It’s Time To Brawl

Ross Merriam wasn’t much for casual Magic, but building Brawl decks for the VS. Series just might change his mind! Today he shares his updates to VS. Video builds and all-new lists!

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I’m not at all the target demographic for Brawl. I don’t play Commander, or any casual Magic for that matter. My focus is always on the next tournament, not my next cool deck for the kitchen table.

And yet, I’ve found myself transfixed by the format. It’s the part of the VS. Series that I look forward to the most, and brewing decks without the looming pressure for that deck to compete against top-tier lists that are already well-tuned has been a great change of pace. With the large deck size and massive card pool, brewing for Commander is incredibly daunting, where Brawl is much more manageable. I expect the format to become a great introduction to Commander for new players.

It’s no surprise that Brawl was announced just before Dominaria was released, since the set’s focus on legendary creatures opens up a world of possibilities for new commanders and thus new decks. Also, the cycle of legendary sorceries is particularly powerful in a Commander format, since you’re guaranteed to have access to a legendary creature or planeswalker every game.

So despite having no plans to play in a Brawl tournament, I couldn’t help but take a dive into that world and see what I could come up with.

First, a deck that gains so much value that even Todd Stevens is jealous:

In our first Brawl VS. Video, Todd played a Simic deck with Nissa, Steward of Elements as the commander. Despite my Yahenni, Undying Partisan deck making quick work of Todd, I was a little jealous at just how much fun his deck looked like it would be if the engine got humming. Yet there just wasn’t enough support for the strategy in pre-Dominaria Standard.

The latest set brings several important tools to the fray that are very powerful and also give the deck some much-needed focus. I’ve swapped commanders over to Tatyova, Benthic Druid because that card has a strong theme to build around: land ramp. In combination with Wayward Swordtooth and Ramunap Excavator, things can get silly in a hurry, and there are plenty of Rampant Growth effects to take advantage of. I particularly like Grow from the Ashes, since it scales into the late-game.

Dominaria also has the perfect late-game finisher for the deck in Sylvan Awakening. It shouldn’t be hard to attack for over ten damage, and maybe over twenty with this card, and that’s the exact kind of effect you want in a deck that spends much of the game setting up and ignoring its opponent’s life total.

The other effect you want plenty of in a deck like this is mana sinks. I’ve included more utility lands than I otherwise would because of that, along with cards like Walking Ballista, Pull from Tomorrow, River Hoopoe, and Kamahl’s Druidic Vow that are game-ending topdecks with eight or more lands on the battlefield.

With very few slots available for interaction, I lean toward the most powerful effects. River’s Rebuke, Baral’s Expertise, and Karn’s Temporal Sundering can all completely undo whatever lead your opponent has generated on the battlefield while you were ramping. Commit to Memory is similar in that the back half isn’t exactly symmetrical when one player has a significant mana advantage.

The few non-land ramp cards in the deck are simply too powerful to leave out. Llanowar Elves, even in a format like Brawl is great, and Bounty of the Luxa and Gilded Lotus will take over a game if left unchecked. I’m a little worried that the deck doesn’t have enough ways to actually win the game, but the threats in the deck are difficult to interact with and once you draw thirty extra cards winning should be academic. Eventually your opponent gives up and you’re elected the emperor of Value Town.

Next, a deck that will require a second deck box just to have all the necessary tokens:

You’re going to need an extra table to have enough space to play this deck!

There are already a lot of good token makers in Standard right now and Dominaria brought even more. Saproling Migration is another great kicker card that scales as the game progresses. History of Benalia is a great card even when you don’t have many Knights for it to pump. And Spore Swarm is a great card to hold up in the face of a sweeper so you can immediately rebuild your position.

The biggest additions to a deck like this, however, are two legendary creatures. First is my choice of commander in Shanna, Sisay’s Legacy. It’s not as splashy as the other commander options for this deck, but I always like having a cheap option for a commander so you always have something to do early. That luxury lets you build your deck with a higher curve than normal without worrying about falling behind, which is great to have in multiplayer games. Such games tend to go long, so you want a deck with plenty of powerful topdecks.

Having a cheap commander also makes it easier to play Mox Amber to maximum effectiveness, giving the deck access to very powerful openings, like curving Shanna into Mox Amber into Sram’s Expertise into Growing Rites of Itlimoc, which immediately transforms. Cast a Spore Swarm with that Gaea’s Cradle and you could end the game as early as Turn 4.

