Dear Azami – Being All Things To All People

In this edition of Dear Azami, Sean helps a reader tune his Mistform Ultimus Commander deck into a tribal synergy advantage machine.

Dear Azami,

It seems that lately my Commander decks have been tending to go into the competitive/high power side of the game, and I have been wanting to build something that a) uses a general that isn’t commonly used, b) is fun to play (has lots of unusual interactions within the deck), c) can still win a match but isn’t overly competitive, and d) has a fun theme to it. I present to you my Mistform Ultimus Commander list.

Commander: Mistform Ultimus
Adaptive Automaton
Coralhelm Commander
Grand Architect
Master of the Pearl Trident
Merfolk Sovereign
Merrow Reejerey
Myr Galvanizer
Scion of Oona
Lord of the Unreal
Shifting Sliver
Synapse Sliver
Synchronous Sliver
Telekinetic Sliver
Winged Sliver
Azami, Lady of Scrolls
Empress Galina
Glen Elendra Archmage
Sea Gate Loremaster
Sigil Tracer
Snapcaster Mage
Sower of Temptation
Stonybrook Banneret
Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
Thada Adel, Acquisitor
Venser, Shaper Savant
Aboshan, Cephalid Emperor
Faerie Harbinger
Higure, the Still Wind
Merrow Harbinger
Frost Titan
Phyrexian Ingester
Stormtide Leviathan
Long-Forgotten Gohei
Coat of Arms
Sol Ring
Thran Dynamo
Caged Sun
Gauntlet of Power
Sapphire Medallion
Diviner’s Wand
Gilded Lotus
Call to the Kindred
Honden of Seeing Winds
Rhystic Study
Elixir of Immortality
Umezawa’s Jitte
Cyclonic Rift
Stroke of Genius
Blue Sun’s Zenith
Spell Crumple
Force of Will
Last Word
Knowledge Exploitation
Notorious Throng
Rite of Replication
Academy Ruins
Buried Ruin
Griffin Canyon
Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
Riptide Laboratory
Tolaria West
Elephant Graveyard
Rogue’s Passage
Winding Canyons
Dust Bowl
Strip Mine
25x Island

Right now the deck just seems really inconsistent, and I think one of the biggest problems is that there seems to be too many creatures in this deck. I really want it to be a Voltron style deck with that strange tribal theme going on. I like that there are a lot of Lord effects and utility lands that interact with my general. I look forward to seeing what suggestions you have for me.

Thank you for your consideration,

Jether Dodd

You had me at “fish.” Using Mistform Ultimus as a sort of Merfolk Lord is intriguing and amusing to me, and after all, I have spent more than my fair share of tournament days with Lord of Atlantis in my deck and was doing so way before it was cool. Sure, now in Legacy it sounds attractive, but I was known for doing it when opponents were capable of playing Tolarian Academy or Replenish while I was dorking around with flavor text. (For the record, Fifth Edition’s best. “We have no legs,” the warrior spat, “for we have finished running.”) 

So to see a deck trying to goof around with a weird tribal feel and interesting interactions, I knew this was the deck I wanted to look at. In addition to yearning for the time to play more Magic and thus more Commander lately, I’ve been kind of missing my goofy “Changeling Tribal” Reaper King deck, and playing with your look at Mistform Ultimus perked up my attention right away for something fun to goof around with. That, and you found a way to play Notorious Throng when I’ve been trying to make that card work in Commander for a year or two now, just poking at ideas in my head and hoping that finally, this time, the answer will be it’s good enough.

Blue decks are hard when you’re trying to make them creature-themed because blue creatures tend to suck. It’s a simple matter of fact about which we can do nothing. Where other colors get Wild Nacatl, we get Delver of Secrets… Okay, I guess that’s not the best example. Where other colors get Tarmogoyf, we get Snapcaster Mage… Yeah, this argument isn’t working. Blue’s strength is not in the power of its creatures but in what they do—provide some additional benefit and let you play the game from a different angle—so that it’s not strictly about power and toughness and tapping to attack. It’s about the sum of the parts in a shifting game that is about positional advantage… A game in which blue with its ability to say ‘no’ and make it stick ultimately is capable of getting the upper hand. You’re looking to play Mistform Ultimus as some kind of tribal synergy advantage machine? I’m down and interested in seeing how far we can take this if we try.

