Today I’d like to talk about what really makes Commander tick. It isn’t what you think it is either. It’s not the ability to play with essentially the entire catalog of cards from the release of Alpha through Born of the Gods. It’s not the flavor of the format, where a legendary creature steps up to battle with all of the strengths of his or her color identity and strategy. It’s not the concept of "battlecruiser" Magic, where it’s all about the biggest creatures, craziest spells, and wildest interactions possible.
Nope. It’s none of that. It’s all about beating the crap out of someone with a tire swing.
I know I’ve told this story before, but it warrants an explanation for those of you who haven’t heard it.
I’m guessing that I was in the third grade when this incident went down. To preface, I’m not at all a fighter; the only time I’ve ever thrown a punch in anger was in college at a Mighty Mighty Bosstones show, and it scared the crap out of me so badly that I didn’t stick around long enough to see what happened to the guy I hit. (And yes, he deserved it. Before knocking me over because the crowd surged in the wrong direction and I bumped into him, I watched him forcefully throw a very small female fan into the middle of a very aggressive mosh pit with expected results. Not cool.)
We’ll call it a fear of confrontation, and it was something that I developed at a very young age. I was the kid who would have to eat his fries at McDonalds with no ketchup because he was too nervous to go to the counter to ask for packets. I was a meek and timid kid.
As you can imagine, that didn’t work to well when I got to middle school and was introduced to the concept of "the bully." This one had a name—Corey—and he was in my grade but was a good head and shoulders taller than I was. I don’t know what it was that drew his ire, but I was pushed in the halls, in classes, and at recess. Shoved into fences. My backpack was stolen or emptied into a mud puddle. He never actually swung a punch at me, but I had a nice set of bruises from encounters with Corey.
One afternoon we were on the playground at recess. There was a girl that I was interested in, and she was on the tire swing with her friends. This was one of those crazy ones, essentially a giant truck tire lying flat suspended from three chains all hanging from a single metal connector at the top of the structure. You and two other people would each sit on the tire facing inward, and other people would push the tire in a giant circular arc. Once they got going, you basically needed to let the thing drift to a stop because the amount of kinetic energy it generated at full swing was probably enough to knock a building down wrecking ball style.
So anyway, it was here that I was on that day, watching the girl on the swing and trying to figure out how to even talk to her, when Corey stepped in between us.
I don’t remember what was said, but I wasn’t in the mood for taking his crap that day and must have said something that pushed him over the edge. Before I knew what was happening, I was pinned face down on the ground in the wood chips around the swing, and Corey was on top of me trying to crush the wind out of my lungs.
With a ton of squirming and struggling, I was able to get back to my feet. I was covered with filth, my eyes were stinging from the dirt, and I was scraped and bleeding in several places. Worse yet, Corey was on his feet. He was a wrestler and had taken that standing stance with his arms out in front of him, ready to grab me again. There was absolutely no way that I could take him on, and I was prepared to do my damnedest to take off running and try to make the gate to the parking lot where the teachers were overseeing four-square games.
At that moment something in my head started to click. My brain went into damage control mode and started spitting out a boatload of information at a very fast clip. I’m pretty sure that if someone asked me at that moment what the ambient temperature and barometric pressure were, I could have correctly answered. But there was something better.
The tactical portion of my brain sent a memo to my immediate consciousness. It noted that Corey was only a mere five or so feet away from me, but it also noted that he did not appear to realize how close to the rotating tire swing he was standing. As I stood on and looked, the swing with the girls on it rotated past, flying in an arc about eight feet behind Corey and directly on a level with the middle of his back.
The logistical calculations came in. There was a 98.2% chance that Corey was expecting me to try to run away and a rough percentage point that I was simply going to sit down and give in to the beating. That left a partial margin of error that did not allow Corey to compensate for the chance of me fighting back.
