The Kitchen Table: Commander ’95

A few days ago Abe wondered what a Commander deck would look like if it were built in mid-1995, and the Commander ’95 project was born. Check it out!

A few days ago I wondered what a Commander deck would look like if it were built in mid-1995 just after the release of Ice Age but before Homelands later that year. How would a deck built in this era look and feel?

That certainly seemed like a fun project! So I decided to build a Commander ’95 deck to see how far I could push the idea.

Since this format was initially named Elder Dragon Highlander, I felt the strong urge to actually play one of the namesakes. I am using the modern banned list, so no Moxes or anything. So what will my project look like? Let’s drop a Chromium and find out!

When building a deck for SCG, I like to run through the deck first and pull all cads that I think are really strong. Then I might add cards to enhance the deck. But on my first run, I had 74 cards (other than mana lands), and that’s just a tad too many. So I had to cut cards from my initial run-through. I was surprised by the number of enchantments in my deck (twelve), so I added Skull of Orm to bring me to 75 cards. What to cut?

My first cuts were Glacial Wall, Giant Tortoise, Mind Warp, Portent, Amnesia, and Ice Floe. That brought me to 69 cards. Not a bad start. I pulled Mind Warp and Amnesia for mana reasons and Giant Tortoise and Glacial Wall because they just block and do little else—plus my deck already has a lot of defense.

The next cuts began to hurt my deck. With just 21 creatures in my deck, including Chromium, I was not happy digging too deeply into their list. So I went elsewhere instead. Brainstorm and Diabolic Vision followed because they didn’t do enough. Just a few more cuts . . . Ray of Command can be a two-for-one, but it needs the right setup, so it was pulled. Ditto Deflection. One more card. Goodbye Transmute Artifact; you are great at tutoring up the right artifact for the time, but few of my artifacts were that specific that they would need to be pulled. That leaves me with a 64:36 ratio—not too bad for a deck that pulled a lot of expensive cards and has some mana rocks too.

This is not an era of strong creatures. Rather than run risky ones such as Juzam Djinn, Serendib Djinn, or Serendib Efreet, I went with the usual suspects (Serra Angel, Hypnotic Specter, Mahamoti Djinn, et al) and then added utility creatures to fix the lanes.

I am playing every single counterspell available in this era save Force Spike and Flash Counter. That gives me just five counters though. So to make sure that I can counter important things, I included both Witch Hunter and Time Elemental to bounce opposing stuff in case I need them to replay it past my counter. Both of these utility creatures won’t do much in the red zone, but by bouncing opposing creatures they essentially keep back an attacker that would otherwise slip through my defenses. They can bounce defenders too, enabling a subtle strike. The Elemental can bounce other cards as needed, while the Hunter can tap for a damage when not otherwise used. Both give the deck some added value.

And they aren’t the only utility creatures that do so. Take a look at the defense these creatures give. Royal Assassin is long loved for its ability to simply tap and kill something that is similarly tapped. Since most creatures will tap to attack, an untapped Assassin is a thing to behold, often keeping back an entire attack force for fear of losing two creatures to it (tap and kill one in combat, and then untap and tap to kill another on your turn). It also works quite well with Icy Manipulator, which can tap any permanent. From tapping someone’s mana in their upkeep to tapping a potential attacker or blockers to giving a nice target to ye olde Assassin, the Manipulator is a traditional card that is given new life in the Commander ’95 project.

Another brilliant creature to keep down attackers is the Sorceress Queen. Like the Assassin, you don’t even need mana; just tap her to make a creature a 0/2. That’s a way to handle any powerful creature—shrink it to size. You can neuter any potential attacker or blocker by making them into a weakling. While she uses mana, Lady Evangela can tap to prevent all combat damage that a creature would deal this turn. She’s like a Kor Haven on legs. She’ll lock down any creature that gets delusions of glory, plus she does not prevent damage to that creature, so you can block a creature to trade with it and then keep the opposing creature from dealing damage and kill it without dying.

We also have some creatures that will flat-out steal others. We have the classic Merieke Ri Berit. Just tap her and steal something. Note that she cannot untap after use, so use her well. But you can easily tap and steal something fun. Then we have the Preacher. It taps to steal someone’s worst creature. Now, if you untap the Preacher, you lose the creature, but I like to steal someone’s dork during combat to block an attacker. You can take a creature for later use and abuse and then untap to get another after the stolen dude passes. If this were a Commander deck playing against other Commander ’95 decks in multiplayer, I’d toss in Seasinger as well.

Nebuchadnezzar can tap to force a discard after a few uses while also stealing a few looks at people’s hands. He’s a good mana sink for a deck like this. Along with Hypnotic Specter, he gives the deck an interesting discard spin.

Any deck from this era must play the Book and the Stick: Jayemdae Tome and Disrupting Scepter. Without them, decks feel odd, especially a more controlling deck like this one. Both grant powerful card advantage over time in a format that is quite card-advantage sensitive but in an era with few options to use it.

