Commander (Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)

Where does Commander rank in terms of formats for a competitive player like Mark Nestico? Higher than you think! Mark talks Commander, cutthroat decks, and of course, his latest 100-card project!

Shadows over Innistrad Prerelease March 26-27!

I am not what you would call a “brewer.”

Gerry Thompson. Jeff Hoogland. Sam Black. I would call them brewers. They’re excellent at innovation, but that simply isn’t a talent I possess. I can take existing decks and make them better, and that’s where the majority of my successes have come from. Cheers to me. I’m like Apple working off of Xerox technology. It’s just there for the taking.

Commander holds the distinction of being my second-favorite format, only slightly behind Two-Headed Giant, but I assure you the race is close.

I never understood the virtues of a format that was ruled by a social contract because I am inherently a competitive player, and was thereby befuddled in my initial attempts to play with groups of people. My first foray many years ago was with an Azusa, Lost but Seeking deck at Sheldon Menery’s stomping ground of Armada Games in Tampa, Florida. I loved that little deck, but it was certainly too good. By turn 4 I had eliminated free will from the table and was set to eliminate all opponents from it as well. That’s when one cheeky gentleman spoke up:

“This really sucks, man. We didn’t pay our money to have you beat us before the game even started.”

Whoa. Okay. Forget the inevitability I had. I simply passed the turn and apologized, stating that it was my first time and I didn’t know that the objective wasn’t to win as quickly as possible.

That cheeky gentleman promptly killed the table on his turn 5. That’ll teach me a lesson I guess.

As far as I was concerned, nothing had changed, however. My LGS had begun really taking to Commander. This was around 2010-2011 I believe, so the format hadn’t reached the heights it has today, but it was getting there. Bulk rare boxes became treasure troves. Off-the-wall strategies and infinite combos with never-before-heard-of cards were the new norm. It was intoxicating and more fun than I could comprehend.

When people talk about Commander, it’s common to talk about the decks more than the other tangibles you get out of it. For me it was a multitude of things that didn’t even have anything to do with slinging spells. I loved finding the foils I needed for my deck when trading with new people. I loved random folks I never met before say “Hey, this card would be cool in your deck!” and it always was.

I loved sleeving up 100 cards and remembering what tournament I was at when I picked up new pieces for my deck and knowing those memories would probably last longer than the deck did. I spent a solid year and a half turning that deck into a Japanese foil monstrosity. It was my baby and I loved it. Like all birds, though, it grew wings and flew the coop when times were tough.

For years I stumbled through decks that were either entirely too Spike-ish or too kid-friendly. We went from Sharuum the Hegemon combo to Mardu Reanimator variants to Tiny Leaders and back again. After a spell of inactivity, I decided that perhaps I’d get back into Commander, because I missed it so very much.

Where some see happenstance, I see providence.

Sam Black posted a fairly nifty Commander article about a completely different take on Narset, Enlightened Master. For those of you not overtly familiar with Commander, Narset is traditionally viewed as a very unfair general. It’s commonplace to either pack your deck with tons of “extra turn” spells like Time Warp, Temporal Manipulation, or Capture of Jingzhou. Other avenues include every “extra attack step” card you can manage so that you can essentially cast your entire deck with Narset while killing everyone individually. Charming, I’m sure.

This take, however, was completely different. Here’s Sam’s initial list for those of you too lazy at home to click a hyperlink, which I’m assuming is at least 50%.

Narset, Enlightened Master
Sam Black
Test deck on 10-09-2015
Magic Card Back

I am not what you would call a “brewer.”

The problem with netdecking a Commander deck is the immediate stigma that comes with it. Commander decks for many players are an extension of their player identity. It’s like when you see a dog that shares traits with the owner, and it’s almost comical when the two are placed side-by-side. Using the list someone else provided is akin to identity theft, but hey, I don’t play by the rules. I’m feisty.

I decided to use Sam’s list as a framework for what I would eventually pursue. This Narset list was incredibly fast but had almost no reach whatsoever. If you got behind, the games went from having a shot to completely unwinnable. This was somewhat infuriating, because the boom/bust potential was so high. With that in mind I went to work. Keep in mind that this deck is 99 out of 100 foil cards. I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but I’m a child when it comes to Commander and I like pretty things. Sue me.

