Dear Azami: Death By Mana

With Cassidy away at GenCon last week, Sean McKeown makes a brief visit back to Commander-land in order to work on a reader’s Surrak Dragonclaw deck designed to win based off of its land base – sometimes in unconventional ways.

While my time away from Dear Azami has not been quite what I would have expected when last I signed off, this isn’t a comeback – Cassidy has been away this past week for GenCon, and it would appear I’m still perfectly qualified to sit in for the week. After all, the only qualification necessary for giving advice as we define it (“an opinion or recommendation offered as a guide to action, conduct, etc.”) is that for some reason someone might wish to listen to me. While my time away from the column has been incredibly busy and I haven’t had a chance to play Commander in a few months now, I think I still remember what I’m doing, so… let’s find out together whether I have an opinion worth listening to, shall we?

Dear Azami,

First, I want to say that I love the column and look forward to it every week. I’ve been playing Magic since Urza’s Block, but took a long break between Mirrodin and now. Getting back into the game, it’s great to have things like Dear Azami to help me find cool new cards to use and keep up with the format.

Since coming back to Magic, I have gotten really into Commander. I used to play a lot of 5-Color, and Commander reminds me of that old, wonderful format in many ways.

Here is my newest deck. The goal is to use lands as resources in interesting ways and to fuel win conditions. Here is the list:

Commander: Surrak Dragonclaw

Academy Ruins
Barbarian Ring
Desolate Lighthouse
Flooded Strand
10x Forest
Forgotten Cave
Frontier Bivouac
Ghost Town
Glacial Chasm
Halimar Depths
2x Island
Maze of Ith
Reliquary Tower
Rogue’s Passage
Snow-Covered Forest
3x Snow-Covered Island
4x Snow-Covered Mountain
Soldevi Excavations
Terrain Generator
Tolaria West
Tranquil Thicket
Tropical Island
Volcanic Island
Windswept Heath
Wooded Foothills

Aggressive Mining
Boundless Realms
Constant Mists
Creeping Renaissance
Honden of Seeing Winds
Hull Breach
Into the Wilds
Life from the Loam
Momentous Fall
Rain of Thorns
Rush of Knowledge
Seismic Assault
Skyshroud Claim
Spitting Image
Sprouting Vines
Stroke of Genius
Summer Bloom
Tempt With Discovery
Temur Ascendancy
Trade Routes
Urban Evolution
Warstorm Surge

Acidic Slime
Allosaurus Rider
Borborygmos Enraged
Budoka Gardener
Burnished Hart
Centaur Rootcaster
Dreamscape Artist
Ignition Team
Meloku the Clouded Mirror
Molimo, Maro-Sorcerer
Nantuko Cultivator
Panglacial Wurm
Patron of the Moon
Pearl Lake Ancient
Prime Speaker Zegana
Realm Seekers
Roil Elemental
Sakura-Tribe Scout
Soramaro, First to Dream
Sylvan Safekeeper
Uyo, Silent Prophet
Vinelasher Kudzu
Walking Atlas

Expedition Map
Explorer’s Scope
Horn of Greed
Lodestone Bauble
Seer’s Sundial

This deck is fairly new, but I’ve gotten in a few games with it. I think it runs pretty well overall, but could use more win conditions – it just feels a little underpowered for my metagame. I also think it needs more creature removal and protection. I’m not sure how far I want to take the turbo-fog theme, and I’m also not sure if the ramp suite is optimal.

Just a note on budget: despite the dual lands in the list, I actually don’t spend that much money on Magic anymore. I acquired a lot of my cards ten or so years ago and I just got back into the game recently. This explains the exclusion of cards like Azusa, Lost but Seeking, Burgeoning, Crucible of Worlds, etc. I definitely have money to spend, just not Crucible of Worlds money.

Otherwise, let me know what you think! I definitely expect to be doing some tuning, so your help is much appreciated.



