we’re building well. Entrapment Maneuver is pretty mediocre. Wave of Reckoning was originally supposed to stay in, but then I remembered Fumigate just got printed and that seemed like a much better option. Migratory Route is painfully underwhelming and not on theme, so it’s an easy cut. Lurking Predators was a card that didn’t make a lick of sense to begin with, as the deck only has about 22 creatures to start with. And since I’m pretty sure my build is going to have even fewer creatures, it definitely seems terrible. Easy cut. Reverse the Sands is cute, but no real synergy or way to ensure it will win us any games. Empyrial Plate is generic beatdown, which is not what this deck is about. Assult Suit is much the same. Venser’s Journal seems superfluous as we’re not likely to have massive hands, and we have plenty of lifegain elsewhere. Keening Stone was a bad win-con that wasn’t likely to ever pan out even with our mana-doublers. Howling Mine only gets cut because I like Horn of Greed much, much better in this deck.

Overall there were a few painful cuts (Sidar Kondo, Chasm Skulker) but overall, nothing we cut feels essential to me. What I am slightly concerned about is that with our additions we didn’t really beef up our defensive capabilities or interaction much. It is possible that, over time, I will slowly have to beef up our pillow fort cards, and throw in more combat hosers like Arachnogenesis and Aetherize. As I explained in my Atraxa article, I prefer to err on the side of theme/synergy and then add good stuff and utility over time as I get a feel for the deck’s weaknesses.

But before we put the list all back together, we have one last section to take a look at - the mana base.

We’ve already cut the two worst lands in the list in favor of non-land stuff, getting us down to a healthy 38 lands. But there’s still more to do. Firstly, Opal Palace strikes me as a do-nothing card in this list. We don’t really care about casting our commander with a bunch of counters on it, and it isn’t great at just being a mana fixing land. I think we easily ditch this in favor of Kor Haven. I would also accept Mystifying Maze here, but not Maze of Ith because Maze of Ith should always count as a spell, not a land.

I also don’t like Myriad Landscape much, as how often are we going to want to get two of the same Basic? We’re better off with Blighted Woodland, which costs more to use, but can get two different basics.

Of course the inclusion of Krosan Verge makes me really want Shocklands (or ABUR duals if you got ‘em). I recommend going with, at minimum: Hallowed Fountain, Sacred Foundry, Stomping Ground and Breeding Pool. This way you have a Plains and Forest each that come with one of the other two colors. To make room for these 4 duals I’d just cut one of each Basic.

Finally, I want to try and reducer our ETBF tapped land count. I like the tri-lands and the Ravnican bouncelands, so they get to stay. This means Evolving Wilds and Terramorphic are out. With Krosan Verge and Blighted Woodland, plus all the spells that fetch basics, I don’t mind getting rid of these at all. We’ll just replace then with Mana Confluence and Reflecting Pool.

I’m comfortable stopping here with the changes to the mana base, but of course if you have the duals at hand, you can always go further. The important thing here is not to get carried away with the nonbasics. Remember, we need a lot of basic lands in our deck for stuff like Collective Voyage to be beneficial to us. But 16 is probably a sufficiently high number. I certainly wouldn’t go below 12 and even that might be too few. Hard to say without testing first, though.

With that done, we are now ready to put it all together into a final list! Behold:

Creatures

Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis

Essence Warden
Soul Warden
Veteran Explorer
Suture Priest
Humble Defector
Hunted Phantasm
Ludevic, Necro-Alchemist
Selvala, Explorer Returned
Edric, Spymaster of Trest
Hunted Troll
Keeper of Progenitus
Akroan Horse
Purphoros, God of the Forge
Selfless Squire
Windborn Muse
Kazuul, Tyrant of the Cliffs
Hunted Dragon
Gahiji, Honored One
Progenitor Mimic
Blazing Archon

Spells

Burgeoning
Exploration
Minds Aglow
Collective Voyage
Swords to Plowshares
Arcane Denial
Oath of Druids
Cultivate
Kodama's Reach
Beast Within
Oblation
Ghostly Prison
Propaganda
Mana Flare
Heartbeat of Spring
Rites of Flourishing
Benevolent Offering
Tempt with Discovery
Parallel Lives
Reins of Power
Sphere of Safety
Fumigate
Primal Vigor
Sylvan Reclamation
Seeds of Renewal
Vicious Shadows
Warp World
Treacherous Terrain
Insurrection
Blasphemous Act
Sylvan Offering
Tempt With Vengeance
Comet Storm
Curse of Swine
Sphinx's Revelation
Sol Ring
Genesis Chamber
Commander's Sphere
Horn of Greed
Temple Bell
Prismatic Geoscope

Lands

Hallowed Fountain
Sacred Foundry
Stomping Ground
Breeding Pool
Azorius Chancery
Gruul Turf
Selesnya Sanctuary
Izzet Boilerworks
Command Tower
Mana Confluence
Reflecting Pool
Homeward Path
Exotic Orchard
Forbidden Orchard
Frontier Bivouac
Jungle Shrine
Mystic Monastery
Seaside Citadel
Krosan Verge
Blighted Woodland
Kor Haven
Ash Barrens
Plains x4
Island x4
Mountain x4
Forest x4

One idea that didn’t make it into the final list, sadly, was a Repercussion plan, where we give everyone a bazillion tokens, drop Repercussion, then cast Blasphemous Act, Wave or Reckoning or something along those lines. But for that to not kill us and just draw the game, we’d need a sac outlet to ditch our creatures or something like Mark of Asylum to prevent the damage. Soulfire Grandmaster would also likely play a big role in this version, but it seemed a bit too unreliable even for me. That said, there is certainly an argument for Soulfire Grandmaster in the final version as well. We have lots of spells we’d like to buy back, and the mana doublers to enable that. So, yeah, Buyback Monk is definitely a card I’d like to fit in somewhere down the road.

In the meantime, since I don’t have any actual playtesting experience to help me further refine and improve this list, I just have to call it done, for now.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Gentleman's Guide to Breeding Lethality

Time to kick off our in-depth look at each Commander 2016 deck in detail, and this time we’re starting things off with the big one: Atraxa, or as her decklist is entitled, Breed Lethality.

Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice is the default commander for this list, and I’ll be sticking with the defaults for all 5 decks this time around. I’m just contrarian enough that most years I wind up going with one of the alternate choices on 1 deck out of 5, but this year we got a bunch of Partners as our alternates and very few of those options interest me. So for once I’m sticking to the face commanders.

Atraxa herself is an impressive gal with a veritable cornucopia of keywords, but the one that seems to have everyone’s attention is “proliferate”. Not that flying, vigilance, deathtouch and lifelink aren’t all great to have, especially all at once, but they hardly suggest a solid “build around me” theme the way proliferate does. Now, if we want to play devil’s advocate and say we want to focus on that top row of keywords instead of proliferate, I’d wager we could do that. Atraxa would make an imposing Voltron commander for sure, though she lacks the most coveted of all Voltron keywords: hexproof. Nonetheless, I can see Atraxa being quite formidable at the head of either an Equipment-based or Aura-based Voltron deck. You could even make the proliferate ability relevant with equipment like Ring of Kalonia or Umezawa’s Jitte. Or you could just put various Swords of Power and Value on her and win with hard-to-stop General Damage kills. Or could you imagine Atraxa wearing a bunch of the “Deity” enchantments from Shadowmoor (think Shield of the Oversoul, Steel of the Godhead, etc.)?  Yeah, I think a Bant-plus-Black Enchantress deck could be viable.

