Friday, January 29, 2016

Karametra, the Underdog

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


Karametra, God of Harvests

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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