Dear Azami – Ith Never Ceases To A-Maze Me…

This week Cassidy proves that you don’t need to jam a deck with counters or prison effects to be successful with a control archetype in Commander with Adib’s Ith, High Arcanist Commander deck.

Dear Azami,

I was introduced to Commander back when it was called EDH, and as a matter of fact I’m pretty sure I was introduced to it by a chance reading of this very column back when it was called “99 Problems” (though in fairness, it may have been one of Bennie Smith “You Lika The Juice”— either way, I was hooked). Though I toyed with a Jhoira of the Ghitu deck and a Numot, the Devasator deck as my first forays, the first deck I made that I felt really succeeded in the format was using Ith, High Arcanist as a commander. Originally it started out as my attempt to make a blue-white control deck that would work in Commander, but then it morphed into a deck with the philosophy of “Well, you can attack me, but that guy over there’s a much bigger threat.”

The deck really worked well in that spot and had a good track record. Over time, though, with so many new sets coming out since the deck was first constructed (right around when M11 came out), I feel the deck has lost its focus and tried to be too many things at once. The deck used to have an excessive amount of card draw, but that got pruned down as time went by; now there’s a little mini-theme of Deadeye Navigator and useful things to bounce with it, and Bruna, Light of Alabaster is in there with some enchantments to get some use out of.

However, I feel that the deck has rather lost its way and am hoping to put it back on the right track. I feel the deck is at its best when making use of Ith, his eponymous Maze (having both out is double fun), and creatures like Sworn Defender which say, “Well, it’s just not worth the bother to attack me right now,” all while waiting for the opportune moment to strike. The deck thrives on being able to do something each turn without being overly antagonistic. (It took a series of crushing defeats at the hand of a Riku of Two Reflections deck to finally convince me to put in Linvala, Keeper of Silence—I felt she was too certain to draw fire.)

On a side note, my playgroup (myself included) never read the rules of suspend closely enough to realize that it only worked while in hand; I myself just recently noticed the “in hand” requirement. I am hopeful my friends will allow me to continue suspending him, but if not, I still feel he will work as a commander, even if it takes me longer to get him out.

Commander: Ith, High Arcanist

20 Creatures

1 Snapcaster Mage
1 Geist of Saint Traft
1 Mirran Crusader
1 Rayne, Academy Chancellor
1 Cryptic Annelid
1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
1 Phyrexian Metamorph
1 Sworn Defender
1 Baneslayer Angel
1 Karmic Guide
1 Bruna, Light of Alabaster
1 Consecrated Sphinx
1 Deadeye Navigator
1 Frost Titan
1 Sun Titan
1 Drogskol Reaver
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
1 Great Whale
1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
1 Avacyn, Angel of Hope

14 Artifacts

1 Mox Opal
1 Expedition Map
1 Sensei’s Divining Top
1 Sol Ring
1 Grim Monolith
1 Swiftfoot Boots
1 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Darksteel Ingot
1 Sword of Feast and Famine
1 Sword of War and Peace
1 Deathrender
1 Witchbane Orb
1 Gilded Lotus
1 Dreamstone Hedron

6 Enchantments

1 Land Tax
1 Flickerform
1 Freed from the Real
1 Oblivion Ring
1 Angelic Destiny
1 Eldrazi Conscription

11 Instants

1 Path to Exile
1 Swords to Plowshares
1 Redirect
1 Cryptic Command
1 Faith’s Reward
1 Mindbreak Trap
1 Reins of Power
1 Spin Into Myth
1 Swift Silence
1 Counterlash
1 Time Stop

8 Sorceries

1 Dust to Dust
1 Rite of Replication
1 Wrath of God
1 Hallowed Burial
1 Rout
1 Austere Command
1 Sudden Disappearance
1 Archangel’s Light

2 Planeswalkers

1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
1 Venser, the Sojourner

 38 Lands

1 Arid Mesa
1 Azorius Chancery
1 Command Tower
1 Glacial Fortress
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Homeward Path
1 Inkmoth Nexus
9 Island
1 Kor Haven
1 Marsh Flats
1 Maze of Ith
1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
1 Mystic Gate
9 Plains
1 Reflecting Pool
1 Scalding Tarn
1 Skycloud Expanse
1 Strip Mine
1 Thawing Glaciers
1 Tolaria West
1 Vesuva
1 Winding Canyons

Cards I love:

Venser, the Sojourner: Aside from the fact that he looks like David Tennant’s Doctor Who, I love both the flavor and abilities of the card. His second ability has led to some surprising victories, while the first has enabled me to bounce things to avoid board sweepers. And surprisingly, I’ve gotten the emblem in several games (one time I got two emblems in one game) simply because people never took him as a serious threat compared to things other people were doing.

