Well, first things first, Abe had drawn the line between Ice Age and Homelands, but given that Homelands was my first expansion and I started playing in November of 1995, I’m on your side in this particular argument since Homelands definitely came out in 1995. Alliances is right out, but I don’t see why Homelands can’t be included, so we’ll keep the mighty mana fixing of Castle Sengir on the team. Your mana would be better if we got to go as far as Mirage since you’d get to add Thawing Glaciers, Bad River, and Rocky Tar Pit to your mana base, but that’d be Commander ’96 when you asked me about Commander ’95.
Nostalgia will win the day, and a seemingly arbitrary line being drawn at Homelands will still be fine despite it being The Set That Time Forgot. But one of the predicaments we are going to face is price. Usually I try to keep to a reasonable budget, but in order to have a functional deck here, we’re going to need to include some old-school cards that carry a hefty price tag today. And that’s without going gonzo and including stuff like The Abyss, Juzam Djinn, or The Tabernacle At Pendrell Vale.
We are unfortunately somewhat limited in what we can do to fix your mana. The balance is about right, and we’re limited in how much we can smooth things over given the restrictions of “only cards from 1995 or before.” All I can really do is cut three basics—one Swamp and two Islands—for Ebon Stronghold, Dwarven Ruins, and Svyelunite Temple.
I’m adding one more red source at the expense of a blue source because you’re shying away from double blue, and in fact I’m going to cut the only double-blue card you’ve got (Mahamoti Djinn) in order to help enforce that condition further. (Of course, I’m also going to add one by the time we’re done here, but when you see which one,I expect to be fully forgiven.) There are some pretty weak creatures as the standard warm body in this more restricted card pool; a 5/6 flier used to be pretty dominant on the board back then, but we can still do better than that if we try.
I’m also going to switch all of your basic lands to Snow basics, as there’s a card I think you’d do well to include that relies upon Snow rather than regular basic lands. It’s a minor cosmetic shift but ultimately one I think is worthwhile. We’re trying to let you be the beatdown deck, but we also seem to be spending life to do stuff with some consistency more so than Sol’kanar gives back over the course of just a turn or two.
We don’t want to focus a lot on defending ourselves, but we do need to give defense some consideration in order to build a more durable deck. If the game goes long, you’re presently expecting things to peter out as your opponents stabilize and your cards get outclassed, so we need a bit more card advantage and want to focus our removal on getting things out of the way, which means we’ll want to rely on just a few powerful cards to protect ourselves from attacks.
Moving on next to the artifacts section, we’re going to make four cuts but add eight cards total—we’ll end up paying these slots back out of our creature section, where the weakest get cut and don’t really need replacing because we end up with roughly the same proportion after accounting for the cantrips we’ll be adding. The best way to smooth your mana will be to let you select more cards over the course of a game, as a little bit of deck manipulation goes a long way toward casting Sol’kanar on time with a weak 1995-era mana base. And it has the added benefit of letting us cut weak links without needing to replace it with something potentially just as inflexible because we need to have the requisite number of warm bodies on the team.
I wanted to cut Ashnod’s Battle Gear but ended up keeping it because pump effects that play on the table and can be reused are frankly better than Auras to do the same. I don’t think we need quite as many pump effects in order to make Sol’kanar kill faster with commander damage. After all, this is Commander ’95, so no one will be able to successfully make a consistent combo deck and there are a sorely limited number of mass removal effects, meaning we aren’t necessarily “racing” against something we can’t control.
The biggest problem will be racing opposing creatures, and we can address that by adding in a few defensive countermeasures instead of trying to pump Sol’kanar bigger and bigger. I settled for leaving it in once I realized I was debating cutting it but letting Feast of the Unicorn stay, which meant it was time to look at the actual problems of the deck instead of being a snob and saying, “No sir, I just don’t like it.”
Standing Stones is really weak fixing just like Pit Trap is really weak removal, while Joven’s Tools is “fixing” a problem I don’t really think you have. Crown of the Ages manipulates a card type you aren’t really using that much of yourself and which I’m about to mostly cut out of your deck, as I’m gutting your balance of enchant creature spells and thus there won’t really be much use for this to stick around. It would just be there to mess up opposing Control Magic effects or opposing creature buffs, neither of which really justifies the use of the card.