Narset, Enlightened Master
Mark Nestico
Test deck on 03-22-2016
Magic Card Back

You can probably see that, while I maintained the core of Sam’s token theme, I expanded on it further. I decided to cut all of the cards that didn’t interact very well with Narset, Enlightened Master. That meant a fair bit of the pump effects as well as spells like Decree of Justice or Secure the Wastes. I found that, on average, one of my spells that she would hit upon trigger would be extremely low-impact, so I sought out ways to give the deck more reach while cutting the less impactful spells.

For Decree of Justice I wanted Rise of the Hobgoblins, which has the similar appeal of being able to generate a ton of tokens with a mana sink, while not being useless if Narset hit it. Mystic Confluence and Cryptic Command were early additions because they could be powerful in the hand as well as revealed by my commander. The tap or bounce effects, coupled with card draw or counterspells, can be very important at keeping the more dangerous commanders off the table.

I severely cut back on the number of creatures in the initial list because they just weren’t good enough. Young Pyromancer and Monastery Mentor are heavy hitters, so they stayed, but Snapcaster Mage, Goblin Rabblemaster, and Mogg War Marshal had to go. I wanted diversity, so I added Purphoros, God of the Forge to kill when I couldn’t break through a wall of blockers but could still generate tokens.

That made Enlightened Tutor a slam dunk, especially because it searches up important accelerator artifacts (which are massively important to this deck) or win conditions like Assemble the Legion or my personal favorite, Cathars’ Crusade. Crusade was overlooked in the first draft of the deck, but it’s easily the most devastating card in the deck. When it resolves, the game begins to revolve around how big you can make your tokens, which, in short, is cartoonishly large.

Probably the biggest point of contention is Mystical Tutor and Time Stretch. Both cards serve a purpose. Mystical Tutor searches up many important spells, from Wear // Tear when you need to destroy things like Pernicious Deed or Ghostly Prison to Brainstorm when you want to set up Narset. Time Stretch is the equivalent to my “you didn’t play fair” button, so when someone is doing something insanely degenerate, I put it on top of my library before attacks and neutralize them with extreme prejudice. Sometimes you randomly hit it off Narset, and I usually apologize when that happens, but mostly it’s an “oh crap” button.

In terms of planeswalkers, I cut Elspeth Tirel very early as I was never impressed by her. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar facilitates both roles of token producer and an Anthem, so it was basically the easiest switch possible. Chandra, Flamecaller was one of the latest cards I added, and so far she’s been every bit as good in this deck as she is in standard. Her ability to refill your hand is invaluable, the offensive capabilities are great with how much pressure you can put opponents under, and her ultimate is better than you’d think considering how big you can make your creatures with various pump cards.

The one thing I’ll say about this deck is that it devours most of the Tier 1 commanders strictly because it is so blisteringly fast. You can goldfish them faster than they can goldfish you, especially in a pod where people hone in on the player using Prossh, Skyraider of Kher or Arcum Dagsson. Most players don’t respect you when your turn 2 is casting a Dragon Fodder, but hubris will be their downfall. Narset’s biggest weakness is, without a doubt, those black/green/x-based graveyard decks that can reanimate things like Massacre Wurm; Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite; and other platinum hits that are miserable to play against if you’re piloting this deck.

That’s the crux, though. This Narset deck is pretty competitive, but it isn’t unbeatable. Fun decks do quite a number on it, because it’s linear and unable to deal with much in the way of oblong strategies. In my LGS it’s considered a good deck, but I’ve lost my fair share with it, and people are usually happy to play against it. The casual and competitive crowd don’t really mind it, and that’s what I was setting out to do to begin with.

I think that’s the part about Commander that gets lost in translation: people have fun in different ways. Some love wacky three-hour games, and others like Vintage on steroids. Finding a delicate balance is important, and one thing I’d love to see in the future is more players enjoying the multiple facets of the format instead of feeling like it’s a secret clubhouse that people are trying to infiltrate. In the most diverse format in all of Magic, there should be room for everyone at the table. That means being honest, though, about what kind of player you are, want to be, or your role at the table.

Now comes the tricky part.

I want to build another deck.

I know I want something green first and foremost. I’ve kicked around some kind of Elfball deck with Ezuri, Renegade Leader for multiplayer, and so far that’s the frontrunner. However, I’m seriously open to ideas!

If you’re a Commander fan, post your lists! It’s possible you might guide in me in the right direction towards my next deck! My only requirement is that it’s green.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed my first foray into Commander writing. I’m sure I still have a lot to learn.

Now all that’s left is to decide how much money I’m willing to spend on a foil Grim Monolith

Shadows over Innistrad Prerelease March 26-27!