Thursday, November 27, 2014

C14: Tinkering with Teferi

Howdy folks, it’s time for another look at one of the C14 decks. Today we’re going to be discussing the Blue deck, perplexingly entitled “Peer Through Time” and helmed by the impressive Teferi, Temporal Archmage.

When I first looked over this decklist once the full list was spoiled, I was struck by two questions. First, why is this called “Peer Through Time”? And, second, what does this deck DO? I mean, there was a vague yet obvious sense of “ramp in to giant sea monsters” present, but other than that, it seemed like a big pile of generic “Good Stuff”, except that other than a select few cards (Stroke, Cyclonic Rift), the “stuff” was more mediocre than good. The first question was not answered in the slightest by actually playing the deck a few times. As for the second question, testing out the deck sort of confirmed my initial estimation, while at the same time proving it to be somewhat more cohesive than I expected.

So what, exactly, does this deck do? It seems to have a bit of a thing for both giant sea creatures, and sphinxes, and mana rocks. Teferi himself is basically there to abuse the heck out of his -1 ability. As I said above, ramp into huge things is definitely our Plan A here. Another recurring theme in the deck is bouncing things back to hand. While this is fairly typical of Blue decks, the bounce spells here serve a dual purpose that is actually quite critical – they can either protect Teferi from attackers while you build up to something big, or they can clear the way for you to win with whatever big things you built up to.

Using Teferi, with this deck,  you can either go proactive or reactive, depending on your draws and the board state. If the coast seems clear to just ramp out that Sphinx or Kraken, go for it, then use your bounce spells to protect you and Teferi from the inevitable backlash. However, if the board is already advanced enough that adding one big threat is only going to draw more hate than you can handle, then just untap and pass with a full grip and lots of mana. Opponents will assume you have tricks up your sleeve, and with this deck, you probably aren’t bluffing!

Teferi’s +1 is far less exciting, and you’ll generally just want to be untapping things most of the time, but it can help you in a pinch. If you run out of gas, or if you just have enough defense that you want to try for the ultimate, go ahead and +1, of course, but I almost never use the +1 unless I’m desperately digging for something relevant to cast. In fact, I’ve found that even when Teferi is down to his last loyalty counter, that I’d almost always rather just get that one last untap out of him and just recast him to recharge him, rather than tick him up slowly turn after turn.

That all probably depends highly on the deck. If you were going with an extremely controlling build, using the +1 to both keep cards flowing, while building up to that Ultimate, is possibly the route you’d want to go, but I haven’t gone down that road with my build, so I’m just theorizing here. But, for my part, I’m much more interested in focusing on the ability to untap 4 permanents. This ability is pretty bonkers how good it is, and it’s probably fairly easy to go infinite if you aren’t careful. Well, to be fair, maybe that’s precisely what you want to do. I’m afraid I will not likely be of much use there, as I play in one of those no-combo-zone groups (which is fine by me).

So I don’t want to go the infinite combo route, or the uber-heavy control route, but I do want to maximize the value of the -1 ability by untapping lots of things each turn, so where does that leave us? Well, frankly there’s lots of options, really. We just have to dig a bit to see what’s there. Look at the existing cards in the deck, and just think about what random cards come to mind that you’d like to add.

Here’s an example: I look at Well of Ideas and Intellectual Offering and I think “what purpose do these serve here?”, well they draw cards, but being poltical cards, they also draw one or more of my opponents some number of cards as well. In other words, they’re symmetrical card drawing effects. But I’m generally not that political of a player, and I don’t like just giving my opponents cards outright. I mean, I’ll play things like Temple Bell, Wheel of Fortune or Time Spiral, but those all have some upside for me, or in the case of Wheel of Fortune, I’m usually just running it in colors that are desperate for card draw. So, I can either cut these cards and replace them with non-symmetrical effects or I can think of a way to exploit or break the symmetry. The three most obvious things that jump out are Mind’s Eye, Psychic Possession and, obviously, Consecrated Sphinx. Mind’s Eye is fine, but a bit too expensive, in my opinion.  Psychic Possession is a bit of a nonbo with Well of Ideas since it screws you out of the two extra cards you would draw on your own turn, so that’s out. Plus, both cards have the disadvantage of being pretty underwhelming on their own. Meanwhile, the Sphinx is clearly good enough by himself, and is something we want to be playing anyway.

This gets me to looking at the rest of the card-drawing spells in the deck and thinking about how we could improve them. One of the first things that comes to mind is Flow of Ideas. In a deck with this many Islands you should pretty much always be drawing 5 cards at minimum, but that could easily be 10 or so at times. That definitely seems like a thing we might want to be doing. Stroke of Genius is a great card, and we may well want to supplement it with Blue Sun’s Zenith, or we might just swap them out one for one. Depends on the final list – if you have a lot of stuff like Snapcaster Mage, Archaeomancer, etc., then you’ll probably want the Stroke, but if you have little or no recursion then the built-in reusability of the Zenith is probably more compelling.

Next, let’s talk about Azure Mage. Azure Mage is… fine, I guess. I mean, she has some obvious synergy with Teferi – you can tap 4 lands to draw a card, then untap those lands and do it again. That’s neat, but I have a better idea: Jushi Apprentice. Functionally he will play almost exactly the same as Azure Mage most of the time. His ability only costs three, which in a vacuum isn’t much different, since he taps as well. So you tap three lands and him, draw, untap those three lands and the Apprentice, and do it again. What’s the difference? Well, costing only three to activate means if you want to actually CAST something after drawing your first card, you probably have one more mana available to do so than you would with the Mage. But more importantly, Azure Mage can’t flip into Tomoya the Revealer. Tomoya’s draw ability is basically just the nuts, and you can easily flip the apprentice with Teferi allowing for two activations per turn.

And Tomya is targeted, so you can just target yourself to double your current hand size, or if you have Consecrated Sphinx out, you can target an opponent with a full grip, and whatever they’re drawing, you are going to draw twice as much! Watch out for instant-speed removal, though, or you’ll have just given someone a bunch of free cards for nothing!

At this point, we want to stop and look at what we have so far. A bunch of crazy card drawing, some of it targetable? Teferi, and a slew of mana rocks? Tomoya the Revealer? This is starting to look a lot like one of those decks that wants to win by “killing” you with a huge Stroke of Genius. Add in Lab Maniac as an another win-con, and you suddenly have a deck strategy! This deck will basically make you and/or your opponents draw tons of cards, and then seek to win by either decking opponents, or decking yourself and winning via Lab Maniac. The Stroke plan is probably good enough for 1v1 but it’d be hard to make the deck resilient and consistent enough to beat multiple opponents (reliably, at least), so in a multiplayer game, you’d probably be on the Lab Maniac plan, unless you can maneuver the game such that it comes down to you and one last opponent…

If we go down this route, we’re going to want to look at cards like Jace’s Archivist, and all the other Windfall variants, Dreamborn Muse and other mill options, and probably Twincast so you can lethally Stroke out two people at once. Recurring Insight is one of those cards I feel is generally just underplayed in the format, but it seems particularly on point here. There are a lot of issues to address with a build like this, though. You need to be able to defend yourself, probably a LOT, once people know what the deck is actually trying to do, and you also need to be able to protect key targets like Consecrated Sphinx and Tomoya. You should build the deck so that you can win without those key pieces, but it would be much harder. Basically, the deck would be: mana rocks, things that draw a billion cards, and copious amounts of bounce and countermagic.

From a deck-building perspective, this sounds very exciting to me, but from a gameplay perspective, this sounds kind of grindy and unfun, and probably would lead to lots of really long games. Exciting, and interesting,  because I feel like this deck would be very challenging to get the formula just right – too much draw power and not enough defense, and you’ll just fold to concentrated hate from the table, and you also have to consider questions like what to do if someone resolves a Time Spiral or Elixer of Immortality, or discards an Eldrazi. Too much defensive power, and no one will be able to kill you, but you’ll have a hard time amassing enough draw to deck anyone. There are few things more frustrating than dragging a game out so that it goes on and on, without actually being able to mount any kind of offense or win-con yourself. I like decks where making tiny, incremental adjustments to fine-tune the deck makes a real difference; such decks reward skill and dedication both in building and playing the deck. But even without going infinite it still feels pretty much like a combo deck.