I always start with the lands, and in this case I have only two substitutions to make so it’s not going to take us very long at all. I liked how you dug out ancient technology to find Griffin Canyon just to target Mistform Ultimus with, and I found a pair of lands that can mimic it somewhat so that you have the ability to make Mistform Ultimus significantly larger than his hinted-at 3/3 size implies. It’s a little bit of goofiness, sure, but it is that level of playfulness mixed with surprisingly effective results that got me intrigued by the deck in the first place, so it’s easy to pursue.

Buried Ruin: You already have Academy Ruins for recurring artifacts, so the second colorless land added for that effect is not really pulling its weight in my mind. Since it doesn’t really have a cumulative effect if you ever draw both—you’ll be able to return spent artifacts to play, whichever one you choose to use—it’s not interesting enough to pursue when you could switch a land slot around to get more aggressive with.

-1 Island: You can shave down to 24 since you still have two nonbasics that count as your first blue source. One-quarter of your deck will tap for blue mana, and thus you should not have problems drawing enough colored mana even though you have a fairly significant number of nonbasics that tap for colorless.

+ Blinkmoth Nexus: Able to play baby-attacker for any equipment you happen to have and fly over so you connect with it, but the effective use in this deck is to target your commander and give him +1/+1.

+ Mishra’s Factory: What it loses in flying it gains in size, in case beating down as a 2/2 is something that happens to come up. In actuality, like the Blinkmoth Nexus the intended use is tapping to give Mistform Ultimus +1/+1 because Blinkmoth and Assembly Worker are both creature types that fit under the subset of “all.”

Modifying the spells came to mind next, and I wanted to have a pretty light touch. I like most of what you’re doing since it’s pretty straightforward, though there are certainly going to be people who say this is too generic and too ‘staple’ because it’s largely ‘the best countermagic’ plus ‘the most powerful card draw spells,’ with Blue Sun’s Zenith and Stroke of Genius to reward you for playing your Caged Sun effects by converting the bonus mana into bonus cards. I wanted to find room for four cards very specifically, as I am hoping to draw this deck down specific channels of interaction to play up some of the stronger aspects of the tribal theme. And find room I sort-of did, in that I made three cuts and promised myself one more from another section.

Curiosity: Creature enchantments are weak, and in this case if you really wanted the effect you could have it still at quite reasonable cost by playing Mask of Memory instead, which is both more potent (since it draws one and then filters one, letting you see more cards) and more consistent (it doesn’t die if the creature is killed, it merely falls off). I’m not convinced you want this in either case, but if that were a card you were going to play, the equipment would get the nod.

Honden of Seeing Winds: I don’t foresee card draw to be a significant issue, so this slower and kind-of clunky draw support gets move to the sidelines. I really wanted to explore messing around with card types and finding some mystical answer to the riddle of how to get a second Honden so you could draw more off of it. Unfortunately, the answers all came down to somehow making it a creature long enough to copy it with Sakishima the Impostor, letting you gain the ‘Honden’ card type without having your duplicate copy have the same name.

Ultimatel,y that sounded like too much work dedicated to something that, while awesome, has a limited amount of awesomeness to it. The pieces I would have had to add to make that happen got cut because they didn’t really work with anything else, then Sakishima got cut, then I got over the sacred-cow flavor of ‘that would be cool’ and figured out that I don’t think this is really serving a strong purpose in the deck.

Last Word: I think you want a reasonably counter-light draw, and Last Word has special text but has the least-special text of all of your counterspells, earning it the elbow-drop out of your deck.

+ Opposition: Little blue creatures get outclassed very quickly but also get the jump out of the gate quite fast, so Opposition is there to help with the first while capitalizing on the second. A creature on turn 2, then a creature on turn 3, then an Opposition and you tap one land each of two different players, and suddenly it’s like you made them replay the same early turn in the establishing shot that they might very well have not played anything in and you get to untap and continue developing your board.

