Dear Azami: #TeamGeist

This week fellow StarCityGames.com writer Anthony Lowry asks Sean McKeown for some assistance with his Geist of Saint Traft Commander deck.

Dear Azami,

With Geist of Saint Traft retired from Standard, he’s been itching to see play in the Commander League. I, the general manager of the organization formerly known as #TeamGeist, would like to give him another shot as part of his retirement contract. I am thinking of backing him up with an Aura-oriented theme, and since our budget is tight due to the new 300 million dollar contract with Chandra, Pyromaster in the Standard League, we don’t have as much financial room as we’d like.

This is what I’m envisioning for a build:

Commander: Geist of Saint Traft
Serra Ascendant
Invisible Stalker
Kor Spiritdancer
Phantasmal Image
Stoneforge Mystic
Daxos of Meletis
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
Mesa Enchantress
Thassa, God of the Sea
Ascended Lawmage
Elgaud Shieldmate
Glen Elendra Archmage
Grand Arbiter Augustin IV
Phyrexian Metamorph
Restoration Angel
Celestial Ancient
Celestial Archon
Lone Revenant
Totem-Guide Hartebeest
Bruna, Light of Alabaster
Sovereigns of Lost Alara
Aqueous Form
Angelic Destiny
Ethereal Armor
Daybreak Coronet
Spectral Flight
Spirit Mantle
Temporal Isolation
Gift of Immortality
Steel of the Godhead
Vow of Flight
Holy Mantle
Righteous Authority
Journey to Nowhere
Luminarch Ascension
Aura of Silence
Detention Sphere
Oblivion Ring
Eldrazi Conscription
Serum Visions
Sleight of Hand
See Beyond
Entreat the Angels
Idyllic Tutor
Path to Exile
Swords to Plowshares
Cyclonic Rift
Spell Crumple
Rootborn Defenses
Sphinx’s Revelation
Fact or Fiction
Sensei’s Divining Top
Sol Ring
Azorius Signet
Hallowed Fountain
Terramorphic Expanse
Evolving Wilds
Command Tower
Calciform Pools
Adarkar Wastes
Ancient Tomb
Azorius Chancery
Cavern of Souls
Celestial Colonnade
Eiganjo Castle
Glacial Fortress
Moorland Haunt
Mystic Gate
New Benalia
Opal Palace
Rogue’s Passage
Seachrome Coast
Serra’s Sanctum
Skycloud Expanse
Strip Mine
Tectonic Edge
Ghost Quarter
Temple of the False God
Thespian’s Stage
Vivid Meadow
Vivid Creek
4 Island
3 Plains

Thanks a bunch!

Anthony Lowry, General Manager of #TeamChandra

Our illustrious content coordinator, Cedric Phillips, gave us all license to be a little bit weird here at the year’s end, perhaps inspired by the sheer insanity that is the fully powered Magic Online Holiday Cube. I’ve had other writers come on as guests to the column before but never yet had another writer from the SCG lineup submit a deck for consideration here to Dear Azami (myself and Cassidy submitting decks for each other to work on doesn’t count), so of course I jumped at the chance when I saw Anthony’s submission in our shared inbox this week. This was made an even easier decision by the fact that I’d asked him to in the first place, inviting him to write in so that we could take Cedric up on his offer to be a little strange while we had the chance.

After all, tomorrow is the beginning of a new year, and soon we shall have to go back to being serious again—or at least as serious as things normally are around here. I like to think that while I am writing about a noncompetitive and entirely casual format for a children’s card game with pictures of wizards and dragons, I nonetheless do it in my I’m-so-serious voice, and lately we’ve been trying to focus on building competitively while playing casually, selecting an instrument and fine-tuning it in order to give our decks the maximum opportunity to shine while we’re having fun instead of drawing multiple copies of One with Nothing. Too jokesy a deck doesn’t make anyone happy, and the philosophy we’re applying here is to build right and play right even if we’re not playing "just to win."

Anthony has a long-standing devotion to Geist of Saint Traft; when he taps Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, it adds UW1 to his mana pool. Geist is a solid aggressive creature, attacking essentially for six a turn while being quite difficult to remove from play, but because most of that damage comes from the Angel token rather than Geist of Saint Traft itself, this aggressive stance doesn’t necessarily translate into the magic 21 damage threshold at which commanders KO an opponent.