I’ll confess I mostly was interested because Surrak Dragonclaw is not a Commander you see all that often, so I had to poke around and see what was going on – at which point your desire to kill opponents via land shenanigans of course intrigued me, as I think that adding in an interesting but indirect plan for killing the opponent is a good way to keep a powerful deck fun and balanced rather than just pushing aggressively towards an all-combo-all-the-time decklist like we might otherwise find ourselves stumbling towards.

Eric budget here clearly excludes some obvious power cards – Sensei’s Divining Top, for example – and the basics of how the deck works are all there, so we’re mostly going to be exploring the odd niche of Temur-colored lands-matter cards with a sub-theme of “how do I throw things at my opponent’s head until they are dead?” Surrak Dragonclaw isn’t just here for the colors, as it might look – given how much of this deck focuses on generating creature power off of the number of lands you’ve got in play, the fact that Surrak grants trample to your team in addition to providing a great rate is going to be incredibly vital here. But the key to what gets that big smile while you’re killing your opponent? Stuff like this:

You mentioned that you came to Commander by way of Five-Color, which isn’t that well-known of a format at this point to our readers here so let’s give the brief description. 5C was all about 250-card decks and huge plays, with basically any card in Magic (including ante cards and Chaos Orb!) legal for play somewhere in your humongous decks and a requirement to have each of the five colors represented through at least 25 cards in the deck – though wiggling out of that requirement was entirely possible with things like split cards and hybrid mana if you wanted to cut a color that didn’t match with your overall plan of action. The splashiest part – okay, the splashiest part besides getting to play with Black Lotus and all the rest of the power and getting someone with Chaos Orb – was the format’s distinctive inclusion of Contract from Below, which says “B: Draw seven” so long as you don’t mind having to ante a second card. The craziness of the format revolved around the sheer absurdity of that card’s power level, and the emotional weight and the size of the stories the format told can be summed up neatly in the phrase “So there I was, down to one life with my Black Lotus up for ante…”

We aren’t going to get anywhere near that emotional resonance, of course, but the shenanigans you can do with this deck can still yield intriguing stories. Commander opponents are notoriously resilient, though, so taking down an entrenched opponent who thinks they are incredibly well-secure and sitting pretty at a couple of hundred life is entirely within the deck’s capabilities. It isn’t designed to go infinite, but it is designed to go “a lot,” so there will be huge swings and lots of stories thanks to the powerful yet flavorful way this deck operates. The plan is sound, we just need to optimize it here, so – let’s go!

Mana And Artifacts

This deck focuses on playing with its lands, and it uses them for defense and offense as well as mana production. I think we’re actually going a little too far down the path of non-interaction with Sunstone and Horn of Greed… but I also think those focus too much on defense and trying to set up for later, as well, and would rather get some power into play and replace that defensive posture with a plan to be the beatdown. At the worst, powerful attackers can generally play D as well, and knowing when to change gears and assume a different posture in order to win the game is a critical skill in Commander that we often build right past by just planning to overpower our opponents instead. We’re not playing Overpower, we’re playing Magic, so we don’t want to have our deck just carry us and do all of the work while we sit back and watch. Don’t be this guy:

The Beyonder

No really, I read Secret Wars II, don’t be this guy.

First off, I didn’t see any benefit to the Snow lands once we’re cutting Sunstone, so we’re going to pare those back. We’re not going to cut them to zero, though, as there could be at least some theoretical benefit to having one of each still in our deck when we add another card in later on – also, I tend to have the incredibly biased opinion that no “fair” deck has ever played Snow-Covered Island, and I’d be happy for you to continue trying to prove me wrong in that regards.


