Thursday, December 17, 2015

Thaumaturge's Guide to Plundering them Graves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sol Ring
Golgari Signet
Lightning Greaves
Eldrazi Monument
Thought Vessel

Diabolic Servitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Meren of Clan Nel Toth

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right, so, back to the creatures…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Musings on Magic (God, What a Generic Title)

I tend to get really excited by the now-yearly Commander decks that WotC begun putting out back in 2011. And in my excitement, I tend to write up articles about how you might possibly tune them up. Generally, I try to stick to advice I would follow myself, though I will occasionally offer some suggestions that I myself avoid enacting due to the particulars of my playgroup’s “social contract”. But, in my excitement, my articles on the Commander decks have usually been written very soon after they are released, if not before, even. Point being, most of my advice on how to improve these decks is “theorycraft” – I am making educated guesses, basically, on what cards, synergies and strategies will play well.

Now, around 2011, 2012, that time period, I was very heavily invested in Magic. Magic was unquestionably my biggest and most consuming hobby, not just from a time and money standpoint, but from a headspace standpoint as well. I lived for Magic and it consumed the vast majority of my free time and an admittedly significant portion of my not-free time besides. I was PASSIONATE in my exploration of the game, and deckbuilding both theoretical and actual was among my greatest pleasures.

Magic is still deeply important to me, but my devotion to the game has always waxed and waned. There are periods where I cool off a bit towards this game, and while I have never really come close to just walking away for good, earlier this year I was probably at my most… distant… from Magic. I had a few months where I did seriously grapple with the question of whether or not I was out for good, but eventually I came back around and started getting a bit more into the game again. The reasons for my sudden and sharp decline in interest in Magic are complex – essentially it was just a confluence of many factors, some external to the game, some internal to it that caused a bit of a crisis for me. Similarly, it was a confluence of many internal and external factors that reignited my interest again after a period of extreme distance from the game.

But, one of the many, many factors that lead to that slump was a realization that had slowly been dawning on me for quite a while, which was that I had lost a good deal of my “spark”, to use a bit of in-game lingo. I love many facets of the game: trading, collecting, playing, writing about it, theorizing over it, etc. But the aspect of Magic that I have long loved the most, above all others, is deck-building. Playing the game is fun, very much so in fact, but I’m one of those creative types, and while I don’t really do art or anything like that I always have to have some kind of outlet. I get a lot of different things out of Magic but the thing that has kept me hooked for over 15 years is that it provides a creative outlet. This is one of the reasons I began this blog – just another way for me to express myself through the lens of Magic, but the ultimate form of self-expression is through creating the very decks I play every weekend.

The problem, then, came about when I realized I was just not feeling that creative release anymore. As both a deck builder and a writer, I was stagnating. I was constantly struggling to find things to write about here, and I was equally frustrated at my attempts to come up with new and interesting deck ideas. I kept building decks that, to me, just felt like more of the same stuff I’d been doing for years. I was really stuck on certain cards, certain themes, etc. But, almost contradictory to that assertion I was also getting frustrated that WotC was printing so many cards that I liked, that I really wanted to play and I was constantly trying to fit new cards that seemed cool into decks – which turned into a problem simply because decks I had been playing for a while started to feel off-kilter and just weren’t playing as well as they had. One of the most extreme examples of this was my Wrexial build, which had started out as a surprisingly effective deck, one that had garnered a bit of a nasty reputation in my playgroup – my friends had a very healthy respect for Wrexial, but an odd period of oversaturation came about where almost every new set had at least one card that just seemed like an absolute must-run in a Wrexial deck, but the end result of trying to fit in all those terrifically on-theme cards was that the deck started to suck, BIG TIME. Even though each individual change I made seemed to make good sense, in a vacuum, the sum total of all those changes just messed up the deck’s mojo.

I was having this problem with a LOT of my decks, though. Decks that worked really well because they were thematic and synergistic started to drift towards too much “Good Stuff” and lost their individuality as well as their strategic edge. Meanwhile, decks that actually were designed to be, and needed to be, more along the lines of a Good Stuff deck wound up getting too many pet cards shoe-horned in and wound up as “Mediocre Stuff” decks instead. I had completely lost touch with my ability to edit myself, to reign in my more out-there impulses and I just fell in love with far too many new cards far too quickly to give them all proper homes. I couldn’t say NO to anything, anymore.

And, from another perspective, I was also just losing my ability to keep up with memorizing entire sets before they were even released, and keeping my mental card database up to date became impossible. Back when I was writing the articles for the Commander 2011 decks, the very first ones put out by WotC, I rarely ever had to use Gatherer or go on forums or whatever, for ideas. I didn’t need outside help to come up with these suggestions and ideas – I just had a vast reservoir of cards committed to memory, so for, say a Riku deck for example, I could easily rattle off dozens and dozens of cards, ranging from the obvious to the obscure. But I’m getting older and my brain is full of all kinds of things these days, not just Magic cards. These days I rely on Gatherer, Reddit and various other external sources to help me find just the right card for the job. And I confess this development was very disheartening for me. But it was more than just a memory issue – not only was I no longer able to just sit and theorycraft entire new decks using almost nothing but my memory, the decks I was building were increasingly starting to disappoint me. New decks I tried out didn’t play well, and well-established decks that had been running well were now getting noticeably worse the more I tinkered with them.

