Sunday, June 6, 2010

At long last... this is my first official post for The Command Zone. (The last one doesn't count; it was basically just a place holder).

And, to ensure that the first real content to go up here is worthwhile and exciting, I've decided to do an in-depth look at one of my favorite EDH decks of all time. I'll post a decklist, of course, but I will also talk quite a bit about the card choices, theme and strategy of the deck.

Today's deck is a deck I built for the EDH format, using Rafiq of the Many as my general. Please note that I have specifically and intentionally honed and tuned this deck toward one-on-one duels. It can perform in a multiplayer setting, but will often be outclassed if the other decks are finely-tuned toward bigger games.

Let's start by taking a look at the most important card in (almost) any EDH deck - the General. Often times, you will begin creating a new EDH deck by picking a General to build around. There are exceptions, but usually this will be the best starting point. So, you select a General - a Legendary Creature, always - and from there you know what colors to use, and more often than not, the Generals abilities will help guide the theme of your deck. So, what does Rafiq bring to the table???

Well, first off, Rafiq enables us to play White, Blue and Green as our colors. Black and Red are off limits. Now what about his abilities? Rafiq has Exalted, which gives him a +1/+1 bonus when attacking alone, and as a nice bonus, he also gets double strike when attacking alone. Alternately, he can grant those bonuses to another creature of yours, as long as it attacks alone.

It is clear, right from the start, that Rafiq is a creature that likes to attack. Otherwise, he is a pretty vanilla 3/3 for 4 mana. He would be most at home in an aggro deck, rather than a control deck that likes to sit back and play a defensive game. Rafiq needs to be out on the front lines or at least lending his support to other creatures entering the red zone.

We now know, just from looking at this one card, that we're playing a WUG aggro deck. But we can still glean some more information to help guide our deck from our General. One of the reasons I was drawn to Rafiq was the double-strike portion of his abilities. Double strike has been under-utilized in Magic for too long, and Rafiq looked to me like one of the strongest contenders to make this combat ability really shine.

Now, how best do we take advantage of double strike? Evasion is the first and most obvious answer. There is a good chance that, with Rafiq on the table, your 5 mana creatures are going to be twice as efficient at dealing damage as your opponents 5 mana creatures. So blocking is not in your best interest, which means that it IS in your opponent's interest to block Rafiq, or the creature he enables. He gives you a massive edge in a damage race, and your opponent will likely know that. Thus, evasive creatures that are difficult to block will give you further advantage in the damage race. Flying is a good example, as is Trample, and of course straight-up Unblock-ability is excellent.

Another way to make double strike work doubly well is to make the fact that damage is dealt twice count. Combat damage triggered abilities are the key here. Lifelink is a good one to start. Take Exalted Angel, for example. With Rafiq out, she'll gain you 10 life per attack, rather than the usual 4. Another really good example is Hystrodon. Every time he hits an opponent, you draw a card. Conveniently, this beast is already equipped with Trample. Rafiq demands more of Hystrodon though, and he'll see to it that you're drawing TWO cards a turn with your beast.

So making a little 2/2 Jhessian Infiltrator hit for 6 every time is good, but... in EDH you have 40 life to start, not 20. 6 damage per attack is a little underwhelming, sometimes. What else benefits from having double strike? Duh! Really big creatures! Enter Akroma, Angel of Wrath and Simic Sky Swallower. Both have Trample and Flying, two forms of evasion, and other abilities to boot. Both can protect themselves from many forms of removal, which makes the hefty mana investments worthwhile. And they will carve 14 point chunks out of your opponents life total with Rafiq's assistance. More, if you include further Exalted cards.

Speaking of which, Exalted is the other reason I was drawn to Rafiq. Exalted is a fun ability, and I thank Wizards for printing it. Given that I'm running Rafiq, I am almost certainly going to be including some other cards with the keyword Exalted. Here, I tried to run as many Exalted cards as possible, excluding only those that were simply underpowered. So which ones made the cut?