But we aren’t trying to be all Hipster and have the most outside-the-box Atraxa deck ever, right? What’s the point of having ignoring the coolest keyword in our commander’s text box? If we’re playing Atraxa, you can bet we want to be proliferating a lot of counters. The only real question is what kind of counters we’re going to be proliferating. Going by EDHREC’s statistics, I’d say it’s clear that the most overwhelmingly popular answer to this question is “loyalty counters” – as in Planeswalker counters. Yep, Atraxa Superfriends is pretty much the Meren Stax or Nekusar Wheels of this year’s crop of commander decks. All the cool kids are using Deepglow Skate to ultimate like five Planeswalkers in a single turn. I’m pretty sure I’ll get around to building that version someday, but for now I want to stick with the original deck’s default theme: +1/+1 counters.

Literally the night before Atraxa was spoiled, I had dismantled my Karador deck with the aim of rebuilding it as Anafenza and giving +1/+1 counter Abzan one last shot before I gave up and went back to Karador for good. Then the next day, Atraxa appears. That night I sleeved Karador right back up, made a few minor tweaks, and called it a day. So now instead of waffling back and forth between Abzan counters and Simic counters, I can just mash the two together!

Other popular options include Energy counters and Poison counters. I dislike poison (as does my playgroup) and I don’t feel like Energy is quite well-supported enough to carry a deck on its own.

Let’s go ahead and take a look at the starting list for Breed Lethality as it is, straight out of the box.

Creatures

Atraxa, Praetor’s Voice

Thrummingbird
Festercreep
Scavenging Ooze
Abzan Falconer
Orzhov Advokist
Tuskguard Captain
Necroplasm
Champion of Lambholt
Reyhan, Last of the Abzan
Vorel of the Hull Clade
Crystalline Crawler
Custodi Soulbinders
Forgotten Ancient
Bane of the Living
Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker
Corpsejack Menace
Fathom Mage
Master Biomancer
Elite Scaleguard
Reveillark
Deepglow Skate
Kalonian Hydra
Ikra Shidiqi, the Usurper
Vulturous Zombie
Juniper Order Ranger
Ghave, Guru of Spores
Enduring Scalelord

Spells

Hardened Scales
Disdainful Stroke
Solidarity of Heroes
Brave the Sands
Manifold Insights
Grip of Phyresis
Inspiring Call
Mortify
Putrefy
Duelist's Heritage
Bred for the Hunt
Languish
Citadel Siege
Tezzeret's Gambit
Ancient Excavation
Mirrorweave
Migratory Route
Sylvan Reclamation
Cathars' Crusade
Merciless Eviction
Spitting Image
Sublime Exhalation
Duneblast
Treasure Cruise
Sol Ring
Fellwar Stone
Golgari Signet
Orzhov Signet
Simic Signet
Commander's Sphere
Darksteel Ingot
Cauldron of Souls
Astral Cornucopia

Lands

Arcane Sanctum
Ash Barrens
Azorius Chancery
Command Tower
Darkwater Catacombs
Dreadship Reef
Evolving Wilds
Exotic Orchard
Golgari Rot Farm
Murmuring Bosk
Opal Palace
Opulent Palace
Sandsteppe Citadel
Seaside Citadel
Sungrass Prairie
Temple of the False God
Terramorphic Expanse
Underground River
Plains x5
Island x4
Swamp x5
Forest x7

So, as you can see, we have a handful of cards that deal with +1/+1 counters, plus a couple of other types of random counters thrown in here and there. Much of the deck is devoted to generic utility stuff and off-theme jank like Grip of Phyresis or Brave the Sands. Overall, though the creature portion of the deck is mostly on point, and the mana situation looks acceptable.

One of the things I often end up doing is playing a bit of musical chairs with the new cards in these decks. Meaning, there will often be cards in one deck that seem to make more sense in a different deck. For instance, Duelist’s Heritage is a card I would much rather have over in Saskia’s deck, while for some odd reason, that deck got a copy of Evolutionary Escalation, but this deck – the one that cares about +1/+1 counters – didn’t! So I often start by looking at what we can do just by making a few swaps between the decks themselves, without introducing cards from outside the set.

First, let’s single out the newly-printed cards within this deck.

Ikra Shidiqi, the Usurper
Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker
Reyhan, Last of the Abzan
Orzhov Advokist
Crystalline Crawler
Deepglow Skate
Manifold Insights
Grip of Phyresis
Duelist's Heritage
Ancient Excavation
Migratory Route
Sylvan Reclamation
Sublime Exhalation
Ash Barrens

Of the alternate commanders, Ikra Shidiqi’s lifegain is nice to have, but she has virtually no synergy or mechanical relevance to this deck whatsoever, with very few creatures having particularly high Toughness stats. Ishai fairs a little better, as she is thematically relevant, in that she does deal with +1/+1 counters. However, all she does is grow and fly, which isn’t particularly exciting. Reyan is the best of the three, giving us the ability to redistribute counters as our creatures die.

Orzhov Advokist is a bit cutesy but I’ve been happy with how it plays and I’m very hesitant to cut anything that gets counters onto Atraxa directly. Crystaline Crawler is surprisingly powerful, and has already contributed to some of the most broken turns I’ve taken with this deck. Deepglow Skate is obviously an MVP as well. Manifold Insights is a card I like, and would happily keep around, but really it could be any generic draw spell for purposes of this deck. Grip of Phyresis is strictly a metagame call: if you keep getting beat up by equipment, keep it; otherwise, ditch it immediately. Duelist’s Heritage is way too off-theme and belongs more in Saskia anyway. Ancient Excavation is another generic draw spell I like a lot but doesn’t specifically need to be in this deck for any reason, and could become some other draw spell. Migratory Route will basically always be landcycled, as it does virtually nothing in this deck. Sylvan Reclamation is an exceptional card; though not on-theme, I’d likely keep it based on strength and utility alone. Sublime Exhalation I seriously dislike, and especially in this deck. Finally, Ash Barrens is an unassuming little card but I’ve been really impressed with it in these decks. If you have the duals available to build a “perfect” mana base, I doubt you’d need it, but for anything less than the most dual-laden decks, I’d keep it around.

So we are for sure keeping: Reyhan, Deepglow Skate, Crystalline Crawler, Sylvan Reclamation and Orzhov Advokist, Ash Barrens.
And we are cutting: Ikra Shidiqi, Duelist’s Heritage, Sublime Exhalation, Migratory Route, and Grip of Phyresis.
Cards we’d like to keep but could cut if we needed to: Ishai, Ancient Excavation, Manifold Insights.

Moving on to the remainder of the deck, what else can we cut easily? From the creature section, I’d start by removing:

Festercreep
Necroplasm
Custodi Soulbinders
Bane of the Living
Enduring Scalelord
Vulturous Zombie

Festercreep is a card that I like in theory but it just doesn’t do what it does efficiently or reliably enough. However I have to jump ahead a bit here, and mention the interaction with Mirrorweave. You see, if you target a creature that is normally a 0/0 but has counters on it, like Festercreep for instance, all other creatures in play will become a copy of that creature, but won’t get the +1/+1 counters on them. So, basically, everything that is not receiving a buff from either a +1/+1 counter on it or an “anthem” effect like Always Watching will die. Against many decks, this gives Mirrorweave the potential to kill everything except our own creatures, even indestructible ones. So, while I do recommend cutting Festercreep due to its low power level, we really want to watch our count of 0/0 creatures, or else we will have to cut Mirrorweave too! I’d like to keep the ‘Weave around if possible, so when we go looking to add stuff in, we’ll have to try to add back in a few more 0/0 creatures to keep that Mirrorweave option viable.

