Dear Azami: Speaker For The Deck

This week Sean answers his co-writer Cassidy’s cry for help with his combo-hate Prime Speaker Zegana Commander deck.

I started it, so I guess it’s time I finished it.

From: The Offices of Dear Azami, Ltd.
Re: My Deckbuilding Conundrum

Good evening Sean,

Okay . . . I really need your help here. I’ve been banging my head against the wall with a few issues that I can’t seem to get over, and I really hope your perspective can point me in the right direction.

(Speaking of the walls, I’m sorry about the holes in the living room. I had the Dear Azami interns battle it out Thunderdome style to determine who was going to go on a coffee run for me, and it got a little heated.

Also, we need to contact the temp agency regarding hiring on a few new temps.)

Anyway, here’s the thing:

I’m typically pushing for a happy medium in my metagame and my decks where solid competitive options show up and create memorable play states but it doesn’t go over the edge into combo-land. I shy away from staples because it’s usually way more fun to see what happens when you break out the strangest and most obscure cards to get the job done. The games stay fresh, and more importantly I don’t get bored. I’m a fan of not being bored.

(Speaking of which, I spent the DA budget on a gold-plated foosball table and a bouncy castle shaped like a giant replica of Urborg. I hope you don’t mind.)

Anyway, this is where you come in. You’re fantastic when it comes to seeing intricate angles and finding solid synergies with choices that I’d never think of, and you’ve got a way stronger competitive Magic mind than I do. As a result, I was hoping you could dig me out of rut with my competitive Prime Speaker Zegana list.

You see, I’ve spent the better part of a year developing this thing after getting spanked in the Commander events at Gen Con 2012. Originally, it was a Riku of Two Reflections list, and it was designed to punish combo decks at the expense of, well, pretty much everything else. I was fine with the idea of losing to a horde of Goblins as long as the Hermit Druid combo deck couldn’t overcome my control elements and the jerk at the end of the table with the infinite mana Stroke of Genius deck was eating my Storm Seekers.

Actually, I even took into account your Mono-Black Ad Nauseam list when building this thing. There’s a hook for you!

Anyway, things have changed up quite a bit in the past year. I cut red to go straight U/G, first with Momir Vig at the helm and then Prime Speaker once I learned that her draw was relevant even in a low-creature count deck like this is and also that Momir gets hated on just for being Momir. I’ve put a decent amount of work into the answer suite, with lots of free or cheap counterspells and other assorted answers. The mana curve has come down considerably since the decks this thing is designed to beat go off in the early turns. This is why, for example, Tormod’s Crypt is in instead of Relic of Progenitus and why Nature’s Lore is in instead of Skyshroud Claim.

Still, I can’t help but feel like this thing isn’t quite there yet. It handles aggro pretty well and does stop combo better than it used to, but there are holes. At Gen Con 2013, it stopped a Zur deck from combing off twice in a row but still lost anyway when the deck went for a third attempt. I’m wondering what I’m missing as a result. Not enough draw? Incorrect answers? Short on threats of its own? It hasn’t been updated since M14, so there may be some Theros goodies that belong too.

So I’m hoping your keen sensibilities can give me a hand here. Remember, this is all about shutting down combo, so it is a full-on no-holds-barred deck. Anything goes . . . except for combos of its own. It has to win with a clean conscience. Past that spare no expense. (Other than a few odd Ravnica full-art basic lands, a Misty Rainforest, and a Misdirection, it is completely foiled out.)

Can you help a co-writer out?

Thanks again. The list is below; I’ve got to run right now because they’re delivering the African leopard I ordered. (I have to put her somewhere for now, so I hope you don’t mind that I used your office. When you get in, make sure you haven’t been handling raw meat for any reason.)

Thanks again Sean,



Prime Speaker Zegana


8 Forest
8 Island
Simic Guildgate
Hinterland Harbor
Breeding Pool
Tropical Island
Command Tower
Misty Rainforest
Evolving Wilds
Terramorphic Expanse
Strip Mine
Tolaria West
High Market
Temple of the False God
Thespian’s Stage
Mystifying Maze
Alchemist’s Refuge
Miren, the Moaning Well
Academy Ruins
Reliquary Tower
Winding Canyons


Acidic Slime
Draining Whelk
Mystic Snake
Trinket Mage
Consecrated Sphinx
Phyrexian Metamorph
Sakashima’s Student
Snapcaster Mage
Eternal Witness
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Solemn Simulacrum
Yavimaya Elder
Coiling Oracle
Seedborn Muse
Tidespout Tyrant
Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre


Sol Ring
Darksteel Ingot
Kodama’s Reach
Nature’s Lore
Cyclonic Rift
Krosan Grip
Devastation Tide
Beast Within
Oblivion Stone
Sensei’s Divining Top
Blue Sun’s Zenith
Sylvan Library
Rhystic Study
Mystical Tutor
Scroll Rack
Fact or Fiction
Stroke of Genius
Mana Drain
Cryptic Command
Force of Will
Time Stop
Spell Crumple
Mindbreak Trap
Rite of Replication
Time Warp
Knowledge Exploitation
Mimic Vat
Reins of Power
Tooth and Nail
Tormod’s Crypt
Gather Specimens
Damping Matrix
Leyline of Anticipation

P.S. We’re out of toilet paper.