Elspeth, Knight-Errant: The only other survivor of the great planeswalker purge (I used to have just about every blue and white planeswalker in the deck), the thing I like most about her is just the simple Soldier tokens. It’s nice to have them sitting around to sacrifice when opponents play silly things like Fleshbag Marauder. And again, if people let me get off the emblem, I’m not complaining, though that happens much more infrequently than Venser’s.

Time Stop: Given some of the shenanigans going on, I like having that card in hand. You never know when someone’s going to do something silly…like cast Obliterate.

Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite: If I could have a real-life version of her hat, I would wear it. All the time.

Drogskol Reaver: Because if not in this deck, where?

Reins of Power: Love stealing other people’s creatures to block incoming attacks. Or if someone sweeps the board but manages to save their army, it’s nice to steal their army and kill them with it.

Cards I’m not so sure of:

Geist of Saint Traft: Love the guy, but you have to be kind of aggressive with him to get the value out of him.

Rayne, Academy Chancellor: Love her, too; the card draw is nice, but I wonder if there aren’t better ways to be using that slot.

Great Whale: I’ve not yet actually cast this in a game, but part of me thinks this will make people flip out. I don’t really have anything to do with infinite mana, I just like being able to keep land untapped. The only purpose it really serves is a sort of pseudo-Seedborn Muse.

Cards I used to have in there that I miss:

Evacuation: Kind of the next best thing to a Fog when there are ten Elves coming at you and the opponent has used Ezuri’s overrun four times, at least in these colors.

Ghostway: I replaced it with Sudden Disappearance, which is useful since I can target opponents as well, but I miss the instant speed of Ghostway.

Gather Specimens: It sat in my deck more or less from the beginning, and yet out of countless games I never drew the card! But I still harbor dreams of casting that in response to someone casting a kicked Rite of Replication on, say, a Baneslayer Angel or Primeval Titan.

Budget: Almost any card under $20 is in the realm of feasibility for me, and more expensive ones are doable too if I can find a good trade for them. While I’d love to get my hands on some Revised dual lands (for this and other decks), they’re just not worth the money when I only play the game for fun.

Thanks for your consideration,


Dedicated control is always an interesting beast to try to tackle in Commander. The rules of the game just aren’t the same as they are in 60-card formats; in a multiplayer format, you can’t expect to stand up to the entire table running the usual one-to-one answers like Force of Will. No amount of card draw will give you parity against multiple opponents at once, so most dedicated control decks usually tend to lean more toward prison strategies. Prevent attacks via Propaganda, attack mana development with Crucible of Worlds and Strip Mine, and plan on playing some extremely long games with little action in the process until you can find a win condition that can grind out your enemies through attrition.

And that’s all well and good if that’s your thing. Personally, I fall into the “I’d rather watch paint dry” camp on that topic, so I like my Commander decks a little more on the aggressive side.

(And that’s probably for the best. In all fairness, the pinnacle of my career as a more traditional control player happened about a decade ago at a Legacy tournament in Syracuse, New York. In my second round, I found myself playing a W/U Control mirror. My opponent cycled Decree of Justice, I flashed a Stifle, and he replied by asking if I wanted to target the card draw or the token creation with it. I blanked and targeted the draw from the cycling and lost to a gang of Soldier tokens two turns later.

Better yet, I lost round 3 when my opponent ran out his Donate / Illusions of Grandeur combo while I had the Force of Will in hand…)

Adib, you’ve got some great stuff happening here. Ith is a fantastic and highly overlooked option for a control deck, and you’ve built your current list in a way that plays up the aggressive angle; not too many counters, no combos, no real prison options, and some solid win conditions. I like the ‘rattlesnake’ angle, but I do have to agree with you here—this current build is a bit unfocused. You’re running a Bruna/aura package, an equipment package, a Flicker theme, planeswalkers…all reasonable includes in a vacuum, but you’re kind of going a la carte and sampling lightly from each area. I’m personally all about the full-on fourth return trip to the all-you-can-eat buffet.

(Side note: if my doctor is reading this, the diet is working wonders, and I never ever cheat. Ever. I swear.)

You’ve made some good card choices, though, and I really like how much thought you’ve put into this deck. Your intro and closing paragraphs are incredibly in-depth; you know what works and what doesn’t for the most part. I’m not going to pull you too far off of that path, but rather do some light functional reworking. I want to refocus things a bit, get back to a decent amount of draw, and try to gain some extra value with some utility that fits in with your ‘Blink’ strategy. I’ll sprinkle in some of my favorite control options that play nice in 99-card decks, and you should be back in fighting shape in no time.     