Barbed Sextant – We don’t know how good we have it these days. This card became Chromatic Sphere in Invasion and then Chromatic Star in Mirrodin, letting us get the card up front instead of waiting til the next upkeep and then letting us get the card no matter how it died if sacrificing an artifact for fun or profit was better than getting the mana. Back in 1995, however, the mana stinks, and we need the help, so we’ll wait the little bit if we have to.
Jeweled Amulet – This card is on my “curiosities” list—things I’m thinking about playing but haven’t gotten around to yet—and can both serve as acceleration and help get the double-colored mana you’re so clearly seeking. I won’t go as far as to add a Mana Crypt—it does have 1995 written in the corner after al— but adding the “Ice Age Mox” should help with some of your double-colored problems and help get Sol’kanar on the table and attacking a turn earlier. It’s not great, but I do think it’s good enough. You’re playing depletion lands, and a depletion Mox will work just as effectively as they do: “fine with a little advanced planning.”
Conch Horn – This one’s a weird addition. I was looking for draw smoothers, and this one can do a bit of preferential deck manipulation without requiring any specific color to use in the first few turns. It’s a bit of empty space, yes, but that empty space will help you find your colors and hit your land drops. I just wish there was more shuffle effects in the deck to go with this and the other things that look like it, but we’ve got just the first two years of Magic to work with. If that means playing a Fallen Empires card that has never been used as anything but a bookmark, we’ll do it.
Jayemdae Tome – Sometimes you just have to play The Book. It’s mana hungry, and drawing cards doesn’t really help you beat down. But being able to put a couple of extra cards in your hand will help grind through longer games where the resistance is stiff. Wheel of Fortune isn’t right because your opponents get to draw seven cards each and there are more of them than there are of you, and Braingeyser is double blue, which we’re trying to avoid. We don’t want too many effects like this one, but we do want effects like this one.
Knowledge Vault – You can spend half as much mana on the activation cost and only get the cards on layaway instead of right now. I’ve goofed around with this card in a few decks and been happy with it; our choices are it and Elkin Bottle for a second artifact-based draw effect, and there are some problems with the Bottle that make it less than optimal. You probably have to give up playing your cards in order to activate Jayemdae Tome during a turn, but Knowledge Vault is pretty easy to sneak in alongside everything else. Two is much less than four. I’ve never had the patience to wait this out and get more than four cards in the deal, but there’s nothing stopping you from getting more than that if you’re not in a rush.
Icy Manipulator – This is technically the first of the defensive cards, but in actuality it’s more of an active card than a passive one. You’ll be using it to clear blockers and tap mazes, and when the beatdown slows to a crawl, you’ll use it to keep attackers from heading your way instead. It does both jobs admirably, though it’s worth noting that if you’re going for the old-school nostalgia feel, you’ll want a sweet Unlimited copy instead of the Ice Age “Bone Crank.” Bonus points for Beta instead of Unlimited, but it works just as well without showing off.
(It does not however work just as well as it used to. This thing was a creature-combat nightmare back in its heyday, as tapped blockers dealt no damage in combat for some arbitrary and entirely capricious reason and thus an Icy Manipulator could let your Juzam Djinn kill theirs and live to tell the tale. This isn’t even the weirdest rule from back then either. I think that still goes to the “spells that deal damage resolve last” rule that was a weird bylaw of how things used to work when spells fired off in batches. You couldn’t Lightning Bolt a creature in response to a Giant Growth, or more accurately you could but it didn’t work the way literally everyone would assume it should. Oh, those were the days.)
Sunstone – The reason we’ve gone for Snow basics instead of regular basic lands besides the fact that the pictures are pretty. You want to defend yourself at least well enough to discourage big attacks, but you don’t want to commit a lot to do so. Sunstone gives you an on-board Fog machine that lets you trade lands for Fogs at an attractive rate of just two mana turn after turn. Having the ability will tend to point people elsewhere, while actually having to use the ability should not be too onerous in the later stages of the game. Aggressive decks don’t really want to play mass removal, and you’re Swampwalking so you don’t really have to worry about opposing creatures being able to defend effectively. You just need something that keeps the hordes from gnawing you to death, and Sunstone does exactly that.