This looks a lot like a deck that has game play flexibility, which means it also is going to have tipping points: parts of the game where it shifts from defensive posture to aggressive posture or vice versa. It will likely have several such points of inflection over the course of the game, and Opposition will change roles but not usefulness in all of them, letting you hold down mana or tap down commanders or just tap potential blockers so you can continue to rumble through with little blue critters.

+ Coastal Piracy: I married your Honden and your Curiosity together. I didn’t like either for what it was, but a Curiosity effect that is global rather than local is a sweet, sweet card for this deck, letting you get not just one but multiple cards per turn out of your enchantment and not being at risk of losing effectiveness if a removal spell is pointed at a creature mid-combat. This, like Opposition, can completely tip a game over an inflection point. Unlike Opposition, it can’t take you from offense to defense and still do anything; it goes from offense to more offense and is very much a win-more kind of card.

Winning more stinks in single-player Magic, though I did quite like Coastal Piracy a long long time ago in a Merfolk deck far away, but winning more is exactly what you need in Commander when you’re facing down not one but three opponents. After all, you only win a little with each Coastal Piracy attack… But these things snowball a little, and it lets you play out creatures without having to really worry about mass removal because as long as the snowball effect keeps snowballing, the creatures you’re playing were free draws and you’ll always have cards in hand still to recover with in the event of sweepers.

+ Unnatural Selection: You have a lot of semi-overlapping creature buff effects. Unnatural Selection can help normalize the tribe and does so in interesting fashion: spend one to become a Griffin and get that buff, another one to become an Assembly Worker and get that buff, then one more to become a Merfolk and get the bonus from multiple Merfolk Lords and maybe some unblockability while we’re at it. It can also potentially get interesting in weird ways you would never anticipate because creature type is a recurring thing of relevance in Commander, so that this can jam an opponent’s cards or enable your own lets strange things come up.

+ Spreading Seas: Merfolk Lords like to give Islandwalk, which means for those pesky people who lack Islands, we must make a gift of one. A fun and goofy answer to various Maze of Ith, Cabal Coffers, and the occasional unexpected tricky lands that come out of the woodwork in Commander. I mean, you’re playing Griffin Canyon and Elephant Graveyard—you have to respect the unexpected.

We owe one card slot out of this, so we’re going to move to the next section, that being the one I pull from to make up the deficit: artifacts. Your artifact choices are pretty straightforward, it seems: making mana and buffing your creatures is the whole of the plan. With that noted, we’re going to make a few minor substitutions for game play’s sake, streamlining things here and cutting the least effective mana or creature buffs.

Long-Forgotten Gohei: It is, in fact, a long time since I had forgotten this card, having not really seen or contemplated it since Kamigawa Block. Well done in the obscure find, but unfortunately, it’s not a very effective one. I would be intrigued and amused to note how well it overlapped with your commander if only ‘Arcane’ were a creature type, but unfortunately while it is under the subset of ‘all’ for “words in the English language,” it is not part of that subset for “defined creature types in Magic: The Gathering.”

Just like how incredibly hard it would have been to rig up multiple Hondens, it’s hard to mess with the Arcane side, and since none of your spells are arcane, this is just an artifact that sits in play and says your commander gets +1/+1. If that were all we were going to do, we could tap Sword of the Chosen for double that effect or play Tenza, Godo’s Maul for a +3/+3 to Mistform Ultimus (and be able to pass around a small but nontrivial +1/+1 bonus to non-legendary creatures if we wanted to). I just don’t see this doing enough, so it’s an easy cut.

Elixir of Immortality: The life gain isn’t significant, and you’re not playing it for your own internal recursion purposes, which means that this is here mostly to prevent decking and do so in a way that is very effective. I don’t think decking is something that is likely to come up often enough to dedicate a card to it, and if it were you’d probably want a legendary Eldrazi to help with that since you don’t have to draw that card to protect yourself from decking—just getting milled past it while opponents try to exhaust your library is enough. It’s a good card, but it does a job that doesn’t need doing here.