By the time Geist swings for twenty, the Angel should have dealt 40 itself, so it’s going to take augmenting Geist into a harder-hitting monster if we want to shoot for 21. Anthony is interested in suiting up his commander in the very finest of pants, so we’re going to build for an aggro-tempo deck that plays its commander fast and starts attacking with some backup along the way so that we have a few lines besides "naked aggression" for removing problem cards from play.

Starting with the very basics, I’d like a 36th land despite having plentiful cantrips because starting with three is very important and we don’t have a lot of supplemental mana elsewhere that builds this up further. We don’t desperately need it either since #TeamGeist gets to work fast and doesn’t take a lot of mana to do its thing. But we do want to draw our first few lands smoothly and consistently, and adding one more helps make sure that happens consistently. Other than that we just need to find the right balance and attack a lot. Let’s get to it then, shall we?

Making the mana work right here comes with a very specific goal—not "just" to massage the colors but to add in additional spell-like functions that put your lands to work in the event of flooding a bit. Your reason for shaving lands is due to your desire not to draw too many lands over the course of a game, which is quite reasonable, but flooding out a bit is not too bad when your lands are actively functioning as part of your game plan. To that purpose, I found five lands I specifically wanted to add, and that meant finding the four weakest lands to then cut from the deck.

The first two were easy—I don’t think a two-color deck really has anything to gain from playing Vivid lands, and if we really wanted to, we could add in additional true dual lands using those comes-into-play-tapped slots (Sejiri Refuge, Coastal Tower, Azorius Guildgate, and Boreal Shelf could all be added over the Vivids). But with the generally light color requirements on your commander and the cards you’re playing as well plus an already top-shelf assortment of dual lands in the other slots, we can skip the additional color fixing and use colorless lands that affect the board in their stead.

The next two lands that fit the deck the least to me were Vesuva, which I only think is really worthwhile when you have a variety of interesting lands like Cabal Coffers that you’d like to clone, and Ancient Tomb, which is an acceleration card but doesn’t get Geist online any faster (barring the one-two punch of Skycloud Expanse into Ancient Tomb) and doesn’t provide the most vital resource of interest to you: colored mana.

With those four cuts, I was happy with where the land base stood for colored mana fixing and wanted to build up the deck’s defenses as part of the mana base. You’re not really defensively oriented—lifelink and a bit of spot removal is a good chunk of your plan—so adding in more free defense that you can use for free as a value-added benefit very much interested me for your deck. But first there was one more free pump effect we could add if we wanted to . . .

Cathedral of War – If Geist is attacking alone, you can get a free point of damage off of exalted that you can access turn after turn since it’s part of your mana base. You’re very much about making one threat and piling pants on it so it hits as hard as it can, and adding a free buff for the low price of coming into play tapped (and only adding colorless) seemed a very worthwhile freebie.

Kor Haven, Mystifying Maze – The defense we were talking about. Either of these can make an attack in your direction less profitable and thus fend people off just by leaving some mana untapped. Since you’re going to end up very much liking the keep-mana-up part of the defense game with just enough invested each turn to grow your threat larger, adding in lands that work along the same conceptual lines rewards the deck for playing further in the direction it already wants to go.

Winding Canyons – This is my very favorite land since in multiplayer games it is incredibly valuable to push your summon-creatures portion of the turn behind all of that having-to-respond-to-opponents stuff; plus it also adds in the benefits of getting to attack at least once before having to worry about a sweeper. It has served me well, and it will serve you well also by letting you accentuate the blue-deck aspect more than the creature-deck part while still deploying threats on time.

Seraph Sanctuary – If you were only getting Angels off of Geist’s triggered ability, this would be one life point per turn, not terrible but not really worth a colorless land slot either when you can play more defensive cards like Prahv, Spires of Order or get better mana pretty easily. But with your other cards—Luminarch Ascension and Entreat the Angels specifically—this will provide more life than that over the course of a game, maybe enough to squeak out an extra turn or at least enough to let a well-timed removal spell make the difference. Life gain’s not my thing, but when it works, use it. I’m always down with it as a freebie added in on top.

Moving on to the artifacts section next, we’re going to swap out that Azorius Signet directly for an Expedition Map in order to help take advantage of the numerous special lands we’ve just gone and added to the deck, and we are also going to expand this section by adding another high-power Equipment to the deck. I understand you’re very Aura heavy, but you’re using Equipment when it’s clear those are the right cards to get instead of an enchantment-based buff.