Anyway, moving on. Necroplasm is kinda like Festercreep in that it does what it does too inefficiently. On top of that, if often comes with too much collateral damage to our own board as well. In theory, Atraxa’s proliferate trigger should let you fiddle with the numbers to blunt the impact to our own permanents but in reality that just doesn’t play out. It’s a terrible card. Cut it! Following that theme, Custodi Soulbinders is also cut for power level reasons. It’s just too low-impact and that activated ability is overcosted. We aren’t a token deck anyway. Bane of the Living is off-theme and as the only morph in the deck, it will never have the “gotcha!” value that it is supposed to have. Enduring Scalelord returns us back to the land of “On theme but too weak”. As does Vulturous Zombie. I actually do like the plant zombie, as it at least has flying… but assuming we’re keeping Ishai (and that’s no guarantee) we don’t really need or want to generic flyers that just get bigger and don’t really do anything else. We want more out of our synergies than simply large attackers.

I’m on the fence about Reveillark, Vorel of the Hull Clade and Ghave. Reveillark is off-theme but it’s actually really good in this deck as it can get back almost anything. Remember, Ghave may be a 5/5 in play, but in the graveyard he’s a 0/0. Speaking of Ghave the only reasons I’m iffy on him is that I’m just not sure how good he is outside of being a commander, as I’ve never really seen him in the 99 of a deck before; also, as I mentioned, we aren’t a token deck either. Still he’s probably good enough I should keep him around. Finally, Vorel feels really win-more to me. I feel like he’s only ever going to be really good when we’re already way ahead. That said, I did use him to double up Crystalline Crawler counters a few times and that always led to big, flashy plays. So he probably deserves a chance to prove himself a bit more.

I can also see an argument for cutting the Outlast guys – Abzan Falconer and Tuskguard Captain. I’ve been happy with them so far, but they are certainly not the highest-performing creatures left in the list. I’d keep them for now, but after a round or two of upgrades they should be near the bottom of the list in terms of power.

Now for the spells. And remember, we’ve already made cuts from the newly-printed subset of cards, so I’m just looking at the reprint portion here.

Disdainful Stroke
Brave the Sands
Spitting Image
Treasure Cruise
Merciless Eviction
Cauldron of Souls
Duneblast

Starting off, I’m throwing out almost anything that is off theme. I mean, it’s fine to keep Mortify and Putrefy because A) we need some interaction, and B) they’re really strong cards. It’s unfeasible to say we aren’t going to have any generic utility in this deck. It’s just that if we’re going to have it, we want the best options. Cards like Disdainful Stroke and Merciless Eviction do not, in my opinion, represent the best options available to us. Spitting Image gets cut because, as I keep saying, we are not a token deck. Brave the Sand is very subpar; I can’t think of any EDH deck I’d run that in. Treasure Cruise is a perplexing inclusion, as we aren’t set up to Delve reliably. Cauldron of Souls is also kinda iffy; I get why it’s in there, but I don’t think it’ll ever really work out that way. If you’re wondering, the idea is, in theory, that it makes our creatures unkillable. You give them all persist, they come back with -1/-1 counters, but all the +1/+1 counter stuff will negate those counters so we can keep persisting our guys ad infinitum. Yeah, right! Way too cute, even for me. Duneblast is also kinda painful. Sure we get to keep Atraxa or whatever our best creature is, but still. This deck just can’t afford to spend a billion mana killing our own team. We can do better.

Other cards that we might cut, but just as easily might keep include: Solidarity of Heroes (was on the chopping block immediately, but was surprisingly good in actual play, earning itself a reprieve), Languish (again, has played better than expected, but still don’t love it), Mirrorweave (as I mentioned above, it depends on how many 0/0’s we wind up with to make the sweeper play feasible), Commander’s Sphere (a fine mana rock, sure, but is it the best option?), and Darksteel Ingot (ditto).

And, frankly, you could easily replace Mortify/Putrefy with any number of equally-generic removal. Swords/Path, Krosan Grip, Return to Dust, etc., the list goes on. But swapping one generic utility spell for another generic utility spell is boring, so I’ll just say “season to taste” here. If you have extra Path to Exiles, I’d certainly try to squeeze it in somewhere. Whatever.

So now that we’ve identified what we don’t want in the deck, let’s talk about what we do want in the deck. Here’s a quick wish-list:

Noble Hierarch
Mikeaus, the Lunarch
Cold-Eyed Selkie
Armorcraft Judge
Ezuri, Claw of Progress
Spike Weaver
Etched Oracle
Altered Ego
Cultivator of Blades
Sunscorch Regent
Archangel of Thune
Verdurous Gearhulk
Primeval Protector

Retribution of the Ancients
Pentad Prism
Evolutionary Escalation
Toxic Deluge
Sultai Charm
Nissa, Voice of Zendikar
Doubling Season
Inexorable Tide
Tempt with Glory

Honestly, the card pool for +1/+1 counter shenanigans is so deep that I’m sure you call could come up with a list of cards of similar length but sharing only a few cards in common. I mean, maybe Abzan Ascendency is better than Tempt with Glory, and maybe we should be running Abzan Charm, not Sultai Charm. I’m just basing this off playing a handful of games and noting what I saw as inherent weaknesses. Notably, I had trouble drawing cards, and trouble getting counters on lots of permanents. I kept passing the turn with Atraxa in play and nothing to proliferate, and I kept running out of gas. Both are pretty notable faults with a deck like this.

Now, sadly, we have more cards to add than what we’ve cut so far, so it looks like we’ll have to make further cuts to get everything we want, or maybe give up a few of the cards on our wish list. We have 18 cuts solidified and 22 potential additions. So we need 4 more cuts to make this work. Since we’re adding in a couple of mana producers in the form of Noble Hierarch and Pentad Prism, I’m fine going ahead and cutting Darksteel Ingot and Commander’s Sphere. I would suggest Bloom Tender in lieu of Noble Hierarch if you don’t have the one-drop at hand. And you could make the case for cutting Fellwar Stone for the Prism, keeping one of the three-drop rocks. This is pretty subjective, so I’ll just say cut your two least-favorite mana rocks for Noble and Prism and be done with it.

I’m also happy replacing either Mortify or Putrefy with Sultai Charm (or Abzan Charm). Actually, you know what? Let’s just scrap both two-color removal spells and throw in both three-color Charms. Done! Still leaves us with one more cuts, though. Of the cards I was on the fence about, or could take or leave, I think Manifold Insights is the card I’m happiest to cut, as I could easily slot it into another deck and we’ve beefed up our draw package enough to not need it.

Now that that’s done, we need to talk about the land situation.

The deck starts with a surprisingly solid mana base, but obviously some improvements can be made. I don’t think we need 39 lands, especially with the more robust draw suite we’ve added. I think we can safely cut 1 down to 38, so that opens up one more slot for a business spell. We’ll put that on hold for later, though. Looking through the lands, the one that jumps out to me as something we can cut is Temple of the False God. Look, I’m a big fan of TotFG and I probably run it far more than I should in decks that it shouldn’t be in. I’m aware of all the risks inherent to the card, but usually I feel the rewards far outweigh the risks. Not this time, though. Having Temple in my opening hand is almost always an automatic mulligan. Having a four-color deck with a commander that costs nothing but colored mana… it’s just too risky. So, out with Temple.

I’ve also had multiple games where I drew too many Forests. Plus I’m the type of guy who just likes to even things out, so I’d go -1 Forest, +1 Island. We are, I believe, upping the number of blue mana symbols in the deck after all.