Al-abara’s Carpet – If you thought Sunstone was going deep into the tank, you haven’t seen some of the bizarre and obscure Legends cards you can play in Commander ’95 yet. Al-abara’s Carpet is seared into my memory because as a n00b I traded the fresh pack-mint Abyss I’d picked up by mail ordering Legends packs at $12 each to the local tournament shark for his Al-abara’s Carpet and Alchor’s Tomb, the better to beat my brother at the kitchen table with.
To actually put it to work in a positive capacity instead of note that the rich kid from our local playgroup ripped me the hell off when I didn’t know any better is cheering, and in this deck it lets you defend from a horde of attackers without having to specifically answer multiple threats. It’s not exactly like a Moat, but it’s surprisingly Moat like if you have the mana to power it.
We have a lot of retooling to do here, getting better removal and streamlining the deck so it’s not as singularly focused on getting Sol’kanar to seven or more power. You do want to be able to do that, but you don’t want to do it nearly as much as some of the cards you’re playing suggests. We want to do it, but we don’t want to Feast of the Unicorn do it, if you get what I mean.
I like all of the ways that put a permanent on the table much more than I do the ways that put an enchantment on your commander, and I don’t even like all of those. I initially cut Ashnod’s Battle Gear before deciding to stop turning my nose up at cardboard that does a reasonable approximation of the job you want it to do just because we don’t have the really good cards to do it with, like Sword of X and Y. (Once I held my nose and added Conch Horn, making the right call with Ashnod’s Battle Gear got easier.)
We’re going to cut ten cards and put nine back in, paying back one of the extra slots added to the artifact section, so we’re left looking for just three cuts when we get to your creatures. Six of those cards are going to be enchant creature cards, and all but one of them is going to be a creature buff or weak Aura-based removal of some sort. And while we’re still going to end up having removal, we’re going to get better removal for a similar price—I mostly just don’t trust those specific cards rather than “not want that effect.” There are just as obscure cards from the same era we can play to achieve similar effects a bit more consistently.
Brainstorm, Portent – How spoiled we’ve gotten, with Ponder “drawing a card immediately.” Back in my day you had to walk two miles in the snow to Ponder uphill both ways and wait half a turn to draw the card as well. You’re using blue as a minor color, but there’s no reason it can’t still play early game cards to help fix your draw and hit your land drops on time. I’m a big advocate of small draw manipulation effects in Commander.
I play both of these in regular Commander, though I don’t cast Portent nearly as many times as I want to cast Portent since I’ve ended up cutting it for space or upgrading it to a two-drop some three-quarters of the time after adding it to my deck. But “adding it to my deck” is something I always do if I have blue mana, so that’s probably the appropriate response and still probably way more than other people cast Portent. I think you’ll find both of these improve your draws, are good in both the early game and the late game, and will help you hit your threats on time and in the right proportions.
Dark Banishing, Oubliette, Fissure – While we don’t have access to the top-shelf removal we’re used to, these all do good work. Oubliette is “just” Journey to Nowhere, which is pretty high quality given how few expansions we have to work with and how very used to power creep we have become. While Dark Banishing is miles away from what you can get for the same mana now, it’ll still kill good creatures against anyone who’s not strictly a mono-black deck, and Fissure can kill a creature or a troublesome land, giving you a bit of extra flexibility that will let Sol’kanar attack past more Maze of Ith.
Hellfire – You have a bit of a theme for paying life to kill creatures, so adding Hellfire just makes it a little bit more explicitly awesome. Hellfire will wipe your average board almost entirely clean while leaving a good chunk of your army intact, making it the best sort of sweeper effect: the kind that’s used to clear blockers and attack for lethal. The life loss can be intense against, say, Hazezon Tamar, but against creatures made of actual cardboard that are put into play, it’s a low price to pay for a preferential board wipe. This is another one that should be seeing play more broadly in Commander and largely isn’t because it’s just another obscure Legends card nobody knows about because it’s from 1994.