Gilded Lotus: I like mana-generating effects, but you have a few too many things that exist solely to ramp you and this is the least efficient of the high-powered ones. These things don’t really overlap meaningfully—if you have Thran Dynamo and Caged Sun and Gilded Lotus, you have more gorram mana than you’ll ever need, the same as you would if you had either two of those cards minus the third. I think you need one fewer for the deck, and this is the one that goes up on the chopping block in that case.

Sapphire Medallion: This is very powerful when playing multiple blue spells a turn, but that doesn’t happen usually until later in the game when you are already fabulously wealthy on mana and don’t really need the savings. That you want a two-mana drop that helps play your commander on turn 3 is taken as a given, but you also want that card to potentially help accelerate you into your other artifact mana sources, so Sapphire Medallion is not the right fit for the job here.

Since we have a debt to repay, we only get to add three cards back in. Those three cards are as follows:

+ Quicksilver Fountain: Spreading Seas on high-octane jet fuel. This can control all of the Urborgs, Coffers, Mazes, hideaway lands, or what-have-yous, and the scope of this effect grows steadily over time. It’s a funny way to combat Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary and a highly effective way of turning on Islandwalk while also playing a political game to maneuver past peoples’ threatening utility lands.

+ Bonehoard: Instead of playing an equipment that can give your commander +3/+3 and a lesser bonus to everyone else, I picked the big daddy monster equipment as far as pure power boosts go. Bonehoard staples a Lhurgoyf to your commander, and that can be a sizable boost indeed for one card and a pretty low mana investment. Adding to that it can act as a stand-alone threat by itself, a feat other equipment cards do considerably less well. When you want a really big bonus, Bonehoard is the card you want, and since you are an aggressive deck with generally smallish creatures, I think this helps shore up a hole that otherwise would be a weakness.

+ Nim Deathmantle: Remember how I said Coastal Piracy lets you extend into mass removal? I was kind of lying. Cards are still cards, after all, and you can’t always be cavalier about throwing them away willy-nilly. Fact of the matter is that a sweeper means you will not be attacking on the next turn and your tribal synergies have gotten all busted up, so all that work that went into making Sigil Tracer and Griffin Canyon combo just got undone because all the creatures just got binned.

Nim Deathmantle is a very solid card for weathering sweeper effects, especially in decks that intend to have access to a considerable amount of mana as yours does with its mana multiplier artifacts. For each four mana you have it saves a creature, so the fact that it is technically an equipment card is almost an afterthought since you’re playing it for its globally-triggering effect, not the +2/+2. It fits a need your deck has, weathering the plentiful mass removal effects you’re likely to see every few turns in this format, and can potentially be one of the many different interesting things you slap on your commander to help connect for lethal.

With those out of the way, we have just the creatures left to work on, and I took what looked to be the underachievers and replaced them as best I could. To some degree, the ideal tribe for you is ‘Merfolk Wizard,’ so messing around with other creature types kind of gets in the way of streamlining. We don’t want to streamline too much because the goofy add-on effects are why you’re playing Mistform Ultimus, but a little bit of streamlining and just cutting the weaker cards for more effective pieces of cardboard is what we’re aiming to do. For the most part, all of the other themes that we’ve riffed on in the rest of the deck are what we’re going to be building further upon here in the creature base, though I hope there will still be a few bits of surprises left as we do so.

Empress Galina: While it’s neat that you can control opposing commanders with the Empress, a card that is more generally applicable to other situations would be better in this regard. Many a game is won by non-legendary creatures, after all, even if legends are a strong portion of what makes Commander so fun and interesting.

Faerie Harbinger, Merrow Harbinger: I don’t see these providing enough benefit to include them, as they are both very thin tribes in your deck, so neither of these will get more than a few cards to choose from. Playing them for their bodies is fine but not great, and we can do better than either of them without trying very hard.

Stonybrook Banneret: Mana acceleration’s good, but mana acceleration that is collateral damage the first time a sweeper comes along is just a liability. You want to gain benefits for your acceleration, and this does not do that at all.

Myr Galvanizer: One-off off-tribe Lords aren’t really going to get us much of anywhere, and this is more cute than effective.