Forest Forest Forest Forest Academy Ruins Rogue's Passage Terrain Generator Snow-Covered Island Snow-Covered Island Snow-Covered Mountain Snow-Covered Mountain Snow-Covered Mountain


Island Island Mountain Mountain Mountain Command Tower Alchemist's Refuge Myriad Landscape Polluted Delta Bloodstained Mire Evolving Wilds Terramorphic Expanse

When looking over your manabase, I tried taking your advice to heart as far as figuring out what lands are present in the deck regardless of budget because you already owned them and which ones you’ve potentially added since coming back to Magic in order to make this deck. Considering you have the Revised dual lands but not the Ravnica ones, for example, I skipped over worrying about them because a) your Revised duals work even better than them anyway, and b) their price per unit of effectiveness is too expensive to be worthwhile here. But you can play all five allied-color fetchlands in a Temur deck to fetch your Revised duals and they are currently in print, so now is a great time to pick them up as a future investment in whatever Commander decks you might want to play. (Ditto for the Zendikar fetchlands in Battle for Zendikar, fingers crossed!) Each is effectively able to access all three of your colors and a reasonable goal for all Commander players who expect to be bouncing around the format for some time would be one copy each of all ten fetchlands, so this may be the start of a very sweet spot for Commander player growth as reprinting these lands made them more accessible for our format too, not just for Modern.

Command Tower is an actual untapped tri-land, and thus we’re just correcting an accidental omission in this regard. Our other three swaps (besides turning Snow basics back into regular basic lands) add in a few more solid fetchlands that can work with Life from the Loam, landfall triggers, or ‘just’ at fixing your mana on the cheap with a few extra potential benefits. Myriad Landscape is pretty ridiculous as it fills the role of “a Krosan Verge that anyone can play,” and considering how this deck appreciates drawing a ramp effect, being able to draw one stapled to a land is pretty awesome.

As far as budget is concerned, if you want to save the approximately thirty dollars or so that those two fetchlands represent, keeping the two Forests I cut is probably fine. I’m assuming it’s worth your while to acquire all five fetches while they’re in print, and kept the budget under $100 anyway – we here at Dear Azami seem to have simultaneously agreed on that as the psychological price-point we don’t want to go over lest we “break the budget,” but we’re only going to hit about $65 or so without those two fetches and while they’ll definitely help, I’m mostly suggesting them in the broader context of the format as it exists in our current period of time rather than just suggesting them because fetchlands are awesome in Commander decks. My tri-color Commander decks tend to play nine out of ten fetchlands, only skipping the color pair that I’m specifically not playing, and I think having nine would be great here too – but not necessarily economical. We know the allied fetchlands were reprinted in Khans Block because it’s happened already, and it’d be worth your while to flesh out one of each while they’re readily available.

Also: Alchemist’s Refuge is an absurd Magic card that does absurd things while strapped to a land. Being able to make strong plays at instant speed is a powerful defensive measure in this format, as is just being able to pull off shenanigans at the end of other players’ turns in order to sidestep sorcery-speed removal spells. Most sweepers work only on your own turn in this format or at least play onto the table first so you can see it coming, and Alchemist’s Refuge helps make sure you get at least a turn’s worth of use out of all of your cards before someone else gets to wipe the board.

As for the artifacts – the Academy Ruins got cut because I’m about to cut most of your other artifacts, so let’s look at what remains:


Explorer's Scope Horn of Greed Lodestone Bauble Sunstone


Druidic Satchel

This leaves three empty slots, which we’re going to move over to the creature section as we flesh things out further. While it would be great if we could have some more control over what is on top of our deck, like with Sensei’s Divining Top or even some basic blue cantrips – I tend to like Ponder, Preordain and Brainstorm just fine in Commander – there is still worthwhile value to be gained off of the other two benefits offered by the Druidic Satchel even if they aren’t worth a full card like its land-reveal effect is. It’s worth noting that we’re going to be cutting Into The Wilds and replacing it with this even though this costs mana for the effect and the enchantment version does not. The reason is not because the possibility of two life or a 1/1 Saproling is worth the mana – it’s not – but being able to use the ability at the time of our choosing rather than automatically as an upkeep trigger is considerably better. We will be adding some cards that inform us as to what the top card of our library is, even if it doesn’t necessarily help “select” it or otherwise filter it in some way, and each of those will benefit from being able to activate the Satchel whenever suits us.

