Commander 2017: Cage, Set, Match

Mairsil, the Pretender is bursting with flavor…and Necrotic Ooze-like potential that got Bennie Smith’s mind racing! Be warned: we’re gonna need a bigger cage for this Commander brew!

Oh man, I am positively buzzing with excitement about getting my hands on some of the Commander 2017 decks on Friday! So many cool new cards I cannot wait to see in action. One card in particular has my mind going a million different directions, and it very much reminds me of one of my all-time favorite cards, Necrotic Ooze.

While it was in Standard I built dozens of decks featuring Necrotic Ooze; some were terrible, but a few turned out to be quite good. The beauty of a card like Necrotic Ooze is that, each time a new set is released, there are at least a few new creatures with activated abilities worth considering for Necrotic Ooze plots.

Once it rotated out of Standard I turned my attention to Modern. Modern has a much larger card pool and there were quite a few sweet activated abilities to choose from. I briefly had a cool Modern Necrotic Ooze deck that abused Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy in a way that Wizards apparently was not overly happy with; they changed how cards that exile and come back to the battlefield transformed work, and my gimmick was nerfed.

Modern is a tough format for Necrotic Ooze decks because so many top-tier decks utilize the graveyard as a resource and so plenty of people come packing graveyard hate, and the splash damage is real. Even though Necrotic Ooze decks can play “fair” and just run out creatures to the battlefield instead of dumping them into the graveyard for Necrotic Ooze to copy, playing fair doesn’t get you very far on Modern.

There is a similar problem running Necrotic Ooze in Commander. There are tons of decks that use graveyards as a resource, so it makes a ton of sense for people to play a fair amount of graveyard hate. Once someone gets any whiff of Necrotic Ooze shenanigans, it is usually easy for Commander opponents to shut that down.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when I ran across this creature lurking in the Wizard tribal deck Arcane Wizardry!

Let us focus on that sweet, sweet text box.

When Mairsil, the Pretender enters the battlefield, you may exile an artifact or creature card from your hand or graveyard and put a cage counter on it.

Mairsil, the Pretender has all activated abilities of all cards you own in exile with cage counters on them. You may activate each of those abilities only once each turn.

Okay, first off, Mairsil copies abilities that you put into the exile zone. Exile is much more difficult for opponents to muck with than your graveyard, though it is not impossible—I have been known to toss Pull from Eternity or Riftsweeper into my Commander decks on occasion.

While it is certainly slower to exile and put cage counters on cards, the abilities you collect there are much more reliably available than if they were keyed to creatures in the graveyard.

In addition, we are not limited to just creature abilities—we can make use of artifact abilities too! Wizards was smart enough to recognize that splicing artifact and creature abilities together might put together too many insane combo engines, so they also rightfully put the brakes on those sorts of shenanigans with the “you may activate each of those abilities only once each turn” clause. So Mairsil’s abilities are mostly going to be more about putting together value engines than game-winning combo engines, and that is okay with me. And keep in mind the “once each turn” limitation stretches a bit, given how many turns there are other than your own in a multiplayer game.

Now, the only way to populate exile with cards sporting cage counters is from Mairsil enters-the-battlefield triggers. Happily, we can count on Mairsil being cast from the command zone a few times throughout the game, but that commander tax will quickly make it a bit costly to do so too much, so we will probably want some other ways to have Mairsil enter the battlefield so let us look for “blink” (Mairsil goes into exile and then comes back to the battlefield) and “bounce” (Mairsil comes back to your hand and is recast) effects.

Legendary Creature — Human Wizard, 4/4

As a four-mana 4/4, Mairsil is a decent size to attack with, though we would probably want some ways to boost Mairsil’s power if we want to kill people with commander damage. It might be easier to give Mairsil infect instead. Another thing to keep an eye out for is Mairsil’s tribal affiliation, since both the Human and Wizard tribes have plenty of activated abilities Mairsil might want to make use of. Putting Wizards in “the cage” actually has a nice flavor tie-in to the story of Mairsil, which Chas Andres explained when Wizards previewed Mairsil, the Pretender on their website a couple of weeks back. The story is actually quite interesting and I was surprised at how little I had heard about this corner of Magic lore despite playing Magic since 1994. Here is a quick and dirty recap:

During The Dark, Lord Ith (of Maze of Ith fame) was ruler of the secretive Conclave of Mages until power-hungry Mairsil usurped him and imprisoned him in a special cage for years that siphoned his mana and drove him mad. This was depicted in the card Barl’s Cage (Barl was the name of the artificer who made the cage for Mairsil). Ith eventually escaped and destroyed Mairsil.

