Before we get into this week’s submission, I want to use a little bit of the space at the start of this column to look at a few decisions I’ve had to make recently. As of the time you are reading this, you know whether I won the Invitational or not; with the Invitational coming to Somerset, New Jersey instead of being far enough away that I can’t attend while taking only one vacation day from work, I put in a fair bit of time preparing for the event.
Legacy was an easy choice. I’ve been working on a deck for Legacy for about six months now, watching the trends slowly shift the way I expected them to, with control decks rising to the forefront and tempting a combo-heavy metagame to appear as they push the creature decks over into Losersville and start pushing their copies of Force of Will into the sideboard or even cutting it entirely. If things are going in this direction—towards blue control decks and blue tempo decks and against creature decks like Jund and Maverick—there is little you can do that is better than casting my old friend Lord of Atlantis.
You don’t have to argue very hard to get me to pick up Merfolk, but I didn’t like the "stock" build that existed and has turned up occasionally with more-or-less the exact same 75 cards. Sure, Standstill is a solid card, but frankly when all your Ancestral Recall will draw you is a couple more creatures, I don’t see why we’re excited to sit around doing nothing as we wait for that payoff. Your deck has Aether Vial, but you don’t actually always have it on turn 1; your deck has Mutavault, but this is the Wasteland format so you can’t rely on that. More than a few games I’ve watched a Standstill broken via an end-of-turn Brainstorm that left the Standstill’s controller discarding, so I guess you could just say I’m not really convinced.
I am, however, a jerk. As this decklist should thoroughly point out:
- 4 Lord of Atlantis
- 4 Merrow Reejerey
- 4 Silvergill Adept
- 4 Cursecatcher
- 2 Phantasmal Image
- 4 Master of the Pearl Trident
- 4 Wasteland
- 12 Island
- 4 Rishadan Port
As Goblins proves time and again, Wasteland + Rishadan Port + Aether Vial is a deck. Goblins is a bit better than Merfolk at raw aggression, but Merfolk is better at having Force of Will when the unfair deck asks "do you have a Force of Will?" As for Goblins, the answer will never be yes. You may have a Therapy before the fact, but you will never have a Force on those turns when on turn 1 a Goblin Charbelcher is being cast or something else degenerate is happening. In addition to Force + Daze, however, you can complement your mana-denial theme by Stifling fetchlands, which is not something a Goblins player can do.
It looked as if the direction players would be going for the Invitational was towards control and blue tempo decks, towards combo, and away from decks like Maverick and Goblins that create problems based on their being better creature decks than you are.
Legacy was easy, at least compared to my prior decisions in Legacy which involved playing an awesomely designed Dredge deck that is far more complicated than I know how to play despite being the one who designed it. Standard was harder, and picking a deck led me to four possible options in the week before #SCGRICH:
- Bant Control, my go-to deck for the past eight months now.
- Four-Color Reanimator, riffing off of Brian Braun-Duin offhand comment that Supreme Verdict in Reanimator would probably be what it takes to still do well with the deck. Conveniently, my longtime testing partner is Morgan Chang, who recently is best known for his Junk-plus-blue Reanimator deck and who actually played Supreme Verdict in his Reanimator deck at GP Atlantic City, so I knew it was possible.
- Bant Hexproof featuring Fiendslayer Paladin instead of the presumed-default Witchstalker because hexproof from black and red is basically hexproof enough, while coming with an Armadillo Cloak already strapped to him means that between him and Unflinching Courage it should just be impossible for the creature decks to race.
- Zombie Aristocrats, a weird twist on The Aristocrats: Act II that keeps the Reckoners and Acts in the sideboard against creature decks and just plays a resilient aggressive strategy. It takes advantage of Lifebane Zombie + Restoration Angel while also banking on the fact that just drawing one-drop, Cartel Aristocrat, Geralf’s Messenger, Restoration Angel is good for a turn 4 kill. Even "just" drawing an aggro hand with Aristocrat into Messenger can quickly and messily be lethal, but there’s a lot of synergy and play—plus access to the whole Act II package as appropriate.
A Thursday night testing session showed Four-Color Reanimator and Bant Control as the frontrunners after an ironic testing session where Morgan brought "my" Bant Control deck as his first choice and I brought "his" Four-Color Reanimator as mine without either of us talking about either deck to each other. I stepped away from Bant Control initially because the control matchup seemed as-yet unsolved; I’ve tried more counters, boarding creatures like Voice of Resurgence, jamming planeswalkers, having Drownyards . . . even going slightly Reanimator-ish with Unburial Rites in my sideboard. Pretty much anything you can think of, I’d tried without satisfaction.
The Four-Color Reanimator deck seemed to be where I wanted it, but I had no basis yet for figuring out what needed to be in the sideboard, so I resigned myself to bringing Zombie Aristocrats to Friday Night Magic at 20 Sided Store to get a feel for what seemed to be my shakiest deck choice.