Next, I want to cut one more Forest in favor of a Vivid Grove. I don’t want to run all the Vivids – too many tapped lands will slow us down to a crawl – but Green is our most important color, so if we’re going to run one, this would be it.  

Finally, we’ll just cut one of each basic, plus Terramorphic Expanse to make room for the following: Saltcrusted Steppe, Mana Confluence, Llanowar Wastes, Reflecting Pool, and Hinterland Harbor. I’m not going all-out with the mana bases on these decks, as I simply don’t have the duals to do so. Remember, I have 24 other EDH decks sleeved up. But ultimately I feel like the starting lists have pretty good mana already. They’re budget mana bases, but they get the job done. Obviously if you have the better duals (Shocks, Fetches, ABUR duals, etc) you’ll use those. But I feel that these lists really only need minor improvements to be acceptable, and going all-out won’t make that big of a difference overall.

So, to my specific choices… I wanted Saltcrusted Steppe as the mirror to the Dreadship Reef already in the deck. Might as well cover all four of our colors with storage lands, right? Llanowar Wastes and Hinterland Harbor were chosen just because they were G/x duals that don’t come into play tapped (not always, at least). Mana Confluence (or City of Brass, if you prefer) is just another Command Tower, virtually. With Atraxa’s lifelink, we’ll rarely notice the life loss from Confluence.And of course, Gavony Township is the ultimate +1/+1 counter land. Oran Reif and Novijen are also worth looking at, but neither one comes close to Township; they're each far too restrictive for my tastes.

Putting it all together, we get this:

Creatures

Atraxa, Praetors' Voice

Noble Hierarch
Mikeaus, the Lunarch
Thrummingbird
Scavenging Ooze
Abzan Falconer
Orzhov Advokist
Tuskguard Captain
Champion of Lambholt
Cold-Eyed Selkie
Reyhan, Last of the Abzan
Vorel of the Hull Clade
Crystalline Crawler
Etched Oracle
Forgotten Ancient
Armorcraft Judge
Spike Weaver
Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker
Corpsejack Menace
Fathom Mage
Ezuri, Claw of Progress
Master Biomancer
Altered Ego
Elite Scaleguard
Reveillark
Cultivator of Blades
Sunscorch Regent
Archangel of Thune
Verdurous Gearhulk
Deepglow Skate
Kalonian Hydra
Juniper Order Ranger
Ghave, Guru of Spores
Primeval Protector

Spells

Hardened Scales
Retribution of the Ancients
Solidarity of Heroes
Evolutionary Escalation
Cyclonic Rift
Inspiring Call
Toxic Deluge
Sultai Charm
Abzan Charm
Nissa, Voice of Zendikar
Bred for the Hunt
Languish
Citadel Siege
Tezzeret's Gambit
Ancient Excavation
Mirrorweave
Sylvan Reclamation
Cathars' Crusade
Inexorable Tide
Doubling Season
Tempt with Glory
Sol Ring
Fellwar Stone
Pentad Prism
Golgari Signet
Orzhov Signet
Simic Signet
Astral Cornucopia

Lands

Arcane Sanctum
Ash Barrens
Azorius Chancery
Command Tower
Darkwater Catacombs
Dreadship Reef
Evolving Wilds
Exotic Orchard
Gavony Township
Golgari Rot Farm
Hinterland Harbor
Llanowar Wastes
Mana Confluence
Murmuring Bosk
Opal Palace
Opulent Palace
Saltcrusted Steppe
Sandsteppe Citadel
Seaside Citadel
Sungrass Prairie
Underground River
Vivid Grove
Plains x4
Island x4
Swamp x4
Forest x4

Now, we’ve got the matter of that one land slot we freed up for a spell. What do we want to add in to plug that hole? Well, my first inclination when cutting a land is to add either ramp or draw, but I feel like we’re covered in both categories. Looking at the stuff we cut and the stuff we added, I feel like we have pretty solid utility/removal as well, though we could always use more. I can certainly see adding a Beast Within or some other random spot removal as a good way to go. But, I am also reminded that we just cut quite a few sweepers and only added back in the Toxic Deluge. I’m still very loathe to blow up our own side of the board, but luckily we’re playing Blue, so we don’t have to worry about that. Yep, the final addition goes to none other than Cyclonic Rift. I can almost hear you all rolling your eyes, but hear me out.

One thing I’ve learned from playing this deck is that it does NOT like to start over from scratch with its board state. It takes time to build up a critical mass of counters, and even if you can just dump your hand post-Wrath, you’re still a long way from where you were. You lose all those turns of proliferation. Therefore, it is very, VERY valuable to have “sweepers” that don’t impact us. Toxic Deluge will occasionally have collateral damage, but most of the time it should leave all our important stuff intact. Rift is even better at this, as it will literally never impact our side of the battlefield, at least not directly.

So, add Cyclonic Rift to the above list, and there you go, our full 100 is done. At this time, I feel I should remind my dear readers of my current approach to deckbuilding. I used to be a hardcore Good Stuff aficionado, but lately I’ve been far more interested in exploring themes. Mechanical themes, not flavor ones, but still… Point is, I tend to forsake boring stuff like spot removal in favor of just doing what the deck wants to do as hard as I can. However, few decks can reliably operate effectively without good interaction. As good as our plan may be, we’ll always have a risk of being trumped by an opponent with an even bigger, better plan. We need removal, we need card draw, we need ramp and sweepers. All of these things are very necessary but they get in the way of fun stuff.

My current philosophy is to build in as much of the mechanical theme as possible – in this case +1/+1 counters – and then slowly increase the good stuff and utility until the deck works. I feel like this list is awesome at doing stuff with +1/+1 counters, but probably a bit lacking in the “stop my opponents from winning” department. It’ll take some playtesting to know where the right balance is, exactly, but I’d rather err on the side of theme to start with. I’m sure I will eventually add in some more boring stuff to make the deck win better, but for now I am satisfied at just doing the +1/+1 counter theme as well as possible, and worrying about the rest later.

So, there you have it, folks. That's my take on Breed Lethality. There is a LOT of room for you to do your own thing with it. For instance, I've seen some lists taking advantage of the Modular ability to do silly thinks with Arcbound creatures. Other keywords to look out for include: Outlast, Bolster, Support, Graft, Evolve and Scavenge, to name a few. There's also Amplify, Devour and Monstrosity as well.

I should note, as well, that I do not build "budget" decks. I use the cards available to me. I am lucky enough to have some expensive cards at my disposal, might as well use 'em, right? That said, it should almost always be possible to make budget substitutions if you want or need to. For instance, if you don't have Noble Hierarch's lying around, you could always use Bloom Tender. If even Bloom Tender is too rich for your blood, try Gyre Sage or Birds of Paradise. If you want a budget alternative to Archangel of Thune, that's a wee bit tougher as there's nothing that quite matches what she does... but you could make do with pretty much any flyer that cares about +1/+1 counters. Maybe just put Vulturous Zombie back in, in her place. Heck, I would not mock anyone for running High Sentinels of Arashin. Point is, almost anything you run is going to lose that sweet synergy with Sunscorch Regent, but as long as it's on theme, it doesn't really matter.

I don't know what to tell ya if you don't have a Doubling Season, though. I guess it technically isn't necessary, but there's nothing that can really stand in for it (screw Primal Vigor, that card is GARBAGE).

Of course there are always cards I try to fit in and can't find room for. In this case, the list is too long to mention every card I considered, but some of the ones I gave more serious thought to include: Mer-Ek Nightblade, Primeval Bounty, Verdant Confluence, either Anafenza, Dromoka the Eternal, Mindless Automaton, Contagion Engine, Chasm Skulker, Fertilid and Hangarback Walker.