I had a moment of crisis where I felt I had just begun to SUCK at building decks. I had some epic losing streaks that destroyed my confidence and ability to make cuts or additions based on play experience withered. The more I tried to save a deck from disaster the more I mucked it up. Others in my group were also experiencing some frustrations of their own with our Magic experiences at that time and it just got to the point where it seemed like no one was having much fun most of the time. But for me, personally, the biggest issue was just that I felt like I had lost some fundamental understanding of the game that allowed me to confidently build decks that were reliable, powerful and above all, fun. I had lost the ability to make rational decisions when fine-tuning decks, and I could not be objective when trying to understand why a deck was failing.

Of course with a run like that, it was also very hard for me to come on this blog and tell you what cards were worth playing, etc. I couldn’t very well write articles and post theories if those ideas were utterly failing to provide positive results in my actual play experiences, right? I couldn’t write my set reviews because I no longer trusted my ability to evaluate cards – not that I ever thought I was infallible, but it seemed like I was just missing the mark way too often. I just can’t imagine coming here and telling you all that “this card is garbage” and “that one is amazing”, while getting it all entirely wrong. 

So some of it was just that I didn’t feel worthy to continue to portray myself as any kind of voice of authority – no one should listen to me anymore because all of my instincts were wrong and all of my ideas were failures, etc. Some of it was also just that Minecraft is a VERY addicting game and on top of being kinda sulky about Magic, part of me just didn’t CARE anymore. Not enough to write and analyze and theorize, anyway.

But, here we are today – I have started to get my mojo back. I have had some successes lately that have begun to restore my confidence. Ideas are panning out and decks are working as envisioned. Games are starting to be fun again (still some work to do in this area, but that’s a group thing more than an individual thing). My spark of creativity and interest has been reignited and is flourishing, though it is still very far from being the all-consuming bonfire that it was back when I started this blog. I’m less discouraged about things overall, at least for the most part. And most importantly for you, dear readers, is that I’m getting that urge to write again. It, too, is not as strong as it was. I don’t know if I’ll ever be as reliable as I used to be for producing content, at least in terms of quantity. But for now I just want to focus more on quality and ensure that what meager word count I can manage to string together is worth your time to read.

And, to that point, I want to ensure that whatever deck building advice I give is worth listening to. I have begun to feel confidence again in this area, but that does not mean I am not still quite gun-shy about just running my mouth over some theory-crafted ideas. No, I want the content I produce to have real merit, grounded in actual gameplay experience. So, for now, gone are the days where my set reviews were published before the cards were on sale and gone are the long-winded deck improvement articles that were basically 95% theoretical. Going forward, I want to avoid jumping ahead and putting out ideas that sound good on paper but don’t pan out in practice. To that end, I have decided to delay, somewhat, my write-ups of the C15 decks until I can confidently put forth useful, practical suggestions.

By and large I am very much enjoying the C15 decks so far, but some of my ideas for improving them have failed to produce results that meet my own standards of fun and playability, so until those decks do start to feel fun and playable to me, I’m not going to waste time sharing advice or promoting changes that aren’t even working for my own decks. That would just feel dishonest. I do hope to have at least one article done sometime this week – the Golgari deck is NOT one of those that has stumped me. Meren is up and running BEAUTIFULLY and that deck, at least, has been successful beyond my expectations. Beyond that, though, nothing is set in stone; Kalemne is probably next in line, but if I can figure out a few small but critical issues with Ezuri soon, I might do him. 

And I will be honest with you now – there’s a real chance I may never do the Daxos one. I was already fairly underwhelmed by that deck during the spoiler season, but wanted to give it a fair chance. Others in my group were much more excited than I was, but after three of us all attempted different variations, I think we have all been disappointed by the deck. Frankly I just find the deck itself a bit boring and monotonous to play so it’s going to be very hard to build up the energy necessary to write an article on it. I am starting to feel similarly disenchanted with the U/R deck but I have more hope for it to eventually “click” into place. Who knows? Once I get properly started on the first of the C15 articles, maybe momentum will carry me through. Or not, we’ll see.

So, again, look forward to the first article sometime in the near future, but don’t expect them rapid-fire, back to back. I’m still in the process of finding my footing again as a deck builder and as a writer, so it’s “slow and steady” as I figure all this stuff out. Be patient, please, as I don’t want to waste my time writing something useless and I don’t want to waste your time making you read it.


Friday, December 11, 2015

Searching for my Rafiq(s)

A lot of die-hard EDH players often try to complete what is sometimes called the rainbow challenge (among other names), but the gist of it is, you try to have at least one deck in every possible color combination. This means at least 27 decks: five mono-colored decks, ten two-colored decks, ten three-colored decks, a five-color deck and an all-colorless deck (Using Karn, Silver Golem or one of the legal Eldrazi Titans). At this time there are no four-color Legendary Creatures in print, though some groups allow the Nephilim cycle to be used. I’m not a big “house rules” kind of guy, not that I have anything against house rules. I’m just content to wait until we get proper, officially legal options.

Personally, I do not have any real interest in a colorless deck. And I don’t really want a five-color EDH deck because I also maintain a five-color “Big Highlander” deck that already sort of fulfills this role, and eats up a LOT of my dual land collection, so I would not be able to have an “optimal” five-color mana base unless I cannibalized my Big Highlander for lands. But I do have the goal of completing the other 25 decks – having one deck for every mono, two or three color combination.