Playing against even a weaker field of opponents "in tournament rigor" is something I consider very important for my own understanding of my decks. Even if my opponents at an FNM are not as good as my presumed opponents at the Invitational will be, the real biggest difference to me feels like how seriously I immerse myself in a game during tournament play versus during testing. For the purposes of my testing and design work, I was committed to figuring out complete maindeck and sideboard for Bant Control and Four-Color Reanimator after #SCGRICH gave me a first peek at the competitive metagame going into the Invitational, and just having fun with the following at FNM clarified my thinking about it.
- 4 Diregraf Ghoul
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Geralf's Messenger
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 3 Blood Artist
- 2 Rakdos Cackler
- 1 Obzedat, Ghost Council
- 4 Cartel Aristocrat
- 3 Lifebane Zombie
The basic idea is simple (if possibly too cute) in that you lose the top end of Falkenrath Aristocrat and Thundermaw Hellkite out of traditional B/R Zombies by going with white over red but gain the ability to use Restoration Angel with Geralf’s Messenger or better yet Lifebane Zombie, making it so that when the Lifebane is good in that matchup it’s really good. This polarizes the deck in a certain way, giving you extra edges against stuff like Thragtusk decks or even letting you rob Bant Hexproof by planting Lifebane Zombie before they can cast their Geist or Witchstalker (or Fiendslayer Paladin if other people ended up following my logic further as well).
When this polarity doesn’t work for you, well, you can board back into Act II and go back to shredding Naya Blitz with Blasphemous Act and Boros Reckoner just like you normally would, with the biggest noticeable difference being that there were no Lingering Souls to help out with that.
Geralf’s Messenger and Boros Reckoner don’t look like they would normally fit in the same deck, but in this deck they can both be cast with only two "bad" lands in the deck: two Sacred Foundrys that contribute nothing to Geralf’s Messenger or two Swamps that contribute nothing to Boros Reckoner. So long as you aren’t trying to name both Zombie and Minotaur off the same Cavern of Souls, you should be able to cast all of your spells on time, so the only rule is that you’re on one or the other and never both. Content with the polarity I’d settled on for the game 1 configuration, I brought it in for battle at the first opportunity to play the new cards (and presuming reasonably enough that I could buy Lifebane Zombies or trade for them in the hour between showing up to the store and the first round starting).
If I’d lost handily, it would’ve been easier. Instead, I won convincingly and the deck proved it had a strong aggressive stance, which was exactly what I had hoped to design into it. Meanwhile, #SCGRICH was won by a B/W Human/Token hybrid that focused on Xathrid Necromancer, making it the most likely opponent I would expect to face at the Invitational, and thus meaning I would need targeted playtesting time to see if my Zombie Aristocrat deck beat the Human Aristocrat deck either before or after sideboarding. It winnowed down my choices at least somewhat in that nothing that did well at #SCGRICH looked easy for Bant Control, so no matter my love for getting there with Sphinx’s Revelation I felt I could walk away from that choice.
This also effectively killed my similar interest in token-ish builds, as somewhere in the back of my head I’d been hoping to get Junk Aristocrats into fighting form with Archangel of Thune on paired with Blood Artist and pursuing this further seemed like it would just send me into the muck of black/white token strategy mirror matches with no real edge in sight. At least my hoped-for deck of choice was playing on a different angle and interacted in interesting ways so I could get off of wanting to work with other avenues of the same approach.
This narrowed my selections down to Zombie Aristocrats, the ever-present option for just jamming Bant Hexproof at people, and Four-Color Reanimator as my "control deck" choice. The latter takes most of what I like about Bant Control (Supreme Verdict + Thragtusk) and fits it into a working shell that has a proactive rather than reactive game plan. While Hexproof did well, it was still somewhat under the radar, with no "best" build and no one hitting upon the same simple and effective design I’d built during testing. There were seven Fiendslayer Paladins between the three decks, and somehow none of them had paired him with Avacyn’s Pilgrim, favoring Gladecover Scout instead.
I didn’t have a sideboard built yet, but it seemed clear that if people were just going to go down the B/W Aristocrat-type decks that jamming Hexproof at them would be fairly profitable, as this build focuses on being impossible for creature decks to race.
- 4 Invisible Stalker
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 4 Geist of Saint Traft
- 3 Voice of Resurgence
- 4 Fiendslayer Paladin
Armadillo Cloak Unflinching Courage against creature decks is already a very solid place to be. Having a creature that for most intents and purposes actually has hexproof (as hexproof-from-black-and-red-spells covers a large percentage of your needs) but is also an Armadillo Cloak with legs that you can then pile enchantments on makes any creature matchup effectively stupid, and all you have to do to "solve" the block-and-chump problem is make it fly or trample, which most of the enchantments happen to cover anyway. If people were just going to lose to it, I was just going to keep it in consideration.
