Dear Azami – Child’s Play

Sean McKeown restructures a five-color Commander deck centered on only the most powerful spells. If you’re a fan of playing all the colors, this deck is for you!

I’ve only played a few games of Commander, but for me it embodies the idea of being a powerful planeswalker much better than 60-card decks are able to. So in this format, I want to demonstrate just how powerful a planeswalker I am by only playing the most powerful spells. You know, stuff like Tooth and Nail, then Martial Coup, then Cruel Ultimatum. There’s something about five-color decks that I just love; maybe it’s just how all of the colors’ mana symbols look next to each other or just using Cultivate to search for something besides forests.

Anyway, when building this deck, I wanted the best value creatures there are: creatures like Primeval Titan and Angel of Despair, who can attack for enough but also provide value regardless of whether they survive. This led me to a Reanimator sub-theme since I was already playing Cruel Ultimatum and Profane Command, and Sheoldred, Whispering One is just so sweet if she lives a turn. I wanted to play the Eldrazi at first but some people frown upon them and they don’t work with reanimation. The storage lands and bounce lands are great at giving me access to more mana without having to draw more lands. Basically I’m wondering if there is anything awesome I missed or any situations that come up in Commander games that I’ll want to have prepared my deck for.

Here is the list:


Daryl Graham

Child of Alara
Daryl Graham
Star City Games Legacy Open on 02-19-2012
Magic Card Back

Usually I tinker with a mana base a little and call it an accomplishment. This time, however, we have considerably more work to do—partly by the nature of what you’re trying to accomplish, but also because of the fact that there are presently sixteen lands that come into play tapped, and too many lands besides. An overhaul is required both in which lands you’re using and just how many are included, repurposing at least some of these to other sections even as we work on rebalancing it. Most interestingly, however, you’ll find there is also a desire to add sacrifice outlets that are not eroded by Child of Alara’s triggered ability, and that means it has to come stapled to a land. The utility is well worth building into the deck, but comes as another requirement we have to pay attention to while we’re at it.

There are some pretty huge benefits to your all-bouncelands manabase, and we’re going to pursue that as a major source of advantage—you can reliably expect to draw two to three of them over the course of the establishing turns of the game, which costs you tempo but gives you clear benefits. Too many lands coming into play tapped will trip you up, however, as the first time a bounceland returns a land that comes into play tapped, it’ll feel like wading through quicksand just trying to cast your first spell of the game. One land comes to mind as well worth including as that last land that comes into play tapped, however, and that is Thawing Glaciers: as long as you’re returning lands to your hand anyway, why not get some benefit out of it and offset the downsides?

Pulling things out to re-tune and re-balance them, we cut the following lands:

1x Mountain, 1x Plains, 1x Swamp, Evolving Wilds, Terramorphic Expanse, City of Brass, all five Vivid Lands

Three will not be replaced; we’ll move those over to other segments entirely, which leaves us eight slots to fill. Part of these changes are being made for color balance reasons, staggering to make it easier to cast your Ultimatums (neither of which favor basic Plains), so we’ll be biasing a little bit here as well instead of maintaining strict color balance as otherwise the deck seems to be striving towards.

High Market, Miren, the Moaning Well: Both are added simply for the free benefits of being able to help control when Child of Alara dies. A little bit of colorless mana won’t hurt, and the options that come with being able to choose your destiny at instant speed are considerable.

Exotic Orchard: As close to another copy of Command Tower as you’re allowed to play, this will basically be the exact same card in most games and at the very least will be a solid dual land or tri-land if somehow color balance at the table is not varied.

Thawing Glaciers: Too cool with the bounceland trick, demands inclusion on those merits alone. Also: awesome.

Izzet Boilerworks: While designing the deck around the bouncelands, why not include all ten? Somehow it looks like Izzet Boilerworks got excluded, this inclusion corrects for that.

Darkwater Catacombs, Shadowblood Ridge: The lands are going to be a little bit biased towards casting Ultimatums, and the Odyssey cycle of Signet-lands works very well with helping make sure you can do that even in games when you’ve drawn an awkward off-color basic land or a filter land that doesn’t need to charge up first.

Cascade Bluffs: Another inclusion based off of your color bias for wanting to cast Violent or Cruel Ultimatum in a timely fashion, but not necessarily the best color balances in your manabase to do so easily. Cascade Bluffs helps with either and can turn useless lands back into useful ones, so it is much appreciated for the chosen task.