Virtually all of the common Exalted creatures were too weak to make the deck. Cards like Akrasan Squire and Aven Squire are too small and have too little board impact to be worth a slot. Outrider of Jhess and Waveskimmer Aven have this problem AND suffer from a bloated mana cost as well. Neither of the two Archers with Exalted look compelling or powerful. Three common creatures that did make the cut initially were Qasali Pridemage, Rhox Bodyguard and Frontline Sage. All three did a little something extra that made them worth the slot. Rhox Bodyguard gained me some life, Frontline Sage filtered cards, and the Pridemage kills artifacts or enchantments.

Rhox Bodyguard was the first to be cut, though. Even with the Exalted ability, I would still rather run Loxodon Hierarch or Kitchen Finks in that slot. Indeed, the Rhino was replaced with the Elephant after a few games. Frontline Sage performed admirably, and I liked the card well enough. He simply lost out to Jace, Mind Sculptor - I'm sure you can see my reasoning there! Qasali Pridemage is still in the deck, and likely will remain there forever. The deck needs answers to enchantments and artifacts, and it needs small, cheap Exalted creatures. This guy was tailor made for this deck, and is a VIP here.

At uncommon, the creatures improve little. I already dimissed the Archer, and while Sigiled Paladin is a fine card in general, it is just too small and ineffective for EDH. Rhox Charger is a card that is SO CLOSE to being ideal, but just falls short. The problem is that the gave it Trample. Huh? What I mean is, if they had designed the card to work like Rafiq and Battlegrace Angel so that it granted Trample to OTHER creatures that attacked alone, I would run this card without hesitation. But alas, they just slapped the keyword on there, so the Charger has to be the one to attack to get the trample bonus. Why is this important? Well, because if I have the Charger and Rafiq both on the table, I'm going to want to attack with Rafiq because of the general damage rule. However, to get any use out of the Trample ability I must attack with the Charger instead. If the Charger could grant Rafiq with a Trample bonus... oh boy!

Moving on to the Rare, I run all of these. Battlegrace Angel is terrific - she has an evasion ability and a combat-damage ability, and she can grant her lifelink to another attacker if need be. Noble Heirarch should need no explanation - she is that damn good, 'nuff said. Giltspire Avenger is a bit of a conundrum. He's good, but I rarely ever get to tap him for his ability. However, I feel he's worth running, simply because he can singlehandedly shut down your opponents attack and force them to answer this guy. He usually just eats a kill spell before ever becoming relevant, BUT if that kill spell was meant for Rafiq, then he's done his job anyway. Sovereigns are amazing, but we'll get to them a little later.

As for non-creature Exalted spells, I only run one out of three, but all three could be worth running, depending on the deck.

Ardent Plea - This one doesn't do much for my deck. There aren't enough worthwhile targets for the Cascade portion to be great, and once it's one the table all it does is Exalted. Sure cascading into a Path to Exile or Qasali Pridemage at the right time can be awesome, but it's too hard to control, and I'd just end up with a Signet or Sakura-Tribe Elder half the time anyway. Still, if your deck has more targets at 2 mana, give this a shot.

Angelic Benediction - This one is a little more tempting for me, as it does have a fairly relevant ability in that it could potentially clear the way of blockers, but it still just felt to conditional to me. I have come close to putting it in a few times, but never made the leap.

Finest Hour - OH HELL YES! This card is fan-friggin-tastic. Okay, here's the scenario: I have a Jhessian Infiltrator (a 2/2 unblockable), Rafiq of the Many, and Finest Hour on the board, no other relevant permanents. I attack with the Infiltrator (they could block Rafiq) who gets +2/+2 from Exalted triggers, and double strike. He hits for 8. I untap him, swing again and he becomes a 6/6 from two more Exalted triggers, this time hitting for 12. I just dealt 20 damage with a 2-mana 2/2 guy. Simply put, this card is precisely what this deck needs to utterly break Rafiq.

So now we have our Exalted suite, and we know many of our creatures are going to have some sort of combat damage triggered ability. The remaining slots will go to utility creatures and a few must-run bombs.