My choices started to pare themselves down. While I love Bant Control and consider it both a strong choice and the best place to put your Snapcaster Mages in this format, it felt to me like a reactive choice was not where I wanted to be, especially as I felt myself being pushed further and further out of my comfort zone. What you have to do to properly respond to the format changes starts distorting the things you need to put in the deck, and once ideas like moving over to four Terminuses main started to sound right, I knew it was time to jump ship.
I was happy to abandon it for The Aristocrats: Act II at the start of summer and could see myself switching just as happily to Zombie Aristocrats for the same reasons: a strong aggressive curve, option of a combo finish, and the ability to win the game off of very few cards all told thanks to synergistic deck design.
And just jamming games with Hexproof showed me that while it has entirely unbeatable hands, it also just has unwinnable ones, and while those might mask themselves well enough if I build up a life-gaining monster, it felt too shaky to rely upon. The mana needed another two Temple Gardens in it before I was happy, as that was really what Cavern of Souls was trying to be and wasn’t quite the same. So I looked at following Brian Braun-Duin advice and disbelieving the "fact" that Scavenging Ooze "obsoletes" Reanimator as my second deck of choice and set myself up for one last night’s playtesting before the Invitational to decide between the two.
By the time of submitting this article, Thursday night, that is where I was: torn between two decks, with my decision to be based on which I felt was best against the two leading contenders: the B/W Humans deck that Gerry and AJ played at #SCGRICH and the Jund Midrange deck that is basically public enemy number 1. If jamming Zombies at these two leading options seemed effective, I would do so happily, and if it didn’t, I would play a controlling game in a Reanimator shell with the following:
- 2 Snapcaster Mage
- 3 Restoration Angel
- 1 Deadeye Navigator
- 4 Thragtusk
- 3 Angel of Serenity
- 3 Centaur Healer
- 1 Prime Speaker Zegana
Time to move on.
Hall of Fame
I’m a little late to the Hall of Fame public-posting game this year, mostly because two weeks ago when I was posting my column I was still equivocating over a few of my slots to put them into a place I was happy with. I’ve had a vote for a few years now based presumably on the fact that a decade ago I was writing a weekly strategy column focusing on the Pro Tour and its qualifier formats, and I’ve tried to stay with two firm principles in balancing my vote: no votes for sketchy players and staying out of the America-centric "trap" that I see most American members of the Selection Committee mire themselves in. If you’re voting and your votes are coming up five out of five Americans, it’s possible that you’re falling prey to voting from among your community rather than the community.
Two of my votes are self-explanatory in that it’s not hard to point out why I’m voting for Luis Scott-Vargas or Ben Stark. One of my non-votes is not self-explanatory in that the absence of my vote for William "Baby Huey" Jensen is a common point of departure between myself and others who I’ve found voting for four out of the same five people among those who’ve publicized their ballots. I didn’t vote for Huey last year, giving my vote to Chris Pikula instead, and will be doing the same again this year.
I’ve voted for Chris in all but one year in which I’ve had a vote for the Hall of Fame, and while his statistics clearly don’t match up to the same level as others he is in competition with directly for consideration, the contributions he has made in taking a public activist role in cleaning up professional Magic so that there could even be a Pro Tour in the first place means I will be voting for him every year I have a vote and he is not in the Hall of Fame. One could argue that my failure to vote for Huey last year could have been the one deciding vote that would have pushed him onward, and one could even argue that following a tit-for-tat approach if "we" got Huey in last year "we" could get Chris in this year for sure.
The problem is that there is no "we," and while my time with Occupy Wall Street leaves me comfortable with entering into a consensus-based decision-making process and I may be more down than most in fundamental concept to subsume my personal opinions to get five people of ‘the group’s choice’ inducted by coordinating enough votes, it seems clear that to do so would be counter to the intentions of the selection process, and thus I must stand opposed in fundamental principle if not in effective concept.
If Wizards wanted to allow us to coordinate and make voting blocs, they would make the names of who has a vote in any given year available. Since they haven’t, it stands solidly to reason that binding voting blocs together into a consensus decision-making process is clearly not what they want to do, so I’m just going to keep voting for Chris and hoping this year is his year and Huey will just have to get in without my vote as he would have had to last year.
My other two votes are a sort of twisted way to vote for Tomoharu Saito—voting for the Tomoharu Saito I wished existed in the world rather than the one that exists. I declined to vote for him the year he got inducted—and then had his induction stripped—because I was cognizant ahead of the time of the potential pattern of stalling to gain unfair advantage during a match and called it "cheating" as it clearly is. When one player can potentially have a draw or a win while the other can only have a draw or a loss and none of this unbalanced outcome is due to the cards in either players’ hands but instead is a conscious decision on the part of one to take advantage of the other, I call it cheating plain and simple.
