It was painfulâ€”expensiveâ€”but a couple months back I got my Cavern of Souls playset. When a good rare is printed that’s in high demand and the price begins to outpace mythic rares, it hurts anyone with a tight budget to have to find the funds to acquire them. Still, once I completed the playset, a feeling of peace and satisfaction settled over me. You see, when I first started playing Magic way back in 1993, I was instantly drawn to big badass creatures like the rare I opened in my very first booster pack: Force of Nature! I loved nothing more than the thrill of summoning these huge beasts to battle for me.
Of course, the enthusiasm dimmed a bit when I realized that the removal people could play back then tended to be far stronger and more efficient than the creatures you could play (a dynamic that eventuallyâ€”thankfullyâ€”flipped in the complete opposite direction in the modern age of Magic). Even so, you could work around the removal by using creatures that could dodge the removal (Autumn Willow, Ihsan’s Shade) or embracing some creature recursion strategies. Or just flat out running so many creatures that your opponent eventually ran out of answers (the old Wakefield rule of “the last fatty you can’t answer kills you”).
The fight between what now seem like pretty bad creatures and excellent removal was indeed a struggle, but not one that felt hopeless. No, for that there was the soul-crushing, overpowered blue duo of efficient counterspells plus instant speed card draw to draw more counterspells if your opponent actually didn’t have anything to cast and be countered that turn. We had that oppressive combination in Magic more or less from its inception in 1993 until around 2009 or so once the Faerie menace rotated out of Standard. That’s about a sixteen-year reign of terror that I was subjected to, which resulted in a fear of counterspells being imprinted onto the primeval, instinctive part of my brain alongside the evolutionary fear of spiders and snakes and darkness.
Of course, in the modern age of Magic, we no longer have to huddle in fear around a cave campfire. We’ve stepped into the daylight, into the enlightenment of interactive game play where creatures are awesome, counterspells are awkward, and good instant speed card drawing has nearly gone the way of the Dodo. There are still flashes of that scary primitive timeâ€”Caw-Go, Stoneblade, and (shudder) Delverâ€”but for the most part progress has been made and it’s safe to cast your creatures again.
Even so, there’s something heartening about being able to slip four lands into your deck that say “…that [creature] spell can’t be countered.” A playset of Cavern of Souls is a combination of plate armor, a great sword, and a warm fuzzy blanket all rolled into a sleeved-up piece of rarified cardboard. Was it painful to buy four of ’em? You bet, but you know what? From now until the end of time, wherever it’s legal, Cavern of Souls is going to give me the comfort and security to soothe that primeval, instinctual fear of counterspells…and it was damn worth it!
Cavern is so awesome that, for a time, people stopped playing counterspells altogether, outside of sideboards and maybe just a few in maindecks “to keep people honest.” But then something happened…
Return to Ravnica!
People playing new Standard are drunk on the possibilities that easy mana brings, and the bender has only just started. Once Gatecrash hits to give us the remaining five shocklands back, the full-fledged bacchanalia will begin! That blatant greedy urge to stuff every good card between three, four, even five colors of mana has made lands that can’t produce colored mana reliably a liability, so Cavern of Souls has been kicked to the curb. Is it any wonder that when you’ve got decks featuring the best creatures, best planeswalkers, and backbreaking spells that the best answers tend to be the universal answer: the answer of counterspells? Even if the counterspell is awkward or inefficient, if it stopped your opponent from advancing the game, it’s still good even if it’s “bad,” right?
So now, suddenly, there’s the U/W Flash deck that appears to be the deck to beat. On my local Magic Facebook group, someone recently posted: “What beats this stupid Flash deck?” There have been some Premium articles on StarCityGames.com by Gerry Thompson and Todd Anderson breaking down in strategic terms why the deck is really, really good right now. But I can tell you that the high-level, executive summary is:
People got greedy and stopped playing Cavern of Souls.
So what beats this stupid Flash deck?
Discipline and self-restraint so you can play Cavern of Souls.
In practical terms, what does that mean? Basically, build your deck in such a way that you can realistically play Cavern of Souls, preferably a full playset. That means either play a tribal deck in which Cavern helps you color fix your mana (like Zombies has been doing) or play a deck with such good mana that a colorless source of mana won’t hurt you muchâ€”basically, follow the guild mana that Return to Ravnica brought us.
The discipline to stick with tribal synergies and/or the self-restraint to just play a guild’s colors. In my mind, those are the keys to beating the latest counterspelling menace.