But I don’t just want to have “a” deck for each color scheme, I want to have a “definitive” deck for each color scheme. Now, notice I say “definitive” and not “optimal”. To explain what I mean, I’ll provide an actual example. One of the very first lists I posted on this blog was my old Rafiq list. I had been playing Rafiq for quite some time – basically since Shards of Alara was released. He was not the first Shards legend I built around – I think I tried out both Mayael and Sedris before I actually acquired a Rafiq for my collection. By the time Conflux came out, I was madly in love with my Rafiq deck. I typically had between 4 and 6 decks built at any one time and I was constantly tearing apart and rebuilding decks, but Rafiq stayed together pretty much the entire time and was one of my most oft-used decks for years.

Of course, I’m an explorer and always in search of new experiences, so I would periodically de-sleeve Rafiq in favor of some other Bant-colored commander. I tried a few different builds with Jenara at the helm and when Derevi was printed I was a big fan of her as well. But after each experiment with a new, different Bant commander, I always just went back to Rafiq. Those other decks were cool and fun and I enjoyed them, but they all got old after a while. Rafiq, for me at least, never gets old. Thus, that makes Rafiq the “definitive” Bant commander for me. I enjoy trying out other options, but Rafiq is just “The One”. The one that, when I play the deck, it just feels like it perfectly fits what I want a Bant deck to be.  Playing the deck comes effortlessly to me, as everything about the way the deck plays just feels… right, somehow. 

So, my goal is to keep exploring and experimenting until I find my “Rafiq” for all 25 color combinations. I want to find that ideal commander/deck that just fits. The one that provides the most ideal play experience based on what I want to get from playing those colors. The commander that keeps me coming back for more, again and again, no matter how many other commanders I might try out. Now that I’ve explained what I am trying to accomplish and why, I can outline my progress so far. For each color I will talk about what I have tried and how close I think I am to finding that “definitive” deck or commander.


White – Ugh. Mono-white may well be the last deck for which I find that definitive idea. I really haven’t tried much – the most recent attempt was me trying to get the Nahiri precon from Commander 2014 tuned-up into something I could enjoy playing, but the color’s weaknesses – namely a serious lack of card draw – has hampered every attempt I have made to get a mono-white deck to work. Plus, the whole “Equipment Tribal” thing was really close to my existing Aurelia build and in fact the deck just felt like a much weaker, slower version of that deck. For the time being I have no clue what I want out of a mono-white deck and I have no ideas with which to even experiment.  I’ll put this off a while in hopes that they print some cool, new Legend that inspires me.

Blue – I have definitely found my “Rafiq” for mono-blue: Teferi, Temporal Archmage. I’m still tinkering with the rest of the deck, but I am 100% sold on Teferi and the overall deck concept. There are a lot of really degenerate things you can do with him, but my take is a good deal more fair. It’s basically a ramp deck with a strong reactionary control element. It’s not loaded with counterspells – right now I’m only running Cryptic Command with plans to include Mystic Confluence later, and you’ll notice both of those are not strictly always going to counter a spell – and I don’t run any infinite combos. Most of my control-oriented spells are defensive and castable only when someone tries to attack me – things like Cyclonic Rift, Aetherize, etc. The basic goal is to ramp out Teferi, use his Untap effect to power out ridiculous things like giant sea monsters, or cast big spells like Rite of Replication. There is a lot of card draw and random stuff like Vedalken Shakles that are powerful on their own but often have deeper synergies within the deck. Right now, there is absolutely nothing else in the mono-blue realm that interests me, so Teferi is my guy.

Black – Black is a weird one in that I have more or less nailed the deck, but I haven’t settled on a commander yet. I am basically still working with the general idea of the Ob Nixilis deck from Commander 2014, but as in my write-up on improving that precon, I am mainly focusing on both a “Swamps matter” theme and a “Big mana” theme – stuff like Caged Sun and Crypt Gast, or just a good old Cabal Coffers or Nykthos. While playing with Ob Nixilis as the commander, the one thing that became readily apparent was that the deck was very good at assembling a massive mana advantage but did not reliably have ways to capitalize on that advantage. Unlike the Teferi deck, I couldn’t just cast a big Stroke of Genius (there is Damnable Pact now, but it also costs a lot of life!) to fill up my hand. I really needed a good source of card advantage to go along with all that mana. There are three commanders that I feel represent the best options for abusing massive amounts of mana: Erebos, Drana and Geth. I’m a big fan of drawing cards and Oloro was popular in my group at the time, so I went with Erebos after demoting Ob Nixilis to the 99. But I never got around to trying the other two. Drana is just removal, so I’m not that big on her. Geth, I think, is probably the best of the three, and I love to use my opponents things against them. I plan to rebuild this deck in the near future with Geth at the helm, but for right now, I’m uncommitted to a specific commander – I just know I really like the deck.

Red – I thought Daretti would be the answer to all my questions concerning mono-red, but ultimately he was a bit of a letdown. I’m much more interested in a U/R build that can run him, Tezzeret and Dack Fayden as well as the artifact-centered Blue cards like Muzzio and Fabricate. Daretti was just too durdly and had huge problems actually closing out games, at least when you take certain options off the table for social reason (I ran Vandalblast and Mycosynth Lattice in my build, but the one and only time I actually pulled off that play I felt like a HUGE asshole). I loved the little value engines the deck could set up, but finding  a way to translate all those little durdles into actual wins without resorting to below-the-belt moves just proved too difficult and I gave up on him. I’m vaguely interested in Purphoros or Krenko, but hesitant to commit to trying those out of fear they too will prove a bit too anti-social for my group. And, honestly, while I think Red is better than White, at least, it is the second worst color in EDH, at least on its own. Basically, I am still waiting for inspiration to strike.