Another tactic we can use to take advantage of Rafiq's natural talents is "buff". Usually, this means increasing the creature's power/toughness, but in EDH that often isn't enough. We need to further enhance our Generel's (or his chosen champion's) abilities. Eqipment and Auras are a good way to go here. Now, Auras tend to have a bad reputation in EDH, and rightly so. But there is a concept known as "high risk, high reward". What that means is there are some things that are worth taking the risk, knowing that it could go badly, but the potential reward makes it worthwhile. Steel of the Godhead, Sheild of the Oversoul, and Eldrazi Conscription are three Auras that carry the inherent risk losing card advantage, as do most auras, but the benefits they will grant you IF they stick make running them worth the inherent risk. All three of these Auras are game-winning on Rafiq, but will often be good enough on other creatures in the deck.

The number of times I have won a game off one or more of these cards far surpasses the number of times I've been two-for-one'd by a timely kill spell. Furthermore, remember when I mentioned Sovereigns of Lost Alara but said I'd address their role in the deck later? Well, this is it right here. They're in the deck to help tutor up AND cheat into play the right Aura at the right time. I've won several games where all I had to do was untap with Rafiq in play, pay 6 to drop Sovereigns, and swing for general damage out of nowhere. So, yeah, as a rule, Auras are BAD. But like all rules, this one has its exceptions...

Equipment are like Auras, but without the inherent card disadvantage. If the creature dies, the Equipment usually sticks around and waits for another to pick it up and wield it. My Equipment suite contains: Lightning Greaves, Umezawa's Jitte, Sword of Fire and Ice, and Sword of Light and Shadow. Greaves are there to help protect my general (shroud) and make it possible to win suddenly and out of nowhere (haste). I cannot understate the power and utility of the Greaves - they may not have the luster and hype of the rare Equipment but they often outperform other Equipment.

I'm sure many of you remember how broken Umezawa's Jitte when it was in Standard... well, in EDH it is not nearly as good. Usually. I find that at two-per-attack, it just gains counters too slowly to be all that good. I almost never have enough to kill a creature larger than 4/4 and usually if something is that scary to me, it is MUCH larger than that. If the lifegain ability is ever relevant, that almost certainly means your losing despite the Jitte. And the +2/+2 part is fine, but not overwhelmingly so. That's all true, UNLESS it's Rafiq holding the Jitte. Double strike gains your Jitte counters twice as fast, and allows for tricks where you can remove counters after first strike but before regular damage. This is relevant more than you'd think. Finest Hour is another card that lets you gain counters at double the rate.

The Swords: These are good in almost any deck, but here they really stand out. They both have TWO combat damage abilities, of which Rafiq will double the benefits. And they both grant two forms of protection, which are of equal import. You will find that the toughest aspect to playing a Rafiq deck is keeping Rafiq alive long enough to do anything. The two Swords help with that.

NOTE: Many Rafiq decks run Might of Oaks for the random One-Shot Kill. Rafiq attacks as a 4/4 naturally, the +7/+7 bonus makes him 11/11, so with double strike he is going to deal 22 General Damage, enough to win on the spot. I don't have a problem with this... in fact I think it's totally awesome. But I have enough other ways to win out of the blue, and they're all more elaborate and more fun. I'm not saying "don't run it" but I chose not to for purely aesthetic reasons.

So, we've definitely discovered that this is a deck that wants to attack frequently and aggressively, although usually with just one creature. That's good, because it lets us not over commit. We can establish a superior board presence and gain the advantage in most damage races without having to over-commit to the board. Fortunate, because this deck would fold to Wrath effects were it not so. Many times, you are going to want to choose one creature to cast to be your designated attacker, then make Rafiq, and just spend the rest of the time trying keep Rafiq out and dealing with opposing threats.

Well, let's flesh the deck out with some utility, card drawing and whatever else might come up. Shall we? Here is the current decklist:

Rafiq of the Many

Stoneforge Mystic
Academy Rector
Battlegrace Angel
Felidar Sovereign
Yosei, the Morning Star
Akroma, Angel of Wrath

Looter il-Kor
Vesuvan Doppelganger

Noble Hierarch
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Wood Elves
Eternal Witness
Indrik Stomphowler
Acidic Slime

Qasali Pridemage
Jhessian Infiltrator
Cold-Eyed Selkie
Dauntless Escort
Rhox War Monk
Jenara, Asura of War
Giltspire Avenger
Loxodon Hierarch
Knight of New Alara
Wilt-Leaf Liege
Sovereigns of Lost Alara
Simic Sky Swallower