Another thing I considered was throwing in Odric so the whole team can capitalize on Atraxa's keyword salad, but ultimately discarded that idea as too silly... but who knows, maybe you can make it work?

Finally, one other Planeswalker I considered was Ajani, Mentor of Heroes. He distributes +1/+1 counters, sort of draws cards, and has one of the least-scary ultimates ever, so doesn't always draw tons of hate.

Well, folks, that's all I have. Hope you enjoyed this look at Atraxa, and the Breed Lethality deck. Let me know in the comments what cards you have added to your build.

Enjoy!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Commander 2016 First Impressions

As expected I got to play around with some of the new Commander 2016 decks this past weekend. Actually, I ran the gamut from 1v1 to 3-way FFA to a full 4-player game as well.

Friday night kicked things off with some 1v1, unmodified decks, of course. I played just about everything but the group hug deck, as that is a terrible archetype in 1v1 games, and I’d say that even if I weren’t fairly anti-hug. So, after I can’t remember how many games, here’s my quick and dirty first impressions:

Breya was a pleasant surprise. She’s still not my favorite new commander by any stretch, but her utility abilities were more relevant and useful than I expected, though still not particularly exciting. If only she drew cards as well… still, the deck and commander performed admirably, though I can’t even remember for sure if I won any games with her or not.

Ydris was disappointing, but I think that was largely due to the wonky nature of the deck, not the commander himself. And probably variance as well, as I would later discover (well get to that in a bit). He’s still a very cool and powerful commander with tons of potential, I just think the decklist put together for him has some serious issues.

Saskia is a HOUSE is 1v1. And remember, when I say 1v1 I don’t mean the French competitive 1v1 format, I just mean casual, normal EDH rules played with only two people. But yeah, she was pretty brutal and I felt like I was getting terrible draws with that deck. The mana was fine, but I just didn’t have gas, like, ever. Fortunately Saskia doesn’t need much.

Atraxa was, surprisingly, a bit disappointing. This is at least somewhat due to the fact that she was, on appearances, easily the strongest of the batch of new commanders, and the decklist built around her appeared to be the most coherent and well-designed. However she merely performed so-so that first night, and even worse on Saturday. I definitely got the feeling that this was, at least partially due to variance though. The deck tended to have awkward draws and I kept having games where I couldn’t manage to get a single counter on a single permanent, so she was just sitting in play for turns not proliferating. My buddy played her a few times though and at one point had a 12/12 Festercreep, so obviously the deck could work with a bit of luck.

All in all, I got the impression that I’d misjudged all the decks (though not necessarily the commanders, just the rest of the 99) – those that seemed really solid performed below expectation, and those that seemed a bit haphazard and janky exceeded expectations. The exception being Ydris, who I thought had a terrible-looking list supporting him and both me and my friend had poor experiences with the list to reinforce that initial evaluation… or so we thought.

Fast forward to Saturday evening, and I am settling down to play a couple of 3-player matches. I’m rocking Atraxa both games, and my opponents are on Kynaios and Tiro, and Ydris.

Long story short, Ydris moved into Magical Christmasland and set up shop as Emperor for life. Ydris steamrolled the both of us in the most demoralizingly effortless victories I’ve seen in a long time. It was some real Battle of Themopile shit. Made me want to quit Magic forever.

Me and my buddy from Friday night had been ragging on the Ydris deck pretty hard after our games with it the night before, but this other friend of mine just comes in like “y’all ain’t playing it right” and proceeds to do the most random, crazy crap I’ve ever seen a precon do. I’m pretty sure I saw a T3 Army of the Damned. But both games were over so quickly and decisively I barely was conscious they took place. Obviously, after getting trounced that badly I was even more disappointed in Atraxa.

Fortunately, things leveled off a bit on Sunday.

Sunday was our big 4-player battle. I was still on Atraxa, determined to make her work, and had started to make some modest adjustments to the list. Nothing too crazy, just more card draw and more +1/+1 counter support, as I was still constantly having a hard time actually drawing anything that worked with Proliferate. My opponents were on Breya (unmodified), Ydris (unmodified) and a Surrak Dragonclaw werewolf tribal deck.

The werewolf player wasn’t present at the previous night’s games but he heard the horror stories. When his wolf pack got off to an aggro start, he mostly focused on the Ydris player as a preemptive strike. No one else was doing much early on, so Ydris drew most of the hate from all of us. I think Breya killed him once or twice with her -4/-4 ability, but he was ramping just enough to stay in the game, though badly weakened after a while.

With Ydris seemingly neutralized for the time being, I was starting to emerge as the threat. I had a modest board state, but with Atraxa out, even a modest board can become a real threat in just a few turns. Meanwhile Breya and the werewolf player were starting to assemble some pretty respectable boards as well. I wouldn’t have worried much about either of them on their own, but if they teamed up, they would have me outgunned. I wasn’t quite ready to become archenemy just yet. I needed to take some of the heat off me for a few more turns, so I did what any sane person would do. I let Ydris hit me. I kinda felt sorry for him anyway despite his utter dismantling of us the night before, as we did shut him down pretty hard in this game. So I figured I’d let him have a bit of fun and get back in the game, while hopefully shifting perception of threat away from me.

It was a risky move and it almost didn’t pay off. Even though the Ydris player only had two or three cards in hand, and not much on the table besides Ydris himself, his post-combat main phase featured more magic being played in that one half-turn than some entire games. By the end of it, I sorta regretted allowing Ydris to connect. I had succeeded in putting Ydris back in the spotlight a little too well, and now I was going to have to spend my own resources cleaning up the mess I had helped make. Fortunately I was sitting on a sweet hand with some removal. On my turned I crashed Atraxa into Ydris to gain some life, and then Toxic Deluge cleaned up all the little guys. There was still a very large Consuming Aberration that had just milled all of us quite a bit, but I had spot removal for that.

This would have left me with Atraxa and a Juniper Order Ranger in play on my side, and Ydris with just an Academy Elite on his side. But I forgot about Breya and she just pitched her artifact creatures that were about to die anyway to shrink my guys enough that my Deluge would wipe me out as well. Suck! After this setback I played defensively and conservatively for a few turns. Despite drawing a few cards off Academy Elite, Ydris appeared to be mostly out of gas again, and both Breya and the Surrak deck rebuilt slowly.

But eventually, after all the back and forth it started to look like it was going to come down to me versus the Ydris deck anyway. Breya and Surrak were clearly starting to run out of steam and made some sort of desperate-looking plays to try and fight back, mostly against me. While I took the brunt of this, Ydris took that opportunity to put himself back in the game in a big way. He how had a Whispersilk Cloak making Ydris very difficult to interact with or stop, and after one more pretty good turn of cascading things, I was pretty much forced into killing him with Atraxa, hitting him for the exact amount I needed to bring him to 21 commander damage.

With Ydris out of the game, I was now pretty solidly the big threat, but neither of my remaining opponents had much fight left in them. Breya scooped after a couple of turns not finding any answers, but Surrak held firm a bit longer, mounting a sizeable army of wolves, but no way to defend himself against flying threats. I eventually got to strive a Solidarity of Heroes to double my counters on Atraxa, Orzhov Advokist and Fathom Mage, drawing me 8 cards at the end of Surrak’s turn. I untapped, then played Deepglow Skate doubling them again, and that was that. Surrak fogged for a turn, but with the extra draw step he was still unable to find any answers and scooped to a more-than-lethal Atraxa.