Now, if anyone ever tells you that playing videogames is a waste of time, I’m living proof that it helps you develop some skills that are very applicable in the real world. In this case, I’m referring to the hundreds of hours I spent trying to time my jumps from moving platform to moving platform in Super Mario Bros, Mega Man, and Metroid. I have developed a very keen sense of how to make sure that something is going to be where I need it to be at the precise moment that I need it to show up. This was not an exception.
I watched a few rotations of the tire swing over Corey’s shoulders, planted my back foot, and surged forward at exactly the right moment, planting both hands on his chest and pushing with all my might and momentum.
Corey was surprised twice. The first was by my move; I really don’t think he felt there was any chance I’d actually have the guts to advance on him and certainly not as aggressively as I had. He stumbled backward several steps. The second surprise lasted a little longer. It began roughly when the tire swing with the three girls on it rotated into range at top speed and made square contact with his shoulder blades and ended somewhere after it took him cleanly off his feet, tossed him cleanly over my head, and threw him to the ground ten or fifteen feet away.
He wasn’t seriously hurt, but I’m fairly certain he had never had the wind quite so knocked out of him before. He jumped up with eyes bugged out and took off toward the school, a strange combination of grunting, gasping and wailing coming out of his lungs.
I spent some time in the principal’s office over that incident, but I’ll be damned if Corey never bothered me ever again.
This concept of using my surroundings to greatest effect is easily my favorite way to play Commander. Let’s take a look at two solid examples: a judo variation of my own adaptation and a reader’s entry that fits a far more wacky thematic slant.
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Clone
- 1 Willbender
- 1 Gilded Drake
- 1 Mischievous Quanar
- 1 Chromeshell Crab
- 1 Glarecaster
- 1 Thada Adel, Acquisitor
- 1 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 1 Zedruu the Greathearted
- 1 Sensei's Divining Top
- 1 Mystical Tutor
- 1 Howling Mine
- 1 Land Tax
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Fellwar Stone
- 1 Null Rod
- 1 Recall
- 1 Darksteel Ingot
- 1 Desertion
- 1 Cursed Totem
- 1 Repercussion
- 1 Gilded Lotus
- 1 Bribery
- 1 Avarice Totem
- 1 Turn the Tables
- 1 Grab the Reins
- 1 Reflect Damage
- 1 Aether Flash
- 1 Tithe
- 1 Honorable Passage
- 1 Reins of Power
- 1 Angel's Trumpet
- 1 Acidic Soil
- 1 Rhystic Study
- 1 Mirror Strike
- 1 Powerstone Minefield
- 1 Karmic Justice
- 1 Spelljack
- 1 Radiate
- 1 Twincast
- 1 Copy Enchantment
- 1 Invoke the Firemind
- 1 Parallectric Feedback
- 1 Reiterate
- 1 Return to Dust
- 1 Coalition Relic
- 1 Austere Command
- 1 Wild Ricochet
- 1 Knowledge Exploitation
- 1 Gather Specimens
- 1 Font of Mythos
- 1 Rite of Replication
- 1 Lightmine Field
- 1 Temple Bell
- 1 Blue Sun's Zenith
- 1 Torpor Orb
- 1 Spell Crumple
- 1 Blasphemous Act
- 1 Spelltwine
- 1 Aurelia's Fury
- 1 Blind Obedience
- 1 Steam Augury
Many of you probably recognize this list, and that’s because it very closely mirrors Sheldon Menery’s infamous Ruhan of the Fomori "You Did This To Yourself" deck. In fact, my pet name for the deck is "Sheldon Menery Did This To You."
It came about because I was looking for something a little different after a few too many cookie cutter experiences at my local shop; things had gotten roughly to a place where in any game half the decks completely eschewed answers to try to race out their own agendas (think R/W token swarm for example) and the other half were represented by some combination of players not really doing anything of consequence or myself trying to play the control deck and aiming to contain the other players with massive amounts of removal. As you can imagine, these games ended more often than not with me running out of answers and dying to one of the agenda pushers, which was incredibly unsatisfying.