Lord of the Unreal: This is considerably cuter because it passes around hexproof to your commander as well, but it is not actually more effective. It would be cute to respond to pinpoint removal spells by using Unnatural Selection to give them surprise hexproof, but that’s not quite enough to include the card for.

Higure, the Still Wind: This is being included just to make Mistform Ultimus unblockable, and it doesn’t do that very efficiently and has no other relevant text to it since you have no other Ninjas to go fetch up. This is a compelling argument for potentially including our first Clone/copy effect to ‘cheat’ on the tribe issue, since if we wanted we could just Phantasmal Image / Vesuvan Shapeshifter / Phyrexian Metamorph / etc. etc. etc. our way out of a lack of tribal synergies—six copies of Merrow Reejerey would be an impressive fighting force. After all, hitting with Higure lets you find a copy of Sakishima’s Student, and the Student borrows the master’s potential unblockability even as it pretends to be a Merfolk lord, so interesting things could happen.

But it really feels like reaching for all of the Clones would be cheating the uniqueness of this. I don’t want to dig into the deep pile and come up with Cytoplasm and Vesuvan Doppelganger and the other ways to cheat everything into the same tribe, I want to explore the oddity and see where it goes. Everything he does for the deck, Shifting Sliver does up front with no additional mana investment, so Higure’s not good enough by himself, and I don’t want to begin down the path of boringness. Out he goes.

Synapse Sliver, Synchronous Sliver, Winged Sliver: The benefits these pass out are marginal, and we can do better with other cards in more interesting ways. Slivers are all kinds of weird Lords in and of themselves, but I want to see a more interesting answer to how to profit with Mistform Ultimus than him just being a secret Sliver lord. (Telekinetic Sliver, though—you’re on board, just like Aboshan!)

Adding back in, we get to make ten substitutions, and I want to make them the most interesting and fun ones I can while still being effective at the chosen tasks. Some of them are, I fear, a little dry and dusty, so we’ll start with the interesting ones first and keep on from there.

+ Riptide Shapeshifter: You already have a deck that is full of interesting overlaps between non-overlapping tribes. So many are Merfolk and/or Wizards that they’re effectively invisible to this thing; cash the Shapeshifter in for either of those and you’re very likely to know what you’re getting out. Name “Beast,” and you know what you’re getting. Ditto for “Illusion,” “Mercenary,” “Cephalid,” “Giant,” and a few others besides.

You can play either the specific choice Tutor aspect up or just go for the Human / Merfolk / Wizard lottery as you see fit, meaning you can either play this in an interesting way by waiting to see which specific off-tribesman you need right now or just use it for a good value on whatever you are likely to have a bunch of. Both sides will be appealing at different times since the Merfolk / Wizard side of things tends to buff each other up very neatly, so if you’re getting multiple chances to use the Shapeshifter thanks to Nim Deathmantle you can build a considerable army out of spun mana alone. Mana, I’ll add, you are quite adept at generating en masse.

+ Wing Splicer: Your singleton Artificer and an effective replacement to Winged Sliver that is both a little bit easier to hunt for when it’s the one you want to find and an effective beatdown value rather than just a 1/1 flier. Coming with a 3/3 attached is a significant improvement, and it still lifts your commander in the air just fine since Golem is in fact one of the creature types listed under “all.”

+ Lord of Atlantis: So long as you’re already good at making Merfolk bigger, you might as well include the missing Lord. It’s the second one that grants Islandwalk to the team, which should help with a bit of added consistency to make the swarm unblockable—you’re pretty good at making people who don’t have Islands in their deck control one anyway.

+ Vedalken Plotter: Speaking of making opponents control an Island, Vedalken Plotter is a fun utility card to mess up people’s well-laid plans to tap and then untap over and over again whatever stupid land they want to crank mana out of, be it Gaea’s Cradle or Cabal Coffers, and there is no reason you should let them do that when you’re allowed to say no. He’s also a unique creature type to find with your Shapeshifter, too—first Vedalken added!