I definitely like the deck better after fixing a few of its issues, and I am looking forward to fixing up the other 4 decks as well. Still haven’t gotten to play the Kynaios and Tiro deck, but that’s okay. I’ll get around to it soon enough. 

How did the new decks perform for you? Any sleeper hits or underachievers?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Breed Lethality: 10 Essential Additions


Ah, finally… we come to the main event, the headline act. Atraxa was the first commander spoiled, and as much as we all love the chaos and potential value Ydris brings us (and he’s still my favorite from a pure excitement level), Atraxa is almost certainly the best overall, and most popular of the new four-color commanders. As the face of the Breed Lethality deck, Atraxa is a near-perfect commander, from a design standpoint. She is a build-around-me commander rather than a generic good stuff commander, but is still open-ended enough to not pigeon hole herself into one theme.

I mean, on some level, almost every Atraxa deck out there will be built around some kind of counters to proliferate, so if you consider “counters” a single theme, I guess she’s pretty narrow. But, let’s be real: “counters” in Magic encompasses a LOT of ground. Let’s just run through a few types of counters that you could build around: Energy, Poison, Loyalty, +1/+1, Charge, -1/-1,  Age (admittedly this one is almost certainly a terrible idea, but still!), Level (hey, will Level Up cards finally be good?! NO!), Spore (thallids!), Time (like Age, probably a terrible idea). Sure some of these are jank as hell and I threw them out half-jokingly, but you get the idea. Ultimately, I think Loyalty and +1/+1 will be two defaults, but if Energy gets enough support it could easily be a close third. Infect will also be pretty popular, among groups that don’t absolutely loathe poison.

So, personally, I’m more excited about the possibility to finally merge a Simic +1/+1 counters deck with an Abzan +1/+1 counters deck. Superfriends is a cool way to go, but it’s also pretty well guaranteed to be the most heavily-played Atraxa archetype, by many miles. The decks aren’t even out yet, and I’m already bored with that deck, though I’m sure within a couple of years, I’ll just have to break down and give it a shot myself. Besides, with a limit of only 10 cards to change at this stage, we’d basically be guaranteed to have a list of Doubling Season and 9 Planeswalkers. I can’t see  Superfriends really working out with only 9 or even 10 ‘walkers. So, for that reason, and because it’s more interesting to me anyway, we’re going +1/+1 counters. This decision was the easy one, y’all. Pairing the list of essentials down to only 10… that’s the hard one.

But, I'll give it my best! Let's get to work.

Doubling Season
Inexorable Tide

Ah, yes, the big, dumb, obvious ones. Of course we were going to start with Doubling Season. But, unlike Inexorable Tide which really, REALLY should have come in the precon to start with, I get why Doubling Season wasn't in the list. It needs a reprint, but Atraxa herself is already making this one of the harder-to-get C16 decks. Adding such a high value reprint like Doubling Season as well, and we'd have another Mind Seize situation, which WotC is trying very hard to avoid. Fair enough.

Tempt with Glory
Archangel of Thune
Nissa, Voice of Zendikar

One potential issue I've discovered while studying this decklist is, what happens if we draw a bunch of stuff that doesn't actually come with counters or add counters? Like what if the only creatures I draw are Vorel, Bane of the Living and Deepglow Skate, while the rest of my hand is lands, mana rocks and stuff like Brave the Sands? We need ways to ensure we can distribute counters effectively, so here are a few. I never thought I'd actually be in a position to recommend Tempt with Glory for any kind of deck, but I actually do think it's solid gold here. Even if no one takes our tempting offer, we'll still get at least one counter on everything for Atraxa to proliferate. Archangel of Thune works well with Atraxa's lifelink. And Nissa is the most on-point Planeswalker for a +1/+1 counter deck there is.

Cultivator of Blades
Verdurous Gearhulk
Armorcraft Judge

We have to have a couple of cards from the newest set, Kaladesh, and fortunately for us, Kaladesh came packing a bit of a +1/+1 counters theme. There was a lot to choose from, but I narrowed it down to three green cards, mainly because all the non-green stuff with Fabricate is more likely to wind up in Breya's deck. Anyway, Armorcraft Judge is more card draw, something I never can get enough of. Gearhulk is obvious enough. And, Cultivator just seemed like a cool way to buff our whole team once it's time to start winning.

Cold-Eyed Selkie 

Remember what I said about never having too much draw? Yup. Just need to find a way to get one counter on her, and Atraxa will do the rest.

Pentad Prism

Here's another card I never thought I'd even consider running in EDH but holy cow could this potentially get out of hand. The deck already has some cute tech like this in Astral Cornucopia and Crystalline Crawler. However, neither of those actually help us ramp INTO Atraxa herself, at least not on their own. But a T2 Prism into T3 Atraxa seems pretty strong if you use three lands and one charge counter to cast her. From there you can proliferate that counter endlessly, but if you ever have an emergency need of that one extra mana, it's there.

Noble Hierarch
Ezuri, Claw of Progress

I'll be honest, I've impressed with myself for getting this list down to 12, even. It's a feat of self-restraint and I've never been known for having much self-restraint. Anyway, Noble Hierarch does not seem very thematic, I know; and she isn't meant to be. She just gets Atraxa out a turn sooner, then lets her swing for 5 instead of 4. A simple yet powerful difference. Ezuri is cool because he works well with proliferate along two axes - you can proliferate the experience counters he gives you, and you can proliferate the +1/+1 counters he gives your creatures. The only thing that sucks about him here is that he isn't your commander so you won't just always have him.

Well, folks, that's it for this series. I hope you enjoyed these little doses of theorycraft. My next project will of course be updating the C16 decks FOR REALS! I've now gotten to actually play a few games with these decks and I'm very eager to get started on improvements.

Enjoy!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Invent Superiority: 10 Essential Additions

Now we're getting down to the really tough ones. Invent Superiority, lead by Breya, Etherium Shaper, is basically an Esper artifacts deck the happens to have access to red cards as well. WUB and UR artifact decks are both well-explored territory in EDH, but being able to take them both and mash them together probably opens up some new territory unavailable to either version. If nothing else it finally gives us a home for the new R/B version of Daretti.

There isn't much of a need to analyze what this deck does or what it's about: artifacts and the inherent synergies thereof. Now, I play in a group that shies away from going infinite to win games. Occasionally we have "Oops! I win!" moments as we discover some combination of cards we thought were merely synergistic actually go a little further than that... but as a rule we just stay away.

Building around Breya to maximize synergy as hard as we can, but without going to far and breaking into combo territory is going to be tough. I suspect this is the deck where we'll all end up accidentally going infinite once or twice even if we're trying not to.

For now I'm not going to worry too much about that, though, as this is a hypothetical thought exercise after all. My goal is just to get value and synergy out of artifacts and artifact-related cards.

Daretti, Ingenius Iconoclast
Dack Fayden
Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas

So first up, we've got a trio of Planeswalkers that I'd consider pretty well essential. Daretti is mostly here because where the hell else is a R/B 'walker with some artifact synergy going to get played? And, I mean, he's good, too. That helps. Dack is just really good at stealing Sol Rings and setting up a big Open the Vaults. And Tezzeret is also just a super-obvious Artifact-centric Planeswalker. I doubt any need more explanation than that. I skipped OG Tezzy because he probably goes infinite somehow but I'm too lazy/busy to check.

Goblin Welder
Scrap Mastery
Combustible Gearhulk

These are probably the three red cards I'm most excited to introduce into an Esper environment. Well, aside from the original Daretti, but he's already in, thankfully. Having Welder and Sharuum in the same deck just seems insane to me. Scrap Mastery is also just really obvious. And Combustible Gearhulk is mostly just new hotness. Maybe not the most essential card but I'm definitely excited to try it out here.