There is a New York-area player that is quietly notorious for doing exactly this—in fact, he’s not even aware that doing it is wrong and has admitted to doing so openly after using it to attain a Top 8 result by avoiding a second loss and getting a draw instead and also winning at least one match 1-0 by stalling out the second game—and I call it cheating when he does it too.
Tomoharu Saito is worthy on the numbers, but his play ethics forbids his inclusion. The numbers mean zero, as Mike Flores and Brian David-Marshall recently concluded on their latest Top 8 Magic podcast. With these two other slots, I looked at the non-American field and considered who was most worthy for inclusion, which put Saito first on the list "by the numbers" but also included a fair number of other worthy candidates—more when adding in the fact that there are contributions I clearly value that are not based on numbers.
Going back a decade, as the Hall has a ten-year time lag, we begin to see the rise of the Japanese play groups to what later became half a decade of clear dominance, and it is important to know that this is not something that "just happened" by itself—I don’t feel I can simply wait to enthusiastically vote for Kenji and "call it a day" as it were. My two votes this year are going to focus on what built this community up in the first place and what helped spur it onwards with successes mounting.
It also doesn’t hurt to send a signal to a Saito under suspicion even at present by voting not for him but for two of his countrymen with impeccable records for clean play, and I expect the lesser-known of these two names to have near-unanimous support among the Japanese community as well as more support from judges and tournament organizers than it gets from players themselves.
My last two votes thus go to Tsuyoshi Ikeda and Makahito Mihara in the hope that increasing awareness of their worthiness and contributions will break the dissonance of blocs of people who are voting for five Americans and help push them towards the Hall of Fame. One is clearly worthy "on the numbers," and the other is a very strong candidate that also helped others attain the results that propelled them onto the world’s stage. It takes a community to build a luminary, and I am happy to vote in accordance with that.
Your Calls After This . . .
Now, let’s talk about Commander, shall we?
I am a Legacy-to-Commander/EDH convert, and I have been playing this sweet multiplayer format for just over six months now. One commander I have liked for a while is Zur the Enchanter. The only trouble is that every time I sit down to a game with Zur other players think I am up to no good. I am hoping you can give me some advice as to how I can give Zur the Enchanter a good name and remove some of the apparent stigma associated with him.
One of the goals I have for the deck is to have both an aggressive plan and a more controlling toolbox package. I like to play aggro-control strategies the most, so for me the ability to switch roles in a game is crucial. Aside from this play preference, nothing in the deck is sacred. Cut it to pieces if that is what is necessary.
Some of the cards that have been close to the chopping block for me are: the tutors since Zur fills this role quite well by himself, durdly defensive creatures like Wall of Omens and Baleful Strix that don’t do much for the aggro plan, and the low-impact counters/removal, though I do like running Ice Age Counterspell and Swords to Plowshares and have considered going with an "Ice Age block" theme.
The most important thing though is to make a "fair" Zur deck. I did some research and saw some of the absurd things people do with this commander, which helped me see why I get certain reactions when I sit down with a Zur deck. Please help me to make Zur into a good guy!
Commander: Zur the Enchanter
Building a good guy Zur deck is a difficult proposition, as we have to carefully balance what enchantments you’re getting and the general flow of how the deck plays out and do so mindful of the fact that we have a prevailing narrative working against us. If you want to use Zur as a value engine, you can, but everyone expects you to make it unblockable, unkillable, and boosted by Empyrial Armor so that you can just push for commander damage kills without anyone being able to stop you. This reputation is earned, and we’re going to need to earn a different reputation if that’s to happen.
We can build aggro-control, but to do so we’re going to need to fundamentally shift around some of your elements, as they are presently not that aggro and not that control; you have more stall than anything else and need to build accordingly.
The Mana Base
We begin at the beginning with your mana base, and you have too few lands and possibly too many mana rocks. After subtracting the Maze of Ith that basically will never tap for mana, you have a sum total of 34 lands to work with, which means an unpleasant amount of mulliganing. You’ve compensated this somewhat with a fair chunk of mana rocks, but this leaves you vulnerable to sweepers and prone to having half your mana base disappear the first time an Oblivion Stone or Austere Command gets cast—and they will.
Adarkar Wastes, Caves of Koilos, Underground River: While these are low-impact even if you end up using them regularly for colored mana, giving away five life points a game for your more color-intensive spells is still nowhere near "free." Your commander has a pretty intensive mana cost for a guy you want to play on turn 4, and your lands should be picked with that in mind.
Vivid Marsh, Vivid Creek, Vivid Meadow: I get wary about having too many lands coming into play tapped, and besides these you have five others that always do and the Ravnica duals / M10 "buddy lands" that require a few conditions (or a two-life investment) to come into play untapped. You can fix your mana better without having to pay this very real cost, and you don’t want too many things like this when your plan starts with a turn 2 Signet as you’ll start to miss that turn 2 untapped land drop with some frequency.
