Dear Azami: Beaten By Angus

See what happens when Cassidy attempts to help Sam with his Angus Mackenzie Commander deck that’s being pulled in two different directions.

Dear Azami, 

I’ve been a big fan of your column for a while and have built and taken apart a lot of different decks in the past couple of years, but I’ve been struggling with one and have yet to really make it "work."

The commander I’m trying to build around is Angus Mackenzie. I’m a green mage at heart, and I love crashing into the red zone with big creatures. For this build, though, I’m trying to venture out of my comfort zone a bit by making it more of a planeswalker control deck, with Angus’ primary responsibility being preventing damage to me and the walkers, allowing them to build up and use their ultimates. The deck has been through many changes while I’ve tried to make work.

Here is the list as it currently stands:

1 Angus Mackenzie
1 Academy Rector
1 Ajani Goldmane
1 Ajani, Caller of the Pride
1 Alchemist’s Refuge
1 Allay
1 Aura Thief
1 Austere Command
1 Azorius Guildgate
1 Bant Panorama
1 Beck // Call
1 Breeding Pool
1 Capsize
1 Chromatic Lantern
1 Command Tower
1 Contagion Engine
1 Copy Enchantment
1 Crackdown
1 Cryptic Command
1 Cyclonic Rift
1 Day of Judgment
1 Deserted Temple
1 Doubling Season
1 Elspeth Tirel
1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
1 Enchanted Evening
1 Energy Field
1 Enlightened Tutor
1 Exotic Orchard
1 Final Judgment
1 Forbid
4 Forest
1 Garruk Wildspeaker
1 Garruk, Primal Hunter
1 Genesis Wave
1 Glacial Fortress
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Heliod, God of the Sun
1 High Market
1 Hinterland Harbor
1 Into the Wilds
5 Island
1 Isperia, Supreme Judge
1 Jace, Architect of Thought
1 Jace, Memory Adept
1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Karn Liberated
1 Kiora, the Crashing Wave
1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
1 Knight-Captain of Eos
1 Kor Haven
1 Land Tax
1 Lightning Greaves
1 Luminarch Ascension
1 Maze of Ith
1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
1 Mirari’s Wake
1 Mystical Tutor
1 Omniscience
1 Opal Palace
5 Plains
1 Privileged Position
1 Prophet of Kruphix
1 Reflecting Pool
1 Reliquary Tower
1 Rest in Peace
1 Rings of Brighthearth
1 Rite of Replication
1 Seaside Citadel
1 Selesnya Guildgate
1 Sensei’s Divining Top
1 Serra’s Sanctum
1 Shield of the Oversoul
1 Simic Guildgate
1 Sol Ring
1 Sterling Grove
1 Sunpetal Grove
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
1 Temple Garden
1 Temple of the False God
1 Thassa, God of the Sea
1 Thawing Glaciers
1 Tower of the Magistrate
1 Venser, the Sojourner
1 Web of Inertia
1 Winds of Rath
1 Wrath of God

Originally it had a lot fewer enchantments and more creatures, but I was playing it too much like my other decks. Then I tried making it heavily anti-creature by putting in over a dozen board sweepers, but the number of planeswalkers I have left very little room for anything else. I started putting in more enchantment spells and had it set up as an Enchantress deck for a while, which is why you see Into the Wilds and Land Tax as ramp instead of your normal Cultivate, but all that ended up being was a pillow fort snooze fest (Rest in Peace + Energy Shield is great). Not kidding, I once won a game by milling the other person just by using normal draw per turns.

Anyway, I’d love to get some help with this monster. I’d like to keep Angus as the general, but other than that I’m wide open to change.

Thanks in advance,

Sam Mills

This installment of Dear Azami might end up in an interesting place. I say that because I may not be able to actually fix the deck I’m working on today.

Sam, I spent a good chunk of the week staring at your list when I had some downtime. I ported it into Excel; sorted the cards by type, cost, and function; and then did it all over again. I really wanted to wrap my head around what’s happening here and find a solid way to deliver the experience you’re looking for with this thing. However, at the end of the week, I’m not sure that there actually is an answer that will work without breaking from your desired end goals.

I really want to dive into the nuts and bolts to talk about this deck a bit to see if a path surfaces. Think of this article as a workshop; I’m going to take a look at a few deckbuilding strategies and potential pitfalls, walk through the tactics involved, and hopefully come out on the other end with some ideas and suggestions on ways to move forward. There may not be a finalized decklist, but there will be some suggestions and ideas.