So that’s definitely one direction we could go, but I don’t feel like it’s the best fit for my group… but there are other options. If one this is clear from the outset, it’s that we want a fair amount of mana rocks for Teferi to untap. Untapping four Islands is great, don’t get me wrong, but adding a Sol Ring or a Thran Dynamo to the mix makes it even better, plus they actually help you cast Teferi sooner, too. Of course having a bunch of mana rocks leads me to think of things like Voltaic  Key and Tezzeret the Seeker. Of course, those in turn lead me down the path of the artifact-centric blue deck. There are of course lots of artifacts that benefit from being untapped by Teferi, Tezzeret or the Key, not just mana rocks. With two planeswalkers already in the mix, and thinking about artifacts, The Chain Veil is among the first things to come to mind.

I’m a bit leery of the Chain Veil. It reeks of potential combo shenanigans, so I’d be a bit afraid that I might accidentally assemble some Goldbergian combo in a game and have to sheepishly explain that, no, I had no idea that could happen, please don’t hate me, etc… but I really don’t know what all it would take to break the Chain Veil in such a fashion, so I’d be comfortable assuming I won’t be able to combo out with it unless I’m actually trying to do so. The Chain Veil does push us more towards Planeswalkers than artifacts, of course, but there aren’t really that many mono-blue walkers, so if we want to just add in Tamiyo and a couple of Jaces, I’m sure that’d be fine, and still leave us plenty of room for artifacts.

What other artifacts tap to do things? In particular, we want things that cost three or less mana to activate, for Teferi purposes. Things like… Mimic Vat, Proteus Staff, Trading Post? Yeah! Stuff like that. Also, non-artifact but artifact-related stuff like Muzzio, Visionary Architect and Grand Architect are appropriate. Getting double duty out of Muzzio in particular sounds quite lovely. Sprinkle in utility robots like Solemn Simulacrum, Spine of Ish Sah, Kuldotha Forgemaster, etc. Then season liberally with whatever other artifacts you enjoy – you can go the evil route with Disk+Forge, Lattice+March and Mindslaver+Ruins, or you can be nicer and just go for random goodies like Darksteel Colossus, Wurmcoil Engine and Myr Battlesphere.

My only issue with this style of deck is, both the White and Red C14 decks are pretty artifact-centric. Sure, there wouldn’t be a lot of overlap with the White one, but it’d be very similar to the Red deck, I think, so it just feels redundant to go this route. We can still borrow ideas from this approach, though, without going full-blown Artifact-focused. Mimic Vat and Proteus Staff in particular are generally just really good cards, so we’d consider those for other builds.

We could always build along tribal lines – the deck has a fair number of Sphinxes, and we’re likely to be keeping some of them around, as well as adding at least one certain (broken) sphinx… but the majority of you, I’m sure, would rather go for the seafood platter. Including any of the creature types mentioned on Whelming Wave or Quest for Ula’s Temple gives us an excuse to run both of those awesome cards. I am very saddened, though, that neither of those mentions “whale” as a creature type. I’d love me some Colossal Whale action… in fact I might want to run that one regardless. So basically, we have the sea-monster tribal option. Sure, from a flavor/theme perspective a commander like Tromokratis would make more sense, but Teferi is probably better strategically as he helps us ramp into bigger monsters faster, and in a pinch can draw us more monsters. This is not a new deck idea, and I’m sure you can find lots of EDH lists out there on the web this style of deck… but I’ll just go ahead and suggest a few of the things I’d personally consider to be essential.

First and foremost (and aside from the aforementioned Whelming Wave and Quest), I’d consider Stormtide Leviathan and Scourge of Fleets to be the two most egregious omissions from the precon list, even if we aren’t going full bore on the Ula’s Temple plan. Scourge of Fleets can be a total blowout in the late game, and provides some pretty exceptional defense in the early/mid game. There are very few mono-blue builds in which I wouldn’t run this thing! Beyond those, the “sea monster” well is pretty deep, but quality is more of an issue. Inkwell Leviathan is pretty darn good (and overlaps with the artifact theme), but I feel like we’d still be forced to run some mediocre choices like Shipbreaker Kraken and Kraken of the Straits just to make the theme count. Most of the other playable options are already included, actually. Any deck where I’m even looking at Godhunter Octopus as a possible option is not something I find compelling, but I find the concept of a sea monster deck to be rather exciting and amusing, so I’m not going to knock it if you want to give it a try!

Random Aside: Casting Scourge of Fleets, and then passing the turn with three mana up and Cackling Counterpart in your hand is just sublime. (In case you don’t see it, Cackling Counterpart is an Instant! Do it at the end of their turn, likely after they just got done recasting all the stuff you just bounced, and you untap with two 5/5’s against an empty board).

Again, this is not the road I want to go down, but keeping some of the big monsters is essential – after all, we need something to do with all that mana Teferi’s going to give us. Most of the ones they included are fine. I poo-pooed Breaching Leviathan in my set review, and I still have issues with it, but having played it a few times, and played against it, it’s actually a lot better than I thought – sure it’s a nonbo with Quest for Ula’s Temple, but it turns out hard casting 9-mana things is much easier than I thought, with this deck.

Mana-doublers like Caged Sun and Extraplanar Lens seem to fit the deck well. They can be stand-ins for Teferi if you are somehow unable to keep him alive long enough to do anything, but also work in conjuction with him to really super-charge that -1 ability. Doubling Cube seems like it could really do some work here. To make things like Caged Sun work, you need lots of basics in play, so some good old-fashioned land ramp is desirable, but sadly Blue is lacking in that department. Of course there are always Solemn Simulacrum and Burnished Hart, both of which I’d play in virtually any build of this deck regardless of direction or theme, but let’s not forget Planar Chaos oddity Dreamscape Artist! In my experience you will tend to draw lots of extra lands, so this guy ramps you, interacts favorably with Teferi, and eventually thins out the lands so that you start to draw more live cards later on.

At one point I even considered Walking Atlas as a way to get more land drops and make use of all those lands I drew. If you really want to push this hard as a mono-blue Ramp deck, that might actually be warranted. Throw in Terrain Generator, and (I can’t believe I’m about to say this…) Patron of the Moon, to really barf those lands out. Crucible of Worlds + Myriad Landscape is slow and expensive, but effective if you can keep your opponents off your back long enough to get that engine going.

Another card to consider in this build is Trade Routes. Basically giving all your lands Cycling 1 is pretty sweet, and there’s probably some variation on the deck that makes the ability to bounce your own lands relevant as well. Maybe with Land Equilibrium? I don’t know, that’s probably unlikely to work, and probably highly annoying if it does work. Anyway, Trade Routes is cool, so I’d consider it here.

Hmm, let's see... what else is Blue good at doing? Stealing things, and copying things; that's two. Both stealing and copying, as major themes, have been done, of course. Neither of these "themes" is deep enough or interesting enough to focus an entire deck around, in my opinion. Nonetheless they are among Blue's strengths, and both give us access, via other players' cards, to abilities and effects we might not otherwise have access to. For example, cloning another player's Acidic Slime to kill an enchantment, or "borrowing" an opposing Serra Ascendant for some lifegain. Point being, Blue is the best color for using your enemies' own cards against them. Not tapping into some of that power just wouldn't make sense.

There are a ton of options in both categories, so it's pretty much up to personal taste and/or card availability. But my recommendations tend towards the proven, time-tested methods. Obviously with as many various mana rocks and other artifacts in the deck, Phyrexian Metamorph is one of the best out there. Similarly, the new Clever Impersonator is quite versatile. One thing Blue can't do, typically, is "reanimation", but again, Planar Chaos's "what-if" color pie comes to the rescue, with Body Double, a brilliant little card. Cloning things from the graveyard is Blue's version of a Zombify, which is pretty clever. Vesuvan Shapeshifter is a fine pick if you want keep some of the Morph stuff intact, or if you just want to complete the "pickles lock" with the Brine Elemental already included.