XKCD: A-Minus-Minus

I thought after your comment about the leopard that I’d borrow a page from Rizzo’s book, only this time, you know, with tact. Also, any excuse to bring more XKCD to our readers’ lives is a net positive to me. Speaking of positives, I’m positively sure you don’t want to know which couch cushion your leopard has decided is the litter box, and we’ve been put on warning from the staffing agency that there have been too many spontaneous and inexplicable intern disappearances from our office in the past month. They won’t be sending any more over until a full police investigation turns up what exactly happened to Bob from accounting. The rest of the staff has quit, and it’s your turn to feed the “cat.”

Oh, and your wife called. Something about an accounting discrepancy with the bank? I’m sure once you go through the bank records—you do keep the statements, right?—it’ll all work itself out. They used the word “fraud” in a sentence, but you’re a responsible guy, so that must just be hyperbole.

Starting with the deck, I can diagnose the basics of your problem pretty much up front—it’s a balance issue. Starting by the numbers, your focus on removing combo opponents from play focuses a little bit too much on the reactive and not quite enough on the proactive; you need a reasonable chunk of creatures at the beginning to have Prime Speaker Zegana rev up into high gear. And I know this is particularly going to kill you—you have too many good-stuff cards in the deck. Fortunately, we have a curious overlap in interests here. I also have a Prime Speaker Zegana deck, though I haven’t had to specifically build it to beat the worst of the worst like you’ve felt you needed to focus on here.

Taking on the Rogue’s Gallery is hard (but doable), but strangely enough you’ve allowed yourself to get chased down the rabbit hole of beating these combo decks so far that you can’t actually beat them. By which I mean you do not beat down when that is a critical part of the balance you must strike in taking them out of play. It’s great to remove their threats from the table and their spells from the stack, but their life total remaining above zero means they remain a threat in play. A little less answer and some more consistent beatdown will go a long way to solving your problems here, and we’re going to design accordingly.

And it’s a good thing you’ve said price is no option here because to beat the best you have to fight on their level sufficiently to keep up and that costs. But once we get past the most painful barriers, I think your enjoyment will bounce right back. If you really want to compete at that level, there is a certain class of cards you can’t shy away from playing, and your inclusion of Force of Will displays that clearly. Mana Drain is considerably more expensive but is easily included for the “this is awesome!” effect of the card, but you have to really want to stop what is going on if you’re going to pack pitch counters.

Also, it’s worth noting that I got to “cheat” and wait for the Commander 2013 spoilers. The set has since come out, and let me tell you, Opal Palace is some card with Prime Speaker Zegana, as those bonus +1/+1 counters are each worth a card right then and there. That land is pretty solid with your average Commander as a free bonus but has way more contextual meaning for Prime Speaker Zegana and at its absolute worst it’s still a Shimmering Grotto. So we’re going to start this one by looking at the mana, and then we’ll come pull out the cards I think need to go and add back in the missing pieces that I think should bring you considerably more success.

Mana Makes The World Go Round

Out: High Market, Academy Ruins, Vesuva, Reliquary Tower, 2x Island, 2x Forest

Your use of artifacts is quite minimal—just Mimic Vat and Oblivion Ring really among the cards you’d expect to want to buy back—and Vesuva is less relevant now that it is no longer able to act as a Wasteland for legendary lands. High Market seems like it is included solely as a good-stuff inclusion to sacrifice your stuff rather than let other people beat you up with your stuff, and it is the less worthwhile version of the two, as Miren gives you way more life for only a bit more mana invested.

Reliquary Tower is getting cut because I think you only really need it to compete with one card, Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur, and your commander will help keep your card flow high. You don’t actually need a sixteen-card grip to beat people; just drawing a bunch of cards and then playing them is good enough to kill people with if you play correctly. I see it as a crutch—and not an interesting one. The basics are getting cut because we have a card that interacts with your overall basic land count and I wanted to moderate that number just a little bit downward to increase its overall effectiveness.


Opal Palace – The value this card gives your commander specifically is quite high. I don’t see this as an automatic include in all Commander decks—it is only Shimmering Grotto as far as color fixing goes, which is not a very good land for fixing your mana—but where you expect to access your commander a lot and it has synergy beyond “provides huge size,” this will put in a lot of work.

For this deck, it increases the number of cards you draw with additional uses of Prime Speaker Zegana and thus will be even more critical when facing stiff resistance and opponents building their decks to manage creature battles. You know, fair decks. The dead bodies on the side of the road at this super-serious event you’re talking about, but also the people who tend to neutralize you after you neutralize the combo opponents.