What I came to discover is that this is classic Darwinism. With nothing to prey on the decks that were built to just force their own strategies, those decks were the best in the format and were able to run rampant.
Archetype: The Judo Deck
Sheldon’s well-documented deck is an experiment in turning other decks and plays against themselves, a concept roughly known in the Commander world as "judo". Much like the martial art it gets its name from, the judo deck aims to let other players try to do what they want to do and then turns those plays against them with unorthodox card selections. The idea is that people expect that if they play a creature, someone will toss removal at it or another creature in front of it. They don’t expect that creature to be stolen or have the damage it deal tossed back in their face. Taking advantage of that element of surprise is what the judo concept is all about.
I’ve documented my journey with this deck over at my Commander blog. The short story is that I decided to build Sheldon’s deck card for card, play it in my metagame, document the results, and then make changes to better adapt it to my environment. The initial games were sheer misery; Sheldon’s metagame and my own are drastically different, and while it’s possible I was misplaying the deck, I really think it was just optimized for a different style of group play. I immediately struck out to pull some of the cards that had proven less than stellar, substituting in some options that I felt would work a whole lot better.
Ruhan came out for Zedruu at first in principle. Ruhan seems random, while Zedruu is literally using its opponents to draw cards and gain life. After some seat time, this change has been reinforced due to the need for card advantage to make the deck really tick.
It also opens up some awesome angles. One of the core concepts of the deck as reflected in the decklist is that it really needs to prey on other decks to win. It simply doesn’t run many win conditions on its own. One of the more interesting wins I scored with this deck involved lasting out a table of five through some select life gain and then dropping Repercussion, donating my team of creatures, and casting Blasphemous Act to dome my final opponent for 60 or 70 life. I can also take far better advantage of symmetrical draw effects such as Howling Mine and group disruption like Torpor Orb when I can simply donate them to another player and reap the rewards.
The largest benefit of this type of deck is that it allows you to really play the game completely. By that I mean that you get to interact with all of your opponents at all points in the turn structure. Some of the true joys of the deck are tossing Parallectric Feedback out in response to the ramp player who plays Genesis Wave with X=24 or catching the aggro player alpha striking with a timely Mirror Strike.
It also allows you to be a little Spikier than you might prefer to be since you’re just using cards other people brought to the table. For example, I don’t run Time Stretch anymore in my decks because I hate it when other players run it out and I sit there doing nothing for the next twenty minutes. Last week, though, I was perfectly happy to have Wild Ricochet in hand when another blue player tapped out to play the card. Four turns in a row? Thanks, and hey, it’s not my fault after all, right? The ways the deck pulls off wins are numerous and hard to count.
I’ve had many requests from readers here and at GDC for my current list, and this is pretty darn close. I wanted to get it up here to show people that there are other ways to play the game and that if the traditional ways that your games are playing out are getting a bit stale, the judo angle is a refreshing way to look at things. This deck has easily become my favorite one, and I can’t recommend trying this angle for yourself enough.
Moving on, let’s look at something a little crazier:
I haven’t been playing Commander for long—my first and only deck is a durdly Prossh, Skyraider of Kher pile that I built at the end of last year. Prossh wants to attack for 21, but I force him to sit around and sac stuff for fun and profit to attempt to build a big board. At the end of the day, I want to draw cards, make lots of mana, and create chaotic board states, while Prossh just wants to raid the skies. As such, we must go our separate ways.