Green – I really didn’t like Freyalise much, and she was, I think, my first real experience with mono-green in EDH. Titania was more intriguing, but a buddy of mine beat me to the punch with her. I’m not at all above running the same commander as someone else in my group, but I am not interested in running the same DECK. If a commander has room for two decks to co-exist without being carbon copies, fine. But my friend has basically nailed the Titania concept so well that even if I think my deck would be a little bit BETTER than his (due to my having just a few key cards he doesn’t), my deck would basically be about 97% the same as his. Functionally it would be identical – same basic lines of play, same win conditions, same weaknesses, etc. So, Titania is out because, IMO, she has been “solved” well enough that there’s no point in me even trying. I have seen some discussion on Yisan, the Wandering Bard recently and he intrigues me. I’m playing him in my Surrak Dragonclaw deck just for shits and giggles but he’s been pretty fun the few times I’ve had him stick. I might give him a try at some point, or not. Have not committed either way, but right now he’s the only other green Legend I am even remotely considering.


Azorius (W/U) – I actually put together and sleeved up a very competent-looking Grand Arbiter Agustin IV deck a few years back, and I think it would have been my ideal Azorius deck. But even though I have it in me to WANT to be “That Guy”, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I never actually played the deck in a game with my group. That’s probably for the best. So far nothing else in W/U has inspired and excited me the way GAAIV did, but I could not find a way to make Agustin socially palatable so I gave up on him. Ultimately, though, none of other W/U options have captured my interest, so I’m either going to have to be willing to fully commit to the Dark Side and rebuild the Arbiter deck or wait until something new comes along. 

Dimir (U/B) – Wrexial is definitely my pick here. I absolutely adored my Wrexial deck and plan to rebuild him at some point. After the C14 decks came out, I built a Grimgrin deck with Gisa and Geralf as “lieutenants” of the deck. It was really fun… not super powerful, though. In fact it lost a TON. And before I do go back to Wrexial I have one other top-secret idea I just have to try out first. I’ll let you all know when I get around to that little project, but until then by Dimir days are on hold. Once I have this other idea executed upon, I will definitely be putting Wrexial back together. The thing is, when I first built Wrexial there actually weren’t a TON of cards that were directly on-theme, so it was actually easier to just build him as a good-stuffish control list with a handful of “steal your stuff and kill you with it” cards. But then suddenly things like Chancellor of the Spires,  Spellweave and a whole host of cards that allowed you to plunder your opponents’ hands, libraries and graveyards saw print. This led to me trying to jam all those things in and losing the basic control elements that made the deck work. It’s going to be tough to restore the original balance while still including a bunch of the new toys, but the more I “improved” the deck the less it seemed to win, so it is clear I must go back to the drawing board and fix these issues.

Rakdos (B/R) – Black/Red was always tricky. I tried Lyzolda and Wort, having limited success with both. Wort was pretty strong in 1v1 but terrible in multiplayer. Also rolled over to decks with lots of Wrath effects. I have tried at least twice, maybe thrice to get a Kaervek greifer deck to work but that approach has some weaknesses inherent in the colors and strategy, not to mention it was a SERIOUS hate-magnet. It’s just one of those decks that leaves you with a binary choice: hate it out of the game so badly it can’t do ANYTHING or let it do even a LITTLE of what it wants and suddenly YOU can’t do anything at all. So it was kind of a non-starter both for social contract reason and for basic strategic reasons. As of yet, I have not had any further ideas for what to do here. I’ve looked at Grenzo a bit, but nothing has materialized in the way of inspiration.

Gruul (R/G) – Right now I’m rocking a pretty kick-ass Omnath, Locus of Rage deck. It’s very powerful, but it has some issues. Frankly, I love the deck for its complex decision trees (sequencing your ramp spells and/or land drops so that you can get Omnath online as quickly as possible, BUT while still have more stuff to do once he’s in play is quite tricky sometimes), its ability to bypass alpha strikes and just win via direct damage if I fear something like an Angel of the Dire Hour, and its tendency to just make huge, battlecruiser-Magic style plays. But, the downside is that it tends to be rather linear and repetitive, the turns on which I win usually wind up feeling very much like I’m “combo-ing off” as my opponents just sit and watch me goldfish for like 15 minutes while I juggle a million different triggers and constantly re-calculate my mana, and it’s just not very interactive at all, and finally I don’t feel like there is a good solution to these problems as the deck is inherently one that not only has a 7-mana commander but HEAVILY relies on that commander to be effective. Anything I could do to make it less linear, more interactive and less combo-ish would also just objectively weaken the deck. So, I think it’s better to just have my fun with him for now, but I will soon go back to my bro, Stonebrow. My old Stonebrow “Trample Tribal” deck was never going to be my most powerful deck but it was always reliably fun to play regardless. Plus they have printed a lot of cards that I would love to see alongside Stoney B. Thunderfoot Baloth in particular is a card that almost on its own has had me thirsting to sleeve up the old R/G Stompy list. While I expect Stonebrow to always remain on the lower end of the power spectrum compared to many other decks I’ve played, I still think “large creatures with trample and buffs” is the most quintessential Gruul experience, so I’m perfectly happy to stick with the deck for now.