Here’s our mid-week correspondence to help paint the picture of what I’m talking about:

My playgroups tend to be more on the competitive side, with a lot of strong cards and generals being played, but still manage not to be degenerate. Combos are not bad per se and rarely get played in early turns (they are usually just played to break ridiculous board states). I tried putting Enter the Infinite in this deck, but the better cards I know of that combo off it are in black and red (I even posted a thread on the Wizards Commander forums looking for Bant combo ideas). I would definitely not be opposed to one as an alternate win condition.

The two generals I see the most of are Nicol Bolas in a ridiculous steal everything deck (every spell or creature is designed to be able to take control of something you have until you have no defenses and Nicky B can swing in for the win) and the newer gal Jeleva, Nephalia’s Scourge in a fun Miracles deck (stack the library to put miracles on top, lots of Twincast type effects). My local game store has a lot of decks you’d expect to see (Spore decks Lazav, Dimir Mastermind; Shattergang Brothers) but very few "traditional" generals like Karador, Ghost Chieftain; Animar, Soul of Elements; and Kresh the Bloodbraided. It does keep things fun!

Specifically, I’d like help with the part of the deck that isn’t lands or planeswalkers. Sounds like a dumb thing to say, I know, but my biggest problem has been finding a direction to go with this deck. Going counterspell heavy, Fog heavy, or loading the deck with sweepers is fairly effective, but it is also kind of boring. Ideally, I’d like to find a mix that allows me to have creature threats other than planeswalkers (either as a distraction for opponents or as a backup plan), counterspells to handle Cyclonic Rift or Planar Cleansing (both of which devastate my permanent0heavy deck), or some way to more aggressively ramp the planeswalkers out and put opponents on the defensive.

Please excuse any spelling or grammar mistakes, as I’m typing this out on my phone during my lunch break. Also, I apologize if my response sounds long winded. It’s a deck concept I’ve grown attached to and would really like to see finally work.

That last paragraph might be the cause of my problem this week, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Let’s break down the archetypes represented here first to see how they might fit together.

Strategy #1: Planeswalkers

This is often referred to in Commander circles as the "Super Friends" strategy. The idea is that the deck wants to utilize planeswalkers as the primary method of interacting with the game instead of spells and creatures that fill the same roles. Planeswalkers are inherently more flexible than most normal cards, owing to three or four different abilities that (mostly) do very different things. They also benefit from "free" activation costs; once the mana is spent on a planeswalker, the currency changes, and you move to spending in loyalty counters instead. As long as you have the loyalty to afford it, you can use one of the listed abilities each turn by spending loyalty points equal to the required cost.

To support this strategy, decks often run green to take advantage of Doubling Season. The important thing to note is that the loyalty cost to use a planeswalker ability is just that: a cost and not an effect. As a result, you don’t get to double up on counters added when you use one of the "plus" abilities. However, a planeswalker will enter the battlefield with loyalty counters equal to the starting loyalty printed on the card, and this part does interact favorably with Doubling Season. Jace, Memory Adept comes into play with eight counters instead of four, Garruk, Primal Hunter enters with six, and so on.

The obvious benefit here is that you’ll be able to activate the "ultimate" ability (the really powerful, often game-breaking, and very expensive bottom ability on most planeswalkers) the turn they hit play. This effectively breaks the balance of the cards and makes them far more powerful right out of the box.

A secondary level of support is available with the proliferate cards; Contagion Engine in particular is useful in ticking planeswalkers up to ultimate levels in a hurry. As a result of both of these resources, tutors that find enchantments and artifacts are very desirable, as are effects that can copy either card type.

The downside to a planeswalker strategy is that they are inherently fragile cards by design. Once they run out of loyalty counters, they’re destroyed. In addition, they can be attacked directly, and any damage done directly to the owner of a planeswalker can be redirected to it as well. This is a problem in 60-card formats, but in Commander you now have to fend off an entire table of players from destroying your planeswalker. They draw a huge amount of attention as well, so you’ll need to work harder at protecting them than you will at using them. Also, without proliferators or Doubling Season, you’re stuck "playing fair," which is often not enough.