On the stealing side of things, Bribery and Treachery are the most generic and obvious options, but folks, they are ubiquitous for a reason - they're GOOD! Like, really, really good. But if you want to avoid the cliche choices, maybe there are other options. Helm of Possession is pretty good, but I'd only really recommend this one if you have a lot of expendable utility dorks to sac. Another potentially techy pick is Chamber of Manipulation. You should easily be drawing enough cards to discard to it, but the real problem is figuring out how to use the stolen creatures, since you only get them until EOT, but they don't get haste! One possible option is to use Proteus Staff on the borrowed creature - it'll go back to the bottom of it's owner's library, but YOU still get to dig for a creature to put into play! Otherwise, Greaves and Boots can just enable haste to allow you to attack. 

One of the best options, though, is Vedalken Shackles. That card is one of the most compelling reasons for me to broaden my horizons into mono-colored territories - because I've had a couple of copies sitting around for years, but never really got to use them because, well, they're pretty crap in most multicolor decks. 

One of my favorite new cards in this deck is Domineering Will, which I'd definitely keep around. Blatant Thievery is kind of like a permanent version of Domineering Will, but it can steal ANYTHING! Planeswalkers, Enchantments, Lands... pretty much anything not tied down with Hexproof or Shroud is up for grabs. Reins of Power is well-known and loved by many in the format, and last year's C13 had the fantastic Illusionist's Gambit, which is a card that, every time I cast it in a game, causes me to think " holy crap, is this card actually real?!" 

While Illusionist's Gambit doesn't actually say "gain control" or anything similar to that, I still put it in this section because what the card basically does is to "steal" someone else's combat phase! True, you don't get to pick the opponent to be the recipient of the misdirected attack, but basically, the card feels like it started out as a card someone designed as a joke - "gain control of target attack phase". Like, maybe it was an unused design for the third Un-set, and R&D just decided, for shits and giggles, to see if they could make a card that was functionally the same, but would actually work in real Magic, and thus Illusionist's Gambit was born. 

Anyway, on the ever-shortening list of things Blue CAN'T steal, we can scratch off "combat phase".

One more thing Blue mages tend to love is their Trinket Mage packages. I threw him in mainly just to find my Sol Ring or Tormod's Crypt more consistently (Crypt has been surprisingly relevant and useful - I'd love to cut it, but it keeps proving valuable). But almost any of the variations on this deck we've discussed has a very high potential to burn through it's library and fill up the graveyard at an alarming rate. So, I'd suggest Elixir of Immortality as one option. Yes, it's mostly one of those noob cards - it doesn't actually DO anything, it gains life... but a bit of lifegain is actually kinda nice to have in a pinch, especially when it's just a bonus tacked on to another effect we already want. 

Not a Trinket Mage target, but I'd also suggest Time Spiral for basically any version of this build except the version that wants to deck everyone. 

There are tons of trinkets for the mage to fetch, but I generally just like to have a few that I'm really likely to want, and not a bunch of highly circumstantial effects that just clutter up my decklist. And I've already mentioned Voltaic Key previously, but here again it seems well worth mentioning. There will almost always be valid targets for the Key to untap.

And, I think, the last thing I want to talk about is defense. We've already talked about bounce spells, but Blue's other signature defensive move is to "freeze" things, I.E. tapping things down and keeping them tapped for a turn. See Frost Titan and Breaching Leviathan for examples. Other things that do this include: Tamiyo the Moon Sage, Sleep, Frost Breath, Icy Blast, and Sudden Storm. I like Tamiyo in general because she's just really good on her own, but she's also pretty good with these other effects. Using her -2 after resolving a Sleep or Breaching Leviathan, for instance, can be quite the coup. 

I don't really like the "tap two guys" options much, unless I'm playing 1v1 pretty exclusively. In a multiplayer setting it'll be often that there are more than two significant threats at one time, and something like Frost Breath won't quite get there. Icy Blast and Sleep both seem like great options, though. I especially like Sleep since it's a 4-mana spell making it a great follow-up play to casting Teferi for the first time. However it, too, targets a specific opponent, so sometimes it won't be able to handle all possible threats. With all the big sea monsters and sphinxes, Icy Blast seems like it'd almost always be Ferocious.

 Well, I've just about exhausted my well of ideas for this deck, but it continues to impress and inspire me the more I play it. I really didn't think the initial list was all that interesting or exciting, but I've really come around to see that there is clearly a lot of potential for the deck, and for Teferi himself.

In the end, I actually couldn't choose one direction to go in, so I just borrowed some of the ideas from all the variations I discussed above. That makes the list look a little more generic and good-stuff-ish than I'd have liked, but the deck actually plays very cohesively and has lots of little interactions and synergies that justify most of the more staple-ish inclusions. There are, as always, a handful of cards I'd love to include but couldn't find room for, or didn't have copies of available for use. But for now, here's the list I've been rocking, and it's been a blast to play. 

Teferi, Temporal Archmage


Dreamscape Artist
Jushi Apprentice
Snapcaster Mage
Trinket Mage
Chasm Skulker
Thassa, God of the Sea
Temporal Adept
Reef Worm
Phyrexian Metamorph
Dungeon Geists
Stormsurge Kraken
Stitcher Geralf
Frost Titan
Consecrated Sphinx
Phyrexian Ingester
Diluvian Primordial
Sphinx of Uthun
Scourge of Fleets
Stormtide Leviathan
Lorthos, the Tidemaker
Breaching Leviathan
Burnished Hart
Solemn Simulacrum

Cyclonic Rift
Call to Mind
Compulsive Research 
Cackling Counterpart
Domineering Will
Illusionist's Gambit
Rite of Replication
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Cryptic Command
Rush of Knowledge
Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
Flow of Ideas
Well of Ideas
Stroke of Genius
Distorting Wake
Tormod's Crypt
Everflowing Chalice
Elixer of Immortality
Sol Ring
Swiftfoot Boots
Sapphire Medallion
Mind Stone
Grim Monolith
Proteus Staff
Vedalken Shackles
Extraplanar Lens
Unstable Obelisk
Worn Powerstone
Thran Dynamo
Ur-Golem's Eye
Nevinyrral's Disk

Tolaria West
Halimar Depths
Remote Isle
Lonely Sandbar
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
Academy Ruins
Myriad Landscape
Tectonic Edge
Mystifying Maze
Reliquary Tower
Island x28

So, that's the list. I'd obviously recommend going the Snow-basic route if you have them, if you want to use the Extraplanar Lens with minimal risk, but I didn't happen to have enough on hand to do that. I'm also considering cutting Tec Edge and Halimar Depths and going back to basic Islands because I want to make sure my Vedalken Shakles, Flow of Ideas and Scourge of Fleets are as consistent as possible. 

Two cards I mentioned and really wanted to add, but couldn't find any unused copies are Time Spiral and Mimic Vat. I really think those two are more or less essential here, but I'll have to pull one of each from existing decks, so figuring out which decks can live withou them is a chore I just haven't found time for yet.

I also really want Body Double in here, but haven't figured out what to cut. Geralf or Reef Worm actually feel like they're slightly underachieving in this build, so those could go, but I like using new cards, and don't have other homes waiting on them just yet, so I'm hesitant to cut them.

Chasm Skulker is one I think I forgot to mention earlier, but with the absurd number of cards this deck draws most of the time, it seemed like a natural fit. I also forgot to mention Dungeon Geists in the tap-things-down section, but it's new enough to probably have occurred to most of you anyway. 

Lorthos has yet to do anything impressive for me, but I'm continuing to hold out hope that he'll prove useful at somepoint. If not, he'll be on the chopping block the minute WotC prints a new, playable Leviathan or Kraken. 

Diluvian Primordial was another "good stuff" card, but I can't help but like the Primordials, and this one is another way to use opponents' spent utility spells to deal with things Blue can't normally deal with. 

And I did break my group's "no countermagic" truce for a Cryptic Command, but we've pretty much all fudged this rule once or twice, when it makes sense, and here it's not always going to be a counterspell. I think it's almost as likely to be "tap your guys, draw" as it is to be "counter that, draw", and even the bounce mode isn't irrelevant here.

I did spend some time looking at Inundate, a near-forgotten gem from Eventide. Well, I don't know if "gem" is the right word, but if it's going to be played, a monoblue deck seems like the only logical place for it. Yet, somehow I can't seem to fit it in, and I'm not super convinced I need to.