Ghost Quarter – Why play the twenty-dollar solution when the fifty-cent one works? That is also why this is not Wasteland; that and the fact that giving your opponent a land back makes it easier to get away with saying “nothing personal” when you take out a problem land. It hurts, but it comes with a Band-Aid—it’s a well-designed political card for this format, and I think you want the additional land-destruction effect on hand.

Thawing Glaciers – If your plan involves durdling around with open mana and a control stance turn after turn, Thawing Glaciers helps pay you additional resources for your time. The longer you “do nothing,” the more powerful this becomes, and your deck as designed is intended to do nothing.

Yavimaya Hollow – Prime Speaker cares a lot about having at least one worthwhile creature in play at all times, and Yavimaya Hollow helps you manage your resources against removal effects as a free addition to your mana-base.

Mosswort Bridge – A free card is a free card, and the price to obtain it is pretty low—just a land that comes into play tapped. You’re very likely to meet the condition immediately after Prime Speaker comes into play, and it sometimes lets you pull off shenanigans at instant speed you wouldn’t be able to otherwise, so all in all it does most of my favorite things so I’m quite a devoted fan of the card.

Yavimaya Coast, Flooded Grove, Temple of Mystery – I know from last week’s article where you draw the line at reasonable dual lands. Temple of Mystery is clearly on the correct side of it—it’s a Simic Guildgate with upside, and you’re playing the Guildgate—while the other two are on the wrong side of it for you. But we really do want to micromanage the basic land count, and I wanted these before I felt it critical to add a Legends or Kamigawa legendary land, flirt with a Reflecting Pool, or tempt angst by trying to make you jam in off-color fetch lands to find your Tropical Island when that is not something you want to do. You have some intense mana costs, and the additional color fixing should help.

Time To Cut Some Cards

Nature’s Lore, Darksteel Ingot – As far as fixing your mana goes, you can do better than either one of these with only a little bit of trying. I’ll admit to liking Nature’s Lore and its P3K sibling Three Visits, but I do not think either are the version you want first at two mana.

Sylvan Library, Rhystic Study, Scroll Rack, Consecrated Sphinx – We have an overall budget of boring cards we can fit in time after time deck after deck, and none of these make my list of interesting things I want to see here. Your commander focuses quite well on card advantage without having to play one of these overplayed staples, and the deck gets better if you focus on making Prime Speaker Zegana work better within your overarching plan instead of play a couple cheap crutches just because they’re good.

Blue Sun’s Zenith, Stroke of Genius – Other than following up a Mana Drain, neither of these really interests me even though they get a good rate of exchange. We can do better.

Mystical Tutor – I don’t think this is that critical, as a good number of your instants are highly similar (countermagic) while your sorcery options are mana fixing or Regrowth. I’d rather put in another action card than search up the right target with this, and a few of the most obvious first targets for this will be coming out too . . .

Tooth and Nail, Bribery, Rite of Replication – Speaking of. We don’t need to cover all the staples in order to win, and in the case of Tooth and Nail you don’t even win when you cast it, so you’re grossly overexposed paying for a nine-mana sorcery and have to give up your control position in order to cast it in the first place. Bribery also has the problem of squaring off against people packing the most efficient removal—or worse yet people who are aware that Bribery is the best blue threat in the format and playing many ways to gain access to their Homeward Path to ruin your plan.

Spelljack, Voidslime, Spell Crumple – We’re rebalancing your countermagic quotient, and these three are the least important since they’re not pitch counters, Mana Drain, or otherwise the best they are at what they do. Spelljack is an excellent card, but it is a six-mana reactive card facing off against multiple opponents. For comparison, Desertion is only barely staying in, and five mana is still too much here.

Devastation Tide – If this were an instant, I’d be down because it can powerfully break up a board that is at risk of comboing out. As a sorcery (barring a miracle), this is too slow to catch my interest and attention.

Leyline of Anticipation – We want to be good at this effect through our lands for free or while providing additional value through the permanents we put into play. This has the special ability of “plays on table,” not tap for mana, beat down, or whatnot. Thus it is not the best version of this card we can play if we want to, though I agree that we want to focus in on being able to play our cards on other players’ turns—the easiest way to dodge removal is by waiting through the turn cycle before trying to attack.

Spelltwine, Knowledge Exploitation, Twincast, Reins of Power, Time Warp – None of these are the best they are at what they do, though I will confess to having a particular fondness for the goofiness that Reins of Power can allow and an appreciation for the fact that it can double up as a Fog effect.

Extract, Tormod’s Crypt – Yes, the deck theoretically exists that dies to a single Extract. (“The Worst Thing You Can Still Do To People” especially—without Ad Nauseam, I do not have a Commander deck anymore.) However, those same decks as a general rule have that exact same problem with beating one counterspell; you’ll note just what extremes my ANT build had to go to in order to face off against countermagic as a dedicated strategy, with stuff like Wintermoon Mesa (no really guys, go look it up and laugh) to try to outmaneuver a control deck and resolve Ad Nauseam.