As a result, planeswalker-centric decks tend to adopt the "pillow fort" strategy, utilizing cards like Propaganda and Ghostly Prison to discourage attackers and counterspells to prevent direct damage or destruction effects.

In short, this isn’t an easy road to take.

Strategy #2: Enchantress

This is in many ways a precursor to the planeswalker strategy, although it has added benefits that planeswalkers can’t take advantage of.

At the core, an Enchantress deck wants to take advantage of leveraging one of the harder permanent types in Magic to destroy. Global enchantments (ones that have a passive effect on the board—Doubling Season is one, as are cards like Privileged Position and Moat) tend to be very strong cards on their own, and there are plenty of ways to fill any needs you might have with Auras and other enchantments with activated abilities.

To augment this strategy, Enchantress decks leverage their namesake creatures to gain card advantage in the process. If you’re unfamiliar, there is a subset of cards—Argothian Enchantress, Verduran Enchantress, Mesa Enchantress, and Enchantress’s Presence—that allow you to draw a card when you play an enchantment. The idea is that you’re feeding a draw engine by doing what you already want to do, which is play enchantments, and the card advantage is often backbreaking.

The parallels to the planeswalker strategy are pretty strong on both sides of the equation; you gain access to a powerful subset of cards that aren’t creatures or spells, so once they hit play you reap the benefits automatically. The downside is similar as well. The support cards that make this strategy work are easy to deal with, forcing you to again play fair more often than not. When that happens, the enchantments are easy to overwhelm in power level with creatures and spells, both of which are really growing stronger in the past few years. In addition, Commander is a format where players come prepared to handle permanents, and many of the standard removal sources that see frequent play—Krosan Grip, Terastodon, Aura Shards, Angel of Despair—do a number on enchantments.

This isn’t an easy road to take either.

The Deck: Super Friends Enchantress

This leads me to where I’m having problems, Sam. I’ve personally dabbled in both deck types (since I seem to be a ridiculous Commander completionist), and I currently have both a dedicated Enchantress deck built around Sigarda, Host of Herons and a strong planeswalker theme in my Kresh the Bloodbraided deck. Here are both lists for reference:

Kresh the Bloodbraided
Cassidy McAuliffe
Test deck on 03-11-2014
Magic Card Back

Sigarda, Host of Herons
Cassidy McAuliffe
Test deck on 03-11-2014
Magic Card Back

The issue that I keep coming back to is that supporting one of these strategies with the other ends up making a bit of a glass cannon—if everything sticks, you’re going to get to do some pretty spectacular things, but the minute someone plays Bane of Progress, the wheels are going to fall completely off. This is why I have things split out the way that I do between my two decks.

Sigarda is very deep into the Enchantress strategy, which I think is necessary to give it both the chance at being a game-worthy aggressor and also the ability to bounce back from boards wipes. Kresh not only plays big bodies to protect the planeswalkers, but if players focus on attacking that angle, they’ll be dealing with a really strong creature offensive that can end the game better anyway. The planeswalker package has been distilled down to a select few that really advance the game plan of the deck, and the Doubling Season supports Kresh’s main ability anyway. Synergy on both ends.

Back to your deck, I’m really not a fan of trying to have two permanent-based strategies like this in one place. That’s the first thing that has been giving me fits all week. I really want to back one or the other out completely, and to be honest I’m leaning toward removing the planeswalkers. As you’ve discovered, the easy thing is to go deep with counterspells and protection like Fog effects and bounce spells, and you’re right—that ends up in a pretty boring place. You’re compensating by going really heavy on planeswalkers, leading to the use of some that I think probably fall pretty short of pulling their weight.

On top of that, you toyed around with Enchantress already and removed a bunch of it, including (I assume) the Enchantresses themselves, which leaves you with a core of protection enchantments, a few other odds and ends, and no inherent card advantage. Worse yet, some of the synergies you have in the deck will protect you well enough, but not your planeswalkers. (For example, Rest in Peace and Web of Inertia together protect you from attacks all day long, but players can still attack your planeswalkers directly under that soft combo.) 

You’re also not in black, so it’s really hard to tutor up the right planeswalker for the job at hand, and you don’t have an aggressive draw engine to help there.

As a result of all of this, I’m in a place where I’m just a little concerned that the reason you don’t feel like this deck is really working is because I’m not sure it can. It’s going to fold to hate pretty easily, and you’ll need to go heavier into removal and counterspells to prevent that—something that you don’t want to do for stated reasons.