Swords to Plowshares
Path to Exile
Faith's Fetters
Marshal's Anthem
Elspeth, Knight-Errant
Miraculous Recovery
Wrath of God
Kirtar's Wrath
Decree of Justice
Martial Coup

Deep Analysis
Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Skyshroud Claim
Pattern of Rebirth

Eladamri's Call
Steel of the Godhead
Shield of the Oversoul
Finest Hour
Mirari's Wake

Eldrazi Conscription
Lightning Greaves
Umezawa's Jitte
Sword of Light and Shadow
Sword of Fire and Ice
Azorius Signet
Selesnaya Signet
Simic Signet
Obelisk of Bant

Plains (x3)
Island (x3)
Forest (x3)
Temple Garden
Hallowed Fountain
Breeding Pool
Azorius Chancery
Selesnaya Sanctuary
Simic Growth Chamber
Celestial Colonnade
Glacial Fortress
Sunpetal Grove
Graypelt Refuge
Sejiri Refuge
Wooded Bastion
Adarkar Wastes
Yavimaya Coast
City of Brass
Reflecting Pool
Seaside Citadel
Vivid Creek
Terramorphic Expanse
New Benalia
Flagstones of Trokar
Treetop Village
Llanowar Reborn
Kor Haven
High Market
Yavimaya Hollow

There you have it folks. This is a terrific aggro deck, well suited to stomping a single opponent into the ground. It can be retooled for multi-player games fairly easily, as well.

I'll go ahead and address a few specific cards and issues, though, to better illustrate my deckbuilding process, and provide some pointers if you want to use this list, but make it your own.

First off, my playgroup largely shuns the use of countermagic in EDH. It's not fun to any of us, so we just don't use it. Just getting that out of the way now...

Some of the inclusions might need a bit of explanation, so here goes:

Stoneforge Mystic: Probably obvious, but if not, she gets whatever Equipment in the deck would be the most useful at the moment. She only has 4 targets, but they're all so damned good that she's worth the slot. Plus she can get you a 1 mana discount on the Swords - a minor, but not insignificant, detail.

Academy Rector: Commonly know in my group as "the Old Bitch". She is just that. Drop her on turn 4 and your opponent suddenly has to question weather Wrath-ing is such a good idea now. Just to remind you, a few of her targets are: Mirari's Wake, Finest Hour, Eldrazi Conscription, Treachery. Yeah, she's a bitch, alright.

Felidar Sovereign: He can win on the spot, but even if he doesn't Lifelink makes him good with Rafiq.

Yosei, the Morning Star: Another one of those "I dare you to Wrath, I just dare you" cards. Just a really good defensive card, but he can also tap your opponent down to clear a path for Rafiq to win with General Damage.

Vesuvan Doppelganger: Versatile. She can kill Generals or other Legends. She can copy your own Yosei to tap your opponent down for two (!) turns. Or she can just copy the best thing on the board. What's not to love? This is one of my favorite cards of all time.

Indrik Stomphowler/Acidic Slime: Amazing utility creatures, both. I can never decide which of them to run, so I just run both!

Rhox: I said earlier that sometimes just dealing damage was enough. Few creatures are as good at ensuring that, one way or another, damage WILL be dealt.

Cold-Eyed Selkie: She might be fairly obvious, what with a combat damage ability and all, but I just wanted to point out that she draws hella cards with Rafiq out. 4 per attack with JUST Rafiq supporting her.

Dauntless Escort: Keeping Rafiq alive is both your greatest challenge and highest priority most games. This helps.

Knight of New Alara: Really good with Rafiq, and almost half the creatures in this deck are benefited by him.

Wilt-Leaf Liege: Same as the Knight... he can be a good buff for Rafiq, but he makes a handy threat on his own.

Duplicant: Take my word for it, if you haven't already seen this in action. I run this in EVERY single EDH deck I build and have never once had cause to regret it.

Swords to Plowshares/Path to Exile: Clearing a path for Rafiq is also a top priority.

Faith's Fetters: Shuts down opposing Planeswalkers, Equipment, or utility lands such as Volrath's Stronghold. Oh, and creatures, too.