Elemental Augury – This looks like a Sensei’s Divining Top, but that’s not exactly why we’re playing it. Yes, it can certainly be used in a Top-like manner, but it can also be used against your opponents to gunk up their draws, meaning it’s a tool for jamming an opponent during a longer game that can let you press the advantage by manipulating pure crud to the top of their deck. Just don’t get caught laughing too much when they draw their fifth or sixth land in a row because that’s just mean.
Soul Burn – I wanted some more life gain and an X spell, but the color restrictions on Drain Life seemed rough for a three-color deck. Then I thought of Soul Burn– you can deal damage with either black or red mana but only gain life for the black you spend. You don’t really have a way to make this deal a ton of damage, as Lake of the Dead wasn’t printed till Alliances so we’re one set away, but this should do exactly what we want: pick off a medium-size creature or beleaguered opponent and gain a bit of life in the process.
Detonate – You mentioned a problem with artifacts coming up consistently, and there aren’t a lot of cards we have access to that can solve that problem. Gate to Phyrexia lets you trade in a creature a turn for a Shatter effect, and for that matter you can just play Shatter too. Shatterstorm kills everything, but a subsection of everything is “your stuff too,” so we’re skipping that even though it could be good. Hurkyl’s Recall is only a temporary fix.
So of all the options before us, I settled for the somewhat expensive Detonate because it translates into damage as well for your beatdown deck. Sometimes it’ll be dead because it asks a high price as an answer card to huge problems, but you’ll appreciate it when the Fireball side of the card suddenly tips the game in your favor once in a while. At worst, it kills a Sol Ring on time or answers a reasonable problem at a reasonable cost.
Team Swamp King
We have some cuts to make, and that means being a little harsh to well-loved cards. You don’t really have a lot of options when you only have the original Magic set plus Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, The Dark, Fallen Empires, Ice Age and Homelands to work with. When you’ve got only so many sets, there is a really limited card pool of creatures to choose from, and we’re going to upgrade knowing full well that this is a limited resources format. We have three fewer slots than the number of creatures we cut, as we added extra artifacts earlier and only cut one spell in order to pay back those slots, and I saw about ten creatures I wanted to add to the deck that you weren’t already playing. That means we leave the following bodies on the cutting-room floor:
Nicol Bolas – Let’s get the single double-blue addition out of the way early. If you’re going to pay double-colored mana in your lightest support color, it had better be for a darn good reason, and your Elder Dragon is a heck of a reason indeed. Nicol Bolas leaves opponents shattered and out of options, and that is an excellent place to be when you get to your deck’s late game. This is one of the most punishing cards available in the entire format, so you would do well to put him to work.
Gwendlyn di Corci – Adding another Legends, well, legend to your team gives us another card that can put pressure on the opponents’ hands, building up that one Hypnotic Specter you were playing into something of a more cohesive theme. Gwendlyn is an incredible deal for her cost since comparable cards from the same era ask for mana to force a discard without attacking, not just “tap.” I’ve been intrigued by her enough to want to put her at the helm of a Commander deck of my own, which I suppose means that I know who I’ll be playing with if I build a Commander ’95 deck myself.
Abyssal Specter – I didn’t like Roc of Kher Ridges because a 3/3 flier for four is just not interesting to me. I’m happy to deal one less damage but add “knock a card out of your hand” in its place; since you’re inevitably going to end up light in card advantage of your own, you’ve got a minor subtheme of depriving your opponents of resources to make up the difference. Whether it’s the occasional forced discard or turning their good lands into useless Swamps, the theme is there, and as underpowered as Abyssal Specter is by today’s standards, it did good work in ’95.
Tetsuo Umezawa – I didn’t like the number of walls and miscellaneous defensive cards I saw, and I dug up the progenitor of Umezawa’s Jitte to see what exactly he does. I remembered he is Grixis colors and thus would fit your deck, but when I looked to see what he does, I was kind of surprised because what he does is pretty awesome. Almost every creature taps to attack—I’m looking at you, Serra!—and he can even kill an untapped blocker too, a feat Royal Assassin has never managed.