So that takes us back to where we began.

The Fix (Kind Of)

 Here’s what I think the deck does right:

  • The commander. Angus Mackenzie scores points for me across the board; he’s an original Legends legendary creature who hasn’t been reprinted, so you score old-school cred. He’s cheap to cast and recast, so he’ll likely see play in every game. Finally, his Fog with legs ability is pretty strong. He’s an ideal control commander with the protection he brings to the table, and once you get into cards like Seedborn Muse and Prophet of Kruphix that untap both Angus and your mana resources each turn, you have reliable nonstop protection.
  • The land count. 40 lands is pretty much what I would consider ideal for a deck like this, even considering that one (Maze of Ith) really doesn’t count toward mana production. You’ve got the critical shock lands and the core/Innistrad dual lands as well, which I’m a huge fan of. There’s a good helping of basic lands, and the colorless mana-producing lands are restricted to a few solid additions (love the inclusion of Tower of the Magistrate and Deserted Temple!).  A few multicolor lands and Guildgates round things out. Pretty solid. (It bears mentioning that I was initially thinking that Opal Palace should come out, but in retrospect it is actually a pretty strong card in this deck. Since Angus needs protection himself and since he’s cheap to begin with, he’ll likely gain some serious size over the course of a given game on the back of this land. Nice call.)
  • The planeswalker choices. You’ve really piled them on there, but the weaker choices (or the ones that don’t fit with your strategy) are happily absent. No Gideon, no Tezzeret, no Nissa Revane, and only the Garruk that can really be of service to you. I’m a little surprised that Jace Beleren didn’t make the cut since you want as much card advantage as you can find. I’m equally wondering what value you’re really going to get out of Venser, the Sojourner barring being able to cheat in his ultimate. These are minor concerns, though, and I’m pretty happy with the list.

Again, here are the problems I see:

  • The split personality between a Super Friends deck and an Enchantress deck. Again, you gain the benefit of enchantments and artifacts that are essential to your game plan (and the ways to find them) with the remaining shell of the Enchantress strategy, but there are a lot of shortcomings. Your main protective enchantments (Energy Field, Web of Inertia) don’t help your planeswalkers, essentially making your decision tree a choice between Doubling Season, Omniscience, and Privileged Position (and Mirari’s Wake I suppose) when you table Academy Rector and manage to kill it off. I really want to see more proliferate options if the planeswalkers are your main concern; add Contagion Clasp, Inexorable Tide and Viral Drake at minimum.
  • The creatures. Kind of a mix of Enchantress support (Rector, Aura Thief) and the obvious powerhouse in Prophet of Kruphrix, but the remainder is a tad on the weak side. Knight-Captain of Eos is thematic enough but is a bit on the low end of the power scale. Kira, Great Glass-Spinner seems like a little weak as well in a sweeper-heavy format, and I’d rather see a stronger draw engine than Isperia, Supreme Judge. Maybe it’s something admittedly overplayed like Consecrated Sphinx, or maybe it’s just going back to the Enchantress suite. Even a Trinket Mage for your Sensei’s Divining Top and Sol Ring would be fantastic. Just do something more.
  • Lack of recursion. As in nearly completely. What happens if Doubling Season gets blown up?  An Eternal Witness or a Replenish would go a long way in this deck, as would something more proactive like Faith’s Reward. Silent Sentinel is a new favorite of mine.
  • Win conditions. This deck wants to leverage a select few game-ending planeswalkers or else seems to want to find Luminarch Ascension. I’d love to see some more options here as well; Sigil of the Empty Throne seems like it could be a solid producer, and you could mix in Cathars’ Crusade with the token producers the deck has for solid value.  You could even slide into Opalescence if you want extreme style points (and a challenge).
  • Protection. You run a lot of it, but I’d like to see a better focus on disrupting the things that will really hurt you. You can wipe creatures off the board all day long and keep your permanents hidden behind Sterling Grove, but the first time someone pops off an Austere Command in the right mode or Fracturing Gust, you’ve got exactly two counterspells to defend yourself. I’m not saying go heavy in this area, but it is a cause for concern. The split personality of the deck really resurfaces here again, as you have a ton of neat enchantress protections and synergies but the planeswalkers are left out in the cold for the most part. If they’re your main strategy, you need to diversify here. At minimum I’d consider Hinder and Spell Crumple, and you could even look into Fuel for the Cause to help with the proliferate theme.