Muzzio, Visionary Architect
Arcum Dagsson

Powerful duo of blue artificers. Love them or hate them, they are definitely what I'd call essential.

Disciple of the Vault
Marionette Master

Degenerate black cards that make killing our artifacts a suicidal proposition, and happen to synergize with our commander as well. Perfect fit, and I'm roughly 70% certain they don't actually combo off with the stock list. 

Angel of Invention
Thopter Spy Network

And, of course I'm unable to stick to just 10 cards with this one. Hell, getting down to 12 cards was brutal enough. But we need some more Thopter/Servo love up in this deck. There are, possibly, not the optimal choices, but Angel is just a splashy new mythic that we're all probably a bit eager to see in action, and Thopter Spy Network draws cards.

As much as I was not so hyped about Breya herself, I am pretty eager to play this deck. It seems like this will be a bit of a flavor home run, in that one can endlessly tune and tinker with this list, constantly adjusting the pieces to get the machinery working just right. Much like an Artificer would.

But I suppose that's all I've got for now. Let me know what you're excited to add down in the comments.

Enjoy!

Stalwart Unity: 10 Essential Additions

Hopefully you all know the drill by now, so let's get down to business! Today we're looking at critical additions to Stalwart Unity, the group hug style deck, led by Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis (I'm never going to not need to look at the card to remember those names and spell them correctly). 

Like before, we need to do a bit of analysis to understand the deck's goals and themes, in order to know what would be an essential addition.

Unfortunately, I'm not much of a fan of group hug. I've dabbled now and then, but overall I'm just not the type of player who really enjoys group hug for group hug's sake. Now, a deck that has slight group-hug leanings but is more of a political deck with a clear goal of winning and a legitimate path to victory, but tries to earn goodwill throughout the game as a means of survival? Okay, I'm good with that, but those sorts of decks usually only work once or twice before your playgroup learns not to trust geeks bearing gifts.

Stalwart Unity seems to be one of those decks. It plays very defensively, and politically. It wants to earn goodwill through cards like Edric, Howling Mine, and Kynaios and Tiro themselves, but also pillow-forts pretty heavily to hedge against opponents who aren't in the mood to be bribed. But the deck has a few nasty surprised for the late game, chief among them Treacherous Terrain. There are a lot of group-ramp cards in the deck to help ensure that your opponents will all have lots of lands. Once everyone has more lands in play than they have life, this spell becomes an instant-win spell. Even if it doesn't just straight up murder everyone, it is still likely to represent a MASSIVE amount of damage for eight mana.

Problem is, a spell like this (or Insurrection, which is another common win-con for group hug) lose their surprise factor really quickly. Opponents will know you are going to draw into it sooner or later and will be planning for it right from the get-go. They may be willing to give the appearance of accepting your generous gifts but are secretly planning something to trump your inevitable power play, or they just go right for your throat, aiming to kill you before you can cast whatever big I Win spell you're building toward.

Edric has been thus far the closes thing to "group hug" I've been able to find success with, and honestly Edric is about the only actual hug card in the deck. Point being, though, that people like drawing cards and will often accept such a bribe even when they see through the ruse. They may not buy your cover story about being a harmless non-threat, but they'll pretend to buy it as long as drawing cards is advantageous for them.

So, for a political group hug to actually win, it needs to ensure that whatever political angle it wields will be something opponents will actually be enticed by. It needs to have a viable win condition. And, it needs for opponents to continue to be willing to play ball with the deck's politics even after they've seen the win-con in action. Above all else, you can't expect people to keep falling for the same trick over and over; past that very first game where no one is quite sure what you're up to, a group hug has to be able to play an HONEST game. Your plan is now transparent: can you still win?

And since this deck is a preconstructed deck where the vast majority of players are going to know the decklist, this deck already loses the element of surprise. Everyone is going to know about Rubblehulk, Treacherous Terrain, Psychosis Crawler, and Reverse the Sands, and whatever else this deck has that passes for a win condition. They're not going to buy the "I'm a harmless  group hug, no threat to anyone" act, right off the bat. They will know the deck can win, and likely how it will aim to win. The deck has to play an honest, transparent game - a true nightmare for any politician, right?

So what do we do to make sure we can still win even though everyone is going to know what we're up to? How do we get our opponents to take our bait even when they see the trap coming?

I am not sure I can answer this question extremely well with only 10 cards to work with, but if those are our constraints, I'm going to have start by hugging just a little bit harder.

Well of Ideas
Horn of Greed

As I said above, I'm not a huge fan of typical group huggery like Howling Mine/Font of Mythos style cards.  The main sticking point is that everyone else gets to benefit first. How many times have you cast Font of Mythos or Howlnig Mine only to have it be destroyed before you ever got a single card off it? I have had it happen to me, and seen it happen to others more times than I can count. But, as expensive as it is, I like Well of Ideas for how it gets around this weakness. You draw first, and you get one more card per turn than everyone else. If it fails to make it all the way around to your next turn, it still kinda sucks paying essential 2x retail for a Divination, but hey, at least you also got a removal spell out of someone's hand. Horn of Greed doesn't exactly synergize directly with Kynaios and Tiro but it is, yet again, the kind of group hug card I can stomach, as you can often cast it before you make your land drop and still get first dibs.

Fevered Visions
Luminarch Ascension
Insurrection

Time for a couple more win conditions. Okay, sure Fevered Visions is a 20-turn clock by itself, but it doles out damage in a slow enough pace to hopefully never be the scariest thing.  That's one of the keys to playing a political deck that is transparently trying to win despite being group hug - threats that fly under the radar. Luminarch Ascension is kind of odd in that it's the type of card that tends to make people want to attack you, but on the other hand this deck has a TON of pillowfort and can likely defend itself well enough. Plus, once the Ascension is active, attacking you becomes less important because, well, it's too late to stop it at that point. So maybe you don't run this out T2 and pray - hold off just a bit until you have at least a bit of a defense established. As for Insurrection, eh, I really wish I could have come up with something a little more clever, but the best tool is often the right tool. If I had more space to work with, I'd endeavor to come up with a really good way to NOT use Insurrection, but if you are looking for cards that win the game on their own, this is one of them.

Dulcet Sirens
Illusionist's Gambit
Aetherize

Despite our best efforts, there will be times when an opponent just isn't in the mood for politics and decides to try and take us out before A) we cast Treacherous Terrain or B) one of their opponents gets too far ahead from our hug effects. The deck already has a lot of defensive spells in case this happens, but I think we need more. Dulcet Sirens I like because it's one few cards (maybe the only one?) that not only forces an attack, but lets you choose WHO they attack. Most "Creatures must attack if able" cards only remove the choice of whether or not to attack but leave the choice of WHO to attack, and since people dislike being forced to make plays they'd rather not make, they often choose to attack whoever played the "must attack" card out of spite. Sirens gets around that. Illusionist's Gambit is also just one of my favorite cards in this class, as it not only saves our butts, but also tends to cost an opponent some life as well. This is another way the political hug deck can win - if opponents don't want to play your game of "fight each other, leave me alone" you can just force the issue. And I tend to like Aetherize nearly as much as the Gambit. Mainly because it's a card that people will often hold back from attacking you just for simple fear of the card.