Orzhov (W/B) – I love playing Orzhov, but somehow, in EDH, this color pair has proven very tough to crack. The best thing I’ve built so far is my old Vish Kal list, but that deck has one very noteable issue in that it always felt very generic. Like, the deck didn’t have a specific mechanical theme or strategy. It was just a mix of threats, removal, utility and lands. It made for some fun games and it was acceptably powerful, but there wasn’t really any specific thing that the deck DID. It didn’t have a clear line of play beyond “cast removal on things that scare me, drop threats, occasionally reanimate those threats, and struggle to find good ramp and draw”. For a brief time, while Griselbrand was legal, the deck started to morph into a deck that was all about abusing Griselbrand – that was of course a very effective way to win, and it gave the deck an actual clear purpose, but Griselbrand was rightly shown the banhammer and the deck again went back to an amorphous blob of Good Stuff. I tried and tried to give it a more thematic, cohesive or synergistic feel, but nothing really panned out. The typical Orzhov “bleeder” thing of subjecting your opponent to a death by 1000 cuts doesn’t really pan out in a format with multiple opponents all starting at double the normal life total. One of the overarching things that has become clearer as I analyze my own career in EDH is that I value and adore synergy above all else. I am not at all above playing a “Good Stuff” deck but even my old Thraximundar deck, which was built specifically and intentionally to be an Good Stuff deck still managed to feel cohesive. It ran smoothly and almost everything in it actually felt like it belonged even when it lacked clear synergy. But I have yet to get an Orzhov deck to feel this way. Either I go all in an a theme and wind up with a terribly weak deck that isn’t fun despite its high level of synergy (Daxos, Ghost Council of Orzhova), or I forgo some of the synergy in favor of powerful cards chosen to shore up those weaknesses and wind up with a very generic, non-synergistic deck lacking cohesion, or any unique “style” of its own. The two newest options, Daxos and Karlov have failed to excite and inspire me. But Ayli, the recently spoiled Legend from the upcoming Oath of the Gatewatch set has me much more intrigued. I’m not sold on her yet, but I am definitely going to try her out and see if she turns out to be my “Rafiq” for the Orzhov guild. (Note: I am fairly certain I would love playing a Teysa 1.0 deck, as I love W/B Tokens in 60-card Magic, and I love playing control in EDH, but someone else in my group had a Teysa deck for a bit and I kinda hated playing against it. I admired the deck for what it could do, but it was stifling – as long as the Teysa player was still in the game you just could NOT afford to develop your board! So as much as I think I personally would find Teysa to be very rewarding to play WITH, I do not want to become a hypocrite by subjecting my group to another Teysa deck after I bitched so much about the last one.)

Izzet (U/R) – Another tough one to figure out. I know what I want this to be, now, but there is not yet a commander that really supports what I’m after.  Like a huge number of other EDH fans, I am looking for the U/R “Artifacts Matter” commander – and not to sound all hipster, but I started wanting this to happen a long time ago – way before Origins teased us with its U/R Thopters theme. I tried all through Innistrad block to make a U/R Instants and Sorceries matter deck with lots of flashback and stuff like Snapcaster and Runechanter’s Pike, but it never panned out. For one thing, I had to use generic “for the colors” commanders like Nin the Pain Artist. Niv Mizzet might have been better, but he has a reputation and I wanted to avoid getting Niv Mizzet-levels of hate. When Return to Ravnica was announced, but before any cards were spoiled, I was already hoping the Izzet guild this time around would live up to their flavor of being mad tinkerers and have an artifacts-matter mechanic instead of a spells-matter gimmick, but of course that didn’t happen. Still, the additional support for this archetype finally gave me enough to work with that the spell-centric deck I was working on before could finally be made to work. I even got a great, on-theme Legend in the form of Melek, while lots of other goodies from Aetherize to Mizzium Mortars to the mighty Epic Experiment propelled the deck from “awful” to “capable of winning games”. But there was a problem. My playgroup has a gentleman’s agreement that we all avoid countermagic; we don’t explicitely forbid, so if someone just happened to have a Mystic Snake in their U/G snake tribal deck or whatever, we wouldn’t crucify them, but running more than one or two counters because the happen to be on theme will get you some dirty looks for sure. This is a problem because a deck that operates almost entirely via Instants and Sorceries is hard to interact with in a meta that does not include many counterspells if any at all. The only way to interact with Melek is on the Stack, but most decks are running permanent removal like Krosan Grip or Swords. Sure, killing Melek or my Runechanter’s Pike is good, but how does a deck with no countermagic stop an Epic Experiment or a Devil’s Play for 20, Fork-ed and Twincast-ed? So again it was a deck that technically worked as I envisioned it, but how it worked was not really a good fit for my metagame. It kind of exploited the anti-countermagic  accord we had, and also those Epic Experiment turns felt awfully masturbatory. Twenty mintues of me goldfishing, no one able to interact and the I just declare “Okay everyone’s dead, I think” just wasn’t actually that fun. I’m working on something with Arjun but I am not yet convinced I can even get the deck to actualy DO what I want it to do, and even if I can, I’m not sure if it’ll be fun or not. But really I’m just waiting for that deck where I can run Daretti and Tezzeret in the same deck.