Suggested Cuts

Again, assuming both main strategies stick around, here’s a potential list in no particular order of things that might be better served as something else:

Where Does That Leave Us?

I wish I had a better answer. I would like to see this deck pick one path or the other and really go for it rather than trying be all things Enchantress and Super Friends. I honestly feel like the deck suffers too much like this due to being spread thin, and you really could be doing something much stronger with a focus in one direction or the other.

I know you want to see planeswalkers do their thing, Sam, so I’d suggest that you pull the enchantment subtheme and add more protection and more card advantage to make that happen. This likely entails heavier counterspells, a large green-based ramp component to get you out ahead of the other players, and some way to get your walkers in play and running as quickly and efficiently as possible. Sadly, this may mean more pillow fort options, but you could make it interesting on the back of a strong creature complement—run Eldrazi, Blazing Archon, Empyrial Archangel, and the like. Find solutions that are problems as well.

I’d personally like to see the planeswalkers gone so that you can focus on a solid "enchantments matter" theme. Get your Enchantress card advantage back in place and wick up the token creators to take full advantage of Cathars’ Crusade. (Sacred Mesa and Vitu-Ghazi, the City Tree are good choices, and I’m a huge fan of Fable of Wolf and Owl.)  Glare of Subdual and Opposition help on the control front. There’s a lot that you can do in this direction.

I know that this isn’t as cut and dried as things usually end up in this column, Sam. I do apologize for this. But you’ve got a powerhouse of a list, and you’re coming at two strategies that I think are among the most exciting ones in the format if done right. I honestly believe that you’re going to struggle if you try to keep both shoehorned into the same 100 cards, however, and I’m not going to choose for you. What I hope I’ve been able to do here today is talk through the potential issues you likely face, build the reasons behind them up, and then show you some other options to get your mind going. I think you’ll solve this better than I can because it is going to take an emotional decision to get there. Hopefully, you’ve got some improved tools and suggestions to help you along the way.

Here’s a price breakdown for some of the cards we’ve discussed today:

Fuel for the Cause $0.15
Viral Drake $0.25
Contagion Clasp $0.25
Trinket Mage $0.25
Vitu-Ghazi, the City Tree $0.25
Silent Sentinel $0.49
Inexorable Tide $0.49
Mesa Enchantress $0.49
Verduran Enchantress $0.75
Faith’s Reward $0.75
Yavimaya Elder $0.75
Cathars’ Crusade $0.99
Recycle $0.99
Sacred Mesa $0.99
Sigil of the Empty Throne $1.49
Opalescence $1.49
Blazing Archon $1.49
Fable of Wolf and Owl $1.49
Glare of Subdual $1.49
Explosive Vegetation $1.99
Spell Crumple $1.99
Bane of Progress $2.49
Eternal Witness $2.99
Hinder $2.99
Opposition $2.99
Solitary Confinement $3.49
Solemn Simulacrum $3.49
Aura Shards $3.99
Enchantress’s Presence $4.99
Empyrial Archangel $4.99
Jace Beleren $9.99
Seedborn Muse $10.99
Replenish $13.99
Consecrated Sphinx $14.99
Argothian Enchantress $16.99
Sphinx’s Revelation $18.99

You’re going to receive the standard $20 store credit to StarCityGames.com for participating in Dear Azami today; I really hope it helps you to get to a good place with this list. Going further, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email to let me know how things are going. I’d love to know where you go with this and how it does.

Want to submit a deck for consideration to Dear Azami? We’re always accepting deck submissions to consider for use in a future article, like Justin’s Sol’kanar, the Swamp King deck or Allan’s Oloro, Ageless Ascetic deck. Only one deck submission will be chosen per article, but being selected for the next edition of Dear Azami includes not just deck advice but also a $20 coupon to StarCityGames.com!

Email us a deck submission using this link here!

Like what you’ve seen? Feel free to explore more of Dear Azami here! Be sure to follow Sean on Facebook; sometimes there are extra surprises and bonus content to be found over on his Facebook fan page, as well as previews of the next week’s column at the end of the week! Follow Cassidy on his Facebook page or check out his Commander blog GeneralDamageControl.com!