+ Lorthos, the Tidemaker: First Octopus for the job! The deck as-is has a little bit of a tap annoying things theme, with the Telekinetic Sliver, Aboshan, and Frost Titan previously in it. I’ve added to that with Opposition and a few ways to deprive the opponent of the colored mana they really wanted or the utility lands they were relying on, gumming up the works as it were with a flood of potentially useless islands. Lorthos takes this to the next logical level, using all eight of his arms to hold down eight nuisances of your choice while attacking for a mighty wallop. And besides, Lorthos is too awesome not to include—at least if “it’s expensive” is not automatically a turn-off, as it appears not to be to your deck, which can play him as early as the third turn with a Sol Ring + Thran Dynamo draw.

+ Quicksilver Elemental: Your singleton Elemental and a potentially intriguing little card that lets you steal whatever activated abilities opposing creatures possess. If you have ever wanted to figure out how to add some weird abilities together that you’d never imagined before, this is the card for you, as games in which it is drawn will potentially let you do things you wouldn’t ever be able to do otherwise. Like Experiment Kraj, Quicksilver Elemental harvests a capacity that you just don’t get to touch otherwise, and that can potentially be intriguing and beneficial in a weird Magic: The Puzzling kind of way. Borrow that Guildmage ability and then that Dragon’s Firebreathing and suddenly—POOF!—something that has never happened before in a game of Magic occurs. So long as we’re messing with tribes and peculiar overlaps, we might as well chase them further and see where the strange realms take us.

+ Callous Oppressor: Choose what creature type will be excluded, but choose wisely, opponents. Then rig the game with Unnatural Selection to get around their best-laid plans, make it an Elephant instead of whatever tribe they sought to protect, steal it, and feed it to the Elephant Graveyard for good measure. It would have been boring to just say ‘add Vedalken Shackles,’ but Callous Oppressor is all sorts of flavors of interesting.

+ Sage of Fables: We’ve run out of Merfolk Lords, but so many of your creatures are Wizards that it would be a shame not to partake of that synergy. It also helps as a potential additional source of card draw to make up for the fact that I’ve taken one out and had yet to replace it.

+ Patron Wizard: We’re potentially constraining mana, and while you’re doing that I have another Wizard for you. A little bit of annoyance goes a long way, and Patron Wizard is just that: a little bit of annoyance. After all, if this is the big spells format, they should be just as able to pay nine for their Insurrection as to pay eight, and they ought not to be whiners about that fact. Patron Wizard lets you develop the board and have these new developments potentially assist in protecting the board as well by choking people off mana for responding to your position exclusively.

I’ve found when using this card in Commander that a little transparency goes a long way—declare a tax on specific things and blanket immunity for all else and people will be a lot less prone to snap-attack your board position and gang up on your resources til they are, in fact, dead and exhausted. If you’re just going to use the Patron Wizard to protect against sweepers or spells targeting your stuff and you keep to that statement, people will resist the strong urge to just punch the blue mage in the face and be done with it. After all, they’re little itty-bitty counterspells, nothing to get upset about, right guys? Guys?

+ Spellstutter Sprite: The right tool for the right job, and the job in question is handling pinpoint removal, i.e., the ubiquitous Swords to Plowshares and Paths to Exile. This isn’t a Faerie tribal deck, so there’s a very low maximum value for what you can counter with this, but it’s also quite cheap and reusable with Riptide Laboratory, so the upside to potentially locking out all cheap spells is very realistically accomplishable.

Putting it all together, we get the following:

As always, for your participation in this week’s edition of Dear Azami you will receive a $20 coupon to StarCityGames.com, and unlike past weeks, this time it should be coming down pretty cheaply. I think the record going into this article was about $25, and typically we hit the $60-$80 range with your average deck, though in other cases we’ve blown well-past any logical upper limit, made easy by saying things like ‘you really do want that Mana Crypt you mentioned?’ when it was said that price and availability was literally no object (barring obscure P3K cards).

In total, this deck came in at $31.75, which is a clear second place in the “cheapest deck alteration” prize. You can basically buy everything listed except for the Blinkmoth Nexus if you want to with the coupon you’re receiving for participation. Here are the additions with their associated prices at the online store:

Sean McKeown

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 Ian’s Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind deck or Levi’s Diaochan, Artful Beauty 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!

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