Ah, Cavern of Souls…how could people have set you down?
Anyway, as I was pondering the U/W Flash deck, I was lamenting how much I love Restoration Angel and how sad I am to see it partnering up with that nasty, little blue Snapcaster Mage. Then I recalled some Standard ideas I had involving Yeva, Nature’s Herald giving all your green creatures flash. Since Yeva is an Elf, I decided to do a database search of the Elves legal in Standard to see if Cavern of Souls could be a tribal mana fixer. I knew Elvish Archdruid is still playable, so how many other decent Elves are around to take advantage of the tribal synergy?
Korozda Guildmage is an Elf. But is it a good Elf? Hmmm…
I started sketching out some ideas, and this is what I’ve cooked up:
This is obviously still a rough list, but I’m hoping to run it at FNM tonight to give it some tournament exposure.
The U/W Flash decks are running eight or so counterspells, and Unsummon is in there partly so that creatures who sneak into play can be Unsummoned and then countered on the way back down. That Cavern of Souls practically blanks so many cards is huge! Gerry and Todd both say U/W Flash is great right now because no one is playing Cavern of Souls…so play Cavern of Souls!
Everyone knows how good Deathrite Shaman is against anyone who ends up with spells, creatures, or lands in their graveyard, but hardly anyone is playing it outside of the Zombies decks that haven’t really been doing all that well. Plus, Deathrite is a mana leech, and in my experience with him in my Zombies deck, having to hold up a mana can be awkward. But in an Elves deck, a lot of times there should be plenty of mana floating around, which means you can use Deathrite each turn and still cast stuff. Evil Snapcaster Mage decks want a lot of spells in the graveyard, and Deathrite preys on that quite nicely!
As I thought about Korozda Guildmage, I began to like it more and more. Yes, its abilities are rather expensive, but presumably a deck featuring Arbor Elf and Elvish Archdruid should be able to generate mana to spare. One line of play I was concerned about was attacking with an Elvish Visionary enchanted with Rancor into my opponent’s open four mana. Even a 3/1 trampler is brick walled by Restoration Angel.
For 1BG, you can give the attacker intimidate and run right past an Angel (and +1/+1 for four damage), but even better is the threat of using that ability. Is your opponent going to flash out Angel only to have the Visionary run right by with intimidate? Is he going to flash out Angel to block only to have the Visionary get big enough to take down the Angel with no loss of cards? Neither choice seems particularly great, so maybe Visionary just attacks for three and then you can use your mana for something else!
Then there’s the backbreaking Azorius Charm, which can rob a ton of tempo from a Rancored-up creature. With a Korozda Guildmage plus four mana available, you can divvy up the power of the creature they target with the Charm into a bunch of 1/1 Saprolings that can’t be put on top of your library. Sure, they bought a turn, but now you’ve got a broad base of threats that can’t be handled by pinpoint removal and Rancor.
Augur of Bolas is a great brick wall against early weenies, but Rancor blunts that quite effectively. Augur’s pretty useless against a 3/2 trampling Deathrite Shaman. One of Snapcaster Mage’s many great qualities is as a surprise chump blocker, but against a trampler, his one toughness doesn’t chump much of anything. Ditto with Moorland Haunt.
I realize that Rancor can end up being problematic against instant speed removal, but there really isn’t all that much instant speed removal being played right now. I think the benefits of Rancor in this deck far outweigh the drawbacks.
Thragtusk (backed by Cavern) vs. The World
One thing that’s really cool about this deck is that because of the discipline of sticking with Golgari colors, you’ll likely have the luxury of naming Beast with your first Cavern if you know your opponent is playing blue. Yes, people are trying their damnedest to “ignore” Thragtusk by flying over him, but he’s still pretty hard to ignore when he can’t be countered, might be trampling or gaining intimidate, or might be sacrificed into eight points of token creatures or five points of life drain.
Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord vs. Mass Removal
Yes, I said life drain… Jarad gives the deck reach and sweet, sweet inevitability. If you’ve got a handful of creatures on the board (hopefully one of them is Thragtusk) and your opponent sweeps them away with mass removal, Jarad makes an awesome follow-up to stand by your 3/3 Beast token. He loves wearing a Rancor and, like Rancor, can keep coming back until your opponent’s life total is stomped into the dirt.
One thing to remember is that you can float the mana of the Swamp and Forest you plan on sacrificing to bring him back and then cast him and that those lands can feed a Deathrite Shaman’s mana ability. As a legend, it might seem strange to have four copies of him, and after tweaking the count might go down a bit. But he’s such a great threat and extras can be fed to Korozda Guildmage, so I think four might actually be the correct number.