Ditto for “graveyard removal is important,” as there are people who don’t want to face a Tormod’s Crypt. But the problem with a Tormod’s Crypt being effective is that everyone can see it coming, no one is surprised, and thus everyone plays against one correctly when they see it. We’re going to replace this functionality with access to more proactive graveyard removal and access to a surprise or two at instant speed if that is what it takes.

Acidic Slime, Mulldrifter – Sure, these are “good cards.” But they’re five-mana 2/2s when you’re worrying you’re going to get combo killed by unfair decks; you need to go less fair to beat them. You can get comparable effects with bigger bodies, or bigger effects for only a slightly larger investment, and we need to hit that higher power level to keep up.

Phyrexian Metamorph, Sakashima’s Student – I do not see a compelling case for Clone type cards when trying to beat combo decks. Those decks are notoriously absent in good things you can effectively Clone and get ahead on the table, and even if there were likely to be good targets, you’d want to consider Phantasmal Image before Sakashima’s Student.

Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre – A terrible thing to face down when you get Briberyed, and that said I do not even think this is the correct Eldrazi for your deck; indestructible is nice and all, but an eleven-mana Vindicate is not really efficient, while refilling your grip might be. It’s also worth noting that the key cards that would make an Eldrazi a benefit to your deck are absent, so we’re going to swap this sideways and give it more things to work with it that make it more important. This slot is in the right vein, just the wrong specific card.

Seedborn Muse – Boring and derivative, sure, but we need to be able to compete at the right level if we’re to square off with the strongest competitors. This is being cut to an upgrade, not merely cut (though I do loathe the card greatly and refuse to play it in my decks).

Tidespout Tyrant – I refuse to believe this is how you actually want to win the game. Sure, you can argue that there is no infinite combo in this deck and thus this is a “fair” addition, but there is literally no fair use of this card, so I don’t really see the point in saying that. I’d rather play something to kill people than play this because this notoriously prevents one or more players from being present in the game at all before you kill them. Don’t play with your food; just kill it and eat it.

The Road Not Traveled . . .

. . . but maybe you should. Here is where I am drawing the bleeding line for your deck—whether or not to include Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir even though I did just say shutting people out of playing Magic entirely is the essence of what is bad to do in Commander no matter the circumstances and power level of the setting you are playing in. This doesn’t actually stop people from playing Commander; it simply gives them a narrow window in which they are allowed to interact with anyone, with their field of vision winnowing down to just sorcery speed if they want to play their cards at all.

I’ve written an entire article about Teferi as the chokepoint of the Commander format, and despite all of the negatives I have said here—about how the unique effect on Teferi shuts down opposing interaction and gives you the true ability to maintain complete control with just a few counters—you are going to be building this deck to play “fair” in a playspace that is jam-packed with the epitome of unfair.

I would not conscience Teferi normally, and in fact as I say this I find myself tripping over my own conscience and saying “no.” But that point of degeneracy you had been allowing yourself by playing Tidespout Tyrant if given to Teferi instead will make damn sure that the combo decks you are trying to contain will stay contained once you’ve gotten a hold of them and that it will take truly exotic solutions to overcome your firm grip. Teferi also has the pleasant benefit of cutting off defensive measures from the fair decks that tend to beat you after you’ve stomped the combo player to the curb, forcing those fair decks to a more defensive posture lest you overpower them with your board given their slowed access to the timestream while yours is accelerated.

In my final decklist, I will not be including Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir; it doesn’t feel fun in Prime Speaker Zegana, and in fact it makes the deck feel a little too unfair. I exclude it in my own build for play at my local store, and it makes Prime Speaker just a little too easy to hit the stride you reach for when deploying your commander. It’s just a little bit too perfect for me, as there’s no back and forth and no beautiful struggle as I dance with my opponents to overcome them. But if what you need is a hammer, Teferi is the biggest one in the box, and if it’s Mjolnir you need, pick it up.

Additive Magic

It’s time to add things back into the deck, and as I said we’re going to drastically shift around the balance of your deck. An overarching problem you seem to have is that with only eighteen creatures (some of which are Sakura-Tribe Oracle and Coiling Oracle and thus hardly count) you have a hard time closing out a game after you’ve put in the work to try to seal it up and your combo opponents wind up getting enough time to wriggle out of your board control while you try to close it out.

We’re going to send eleven slots altogether over to the creature section, and one of the prime qualities we’re going to be looking for is flash—we want to play more of our turn on other people’s time so we can commit as late as possible and thus retain the option to stay in control. But we’re also going to pay attention to things like the mana curve too because if you’re able to deploy a key card before you start dedicating your turns to keeping countermagic open that card will be able to stay in play and do its work while you gum up your opponents’ progress with the counters, so a few key low-drops can go a long way in advancing the board as you go about your Plan A.