But Mairsil’s essence survived the next 2,000 years trapped in a small ruby ring. The ring was discovered by Lim-Dul, which granted him vast necromantic abilities. Mairsil gained control of Lim-Dul, but a planeswalker, Leshrac, cut off Lim-Dul’s hand that wore the ring and that was that.

Until a task mage named Jaya Ballard picked up the ring, so Mairsil spend the next decade poisoning her mind with murderous thoughts. Eventually Jaya’s planeswalker spark was ignited and she was able to purge Mairsil’s consciousness and put an end to Mairsil.

Wow, so Mairsil was doing villainous things in both The Dark and during the Ice Age storyline—how cool!

Okay, before we start playing Mairsil it is probably wise to review the game notes on the card… and there are quite a few of them! It is always a sign of a cool card when there are many game notes on it, right?

The exiled cards remain exiled with cage counters when Mairsil leaves the battlefield. If Mairsil returns to the battlefield, it will see all of those exiled cards with cage counters on them.

If another player gains control of Mairsil, it will have the abilities of only cards that player owns in exile with cage counters on them.

Activated abilities contain a colon. They’re generally written “[Cost]: [Effect].” Some keyword abilities (such as equip) are activated abilities and will have colons in their reminder text. Mairsil won’t gain triggered abilities (which start with “when,” “whenever,” or “at”).

If an activated ability of a card in exile with a cage counter on it references the card it’s printed on by name, treat Mairsil’s instance of that ability as though it referenced Mairsil by name instead. For instance, if Mairsil exiles Magus of the Mind, the cost to activate the ability includes sacrificing Mairsil, not sacrificing Magus of the Mind.

If one of Mairsil’s abilities is countered, most likely because its target became illegal before it resolved, it can’t be activated again in the same turn.

If multiple cards exiled with cage counters on them have the same ability, Mairsil will have multiple instances of that ability. Each may be activated once each turn.

If you have a creature enter the battlefield as a copy of Mairsil, its first ability triggers. You won’t be able to activate any abilities before the “legend rule” applies, but the triggered ability will still let you exile another card with a cage counter regardless of which Mairsil you keep.

If Mairsil gains an activated ability that’s normally linked to a non-activated ability of the card it came from, the ability Mairsil has isn’t linked to any ability. For example, if Mairsil exiles Prototype Portal, the activated ability creates no tokens at all; it doesn’t create Prototype Portal tokens.

If Mairsil gains an activated ability that’s normally linked to another activated ability of the card it came from, those two abilities Mairsil gains are linked for as long as Mairsil remains on the battlefield. For example, if Mairsil exiles Izzet Chemister, cards exiled with the first ability Mairsil gained from Izzet Chemister can be cast if you activate the second ability it gained that way. Izzet Chemister itself can’t be cast this way, and if Mairsil leaves the battlefield before activating that second ability, the cards exiled with that first ability are lost forever.

If Mairsil has a crew ability, creatures can crew Mairsil. It’ll become an artifact creature, but its power and toughness remain unchanged.

If Mairsil has an equip ability, activating it won’t cause anything to happen. Mairsil doesn’t become attached to a creature. They may remain friends.

Got it? Got it! Okay, so let us get brewing!

Recruiting for the Cage

First off, I wanted to pack in a fair number of ways to help Mairsil add cards to the cage. Since Mairsil is Grixis, that cuts out a fair number of “blink” spells that are white, but we can still make use of a few like Conjurer’s Closet and Illusionist’s Stratagem. Attacking with Identity Thief and exiling Mairsil will give us a new trigger during our end step. Pack Rat is a neat card to cage with Mairsil—for three mana and a card, you can get a new trigger, though one of the two Mairsils will need to die. The card you discard can even be a card you want to cage with Mairsil’s trigger. Caging Aetherling lets Mairsil blink on demand, along with additional abilities to use once each turn.