Talisman of Progress, Talisman of Dominance, Coldsteel Heart: To be replaced with real actual lands instead.
Darkwater Catacombs, Skycloud Expanse: Both provide two colors of mana even if your other "spare" land is a colorless one, so these two help filter your Wasteland or Mishra’s Factory into meaningful colored mana for your color-intensive spells. They’re also super cheap and always come into play untapped, so they’re doing the right job at the right price.
Sunken Ruin, Fetid Heath, Mystic Gate: Instead of your painlands, these produce colored mana for free and can even help was wrong-colored lands into right-colored mana for your intense costs like Cryptic Command. While they’re pricier than the prior suggestion, your deck has expensive fetchlands and real Revised dual lands, so I am reasonably justified in the belief that if you don’t already have these you can get them without too much effort or at an expense you cannot justify. They are a clear improvement.
+1 Plains, +1 Swamp, +1 Island: Basic lands are good, sturdy things to have lying around, and this gives you a few more of them to work with as we add to your mana base.
Bojuka Bog: I noted you were somewhat weak on ways to affect an opponent’s graveyard, so we’re adding Bojuka Bog as another way to control that particular zone. While it’s true you have the ability to just Zur for Rest in Peace in your list, you won’t have that ability by the time I’m done here—we run into a clear problem of reasonable implications and determination of who the real threat is with that card, as you’re playing tutor colors and it’s reasonable for your opponents to assume the Helm is coming next. So adding another way to neutralize that zone seemed a critical slot to add back in.
With the artifact section already worked on to swap out rocks for lands, there’s just one more cosmetic change to be made: trading Relic of Progenitus for Nihil Spellbomb. While the little bit of recursion present in the deck could be shut off without you much noticing, I intend to add a fair bit more as far as recursive elements go, and that necessitates a change of your graveyard hate card over to one that is less all-encompassing but which leaves your own stuff alone.
The Spell Base
Three slots are going to be moved over to the creature base, as sixteen critters does not a beatdown deck make, especially when some of those are Walls (or in the case of Spellskite might as well be). I have fourteen other alterations to make, so seventeen cards come out. They are as follows.
Eel Umbra, Empyrial Armor: You’re not "good guy Zur" if you’re still building a blinking Zur monster that attacks for commander damage in only a few swings. You need the Umbra less as part of your defensive package if your offensive stance is, well, less offensive, and it will offend fewer opponents if it’s not in the neighborhood of two-hit kills thanks to Empyrial Armor.
Standstill: I don’t think this is quite good enough even if you’re getting to draw the three cards. Some people will feel bad and slow down; others will bluster right through it, not care that they’re left out, and probably be right to do so.
Journey to Nowhere, Oblivion Ring: I agree that having Zur be able to play the first one of these (Detention Sphere) is important. I disagree on the other two, as I think it’s less critical and less interesting while also setting your opponents up to capitalize on a global sweeper returning their best permanents to play.
Propaganda, Ghostly Prison: This is not my definition of who’s the beatdown. We can do better than this. But then I really don’t like these to begin with and don’t find they achieve the desired effect of preventing attention from coming your way. That attention will just be spell based rather than via the attack phase, and this seemingly paradoxical nature is best avoided rather than walked into. It just makes people want to crack your shell.
Rest in Peace: Everyone will see this and clench up, waiting for the Helm that will never come . . . and which you’ll never be able to convincingly prove to them never will.
Copy Enchantment: We can do better, as you’ll soon see.
Treachery: It’s not a Zur candidate, so it’s just a good-stuff addition, and while it is good stuff I disagree that it is critical to what you’re doing here.
Merciless Eviction: We need a more flexible spell in this slot rather than the last word in killing whatever permanent class needs killing today.
Counterspell, Hinder, Forbid, Lost in the Mist: I don’t think you need quite as many counters as you’re playing. This leaves you with six counterspells still, which is enough to nurse one for that moment you need it. Ten of them, including a Forbid that is going to get you the stink-eye, will leave you a bit counter-heavy; they are "just" one-for-one trades with a single opponent’s spell, after all.
Vampiric Tutor, Enlightened Tutor: You already have a tutor-based Commander; you don’t really need to add this many more ways to touch your deck on top of that. And you’ll be able to prove you’re good guy Zur by tutoring less and playing whatever the draw gives you instead, as the narrative tale of the game you play is the most important thing to keep a critical eye on here. Also, well, I am just kind of down on card-advantage tutors, so even if you were going to have more Tutors they would be ones that put the card directly in your hand instead. Card advantage is key in this format; you only have so much to work with and so many people to kill.
Adding things back in, we’re going to get a bit creative and have some fun with it.