I’m looking to build a deck that can do powerful things in a totally unbroken and hopefully amusing way—something that is truly casual fun. My idea is a RUG deck that embraces unpredictable effects, subgames, permanent swapping and free spells. Maelstrom Wanderer and Intet, the Dreamer are both up to the task, but the double cascade off the Wanderer is the most attractive to me. Here is what I’m currently considering:
1x Capricious Efreet
1x Clear the Land
1x Alchemist’s Refuge
I freely admit that many of the card choices are suboptimal, but I think the idea of the deck is clear—let go of control and let crazy things happen. I particularly like the idea of Karplusan Minotaur pinging away at the board at the whim of a coin flip, which could be a fun political tool. I tried to avoid things like Scrambleverse, Grip of Chaos, and Psychic Battle, which can just be frustrating, and I don’t think the deck is heavy enough on permanents (or token generators) for Warp World to work well.
How would you go about encouraging the crazy and unexpected?
Thanks for the advice!
This is the other side of the same coin (no pun intended considering this deck’s penchant for flipping coins) that I detailed above. This deck aims to play off the game state in the same way my judo deck does, but instead of redirecting the energies of other decks, it aims to truly let the other players do themselves in with the sheer chaos it engineers. This type of deck is either a blast to play against or a sheer headache depending on your mindset. And much like my Zedruu deck above, there’s a time and a place for it as well.
The Archetype: The Wacky Deck
This is a very loosely defined category, but you do tend to see a lot of the same characteristics emerge from decks that try to go this route. The overall game plan is not to win or eliminate another player but to work to create game states that are just out of control crazy and let the other players see how they fit into the equation. These are like the crazy cousins to the archetypical "group hug" decks that are the cornerstone of the format; they may not be trying to actively help anyone win the game, but they do actively try to break the game in half and see what happens in the process. Often this is at the expense of winning, but these decks aren’t played by players with wins and wins alone in mind. They’re far more Johnny than Spike.
The Line & When Not To Cross It
That last bit is critically important. These decks introduce extreme variance into the game and are aimed far more at the casual end of things than the competitive side. Spikes won’t touch these decks in the traditional way because of the very loose control they create. What they will do is take an angle and push it to the extreme. Casual players will put together a wild Hive Mind deck designed to just go out and do silly things at instant speed to keep people guessing; the more competitive player will run Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir to make sure that they retain maximum control over things and gain the most from the "balanced" ability.
Josh, this brings me to the warning I want to give you: pay very close attention to your playgroup before unleashing something like this on them. I say that because in a casual environment this deck will enable a ton of wacky things to occur and will probably elicit tons of laughs in the process. If however you play in an environment with a higher level of competition, your results may vary; the same wackiness will be exploited by stronger players to do broken things, which isn’t your intent.
The Warp World comment you made is a great example. People in my playgroup used to really enjoy Warp World until more than one player set about creating dedicated and focused token swarm decks. When everyone stands an equal chance of a crazy post-Warp board state, it’s pretty cool. When someone can run out dozens of tokens in response (or before) your Warp World hits, you’re donating a free Primal Surge to that player.
Worse yet, I’ve seen competitive players single out and aggressively attack players running decks like this because the effects created ruin the tuned nature of the Spikier decks, thus reducing the competitive player’s chances of easily winning.
In essence, just know what you’re stepping into before you drop this deck or you risk alienating the other players in a variety of ways.
I like a lot of things about this list, Josh. It’s got a strong mana base to start, with enough lands to ensure the expensive splashy cards and effects will happen with regularity. There’s a decent amount of mana fixing to supplement this as well.
Next, there’s a lot of crazy things happening here, which is the whole point of what you’re going for. There’s variance (cascade spells, coin flip cards), but it’s balanced by many reasonable inclusions, so you’re not leaving the door open to retribution. There are a lot of fun cards that do crazy and out of control things; cards like Capricious Efreet and Puca’s Mischief will likely be left alone just to see what happens when they work.
Finally, you have a good selection of heavy hitters—Possibility Storm and Wild Evocation among them—that will serve as the backbone for crazy exploits. These are the things you want the deck to do at its core, and balanced effects will usually resolve and stick around because your opponents will want to play as well.