Marshal's Anthem: Buff is good in this deck. So is recursion. One efficient package does both!

Elspeth, Knight-Errant/Jace, Mind Sculptor: Both work well within the themes of the deck, and contribute directly to what the deck wants to achieve. Ajani and Garruk failed to make the cut, because both perform optimally when there are more and more creatures on the board, whereas this deck wants to avoid overcommitting.

Miraculous Recovery: EOT zombify effects are always good.

Wrath/Kirtar's Wrath/Martial Coup: Every EDH needs at least a few board sweepers. As good as this deck is at having superior board presence, it can't ALWAYS achieve this. Sometimes your opponent will get a better draw than you. These cards are for those times.

Decree of Justice: The reason for this card is also why Martial Coup is among the 3 board sweepers chosen. Sometimes you just really need to make a bunch of little guys. This goes against what I said about the deck not wanting to make too many creatures at once, but there are always exceptions. Thraximundar, for instance, is one of them.

Treachery: Stealing an opponent's creature is fun. Doing it for free is very fun.

Pattern of Rebirth: "Go on, Wrath, I dare you. He he he."

Eladamri's Call: Not strictly necessary, but finding the right tool for the job can be very useful.

Mirari's Wake: Double your mana, double your fun. Plus it's a buff, so... bonus! This is a pet card of mine, one of my favorite cards ever. But it allows you to get away with running a few more high-end spells if you are so inclined.

Wargate: Again, it's all about finding just the right tool for the job. It has enabled a few win-out-of-nowhere games.

Some notable exclusions might warrant discussion as well:

Sol Ring: This is a matter of availability. I had enough Sol Rings for all of my EDH decks but one. And of all of them, this deck has the lowest curve AND the most stringent colored-mana requirements. Sol Ring, for instance, does not help me cast Rafiq turn two. This was the one EDH I felt could live without it. If you do have it, though, I'd recommend running it anyway.

Solemn Simulacrum: Many folks would run him here, but folks, c'mon. The deck has GREEN in it, you can do better than a 4 mana Rampant Growth!

Sensei's Divining Top: I am in the minority here, but I don't like this card much in EDH. It's okay, but it's kinda annoying and I think it's power is overrated.

Skullclamp: A worthy addition to the deck, but I found that with access to Blue for card drawing, I just didn't need it as badly as the other 4 Equipment cards. If you have room for 5, this should be the fifth piece of equipment.

Reveillark: It should be in the deck, but alas I have not found room for it yet. Someday, maybe...

Bribery: Definitely belongs in the deck, and it was, but I needed them for other decks.

Tooth and Nail: Usually a must-run in decks with Green, but here it would basically always get Akroma and Simic Sky Swallower, making the subsequent Wrath of God THAT much more painful.

Bant Charm: This, along with other countermagic, are more or less banned in our group. I did run it for a time, primarily as an answer to Thraximundar (the bane of this deck) but I eventually found more creative ways to solve that problem. Putting your opponents general on the bottom of his library is good, yes, but it's also extremely douchebaggy.

That said, there are about 100 cards I could find that would be worthwhile additions to a Rafiq deck, but the decklist I have presented here is as close to perfect as I could make it, given the specific goals I wanted to acheive. I didn't want to just make it a WUG "good stuff" deck that just happened to have Rafiq as the general. I wanted it to be built around Rafiq, designed to enhance an support his natural abilities. I wanted the deck to be my go-to aggro deck for a 1vs1 EDH match.

The vast majority of the cards play to one or more of the General's abilities, and the few cards that don't are either extremely powerful bombs (Yosei, the Morning Star) or just necessary utility (Indrik Stomphowler). But where possible, I found cards that played into the themes set by the general, and functioned as utility cards simultaneously (Qasali Pridemage).

I've played the deck for quite some time, so it's not just theoretical. This deck is good! It has it's weaknesses, sure, as do all decks. EDH in particular is a tough format to "solve". But I set out to design a deck specifically for one-on-one play, and specifically to be an aggressive, creature-based deck. In meeting all of those criteria, it has succeeded remarkably well, and it is one of the most fun EDH decks I have ever played.

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