(Now would be an ideal time to head on out to YouTube and queue up “You’re The Best” by Joe Esposito. You’re welcome.)

The Creatures

I like a good portion of what’s going on here, but I think you’re stretching functionality out in too many directions. I’m going to try to add utility that will re-center things a bit.

OUT – Geist of Saint Traft, Mirran Crusader

I might get down with Geist if the tokens stuck around past the end of your turn. As it is, this thing is great for an early one-time four damage in the air while running squarely into that Trinket Mage your opponent played last turn and dropping dead. The Crusader is a little better, but still underwhelming unless there’s a Sword of Something or Other involved. Even if your metagame involves a ton of Glissa, the Traitor decks, you’re not using going to use this guy for defense when you have better deterrents and better removal, and you have better offensive choices.

OUT – Rayne, Academy Chancellor, Cryptic Annelid

The big problem with Rayne is that she effectively challenges your opponents to target her with the first spot removal they have or else immediately sweep the board. You always want to live the dream by enchanting her and having your opponent mysteriously decide to spam her with Yavimaya Hollow triggers, but more likely she eats an immediate Swords to Plowshares or triggers a quick Damnation. You should just play better draw instead.

Annelid potentially digs deep into your deck and then teases you and doesn’t give you any cards in return. This is not the effect I want for a four-mana investment.

OUT – Sworn Defender, Great Whale

Defender is a classic ‘rattlesnake’. You know what’s better, though? Anything with native deathtouch. Or Fog Bank even.

You’re right on Great Whale. It’s really only fun when you have your Deadeye Navigator going, and at that point, everyone and their mothers will think you’re about to run out a game-ending combo and beat you to a pulp.

OUT – Akroma, Angel of Wrath, Bruna, Light of Alabaster

I’m not suggesting that either of these cards is a bad option for beat-stick-style win conditions, but I’m also not convinced this deck wants that option to begin with. I’m not sure why, but I’m always underwhelmed with Akroma. Despite all of the keywords, she still just feels like a big vanilla beater and usually ends up getting outclassed.  

Bruna also has convinced you to run a few (very few) auras without dedicated Tutors for them, and to me, that’s just combining to dilute your deck while adding a giant target to the battlefield.

IN – Restoration Angel, Sower of Temptation

I want to work on increasing the synergy of the creatures in your deck, and I’m looking to options like Restoration Angel, which plays the role of a solid combat trick and utility enabler with the various ‘enters the battlefield’ creatures you’re running.

‘Enters the battlefield’ creatures such as Sower, for example. In my mind, blue control in Commander is best accomplished through cards that allow you to take control of other permanents. White and blue don’t offer incredible control-oriented win conditions, so I find it’s usually better to just take whatever your opponents were planning to kill you with and turn it on them. Two birds, one stone.

IN – Trinket Mage, Mulldrifter

Neither of these two cards is particularly hard to come by in this format, but both give this deck a serious shot in the arm as far as card draw and utility goes when coupled with the bounce and Flicker effects that are in here (or are in the process of being added…)

IN – Archon of Justice, Twilight Shepherd

Did I mention ‘utility’ yet?

Archon is possibly the best ‘rattlesnake’ in the game and offers this deck a solid way to deal with any problem permanent it comes across. This is another addition to the “criminally underplayed’ file.

Shepherd is the other side of the same coin. Decks in this color combination often have a hard time setting up, and one sweeper can ruin your day if you’re relying on artifact mana to get to business mana levels. Shepherd is both a fantastic board sweeper deterrent and an answer to one at the same time. A 5/5 vigilant flyer doesn’t hurt, either.

IN – Stormtide Leviathan, Blazing Archon

These two are personal favorites of mine. Propaganda effects drive people nuts and have holes that creatures can still sneak through when it matters. Both of these two provide huge beaters stapled to effects that can just flat-out shut down opponents, and that’s what this deck needs—protection and win conditions wrapped into one giant package.

I’m pretty sure that if I had a pet card, it would be Archon. There’s no other card that I’ll break rules for more in my design. Angels deck? Sure…’Archon’ starts with ‘a,’ right? Mono-White Cats tribal? Sure looks like a lion on there to me. U/B Turbo-Mill? Heh…how’d this get in here? Weird!

The Artifacts

This is an area that will see some subtle tweaks. W/U decks aren’t great at mana fixing, and I fully understand the mana artifacts here are probably the best way to go about dealing with the situation. While I’m in here, there are a few other odds and ends that need to be switched up as well, but I’ll be pretty gentle.