Instant speed pinpoint removal is important, but man, how I miss Go for the Throat and Doom Blade! I’m tempted to put Ultimate Price in this slot since it handles the first three, but then I’m twisting in the wind against Olivia. Yes, Murder feels clunky, it feels slow, it feels…wrong somehow that black has been reduced to this for removal.
But you know what? People are playing Dissipate and Rewind for counterspells now, and they’re doing fine with them. We live in a reality where if you absolutely want something dead at instant speed, Murder is what’s available. Besides, you’re still paying less in mana to kill the threat than your opponents are paying to play the threat.
I’m still working on the sideboard, but here are the cards I’m considering:
- Triumph of Ferocity: Having the potential of dropping this on turn 2 against slower decks is pretty huge, though I’m a little torn between this and Underworld Connections.
- Garruk, Primal Hunter: A proven backbreaker against control decks.
- Crushing Vines: Lots of flying threats, plus gives you some protection against Runechanter’s Pike.
- Sever the Bloodline: Additional removal plus a sweeper against tokens.
- Vraska, the Unseen: Anti-planeswalker planeswalker.
Any suggestions in this area (and others) are certainly welcome!
Is Golgari Elves the answer to the format? Probably not, at least not this exact list. This is something I cooked up very recently, but I think it has a lot of potential and wanted to put this out there for my readers to consider and work on too. I think the main thing to take away is that those who want to beat the Flash decks need to practice discipline, self-restraint, and bring back Cavern of Souls. If you’ve got a guild-mana, two-color deck that plays good creatures, Cavern fits right in!
Speaking of which, if you’re a fan of Zombies and have been following along with my Zombie decks, I wanted to let you know about a recent change I’ve added that seems to have helped its performance: three copies of Revenge of the Hunted! Remember how good that card was? Zombies still has one of the best early games in the format, it’s just that all the other decks can blunt the assault quickly with Thragtusk and just play a much better long game. I’ve found that Revenge of the Hunted gives the deck added reach that’s also occasionally great removal as well.
starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com
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New to Commander?
If you’re just curious about the format, building your first deck, or trying to take your Commander deck up a notch, here are some handy links:
- Commander Primer Part 1 (Why play Commander? Rules Overview, Picking your Commander)
- Commander Primer Part 2 (Mana Requirements, Randomness, Card Advantage)
- Commander Primer Part 3Â (Power vs. Synergy, Griefing, Staples, Building a Doran Deck)
- Commander Starter Kits 1 (kick start your allied two-color decks for $25)
- Commander Starter Kits 2 (kick start your enemy two-color decks for $25)
- Commander Starter Kits 3 (kick start your shard three-color decks for $25)
My current Commander decks (and links to decklists):
- Skullbriar, the Walking Grave (how big can it get?)
- Phage the Untouchable (actually casting Phage from Command Zone!)
- Johan (Cat Breath of the Infinite)
- Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind (Chuck’s somewhat vicious deck)
Previous Commander decks currently on hiatus:
- Yeva, Nature’s Herald (living at instant speed)
- Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis (evil and Spike-ish)
- Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius (new player-friendly)
- Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice (new player-friendly)
- Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord (drain you big time)
- Riku of Two Reflections (steal all permanents with Deadeye Navigator + Zealous Conscripts)
- Phelddagrif (Mean Hippo)
- Sigarda, Host of Herons (Equipment-centric Voltron)
- Bruna, Light of Alabaster (Aura-centric Voltron)
- Ruhan of the Fomori (lots of equipment and infinite attack steps)
- Ghave, Guru of Spores (Melira Combo)
- Glissa, the Traitor (undying artifacts!)
- Grimgrin, Corpse-Born (Necrotic Ooze Combo)
- Damia, Sage of Stone (Ice Cauldron shenanigans)
- Geist of Saint Traft (Voltron-ish)
- Glissa Sunseeker (death to artifacts!)
- Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer (replacing Brion Stoutarm in Mo’ Myrs)
- Thelon of Havenwood (Campfire Spores)
- Melira, Sylvok Outcast (combo killa)
- Konda, Lord of Eiganjo (The Indestructibles)
- Vorosh, the Hunter (proliferaTION)
- Progenitus (Fist of Suns and Bringers)
- Savra, Queen of the Golgari (Demons)
- Uril, the Miststalker (my “more competitive” deck)