When the Equipment card in question has an unique effect that can’t be replaced otherwise we add it instead. I know you’re on a tight budget, but we’re going to end up under $100 so you don’t need to get nervous just because I’m about to lay out a $20 card here—it’s far and away the most expensive addition we’ll make here is literally irreplaceable by any other card.

Sword of Feast and Famine – You want to develop your board but still have mana up on opponents’ turn so that you can respond to their cards if needed, and Sword of Feast and Famine is special specifically because it lets you access twice as much mana over the course of a turn than you’re normally able to wield. Equipment is more efficient card advantage over the course of a grindy game but less mana efficient to deploy—you need to spend five before this does anything at all—which keeps us from converting all the enchantments to equivalent Equipment cards.

SoFaF gets a pass however since it gives you that mana right back immediately—it’s the Cheatyface of Equipment cards. That it pressures an opponent with a discard is nice but not why we’re playing it; we want the buff and the untap. Heck, the protection probably won’t even matter—you’re built to get unblockable quickly, and the most likely bearer of the Sword is already going to be untargetable.

Usually I move on to the spells next, but I actually want to move to the creatures now since streamlining which bodies we have to work with will go a long way toward informing us of what kinds of spells are the optimal ones to play with them. There are six cards I want to add here, and I still need to make up for adding an extra land and extra artifact, so we need to make a total of six cuts here and remember that we have one last slot we owe when we move on to the spells in the last section.

Celestial Archon – I don’t really ever see you usefully bestowing this, and we can do better than this without trying especially hard—a Serra Angel level of stats just doesn’t do very much for us these days.

Restoration Angel – While this has been a go-to companion of Geist in your decks for some time now, it isn’t quite as good when we go down the enchant-with-pants plan. We’re going to switch our protective class of card over to an entirely different trick, so Resto gets the axe.

Grand Arbiter Augustin IV – Harassing the opponent on mana is not really the plan here, and it’s the kind of thing that paints you as a target for playing it. It’s an efficient card, sure, but it’s going to draw more ire than it’s worth.

Phyrexian Metamorph, Phantasmal Image – This just isn’t really a cloning sort of deck. Your Image can’t even wear pants, which is a sad state of affairs. If either of these could act as part of #TeamGeist, I would find them more interesting, but clones and legendary creatures are generally sad these days.

Elgaud Shieldmate – The flagship already has hexproof, so this would mostly be helping with backup plans when Geist is not working out. Even then it’s not perfect, so I want to keep looking for the right card for this slot til I’m satisfied we’ve hit the sweet spot.

Kira, Great Glass-Spinner – You like targeting your creatures with enchantments, and this counters the first such you play each turn. It’s a solid card but not necessarily the right one for the job.

Adding back in, we have five slots and high standards for what will satisfy us:

Sakashima the Impostor – Yes, I said I was pretty sad on cloning in this deck. Cloning Geist of Saint Traft however excites me. Sakashima bypasses the legend rule by keeping his unique name in all instances, so you can in fact swing with two Geists of Saint Traft thanks to this inclusion.

Commander Eesha – You have a pro-creatures theme to get around blockers, and there is in fact a solid pro-creatures card you can play that has a reasonable starting body before you add enchantments to it. (Sorry, Beloved Chaplain, we can do better than a 1/1.)  Since I kind of want to cut down on some of the enchantments providing this ability, this lets us retain the prior level while getting it on a body instead of a buff.

Mother of Runes – I normally prefer Eight-and-a-Half-Tails in Commander as the bigger, more robust, and thus more powerful version of this effect, but with so many white enchantments on your creatures this would have the unfortunate effect of clearing all of your pants every time you had to save a creature, making it far less efficient by comparison. Mom will keep things in line very nicely, even if a 1/1 is incredibly vulnerable and dies to a stiff breeze in this format—she’s good early and takes at least two breezes most of the time, which is good enough as far as I’m concerned.

Prognostic Sphinx – The flying five-drop from Theros I actually favor in this deck since Prognostic Sphinx wears pants very nicely. While using the hexproof part usually does prevent it from attacking, the combination of protecting itself for zero mana and adding scry 3 to your attack step makes it quite an appealing creature given the overlap of valuable keywords. I’d rather try to load this up than an Elgaud Shieldmate that’s for certain.