Mana Crypt – If you’re serious about packing the most powerful cards possible to take with you to Gen Con, you have to commit to getting one of these and playing them. Sol Ring is widely regarded as the number-one card we should not be able to play in Commander, and the only reason that analysis is incorrect is because Mana Crypt is even better at being Sol Ring than Sol Ring is.

Let’s accept as a given first that the life points don’t matter—you’re going to bleed a life and a half a turn with Mana Crypt, but you start with 40 life and you’re starting two mana ahead, you’re winning even if you lose three life every two turns. And Mana Crypt doesn’t even cost the one mana up front—it’s stone-cold zero—so your power draws may involve a Mana Crypt and first-turn Cultivate, setting you up amazingly for five mana on turn 2, three of it the colored mana of your choice. Nothing starts a powerful opening like this card does, and no one will be willfully forgoing it.

Sure, it’s expensive, but so is that Mana Drain and Tropical Island. I’ve had my copy for a few years now, and they’ll have to ban it to pry it away from me. Hell, if it comes to that, my copy is in the Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter deck in the top-left drawer of my desk under the leopard-claw furrows. (And talk about another creature that appreciates an Opal Palace—no kidding!)

Friends don’t let friends play Gen Con without Mana Crypts.

Expedition Map – This is a format with some high-quality lands. Expedition Map is cheap tutoring that can act as mana fixing, card advantage, or straight-up tutoring for high quality lands on either side of the table (thanks Thespian’s Stage!). Given how important the ability to play Magic on other people’s turns is, this gives you another shot at having a card like that on the table and converts your Trinket Mage into access to another such card as that. This can be drawn out even further if you only had something that tutored for creatures . . .

Survival of the Fittest – I would advocate this boring power two-mana green enchantment before the other one even as we both agree that multi-tutoring is a little bit obnoxious. You want access to the toolbox to remove key cards from play, and you want to streamline how you draw your countermagic since both of these are critical to achieving control over that wicked combo player.

Being able to turn a non-countermagic card into a counter at the right time is important, as is hunting up an answer card for the key problem on the board. And this comes with some built-in access to card advantage while you’re at it thanks to a few key bullet cards as well as the ability to recycle resources for just a few mana at instant thanks to any Eldrazi existing somewhere in your deck. It also happens to shut off opposing copies of Living Death, as you can set up a crazy graveyard out of nowhere with just a bit of mana.

Explore – This is the straight-up upgrade to Nature’s Lore; you’re playing the Lore because the land comes into play untapped and thus is as unobtrusive as possible, and Explore also lets that land come into play untapped . . . from your hand. You trade off the easy access to Tropical Island for the benefit of drawing a card when you play it. I am a huge fan of resource management with small early-game cards in Commander to the point where I love Brainstorm, Preordain, Ponder and even Portent in my Prime Speaker Zegana build, but with your refusal to play off-color fetch lands, these cards get significantly worse. But I’ve always been very happy indeed to draw an Explore in the early game and always been glad that accelerant was specifically Explore on turn 30.

Muddle the Mixture – I am a huge fan of cheap counters in Commander, and Muddle the Mixture is going to end up having quite a solid crop of cards you can Transmute for, giving you access to your pick of the graveyard (Regrowth) or your pick of creatures from your library (Survival) to Mana Drain, Cyclonic Rift, or a few key creatures we’ll add in later. It does all of this while retaining the ability to stop a combo deck from going off with big spells, though sadly it doesn’t hinder artifacts or enchantments. This is basically included as a way to add a counter that is solid against any opponent but can be turned into action against the fairer decks you need fewer counters against because not very many ways exist to turn your countermagic live again if “counterspell in hand” is not the thing you need.

Constant Mists – You noted losing control against random duders to be one of the key failure modes of your deck. My build of Prime Speaker hinges on this card being unfairly hard to stop when trying to overpower creature decks, as you can effectively shut off their ability to harm you at all and pay for it entirely out of resources given to you for free by your commander. At a certain point you’re happy to sacrifice a land every turn to stay alive and won’t notice, but your opponent most certainly will notice that there is no way to interact with this card short of discard or countermagic; it takes a very specific class of cards to wriggle out of this Fog lock.

This will save your butt against the fair people derping around after you handle the real problems and be the one card invalidates their entire deck if you play it right. A strategic trump this big can’t be neglected. Especially when that strategic trump tends to trump anything Zur can do to you and this is a favorite problem for your opponents to present.

Memory’s Journey – This is my suggested Tormod’s Crypt replacement for two compelling reasons. The first is that it is a tricksy instant rather than a clumsy sorcery-speed artifact, although you can get a Tormod’s Crypt off of Trinket Mage. (It’s okay; your Mage will get you Mana Crypt instead, and you’ll overpower people for the win, not try and micromanage their graveyards.)