Still Had All These Spells

Some of these changes may surprise, but I’m applying a consistent principle here in figuring out which cards belong in this deck and which do not. While, yes, some of the cards cut here are “good Magic cards” or even just “good in a deck of this type,” if they’re not pulling the right weight at the right time, are they really helping? If they’re only great in the context of other cards too, I tend to favor cards that are able to stand on their own, so that’s the explanation behind good things getting axed.


Honden of Seeing Winds Stroke of Genius Hull Breach Rain of Thorns Into the Wilds Manabond Skyshroud Claim Summer Bloom Tempt with Discovery


Realms Uncharted Kodama's Reach Cultivate Nissa's Pilgrimage Decimate Asceticism Land's Edge

Stroke of Genius is powerful, yes, but this deck is highly proactive – I’m more interested in small card advantage effects and spending our big mana on threats, so paying three mana for the right to spend X and draw X is not really my idea of a good time when we could be dropping fatties instead. Hull Breach and Rain of Thorns were solid utility cards but there was a more powerful option that met in the middle and offered more besides – Decimate can take down one of each problem card type mentioned in either of those and take out the biggest threat on the table too, and that crosses my threshold for power while filling the utility role you’d cast those cards in at the same time.

Also, it’s incredibly fun to Decimate people. It really is.

Land’s Edge is basically a second copy of Seismic Assault, which is a power card to begin with in your deck – sure, it is “less powerful” because it a) shares that ability with other players and b) can be randomly Disenchanted the first time an opponent drops Koskun Falls or Bazaar of Wonders, but the Enchant World rule is not something I have seen come up even once in the past five years and sharing an ability with your opponents isn’t a problem when you’re set up to maximize it and they’re not anywhere close. Seismic Assault is so critical to your plans that having another one has to be good, so here we are.

All of the land-search spells now cost three mana (so they can ramp us to a turn-four Surrak Dragonclaw if we want to start beating down) and provide two lands in the exchange. One of them isn’t actually a ramp spell – Realms Uncharted gets you two lands, but doesn’t put any of them into play – but it’s so good with your Life from the Loam shenanigans that it has to be included. If you’re wondering where the line got drawn, I wasn’t interested in any of the two-mana effects that provided one land (though Explore always tempts me, I’m content to leave that job up to the Budoka Gardeners of the world instead) and for three mana it had to be truly amazing (Realms Uncharted) or put at least one of the two lands it searched for directly into play as ramp (which is why Nissa’s Pilgrimage was good enough but Journey of Discovery was not).

We could put two lands directly into play for four mana – you had Skyshroud Claim already, but there’s also Explosive Vegetation, Hunting Wilds, and Ranger’s Path and there’s always Tempt with Discovery, which you also played – but the deck’s big cards all start to deploy for five mana and ramping on four doesn’t make as much sense when we could ramp at three and jump up to five instead. I’m not saying these cards aren’t good, I’m saying sticking with a plan for how the deck will play out in order to build aggressive pressure is more important than playing the strictly most powerful version of each card. The fourth mana on that Skyshroud Claim isn’t worth it just to put another land into play immediately, this deck has plenty of ways already to put in another land when it wants to and the longer we spend waffling around the easier it will be to stop us before we can get rolling.

As an aside, even before I realized I wanted to cut Skyshroud Claim here and play a three-mana spell in its place, I’d cut Tempt With Discovery just for being Tempt With Discovery. It’s basically a “solved” card – it would be wrong for any of your opponents to join in with you and get a land off of your spell because it would then put you so far ahead that winning becomes almost trivial and it’s a problem that only gets worse as more players break with the “correct” answer – exhibiting “table solidarity” as it were by accepting no land is the correct answer to their Prisoner’s Dilemma. The sub-game of this card is pure feel-bad and it’s only even a good card in this deck if someone at the table makes the mistake of betraying everyone else for their own slight gain – this was an interesting Commander card up until about the time we started casting it, and now it just tells the table who deserves a beating.