And, finally, I don't like running Pongify without it's functional twin Rapid Hybridization, but so far I haven't found room for that either. In fact, I've come close to cutting Pongify, because of the few times I'd had it in hand, but the 3/3 token it leaves behind actually posed a threat to Teferi so I couldn't use it! But at the same time, having a cheap, instant-speed answer to hasty threats like Akroma, or game-breaking bombs like Consecrated Sphinx (in the hands of the enemy, at least), seems very necessary, so again I kind of want both!

Okay, now I really have run out of ideas to throw at you, so I'm done. I hope this gives you some fodder for your own renovations and redesigns. As alwasy, I appreciate feedback, so let me know what hidden gems I've overlooked, or even if I missed something that should have been pretty obvious!


Thursday, November 13, 2014

C14: Fixing Up Freyalise

Hello again, folks. Today we’ve got another C14 deck to fix up, and this time we’re working on the Green one, Guided by Nature, led by the Planeswalker Freyalise.

So at its core, this deck seems to be about two things: Elf Tribal, and ramping into fat monsters (oh, there is also the faintest traces of a wolf-token thing going on, but not really). There is, fortunately some overlap there – Elves can produce ludicrous amounts of mana if not properly thwarted, making your Big Green Monsters much easier to cast. But “Plan A” for this deck seems to be just amassing a horde of elves and going to Lethal Town with a big Overrun or similar effect. Many of the larger creatures seem like utility spells that happen to have large, threatening bodies attached (see: Soul of the Harvest, Tornado Elemental, Terrastodon).

In fact, Freyalise herself, the deck’s commander is basically just a utility/support card, not a win condition. She ramps, draws cards and Naturalizes things. Which, for flavor/story reasons, makes some sense. She does play better than she looks on paper, but she’s still a little underwhelming, in my opinion. That said, the deck itself can do some pretty nutty things, if a bit inconsistently. That’s one of the things I am hoping to improve today as we make changes – better consistency.

One other thing I’ve noticed about the deck is Titania, the other new commander option in the deck. Titania is awesome and looks really interesting to build around. But she is very much at odds with what the current Freyalise deck wants to do. There are a lot of cards in this deck that feel like concessions to making Titania relevant and useful, but sort of dilute the main goal of the deck, which is mostly just making elves and monsters and Overrun-ing for the win. I like the idea of a Titania deck and I like the deck we currently have, but making the two mesh well together is asking an awful lot. I gave it my best, because I really wanted to keep as much of the original intact as possible, especially the newly-printed cards, and especially awesome ones like Titania.

So, in light of that, I’m just going to preface this by saying up front, even though I’m trying to keep Titania in the deck and will end up making a few more changes to make her better, I strongly believe that the correct approach would be to cut Titania and any of the cards dedicated to making her work, in favor of making the Freyalise portion of the deck better and more consistent. Keeping a small subset of the deck as a mini-Titania deck within a larger deck that doesn’t really have a lot of overlapping synergy is really not a good plan, but for now, in the interest of getting to play all the New and Shiny I can, I have made up my mind to do it anyway, for the time being, at least.

As usual, I want to start by tinkering with the mana base a bit. There are some really high-impact cards we want here.

Out: Haunted Fengraf, Jungle Basin, 5x Forest
In: Yavimaya Hollow, Nykthos, Gaea’s Cradle, Homeward Path, Wasteland, Treetop Village, Wirewood Lodge

So, I get why Haunted Fengraf was included, but seriously, it’s pretty bad. I’d rather have Hollow and just use it to try to keep the most important guy alive. As for Jungle Basin, I’ve already talked about how bad the Karoo lands have been for me. Though this is the one deck that can arguably get away with, I think Nykthos is obviously just way better. Gaea’s Cradle is just a big, fat “Duh” in any Elf deck. Homeward Path? Mostly just had one laying around and didn’t want my stuff getting took. Wasteland is sort of Titania tech, but mostly just a good card (Strip Mine is fine too, if you don’t have Wastelands). Treetop Village probably doesn’t do much, but can be useful to have around. Wirewood Lodge, on the other hand, is very crucial – untapping Priest of Titania or Imperious Perfect, for example, can be pretty good.

In addition to the lands themselves, the ramp package needs a bit of work as well.

Out: Moss Diamond, Commander’s Sphere, Overrun, Primordial Sage, Sylvan Ranger
In: Exploration, Elvish Harbinger, Garruk Wildspeaker, Skyshroud Claim, Heritage Druid

Exploration is a lot more conditional and sometimes can be a real dud, but when it works it’s really awesome… whereas the Diamond pretty much always does its thing, yet is never impressive or exciting. Mostly, though, I just found myself drawing a LOT more lands than I could play with this deck. If Azusa, Lost but Seeking were an Elf she’d definitely be going in too. Actually if I had another copy of her available, she’d probably go in anyway. Elvish Harbinger is also three CMC and taps for a mana, but instead of drawing a random card, you get to Worldly Tutor for an Elf! Garruk is replacing Overrun because he’s like an Overrun that also ramps and makes beasts. Skyshroud Claim just had to go in somewhere, and after making other changes, I couldn’t find anything better to cut. The Sage is fine, but always feels weaksauce next to the superior Soul of the Harvest. I’m not too sure about Heritage Druid yet – she’s obviously awesome in 60-card Elves, but I just don’t know if she’ll work as well here, especially since so many of my cheapest elves already tap for mana… but I had to give her a chance. We’ll see…

Next up, the Elves. There are a LOT of Elves in Magic. Seriously, there’s like a brazillion of them. And a lot of them are craptastic, but there are still enough good ones you simply won’t be able to fit them all in. I have a stack of about 12 or so I’d like to run, but in the end I was only able to fit THREE of them in!

Out: Sylvan Safekeeper, Thornweald Archer, Drove of Elves
In: Wirewood Herald, Fauna Shaman, Yeva, Nature’s Herald

Sylvan Safekeeper is a Titania card, but even with her in play, I’m not terribly excited to use this guy. Out he goes in favor of the imminently-Skullclamp-able Wirewood Herald. Thornweald Archer is pretty “meh” – he’s great at holding off flyers but pretty useless otherwise. Meanwhile Fauna Shaman is anything but “meh”, and is another good Wirewood Lodge target. Drove of Elves is fine, and I’d consider keeping them… but Yeva was just too good to pass up and the Drove was the only suitable cut.

Now we add a few cards I really wish were Elves, but alas bear the wrong creature type… and wind up being worth running anyway.

Out: Assault Suit, Titania’s Chosen, Elvish Skysweeper
In: Master of the Wild Hunt, Eternal Witness, Scavenging Ooze

Master comes in to replace the completely non-synergistic and off-theme Assault Suit as the one card I could find to bolster the “wolf token tribal” micro-theme the deck seemed to be hinting at. Howl of the Nightpack also got considered, but frankly I just couldn’t fit it in. If I cut the Titania stuff later, it’s definitely on the short list to get a slot, though. Wolves are awesome. Titania’s Chosen is an elf, but not a very good one. He gets big but that’s about it. Witness is not an elf, yet is still one of the best green creatures ever. Scavenging Ooze is also an all-star Green dude, alas not an Elf, but is again too good not to run.

There are a few more cards I’d like to upgrade to better things that fulfill the same roles.

Out: Loreseeker Stone, Grim Flowering, Tornado Elemental, Terastodon, Desert Twister
In: Wild Pair, Creeping Renaissance, Hornet Queen, Bane of Progress, Krosan Grip

Wild Pair subs in for the Stone, though I can see running both if possible. But even though it isn’t drawing cards, Wild Pair still represents card advantage and value, with the added bonus of being able to selectively tutor up things. I have not as of yet made sure everything in the deck has a valid Wild Pair pairing, but I will eventually…

Speaking of Wild Pair targets, though, Hornet Queen is awesome coming in off a Fauna Shaman or Elvish Harbinger or whatever. It’s also awesome in a deck with Doubling Season and is pretty good at holding off ground and air threats, whereas Tornado Elemental just kills flyers but doesn’t have much defense potential post-ETBF effect. Plus, I just don’t want both – my Tornado Elemental killing all my Hornets? Awkward! Bane of Progress is awesome, cheaper than Terastodon, doesn’t give my opponents anything back for what it kills, and is a card I like but don’t get to run very often because I usually have way too many artifacts and enchantments for it to be good. There are still a few of those things, but most of the time I think I can live without them.