Golgari (B/G) – Oh baby. I spent a lot of time and effort massaging a Savra list from an awkward and janky pile of crap into a very fun and highly effective deck. I was and am quite in love with Savra. When Meren was spoiled she was pretty much the most exciting thing in Commander 2015, and despite a whole list of other cards in that set that I think are pretty darn sweet, Meren was from the first second my favorite new card in the whole set. With hype like that, the only place to go is down, right? Wrong! Before I even got my hands on the actual decks I was already declaring the B/G deck to be the best overall deck in the set, and Meren to be the best new commander. Yet somehow she actually managed to EXCEED my expectations and has consistently performed even better than I dared to hope. On top of that, the deck is one of the most “me” decks ever. Every time I play it I am just so happy with almost every single play I make, it’s like if an entire team of people for WotC R&D came to my house and put me through a barrage of psychological and analytical tests to build a comprehensive Magic profile and then used all that data to design and build a deck specifically just for ME. And yet, I kinda still want to go back to Savra. For one thing, if I have Meren together, there’s not much point to me rebuilding Karador and I really like Karador (but that’s jumping ahead, well get to that later). I also have a foil Savra and as of yet there is no such thing as a foil Meren. So I am at a crossroads here. My group was never a huge fan of Savra, but I think they dislike Meren even more. But, while I was absolutely convinced beyond doubt that Savra was my “definitive” Golgari commander, Meren has shaken that resolve to the core, and now I really don’t know what I want more. All I know is, until the Ozrhov come up with something truly compelling, the Golgari are my new favorite guild.

Boros (R/W) – Even though these are my two least-favorite colors in EDH, individually, when combined they complement each other very well. While they still lack for pure card draw and have some trouble keeping up with the other colors’ raw card advantage abilities, they can still bridge that gap a lot better together than either color can by itself. At any rate, I have found my definitive deck for the Boros guild – Equipment matters, with lots of Doublestrike and a robust Sunforger package. Who the general is, is a matter of flexibility. Right now I’m pretty firmly backing Aurelia, but it can go a number of ways. I’ve tried just about everything: Jor Kadeen, Agrus Kos, Gisela… probably at least one more I’m forgetting. I really like playing Boros, but all the decks pretty much look and play the same, outside of a few minor, cosmetic differences. Right now I’m still experimenting with Kalmene and she actually has a lot to recommend her for this style of deck. She wears equipment like Swords or Jitte better than just about any other Boros commander out there. She really is a lot better than most people give her credit for. But my favorite approach to Boros is to squash my mana curve as low as possible, keeping the average CMC of my creatures as close to 3 as possible. I want to just load up on Boros Swiftblades and  Markov Blademasters. Basically if it has doublestrike and costs 4 or less, I want it. But Kalemne has that EXP gaining ability that wants you to play 5 drops, or bigger. You could certainly just ignore that text and play her as a straight up Voltron commander where a few cards like Godo and Stonehewer Giant that you were going to run anyway will just incidentally have a nice little bonus synergy. That’s not my style, though; I have a hard time ignoring text like that, so I feel obligated to build with that ability in mind. For these reasons, I’m inclined to favor Aurelia just to avoid that tension. But regardless of the specific commander, I’m firmly on the Equipment Tribal plan for Boros for the foreseeable future.

Simic (U/G) – Whereas Meren was big on hype, then succeeded in delivering on those high expectations, Ezuri has been somewhat of a letdown. If your opponents are foolish enough to leave him alone for a couple of turns, he can do amazing things, but I’ve never seen a deck fold THAT hard just to having its commander zapped a couple of times right off the bat. Ezuri baits you with his ability, saying “No, don’t run serious threats, just run little dudes, I’ll turn them INTO threats!” and again, left to advance this gameplan unmolested, Ezuri does incredibly epic things. But once people see what he can do, it’s pretty much guaranteed he will not be allowed to run unmolested in subsequent games. He’s a big hate-magnet, but he folds to that hate SOOOOOO quickly. Then again, I’m probably biased because Edric, who is clearly and definitely my favorite commander in these colors, has built-in card draw and discourages hate almost as effectively as Ezuri encourages it. I think that, if I were really compelled to, I could solve some of Ezuri’s problems – slow the deck down, give it more reactionary abilities, add some more ways to protect Ezuri himself and make it so that I can wait to cast Ezuri until there are other threats so that it’s not 100% guaranteed Ezuri will be the #1 must-kill thing all the time. But the thing is, I just know in my heart of hearts that Edric is a better fit for my tastes and playstyle and delivers what I feel to be a more essential Simic play experience. Plus, Ezuri seems like he’ll play quite well in the 99 of my style of Edric build, so he’s not out of a job completely. Edric isn’t just my favorite U/G commander, he’s one of my favorite commanders, period.


Esper (WUB) – The closest thing I’ve found to my ideal Esper commander is Oloro, but I never quite got the deck just right. I also highly enjoy Zur, so long as he’s not being the douchenozzle he typically is known for.  So at this point, I’m not 100% commited to an Esper commander, but I did shell out for the judge promo Oloro last year, so I guess since I commited with my wallet, at least, Oloro will be my go-to Esper guy for now. I do quite like him, on paper, I just need to spent some more time fine-tuning the deck so that it plays out the way I envision it. I think it will get there, I just kept getting distracted by too many possible directions to go with it. Once I nail down a more concrete, specific direction to take him, I have some confidence he’ll wind up being the definitive Esper guy.

Grixis (UBR) – Thraximundar, all day every day. I’ve tried Zombies with Sedris and Vampires with Garza Zol. Both were fun, but janky. Thraximundar I’ve built and rebuilt a fair number of times, in different themes including, again, Zombie tribal, and he’s just the best, hands down. Marchesa is really cool and pretty intriguing, but I’ve seen a Marchesa deck in action – I like it, but I still just like Thrax better. My favorite approach is just to build him as a Good Stuff deck leaning heavily toward control – lots of removal, lots of card draw and a handful of bomb threats like Sheoldred with a little bit of reanimation/recursion. Like I said up in the Orzhov write-up, this deck looks like a generic pile of good cards, but it always did tend to play out much more cohesively than one would expect. It wasn’t exactly loaded with synergy, per se, but everything still somehow felt like it belonged together. Sometimes a batch of cards can just play really well together without being explicitly synergistic. It helps when an average top deck is Jace the Mind Sculptor.