The second is that it has a built-in reuse right there, letting you have access to it twice via flashback to handle two critical threats on two separate turns at instant speed as the moment requires. I’ve had solid success with it as a targeted hoser to date and think it would be a solid improvement to the Tormod’s Crypt you are currently playing. (And at the worst, if you don’t make that switch, you might want to consider Relic of Progenitus instead, the universal effect plus “draw a card” makes it a clear improvement in my eyes.)

Lurking Predators – Why work hard to get your wins? Lurking Predators lets you change your focus from having to balance the plays you make against the control position you take with your mana and resources to living turn after turn of freerolls. Playing just the one card will give you a boatload of free power, many of which come with a beneficial effect or even a counterspell attached to it, and that’s without a Sensei’s Divining Top to control what is up there.

Running out of cards is equivalent with dying in these games you’re going to play, and Lurking Predators potentially gives you a free card and the mana to play it each and every time your opponent plays a spell. There is no better way to get ahead from an even board than this, but it is still ultimately a fair card; your combo is your Lurking Predators + their time and struggling.

Time Stretch, Praetor’s Counsel – Let’s be honest; you’d rather take two turns than one. Time Stretch is not actually more obnoxious than Time Warp—it’s just two of them stapled together—but there is no more incredible thing to fling your Mana Drain mana into and no better way to close a game out than to cast this, spend the first extra turn setting up an army, and using the second extra turn to swing with it. It’s not a problem till you’re recurring it, and while yes you would potentially have the technical ability to cast it every turn using some of the cards we’re adding, you won’t ever have to. One Time Stretch is always enough, so don’t sweat the technical details as being unfun; no one will ever make you do it.

As for Praetor’s Counsel, sometimes you get into a long drawn-out grindy brawl with a bunch of fair decks and need something to really put a game away without being unfun and just randomly killing people with a combo. Praetor’s Counsel is the ideal thing, as it still requires you to play interactive Magic to close the game out from there; you just happen to have a huge stacked hand while you’re at it. And anyone properly managing their Bojuka Bogs or other graveyard maintenance cards will let this get too far out of hand, so it will never actually be as obnoxious as you fear it can be. It is far less broken in practice than it looks in theory.

These last two spell slots I am actually going to offer a “you choose” option (while retaining for the final deck the one I feel is more fun). The first option involves high-power cards that can technically be free, while the second option is way lower powered but will always work at exactly the right speed and always cost exactly one mana rather than the 5/0 technical options the first two might cost.

Option One: Treachery and SubmergeTreachery here is as a freeroll rather than part of a real strategic element; it just so happens that a free Control Magic is a pretty cool thing to get and “untap five lands” is a pretty ridiculous rider clause to add to any card. Submerge here would be relying on the high likelihood that someone will have green, letting your emergency creature removal spell be a pitch card just like your best countermagic is.

Option Two: Pongify and Rapid Hybridization – There is a clear upside however to knowing that your removal spell is going to cost one mana and only one. For example, Treachery is pretty poor against a High Market, and sometimes people just don’t have Forests and that discount on Submerge got real steep. Whatever creature needs to die will likely be considerably rougher on you than a mere 3/3 Beast would be, so these are reasonable trade-offs for the price asked. Tried-and-true though these are, they’re way less exciting than Option One.

Rounding Out The Team

Some of these are going to be technical necessities to fill out your Survival of the Fittest chains, but a good amount of this is going to focus on increasing the number of your threats that deploy at instant speed and enabling more of them to do so. We also want to focus on removing problem artifacts and enchantments from play and add some late-game power to your deck that is otherwise lacking—in the “stay-at-home funsies” version of the deck, that would mean Avenger of Zendikar and Craterhoof Behemoth, as both do a ton of heavy lifting in my version of the deck, but in yours that means:

Deadeye Navigator – Yes, it is possibly unfun to soulbond this with a counterspell creature, but anyone who knows how the stack actually works will know that this only means one spell wasted as you blow a removal on the Navigator with soulbond’s comes-into-play trigger on the stack, at which time Deadeye Navigator has no such ability to protect itself for two mana or any other price.

It does not really lock a game up tight unless you’re an unfun jerk that ignores the board and the opponent to put your combos together, so this end state is reasonable against the unreasonable people and weak to a Plow from the reasonable people. Against those reasonable people though this gives you potential access to repeating comes-into-play triggers, delicious as they are going to be in this deck. And so long as we’ve got our hand on the third rail, let’s go there . . . . 

Hermit Druid – We’re used to seeing this from decks that have no basic lands or maybe just a very few because they want to flip their deck into their graveyard and have some sort of combo occur because they did so. Those people are jerks, and we are not. We have twelve basics, so this should flip approximately eight cards on average give or take a bit depending on how many basics we’ve pulled out with land-search out of how much deck. We have some free resources we’ll access out of our graveyard that this will enable, like that Memory’s Journey or the Genesis that was logically implied when I added that Survival of the Fittest, and this may flip past them sooner rather than later.