Grim Flowering was actually pretty alright. I think I drew 9 cards off it the first time I ever cast it… but I also found that a lot of the time, I’d be just as well off, if not better, getting back all my dead guys instead of just drawing that many random cards. Plus the flashback part makes it more awesome, forcing your opponent to have multiple sweepers to keep you in check. Finally, I just couldn’t hack that six-mana utility spell. Replacing it came down to a toss-up between Krosan Grip and Beast Within. I love both, and Beast Within has the advantage of being about to kill way more things, but in the end I picked the Grip because, frankly, when has that card EVER been bad?

Oh, crap, I believe I mentioned Doubling Season in that last paragraph, but haven’t actually added it yet! Doubling Season is overwhelmingly awesome in this deck (not that that is unique, DS is awesome in a crap ton of decks), and there was literally just no way in hell I was going to not add it. It’s awesome with Freyalise, Hornet Queen, Imperious Perfect, and probably like a dozen or more other cards. It’s also about the only way I could stand to keep Sylvan Offering in the deck. Getting twice as much as what I give my opponents is acceptable.

So, it absolutely, positively HAD to go in. I really didn’t want to cut a new card for it, and there weren’t many reprints left that I could cut. After a lot of very tough deliberation, I narrowed down the last card to get cut to two candidates: Collective Unconscious, and Praetor’s Council. Neither is a card I particularly wanted to cut. Collective Unconscious has the distinct disadvantage of being an absolutely terrible top-deck immediately after a Wrath, which in my book is a pretty big no-no. Meanwhile the Council is a pretty sweet post-Wrath play, but that’s generally about the only time it feels worth it’s hefty mana cost. In the end, I kept Collective Unconscious and gave Praetor’s Council’s slot to Doubling Season. I understand and accept that this is probably blasphemy amongst mono-Green devotees but I feel like Creeping Renaissance gets the job done well enough. 

With that final change decided upon, the final outcome looks like this:

Freyalise, Llanowar's Fury

Elvish Mystic
Llanowar Elves
Heritage Druid
Essence Warden
Joraga Warcaller
Wirewood Herald
Elvish Visionary
Priest of Titania
Scavenging Ooze
Fauna Shaman
Farhaven Elf
Imperious Perfect
Reclamation Sage
Timberwatch Elf
Elvish Harbinger
Wood Elves
Eternal Witness
Elvish Archdruid
Ezuri, Renegade Leader
Immaculate Magistrate
Wren's Run Packmaster
Yeva, Nature's Herald
Master of the Wild Hunt
Lys Alana Huntmaster
Masked Admirers
Wolfbriar Elemental
Silklash Spider
Titania, Protector of Argoth
Rampaging Baloths
Soul of the Harvest
Thunderfoot Baloth
Bane of Progress
Siege Behemoth
Hornet Queen
Lifeblood Hydra

Krosan Grip
Beastmaster Ascension
Song of the Dryads
Wolfcaller's Howl
Skyshroud Claim
Fresh Meat
Hunting Triad
Garruk Wildspeaker
Doubling Season
Overwhelming Stampede
Creeping Renaissance
Wild Pair
Collective Unconscious
Wave of Vitriol
Sylvan Offering
Sol Ring
Emerald Medallion
Swiftfoot Boots
Seer's Sundial
Predator, Flagship

Crystal Vein
Evolving Wilds
Gargoyle Castle
Ghost Quarter
Yavimaya Hollow
Havenwood Battleground
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
Myriad Landscape
Oran-Rief, the Vastwood
Slippery Karst
Terramorphic Expanse
Tranquil Thicket
Gaea's Cradle
Homeward Path
Treetop Village
Wirewood Lodge
Forest x20

I think this is a good starting point, but I feel like there’s a lot more work that can be done here. As I said above, stripping the whole Titania portion of the deck and replacing it with more synergistic and thematic stuff would help. Overall, though, it’s still capable of much more powerful things. I do still feel like it needs a bit more draw. Going up against a deck with lots of removal and sweepers, this thing could easily run out of gas, and being in top deck mode probably spells doom for a deck like this, where your topdecks can be pretty garbage.

It’s also missing a TON of staple-y cards, and unfortunate necessity, I think, in keeping the theme and synergy of the deck intact as much as possible – but if we were able to make room for some things like Acidic Slime, Beast Within, Windstorm, Greater Good, etc… I think that’d be ideal. But, I’m not sure how to fit all that generic Good Stuff in without diluting the Elf plan too much. Not to mention the handful of cards I’ve actually cut from the original list, despite kinda wanting to keep them (Praetor’s Council, Primordial Sage, etc…).

Basically, the problem with elves is, most of them are actually pretty bad individually, but their strength is in their numbers and their synergies. So you kind of have to risk overextending with a deck like this, and against even a moderately control-oriented deck, you really run a high risk of getting blown out and running out of gas. So more draw and more anti-sweeper tech could help. But also, keeping some of the fatties in the deck seems reasonably smart – if you can’t get there with quantity, maybe you can get there with quality. Or to put it another way, why play lots of little threats when one giant one will do?

Given these potential issues, I think it will take me quite a long time to get the balance just right – we want enough elves that they can do the powerful things elves do, but not so many that they are basically our only viable game plan. We also need enough utility that we can interact with other players rather than just goldfishing our deck and hoping that works out.

As usual, there are quite a few cards that wound up on the chopping block and didn’t manage to get included in my list. Most of these will be fairly obvious, as most staples are, but here are some examples anyway.

Craterhoof Behemoth (played out, but inarguably appropriate nonetheless)
Acidic Slime
Beast Within
Greater Good (depends on fatty count, though; too many elves and this becomes much less playable)
Garruk, Caller of Beasts
Coat of Arms
Door of Destinies
Survival of the Fittest
Seedborn Muse
Genesis Wave
Eldrazi Monument (I really need to fit this in)
Champion of Lambholt (oh, how I wish she were an elf!)
Wolfskull Shaman
Elvish Promenade
Hydra Broodmaster
Karametra’s Acolyte
Gilt-Leaf Archdruid (spicy, but this would seriously piss people off in my group)
Jagged-Scar Archers
Bow of Nylea
Baru, Fist of Krosa (Imagine casting Scapeshift with this guy and a full battlefield…)
Boundless Realms (also works well with Baru)

Even with this extensive a list, I’m probably forgetting or overlooking a ton of great stuff, but that’s just Green for you. Too much good stuff, not enough room to squeeze it all in! But that’s a good thing, too, because it means you have to actually make choices, and you could basically build the same deck I did, but  still have way different cards in it.  A lot of choices come down to personal preference or specific metagame concerns, rather than their being one objectively right answer.

Good luck with your builds, and let me know if you happen upon any great tech or discover an awesome interaction.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

C14: Optimizing Ob Nixilis

By now, many of you have probably gotten your hands on the new 2014 edition Commander decks, and are looking to fix them up a bit. And, I’m sure, most of you don’t really need a lot of help in that regard – you probably had your changes and improvements mapped out before the decks even hit store shelves. But there will always be some bit of tech you might have missed… or maybe you’re like me and just have no clue which direction to take a mono-colored deck. I’ve built quite a few mono-colored EDH decks, but those of you who’ve been reading a long time might have realized I have never posted a mono-color list here on the Command Zone. That’s because 100% of the mono-colored decks I’ve built have been failures, in my opinion. Some, like Azami or Arcum Dagsson were powerful, but inherently anti-social and unfun to play. Others, like my early attempt at mono-red Goblins were quite the opposite: not powerful enough to hold their own and thus not fun to play (note: this was long before stuff like Purphoros or Krenko existed – that deck would likely be awesome today).

Anywho, point being, I’ve dabbled in monocolor before and found it deeply unsatisfying, so it’s a welcome challenge to myself to try and fix up these new decks into something I actually enjoy playing and occasionally win games with. If I can help you all along the way to find a few cards you might not have otherwise thought of, then so much the better.

Fair warning, though, as the world of monochromatic EDH decks is NOT my forte, I expect a lot of low-hanging fruit to be plucked at first. I’m actually hoping you, my dear readers, can help me plumb the depths of obscure and forgotten Magic cards to find some hidden gems. I’m also trying not to radically change the direction or themes of these decks, at least for now, keeping the overall feel of the deck more or less in line with the starting lists. Perhaps if these work out and I become inspired to make a few monocolored decks permanent fixtures in my stable of decks, I will likely do more thorough and radical redesigns. It really just depends on what seems fun and what inspires me.