Speaking of getting rolling: Surrak gives everyone trample already, so our evasion is already set – the next priority we had to advance was then to keep everything we cared about alive instead. I really dislike Asceticism, and you’ll usually find me cutting it from green decks for being a boring catch-all “good stuff” addition… but when it’s the right card for the job, it’s the right card for the job. Being able to protect this deck’s big threats and keep on rumbling will be very key, and Asceticism both prevents them from being targeted and allows you to regenerate them, so it’ll work wonders. On a related note – if you’re willing to get a little spendy in your lands, I’d suggest considering a Yavimaya Hollow as well. I didn’t add it because I was trying to mind both prices and priorities, but if I weren’t keeping price in mind as an object to some degree, this would totally be in my 99 here.

Two slots unfilled means we now have five empty slots as we finish up with the creatures that we’re relying on to power the deck to victory, and you’ll find a good chunk of them help as ramp effects as well as card advantage while we’re at it – we cut some things out of the spell section, it’s true, but comparable effects will reappear here as we finish up.

When Animals Attack

The balance here is already pretty spot-on, which is why I was looking to add slots rather than replace a lot of cards – I was a big fan of everything that was going on here already, especially once I figured out what the Pearl Lake Ancient’s role was besides “hard-to-kill uncounterable threat,” it’s not every day we see that card being used just for its “return three lands to your hand” ability! First I looked to see which of your creatures didn’t actually fit the plan, and I was only able to come up with four:


Centaur Rootcaster Dreamscape Artist Ignition Team Ovinomancer

I liked the idea behind the Rootcaster, but four mana was again not something I could get behind – and thanks to my prior exhaustive Gatherer-searching in order to figure out how to build better green decks in Commander I know you can get two versions of the same basic effect at three mana instead, so we’re making the same shift with your Rootcaster as we did with that Skyshroud Claim. Now it’ll help with your commander and other heavy hitters instead of gumming up those middle turns which I feel will be so crucial to how the deck develops on-curve.

Dreamscape Artist just didn’t impress – you’ll note I wasn’t willing to add actual-Harrow to the deck, so adding the Spellshaper version didn’t make much sense to me either, the spell we’d be shaping was suboptimal and I’d rather play a different card instead. Ignition Team would be big and, yes, somewhere in there its ability references lands and does something kind of interesting with them, but it was the wrong big dumb animal for the job and we can do much better than that. Ovinomancer tried to dodge being cut against my better intentions because SHEEP! – who doesn’t want to turn an opponent’s best threat into a lowly sheep token? – but it’s really just not at the power level we want to be, even though the “return three lands to your hand” part of the card is a net benefit here rather than really a cost. If you could do it multiple times a turn it would do something interesting with Seismic Assault at least, but as-is it’s an 0/1 that needs to survive a turn before it does something interesting and I require better cardboard even though I love it and have definitely been known to trade sheep for sheep out-of-turn while losing badly at Settlers of Catan.*

With four cuts here we now have room for nine additions, and we’ll be focusing on the deck’s themes and trying to streamline rather than overwrite any one particular theme. I really liked what the deck was doing, so today was an exercise in efficiency – “how can we do this better?” – rather than taking something that was lost in the woods and trying to rebuild it by picking one specific direction. I want to chuck lands at three opponents’ heads until they die in impressive fashion too now that you’ve made that the plan, and I’m just applying some tournament-Spike lessons to happy fun casual Vorthos-land Magic in order to improve the deck while keeping its soul intact.