Hanna, Ship’s Navigator – You really like creature-targeting Aura enchantments, which are traditionally one of the most vulnerable card types to try to play with in your deck and thus a major detriment playing against removal effects. Hanna helps make sure you just don’t care—it’s not a two-for-one if you can get the enchantment right back after all. This protects both the enchantments and the Equipment, so Hanna will give you the ability to grind through a longer game that otherwise is a bit lacking in the deck.

Trinket Mage – While this doesn’t necessarily fit in directly with what the theme of the deck appears to be, it’s nonetheless quite a high-powered addition, and I’m allowed to love it just because of that. It adds either Sol Ring or Expedition Map to your hand if you crave mana, Sensei’s Divining Top if selection is what you need, and Skullclamp if raw card-drawing power is the thing you want instead. It doesn’t have to have any more targets than that in order to be incredibly valuable to you.

This leaves us with just the spell section to put into proper order, and we’re going to mix around the identity of some of your pants cards, add a bit of board control that is otherwise sorely lacking, and add a few more ways to keep Geist and friends in play (and wearing pants!) than you already have. First we have the cuts:

Aqueous Form – The bonus scry is nice but not the effect we’re really playing the card for. One mana to make a creature unblockable is efficient but not really what we’re trying to accomplish here; I really just want another offensive buff in its place so we can choose not care too much if they’re blocking. I find in Commander if you’re playing around someone being able to block it’s better to attack someone else than to try to force it with a card like this just as a way to get around token swarms on defense.

Spirit Mantle – This is basically +1/+1 and unblockable, and I only want one copy of this sort of effect in the deck, so I prefer the most powerful one that grants +2/+2 over the cheaper but smaller buff.

Spectral FlightVow of Flight is basically the same card as far as you’re concerned, and I don’t think you need to double up on this effect.

Temporal Isolation – I sort of like this as a removal spell because you can play it at instant speed, but that’s where my appreciation it starts to fall off. If I want to answer something, I want it dead and gone, not hanging around ready to turn back on the next time a Disenchant effect is handy.

Gift of Immortality – While this does protect the Geist, it doesn’t protect the pants, so I’m not as enthused with this card as I thought I’d be. I’d rather save everything combined if possible, and while I had to jump through a few hoops to get there, I like where that ended up, meaning we can safely cut this.

Journey to Nowhere – I want a bit less spot removal and a bit more mass removal; this was the least versatile of the Oblivion Ring effects and thus the first to cut.

Sleight of Hand, See Beyond, Impulse – I like cheap cantrips and approve of the first half of the draw suite you have smoothing things early on. Cheap library manipulation is well worth the slots since it makes sure you draw right early on in the critical first turns of the game and stays beneficial whenever in the game you happen to draw it, but there are diminishing returns after the first few have been added. I think Ponder, Preordain and Brainstorm are so good that I even love Portent, the old-school Ponder, and am very appreciative of the fact that I see it here. I can even get behind Serum Visions because even though you draw before you scry you nonetheless get to see three cards and decide between some of them for just one mana. That’s high powered enough for me.

But once we get into the league of Sleight of Hand, I’m not quite as interested in the effect, and by the time we get to spending two whole mana instead of one on the effect, I start wanting to spend even more than that instead and getting actual card draw instead of manipulation. That makes these the easiest slots to cut and otherwise fill as we make room to add the last few unique and irreplaceable effects that will give the deck its own special character and flavor.

Rootborn Defenses – As much as I approve in general concept with populating an Angel token, I don’t think this is the best version of this effect to protect against removal spells. All Is Dust, Black Sun’s Zenith and Kagemaro type effects are plentiful enough that this has real holes in its protections, and there are upgrades available even though this is quite solid.

With one card simply cut entirely, that leaves us nine slots left to fill. I want another high-power buff, a bit of mass removal, and another counterspell, and the rest of the slots are basically going to focus on protecting against mass removal effects as best as we are able.

Sigil of the Empty Throne – Another way to make Angels and another way to profit on your enchantments-matter theme, Sigil of the Empty Throne pays you off with extra aggressive potential as a value-added bonus while you play your normal game of Magic #TeamGeist style. This was the card I was really thinking of when I cut Celestial Archon because it is also a 4/4 flier (sort of) for the same cost. Unlike the Archon, who’s only really fancy if you bestow it, this is just a continuous stream of meaningful creatures thrown in for free while you suit up your Geist, adding a 4/4 for each such pair of pants.