I peppered in some “bounce” cards too. Crystal Shard and Erratic Portal can be useful in controlling opponent’s creatures if their mana has been distressed, but they can both bounce Mairsil too. Caging Arcanis the Omnipotent is most exciting due to the draw cards ability but in a pinch for four mana, you can bounce Mairsil too. This can be better than momentarily blinking Mairsil in the face of mass removal.

Last, I think we should include some ways to sacrifice Mairsil in case our opponents wisely use neutralizing effects like Darksteel Mutation, Imprisoned in the Moon or Song of the Dryads. It would really be a bummer to spend so much energy caging a bunch of cards for Mairsil and then have him stuck on the battlefield unable to use them. We can cage Carrion Feeder to enable Mairsil to self-sacrifice, and the lands High Market and Phyrexian Tower can help.

Swiss Army Knife

Next up, let us start loading up Mairsil with activated abilities! Individual cards that are loaded with options like a Swiss Army knife are the best, but remember that we can only use one of the abilities per card per turn. We already have Aetherling in the mix, so it makes sense to tap the original Morphling (which gives us access to untapping, flying and shroud) and the red version Torchling (which also gives us untapping along with a Lure effect and a way to protect from pinpoint removal). Quicksilver Elemental technically only has one activated ability, but I figure sometimes we’ll want to copy abilities of a creature our opponent control.

Let us not forget about artifacts with cool abilities! I am sure that Staff of Domination jumped immediately to mind for many Mairsil fans, especially given the super-cheap untap ability but what I am most excited about is Trading Post—Goat tokens for days, y’all!

Mana Abilities

While I will probably just play Sol Ring, Fellwar Stone and Chromatic Lantern to the battlefield, there may be times where it makes sense to cage those cards for Mairsil. However, the card you absolute will be caging is Mana Vault, giving Mairsil the ability to tap for three colorless mana with no drawback—wow! How awesome is that? Commander’s Sphere might be a good one to cage as well, giving Mairsil the ability to tap for colored mana while also having the ability to self-sacrifice for a card so you can dodge neutralizing effects.

And Scuttlemutt? Well, I am sure your opponents will just concede when you cage Scuttlemutt, because how in the world can they defeat Mairsil with access to that power!

Non-Tap Abilities

Okay, next up I want to focus on abilities that do not require a tap to activate. They’re particuarly good with Mairsil, since you can use them during your turn and each of your opponents’ turns and still have an untapped creature to block with. I like little old Dreadwing, since granting Mairsil evasion and boosting him to seven power makes it much easier to take down players with Commander damage. Cards like Syndicate Trafficker and Prognostic Sphinx help protect Mairsil from removal. Jorubai Murk Lurker can provide some much needed life bump. Pestilent Souleater is perfect for making Mairsil much more of a threat both in creature combat and against opponents, and I like that it’s ability is relatively cheap on mana or even “free” if you want to go the Phyrexian mana route and pay life.

Civilized Scholar is a conditional untap, only if you discard a creature card to the loot. Oona, Queen of the Fae can provide a small army of flying chump blockers while also messing with opponents who like to manipulate the top of their library.

Tap Abilities

Even though tapping will tend to limit our options later, there are some good cards with tap abilities we will definitely want to cage for Mairsil to use. The first card in this group to leap to mind is Nevinyrral’s Disk! Normally to use the Disk you play it tapped and then have to wait until your next turn to get it active. Cage it with Mairsil and so long as you have a way to give Mairsil haste you can activate it right away. Pair that with some way to regenerate or give Mairsil indestructible and you have a potent battlefield control combination!

Caging Izzet Staticaster, Visara the Dreadful, and Kamahl, Pit Fighter provides some potent board control tap abilities too without necessarily destroying the entire battlefield.