The Not As Good
The mana curve here is really a prime concern. Unfortunately, many of the cards that bring these effects to the table are extremely expensive, so you run a very real risk of being short of the mana to do some of the things you want to do.
I’d also really like to see some graveyard hate in here somewhere, and there’s a goodly amount of cards that embrace top of deck effects but no real way to do any good fixing there.
Most importantly, though, I’d like to see you commit to theme a bit more. This deck wants to encourage some crazy board states, so dedicate more of the deck to doing just that. You’re not pulling punches as it is, but I think there is a decent amount of space that could be dedicated more to your theme.
I want to encourage you to go in this direction as much as possible, so my focus is going to be on how to promote these things, not how to optimize the deck. I could suggest running Cyclonic Rift and Prophet of Kruphix and so on and so forth, but you don’t want that and neither do I.
For the record, I agree with you on cards like Grip of Chaos and Scrambleverse. There is a line with effects like this, and I can tell you firsthand that line is somewhere near having to spend 40 minutes resolving a Scrambleverse and two weeks after that to return everyone’s cards to their rightful owners. Good call on these.
Let’s have some fun!
The lands get to stay exactly as is. As I said before, 39 lands is the right land count for a "big mana" deck like this, and you run cards like Kodama’s Reach, Coalition Relic and Sakura-Tribe Elder to supplement the acceleration and fixing. I see a good balance of basic lands to feed your various search cards, the cycling lands for a card draw boost, and a good cross-section of multi-lands to cover your basics. Without going high dollar on Revised duals and fetch lands, this is pretty solid.
I’ve only found a few creatures to cut out, but I think you can safely get rid of Tyrant of Discord, Wall of Blossoms, and Zookeeper. While Tyrant technically is a random effect, I’ve seen this card come down far too many times and just wreck someone’s board state. This isn’t the type of chaos you want to bring with this deck.
Wall of Blossoms seems like just a bit too little here. It’s not protecting you if we’re being honest, and while you might cascade into an extra card, I think you could be doing better. And due to a relatively low creature count, Zoologist is just going to end up milling you far too often. You run a good amount of Regrowth effects, but since they’re so random as well, we want to limit your exposure to bad luck here.
In the sorcery realm, I want to pull Collective Voyage and Whims of the Fates. Collective Voyage has a very unfortunate drawback; it has the words "join forces" in its rules text. Sadly, as cool as the concept was, it took people about twelve seconds to figure out that you just don’t want to feed the bear 99 times out of a hundred, and this is going to be a pretty unspectacular card most of the time as a result.
Whims of the Fates falls in step with Tyrant of Discord above. Of all the Born of the Godscards, this one was the most gripe inducing from what I heard. (I heard multiple people say they’d simply put all of their cards in one pile, and if that pile go hit, they’d scoop. That’s not exactly enjoyable by the sounds.) Like the Tyrant, there’s no upside offered, just the chance at keeping what you already have at best and potentially losing a whole bunch of stuff at worst. No one is really enjoying this in practice, so it has to go.
Instants get off fairly light; I’m not crazy about Desperate Ravings simply because it is a terrible topdeck. It seems interesting and randomly wacky in theory, but when you draw it off the top on turn 15 and end up discarding the answer you needed and keeping the basic land instead, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.
I’d also cut Turnabout, if for no other reason than I don’t see the thematic fit. It can accelerate you a bit or protect your tail in a pinch, but I don’t think it pulls its weight in this deck.
That’s only eight slots, and I’m pretty sure I could come up with about thirty cards off the top of my head that would be worth adding. Let’s start with the must includes, and then I’m going to give you a list of some other options that might be worth your consideration to pick and choose from.
Teferi’s Puzzle Box is a must add. I’m not sure what it is about this card, but very rarely have I ever seen someone destroy it when it hits play. It changes the entire game; suddenly, everyone is laughing about what they’re being forced to get rid of, how many cards they have to ship, and what might come up to get them back in it. It’s like a little subgame that gets created, and most of the time people have a blast with it. That’s the epitome of the type of effect you want in your deck.