Hunting Cheetah Avenging Druid Yavimaya Elder Courser of Kruphix Oracle of Mul Daya Solemn Simulacrum

Some of these are boring and obvious – “Solemn Simulacrum is good in Commander!” and quite a few are obvious “Good Stuff” cards that have showed up in any deck of that color with any reasonable interest in them at all since the moment they were printed. (Hi, Oracle of Mul Daya!) But they’re doing the job you aim to excel at, and providing you card advantage and/or ramp options while they do so. Yavimaya Elder is so good that it has earned the name of “Landcestral Recall” in this format, and it’s great here to give you that burst of resources you wanted and a fresh card too, even though it’s in the same category as Realms Uncharted with that whole “puts awesomeness in your hand but does not actually put a land into play” side of things.

The two quirkier additions, Avenging Druid and Hunting Cheetah, are three-mana versions of what your Centaur Rootcaster was trying to do:

The Cheetah doesn’t actually put the land into play, but it can fetch your dual lands and also doesn’t dump extra cards in your graveyard, which comes with its own feel-bad moments as you mill past a spell you were really hoping for and can tend to make opponents twitchy as they expect the game-ending Praetor’s Counsel to follow. And just saying “I’m not playing Praetor’s Counsel” is usually not good enough to prevent them from pointing the occasional extra thing your way for no reason, but with 40+ lands in your deck this should only be a minor problem, it’s not like we added Hermit Druid.

(Which I would normally do just for the free resources, but I’m not that interested here. It would have gotten cut for the same reason Dreamscape Artist did, even though I like the card.)

With three slots left, I wanted a few more heavy hitters, and considering how well the deck already goes vertical – building huge threats with large power that you tap to attack – I wanted to work on going wide instead. Three token-makers particularly interested me thanks to their synergies with the rest of the deck, and they don’t really require further comment because they’re high-powered animals that make more high-powered animals when something something lands are involved somehow.


Avenger of Zendikar Rampaging Baloths Titania, Protector of Argoth

The Deck

Putting it all together, we get the following:

Commander: Surrak Dragonclaw
Sean McKeown
Test deck on 11-30--0001
Magic Card Back

As always, for participating in this week’s edition of Dear Azami you will receive a $20 coupon to the StarCityGames.com Store – we came in at $97.50 as we were making changes, and if you wanted to go light on those two fetchlands you can cut $30 back out of that, so after that $20 coupon you can make some significant improvements pretty cheaply – and in most cases while picking up cards you’d play in other Commander decks too, as we added far more “staple” cards than I usually find myself adding to a deck as well as my peculiar oddities. (I haven’t seen a lot of Hunting Cheetahs at the Commander table, but I’m working to change that!) The Cheetah even comes in a less-expensive version thanks to the fact that it’s a Portal Three Kingdoms card and English is the “rare” printing of that set, so you can downgrade that to just over $8 if you’re willing to play the Chinese or Japanese-language version of the card instead. I prefer English so I can prove to people that it does in fact get dual lands, but it’s your budget that you need to consider, not mine.

Pricing it out individually, the changes cost as follows:

Jess will return here again next week, and then Cassidy should be back in the regular rotation from there. While I’m still hoping you may see me pop in from time to time – I’m working on finishing my book still, I’m not dead, it just feel that way because I’m in the editing phase of the last draft – it won’t necessarily be at the helm of Dear Azami, just discussing whatever other things to do with Magic have caught my attention of the moment.

*: And while whoever is winning will of course tell me I’m breaking the rules or will even try to argue that I’m being disruptive to the game if someone else is willing to trade sheep for sheep with me and breaking the immersive seriousness of it all as they trounce me, it’s still not as disruptive as opening a trade by saying “I have got Wood for Sheep.” Because who doesn’t laugh like a second grader hearing a fart joke upon hearing that phrase uttered?

Want to submit a deck for consideration to Dear Azami? We’re always accepting deck submissions to consider for use in a future article. 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, in the Article Archives! And feel free to check Jess’s own Command of Etiquette column on Hipsters of the Coast, for more Commander and casual content. Now on Thursdays! Follow Cassidy on GeneralDamageControl.com – a blog focused on Commander content and put together by a team of Commander die-hards dedicated to “Defending The Social Contract”!