Relic of Progenitus provides a little bit of graveyard control, Fatestitcher can tap or untap stuff, and Sigiled Starfish will provide some card selection. For sheer card drawing power, there’s Urza’s Blueprints to draw a card for no mana, Mercurial Chemister to draw two cards for one mana, and Nin, the Pain Artist to potentially draw lots of cards.

Untap Abilities

How about caging Grim Monolith or better yet Basalt Monolith? Mairsil gets to tap for three colorless mana like Mana Vault without the pesky “doesn’t untap” rider, but also gains the option to untap if there’s a different tap ability you want to use. Thousand-Year Elixir is probably not something we’re going to cage because giving Mairsil’s tap abilities “haste” while on the battlefield is pretty useful but you never know.

We also can use a few of the untap ability mechanic that Wizards dabbled with during Shadowmoor. Pili-Pala even nets you a mana back, and Merrow Wavebreakers grants flying.

Mairsil Support

When originally brainstorming ideas for Mairsil, one of the first noncreature, nonartifact cards to spring to mind was Training Grounds. Discounting Basalt Monolith’s untap ability to just one generic ability sounds pretty good, no? Illusionist’s Bracers to copy activated abilities is a slam-dunk too.

Sakashima the Impostor is a perfect complement to the strategy—when it enters the battlefield, you get to cage another card, and then you have two creatures doing crazy things with the caged cards. Flavor-wise, I am imagining the Ninja sneaking around behind Mairsil’s back, playing with his cage.

The card selection powers of Ponder, Preordain, and Serum Visions will help nab the better cage targets, depending on the battlefield state, and push the cards less needed away.

Last, Riptide Laboratory has been doing good work in Wizard decks for years and is even better here, since bouncing Mairsil so you can replay him is fantastic. Given the shocking singles price of Riptide Laboratory nowadays, I am sad that Wizards of the Coast did not provide a much-needed reprint of the card in the Wizards deck.

Grixis Good Stuff

When I was examining my final list I realized that pretty much every card revolved around Mairsil, and while that is very satisfying I knew that I’d probably need to add some cards that didn’t necessarily fit into the “cage-able” buckets. I made a few hard cuts to squeeze in a few other cards. Arcane Denial and Mystic Influence provide a little measure of control when it might be needed. Tragic Slip and Go for the Throat provide some removal if you do not have Mairsil and a few of the cage removal options together. Basilisk Collar provides some much-needed lifelink and makes any caged “ping” effects super-deadly.

I realize that I will probably actually cast many of these cage-worthy creatures, so Cauldron of Souls is a nice way to keep them around a little longer. The fact that it can also provide another cage trigger for Mairsil is icing on the cake.

Okay, so here is what I have cooked up:

Mairsil, the Pretender
Bennie Smith
Test deck on 08-21-2017
Magic Card Back

What do you think of the deck? Is there anything big that I have overlooked? How would you go about building it differently? What power level do you think this deck would present?

New to Commander?

If you’re just curious about the format, building your first deck, or trying to take your Commander deck up a notch, here are some handy links:

Commander write-ups I’ve done
(and links to decklists):

Zurgo Bellstriker (Bellstriking Like a Boss)

Dragonlord Ojutai (Troll Shroud)

Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund (Dragons, Megamorphs, and Dragons)

Dromoka, the Eternal (One Flying Bolster Basket)

Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest (Tempests and Teapots)

Tasigur, the Golden Fang (Hatching Evil Sultai Plots)

Scion of the Ur-Dragon (Dragon Triggers for Everyone)

• Nahiri, The Lithomancer (Lithomancing for Fun and Profit)

Titania, Protector of Argoth (Titania’s Land and Elemental Exchange)

Reaper King (All About VILLAINOUS WEALTH)

Feldon of the Third Path (She Will Come Back to Me)

Sidisi, Brood Tyrant (Calling Up Ghouls with Sidisi)

Zurgo Helmsmasher (Two Times the Smashing)

Anafenza, the Foremost (Anafenza and Your Restless Dead)

Narset, Enlightened Master (The New Voltron Overlord)

Surrak Dragonclaw (The Art of Punching Bears)

Avacyn, Guardian Angel; Ob Nixilis, Unshackled; Sliver Hivelord (Commander Catchup, Part 3)

Keranos, God of Storms; Marchesa, the Black Rose; Muzzio, Visionary Architect (Commander Catchup, Part 2)

Athreos, God of Passage; Kruphix, God of Horizons; Iroas, God of Victory (Commander Catchup, Journey into Nyx Edition)

Kurkesh, Onakke Ancient (Ghost in the Machines)

Jalira, Master Polymorphist (JaliraPOW!)