Jund (BRG) – I have long felt that Karrthus should be the definitive Jund general. This is a formate inspired by and named after a cycle of big, expensive dragons and Karrthus is like the One Ring of dragons – he rules them all. But I could never get my attempts at Karrthus to run well enough for my tastes without devolving them into piles of good stuff not unlike my take on Thraximundar as mentioned above. The thing is, whereas I’m perfectly content running Grixis Good Stuff, I always felt that not making Karrthus more thematic and dragon-centric was a disservice to him and the deck. Post-Khans block, I think I could probably do it better, but a buddy of mine didn’t give up on Karrthus when I did, and has slowly but surely molded his Karrthus build into something closely approximating what I’d consider to be the ideal build. It’s still powerful and good-stuff-ish, but is far, far more commited to the Dragon creature type than I was, and I don’t think I could do much to improve on the archetype. Fortunately, there’s another Dragon option: Prossh. I don’t know that I’d ultimately consider him to be my “Rafiq” for these colors, but I think he’s about the closest I have found thus far. I do clearly love just about any deck that can and should run Grave Pact, and sacrificing things for value is also a big plus for me. The downside is that he does play similarly to a couple other decks – Savra for the grave pact/value-sac angle, and Marath for the token-production angle. If I could find a way to do the things I want to be doing with Prossh, while still making the deck feel a little more unique from those other decks I’d have a clear winner.

Naya (RGW) – Easy pick here: Marath. I absolutely loved this deck; the only real issue was that I never quite got the list smoothed out to the point that it was doing things as reliably and consistently as I would have liked, but I probably had too many sub-themes going on. I think if I rebuilt it from scratch and made some tougher choices and was stricter with myself about going off on thematic tangents, it could reach those lofty standards I have for labelling something “definitive”. At the same time, considering all the deck building tangents I indulged, the fact that it even worked at all stands as testament to the deck’s potential and the power of Marath himself as commander. I did recently have a Marath Tiny Leaders deck and I absolutely loved that deck. I ran Mayael for a very long time and I tried two separate times to make Rith work, but Marath was the first Naya build that really had both the synergy and power that I wanted. I actually won a game with Nacatl War Pride, thanks to that deck. Any deck that can make jank like Nacatl War Pride into a legitimate, game-winning threat is my kind of deck. I just wish Marath was available in foil, but that’s not nearly enough of a downside to not pick him.

Abzan (WBG) –  As much as I like Ghave, once I finally caved in and tried a Karador deck, I was ready to completely throw my support behind the ghost centaur. If you’ve actually been reading this massive wall of text this far, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that answering threat after threat using the same card over and over strokes one of my biggest Magic erogenous zones. But complicating matters is this weird love-triangle between Karador, Meren and Savra. Having both Meren and Karador as my definitive commanders for their respective colors is way too redundant, and leaves my beloved Savra out in the lurch. But I love the Meren deck far too much to just, say, put her in the 99 of Karador and give the Golgari slot back to Savra. Meren DESERVES command of her own ship. But if I keep Meren around, that pretty much forces me to either have two decks that are basically the same deck, or give the Abzan slot to Ghave. I really do like Ghave, but honestly, I’m just kinda… over him. And there really aren’t any other options I would consider at this point. Anafenza was a fantastic Tiny Leader, but the GY hate clause actually makes me loathe her in EDH… one time I pulled out my Anafenza deck and then a player who had pulled out her Marchesa deck, just said “Oh.” and disappointedly chose another deck. When you have a general that just makes your opponents unwilling to even attempt to play specific decks, that’s a problem. Ultimately, though, if I take away all these meta concerns and just ask myself “Who is my favorite Abzan commander?” the answer is clearly and without question Karador. If that answer comes so easily, then I guess everything else is just tangential.

Jeskai (URW) – I think I might be onto something with the Narset list I’ve been toying around with. Obviously, I’m trying to keep my list honest and socially palatable; not going the combo route or anything like that. No extra turns or extra combat steps, no Proteus Staff. But thus far, I haven’t actually gotten this deck to work quite right. It is capable of, and has pulled off, some pretty impressive plays, but it’s clunky and awkward feeling. One of the most important criteria for my definitive decks is that they simply have to feel “right” which is something that is beyond my ability to define, but rather just a subjective quality that, to paraphrase Justice Stewart’s comments on pornography, I know it when I see it. Early results show promise, but not enough for me to be positive I will reach that point with Narset. Right now, she’s just the best available option, I think.