OUT – Mox Opal, Grim Monolith

The Opal is a head-scratcher for me. This deck seems like it makes colored mana very well already, and it doesn’t run enough of an early control element that it looks to need quick mana acceleration.

In fact, that kind of explains the Monolith as well.

OUT – Umezawa’s Jitte, Deathrender

I get that Jitte is fantastic with Geist of Saint Traft and Mirran Crusader. Now, where did they run off to? (A dedicated aggro equipment deck, most likely…)

Deathrender…not excited. There are better ways to cheat creatures into play that don’t involve having to stick a creature and equip it to get the ability to trigger.

OUT – Witchbane Orb

I’m not sure why you wouldn’t just run Leyline of Sanctity instead. Is there a Curse deck in your metagame?

Actually, I’m not sure why you want this effect to begin with, to be honest. To me, the best reason to make yourself effectively hexproof is to dodge targeted graveyard hate like Bojuka Bog, and this deck doesn’t really play in the ‘yard enough to devote a slot to the cause.

Please feel free to correct me if I’m missing something.

IN – Thran Dynamo, Armillary Sphere

This deck wants relatively big mana, so I’m giving the early acceleration a slight backseat to some mid-game additions that will get you to the sweet spot in your mana curve sooner. You’re already running cards like this (hello, Dreamstone Hedron!), but it never hurts to go the extra mile for a deck that wants to hit six- and seven-mana casting costs as soon and as frequent as possible.

IN – Nim Deathmantle, Quicksilver Amulet

As I said, this deck is a bit soft in the recursion area, so the Deathmantle serves to fix that gap a bit. Try it…you’ll like it.

The Amulet is a new favorite of mine; I’ve made the suggestion once or twice in past weeks, and I stand by the utility. Besides, the only thing better than a Blazing Archon is a Blazing Archon on turn 4, right?

(I’m really pretty harmless…I promise. Just prop me up in a corner and give me something shiny to play with. I’ll be fine in an hour or so.) 

IN – Oblivion Stone

For the most part, this deck doesn’t want board sweepers that will knock the legs out from underneath it just as hard as the other decks in the game. Sometimes, though, it’s critical to have that all-encompassing answer, and it doesn’t hurt that Sun Titan can show up to the party with O-Stone in tow either.

The Spells

I’m lumping a bunch of stuff into this category, but the truth is that there aren’t a ton of necessary changes to the instants and sorceries and most of the enchantments were repurposed into these two categories anyway. It’s just good housekeeping, folks.

OUT – Flickerform, Freed from the Real, Angelic Destiny, Eldrazi Conscription

I’m tossing the aura package along with Bruna. I realize that there’s some measure of cross utility with the first two and the last two make any creature into a potential game winner, but let’s be honest here: these were added to the deck for Bruna.

There’s also the potential to get yourself two-for-oned that isn’t as present with equipment, so I just don’t like being in this territory. I want more interesting options instead.

OUT – Oblivion Ring

I know it’s great with Sun Titan, but I’m completely sick of board sweepers leaving my opponents with the only threat in play and a serious vendetta for O-Ringing said threat in the first place.

OUT – Path to Exile, Dust to Dust, Wrath of God

These are either cuts to remove an excess amount of effects in a specific category (Wrath, Path) or cards that have better functional upgrade potentials on the way (Dust, I’m looking at you!)

OUT – Swift Silence, Redirect

Let’s be real: Swift Silence in Commander is basically just a Dismiss that costs an extra white mana about 99% of the time. Besides, if you’re countering something, wouldn’t you rather just have it for yourself rather than take a random draw off the top?

Speaking of draw, I hate to see Redirect go, but this deck is still really hurting for extra dedicated card draw. Sometimes concessions need to be made.

IN – Momentary Blink, Crystal Shard

I’m really pushing the Blink/Flicker utility in this deck, but I think the payoff is there with the amount of decent ‘enters the battlefield’ effects you have in your list now.

IN – Evacuation, Return to Dust

You offer compelling reason to get back Evacuation, and I happen to be a big fan to begin with. One of the things that I think defines a Commander control deck is ‘ability to interact with the board at any given time.’ For that reason, I want to front-load instants that help your cause.

Return to Dust is that ‘better functional upgrade’ to Dust to Dust. ‘Nuff said.

IN – Gather Specimens, Spelljack

These are the control elements I was referring to earlier. There’s just nothing better than answering Ulamog or Avenger of Zendikar with this card, except for a kicked Rite of Replication (as you rightfully mentioned).