With these inclusions set it’s time to move to the artifacts next, as those are effectively also a part of your manabase and help figure out where we’re going. It’s a brief section: you don’t favor a lot of stray permanents for Child of Alara to destroy on your side of the board, so we’ll step through this quickly.

Subtraction: Gilded Lotus

Child of Alara will blow this up almost as soon as you’ve invested in it, so the benefits of playing it seem slim next to the cost you have to sink into it first.

Expedition Map: While it’s not acceleration, it nonetheless covers the basic needs of helping your mana out and is good early or late: early, you find the right bounceland to help get your mana going or maybe Thawing Glaciers if you’ve got several bouncelands in hand and want to profit a little first by playing them out. Later, it finds a sacrifice outlet and helps Child of Alara keep the board clear.

Sensei’s Divining Top: I don’t often push this in decks that don’t have one—it’s usually a price-point consideration, when it’s not there—but there are enough pricey Commander staples that I don’t feel it’s out of order to suggest Sensei’s Divining Top to improve your draw selection over the course of a game. Attrition is one of those modes of play you’re likely to fall into, and this helps you draw better while also giving you some control of the top of your deck for those odd cards like Oracle of Mul Daya that factor that in somehow.

That said, it’s time to move over to the non-creature spells, and we have one problem: Gifts Ungiven is banned. It took me three times to catch it, and mostly it was the nagging question of, “Why am I not playing this awesome card in any of my decks?” The excellent answer is: “Because Sheldon is mean and says I can’t,” eventually came to mind and was quickly confirmed because the card would be nuts if it weren’t banned. At this same juncture, however, as I also tried to figure out if the lack of an Izzet Boilerworks was intentional or not. I counted the deck, expecting to hit 98 and note the missing Boilerworks was clearly just an oversight as the deck was typed in. Instead, however, I counted 100…so we’ll just excise the Gifts Ungiven slot entirely, to get back to 99, and not ask the question, “What could even possibly replace the awesomeness of Gifts Ungiven?”

Looking at the balance of things once again, it was clear to me that you were a little lacking in the creature department and had more ramp than any one human being can readily justify. Of course, that’s just my interpretation of things, but I held it up by saying, “How many of these do you actually want?” Followed with, “How many basic lands do you have to play to support them all?” Then realized you can improve the mana base by cutting down the number of cards that actually force you to pull out basics, since otherwise you’d run out and they’d stop being useful far too early.

I made the following cuts:

Khalni Heart Expedition, Collective Voyage, New Frontiers, Deep Reconnaissance: You don’t actually want this much ramp. This deck needs more do-something, not as much do-nothing.

Karn Liberated, Garruk Wildspeaker: Planeswalkers require defending, and you play permanent-light so are not especially good at defending them. Nicol Bolas defends himself, but the others you’re playing I’m not as sold on, even though planeswalkers are pretty routinely awesome. The defense just isn’t there to support them.

Betrayal of Flesh: An expensive banishing or an expensive reanimation spell, and to get the ‘bargain’ of both you have to cash in three pieces of real estate that you are otherwise working hard to bring into play in the first place. Cut for something cheaper, anything cheaper.

Brightflame: Too expensive by far, even if the lifegain can be substantial.

Vampiric Tutor: I don’t think this deck actually wants to trade in draw phases just to Tutor. Replace with a Tutor that doesn’t skip your draw, even if it does make your early game options a little worse.

Blatant Thievery: You’re more focused on killing all permanents than stealing some. I look at this unfortunately as a good-card addition and need more than that before I’m sold it’s the right card for the job.

Exsanguinate: Bad win condition plus mana-efficient lifegain is still just mana-efficient lifegain. Lifegain is one of my least favorite things. Ergo, cut. You can of course twist your own arm and put it right back in, but I’d rather you not tell me about it!

Green Sun’s Zenith: Not enough actual green creatures to be worthwhile. I think you’ve included this off the suite of Sakura-Tribe Elder, Primeval Titan, and Woodfall Primus, but this just doesn’t do enough to justify such a narrow inclusion.

Syphon Mind: Good card, sure, but not one you’re very well focused on as far as attrition goes, so it might as well just be four mana to draw three cards. You can do better than this, given that the discard will very likely be invisible to the impact on the game.