Spreading Seas: There are problem lands in this format; no one can doubt that. Cabal Coffers, Gaea’s Cradle, and even my favorites Winding Canyons and Alchemist’s Refuge can be a real problem as they start to warp the space-time continuum around them to create a palpable advantage for their owners. Spreading Seas answers a problem in a fairly neutral way off of a Zur attack, leaving them with a land still under their control (even if it’s not exactly the one they wanted) and drawing you a card for your time and effort to boot.
Copy Artifact, Dance of Many, Steal Enchantment: Stealing an enchantment is presumably better than copying one, as I’d rather I have a Lurking Predators and no one else have one than to merely be the second player getting to have fun with such shenanigans. Copy Artifact is here because Steal Artifact costs four, so in that case if we want a piece of that awesomeness it’ll have to be a duplicate copy.
Dance of Many replaces Legacy’s Allure because as happy as it made me to see your list brought the Allure, I have to recognize that it is going to take literally forever when you might need something that impacts the board right now, especially since the average relevant creature size in Commander is somewhere in the neighborhood of 6/6. That’s six whole turns of your enchantment doing nothing, when Dance of Many can give you a copy of that creature right now.
Necromancy: Just like being able to Zur and get a copy of the best creature on the table is important, being able to Zur and get a copy of the best creature not on the table is likewise a strong addition to make when you’re templating yourself as an aggro-control deck. Zur getting you extra threats is going to be important—compensating for your low creature threat count is key in having this deck play out the way you want it to.
Equipoise: I like finding cute, creative, and effective solutions to common problems. Your deck is light on mass removal but looks like it would probably have problems with token-based strategies, so I wanted something to answer them and wasn’t quite happy enough with the oddball I came up with when I wanted to answer exactly this problem the last time, Teferi’s Realm. Going back to forever ago, I remembered locking down people in Mirage Block Constructed with Sands of Time / Equipoise, and while we don’t want the full-on lock (and Sands of Time kind of sucks these days just in general), you can still take advantage of the Equipoise part by casting Balance every turn on your token opponents.
Tokens that phase out don’t return, and while we’re at it, this gives you answers in the short term to utility lands like Maze of Ith on the free or cheap without making you an enemy even as you soften them up for an attack, as they get their stuff back and will presumably learn to use that there Maze of Ith to defend themselves from somebody else if you’re going to be so sensitive about it. The creative applications of this enchantment are pretty interesting, and I expect once you give it a try you’ll get it pretty frequently with Zur.
Planar Collapse: You can attack with Zur and put a suspended Wrath of God into the mix. I think this will likewise help your need to increase your mass removal access without necessarily needing to add a ton of it, as you can access this one from your deck at will rather than have to add five or six more sweepers just to draw one more with any regularity.
Phyrexian Reclamation: You are fairly light on creatures, but you like keeping access to the ones you have. This lets you keep your threat density high by recurring the ones you do draw, and like adding one Planar Collapse greatly alters your tactical options without needing to warp your overall balance as far as what your deck aims to do regularly, this one tutorable addition gives you a considerable amount of long-game sustainability and threat recursion without needing to build a lot of grindy elements into your deck or greatly increase your total threat count. We’re just going to use every part of the buffalo instead.
Karmic Justice: People learn to leave your stuff alone when pointing their finger at you gives you a Vindicate. That this is a target you can find with Zur is almost inconsequential—which is to say I added it thinking it cost four and was the right effect for your deck and then found out it costs three and thus is literally perfect for what you’re trying to accomplish. This, unlike Propaganda effects, is the kind of deterrent you’re really looking for.
Story Circle: That said, you do need to defend yourself from a board gone awry. We’re cutting Propaganda effects but adding a one-shot wrath and a recurring anti-token wrath effect to boot, but just an aggressive opponent playing a plentiful dose of real creatures could be a problem for you. Story Circle will let you blunt the worst of their attacks and incentivize them to go elsewhere and leave you alone, just like the Propaganda effects would have, while protecting you from at least some of the spells I was concerning myself over as well.
Planeswalker’s Mischief: This is a card I’ve been waiting to find a home for, as I like stealing spells and I like a little bit of structured chaos in my life but haven’t quite been able to get over the need to invest an actual card in gaining the right to do so yet. Zur, however, doesn’t need to spend a card to access this effect, and if you plant this late in the game when you’ve all got a bunch of lands and most of the creatures have played out of everybody’s grips, you can get crazy with this underappreciated little gem that most would instead call a stinker. If it works in your build and helps sell the narrative that good guy Zur is more interested in having a fun, wild game than becoming a boring, merciless killing machine, then it’s doing its job.
Sacred Mesa: I wanted something besides your Luminarch Ascension to access threats directly, as the Ascension may not necessarily trigger if your opponents want to prevent it from doing so. Sacred Mesa may not make 4/4s, and does have an upkeep that is not quite ideal, but of the options available to us it creates the best and most efficient threats as far as enchantments that make a swarm of tokens go. Unlike Bitterblossom, we’re not limited to one a turn, and Mobilization doesn’t have the upkeep but also doesn’t make fliers.