Better yet, live the Warp World dream. I swear someday I’ll pull this off. To all you red mages out there, run Warp World. There’s clearly no downside, and it slides into any deck with ease.

You know you want to.

IN – Relic of Progenitus

I’ll be honest—I’m not crazy about the lack of graveyard hate in this deck. With the addition of Trinket Mage, you at least have the ability to access Relic if you have the need, but I’d strongly suggest that you find some more room as you play with these changes for a bit more in the graveyard answers category.

IN – Blue Sun’s Zenith, Tidings, Fact or Fiction

Finally, I’m adding in some solid draw. Tidings is hard to pass up as far as bang for the buck, but I also want to pay heed to the control DNA and offer you instant-speed options to refill at the most opportune time. Fact is probably the all-time gold standard, and Zenith gives you draw again and again. I’m really growing to appreciate this card lately.

The Lands

There’s not a whole lot left to do here, and you’ve done a good job of taking care of your mana fixing with the choices you have already included. Obviously, it goes without saying that you should do your best to get your hands on a Revised Tundra somewhere along the line, but I can completely respect the desire to not waste money needlessly.

(Actually, that’s a lie. I’m all about wasting money needlessly. Variety is the spice of life, and so are Judge Foils. Proven fact!)

OUT – Arid Mesa, Marsh Flats, Scalding Tarn

I get that these are great with Sun Titan, but I’m just not a big fan of running off-color fetchlands. This goes doubly in a two-color deck and exponentially in this list, since the mana base seems solid to begin with.

OUT – Inkmoth Nexus

What’s the purpose of a singleton manland here? Especially one that immediately causes other players to expect a big pump spell to be right behind it?

IN – High Market, Miren, the Moaning Well

This deck needs ways to sacrifice creatures. There are synergies to be had by using Sower of Temptation and Flicker effects to remove creatures permanently, and with Sun Titan (is there an echo in here?), you have draw and Tutor engines with Mulldrifter and Trinket Mage. I know these two are getting to be overdone in Commander, but remember my golden rule: if it fits the deck functionally, it’s worth the slot no matter what.

IN – Terramorphic Expanse, Evolving Wilds

Rounding out the lands are two solid basic land finders. No pain, no real cost, no losing to Price of Progress.

The Decklist

Here’s where we end up:

Ith, High Arcanist
Cassidy McAuliffe
Test deck on 08-19-2012

I have to hand it to you, Adib; your beginning list was really solid to begin with. Relatively speaking, this allowed me to be a little more “hands-off” than usual because you’ve already had success in the past and I didn’t want to try to reinvent that wheel completely to begin with. Instead, I was able to simply work on focusing the deck a bit, which is what you asked for. Some of the high-end power was skimmed off in order to make way for some additional synergy and solid role-players, and I think the flow of the deck will stand up well. You won’t be in the line of sight for the most part, and you have the tools to control the board and protect your position at the same time.

This certainly isn’t the only way to build control for Commander, but I think it serves as a good lesson in concept; you don’t need to jam a deck with counters or prison effects to be successful with a control archetype. You can still be aggressive, and who doesn’t love being aggressive in Commander?

Here is the breakdown of the additions:

That leaves you with a grand total of $66.79. I have a feeling that you already have some of these cards, and you’ll receive a $20 coupon to StarCityGames.com for your participation in this week’s “Dear Azami” to help with the rest. You’ll be up and running in no time. (And in the meantime, scour those trade binders for a Tundra!)

Finally, a bit of housekeeping. In my last article, I told you about the plans for a live “Dear Azami”at Gen Con. Some of you have contacted me already on the topic, so I wanted to clarify how this is going to work out:

-All throughout Gen Con, I’ll be regularly updating my Twitter feed (#GDCCommander) as to what I’m doing and where I’m going. I’ll also be constantly updating my blog and Facebook page, so it will be pretty easy to find me.

-All you need to do is approach me and ask to be considered for a “Dear Azami” makeover. I’ll take your information, and before the end of the weekend, I’ll let you know if you’re the lucky deck and when/where we’re going to sit down to put in some work.

-We’ll meet up in the CCG hall at the designated time and do some work. We’ll take some pictures, ask some questions, and try not to completely destroy what you’ve created already. By the end, you’ll leave with an updated list that will be featured on my next “Dear Azami” article and $20 in StarCityGames.com store credit. Nothing to it!

-For those of you interested in watching the process, watch the Twitter feed for the time and place.

Thanks again!


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 Dan’s Glissa, the Traitor deck or Sean’s Chorus of the Conclave 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 the StarCityGames.com store!

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! 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!