But even with that explosive potential, there’s a good argument for using Shalai, Voice of Plenty as the commander here. That’s because Shalai has a built-in Anthem effect with its activated ability, a crucial weapon for a token-themed deck. There aren’t a whole lot of good options on that front, which is one of the things that worries me most about this list, so putting one in the command zone is the best way of alleviating that concern.

Much like the ramp deck above, this list doesn’t have much space for interaction. You’re going to be chump attacking with your token army much of the time to finish games off, but the threat of huge attacks on the heels of an Anthem makes getting aggressive against this deck a liability. They say the best defense is a good offense, and this deck certainly pushes that mantra to the limit.

In a long game, there are a ton of mana sinks here as well as card advantage from Path of Discovery, which is absolutely bonkers in this deck. You’ll never miss land drops after your tokens are done exploring and you’ll dig through your deck at breakneck speed to set up a lethal attack.

Next, we’re getting a little tribal with a potent commander that generates card and positional advantage and serves as repeatable removal:

Aryel, Knight of Windgrace will dominate a game if left unchecked, which makes it a great choice for a commander. However, there are unfortunately few Knights in Standard, so I had to get a little creative.

Many of the Knights that do exist are also Vampires, so there’s some cross-tribe synergy going on here with cards like Legion’s Lieutenant and Champion of Dusk. The end package is a midrange deck that has plenty of powerful threats, efficient removal, and a ton of card advantage. This deck is going to be great at breaking up opposing synergies. You can focus your removal spells in larger threats while using Aryel to pick off smaller ones before taking over with a horde of Knights and Vampires.

The card I’m most skeptical of here is Kwende, Pride of Femeref, since there aren’t a lot of first strike creatures here. It’s great when pumped with History of Benalia or Arvad the Cursed but otherwise a mostly lackluster card. Perhaps something like Dauntless Bodyguard to protect an Aryel would be better.

I’ve had success in Brawl thus far by overloading on removal, which makes sense when you realize just how synergy-laden commander decks tend to be. The singleton restriction makes playing a full slate of removal spells more difficult, so you’re often reaching with your last couple of slots.

Fortunately, black and white are among the deepest colors in Standard for removal, especially in a format where you don’t have to worry too much about getting run over on the first four turns and care more about the flexibility of your removal. Ixalan’s Binding, Vraska’s Contempt, and Cast Out can take care of any problematic threats and while the new addition, Cast Down, reads awkwardly in a format revolving around legends, it should still be easy to find a good target.

And finally, an update to the Saheeli Rai deck I played against Todd Anderson in a VS. Video the other week:

To put it mildly, Saheeli Rai was a disappointing commander. Yet the deck overall looked good. Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain is a huge upgrade at that position, giving the deck a powerful card advantage engine. Gilded Lotus is also a great addition for a deck that was surprisingly mana-hungry in the games I played. The addition of another high-converted-mana-cost noncreature artifact makes Metalwork Colossus tempting as well, but I still think the deck is short on enablers for that one.

For one, the actual artifact count in the deck is fairly low at thirteen, instead having lots of cards that generate artifacts like Aether Chaser, Aether Swooper, and Maverick Thopterist. That makes cards like Weatherlight and The Antiquities War a little suspect, but those effects are so powerful that I want to try them, especially the latter, which can end the game when paired with an army of servos and thopters.

Shivan Fire is a nice upgrade on the other cheap removal options since this deck isn’t all that interested in pointing its burn upstairs. Zahid, Djinn of the Lamp offers a much-needed big creature to stabilize against aggressive decks and turn the corner.

Of course, the most exciting new addition to the deck is Karn, Scion of Urza. It’s possible that Karn is one of those colorless cards that’s so powerful it goes into nearly every Brawl deck, but I wanted to focus on synergy over power, so it only made it into this one, because the artifact theme bolsters its last ability should you want to stop drawing cards and get on the offensive or maybe just make another artifact for improvise.

When Brawl was first announced, I largely ignored it, assuming I would never have reason to think about the format. But there’s a reason why Commander has become so popular. Brewing decks is one of the most fun aspects of Magic, offering a unique puzzle as well as an opportunity for self-expression. Having an entry-level format with the same feel is a great step forward, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to explore the format and remind myself that Magic is more than metagaming for the next Open or Grand Prix.

For those of you that have been waiting to jump into Brawl until after Dominaria is released, you are in for a treat. I hope you remembered to pick up your brewing cap from the dry cleaners, because this article only scratches the surface of what you can do.

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