So for now, these articles are more about cutting the chaff, exploring the existing themes already present, and just bumping up the power levels so the decks can fare a bit better against “real” decks (though don’t expect the end results to be highly competitive – I’m building with my own playgroup in mind, which is quite casual-friendly).

The first deck I want to work on is the Ob Nixilis deck, “Sworn to Darkness”. 

On the surface, this deck seems to be a fairly eclectic mix of themes without a whole lot of cohesion. Some of the themes of the deck include: board control, reanimation, demons, generating lots of mana and making huge plays, spending life as a resource, and “swamps matter” effects. None of these themes seem to be the overwhelmingly dominant theme of the deck, though some are much more clearly represented than others.

The good news here is that it leaves us open to a lot of possible directions to go in. Probably the best approach is to narrow that list above down to three or four themes, pick one as the clear dominant theme to build around, and let the remaining themes supplement the main strategy. But, again, as I don’t have much experience with mono-color decks, I’m not really sure what I want to do. I’m kind of a fan of pretty much all the themes I listed above, so I’m just going to try to leave them all intact and just bolster each of them to some degree.

In particular, I really like the “swamps matter” and “big mana” lines of play because they complement each other well. Playing cards that reward you just for having lots of swamps in play (think Mutilate, Lashwrithe), and cards that reward you for having a lot of mana (Drana, Profane Command) all work well together, as they both want you to do the same thing – i.e. get out a ton of Swamps. And the thing that really ties both of these themes together? Mana doublers! The deck already gives us a clue to that in the form of Crypt Ghast, which is a great inclusion.

I’m also a control player at heart, so I like all the kill spells and sweepers. Reanimation is a natural counterpart to board control, since killing dudes is not a win-condition in and of itself. So we’ll definitely be keeping this part of the deck intact.

Spending life as a resource is something Black just does, so it’d be pretty hard to imagine building this deck without some degree of that element, but I doubt it’s a thing we want to really focus on. Instead we’ll likely just be more judicious about what specifically we want to spend that life on and make sure we’re going about it in a cost-effective manner. In short, this probably means spending life to draw cards, for the most part.

And finally, the focus on the Demon creature type is something I don’t particularly care about, though it does happen that there are quite a few demons I want to play regardless of any tribal direction. That said, my initial idea for this deck was to go full-in Zombie/Demon/Vampire tribal and really make it a “Creatures of the Night” type of deck, but in the end I felt like making absurd amounts of mana to enable big, stupid, overpowered plays felt more fun and more powerful, even if it’s also a little more obvious and generic.

Also, I wanted to keep Ob Nixilis as the commander of the deck, and he didn’t seem the ideal commander for that direction (not that he’s perfect for the direction I am going in either, but it still seems a better fit overall). So, now that I have at least a rough idea as to where I’m going with this thing, let’s jump in and start making some changes.

Since the big mana thing seems like it’s going to be a major focus, let’s start by sprucing up the mana base a bit. I cannot think of a single card this deck wants more badly than Cabal Coffers (right off the bat we’re going down Obvious Staple Avenue, sorry, but I’m not going to NOT play Coffers am I?). I think Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx could also be exploitable here. I’m not sure how much Urbog, Tomb of Yawgmoth is going to matter here, as we’re still going to be mostly Swamps, but if you really go all-out on the utility non-basics, Urborg will become a must-have in order to ensure your Coffers will work correctly. For now, I’m just throwing in a couple more of the obvious-but-necessary lands like Stronghold and Tower.

Out: Swamp x4, Everglades, Crypt of Agadeem
In: Volrath’s Stronghold, Phyrexian Tower, Nykthos, Urborg, and of course Cabal Coffers. Also throwing in a Leechridden Swamp because, why not?

Cutting Crypt because it just seems far more situational than Nykthos or Coffers. I’m not sure we need all three of those lands, and since Crypt seems the least-reliable out it goes. I also have tried to get on board with the “Karoo” lands, but in playtesting the decks initially, they were really awkward and clunky most of the time. Definitely not a fan.

That takes care of the lands, but the mana base can also be said to include ramp spells such as mana rocks and land-search effects, so we’ll move on to those next. If we’re going for a bit of a Swamps-matter thing, we want things that can ramp up our Swamp count. Solemn Simulacrum is the clear starting point, but I also like the package of Liliana of the Dark Realms and Liliana’s Shade. Both cost four mana and put the swamp in our hand, not into play, which is a bit of a bummer, but they still feel like they’re worth running. Burnished Hart also feels like a must-have, given our goals of amassing lots of Swamps. Wayfarer’s Bauble is probably worthy of consideration as well.

Most of the mana rocks included are fine, but I’m largely unimpressed with Charcoal Diamond, and while Commander’s Sphere is a great card overall, it’s pretty close to being a bad Mind Stone in this deck. We don’t care about making other colors of mana, and the one-time cantrip effect is pretty mediocre in a color that has access to stuff like Necropotence and, possibly, Ob Nixilis’s insane emblem! Liliana’s Shade feels like a direct upgrade to Evernight Shade, trading Undying for the Swamp-fetching ability. I also feel like we can safely drop to 38 lands since we’re adding a few more land-fetchers overall, so we’ll cut a couple more swamps.

(NOTE: According to the official list, Burnished Hart is supposed to be in the deck, but my copy apparently did not contain the Hart, and I did not realize that something was missing. As far as I can tell, no other cards were missing, but I might have had one or two extra Swamps... either way Burnished Hart is a must-have.)

Out: 2x Swamp, Evernight Shade, Charcoal Diamond, Commander’s Sphere
In: Solemn Simulacrum, Liliana’s Shade, Liliana of the Dark Realms, Burnished Hart, Wayfarer’s Bauble

And since we’re still on mana-related issues, we’ll discuss the mana-doubling effects before moving on to other things. Simply put, there are a lot of options here, and I think it’s possible to overdo it here. But maybe I’m wrong and the correct choice is to run all of them? I feel like going overboard here might lead to one or both of two potential issues. One, I find myself in situations where I can make upwards of a brazilion mana but don’t have anything to do with it but ramp into more ramp, which ultimately doesn’t get us anywhere. Two, it works too well and I’m consistently untapping with like three times more mana than my opponents by turn 6 and they start to hate me.

But for discussion’s sake, we have these options at our disposal:

Crypt Ghast (already in)
Magus of the Coffers (already in)
Doubling Cube
Nirkana Revenant
Extraplanar Lens
Gauntlet of Power
Caged Sun

There might be more, but that’s what I could find looking through my own cards. I have not hit up Gatherer to search for more obscure options. I also didn’t list one-shot effects like Bubbling Muck because generally this is an effect we want turn after turn, while things like Bubbling Muck are generally too fleeting and insubstantial to be good in EDH, unless you’re just going to win that turn.

Extraplaner Lens and Gauntlet of Power have their own issues, namely, they can help your opponents as well. If you’re strictly playing this against the other precons then you’re probably pretty safe running these, but if you’re likely to encounter other decks with Swamps, you will need to carefully consider whether it’s worth it or not. You can get around this with the Lens by running Snow-covered Swamps, if you have them, since it’s effect is specifically tied to the name of the land.

Caged Sun and Nirkana Revenant, on the other hand, don’t have symmetrical effects, so despite their hefty six-mana price tags, they seem like shoe-ins, while Doubling Cube is probably solid, but I’m just not sure about it, having never really used it before. So, for now I’m starting out with the Cage and the Revenant, but this is one area where I suggest you season to taste.

I’m cutting Magus of the Coffers because I find it to be incredibly unreliable. There’s no real reason I should untap with Magus less often than I untap with Nirkana Revenant, but that just seems to happen. I almost never tap Magus even once before he dies, but the Revenant seems to live at least a turn cycle somewhat more frequently – but the real advantage is that you can more easily get same-turn value from the Revenant – if you already have a bunch of Swamps, or you can mostly use mana rocks to cast her, leaving some swamps open, you get an immediate return on your investment, which means at least sometimes you can follow up the Revenant with another big threat, and thereby making your opponent have to make a hard choice if they’re holding spot removal.