Once we’re talking about spending six mana a turn on guys, the Mesa makes the third creature you get to keep at eight mana rather than nine, and when we get to twelve, you get to keep five rather than Mobilization’s four. It may not look more efficient, but later in the game it really is. Also: flying!
Debtors’ Knell: An enchantment you can’t Zur for, I know, but an awesome enchantment all the same. Just add time and you’ll get the best threats available, yours or otherwise, and this card is pretty much everything I like to do in a game of Commander while also being interesting instead of boringly overpowered. Sheoldred bores me, as locking people under the edict effect gets yawn-worthy, but Debtor’s Knell adds strategic planning and makes the world your oyster by giving you free access to all players’ stuff, not just your own.
Austere Command: Boring, yes, but it’s a clear Commander staple for a reason and far more flexible than your Merciless Eviction. This is the sweeper of choice for answering board states unless you really do need to capitalize on Merciless Eviction killing multiple planeswalkers as a strategic option.
The Creature Base
We’re going to start with four quick cuts: two that you called out effectively yourself (Wall of Omens and Baleful Strix), one predictable one given my general lack of optimism in Commander (Frost Titan), and one surprising as heck given your propensity for enchantments (Academy Rector). Basically everything but Debtor’s Knell you can access through Zur, and the Rector will lead to twitch responses that go against the narrative you’re crafting while not actually having that large of an upside—you can’t kill it on command, and the things you’re getting are just going to be Zur-bait anyway. We can wait and sell our narrative. Sometimes even the best of cards get cut.
We have seven additions to make, and we really need to focus these on your intentions to play an aggro-control game. The creatures you have aren’t as focused on aggro-control as I’d want them to be, so the additions we make will be made with that aimed-for game type in mind.
Thada Adel, Acquisitor: An efficient early creature that can bring additional fast mana to your side of the table and at the very worst is basically an Ophidian just like Shadowmage Infiltrator since it gives you an extra card each turn. That it can create a stream of high-quality men by accessing other peoples’ Wurmcoil Engines, Duplicants, or what-have-you is also key, as we want more things that access us more things to compensate for having generally fewer of them ourselves. I like both sides of what Thada Adel brings to the party, and Zur can even give your opponent an island for strategic Islandwalking purposes as well!
Wurmcoil Engine: Speaking of efficient guys that bring a Wurmcoil Engine to the party, your own Wurmcoil Engine does so quite adequately. I noticed you were light on ways to recoup life—Batterskull, Umezawa’s Jitte, Stoneforge Mystic for said equipment and Steel of the Godhead that you’re hoping will never ever leave play thanks to Vanishing. Wurmcoil gives you more ways to recoup life while also just being a fat, efficient man that doesn’t fold in the face of removal, and this seemed better than what you were likely to get out of your Frost Titan.
Deadeye Navigator: While we cut your countermagic down, we’re adding the potential ability to soulbond a Draining Whelk with the Navigator here and otherwise are just going to be able to happily recur comes-into-play triggers to your heart’s content. When those triggers are things like Shriekmaw and Mulldrifter, what’s not to love?
Sepulchral Primordial: While you probably don’t need to pair this with Deadeye Navigator, oh the things you can do if that ever happens. We needed to up your threat density, and this does so considerably. But since we’re going to be touching the opponents’ graveyards as a matter of course as if they were our own resources, that Relic of Progenitus was going to have too much splash damage on our cards like this or Sun Titan and needed to be more discreet.
Geth, Lord of the Vault: Or as I like to refer to him, "Army in a Can." If having Debtor’s Knell is the definition of what I want to be doing in a game of Commander, Geth is more-or-less the best way to do what I want to do (so long as you don’t mind paying retail). He starts by getting you any dead Sol Rings or other cheap mana rocks there may be lying around dead and then starts using that mana to get you better threats. And he doesn’t care if he dies; you get to keep them regardless. Accessing your opponent’s yard as your own resource is a great way to shut down their recursion—enabling your own—and can build outrageous board positions with just a turn or two’s worth of efforts if the midgame stalls.
Wrexial, the Risen Deep: Accessing the opponent’s graveyard for fun and profit yet again, and like the Planeswalker’s Mischief this lets you access other people’s bomby spells. And as with Thada Adel, you can grant the necessary land type for strategic landwalking purposes with good guy Zur because nobody ever sees the Spreading Seas coming. I’m a big fan of Wrexial and simply do not get to play him enough, as blue and black are not a color combination I tend to put together.