Next is Warp World. If you’re going to go for it, go for it. It’s the king of wacky effects, and I don’t think it matters that you would be breaking symmetry of the card with extra tokens. As I said earlier, I think that’s part of the joy of the card; this deck is designed to do some crazy things, so popping off Warp World to see what new crazy things will happen seems like a huge win to me.
Cultural Exchange is a fun card with a serious upside. The oracle text is worded as follows:
Choose any number of creatures target player controls. Choose the same number of creatures another target player controls. Those players exchange control of those creatures. (This effect lasts indefinitely.)
This means that you get to target creatures without actually needing to target them since you target only the player. That means creatures with hexproof/shroud are fair game, which is a killer little loophole to play with. True-Name Nemesis? Not a problem!
Heretic’s Punishment is a great option for this deck. You’re pretty heavy on mana costs, so why not exploit that fact? The joy of this card is that the randomness still feels like it balances things out; you might easily hit Moldgraf Monstrosity when trying to knock out someone’s Seedborn Muse, or you might whiff completely and find Veteran Explorer and two lands. With a bit more in the way of library manipulation, this becomes a whole lot more dangerous in general.
Past those cards, here are some more considerations for the final slots:
Tempt with Discovery might be an improvement on Collective Voyage. People seem to be far more accepting of the "tempt with" cards, and this one is very mildly off balance. I’ve never joined forces, but I have been tempted in the past.
Here’s a package for you: Krark’s Thumb, Chance Encounter, and Goblin Bomb. You’ve already got a few coin flip cards in the deck already, so adding a few more makes the Thumb worth the inclusion. Chance encounter gives those coin flips some extra meaning and has to be one of the silliest ways to just flat-out win the game. Krark’s Thumb might make this a little easier, but there’s a certain element of running this card out and watching real consideration on the part of your opponents as they decide if they want to let you untap and draw once it gets up to seven or eight counters.
And Goblin Bomb . . . do I need to say a thing about this card? It might be even better than Chance Encounter because there is a chance for something hilarious to happen but it won’t necessarily end the game in the process.
If you’re really interested in a nod toward better top of deck management, I would consider some combination of Mirri’s Guile, Soothsaying, and Sylvan Library to give you a bit more control over what you hit with Intet, Wanderer, and the rest of the cards that care about what the top card of your library is. And speaking of "top," you could consider running Trinket Mage and Sensei’s Divining Top, which would also open you up to a toolbox that could include some graveyard hate like Relic of Progenitus. Just a thought.
Where That Leaves Us
Hopefully, there are some ideas here that you can embrace, Josh. I think this deck is a pretty cool exercise in doing something a little offbeat and fun, and you’re likely in a playgroup that can handle it. Don’t be afraid to flex your wacky muscles a little bit more here; I think the payoff is worth it.
For participating in today’s edition of Dear Azami, you’ll receive the standard $20 store credit to StarCityGames.com. If you’re interested, here are the price tags on the some of cards I talked about today:
|Tempt with Discovery||$1.49|
|Teferi’s Puzzle Box||$1.99|
|Leyline of Anticipation||$1.99|
|Relic of Progenitus||$1.99|
|Sensei’s Divining Top||$29.49|
I’m not going to give you a full decklist here because other than those few must-have cards I mentioned, you could pick and choose a number of directions and packages to use, and I want you to give some thought as to what works for you and your metagame.
In any case, I hope this helps point you in the right direction, and I really hope you enjoy playing a deck that looks at the format from a totally different angle. It’s been an absolute blast for me so far, and it’s a great way to break from the norm and rejuvenate yourself if you find that you’re a little bored with the status quo.
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 Joseph’s Nin, the Pain Artist deck or Sam’s Angus Mackenzie 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 here or check out his Commander blog GeneralDamageControl.com!