Mishra, Artificer Prodigy (Possibility Storm Shenanigans)

Yisan, the Wanderer Bard (All-in Yisan)

Selvala, Explorer Returned (Everyone Draws Lots!)

Grenzo, Dungeon Warden (Cleaning Out the Cellar)

Karona, False God (God Pack)

Child of Alara (Land Ho!)

Doran, the Siege Tower (All My Faves in One Deck!)

Karador, Ghost Chieftain (my Magic Online deck)

Karador, Ghost Chieftain (Shadowborn Apostles & Demons)

King Macar, the Gold-Cursed (GREED!)

Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind ( Chuck’s somewhat vicious deck)

Roon of the Hidden Realm (Mean Roon)

Skeleton Ship (Fun with -1/-1 counters)

Vorel of the Hull Clade (Never Trust the Simic)

Anax and Cymede (Heroic Co-Commanders)

Aurelia, the Warleader ( plus Hellkite Tyrant shenanigans)

Borborygmos Enraged (69 land deck)

Bruna, Light of Alabaster (Aura-centric Voltron)

Damia, Sage of Stone ( Ice Cauldron shenanigans)

Derevi, Empyrial Tactician (Tribal Birds)

Emmara Tandris (No Damage Tokens)

Gahiji, Honored One (Enchantment Ga-hijinks)

Geist of Saint Traft (Voltron-ish)

Ghave, Guru of Spores ( Melira Combo)

Glissa Sunseeker (death to artifacts!)

Glissa, the Traitor ( undying artifacts!)

Grimgrin, Corpse-Born (Necrotic Ooze Combo)

Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord (drain you big time)

Jeleva, Nephalia’s Scourge ( Suspension of Disbelief)

Johan (Cat Breath of the Infinite)

Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer (replacing Brion Stoutarm in Mo’ Myrs)

Karona, False God (Vows of the False God)

Konda, Lord of Eiganjo ( The Indestructibles)

Lord of Tresserhorn (ZOMBIES!)

Marath, Will of the Wild ( Wild About +1/+1 Counters)

Melira, Sylvok Outcast ( combo killa)

Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker ( Outside My Comfort Zone with Milling

Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis (evil and Spike-ish)

Nicol Bolas (Kicking it Old School)

Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius ( new player-friendly)

Nylea, God of the Hunt ( Devoted to Green)

Oloro, Ageless Ascetic (Life Gain)

Oona, Queen of the Fae (by reader request)

Phage the Untouchable ( actually casting Phage from Command Zone!)

Phelddagrif (Mean Hippo)

Polukranos, World Eater (Monstrous!)

Progenitus (

Fist of Suns and Bringers


Reaper King (Taking Advantage of the new Legend Rules)

Riku of Two Reflections (

steal all permanents with
Deadeye Navigator + Zealous Conscripts


Roon of the Hidden Realm ( Strolling Through Value Town)

Ruhan of the Fomori (lots of equipment and infinite attack steps)

Savra, Queen of the Golgari ( Demons)

Shattergang Brothers (Breaking Boards)

Sigarda, Host of Herons ( Equipment-centric Voltron)

Skullbriar, the Walking Grave ( how big can it get?)

Sliver Overlord (Featuring the new M14 Slivers!)

Thelon of Havenwood ( Campfire Spores)

Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice ( new player-friendly)

Uril, the Miststalker (my “more competitive” deck)

Varolz, the Scar-Striped (scavenging goodness)

Vorosh, the Hunter ( proliferaTION)

Xenagos, God of Revels (Huge Beatings)

Yeva, Nature’s Herald (living at instant speed)