Necropotence is another key card-drawing utility that trades life for cards. I thought about Greed but dismissed it. You can’t do that with this card. It’s nasty here. We also have Mystic Remora and Braingeyser to draw cards.

I like staying alive when playing a control deck like this, so I have some other ways to keep from dying. Both Maze of Ith and Island of Wak-Wak join the fray. Note that the Island makes a flying creature’s power equal to zero, so you can use it offensively to swing with that Serra Angel into an Air Elemental with the Island held back and ready to be used in case of blocks.

In addition to those lands, we have Forcefield, Tawnos’s Coffin, Pentagram of the Ages, and Horn of Deafening. The Horn can simply tap to keep a creature from dealing combat damage, just like Lady Evangela. The Coffin is unusual. It will exile any creature, and you can leave the Coffin tapped and keep the creature out or untap it to bring them back. That allows you to take care of an especially annoying creature or protect one of your own. (Note the creature returns tapped, just in case you have a Royal Assassin ready to go all Artemis Entreri on someone).

One artifact this deck is missing is Nova Pentacle. Check it out!

We don’t have a lot of options for removal, so I put in what I could. Enter Oubliette, Terror, and Dark Banishing alongside Swords to Plowshares and Psionic Blast for creature removal. I also included both Disenchant and Divine Offering. I thought about Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust, but I felt we would not need that much removal alongside the defense, counters, and stealing.

Speaking of which, Control Magic is in the house, along with Ice Age variant Binding Grasp. Both are fine targets to bring back off a Skull of Orm. I also have both Animate Dead and Dance of the Dead for good recursion of creatures and to add to my enchantment total for Skull goodness. (See also: Resurrection.)

The creature defense does not stop there. Moat, The Abyss, Flood, Triskelion, and Wrath of God are also on deck for various purposes. My beaters tend to be flyers (but I included some ground-based pounders when needed like Dakkon Blackblade and Halfdane). This gives me the chance to swing over a Moat. I can also bounce my own Moat with Time Elemental and then replay it after I attack. (I can do that trick with The Abyss quite nicely as well). Note the value of Preacher with The Abyss. (Or I can use Control Magic or Binding Grasp each turn, sacrifice the stolen creature, tap the Skull of Orm to bring them back and play them again, stealing something to sacrifice . . . )

Just because the deck is old doesn’t mean it doesn’t have good synergy.

Anyway, some power spells were added. I mean, we have to have Timetwister, Demonic Tutor, Mind Twist, and such. Recall suffers from card disadvantage but is one of the few recursion cards in this day that can get anything, so we need it too.

Another way to give me beaters, fight against opposing dorks, or duplicate pain is with my clone effects. I am running Vesuvan Doppelganger, Clone, and Copy Artifact (but not Dance of Many, although after I added in Skull of Orm perhaps I should have grabbed it too). I can copy that Shivan Dragon or Clockwork Beast, Colossus of Sardia or Sengir Vampire, Cockatrice or Tetravus. That gives me another threat. Plus, with the new legendary rules, I can copy your Elder Dragon Legend or other legendary dork as well.

After that, it’s an easy matter to round up the deck with a few cards here and there. Here is a Veteran Bodyguard, and there is a Land Tax. After that last bit of rounding, the deck is complete, and the Commander ’95 challenge is done!

I know that this deck is worth a lot of money because a few key cards have a hefty value: the dual lands, Mana Drain, Timetwister, Island of Wak-Wak, etc. Obviously, this deck project was for an article challenge just to see what we could do with the basic idea. If I were to play it in real life, I would need to pick up a Chromium first! But the deck is fun, and I hope that you enjoyed the project.

No matter what color you pick, there are some powerful options. Red is often the weakest color in Commander, but you have Lightning Bolt, Chain Lightning, Dragon Whelp, Wheel of Fortune, Shivan Dragon, Earthquake, Fireball, and Disintegrate. That’s a potent beginning for your deck! Green is the weak color in these days, with little in the way of true mana making. Untamed Wilds, Wild Growth, Fyndhorn Elves, Birds of Paradise, Elves of Deep Shadow, and Llanowar Elves will only get one so far. But you do get Cockatrice, Hurricane, Regrowth, Force of Nature, Thicket Basilisk, Desert Twister, and Ifh-Biff Efreet among others.

Plus you can easily build theme decks. Why not have a Bant Prison deck with Winter Orb, Armageddon, Birds, and Titania’s Song? Or perhaps you’d prefer a U/W Artifact deck led by Transmute Artifact, Argivian Archeologist, and many others. Maybe a Verduran Enchantress / Rabid Wombat deck is more your style. You could rock a tribe like Goblins, Merfolk, or Elves. There are a lot of ways to go to push a deck from this era!

Perhaps this deck would benefit from cards such as Steal Artifact, Clockwork Avian, and Desert. Feel free to suit your collection and taste. And enjoy!

Until later,
Abe Sargent