He asks for more mana to do his job than Royal Assassin does, but that he’s even being discussed similarly speaks well for him, unlike Sorceress Queen. And on top of that he’s actually a credible early game beatdown creature, being the game’s first no-negotiation 3/3 for three. Various Djinni and Efreets beat him out (or vaulted ahead to 6/3 and 3/6), but as far as creatures with no drawbacks and all upside go, Tetsuo Umezawa was the first beneficial 3/3 for three.
Orcish Cannoneers – You’ve got a fair number of board control creatures, and we’re switching away from walls more toward cards like this and Tetsuo that can remove things from play or have both offensive and defensive uses. You don’t mind the life loss (though you can’t use too much of it), and trading tap effects for real cardboard is a good way to get ahead on the card count, key for life back in 1995 when card advantage was considerably scarcer than we see it today. You’ve already got the original version in your deck, and for some reason when it was “reprinted” in Ice Age, they gave it a new name, so you get to play two copies.
Cuombajj Witches – Sure, we could just play “Tim” instead, but the so-called downside is actually a potential upside in a multiplayer format. Cuombajj Witches doesn’t say which opponent, after all, so you can potentially use this to get two pings at once instead of one and get a more considerable body for a lower cost while we’re at it. This is potentially an Orcish Artillery / Orcish Cannoneers without any life loss at all and can even split the damage up preferentially across two bodies if you’re colluding just right with your opponent of choice.
Orcish Librarian – This is a hard card to understand, and most of us hated to even consider it at the time because Feldon’s Cane was “soooo good” it “needed” to be restricted in Type II back in the day. Not Necropotence, no, you can play four of those, but Feldon’s Cane, the second is too many. (True facts from the dark days of Magic lore.) “Damaging” your own library just feels wrong somehow, but with Orcish Librarian what feels wrong can be very right.
This is what you had to do to get a Sensei’s Divining Top effect back in the day, and the way you basically use this card is to trash four at random (don’t flinch, though you may want to when you see some of your precious pieces of cardboard exiled for a comparative eternity), put the good cards on top, and then use the Librarian again when the ones left on top are no longer good enough to draw/are only lands anyway. It can’t find “the right card” as it were, but it can help you draw all action all the time, which is perfect for this deck’s goals.
The last three slots are going to be devoted to beatdown creatures, as my complaints about most of the cards we cut were that they just aren’t efficient enough. Sure, Moor Fiend uses the same vector as Sol’kanar so it’ll be an unblockable 3/3 the same amount of the time, but even then we’re just getting a 3/3 for four. We can do better.
Ashen Ghoul – The combination of haste and resurrection is a strong one, strong enough that back in the day this was what we cast Buried Alive for, not monsters to reanimate. (We did that too, sure, but we did this first.) Getting to attack immediately makes it better than most of the cards at the same cost we cut, and the potential to reuse it is vital for a beatdown deck—you lose by running out of resources, so getting cards that give you more resources later is key.
Su-Chi – Just a 4/4 for four. I’d rather have a 4/4 with no downsides (what’s mana burn?) than a 3/3 with some evasion ability, and this will just beat down and provide consistent pressure at an excellent rate. It’s not worth the extra $190 to get +1/+1 by turning this into Juzam Djinn, and this is still very strongly iconic from the same era so it hits the nostalgia buttons too.
Soldevi Simulacrum – No, no, not Solemn Simulacrum. Soldevi Simulacrum is more of a Juggernaut type of card, as his colorless Firebreathing turns random extra mana into tons of extra damage. This is one of the underused cards of the time since it didn’t exactly shake up the first Pro Tour or anything but did do a lot of attacking for lethal on kitchen tables everywhere. You want an efficient creature at an affordable rate, and while it looks like a mana-hungry beastie, it’s actually a mana t -damage conversion machine.
Don’t worry about the high price of cumulative upkeeps; it may look like compound interest, but the card causes compound fractures. It’ll trade with a sizable creature or eat a creature removal spell long before it loses effectiveness because you can no longer pay. I’ve put many a fine mana into this card and killed more players than I care to remember with it (mostly because of an embarrassing story about skipping my senior prom to go play Magic instead). This creature packs a mean punch and will do good work for you.