But ultimately this is a free land every turn—a huge boon to any control deck; this is Thawing Glaciers on steroids for you—while also enabling your Eternal Witness and Regrowth as more flexible cards in the early game than they usually are, and before too long you’ll flip your Eldrazi and reshuffle it all back in, proving you are aiming to use this in ultimately fair fashion. (Of course, every great once in a while you will pop this for three or four lands and then oopsy daisy Praetor’s Counsel, but you still have to play Magic from that point even if you are on the face of things “winning.”)

Genesis – Recursion is good, and Genesis lets you grind out fair games on the reasonably cheap. If you have Survival, you add one green mana to your first tutor use and dump this in the graveyard, and it will provide you access if you need it to a creature from your graveyard a turn. Grinding games are common in Commander, and this will help keep a something in play because Prime Speaker Zegana needs somebody to love. Even the people who need to “handle” your Genesis to cut off your access to it will admit that it is ultimately fair and there are no hard feelings; it’s just too good to leave you with and thus too good to not play when it would benefit your deck to do so.

Venser, Shaper Savant and Vendilion Clique – More ways to interact with your opponent’s plans on the stack and mess things up for them. Vendilion Clique is especially pleasing because the information will let you sculpt a turn and the tuck effect can handle threats that are just too dangerous otherwise and happens to provide a decent evasive beater at the same time. Venser, like your Time Stop and Mindbreak Trap, can answer the impossible cards you can’t do anything about, and having a way to do that that can be found through Survival of the Fittest is key.

Scavenging Ooze, Willbender, Gilded Drake, Wickerbough Elder – Utility creatures added specifically for the role they fill to broaden your Survival of the Fittest chain of access. This adds graveyard control, creature control, spell control and Disenchant patrol to the team, and Wickerbough Elder gets the nod over Acidic Slime because you get twice the size of the body afterwards—important for Prime Speaker Zegana even if the Slime’s deathtouch lets it do well still in a fight—and because you can play it proactively ahead of needing it and keep that Disenchant effect in reserve rather than be stuck at sorcery speed mopping up with an Acidic Slime after the fact.

Bane of Progress – My only other Commander 2013 addition, Bane of Progress wipes the board of all artifacts and enchantments when it comes into play, and those are the permanent types your combo-bearing opponents are most typically going to try and rely upon. While in fundamental concept I like things like Terastodon or Woodfall Primus as extra ways to handle artifacts or enchantments, this newcomer never misses a spot and comes down considerably lower on the curve to boot.

Boon Satyr – An interesting twist on the flash idea, “Boom Satyr” is a potent bestow creature that sets up very nicely the turn before you normally cast Prime Speaker Zegana and helps ensure that even if they kill your creature in response there’s at least four power waiting when she comes into play. It’s not a big and flashy effect—cycling Decree of Savagery is a big and flashy effect in this format—but it’s a very consistent one that plays at the right speed for your interests and at good prices on both halves of the card.

Yeva, Nature’s Herald – Another member of “Team Flash,” this is the more fun version of Teferi, letting most of your creatures that don’t already have flash come down at instant speed and providing a decent body at the same time. A fair chunk of your primary battles will be waiting games with counters up against combo decks, and this lets you drop a 4/4 at the end of their turn four and start attacking without ever leaving yourself significantly tapped out at an awkward time . . . and promises you never will have to. Moderating the pressure it takes to end the game is critical to really effectively ending the combo menace, and Ms. Ten-Turn Clock will do . . .

Prophet of Kruphix – But not as absurdly as this card will. Remember how I said I hated Seedborn Muse? This is Seedborn Muse plus a significant chunk of Teferi while we’re at it, a Seedborn Muse with flash and even the ability to pitch to Force of Will if you need it to. This is almost too easy because the game kind of falls into your lap after you play it as long as it doesn’t immediately die, but you’re going to take this deck into a rough room and the access to flash is mission critical for your primary plan.

Oracle of Mul Daya – Speaking of dumb powerful cards, I have never yet played an Oracle of Mul Daya and not seen my board go crazy within two or three turns, and I find the oversight here kind of surprising. I’d add it before Solemn Simulacrum, good though that is, because it is far and away the more powerful card. Crazy things happen if you’ve got the Oracle for even just a short while, and it is this kind of access to free resources that enables you to work as a control deck against multiple abusive opponents with combo-shenanigan plans.

Avenging Druid – Read that little beauty. I recently decided to pore over my childhood with this game once again, looking for forgotten cardboard, and stumbled upon this particular gem, a “fairer” version of the Hermit Druid I was already happily playing. Avenging Druid grants you access to more cheap resources to develop the board with early in the game and mills even less deep than Hermit Druid to do so as it doesn’t care about basic or nonbasic—any land’s fine.

It’s not hard to consensually reach an agreement with an opponent playing a fair deck to agree to take one so you can get another mana to fight that combo jerk off with, but far more common will be the fact that a combo opponent will just not have anything on the board to block with and this green Ophidian effect will just add more blue mana to the resistance efforts.