Adding cards back in is interesting and complicated. With mass removal as your Commander, you don’t really need a lot of pinpoint spells to deal with individual problems, so you’ve got a five-colored deck that doesn’t even want to access the most efficient removal possible (e.g., Plains but no Swords to Plowshares). The place this deck seems to be going is big sorcery land where you’re focusing on haymaker Magic and out-swinging the opponent as your plan of action. Out-grinding them is a good place to go, too, so we’re going to focus a bit more on using Child of Alara’s “goes to graveyard” trigger repeatedly and at low cost. We’re cutting out ramp and using the room to put in more creatures, because fourteen (two of which are Sakura-Tribe Elder and Solemn Simulacrum, not exactly there to provide the beats) will just lead to too many games where a few enemy removal spells stall you out interminably. Threat density going up will be key, as well, so we’ll mash all this together and see where it ends up!

Corpse Dance and Grim Harvest: Two very efficient ways to get Child of Alara triggering repeatedly, and thus keep the board clear of major obstacles. That both also happen to increase your threat density in the later stages of the game is not accidental…they’re also great ways to get your grinding card advantage on, so you can turn a stable board state in the late-game into a winning board advantage.

Necromancy: Your replacement for Betrayal of Flesh. With Child of Alara and the weird substance rules that may or may not still exist somewhere because of this cycle of insta-chantments, this can be a board wipe by itself on another player’s turn, though not exactly an instant-speed one without a sacrifice outlet online as well. Very powerful and efficient just in general, but also possesses of a lot of synergy here that it usually doesn’t have in decks I toss it into.

Increasing Ambition: While Dark Ascension is still fresh and new, I’ve already fallen madly in love with this particular Tutor. Once for five mana is expensive, but I’m already prone to reach for Diabolic Tutor in most decks before I reach for Vampiric Tutor, and for one more mana investment you get the potential to access a ridiculous flashback ability. Pulling two cards of your choice out of your deck and dropping them in your hand should be potentially game ending, especially with the high-powered sorcery haymakers you’re packing, so it’s a perfect fit even if it’s considerably slower than the Vampiric Tutor you started with.

Conflux: Now here’s an addition you don’t see every day! Haymakers are what you make, and haymakers are what Conflux puts in your hand. If Tutoring twice is ridiculous, just how absurd must Tutoring five times be? “I’ll pick Time Stretch, Cruel Ultimatum, Praetor’s Council, Nicol Bolas, and Martial Coup. Good luck with that.”

Brilliant Ultimatum: This one’s more for fun than the others, but considering the density of high-value haymakers, Brilliant Ultimatum should routinely reveal two major impact spells and thus give you a few shots at having pretty amazing turns that are the wild stories Commander was made for. Ever have that game where you Fact or Fictioned into Cruel Ultimatum, Time Stretch, Tooth and Nail, and didn’t even bother to look at the other two cards because you knew it couldn’t possibly matter? Brilliant Ultimatum can be the card that legends are made of. (It can also miss, playing a land and a Bauble. No spell is perfect when you’re trying to have fun and go with the wild swings.)

Arcane Denial: I think a little bit of ability to interact with the opponent at instant speed is important, and Arcane Denial is easy on the casting cost and comes with that gentle letdown that prevents you from making too many serious enemies at a table. You want to be able to say no with as little fuss and muss as possible, and it even has the good sense to draw you a card after you’ve done so. Mana Drain would be better in a vacuum—you do pack spells like Tooth and Nail—but I don’t own a Mana Drain yet and I’m certainly not going to start suggesting others pack ‘em if they aren’t in the decklist already.

Fathom Trawl: Another solid card advantage spell for building up the deck’s middle and late turns, for those in-between spaces where you just started to get control but will lose it if you get out-resourced. Fathom Trawl is three spells guaranteed, which is some serious action potential and fits just right with your plan of how the game will likely proceed. Child of Alara can trade one-for-many with the opponent’s board, but doesn’t start to do any better than that until you get some card flow going, since it takes something else happening to make that not just a one-time card exchange…Child of Alara can’t go to the command zone for re-use and have the trigger happen.

Identity Crisis: The last spell has to be a key one, and this is the force interaction haymaker of choice for neutering that jerk over there who’s Tutored twice but not done anything. Identity Crisis covers zones of play you’re otherwise bad at interacting with—the graveyard is just Bojuka Bog presently and opposing hands otherwise not covered at all—and is the right tool for the job against dirty combo players or someone who’s really good at playing the attrition game with you.

We have six slots left, and it’s time to move over to the creatures. I’m actually happy with every creature you have listed. The Fierce Empath looks a wee bit out of place, but not enough that I worry over it much. I just want to keep them as-is and think up the best six slot additions to improve your deck and give it the board presence that will help keep the game in your favor while everything else is working.