Congregation at Dawn

So, one of the more perplexing inclusions in this deck is Lurking Predators. It's a great card, but the stock list only has 17 creatures in it, making it pretty terrible for this  particular deck. Well, one way to address this peculiar deck construction choice is to play Congregation at Dawn. The best move here is to wait for the opponent who is immediately to your left to cast a spell on their turn, then cast Congregation in response, with the Lurking trigger on the stack. Whatever you put on top, you're guaranteed to get. Then you get to put two other creatures under that one, so everyone else is going to know you're going to hit off the next to spells as well. If someone is holding a Wrath this may not work out so well, but if they aren't this will either be great value or great tempo, as the next two players may damn well choose to not cast a thing just to avoid giving you free creatures.

Tempt With Reflections

I wanted to include more Offerings/Tempting Offer/Join Forces cards for political reasons, but this is the only one I could find room for on our list of 10. I'm not sure this is the best one, hands down, but it seemed like a good fit. We're light on creatures overall, so copying even 1 or 2 of the best creatures on the battlefield should be solid.

Well, this one was actually pretty easy to get down to 10. I had a few other cards I'd have liked to add, but ultimately none of them felt "essential", so I didn't have a hard time cutting the list down. This'll probably be the only deck where I don't agonize over the decisions! Probably because this is the deck farthest afield from my normal play styles and preferences. I am still very much looking forward to playing the deck - the commanders, Kynaios and Tiro, are solid value and I love drawing extra cards, so I may find them quite a bit more interesting than the typical hug deck.

I'm sure I missed a ton of really good stuff, probably even better than my 10 selections above, so please let me know in the comments how badly I botched this one!

Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Open Hostility: 10 Essential Additions

Alrighty, folks. Last time, in the Entropic Uprising piece, I went over the process, the rules/guidelines, etc., for this thought experiment so if you haven't read that one, go read it now, so you know wtf is going on. For those of you that are clued in, I won't keep you waiting with another terribly long intro.

Today we're talking Open Hostility, led by Saskia the Unyielding. Before we can identify what we'd consider "essential" additions, of course we need to figure out what the deck is all about. What does it want to do, and how can we make it do that better?

Well, whereas Ydris was a bit of a puzzle to work out, this one is a bit more transparent in its intentions. The long and short of it, Open Hostility is mostly just about punching teeth in. It's like a Boros deck with...not subtlety, but perhaps layers, I suppose. Saskia herself turns all of your creatures into a sort of political (or apolitical, depending on whether your the chosen player or not) version of Hydra Omnivore. Okay, full spoiler, that card is THE number one "Why isn't this already in here?!" pick.

Ahem, anyway, it's mostly just another flavor of "attack until you're dead or they are". Pretty well encapsulates Rakdos, Gruul and Boros decks, but there is not a lot of Selesnya, Orzhov of Golgari present. Fair enough. The former three clans are a lot easier to work with anyway.

That said, there is, inexplicably, a bit of a token theme shoe-horned into this list, which might make some sense, except it seems they chose to support this subtheme with almost exclusively sub-par token producers. Outside of Necrogenesis and the two Mutation spells, the token theme seems like it is mostly defined by cards that support a token deck (Wild Beastmaster, Beastmaster Ascension, Mentor of the Meek, etc.) rather than actual token producers.

This just seems bizarre to me because I don't feel like Saskia really makes for a good tokens commander, especially when we can just drop Black and go with Marath or Rith. Or drop Red and go with Ghave. Oh and by the way, Ghave is in the OTHER deck with access to Abzan colors, not this one. Wut? I mean I like the basic idea of Ghave and Marath getting to hang together and do broken shit, but Saksia still doesn't seem like the right way to go if that's our aim.

So we have identified one clear goal: face-punching with some semblance of depth to it. What do we need to support this goal?

Hydra Omnivore
Gisela, Blade of Goldnight
Grenzo Havoc Raiser

I'll say this for Saskia: call her boring all you want, but I never imagined any deck I'd have would combine the three above cards so well. But here were are. Hydra Omnivore is just the biggest gimme out there so I won't belabor that point. Gisela seems almost equally a shoe-in, as she works along all the different axes this deck seems to run on (except the tokens thing, but whatever). She's political in that she encourages your opponents to fight amongst each other, but also just makes us better at directly punching faces. Good synergy with Saskia too - you want to really hit someone hard, choose them with Saskia, then hit someone else. You'll hit the person you attack twice as hard thanks to Gisela, but thanks to Saskia, the person you chose will feel it twice as hard. So, say you swing with just Gisela - the person you attack takes 10, the person chosen with Saskia takes 20. Ouch! Meanwhile, Gisela nerfs any survivor's attempts to retaliate back. Grenzo is just fun and this deck needs some serious card advantage. Goad is also a thematically-appropriate mechanic for this deck. Would love to get a bit more of it, but Grenzo is the best possible option so he'll do for now.

Gahiji, Honored One

I wanted to put this in Stalwart Unity, the group hug deck, because I love the idea of having Edric and Gahiji in the same deck, but ultimately he makes the most sense here. Political, but also buffs our own attackers. Kinda like Gisela.

Serra Ascendant

I'll be honest, I just wanted a good lifelinker to beat face with, given the synergy with Saskia's ability. I tried to be clever, but sometimes clever is stupid and the lazy, stupid option is just the right option. The thing about lifelink is that it doesn't rely on combat damage to work. You see, Saskia's ability doesn't cause COMBAT damage. So if you hit somone with, say, Ohran Viper while controlling Saskia, you don't get to draw two cards. So I wanted damage-triggered abilities that don't rely on it being combat damage. Lifelink seemed the most obvious way to illustrate this interaction and the Ascendant is the best lifelinker in the format. Oh well. If the Ascendant is too obnoxious for you, substitute Archangel of Thune, I guess.


Bastion Protector
Sublime Archangel

Saskia herself is the type of commander to lead from the frontlines, don't you think? Look at her art! If she's not in the red zone personally leading the assault, she's not gonna be happy. We need to support her in that regard, making sure she stays alive to swing and swing again. Bastion Protector is pretty much perfect for this role, but she might need some help now and then.  Sublime Archangel allows all your creatures to pitch in, so long as Saskia is attacking alone. But that's another cool thing about Saskia - you can swing with one creature at a time and still get damage through to two players. Pity Rafiq himself isn't playable in these colors!

Volcanic Offering
Selvala's Stampede

Eh, just a couple of generically-good cards, but both also have a political bent to them. Saskia certainly doesn't want to go full-on Group Hug, no way, but these are political in that you're the only one really getting anything out of them, your opponents just get to participate in choosing how they get shafted.

Mardu Ascendency
Glory of Warfare

Well, I said I was going to mostly ignore the whole token subtheme, but here's a couple of nods to it that don't necessarily suck in non-token decks. Ascendency makes tokens, Glory of Warfare pumps them up to non-trivial sizes. Simple as that!

Other ideas I toyed with include Voltron, which seems like it might become the default mode for Saskia down the road, if I had to guess. Also considered something along the lines of my Queen Marchesa list, but if that deck were to add a fourth color, it'd want Blue, not Green. And, as I mentioned having a token list that includes both Ghave and Marath gives me the giggles, but I don't like Saskia as the commander of that deck. For that build, I think you want to go with Tana the Bloodsower and one of the Orzhov partners. And finally, there might be some sort of Enchantment hybrid of Uril+Daxos but that's another one where I am not certain Saskia herself does all that much to enable. I guess I'm just stuck on this idea of taking an archetype that has existed in two different color schemes, and combining them.

Anyway, I got this list down to 11 so yay! Barely cheated at all. If I was going to have a 12th essential card, it'd be Skullclamp, but that's already in the deck, thankfully.

Sound off in the comments with your 10(ish) essential additions!

Enjoy.