Three Dreams – What’s better than one Idyllic Tutor? If you’re going to play an Aura theme anyway, this is an enabler card that offers card advantage for your particular little niche, so we might as well put it to work.

Winds of Rath – Speaking of on-theme enablers, this is a sweeper that leaves your battleships up once you’ve enchanted them but clears the rest of the board with no qualms. Your reason for shying away from mass removal was that it killed your board when you were trying so hard to build it up in the first place, and this sweeper breaks that rule by leaving your good stuff entirely alone.

Austere CommandThis sweeper effect likewise can leave your side of the board alone, especially true since I think the two most common uses of the card are artifacts and creatures costing four or greater (i.e. the two modes of the card you want to use anyway). Two solid sweepers is way more than zero, after all, so you have ways to catch back up when you fall behind on the board without having to spend a card each time on one-for-one exchanges.

Arcane Denial – I wanted one more counter, and I didn’t want to lose a card to cast it. (I never do—I like putting more cards in my hand a lot.)  Between the expensive and color-intensive Cryptic Command and the cheap and hassle-free Arcane Denial, I went with the least expensive route, though it’s worth noting Cryptic would be a high-value addition if you could add it on top of the existing budget. Since it’d have taken us up near the $100 mark, I’ve stayed cheap and left it on the wayside. You’re so removal light that I think it’d be very potent for you, but I understand deckbuilding limitations need to be respected as well.

Eel Umbra – Not quite a counterspell, but quite a strong defensive card for protecting a flagship creature that has been multiply enchanted. The Totem Armor ability is incredibly powerful for how little mana it essentially costs when added to a card, and being able to play it with flash so that you have it in response at exactly the right time without them seeing it coming is key. None of the other Totem Armor cards have flash so I’ve only played the one, but that mix of abilities is deceptively potent—it looks like a throwaway, just a weak creature buff, til its specific mix of characteristics is exactly why you lose.

Empyrial Armor – I have been playing since forever, so I know how deeply unfair this card is. You’re already playing its more expensive upgrade, Righteous Authority, and I heartily approve but wanted to add the original as well while we’re at it because spending three mana and a card to give an early creature what usually amounts to +5/+5 or better is an incredibly strong Aura to add to #TeamGeist. I stopped short of adding the Equipment version of the card while I was at it—but only barely.

Faith’s Reward, Second Sunrise – The last two cards added to the deck, these are here to put an entire team (plus their pants!) back into play immediately after a removal spell. It’s like being indestructible except that it also lets you move the enchantments around if you want to and gets around cards like All Is Dust (with the downside instead being a vulnerability to graveyard hate, which otherwise doesn’t affect you and is thus unlikely to be regularly pointed your way).

That one of them works on just your stuff makes it the better one—instead of countering a sweeper, it makes sure you’re the only one unaffected—but those weird corner cases that indestructible doesn’t work around are surprisingly common in this format since we all build our controlling decks to play around resistant threats and indestructible monsters because we face them often enough. Your answer card needs to actually answer the hard problems as well as the easy ones, and adding these in helps ensure you can weather a sweeper without losing board position.

Putting it all together, we get the following:

Geist of Saint Traft
Sean McKeown
Test deck on 12-29-2013
Magic Card Back

As always, for participating in this week’s Dear Azami, you will receive a $20 coupon to StarCityGames.com, and since you said you were working on a very tight budget due to the huge signing bonus required for #TeamChandra, I kept this one pretty low—just a dash under $80, with a quarter of the value locked up in a single Sword of Feast and Famine that is a long-term Commander staple as well as solid Legacy value holder according to the latest word from our financial pundits here. The other $60 in cards goes to 22 unique cards, the large bulk of which can be found for two dollars or less, so I’d say despite that one pricey pick we’ve played some very solid Moneyball in picking our choice role players.

The prices of our additions break down like this:

Next week we’ll kick the new year off in good cheer with another guest column from David McDarby while Cassidy takes off for a family emergency. When last we heard from Cass, he and his wife had just delivered their daughter Josephine prematurely, and her condition was steadily improving under care at the best critical care facility in New England. But for quite understandable reasons he had to drop everything mid-stride and deal with family. All of us here at StarCityGames.com wish him and his family the best of luck going forward into the new year while giving him the space he needs for as long as he needs it to put higher priorities first. We look forward to his return but don’t know when that will be quite yet.

— 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 Steven’s Horobi, Death’s Wail deck or David’s Rosheen Meanderer 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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