Nezumi Graverobber: Like Geth this can let you access your opponent’s resources, but this fills that potential power role while also living its mundane first life as a recursion-stopper, basically being a Withered Wretch before he flips into basically Geth, Lord of the Vaults. I have put this little Rat to very good work for years now and always been impressed, as this is waaaaay more value than you expect to get out of a two-drop. Sure, flipping can be expensive and thus a bit prohibitive if you want the flip side but have fat graveyards to eat first, but you also can get there with Bojuka Bog or Nihil Spellbomb as an enabler first if that’s what needs to be done. No one I’ve suggested him to has yet to be disappointed with this hard-working Rat.
Putting it all together, we get the following decklist:
- 1 Nezumi Graverobber
- 1 Shadowmage Infiltrator
- 1 Trinket Mage
- 1 Aura Thief
- 1 Draining Whelk
- 1 Venser, Shaper Savant
- 1 Mulldrifter
- 1 Shriekmaw
- 1 Stoneforge Mystic
- 1 Thada Adel, Acquisitor
- 1 Wrexial, the Risen Deep
- 1 Sun Titan
- 1 Wurmcoil Engine
- 1 Geth, Lord of the Vault
- 1 Spellskite
- 1 Sphinx of Uthuun
- 1 Geist of Saint Traft
- 1 Deadeye Navigator
- 1 Sepulchral Primordial
- 1 Strip Mine
- 2 Plains
- 1 Wasteland
- 1 Mishra's Factory
- 2 Swamp
- 3 Island
- 1 Underground Sea
- 1 Tundra
- 1 Scrubland
- 1 Hall of the Bandit Lord
- 1 Skycloud Expanse
- 1 Darkwater Catacombs
- 1 Polluted Delta
- 1 Flooded Strand
- 1 Maze of Ith
- 1 Dimir Aqueduct
- 1 Watery Grave
- 1 Godless Shrine
- 1 Orzhov Basilica
- 1 Azorius Chancery
- 1 Hallowed Fountain
- 1 Mystic Gate
- 1 Sunken Ruins
- 1 Fetid Heath
- 1 Arcane Sanctum
- 1 Reliquary Tower
- 1 Drowned Catacomb
- 1 Glacial Fortress
- 1 Marsh Flats
- 1 Bojuka Bog
- 1 Celestial Colonnade
- 1 Creeping Tar Pit
- 1 Command Tower
- 1 Isolated Chapel
- 1 Umezawa's Jitte
- 1 Mana Drain
- 1 Sacred Mesa
- 1 Swords to Plowshares
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Copy Artifact
- 1 Necromancy
- 1 Winds of Rath
- 1 Aura of Silence
- 1 Lightning Greaves
- 1 Story Circle
- 1 Phyrexian Arena
- 1 Arcane Denial
- 1 Dance of Many
- 1 Wayfarer's Bauble
- 1 Steal Enchantment
- 1 Legacy's Allure
- 1 Vanishing
- 1 Equipoise
- 1 Planar Collapse
- 1 Phyrexian Reclamation
- 1 Planeswalker's Mischief
- 1 Seal of Doom
- 1 Rhystic Study
- 1 Vindicate
- 1 Fact or Fiction
- 1 Karmic Justice
- 1 Dimir Signet
- 1 Remand
- 1 Debtors' Knell
- 1 Orzhov Signet
- 1 Azorius Signet
- 1 Austere Command
- 1 Cryptic Command
- 1 Steel of the Godhead
- 1 Path to Exile
- 1 Luminarch Ascension
- 1 Spreading Seas
- 1 Nihil Spellbomb
- 1 Batterskull
- 1 Detention Sphere
As always, for your participation in this week’s Dear Azami you’ll receive a $20 coupon to StarCityGames.com. While we are pretty cheap, I did suggest three hybrid lands and a Wurmcoil Engine, so I don’t get the low sticker Cassidy achieved last week with his twelve dollar plus change budget that I expect will stand as the all-time Dear Azami record, beating even our $20 budget restriction challenge by nearly half. I wouldn’t be surprised given your apparent level of card access if you might have those in other decks or a deckbuilding box somewhere, in which case you’ll merely need this coupon to find the likes of Equipoise, Planeswalker’s Mischief, and the other never-seen cards that are appearing together in this list.
Putting this together in chart form, your potential expenditures for your consideration look as follows:
|Dance of Many||$0.75|
|Thada Adel, Acquisitor||$0.75|
|Wrexial, the Risen Deep||$0.99|
|Geth, Lord of the Vault||$3.99|
Hopefully your efforts to be a good guy while playing Zur will be rewarded; you’re going to have to sell it hard and shy away from anything that could lead to twitch "kill it with fire!" responses from everyone else at your table. We threw in a few cards just for funsies, built a solid game plan, and aimed to work on the aggro-control style you said you favor. I can’t promise everyone will believe you, but assuming they take their chances to wait and see where it goes, you have the ability to craft a narrative and play an interesting game rather than "just" the usual Zur lines of play.
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 Michael’s Sen Triplets deck or Derek’s Maelstrom Wanderer 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! Feel free 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!