Sultai (BGU) – Surprisingly, I’m starting to lean heavily toward Sidisi, Brood Tyrant here. I’ve been messing around with a Sidisi deck for a while, as a lark I thought. But its’ starting to show some real potential and it certainly hits a lot of my favorite notes, play-wise. Graveyard interaction, value engines, self-mill, milling opponents, using my opponents’ things against them, etc. It also plays a pretty mean Villainous Wealth game. Prior to Sidisi’s rise, I flip-flopped between Damia and Mimeoplasm. I always wanted Damia to become that “definitve” commander, as her card-draw potential was just insanely attractive to me, but Blue has always been fantastic at drawing cards, while Black and Green have become very adept at draw as well. So having a BGU commander with a wonky, kinda-difficult card drawing ability in the three colors that are already fantastically well-equipped to do so just isn’t as compelling as I thought it would be. There are some specific lines of play that only Damia can pull off, which I really like (example: discarding your whole hand to Insidious Dreams right before your turn begins, so you can tutor up the perfect 5 to 7 cards and then draw them all at once off  Damia). But Sidisi is much more flexible and open-ended. You obviously want to have a very high creature count, and some graveyard interaction. But while I could easily turn her deck into a blue-tinted variant of the Meren/Karador archetype, or a green-tinted variant on the Wrexial deck, there are also a lot of other directions to go. I don’t want to go full-on Zombie Tribal, for example, but one could and I am looking at a few ways to make the zombie tokens a LITTLE bit more thematically relevant and important. The best thing about Sidisi, though, is that she’s actually a little more aggressive than the average BGU deck. Still tends to be pretty slow and grindy overall, but a T3 Sidisi, hitting at least one creature for the zombie token puts any of the C14 Planeswalker commanders on the defensive really quickly, and under the right circumstances (easy to engineer with all the removal available in these colors), she can just keep churning out those tokens. Simply put, I find myself attacking with her far more than I thought I would, though the ground does still get clogged up enough to stall her out quite often. I’m not completely sure yet, but I think I’ll be keeping Sidisi around for quite some time.

Mardu (RWB) – Another one of those color schemes that just continues to stump me. Way back in 2011, Kaalia seemed like the definitve Mardu commander, and for many fans she is just that. She certainly looks like the most EDH card ever printed, but I just never actually enjoyed playing her all that much and I really hate playing against her, too. She’s just boring, linear and binary – either you have removal to keep Kaalia from ever attacking and the deck falls flat on its face, or you don’t have the removal and you get steamrolled by a T3 Avacyn and a T4 Gisela. At least Griselbrand isn’t around anymore. Anyway, despite being extremely hyped about her when she was spoiled, I have come to loathe Kaalia decks. All this to say, I don’t have any suitable replacements in mind. I have a Zurgo deck right now and I kinda enjoy it, but the word “kinda” is pretty much the antithesis of finding the definitive deck for a given color scheme. I think if we ever have one more whole block where Warrior tribal gets more support than the more typical tribes we are used to seeing in these colors, I might be able to massage the list into a worthy Warrior-tribal list with Zurgo beatdown as backup. But right now, the way the list stands today, it’s pretty much objectively correct to put forward Zurgo beatdown  as plans A through C and falling back on going wide with Warriors as plan D. I feel like Zurgo really wants to be a Stoneforge Mystic deck, but that’s my Boros thing already. I want the addition of black to matter beyond giving me some removal and card draw options, and I want the rest of the deck to matter beyond making Zurgo more lethal and harder to stop. Simply put, Mardu is a riddle I have not yet solved.

Temur (GUR) – Ooh, I know this one! Maelstrom Wanderer! Sure, no one likes him, at least not playing against him, but he’s still the only choice if I’m being at all honest. I’ve tried Animar and Riku. I might have tried Intent, too, at some point I can’t remember, but MW is just vastly more fun than any of those. Casting a Fervor attached to a 7/5 body and then getting TWO cascade triggers is literally one of the funnest things you can do in EDH, in my opinion at least. The deck is just retardedly powerful and obnoxious to play against, because it’s very hard to answer MW in a way that doesn’t just make the MW player giggle. The more you kill him, the more they get to cast him, which is exactly what they want. Nah, I try to be very considerate of the social aspects of the format and I try very hard not to be an asshole, but MW is one of those decks that makes it SO MUCH FUN to be an asshole, you just can’t help yourself. And I’m not even running extra turns cards (did have Temporal Mastery in for a while, just because the self-exile clause makes it much more fair), mass LD or any of the other things that tend to be near-universal in MW decks. I go out of my way to make it just big, dumb and fair, but it’s still loathed by everyone I play with. So I rarely play it, even when it’s together and I frequently try to make other Temur decks work – right now I’ve got a Surrak deck that is pretty fun. But the thrill and fun of MW compared to those other GUR dudes is like the difference between doing a few lines of coke versus chugging a 5 Hour Energy. It’s not even close.

So, that’s where I’m at right now. For quite a few colors, I feel like have found that elusive, definitive deck. But there are many colors where the search continues and in a few cases feels, honestly, a bit hopeless. I may never find a mono-white commander or a rakdos deck that I just love to play the way I love playing Rafiq, Maelstrom Wanderer, or Meren. And ultimately, I recognize that my goals here might simply be out of reach. In the end, what this is actually about it exploration and experimentation. By trying to fill every slot neatly, I force myself to try things I might never try otherwise. I’m pretty well in touch with what I like and don’t like in Magic, but sometimes things surprise me. So while I may never achieve the perfect, pleasing symmetry of having the one definitve deck for each color combination, simply trying to get there has its own rewards – namely, new experiences.

And what happens if I ever do get there? If I do successfully find the “perfect” deck for each color? I don’t know, really. I guess I would just keep building new things anyway, probably. Or I might feel like I have somehow “solved” the format and quit EDH forever. I might enshrine the 25 definitive decks, seal them away and never play them again. I just don’t know exactly what might happen if that day ever comes. I think this is one of those “journey is more important that destination” scenarios or something. I mean, I hope I do get there, because having 20 to 25 decks that I dearly love to play just as much as I love that Rafiq deck would be awesome! But at the same time, building EDH decks often brings me as much pleasure (if not more, even) as actually playing them, and having a perfected stable of definitive decks would possibly stifle further creativity.

Eh, but I'm not too worried about all that. For now, I'm just enjoying the ride.