Putting it all together, we get the following decklist:
- 1 Hypnotic Specter
- 1 Nicol Bolas
- 1 Shivan Dragon
- 1 Sengir Vampire
- 1 Royal Assassin
- 1 Demonic Hordes
- 1 Clone
- 1 Fire Elemental
- 1 Orcish Artillery
- 1 Tetsuo Umezawa
- 1 Gwendlyn Di Corci
- 1 Fallen Angel
- 1 Abyssal Specter
- 1 Cuombajj Witches
- 1 Juggernaut
- 1 Sedge Troll
- 1 Rukh Egg
- 1 Krovikan Vampire
- 1 Baron Sengir
- 1 Su-Chi
- 1 Orcish Squatters
- 1 Soldevi Simulacrum
- 1 Soldevi Golem
- 1 Orcish Librarian
- 1 Orcish Cannoneers
- 1 Ashen Ghoul
- 1 Strip Mine
- 1 Underground River
- 1 Sulfurous Springs
- 1 City of Brass
- 1 Mishra's Factory
- 1 Volcanic Island
- 1 Underground Sea
- 1 Urborg
- 1 Hammerheim
- 1 Svyelunite Temple
- 1 Ebon Stronghold
- 1 Dwarven Ruins
- 1 Badlands
- 1 Maze of Ith
- 1 Castle Sengir
- 8 Snow-Covered Mountain
- 5 Snow-Covered Island
- 1 River Delta
- 1 Lava Tubes
- 8 Snow-Covered Swamp
- 1 Brainstorm
- 1 Necropotence
- 1 Icy Manipulator
- 1 Mana Vault
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Earthquake
- 1 Cyclopean Tomb
- 1 Disintegrate
- 1 Jayemdae Tome
- 1 Fellwar Stone
- 1 Evil Presence
- 1 Detonate
- 1 Ashes to Ashes
- 1 Pestilence
- 1 Fissure
- 1 Knowledge Vault
- 1 Hellfire
- 1 Anti-Magic Aura
- 1 Al-abara's Carpet
- 1 Soul Burn
- 1 Dark Banishing
- 1 Raging River
- 1 Oubliette
- 1 Broken Visage
- 1 Zelyon Sword
- 1 Conch Horn
- 1 Portent
- 1 Barbed Sextant
- 1 Sunstone
- 1 Mystic Remora
- 1 Fire Covenant
- 1 Elemental Augury
- 1 Dwarven Armory
- 1 Jeweled Amulet
As always, for your participation in this week’s edition of Dear Azami, you will receive $20 store credit to StarCityGames.com. Commander ’95 has some price tags to go with it—you already know that from your expensive but absolutely vital dual lands, but random Legends cards are sometimes worth twenty or thirty bucks just to own, never mind the fact that no one ever plays them anywhere. We’ve only spent just over a hundred dollars, which I could have doubled by loosening my restraints and suggesting Mana Crypt for your deck in order to increase the speed at which you play beefy attackers.
The only way to play not terrible creatures is to pay handsomely for obscure Legends cardboard, so this is not a format for the faint of heart. I’ve never quite brought myself to shell out the $40 it takes for a copy of Old Man of the Sea, but Commander ’95 would necessitate that sort of decision just because of how flimsy the creatures are.
Pricing the cards out individually, they cost the following:
|Gwendlyn di Corci||29.99|
Add another $15 if you want to upgrade your Icy Manipulator from Ice Age to Unlimited to enjoy the sweet M.C. Escher-ish art of the original instead of the Ice Age “Bone Crank.” This foray was interesting—anything that gets me to dig through Legends on Gatherer is bound to pique my curiosity—but I don’t know how much I want to live here.
How interesting was this traipse through the bygone years of Magic for you as a reader? Are you interested in more Commander ’95 decks, or should we keep on with the modern point of view and jam all of the most powerful cards without any self-imposed restrictions or handicaps? Sound off in the comments below or better yet vote by submitting decks. If you want to hear more about Commander ’95 from me or Cassidy, the best way to make sure you do is submit Commander ’95 decks via the submissions link at the bottom of every article.
Who knows, if there’s enough support for it, maybe I’ll need to reconsider and build myself a Gwendlyn di Corci deck.
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 Allan’s Oloro, Ageless Ascetic deck or Jonathan’s God-based Progenitus 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!
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