I also want to cut something big for Caged Sun, and at this point I feel like maybe Morkrut Banshee is the best option. I wanted to cut something that cost six or more, but I like most of the six drops and the ones I don’t like have more direct replacements picked out already. Meanwhile the Banshee is just basically a bad card overall. It’s conditional removal that even when you meet the conditional requirements STILL only kills certain things. However, I would also suggest Kagemaro, First to Suffer as an option for replacing the Banshee. It too is situational, but unlike the Banshee, it generally kills just about anything you need killed.

Out: Magus of the Coffers, Morkrut Banshee
In: Nirkana Revenant, Caged Sun

I may still consider the Extraplaner Lens and/or Doubling Cube, but it depends on how this plays out after I’m done with the first round of upgrades. If I need to go even bigger with the mana, I’ll start with these two.

So, now that we’re done playing with the mana, we need to move one to something else. EDH is all about ramping and drawing, and beating your opponents through having more mana and more cards than them (this is an intentionally narrow oversimplification of the format, but also not entirely inaccurate), and this deck in particular seems to be very much about that, so it seems logical to proceed to the card drawing section next.

The super-obvious thing here is Necropotence, but I’m actually going to give this a pass, personally. I did things with Griselbrand in the short time he was legal that I still feel slightly guilty about, and occasionally had some of those things done to me, as well. So, I’m a bit gun-shy about going down this road. Fortunately black has a lot of good options when it comes to trading life for cards that are also much more fair. I’m sure I’ll miss a boat-load of these, so sound off in the comments if you’ve got a good one, but here are a few of the ones I’m prone to using:

Disciple of Bolas (already in)
Bloodgift Demon (already in)
Promise of Power (already in)
Phyrexian Arena
Graveborn Muse
Dark Prophecy
Harvester of Souls
Erebos, God of the Dead

Some of these I like better than others, but it largely depends on the deck. Dark Prophecy and Graveborn Muse can potentially kill you if you’re not careful, but I’m not sure either of those really belongs here regardless. Arena, Erebos and Harvester feel like better fits given the themes and strategies of the deck so far. I’m not going to mess with the little one-shot spells like Sign in Blood just yet. Really, this is just scratching the surface. We could also consider Sanguimancy, though that is the type of card I’d typically like to cast after a sweeper to get back in the game, but relying on a high devotion count means this will likely be dead or at least very sub-par right after a sweeper. In other words, it’s only really great if you’re already doing well, but I feel like I’d rather have cards that just reliably and consistently keep the gas flowing whether I’m ahead and need to keep the pressure on, or behind and need to catch up. Things like Phyrexian Arena do a good job in both scenarios.

Harvester has the benefit of being a Demon and overlaps with our boar-control game plan. Kill dudes to draw cards? Seems fair. Erebos and Greed are both solid, but I like the God a little more. He’s more mana-intensive than greed, which sucks, but at the same times he’s also Indestructible, keeps life gain in check, and occasionally doubles as a beefy 5/7 beatstick. All of those seem like fair upsides at the cost of a slightly steeper investment of mana.

Out: Phyrexian Gargantua, Syphon Mind, Tragic Slip
In: Harvester of Souls, Erebos, Phyrexian Arena

We’re exchanging one six-drop that draws cards for another, but the Harvester can draw way more cards in the long run than the Limited-fodder Horror can. Syphon Mind is a great card – in a 4-player game, it’s basically a strictly better Harmonize – but the discard aspect just doesn’t seem to matter much in this deck, and it just feels out of place. Erebos will ultimately draw more cards per game, even if a bit slower and more expensive. Finally the Slip comes out just because in early games I found this deck to be a bit overstuffed with situational spot removal. Slip can be great, at times, but it seemed the most expendable of all the various removal spells, so out it goes in favor of a card that will hopefully draw us into more and better removal!

At this point, I’m getting a little bored of focusing on utility spells, and I want to get to something a little more exciting and interesting. We’re looking to make a ton of mana and draw a bunch of cards, but what are we going to do with all that mana and all those cards? Well, I have some ideas about that…

So, one of my goals with these decks was to keep as many of the newly-printed cards intact as possible. And this year’s Commander set has a lot fewer cards in it that I actively, aggressively DO NOT want to play with! There are a lot fewer cards like Hooded Horror, Curse of Chaos or Diviner Spirit – i.e. cards that I thoroughly could not wait to NOT play with – and a lot more cards that I actually want to try out. This deck does have one card that I absolutely hate: Raving Dead. I really hate the combination of abilities here. I mean, I normally dislike the “attack a random player” thing anyway, but combined with the Quietus Spike effect, this just feels like a really bad time, especially when you are randomly forced to attack the player who is already getting screwed and way behind everyone else. Losing half your life because you stumbled on mana or had a creature-light hand is not fun. It just looks like a feel-bad card to me, so it’s getting booted ASAP.

But most of the cards seem cool or interesting and I want to try them out before I decide to cut them. Some of them even hint at other cards we might include for synergy purposes. For example, if I’m going to play Wake the Dead, then I’m sure as heck going to want to play Mikaeus the Unhallowed (props to commenter robdpoplin for pointing out this awesome interaction). Similarly, while it’s not a new card, the inclusion of Sudden Spoiling has me longing for its soul mate Massacre Wurm. None of these four cards is bad on its own, but when paired have delightfully powerful interactions.

Overseer of the Damned mostly just wants you to kill things, and while some spot removal is fine, I don’t want to load up on one-for-ones as we’re supposed to be going for massive card advantage here… instead of the obvious Murders an Go for the Throats here, I want a little more bang for my buck. Fleshbag Marauder, Barter in Blood and Gravepact all see like good ways to super-charge the Overseer, and again, they’re all proven to be fantastic cards individually, so they’re not going to be underpowered without the demon’s help.

I always try to look for little synergistic interactions like these when building decks, especially when it involves cards that are playable already. I suggest you look closely at the other cards you like in the deck and do some brainstorming to look for such interactions. Whenever you look at a card and your mind immediately jumps to another card, it’s usually a good idea to at least consider that card – just beware of the trap of including cards that are great in conjunction with another card, but not very good on their own.

Out: Nekrataal, Vampire Hexmage, Nantuko Shade, Raving Dead, Pontiff of Blight
In: Barter in Blood, Fleshbag Marauder, Grave Pact, Massacre Wurm, Mikaeus the Unhallowed

I’ve long be a fan of Nekrataal, but in EDH it’s just a bit too inefficient and is outclassed by a high number of other removal spells, but in this specific case I think Barter in Blood is the one we really want. Hexmage is cute tech if you’re only playing these against the other C14 decks, but against a wider field she’s often going to be a dead draw. Nantuko Shade is just pretty “meh” in EDH and something had to become a Grave Pact. Raving Dead, I already expressed my dislike for.  Pontiff of Blight seems fine, but I haven’t really seen it turn in a strong performance to date, so it frequently underwhelms. I think Mikaeus will do more work in this slot.

Another thing I want to do is address the life loss we’re likely to incur most games, as we spend life points to draw cards or make demons or whatever. Ob Nixilis, or general, has a bit of lifegain built in, but I don’t think that’s nearly enough. I often turn to things like Blood Artist, Falkenrath Noble, and Kokusho for this, and I think those could work here. But for now I want to try some different options than the ones I’m used to. (There’s also Exsanguinate, which given our trajectory with the massive mana production, seems a PERFECT fit, and indeed it is – but I don’t like the win-out-of-nowhere-with-a-massive-X-spell endgame. It pretty much forces someone to have a counterspell up right then or you win – and given my group’s stance on countermagic, that’s pretty close to impossible, making Exsanguinate pretty much an unbeatable win condition, which is not very sporting.)

Exquisite Blood seems like it could really gain a lot of life over the course of a game, as it will gain you life even when opponents attack each other and you stay out of the fray. It also makes Ob Nixilis’s +2 a little better, and mitigates the life cost of the -2. Whip of Erebos is more of a reanimation effect primarily, but it’s secondary ability of giving your team Lifelink feels like it’d be more appreciated here than in the average deck. And finally I like Suffer the Past for a bit of graveyard hate with a drain-life bonus. Yes, it’s an X-spell that can technically kill someone out of nowhere, but it’s limited by the number of cards in their graveyard, so they have to have more cards in their ‘yard than they have life points, and if that’s the case they’re probably about dead or up to something really scary anyway. But realistically this is only going to be lethal once in a blue moon, and I can live with that. Otherwise it’s just a really underappreciated GY hate spell, that also fits our life-gain criteria nicely.