Eternal Witness: Sort of an obvious inclusion, in that it’s typically remembered for sheer power level alone, but alongside things like Grim Harvest it’s patently absurd. The Cruel Ultimatum Game is a hilarious sub-game of making people unhappy on a very regular basis.

Draining Whelk: A little bit of counter goes a long way and this is counter plus creature. This counter in particular you can recur with your creature recursion side of things, to stretch that interactive power further on your opponent’s turn and give you something decisive to lock a game down when the endgame is upon us. It benefits from the same suite of cards that work with your Commander, so it fits surprisingly well into this build as it’s coming along, even though countering spells was not previously high on your list of things you wanted to do.

Etched Oracle: Sunburst doesn’t have the pretty mana symbols you were talking about, but it’s also a mana-efficient beater that comes with free cards attached. Given your spells that are working on creature recursion don’t work so hot with it, it’s not a completely perfect fit, but it’s a strong addition for any five-color deck and well worth the slot.

Etched Monstrosity: The new version of the above old favorite, this one works just fine with all the reanimation that circumvents re-casting stuff. Instead of giving you three cards and no monster anymore, this one gives you three cards and upgrades to a 10/10. Card flow is a key issue for making power spell decks function, and this helps add to your cards in hand while still developing the board and getting value on your creatures even if it’s immediately killed.

Mikaeus, the Unhallowed: Recursion’s good for you, so presumably undying is good too. Mikaeus passes around a second shot to whichever other creatures are floating around, up to and including Child of Alara, so it seems like a reasonable value investment.

Palinchron: This one came to me strangely. I wanted something that was hard to kill and started reaching for things with indestructible (some flavor of Colossus?), then with shroud (Simic Sky Swallower?), and then stuff that blinked out of the way (Rainbow Efreet?). Then I remembered how at least one of my former Commander decks liked Palinchron just as a low-investment card that was surprisingly hard to actually kill, since it untapped the mana you spend on casting it and can protect itself multiple times in the same turn and on the turn it comes into play. Then I thought about Tooth and Nail for value coming up; just getting Palinchron and some other value creature, getting the value out of putting stuff into play but then untapping your lands, and getting to still do something else major besides just a relatively fair Tooth and Nail.

Palinchron then came up more insidiously. Increasing Ambition Tutoring for two cards accidentally gives you access to infinite mana, strangely enough, thanks to Mana Reflection. It wasn’t intentional, but it’s something you can do if you need to go broken on a game, and of course since Conflux can do the same it’s just on the list of nifty things that can accidentally happen which can close a game out pretty reliably out of seemingly nowhere. I’m against infinite-combo things in general, but have no problem with the fact that any Animar deck can generate infinite mana (and thus infinite Commander power) with Palinchron and not a lot of work, so I don’t see a particularly compelling reason to snip this interaction back out—if it’s something your opponents have a problem with as a repeated victory path, um, don’t repeat it as your victory path on them. For cutthroat games it’s better to have something that can go broken rather than nothing at all, and I think the fair uses of Palinchron are solid enough that I won’t sweat over the possibility of doing stupid stuff I never expected or intended to occur. After all, Palinchron plus High Market plus Corpse Dance is infinite mana too. It’s not a compelling reason to cut Palinchron just because something weird happens.

Use with care, but feel free to have the option. This is a bit of a reversal on my prior stance, but I think there’s enough benefit. The risk is something you can control whether you do or not, so I’m comfortable with this at least this one time.

Putting it all together, we get the following final decklist:

Child of Alara
Sean McKeown
Star City Games Legacy Open on 02-19-2012
Magic Card Back

Putting it all together, it doesn’t look as bad as I’d worried: I’d even expected Sensei’s Divining Top to be the most expensive card, only to be surprised that its presence in Legacy has faded recently with the advent of efficient Delver of Secrets tempo strategies and Cascade Bluffs having a significant impact in Modern. I was concerned that it was going to exceed the $100 mark, which so far has been a place I try to shy away from when I don’t specifically know the person I’m making suggestions to. As always, for your participation you will be receiving a $20 coupon to StarCityGames.com, which covers a fairly large chunk of the cards.

With my first five-color submission under my belt, I’m looking to shrink back to a solid two- or three-color build for my next submission, thanks to the fact that an article about Dark Ascension’s two mono-colored Commanders, Ezuri, and Azami herself left me craving a more polychromatic palette. I’d like to dabble someplace I haven’t been recently in the chromatic rainbow, so I leave it up to my intrepid readership to surprise me and see where we’ll play next. I look forward to unexpected surprises in my inbox next week and will try to have some fun with it!

Sean McKeown

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