Spawnwrithe – This fits a similar design space, taking advantage of the fact that your combo opponents almost by definition will not cheap creatures to block with in the early game and letting Spawnwrithe go to town taking down the unfair opponent who wanted to ignore the board. Ignore it too long and this thing will grow way out of control; this is actually a cheap drop you can play and keep up counters after that will kill your opponent in a respectable time period. Sure, it starts as two damage, but it follows an exponential growth curve and attacks for many fine damages very quickly.

Diluvian Primordial, Chancellor of the Spires – This is a format of juicy graveyards and powerful spells, and to put it simply I have never cast one of these and had it be anything less than truly spectacular. These have a very high correlation with winning the game as far as my Prime Speaker Zegana deck is concerned, and I would expect playing in the rude home of overpowered Commander metagames that this effect would if anything be magnified. The Chancellor is especially funny against spent Rite of Replications, generating infinite creatures before ending the chain with whatever other spell catches your fancy—perhaps a Time Warp?

These powerhouses are your finishers, and if you ever manage to soulbond them to Deadeye Navigator, it really is just over already. I don’t even want to look.

Kozilek, Butcher of Truth – I clearly want an Eldrazi in the deck (so you can play a game in which you tactically gain the benefit of a legendary Eldrazi’s reshuffle trigger and also so you can ignore milling-based combos) and do not think the vindicate trigger on Ulamog is very compelling. Drawing four cards, however, compels me significantly. I really like managing card flow in a deck like this, and having a Kozilek to work with if you’ve lost access to Prime Speaker Zegana somehow lets you replicate the effect in case the worst happens and your commander gets hijacked or tucked.

Putting it all together, we get the following deck:

Prime Speaker Zegana
Sean McKeown
Test deck on 11-10-2013

And price-wise, well, we do have a doozy for you. The price is not quite something to Erebos(t) about but it is still quite larger than either of us usually suggests for anyone. My apologies to the missus (and the paper shredder in your office was jammed with these weird shards of green plastic; feel free to use the one under my desk if you need to in the future).

All told the price comes in at a whopping $357.83, and unlike our dealings with our weekly submissionists, we don’t offer each other $20 coupons to StarCityGames.com, so there really is just no lightening of this blow. There are some weighty cards that have risen considerably in price these past few years, like Survival of the Fittest and Vendilion Clique, but they’re the right cards for your deck and you need to have the right build of the right deck if you want to take down the most wretched hive of scum and villainy with your combo-free and ultimately fair deck.

Let’s break it down into specifics:

Card Price
Avenging Druid$0.15
Memory’s Journey$0.25
Chancellor of the Spire$0.49
Deadeye Navigator$0.49
Diluvian Primordial$0.49
Ghost Quarter$0.49
Wickerbough Elder$0.49
Muddle the Mixture$0.75
Yeva, Nature’s Herald$0.75
Constant Mists$0.99
Praetor’s Counsel$1.25
Expedition Map$1.49
Mosswort Bridge$1.99
Opal Palace$1.99
Prophet of Kruphix$1.99
Lurking Predators$2.49
Temple of Mystery$2.49
Hermit Druid$2.99
Bane of Progress$3.99
Boon Satyr$3.99
Time Stretch$3.99
Yavimaya Coast$3.99
Oracle of Mul Daya$5.99
Thawing Glaciers$6.99
Yavimaya Hollow$7.99
Scavenging Ooze$10.99
Venser, Shaper Savant$12.99
Gilded Drake$14.99
Flooded Grove$15.99
Survival of the Fittest$24.99
Kozilek, Butcher of Truth$34.99
Vendilion Clique$44.99
Mana Crypt$109.99

I’m glad we got to work on these for each other. I’m having more good clean fun with my The Mimeoplasm deck now that it’s not, um, a Counterbalance / Sensei’s Divining Top / Decree of Silence / Hex Parasite lockdown control deck, and hopefully you’ll be able to more seriously compete with this build of your Prime Speaker Zegana deck in rougher waters. Zegana fights pretty hard even when you build a lower-power playgroup deck since she provides resources by the boatload, and I think you’ve taken a solid direction for entering into shark-infested waters.

It just took that long history of always wanting to cast blue spells in tournaments that I happen to have plenty of to figure out how to build it properly. Unfortunately, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa does not answer Commander emails. (I wonder if Patrick Chapin does—he already wrote an entire article about Vintage. Maybe now that we’ve had Sheldon Menery pick up the Dear Azami stationery for a week we should be looking for our next “celebrity” guest host.)

But we’ve both had our fun, and now it’s back to taking other people on the Internet’s submissions before our audience starts to worry we’ve gone full nepotism on each other here. (Hey, um, we didn’t get to keep the $20 coupons . . . Guys? . . . Guys?)

Sean McKeown

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 Brian’s Sydri, Galvanic Genius deck or Jeff’s Brion Stoutarm 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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