Out: Victimize, Skeletal Scrying, Bad Moon
In: Whip of Erebos, Suffer the Past, Exquisite Blood

It hurts a bit cutting a two-mana enchantment for a five-mana one… but whatever, Bad Moon was basically a dead card most of the time anyway. It rarely mattered if your 2/2 Zombie tokens were 3/3 instead, and that +1/+1 seemed to matter even less once you started dropping 6/6 and 7/7 demons. If you were going with massive hordes a la Army of the Damed or Empty the Pits, it’d make more sense but that’s not our main goal right now. I also hated to cut a draw spell in Skeletal Scrying, but I also hated having to pay 1 life, 1 mana and 1 card in my graveyard PER CARD to draw cards. It just doesn’t seem worth it, and I think we’ve made up for it in other, better draw spells already, so I doubt we miss this. Victimize is a fine card, but usually I don’t have anything I want to sacrifice unless I happen to have a spare Zombie token, but the “ETBF tapped” clause is the real dealbreaker. Whip seems better in the long run, plus we really want that Lifelink.

And finally we come to the point where we’re just looking for opportunities to swap in straight upgrades – cards that do the same thing but better – or just throw in some good cards we really want to be playing with. I already know I don’t want to be playing stuff like Annihilate and Aether Snap. Dregs of Sorrow seems fine once we start cranking out tons of mana, but I think Decree of Pain is just a better option. Under ideal circumstances, Dregs can basically be a Decree of Pain meets Plague Wind, leaving your own board intact while killing everything else and drawing a ton of cards, but I don’t foresee that actually happening too often. Plus, Decree takes care of Hexproof/Shroud/Protection-from-Black creatures that Dregs can’t interact with. But here are my final swaps, with more explanation afterward:

Pestilence Demon --> Sepulchral Primordial
Aether Snap --> Increasing Ambition
Dread Return --> Beacon of Unrest
Sign in Blood --> Demonic Tutor
Annihilate --> Living Death
Abyssal Persecutor --> Phyrexian Obliterator

Pestilence Demon is just a bit expensive and clunky, and I really wanted the Primordial in there somewhere, so there you go. Aether Snap, like Hexmage, is cute tech if you’re just playing this deck against other C14 decks. It’s probably not terrible outside the confines of these decks as well, but I’ve simply never found myself yearning for it so… gone. In its place, one of the best tutors you could run in a deck capable of producing the kind of mana we’re going for. Dread Return is awesome, but I just find I never have three creatures I actually want to sacrifice. If sac’ing one guy to get two isn’t good enough (see Victimize above), then sac’ing three to get one is downright unappealing. In a more token-heavy build, Dread Return would be fine. Here, though I like the versatility of Beacon – it can even get back my Caged Sun if that gets blown up.

Sign in Blood is pretty “meh” compared to Demonic Tutor – getting the exact card you want is pretty much always better than drawing two random cards. Living Death just had to be in the deck, period. It’s a great card, and more or less on theme here, so say goodbye to the extremely mediocre Annihilate. And I just have no idea why Abyssal Persecutor is in this deck. I mean, I can and have imagined scenarios where it can be interesting/useful in a multiplayer environment… but still, it just seems ridiculously silly. This can pretty much be almost anything – I considered everything from Anwon the Ruin Sage to Dimir House Guard to Mimic Vat, but when you happen to have a Phyrexian Obliterator in your collection that you’ve somehow never once gotten to play, well, you’ll take the first chance you get!

So, after adding up all of those changes we have the below list, which is pretty much the version I’m running now. I have made a couple of tweaks since I wrote my initial draft, but I can’t remember exactly what they were, but nothing major or terribly interesting I’m sure. I’m sure I’ll continue to tweak and refine the list over the coming months.

Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath

Skirsdag High Priest
Fleshbag Marauder
Flesh Carver
Crypt Ghast
Disciple of Bolas
Erebos, God of the Dead
Liliana's Shade
Liliana's Reaver
Phyrexian Obliterator
Bloodgift Demon
Demon of Wailing Agonies
Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief
Ghoulcaller Gisa
Gray Merchant of Asphodel
Nirkana Revenant
Grave Titan
Harvester of Souls
Massacre Wurm
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed
Reaper from the Abyss
Xathrid Demon
Butcher of Malakir
Overseer of the Damned
Sepulchral Primordial
Solemn Simulacrum

Spoils of Blood
Phyrexian Arena
Exquisite Blood
Demonic Tutor
Malicious Affliction
Read the Bones
Sudden Spoiling
Tendrils of Corruption
Whip of Erebos
Liliana of the Dark Realms
Barter in Blood
Grave Pact
Infernal Offering
Increasing Ambition
Living Death
Beacon of Unrest
Promise of Power
Necromantic Selection
Decree of Pain
Suffer the Past
Black Sun's Zenith
Wake the Dead
Profane Command
Sol Ring
Wayfarer's Bauble
Burnished Hart
Jet Medallion
Mind Stone
Swiftfoot Boots
Unstable Obelisk
Worn Powerstone
Caged Sun

Arcane Lighthouse
Barren Moor
Bojuka Bog
Cabal Coffers
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
Ghost Quarter
Myriad Landscape
Polluted Mire
Volrath's Stronghold
Phyrexian Tower
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Leechridden Swamp
Swamp x27

(*NOTE: There are 29 lands in this list due to the packaging error I failed to notice, wherein my deck contained no Burnished Hart and and extra land. So, I cut a "real" card for the Hart and was playing +1 Swamp more than I thought... once I realized this I swapped out the extra Swamp for something... I'm 99% it was a Dimir House Guard, but I'd seriously consider Extraplanar Lens as well.)

In the meantime there are a huge number of other cards I considered and might try to squeeze in eventually:

Geth, Lord of the Vault (probably a mistake to leave out, but I play this guy EVERYWHERE)
Dimir House Guard
Damnation (I think I did add this eventually but can’t remember what I cut)
Kokusho, the Evening Star
Rune-Scarred Demon (really needs to go in!)
Mimic Vat (also seems like a must-have)
Puppeteer Clique
Grim Haruspex
Phyrexian Reclamation
Grim Return
Sheoldred, Whispering One
Vampiric Tutor
Soul of Innistrad
Bloodline Keeper
… and basically every other big, splashy Black rare or mythic I could find.

Another angle I considered… well, let’s say I was aware of, but never actually gave it serious thought, is the more grindy “stax” build. Anwon, Braids, Smokestack, Descent into Madness, etc… this seemed like a really poor fit for my playgroup, though, and I’m not even sure I’d enjoy playing this style of deck. It also felt like it’d pretty much have to be rebuilt from the ground up to go this way, though I think the deck would fit Ob-Nixlis well enough.

In sort, there are a LOT of ways you could go with this deck, but Ob-Nixlis is open-ended enough to not lock you into a particular strategy. That’s a bit of a double-edged sword, though, as his generic-ness makes it hard to find inspiration. Had you given me JUST Ob Nixilis without the other 99 cards in the deck as a starting point, I doubt I’d have come up with anything resembling the list above. It also means that for pretty much any deck I could build for him, I could probably find a better option to be the commander for that deck. So basically he can potentially lead a wide variety of decks, but is almost never the optimal choice to lead those decks! I’m still waiting for someone to come up with the deck idea that makes Ob-Nixlis the best possible choice to be the commander, as I really would like to know exactly what kind of deck that would be.

(For the record, if I were to replace Nixy with a  new commander for this deck, I’d pick someone who can both utilize ridiculous amounts of mana, and provide some form of card advantage to keep the deck running. Drana is a nice mana sink, but doesn’t do much to keep the gas going, so I’d probably go with either Geth or Erebos.)

Well, that pretty much taps me out on ideas for this deck, for now. I think this is a solid start to a very playable deck, but I’ll have to play it a while before I know what works and what doesn’t.  I will make some small refinements here and there, and I am always looking for suggestions on things I may have overlooked, so let me know if I missed out on some gems.